PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 13 of 44 )
“ The Road to Hell ”
TCS Miles D'Arby in the
The "O" Club, Pilot Country
07 Feb 2681 (2681.038) 1309 ZULU
The noise was loud. Painfully loud, like a physical object, a solid wall that the pilots had to force their way through as they entered the packed bar. Raucous music at dangerous decibel levels and lung-bursting shouts raised above it.
"Bloody hell!" Jackson, first mate of the Elizabeth, gasped. The ranking survivor of the pirate attack on the freighter, he was a short, wiry man, maybe fifty, stubbled, leathery skin and short, fine, light brown hair starting to silver but a twinkle in his dark eyes. His right arm was in a sling and his raggedy features were marked by a few cuts and grazes, one or two having needed stitches. He also had a much older scar on his right cheek just under his cheekbone and a gap in his eyebrow where no hair would grow on another thin white line.
"What's up?" Tony "Rat" Carruthers asked him, shouting directly into the other man's ear.
"The noise -- it's almost unbearable!"
"This is nothing compared to the flight deck during a launch cycle! That's loud!"
"Bloody hell! I think my ears are bleeding!" Rat just laughed and grabbed hold of the mate, virtually dragging him as they attempted to get to the bar, Rat barging his way through the press of bodies.
"'Scuse me, coming through, mind your pint, shift yer fuckin' ass, thank you, can I just squeeze through 'ere, sorry mate, mind yerself, look out..."
They finally made their way to the front of the heaving masses without spilling too many pints, and Rat banged on the bar, "Oy!" Rat flicked a peanut at one of the bar staff to get some attention, "Give us two beers," he grinned, "and whatever'e wants!"
"Yo! Comin' up, Rat!"
"I'm supposed to be buying the drinks," protested the mate, "you saved my life."
"Forget it!" Rat shook his head, aware that if it wasn't for the mate and the other freighter survivors he'd be buying for the whole squadron after his embarrassing ejection.
"Why do they call you Rat?" Jackson asked suddenly.
"Don't know," Rat lied, "just what the guys in the squadron call me. Besides, I think it suits me: Tough little shits, Rats. Survivors. Bright, too."
"Uh-huh," Jackson grunted non-committally. He didn't believe a word of it but couldn't very well say so when the guy had got himself shot down whilst saving his life. He'd find out of one of the other pilots later, he decided.
"Make a good living, freighters?" Rat asked in between mouthfuls of beer. He didn't sip it, he poured it straight down his throat, the mate noticed.
"Shit haulers? Not a hope. Not with what we carry, sorry, carried on the Lizzy."
"Why'd you do it then?"
"Somebody's gotta lug food and crap around the galaxy, haven't they?"
"I suppose so," Rat conceded. He had a feeling they were making a bit on the side, booze or drugs maybe, "where were you bound?"
"Tyr, from Orsini."
Rat's eyebrows furrowed. A quick mental calculation of vectors and jump points told him something was arse-about-tit. "That's the other bloody direction!"
"Tell me about it."
"What happened? Lose your escort?"
"Didn't have one to start with. We were picking one up at the other end for the flip-flop. Medical supplies are worth more than vegetables," Jackson explained, "plus it tends to hamper free enterprise..."
Rat grinned. Yeah, he thought, I bet there's a fair bit of stuff that isn't on your cargo manifest. A military escort would ask too many questions about unscheduled stops. Maybe they were gunrunners. Something on board was worth killing them for, at any rate.
"Anyway, we got turned back at Loki IV."
"To wait for an escort?" Rat was puzzled.
"Don't you know?"
"I'm in the military -- we get told bugger-all."
"Figures. They turned us back cos o' the Bugs."
"New ET species. Mean fuckers. They've been wiping out the Kilrathi starting where we left off and we're next. Their invasion fleet is coming this way."
"Wondered why we'd been recalled to active service. None of this news has reached Sol, you realize. Certainly not a week ago when I left."
"Top secret, man! They don't want to cause a panic and have the whole of Earth's population run to the Andorra Sector. If this got out..."
"Then how come you know?" Rat quizzed him.
"Friend-of-a-friend back at Confed HQ."
Rat stared at him. This man has connections, he realized. Could be useful...
"Come on," Rat grabbed hold of him to steer him through the crowd again, "I want you to meet some mates of mine."
The other pilots involved in the incident had already staked out a corner of the room to themselves by jamming a couple of tables together upon which were dozens of empty bottles and glasses.
Jackson realized that in the short time he and Rat had been in the infirmary after their rescue there'd been some heavy drinking going on. Handshakes and introductions with Jackson taking careful note of names and faces. Mostly smiles but there were one or two sour looks for the outsider. They didn't go unnoticed.
"Is it normally like this?" Jackson shouted over the din as he and Rat found some seats.
