PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 60 of 66 )

: The Tiger Hunt
PART 16 OF 18 : BREAKING LOOSE

"Rapidity is the essence of war: take advantage of the enemy's unreadiness,
make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots."

- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
 


Flight Wing Briefing Room, BWS Valeria
Loki VI Debris Field, Loki System
0800 Hours, 15 Feb 2681 (2681.046)

It is in adversity that we find out what it is we're really made of. It's never easy or pleasant to face danger, disappointment and loss, yet this is a vital part of growing as individuals. It teaches us what we're capable of and what our limits are. It teaches us how much we're capable of enduring before we break, before we give up in despair and seek an easier path. Adversity's the universe's way of testing us, its way of gauging if we can really live up to all those bold claims we make in the bright light of day, confidant in our own ability and immortality. It is a test that none of us can avoid, one that none of us can fudge. A test that we must all face again and again as we go through life. There are no grades, no penalties, no rewards, just one stark verdict that no one can avoid facing in silences of one's own soul. In the end, adversity gives each of us the answer to that question that we all have: Am I good enough?

Just as adversity tests and teaches us, it also shapes and strengthens us. A rose bush that is grown in the safety and comfort of a greenhouse cannot survive outside one. Having never experienced winter's icy bite, it will wither and die when it feels the first touch of frost. Iron that has never felt the searing heat of the fire, the pounding blows of the blacksmith's hammer, the shock of being quenched in ice cold water, is nothing more than a useless lump of metal. It has no form, no edge, and no strength. It is brittle, and will shatter the first time it is hit hard enough. To achieve its full potential, to become the finest steel, it must first go through the fiery hell of the forging. What is true of iron and roses is also true of people. We all have within us the potential for greatness, be it in academia or sport, in science or in music, the healing arts or the martial arts. Those who have never struggled, never felt the pain of sacrifice and of loss, can never reach that potential, for it's through adversity that this potential is unlocked. Each time we face that test, we can either break or we can endure. Those of us who endure find we can endure more the next time, because that which doesn't kill us will only make us stronger. Adversity teaches us our limits, but it also teaches us to push those limits. It teaches us how to work harder, to reach higher, and to want it more than ever.

The Valkyries had faced their greatest adversity yet over the past few days. Individually, the pilots and the crew of the ships had faced hardships and dangers aplenty over the years they had spent on the frontlines. As a unit though, this was the first time they had truly been pushed to the edge. Oh, they had been tested before in the battle against the Nephilim, and tested hard. Every test to date, whether the challenge of safeguarding the helpless civilians on Tyr VII or the daunting task of rescuing the survivors of the Bunker Hill from the bowels of a Nephilim Leviathan, they had met head-on. With each challenge they had faced mastered, they had grown stronger and more confident. This though, had been the ultimate test, the one that would either make them or break them as a unit. With the Nephilim carriers throwing everything that they had at the Border Worlders, this had been the test that would let them know, once and for all, if they were really good enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Confederation forces, or if the Border Worlds military should simply contend itself with being a militia for Confed like some people claimed. In end, it all came down to that old question: Are we good enough?

That hadn't been the question they had been asking themselves, of course, as they tried to weather the storm unleashed on them by the enemy carriers, but it was the answer to that question they would be measured by all the same. Their ability to out-think the enemy, to hide when they needed to hide, to be found when they wanted to be found, to strike when and where they need to strike, had tested their cunning to its limits. Their endurance had been tested by three days with almost no sleep, spending hours upon hours in their cockpits and at their battle stations, pushing their bodies and minds to the wall. Their courage had been tested by the waves of fighters and capital ships that the Nephilim had sent at them, while adrenaline and exhaustion made them more receptive to the effects of fear, to the urge to break and run, and to never look back. So had their ability to cope with grief and pain, with the loss of hundreds of their comrades, many of them good friends, ripped away from them in a matter of minutes. Every aspect of their character, skill and training had been mercilessly examined, and they had faced that examination with the sure knowledge that failing this test of adversity would have seen them being ground up by the Nephilim, their ships and bodies left shattered and broken in this desolate debris field.

And they had not been found wanting.

