: The Road to Hell

"All hope abandon, ye who enter here."
- Dante, Inferno

TCS Miles D'Arby, Elohim System
En route to the Elohim-Nifelheim jump point
Pilot Ready Room
10 Feb 2681 (2681.041) 0800 ZULU

“Early indications are that the coalition forces have suffered heavy losses and are retreating. These allegations have been strongly denied by Terran Confederation and Union of Border Worlds officials, but civilian evacuation from Nephele and nearby systems continues. We are expecting a press release later this morning, and of course TNC will be there live. More on this and other Nephilim 'War' news later in the program. Now a special report from our sports correspondent Chuck Bayliss...'"

"What about the 'Hill, you bastards?" Duncan "Hog" Hodgson demanded, as if the newsreader could hear him. Zack "Poleaxe" Kocinski and himself were on alert, playing acey-deucey in the ready room. Their Excalibur interceptors sat ready and waiting simply for the pilots to climb into the cockpit and strap in. With the possibility of a "stealth" attack deemed to be "extremely low" a five minute alert status was deemed ample, as any new contacts should be picked up well outside a five minute interception envelope. A deck alert with pilots sitting in their cockpits would only be used in a higher threat environment. A high state of readiness when the situation did not demand it only put extra fatigue strain on the pilots, meaning their performance would drop off, putting not only the pilots lives in danger, but the entire battle group.

"Talk about negative reporting - we must have taken out some of their forces, but all they tell us is our losses, and that we're retreating and evacuating. It doesn't do morale and public support any good. Next they'll be saying we're bombing civilians!"

"That'd be tough -- the only civilians round here are ours," grunted Hog.

"Wouldn't be the first time."

"That's true," conceded Hog, glancing at his watch, "where the hell's our relief, anyway - it's after 0800?"

"Right here, boys," Major Shelley "Maneater" Ross announced from behind him. She and James "Chip" Chippenham had arrived.

"You're two minutes late," joked Hog.

"Tell it to a judge, Hog."

"Yes, ma'am!" Hog saluted his squadron commander, spun on his heel, grinned and grabbed his helmet bag off the floor beside the chair he'd been sitting in which she'd promptly sunk into almost before his backside had left the seat.

"Are you still here?"

"I've already left, your Royal Highness!"

"And don't you forget it!"

"Try not to piss her off too much," Polaxe cautioned him as they left the room, "I mean, she is our boss..."

"Not like she ever lets us forget it."

"C'mon, let's just go get some breakfast."


Mess Hall
10 Feb 2681 (2681.041) 0900 ZULU

"It is now known that the TCS Bunker Hill was lost late on the 7th of February, but we are now receiving reports there may have been a small number of survivors. This is unconfirmed at the moment, and ConFleet spokespeople refused to comment at this time..."

"You know," confided Poleaxe, "I don't know which was worse... knowing they were all dead or not knowing if they're dead or not."

"Know anyone on board?"

"Yeah, I used to fly with the Boss, Colonel Hoffman. Mean son of a bitch, but you could count on him when the shit hit the fan. You?"

"Nah, not a soul," he confessed, "I wonder if these bugs take prisoners?"

"Better hope not, what that Jackson guy was saying."

"Oh?" Hog raised his eyebrows.

"Don't ask," Polaxe warned him, prodding at his bacon and eggs.

"Lost your appetite?"


Heavy footfalls caused them both to look up at the same instant, as the big Swede Harold "Viking" Svensson stomped towards them.

"Briefing room at eleven-hundred hours."

"We're not up again until this afternoon."

"It's not a mission briefing, its a press release on TNC. Commodore Turnbull wants all available pilots there."

"Fair enough -- bad news?"

"I don't know," Viking admitted. "But I guess that's why we're supposed to be there."


Briefing Theatre
10 Feb 2681 (2681.041) 1056 ZULU

"The Commodore has heard a lot of rumors flying around the ship about the Nephilim, and is concerned that you might be turning them into mythical, godlike enemies," explained the WC.

"I thought they already were," muttered Tony "Rat" Carruthers.

"A lot of wars are lost that way without a shot being fired, so the Commodore wants to try and keep you informed about the realities of the situation. After the press conference your screens will display a tactical report on the enemy that you have now been authorized to receive. Read it. That's an order."

"It's disgusting we have to get our Intell from the news services. If they value reserves enough to fight, they could at least tell us what's going on."

"It's not discrimination, Rat. I bet even those fighting in Nephele barely know what's going on. It's not unusual for those fighting the war to be the last to know," Robert "Robber" Bell assured him, "if you shut up and wait a second, we're going to find out."

"Aye, alreet, but it's not before time."

The viewscreen flickered into life showing a large conference hall. Several uniformed UBW and TC officers stood behind a raised dais on the stage, either side of which hung the flags of the two governments, but it was a man in a suit that stepped up to the many microphones that sprung like some obscene fungus from the pulpit stand. "Ladies and gentlemen, I have a prepared statement to read, and then I and my colleagues are prepared to answer your questions, but please remember that for reasons of security we may not be able to give many details.

