PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 49 of 66 )

: Scraps of Honour
PART 11 OF 15 : TILL DEATH DO US PARTY
( 2 / 3 )


 


Scrappers Table,
Recreational Deck Lounge,
 
Avernus Station, Nifelheim System
1707 hours,
14 February 2681 (2681.045)

So what's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you, Major?" Lieutenant Brin Hoffman asked mischievously. The huge blond Tanfenner noisily drained his stein of beer and plunked it down on the table. "I told you mine, Noah told you his, and so have --

"Yeah, yeah, all right," Jack DeVille growled. "I guess you won't leave me alone until I give in, right?" The smirks of the other pilots at the table provided a mute answer to his question. The Border Worlder rolled his eyes, drawing further laughter. "All right," he surrendered. "This happened on my homeworld of Kurasawa II -- " he began, then his voice cut off suddenly as his attention was drawn to something in his line of sight. "Well, well, look who the cat dragged in," he commented as a broad grin spread across his face. "It's about time you showed up."

"I had to make sure that I had enough booze to keep you drunkards supplied," Courtney Tseng answered sharply. She placed the tray of drinks on the table within easy reach and pulled up a chair. "Hey, Alex, scoot over so I've got some room to sit down," the Tanfen pilot ordered.

The tall Border Worlder seemed to be having a great deal of trouble keeping his jaw from hitting the tabletop as he watched the red-maned corporate pilot. Finally, after sliding his chair a few centimeters to one side, he managed to stammer, "Aren't you out of uniform?"

That was an understatement. The other Tanfen pilots were wearing dark blue coveralls similar to the Scrappers and other Border Worlds fliers, although they wore the Tanfen symbol instead of the insignia of the Border Worlds. Uniform regulations were fairly loose in the Border Worlds armed forces and even more so at this party -- Alex's black longcoat certainly wouldn't have passed muster in the Confed forces. Tseng, however, had decided to throw even those minimal restrictions right out the airlock and was making a fashion statement of her own. Her body was wrapped in a black cheongsam, the dress clinging to her at what most of the male (and some of the female) onlookers considered the right places, hugging her tightly from shoulder to ankle. The dress was slit to her hips, giving her freedom of movement and allowed glimpses of her shapely legs. Her fiery hair flowed loose instead of being bound in its customary tight braid, and faint cosmetics accented her high cheekbones and dark eyes. Courtney Tseng wasn't dressed to kill -- she was dressed for mass murder. "So what if I am out of uniform?" she asked Alex mockingly. As she slid into the seat next to the Scrapper, her hip brushed against his own. "Are you going to discipline me for breaking regs?" she continued, an evil smile on her face as she picked up a glass of Chablis, ignoring the snickers of several of the others at the table.

Alex snorted, the Tanfenner's impish attitude bringing him back to the here-and-now. "Breaking regs is a good thing. Keeps the higher-ups from climbing too high into their ivory towers." He took a healthy gulp of bourbon and Coke as he regarded Tseng. "So what kept you? A desire to be fashionably late?" he asked.

Courtney shook her head. "The corporation's got a research centre on the floor of one of Nifelheim II's oceans, assessing the commercial potential of the native sea life. If something useful comes up then they can apply for a farming permit."

"And just how did you know about this research centre?" Eric Maslevski asked, swirling his apple juice in his glass.

"My husband, Nathan, was in the corporation's merchant marine. This was one of the places he mentioned being fairly difficult to off load cargo to, because some of the aquatic predators gave the shuttles grief." Courtney bit her lower lip and looked down at the table, the mention of her husband's name bringing back the memory of his brutal murder. Her head snapped up as Alex reached over and gently squeezed her hand, eliciting a smile from her. "Anyway," she continued, "I ran into some people I knew at the facility, and I took some time to check that they were all going to be all right. Is that all right with you?" she asked the ex-privateer, raising her eyebrow slightly.

"Why ask me?" Alex asked warily. In an effort to change the subject he hurriedly mentioned, "Hey, you're just in time to hear Jack embarrass himself." Something had changed between himself and Tseng, and he wasn't quite sure what. His years on the wrong side of the law had provided him with many object lessons in the penalties of acting without knowing just what the situation involved. On the other hand, he'd also learned to enjoy living on the edge and dicing with the risky and unknown. As he put it, "Some beancounter in an office somewhere may have a lot more years on his clock than me when he dies, but that's just more existence. I'll have lived a lot more than he has."

