PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 47 of 66 )
“ Toeing the Line ”
"The young aviator lay dying
And as in the hangar he lay
To the mechanics who 'round him were standing
These last parting words he did say:
'Take the cylinders out of my kidneys,
And the connecting rod out of my brain,
From out of my arse take the crankshaft,
And assemble the engine again.'"
- Traditional Aviator's Song
TCS Miles D'Arby; Bridge
13th February 2681
1735 Hours ZULU
“Sir, there's a gravity wave just been detected near the Elohim jump point. An EM burst preceded it."
"Jump point opening?" Captain Thomas Graham, the TCS Miles D'Arby's commanding officer asked.
"I believe so, sir," the sensor operator confirmed.
"How big?" Graham demanded.
"Large reading. At least one capital ship, probably more. I'd say at least six."
"It should be our long-awaited convoy," Graham said, absently scratching his jaw, " Vector some fighters to intercept anyway. Better safe than sorry. The convoy will get on the horn when they realize things are safe, I should think, but until then, we'll take no chances."
13th February 2681
1737 Hours ZULU
"There's a very large trace coming your way from the Elohim jump point, and you're to intercept. Multiple capital ships. It's probably that legendary convoy we keep hearing about, but don't take any chances, it may not be." Strike relayed the instructions verbatim to the nearest CAP flight of Excaliburs.
"Something fishy here: If it's the convoy, why are they in silent running? Why not give us the big cheery hello?" Zack "Polaxe" Kocinski pondered out loud.
"Maybe they aren't breaking radio silence because it's a war zone!" Captain James "Chip" Chippenham suggested.
"Oh, come on! They know we're here and this system is safe and sound," protested Poleaxe.
"I don't bloody know, do I?" Chip snorted in exasperation. "What am I, psychic or something?"
"Look, keep sharp, but don't fire unless I give the word," he told Poleaxe," we don't want another Mongrel muck-up, do we?"
I'm not happy about this. Not happy at all. Poleaxe grumbled to himself. It doesn't sit right, it doesn't make sense. If they're not hiding from the bugs, who are they hiding from? Us? And why, if it is the convoy?
"Camelot , Strike. Avengers from
"Copy, Strike." About time, too, Chip thought. They should have some bombers on a CAP station ready. I'll suggest it when we get back, he decided.
"That was quick," Poleaxe commented, his voice lacking its usual ironic acid. He was genuinely surprised that the Border Worlder controllers were not only on the ball, but sharper than the Confed ones normally were.
"Yes," agreed Chip, "and without being asked, too!"
"Camelot, Strike. Update your target: Vector 210 by 355 for 20."
"Let's get some lateral separation on this convoy, then we'll go stealthy. Have a quick burn, then shut the engines off when I give the word," Commodore Garrison Murdoch ordered.
Seconds ticked by as the TCS Hades sliced away on a tangent from the main convoy.
"Okay, that'll do. Go silent running now." Sprint and drift, the old time submarine commanders called it. Run like hell for a few seconds, then listen to see if anyone has heard you. A trade-off between speed and stealth. "Turn us dead-on to those interceptors. I don't want them to see our engine exhaust flare," Murdoch instructed the conn. "Right, I want this next burn to drop us in behind them. So, at the rate they're traveling…"
"I understand, sir," said the young Lt. JG manning the conn. Time the burn so that the Hades would arrive where the fighters had passed through a few moments before.
The Excalibur pilots could almost identify the ships of the convoy visually now. In fact, Poleaxe was certain he could make out the outline of a Caernaven-class frigate leading the convoy, and said so.
"That's a Caernaven. That rules out Nephilim, then," Poleaxe thought out loud, "but not smugglers, pirates, Tanfen or Bord…" he trailed off.
"Yes," Chip agreed to himself, knowing what Poleaxe had been thinking. He switched onto Guard, and transmitted. "Unidentified vessels, you are ordered to heave-to and turn on your IFF transponders. Failure to comply will result in you being considered as hostile, and treated accordingly." Two of the unidentified blips on his scanner turned light blue. His targeting computer showed two Caernaven-class frigates: The TCS Peredur and the TCS Caerleon. Suddenly Chip remembered that civilians used a different Guard (emergency) channel to the military, he selected that and retransmitted his warning. Almost immediately the rest of the blips turned blue and he heaved a sigh of relief.
