PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 54 of 66 )
ď The Tiger Hunt Ē
"The valiant never taste of death
Of all the wonders that I have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
seeing that death, a necessary end,
will come when it will come."
- William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
BWS Valeria; Flight Wing Briefing Room
The thirty-five pilots and gunners were too tired to rise to their feet when their Wing Commander walked into the briefing room (not that most Border Worlders would have bothered in any case, anyway), but they did sit up straighter and pay attention. They would be launching on another mission soon, and no matter how weary or heartsick they were, they were determined to give the mission their all.
The reason they were weary and heartsick, of course, was because of what had been happening over the last two days. Three Nephilim supercarriers and their escorts had been attacking them almost non-stop since the evening of the 12th, combining all out assaults that stretched them to the limit with smaller probing attacks that had left the humans with little time to rest. They had survived the storm so far, but their sister carrier, the Littenia, hadn't been so lucky. She had gone down to a massive attack only a few hours ago with the loss of hundreds of lives, and hundreds more had been lost when two escorts had gone down. The Border Worlders had just finished regrouping after that disaster, pulling back further into Loki's ruins and recovering the surviving fighters from the Littenia.
Unfortunately, they had had no time to rest and recover from what had happened. In hours following the Littenia's destruction, the Nephilim had kept sniping at them almost constantly, hitting them with over a dozen "nuisance raids", each consisting of about a dozen fighters each. The Border Worlders had been countered each of the nuisance raids at full squadron strength. They knew that each one of these raids was designed to test their defenses. The instant they failed to counter one of these raids properly, the Nephilim would take that as an invitation to launch another all out assault. The Border Worlders had to prevent that at all costs, as they simply weren't up to fighting off another all out attack just yet. Now that the Littenia was gone, the Nephilim could throw all their forces at Battle Group Valkyrie, and crush it utterly. The Border Worlders knew that massive attack was coming, but they had to delay it for as long as they could, buying themselves and the Confed battle groups a little more time.
Tactically speaking, one could argue that the Nephilim tactic of plinking at them with these nuisance raids was stupid. Because the human squadrons had had the advantage of numbers in each encounter, they had been able to crush the nuisance raids easily. The only way that the Nephilim had ever been able to counter the humans' advantage in training, teamwork and tactics throughout this campaign was by having numbers on their side. Since the destruction of the Littenia, the Border Worlders had been able to destroy over 150 enemy fighters for only a handful of human fighters lost and several more damaged.
Strategically speaking though, it was a brilliant stroke on the part of the Nephilim. The simple fact was that the Nephilim had the fighters to spare. These nuisance raids forced the human pilots and crews to be on alert constantly, depriving them of much needed rest and driving them to the edge of exhaustion, softening them up for the main assault to come. It seemed that the Nephilim commander had figured the limits of human psychology and physiology, and was making good use of that knowledge. In addition, the 150 fighters the Border Worlders had intercepted and destroyed so far tonight was a big jump on the total of 60 odd they had to intercept the night before. The Nephilim commander was racking up the pressure by sending the raids more frequently tonight, putting the Border Worlders under even more strain as they tried to cope. If that went on indefinitely, it would only be a matter of time before the Border Worlders broke and went under.
Raptor smiled slightly at that thought. The Bug commander might have been smart, but he was no match for Admiral Hanton. While the Nephilim were focusing all their attention on destroying the Border Worlders, the Confed ships would be ripping them apart. In the grand scheme of things, it didn't *matter* if the Nephilim succeeded in overwhelming Battle Group Valkyrie. It was tough, but that was war for you. What mattered was the destruction of the Nephilim fleet. If the Admiral's plan succeeded, the Confed ships along with the reserves that had gathered in Nifelheim could finish the remains of the enemy fleet without the help of the Border Worlders, ensuring the survival of the Frontier worlds.
