PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 43 of 66 )

: The Tiger Hunt
PART 14 OF 18 : EVEN ANGELS FALL

"Confront them with annihilation and they will then survive.
Plunge them into a deadly situation and they then live.
When men fall into danger; they are then able to strive for victory."

- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
 


Border Worlds Carrier Group
Loki VI Debris Field
1650 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

By now, all the defending fighters and warships had pulled back to the location of the two fleet carriers. The Freedom, though intensely vulnerable now that both her fighters and her escorts had been sent to help with the defensive battle, had been left where she was, several hundred thousand klicks away. Bringing her forward into the teeth of the incoming attack would have been stupid, as would have been splitting their severely depleted resources any further to cover her. Given the situation that they were in, they would just have to hope that she would continue to remain undiscovered until they had beaten off the two attacking groups that were threatening the Valeria and the Littenia. It was a desperate move, to be sure, but these were most certainly desperate times. The Border Worlders now had just over three dozen active fighters left to fight off the two hundred and fifty or so enemy fighters and bombers that were bearing down on them. About half of these were the powerful Retaliator space superiority craft, while most of the rest were Intruder medium fighters, plus a handful of Arrow recon fighters. They also had their Avengers from the Hell Knight Squadron to support the fighter craft, but these would of very limited use in stopping an all out fighter attack. The Avengers would be restricted to acting as last ditch interceptors, trying to shoot down any enemy torpedo bombers that broke past the defending fighters.

Right now, though, all the fighter pilots were doing their best to ensure that they had enough fuel and weapons to see them through the massive fighter battle that lay ahead. They had already burnt up almost everything they had gained the last time they had topped up while trying to delay and attrite the enemy force. Now, the time they had bought at the cost of hundreds of lives was almost up, and they had to be ready for the new onslaught.

For that reason, every single one of their refueling and rearming craft was servicing the fighters as fast as humanly possible, and a heck of a lot faster than safely regulations in most other nations would have allowed. Even so, there wasn't time to handle every single fighter. For that reason, the Retaliators had priority, as the superiority fighters were the best weapons the Border Worlders had. They would make a big impact in the coming battle, especially as the Nephilim Devil Rays had virtually been wiped out by the attacks the Border Worlders had carried out earlier. The refueling craft emptied their tanks and missile bays to ensure that the fighters would be at their lethal best -- or worst, depending on how one looked at it -- when the time came.

In the meantime, the Arrows and Intruders had been touching down on the flight decks of the two carriers, as well as the hanger bays of the cruisers. The flight deck crews were carrying out what were called "hot turn arounds," pumping fuel into their tanks and loading on new missiles and decoy dispensers at a breakneck pace. All the while, the pilots kept their canopies closed and their engines running, ready to race back into space. As soon as the deck crews were clear of the fighter, the pilot slammed the throttle wide open, streaking away and rejoining his or her comrades in standing watch over the warships. That too was an incredibly risky way of carrying out operations, but taking such risks was vital if they were going to survive. So far, the Border Worlders had been able to do it without any major mishaps, perhaps because the pushing the envelope was routine in the Border Worlds military. Of course, there were many people who said, with some justification, that the envelope Border Worlders pushed most often was the one addressed to common sense.

In the meantime, the SWACS and command and control shuttles had now pulled back several thousand klicks behind the carriers in order to avoid being caught up in the inevitable fleet battle. They were keeping watch for the approaching enemy force, as well as helping co-ordinate the operations of the strike group of Border Worlds fighters and bombers that had gone to engage and destroy the second Nephilim force. The good news was that this Border Worlds group had already destroyed its target, and was now on the way back to help in the fleet battle. The bad news was that even the leading elements, the swift Bearcats and Banshees that were racing back to help, wouldn't be here for another fifteen or so minutes.

The Nephilim though, would get there well before that, probably being in position to begin attacking around 1655 Hours or so. The minutes leading up to that passed in an even more frantic blur for the Border Worlds fighter pilots, as they finished their refueling and rearming to get back into position for the battle. Not all of them had full afterburner tanks or missile loadouts, having been forced to grab whatever was available in the time that they had. Still, over half them were fully loaded, and the rest of them ended up with enough to see them through the battle. They all knew that this upcoming battle, while it was going to be hard fought and merciless, wasn't going to be protracted.

That was because, one way or the other, this battle would effectively end when the rest of their fighters got back. Either the three dozen odd fighters that were covering the warships would hold the attacking tide long enough for their returning comrades to swing the balance, or the Nephilim would have overwhelmed the defenders and wiped out the capital ships, shattering the entire Border Worlds force. In that scenario, all the returning fighters and bombers could do was turn and run as fast they could. They would have to hope that they could lose the victorious Nephilim in the debris field, and then hope that their life support would last long enough for them to reach one of the other groups of the Combined Fleet.

