PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 65 of 66 )

: Scraps of Honour
( 4 / 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 Arnhem; Cargo Bay 7 / Simulator Room
Nifelheim System
1330 Hours, 16 Feb 2681 (2681.047)

Clipper swore furiously as he squinted against the glare of the decoys Jack DeVille had dropped. A polarizing helmet visor could only block out so much light before it became just a high-tech blindfold. The young Space Force pilot snapped off another short burst, tearing into armor rather than shields. He let out a yell of triumph over the comm channel as Diamond's plane rolled to the left. He's lost control, Clipper thought exultantly as the tip of the Intruder's left fin tore away against the looming rock wall suddenly closing in.

And then Darren van Klees realized far, far too late that he'd been suckered. The whole chase had been nothing more than a ruse to lure him into a deathtrap. If an Intruder, rolled on its side to present its narrowest profile, could barely fit through the gap then there was no way that a Jaguar could make it. Desperately he pulled back on the control column, hoping to climb above the treacherously narrow gap but knowing that he didn't have a hope in hell.

The left wing tore off at the wing root, tearing the fuel tank open and trailing liquid hydrogen in the crippled fighter's wake. The right wing fared a little better with only the portion outside the starboard engine pod being ripped away, but this proved more curse than blessing. The remaining half of the Jaguar's right wing was still providing lift, and without the left wing's counterbalancing lift the heavy fighter snapped into a vicious roll. Pinned against the side of his cockpit by centrifugal force, Clipper realized in an instant that there was no way that he could regain control of his wounded bird. How the hell did he do that? the Space Force pilot wondered even as he reached for the ejection seat's D-ring. His fingers were closing around it just as his fighter slammed into the ferrocrete-hard clay at the bottom of the canyon.


Sim Pod 4 / Frostreaver Three
Cargo Bay 7 / Simulator Room, BWS Arnhem
Nifelheim System
1329 Hours, 16 February 2681 (2681.047)

"Oh my God," Blender whispered as she watched Clipper's Jaguar plow nose-first into the canyon's floor at six hundred KPH. The entire fuselage forward of the wings collapsed like an accordion before the rest of the fighter scattered itself across the landscape. But the Frostreavers' flight commander had no time to mourn.

"Nutcase, climb! Get clear!" she yelled over the comm as she pushed the control stick forward, sending her fighter into a steep dive. "Mac, stay on my wing!"

"Got it," Mac acknowledged crisply as he sent his own Jaguar plummeting after Benita's. "Let's make those bastards pay!"

That we will, she thought vengefully as she locked a pair of image recognition missiles onto an Intruder racing across the high mesa bordering the canyon's southern edge. Even as her thumb closed on the firing button, Benita noted that her target's guns were spitting fire into Hal O'Mara's Jaguar. Nutcase was gamely returning fire as the two fighters raced towards each other head-to-head at nearly three times the speed of sound. If Blender fired her missiles now she ran the risk of hitting her friend instead of her foe, so she had to watch and wait for a clear shot.

Onslaught's damn good, the girl grudgingly admitted to herself as she watched the exchange of fire. The angle from which the Intruder approached Nutcase was too far south to be Diamond - Onslaught had popped up from a southern spur of the canyon while the Scrappers' XO was just climbing out of the canyon's main body - and every shot he fired had hit O'Mara's Jaguar dead on. By contrast most of the reckless Frostreaver's shots passed through the space where the Intruder had just been, Onslaught's evasive moves being unpredictable enough to dodge Nutcase's fire while being controlled enough to not disrupt his own aim. A chill passed through Benita's body as she watched his obvious skill, even as she waited for him to give her a clear shot. What the hell is this guy doing in the Militia? The Militia's just a bunch of second-stringers... or so I thought. Now I think we're in deep shit and sinking fast...

A surge of hope washed through her as the wing of Onslaught's Intruder flipped up in a sudden barrel roll, scattering his fire at random. For an instant Blender thought that maybe Nutcase had gotten a lucky shot in or that the Scrappers' leader had flinched, but then she caught a glimpse of the pair of missiles he'd launched at her flightmate. A quarter second later they slammed into the Jaguar, reducing it and it's pilot to shreds of metal and blood. At last Benita had a clear shot and she took it as Onslaught performed a victory roll through the fireball that had been Hal O'Mara's fighter. A second later, she locked another pair of missiles onto Onslaught and fired again.


