PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 3 of 66 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
Nifelheim System, Union of Border Worlds
1407 Hours, February 10 2681 (2681.041)
Father said it was blasphemy for man to travel between the stars. Lord, if jumpshock is your method of showing us the error of our ways, I can safely say the message is received loud and clear, Eric Maslevski thought as his Marauder hurled itself into the Nifelheim System. He shook his head to clear it and gritted his teeth as his stomach turned over. Even with the dose of trichloromorphine Kristy Joyce had given him before takeoff, Eric felt as though his body had been fed through a tea strainer and partially reassembled into a vaguely human shape. He looked around for the Marauder flown by Sandra "Riot" Lynch, his wingleader, and found it off his right wing. Nudging the control column slightly he brought his fighter into formation and hurriedly checked his sensors.
Alpha Wing had spread out from the jump point, the Jaguars of the 22nd Tactical Fighter Squadron forming a core of heavy firepower, flanked by the Intruders of the 254th TFS. Behind the fighters were the twenty-eight bombers of Bravo Wing, looking for targets worthy of their attention but finding none. The space around the jump point was filled with fighters, all belonging to the Border Worlds.
"All right," Paul "Onslaught" Onslow growled. "Everything looks clear. Charlie Wing, form up and wait for my orders. I'm going to check in with the Sicily." He switched his comm system to a different frequency. "Sicily Control this is Charlie Lead, over."
"Go ahead, Charlie Lead," Lieutenant Commander Gerry Walker, chief of the Sicily's flight division, answered.
"No enemy activity here," Onslaught reported. "Charlie Wing is locked and loaded. Ready to begin patrol, over."
"Permission granted. Let'em loose, Charlie Lead, and watch your six out there."
"Thanks, Control. We're heading out." Onslaught switched his comm system back to the wing's frequency and spoke. "Charlie Wing, separate into squadrons and head out on your assigned patrol routes. Let's get this show on the road."
Bridge, BWS Sicily
Deep Space, En Route to Nifelheim II
2328 Hours, February 10 2681 (2681.041)
"Ma'am, I think you should have a look at this," the young comm tech advised. The bridge of the Sicily was a center of frantic activity, data from the recon flights being fed into the carrier's computer and displayed on the map table.
"What is it, Ensign?" Captain Blair Voss asked as she walked over to the youngster's console.
"We just received a report from Victor Flight. They've made contact with those three bogeys we detected near the outer asteroid belt," the comm tech reported.
"What data have you got for me?" Voss demanded. The Ensign pressed his headset closer to his ear as if to better hear the fighter's radio transmission.
"The bogeys turned out to be two Orions and a Clydesdale transport. Apparently they're helping evacuate an asteroid mining colony in the outer belt."
Voss' eyes narrowed slightly, which was her equivalent of an ordinary person cursing a blue streak. "The system hasn't been entirely evacuated yet? Dammit, the Nephilim could be jumping through from Loki any second, and if they do then we'll be witnesses to a massacre which makes Telamon look like a schoolyard scuffle." She looked at the ensign who had resumed listening intently to his headset. Finally he looked up at her with fear in his eyes.
"Victor Lead just passed along some more info he picked up from the transports," he told the hard-faced captain. "About three hours ago their sensors caught a glimpse of some fighters and capships near the Torgo jump point - and they weren't ours. The transports played possum until the bogeys headed out of their sensor range, then ran like hell for the jump point to Seggalion. They're pretty spooked."
"That's understandable," the Sicily's captain remarked absently. This new information had thrown all the plans she had carefully drawn up with Commodore Johnson into the proverbial cocked hat. If the ships the evacuation vessels had picked up were Nephilim heading for the jump point to Elohim, a Confederation system, that made them Confed's responsibility. But they could easily slip around behind Task Force Jasmine, duck through the jump point into Seggalion and run rampant through the Union's core systems. Most of the militia squadrons would be stretched to the limit to stop a single destroyer and its fighters, with only the major systems such as Orestes and Speradon able to put up more than a token fight.
And making decisions like this is why you get paid the big bucks. But not this big, she thought to herself. "McClure, get Commodore Johnson up here."
"Yes, ma'am," another ensign replied and reached for an intercom switch to the P.A..
"Don't bother," Philip Johnson advised as he walked through the doorway to the bridge, a steaming cup of tea in his hand. "I heard some of it but not all. Care to give me a sitrep?"
