PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 58 of 66 )

: Calculated Risk


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Flag Bridge
Loki System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
February 14th, 2681/2681.045, 1318
Hours (CST)

Admiral William Kennedy bent over the large map table. Clustered around him were Colonel Victoria Alvarez, Wing Commander of the Yorktown's fighter complement, her assistant wing commander, Lieutenant Colonel Linche, and the commanding officers of every ship in the Yorktown force, designated Carrier Battle Group Rapier.

Every face around the table showed the signs of strain from nearly non-stop, round-the-clock fighting that the task force had been forced to endure, for the chance of stopping the Nephilim, and preventing them from overrunning the Border Worlds. Despite their victories, nobody in the task force felt victorious, for no matter how hard they hit the Nephilim, the enemy seemed implacable, coming forward with ever-more fighters and capital ships, taking their toll on the battle-weary Border Worlds and Confederation forces stretched throughout the Loki System.

Kennedy took a deep breath, in preparation for laying before them the tactical plans that he and his staff had so laboriously thought up over the past two hours. Kennedy, while he technically had command of the entire Third Fleet, couldn't afford to worry about anything else than the coming battle right now, lest he be distracted and overlook details that could prove deadly if forgotten.

"Alright, ladies and gentlemen. The orders came down from the Valeria earlier today. It seems that Admiral Hanton is giving us an opportunity to hit our insect friends where it hurts, and we're going to take advantage of that." He activated the map table in front of the assembled group.

A small group of triangles represented the battle group, and a series of red triangles represented the oncoming Nephilim forces. "This," Kennedy began, pointing to the red triangle at the center of the Nephilim force, "is a Tiamat-class dreadnought. Admiral Hanton is taking the Valeria force to act as bait for the enemy, drawing away most of their fighter cover. The Valeria and Littenia battle groups will be engaging this force here, ahead of our target, hopefully drawing the enemy fighters forward. We are currently positioned here," Kennedy pointed to the
Yorktown battle group, concealed behind an asteroid belt, positioned near the flank of the enemy dreadnought assigned to them, "and as such are in a perfect position to hit them from their blind side. We won't be holding much, if anything, back to defend ourselves," Kennedy said.

"We're taking an awful risk, Admiral. If the enemy force gets even a hint that we're here after the strike has been launched
-- " began Captain Iain Kirkland, commanding officer of the Plunkett-class cruiser TCS Agincourt.

"It's the same risk that Rear Admiral Spruance took at the battle of Midway, Captain. If you're going to hit the enemy, hit them with everything you've got in one decisive blow. Besides, if Admiral Hanton can place her entire force at risk to give us this opportunity, we're going to make the most of it. We'll be holding back a grand total of twenty-eight fighters: The Wasp Interceptors, and the fighters from the Stasheff and Maribel for fleet defense.
WC, you've got less than an hour to plan the strike on the enemy force. We've managed to get some readings of the enemy force, so we've got partial intelligence anyhow," Kennedy replied.

"What are we facing, Admiral?" Alvarez asked.

"Besides the dreadnought, you'll be facing one Hydra-class cruiser, two Orca-class destroyers, and seven or more of the Barracuda-class corvettes. The good news is that they may or may not be sending more ships forward to support the leading group, centered around three Leviathan-class carriers, that the Valeria is going to lure away
," Kennedy said.

"That means I want every other fighter we can throw at the
Aliens with me, Admiral. It's going to be a busy day," Alvarez said, grimacing slightly.

"Is there another kind?" asked Captain John Ramirez, the
Yorktown's commanding officer. The dark circles under his eyes indicated that he too had been feeling the immense strain of round-the-clock flight and combat operations in a battle which had so far led through three systems, and would most likely lead to a fourth shortly.

"Remind me never to gripe again about having nothing to look forward to after we're done dealing with the bugs
," Alvarez said, nodding. Right now, having nothing to deal with in the way of threats sounded awfully good... such as in the days before the Nephilim had arrived. It seemed like hundreds of years ago to those who had the time to remember it.

"All right. Colonel Alvarez, I'd appreciate it if you'd get right to work. The rest of you, return to your ships and get ready. It promises to be an interesting
-- " Kennedy had to check his wrist chrono for the time, " -- afternoon."


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54)
Briefing Room

Colonel Alvarez rubbed her eyes, then stood straight and stretched. Too many hours bent over a map table had made her back muscles sore, and her eyes tired. The profit from that effort had just been completed, however. She had a strike plan, and a pretty damned good one at that. Moving across the room, she nodded to the intelligence officer who stood, keyed the intercom and spoke into it. "Now hear this: All pilots to the briefing room. Repeat, all pilots to the briefing room." The call echoed throughout the ship, gaining the attention of the entire
flight wing, including non-flying officers, turret gunners, etc.

Within five minutes, all six of the
Yorktown's squadrons were assembled. Alvarez's new plan and all the data pertaining to it had been couriered to the other ships just minutes ago by shuttle, maintaining the EMCON, or Emission Control blanket which kept the ships from being detected by their electronic emissions.

