PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 6 of 66 )

: “ Scraps of Honour ”
PART 8 OF 15 : SHADES OF GREY ( 1 / 2 )


BWS Sicily; Flight Wing Briefing Room
The Nifelheim System
0637 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

“... so the Marauders will be carrying anti-capship mines instead of torpedoes as well as four standard mines and the usual Javelin heat-seekers. The Intruders pack standard loadouts in case we run into any Bugs,” Paul Onslow told his squadron.

The pilots of the 349th lounged around the briefing room with a casualness which would have thrown any Confederation officer into fits (according to Confederation military protocol, slouching in your seat with your feet on the headrest of the chair in front of you is not the proper posture for listening to a mission briefing.) But first impressions were deceiving and Onslow knew his pilots were paying careful attention.

“We patrol three navpoints then lay the mines at the Loki jump point," he went on. "Finally we head back to the Sicily via Nav 5. So are there any questions?” Only one pilot raised his hand. “What’s on your mind, Emerson?” the Scrappers’ CO asked the 349th’s newest member.

Dragan Emerson looked tired and concerned. “Sir, is there any word on Anthony’s condition?”

The room became even more quiet than usual. Onslow let out a deep breath before he answered, “The medical staff say he’ll be okay. At the moment they’ve sedated him to make him sleep,” Onslow replied. “There’s no sign of any complications so far.” Emerson let out a sigh of relief.

“Thanks, sir,” the normally exuberant pilot acknowledged as the briefing room door opened and Colonel Jack Tanagawa, the Sicily's wing commander, entered. The Border Worlders responded in the same way they usually did when a superior officer entered the room - they remained seated, although they did sit up a little straighter.

"At ease," the wing commander ordered, just in case anyone had responded. "I'm glad I got to you before you headed out. There's been a change of plan." He turned to look at the Scrappers' leader. "Colonel Onslow, you and Major DeVille have been temporarily assigned training duty aboard Avernus Station."

"The hell...?" someone asked incredulously. “What, now are we turning into Confed with all this last minute bureaucratic bullshit personnel shuffling?”

“Knock it off!” Tanagawa barked. “There’s a group of local pilots who were recruited by the Nifelheim militia as soon as they heard that Admiral Hanton was planning the final battle against the Bugs here. They’ve been giving these volunteers a very basic flight course but they're still a long way from being combat-ready. That's where your CO comes in." He looked at the Scrappers’ leader. “You’ve got quite a rep for bringing fresh pilots up to speed in a short time, Colonel. We need that with these rookies right now.”

“So what have the Nifelheim squadrons been doing for training?” Onslow asked. “I hope they know at least some of the basics.”

“Most of the basics,” Tanagawa admitted. “Most of them were shuttle and atmospheric transport drivers until they were called up, so they have some flight experience.”

“But none in combat,” Onslow muttered. “Christ, sir, how do I get a bunch of rookies who haven’t fired a weapon heavier than a turret laser ready for combat in a week?”

“That’s your decision,” the Wing Commander replied evenly. “With the fighters from the convoy you rescued in Seggalion we can convert our Banshee squadrons over to more modern fighters. So we’re training the Gunslingers from the Arnhem on Excaliburs, and the Speed Demons from the Anzio on Bearcats. That gives you twenty-four Banshees to equip your cadets with, Colonel. You’re training a dozen of them on Banshees and someone else is training another dozen of them on Thunderbolts.”

“That gives me plenty of spares for the ones they break,” Onslow replied heavily. “Okay, sir. I’ll do what I can.”


Scrapper One
Deep Space, Nifelheim System (Near Nifelheim II)
1209 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681

Lt. Colonel Paul Onslow had trained a fair number of fighter pilots in his time in the Border Worlds military. To be honest, most of his experience had been devoted to training recent Academy graduates into truly combat-ready fighter pilots, but he was rather good at training rookies as well. From teaching the lessons of twenty years of space warfare to wide-eyed plebes he had learned how to encourage, how to teach, and how to be patient.

But right now he was on the verge of ordering his entire class to land and biting a few heads off.