Courtney rolled her sloe-black eyes. "Let me guess. You're following the old pilot's tradition of forcing people to recount their most humiliating moments, right?" A series of wicked grins answered her, only interrupted by Jack DeVille's glower. "Go ahead, Major," she ordered, settling deeper into her seat and taking another sip of wine.

"With all your sudden interest in Alex, I'm sure you'd rather hear him embarrass himself," Jack replied, trying for once to shift attention away from himself. The Tanfen pilot shook her head.

"I'd rather find out his misdeeds for myself," she replied dryly, causing chuckles around the table. Alex almost choked on his drink as Courtney shot a surreptitious wink at him. I'll be watching you, the gesture seemed to silently say. A week ago the idea that a Tanfener would be keeping a close watch on him would have had the ex-privateer as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Now, however, it didn't sound too bad at all...

 

Frostreavers Table,
Recreational Deck Lounge, Avernus Station
Nifelheim System
1835 hours,
14 February 2681 (2681.045)

"I still can't believe you can knock back a whole pitcher of beer on your own," Cassie Hammond commented, her eyes wide in disbelief. Wayne McDowell merely grinned and plunked his glass down. Then he let out a thunderous belch that lasted a full five seconds, causing his squadronmates to burst out laughing or shake their heads in amazement.

"All hail the King of Crass." Dragan grinned. "However that was the last of our booze, Wayne," he added. "I'm heading off to the bar to restock. Same as usual for everyone?" Most of the other Frostreavers nodded except for Anthony and Benita, deep in a conversation of their own. "Hey, you two! I'm going on a refreshment run. Want anything?" 

Benita Rogers shook her head. "We're fine." She cocked her head and abruptly grinned, listening to the music, which had suddenly started. "Cool! They're playing twen-cen stuff already! I recognize this song." The girl began singing along with the prelude's lyrics, her voice blending perfectly with the electric guitars and drums.  

"Good girls go to heaven,
Good girls go to heaven,
Good girls go to heaven,
But the bad girls go everywhere." 

Anthony Grimm smirked at his friend. "And just where do you plan to go?" he asked her. Benita's answering grin was wicked. 

"Out onto the dance floor. Care to join me?" she offered. Grimm's eyes bulged and his face noticeably paled. 

"Me?" he squeaked. "But -- but -- " The young pilot abruptly shut up as his wingleader grasped him by the shoulders and shook him. 

"Tony, you're not an outboard motor so quit trying to sound like one," Dragan ordered. "You were the one who told me never to refuse a lady. Now quit being a hypocrite and get out there!" The dark-haired pilot gently pushed him out towards the dance floor. Grimm gave him a wounded look of betrayal but let Benita grab his hand and drag him out onto the floor despite his shock. 

"At least I won't be the only one embarrassing myself out there," he muttered as they merged into the crowd on the dance floor, even as he shot a vicious glare at Dragan. I'll get you for this, Emerson. Just you wait. This is so goddamn humiliating. 

For his part, Dragan let out his breath in an exasperated sigh as he turned back to the Frostreavers. "About frigging time he took the hints she's been chucking out all night!" he muttered under his breath. 

Ryan "Scarab" Santorelli raised his eyebrows in surprise. "You mean Bennie's still got that crush on him?" he asked. Almost everyone at the table could make out the aggrieved whining note in his voice. Santorelli had made little effort to hide his own attraction to Benita Rogers back at the academy.  

"The question isn't whether or not Benita's still got the hots for Tony," Cassie said coolly. "You saw how she reacted when she met him here tonight. It's whether or not Tony's figured it out yet." She raised an eyebrow at Dragan and brushed her black hair out of her eyes. 

"I don't think he ever did," the Slavic pilot admitted. "You know just how low his self-esteem is. Mind you, the greeting she gave him at the bar was a hint." A few of the Frostreavers chuckled. 

"Just how long has she been interested in Smiley?" Marchelle "Flashburn" Fioretti inquired. Dragan tilted his head back and contemplated the lounge's ceiling thoughtfully. 

"Let's see... she started at the Academy a year after me and Tony. I think she only started studying with Tony after her first year finals, didn't she?" he asked Cassie. 

The younger woman nodded vigorously enough to send her short unruly black hair flopping back over her eyes. "Yeah, she was too proud to take a tutor until she flunked Astrogation and barely scraped through Military History. We had a bastard of a time convincing her to get help with those subjects, and then a few months after they started studying together she was asking him for help with almost every book subject." She sneaked a wink at McDowell and grinned. "I bet she was willing to help him practice lights-out gossip, if you know what I mean," she told Emerson. 

