PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 31 of 62 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
Deep Space, Nifelheim System
1554 Hours, 18th February 2681 (2681.049)
“Delta Two, respond! Respond, dammit!” Onslaught yelled into the mike, frantically scanning for his friend's fighter. He'd heard the last snatches of Amber's conversation with Jack over the comm channel and caught a glimpse of the torpedo's fiery detonation. Even as his eyes watched the fading explosion his heart sank, hoping against hope that his friend and second-in-command had somehow found a way to avoid the brunt of the blast. “Talk to me, Jack,” he breathed.
“No sign of him, Lead,” Dancer reported somberly. “He could be hidden in the EMP from the torp detonating,” she commented hopefully, but her voice lacked real conviction.
“His IFF beacon should show through even a torpedo explosion,” Bloodhawk cut in even as the last Manta shattered under the fire of his guns. “Assuming he survived, that is.”
Onslaught barely bit back a comment so scathing that it would make even the Telamon survivor cringe, but even so he was preparing to verbally rip into Bloodhawk when a buzz of static ripped over the comm channel. The colonel reached for the squelch switch to cut through the interference but abruptly froze as static-choked words came slowly over the comm.
“…not… finished… yet…”
“Delta Two, is that you?” Onslaught demanded, hope suddenly flaring inside him. Intently he studied his fighter’s HUD, and sure enough a wavering blue dot had appeared within the torpedo’s blast radius. That’s gotta be him, he thought desperately.
“…me, Lead,” came the reply. Although the speaker’s voice was unrecognizable it had to be the Scrappers’ XO, as he was the only pilot unaccounted for. Onslaught let out a sigh of relief, letting his head sag forward at the realization that his friend was alive before he suddenly snapped upright in his seat and looked around hastily. The current situation was far too much like what had happened to Crimson Two to put his mind at ease.
“Catseye, this is Delta Lead. Any sign of the enemy in this sector?”
“Negative, Lead,” the SWACS shuttle replied to Onslaught’s question. “Looks like everything’s clear in your vicinity. I’m uploading a new navpoint to your tac map. Escort the transport there where it will rendezvous with a covering force to take them to Nifelheim II.”
“Acknowledged,” the veteran colonel answered, quickly checking that the coordinates had downloaded properly. Once that was confirmed his attention returned to the scanner blip showing Jack DeVille’s fighter. “Diamond, what’s your status?”
Diamond’s answer was distorted by static but there was no hiding the worry in his voice, “… cent core damage… shields down, sensors down…. no forward armor.."
Onslaught's lips pressed together in a thin line as he guided his Intruder into position behind his second-in-command's fighter and conducted a visual examination. "Diamond, you're leaking some kind of fluid. Could be afterburner fuel -- "
"Probably reactor coolant, boss," the blond Scrapper answered tensely. "The core temperature's well into the yellow at the moment and going up, and I'm almost out of AB. This isn't a good thing."
Now there's an understatement, Onslaught thought dryly. "All right, throttle back to minimum and form up on the transport. We need to get you back to the Sicily before the Nephilim come back -- "
"Ain't gonna happen," Diamond said flatly. "I've throttled back to thirty KPS to keep pace with the merchie and the reactor temp's still going up. I may have to punch out.” Paul told us to keep our fighters as intact as possible, the roguish blond pilot thought. I am NOT looking forward to the lecture I’m gonna get from him back on the Sicily.
“Delta Two, this is Transport Seven-One-Three Victor,”
Amber Gan’s clear voice announced over the comm frequency. “Cut your
engines and keep an eye on your reactor. We’ll tractor you along and if
the temperature drops we’ll bring you aboard.”
“Copy that,” Diamond replied, relief obvious in his voice as he shut down the Intruder’s thrusters and took the reactor offline. “I’m now on auxiliary power. Only a couple of hours of life support left without bringing the reactor back online, so it looks like I’ll be coming aboard eventually.” The grin on his face carried over to the note of humor suddenly injected into his voice. ”It’s only because of the lack of life support that I want to come over. Honestly!”
“I’ll bet,” Dani Owens and Amber Gan chorused in an unintended sarcastic duet.
The look of wounded innocence on Jack DeVille’s face would have done a martyr proud.