That though, was a worst-case scenario. It simply wasn't in the Valkyries to give up, no matter how badly they had been hurt, no matter how desperate the situation seemed. They would fight to the end, taking the battle to the Nephilim, and doing as much damage as they could in the process. For now, that meant dealing with these raids as efficiently as possible. Raptor had been cycling his squadrons on alert duty in pairs, so that there was enough firepower aloft at all times to deal with any raids or to fight a delaying action if there was a major attack, while also allowing the other units the chance for a rest, however short lived.
Now it was the turn of the Reapers, who would be launching in
half an hour to join the Harbingers on patrol, replacing the Black Angels. The
other advantage of using pairs of squadrons was that squadrons could be cycled
back without leaving the battle group exposed. The Reapers would then fly CAP
for two hours, half way through which the Harbingers would be replaced by the
Taipans. While on patrol, they would be working under the direction of the SWACS
they had borrowed from the
Raptor glanced quickly around the room before he began speaking. Over a dozen of those in the room were people whom he had first met face to face only a few hours earlier, pilots and gunners from the Littenia's Retaliator squadron. Since the loss of the Littenia, the Littenia's Retaliators had been integrated with those from Reaper Squadron to form one oversize squadron, from which 18 fighters (the size of a normal squadron) would be flying on this patrol. The same thing had been done to the other Littenia squadrons. Both Raptor and Admiral Hanton thought it would be better to integrate the Littenia survivors with other squadrons than to let them remain in their own little groups and brood over the loss of their ship.
Most of the faces were familiar though, pilots and gunners he had
served with in the
These people, along with their gunners and several other veteran
pilots, formed the core of the Reaper Squadron, arguably the finest combat unit
"Okay, here's the mission plan..."
The briefing itself took less than 15 minutes. They would essentially be orbiting a few hundred thousand klicks out from the Valeria, waiting for the radar operators on the SWACS to find them some "trade" to deal with, and then cycle out for a fresh squadron after two hours. Once the briefing was over, the pilots and gunners walked out to the flight deck, each crew going to their own fighter and running the last minute checks that needed to be made.
Raptor ducked underneath his Retaliator, making sure that the arming pins had been pulled from the missiles slung under the fighter. There were only eight missiles instead of the eighteen the fighter was capable of carrying, four HS and four IR missiles under the fuselage, with the wing slots left empty. The Border Worlders had used up a lot of missiles over the last couple of days, and now the warheads had to be rationed. Even so, if the upcoming day's fighting was anything like the last two days, they would run out of missiles sometime around mid-day. Just one more thing to worry about.
Raptor walked back towards the fighter's nose, and suddenly smiled in spite of everything. Some tech had found the time to paint his recent kills on the fighter's fuselage. Looking around, he saw the same was true of all the Retaliators. Each sported fresh kill markings, cute little bumblebees that looked nothing like the Nephilim. He didn't know how the techs had found the time to paint the markings in between repairing damaged fighters and performing the needed servicing on the others, but it would do wonders for the pilots' morale. It also proved that the techs were every bit as determined to struggle to the end as the pilots were. It was one more example of the way the Valkyries met the enemy, with sheer bloody mindedness and a raised finger.
The smile faded, swallowed up by a huge yawn. He shook his head, and then rapped himself sharply on the side of the head. He had caught two hours sleep in the last 24 hours, and about the same in the 24 hours before that. Normally, of course, he would have considered flying in that state stupid, but with every other pilot in the battle group in a similar state, it didnít make much difference which of them flew this mission. Just a couple more hours, and I'll get some sleep, he promised himself. For now though, he had to depend on the gallon or so of coffee he had downed over the last few hours to keep him awake.
"You look like hell, Rap," Chrys commented acidly as she walked up to him.
"You're no prize yourself," Raptor replied, softening the words with a smile. He leaned down and kissed her goodbye, just like they had always done when they flew a combat mission. "Be careful, huh?"
"Yeah. You be careful too, okay?" Chrys said. They had always said that too, before every mission they had flown over the last eight years. Each time, they had known that this time might be the last, but it had never seemed as likely as over the last few days.
Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)
Loki VI Debris Field, Loki System
About An Hour Later,
"Reaper Lead, this is Deadeye. You've got a dozen bandits incoming, bearing 310-25-45, 50 thousand klicks, 800 KPS relative."
The SWACS operator's voice jolted quite a few of the pilots out of a half doze. A surge of adrenaline washed away any lingering traces of sleepiness, sending heart rates soaring, pumping fresh energy to tired brains and new fuel to weary limbs. The fight or flight response was an evolutionary leftover from the days when humans had been as much the hunted as the hunters on the sun scorched African plains, and it was proving just as useful now that another species had chosen humanity as prey in the cold void of outer space. The boost it provided would be short lived, and it would demand a toll later, but while it lasted it would give the human pilots a small but significant edge.
"Roger that, Deadeye, we'll intercept."
The Retaliators almost instantly wheeled around, streaks of blue-white fire trailing behind them as they lit their afterburners. The powerful fighters surged towards the enemy, as if eager to engage in battle once again. Their pilots shared that eagerness. No matter how tired they were, they were eager to shed enemy blood, to extract one more small measure of revenge for those who had died aboard the Littenia. It wouldn't be enough, it would never be enough, but every little bit helped.
With a combined closing speed of over 2,000 KPS, it was only a couple of minutes before the enemy fighters came in range of the Retaliators' own powerful radars. As the SWACS operator had said, there were only a dozen of them, the same as in all the other nuisance raids, mainly Morays mixed in with a handful of Mantas. They wouldn't pose a serious threat to a full squadron of Retaliators, but they still had to be engaged with caution. The only thing that was easy in fighter combat was getting yourself killed. The Retaliators would normally have stood off and blasted the enemy fighters with missiles before closing, but they couldn't afford to do that now. Instead the Retaliator formation suddenly broke apart.
Twelve of the fighters, those from Green and Red Flights, accelerated straight towards the Nephilim. They separated into pairs for dogfighting, with each pair heading towards the enemy on a different vector. The other six Retaliators, those from Major Xiang's Blue Flight, broke off and circled without engaging. They did that not out of any sense of chivalry or fair play, for there was no place for such things in fighter combat, but out of simple common sense. Things could change very quickly in fighter battles, and it made sense to have a group of unengaged reserves in case any of the other twelve Retaliators got into trouble.
The Nephilim too broke apart, but instead of separating in any organized fashion, they broke up chaotically. Sometimes a single fighter accelerated towards a pair of Border Worlds fighters, at other times several fighters converged on another pair. Nor did the Nephilim maintain a constant pattern of attack. With no pattern to predict, the Border Worlders simply had to rely on their dogfighting skills and watch each other's backs. The two sides converged on full afterburner, with the initial ranging shots glancing harmlessly off each otherís shields, and then the dogfight dissolved into a chaotic mess of maneuvering fighters.
Captain Warwick "Blade" Harrigan, one of the pilots who had been transferred over from the Littenia, found himself facing a group of three enemy fighters, two Morays flanking a Manta. Blade broke hard into his opponents, his fighter's tachyon and stormfire cannons raking one of the Morays. The impact of six powerful cannons ripped through the Moray's shielding and armor, leaving it damaged and leaking green fluids. At the same time, fire from the other two fighters washed over his shields. Rather than engage three Nephilim fighters in a prolonged slugging match, he then punched the afterburners, shooting straight through the enemy formation.
As the three fighters shot past Blade's Retaliator, they ran straight into his wingman, a young Lieutenant who went by the callsign Snake. Snake had dropped back slightly, and he now had the chance to finish the job Blade had started. His guns tore once again into the damaged Moray, blasting away the remaining shields and armor before ripping into the fighter's core. The Moray detonated in a brilliant blast of fire as its reactor core breached. Snake too punched his afterburners, blowing past the other two fighters without staying for a slugging match.
The two enemy fighters pulled up in a synchronized half-loop, launching their IFF missiles at both Blade and Snake. The two Retaliators snap rolled away in opposite directions, jinking violently and blowing clouds of chaff and decoys behind them to foil the missile attack. The first couple of decoys failed to fool the warheads, but both eventually detonated harmlessly.
