PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 63 of 66 )

: Scraps of Honour
( 2 / 4 )

"Nine-tenths of tactics are certain and taught in books: but the irrational
tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pond and that is the test
of generals. It can only be ensured by instinct, sharpened by thought
practicing the stroke so often at the crisis it is as natural as a reflex."

- T.E. Lawrence

Scrapper One
Nifelheim-Loki Jump Point
2300 Hours, 15 February 2681 (2681.046)

After three hours of patrol, even the most dedicated pilots tend to get a little bored. And when that patrol is doing nothing but orbiting a fixed location in space, such as a jump point, without any indication of excitement, then the temptation to ease the boredom becomes overwhelming. Jack "Diamond" DeVille firmly believed in, and lived by, the famous quote of Oscar Wilde -- "There is only one way to deal with temptation, and that is to give in to it." As such he had started singing a centuries-old ditty to keep the pilots' spirits up. The fact that the boisterous song poked fun at the crews of the heavy cruiser Achilles and the light cruiser Circe, only ten thousand kilometers behind them, just made it feel that much better.

"Join the Navy,
For some ritual abuse.
Join the Navy,
We will cover you in lubes.
Join the Navy,
Your first jump point you will pass.
Join the Navy,
With an oil can up - "

"Scrapper Lead, this is Scrapper Ten. I've got multiple spikes in tachyon emissions," Danica "Dancer" Owens' reported urgently, cutting off her XO's taunting. "Can't tell how many as yet."

"Show me the data, Ten," Paul "Onslaught" Onslow ordered. "Everyone keep your eyes open. Maneater, hold your people here as backup. We're going to take a closer look."

"We ought to be the ones closer in," the Confed major objected. "Our Excaliburs are more capable fighters."

"Yes they are," Diamond shot back. "And they can run away quicker to warn the rest of the taskforce if we buy it." Even as he spoke the Scrappers closed in on the jump point, sensors eagerly studying and analyzing the electromagnetic spectrum.

"Tachyon spikes are pretty small, probably fighters," John "Bloodhawk" Hawke observed. An instant later his voice sharpened. "They're coming through!" Indeed they were, a number of points of purple-white light erupting as Akwende drives tore rifts in the fabric of space and time. A series of grey blips suddenly appeared on the HUDs of the Scrappers' fighters.

"Tracking... come on, come on, give me a lock," Eric "Zealot" Maslevski breathed, watching his Marauder's HUD with unblinking attention. "There's at least half a dozen - What in God's name?" Zealot breathed in astonishment as the unidentified blips suddenly vanished from his screen.

Storm was quicker on the uptake. "They've cloaked!" he cried as he spun his Marauder into a snap roll, as though he were already under fire. Onslaught barely restrained a curse at Storm's antics, although he understood the former privateer's fear. If the Nephilim had cloaking technology on their side as well as the advantage of overwhelming numbers, the reserves were as good as dead.

"Scrappers, stick with your wingmen and commence search pattern three. Black Knights, drop back and screen the capships," Onslaught ordered. He hurriedly switched comm freqs. "Circe, this is Theta Lead. Possible cloaked hostiles just jumped into the system. We're trying to reacquire them but you'd better warm up the guns just in case."

"Gotcha, Theta Lead," the Border Worlds cruiser's comm officer replied crisply. "We copied eight jump traces before they vanished and sent a message off to the Sicily. They've got some squadrons inbound but it'll take some time to get them here. Do you want us to yankee-search?"

"Not yet," the Scrappers' CO decided. "Epsilon Wing's falling back to cover you, so you should be in good hands." The news from the Circe worried him -- the Kilrathi operated in squadrons of eight. Could the fighters which had just jumped in be Cats? The Kilrathi had been the first race to field fighters with cloaking devices and, while their Strakhas had been mediocre except for their stealth systems, their Bloodfang Mk2 superfighter was fearsome indeed. "They could be Cats, people, so keep the safety on. We don't know which way they'll jump if they're spooked," he warned.

