: Welcome to Hell

"The advantage of time and place in all martial actions is half a victory,
which being lost is irrecoverable."
Sir Francis Drake, April 13, 1588, Letter to Queen Elizabeth I.


TCS Miles D'Arby; Mess Area
17th February 2681 (2861.048)
0556 Hours ZULU

"What I can't understand is why the fleet bothered falling back here at all," Captain James "Chip" Chippenham thought aloud as he munched his breakfast before their oh-dark-thirty briefing. "I mean, yes, there are these asteroid fields we can play hide-and-seek in, but the Loki debris field would be just as good for that, wouldn't it?"

"I don't know," Adrian "Puke" Thomas admitted, "I guess you'd probably have to ask Hanton about that one. 'We are but mushrooms', remember? Kept in the dark and fed horseshit!"

"There is that 'secret' experimental testing base I suppose," Zack "Poleaxe" Kocinski chimed in, "I wonder how much of a part that played in things, or whether it was supposed to stay secret?"

"And I wonder why Hanton is so sure they'll follow the retreating fleet here and not try and bypass us completely?" Chip wondered out loud.

"I'm sure she knows what she's doing," said Poleaxe firmly.

"Oh yeah?" Puke sneered. "How many carriers was it they lost in Loki?"

"While we were sat here doing nothing," pointed out Chip. "I'm sorry I brought it up now. Give her a break - unless you think you could run the combined fleet better, Admiral Thomas!"


BWS Sicily
0602 Hours ZULU

The shuttle touched down on the deck of the BWS Sicily with a gentle bump. Tony "Rat" Carruthers shouldered his duffle with his right arm, grabbed his helmet bag with the other, and waited for the loadmaster to open the door. Stepping out into the frigid air of the flightdeck he didn't notice the cold - he had a warm feeling inside as he saw Danica "Dancer" Owens was waiting for him to transfer back to the Sicily, along with the new pilot replacing Major Jim "Jimbo" Reid who was standing alongside Dani. The pilot who was going to take over as instructor and flight lead in his stead had the unlikely moniker of Helen Bach, Captain, flying under the callsign "Heaven."

The shuttle from the TCS Miles D'Arby had already taken the replacement pilots out to Avernus station, and picked up Michelle "Maneater" Ross and Harold 'Viking' Swensson (who had glared sullenly and silently at Rat ever since setting foot on the shuttle) before coming to the Sicily in her circular route. Viking sat glowering on a jumpseat. Rat could feel his eyes still boring into him, but he heard Maneater talking to the loadmaster.

"Could you hang on a minute, I need to talk to someone?" Maneater asked the guy.

"Sure, we've got a couple of pallets to collect anyway."

"Thanks," Ross said with a smile. Rat saw where she was looking -- Jack De Ville was in the goofers waving to her. She walked toward the steps leading down from it and he met her at the foot of them. Rat was still watching them as they embraced. Suddenly he felt an arm slipping around his own waist.

"Ross is getting pretty close to Jack, isn't she?" Dani said as she pulled Rat to her.

"Looks that way," agreed Rat, tearing his inquisitive eyes away from them to look into Dani's.

"Why is she called Maneater?" asked Owens, "she doesn't really seem the type."

"She's got through her fair share of men," Rat said, "but you're right, she isn't really a Maneater."

"So what's with the callsign then?" Dani pushed.

"Who knows? You know what it's like -- a bitchy wingmate, a vicious rumor, a joke -- or maybe because when you piss her off she chews you up and spits you out!"

"She doesn't seem like that either."

"Hmmph. She's not, but don't tell that to Poleaxe, he's petrified of her! But that's just a facade. She tries to act like this hard bitch but she isn't really like that, she's a lot less secure about herself and her command than she makes out."

"You seem to know here very well," observed Dani. "Were you two?"

"Yes, of course we were. I -- well, you know there was a time when I'd screw anything with a pulse and a pair of tits."

"I see."

"Oh, god, I didn't mean -- I mean I -- that is "

"I know what you mean, Tony. Stop digging and climb out of the hole!"

"Yes boss," Carruthers made a mock show of obsequiousness.

