PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 12 of 66 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
BWS Sicily; Simulator Room
The Nifelheim System
1508 Hours, February 12, 2681 (2681.043)
“I've got two bandits on my six! Cateran,
where are you?" Vincent "Harbinger" Tsu called over the comm. He guided his
Intruder into a corkscrew to the left to dodge the fire of two medium fighters
that Confed Fleet Intelligence had dubbed the Moray. Green maser blasts burned
through space but none struck the shields of his craft.
"Give me a moment," Todd "Cateran" McLaughlin murmured as he lined up on one of the fighters attacking his wingleader. "Almost there... Fox one!" he called as one of his Spiculum Image-Recognition missiles locked onto his target. He pressed the firing key and switched targets to the other Moray, firing a long burst into its rear. The sleek Nephilim fighter shuddered as its shields collapsed and particle gun fire pounded its rear armor. It broke to the right and McLaughlin hauled his Intruder around in a tight turn to follow it. "Draco, finish the other one. He's hurt bad." Indeed the other Moray was trailing smoke and sparks from its engine, as well as less identifiable fluids.
"Can't do it," Dragan "Draco" Emerson gritted. "I'm playing tag with a Manta. Someone give me a hand!" He climbed left as his opponent opened up with its heavy plasma guns, spitting blobs of sickly green energy at him, then dropped his fighter's nose and sent a short burst of gunfire at his opponent. The Manta pitched up to track the Border Worlds fighter even as it raced past.
"I'm on him," John "Bloodhawk" Hawke announced coolly as his Marauder swooped into the Manta's rear arc with the grace of a falcon taking a rabbit. "Break left, Draco!" he ordered as he pumped a long burst from his quad mass drivers into the Nephilim fighter, cutting its shields down to the bare minimum. The Manta broke to the left as sharply as it could, which was probably the stupidest thing it could have done. A Manta could cut the corner much tighter than a Marauder in the vertical plane, but both fighters were equally agile at turning horizontally. Bloodhawk stayed right on his target's tail, peppering its chitinous armor with short bursts from his guns until one of his Javelin heat-seekers locked on. The missile dropped free from its semi-recessed hardpoint and raced after the Manta. "Target destroyed," he advised as the missile blew the Nephilim heavy fighter to pieces.
The yammer of his gunner’s Stormfire suddenly bit into Hawke’s ears. “Bandit on our back!” the gunner called even as he squeezed off another burst. Bloodhawk jinked the heavy fighter even as he glanced at his shield display. The Marauder’s aft shields were down to thirty percent.
“Keep him busy for a few more seconds Bloodhawk,” Danica "Dancer" Owens growled. “Bring it around to the right a little.” The ice-eyed Scrapper did as his wingman asked, ignoring the steady drop of his shields and the maser blasts flying past him. “Got him!” she cried exultantly as a massive fireball erupted behind Hawke’s Marauder.
“And that’s the last of them,” Alex "Storm" Morgan remarked. “All bugs are splattered.”
“Who’d we lose?” Bloodhawk asked, killing the Scrappers’ triumphant mood. His tone betrayed no more interest than someone discussing the latest baseball results.
“Riot, Stardust and Zealot,” Harbinger answered heavily. The sim had pitted nine of the Scrappers against six Morays and six Mantas -- Onslaught and Diamond were busy training a squadron of new volunteer pilots on Avernus Station and Grimlock was still in sickbay after a nasty knock on the head. Against less than two-to-one odds they’d lost a third of their strength. If it had been the real thing they’d be prepping for a funeral as soon as they landed.
“Shit,” Cateran cursed. It seemed to sum up the mood perfectly.
Deep Space, the Nifelheim System
1512 Hours, 12 February 2681 (2681.043)
Lt. Colonel Eddie "Loa" Thibodeaux looked at his sensors, then visually scanned the space around him. One of the first lessons he had learned as a fighter pilot was “Don’t rely exclusively on your scopes.” The Black Lance, with their cloaking Dragon and Excalibur fighters, had given the Border Worlders an object lesson they’d never forget. He had no doubt that the three pilots flying alongside him were doing the same thing. They’d better be or I’ll really give them hell, he thought but he doubted he’d have to follow through on the threat. Most of the members of the 254th Tactical Fighter Squadron were recent graduates of the Academy, and while they lacked experience they were well trained in the basics of fighter combat. Stop thinking about history or pretty soon you’ll be part of it, the squadron leader thought as he guided his fighter over a tumbling chunk of ice.
