PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 13 of 66 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
BWS Sicily; Simulator Room
The Nifelheim System
1539 Hours, 12 February 2681 (2681.043)
“That went better than I expected," Eric Maslevski noted as he climbed out of his sim pod. The Scrappers had been outnumbered two to one in the sim. Faced with a dozen Morays and a dozen Mantas their only casualty had been Dani Owens, and only a pair of Morays had managed to escape. But the death of one of their own, even if it was only simulated, had put the Scrappers on edge.
"Just how bad a performance were you wanting, Zealot?" Draco asked sarcastically. "Fifty percent casualties? Seventy-five percent, maybe?"
The lanky Archchristian whispered a brief prayer to help keep his temper under control. Emerson seemed to never know when enough was enough or when to leave personal matters alone. He'd abandoned his wingman in the battle against the White Hand pirates in order to score kills, and his arrogance was beginning to sorely test Maslevski's patience. Actually, that was an understatement -- the smart-assed little bastard was really beginning to piss him off.
"Personally, I was expecting fifty percent," Paul Onslow admitted. Pausing to rake long fingers through his sweat-matted hair, he regarded the pilots of his squadron. "We're still practicing against the Nephilim so there's times that we're going to get our asses kicked in the sims. You did damn well, especially when you take into account the way I reorganized you at the last minute."
Before the sim session had started the Scrappers' leader had altered some of his pilots' flight assignments. Bloodhawk and Dancer were now flying with himself and Diamond, while Grimlock and Draco had been added to Red Flight to escort Riot and Zealot. Now each flight consisted of a pair of Intruders and a pair of Marauders -- the Intruders were faster and more agile while the Marauders possessed heavier firepower and better sensors. The combination had made each flight much more tactically flexible, but it had played merry hell with the unit's cohesion.
"It would have been better if I could've nailed that Manta before it got Dani," Anthony Grimm noted mournfully. He gave the platinum-blond lieutenant an apologetic look. "I was kind of busy with that pair of Morays."
"Oh, that will make a great epitaph," she shot back angrily. "The guy assigned to watch my back was too busy to do his job, so my component atoms are scattered across most of the Nifelheim System. Thank you very bloody much!" Dani was normally quiet and shy, and this outburst left most of the Scrappers stunned.
"Knock it off, Owens," Onslow snapped. "It wasn't Grimm's job to watch your six. It was mine and Jack's. Now I'm not going to use the time I've spent teaching the rookies as an excuse, but I wasn't fully on the ball today." The tension left his face and he sighed tiredly. "I'm sorry. All I can do is make sure I'm good enough when the hammer comes down for real."
"And the best way to do that is to make sure you get enough rest," Kristy Joyce interrupted sharply. "Boss, you're running twelve hour shifts flying with the brats on Avernus, and then you have four hours off for rest - "
"Which you spend most of doing paperwork," Vincent Tsu noted. "Dammit, Colonel, didn't they teach you how to delegate? I'm the squadron ops officer so I can handle the paperwork, and I can go to Packrat to forge your signature on anything that needs your approval." He chuckled. "You know, if I'd suggested forging my CO's signature while I was still in Confed, they'd have kicked my ass from here to Sol. I've definitely been in the Border Worlds for too long!"
Research Station G-243; Hangar Bay
The Nifelheim System
1553 Hours, 12 February 2681 (2681.043)
"What the hell is this place?" Miguel de Leon
asked in astonishment as he looked around the station's cavernous hangar.
Although twice the size of the Sicily's flight deck, the hangar's
maintenance bays were chock-full of fighters, and de Leon didn't recognize a
fair number of them.
"Welcome to Research Station G-243," Lieutenant Mark "Shrapnel" Matheson observed. He'd led the pair of Retaliators flying as chase planes to Cayuse Flight, and had been assigned as minder to the two lieutenants from the 254th while Major Tyler debriefed Loa and Ghul. Although only a few years older than the pair of young Necromancers, Matheson possessed the empty emotionless stare of someone who had seen too much death in too little time. "It's one of the most secret and most secure fighter testing ranges in the Border Worlds. They did some of the work-ups on the Retaliator and the Dauntless here."
de Leon whistled tunelessly, obviously impressed. The pudgy pilot had earned his callsign "Cannibal" due to his eating habits, but his hunger for food was matched by his hunger for new technology. "So what are they working on right now?"
Shrapnel scowled. "That's subject to need to know, Lieutenant, and you don't."
"God almighty!" David Thornton exploded. "We're going to be fighting alongside the fucking things when the Aliens come through here! It'd help if we knew just who or what we could expect to back us up!"
