PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 7 of 62)
“ Into the Inferno ”
"Soul, thous hast much goods laid up for many years;
take thine ease, eat
drink, and be merry."
- Luke xii. 19.
"Soul, thous hast much goods laid up for many years;
take thine ease, eat
Deck Lounge, Avernus Station
2000 Hours, 16 Feb 2681 (2681.047)
“Okay, step right this way, ma’am,” Raptor said with a grin, as he steered his companion towards the doorway. While not quite as big as a fleet carrier, the Avernus Station was several hundred meters long, and it would be easy to get lost in its corridors.
By now all the planning had been done, and the preparations for what should really be nothing more than a mopping up operation had been completed. The crews of the various capital ships that had spent the past two weeks fighting the invasion to a standstill had been granted some time off. Admiral Hanton felt that after everything they had been through, including the loss of close to half their number, some time away from their stations would do them all a power of good. Of course, if there was one thing they had learnt over the past few weeks, very few things about this war were either easy or straightforward. For that reason, only the pilots and crew of one shift on any carrier were granted leave at any one time, and that leave was limited to six hours at the most. In that time though, they were free to go anywhere and do anything they pleased. The remaining crew and pilots maintained their watch, waiting for the remains of the enemy fleet to jump in after them. Right now, it was the turn of the Valeria’s second watch to catch a little R&R, and Raptor was determined to make the most of it.
”I’ll deck you if you call me ma’am one more time. And I still think you should tell me what’s going on,” Lieutenant Colonel Chrys “Mirage” Rhodes insisted as the two of them walked into the lounge. There were a couple hundred people there, which included crew from the Valeria and the other carriers who had decided to visit the station as well as people from the reserve groups who were also off duty. The sheer size of the place, though, meant that it was far from crowded. The lounge had previously hosted a Valentine’s Day ball for the reserves that had included the pilots from all six escort carriers was well as some of the Navy crew.
”Like I said, it’s a surprise,” Raptor replied, looking around the lounge. It looked in good shape, considering that it had been the site of the mother of all bar brawls during that party. It hadn’t quite been a riot by Border Worlds standards -no high explosives and only one automatic weapon had been involved- but the sheer number of people who had taken part and the enthusiasm they had shown meant there had been a lot of breakages. Still, seeing as this was the Border Worlds, the bar staff seemed to have taken it all in stride. You had to expect such things when you ran a drinking establishment on the frontier.
“Rap, I’m a fighter pilot. I really don’t enjoy being surprised.”
”Well, you’ll enjoy this. Trust me, okay?”
“That’s what you said on Landreich, and we both ended up in the…”
”Colonel! What are you doing here?” the voice cut across the room, causing heads all around them to snap around, and cutting off what Mirage had been about to say. Looking in the direction of the voice, they saw a chestnut haired girl waving to them from them from a table near one of the viewports. Sitting opposite her was a blond young man, who was trying frantically to shush her, and looking like he was half dying of embarrassment.
Raptor and Chrys quickly looked at each other, each lifting an eyebrow. They recognised both the youngsters, former students of theirs when they had been teaching at the Border Worlds Space Force Academy, but they hadn’t expected to see them here on the front lines. The years the two of them had spent together generally allowed them to read each other’s thoughts with the slightest glance. While they had been hoping for some time to themselves, the chance to catch up was too good to miss. They turned and walked towards the two young people.
The young man not so quietly said “Oh, shit!” as he saw the two senior officers approaching. He scrambled to his feet and straightened his uniform with one hand, while with his other hand he tried to pull the girl to her feet as well. She easily evaded his efforts, laughing at his concern. He gave it up as a lost cause, instead snapping to attention and saluting smartly.
“At ease, Tony,” Mirage said gently as the two officers returned the salute.
