PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 38 of 44 )

: Scraps of Honour
PART 6 OF 15 : A HARD DAY'S NIGHT ( 2 / 2 )

 


Lounge, BWS Sicily
Seggalion System, Union of Border Worlds
1305 Hours, February 9 2681 (2681.040)

“So," Dragan Emerson asked as he handed Dani a glass of cola half-filled with crushed ice, "why'd you go ballistic on that guy on the flight deck?"

Anthony Grimm scowled at his buddy. "That scumbucket was poking for a reaction as soon as he spotted her. I just can't believe that Commodore Johnson would go along with that bluff about the torture." He shook his head in denial.

"Tony, he backed a Tanfen CEO into a corner with nothing to back him up but sheer nerve," Onslow chipped in from his seat at the head of the two tables the Scrappers had pushed together. He lowered his feet from the tabletop and looked at the rookie. "I don't think he'd have a problem with any bluff that'd scare some two-bit pirate into spilling his guts to Intell." He took a deep drink of his beer and gazed deep into the young pilot's eyes. "Besides... what made you think it was a bluff?"

Grimm chuckled uncertainly. "You wouldn't... well... " His voice faded uncertainly as the Colonel merely watched him calmly and he suddenly realized that he really didn't want to know if the other Scrappers would have tortured the pirate. He hurriedly changed the subject. "Where did the guy's callsign come from, anyway? I don't think Gorthaur was the name he was born with."

"Comes from an early twentieth century novel," Alex Morgan explained as he turned away from racking the balls on the lounge's pool table. "It's called The Lord of the Rings. Gorthaur was another name for the main bad guy in the book."

Dragan Emerson's expression turned unbelieving. "You're kidding. Why would they choose names from some seven hundred year old story?"

Alex shrugged. "That's where they get most of their names from. It's where the group got its name from, after all." Emerson looked at him curiously.

"All right, I'll bite. How did they get that name?"

"From their boss. The White Hand was originally a title for just their leader," Dani replied as she twisted the cap off a bottle of vodka and looked around for a glass, ignoring the drink Emerson had poured for her. Grabbing one, she turned back to Emerson with haunted eyes. She looked into her past, not seeing the young pilot, as she whispered "'We are the servants of the White Hand, the hand that gives us man-flesh to eat.'"

"But they couldn't... I mean..." Grimm sputtered.

"They did," Alex replied curtly. "They weren't just another pirate band. They were two parts pirates and one part psychotic death cultists. Major league sickos, ruthless as hell like most pirates but they really get off on the death and mayhem they inflict." He took a drink of his whisky and cola. "You ever eaten butterfly shrimp, Tony?" he asked in an apparent change of subject.

"No. Why?" the fair-haired rookie asked warily. He'd figured out very quickly that the intense pilot, only a few years older than himself, didn't let go of a subject until he'd made absolutely sure he'd made his point. Just so long as he doesn't hammer it into my skull, I should be fine.

Alex looked thoughtfully into his drink as he swirled it in his glass. Then he glanced up at Grimm as the lounge became even quieter. "It's pretty easy. Take a bunch of shrimp and slice them along the belly. Then open them up so that they're spread out flat. You with me so far?"

"Yes," Anthony replied quietly, taking a sip of soda. Alex's grey eyes turned hard as stone.

"Now imagine a few thousand human corpses with the same thing done to them all piled up together," he growled. "Empty rib cages spread out, sightless eye sockets gazing at the sky... pretty spooky stuff." Alex took another mouthful of whisky and shook his head. "Anyone who can do that can do anything."

"Why did they do it?" Dragan Emerson asked. "I mean, no matter how sick they are there had to be some justification for it besides getting their jollies."

"Organ-jacking," Dani said curtly. "Alex, where did you see stuff like that?"

"When we were first tasked for Operation Uruk-hai, I did some background digging on the White Hand. I found some data and pictures on a really big raid they did that really ticked off High Command," he told her. "I've had a lot of experience working the streets for information, so I'm sort of the squadron's unofficial intel spook," he told Grimm and Emerson in a brief aside.

"The Racene IV raid?" Dani asked urgently.

"Yeah. Intell clamped a really tight lid on news of it. How did you find out about it?" Alex asked. Dani laughed bitterly and looked at him with eyes that were slightly wild.

