PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 24 of 66 )

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


 


Backlash Three
Inner Asteroid Belt, Nifelheim System
Approximately the same time

Colonel Jack "Samurai" Tanagawa reefed his fighter into a sideslip to the left even as the F-103 Excalibur on his tail fired another burst from its tachyon cannons. This guy's good, he thought to himself. On one level the Confed pilot's skill was reassuring to the Sicily's Wing Commander -- the more skilled pilots the combined reserve force had, the better they'd all fare against the Nephilim. On the other hand, the fighter pilot in him wished that just maybe this particular flier would let his game slip a little.

"Maneater, where are you?" he asked his wingman even as he barrel-rolled his own Excalibur to evade his pursuer's fire.

"Clobbering your trailer, sir," Major Michelle "Maneater" Ross responded. Even though she was a Confederation officer, Ross was flying this mission on Tanagawa's wing to evaluate the performance of the Border Worlds pilots she'd helped convert over to Excaliburs. She wasn't used to flying on anyone's wing, having commanded her own squadron for a number of years. However playing second fiddle to the senior wing commander of the entire task force wasn't all that much of a step down, and Samurai and the other two members of Backlash Flight certainly seemed to have adapted well to the ex-Confederation fighters. A few more days and they might be up to the same standards as my people, she thought as she opened fire on Samurai's attacker. Her lips curved in a wry smile as she held the trigger down and followed her target through an evasive scissors. I'm shooting at one of my own squadron to protect a Border Worlds pilot. Who would ever have thought it?

"Glad to hear it," Tanagawa announced. "You know, I'm getting really tired of playing follow-the-leader." With that brief warning he autoslid the big fighter, sending it flipping end over end until he was flying tail-first. Still moving in his original direction of travel, Samurai waited for an instant until the Excalibur's autotracking system locked onto his attacker before opening fire. All four tachyon guns and the two reaper cannons burned lines of destruction to their target. The Confederation fighter jumped like a scalded cat but both Excaliburs continued to pour on the fire. Their target's blip faded from red to green as it "died," but they weren't out of the woods yet. A Thunderbolt zoomed in behind Maneater's fighter and cut loose with full guns. "Break right!" Samurai snapped to his wingman even as he disengaged his autoslide and raced back in the direction he'd come from.

Maneater needed no urging. She'd already flung her Excalibur into a hard bank, barely dodging the Thunderbolt's "Sunday punch." Although slower and less agile than the Excalibur the "lead sled" was tough and had massive firepower for such an old fighter. Of course firepower was no use if it couldn't be brought to bear, as the Thunderbolt pilot was finding out the hard way. However his shots were coming closer and closer to the leader of the Black Knights. "Time we had a face-to-face, my lad," Maneater growled to the pilot of the heavy fighter as she flipped her own craft end over end and cut loose. The Thunderbolt pilot appeared to accept the challenge and matched her shot for shot, until Samurai's fire ripped into him from the flank. The cumbersome fighter attempted to break clear of the twin torrents of energy but was caught by the pair of missiles fired by the Sicily's wing commander.

"Overkill is a confirmed kill," Tanagawa remarked over the comm. "You all right?" he asked his wingman.

"I'm fine. My shields are coming back up to full strength," she reported. "How about you?"

"Same here." Tanagawa frowned. "Y'know, I didn't think there'd be Thunderbolts on BARCAP. They're too slow."

"They usually aren't," Maneater agreed absently as she studied her fighter's sensors. "The D'Arby's still launching the rest of her fighters, and it looks like someone's decided to do something about it. What say we give them a hand?"

Samurai took in the situation at a glance. The Confederation and Border Worlds fighters were swarming like a hive full of bees around the Avenger torpedo bombers closing in on the Miles D'Arby. However a pair of Border Worlds craft had managed to slip past the Confederation cordon and had planted themselves squarely in front of the little carrier. Even as the Border Worlds colonel watched another Thunderbolt launched from the D'Arby, only to be engaged by one of the obstructing fighters. He opened a comm freq to his flight leader.