"Camelot, check six!" An unknown voice over the ether. Probably an Avenger driver, Chip realized even as he whipped his head round to look over his shoulder. Nothing. Other shoulder. Zip. What the fuck?
"I don't see anything!" he said petulantly.
"Me either no, waitasec…" Poleaxe sounded unsure. "I caught movement. Yes, something's blocking out the stars as it passes across them!"
"Unidentified vessel, identify yourself immediately or you will be fired upon!" The Excaliburs arced around toward the mysterious shadow. Chip could see the Avengers storming in from another angle. Whatever this thing is, it's gonna get a bloody nose in about 10 seconds.
"Sir?" Lt. Grennan looked up, puzzled at the order not to break radio silence at the challenge.
"Keep quiet. I want to see just how good the stealth features on this tub are. I want to see how close we can get," Murdoch told his comms officer.
"Aye, aye, sir."
He thinks I'm just having fun, Murdoch realized from the man's tone. I'm not, this information may be invaluable in a few hours time. How close can we sneak up on the Nephilim before they spot us could be the difference between victory and defeat. Between life and death. Predatory animals learn their hunting skills in play. Let him think I'm playing, then.
"Still can't get a solid torpedo lock!" the Avenger leader griped.
"What the fuck is it?" Chip asked rhetorically.
"I don't know! I don't recognize it, and you know, I clean forgot to bring along my copy of 'Jane's Fighting Ships'!"
"We're in next year's edition," an unfamiliar voice broke in. A blue blip popped into existence on their scanners, but the targeting computer couldn't ID the ship.
"And just who the fuck would you be, then?" Chip demanded.
"Commodore Garrison Murdoch, commanding the TCS Hades. And you would be?"
Shit! "Captain James Chippenham, Confederation Space Force, flying off the TCS Miles D'Arby, sir."
"Good. Now we've got all that sorted out, I'd be glad if you could escort us to the task force. I'd like to speak to its commander."
TCS Miles D'Arby; Captain's Quarters
1803 Hours ZULU
"Are you ordering me back to Tamayo?" Murdoch growled.
"You know as well as I do that I can't do that, even if I wanted to!" Commodore Jeff Turnbull told him. "Your commission is senior to mine. You are the ranking Confed officer in-system. I can't order you to do anything. All I'm doing is conveying the fact that our superiors are screaming blue bloody murder for you to go back before you throw away what's left of your career."
"What career?" Murdoch sneered, "I joined this Navy to fight, not to sit on my hands doing endless, pointless tests! If I don't do this, I may as well have resigned."
"Well then, all I can suggest is you keep going to Loki, and see Hanton. Good luck."
"Planning on it. And thanks. We're going to need it!"
13th February 2681
2002 Hours ZULU
Captain Tony "Rat" Carruthers glanced at his watch for the fifth time in two minutes, and shook his head. He should have asked her if she wanted to see a movie. No, maybe not. There was a remake of Casablanca or something like that, or a cheesy B-movie war film to choose from. And anyway, he wanted to talk to her. He could do that here, but not in a movie theatre. It wasn't as if there was even a restaurant he could take her to, even on the station.
Rat sipped his Guinness. He was on the black and not lager so that he wouldn't just gulp the stuff back and get shit-faced. Guinness was far too heavy to do that with. Rat had a reputation as a drinker, but truth be told, he was a bit of a lightweight when it came to anything other than lager.
Calm down, wanker! he told himself. It's only a couple of minutes after eight. She'll be here.
Right on cue there was a tap on his right shoulder. He turned his head to say "hello," and Danica "Dancer" Owens slid onto the barstool on his left.
"You're looking miserable," she said, "thinking I wasn't going to turn up?"
"Thought never crossed my mind for a second," Rat lied, "what're you drinking?"
"Get me a martini, please. Don't look now," Dani said, "but your Major Ross and Jack are getting on rather well together."
"What?" Rat looked over, ignoring Dani's advice to be subtle, "That's strange. She's supposed to be on Avernus. Mongrel's at the pool table - he's stationed there, too. Oh, hell, I hope everyone doesn't start hanging out over here - I could do without Viking giving me grief."
