PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 23 of 66 )

: Scraps of Honour
PART 10 OF 15 : TEMPERING THE METTLE
( 1 / 2 )


 


BWS Sicily; Flight Wing Quarters
The Nifelheim System
0643 Hours, February 13, 2681 (2681.044)

You have got to be bullshitting!" Jack DeVille looked as stunned as if he'd been ordered to marry the Altairian Consul-General's daughter. "Who the hell came up with that idea?"

"It's not an idea and it's not bullshit," Paul Onslow replied patiently for the third time. "It's orders. Has your hearing gone to hell?"

"No, but I think someone's sanity has," the Scrappers' XO shot back. "I mean, we're to attend a frigging Valentine's Day party with a bunch of Confeds?" he asked incredulously. "I mean, it's so... so juvenile!"

"Far too juvenile for you to participate in," John Hawke agreed sarcastically. "Your time is spent in far more productive pursuits such as boozing and brawling at the Wild Hart." DeVille shot him an incendiary glare.

"What's the difference?" Dragan Emerson asked as he finished toweling his hair dry after a quick shower. "We get together with a bunch of people we barely know, get absolutely drunk, start bragging and lying and probably end up in a punch-up that wrecks the place. Sounds good to me." Onslow gave him a weary look.

"If you want to get shitfaced and start boasting then that's fine, but try to go easy on the fighting, okay?" the Scrappers' leader asked. "The whole idea is to have a good time, let off some steam and try to build up the camaraderie with the Confeds, so take it easy. Remember that they're fighting for the same thing that we are."

"God, glory, and the chance to kill anyone who's not one of them?"

"John, we're not talking about Zealot's forebears," Alex Morgan answered wryly, ignoring the furious glare Eric Maslevski shot at him. Several of the pilots in the room chuckled.

"All right, that's enough," Onslow snapped. "We'll be heading over to Avernus Station at 1600 tomorrow, so try to be clean and tidy by that time. No dress uniforms," he added to forestall any howls of protest, "but I want you to look decent."

Sandra Lynch raised her hand. "Are the patrol schedules going to be  adjusted to handle the slack while we're booming?"

"The squadrons based on Avernus will be handling BARCAP around the two task forces. Yesterday the Necromancers made contact with a testing station in the system's outer reaches. The station's squadrons will keep an eye on the jump point to Loki, and should give us enough warning to get to the sober-ups." The Colonel smiled wolfishly. "If not, there's always the green goop."

"Oh joy," Todd McLaughlin muttered.

"Do you prefer the idea of flying around drunk?" Onslow asked innocently. His grin broadened at the Cabrean's crude response, then it faded as he turned back to his squadron. "One more thing. Nobody brings any weapons aboard the station. I'm going to check before we leave for the station, just to make sure that nobody 'forgets'." The emphasis on the last word let the Scrappers know that their boss wasn't messing around. "Alex, that includes your concealed knife and that backup laser derringer you have."

The ex-privateer assumed a look of wounded innocence. "What makes you think I'd cause trouble in a get-together with another squadron?"

"Hey, how about the incident with the Marines during that training assignment on Orestes?" the Colonel shot back. Alex scowled.

"What happened?" Danica Owens asked, interest showing on her face.

Jack DeVille grinned impishly. "It was before you joined us," he reminisced. "Soon after we formed we were rotated to the Orestes training complex to hone our dogfighting skills. Anyway we were teamed with a Marine Corps squadron flying Vindicators like us, and we got on fairly well with them. They decided to have a movie night one night and we got invited." The blond major glowered at Morgan, who had sunk deeper into his seat, trying to avoid notice. "Little did we know that Alex had gotten to the guy who had their vidchips."

"What did you do to him?" Anthony Grimm asked Alex curiously. The grey-eyed Scrapper ran a hand through his dark hair and rolled his eyes.

"I made a swap with him. You wouldn't believe how valuable vids and tunes from the twenty-first century are," he explained to his comrades. "Once I scored enough spares to build an Intruder from scratch in return for two twen-fir-cen vids and a flight jacket from the First Persian Gulf War."

Grimm nodded, unsurprised. "I know how much demand there is for antique stuff out there. So what did you do to freak everyone out?"

"Like I said, I set up a swap with the Marines' scrounger. I gave him Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Babylon 5: Thirdspace. What I didn't know was that he was that he was going to play it at the roll'em that night." Alex winced in memory and ignored the broadening grins of the other Scrappers. "Otherwise I would've been more careful."

