PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 1 of 44 )

: Scraps of Honour
PART 1 OF 15 : CLOUDS ON THE HORIZON
[ AN INTERLUDE ]

 

Wild Hart Bar, Haratos City,
Lennox III, Lennox System,
Union of Border Worlds,
2119 Hours, Feb 5 2681 (2681.036)

Red and yellow lights and a miasma of sickly sweet smoke made the inside of the bar resemble a scene from Dante's Inferno. The live band's music blended with the patrons' voices to create enough background noise to mask individual conversations. A scarred pirate with a glowing cybereye and truly ferocious facial tattoos danced with a shapely young woman in iridescent body paint. She had technicolor hair to her waist and the vacant gaze of a dorphchipper. A reptilian Varni haggled with a Kilrathi in urgent tones, pointing to data on a PDA as it spoke, while a pair of humans with varying degrees of cybernetic enhancement stood guard.

Just a normal night at the Wild Hart.

Alex "Storm" Morgan walked up to the bar, his casual stride masking his alertness as his gray eyes scanned for any potential attackers. "True Blue for me, Ronnie," he called to the bartender and glanced at his companions. "So what do you think?"

Vincent "Harbinger" Tsu grimaced as he looked around. His left hand lingered near the holster where his pistol had rested until he had turned it over to the bouncer, and his eyes were narrowed to slits as he watched for danger. "Pretty bad, Alex. This place probably breaks half the health regs in the book, I can see two known drug pushers even through the smoke, half the patrons are pirates, privateers or smugglers and I'd bet a year's pay that more people are here to deal than to drink."

"So what you're saying," Todd "Cateran" McLaughlin broke in, "is that this place is the kind of stink-hole that the worst scum in the sector would hang out in."

"Exactly," Tsu agreed.

"I thought places like that were known as police stations," Alex shot back. Tsu glared at him, but Alex merely grinned and shoved his brown hair out of his eyes.

"You know, if I was back in Confed InSys briefing my squad for a raid on this place, I'd start by designating target zones for the airstrikes," Tsu commented as he continued watching the bar patrons.

"Well, if you did call in an airstrike, Vince, think of the fireball this place would make when the stocks behind the bar went up," Jack "Diamond" DeVille remarked as he studied the bottles on view. He noticed the bartender returning with Alex's tankard of blue-tinted beer and ordered a shot of tequila, a Hell's Kitchen, and a Sniper Rifle. McLaughlin looked at him curiously.

"That looks like you're setting up for one hell of a bender, boss," he commented. Jack laughed.

"This isn't a bender, this would just be a warm-up. Aw hell, here you go." He passed one of the glasses to McLaughlin and another to Tsu, keeping the tequila for himself. "C'mon, let's go grab a table."

"You know, Alex, I kind of like this place," McLaughlin commented. "It's got character."

"Meaning you can find someone to get into a punch-up within ten seconds."

"That too, Vincent, that too," the big red-haired Cabrean unabashedly replied.

"Put their drinks on my tab, Ronnie," Alex told the bartender. "Hey, I'm a regular here," he told his friends as they all proceeded to a table near one of the walls. Jack raised his glass in a toast.

"To Lieutenant Todd McLaughlin, the Scrappers' newest Intruder-qualified kick-ass hell-raising hotshot!" Jack announced. "Here's wishing you lots of deserving kills, lots of dead pirates and lots of live and willing women!"

"Hear, hear!" Alex and Tsu chorused, raising their own glasses. McLaughlin grinned as proudly as a new father.

"And now," Jack continued "we continue onwards towards our three goals for tonight. Let's get drunk, let's get bruised and let's get laid!"

 

Same Place, About Two Hours Later...
2353 Hours

Jack was heading back from the bar with a tray of drinks when an impact to his shoulder sent him tumbling to the floor. A tall clean-shaven man in a longcoat swore and fell on top of him.

"Watch where you're going, idiot!" the tall man snarled.

Jack's blue eyes glittered in anger. "Go to hell, asshole. You're the one who crashed into me!" he shot back.

Alex was back at the group's table when he noticed Jack and the tall man getting up from the floor with identical expressions of anger. "Uh, guys, looks like Jack's about to start tonight's entertainment," he commented to the other two, who glanced over to the pair near the bar. Tsu sighed.

"Here we go again."

"Would you have it any other way?" McLaughlin asked amusedly.

"For one night, maybe."

"Damn!" the tall man cursed as he glared down at Jack. As Jack stood an inch over six feet tall, this was no mean feat. "That's fifty credits you owe me for the drinks, and thirty for the damage to my coat."

The pilot's eyebrows rose. "Eighty credits? Hell, I could hire your mother for the whole night for that amount." Even Alex winced at that one.

The anger on the tall man's face intensified to pure hatred. "She wouldn't do it with someone like you, scum. She doesn't commit bestiality."

"Then you take a great deal of explaining," Jack commented mockingly.

Jack's friends were already out of their seats even as the tall man's fist slammed into his stomach, but he rolled with the blow and swung a punch into the tall man's jaw. He followed up with a left into his target's ribs even as the tall man's eight companions leapt into the fray.