"Hell, I'm the one who's spooked," Storm shot back. "This is - " His voice was suddenly obscured by the shrieking howl of a cloaking device shutting down.

"Bogie on our six!" Luke Evans, his gunner, barked suddenly. "Break left!" Even as Alex's Marauder twisted and jinked, other howls erupted over the comm net as more fighters suddenly appeared among the Scrappers, and the space around the jump point to Loki was suddenly filled with dodging craft.

Onslaught rammed the throttle to the stops and skidded his Intruder into a corkscrewing turn as one of the new arrivals decloaked behind him. Even as Diamond's cries of "Knock it off! Knock it off!" sounded over the comm nets Onslaught chopped thrust to his fighter, whipped it around in a lightning-fast Immelmann turn and found himself screaming past an Excalibur with Border Worlds markings.

"Taipans, form up. These guys are on our side," the leader of the Excalibur pilots broadcast to his comrades, and within a few seconds all eight Excaliburs had assembled into a loose formation. "This is Lt. Colonel Alex Witt, Taipan Squadron, Battle Group Valkyrie. Who did we just bounce?" he inquired.

"Lt. Colonel Paul Onslow, Scrapper Squadron, Border Worlds Militia," Onslaught replied. Even as Onslaught keyed his comm adrenaline which had nothing to do with combat blasted through his system. If one of Battle Group Valkyrie's squadrons was jumping back into Nifelheim with such caution, it seemed as though the Combined Fleet was jumping in after them to stock up for the final battle against the Nephilim. And that meant that the curtain would soon go up on the final scene of this drama.

"Sorry about that, but we had to make sure that the Nephilim hadn't managed to sneak around behind us," Witt apologized. "Paranoia's become a way of life for us over the past two weeks. But now that we know the way's clear we can bring in the rest of the fleet." As if on cue the face of the Circe's comm officer appeared on Onslaught's comm screen.

"Colonel, we've got more fighter-sized contacts jumping in," he warned. "You know anything about this, Colonel Witt?"

The Excalibur squadron commander nodded. "That's our backup squadron. As soon as we verified you were friendly we sent them the all-clear." Even as he spoke, another pilot's helmeted head appeared on the comm display.

"Skywalker, this is Shooter. Good to see you made it through in one piece. As soon as the Grendels have formed up, I'll take them on a long-range sweep of the area."

Onslaught frowned. "Major, we've been here for a week. We've kept a constant CAP on the jump point since we got here and run long-range patrols throughout the system. If the Nephilim had stuck their heads in here we'd know about it." The scar-faced veteran of twenty years of war kept a scowl from his face -- his people might be Militia, they might be Border Worlders, but they were very definitely competent. However the Confed officer was unmoved.

"Nevertheless we still have to fly recon. Can't be too careful, Colonel," the Grendels' leader replied as his pilots' Vampires formed up into a loose patrol formation. Skywalker scowled.

"I find your lack of faith... disturbing," he murmured in a hollow voice even as more fighters from the Combined Fleet jumped into the system. But the Grendels had already broken away on their chosen vector, and if Shooter had heard Skywalker's comment he made no reply.

"What I find disturbing," Harbinger ventured, "is how close we are to the jump point with all these fighters jumping in. If one of them pops out in someone's lap they won't have time to see their life flash before their eyes." His concern was well-founded -- if a ship jumped into a physical object like another ship, then both would vanish in a furious explosion as their atoms tried and failed to occupy the same place at the same time. Mother Nature was a lot harder on anyone who violated her laws than any sentient being. While the odds against it happening were ten thousand to one, nobody in their right mind wanted to take a chance that the person before them had been number nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine.