"And none of that, either!"

Rat grinned, then turned back to Ross and De Ville, kissing passionately. "Oi!" Rat shouted, "Get a bloody room, will you?" Maneater took her hand from where it had been caressing her lover and shot Rat the bird, which only made him grin more broadly.

Viking leaned out of the shuttle door and hollered to Ross.

"What is it, Vike?" she shouted back, finally pulling her lips away from De Ville's.

"They want to go. Get your arse into gear."

"Alright. Be there in a second."

Dani caught the expression of hatred that flashed across the face of the man she was holding close at the sound of Viking's voice. "You have to do something about that, Rat. There'll be enough bugs trying to kill us all out there without you two at each other's throats," she told Rat.


"Go and apologize," Dani told Rat firmly.

"Why me? Why can't he apologize?"

"Stop being so childish. Be the bigger man and apologize. Now, while you've got the chance."

Rat stared at her for a second, then nodded almost imperceptibly. Dropping his duffle he thrust the helmet bag into her hands as she let go of him.

He jogged over to the shuttle, overtaking Maneater with his longer strides. As he poked his head through the door Viking looked up and grunted. "What the hell do you want?"

"Look, Vike, I'm sorry about the hassle between us. You're not such a bad bloke, and we both lost our temper. I'm sorry. I mean it, okay?"

Viking regarded Rat coolly, then nodded, extending his palm. Rat grasped it firmly.

"Ah, shit, Rat. For a genius, I can be a bit stupid sometimes too. Ja, we'll call it quits. Now shift your arse so we can get out of here."

Rat was suddenly jostled to one side. Kirsty Joyce put her hand on his chest and pushed him far enough to the side of the doorway to squeeze her slim frame through. Rat felt arousal as she brushed against him, causing him a feeling of guilt and panic for a split second. Lead us not into temptation...

"What are you doing here?" Rat asked.

"None of your business," Joyce said, but Carruthers remembered her saying she'd talk to the WC about him.

"Kristy - be, um just be a bit-"

"Nice? I doubt it."

"No, not on my account," Rat grinned, "I was going to say careful. I know how far I can push him. You don't."

"I'm a woman," she smiled, "we know instinctively just how far we can push men!"

The loadmaster tapped Rat on the shoulder, "Our take off slot will go if we don't leave now."

"You two girls don't let Vike get too friendly now, y'hear?" Rat winked. "See you later, big guy," he said and ducked out of the door. Vike gave him the finger and the loadmaster gave him a thumbs-up before the hatch slammed shut. Rat backed away a few yards before turning and moving to safety with Dani and Captain Bach, still waiting for him to show her around the unfamiliar ship. As Bach stood, hands on hips, glaring at Rat and Dani, Owens pulled Rat's ear to her mouth.

"Did you do it with her, too?" was the whispered query.

"Does it really matter?" Rat asked.

"I don't know," shrugged Owens.

"No, I didn't, if you must know." Rat sighed through his nose. "I just don't think it's good for you to be asking that about every woman you see."

"Well it's not surprising I wonder, with what I've heard and what you've admitted."

"Shit, Dani, I know that. I just it's in the past. Things are different now. I made mistakes, I've done stupid things. I can't change that. Nobody can change that. But the future -- you can make the future what you want. The past doesn't matter. It's done with. A screwed up life in the past shouldn't mean a screwed up life in the future."

"Yes," she said, "you're absolutely right about that."


TCS Miles D'Arby; Briefing Theatre
0633 Hours ZULU

"Sometime yesterday evening," Wing Commander Michael Black announced in a less than steady voice, "Admiral Hanton received a report of a second large enemy fleet in the Ymir System. This fleet includes four Leviathan supercarriers, a Tiamat-class dreadnought, a dozen Hydra cruisers and perhaps three to four dozen Orca destroyers. Last but by no means least is a vessel codenamed a 'Kraken' - a 'ship killer'."

"It is doubly imperative, therefore, that the operations aimed at mining the jump points into this system are completed swiftly and properly -- including reinforcing the field at the Ymir jump point."

