PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 4 of 66 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
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?" asked Commodore Jeffrey Turnbull, the Confed task force's commander. 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!"
"Full evasive!" Captain Thomas Graham, the D'Arby's captain, ordered. "I want our fighters vectored onto those bogeys right now! Bring up the IFF or we'll end up shooting each other. Launch the rest of the alert birds!"
He turned to Turnbull and muttered one word. "Strakha."
Turnbull nodded grimly. "The Cats are at it again!" The Strakha stealth fighter fielded by the Kilrathi in their wars against humanity had lacked the ability to carry torpedoes but then, so had their Vaktoth heavy fighters. Now upgraded Vaktoths capable of carrying the shipkilling Spear torpedoes were serving in the fleets of the Assembly of Clans and the Cult of Sivar. Who was to say the Cats hadn't managed to upgrade their Strakhas in the same way?
"Captain, the Iwo Jima's also reporting torpedoes locked onto her!" the comm officer reported nervously.
"Order them to launch whatever aircraft they can," Turnbull ordered. With the attackers already locked onto the carriers, he had to save whatever resources he could. "How long until impact?" he asked the young ensign manning the sensors nearest him.
She frowned as she gazed into her screen, then looked up at the commodore with a perplexed expression on her face. "Sir, there aren't any impacts projected."
Turnbull looked down at the sensor operator, masking the curiosity and tension gnawing at his guts like a cancer. "Why not, ensign?" he asked in a deceptively mild voice.
"Because they haven't launched any torpedoes, sir," she replied, obviously at a loss for words. "Every ship in the fleet has torpedoes locked onto it but the fighters haven't fired yet. It doesn't make any sense!"
"Not to us, maybe, but it does to them," Turnbull commented. He was interrupted by a shout from the comm officer.
"Commodore, all ships report cessation of torpedo locks! Sabretooth Leader is requesting permission to fire on the enemy."
"Acknowledged," Turnbull replied curtly. "Tell Sabretooth Flight that weapons are tight. They do not have permission to shoot unless one of those fighters attacks a Confed ship. Get confirmation from them, understood?"
The doe-eyed ensign let out a sudden gasp as she watched her screen. "Sir the fighters have -- those bastards!"
"What have they done?" Turnbull barked, tension tightening his voice. Whoever these unknown fighters were, they were taking a hell of a risk for no obvious return. They should have fired their torpedoes as soon as they had finished decoding the capships' shield frequencies, but instead they had stayed right at ground zero as if taunting the Confed ships.
Could that be it? The Confederation officer had heard stories of the American Indians of Terra's eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and recalled how the warriors of some tribes had tested their courage by "counting coup." Instead of fighting with tomahawk or war club, they would strive simply to touch their enemies with a coup-stick and get away without inflicting any damage. Were these fighters just looking for bragging rights?
He wrenched his mind back to the present as the ensign quickly explained. "Sir, they've activated their IFF."
"Kilrathi?" Turnbull asked.
"No sir. They're Border Worlders." Captain Graham started to laugh quietly as comprehension struck him.
"The bogeys are showing Border Worlds ID codes, Commodore."
"All right. Tell our people to stand down," Turnbull advised. "It looks like our hosts decided to have some fun with us."
"Some fun!" Graham stopped laughing abruptly and realized that the D'Arby's Wing Commander was also on the bridge, watching quietly from a dark corner. "What the hell are you smiling at, Colonel?"
"They bounced us is all," Colonel Michael Black explained. "Fighter pilots do it to each other all the time -- you sneak up, take some gun camera film of your opponent's arse, who takes offence at becoming a film star and breaks hard into you. A dogfight starts and the bounced pilot tries to salve his pride by winning the dogfight and taking a few pictures of his opponent."
"What is the point of the exercise?" Graham asked, his voice dangerously soft.
"Simple," Black smiled again. "Bragging rights."
As if to confirm his words the comm officer's speaker crackled to life. "Confed taskforce this is Major Sandra Lynch, 349th Composite Fighter Squadron, Border Worlds Militia. Welcome to the Border Worlds, over." Even over the voice-only comm transmission, the officers on the D'Arby's bridge could detect the fierce grin on her face.
