PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 64 of 66 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
"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; Flight Wing Quarters
1239 Hours, 16 February 2681 (2681.047)
“I still say you ought to apologize to Tony," Vincent Tsu commented as the Scrappers headed towards their quarters. After a long and intense sim session most of the 349th had adjourned to the Sicily's galley, meeting up with several of the Mustangs there. The early lunch had been friendly, with Border Worlders and Tanfenners alike swapping gibes about their respective sim runs and comparing notes on the tactics the simulated Nephilim had used against them.
"I would if I could find him," Alex Morgan snapped. Raking long fingers through
sweat-damp hair, he let out a sigh. "Look, I know I went over the top yesterday
but if he cant take a joke then he doesn't belong with us. Hey, don't get me
wrong," he added hastily, seeing the hostile looks on the faces of his fellow
Scrappers. "Grimm's a good flier but he's gotta learn to cut loose, or he'll
blow a gasket. His new girlfriend should help on that score."
"I just wonder if you'd be so casual if someone made comments about me," Courtney Tseng asked the lean Scrapper. Leaning her head on his shoulder she tightened her arm slightly around his waist. "What did you say about her, anyway?"
"Only that she was loud enough to be heard throughout the whole of Avernus Station," Alex admitted after a few moments of silence. The red haired Tanfen pilot gave him a reproving look.
"That's low, even for you," she scolded her lover. "Was there a reason for it?"
The privateer-turned-militia pilot shrugged as the mixed group approached the 349th's bunkroom. "It was obvious how things had gone between him and Benita, he was sensitive about it, and he was there. Reason enough."
"Well," Dragan Emerson cut in as he keyed open the bunkrooms door, "he was sensitive about it because he'd only just figured out that Bennie'd had the hots for him since they were both at the Academy." Pulling the door open the Slavic pilot stepped inside, satisfied at having gained a little bit of revenge on behalf of his friend.
Morgan scowled as the rest of the group made their way into the Scrappers' quarters, but even he had to admit that Courtney had a point. He knew that he would have reacted with equal venom if someone had made a smartass comment about her. Tightening his arm slightly around the Tanfen pilot's shoulders he looked down at her face. "Well, I'm going to apologize to the kid anyway, once I find him," the dark-haired Border Worlds pilot told Tseng in a defensive manner. "The problem is that once we were out of the sim pods he took off like a jackrabbit. To tell the truth I feel kinda bad about what I said to him," he admitted before cocking a finger at her like a loaded pistol. "And don't even think about telling the others about that. They'll think I'm a big softy, so this stays a secret between us, right?"
"Absolutely," Tseng smirked, her dark eyes dancing with mirth even as she pointed towards Alex's bunk with a subtle movement of her jaw. "It stays a secret just like that little yellow teddy bear sitting on your pillow."
"What?" Sure enough, a small fluffy yellow toy rested on the former privateers pillow. However it definitely wasn't a teddy bear -- the catlike face beaming idiotically at the room's ceiling was all too familiar to Alex. "Who did this?" he growled, angrily looking around the room. The former privateer stormed over to his bed, pointed at the fuzzy little figure and bellowed, "Who left a Pikachu on my pillow?" Nobody replied to his question. Those who knew just why Alex was so angry were slowly backing away, while those who didn't were trying not to laugh in the volatile Border Worlder's face.
"hats wrong with it?" in Hoffman wanted to know. The burly blond Tanfenner was grinning broadly at Alex's discomfort, as were several of the other corporate pilots. "I think its kind of cute - hey, take it easy!" Hoffman demanded, backing away sharply as Alex drew his survival knife from his boot. But the former privateer's wrath wasn't directed at the TASC aviator. Instead he turned and drove the blade hilt-deep into the stuffed toys chest.
The presence of Pikachu on Alex's pillow had been unanticipated. The pilot's violent reaction had been surprising. But the explosion was completely unexpected. Pilots instinctively dived for cover, ducking behind bunks, lockers or any other form of cover. Finally Scrappers and Mustangs alike began moving as the echoes of the explosion faded.