"Warhawk, this is Samurai. What's the Mean Machines' status?"

"They're fine," Major Leanne "Warhawk" Porter, leader of the 92nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, responded tersely. The 92nd, better known as the Gunslingers, were the UBW squadron which had been hastily converted from Banshees to Excaliburs. "We've got three Intruders, two Jaguars, four Bearcats and four Marauders flying HAVCAP on the Avengers with us. The Confees are pushing us but we can deal with'em."

"Got it," Tanagawa replied crisply. "We're busy elsewhere. Catch you later." Ramming his throttles all the way forward he aimed his fighter towards the rapidly-growing furball in front of the Confed capship. He ignited the Excalibur's afterburners and casually asked Maneater, "You coming?"

"Coming? I'm not even breathing hard yet," she replied tartly even as she afterburned to keep up. Her voice changed abruptly to a businesslike tone. "Looks like two Thuds and two Cats gang banging a 'Truder. Don't know why his buddy isn't backing him up - whoa! Sorry, man, but you're toast!" Indeed the Intruder's transponder signal had faded from blue to green, and the Thunderbolts had turned their attention to the other Border Worlder. A pair of yellow dots sprung into existence on sensor screens and MFD/HUDs even as the fighter began frantically jinking. The pair of Thunderbolts dodged the virtual missiles with contemptuous ease, and all four Confederation planes replied with a volley of their own ordnance. The Border Worlder never had a chance.

Tanagawa swore softly even as the Border Worlds fighter "died." "Let's get'em," he ordered Maneater harshly.

Ross didn't reply for a second, then she spoke hurriedly. "Colonel, that last fighter -- I don't think it was shooting at the Thuds when it fired those missiles! I caught some sensor data and I think it was a Marauder - "

" -- and Marauders pack torpedoes!" Samurai answered excitedly as he studied his sensors. The simulated ordnance hadn't gone ballistic or tried to pursue the Confed fighters in the area.

It was headed straight for the D'Arby.

That poor brave bastard must have been waiting for torpedo lock and the perfect angle, Tanagawa thought admiringly of the Marauder pilot. With the carrier's turrets mauled by the Border Worlds SEAD strike, the D'Arby's crew could do nothing but watch the oncoming "torpedoes" and brace for impact. The Sicily's wing commander watched as the two yellow dots closed, then merged, with the D'Arby.

The D'Arby and her sister ships were built of much sterner stuff than the escort carriers of the First Kilrathi War and, with a skilled damage control crew, could probably survive a pair of torpedo impacts. The problem was that the torpedoes were coming from dead ahead and their antimatter warheads would have detonated on the unprotected flight deck. Tanagawa had served on carriers for quite a few years -- more than he liked to admit - and was well aware of just how dangerous explosions and fire on a flight deck were. Even without armed and fueled fighters ready for launch, flight decks have supplies of fuel and ordnance close at hand. Secondary explosions were a constant danger, no matter the safeguards in place, but the Miles D'Arby could probably have survived the damage.

What she couldn't survive was the impact of any more torpedoes. The four Avengers of the Mean Machines had launched their full loads almost simultaneously, and even with her full armament available it was doubtful if the capship could have weathered the hellish storm. With most of her turrets out of action due to the SEAD strike she didn't have a prayer. Her pilots tried, of course, but they were caught on the horns of a cruel dilemma. If they continued engaging the Border Worlds fighters they condemned their carrier to fiery destruction. On the other hand, if they tried shooting the torpedoes down, they exposed themselves to the fire of those same Border Worlds fighters. In the end it didn't matter. The Confederation fighters were burned down by the Border Worlds strike force and eleven torpedoes tore into the D'Arby's side, obliterating her utterly.

Tanagawa finally let out a long-held breath as the fighters of both sides began reassembling into their original formations. His comm vidscreen lit up, revealing a man in a rumpled Confederation Navy uniform with commodore's insignia. "Congratulations, Colonel Tanagawa," he said calmly. More calmly than any man who just had his ship shot out from under him had any right to be, Jack thought. Either the Confee was arrogant enough to dismiss the Border Worlders' victory as a fluke or he had ice water in his veins. "I really didn't expect your people to win," he admitted. "They did well."