"The mines will be laid by the T-Bolts of the D'Arby's "Firebirds" and the Iwo Jima's "Dambusters" squadrons. Cover will be provided by the Excaliburs from the same carriers' 'Black Knight' and 'Ace of Spades' squadrons."

"It has also come to my attention that there have been some incidents of sabotage on board the BWS Sicily. With all the traffic between the various ships of our group there is the distinct possibility one or more saboteurs have infiltrated our vessels, so be extra careful with your pre-flight walkarounds."

"That's it from me. Squadron COs will give you the details."

As everyone else filed out, Joyce barged in and confronted Black in the empty auditorium.

"I've come to make a witness statement."

"What are you on about?" Black demanded.

"About the fight at the Valentines Ball. You obviously don't know what happened that day, so I've come to set the record straight. I'll give you a witness statement."

"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," the WC said in a voice that implied the opposite.

"I think you do. You tried to fit up Captain Carruthers for starting a fight. I'm not going to stand for that. So I want something on record to make sure you don't try it again."

"He and I have come to an agreement. The matter won't proceed any further."

"It better not."

"Are you threatening me? I outrank you, lady!"

"Maybe on your side of the Border, but I'm part of the Union, and we don't much care about rank."

"What is it with you women? What does that bastard have that makes you lot fawn all over him? He's a cheating, lying, devious bastard!"

"Not where it counts."

"I overheard him talking about you the other day. You two hate each other. Why are you going to bat for him?"

"He stuck his neck out for my friend. I'm going to do the same."

"Ah!" Black smiled and wagged a finger knowingly, "so that's who this is all about - that little whore he's sleeping with." He never saw the slap coming, just felt the stinging shock all across the left side of his face leaving an agonizing throbbing pain like ice-cold fire dancing on his cheekbone.

"You bitch!"

"You damn well asked for that! You ever say anything like that again and I'll cut your bloody balls off. If I can find'em!"

Black stared at her for a second or two then said, very deliberately, "She's a whore." This time he was faster. His fist caught her wrist and trapped it like a vice as it arced toward his face. She tried to slam her knee into his groin but he turned his body and yanked her off balance at the same time, twisting her arm behind her back and pushing her head down. She reached for her sheathed knife with her free hand but he caught that too, bending her fingers back and taking the knife. He shoved her forward over the back of one of the seats, pushing his weight down onto her, and pressing himself into her thighs and buttocks.

"What's wrong? Do you want her as well? Want her for yourself?"

"Fuck you," Joyce gasped through gritted teeth.

"You're a lesbian, are you? What, you think that Owens slut shouldn't want men after what that beast did to her? Is that it?" Black laughed. "I think that Rat is an idiot wanting to stick it in her anyway. She's damaged goods. Inside and out."

"Dani isn't fucked in the head, it's people like you and Gaurthur who are the ones who are damaged. Let me go, you shithead!"

"I don't think so. I'm going to cure you of being a lesbian first, I think. I reckon I'm just the man for the job."

"Go to hell!"

"Keep talking dirty. It's turning me on," the sound of a zipper made Joyce shudder.

"You bastard. You filthy fucking bastard!"

"Not yet but I'm going to oblige."

"I bet you can't get it up, you bastard." Instantly the knife was at her groin. Black had decided to cut his way into her flightsuit.


"Shut up!" Black screamed at her, but the blade didn't slice into the nomex suit. The excitement he'd felt at the prospect of rape and the power he was exerting over her had evaporated with the mention of his impotence. He was flaccid.

Suddenly the weight of him, his bad breath, the grip on her arm -- all were removed from Kirsty Joyce. Black was zipping himself up, a few feet away. She stood up slowly, catching her breath. She took two steps back away from him. He didn't move. Then she fled.


TCS Miles D'Arby; Pilots Ready Room
1107 Hours ZULU

"Hey!" Puke hissed urgently to Malcom "Mad Dog" McKaig, "come and take a look at this!"

"What is it?" Mad Dog asked.

"Come and see. You won't believe it"

"Aye, alright," Mad Dog hauled his slouching form out of his armchair and peered over Puke's shoulder at the monitor.