Deep Space, Nifelheim System
0018 hours, 11 February 2681 (2681.042)
"Okay, people, we've got thirty seconds to vape that asteroid. Let's do it!" Onslaught barked even as he opened fire. The other four Scrappers immediately followed suit, filling the void with particle and meson fire. As the massive chunk of rock was holding a relatively steady course all of the Intruders' shots were hitting it, but its sheer size meant the damage was minimal at best.
"Need any help, Onslaught?" a voice asked over the comm. The Scrappers' leader glanced at his comm display even as he shifted power from his shield generators to his guns and found himself looking at the leader of the flight of Confederation Excaliburs.
"We need that asteroid vaped ASAP, Maneater," he said tersely. "One of my boys was KO'ed when he was shot at by your people and he's on a collision course for it."
"Got it," she replied crisply. "You heard the man, Camelot Flight!" All four Excaliburs immediately opened up with full guns on the shard of space debris. While not as agile as the Intruders the Excaliburs packed more firepower, their four tachyon guns and two ion guns doing a lot more damage than the Intruders' twin particle guns and meson blasters.
But will it be enough? Onslaught wondered. The damned rock was still mostly intact despite the abuse the fighters were subjecting it to, and Grimm's Intruder was still careening towards it. "Dammit, Grimlock, get it together!" he roared over the comm at a volume which made the listeners wince. "You hear me? Start dodging or you're dead!" He mutely watched as the Intruder continued on its unsteady course and mentally counted the time to impact. Eight seconds, seven, six...
"Wha - Jesus!" Grimm's fighter steadied for a second then shot into a booster climb to clear the asteroid even as it finally shattered. The young pilot's Intruder tore in front of one of the Excaliburs and only the Confederation pilot's superb reflexes prevented a collision. Onslaught let out a sigh of relief.
"Welcome back to the land of the living," he commented dryly. "Care to tell me just what the hell happened?"
"I went evasive after that Confee shot at me and I clipped an asteroid," Grimm moaned. Onslow's brow furrowed in concern -- the kid didn't sound fully awake or coherent. "My helmet slammed into the canopy and I was out like a light."
"Are you okay?" Diamond asked urgently, concern obvious in his voice.
"Dunno," Grimlock answered hesitantly. "Whoa... on second thoughts, no, I'm definitely not okay. I'm as dizzy as if I tried keeping up with you on a night on the town, sir. And that isn't a good thing."
"Oh really? What have you heard about my nights on the town?" Diamond asked coyly.
That's it Jack, Onslaught thought approvingly, keep him busy and awake. If the kid's taken a head wound, the last thing we need is for him to go unconscious. He hurriedly opened a comm channel to the Sicily. "Sicily, this is Echo Leader. I need you to give us a course to get us out of this asteroid field, then we've got to RTB ASAP. Be advised, one of my pilots is wounded so make sure there's a medical team standing by."
"Copy, Echo Leader. We're sending the new navpoints to you now and we'll make sure there are medics waiting for you on the flight line. Bring it on home."
Wing Commander's Office, BWS
0047 Hours, 11 February 2681 (2681.042)
"So how's your pilot doing?" Colonel Jack Tanagawa asked Paul Onslow as he studied his PDA. It displayed the report the militia squadron's leader had submitted upon returning to the Sicily. Onslow hadn't really gotten to know him even though he served under him and had read his file. Tanagawa had flown for the Confederation against the Kilrathi in the First Kilrathi War, as had many of the Border Worlds' veteran pilots, before leaving the armed forces as part of the massive Reduction In Force at the end of the war. Moving to the Border Worlds he had ended up flying against his former comrades when the Confederation and Border Worlds had been set at each other's throats by the Black Lance's machinations. His most recent combat experience was in the Bush campaign where he had led a fighter squadron and had been shot down in a fleet defense battle. Since then he had taught at the Academy until he had been called up a week ago to command the Sicily's air wing.
"The doctors say he's got a minor concussion. There's no sign of a skull fracture but he's being kept in sickbay for observation," Onslow replied. As soon as he'd landed Grimm had apologized profusely for what he'd seen as his incompetent flying and putting his comrades at needless risk. The Scrappers' leader had dealt with many pilots who had an overabundance of self-confidence but few who lacked it as much as Grimm did. Yet another problem to deal with...