Anthony “Grimlock” Grimm had been part of the final year class they had taught during the few months they had spent at the Academy, between the Battle for the Bush and the current Nephilim campaign, and had graduated just after they had left to serve with Battle Group Valkyrie. He had been a good student and a skilled if unspectacular pilot. Unlike most would be fighter pilots, and certainly unlike most Border Worlds youngsters, he had been polite, reserved, and almost painfully shy.
“Yes, ma’am. Would you like to… like to… uh…”
“Sit down.” The young woman finished, rolling her eyes. Grimlock shot her a grateful look and then scrambled to grab a couple more chairs from a nearby table. He waited for the two senior officers to sit down before resuming his seat opposite the girl.
“Okay, you still haven’t answered my question, Colonel,” the girl said without any preamble. “I thought you had retired from the front li… Ow!” She broke off with a yelp, and glared at Tony, who had obviously kicked her under the table.
”Benita, right?” Raptor asked with a smile. He didn’t know her that well.
She had been a year behind Tony’s class, which Raptor had spent most of his time teaching. Chrys had spent more time with Benita’s class, and he remembered the acid comment she had written in one of Benita’s fitness reports: the only times she opens her mouth are to change whichever foot is currently in there, or to try and fit them both in at once. The rest of the report though, had been quite positive, especially regarding Benita’s flying and dogfighting skills.
“Well, we came in with the Valeria. We’ve both been flying off her since this whole mess started.”
Grimlock did a double take as he noticed for the first time the dark and ominous patches on both their shoulders, showing the Grim Reaper with a bloody scythe poised and ready to strike. The Reaper Squadron had established one hell of a reputation over the past decade in its battles against Confed, the Black Lance, the Kilrathi and now the Nephilim. “You two are back with the Reapers?”
“What’s left of the Reapers,” Raptor replied, a little more sharply than he intended to. “We’ve lost almost half the squadron in the last two weeks, Tony. The Nephilim don’t care how good you’re meant to be…”
He quickly broke off that train of thought, mentally kicking himself. That wasn’t a very good thing to say to anyone on the eve of a battle, but especially not to two youngsters facing their first major fleet action. The strain of the last two weeks was getting to him, no question about that.
“Still, that’s over and done with now. All that’s left is the mopping up. Anyway, what are you two doing here? Especially you, Benita. You were still a while out from graduation when we left, weren’t you?”
“High Command had no idea how many of the Nephilim would be left when the main fleet jumped here, Colonel,” Benita said, flipping her chestnut hair over her shoulder. “They were pretty much willing to take any fighter pilot who could stand up, see lightning and hear thunder. I volunteered, and my grades were good enough that they decided they could speed up my graduation. They’ve got me flying Jaguars off the Arnhem now.”
”I guess you didn’t pay attention to what I told you, then,” Chrys said wryly.
“What was that, Colonel?”
“Never volunteer for anything.”
”They didn’t exactly drag the two of you kicking and screaming aboard the Valeria, Colonel,” Grimlock pointed out unexpectedly.
“That’s different, Tony. We’ve been in combat before, and we had a good idea what we were getting into. You kids don’t.”
”With all due respect, sir, that’s bullshit,” Benita said fiercely. “We’re not kids and we’re not stupid. We know the risks, and we didn’t sign up because we were glory hungry or anything like that. We’re here because we didn’t want what happened to the people on Dakota or Hellespont to happen to our families!”
“Okay, fair enough,” Raptor said, as he and Chrys shared another glance. On the one hand, they didn’t think Benita could really understand just what it was she had gotten herself into. No one who hadn’t been into the hellfire of combat could really comprehend it. On the other hand, they couldn’t help being impressed by her obvious spirit and determination. She would make a good combat pilot if only she could survive those crucial first few missions.