"What's wrong with Viking?" Dancer asked.
"What's right with him?" Rat muttered.
"Must be the time of year. Everyone seems to be pairing off," Dani observed.
"Do you fancy going to the flicks instead? There's a slushy one on," Rat suggested as he tried to slip his arm round her waist.
"No, thank you, Tony," Dancer said, moving her stool a few inches away from him, out of arms reach. "We can have a few drinks and a chat. Get to know each other, have a laugh."
"Right you are. Here's your drink."
"Thanks. So what is it with you two?" inquired Owens. "You and Viking, I mean."
"He's a prick, basically."
"Hmmm. People say the same about you," she said seriously, "there must be more of a reason than that."
"We never really got on. Mud-mover versus
'proper' fighter pilot. You know how it is. But what really set it off
was what happened a couple of days ago. Vike got his
arse kicked in an exercise we held. He wanted a bit of revenge to get rid of his
rage and frustration. He decided to bounce a flight of Bearcats from the
"Hardly an excuse for a blood feud."
"Only the Bearcats weren't from the
"Oh?" Dani raised an eyebrow. "I thought you'd have just smiled sweetly for the camera: Rumor has it you star in several pornographic home videos."
"Quite possibly," Rat grinned, not bothering to deny it, "but I don't roll over and take it up the arse for anyone, and certainly not without one hell of a fight!"
"No, I'm sure you don't!" Dani agreed with a knowing smile.
"Moving swiftly on, a dogfight naturally ensued. Viking decided to leg it on full afterburner, 1,000 KPS. That's an awkward speed for a Bearcat, so I was jockeying reheat and mil to stay with him."
"What about matching target speed?" Dani interjected.
"Bad habit. Usually easier and better to do it manually so you don't have to keep pressing the button, or forget you've got it on and wonder why the throttle seems to be stuck. It can cost you seconds when the target suddenly changes speed, though. Which is just what Viking did, of course."
By this time Rat had put down his drink, and was using both hands to illustrate the dogfight. He was doing it without thinking, an instinctive behavior pilots had dubbed "hangar flying."
"Viking wouldn't accept that with a Bearcat on his tail he was beaten. So he pulled some sort of Vaktoth move or something he'd seen in the War: He slammed the throttle shut and pulled some sort of a 'death spiral' or barrel roll at the same time. I still don't know what he was thinking." Rat shook his head.
"So here I am," he continued, "grunting and sweating, tugging on my joystick -- "
"Huh? Oh, very funny! Anyway, I glanced down at a VDU, or blinked some sweat out of my eye or something - "
"Took your eye off the ball, you mean."
"Aye, right enough. So by the time I saw what was happening I couldn't avoid hitting the damn jug. I slammed into it at full throttle... 1400 KPS closure."
"Aye, you can say that again. Cost the squadron an F-104 because I had to punch out. Twice inside a week! The flight surgeon says if I eject again he'll ground me until I get a full planetside check up. It's in the regs, apparently. Three ejections is an automatic medical grounding."
"Bummer. So what happened?"
"Nothing! A truce, I suppose. I ignore his flagrant breach of flight safety regulations and he ignores me punching him in the face."
"An amicable divorce, was it?" Dani said sarcastically. Rat just laughed.
"Would you hit me if I decided on a radical change of pace resulting in us coming together?" asked Dani.
"A punch in the face isn't exactly the physical contact I had in mind, no."
"I'll bet it wasn't!" She grinned. "A sweatband," she said suddenly.
"A sweatband. Or a skull cap, maybe. Something like that would stop the sweat running into your eyes."
"Yeah, thanks. I'll have to remember that. So, about that radical change of pace…"
"Don't push your luck, mister."
"So what do you do when you're not being a pilot?" Dani asked.
"Would you believe me if I said I was a male stripper?"
"What, with that beer belly?" Dani playfully slapped his slight paunch. "No, I wouldn't!"
"Guess I'll just have to tell you the truth then. I'm a journalist."
"What, a reporter? A paparazzi?"
"Nah, nowt like that. Well, I used to be an investigative reporter when I were younger, but now I do aviation, aerospace, technology. Boring stuff like that. Do a bit of photography as well, too."