Alex crash-tackled a short wiry man in a flight jacket, knocking him back into one of his fellows even as McLaughlin squared off against a guy who looked big enough to bench press the Intruder fighter he'd just qualified in. A gaunt man with a crewcut wound up for a swing at McLaughlin but crashed to the floor as Vincent Tsu slid along the floor in a slide any baseball coach would have loved and swept his legs out from underneath him. Tsu rolled to his feet and fired off a snap-kick into the gaunt man's face, stopping him from getting to his feet any time soon. The bar shook as McLaughlin was hurled into it with incredible force by his opponent.

"Todd, move!"

McLaughlin cursed and rolled to one side as Jack slammed the tall man into the bar chest-first, then grabbed him by the hair and smashed his face into the countertop. The tall man must have been a lot tougher than his thin build suggested, because he swung a back kick into Jack's stomach despite the beating. Jack grunted and let his grip slip a little. The tall man twisted loose enough to elbow him in the jaw, knocking him to the floor. The tall man pulled back his boot to kick Jack in the head, but found his plans put on hold when McLaughlin let out a bloodcurdling yell and bodily hurled him away.

McLaughlin headed after the tall man, intent on more mayhem, but glimpsed another attacker from the corner of his eye. He whirled to face the thug but found him more intent on Jack, too busy groaning and holding his head to put up any kind of fight, than on McLaughlin.

Then he saw the knife.

"Jack!" he screamed even as he grabbed the knife-wielder's wrist and spun him by the knife arm. The knifeman was slammed into the already-abused bar and collapsed to the floor just in time for the durasteel-capped toe of Alex Morgan's boot to try to propel most of his teeth out the front door. This wasn't a brawl for fun anymore. It was a deliberate attempt at murder.

So much for a relaxing night out on the town.

 

Bishop's Crossing Air Defense Base,
Lennox III,
0038 Hours Feb 6, 2681 (2681.037)

The sentries on duty at the base's entrance let Alex and his friends pass with barely a glance -- these four were prone to returning to base at one or two o'clock in the morning. Alex took another look at the knife wound on Jack's ribs and hissed.

"Better get that checked out at sickbay," he advised as he stumbled towards his quarters. The combined effect of the hits he'd taken in the fight made him unsteady, and the drinks certainly didn't help.

"Attention!"

All four pilots snapped to attention immediately, Tsu doing the best job of it due to his Confed training but even he looked pretty wobbly. Dammit, Jack thought to himself, why the hell did the CO have to bust us tonight of all nights? Better smooth it over quickly. "Paul, we were - "

"That's enough, Major!" Lieutenant Colonel Paul "Onslaught" Onslow glared at his executive officer. Onslow was barely five foot eight inches tall which put the top of his head just above Jack's shoulder but he radiated authority like a quasar gave off radio waves. It wasn't the scars on his leathery face or the Order of Nova he never wore. It was purely internal.

"I don't want to know what you've done, I don't want to know where you've been and I sure as hell don't want to know how far off your faces you are. We've got a briefing and training session set up for 0700 this morning and anyone who can't fly a sim pod then had better hope God's forgiving because I won't be! Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Jack replied meekly. His commanding officer was a born-and-bred Border Worlder with the stereotypical Border Worlds distaste for military regulations and formality, not a regs-loving Confed hardass. Something was getting to him big time, and Jack had no idea of what the hell it was.

"What's the big deal, sir?" Tsu asked. Onslow glared at him for a few seconds then slumped as if he had almost lost the strength to stand.

"We've got orders from Looking Glass ordering us to prep for a carrier deployment," he muttered. Looking Glass was the codename for Zulu Station, the central headquarters for the entire Border Worlds military. "The orders mentioned extreme urgency."

"That's crazy! The squadron's been planetbound since it was formed," McLaughlin exploded. "Does anyone in high command have a brain that actually works?"

"It's a case of grabbing any squadron that can fly right now and worrying if it's combat-ready later. If command could swing it, they'd be calling up the squadrons at Kikusui as well. That's how desperate they are," Onslow explained morosely.

"You're kidding. They're thinking of drafting Tanfen's defense squadrons?" Tsu asked disbelievingly. An evil grin spread across his face and he laughed. "We'd be able to hear their board of directors screaming from here without needing a transcomm."

"Yeah but if the squadrons at Kikusui go along with us in the same convoy, we'll really be in trouble from friendly fire," Alex pointed out. "Or at least you will," he told Jack.

"What are you talking about?" Jack asked defensively. "You got in some pretty good hits on those pilots at the Hart, buddy."

A look of surprise crossed Alex's face. "You mean those guys were Tanfen pilots?"

"Yeah." Jack's handsome face bore a look of confusion. "Wait a minute. If you didn't know they were Tanfen pilots, then why were you so worried about Tanfen?"

"Two words," Alex shot back. "Matsui twins. That's probably why those pilots picked a fight with us at the Wild Hart tonight in the first place. Hell, every Tanfener in the system's probably been alerted to give you a hard time if they can get away with it without smearing Tanfen's good name."

