PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 62 of 66 )

: Scraps of Honour
PART 12 OF 15 : PRIDE GOES BEFORE A  FALL
( 1 / 4 )

"Nine-tenths of tactics are certain and taught in books: but the irrational
tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pond and that is the test
of generals. It can only be ensured by instinct, sharpened by thought
practicing the stroke so often at the crisis it is as natural as a reflex."

- T.E. Lawrence
 


BWS Sicily; Briefing Room
Nifelheim System
0827 Hours, 15 February 2681 (2681.046)

Most of the Border Worlds pilots in the briefing room were surprisingly quiet this morning, probably due to the Valentine's Day party they had attended aboard Avernus Station yesterday. Both groups of reserves had been laboring at breakneck speed laying minefields, setting up weapon satellites, training civilian pilots to be proficient enough in combat that sending them into a combat zone wouldn't be an automatic death sentence, and otherwise running themselves ragged turning the Nifelheim system into a gauntlet for the Nephilim to run. Needless to say the stress levels among the spacers, pilots, officers and other personnel of the reserve groups were at an all-time high, and the sensationalistic gloom-and-doom stories in the media certainly didn't help matters. So the brass had decided that a Valentine's Day party would be just the thing to give the reservists a much-needed chance to cut loose, and the arrangements had been made.

As the old saying went, "What's a Border Worlds party without a punch-up? Dull." The party had certainly not been dull, featuring a brawl between fighter pilots of all six carriers as well as spacers from the various capital ships. The results had been encouraging to the commanders on both sides, not just because of the low level of violence (a large number of bruises but only a few broken bones) but the fact that the combatants hadn't automatically picked sides based on nationality. Confeds had fought alongside Border Worlders and vice versa. The barriers of mistrust between the two groups had been well and truly broken down.

The pilots of the 349th Composite Fighter Squadron were thinking of none of that as they took seats in the briefing room. Most of them had bruises, scrapes and minor cuts from the fight on Avernus, which they bore like badges of honor. They were Scrappers and right now they had a mission to fly. That left little time for musing about the state of the entire reserve group, just their role in its mission.

"Everyone here?" Lt. Colonel Paul Onslow asked, scanning his audience quickly as he stood at the briefing rooms podium.

"I think so," Major Sandra Lynch replied. "Well, as close to all here as we get," she noted with a touch of acerbic humor.

"Oh, I'm all here," Alex Morgan commented merrily. "I'm bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, eager to go and probably even perky!" That raised quite a few eyebrows among the flight crews -- just because the former privateer could wake instantly and go without sleep for long periods didn't mean he liked to.

Todd McLaughlin voiced the thoughts of everyone in the briefing room. "What the hell are you so happy about?" the Cabrean grumbled. His night hadn't gone half as well as Alex's seemed to have - his arm still hurt from where someone had brought a chair down on it, and the remnants of his hangover made him irritable.

For her part Kristy Joyce had an idea of what had put her wingman in such a good mood. "Let me guess," she asked, tucking a strand of strawberry blond hair behind her ear. "Courtney Tseng, right?" The copper-haired Tanfen pilot had been dancing and openly flirting with the grey-eyed Scrapper at the Valentines Day party, and the two had spent a lot of time together aboard the Sicily. With the grudge that Alex held against the Tanfen Corporation as deep and wide as a lunar crater, and the fact that Courtney was a flier in Tanfen's Airwing Security Corps, the friendship between them was about as plausible as the lion lying down with the lamb.

The smirk on Alex's face broadened. "A gentleman never tells," he replied archly.

The Scrapper's medic made a vulgar noise. "Since when are you a gentleman? Hell, I'm more of a gentleman than you!"

"Since I was made one when I graduated from the Academy as a commissioned officer," the reckless ex-smuggler shot back. A mischievous light glinted in his eyes as he added, "And I have to say, the sex change operation hardly shows on you."

"What?" Kristy shrieked as she jumped to her feet. "Dammit, you take that back -- "

"Sorry I'm late!" Anthony Grimm called out as he bolted into the briefing room, fair hair mussed and flightsuit even more rumpled than usual. Quickly taking a seat he looked around at his squadronmates. "What have I missed?" he asked curiously.