There was Major Michael "Shooter" Rosencrantz, the commander of the Grendel Squadron, which flew F-109A Vampire space superiority fighters. And here came Major Adam "Foxxman" Brancer, the CO of the F/A-105A Tigershark medium fighter squadron aboard, the Arkrunner Squadron. Sitting in her chair, going over the mission profile for her squadron of F-106A Piranha scout/light fighters, known as the Sindri Stars, was Captain Selena "Minnie" Martinez. Beside her, comparing notes, was Major Timothy "Wraith" Carter, commander of the Fearless Felines Squadron, which flew F-108A Panther medium fighters. All of them, with the exception of the Arkrunner Squadron, had lost pilots, and every single squadron had seen more death in the past couple of days than anybody should see in a lifetime. And yet, nobody was quitting. Nobody was bowing out due to "combat stress" or "extreme fatigue". She felt emotions flood through her...sadness at the loss and sacrifice that the lost pilots had been forced to make to defend those who couldn't defend themselves, pride at their having met death unflinchingly, guilt at having survived, the whole range of emotions that flooded through those who had seen and had faced death in combat.

"All right," Alvarez began. "Given that gossip travels at the speed of light, even in the military, you all probably know that we're going to be hitting the bugs where it hurts today. This," She said, bringing a diagram of the Tiamat-class dreadnought that they would be attempting to destroy, "is our target today: A Tiamat-class dreadnought and its escorting task force. Admiral Hanton is going to attempt to draw the Nephies into a trap by using the Valeria and Littenia battle groups as bait, with support from the Freedom force. Hopefully, they'll be able to draw out their target: three Leviathan-class carriers and escorts. Our objective ties in with theirs in that the diversion, and giving away the location of the Border Worlds' two carriers and their escorts, should draw the bugs towards them. If the bugs take the bait, they should send some of their escorts and/or fighters forward to support attacks on the Valeria and Littenia forces...
leaving this force wide open. And even if this force doesn't take the bait, we'll be laying our own trap for them," Alvarez said.

She brought up the display of the two respective battle groups on the screen. "We'll be launching everything we have off the
Yorktown, with the support of Theseus Squadron off the Agincourt, to take out that dreadnought. But rather than go in, we're going to sucker their escorting fighters into a trap... then skin the capital ships alive."

"The Sindri Stars, Fearless Felines, and the Cavaliers will be the initial strike group. They'll proceed until they're just in range of the dreadnought's sensors, then hold, as if they didn't expect to find so much opposition. If the enemy force launches fighters to intercept, retreat towards Nav Three. There's an asteroid belt there...
and that's where the Grendel, Arkrunner, and Theseus Squadrons will be hiding. Cavaliers, this is very important: Do not, under any circumstances, engage the enemy fighters. We can't afford to lose any more torpedo bombers. As soon as the enemy fighters have been mopped up, the real work begins: You head for the capital ships. You'll have to do this the hard way, because, given the number of fighters we might be going up against, and I say we because I'm coming with you, we can't afford not to carry anything other than space superiority loadouts," Alvarez concluded. "Questions?"

"Approximately how many fighters are we facing?"
asked Rosencrantz.

Alvarez hesitated slightly, then turned to face him directly. "It could be up to two hundred fighters. I won't lie to you people, we could be outnumbered slightly more than two-to-one. However, if the Valeria and Littenia battle groups do their jobs, the odds will be considerably more even. Keep in mind that the dreadnought is the primary target, secondary being the cruiser. Any more questions?" Alvarez asked.

There was a deafening silence throughout the briefing room.

"Then we're through here. We launch in fifteen minutes. Dismissed
," Alvarez said.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Flight Deck

Major Timothy "Wraith" Carter walked out onto the controlled chaos of a flight deck preparing for use. Red-shirted ordinance handlers, yellow-shirted aircraft directors, green-shirted catapult and arresting system operators, brown-shirted plane captains, purple-shirted fuelling personnel, all moving about in a pattern that, seen by somebody who'd never been on a carrier before, would've seemed like totally random and uncontrolled mayhem. Even to a fighter pilot, or somebody who'd served on a carrier before, it was difficult to look beyond the swirls of personnel and machinery to see the carefully-controlled ballet of preparing a carrier for flight operations.

Tucking his helmet underneath one arm, his flight gloves and oxygen mask inside the helmet, he approached his fighter: Panther one-zero-one. Performing a quick walk around inspection, looking for loose access panels, leaks, fatigue fractures, and improperly-secured ordinance, he found nothing, and nodded, gratified that, overworked even as they were, the maintenance personnel for the flight wing still found time to do their jobs in an efficient and timely fashion. Nobody seemed to realize how valuable the maintenance personnel assigned to a carrier were. Granted, a fighter pilot was important-after all, the fighter wouldn't fly without him-but without proper maintenance, a pilot was relegated to the role of a poorly trained line officer when his fighter failed him, and that, in turn, would leave the carrier without its primary weapon: The air wing.

