PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 39 of 62 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
"War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want."
- General William Tecumseh Sherman
Bridge, BWS Sicily
0336 Hours, 19 February 2681 (2681.050)
“Any reports from Goldeneye?”
“None, sir,” the ensign on comms duty replied. She double-checked the time display on her console before turning to the stocky man standing by the map table. “There should be an update coming through in the next five min -- “ Her head snapped back to her console as it suddenly began chiming insistently. “Cancel that, sir,” she announced briskly. “There’s a data download coming through right now.”
Even though the display from the SWACS shuttles like the one nicknamed Goldeneye could be continuously shown on the escort carrier’s map table Commodore Philip Johnson, the task force’s commander, had vetoed that option. The transmissions could be traced back from the SWACS to the fleet by a wayward Nephilim scout, he had reasoned, so it was too great a risk to be run. Granted, the chances of that happening were extremely slim, but the stakes were nothing less than the survival of the Union of Border Worlds and every man, woman and child living there. And the Nephilim had shown enough electronic trickery, such as their jamming and their ability to see through cloaking, to make everyone leery of underestimating them. Now he looked at the status display from the modified shuttle and cursed. “Any indications that they’re trying to communicate with us?”
“No sir,” the Sicily’s comms officer informed him. “We’re getting some jamming interference from that sector, but it’s pretty minor. If Goldeneye was trying to open a comm channel with us they wouldn’t have a problem tight-beaming it through.”
Johnson frowned as he studied the data the SWACS had burst-transmitted to the carrier, and suppressed the urge to curse aloud. The map table faithfully showed the snapshot of the section of the Nephilim fleet in range of the converted shuttle’s sensor suite, including the wing of alien fighters just emerging from an asteroid field less than a hundred thousand klicks away from the SWACS vessel. Four Intruders from the Necromancers flying escort to Goldeneye, the portly naval officer thought bleakly. They’re facing at least thirty Nephilim fighters. If we can’t get reinforcements to them in time then they’re finished...
0338 Hours, 19 February 2681
Captain George "Boomer" Clements was rapidly coming to the same conclusion. The four F/A-43 Intruders under his command only possessed short-range sensors but they were able to link with the improvised SWACS’ data display, and what he saw wasn’t encouraging. At least three dozen alien fighters were less than fifty thousand klicks away and closing fast. While the Intruders could have outrun the Nephilim or at least kept the range open for as long as their afterburner fuel held out, the shuttle they were escorting didn’t have that option.
Too few of us to stop them, the rangy captain realized. But we can’t just let them destroy the SWACS. It’s too important. Boomer keyed his comm and opened a channel to Goldeneye, thirty thousand klicks behind him, as he studied his HUD’s sensor display. “Goldeneye this is Omicron Lead. Get out of here. We’ll try to buy you some time,” he ordered even as he evaluated the oncoming enemy. Mostly Morays and Mantas, but there’s a few Stingrays and Squids as well. Probably from the nearby Orcas. Anyway you slice it, things are going to be… interesting.
“We’ll never make it out of here!” Goldeneye’s pilot answered in a panicky voice.
“Try anyway!” Boomer shot back. “Omicron Flight, let’s hit those bastards! They might eat us alive, but we’ll give them some broken teeth to remember us by!” With those words he pulled his Intruder into a half loop so that he was facing the oncoming Nephilim, gratified by the face that his fellow pilots followed him without a word of complaint. They couldn’t run, they couldn’t hide and they couldn’t win -- there was simply nothing else to be done.