"Pillow talk," he translated, nodding in agreement. Almost as one, they turned to the dance floor to watch the subjects of their conversation, arms around each other as they moved in time with a slow song. 

"Is this a blessing, or is it a curse?
Does it get any better? Can it get any worse?
Will it go on forever? Is it over tonight?
Does it come with the darkness? Does it bring out the light?
Is it richer than diamonds, or just a little cheaper than spit?
I don't know what it is but it just won't quit." 

It was eerie just how accurately the song reflected his concerns, Dragan thought. He had no idea where the emotional crosscurrents between Anthony Grimm and Benita Rogers would lead them, and he had no idea of just how his wingman would handle it. At least you know that this is the most confusing that things can get, he told himself just before he caught a glimpse of long silver-blond hair near the buffet tables. He groaned aloud and barely suppressed the urge to slam his head repeatedly into the table. If Benita found out about Grimm's feelings for Dani Owens there was no telling how she'd react, but he'd bet a month's pay that her reaction would be as spectacular and violent as an antimatter explosion.

 

Recreational Deck Lounge, Avernus Station
Nifelheim System
1841 hours,
14 February 2681 (2681.045)

Danica Owens took a deep breath and savored the aroma of the various dishes. Certainly beats ship food, she thought gratefully. Up until this cruise, I would have sworn that there was no food worse than MREs, but the stuff from the Sicily's galley certainly tries to take that "honor." Most of the food seemed to be seafood or vegetables, which was hardly surprising considering that the Nifelheim System's main inhabited planet was a jungle world with great stretches of tropical sea. The slender blonde Scrapper leaned forward to spoon some blueleaf salad onto her plate then abruptly froze. "Now what is the problem here?" she asked aloud in an icy voice. "The food smells great, people seem to be enjoying themselves, so what could be bothering me?" Her voice sharpened notably as she glared over her shoulder. "Gee, it's probably that unsolicited hand on my butt that's pissing me off!"  

The big Confed pilot who met her gaze gave her a contemptuous sneer. Standing exactly six foot tall, he towered over Dani, and with his broader build he probably outweighed her by two-to-one. "I'm sorry, miss. In that outfit I thought you were a Border Worlder." 

"I am," Dani growled as she gave him a covert once-over. The sneering scowl he wore seemed to be his habitual expression, and the brooding anger in his eyes as he looked at Dani made her hackles stand on end. The name Markham was printed on his jumpsuit's nametag and a faint scent of alcohol hung around him. Terrific, he's been drinking -- like that's a surprise. Not enough to make him falling-down drunk but enough to let the leash slip on his self-control. This is not going to be fun. "I'm a fighter pilot for the Border Worlds and proud of it. But it doesn't really matter -- we're going to be fighting alongside each other. So get used to it." Her eyes had gone from their normal deep shade of blue to a hue as pale and cold as an arctic ocean. 

"Oh I am," Markham replied angrily. "We have to ride in and save your stupid hick asses because you're not used to shooting at opponents who shoot back! But the military mantra is that you don't have to like it, you just have to do it! So I'm doing it, but I don't like it one little bit!" 

"Well at least we don't try to destabilize freely elected governments," the platinum-haired Scrapper snapped. "Ever heard of Circe?" 

"They were all goddamn traitors who had no right to leave the Confederation!" the Confed pilot hissed, anger twisting his face into an ugly mask. "As far as I'm concerned the Union of Border Worlds is nothing but a pack of pirates." A wave of silence seemed to ripple out from him as other people turned to watch the argument. 

For her part, Dani was trying hard to keep her anger under control. Usually she was better at keeping her emotions on a tight leash, but this Confee was getting under her skin with ease. Of course, being compared to the kind of scum who had made her life absolute hell for two years would infuriate a saint. "We're not pirates and we don't work with them," she grated through clenched teeth. "We shoot them down." Her lip curled in anger. "And we have a better track record at it than the Confederation ever did before we seceded. Because we're out on the border we weren't considered worth protecting, either from pirates or the Kilrathi." 

"And you're still not worth protecting. We should have just stayed on our side of the border and let you colonials get pasted!" That comment drew several angry mutters from Border Worlds and Confederation pilots alike, while some of the Confederation pilots merely looked worried or embarrassed. 

"Depends on how highly you value your word. Remember the Treaty of McAuliffe that was signed last year? That was a mutual defense treaty," Dani replied, spelling the last sentence out in syllables as though to a child. The angry flush on Markham's face showed her that the dig had gone home. "Confed pledged to defend the Border Worlds if they were attacked, and if you don't keep your word then you have no honor," the platinum-haired girl continued, her gaze burning into the Confed pilot's eyes. 