Sim Pod 5 / Scrapper One
Cargo Bay 7 / Simulator Room, BWS Arnhem
Nifelheim System
1330 Hours, 16 February 2681 (2681.047)

Paul Onslow scowled as the RHAWS screamed its electronic shriek of fear at him. Almost by instinct he punched off a half dozen decoys and pulled his fighter into a vertical bank, barely a dozen metres above the ground. Through the top of his fighter's canopy the Scrappers' leader caught a glimpse of Diamond's fighter racing overhead, spitting fire from its meson and particle guns. The energy blasts raced past Onslaught's Intruder, covering his back even as he twisted and jinked to dodge the remaining two missiles on his tail. The militia colonel then hauled back on the control column, sending his fighter into a climbing turn to the right before dropping it into a hammerhead fall, ending up half a klick behind Blender's Jaguar. Even as he pressed the trigger, the Space Force pilot broke hard to the left, leaving Onslaught's gunfire to fall behind her.

She's good, the Scrappers' leader grudgingly admitted to himself as both fighters turned towards each other, quickly ending up in a rolling scissors struggling for a kill shot. Onslaught's Intruder had the advantage as it was more agile, but Benita was definitely making him work hard. She's damn good.

"Sweet Caroline in ninety, boss," Diamond growled over the comm.

"Copy," Onslaught grunted as he kept hauling his fighter through the scissors with Blender. Abruptly he slammed the stick over to the right and lit the burners, sending his Intruder skimming low over the desert landscape. A quick glance at the nav display on the HUD confirmed that he was on the correct heading even as he dodged around a jagged-edge mesa. The scarred colonel knew this area well enough to send his Intruder dodging low over and between the broken terrain while sparing a look back over his shoulder. Sure enough, his pursuer was a couple of klicks behind him although well above the rocky outcroppings that dotted the plain he raced over. A faint grin curled Onslaught's lips. Good, she's learning, he thought. She's not flying low enough to crash like the first one did. The Border Worlds armed forces were frequently outnumbered and outgunned, so they had to make up for it with trickery and the ability to "think outside the box." As far as the leader of the Scrappers was concerned, creativity and tactical acumen were as vital as piloting and gunnery skills. Hopefully he'd soon see if Benita Rogers had any dirty tricks up her sleeve.

And then the world blew up in his face.

"Jesus Christ!" Onslaught cursed as his multiton fighter jumped and bucked like a panicked horse. Chunks of rock flew into the air ahead of the Intruder, some of them slamming into the forward shields and armor and adding their impact to the explosion's shockwave. Sky and ground swapped places over and over again at dizzying speed, even as the Scrappers' leader fought for control of his craft. Finally he managed to stabilize the Intruder and regain his bearings. A glance at the chronometer of his machine's HUD confirmed that he was precisely on time, and a quick look confirmed that he was in the right place. Yes, this was the broad valley where, four years ago, he and Jack DeVille had flown one of the first intercepts of their assignment to Lennox. A little to his left he could see the mouth of the cavern the blockade runner Sweet Caroline had plunged into just before her reactor had exploded.

Yes, this was the place where Jack DeVille had almost died four years ago.

As if on cue Diamond's Intruder screamed over the edge of the plateau that formed most of the valley's eastern wall, almost scraping its belly against the volcanic rock before it dropped like a bomb. Its nose snapped up as the thrusters dropped to idle and the gravitic engines strained to kill the fighter's forward velocity, even as it fell towards the valley floor. Sure enough, the Jaguar pursuing Onslaught's friend stayed on its original course at full throttle. A triumphant grin spread over the militia colonel's face as he imagined what the Frostreaver must be thinking (probably starting with the letters "WTF") as Diamond opened fire. Blasts from his fighter's meson and particle cannons tore through the atmosphere and ripped into his target's shields, flashing blue as their flight was interrupted. An instant later Onslaught opened fire, stitching the heavier fighter's flank with energy blasts as Diamond's fighter suddenly froze in midair in a letter-perfect cutthroat maneuver. The Frostreaver pilot broke to the right, pointed his nose towards Onslaught and lit his afterburners to get away. The only problem was that this trick left a veteran pilot with half a dozen image-recognition missiles primed, locked and waiting directly behind him.