"How? I was at ground zero when the bastards showed up! I was right in the middle of it, that's how I bloody knew!" she yelled. She paused to shove silver-blond hair back from her face and take a drink from her glass of vodka, then continued her tale. "We were just an agricultural colony of four thousand on a backwater world minding our own business," she continued in a quieter, more ragged voice. "One dawn a wing of Sabres did a low flyby and started firing missiles with tear gas warheads into the main residential compounds. People were running everywhere in a panic." The girl shook her head. "But the terror didn't start until the shuttles started landing and the troops opened fire with stun weapons and flashbang grenades. We only had a few laser rifles for hunting and no military training against several hundred trained and armored troops. We never had a chance." Dani paused and drained her glass. Kristy reached out and gently placed a hand on the bottle of vodka but Dani pulled it away from her with an angry scowl. She started speaking again as she refilled her glass. "I remember being shot by a pirate with a stun carbine then waking up on the central common. Almost everyone I knew was there either unconscious or... worse. The pirates were assessing everyone and - " Her voice broke and she closed her eyes, gripping her glass of vodka in both hands so tightly it creaked.

Alex noted with appalled detachment that the glass Dani was drinking from wasn't a normal shotglass. Instead she held a tumbler as big as the one containing Alex's drink. At least I've got some mixer and ice to dilute it. Dani's drinking straight vodka like it's going out of style. Not that I blame her. "They were killing them, weren't they?" he asked softly. Mutely the slender blonde nodded, tears tracing their way down her face. All the other Scrappers except one were watching with various degrees of shock. Alex looked at John Hawke's expressionless face and realization hit him like a torpedo strike. "You knew," he rasped. "You knew about this."

Hawke inclined his head at Morgan in a gesture of acknowledgement. "I know it all," he admitted dryly. "But it's not my story to tell. If Dani wanted to tell you about all this earlier she would have."

"How did you survive?" Anthony Grimm asked Dani hesitantly. She looked up at him and wiped her eyes before resuming the tale.

"They were killing most of the people and harvesting the corpses of their internal organs, blood, anything that could be sold to turn a quick credit. But some of the stronger ones were kept alive for the slave markets." Her mouth twisted bitterly. "And some of the more attractive ones were kept as personal playthings."

"Gorthaur," Vincent Tsu growled. Dani merely nodded, unable to speak further. She finally looked up at her squadronmates and found most of them unable to meet her eyes. A young and frightened farm girl, captured by vicious pirates and forced to watch as her friends and family were murdered and hacked apart, and then... The Scrappers had witnessed enough violence to make it very hard to shock or sicken them, but Owens' account had left most of them fighting nausea. But that young and frightened farm girl was now a combat-hardened fighter pilot who had flown alongside them for eighteen months, and she had come to terms with what had been done to her.

"I was a captive for two years," she stated after an uncomfortable pause. "A militia squadron stumbled across the base in which I was held. Rather than just wipe it out with a torpedo strike, the militia CO decided to call for Marines and capture the base for Intell."

"And did he get the info he was after?" Todd McLaughlin asked in a hushed voice. Danica's answering smile was as cold and hard as an executioner's axe bathed in liquid nitrogen.

"Oh yeah," she whispered exultantly. "After the Marines took the base I told them everything I knew, I'd guessed and I'd heard about what those scum had done and how they operated. Supply routes, names of informants giving them information on convoys, cargo drop-off points, everything. Gorthaur liked to brag when he was in a good mood."

"And when he wasn't in a good mood?" Dragan Emerson asked. He received a series of looks ranging from disbelieving through contemptuous to "Just how 'effing dumb are you?!!"

Dani unbuttoned the cuff of her BDU sleeve, rolled it up to her shoulder and extended her arm out on the table in front of her. She pointed to a thin white line circling her forearm just below the elbow. "A souvenir from one time when he was irritated," she told her comrades. "Acid burn from the elbow down. It's a little reminder of a rather major series of skin grafts," she explained as Kristy examined the limb with professional interest.

"My God..."

"That's fairly minor compared to some scars he left me," the slender girl said in a matter-of-fact voice. Vincent Tsu looked distinctly uncomfortable at her casual dismissal of her torture.

"Especially the ones on the inside," he mumbled. Dani's sapphire eyes clouded over at the ex-InSys pilot's words as she fastened her sleeve. Then she reached out and took his hand in her own.