"What the hell would you colonials know about honor?" Markham exploded. "Shut up and go back to the street corner you work on, you whore!" 

Dani's face went absolutely white as her guts turned to ice. That bloody tears it, she thought furiously. There is NO way I'm going to let him get away with calling me that! "I'll go back to my old street corner once you get your mother to stop working there," she hissed venomously. "Although if you do that you won't be able to hire her any more!" Silence suddenly seemed to gather around the two pilots for a few ominous seconds, like blood congealing.  

Markham broke the silence with a screaming bellow of rage more appropriate to a wild beast than a pilot of a multimillion credit fighter. He smashed the back of his hand across Dani's face, knuckles cracking loudly as they struck the young woman's cheekbone. Dani reeled back from the force of the blow, catching herself on the edge of the table before moving into a fighting stance. Well, I think that got his attention, she thought grimly as

Markham advanced on her, hands outstretched to tear her to pieces. The anger which had burned in his eyes was now incandescent. I just hope I can put what Alex and John taught me about hand-to-hand into practice or I'm dead...

 

"So what do you do in the real world when you're not bonking other guys' wives or punching out of Bearcats?" Kristy Joyce asked the Scrappers' newest drinking buddy. Tony "Rat" Carruthers gave her a sidelong look as he swirled the beer in his glass. She hadn't been as bitchy as he'd expected but there was still an edge to her voice whenever she spoke to him.  

"I'm a freelance shutterbug," he admitted. "I travel around a bit, take a few photos, sell them off to the various holozines." The British pilot shrugged. "Not exactly a job that'll get me onto the Fortune 500 but I get by. And the job's got perks," he added with a faint smirk. Dani's reaction to his explanation of his job had been priceless, so teasing her squadronmates the same way should also get some laughs. "The models I take photos of don't abuse me for being a lecherous bastard, and they usually have great curves as well as a lot of bare skin," he smirked. Kristy scowled at him. 

"And what holozines do these pictures wind up in?" she asked coldly. "Playboy? Penthouse?" 

"Actually," Carruthers replied, "I was hoping to get a few snaps of you, Captain." Pausing for a few seconds to let the medic's outrage build he added, "Aviation Weekly paid a packet for the shots of the Marauder I took when it first came off the production line, and I reckon they might want a few more." A broad grin had spread over the Confed pilot's face, and several of the Scrappers and Tanfen pilots around the table guffawed with laughter. "So what do you say? Can I get a few snaps of you in front of yer bird on the Sicily's flight deck?" 

Kristy grinned ruefully. "All right, I supposed I had that coming. I assume your subjects were planes?" 

Rat nodded, not even trying to hide the triumphant grin from his face. Joyce had been giving him hell even since he'd first showed interest in Dani, pegging him as only being interested in getting the platinum-haired Border Worlder into bed. And a few weeks ago - hell, a few days ago - she'd have been right, but not now. Now he wanted more from Dani than a roll in the hay. He wanted the girl's respect, friendship and affection as well as wild passionate sex. Or even instead of wild passionate sex. But convincing Kristy Joyce, self-appointed den mother for the Scrappers, of that fact was as difficult as any of the twelve labors of Hercules. "Aye, and the bare skin I talked about was the stock-standard bare metal finish that most fighters have today," he explained. "Of course, if you're not interested I can always ask Dani. She drives a Marauder too, ye know." 

"That's bloody blackmail," the strawberry-blonde Border Worlder glowered. The Confederation pilot let out an irritated sigh. 

"Dammit, d'ye think I'm gonna try to jump her in the middle of the bloody flight deck or summat?" he snapped. "I'd never hurt her. I know that one of the bastards you've got in the brig really hurt her in the past, and if he gets outta the brig then ye'll probably toss him out the airlock, eh?" His eyes narrowed at the furtive glances exchanged by several of the Border Worlds pilots. "Alreet, what do ye have planned?" 

Sandra Lynch sighed as she pushed her dark hair back from her face. "You don't want to know," she admitted. "It's more a hypothetical exercise than anything. And talking of hypotheticals, how about asking Dani if she wants to be photoed with her Marauder? She might surprise both of you," the major told Rat and Kristy. Both of them nodded in agreement. 