As the Nephilim fighters tried to re-position for another attack on Blade and Snake, Mirage and Sandman pounced on the Manta, tearing it apart with a crossfire. Tactics and careful teamwork were most valuable edge the Border Worlders had over the Nephilim, and it was what had allowed them to survive the last two days. The remaining Moray, now facing the prospect of being caught between four Border Worlds fighters, quickly punched its afterburners and disengaged.
"Reaper Lead, this is Deadeye. Come in, over."
The urgency in the SWACS operator's voice jolted Raptor as he lined up a high deflection shot on yet another Moray. The shots went wild, with only the leading edge of the salvo clipping the Moray's shields. It didn't matter though, as Frost nailed the fighter with a deadly accurate volley of gunfire followed by a single heat-seeker missile.
"Deadeye, Reaper Lead. I copy, over."
"We've got another dozen fighters incoming, 210-80-50. They're headed straight for one of the pickets. The Harbingers can't intercept," The SWACS operator said, just as Raptor was about to suggest that Harbinger Squadron handle it. "They've just recovered on the Freedom, and Valeria hasn't launched the Taipans yet."
Raptor swore softly. The next squadron on the patrol roster was supposed to be launched before the squadron it was meant to replace had been recovered. The window created by that mistake was small, only a few minutes, but that was more than enough for Murphy's Law to come into play. As for the reason for that mistake, well, it was easy enough to guess. The fighter commanders and SWACS operators were just as tired as the rest of them were.
Raptor glanced quickly at his radar. Five of the enemy fighters were down already... make that six, he corrected himself, as Sandman nailed a Manta that had been sneaking up on one of the other pilots. One flight of Retaliators should be able to handle the remainder.
"Blue Flight, Green Flight, you're with me. Red Flight, finish up here."
"Red Leader copies all," Mirage said, sounding a little distracted, as her fighters continued to engage the enemy. Meanwhile, the five other fighters from Green Flight followed Raptor as he accelerated away from the dogfight. Merlin's Blue Flight, which had been unengaged to start with, was already a few thousand klicks ahead of them.
Once again, it only took a few minutes at full afterburner to reach radar range of the enemy fighters. This group was almost identical to the last one. It posed no threat to the carriers themselves, but as the SWACS operator had said, it was headed straight for one of the pickets, the destroyer BWS Resolve. The pickets operated well away from the battle group, screening it from surprise attacks, but were themselves vulnerable. The few torpedoes carried by the Mantas in this raiding group would be more than enough to take out the destroyer.
By the time the Retaliators had picked up the enemy fighters on radar, the Nephilim were almost within torpedo range of the Resolve. The destroyer's laser turrets and heavy weapons were already sending up a hail of fire, but it was obvious that the Nephilim would be able to torpedo the Resolve just before Blue Flight was close enough to intervene effectively. So near and yet so far...
Raptor swore under his breath. There was just one thing to be done if they wanted to save the Resolve, and that was something that he had been trying to avoid all along. They were going to have to burn up a lot of missiles, missiles that they just didn't have to spare. But then, it was a choice between using those missiles and sacrificing the crew of the Resolve, and that was no choice at all.
"Merlin, go weapons free! Use your missiles!"
The six fighters from Blue flight slowed fractionally, letting their pilots gain good missile locks, and then began salvoing their IR and HS missiles at the other edge of their effective ranges. At that range, the chances of any given missile finding its target were small. Still, the two dozen missiles launched should able to distract the Nephilim, and hopefully do some damage in the process.
The desperate gambit worked. Only three enemy fighters went down, with a couple more damaged, but the rain of missiles broke up the torpedo run. The Morays in the enemy group broke back to engage Blue Flight, while the Mantas tried to reposition for another run. By concentrating on the immediate threat posed by Blue Flight, though, the Morays had left the Mantas vulnerable to Green Flight. The Mantas themselves were sitting ducks as they lined up straight and steady for their torpedo runs, and were quickly torn apart by the concentrated crossfire coming from the six Retaliators and the Resolve's heavy guns. Green Flight then broke to help Blue Flight with the Morays. A few minutes later, it was all over.