"I hear you," Onslaught nodded. "All right, Scrappers, Black Knights, we stay at least ten thousand klicks from the jump point until we get the all clear from fleet command. Form up on the cruisers." Acknowledgements filled the comm net as the two squadrons pulled back. Even as they did so squadrons of Confederation Panthers jumped in, an orderly stream of fighters paving the way for their bigger brethren. The first capital ships to jump in after them were the comparatively tiny frigates, corvettes and Los Angeles-class PT boats. They were swiftly joined by a number of destroyers, some of Confed's most modern Murphy-class ships alongside the older Sheffield-class vessels proudly bearing the colors of the Border Worlds.

"Theta Lead this is Circe, over," the voice of the Circe's comm officer piped up. "We've just got ETA's on the backup squadrons from the Sicily. Apparently we'll be covering the jump point while the Combined Fleet gets some down time. Anyway, the Frostreavers are due here in nine minutes, the Berserkers are due in twelve minutes and the Gunslingers are due in seventeen. You and Epsilon Wing are ordered to hold position for TARCAP on the jump point until relieved. We've been ordered to lead the Combined Fleet in once they've all completed jump."

"Copy, Circe. We'll make sure they're in good hands." Even as Onslaught acknowledged the order the carriers and their escorts jumped into Nifelheim. Finally, as the carriers resumed their course deeper into the system a final squadron of cruisers and destroyers jumped in.

"Scrapper Lead, this is Scrapper Five," Kristy "Stardust" Joyce reported tersely. "Tachyon emissions are dropping back to background levels. Looks like the last of them." As if to confirm her words the comm screen in Onslaught's cockpit came to life.

"This is Admiral Erin Hanton, CO of the Combined Fleet. You have no idea how glad we are to see you people," the dark-haired woman in the admiral's uniform greeted him.

So this is Erin Hanton, the Scrappers' leader thought. The legendary admiral who led the Confed attack on Circe, defected to the Border Worlds, then led the campaign in the Bush. "Lt. Colonel Paul Onslow, CO Scrapper Squadron, Border Worlds Militia," he introduced himself, relaxing slightly. "And the feeling is mutual, Admiral. We were half expecting - "

"Major Michelle Ross, CO Black Knight Squadron, ConFleet Reserves," Maneater cut in sharply, sounding annoyed at being left out. Christ, Onslaught thought in surprise, if she's this prickly all the time it's a wonder Jack can put up with her, no matter how good she is in the sack!

"Sorry," he apologized to the Confed pilot before returning his attention to Hanton. "As you can see, Admiral, both the Confed and Border Worlds reserve groups are here, plus some extra backup that we picked up along the way." A cold smile lit his face as he continued speaking. "There's a whole lot of Confeds, Border Worlders and Tanfenners here, all cocked, locked, and ready to rock."

"All of our groups are assembled a little further into the system," Major Ross said. "The capships will escort you to the staging area, Admiral. Our two squadrons have been ordered to cover the jump point. There's another half a dozen squadrons on their way in reinforce us, so you don't need to worry about watching your backs."

"Excellent. My pilots and crews could certainly use a break, so it'll be good to have someone else take over the watch for a while," Admiral Hanton announced. "Now, I'll leave you to your job. Valeria out."

"Get some downtime, Valeria. God knows you deserve it," Onslaught thought out loud as he shut down the comm link. An instant later he smacked himself in the head. Did you just broadcast that? Goddammit, Paul, you've been a CO too long - not everyone is your responsibility or under your command!

As if to mock his overprotectiveness Jack's image appeared on his comm VDU, grinning broadly. "Good approach, boss, but I thought an admiral was a bit above your pay grade. Even one as good-looking as Hanton."

Onslaught bared his teeth at his XO and flipped him the finger. True, the admiral was attractive with sharp features, deep blue eyes and dark hair barely touched by tinges of grey. True, Jack had often teased his commander about his lack of a steady relationship since Onslow's lover had died in a misjump just before the Battle of Terra. But this wasn't the time or place, and even as Onslaught prepared an acid reply someone beat him to the punch.

"Scrapper Two, this is Scrapper Ten, over."