"Och, you highland bloody dancer!" He licked his lips and then rubbed his eyes. "Ah cannae believe she cuid dae that wi'oot brekkin her back!"

"She's certainly..." Puke trailed off as he searched for the right term.

"Flexible," finished Jim "Jimbo" Reid, the CO of the Black Panthers, the TCS Miles D'Arby's resident Bearcat squadron.

"Hi boss," Puke grinned back over his shoulder, "didn't see you there."

"I guess your eyes were elsewhere," observed Jimbo . "Not surprised. Fuck me! How the hell did those sort of photos get put up on the squadron message board?"

"You know," Puke mused, re-opening a particularly explicit shot for the third time, "for a woman to put these sort of pictures of herself on a public message board, her husband must have been screwing her sister."

"She's got a sister?" Polaxe asked as he too leered at the pornographic images.

"How should I know, man?" Puke rolled his eyes, "I was talking hypothetically. I don't know if she's got a sister or not!"

"I was just thinking -- "

"I know what you were thinking, you filthy-minded bastard, Zack," laughed Puke, "but I don't have her number and there's no e-mail with it, so you're out of luck!"

"That's a shame."

"Oh, go find yourself a hooker, will you?"

"Don't take the piss," growled Kocinski.

"Oh, I remember now," Jimbo slapped his thigh and broke into a broad grin, pointing accusingly at Poleaxe. Last time we were all out on planet leave together you pulled that Transvestite, didn't you? Then you got so drunk when you found out that you spent the night in the cells and missed out on all the fun we had!"

"Yes, alright, rub it in. If I don't get some pretty soon my balls are going to explode!"

"What balls?" grinned Jimbo.

"E-mail Tanya dash Grace at kitty parlor (all one word) dot net and tell her it's an emergency!" said Puke. Poleaxe just glared.

"What's so damn interesting?" Maneater demanded as she strode into the room. "What the hell are you guys all -- oh, I see. You perverts! Well, don't let me stop you. I'll get you some Kleenex, shall I?"

"Don't be like that, Shelley," groaned Reid. "We're only having a laugh."

"Yes well, some women don't appreciate being made to feel like just a piece of meat. Who put these pictures up?"

"Not sure. The note with them just says: 'To Mikey with luv. Thought your brave boys might want something to cheer them up!'"

"You know who that is, don't you?" asked Ross.

"No." answered Reid. "Should I?"

"Yes you damn well should - that's the Wing Commander's wife whose tits and bits you're ogling."

"Oh, shit."

"Yes," she agreed. "Oh shit indeed!"


BWS Sicily; Pilots' Rec Area
1143 hours Zulu

Rat sat down to eat an early lunch before taking his trainees out for a 4-hour mission to the outer belt that afternoon. With the tray across his lap, he tried not to spill his over-full and scalding-hot mug of very black coffee as he reached for the holo remote for some news.

"Captain Carruthers?" a voice behind him asked uncertainly.

"Last time I checked," grunted Rat, swearing as some of his coffee splashed over his bacon sandwich. Giving up he took a slurp of the coffee, wincing as the bitter liquid touched the raw and tender flesh of his lacerated cheek. "What is it?" he demanded as he lifted the tray onto the floor and grabbed the remote.

"Your Squadron Commander is on the blower for you."

"Look," Rat said impatiently, "if he's left some of his shite over here, tell him I'll find it after lunch and throw it on the next shuttle for him if he can't be arsed to get it himself."

"I don't think that's it, sir, " said the rating apologetically, "he said he needs to talk to you. Now, sir."

"Okay, okay!" agreed Rat resignedly. He grabbed the sandwich and promptly stuffed most of it in his mouth. Taking the communicator from the rating he chewed with some effort and swallowed the mammoth bite.

"Yeah, boss, what is it?" Rat asked with some annoyance, "I'm trying to eat my lunch here, mate."

"You haven't checked your e-mail then?" Reid was surprised.

"No. I've been busy," answered Rat.

"Busy with that Owens lass?" Reid said accusingly.

"No, busy planning this afternoon's mission!" Rat snapped with some annoyance.