The distance between the two groups of fighters scrolled down at a frighteningly rapid rate, and Boomer’s RHAWS began singing its siren song of warning. The Border Worlder's eyes narrowed as the missile brackets on his HUD closed around his chosen target and the lock tone sounded. With a wordless snarl Boomer pressed the missile release button and a pair of Spiculums raced towards a single Manta. Trails of smoke flew past his Intruder as the rest of his flight opened fire with ordnance of their own, and the oncoming Nephilim promptly broke up into a chaotic swirl. “Stick with me, Skink,” the Major ordered crisply as he guided his fighter into a climb in pursuit of a Manta. With a deft twitch of the HOTAS Boomer placed the targeting reticle for his guns over the ITTS projected dot in front of the alien craft. C’mon, c’mon, he silently urged the pilot as he waited for him to settle on a steady course. “Bingo!” he growled as the Nephilim fighter leveled off. The Border Worlds’ fighter’s guns spat fire, making their target’s shields flicker and pulse with sickly green light as the Manta pulled a brutally sharp wingover in a futile attempt to escape. Boomer’s gunfire continued to pummel the alien craft, finally tearing through the shields and pounding at the armor, only stopping when the Intruder’s capacitors dipped well into the red. Even as the heavier fighter spun to face its tormentor the second Union fighter opened up, mauling the Manta even more and suddenly making the would-be predator into prey. The Manta sideslipped, dodging most of the new wave of incoming fire before firing back with its twin plasma cannons.
Lieutenant Mario "Skink" Altelli let out a yelp of surprise and jinked to dodge the incoming green energy. “Jesus that was too close!” he blurted as he steadied his fighter. Hastily the young rookie looked around for his attacker, only to catch sight of it exploding under a barrage from Boomer’s guns. “Thanks,” he told his wingleader, his voice shaking slightly as he spoke.
“It’s what I’m here for,” Boomer replied in the bass voice that had given him his callsign. “Now clear my six, okay?” he requested even as he spun his fighter into a hard corkscrewing turn to dodge the fire of a pair of Mantas that had sneaked up behind him.
“You got it,” Skink told him as he locked onto the nearer of the Nephilim fighter-bombers. The ITTS reticle popped upon his HUD almost immediately, and the young Border Worlder quickly lined up his fighter’s crosshairs and fired. Pulses of meson and particle gunfire tore through the blackness of space and pounded the alien fighter’s shields, a flash of sickly green light marking each hit. His quarry spun to the right to face him head to head, and Altelli hit the afterburners to race past the Manta -- a medium fighter like the Intruder would definitely come off second best in a head-to-head confrontation with the Manta’s heavy firepower. Speed, teamwork and agility are your allies, the briefings had emphasized to the Space Force pilot.
“Skink, help me with this one!” Boomer ordered gruffly even as the flashes of his wingleader’s gunfire caught Skink’s eye. Obediently the young pilot selected the Manta ahead of him rather than the one behind him, hoping that the combined firepower of the two Border Worlds fighters could destroy it before the other Manta could intervene. Before the ITTS dot could appear on his HUD, however, his RHAWS began screaming its siren song of warning. Skink cut the afterburners and rolled, dumping decoys like they were going out of style. A few seconds later the warning system went silent and he had time to look around for his attacker. He didn’t have far to look -- the three Morays were coming in on his left flank like the proverbial bats out of hell.
“Claw’s gone! No sign of a pod or nothing!”
Boomer cursed violently even as he fired another missile at the Manta he was engaged in combat with. Michael Clawsworth had been one of the original Necromancers, a "plank-holder," as well as a good mentor to the newbies. Now he was floating in space, reduced to his component particles. “Copy that, Ironman,” he told Claw’s wingman. “Get over here and join us so we can cover your butt.”
“Understood,” Lieutenant Stefan "Ironman" Kyriakoulis answered in a relieved voice as he guided his Intruder towards his fellow Necromancers’ craft and hit the afterburners, jinking as he did so. The Border Worlder fired off a pair of missiles at a Squid that had just spread its wings in preparation to firing its disruptor cannons at Boomer, causing it to pull into a sharp wingover in an effort to dodge. The Nephilim fighter's wings folded back as it hit its afterburners in a bid to escape but the Spiculums cut the corner and blew the alien craft to pieces. Two other Squids turned towards the Intruder which had just killed one of their brethren, unfurling their wings to rain high-energy death upon it, but Ironman's fighter was moving at 1200 KPS and rapidly jinking from side to side as it bolted for the protection of its two surviving comrades. The green bolts from the Squids' disruptor cannons tore through the vacuum and, while only a few struck home, they were almost enough to finish depleting the Intruder's shields. "I'm getting hit pretty hard, Boomer," Ironman reported nervously even as his fighter jinked even harder.
