PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 12 of 44 )

: Scraps of Honour
PART 2 OF 15 : THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
[ AN INTERLUDE ]

 

Medical Bay, BWS Sicily
Lennox System
Union of Border Worlds
1018 Hours, February 7, 2681 (2681.038)

Paul Onslow's eyes were as dark and cold as the void between the stars as he glared at the woman in the bed. "I suppose you had a reason for ignoring the orders I gave you, the orders the LSO gave you and any common sense you had?" he asked icily. A faint muscle twitch just under his left eye emphasized his anger.

Kristy Joyce's face was paler than usual as she looked up at her commanding officer. "Sir, I miscalculated my approach vector -- "

"That's not what I asked," Onslow growled. "I didn't ask what you did wrong, we can analyze that later. I asked you why you refused the orders of the LSO and myself. Do you remember the orders I gave the squadron before we took off from Bishop's Crossing?" Silence reigned for a few seconds, then Joyce nodded. "What were the orders relating to landing procedures, Captain?"

Another pause filled the medical bay then Joyce replied, "Standard ferry flight, full combat loadout but no trouble expected. We'd rendezvous with the Sicily and land aboard her. Colonel, do the medics reckon I'll fly again?" she asked hesitantly.

"You were damn lucky not to break your fool neck in the landing. So far the medics haven't found any signs of concussion or spinal damage which is why I'm able to be here now," Onslow admitted. "And I was asking about the landing instructions which, judging from your efforts to change the topic, you remember quite well. 'Take the landing nice and slow and if the flight boss calls a waveoff then you abort your landing'. I repeated myself just before we started landing. 'Listen to the LSO and if he calls a waveoff you Goddamned better abort!'" He leaned closer and asked in a voice just above a whisper, "Which part did you not understand?"

"I understood all of it, sir," Kristy rasped. "I thought I had everything under control and then..." She held up her hands helplessly. "It got away from me. There were just too many variables to handle."

"You could have slowed down or called for an automatic landing, but you stayed on manual and tried to match the performance of a medium fighter with a machine that's effectively a light bomber. You not only put yourself and Galen O'Brien at risk, but you had a good chance of blowing the entire carrier apart just to satisfy your ego. And that," the scar-faced colonel jabbed a finger at the young captain to emphasize his point, "is why I'm keeping you off the flight roster until further notice. If you prove to me you can keep that ego of yours under control I'll put you back in the cockpit. Until then, no way." He rose and walked towards the medical bay's exit.

"Are you telling me you've never done something to prove you could, sir?" Kristy asked weakly, propping herself up on her elbows. "Never tried a trick to look good in front of your buddies or impress some girl?" Onslow stopped in mid-stride and turned slowly to face her. Oh God, I'm in for it now, she thought desperately. But the expression on his face was more introspective than angry.

"A few times," he admitted in a soft voice. "Only a few. And when I did I only put myself at risk, not hundreds of bystanders and shipmates. I'll be honest, Kristy -- if you did the same thing while flying an Intruder I wouldn't chew you out anywhere near as hard as I did. Now you rest for the rest of the day so you can hit the sim pods tomorrow and I'll see if you deserve to be put back on the flight roster." He turned and left the medical bay without another word.

Kristy Joyce slumped back, buried her face in the pillow and tried not to cry too loudly.

 

Briefing Room, BWS Sicily
Lennox System
Union of Border Worlds
1027 Hours February 7th, 2681 (2681.038)

Onslow was the last one to reach the briefing room. Several officers in Space Force and Navy uniforms were already seated as he briskly entered and slid into a seat. He glanced over at the officer seated next to him, waited for the Commodore in front of the map table to begin the briefing -

Wait a minute. It couldn't be... He frowned and looked again at the huge black Lieutenant Colonel in the next seat over, who seemed to feel his intent gaze and glanced over. The big man's eyes widened.

"PAUL!! Where de hell you been, mon?!" A huge hand descended on his shoulder like a drop pod, pushing the 349th's commander deeper into his seat with a comradely slap even as the greeting boomed across the room. "It been ages, bro!"

"You can say that again, Eddie! Last time I saw you was on the Oriskany just after the Black Lance incident. What've you been up to, you reggae wannabe?" Onslow grinned, even as he rubbed his shoulder. Eddie smiled broadly.

