PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 4 of 62 )

: Welcome to Hell
PART 2 OF 6 : ENEMY AT THE GATES

"It is good for us to studie in the time of peace how to defend ourselves in
the time of warres and troubles; as generally we provide in harvest for to
live in winter."
- William Bourne, "The Arte of Shooteing in Great Ordnance," 1578


 


BWS Sicily, a corridor somewhere on board
Nifelheim System
16th February 2681 (2861.046)
0430 Hours ZULU

Tony "Rat" Carruthers came to with a start. Instinctively he staggered to his feet in the semi darkness of the night-dimmed corridor, his shoulder leaning on the wall all the way up for support. His right leg was numb from where he had been lying and it wouldn't bear his weight, pins and needles shooting up and down it. He rested against the wall for a moment, the cool surface soothing against his forehead that was wracked with pain.

Come on, dickhead. Get yer arse in gear, he told himself. Last thing we need right now is a charge for drunkenness.

What had happened to leave him lying cold and alone in the darkened bowls of a Border Worlds carrier in the early hours of the morning? Rat ran the events of the past few hours through his head as he tottered along, zigzagging and managing to collide with every conceivable obstacle.

After the fight with Dani he'd flown a long and boring CAP mission. On the way home they'd had a few hassles and he'd been beaten by one of the students. His mind just wasn't on it, too busy thinking about Dani. They'd made up after the fight, but he was still worried about it. Not to mention worrying a bit about the situation with his Wing Commander, whatever the bravado he displayed to Dani.

Fly like that when it's for real, and you're a bloody dead man, he chastised himself. So then he'd adjourned to bar and got a skinfull. Utterly wasted. When the beer had weighed too heavy on his stomach he'd gone onto vodka. Frigging idiot. He'd been virtually paralytic when he'd wobbled out of the 'O' Club. It was a bit hazy, but he distinctly remembered somebody shouting his name. And they'd talked while he got his breath. Friendly, like, but... yes, the conversation had turned to Dani and the fight. And Biggles was mentioned. Then it was a blank. He looked at his watch, which bore a few new scuffs and scratches. He must have lost nearly an hour of his life, if it was right.

"Fuck," he said. Or tried to. It came out as "Ffffuggch." The left side of his face was so swollen he could hardly talk. He could also taste blood in his mouth, that unmistakable, coppery, metallic tang. Not much though, it seemed. Rat stopped and gingerly examined his face. His jaw wasn't broken, or if it was, it was a small notch,  a chip, and not a break. His teeth seemed ok, though a couple felt loose. Well, not loose, just a little... nudged. There was barely any discernible play in them as he probed with his tongue, so they'd be OK in a day or two. Rat was pretty proud of his teeth. He'd never lost or chipped one despite many fights, and his two fillings were from right after he'd got his adult teeth as a boy. True, he'd had several out, but that was because his jaw was too small for his teeth. He had a couple crooked because he'd refused to wear a brace as a teenager, and he'd long since convinced himself it added character to his cheeky grin.

Could be worse then, he realized as he felt his face carefully. His nose wasn't broken but by the feel of the cartilage he'd definitely been punched. A straight  blow catching him on the upper lip and bottom of the nose by the feel of his nose and teeth. It was going to be sore for a few weeks. He hated that. Experienced fighters would always go for the nose. Breaking it will stop most opponents in their tracks, and it was like getting kicked in the balls. It was one of those pains that made your eyes water, made you feel sick and took all the fight right out of you. And the effects lasted a lot longer than bruises. The worst bruising went in a week or 10 days. Rat might still be feeling his nose wasn't quite right in 2 or 3 months whenever he blew it.

He wasn't sure about his cheekbone. The bruising and swelling was so intense he couldn't even feel the bone, and he was in so much pain from it he couldn't tell if the bone was hurting or not. He couldn't get a finger or tongue up inside his cheek either as the swelling where his teeth had mashed up his mouth was too painful and large. He checked his eye-socket and pressed down from just below the eye onto his cheekbone, and it felt okay. Probably just soft tissue then. Rat grinned. For a shit-kicking, he'd got off remarkably lightly. He could feel bruising on his ribs as well, but nothing was broken there either.