"I'll be with you in a minute," the Necromancer flight leader acknowledged even as he fired off his last missile at a Moray. A quick glance at the HUD showed the veteran pilot the situation, and it wasn't a good one. At least fifteen enemy fighters were swarming around the three remaining Border Worlds fighters, but half a dozen Morays and Squids had broken away from the confused melee and were heading in the same direction the Necromancers had been fleeing before they'd turned to engage their pursuers. Boomer frowned as he studied the HUD, almost subconsciously guiding his F/A-43 through a hard corkscrew turn down to the right -- flying straight and level in a dogfight is seldom a good idea. A moment later he cursed. "The Squids are heading after Goldeneye! We've got to stop them!"
"How?" Skink demanded as he rolled his Intruder to the left and jinked. "These guys are all over us!" he exclaimed even as lines of maser cannon fire tore past him. The young Border Worlder cut the throttle and barrel-rolled, abruptly slowing enough to force the Moray pursuing him out in front. Shots from the Intruder's particle and meson cannons tore into the alien fighter's aft shields in sprays of blue and green light. Even as the Nephilim broke left and the Necromancer followed his fighter shuddered under enemy fire. As Skink emptied his guns' capacitors into the Moray's fuselage he glanced down at the status displays on his HUD. Christ, the aft shields are down to less than twenty percent! the young lieutenant thought in shock. If I get hit again --
As if in answer to his thought a Manta slammed a volley of heavy plasma blasts into his fighter, knocking down the last of the shields and tearing deep into the armor. "Someone get this bug off me!" Skink screamed as he pulled into a flick loop. The Manta stayed on his tail as though it was glued there, still firing its plasma cannons even as Ironman fired a Spiculum into its aft shield. Skink's Intruder suddenly shuddered and jolted before resuming its course, much slower than before. A quick glance at the damage display MFD showed that the left engine had been shredded by the last volley of plasma blasts from his pursuer, and the afterburner for the remaining engine was offline until the Intruder's self-repair systems could fix the damage. The rear armor was only a memory and core damage was well into the yellow range. "Boomer, I need help dammit!" Skink pleaded even as he wrestled the control column over to the right. The Intruder turned sluggishly, lacking its usual agile grace, and the sudden braying of the RHAWS sounded as though the fighter itself was screaming in fear.
Boomer gritted his teeth, trying to ignore Skink's increasingly frightened calls for help as he poured cannon fire into one of the Squids attacking the SWACS shuttle. The bond between wingleader and wingman was all but sacrosanct, and for one to ignore a distress call from the other was tolerated about as often as a Jewish rabbi chowing down on a ham sandwich. But there was one other duty that fighter pilots held above that of wingman to wingleader, and that was to the mission. And so Captain George Clements gritted his teeth, focused his attention on a Squid conducting a strafing run on Goldeneye, and tried to ignore his wingman's cries for help except for a curt order. "Skink, Ironman, get your asses over to Goldeneye! I need your help to protect the shuttle!" Even as he spoke the SWACS shuttle shuddered under the disruptor cannon fire from several Squids, its paltry speed insufficient to outrun its pursuers. The Necromancer flight leader cursed as his target zipped away, leaving Goldeneye to the mercy of its fellows for the moment. Hastily he selected another Squid emptying its guns into the SWACS shuttle and pounded its shields flat with particle and meson cannon fire.
"Jesus, no! No -- "
Even as armor spalled away from the Nephilim fighter's flank Boomer gritted his teeth at the words drowning out in static. He'd recognized Skink's panicked voice and deep down he knew that Mario Altelli was dead. Fuck, kid, I'm sorry, he thought as he slammed another cannon blast into the fleeing Squid. But there was no time for guilt or remorse in battle, especially with the odds stacked this heavily in the enemy's favour. The veteran warrior's Intruder rocked suddenly under the impact of a barrage of maser cannon fire tore into its belly. Boomer cursed as red lights lit up in his cockpit, guiding his fighter into an evasive break as the Moray firing on him raced past. His head snapped around in an attempt to track his attacker only to freeze in horror as he saw a human body blur past his canopy. Quickly glancing back at the shuttle his worst fears were confirmed as he spotted a plume of air spewing from the torn side of the ersatz SWACS craft. None of the crew in the electronics bay that took the place of the passenger compartment wore sealed flightsuits and Boomer shuddered at the thought of the poor souls suffering the agony of death by explosive decompression. "Ironman, get your ass over here!" he gritted as he hastily dodged another volley of incoming fire. "Help me out here!"