Senior Chief Petty Officer James Holland approached Carter as he completed his walk around. "Give'em hell today out there, sir. Here's your loadout."
Holland said, handing Carter a clipboard.

"Thank you, Chief," Carter said, taking the clipboard. It showed he was loaded with six Pilum Friend-or-Foe missiles, six Spiculum Image Recognition missiles, full fuel, and a full decoy dispenser. Carter checked, and signed the sheet.  "There you are."

Watch your six, Major,"
Holland called. Carter nodded, then clambered up the ladder into the cockpit of the Panther. Swinging himself into his ejection seat, he placed his helmet on his head, clipping the oxygen mask onto the helmet, but letting it dangle from one latch only. He plugged the helmet's comm. cables into the intercom box. An enlisted man helped him into the harness of the ejection seat, then quickly got clear. He keyed the intercom, got static from the clear channel, and gave a thumbs-up.

Flipping two switches, he started the fighter's auxiliary power units, which provided warm-up power to the engines and his instruments and displays. His MFDs flickered to life, displaying fuel status, weapons capacitor charge, missile armament selection, damage displays, power allocation, and other functions necessary to the operation of a fighter. His HUD flickered to life, displaying targeting reticule and missile lock warning lights. His radar display also flickered on, and he flipped it to stand-by, rather than fry everybody on the flight deck with the power of its emitted energy.

He pulled the four safing pins from his ejection seat, and held them up for
Holland to see, making sure he knew the ejection system was armed. He gave a thumbs up, then took a step back, putting on his ear protectors.

Carter dumped power from the APUs to the engine and the miniaturized fusion reactor which provided the fighter with power, and with a whine, followed by a roar, the engines lit off. The ordinance crew began pulling the safety pins from the missiles on the Panther, giving them to Chief Holland, who held them up for him to see clearly. Plugged into the starboard diagnostic panel,
Holland could communicate with Carter via the fighter's intercom until he unplugged. "I count six IFF, six IR, one decoy dispenser."

Carter checked his loadout as the missiles ran their diagnostic routines and test programs, warming up for use. "Confirmed. All systems in the green."

Holland nodded, and spoke one final comment into the intercom. "Don't make any work for me, sir, and for damned sure get back here in one piece."

Carter nodded, and
Holland unplugged his intercom cable, got off the ladder, and pulled it clear. Carter switched to his communications system, and set the frequency to that being used by the flight control officer aboard the Yorktown, or "Waltzing Matilda," as she was known by her crew. "Panther one-oh-one, callsign Fearless Lead, two lit and in the green, ready for launch."

"Understood, Fearless Lead," came the terse reply.

Ahead of the Panther, a yellow-shirted flight deck director signaled to get Carter's attention. He quickly began moving his arms through a series of motions, and Carter, in return, put the fighter's stick and rudder pedals through a series of motions designed to check on the fighter's maneuvering controls and capabilities. The yellow shirt gave him a thumbs up, and signaled him to taxi forward slowly.

Letting off the brake pedals, Carter eased the tiniest bit of throttle in. The Panther eased forward, moving very slowly indeed. The yellow shirt directed him into position just behind the number one catapult on the starboard side. Ahead of him was a Panther on whose thruster pod was the number "100," identifying it as the personal fighter of Colonel
Victoria "Latin Girl" Alvarez. He smiled to himself. A grand total of eighty-two fighters were going to be launched for this strike, by far the largest sortie that the Waltzing Matilda had launched in a while.

Ahead of him, he saw the catapult officer give Alvarez a salute, then lean forward and point to the end of the flight deck. Alvarez's fighter was hurled down the deck at an ever-increasing speed...
and then off into space, afterburners screaming.

He was next.

Taxiing forward onto the catapult after the JBD, or Jet Blast Deflector had returned to its position, he looked to his right. He saw the catapult officer signaling him to give his engines the gun as soon as the JBD had risen to turn the force of his engine exhaust away from other fighters so as to prevent damage. Carter ran the throttles to the stops, and engaged his afterburners, giving the officer a thumbs-up, then a salute, and settling back into his ejection seat. The catapult officer returned the salute, then pointed forward.

One-one thousand, two-one thousand

Carter could feel himself being forced into the ejection seat by the force of the acceleration, and saw the carrier's flight deck disappear from around him. He saw his speed rise to 3,000 KPS for an instant, then drop to his normal afterburning speed of 1,200 KPS, then to full throttle, or 450 KPS without afterburners as he took his fighter just to full throttle. He quickly checked his configuration. Target ITTS and locking system, on. Weapons, full. Throttle, full. Missile selection, Image-Recognition. Done.

"Ambush group, you've got your vector. Get out there, because in about half an hour, we should have some business for you." Alvarez's voice spoke over the command frequency.