"Vince, I know what you meant on the flight deck," she told him gently, "and up here I know you're right." She tapped her temple with the index finger of her free hand. "But in here," she pointed to her heart with the same finger, "I don't care what it costs so long as they all suffer and die. Horribly."

Tsu nodded. "Thanks," he told her and finished his Hell's Kitchen. "Well I'm going hunting for a poker game. Coming, Dragan?" Without waiting for a reply he grabbed the younger pilot by the arm and left the lounge. Several of the Scrappers let out sighs of relief which quickly changed to chuckles of mirth as Dragan's protests drifted back to them.

 

Flight Wing Quarters, BWS Sicily
Seggalion System
1316 Hours, February 9 2681 (2681.040)

"I can't believe you dragged me out of there like that!" Emerson whined. Tsu gritted his teeth and turned to face the new pilot, dark eyes flashing with anger.

"After some of those stupid comments you'd have been beaten to a pulp if you'd stayed there," he snapped harshly. "Does the Academy run a course in Insensitive Idiot 101 or were those dumb questions just the result of natural brain death?"

"What in God's name are you talking about?"

"Just this," the Asian major growled. "Dani watched everyone she'd ever known be hacked to pieces so their guts could be sold for profit. Then she was used as a psycho's plaything for two years. Now did you stop to wonder about why we were so surprised about that?" He hurried on, not letting Draco get a word in. "She'd never told any of us about her past prior to joining us. Now it should be obvious to anyone with a functioning synapse that retelling that story was painful for her, so why did you have to keep rubbing salt into her wounds?"

There was a long pause from the younger pilot. Finally he admitted, "I don't know. It was just... I had to know." He shook his head. "I never meant to hurt her. Really." Tsu merely looked at him.

"Kid, here's a word of advice. In the 349th we look after each other. Some of us don't have any family outside the squadron so we get pretty protective, understand?"

"Gotcha. Hey, I thought we were looking for a poker game...?" Emerson asked.

"True. I thought we could drag some of the Tanfenners into one," Tsu admitted as he pressed the button to open the door to the Tanfen pilots' quarters. The door slid open and the Border Worlds major stuck his head inside. "Anyone home?"

"Physically yes. Mentally, I'm not too sure," a broad-chested blond-haired man sprawled out on a bunk replied . He took a gulp of steaming liquid from a plastic container and looked at the two Scrappers. "Who wants to know?"

"Just the Border Worlds' least wanted," Vince grinned. "We're from - "

"The 349th. I know," the blond man replied as he stood up. At nearly seven feet in height he dwarfed the two Border Worlds pilots. "That punch up in the Wild Hart was pretty memorable."

"That it was. You chucked Todd headlong into the bar," the wiry major replied casually as he walked into the room and extended his hand for the Tanfen pilot to shake.

"Oh yeah, the big red-haired guy. How's he doing?" the TASC pilot asked.

"Pretty well. He wants a rematch, though."

"We'd better postpone it until after we take care of the Nephilim," the blond pilot commented as he took Tsu's hand in a firm grip. "I'm Brin Hoffman, callsign 'Hotshot.'"

"Vincent 'Harbinger' Tsu," the Border Worlder replied. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "This is Dragan Emerson, callsign Draco. He only joined us after we linked up with the Sicily."

"Which is why we don't have a dossier on him," a short Hispanic man growled from the table where he sat with three other pilots. All of them were looking at a pattern of lime-green tiles set with intricate runes laid out on the tabletop.

"What the hell is this?" the young Slavic pilot asked, looking over the Hispanic Tanfenner's shoulder. "Some whacked-out version of dominoes...?"

"Close. Mahjongg," a strikingly attractive Amazon with sandy brown hair and broad shoulders replied. "It's a gentleman's game, unlike the barbarian amusements you gwailo prefer," she explained with an impish twinkle in her dark eyes.

"[Be careful who you call a gwailo, blondie,]" Tsu murmured in Cantonese. The blonde looked up at him sharply.

"[You may have the blood of our ancestors in your veins but you are not one of us,]" she replied coldly in the same language. "[Never forget that.]"

"[I will be sure not to,]" he told her ironically. He smiled faintly as the Hispanic man leaned across the table and lightly thumped the woman on the shoulder.