"Victor Flight was running a patrol through the outer asteroid belt and encountered three transports bolting for the jump point to Seggalion. They said they spotted some unknowns in the direction of the Torgo jump point. Could be a Nephilim raiding force that slipped past the fleet for a little random mayhem," the harsh-featured captain summarized. Johnson merely nodded thoughtfully.
"Who's in Victor Flight?"
"Just the four Banshees from the Penrith, sir."
"Any details on the group the 'sports spotted?" Johnson asked, pausing to take a swallow of tea. His round face was expressionless but Blair Voss had served with him long enough to almost see the thoughts racing through his mind. She turned back to the ensign who had originally drawn her attention and merely looked inquiringly at him.
"Um, not as yet, ma'am," he told her. "I'll get back in touch with Victor Flight and see what data they've got."
"Do it," Johnson ordered the junior officer, who hurriedly bent to his console and tapped a series of keys. Captain Voss walked over to the commodore until they were close enough to converse without the chance of being overheard by any of the bridge personnel.
"Any ideas?" she asked in a low voice.
"Several. It could be a bunch of pirates with a capship for transport. Remember that converted Ralari we ran into last year?"
"It was kind of hard to forget," Voss commented wryly. "Nifelheim's supposed to have a lot of trouble with pirates, especially in the outer belt. Hell, I'd be surprised if there weren't a few smugglers or raiders on board those evac ships. But this doesn't feel like pirates." Taking a deep breath she added, "It could be Nephilim. If we have to play cork in the bottle at the Seggalion jump point, we'll be too far away to support the Fleet once they pull out of Loki."
Johnson's face was expressionless. "Don't go there, Blair. I can't have you start losing your nerve and seeing Nephilim bogeymen under the bed and in the closet."
"I'm not cracking up," she told the task force commander tartly, "but it's a possibility we have to consider. Do you have anything else in mind?"
"We're due to meet up with some Confed reinforcements here before the main fleet arrives," Johnson told her in a reassuring tone. "They wouldn't have IFF up -- "
" - as part of basic EMCON procedures in disputed territory," Voss finished the tactical lesson sarcastically. "Look, Phil, I have captained a ship before and I was fairly good at it."
"Sir, I've got Victor Flight's data," the comm officer called, distracting Johnson from replying to Voss' rejoinder. The task force commander strode over to the ensign's console eagerly.
"How many ships are we looking at?" Johnson asked. The Ensign licked his lips nervously.
"The transport captain told Victor Lead they saw four capships and at least a dozen fighters before they went to EMCON. They couldn't make out any IFF beacons but worked up a vector for them. The unknowns were heading for the inner system."
"So they're coming straight for us," the Border Worlds commodore murmured. He paused for several seconds, deep in concentration, and then looked up at the Sicily's helmsman. "Helm, plot a course to the Torgo jump point. As soon as you've got it plotted proceed along that vector at flank speed. Comm, inform the Havok, Anzio, Wollongong, and Christchurch to form up on us. Then get in touch with Captain DuVall on the Arnhem and tell him he's to take command of the rest of the fleet, as well as the defenses around Nifelheim II until we get back. Also inform Victor Flight that they're to continue escorting the transports to the Seggalion jump point. Tactical, what fighter elements are near Victor Flight's current position?"
"Commodore, the nearest unit we have is the Scrappers," the young lieutenant at the tactical station replied crisply. "They're split up into three separate flights to cover different sectors but we can get them to link up with Victor Flight within nine minutes."
"Do it. Then I want them to proceed along the same vector as the unknowns and get some more precise data. I like springing surprises, not being on the receiving end."
Deep Space, Nifelheim System
0012 Hours, 11 February 2681 (2681.042)
"I've got four bogeys on my scanners," Sandra "Riot" Lynch reported. "Can't get an ID at this range, but they're definitely heading our way."
"Confirmed," Alex "Storm" Morgan announced tersely. "Four fighters heading straight for us. They're at extreme sensor range at the moment but they'll have us on their scopes pretty shortly. So what do we do, skipper?"
"We go and say hello," Onslaught told his squadron. "But not all of us are going. Riot, Zealot, Stardust, Storm, Bloodhawk, and Dancer are to cloak, break off and keep searching for those capships. The rest of us will stay on this course and let the bogeys come to us. We should get some answers pretty soon." The Scrappers' leader paused. "One way or another."
"Oh, that is so reassuring," Todd "Cateran" McLaughlin growled.