"This stuff's classified, Lieutenant Thornton," the Retaliator pilot warned. "Your CO's will be brought up to speed on the beasties being tested here, at the appropriate time."
Rose and Cannibal shared a glance of mutual exasperation. Both of them had, in the course of their service with the Border Worlds Space Force, become familiar with the need for secrecy. However Matheson seemed determined to push the principle well into the realm of paranoia. "What a crock of shit," Thornton mumbled angrily.
Matheson took a deep breath and let it out in an irritated sigh. "All right. What did you want to know?"
"Just how many fighters are based here?" Thornton asked as he ran his hand over his close-cropped brown hair.
"We've got two squadrons of fighters for defense here. The Prowlers fly Intruders while the Vandals -- that's the squad I'm with -- fly Retaliators. Also we've got twenty-four prototypes of various fighters undergoing trials here."
"So that makes forty-eight fighters all told," de Leon mused. Matheson shook his head.
"The defense squadrons have eighteen fighters each instead of twelve, just like the squadrons on the Arcadias," the Vandal corrected. "So there's a total of sixty fighters on this station." Both the Necromancers' mouths dropped open in astonishment.
"That's half as many fighters as the whole of Task Force Jasmine!" Thornton gasped. The Retaliator pilot nodded mutely.
"Where the hell did those fighters that bounced us come from? Confed only put the Vampire into production a couple of months ago so how did we score some?" de Leon demanded. Matheson gave the Intruder pilots a penetrating glare.
"This doesn't leave the station," he warned them. "Those fighters weren't Vampires. They weren't even built by Confed."
"Then who built them?" Thornton wanted to know. The Vandal replied with one quiet word.
For the second time in less than a minute Thornton and de Leon were stunned to silence. Six years ago, the worlds of the Andorra Sector were some of the richest in the entire Confederation. After the successful formation of the Union of Border Worlds in 2672, the Confederation nationalized almost the entire industrial capacity of the sector. The Confederation had intended to bring the sector's wealth under tighter control. Instead they'd pushed the Andorrans into a brutal war of secession, fighting the Confederation Armed Forces to a standstill to form the Republic of Andorra. The fledgling nation's lack of population meant that its armed forces were relatively small, but the monetary and technical wealth of its worlds meant that they were lavishly equipped with cutting-edge technology. If the fighters which had intercepted the Intruders were Andorran designs then the Border Worlders had been massively outclassed from the outset.
"They're called Jaegers," Matheson continued explaining. "The Andorrans came up with these babies last year and already have some in frontline service. I'd say that Border Worlds High Command wants to trial them to see if they're better than the Confed castoffs we're getting."
"And I suppose the chance to leak this info to Confed as a way of flipping them the finger had nothing to do with it," Miguel commented wryly. A faint smirk tugged at the corners of Matheson's mouth.
"Maybe," the Retaliator pilot admitted. "But I'd bet that the real reason was to let the Confees know that they aren't our only source of fighters. That's probably why Confed sold us full-spec Excaliburs instead of the stripped-down ones they're issuing their home defense units."
"So what's so special about the Jaeger?" Rose asked curiously.
"Well, it packs fewer missiles than the Vampire but it also has a bigger punch with its guns," Mark explained. "It's got four tachyon guns and four lasers -- that's almost as much firepower as a Banshee and an Excalibur put together."
"Ouch!" Cannibal winced. "That's a lotta bang for one fighter."
"Indeed," the young Retaliator pilot nodded. "And when you throw in the atmospheric capability, rotating thrusters like the Vamp's and the stealth systems -- "
"Stealth systems?" Thornton asked disbelievingly. "What have they got, cloaking devices?"
Matheson shook his head briefly. "No, they use passive measures like RAM and low cross-section contouring. We saved the cloaking devices for the Retaliators."
There was a second of dead silence. Then de Leon burst out, "You have Retaliators with cloaking devices here?!"
"Jeez, Miguel, calm down!" Thornton cautioned as he saw the expression on his wingman's face. "You look like you're about to have a coronary."
"Or an orgasm." Shrapnel's dry comment was rewarded by a snort of laughter from Thornton but de Leon failed to notice his wingman's amusement. The Hispanic pilot was too focused on the idea of the Border Worlds' premier space superiority fighter possessing cloaking capability. "We've only got four of these Retaliators for testing here, and their missile loads are reduced by the bulk of the cloaking system, but they're definitely Sierra Hotel machines."
"They sound it," de Leon murmured dreamily. Matheson was about to make another comment when he noticed Thibodeaux and al-Khalid approaching from the other side of the hangar bay.