Keep it together, he told himself. They're newer to flying than Academy rookies. Hell, they're newer than the Frostreavers - and they haven't even graduated yet! He winced as he saw a Banshee flown by one of the cadets almost skid into another fighter. It was bad comm procedure to yell at a trainee over an open comm frequency, as well as hard on morale, but God it was tempting!

"All right. X-ray Squadron proceed to Landing Bay 2 and initiate automatic landing procedures," he ordered. "Keep an eye on your navmaps and stay on your assigned routes, because if you stumble into a minefield and I have to come get you, I won't be happy. Understood?" A ragged chorus of affirmative responses filled the comm channel.

The Scrappers' CO watched attentively as the trainees swarmed towards the landing bays, wincing at the bedlam as the air traffic controllers on Avernus Station attempted to make order of chaos. Part of his mind was busy cataloguing the training needs of the new pilots. Now that the Border Worlds taskforce had enough hard data from the Confed task force to program the Alien fighters' profiles into the sim pods on the Sicily, another part was calculating how to get enough time to train his squadron to combat the Alien fighters. And part of Paul Onslow's mind wondered just how the bloody hell he'd stay sane long enough to face the Nephilim.


Cafeteria, Avernus Station
Nifelheim System
1249 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681

“I swear, Jack, if those brats don’t shape up there’s going to be a firefight in that briefing room,” Onslow grumbled to his second-in-command.

“Most of them hardly know how to fly, and those who aren’t accidents waiting to happen can’t be bothered with teamwork. They’ll be meat on the table.”

“Well, these are the first aircraft they’ve ever been assigned,” Jack DeVille told him. “Most of them are kids who volunteered because they know a little bit about flying shuttles and the others are privateers who didn’t have a choice.” Onslow gave him a curious look so he continued. “The militia squadrons scored a big smuggling bust two weeks ago and managed to nail most of the smugglers. They were awaiting trial when Admiral Hanton sent word that the grand finale against the Bugs would be held right here. Anyway, the militia commander offered to put in a good word for some of their better pilots if they’d volunteer, so they did.”

The Scrappers’ CO nodded. “Well, I want to bring the real rookies up to the point where they can maneuver without slamming into each other. Once we get to that point we concentrate on teamwork. Now let’s get some food.”

“Or something resembling it,” Jack commented as they walked into the cafeteria. Aside from two other figures in flight suits the room was empty.

The blond Scrapper nodded courteously then stiffened as he saw the Confederation Star on the flightsuits’ sleeves. “Check it out, boss. Looks like the Confederation’s helping with the training program,” he murmured.

“Any chance they were the ones who shot up Grimlock?” Onslow asked in an equally hushed voice.

DeVille shook his head. “Not unless the other cadet squadron’s going to be flying Excaliburs,” he shot back as he loaded something vaguely resembling meatloaf onto his tray.

His commander nodded in agreement as he poured himself a cup of coffee, then angled his head towards the Confed pilots. "Shall we?"

"Let's," DeVille agreed. The two Border Worlders walked over to the pair of Confed pilots and sat down.

"How's it going?" Jack asked cordially.

One of the pilots, a big man with blond hair so pale it was almost white, rolled his eyes. "I'm just wondering if I have time to increase my life insurance."

His darker colleague chuckled. "We were just going over the files for these new recruits. Looks like we've got our work cut out for us," he commented. Extending his hand to the Border Worlds pilots he introduced himself, "I'm Captain Robert 'Robber' Bell and this is my CO, Major Harold 'Viking' Svensson."

Onslow shook Bell's hand firmly. "Colonel Paul 'Onslaught' Onslow. This smartass next to me is my squadron's XO, Major Jack 'Diamond' DeVille."

Jack gave his leader a sour look. "You had to warn them, didn't you?"

"Yep," the Scrappers' leader agreed. Turning back to the Confederation pilots he asked, "So what are you guys doing here?"

Svensson sighed. "We're supposed to be training a bunch of absolute rookies how to fly Thunderbolts. What about you?"