"Thanks, Commodore, but Pyrrhus won battles too," Tanagawa replied. Two Marauders, three Intruders, a single Bearcat, four Jaguars and three Thunderbolts -- one third of the entire strike group -- had been "killed" in the savage battle. "We've still got a way to go before we're as good as I'd like. Anyway, could you let your people know that they really gave us a run for our money?"

A broad grin split the Confederation officer's face. "Consider it done."

"Thanks. Well it's time for me to gather up my little lost sheep and get the flock outta here."

 

Inner Asteroid Belt, Nifelheim System
1113 Hours, February 13, 2681 (2681.044)

"You know, I think we've watched this for long enough. What do you say we pack up our bat and ball and head for home?"

Kristy Joyce rolled her eyes. "Alex, we're stuck here until we get the chance to bounce some Confed fighters as payback. That's the orders the boss gave us, because we're the only fighters with cloaking devices who got shot down. Now quit whining like a five year old, okay?"

"Blow me," Alex Morgan growled.

"Why, are you trying to hack into a Defense Department computer in sixty seconds?" Kristy giggled.

Alex grinned. "Girl, you've seen that old Swordfish vid way too many times."

"What can I say?" the Scrappers' medic shrugged. "That Jackson guy was really cute."

"His name's Jackman, not Jackson," Alex corrected. "And if you think he looks good in Swordfish then you should see X-Men and its sequels."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. He spends a fair part of it brawling in a black leather bodysuit."

"Now we'll have to strain to hear ourselves think over the static," Galen O'Brien piped up.

"What static?" Alex curiously asked Kristy's gunner.

"From the Captain drooling into her helmet mike," O'Brien chuckled. Laughter sounded over the comm net for a few seconds.

"Heads up," Stardust announced suddenly. "There's a pair of Thunderbolts on a landing run, eleven o'clock low at fifteen thousand klicks. Let's bounce'em, buzz the carrier and head for home."

"Sounds good, but maybe we should take the pair of Bearcats six thousand klicks behind them," Storm replied coolly, then grinned as his wingleader cursed. Both their fighters had their cloaking systems active, making their sensors much less effective. On the other hand, they were almost invisible to the Confederation fighters' sensors.

"Okay," Stardust agreed after her vitriol had run its course. "We sneak up behind the Bearcats, nail 'em with Javelins, then we go after the Thuds. Let's get in position." The pair of Marauders cut their velocity to let the interceptors cruise past them, then slid into position behind them. Stardust selected a pair of Javelin heat-seeking missiles and waited until the lock chime sounded in her headphones, then opened a comm to her wingman. "Ready?"

"Master Arm switch is safe but I'm locked on," Storm answered. "Let's give them something to remember us by."

"Go!" Stardust ordered even as she decloaked. She had a perfect firing position a thousand klicks behind one of the Bearcats, and smiled coldly as the missile lock tone chimed. "Fox One, shithead!" she growled to her target, just as if she'd really launched the missiles locked onto the Bearcat.

Stardust glanced at her HUD to track her wingman, and a startled curse escaped her lips as she spotted Storm's fighter. A thousand klicks was extremely long range in atmospheric combat but was considered knife-fighting range in space. However that wasn't close enough for Alex. Christ, he can't be more than three hundred klicks behind his target, Kristy thought in horror. That wasn't knife-fighting range - that was the range of claws and teeth!

Both the Confederation fighters broke away from their pursuers, but their pilots knew that the Marauders could have fired their heat-seekers right up their tailpipes if the engagement had been for real. The Border Worlders hit their afterburners simultaneously and sped after the pair of Thunderbolts that had been their original targets. The pair of heavy fighters split up and ignited their own afterburners, no doubt yelling for help, which was the worst thing they could have done. On full burners the Thunderbolt only gave up a two hundred KPS speed advantage to the Marauder, which wasn't all that much in space combat. However their maneuver had let the Border Worlders cut the corner and close the range even more, before the Confed fighters decided to make a beeline for their carrier.