TMMS Argent Wind
Deep Space, Nifelheim System
1612 Hours, 18th February 2681
Jack DeVille’s relief was clearly visible as he unlatched his flightsuit’s helmet. “Hell’s teeth, it’s good to be back out of the vacuum,” he murmured, turning to face the woman who had helped him through the airlock into the ship. Fortunately the temperature of his Intruder’s reactor had stabilized enough after ten minutes for the Argent Wind to haul his stricken fighter in from deep space, and even now a pair of vacc-suited figures were securing the battered Intruder to the frigate’s sole remaining external mounting rack.
“I’m glad you’re here, Major DeVille,” the hard-eyed vacc-suited woman who had helped him through the airlock told him curtly. “I am glad of the presence of anyone who will guard the passengers and crew of this ship.”
“It’s just the job, ma’am,” the blond Border Worlder drawled, giving her a charming smile even as he covertly appraised her. The spacesuit hid the lines of her figure but her features were regular and attractive and her hair was stylishly long. Not bad, even if she’s a bit older than I like, Jack thought. However his mind wasn’t totally dominated by his hormones, and the swashbuckling pilot raised an eyebrow at the ion pistol holstered on her thigh. “Is it usual practice to meet rescuers packing a sidearm?” he asked calmly.
“Absolutely,” she replied without an instant’s hesitation as she unlatched her own helmet. “Especially when they have your personal history, Major.”
Jack blinked in surprise. “My history -- oh, hell, you’re one of Sapphire and Amber’s bodyguards, aren’t you?” he groaned.
“I am the head of their protective detail as well as their head lady-in-waiting,” the dark-eyed woman confirmed. “Pamela Yee, former Captain in the Walking Steel Regiment,” she introduced herself.
“Walking Steel? I thought you’d be a Loyalist Marine,” the blond Scrapper commented, running his fingers through his sweat-matted hair. “They’re usually the troops Tanfen uses for shipboard work, aren’t they?”
Yee shook her head, sending her black hair flying about her face. Jack absently noted that while her hair was long enough to be stylish it was short enough not to get in the way under a vacc suit or combat armor helmet. “The Loyalist Marines are beholden to House Tan. The ladies are members of House Gan, and as such their security is the responsibility of Walking Steel troops.” A tight, almost vicious, grin flashed across Yee’s face. “Besides, in defensive situations the Steel are at least as good as the Loyalists.”
“I see,” Jack nodded. “I know the girls’ mother was a Tan, so I thought they could call on the Loyalists anyway.”
The Tanfen soldier’s eyes widened in surprise. “You’re very perceptive,” she told him. “How did you know about that?”
“We didn’t spend all the time we shared in Haratos City making love,” the Border Worlder noted dryly, feeling a surge of amusement at Yee’s expression of outrage. “We talked a lot about our lives, where we came from and what made us who we were. In other words, we were friends. And now I have a question for you.” The soldier turned lady-in-waiting raised an eyebrow in curiosity, which Jack took as an invitation to speak. “Do I get to choose whether I get the bullet between the eyes or in the back of the head? Or has Lord Matsui made that decision already?" he asked in a deceptively casual voice.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about -- "
“Cut the crap!” the blond pilot snarled. “I know Matsui’s pissed at me, and there’s already been two attempts to rub me out. One of your pilots came at me with a knife in a bar brawl, and if it hadn’t been for one of my buddies I’d have had six inches of durasteel between my ribs. In a dogfight with some pirates my decoy launcher was sabotaged in a way that should have blown me to bits. Now there’s an old saying: ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’ I’m just wondering how long it will be before a little accident happens to me on this ship.”
“That will not happen,” the ex-Walking Steel captain declared. “Regardless of Lord Matsui’s decree, you are a guest here. The laws of hospitality will protect you.” The corner of her mouth quirked up in a half-smile. “Besides, if something did happen to you aboard this ship, even if it truly was an accident, nobody would believe that the Corporation was innocent.”
“If the truth be known, nobody would believe it anyway,” Jack quoted with a nod. “But what are two noble daughters of House Gan doing taking a jaunt through the middle of a warzone in the first place?”
Pamela took a deep breath before speaking. “Lord Matsui made arrangements for the ladies to travel to New Maynah, to begin their education at the University of Humanities.” She raised a delicate eyebrow at Jack’s expression of approval. “You know of the University?”