"I'll ask her when she comes back," the Confed pilot said. "Of course that's if she gets back here. She's been gone forever," he commented as he looked around the lounge. "What's she doing? Getting enough food for all of -" His questions cut off suddenly as he spotted Dani's silver-blond hair across the room, but it wasn't just the sight of her that cut his words off. No, it was the sight of her reeling back from a vicious punch to the face, then her snapping an elbow strike at her assailant's head, that shut him up. 

Danica Owens' hair suddenly turned red. The Confederation-issue jumpsuit of her attacker suddenly turned red. The inside of Tony Carruthers' eyeballs suddenly turned red. 

With a furious snarl, he stood up and pushed past several of the seated Tanfen pilots as he rushed towards the fight. If he heard the yells of outrage over his hurry he didn't give any sign. Instead, he just charged toward the fight, pushing aside anyone in his way regardless of affiliation. Border Worlders were shoved aside into Confederation personnel and vice versa, starting a series of pushing matches which quickly escalated into fistfights. None of which bothered Rat in the slightest as he forced his way through the crowd. Pushing between a pair of blue-uniformed figures, he forced his way into the open space around the combatants. A Confed pilot seemed to be trying to separate Dani and the man she was fighting, but as far as Rat could see he was 'accidentally' blocking more of Dani's blows than her attacker's. Time to fix those odds, Tony thought furiously. "Lemme guess, you tried getting a kiss from her," he sneered as he grabbed the big pilot attempting to pound the Scrapper into pulp and wrenched him around so they stood face-to-face. "Well, ye'll have to make do with one from me!" he yelled as he grabbed the other man by the hair and pulled his head down. 

Rat's headbutt was delivered with the skill of long practice, his forehead slamming into the other Confee's face with a solid crunch. The other man's nose splattered across his face with a noise similar to that made by a watermelon being smashed by a sledgehammer. "There's a Glasgow kiss for ya, ya fookin' prick!" Carruthers spat as he buried his fist in the other man's gut. Someone behind him looped an arm around his throat and tried to drag him away, but Rat buried his teeth in the offending limb and swung again at Dani's attacker.. 

"Tony! Leave him alone!" Dani yelled. Rat spared her a glance even as he fought. He'd seen her irritated, laughing, frustrated and distraught. But until now he'd never seen her truly angry. A fury deep enough to make a berserker quail raged in her deep blue eyes, and her lips were pulled back from her teeth in a snarl. One of her lips had been split by a punch, and a red patch on her jaw would darken to a huge bruise by morning. "That fucking bastard is MINE!" she hissed as she lunged forward and snapped a kick at the side of her attacker's knee. The kick missed the joint but impacted the side of the man's thigh, drawing a grunt of pain from him. Dani smiled coldly. "Come on, shithead," she growled even as he charged at her. "Let's dance!"

 

"Well I didn't step on your toes too often while I was dancing so I think I did okay," Anthony Grimm commented as the music finished. "Although I think I looked like an epileptic having an orgasm," he added dryly. 

Benita Rogers burst out laughing. "Man, that is one scary mental picture you just drew." She gave her friend an appraising look. "You do pretty well with the slow songs, though," she said quietly. 

"Thanks, but keeping up with those is easy," he admitted. "All you -- now what the hell is going on?" The young Border Worlder looked over his shoulder to where a rising tumult was starting to drown out the music. "Jesus Christ!" he winced as he observed the rapidly growing brawl. Border Worlders and Confeds alike were rushing in to help their friends or just to get in on the action before it died out. 

"Looks like someone's having fun," Benita observed. "Say, isn't that Wayne in there?" 

"Where? Oh, jammed up against the wall with his arm bent back like that? You're right, I think it is," Anthony agreed. "I didn't think it was physically possible to bend an arm like that." 

"That's probably why he's screaming," the girl noted dryly. "C'mon, let's go help him out." 

"Fair enough," Grimm agreed as he followed Benita towards the chaotic melee. "Just so you know, my will's logged in my PDA on the Sicily." He ducked under a wildly thrown punch which connected with another brawler, who collapsed to the floor. Neither Anthony nor Benita paid attention -- their attention was focused on getting to their friend. 

"Hey, dickhead! Let go of him!" Benita yelled at the guy holding onto Wayne McDowell's arm, and punctuated her demand by punching him between the shoulder blades. The offending individual let go of the Frostreaver's arm and turned to swing at Benita, only to be flattened by Grimm's uppercut to his jaw. Benita rushed forward to catch her fellow Frostreaver before he hit the floor. "Are you okay, Wayne?" 

"I think the fucker dislocated my shoulder," McDowell gasped. "Christ, it hurts! Thanks for the save, Bennie." 