“What about you, Tony? That’s a Militia uniform, isn’t it?” Mirage asked. The Border Worlds Space Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Militia all wore near identical deep blue uniforms, not surprising since they had all originated from the rag-tag militia that had fought against Confed and the Black Lance all those years ago. However, a few subtle differences in the rank insignias and unit patches set them apart.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m an Intruder pilot with the 349th Composite Squadron, the Scrappers. I used to be with the 254th Fighter Squadron, the Necromancers. They're a Space Force unit but I got shifted to the Scrappers when they joined the Sicily. We were the ones who met you at the jump point, by the way.”
”Intruders? With your science and engineering grades, Tony, I thought you were headed for one of the newer fighters for sure. You could cope with the electronics on the Jaguar or the Retaliator a lot better than some pilots I know,” Raptor said.
Grimlock shrugged uneasily. ”I guess they sent me where I was needed most, Colonel. Besides, I was never that great a pilot. It’s probably better that I ended up in a Militia squadron rather than a front line unit.”
”Will you stop saying that?” Benita snapped. “There nothing wrong with your piloting, or being in the Militia!” Her face turned red as both the senior officers glanced at her, surprised by the fire in her voice.
“That’s rich, coming from you,” Tony said with a gentle smile.
”Yeah, well, I learnt my lesson,” Benita mumbled, blushing even harder. There was obviously something going on here that Raptor and Mirage didn’t know about, and it was equally obvious that it was something that Benita was embarrassed about.
“She’s right, you know, Tony,” Mirage said, deftly easing them past the awkward moment. “The only problem with your piloting was that you didn’t back yourself enough, and that’s nothing that can’t be cured with time and experience. There are a lot of pilots start out with doubts about themselves, and go on to have successful careers.”
“Hell, some of them even go to become Wing Commanders,” Raptor said with a wry smile. “I ‘earned’ the Golden Sun on my second combat operation, and it took me a hell of a long time to recover my confidence after that. Just give it some time, and give yourself a break.”
“That’s what I keep telling him,” Benita said. “Smiley here’s been under the gun just once, and he’s already half way to being an ace.”
”That was just a bunch of pirates in Seggalion,” Grimlock protested. “Nothing like your battles against the Nephilim.” He added to Raptor and Mirage.
”Still, you got through it alive, and your opponents didn’t," Chrys said. “I’m impressed, Tony.”
The four of them continued talking for quite a while after that, swapping news and stories about the things that had been happening both on the frontlines and back home. The informality of the Border Worlds military hierarchy, along with the fact that they had previously been each other’s teachers and students, allowed them to be more relaxed than people with such a difference in their ranks would normally be.
For the two youngsters, a lot of the news was grim, especially the death of one of their other instructors, Lieutenant Colonel Ruth “Lynx” Lofton. Lynx had been the leader of the Valeria’s Ghost Warrior recon Arrow squadron, and had been killed on a scouting mission in the Loki System. Balancing that though, was the positive news that the back of the enemy fleet had been broken, and that disposing of the remains of that fleet should be a simple matter. It had been a long, brutal campaign, but they were very close to the end of it now. With any luck at all, these youngsters would be spared going through the hell that the Combined Fleet had endured.
For the two senior pilots, the stories they heard were a lot lighter in nature, mainly covering the goings on back at the Academy. One particular story that had both of them smiling was the tale of the unfortunate incident that befallen one of the pilots who had remained behind at the Academy, a Major Don “Juan” Lukas. As his callsign suggested, he was something of a ladies man, and further considered himself irresistible to virtually any woman, even if the woman in question was married or barely legal. The strange thing was, he was right more often than not. The stories of both his romantic conquests and his narrow escapes from angry husbands and fathers were legion.
Unfortunately, he had gone a step too far when he had tried to seduce the young and pretty wife of the Confed ambassador, hoping to add another notch to his bedpost and embarrass the Confeds at the same time. The ambassador’s wife was a smart woman, and she had been more than equal to the challenge.
She had pretended to go along, and arranged a meeting in Lukas’ quarters for a "nightcap." When the time came, she had slipped a little something into Lukas’ drink. The Major awoke to find himself on the Academy grounds in broad daylight, dressed in her clothes. To make matter worse, several pictures showcasing the Major’s new taste in clothing had been taken by one of the cadets, who then proceeded to publish them on the Academy LAN.