"Likewise!" Ironman yelled back, his voice sounding frightened even through the crackle of the comm system's electronic distortion. Twisting his Intruder through a volley of enemy fire he hit the afterburners again, hoping to break free of his pursuers long enough to link up with his flight leader. Snap-rolling to the left he kept jinking even as he held his finger down on the trigger button, scattering meson and particle cannon blasts ahead of him. Alien fighters hastily scattered out of his path and for a moment the Necromancer pilot thought he was home free, at least for the moment. A triumphant grin spread over Stefan Kyriakoulis' face even as the pair of Nephilim MIRVs separated behind him. While an Intruder's shields could stand up to one IFF missile and possibly even two, there was no way it could shrug off six of them. The RHAWS barely had time to sound before the first of the missiles impacted on the Intruder's shields, with the rest arriving within the next two seconds, detonating the Border Worlds fighter in a spectacular fireball. Ironman died without even knowing what hit him.
Despair settled over Boomer like a heavy cloak. I'm the last one left. There's no way I'm getting out of this one alive, and the same goes for those poor bastards on Goldeneye, the last Necromancer thought bitterly. We had all the right moves but there were just too many of them, he silently cursed even as he blew away another Squid with fire from his guns. Pointing his fighter's nose back at the mauled shuttle he hit the 'Locate Nearest Enemy' button, quickly locking onto a Moray. So let's see how many I can take down with me! A twitch of the HOTAS brought the alien fighter into the Intruder's gunsight and Boomer cut loose, making the Nephilim's shields flare a sickening green against the blackness of space. He was so focused on his target that he was attacking that he barely noticed as Goldeneye finally blew up under the guns of a Manta. He bared his teeth in triumph as the Moray shuddered under his gunfire and tumbled helplessly through the vacuum, trailing plasma behind it before erupting with a huge explosion even as Boomer's Intruder convulsed like a living thing under the fire of half a dozen Nephilim fighters. Red lights lit up all over the control board and the damage schematic on one of the MFDs showed that the core was well into the yellow, almost into the red. A plasma blast from a Manta smashed into the root of the left wing, tearing it clean off the fuselage. With the loss of the wing the Intruder snapped over into an uncontrolled roll, streaks of green fire roaring past it. Boomer reacted with the speed of long training and experience, reaching down between his knees and pulling the loud handle.
A quick burst of rocket thrusters sent the cockpit module hurtling away from the doomed fighter with enough force that the Border Worlds flight leader felt as if he'd been kicked in the back by a mule. There was a flash of golden-red outside and Boomer knew instinctively that his fighter had finally given up the ghost and died. Captain George Clements sank back in his seat, tilted his head back and let guilt wash over him like an almost physical force. The sensor display on his HUD showed only the red blips of enemy fighters - there were no purple dots indicating ejection pods or SARBE beacons. Closing his eyes the veteran pilot cursed helplessly, so caught up in survivor's guilt that he barely felt his ejection pod tractored in by a Manta. Within a few hours, however, he would recover from his guilt at the deaths of his fellow Necromancers and the crew of Goldeneye, only to have it replaced by another strong emotion -- envy.
After all, their deaths were relatively quick and clean.
Bridge, BWS Sicily
0345 Hours, 19 February 2681
"Get the datalink with Goldeneye back up now!" Commodore Johnson ordered, his gaze fixed on the map table display which had suddenly frozen. The SWACS shuttle's situation as shown on the holographic display was grim, with a dozen Nephilim fighters swarming around it and the sole surviving member of its escort flight struggling to hold back the tide of enemy craft.