“Lead, this is Necromancer Three, I have two bogies at extreme sensor range,” a voice cut in, interrupting Thibodeaux’s reverie. Necromancer Three was Lieutenant David ‘Rose’ Thornton, one of the newest members of the Necromancers. After just six months out of the Academy, the young lieutenant had a mixture of reckless daring and cool judgment possessed by the best pilots. “They’re crossing our course at about twenty-two thousand klicks range, speed six hundred KPS.”
Loa blinked. “Check the speed estimate again, Three.”
“Already checked it twice, Lead. I’m as sure of it as I can be in the middle of an asteroid belt,” Thornton replied nervously.
Thibodeaux shared the new pilot’s unease. No fighter in use by the Confederation, the Border Worlds or even the Kilrathi could move at six hundred klicks per second without using its afterburners. And afterburning through an asteroid field was slightly more suicidal than shaving a Kilrathi of all his fur and sending pictures to his hrai.
"Could be some bad guys. Rose, plot an intercept course and let's see what's out there."
BWS Sicily; Flight Wing Briefing Room
The Nifelheim System
1516 Hours, 12 February 2681 (2681.043)
“So what went wrong?” Vincent Tsu asked his fellow pilots. The members of the 349th who had taken part in the sim run were sitting in the briefing room discussing their poor performance.
“We assumed they’d fight by our rules,” Kristy "Stardust" Joyce admitted ruefully. “I took the lead to draw their fire because I thought they’d pair off against you guys. I didn’t expect them to stay focused on me for so long once you guys started taking them on.”
"Seems they used the Morays just to tie us up while the Mantas concentrated on one victim at a time," Sandra "Riot" Lynch commented. "Almost like they considered themselves expendable."
"They probably did," a voice replied from the briefing room's entrance. The seated pilots turned to see Anthony Grimm leaning casually against the doorframe. “One of their favorite threats is ‘This death means nothing! You shall fall!’ Seems like their death really does mean nothing.”
"For Christ's sake, Tony, sit down before you fall down!" Kristy barked. She bolted over to the young blond pilot, slung his arm around her shoulders and guided him hurriedly to a seat. "You took a nasty hit to the head less than twenty-four hours ago. You shouldn't even be up and around yet."
Grimm looked over at Emerson with a faint smirk on his face. "Do me a favor and hit me over the head again tomorrow, buddy. This is probably the only time a pretty woman's run up to me and dragged me away somewhere. I kind of like it." As Kristy gave him a frosty glare he added jokingly, “Show me that you care. Growl for me.”
“Be careful. Her bite’s worse than her bark,” Jack DeVille added from the same door Grimm had entered through. Several of the Scrappers chuckled at Kristy’s expression.
“How’d the training go?” Sandra Lynch asked in an effort to bring the discussion back on track. The grin abruptly vanished from DeVille’s face.
“God, what did I do to deserve those idiots?” the Scrappers’ XO muttered. “Half of them don’t know the first thing about combat flying, and the half that do are a bunch of ego-crazed hotshots who won’t take any advice.”
“Sounds like what people said about us when we started out,” Todd McLaughlin noted. Jack gave him a withering look.
"After their first flight we ordered our twelve trainees to land on autopilot," the blond Major growled as he walked over to where the other Scrappers were sitting. "Three of the little shits went manual."
The big Cabrean shrugged. "Like I said, it sounds like us. Remember Kristy's first landing on the Sicily?"
"Up yours," the strawberry-blond Marauder pilot snapped. McLaughlin grinned unrepentantly.
“It’s a completely different situation,” Paul Onslow cut in as he slumped into a seat. He looked as if he was struggling with exhaustion as well as his temper as he scrubbed his face with his hands. “I didn’t forbid you from trying manual landings when we first arrived because I trust your judgment. These kids don’t have the experience to develop their judgment to that level, but they don't want to admit that."
"You look exhausted," Kristy commented as she walked over to her commanding officer. "When did you start training this bunch?"
"0300. We had half an hour for lunch then another half hour for dinner. We stopped training about fifteen minutes ago," Onslow answered wearily. "Got any stims, Kristy?" he asked hopefully. "I'm too wound up to get to sleep yet so I may as well get some paperwork done."
The Scrappers' unofficial medic cast a critical eye over her boss. “Paul, you need sleep more than you need to do paperwork. I want you to hit the rack until at least midnight -- “
“No can do. Those kids need to be trained before the Nephilim jump in,” the scarred colonel replied. He muttered a quote nearly three quarters of a millennium old. “I can sleep once the war’s over.”