"Try showing some courtesy, Delilah," he admonished. He then turned to the two Border Worlds pilots. "Sorry, we've all been a bit on edge since that fight with those White Hand [mongrels]."

"That's all right," Tsu replied generously. "It's the biggest fight I've been in for a long time. I guess we're all still coming down from the adrenaline so no harm done."

"Thanks," the Hispanic man offered. "Anyway, you've already met Brin, I'm Fernando 'Fang' Ruiz, this is Delilah 'Tiger' Tarrant," he pointed to the blonde woman who nodded in greeting, "that's Errol 'Foxbat' Chandler," he pointed to a lean man with crewcut brown hair and facial bruising which was still fading to an ugly yellow-brown color, "and the short arse somewhere in that direction is Phil 'Brumby' Hurst." Ruiz's hand flicked out in the direction of the wiry five-foot tall individual across the table who glowered at him, before looking over to the two Scrappers.

"Harbinger and Draco, eh?" he drawled. "You two were right in the middle of the shitstorm when it started, right?"

"Yeah," Emerson replied, eager to contribute to the discussion. "Shitstorm's the right word. I'm glad you guys came along to bail us out."

"No problem," Hurst replied easily. "Of course the problem is what we're going to do with most of our Hellcats gone."

"I thought you only lost three. That left three which made it back," Tsu frowned.

"That's true but those three were pretty badly damaged," Tarrant explained. "One was written off and the other two are marginal at best. That leaves us four pilots down. What about you guys?"

"Most of the Intruders are beat up as hell," Tsu admitted frankly. "Of course we're used to making do with leftovers and scraps so it's pretty much business as usual." A wry note entered his voice. "That's how we earned the nickname of Scrappers in the first place. We were formed from the scraps of four militia squadrons and most of our craft were ready for the scrapheap."

"Really?"

"Oh yeah. We had a batch of Vindicators when we were first established but three were just hangar queens. Took a bit of scrounging to find enough parts to get two of them operational and we had to cannibalize the third one." Tsu shrugged. "Now it's SOP for our techs to hoard any spare bits they find."

"So you think you'll have rides for all your people?" Ruiz asked.

"We should. I'm not sure about what you guys will do, though. We've come too far to go back to Lennox and pick up replacement Hellcats for you," the Border Worlds officer commiserated as the door hissed open behind him.

"Hey guys! I got some news from the flight deck!" Courtney Tseng called as she entered the barracks. The fire-haired pilot grabbed a chair, pulled it over to the mahjongg table and sat down. She casually swung her feet up to the table's edge, scattering several of the tiles and causing Chandler to swear viciously.

"Damn you, Courtney, I had a really hot hand here!" he complained as the other players began clearing the tiles from the table's surface.

"Well run some cool water over it and the pain should fade," Emerson told him dryly. Hoffman and Ruiz guffawed, and Tsu shook his head in resignation.

"Trust you to make a joke that bad," he told the new lieutenant, who merely shrugged. Tseng looked up at them in surprise, as if she'd just noticed them.

"Oh, hi. Listen, guys, pull up a couple of seats or I'll get a neck cramp from looking up at you," she told the Border Worlds pilots. Dragan Emerson knelt on the floor next to Del Tarrant and rested his folded arms on the table. Tsu settled for a more conventional seating arrangement, grabbing a chair and straddling it ass-backwards.

"So what sent you racing in here with your hair on fire?" Chandler asked Tseng, ignoring Emerson's joke.

"Okay," the dark-eyed redhead began as she looked around at her fellow pilots. "I was down talking with the tech crews about getting some of our T-Bolts out of storage when I saw the Colonel talking to the Wing Commander. Anyway, I heard the Wing Commander... I can't remember his name - "

"Colonel Jack Tanagawa," Draco cut in. "I studied under him at the Academy."

"Thanks," Courtney acknowledged. "Well, the Wing Commander told Colonel Forrester to keep the Bolts stored and he'd make arrangements to fix the problem. The Colonel asked him just how he was going to do that and he said he'd just requisition some from the convoy we rescued."

"But the convoy didn't have any fighters," Brin Hoffman objected. "Otherwise they wouldn't need us to bail them out."

"Unless they were the cargo they were carrying," Chandler observed acidly. Tseng looked at him, licked her fingertip and chalked up a point on an imaginary scoreboard.

"Top of the class, Errol. Apparently all six transports were Pelicans like the one which brought the Marauders, and they were packed full of fighters and ordnance."