Both of those hopes would be pretty slim, to say the least. Chances were that the Freedom wouldn't last long enough to get clear of the debris field either, even if some of the fighters managed to get to her while miraculously avoiding leading the Nephilim right to her door. In essence, the survival of the Border Worlds Navy as an effective fighting force depended on the ten or so minutes of fighting that would follow the start of the Nephilim attack.

All the defending pilots were well aware of that fact. Ten minutes. Ten minutes that would determine not only their own survival, but also that of thousands of their shipmates. All they had to do was to hold on for ten minutes. Ten minutes of close quarters battle against a foe that outnumbered them by close to seven to one. Ten minutes of trying to hold out an enemy that had been badly stung over the past few days, and was now out for their blood.

Sure.

Piece of cake.

No problem.

The pilots, all of them, were exhausted by the running battles they had fought for so many hours. They were also scared as hell about what was coming down on them. And on top of that, they were shaking with the effects of hours of near constant adrenaline rushes and the overwhelming impact of all they had been through already. But for all that, they were determined that they would not be broken now. They had come too far, had done too much, had fought too hard to fall at this last hurdle. Their story wasn't going to end now.

You want us, you bastards? Then come get us. Bring it on. Let's rock and roll, motherfuckers. Those were some of the thoughts that raced through the pilots' minds, along with thoughts of their friends and families and loved ones. They knew that some of them, maybe most of them, would fall today, but they wouldn't be broken. Not now, not ever.

The Nephilim pilots were now almost to the point where they would be able to pick up the Border Worlders on their radar screens. Just before then though, the Border Worlders did what they had done so many times before in this battle. They used deception as a weapon, having long ago abandoned any quaint notions that fairness had a place in warfare. Ideas of fairness and openness in battle were luxuries for the people and countries that could afford them. The Border Worlders could not, for the simple reason that they were just about always outnumbered and outgunned, and would lose any battle that was straightforward and fair. They played dirty every chance that they got, and because of that they had come through scrapes that they otherwise would not have.

In this case, they used MOCSS decoys to fool the Nephilim pilots. The MOCSS (or MObile Capital Ship Simulator) was designed for the purpose of confusing the hell out of attacking pilots or warship crews by giving them more targets than they knew what to do with. Each decoy was a mobile cylinder a little larger than a torpedo, but packed with powerful computers and sensor emitters that could function across most of the electromagnetic spectrum. They could simulate the frequencies and sensor patterns used by used by capital ship radars and other systems. The computers could be programmed to simulate the signatures of most Confederation and Border Worlds ships. In this case, each decoy was programmed to simulate one of the carriers, cruisers or destroyers in the Border Worlds force. In essence, the decoy created an electronic doppelganger of the launching ship, even showing up as a target box on a fighter's HUD. It wouldn't be effective once the enemy pilots got into unaided visual range, but until then, it was very effective in breaking up the cohesion of an enemy attack. With each of the Border Worlds carriers, cruisers and destroyers releasing several decoys, the Nephilim pilots were left with more targets than their bombers could engage.

The Nephilim had encountered the use of the MOCSS decoys two days previously, when they had been used to lure a group of Nephilim warships to their doom. They must have known, or at least suspected, that the Border Worlders had some way of mimicking the signatures of their warships. Unless their military intelligence and information sharing abilities were absolutely abysmal (which seemed unlikely for creatures that shared a hive mind) they would also have had at least a rough idea of the total number of ships that the Border Worlders had. They had to have known that there were simply too many targets for all of them to be real, but that didn't help them very much. At one time, they might have opted to swamp each and every one of those targets with torpedoes, but that was no longer an option. The Border Worlds fighter pilots had simply done too good a job of grinding down their torpedo bombers over the past few hours. The few torpedo bombers they had left had to save their weapons for worthwhile targets.

Their task wasn't helped in the least by the intense waves of jamming that they were now being lashed with as they closed in. The Border Worlders had now grouped all the Stalkers that had been assigned to help defend the carriers together, instead of having them working in small units as they had been when they were supporting the fighters in their running battles. Not only that, but the capital ships were also lashing out with their own jammers and ECM equipment. These were mostly defensive jammers, but they complemented the more invasive jamming from the specialized electronic warfare craft nicely. As a result, the Nephilim found their radar, communications and targeting capabilities being massively hampered. Their ability to fight as a cohesive force had already been degraded by the damage that multiple EMP shocks had done to their equipment, and it was being broken down even further.