“Crap,” Kristy snapped. “If you start flying while you’re fatigued then you may as well hang a sign around your neck saying ‘I’m over here, Mr. Grim Reaper! Come get me!’”
"If we're stuck with those kids then we won't need that sign," Jack said grimly. He looked over at his commanding officer. "If how they responded to that dumb stunt that Robber's people pulled is an indication, they won't be combat ready in a year!"
"Who's Robber and what did he get up to?" Dragan Emerson asked. "And why are you so pissed at him?"
Paul Onslow slumped back in his chair and closed his eyes. "Robber's one of the Confed pilots helping to train the other squadron of cadets on Thunderbolts. Anyway he was putting a flight of cadets through their paces when he hooked up with a flight of Bearcat trainees -- "
"They're teaching rookies how to fly Bearcats?" Eric Maslevski asked sharply. "We could do a better job -"
"No, Eric," Onslow clarified tiredly. "The Speed Demons from the Anzio and the Mustangs who were flying Hellcats before our meeting with the White Hand are converting over to the Cats. Besides, our Intruders are pretty good anyway." He opened his eyes and looked around at his pilots. "Anyway, Robber and company decided to fly a dummy strike mission against Avernus Station. It wasn't on the schedule, so the station launched a flight of Banshees to intercept them."
DeVille took up the story as Onslow stood up and headed for the coffee machine. "The Bearcats hit full AB and went straight through the station's Banshees." Some of the other Scrappers nodded in appreciation of the Bearcats' tactics. Afterburning head-on straight through a tight fighter formation was one of the most effective ways of breaking it up. "Those dumbasses in the Banshees must have boresighted on them 'cause they ignored the Thunderbolts and kept running after the Cats," Jack continued. "Anyway the Bearcats kept going, and then they saw us. When they spotted the cadets in their Banshees they must have assumed they were the intercept flight's backup."
"So they went barreling through the middle of our pups," Onslow growled. “If it wasn’t Collision Central, it was closer than I ever want to get.”
“Did anyone get hurt?” Anthony Grimm asked, nervously shoving flaxen hair back from his face. Jack shook his head.
“Not for lack of trying,” the handsome Major replied darkly.
Deep Space, the Nifelheim System
1519 hours, 12 February 2681 (2681.043)
"Got'em back on my scope," Loa announced. "Still got a good track on them even with all this -"
"Lead, this is Two, the bogies have just altered course to zero-nine-three relative," Major Hassan "Ghul" al-Khalid, Thibodeaux's executive officer, advised coolly. "Velocity has dropped to three hundred KPS."
"Two more bogies heading to meet them," Lieutenant Miguel "Cannibal" de Leon cut in. "Can't ID any of them yet at this range."
"So let's get a little closer," Thibodeaux ordered. The four Border Worlds fighters shifted course slightly to cut the corner on the unidentified contacts, and Thibodeaux felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Who the hell are they? he wondered as he double-checked that his Intruder was ready for a fight, just in case --
"Madre de Dios! My RHAWS just lit up like a Christmas tree!" Cannibal cried. His wingleader sounded calmer, but not by much.
"Lead, this is Three. We've definitely been spotted by some big-ass radar array,” Thornton reported tersely. “It also looks like the fighters we’ve been trailing are heading straight for us.”
“Okay, here’s how we play it,” the Necromancers’ leader ordered. “Ghul, you and I will go head-to-head with those bandits. Rose, I want you and Cannibal to find whatever’s carrying that big radar. We need to know if it’s Nephilim or not. If it’s a Bug get as much data as you can, then get the hell outta here.”
The Confederation task force was still assisting the Border Worlders in setting defenses at the jump point into Loki, but the mines weren’t activated in order to let the Combined Fleet jump into Nifelheim. If a Nephilim capital ship had managed to slip into the system there was no telling what else had gone to hell.
“We’re right on it, mi Coronel,” de Leon assured his CO. “You know, it could be a recon or SWACS plane for los insectos.”
“Maybe,” Thibodeaux allowed. “Intel hasn’t seen the Nephilim show any sign of SWACS capability, but keep your eyes open. Now get going!” The four Intruders split into two pairs and altered heading to intercept their new targets.
BWS Sicily; Flight Wing Briefing Room
The Nifelheim System
1521 Hours, 12 February 2681 (2681.043)
“We had a lot of near misses until the pursuing Banshees went through us. That was when we had the collisions. Two cadets crunched their planes and the rest were browning their speedjeans and panicking. We did our best to get them sorted out, and then found out one of them had his fangs out for the Bearcats.”