For sure, they had made mistakes, and they had taken their share of body blows along the way, the worst of which by far had been the loss of the Littenia. The cold hard, reality though, was that there had been very little they could have done to prevent that loss. If they split up their fighters to try and defend both carriers at once, they would have seen both carriers being overwhelmed. Fight piecemeal and you will be defeated piecemeal; it was as simple as that. As painful as that loss was, the bulk of their forces had survived close to three days of concerted attention from three powerful carrier groups, carriers whose fighters had outnumbered theirs by almost five to one. They had made the Nephilim pay dearly for the losses they had suffered, destroying close to 600 enemy fighters and a dozen capships over the last few days. Far more importantly, they had kept the Nephilim carriers busy attacking them, stripping them of vital fighter cover and leaving them open to destruction by the rest of the human fleet. They had achieved the task that Admiral Hanton had set them at the start of this operation. They had done everything that could have been asked of them, and they had finally answered that nagging question. They had amply proved their right to a place alongside the best units in this or any other fleet.

The only thing that was left unresolved at this point was their own escape from the debris field, and that was looking a lot brighter than it had just a few hours ago. For the first time in three days, the pressure was off them, and they had a chance to break loose. That was what this meeting of the flight wing's senior officers was all about.    

"Aright, let's get started," Raptor said as the last few pilots filed in. There were a couple who wouldn't be making it to the briefing because their squadrons were currently on patrol, watching for any sign of a major Nephilim strike on them, as well as watching out for smaller sneak attacks. The last few days had taught them all the need for constant vigilance.

"I've got some good news, and I've got some better news. The good news is that two of the carrier groups that were harassing us are now down. The TCS Endeavour and the 8th Cruiser Squadron were able to ambush and wipe out one of the groups late yesterday, while their fighters were busy with us. The reports from the Endeavour battle group are still being analyzed by Intell, but from the accounts we received, their losses were fairly light, a frigate from the Endeavour group plus a destroyer from the 8th, along with 10 to 15 fighters either shot down or out of action.

"The capship squadrons that hit the second carrier group were also successful in wiping it out, but their casualties were quite a bit heavier. According to the reports that we have, they've 'only' lost a torpedo boat and a destroyer, but they've also taken significant damage to a further two torpedo boats, another destroyer, and the escort carrier BWS Defiance. The
Defiance is still operational, but the status of the other ships is still to be confirmed. Fighter losses were again fairly light; about 10 fighters that have been either shot down or are out of action with damage. One other bit of news we got is that the pilots from our Hell Knight Squadron were involved in the attack on that carrier, and were the ones who finished it off after it was crippled by the Defiance's escorts."

That news brought nasty smiles to the faces of nearly all the pilots in the room. The most frustrating thing about the game of cat and mouse they had been playing with the enemy carriers over the last few days had been not being able to hit back directly at the carriers that were hunting them. They knew that what they had been doing was important, but simply absorbing the capship assaults, fighter waves and sneak attacks that the carrier groups had thrown at them had been hard to take. Knowing that the pilots they had loaned to the
Defiance
had helped extract a little revenge on their behalf made it a lot easier. It didn't come anywhere near making up for the loss of the Littenia, but it helped.

"The better news is that the Endeavour group has been closing in on the position of the last Nephilim carrier. The Endeavour isn't close enough to strike yet, but the fact that she's moving in has been enough to make whoever is commanding that remaining carrier very nervous. According the data from our SWACS and recon flights, the carrier group is beginning to pull back from the edge of the debris field, which in turn takes a lot of the pressure off us.

"Now, at this point in time, we have two options. The first is to keep follow that carrier group, tie it down, and keep it busy until the Endeavour can get close enough to launch her fighters and help us out in finishing the battle group off. However, both Admiral Hanton and Captain Que feel that this wouldn't be the best idea at present. Assuming that carrier and its escorts was able to recover fighters that were engaging us when the other two carriers were destroyed, the carrier group could have still have a three to one or four two one advantage over us in fighter strength. In addition, our own pilots are hardly in the best of shape for another all out battle, and the techs can use all the extra time they can get to repair our fighters. Last but not least, once we're out in the open, the carrier group could concentrate all its fighters on us to one time, which in turn would ramp up our casualties massively. In short, going after the carrier in our present state involves a hell of a lot a risk for a much smaller gain.

