PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 25 of 66 )

: “ Toeing the Line ”

"However absorbed a commander may be in the elaboration
of his own plans, it is sometimes necessary to take the enemy into account."
- Winston S. Churchill

BWS Sicily; Flight Wing Quarters
The Nifelheim System
0718 Hours (CST), February 13, 2681 (2681.044)

Mongrel groaned. His neck was stiff, and though he was tired, he couldn't seem to get back to sleep. Sighing, he swung himself upright on the cot and rubbed his neck and head, particularly round the forehead and eyes. Stretching and scratching, he coughed as he tried to wake up and work out where he was. The Sicily: He'd missed the shuttle back to Avernus Station and spent the night on one of the cots in the Scrappers' ready room. The springs were uncomfortably soft and his back and neck were in agony. Dragging on last night's cold and clammy clothes he let his nose guide him in search of the mess hall.

Mongrel paused at the door; at the nearest table was Lt. Anthony "Grimlock" Grimm, the young Border Worlder Pilot he'd shot at when they first entered the system. Other than a red mark on his temple there was nothing to show he'd sustained any kind of an injury. Rumors were flying around mentioning the words "coma," "intensive care," "critical" and "calling Death's cell phone number," but the official word was merely a severe concussion.

Grimlock was too busy eating his breakfast and watching the morning news to notice him so Mongrel quickly grabbed a tray and joined the food queue. Getting his breakfast he desperately searched for a vacant table out of sight of the youngster but to no avail. He started to walk toward a table that seated two of the Tanfen pilots he'd played Majhong with but suddenly changed his mind.

"Ach, verdammt..." Shaking his head, he strode over and sat down opposite Grimm.

"Guten Morgen, Herr Lieutenant."

"Mornin'," Grim said without looking up from his meal.

"My name is Stück. My callsign is Mongrel."

"Hi, I'm Grimlock." Mongrel sighed. This was like pulling teeth.

"I know. I'm the pilot who shot at you."

"I know! Don't worry about it; you didn't do this," he rubbed the mark on his brow, "that was my own stupid fault for smacking into that rock. Your shots didn't even go through the shields."

"Even so, I am greatly sorry. I wished you no harm."

"I blame your bosses for not telling you we would be here."

"You believe my story?" Mongrel was shocked. Grimlock was the last person he expected to accept his explanation yet he was the first Border Worlder to do so.

"Of course! Not even a Confed pilot would be stupid enough to shoot an ally on purpose!" Grim broke into a broad grin, "It was an accident, and there's no real harm done, so there's no hard feelings here, mate." He thrust out his hand, and Mongrel clasped it firmly.

"I am glad, mein freund. We have enough enemies at the moment without making more."

"Huh!" Grunted Grimm, "Ain't that the truth?" That business settled, Mongrel sat back to watch the breakfast news with Grimm.

"That headline again: a group of Monks on Nephele II have refused to evacuate the planet believing the Nephilim will not harm them as peaceful men of God. However, coalition forces have been sent in by the TCS Valley Forge to evacuate the monks from their monastery, by force if necessary -- more on this as it becomes available.

"And in other news," smiled the newscaster, despite the fact she had just finished talking about war, death and destruction, "a known drug dealer identified as Patrick Ferguson who was last year controversially acquitted of the notorious 'Swiss Cheese' murders, has today been arrested and charged with 27 different offences including tax evasion, espionage, drug smuggling and attempted murder..."


Avernus Station; Flight Wing Briefing Room
0941 Hours (CST)

This morning there was to be held another joint exercise, a simulated strike on the Confed carriers by the Border World spacecraft. The militia pilots were to take part, including those being trained on the HF-66 Thunderbolt VII. These were being briefed by Robert "Robber" Bell, one of the Confederation pilots assigned help them convert onto type quickly.

"Okay boys and girls, today is your first real test; we are going to fly the Wild Weasel element for an attack on the three Confederation escort carriers. We'll be flying alongside T-Bolts from those carriers who will also be flying as Weasels and a SEAD strike.

"We'll be going in approximately 30 seconds ahead of the strike birds to 'take-out' as many anti-aircraft defenses as possible. There's no cover -- the 'roid belt is too far away and there's no planetary bodies or satellites to use as cover so we can either go straight in or try and make a feint against one carrier and switch to another at the last second. I don't think it'll make much difference since they'll have all the warning they could want either way. It's pretty doubtful if the ruse will work but we'll  give it a go anyway since it can't hurt.