After a few moments the comms officer looked over at the Commodore and shook his head. "I'm sorry sir, there's no response. It looks like they're gone," he reported grimly.
Johnson swore under his breath. The crew of Goldeneye and the pilots of the escorting Intruders weren't the first flightcrews to die protecting the Union of Border Worlds, and they certainly wouldn't be the last. But the fact that they had all volunteered to put themselves in harm's way to defend their friends, families and loved ones didn't make their loss any easier to bear. And Philip Johnson knew that many more of the brave men and women under his command would die in the days to come. But for now he had work to do.
"Get me Colonel Tanagawa," he ordered brusquely.
Scrappers' Quarters, BWS Sicily
0426 Hours, 19 February 2681
The lithe young woman tossed and turned in her bunk, whimpering as she twisted the blankets in her hands. An expression of fear marred her pretty features as she lay caught in the grip of the nightmare that had plagued her for the last two nights. Her eyes snapped open as she awoke with a gasp, only to find that at least part of her nightmare had come true. In the gloom of the barracks a dark-haired man loomed over her, pinning her shoulders to the bunk. With an incoherent cry of fear she shoved him away, flailing at him in a panicky flurry of fists and elbows. The man stumbled back with a muffled curse as the woman let out a shriek of fear and surprise, pushing herself away from the stranger with enough force that she slid off the far side of the bed and landed on the floor flat on her back. She let out a yelp of pain as her back hit the floor even as the lights came on.
"Jeez, Kristy, what the hell was that for?" Alex Morgan complained as he stood up, rubbing his jaw where one of Kristy's punches had landed.
For a moment the strawberry-blonde Scrapper merely stared at him in stunned disbelief. "What the hell is that for?" she finally asked. "You sneak up on me, grab me by the shoulders while I'm asleep, pin me to the bed, and then you wonder why I swung out at you?" Her voice cracked with incredulity even as she glared viciously at him.
"Well you were tossing and turning and whimpering loud enough to wake everyone here, even Dragan," Vincent Tsu noted crankily, his dark hair still mussed from sleep. "So it was a safe bet that you were having a nightmare."
"It could have been a orgasm," Dragan Emerson added facetiously. "Although the fact that neither Major DeVille or I was in your bed kind of kills that idea."
"Dragan, what planet were you on when they handed out tact?" Sandra Lynch asked sharply. "Take a look at her, for crying out loud! She's terrified!"
"Bullshit!" Kristy denied hotly. "I had a nightmare but I wasn't terrified, okay? Get it?" she demanded.
Alex gave her a knowing look even as he finished rubbing the red mark on his jaw where his wingleader had struck him. "Don't try to kid a kidder, Kris," he admonished her harshly. "I've seen you having nightmares before -- hell, I've even held you after a few of the worst ones. And this one ranks right up there with them. So give -- what the hell's bugging you?"
"It was just a nightmare about the Nephilim, damn you!" Kristy Joyce insisted as she clambered back into her bunk and pulled the blankets up around her shoulders. "Now let it go and get back to sleep -" Her voice suddenly cut off as the bunkroom's door hissed open.
"Rise and shine, everyone," Lt Colonel Paul Onslow ordered his squadron. With an amused glance in the direction of Alex Morgan, who was still clutching his jaw, the veteran pilot added in a deadpan voice, "Or should that be rise and shiner for you, Morgan?" Without waiting for an answer he turned back to the rest of the Scrappers. "We've got a briefing at 0500," he told them. "Grab some coffee, stims, whatever you need to get yourselves properly awake by then. This mission's being laid on pretty quick, so it'll probably be nasty."
"Everyone's awake, Colonel," Jack DeVille reported, scrubbing his face with his hands as he sat up in his bunk. The blond pilot had noted the seriousness in his CO's voice and decided to skip the usual banter in place of proper protocol. "Captain Joyce had a nightmare loud enough to wake the rest of us up."
"Must have been a hell of a nightmare," Onslow observed, looking at Kristy closely. The strawberry-blond medic refused to look at him, her eyes remaining focused on the blankets she huddled into. The colonel's brow furrowed in concern as he studied her carefully. "Kristy, are you okay?"