"Same thing with Banshees," Onslow admitted. “Mind you, I think we should first give them some training in how to follow orders.”

Bell laughed, then looked towards the cafeteria’s ceiling. “A Border Worlder bitching about lack of discipline? You can take me now, Lord! I have seen it all!”

Onslow shook his head even as a rueful grin spread across his face. “Oh, you bastard. I’ll get you for that.”

“So long as it doesn’t involve gunfire I can handle it,” Robber replied casually. Onslow felt the smile slip from his face.

“No, I leave that to Maneater and her crew,” he answered harshly. "I've got one of my people in the Sicily's sickbay because her pilots got too damn trigger-happy. If we hadn't gotten lucky I'd be writing a deathcomm for him right now."

"Meaning if Shelly and her people hadn't chipped in you'd be writing a deathcomm," Svensson replied acidly. "Look, Colonel, the D'Arby spotted a group of incoming bogies not showing any friendly IFF. Now what would you have done if you were the task force commander?"

"I'm not blaming the task force commander," the leader of the Scrappers shot back. "I'm not even blaming Maneater. I'm blaming the bastards who took a shot at one of my people! Dammit, I know we didn't have any transponder codes up, but neither did you! If they knew Border Worlds forces were in the system, they should have at least taken a second look before they started shooting!"

"Exactly," Bell agreed. "Like you said, if they knew you Border Worlders were here. That's the problem."

"What's that mean?" Jack DeVille asked as Paul Onslow took a deep drink of coffee. The Confederation pilots glanced at each other, clearly uncomfortable.

Finally Svensson answered, "Nobody told us about any Border Worlds fighters being in the system," he mumbled. The Colonel choked on his coffee and Jack DeVille looked astounded.

“Didn’t it occur to anyone that maybe, possibly, there might be Border Worlders flying patrol in a Border Worlds system? Especially one where there’s due to be a battle which the Union’s survival would hinge on?” He threw his hands into the air in disbelief. Turning to his commander he asserted, “We now have conclusive proof that Riley’s Law is alive and well.”

“True,” Paul Onslow agreed as he wiped up the coffee he’d coughed up. “I think this incident just proved that Murphy was way too optimistic.”

Robber’s eyes widened in surprise. “Let me get this straight. The idea that anything which can go wrong will go wrong... is optimistic?”

“You bet,” Onslow replied cynically. “Even we were sure there was no way Confed HQ would fail to let you know that there were Border Worlds reinforcements on their way to Nifelheim. This little stuff-up proves that even something which can’t go wrong will still go wrong!”


BWS Sicily; Flight Deck
Nifelheim System
1412 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681

Alex Morgan groaned as he rubbed his aching neck muscles. He leaned against his Marauder's nosewheel strut and surveyed the flight deck. The scream of engines, the shouting of the ground crews and the clang of metal were a background noise as familiar to him as his own footsteps. However the notion of it taking place in a huge metal box in space with only a thin electromagnetic field separating dozens of people from hard vacuum took some getting used to.

A four hour patrol through the Nifelheim system to the Nifelheim-Loki jump point, a quick run to lay the mines around the jump point and two and a half hours of flying straight back to the Sicily had left him stiff and sore. It had also been about as exciting as watching paint dry. His gaze shifted to the maintenance bay where technicians labored over their new charges, eighteen Bearcat fighters requisitioned from the convoy rescued from pirates in Seggalion. He also spotted a group of pilots near one of the fighters, apparently being lectured by a major in a Confederation flightsuit. Twelve of the pilots belonged to the Speed Demons, a squadron from the carrier Anzio who had traded their Banshees in for the more modern Confederation fighters. The other six pilots were from the Tanfen squadron aboard the Sicily.

A few days ago the idea would have sent you ballistic, he told himself wryly. Now the thought of Tanfenners flying Bearcats doesn't bother me half as much as what they'll be protecting us from. Those Nephilim fighters are something nasty!