Storm bared his teeth in a cruel smile as his target's glowing engines expanded in his HUD. Let's see, he thought. The Thuds are just over five thousand klicks away and the enhanced mass drivers Confed put on the Marauder have a range of forty-two hundred klicks, so they should be in range right about....now! As if on cue the ITTS lit up, projecting its "shoot-here" circle directly over the Thunderbolt's rear turret. The Border Worlds pilot obligingly pulled the trigger, activating his gun camera. "Sayonara, sucker," he growled.

"Storm! We've got four Excaliburs heading straight for us and I don't think they're delivering candygrams," Stardust barked. "Stay on AB and come to heading zero-one-six by three-four-niner. We should be able to get to the flattop before the Excals get us."

Alex cursed even as he hauled his Marauder onto the new vector. Stupid bloody brain-dead gimboid! he berated himself. You focused on the Thud, lost your SA and got boresighted just like Draco did in Seggalion! Don't do it again! "Let's go say hello to the D'Arby," he told his wingleader. "Luke, I want you to keep an eye on the scanner and let me know as soon as the Confeds get within fifteen thousand klicks of us."

"Copy," Sergeant Luke Evans, Alex's gunner and RIO, replied tersely. "I've got them at twenty-two thousand klicks, five hundred KPS closure. Whatever you've got planned, you'd better do it fast."

"We're doing it," Storm shot back. "Stardust, I don't think we'll have time to get a torp lock on the carrier before the CAP nabs us."

"Neither do I." The fire-maned flight leader paused for a few seconds then asked her wingman, "Do you remember the maritime strike they flew in that twen-cen novel Red October? I say we go with that."

"Gotcha. We've got maybe twenty seconds to reach the D'Arby -- "

" -- and ten before the CAP hits the fifteen K mark," Evans cut in. Alex heard the whine of the gun turret's servomotors as his gunner gave the Stormfire a trial rotation within its mounting. The minuscule vibration of his Marauder's engines seemed to merge with his own accelerated heartbeat as he flew towards the Confederation carrier. The young ex-privateer quickly calculated velocity and vectors and came to a single conclusion.

"Stardust, the Excals are gonna catch us right on the carrier's doorstep," he announced grimly.

"Snuggle up behind me and set your shields to full rear arc," Joyce ordered. "We've only got one shot so we'd better do it right."

Storm double-clicked his mike in acknowledgement as he eased his fighter's nose right behind the Stormfire turret of Stardust's Marauder. I sure hope that Galen's got that thing safed, he thought as he mirrored his leader's minute shifts in vector.

"Bandits in missile range!" Luke called sharply. "Switching to anti-missile mode!"

"Gotcha," Stardust replied. "Storm, roll left on my mark. Two, one, mark!" The two Marauders rolled out parallel to their course, as precisely as if they were flying an aerobatic display rather than combat maneuvers. "Hit it!" Both Border Worlds fighters skimmed just above the carrier's top deck, bracketing the superstructure perfectly between them. Their decoy ejectors trailed clouds of flares and electronic noisemakers along the length of the little vessel's hull before they zoomed past the engines, vanishing into the thruster wash. The radiation and ionization from the D'Arby's engines would cause trouble for the Marauders' electronics, but anyone trying for a lock on the Scrappers would have an even harder time than usual.

Kristy laughed wildly as she keyed her comm to the Guard frequency. "Second-line flyers, my ass!" she crowed. "It's been fun, D'Arby, but we've gotta dash. Ciao!" With that final cheap shot the Marauders shut down their afterburners, engaged their cloaking devices, and vanished. Ever since the Terran Confederation and the Union of Border Worlds signed the Treaty of McAuliffe less than a year ago, the Union's armed forces had been officially designated as Confederation reserve units. As a rule even Confed's regular reserve units tended to look down on the Border Worlders, and Border Worlds militia and reserves were regarded with even more contempt. So, even with the two task groups beginning to work together and trust each other, nobody could really pass up a chance to thumb their nose at the other side.

