PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 48 of 66 )

: Scraps of Honour
PART 11 OF 15 : TILL DEATH DO US PARTY
( 1 / 3 )


 


BWS Sicily; Flight Wing Quarters
Nifelheim System
0119 Hours,
14 February 2681 (2681.045)

Even aboard a warship preparing to go to war there are relatively quiet places, especially in the quiet hours between midnight and morning. Theoretically, a vessel traveling through space doesn't have a day or night, but the people aboard her find the concept vital to their mental equilibrium. At a certain time the subconscious mind says, "Now's the time for you to go beddy-bye." Granted, it can be overcome through training but the tendency to rest at night still exists, taking the edge off alertness. At least the slim figure silently padding down the empty corridor to the pilots' quarters certainly hoped so. Her eyes flicked left to right, watching for anyone else in the corridor as she approached the door to one particular squadron's bunkroom.  She punched the activation code into the door's keypad and stood aside as it slid open. Quietly she stepped into the barracks, letting the door close behind her as she took a moment to orient herself. Now all she had to do was make it to - 

A bedside lamp flicked on, bathing the room in light. 

Goddammit! 

"Took your time coming home," Vincent Tsu commented as he wiped the sleep from his eyes. "So how did the date with your new boyfriend go?" 

Danica Owens let out an exasperated sigh. "He's not my boyfriend, okay, Vince? His name is Tony Carruthers, he's a Bearcat driver from the D'Arby and we had a few drinks and some laughs. And that is frigging all!" With silence no longer an issue, the slender blonde walked over to her bunk and sat down on it. Her eyes shifted to meet those of John Hawke, her wingleader and friend, who rested on the bunk next to hers. Hawke mutely raised an eyebrow which Dani acknowledged with a brief nod. It's amazing just how well we know each other, she reflected as she began unlacing her boots. The two of them could exchange information with slight gestures that other people would need whole sentences to convey. 

"Is this Carruthers guy about five foot eight with dark hair and a broad English accent?" Alex Morgan asked, his brown hair mussed from the pillow. But his eyes were alert as he looked at Dani. For her part Dani wondered just how Alex managed to wake so quickly and fully from deep sleep. Must be a privateer thing, she decided. Constant fear of waking up with a slit throat or a laser pistol to your temple was bound to teach the ability to awaken instantly.  

"Yeah, that's him. How do you know him?" Dani asked curiously. The former privateer grinned. 

"We had a political argument down on the flight deck a few days ago," he explained. "Seems to be an okay guy, doesn't really give a toss about rank and doesn't seem to tolerate crap from anyone." His handsome features twisted in a smile. "Hell, if he wasn't a Confed pilot he'd fit right in with us." 

Kristy Joyce sat up in her bunk and flipped her own light on, her strawberry-blond hair in disarray as she glared at her wingman. "You can't be serious. You think that lecherous so-and-so could keep up with us in a furball?" 

"He was running around in a Bearcat with our group during that strike exercise," Dani stated flatly. "He and his wingman both made it out of the furball in one piece, so he can't be too bad in the cockpit." 

"Besides," Todd McLaughlin cut in, "if a lecherous so-and-so can't fly well enough to meet our standards, then how the hell did Jack become our XO?" The Scrappers' medic had no reply to that. 

"Dani?"  

The platinum-blonde pilot grimaced at the soft-spoken query. She had nothing in particular against Anthony Grimm, one of the two newest members of the Scrappers, but why in God's name would none of her friends give her some privacy? Maybe the fact that this had been her first real date since she'd graduated from the Academy, or possibly the fact that she was stuck on the same ship as the creature -- she wouldn't dignify Gorthaur by calling him a man - who had repeatedly raped her, had kicked their protective urges into overdrive. "Yes, Anthony?" she asked tiredly as she kicked her boots off. 

"Enjoy yourself?" Grimm asked softly from the bunk next to the one upon which Dani sat.  

Dani smiled. "Yeah, I did. Thanks for asking," she replied as she looked at Grimm. The overspill from Vince's light bled the color from the rookie's face, turning his hair as pale as Dani's and made him look even younger as he shrugged uncomfortably. 

"Think nothing of it." The young man fidgeted for a couple of seconds before his pale blue eyes met Dani's sapphire gaze. "He didn't try to... hurt you, did he?" he asked uncomfortably. Silence spread through the compartment like a leaden blanket. 