It was plainly a revenge attack for Biggles. Rat had been in enough fights to know the aftermath of a kick to the face, and that's what it was. No way had he fallen down drunk and done that to himself. That was somebody's toecap. Probably the punch had floored him in his inebriated state (he could barely stand in the first place) and then a kick or three to his slumped form. Bastard(s) hadn't made a very good job of it though, although his face was going to feel even worse in the morning. Rat doubted he'd even be able to get a flying helmet on. He was damn sure he'd have made a better job of it if he'd been the one doing the beating. He'd got worse injuries jumping out of bed. Just then a twinge in his back reminded him that was literally true, and he grinned ruefully. Or tried to the agony in his cheek made him swear, which caused more pain. He paused for a minute, wondering where the hell he was and where he was going. He had to get his bearings.

He also had a decision to make. Go to the infirmary, get some X-Rays and do some explaining, and having suffered a long period of unconsciousness get a possible 24 or 48 hour grounding, or go back to his quarters, grab some painkillers and see what it looked like in the morning.

He chose the latter. By the time he stumbled into the shared room he could hardly keep his eyes open. It felt like there were lead weights attached to his eyelids, and he was shivering badly. He wondered if it was shock, but decided against it. It was pretty cold in the corridors during the nightshift, with the heating turned down to powersave and the extreme exhaustion he felt was probably the excessive amount of alcohol and fatigue. The throbbing in his brain, dizziness and nausea could be a concussion, but that too was to be expected after the amount he'd drunk.

Speaking of which, he knew he should try and rehydrate. He could only swallow a half liter or so of water before his stomach screamed stop. Vomiting wasn't going to help matters, and he was so tired he just slumped where he was. He couldn't stay awake any longer and climbing into bed just wasn't going to happen.

 

BWS Sicily; Flight Crew Quarters
1014 Hours ZULU

Rat came to again with Dani Owens standing over him. He was lying on his bunk, and someone had taken him out of his clothes. A huge icepack was on his cheek, and the world seemed ok. Right until he started to move. Then he felt as if a knotted cord was being twisted into his skull. Of course there'd be a hangover, but that headache was pretty bad, even so.

"Painkillers," he muttered, "and some water, please."

"Here," she passed him them and he struggled to swallow the pills with his dry mouth and swollen cheek. "Greaser put you to bed when he fell over you. He had an O-dark-thirty and you were in his way. When he returned from the sortie he told me to look in on you. He's got a debrief to take care of. Besides, I think he knew you'd rather see me."

"Thanks," Rat managed, his cheek throbbing with every syllable. He wouldn't be able to chew for a day or so, he realized.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Bruised," he tried to grin, and winced.

"Yes, you have got a few there, haven't you?" Dani looked worried.

"Excuse me for getting kicked in the face," Rat mumbled.

"You...!" She looked as if she was going to hit him for a second but then she softened. "What happened?"

"Don't remember; big blank spot. Last thing I recall is talking to someone about you and that thing with Biggles. Then out went the lights for an hour or so."

"Oh, Jesus, Tony. I'm sorry, you were right. You should have sorted him out before."

Rat shook his head, then instantly regretted it as the movement made his vision swim with the hangover effects. "Wasn't him. Somebody else. Didn't recognize him. I'm not that stupid." But he was, he knew. He remembered half-turning his back and looking at the floor, and that was it. That's when he'd been hit. Sucker punched. Cowardly fucker had started talking to him friendly, and hit him when his back was turned. Not that Rat would have been in much of a state to defend his self, but more than the cowardly nature of the attack the thing that made Rat mad was himself. He should have been more careful, more wary, but he made a stupid mistake and was lucky to get away with it. He might not be in combat. Stupid mistakes get you killed, not bruised.