The decoys and the jamming destroyed any chance that the Nephilim might have had of using their vastly superior numbers in a coordinated attack that would swamp the defenders. Nor could they start the attack from long range, and descend on the Border Worlders with an unstoppable momentum. Instead, they were forced to close in, trying to sort out the true targets from the false. Not only that, but they couldn't do it as a coordinated group, instead being forced to work as a mob of individuals. That was what gave the hugely outnumbered human pilots a fighting chance of holding on.

Now, as the Nephilim pilots closed in as a confused, disorganized swarm, would have been the perfect time for the Border Worlders to blast the Nephilim with more weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, there were no more of those weapons left. They had used up their nuclear armed CSMs and their anti-matter cluster weapons in the two lethal ambushes carried out by the Ghost Warriors. Their older generation anti-fighter missiles, which had a much longer range than the new warheads, had been used up in the deadly missile storm unleashed by the Reapers and the Starkillers. Their maces, Starbursts and Conebursts had been used in desperate attempts to hold back the attacking tide. They had carefully set the mines they had, and activated them at the time they would do the most damage to the Nephilim. They had even sacrificed two of the ships to pull out some of the teeth of the attacking force. Now the cupboard was bare, and there were no more rabbits in the hat. Brains and lateral thinking had gotten them this far, but from this point on, it would all come down to guts and determination and fighting spirit.

Which wasn't to say, of course, that firepower wouldn't play its part. As General Erwin Rommel had pointed out in another century, even the bravest opponent can be broken by artillery. The Border Worlders might not have any of their special weapons remaining, but they had plenty of the more traditional kind left. As the Nephilim swooped to within 20,000 klicks of the warships, the Border Worlds fighter pilots cut loose. The pilots had been ordered to set aside a third of their missiles for the first salvo, and at the Wing Commander's order, wave after wave of missiles smashed into the lead ranks of the disorganized Nephilim force. Fighter after fighter exploded into flame and debris as the missiles struck home, leaving the already disoriented Nephilim reeling. They scrambled to try and locate their opponents, but the lack of effective radar and communications left them literally fumbling in the dark. The best they could do was to try and follow the missile trails back to the launching fighters, but the Border Worlders simply danced away from their outraged opponents. Every time any group of Border Worlds fighters looked in danger of being caught by a swarm, the SWACS guided the threatened fighters away, and another squadron of fighters swooped in to attack a different group of Nephilim.

The purpose of such tactics was not to defeat the Nephilim with brute force, as the Border Worlds had very quickly realized they had no hope of doing that. Their purpose was to delay, to frustrate, and to keep the Nephilim running around in circles until the fighters that were racing to assist in defending the carriers got back. The advantage they had was that while the Border Worlders knew the help was coming, the Nephilim did not. The jamming, the decoys, and the missile attacks had already held back the Nephilim for close to five minutes. Five more minutes, maybe a little more, and the first of the supporting fighters would be here.

Five more minutes.

The capital ships had lain low while the fighters played their delaying game, as lashing out with their energy weapons would have very quickly revealed to the Nephilim which were the true targets and which were the decoys. Instead of attacking, both the ships and the self-powered decoys had been slowly backing away from the direction of the threat. They had to do it slowly in order to avoid outrunning the jamming blanket provided by the Stalkers. The Stalkers in turn had to position themselves in the right place to both cover the capital ships and to provide jamming support for the fighters. And the fighter pilots, of course, had to lure the Nephilim away from the ships without making it too obvious which direction they were luring them away from. It might look reasonably straight-forward on paper, but the result in reality was a confused mass of frantically maneuvering ships, jammers, and fighters, whose crews were doing their damn best to stick to the game plan and stay in one piece at the same time.

Four more minutes.

In spite of the Border Worlders' best efforts, the Nephilim, blinded as they were, were slowly closing in towards the warships. More and more, they were able to counter the jamming to some degree, and their cohesion was improving. The pushes they made towards the Border Worlders were becoming more and more determined and organized, and the Border Worlds fighter pilots were running themselves ragged trying to head off one group after another. Several of the Border Worlders had gone down in flames, but for now there was no time to count losses or to mourn the dead. The need to hold the enemy back, to hold the line, consumed every bit of the pilots' attention.