"Green Leader to Red Flight, come in, over."
"This is Red Leader. We're finished up here, Colonel. No casualties."
Raptor breathed a sigh of relief. The fact that the Retaliators had been able to take out both groups of fighters without losses was thanks to tactics, teamwork, and the fact that they had been able to fight both battles at even odds. One on one, of course, Nephilim were no match for human pilots and human fighters. It might have been only a small victory, but it was a victory to savor nevertheless.
"Alright, people, we've got a patrol to finish. Let's go."
Wing Commander's Quarters, BWS Valeria
Raptor dropped his flight helmet, gloves and sidearm on the stand beside his bunk with a tired sigh. There wasn't much point in getting out of the rest of his flight gear, as he would no doubt be flying again soon. The patrol had finished at 0200, but it had taken another half-hour to through the details of the near loss of the Resolve with Intell, and make sure the mix-up wouldn't happen again.
Right now though, he needed to sleep. Even the faint blaring of the alarm in the distance barely penetrated the fog of weariness clouding his mind. It was "just" the alarm that signaled another of those nuisance attacks, not the magnum launch alarm that signaled there was another massive Nephilim attack on the way. As such, it was the responsibility of the squadrons on alert duty at the moment.
It was a sign of just how tired he was that he could make that distinction. Normally, any threat to his ship or his pilots, no matter how small or how distant, would have had him pacing the decks until it had been dealt with. He knew though, that fretting and worrying was something he couldn't afford right now. All the indications were that the Nephilim would be coming at them in force again soon, and he had to be able to deal with that when it happened. At the moment, all he wanted to do was crawl into his bunk and lose himself in blissful oblivion for a couple of hours. No amount of willpower was enough to overcome the sleep debt he had accumulated over the last couple of days, and pushing himself any further would be stupid.
"I'm getting too old for this shit," he muttered ruefully. Thirty-five years wasn't old by most people's standards, but flying fighters was a young man's game. That was why...
"We're both getting too old for this shit," a voice interrupted his thoughts, making him jump. He hadn't even noticed there was someone else in the room there was someone else in the room until the intruder had spoken. He almost made a grab for his sidearm before realizing that it was only Chrys. I definitely need to get some sleep, he chided himself. Inattention and jumpiness were a dangerous combination in a fighter pilot.
"I wanted some company," Chrys said simply, reaching out towards him. "You mind?"
"I guess that depends on what you want company for," he said with a smile, wrapping his arms around her and hugging her hard.
"In your dreams," Chrys said, returning the smile. "Neither of us is in any shape for anything strenuous."
"Yeah, you look about as bad as I feel," Raptor said, drawing her down on the bunk with him. She rested her head on his chest and he ruffled her hair, only then noticing the adhesive dressing on her forehead, just below her hairline. The gauze padding had blood on it, most of which looked fresh.
"What's this?" he demanded.
"Oh, I got slammed around a little when a missile blew out my shields. The medics say it looks a lot worse than it is."
"Did they clear you to fly?" Raptor asked. Even in the Border Worlds, it was usual for pilots to be grounded for at least 24 hours after any kind of head injury. The more serious effects of concussion very often didn't show up till several hours after the injury itself had occurred. The medics might have given Chrys an exemption because of the situation, but it wasn't likely. From his own experiences, Raptor knew that doctors tended to be incredibly stubborn in that regard, and with good reason. Double vision was not a good thing while trying to land a 25 tonne fighter on a flight deck moving at 100 KPS.
"They never said I couldn't," Chrys said evasively.
"That wasn't what I asked."
"Rap, they're being run off their feet treating people with real injuries. Besides, I'm fine."
"Oh? And just where did you get your medical degree, Dr. Rhodes?" Raptor said lightly. "I should just keep you grounded till the medics give you the all clear, you know."
"You and how many Marines?" Chrys said, forcing a smile. "Besides, you need me out there."
