PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 8 of 66 )

: Toeing the Line

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity,
and I'm not sure about the former."
- Albert Einstein

"It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool
than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."
- Voltaire

TCS Miles D'Arby; Flight Wing Briefing Room
Shareholders (Hairy Shoulders) Meeting
0830 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

Right, new orders from on high that countermand previous ones prohibiting mock dogfighting -- you are to take any and all opportunities to practice dissimilar ACM with our new allies -- we want you to bounce them, intercept them, wax their tails and rub their noses in it. It's a matter of honor -- so you need to go out and humiliate them. Just this time," Wing Commander Michael Black spoke glaring across at Mongrel, "remember not to actually shoot at them."

"You'll see that the day's flight schedule has been completely redone overnight due to our new allies, and in addition to standing CAPs we'll be sending out in-system patrols to sweep the entire system over the next 24 hours. Any questions?"

"Oh, one more thing; I need some volunteers to go across to the Border Worlds vessels and help them convert onto type quickly."

"You can't be serious -- they're barbarians - can you believe some of them even smoke!" Michelle "Maneater" Ross grimaced in disgust.

"Those barbarians, like it or not, are our new allies. We're going to become a joint force, so you're going to have to get used to working with them. And the Tanfenners..."

"Tanfen? Fer fuck's sake..!" Rat shook his head.

"Get it through your thick skulls - at this point in time there are no such things as Border Worlders, Confed or Tanfen, only humans and bugs, all right? All right?"


"Right. Robber, you and Viking are qualified AWIs [Air Warfare Instructor] aren't you?"


"Good. Jimbo, you're our only Bearcat AWI, so pick someone else to go with you."

"I'll do it, sir," said an unexpected voice.

Colonel Black looked at Rat, incredulous, "You... are volunteering?"

"Yessir. As you say, we've got to pull together. I may as well start, er, pulling."

"Ah... okay," Black frowned, blinked, and carried on. "Excaliburs are a problem, seeing as some of you are already introduced - screw it: Maneater, Mongrel - you're going."

"If you think it's wise, sir."

"Blade, you're an AWI, too, aren't you?"

"Not on the Thunderbolt. I was on the Arrow."

"Tough - you just volunteered. We need another Bearcat driver - Greaser?"

"I'll do it, sir."

"And another Excalibur pilot..."

"I'll be happy to pass on my vast knowledge to others, sir!" Duncan "Hog" Hodgson chimed in cheerfully if somewhat sarcastically.

"Good. Can you be ready to fly over in a couple of hours?" Nods and grunts of acceptance, and one raised hand -- Rat.

"What is it?"

"Why don't we just send them over some sims tapes and stuff and let them get on with it?"

"We have, and they are, but they're trying to convert full squadrons onto type, including weapons and CARQUALS in only a week. Typical length of time to convert onto a new type is four months. You've been flying these birds for a while operationally and you know all the tricks, troubles and what they're like without their makeup in the morning. You can help them, and they can help us. Okay?"

"Fair enough, sir. What help exactly are they giving us?"

"Airframes, spares and weapons -- they've got some extra, and we get them in return. And remember -- you are diplomats -- we've already fucked up once, don't piss them off any more."

"Aye, sir!" As Rat finished his perfect salute and his about face, Colonel Black continued staring at Rat's receding back.


Shuttlecraft, en route to Avernus Station
1047 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

They sat in brooding silence. Restless, stretching and fidgeting, unused to long journeys where they themselves were no the pilot. Rat had tried a few jokes initially but failing to get the expected response he too sat sullenly, staring at the people around him. His companions. His brothers in arms. He had not chosen them, they had not chosen him, or each other. Yet soon they would have to form a bond closer than brotherhood if they wished to survive the coming conflict. They could not afford any infighting or rivalry amongst their own ranks, or with their newfound allies.

Rat looked across at Viking. Viking glared back. Rat opened his mouth to make a sarcastic remark, thought better of it and glanced instead at Robber. The man was lost in his own thoughts, completely oblivious to his own surroundings. Probably thinking of his wife, Rat realized.

"How long 'till we dock?" Rat asked the pilot.

"How the hell should I know?" Viking growled back.

"I wasn't bloody asking you!"

"About ten minutes," the pilot quickly cut in, "I'll be asking for clearance in a few moments."

Good, thought Rat, the sooner we get rid of Viking the sodding better. After they landed at the station they were off to the BWS Sicily. Of course, then he'd have nuggets and Border Worlders to put up with. He grinned; maybe they'd appreciate his earthy sense of humor more.