Rat wasn't a nasty drunk. It was the other way around. He started off pretty nasty sober, and as he got drunk the world was full of love and everybody his pal. Except when he was in a morose, melancholy mood, in which case he just sat and ignored the world looking and feeling miserable. No, he didn't get aggressive or belligerent, and time and again the first punch had landed as he was telling people to keep calm and chill out. All right when you're halfway sober but not when you're falling down drunk.

"If I'd beaten the crap out of that one today his mates would have come after me as well, more than likely. And I don't even know what they look like. Can't watch my back if I don't know who I'm watching for. Bollox."

"Come on, we should get you to the infirmary," she said.

"No, I'm okay. Nothing's broken." I think, he finished silently.

"You were unconscious for an hour! You need to get looked at," insisted Dani.

"Forget it. I'm okay. It was probably the booze more than the beating. Wouldn't be the first time I've had to kip for an hour on the way home after a booze-up." He tried to sound more confident than he felt. He wasn't sure about his cheek at all. It didn't feel like any of the other broken bones he'd had, but it was frigging sore, and there was a huge amount of swelling.

"Look, Tony, you can't fly like that!"

"Okay," he agreed. He felt like shite. No way could he fly in that state.

"We're going to the flight surgeon. Your flight surgeon," she said. "On the D'Arby."

"Good idea," Rat nodded, "Thanks Dani." That way he'd be able to relax without looking over his shoulder. 24 hours in safety and privacy to let the swelling and bruising go down, and there'd be less embarrassment. He'd never had a kicking like that. Well, not in years, and never in a fair fight. Not that there was. The sneakiness of it still rankled. If he ever got a chance at revenge, Rat was going to enjoy himself. Broken bones would be the least of the bastard's worries.

 

TCS Miles D'Arby; Infirmary
1137 Hours ZULU

Rat examined his face in the mirror after the Flight Surgeon had finished doing it. It was definitely starting to look yellowish where the bruising was coming out, but worse was that it seemed to change the shape of his mouth. He looked like Quasimodo after a stroke!

"It hasn't ruined your beauty," Dani teased him as they waited for the Doc to finish the paperwork. There was the exemption from flying duties and a couple of prescriptions for painkillers and something to bring the swelling down.

"Very bloody funny," Rat growled, "I've swollen up like a frigging pumpkin," he mumbled with a grimace.

"You'll be okay. The Doc agrees that nothing is broken,"

"There will be when I get my fucking hands on the bastard!"

"Tony, don't go looking for revenge," she pleaded. "You've already said you'll just have his friends to deal with."

"I can handle it!"

"Yeah, sure!" Dani sneered, "Like you handled it this time? I don't want to see you get hurt!"

"I won't. They will," said Rat stubbornly.

"Stop this macho bullshit! Promise me you won't go after them."

"Okay," he agreed reluctantly.

"Show me your hands," Dani told him sharply.

"My hands are okay," Rat protested, "my knuckles don't mark-up very often."

"It's not that: I want to make sure you aren't crossing your fingers."

"You've got to be kidding!" Rat laughed.

"I'm not joking! You men can be childish about this sort of thing. Now promise me. Say it!"

"Okay," Rat sighed in exasperation, "I promise I won't go looking for revenge." Of course, he told himself, that doesn't mean to say I can't have some fun if it finds me, though!

 

TCS Miles D'Arby; Squadron Commander's Office, "Black Panther" Bearcat Squadron
1158 Hours ZULU

"So what the hell happened to you then?" "Jimbo" Reid demanded.

"Don't know, sir," Rat answered not entirely untruthfully. He knew what had happened, he just couldn't remember it, but, he reassured his somewhat flexible conscience, it wasn't exactly lying outright to his commanding officer.

"You were seen leaving the 'O' Club on the Sicily pissed out of your skull. The barman said you were staggering in zig-zags. He nearly called the MPs. Fall over then, did you?"

"If that's what the Flight Surgeon's report says, sir."

