PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 20 of 44 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
Tanfen Corporation Compound
Lennox III, Lennox System
1637 Hours, February 7th, 2681 (2681.038)
Several hundred meters below the Tanfen compound on the surface of Lennox III was a room with computers utilizing technology not yet produced for communications which were never sent, about things in which Tanfen or its Board of Directors had no interest. It was a room that didn't exist. And if anyone not cleared for knowledge of it found out about it, they tended not to exist either, especially after TISD got through with them.
Right now Matsui Gan was holding one of those nonexistent conversations.
"What do you mean it cannot be done?" he demanded.
The woman in the holographic image at the other end of the transcomm channel seemed to pause but Matsui knew it was an illusion. Even with the incredibly powerful computers in this room and the similar facility in which the transmission was being received, encrypting and decrypting a transmission with a Lucifer protection program guarding its contents took time.
"Exactly what I said, milord," she replied evenly, brushing her long hair back from her face. "As I advised the Board of Directors we are in the midst of a crisis. We face an unknown enemy advancing from the Dakota System while also facing a full corporate war with Porhen Industries. TISD's resources must be utilized to best protect the Corporation."
"The honor of Family Gan and the security of the entire Corporation is at stake!" Matsui objected, thumping the terminal for emphasis. The terminal took no damage, as it was protected and reinforced to the point where it could withstand anything short of an armor piercing round, which was just as well because the old man was angry enough to tear it apart with his bare hands. "Do you expect us to stand by and do nothing, Lady Sue Yen?"
Sue Yen Ng Lai frowned slightly. "What I am saying is that survival of the Corporation and the Families is TISD's highest priority. I lack the assets for appropriate actions while dealing with Porhen's aggression and the new threat."
"Unacceptable! I want their heads on a platter!" Matsui raged. The head of TISD appeared unmoved.
"Then if you wish TISD to handle the problem, you will have to wait. Once this war with our blood enemies is over I will inform you when we have assets available, milord." She reached for something off the screen and her holo-image faded from the display facing Matsui. The old man cursed savagely in Cantonese.
"Signal lost, sir. Transmission was terminated by Tanfennet," a comm tech reported. Matsui gave him a withering glare and watched the man cringe. It took a lot to anger Matsui Gan but right now he was very, very angry.
Damn Sue Yen Ng Lai to the deepest pits of the Nine Hells, he thought viciously. The Ice Queen couldn't spare even one agent to remove the stain from the family's honor. The insults had to be avenged, there was no acceptable alternative, but he lacked the assets to do the job without implicating the Corporation. He had attempted to improvise a solution a couple of days ago but that had blown up in his face, and now the stakes had risen even further. He could not make the attempt too blatant or the Border Worlds would respond against Tanfen, either with trade sanctions or military intervention, and he did not want to bring that to pass. For that matter, half of his military units were being conscripted by the UBW force already in the system. The same force the miscreants who had so insulted the Family were assigned to...
Matsui grinned as a thought struck him. "Get Forrester to meet me in Conference Room 3 in ten minutes," he ordered an aide. Perhaps there was a subtle way after all. Accidents often happened in war, especially those involving highly complex machines like fighters. If anything were to go wrong with the machine, anyone who depended on it would be in very serious trouble. Friendly fire could also kill...
There were many paths to revenge.
Galley, BWS Sicily
0710 Hours February 8th, 2681 (2681.039)
"The real kicker on a carrier landing is your speed," Dragan Emerson explained as he stirred his coffee. True to his word, Paul Onslow had put the Scrappers through two grueling hours of carrier landing drills before giving them half an hour for breakfast. As expected the two recent arrivals were near the top of the rankings, so they were being asked for advice by their new colleagues. Grimm looked like he wanted to run and hide from the attention while Emerson was reveling in it. "If you come in too slow you lose control when you enter the carrier's gravity field. If you come in too fast then you can't kill enough velocity to stop in time."
"As I found out when I arrived," Kristy Joyce commented ruefully. "Speaking of landings and sims and practice, I found this in my sim pod. Any ideas as to what it is and why it was there?" she asked, digging in her flight suit's pockets. She grunted in satisfaction as she found the object in question and dumped it on the table.
"I believe it's called a potato, Captain," Eric Maslevski replied dryly.