“Maybe I’m a sneaky and disrespectful gwailo but I’m not stupid,” the blond Border Worlder told her dryly. “The University of Humanities is one of the top five universities in the whole Union, and a degree from it is a ticket for life. It’s pretty hard to get into without very good marks or the right family connections, and the girls have both.”
“Indeed,” the Tanfen officer replied. “Anyway, our journey called for us to stop at the Kohlingen sector branch en route to our destination. When we arrived there we found the whole sector base destroyed by the Nephilim.” The Border Worlder winced at that news. While a Tanfen Corporation sector base was nowhere near as well defended as a Confed or UBW naval base it was far too tough a nut for almost any pirate group to crack, and could probably stand up to a fair-sized naval taskforce. “Rather than follow our course towards New Maynah and expose Ladies Sapphire and Amber to the risk of further attack, Captain Yang decided to transport them to the nearest secure Tanfen facility,” Yee concluded.
“The testing base here in Nifelheim,” Jack nodded. “Problem: the base’s presence here was one of the reasons Admiral Hanton decided to have the final showdown with the Bugs in this system. Looks like you brought the girls from the frying pan to the fire,” the Scrappers’ second-in-command commented, shaking his head in sympathy.
Yee’s eyes narrowed. “Then we have to get the ladies out of here as soon as the Argent Wind is repaired,” she stated decisively, only to stop at the frown on Jack’s face. “What is it?”
“We mined every jump point in Nifelheim before the Bugs showed up,” the handsome pilot told her quietly. “Once they jumped into the system we activated the minefields.” Jack’s expression turned as grim and unyielding as a winter on Circe. “Even if they wipe out all our forces, destroy all the installations, kill every living thing in this star system they’ll still have to run the gauntlet of the mines to leave. It will bleed them even more, and it will buy the Union more time.”
“But surely your forces have an escape route,” the dark-haired woman objected. “Some hidden pathway through the mines -- “
“If we’d left one for ourselves then the Bugs could have found it,” Jack cut in grimly. “We’re locked in a cage with a tiger, and so are you and everyone aboard this ship. We’ve thrown away the key so the tiger can’t get at it, and we’re staying here until either we or the tiger are dead.”
There was a long silence as Pamela Yee looked at him. Finally she spoke in a quieter, almost subdued, voice. “You could all end up dead, you realize. Doesn’t that bother you?”
The roguish blond pilot nodded. “I know. I’m not happy about it, but I knew it was part of the job when I signed up.” His blue eyes glinted as he looked at the Tanfen bodyguard. “But it sure beats the thought of the Nephilim running unchecked throughout the Union. Aside from sending us the Third Fleet, Confed’s done jack shit for us in this fight. I can’t see them doing anything to help the UBW if the bad guys break out of Nifelheim. If we lose here, the Union dies. End of story.”
Pamela nodded. “I guess I’m surprised at how accepting of the situation you are. I thought…” Her voice trailed off uncertainly as she looked down at the floor. I was one of the Walking Steel’s finest officers. I am bodyguard and confidant to two Nobles of the House Gan. So how does this… this cocky, reckless, impulsive gwailo put me off-balance so easily?
“You thought I’d try to run out on my obligations and try to save myself?” Jack inquired. Yee’s refusal to meet his eyes answered the question without a word being spoken. “Just because I’m not Tanfen doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of responsibility. It’s just that my responsibilities don’t coincide with yours or Lord Matsui’s.”
“Especially when it comes to Ladies Sapphire and Amber,” the female soldier commented, the irony back in her voice in full force.
“I suppose,” the Scrapper shrugged. “We both care for them, but in different ways. You feel they should be protected from the world - specifically, guys like me,” he explained with a grin, causing Yee to roll her eyes. “I, on the other hand, feel that they should get out into the world outside the Corporation more than they do, and learn how it functions. It’s called reality, ma’am, and they have to get used to it.”
Yee came to a stop and fixed Jack with a gimlet eye. “I thought so. You’re just looking for a way to seduce them again -- “
“Oh, grow up!” Jack snapped. “I wish they weren’t even in this system. We’re going to fight like pissed-off alley cats and gutter rats to survive, but the chances are that we’re gonna lose. And that means everyone in this system is dead.” He shook his head and looked back at the bodyguard. “If there was any way I could get Sapphire and Amber out of here, I’d do it. I swear to God, Pam, I’d pay any price to get them away from this killing field,” he told her earnestly, blue eyes shining with sincerity in his handsome face.