"Kristy's about to try to rip Alex's eyes out and then the Colonel's gonna probably ground her," Dragan Emerson told his fellow newbie in a low voice, watching the pair of Marauder pilots nervously. Brawling in a mission briefing was something no CO would tolerate, even in the loose-goose Border Worlds military.

"About time you got here, Tony," Alex called, ignoring the warning hand Sandra Lynch had placed on his shoulder. "I hear your girlfriend had you up all night. Then again, the guys on the Havok probably heard her keeping you up all night."

By nature Anthony Grimm was shy, unassuming, and almost meek -- a rarity among Border Worlders, and even more so among fighter pilots. But buried beneath the surface lay a burning need to protect those he cared about. He was a living example of a saying as old as the English language: Beware the wrath of a timid man. His pale blue eyes were glacially cold as he glared at the black-haired pilot. Nobody talks about Benita that way! he silently seethed. "Maybe she is loud," the youngster admitted quietly, "but at least she's never pulled the trigger on a Border Worlds fighter. Can you say the same, pirate?" he demanded, finally letting the venom in his voice show.

Even as Alex shot to his feet, eyes burning with rage, the rest of the Scrappers stared at Grimm in shock. The most common enemies they had fought in the Lennox System over the past several years had been pirates, both human and Kilrathi, and several of their members had personal reasons to hate pirates even more than their compatriots. So understandably comparing one of them to these merciless murderers was one of the deadliest insults they knew. It cut Alex Morgan, who had served aboard a privateer ship all his life until he'd been dragooned into the UBW's armed forces, especially deep.

"You're dead!"

"Enough!" Paul Onslow's furious bellow cut through the rising tension like a plasma cutter through paper. The scarred Colonel's dark eyes burned with anger as he glared at the two arguing pilots. "You are both officers in the armed forces of the Union of Border Worlds. Now start acting like it!" he roared in a voice which, while quieter than his initial yell, was still loud enough to make the rest of the Scrappers jump. "You are not kids in a school playground acting tough to show off to the girls. Once the Nephilim jump into this system we'll have the lives of billions of civilians depending on us, and there will be no time for screwing around with this macho crap!" The Scrapper's CO paused for breath as he let his gaze encompass all the pilots and flight crew in the briefing room. "That goes for all of you," he continued in a voice that was calmer but still laden with steel. "Task Force Jasmine is the last line of defense the Union has against the Nephilim, and petty arguments like this will make us too weak to do our job. Its not going to happen." His gaze locked on to Anthony like a targeting reticule. "Lieutenant Grimm, once the briefing is concluded you will remain behind. I want to discuss your recent behavior with you." Onslow then turned back to face Alex. "Lieutenant Morgan, you'll head to sickbay once the briefings over. Captain Joyce will then check you out."

"What the hell is this?" the most hotheaded pilot in the 349th demanded incredulously. His commander ignored him as he turned to face the young woman who had served as the Scrapper's medical officer as well as a combat pilot.

"Captain Joyce, I want you to give the lieutenant a full medical examination. I specifically want to know about any indications of alcohol or drugs in his system. Once I have that data I can decide whether he keeps his wings or not."

"Yes, sir," Kristy acknowledged in a neutral voice. When the colonel addressed his people by rank instead of on a first name basis it was a sure sign he was speaking as a superior officer, not just as one of the pilots. Usually it meant that he was pissed off, and Paul Onslow was not a man that Kristy Joyce wanted to make angry. After all, having the rulebook thrown at you hurt just as much in the Border Worlds military as in the armed forces of the Confederation.

The briefing was surprisingly orderly for the Scrappers. There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about today's duties. The 349th would mainly be flying patrols of the inner system with Silver Fight launching at 0900, Black Flight launching at 1200 and Red Flight taking off at 1500, culminating in the whole squadron picketing the jump point to Loki from 2000 Hours. Comm frequencies, ordnance loadouts, locations of friendly fighters and capships as well as the myriad of other details covered in a standard briefing were all discussed, but the lack of the usual banter and joking cast a pall over the flyers. Finally the briefing was over and Paul Onslow dismissed the squadron. Even as most of the pilots filed out of the small room, Kristy Joyce was striding towards her commander, a look of determined resolve on her pretty face.

