: “ Check and Mate ”




Aboard Shrike 502 "Cavalier Five"
Same Time

Oh shit… Rubio thought to herself. Over the communications frequency, she called, “Cavalier Lead, Lima-Golf, we’ve got a pair of big boys inbound against the attack group!”    

Now free of the necessity to hold a constant course and heading, Rubio brought her nose up, the rest of her group following, lining up on the corvette coming over the top of the now-dead cruiser.    

She selected her stormfire cannon, lined up, and depressed the trigger. “Section two, take that corvette out!”    

Green energy blasts in groups of four began screaming through space, coming dangerously close to the left-most bomber in the formation, and then hitting it, punching through its shields almost immediately.    

The rest of the formation opened fire, but the Shrike took another series of hits, and dropped out of formation.    

Rubio selected a Dart DF missile, and depressed the trigger, sending the missile roaring towards the corvette, which took the impact directly on its already-weakening front shields. A series of other missiles rose from the bomber formation, a mix of Pilum FF and Dragonfly RP rounds, all of which hit the corvette, which came out of the explosion with its forward end shredded, but still coming inexorably pushing towards the bomber formation.    

Rubio let fly another dumbfire round, switched to her Dragonfly pods, and continued firing, as did the rest of the formation.   

And then, from the formation’s ventral axis, came another series of shots, from the second corvette.    

“Lima-Golf, we’re in trouble here!”    

In response to the call, four of the Arkrunners broke away from the dogfight taking place with the interceptor screens of the combined Nephilim group, which they had been miraculously holding back. But before they could arrive, another bomber fell out of the formation, then attempted to climb back in… and exploded, taking its crew with it.    

The four Tigersharks streaked in, Dragonfly rounds streaking from their pods like an avenging angel, ripping into the corvette’s aft one after the other, battering down the shields and then into the hull of the attacking Nephilim corvette. Despite all the corvette could do, writhing in space like a serpent lifted by its tail, the hybrid capital ship-fighter exploded in a furious volley of the rocket projectiles. The Tigersharks then whipped back around to rejoin the furious melee that included almost every Squid interceptor the Nephilim fleet had. Already, three of the Arkrunners and two of the Hammerheads were in trouble, their fighters trailing vapor and small bits of debris.    

“Cavalier Fourteen, what’s your status?” Rubio called, asking for the survivor of the first corvette attack, whose attacker had exploded scant seconds before its compatriot from below had.    

“Core’s in the yellow, forward armor’s gone, flight control’s sluggish, and weapons are showing damage. All missile weapons are still good, shield generators, sensors, and life support are fine,” came the reply. Cavalier Fourteen was one of the original members of the squadron, rather than one of the Endeavour’s survivors.    

Rubio had a difficult decision to make. The bomber was clearly damaged, trailing debris and sparks, with scoring engulfing the forward half of the fighter, but she needed every bomber she could get her hands on, damaged or not, and the torpedoes that bomber was carrying could make all the difference against the second objective… if they went for it.    

“Five, Lead! Get your section out of the fighter coverage now! The Hammerheads are going to cover, while the Arkrunners draw the enemy fighters out!” came Karpoff’s voice.    

“That’s affirmative, Lead. Bravo section, on me, turn one-eight, max afterburner!” Rubio replied, ordering her six surviving bombers out to the edge of the combat zone.    

As soon as they turned, it seemed, the enemy fighters that had been engaging the Arkrunners broke through the thin line of fighters, and began swarming towards the bombers.

“All pilots, release mines now!” Rubio called. “Gunners, orient aft keep them from getting close -- ” Rubio began.    

She was cut off as one of the two Retaliators roared over her fighter, with bare meters to spare, its tachyon cannons lighting up space with their rounds.    

“Jee-eezus!!!” She heard her top gunner exclaim as the fighter roared overhead. She ducked as the wingman passed over, its weaponry likewise blazing.    

She shook her head. It had been a risky move, the Retaliators’ pass, diving directly through the bomber formation and risking the turret fire, but it had interposed the Retaliators and (she checked her scope) Colonel Alvarez, who were now engaging the enemy, their combined firepower slowing the assault down long enough for the rest of Yorktown’s fighters to close with the Squids, turning two dogfights into one.


Retaliator 001 (Reaper One)
At The Same Time 

“Anyone ever tell you discretion is the better part of valor, Colonel?” Alvarez asked wryly. The pass through the bomber formation had been hair raising to say the least, but it had kept the Nephilim off balance long enough for the Confederation fighters to reach them. 

Raptor smiled slightly. “They trained me to fly Thunderbolts, Colonel. We had to take the direct route more often than not.”  