"Simulated loadout will be three Friend or Foes and five anti-radiation missiles. Some Avengers from the Anzio will be SEAD strikers with Torpedoes to disable the shield generators but we're not mucking about with that, ours will be a quick in and out; shoot as many turrets as possible and haul-ass. No re-attacks whatsoever under any circumstances. Is that absolutely bloody clear?" A ripple of nods and a few grunts of reluctant acceptance were his response.

"The same with dogfighting -- don't do it! Those missiles are simply there to distract the enemy and get them off your back, not for air combat. If you get into a dogfight you've fucked up."

"We do have a couple of things going for us today. Firstly, I and the other Confed pilots know the weak areas and blind spots of the escort carrier's defenses, and secondly we've a pretty good idea of the tactics likely to be used against us. If nobody does anything stupid like trying to dogfight or take a second pass we should get away clean. The interceptors will be aiming for the strike birds and the escort will get rid of the BARCAP for us. If we can get through the merge without casualties it should be a walk in the park."

"The merge: The interceptors are Excaliburs and will almost certainly try and shoot us in the face at long range with Image Recognition missiles. Barrel roll defense will work against them because they won't be able to turn tight enough to get you. Coupled with some decoys to fool them when they come around for another pass and we should be free and clear. Keep going straight past the targets until we're well out of range before turning to the new heading. The waypoint immediately before the target range IP will be our RV. Just light the burner and don't look back. Okay?"

"The range: Anyone who's never fired a live warhead will get to shoot one missile. We've got plenty yet, but they are expensive. So, after the strike we'll go to the designated live fire area in the inner asteroid belt and fire a few HARMs at some emitter buoys."


"Booeys, then." Robber grinned and shook his head at the "standard" pronunciation (based on the American pronunciation before "English" was adopted as the universal or standard language). Where the hell did they think the word buoyancy came from? Or did they pronounce that "booeyancy"?

"Then maybe we can fire some BBs at some rocks if anyone fancies, to let off a little steam before we RTB."

"This is your chance to show the disbelievers that you really are fighter pilots and can do the job you're being asked to. If you screw this one up there are people talking about disbanding these units and just keeping the spacecraft as spares and replacements for combat losses. So, is anyone going to ignore what I said and make any second runs?"

"No, sir!" This time the chorus was far more enthusiastic.

"Is anyone going to get into a dogfight if they can help it?"

"No, sir!"

"Good. Let's show'em what you can do!"


Avernus Station; Station Commander's office
1022 Hours (CST)

"I'm sorry, Commodore," Brigadier General Joan Harris sighed in exasperation, "but there's nothing I can do about it."

"But it's a secure facility! It's designed to hold evil shits like that. Pardon my French." Commodore Philip Johnson banged his fist on the desk, causing the vidlink picture to jump, "But they won't take them!"

"They're within their rights," Harris informed him, "That prison is for convicted criminals only and it's due to be evacuated anyway. There's really very little point in ferrying the prisoners over to the prison when they'll just have to be shipped to the convict ship maybe only hours later."

"That convict ship was supposed to be here yesterday, for God's sake! Is it really coming or is it just a political 'we're doing something about it' when we're not actually doing anything?" Johnson snarled.

"I've just received word that they waited in the Torgo System for an escort," explained Harris.

"An escort?"

"Yes, they're hooking up with a supply convoy bringing in munitions transports to rearm the main fleet when it gets here."

"So when's it supposedly due?" Johnson sounded less than convinced.

"Tomorrow, I think."

"'I think'?" Johnson shook his head and swore under his breath, "General, you do realize we have someone on this ship who has a very good reason to want that monster Gorthaur as far away as possible, don't you?" Johnson tried his best to sound as reasonable as possible.

"I've heard about Lt. Owens, yes. But I'm sorry; I can't just force the prison to take him. Algheri correctional facility isn't under military jurisdiction."

"Couldn't you hold them on your station instead then?"

"Not nearly secure enough, I'm afraid. I am really sorry, Commodore, but there's nothing I can do to help." Harris switched off the vidlink.

"Tell it to Lt. Owens," Johnson said bitterly.


Exercise Strike Package
Approaching the IP
1029 Hours (CST)

Things were progressing smoothly so far. The Rendezvous had taken place almost to the planned second at the BWS Anzio. Robber had one four-ship of Thunderbolts, Jack "Blade" Scott commanded a second. Tony "Rat" Carruthers flew some distance away, the flight of Bearcats he headed visible only as dark shapes blocking out the stars. With the cadet flights were a large number of aircraft from the 349th Border World Composite Fighter squadron, the "Scrappers," as well as some Avenger bombers from the Anzio and some Jaguar Heavy fighters from the Arnhem. It was quite a strike package they had assembled, about as big as communications and coordination would allow.