"Colonel Thibodeaux, I take it you know Colonel Onslow?" the Commodore at the front of the room asked wryly. Eddie nodded to the naval officer as his grin faded slightly. "As Colonel Onslow's just arrived on board I guess introductions are in order. I'm Commodore Philip Johnson, commander of Task Force Jasmine which you've just joined. You've met Captain Voss already, I take it." He indicated the captain of the Sicily, a short stocky woman with an obviously cybernetic right hand and a scowl which seemed, from what Onslow had seen, to be a permanent fixture on her face.

"Yes sir, we've met," he replied dryly. And I'll need rabies shots for the bite marks she left on my ass from the chewing out she gave me over Kristy's screwup.

"Colonel Jack Tanagawa is the Sicily's Wing Commander." A stocky man with graying hair nodded a greeting to Onslow. Tanagawa's rank bars proclaimed him a full Colonel rather than a more common Lieutenant Colonel like Onslow or Thibodeaux, but in the Border Worlds rank meant nowhere near as much as in Confed. However he had the same look in his eyes as Onslow, the look of someone who'd been forged in the crucible of combat. He nodded curtly to Onslow.

"Speaking of wings, let's get this meeting started. Colonel Onslow, what's the status of your squadron?"

Paul stood and looked straight at Tanagawa. "I'm sure everyone's heard of the incident on the Sicily's flight deck by now," he began. Heads around the room nodded, proving the old military truism that no form of communication works faster than the grapevine. "At this point the 349th has five operational Vindicator bombers and four Intruder fighters. The crashed Vindicator will have to be scrapped due to damage and we'll probably cannibalize it for parts. The pilot and gunner are both under observation in sick bay, but they should be combat-ready in a few hours. We haven't been on a carrier for two years and only received word to start retraining less than forty-eight hours ago, so I'd like to keep my people practicing carrier ops in the sim pods for as long as I can. We mainly specialize in atmospheric ops so launching from a flight deck instead of a runway will be a hell of a change for us." He looked around at the assembled officers. "Any questions?"

"Just one," a hard-faced man with steel-gray hair asked, "What are you going to do for a replacement fighter?"

"Somehow I don't think passing the hat or holding a bake sale will help," Onslow commented dryly. "Are there any other squadrons with Vindicators in the task force?"

The headshakes that answered his question made his heart sink. "Then I guess someone had better get used to the idea of flapping their arms," he commented morosely. Someone chuckled.

"Well if one of my crews gets down-checked and their bird is still intact you can have it," the hard-faced man who had spoken before offered Onslow. "After all, the Vins were based pretty heavily on the lead sleds like the ones my people fly."

Onslow nodded thoughtfully. The Thunderbolt VII was nicknamed the lead sled due to its lack of agility but it made up for that deficiency with heavy shields, thick armor and a lot of firepower. It only carried a single torpedo compared to the Vindicator's three but Onslow was sure that Kristy Joyce could easily adapt.

He returned to his seat even as Colonel Tanagawa called for Thibodeaux's report. All fourteen Intruders of his squadron, the 254th Tactical Fighter Squadron, were fully ready as were the twelve Thunderbolts of the 78th Tactical Strike Squadron led by Lt. Colonel Gil "Wolfen" Franklin, the gray-haired man who had earlier offered Onslow one of them. The squadron commanders from the Anzio, the Sicily's sister ship, reported that all their fighters were ready for combat. Lastly the commanders of the flight wings from the escorting cruiser and destroyer reported in, with one
Banshee downchecked by the technicians. That gave Task Force Jasmine eighty-two fighters ready to rumble if push came to shove.

For all the good they would do against the Nephilim, Onslow thought. The newest fighters here are the Intruders and everything else is at least ten years old. We're in deep, deep trouble.

"Okay," Johnson announced, snapping Onslow out of his reverie. "Our main needs are general supplies and a replacement fighter for Colonel Onslow's squadron. Colonel, any ideas as to where we'd get some in this system?"

"There's a lot of privateers that operate out of Lennox but if you want to deal with them you'd better have a lot of credits handy," Onslow commented.

Johnson shook his head. "We can't afford the time to track them down. Any alternatives?"

Onslow snorted. "Not unless you've got the clout to make Tanfen roll over and play nice. They're not about to let any major competition pop up in one of their major markets."

The naval officer's eyes widened. "The Tanfen Corporation has a presence in Lennox?"

"No sir, they have a factory in Lennox," Onslow informed him dryly. He got to his feet and strode over to the room's holoprojector. "If I may, sir?" he asked politely. At Johnson's nod he activated the projector, bringing up a three-dimensional map of the Epsilon Sector and focused it on the jump lines leading to Lennox.