 

BWS Sicily; Lounge
The Nifelheim System
1251 Hours, February 13, 2681

Anthony Grimm stared moodily into his cup of almost-cold coffee, as if he was waiting for it to answer the most profound riddles of the universe. He was caught so deep in brooding that he barely registered the person taking a seat at his elbow. He certainly didn't expect the comradely slap on the shoulder that the person gave. Startled, he turned to see Hermann "Mongrel" Stucke's broadly grinning face.

"So you haven't gone to sleep on us," the Confed pilot commented. He shoveled a forkful of mixed vegetables into his mouth as he awaited the Border Worlder's answer.

Grimm shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I was just... thinking."

"About the exercise? I heard that you took some heavy losses but still won."

"Yeah, we lost a third of the strike package but still managed to put the D'Arby down," Grimm commented. "I wonder if it would have been worth it if it'd been real," he said softly. Mongrel nodded.

"I know what you mean, mein freund. In military terms, losing a dozen fighters to destroy an enemy carrier is a great deal," Stucke advised. "But when those dozen fighters are flown by your friends it becomes hard to think in purely military terms, nicht wahr?" At Grimm's nod the German pilot asked, "So did you make it out alive?"

The young Border Worlder shook his head. "Nah, I got bushwhacked by a pair of Bearcats and that was all she wrote. Still at least my wingleader made it through okay, and managed to dust one of the Cats that got me."

Stucke nodded. "Bearcats are verdammt good fighters, even if they take a lot more maintenance than almost any other plane. If you had a pair of them on your six then it's auf wiedersehen. You should spend a bit less time watching your leader's six and a bit more watching your own," he told the young Border Worlder. Grimm bristled.

"Look, my job as a Dash-Two is to watch my leader's six," he growled. "I know there's plenty of jokes in Confed about Border Worlders' lack of discipline, but when we're given a job to do we get it done! What you're asking me to do is dereliction of duty."

"Hardly. I'm telling you that it's a little difficult to do your job if you're dead," the Confed pilot shot back, surprised by Grimm's vehemence. "Look, responsibility goes both ways. Your wingleader has to protect you as well as you covering him. Dammit, being a wingleader or flight leader isn't an excuse to abandon your wingman to die!" He shrugged. "Of course it's up to you. If you want to play hero and throw your life away go right ahead."

"Did you see the footage of what the Nephilim did to Dakota?" Anthony asked Stucke. At the German pilot's brief nod the fair-haired rookie's mouth tightened. "I went through the Academy to protect the Border Worlds from their enemies, regardless of whether they were human, Kilrathi or something else. Now we have the Nephilim, who show up and wipe out every living thing on an entire world for no reason except to get their rocks off. I don't know about you, Hermann, but I'd rather die than let those bastards do the same thing to a major system like Orestes or Landreich -- or even a Confed system like Vega or Ella." Grimm's eyes blazed as he locked eyes with the blond German. "Now maybe I'm crazy, or maybe I'm just stupid, but I'm trying to come to terms with the idea that I probably won't be alive a week after we face off with these scum. Does that explain why I was so deep in thought?"

 

Avernus Station; Recreation Deck Lounge
The Nifelheim System
1712 Hours, February 13, 2681 (2681.044)

Major Michelle Ross stood at the plastiglass observation window, watching Nifelheim II turn below as she mulled over the results of the exercise in her mind, when a cool damp patch formed on her shoulder. Damn air conditioning must be stuffing up, she thought irritably as she brushed at it. However her fingers came into contact with an even colder object. The Confed pilot turned to see a bottle of beer resting on her shoulder, held in place by Jack DeVille.

"Well that's one way of getting my attention," she joked as she grabbed the bottle and twisted the cap off. The blond Border Worlder nodded.