"What the hell makes you think Alex is on something?" she asked in a voice low enough that only she and her commander could hear. It was plain that the idea of possibly grounding her wingman didn't appeal to her in the least.

Paul Onslow raised his eyebrows in surprise. "I know you saw the way he was acting, so I'd say the question was superfluous," he replied in an equally quiet tone. "Hell, I saw you almost jump out of your seat and rip his eyeballs out." As Kristy slowly blushed he placed a hand on her shoulder. "Alex can be a real prick at times, but he knows enough to back off before he threatens the cohesion of the whole squadron. I just need you to check and see if he's got any drugs in his system. I also want you to find out how they got there. Alex mightn't have had anything to do with it," he added cryptically.

The look of confusion spreading across the medic's face was quickly replaced by shocked comprehension. "You think someone doped him... holy shit, boss, do you think Tseng did it?" Onslow merely shrugged. "Are you sure you're not getting a bit paranoid after that brawl in the Wild Hart? I mean, we're getting along pretty well with the Tanfenners at the moment," Kristy commented.

Onslow's black eyes narrowed. "Not as well as you think. Do you remember how Jacks fighter couldn't dump decoys in the battle in Seggalion?" he inquired. Kristy nodded sharply and he continued his explanation. "Andy did a full examination after the battle, and found that the decoys had been sabotaged. If the saboteur had done his or her job right, Jack's Intruder would have been scattered over most of the system. And the obvious suspect is..."

"... one of the Mustangs," Kristy concluded. "So what are we doing to make sure it doesn't happen again?"

"I spoke to the Wing Commander. He's got some Marine techies mixed in with our own groundcrew, so they should be able to spot anything funny going on near the planes," Onslow answered. "I hope that's enough."

"I can't believe it," Kristy murmured. "They fought alongside us in Seggalion. Hell, they even saved some of us! They can't still be on this vengeance kick against Jack!"

"Maybe its not the whole squadron," Paul Onslow offered. "Maybe its just one of them -- "

"Tseng?" the medic asked sharply. "She's the one who's hung around Alex the most." Her face assumed a thoughtful expression as she considered the idea. A few seconds later she shook her head. "I've seen the way those two were around each other, even before the party. Alex trusts her, and you know how hard it is to get his guard down that far!" The leader of the Scrappers nodded in acknowledgement, remembering just how long it had taken the bitter ex-privateer to open up to his squadronmates.

"Hell, we're probably being far too paranoid for our own good," Onslow surmised. "It's probably just Alex pushing the limits of good taste too far again."

"Yeah, sure," Kristy agreed, nodding vigorously.

"But I still want you to run the tests on him. Just in case."

"Fair enough," the medic agreed. "Are you really going to take his wings if he comes up positive?"

The scarred Colonel sighed heavily. "I don't know, Kris. We need every pilot we can get, especially those as good as Alex is. On the other hand, can we really take the risk of him flying if he's high? In the meantime I'd better start sorting out the other half of this disciplinary problem," Onslow concluded as he headed towards Anthony Grimm.

 

BWS Sicily; Flight Deck
Nifelheim System
0844 Hours, 15 February 2681 (2681.046)

"I wonder how much of his skin Tony will have left once the colonel's through with him," Jack DeVille wondered aloud as he walked along the Sicily's flight deck towards the maintenance bay containing his fighter. Paul Onslow was pretty easygoing when it came to squadron discipline, but when pushed too far he pushed back pretty hard.

"Can you blame him for snapping at Alex like that?" Danica Owens asked her XO sharply. "If someone took so many cheap shots at my love life, they'd be picking their teeth up off the ground!"

"I didn't even know you have a love life," Jack shot back, his joking tone masking his surprise. Ever since joining the Scrappers, Dani had been quiet, shy and withdrawn. While she was always brave on the battlefield, as far as Jack was concerned it was well past time for the platinum-haired girl to come out of her shell.