"Astrographically, Lennox is in a very desirable position for Tanfen. They specialize in starships, ordnance and refits. I know that they have companies that fill most niches in society today but they got started in shipbuilding and fighters. They also have a history of not asking too many questions of their customers so that makes them pretty popular with privateers. The Lennox facility is one jump away from the base at Torgo so the shipping costs are low, and privateers can resupply before a smuggling run into Vega Sector through Seggalion and Caliban, or into Cat space through Pasqual. Tanfen also uses fixers who are willing to act as fall guys so they can sell to, let's just say, other buyers from the Pasqual System. They have two squadrons for system defense consisting of twelve Thunderbolts and twelve Hellcats. I guess they're pretty nervous with a major facility right on the border with the Kilrathi."

"So Tanfen is trading military ordnance to the Kilrathi? That's pretty risky." Tanagawa frowned. "If they get caught -- "

"Catching them isn't the hardest part," Onslow interrupted. "Proving it is the real problem. And if by some miracle we were able to prove the higher-ups knew about it they'd just make a deal with the government to build a few more fighter squadrons or corvettes." He smiled bitterly. "If you make a deal to pay off a minor bureaucrat it's a bribe but if you pay off the government it's an out-of-court settlement. Anyway you know if we ask them for supplies they're going to gouge us."

The Commodore smiled rather coldly. "What makes you think I'll give them the chance, Colonel?"

"Sir, these aren't just a bunch of pirates or two-bit shipjackers. Their lawyers are some of the most vindictive in known space," Onslow objected. "You try standover tactics with them and your career's got the lifespan of a cat dumped into hard vacuum."

"This isn't a standover tactic, Paul, this is requisitioning supplies vital for the Union's survival," Johnson explained. "Captain Voss, make a note in the task force log that I am invoking Emergency Decree 45A of the Union of Border Worlds Senate. The Lennox system is under martial law effective immediately. As soon as this meeting is over the task force will set course for Lennox III. It's time we explained to the Tanfen CEO just how serious this crisis is."

 

CEO's Quarters, Tanfen Corporation Compound
Haratos City
Lennox III, Lennox System
Union of Border Worlds
1406 Hours, February 7th, 2681 (2681.038)

Matsui Gan sat in his favorite armchair in his quarters and tried to relax. The task which faced him would not be pleasant but no true son of the Corporation would flinch from a task which needed to be done. The door opened silently and two devastatingly beautiful girls walked in. They noted the somber lack of expression on the old man's face and quickly took seats on a plush sofa facing him. The silence lasted a few seconds then one of them spoke.

"Grandfather, what's wrong?"

Matsui studied the faces of his granddaughters for several seconds without responding. Long fiery red locks instead of his own close-cropped gray hair, golden skin instead of his own parchment hue... they looked so different to him yet were his own flesh and blood. The imperative need to protect his family rose up within him again and he realized he was doing the right thing by his kin. No matter how much they might hate him for it, he was doing what was best for them.

"Sapphire, you recently expressed an interest in attending the University of Humanities on New Maynah. An application was lodged on your behalf and was approved three days ago." He inclined his head towards her, watching amazement dawn in the blue eyes that had given her her name.
"Congratulations."

"That's wonderful!" her sister exclaimed. The University of Humanities had a reputation for being one of the most discerning centers of learning in human space when it came to accepting applicants. For Sapphire to have be accepted on her own merits at her age was an impressive feat. "Congratulations, sis! It should be fun. Well it would be if we were staying together, I mean, I'll miss you terribly - "

"Not necessarily, Amber," her grandfather interrupted. "Your interest in media studies was noted by certain individuals in the University and they specifically asked for you to attend. Your grades are high enough that they will waive the usual age requirement."

Amber clapped her hands over her mouth to stifle her squeal of excitement. She enjoyed dealing with people and looked forward to a career in TPRO eventually. A degree in media studies would guarantee her that job.

"Grandfather, when do we leave?" Sapphire asked.

"The frigate Argent Wing will be arriving with a convoy within twenty-four hours. Once the convoy is unloaded the Argent Wing will convey you to New Maynah," Matsui told them. He grimaced. "A frigate lacks accommodation suitable for your status but it shall have to suffice."

"Oh I'm sure they'll be fine. You're too preoccupied with status, grandfather," Amber commented. "Times are changing and people don't care much about a person's status anymore."

"Especially in the Border Worlds," Sapphire added. "Jack was the first person who didn't care about us being your grandchildren. He didn't treat us like we were made of Gotherian crystal like some people here do." A smile slowly spread across her face then quickly vanished as she looked at her grandfather.