"There are a load of pornographic pictures of the WC's wife all over the squadron message board. In fact, they're all over the damn fleet by now."

"Rather embarrassing for the poor chap I bet, but what's that got to do with me?"

"Use your head, Rat. He hates you. You're a photographer and you've been known to hack computers before - who is he going to blame?"

"Bollocks!" Rat snorted. "She'll have done it herself to spite him! Even Blacky knows that."

"Are you sure?" Reid cautioned.

"No." Rat sighed. "No, I'm not. I suppose he could try to blame me."

"Rat, please tell me you weren't screwing her, were you?"

"No!" Rat shouted indignantly. "I told you that once before! Why is it every time a woman's name comes up people ask me if I shagged her? You'd think I'd been with every woman in the sector!"

"Haven't you?" Jimbo joked.

"I wish," snorted Rat, "besides, how did you know I've been caught hacking, anyway?"

"I didn't know you'd been caught, but you once did a favor for me."

"Oh, yeah, that's right. Black doesn't know that though."

"What do you mean 'caught'?" Reid inquired.

"I was a reporter for the university paper. I hacked into some records to prove a local official was running a scam. I got caught. Thrown off my degree course and lost the job I had lined up with a newspaper."

"Shit, Rat. Is that on file in your record?"

"I expect so," admitted Carruthers.

"Black is bound to know about it. He can put 2 and 2 together and get 5."

"Christ mate, it's worse than that," Rat shook his head, thinking of the incident with the Commodore's e-mails.

"How come?" Reid demanded.

"Oh," Rat thought fast, "I told Dani I was never an investigative
journalist. I guess I'll have to come clean about that, too."

"Rat, you really are something else!" chuckled Jimbo. "We're talking about a court-martial here and you're thinking of your love-life."

"Of course," Rat laughed, "You've got to get your priorities right!"


TCS Miles D'Arby; Wing Commander's Quarters
1228 Hours ZULU

"Commodore Turnbull would like to speak to you," the lieutenant informed the Wing Commander apologetically. Black looked up from the mound of paperwork his face was almost buried in and looked at his wristwatch. It was bound to happen before long. May as well get it over with.

"Put him on, then."

"Michael, have you seen those damn pictures?" the Commodore asked.

"What pictures?" Black was flustered. The unexpected question, or rather, the lack of the expected one, had taken him completely off-guard.

"You mean you don't know? Explicit -- very explicit -- holo stills of your wife are on the message boards of the squadrons in your flight wing. And god-knows where else by now. I've only just found out myself."

"Goddamnit -- why didn't the censors stop this filth from ending up all over the fleet?"

"Michael, you know censors are only looking at outgoing stuff. Besides, dirty pictures are hardly Confederation security secrets."

"But they're of my wife!"

"And the censors are supposed to know?" Turnbull shot back. "They've seen her naked before and are supposed to recognize her private parts, are they?"

"They bloody well have now!"

"Take it easy. It's not the end of the world. She's a bitch. That's women for you. It's not like she's posted obscene photographs of you, is it? It's herself she's made a fool of, not you."

"I suppose you're right, Jeff."

"Michael, I don't know how to say this, really, but" Turnbull faltered.

"Spit it out, man."

"Okay, Michael. As a friend, and as your boss, I think you need to talk to someone."

"A shrink? I'm not mad."

"I know, but you're looking at a breakdown. Everybody can see it. Some of your men can see you're on the edge and want to give you another push."

"That bastard Carruthers being one!" Black snorted venomously.

"We're all under stress, but with you and your wife, you're under extra strain. Just talking to someone about it might help."

"If I talk to the shrink it'll go on my record," protested Black with an annoyed shake of the head.

"So talk to the chaplain or Padre then."

"Dammnit, Jeff, you know I'm an atheist."

"I know that," Turnbull said patiently but with some exasperation "but he's used to talking to people, and it won't be official. Tell him you're an atheist - he'll still talk to you. Father O'Reilly is a good man. He'll understand. It's what he's there for."

"I thought his job description was saving souls!"

"As a Wing Commander, how often is your job to oversee a strategic victory by way of the proper application of air power?" Turnbull asked.