"Everyone okay?" Todd McLaughlin asked, shaking his head to still the ringing in his ears.
"Dragan wont be if he doesn't get off me!" Dani Owens snapped angrily from behind a bunk.
"Hey, I was diving for cover and just happened to land here!" the dark young pilot sprawled atop her replied hastily. "It's not my fault I landed on top of you!"
"Then why the hell haven't you moved?" the girl demanded.
"Because I cracked my head on the bed frame, and I'm dizzy as hell," Dragan answered. "Hell, I'm still seeing birdies and stars -"
"If you don't get off me in five seconds," Dani grated, "the only bird you'll be seeing is the one I'm gonna flip you! Now GET OFF!"
"Jeez, okay!" the rookie complained, clambering to his feet slowly. "Anyone else who feels like -- " The tone of his voice changed abruptly. "Oh my God! Alex, look at you!" Several of the pilots had poked their heads up from cover, already looking around, and their eyes focused on the former privateer turned militia pilot.
Alex Morgan had been right at the centre of the blast and it showed. Unable to clear the burst radius, the front of his flightsuit as well as his face were covered in a sticky white gunk mixed with flecks of bright color. An expression of disbelief and numb shock adorned his face even as he pawed at the foam-like substance, only to have even more of it stick to his hands. "What the hell is this stuff?" he wondered aloud.
"Oh, the usual we used at the Academy. Shaving cream, rice, honey and confetti," a voice replied casually from the barracks door. Everyone looked towards the speaker to see Anthony Grimm casually leaning against the doorframe with a holocam held to his eye, obviously recording the whole scene. "Remember some of the stuff you told me about, Dragan?"
"Yeah," the Slavic pilot confirmed as he pushed himself to his feet. "You mean you set all this up yourself?" he asked his wingman, a note of wonder entering his voice. A curt nod was all the confirmation Grimm gave. "I'm impressed, man. Very impressed," Dragan murmured.
"It was pretty simple, really," the slender blond Scrapper commented. "Put a bladder of pressurized air inside an object, replace the stuffing with that mixture, wait for someone to puncture it, and Bob's your uncle." Turning his attention back towards the target of the prank he commented, "Oh, Alex?" As the shaving cream covered pilot turned a baleful glare his way, Grimm smiled nastily. "Pika pika," he chirped. And that was the straw which broke the camels back.
Anthony Grimm had never seen anybody's eyes actually glow with rage before, but Alex Morgan's grey eyes did a pretty good imitation. "GRIMM, YOU BASTARD, I'M GOING TO SKIN YOU ALIVE FOR THIS!" he roared, grabbing his knife from his bunk and running towards his tormentor. But Grimm was already bolting down the corridor, pursued by the sound of laughter as well as by his infuriated victim.
"Dammit, Alex, didn't your mother teach you not to run while carrying sharp objects?"
BWS Arnhem; Cargo Bay 7 / Simulator Room
1319 Hours, 16 February 2681 (2681.047)
"All right," Benita Rogers murmured, her eyes locked on those of the man facing her. "Let's do it."
Paul Onslow nodded in acceptance. "Did you have anywhere in particular in mind?" The rookie pilot shook her head.
"We already have a two-to-one advantage in numbers and our fighters are better. I figure that's enough advantages for us."
"Depends on who you're flying against," Jack DeVille shot back as he treated Benita to a mocking smile. "Didn't they teach you at the Academy that the only fair fight is one you win?"
Benita gritted her teeth as she fought to hold back the blood rising in her cheeks. That handsome sardonic bastard of a militia major had an unerring ability to get under her skin, and his words clearly implied that he thought she was being too cautious. We'll see about that, the young brunette thought angrily as she turned back to Onslow. "You pick where we fight, Colonel," she growled.
