PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 7 of 66 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
BWS Sicily; Flight Deck
The Nifelheim System
1421 Hours (CST), 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)
Slow applause sounded behind Alex Morgan as the Confederation pilots left the flight deck. He looked in the direction the applause was coming from and saw Courtney Tseng with a broad smirk on her face. "Well, that was interesting."
"Thanks for the warning," Alex replied dryly. The Tanfen pilot's smile only broadened in reply.
"You're welcome. I figured I'd stay and watch the fireworks." She paused for a few seconds and the smile faded from her face. "You're a survivor, Alex. I knew you'd pull through."
The Border Worlder gave her a sharp look. "What makes you say that?"
"I can see it in the way you stand," Tseng replied. "Also in your eyes. Even when you relax with your friends you always watch your surroundings like you expect to be attacked." Her black eyes softened. "Who hurt you so badly?"
Alex's face twisted in anger. "Wave off, Tseng," he snarled. "Don't ask." The corporate pilot nodded as if she'd expected the vicious response.
"Was it the Corporation?" she asked gently. Morgan didn't answer but the anger in his stormy grey eyes told Tseng she'd hit the mark. "Tell me about it," she urged.
"None of your business," he snapped. "Why the hell would you care anyway?"
"Because we're going to be flying together against the Nephilim, and I like to know that I can trust the people my life will probably depend on."
"I can do my job if you can," Alex replied curtly. Courtney merely continued to regard him steadily. "All right, what do you need to satisfy your curiosity? My whole bloody life story?"
"If that will make you happy," she replied quietly.
"Whatever will get you off my case will make me happy," he grumbled. Probably the most irritating thing about Courtney Tseng, he decided, was that no matter how hard he tried he'd never managed to get her to snap at him. As a result he'd never really felt comfortable with subjecting her to the full force of his anger. It felt too much like kicking a helpless puppy.
"Okay, if you want the story of my life you've got it," he agreed reluctantly. "But only if we talk about it at my place," he stipulated as he pointed across the flight deck to the maintenance bay where his Marauder was parked.
"Deal! Now come on before you start bitching at me more than usual!" The red-maned pilot grabbed the young Scrapper's arm and headed for the Scrappers' maintenance area, barely pausing to check that the runway was clear. Once they were at the Marauder's repair bay the young Tanfenner turned to face Alex and looked at him inquiringly.
"Grab a seat. I'll get some refreshments and join you in a minute," the militia pilot told her as he walked past Tseng to the ladder leading up to his fighter's cockpit. He clambered up the ladder, leaned over the cockpit's edge, and began rummaging around in the cockpit. Instead of sitting down, the Tanfen flier leaned back against a nearby stack of crates and admired the view of Alex's rear. In her opinion the angry young Scrapper was rather attractive, although not as good looking as his squadron's second-in-command. While the boyish major's deliberate baiting of her superior officers was amusing, he brooding lieutenant had intrigued her from their first meeting.
Her entertainment was interrupted as Alex clambered down the ladder, a thermos flask in one of his hands. "Come on then," he told her and indicated the area under the Marauder. Both pilots scuttled under the fighter and sat down next to one of the main wheels. Alex poured a cup of coffee from the thermos and offered it to his companion who gratefully accepted.
"Mmm, smells good," she commented and drank greedily. "Sometimes green tea just doesn't cut it."
"Thank my gunner, he brews it himself. Calls it black gang coffee," the young Border Worlder advised. "I need the caffeine. Besides, it's uncivilized to have a debriefing without coffee."
Tseng giggled. "You know you're obsessed with coffee when you need more than ten cups a day."
"You know you're obsessed with coffee when you make first contact with a new alien race and offer them a cup as a peace gift," Alex observed wryly, sending the Tanfen pilot into a fit of laughter. He grabbed the cup from her just as she was about to drop it. "Hey, don't waste the good stuff!" he exclaimed, making her laugh even harder. A broad grin spread across his face. "Okay, if you don't want me to tell the story then that's fine."
With a heroic effort Courtney Tseng brought her amusement under control. "And here I was thinking you were doing this deliberately to distract me!"
"Damn, you figured it out!" Alex cried, throwing his hands into the air in mock frustration. Tseng grinned but kept her attention on the dark-haired pilot. "All right, what do you want to know about me?"
Alex raised an eyebrow curiously. "That'll take some time. Besides, doesn't Tanfen have files on me?"
"Sure it does," the corporate pilot agreed. "But I'm just a pilot. I don't have access to anything much beyond the usual 'Watch your back around this guy' warnings. Seems you're considered rather dangerous by the higher-ups. Besides, files and evaluations talk about what you've done or what you can do. I want to know who you are."
