PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 50 of 66 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
Sickbay, Avernus Station
“Now don't flinch and this won't hurt much," Kristy Joyce murmured.
"That's easy for you to say," Tony Carruthers muttered resentfully as he held perfectly still. After all, moving around is not a good idea when someone who views you with distaste is holding tweezers a few millimeters from your eye. He closed his eye and gritted his teeth as Kristy gently plucked several slivers of glass from the cut on his forehead. Then there was the familiar tugging sensation of the wound being stitched and sealed shut, and finally the strawberry-blonde Scrapper patted him on the shoulder.
"All done," she commented as Rat opened his eyes. Tiny shards of glass rested in the bottom of the kidney dish she held and she tapped the longest one with her tweezers. "That one was lodged about a centimeter above your eye. If it hadn't caught in your eyebrow it would have kept going until it hit your eyeball." Carruthers winced. "Of course," Kristy continued blithely, "even if it hadn't punctured your eye, you'd have been grounded for ages. Probably would have cost you any chance of flying -- "
"I get the idea," he snapped. "Don't you ever look on the bright side?"
"Yes I do," the Scrappers' medic replied evenly. "It won't happen because I managed to get all of them out." There was a brief pause as Kristy set the dish and tweezers down on a table, then she turned back to face the Confed pilot. "Look, I guess I was wrong about you and I wanted to say thanks for rushing in to back up Dani, okay?" she mumbled in a hurried rush.
The stocky Englishman cocked his head in disbelief. "Sorry, I must be hearing things. Did I actually hear you say you were sorry for being so bitchy at me?" He tried to suppress a mischievous grin as Dani gave his hand a brief squeeze of warning.
Kristy glowered at him. "No, I'm not saying I'm sorry but I am saying I was wrong. Don't push it, bucko," she growled and Carruthers smirked, then winced as the movement of facial muscles pulled at his just-sealed cut. "Try to lay off the facial contortions until the skin mends, okay?"
"Alreet," he agreed meekly, squeezing Dani's hand surreptitiously. "You've had a lot of practice doing this?" he asked Kristy in an attempt to change the subject.
Kristy nodded. "You bet. I've had to pry bits and pieces out of this lot so many times I've lost track," she grumbled as she headed over to Brin Hoffman and took one of his big hands in both her own. She expertly manipulated the big Tanfenner's fingers then pressed lightly on each knuckle, ignoring his yelps of pain. "Nothing's broken, it's just bruised," she reassured him. "Tony and Benita should be back with those cold packs shortly, so just put one on your hand overnight and you should be okay by morning."
"I'll hold you to that," the blond man promised then looked up at her hopefully. "Aren't you going to kiss it better?"
"In your dreams," she shot back, but there was no real malice in her reply. The corporate pilot clasped both his hands to his chest, as though from a shot to the heart, and grinned broadly even as Kristy turned to face Rat. "Back when the squadron was first formed, I was specifically assigned to them so that I could do double duty as both pilot and medical officer," the Border Worlder commented quietly. "I haven't been able to save everyone I've had to work on, but I've given it my best damn shot."
"And that's all that anyone can do," Paul Onslow agreed as he walked into the medical bay. "You're not the only one patching people up, are you?" he asked, concern in his eyes. Kristy shook her head.
"The ship's doctor from the
"I wish!" Brin cut in. Kristy tossed an empty plastic cup at him and grinned as she looked back at her CO.
"So you can see I haven't been overdoing it, boss," she concluded. "God knows it's quieter than it ever was on the Halloran." Onslow nodded in agreement.
"God knows the injuries would be less serious." The older pilot leaned against the wall. "I heard about how what happened out there got started, but I want to hear it from you. Who's going to start?" The medical bay fell silent and several of the pilots looked around at each other, but none of them spoke. "All right then," Onslow sighed as he looked straight at Dani. "Do you want to press charges against Lieutenant Markham?" he asked the slender girl bluntly.
Dani gnawed her lower lip for a second then shook her head. "No, but I think he should be told to drop the attitude," she replied. "Honestly, boss, he would have picked a fight with any Border Worlder that had been at that table. He said we weren't worth protecting, and that the UBW was no better than a gang of pirates. I told him that if Confed didn't abide by the Treaty of McAuliffe they'd show they had no honour, then he blew up and said that we were the ones lacking honor." Dani blew out her breath in a gusty sigh and shrugged as she finally met her commanding officer's eyes. "Then he told me to shut up, called me a whore, and demanded I go back to the street corner I worked on."