The Nephilim might have been momentarily shaken by the counter-attack, but they quickly regrouped and came back at the Confederation forces in strength. The destruction of the cruiser had provided the Nephilim with ample evidence of threat posed by the Shrikes, and they were determined to eliminate that threat once and for all. 

Fortunately, though, the Nephilim still hadn’t mastered the art of fighting as a united force, even after all these weeks of battling the Combined Fleet. They fought as a swarm rather than as a military formation, united in intent and purpose, but with each small cluster of fighters doing its own thing. Squids and Morays streaked ahead of the rest of the formation, while the heavier Mantas lagged behind instead of using their deadly firepower to support the attacks of their lighter brethren. Similarly, the enemy aces in their powerful Devil Rays hunted as individuals rather than supporting the weaker fighters and in turn being supported by them. It was just as well. Nephilim technology was as good as that of the Confederation, and they certainly had the advantage of numbers. If they had used their advantages to the full, they could easily have over-run the human forces. 

As it was, the lighter Nephilim fighters at the leading edge of the attack paid a dreadful price, burnt down by the massed cannons of the Retaliators, Panthers and Tigersharks. Unlike humans though, and unlike even the Kilrathi, the Nephilim didn’t let such losses deter them in the slightest. New fighters simply moved forward relentlessly to replace those that were killed or crippled, constantly forcing the human pilots to push themselves and their machines to the limit simply to keep up.  

For their part, the Confederation pilots refused to give way, meeting everything that the Nephilim threw at them head on. Raptor couldn’t help admiring their discipline. Border Worlders didn’t fight this way. They relied on surprise and ambush, using every trick they could think of to stack the odds on their favor. They avoided this kind of drawn out engagement because they were smart enough to realize that they weren’t suited to it. Confed pilots knew that they were, and that self-belief kept them going in the face of the Nephilim onslaught. 

With the Squids and Morays momentarily beaten back, the Mantas and Devil Rays were now at the forefront of the assault. Raptor could see that the Confederation fighter pilots were more than capable of holding of the Mantas. The Devil Rays though, were faster and more maneuverable than any of the Confederation. They were also faster and more maneuverable than the Retaliators, but the Border Worlders had the advantage of auto-tracking guns. With a quick order to Frost to stay on his wing, he broke off to engage the closest of the Devil Rays.


Aboard Vampire 117 "Grendel Lead"
Same Time 

“Three, break right!” Rosencrantz called.    

The Devil Ray that had been bracketing the third member of his flight was momentarily thrown off by the maneuver, giving Rosencrantz time to bring his weaponry to bear and trigger off two quick salvoes, which chewed into the aft end of the Devil Ray, but didn’t kill it. The elite pilot of the alien fighter threw it into a series of evasive maneuvers that Rosencrantz, despite the agility of his fight, was hard-pressed to match.    

Luckily, it seemed the fight was still not leaning towards a Nephilim victory. Despite the fact that they had superior numbers, the Nephilim had been unable to use them to great advantage, as only a small number of their fighters had been able to meet the Confederation strike force initially. The fighters of Yorktown’s wing had fought viciously, trying to keep the numbers down to manageable levels and prevent the Nephilim from swarming the under. While there were fewer kills made than there had been in the previous three fights which the Waltzing Matilda’s fighters had participated in, damaged enemy fighters were unable to continue the fight.    

And the fact that the torpedo bombers had just destroyed a cruiser and a corvette, and were now able to maneuver to defend themselves, if not act as the aggressors, also helped to balance things out.    

“Lead, Devil Ray, on your five o’clock, high!” came the voice that Rosencrantz recognized as Grendel Nine, First Lieutenant Carson. He broke hard right, rolling the Vampire and then pulling the stick in to his chest, using the fighter’s variable-geometry thruster pods to best advantage, triggering the afterburners at the same time, creating a fishtailing effect that threw off most of the Devil Ray’s shots. Those that hit him didn’t penetrate his shields.    

Then, suddenly, the Yorktown’s fighters faced a lessening of opposition. Rosencrantz wasn’t sure why… and couldn’t take the time to check, as he was still engaged with the Devil Ray, which was making an incredible nuisance of itself.    

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the pair of Retaliators, moving from low right to high left, drive trails glowing with their use of afterburner, their tachyon cannons blazing, autotracking the Devil Ray as it attempted to outmaneuver Rosencrantz.    

The alien ace never had a chance; it exploded, leaving behind a cloud of rapidly dispersing fragments and vapors.    

He looked around… and realized that the enemy fighters had broken off their attacks, instead massing just inside the maximum range of the Nephilim capital ships’ defensive weaponry, while the Yorktown’s flight wing re-formed just outside missile range.    

“Squadrons, check in and tally up your losses,” came Alvarez’ voice.    