Three more minutes

A large group of Morays and Stingrays made the strongest push yet, trying to bull their way through the Border Worlds line. They ran head on into the Retaliators from Reaper and Starkiller squadrons, and suffered accordingly. The Retaliators were fearsomely armed, packing a total of eight cannons and eighteen missiles apiece, and their pilots had a well-earned reputation as the best in the Union. With their radars and communication still shaky, very few of the lightly shielded Morays and Stingrays survived the crushing gauntlet of concentrated firepower. Their attack though, had kept the Retaliators busy long enough for pushes in other sectors to break through. The Border Worlders fell back as fast as they could, reestablishing their defensive line, but now harder pressed than ever. They were now only holding the Nephilim fighters a few thousand klicks from their ships, just out of visual range.

Two more minutes.

It was now that fortune played a cruel hand. Until now, luck had favored the Border Worlders, but all that changed in a matter of seconds. Maybe Lady Luck was as fickle a bitch as some said she was, or maybe she just believed in calling in her debts. Whatever the reasons, the results dramatically shifted the course of the battle. A Manta's plasma guns took out the Stalker whose jamming had been shielding the Littenia. At almost the same instant, another group of Nephilim fighters swooped close enough to the Littenia to detect her visually. Before another Stalker could jam their communications, they had sent that information to their comrades. The message didn't get through to all the Nephilim fighters or even most of them, as they were still being jammed by other craft, but it got through to enough of them. They shifted their course to converge on the Littenia. That move attracted the attention of other Nephilim, and that in turn attracted the attention of more. Slowly at first, but an implacably building momentum, they shifted their attack to the carrier.

One more minute.

The Border Worlders realized the game was up, and they threw themselves into the struggle with a renewed ferocity. The capital ships now all opened up with their energy guns, tearing into the Nephilim with waves of laser, antimatter and plasma cannon fire at near point blank range. They hoped to draw at least some of the Nephilim away from the Littenia, but their opponents were too intent on their first target. The Border Worlds pilots tried desperately to hold the attackers back, but there were just too many of them now, and their attack had too much momentum. The Border Worlds pilots were held at bay for a few seconds, and that was long enough. The remaining Manta bombers loosed their torpedoes at the Littenia in a wave of destruction, close to two dozen warheads in all.

Due to the way the bombers and the carrier had been positioned relative to each other when the torpedoes had been fired, close to half of the torpedoes were coming in from her starboard beam, with single warheads coming in from multiple other vectors. The Littenia was rotating away as fast as he should, but it was obvious that she couldn't evade the torpedoes coming in from starboard without running smack into several others. The Captain of the aptly named destroyer Courage, which had been shepherding the Littenia, made a split second decision. He rotated his ship right into the path of the torpedoes. That decision cost the lives of the hundreds of men and women aboard the destroyer, but it saved the lives of thousands on the Littenia. The hurtling debris from the destroyer's death wrecked the torpedoes that had narrowly missed hitting the hull itself.

Even as the Courage vanished in a ball of fire and metal debris, the Littenia was lashing out with her laser and stormfire point defense guns. The defenses downed several of the warheads, and the fighter pilots got most of the rest, but three of the warheads slammed into the carrier. The only saving grace was that they came into from different angles, spreading out their destructive force, and sparing the ship from immediate annihilation. Even so, the damage they did was horrific. Two hit the ship on the bow and amidships portside respectively, ripping huge gashes in the hull and killing hundreds instantly. The other blasted into the engines, crippling the ship and dropping her speed to a third. The ship was still in once piece, but was now massively vulnerable. Even though the Nephilim had used up their torpedoes, they still had guns and missiles aplenty.

Zero hour. The Bearcats and Banshees were just now reaching the battle zone. Like rugby forwards racing to prop up a faltering maul, they threw their weight into the faltering defense. All of the pilots, enraged by seeing hundreds of their friends die before their eyes, threw themselves back into the battle with a fury that was stunning to behold. They had taken huge risks before, but those were nothing compared to what they did now to keep the enemy away from the crippled carrier. The sheer ferocity of the counter-attack managed to hold the Nephilim back for just over a minute longer, but that was just long enough.

Now the slightly slower Excaliburs and Intruders were back, adding their own firepower and fury to the battle. Their pilots too fought like demons, sickened and angered by the fact that they had arrived back just a little too late. And with them came the Stalkers that had been with the strike group. Their jamming reinforced and augmented that of their fellows, once more dropping a veil over the eyes of the Nephilim pilots. The Nephilim were now, against all odds, actually being forced back. They rallied and held scant minutes later, but by then, the stragglers of the strike group were back. The two forces stood toe-to-toe, equally matched now, and neither willing to give an inch.