The silence in the sickbay was as brittle as fine Gotherian crystal. Finally Alex Morgan raised his head from his pillow, looked at his squadronmates and said coldly, "I think we've found Gorthaur a buddy for when we send him swimming in the deep black." His attention was drawn to the sound of footsteps as Anthony Grimm and Benita Rogers returned from their supply run. Upon seeing the colonel's rank pins Benita attempted a salute, but the cold packs in her hands made the gesture awkward. Onslow returned the gesture without missing a beat.
"At ease, Lieutenant. You'd better help Tony with handing those out," he advised. Looking at Grimm, who was busy handing out the medical supplies, he asked,"Who's your friend?"
"Lieutenant Benita Rogers, meet Colonel Paul Onslow. He's the Scrappers' CO," he explained. Jack DeVille grinned nastily at Benita as he placed a cold pack against his ribs.
"Yeah, he's the non-pilot in charge of the paperwork for us other
non-pilots," he sneered. The Frostreaver glared at him as Onslow raised his
eyebrows in surprise, looking closely at his second-in-command. "Snowman's her
boss," the roguishly handsome blond Scrapper explained, "and I mentioned you
temped as Wing Commander on the
Benita's eyes smoldered with anger. "With all due respect, Major," she bit out, her tone holding no respect at all, "I was in the top fifteen percent back at the Academy. I'm a damn good pilot. On the other hand, I haven't seen you do anything but run your mouth and use your fists. You may be good in a bar brawl, sir," she hissed, pronouncing the title as 'cur', "but the only way we'll beat the Bugs is in the cockpit."
Jack sat up straight, letting a scowl replace his mocking sneer. "Let's do it then. Set up the sim pods down on the flight deck level and I'll be right down." A wince crossed his face as he stood up, but he waved away Maneater's outstretched hand.
Benita shook her head. "You're still stuffed up from the fight. I'd be taking unfair advantage of you, Major."
Vincent Tsu grinned. "Don't worry, Lieutenant. There've been plenty of women who've taken advantage of Jack and he rarely complains about it." The failure of that barb to get a rise out of the blond major made Vince realize just how angry he was.
"Lieutenant, does your squadron have patrol duty tomorrow?" Onslow asked. At Benita's curt nod, he frowned. "I'll see if I can swing some time off the patrol schedule for both of us on the 16th then, so we can get this sim duel over and done with."
"Are you that eager to see me wipe the floor with your XO, sir?" Benita asked, her eyes wide with shock. Onslow gave her a disarming grin.
"I'll be on his wing with him," the Scrappers' leader replied. "This war won't be decided by one-on-one combats - no war ever is. You pick your wingman and another two pilots from your squadron, and Major DeVille and I'll meet you whenever Jeff gives you the all-clear."
The rookie girl nodded as a grin spread over her face. "Let's make it a bit more interesting, shall we? If we lose, we have to help our ground crews for the rest of the day. What about you?"
Paul Onslow didn't bat an eye. "If we lose to you, then we'll turn in our wings," he answered coolly. Whatever answer Benita had been expecting, this wasn't it. Her eyes widened in shock and her mouth popped open. Nor was she the only one - Anthony Grimm and Tony Carruthers were both regarding the man as if he'd sprouted an extra head from each shoulder. But Jack DeVille and the other Scrappers had shown no change in their expressions.
"Wait a second," Benita frowned. "There's no way that the brass would accept the resignations of a squadron leader and his second-in-command right on the eve of a battle this big."
"True," Onslow replied calmly. "However we'll have to explain to him just why we're turning in our wings, and word gets around faster than trans-light communications. Think about it -- a couple of veterans of the Black Lance Incident and the Huntdown taken down by a bunch of rookies who haven't even graduated from the Academy yet." The eagerness in his eyes was clearly visible to the Jaguar pilot.
He's looking forward to this, she realized with a thrill of surprise. There was no way she could refuse such an offer -- Onslow had conceded a two-to-one advantage in numbers to her, as well as making sure he had a lot more prestige riding on the duel than she did. And like he had said, if she won then word of her victory would spread throughout the reserve fleet like wildfire. "All right, Colonel. Challenge accepted," she murmured. Then she spat in the palm of her hand and held it out to him. The colonel calmly spat in his own palm, clasped her hand in his and shook firmly.
"Done," the militia colonel agreed. "If Snowman needs to get in touch with Tanagawa to sort things out, he's got my comm code. Anything else I can take care of."
"Well, I'd better sort things out with my buddies," Benita said as she headed for the medbay's door. As she reached the door she turned back to Grimm and pointed at him. "You, I'll catch up with later." And then she was gone.