"Alex has a real knack for irritating people," John Hawke, the third member of Silver Flight, observed as he shifted the helmet under his arm. "Why do you think he does it so often?"

"A lot of times it's just to see how far he can go," Jack replied. "People often push their friends away to see if they care enough to come after them, and if someone's pissed off it's easier to figure out what their true feelings are." The blond Major let a grin spread over his face. "We sure found out what Tony's true feelings are towards Benita, huh?" he asked, glancing towards Dani. A vexed look appeared on his face as he realized she wasn't at his side, where she'd been a few moments ago. "Where the hell did she go?" Jack wondered aloud.

"Looks like she's catching up with those guys over there," the stocky brunette at Bloodhawk's side commented, pointing back the way they had come. Lisa Kirenkova had been Dani's gunner since she had joined the Scrappers, and had developed the habit of keeping an eye on her out of the cockpit as well as inside it.

DeVille looked back in the direction Kirenkova had pointed. "What's she chatting to a couple of jarheads for when we've got a mission to fly?" the 349th's second-in-command demanded peevishly.

Hawkes eyes widened. "Holy shit!" he blurted. The oath caught Jack completely off guard -- the taciturn pilot from Telamon swore about as often as his fighter's targeting computer. Even more surprising was Hawke's next action, heading towards the slender girl at a dead run.

"What the hell is going on?" the handsome blond major asked in bafflement. Looking at Kirenkova he asked her, "You didn't see anyone put drugs in our food, did you?"

The gunner shook her head. "No, sir, I didn't -- oh. Oh, that explains it." After a few seconds of silence she added in a subdued voice, "Oh, crap."

"Oh, crap what?" Jack demanded, frustration filling his voice as he strained to locate Dani. Finally he caught sight of the beautiful Marauder pilot talking earnestly to a pair of heavily armed Border Worlds Marines in chameleonic fatigues. However his attention was quickly drawn to the prisoner between the two marines. The arrogant stance and auburn hair of the man were unmistakable. "Oh, crap indeed," Jack agreed as he hurriedly moved towards the impending confrontation. There was a huge difference between shooting down an enemy flying against you in a furball and looking into his eyes as you put a bullet into his chest, and it was a line that the militia major didn't want Dani to cross. Not that I could blame her for wanting to blow his guts all over the deck, he told himself as he rounded a start cart. After all, Gorthaur had tortured, abused and raped Dani for two years. And now she stood less than a meter away from him, with sidearm and survival knife within easy reach.

"All right," the taller Marine told Dani harshly. "You've got two minutes with him. After that we have to load him on the shuttle with the rest of the scum." Cocking a finger at her, the Marine raised an eyebrow. "And we want him back unharmed, okay?"

Dani's smile was filled with evil glee. "He won't have a mark on him," she replied, grabbing the pirate by the arm and hauling him over to a nearby maintenance bay. "Alone at last," she told the man who had murdered her family and made her life hell.

"Not really," he disagreed, smiling right back at her with equal malice. Pointing towards the Marines and the Scrappers gathered near the mouth of the maintenance bay, the vicious pirate murmured, "They wont let you harm me, no matter how much you want to. That must just burn you up, huh?"

"Not really," Dani shot back without missing a beat. "I know what's going to happen to you, and I thoroughly approve. There's a high-security mining facility on the first planet in this system, and once you are found guilty of piracy you'll be sentenced to hard labor there for the rest of your life. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if they fitted you with a cortex bomb just to make sure you behave yourself." The smile she gave Gorthaur was as cruel as the pirate himself.

Gorthaur's eyes burned. "Do you honestly think a mere prison could hold me?" he hissed. "When I get out I'll make you -- " His voice cut off in stunned confusion. Nor was he the only one surprised -- the Marines and Scrappers watching the conversation were as bemused by at Dani's reaction to the pirate's words.

She laughed in his face.