"Riiight..." Jimbo sounded less than thoroughly convinced, "'injuries possibly consistent with a fall due presumably to a blood alcohol level of...'" Jimbo looked Rat up and down, raised an eyebrow and let out a low whistle, skipping on, "'resulting in the patient's face impacting on a piece of machinery such as may be found as corridor-clutter in the lower decks of a warship.'"

"That theory would seem to fit the facts, sir. I honestly don't remember what happened."

"You were also seen having an argument with someone else in the same club earlier in the day. He wasn't involved in your little 'fall,' was he?"

"No, sir!" Rat answered emphatically.

"Okay then," Jimbo seemed prepared to accept Rat's word on that point, "Why were you getting so bloody drunk when you knew you'd be flying today?"

"Trying to relax, sir. Had a couple of things on my mind."

"You mean like shouting back at your Wing Commander when he's giving you an ass-chewing?"

"An unjust ass-chewing, sir!"

"Fuck's sake, Rat! I don't care if he was trying to pin the JFK assassination on you, you just don't do that! It's all over the fleet. Black is a laughing stock this morning, and so are we. Everyone knows he's being cuckolded. You must have shouted it loud enough for the whole system to hear!" Reid shook his head and asked, "How the hell did you find out, anyway? Screw her yourself, did you?"

"Didn't find out. Guessed, sir."

"Jesus H. Christ!" Reid's face went through expressions of surprise, horror, and then amusement. "Good guess. Piss off then. I'm sick of seeing you these last couple of days."

"Aye, sir."

"Hang on any idea when you'll be fit to fly again?"

"Doc says I should be able to get a helmet on tomorrow, sir."

"Okay then. Look get your shit together. I need you with it, and lately you've been away with the fairies. A shootdown, wrote off another bird, this and I hear you got beaten by one of your students yesterday!"

"Yeah. Things on my mind."

"Black?"

"Amongst other things," admitted Carruthers.

"That blonde? Jesus, Rat! Black was right you are more obsessed with getting into her panties than preparing for war! Pull your fucking self together! That's an order!"

"Aye-aye, sir!"

"Right. Get the hell out of my office and don't come back, eh?"

 

TCS Miles D'Arby; Gymnasium
1517 Hours ZULU

It didn't take long for Rat to get bored. No flying, Dani had hopped a shuttle back to her own carrier and (worst of all) Reid had banned him from the bar. An hour on the sims had been all he could manage without getting bored. A.I.s never seemed to fly like the real thing anyway, but it did allow him to get familiar with the general capabilities and tactics of the Bugs as reported so far. Still, it wasn't exactly gripping stuff, and he was feeling pissed off. So he went down the gym. Pumped a bit of iron, beat the hell out of the heavy bag, got the testosterone flowing.

Rat was just warming down when someone he didn't recognize strolled over to him. The man had a distinctly Border-Worlds twang to his accent when he spoke, which put Rat on edge instantly.

"You're the guy that lamped Biggles one, aren't you?" Friendly enough, but that was the approach last time. Rat's fist bunched unconsciously. "Broke his cheekbone, did you?"

"Aye. So they say. What's it to you?" Rat inquired, cautiously but trying not to sound too unfriendly. He didn't fancy getting hit in the face again so soon, and wanted to avoid a confrontation if he could. On the other hand, he was tensed ready for it if it came, but he didn't want to precipitate violence by being overly defensive or aggressive.

"Keep calm! I just wanted to buy you a drink, mate," the man held up his hands in a gesture of pacifism. "That, and to tell you if you ever want a hand giving him another kicking, give me a shout."

"Er, right," said Rat, a little off-guard. "Thanks."

"Aw, you should see his face mate, it's a bleeding picture. Hell of a shiner he's got! Not before time, too. The guy's a tosser, deserved a good kicking. But the way I heard it, you walked away. What happened to your face?"

"Not Biggles. He hits like a girl. One of his mates. Smacked me when me back was turned. I was 3-sheets to the wind, an' all, like."

"Cheeky fucker! You want a hand giving them both a kicking then?" The offer was in earnest, Rat realized.

"Appreciate the offer, but I've promised the girlfriend I'm not going to go looking for revenge."