"About once in a career, it seems," the Wing Commander answered bitterly.

"And your main job is making sure things run smoothly the rest of the time so that they go right for the big show?"

"About the size of it," agreed Black.

"Same thing," the Commodore explained. "Talk to him."

"OK. Maybe I will."

"Well see the flight surgeon at any rate. He can give you pills. Are you sleeping?"

"You think I'm on the edge of a breakdown, perhaps suicidal, and you think I should be prescribed sleeping pills?" Black laughed, "and you think I'm the one who needs a shrink?"

"He won't give you a bottle! He'll give you a daily prescription, like the pilots. Stop and Go or Go and no-go pills they call'em. Something like that, anyway. You flew, you should know. A sleeping pill to put you out and amphetamines to keep you going. At least you'll get some sleep. You aren't sleeping, are you?"

"No, Jeff, I'm not. Off my food, too."

"Yeah, I noticed you dissecting the steak the other night. Helluva waste. You look a mess, Michael. You aren't eating, not sleeping -- you're a mental and physical wreck and the shooting hasn't even started yet! If it was possible to get a replacement for you at short notice I'd really think about having you replaced."

"I can handle it -"

"For Christ's sake, Michael, look in a mirror! You aren't handling it! Please, do us both a favor and sort yourself out."

"OK Jeff, OK," the Wing Commander looked totally deflated. Then he shook his head. The news could have been worse. Joyce can't have reported the incident yet then. He took several deep breaths. Maybe she won't.


Avernus Station
Pilots' Briefing Room
1300 Hours ZULU

"Ladies and gentlemen," began Captain Robert "Robber" Bell, "this afternoon we're going to be making a fighter sweep through the inner asteroid belt of this system, starting here at Avernus Station, past Nifelheim II and on to Nifelheim III which is on the far side of the star to us. We're going to come out of the ecliptic and re-orient to try and get a better triangulation on any objects we spot, to help distinguish them from asteroids.

"There are a lot of objects out there. This is a mining system and most are tracked and many tagged - but that's only objects over 30-50km along their semi-major axis. The number of rocks the size of a boulder or bigger out there is just an estimate but could be 100 times as many.

"The other problem is that the belt is pretty messy - with having Nifelheim II so close to the inner edge of the belt and having the effects of both III and IV control the belt means there's a lot of rogues out there. There are resonance gaps at distance corresponding to simple fractions of the orbits of both III and IV, and there are Trojan objects forming quite dense bunches 60 degrees in front and behind both planets, although not as many as for Jupiter in the Sol system. Even so - keep your eyes open. The typical albedo of these objects is often only a couple of percent: They're black as soot, so don't expect to see them glinting a few million klicks away."


Thundercloud 2
Inner Asteroid belt
1430 Hours ZULU

Punk's cockpit was silent apart from the sound of his own breathing, now shallow, quick and irregular. Every time he took his eyes off Robber for a split second his aircraft seemed to jump out of position. Below them were the huge Sagittarius and Scorpius starclouds toward the galactic center and he had the uncomfortable feeling of falling toward them. He was so used to perspectives from staying in the ecliptic of the system, their excursion above it, at angle to the plane of the system, had really unsettled him. Space wasn't all black as many planetsiders who never looked at the sky (or never saw it for the lights of their cities) thought. Stars could be so bright when seen without and atmosphere to look through, and there were so many of them. It was almost like looking up on a cloudy night and realizing that the clouds weren't made of water vapor but countless stars. Punk had never realized how much looking at those familiar star patterns had given him a "horizon". Space is a 3 dimensional place allowing free movement with no up and down but the human brain isn't designed to work that way. Some people can't get used to it. Some simply flip up/down at will depending on the task at the time. And some, unwittingly to themselves, had fixed up/down in their minds. As an in-system pilot, he knew Nifelheim intimately -- too intimately. Now his subconscious was rebelling, telling his mind he was upside down, or in a turn, even though he was flying straight and level -- at least in regard to Robber and their flightpath.

"Keep it tighter, Punk," Robber ordered as he noticed the drifting for the umpteenth time, "I don't need to have to worry about where you are as well as these rocks."