“Feline squadron, two damaged, no losses,” came Carter’s voice.    

“Grendel Squadron… three damaged, no losses,” Rosencrantz reported after a brief scan.    

“Cavaliers, two damaged, one lost,” came Karpoff’s voice.    

“Arkrunners, five damaged, one loss,” Garza chimed in.    

“Sindri Stars, no losses, three damaged,” called Martinez.    

“Black Dragons, three damaged, no losses,” came the voice of Major Tyler "Tap" Olson, commanding officer of Endeavour’s, or what had been Endeavour’s, first Panther squadron.    

“Hammerheads, two damaged, no losses,” called the leader of the surviving Tigersharks from the Endeavour.    

Rosencrantz felt his jaw hit the bottom of his oxygen mask. Two losses and approximately twenty fighters damaged in trade for a cruiser and the fighter kills they’d managed to rack up? Was that all?    

“Squadron leaders, I want a defensive formation for the moment. Grendels, Felines, Black Dragons, and Arkrunners interpose themselves between the enemy formation and the bombers. Sindri Stars and Hammerheads, take station ahead and behind at eight thousand klicks.” 

“Grendels, you heard the lady,” he called out as the other eleven Vampires formed up on him, a pair of them showing battle damage.


Aboard Panther 100 "Lima-Golf"
Same Time    

Alvarez had a difficult decision to make.    

The enemy carriers were still undamaged… and most of her torpedo bombers still had heavy weaponry to unload. The problem was, attrition was beginning to take a toll. Almost a quarter of her fighters were showing damage of one type or another, and missile stocks had been greatly reduced. Then there was fatigue, which was sure to be setting in after the vicious fight the flight wing had just emerged from…

… but they had to do more than inflict what they’d managed to upon the enemy. They had to force a choice upon them.

She looked at her sensor displays, searching the enemy formation, looking for something…anything that might be a weakness that she could run through to get to the core of the enemy force: The pair of Leviathan-class carriers.    

Her eyes lit upon a pair of yellow dots, mines that had been released by the Cavaliers in their mad dash away from the enemy formation’s interceptors --     

Alvarez drew in a sharp breath.    


It might work.    

“Cavalier Lead, do your people still have mines loaded aboard?” she asked.    

A few seconds later, Karpoff’s voice came back. “Yes, ma’am.”    

She smiled. “All right. We need to inflict some damage on the enemy force. Cavaliers, Arkrunners, Hammerheads, you’re with me. Grendel Lead, you have command of the rest of the wing. As soon as we’re clear of sensor range, I want you to try and draw some of the enemy fighter cover out of position, attacking from this side. I want you to knock back their numbers and get their attention. Try not to take casualties, but I need their fighter screen out of position for an attack from the starboard side of their formation. Reaper Lead, you stay with this group as well. We need as many of their fighters here as possible.”

She waited to get the acknowledgements from each of the squadron leaders, then brought her Panther around. “Arkrunners, Hammerheads, Cavaliers, come to course -- ” she paused, quickly checking her navigational displays for the appropriate numbers, “ -- zero-zero-five, z-plus seven. Assume EMCON and go to maximum speed.”


Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)
At The Same Time 

“Frost, run a full power radar sweep of those fighters, and target the aces for missile launch," Raptor ordered, as he did the very same thing. Alvarez’s wing was almost clear, and the Nephilim were closing in. 

”Copy, Colonel.” 

”Colonel, care to let me in on what you’re doing?” Major Rosencrantz inquired. 

“Colonel Alvarez wants us to draw as much attention as we can. The Nephilim have fought Retaliators before, and they know just how much damage we can do in a missile duel. I doubt they’ll ignore us when we light them up."

”Just the two of you?” 

”They won’t know that. Especially not if your fighters form around us and launch missiles at the same time we do.” 

“I like it,” Rosencrantz said with a grin. “Grendels, form up alongside the Reapers and prepare missile launch.” 

What Raptor was counting on was that the Nephilim commanders, or their hive mind, or whatever the heck it was that did their thinking for them, would have processed just how much damage the Reapers and Starkillers had done to the Nephilim attack waves during the battle for Loki. The STORM fire control system aboard the Retaliators was capable of tracking dozens of targets simultaneously, and at the same time selecting and attacking targets in rapid succession with the fighters’ guided missiles. It also allowed Retaliators to share information through data-link, allowing entire squadrons to coordinate their missile launches, and create a deadly gauntlet of missiles for any attacking force to run. Just as importantly, the system allowed Retaliator pilots to selectively overwhelm enemy aces, Squadron Leaders and Wing Commanders with a barrage of missiles. No pilot, no matter how skilled or determined, could hope to evade a dozen missiles coming from half a dozen different directions. Of course, that depended on having a critical mass of Retaliators to launch those missiles, and they didn’t have that critical number. They were going to bluff, and hope to outwit the enemy. 