"Everyone remember that we're due to meet up with Confed forces sometime before the main fleet gets here, so weapons stay tight. I'm supposed to tell you not to fire unless you're fired upon but we all know that shit happens," Onslaught continued, ignoring the Cabrean's outburst. "I don't want anybody trying to settle old scores, got it?" A chorus of affirmatives rang over the tac net. "Bloodhawk, this means you. Clear?"
A tense pause spread over the comm net, finally broken by John "Bloodhawk" Hawke's grudging acknowledgment, "Understood."
"Okay, Beta Wing, I've uploaded a new nav course to your navcomputers," Riot advised. "Let's cloak up and get moving!" The six Marauders went into a gentle climb, activated their cloaking devices and vanished from their colleagues' sensors.
"Good luck, guys," Anthony "Grimlock" Grimm murmured. He adjusted the straps on the harness holding him in his seat and gripped his HOTAS tighter. "Okay, Onslaught, what's the deal for the rest of us?"
"First we form up into a closer formation," Onslaught ordered. "Then we stick to our current course until our playmates decide to join us."
"Ah, the joys of a fighter with a cut-price sensor array. Without the Marauders we can't even see them," Jack "Diamond" DeVille commented bitterly. The Intruder had been put into production just after the Black Lance crisis as a cheap escort fighter and interceptor. In order to cut costs it had left out some of the "optional extras" like a long-range sensor array similar to the Marauder's or even the Vindicator's.
"If you're looking to get a fighter with long-range sensors, I know some guys who went through Stalker training back at the Academy. Maybe you can get an assignment to them," Dragan "Draco" Emerson offered.
"Quit the foreplay," Vincent "Harbinger" Tsu interrupted. "I've got four contacts on my scope, relative bearing three-two-eight by zero-three-nine. No details or IFF readings as yet."
"Got'em," Diamond confirmed. "They're using the asteroids as cover. Do we intercept?"
"We intercept. Remember, people, weapons are tight," Onslaught ordered. "Do not fire unless fired upon. I mean it!"
"Gotcha, boss man," Diamond drawled. The six Intruders gracefully turned to the left and dropped their noses to meet the incoming bogeys head-on. The range between the two groups decreased rapidly as they closed at nearly a thousand kilometers per second.
"Can't get a good read on these bastards at this range," Harbinger mumbled softly, boosting the power to his sensors in a bid to identify the unknown fighters.
"Neither can I," Onslaught replied absently. "C'mon baby, speak to me," he coaxed his Intruder's radar. "C'mon, c'mon... bingo! We've got four Excaliburs coming right at us. Looks like the Confederation finally came through."
"Gorthaur had an Excal, too," Draco shot back. "Anyone getting anything on IFF?"
"Negative," Cateran shot back, "but we've got our own transponders shut down. They might think we're pirates, too."
Onslaught came to a quick decision. "Grimlock, Draco, break high and right. See if you can get a visual on them, especially their markings. They might be playing ECM games but pirates would paint their unit markings on their planes."
"We're on it, sir!" Grimlock said enthusiastically. The two rookies' planes swung onto their new course with a flamboyant flourish.
"Show-offs," Cateran muttered darkly as he dodged a small asteroid. "Seven thousand klicks to the bogeys - "
"Wait a minute," Diamond cut in. "They've split up. Two just altered course to intercept Grimlock and Draco, the other two are still on us. This could be it."
"Copy. Going for visual contact, stand by," Draco snapped, tension vibrating through his voice.
"I'm going to open a comm channel to them," Onslaught told his subordinates. "Everyone, stay frosty."
"Lead, I can see one Excal that has Confed markings on its wings," Grimlock advised. "It looks like they're friendlies..."
And that was when the shooting started.
Deep Space, Nifelheim System
0015 Hours, 11 February 2681 (2681.042)
"All-righty then! Two capships at zero-five-one by three-zero-niner, type unknown," Storm exclaimed excitedly. "One's a big bastard but the other one I'm not too sure of."
"Hey, how about some more details?" Riot asked tartly. "You know, like they taught you at the Academy?"
"Yes, ma'am, right away, ma'am," Storm replied sarcastically, and then his voice turned serious. "Two capships at zero-five-one by three-zero-niner, type unknown, range approximately forty-five thousand klicks. One's noticeably bigger than the other but I can't get enough resolution to get exact data."