The last Benita had heard, Major Lukas had requested a posting to a deep space surveillance station. Everyone knew that the good Major would have hard time showing his face around his former colleagues for a long while, though that was more for getting caught out than anything else. When it came to their personal lives, the commandment Border Worlders took most seriously was the eleventh one: Thou shalt be happy. The next most important though, was the twelfth: Thou shalt not be caught.
For Raptor and Mirage, hearing stories like that, of the everyday life that had nothing to do with the alien invasion or the battle to hold the line, was a real tonic. There was a life beyond this battle, a life that had nothing to do with fighting or dying. It was good to reminded of that life, to be reminded of what they would be going back to once this battle was finished. After they had been talking for a few minutes more, Benita pointed to one of the bar staff.
“Ah, Colonel, I think she’s trying to get your attention.”
“About time, too. If you two will excuse us?” He and Chrys said their goodbyes to the two youngsters, and he steered her towards a secluded alcove near one of the smaller viewports. As they got closer, he put one hand on her shoulder to guide her and covered her eyes with the other.
“Rap, this is getting ridiculous.”
“Just a few seconds more… voila! I hope this makes up for Valentine’s Day.”
Unlike the reserves, they had been far too busy trying to stay alive then to even think about celebrating romance.
Chrys’s jaw dropped as she saw the table in the alcove had been set up for a dinner for two, complete with lace tablecloth, candles, champagne on ice, and a red rose in a crystal vase. The alcove wasn’t completely closed off from the rest of the lounge, but it was tucked away well enough that they would have some privacy.
“How the hell did you manage all this?” Chrys asked, looking longingly at the table. It had been far too long since the two of them had the chance to do something like this.
“Harrigan’s rule,” Raptor said, enjoying the look on her face. The two of them believed with all their hearts in the work that they did. They were Border Worlders both by blood and by choice, and nothing would stop them from fighting to defend their nation and their people for as long as it took. At the same time, they never lost sight of the fact that they were fighting so that they and everyone else could one day have a normal life, free of wars and threats. While they were fighting though, they had to take snatches of that normality whenever they could.
Chrys laughed at that, remembering the rule that Colonel Jack “Warlord” Harrigan had drilled into them when they had both been flight leaders with the Reapers. Harrigan’s rule was simple: If you want something done right, get the sergeants to do it. The Border Worlds military didn’t have the supply channels that Confed did, so a more flexible approach to doing things was often needed. The NCOs commanded a world of contacts and influence that the officers, for all their supposed power, could only dream about. Warlord had taught them that when you wanted something done quickly and done right, you requested it from an NCO that you trusted, let him get on with it, and avoid asking too many questions about how he did it.
In this particular instance, Raptor had asked his crew chief, one of the Squadron’s old timers who been with the Reapers since the unit had first been formed, and had been taking of Raptor’s fighter for almost as long. The chief had in turn requested a favour from a sergeant stationed on the Sicily, who was owed some money by someone on Avernus, who… well, the chain got a little hazy after that, but the important thing was that what Raptor had wanted done had been done exactly as he had wanted it done, and when he had wanted it done.
In exchange, Raptor owed his chief tech a favour. The chief would collect on that on one of those occasions when a Wing Commander’s formal authority was more important than any informal contact, such as when some of the chief’s men or women were rounded up by the MPs on shore leave. Border Worlders being what they were, the chief usually ended up owing Raptor more favours than the other way around. There were of course some straight-laced officers, mostly Confeds, who complained that such an informal system of favours and paybacks was detrimental to good order and service discipline. The Border Worlders’ usual snide but devastatingly accurate reply to that was that anyone whose military had harboured Mandarins, Pilgrim sympathisers, the Bellisarius Group and the Black Lance had no business lecturing others on good order and service discipline. The system worked, and the fact that everyone knew about it discouraged the corruption that might have crept in otherwise.
