PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 5 of 66 )

: Toeing the Line
PART 1 OF 6 : KILLING TIME

"Good flying never killed anyone."
- Mick Mannock, 68-73 victories, WWI
 


TCS Miles D'Arby, en route to Nifelheim II
Nifelheim System
2300 Hours (CST), 10th February, 2681 (2681.041)

“Good Evening, this is Tara Wilcox bringing you news on the hour from the TNC Newsroom. Only minutes ago we were informed that over 100 POWs from the late TCS Bunker Hill have been rescued in a daring raid by Coalition Special Forces, believed to be a Confederation Navy SEAL team. No names of those liberated have been released yet but the survivors are known to be being held in quarantine conditions. Quite why this precaution has been taken is unknown at this time but the possible use of biological warfare by the Nephilim cannot be ruled out.

"Meanwhile, UBW Senator Davidson has stated publicly that the whole 'so-called Nephilim War' has been faked by the Terran Confederation in order to declare E.D. 242 -- Martial Law -- in the Border Worlds. The massive military build up, he said, is not for defense but to invade. Already full-scale planetary evacuations have taken place from several systems, yet he points out that no footage whatsoever has been released of the Nephilim, and Confed has imposed a total media blackout. According to the Senator, the two Confederation carriers supposedly lost fighting the Nephilim are actually using cloaking devices and are already poised to overthrow the UBW government.

"President Cale has denounced Senator Davidson's press statement as a work of pure fiction devised simply to instill mass hysteria and stir up anti-Confederation sentiment. He reiterated the Union's commitment to the coalition defense force currently engaging the enemy fleet. However, when asked to comment on the actual nature of Border World forces involved, he refused to comment."

 

An orange K 1 star somewhat smaller, cooler and dimmer than Earth's own Sol provided the light and warmth for the 150,000 people who lived in the Nifelheim System, or had until a few days ago, before the evacuation.

It was now eerily quiet, rather like walking through an abandoned building. Normally, in any inhabited system, you could flick through the comms channels and listen to civilian comms chatter; traffic control, routine communications and out in the boonies, especially in Border Worlds systems like this, idle chatter between freighter crews swapping dirty jokes and tall stories like old-time truckers on the CB. But now -- nothing. The system was absolutely dead. Even the smugglers had mostly left their bases and fled to God-probably-didn't-even-know-where.

It was like turning up expecting a party and finding nobody home. You wonder, am I late? Am I early? Am I in the right place? You felt left out -- you can almost hear music and laughter in the background, somewhere, but not where you are. It was frustrating: They'd jumped in at full alert ready for anything and found -- nothing. Again came the order: Dock, rearm, refuel, and await further orders. Hurry Up And Wait. A skeleton crew ran the main orbital station -- the defenses were almost entirely automated. The only thing that hadn't yet been evacuated was the prison colony on the innermost planet. The Aligheri "correctional facility" held around a thousand lifers sentenced to hard labor. They were low on the Union's list of priorities but a prison ship was due to collect them in a day or two.

Meanwhile, the reserves were to start setting up the system's defenses, 24 hour CAP stations and minefields. The mines couldn't yet be activated, but the sooner they were set up the better. The tasks were to be shared between the three carriers, but the D'Arby's Thunderbolt squadron drew the alert straw - while the Thunderbolt's from the Okinawa and Iwo Jima sowed mines the Thunderbolt pilots from the D'Arby would sit in the ready room playing poker, ready to launch a strike if needed.

Right now, though, the ships were running in from the jump point they'd emerged from an hour ago, and the pilots were sitting in the lounge drinking their last round.

"Goddamn it, I am so fucking sick of this shit!" Rat slammed down yet another rapidly emptied pint glass.

"Sick of what?" Robber asked as he tried to mop up some of his beer Rat had spilled before it spilled off the table onto him.

"Exactly! Sick of doing nothing! I want to be out there kicking some Alien butt, not sitting here listening to other people doing it!"

"You'd rather have been on the 'Hill? Or the Sara? You'd rather be excited and dead than alive and bored?"

"That wasn't what I said -"

"I know," Robber sighed in exasperation, "you don't think this is getting to all of us? Yes, the waiting is hard, but complaining will only make it harder, not easier."

"I just wish we had some action is all," Rat reiterated.

Viking grunted in derision, "be careful what you wish for -- sometimes they come true!"