Matsui Gan had worked for Tanfen all his life as a negotiator and a diplomat. As such he had learnt to conceal his emotions with enough skill to make a Las Vegas card shark envious but he had raised the two girls since they were seven years old. That gave them enough of an unfair advantage to see just how agitated the mention of Jack's name had made him. And something in Sapphire Gan's mind went "click" as several pieces of information shifted, bringing a whole new pattern to light.

"Jack's the reason you're sending us away, isn't that right grandfather?" she asked softly. "Did the University of Humanities really ask for us to attend? Or did you use your connections in the homeworlds to get places for us?" There was no need for a verbal reply. The look in his eyes was enough.

"You would have gotten the places in your own merits," Matsui explained. "I merely spoke to some people I know to expedite the process."

"But why?" Amber wailed. "Grandfather, what's so wrong with Jack that you'd ship us halfway across known space to get us away from him?" It was too much. Matsui's carefully controlled temper finally slipped its leash.

"Why? He's a gwailo rakehell who'll drag you into all sorts of trouble! I don't know how you got to know him or what you saw in him but he's no good for you!" he yelled.

Amber pouted. "But, grandfather, he was so handsome and charming."

"So is a gigolo!"

"Would you rather we'd taken up with one of them?" Sapphire shot back. Matsui's sallow face began turning a most interesting shade of red so she hurriedly continued. "Jack's not like that, grandfather. He was really nice and had a great sense of humor. And like I said before, our being your grandchildren didn't matter to him in the least. We had a lot of fun together."

"You are a daughter of Family Gan," Matsui grated from between clenched teeth. "You do not go around dallying with gwailo hellions who would make less in a year than your weekly allowance and who fail to treat you with proper respect. You have everything you desire here. How am I going to explain this at the next New Year gathering? We'll be the laughing stock of all three Families!"

"Let them laugh," Sapphire replied. Her grandfather's mouth popped open in surprise. "Grandfather, haven't you taught us from our youth that a person's worth isn't determined by the cut of his clothing or his personal wealth?"

"Especially with our Family, grandfather," Amber put in. "It was our founding ancestors who told us that it is better to have a mate with a rich heart than one with a rich purse. Jack is a good man and I don't know why you can't see that."

Matsui spluttered indignantly as his face turned even redder. "I... he... even if he is your future husband," he began, putting so much emphasis and irony into the last word that it nearly split at the seams, "how will he provide for you? And how do you know that he truly is a good man? There are many people who are different on the inside from what they let others see on the outside. Amber, you should know that from your studies!"

"Yes I do but I also know how to tell people like that," Amber replied urgently. "Jack's not like that, grandfather. He is a wonderful, caring man. And as for him providing for us, times change. That doesn't matter anymore. With our skills Sapphire and I could provide for ourselves if it became necessary."

The old man's face was nearly as red as the girls' hair by now. A double-handful of close-cropped hair left his scalp with one pull. "But it's not necessary! I'm doing what is best for you!" Both girls opened their mouths to answer but their grandfather cut them off. "It is settled. After the Argent Wind unloads tomorrow you will board it. The ship will take you to New Maynah where you will begin your studies. Until that time you will be confined to this compound. That is the end of the matter."

"Aw, grandfather!"

"THAT IS ENOUGH!!!" Matsui bellowed. In a calmer tone of voice he continued, "I suggest you go to your rooms and pack. That will be all." The twins both rose from the sofa and walked towards the door. As Amber left her sister turned back, tears in her blue eyes.

"I hate you." she told her grandfather bitterly. She turned away and marched out the door, slamming it behind her.

 

CEO's Office, Tanfen Corporation Compound
Haratos City
Lennox III, Lennox System
1435 Hours, February 7th, 2681 (2681.038)

Matsui tapped at his keyboard, checking figures and data. Advertising expenses up eight percent, production of Stormfire ammunition down three percent due to the need to retool the production lines for the new type of Stormfires Confed was using...

I hate you.

Usually the duties of his job were enough to keep the old man's mind fully occupied, but he couldn't get Sapphire's parting words out of his head. Ever since the death of his only son in a Porhen terrorist attack twelve years ago he had cared for the two girls and watched over them. He had never heard those words from either of them before and he hoped to Kuan Yin that he never would again. The old man silently cursed the rift which had grown between him and his granddaughters, and cursed the man who had created it.

The intercom built into his desk buzzed and he pressed his thumb down on the answer button with enough force to push his thumbnail back against his thumb. He banished the pain by imagining he was pressing on one of Jack DeVille's eyes instead of a round piece of plastic. "Yes, Erica?" he barked.