“Lopez,” Onslow growled. “The little shit had switched his guns to combat mode and gone for missile lock.” Most of the Scrappers gaped in shock. Even in the Border Worlds, where rules were more guidelines than gospel, there were some things that just weren’t done.
“Is this guy for real?” Sandra Lynch asked incredulously. “He could end up facing a firing squad for that!”
DeVille shrugged. “Lopez is hard-headed enough that you could strap a heat-seeker sensor to his head, shove a solid-fuel rocket booster up his ass, launch him off a hardpoint as a kinetic-kill missile and have a reasonable chance of scoring a kill.” He scowled. “This kid’s reckless enough to make Maniac Marshall seem as cautious as my old granny.”
“Sounds like what you guys need is to fly with people who know how to fly,” Alex Morgan interrupted. “Beats holding the hands of some brain-dead brats.” He gazed at Onslow curiously. “You up for a sim run with the rest of us, boss?”
A faint grin spread over Onslow’s face. “You’re on. Fire up the sim pods, prep for eleven fighters -- ”
“Make that twelve fighters,” Anthony Grimm interrupted quietly. “There’s no way I’m being left out of this one.” The room fell silent.
"Don't even think it, Tony," Kristy warned. "You're still recovering from that hit to your head -- " The feisty medic abruptly fell silent as the blond rookie raised a warning hand.
"There's a few points you haven't considered, Captain," he began. "One, my mother died when I was fifteen but I'm not in the market for a replacement." Several of the 349th's pilots laughed but Kristy's gaze was locked onto the steely glint in Grimm's pale eyes. "Two, we all need to get as much practice as we can against the Nephilim. Three, this is the best way for you to evaluate my current condition. I'm not risking my Intruder if I conk out but I'm still keeping my skills honed. So unless you get Todd to physically haul me back to sickbay, I'm going on this sim run." He reached into the duffel bag at his feet, drew out his flightsuit and helmet and glanced around at the other Scrappers. "Who's coming with me?"
Deep Space, the Nifelheim System
1522 Hours, 12 February 2681 (2681.043)
“Lead, this is Two,” Ghul advised. “The two trailers are heading towards us as well. The nearest two are moving at six hundred KPS and the trailing two are at five hundred KPS. Looks like they’re going buster.”
“Then let’s return the favor,” Loa growled as he advanced the throttle to the stops. “Nearest bandits are at twenty thousand klicks range. I’m going for missile lock on the leader.”
“I’ll do the same to his wingman,” the urbane Arabic pilot replied even as he armed the missiles beneath his fighter’s wings. His dark eyes narrowed as he focused on his HUD. “They’ve just lit the fires, Loa! Watch yourself!”
Thibodeaux cursed as his own HUD displayed the same data. The two unknown craft had almost tripled their speed, going to sixteen hundred KPS. “Okay, if they want a close-up then we’ll give'em one. Go to 'burners then cover my six.” The Intruder’s engines bellowed like lions as the afterburners hurled the medium fighter into a headlong rush. The two groups of fighters were closing at a speed of three thousand kilometers a second.
“Ghul, split left!” the ebon-skinned pilot barked as he sideslipped his fighter to the right, opening up space between himself and his wingman. Now take the goddamned bait, he thought to himself as he deliberately guided his fighter into a series of clumsy course corrections. Too many new pilots just hit the "Identify Nearest Enemy" button and focused on that opponent until it was blown to bits. Go for the ‘rookie', you bastards. Take the quick shot...
They did. As Loa's Intruder closed on the two light fighters, they eased off their afterburners and rolled ninety degrees. The Border Worlds fighter raced past the two unknown fighters and extended to the right. Both of the smaller fighters pulled unbelievably tight vertical loops and pursued the Necromancers' leader. How the hell did they manage that? Thibodeaux wondered even as he cut his fighter's speed and hurled it into an Immelmann turn. Caught between himself and his second-in-command, the lighter enemies would be little challenge -
"Loa, this is Rose, we need help! We've got multiple fighters engaging us!"
"Talk to me, Rose," Thibodeaux ordered even as he armed his guns and aimed at the glowing dot of the ITTS. "What's going on?"
Thornton sounded frightened but he didn’t seem to be panicking yet. "We checked out the source of the sensor emissions that picked us up and got jumped by four bad guys. They’ve got us padlocked, we’re totally defensive!”
“Have you got the data on that SWACS bird?” the dark-skinned colonel asked even as his finger tightened on the trigger.
“No chance,” Rose shot back breathlessly. “They haven’t nailed us yet but that’ll change as soon as they open fire.”