"No, as a matter of fact, I don't. With the number of fighters we've lost, we've got more pilots than spacecraft."
"But very few spare Retaliator Squadron Leaders," Chrys pointed out.
Raptor frowned slightly. Unfortunately, she did have a point. There were people who could replace Chrys as a pilot, but not as a Squadron Leader. There was no way that Raptor himself could fly with the Reapers on every single mission while also being the battle group's Wing Commander full time. The Littenia's Retaliator CO had been killed yesterday, and there wasn't anyone else who could step into the Squadron Leader's role. Merlin had the potential to be a good Squadron Leader one day, but now was not the time for him to make the step up. Raptor knew from personal experience just how hard it was to take command of a unit in the middle of a battle, because he had had to do it over Circe. While he had pulled it off, he had made a hell of a lot of mistakes along the way, and that was something they couldn't afford right now. Potential concussion or not, he did need Chrys out there. That didn't mean he had to like it.
"Alright," He said reluctantly. "It's against my better judgment, but..."
"Thank you," Chrys said simply. She knew just how difficult that decision had been. The two of them worked hard to keep their personal feelings separate from their professional responsibilities, but they were only human after all.
She pulled away slightly, and turned to look out the viewport. "Listen, Rap, I didn't want to say this till you had made your decision..."
She paused for a few seconds, watching the distant stars and trying to gather her thoughts before speaking again. "I need to be out there. If we end up going the same way as the Littenia, I want to be in my fighter when it happens. All my life, I've wanted to be a fighter pilot, and that's the way I want to die."
Raptor didn't say anything. He wanted to say something, but there wasn't much he could say to that quiet, heart-felt statement. The obvious answer "You're not going to die" was both trite and untrue. As a matter of fact, he didn't know that they weren't going to die. The chances were very good that they and everyone else in the battle group were going to die here in Loki's ruins. Their plan had succeeded, splitting up the enemy fleet and leaving it wide open to attack by the Confed ships, but the price to be paid for that success might well be their own deaths.
The two of them accepted that, as did virtually everyone else in the battle group. They accepted it in the same way they accepted the deaths of their friends and comrades in the Littenia battle group. They had all accepted a long time ago that they might die in some insignificant, inhospitable system just like this one. You simply couldn't serve for very long in the Border Worlds military, flying outdated equipment against numerically superior forces, without quickly coming to terms with your own mortality. Everyone died sooner or later, but soldiers tended to die sooner rather than later. That was hardly a profound revelation, or even a particularly new one. A wise man had said it best nearly 3,000 years earlier, "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword." The Valkyries might not have quite put it like that, but they understood that sudden and violent death was a fact of life for those who chose the soldier's path. No one had forced them to choose that path. They had chosen it freely, and they had accepted the potential consequences of that choice.
That didn't mean they had no regrets, of course. No one, except perhaps those whose lives were so empty that they had nothing left to live for, faced the prospect of death without regrets. Nor did it mean that they had resigned themselves to death. That simply wasn't part of how they thought. They would fight to the end, not because they had nothing to lose, but because they had everything to lose. Family, friends, lovers, homes. They would fight tooth and nail to live so that they could savor the things that gave their lives meaning. But if they did have to die, they would die taking the battle to the enemy, to protect those same things. They didn't want to die, but if today was the day they died, then so be it. It was a good day to die.
Raptor laughed quietly as he suddenly realized something. He drew Chrys back towards him and kissed her lightly on the lips. "Happy Valentine's Day, hon."
Chrys looked surprised at the non-sequitor, and then laughed as she realized the bittersweet irony of it all. For two people whose lives had revolved around each other since the day they had met, Valentine's Day did seem a strangely appropriate day to face the prospect of dying together.
"Well, you're a few hours late, but what the hell? Happy Valentine's Day, lover," she said, kissing him back. She rested her head against his chest and closed her eyes. Neither of them said anything more, simply drawing comfort and strength from each other as they drifted to sleep. What ever happened in the morning, they would face it together.