The silence was broken by Dani tapping a fingertip against the chunky ion pistol holstered on her shapely thigh. Confederation pilots only wore sidearms for a mission and returned them to storage once they had landed. While most Border Worlds units followed the same policy, "most" was not "all," and it was obvious that the pilots of the 349th did not. "I think this would have deterred him if he had any such thoughts. Don't you?" she replied curtly, keeping her voice steady with an effort. Grimm held up his hands in a placating gesture. 

"Fair enough, I was sure that he hadn't succeeded in doing anything. I just wanted to know if we had to dump a corpse into space." With his explanation complete, Anthony settled back beneath his blankets. "Now that you've told us everything that any of us are entitled to know, could you get someone to turn the light out? We're wheels-up for a patrol at 0700 and while some of us don't need any beauty sleep, I am not one of them. Good night, all." He looked around the room at his fellow fliers to reinforce the hint. 

Even as Vincent Tsu heeded the young neophyte's request, Dani was studying Grimm with an expression of confusion. She'd quickly figured out that he had a crush on her, and when he'd first spoken up she'd been worried about his reaction. It seemed that he'd taken the date (it was not a relationship despite what everyone seemed to think, Dani told herself fiercely) with a great deal more equanimity than most of the other Scrappers. She'd certainly seen no signs of jealousy on his face. As she slid between the sheets of her bunk, another voice piped up. 

"So have you decided what you're going to name the baby yet?" Dragan Emerson asked cheekily.

 

Flight Deck, BWS Sicily
Nifelheim System
1548 Hours,
14 February 2681 (2681.045)

"Woohoo! Take a guess who's all done up to the nines for partying with the Confees!" Kristy Joyce called out to her fellow pilots. A playful grin graced her face as she watched her commanding officer approach. 

Paul Onslow was nowhere near as amused as the Scrappers' medic. "It wasn't my idea," he scowled. "Colonel Tanagawa thought it'd impress the Confed higher-ups if some senior officers showed up in dress uniform, and Commodore Johnson agreed. So they decided that the taskforce's wing and squadron commanders, as well as its senior officers, would be wearing this kind of monkey suit." He indicated the Border Worlds Militia dress uniform that he wore with a gesture of distaste. It wasn't that the uniform was ill-fitting or badly made - indeed, it was only a more smartly tailored version of the common UBW issue jumpsuit -- but the idea of dressing up solely to suit someone else's idea of how they should look stuck in most Border Worlders' craw. As a rule Border Worlders were stubbornly, defiantly independent and didn't like conforming to anyone else's standards. And people who tried pushing Border Worlders into doing something they didn't want to do usually wound up regretting it. 

"But you look so dashing and handsome in it," Kristy purred. Several of the 349th's pilots were trying desperately not to burst out laughing.  The Scrappers' leader smiled cruelly enough to frighten a shark.  

"Well, if you like it so much, I'll be happy to tell Colonel Tanagawa that you've volunteered the whole squadron to attend this shindig in full dress uniform," Onslow replied, loudly enough for all his pilots to hear over the flight deck's usual hubbub. He suppressed a wicked leer as he saw the smiles melt from their faces like wax in a furnace. 

"Ah, no thanks," Kristy replied hastily. "We couldn't do it justice like you could." 

"Justice would be to make the sick bastard who designed this thing wear it in front of the troops and take all the crap they can dish out," the Scrappers' leader growled as he consulted his wrist chronometer. "Let's go, people!" he called out to the rest of his pilots. Obediently the Scrappers filed into the shuttle which would take them to Avernus Station and strapped into their seats.  

As the Border Worlds pilots strapped into their seats Paul Onslow noticed Dragan Emerson's gaze focused on his chest. "Did I spill gravy down my front or something?" he asked the young pilot wryly. Dragan flushed slightly. 

"Just studying your fruit salad, sir," he replied as he pointed at the medal ribbons on the left breast of the colonel's uniform. "There's some decorations that I'm trying to get a better look at so I can ID them." 

"I feel like an exhibit on a bloody game show," the Scrappers' leader muttered. "All right, I assume you know our own nation's decorations?" he inquired. 

"Yes sir," the Slavic pilot agreed as the shuttle lifted from the carrier's deck. "I recognize the Purple Hearts, Golden Sun, Border Worlds Flying Crosses and the pair of Silver Stars. But the one in the place of honor isn't the Medal of Honor, which makes me really curious." Traditionally the most prestigious medal awarded to a soldier was worn on the right end of the band of ribbons, closest to the heart. If a Silver Star wasn't the highest award that Onslow had earned, then he'd done something damned impressive at some point in his career. 