Colonel Onslow had been scheduled to take the Scrappers through a simulator exercise to give them a taste of combat against the Aliens who had razed the Tartarus and Dakota systems, but he'd been

hurriedly reassigned to train a squadron of volunteers. As a result, with the mine-laying mission flown, the Scrappers were at loose ends for the moment.

The grey-eyed pilot checked the landing board to see if any other planes were due to land before crossing the landing deck. After all, a fighter in the midst of landing has a lot of trouble coming to a stop before it runs over someone in its path. He jogged towards the rear of the group of pilots, curiously listening in on the lecture.

“So the main change for you Banshee pilots is that you’ve got the agility to shift in all three axes rather than just two,” the stocky Confederation major advised. He glanced at his watch and announced, “Okay, break for lunch and I’ll see you back here in thirty minutes. We’ll go over basic flight maneuvers when we resume.”

The group of pilots scattered and headed towards the flight deck’s exit and Alex chuckled wryly. “God, these fighters must be old.”

“What do you mean?” a familiar voice asked. Courtney Tseng walked up to the tall Border Worlder and grinned.

Alex relaxed slightly. “Like the guy said, they’ve got equal agility in all three axes. The Banshees that Confed ran into during the ’73 war were the first fighters that were designed to focus on agility in just two axes. They did so well that Confed ripped the idea off us and designed the Panther to work the same way."

“Does this mean you’re bashing someone besides Tanfen? You really must be mellowing out.” The copper-haired Tanfenner raised an eyebrow slightly.

"I'm not bashing Confed," the dark young pilot denied. A note of  sarcasm entered his voice. "I mean they've got four whole fleets sitting with their thumbs up their asses while they've sent one fleet and a bunch of second-rate reservists to make it look like they're doing something. I wouldn't be surprised if some senators and admirals back on Earth are hoping that the UBW gets wiped out." His expression turned innocent. "But I'm not bashing them. Honest!"

Tseng giggled. "Isn't that a bit paranoid?" she asked, shooting a glance past the taller pilot.

Alex shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. Remember it's not paranoia if they're really out to get you," he commented dryly.

"Then I suggest you take it up with Major Reid and Captain Carruthers," the corporate pilot suggested and pointed past him. The militia lieutenant turned and felt his guts contract as he saw the pair of Confederation pilots scowling at him.


BWS Sicily; MedBay
Nifelheim System
1413 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681

His helmet was too tight. Ever since his father had taken him on a shuttle flight when he was nine years-old, he'd always associated flying with a state of relaxation.

Sure, flying required concentration and focus but it had always brought Anthony Grimm to a state of serenity. He'd have been happy flying a passenger shuttle or a cargo transport until his mother had been killed in a pirate raid when he was fifteen. Since then he'd wanted to join the Space Force, but even with the shock of adjusting to military life he'd never stopped enjoying flying for its own sake. He settled his shoulders back into the comfortable seat and relaxed to enjoy the ride. There was only one problem.

His helmet was too tight.


Dammit, the young pilot thought idly, I'd better answer that comm message. He reached for the comm switch but only found open air. That's strange.

He fumbled for the comm switch again with no further success, rousing a minor curiosity. When a hand emerged from the control board and grabbed his wrist, all he felt was vague surprise. He opened his eyes slowly. Sandra Lynch leaned over him, studying him with an expression of  concern on her face. “Quit flailing around, Tony! You’ll hurt yourself!”

If I did manage to get a woman into the cockpit with me, God, couldn’t it have been Dani instead of Major Lynch? Anthony thought wistfully.

During his time at the Academy, Dragan Emerson had gleefully recounted several stories of what two people could get up to in a fighter cockpit. He looked around and saw white walls instead of the star-streaked blackness he expected.

What the… I’m in sickbay! But I was flying...

Lynch read the confusion on his face as easily as a navmap. “You’re probably still groggy from all the medication after you hit your head. You kept trying to stay awake, so the medics had sedate you before you’d take their advice and get some rest.”

“Hell, you’ve got enough sedatives and what-me-worry in you to make you feel casual about going fishing planetside with just a fishing pole,” Dragan Emerson commented. “It’s about time you started coming around. Welcome back.”