The Jaguar's nose lit up like a Christmas tree as it opened fire at Onslaught's Intruder, savaging the lighter machine's forward shields even as it jinked sharply. Then it hurriedly spat decoys as Diamond fired a pair of Spiculum missiles at it. The heavy fighter snapped back to the left and frantically rolled to evade the lethal missiles, but the pilot had made a major mistake. Fighter pilots lived and died by the adage "Speed is life," but speed is to a dogfight as medicine is to a sick man -- too much can be as dangerous as too little. The Jaguar pilot found this out the hard way as he tried dodging the missiles while still on full afterburner. His forward speed cut heavily into his agility, and no fighter ever built could outrun a missile. Both Spiculums slammed into the HF-95's tail, wiping out the shields and shredding the armor.

Diamond snap-rolled in behind the fleeing Jaguar, running his capacitors dry as he savagely tracked gunfire up and down the bigger fighter's spine. The Jaguar lurched in mid-air before one of its engines suddenly fell away, exposing a golden-white glow burning in its guts. The ejection pod rocketed free of the doomed war machine even as the fusion reactor went critical.

"Only one to go," Diamond proclaimed.

"Yeah, and she's right on my six," Onslaught gritted as a long burst from Blender's tachyon guns thinned his shields even further. He dodged sharply to the left but the white bolts kept pounding on his fighter. "Get her off me!"

"On it, boss man," Diamond reassured his commander and friend as he ignited his own afterburners and whipped around after Blender. The blond Scrapper switched his comm to the Guard frequency as he maneuvered for a shot at the Jaguar. "C'mon Blender," he taunted over the open frequency. "No need to make it easy for me..."


Sim Pod 4 / Frostreaver Three
Cargo Bay 7 / Simulator Room, BWS Arnhem
Nifelheim System
1433 Hours, 16 February 2681 (2681.0447)

"The only thing that'll be easy for you here is dying!" Benita Rogers shot back, her voice as full of fire as usual. But she knew it was hollow bravado and so, the girl suspected, did the militia pilots. The Frostreavers had started off with a two-to-one advantage in numbers, better equipment and better training. And the Scrappers had torn them to shreds -- Benita was the only one left in the air while the two Intruders had no damage worse than scorched armor.

I'm a dead man walking...

I'm a dead man walking...

She'd hated that song ever since she'd first heard Anthony Grimm playing it at the Academy nearly three years ago. Granted, the guitar work had been good but the words had set her teeth on edge. Fighter pilots risked death on every flight, with only their skills to keep them alive, so they tried not to think about death too much. Sure, accidents happened and people died in combat but pilots had to believe that their skills would see them through any situation. Thinking too much about being defeated or killed would lead to low morale and to defeat in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Napoleon's comment that 'the moral is to the physical as three is to one' was one of his few understatements, and instructors told their students to never go into the air thinking they'd lose. Benita certainly hadn't thought she'd lose when she strapped into the sim pod.

But now losing was looking more like a certainty than a possibility.

Okay, she thought to herself, maybe they'll get me but they'll know they've been in a fight! Benita fired another burst from her fighter's light and heavy tachyon guns into the rear of Onslaught's fighter, watching as the last of the shielding vanished in azure flashes and armor sprayed away. But even as her target's armor started falling away, Benita's guns stopped firing. A quick glance confirmed that she'd run her capacitors deep into the red and, as she quickly armed her Jaguar's Stormfires, her target pointed its nose at the sky and climbed like a rocket.

"Oh no you don't!" the young Space Force pilot cried as she hauled back on the stick and sent her own fighter zooming skyward, punching small-caliber slugs into the Intruder. Exultation seared through her veins as the HUD showed the armor slowly being stripped from her target, only to be replaced by fear as her RHAWS blared a warning at her. A quick glance confirmed that the fighter in her sights was still climbing, so Blender jammed the throttles forward to the stops and dumped decoys like they were going out of style. A couple of seconds of frantic dodging sent the missile careening off into the distance, and the Jaguar half-rolled inverted to track her quarry, now below her.

And opening fire.