"I was aware of that," she shot back acidly. "I want to know what it was doing in my sim pod. "She noticed Grimm giving Emerson an amused glance. "All right you two, fess up. Why did you do it?"
Anthony Grimm finished a mouthful of toast and cleared his throat. "Well, we didn't do it but I know what it's for, Captain. Back in the twentieth century, planes would take off from the foredeck and land on the aft deck. It still happens on some of the carriers like the Concordias. Well, on those old seabound carriers the part of the hull just below the edge of the aft deck was referred to as the spud locker. Anyone who clipped the edge of the deck while landing got presented with a spud just like you did." He pointed at the offending vegetable. "Hell, one guy in the old US Navy back in the 20th century got the callsign of Spud because he did it on his first landing."
Kristy glared at him for a few moments. "How do you know so much about it if you didn't plant it there, Tony?" She watched him fidget for a few more seconds.
"My dad works in a traveling circus, flies some old air-breathing planes so I learned a lot about the history of flight," he explained. "Few people today know who Orville and Wilbur Wright are or who first broke the sound barrier. Nobody's interested in history anymore, but it can come in handy," he concluded.
"All right, I believe you," she said. "Won't I ever live that damn landing down?"
The other Scrappers just grinned mockingly at her. "Oh great," she growled, and kicked Alex under the table. "You're supposed to help your wingman out, you know."
Alex rubbed his shin and looked at her. "Well there was that time I offered to help you with -- " he began. Then he went absolutely rigid. Kristy noticed the fixed expression on his face and looked over her shoulder to follow his gaze. A dozen figures were trooping into the galley and helping themselves to the allegedly organic compounds that the Scrappers were learning to consider ship's food. Their flightsuits were the same drab khaki as Marine BDUs, unlike the medium gray of the Scrappers and other UBW pilots, but they wore Border Worlds rank markings. The unit patches on their shoulders were not those of any Border Worlds unit however. The only patch they wore was of a pegasus in flight but it was enough for Alex to know exactly who they were.
"Well, well, well. It looks like the recycling system's packed up and the shit's flowing through here," he rasped.
"The Tanfen pilots have finally shown up," Vincent Tsu murmured. The pegasus patch was the emblem of the Tanfen Airwing Security Corps. "Figures they'd have been given a brevet rank in the Border Worlds forces to make it easier for them to mesh with us."
"Maybe but it still sticks in my craw," Todd McLaughlin complained, his eyes focused on the leader of the newcomers. "Wait a minute... Vince, check out their boss. Is that who I think it is?"
Tsu focused on the tall thin dark-haired man with a lieutenant colonel's bars on his shoulders. He waited until the man's head shifted angle slightly, then let his breath out in a hiss as recognition set in. "That's the bastard who started the punchup with Jack in the Wild Hart!"
"I thought so."
"Two down the line, the blond guy near the coffee machine," Alex warned. "He's the one who tried to put a knife into Jack."
"You're kidding me," Emerson murmured. "Those guys tried murdering your XO?"
"You bet," a voice behind them said. They turned to see Jack DeVille looking at the blond knifeman as if he had a Spiculum ImRec primed and waiting for launch. "I was barely conscious when he tried putting that knife between my ribs. But we've got to work with them so let's sort it out right now." He began to walk over to the seated Tanfenners.
"Hey Jack!" Danica called. "Watch your six, okay?"
"It makes my neck stiff. Besides, that'd make two of us." He smirked at her expression then turned back towards the corporate pilots. "Hey guys! How's it going?!" he exclaimed in a voice loud enough to make them wince. "We've really gotta finish that chat we were having a couple of days ago. I mean, there was so much left unsaid!" he continued in a slightly quieter bellow, slapping the Lt Colonel and the blond Lieutenant on the shoulder hard enough to knock them both forward in their seats. The Lieutenant -- Jack glanced down at his nametag which read Benson -- began to choke on the mouthful of coffee he'd just taken.
"Hey, I know the coffee's pretty bad but it's not that lethal unless you happen to get a larger-than-usual turd stuck in your gizzard," he soothed as he patted Benson on the back. If he was using a little too much force or seemed to be enjoying the Tanfen pilot's distress, none of the Scrappers was saying a word -- ndeed, Alex and Todd were trying desperately not to burst out laughing. "Don't worry," Jack comforted the Tanfen pilot. "If you start choking for real, I'll be happy to give you an instant tracheotomy, just like the one you were willing to give me in the Wild Hart."