"Lord Matsui, there are two officers here from a UBW task force passing through this system and they insist on speaking with you personally," his secretary replied. Matsui sighed.

"Very well, send them in." His professional smile was already fixed on his face as he rose to greet the two Border Worlds officers. "Colonel Onslow, this is a surprise. When I heard your squadron had left this morning I didn't expect you back so soon." He then turned towards the other officer, dressed in naval uniform with Commodore's rank insignia on his shoulders.

"Commodore Philip Johnson, Border Worlds Navy," he introduced himself, shaking Matsui's hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Lord Matsui."

Matsui nodded, smile still firmly in place as all three men took their seats. Johnson was no diplomat and had not learned to mask his emotions to the extent that concealing them from Matsui required, but the old man accepted the lie in the interests of courtesy. "How may I be of assistance to the Border Worlds armed forces?" he asked as he sat down.

Johnson wasted no time. "Lord Matsui, we require a Thunderbolt VII fighter from Tanfen's stockpile on planet. A Vindicator would be better but I understand you don't build them. We also need to resupply with fuel, ordnance and general supplies. Finally we're requisitioning twelve of your pilots and their fighters."

The Tanfen director blinked. Subtlety does not appear to be in his vocabulary, he thought. "Well, Commodore, I wish I could help you but we have obligations to our customers. I would be happy to provide you with a replacement fighter but we need to retain all our defense forces in system as Kilrathi ships - "

" - have been transiting the Pasqual jump point for the past two weeks," Onslow cut in. "I know. We've been doing surveillance on jump point traffic as usual and I think Commodore Johnson would be very interested in just how much Tanfen-made ordnance was in the holds of the Krej'nar." His dark eyes glittered coldly. "The Krej'nar is an old Dorkathi-class transport which is a regular visitor here. Union Intelligence suspects her of being a supply vessel for various elements of the Cult of Sivar."

"Suspicion is not proof," Matsui stated.

"She called in three days ago, left within twenty hours with a full cargo hold and a convoy from the Grovsner colonies due to pick up ordnance and parts for a local defense force lodged a complaint about a delay in supplying promised goods. I think we're all pretty sure what went on," Onslow commented acidly as he watched the old man's eyes widen in disbelief then narrow in suspicion. I'm going to owe Alex big time for getting that data, he thought.

Matsui straightened and lost his smile. "We have sold to elements not affiliated with the UBW, I admit. There is no prohibition on that. If a buyer wishes to resell our wares to a third party that is his own affair. And that is between the UBW and that third party."

"This is irrelevant," Johnson replied. "The point Colonel Onslow was making is that you have spare ordnance at this facility, to defend Tanfen interests from the Kilrathi or pirates if nothing else. We're requisitioning that ordnance."

"We would be happy to supply any munitions we have on hand, Commodore. Of course we would require payment up front - "

"The Border Worlds Senate will compensate Tanfen Corporation for fair market value of any goods we use or requisition," the round-faced naval officer announced. "Once a full accounting is made and adjustments for combat damage and expenditures are taken into account."

"Commodore," Matsui replied coldly, "the policy of the Tanfen Corporation is that at least half payment is to be made up front prior to delivery of any goods. Your conduct has been more in line with that of pirates rather than officers of a legitimate government's armed forces. Indeed, piracy such as the two of you seem to be trying to commit is punishable by death under Border Worlds law. I see no reason why I should accede to your demands." He leaned back and laced his fingers together, gauging the expressions of the Border Worlders' faces with eyes as hard as agates.

"Border Worlds law no longer applies in this system," Johnson shot back. "As of 1045 hours today I have declared the Lennox system and everyone in it under martial law by the power invested in me by the Border Worlds Senate under Emergency Decree 45A. Get your legal eagles to check it out. They'll find that I'm authorized to do this, and they'll also find some very nasty penalties for anyone refusing to cooperate. I apologize if my manner offends you but quite frankly we don't have time to screw around."

Lord Matsui leaned back in his chair, rocked by the bluntness of Johnson's answer. "The advice of our legal department is that the Emergency Decree is a breach of the Constitution. We are undertaking a challenge against it in court and as such we won't comply with such an illegal order."

"Well I told you the government would pay, but if you're not willing to be nice we'll do it the hard way." Johnson sighed and tapped the comm button on his collar. It opened a channel to the shuttle he and Onslow had arrived in, which in turn locked a tight-beam comm laser onto the Sicily. "Sicily, this is Commodore Johnson. I need to speak to Captain Voss ASAP."

"Voss here, sir. Go ahead."