Paul Onslow didn't bat an eye as he turned to face Lt Colonel Jeff Harrison, the CO of the Frostreavers. "Colonel, I need you to load up the sim data for Lennox III, latitude twenty-eight degrees eleven minutes west, longitude twelve degrees forty-six minutes west. Remove any SAM sites in the area. There aren't any on the ground there but the records may be out of whack." The scarred Scrapper turned his attention back to Benita. "We'll start this fight in the atmosphere, and see where it goes from there."
The Frostreaver nodded. "Any special victory conditions, Colonel, or just last one standing wins?"
Onslow shook his head. "Same goal as for a real mission, Lieutenant. Survive and get as many of your people home in one piece."
Jeff Harrison, commander of the Frostreavers, straightened up from the console into which he had been entering data for the simulated battle. "Everything's set up," he advised. "Okay, everyone, saddle up. The show starts in two minutes." The Frostreavers who weren't flying the simulated mission withdrew to the sim room's control centre, some of them calling encouragement to their comrades who headed to their sim pods.
As Benita Rogers approached her own pod she spotted a tall slim figure standing in the shadows near her pod. She grinned as she recognized the flaxen hair and pale blue eyes. "Come here to beat me up before I scrag your CO and XO?" she asked jokingly.
Anthony Grimm shook his head. "Nah, I don't work that way," he replied. A smile lit up his face as he added, "Besides, you'd probably kick my ass if I tried."
The brunette giggled at her lover's wry comment. "Damn straight," she agreed. "So, why are you here then? To wish me luck?"
Grimm nodded. "Yeah, and to warn you to watch your tail. These guys don't play by the rules -- any rules."
"You think they might have rigged the sims?" Benita asked, her face assuming a serious expression. Grimm shook his head.
"No, that's not their way for something like this." They wouldn't need to, he thought heavily. Benita and the other Academy cadets in the Frostreavers were good pilots - they wouldn't have made it into the Frostreavers otherwise, no matter how desperate the situation -- but Paul Onslow and Jack DeVille were two of the most experienced and tricky fliers in the Border Worlds. As far as Anthony Grimm was concerned that made Benita's flight as likely to survive as a snowflake in hell. "Just keep an eye open for any tricks, and remember their motto: Quod est contentioni estqe infami contentioni."
One of Benita's eyebrows arched. "In English, cowboy?" she asked.
"Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for," the blond Scrapper answered curtly. "Those are the words they live by, so expect anything and everything." He glanced at his watch. "One minute twenty to go. You'd better get moving," he urged.
"Yeah, I'd better," Benita agreed, sliding into the sim pod and strapping herself in. She looked back up at Grimm as he squeezed her shoulder and smiled at her.
Sim Pod 4 / Frostreaver Three
Cargo Bay 7 / Simulator Room, BWS Arnhem
1325 Hours, 16 February 2681 (2681.047)
"Reaver Flight, check in," Benita Rogers ordered as she checked the sim pod's systems. Her eyes flicked around the cockpit even as the other pilots flying with her radioed in.
"Mac's good to go." That was Lieutenant Conrad "Mac" Berger, her wingman. Benita thought of Berger as a bit of a snobby prat, but he was a good shot and could be relied upon to back his wingleader up.
"Clipper's up," Lieutenant Darren "Clipper" van Klees advised. van Klees was a cocky loudmouth -- just like me, Benita reflected with a trace of humor -- but he was also a damn good flier.
"Nutcase is ready to RUM-BLE!" Lieutenant Hal "Nutcase" O'Mara yelled. Benita grinned even as she winced -- Nutcase had earned his callsign for general craziness at the Academy, both for his flying style and his antics on the ground. One of his latest stunts had involved taking embarrassing pictures of an instructor at the Academy and uploading them to the Academy's LAN, and he flew with the same recklessness and disregard for the consequences.
"Blender's up," she reported to her partners in the sim. "All right, keep an eye on your sensors. Onslaught picked this place for our little tiff, so he's got to have some trick up his sleeve. But remember we're the Academy's best and we're flying better planes. They're more agile but we've got more punch." A cold smile of anticipation lit her face as the pod's MFDs lit up. "Now let's kick their asses!"
