PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 3 of 62)

: Welcome to Hell
PART 1 OF 6 : SHIP OF THE LINE

"Like leviathans afloat
Lay their bulwarks on the brine
While the sign of battle flew
On the lofty British line."
- Campbell


 


Avernus Station; Sleeping Quarters
Nifelheim System
15th February 2681 (2861.045)
0143 Hours ZULU

Wing Commander Michael Black slumped down the computer station of the stateroom he'd temporarily been allocated on board Avernus Station. He was at that stage of drunkenness where, though he was tired, he was still wide-awake. No doubt a few minutes inactivity would bring on the drooping eyelids and torpor, but for now he decided to check his E-mail.

You have 3 new messages

The first two were internal, routine messages about the state of the force
and its battle-readiness. The last was something different.

From: gillian.black@terranet.com
Date: 2861.044.23.49
To: wc-black.m@tcn.milesdarby.crew
Subject: <no subject>

Michael,

That's a bit bloody formal, isn't it? Black pondered momentarily. What happened to "Dear Mike" or "My darling"?

I'm not really sure how to say this, but I don't feel like we're together anymore.

No shit, Black snorted, I'm about a thousand light years away!

I thought you taking that promotion would give us more time together but it hasn't, if anything, you're spending less time with me than ever before. A girl gets lonely, you know?

What, and I don't?

I know you're fucking that slutty secretary of yours. That's why you wouldn't change her for a male one. I don't see why you can't have a male aide. That Admiral Cartwright has had three.

Yes, but he's gay, Jill! We only did it the once, anyway. Not like you can complain. You've already had one affair, and that's just the one I know about!

Next time you leave a condom in your shirt, don't leave the girl's number with it! It's not the first time either, is it? You bastard! You can't get it up for me, but you go around screwing other women, you shit!

One time! I couldn't get an erection one lousy, stinking time and you keep throwing back in my face two years later! It happens to everyone sometimes!

So anyway, I'm sure you've guessed by now. I've been seeing Gregory behind your back for months now, and he's asked me to move in with him.

Gregory? That moustachioed, simpering idiot Commodore Gregory Barnes? You've got to be shitting me!

So I hope you and Lisa or Alice or whatever-the-hell the little bitch calls herself are very happy. Besides, Gregory says you're as good as dead anyway because the bugs are going to roll right over you, which is why he's staying here to defend Earth with the rest of the inner fleets.

Hiding his sorry carcass, you mean. If they would release the Inner Fleets, we wouldn't be getting steam rollered!

I don't expect I'll need to get my lawyers to draw up divorce papers, but if you do, by some miracle, manage to survive, you'll be hearing from them.

You sneaky bitch! You think if I get killed you'll get everything, but if you divorce me you'll be lucky to get half with your own unfaithfulness! You cow!

NOT yours any longer, your unfaithful, NEVER-loving wife, Gillian

P.S. Gregory is a caring, attentive, selfless lover who always thinks of my pleasure first and he's never once had any trouble getting it up for me. He finds me "stunningly attractive" and I've never once had to fake it unlike with your miserable 30-second efforts!

You fucking cow! You bitch! If you're so sure I'm going to snuff it, why bother telling me? Simply to piss me off?

"You bloody whore! You slag!" Black vented his feelings aloud, jumping to his feet and kicking over the chair he'd been sitting in. He kicked it two or three more times, then savagely punched the wall. His hand came off a lot worse than the bulkhead and the pain in his knuckles momentarily distracted him from devising ever more gruesome tortures for his unfaithful wife. He slumped onto the bed and cradled his throbbing hand, biting his lip to stifle sobs of pain and rage.

 

BWS Sicily; Flight Wing Quarters
0712 Hours ZULU

Rat gingerly got to his feet, absently rubbing at his scalp where the stitches itched. He winced, not from them, but from the piledriver pounding of his heartbeat throbbing in his alcohol soaked brain. He did the "hangover-shuffle" to the shower block. Grimacing as he briefly caught sight of his own reflection, he began the daily "shit, shower and shave" ritual that would transform a hung-over piss-head into an (almost) respectable Space Force Officer. He wouldn't go so far as to say "human being."