"Nah," Jack "Blade" Scott confessed, "it's just the action."
"Aye, normally it's louder," joked Rat.
"Where's that accent from?" Johnson asked.
"Around and about. Earth. England. We moved around a lot as a kid. Me father [he pronounced it as in gather, not rather] went where the work was. Manchester, York, Leeds, Carlisle, Newcastle, even spent some time in the Glasgow-Edinburgh conurbation."
"Thought I couldn't place it."
"With so many dialects and accents on dozens of worlds, who the hell can?"
"You'd be surprised." Rat found himself taking another long, hard look at the mate. A grizzled veteran spacefarer, keen, intelligent eyes staring back from a deep-lined face that guarded its feelings well. He'd already been surprised by the man but anything else he might found out wouldn't come as a shock, unless he confessed to killing JFK, which Rat decided he probably wouldn't even dismiss out of hand...
"Tell these guys what you told me," suggested Rat.
"Why not," Jackson agreed, leaning forward and placing his drink on the table. Without realizing it the pilots all instinctively hunched forward to hear what he was saying as if it was a whispered conversation in a conspiratorial huddle rather than shouted at the top of a man's lungs over the ambient decibel level.
"We were through here a few days back and stopped for an overnight layover. Refueling. We'd normally have picked up an escort having to travel through Border World systems, this close to Kilrathi space, but a cargo of Vegetables wasn't deemed worth it," he told them, with a quick wink at Rat.
Rat blinked. He knows I know! And I said he wouldn't surprise me...
"Anyway," the mate
continued, "we'd seen this build-up of Confed and Border
World military ships, but we figured there was some sort of a
joint exercise going on. It does happen, even if not very often.
I think you do
it just to piss the Cats off.
"Anyway, we didn't head straight for Loki IV, we went via Elohim and Nifelheim. There were more Confed ships in Nifelheim, but that was where that pirate squadron was intercepted and destroyed the other day, so we thought nothing more about it."
Blank looks from the other pilots told Rat he wasn't alone in knowing nothing about it. They were totally in the dark as to what was happening only a couple of systems away and this civilian knew more about Confed ops than most Admirals. Which wasn't too hard, given the incompetence of most high ranking Naval officers, Rat decided.
"So we jumped into Loki IV, and ran slam bang into a Border Worlds Militia patrol, who told us we couldn't jump into Tyr. We were instructed to return here and await an escort with further instructions. We turned tail and made calculations for the jump, and about three minutes beforehand an intermittent contact appeared. It's one of the favorite hang-outs for privateers and pirates - covers several trade routes and near to a few free ports where they can flog the stuff they steal. Thinking about it now, they were probably waiting for unescorted refugees, easy pickings."
Jackson seemed to notice the puzzled expressions on the pilots' faces but continued anyway, "we knew we'd picked up a shadow, but since we were jumping back to one of the main Confed bases in the area we decided to continue on. If we didn't jump we were still heading full-belt away from the patrol we'd met, with the pirates on our ass. Then we lost the main generator as we reentered normal space. Don't know why or how, and now I never will: Engineering was the first thing the pirates went for. Virtually vaporized the whole section. The blast ripped the hold open to the vac, and explosive decompression did the rest. Veggies don't take well to vacuum."
"That's a fair serving of mashed spud..."
"You can say that again. I think they were just trying to disable us, but they got a bit carried away. And losing the cargo didn't exactly help their mood. They were on the verge of finishing us off when you guys turned up."
"That didn't exactly cover the main point," Rat complained when the yarn came to a halt.
"I'm getting to that. Hold on," he grinned, "Rat's right. I missed something out. I know someone who's cousin's-boyfriend's-sister knows someone on back at head-quarters, who I did a favor or two for, and I called him up before we decided to turn back in Loki. He told me about the Nephilim."
"Nephilim?" Harold "Viking" Svensson queried.
"That's the official Confed reporting codename. Best way of describing'em is Bugs. Giant insect-like invertebrates, although their ships are often described as piscine."
"Pissing? Que?" Carlos "Greaser" Sanchez himself was "pissed" by now. "Piscine. Fish-like."
"Sounds fishy to me," giggled Greaser, almost choking on his beer as he laughed at his own joke. Jackson gave him a long, cold stare. Greaser went quiet.
"There's a rumor going around that we've brought it on ourselves," said Jackson.
"Have you heard of Kn'thrak?"
"What is that - Kilrathi?" Rat asked, yet again surprised by the depth of the man's knowledge.
"Yeah. It's the end of the world, only worse, if that's possible."
"What could be worse than the end of the world - the end of the universe?"
"Basically. It's not like the Apocalypse or Ragnarok - nah, that's more like Tr'thrak, a last glorious battle against the gods. There are two versions of the end of the universe in the Prophecy of Sivar. The second version, Kn'thrak, concerns us -- if the Kilrathi were ever defeated by an unworthy foe the star gods would return to destroy the unworthy foe and the Kilrathi. We're the unworthy foe. These Nephilim aren't just after the Kilrathi; they're after us."
