PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 27 of 44 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
Seggalion System, Union of Border Worlds
February 9th, 2681 (2681.040) 0017 Hours
Subquantum lightning flared and crackled before coalescing into a blue-white vortex under the guidance of Akwende Drives as a dozen HF-95 Jaguar heavy fighters and ten B-6 Avenger torpedo bombers leapt across dozens of light years in the blink of an eye. Their pilots scanned the immediate area with sensors and eyes alike, all of them reporting the same result. Plenty of distant stars and even more blackness between them but no sign of any craft, hostile or otherwise, nearby.
Lt Colonel Jeff "Snowman" Harrison keyed his comm system's mike and spoke in his usual curt fashion. "Task Force Jasmine, this is Frostreaver Lead - Phase One is complete. Ready for Phase Two, over." He swallowed deeply to get rid of the last remnants of jumpshock as he waited for an answer.
"Roger that, Frostreaver Lead. Phase Two commencing," the comm operator of the Sicily replied even as the jump point tore open again and the frigates Auckland, Launceston, Christchurch, and Wollongong jumped into Seggalion. Seconds later three Intruder medium fighters separated from each frigate.
"They're looking pretty slick," 2nd Lieutenant Benita "Blender" Rogers commented as she looked over to the Intruders even now forming up into a patrol pattern.
"Bah! We did it a lot better than those old farts!" 2nd Lieutenant Conrad "Mac" Berger snorted.
Harrison opened his comm channel to his squadron. "Maybe, Berger, but could you outfight them in a furball? If you want to be praised for pretty takeoffs and landings go join Confed." He paused for a few seconds to let the laughter die down then spoke again, this time to the whole squadron. "Frostreavers, we have another hour on patrol so let's keep our eyes on our scopes, not on our buddies."
Flight Wing Quarters, BWS Sicily
February 9th, 2681 (2681.040) 0438 hours
He winced and covered his head from the bright light and impossibly loud noises, at the same time trying to order the contents of his stomach to remain within his body. Whatever he'd been fed couldn't have been fit for normal human consumption judging by the bitter taste in his mouth and the heaving of his guts. Silently he wished all the agonies of hell on the bastards who held him prisoner and inflicted this pain on him.
"Eric? You alive in there?" somebody asked. The voice would have been gentle if it wasn't at a volume which seemed to reverberate inside his skull like the shockwaves of an earthquake. He tried to snarl defiance at his captors but the sound that came out of his mouth was closer to a combination of a frog's croak and a baby's gurgle than coherent speech.
He managed to open his eyes a fraction and barely recognized the slim red-haired figure leaning over him. What's Kristy doing tormenting me like this? Eric Maslevski wondered vaguely. And then he remembered the talking and drinking in the Sicily's lounge after the day's training in the new Marauder fighters they were learning to fly. They had shared complaints about Matthew Forrester, the Tanfen Corporation pilot who had been assigned to train them on the new fighters. And they'd commented about the squadron of cadet Jaguar pilots the Arnhem had brought into the task force. After that...
"Better grab a bucket. I think he's gonna puke." That was the smart-assed new member of the Scrappers, Dragan Emerson. Most of the 349th's pilots qualified as smartasses but Emerson seemed determined to exceed even their high standards. Maslevski tried to snap at him but his nausea made it too much effort.
"Emerson, do us all a favor and shut up for a while, okay?" Jack DeVille growled even as Maslevski relaxed. His squadronmates - no, his friends - were with him no matter where he was. He pried his eyes further open and saw Jack's blond hair in the bright light of the room which he now recognized as their barracks on the Sicily. "C'mon, Eric, wake up! Get it together!"
"I think that little shit Emerson's right," Eric moaned. "I feel like Satan's tap-danced on my body." He winced as he tried to push himself up from his bunk and wondered just how the Sicily's helmsman was making the escort carrier perform the Immelmans and other intricate maneuvers making his head spin. Kristy caught him just before he slammed into the metal floor.