"If you've quite finished getting acquainted with our new comrades-in-arms, Jack, maybe you can join the rest of us on the flight deck," Onslow ordered.
"I'll be there, sir. I was just leaving." DeVille turned back to the Tanfenners, most of whom were gazing at him with contempt or shock in their eyes. One copper-haired woman, however, had mirth dancing in her dark eyes. "I'm sorry, but duty calls. I'm sure we'll all catch up sometime later so don't fret. I can feel we're all going to be such great friends!!" he exclaimed with mock gaiety and jogged out of the mess, whistling merrily.
Flight Deck, BWS Sicily
0723 Hours February 8th, 2681 (2681.039)
"So why'd the Wing Commander want us up here?" Todd McLaughlin asked as he exited the lift to the flight deck.
"I have no idea, Todd," Paul Onslow replied. The Scrappers were bursting with curiosity but McLaughlin was the only one to give voice to it as they piled out of the lift. "He didn't tell me, he just told me to get you to the flight deck ASAP."
"So I could get you those replacement fighters you wanted," the stocky Wing Commander replied from his position off to the side of the flight deck. Onslow didn't recognize the older bearded man in Confed uniform standing next to him.
"Everyone, this is Colonel Jack Tanagawa, callsign Samurai. He's the Wing Commander who ordered us up here. He used to fly for Confed before he went straight so don't get too destructive while he's around." To demonstrate, Onslow made a point of saluting Tanagawa. "I hate to tell you this, sir, but we only need one replacement fighter."
"Don't call me sir, it makes me feel old. And do you mean to tell me that you want to keep your beat-up old Vindicators when you've got the chance to fly some top-notch ex-Confed strike fighters so hot they only went into limited production?" Tanagawa smiled as the 349th's ears pricked up en masse.
"Sounds too good to be true, sir," Sandra Lynch replied carefully. "What's the catch?"
"You're going to have to learn how to fly them," the Wing Commander explained dryly. "It'll be very rushed training from instructional holodiscs only but from what Colonel Onslow has told me you can do it. The components to refit the sim pods to match the control setup of these babies were brought along with them so you can get sim practice. We're due to arrive in Nifelheim on the evening of the 10th or the morning of the 11th, so that only gives us a couple days to get you to speed."
"So when do we get to see them, sir?" Kristy asked.
"As soon as my people finish unloading them," the bearded Confed officer cut in. "Which should be in about five minutes." His personal comm buzzed and he raised it to his ear. After a few seconds of listening he pocketed the comm and turned back to the Border Worlders with a faint expression of surprise on his face. "It appears I spoke too soon. They've just finished unloading the fighters now and they await you in the starboard maintenance bay."
"Great! Let's go check them out." The Border Worlds pilots hurried to the maintenance area to check their new aircraft and stopped almost as one.
"Blessed, benevolent God," Eric Maslevski breathed in awe. "Look at them." His squadronmates were already doing so.
A common pilot's saying from the days when flight was restricted by aerodynamics was "If it looks right it'll fly right." The Vindicators which the Scrappers had flown proved the truth of this even after seven hundred years. Nicknamed 'the Toolbox' for its boxy shape and its twin tail fins with a single tailplane which resembled nothing so much as a carrying handle, there was no way a Vindicator would ever look right. Only its antigrav units enabled it to fly in atmosphere and even then it wallowed like a pig in mud. Some pilots commented it was the ultimate proof of another old saying "With enough thrust even a brick can fly."
In contrast, the six new warbirds definitely looked right, seeming eager to leap into flight on their own. The sleek thirty meter long fuselage seemed to flow into the forward-swept wings, and dual intakes above and below the rear fuselage melded into the two rear thrusters. Two weapon muzzles extended from each wing and a turret sat between the rear thrusters. Resplendent in midnight blue with silver trim, they stood out from the battered and worn-down Border Worlds fighters like proud knights from a mob of peasants.
As usual it was Alex Morgan who made the first comment. He glanced at Onslow and murmured "Dad, it's been ages since we got anything new. Can I have one of these for Christmas?"
"Seems like Christmas is already here," Onslaw replied in an equally hushed voice, watching intently as the rest of the 349th continued to gawk at the new fighters.