"The second option, to fall back ourselves, is the smarter choice at the moment. Given that we've already achieved our aim of dividing up and gutting the Nephilim fleet, Admiral Hanton feels that there isn't any reason for us to continue fighting a separate battle. We've done everything that we've set out to do, and there's not much point in risking even heavier losses just for the sake of bringing the battle to a quick finish. Instead, it's time that we also pulled back and regrouped with first the Endeavour and then the rest of the fleet. For the first time in this campaign, it's the Nephilim who are pulling back, so we have the upper hand for now. That means that we can choose when and where to finish this battle in the way that would involve the least losses for us."

Raptor's smile matched the ones that had been on the faces of his pilots a few minutes earlier. Border Worlders were downright vindictive towards those who invaded their territory. "That doesn't mean, though, that we're not going to the give the Nephilim one last kick in the nuts -- assuming Nephilim have nuts -- on our way out, just so they have something to remember us by.

"The Nephilim had some of their capships acting as a backstop on the far side of the debris field to stop us from slipping away from their attacks. Most of those capships would have fallen back to join the carrier by now, but our scouts have been tracking a cruiser which has fallen behind, along with a couple of corvettes that are escorting it. Those three ships are potentially close enough to intercept our ships as we exit the debris field. Admiral Hanton wants those three ships and any fighter cover they might have sanctioned with extreme prejudice. In addition to helping ensure that our own carriers don't come under attack, it's a good way of cutting down the strength of the remaining Nephilim fleet even further. Lastly, it will serve as a way of tightening the psychological screws even further. We want to remind the Nephilim just who has the upper hand now.

"The first priority will be to ensure that the Nephilim don't know that we're targeting the cruiser. That'll avoid the cruiser either slipping off into the debris field like we did, or being reinforced by fighters from the Nephilim carrier group. Once again, the idea is wipe the target out quickly and clinically, just like we did to the capships we attacked on the 13th, rather than turning it into a drawn out battle. We've lost too many good people in this battle already. In order to give us the element of surprise, we need to wipe out any CAP or roving scouts that the Nephilim might have before they can sound the alarm. We'll do that by using our Stalker jamming craft to scramble their communications, along with our recon Arrows and Excaliburs to ambush them.

"Once we've opened up a corridor though their patrols, the Retaliators and Bearcats will lead the strike, supported by the craft that were taking out the patrols. They'll take on and destroy the fighter cover protecting the cruiser. The fighter craft will be followed by the Dauntless' from Thor's Hammer Squadron who will finish the job. Once the enemy ships are down, the strike package will egress the target area and link up with the capships via an indirect route.

"In the meantime, the capships will be heading for the edge of the debris field at best safe speed. The Intruders from Black Angel and White Knight squadrons, along with the Banshees from Night Watch Squadron, will be flying cover for them. The strike package will only be about 10 minutes flying time at full afterburner from the capships at all times, so we can fall back to assist if needed. By all accounts, that shouldn't be necessary, but there's no sense in taking any needless risks."

The rest of the briefing took another hour, as the squadron leaders and execs trashed out the details of the upcoming mission. This one certainly wouldn't be as difficult as the battles they had fought the day before, but that didn't mean they were taking it lightly. A little time spent on planning could avoid a lot of bloodshed and heartbreak later on.

"One last thing before we go," Raptor said as the meeting wound up. "The memorial services for those who were killed in this system will be held at 1400 Hours, after we're clear of the debris field. Let's do our best to avoid adding to the list. Good luck and good hunting, all of you."

 

Recon Arrow 007 (Ghost Warrior lead)
Loki VI Debris Field,
1000 Hours, 15 Feb 2681 (2681.046)

Major Jameel "Paladin" Ul-Huq eased the flight stick of his cloaked recon Arrow down and slightly to the left, pushing the fighter into a gentle leftward spiral as he matched the movements of the Nephilim Moray-class medium fighter he was trailing. The three other Arrows in his flight were shadowing the remaining Morays in this patrol, while the two Excaliburs from Taipan Squadron that were working with them trailed the trio of Manta-class heavy fighters that were leading the patrol.