"That's just myth and legend, it's not real."
"All myth has a basis in fact. And the fact is, you're losing."
"How bad is it?"
"Far as I know, things aren't going too well. A fighting retreat rather than a rout, but the force ratio is about 4-1 or more against."
"Look," explained the mate, "I wasn't trying to rain on your parade or depress you guys, I just wanted to let you know what was going on. I figured you deserved to know."
"That's okay. Thanks. I think some of us have done enough celebrating today already, anyhow." Viking glared at Greaser. "We've got to talk this over now."
"Understood. I better see how the rest of my people are holding up, anyway. I'll catch you guys later."
"Yeah, later, man."
As soon as Jackson was out of earshot (about eight feet away in the din) Viking set his drink on the table in a purposeful manner and took a deep breath. "Right. As usual it seems we 'weekend warriors' aren't worth keeping informed. What the fuck is going on here?"
"We knew something was happening when we got called up. I figured it was the Kilrathi again," confided Blade.
"The Kilrathi?!?" Robert "Robber" Bell was incredulous, "they've fucking had it. Their empire is finished. I figured it was the Border Worlders - I heard about their military build up. Seems were gonna be fighting alongside them this time!"
"Makes a bloody change," Rat snorted, "but if we're in such deep shit and desperate for reinforcements, why the hell are they sending us? Both the Fourth and Seventh Fleets are right here in Vega."
"Beats the hell out of me." Robber gave a shrug. They sat in silence for a few moments, contemplating. This was an impromptu but important meeting, a "Chinese parliament" where everyone got to have their say before a serious decision for the group was taken. The "head sheds" might not take the advice of the "troops" but at least they could take their opinions into account. These veteran, seasoned pilots tended to have more respect for each other than the hot-headed youngsters prevalent in front-line service did, with good reason: Virtually all of these pilots if still in active service would be a squadron CO or XO.
"Do we put the question to somebody, then?" Blade asked.
"Hardly," Rat told him, "need-to-know. We don't need to know, else we'd have been told already. And the bastards'll want to know where we found out. We'd drop Jackson and his source in deep shit."
"That's true," agreed Viking. No one wanted to land the man in trouble. Christ knows what they'd find out about the man if they investigated the man and his dealings, and that would also incriminate those killed by the pirates. Bad form, old boy.
"We could hack into the computers and have a bit of a look around." The words seemed to hang in the air. They couldn't be overheard discussing it in the noisy bar, but once it had been uttered they were all co-conspirators, even if it was just alcohol-fueled talk.
"Viking, you're the brains of the bunch -- you up for it?"
"You haf got to be yokink," Viking said in his best Swedish accent, "you are hafink me on, jah?" A slow shake of the head. Viking groaned.
"Curiosity killed the cat."
"That was the T-bomb..."
"Oh, sober up, Greaseball!" Rat was getting angry angry enough to use a hurtful insult on a good friend, "this is bloody serious!"
"Okay. Satisfaction brought the nosey cat back: We've got to know what we're getting ourselves into."
"Why?" Viking demanded, "what will you do if you don't like what you find out? We follow orders and do our duty. That's our job. This isn't a frigging democracy -- we don't get to pick and choose who we want to fight! You're talking about mutiny."
"I never said anything about that! I just think we deserve to know what's going on, that's all."
"There is of course another possibility," Robber pointed out, "Our superiors might not know. They can't inform us what's happening if they don't know themselves."
"Crap! Even if there is a security news blackout surely the Captain or Commodore must know what's going on?!"
"Not necessarily. They only needs to know the same as us -- the reserves have been called up as reinforcements to bolster the fleet out here."
"Robber's right," agreed Viking, "let's leave it. We'll find out soon enough anyway."
"You were the one who wanted to know in the fucking first place!" Rat Shouted exasperatedly, "you're just too fucking chicken to use your brains and do something about it!"
"Don't push it! My ancestors were kicking the hell out of yours nearly two thousand years ago. I reckon I can do the same to you now."
"You want to try? You want to have a go?"
"Leave it out, you two!" Robber interceded, "we don't need this shit. You know it's just the booze talking."
"Aye, alreet," Rat put down the bottle he'd been ready to smash, "I'll just have to find out myself, won't I?"
"Well I'm not sticking my neck out for you, that's for damn sure."
"I'll remember that next time you've got a bandit up your arse in your 'Bolt," Rat virtually threw the last of his pint down his throat and slammed his glass down.
"I wasn't the one who came back on the shuttle today, was I?"
Rat stuck two fingers up as he walked away, "Oh, fuck off, you tosser!"
"Happy families," Robber thought out loud.