As the two of them started on their meal, the conversation stayed with those early days that they had spent on Circe, and the things that they had learnt under Warlord’s leadership. Back when they first joined the Reaper Squadron, both of them were just learning how to run a flight, let alone an entire squadron. They both had some idea of the theory, but Warlord had taught them how to turn that into practice. It had been a heck of a learning curve for both of them, but they owed most of the success they had later on in their careers to that teaching.
That was far from the only thing they owed their old friend, of course. When they had first met, they had hit it off easily on the personal front. The chemistry had been there right from the start, though neither had been willing to take it any further for the first few months, and they had very quickly formed a strong friendship. On the professional front though, it had been a very different matter. Raptor had been trained in the Confed military, and he had very definite ideas about the way things should be done. Chrys, on the other hand, had spent her entire career with the frontier militias, and had no time for the “rules and regs” approach. It hadn’t helped in the slightest that both of them could be stubborn as hell when it suited them. As a result, they had spent the first few weeks working together almost constantly at loggerheads. Warlord’s guidance had made them both see the need to compromise. On the one hand, the rigid approach of the Confed military simply wouldn’t work with the Border Worlders, who were much too individualistic and iconoclastic for that. On the other hand, the Reapers needed to be more cohesive and disciplined than militia units typically were if they were to have any chance against front line Confed squadrons. The two of them had gradually learned to work together, and learned to give and take as needed. Just as importantly, they had learned to trust each other and respect each other’s skills. Without that trust and respect, all the chemistry and friendship in the world would have been useless. Without those things, all the happiness they had found in the years since then would have impossible.
And the strange thing was, they had been very happy in the years they had spent together. On the surface, it might not have seemed like much of a life, constantly moving from one base or carrier to another, heading from one battle zone to the next. Neither of them had any regrets, though. They both loved flying, having dreamed about it since they were old enough to look up at the sky and at the stars. Though they both longed for an end to the fighting, they understood that as long as threats like the Nephilim existed, the only alternative to fighting was to surrender, and that was unacceptable. They were fighting for a cause that was just and one that they believed in, and no one could ask for more than that. Not only that, each of them had found someone who shared those beliefs, someone that they could trust in, confide in, and rely on no matter what. That was why they had been happy all these years.
They took their time over the meal, savouring the time together before they had to return to their duties. They carefully avoided talking about those duties or the war, instead talking about the places they had been and the experiences they had over the past few years. There was no real purpose or direction to the conversation. It simply allowed them to enjoy each other’s company, free of the usual distractions. Gradually, the conversation turned to the time they had spent at the Academy, and the students they had taught.
“She’s going to be good for him," Chrys commented, as she leaned back in her chair and sipped her coffee, closing her eyes to better savour the taste and aroma. Real Jamaican Blue Mountain blend, very rare out here.
“Pardon?” Raptor asked, as he pushed his plate away and picked up his coffee cup. They had been talking about Grimlock, and his all too obvious lack of self-confidence.
“Huh?” Raptor said, and then laughed as he realised they would soon be talking entirely in monosyllables if they kept this up. “Sorry, you’ve lost me, hon.”
Chrys laughed as well. “You mean you didn’t notice? Those two kids are head over heels in love.”
”What gave you that idea?”
Chrys rolled her eyes. “I don’t know, maybe the fact that I have a brain? Didn’t you see the way she stuck up for him when he was ragging himself? Or the way he looks at her?”
”If you say so.” Raptor said dubiously. Chrys had always had been a lot better than reading people than he was, but that seemed like a lot to infer from one meeting.
Chrys gave him a look that spoke volumes about his lack of understanding, but let the subject drop. The evening was going far too well for even a minor argument. They finished their coffee in pleasant, companionable silence, making the most of it. Good coffee came very far down the list of priorities when warships resupplied, and the crews mostly subsisted on a brew that tasted more like fuel oil than anything else.