"Copy, Ten. What's on your mind?" Diamond asked, still grinning unrepentantly at his CO.

"You're a fine one to talk about not making a pass at someone outside your pay grade, Diamond," Dancer commented caustically. "You'd make a pass at anything that moved. Hell, you'd screw mud if it'd moan right!"

DeVille's laughter died abruptly in an outraged squawk. A faint snicker was heard over the tac net, then a couple of giggles and finally the frequency was filled with the sound of uproarious laughter. Finally the hilarity died down, but not before the outraged major saw that the Circe's comm officer was one of those laughing loudest. "That wasn't funny, Dani," he growled.

"Oh yes it was!" Onslaught grinned as the last amusement faded. "All right, people, let's get back to work," he ordered the rest of his pilots. The colonel turned his attention back to his sensors, mind returning to the task at hand. And ice slid down his spine as he studied his fighter's HUD. This can't be right...

"Lead, this is Seven." Even Sandra "Riot" Lynch sounded uncertain. "The Combined Fleet started out with eight carriers, didn't they?"

"That's right, Seven," her commander agreed reluctantly. If she sees it too then it isn't just my imagination. Dammit!

"They lost the Bunker Hill in Nephele," Diamond corrected, not yet figuring out the cause of their concern. "That leaves seven carriers - "

"There's only five here." A disbelieving silence followed Onslaught's grim announcement. Finally the seriousness of the situation hit home.

"Oh my God..."

The Scrappers' leader was already switching comm frequencies. "Valeria, this is Theta Lead. I need a sitrep, over."

"Copy, Theta," the Valeria's Comm Officer replied. "What do you need?"

"I think you're missing some little lost sheep. Give me a roll call of the carriers. I only count five."

The comm officer seemed to age in front of Onslaught's eyes. "That count's correct, Theta Lead. Valeria, Yorktown, Endeavour, Defiance, and Freedom are all here. We lost Bunker Hill in Nephele on the 7th, and Valley Forge and Littenia both bought it in Loki on the 14th." The young man, probably no more than twenty-two years old but with eyes that seemed a hundred times older, grimaced. "Talk about a Valentine's Day Massacre."

The militia pilot made no reply as he shut down the link to the Valeria's bridge. The news of the destruction of the Littenia had hit him like a sledgehammer. As the carrier had neared completion and the Border Worlds military's high command began assembling her air wing, they had decided that Lt. Colonel Paul Onslow's talents were being wasted in the Militia. He'd reported to the Littenia to command a squadron and at first he'd felt pretty good about his orders. Finally, he thought, the Scrappers were being rewarded for their years of service in Lennox with promotion to a carrier wing. However, soon after Onslow arrived aboard the Littenia he discovered that just how wrong he was. The 349th would stay in Lennox while he took charge of a new squadron. Needless to say the Colonel was not impressed, and he made his displeasure known to the Littenia's Wing Commander and captain. In true Border Worlds tradition he expressed his opinion plainly, succinctly and at a volume audible to work crews three decks away. Finally he'd managed to convince them to let him return to the Scrappers. While he had few regrets staying in Lennox he had made several friends on the Littenia, and had looked forward to seeing them again one day.

Now it seemed he never would.


Scrapper Six
Nifelheim - Loki Jump Point
2318 Hours , 15 February 2681 (2681.046)

A frown marked Storm's face as he studied his Marauder's scanner. This can't be right, he thought. The ships of the Combined Fleet were heading deeper into Nifelheim to rendezvous with the reserves while the reserve fighter squadrons patrolled the jump point from Loki -- the former privateer had no problem with that. No, what concerned him was what two of those capships were doing. They seemed to be just minding their own business in the midst of the formation but something about them raised the hairs on the back of his neck. True, the idea of the Nephilim sneaking a pair of cruisers into the midst of the Third Fleet was pretty ludicrous but the squadrons guarding the jump point were operating under the law of maximum paranoia.