Stalemate. The fighters swooped and darted and slashed at each other, but neither side would give way. They stayed like that for several minutes, and it seemed to some that they might well remain that way for all eternity. In the end though, it was the Nephilim who broke and fled back into the debris field. Perhaps they realized that with most of the their fuel and missiles gone, no torpedoes left, all their capital ships destroyed and most of their comrades dead, they couldn't win now. Maybe they had finally gotten the word that their carriers were being gang raped by the rest of the Combined Fleet. Whatever the reason, they fell back. The Border Worlders, to their astonishment, realized that they had done it, survived drawing the attack of three super-carriers down on themselves. That knowledge though, was tempered by the knowledge that hundreds of their crewmates were dead, and that their troubles were far from over.

 

Bridge, BWS Littenia
Loki VI Debris Field
1725 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

She's not alive. She's not a person. She's not really hurting.

Captain Richard Hughes kept repeating those words to himself over and over again, but they didn't help. Against all logic, every carrier skipper somewhere deep down thought of his proud ship as something alive and sentient. Something special. It was hard for any skipper to watch his ship dying before his very eyes, and that was what was happening to the Littenia right now. The torpedoes hadn't destroyed her outright, but the wounds they had inflicted had been mortal.

He glanced up as the final damage report came up from the engineering section, hoping that this one would be different from the two before it. But the laws of physics aren't subject to the wishes of men. Those of the Littenia's engines that hadn't been shredded by the torpedo blast had been severely damaged, and were now failing fast. Most of the reactors had shut down to prevent radiation leakage, although there were a heck of a lot of people who would still need intensive radiation treatment. The reactor shut down meant that power levels were critical throughout the ship. They were dropping even further as the efficiency of the remaining reactors was degraded by the strain they were being put under. The bottom line was that nothing short of a space-dock repair job would restore the Littenia's ability to fight. The best they could hope for was enough power to get them out of the debris field and to the nearest jump point, and even that was a very long shot.

That wasn't the extent of her problems though, not even close. Entire decks had been blown open to space, killing everyone who had been unfortunate enough to be there at the time. Many of her weapon turrets had been wrecked, along with most of her heavy weapons. They had in fact been very lucky that none of their CSM and torpedo launchers had weapons loaded when the enemy torpedo struck their forward section. The secondary effects of the torpedo impacts had also started raging fires that had killed dozens of people and injured many more. Their fire fighting capabilities were being severely hampered by the lack of power. The fire crews estimated that they had at best a 50/50 chance of containing the fires before they reached the ship's ammunition magazines, triggering an explosion that would rip the ship in two.

That brought the Captain to the crux of his dilemma. He could either keep his crew on board to fight the fires and try to restore the ship. Or he could order the crew to evacuate, abandoning the carrier in the debris field. All of his emotions told him to stay and fight for the ship, but the cold hard logic of his training and experience argued otherwise. The simple fact was that the Littenia, even if by some miracle he got the fires under control, got her moving, got her out of the debris field and to the jump point, would not be in fighting shape for months. By then, the battle to hold the line, the battle on which the Union's survival depended, would be long over.

To win that battle, the Union had to preserve as many of its resources and its people as it could. Staying to try and fight for the ship would not only endanger his crew, but the crews of all the other ships as well. The rest of the battle group would have to stay right here to cover them, and that would leave them vulnerable if the Nephilim regrouped and came back at them in force. Not only that, even if they did get away from here, the need to protect a crippled ship would severely hamper their ability to maneuver and fight effectively. The simple fact was that the Littenia was no longer an asset to the Union's ability to survive. The most that he could do was prevent his beautiful ship from becoming a liability to her people and to her nation. It was a wrenching decision to make, but the brutal reality of total war demanded such choices.

He turned to the Comm Officer, forcing himself to give the order to evacuate. The words tasted like ashes in his mouth, but he knew it was the right decision. As the Comm Officer acknowledged and turned back to his console, the Captain once again returned his attention to the damage control effort. His job now was to hold the ship together long enough for the crew to abandon her. That in itself would take time to carry out. The wounded had already been airlifted to the other ships by shuttles, as had the engineering crews that needed radiation treatments, but there were still a heck of a lot of people to get off the ship. Those who could reach the flight deck safely would be shuttled off, while destroyers that would be docking alongside would take others off. The remaining crew would have to use the escape pods. They would then be scooped up by the shuttles, or tractored aboard the destroyers.

The evacuation effort took the better part of an hour and a half. The bridge crew and the fire crews stayed aboard until the last possible minute, and Captain Hughes was the last to leave. Other skippers might have chosen to go down with the ship, but Union training was too pragmatic for that. They had to preserve all their people because they had far too few to begin. Besides, he knew that if he had given in to the temptation, his dead crewmates would have tracked him down in the afterlife and kicked his butt to Hades and back. It was one thing to die fighting the good fight, and another to die needlessly.