Grimm looked up at his friend in befuddlement. “What’s the big deal about fishing?”

“It’s obvious you didn’t read the system briefing,” the Slavic pilot explained. “Nifelheim II’s got a biosphere like prehistoric Earth, including the sea life. Imagine a shark big enough to chow down on an Intruder as easily as a Terran great white could take a human, and you’ve got something about the middle of the food chain.”

"Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'the fish are really biting,' huh?" Eric Maslevski noted, drawing laughter from his comrades. Grimm looked up at him curiously.

"Isn't this where you compare the fish on this world to the whale which carried Jonah in its belly?" he inquired.

Maslevski shrugged. "Jonah had some measure of divine protection because God was testing him," the lanky Archchristian replied. His face darkened. "It seems we'll  need some divine protection of our own to survive our supposed allies."

"Or for them to survive us," Lynch replied. "I'm glad Bloodhawk was already on deck when the word about what happened to you came through," she told Grimm. "Otherwise he might have been tempted to give the Confeds an object lesson in what happens when someone picks on one of us."

"Well we didn't have any ID running," the shy young pilot began, "so we can't really blame them for being jumpy. I mean I was pretty nervous, too." He looked apologetically up at the other Scrappers. "We can't really blame them, I guess."

Dragan studied him with a disbelieving expression on his dark face. "You're concussed, you’re off the roster for forty-eight hours because the Confees couldn't keep it together, and you're saying we should live and let live?"

Grimm nodded as energetically as he could, wincing as the ache in his head

increased. "They're here for the same reason we are - to kill the Nephilim. We need their help and any other help we can get."

“In other words, shut up and soldier, soldier.” The hard-featured major smiled faintly. “Message confirmed, sir. Any further orders?"

"Yes," Grimm replied, trying to ignore the gentle mockery in Lynch's voice. "Can you get me a chip with the data on the Nephilim fighters? If I can't be on the roster or in the sims, I can at least study them."

"Bloody workaholic," Sandra muttered, then let the humor fall from her voice. "Okay, Tony, I'll do it. But if you don't get enough sleep to speed your recovery, then you won't be back on duty by the time the bugs come through here."

The convalescing pilot nodded weakly. "I won't let you guys down," he murmured as he watched his comrades leave.

Closing his eyes, he relaxed and reflected on the conversation. Then a thought occurred to him... Lynch had mentioned their anger at the Confederation for attacking "one of us."

One of us, he thought with a touch of wonder. The Scrappers had accepted him as one of them.

It felt good.


BWS Sicily; Flight Deck
Nifelheim System
1415 Hours (CST), 11th February 2681

"Do you have a problem, Lieutenant?" the Confederation major asked icily as he subjected Alex to a cold glare. The young Border Worlder didn't flinch. He'd had so many people try the old "glare holes through him" trick that he was almost immune.

"Not with you, Major," he replied coolly. "At least you showed up to help us out. Not like the gimps in the other Confed fleets or the Senate standing around waiting for us to be butchered!"

"Next ye'll be saying that loser Davidson's right and we set this all up as a plot to invade the Border Worlds, right?" the other Confed pilot, a short wiry man with a shock of dark hair, jeered in a broad English accent.

Alex looked at him and let a faint grin creep across his face. "Davidson's a paranoid asshole, sir. Some people say I'm paranoid and some people say I'm an asshole, but not many people say I fall into both groups." His smile faded as he continued, “Besides, if the Confederation did want to knock over the Border Worlds they’d have one of the other fleets ready to move in as ‘reinforcements’. Once the Border Worlds Navy’s gone they could sweep through the UBW to ‘secure vital systems.'”

The Confederation captain’s eyes flashed with anger. “Anyone ever tell you ye’ve probably flipped yer lid, Lieutenant Morgan?” he asked tightly.

Morgan nodded. “Plenty of times, Captain. But this was the same thing Confed tried in Circe eight years ago. They ordered the Melbourne in to supposedly protect democratic rule and assist in removing the illegal Border Worlds government.” He snorted contemptuously. “They ignored a few little details, like the fact that only a minority of of Circe’s population wanted to remain part of the Confederation or that the pro-UBW government was elected by the people. Like they ignored other minor things like freedom of association and speech.”