Onslow smiled lazily. "I'd be surprised if you did recognize it, Dragan. It's the Order of Nova, the highest decoration of the Free Republic of Landreich. I received it while I was flying for the Landreich, and I don't think they teach all that much about the Free Republic at the Academy." He shifted uncomfortably in his seat -- many pilots are uncomfortable while flying unless they're at the controls -- and locked eyes with the unruly novice pilot. "Have you ever heard of Project Goliath?" 

Dragan's eyes widened as he nodded. "You were part of that?" he asked in a tone of near-awe. Among the pilots of the worlds along the Confederation's periphery, Project Goliath had attained a mystique almost as great as Christopher Blair's strike on Kilrah with the Temblor Bomb. Just after the end of the First Kilrathi War, the Landreich had been sharing an uneasy border with a Kilrathi warlord with a rapidly growing fleet. When word of a crippled but salvageable Bhantkara-class fleet carrier had reached the Free Republic, a frenzied effort to salvage the ship had begun. After managing to restore it to combat readiness the carrier, once named the Karga but now christened the Mjollnir, had embarked on a suicide run to cripple a Kilrathi dreadnought. It came home battered but proud, having accomplished its mission despite incredible odds. 

The 349th's commander shook his head. "No, I resigned my commission as soon as we got word that the Cats had thrown in the towel. I got this," he tapped the ribbon with his forefinger, "a few weeks before that when Karga's went through the Landreich system. I was on convalescent leave after I'd pranged my fighter, and when Karga came through I hooked up with a scratch flight from the local defense forces. Anyway the Kalralahr commanding the squadron decided to bombard the planet, and flipped a few CSMs at it after the main forces were already engaged." Onslow's face became a brooding mask as the memories came back. "Our reserve flight was ordered to intercept the missiles, but the boss Cat was no fool. He'd sent fighters to cover the missiles and we got caught in a really nasty punchup." His gaze suddenly focused on Emerson's handsome face. "There were four Rapiers, eight Vaktoths and six CSMs at the start of that fight. None of the missiles made it to the planet but I was the only one of all those pilots who survived."  

An uncomfortable silence spread through the shuttle. Finally Emerson asked his commander, "So what's the deal with the Silver Stars? One of them's in Border Worlds colors but the other one was issued by Confed. I didn't know you had been a Confederation officer." 

Paul nodded at the younger man's question. "Probably because I never was one. The only time I've ever fought in Confederation space was at the Battle of Terra in 2668. I got this as a little souvenir," he explained as he brushed his thumb against the Confederation-awarded decoration. A wistful smile crossed his face. "It's the only good thing the Confederation ever gave me." 

"Do you think that our battle here will be that big?" Dragan asked, worry plain on his face. The Scrappers held their collective breath as their commander considered his answer. 

"I really don't know," he finally admitted. "It doesn't really matter. It's going to be bloody, no matter what, but so long as we keep our heads we should come through it all right." Ever since man developed armies warfare has incorporated deception, the colonel told himself. The problem's always been deceiving your enemies instead of your allies. Dear God, don't make a liar out of me.... 

 

Landing Bay 2, Avernus Station
Nifelheim System
1558 Hours,
14 February 2681 (2681.045)

"Okay everyone," Paul Onslow ordered his squadron as they left the shuttle's landing bay. "I'd better catch up with the high muckety-mucks before they meet up with the Confed brass. Have fun, and I'll see you later." He raised his index finger in a warning gesture. "And don't do anything too wild, like setting off the main reactor core as a pyrotechnics display to impress some girl. Okay?" 

Kristy leaned over to murmur a comment in Sandra Lynch's ear. "Notice how he didn't say anything about doing wild shit to impress guys." The taciturn Major snorted with laughter and watched as Jack DeVille flipped his CO the bird and blew him a raspberry. Onslow burst out laughing and tousled Jack's blond hair affectionately. 

"It's good to see I still get my usual level of respect," he grinned as the younger man struggled to fix his hair, cursing all the while. "Seeya later, everyone!" The scarred Colonel turned and walked away, leaving his squadron behind. 

A faint smile graced Kristy Joyce's lips as she watched her commanding officer leave. "It's been too long since he's done that," she said to herself. 

"Since he's done what?" Lynch asked the strawberry-blond pilot, giving her a quizzical look. The Scrappers' former medical officer looked her straight in the eyes. 

"Since he's laughed or smiled. Since he's relaxed. Hell, since he's had any fun at all!" She shook her head. "Dammit, Sandy, if he's stressed out and wound up then he's no good to us in a fight!" 

"What about that downtime we had after we beat those pirates in Seggalion? He sure cut loose then," Lynch commented. She laughed quietly. "I lost a bottle of Golwyn's Glory to him in a pool game that night." 