Normally, of course, the lightly armed recon Arrows wouldn't have been used for this kind of combat duty. The recon Arrows and their highly trained pilots specialized in information gathering, while ambushes from cloak were left to the much more powerful Excaliburs. These weren't normal times, however. The Taipans had been in the thick of the fighting to defend the carriers, and had suffered heavily as a result. They had lost six fighters in the last few days, leaving them with just eight operational fighters from the eighteen they had when the battle to hold the line against the Nephilim began. The Retaliator, Bearcat and Intruder units had been hit just as hard, but they had been able to make up the losses by integrating the fighters that had survived the destruction of the Littenia into Battle Group Valkyrie's own squadrons.

The Taipans hadn't been able to do that because the Littenia hadn't been carrying Excaliburs. The Border Worlds military had held out for the full spec Excalibur A, complete with reaper cannons, twelve missile slots, autotracking ability and a cloaking device. As they had seen it, it didn't make much sense to invest millions of credits in a fighter like the Excalibur, and then try to save a few thousand credits by cutting corners that seriously degraded the fighters' effectiveness. These fighters were much more rare than the downgraded and non- cloak capable Excalibur D models used by the Confed militia, and deliveries had been slow to get underway. As a result, the Taipans had been one of the few units to get the fighters before the Nephilim invasion.

What that in turn meant was that with all the losses they had taken recently, there weren't enough Excaliburs to carry out this operation effectively. For that reason, the Excalibur pilots had been teamed up with the Ghost Warriors. The idea was that the Ghost Warriors would use the first strike advantage given to them by their cloaks to quickly cut down the number of enemy fighters with a missile strike. The Excaliburs could then use their heavy firepower to take out any fighters that survived the initial attack, supported by the Arrows.

The last element of the strike was provided by the two Stalker Electronic Warfare craft that were accompanying the fighters. They couldn't risk the Nephilim fighters getting off a signal before they were destroyed, as that would alert the fighters aboard the cruiser, which in turn would mean that the strike group would be flying into heavy opposition. The two Stalkers would drop out of cloak at the same time fighters did, using their jamming pods to scramble enemy communications, and hopefully keeping the cruiser in the dark about what was going on.

Paladin shook his head slightly. The times, they sure are a changing, he thought. It hadn't been that long ago that a Border Worlds force would simply have rushed into any situation with all guns blazing, counting on their traditional balls to the wall fighting style and a good measure of luck to see them though. That approach though, would have seen them being chewed up and spat out by an enemy that outnumbered and outgunned them as thoroughly as the Nephilim did. The reason that Battle Group Valkyrie had not only survived every situation it had faced, but had also inflicted heavy losses on the enemy along the way, was that its senior officers had believed in fighting smart as well as fighting hard, and had drummed that policy into those under their command right from the start. The one thing they didn't believe in was fighting fair, because there was nothing fair about war. The way the Valkyries fought was by using every single advantage they had to outfox the enemy. Recon capability, stealth, and Electronic Warfare all played their part in letting them confuse and out-maneuver the enemy. That in turn put the fighter and bomber pilots in a position where that old balls to the wall style could be used with maximum effectiveness. From there, the firepower of fighters like the Retaliators and Excaliburs and the ship killing potential of the Dauntless bombers could be used to rip the enemy wide open.

"Taipan One, in position," one of the Excalibur pilots radioed in, reporting that he was in position to make a kill.

"Taipan Two, ready."

"Night Stalker One, ready."

Unlike the Arrows and Excaliburs, the Stalkers would uncloak well away from the enemy fighters, using the broadcasting power of their jamming pods to scramble the enemy systems, while keeping away from the dogfight. The Stalkers had almost no dogfighting capability, as they were each only armed with a single stormfire cannon for last ditch self defense. While they carried four missiles each, these weren't the standard anti-fighter missiles, but specialized Blinder missiles that were used to disable a warship's electronic systems. In short, they would be dead meat against even a Moray, which was itself by no means a fearsome fighter craft. The pilots of the Night Stalker Squadron were all well trained, and they had no illusions about what their job was.