"How the wheel turns," she murmured once her mirth had subsided. "You wanted me to live in fear of you, unable to think of anything but terror or revenge. Well, guess what? Once I got away from you I put myself back together. I got a life and moved on from what you did to me. You hurt me and terrified me," the militia pilot confessed to her former tormentor, "but I got over it. I don't obsess over what you did to me, and certainly not to the point where I'd betray my beliefs just for vengeance." Leaning closer to Gorthaur she murmured, "And that gnaws at your guts, doesn't it? You're obsessed with breaking me again, while you are less than nothing to me. You'll work the rest of your life mining thorium ore on a one-and-a-half G world with a bomb in your head, and I'll only spare you an occasional thought. I've won, and I didn't have to destroy myself to do it." Turning her back on her now-speechless nemesis, Dani headed back towards the flight deck. "He's all yours, boys," she jauntily told the Marines before directing a deadly look at the creature -- she wouldn't dignify him by calling him a man -- who had made two years of her life hell. Gorthaur could easily see anger, hate and contempt in Dani's sapphire eyes, but there was not one shred of fear. And then he felt fear clawing at his own guts as he realized that she was right. She'd won.

"And you're welcome to him."

 

Briefing Room, BWS Sicily
Nifelheim System
0848 Hours,  15 February 2681 (2681.046)

"Do you mind telling me what that was all about?" Paul Onslow asked Anthony Grimm in a stern voice. The younger man met his eyes resolutely.

"Ask Alex," he replied bitterly. "I don't know why he decided to take cheap shots at everyone in the squadron, but when he started badmouthing Benita, I just snapped."

"I saw all that," the Colonel replied evenly. "What I want to know is what made you threaten one of your fellow pilots. Alex's life could depend on you in a battle against the Nephilim, and vice versa. Are you going to let your anger at him get in the way when he needs you to clear a Moray off his six?"

"Of course not!" Grimm answered indignantly. "My job is to kill Nephilim and that's what I'll do, regardless of any petty jealousies. Heck, I'd even clear a Moray off the tail of a Cult of Sivar pilot!" That said quite a bit about how seriously the blond pilot took the reserves mission. Originally joining the Unions armed forces to combat pirates, his training at the Academy had shown him many examples of the renegade Kilrathi faction's handiwork. It was a good sign, Onslow thought, but he wanted to make sure that the easygoing lieutenant didn't fly off the handle again.

"Wrong, Lieutenant. Your job is not to kill Nephilim." At Grimm's look of surprise the Scrapper's leader continued his explanation. "Your job is to work as a team with the others in your squadron, so you can all kill more Nephilim." If black fire existed, then it burned in Paul Onslow's eyes at that moment. "Most importantly, your job is to work with the others, as part of a team, so you all have a better chance of making it home alive."

Grimm nodded. I understand, sir. "It's just..." The young man's hands clenched into fists so tight his knuckles were white. "Dammit, Alex got under my skin so bad I just lost it!" Taking a deep breath he looked his CO in the eye. "So, are you going to make us apologize to each other?" Much to his surprise the colonel shook his head decisively.

"A forced apology does nothing except cause resentment," Onslow explained. "If I make you and Alex choose between saying sorry or losing your wings, I'm pretty sure you'll say sorry and shake hands. But you won't really mean it and you'll just get steamed at me, which won't do anyone any good. I don't care if you like Alex, hate him or have his child, so long as you can work with him. I need to keep the squadron working as a team because teamwork is all that will keep us alive against the Nephilim. Can you do that?"

Grimm nodded. "Yes, sir, I can." Grimacing in distaste the rookie pilot added, "I don't like the idea of letting him get away unscathed with what he said, but I wont let my feelings get in the way of my job."

Paul Onslow nodded in satisfaction. "That's all I ask." He grinned suddenly. "I bet you're still pissed at Alex though, huh?" The blond pilot's glower was answer enough. "Well, don't kill or maim him, okay? We need every pilot we can get," the Colonel advised.

"Understood, sir," Anthony muttered. "Can I at least take him down a peg or two?" he asked hopefully.

"Like I said," Onslow replied, "don't kill or maim him." Although the grin was no longer on his face, amusement still sparkled in his dark eyes. "Dismissed."

"Yes, sir!" Grimm responded with a crisp salute, struggling to stifle his own grin. His leaders unspoken message had gotten through loud and clear. Don't kill or maim him - but anything else is okay.