"All right, what did you do?" Emerson asked. Curiosity was keeping the two rookies on the edge of their seats, and Dani's attention was apparent. Even John Hawke's normally expressionless features showed a flicker of interest.

A look of cunning stole across Alex's lean features. "The chip I gave the Marine had the Indiana Jones title on the label, but he didn't bother previewing the program. Bloody rube," the former privateer commented, pausing to take a drink of coffee.

Vincent Tsu took up the story. "So that night we showed up at the O-club all set for a quiet night at the movies. What we got was a small-scale war when they turned the holoprojector on." The ex-InSys pilot sighed, memoirs of the HomeGuard front far from memory. "I guess we should have taken the hint when Alex bolted for the exit."

Grimm raised his eyebrows slightly as he took a sip of coffee. "Let me guess, Alex. It wasn't Indiana Jones on the chip," the lanky blond pilot surmised. At Alex's reluctant nod he asked, "So what was on the chip?"

The ex-privateer's face flamed scarlet as he finally muttered the answer, "Pokemon 2000." A shout of laughter filled the Scrappers' quarters. "Well I didn't know he was going to play it that night!" he protested, leading to further amusement.

"So that's why I want you to keep it relatively tame," Paul Onslow concluded. "By tame I don't mean sober or restrained. I mean don't start a war with the Confederation, okay?"

"Party pooper," Kristy Joyce mock-sulked. She folded her arms and thrust out her lower lip in a pout, then her face assumed a more serious expression. "Some of us have patrols to fly at 0700 so we'd better head down to the flight deck. Catch you on the strike run, all." With that farewell the fiery medic headed for the door. "Coming, Alex?" she asked her wingman as she walked out the door.

"Right behind you," he reassured her as he finished his coffee. As he walked towards the corridor a high-pitched voice piped up behind him.

"Pika, pika!"

"Shaddup!" Alex snarled at he stalked out of the barracks, doing his best to ignore the laughter behind him.

 

BWS Sicily; Flight Deck
The Nifelheim System
0651 Hours, 13 February 2681 (2681.044)

Alex was walking through the maintenance bays to his Marauder, shifting his helmet in his hands, when he felt someone grab him by the shoulder. He whirled to face his attacker and found himself standing face to face with Kristy Joyce. "We need to talk," she said curtly. Alex nodded and followed her to the shelter of a nearby fuel truck.

"What's on your mind?" he asked.  Kristy gnawed nervously at her bottom lip before answering.

"Dani," she finally replied. A faint grin spread over Alex's face as his eyebrows rose.

"Damn, I had no idea you swung that way!" he joked. His wingleader scowled and punched him lightly on the shoulder.

"Knock it off, you deviant. This is serious." The scowl faded from Kristy's face as she returned to her original train of thought. "Some Confee pilot's trying to get into Dani's pants and she's convinced he's just misunderstood, not the sleaze that he really is."

Alex shrugged. "Let's be honest, Kris, can you think of any TAD we've been assigned where someone hasn't tried cracking on to Dani?"

"This is different," Kristy objected. "She's not giving him the cold shoulder. Hell, I saw him off and she tore strips off me for doing so! I'm just looking out for her!"

"She's an adult, she's mentally competent and she's got her own life. You can't keep her wrapped in cotton wool forever," Morgan shot back. His voice softened. "Look, I know you've got protective urges due to your medical training but Dani's built a life for herself. Let her live it."

"Part of the Hippocratic Oath is to do no harm," Kristy replied quietly. "I don't want her to get hurt through my neglect."

"People get hurt every day. It's a part of life and you've done your share of it." The dark-haired Scrapper raised his hand as his friend started to hotly deny his allegation. "Remember when those pirate Rapiers hit us back at Bishop's Crossing just after John and Dani arrived? Remember how Todd took a chunk of shrapnel that tore his leg up and you had to regen his whole calf muscle?" At Kristy's slow nod he continued his explanation. "Remember the physiotherapy you had to put him through and the way he bitched about it?"

"Kind of hard to forget it," she commented wryly as her lips curled into a faint grin. "Especially with a voice of his volume." Many times the "discussions" of McLaughlin's therapy had escalated into blazing arguments between doctor and patient, at a volume which hadn't required a PA system to be heard throughout the entire base.

Alex laughed. "I know what you mean. Remember how he'd complain about the leg exercises you made him do to help the muscle regrow and make sure it wouldn't atrophy?"

"Uh-huh."

The smile faded from Alex's face. "It's the same thing with Dani. You had to run the risk that Todd would suffer pain in order to make sure that he could walk again, and Dani's taking the chance that she'll get hurt in order to get on with her life." The Scrapper's grey eyes were intent as they bored into his wingleader's green ones. "People go through it every day. All we can do is be there if they need us to help pick up the pieces."