"On the 7th of February, The TCS Bunker Hill was attacked by two enemy carrier groups. The Bunker Hill inflicted heavy casualties upon the enemy before succumbing to overwhelming odds. The valiant actions of those upon her and her escorts allowed the BWS Valeria and her battle group to completely destroy the remnants of the two enemy carrier groups. "The Coalition forces also inflicted severe losses on other enemy forces on the 8th, although at this time I am not at liberty to divulge any details of those actions.

"I would now like to open the floor up to questions. Yes, you?" He pointed to a red-headed woman near the front in a skirt-suit.

"Were there any survivors?"

"Yes, there were two pilots that were rescued by the Valeria, but I'm afraid that I cannot release their names until we have contacted their next of kin. Anyone else?"

"Is it true that the coalition forces are in full retreat?" A man in his late twenties, perfect parting and immaculate Armani suit, with a smile that somehow made one want to shower.

"I can't answer that question, though I can say that I find it objectionable, even insulting."

"Are there any peace negotiations being carried out with the Nephilim?" The same man; same smile. Not even a flicker of real emotion.

"I assure you, the Nephilim have rebuffed all attempts to open up a dialogue."

"Have there been any civilian casualties?" The man had by now pushed his way to the front, elbowing rudely past the redhead in the process.

"As far as I am aware a full evacuation of the Nephele System was completed before the battle. We've still got a couple of minutes - has anyone else any other questions?"

"Are you predicting a swift victory over these Alien forces?"

"I'm afraid I can't answer that question."

"Has any footage of the Aliens themselves been released yet? Normally there'd be gun camera film or recon photos at a press conference like this..."

The man in the suit put his hand over the microphones and frantically whispered over his shoulder to his companions. A Confed General stepped forward, leaned to close to the mic and coughed. "No images of the Nephilim have been cleared for the general public as of yet." The suited man again took his place.

"Admiral Rayak was in command of the Bunker Hill group, wasn't he? Will he be put in for a posthumous decoration?"

"I don't think I can comment on that at this time." Suddenly the picture changed back to the TNC newsroom.

"That's all we have time for at the moment, but we'll be back to this story later. Right now a feature on the disappearing swamps of Firekka...'"

"That was a complete waste of time!"

"Just about," Robber activated his screen. "Now let's read this report."


Flight Deck
10 Feb 2681 (2681.041) 1549 ZULU

The battle group had split up several hours earlier, gaining about a half a million klicks separation. The Miles D'Arby was to stage a simulated attack on the rest of the group, purportedly the Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the two escorts, but with a secret kicker - unbeknownst to them there would be a counterstrike launched against them at the same time from the Okinawa which wasn't with the rest of the target group. Exercises were supposed to be practice for real life and in real life you had to expect the unexpected, as the old cliché goes.

The Thunderbolts thundered down the deck and into the dark void beyond the atmosphere retaining field, two flights of four, followed by two flights of four of the faster F-104 Bearcat heavy fighters. Eight of the carrier's F-103 Excaliburs were already on BARCAP stations, and the remaining four interceptors sat ready on deck alert.

The D'Arby was already one Bearcat short, and one was a "hangar queen" a spacecraft not in spaceworthy condition, simply being used as a ready source of spare parts for the serviceable ones. That left two, and one of those was "down" with a systems malfunction. Without an escort it was deemed too risky to use the last four Thunderbolts on the strike, and due to the reliability problems of the old spacecraft it was absolutely unheard of for all twelve on board to be spaceworthy at one time anyway -- even if all the "gripes" from the last mission had been sorted out one or two would always have a problem just prior to take-off causing meaning that the other T-Bolts were simply used as spares, readied for the mission in case any of the others had a problem.

Ben "Bad Boy" Smith watched the spacecraft go. Despite earplugs and ear defenders the noise was still well into the range required to permanently damage hearing, and although goggles protected his eyes, his face and body were blasted and seared by the hot exhaust gases from the fighters. The flight deck was a very dangerous, hostile environment, alternately frozen by the proximity of space and boiled by furnace-like exhausts, howling with noise, and where one wrong step could kill you and several of those around you. Bad Boy grinned like a kid in a toyshop, letting out a huge "YAHOO!" whoop of delight (though he couldn't hear himself) as each of the fighters shot past with a roar that could almost have been the fabric of time and space being torn apart -- it was loud enough. The catapult officer (he, too, grinning like the Cheshire Cat) gave Smith a wave and a "thumbs-up" after the last Bearcat had screamed into space, and Smith waved back. The whole team got those aircraft into space and back on the deck again, and the whole team scored any kills they got. They both knew it, and it felt good. Neither would change their jobs for the world. Not for any world in the galaxy.

BARCAP. Barrier Combat Air Patrol. Probably the most boring peacetime mission for a Naval Aviator, and usually [hopefully!] as uneventful even in wartime. However boring, it was essential, even if for 99% of the time nothing happened -- that other 1% was a killer.