Grunting as he reached for the door panel, he rubbed one of his numerous aches and pains before remembering how he got them. First, of course, there was the bar-brawl at the Valentine's Ball, and then in his inebriated state he'd agreed to join in Robber's football game. Viking had landed a full-blooded tackle on him, smashing him to the hard non-slip flight deck surface. So much for it being 'touch' football.

Interesting sounds and sensations from his stomach suggested he was either hungry or about to spend the rest of the morning sitting on the porcelain throne. Hoping it was the former, he grabbed an alka-seltzer and followed it up with a glass of milk. People told him that milk wasn't a good idea on an upset stomach with all that lactose and fat, but Rat reckoned it sat there better than anything else. Best cure for a bad case of booze-belly, he always found.

Deciding it was hunger, he set off for the mess hall.

 

Avernus Station
About the same time

Captain Robert "Robber" Bell walked slowly beside the crewman he'd met the day earlier. They'd had a game of football, pilots versus crew, after the Valentine's ball, and the crew had thrashed the pilots soundly. Robber had volunteered to go on the morning FOD walk with them.

This was a daily ritual anywhere flying operations took place, but even more vital on board crowded flight decks of aircraft carriers. FOD (Foreign Object Debris) was a hazard not only to engines when sucked in, but to aircraft and personnel when picked up and thrown around at high speed by jet blast and slipstreams. A bolt or even a piece of tyre rubber flying at the speed of a bullet could kill men and put holes in the skins of aircraft, puncture vital systems, cut tyres or crack canopies. So a line of people walked the deck, stooping now and again as they picked up small and sometimes even large objects off the deck.

Robber was amazed at how many pieces seemed to fall off aircraft every day. Nuts, bolts, pieces of unidentifiable metal... if the pilots knew just how much junk was picked up on these FOD walks he wondered if half of them would ever climb back in the cockpit again!

The crewchief Robber had struck up a friendship with, Mack Mudd -- "Mudbath," "Muddy" or "Mucky" as he was variously referred to - was telling him some amusing stories. Like, to avoid offending pilots, sometimes a pilot cock-up would be referred to as a "stick-to-seat-interface" problem, which was crew jargon for pilot-error. Surprisingly few caught the joke, which is probably why they made stupid mistakes in the first place. Another good one was the story of the broken comlink in the helmet. The pilot flew three times that day, reporting the thing U/S each time. The crew chief had replaced the unit and checked it three times before giving it to the pilot. The last time, the pilot threw his helmet at the crew chief.

"Bloody thing's still not working!" he complained.

"I think, sir," the crewchief told him dryly, that the problem is between the earphones..."

Robber got a better idea of the problems and worries of the groundcrews, and promised to pass on some of their ideas and requests to the pilots. Promising to have a beer with the guy later, Robber went to get some breakfast.

 

BWS Sicily; Mess Hall
0727 Hours ZULU

"What the hell are you doing here Mad Dog?" Rat asked when he saw the Thunderbolt pilot. "Aren't you supposed to be on the D'Arby?"

"Aye! Ah'm tekin' the shuttle back in a wee while," Malcolm "Mad Dog" McKaig grinned, "but ye didnae think sich a bonny lad as me whidnae pull at a party like that did ye?"

"Should've realized when I saw that stupid grin on your face you'd got laid, Mad Dog," laughed Rat.

"Och, no the stupid grin is frae the rammy, mon! Ah, ye ken, there's twa great stress relievers in this universe: Yin is an orgasm, and the other is punching some bastard in his ugly face!"

"I reckon you must be totally stress free then, you spawny Scotch git!"

Mad Dog threw back his head and let out a huge belly laugh. "Och, it was a braw barney, wasn't it? And te think they removed the Pool tables so we couldae play Crud," he complained, rubbing the red split above his left eye where someone's ring had cut the skin.

