PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 61 of 66 )

: The Tiger Hunt

"Vigilance is the Warrior's salvation; inattention is the Warrior's most dangerous foe."
- Kilrathi Proverb (from the First Codex)

Recon Arrow Ghost Warrior 007
Loki System, Union of border Worlds
1530 Hours, 15th Feb 2681 (2681.046)

Major Jameel "Paladin" Ul-Huq took a deep breath and then blew it out slowly as he tried to let out a little of the tension building in his system. He tried, but he didn't succeed, and his blood pressure remained at levels that could well be seriously harmful to his health. Of course, the Nephilim CAP fighters circling just a few thousand klicks away could ruin his health a lot faster if they found him.

Paladin was leading a flight of four cloaked recon Arrows, broken into two pairs that maintained a good 50,000 klicks from each other as they shadowed the Nephilim fleet. That way, if one pair of fighters was detected and destroyed, the other pair might have enough time to disengage and transmit to the Valeria the information that Admiral Hanton so desperately needed.

The Ghost Warrior pilots had been ordered to establish the position and strength of the Nephilim fleet (or rather what was left of it) as it fell back and regrouped after its unsuccessful attempt to destroy the Valkyries in the ruins of Loki VI, as well as the running battle it had fought with the Confed groups in the rest of the system. The battle had been savage, with losses high all round. Now, though, the battle was over, and it was time to take stock.

So far, the four Arrows had been able to find the staging grounds of the Nephilim fleet. That hadn't been difficult, as the Nephilim had been broadcasting energy across the electromagnetic spectrum from their sensors and communication systems, making it relatively easy for the veteran recon pilots to track them down. The Ghost Warriors were one of the best recon units in the Border Worlds military, and they had proven throughout this campaign that they could find any information their commanders needed, and get it back to their fleet, no matter the cost.

Finding the enemy fleet, though, had been the easy part. The Arrows now had to break through the CAP screen and penetrate the staging area to gain an exact count of enemy ships. While the human commanders knew the number of enemy ships at the start of the Loki battle, and the number of ships that had been destroyed in that battle, figuring out how many ships the enemy had left wasn't simply a matter of subtraction. Throughout this campaign, the enemy fleet had been strengthened by reinforcements that were trickling in through the open wormhole, making recon missions like this vitally important if the human commanders were to stay on top of the tactical situation.

That was why Paladin and the other three Ghost Warrior pilots had to do the seemingly suicidal, and fly directly into the heart of the enemy fleet. The fleet needed this information to continue the fight effectively, and there was no other way of getting it. The Nephilim CAP was far enough out from the fleet that even Confed's new SWACS couldn't get a scan of the Nephilim ships, so it was up to the Arrow pilots to do it the old fashioned way, up close and personal. If this went as planned, they would get close enough to not only count the enemy ships, but to scan them for damage suffered as well.

Of course, they wouldn't be able to do any of that if they didn't get past the Nephilim CAP first. Paladin eased the Arrow's throttle up to full military power, heading straight towards the enemy fighter screen. He almost held his breath as the enemy fighters go closer and closer, as if that small sound would be all that was needed to alert the enemy fighter pilots to his presence. As the Arrow penetrated the enemy screen, the nearest enemy craft, a Moray-class medium fighter, passed within a mere 5,000 klicks of the Arrow. Paladin was sure that he felt his craft rattle from the other fighter's ion wash, though he knew it was all in his imagination. He was positive that at any minute the enemy fighter would heel around sharply, bringing its guns and missiles to bear on the fragile recon craft.

And then he was through the outer screen, heading towards the staging grounds. Paladin let out an explosive sigh of relief. The reprogrammed RHAWS and ECM suites had proven effective against Nephilim anti-cloak sensors throughout the Loki campaign, but each time the humans used the cloaks, the risk grew that the Nephilim would catch on to the trick. If that happened, of course, the recon pilots were as good as dead. The four fighters had nowhere near enough firepower or numbers to fight off the Nephilim CAP. Without the cloaks, they would have nowhere to hide. Running would do no good either, as the Nephilim would be able to vector roving fighter patrols to intercept them long before they reached their own lines. At best, one or two of them might survive long enough to transmit the data they had back to Admiral Hanton. Being a recon pilot was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.