"No problem," she smiled as she turned back to check up on Grimm. "God, Tony! What's wrong?" 

An expression of agony contorted Grimm's face into a twisted grimace as he clutched his hand. "Shit shit shit! I think I busted my goddamned hand!" he gritted. "Oh damn, this hurts!" 

"That's why you never punch anyone in the jaw," Benita noted. "It's the best way to break your hand in a fight that there is. If you -- Tony!" The brunette Frostreaver's voice sharpened with a sudden note of urgency.  

Tony dropped to his knees as one of the lessons he'd learned in basic hand-to-hand back at the Academy rang in his mind like a drill instructor's bellow. When in doubt, duck! The thud of footsteps on the floor behind him made him lash out with an elbow, catching the person behind him midway between crotch and waist. As the attacker collapsed over the pale young Scrapper, Benita landed a solid punch to his kidneys. Wayne finished the job by grabbing the stunned man by the scruff of the neck and the back of the belt and tossing him headfirst into the wall. "That hurt," McDowell commented as he rubbed his shoulder, then he grinned. "But it's a good kinda hurt." 

"I didn't know there was such a thing as a good kind of hurt," Tony muttered as he stood back up. "Unless you're talking about those funny clubs you go to, with the women in leather and -- " 

"Hey! That was only once and Dragan said he'd keep quiet about it!"  

"When's the last time you've known Dragan to keep his mouth shut about anything?"

 

Rat brought his fist up into his latest opponent's solar plexus, blasting the air from his lungs as he collapsed like a wet rag. The stocky Englishman wiped the blood from his face with his sleeve and looked around the lounge. Chaos reigned in its usual fashion as the brawl continued, and he felt a surge of relief that none of the pilots had weapons heavier than barstools and bottles -- the fight was vicious enough already. Glancing around, he could see the Scrapper he'd met on the flight deck with Jimbo a few days ago -- Morgenstern or Morgan or something like that -- slam a knee into his opponent's gut, then drop him to the floor with an elbow between the shoulder blades. Back to back with him was the red-haired Tanfen woman he'd been dancing with, busy rearranging some unfortunate Border Worlder's face with a snap kick. Near the bar, Jack DeVille was slugging it out with a pair of Confed pilots, and Todd McLaughlin was busy hurling a third one bodily into a wall. All of these fights were ignored by Rat, irrelevant to his single mission -- finding out just where the hell Dani Owens was. 

An instant later he spotted her, still swapping punches with Markham. Blood streaked her face from where the skin had split along one of her cheekbones, and she moved with less than her usual grace. She was definitely hurting from his punches, but the big man was worse off - his blows were only rarely connecting with the agile Border Worlder and he seemed dazed. His face sported a number of already-darkening bruises and his left eye was squinted shut, parallel red marks over the socket showing where Dani had clawed him. He suddenly lunged forward and managed to fasten both hands around her slender neck, pressing her back against the table. Rat let out a curse and charged towards them, knowing in his heart it was too late. 

Dani hooked her thumb into Markham's already-injured eye, making the Confed pilot yowl like a scalded cat. More importantly, he let go of the Border Worlder to clutch at the wounded socket. Dani gasped a lungful of air and drove the heel of her hand under the Confed pilot's chin, snapping his head back. For an instant, Markham was wide open and the silver-haired Scrapper took advantage, driving a punch straight into his larynx. The big man gagged and stumbled back but Dani grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head into the edge of the serving table, once, twice, a third time. Finally, she let him collapse unconscious to the floor as she swayed with exhaustion, barely able to stand. 

"Y'alreet, Dani?" Rat asked in a concerned voice. The girl whirled to face him, hands ready to block or strike, but relaxed when she recognized him. Despite her pain and fatigue, she managed to give him a fey grin, and adrenaline-fueled fire burned in her eyes. 

"Now I can see why Alex gets off on this shit," she commented.

 

Main Concourse, Avernus Station
Nifelheim System
1857 hours,
February 14, 2681 (2681.045)

"... so we should have the last of the Tracker MIRVs shifted over to the Okinawa by 0600 tomorrow," Colonel Jack Tanagawa advised Commodore Jeff Turnbull. The commander of the Confederation reserve group nodded in satisfaction. 

"That should help our Thunderbolt pilots if they have to be used as fighters," he commented. "Hopefully things won't get that bad." Tanagawa caught a glimpse of Colonel Michael Black, the Miles D'Arby's wing commander, rolling his eyes at that thought and suppressed a smile. Oh, they will get that bad, he thought. As soon as someone says 'Things won't get that bad,' that's when they do get that bad.  