They flew in silence. The enemy knew they would attack, but the specific routes and times had not been divulged. It was prudent therefore to keep transmissions to a minimum to prevent the 'enemy' listening in and getting Intell and warning from them. Robber was starting to consider breaking radio silence, though. Something was wrong; they hadn't been bounced yet and they were only a couple of minutes from the IP. The outer BARCAP ring should have intercepted them by now. Robber was just about to press the transmit button when he was beaten to it.

"Something's not right here," said Major Sandra "Riot" Lynch, voicing Robber's thoughts, "where are they?"

"Maybe they haven't launched yet," ventured Alex "Storm" Morgan.

"It would take too long to scramble," Riot told him.

"Yeah, I think they're 'cheating'. They're going to throw everything at us as a scramble, point defense intercept. The Nephilim probably would, so it'll be good practice."

"Maintain a good visual lookout," Riot warned them, "we'll be at the target in under two minutes."

"IP. Running in." The strike package turned toward their target, putting the system star, its sun, directly at their backs. It was an old tactic used since WWI, almost a cliché, but with no cover, no clouds, no ground to hug or ridge line to skirt, they needed any and every advantage they could get. With the sun behind them their target was fully illuminated and its defenders would have the disadvantage of the sun's glare and canopy glint to work against. It may gain the attackers a few precious moments whilst frustrating and discomforting their opponents. Your heart rate was now up with that of a marathon runner, hammering so loudly your wingman must be able to hear it. Your mouth is dry as your breathing becomes shallow and fast. Your left leg starts to bounce on the rudder pedal. The fingers of your right hand flex as you grip the stick. Licking your lips you realize your body's reactions are anticipation, rather than fear. You are not afraid, simply eager for the thrill of combat, even this simulated combat. Would the real thing feel the same?


Adrian "Puke" Thomas sat silently in the blackness that surrounded him. He knew he could shout till his throat was hoarse and his lungs ached without it making a difference but sitting in the powered-down fighter he felt he should be quiet. Irrational, he knew, but the dark displays staring blankly at him seemed to be watching him, waiting to chastise him at the slightest noise like some sour-faced librarian. Just as some buildings could compel a person to speak in hushed tones the "silent running" fighter forced him to be deathly quiet.

Sitting in the shadow of the TCS Miles D'Arby were sixteen fighters, Puke's own eight Bearcats and eight Excaliburs lying just as lifelessly only yards away. He glanced across at them. James "Chip" Chippenham looked back in reply, perhaps seeing the movement in his peripheral vision or perhaps through some sixth sense. Chip game him the "thumbs-up" and Puke returned the gesture. Puke rocked the wings of his Bearcat back and forth. Then he raised his hand and twirled his index finger. He powered up his systems and checked to see the other fighters had done the same. Glancing back at Chip he saw the Excaliburs had done the same. He made an exaggerated nodding motion, received the same in reply, and pushed the throttle forward.


"This is too easy! Where the hell are they?"

"I don't know," Robber growled, "stop worrying about it and concentrate on your job."

"Hell!" His scanner was suddenly flooded with red dots. He instantly selected FFs and rippled them in roughly the enemy's direction before switching back to HARMs. Meanwhile his thumb franticly pumped out decoys of its own accord. He threw in a barrel roll for good measures as missile warnings whooped at him. Ignoring them he loosed his 5 HARMs in the space of about three seconds.

Engaging reheat he extended, checked his scanner, and finally let out his breath. There'd been a lot of kill claims during that engagement when the Bearcats and Excals popped out from behind the D'Arby. He should have seen it coming; it was the tactic used by the pirates they'd faced in the Torgo System. He had a nagging worry he might be "dead" from an ImRec in the face, but he wasn't sure. It all happened so fast, and the fact that the missiles fired at them weren't real tended to make him a little careless. He'd casually ignored them. You couldn't do that in a real fight. Behind him he could hear on the comms and almost feel the dogfight developing. Checking his scanner he saw all his flight had followed orders and not gotten involved in it. They'd sit through the whole thing later in debriefing, picking it apart, discussing rights and wrongs, who did what, who screwed up. For now though their part was over and they weren't being chased. He pulled up the nav point for their RV. He kept a lookout but wasn't too worried. It was likely they'd be bounced again but probably on the way back to the carrier from the range. Setting an intercept course to his wingman he started to relax slightly.


