PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 53 of 66 )

: “ Toeing the Line ”

"Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die."
- Isaiah 22:13

BWS Sicily; Flight Wing Quarters
4th February, 2681
Hours ZULU


More insistent this time. Rat's hand automatically flapped at his alarm clock. 

TBZZ!! What the…? That's the door. Who the hell is it at this hour?

"Aye, hod on, giz a sec, willya?" Rat groaned, his voice muffled by the pillow his face was buried in. 

TBZZZZZ!!! "Yeah, yeah, hold on a frigging minute, eh?!" 

Rat grabbed his flightsuit off the floor where he'd dropped it last night and, after a couple of failed attempts, managed to get his legs in. He pulled the zip up a couple of inches above his crotch and staggered to the door. 

"What the hell is it? Locked yourself out again, you dozy Mexic -- er… Morning, sir! I'm sorry, I wasn't expecting you!" 

"So I see," said the Wing Commander, Michael Black, dryly. "At ease, Captain." 

"Er… come in, sir. What's up?" 

"Nothing's 'up', as such, I just decided to bring you your mail personally." 

"Sir?" What the fuck is he up to? Rat puzzled. Is it a summons to a court-martial, I wonder? I wouldn't put it past the bastard. One minute he's wanting me clapped in irons, the next he's bringing me the morning paper with my breakfast in bed? 

"There’s a mail-packet that came in with the convoy. A shuttle came over to the D'Arby this morning, about an hour ago. There was a package for you." Black handed over the mystery package. "I thought I'd bring it over personally."  

"I tek it ye kna' what it is, then?" 

"Yes, I recognise the postmark. Open it." 

Rat opened the envelope. Inside was a certificate, and as he pulled it out to examine it, a tie fell onto the floor. 

"A tie? Hang on, there's a letter, too." 

"It's a Martin-Baker tie," said Black. It was a six and a half century old tradition -- for a pilot's first ejection, he received a tie from Martin-Baker, the seat's manufacturers, and a certificate saying when and where he had "joined the Martin-Baker Tie Club." 

"I take it last week was your first time, then?" Black stated the obvious to the still surprised Rat. 

"Yes, sir. Long time since I've been a virgin, but I lost my ejection cherry well and truly last week." 

"Twice in three days, wasn't it?" 

"Aye." A flick of the eyebrows and a shake of the head, "I've bin flying for years and never had to pull that yellow-and black handle afore, then twice in three days. You've gotta laugh, eh?" 

"I joined the club before I got my wings! Micrometeorite strike in the cooling system. My instructor was out of the back seat before I'd finished reading the reactor temps." 


"Mmmm. I thought I'd suggest you might like to wear it tonight. It's supposed to be worn with civilian dress, of course, as a good officer would never wear if with uniform, but this is hardly a formal do, is it?" 

Was there a slight hint on 'good' officer there, wondered Rat? The Wing Commander still couldn't resist a dig even with these overtures of friendship. 

"Yessir, I just might." 

"See you later, then." 

"Sir!" Rat snapped off the sharpest salute since his basic training days. Black grunted, and with a smile touched his finger to his forehead before leaving. 

Maybe he's not such a wanker after all, thought Rat. Yeah, maybe…


Avernus Station
Mess Hall
Hours ZULU

Robber sat down to eat his breakfast, acutely aware he was late. He'd been up again the night before, sitting in the cockpit of his fighter thinking, and then when he'd finally been able to sleep, he'd overslept. He could feel the eyes of the mess hall workers on him -- they wanted to start getting ready for the party that was being put on that afternoon. They seemed a bit resentful, even, and Robber was uncomfortable.

To Robber's surprise, who should walk in but the Wing Commander, Michael Black. Robber put his head down and pretended he hadn't seen him, but Black came straight over. 

"You've got some mail, Captain Bell." 

That was awfully formal, Robber pondered, I wonder what he wants? "Mail?" 