"Captain, I want Plan Orange Five activated. Get the Marines loaded for bear and ready to drop at a moment's notice. Emphasize to them that their mission is to seize the facility, not flatten it. I'll make check-in calls every fifteen minutes. Double-check the voiceprint just to be sure, and if it doesn't match up come get me," Johnson ordered as he watched Matsui's eyes nearly leap from their sockets.

"Roger, sir. I'll get the fighters rigged for ground support and SEAD duties," Voss replied.

"Do it."

"You can't do that!" the Tanfen CEO objected.

"There are two transports full of Marines up there, Lord Matsui," the Border Worlds officer replied evenly. "Their task is to evacuate the Nifelheim System but if anyone gets in their way they'll pound them into the ground, and you are definitely getting in our way. There's a juggernaut bearing down on us that makes the Kilrathi look as threatening as a bunch of alley cats, and the Border Worlds First Fleet and Confed's Third Fleet are fighting a holding action so we can join up with them in Nifelheim and crush these bastards. To do that we need every resource we can muster. If we don't hold them off then they'll break through at Nifelheim, blast through Seggalion, figure the Confed fleet base at Torgo is too tough to crack and come roaring straight through here. From here they'll have a clear shot to the rest of the Border Worlds." He paused and added in a voice filled with sweet malice, "It's hard to do business with your customers when they've been reduced to subatomic particles."

Onslow spoke up. "It's also hard to meet production deadlines after a Marine assault. Dead personnel, collateral damage from stray RPGs and ground attack fighters - you know, the usual inconveniences." He locked eyes with the old man. "But the real time-waster is sending the intel teams to do cleanup afterwards, clearing aside all the rubble and evaluating whatever they find." And the last thing you want is armed Marines and UIS spooks being given free rein to dig around your facility, he thought. I don't know what dirty little secrets you have hidden here, old man, but Tanfen has so many skeletons in its closets that they don't know how many will fall out if someone starts tugging on the doors. All we want is those supplies and we'll leave you alone.

He glanced at Johnson. "Sir, I think the Dakota footage should be enough to convince Lord Matsui of how grave the situation is - and how serious we are." From the hate in the old man's eyes, Paul Onslow knew he'd won, probably at the price of making a lifetime enemy. So be it.

"That won't be necessary," Matsui growled. "Very well, Commodore, you'll have your supplies and reinforcements made available. You have my word of honor as a member of Family Gan."

"Thank you," Johnson replied courteously. No sense rubbing salt into the wounds, he thought "Excuse me a moment, please." He keyed his comm button again. "Captain Voss, order the Marines to stand down and get the cargo shuttles ready. I'll organize to have the cargo made ready for them."

 

Shuttle Sicily Alpha
Lennox System
Union of Border Worlds
1624 Hours February 7th, 2681 (2681.038)

"Sir, with all due respect that was really pushing it," Paul Onslow commented as he piloted the shuttle back to the Sicily. "Threatening to have the Marines do an assault on the compound was really going over the top."

"It got his attention, didn't it?" Philip Johnson replied casually. "He was really pushing with that demand for payment in advance. I guessed it was a bluff, I called it and he folded. You know, that was damn fast footwork in there backing me up."

"Thank you sir. I guessed you were just going to up the ante until he folded. Something must be bugging him big time if he's that prickly." Onslow frowned. "By the way, I left a datacard with the Dakota footage behind when we left. It should persuade him that we weren't just doing a power trip in the negotiations."

The naval officer looked steadily at the fighter pilot. "And why did you break the security guidelines by doing that?" he asked carefully. "You know the UIS is trying to keep a lid on this whole situation." There were rumors that some sort of working arrangement existed between Union Internal Security and Tanfen's Internal Security Division but Johnson didn't know the details, and nor did he want to. Still, he knew enough to be sure that provoking either organization was a bad idea. You don't need a degree in toxicology to know that irritating a Nephele sand viper or a Terran taipan is a bad idea.

"Three reasons. First, Tanfen already knows about it. Admiral Hanton seized an entire Tanfen sector fleet in Tyr to help evacuate the system so Tanfen knows something really big is going on. Second, I figure if Matsui is convinced that the Nephilim would lay waste to Lennox if we lose at Nifelheim he'll call in every favor he can to get anything that could possibly help us."

"I guess he would want to hold onto the little empire he's got here," Johnson admitted.

"Also the fact that his two granddaughters are in Lennox should help convince him to assist us in any way possible," Onslow commented dryly. "The third reason is that my squadron's got to come back here after we finish up in Nifelheim, assuming we survive. You can head off into the sunset but we've got to live here and put up with Tanfen long after you've gone."