"Night Stalker Two, in position."

"Ghost Lead copies all," Paladin replied. As the commanding officer of the Ghost Warriors, and the senior pilot in this flight, he would be the one coordinating the attack. "Ghost Flight, check in."

"Ghost Two, in position."

"Ghost Three, in position."

"Ghost Four, ready."

"Copy all. All craft, decloak and attack on three," Paladin said.

He took one last look at his weapons console to ensure that he was indeed locked on to his target. The console showed two of the four heat-seeker missiles under the Arrow's fuselage were armed and locked on the Moray in front of him. Paladin would have preferred the more reliable image-rec missiles, but then, so did most of his fellow pilots. The Valkyries had used up most of their stock of image-recognition and friend-or-foe missiles in the battles over the last few days, and those that remained had been allocated to the Retaliators and Bearcats. As the Arrows could gain missile lock while cloaked, the longer lock time of the heat-seekers and the fact these missiles could only track from the rear quarter of the target was considered less of a disadvantage.

"One... two... three!"

The shrieking howl of the cloaking devices cutting out filled the pilots' headphones as the Border Worlds fighters dropped out of cloak right on the sixes of their targets. The Valkyries had been using cloaked ambushes often enough over the last couple of days for the Nephilim to have become aware that the Border Worlders could evade their anti-cloak sensors, but that didn't help this particular bunch of Nephilim pilots. Even when you were aware of the possibility of cloaked attack, it was difficult to stay constantly vigilant when you could see no sign of a threat, as a lot of human pilots had discovered to their cost during the First Kilrathi War and the Black Lance Incident. In that aspect at least, it seemed the Nephilim were no different from humans, as these patrolling Bugs were taken by complete surprise.

Paladin slammed his thumb down on the missile release as soon as the cloak cut out completely. The small fighter shuddered as both warheads raced off the rails with a roar that carried clearly through the metal of the hull to his ears. Both missiles ran hot and true, leaving long trails of propellant behind them that almost instantly froze into crystals in the icy vacuum.

The Nephilim pilot might have been taken by surprise, but there was no faulting his reflexes. The Moray plunged downwards and then accelerated away from the missiles, popping clouds of hot incendiary decoys to fool the warheads. One of the missiles ignored the decoys and slammed into the aft of the Moray, ripping apart the shields and gouging the armor, but not fatally wounding the enemy fighter. The other missile took the bait, exploding harmlessly against a decoy.

Paladin swore in frustration, the feeling not helped by the bright explosions of other enemy fighters or the war whoops of the pilots who had hit their mark. He punched the afterburners, accelerating after the Moray. He knew the sensible thing to do would have been to cloak and reposition for another missile attack, but he didn't want to expend his two remaining warheads unnecessarily. The Recon Arrows carried only half the warload of the Arrows that had flown in the Kilrathi War, with the remaining missile stations being removed to make room for the cloak. Besides, he had a good position on this Moray's six, and he wanted to kill now, not wait for another opportunity. There were some things about Border Worlders that never changed.

He hit the gun trigger, and the Arrow's battery of ion and laser cannons spat out a stream of bolts at the target. The short but furious dogfight that followed stretched both Paladin's skills and the Arrow's agility to the limit as he fought to stay on his opponent's six long enough to chew through the remaining armor. The Arrow's gun array, like that of most other light fighters, wasn't devastating by any stretch of the imagination, and it took several volleys to finish the job. Finally though, the Moray detonated in a brilliant fireball.

Paladin quickly glanced at his radar. Most of the other Nephilim fighters were down, the only survivor being a Manta that was even now receiving the attention of both Excaliburs. The enemy fighter fireballed a few seconds later as one of the Taipans forced it into the other pilot's gunsights, who shredded the Manta with a long burst from the Excal's tachyon and reaper cannons at point blank range. The Stalkers shut down their jamming pods and faded back into cloak. The fighters followed seconds later, their job here done. If the other groups ambushing the Nephilim patrols had as successful, the corridor for the strike group to hit the cruiser should be wide open by now.