Avernus Station; Cafeteria
1241 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

"What's this?" Viking asked, holding up something skewered on his fork for inspection.

"Think it's meatloaf," Blade told him, tentatively trying some himself.

"Been a friendly enough reception so far," Robber said. Grunts from Blade and Viking were his only response. He prodded what he presumed to be some sort of vegetable around his plate. Hardly thirty words had passed between them since the morning briefing. Come to think of it, last night at the bar had been fairly subdued, too. Morale was low, but at least the embarrassing incident with the Border Worlders had served to direct their anger outward, if not toward the enemy, at least away from each other. He shook his head slightly. He took another forkful, chewed and swallowed without noticing the flavor or lack thereof. Last night he'd left the others drinking themselves into a morbid stupor and returned to his quarters. He'd tried to write a vid-letter to his wife but couldn't think what to say. On top of that their outgoing mail was being censored. He didn't want some spotty little ensign in the comms room looking at his personal mail to his wife. But he had to send something. It could be the last letter he ever sent home. All the more reason to get it right.

"Shit!" Blade's sudden profane exclamation brought him back to reality with a jolt. "I'm supposed to be taking the first set of sprogs up at one o'clock!" He took a last mouthful of his meal and swilled it down with a large gulp of coffee, some of which ended on his flight suit.

"I'm going to have to get ready. See you guys later." Blade strode briskly from the room.

"Yeah, see you later, mate," said Robber without looking up.


Avernus Station; Launch Bay
1424 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

When Blade had returned from taking up his set of three pupils, he had simply shaken his head and headed straight for the bar, so it was with some trepidation that Robber strode (more of a rolling wallow with all his flying kit weighing him down) along the flightline, taking a look at the Thunderbolts lined up ready for flight. There didn't seem to be anything outstanding about any of them, so he picked one at random.

One of the things the layperson often doesn't realize about military spacecraft is that they are not all identical. Much like high-performance racing cars, even two built to identical specifications and tight production tolerances will have slightly different performance. The figures quoted in "Janes' All the Galaxy's Military Spacecraft" (speed, weight, thrust, etc.) are arbitrary figures averaged from test flights on the spacecraft. Actual values on service spacecraft may vary by several percent, due to age, damage, modifications, wear and tear and production tolerances. This, though, is not the whole story. Different individual spacecraft have different -- for want of a better word -- personalities. Some spacecraft -- no matter how much work was done to them -- had reoccurring problems (even when the parts responsible were replaced) or went unserviceable more often than others. Some were more reliable, had better handling or had a little more power. Some of it could be put down to the crew chief or pilot.

Pilots in a squadron usually had spacecraft that were nominally "theirs" (although everyone knew that pilots only borrowed spacecraft -- the crew chief "owned" it). Obviously, Wing Commanders, Squadron COs and XOs got the pick of the bunch and almost invariably picked the best spacecraft as their personal mounts. Really this was a bit self defeating as not only did these spacecraft fly less (reducing the squadron's combat effectiveness in a small but measurable way) but when flying in formation the leaders have to fly within the performance envelope of the poorest spacecraft in the flight. The flight leader finds the top speed of the slowest spacecraft, looks at his own engine % output and then gives the slower craft another 2-3% to "play with" to allow him to keep station. In this way, the lead spacecraft may only be flying to 95% or less of it's performance. On top of this, when new or replacement pilots have poor spacecraft dumped on them it further lessens their chances of surviving their first few combat missions.

In a small squadron, especially in wartime, pilots flew other people's spacecraft as often as their "own" spacecraft and got to know the various traits, foibles and idiosyncrasies of each. Robber had nothing to go on when choosing the spacecraft he would be flying for the next couple of days and had to rely on pot luck, but he wasn't going to leave too much to chance. Robber wasn't usually one for meticulous preflight checks but under the circumstances, he had to be. The spacecraft he was about to fly had just come out of "mothballs." There were no "yellow sheets" to give him an idea of previous gripes to look out for. Yellow sheets were not yellow paper -- in fact they hadn't even been paper for a very long time, records now being kept on computer, but tradition in aviation is a big thing and they were still called yellow sheets.

On top of this Robber had no trust built up with the Border Worlder fitters and crew chiefs that had prepared these spacecraft and had (allegedly) made them spaceworthy. This being so, in addition to his usual checks (weapon arming pins removed [made virtually unmissable by the bright red dayglo streamers attached for this purpose] loose panels and any obvious fluid leaks) he went over everything.