The wing commander finished reading the report and glanced up at Onslow. "The commander of the Confed task force wasn't too happy at what your Marauders did to his ships."
"Poor baby," Onslow replied unsympathetically. He lacked John Hawke's loathing of the Confederation but he held little love for it either, having seen too many friends die fighting Confed eight years ago.
Tanagawa chuckled. "I bet when he heard that a militia squadron was flying cloaked attack fighters he was even more pissed."
"Wait until he finds out the Tanfenners are running around with them," Onslow commented wryly. "He'll probably need to change his underwear."
"Just remember that they only have them until this little shindig is over," Tanagawa warned. Onslow looked at his commander.
"So don't tell them," he suggested innocently. "It'll be fun watching them squirm."
Tanagawa was about to reply when a knock sounded on his office door. "Come in!" he called and Andy Foster, chief technician for the 349th, walked in.
The balding grease monkey, for once dressed in a relatively clean uniform, saluted Tanagawa and stood at attention. "Sir, I've got business with Colonel Onslow and also with you," he told the Sicily's Wing Commander. Tanagawa nodded.
"What's on your mind, Sergeant?" he inquired. Foster took a deep breath.
"Two things, sir. Let's start with the first." He passed a PDA to each of the two colonels. "I finished the present for Colonel Tanagawa you asked me for, Paul," he told Onslow. "Didn't take much work. You and Jack didn't do all that much damage to it, just scorched some armor before you knocked it out. Anyway the bird's ready to fly and has its new plumage."
"What bird?" Tanagawa asked curiously. Foster smirked and slid a computer disc into the office's Tri-D holoplayer. He pressed the power button and a three-dimensional picture of a fighter appeared above the desk.
"This bird down on the flight deck," the aging technician answered. "When we tangled with those pirates in Seggalion their leader was flying this. Colonel Onslow and Major DeVille managed to leech his fighter and capture him. He's down below in the forward cargo hold with the other prisoners and his fighter's been fixed, repainted and is now ready for you to use."
Foster rotated the picture slightly to reveal the Border Worlds insignia on the wings and the wing commander's "00" identification number on its vertical stabilizers. Zooming in on the cockpit he focused on the pilot's name neatly stenciled under the edge of the canopy - Colonel Jack "Samurai" Tanagawa.
Tanagawa studied the hologram almost hungrily. "That's an Excalibur A? It's been ages since I've flown one." He shifted his gaze to Foster and asked, "Does it have a cloaking device?"
"Afraid not, sir, although that's probably a good thing," Foster replied. "We'd have lost a lot more of our people if Gorthaur had a cloaking system."
Onslow nodded grimly. "That guy was good. So, Colonel, are you going to claim your new toy before someone else takes it out for a spin?"
"Anyone who tries flying that baby before me gets kicked off the flight roster," Tanagawa growled. He grinned sheepishly at Onslow. "Okay, I'll need time in the sims to get back up to speed but you've got another pilot on the roster."
"Great!" Onslow applauded. "With all the stories about just how nasty the Nephilim are, I can't help feeling we'll need every pilot we can get in the cockpit." He turned to Foster and asked, "What was the other thing you wanted to discuss, Andy?"
Foster looked at him somberly. "I finished checking out Jack's machine to find out just what went wrong in the fight in Seggalion. The data's on your PDAs."
"Wait a minute," Tanagawa objected. "I didn't have a fighter allocated to me until just now, and I sure as hell didn't fly in that fight a few days ago - "
"Um, sir, he's talking about my XO," the Scrappers' leader interrupted. "His name's Jack DeVille."
"Oh. I forgot." There was a slight pause then the wing commander asked Foster, "So what was the result of your tests?"
"Sir," the master sergeant began, "Major DeVille's fighter experienced a malfunction of its decoy system during combat with pirate forces in the Seggalion System two days ago. Upon landing, Colonel Onslow ordered me to conduct a full examination of Major DeVille's fighter - "
"Excuse me, Sarge, but we're not in Confed," Colonel Tanagawa gently told the technician. "Don't talk formal to me. I used to be a pilot too, remember."
Foster had a look of obvious relief on his face. "Okay, sir. Anyway, we traced the problem to the starboard decoy dispenser."
"Someone on your crew screwed up?" Onslow asked. "Okay, which poor bastard did you throw off the end of the flight deck?"