"Looks like something from your wife, I should imagine," Black said as he passed the envelope over. 

It's a real Valentine's Card! Robber realised. It must have cost the earth to send a real card out here! 

"Thanks for bringing it over, sir." Robber didn't want to open it in front of his Wing Commander. A birthday or Christmas card, yes, but a Valentine was private. 

"Not a problem," Black shrugged, "I've a few errands to run over here anyway.  Jill didn't bother sending me one though!" A sheepish, jealous grin. 

"Oh, sorry…" He's not hinting at marital problems, is he? Robber wondered. He didn't have those sorts of worries on his mind; Dianne was very loving and faithful. Worrying if your wife was using you being away risking your neck as an excuse to have an affair did seem to be an added weight on the minds of some people, though. 

"Wouldn't worry about it -- I only sent her an E-mail myself." 

"Sit down -- would you like a coffee?" Robber offered. 

"No, don't bother -- I have to be getting on anyway.  Just wondered if you had any idea about, well, who to keep an eye on today." 

"You mean who are the piss-heads that may cause problems? You know our people as well as I do. Best keep Rat and Viking apart, and Greaser off the tequila. As for the locals, most seem okay. As for the Border Worlders… Mongrel tells me that one of their commanding officers is a bit of a bar-brawler. Also, some of their Tanfen 'friends' are apt to carry blades." 

"Think we should frisk people down?" Black seemed quite concerned. "Hardly setting the party atmosphere though, is it?" 

"You tell me. This seems to me to be some sort of way of keeping people's minds off the impending action, and a way of fostering friendship and co-operative attitudes between the groups. Organising it like some gang-infested Bronx high school prom won't set the right tone, but will letting people hospitalise each other?" 

"I don't see there's much point anyway," shrugged the Wing Commander, "there'll be bottles and glasses to hand, and they make more of a mess than knives anyway." 

"Even so, I'd have security loaded for bear and on standby," suggested Bell

"I'll talk to the station commander about it. See you later." 


Avernus Station
Rec Deck Lounge Area
1549 Hours

Robber saw Rat walk in. Saw his eyes roving the hall. His attention was elsewhere, but he saw Robber and started over. 

"How's it going?" Robber asked. 

"Oh, you know…" 

"Still haven't got her into bed yet then?" Robber grinned. 

"Oh, don't you bloody start!" 

“Right, in that case, you better go and try furthering inter-service relations. Know what I mean?" 

"Roger control, I copy that!" Rat snapped off a mock salute. 

"Catch you later, man." 

Robber suddenly had a thought -- where was Viking? Those two wouldn't need to be boozed up to get violent, but luckily Vike was over the other side of the hall, arm wrestling all-comers -- loser buys the beers.  

Blade could get nasty if roused as well, but he was telling one of his, "No shit, there I was" war stories -- probably the one about him taking on a squadron of Strakha single-handed -- holding a group of his young Border Worlder pupils enthralled. 

"Guten abend, mein kamerad!" 

"Hi, Mongrel." 

"We're having a game of poker -- you want in?" 

"Nah, no thanks mate -- I'm just going to wander around for a bit, talk to a few people." 

"Ja, ok. There is a seat if you want it later." 

"Thanks, I'll think about letting you have some more of my money. With the combat pay coming up, I might just about afford it!"


"What's going on here? I saw smoke." Robber asked Reggie "Reggae" King and Winston "Yardie" Stanley. They'd been sitting in a quiet, dim corner but the aroma of burnt rope was unmistakable. 

"Chill, mon, is just some ganja. You wan' some?" 

"No thanks," Robber shrugged and gestured with his pint glass. "I'll stick with this stuff." 

"You don' know what you missin'." 

"You realize of course," Robber tried not to come the heavy, "that smoking anything on this station is not permitted. No smoking, no naked flames."

"Yah, man, we know!" 