The Border Worlder's grey eyes bored into the corporate warrior's dark ones. "Okay. I was born in Tingerhoff in the Gemini Sector although I haven't been there since I was born. My parents worked for a freebooter who ran an old Orion transport, and I started crewing as soon as I was old enough."
Tseng looked surprised. "From the way you carried on about Circe in front of Reid and Carruthers, I thought you were from there."
Alex shook his
"We did a supply run to Circe VII towards the end of the fracas with
Black Lance," he explained. "The Confed mercs did a major offensive on
planet, supported by heavy use of chemical weapons. The Union was
fairly well for medical supplies to treat the civilians they couldn't
evacuate." His eyes clouded over with memories as he gazed into the
"By the time we entered Circe I'd fought for my life in spaceport brawls and watched friends die in work accidents, but I'd never seen anything so horrifying as those chem-war casualties. People with their lungs burnt out by Narisol, others with their skin peeled away by KFV-54... it was..." He threw his hands up in the air, at a loss for words. Courtney gently took his hands in hers and waited for his attention to return. After a few seconds he worked his hands loose from her grasp and resumed the tale.
"We were heading out-system when we were bounced by a flight of Dragons," he continued in a monotone. "The pair of Banshees escorting us never knew what hit them. Then the Dragons started working us over with their guns. I was suited up ready to go EVA for routine maintenance when all hell started breaking loose. My training took over and I jumped into the nearest lifepod just before it automatically ejected. I saw a few other pods launch before the ship went up." He swallowed and closed his eyes. "My pod was torn up by shrapnel and was leaking air. I guess that's why the GEs didn't waste gunfire on it like they did with the others. The suit's air supply kept me alive until a SAR shuttle found the debris." Alex opened his eyes and locked gazes with Tseng. "I was the only one they found alive."
Deep Space (near Nifelheim II), Nifelheim System
1427 Hours (CST), February 11th, 2681
Onslaught let out a deep breath, shook his head in frustration and looked towards Avernus Station. If I ever meet the loser who classed these jokers as flight-ready, he's heading for a long stay in hospital, the pilot thought angrily. He had no problem with the volunteers' courage, but even after the basic sims the system militia had put them through they didn't appreciate just how much they still had to learn. The worst cases of I-know-it-all-itis I've seen in ages mixed with a severe lack of teamwork... if the Nephilim make it this far into the system, this lot will collapse like a wet paper bag, he mused as he watched a Drayman transport unload turret mines and missile satellites around the orbital installation.
After lunch (and chewing out three cadets who, despite Onslow's express orders, had conducted manual landings) the two Intruder pilots had taken their class through the basics of formation flying. After two near-collisions in ten minutes, they hastily decided to start with the absolute basics.
It wasn't all bad news. About half of the training squadron had some degree of talent, but the problem was that they weren't used to the sheer responsiveness of -
"Lopez! Quit autosliding, dammit!" DeVille suddenly bellowed over the comm, loud enough to make Onslow jump in his seat. He hurriedly returned his attention to his sensors and checked just what had happened. A few seconds' study told the whole story and the veteran pilot felt his blood pressure rise yet again. Lopez was one of the more talented trainees but his tendency to show off, especially by autosliding, was wearing the instructors' patience thin. In this current incident he'd skimmed extremely close to another Banshee, almost colliding before pulling away at the last second.
"Remember, if you break it you buy it," Diamond warned.
Onslaught keyed his own comm. "Lopez, were you asleep in the briefing room when I told everyone we'd be practicing turns and rolls on this flight? Or are you just ignoring my orders again?" he asked acerbically.
"Sorry, sir. I, um, miscalculated my turn," the young pilot stammered. The Colonel snorted in disbelief.
"Bull. You were showing off for McGann again," he replied flatly. "I can understand if you want to climb all over her - after all, she is cute as hell - but don't try it while there's thirty-six tons of fighter between the pair of you, hmm?" Without pausing for an acknowledgement he continued. "Okay, most of you seem to have the turns down pat. Diamond, I want you to start teaching X-rays One, Two, Three, Five, Six and Nine some more advanced moves. The rest of you will keep practicing under my guidance. Clear?" Various forms of acknowledgement filled the comm channel.
What did I do in a past life that was so bad that I deserve this? he wondered as he turned his attention back to his class.
BWS Sicily; Flight Deck
1433 Hours (CST), February 11th, 2681
The interest on Courtney Tseng's face faded abruptly to shock. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "To lose your family like that - "
"Lots of people went through the same thing," Alex replied harshly. "Thousands lost relatives in the Telamon atrocity, fleet battles, insurgencies on Circe and other worlds, the list goes on."