"What the hell? How could he turn so fast?" Blender asked herself even as Onslaught's fire struck her forward shields. A flick of a finger on the HOTAS brought her now-recharged tachyon guns online but she refrained from pulling the trigger. Whichever way the Scrappers' leader would turn after his gun pass, she'd be ready to follow with guns fully charged. What she wasn't expecting was the Intruder to continue in his original direction of travel with his nose still pointing at her and his guns spitting fire.

"That's impossible! Intruders can't autoslide!" she blurted in shock. The cut-price militia fighters lacked the advanced features of more modern warcraft, such as autotracking weapons -- heck, even their sensors had only half the range of her beloved Jaguar. So how the hell was one of those cheap pieces of garbage flying backwards inverted spitting lethally accurate fire straight into her face?

It may be impossible but it's happening! Deal with it! she berated herself as she dropped her targeting reticule directly over the militia fighter's nose. With a thin smile Benita pulled the trigger, and gunfire linked the two craft. If you want to go head-to-head with me, Colonel, it's your funeral, she thought. I have more shields, more armor, and more firepower. You'll lose.

And then her RHAWS went off again.


Sim Pod 6 / Scrapper Two
Cargo Bay 7 / Simulator Room, BWS Arnhem
Nifelheim System
1434 Hours, 16 February 2681 (2681.047

Diamond's eyes narrowed as the view of the topside of Blender's Jaguar rapidly expanded in his windscreen. No doubt her undivided attention was on the other Intruder with whom she was exchanging fire, especially as it was flying backwards and upside down. Guess she's never seen a Pougachev's Cobra before, the blond militia pilot thought. Still, at least if she sees it in a sim pod rather than the real world, at least she'll live through it.

With its nose pointed skywards, DeVille's Intruder was less than a klick away from its target when the tone of a missile lock finally sounded in its pilot's headphones. Showtime, Jack thought as he armed his last two missiles and took a deep breath. "Fox Two!" he cried as both missiles dropped free and ignited. Snapping the joystick back and to the right Diamond broke away from the combat, fervently hoping that the minimum-range inhibit systems on each missile wouldn't stop them from detonating.

They didn't. Even as Benita began rolling the big fighter to the left and ejecting more decoys, the first missile slammed into the forward shields weakened by Onlaught's gunfire, reducing them to a memory. An instant later, the second missile struck the top of the fuselage barely two meters behind the cockpit. The explosion shredded the entire fuselage in front of the engine intakes. Diamond winced at the damage the explosion had wrought -- the idea of flying against the plane and not the pilot was as much a crock as a politician's promises, but not many of those Jack DeVille had flown against had died in such a spectacular fashion. As the remnants of the Jaguar dropped towards the desert floor, he keyed his comm.

"And that, as they say, is that."


Cargo Hold 7 / Sim Room, BWS Arnhem
Nifelheim System
1437 Hours , 16 February 2681 (2681.047)

Benita Rogers shook her head in disbelief as she unstrapped her helmet and ran her fingers through her hair. While she hadn't been the best pilot in her class, there was no way that a pair of militia pilots outnumbered two-to-one should have defeated her so easily. The Frostreavers were younger and had better training and better equipment. Where did I go wrong? the chestnut-haired girl wondered as she trudged over to the other pilots who had flown in the sim with her. Her eyes turned slowly, almost unwillingly, towards Paul Onslow and Jack DeVille, dreading the taunts that were sure to follow. But while the Scrapper's faces both bore triumphant grins, there was no sign of gloating or mockery as they regarded their opponents. "That was a good fight," Onslow announced calmly as he tucked his helmet in the crook of his arm. And finally Benita couldn't stay silent any longer.

"How -- ? Where -- ? What -- ?" she stammered in surprise. Her mind was racing to catch up with her mouth and supply it with coherent speech, but as usual her mouth was winning the race.

Onslow's grin broadened as he turned to face her. "Make sure brain is in gear before engaging mouth," he joked, earning a glower from the young brunette. Ignoring the other Frostreavers gathering around the group, the Colonel cupped his chin in his hand and looked towards the ceiling, his expression a parody of deep thought. "Let me see if I can figure out what you're trying to say," he offered. "How did we kick your asses so easily? Where did we get so good? And what -"

"What the hell did you do with your Intruders?" Benita demanded hotly. "Dammit, they can't do that! We'd have been told back at the Academy if the Intruders had been upgraded with autoslide capability!"