Puke grinned inside his helmet. So far, so good! His plan had worked perfectly getting a lot of "Fox One" kill claims before the "enemy" had launched their own weapons and now it was turning into a short-range, up-close-and-personal dogfight, something which he reveled in and the Bearcat excelled at.

After finishing a "damaged" Intruder, he started to target the strike group's escorting Bearcats, and really mix it up in the heart of the dogfight.

It was a confused mêlée, with similar or even identical craft on both sides. The IFF on the targeting sensors showed who was who but risk of misidentification ruled out most snapshot opportunities at appearing crossing targets. Or it should have. Puke grinned. They wouldn't be expecting his tactics.

Puke was a great deflection shooter. He could judge crossing angles speeds and ranges faster and more accurately than his ITTS could, and make shots outside it's parameters. However, because those sorts of shots tended to scatter his shots over the crafts shields, kills from those shots were rare. Usually you had to get up behind them and batter the rear shields into oblivion to get the kill, but raking the enemy from nose to tail in a scissors fight was always fun.

The Bearcat bored head-on at him. Puke pulled the trigger and both fighters registered simulated hits, but nothing penetrating the shields. The other pilot flinched first in the game of chicken and gave Puke a few degrees head start. It reversed moments later, trying to force Puke out in front but he anticipated it, gaining angle and closing the gap. Desperate, the other pilot reversed again. Puke knew he would cross his nose. The other Bearcat driver must have thought he was safe since Puke hadn't gained nearly enough ground to get behind him yet, but he was wrong. Puke pulled the trigger and emptied his fighter's energy banks into a patch of empty space. Empty space the other Bearcat was about to fly through. The simulated shields on the "enemy" fighter turned red. The pilot panicked, reversing again, trying to jink to put off Puke's aim. Every change of direction resulted in more hits, most to the frontal shields. Suddenly the targeted on Puke's scanner changed from red to green.

"Knock it off," the acknowledgement of defeat was made, and not grudgingly. "Good kill!"

Puke had already selected a new foe, another Intruder, and was joined by his wingman. The two of them finished it in short order.

Next the Thunderbolts entered the fray, completely taking the combined strike package by surprise. Nobody had expected Thunderbolts to be used as fighters, and certainly not like this where a dogfight was likely to ensue. Yet they proved decidedly difficult opponents, heavy firepower coupled with a persistent tailgunner, strong armor and well coordinated teamwork meant they were actually inflicting heavy casualties as they concentrated on the bombers.

"Double-teaming" their adversaries, they were proving remarkably effective. They did not even need to 'kill' their targets, merely force them to break away or abort their attacks. As the seconds ticked by the chances of the strike being successful diminished rapidly, and the fight swung towards the defenders. Or at least, it seemed to.

A Marauder bravely sacrificed himself to get the perfect firing position for his torpedoes (I doubt he'd do that if this were for real, Puke thought cynically), creating an opening for the 4 Avengers to exploit, which salvoed their entire load of torpedoes almost simultaneously.

Puke hesitated for a moment, but only a moment. There was no way he or the other fighters protecting the D'Arby could shoot down enough torpedoes to make a difference so he never even bothered trying. At least they could do some more damage to the attackers while they awaited the inevitable.

"Forget the torpedoes and kick some butt! Payback time!" He succeeded in scoring another "kill" before the exercise was called off. Snarling and cursing he broke off the combat and joined the landing pattern that was already forming.

Puke shook his head, still swearing to himself. They'd taken out, what, a third of the strike group and still lost?

Unbelievable... un-frigging believable!


Live Firing Range
Near the inner asteroid belt
1115 Hours (CST)

After vaporizing some emitter buoys with their HARM missiles and having some fun "plinking" a few rocks, Robber decided they may as well burn some time and fuel in a little 2 v 2 ACM.

After 4 mock dogfights Robber's pair had been victorious in three fights and Robber had found himself in a stalemate in the last. Not bad, except that he'd "lost" his wingman during two of those fights. Still, his charges were definitely improving, not only flying the big fighter competently but also learning to fight it.

"All right, time to go home. I expect someone or other will try to bounce us, so let's have a nice combat spread and stay sharp. Vector 240 by 015 for Mother."