Pamela Yee studied him for a few moments, openly appraising him as she mulled over his words. He really means it, she thought in surprise. He really does care about them as more than play-pretties. She frowned slightly as a disquieting thought made its way into her mind. Did we make a mistake when we forbade Amber and Sapphire from seeing him again? Second-guessing herself was something that the soldier-turned-bodyguard did very rarely, but she was doing it right now. “So would I,” she finally replied quietly.
They walked down the rest of the corridor without speaking, the silence only broken by the sound of their footfalls and occasional phrases over the ship’s intercom. Finally Jack spoke. “Any chance I could speak to the girls before I head back to the Sicily?” he inquired, his face unreadable.
“I’m afraid not,” Yee told him. The Scrappers’ second-in-command frowned in surprise - was it his imagination or had she sounded wistful, as if she wanted him to talk to the young women under her care? “Lady Amber is still on duty on the bridge while repair work continues.”
“How bad did things get?”
"Bad," the Oriental woman stated simply. "At least a third of the Argent Wind's crew are dead or wounded, all our weapons and long-range sensors are down, and we can barely make a quarter of our normal speed. Most of the remaining crew are busy with damage control, and Lady Sapphire is in sickbay -- “
“What?” Jack yelped, turning to look at Yee in disbelief. “What happened to her? How badly is she hurt? Is she going to be okay?” he demanded, reaching out and grasping her arms in his urgency.
That turned out to be a bad idea. Pamela Yee had left the Walking Steel Regiment a full ten years ago, but her training to be the commander of the girls’ protective detail had kept her hand-to-hand skills honed to a razor’s edge. As the Border Worlder’s hands closed around her upper arms her hands flashed up, closing around Jack’s wrists. Her thumbs dug into the nerve point at the base of his wrists, just between the radius and ulna, causing the blond rogue’s hands to suddenly open. “Don’t try that again,” she told him icily before releasing her grip. “To answer your question,” she continued in a less forbidding voice, “Lady Sapphire isn’t wounded. She’s in sickbay helping tend to the injured. While she is no doctor she knows enough first aid to assist the ship’s doctor in his duties.”
“Thank Christ for that,” Jack muttered, shaking his hands to restore some feeling to them. “Look, Captain Yee, there’s a favor I need you to do for me if you won’t let me talk to the girls.” Yee’s face had resumed its usual expressionless mask so the Scrappers’ second-in-command ploughed on. “I want you to keep an eye on them. You’ll probably be sent on to Nifelheim II where the other refugees are housed. We’re doing our best to make sure the Bugs don’t break through to the planet, but I can’t guarantee it’ll be enough. I want you to promise me that you’ll keep them safe, no matter what!”
“Can’t you protect them yourself?”
Jack shook his head. “I’ll be busy with the other Scrappers as part of the fleet. We’re going to be taking on the Bugs in space, and hopefully stopping them before they reach the inner system. But I still want someone to keep a close eye on Sapphire and Amber.” He shrugged uneasily. “I’d rest easier knowing they’re looked after,” he admitted.
Yee nodded firmly. “Count on it. The only way the Nephilim will get to them is over my dead body,” she announced, a glint of steely determination in her eyes. “I want a favor in return.” The handsome pilot gave her a mute look of inquiry. “I want you to wipe these vermin from the stars,” the bodyguard growled in a voice laden with hatred. “I want you to exact vengeance for those who died at the Kohlingen sector base and aboard the Argent Wind, Major DeVille. I want revenge for the people I knew who died at the hands of these Nephilim.”
Jack gave the Tanfenner a level look, his blue eyes locked with her dark ones. If we survive this -- if humanity survives this -- then that will be exactly what you get, Pamela, the normally flippant and swashbuckling flier thought grimly. With all the dead civilians on Dakota and Ymir and in the Kohlingen base, as well as all the military personnel who have died so far, the politicians and civvies will be screaming for payback. It’ll be a gatagak’vu, a war of complete annihilation. There won’t be any winners, just survivors. Finally he nodded.
“Count on it,” he said coldly.