Punk shook his head but double-clicked to acknowledge he'd heard the command. It couldn't be long until this leg of the mission was ended and they'd be back in the ecliptic. He just had to hold on, keep his eye on the leader and trust his instruments. He wasn't used to making instrument checks though, nor was he comfortable with his check routine yet in the Thunderbolt -- all the while he searched for instruments he was drifting from position. Forget the instruments, just watch Robber. Where's he gone?

"Punk, look out!" Jessica "Chess" Lennox shouted. Look out where? Punk cursed, then he heard Robber shout in surprise. Looking over his left shoulder he realized he'd nearly hit his leader, narrowly slicing across his nose. But Robber was upside down, wasn't he?

"Punk, what's going on?" Robber asked. There was concern more than anger in
his voice.

"I'm not sure. My body is telling me stupid things and over ruling my head."

"Vertigo? Spatial disorientation?"

"I think so."

"OK. Let's go home then."


Avernus Station
Robber's temporary office
1600 Hours ZULU

"Sit down, Padraig. Tell me what was going on out there."

"Well sir, I was OK until we came out of the plane of the system. I'm not used to looking at familiar stars in unfamiliar directions, I think. Every time I started to lose concentration my natural instincts took over and started flying as if my ship was at a strange attitude and corrected it."

"OK. Why didn't you say something sooner? You were drifting all over the place for ages. I thought your formation flying was just bad."

"No sir. I just didn't want to admit I was having problems."


"Not so much as I was worried you'd cut me."

"I'm not going to cut you. You still want to fly too much. When a pilot gets washed out it comes as a relief to him, nine times out of ten, because the pressure has got too much. It doesn't happen over one mistake but because the workload gradually reaches overload. He can't cope with the speed and complexity of things in the cockpit. You clearly don't fall into this category - but next time you have a problem, for crying out loud -- say something before it gets dangerous!"

"Yes sir," Punk said meekly.

"Chin up, old boy," Robber told him, "it's hardly the end of the world." It was only after Punk had closed the door behind him Robber realized they might be facing the end of the world, right in the young man's own back yard.


Avernus Station
Pilot's Lounge
1800 Hours ZULU

"What happened out there today, Punk?" asked Lennox.

"I got vertigo," Punk replied taciturnly, typically unforthcoming.

"Yeah, but why?" she pressed.

"Too much time in-system, Robber chimed in, knowing the lad didn't want to talk about it, "Too used to seeing certain stars in certain ways. Subconsciously his brain was screwing him up."

"Aye, that's about right." Robber thought that would be it, that Punk would go back to being his usual, withdrawn and quiet self but he launched into an anecdote. Maybe it was to steady his nerves, or maybe it was something else.

Robber sat back and let the man talk.

"Last week we were in the belt, in the Trojans preceding Nifelheim III. Someone had found a nugget, a rich nickel-iron thing the size of a small freighter, that, by the looks of it and the trajectory, had been chipped off a much larger metal-rich asteroid in that group of rocks. So of course a few miners had gone after it.

"I wasn't mining, I flew Search and Rescue Shuttles. No, these people had found this thing, the mother lode, and they were all going to be rich. It wasn't one of the bigger rigs, it was a real small family affair, Ma, Da, and their little girl, all of about 10, maybe, just old enough to start working the boards," he continued in the soft Irish brogue.

"So they're working, tagging and sampling this thing. Da's EVA, trying to attach the feckin' beacon by hand because the first two automatics didn't take properly. They want to make sure of this claim - you don't want to lose it. That'd be like losing a winning lottery ticket. Nobody's found a nickel-iron chunk in this system for 6 years.

"So ma's keeping her eye on Da, and the little girl, oh, god forgive me but I forget the poor waif's name, she's sitting eating a freeze dried meal in the corner. Bang. Nobody saw it. Nobody could have seen it. Another damn chunk of the same rock slams into them as their ship is orbiting the main nugget at a safe distance. This chunk had been chipped off into an orbit by the same collision that had knocked off the other chunk that led them here -- there's a big splash mark on the near side -- but this thing was orbiting in the opposite direction from them and nobody knew it was there. Albedo of less than 1% and it's only a few feet across. A bolder, but only solid iron, not rock.