"I know I'm going to regret this, but what the hell are you talking about?" Onslow asked Alex. "What does Tanfen's director of operations in this system want with Jack?"

"Probably his head on a stick. Let's just say that old man Matsui's got two granddaughters in Lennox who are very smart, damn sexy and barely legal. Do I need to draw you a diagram, sir?"

"No." Onslow sighed. DeVille's hormones had gotten himself and the squadron into trouble more times than any of them wanted to remember. "I can see where this is going. Jack, which one did you get into bed?"

Jack merely stood with his hands clasped behind his back, whistling innocently and glancing around the base. Onslow's eyebrows rose slightly.

"All right, which one did you get into bed first?"

Jack continued to whistle and glance around, doing his best to avoid eye contact with his commanding officer.

"You didn't..."

"He did," McLaughlin confirmed with a cheeky smirk.

"You hormone-crazed fool," Tsu hissed in an angry tone.

"You suicidal lecher," Onslow muttered in a resigned tone.

"You greedy bastard," Alex said in an aggrieved tone which cracked everyone up, except Lt. Colonel Onslow.

"All right everyone, hit the sack. I wasn't kidding about the sim sessions this morning."

"Paul, what's the goddamned problem? This sounds almost as big as the Black Lance crisis almost ten years ago," Jack asked.

Onslow looked straight into his eyes, "Worse, Jack. I'd say that this is the Border Worlds' worst nightmare," he said hoarsely. "I'll see you at the briefing." With that he turned towards his quarters and walked away, leaving all four pilots confused and worried.

"This does not sound good, lads," Todd McLaughlin said in what was probably the biggest understatement of his life. Jack nodded.

"Onslaught fought in the Black Lance crisis eight years ago and in the hunt-down that followed it. He's fought the Kilrathi so many times he's bored doing it and we fought together in Operation Uruk-hai. But this is the first time I've ever seen him convinced we're not gonna make it out alive."

"It's gotta be the Black Lance," Alex muttered. "He said it was the Border Worlds' worst nightmare and if the Lance don't qualify I want a fucking good answer for who does."

"You're jumping to conclusions, lad," McLaughlin warned. "Wait until the briefing. We'll get the answers then."

"Yeah, sure. Well, I'll see you guys, then." Alex turned and trudged to his quarters, deep in thought. He slipped into his quarters quietly so as to not disturb the room's other occupant and lay down on his bunk. The fatigue from the fight and the alcohol should have put him to sleep in seconds, but bitter memories and fearful dreams kept him restlessly turning all night.

 

Briefing Room,
Bishop's Crossing Air Defense Base,
0643 Hours, Feb 6 2681 (2681.037)

"All right people, settle down," Onslaught ordered. He studied the pilots of his squadron carefully, mentally cataloguing their strengths and weaknesses while wondering how many would come back from this campaign alive.

"I'm sure the rumor mill has been hitting overdrive since I advised last night about the squadron being called up. That's why I set the briefing for as soon as I thought everyone would be coherent - or as close to it as you usually get."

There were a few nervous chuckles from various squadron members. None of the Scrappers had showed up early to a briefing in the past but Onslaught had been so close-mouthed and somber about it that curiosity compelled them to arrive as soon as possible. The presence of various forms of caffeine and sober-ups emphasized just how early they'd awoken -- and how eager they were for answers. Even Jack DeVille looked unkempt and tired, blond hair in disarray.

"As I told some of you last night, this current situation could be the most dangerous military threat the Union of Border Worlds has ever faced, even including the Black Lance Incident and the resulting confrontation with Confed."

"Sir!"

"Yes, Stardust?"

Captain Kristy "Stardust" Joyce locked her green eyes on her CO's dark ones. "Are the Black Lance involved in this situation?"

Onslaught let out a deep breath. At least someone brought it up quickly. "No, they aren't. In fact neither humans nor Kilrathi are the source of this threat -- they're just the victims in the way." He paused for a moment to let the information sink in.

"Unless it's just the Mantu in disguise, we're facing a completely new, totally hostile race. Confed has codenamed them the 'Nephilim,' and they are not nice people. We think their arrival is the event that set off the Kilrathi on their latest religious frenzy with the Prophecy of Sivar. It's some sort of end of the world prophecy like the Book of Revelations."

"That prophecy is about ten years behind schedule," Major Sandra "Riot" Lynch commented as she stretched luxuriously. "Haven't they ever heard of a guy named Blair?"

Onslaught looked her straight in the eye. "According to the Cult of Sivar, the destruction of Kilrah was just the curtain-raiser. This is the main event."

Tension ran through the briefing room like an icy breeze.

"The Nephilim fleet in question first showed up in human space in Tartarus, where they destroyed the Tartarus Heavy Industries facilities, as well as the Confed battle group centered on the carrier Saratoga. The Confeds were wiped out but their admiral sent a flight of cloak-capable Excaliburs to the Port Hedland System. There they downloaded their flight logs to TCIS Intell, who's given us a picture of what forces the enemy has fielded."