"Cloaking does have its down side," Kristy "Stardust" Joyce commented. A cloaking device bent electromagnetic energy around it, which prevented enemy sensors from detecting the craft it was mounted in. However the distortion also reduced the amount of energy returning to the cloaked fighter's sensors. Flying a cloaked fighter had been likened to searching a dark building while wearing camouflage fatigues and welding goggles - other people had a hard time spotting you but you had a hard time seeing anyone else.
"There's another one about a thousand klicks beyond the second contact," John "Bloodhawk" Hawke reported calmly. "It looks about the same size."
"Copy," Riot responded. "You've got good eyes, Bloodhawk." The dour pilot made no reply as the Scrappers closed in on the unidentified formation.
"Picking up fighters," Danica "Dancer" Owens reported, her voice cracking with tension. "Four of them, bearing zero-five-zero by three-five-one, range eighteen thousand klicks."
"Got them," Bloodhawk acknowledged coolly. "Passing from left to right at four hundred KPS, looks like a standard BARCAP. "
"Shift a few degrees left and they'll pass us with room to spare," Riot ordered her comrades. The Marauders banked slightly, making sure they kept a respectable distance from each other. After all there was no point in having a spectacular collision if you weren't able to brag about it afterwards.
"Anyone get a make on them?" Stardust asked after the patrolling fighters had left the Border Worlders in their wake. Various forms of the word "no" sounded over the tac net.
"I'm too busy concentrating on the capships," Zealot commented. "Number four just showed up. Two, three and four are in a supporting formation with the big boy leading by a few thousand klicks."
"Riot, I have a tentative size estimate on the lead vessel."
"Talk to me, Bloodhawk," the Border Worlds major urged.
"Medium to heavy cruiser. Closest equivalent I can find is a Tallahassee or a Repleetah-class," Hawke reported. "Hull's almost a perfect match for a Tallahassee but the power readings are on the low side."
Lynch let out a low whistle of appreciation. "I'm impressed, John. Bravo Zulu." Bravo Zulu was an old military phrase for a job done well, the highest expression of praise among fighter pilots. Bloodhawk accepted the compliment with stoic silence.
"You ever flown a stealth mobile before, 'Hawk?" Stardust asked curiously. "You seem to be pretty good at reading the scanners while we're cloaked."
"Just practice in the sims, Stardust," Bloodhawk told her curtly. "It worked for me."
"Heads up," Zealot advised. "There's a fifth capship about four thousand klicks behind the three unidentified ships. It's a lot smaller than the others, but I can't get a good read on it."
Riot cursed quietly. "That's more that the transport captains told us about. Bloodhawk, Dancer, I want you to sweep the rear of this little convoy and see if there's any more surprises. The rest of us will get behind a target and go for a passive torpedo lock until they report back, just to be on the safe side."
"Who goes where?" Zealot asked.
"I'm on the cruiser and you three get the other ones," Riot ordered. "Zealot has the nearest target, Stardust has the middle one, and Storm has the last one. Ignore the little one for the time being, we can take it later if we need to."
"Aren't you being a little bit paranoid?" Stardust asked her commander.
Riot sighed. "Remember it's not paranoia - "
" - if they're really out to get you," Storm finished, irony evident in his voice. "Got it. Let's hustle, then." The six cloaked fighters separated and made their way cautiously to their assigned targets. A few minutes later Bloodhawk's voice crackled over the comm.
"Nothing behind us except that last little capship and some patrolling fighters," he reported. "Orders?"
"Dancer, you go back and take up position behind that small ship," Riot ordered. "Bloodhawk, form on my wing and lock onto the cruiser's engines. Everyone wait for my word and we'll all decloak together." Tense seconds passed slowly then Riot's order came over the comm net. "Two one mark!"
The musical tone of torpedoes locking onto their targets was replaced in the pilots headphones by a shrieking howl as the six fighters shut down their cloaking devices.
Deep Space, Nifelheim System
0017 Hours, 11 February 2681 (2681.042)
"Jesus!" Grimlock screamed as tachyon gun blasts ripped into his forward shields, reducing them to almost nothing. He hurled his Intruder into a split-S and looked over his shoulder, trying to keep an eye on his attacker. 'Lose sight, lose the fight' was as true in the twenty-seventh century as it was in the twentieth.
"You okay, Grimlock?" Draco asked, tension crackling in his voice.
"Where the hell is that bastard? I'll fucking fry him!" Anthony Grimm hissed savagely, twisting his head back and forth to locate the Excalibur.