Robber sniffed, realising he was getting nowhere. Something prompted him to look up at the ceiling and he grimaced. "What happened to the smoke detector?" 

"Don't know, mon. Was like that when we got here," Reggae spread his hands in a gesture of innocent ignorance, and grinned, his white teeth gleaming in his dark, friendly face. Yardie nudged him and passed him the spliff. 

"Okay, lads, I never saw you. Just fix that smoke detector when you're finished, and don't let any of the brass see you. The Station Commander, Wing Commander, Commodore and that lot are liable to turn up any time now." 

"Ah, mon, we know you don' give a shit, but we won' get you in trouble. Chill!" 

"I don't mind when it isn't hurting anyone. I'd rather people smoked cannabis than got drunk, to be honest. I've never been attacked by someone smoking a joint. Just tell me you don't smoke when you're going to be flying." 

"Oh come on, mon'! You think we're stupid?" Yardie shook his head and passed the roach to Reggae. He stood up to face Robber, a bit too close for comfort. "What, is it because we're black, or because we're Border Worlders? Dumb yokel niggers?" 

"Chill, Winston!" Reggae pulled Yardie back down, and handed him back the joint. "Robber didn't mean nuthin' by it. He's a good guy, he's just looking out for everyone on his flight. Isn't that right?" 

"Right. You guys have fun, I'll see you later. I'm going to the bar -- you want another jug of Rum?" 

"Yah, but you be having a drink wid us, okay?" 

"Why not?" 

Robber returned to the table to find that Padraig "Punk" O'Brien had joined them and was merrily taking a tug on another spliff. 

"Top o' the morning, Paddy!" 

"Ah, will ye cut it out wit all that stereotypical shit? Next ye'll be saying that Winston and Reggie here will be sacrificing cats and chickens before the mission while I stroke my shamrock. Give us a bloody break, will ye?" 

"That must be the most I've heard you say in one go yet!" Robber laughed. 

"Aye, well, as me dear departed mother used to say, 'a man of many thoughts is often a man of few words'."  

"So, where do you find live chickens around here for this Voodoo shit?" Robber joked. 

"Why you say it's shit?" Yardie demanded. "Maybe it's bullshit, maybe not. Same wid all religions. I don't know for sure if it be boolsheet or not, but ah tell ye what ah do know --  Black Man's magic knew things the white man's medicine din' know for hunnerds, maybe a t'ousand years." 

"That's true," Robber conceded, "plenty of drugs have come from plants used in magic and potions." 

"So, you say it all bullshit now, but what you be sayin' in annudder t'ousand years?" 

"You've got a point. But where do you get the chickens?" Even Yardie slapped him on the shoulder and grinned as they all burst out laughing.


Main Concourse, Avernus Station
1823 Hours

Commodore Jeff Turnbull picked at his dinner without much relish. He nodded and made mumblings of assent at what he hoped were the right places as Colonel Jack Tanagawa seemed to drone incessantly on about tactics and weapons to the other senior officers at dinner with them. Turnbull had his mind on other things. 

As Tanagawa turned to talk to Michael Black about point defense tactics, Turnbull leant slightly closer to Brigadier General Joan Harris seated next to him. 

"When you asked me to dinner," Turnbull began in a chagrined tone, "I was expecting, well, a more private affair." 

"Why Commodore," Harris replied coquettishly, "whatever gave you that idea?" 

"I thought we'd get these dreary formalities out of the way first," she went on, "One has to make an effort, you know, show a face and all that. After we get the business out of the way, well, you know the old saying…" 

"Business before pleasure." Turnbull brushed her ankle lightly with his foot. 

"Business first, Jeff!" She admonished, but made no attempt to move her leg away from his.


God! They can hardly keep their hands off each other, Black realised with a pang of bitter jealousy as he watched Turnbull and Harris flirting happily. Harris is married, he thought. What was his own wife doing right now, he wondered? Was she making bedroom eyes at a man she hardly knew as well? 