"Yeah, but since then he's been running himself ragged training those rookie pilots as well as leading us," the flame-haired pilot objected. "I'm really worried about him." 

"And of course you're only concerned as a medical officer," Lynch said archly. "You know, you're no longer our MO. Doctor Liaconnou has had the job for eight months now, and the Sicily has her own medical crew." The dark major looked at Kristy shrewdly. "That is, of course, assuming that you're just speaking from the medical perspective," she commented in a voice low enough that only the two women could hear. 

"And just what the hell does that mean?" Kristy flared. 

Sandra Lynch looked her straight in the eye. "I know how you feel about him -- "

"Then you know that if you tell anyone then you'll never feel anything ever again," the fiery medic hissed. "Don't even think it!" 

"Up on the governor, Captain. I'm not planning on telling anyone any of your secrets," Lynch cautioned. The older woman's brown eyes narrowed. "But never threaten me again. Understand?" 

Kristy nodded, a look of shame spreading across her pretty face. "I'm sorry. It's just that it's a very sensitive topic for me." Dammit, what the hell came over me? She isn't exactly my best friend but that was way too harsh!  

"Dammit, Sandra..." Her voice trailed off as she looked at the other woman. Lynch wasn't one to wear her emotions on her sleeve - she'd picked up her callsign back in the Confed Academy on Hilthros where she'd first learned to fly, when several of her classmates had sarcastically commented that the seemingly emotionless cadet was a real laugh riot -- but she certainly wasn't an enemy.  

"Hey, you two, c'mon or we'll be late!" Todd McLaughlin called out to the two women. The rest of the Scrappers had proceeded to the lounge's entrance, leaving Kristy and Sandra lagging behind. The ginger-haired Cabrean looked at Joyce and Lynch curiously. 

Kristy gave him a weak smile. "Get moving, Todd. We're just in the middle of girl talk." 

"Okay. I'll get someone to see if you're finished in a week," he replied jokingly. Kristy was about to cut loose with a devastating retort when Alex called out from the entrance to the lounge. 

"Hey Todd! They've got Guinness in here!" The effect on McLaughlin was immediate. The young Cabrean turned and bolted for the lounge. The Scrappers' medic smirked at her fellow pilot's alacrity and made to follow him, only to be stopped by Lynch's hand on her arm. 

"One of the things I've learned as a fighter pilot," the older woman told Kristy softly, "is that nobody lives forever. So if you want something, go and take it. And to hell with whatever anyone else thinks." The look in her eyes as she walked away left no doubt as to what she was talking about.

 

Recreational Deck Lounge, Avernus Station
Nifelheim System
1600 Hours,
14 February 2681 (2681.045)

"Well, they've really done this up nicely," Jack DeVille commented as he surveyed the lounge. The bar looked as if it had enough supplies in stock to withstand a siege, and a bench running the length of the opposite wall held enough food to do the same. Enough pilots and sailors were gathered around the bar to be likened to a besieging army, although the electrojazz blasting from the speaker array on the wall sounded nothing like the brassy horns of the Roman legions at Masada or the drums of Napoleon's army at Waterloo. A number of tables, large enough for a dozen people, were scattered conveniently around the lounge. Many of the Scrappers were surprised by the number of groups sitting at the tables which included both Confeds and Border Worlders, all getting along surprisingly well.  

"Let's grab a table before they're all gone," Vincent Tsu suggested to his fellow pilots. "Otherwise we'll have to stand at the bar if we want anything to drink." 

"And that'd be a crying shame," Eric Maslevski commented dryly. The other Scrappers laughed at his sarcasm, although they made a point of quickly claiming one of the few spare tables.  

Alex Morgan quickly noted down everyone's choice of drink and shook his head. "Anyone care to give me a hand? If I don't get someone to help clear my way through the throng, your drink'll wind up splashed over someone," he noted. Taking a quick look towards the bar, he guessed that maybe thirty or forty people were crowded around it - not really surprising in a room holding the flight crews of half a dozen carriers. 

"If you do spill it on someone make sure she's cute so I can lick it off," Jack DeVille joked, to be answered by a chorus of groans. The blond pilot grinned unrepentantly until a hand slapped the back of his head. He turned to face his assailant and found himself face-to-face with Major Michelle Ross. "Shelley! Pull up a seat!" 

"I would if I could find any spare bloody chairs," Ross growled irritably as she looked down at the militia major who had shared her bed on several occasions. She leaned down to kiss Jack on the lips but stopped as Anthony Grimm cleared his throat. 