"Yeah, I know," agreed Rat, "there might have been less violence if we'd got some aggro out with Crud!" Crud was a game unique to fighter pilots. Played on a Pool table with balls but no cues, it was very demanding, both mentally and physically, and extremely high paced. In short, it was a game invented by fighter pilots for fighter pilots, a reflection of their particular temperament. The rules were rather complex, and you had to think and act fast. Balls were kept in motion all the time, and opposing players tried to stop you taking your shot. Broken bones and other serious injuries were not uncommon occurrences, and it was perhaps understandable that someone (presumably WC Michael Black) had taken the decision to remove the tables to stop them playing.

"Well," McKaig continued, "it would've kicked off sooner or later anyway. There was this guy already starting on me when the fight broke oot. Telt me to piss aff, like.  'Fuck off or I'll kill you' he says! 'Ah whiz only chatting to the lady, mon. Nae need to get yer britches in a bunch', ah says. Next thing there's some big baheid shoves him from behint and this twat smacks me in the face, twice like, so I took a coupla steps backwards, and let fly when I got me balance. Whap! Doon he draps Wallap! Like a sack o' spuds. Yin bat!"

Mad Dog was gesturing to illustrate the fight, swinging his left hand in a viscious overhand arc. "Aye, so, I couldnae get int'll 'im like that, ken, cos the bastard had his chin tucked inta is chest, eh, and he was facing away frae me, on his hands and knees.

"So I grabbed his heid wi' a big handful o' hair and hauled the bugger around, like, whacked him wi' me knee a coupla times. Wish ah'd bloody remembered these steel toes in they special forces boots ah was wearing!" He grinned, "Ah, nae mind. Anyway, twa o' yon bloody MPs came oor, rugby tackled me! Ah Sez, 'Nae mind me, mon, that's the bastard that started it!' Took baith o' them to hold 'im, like. Ah walked away wi'oot a hand on me. Bastard snapped chain on ma dog tags wi' me lucky St Christopher tho, and it were his bloody ring that gie us that cut. Bastard. If ah get another chance, I'll no ferget the boots this time, ye ken."

"Did you ask to see if they found your medallion when they were clearing up the mess?" asked Rat.

"Ah," Mad Dog shook his head, curling his lip, "they didnae find it. Some arsewipe'll a swiped it, nae doot." Mad Dog suddenly whipped his head around as he caught something in his peripheral vision: Jim "Jimbo" Reid storming toward their table with a black expression carved on his normally genial face.

"Rat, get over here, now!" Reid barked. He dragged Rat off to the side of the hall away from the occupied tables. "Black wants to see you: He's in a hanging mood. What did you do, screw his wife?"

"Not that I remember. His secretary..."

"Get serious, Rat! Did you start that fight?" Reid demanded urgently.

"No! Of course I bloody didn't!" Carruthers exploded in exasperation, "I don't frigging start fights, I finish the fuckers."

"Well he's set on blaming you for it," Jimbo explained. "I've tried to get him to let me sort it out, since I am your CO, but the bastard's gone over my head. That Viking thing hasn't helped matters much."

"Shite."

"Yeah, shite. He's looking for someone to make an example of so this aggro doesn't get out of hand. He seems to have picked you. I don't know why I thought he was starting to warm to you." Jimbo shook his head. "What the hell did you do to piss him off this time?"

"I've no fucking idea," growled Rat.

"Well he's in a bloody bad mood today. I don't know what he's going to do but I'd say he was out for blood."

"Shite!"

"You said that," Reid pointed out.

"Yeah, well, I thought it was such an appropriate comment I figured I'd restate it."

"Better go see the man then."

"Yeah, guess so."

"Good luck, man," Reid offered his hand.

"Oh for crying out loud! Offer the condemned man a last cigarette and blindfold, why don't you?"

"Sory, Rat. Hey, what's the worst he can do? Send you to fight the Nephilim?"

"If you're trying to make me feel better," Rat shot back over his shoulder as he walked away," you're not doing a very good job!"