Robber was starting to get to know the cadets much better now, putting names to the faces. On his wing was Jessica Lennox. Her callsign was "Chess," partly because Roberto ("Rob 2") Sanchez, the second element lead, called her "Jess the Chest" (at 5' 2" and 34D it wasn't hard to know why) but also because she played the game very well, fairly unusual for a woman.

The third of his pupils was "Punk," Padraig O'Brien, a quiet young man you would hardly notice except for his livid pink Mohican and nose rings. The Mohican was cut to only an inch to fit inside his flying helmet and the rings removed for flying, but overall his appearance gave entirely the wrong impression. In reality, rather than the head-banging nutcase he portrayed himself to be he was a friendly, charming and soft-spoken twenty year-old, whose melodious voice would be more suited to singing the Irish Ballads of his ancestry than the heavy rock he preferred to listen to.

"Reggae" was the other pilot Robber had flown with after he swapped with Lennox for one sortie. Normally assigned to Blade's flight, he had a natural talent for flying and a flair for ACM. With his talent and instinctive feel for 3D geometry he might have been better assigned to an F-103 Excalibur or F-104 Bearcat, but he seemed to empathize with Blade's similar predicament, and had ended up on his wing. Reggae was really Reginald (Reggie) King whose great-great-great-grandparents had come from Kingstown, Jamaica.

In the same flight was Winston "Yardie" Stanley, another afro-Caribbean, an ex-smuggler and allegedly a descendant of Henry Morgan. Henry Morgan, ex-pirate turned Pirate-Catcher General and Governor of Jamaica, famous drinker and lecher, was supposed to have had a son by a mulatto whore in the 17th century, and Yardie had a family tree "proving" he was a direct descendant of that bastard offspring. Come to think of it, it was probably true -- most other stories told about Henry Morgan were! Reggae and Yardie had befriended Colonel Eddie Thibodeaux and according to gossip, gallons of rum and ounces of ganga were got through the first night they met, with Bob Marley still to be heard in nearby corridors well into the early hours of the morning.

Amazing how coincidences throw people together, thought Robber. Small universe, isn't it?


The outer CAP ring was well beyond their homeward course and the inner CAP ring had seemed uninterested in molesting a gaggle of returning Thunderbolts. Feeling slightly less worried about being jumped, Robber didn't relax entirely; one of the worst places for being bounced was just prior to entering the landing circuit. The vector they were on was going to take them close to the three Confed escort carriers, within a long missile shot of the D'Arby, in fact.

Robber found himself looking toward the carrier as they cruised past, his eyes inexplicably drawn toward it. He had a gut feeling, his stomach tightening and the hairs on his neck starting to prickle.

Nah, he reassured himself, they'd never try the same trick twice in one day, would they?


"Ready?" James "Chip" Chippenham asked. Two clicks on the mike told him Zack "Poleaxe" Kocinski was just waiting for the word. "Okay, steady... wait for it... wait for it - what the hell?"


"Hard turn starboard. Go!"

As practiced in training the four Thunderbolts executed a perfect break turn with a crossover. To maximize the turn performance of the lead spacecraft (especially important with the poor agility of the Thud), the two wingmen swapped places, the inner spacecraft sliding out to the far side while the outer spacecraft "cut the corner." When they rolled out of the turn after ninety degrees Punk was therefore on Robber's wing and Chess with Rob 2, all pointing straight at the D'Arby and the two fighters that had just emerged from her shadow.

Chip and Poleaxe had expected to be able to roll in behind the Thunderbolts without being seen, or at least with the advantage of a lot of angle before they were spotted. From anywhere in their rear quarter a pair of Excaliburs ought to be able to shred four thuds in seconds.

It didn't work that way, and instead of four surprised 'Bolts it was the pair of Excalibur pilots that found themselves staring down the wrong end of twenty-four high-energy weapons.

Outgunned and startled, Chip and Poleaxe waggled their wings as the flights rapidly approached the merge. Robber triumphantly rocked his wings in reply. He had a smug grin on his face as he turned his flight back toward their homeward vector.


BWS Sicily Flight Deck
1142 Hours (CST)

Rat was clambering backwards out of the Bearcat cockpit when over the sound of the turbines winding down he heard a cough from below.

"Nice view!" Rat recognized the voice instantly, that of Danica "Dancer" Owens.

"Um, thanks!" Rat stammered.

"The artwork's not bad either: 'Often licked, never beaten!'? That's a fair old... boast."

Rat Grinned, "Who says it's a boast?"

"Uh-huh. And what about the art - what is that?"

"That," said Rat whilst sliding down the boarding ladder rails, "is my mate Mickey."