Why was he so insecure about her? Well, she'd had had one affair already, which she swore was just a moment of weakness when she was feeling down and lonely. It had to be hard being a service spouse, with your husband or wife away for months at a time, so he'd forgiven her. But how lonely was she feeling now? Watching and worrying as the news holos made their pessimistic predictions of impending doom? Was she finding comfort in the arms of another man again? Or was he simply insecure in his masculinity and his place as her lover? A fear of impotence? 

Sitting here waiting for the bugs to attack (and sitting back watching younger men in fighters do the dirty work even then) he may feel militarily impotent, but what would Freud say? Who cares, he thought -- Freud was more screwed up than his patients! He tucked into his meal with renewed gusto, pushing his wife to the back of his mind. There was nothing he could do about it now, so why worry?


Avernus Station
Rec Deck Lounge Area
1835 Hours

Oh, shit, Rat swore to himself, here comes that bitch Joyce. Carruthers turned his back and tried to pretend he hadn't seen her coming. The other Scrappers at the table were engrossed in a tale of wine, women and song, and Rat made out he was too. Truth be told, he hadn't heard a word, waiting for Dani to return. 

"Don't you turn your back on me, mister! Here I am trying to be friendly," Kristy "Stardust" Joyce snapped. 

"Evenin'," grunted Rat noncommittally. Joyce was talking to him, he was agreeing without really listening. His mind and eyes were elsewhere. Dani had gone to the buffet a while ago. What was keeping her? And what did Joyce want? Was she enough of a bitch to try and seduce him to show what a bastard he was to her friend?  

"So what do you do in the real world when you're not bonking other guys' wives or punching out of Bearcats?" Joyce asked him. Rat spared one eye to glare at her. What happened to "being friendly"? he wondered. 

"I'm a freelance 'shutterbug'," he informed her. "I travel around a bit, take a few photos, sell them off to the various holozines." 

Rat gave his best Gallic shrug, "Not exactly a job that'll get me onto the Fortune 500 but, you know, I get by. And the job's got perks."  Rat thought he'd have fun teasing the woman. He didn't need to worry about upsetting her as he had Dani. Let's give it a tug and see if she jumps… 

"The models I take photo's 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 grinned his cheesiest, sleaziest grin. Joyce scowled back, a look of pure hate in her eyes. 

"And what holozines do these pictures wind up in?" she demanded. "Playboy? Penthouse?" Hook, line, sinker, baitbox and rod! 

"Actually," Rat told her conspiratorially, "I was hoping to get a few snaps of you, Captain…" Pause for effect… That story's finished and we have an audience. Here comes the punch line. 

"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. So what do you say? Can I get a few snaps of you in front of yer bird on the Sicily's flight deck?" Joyce's expression was an absolute picture. He wished he'd had his camera there and then. The rest of the Border Worlder pilots were almost pissing themselves with laughter. Hell, it brings tears to your eyes…! 

"All right, I supposed I had that coming," Joyce admitted, "I assume your subjects were planes?" 

Rat nodded, grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat. Take that, you bitch! Too right, you had it coming. "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," Stardust growled.  

Oh fer fuck's sake! "Dammit, d'ye think I'm gonna try to jump her in the middle of the bloody flight deck or summat?" he demanded. "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?" Shifty glances between her squadron mates. Aye, thowt as much. "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," Lynch told Rat and Kristy. Both of them nodded in agreement. 

Yeah, I might just do that… "I'll ask her when she comes back," Rat agreed. "Of course that's if she gets back here. She's been gone forever," Rat voiced his concerns to the Scrappers as he continued to scan the lounge. 