"None yet because it wasn't my people who did this," Foster replied darkly. "The problem was actually a faulty decoy. Now, a heat-seeker decoy is designed to burn some form of incendiary material to distract the missile - the principle's been around since the mid-twentieth century. The fun thing with this decoy was that the fuse was cut down to almost nothing and the propellant charge was reduced."
"Bottom line?" Tanagawa asked. Foster's expression turned even fiercer.
"Sabotage. The idea was that if Jack tried popping decoys then this one wouldn't be thrown clear due to lack of propellant, but it still would have gone off. The burning warhead would have probably set off the rest of the decoys in the bay, causing a major fire. As the decoy launchers are set near the fuel tank for the afterburners, the fire could easily have set off the fuel. As a result Jack's fighter would have gone up like a bomb. The SAR team would be lucky to find any bits bigger than your little finger," he concluded with rage in his eyes.
Paul Onslow took a deep breath. "So why didn't it go off?" he asked his chief technician.
"From what I can tell, all the tinkering with the fuse stuffed it up to the point where it wouldn't go off unless you put a high-voltage electrical charge through it. Seems our would-be assassin outsmarted himself."
"Jesus Christ," Tanagawa muttered. "I didn't think we'd have any incidents this soon." Onslow looked at him sharply.
"You mean there's been other incidents of sabotage? I thought this one was personal but maybe I was wrong."
"What made you think it was personal?" Tanagawa asked, watching Onslow like a hawk. The 349th's leader looked embarrassed as he realized he'd blurted out information he'd rather have kept within his own command. "Okay, talk to me. Who tried dropping the hammer on him before?"
"The CEO of Tanfen in the Lennox System," Onslow replied heavily. At the wing commander's inquiring look he admitted, "The CEO's got two sexy granddaughters and Jack DeVille has a wandering eye."
"Were they minors?" the wing commander frowned.
"From Jack's comments I think they were both pretty major," Onslow replied dryly. Tanagawa looked distinctly not amused. "Sir, they were both legal. Their grandfather is just a little overprotective."
"I just hope your XO can keep his mind on the job."
"Colonel, if lechery's bad enough to get someone discharged from the Border Worlds military, then half the pilots in the Space Force would be looking for new jobs," Paul Onslow shot back. "I've flown with Jack DeVille for years and I'd trust him with my life any day of the week."
Tanagawa held his hands up in mock surrender. "Okay, okay, settle down. If you don't have any problems with him than neither do I."
Paul Onslow took a deep breath to calm himself. Getting into a shouting match with a superior officer was never a good idea, even in a military with rules as loose-goose as the Border Worlds armed forces. "Sorry, sir. I guess I'm a little edgier than I thought," he apologized.
"That's all right. You're not the only one stressing out," the Sicily's wing commander admitted. The Scrappers' CO saw the opening and lunged for it.
"Why? Is it those other incidents of sabotage you referred to?" he asked. Tanagawa studied the two militiamen for several seconds then spoke.
"None of what I tell you leaves this office. Is that clear?" he asked. As the two Scrappers nodded he continued. "There's been several cases of sabotage reported in the Combined Fleet during this campaign. On February 3rd the corvette Jones was crippled by a bomb placed in her engineering spaces. Intel thinks the Society of Mandarins was behind it. Also there have been some strange incidents on the TCS Endeavour. Somebody is sending doom-and-gloom emails to various officers and is doing their best to make their predictions come true."
Onslow shook his head. "Just when you think you've seen it all along comes something even weirder," the scarred Colonel commented. "The whole idea of the Mandarins was to let the enemy win and destroy them from the inside. But in order to do that you have to make sure your enemy will let you live long enough to screw them over. From what we've seen of the Nephilim, they don't operate that way."
"I know," Tanagawa agreed. "I've seen the footage of what happened at Dakota. But I'm not going to try to psychoanalyze those losers. The point is that sabotage has taken place and we've got to take precautions against it happening here. So if Sergeant Foster is willing I'll assign some Marines to provide security. Is that okay with you, Sergeant?" he asked the 349th's chief technician.
"Sir, that's exactly what I was going to ask you to do," Foster admitted. "That's if there were any Marines who can function as techies. That way we can mix them in with my people so they'll be less conspicuous."