Jack smiled lazily at Benita as he wiped the sweat from his face. "They're not upgraded or anything, kiddo. We just know a few tricks."

"Like Pougachev's Cobra," Anthony Grimm commented as he made his way to the front of the crowd of onlookers. The young man regarded his CO and XO with mingled surprise and respect. "I didn't think that move was practiced anywhere outside of air shows."

Jack shrugged. "Well, now you know. And if it's so rare, how do you know about it?"

Grimm shot a jaundiced look at the Scrapper's second-in-command. "I told you before, I grew up in a traveling air show. Work it out." He turned to face the Frostreavers. "Pougachev's Cobra is a move that was first invented in the twentieth century, back even before interstellar flight. It's mainly used when you're moving fast and there's a bad guy close on your tail." The young man was using his hands to show the positions and movement of the aircraft even as he described them, in the manner that pilots had done since the first days of flight. "You suddenly chop throttle, flare the nose up so that your drag goes through the roof and wait for him to fly right by. Or," he continued with a significant look at Benita, "if the bad guy slows down to hold position, you just put the nose on him and pull the trigger."

The chestnut-haired Frostreaver's expression had turned more and more sour as Grimm casually summed up the maneuver that had shot her down in the simulated battle. "And if it's such a wonderful move then why wasn't it taught to us?" she demanded crossly, folding her arms over her chest.

Grimm sighed in frustration. "Most dogfights occur in space, where there's no drag to slow you down. That makes it useless in space. Plus it's really easy to stall with this move - you have to cut out your gravs so you'll keep moving forward -- and stalling really isn't a good idea when you're flying at low level." The young pilot glanced across to his CO. "Isn't that right, sir?"

Onslow nodded in agreement. "Pretty accurate summary, Tony. I'm just curious as to why you're giving a lecture on tactics here on the Arnhem instead of practicing in the sim pods on the Sicily." The black-haired colonel raised a hand to forestall the rookie from speaking. "I know the guys finished a groupex before lunch, but I was pretty sure you'd be practicing on your own."

The pale young man shrugged uncomfortably, but still met his leader's gaze. "I got the impression that staying on the Sicily might be hazardous to my health," he finally replied. Onslow gave him an enquiring look but Tony resolutely stayed silent.

"What? Someone threatened you?" Benita Rogers asked Anthony, a look of concern on her face as she touched his shoulder. His eyes twinkled with amusement as he returned the look.

"You're made of sterner stuff than me," the blond pilot admitted. "But even you would find a guy with a survival knife chasing you and threatening to skin you alive somewhat threatening," he concluded in a droll voice. The training room suddenly fell silent.

"My God! What set him off?" Cassie Hammond wondered aloud. The black-haired Frostreaver's eyes were wide with surprise, a reaction shared by most of the squadron of cadets.

Grimm merely shrugged. "Probably the little memento of an old humiliation I left on his pillow. Of course, the fact that he ended up covered in the usual Academy mix didn't help his temper any." The young Scrapper's lips twitched with the effort to hold his laughter in.

"I take it were talking about the same person we were talking about after yesterday's meeting?" Paul Onslow asked casually. At Grimm's nod the Colonel smiled faintly. "Is the little memento in question what I think it is?"

"Probably," the young Scrapper admitted, a vicious grin slowly forming on his face.

Paul Onslow sighed as he shook his head in disbelief. "I've created a monster. What's the usual Academy mix, anyway?"

"Shaving cream, honey, rice and confetti," Lieutenant Hal "Nutcase" O'Mara replied promptly. "Jeeze, Colonel, didn't you learn anything back when you went through Academy?" the younger man asked incredulously.

The leader of the Scrappers gave the reckless Frostreaver a level gaze, humor forgotten in an instant. "I was too busy learning how to fly and fight against the Kilrathi, kid," he replied evenly. "Fun stuff like ACM and how to help the techies maintain our fighters. You know, our job. " O'Mara bristled at the implication that he didn't know how to do his job but Onslow wasn't finished yet. "Going to Academy isn't just supposed to teach you how to fly and fight a fighter. It's supposed to teach you that there's a lot of stuff you don't know and you need to learn fast if you're going to survive. I've flown fighters for twenty years, from the Landreich to Terra itself, and I've picked up a lot of tricks in that time. But I don't know it all, and I never believed that I did. Learn from each encounter, whether it's real or just a sim," he urged the cadets, hoping to God that they had the brains to take his advice. The colonel looked Benita Rogers straight in the eye as he grimly added, "I hope that answers your question of 'Where did we get so good?,' Lieutenant. Twenty years of combat tends to weed out those too dumb to learn from their mistakes and hone their skills."