There was a pause of a few seconds before Alex Morgan finally spoke. "Boss, was I that obnoxious when I was first assigned to you?"
"You were worse," Onslow deadpanned even as his eyes twinkled with humor. "She's just got buck fever and is pretty full of herself. You, on the other hand, were deliberately contrary, stubborn, surly and arrogant."
Alex let his head slump back to the pillow. "Sir, you have my deepest, most sincere apologies. If I was worse than that snot-nosed little bitch then you had the patience of a saint to keep from punching me into the middle of next week." Several of the Scrappers laughed but their boss merely looked thoughtful.
"You were just lashing out because you got press-ganged into the Militia and I was your new boss," he commented. "The fact that you were one hot stick helped me forgive half the crap you pulled."
"So's Benita," Grimm interjected. He scowled at Alex for his insult to his fellow Academy student. "She's damn good in the cockpit as well as a crack shot. That's how she got the callsign Blender - most of her opponents' fighters looked like they'd been fed through one after she was done with them." Grimm turned his attention to Onslow. "Sir, I know you and Jack are good but don't underestimate Bennie - remember that you'll be outnumbered two to one by Jaguars." The Jaguar was very nearly as fast and agile as the Intruder, and a heck of a lot better armed.
"I won't underestimate her," Grimm's commander reassured him. "But I'm not going to overestimate her either. Let's just say that based on how she acted here, I'm pretty sure I can wring a few advantages out of her without her being aware of it." The young man merely looked unconvinced and worried.
"Talking of obnoxious newbies," Sandra Lynch asked suddenly, "where's Dragan?" Indeed the other new Scrapper was nowhere to be seen.
"We'd better find him," Todd McLaughlin declared as he stood up. "He could be hurt - "
"No, he's fine," Anthony broke in hastily. "He's okay, honest."
Tony Carruthers gave him a shrewd look. "Where is he then?"
The young Border Worlder shifted his stance uncomfortably. "He's back there," he admitted, pointing to a section of the sickbay near the supply room he'd just come from.
"And you're sure that he's okay?" Kristy asked, her eyes curious. Grimm nodded and blushed slightly.
"When he came in he had some scrapes on his knuckles and bruised ribs," the young man explained. "One of the station nurses was on duty here and helped fix him up - "
"Let me guess," Courtney Tseng cut in. "This was a cute female nurse?" As Grimm blushed even more, she rolled her eyes. "I think I can see where this is going."
"When Bennie and I went to the supply room we found that the two of them were, errr... using one of the, um, beds for, ahhhh... non-medical usage." By now, the youngster's face was almost as red as Kristy's hair.
"What sort of uses?" Jack DeVille asked, his innocent facade only broken by a faint twinkle of mischief in his eyes. "Were they -- hey!" he yelped as Dani tossed the cold pack that had rested against her jaw into Jack's lap.
"Dammit, Dani, quit that!" Kristy ordered as she passed the platinum blond Scrapper another cold pack. "Keep this one against your jaw or it'll hurt like hell in the morning," she scolded even as she handed another pair of cold packs to Michelle Ross. "Shelly, if Jack pipes up again use these to shut him up," she ordered the Confed pilot.
"Talking of obnoxious losers and childish behavior," John Hawke
interrupted, "what are we going to about
"Nothing," the scarred veteran of twenty years of war replied flatly. "We leave the decision up to his commanding officer, the same way I'd expect the
Confees to do if you'd flipped out at one of them." He waited a
few moments to let that information sink in. "Isaac Markham, callsign Monarch,
is an Excalibur pilot off the
"And some were in the area near what became the Union of Border Worlds, right?" Tony Carruthers asked. At Onslow's nod he muttered, "I think I can see where this is going."
"So can I," Todd McLaughlin grumbled, "But he shouldn't be so pissed off at us just because we cost his family some money. Jeez, if they were that rich they still would've had plenty to live on!"
"So long as they were still alive," Dani murmured, awareness dawning in her eyes. Her commander nodded grimly.
"While Monarch was doing his duty in Confed during the Black Lance Crisis, the rest of his family were occupied with running the arms business. During 2673 they were inspecting one of their factories in the Speradon System."
"Let me guess," Sandra Lynch interrupted. "They were there during
Vincent Tsu summed it up curtly. "If
"That's something he'll have to get over," Alex replied harshly, "Because the Nephilim won't give a good goddamn if people are Border Worlders, Confeds, Andorrans, Landreichers or whatever. They'll all be victims, no matter their nationality. And if we don't stop them here then the rest of humanity will find that out the hard way..."