Smoke and mirrors. Trickery and deception.

Raptor smiled slightly. Now, this is how Border Worlders fight. 

He watched his radar screen carefully, almost holding his breath. He exhaled slowly as he saw first a few, and then more, and then even more of the enemy fighters broke off and accelerated towards them. They were buying it.


Aboard Panther 101 "Feline Lead"
Same Time

Carter waited anxiously as the bombers and their escorts accelerated out beyond sensor range of the rest of the wing, which also meant that they were beyond Nephilim sensor range. Carter wondered just what Alvarez had up her sleeve this time. 

Above and slightly ahead of his squadron, where Rosencrantz had ordered them to take station, were the two Retaliators. Carter found himself once more admiring the fighters, and, most of all, their ability to inflict damage upon the enemy. They’d certainly savaged a fair number of enemy fighters in the punch-up the wing had just been in, and the fight wasn’t even over. 

Carter checked his status. His fighter had taken some damage to its fire control sensors, but the auto-repair systems were repairing the damage. He was down to just under half of his afterburner fuel, which meant that he’d have to be very careful at this point… and he was down to only a trio of missiles, one Spiculum IR and a pair of Pilum FFs. It didn’t give him much left in the way of armaments… but then most kills weren’t made with missiles. On the other hand, if one looked at how quickly missile stocks had been used up this campaign --

“Lead, this is Four! I’ve got a pair of bandits, Devil Rays, coming in at three o’clock, on burners! Looks like four Mantas behind them!” called the fourth member of Carter’s flight.    

The enemy targets were less than twenty seconds from missile range. Carter keyed his communications system, but was cut off as Rosencrantz’ voice filled the frequency. 

“Grendels and Reapers, engage. Felines, stand by to engage as soon as the fight is joined. Black Dragons and Sindri Stars, you’re going to backstop those fighters,” called Rosencrantz. 

The string of acknowledgements took less than five seconds, and immediately following them, the Vampires and the Retaliators peeled out of the formation and screamed towards the oncoming bandits. 

Carter watched as the two forces collided, and then space lit up with missile propellant trails and different-colored flashes of light as the groups opened fire. He carefully monitored his sensors, waiting for the slightest indicator that the Nephilim were going to attempt to jump into the dogfight with more fighters. 

Twelve Morays peeled away from their own defensive patterns and accelerated towards the dogfight less than ten seconds after it had begun. 

“Felines, that’s our cue! Target the Morays, keep your speed up, and stay with your wingmen! Break and attack!” Carter called. 

Using the incredible yawing capabilities of the Panther, he snapped his fighter around and triggered the afterburners, his wingman right behind him.  

He targeted the leading Moray light fighter, which was so badly outclassed by the Panther that it was almost laughable… until Carter noticed that another wave of fighters, Manta heavy fighters, had accelerated in immediately behind the Morays. Checking his rear sensors, he saw that, in response, the Black Dragons had broken away and were accelerating to meet that attack, leaving only the Piranhas of the Sindri Stars unengaged.

And opposed by over two dozen Stingray fighters, all operating in groups of three, ready to group up at a moment’s notice. 

Carter snapped his attention back to his attack run, rushing headlong into the fight, placing three salvoes of fire directly into the nose of the leading Moray, blowing the fragile fighter into a distant memory.

Glowing green streaks of energy flashed past to either side, sparking against his shields as they grazed him as he maneuvered slightly left and right. His wingman managed to score a second kill in their pass, and then they were among the oncoming Manta heavy fighters, outnumbered but not out of options. 

Carter continued his headlong charge, electing to force the Nephilim into disarray rather than attempt to turn and engage one of them at a time. Chances were that two or more of the Nephilim fighters would drop out of their formation in an attempt to engage him…

…and four Mantas dropped out of their own charge for the main body of the dogfight, electing to hit Carter and his wingman before joining in the fracas. 

Carter swore under his breath. “Two, stick with me. Time to rack up some numbers!” 

Instead of running, he turned and charged directly at the enemy, opening fire, spraying the lead Manta with weapons fire. His wingman focused the weapons of his craft upon the same Nephilim fighter, and it exploded in a cloud of incandescent green gasses, through which both Panthers passed. 

Now, the odds were three-on-two. 

Carter locked his fighter into an autoslide, gunned the afterburners, and whipped his fighter around to fire at the now-exposed backs of the Nephilim fighters, punching off one of his last three missiles, a Pilum FF, which shot out into space, slamming into the after shields of the Nephilim heavy fighter. A burst of weapons fire immediately followed that, followed by one from Carter’s wingman, shredding the aft end of the Nephilim fighter, and apparently damaging its control systems sufficiently to prevent it from returning to the fight, because as the remaining pair of fighters brought themselves around, the damaged fighter made no move to alter its trajectory. 