"Mickey?" Owens asked.

"Yeah, Mickey Mouse," explained Rat. It was one of the older versions of the cartoon character and he carried a six-shooter in each hand.

"Any particular reason you've got a cartoon mouse and not a naked woman painted on your fighter?" She teased.

"Well," Rat scratched at his stubble, "I couldn't think of a famous rat, so I went with a mouse instead!"

"I see," Dancer said, meaning the exact opposite.

"All right," Rat smiled sheepishly, "I borrowed them both. The 'Often licked' bit is from an RAF lightning Squadron Leader's personal aircraft, and Mickey I got from Werner Mölders Bf-109 of the Spanish Civil War. He had a 'Mickimaus' on his plane."

"Why did he have it on his fighter?" Dancer didn't give up.

"He just liked Mickey."

"I should introduce you to Grimlock. You two should get on like a house on fire."

'"Oh?" Carruthers was pretty sure that he could stand being introduced to another of Dani's squadron mates, if it meant he got to spend time with her. And he was supposed to help break the ice with the Border Worlders, after all.

"Yeah," Dani continued. "He's a history and aviation buff, too. And his name's Anthony, just like yours, so of course he's a nice guy." There was definitely a teasing tone in the girl's voice, and Rat grinned.

"Of course. With a name like that, how could he be anything else?"

"Naturally. And he's got a crush on me as well," she told him dryly.

"Ah," Rat swallowed hard, and pretended to be fiddling with a zip on his helmet bag so he didn't have to look at her. "Look, about last night-"

"I enjoyed talking to you. Ignore Kristy: She's not my mother or my lover," Dani saw Rat visibly flinch at the word, "I'm a big girl now - I can pick my own friends."

"So does that mean...?"

"That I'll come for a drink with you? Well, it depends whether you can manage to complete a sentence," she said sarcastically, but without malice. "Preferably without stammering either!"

"I'll try," grinned Rat.

"Good. Look, Tony, there's - things going on at the moment. I'm feeling very stressed and my emotions are going haywire. I don't know what feelings are real and what aren't."

"I think we're all a little on-edge at the moment-"

"You don't understand!" Dancer cut him off. "I'm surprised nobody's told you yet. In the brig on this very ship is a man, a thing, that calls himself Gorthaur. He..." She paused, swallowed hard and gritted her teeth. Rat could see her chest heave as she started to breathe heavily, and her hands were clenched into fists in an attempt to stop them shaking. "I was subjected to an extended period of torture. For two years he kept me as a plaything!" She spat the word out of disgust and loathing, "For two years I was abused physically, mentally and -- " with conspicuous effort she managed to say it, "sexually."

"Shit, I'm sorry, I didn't realize -- "

"Don't be sorry! You weren't the..." Owens searched a moment for a suitably awful term then gave up, "the bastard who did those things to me. Everyone tries to wrap me in cotton wool and treat me like I'm some sort of crystal bloody vase that will shatter at the slightest touch. I'm not!"

Rat took a deep breath, blew it out again. He didn't really know what to say and that in itself was as disturbing as what Dancer was telling him.

"I've got a lot of scars, Tony. Some haven't yet healed."

"I don't care about that," Carruthers said honestly.

"I'm not talking about the ones on the outside, it's the ones inside that are the problem."

"Look, if this is your way of saying you're not interested, just tell me straight. I'm a grown-up. I can take rejection."

"Can you?" Dani demanded. "Didn't seem that way last night."

"That was just the drink!" Rat protested.

"Bullshit! Don't get so uptight. This isn't a brush-off, just a warning: I'm not sure if I'm ready for a relationship yet."

"With me?"

"With anyone."

"But you'll be in the bar tonight?"

"See you about eight," she agreed as she turned to leave the flight deck.

"Okay then," Rat had a smile on his face again, "I'll look forward to it!" As Rat watched Dani's receding figure he punched the air for joy, oblivious to the hostile stares of Captain Kristy "Stardust" Joyce and Lieutenant Anthony "Grimlock" Grim.


Torgo Superbase
In orbit over Torgo III, the Torgo System
1204 Hours (CST)

"What the hell is that?" Jackson asked to himself as the sleek but pugnacious vessel drew slowly alongside the SS Prometheus, the convict ship Jackson had just signed onto. Failing to find a berth on a homeward ship (despite his many contacts and favors owed), and stubbornly refusing to pay for his passage back to Terra or another of the Sol Sector systems, he'd signed with the next vessel hiring crew. It happened to be the Prometheus, the prison ship heading to Nifelheim to remove the inmates from the Algheri correctional facility.