"Women, eh? Gotta keep the bleeders 'appy, ain't ya? Anything for a quiet life, eh mate?"

"Yeah, they just don't understand," Rat shook his head.

"Tell me about it," the man commiserated.

"It's not like I go looking for trouble, is it?" Rat shrugged, "but try and explain to them that sometimes you just can't avoid it, and they stare blankly at you."

"Exactly, mate. You just can't walk away sometimes, can you?"

"I mean," Carruthers carried on, "is it my fault I enjoy it when it happens? If you've got to do something, is it wrong to have a bit of fun doing it?"

"I know exactly where you're coming from, mate," agreed the man.

"Pity women don't!"

"Ah, that's women for you. Men just aren't supposed to understand them. Their brains work different, mate. Don't worry about it, she'll get over it."

"Yeah, I reckon you're right."

"Well, I've got your back if any shit does go down, okay, man?"

"Cheers, man. I appreciate that." Rat suddenly blinked and his brow furrowed. "Er, do I know you? You obviously know me, but I'm shite with names..."

"Yeah. Well, maybe. Captain Barry Morgan. Callsign's Madman."

"Yeah, I've heard of you. You drive an Excal, don't you, with the Ace of Spades Squadron."

"That's right," grinned Madman, "on the Iwo Jima."

"Very pleased to meet you. Heard you're a damn good stick."

"Cheers mate."

"So how do you know that Biggles guy then? He's a Border Worlder."

"I had the misfortune of being on exchange a squadron posted at the same place a while back. The guy's a complete arsehole. I've been wanting to belt him for a while myself. Never got around to it."

"Yeah, well, I heartily recommend it. Knock yourself out."

"Nah, mate I'll knock him out!" They were both still laughing as they went to get showered and changed.

 

TCS Miles D'Arby; Pilot's Lounge Area
1632 Hours ZULU

Rat looked at the figures on the data slate in front of him. The more he looked at it, the more confident he became of emerging victorious in a dogfight with the Bugs. The new estimates he'd just received from the Combined Fleet after analysis of the date they'd collected fighting them showed that only the Devil Rays really outclassed the Bearcat, and in many respects it was actually superior to the average Nephilim fighter, the Moray or Manta. The Excaliburs were a little poorer off, agility wise, but not too bad. The Thunderbolts though really were out of their league. Bad enough back during the war...

Robber had asked Rat if he and his trainees wanted to help the Thud pilots Robber was nurturing learn the Thach weave that afternoon. He'd agreed, but that was before he'd got a boot in the face. It would have to be the day after.

It was a very simple but effective form of teamwork designed at defeating or neutralizing the advantage of a more maneuverable adversary. You waited until the bad guy was just about in a firing position and then broke hard not into the enemy, but into your wingman, initiating a scissors with him (or a pair toward the other section), not the enemy. If the enemy aircraft followed you, he was flying into a head-on pass with your wingman. If he turned away he would open himself to at minimum a deflection shot or at worst a stern aspect attack, not an appealing prospect.

The Thach had been invented (by James Thach) to allow USN pilots to counter the much more agile Zeke (better known inaccurately as the Zero) during WWII but was equally applicable here against the slippery Bug ships. Rat was more confident now though as he again checked the figures, that the Bearcat could fight on equal terms with most of the Nephilim fighters.

That Devil Fish was really something though. About the only thing in Confed service that was likely to win a "knife fight in a phone booth" with one was the Vampire. Even there, the Devil Ray scored over the Panther and Vampire by all-round agility, whereas their thrust vectoring only made them agile in one plane.

Devil Rays were few and far between. Running up against one didn't seem a likely prospect to worry about. Either way, they should be able to use teamwork to defeat a singleton Devil Ray.

All the more reason to help Robber's FNGs learn it. His own nuggets could see it in action, too, even if it was from the wrong side. If they didn't have the SA to see it unfold and work it out in their head, they wouldn't last long anyway.