"I know a few others but they're not permitted in public," he deadpanned, blue eyes twinkling with mirth. Ross burst out laughing and a few seconds later DeVille joined in.

"So what's on your mind?" she asked, taking a swig of beer. Jack's expression abruptly changed from amused to pensive.

"I was thinking about the exercise and how we'd handle the real thing," the handsome major admitted as he toyed with his own bottle of beer. "Not many of us have experience with full-on fleet battles."

Ross regarded him steadily. "By 'us', do you mean the whole taskforce or just your squadron?"

"Just my squadron," Jack replied. "We're based in the Lennox System, right at the meeting point of Confed, Union and Kilrathi space. As such, we're pretty skilled at handling small-scale raids. But if it comes down to anything bigger than a Cult of Sivar raiding party or those pirates in Seggalion, then we're in deep shit." He paused to take a sip of beer then continued. "There's only a few of us who have been in a furball bigger than a squadron a side, apart from that rumble in Seggalion. Riot, Bloodhawk and the colonel all fought in the First Kilrathi War, and I was in some nasty fights during the Black Lance Incident."

"What's the biggest fight you've been in?" the Confed squadron leader queried, more to keep the conversation going than because she really wanted to know. She had no idea who Riot was, and all she knew about Bloodhawk was that he blamed the Confederation for the death of his wife and child on Telamon. But she could see that her lover was nervous and wanted to talk.

"The biggest? Probably the time we got into a furball with the TCS Minsk's battle group in Kurasawa. I was flying a Banshee with the colonel off the escort carrier Oriskany, and the Minsk threw an alpha strike at us." DeVille shook his head at the memory. "Fuck, did we get massacred. We started out with the Oriskany and her flight wing, a Sheffield-class destroyer and two Caernaven patrol frigates. By the time we were able to jump out we'd lost twenty-nine fighters out of our original forty, as well as the destroyer and one of the frigates. I don't know what Confed's losses were like."

Maneater's voice was as empty as the void outside the observation lounge's viewport. "Fifty-seven fighters out of the ninety that they started out with. Also the diversion strike that you threw at the group right at the end cost the group one destroyer crippled and another one damaged. You guys certainly left the Minsk's skipper something to remember you by."

The Scrapper's eyes widened as he turned his gaze back to Ross. "Were you there?"

"No, but some of my friends that I'd served with were assigned to the Minsk's air wing," she answered. "Some were rescued by Confed SAR, some were rescued by Border Worlds SAR, and some didn't get rescued at all."

"That's the chance we take," Jack said fatalistically. "Every pilot is a test pilot. Every time we launch, land or do anything in a plane we're flipping the finger to the Grim Reaper, daring him to reach out and grab us. And we're just daring him even more when we go into combat." He finished off his beer and deftly tossed the empty bottle into a nearby bin. "No combat pilot with half a brain expects to live long."

"True," Maneater allowed. "But not many people expect to fight alongside people who killed their friends." She finished off her own drink and gave DeVille a sideways look. "Strange how the universe works, isn't it?"

"Hell yeah," the blond Border Worlder agreed with an ironic laugh. "But the question is, do we work together to survive the present or do we remain mired in the past?"

"We have to stick together if we're going to make it out alive," the Confed pilot agreed. She cocked her head to one side. "What do you think our chances are?"

Jack's blue eyes narrowed in concentration as he stared out the lounge's huge viewport. "Depends. We'll probably just be used for raiding and harassing, and if we are then things look relatively good. I don't know about you Confee reservists, but Border Worlders train for hit-and-run strikes rather than set-piece battles."

"Probably because you Border Worlders don't have the resources to afford to take major losses."

"True," DeVille agreed. "Why take losses when you don't have to?" The ones we do have to take are bad enough, he thought moodily. "Anyway, with the Combined Fleet in system taking most of the burden, the chances of us being in a full fleet action are minimal."

"But if we do get caught in one?" Ross asked insistently. DeVille looked her straight in the eye.

"Then we're well and truly fucked."

 

CONT...