Walking anticlockwise around the spacecraft he checked every inch of the Thunderbolt. Electric and hydraulic lines; hydraulic and coolant liquid reservoirs and pressures. Airframe cracks; undercarriage legs; tyres; brakes. Lights; emergency gas pressure bottles; control jets; exhaust pipes. Finally external circuit breakers (the ones in the cockpit would be checked when he strapped in). He climbed the ladder to the cockpit and before clambering into the vast cavity he checked the top of the spacecraft for loose panels, fittings or other obvious problems. Satisfied, he climbed into the ejector seat. In the cockpit, he double checked the seat installation before he started to strap in.

Unlike the ejector modules in many of the newer fighters (allowing a "shirt sleeves" cockpit environment) the Thud still used an open seat ejection system, necessitating the wearing of a pressure suit. On top of this he had to wear leg restraints. In the event of an ejection these would automatically yank his feet off the rudder pedals and pull his legs back into the seat to prevent him amputating his legs at the knees on the instrument panel.

As well as being attached to the seat by leg restraints, shoulder and torso harness fastenings, his pressure suit was attached to the seat's built-in life support system. This would only be used in the event of an ejection, saving the 8 hours of life support available for if he should really need it. Until then he was also plugged into the spacecraft's own life support. He had to plug his g-suit into a socket as well.

The g-suit was fed by pressurized gas to inflate the bladders in the suit at a specific "g" loading (adjustable, but usually set to about 3.5 g.) Even with inertial dampers and the lousy handling of the Thunderbolt it was essential, raising not only the 'g' limit the pilot could withstand but also increasing his endurance under "g."

It worked by pressing on the thighs and abdomen (some worked on the whole body, raising "g" tolerance even further) with a vice-like grip, and along with the pilot straining against it helped stop all the blood rushing from the brain and torso and pooling in the feet during high "g" maneuvering and slowed the onset of g-loc (gravity induced loss of consciousness). G-loc was heralded by "greying out" the gradual reduction of the pilot's vision into a grey tunnel getting darker and narrower until all he can see is black. Even though his eyesight has gone loss of consciousness does not come for another few moments, causing the pilot (if he has not already done so) to release the stick and the "g." Blood returns to the brain, whereupon - if the enemy has not already shot him down - the pilot regains consciousness. Though inertial dampers had made this almost a thing of the past it still helped the pilot during the strain of high speed fighter combat.

In addition, he had to plug his helmet connections in, particularly the communications connections (some newer spacecraft had HMD connections - Helmet Mounted Displays that showed the essential HUD and targeting information wherever the pilot looked, projected onto his visor. The steam-age technology of the Thunderbolt didn't have such "jee-whizz" gadgets, though. And of course, there were the safing pins for the ejection seat, all five of them. Removing them from the seat, he held them up to the crew chief and then zipped them into his breast pocket. The crew chief nodded and gave him the thumbs up, telling Robber that the cockpit rail was clear of obstructions and that he could close the canopy. With a whirr it closed and locked with a hiss. He got green lights for the seal and pressure. So far so good.

Robber raised his right hand and twirled the index finger, the signal for the start-cart to provide the external power needed to fire up the small fusion reactor on board the big fighter. As well as providing enough power to create sufficiently high temperatures to ignite nuclear fusion, it provided power to the spacecraft so that he could start bringing the main systems to life while the reactor started. The cockpit came to life around him. He quickly set the navicomp to download the mission data and navpoints from the station's datafeed and before starting the reactor had a last glance to make sure the switches were all in the correct positions. Robber pressed the started button and got an instant response - the reactor temperature started to rise rapidly and then leveled off in the green. Satisfied, he switched from external to internal power and gave the disconnect signal.

Robber checked that the Navicomp datafeed was successful and got on with his checklist. He'd already checked the primary and secondary hydraulic systems during start-up, but now he checked the utility hydraulic system. Either of the two main hydraulic systems would run the spacecraft's main systems on its own but the utility system ran all the peripheral systems not essential to flight. It too seemed fine.

Robber wound the electrically driven seat up so that he could see out of the huge cockpit and readjusted the pedals to the new height of his feet. Then he programmed the frequencies of the ten preset buttons into the communications system and switched the IFF system on. The targeting monitor came on with this passive sensor input, the nearby Border Worlder capital ships showing up as light blue blips. He switched the radar/ladar sensor package to stand-by to allow it to go through its primary BIT (built in tests). In a few seconds the sensors assured him that they were okay. He couldn't test them properly until he got out into space, (the emissions were too much of a health hazard) but at least that was a good sign. He moved the control stick and rudders to their full deflections and got a thumbs up that his control surfaces and jets were working. He switched on the spacecraft's running lights, making sure the bright anti-collision flasher was off. He looked to his left along the line of parked spacecraft. Two of the other three spacecraft already had their lights on, telling him they were ready for flight. A few seconds later the lights came on on the last spacecraft. They'd already done all that in the sims a few times and read the pilots notes. The three D'Arby Pilots had gone through everything in the briefing and the crew chiefs had no doubt talked them through it whilst helping them strap in. Looks like it had worked.

