PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 23 of 44 )
: “ Need and Suspicion ”
Condor-class Shuttle DDG-212-01
En route from destroyer TCS Copernicus to carrier TCS Endeavour
0810 Hours (CST), 09 Feb 2681, 2681.040
The lighting of the piloting console interface cast shadows upon Major Thomas "Akira" Muldoon's face as he rechecked the console, confirming the shuttle's course over the desert planet Nephele. Below the vessel's position glowed the sandy burnt sienna-colored planet, with the last of the evacuating cargo ships and in-system patrol frigates nearing and then passing their position.
Yawing slightly, DDG-212-01 shot over the antiquated frigate Laertes, a Confed InSys vessel, with her flight of Arrow light fighters in escort.
"DDG Two One Two Zero One to Arrows: move!" Muldoon bellowed over the channel. Quickly two of the Arrows moved out of the way of the shuttle's course. "Freaking In-Sys cops, they always want a look," he commented.
Inside, the shuttle rumbled and vibrated with the hum of engines on full burn, and the forces of planetary gravity grasping at the little ship. Muldoon was doing all that was needed to keep her steady, but he was not planning to change course. Passing so close to Nephele and through all the orbital traffic was the most direct route to the Endeavour, nearly 20,000 klicks away on the other side of the planet.
Besides the Major, three other pilots of Chimera Squadron off the Copernicus accompanied him on his new assignment. There was the brash-but-trustworthy Captain Lars "Stormbringer" Elric, the silent and down to business 1st Lieutenant Marina "Howler" Maddox, and the poster boy for innocence and naïveté, 2nd Lieutenant Zim "Razor" Matthews.
Razor, green as ever, still could not quell in his consciousness the rumors that dwelt among the crew of Battle Group Aurora. He had served in his post onboard the Copernicus for only three months, and now he was moving to a carrier. He felt neither ready nor willing to be moved. He cared nothing of climbing a rank up, he just wished to fight.
"What about the traitor on board? I heard there was a traitor -- just who the hell are we supposed to trust now? The Bugs?" he spoke quickly with a heavy Hedlandish accent.
Maddox straightened her duty uniform again for the fourth time in twenty minutes. "There is nothing to worry about. The brass have it under control. We can't spend every hour looking behind our backs -- we've got to warm up to the Hammerheads first. Or rather, they have to warm up to us."
Elric stopped scratching at his facial stubble -- too much had gone on in the past few days, and he had lapsed on shaving and concentrated on getting as much sleep as possible. He was considered, at forty-one, a veteran by many, but he wasn't too old to be considered non-threatening. This was made aware to everyone through his short crew cut and the nicks and scars found sporadically on his head. "What've we got to warm up for? We're in the same battle group and they don't trust us already?"
Akira put the shuttle on autopilot and swung around in his chair. He looked slightly decent compared to the rest, but that was merely because he wasn't in his flightsuit. Other than that he needed a shower and a few more hours of R & R -- hours he wouldn't have for a long time to come. "We are from a destroyer, they are on a carrier. Because their ship, our new ship, is designed as a fighter base they probably think they are harder, meaner, and overall better when compared to 'us low-cut destroyer bunch.'"
Howler fixed her long, silky black hair into a tight ponytail. "That's crap. We are in the same battle group -- they've already seen us fight and it doesn't matter what they think. They still need us to fill the vacancies in their squadron."
"Exactly. They need us, but maybe they don't want us. If there is any hostility at all it may compromise our effectiveness on the battle plane." Stormbringer added his own bit of logic. He himself had viewed the visual records of the battle in Tyr. The bugs had adhered to their fighting principle of "cold, ruthless, organized chaos." Whatever the oxymoron, it was true.
"I'm trying to work out this "quick-fix" for the 'Dev's flight roster to be a promoting assignment for all of us. They want us on the carrier that badly, then let the System work for us." Akira produced a devilish countenance, then went blank. "You guys deserve it... we deserve it. I loved the Copernicus as you all did, but things change and we're moving on because we are needed to move on.
"I hate to say it, but the destroyer gig is for newbies and plebes... we were wasting our skills on a tub that doesn't see as much fighter action as where we are heading." Thomas had nothing more to say, and he lulled in his benediction. Turning back around toward the piloting console, he noticed the shuttle holding them was moving in right under the Endeavour; ten minutes until touchdown.
Razor quickly warmed up to the idea. "Think of the perks -- water showers, bigger barracks, better food... the Endeavour is new, damn new. I may be wrong, but as far as I know she's never been in a true balls-to-the-wall slugfest like the ones Elric has seen. Maybe the brass would like to see what she could really do."
"Correction, Matthews. The brass would like to see what she could really do -- with us on board," Lars proclaimed, petting the group's ego.
Pilots' Barracks 04
"Okay guys, we've all had to do this before alone... now let's do it as a team," Akira announced to the three, all of them standing outside the entrance to the barracks.
"What's that, sir?" Razor asked in his pure naiveté.
"Mingle with our new squadron mates."
"I'd rather face a Bug dreadnought alone. At least then I'd know what I was getting into," Stormbringer mused.
Muldoon shook off the man's humor and was the first to enter through the presence-triggered doors.
What the group metaphorically and socially dove into seemed normal. Two officers were busy dueling within the confines of virtual space via the combat flight simulators. Another two sat across from each in the sleeping area discussing the differing political systems and stratagems of the Confederation and Border Worlds Union.
"I am telling you the Border Worlds has no -- " The middle-aged female officer advocating the Confederacy stopped in mid-conversation. Quickly she marched over in front of Muldoon, stopped and traded a salute.
Akira smiled. "Captain Thomas Muldoon reporting, as ordered by Rear Admiral Jeffrey Miller, to assume command of the 140th multi-role squadron Hammerhead."