"You know," Black remarked, "it's ironic that we're getting more advanced ordnance from the Union of Border Worlds than from our own superiors." Several of the Confederation officers as well as some of the Border Worlders laughed. Black turned to look at Lieutenant Colonel Gil Franklin, squadron leader of the Border Worlds reserve force's only Thunderbolt squadron.

"Colonel Franklin, has your squadron trained using Trackers?" 

"Yes sir, we have," the Timber Wolves' leader replied coolly. He ran a hand through his grey hair. "They're a real help used en masse against a bunch of bad guys but not too much in a close-in furball - they tend to go past your target before they drop their load. Dragonfly rocket pods are better for up close and personal work if you don't need to carry a torp." The Border Worlder's grin was as feral as that of his squadron's namesake. "We don't often get to use HARMs for wild weasel jobs, so we've got to do it up close and personal with guns and rockets." 

"What about jury-rigging the torpedo hardpoint to carry, say, an ImRec or heat-seeker instead?" the Confederation officer inquired. 

Franklin frowned thoughtfully. "Takes a fair bit of time and work, Colonel, and if you've got a decent ground crew they can fix it so you can carry two instead of one. I heard of some guy -- I think his name was Sykes -- who rigged a setup that could hold three missiles on a Jug's torpedo pylon, but those were the really small missiles like Pilums. Plus the pilot had to cut his maneuvering down, or the missiles would go one way while his bird went another. And in a Jug you don't have much agility to start with." Cocking his head, the older man looked at Black. "If you want, I can talk to my chief tech tomorrow and get him to send them across to your boys." 

Black nodded. "That would be fine, thank you." 

"And don't thank us for the ordnance," Paul Onslow added. "That's courtesy of the Tanfen Corporation." 

"How did you manage to get that much gear out of them?" Brigadier General Joanne Harris asked in surprise. "My supply people deal with Tanfen negotiators on a regular basis, so if you've got some secret method of getting them to play nice, please let me know," the commander of Avernus Station requested. 

Commodore Philip Johnson laughed. "Courtesy of the Tanfen Corporation, indeed. There wasn't very much courtesy involved, I can assure you, General. We walked into the CEO's office and asked for what we needed under the terms of Emergency Decree 45A. He got uppity, so we warned him that two transports full of Marines were ready to hit the compound if he didn't play ball." 

"That ought to do it," Harris agreed. Her eyes narrowed suddenly. "Wait a minute -- you don't have two transports of Marines with your taskforce."

Paul Onslow was only a few years younger than Jack Tanagawa but the grin spreading across his face made him seem to lose another decade. "He didn't know that, General, and we didn't tell him." 

Over an informal dinner, the senior officers of the battle group had hashed out contingency plans and brought each other up to speed on their forces' status. More importantly, however, they had eroded the last vestiges of the walls of prejudice between them through one of humanity's oldest social mechanisms -- a face-to-face conversation. Communications technology was advanced enough to project a full holographic real-time image of the person to whom you were speaking, from the other side of a star system, in enough detail to count the freckles on their face. Yet, as people had discovered in the twentieth century with the Internet and its chatrooms, electronic communications were no substitute for simply talking to someone face-to-face when it came to social and diplomatic situations.  

After dinner and coffee (which Eddie Thibodeaux had sworn was real Jamaican Blue Mountain -- the Scrappers' leader had already made a mental note to see if Alex could scrounge any of the precious stuff) General Harris had taken her guests on a tour of the station, familiarizing them with the installation. In theory, if any of the carriers were destroyed their surviving fighters could use Avernus Station as a base of operations to continue fighting the Nephilim. And there would be surviving fighters, Paul told himself fiercely. Even the Bunker Hill hadn't been lost with all hands when she was destroyed -- two fighters had managed to flee to the Valeria and over a hundred of the ship's company had been rescued in a daring raid by Marines on a Nephilim supercarrier. He had no illusions -- the odds were that at least one of Taskforce Jasmine's carriers would be destroyed and that the survivors would have to operate from the station. Accommodations certainly weren't a problem as most of the fifteen thousand civilians who lived or worked aboard Avernus had already been evacuated. The only ones remaining were brave volunteers standing alongside the militia, doing what they could to help defend their home.  

Onslow nodded to himself as the group of senior officers approached the lounge. He, and no doubt most of the other Border Worlds squadron leaders, were curious to see just how their people were getting along with the Confees at their party. The Confed squadron leaders would be kicking back with their squadronmates while their counterparts had to attend the meeting with their higher-ups. Music from the lounge's dance floor could be faintly heard, as could the normal background noise made by any large number of people when they're in the same room. "Sounds like the party's in full swing," he offered. 