Two down, two to go, Carter thought. 

“Lead, I’ve got a problem! Devil Ray, coming in, two o’clock low!” called Carter’s wingman. 

Carter triggered his afterburners, breaking out of the autoslide, and speeding towards the Devil Ray, ignoring the lead Manta as the lesser of two evils -- 

And flinched as the Devil Ray exploded under a barrage of ion cannon and laser cannon fire, along with a missile. 

Through the debris roared a pair of Piranha scout fighters… which then engaged a Stingray cluster with streams of stormfire rounds.


Aboard Piranha 133 "Sindri Star Lead"
Same Time 

Martinez, meanwhile, was engaged in a fight to the death with four Morays… against her alone. Her wingman was engaged with a Manta and two more Morays, and it was all they could do to keep their tails clear. 

Left… right… left… left… down… the flight stick seemed to move of its own accord, squeezing every last bit of maneuverability out of the agile fighter, using every angle as a new obstruction between the fighter’s shields and hull and the enemy’s probing weapons. 

Martinez looked left and right over her shoulders, glanced at her sensors, and swept the full field of view afforded by her canopy with her sharp eyes, taking in every angle, every reading, every opponent and every ally. 

She threw her fighter into a snap-roll so tight that her inertial dampeners were unable to totally compensate, and she felt the blood rush to her head, her vision going slightly red at the edges. The Moray lost ground, but she still had not completely shaken him… or his wingman. Directly ahead of her was another pair of Morays, maneuvering left-to-right across her field of vision. Taking a chance, she lined her nose up and sprayed ion and laser cannon fire out into space, at the very least, delaying the two Morays’ return to their attack on her. 

Then, across her field of vision flashed her wingman, trailing a thin stream of vapor, the Manta and a single Moray in hot pursuit. Rolling her fighter, and pulling the stick in to her chest, she reefed her fighter into a turn directly behind the two Nephilim fighters. 

She selected her last missile, another Javelin heat-seeker, and locked onto the Manta heavy fighter, then depressed her gun trigger, lighting the shields of the heavy fighter up with flare after flare of greenish light as one burst after another plowed into the heavy fighter’s shielding. 

The tone sounded, and she punched the missile off. 

The missile tracked straight and true, slamming home against the already-weakened shields of the heavy fighter. She sprayed the now-exposed and damaged stern of the fighter with her full bank of frontal weapons, even shifting momentarily to her stormfire cannon. The Nephilim ship exploded like a balloon popped with a pin, the explosion consuming it and blowing pieces of debris no larger than a marble outwards. 

“Two, a little help here!” she called as her pursuers lit up her aft shields, reminding her that she too was a target.

 “On the way, Lead!” He called, his own fighter neatly reversing direction and screaming directly overhead, weapons blazing, passing so close to Martinez that she ducked out of reflex. However, the pass had the desired effect: All four Morays that were chasing Martinez scattered, one of them exploding.

 The dogfight swirled all around the two Piranhas, fighters trading fire, missiles streaking through space, decoys snapping brightly to life in clouds of chaff and flares, calls for help and orders to maneuver being sent back and forth. 

Still, the number of kills was surprisingly low, as the Nephilim reeled from the losses out of proportion to their numbers, and attempted to stem the vicious offense offered by the human fighters, while the human fighters were now being very careful about who they shot at, not wishing to hit an ally by accident due to the almost-even number of fighters swarming through space, at speeds too fast for one to get anything but a brief glimpse at. 

And then, a series of explosions rippled through space… at the tip of the Nephilim capital ship formation. A single destroyer began to fall out of formation at the lead, while another series of explosions erupted, engulfing a Barracuda-class corvette in a literal cloud of explosions. Suddenly, Nephilim weapons batteries at the opposite side of the formation began opening fire, clouds of green streaks being fired into space. 

Martinez wondered what was going on. 

Then she caught a look at something on her sensor screens. 

Roaring in from the front of the formation, from the cloud of what appeared to be Porcupine mines that had just activated, were the Arkrunners, releasing all of their remaining Dragonfly RPs in an attempt to… what? The Arkrunners couldn’t do all that much damage… could they? What wasn’t she seeing? 

Her fighter jolted forward as more rounds impacted her now-thin shields, and she jerked her fighter into a series of short but rapid climbs, descents, and left and right turns, occasionally rolling the fighter slightly. 

She couldn’t afford to watch what was going on, but… Porcupine mines? Where had those come from? The only ships that carried them… 

…were the Shrike bombers of the Cavaliers! 