Finally John Hawke gathered himself enough to turn to face the CO. "What the hell are they?" he asked quietly. Onslaw shrugged helplessly. He opened his mouth to speak but a voice from the entrance to the maintenance bay interrupted.
"F/A-60 Marauder heavy fighters, probably the standard attack model." They turned to face the speaker and found themselves staring into the cold eyes of the CO of the Tanfen squadron. "Of course, I've only flown the prototypes, but they should handle the same."
"You've flown one of these fighters, Colonel Forrester?" Tanagawa asked, his eyes narrowed. "Where?"
"At our flight test centers back on the Homeworlds," the Tanfen Colonel replied. "Mind you, they were Tanfen-built so they had lighter - "
"Tanfen builds these aircraft?" the Confed naval officer gaped. "When I picked these up from the boneyard I was told that they were quite rare."
"Well I'm sure the standard attack models are," the Tanfenner hastened to add. "We were chasing a contract to license build them for the Border Worlds Navy, but the final negotiations were still dragging on when the Nephilim attacked."
"And these ones," Kristy Joyce waved her hand to indicate the Marauders in the maintenance bay, "are the standard version?"
"Probably but I can't tell without a close-up inspection," Forrester sighed heavily. "I just wish there was some way to get my people into them. I have two flight crews who have flown Marauders before and it shouldn't take long to get the other Thunderbolt crews qualified on them."
"Unfortunately these six Marauders are ours," Jack DeVille drawled, his arctic eyes boring into the Tanfen officer.
The Confed naval officer cleared his throat as Forrester drew in a deep breath for a blistering reply. "Excuse me ladies and gentlemen but I assumed that we were all on the same side here." He paused to let the tension drain from the situation. "Now I feel that I am the most qualified to speak on exactly how many of these aircraft are available."
"Why?" Tanagawa asked curtly.
"Because I am the captain of the transport which brought them here. Never let it be said that Captain Leland Burke of the Terran Confederation Naval Reserve does not know the limitations and capabilities of his own vessel. As I was saying," he hurriedly continued, "I command a Pelican-class transport capable of carrying twelve fighters."
A gleam came into Forrester's eyes. "You have another six Marauders in your ship's cargo bay?"
Burke nodded vigorously. "Exactly! All I require is sufficient deck space to have my crew unload them and I will be more than happy to do so."
Forrester spun to face Tanagawa. "Colonel Tanagawa, if we shift my squadron's Thunderbolts to Captain Burke's transport that will free up enough deck space for the Marauders to be shifted to the Sicily. I'm sure I could get my flight crews qualified by the time we reach Nifelheim."
Tanagawa's eyes narrowed in concentration as he thought for several seconds. Then he nodded sharply. "Very well, Colonel Forrester, the remaining Marauders will be assigned to your squadron on the following conditions. One: at the end of this campaign any remaining Marauders and technical data related to them will be returned to the Union. Two: you will have to make sure your pilots are fully qualified on the Marauders by the time we reach Nifelheim - carrier ops, combat ops, the whole enchilada. Three: while you are training your squadron to fly the Marauders you will also train the bomber crews of the 349th to the same standard as your own command. Is that understood?"
"Yes sir," Forrester agreed quickly. "If that is the case I'll need to organize my squadron for the training as soon as possible."
"Very well. Dismissed." The Tanfen Colonel trotted away from the maintenance bay towards the lifts seemingly unaware of the daggered glares cast at his back. Alex Morgan cursed.
"We've got these great new fighters but we've gotta be taught by a bunch of maggot-sucking Tanfen turkeys how to fly them? No way in hell! Boss, I want my old Vindicator back and I want it now!" His gray eyes were locked on Onslow's face like targeting lasers. "I'm not gonna spend any more time than I have to around those treacherous bastards."
"That option's not available," Tanagawa cut in before Onslow could reply. "We need every pilot in the best plane they can fly. That means you attend Colonel Forrester's classes and you work your ass off to learn how to fly that thing!" He advanced on Morgan, jabbing the Lieutenant's breastbone with his finger to emphasize his next words. "Me Colonel, you Lieutenant. Me say, you do. Is that understood, Lieutenant?"
Alex's eyes were wide with shock. "Yes, sir," he finally mumbled.