Then the Tanfen pilot was bodily hurled out the doorway in front of them. 

The corporate pilot hit the wall in front of them then slowly slid to the floor. Obviously dazed, he shook his head to clear it before rising to his feet and lurching back into the lounge. After watching the Tanfener stumble back into the lounge, Eddie Thibodeaux turned to look Onslow straight in the eye as a broad grin split his dark face. "Yah, I'd say de party be in full swing." 

Commodore Turnbull, by contrast, was not amused. "I'd say that it sounds more like a brawl's in full swing," he growled. Indeed the noise from the lounge was interspersed with the sounds of objects breaking, and the 349th's leader hoped to God that those objects were furniture and not bones. Onslow took a peek around the corner of the doorframe, then looked back at the rest of the group. 

"I'd say that maybe two-thirds of them are involved in that brawl we're hearing, and the rest are recovering or under cover," he reported. "General, how many security personnel could you spare to get this under control?" 

A thoughtful expression stole over Joanne Harris' face. "Fifty, maybe sixty. I could scrape together a hundred in fifteen minutes but that would be every guard on the station. Give them another ten minutes to armor up and equip themselves, and they should be able to handle anything short of a full-scale insurrection." 

Colonel Black had taken a look into the lounge, and his expression was as dark as his surname. "I don't know about an insurrection, but what's going on in there is definitely more than a brawl. I'd call it a full-scale riot!" 

"In the Border Worlds, Colonel, it's not a riot unless there's napalm and zipguns involved," Lt. Colonel Jeff Harrison, commander of the Frostreavers, shot back. "All right. Do we think that security can handle this?" 

Onslow shook his head. "There's about three hundred pilots and gunners in there from the carrier wings, plus I don't know how many from the escort ships and the civilian convoy that came through here yesterday. I'd say that there's about five hundred people in there, so security would have to put down about three hundred people all up. I think they'll stop once we get their attention." 

"And how do we do that?" Philip Johnson asked, wincing at a particularly loud impact shook the wall. "They wouldn't even hear us over this racket! Besides, they're probably too caught up in the adrenaline rush to listen to you anyway!" Onslow's answering grin was positively vicious. 

"I'll ask nicely and in a way they can't ignore," he answered, then turned to face the nearest of the two security men accompanying the officers. He'd thought it paranoid of the general to have a security detail accompany them on their tour -- after all, the Nephilim hadn't even arrived in system yet -- but then he remembered the bomb attack on the corvette Jones and the sabotage to Jack DeVille's fighter, and suddenly paranoia seemed a good trait to possess. And now there was another reason to be glad for the presence of the security troops. "Corporal, what sort of loads have you got in your sidearm?"

"Are you out of your mind??" Turnbull screamed in shock. "We may have a few pilots down for a couple of days from this brawl, but that's a lot better than having them down with gunshot wounds!" 

"Which is why I'm not going to shoot anyone," the Border Worlder replied coolly. "Like I said, I just need to get their attention." 

"Standard rounds, sir. No AP," the security trooper interrupted as he handed his Marscorp MPR-27 machine pistol over to Onslow. "Try not to kill anyone, okay?" 

"Don't worry," the Scrappers' leader answered with a wintry smile as he accepted the weapon and headed for the lounge. "I'll bring it back in a minute." 

Jeff Harrison grabbed him by the shoulder. "You're going to try the Ymir solution, aren't you?" At Onslow's slow grin he shook his head. "Try not to end up with the same result, okay?" The Space Force colonel patted the militia colonel on the shoulder. "Good luck, mate."

As Paul reached the lounge's door, he pulled back the weapon's charging handle to chamber a round and set the velocity selector to just barely above the speed of sound. Won't do any good if the gunshots aren't loud enough, but I don't want a ricochet to kill anyone, he thought. Then he walked into the lounge, pointed the weapon's muzzle up and emptied the magazine into the ceiling in a single long burst. 

The results were gratifyingly swift. 

Screams and curses filled the air as people dived for cover or hit the deck. The Colonel saw at least three people leap over the bar seeking cover behind it, and the volume of swearing he heard from that direction made him think that at least one person had been landed on. Finally, the shouts quieted and the bar fell deathly quiet. "Now," the Scrappers' leader asked, the machine pistol resting jauntily on his shoulder, "who's going to tell me how all this started?"

 

CONT...