"Photography? What, aviation? Wildlife? Nudes?"
"Some of my subjects certainly have some great curves, and very little covering their skin…"
"I see," Dani said icily, getting up to leave.
"Sit down! I was only kidding. It's aviation photography. The only naked skin I see is the bare-metal finish of high performance fighters."
"I'm sorry, Tony. My friends have you pegged as a lecherous swine, and I'm afraid I jumped to conclusions."
"Your friends are right," said Rat matter-of-factly.
"Pardon?" Owens brain rebelled for a moment against what her ears told it.
"They're right. I don't remember the last girl I didn't get into bed on the first date. Or even before."
"You won't be getting me into bed tonight!"
"I know," said Rat, "I wasn't planning on it!"
"Oh, charming!" Dani snapped. "Don't you fancy me?"
"Yes, of course I do! I just, well, I wanted a, a relationship with you, not just a quick fumble and onto the next conquest."
"Growing up at last, are you?"
"Maybe. Amazing how the imminent possibility of violent death can change your perspective on life and make you take a look at your priorities."
"Tell me about it."
That killed the conversation for a few minutes. Rat idly swirled the last couple of mouthfuls of his Guinness, staring at the spiral pattern the creamy-white bubbles made in the black liquid.
"Sorry," he told her, "conversation's not my hottest point. Normally, after my brilliant chat up line my mouth is being used for other things."
"Oh yes?" Dani grinned, "you must be good at those other things."
"I am. Very good."
"You may yet get the opportunity to prove it."
"But not tonight?" Rat said, a statement more than a question.
"No, not tonight."
"'Not tonight dear, I've got a headache'."
"You will have, if you don't watch it!" Dani said, but she was laughing.
"Come on," Rat tugged at her arm, "let's have a dance!"
14th February 2681
0132 Hours ZULU
"Eh, amigo, que pasa? You're back early. You get into that chiquita's panties yet?" Greaser was lying on his cot as Rat entered their room.
"None of your bloody business!" Rat shot back.
"Ah, you haven't. Too bad. Losing your touch, or does she prefer women?"
"Piss off, Greaser. Keep your sordid little fantasies to yourself." Rat said it in a joking manner, but Greaser could tell he was serious. He realized he shouldn't push him too far.
"A man can dream, can't he? Besides, haven't you ever been with more than one girl at once?"
"Yes, I have actually."
"Well, she's got that nice friend -- "
"Joyce? She's a bit of a bitch, actually."
"Maybe, mano, but I wouldn't kick her out of bed, eh?"
"I've met your wife, remember? You wouldn't throw a hippo out of bed."
"Watch it, amigo! That's my woman you're talking about!" Greaser sighed wistfully. "You know, when I first met Maria she was the queen of the beauty pageant. Here, I've got a holo somewhere…"
Greaser rummaged in his wallet and fished out a faded print. He tossed it to Rat who nodded appreciatively.
"Not bad at all. Quite a looker. So what happened? Last time I saw her she - "
"She'd put on a few pounds, I know. Well, you see, I didn't marry her for her looks."
"No?" Rat was surprised.
"Her cooking. It's the greatest. You should taste her chili!"
"I did. She cooked that huge meal for all of us that time."
"That's right. So you know her cooking is something else. Only problem is, she's as fond of it as I am."
"Well, you know, it's the same with those Italian women," explained Greaser, "when they're young they're the prettiest things in the world. Then the pasta and meatballs -- "
"Or tacos and chili…"
"Yeah, you know, then that kicks in and boom -- they ain't sweet and petite no more."
"Well, great looks don't last, but great cooks do, I suppose. And you know what they say: 'Big girls are like scooters...fun to ride until your mates see you!'"
"And hey, you can always get yourself a bit on the side, can't you, Rat?" Greaser winked at him.
"Huh!" Rat grunted.
"What? Most of the guys here envy you, a different girl every week. You'll never get tired of the same old pussy!"
"Ha! If only they knew!" He shook his head and flopped down onto his cot.
"Knew what?" Greaser asked.
"Forget it, man. Just forget it." Rat rolled over, turning away from Greaser. "And turn that bloody light out!" he growled. Greaser gave Rat a long, hard stare before turning out the light.