"You didn't tell me you had a private stash of booze hidden here," she scolded him. He looked up at her in befuddlement. He hadn't drunk anything since he'd come back to the barracks from the Sicily's lounge. "I'm just glad there aren't any of those Confed pilots here to see you like this."
"What Confed pilots?" John Hawke asked, his pale eyes flashing in anger.
"Confed decided to get its head of its backside a little bit. They're sending three escort carriers to reinforce us," Jack explained to the hard-eyed Hawke. He raised his hands in a placating manner. "John, I know how you feel about Confed but we need all the help we can get."
"Sure we do," Hawke agreed, "but the Nephilim don't." He turned and stalked out of the barracks. The other members of the 349th uncomfortably watched him depart.
"What's gotten into him?" Anthony Grimm asked, looking around at the remaining Scrappers in confusion. None of them met his eyes until the silence was broken by the sound of a throat being cleared. Grimm turned to see Paul Onslow standing in the doorway to the barracks, and hurriedly snapped to attention. The Colonel chuckled.
"At ease, Grimm," he told the 349th's newest member. His eyes flicked around the barracks. "Anyone want to tell me what set John off?" he asked mildly, but everyone recognized the question as an order. Finally Sandra Lynch spoke up.
"Jack just told us there's three carriers full of Confees heading to Nifelheim to back us up, and Bloodhawk hit the roof. You know how he is about Confed," she explained.
Onslow nodded. "We'd better keep an eye on him."
"I'll do it, sir," Danica Owens volunteered quickly. "He is my wingman after all."
The Colonel nodded. "All right, you've got the job. Remember we won't bite your head off if you need help," he told her gently. "By the way everyone, we've got an exercise scheduled today. Those of you training on the Marauders will report to classes with Colonel Forrester as normal. Everyone else will report to the flight deck for takeoff at 1100 Hours. We're flying defense for the Arnhem against a simulated bomber strike. Any questions?" he asked, to be answered by shaken heads and quiet negatives. "All right then. I'll see you on deck," he concluded as he turned and left. Owens shut her locker and followed him without a backward glance.
Alex Morgan straightened up from rummaging through Eric's locker and cleared his throat. "No booze here, Kris, but I found another stash." He held up a small green and white vial of pills and studied the writing on the side. "Check it out, it's tricholo... trichlorom..."
"Gimme that," Kristy snapped, snatching the box out of his hand. She looked down at the writing and went pale. Her shoulders slumped.
"What is it?" Vincent Tsu asked, dark eyes full of concern. "Don't tell me Eric's been doing drugs in his downtime." Maslevski shot him a murderous look and tried to sit up but Jack held him down.
"It's trichloromorphine," Kristy said softly. She turned to Eric and regarded him sympathetically. "Dammit, Eric, why didn't you tell us you needed this? Didn't you trust us?"
"Not the sort of thing a pilot likes to admit to," he rasped. "Just give me some now and I'll be okay."
"Not until I know what the hell it does," Jack said coldly. "What is this stuff, Kristy?"
"It's a medication used to treat jumpshock," Kristy explained. "It's a preventative, usually taken about an hour before a jump. But it's one of the most powerful meds on the market so it's only prescribed for the worst cases. Doesn't do a damn thing if it's taken after a jump. We'd better get him down to sickbay ASAP."
Alex grabbed one of Eric's hands and hauled him upright as Jack slipped the jumpsick pilot's other arm around his shoulders. "C'mon, Eric, let's get going," he murmured gently. The trio began making their way to the Sicily's sickbay, trying to ignore the faint green tinge to Maslevski's face.
Grimm cleared his throat nervously. "Will somebody tell me just what the hell is going on?" he asked plaintively. "I feel like I walked in halfway through a movie."
"What do you want to know, lad?" Todd McLaughlin asked the lanky recruit.