Survive. Keep fighting. And make the bastards pay in blood. Make them wish they had never even heard of the Union. Those were the things that mattered.

Once the last of the crew were safely away, a pre-programmed timer in the ship's computer ran out. The timer didn't activate a self-destruct, nothing as dramatic as that. One of the few advantages to being the poorest nation around was you didn't have to worry about others stealing your secrets. Instead, the computer shut down all the shields and magnetic screens, before opening every hatch and blast door, venting the entire ship to space. The fires, starved of oxygen, quickly burned out. The Littenia was left an airless, drifting derelict as the rest of the Border Worlds group faded into the debris field. If the Nephilim didn't find her and blow her up out of spite, and if the Union made it through this war, perhaps she could be salvaged as the TCS Lexington had been after the Battle of Terra. Both of those were mighty big ifs, though.

 

Medical Bay, BWS Valeria
1800 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

The Valeria's medical staff had worked hard to make sure that the medical bay was first and foremost a place of healing, rather than simply a place where medicine was performed. It was a place where the wounds of war, both the physical and mental, the visible and the hidden, could be tended in an atmosphere that best allowed the patient to recover, rather than simply best allowed the medical staff to work. That was due to the understanding, first espoused by the ancient healers and lost for a millennium before being rediscovered in the twentieth century, that medicine was at its best when it treated the person rather than the complaint, treated all that was wrong with him or her rather than simply looking at the presenting disease or injury. The medical bay was meant to be a sanctuary, a refuge from the harsh realities of a ship dedicated to war and to destruction. Most of the time, it was the one place in the incredibly busy and noisy ship where peace and quiet reigned, allowing the ill and injured to recover undisturbed.

Today, it wasn't such a place.

The sheer volume of injured pouring into the medical bay made such holistic concerns irrelevant, not to mention impossible. Today, there was only enough time to perform the most critical, the most urgent medical procedures as fast as possible, on as many people as possible. The bay was packed with horribly injured young men and women, so many that they took up every available bed and operating table, but that was nowhere near enough room. Some ended up on the floor, while the walking wounded spilled over into the corridors. There was just enough room for the doctors and nurses and orderlies to go about their work, as they rushed from one crisis to another.

The noise too was incredible. Shouted orders from surgeons and head nurses were followed by quick, harried replies from their subordinates, who were trying to do their best in an impossible situation. Doctors called for whole blood, for plasma, for drugs and for radiation treatments, for crash carts, and all too often for body bags. All around them, some of the wounded who were still waiting to be seen to moaned or whimpered in pain, while others screamed in agony for pain relief or for God or for their mothers. Despite soundproof doors and walls, the noise washed around the bay, because it was coming from each and every single compartment.

To the outsider, the scene in the medical bay might have seemed chaotic, uncontrolled, a scene of confusion and panic, but such was not the case. Just as the seeming chaos of the flight decks above was a carefully choreographed dance of men and machines, so was what was happening here. There was an order to the events which ensured that as many lives would be saved as possible, and the wounded would suffer no longer than was necessary. Each and every man and woman had their own role to play, and the heads of departments and other senior staff kept the whole thing flowing, doing their best to stay ahead of the tide of people being brought in all the time.

Dr. Gareth Wagstall, the Valeria's chief medical officer, was the one in charge of this madhouse. As much as he would have liked to plunge in, doing the surgery himself as he did at quieter times, he couldn't give into the temptation. He could save more lives by making sure that whole team was pulling together and working as smoothly as possible than he could by getting buried in the task of saving one patient at a time. It was a hard decision to make, but over three decades of frontier medicine had forced him to make such choices over and over again. For that reason, he went from one site to another, overseeing and directing his more junior colleagues.

Right now, he was in the triage section in the outer areas of the medical bay. The most junior medical staff, the interns and the house surgeons, did this job, as the experience and skill of the registrars and consultants was far more urgently needed elsewhere. Dr. Wagstall was looking over the shoulder of one the interns, a girl who was in her first year out of medical school. Not yet a fully qualified doctor, and she was already doing one of the most heart wrenching jobs a doctor would ever be faced with. In normal times, in saner times, triage was simply a preliminary assessment of the patient's condition, an evaluation of how long they could wait till they were treated. Here and now though, it was far more basic, and far more brutal. The injured were separated into three categories, identified by the green, yellow, and red tags which the young woman slapped on them. Those with green tags had non life threatening injuries, and for now would receive nothing except pain relief, when and where it was available. They would be dealt with once the flow of critical cases had abated. Those with yellow tags had injuries that needed the attention of the medical staff as soon as possible. Those patients with the red tags had critical injuries that couldn't be realistically treated with the time and resources available. They would get pain relief at once, but no other treatment. They were the lost causes, given up so that others who had a better chance at life could get treatment. Looking closely at the intern, the doctor could see the agony in her eyes every time that she stuck a red tag on a patient, but she never flinched away from doing it. She was doing her job because it was all that she could do, and because it was what had to be done. He knew she would keep doing it, no matter how much it might tear her up inside.