No, not work it out, see it, feel it. Know where people are. The spacing between the aircraft and sections would have to be right and the move initiated at the right moment or people would end up dead. Flying the formation correctly was part of it. Not like flying a close formation where you're watching the leader all the time and mirroring his moves, in a combat formation you've got to be able to keep looking around, scanning the sky. But you should be able to look across at your wingman and pick him up where he's supposed to be. If you don't know where your friends are in a fight, you're already in trouble. You should be able to come out of a maneuver and instinctively know where the enemy plane is going to be when you get there and all the while know where your wingman is going to be, too.

BFM taught you the basics, the moves, but putting them together in a flowing, natural sequence was something else entirely. If you have to think, "What tactic do I use here?" in ACM all the while you're thinking the other guy is gaining angle and separation he can use against you.

You've got to keep that picture in your head, all the while flinging your kite around space like it's simply an extension of your body. Like it is your body. It can't be, "To get my aircraft behind him I need to do this" you just sort of think where you want to go, and you end up there. The same way you don't think what your legs and arms need to be doing when you run and catch a football, it just happens.

But instinct could be a bad thing if you let it take over from thinking completely. As a Bearcat pilot he was so used to using an angles fight to defeat most opponents he might get suckered in to one where he should use his head, like a few Spitfire pilots when they came up against Italian fighters that could out turn them. You get so used to being able to turn on a sixpence you don't expect to find anything that will turn inside you and then you rapidly run out of ideas the first time you do.

Rat was determined to have a game plan when that happened. There might not be many Devil Fish out there but they were out there, and he wanted to be ready.

 

TCS Miles D'Arby; Pilot's Lounge Area
1708 Hours ZULU

Some sixth sense caused Rat to look up from the paperwork he was dealing with. Captain Jack "Blade" Scott had just entered the room.

"Areet squire? Thought you were on Avernus Station?" Rat greeted him.

"I am. I was bringing over this," he brandished a data cartridge. "It's a medley of gun camera footage from the fighting in Loki. There're copies going out to everybody."

Rat grabbed the vid remote from behind the bar and said, "Give it here then." Blade handed it over. In seconds it was up on the large holoscreen. A skate was jinking wildly in a futile attempt to evade death at the hands of a Panther. Many shots went past the creature but eventually it zigged when it should have zagged and a short burst demolished it.

"Agile but fragile," grunted Blade.

"You Arrow pilots would know all about that," joked Rat.

"Shut your mouth Carruthers before I give you some more bruises. What the hell happened to you anyway?"

"Walked into a door."

"Hope you gave the door a good kicking."

"Not yet, but I will," Rat growled gruffly.

"Give us a shout if you need a hand."

"Loud and clear mate," Rat's tone had softened. "Ouch!" The exclamation came as the pictures changed to a pilot physically ramming a Moray. The pilot in question had got too eager for the kill and closed the range too much. Luckily he'd had a layer or two of shield and the bug hadn't.

A Stingray was next in the firing line, frustrating the pilots who could be heard swearing fluently on the audio pickup even with the volume turned well down. The bug was barrel-rolling and slowly drawing away on full 'burners.

"Darket tactics," Blade said. "The ITTS can't get it because the flightpath is a curve. It constantly computes where the ship will be when the shots get there with straight line tangents but a ship in a barrel roll describes a curved flightpath. ITTS won't hit it. That's where a human that can figure deflection is better than a targeting computer."

The Confed pilot let the Stingray go which reversed and came back for a head on pass.

"Accurate," Rat said appreciatively as the Stingray's fire landed squarely on the Panther's frontal shields for several seconds before it broke away.

"Yeah," Blade agreed. "Imagine when three of the little bastards combine to make a bigger gun."

"Ouch," groaned Rat.

"You said it."

Next up was a Manta. That ploughed on, taking shot after shot into its heavily armored rear. As soon as it was in danger it broke away to take the shots, if not onto the front shields, at least onto the side armor.

"Why didn't it do that before?" Blade pondered aloud.