"I'll be fine, Colonel," she muttered. "So what's the deal with the briefing out of nowhere?" she asked disinterestedly.
"You'll find out when you get there," the colonel told her. "Now, are you sure you're okay?"
"I said I'd be fine!" Kristy exploded, glaring furiously at her commanding officer. The sudden yell startled the other Scrappers into silence. After a moment she looked down at the floor, shame on her face. "Sorry, sir," she apologized. "I'm just stressed, that's all."
"Snapping at your commanding officer is a sure sign of stress," Anthony Grimm agreed as he zipped up his ship-issue coveralls. "So are nightmares, and I suppose belting the crap out of your wingman counts too."
"Not in this case," Sandra Lynch cut in as she rummaged beneath her bunk for her boots. "I've seen Captain Joyce stressed before, and she wasn't stressed when she was laying into Alex just then." Finally locating her boots the harsh-faced woman looked across the room at Kristy. "Captain, you were right on the verge of a full-blown psychotic episode. If you hadn't snapped out of it, we would have had to drag you off Alex."
"That seems a little over the top for you, Kris. What's making you act that way?" Onslow asked, leaning against the doorframe with his arms folded. His pose was casual but the intensity of his gaze showed that he was far from inattentive.
Kristy pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around them, resting her chin on her knees. With the blankets wrapped around her she looked more like a frightened child than a trained combat pilot. "I can't tell you," she finally mumbled. "I just can't."
"I'd like to help you, Captain," Onslow told her in a gentle but unyielding voice. "I don't want to have to send you off to the Sicily's doctor for a psych evaluation, but unless you tell me what set you off like that I may have to do exactly that." Internally he winced at the thought of having to haul out the big guns in this argument. Going to the doctor for physical reasons was no stigma for fighter pilots. Flying a high-performance aircraft like a fighter was extremely physically demanding, and pilots needed to be checked up on frequently to make sure they were in peak condition. Being sent for a psych evaluation, however, was something that all pilots dreaded. "Now tell me about this nightmare you're having," the colonel coaxed.
For a few moments Kristy just sat there, huddled in her blankets. Finally she looked around at her squadronmates for a long moment. "All right," she reluctantly agreed. "But it wasn't a nightmare about the future. It was a memory." After a momentary pause she began to explain. "The day before yesterday I hopped the shuttle to the Miles D'Arby. I figured that it was a good time to confront Colonel Black about his cheap shots at Dani's boyfriend, and the accusations that he started the brawl at the Valentines Day Ball. After a bit of searching I found him in the briefing room. I waited until he'd finished giving the briefing, let everyone else leave and then confronted him while he was on his own." The strawberry-blond Scrapper bit her lower lip nervously and looked down at the barracks floor.
Dragan Emerson winced. "Judging by your reaction I'd say it didn't go very well."
Kristy grimaced. "That's an understatement. I told him that I wanted to make a witness statement about what happened at the fight so he wouldn't try to bend Captain Carruthers over the barrel again, and he asked me why I gave a damn. I told him it was because he stuck his neck out for Dani and he's played things straight with her, and that's when he called her a whore. That's when I slapped him across the face."
"Oh shit! Kristy, he could have you up on charges for that!" Todd McLaughlin exclaimed, his eyes wide in shock. Michael Black may not have formally sentenced himself to death with his insult to Dani Owens, but there was little doubt that if he met any of the Scrappers in a dark alley he'd wake up in hospital. But despite their Border Worlds disregard for rank the members of the 349th Composite Fighter Squadron were still classed as Confederation Reserves, as were all UBW armed forces since the Treaty of McAuliffe had been signed last year. In theory Confed could haul Kristy up before a court martial, although in practice the chances of that happening were pretty slim -- the Black Lance Crisis had occurred less than ten years ago, and Confederation forces had regarded pilots and soldiers fighting for the Border Worlds as no better than pirates and terrorists. Some Confed officers had used that as an excuse to disregard the rights of prisoners of war, leading to mistreatment and even summary executions. Things had come a long way since then, especially with Confed's formal recognition of the Union of Border Worlds as a sovereign nation and its assistance during the Black Lance Huntdown, but there was still enough ill feeling that it would be extremely unlikely for a UBW officer to be handed over to a Confederation court martial for trial.