Recreational Deck Lounge, Avernus Station
God's in his heaven and all's right with the world, Anthony Grimm thought happily. The party had gotten under way again after the brawl had been quelled, although there were fewer people in the lounge than there had been. It wasn't often that he felt this peaceful and relaxed, especially with the Nephilim due to arrive in the next few days. Most especially since Benita Rogers had ambushed him outside the medbay's exit and dragged him back onto the dance floor. Normally on the dance floor he would have been as edgy as a sheep in a wolf pen, but Benita was one of his closest friends.
"Through the storm we reach the shore
You give it all but I want more
And I'm waiting for you..."
He smiled as he rested his forehead against Benita's and moved in time with the slow music. The future was looking decidedly tense, but right now everything was going pretty well as far as he was concerned. Locking eyes with the girl he began singing along with the music, and much to his surprise his friend joined in.
"With or without you
With or without you
I can't live with or without you..."
And then the couple's singing suddenly stopped as Benita pulled Grimm's face down to hers and kissed him deeply. For a few seconds he just stood there stunned, then he abruptly pulled away. "Goddammit, Bennie, what was that all about?" he asked, trying to recover both his breath and his composure. The girl's hazel eyes narrowed in irritation.
"I thought it was pretty obvious," she shot back. Grimm blinked in surprise.
"Yeah, but -- "
"Tony, you may be smart and good at book-learning but you've got a lot to learn about reading people," she snapped. "I was dropping hints left, right and centre to you back at the Academy. Hell, I did everything but drag you into a supply closet, rip your clothes off and screw your brains out!" Looking around the dance floor, she lowered her voice. "I got to know you pretty damn well while you were tutoring me, and I figured out pretty damn quick that I wanted you." Benita paused, as if she was afraid to utter her next words. "And I still do."
Anthony's jaw hadn't quite hit the floor, but he was giving enough visual cues for Benita to see that the idea had hit him like a freight train. "Why?" he managed to ask after a few seconds. "Why me? Benita, you're smart, tough, pretty and you've got a good sense of humor. You could have had your pick of guys, lots better than me - "
The brunette placed a finger over Grimm's lips to silence him. "I don't want my pick of other guys. I don't want anyone who's supposedly better than you," she murmured. "The only man I want is standing right here dancing with me."
"I never thought you'd, um... think of me as attractive," Anthony finally managed to mumble. "I mean, I'm not the best-looking guy out there, or the bravest, or the -- "
"Believing in yourself isn't a crime, you know," Benita cut in. "You're a sweet guy, but you don't have to shoot yourself in the foot every five seconds," she added with a smirk. He scowled.
"I do not shoot myself in the foot every five seconds." He paused for a few moments then explained, with a mocking gleam in his eye, "I usually wait at least seven seconds. Give me some credit."
She burst out laughing even as she tightened her arms around him. "You've never been afraid to laugh at yourself, Smiley. That's another thing I like about you." Benita's smile faded as she looked into her friend's eyes. "Just try to be less hard on yourself, okay?"
Anthony nodded. "Okay," he agreed quietly. "I'll be more self-confident in the future. I promise."
"Good." The Jaguar pilot chewed nervously on her lower lip. "How much do you know about the plans the brass have drawn up for defending Nifelheim?"
Grimm blinked at the sudden change of subject. "Well, I know that the main idea is that we defend Avernus Station and Nifelheim II, and basically act as the anvil while the frontline forces do the hammer thing. The Bugs get caught between our two forces and squished. End of story." He gave Benita a piercing look. "What's that got to do with the price of fish?"
"Some of the squadrons have been assigned to chop to Avernus if any of the carriers get damaged," Benita explained. The song to which they had been dancing had finished and a new one started, but both pilots stayed where they stood in each other's embrace. "The Frostreavers are one of those squads, and as part of the plans we've been allocated quarters on station," Benita continued. She looked up at Anthony nervously and added quietly, "My quarters are right near here, just off the main concourse."
For the second time in two minutes, Anthony Grimm's jaw almost hit the floor. Then he regained his composure and planted a kiss on Benita's lips.
"Lead the way."
Recreational Deck Lounge, Avernus Station
"Seems like things have really quieted down since you dropped in, boss," Kristy Joyce grinned. She took another sip of her Southern Comfort and cola then took another long look around the lounge. Herself and Onslow were the only two Scrappers sitting in a sofa by the huge window looking away from the world the station orbited. A thin sliver of green was the only part of Nifelheim II visible from the window, not enough to obscure a spectacular view of the surrounding stars. Occasionally one of the lights in the black sky would move, revealing itself as one of the capships or patrolling fighters of the reserve armada. But this did nothing to disturb the feeling of peace the view or the companionship brought to Kristy.