The Nephilim fighters couldn’t break off the engagement, not without taking heavy losses, to combat the new threat forward. A single group of eight Squid interceptors raced forward from their position from within range of the Nephilim gun batteries, to try and counteract the threat from ahead. 

Martinez smiled. The Colonel had them.


Aboard Shrike 501 "Cavalier Lead"
Same Time

Karpoff knew that only God and his NFO could see the grin that split his face from ear to ear, but didn’t care. The Nephilim had been caught with their proverbial pant down around their ankles. Alvarez had used the main force of Yorktown’s fighters as a diversion, then created a second diversion directly ahead of the enemy formation, giving them only one "clear" direction to turn towards… and that was directly towards the Hammerheads, the Cavaliers, and Alvarez herself, away from the mines. Whatever decision the Nephilim CO made, he was in trouble. 

And right now, with all of his available fighters committed (the low number of which surprised Karpoff), the bombers had nearly a clear shot at one of the carriers. 

“All right. We’ve got not fighters to worry about, but turret fire’s going to be heavy. Keep together. Remember, the objective is to damage the enemy carrier. We want his crippled and the Nephilim forced to protect their asset. Clear? First run is with light torpedoes only. Second group, hang back and get a lock from range, but only fire if we don’t manage to connect with the target. Clear?” Karpoff called out. 

“That’s affirm, Lead,” came Rubio’s voice. 

Karpoff’s smile only grew. With the support of Rubio now, things had been made much less tense within the Cavaliers, and the squadron was made even more tight by the recent addition of combat-seasoned pilots from the Endeavour. “First group, on me!” he called, accelerating in at full throttle. 

Once again, the bombers formed up in a formation designed to optimize the bombers’ offensive and defensive capabilities. The Shrikes streaked into the enemy formation, moving past a destroyer whose intense firepower dropped the shields on two of the bombers, forcing them to trade positions quickly with another pair of bombers, which they did, with great efficiency, luckily enough for the formation. Nearly a solid wall of green energy was rising from the enemy fleet, whose fighters were out of position and could not engage. 

Karpoff found himself giving grudging respect to the aliens, who, it seemed, had made the difficult choice to leave the capital ships to fight on their own rather than cause grievous losses to their now-more precious fighters by ordering them to break off the from engagement they were in. 

Karpoff winced as an alien round smacked loudly against his shields, making them flare brightly. He reminded himself that he needed to pay more attention to fighting the enemy, and less to attempting to understanding them.    

The brackets of the lock-on continued to close around the target as Karpoff attempted to lock onto the engines.    

“Cavalier Four, torpedoes away!”    

Looking to his left, he could see the Hellfire heavy torpedo accelerate away from the Shrike, riding a stream of blue flame.    

“Cavalier Nine, torps away!” was the call echoed moments later.    

The enemy carrier, now beset by enemy from an unexpected direction, attempted to turn into the oncoming torpedoes, to minimize its cross-section and perhaps throw the torpedoes off. A Nephilim corvette made a vain attempt to ram one of the incoming torpedoes, missing it by mere meters, it’s main weaponry spraying fire across the torpedo’s line of flight.    

Karpoff found himself holding his breath…    

…until, with a brilliant flash, the torpedoes detonated against the primary shield generator for the Leviathan.    

His own Valiant light torpedo signaled a lock-on with it’s high-pitched chime mere seconds (though it seemed hours, due to the heavy volume of fire pouring forth from the Nephilim capital ships) later.    

“Cavalier Lead, torpedo away!” he called out.    

“Cavalier Two, torpedo away!”    

“Cavalier Three, torpedo launched!”    

“Cavalier Ten, torpedo running!”    

Karpoff found himself again following the torpedoes with his eyes, as deadly green bolts of energy snapped and flashed across space.    

“Fighters, coming in, directly above! Looks like Squids!” called the dorsal turret gunner.    

Karpoff swore. One of the cruisers or destroyers must’ve launched these late-comers, committing them to battle only after Alvarez’ plan had become clear, as an ace-in-the-hole.    

“Group Two, engage!” came Rubio’s voice.    

Karpoff again found himself grinning. Rubio, in true headstrong fashion, was taking torpedo bombers in to engage interceptors… and she had a damned good chance of pulling it off, if the Nephilim went for the most threatening group… his.    

“Gunners, clear to engage! Make them focus on us so Silence’s section can take them by surprise!” Karpoff ordered.    

Immediately, the laser turrets on all of the torpedo bombers lit up space, sending coherent energy "downrange" towards the oncoming enemy fighters, in an attempt to draw their attention away from Rubio’s half of the squadron, bearing down on them at full afterburners.    

“Impact in three… two… one…” the NFO next to Karpoff sang out.    