"So how badly are we outnumbered this time, boss?" Luke Evans, a gunner in one of the squadron's Vindicator fighter-bombers, asked.

"The short answer is 'extremely.' We've got Battle Group Valkyrie in the Tyr System, consisting of the carriers Valeria and Freedom plus their escorts. They're being supported by the carrier Littenia and her own escorts. Confed Third Fleet also throwing in a lot of support with three Concordia-class fleet carriers and an Endeavor-class light carrier plus their supporting capships, as well as a few cruiser and destroyer squadrons, all under Border Worlds command. The whole group comes to about seven hundred and fifty fighters plus the capships."

"So with a fleet like that what the hell do they need us for?" Captain John "Bloodhawk" Hawke asked. "They should be able to handle anything short of the Kilrathi fleet from the Battle of Terra."

Onslaught smiled bitterly. "Wait until you see what the Nephilim have, mister. The Excaliburs spotted two dreadnoughts about the same size as Prince Thrakhath's little toy, six carriers each about the size of the Midway-class megacarriers, a dozen heavy cruisers and six dozen destroyers and corvettes. And those are just the ships we got a read on. There were more ships jumping into Tartarus even as the last Excalibur jumped out. Based on current data forwarded from Confed," he took a deep breath, "we estimate the Nephilim have about three thousand fighters. Again, that's the conservative estimate."

"Goddamn," Stardust whispered, running her fingers through her strawberry-blond hair nervously. "Well, we're screwed now. Anyone got any ideas?"

"Admiral Hanton does. She's in charge of the Combined Fleet in Tyr, and she's got them doing hit-and-run missions while the system is evacuated. Then they'll fall back to Nephele and Loki while still thinning the Nephilim fleet out. Finally they'll retreat to the Nifelheim system, where we'll be waiting along with any other reinforcements that can be scraped together. That's when we bring the hammer down on them."

"Hanton? You mean the Admiral Hanton from the 'Bush campaign?" Alex asked.

"Yeah, that's her," Onslaught confirmed.

Well then, maybe we can make it out alive, Alex thought.

"Now the sim sessions are to bring you up to speed on carrier takeoffs and landings. We're due to be picked up by the BWS Sicily, a CVE-class escort carrier, at about 0930 tomorrow. That doesn't leave us much time, but before you hit the pods there's one more thing you should see."

Onslaught fiddled with the controls to the holoscreen. "After the Nephilim wiped out the Saratoga battle group, they jumped into Dakota and took out three destroyers picketing the jump point. Then they proceeded to the main colony of New Warsaw. A couple of TCN journalists recorded this footage."

He hit the play button and video footage of a modest city came up. Then the rain of green energy started. Proceeding in a systematic pattern, the orbital bombardment smashed buildings and people alike with merciless precision. As far as any of the viewers could tell, the undefended city was being flattened simply because the Nephilim didn't like the look of it. And then the camera lurched sickeningly, green light brighter than a star's heart filled the view, and the recording ended.

"As I said," Onslaught said grimly, "these are not nice people."

 

Bishop's Crossing Air Defense Base
The Next Day
0638 Hours, Feb 7 2681 (2681.038)

The scream of engines and the hum of gravitic motors filled the air near the hangars the Scrappers' fighters were stored in. Technicians were running checks on the fighters, double-checking power systems, arming ordnance and performing the dozens of other tasks required to keep fighters at operational status as the fighters were prepped for launch.

"All right," Onslaught told his pilots. "This is just a standard ferry flight to the Sicily. We're carrying combat loadouts but not expecting to run into anything. But I still want you to keep your eyes open. Take the landing nice and slow, and if the flight boss calls a waveoff then you abort your landing and to hell with how stupid you look! Everyone got it?"

There was a chorus of affirmatives and Onslaught nodded. "The nav data is already in your computers. We launch in numerical order, then the techs follow us in shuttles Alpha and Bravo. Okay then, let's go." The pilots turned and headed towards their fighters. Onslaught walked over to the ladder at the side of his Intruder fighter where Andy Foster, the squadron's chief technician, met him.

"How's it going, Andy?" he asked.

"Pretty good, sir. We're loading the last of the torpedoes into shuttle Bravo and should have the rest of the spare parts loaded in five minutes time." the short skinny tech answered as he shoved his greasy baseball cap back on his equally greasy scalp.

"Good. I don't know what the supply situation on this carrier's going to be like, so I want to take as much as we can. If worst comes to worst we can use it for scrounging from other squadrons or privateers. I hope it doesn't come to that but you never can tell."

"Hey now boss, this is the wrong way around." Foster grinned. "Us techies are supposed to be the worriers and you flyboys are supposed to be the don't-give-a-damn-about tomorrow crowd. You better lighten up or I'll make damn sure to get all your flight pay at our next poker game. Get me?"

Onslaught burst out laughing. "It's a deal, chief. Now how's my bird?"

"Everything checks out just fine. Same with most of the others," Foster reported. "Only problem is Dancer's Vindicator. There's a power fluctuation in the starboard tachyon gun, it may go into a cooldown mode and not fire for a few seconds after some heavy use. Her crew chief should have told her but I'll just drum that into her head again."