"Felines, form on me. Announce readiness by order."

"Two, ready to rock
," came the voice of Mark "Tango" Rogers, a second lieutenant, and Carter's wingman.



That was all of the first group of four in the squadron. Due to two losses over the course of the campaign, one of the flights was down to only a pair of fighters, and as such, was slightly under-strength. So, Carter reverted to the Kilrathi Wars tactical doctrine, and made that group his backup group in case any of the other flights ran into trouble.

Ahead, there seemed to be a bit of trouble with the Cavalier Squadron. Carter knew that there was trouble in the command over the use of drugs by the former squadron CO, (now bumped down to XO). It seemed that the woman who had been using "protected" substances seemed to object to the fact that she was being removed from her position of authority due to the fact that she was taking drugs that could affect her judgment. Imagine that, Carter thought to himself. Of course, truth be told, he had never cared much for the attitude of now-Captain Frances "Silence" Rubio in the first place.

The Arkrunner, Theseus
, and Grendel squadrons peeled off from the group of eighty-two craft, leaving just forty-one craft inbound towards the enemy position... being led by Victoria Alvarez herself at the head of the formation.

"Set speed to 320 KPS and engage autopilot. Keep your eyes open. I don't want to get ambushed out here," Alvarez said.

A series of double clicks from squadron leaders acknowledged her command. The formation of fighters flew on through the cold, glittering darkness of space.

"Nap time
," said Captain James "Mustang" Tyler, the Felines' XO, leading the second diamond of Panthers, trailing to starboard of the diamond led by Carter.

"Ha-ha. Very funny. Why don't we just issue sedatives that wear off after a half hour?" came the sarcastic wit of First Lieutenant James "Mac" McDaniels, who led the third diamond, to port.

"Somehow I think the bureaucrats might actually go for it. Think about the benefits: When people sleep, they use less oxygen. That means less wear and tear on the life-support systems, meaning fewer overhauls and replacement parts, greater pilot efficiency..."
Tyler called, summoning a series of groans from the other pilots in the wing.

Behind his oxygen mask, Carter smiled. At least morale was still high.


Panther 101 "Feline Lead"
1046 Hours

"Holy Mother of God...."
Tyler called.

"Why is it that somehow the Intell weenies never seem to convey the fact that these damned things are big? Somehow they always seem to miss that fact..." McDaniels said.

"Cut the chatter, Felines. You know the drill. Lima-Golf, this is Feline Lead. When do we start this party?" Carter called.

"All craft, prepare to break on my mark - " Alvarez's voice came. Lima-Golf signified the two letters L and G, or Latin Girl in the current context.

"Incoming fighters!
Eleven o'clock, range 40,000 klicks, closing fast!" called Captain Selena "Minnie" Martinez from the cockpit of her Piranha.

On every fighter, radar screens went almost completely red, filled with one hundred and ten enemy fighters.

"All squadrons, break now! Cavaliers, get ready!"
the WC called.

"Felines, break now!" Carter called, pulling his stick in to his chest as hard as he could, sending the Panther into a vicious climb that made him momentarily dizzy despite the inertial dampeners. The fighters to his left and right broke their respective ways, while the fighter in the slot position, trailing him, pushed his nose over hard, performing an inverted loop. The end result was that the fighters formed back up in the exact opposite positions that they'd been flying in. Carter was now in the slot position, while the most junior officer in the flight was now in the lead.

"A guy could get used to this..." 2nd Lieutenant Preston "Knight" Torres said jokingly, despite the deadly-serious situation they were now in. He quickly punched his afterburners, accelerating into place directly above the Shrike bombers, which were now at their maximum speed of 720 KPS, heading directly away from the inbound enemy fighters.

"Jesus... I'm showing two-dozen bandits still closing fast,
seven o'clock low!" First Lieutenant Kevin "Drums" Hewitt called from his position as leader of the two-fighter flight.

Carter locked his targeting computer onto one of the more rapidly-closing targets. Squid-type fighters.

Alvarez's voice came over the command frequency. "All craft, stay clear of the Cavalier's aft arcs. Cavaliers, clear to fire."

Each of the eleven Shrike bombers began releasing porcupine mines as rapidly as they could. Each of the mines was keyed to detonate upon receiving a command from its assigned bomber, a trick taken from Admiral Hanton's planned assault using the Valeria and Littenia battle groups.

As the Confed fighters shot away from the porcupine mines, the rear turret gunners on the bombers monitored the respective ranges of the mines and the Nephilim fighters.

Carter was straining his neck to see the rear, when a series of flashes that looked like firecrackers going off in the distance erupted in space. From his radar scope, approximately half of the Squids vanished in the enormous series of fireballs.

Missile lock warnings began chiming, and Carter punched off a series of chaff and flare bundles into space to fool the incoming missiles, and began a gentle series of jinks, just barely touching the controls.

However, the Nephilim continued to close. Checking his clock, he saw that it had been only two minutes since they had begun afterburning towards the asteroids.