"Did you say twenty years of flying in combat?" Ryan Santorelli asked incredulously. Onslow shrugged.

"Well, I turned in my commission at the end of the First Cat War," he admitted. "For the next two years I bummed around in the Landreich a bit, but I wasn't part of any particular armed force. But with all the pirates and Kilrathi raiders romping around I managed to keep myself busy."

"Doing what? Blowing up moon-sized space stations?" Anthony Grimm asked jokingly, only to be met by a look of blank incomprehension. "Never mind," the young man muttered, annoyed that his joke had fallen flat.

Benita Rogers stepped forward, watching the Scrapper's leader with a newfound respect. "So what should we do different next time, Colonel? We all ended up shot down, and I'd like to avoid that in the future," she admitted. The feisty cadet bared her teeth defiantly. "Or at least, take some of the bad guys with me."

"Don't think like that," Onslow snapped. "The pilots who think about taking enemies with them when they die are the first ones to die. We can't afford that, especially against the Nephilim. With the Combined Fleet on hand we should outnumber them by a fair margin, but we're still going to need every pilot we can get our hands on. Individually the Bugs might not be much chop, but they don't come at you one-on-one. That leads into the first lesson you need to learn: never underestimate your enemy." The militia colonel's eyes swept over the just-graduated cadets. "That was your main mistake. You gave us the choice of terrain, you got sloppy and you gave us opportunities to exploit. All because you were convinced that a pair of washed-up militia pilots could never challenge the cream of the crop from the Border Worlds Space Force Academy." His voice was scathing and contemptuous, almost angry. "Well, if you go into a real fight with that attitude your families will all be getting letters explaining how you died bravely. That's one lie we're not ashamed of telling -- we don't say Lieutenant J died because his wingman fucked up or  Pilot L ended up dead because he didn't keep his eyes open. But that doesn't make them any less dead." Onslow paused to let his words sink in. "Your second mistake was a lack of teamwork," he continued. "You didn't support - "

"Wait a minute!" Darren van Klees demanded, pushing through the crowd of pilots to confront the Scrapper's leader and his accusations head-on. "We supported each other! Our wingmen stuck with their wingleaders! At least until we got shot down," the cocky young pilot admitted, trying to ignore the chuckles from his squadronmates behind him. The scarlet tinge to his face made it clear that his efforts weren't entirely successful.

Onslow nodded thoughtfully. "Oh, I have no problem with how you operated on the wingman - wingleader level. Where you fell down was inter-element cooperation," he explained. Looking around his audience he asked, "Who was chasing us down in the canyon?" O'Mara and van Klees slowly raised their hands. "And who was flying high cover while these two were down in the dust?" Apprehensively Benita Rogers and Conrad Berger raised their hands as the militia pilot turned to face them. "Why'd you split up the flight, Benita?" he asked, midnight eyes boring into the girl's hazel ones.

"Sir," she replied, "my idea was to use myself and Lieutenant Berger to draw you and Major DeVille out into plain sight. That way Lieutenants O'Mara and van Klees could hit you from behind when you took a shot at us." The informality of the impromptu debriefing had caught her by surprise. She'd expected it to take place in the briefing room, with every decision and move displayed via the TACTS system on the room's datascreen and subjected to rigorous analysis. Instead the Frostreavers and their opponents were lounging against or standing between several of the sim pods (one of the more athletic cadets had managed to scramble to a perch atop the pod behind Jack DeVille) as they casually discussed the results of the simulated dogfight.

"Not bad," Onslow admitted. So then we popped up out of the canyons, popped off a missile at each of you and ducked back into cover. O'Mara and van Klees followed us down while you were evading the ImRecs we flipped at you," he continued. So, once you'd cleared the missiles what were your options?"