Time to get to work, he thought gleefully as he left the room.

 

BWS Sicily; Flight Wing Quarters
Nifelheim System
1427 Hours, 15th February 2681 (2681.046)

"Men!" Dani Owens muttered angrily as she stalked into the 349th's barracks. "Goddamned testosterone-addicted brain-fried hormone-crazed -- " The platinum-blonde pilot's tirade ceased abruptly as she caught sight of a number of her fellow pilots gathered around a table. "Oh hell," she murmured as they turned from their conversation to regard her with curiosity.

"Finished your ranting yet?" Vincent Tsu inquired politely, eyes twinkling with amusement. "Or should we brain-fried males take a walk so you can vent some more?"

Dani curled her thumb so that its tip touched her thumb, turned her hand and flipped Tsu what looked like a Boy Scout salute in reverse. "Read between the lines, Major," she suggested dryly.

The former Confed InSys pilot burst out laughing. "It's not a stealth bird if you tell the target how to see it," he commented once his mirth had subsided. "So what's got you all hot and bothered?"

Tsu's laughter seemed to drain Dani of anger. "Tony bloody Carruthers," she muttered as she sat down on her bunk. "He just won't leave well enough alone."

"What did he do, ask you to marry him?" Dragan Emerson asked curiously. It was no secret that the dark young rookie had a crush on Dani, and jealousy tinged his voice.

"No!" she denied hotly. "We were in the lounge and someone started bitching at him about a friend Tony belted last night. The next thing I know the threats are flying and the air is filled with the reek of testosterone poisoning."

"Yep, sounds like male behavior all right," Kristy Joyce agreed, giving her friend a surreptitious wink and a sly grin. "Gotta make sure they're fed their ration of raw meat laced with sedatives - "

"Oh, give it a rest!" Dani protested. "Some guy came up to him in the lounge bitching at him about breaking his buddy's cheekbone, and the next thing I knew they were chest-beating and doing all that other fun alpha-male stuff." She rolled her sapphire eyes in exasperation. "I tried to warn Tony that he'd get rolled if he started thinking with his adrenal glands instead of - "

"Dani!"

"Speak the devil's name and he shall appear," Eric Maslevski noted dryly as Tony "Rat" Carruthers stomped into the Scrappers' barracks. The stocky Confederation pilot made a beeline for the silver-maned Border Worlder, ignoring her colleagues as he approached.

"Listen, Dani -- " he began only to be interrupted by Dani's upraised hand.

"Look, you idiot, if you'd followed that dropkick in the lounge out into the corridor he'd have had several of his mates waiting for you," the girl snapped. "And I don't want you ending up in a bed in sickbay, all right?"

Rat snorted as he sat down on the bunk across from her. "I could have taken them!"

"Yeah, but what about anyone else who walked in on you?" Dani objected. "You're on a Border Worlds ship. Think about it - any crewman or pilot who walks in on a fight is going to be a Border Worlder, right? And if they see a fight between a fellow Border Worlder and a Confees, whose side do you suppose they're going to take?"

"That's a bit unfair," Kristy objected, drawing the surprised attention of the arguing couple. "There's no guarantee that would happen. Hell, take a look at what happened last night - lots of Confees and Border Worlders got into the fight regardless of the faction their opponents belonged to."

"You're right," Rat agreed. "And the idea of just leaving those wankers alone pisses me off. First thing you learn as a fighter driver is honor the threat."

"And that's the truth," Anthony Grimm agreed. "But in this case the best thing to do is to let it go, Rat. The last thing we need is to have more pilots down with injuries when the Nephilim come through."

"Hey," the Confed pilot replied with a casual shrug, "I heal fast."

"And no doubt you'd heal faster if Dani was ministering to you in sick bay," Todd McLaughlin commented. The muscular Cabrean smirked, then ducked to dodge any object that Dani Owens might throw at him. But instead of hurling something the platinum blonde merely smiled.

"Well," she purred, the Sicily's medical staff are overworked anyway, "so if I showed up in nurse's uniform, I'm sure that I could be of some help."