"Lima-Golf?" called Major Karpoff from the leading Shrike bomber.

"You're clear to fire, Major
," Alvarez said.

Each of the three turrets on the Shrikes, one on the ventral surface of the bomber, one on the dorsal surface, and the rear turret, opened fire, spraying space to the rear of the formation with laser bolts en masse. At least eight turrets seemed to target the same Squid, which was forced to break off its high-speed run and drop to its normal maneuvering configuration after its forward shields were collapsed and its forward armor
scoured away. Another Squid exploded spectacularly.

Carter looked at his mission timer. Four minutes, twenty-six seconds.

"Felines, go
," Alvarez called.

Engaging the autoslide program, one of the benefits of the Panther thanks to the articulating engine pod, Carter rotated his fighter in space after moving "downward" relative to Torres' fighter, which moved upwards. This enabled the Felines to train their weaponry aft.

"Felines, launch IFF on my mark. Three... two... one... mark!

Fourteen missiles were blown off their pylons by explosive bolts and into space, their rocket boosters first of all bringing them to a stop relative to the formation of strike craft, then accelerating them towards the rapidly-oncoming alien fighters. By this time, a group of Manta heavy fighters had closed on the formation and were letting fly with their weaponry. The resulting blasts were making the Confed fighters' shielding flare under the abuse. The Mantas, however, never knew what hit them as the missiles, now closing at a combined velocity of 3,800 KPS, closing the distances between them in less time than it takes to blink an eye. Six Mantas were either destroyed or severely crippled. Laser fire crisscrossed the distance between the forces, followed by ion and tachyon cannon fire from the panthers. Another six alien fighters exploded, further whittling down the numbers. However, the casualties were being taken. Sickly green plasma streamers slammed against shields, destroying a Piranha in the blink of an eye. A trio of the Panthers lost shields and began taking armor damage almost immediately. While the Nephilim paid in blood for every klick gained on the assault force, it was obvious that they more than made up for it through sheer numbers. On his radar scope, Carter counted more than eighty alien fighters still closing.

Carter quickly lined up a Squid interceptor that was still doggedly attempting to close with the strike force. Holding down the trigger, he poured shot after shot into the oncoming fighter, punching off an image recognition missile, which plowed completely through the alien fighter due to sheer kinetics, utterly destroying the fighter. But still they came.

"Felines, I want three IFF missile each on my mark. Two...
one... mark!" Carter called. Upon his command, three volleys of fourteen missiles streaked into space, obliterating nearly twenty fighters.

Another fighter, this one a Panther, exploded. Carter felt sorrow and anger well in his heart. Another letter to write, on top of the two he'd already been forced to write. Another young pilot who would never see the end of this conflict.

Another promising life snuffed out.

He held down the trigger, continuing to pour fire into the oncoming fighters, which were now being slightly more cautious. However, several other fighters were showing damage.

"Give me a status report and return to base heading
," Carter called.

Slowly, the reports came in as the Panthers return to their position was covered by the intense turret fire from the Shrikes. Three Panthers heavily damaged, with reactor warning from all of them. Another pair with light damage.

"Mac, Hash, and Rudolph, as soon as we're engaged, make for the
Yorktown as fast as you can. You're in no shape for a protracted fight," Carter said, speaking to McDaniels, and Second Lieutenants Tony "Hash" Hashim and Adolph "Rudolph" Krupp. "That doesn't mean, however, that I want you going back with unspent ordinance. Let them have everything you've got for missiles before you leave," Carter said.

Looking at his mission clock, he saw that it was now coming up on ten minutes...
so close, and yet it seemed as though they still had eons to go before they could get to the relative safety of the ambush.

"Sir, are you sure? I don't feel right about running out in the middle of a fight -- " McDaniels began. Hashim and Krupp echoed him, though in slightly less vehement a way. Carter could guess that the rookies, who had previously been relatively unharmed, were now somewhat more humble, having taken the damage they had.

"Goddammit, Mac, when I give an order, you follow it! Clear?!" Carter called.

A pair of clicks was his response.

The battle continued, attrition damaging Piranhas and Panthers but, by luck, no Shrike torpedo bombers, which were so very precious to the Yorktown at present, and each pilot fighting for the Confederation forces looked anxiously at his clock, then the distance which the aliens had to cover to engage them in a dogfight with ever-increasing anxiety. Though none would admit it, all were wary of having this trap fail. Even Colonel Alvarez, the designer of this plan, had her doubts.

Over the course of time, veterans of combat have said that time seems to elongate and shorten when it comes to the awareness of its passing, especially during combat. There are times when time seems to fly by you so fast that you blink and the battle might be over, or when it goes so slowly that you can see the individual rounds fired at you by an enemy. Or it could be a combination. Quite a bit of time passes, but the battle drags onward.