"Oh it gets better, Todd," the doctor turned pilot rasped grimly. Alex Morgan's grey eyes narrowed at the tone of Kristy's voice, and a glance at her hands revealed just how tightly she was gripping the blankets. Her knuckles were white with the force of her grasp, revealing the depths of her tension and anguish. The former privateer wanted to pat her on the shoulder, give her a comforting hug or show his support for her, but deep down he knew that she needed to get through this on her own. "He got pissed at me so he provoked me into taking a full-on swing at him. Don't worry, I missed," she added as she noted the looks of surprise on the faces of some of the other Scrappers. "Anyway the next thing I know Black's pinned me down over one of the chairs with my arm twisted up between my shoulder blades. I panicked and went for my survival knife but he managed to get it away from me before I could do a damn thing." The attractive young Scrapper shuddered and huddled deeper into the blankets as if she was seeking shelter from the memories. "He said the reason I was so protective of Dani was because I wanted her for myself and I was obviously a lesbian. And then he said he'd cure me of it." The tense control and anger had been plain in Kristy Joyce's voice, but now the control was slipping away to be replaced by fear. Covertly Alex stole a look at Dragan Emerson, but the Slavic pilot looked as shocked and appalled as the rest of his squadronmates. Just as well, the grey-eyed Scrapper thought to himself. There was one question arising from Kristy's last statement that was as obvious as it was tactless, and Dragan Emerson had a lack of tact that made even Alex cringe at times. And Kristy looked frightened and ashamed enough over what she'd just said without any of Emerson's smart remarks.
"Cure you of what?" Eric Maslevski asked curiously. Although he'd left his home in an Archchristian community in the Elohim system nine years ago there were some areas of life in which he lacked experience. While not as innocent as Anthony Grimm the Archchristian pilot was certainly not as worldly as most of his fellow Scrappers and didn't think in the same ways as they did. In some respects he was as alien to his fellow pilots as the Kilrathi raiders they had often fought.
"Cure me of being a lesbian," Kristy explained in a dull voice. "He had me bent over the chair, pinned me there by pressing right up behind me, unzipped himself and then..." The medic paused, fighting for composure, before she finished her sentence. "He started cutting at my flightsuit for... better access." For a moment the barracks was silent enough that the faint rumble of the Sicily's engines and the hum of the air conditioning were clearly audible.
"Better access?" Vincent Tsu wondered aloud, realization dawning on his face. "Oh my God... the bastard was going to rape you, wasn't he?"
"That's... eh, that's what it sounds like," Dani Owens said in a voice colder than the grave. The slender platinum blonde stood up and, without another word, made her way over to Kristy's bunk. Sitting down next to her friend she silently wrapped her arms around Kristy's shoulders and pulled her into a gentle embrace. The strawberry-blonde Scrapper hugged the younger woman tightly and buried her face in her shoulder, her body shaking with silent sobs. Dani gently rocked her back and forth, murmuring soothingly in her ear as she did so, while the rest of the Scrappers looked at each other in mute disbelief and shock.
The uncomfortable silence was broken by the rasp of metal on ballistic nylon. En masse the Scrappers turned to see Alex Morgan drawing his sidearm from the holster on his belt. The majority of UBW pilots carried energy pistols as sidearms but in this matter, as in so many others, the hot-tempered former privateer was determined to walk his own path. Shoving a clip into the magazine well forward of the pistol's trigger guard, the former privateer pulled back the slide and let it snap forward to chamber a round. His grey eyes were as cold as a glacier's heart, as was his voice when he spoke. "I think we need to have a 'talk' with Colonel Black. Preferably one that ends with a fourteen millimeter hollow point spraying his head over the far wall," he growled, hefting the large autopistol in his hand.
"You can't." Paul Onslow and Kristy Joyce glanced at each other, surprised by their unintended duet. Finally a wan smile spread across Kristy's face as she inclined her head towards her commanding officer. "You first," she told him. After a brief moment he nodded to her and turned to face Alex.