Only hours earlier that morning three Confed transports had docked beside them. They were refueling and re-supplying ready to weigh that evening. Word was that the Prometheus was to travel with them. They were supposed to have an escort, but that amounted to a pair of frigates and a flight of F-86 Hellcat Vs that were only taking them as far as the Elohim jump point. There was a second rumor, too, that Jackson put little score by: That they were to rendezvous with a Tanfen supply convoy in Elohim before jumping on to Nifelheim. It seemed unlikely that Tanfen would render any aid to the Confederation without their own secret agenda. Perhaps they had realized the threat the bugs posed, and decided it was in their best interests. Maybe they had simply hiked the prices in line with the demand. Or perhaps they would call in the favor at some later date, or use it in some political bargain. Or possibly, as Jackson felt was most likely, it was simply more scuttlebutt and completely untrue, like nine out of ten wartime rumors.

What was not simply fantasy or idle speculation was the ship docking beside the Prometheus at that moment. Half a mile of plasteel and ceramite, the size of a large cruiser or light carrier. A few puffs of hydrazine and the docking clamps were holding her bulk in place. Umbilicals started to move into position, and space-suited figures jetted across to check the moorings. Jackson wasn't interested in them. He'd seen the name of the ship. The TCS Hades. It couldn't be... she was still supposed to be in Tamayo, undergoing space worthiness and weapons trials.

Maybe, Jackson thought to himself, I should start paying more attention to fantastic rumors.

The Hades wasn't fantasy. In fact, she was very, very real.


TCS Hades; CIC
Near Torgo Superbase
1206 Hours (CST)

Commodore Garrison Murdoch sat in his command chair, waiting for the flurry of angry and puzzled communications to begin. Only hours ago, the TCS Hades had been undergoing trials in the Tamayo System. Murdoch had been chafing at the bit, frustrated at being unable to use the powerful warship nominally under his command for the purpose she had been designed.

They'd completed weapons tests, calibrated and recalibrated sensors, tuned and re-tuned the reactors. Tested the flight deck configuration through full launch and recovery cycles. They'd even run an emergency evacuation drill. Twice. They'd tested the ship's engines, at least, in system. Murdoch, in line with his orders, had taken her for a little shake-down cruise, to test the jump engines. Tamayo to Orsini in a flash and a swirl, stepping through a tear in space-time like Alice through the looking glass. Or maybe down that rabbit hole it was more like a wormhole than a rift in reality. It would have to be a very big worm or rabbit for the Hades to fit through its hole, though, Murdoch mused absently.

So after checking everything else, why not her stealth systems? Instead of returning from Orsini to Tamayo, Murdoch had used the Hades' stealth capability to sneak past listening stations and CAP flights to the Torgo jump point. So that was how they came to be here. Technically, Torgo was a Border Wolds system, despite being used as the major staging area for Confed and Border Worlds ships in the sector. He was the highest ranking Confed officer in-system, so they couldn't order him to take the Hades back to Tamayo. However, they would undoubtedly inform his superiors the whereabouts of their secret new prototype strike-cruiser, and he would be ordered to return. Before that then, he needed an excuse to get to the front, and he seemed to have found it.

A supply convoy and prison ship, waiting for an escort to take it into the war-zone. What had arrived? A cruiser? A destroyer or two? No, a pair of ancient Caernaven frigates that seemed soon to lose the battle against corrosion and metal-fatigue, let alone the Nephilim. Yet here was the Hades, ready for war. A remarkable coincidence. Or was it perhaps fate? He would volunteer their services as an escort. Then at the war front, doubtless Hanton would find them a place, and not ask too many questions until afterwards.

Admiral Erin Hanton, the Border Worlder rear admiral, and in overall command of the forces fighting in Loki, was a straight-shooter. Not so long ago she would have been an enemy, but now was an ally. Strangely enough, he felt he could trust her far more easily than his own Confederation commanders. After what had happened with the Orion... and other things... it was hard to know who to trust.

If he gave the order to cast off, turn the ship around, and returned to Tamayo now, he'd receive a severe bollocking and another dent to his already stalled career, or what was left of it. If he carried on with his plan, a court-martial and at the very least, dismissal from the service would be his fate. Not that he cared -- he'd already tried to resign after finding that the Confederation had framed the survivors from the "rogue" Black Warship, the TCS Orion, as traitors. He would probably share their fate. He didn't care about himself, as long as those officers and crew under his command were not punished for his actions. The crew were safe, but the officers might bear some of the blame when the inevitable board of inquiry was held. He couldn't do this without asking for their consent. He was doing this partly to assuage his own feelings of guilt and risking other officers' careers in a witch-hunt because of his own selfish motives was hardly the way to do it.