Paul Onslow gave his subordinate a sidelong look. "Yeesh! It's been two and a bit hours since I arrived, and I didn't hurt anyone. They really need to get over it!" he muttered, a look of overdone innocence on his face. He took a long drink of his glass of Golwyn's Glory as Kristy giggled. "I mean, they look at me as if they expect me to do it again!" He sighed theatrically.
"Well you did a hell of a job of convincing them you meant business," she commented, running her hand through her long hair. "Besides, getting this much respect must be a novelty for you, compared to your usual treatment."
Onslow shrugged. "There's a difference between respect and veneration, and I've got the best of both worlds." The scarred Colonel smiled slowly at Kristy. "You guys respect me, and God knows you and Jack and even Alex would be quick to pull me down to earth if my head started getting too swelled. The Roman generals only had one dwarf in their chariot, and I've got three."
The Scrappers' medic blinked slowly as she sat forward. "And exactly why are we like dwarves?" she asked. "Jack and Alex are both taller than you, and I'm about your height." There must be some sort of reason he said that, she thought to herself muzzily, but I'm damned if I can figure out what it is. Giving her drink a hard look, she set it down on the coffee table in front of her. I've had too much of that stuff already. Gotta cut back.
Onslow sank back into the sofa and let his head roll back. His
eyes half-closed as he took another mouthful of whisky, letting an expression of
contentment steal over his face. "Back in the days of the
"You mean there once in the history of humanity was a nation
where the Senate was grateful to its military?" Kristy asked, bitterness edging
her voice. She hadn't joined the
Paul patted her on the arm soothingly. "Anyway, in
The medic punched him on the shoulder. "You'd never go psycho," she snapped. "You're a good man, Paul, and you care about people. You care a lot more about us than you do about yourself. I remember how hurt you were when you had to write the deathcomms for Nitro and Payback." Where had that little catch in her voice come from? She wondered. "I guess I got to see more of you because I was the squadron medic, huh?"
"Pilots always have to listen to the medical officer or they lose their wings," the colonel confirmed. He finished off his drink and poured himself another drink from the bottle on the coffee table. "So whenever you've told me to tell what's on my mind, I've had no choice but to do so." He nodded to Kristy. "You're a damned good listener," he added quietly. And a damned good friend.
Kristy blushed at the praise. What's wrong with me? she wondered. No more booze tonight! she scolded herself, giving her drink a hard look. "So, what's next on the agenda?" she asked. Even as she spoke, a slow song started playing and couples on the dance floor moved closer together. "Care to dance?"
Paul Onslow's eyes widened, as if for an instant he'd perceived something deeper in the strawberry-blonde's question. "No," he sighed. "I'm not much of a dancer. Besides, everyone else would duck for cover expecting me to shoot up the ceiling again. Thanks for the offer, but I'll just stay here and watch the stars, Kris." He sighed and for a second looked much older than his forty-one years. "God knows there's been few enough times when I've been able to stargaze without wondering if there's someone out there locking a missile on to me," he murmured softly.
Kristy shifted a little uncomfortably in her seat. "I'll leave you to it," she offered and stood up. The fiery pilot started towards the bar but almost jumped out of her skin when a hand firmly grasped her wrist. Her green eyes met Paul Onslow's dark ones as he released his grip on her arm.
"You're welcome to stay if you want to," he told quietly. "I can't guarantee that I'll be the best conversationalist or even good company, but I'm not sending you away."
There was a pregnant pause. Finally she asked, "Do you want me by your side?" her eyes full of hidden meaning.
Paul smiled reassuringly. "Of course." Why would she think that I'd want to boot her from the squadron? he wondered to himself. She's one of the original Scrappers. More than that, she's part of the chemistry that holds us all together. I'd more heaven and earth to keep her with us. And if her self-confidence is going then I'd better do something to help out, he thought.
Unable to mask a triumphant grin completely, Kristy sat down next
to Paul, completely unaware of his misinterpretation of her concern. Looking
around the lounge, she took note of the pilots and spacers relaxing and joking
before returning her attention to her commanding officer. Yes, everyone enjoy
yourselves, she thought benevolently. It'll be a long time before we get
to cut loose again like this. What was that old saying? Ah yes, "Eat,
drink, be merry..."
And like a virus, the rest of the quote made its way into her consciousness.
"... for on the morrow we may die."