Vincent Tsu let out a low whistle. "Seventy-two combat-capable fighters fresh from Confed's boneyards. No wonder the White Hand threw so many resources into this attack." He looked at the slim Tanfen pilot sharply. "I assume the fighters aren't all Hellcats."

"Nope," Courtney agreed with a smile resembling that of a cat watching a flock of fat pigeons. "Two of the 'sports are carrying Thunderbolts, two are carrying Excaliburs and two are carrying Bearcats. Tanagawa decided that we'd get allocated Bearcats because they're pretty similar to Hellcats. We're the unit most familiar with Hellcats, so we would be the quickest to get up to speed on them."

"Maybe you can get some of the Confed pilots we'll be meeting in Nifelheim to help train you up," Dragan offered. "We're due to be catching up with a Confed reserve group there, and most of them fly Excals or Bearcats."

"Sounds like a good idea." Tarrant nodded. She looked around at her squadronmates curiously. "So that's my report. Who's up for another game?" A general indication of assent rippled through the Tanfen pilots.

Tsu smiled impishly at Courtney Tseng. "You know, if Alex hears about this he'll go into a tirade about Tanfen getting preferential treatment again."

"So don't tell him," Dragan cut in before Tseng could reply. "You don't really want to break up the happy couple, do you?"

If looks could kill, the glare the red-haired pilot shot Dragan Emerson would have reduced him to dust. She settled for lunging forward and grabbing him by the scruff of the neck. "You'll pay for that," she growled as she stood up, dragged the young Border Worlder across to her chair, and shoved him down into it.

The dark-haired young lieutenant smiled wolfishly. "Help, help, I'm being manhandled by a strange redhead!" he called.

The redhead in question smiled nastily and looked up at Lieutenant Chandler, who was watching the proceedings with a quizzical expression on his face. "I assume there's room for another player?" she asked sweetly. The smile drained away from Dragan's face to be replaced by a look of horror.

"What? But... I don't know how!" he yelped. "I know how to play poker but not some glorified version of dominoes, dammit!"

"Then you had best learn very quickly," Courtney replied archly.

 

Lounge, BWS Sicily
Seggalion System
1633 Hours, February 9 2681 (2681.040)

Three rounds of pool after accepting Sandra Lynch's initial challenge, Paul Onslow had proved to the satisfaction of everyone in the lounge that his deadly aim wasn't confined to the cockpit of a fighter. He sat sharing the spoils of his latest victory at the pool table, a bottle of Golwyn's Glory, with Eddie Thibodeaux. "Hell of a long way from the Oriskany, isn't it?" he asked the Necromancers' leader quietly.

"True," the massive black man replied. "A lot of distance and a lot of time." He took a deep swallow of the whisky and looked around at the pilots gathering in the lounge. His squadron had landed on the Sicily instead of returning to the frigates to which they had been temporarily assigned, as Thibodeaux felt his pilots needed some time to mesh with the other squadrons aboard the escort carrier. He had fought for the Border Worlds during the Black Lance crisis eight years ago and had learnt the necessity of teamwork in the crucible of combat. It was a lesson Paul Onslow, his flight commander at the time, had taken special care to teach him. "So how are your newest members going?"

"Grimm's doing pretty well," the scarred Colonel answered. "He scored a few kills and followed orders pretty well in that brawl we got into with the White Hand." He let out a deep breath and shook his head. "Emerson, on the other hand, is trouble waiting to happen. He's a good flier and shooter, probably more talented than Grimm, but too bullheaded. He's too busy trying for kills to stick with his wingman or follow orders," Onslow explained as he finished his whiskey and poured himself another glass.

"That's why I paired him up with Grimm," Thibodeaux told his former commanding officer. "Tony's too timid and Dragan's too wild. I figured if I stuck them together they'd even out." He gently slapped Onslow on the shoulder. "But you'll break him out of that habit. You've always been better at training pilots than I have. Hell, I don't know why you didn't get posted to the Academy or something."

Onslow looked faintly embarrassed as he shrugged. "Who knows how High Command works? Speaking of which, have you heard anything about what's happening on the front lines?"

Thibodeaux scowled. "No joy. If the Commodore has the inside scoop on what's going on in Nephele he's not telling us, and he's making sure the information stays locked up tight. All we've got to go by is gossip."