"Captain Destiny Summers, callsign Bloodthorn, releasing command of the 140th to Major Thomas Muldoon." Her voice was colder and more serious than what was usual, even more so than Howler's.
Unusual, Muldoon thought. He waited for a more informal welcome, but none came. "Status report."
Summers moved toward the combat flight simulators, and the rest of the group followed as she spoke. "The Hammerheads have seen no action since pulling out of the Tyr System, thus our fighters are in perfect condition. Only support vessels, point defense units, and the 201st Hunter Squadron have taken the flights out from the Endeavour. The funeral proceedings for all crew killed in the final battle in Tyr System took place yesterday. Also, a ship-wide intruder warning is in action."
"He's still active?" Maddox wondered.
Bloodthorn turned around, staring at all of them coldly. "Yes. Indications of sabotage have been found when investigating a recent suspiciously timed engine failure."
Muldoon was perplexed by the news, but he reminded himself that he would need to talk to the Wing Commander about it. "Thank you, Bloodthorn."
"Address me only as Captain Summers, SIR."
Lars and Maddox, who also had picked up on Summers' attitude, began to rush past him in anger, but Razor and Akira held both of them back. "Calm down, everyone!" Tom wasn't angry, but concerned. "I knew no pilot could be that cold to anyone. Now what's your problem, Captain?"
Before she could answer him, a dark-colored young man with bone-white hair, the one who had previously been advocating for the Border Worlds Union, stepped up. "Lieutenant Marcus 'Steelblade' Dolby. I apologize not only for her behavior sir, but also for my own interrupting," he said, having an English accent right out of a European holo-vid. "The Captain and, frankly, all of us are concerned about the traitor in our midst. And with the new arrival of you and your pilots, we began to figure..."
He turned away, casually, and the other two pilots disengaged from their combat simulation. "... We began to consider -- it is much easier for a group to sabotage a ship. Sure, more people mean more chances for mistakes to happen. But then again, more people also allow more effort toward a desired goal. So the traitor pulls strings so some pilots die out there," he said, pointing toward the window, "and it allows more of his traitor-friends to be reassigned onboard. He gets his wish, and his friends get postings on a tricked-out carrier -- "
"That's it!!! Enough! Enough of this paranoia... in case you weren't paying attention, the Admiral himself directed and signed for our transfer. You can be sure, as space is cold, that the Admiral wouldn't be a traitor. That is, in case, if your paranoia hasn't already included that possibility."
Silence filled the steel walls of the barrack.
"I will mark this little incident off as 'interpretive speculation,'" Muldoon stated, "but now Elric, Maddox, Matthews and I have to be acquainting ourselves with the rest of the ship. We shall have to mingle a bit more later." And with that curt tone fresh in the minds of the old Hammerheads, the four left.
Flight Wing Rec Room
Contrasting heavily with the shiny polished feel of the metallic passageways and quarters of the rest of the ship, the lounge area was furnished much like an old pub of the early 2620s. Imitation wood crafted and colored to resemble oak and cedar took the place of standard-issue tables. These special tables were magnetically sealed to the scarlet-carpeted floor, Elric noticed, so they could be moved for ceremonies and the like.
The Bar itself was circular and in the center of the room, rather than being built into a wall. The tables were arranged around the Bar, seemingly ignoring the dark corner where the performing area was positioned. Neo-Classical music played (right now "7 Tears for Mars" moved throughout the room), but from time to time was interrupted by ship-wide announcements.
"Nice place," Maddox understated, "it sure beats the galley's wetbar on the Copernicus."
"Muldoon didn't know how long his chat with the CO would be... They probably have to talk over a bunch of paperwork," Zim hinted.
"And you suppose we should relax while we're here?" Marina asked.
Stormbringer endorsed the idea. "We have no standing orders for another two hours -- at least. I haven't heard a good tune and had a good drink in almost..." He fought to dig into his memory, but failed. "Hell, I can't even place the time."
"Thus -- " Lieutenant Maddox led the other two over to the Bar, " -- three Martian Sandstorms," she said to the bartender, pulling out her I.D. "On my tab."
Razor was already at the system interface, keying in a new song choice. Pounding one last button, his choice began to play. Wild electric guitar riffs overshadowed, slightly, a strong percussion performance
Lars cocked his head. "What's this?"
"Whitesnake -- 'Here I Go Again on the Road.'"
Maddox snickered uncharacteristically, "It always seems one of the plebes always has an ear for twentieth century fodder."
"And it also always seems most 'expert pilots' have a tin ear," Zim retorted, and moved on as the trio sat down at a finely furnished table.
At first contact, they all felt the formless cushions of the chairs mold and shift under their posteriors. Somewhat unnerving at first, the cushions quickly moved into their most comfortable capacities.
"I'm not sure... did this chair just try to give me a prostate exam?" Captain Elric quipped before he sipped from his beverage.
"This machine is smoother than most of the men I've dated," Maddox smiled.
Suddenly, a chirp over the come preceded a ship-wide alert. "All hands, this is the Captain: the ship will be pulling back towards the Nephele-Loki jump point in one hour. We've been ordered by Admiral Hanton to fall back with all possible speed. Repeat, we'll be pulling back to the Loki jump point in one hour."
"What was all that about?" Zim asked in surprise. "Are we pulling out of the system already?"
"Nah, we only got here two days ago. My guess is we've got some heavy firepower headed this way, more than a light carrier can handle," Maddox said, somberly.
Elric stood up from his chair, finished off his drink, then said, "Well, we should head back to the 'racks and prep for the hit."
"Somehow," Zim added as he stood up, "I feel this little side trip to the bar may be the calm before the storm."
For the 'Dev and her crew, better men than he feared the truth behind those words would be coming into play soon enough.