"There's a spare seat here Major," the fair-haired pilot offered as he stood up and indicated the chair he had just been occupying. "Alex needs help carrying our drinks anyway." He frowned as Ross almost pulled the chair out from under him. "You're welcome," the young rookie commented dryly. The Confederation pilot blithely ignored Grimm's sarcasm as she placed the chair next to DeVille and sat down.  

"C'mon, let's go get some booze to placate this lot," Alex said and soon the two men were making their way through the crowd. Finally, after some squeezing and shoving the ex-privateer made his way to the bar. "Excuse me, coming through. Thanks," he acknowledged as a stocky pilot with a pink mohawk and local militia tabs on his shoulders moved aside. The former privateer shifted through the gap, barely pausing to wonder about the new recruit's unusual hairstyle, but came to an abrupt stop as he bumped into a swarthy Confederation pilot chatting with a young redhead in a Border Worlds Navy jumpsuit with ensign's pips on her shoulders. No wonder this place is crowded. They've got crew from the ships in here as well as the pilots, he thought. Tapping the Confed pilot on the shoulder the Border Worlder growled "Excuse me." The Confed flier ignored him and continued his conversation with the young ensign. That was a big mistake. Anthony barely saw Alex's elbow flash out and slam into the Confee's kidney, dropping him in an agonized heap. "Sorry, someone must have pushed me," the grey-eyed hellraiser said in an impossibly innocent voice as he stepped over the writhing pilot and shoved his way through the gap to the bar. Flicking a peanut at one of the bartenders to get his attention, Alex waited for the man to take his order even as Grimm caught up with him.  

"That was a bit excessive, wasn't it?" Anthony asked quietly even as he squeezed into the space between the older pilot and the person standing next to him. Alex merely shrugged his question aside. Older - now there's a laugh, the pale-eyed rookie thought. At twenty-four years of age Alex Morgan was only three years older than himself, yet seemed so much older and harsher. But harsher isn't the way to describe him either. Angrier? Wearier? More bitter? It's like he's seen too much of the universe and not the nice part of it, Grimm reflected. His contemplation was interrupted as he accidentally jostled the person next to him. The slender woman whirled to face the young pilot, sending her shoulder-length chestnut brown hair flying, but the expected angry outburst failed to materialize. Instead, there was a couple of seconds as recognition flickered in her hazel eyes. Then she grabbed Grimm by the sides of the head, pulled him close and gave him a long firm kiss on the lips. 

Alex had just finished ordering and turned back to his fellow Scrapper in time to see him trying to break free from the embrace. His eyebrows went up almost to his hairline. I guess it really is the quiet ones you have to watch out for, he thought whimsically. 

Grimm was shaking like a leaf as he managed to pull free and stare at the girl. "Dammit, Bennie, what the hell was that for?" he asked hoarsely as he tried to catch his breath. The girl merely grinned. 

"It's been a while since I last saw you, Smiley," she explained. "I missed you." Grimm merely shook his head in amazement. 

 "Friend of yours?" Alex asked innocently, managing with a heroic effort to keep a smirk off his face. Both of the pilots turned and, in perfect unison, flipped him the finger. The former privateer doubled up with laughter. "So," he asked once his amusement had spent itself, "aren't you going to introduce me?" 

Anthony sighed as the Scrappers' drinks finally arrived. "Alex Morgan, this is Benita Rogers. She was a year behind me at the Academy so I have no idea why she's part of our taskforce unless she stowed away in a cargo hold," he concluded as he picked up one of the drink trays.  

Benita stuck out her tongue at her former Academy colleague. "My grades were good enough that they fast-tracked my graduation to get me a spot on the Arnhem, Smiley. Seems they needed everyone they could get their hands on."  

"So you're with the Frostreavers?" Alex asked Benita as he picked up his own tray of drinks. "I heard that their CO and XO were the only pilots who weren't rookies straight from the Academy, which lets you know just how desperate the higher-ups are." 

"So who else from the Academy is in the Frostreavers with you?" Anthony asked hurriedly, hoping to avoid a shouting match between the two. Benita turned her attention back to him. 

"Most of the usual suspects. There's me, Cutthroat, Flashburn, Nutcase - " 

"He didn't get expelled after broadcasting those pics of Major Lukas on the Academy LAN?" Grimm asked in surprise. The female pilot shook her head and grinned. 

"He didn't get his callsign for nothing," she replied archly. "Of course he's also got the luck of the devil. Anyway, we've also got Dryad, Ghost, Jackal, Doc, Scarab and Clipper. Like I said, most of the usual psychos." 