"Well, it looks like you guys are heading home. It was good meeting you. Check six." With a casual wave the Retaliator pilot rose to his feet and walked away as the senior Necromancers approached.
"I hope you enjoyed your chat more than I did mine," Eddie Thibodeaux commented sourly to his two protégés. "We're launching in ten to head back to the Sicily, and Major Tyler and his XO will be flying back with us."
"The Retaliators should really boost morale," Thornton noted as he clambered to his feet. Thibodeaux shook his head.
"Tyler and his boyfriend are flying with us in Intruders," the dark-skinned colonel explained sourly. The anger in his voice left no doubt as to his opinion of the Vandals' leader. "That way they'll draw less attention."
"Sir," Cannibal said hesitantly, "if four planes leave for a patrol and six come back, that'll draw attention anyway. Besides our morale's pretty much in the shitter. If people knew there's a squadron of Retaliators here to back us up when los insectos finally get here, it'd really be a load off their minds."
Thibodeaux nodded uncomfortably. "I agree but this is how it's got to be. We can't keep the existence of this station a secret from the Confees, but we don't want them to know what they're working on here. Once you get back to the Sicily, if anyone asks you about what you saw here you didn't see anything, you didn't hear anything and you sure as hell don't say anything. Is that understood?" As the younger pilots nodded, the thought which had occurred to him when Tyler had given him these orders flashed through his mind again.
Goddammit, I hate this black-bag covert-ops secrecy crap.
BWS Sicily; Flight Deck
The Nifelheim System
1614 Hours, 12 February 2681 (2681.043)
"With all the secrets I've been finding out about lately, I feel like I've been initiated into some sort of college fraternity," Anthony Grimm jokingly told the Scrappers' chief technician. "First I hear Dani's life story, which none of the others have done, then I find out about a secret fighter testing station in this system from one of my old squadron's pilots. I mean, did someone spike my IV with trust-me drugs or something?"
Andy Foster chuckled at the kid's comment. Although Grimm was quiet and somewhat shy he had a healthy, if somewhat self-mocking, sense of humor. He certainly wasn't the Scrappers' top flier or shooter -- indeed, he'd only graduated from the Border Worlds Space Force Academy five months ago -- but he certainly didn't lack courage in a fight. What he did lack was self-confidence, which was related to the reason that Foster had summoned the young man. "We got the damage from your last run fixed, Lieutenant. Also there's a few mods we've done which I think you'll like."
Grimm's ears pricked up. "What sort of modifications? Are you sure you won't cop flak from the boss?" he asked. Foster merely smiled.
"Paul knows me well enough that I can get away with a lot of stuff. Besides, this won't affect the performance of your machine. C'mon," the chief technician urged as he headed back into the repair bays. The young pilot shrugged and followed him to the side of his Intruder.
The first thing he noticed was the paintjob beneath his cockpit. The original armor panel had been replaced due to damage taken in the battle in Seggalion, leaving bare metal exposed. But now the image of a grey-skinned inhuman figure, battleaxe poised to strike, snarled furiously at him. Yellowed teeth were bared as if to take a bite out of the viewer's throat. Grimm smiled faintly as he looked over to Foster. "Dragan gave you the picture, huh?"
The middle-aged sergeant snorted. "I saw it when you first brought your plane here. Just because I'm old enough to be your dad doesn't mean my eyesight's going yet. Now what else can you see there?"
Anthony turned his attention back to his fighter's fuselage and obediently scrutinized it. Now what's changed?... the picture's back, my name's back there... ahhh, got it! Just below the canopy's edge three tiny human skulls had been painted. I've got my kills marked down on my ship! Yeah! He was about to turn back to Foster when he noticed the writing below his name. Frowning, Grimm bent forward to study the writing. Finally he turned back to the chief tech.
"Chief, what's the graffiti on the side here?"
The master sergeant smiled lazily. "Old squadron tradition. Just like any pilot gets a callsign given to him by someone else, in this squadron someone allocates a quote to you."
"In Latin?" the young flier asked incredulously. Foster shrugged.
"Hey, Zealot was the one who came up with the idea. He speaks Latin as part of his religious training," Foster explained. Grimm turned back to his fighter and read the motto again.
"'Quodvis tempus, quivis locis, quivis hostis.' What the hell does it mean?"