As soon as they open fire… but that means they haven’t fired yet… oh Jesus! Thibodeaux thought frantically as he reset his comm system to Guard. “Necromancer Flight, hold your fire! Say again, hold your fire!” he roared.
He continued in a calmer voice, “Don’t fire unless you’re fired upon. Remember what happened to the Scrappers yesterday.”
“Yeah, a bunch of Confeds tried dropping the hammer on them,” Cannibal fired back angrily.
“Exactly. Now activate your IFF,” Loa ordered. He punched the button reactivating his Intruder’s transponder and looked at his radar screen. The blips showing the other members of his flight now burned a cool blue even as the other fighters remained an unknown grey. Thibodeaux held his breath as the two light fighters altered course slightly and sped past him. Silence weighed heavily on the comm nets.
“All Border Worlds fighters, stand down,” a harsh voice suddenly growled.
Loa released his breath in a sigh of gratitude -- his hunch had paid off. The bogeys were Border Worlders, just like his own pilots. Although what they were doing way out here was a vexing question.
“Gamma Wing, check in by flights,” the other's voice said.
“Cayuse Flight checking in. Everything’s clear, we’ve identified our two bogies as Intruders with Border Worlds modes and codes.” The Necromancers’ leader checked his sensors to locate the transmission’s point of origin and noticed that it was the unknown fighter he’d locked on to. He craned his neck to get a better look at it as it took up position off his left wing, hardly noticing Ghul forming up on his right. The small fighter seemed to be little more than a stubby angular fuselage with a bulbous canopy and a pair of engine pods attached. The engines didn’t seem to be attached too securely, Thibodeaux noted critically -- they were definitely shifting in their mountings.
"Mongol Flight here. We've got those other two 'Truders locked down tight, boss. They ain’t going anywhere unless we say so,” another voice reported cockily. The jubilant machismo in the new voice, coupled with the stress of the unexpected encounter, pushed Thibodeaux’s temper to the breaking point as he keyed his comm.
“Rose, Cannibal, stay where you are. We’re coming to join you, even if Mongol Lead ain’t gonna say so,” the Necromancers’ leader snapped. The last part was delivered in a voice accurately parodying Mongol Flight’s leader. He snapped his Intruder into a hard roll to port then pulled back on the stick, sending his fighter screaming beneath Cayuse Lead’s fighter.
“Necromancer Lead, come up on 216.7. Now!”
Pushy son of a bitch, Loa thought irritably. "This is Lt. Colonel Eddie Thibodeaux, commanding the 254th Tactical Fighter Squadron. Identify yourself, Gamma Lead."
"Necromancer Lead, authenticate India Sierra Seven One," Gamma Lead ordered coldly. Thibodeaux cursed as he brought up a list of codes on his HUD, wishing the officious nit-picking wanker several hundred agonizing deaths as he did so.
"Gamma, I authenticate Charlie Tango Three Five," the Necromancers' leader confirmed testily. "Now who the hell are you?"
"Major Calvin Tyler commanding the 38th TFS," the flat cold voice replied. "Welcome to one of the most secret fighter testing ranges in the Union of Border Worlds, Colonel. Form up on us and we'll escort you back to the barn."
"All right, Gamma, lead us in," Thibodeaux grumbled as he guided his Intruder towards his two subordinates. Winging past an ice-coated asteroid he finally caught sight of the two Intruders and their escorts, and a startled curse escaped his lips.
The vessel leading the formation appeared at first glance to be a standard R-Type shuttle, but it was lighting up the Intruder’s ESM array like a fireworks display. The sleek radomes extending from the shuttle’s box-like fuselage obviously hid heavy-duty electronic hardware, and the Necromancers' leader would bet a month's pay that the converted shuttle -- probably the SWACS craft that de Leon had spotted -- could put out enough electromagnetic energy that would ensure any children he fathered would have a variable number of limbs. But it was the fighters bracketing his pilots which drew his attention. All four had a long slender fuselage with a sharply pointed nose, reminding Eddie Thibodeaux of the blade of a long sword. The rear quarter of the fuselage melded fluidly with the straight wings, each of which supported an angular engine pod. All four were painted in an ominous storm-grey color scheme and bore the winged-star-and-moon of the Union of Border Worlds on their wings.
They looked as swift as lightning and as deadly as hell's wrath.
They'd look like they were at full speed even when they're sitting on the flight deck, Loa thought in wonder. But Confed only just put the Vampire into production.
Where in hell did we get these things? He swallowed nervously even as he formed up with Rose and Cannibal. What in God's name have we stumbled into?