"Whoever came up with the old line about 'The more things change the more they stay the same' was dead right," Onslow grumbled. "We'll probably get our Intell via the media... not unlike they did in the First Persian Gulf War." His head came up as he noticed Vincent Tsu enter the lounge, a look of surprised amusement on his face. He was closely followed by Dragan Emerson who carried a backpack over his shoulder and had a massive grin plastered over his face. "Oh hell, what's he been up to?" both squadron commanders asked simultaneously.

Emerson weaved his way between several tables of pilots from other squadrons and plunked the backpack down in front of Grimm, who was deep in conversation with Kristy Joyce. "What's that?" he asked his friend in surprise.

The dark young Scrapper gave his wingman a lopsided smile as he wobbled unsteadily. "Spoils of war!" he proclaimed loudly. "But don't let it spoil yours!" he told Grimm in a whisper which could be considered conspiratorial if its volume was halved. Reaching into the backpack the brash young pilot pulled out a pair of plastic cans and offered one to Grimm, who regarded him soberly.

"You're drunk," the blond pilot said quietly. Dragan looked offended.

"I am not!" he answered in an offended tone, projecting an attitude of wounded dignity. The effect was somewhat damaged as he lurched to the side alarmingly and half-fell into a chair. "Well I'm getting there," he admitted as Grimm picked up the can and pulled the tab to open it. "You know, little goblin, your trouble is that you don't know how to relax. You're such a stiff that you could be used as a backboard."

"Oh, shut up, Dragqueen," Grimm snapped as his face turned scarlet. "Just leave me alone, damn you!"

Onslow almost choked on his drink. He hadn't figured that Anthony would stand up to the more flamboyant pilot's teasing. And neither had the four Tanfen pilots who had just entered the lounge, judging by their laughter. They walked over to the table the two rookies were sitting at and sat down. "So what's this goblin thing about, Drag-queen?" a huge blond pilot asked.

The dark young Scrapper gave the speaker a baleful glare. "Don't ever call me that again, Brin," he grated. Then he visibly relaxed. "I called Tony a goblin 'cause that's what his callsign is. According to folklore a grimlock's a kind of goblin that sticks to the dark, is very very quiet, and tends to be damn vicious in a fight. Like Tony." Dragan nodded at his sandy-haired wingman. "Tony's got the concept of staying in the background and keeping his trap shut down to an art, but he's pretty damn good in the cockpit."

"I don't know why you compare him to a goblin, Emerson. I mean he's kind of cute," an attractive dark-eyed woman noted, casting her eyes covetously over Grimm. The young man waved her praise away distractedly.

"If you're in such a frisky mood then why didn't you accept my offer of a game of strip mahjongg back in the barracks?" Emerson asked in an aggrieved tone. Kristy Joyce, who had been sitting back enjoying the banter, raised an eyebrow in surprise.

"I never thought even you would be that crass," she murmured quietly. "What in God's name made you think there was the slightest chance she'd accept?"

"Probably the fact that she'd lost about three weeks pay and several Class 6 supplies to me in mahjongg," the dark young pilot answered. "Tanfenners play mahjongg instead of poker as their game of choice." A look of low cunning stole over his face. "They didn't know that I grew up with my uncle, who did a lot of interstellar trading. One of his ports of call was the planet Harbin in the Vega System itself."

"What's so special about Harbin?" Kristy wanted to know. She pretended not to notice the scowls which had suddenly appeared on the Tanfen pilots' faces.

"It was settled by a group of ethnic Chinese in the early twenty-third century," Vincent Tsu explained. "A lot of the old customs and traditions were kept alive." His eyes danced merrily. "Like mahjongg."

"How do you know?" Dragan asked, annoyed that the Border Worlds major had stolen his thunder.

"It's my homeworld," Tsu replied. "Why do you suppose I earned the callsign Harbinger? The correct term for someone from Harbin is 'Harbinese'. But try telling that to some racist [cretin] of an instructor at the Academy," he glowered.

Kristy nodded sympathetically then turned her gaze to Emerson. "And guess who picked up certain old Chinese habits along the way." Dragan tried to put up a look of modesty and failed miserably.

A sudden outbreak of coughing across the table distracted the Scrappers' medic. Kristy looked at the source of the noise to see Anthony Grimm, red-faced and eyes streaming, desperately struggling for breath. She reached over and slapped the young Scrapper sharply between the shoulder blades to dislodge whatever was choking him.