“So what now? Back to the ship?” Raptor said reluctantly as they finished up. The leisurely meal had taken quite a while, and it was now close to 2200 Hours. With everything else that had been going on, he hadn’t been able to plan anything other than the dinner. On the other hand, they still had close to three hours of their leave left before they had to catch a shuttle back to the Valeria.
“You’ve got to be joking,” Chrys replied, and then smiled slightly. “I noticed they have a dance floor here. You in the mood to limbo?”
Raptor groaned quietly. “Dancing’s never been our strong point, Chrys. Remember that wedding…”
”That wasn’t our fault.”
”Well, not really our fault. Besides, I was kidding about the limbo. They should be playing some slow songs for this crowd. C’mon.”
It turned out she was right. As they walked to the dance floor, it was very easy to see that few of the people here were in a “party till you drop” kind of mood. The reserves had gotten that out of their systems at the Valentine’s Day ball, and those who had come in off the Valeria simply didn’t have the energy for it. The people here tonight were mainly sitting and talking, looking out at the stars, or slow dancing with friends and lovers. The two of them mingled easily with the people on the dance floor. They were both a little rusty, not having danced since a function at the Academy several months back, but the slow pace of the dances meant that they didn’t risk making fools out of themselves.
Halfway though one of the dances, Chrys nudged him with her elbow. “Hey, check your three o’clock.”
Raptor looked in the direction she indicated, and at first didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. Then he realised that Tony and Benita were dancing on the other side of the floor, wrapped in each other’s arms. Benita’s head was resting against Tony’s chest, and his lips were pressed against her hair.
“Okay, so you were right," Raptor admitted.
Chrys elbowed him playfully in the ribs. “Of course I was right. I’m always right.”
”What about the time you said that Kilrathi commander was bluffing?”
”That wasn’t my fault.”
”Really.” The edge in her voice warned him not to take that one any further.
Raptor laughed quietly, and glanced once more towards the two youngsters. They seemed totally wrapped up in each other, oblivious to the outside world.
“Young love," he commented with a smile.
Chrys smiled at that. “That reminds me of us, back on Circe.”
”We were never that bad.”
“No. Almost, though," Chrys agreed with a smile. They had only been a few years older than those two when they had met, both in their mid to late twenties, but they had been a lot more experienced in life, in love and in war. That hadn’t stopped them from falling hard for each other.The song ended, and the DJ smoothly segued into another tune, a twentieth century song that they both recognized, one that had a special meaning for both of them.
You are still the one that I run to
The one that I belong to
You are still the one that I want all night
“Still the one," Raptor said quietly, as they glided through the steps of the dance.
“Uh huh. Flatterer,” Chrys said with a smile, leaning her head against his shoulder.
You are still the one that I love
The only one that I dream of
You are still the one that I kiss goodnight.
The song might have been an old one, but they both loved it, speaking as it did of lasting commitment and a love that endured despite all the odds.
They said, I bet, they’ll never make
But just look at us strolling on
We’re still together, still going strong
The song wound down, and as a few people left the dance floor, they again caught sight of the young couple dancing on the other side. Though neither of them said it, they both hoped that those two youngsters too would have the chance for a long future together, rather than having their lives cut brutally short as had happened to far too many others over the past few decades.
”I hope they’ll be happy,” Chrys said instead.
”Oh, forget about them," Raptor said with a smile, leaning down to kiss her.
“Mmmm. Say, I’ve got a neat idea,” Chrys said with a wicked grin. “What do you say we catch an early shuttle back? That’ll give us an hour or two relive our wild youth.”
“Now, that sounds like a great…”
The sound of their pagers going off simultaneously cut off what he had been about to say. They noticed that many of the other people here were also reaching for their pagers. The two of them looked at each other with a sinking feeling in their stomachs. This couldn’t be good news.