"But that's not why you hate the Tanfen Corporation," Tseng continued as she brushed copper-hued hair back from her face. Alex scowled at her perceptive remark, then reluctantly nodded.
"After my parents were killed I had to make it on my own, and I ended up joining a privateer crew operating out of Orestes. Anyway about a year after Confed and the Border Worlds officially kissed and made up, we were offered a deal that seemed too good to be true." The former privateer chuckled bitterly. "I should have smelled a rat as soon as I heard how easy it was. A fixer named Thomas Verner offered us twice our normal rate to smuggle a load of medical supplies and internal organs to a separatist faction on a world in the Perilia System. Jump in, get past a half-assed local militia squadron and unload the cargo to the rebels. It sounded like a really sweet deal."
Alex poured himself another cup of coffee and drank it. "Verner supplied all the info we needed. Details of the system defense forces, sensor sweep data, the whole nine yards." He paused and looked at the deck beneath his feet. "What he didn't tell us was that he'd set us up. The planetary government had decided to test a new sensor system in local orbit and had bought some Hellcats to replace their Ferrets. As a result they knew we were coming right from the start and blew the crap out of us as soon as we appeared on their scopes." The gaze he leveled at the Tanfen pilot was deadly. "Turns out they'd bought all their new milspec gear from Tanfen."
"And you're blaming us for that?" Tseng asked disbelievingly. "Here's a transcomm for you, Mr. Morgan. Tanfen Corporation is a business and in order for a business to survive it has to sell things! Now if you're blaming us for selling the hardware that someone else used to ruin your hopes of wealth, then you're a lot less mature than I thought you were!" she concluded indignantly.
"Shut up and let me finish," he growled, taken aback by Courtney's venom. He pushed his anger to the back of his mind, along with the shame that her accusations of immaturity had roused, and continued his story. "Anyway we managed to crash-land, only to find a militia company landing right on top of us before we could get clear. We went to trial a few days later and found out that in addition to the usual charges of smuggling, customs violations and the usual garbage the prosecution was also going to try to nail us for insurrection."
The Tanfen pilot's eyes widened. "What? They couldn't do that - "
"They did. As far as the local government were concerned we were moving goods for the local rebel movement so we'd be treated as rebels," Alex concluded grimly. "When the containers from our cargo hold were opened it turned out that half held medical supplies, but the others held military-grade small arms. The crates had been delivered to us with the seals already on them so we hadn't checked what was in them - after all, clients get a little reluctant to use you to move stuff if they think you'll go poking where you're not wanted."
A look of hatred came over the Border Worlder's face. "During the trial the prosecution called the head of the Tanfen delegation as an expert witness, and you'll never guess who I recognized as his 'executive assistant'." He paused and studied Tseng's face for a few seconds before delivering the name. "Thomas Verner."
Comprehension dawned in Tseng's dark eyes. "The fixer who arranged the deal?"
"Yeah, it was all a huge set-up. We were just a little demonstration to prove how well Tanfen's system worked," Alex noted bitterly. "The fact that all my shipmates were found guilty on all counts and executed didn't matter. They'd made their money from consulting fees on the defensive setup and from selling the hardware for it to the Perilian government." Anger and grief choked his voice. "We were just an object lesson so Tanfen could make the bottom line look a little better, and to hell with the cost in innocent blood."
The corporate pilot paused as the Border Worlder wrestled with his emotions. It's best to confront this head-on, she thought grimly. The Tanfen Corporation was more than an employer to Courtney Tseng, it was a family much larger than a single household yet lacking the impersonal vastness of a nation. 'We take care of our own' was the corporation's semiofficial motto, and she could no more let the ex-privateer's slur go unanswered than a sixteenth century samurai could let an insult to his lord's honor go unchallenged. "Did you love your parents?" she asked.
Alex jumped as if he'd had an electric current passed through his body. "Of course I did! What kind of heartless bastard do you think I am?"
"I don't know," she answered in a voice as implacable as it was gentle. "The Black Lance murdered your parents and people you'd know since childhood, yet you hate the Corporation for jailing people you'd known less than a year. It makes no sense!"
"No?" he barked. "Then think about this, lady. Why something is done is often as important as what is done. There's an old quote that says 'Tis the greatest treason to do the right thing for the wrong reason'."
"I've heard that saying," Tseng admitted.