"Good," the Wing Commander growled. "I expect you to be ready for training whenever Forrester calls for you, understand?" He looked around at the various members of the squadron. "Any crew which will be trained in one of the new fighters will remain here until someone comes to take you to your new classroom. Feel free to take a look over your new birds but anyone who breaks one by pushing the wrong button better start praying really fast." Everyone nodded.
"Well, I've got work to do so I'm off." He accepted Onslow's hasty salute and marched away.
As soon as Tanagawa was out of sight Onslow turned to face Alex. "What the hell was that all about?" he demanded angrily. "Are you trying to get busted to avoid the fighting?" Calling the young Lieutenant a coward wasn't exactly diplomatic but angry people didn't often hold back their answers. And Paul Onslow definitely wanted some answers.
"No way!" Alex protested. "I'm not a coward!"
"Then why are you trying so hard to end up in the brig?" Onslow yelled back. "Dammit, you've done some really stupid things in your time but I don't think you've ever been more of a dickhead than at that moment! What is your problem?"
"We can't trust those Tanfen bastards half as far as I could throw this carrier! They've got treachery encoded into their frigging DNA just like the Black Lance did!" Alex snarled back furiously.
"This isn't about Jack, is it?" Onslow asked quietly. "It's about something that happened to you. Isn't it?"
"None of your damn business, sir," Alex grated.
"No it isn't," the Colonel agreed. "But what is my business is how the squadron holds up, not just one member with an attitude problem. If I hear one word about you messing around in this training course, you're behind bars until we're back in Lennox."
"And what will you do for a replacement pilot if I'm canned?"
"I'm sure one of the Tanfenners flying Hellcats would be willing to learn how to fly one of these new birds. Even if they weren't I'd be able to find a replacement." Alex's CO leaned in closer to him to emphasize his next words. "I don't want to do that, Alex. You're a hell of a flyer but if you can't work with the rest of the squadron then you're gone. Got it?"
"Got it." The young pilot's face was twisted in anger and bitterness. "I'm in, sir."
Onslow clapped him on the shoulder. "I knew you were," he replied softly. "If you've got a problem come see me and we'll talk it out."
"Okay, sir." Alex turned and slouched away leaving Onslow to wonder just how deep the young pilot's distrust of Tanfen went.
Lounge, BWS Sicily
2234 Hours February 8th, 2681 (2681.039)
"That went well," Kristy Joyce commented ironically as she poured a shot of whiskey into her glass. She knocked it back in one swallow and poured another. "No murders, maimings or attempts at same. Better than I expected."
"Don't you trust your wingman?" Sandra Lynch asked ironically. Everyone who had been in training with the Tanfen pilots that day had seen the tight rein Alex had kept on his temper, even with Forrester's disparaging remarks and taunts disguised as constructive criticism. They had no doubt that Colonel Forrester was trying to provoke them into a violent response. They also had no doubt that if the Tanfen Colonel kept pushing the envelope like he had been, he'd soon be taking his meals through an IV.
"I trust him," Kristy commented, directing a nod at Alex who was busy gazing out the windows of the lounge. "I don't trust Forrester. Something about the guy just puts me on edge."
"Watch your back when he's around," Alex growled. "Things are dangerous enough on this mission without us having to worry about him knifing us in the back."
He watched a pair of transports forming up on one of the other carriers and a Kurasawa-class light cruiser. A pair of Banshee light fighters came in for a landing even as a flight of Jaguar heavy fighters launched. We must be getting close to the jump point, he thought. The Jaguars were jump-capable unlike the nimbler Banshees and packed a lot more firepower. They were still being introduced into frontline service, which made them unique among the task force's flight group. The rest of the flight group had to make do with fighters that were rapidly becoming obsolescent or were flat-out obsolete. There was even a squadron on the Sicily which was flying First Kilrathi War-era Thunderbolts.
Of course, he would have felt better if the Jaguars were being flown by experienced pilots instead of a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears cadets. Sure, Emerson and Grimm were rookies, but at least they'd graduated from the Academy. From what he'd heard in shipboard scuttlebutt, the kids flying the Jaguars had still been in class when they'd been assigned to the Arnhem. He'd also heard that Colonel Tanagawa had been teaching at the Academy before the Nephilim invasion. If the Border Worlds were calling on Academy instructors and trainees already then Alex didn't want to think about how deep the crap they'd been dropped in was.