"Harbinger and Cateran have him padlocked," Draco told his wingman. "Onslaught's on the comm tearing them a new asshole. Seems they really are Confed reinforcements -- break left!"
The difficulty with dogfighting in an asteroid field is that you need to watch your rear in order to keep from being shot down, but you also need to watch your front in order to avoid flying into a large chunk of rock at several hundred kilometers per second. Anthony Grimm found this out the hard way as he snapped his head forward to see his fighter racing towards an asteroid the size of a corvette. He hastily jammed the HOTAS down and to the left, sending his Intruder into a sharp dive to the left, avoiding the huge piece of rock -- almost.
The shields protecting the Intruder's right wing clipped the asteroid, sending the fighter spinning headlong about its long axis. The young pilot was hurled about like a rag doll in his cockpit, centrifugal force slamming his helmeted head into the transpex canopy with a sickening crack. The HUD, the controls and the surrounding universe all faded from his view in a wash of gray.
Draco watched in horror as his wingman's fighter bounced off the asteroid and started spiraling off into the endless void. "Grimlock, straighten up!" he called over the comm. He watched in vain for a response but his wingman's plane kept spinning. Draco hurriedly switched his comm over to the frequency on which Onslaught was trading insults with the Confed flight leader.
"You can take your offer to fly escort for us back to our carrier and shove it somewhere painful 'till you bleed!" the Scrappers' leader snarled.
"Don't waste your time with them, boss," Diamond suggested before any of the Confederation pilots could reply. "They're too dense to learn any better. I mean, unprovoked attacks on Border Worlds craft was the same thing Confed did eight years ago!"
"That was the Black Lance, scheissekopf!" one of the Confed pilots barked. Jack snorted contemptuously.
"You mean there's a difference?" he asked, sarcasm and bemusement blended in his voice. One of the Confed pilots let out a guttural growl and an Excalibur began turning back to face the Border Worlds fighters. "Go ahead," the Scrappers' XO taunted, "give me an excuse!"
If this had been a normal patrol Draco could have sat back and listened to the squabbling between the two flights with a great deal of amusement, probably chipping in with a few comments of his own. But right now his wingman was in deep trouble.
"Onslaught, this is Draco - I need help!" he called.
"What's the situation?" Onslaught asked, the Confed pilots temporarily forgotten.
"Grimlock's in trouble! He went evasive after being shot up and ended up clipping an asteroid," the young pilot babbled. "He's out of control and not responding. Either he's unconscious or his controls are wrecked. What do I do?"
Onslaught swore viciously. "All right. Stick with him, we'll be there ASAP." He glanced at his radar and punched up an intercept course. "Scrappers, stick with me. Let's catch up with our little lost lamb."
"Need any help?" the leader of the Confed flight asked, concern in her voice.
"Do what you bloody want, Maneater. Just don't get in our way," Onslaught snapped angrily. The fact that one of his pilots had been shot at by people supposed to be allies had really angered him, but the possibility that the young rookie was injured or dead stretched his self-control to the very limit. "Draco, what's the status of Grimlock's fighter?"
"His shields are up and regenerating but still no response," Draco reported. Onslaught let out a sigh of relief even as the other Intruders formed up on his wing. He could see the two rookie pilots' fighters ahead even as he dodged around more orbiting debris. One wobbled along a corkscrewing path, shields occasionally flaring blue as micrometeors impacted. The other Intruder paralleled its course closely.
"Okay," the Scrappers' CO announced. "I don't think Grimlock's taken any major damage because his shield generator's still functional, so that means he's probably injured. Anyone got any ideas?"
"Cateran could sing to him. That noise would wake the dead," Diamond offered.
"Whatever we do we need to do it now," Harbinger urged. "I just checked the kid's course and there's a big bastard of an asteroid right smack dab in his flight path. He'll impact with it in thirty seconds."
Bridge, TCS Miles D'Arby
0018 Hours 11 February 2681 (2681.042)
"Camelot, Strike. Resume CAP station and await further orders. Break," the escort carrier Miles D'Arby's comm officer broadcast on the Guard frequency. "Union of Border Worlds Reserve Fleet, welcome to Nifelheim from the Confederation. Come up on 285.7, please," he urged.
"Any response?" Commodore Jeffrey Turnbull, the Confed task force's commander, asked. The comm operator shook his head.
"Still trying, sir. No response, so -- "
"Torpedo lock from dead astern!" a sensor operator suddenly yelled, eyes wide in fear. "Sir, we have multiple fighters decloaking throughout the fleet!"