"Thanks, Kristy," he wheezed after managing to regain his breath. Tears poured down his face as he caught his breath. Finally he glared at Dragan. "What the hell was that demon-brew you tried to poison me with?" he rasped, indicating the plastic container the Slavic pilot had earlier given him. "It started heating up so I thought it was coffee, but when I tried drinking it the stuff burnt like raw alcohol. What in God's name was it?"

"Sake. Rice wine," Dragan explained. "You're meant to sip it, not to knock it back in one go."

"It helps if you tell him just what the fuck he's drinking," Alex Morgan observed caustically. Then the gray-eyed Scrapper turned his steady gaze to the Tanfen pilots, and an uncomfortable silence reigned for a few moments. At a nearby table Paul Onslow watched tensely, waiting for a brawl or an exchange of insults to commence. Instead the volatile young Lieutenant pointed to Grimm's can of sake and asked the blond Tanfenner, "Got any more?"

The blond man - Onslow remembered that Emerson had referred to him as Brin - hung his head dejectedly. "Don't have any left. Your buddy won'em all."

A slow grin spread across Alex's face as he looked at the 349th's newest member. "You have got to tell me all about it," he told Emerson as he pulled up a chair and sat down. "I want to know the whole story."

Brin shook his head emphatically. "No you don't."

"Yes I do," Alex contradicted gleefully. Onslow laughed quietly at the Tanfenners' obvious discomfort. Even Alex, with his obvious distaste for the corporation, was able to tease the Mustangs in a friendly fashion as he often teased the other Scrappers. Maybe fighting alongside each other against the White Hand had brought the two squadrons closer together than Onslow had believed.

He certainly hoped so.

 

Briefing Room
BWS Sicily, Seggalion System
0833 Hours, February 10 2681 (2681.041)

"All right, everyone, settle down and let's get started," Paul Onslow ordered the rest of his squadron as they settled into their seats in the briefing room. Jack was right, he reflected as he looked at his fellow fliers. The time spent in the lounge with the other Scrappers had let him unwind to the point where he no longer felt like Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders. He suppressed a snort of laughter as he noticed Dragan Emerson looking exhausted and wan but still twitching with nervous energy. Onslow had endured enough doses of "green goop" in the past to know exactly what Emerson was going through. Green goop was designed to sober people up quickly, which it did quite well, but it didn't do its work gently.

"We're due to jump into Nifelheim in five hours," he explained as his audience gradually fell silent. "It's not very likely the Nephilim will have gotten past the Combined Fleet but Commodore Johnson doesn't want to take chances. So we're going in with every jump-capable fighter already in the air. As soon as the mission commander gives the all-clear the carriers jump in and launch all their remaining fighters. We're due to launch at 1200 Hours as BARCAP for the task force until we hit the jump point, then we jump through."

"When's the jump due?" Sandra Lynch asked, looking up from the notes she was making on her kneeboard.

"Approximately 1400 Hours." The Scrappers' leader paused to consult his notes. "The Necromancers and the Frostreavers are Alpha Wing. Their job is space superiority. Any enemy fighter that sticks its nose out will be clobbered by twelve Intruders and twelve Jaguars. Bravo Wing will consist of the Mean Machines and Berserkers, and will take down any enemy capships in the area." Onslow paused and smiled coldly. "Let's face it, twenty-eight Avengers will give any capship a run for its money." Several chuckles echoed throughout the briefing room. "Meanwhile we, along with the Intruders from the cruiser Havok and the Tanfen Marauders, will form Charlie Wing. Our job is simple: we're playing backstop. If any fighters, bombers or capships get past the other two wings we have to take them down. Finally once the capships jump into Nifelheim they'll launch all their remaining fighters. The remaining two squadrons of Banshees from the Anzio and Arnhem, the Banshees from the destroyer Penrith, and the Thunderbolts and the Tanfen Bearcats from the Sicily will take over fleet BARCAP once they launch."

"Wait a minute, boss. What Tanfen Bearcats?" Alex Morgan asked. Onslow took a deep breath before replying.