"So you're saying we should let her make her own mistakes," Kristy replied
flatly.

Alex didn't bat an eye. "Most people do.  But if it makes you feel any better, I'll make anyone who hurts her wish they were never born. Good enough?"

"It better be."

 

Deep Space, Nifelheim System
1006 Hours, February 13, 2681 (268.044)

"So how'd the patrol go?" Onslaught asked the returning flight. The Scrappers' other two flights had launched from the Sicily a few minutes ago and the squadron was heading towards the Sicily's sister ship Anzio. There they would rendezvous with a group of Bearcats and a flight of Jaguars from the Arnhem, a flight of Avengers from the Anzio and several cadet Thunderbolts from Avernus Station. "I hope you've got a good reason for getting back here so late," the Scrappers' CO continued.

"We ran across a few bogies in the outer asteroid belt," Harbinger explained. "At first we thought they were just worker pods, or possibly small freighters at long range but we thought we'd better check them out anyway. We caught up with them and found a pair of Orion transports who were decidedly twitchy as soon as we mentioned customs checks at Avernus. They tried rabbitting but we persuaded them to stay put and behave."

"Persuaded?" The irony in Onslaught's voice was heavily laced with amusement.

"Just a warning shot or two across their bow," Tsu confirmed. "Very close across their bow. Storm kept quoting some twen-fir-cen vid for some reason."

"Fire a warning shot across her nose," Storm cut in. "I said across her nose, not up it!" Several guffaws sounded over the comm net.

"Will you stop that?" the former ISS pilot asked in exasperation. "It's not like I hit them or anything!"

"Yeah right!" Stardust snorted. "I supposed those blue flashes on their shields when you shot at them were just random ionization?"

"That's enough, people," Onslow warned. "We've only got a few minutes until we're due to rendezvous with the other squadrons. Make sure that your ordnance is safed and your guns on practice mode - we don't want to get busted for doing what the confees did to Grimlock."

"If we did decide to pop some other pilot like they tried, you can bet we'd make sure we did it right," Dragan Emerson shot back cockily. "We'll stay frosty, sir." Other pilots of the 349th echoed his sentiment even as Harbinger's flight slid neatly into formation.

After a few minutes the Sicily's fighters had the other escort carrier on their sensors. In the cockpit of her Marauder Sandra Lynch frowned. "I've got the Anzio on my scope," she warned. "Looks like our friends are
here already."

"Give me a tally, Riot," Onslaught ordered sharply. His Intruder's sensors couldn't detect the swarm of fighters which Riot was reporting, and no pilot likes being in the same area as potential hostiles while unable to detect them.

"Identifying... okay, I have a quick breakdown of the force. They're our guys all right. Eight Thunderbolts, four Avengers, four Bearcats and six Jaguars. The gang's all here," Lynch concluded.

"Not quite," Dancer cut in. "We've got a bogey coming in from dead astern at five hundred KPS, range sixty-five thousand klicks. Looks like an Excalibur."

"Scrappers, prepare for Immelmann on my mark. Let's find out who this is," Onslaught growled. "Two... one... mark!" The twelve Border Worlds fighters executed a half loop en masse and rolled upright, adjusting their course to close in on the lone Excalibur. At fifty thousand klicks the lone fighter's pilot hailed them.

"Just because I'm a Wing Commander doesn't mean I need an honor guard wherever I go," Colonel Jack "Samurai" Tanagawa joked. The Scrappers' leader breathed a sigh of relief.

"Colonel, what the hell are you doing out here?" he asked. "I didn't know you were part of this exercise."

"Originally I wasn't," Tanagawa agreed. "But rank does have its privileges as well as its responsibilities, and I was able to get three of the Excaliburs from the Arnhem cleared to participate. Let's just say that I want to get used to being in the cockpit again." And see if I still have what it takes, he thought to himself.

"This is gonna be hairy," someone murmured. Onslaught didn't recognize the voice but he silently agreed. Despite the fact that this was only an exercise the Border Worlders would be pushing themselves to the limit, and no doubt the Confed force would be defending themselves with equal vigor.

The scar-faced squadron commander smiled mirthlessly. Of course the mission would be risky and difficult. After all, if it was easy then anyone could do it.

 

Scrapper Six, Nifelheim System
1030 Hours, 13 February 2681 (2681.044)

"IP. Running in."