"Hey, I'm your squadron commander, that ain't my job!" Reid quipped. Rat grinned and waved two fingers vigorously in a derisory gesture before leaving the mess hall.

 

TCS Miles D'Arby; Wing Commander's Office
0803 Hours ZULU

"I'm very disappointed," Black told Rat, "very disappointed indeed. I had hoped your..." The Wing Commander searched for the appropriate term, "somewhat laid back style would have allowed you to fit in and gain a rapport with the Border Worlders. You were supposed to be an ambassador for us, help us all to get along. Instead you end up starting a war!"

"Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Shut up and wait till I've damn well finished!" Black ordered. "You weren't interested in anything except screwing that bloody blonde pilot! You started a fight that caused thousands of creds of damage, not to mention untold embarrassment to me and everyone else involved in organizing it, just because you're sexually frustrated!"

"Absolutely untrue, sir!" Rat couldn't contain himself, "I resent that!"

"Speak when I give you permission, pilot! Just once it would be nice if you would treat me with the respect due to my rank."

"Respect? Respect isn't a right," Rat snorted, "It's not a privilege of rank -respect is earned. Being saluted and called 'sir' isn't respect, it's lip-service."

"Dammit, Carruthers! You may be a reservist, but you're still an officer under my command and I expect you to act like one. That doesn't include starting another war with the Border Worlders because one is chatting up some girl you're trying to get the panties off!"

"It was a bloody Confederation pilot I hit, and he was assaulting her!"

"That's not the point! If you hadn't waded in with your size 10s we'd have stopped that fight before it turned into a full-scale brawl."

"And at what cost? You'd have let a young lady get beaten up by two men because it would have been more convenient for you? That's your idea of being a good officer? Fer fuck's sake! It's the duty of an officer and a gentleman to defend those unable to defend themselves. What about honor?"

"As I heard it, she did a pretty good job of defending herself!" Black shot back acidly.

"She's had plenty of practice! But so what? What the hell has being a good officer got to do with flying fighters? Those evaluation reports you're so keen on hammering me with... why are we judged on our qualities as an officer first and foremost, and not our abilities as a pilot? You used to be a fighter pilot. You should know what it's all about!"

"I am a fighter pilot, Captain. I'm current on all types under my command."

"Big fucking wow! You get in and fly a hop every now and then, just often enough to maintain your flight status. That doesn't mean you can even fly, and it certainly doesn't make you a fighter pilot! Being a fighter pilot is a state of mind. You've got to be a predator. You've got to be the best, got to be arrogant, have an ego, a personality. An attitude. You don't like my attitude? Tough shit! You're not a fighter pilot any more, you're a pen pusher. A numbers man. You've forgotten what being a fighter pilot is."

"Don't you judge me! Don't you dare judge me!" Black exploded, jumping to his feet. "I became a Wing Commander knowing full-well it was going to stop me being the fighter pilot I used to be, but it was something I had to do. I could hardly refuse the appointment."

"Of course you could have," contradicted Rat unsympathetically.

"When the Space Force asks something of an officer it is his duty, his obligation to comply. Besides, my wife..." he trailed off.

"She wanted the money and the prestige of your promotion and now she's dumped you on Valentines day," Rat took a wild stab, but saw the shot hit home, "so now you're as moody as shite and taking it out on me because you can't stand seeing me as the person you'd like to be, a real fighter pilot and in love!"

"Damn you, Carruthers! I'll - "

"You'll what?" Rat sneered. "You'll ground me? Court-Martial me? You need fighter pilots like me. You needed me when I punched Viking in his ugly face and nothing's frigging changed. If you court-martial me you'll just make me into a scapegoat and lose what little respect you have left from those fighter pilots you command!"

"Get out!" Black spluttered, "Just get out!"

"Sir, aye sir!" Rat didn't salute, simply stormed out leaving Black trembling where he stood.

"Shit!" the Wing Commander swore to himself. "Shit! Shit! Shit!"

What the hell do I do now? He asked himself. If I discipline him, I'm going to lose the respect and co-operation of the other pilots and probably the Border Worlders too. If I don't, I'll be a laughing stock. He and the other pilots will walk right over me knowing they can get away with murder. Shit.