"Dragging the guy for its wingman or another bug. Any second now..." The HUD picture flashed up a missile warning but the impact was almost concurrent with it. A bug had got right up within spitting distance while the Confed pilot was target fixated with the Manta.

"Sneaky little fucker's, aren't they?" spat Blade with unconcealed hatred. The Manta exploded violently right as he said it.

"Didn't do that one much good though, did it?" chuckled Rat.

 

The Main Combined Fleet
Near the Nifelheim-Loki jump point
1907 Hours ZULU

"When was the last time you saw blue sky, Chunk?" Captain Chris "Rooster" Smith of the Iwo Jima's "Ace of Spades" Excalibur squadron asked his wingman.

"Blue sky?" Duncan "Chunk" Smith ("no relation," as he always had to explain to the girls when they went on the pull together) mused, "About 3 years."

"You've got to be shitting me!" Rooster exclaimed, "Last time you were dirtside was three years ago?"

"No, last time I had my feet on a planet was about five months," Chunk laughed, "but the sky was pink."

"Jeez..."

"You get used to it after a while," Chunk assured him.

"Suppose so. Like that when I was on Mars for a while, but I never got used to it," said Rooster. "Still a load of that red dust in the upper atmosphere, even after terraforming. Maybe I just wasn't there long enough, just a couple of weeks. Sick of this black sky and artificial lights though. I need some blue sky and sunshine."

"It was way back in the 20th century they realized some people got sick without sunlight wasn't it? Seasonal affected disorder or something like that."

"Yeah," Rooster agreed, "I remember something in the literature about it. And people who worked in offices under artificial light."

"Yeah, that too," said Chunk. "Bastards didn't know how lucky they were. Real gravity, real air that hadn't been recycled for six frigging months, real food..." he trailed off, not wishing to provoke a bout of homesickness with a futile rant about the hardships of spacefaring and the military.

"Ever seen a Cat cruiser up close?" Rooster asked after a few seconds silence.

"Never seen one before at all!"

"You want to?"

"Yeah. Why not?" Chunk agreed.

"Right then," said Rooster. "Let's just expand our patrol area a little bit."

 

"Keep an eye out for their birds," Rooster warned his flight, "let's not embarrass ourselves by getting bounced."

It wasn't long before the Battle Group Auriga flotilla slid into view on their scanners. Several darker blue blips accompanied the few, pitifully few, lighter blue dots.

"Looks like she's got a landing pattern set up," Chunk commented, as a couple of the dark blue fighter blips vanished into a light blue one." Must be in the middle of a recovery cycle."

"Yeah. We haven't seen a BARCAP for the battle group itself yet. They must just be relying on us and the rest of the fleet's CAP in the system," Rooster noticed.

"More fools them," Chunk snorted, then he gasped as he saw burn and blast marks along the hull of a Murphy-class destroyer.

"Maybe they don't have enough planes left to mount a BARCAP. They've taken a pounding."

"Well they lost a carrier, didn't they?"

"And the rest," Rooster added without need to the rhetorical question. "God, if the rest of the fleet is as banged-about as these guys..."

"I don't even want to think about it. How many carriers have we lost now?" Chunk asked, unsure exactly what had happened during the "Saint Valentine's Day Massacre."

"We lost the Saratoga right at the beginning nearly three weeks ago now. Then the Bunker Hill was lost on, what, the 7th?"

"Yeah, in Nephele."

"And so now the Valley Forge went on the 14th while we were getting drunk and having fun."

"Don't forget the Littenia. And that's just the fleet carriers. They took a real pounding in Loki."

"It's no wonder they wanted us as reinforcements." Rooster shook his head morbidly.

"Not really," disagreed Chunk. "What's wrong with releasing the Inner Fleets? They've a lot more firepower than us and our tired old escort carriers."

"What do you think?" Rooster sneered, "the politicians back in Sol think these bugs will just wipe out the Kilrathi and the Border Worlders if they keep enough force in the inner systems to protect them. I'm sure Earth feels the bugs are doing them a big favor!"

"Cynic," Chunk replied without venom.