"'Any time, any place, any foe'." The answering contralto voice certainly didn't sound like the scrawny technician unless he'd spontaneously changed gender, dropped thirty years from his age and had regenerated the damage done to his vocal cords by a lifetime of hard alcohol. Anthony turned to see Dani Owens, silver-blond hair in its customary neat ponytail, watching him from under her Marauder's wing. "The way you stuck with Draco in Seggalion made it seem appropriate," she added. Grimm's face reddened slightly at her praise, but he managed a nervous smile.
"I thought it'd be something like 'E unum pluribus' if Sergeant Foster had a say in it," he admitted as he walked over to the other two. While Owens raised her eyebrows in mute enquiry the Scrappers' chief tech merely looked surprised.
"All right, I'll bite," the platinum-blond Scrapper commented. "Where the hell did you come up with that phrase?"
"You remember how I mentioned that I used to work in a circus?" the rookie asked. At Dani's nod he continued. "Well, my dad collected a lot of antique stuff in the course of running the circus. One of the trinkets he gave me was this." Grimm reached inside his flightsuit and unhooked a thin chain from around his neck, passing it and the small medallion hanging from it to Dani. "That's a 21st century United States silver dollar, minted during the Jarvis Presidency," he explained as the girl began examining it. "Dad gave it to me as a good luck charm. Anyway, around the rim there's the words 'E pluribus unum,' which was the national motto of the old USA. It means 'Out of many come one' which was supposed to refer to the central government over the states. Anyway I thought that 'Out of one comes many' would be suitable for me because I usually come back with my plane missing a fair number of the bits it started with." He shrugged. "I know it sounds lame. So sue me." Owens and Foster burst out laughing, and after a few seconds Grimm joined in.
"Now that you mention it, kid, that's got appeal," Foster grinned. Dani gave the grizzled tech a light punch to the shoulder.
"Knock it off, Andy. I just need to talk to Tony for a few minutes, okay?" she asked.
"All right. Just make sure you don't miss that patrol you've got to fly." Foster walked away, leaving the two pilots alone.
"So how can I help you?" Grimlock asked. Dani fidgeted nervously before meeting his eyes again.
"Look, I just wanted to say sorry about bitching at you back in the sim room, okay?" she burst out. "I wasn't your responsibility in the sim session so I had no right to go off at you." She raised her hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I was just - "
" - you were coming down from the adrenaline rush," Grimm cut in. "It's okay, really. Don't beat yourself up over it, it's not worth it," he hurried on. The young pilot paused as an idea occurred to him. "Look, if you're still feeling stressed about this, maybe we could get together - "
Dani's expression abruptly changed from contrite to furious with a speed that rocked Anthony Grimm back on his heels, and anger flashed in her sapphire eyes. "If you finish that sentence, Lieutenant, I'll have you up on charges so fast your head'll spin." She turned away as if to leave, muttering curses and leaving the rookie pilot stunned.
"What did I say?" he asked helplessly. Dani turned back to him angrily, and even through his shock Grimm still marveled at her beauty.
"'If you're still feeling stressed then maybe we could get together,'" she repeated contemptuously. "Jeeze, I wonder what you meant by that!"
Anthony shook his head in confusion. "You've got me flying with all sensors down and zero visibility. Dani, what's the problem?"
"You use such a cheap sleazy line to try to score with me and wonder why I'm pissed off?" she asked disbelievingly. "Go see Vince and see if he'll loan you enough cash to buy a clue!"
It was Grimm's turn for disbelief. "Wait a minute. Score with you... you think I was trying to sweet-talk my way into your bed?" He laughed incredulously. "Sweet Jesus, woman! We've known each other for less than a week, but even I'd figured out that I wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell!" Much as I might wish otherwise. He took a deep breath and continued, "What I was going to say was 'if you're still feeling stressed then maybe we could get together with the others in the lounge, and review how the sim went.' That's all." After a brief pause he added hoarsely, "It's not like you'll believe me anyway." Dani's azure eyes locked onto Grimm's pale ones, looking for a sign he was trying to fast-talk his way out of a tight spot. She'd been conned, lied to and bullshitted by the best and knew the subtle cues of body language which would give away any hint of deception...
Nothing. Grimlock was telling the truth. Shit. Girl, you really screwed up this time. The harsh expression on her face softened with shame. "It's just..." Her voice trailed off uncertainly.
"It's just that you don't trust me," he replied flatly. "I can handle it."
"No! It's not your fault," Dani admitted. She threw her hands into the air in a gesture of frustration. "It's me. I'm freaking out because Gorthaur's still on this damn ship."
A quizzical look stole over Grimm's face. "I thought they were going to ship the pirates down to the Aligheri Correctional Facility on Nifelheim I."