"Lead, this is Six. I've got a couple of weird contacts in among the fleet," he reported. There was a quiet laugh from Stardust.

"I thought that most of your contacts were weird," she joked. Storm scowled over the comm.

"Ha-bloody-ha. You know I'm talking about sensor contacts," the former privateer growled. "Two capships in the same battle group just don't feel right, boss, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Onslaught replied. Pilots can't afford to rely solely on sensor data, or even just their own senses. In the middle of combat events happen far too quickly for a fighter pilot to wait for sensors or eyes to confirm things before acting. Some call it situational awareness, some call it gut instinct, but whatever name they give it fighter pilots quickly learn to listen to their hunches. "Talk to me, Six."

"One looks like a fairly standard cruiser-sized beastie but the other one looks a little fuzzy, like there's some sort of sensor interference," Storm admitted. "Both of them are showing Confed modes and codes. Hell, maybe I'm just paranoid."

"Maybe," the Scrappers' leader agreed. "But that's no reason we can't give them a closer look." He switched his comm to the Black Knights' frequency. "Maneater, we've got a couple of capships to check out closer. Do you want one and we'll take the other?"

"Gee. How thrilling," the Confederation pilot replied sourly before her voice assumed its normal businesslike tone. "We'll check the fuzzy one. I think Chip and Poleaxe ran into something like this on patrol a few days ago..."

"Copy that. We'll take the other one," Onslaught confirmed. He switched back to the Scrappers' tac net. "Silver Flight, stick with me. Black Flight, Red Flight, follow us at twelve thousand klicks range. We've got a contact to check out." The militia colonel banked his Intruder towards the unidentified cruiser, closely followed by the rest of his squadron. Their sensors probed and analyzed the myriad of electromagnetic signals given off by the capship, and finally came to a decision about just what their target was.

"Hell's teeth," Dancer whispered. "What's a Fralthi II doing here?"

"Preparing to meet Sivar," Zealot growled as he turned his Marauder towards the Kilrathi cruiser. The young Archchristian had a special hatred for the feline aliens in his heart, even stronger than that possessed by most Border Worlders. While many of his countrymen hated the Kilrathi for the various atrocities they had committed during the First and Second Kilrathi Wars, Eric Maslevski especially loathed them for their religious practices. Although he was far more tolerant than the majority of his Archchristian faith, the Kilrathi rituals of blood sacrifice and devouring their dead enemies seemed a vile mockery of all he held sacred.

Onslaught keyed his comm. "Cool down, Zealot," he ordered sternly. "They're not the enemy right now."

"They're always the enemy!" Zealot insisted as he locked onto the half-kilometer long warship and armed his Marauder's two torpedoes. The targeting computer beeped as it began decoding the Kilrathi warship's phase shielding.

The Scrappers' leader's voice dropped to an ominous bass. "Zealot, play nice or I'll have Draco and Grimlock leech you and have a shuttle haul you back to the Sicily. Get me?" Even as he spoke Onslaught carefully slid his Intruder directly into Zealot's line of fire at the Fralthi. Now the only way Maslevski could shoot at the Cat cruiser was to fire straight through his commanding officer. With a muttered curse the younger pilot flipped his fighter's Master Arm switch to 'Safe'.

"Understood," he grated. He took a deep breath and shook his head angrily even as the Fralthi opened a comm channel to Onslaught.


Scrapper One
Nifelheim-Loki Jump Point
2321 Hours, 15 February 2681 (2681.046)

"Why did one of your fliers begin attacking us?" the Kil on Onslaught's communications screen demanded peremptorily. Wearing ceremonial plate armor and cloak with his face and ears pierced by golden rings, the feline alien was a figure of barbaric splendor. He possessed the burly build common to most Kilrathi but the reddish tinge to his tawny fur revealed his noble blood, as did his imperious manner.

If Paul Onslow was impressed his curt answer gave no sign of it. "A minor technical difficulty, now fixed," he explained coolly. "Now please identify yourself and your ship."