"What's the deal with Captain Hawke and Lieutenant Owens?" he inquired. "I mean it seems like they've known each other for ages."
"They have," McLaughlin replied casually, leaning back on his bunk and studying the barracks' ceiling. "They joined us about a year and a half ago, and even then they were really close. None of us really knows why," he continued, his voice turning more thoughtful. "Dani'd just graduated from Academy and Hawke was a Captain when he came to us. The Colonel paired them together for flight duties and they worked pretty well together, and that's how things have been ever since."
Kristy Joyce chuckled. "Neither of them is really talkative as you may have noticed, so we nicknamed 'em Silent and Violent."
"Which one was which?" Grimm inquired innocently. The other Scrappers stared at him in disbelief for a few seconds until he lost the struggle to keep the grin off his face. Laughter filled the barracks as they caught realized they'd just been had by one of the newbies.
"So why's Hawke so anti-Confed?" Dragan Emerson asked once the amusement had died down. The smiles left the faces of the other Scrappers very quickly.
"John mustered out of Confed after the Kilrathi War," McLaughlin continued, "but he started flying for the Border Worlds when the tensions with Confed heated up. In the meantime he'd gotten married and settled down. He and his wife had signed up for a colonial resettlement program before he re-upped. Anyway his wife took their kids with her to the planet she got assigned to, and everything was coming up roses."
The Cabrean's eyes bored into Emerson. "The planet was designated FT-957."
Emerson's normally-dark features went pale as realization swept over him. "Telamon IV?"
Vincent Tsu nodded. "They were on the ground when the Black Lance showed up. John was assigned to the cruiser Tuscarora out near Speradon at the time, there was nothing he could have one but he still went through a major guilt trip. And once the Lance's ties with Confed were revealed..." Tsu left the sentence hanging but everyone understood.
Deck 5, BWS Sicily
About The Same Time
"Must have been a hell of an attack of jumpshock to beat you around like this," Jack commented as Maslevski lurched alarmingly.
"Figure it out, Jack. He's had a twenty-hour day with some pretty heavy duty sim sessions plus drinking on top of all this stress," Alex replied tartly. "It's enough to make anything seem worse. Even I wasn't feeling one hundred percent this morning."
"One hundred percent of who?" Eric bit back through clenched teeth. Alex gaped at him for a second then he and Jack burst out laughing. Their laughter lasted until they rounded a corner and were almost knocked over by a small figure in a Tanfen flightsuit. She bounced back and only saved herself from falling by grabbing the front of Alex's flightsuit to hold herself up.
"Hey, watch where you're going!" she snapped as she glared up at the taller Border Worlds pilot. "Where the hell do you think you are, Central Avenue?" Although she was only a couple of inches taller than five feet the fire in her eyes made up for her lack of physical stature. High cheekbones narrowed her dark eyes and Alex Morgan couldn't help noticing just how attractive she was. Not in the same league as Danica Owens but still not ugly. She's a Tanfenner, he told himself hurriedly. She can't be trusted. None of them can!
"If we were back on Central Avenue, the only way I'd be trying to crash into you would be on a hovercycle," he grated. "Can you spell 'street pizza'?" he added harshly, and was surprised to find himself feeling guilt at her flinch. The Corporation had taken too much from him to forgive and any of their lackeys were fair game.
"Zip it, Lieutenant!" Jack grated and Alex hurriedly shut up. When the Scrappers' second-in-command started addressing subordinates by rank instead of name it was a sure indication he was on the verge of losing his temper. The blond pilot turned to face the red-haired woman and shrugged an apology. "Sorry about that, Lieutenant -- " he glanced at the nametag on her flightsuit, " -- Tseng. Morgan gets a little wild when we miss his rabies shots."
"That's okay. Colonel Forrester told us not to expect much better from you guys," she commented, arching an eyebrow. DeVille smiled in spite of himself.
"And do you believe everything he tells you?"