"You've got a deal," the wing commander said. He looked over to the Scrappers' CO and asked "Anything else?"
"Yeah," Onslow replied slowly. "I suggest we keep our mouths shut about what happened to Jack's fighter. We're having enough trouble getting my people and the Tanfenners to work together without this."
Tanagawa nodded vigorously. "Right. Our pilots need to be able to trust each other, especially with the Nephilim due here in a week. Otherwise we're all dead."
Lounge, BWS Sicily
0109 hours, 11 February 2681 (2681.042)
"He said they'd be here in a week?" Vincent Tsu asked his leader.
"Yup," Paul Onslow
answered. He took a mouthful of coffee and swallowed. "He
didn't let slip what sort of condition the front-line units are
it can't be too good."
"Well, the whole idea was for them to buy time for us to get here," Tsu countered. "Now that we're here -- "
"Bzzzzt! Wrong answer!" Jack DeVille cut in. "The idea was to buy time for any available Confed or UBW reinforcements to get here, so if any other militia squadrons show up we can incorporate them into the defensive arrangements."
Tsu snorted. "Dream on. With the cuts in the last budget the military's sliced to the bone as it is. Maybe Confed can cut some extra squadrons loose from the Inner Worlds Fleets."
DeVille cut loose with a snort almost as sardonic as Tsu's. "Oh yeah, buddy, we got a few squadrons of Confed reinforcements all right. And look what happened!"
"I know, I know. I was there, too, remember?"
The Scrappers' second-in-command was about to reply when his attention suddenly focused on the lounge's holovid. The unit was tuned to the news feed from the Border Worlds Broadcasting Network, and Onslow recalled his complaint the previous day about the media being more informative than Fleet intelligence. A news reader with perfect hair and an immaculate suit faded from the screen to be replaced by a considerably less attractive reporter dressed in less stylish but more practical clothing.
"Thanks, Rupert," the reporter acknowledged. "We've just received confirmation of some unofficial news from the Nephele system where a fleet of both Confederation and Border Worlds units is fighting a delaying action against a previously unknown alien race. Confederation navy officials have confirmed the loss of an entire carrier group to the enemy known only as the Nephilim."
"Oh my God," Tsu groaned. "This early in the campaign?" He hurriedly shut up as the HV's screen changed to a split-view display to show the reporter on one side and the BWBN anchorman on the other.
"Liam, has the Confederation Navy released any further details?" Rupert the anchorman asked, a well-rehearsed expression of concern on his face.
"Yes, Rupert, we were able to find out which ships were lost," the field reporter answered. "They were the carrier Bunker Hill, the heavy cruiser Kinshasa and the destroyers Glasgow and New Delhi. From what we have been told the ships were lost with all hands. With modern rescue techniques that is very rare, unless the enemy wishes to make sure there are no survivors at all."
"Like the situation towards the end of the First Kilrathi War when Kilrathi pilots would destroy ejection pods from Terran fighters and capships," the anchorman commented. The field reporter nodded.
"Exactly. Now the Bunker Hill was a Concordia-class carrier capable of carrying up to ninety fighters and her flight wing had been reequipped with Confed's most modern fighters. Also, the Kinshasa was a Plunkett-class cruiser carrying a squadron of fighters in addition to her own extremely heavy armament. Lastly the two destroyers were Murphy-class ships, designed for anti-fighter work and carrying eight fighters each. So as you can see, Rupert, the Bunker Hill's battle group was an extremely powerful force."
"Which raises the question of just how powerful this enemy is," the anchorman added on cue.
"That question is on the minds of many Confederation naval officers right now," Liam replied. "As is a question tied in to the loss of the Bunker Hill. Can this enemy be stopped?"
Jack shut off the holovid in disgust and returned to his two colleagues. "Bloody newsies," he muttered, hoping to break the bleak depression, which had settled over the lounge like a lead blanket. It didn't work.
"You know," Tsu said suddenly as he stared morosely into his coffee, "it's times like this which really convince me that Murphy's Law is a universal constant. Anything which can go wrong will go wrong to the worst possible degree at the worst possible time."
Onslow looked up at his two subordinates. "It's times like this when I believe in Riley's Law," he admitted.
"What's that?" Jack DeVille asked curiously.
"The belief that Murphy was an optimist."