"After years in the Space Force of course I'm a cynic," laughed Rooster. "I prefer to call myself a realist, actually."

"Real pessimist, more like. With you your glass is always half empty."

"That's because you never get a round in, you tight bastard!" Chunk removed his gloved hand from the control column momentarily to make a silent reply to which Rooster just grinned and pressed a button on his comms panel, switching his transmitter away from he and his wingman's private channel back to the main frequency of their 4-ship formation.

"Let's keep this nice and tight, ladies. We want to look good around their boat and not like a bunch of amateurs and Sunday soldiers they think we really are. We're going to perform a nice clean break turn to starboard when I call it. Okay?"

"Two."

"Three."

"Four."

The Kat cruiser loomed large in Rooster's windshield. He'd run out of witty comments. It was so different to see this alien vessel, this warship, so close without fire traveling in either direction. His breathing was loud and labored but he didn't hear it, his ears automatically tuned to the RHAW gear awaiting the missile-lock warning. Suddenly the comms crackled.

"Lead, two. Closure 300 KPS." A reminder by Chunk, as politely as he could, left as late as he could. Almost too late.

"Break!" Rooster yelled. And broke left.

It is a little-known but true fact that, in a break not determined by any the direction of the enemy (you always break into the attacker) nine times out of ten a pilot will break left. Whether this is due to the fact most pilots are right handed, or because the right hand's natural action is to push in rather than pull out, or if it is to do with the instinctive reaction of the left hemisphere of the brain Chunk didn't know. All he knew was that he had yanked the stick hard right as planned and Rooster had lost his head. Or his mind. He'd broken left, probably in panic. The almost painful crackle and flash of shield meeting shield and the jolt he felt all the way up his arm from stick to shoulder told him they'd collided. How badly he wasn't sure. He wasn't sure if and how soon Rooster would react either so after the merest pause he took charge of the situation.

"Two! Blackjack call off!"

"Three!"

"Four!"

"Rooster?"

"I-I'm OK. Gauges are in the green," he stammered.

Thank God for that, Chunk thought. His own Excalibur seemed undamaged as well. Using up their quota of luck before the shooting war started wasn't smart.

 

TCS Miles D'Arby; Wing Commander's Office
2013 Hours ZULU

Wing Commander Michael Black paced restlessly back and forth, breathing heavily, clenching his fists, rubbing his hands on his head and aiming the occasional kick at the furnishings. He hit the wall and swore violently as he jarred his injured knuckles. With a despairing sigh he slumped disconsolately into the swivel chair by his computer.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been like that, sighing, shaking his head, swearing, pacing and slumping. Time seemed to roar by and yet drag heavily.

Rubbing his sunken and bloodshot eyes he glanced at the computer in front of him. His inbox had a new message. For want of anything better to do he opened it.

 

TCS Miles D'Arby; Pilot's Lounge Area
2038 Hours ZULU

"God damn it!" Black was almost apoplectic as he exploded into the rec area, barging his way through to the front of the room, spilling one pilot's drink as he did so.

"What is it going to take for you halfwits to realize this is the real thing? Two more morons off the Iwo Jima have tried to bend a pair of Excaliburs on a sight-seeing tour!" The Wing Commander realized with sudden fury his outburst still hadn't caught the attention of everyone in the room. He snatched up the holoscreen remote control. Stabbing the off button he flung the remote to shatter against the wall.

"This isn't a movie! This isn't fun and games at the weekend! Those fighters aren't high performance toys the government buys for your pleasure, they're to defend the Confederation!"

"This is it! This is war, not a damn party!" Black aimed a frustrated kick at an empty beer bottle, sending it spinning across the floor. "The enemy aren't just knocking at the gates, they're smashing them down with a great bloody battering ram of an alien fleet!"

"Sort yourselves out! If you all get killed I won't be writing letters of condolence to your families because they'll all be dead along with everyone else on Earth. Think about it. Just bloody think about it!" Black gave a disgusted shake of his head and stomped back out leaving silence behind him.

 

FIN