Now that he was through the outer screen, Paladin glanced quickly at his sensor panel, checking that his wingman and the other pair of Arrows had made it as well. As it turned out, they had. His wingman, a young pilot who went by the callsign Razor, was right with him, a few thousand klicks astern and to his left. The other pair was still maintaining 50,000 klicks separation. The only way he knew any of them were there was because each Arrow had been fitted with a special IFF transponder. When queried, the transponder sent its signal to the Arrow making the query in a tight, scrambled, frequency agile burst that would have appeared as a blip of random noise to anyone who didn't have the key. There was naturally no way Paladin could detect the other Arrows visually or on sensors while they were cloaked. Nor could he use his comm system any more than he had to. It was a secure system, but it risked giving away his position if over used. He would have been dead literally within seconds of giving away his location. Recon pilots worked in much the same way as the submariners of centuries past had. Stealth and silence were their allies, and sudden death was never far away.

Getting past the outer CAP had simply been the first step. The Border Worlders had to penetrate two more fighter screens as they borrowed deeper and deeper into the heart of the enemy fleet. Paladin's blood pressure spiked each time they had to fly through one of the fighter screens, but each time they made it through safely. That would have made him feel better, if it hadn't been for the nagging voice in the back of his mind that reminded him each screen they penetrated was one more screen standing between them and safety if they were detected. By the time they cleared the last screen, over fifteen minutes later, the blood pressures of all the recon pilots were abysmally high. But then, if you can't take the heat...

The reward for all that stress and risk, though, lay right in front of them. The few remaining ships of the once might Nephilim armada, busy regrouping and licking their wounds, totally unaware of the enemy fighters lurking among them. Paladin lined up on the largest enemy ship and matched its speed. His right forefinger clamped down hard on the firing trigger on his flightstick. The trigger activated not guns or missiles (though the Arrow carried both), but weapons that in the long run would be far more destructive to these massive Nephilim warships. Cameras, infra-red scanners and other recording devices, all of which were totally passive and hence emitted no signals that could give away the Arrow's location, began collecting reams of information and storing the data in the Arrow's memory banks. The motto of the Ghost Warrior Squadron was "knowledge is the greatest weapon." The information collected by the Ghost Warriors would be just as deadly to these ships as the torpedoes that would eventually rip them to shreds.

The recording system beeped quietly, telling Paladin that it had collected all the information that it could on this particular ship. Paladin selected the next largest ship, once again matching its speed, and began recording all over again. He repeated the process on every other Nephilim warship, right down to the corvettes, grabbing every secret about the Nephilim that he could, and hiding it away in the Arrow's memory banks. The entire process took a little over five minutes, far less time than it had taken to breach the fleet's defenses. Nearby, the other pilots were doing the same. If only one of them survived long enough to transmit the information back to Valeria, it was vital that pilot had all the needed information. Otherwise, all this would have been for nothing.


Recon Arrow Ghost Warrior 007
Approaching Battle Group Valkyrie
About Three Hours later
1905 Hours, 15th Feb 2681

Paladin made sure that his IFF transponder was set back to standard mode, and then deactivated the cloaking device long before he came within scanning range of Battle Group Valkyrie's fighter CAP. The other Arrows did the same, making sure that the battle group's defenders would know them as friendly well in time. Fighter pilots flying CAP tended to react badly to fighters decloaking in their midst at the best of times, but they would be especially trigger happy after three days of being on nearly constant alert. After flying a successful recon mission and getting out safely, it would be a pity indeed if one of the Arrows caught a missile from a "friendly" pilot. Besides, it wasn't as if they had missiles to spare.

As the cloaking device cut out, the universe seemed to come alive once again to Paladin's senses. The "grey-out" effect caused by the cloak's distortion of incoming light faded, flooding his eyes with a riot of color that was almost painful to look upon. Even the simple red, green and yellow lights on his console seemed a visual feast, and the sight of the Loki System in glorious Technicolor was almost overwhelming. Every time he came out of cloak after a mission, Paladin gained a fresh appreciation of just how beautiful the systems they were fighting to defend really were. All the wonder and glory of creation existed out there, powerful and eternal, uncaring of the struggles of men and Nephilim. The knowledge that every time he went into cloak might be last he saw this beauty only added to the sense of wonder.

As the cloaking device powered down, the Arrow itself seemed to come alive as well. Freed from the constraints of running silent, its active sensors swept the area around the four Ghost Warriors, confirming that space around them was empty and free of threats. Radio chatter came in from the other three Arrows, at first the quick and light-hearted greetings and jokes of relieved people who had been cut off from human contact for hours. That kind of chatter would have earned them all severe reprimands in the Confed military, but as in so many things, the Border Worlders did it their own way. Give everything to the mission, watch out for your friends, get the job done, and make the bastards wish they had never even heard of the Border Worlds. Those were the things that mattered. Rigid adherence to petty rules and regulations came a long way down the list.