"And with that update out of the way," Alex interrupted smoothly, "I've got just one more thing to say to you." 

Rogers' eyes narrowed. "And that is?" 

"Your drinks are here." True to the Scrapper's word, a case of beer and several bottles rested on top of the bar next to Benita's elbow. The Frostreaver pilot picked up the drinks, grunting with effort as she hoisted the case of beer to her shoulder. "You know, I'd be willing to carry that for you if it's too much effort," Alex offered. 

"No bloody way," Anthony cut in hastily. "I've seen what you can do with an elbow. I do not want to see what mayhem you can wreak with a heavy blunt object carried at head height. The colonel specifically told us to stay out of trouble and behave ourselves." 

"No, he said to avoid anything wild enough to start a war with Confed," Alex corrected dryly as he began forcing his way through the crowd. "He didn't say anything about a skirmish or two, and we are supposed to cut loose." 

Benita nudged Grimm's elbow as they followed in the ex-privateer's wake. "Is he for real?" she asked quietly. The fair-haired rookie nodded in resignation. 

"You remember that time Draco got Clipper shitfaced at the O-Club and Clipper started picking fights with the Marines? That's Alex on a normal day," Grimm commented. 

"I'm sorry I asked," the young brunette murmured. "So what did you do to get assigned to a Militia squadron? I was sure you'd made the cut for Space Force. God knows you were the smarter one of us," she added with a smile. 

"Yeah but you were better in the cockpit than me," Grimm admitted as they finally reached the table where the Scrappers sat. His eyebrows went up as he saw the swirl of activity but relaxed as he realized that it was just the Scrappers and Tanfen pilots moving their tables closer together. How about that, the young pilot thought wonderingly. A week ago they were trying to bash each others' heads in. Now they're sitting down for drinks together. 

Dragan Emerson straightened up from the table he'd helped move and immediately noticed the new arrival. "Bennie!" he called out happily, stepping around the table with a huge grin on his face. After greeting her with a friendly hug he looked down at the beer she carried and winced.

"You're still drinking that shit?" 

"What's wrong with beer?" Benita shot back belligerently. "I can remember you going through plenty of the stuff back at the Academy!" 

"Yeah but that was real beer," the dark young pilot objected, "not Coors. I mean it's... American! It's like sex in a rowboat!" 

Rogers raised her eyes heavenward. "I know I'm going to regret this," she muttered to herself just before turning her gaze back to Emerson. "All right, why is American beer like sex in a rowboat?" she sighed. 

The answer came simultaneously from three other people as well as Dragan. "It's fucking near water!" they chorused. Most of the surrounding pilots burst out laughing at the joke, and even Benita grinned as she shook her head.  

"So does anyone mind telling me who this young lady is?" Vincent Tsu asked once the levity had died down. Grimm quickly introduced his friend from the Academy to the Scrappers and the Tanfen pilots seated at the table, noticing that several of the corporate pilots were absent. Major Emma Wright, the raven-haired Tanfen XO, noticed the young Scrapper's curiosity. 

"They're on a supply foraging mission," she dryly told Grimm. Alex snorted. 

"Fetching booze," he commented. Wright shrugged as Dragan addressed the pilots. 

"All right everyone, I'm gonna catch up with the rest of my buddies from the Academy. I'll see you all later." He turned to face his wingman. "You coming along for the ride, Tony?" Grimm merely nodded and looked at Benita. 

"Take me to your leader," he joked. The girl winced at the terrible pun. 

"Colonel Harrison's in the middle of the confab with the Confed wing commanders, but I'll take you to the rest of the Frostreavers," she offered. Jack DeVille's head snapped up at the mention of the Frostreaver CO. 

"That wouldn't be Snowman, would it? Jeff Harrison?" he asked. A surprised look stole over Benita's face as she nodded. Jack grinned. "When you next see him tell him I said hi. It's been a long time since the Huntdown." 

"You were with him in the Black Lance Huntdown?" the pilot from the Arnhem asked incredulously, her hazel eyes wide. 

"We flew together off the Corregidor," the Scrappers' XO admitted. "Snowman was leading the Iron Falcons and Onslaught - our boss - was running the Hellhounds. After the original wing commander got vaped four months into the cruise, Colonel Onslow ended up running the wing as well as the Hellhounds." An evil grin crossed the blond militia pilot's handsome features. "You should have heard him bitching about the paperwork." 

Benita's mouth popped open in surprise. "A second-liner was running the wing when a Space Force squadron commander - a real pilot - was available?" she asked incredulously. Even with the background noise of several hundred people chatting and relaxing, a tense silence descended around the table. 