 

2352 Hours (CST), 10th February, 2681 (2681.041)

Mongrel found it ironic that up until a few days before he had longed for a call up to active service, for some "action." They all had. He looked forward to his weekends, flying to liven up the tedium of his "normal" everyday job. Even peacetime training hops were more fun than sitting at a desk. He always said that although his "office" -- the cockpit -- was smaller than the janitor's -- the broom cupboard -- he wouldn't trade it for the company director's.

And now, called up to active service, he was bored. They all were. He was still waiting for something to happen. They'd got where they were going and still had to wait. And now, due to someone else's foolishness they weren't even allowed a few unofficial hassles to liven things up. Just the sims, trying to figure out some way of beating the Alien superfighters. Still, it gave him something else to complain about.

In ten minutes, though, he'd be space borne on a BARCAP mission, though this held little prospect of action either. The system was evacuated and the chances of the Bugs picking this particular moment to swarm through the jump point were rather slim, so he didn't hold out much hope for any excitement. Not that wishing for it was too bright either - a few dozen Nephilim fighters might be a bit too much excitement for his 4 -ship CAP.

 

0007 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

A little over 100,000 of the system's population called Nifelheim II home. 75,000 of these lived in the major city and spaceport, Jorgenson's Wreck, named after the early pioneer/explorer who settled the world first -- by crashing on it. Most of the planet was a designated wildlife reserve -- but since most of the planet was one large, shallow tropical sea akin to those on Earth during the Jurassic period, that didn't much matter, although some early settlers had tried fishing the seas -- until they were eaten themselves. There really were sea monsters there, akin to the huge mosasaurs of Earth's distant past. Farming was impossible in the tropical rainforest that covered most of the rest of the planet's surface -- the rampant jungle growth regenerated almost as fast as it could be cleared. Eventually the colonists gave up and started harvesting the local flora and fauna, after a period of trial and error - most of the planet's native inhabitants were either poisonous, carnivorous, or both. The oppressive tropical heat, humidity and tiring gravity (it was only 1.1 Earth g at sea level on the equator but felt more) made it an unpleasant place to live. Ironically, the cooler Polar Regions were the only comfortable place to live and where Earth crops would grow -- yet the system was named Nifelheim, after the cold, dark "hell" of the Teutons.

The majority of the rest of the system's population were miners, 30,000 in the inner belt alone. Nifelheim was rich in "metals," [a metal in astronomer's terms is any element heavier than helium, but these systems are usually rich in what most people term "metals"] richer than Sol, which was rare, and mining, legal and otherwise, brought in many people. These metal-rich asteroid belts [the system had two, one at 1 AU caused by the disruptive influence of Nifelheim III, a large gas giant, and one at 13 AU between the gas giants Nifelheim V and VI] were also a haven for smugglers, raiders and pirates, the high metal contents of the rocks helping to hide their ships and bases from prying sensors.

It was this sensor clutter that the radar operator on board the bridge of the Miles D'Arby was trying to make sense of. Around 2325, they'd picked up some moving traces in the inner belt on this side of the star [the jump point was a fixed point in space-time but the planet's orbits currently put Nifelheim II on the far side of the central star] which they had moved to intercept before realizing they were simply smugglers or miners. Their evasive actions initially made them look suspicious but quickly he realized they had probably been wary of the military craft, as much because of their own shady activities than any fear of the unseen Nephilim. Now he had some much larger, faster tracks. They looked far more like military vessels, and there were a lot of them. Alarm bells in his head started ringing, so he rang one himself. The captain had not long retired to his stateroom (though off watch, he'd insisted on being on the bridge for the jump in) but in two minutes he was back on the bridge. It was hardly possible to tell he had been woken from slumber, but perhaps there were some bags under the slightly bloodshot eyes.

"What is it?" the Captain asked in a calm tone, not showing the least annoyance at being called from his bed.

"Seems to be a military battle group sir. From their vector I don't think they've spotted us yet, sir. They changed their speed and heading thirty seconds ago, turning into us. I thought they'd seen us, but then they turned away again."

"Hmm. There's not supposed to be any of ours out here, but..."

"Sir?"

"What do you think they are?"

"Sir, I - well, I don't know exactly what to look for. We don't know these bugs. These guys aren't acting like Kilrathi, for instance. But not like Confed ships either."

"Okay, son. Point taken. They don't feel right, and that's good enough for me. Vector the closest BARCAP onto them, get some more up and the others onto alert 15 status. Red Alert, Battle Stations. Sound General Quarters."

"Aye, sir!"

 

"Camelot, Strike. Vector for trade 290 by 20 for 300. Multiple bogeys."