He rubbed the hairs on the back of his neck where they were standing erect with the adrenaline coursing through him. I could resign. No, no I can't. There's nobody to take over. You don't resign 24 hours before the end of the universe!

Black slumped back down into his seat. What the hell do I do?

 

BWS Sicily
Officers Club
0844 Hours ZULU

"Give me a pint," Rat told the barman. "No, make it a double no, treble vodka!"

"Er... sir? It's not even 0900. Aren't you flying later?"

"Just give me a bloody drink!" Rat shouted.

"Sir, I'm afraid I can't do that," the unfortunate barman informed him plaintively.

"Yeah, yeah, OK." Rat gripped the bar to stop his hands shaking. "Give me a nice, strong mug of black coffee instead then."

"Yessir. Coming right up."

Shite! Rat thought. What the hell do I do now?

 

TCS Miles D'Arby
Wing Commander's Office
1057 Hours ZULU

"Captain Bell is waiting on line one," Black's aide told him.

"Tell him to call back later," the Wing Commander growled.

"He says he needs to talk to you about the flight wing organization, and that it's quite urgent."

"Oh... very well. Put him through, then."

"Good morning, sir," Robber began, "are you alright, sir?" he asked, seeing Black massaging his knuckles.

"Yes, I am! Get on with it!" The Wing Commander snapped.

"We need to sort out flight leaders for these militia trainees," Robber carried on patiently.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, they can't lead flights themselves, let alone run their own squadrons. There are some that are good enough to be element leaders by now, but you couldn't expect to put them in charge of a 4-ship and expect them to come out of a furball again." Robber told him. "I think some of our pilots should stay on as flight leaders and run their squadrons."

"Fine," Black agreed matter-of-factly. "Why can't the people already there do it?"

"Because all three of our own squadron COs are there. We need them back on the D'Arby getting our own squadrons ready for the shooting war."

"So what exactly do you suggest?"

"We swap the COs, Vike, Jimbo and Maneater, for other D'Arby pilots and send 3 of the trainees in each squadron, the best ones, to the D'Arby to make up the squadron numbers," Bell told him. "We do it as soon as possible to let everyone get settled in before the shooting starts and let the COs get things organized."

"Why not spread the inexperienced trainees throughout our carriers, and take pilots from other carriers to make up the flight leaders?" queried the Wing Commander. "The D'Arby squadrons are going to be pretty weakened by this."

"We shouldn't think about it in terms of individual squadrons, carriers or even Confed and Border Worlders, Sir," Bell chastised him, "We're all in this together. If we were looking at a long, drawn out war I'd agree that trying to give our own people the best survival odds was more important, or it could be argued to be, but this is going to be a one-shot deal. One big battle, or a series of them, and we win or lose this right here." He took a deep breath and looked at Black hard.

"Sir, if these Bugs break through here they can ravage dozens of systems and scatter to the four winds while the Inner Fleets sit on their hands, protecting their own lazy, cowardly behinds at Sol. This is it. We hold the line here or human civilization could be history. Make or Break."

"Yes, you're right."

"OK then. To maximize the air wing's effectiveness, we need pilots to be as comfortable as possible working with each other. Those trainees should be kept together and not scattered because they'll feel more comfortable and less alone if they are together, and now they'll know the COs, too, having flown with them. The more comfortable, the more they are used to each other, the greater their SA and the greater the combat effectiveness of the units."

"Fine. Sort it out then. Choose who you want where. I can't deal with it now, I have other matters to sort out."

"Sir?" Bell was incredulous. "This is the whole organization of the flight wing we're talking about. That's your job, isn't it? I shouldn't even have had to bring this up."

"Dammit, don't be impertinent! Don't tell me how to do my bloody job, mister!"

"Well someone obviously has to, it seems!" retorted Bell before he could stop himself. Black didn't even seem to notice. "Look, sir, are you okay? Have you injured your hand?" Robber gestured to Black's right hand as the Wing Commander constantly massaged the knuckles.