The chatter quickly faded away, just as Paladin knew it would. Discipline took care of that. Real discipline, the kind that came from within rather than being imposed from the outside. It was the same discipline that allowed the Ghost Warriors to fly the kind of missions they did, remaining calm in the middle of an enemy fleet, not letting the fear and tension of the situation overcome them. As the chatter died away, Paladin contacted the Valeria, letting the carrier know they were on the way in. The Arrows had already downloaded their data via real time laser-link, in case they were intercepted by the Nephilim, so all that remained was to get the fighters back down on deck.

A few minutes of flight time later, the Arrows picked up the Valeria's fighter CAP on their scanners. Right now, the CAP was being flown by the sleek and powerful Retaliators from Reaper Squadron. The Retaliator pilots, of course already knew that the Arrows were coming, but four fighters broke off to make an intercept and visual identification in any case. After so much fighting and so many close calls, the fighter pilots were in no mood to take chances. One of the fighters took up station alongside Paladin's Arrow. Even without glancing at his scanners, Paladin knew that the other three would be shadowing his wingmates, ready to go on the offensive the instant they detected a threat against their leader. Like the Ghost Warriors, the Reapers were the best in the Union at what they did. The difference was that what they did was kill fighters with extreme prejudice, and they were just as efficient and merciless as the Reaper they were named for. Despite knowing they were friendly, Paladin felt his pulse quicken a little.

Paladin glanced over at the fighter alongside him, and couldn't help wincing slightly as a fresh burst of color assaulted his eyes. Paint schemes on most Border Worlds fighters tended to be garish, an expression of individuality and a way of announcing their presence (the Ghost Warriors were an exception, for obvious reasons). The fighter flying alongside him was finished in midnight blue with silver trim, and had prominent gold and green Border Worlds insignia on the wings. The tail fins portrayed the Grim Reaper with his bloodied scythe drawn back and ready to strike, while the fighter's nose was marked with an impressive array of Kilrathi, human and Nephilim kills. Most distinctive of all were the rank markings on the tail assembly, and the personal insignia below the cockpit, showing a striking bird of prey with its powerful talons extended. Even before his comm screen crackled into life, Paladin knew who was flying alongside him.

"Any trouble, Paladin?"

"Piece of cake, Colonel. The Nephs didn't even know we were there."

"Nice job. Alright, get those crates back on deck and then catch some down time. You've earned it."

"You're in a good mood, Colonel," Paladin observed, picking up on the Wing Commander's tone of voice. As one of the people who had been responsible for coordinating the Border Worlders' defenses against the Nephilim onslaught over the last few days, Raptor had been under a hell of a lot of stress. They all had. Now, though, he sounded like some of that weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

"What can I say? I caught almost two whole beautiful hours of sleep last night. Or this morning, can't remember which," Raptor said wryly.

"Privilege of rank?" Paladin asked with a smile. As a matter of fact, that was about as much (or as little) sleep as any of the pilots had gotten. The senior pilots, from the Wing Commander to Squadron Leaders and XOs to the flight leaders, had all been out there in the thick of the battle during the last few days. Among the Border Worlders, with their relaxed views of rules and regulations, rank didn't carry the same awe it did in other militaries. To be truly effective, those in positions of authority had to lead from the front. That was one of many reasons why Paladin, as the new CO of the Ghost Warriors, had chosen to lead this recon flight rather than delegate it to someone else.

"Exactly. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

The Retaliators broke away to resume their CAP, and the Arrows continued towards the battle group. As he entered the landing pattern, Paladin realized that the reason for the Wing Commander's good mood was obvious. The Border Worlders had stood alone and apart from the rest of the fleet for the past three days, as they performed the diversionary action that had been so decisive in the battle for this system. The pilots had been forced to be constantly vigilant, in the process pushing their bodies and minds to the limit. It was a vigil they were still maintaining. While the Nephilim had broken off their effort to wipe out the Valkyries, the possibility remained that the bugs might make a last ditch attempt, so the fighter pilots were ready for anything. Very soon now though, the Border Worlders would link up with the rest of the fleet as they prepared for the next stage of this campaign, and the long vigil would finally be at an end.