"Not everything, just most of it."
"You were the one who was trying not to laugh at my little performance in the galley last night," he pointed out gently. Tseng blushed a little and hurriedly changed the subject.
"What's wrong with your friend?" she asked, indicating Eric who was barely able to stand.
"A bad case of jumpshock," Alex answered shortly. Tseng winced in sympathy.
"I'll go and tell the doc you're on your way." She was gone back the way she had come before either of them could protest, leaving them utterly nonplussed.
"Looks like there actually are some nice people in Tanfen," Jack offered. Alex gave him a withering glare.
"Don't bet on it. She was probably sent by Forrester to get us to lower our guard," he grated. "We can't trust any of these Tanfen bastards as far as we could throw them, especially with the death mark on you."
"Anyone ever tell you that you're paranoid?" Jack asked wryly.
"It's a survival trait. Deal with it," Alex retorted.
Eric rolled his eyes in amusement. "With your obsession about Tanfen being evil incarnate you'd fit right in back at my home," he chuckled. Considering that he'd been born and raised in an Arch-Christian religious retreat this was saying quite a lot. Alex recoiled in mock horror and Jack chuckled.
"No need to haul out the heavy artillery, Eric." Alex turned back to his two colleagues with a condescending expression on his face.
Even in a corridor of a spaceship traveling at over a hundred klicks per second, it's amazing just how far the sound of somebody blowing a raspberry can travel.
Cargo Bay 4 / Sim Room
February 9th, 2681 (2681.040) 1043 Hours
Twenty-three pilots and gunners sat in various chairs around the sim room watching the man who was commander to some of them, grand high pain-in-the-ass to others and instructor to them all. Matthew Forrester was briefing them on their mission, which would be their first real flight in their new craft. "We launch at 1130 Hours, form up and proceed to Nav Point 1. Then we head to Nav Point 2 and conduct a simulated search and strike mission against the BWS Arnhem. Opposition will consist of the Arnhem's Banshee squadron and the interceptors of our own squadrons."
"Yippee, a target-rich environment," Sandra Lynch commented sarcastically. The pilots of the twelve Marauders would have enough trouble getting used to their new fighters without being outnumbered two to one and dealing with a carrier's defenses. Even if half the pilots had trusted the other half it would still be a tough mission. But that's probably why Forrester's doing it, she thought. The tension between the Scrappers and the Tanfen squadron was thick enough to be cut with a combat knife and something had to be done to break it. Forcing the squadrons to work side by side in a combat mission, even only a simulated one, would hopefully start building the camaraderie they needed if they were to work as a team. Lynch just hoped nobody would take advantage of the exercise to "accidentally" open fire on a supposed ally.
Forrester looked sharply at Lynch as though seeing the second meaning in her comment. "All the reports indicate that when we fight the Nephilim we'll be heavily outnumbered. We may as well start getting used to it," he replied carefully. "Any questions?" he asked the room in general.
John Hawke raised his hand. "What's our loadout for the mission?" he asked gruffly.
"Standard strike loadout," Forrester replied, ignoring the disrespect in Hawke's tone. "Two torpedoes, four heat-seekers, two ImRecs and two IFFs." On a fighter almost as agile as the legendary F-103 Excalibur that was enough ordnance to put almost any opponent into a world of hurt. Twelve such fighters with cloaking devices could devastate a light carrier group.
"Brass or phony NATOPS on this hop?" Alex Morgan wanted to know. The Tanfen colonel looked puzzled at the Border Worlds pilot's slang, causing Alex to sigh in exasperation.
Sandra Lynch cut in before the acid-tongued Lieutenant could deliver a reply acerbic enough to start real trouble. "Colonel, what Lieutenant Morgan means is are we flying by the book or under combat rules?"