"All right, point taken," Johnson replied. "I just hope it works."

"Me too. By the way, I noticed the food requisitions were awfully light. I just hope the Marines in those transports don't turn cannibal or we're all in a world of hurt." Onslow grunted.

"What Marines?"

"The ones who were going to seize the compound," Onslow explained, wondering if the naval officer had received a little too much solar radiation from Lennox's twin suns.

Johnson chuckled. "Ah yes, under Plan Orange Five. Tell me, Colonel, do you know much about the start of the Kilrathi Wars?"

"Just what most people know, sir. The Iason incident, the Anna Magdalena massacre, the McAuliffe ambush... just the basics really. I fought in it for the last seven years so I was too busy trying to stay alive to really pay attention to how it all started. Why?"

"The Confederation declared war on the Cats after a lot of attacks on shipping but they didn't want a full-scale war. They wanted a nice, neat, limited war so they went for a series of limited offensives. The overall OPLAN was know as Orange Five and it was the biggest stack of bullshit and hot air I've ever heard of. I found out about it in a history text I read a while ago. Since then it's been a code I use with some people to tell them that whatever I'm saying is a bluff and to run with it."

"Like Captain Voss?"

"Like Captain Voss," Johnson confirmed with a big grin. "If Matsui wants to play hardball I can play a lot harder. It's just backing it up that's the problem."

Onslow carefully guided the shuttle into the Sicily's landing pattern. Then he turned back to the task force's commander. "Sir, can I ask you a favor?"

"You can if you stop calling me sir. Officially I am Commodore Johnson but if a situation's unofficial for God's sake call me Phil. Okay, Paul?"

"All right, Phil. I just wanted to ask that if ever you get the urge for a game of poker, would you mind holding off until I'm on patrol? I do like to keep some money from my pay, if only for sentimental value."

Johnson almost fell off his seat laughing.

 

Flight Wing Quarters, BWS Sicily
Lennox System
1903 Hours, February 7th, 2681 (2681.038)

"All right, listen up," Jack DeVille told the rest of the 349th. They were billeted in a communal barracks which had been converted from an old cargo hold when the Sicily had been converted from a transport to an escort carrier. The walls were bare metal and the hum of the carrier's systems echoed in the background.

"About an hour ago the escort carrier Arnhem and her escorts jumped in from Masa. She's escorting a couple of transports loaded with supplies. Hopefully some of those supplies are a fighter which can replace Kristy's busted bird." He glanced over at Kristy who had been released from the medical bay less than an hour ago, clutching the Medical Officer's certification that she was fit to fly with the same fervor with which Moses had held the Ten Commandments when he descended from Mount Sinai.

"Once the Arnhem joins up with us and the supplies from Tanfen are loaded we'll be on our way to Seggalion and from there to Nifelheim."

"Any word on if any Tanfen pilots are hooking up with us?" Alex Morgan asked. He appeared serious for once, which worried Jack. If Alex looked serious that meant something was bothering him big time.

"Yeah, according to the boss there's twelve fighters joining up with us sometime tomorrow."

"Frigging great," Alex muttered. "Better get your flak jacket on, Jack."

"They're going to be on the frigates," the XO explained. "We won't even see them outside their fighters."

"There's only two frigates," Danica Owens objected. "We'll still have to put up with six of them. Don't worry, Jack, we'll defend you if they get nasty."

"Thanks, Dani, but as it happens the Arnhem's being escorted by a pair of frigates as well as a pair of Kurasawa-class light cruisers. So that takes care of the other six fighters and we're home free on that front."

"No we're not," Paul Onslow commented as he walked in on the impromptu briefing. "What's happening is that twelve Intruders from one of Sicily's other squadrons are being assigned to the frigates." He sighed. "The original plan was to have the Tanfenners assigned to the frigates so they wouldn't get into anything except a fleet defense action. The problem is that the task force CO managed to get half a dozen each of Thunderbolts and Hellcats and the docking points on the Caernavens aren't strong enough to hold the weight of a heavy fighter like a Thud while maneuvering."

"So the Tanfenners are being assigned to the Sicily? I think Alex expressed it brilliantly a few seconds ago," Todd McLaughlin commented sourly. "Is there any silver lining to this cloud of gloom and doom?"

"Yes there is, Todd. Remember I said there were twelve Intruders assigned to the frigates? Well, the squadron originally had fourteen. The other two pilots and their planes have been assigned to us."