"Copy. Minnows or Sharks, over?"

"Sharks."

"Understood." All four Excaliburs started to turn to the new heading even before it popped onto their HUDs and NAVMAPs as a new nav point and pushed the throttles up to full military power, accelerating their sleek interceptors in seconds to 500 KPS.

Mongrel's fingers twitched on the control column involuntarily. He swallowed. Surely it couldn't be the enemy already? To wait so long and then, when the time finally came, to wonder if you were actually ready... he brushed the thought aside. He'd made plenty of intercepts before. He'd even shot people down - there were three "kill" markings stenciled beneath his callsign on the side of his cockpit. Not bad for a part-timer. Bugs? Bring'em on. Maybe he could get the squadron callsign changed to "Rentokill?"

 

Robber struggled into his flightsuit and g-suit, his body still wet from the shower he'd just jumped out of. The sweat-stained flight gear chaffed his damp body and Robber cursed his bad luck. The squadron's Thunderbolt heavy fighters were being readied for a strike on the flight deck but carrying only one torpedo each it would need virtually the entire squadron to take out one or two of the enemy battle group's picket ships, let alone tackle a Leviathan supercarrier. They were supposed to be here to bolster and reinforce and existing fleet - three small escort carriers weren't a viable force in themselves. Surely they'd have to retreat?

Under two minutes later he was running to his waiting T-bolt. A quick walk-around and up the ladder. He forced himself to calm down and go through the preflight checklists although he knew them by heart. While he was doing this he realized they'd already gone from 15 minute to five minute alert status.

"Launch the alert aircraft! That is, launch the alert aircraft!" It didn't take long for eight Thunderbolts and eight Bearcats to line up for a scramble take off. It seemed mere moments before the entire strike group was hurtling through the blackness toward an unknown foe.

 

The BARCAP fighters had not turned onto a direct intercept heading for the target track but instead aimed rather further in front of the enemy group than that. They would still be able to head off any strike package the enemy might launch but they were not too eager to go barreling straight in; rushing into the center of an enemy battle fleet with four Excaliburs would be little short of suicidal and achieve nothing. For the time being they would shadow them until the TCS Miles D'Arby's own strike package got closer, then they'd link up and take point. That would present a show of force to the enemy that would worry them rather than amuse them when they intercepted.

 

0015 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

"Camelot, strike. Bogeys now 270 by 10 for 150."

Robber listened in to the BARCAP interceptors being vectored toward the unknowns. From the headings given he could tell the CAP fighters were reluctant to go steaming straight toward the enemy - they were on an intercept course alright, but to intercept his strike package! Robber grinned - Mongrel wasn't stupid.

In a few short minutes they were within visual range of the CAP flight. As they saw them the Excaliburs turned onto the same vector leaving the Thunderbolts in a trail position. Bearcats slid past on either side, afterburner glowing briefly as they pulled forward and to the sides of the strike birds. The CAP and escort fighters were now well placed to head off any enemy interceptors and leave the Thuds a clear run into the target.

"Strike, Juggernaught. Have we any info on the make-up of the target group?"

"Aprox' six capital ships. No very large traces." A fairly large battle group then, but with a bit of luck no carrier or dreadnought. Could be worse.

"Bogeys now 260 by 0 for 70."

"Contact, Judy." The Excals had the enemy on their scanners and could control their own intercept from now. In a few more seconds blips started to drift onto Robber's scanner VDU as well.

 

TCS Miles D'Arby; Bridge
About the same time

Commodore Jeffrey Turnbull had appeared beside the Captain like a ghost out of the darkness.

"What's going on, Thomas?" Captain Thomas Graham glanced across at the flotilla's commander. Creased uniform, matted hair and uneven stubble. Unlike some captains, commodores and admirals he didn't mind showing that he was human. Graham didn't know if this was a good thing or not -- he liked to be immaculate, even woken in the middle of the night, and be one step ahead, always. A superhuman. Some captains thought arrogance gave them that air of authority, but Graham hated men like that. Did Turnbull not care, or did he not feel he needed to look superhuman? The line of thought was irrelevant and nothing to do with the situation, and he brushed it away.

"We're intercepting some bogeys. I'm not happy we haven't heard from anybody -- the system's defense forces, command, the fleet... they could be anybody. We're taking a look-see."

"Care to take a guess?" Turnbull smiled, a stark contrast to the lines of worry that creased the Captain's face.

"Not really, sir."

"Not much of a gambler, then?"

"No, sir. Not with men's lives."

"All right, point taken. You don't know."