The doctor moved on, this time to the section dealing with the burns cases. This was one of the busiest sections of all, dealing with those who had been severely burnt by the fires on board the Littenia. It was also one of the most gut wrenching sights in a bay that was filled with them. The wounded, many with faces and limbs and torsos that were completely charred and blackened, tossed and turned in their beds in sheer agony. The amount of skin burnt meant that the mere touch of the sheets below them sent constant jolts of pain arcing through their bodies. For all the advances in medical treatments over the centuries, the basic protocols for treating burns had remained much the same. Give plasma and electrolytes to prevent shock, painkillers to easy the agony, antibiotics to stop infection from gaining a foothold. Stabilize the patient, and plan the skin grafts and reconstructive surgery if and when he pulls through. The doctors and nurses were doing that with skill and efficiency, but they were barely keeping ahead. Doctor Wagstall gave a few instructions to expedite matters, but he could see they were coping as well as possible.

Preparing to move on to the next section, Doctor Wagstall paused for just a second, his attention caught by a young woman lying in one of the beds. Some quirk of fate had left her face untouched while the skin had been charred off her body from the neck down. She looked even younger than the girl who was breaking her own heart by choosing which people lived or died, looked young enough to be the Doctor's own daughter. She looked far too young to be here. Heavily sedated, her face was calm, peaceful, reposed. She had a particularly innocent, harmless look about her, with the face of an angel. An angel who had fallen to earth, an angel with broken wings. The Doctor shook his head, already moving on to the next site. There were many more jobs to be done, and many more fallen angels to tend to.

 

Flight Deck, BWS Valeria
1825 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

The flight deck was just about bursting at the seems, trying to handle recovering the Littenia's fighter craft as well as the Valeria's own fighters and bombers. Thankfully, the Freedom was taking some of the load, as were the battle group's cruiser and destroyer escorts. Even so, it was a monumental task, and one that had kept both the flight deck crews and the flight wing's senior officers running to keep up.

The task would have been a difficult one at the best of times, but it was especially difficult now, in the aftermath of the fleet battle. A lot of people were landing on a carrier that wasn't their own. The pilots were exhausted, and in some cases wounded. Their fighters had varying degrees of damage, in a couple of cases being so bad that the pilots had been ordered to eject rather than risk a pile up on landing. Even so, there were still fighters circling that were so badly damaged that it was touch and go whether they would get down safely. Those fighters had been ordered to hold off until the rest of the wing was down safely, for the fear that they would crash-land and block a landing ramp.

Those fighters had been circling a lot longer than anyone had thought they would have to. It had taken even the relatively undamaged fighters much longer to get down safely because of the state their pilots had been in. The strain of well over half a dozen hours of flying through the debris field and fighting a running battle had left most literally shaking with weariness. Quite a few of them had missed what should been simple approaches, overshooting and exiting through the other end of the landing bay before returning to try again. After the first couple of those, everyone on the deck was offering fervent prayers of gratitude to the man who had decided to design the Arcadia-class carriers with a fly-through landing bay.

Thanks to that feature, there had been no fatalities from the overshoots, though one Intruder had been written off after its landing gear had collapsed when it had finally touched down. The pilot had been pulled out alive but unconscious, and the wrecked fighter had ended up being pushed over the side to clear the landing ramp. There had also been a couple more damaged on landing, but by about 1835 Hours, the bulk of the fighters were down.

Now it was the turn of the damaged fighters that had been held back till now, and they angled in one by one. These too had the inevitable missed landings and overshoots, but one by one, they were caught and stored away in the hangers. There were two more crash landings, but by a small miracle, no large-scale fire or explosions that threatened to hold up landing operations any further. Of the two pilots who had piled up, one was retrieved alive and rushed off to the medical bay. Several others, who had sustained injuries of one sort or another, ranging from busted limbs to smoke inhalation, ended up heading for the sickbay as well. Finally, just before 1900 Hours, all the landing operations had been wrapped up.

Raptor turned away from where he had been observing the landing operations from LCO's station. He was still in his flight gear, having been one of the pilots bringing in his fighter not so long ago. Now that all of his pilots were safely down (well, they were all down, he corrected himself), there was still a ton of work that needed to be done before he could even think about the rest his body so desperately screamed for.