Onslow stuck his head outside the barracks door. "Come on in," he called and moved away from the door. Two men dressed in standard-issue "poopie suits" with duffels on their shoulders and Space Force "butterbars" on their collars entered the makeshift barracks. "Everyone meet our newest members, Lieutenants Dragan Emerson and Anthony Grimm. They're more qualified on carrier ops than we are so make sure you listen to them during the sim sessions. Lights out is at 2200 and the sims start at 0500. I want you there on time, okay?" he concluded.

"Okay, sir. We'll behave," McLaughlin promised. "We won't stay out after lights out, daddy."

"I'm your CO so that's 'daddy, sir.' And if you thought the training I put you through on Lennox was tough, you won't know what hit you after tomorrow." Onslow turned and walked away. Todd slumped back on his bunk.

"Somehow that doesn't fill me with joy," he sighed. Grimm cleared his throat and looked nervous.

"Is the Colonel really that bad?" he asked uncertainly. McLaughlin chuckled at the blond-haired rookie, who looked more nervous than all the Scrappers put together. "What's so funny?" he asked.

"The Colonel's pretty quiet and a real gentleman." Stardust grinned. "If you want bad temper and a snarly attitude look no further." She pointed at Alex Morgan who didn't even bother looking away from the new arrivals as he gave her a "Border Worlds salute."

"So do you two have callsigns?" Sandra Lynch asked the new arrivals as she gestured for them to take seats on a nearby bunk. Grimm slid his duffel beneath the bunk and sat down. Emerson slid his duffel along the floor aiming for it to end up next to Grimm's but the angle was wrong and it came to rest under the bunk next to Danica Owens. He threw himself into a flying leap, landed on the bunk with an exuberant whoop and rolled onto his side to face her.

"They call me Draco." He grinned as he offered his hand to the slender blonde. She shook it hesitantly.

"I'm Dancer," she replied. Emerson's eyebrows suddenly crawled back into the shock of black hair hanging over his forehead and his grin broadened. "It's just because of my first name," she added hastily.

"Same as me! How about that?" he exclaimed. He held up a fist and extended his thumb. "Dragan..." then his index finger, "to Dragon..." and finally his middle finger, "to Draco. Let's face it, after the shit back in '73 and again last year damn few people want to have anything associated with those Black Lance Nazis. I guess that includes callsigns." His grin faded and his midnight eyes locked onto Danica's blue ones. She looked away and glanced over at John Hawke.

"A lot of people don't like to remember the past, Lieutenant," she said in a voice barely above a whisper. "Some people like to believe in a future even when they're running towards their death." She laced her fingers together in a vain attempt to stop her hands from shaking.

"Hey, it isn't that bad," Emerson replied in a surprised tone. "There's still stacks of fighters and capships at the front line, and from what I heard they gave the bad guys a real kick in the ass just before they jumped out of Tyr. Hell, we'll probably just bat cleanup."

"With that kind of attitude the only cleanup that'll be done is the Nephilim wiping the floor with us, Emerson," Eric Maslevski barked. "Battle Group Valkyrie and the other frontline forces started off on the wrong side of a four-to-one force ratio and if we're not very lucky they'll be reduced almost to nothing by the time they and the Nephilim catch up to us in Nifelheim. So we and anyone else who catches up to us in Nifelheim are going to be all that stands between the Border Worlds and these... these creatures." He almost spat the last word out like a piece of rotten fruit.

"That kind of talk's coming dangerously close to defeatism, Eric," Jack DeVille warned. "There's a lot of kick-ass squadrons on board the Valeria and the other carriers. They'll thin the enemy down some. We won't have to do the job on our own. Now let's get some shuteye. I get the distinct feeling the Colonel's going to really live up to his promise tomorrow."

As the Scrappers settled in over the next half hour Eric Maslevski kept a discreet eye on the members of his squadron. To a casual observer they looked as carefree as if they were on shore leave but to a man who had been a member for as long as the squadron had existed the nervousness and fear in his friends was as plain as data on a HUD. They had seen heavy action against pirates and Kilrathi and had even taken part in Operation Uruk-hai, a massive anti-pirate sweep across three systems. But a fleet action against an unknown but superior enemy with a huge advantage of numbers was beyond their experience. And nobody except the forces currently in Nephele had faced a diabolical foe of this magnitude.

Almighty God, he prayed silently, do not let us die before stopping this scourge. They are an abomination and must be destroyed utterly. I do not wish to die before my appointed hour but if my life is the price for exterminating these hellspawn then I will pay it gladly.

"Good night, all," Todd McLaughlin said as he shut off the barracks' lights.

Sweet dreams...


FIN