"What's she doing? Getting enough food for all of -" He was moving almost before the punch landed. A man punching a girl in the face. That would have pissed him off anyway, but the particular girl the man had punched happened to be the girl he was rather fond of -- Dani. What pissed him off to breaking point was that the man was wearing a Confederation jumpsuit. That just wasn't on. Confed didn't do that sort of thing. Whatever happened to "An officer and a gentleman"? Owens looked like she'd snap in a strong breeze, but despite that she came back instantly with an elbow to her assailant's face. 

"Sonnovabitch!" Rat barged his way toward Dani, heedless of who or what he was shoving out of the way to get there. A Confed pilot stood up with an empty glass in his hand, obviously going to the bar. "Oughta my fuckin' way!" Rat shoved him back down, sending the man sprawling into a Border Worlder whose drink went all over the girl he was chatting to. She gave a strangled scream of shock. He kicked the unfortunate Confed in the ribs as he tried to stand, and promptly received a punch to the face from the Confed pilot's friends. One held the man, another punched him in the stomach. The girl still screamed. A pool-cue flew.  

Rat was oblivious, still forging his way to the only person he cared about at that moment. Trusting aside two blue-clad figures he pushed his way into the open area that always appears around a fight. Now it was two onto one. Rat was sickened to wear the same uniform as these animals. 

"Let me guess, you tried getting a kiss from her?" Rat hauled the first man around to face him by grabbing a handful of hair. "Well, ye'll have to make do with one from me!" Rat slammed his forehead into the other man's face whilst simultaneously tugging the man toward him with his fistful of scalp. With a sickening crunch the man's nose spread out over his face, spattering blood over both of them. 

"There's a Glasgow kiss for ye, ye fookin' prick!" Rat had never let go of the man's hair and now hauled the man down as he slammed an uppercut into his opponent's stomach, blasting the wind from his lungs in a shower of spit and blood. Rat whipped his hand back for the blow that would finish the fight, but someone behind him looped an arm around his throat. Carruthers bit down hard, drawing blood. The hand released its grip, a yelp of pain and anguish behind him. 

"Tony! Leave him alone!" A familiar voice commanded, bludgeoning its way into his consciousness. Only one voice in the universe would have got his attention at that point. Rat turned to look at her. Dani had transformed from angel to demon, a look of pure hate and fury burning in her eyes. He finally released the man, bloody hair coming away in his fingers. 

"That fucking bastard is MINE!" she hissed as she hurtled forward to launch a kick at her attacker's kneecap. The kick missed the intended joint but buried itself deep in the muscle of the man's thigh, eliciting a grimace and grunt of pain. Dani flashed an evil smile that almost made Rat shudder. "Come on, shithead! Let's dance!"


Whap! The fist slammed hard into Viking's rock-hard belly. Viking didn't even flinch. His shorter opponent looked up to see Viking smiling down with his broadest shit-eating grin. 

"Go on," Vike goaded him, "have another go!" 

The man stepped back and aimed a kick at Viking's genitals. 

"Now, now," Viking chided, moving faster than his size suggested was possible to catch the man's foot as it whipped out, "play fair!" Upending the man onto his back, Viking started to twist the leg, but resisted the urge to break it, instead stamping hard two or three times on the man's inner thigh. 

"Try kicking someone now, shit for brains. Think yourself lucky your own balls were too small a target, arsehole." 

Vike saw Rat a few feet away. As a man rushed in with a chair swung high above his head to attack Carruthers, Viking hesitated for a split second, then grabbed hold of it in one of his ham-sized paws. 

"No you don't! I want him for myself, later!" Viking flattened the would-be attacker with a swipe of the chair. It shattered, leaving only a single leg in Viking's hand. Rat hadn't seen a thing. Viking sighed slightly, and waded deeper into the brawl.


Rat didn't feel pain so much as the shock of the impact, shooting white flecks of light streaking across his vision.

Rat sneered at his assailant. The man had now dropped the bottle he'd struck the blow with, and was staring at the blood welling from the cuts on his hand where it had shattered.