Karpoff looked at the engine section of the carrier just in time to wish he hadn’t. The blinding white flash of four antimatter warheads going off created small spots within his field of vision, a cause for momentary concern.    

Ahead, the Leviathan’s engines began to flicker, pieces of the cowling spiraling off, small streams of fluid and gas began venting into space.    

The massive vessel began to fall out of formation, slowing rapidly as its engines damaged themselves further in their continued operation. Quickly, the Nephilim formation began to slow itself, maintaining a defensive screen around the stricken vessel. A Hydra-class cruiser closed rapidly, adding, at close range, its own defensive batteries to the carrier’s, followed by a pair of Barracudas. This small group of warships interposed their massive bulk between the torpedo bombers and the wounded carrier.    

“Lima-Golf, Cavalier Lead, target is crippled!” Karpoff called out.    

“Copy that. Break off your attacks immediately, and proceed to point gamma at best speed. Break. All fighters, this is Lima-Golf, the target has been scratched. Break and return to point gamma.”    

As it turned out, this was easier said than done.    

Karpoff and his squadron turned around to face the oncoming Nephilim Squid interceptors, which were being picked off one at a time by Rubio’s group.    

Karpoff selected his Dragonfly pods, and opened fire, punching out one rocked after another into the heart of the enemy fighter squadron. Similar streams of rockets, combined with weapons fire of three different types, converged on the Squids. In the massed fire, the Nephilim interceptors couldn’t hope to survive long… but their pilots couldn’t simply allow the Shrikes to run amok through their fleet.    

In less than half a second, the Squids split into four different directions, hoping to draw the bombers into a dogfight that they would assuredly lose.    

Instead, Karpoff’s flight punched straight through the hole that their maneuver created, accelerating under the full power of their afterburners, the laser turret gunners spraying shots in all directions to ensure that the enemy’s ability to maneuver was impeded unless they were willing to take damage.    

Which some of them, apparently, in the form of a wing of Manta heavy fighters, were willing to do. Twelve fighters screamed at the bomber formation from ‘above’, plunging straight towards the Shrikes at full afterburner, their yellow drive plumes flaring brightly against the stars.    

“Top gunners, let ‘em have it!” Karpoff called out. “All pilots, watch your backs! Hold this course on full burner for five seconds! That should put us outside their screen!”    

Every Shrike pilot triggered their afterburners within half a second of one another, and the formation of bombers shrieked through the opening, with Rubio’s fighters forming up as they penetrated the outer screen. On the mission debrief, it would seem like a textbook maneuver, with one group of fighters holding open an escape route for the other.    

Then, from in front, spraying weapons fire in the opposite direction the bomber formation was travelling, came the Arkrunners and Hammerheads, their Tigershark fighters forming a cylinder of weapons fire around the Cavaliers, which the Cavaliers’ own tail, top, and belly gunners filled with scarlet streaks of laser cannon fire. As the bombers passed through the Arkrunner/Hammerhead formation, the Tigershark multi-role fighters looped over and fell into formation around the bomber group.    

All of this took place in a space of less than five seconds, which brought a grin to Karpoff’s face.    

It left him with no doubts that the men and women he was flying with were the best he’d ever have the privilege to lead. He only wished that it were under better circumstances… and that there hadn’t been so many lost because of those circumstances.    

He shook the thought off. He had to focus here and now, or else he’d be one of the people being mourned… along with members of his command.    

From behind, the remaining Mantas, those that had survived the devastating barrage laid down by the Tigersharks, came screaming towards the bombers in hot pursuit, determined not to let the Confederation fighters get away.    

“Cavaliers, Lead. Anybody who’s got any mines left, punch them off now!” Karpoff called.    

It was only eight mines that were deployed from the formation of bombers, but it was enough to let the Confed bomber group and their escorts gain some ground, and with a bonus: One of the nine fighters exploded under the direct impact of a Porcupine mine that it didn’t have time to dodge. Another took light damage, because of the speed at which is left the mine’s blast radius.    

Four down, eight to go…but it looked as if those fighters would be living to fight another day. The Mantas, unexpectedly, peeled off and assumed a heading that would bring them back to the Nephilim carrier group and its escorts.    

Karpoff checked his scope, and found that everybody who had made the attack on the carrier’s engines was still with them.    

Thank God for small favors, he thought.


Aboard Vampire 117 "Grendel Lead"
Same Time

It only took a few minutes at full afterburner for the Confed fighter formation to pull away from the suddenly cautious Nephilim task force, with remarkably little trouble when the Confederation fighters had attempted to break free. It seemed that Alvarez’ trick had put the Nephilim on-edge; they were suddenly unwilling to be lured into any more traps, even after the main trap had been sprung. Alvarez had managed to put the Nephilim, for all of their vaunted power, on the defensive.    