"Only another two hours until we jump out," Eric Maslevski rasped as he watched the warships and support ships assemble in formation. The Arnhem and her escorts were blotted out by the bulk of the Havok as the heavy cruiser formed up on the Sicily. The Havok was one of the biggest ships in the Border Worlds Navy even if she was nearly a decade old and had been bound for the scrapheap, and the Scrappers felt better knowing she was there to guard the carriers.
We pilots get to meet God one at a time, Eric thought grimly, but capship crews meet Him all at once. Poor brave souls.
They stood at the window in silence watching the little armada form up before the jump. Two other escort carriers, four frigates, a destroyer, a couple of light cruisers and one heavy cruiser. It wasn't much, but it would have to do. The Sicily altered her course slightly to port, giving the Scrappers a better view of the swarming capships and fighters. Arnhem was continuing to launch her Jaguars in preparation for the jump and Alex watched a pair of Avengers burn towards the heavy fighters. They would jump through with the frigates ahead of the heavier capships to scout the far side of the jump point, and either broadcast the all-clear to the rest of the fleet or to spring any traps the Nephilim might have laid. Even though the Combined Fleet had jumped out of Tyr thirty-six hours ago and should have stopped the Nephilim slipping any further into the Border Worlds, there was still a chance that a nasty surprise had slipped through the net.
"And so Caesar stood upon the banks of the Rubicon and turned his regal gaze southward," Maslevski almost whispered. Alex looked over at him curiously.
"What the hell are you mumbling about?" he asked. "Or are you quoting again?"
"I seem to be turning into a compulsive quoter," the lanky Zealot admitted. "It's a habit I seem to have picked up from you. Of course I have better source material."
"We should start calling you Gurney Halleck," Kristy murmured from where she had walked over behind the two men. Maslevski raised an eyebrow in enquiry. "He's a character in one of those twentieth-century novels I keep borrowing from Alex," she explained.
"Borrowing implies that you'll return them," Alex noted dryly. "Which story was this Halleck guy in?" He took a swallow of his Hell's Kitchen.
"It's called Dune," Kristy replied. "At one point one of his buddies says 'Someday I'll find that man without a quote and he'll seem naked.' For some reason I thought of Eric and his compulsive quoting. What was it this time?"
"Caesar Redux. It's a play that was written in the neo-Shakespearean revival of the 24th century about Julius Caesar's rise to power. After a successful military campaign throughout Europe, the Roman Senate ordered him and his legions to stay in Europe and not return to Rome because they were afraid of his popularity. Caesar defied them by crossing the Rubicon River as the first step of his return to Rome. Ever since then crossing the Rubicon has meant passing the point of no return."
"And you think this jump point's our Rubicon?" Alex asked slowly.
Eric nodded. "Most of our missions as part of this squadron have been in Lennox. This'll be a big change for us. No more home turf advantage."
"What happened to Caesar after he crossed the Rubicon?" Kristy inquired, attempting to break the bleak mood.
"He started a civil war which he won. That left him the de facto ruler of the greatest empire of the world at the time."
"Sounds pretty good," Alex said, a faint grin lighting his features for the first time that day. "Let's go put our Rubicon behind us."
"Easy on the throttle, Alex. After Caesar came to power some of his friends and political allies thought he was getting too big for his boots so they stabbed him to death," Eric cautioned his comrades.
"That was nice of them," Kristy groused. She took another sip of whiskey and almost choked as Jack DeVille, who had sneaked up behind her during the conversation, planted a kiss on the back of her neck. "Goddammit, Jack, don't do that!" she spluttered as soon as she had her breath back. Jack merely grinned innocently.
"Sorry, I couldn't resist. You look even cuter than usual when you're angry," he commented. His grin faded as he looked at the other two men nearby. "I've got some news for all of you."
"Then with all due respect, Major," Eric asked tartly, "if you kiss me on the neck when you deliver it, you'll be singing soprano for the rest of your life," Alex burst out laughing at Jack's expression of mock-terror.
"I just got some news off the grapevine that I thought I'd better pass on," the Major explained. "Confed's got its head a bit further out of its ass than we expected. They're sending a reserve fleet of three escort carriers to back us up at Nifelheim." He blinked in surprise at the glares he received from the trio by the window. "Oh great... what have I done now?" he asked aggrievedly.