If we hadn't left our sidearms behind, Anthony Grimm reflected, there'd be a deafening click of safeties coming off. "Probably because at the time of the Black Lance crisis there wasn't a Border Worlds Space Force, remember?" he explained. "Anyone and anything who fought for the Border Worlds was in the Militia, regardless of whether they were a fighter jock, groundpounder, capship spacer or console jockey. It wasn't until a couple of years later that they officially separate the Navy and Space Force from the Militia." 

Dragan's response was a lot less diplomatic. "You must've been practicing gymnastics, Benita. Otherwise you wouldn't be able to stay standing while you have both feet in your mouth!" he scowled. 

"What did I say?" she asked innocently, seemingly oblivious to the hostile glares of the Scrappers. "All I said was that a Space Force pilot would have done a better job than a reservist." 

"We're militia, not reservists," Todd McLaughlin growled. "Reserves are part-time, militia's full-time even if it is mainly for defense. We're no more reservists than the Confed Army."  

Jack DeVille's features were set in a cold smile and his eyes had paled to the hue of blued steel. "Why not just call us a bunch of chockoes and have done with it, Benita?" he asked in a dangerously soft voice. The Space Force pilot's face paled as she finally realized the magnitude of the insult she'd offered the Scrappers. The Border Worlders' irreverence for authority was legendary, the environment they lived in was harsh, they tended not to give a damn about what other people thought of them and their military tactics focused on small-scale strikes rather than large set-piece battles. In this respect, they were similar to the Australians and New Zealanders of the twentieth century. Indeed many of them could trace their family trees back to those nations of Earth, so it was no surprise that they still used some of their slang. One of the vilest of those terms which had come into use in the Border Worlds was "chocko." Originally used by Australian soldiers in the Second World War for the half-trained reservists sent to fight alongside them in the green hell of New Guinea, it was a contraction for "chocolate soldier" - one who was soft and weak. It was sometimes used among the members of the Border Worlds Navy and Space Force to refer to their 'weekend warrior' brethren in the Militia and Reserves, but just like the reservists of the twentieth century, the militiamen of the Border Worlds proved as dedicated and skilled (if not more so) as those who insulted them. And, if spoken with enough venom, the word could easily lead to a messy rearrangement of the speaker's face. 

 A chill raced through Anthony Grimm as he saw the anger in the Scrappers' eyes. "Well, I'd like to kick back with my colleagues from the Academy so let's get going, Benita," he urged. C'mon, girl, he mentally urged as he grasped her shoulder and pulled her away from the table. Let's get going before you push someone to the point of violence. He really didn't want to have to choose between backing up his squadronmates or his friend if it came down to a fight between the two. 

 

Frostreavers' Table,
Recreational Deck Lounge, Avernus Station
Nifelheim System
1619 Hours,
14 February 2681 (2681.045)

"You make them sound like a pack of raving psychopaths," Hal 'Nutcase' O'Mara commented as he reached for one of the bottles of bourbon on the table. "Do you think they've got any full-time openings?" 

"These guys are too crazy even for you," Benita Rogers grumped moodily as she gazed into her beer. "I thought DeVille was going to smash my face in."

"Well you certainly pushed him far enough in that direction," Dragan Emerson replied flatly. "You acted even more condescending than most Confees ever do, you called his CO second-rate and you went as far as to say the Militia weren't real pilots. I know about tactless -- hell, I've tried rewriting the book on it several times -- but you really topped it back there." He tilted his head back and let the last drops of Lucifer's Lager in his bottle run down his throat. "Ever think of spitting in his face just to make sure that you've absolutely positively guaranteed he'll make your life hell?" 

"He's not my CO," the brunette snapped. "He's bossing a militia squadron on another carrier. What can he -- " Her rationalizations were interrupted by Anthony Grimm's expression of disbelief. 

"Bennie, you're thinking like a Confed pilot rather than a Border Worlds one," Grimm commented. "As much work gets done through the Old Pals Network as through official channels, and Colonel Onslow was your CO's wing commander. From what I've seen of the Scrappers Onslow inspires really fierce loyalty, so I reckon your career's just eaten a shit sandwich." Such crude bluntness from the soft-spoken youngster was rare and most of the Frostreavers stared at him in disbelief. 

"Onslow? You mean Paul Onslow?" Cassie "Dryad" Hammond asked curiously. At Anthony's nod she grimaced. "Yeesh! You must have done something really nasty to piss him off! According to Major Lukas he's pretty easygoing as well as a pretty good squadron boss." 