 

Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)
Near The Edge Of The Debris Field
1105 Hours, 15 Feb 2681

Raptor took in a deep breath and blew it out slowly, clearing his mind of all the concerns and thoughts that came with being the Valeria's Wing Commander, and simply focusing on the situation at hand. The simple fact was that at this point in time, he wasn't a Wing Commander anymore, just the leader of this strike group. He had already done all the work of a Wing Commander, made all the plans, given all the orders. Those plans and orders were either being carried out or had already been carried out by other people. Now, he had to focus on this one part of the operation, focus on hitting that enemy cruiser hard and then get his people out safely.

The Retaliators were just inside the debris field, between the cruiser and the rest of the Nephilim fleet. They were at full squadron strength, with the losses the Reapers had taken being filled by the survivors of the Star Killer Squadron, previously based on the Littenia. The Bearcats from Harbinger Squadron lurked a few thousand klicks away, likewise at full strength. The remaining handful of Dauntless bombers from Thor's Hammer Squadron were a few thousand klicks further back. The bombers weren't undefended however. The fighters and EW craft that had been opening up the corridor had rendezvoused with them, and would cover them for the rest of the mission.

Thanks to the actions of the Arrows and Excaliburs, the strike group had been able to penetrate this far without being detected. The Nephilim cruiser and its corvette escorts were now a little over 100,000 klicks away, and were headed towards the strike group as they skirted the debris field on their way back towards the surviving Nephilim carrier. There were three Stalkers shadowing the cruiser, and they would warn the Border Worlders once the cruiser or any of its defending fighters were approaching sensor range. At that point, the Retaliators and Bearcats would burst out of the debris field and accelerate towards the enemy, using the element of surprise to overwhelm any fighter cover the cruiser had. The bombers and their escorts would follow right behind to finish the job.

The warning from the Stalkers came through about 15 minutes later. Just before the cruiser was close enough for its sensors to pick up the Border Worlds strike group, the Stalkers played one final card. All three decloaked, one targeting the cruiser while the others each picked a corvette, and each launched a Blinder missile. The Blinder was similar to a leach missile in that it could punch through shield defenses and attach itself to the target's hull. Instead of draining energy though, the Blinders fed energy into the target, in the form of powerful electronic "noise" that scrambled the capship's scanners and radars, leaving the target effectively blind. That in turn kept the Nephilim in the dark for few more vital seconds.

At the same time, Retaliators and Bearcats hurtled towards the Nephilim on full afterburner, their powerful engines devouring the distance between them and their target. There were about a dozen fighters, mostly Morays, orbiting the cruiser, and these broke away to intercept the Border Worlders as their own sensors picked up the incoming fighters. They were outnumbered three to one though, and the unexpected attack had left them disoriented and disorganized. They had no chance against the brutal firepower of the Retaliators and Bearcats. The Border Worlds pilots simply gang banged them, burning most of them down in the first pass.

The Retaliators blew straight past the survivors, leaving them to the Bearcats. Their target now was the cruiser. The cruiser could still have a couple of dozen fighters in its launch bays, and the Border Worlders had no wish to meet them in a fair fight if they could help it. Fairness was something that belonged on the cricket field, not the battlefield. Light torpedoes launched by two of the Retaliators shattered the cruiser's launchers, entombing any remaining fighters inside the warship.

With the fighter cover neutralized, the Border Worlds fighters began blasting away the cruiser's turrets. By now, the bombers had reached the enemy group. A few minutes later, torpedo volleys ripped the cruiser apart, while concentrated gunfire did for the two corvettes.

The entire operation had accounted for over three dozen enemy fighters (not counting any that might have been on the cruiser) along with the three warships. The cost to the Border Worlders had been the loss of four craft, one Bearcat, two Arrows and a Stalker. The losses hadn't been as light as they had hoped, especially on top of the 80 odd craft they had lost already, but on balance, it had been a successful operation.