"Remember those freighters we rescued yesterday? They were filled with old Confed fighters bound for the boneyard before this whole shindig started," the Colonel explained. "Excaliburs, Bearcats and Thuds. Two dozen of each. With the Tanfenners losing most of their Hellcats, and the Bearcats being so similar to them, it made sense for some of the Bearcats to be allocated to them. Any problems with that?" Alex shook his head and continued making notes on his kneeboard.

"Seventy-two top-notch fighters," Eric Maslevski said, wincing. "If the White Hand had gotten hold of them..."

"Another unpleasant thought brought to you by Mr. Doom-and-Gloom himself," Todd McLaughlin commented wryly. He coolly ignored Maslevski's withering glare. "So, assuming the jump point in Nifelheim clear, what happens then?"

"We separate into squadrons and conduct a sweep through several nav points to Avernus Station orbiting Nifelheim II," Onslow replied. "The Marauders belonging to the Mustangs will hook up with the Bearcats and patrol their own route. Once we get to Avernus we wait for the Sicily to arrive then we land." He paused to study his squadron. Some looked nervous while some looked frightened, and a few seemed indifferent. But all looked determined and focused. "Most likely this will all be one huge milk run and a training exercise to give the bridge officers practice in controlling large numbers of aircraft," the scar-faced Colonel cautioned. "But there's always the chance that the Bugs have managed to put one over the Combined Fleet and slipped a small force past them into Nifelheim, so I want everyone on their toes." His gaze turned steely. "Even if they're not here yet they will be within a week, and this will be the biggest battle most of you have ever seen. If we fail here and let the Bugs break out, then every planet in the Union is wide open. We can't let that happen. Now I know I've pushed you hard in the sims but once we go through that jump point it's not an exercise any more. It's the real thing."

"So was the fight with those pirates yesterday," Anthony Grimm said. "At least it felt that way to me!" he added defensively.

"Oh, it was," Onslow agreed, "but the stakes were nowhere near as high. I know some of you may disagree," he continued as Danica Owens opened her mouth to protest, "but when you balance the loss of ships to increased piracy against Nephilim capships bombarding our homeworlds, I know what I'd be more worried about. Check the Dakota footage if you don't believe me."

None of the others could argue with that.

 

Scrapper Eight
Seggalion - Nifelheim Jump Point
1406 Hours, February 10 2681 (2681.040)

Eric "Zealot" Maslevski double-checked his fighter's status as the Scrappers approached the jump point to Nifelheim. Alpha Wing had jumped out almost thirty seconds earlier and Bravo Wing's bombers were aligning for the jump. After checking his position relative to his wing leader Zealot took a long look around the space surrounding him. The Scrappers occupied the center of the formation designated Charlie Wing, with the Havok's eight Intruders flying high cover. Behind the Intruders the six Marauders belonging to the Mustangs - the only jump-capable fighters flown by the corporate pilots - flew in a tight V formation. Twenty-six fighters and bombers ready to hurl themselves from one star to another in the space of a heartbeat.

I must be really nervous if I'm getting this poetic, the pilot chided himself. He whispered a brief prayer and crossed himself as the flares of Bravo Wing's jump drives lit the blackness in front of him. Only thirty seconds remained until the Scrappers jumped. Zealot swallowed nervously, the metallic aftertaste of the trichloromorphine still thick in his throat, and finally admitted to himself just what was getting on his nerves. In order to function as a combat pilot Eric Maslevski had to have a highly ordered and logical mind. However, he had been raised in an Archchristian crèche in the Elohim System and his upbringing was as much a part of him as the blood in his veins. Put simply, the idea of fighting a war in a star system named after a part of Hell scared the living daylights out of him. But he had no choice in the matter.

Either he freely chose to fly into Hell or he would have to live with the knowledge that he had abandoned his comrades - another, more personal sort of hell. Erebus, Avernus, Acheron... all names of nightmare from the theological instruction of his youth, and all names of worlds in the Nifelheim System. He shook his head sharply, dismissing the thought. They're just names, he told himself savagely. Don't be a coward. Stick with the others and fly the mission.

"Ten seconds to jump," Onslaught advised over the tactical net. Zealot checked the power levels and status of his fighter and, finding everything ready, waited for the order.

"Jump!"

Even as he engaged the Marauder's jump drive Eric Maslevski's mind flashed back to another memory of his youth. He remembered the words which, according to Dante Aligheri's Divine Comedy, were carved on the gates of Hell itself.

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

 

CONT...