On the scale of the universe, these small human engagements lasted only the blink of an eye. The birth and death of stars and planets took hundreds of years and the right circumstances, or the intercession of a divine being, but these battles which pitted the tiny, almost insignificant constructs of durasteel and plexiglass against chitinous craft that seemed to be grown rather than built took merely the blink of an eye or the beat of a heart...
but that was from the perspective of the universe.


Vampire 117 "Grendel Lead"
Same Time

Major Rosencrantz looked at his radar scope. He could see the flashes in the distance. Quickly selecting his Tracker MIRV missiles, he allowed himself a small smile. The bugs didn't know what was about to hit them.

"Grendels, prepare to launch two on my mark
," he said.

The range to the oncoming fighters was nearing 18,000 klicks, almost, but not quite, optimum range for one of the most lethal missiles the Confederation had to offer: The Tracker MIRV.

The Tracker itself was actually a long-range booster with a number of smaller missiles attached to it, set to fire off their own engines when the booster which gave additional range ran out. The missiles on this booster were four Pilum Friend-or-Foe IFF missiles, each programmed to move at ninety-degree angles from the other missiles. It was one of the most interesting pieces of pyrotechnics to watch...
and one of the most deadly for the enemy.

Rosencrantz watched his radar, which he had on at reduced power, hopefully convincing the enemy that he was farther away than he was from them, thus giving him a critical period of time in which they would disregard his presence for a bit longer than normal.

Around him, the thirteen other Grendels brought their fighters about to firing position, arming and selecting their Trackers.

," Rosencrantz said simply.

Twenty-eight streaks erupted from the asteroid field...
followed immediately by twenty-two more.

The latter Trackers, for indeed they were trackers, had been launched from the eleven Excalibur heavy fighters of Theseus Squadron, whose fighters had each been fitted with two.

The missiles streaked towards their targets, not giving off any homing signals yet. When the boosters reached the end of their run, explosive bolts fired, blowing the Pilum FF missiles clear in a dazzling display. Twenty-eight missiles, all homing in on ships not broadcasting friendly IFF codes, became one hundred and twelve, and twenty-two became eighty-eight.

The surviving sixty-four Nephilim fighters were now targeted by two hundred FF missiles. The resulting array of explosions shredded the alien fighters, destroying all but three, all of which were heavily damaged, and which were quickly mopped up by the Tigersharks of Arkrunner Squadron.

"All fighters, come to course one-one-five z-minus seven. Now we show these roaches why they should've stayed in their own part of the galaxy
," Alvarez said. However, the strike was not unbloodied. Two fighters would never come back, and five more were limping home, leaving seventy-five strike craft able to fight... and that was before the primary objective had been accomplished.

Rosencrantz couldn't help but wonder how many more would be lost before they could end this fight.

"Now we get to hunt great big bugs
," called Captain Rubio from the cockpit of her Shrike.

"Cut the chatter, Cavaliers
," Karpoff called in response.

," Rubio replied, borderline insubordination.

Rosencrantz almost thought about saying something to Rubio, but stopped himself. She wouldn't listen in any case, and all it would do would be to damage morale. What was the old saying that popped into his head every time he heard about Rubio going head-to-head with Karpoff? "A house divided against itself cannot stand"? That was it.

This time, the WC formed up just ahead of the group of Vampires, as was her right as the leader of the wing. "Alright. Here's how we do this: Panthers, stand off and fly CAP. Tigersharks and Vampires, you're detailed to SEAD. Sindri Stars, you and Theseus will be our backup strike force, because of the loadout of the Excaliburs. I want this clean, people. I want bugs squished and I want us all home alive. We've taken our allowance of losses for the day. I'm saying no more," Alvarez said.

Rosencrantz felt his mood lighten a bit. Nothing ever changed, especially WCs thinking of themselves as God, and giving orders as though they could influence events beyond their control.

Even though everything seemed to be going well, Rosencrantz felt something amiss... his gut was telling him that something was wrong, the same instincts that had saved his life a number of times over the past conflict and the past years during his time as a fighter pilot.

And yet, there were no indicators that anything was wrong.

Until he found some indication that something was amiss, he couldn't bring it before the WC, couldn't risk the morale of his squadron on feeling paranoid. So he swallowed the feelings, and continued on through the sparkling blackness of space.


Shrike 501 "Cavalier Lead"

"All right, Cavaliers. Go for the dreadnought as soon as the Panthers clear out those Barracudas
," Karpoff spoke, feeling his mouth go dry. There were eight corvettes, of which two were in range and could cause major problems for the strike force.

Major Carter, however, seemed to be doing his job well. As if one, the remaining ten Panthers split into two groups of five and began pouring their fire into the lead Barracuda, which promptly hurled sickly green bolts back in their direction. Each group of five Panthers triggered off two missiles per fighter. The ten missiles streaked out and slammed into the shielding of the corvettes, leaving their armor to crack and splinter off their hulls into space. Though they must've known they were doomed, the Barracudas never flinched, continuing to try and come to grips with the Shrike bombers in the face of overwhelming firepower.