Storm lined up his Marauder on the rapidly-expanding outline of the escort carrier TCS Miles D'Arby. At this range he could see the Confederation warship without the aid of his fighter's sensors, even with Nifelheim's sun at his back. The hackles at the back of his neck were standing as rigidly as Drakhai on parade.  It had taken the strike force half an hour to locate the escort carrier but they hadn't found one single Confederation fighter in that time. Some of the Jaguar pilots from the Frostreavers Squadron were making jokes about the Confees being afraid to show up, but the ex-privateer didn't believe it for a second. He'd been a combat pilot for long enough to realize that if something looked too good to be true, then usually it was. So where the hell are the D'Arby's fighters, he wondered. The Thunderbolts tasked with SEAD hit their afterburners for a few seconds to pull ahead of the main body of the strike force in order to lock their HARMs onto the D'Arby's quiescent turrets. And that was when everything went to hell.

"Holy Christ! Bandits, bandits dead ahead!"

"They're launching missiles! Speed Demons, go evasive but support your wingmen! Break!"

"Oh Jesus, the decoys aren't working! Dammit -- "

Even as Storm thumbed off a pair of decoys to confuse the single phantom missile hunting for him, he glanced at the tactical display on his fighter's HUD. At least a squadron of enemy fighters had emerged from the other side of the D'Arby's hull and had cut loose at the approaching strike force with a volley of simulated ImRecs. Whoever's leading that squadron's got a beautiful sense of timing, the former privateer admitted grudgingly to himself. The Thunderbolts were still suppressing the carrier's defenses, which left them in the crossfire between the Confed and Border Worlds forces. While the Confederation fighters could fire with near impunity, the Border Worlders had to take care not to hit their own SEAD planes.

Cursing which would have made a Marine gunnery sergeant blush suddenly erupted over the Scrappers' comm net. Alex glanced at the tactical display just in time to see the blips representing Stardust's and Cateran's fighters suddenly change from blue to green. Goddammit! If this was for real then they'd both be free-floating ions! The simulated deaths of two of his best friends left him numb for a moment, then a grim determination filled him. Maybe I'll get chewed to bits in this fire-fight, but I'll give the bastards some broken teeth to remember me by! "All right, smartass," he growled as a Confed Excalibur raced towards him. "Let's rock!"

 

Scrapper Nine
Inner Asteroid Belt, Nifelheim System
Approximately the same time

Bloodhawk bared his teeth as he put his Marauder into a steep dive. A pair of Bearcats were on his tail, peppering away at his aft shields even as the Border Worlder savaged an Excalibur with a volley of mass driver fire. The scream of his gunner's Stormfire filled his ears even as he followed the Excalibur through a vertical break and chopped at its shields with another burst of gunfire. The Marauder's capacitors dipped deep into the red even as the lock tone chimed, and Bloodhawk smiled coldly as he fired a virtual Javelin heat-seeker.

The Border Worlder squinted as a cloud of lights appeared in front of him. Although they weren't using live missiles, the fighters were using real decoys. After all, pilots had to get used to the sudden glare that modern decoys produced -- a flashblinded pilot was a dead pilot. Hawke muttered a curse as his missile was confused by the decoys and went wild.

"Our aft armor's getting chewed up, sir," Corporal Sam Burke, Hawke's gunner, reported tensely. "C'mon, do some of that pilot shit!" The ice-eyed Captain barked a succinct order to his gunner.

"Hang on!"

Slamming the throttle to idle, Bloodhawk spun the fighter into a barrel roll even as he dumped a half-dozen decoys. The evasive maneuver simultaneously killed his forward velocity and scattered the decoys all across his pursuers' line of sight. Even as he rolled into a perfect zero-angle firing position behind the lead Bearcat, its erratic movement told him that the pilot was dazzled. The Marauder's guns, now fully recharged, spat simulated fire into the Confed fighter's shields and the missile lock tone chimed once again as another heat-seeker locked on. Bloodhawk let the missile fly, this time impacting the target. A green blip replaced the Bearcat's red one, signifying a kill.

"I've got your trailer, Bloodhawk," Dancer announced coolly as she opened fire on the second Bearcat which had been pounding Bloodhawk's Marauder. The Confederation interceptor hit its afterburners and raced unsteadily away. Dancer ignited her own burners and followed it in hot pursuit, but not before she had attracted the attention of yet another Bearcat. Bloodhawk spared a swift glance for his tactical display before screaming into a high break and opening up on the offending fighter, but the display brought him no comfort.

Even with the losses they'd inflicted, the Border Worlders were still fighting for their lives. I just hope the cavalry gets here in time, he thought as he plunged back into the maelstrom.

 

CONT...