"I am Kalahn Catharx nar Vukar Tag dai Nokhtak," the Kilrathi replied, "commanding the TCS Shrak'har ras Kt'ann. To whom do I speak?"

"Lieutenant Colonel Paul Onslow of the Border Worlds Militia, commanding the 349th Composite Fighter Squadron," Onslaught identified himself. His voice abruptly changed from brisk to bemused. "I wasn't aware that Confed was building Fralthis in their shipyards," he jibed.

Catharx raised his hand in the grasping gesture of understanding. "Truth, Colonel. This is the last of my clan's cruisers, and he served well in the Fifth Fleet of the Claw during our first war with your Confederation," the noble-Kil explained. One ear twitched as Catharx's mouth curled in a grin, exposing the tips of his fangs. "Our Confederation designation is merely a result of being drafted into this fleet."

"Fair enough," Onslaught agreed. "So you're here to fight alongside us?"

Catharx inclined his head in agreement. "That is so. It seems there will be, as you say, enough fun to go around." The image of the Kilrathi noble on Onslaught's vidcomm screen abruptly vanished, to be replaced by the visage of Michelle Ross.

"Onslaught, this is Maneater. Our bogey turned out to be a Confed capship," she reported. "What's happening at..." The Confed major's voice trailed off as she finally noticed Catharx's image. "Jesus, there's a bunch of fucking Cats on that ship!" she blurted.

The Border Worlder nodded. "And I thought my eyesight was going," he replied sarcastically. "Look, Maneater, you know they're Cats, I know they're Cats and they know they're Cats. Deal with it. They're part of the Combined Fleet so we may have to fight alongside them -- "

"The hell with that!" Ross protested. "Remember last time we were told we could trust the damn Cats? We ended up with Earth getting bombarded by antimatter warheads!"

"I know! I was there when it bloody happened!" Onslaught erupted. "I was the only survivor out of my whole squadron, and if we hadn't jumped in at the last minute to bail you Confees out then Terra'd still be glowing!" The scarred colonel let out a hiss of exasperation. "But that's not the point. The point is that we need everyone we can get to help fight the Nephilim, and the sooner you get that through your head the better!"

"Dammit, Onslaught -- " Maneater protested, but the Border Worlder cut her off.

"I'm not exactly a fan of the furballs either," Onslaught retorted. "But if it's a choice between swallowing my pride and turning down whatever help I can get and putting my nation at risk, my ego gets packed away." He paused before continuing in a softer voice. "We need you -- hell, every pilot in the whole fleet -- to do the same." He sighed as Maneater suddenly cut the link without answering.

"It appears that not everyone shares your beliefs," Catharx commented. The Kil's green eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "I would have expected a former Landreich pilot to hold a grudge rather than be the voice of compromise."

The Scrappers' leader felt his guts contract as though a black hole had materialized in his stomach. He had never been ashamed of the nation of his birth, but the idea of this Cat knowing so much about him was unnerving. "Who told you I was from the Landreich?" he asked through a throat suddenly dry from tension.

"You did," Catharx explained. "You mentioned that you jumped into the Battle of Terra at the last minute, and the last ships to enter the battle were Max Kruger's force from the Landreich." As Onslow relaxed the Kilrathi noble added in a seemingly casual voice, "I was aboard Karga for his retaliation raid into the Landreich, and I remember a pilot known as Onslaught who thwarted our vengeance. Was that yourself?"

Just how much does he know about me? Onslow wondered even as he altered his Intruder's course so that he was keeping pace with the Shrak'har, holding his current position a thousand klicks off her starboard beam. "That's correct, Kalahn dai Nokhtak. I was the sole survivor of the flight that stopped the strontium warheads you fired at the Landreich." he replied. His voice sharpened suddenly. "Why do you want to know this? Will you try and claim glory from my death?"