"Screw you too, Robber," Viking jumped up and stormed off too, almost upending the tables in the process.
Oh, bloody hell, thought Robber, this is not good. Not good at all.
Computer terminal in the carrier's
Excalibur squadron communal area
07 Feb 2681 (2681.038) 1522 ZULU
Rat's hands were almost shaking. He was nervous, and the adrenaline was coursing through his system. Hacking into the Commodore's personal records was far more dangerous than taking a solitary Hellcat up against a Kilrathi squadron. He had to make sure he didn't leave a 'paper trail' (though any trail he'd leave would be electronic, not paper) or if he did leave one, to make sure it didn't point at him. Hence the reason he'd logged on with someone else's name at a public terminal (of another squadron) and taken a very roundabout route to get where he was now, accessing the admiral's E-Mail log.
Sure enough it was there, right on the subject line of several of the mails. Rat opened the one of the last ones:
From : VRayak@tcn.bunkerhill.crew
To : Turnbull-JC@tcn.milesd'arby.crew
Cc : WKennedy@tcn.yorktown.crew; EVandermann@tcn.valleyforge.crew
Subject: Re: Nephilim
You're blowing this totally out of proportion! Yes, we are outnumbered, and yes, there are still more of the enemy coming from the wormhole, but the Midway will have that closed in days, maybe hours. The Border Worlders are panicking about nothing - you know how these Colonials are. We are inflicting heavy losses on the enemy for minimal casualties in return. You've nothing to worry about -by the time you get here it'll just be a clear-up job. That's the very reason why we haven't activated the First, Fourth and Seventh Fleets. You're not going to be used as cannon-fodder and, quite frankly, I resent the implication.
I expected more support from you over this - we're supposed to be fighting the enemy, not each other! Once those two escorts arrive you are to proceed directly to Nifelheim. Any delay will be seen as defying direct orders, do I make myself clear? I don't like having to put my foot down like this, especially with an old friend, but we can't have dissent at a time like this. If you aren't in-system on schedule we'll both suffer the consequences.
Victor Rayak, CINC Third Fleet
Rat grinned despite himself. Rank changed nothing. Admirals and commodores were human, too, (just!) and argued the same as lowly pilots did. It somehow seemed to bring everything into perspective. Rat quickly scanned the E-Mail subject headings. One of the earlier ones had an attached file:
From : email@example.com
To : Turnbull-JC@tcn.milesd'arby.crew
Subject: Re: Nephilim Intell
Dear Commodore Turnbull,
Sorry I took so long to get back to you on this - I realize it is extremely important but due the situation things have been a bit busy here. The report you had forwarded to you by Admiral Rayak seems to have merely been the preliminary threat assessment - I don't know why because the full report had already been prepared and released when he sent it. Here it is, a full description of all the alien craft, Confed reporting designations and extrapolated performance data. It is classified TOP SECRET so you won't be able to distribute it to your boys until you're given the go-ahead but it's scary reading.
Terran Confederation Intelligence Services
He tried to open the attached file but it was classified "TOP SECRET." He'd gotten into the Commodore's E-Mails because the Commodore let his secretary have his password for ease, at least the low-security one. Rat was currently sleeping with the Lt. Commander Catherine Masters in question (as well as two or three other women -- Love Rat had been his original nickname that gave him his callsign) and got it out of her. He had a way with women: he wasn't particularly good looking or sexy and knew he could be downright obnoxious at times, especially with a few pints in him, but somehow he had hot-and-cold-running women on tap that would be the envy of most rock stars.
He cheated on them all -- he couldn't help it, if it was offered he grabbed it with both hands. A lot of men envied him but he couldn't see why -- he hated himself. Every time he found someone he really cared for he fucked it up by sleeping with someone else, usually one of her closest friends. Every time he swore it'd be different but he just couldn't help himself. Weak -- no self-discipline, at least when it came to sex.
There was no way he could get into the TOP SECRET document with the password he had and he didn't dare try anything else. He glanced at the time and realized he'd been way too long already. He got out as fast as he could, doing his best to cover his tracks. If it worked (and he fervently hoped it had) anyone trying to find out who had been into the Commodore's E-Mail (even if they realized anyone had) would end up asking a drug-dealer named Pat "Icepick" Fergusson in the Hellespont System what exactly he was doing accessing the personal mail of a Confed Commodore. Serve the bastard right if they did, too.
Main Briefing Theatre, Pilots
Briefing for 0930 Take-Off
08 Feb 2681 (2681.039) 0858 ZULU
"Here it is, people: the low down on what we're up against. They're called the Nephilim, and not the sort of people you'd like to meet on a dark night."
Rat coughed down a laugh. Had just eighteen hours notice been worth risking his career over? Probably not, but it had felt good at the time!
"Okay, here's the mission profile..."