The four Jaguars of the Frostreavers were flying over broken rocky badlands, craggy hills sun-scorched into a faded red-brown except where shadows cut black knife-edged silhouettes between them. Clouds and swirls of fine dust were kicked up by errant gusts of wind, almost obscuring the canyons and gorges. Almost as one, the rookie pilots nervously glanced at the altimeters on their HUDs. Even though they knew that the sun-blasted wasteland below them was only an electronic representation, the thought of crash-landing in such an arid hell was truly frightening.
"Anyone want to work on their melanoma count?" Mac asked. "Looks like the right place."
"This looks like the right place for dying painfully," Nutcase agreed, even his normally boisterous manner subdued by the desolate landscape.
"Zip it, people! Keep your eyes on your scanners! I want to find them before they can bushwhack us," Benita snapped. "Anyone have any contacts yet?"
"Bugger all on my scope."
"No joy, Blender. Either they're too far away for us to spot them or they're playing hide-and-seek in those canyons," Clipper surmised.
"And Intruders have shorter range sensors than Jags do," Mac added thoughtfully. "If they're not here yet - "
" - then we'll pick them up before they spot us," Blender finished as she guided her fighter through a pocket of turbulence. "Okay, Mac and I are going to go high to get better sensor range. Also, we'll be able to look down into some of those ravines and canyons. Hopefully we'll see them if they're hiding down there."
"You'll stick out like a Kilrathi at a VA hospital," Clipper objected. "Dammit, Blender, if they're already here then they'll get the first shot at you!"
"Which is why you and Nutcase will be down on the deck," she replied slyly. "As soon as they stick their noses out you two will chop'em off. Now let's get it done."
Sim Pod 6 / Scrapper Two
Cargo Bay 7 / Simulator Room, BWS Arnhem
1325 Hours 16 February 2681 (2681.047)
"Tally ho! Two bandits at eleven o'clock high, range fourteen klicks," Paul "Onslaught" Onslow warned. The walls of the gorge raced by his Intruder IV's wingtips as he increased power to his fighter's engines. "Verifying ID... yeah, they're Jaguars." The six fighters were the only craft in the simulated airspace, but the Scrappers' leader was playing it as carefully as if it this a real intercept. Sloppiness in combat wasn't habit forming -- people who were careless in a dogfight didn't live long enough to make a habit out of it.
"I've got'em," Jack "Diamond" DeVille acknowledged. "Three guesses where the other two are," he growled, irony heavy in his voice.
"Careful," his leader admonished. "Never underestimate your enemy, and never rely on their actions to the point they limit your own. Now let's give them a wake-up call."
"You take the trailer and I've got the leader," Diamond agreed. "Three, two, one, mark!" The two Intruders simultaneously pulled into a sharp climb, locked a single missile onto each of the Jaguars above them and fired. The heavier fighters promptly went evasive but the Scrappers refused the bait, tightening their vertical turns until they were diving back towards the canyon they had popped out of. A coordinated half-roll, and the two militia pilots were back in the canyon screaming back the way they had come. But they weren't alone.
Another pair of Jaguars had been hugging the terrain below the Scrappers' targets. Even as the militia pilots were launching their missiles, the Jaguars hugging the ground were bringing their tachyon guns to bear, pouring silver-white energy into the Intruders' shields before they ducked back into cover. Diamond's RHAWS blared a warning as a hastily-launched ImRec missile locked onto him, only to careen into the lip of the canyon as it tried to follow him. A grin curled his lips as he keyed his comm.
"Do I say 'Toldya' now, or wait until we've finished up?" he asked dryly.
"Not many other places they could be," Onslaught admitted. His voice suddenly sharpened as he whipped his fighter through a dog-leg following the canyon's course. "Now shut up and fly. How far back are they?"
Jack spared his sensors a quick glance. "The high flyers are still dancing with our firecrackers ten klicks back, and the dustbusters are about half a klick behind us," he reported as he raced after Onslaught. "So far so good..."