At least I won't have to worry about finding them bunks or parking spaces, he thought with a touch of gallows humor, referring to the pilots who had come over from the Littenia. The Border Worlders had lost close to fifty fighters in the battle today, either destroyed outright or so badly damaged they would have to be scrapped, bringing the total number lost in the Tiger Hunt to almost eighty. That was close to 40 percent of the 200 odd combat craft they had started the Tiger Hunt with. They had also lost almost 50 pilots, over half in today's battle alone. There would indeed be no shortage of beds or hanger slots, but there were a lot of other problems to deal with.

For one thing, there was the matter of trying to integrate what previously been two separate flight wings into one unit. With many squadrons having been severely hurt by the diversionary action that they had been fighting over the past few days, it made sense to integrate under-strength squadrons from the two wings that flew the same type of craft into full strength units. That was made more critical by the fact that there were many senior pilots among the fallen. The highest ranking casualty had been Colonel Walther "Howler" Travis, the Littenia's Wing Commander, but they had also lost squadron leaders, XOs, and flight leaders. The command style in the Union, which was based more on respect that had to be earned than on deference automatically granted to rank, meant that the senior pilots were expected to lead from the front. That system did have its advantages, but the drawback was that the casualty rate among those officers was often higher than in other militaries. Integrating the units would bring in officers to fill the vacant command slots.

The other problem was fuel and ammunition, which were running low. They had burnt through almost all their ready stocks in the fleet battle today. The crews were even now readying the supplies from the transports, but those wouldn't last them anywhere near long enough if they had to fight another pitched battle. They had escaped the all out fleet attack, that was true, but there was every chance that the Nephilim would return to finish the job. By now, they would have figured out that the Border Worlders had suckered them, drawing their fighters into attacking while the rest of the Combined Fleet gang banged the Nephilim mother ships. While the rational thing for the Nephilim to do might be to withdraw and lick their wounds, it was foolish indeed to count on rationality in warfare. The Border Worlders had to be ready for another all out attack. If the furious Nephilim wanted to strike back, the Valkyries were the most obvious target, especially after all the losses they had taken already. And if the Nephilim threw everything they had left at the Border Worlders, there was every chance they wouldn't be lucky enough to escape the second attack.

Raptor smiled tiredly at that thought. Well, whatever happens, no one can say we didn't do our job. The Border Worlders had taken one hell of a hammering today. In addition to the fifty fighters that had gone down, they had lost the transport Haratos City, the heavy cruiser Ravager, the destroyer Courage, and of course the Littenia. In exchange for that though, they had taken down two Nephilim heavy cruisers, about a dozen destroyers and corvettes, and somewhere between 300 and 500 enemy fighters. The kill count was so vague both because of the weapons the Border Worlders had used in the battle (widespread use of nuclear warheads and antimatter weapons tended to make counting kills a little difficult) and the cluster technology used by the Nephilim, which confused the picture even further. Intell was still trying to come up with a definitive estimate, but the likely result would most probably be half way between the two extremes.

If one were simply comparing head to head losses, though, the Border Worlders would probably have ended up on the wrong side of the ledger. For all the losses they had inflicted on the Nephilim, the loss of the Littenia would hurt them far worse than the loss of the entire capital ship squadron would hurt the Nephilim. Their real success had come in drawing off the enemy fighter cover at the right time. Reports from the rest of the fleet were still sketchy, but TCS Yorktown had already reported that her pilots had been able to destroy the dreadnought they had gone after with minimal losses. Similarly, the Endeavour crew had reported they had been able to destroy a Nephilim supercarrier. From the initial reports, the Tiger Hunt had succeeded in its goals. Those successes wouldn't in any way mitigate the loss of those who had died aboard the Littenia, or ease the pain of the survivors, but they did show that all the suffering and sacrifice hadn't been for nothing.

We did our job, Raptor repeated to himself mentally, the words in some small way a shield against the pain and guilt he felt, that all those who had come through the experience felt. Not just survivor's guilt, though that was certainly a big part of it, but also the thought that they could have done more. No matter how well they had planned, no matter how hard they had fought, there was always that nagging feeling that there had to been something somewhere that they could have done to prevent the loss of the Littenia.

He shook his head slightly, shaking himself out of the melancholy that he knew would come on if he dwelt on that thought too long. There would be plenty of time for a pity party later. For now, they had to focus on staying alive. For him, that meant doing all the things he still had waiting to be done. However tired or depressed he might be feeling, he still had a job to do. I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep...
 

CONT...