"None of your bloody business! Keep your nose out of it!" Black almost screamed, before he caught himself. "I'm sorry, Captain. You're right, I've been lax, haven't planned ahead and it needed pointing out. I've been preoccupied. Planning strategy and tactics, you know."

"Of course. I'll let you finish your planning then."

"Thank you, Captain. Just send me a copy of the organization you propose when you're ready and I'll rubber stamp it." With that he cut off the vidlink.

 

BWS Sicily
Officers Club
1412 Hours ZULU

Rat was still rubbing his stiff neck and other bruises when he re-entered the bar for lunch. Spotting Danica "Dancer" Owens, he aimed his approach so she could see him coming. It was something he'd learned a long time ago. Women are like aircraft. Never approach from behind, seldom from the side, best from the front so they can see you coming. It was a personal safety thing. Men, on the other hand, generally didn't appreciate the straight in approach as they felt it threatening. All down to millions of years of evolution and body language, but the last thing you want to do with a woman is make her nervous of you from the start.

"Hey, gorgeous," he said as he came in from about the 2-30 radial, "how are you?"

"Bruised," she said simply.

"Kirsty suggested I ask you if you wanted to be in a photo shoot today, but... you have got a couple of bruises there, haven't you?"

"Well, excuse me for getting hit in the face!" Dani pouted.

"It's not too bad," Rat tenderly caressed her cheek, "little puffy but that ice last night caught most of the swelling. It'll be gone tomorrow. Besides, it hasn't affected your beauty."

"Don't lie, of course it has. I look awful!"

"Not to me. You look lovely. Maybe I'm biased, though."

"I think so, but thanks anyway," smiled Owens.

They chatted about nothing and everything for a few minutes until Rat noticed somebody staring at him.

"You got a problem, mate?" Rat growled.

"No. Have you?"

"Aye, as a matter of fact, I do have a problem staring at me and the lady here while we're trying to have a chat. You want to give us a bit of privacy, please?"

"Tony, leave it," pleaded Dani, tugging at Rat as he made to stand up. Rat relaxed and sat back down in his seat.

"You're the guy who broke Biggles' cheekbone, aren't you?"

"Maybe. What's it to you?" Carruthers demanded.

"Lieutenant Biggs is a friend of mine."

"Well he shouldn't go around picking fights if he's afraid of getting hurt then, should he?"

"It wasn't just a bruise or two, you broke his bloody face!"

"Tell him next time it'll be his fookin' neck!"

"Tony!" Dani glared at him. "Stop it, it's not worth it."

"He wants to talk to you about it," said Biggles' friend. "He's waiting in the corridor now."

"Aye, and I'm the Queen of Sheba," sneered Rat. "Look, piss off, will you?"

"Don't you tell me to piss off. This isn't even your ship."

"Look, I don't want to lose my temper, the lady doesn't want me to lose my temper and you really don't want me to lose my temper, so do us all a favor and fuck off before you get hurt, eh?"

"Are you going to make me?"

"Look, pal. I've given you every frigging chance to leave this, right? If I broke a guy's cheekbone when I wasn't trying, imagine what I'll do when I'm really angry?"

"Another time, Rat-boy," the man spat as he slunk off.

"I'll fucking kill him when I see him next," said Rat.

"You'll do no such thing," Dani told him forcefully.

"Just bloody watch me! I'd have done him now if you hadn't been here."

"Oh, great. So then his friends beat you up for beating him up, then what?"

"You don't understand!" Rat shook his head in exasperation. Women never did. "I'll have to face him and his mates sooner or later. They won't let it drop. This way I've got to be looking over my shoulder all the time."

"I don't want to see you get hurt!"

"I won't get hurt, they will."

"Oh, great. Well, I'll come and see you in the Brig then, shall I?"

"Won't happen," announced Rat, trying to assure himself he was as confident as he sounded.

"You're sure of that?"

"Pretty certain. I think Wing Commander Black and I understand each other now."