Dammit, dammit, damn it! Graham cursed at himself for attacking the Commodore like that. It was the middle of the night, he'd had about two hours sleep in three days, and yet he had to be above it all, perfect, and Turnbull strides in late looking like he'd been dragged through a hedge backwards, cracking jokes... Calm down, you idiot, he told himself crossly.

"Sorry, sir, I..."

"No apology necessary, Thomas. I understand."

 

0016 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

Mongrel blinked in disbelief. Almost instantly the number of blips on his scanner doubled -- fighters were appearing among the asteroids. It was a bit of a shock because it was so late coming. Surely there should have been interceptors launched against them well before they came in strike range? Something wasn't right, but he didn't have time to worry too much about it as he only had moments to line up a head-on shot.

Locking-up the closest target he steered the pipper over the center of the targeting box and waited for the reticule to light up. The shot would be fleeting - by the time his guns were in range he would only have a short squeeze of the trigger before he had to break away to avoid the head-on collision. His finger tightened up on the trigger in anticipation, taking up the slack as he awaited the "in-range" cue...

His finger applied the last few grams of pressure needed and his tachyon guns spewed superluminal particles at the target rushing toward him. The other fighter's frontal shields flared blue briefly before Mongrel and his target broke away simultaneously. It hadn't shot back...

"Shit!" Duncan "Hog" Hodgson groaned, "they're bloody Border Worlders!"

Mongrel shut his eyes and cursed the gods loudly. He could see them clearly now. Before they had just been blurs inside targeting brackets but now he could make out shapes and markings. His scanner was filled with nothing but blue blips now, the "enemy" having finally switched on their IFF transponders. He checked his VDU -- he'd been shooting at an F/A-43 Intruder.

"Knock it off! Knock it off! Weapons tight, I repeat weapons tight! They're friendlies."

"What the hell are you Confees playing at? Are you nuts? We're supposed to be on the same side!"

"I am sorry, but, no harm done. I'll buy you a beer, okay?" Mongrel did his best to try and placate the man.

"Sorry don't cut it! You opened fire on us!"

"Calm down - take it easy - what happened to 'no harm, no foul', eh?" Hog asked.

Wunderbarr, Mongrel thought sarcastically, this is going well. "We'll escort you to Avernus Station."

"We don't need babysitting, and certainly not off you - we'd be in more danger from you than the Bugs!"

"Look, scheissekopf, it was an accident. A mistake for which I am truly sorry, but if you keep insulting me I will start shooting at you again -- and this time I will mean it!"

"Okay, man. Cool your jets. Apology accepted. It's just the usual sort of incompetence I'd expect from you Confed boys, so I won't read anything personal into it!"

Mongrel was just about to retort with profanities in at least two languages when a loud broadcast cut in on Guard: "Camelot, Strike. Resume CAP station and await further orders. Break, Union of Border Worlds Reserve Fleet, Welcome to Nifelheim from the Confederation. Come up on 285.7. Please."

 

TCS Miles D'Arby; Bridge
0018 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

"Camelot, Strike. Resume CAP station and await further orders. Break," the D'Arby's comm officer broadcast on Guard, "Union of Border Worlds Reserve Fleet, welcome to Nifelheim from the Confederation. Come up on 285.7, please," he urged.

"Any response?" Commodore Jeffrey Turnbull, the Confed task force's commander, asked.

The comm operator shook his head. "Still trying, sir. No response so far... "

"Torpedo lock from dead astern! " the sensor op suddenly yelled, eyes wide with surprise and alarm, "multiple fighters decloaking throughout the Fleet!"

"Full evasive!" Graham ordered. "I want our fighters vectored onto those fighters right now! Turn on the IFF or we'll end up shooting each other. Launch the rest of the alert birds!"

Graham turned to Turnbull and said one word, "Strakha."

Turnbull nodded, "The Cats are at it again!"

"Captain, the Iwo Jima's also reporting torpedoes locked onto her!" the Comm Officer reported nervously.

"Order them to launch whatever aircraft they can," Turnbull ordered, "how long until impact?" he asked the young ensign manning nearest sensor station.

"Sir," she frowned as she stared at the VDU screen, puzzled, "there aren't any impacts projected."

"Why not, Ensign?"

"Because they haven't launched any torpedoes, sir. Every ship in the Fleet has torpedoes locked onto it but the fighters haven't fired yet. It doesn't make any sense!"

"Not to us, maybe, but it does to them," Turnbull mused.