"The Black Lance killed all those people because they thought it was right," Alex rasped. "They thought that it was the only way to save humanity and, yes, my parents' deaths hurt me," he explained, forestalling Tseng's next question. "But Tanfen killed my friends out of greed, not self-defense or any form of misguided cause. The corporation had enough pull with the government in Perilia to stop my friends from being sentenced to death yet they didn't do a damn thing! Now what the hell am I supposed to think about that?" he concluded angrily.
"You like quoting the old sayings? Try this one," Courtney shot back. "'You pay your money and you take your chances.' Guess what? Sometimes chances don't work out the way you want! It's a part of life." Her dark eyes glittered with anger. "Tanfen didn't execute your friends. Don't blame us for their deaths."
"Really?" Alex growled. "Maybe Tanfen didn't pull the trigger but they did everything else. They blindfolded us with false information, they gave the executioners their weapons and they sent us to the wall. As far as I'm concerned, they have my friends' blood on their hands." Under cover of taking another drink of coffee he renewed his grip on his emotions. Tseng fidgeted nervously.
"So why didn't you end up facing a firing squad at dawn?" she asked in an effort to change the subject. Morgan's answering smile was twisted and angry.
"When Verner testified he told the court he spoke to the captain, first officer, and chief engineer about the deal," he replied quietly. "I wasn't one of those people so they couldn't say I knew about it in advance. Also I was seventeen when all this happened, so I was legally a minor. Then someone checked my past and found out about my time on Circe. Since the court couldn't bust me for insurrection they found me guilty of being an accessory to the fact and sentenced me to six years military service."
"So that's how you joined the Scrappers," the Tanfen pilot commented. I'll have to run a deep background check on him, she thought. Sentencing criminals to military service instead of prison happened more often in the Border Worlds than in the Confederation, but it was still not common. Both nations had practiced this form of conscription widely during the First Kilrathi War, and the UBW had continued it after the horrific casualties of the Black Lance Incident, but it had fallen out of favor since those desperate days.
"Mm-hmm," Alex confirmed. "I graduated from the Academy in mid-'77 but I knew from the start I'd be sent to a militia squadron 'cause I was a CC. Then the Scrappers were formed from bits and pieces of other units and I got my first assignment. I've been with them ever since."
"What's a CC?" Courtney asked, curiosity in her voice.
"Criminal Conscript," Alex answered. "Anyone who's sentenced to the military for committing a crime has it noted on their file and has a barcode stamped on their face. The barcode has full details of the person's criminal record as well as their military record and clearance, and every MP has a code reader. We're marked from the day we enter the Academy," he concluded heavily.
Tseng remained silent as she gripped the young Border Worlder by the chin and turned him to face her. She studied his sharp features for several seconds with an unreadable expression in her dark eyes. Finally she asked softly, "So where is this barcode? I don't see any signs of it."
"I had it removed," he murmured. Her grip, although strong, was also gentle and her skin was smooth and warm -- Get your mind back on the conversation! Don't be distracted, she's pumping you for information! He ran his fingers through his hair and continued, "I had to take some crap from other pilots during my time but I stuck it out. Like any convict, if a CC finishes his term he can get the barcode removed and go back to normal life. Anyway when I'd done my time I re-upped, and the boss said I should get rid of the stripe. A lot of CC's who stay in the services keep their stripes as a way of flipping the finger to the world in general, but the Colonel told me that it'd held me back for long enough." He shrugged. "So I did." Tracing a line from his temple over his left eye down to his cheekbone he added, "It was right here. All that's left of it is some very fine surgery scars." He chuckled grimly. "As if Tanfen hadn't left me enough scars to remember them by."
The gentleness faded from the Tanfen pilot's face to be replaced by anger. "Fine! Be that way!" she barked, throwing her hands into the air in irritation.
"I've been worse in the past!" At Tseng's inquiring look the former privateer explained, "When I was stuck in prison on Perilia after the trial, I kept dreaming of the Black Lance returning to hit New Maynah with the Gen-Select nanobots."
"A nightmare?" the Tanfen pilot asked curiously. Alex shook his head, his face holding the coldly impassive expression she'd always associated with tales of Yen-Lo-Wang, the lord and judge of the dead.
"A dream of revenge," he told her softly. "They were responsible for the death of my friends and, by God, I wanted payback!"
"Blood feud?" Tseng kept the shock from her face through a supreme effort of will. The Scrapper's mute nod sent chills down her spine.
"I outgrew the need for blood vengeance, though," he continued. "An organization the size of Tanfen can hire however many warm bodies it needs." He scowled briefly. "To hurt a corporation, you kill its reputation instead of its people."