In military bureaucrat-speak NATOPS referred to Naval Air Training and Operating Standards, a series of protocols set down by the powers that be governing flight operations. Like many decrees from on high it was designed to increase safety, cut down risks and reduce maintenance costs for expensive fighters. Many pilots felt it also cut down on combat realism and training usefulness with most truly effective combat maneuvers being banned. Border Worlders being Border Worlders, they tended to ignore these restrictive rules and many pilots referred to them as Not Applying To Our Present Situation.
"Combat rules apply, Major," the gaunt Tanfen officer replied. "All weapon will be set to training levels, missiles will be code-locked and basic safety rules apply. This means no collisions, no Top Gun-style attempted collisions or overshoots and no overriding weapons safeties. If anyone switches to battle mode PriFly on the Sicily will notice and want a damn good explanation. Understood?" There was a general murmur of consent. "All right, let's go." The crews stood up, made any last-minute adjustments to their flight gear that needed to be made (as well as several that didn't) and headed towards the flight line.
Alex had just left the briefing room when he felt a hand lightly brush his arm. He turned and found himself looking into the dark eyes of Lieutenant Tseng.
"How's your friend doing?" she asked quietly.
"Oh, he's fine," Alex replied after a momentary hesitation. "Just needed some booster shots."
Tseng nodded. "I'm glad. There's no honor in defeating someone who's not in full health."
Alex took a deep breath. Tseng's inquiries about Eric's health didn't sound like the tactics of a corporate spy attempting to get past his guard, they seemed like honest questions. "So we're going up against you on this mission?"
"You got it," she replied quickly. "Of course you'll be going up against some of your own squadronmates as well."
"I know," Alex told her. He paused for a minute then spoke hurriedly. "Listen, about the way I spoke to you before... I want you to know I was way out of line and I'm sorry, okay?"
The red-haired woman studied him for a few moments then nodded. "I'll forgive you, Lieutenant Morgan, but one of these days you've got to tell me just why you bit my head off like that."
"Maybe later." Alex swallowed, hands twitching in nervousness. I can't let her get under my skin like this! Why does she want to know so much about me? If she was showing this much interest in Jack, I'd say she was an assassin luring her target out into the open, but why am I drawing her attention like this?
Tseng looked at her watch and winced. "I've got to run if I'm going to launch in time. See you out there."
"Sure." The gray-eyed Border Worlder watched her turn to bolt down the corridor. "Hey, wait a minute!"
The Tanfen pilot glanced over her shoulder quizzically. "What is it?"
"I just wanted to ask... what's your name?" Morgan shrugged, sheepishly. "I'm Alex."
Tseng just looked at him for a few seconds, then she smiled gently. "I'm Courtney."
There was an uncomfortable silence. "Well, nice to meet you," Alex finally said, lamely.
"Likewise but I've really got to run." The red-haired pilot trotted down the corridor towards the lift to the flight deck. Alex watched until she vanished from sight and almost jumped out of his skin as a hand dropped onto his shoulder.
"Hmmm," Kristy Joyce commented as she glanced at her wingman's chest, "can barely see the arrow wound." She smirked at the surprised expression on Alex's face.
"What arrow wound?" he growled. Kristy's smirk broadened into an evil grin.
"Cupid's arrow," she replied. "C'mon, Alex, fess up. You're severely hot for that girl. Admit it!"
"Bullshit!" he snarled. "I do not have the hots for her!"
"Yeah right," Kristy snorted. "When you were talking to her you were as nervous as a mouse raiding a rockbear lair for food scraps. That's not like you." Her green eyes narrowed at the growing anger on his face and she dropped her gaze to the helmet he carried in the crook of his arm. Painted a dark blue-black with cloudlike streaks and stylized lightning on the sides, it bore his callsign "Storm" above the visor. And an apt callsign it is, Kristy reflected. Her wingman could change moods quickly and with little warning, and being the focus of his anger was never easy.
In some cases it had been fatal.