"Commodore, all ships report cessation of torpedo locks! Sabretooth Leader is requesting permission to fire on the enemy."

"Acknowledged," Turnbull replied sharply. "Tell Sabretooth Flight that weapons are tight. They do not have permission to shoot unless one of those fighters attacks a Confed ship. Get confirmation from them, understood?"

"Aye, sir."

"Sir, the fighters have - those bastards!"

"What have they done?" Turnbull demanded, tension showing in his voice. It was Graham's turn to grin now the boot was on the other foot. A death's head grin of black humor.

"Sir they've activated their IFF."

"Kilrathi?" Turnbull croaked, his throat dry.

"No, sir. They're Border Worlders." Graham started to giggle. Giggle ridiculously like a schoolgirl, as comprehension flooded through him.

"Excuse me?"

"The bogeys are showing Border Worlds ID codes, Commodore."

"All right. Tell our people to stand down," Turnbull ordered. "It looks like our hosts decided to have some fun with us."

"Some fun!" Graham stopped laughing abruptly and realized that the Wing Commander was also on the bridge, watching quietly from a dark corner. "What the hell are you smiling at, Colonel?"

"They bounced us is all," Colonel Michael Black explained, "fighter pilots do it to each other all the time -- you sneak up, take some gun camera film of your opponent's arse, who takes offence at becoming a film star and breaks hard into you. A dogfight starts and the bounced pilot tries to salve his pride by winning the dogfight and taking a few pictures of his opponent."

"What is the point of the exercise?" Graham asked, his voice dangerously soft.

"Simple," Black smiled again, "bragging rights."

"Confed task force this is Major Sandra Lynch, 349th Composite Fighter Squadron, Border Worlds Militia," you could almost hear the grin in her voice, "welcome to the Border Worlds, over."

 

"Copy, Strike. Weapons tight," Mongrel flinched as a nickel-iron asteroid passed uncomfortably close by. The 'roid belt was unusually dense here, probably why the Border Worlders had hidden here. They were sneaky bastards. He checked over his shoulder. One of the Intruders he'd fired at was chasing him. The pilot had target fixation and didn't see the huge dark rock until the last instant. There was a flash and the Intruder ricocheted violently away in a spin.

"Are you all right?" Mogrel asked on Guard. No answer - probably couldn't get a word in edgeways over the insults.

"... Shove it up your ass!" Michelle "Maneater" Ross sounded pissed.

"... I mean, unprovoked attacks on Border Worlds craft were the same thing Confed did eight years ago!" 

"That was the Black Lance, scheissekopf!"

"You mean there's a difference?" the Border Worlder shot back.

Mongrel took his hand off the throttle and made a universally understood gesture of contempt with a single digit as he passed close to one of the Border Worlder fighters. The Border Worlder shook his fist. Mongrel racked the Excal around in a tight turn. A glint caught his eye. And again. Like starlight glinting on a spinning satellite. Or a polished canopy...

"I think the pilot I shot is in trouble," the German told them.

"Need any help?" Maneater asked.

"We know - and do what you bloody want, Maneater, just shut up and stay out of our way!"

Thirty seconds. A man's life was at stake. It was worth more than a little pride. Major Ross tried again, "Need some help, Onslaught?" C'mon...

"We need that asteroid vaped ASAP..."

"Got it," she replied before he'd even finished. Under the huge volume of fire the rock wouldn't last long, but they didn't have long. Just like the movies, they made it with perhaps a quarter of a second to spare.

"Look, sorry for the misunderstanding," Maneater apologized yet again as soon as the intruder pilot, Grimlock, was safe.

"Thanks for the assist there..." Onslaught said slowly.

"Least we could do - our fault in the first place."

"Yes," agreed Onslaught, "yes, it was."

 

TCS Miles D'Arby; Mess Hall
0907 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

"All it would have taken was a 'Hello, how are you doing?' from the Border Worlders -- hell, it would have been nice to have been told to expect them in the fucking first place!"

"Apparently, they knew we were on our way. They probably just assumed we knew they were here, too," Robber postulated.

"Great! Why is it I always feel like everyone else knows what's going on except us?" Rat complained.

"This is pretty poor even for the Confed military. Perhaps they've got bigger problems than keeping some reserves informed of minor developments."

"We nearly started killing each other, our new allies, and it could all have been avoided with a little common sense," Mongrel shook his head, "Typisch!"

"Aye, well," Rat leaned back and folded his arms, "as me Father used to say: 'There's nowt se fookin' rare as common bloody sense!'"

 

CONT...