"Da's tether gets snapped by the initial impact. His body goes pinwheeling into the deep dark. It's still out there somewhere. He'll probably get a cremation in the sun one day, if he doesn't end up spiraling into Nif III. So Ma gets her brains bashed out as she slams into the bulkhead. She wasn't strapped in because she was having to move between two stations. So that's the end of Ma. The little girl, poor, wretched thing, gets pinned to the same bulkhead by the robot arm control. The brackets broke - and this thing crashes into her like she's had a piano dropped on her out of a 4 story window.

"Broken ribs, broken shoulder blade, broken collar bone, shattered pelvis, spinal damage, right femur snapped in three places -- but she doesn't die. She lives, waiting hours in the dark with her dead Ma's body and blood and floating around beside her in the dark.

"So by the time we get there she's mercifully unconscious. And I have to line the shuttle up in an orbit to miss the big chunk of metal the size of a frigate, the pieces of debris knocked off the ship, and get close enough to the ship so we can stabilize her spin - because she's tumbling, end over end, side to side, doing the twist and the mambo too. And I can't take my eyes down to the instruments to do this. I have to fly seat-of-the pants, because I can't take my eyes off the stuff outside. I'm used to that. I'm good at that. But the downside is when you've spent 6 years flying in the ecliptic plane of one system, without thinking you start seeing star patterns and knowing which way is 'up' and 'down' and that little hop today at a large angle to that plane threw my internal compass right off. I learned something today that'll make me a better pilot. It won't happen again. I didn't let that little girl down and I won't let you guys down. I promise you that."

"I know, Padraig," Chess said warmly, "I know you won't."


TCS Miles D'Arby; Pilot's Lounge
18th February 2681 (2861.049)
0940 Hours ZULU

The three Excalibur pilots filed into the mess and managed to get something out of the remnants of breakfast still on offer. Having already been up a few hours and flown an escort mission they were hungry and somewhat deflated to find people who had just rolled out of bed had taken most of the choice from the breakfast line. Muttering with disgruntlement they found a table and discussed the sortie. Despite the system now being very definitely "injun country" with the Nephilim fleet jumping in in the early hours they'd had no opposition. No sight, sound or spoor of the enemy were seen as they escorted the last of the mine-laying missions to reinforce the minefields that had obviously caused some casualties to the bugs as they jumped in system. Theirs had been the task to cover the Ymir jump point again, where the new bug fleet had been found.

"OK, I know why Hanton had us fall back here," Chip perked up, "She's sold her soul to the Devil for foreknowledge of the future. How else could she know there was a second group in Ymir that would otherwise have slipped passed us?"

"Spooky," Puke said ironically, "she's just lucky."

"Yeah, she's got the luck of the devil. I said that!" Chip laughed.

"Seriously guys," Poleaxe interjected -- it's damn lucky we are here. If not that Ymir lot would have ravaged the inner systems."

"Oh, yeah, it's real lucky the inner fleet still get's to sit on their fat pussy asses while we die out here," Puke snapped with vitriol. "We're locked into this system now with two fleets of mass murdering aliens who don't want to talk about anything. That's good news is it?"

"That's what you signed up for," Poleaxe shot back, "if we're going straight to hell, at least we get the chance to take these bugs with us."

"Oh, real blaze of glory man, aren't you? I'll tell you something -- we've just shut ourselves into hell with the place full of demons. You want the big Valhalla, death and glory hero send off. Fine, Ragnarok here we come -- but Nifelheim is the hell of the dead of those who died of old age peacefully in their sleep - exactly like I planned to."

There was an awkward silence as Puke and Poleaxe stared at each other before Poleaxe broke eye contact and shook his head, "Oh, stop being such a big girls blouse and eat your bloody breakfast, will you?"

Puke stabbed his fork viciously into a piece of bacon, over-dry from sitting under heat lamps for too long. Looking Poleaxe right in the eye he boomed out, "the condemned man ate a hearty breakfast!"

They ate the rest of the meal in sullen silence.