“Bullshit,” Reid replied flatly. “We had a free press -- ”

“Like hell,” Alex growled. “If you take a dog that’s been on a five-foot leash for years and suddenly put it on a ten-foot leash, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still on a leash. To quote a twentieth century actor, law enforcement is like circumcision - you either go all the way or you fucking forget it. If a society or a nation starts picking and choosing which of its laws it enforces, then it’s kind of difficult to trust that nation when it sends armed forces onto your territory and says ‘Hi, neighbor! We’re  here to help you!’ There's a bit of a credibility gap.”

“Don’t feel mucked around just because Confed hasn't sent you more help,” Carruthers cut in. "It seems they haveta give whoever we're fighting a big advantage. It happens all the bloody time - the McAuliffe massacre, the strike on Kilrah, the Battle of Terra. You'd think the wankers in the Senate do it on purpose."

"Wouldn't surprise me," the young Border Worlder commented wryly. "But we shouldn't accuse them of malice when incompetence and selfishness explain it so much better."

"No worse than the Free Republic of Landreich Parliament," Reid shot back. "Remember the political infighting during the Goliath affair? Max Kruger almost wound up impeached over it."

"That was different," Alex objected hastily. "Kruger slammed a lid on reports of the Vorghath as soon as he found out about it -- "

"But the pollies knew the Kats were raiding other systems even before Kruger tried bringing that old carrier back on-line," Carruthers shot back.

"And they were still trying to cut their navy down even further. Now if that ain't short-sighted and selfish I don't know what is."

"Yeah, well..." Morgan's voice trailed off as he realized he couldn't say much more without insulting the Confederation officers even further. He threw up his hands in frustration. “Ah, hell, forget about it.”

“No problem,” Reid agreed easily. “We’re all pretty scared by the stories we’re hearing. Anyway, I’ll see you in the cockpit in twenty-five minutes,” he concluded and turned to walk away.

“I doubt it, sir. I’m not training to fly a Bearcat,” Alex advised. “I just thought I’d check and see how the guys who’ll be flying escort for me were doing.” He paused and added with a malicious grin, “And I thought I’d see if the Bearcats flying BARCAP for the Confees could have nailed me when I had a torp lock on that carrier.”

Carruthers spun to face him, surprise clearly visible on his face. “That was you lot playing tag with us? We had you cold but the Captain ordered us to hold off.”

“Just as well,” the militia pilot admitted. “The way our nerves were, as soon as a missile alarm had gone off, we’d have fired our torpedoes and ducked back into cloak. I just hope the bug capships are as easy targets as your carriers were,” he concluded, unable to resist a final taunt.

“Fookin’ smartarse,” Carruthers muttered as he walked away from the smug Border Worlder.

“And proud of it!”


BWS Sicily; Flight Wing Quarters
Nifelheim System
1417 Hours (CST), 11th February 2681

Danica Owens finished gathering her damp silver-blond hair into its usual ponytail as she walked towards the barracks assigned to the Scrappers.

Grab the disc with the data on the Bug fighters, look over it and do a few sim runs with John, she thought. Sounds like a plan. I bet he's in one of the pods already, the slender young pilot thought with some amusement as she opened the door.

He wasn't.

Hawke obviously hadn't showered or changed clothes since the mine-laying mission. The taciturn pilot was sitting on his bunk with his cupped hands cradled to his chest, and his icy eyes were focused on something held in them. He still wore his flightsuit and boots, the only obvious change being the lack of the helmet with the scarlet bird of prey blazoned on it.

Dani glanced quickly around the room and caught sight of the headgear dropped on a nearby bunk - hers. Quietly she walked over to her bunk, shifted her wingleader's helmet and sat down opposite him.

"John? You okay?"

There was no sound aside from John Hawke's steady breathing, then the music started. Dani looked around to see who had entered the barracks but didn't see anyone else.