"We're not on the D'Arby now, you idiot! You're not in Confed space now, Tony. Just watch yourself."

"I intend to. But they better watch it as well, if they know what's good for them."

"Men! You're nothing but machismo and testosterone!" Dani stood up, knocking over her chair as she did so.

"Dani, wait..." Rat tried to stop her, but she twisted away from his hand and ignored his shouts as she stomped away from him.

"Oh, bollox!" Rat shouted, and kicked the fallen chair sending it skidding across the room to clatter against a wall.

 

Avernus Station
Pilots' Briefing Room
1700 Hours ZULU

"Okay, people," Duncan "Hog" Hodgson shouted as he strolled into the briefing room, "this afternoon's mission has been scrubbed." He raised his hands as the clamor started. "Whoah, hold, on, settle down. I mean the scheduled mission has been scrubbed. Instead of another training hop we're now going to be doing an operational CAP mission."

"This doesn't mean you're ready for war. You certainly aren't fully trained," he let that sink in before softening his tone slightly, "but neither am I. Every mission, especially in peacetime is a training mission; an opportunity for you to learn, practice, and become a more capable fighter pilot. Pilots get better with the hours they log up. You don't suddenly become a "Top Gun" when you finish your training and get posted to a squadron. The learning never stops, the curve just gets shallower, never flat."

Hog pressed a button and the display changed to their weapon loadout. "We're going to be configured for a CAP mission, carrying live weapons. I'm sure you've all heard about the cock up a couple of days ago, so I want everyone to double check the rules of engagement. In any case, nobody pulls the bloody trigger without my say-so. Understood?"

"It isn't expected that the Bugs are going to come pouring through that jump point at any second, but they could. I don't want you to worry about that, I just want you to keep sharp and try not to look like a bunch of nuggets. If you manage not to embarrass yourselves and me, I'll buy everyone a beer when we get back, okay?" Hog grinned, "and if the Bugs do come through, we'll all be too busy fighting for our lives to worry about it. If they don't, why are you worrying?"

"We're basically operational now. I don't expect any training missions will be scheduled, but we'll try and fit some ACM and mock intercepts in after we leave CAP stations at the end of our time slots."

"Okay, here're the waypoints we've plotted out..."

 

CS Prometheus
En Route from Nifelheim I to the
Nifelheim-Elohim jump point
2350 Hours ZULU

Able Spacemariner Jackson, ex first-mate of the late Elizabeth freighter, loafed at his post, gazing out of the porthole at the impressive, if battered, collection of vessels of the newly arrived Combined Fleet. This was where they were making their stand. The signal "Form Line of Battle" fluttering valiantly above the huge red ensign of the Victory while Nelson chattered eagerly to Hardy about wanting to get a score of the enemy vessels at least.

No, Nelson was confident of victory, even if he was morbidly contemplating his own death. So he should have been, having been injured dozens of times before, sometimes grievously. And he was indeed marked down by a Frog sniper, shot through the backbone, but already he knew they'd carried the day. This was more like the thin red line, sergeants barking at the men to stand in good order and await the onrushing horde of Zulu warriors whilst the officers chatted about cricket. Isandlwana. A massacre. Or would it be Rourke's Drift? Where the thin red line held, and won out over seemingly insurmountable odds? That was a hasty but strong defensive position, which was rapidly what Nifelheim was becoming. The gate point would be barricaded behind them with mines while the fleet prepared to hold the line.

Nifelheim; Hell. The cold, damp, barren wasteland of the Norse hell, not the fiery realm of Christian tradition. More like the hell of the Kilrathi, Nargrast -- a barren, frozen wasteland in which there is nothing to hunt. Well, that damned Cat commanding the Kilrathi cruiser swanning around like it owned the system might have nothing to hunt yet, but soon he'd have as many prey as he could possibly want. More than he could handle -- prey that would shoot back.

The line had been drawn. A scratch in the dirt; A line of sandbags. The message to the Bugs was clear: This far and no further.

Jackson smiled and shook his head before saying out loud, "Welcome to Hell."

 

FIN