"Thunderbolt, radio check."

"Two's up."

"Three's up."

"Four's up."

Robber took one final look around the cockpit and keyed his mic, "Thunderbolt, button two."




"Flight Control, Thunderbolt ready for take off."

"Thunderbolt, Flyco. Clear to launch." Quickly colored taxi lights and yellow coated plane handlers had them in position in the launch bay. They'd take off singly today, rather than pairs or a full formation. It wasn't worth the risk. It wouldn't take any longer to form up afterwards so all it would serve to do would be showing off. Robber was waved forward a few feet and given the clenched fist 'brakes on' signal. The JBD [Jet Blast Deflector] was raised behind him. Almost standing on the brakes he then pushed the throttle to full military power. The heavy spacecraft strained back, shaking. The vibration was enough to blur Robber's vision. the Catapult officer's glow-wand flashed down onto the deck and Robber pulled his feet off the toe brakes. The big fighter responded immediately, leaping forward like a wild beast released from a cage. A couple of minor corrections to keep her straight as it shot down the flight deck like its namesake and he was out into space. Like a seal or a penguin, clumsy and unwieldy on land or the flight deck, it was a different beast in its own element with total freedom of movement. Suddenly he remembered to check the instruments. Everything was in the green. He flicked the radar/ladar to "on." It was working as well. It was almost too good to be true - everything was working on an spacecraft that was as old as he was and yesterday had been in a crate and covered in Spraylat!

Throttling back, he started a gentle right-hand turn and waited for the others to form up. Two out of three judged their approach perfectly, flying a lead pursuit course until the correct moment to tuck into formation. The last 'Bolt ended up a long way in trail, but managed to catch up quickly. Because they were cruising quite slowly he didn't have to tap burner to do it, but Robber was slightly annoyed. The Thud was big and slow and if a pilot misjudged a simple formation intercept, how was he supposed to dock with a tanker? Or intercept bogeys? If he got sucked into trail against a bug he'd have no chance of catching it.

Still, he shouldn't expect too much from their first flight in a real Thunderbolt even if they had spent all morning on the sims. It was as much a familiarization hop as anything, and for himself as much as his pupils. They'd take a good look around the system, and maybe see if they could bounce someone or something on the way back. They didn't actually have anything lined up for a training attack, but exercises take some of the fun out of things - everyone knows there's going to be an attack. By rights, everyone should be on alert anyway. A plan of revenge started to form in Robber's mind. He smiled.


Vicinity of BWS Sicily
1441 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

"Rat, this is Robber on Guard. Come up on stud six."

"Rat. Go ahead."

"Got a four ship of Jugs itching for some action. Fancy providing some

"What's the target?"

"How about Avernus Station?"

"Robber, mate -- that's the place you're flying from!"

"I know that! They'll never expect it. We'll rendezvous a little way off, turn back toward them and see what happens. There's a bunch of Banshees arseing about outside right now. That Onslow guy's teaching'em how to fly."

"And you want us to help you go through them? Did he give you some grief about yesterday or something?"

"Yeah, something like that."

"Okay, I'm up for it, but remember my flight are all Border Worlders themselves."

"So are mine."

"Yes, but yours are all criminals and misfits that will likely want to do that sort of thing."

"Christ, Rat! Are you ill? This is right up your street!"

"Okay, I'm in. Give me the coordinates."


TCS Miles D'Arby; Ops Room
About the same time

"So what's the situation, Michael?"

"Look, Jeff -- we've got a flight wing that hates each other and the Border Worlders as well. The Border Worlders hate us and the Tanfenners. Half of them are in spacecraft they're unfamiliar with, and as for the militia -- well, those that survive the first two or three encounters will make half-decent pilots. As for the rest..." The Wing Commander shook his head.

"So what are you trying to tell me? In layman's terms."

"In layman's terms? We're screwed."

"Oh..." Commodore Jeff Turnbull rubbed his frowning brow viciously.

"We need a miracle if more than a quarter of us are ever going home."

"It's as bad as that?"


"Jesus H. Bomb!"