 

Flight Deck, BWS Valeria
Loki System, Just Outside The Debris Field
1400 Hours, 15 Feb 2681 (2681.046)

By now the Valeria, Freedom, and their escorts, including the surviving destroyers from the Littenia battle
group, had cleared the edge of the debris field, putting the ruins of Loki VI between them and the surviving enemy carrier group. The feeling of relief among the pilots and crews at being away from the ruins was almost palpable. The debris field had played a vital role in their survival to date, helping them evade their hunters and allowing them to strike back at the enemy through ambushes and hit-and-run attacks. For all that though, the Border Worlders were uncomfortably aware of just how close they had come to dying in that desolate place. They had faced their greatest test and survived it there, but none of them had any wish to linger.

Right now, the flight deck was the quietest it had been for a long time. Over the last three days, the flight deck had been almost constantly active, either launching fighters on seemingly endless recon missions, patrols and scrambles, or recovering them as they came back. There had been several times when the deck had reverberated with both the scream of entire flights of fighters racing off the forward end of the deck on full afterburner, and the thuds of several other fighter craft slamming down on to the aft end of the deck at full speed. Such doubling up was highly dangerous, as it massively increased the chances of collisions. Just one cold launch or an overshoot on landing could not only have wiped out dozens of pilots and deck crew, but could have put the carrier itself out of action. As a result, the practice was rare even in the devil-may-care Border Worlds military (and almost unheard of in the militaries of other nations, for which those nations were profoundly grateful) but the pressure of operations had left them with little choice.

At the moment though, all the fighters from the strike had been recovered. The units that were scheduled to pull patrol and CAP duty had been launched, and the Ghost Warriors had been sent out again to track down that remaining enemy carrier group, with orders to asses its strength and offensive capability, and make sure that it wasn't about to make some last ditch attempt to wipe out the Valkyries. After launching those craft, the Valeria had shut down flight operations for an hour to allow the pilots and crews to remember those who hadn't been lucky enough survive the brutal battle that had been fought in the debris field.

That didn't mean that they weren't prepared to respond to any attack that might be forthcoming. The last three days had raised paranoia to an art form among both the commanders and the ordinary crews of the battle
group, and they weren't quite ready to relax yet. The fighter craft had been re-armed and refueled after the strike, and now waited in their launch and dispersal slots, ready to scream off the deck in a matter of minutes if needed. The Harbinger and Black Angel squadrons waited at five minute alert on board the Freedom and the escorting capships respectively. If there was any trouble, they would launch and join the CAP and patrol fighters in holding off the enemy long enough for the Valeria to get her fighters up.

Apart from the pilots who were engaged in keeping the battle
group safe, and the crew who had to remain at duty stations, virtually everyone else on the Valeria was on the flight deck, as were dozens of people from the Freedom and the other warships. Pilots and Navy crew stood shoulder to shoulder with Marines, officers with enlisted crew, all there to remember the comrades and friends who had fallen in the line of duty. The Border Worlds military, being a smaller community than many other militaries, was closely knit as a result. Virtually everyone in the battle group had lost someone they had known in this battle. There simply hadn't been time to mourn earlier, and the funeral served as a collective catharsis for the feelings they had been forced to keep bottled up until now.

Even so, Admiral Hanton couldn't help worrying about the long term effects on her crew as she surveyed the faces of the people gathered before her. Their thoughts were clearly with their dead friends, but there was a hardness to their features that she had seen all too often in this campaign. Border Worlders prided themselves on remaining strong in the face of both physical and emotional hardship, on responding to loss and grief with defiance instead of despair. It was the same attitude that Australians and Kiwis back on Earth called staying staunch and the British called keeping a stiff upper lip. In the short term, while the fighting lasted, it was a useful response, as it kept them focused on the enemy, focused on winning rather than thinking about what they had lost. The Admiral knew, though, that grief couldn't be dealt with and dismissed that easily. There would be a price to pay for it in the months and years to come, and both these people and their families would have to deal with that. War left many scars, and the worst ones often weren't the visible ones.

There was nothing the Admiral could so about that, though. All she could do was help them come to terms with the loss of their friends as best she could in the short time they had to mourn, and count on their resilience to see them through. Damn this war, she said to herself, and then cleared her throat and began speaking, trying to find the words that would express what her crew was feeling.

 

CONT...