Wayne "Cutthroat" McDowell nodded in agreement. "Captain leFevre reckoned that most of his people were pretty devoted to him. Classic Wild Geese Syndrome." 

Malcolm 'Ghost' Greer raised an eyebrow in query. "Wild Geese Syndrome?" he asked quietly. 

Anthony Grimm nodded. "The Wild Geese were a merc group on twentieth century Earth. They were all fanatically loyal to their leader, some colonel who used a false name. One of their grunts summed it up best: 'We always knew he had another name. Some of us thought it was God.'" He drank the last swallow of his cola and set the glass down on the table. "Colonel Onslow doesn't use an alias, but based on what I've seen of the Scrappers, they'd walk barefoot over broken glass for him." 

"Wow," Greer breathed. "That's devotion." 

He should know, Dragan thought. Barely two months into his first year at the Academy, an accident had left Greer with a finger-length shard of glass in the sole of his bare foot. The volume and length of the profanity he'd given voice to had become legendary in the Academy. The Slavic pilot turned his attention back to Benita. "The point that Tony's making is that if you'd said to Onslow's face what you said to his people, you'd actually be in a lot less trouble." 

"That's weird." Benita frowned. Grimm shook his head. 

"Not really. If you said that to his face he'd probably be the first to tell the Scrappers to put the guns down -- speaking figuratively of course," he added hastily. "Then he'd ask how many times you'd been under the gun for real." The pale-eyed Scrapper raised his eyebrows in a silent query, already suspecting the answer. 

"None," she confirmed. "Just like you," she added.  

"Wrong," Dragan snapped. "We were at ground zero in a furball with a bunch of pirates in Seggalion less than a week ago. Six of us against thirty of them. It was pretty intense."  

"I heard there were a couple of squadrons involved in that," Darren 'Clipper' van Klees commented. "So much for six against thirty." 

Dragan's eyes narrowed to smoldering slits. "We were responding to a convoy distress call and the Scrappers' Intruders were the quickest fighters to get there. We kept the bad guys busy until the Tanfen Hellcats caught up, then both squadrons' Marauders finished the job. But for the first five minutes we were on the wrong end of a five-to-one force ratio." He poured a shot of straight bourbon and knocked it back, glowering at van Klees. "And don't ever call me a liar again."  

"Or what?" van Klees challenged. 

"Or I go back to my squadron -- both the one I'm assigned to and the one I'm flying with - and tell them just why the 'Truder you flew in your first live flight landed minus its outer wing... Clipper," the Slavic pilot grated. Violence seemed to crackle like static electricity between the two Border Worlders. 

"So," Cassie Hammond asked Emerson, eager to defuse the tension between the two fliers, "how many kills did you rack up?" Conversation abruptly ceased around the table. 

"Three kills and three assists," he replied. His lips twitched into a wry smile. "I was almost responsible for a fourth but he made it home, thank God." 

"Why thank God?" Greer asked. "I thought you wouldn't be so eager for a pirate to make it home." 

"I wasn't," Dragan admitted. "Tony was the one flying it. He was too busy covering my six to watch his own." Meeting his wingman's gaze, he put a hand on Grimm's shoulder. "Sorry, man. It won't happen again." 

Anthony shrugged in embarrassment, a faint blush creeping over his face. "Hell, a wingman's job is to watch his wingleader's six. Just part of the service," he replied as he tried to brush the whole incident off. 

Emerson was not to be put off so easily. "You came back with two kills, two assists and maybe ten percent of your armor, plus you made sure none of the bad guys blew me away. That's pretty impressive." Several of the Frostreavers made noises of agreement, making Grimm's blush deepen.

"So what was it like, finally getting to fly in combat for real?" Benita asked him. The lanky pilot's mouth tightened in a frown as he looked up at the former cadets watching him eagerly. 

"Scary," he admitted. "Your heart rate goes ballistic, your mouth goes dry and you feel like you're being strangled because your throat's so tight. You're trying to do a dozen things at once, and all the time you know that people as smart and fast as you are trying to spray you across a few hundred klicks of empty space." The young man smiled. "But it's also fun. That's the weird part. The adrenaline is the most incredible rush you can ever get." 

Dragan nodded. "You have never lived until you have almost died," he quoted. "Of course the problem is making sure that almost dying doesn't became dying for real." The smart-mouthed pilot looked around at the Frostreavers, seeing the incomprehension on their faces. The youngest of them was only a year younger than himself but it seemed like a vast gulf had opened between himself and them. Were we so naive when we first joined the Scrappers? he wondered. Of course we were. They just don't get it. God, I hope they survive the lessons we had to learn...

 

CONT...