"The Miles D'Arby is with Task Force Bravo," the Scrappers' leader explained. "Only the bridge bunnies know where Bravo is, and keeping it hidden is vital if we're to win against the Nephilim. So if you somehow get Bravo's coordinates and decide to take a fighter jaunt to see Colonel Black you'll lead the Bugs right to Task Force Bravo before you get to introduce him to your little friend Mr. Colt," he told the hot-tempered Scrapper, nodding at the Colt Assault Magnum in the younger man's fist. "And if you do that then any chance of victory we have in Nifelheim goes right out the airlock."
"My Marauder's got a cloaking device," Alex objected harshly, not backing down an inch. His commander was equally stubborn.
"Alex, you've killed people with fighter weapons, guns, knives, even your bare hands," Paul Onslow admitted. "But you've never committed murder and that's exactly what this would be. You don't need that to get justice -- hell, if you do it you'll never get real justice at all. You may be a Criminal Conscript, an arrested smuggler, disrespectful, argumentative and a major league pain in the ass," the veteran pilot told Alex, his dark eyes intense. "But you are not a murderer. Never were, never will be."
"So what do we do?" the former privateer demanded, caught off-guard by his commander's praise. "We can't just let the bastard get away with it!"
"And we won't," the scarred older pilot told him. "As soon as we've taken down the Nephilim we're going to take care of Colonel Black." His eyes swept over the rest of the Scrappers. "But we're going to do it by the numbers. We lodge charges against him through the Confed bureaucracy and make him face a proper court-martial. By doing it this way we show Confed that we're not a bunch of feral barbarians like some confees believe."
"Gee, nobody's mentioning the name Paula Ganson now, are they?" Jack De Ville observed sourly.
"Nobody has to," Vincent Tsu replied dryly. Paula Ganson was the leader of One Confederation, a political party in the Confederation Senate so right-wing that they were considered right on the fringe -- the lunatic fringe, that is. What little political capital they had was spent on attempts to reunite the Border Worlds with the Terran Confederation, by force if necessary, and their denunciations of the Union and its citizens were as venomous as Hitler's rants about the Jews. Needless to say, Ganson and her fellows were about as popular in UBW territory as a platoon of Kilrathi Drakhai at a Veterans Day march.
"The Colonel's right," Kristy said suddenly. "We can't go all vengeance-crazed vigilante, and not just because we're better than him. Think about it," she urged her comrades. "If some Border Worlds lieutenant blows away a Confed colonel who's also a wing commander because of accusations by another Border Worlder, well, that's not the sort of thing that encourages cooperation, y'know?"
"It's worse than that," Todd McLaughlin commented as he laced up his boots, finally putting his own two cents' worth.
"You know," Vincent Tsu commented dryly, "when Todd says 'It's worse than that,' he means it, unlike some people - Eric, for example -- who seem to just use it as a conversation filler." The former InSys pilot shrugged off the incendiary glare that Eric Maslevski gave him as he looked at his wingman. "All right, what's worse?" he inquired.
Todd looked around at the other members of his squadron. "We can't even talk about this with anyone else," he told them quietly. "If word about this gets out then any cooperation between us and the confees is deader than yesterday's breakfast." That announcement gave the Scrappers pause.
"The scary thing is that the kid's right," Onslow finally admitted ruefully. "We've got to keep this under wraps until the Nephilim are out of the picture. Once that happens we take it to Colonel Black's superior and start proceedings." He turned to face the Scrappers' medic still huddled in her blankets. "Kristy, I'll need you to make a formal statement," he told her firmly. "That way if something happens we've still got your evidence."
Kristy looked up at him worriedly. "'In case something happens' translates to 'in case I get killed', isn't that right, sir?" she asked him quietly.
Onslow nodded slowly. It was a possibility that he didn't like to consider but as the Scrappers' CO he had to plan for unpleasant things. "This briefing's taking place an hour and a half after Commodore Johnson called Colonel Tanagawa into his office. That's damned little time for mission prep. Something big's about to happen," he concluded heavily.