"Oh yeah," Sandra Lynch agreed with a wicked grin, "I'm sure the sight of you dressed up as a nurse would raise anyone's, um, morale." The wink the brown-haired major shot Dani betrayed her amusement even as she gave Tony Carruthers a kick under the table. The Confed pilot's eyes had gone somewhat glassy at the thought of his silver-haired girlfriend in a nurse's outfit, and he blinked as he came back to the present.

"Oi!" he protested, rubbing his shin. The Scrappers merely laughed and after a few moments the English pilot joined in their laughter.

"That'd be one for the photo session," Dragan Emerson smirked. Rat glowered at him.

"Depends on whether the photo sessions going to be about Dani or her Marauder," Grimm interrupted, looking straight at the Confederation pilot and raising his eyebrow in mute query. "Because if you're looking for some shots of Marauders in flight, I think we can help you out, Captain. There's a detachment of old shuttles converted to tanker use on Avernus Station, and Eric was chatting to a couple of tanker-toads last night before the brouhaha started. Turns out they still use the old flying boom system like back in the twentieth century, with a dedicated operator in the back seat. Anyway, there's usually room for a shutterbug next to them, and both have a pretty good view of the planes coming in to tank. If we could arrange it, you should get some good shots of us. What do you reckon?"

"Sounds pretty good," the Englishman replied after a moments consideration. He looked up curiously at Maslevski. "Think you could set it up?"

The Archchristian Border Worlder shrugged. "I can't foresee any problems. I'll see what I can do, Captain."

"Thanks," Rat replied. "Be nice to have something not blow up in me fookin' face today," he grumbled

"Aw, diddums is sulky," Dani cooed. "Cry on my shoulder and tell me what went wrong."

"My wing commander chewed me out for starting that fight at the bar last night," the Confed pilot replied. "Said we could have resolved the situation without me plonking my great big size tens in it by helping Dani out."

"You've got to be joking," Sandra Lynch said in disbelief. Carruthers shook his head and met the Scrapper's disbelieving eyes.

"According to Colonel Black, if I'd stayed out of it then it wouldn't have escalated into a full-scale brawl. And its my fault for starting it by picking a fight with a Border Worlder trying to pull Dani," the feisty Confees explained in a voice laden with contempt.

Kristy Joyce shook her head. "Tony, are you sure he knows what really happened?" Her frown deepened as Carruthers nodded. "Well, I've got no bloody idea as to how he came to that conclusion. I'm trying to see things his way, but my head wont fit that far up my ass. And I think I'll tell him that face to face sometime soon," she concluded in a resolute voice.

Carruthers let out a squawk of surprise at the medic's profanity. "Christ, woman, you'd lose your stripes for talking like that to a wing commander!"

"Somehow I don't see you just sitting there and taking the kind of crap that Black was dishing out without taking a few shots back at him," Dani observed sardonically. And if you didn't lose your wings for that, I get the feeling that Kristy won't lose hers either."

"Besides, as a squadron MO, I've had a lot of experience at persuading higher ranking officers that they're wrong and I'm right," the strawberry-blond Scrapper assured Rat. "But the main reason I want to do this is because I don't like the idea of anyone spreading this sort of blatantly false garbage about one of my friends."

Tony's eyebrows crawled back towards his hairline. "We're friends?" he asked in surprise. His disbelief was understandable. Ever since he'd first shown interest in Dani, Kristy Joyce had been doing her damnedest to keep him away from her platinum-blond friend. His callsign of Rat was derived from Love Rat, and he was a firm follower of the love them and leave them philosophy. Dani Owens, by contrast, was rather inexperienced when it came to relationships and Kristy's maternal instincts had kicked into overdrive before she'd been told by her friend to get lost.

The medic fidgeted nervously. "Yeah, well, I went a little bit over the top when we first met, all right? And you stuck up for Dani during the fight on Avernus Station so I figure I owe you this as a payback."

"Fair enough," Rat said with a nod. "I won't say no to someone else giving Colonel Black another bollocking."

Kristy's smile was cruel. "Trust me, there'll be blood on the walls by the time I'm finished."

 

CONT...