"And that's what you intend? Alex, you're painting a bullseye on your back!" There was real fear in Courtney's eyes. "If you start proving yourself a threat to the Corporation, then TPRO will dig up every bit of dirt in your past and run a smear campaign on you. They wouldn't have to dig very far to get enough to make you seem the biggest nutcase since Jack the Ripper!" She grabbed Alex by the shoulders and shook him. "You've been playing the privateer game from birth until you were nailed on Perilia. You should understand the concept of cutting your losses. They're dead, Alex! Do yourself a favor and let the past go before it kills you too!"
"Yes!" Tseng's voice quieted as her grip on his shoulders tightened. "It's hard to let go of your anger when the people you care for die. But you have to or it'll eat you up inside." She paused then added softly, "Trust me, I know." The look of loss in her eyes stopped any retort Alex was tempted to make. Instead he passed the coffee and silently waited. Finally the red-haired pilot continued her story.
"My husband used to be in the Tanfen Merchant Marine. Five years ago, he was captaining an unarmed transport on a supply run to Kohlingen when a Fraled Consortium hunting pack intercepted them." Looking at the Border Worlds pilot intently she asked "Have you ever heard of the Fraled Consortium?"
Alex nodded. "They're a medium-size pirate outfit that raids Confed and Border Worlds space. They're not really vicious compared to the White Hand, but they certainly love their work."
"Oh they do love their work indeed," Tseng whispered. "They put a pair of dumbfires into the engines to cripple the ship then sent in a couple of shuttles of boarding troops. Most of the crew died in the initial boarding action but the survivors, including Nathan, were herded down to the galley. Then they started interrogating them about a shipload of industrial diamonds that they were expecting to pass through the system." She paused to take a deep drink of coffee and to compose herself.
The grey-eyed Scrapper regarded her uncertainly. Courtney's story was making him take a good hard look at himself, and that's something very few people like to do. The part of him still grieving for his friends who had died on Perilia thought, So what's the big deal? Everyone suffers, it's part of life. Let her deal with it on her own. But the part of Alex Morgan who cared for his friends simply thought, To hell with it, and wrapped a comforting arm around her slim shoulders.
The Tanfen pilot continued her story. "None of the crew knew anything about the shipment, so the pirates started interrogating Nathan. He didn't tell them a damn thing so they handcuffed him to a table and made him watch as they executed the rest of his crew." Looking up at Alex she asked quietly, "Do you know what the most important rule is aboard any ship, no matter the flag it flies?"
"Well," the ex-privateer began, "it depends on whether it's a warship, passenger vessel -- "
"No it doesn't," Tseng snapped. "The first rule aboard any ship is that the captain has ultimate authority and, as a result, has ultimate responsibility. Lots of captains have been held responsible for events they had no control over, solely because they were the captain. Anyway the Fraled bastards then ransacked the ship. Finally they left and set off an explosive charge in the galley to open it to hard vacuum." Tears trailed down her face. "They let my husband know he'd failed his duty to the crew, left him there with the corpses and then finally killed him by spacing."
"Jesus Christ," Alex whispered. "That one's worthy of the White Hand."
"After I found out what happened I went a bit psycho," the corporate pilot admitted. "Let's just say I did some things I shouldn't have done, and if my CO hadn't covered for me, I would have lost my wings." She took a swallow of coffee and seemed to relax slightly. "To be honest, if any Confeds or Border Worlders had witnessed those things I'd be doing hard labor on some prison planet for the rest of my life. But I didn't care at the time. All I wanted was to get rid of my pain by inflicting it on someone else."
"Revenge is a dish best served cold," Alex murmured.
"But it's not exactly nourishing," Courtney pointed out. "That's the point I've been making all along. There's another old saying about revenge. 'An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.'"
The Border Worlder nodded slowly. "Yes, but it's a bloody cliché -- "
"And the only reason sayings last long enough to become clichés is if they're true," she shot back. "Dammit, Alex, I've had pain to deal with in my life just like you have. The only difference is that I've gotten on with my life and you haven't. Isn't it about time you did?" She looked down at her watch and cursed. "Almost time to get back to class. Thanks for the coffee."
"No problem," Morgan replied. He scrambled to his feet and offered his hand to help Tseng up. She hauled herself to her feet and dusted herself off. "I'll see you later."
"Sure," she agreed. "By the way, Alex, thanks for listening to my story." Her dark eyes gazed into Alex's grey ones. "And thanks for trusting me enough to tell me yours." She held his gaze for a moment before turning and walking back to the other side of the flight deck. As Alex watched her go an old song came to mind.
"Shades of grey are all that I find, When I look to the enemy lines. There ain't no rainbows shining on me, Shades of grey are all the colors I see."
All grey, all the same, he thought. We're all human and we all have to work together. The thought was nowhere near as bitter as he expected.