"You should have broken it first, stupid," Rat said helpfully before kicking the man in the testicles. As the man started to double up, Carruthers brought his knee up under the man's chin. His open mouth snapped painfully shut with the sound of cracking teeth and he dropped like a sack of potatoes.

Another man, perhaps a friend of the one Rat had just dropped, launched an angry hook at Rat, who easily and instinctively blocked it, returning a straight jab that landed square on the other man's nose. Blood immediately gushed from the nostrils.

"I dink you boke my dose, you bathtad!" came the anguished accusation among a spray of blood, snot and spittle.

"I know!" Rat contemptuously backhanded him to the ground even as the guy put his hands to his squashed nose. 

Rat paused to look for Dani, the swirling melee having forced them apart. A mistake. A pool queue snapped against his left upper arm, sending a pain all the way to the fingers and deadening it. Rat turned to meet the other man, and a punch caught him on the cheek as he did so. Luckily, the blood from the bottle-cut on his eyebrow helped him slip the blow, but as he instinctively ducked back his heel slipped on a pool of beer from a spilled glass. Instead of falling, he was hauled upright as his opponent grabbed his new tie.

"You bastard! I just bloody got that!" Rat grabbed the man's arm with one hand and started to reverse the elbow joint with the other. Unsurprisingly, he let go. Without conscious thought Carruthers whipped his booted foot into his chest, just beneath the diaphragm, blasting the air from his chest and lifting him from the ground to land in a tangled heap and crawl away under tables and overturned chairs. 

With no one near him, Rat took a breather. Wiping the blood from his eyes and face with his sleeve, he rapidly slipped his tie off and into his pocket. Then he surveyed the carnage. 

Viking had a man, a Border Worlder by the looks of things, in a bear hug. The poor guy had been lifted off his feet and Viking dropped him unceremoniously in a heap, finishing the job with a swift kick exactly where you don't want a steel toe-cap. 

He noticed several of the Scrappers he'd lately gotten to know revelling the fighting, contrasting sharply with Robber still sipping a drink in the corner. But that wasn't what he was looking for. Where was Dani? 

Still fighting with the same man. He bellowed a challenge and made for him, but he needn't have worried. He winced as she gouged his eye, grinned as his head snapped back from her blow and gritted his teeth as she punched him in the throat. 

Don't kill him, Dani, we may need him in a day or two… 

As the man staggered, gagging and chocking, she grabbed his hair and viciously smashed his head against the table a few times until his eyes rolled back and his dead weight forced her to let go. He'd had the worst of it, but she was hardly looking too healthy herself, visibly swaying with exhaustion, and her face was marked up. 

"Y'alreet, Dani?" Rat asked. She spun to face him, still in a combat stance. He thought she might hit him, but then she relaxed. 

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

He felt a hand on his shoulder, turning him. 

Here we go again…! 

Rat's left hand gripped the table hard, the knuckles white with the effort. His right clutched futilely at his back. The echoes of the gunfire were just fading and the debris from the ceiling just settling but Rat was oblivious to Colonel Onslow and friends bawling insults and orders from across the hall. His world was one of pain and very little else. 

"Tony! Are you okay?" Dani's voice was pregnant with concern, even fear. She must like me then, Rat thought, smiling in spite of the agony from his back. 

"'S my fookin' back. Bastard!" Rat tried to straighten up but had to grasp the table again. Pain was now shooting down his leg, and it refused to bear his weight. 

"What was it?" Dani demanded. "A knife, a bottle?" Rat just shook his head, teeth gritted in obvious pain. 

"I can't see any blood -- did you get hit with a chair?" 

"No! I-ufff…" Rat gasped for breath, "I've just put my bluddy back oot agin. I'll live." 

"I damn well hope so. You had me worried, you -- oh, God, look at your face!" 

"Bit difficult without a mirror," Rat said cheekily, though he could feel the blood pulling as it tightened on his skin, already drying. He put his hand to his head and felt the matted and tangled hair. Glass shards and blood came away on his fingers. 