"Isn't there anything you can do about that?" the squadron commander asked.

Foster scowled. "That was what I did about it. If I'd let it slide it could have overheated and fused the power feeds to the starboard grav array. Not much chance of that happening but I figured better no chance than low chance. I'm gonna need more parts than I've got here to fix it. Hell, I'd rather replace the whole gun assembly but the way Supply works it'd get here about three months after the suns go nova."

"You mean the infamous Packrat has run out of tricks to get hold of a new piece of equipment?" Onslaught asked. He clutched his chest as though shot. "The laws of reality are breaking down!"

"I didn't say that. I was going to get Major DeVille or Lieutenant Morgan to get into a poker game with some of the boys at Kikusui to persuade them to - ahem - loan us one."

"Make it Alex. I heard last night that some people at Tanfen want Jack nailed to the wall, and sending him to their main planetary airbase would be an open invitation."

"What did he do to get Tanfen worked up?" Foster asked.

Onslaught looked at him wearily. "This is Jack we're talking about, Andy. Figure it out."

"Got it." The technician patted the underside of the Intruder. "Anyway it's time for you to fly the friendly skies. See you on the carrier."

"See you then, Andy." Onslaught shook his head as he climbed the ladder into the cockpit. In movies and novels about fighter pilots a lot of attention was focused on the close relationship between wingmen, but there was almost no mention of the closeness between the pilots and the technicians who maintained their war machines. But that made it no less real. Foster had been his chief tech since he'd first flown in the Kilrathi Wars, and he wouldn't fly without Foster maintaining his fighter any more than he'd fly a mission without a G-suit. That insistence had cost him an opportunity to command a squadron on the carrier Littenia and kept him stuck in Lennox, but that meant nothing to Onslaught.

He settled into his seat, tightened his harness across his chest, and began the preflight checklist. In a few minutes the fighter was ready. He keyed his comm.

"Scrapper Lead, two turning and ready for takeoff," he announced.

"Scrapper Two, two turning and ready for takeoff," Diamond shot back. Despite his undisciplined ways off-duty, Jack DeVille was a consummate professional in the cockpit and Onslaught trusted him with his life when the hammer came down.

Of course you do, Onslaught told himself. Otherwise he wouldn't be on your wing.

"Scrapper Three, two turning and ready for takeoff," Harbinger reported. Tsu's conservative flying style and commitment to his subordinates made him an ideal commander for Black Flight. The same conservative command style that served him well as a flight commander would make him a fish out of water as a squadron commander in the freewheeling Border Worlds military, but he was a fast learner. Onslaught estimated he'd have his own squadron in another three years, if he survived.

"Scrapper Four, two turning and ready for takeoff!" Cateran boomed enthusiastically. Onslaught winced at the volume of McLaughlin's voice and looked over at the young Cabrean's fighter, the last of the squadron's Intruders.

"Four, your comm is switched on. There's no need to try to yell through the canopy, you know."

Chuckles sounded over the squadron's comm channel. "Yes, sir," McLaughlin replied in an embarrassed voice.

"Scrapper Five, two turning and ready for takeoff," Captain Kristy "Stardust" Joyce stage-whispered into the comm of her Vindicator fighter-bomber, causing more laughter on the channel.

She could hardly resist a chance like this for a laugh, Onslaught reflected. But while she was a near-compulsive joker, her piloting was rock-steady. Of course in a sluggish Vindicator it could hardly be otherwise. The Scrappers were one of the few squadrons in the Border Worlds Militia to have their Vindicators replaced by the sleeker and more modern Intruders. The trouble was, those Intruders they had received had only come in as individual machines, leading to the Scrappers official designation as the 349th Composite Fighter Squadron. Stardust had promptly and unofficially changed the name to Compromise Fighter Squadron and, like most unofficial names, that one saw more use by the unit's members than the official one.

"Scrapper Six, two turning and ready for takeoff," Storm advised. Alex's piloting skill and aggressive temperament may have been more suited to a more agile Intruder but his recklessness made Onslaught reluctant to risk one of the newer fighters in his hands. It was hard enough getting the newer fighters in the first place.

"Scrapper Seven, two turning and ready for takeoff," Major Sandra "Riot" Lynch reported. Red Flight, the unit she commanded, consisted entirely of Vindicators and as such drew most of the squadron's heavy strike duties. Their planetbound assignment had confined them mainly to ground attack roles, so with duty on this carrier they'd have to relearn their half-forgotten skills in taking down enemy capships very quickly. When it came to results, the hard-faced officer was as unyielding as the basalt mountains of her homeworld of Masa IV. Nothing less than trying your hardest would satisfy her.

"Scrapper Eight, two turning and ready for takeoff," Lieutenant Eric "Zealot" Maslevski intoned.

"Amen," Storm added. The laughter this time sounded kind of forced.

"Stow it, Storm," Onslaught barked. They must be more nervous than I thought, he reflected. Zealot had earned his callsign for his strong religious beliefs due to his upbringing in a Neo-Archchristian colony in the Elohim System. He was a good pilot but his frequent prayers and rigid asceticism made him an easy target for jokes and pranks.