That's weird, she thought, John doesn't listen to classical music. As far as she knew, the man who was both her wingleader and her closest friend almost never listened to any music. Instead, he preferred to relax in the simulator pod.

"There's no time for us, There's no place for us. What is this thing that builds our dream yet slips away from us?"

The young pilot's eyes widened as a tear trickled down her friend's dark cheek. She angled her head to look at the object holding his attention. It was a circular plaque of durasteel slightly larger than Hawke's palm with a disc of crystal set into the centre. From the depths of the crystal a beautiful woman with chestnut brown hair smiled out, holding a  black-haired baby in the crook of one arm. The infant had the woman's other index finger held firmly in one chubby fist and was looking with a great deal of interest into the camera which had taken the holopic. Below the holocrystal were engraved the names "Angela and Martin Hawke." Even as the music  continued John's voice blended raggedly with the singer's, "Who wants to live forever? Who wants to live forever?"

Tears flowed down Dani's own face as the mournful song continued. She silently moved to Hawke's bunk and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

His head snapped up in surprise. "Oh! Hi, Dani," he greeted her hastily. "Have you been here long?"

She shook her head. "Just a little while. Are you all right?" she asked, studying him closely. He nodded and looked back down at the plaque.

"Just remembering my angel and my little bird boy," he whispered. At her look of incomprehension he explained, "When Martin was born, the nurses nicknamed him the bird boy because he had two birds in his name - hawk and martin."

Dani nodded as he explained. Sweet Jesus, she thought numbly. That's his family! They died when the Black Lance hit Telamon with their Gen-Select bioweapons. The music continued and the singer broke the brooding silence.

"Who wants to live forever? Who dares to love forever, When love must die?" Hawke spoke even as his eyes drifted back to the picture. "I was home with Angela before the situation with the Confederation heated up. Some friends of ours had helped us out with some things and we were looking for a way to thank them. Anyway, one day they were away from their home and we decided to do their place up for Valentines Day. While we were there one thing led to another and we decided to take advantage of the opportunity." He glanced at his wingman and took a deep breath. "Martin was born nine months later."

"Most kids are, so I'm missing something," Dani admitted.

John Hawke returned his gaze to her. "That was three days before Valentines Day, 2672," he explained.

Dani frowned in concentration. "That'd be February 11th." At her friend's curt nod she continued, "The same as today."

"Ironic, huh? It's the ninth anniversary of my son's conception and we're flying alongside the bastards who murdered him!" Hawke growled, anger starting to replace the grief on his face.

"No we're not!" Dani snapped. "Confed lost a lot of pilots and civilians fighting the Black Lance. It was just Tolwyn and his cronies who were supporting the GEs, not the people of the Confederation." She cupped the older pilot's face in her hands and met his bleak gaze. "The pilots on those Confed carriers aren't responsible for what happened to Telamon IV. They're not the ones who killed your wife and son," she insisted in an urgent voice. Her sapphire eyes softened as she whispered, "And neither are you."

The Border Worlds major's eyes closed in pain and he placed his hands over Dani's. "I still miss them," he whispered. "I should have been able to save them!"

"You should have been," the beautiful young lieutenant agreed, "if it was a perfect universe. But if it was a perfect universe, then it never would have happened." She paused for several seconds to add weight to her next words. "Now we have to fly alongside those Confederation pilots to stop what happened to Telamon from happening to any other planet. You've seen the footage of what the Nephilim did in Dakota. It's nowhere near as sadistic as what happened to Telamon but it's every bit as thorough.” Danica shook her head in frustration. “It's too late for you to save Telamon, John, but there are other worlds depending on us. If we can't work with the Confees then we're sentencing millions of people to death."

"I won't let that happen," Hawke rasped, determination threading its way back into his voice.

Dani let a faint smile settle over her delicate features - this sounded more like the Bloodhawk she knew and flew alongside! "Okay. You grab a shower and meet me in the sim room in ten minutes. The Confeds have sent us full profiles on the Neph fighters and I want to practice against them as a team."

"As a team," John repeated. Dani smiled reassuringly.