Sim Pod 1 / Frostreaver Seven
Cargo Bay 7 / Simulator Room, BWS Arnhem
1327 Hours, 16 February 2681 (2681.047)
Clipper's face was twisted in a grimace of concentration as his fighter hurtled down the gorge after the two Intruders. We'd have to be completely nuts to be doing this for real, he silently complained to himself. The young pilot squeezed off another burst of tachyon fire at his quarry, feeling a momentary surge of triumph as its shields flared blue. Then it was gone, jinking around another twist in the canyon through which they raced.
van Klees grinned broadly as he followed the Scrappers' winding path. True, the damage his shots had done to his target's shields would regenerate by the time he got another chance to fire, but he and Nutcase had stopped the Scrappers from getting off more than one shot at Blender and Mac in their ambush. Which reminded him...
"Blender, this is Clipper. What's your status?"
"We're fine," Benita shot back. "Just playing chicken with those ImRecs... there! Mac, you're clear. How about returning the favor?"
"Sounds good to me," Berger replied. "Break right..." There was a pause as his fighter's Stormfires yammered, spitting hundreds of small-caliber slugs at the missile pursuing Blender, then a muffled boom echoed over the comm as the missile finally exploded. "Three, you're clear," he announced. "Now let's nail those bastards."
"Couldn't agree more, Mac," Benita agreed. "Clipper, keep chasing them through the canyon. The mountains flatten out about four klicks further on, so they'll run out of cover in a few minutes. We'll pace you at a higher altitude in case they try to climb out."
"Copy that, Blender. We're the hounds, you're the hunters," van Klees agreed as he reefed his HF-95 into a snap turn to the left. He grinned broadly as he caught sight of DeVille's Intruder barely a half klick ahead of him, roaring along a straight stretch of canyon almost a klick long. "You're assuming, of course, that there'll still be something for you to shoot at," he commented as he lined up on the F/A-43 ahead of him and cut loose once more.
Sim Pod 4 / Frostreaver Three
Cargo Bay 7 / Simulator Room, BWS Arnhem
1329 Hours, 16 February 2681 (2681.047)
Benita Rogers scowled as she rolled her heavy fighter onto its wing. Dammit, I wanted to be the one who killed DeVille, she grumbled silently even as she looked groundward to watch the pursuit. The Intruder, boxed into a long but narrow rocky cage, could only run and barely jink from side to side in a feeble attempt to dodge van Klees' fire. The blue flashes of shield impacts stopped even as Clipper's guns kept blazing, and Benita fancied that she could see chunks of armor falling away from the lighter fighter. The militia craft slowed perceptibly, letting Clipper close the range even further as his guns recharged. What was it that Tony called a fluke hit on a critical system? A Golden BB? Looks like Darren got one on his engines, she thought as her scowl melted into a triumphant smile. The Jaguars flown by the Frostreavers were tougher, better shielded and packed bigger guns than the militia Intruders, which held the advantages of being faster and more agile. But with those edges taken away and Clipper less than three hundred meters directly behind him, Diamond was dead meat. "Dammit, Clipper, take the shot!" she hissed.
As if in answer, van Klees' guns spat fire and a cloud of light suddenly erupted behind DeVille's fighter. For an instant Benita thought that Clipper had hit the Intruder's engine core but then she recognized them as decoys. What the hell is Darren doing wasting missiles down there? she thought incredulously, even as the Intruder accelerated and rolled ninety degrees. The Jaguar pursued but its gunfire was unsteady, almost haphazard. Only a few tachyon blasts struck home, scattering shards of armor along the lighter fighter's trail.
What none of the Frostreavers knew was that the canyon through which the Scrappers were racing was one of Lennox's most famous natural features. The straight portion of the canyon complex through which Jack DeVille, Darren van Klees and Hal O'Mara raced was known as the Needle. Like any other needle this one had an eye, and it was an absolute bitch to thread -- which was why Paul Onslow had chosen it as the site for the battle.