"Scrapper Nine, two turning and ready for takeoff," Captain John "Bloodhawk" Hawke growled.

If Storm and Diamond were fire and Riot was unbending steel, Bloodhawk was liquid nitrogen. His piloting and gunnery were both exceptional due to natural talent and constant practice in the sim pods and none of the Scrappers could recall him drinking anything stronger than coffee or otherwise unwinding in the eighteen months he'd been with the squadron. The one time he'd shown strong emotion in those eighteen months was when Storm had commented that Bloodhawk trained with the obsessive dedication of a member of the Black Lance. It had taken five of the pilots to haul the frenzied captain off Storm, who had had his nose, his cheekbone and three ribs broken in fifteen seconds.

"Scrapper Ten, two turning and ready for takeoff," Lieutenant Danica "Dancer" Owens said in her customary murmur.

Everything about her was quiet including her piloting. She was no reckless hotshot like Storm or Cateran, rather she just focused on getting the job done without fuss. Although the most physically attractive of the female pilots with long platinum-blond hair, sapphire-blue eyes and a shapely figure, she preferred to stay in the background and simply watch others live their lives. The other Scrappers regarded her as a frail waif-like little sister and she was the only woman at Bishop's Crossing who Jack hadn't put the moves on. "I don't molest children," he'd replied when Stardust had amusedly asked him about his seeming lack of interest.

"Okay, Scrappers, takeoff is at twenty second intervals," Onslaught said. "Scrapper Lead taking off."

He pushed the throttle forward to the stops and the fighter hurled itself forward like a racehorse coming out of the starting stalls. He eased the stick back and the Intruder leaped into the sky, turning left into a holding pattern while the rest of the fighters took off and assumed formation. They waited while the shuttles launched, then formed a protective cluster around them. Then all twelve craft went ballistic.

Onslaught looked around at the formation, noting the positions of the various craft. Not exactly ready for formation flying, but they're ready for a fight, he thought, which is just as well. This will be the biggest fight of our lives...

 

Deep Space, Lennox System,
0917 Hours

Four Intruder medium fighters, six Vindicator fighter-bombers and two cargo shuttles cruised towards the tiny armada of capital ships. Christ, Lieutenant Alex "Storm" Morgan thought, if this is the best we can do we'd better hope the main fleet does a really good job of softening up the Nephilim or the entire UBW is screwed. The small armada of two Caernaven-class frigates, one Sheffield-class destroyer, one Tallahassee-class cruiser, eight Drayman-class transports and two Tarawa-type CVE escort carriers would have about as much chance of survival as a grass hut in a tornado in the face of the huge Nephilim fleet which had already devastated the Dakota System.

"Unidentified fighter and shuttle group, identify yourselves," a young voice broadcast over the Scrappers' comm frequency. Storm glanced to the right and saw four Banshee light fighters closing in on the squadron.

"Banshee flight, this is Lieutenant Colonel Paul Onslow leading the 349th Composite Fighter Squadron," the Scrappers' commander replied evenly. "We're here to join this task force and accompany it to wherever. Requesting landing clearance."

"Incoming fighters, this is Sicily Control. Take position and we'll guide you in by the numbers. Welcome aboard," a different voice replied.

"Thanks, Control. I'll send my people in and come in last. I want to see how they do on their first carrier landing."

Storm suppressed a groan. With Onslaught observing, the pucker factor had just gone even further through the roof, as if it hadn't been high enough already.

"Understood, Colonel. We're ready to guide you in, the ALS is on standby and emergency teams are at their stations."

Thank you very much, asshole, Storm thought acidly. I'll be sure to express my gratitude for your concern in the form of a knuckle sandwich. It was bad enough having their first carrier landing graded by the CO, but to have the carrier's flight controllers broadcasting their lack of confidence really got on the Scrappers' collective nerves. Nobody wanted to admit that the most irritating thing about the emergency teams' readiness was the possibility that they might be needed.

"Okay, people, when I call out your callsign you make your landing run," Onslaught said crisply. "Listen to the LSO and if he calls a waveoff, you goddamned better abort! Got it?"

Various affirmative responses filled the comm channel. "All right then. Diamond, you're first up."

"Roger," Jack DeVille acknowledged. "Sicily, this is Scrapper Two commencing landing run, going manual. "

There was a brief pause from the carrier then the controller spoke hesitantly. "Say again, Two?"

DeVille sighed. "Scrapper Two commencing landing run under manual control, over. Repeat, under manual control. I know it's tough and that's why I'm doing it. Any further questions, Control?"

"Uh, no. Call the ball, the LSO will talk you down."

"Thank you, Control." The irony in DeVille's reply could almost be cut with a knife and several chuckles rang out over the comm net. "Scrapper Two has the ball."

Jack's Intruder headed towards the tiny opening to the carrier's hangar bay at a speed that put Storm's heart in his mouth.

"Steady... steady... back on the throttle..." the LSO urged Jack, "... up a bit... less power... good trap, good trap! Next!"

"Okay Harbinger, you're next," Onslaught announced.