Both corvettes exploded, mere seconds apart, prompting cheers from the rest of the strike group. However, it wasn't without price. Two of the Panthers were showing moderate damage, with a third trailing vapor. Not only that, but the extended running fight with the alien fighters earlier had left them, along with the rest of the original force, with badly depleted afterburner fuel reserves. However, the opening had been made into the Nephilim group's defenses, and it had to be taken, and taken before they could reinforce. Karpoff quickly saw that using all eleven Shrikes on the dreadnought would be overkill, especially with so many different targets right here.

"Cavaliers, we're splitting up to take different targets. Silence," Karpoff continued after a second of mental debate. He didn't trust the woman, but... "Silence, I want you and half the group to engage the cruiser. The rest of us are going for the dreadnought."

"Copy that, Lead. Slice, Blondie, Seeker, Don, on me. Let's show these insectoid bastards that they shouldn't play with other people's galaxies," Rubio said. Five of the Shrikes peeled out of formation, accelerating towards the cruiser which looked almost as if it had been carved out of jagged pieces of obsidian with an iridescent sheen.

Karpoff nodded. She seemed to be playing along. "The rest of you on me. Wildman, Bill, take the shield generator out. Myself and Ripper will go for the engines, Longshot and Buck go for the bridge. These bugs checked in, but they're not checking out
," he called.

A series of acknowledgements met him, and the six remaining fighters, including his own, split into three groups of two. Tigershark medium fighters from the Arkrunners streaked out ahead on afterburners, drawing fire from the very numerous turrets on the alien capital ships. They closed to knife-fighting range and opened fire with their mass driver cannons, spraying weapons emplacements with enough metal to either destroy them outright or suppress their fire. Any turret that didn't cease firing or wasn't destroyed was quickly finished off by the incoming Vampires, which used their linked particle and tachyon cannons to great effect.

But they couldn't get them all. A pair of Tigersharks were stitched with so many enemy shots that they were forced to pull to the edge of the engagement zone...
when another pair of enemy Barracudas began closing in.

The Arkrunners peeled off from their SEAD runs to deal with the new threat, weapons blazing, missiles streaking from their pods. Hundreds of Dragonfly rocket-powered projectiles erupted from their pods, smashing into the shields of the corvettes with unparalleled force. First one, then another of the corvettes faltered, and came to a stop. From above them, swooping down as if avenging angels, came the Panthers of the Fearless Felines, weapons blazing, to finish the kill.

But for those scant moments, Karpoff was scared out of his wits. Two
of the remaining six turrets on the Tiamat-class dreadnought were tracking him, and with his torpedo guidance attempting to lock onto the enemy ship and adapt to its shield harmonics, he couldn't get out of the way. Quickly bringing up his shield allocation, he configured the system so that eighty percent of the shield generators' efforts were being sent to the forward arcs... but though their rate of regeneration increased and the rate at which they fell slowed, it would only buy Karpoff a few more seconds of time. Possibly just enough to launch his torpedoes after attaining a lock.

"Jesse, give me some suppressive fire forward!" Karpoff called, selecting his mass driver cannons and spraying rounds towards one of the two turrets firing at him.

His top turret gunner opened fire on one of the turrets, spraying scarlet beams of energy through space, chewing into the target, but the turret continued to fire, seemingly unaffected

And enormous blue-white ball of fire erupted from the shield generator of the dreadnought, signaling that Wildman and Bill had taken the generator out of play. Good. One less thing to worry about.

Shields flashing blue ahead of him, and warning tones sounding as his shields reached critical levels, Karpoff took a deep breath and placed his thumb on the torpedo firing button.

A rueful smile crossed his features. "Just like Earth..."
he said, reliving his small part in that battle, involving his attempt at a torpedo run in a Sabre-B configured to carry torpedoes against the Kilrathi supercarriers that had threatened his homeworld. He had been shot completely out of the Sabre, the fighter disintegrating around him even as he pulled the ejection handle.

The tone of his Hellfire heavy torpedo locking on target snapped him out of his reverie even as his shielding failed. He thumbed the firing button, and the Shrike lurched as the heavy torpedo leapt off its pylon, streaking towards the engine on a tongue of blue flame.

Alarms began sounding as his forward armor was burned off one centimeter at a time. The Shrike shuddered violently and damage began showing up on the diagnostics boards. Karpoff began rolling the fighter to the right, pulling slightly back on the stick to perform a very mild corkscrew, while at the same time keeping the target in sight...
but to no avail. More fire slammed into the bomber, and alarms began shrieking, related to damage inflicted upon the reactor core.

Another alien turret rotated towards him. Karpoff made himself ready to die

- and out of the corner of his eye caught three fast-moving blurs, all of them firing on the turrets that were targeting his bomber. The three Tigersharks fired shot after shot into the turrets, completely obliterating them.