"Ah, bollox!" 

"Come on, let's get you down to the infirmary while they clean up here."


Robber left the carnage and confusion of the rec lounge as quickly as he could. Despite his words of warning and calm, a fight started anyway. He sighed. It had been inevitable, really. Still, it had let them get rid of some of the building tension. Waiting seemed harder than fighting in some ways. They had too much time to think about it. He'd tried to keep people busy with training, but it wasn't enough.  

He made his way to the flight deck. The flying schedule was empty today with the party so he expected he wouldn't be in anybody's way. He strolled across to his usual Thunderbolt, sitting dormant on the hangar front. It seemed almost like it was waiting, expecting him. 

"Hello girl," he said, running his hand over the metal. It was unexpectedly warm, and felt more like it was alive than simply a dead, metal object.  

He started to climb up to the cockpit, but there was a sudden shout. He turned to see that it was a group of fitters and ordies playing a game of touch football on the runway. 

"Hey! I recognize you," the ordie who'd first shouted said, "you're the Shadow." 

"Nah, I'm Robber. Shadow drives a bearcat on the Iwo Jima." 

"No, no," the guy shook his head, realizing the confusion, "the Shadow is our nickname for you. We saw you creep down here and sit in your fighter the other night." 

"Yeah, that would be me. I come down here a lot to think." 

"Whatever. How you flyboys get your kicks is none of my business. Hey, you play any football?" he asked, throwing Robber the pigskin. 

"Now and again," he said as he caught it and tucked it easily under his arm. 

"Come on then. Ask a few of your buddies to come down, too. Pilots versus groundcrew." 

"Yeah, okay -- the party was a bit of a washout, so why the hell not? Beats sitting around dwelling on the future, don't it?" 

"Gets you nothing but older, man. Have some fun, and figure out tomorrow when it gets here."


Rat lay face down on the medical couch, whilst Kristy Joyce knelt on his lower back. Grabbing hold of his shoulders, she tugged. 

"So, are you going to tell me how you did your back?" 

"I ducked a punch!" 

"No, I mean the first time." She slid off him. "Try that." 

"Oh, Christ, that's better." Rat rolled over carefully, and making sure to keep his shoulders back, sat up. "You'll never believe me," he told her. 

"Don't tell me, let me guess -- it was during sex, wasn't it?" 

"Well, yeah…" 

"For crying out loud! I'm sorry I asked, now. Go on, you may as well tell me while I get out the suture kit." 

"Well I was shagging this lass, nice looking brunette --

"You can leave out the details!" 

"Sorry, anyway, she was one of these people who got off by screwing in dangerous places. There's a name for the condition, but I forget." 

"Anyway, after doing it in a moving vehicle, in public, and once even on a branch fifteen feet up a tree on a golf course, I was relieved and surprised when one day she suggested going back to her apartment." 

"She was expecting her husband back at any minute, I guess." 

"Boyfriend, but yeah. His weight training shit was all over the floor when I got there. Anyway, I'm just getting into my stride when there's these footsteps on the stairs. 'Don't worry,' she says, 'it's probably just my boyfriend Billy. It's his place!.' Then the door opens." 

"Coitus interruptus. Cue panic attack. I fall out of bed and dive for the window. There's a scream, but it isn't Mary... I think that was her name. So I look round at this new voice -- it was her sister, not the boyfriend!" 

"So how did you do your back then?" Joyce insisted. 

"Getting to that -- I fell over one of Billy's dumbbells. Fell twisted. Had a sharp pain in my back then. Next day I could barely move." 

"Hello, life of back pain and persistent spinal problems!" Joyce finished for him. 

"Yeah. Often not too bad for months, then I'll do something to upset it." 

"Such as two ejections inside a week, and fighting…" 

"Yeah, things like that!" 

"Okay, let's clean this up a bit…"