Even as Vincent Tsu began his approach towards the Sicily, Alex began running through his own landing checklist. If ever there was a place for Zealot's stories about fitting a camel through the eye of a needle this is it, he thought nervously. Goddammit, I can handle this. He wondered briefly whose breathing was rasping loudly through the headphones of his helmet, and then realized it was his own.

"You can always use the ALS, you know," Luke Evans, his gunner, told Alex quietly.

"I can handle it," Alex shot back curtly. Through his concentration on his checklist he heard the carrier's flight control officer announce Harbinger's successful landing and clearance for Cateran to commence his own approach, and the awareness of time running out stretched his nerves like a victim on the rack.

"Oh really? How many gravestones is that carved on?" Evans asked acidly.

"If you think you can do any better, we can swap seats and you can try it," Alex snapped. A lot of times Luke's teasing was nothing more than a fun way to pass the time. With the tension of the current situation though, Alex was in no mood to mess around.

"Cool it, you two," Kristy "Stardust" Joyce snapped. She was one of the squadron's main jokers, so for her to be snappish at humor was yet another indication of the stress level the pilots were under.

"Yessir," Storm muttered as he double-checked the position of each switch and took a deep breath. Even as he finished, Onslaught was clearing Stardust for her own landing.

"Roger. Sicily, this is Scrapper Five commencing landing run, going manual," Stardust replied.

Nobody wanted to be the first to call for an automated landing, which most pilots viewed as the easy way out. A carrier's Automated Landing System was one of the most vulnerable systems for both the carrier and the landing pilot - it could easily be put out of commission by combat damage and it left a landing fighter on a slow, steady course into the hangar. So at every available opportunity carrier pilots would land solely using their own skill, and the Scrappers were playing by the same rules in order not to be shown up.

Too many times in combat flying, ego triumphs over common sense.

"Roger, Five. Call the ball."

"Scrapper Five has the ball," Stardust replied even as her Vindicator sped towards the Sicily's hangar.

Storm followed her craft with his eyes, then stiffened abruptly -- the Vindicator was heading towards the carrier at the same speed as the previous Intruders. The problem was that the fighter-bomber was a lot less responsive than the agile single-seat fighters. Stardust was a lot closer to the edge than the other pilots had been.

Storm had a very bad feeling about this.

 

Flight Control Center, BWS Sicily
About The Same Time, 0933 Hours

"When was the last time you lot went through CARQUALs?" Lt. Commander Gerry Walker, the BWS Sicily's Flight Control Officer asked in a voice that mixed curiosity, concern and contempt like a bitter cocktail.

Jack glanced at him expressionlessly. "Two years. We only got word that we were being assigned to a carrier thirty-six hours ago, and we've been running carrier ops sims ever since." He raised an eyebrow slightly. "I guess the big boys are calling in everyone they can."

"You said it," Walker commented moodily. "Hell, a week ago this old girl" he jerked a thumb towards a nearby wall indicating the Sicily as a whole, "was heading for the scrapheap. Command really is that desperate. We're still getting everything back to full readiness but we can still run flight ops."

A note of challenge entered the naval officer's voice. "Can your people do the same?"

Jack's ice-blue eyes narrowed at the insult but his voice remained even, "Just because we've been flying off planetside runways doesn't mean we've been sitting around with our thumbs up our asses like some Navy pukes I could mention. We've been doing constant anti-piracy sweeps and keeping tabs on the Pasqual jump point with almost zero logistical support from militia command, so don't ever think we're just goofing off. Get me?"

"Hey, throttle back, flyboy," Walker cautioned, taken a little off guard by the militia Major's vehemence. "What I meant was that you all looked pretty rusty on your approaches. Especially her," he concluded, pointing at a datascreen which consumed most of his attention.

Jack knew that her referred to Stardust, who was now on final approach. On a secondary screen, an amber box outlined the correct approach path with an icon representing the incoming fighter. The problem was that Stardust was outside the box more often than she was inside it. He glanced at Walker.

"Any way I can listen in on the chatter?"

Walker passed Jack a headset and took one for himself then plugged them both into his console so they could both listen to the LSO. What they heard wasn't encouraging.

"... up a bit, you're too low... reduce power, I said reduce power... still too low..."

"Ease off, Kristy," Jack breathed. The LSO was trying to get the same message across to the approaching pilot.

"Back on the throttle... you're too high now..."

"She's overcompensating," Walker commented as he opened a comm channel to the landing fighter. "Scrapper Five this is Control, are you declaring an emergency?"

Kristy Joyce's voice came back full of tension, "Negative, Control, I've got it."

"Roger. Listen to the LSO's advice, okay, Five?"

Walker shut off the comm without waiting for an answer, then glanced at Jack. "Is she usually this stubborn or is this a special occasion?"

DeVille was too busy listening to the LSO talking Stardust down to respond.

"... you're too high, drop the nose just a little... ease off on the throttle... damn, now you're too low... still too low... abort, Five, abort abort, abort!" the LSO screamed.

Too late.