"Lt. Grennan?" Murdoch turned to look at the communications officer.


"Please call the senior officers and bridge crew for a conference in my ready-room. If the station commander wants to talk to me before I'm ready, tell him  tell him... oh, hell, tell him I don't want to talk to him! I don't care; I'm not ready to speak to him yet."

"Aye, sir."


"Ladies and gentlemen," Murdoch began the speech he knew he must give. "I would not normally do this, but I feel I have to. I am about to call a vote to decide the actions of this ship, and perhaps the fate of all our careers."

"Sir?" Lieutenant Armani asked, as Murdoch paused for a moment.

"I know several of you, most of you, in fact, seem to be as frustrated by the current situation as I am. The Fourth and Seventh fleets sit in Vega, doing nothing just as the First, Ninth, and Fourteenth wait idly in Sol. We repeat endless, pointless tests, day after day when we have a fully capable warship that may help make a difference.

"I have already bent the wording of my orders to breaking point to come this far. However, if we proceed, we shall definitely be disobeying orders. I hope to take this ship to Loki, so that we can use it for what it was intended  to protect humanity and the Confederation.

"If I give these orders, and you follow them, you may be held accountable for your actions, despite 'only following orders.' Therefore, I am giving people an opportunity to make plain their feelings. I am about to throw away my career, probably my freedom, and possibly my life, to do what I think is right. However, I cannot order you to risk the same simply on my authority. Therefore I am asking you to."

"We're with you, sir," Armani again spoke up, "we're behind you all the way. Let's do this." Her words were echoed by almost everyone in the room, nods and murmurs of approval.

"All right. Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your support. Your loyalty and faith in me is appreciated. I hope it is not misplaced. Dismissed."

As the others filed out, Murdoch's Chief Tactical Officer, Commander Kenyan Tromba, approached Garrison.

"Sir, I'll support you in your decision... but are you certain this is the correct thing to do? You're going to be court-martialed for sure."

"Correct?" Murdoch pursed his lips, eyeing his crewmen and fellow survivor of the Hell in a Handbasket debacle of early 2680. Tromba had followed him to heroism on the TCS Frontrunner... would he do the same for disgrace on the Hades? "No. But it is the right thing to do. I know I'll be court-martialed. You and some of the others may be, too. Or worse. That's why I wanted to make sure. I couldn't just do this  without asking."

"So what happens now, then?" Tromba asked.

"We escort this convoy to Nifelheim. Then we jump into Loki, and I beg Hanton to let us join the Combined Fleet, like some teenage boy running away to join the army."

"As good a plan as any, I suppose," Kenyan affirmed with a nod. "I've always wanted to relive my youth!"


TCS Miles D'Arby; Officers Mess
1345 Hours (CS)

"That exercise went quite well, I thought, all in all," Wing Commander Colonel Michael Black intimated as he sat down to eat with Commodore Jeff Turnbull.

"Quite well?" Turnbull exclaimed. "The D'Arby was totally destroyed! Hardly a success!"

"On the contrary! The strike group, a group of Border World Reserve forces you had expressed doubts about the quality of, along with some half-trained cadets, completed their primary mission objective with significantly less than the projected 50% losses. Our fighters took them completely by surprise using a tactic they are likely to face but were not expecting, yet they still succeeded."

"Our defenses were shredded! We lost the carrier, and several fighters! It was an utter disaster!" Turnbull stabbed his knife viciously into his steak, perhaps wishing it were his opposite number, Commodore Philip Johnson's face.

"We're working as a team now, aren't we?" Black asked rhetorically. "It's not a case of them and us and saving face, it's about saving the universe! Still, look at it this way... we inflicted about 40% casualties on them in under three minutes. If our CAP and interceptors had adequate time to attack the strike force before they got in range of the carrier they would almost certainly have stopped that attack before they got anywhere near the carriers."

"You sound quite happy with the situation," said Turnbull, meaning he himself was not.

"I am," Black agreed. "Far happier than if it was the Cats we were fighting again. We've already had our vulnerability to stealth attacks highlighted. There may be more of these Nephilim, but at least we can see them coming!"

"Yes, I suppose that's something, isn't it? We get to see the Angels of Death approaching!"