“Grendels, this is Lead. Everybody check in,” Rosencrantz called.    

Rosencrantz listened to the litany, and was very surprised to find that nobody further had been killed, though one of the Vampires was reporting severe damage and the pilot was having flight control difficulties. Rosencrantz himself gave the crippled bird a visual inspection, seeing the melted and peeled sponge armor, the carbonized bare metal and exposed mechanisms beneath it, and the small vapor trail indicating a possible fuel leak. One of the engine pods was slightly askew as well, which meant that the pilot had to constantly compensate with the undamaged engine pod.    

“Jesus, Matchlock. Looks like you’re going to get the award for ‘bird most bent’ this time around. I’ve only seen one or two in worse shape, and one of those was the Shrike that ate the Yorktown’s flight deck the other day. How are you doing physically?” Rosencrantz said.    

“Scared, boss. I really don’t want to try putting this thing down. I’ve got a slight oscillation in the controls, one of my APUs isn’t functioning, so I’m getting little power drops, and I’m not going to have any burner fuel to speak of by the time we get back to the Yorktown,” replied William Carson, flying the damaged fighter, Grendel Nine.    

“Good to know you’ve finally picked up some humility, Nine. Nice to see I’ve rubbed off on you,” came the call from Rosencrantz’ wingman, "Dagger" Bardzini.    

“Aw stow it, Two,” Carson shot back.    

Rosencrantz grinned. That’s it, keep him cool, Dagger, he thought.    

The bomber formation and Alvarez joined up without incident, though several of the Shrikes looked badly damaged as well. Rosencrantz hoped it was just cosmetic.    

“Okay. How’d we do?” Alvarez asked.    

It turned out that the strike force had lost not further fighters, though at least seven fighters would be out of action after this strike, in addition to the two already lost.    

Rosencrantz checked his nav display, and was surprised to find that the strike group was almost at the turning point.    

“Sindri Stars, illuminate and make sure we’re not being shadowed,” came Alvarez’ voice.    

Rosencrantz’ ESM gear lit off as four of the small scout fighters lit off their over-powered sensor arrays, sweeping space for any signs of a trailing hostile seeking to follow them back to their base.    

“Got something, Lima-Golf. Two hostiles, sixty-two thousand klicks back, pacing us. Sensor profile suggests Morays,” came Martinez’ voice over the frequency.    

“Anybody get enough burner fuel to take them and get away?” Alvarez called.    

“Affirmative, Lima-Golf. Just say the word,” came Carter’s voice.    

“Sindri Stars are good to go, Colonel,” Martinez said.

“All right. We’re almost to the split-off point for you and the Reapers anyhow, Feline Lead. Here’s how we play this: Sindri Stars, you’ve got the speed to nail these guys, so four of you go after them, then meet up with us… at these coordinates. Make sure you’re not being followed. In thirty seconds, Feline Lead and his wing and Reaper Lead and his wing will split off and head for your destination. Sindri Stars, you’ll engage and destroy the trailers, then link back up. Feline Lead, I assume you’ll be returning with information that we’ll need. Godspeed until I see you again,” Alvarez said.    

“That’s affirm, Lima-Golf,” came Carter’s voice.    

“Sindri Star Lead copies. Good luck, Feline Lead,” Martinez’ voice came through. “Sindri Stars, prepare for break.”

“Lima Golf, Reaper Lead. Been good working with you. Colonel. We’ll see you on the other side,” Raptor said, keeping it vague just in case the Nephilim were listening as. As wildly successful as it had been, this strike was only the beginning. 

“All fighters… break!” Alvarez called.    

The formation split into one large and two smaller pieces. As Rosencrantz watched, the pair of Retaliators broke formation, followed immediately by the two leading Panthers in the Feline’s formation. Immediately, another pair of Panthers moved forward to take the lead positions in the formation.    

“Good luck, Major,” Rosencrantz said to himself. He also watched the four Piranha scout fighters break formation and streak away, riding glowing blue cones of light as their afterburners were pushed to full power.


Aboard Panther 101 "Feline Lead"
Same Time    

“All right, Two. Keep it tight. We don’t want to get lost or separated. Reaper Lead, we’re your wing,” Carter said. 

“Feline Lead, Reaper Lead. Glad to have you along, Major. Accelerate to 450 KPS and match our course.” Once again, no point in being specific. They would change course during the flight, but they didn’t want the Nephilim getting even a general position for the Valeria. 

The four fighters altered course and accelerated towards their destination, home to two of the pilots and unknown territory to the others. The first stage of cooperation between battle groups Rapier and Valkyrie was complete, but much more hard work and plenty of dangerous missions lay ahead.