"So did I," the platinum-blond flier replied. "But with the whole system being evacuated, High Command's sending a prison ship to get the inmates out of there until things settle down." A grim chuckle escaped her lips as she shook her head. "Ironic, isn't it? In a few days we'll be going up against a fleet which has devastated three star systems, and I'm worried about a bunch of unarmed two-bit pirates."
"Yeah but the Nephilim aren't on the Sicily with us," Grimm said soothingly. "Look, Dani, I can understand where you're coming from. You've had first-hand experience with Gorthaur as opposed to just hearing briefings and news reports about the Nephilim. But you've also got to remember that the White Hand scum are locked in a cargo hold with a platoon of Marines making sure that they stay there. So you're as safe as you can be when you're going into a combat zone."
After a few seconds Dani nodded. "I know that up here," she said quietly, tapping an index finger against her head, "but in here I know that he'll get out and hunt me down and hurt me again." She jerked a thumb at her chest as she spoke.
"It's not gonna happen! If he busts out and comes for you, then everyone in the 349th will back you up." The newest Scrapper gazed intently into her eyes. "No matter what," he emphasized.
There was a faint pause. Finally Dani smiled faintly. "Thanks."
"No charge." Grimm attempted a roguish smirk but it came out as a sheepish grin.
"Well, I've got a patrol to fly in a few minutes so I'd better get set up." The Marauder pilot walked to the ladder to her fighter's cockpit then hurriedly turned back the way she'd come. "You're a good man, Anthony Grimm," she blurted. And then she was gone up the ladder, leaving Grimm standing with his mouth open in surprise.
BWS Sicily; Captain's Cabin
The Nifelheim System
1626 Hours, 12 February 2681 (2681.043)
"So there's a total of sixty fighters and six SWACS shuttles aboard your station, including the ones undergoing evaluation?" Commodore Philip Johnson asked the man sitting rigidly across from him.
"Yessir," Calvin Tyler replied coolly.
"But you want me to tell the Confed taskforce commander that there's only thirty-six fighters."
"Well, I suppose that you could tell them about the SWACS shuttles if you really need to, sir."
How generous of you. "And that the fighter squadrons on the station are flying Intruders."
"That's correct, sir."
Johnson looked down at the PDA that the Major had given him, studying the details of the station's strength. "Major Tyler, I have to admit that I'm unfamiliar with some of these fighters. For example, what's -- " he trailed his finger down the PDA's screen, " -- a Lynx?"
Tyler took a mouthful of water from the glass in front of him. "It's one of Verier Underground's new projects. Imagine a light fighter which has the armament of an Arrow V, the agility of an F-109 Vampire and a twenty percent speed advantage over the F-106 Piranha. It's designed for point-defense work and short-range intercepts."
The commander of the Border Worlds taskforce raised his eyebrows slightly. "Interesting. Now explain to me why you don't want me to let the Confed skippers know about these puppies."
The Vandal leader took a deep breath. "First, you're the overall commander of the combined taskforce, so any plans would be drawn up by yourself. The confees wouldn't really need to know about what we've got. Second, take a look at the last items on the prototype list." He paused as the round-faced commodore consulted the PDA again.
"The Jaegers, Goshawks, and Gyrfalcons? There's only four of each of them, so what's the big deal?"
"They're Andorran designs, and my orders state that I'm to take any steps necessary to ensure that their capabilities are not revealed to the Confederation," Tyler replied. Johnson looked up from the PDA incredulously. Part of his disbelief was due to the fact that the Border Worlds could afford the Andorran technology in the first place, but he also found it hard to comprehend just why the squadron leader was so determined to keep this potentially valuable information from their allies. After all, disobedience of restrictive orders was a widespread tradition throughout the Border Worlds military.
"Surely they don't apply with the Nephilim breathing down our necks," he stated, hoping for some sort of reaction from Tyler. The man's face may as well have been carved from stone for all the reaction it showed.
"Unless the UIS amends my orders, sir, they do," Tyler replied flatly. "My people have acted on these orders before, sir, and they'll do so again unless we get them changed."
Johnson's jaw dropped. "You've shot down Confed craft, Major? When?"
"During the Cynium crisis last year we had two separate occasions when recon Excaliburs were discovered in the station's exclusion zone. Both times we took them down."
"And the pilots?"
The Major's pale green eyes held less emotion or humanity than those of a Kilrathi. "You don't want to know, sir."
The Naval officer cursed silently. With the spacecraft and pilots from Station G-243, he had a secret weapon against the Nephilim. Now all he had to do was make sure it didn't blow up in his face.