Karpoff let out a sigh of relief, then winced as his torpedo detonated in a blue-white ball of matter-antimatter fury. Hard upon the heels of that hit was another flash, this one the torpedo of Second Lieutenant Claire "Ripper" Pendleton.

With an enormous green-blue gout of energy, the engines of the huge, frightening, spidery dreadnought in front of them erupted, just as another pair of heavy torpedoes, these from Second Lieutenants Mark "Longshot" Ellis and Peter "Buck" Hammond, slammed into the alien ship's bridge.

A series of smaller explosions worked their way up the stern of the dreadnought, growing proportionally larger as they approached the center of the vessel. Suddenly, from the side of the ship, a great gout of flame erupted from one of the missile launchers, a chain reaction in the missile magazine set off by the explosions now running the length of the enormous dreadnought.

"Oh shit...
looks like that thing's going to go boom in a big -- " Pendleton's voice began.

An enormous green-white flash erupted in space at his seven o'clock position. A whoop over the communications frequency nearly ruptured his eardrums, followed by the sounds of cheering.

"Got that bastard! Scratch one Hydra!" called Rubio.

The armored hull of the dreadnought began to crack, black ichor oozing up between the hull plates where the ruptures formed. The entire strike group immediately began running for their lives...
and another flash erupted in space behind them. When the light faded, the dreadnought was gone... and the two Orca-class destroyers were following them, along with the remaining four Barracudas and what looked like a squadron of late-launched Ray fighters.

"I'd say they don't like us
," Rubio said, commenting. "What say we turn around and introduce ourselves, Lead?"

"Negative, Silence. We've got to preserve our fighters, and these guys aren't a threat right now
-- " Karpoff began.

From all around them, the remaining members of the Fearless Felines turned around once more and accelerated towards the Ray fighters, pummeling them with tachyon and ion cannon bursts. Streaking past the Panthers came the Tracker MIRV missiles of the Grendels.

Even as the Rays began to implode, hurling smaller fighters, termed Remoras, everywhere (they seemed only to detach once the Rays were destroyed), the fifty-six missiles eliminated them one at a time. Only four of the Remoras that had already separated made it close enough to open fire on the Shrikes, and the laser turrets on the bombers were more than potent enough to take out the small, unshielded little craft. The remaining fourteen Rays came on, small streaks of purple-white maser fire flashing out towards the bombers. Karpoff quickly reconfigured his shields to their default settings, reinforcing the after shields, making sure that he continued to open the distance to the enemy forces. "Cavaliers, form on me. Lima-Golf, Cavalier lead, awaiting orders."

There were a few moments of silence as the WC continued a dogfight with one of the enemy Rays, single-handedly knocking out the Ray and two of the Remora that streaked out from the explosion that consumed their "mother" ship.

"None at this point. Sindri Stars, you're cleared to engage. Arkrunners, you've got the greatest damage, so you're to escort the Cavaliers back to the fleet. We'll clean up here. Cavaliers, when you get back, prepare for another strike on these destroyers. I want them dead. All of them
," Alvarez's voice came back.

"Ma'am, with all due respect
-- " Rubio's voice began.

"No arguments, Captain. I run this wing and I give the orders. When you're wearing colonel's bars, if you ever wear them, then you can question my orders. Not before. Clear?" Alvarez said.

Silence (not Rubio) reigned supreme as the Cavaliers and the Arkrunners accelerated away from the battle. Karpoff removed his oxygen mask momentarily, and took a few moments to breathe deeply.

His hands wouldn't stop shaking on the controls. He couldn't stop reliving the most harrowing part of the attack. He swallowed against the bile rising in the back of his throat...
then stopped as a snap of static entered his headphones. Ahead, a series of red pips glowed on the radar scope.

"What the...?" Rubio's voice came.

"Who are they?" Came the voice of First Lieutenant Joe "Wildman" Fischer.

Major Brancer, CO of the Arkrunners, answered
, "I'm showing at least fifty of the bastards. Skate clusters, Morays, and... Jesus... looks like a half-dozen Devil Rays mixed in. I don't think they've seen us or they'd be jumping us, but they're jamming comms. I can't get through to anybody... not even the Yorktown."

"We ambushed them...
now they're going to ambush us!" Karpoff called. "We've got to do something!

"Such as?" Rubio asked. In case you haven't noticed, we did get assigned the squadron most damaged as our escort, and we're flying bombers. We'll be chopped meat against those Devil Rays," she replied.

"What do you propose we do, Silence? Let them jump the Yorktown with a strike force like that?" Karpoff said.

"Whatever it is, we'd better do it fast. Their speed puts their ETA to the Yorktown's position at...
eight minutes," Wildman called.

Karpoff swore. Eight minutes to try and warn a task force, most of whose fighters were away, that they were about to get hit by an enemy equipped with elite pilots and powerful craft, in spite of jamming and any opposition that was thrown at them.

Eight minutes...
to possible decide the fate of over three thousand people.