At the last millisecond Stardust yanked back on the stick, raising the nosewheel but dropping the main wheels. Both main gears caught on the edge of the flight deck and the right one tore away with a scream more like a banshee's wail than tearing metal. The left one remained intact and wrenched the Vindicator back down onto the flight deck like a beartrap, slamming it down hard onto the nosewheel. The sixteen-tonne fighter crunched down onto its unsupported right wing as the nosewheel's strut crumpled like a twig, sending it careening along the flight deck trailing showers of sparks.

"Emergency! Emergency on the flight deck! Fire crews and rescue teams needed now!" Walker yelled into his headset's mike, now set to the flight department's internal comm net. "I want that thing taken care of ASAP!"

He turned and pointed to a comm tech. "Nate, get on the horn and tell the Scrappers to hold off on their landings. If anyone needs fuel we'll launch a Texaco but they're to hold position no matter what, got it? We'll haul 'em in once we've got the flight deck clear."

He turned just in time to notice Jack bolting for the exit to the flight deck. "Where the hell are you going?" he asked angrily.

Jack's reply was equally curt. "Those are our people down there," he shot back and ran out the door before anyone could stop him.

 

Flight Deck, BWS Sicily
0937 Hours

The flight deck of a carrier is never a quiet place. The whine of power systems, the roar of engines, the yelling of ground crews and crew chiefs plus a hundred other noises of normal flight operations ensure that the noise level never drops below loud. The tension of combat ops adds adrenaline and reduces patience, ensuring that the volume is usually at the deafening level. But throw in a crashed fighter which could catch fire at any time, add the fact that the fighter is carrying enough ordnance to blow the carrier to atoms and that the ordnance could cook off at any time, and the only word which describes the situation is pandemonium.

A fire crew was spraying the crashed fighter with fire-suppressant foam even as several ordnance technicians frenziedly raced to disarm torpedoes and missiles. Jack watched helplessly as a rescue team pried at the canopy. A few seconds later the canopy opened and the rescuers hauled a weakly struggling figure out.

"Medic! Medic! We've got a live one here!"

"The pilot's still alive! What's the status with the gunner?"

"He's... he's moving... I think he's okay! The hatch is jammed but he looks okay."

"For Christ's sake, get him outta there fast! This thing could still go up!"

DeVille ran over to the medics easing Kristy onto a stretcher. "How is she? Is she going to be all right?" The chief medic barely glanced at Jack as he checked various readouts assessing the blonde pilot's condition.

"Too early to tell, sir. It looks like she's got a hell of a case of whiplash and maybe a concussion. Right now the main danger is that she'll go into shock, especially if she's got any internal bleeding."

The medic glanced at Jack. "Right now, sir, the best thing you can do for her is to get out of the way and let us do our job."

Jack took the hint and stepped back quickly, narrowly missing being knocked down by the rushing medics. He noticed the rescue crew had finally pried the gunner's hatch open and were helping rather than hauling the lanky figure in the gunner's flightsuit out of the rear cockpit.

"Galen, are you okay?" he asked. "What the hell happened?"

Second Lieutenant Galen O'Brien shook his head as if to clear it even as he pushed a rescue worker away. "No idea, Major. She sounded edgy but I thought that was just because of landing on a carrier, then boom!" He shook his head again. "I was facing the other way so I didn't see what happened. Anyway we'd better get away from here," he added, waving in the general direction of the crashed craft.

Jack nodded and gripped O'Brien's arm as he led him away from the wreck, taking note of how wobbly the gunner's legs were. He leaned closer to O'Brien and spoke in a soothing voice.

"Listen, Galen, I want you to go with that medical crew over there, okay?" He pointed to the knot of medics who had inconspicuously remained near the two flyers. "I know you're okay and you know you're okay but they've got to run some tests to convince themselves you're okay. All right?"

The lanky blond Lieutenant watched him warily, or as warily as he could manage as he struggled to focus his eyes. "And what's the real reason, Major?" he asked. Jack chuckled.

"See that cute nurse third from the right?" he asked, jerking his head back at the medics. O'Brian turned to look woozily at them and saw Jack's target, an attractive black woman with close-cropped hair. "I'd take it as a favor if you were to, you know, find out about her. Name, star sign, favorite music, that sorta thing."

Galen nodded. "Okay. Not a problem, sir." He obediently slumped down on the gurney the medical crew brought over and let them carry him away. Jack watched them leave and began walking back to the flight control center, thinking furiously.

Going to have to warn that nurse about Galen, he's not exactly subtle. I don't like manipulating him like that but if it's the only way to get him to the sickbay then that's what I'll do. Goddammit, why the hell didn't Kristy break off the approach? She's not normally that worried about looking bad in front of --

DeVille wrenched his thoughts back to the job at hand. He'd have to give Onslaught a briefing on what had happened once the CO landed. He'd have to start making connections with the various other squadrons to see if somehow he could scrounge, beg, borrow, steal or hijack a spare fighter to replace the bird that Stardust had broken -- assuming that he could get her put back on the flight roster. And that, he reflected, could be the toughest challenge of all.

Welcome to the Big Leagues.

 

CONT...