The feline alien shook his head in a very human gesture of denial. "No, I would leave such a form of idiocy to the firebrands of the Cult of Sivar. Their hearts and minds are too full of zaga, the warrior spirit, and the lust for glory to leave room for thought," he spat. "I know better than to have the blood of an ally upon my claws on the eve of battle. 'There is no treachery greater than the betrayal of comrade against comrade.'"

Onslaught nodded. "A quote from the Sixth Codex." Even as he spoke, the militia colonel studied the Shrak'har with his naked eyes rather than just his fighter's sensors. Pits and burns from weapons fire scarred her metallic flank, but the cruiser still looked full of fight.

"Indeed," Catharx confirmed. "I suppose I should not be surprised at your knowledge of my race, Pr'shrik ek Pakthi."

The militia colonel inclined his head in acknowledgement. "One of the first rules of warfare for my race is 'Know thy enemy.' You're not my enemy at the moment, but your people were for a while. And as you mentioned, the Cult of Sivar still raids the Border Worlds. Anyway, I'd love to chat but we're still on patrol. After all," Onslow quoted, "'vigilance is the warrior's salvation; inattention the warrior's most dangerous foe.'"

"Indeed," Catharx nodded as he cut the comm link. Onslaught let out his breath in a sigh of relief before switching back to the Scrappers' comm net.

"Okay people, she's clear," he reported as he rocked his Intruder's wings in a brief salute to the Kilrathi cruiser. "Looks like we've got some help from the kitties against the bugs. Anyone who's got any complaints can take'em up with Admiral Hanton. Clear?" Several acknowledgements sounded over the comm.

"Lead, this is Twelve. What's that name the Cat kept calling us?" Grimlock inquired. "Preshik something?"

"Broken knives," Dragan "Draco" Emerson answered as the rest of the Scrappers formed up on their leader. "My dad did some trading with the Kilrathi and I learnt a little of their language. I guess 'broken knives' mean has-beens or wannabes." The indignant tone in his voice let the rest of his squadron know exactly what he thought of that assessment.

"It actually means Breaker of Knives," Onslaught corrected as he returned to his original patrol route. "A Kilrathi warrior's claw dagger is more than just a weapon to him. It's a symbol of prowess and honor, like a samurai katana or a Gurkha kukri. So, to the Kilrathi, a broken knife means someone who has been well and truly defeated."

"Someone who's had their ass severely kicked, huh boss?" Storm asked.

"Someone who's had their ass severely kicked, stomped into the ground then dragged through the mud," his leader confirmed. "Someone who's been beaten so badly that there's only one way to make up for their failure."

"Zu'kara," Bloodhawk growled. Onslow nodded.

"Ritual suicide," he agreed.

"We must have a pretty hot rep in Kilrathi space if we've got that sort of nickname," Stardust mused. She grinned at the thought of it. "I wonder if -- "

"We don't," Grimlock interrupted. "Like the Colonel said, the boss Cat said 'Breaker of Knives,' not 'Breakers.' So he was talking about one person." His face took on a look of vexation. "You know, if I joined a squadron whose leader had a Kilrathi honor name I'd expect them to be bragging about it, not hiding it like it's something to be ashamed of," the fair-haired Scrapper snapped. "Don't you trust me?"

"Believe me, Grimlock, we would've told you," Riot assured him. "If we'd known about it," she added in a sharp voice. "Boss, have you been holding out on us?"  A tense silence spread over the comm net.

"Yes," Onslaught admitted grudgingly. "I didn't want you all to get swelled heads about it. After all, I have enough trouble keeping you lot under control," he noted with a touch of dry humor.

"But something like this," Storm protested. "Bloody hell, this is..." He paused, for one of the few times in his life at a complete loss for words.

"Are you saying that none of you knew that your own CO had a Kilrathi honor name?" Draco asked incredulously. The ensuing silence answered his question. "Well then," the young Border Worlder grinned, "how about we keep this our secret for one more day? I'm going to love seeing Benita's expression when she finds out who she's going mano-a-mano with..."