"Either follow you down into the canyons or stay at higher altitude, waiting for Clipper and Nutcase to flush you out," Benita replied immediately. "If we followed you down to the ground then we'd all have been out of position if you'd gone for altitude. One of the advantages the Intruder has over the Jaguar is speed, and the best way to counter an enemy's superior mobility is proper positioning of supporting forces," she quoted, looking at Grimm as she did so.

"Nice to see you remembered something I taught you," the young Scrapper murmured, bringing a smile to Benita's face. Turning to his leader he asked, "So what would the best option have been, sir?"

"Exactly what she did," Paul Onslow confirmed. "Keep O'Mara and van Klees chasing us while she and Berger tracked from higher up. The problem," he stated as he turned back to the Frostreavers, "was that the higher element didn't support the lower element. They just sat back and watched."

"Hey! That's not fair," Benita objected. "On one hand you're saying that we were right to stay up high, but on the other you're saying we should have gone in low and taken shots at you. You can't have it both ways," she objected, posting her hands on her hips as she glared at the scarred colonel.

Paul looked her straight in the eye, unaffected by the tirade. "Support means more than just shooting at the enemy," he said quietly. "Warning someone about a bad guy on their six is support. Conducting a visual check of their plane after they've taken damage is support." Most of the cadets looked at him blankly, causing him to sigh in exasperation. Looks like I'll have to lead them by the hand, he thought resignedly. "All right. The Jaguars you fly were designed to fly in atmosphere as well as space, right?" Nods from all around the room. "They have look-down-shoot-down capability built into their sensor suites, right?" There were more nods but still no comprehension. "Now there were two of you on high guard. It only takes one of you to keep watch for incoming bogies, right? So why wasn't the other one keeping an eye on your buddies and warning them about hazards such as dangerous terrain? If Lieutenant van Klees had managed to avoid the Eye of the Needle -- that's those narrows where he lost his wings -- then we would have had a much harder time of it. Now do you begin to understand?"

Finally some of the Frostreavers nodded in understanding. "Just like Vukar Tag," Malcolm Greer breathed. The red-haired youngster turned to look at his colleagues. "Remember when we studied the battles at Vukar Tag as part of the lead-up to the Kilrah Raid? There was a mention in the first battle of Jason Bondarevsky chasing a Sartha through some mountains, using a Ferret on high patrol to track the bogey. That's what Colonel Onslow's talking about," he explained.

"Not just that," the leader of the Scrappers cautioned. "That's just one example. The concept I'm trying to get across to you is that coordination and support shouldn't stop once you get beyond the wingleader-wingman level."

"And that's how you beat us, huh?" Benita asked, raising an eyebrow in enquiry. Because we didn't support each other?"

"That's a part of it," Onslow admitted. "So are the twenty years of combat experience I've accumulated. But the main contributing factor was the fact that I had a good idea of what you were going to do. I was able to control the fight because I could anticipate your actions." His dark eyes were intense as he regarded the cadets. "Any pilot who flies according to the book can be read like a book. Remember that. You've got a brain, so use it. Never be afraid to do the unexpected, especially if you're on the losing end of a fight."

"Anyone ever heard the story of the best swordsman in the world?" Jack DeVille asked suddenly, surprising most of the audience with his unexpected interruption. "The question is simple: who does the best swordsman in the world fear the most?"

"That's obvious," Ryan Santorelli snorted. "The second-best swordsman, because he's closest in skill and is the nearest to the title. He's hungry, he's aggressive and that makes him dangerous." Several of the other cadets made various noises of agreement.

Jack smiled and shook his head. "Wrong. The person the world's best swordsman is most afraid of is the world's worst swordsman. Because he has no idea what the bloody hell the other guy can do or is going to do. That's a very big handicap in a fight."

"So you're saying we should act like reckless loons whenever we go into a fight?" Hal O'Mara asked sarcastically.

"If you're not doing that already, then you're not really Border Worlders," the blond major replied drolly. "Look, we're not saying act recklessly. We're saying don't be predictable. Think on your feet and learn to adapt." He tilted his head towards his commander. "Hell, the closest this guy got to being shot down in the sim was when Benita dumbfired an ImRec at the ground in his path. That's not something you learn out of the playbook on Landreich."

"And that finishes the answer to your first question, Lieutenant Rogers," Paul Onslow concluded. "How did we beat you? Better coordination, anticipating your reactions and staying unpredictable. And that's how were going to have to beat the Nephilim."