"Well, it's understandable, Captain," he replied in a voice devoid of the anger he felt. The smile on his face was more the baring of teeth prior to biting an enemy's throat open than an expression of pleasure. "I've always had a weakness for redheads after all." Chew on that, sir! he snarled silently.
Kristy flinched as if he had slapped her across the face and looked him in the eyes. "Alex, that was low. I mean really low," she said hoarsely.
"So was what you said," he shot back and stalked off down the corridor.
Kristy slumped against the bulkhead, closed her eyes and let out a quiet curse. She must have really hurt Alex with her questioning -- almost as much as his reply had hurt her. The Border Worlds armed forces had a more relaxed attitude to relationships than their Confederation counterparts. As long as the performance of your duties didn't suffer nobody really cared what, or even who, you did in your downtime. But if your after-hours activities affected the ability of you or your fellow soldiers to do your jobs, a major league ass chewing by your CO was the lightest punishment you could expect. And when an affair between Kristy and a pilot named Alex Morgan had put the newly-created 349th Fighter Squadron at risk, in the squadron's first mission nearly three years ago, they had been lucky to avoid a court-martial. She and Alex were close friends and a well-honed team in the skies but they were no more than that. They had nearly killed their colleagues through negligence that one time, and since then the subject of the affair had been strictly taboo.
We don't need to fight the Nephilim, Kristy thought as she trudged towards the lift to the flight deck. We're doing a good enough job of tearing each other apart.
Flight Deck, BWS Sicily
February 9th, 2681 (2681.040) 1121 Hours
What the hell was I thinking? Alex Morgan asked himself as he ran through his Marauder's preflight checklist. The sims he had flown made the process familiar. Alex, however, wanted his first real flight to go perfectly so he double-checked every step. Despite his attention to detail his mind kept flashing back to the scene with Kristy. She'd just been teasing him like she had so many times in the past, and he'd reopened one of her deepest emotional scars. You didn't open it, he told himself harshly, you tore the op off it, dumped in a handful of salt and tried to reseal it with a goddamn soldering iron! Nice job!
He finished the preflight checks and glanced out through the canopy at one of the techs, who waved a handful of streamers at him. Each streamer was attached to an arming pin which the tech had pulled from the Marauder's missiles, torpedoes, decoy launchers and other systems to make the fighter combat-ready. Flipping a thumbs-up to the tech, Alex settled deeper into his seat and waited for further orders from Forrester. The idea of being under the command of a Tanfen pilot galled him almost as much as -
Alex sat bolt-upright suddenly. The techs had been working briskly but casually to prep the Marauders, but now a sudden urgency had seized them. There was an undeniable haste in their work, obvious to the pilot's eyes. Instead of readying the fighters for a training mission it now looked more like a launch cycle for a hot scramble.
"Marauders, this is Mako," Forrester's voice came over the comm net. "I've been advised by Flight Control that Lockjaw has been activated."
"Lockjaw?" Luke Evans asked over the intercom.
"That's the codeword to scrub the exercise," Alex told his gunner curtly. What the hell? he wondered.
"We're launching on a combat mission to support our squadronmates. A Confed supply convoy heading for the Nifelheim jump point has sent out a distress call, claiming they're under attack. The Sicily couldn't really get a good signal due to some sort of jamming. Our buddies are on their way to support the convoy and we're their backup." Forrester's voice became even colder than usual. "Let's do it, people."
"A convoy under attack gets its distress call blocked by heavy jamming... nah, it can't be the Nephilim," Storm told himself out loud.
"Probably just a bunch of pirates," Luke agreed, sounding as uncertain as Alex felt. It was rare for pirates or terrorists to have access to jamming craft but it certainly wasn't unheard of. Still, it didn't stop a chill sliding down his spine. Could the Nephilim have gotten past the main fleet? If they had, the reserves were as good as dead...
This wasn't exactly how I envisioned my first flight in this bird, Storm thought to himself nervously as he watched the first two Marauders taxi to the launch catapults.