Mongrel wasn't too bothered though; he enjoyed flying for flying's sake. Slicing through the blackness with effortless ease, a powerful fighter a slave to his every whim. What could be better? Well, sex, perhaps, but anyone could have sex -- only the elite got to fly fighters.

This was the stripped down version of the F-103 Excalibur, tailored to the interceptor role. Confed had ordered a massive run of the brilliant heavy fighter when prototypes proved it could beat anything the Kilrathi had, but then the first war had been unexpectedly won with the destruction of Kilrah. Defense budgets had been slashed. Ships had been laid-off, refits and repairs cancelled. The Bearcat, the other superfighter being developed at the end of the war by Douglas Aerospace, had itself nearly been cancelled. The Excalibur had suffered a similar fate -- the production run had been curtailed, not as badly as its F-104 Bearcat successor, but it was no longer deemed necessary to replace the F-86 Hellcat Mark V on a one-for-one basis, and a stripped down, cheaper variant was demanded.

Douglas had put a massive investment into both fighters, and the company was facing bankruptcy. Luckily, after the rise of the Ninth Kilrathi Empire/Kilrathi Imperium, Confed had once again needed fighters. In a bizarre bit of penny pinching though, Confed HQ had mandated that even these fighters were the stripped down variants. In the last year, the Union of Border Worlds stepped in and placed orders for both fighters. Their Excaliburs were even the full spec F-103A versions [non-YF, true to its official "Heavy Space/Atmospheric Fighter/Bomber" designation], and for probably the first time in their history the Border Worlders had a fighter that was superior to its Confed counterparts at least in quality, if not in quantity.

After life had settled down after Cynium, Confed was again putting some money back into defense spending. The "Century Series" of fighters had been revived, [with the F-105 Tigershark, F-108 Panther ect.] and were now re-equipping frontline squadrons, and well underway was the controversial megacarrier program, but the reserves still had to make do with big brother's hand-me-downs.

Yet again, Mongrel was not bothered (although it gave him something to whine about when life was looking annoyingly bright) because he liked the Excalibur. To him it was the most beautiful fighter ever built with the sleek graceful and yet aggressive lines of a "beefed up" Hellcat. Tough, reasonably maneuverable, big fucking guns and lots of missiles (even on this version) and a hell of a turn of speed, it was one hell of an interceptor. Even without Colonel Christopher "Maverick" Blair delivering the Temblor device with it, Mongrel firmly believed that the Excal entering frontline service would have turned the tide of the war. The ultimate all-rounder, it was a travesty that it had been obscenely bastardized in such a way.

If Tolwyn hadn't channeled so much of the remaining defense budget into his own pet "black" project, the insane Black Lance scheme, the Excalibur might have been allowed to fulfill its ultimate potential, but it wasn't to be. That bastard has a lot to answer for, Mongrel thought bitterly, and he should still be paying for it now. But he isn't, and he never did - he took that away from us as well.

Tolwyn had been right, Mongrel agreed, in that there would always be another, more dangerous threat - the Nephilim were proof of that (how Tolwyn would laugh if he were still alive!), but starting wars deliberately, murdering people and creating his own Master Race? How could he possibly save Humanity by supplanting it? The man had been insane, completely mad. But then, genius was usually touched by madness...

The blips appearing on his scope dragged him back to the present.

"Contact! Multiple bogeys 360 by 10 for 60," Mongrel announced, "Spike - they're painting us."

"Engage!" ordered Maneater. Then the excrement came in contact with the rapidly rotating bladed device...

The exercise went roughly as expected. The strike from the TCS Miles D'Arby managed to knock-out the Iwo Jima and damage the frigate, although most of the strike force was eliminated in the process. The Okinawa's strike managed to brush aside the BARCAP and "destroy" the D'Arby - eight Excaliburs facing an Alpha Strike stood little chance, though they managed to inflict serious losses on the strike package. Everybody headed home, hyped up from the short-lived combat and angry over the results.


Somewhere in the vicinity of the TCS Miles D'Arby
10 Feb 2681 (2681.041) 1642 ZULU

DACT - Dissimilar Air Combat Training, the peacetime fighter jock's favorite fun, but severely limited by not only the usual constraints of available flying and range time but also by the fatigue stress on their craft-engine and airframe stress during ACM took up approximately 70% of most fighters' lifespan. However, even when arranged exercises were not possible it didn't stop unofficial "hassles" when flights met during the course of normal training flights. A "bounce" would inevitably lead to a frantic dogfight, plenty of gun camera tape and a few wry smiles in the bar that night. In some squadrons it was frowned upon, in others condoned and in some actively encouraged. Simulators were fine, but no substitute for the real thing or even the "fake" real thing, but admittedly mistakes could be made without problems in a sim.

The reservist pilots had far more sticktime than the average squadron pilot and so frequently embarrassed regular squadrons. For this reason these scraps were encouraged on the D'Arby.

"Viking, there's some of Okinawa's Bearcats coming up from 3 low."

"I see'em. IFF off, targeting to standby."


"Let's give'em a surprise!" Though the Thuds were no match for the F-104s in a turning fight they could slice in, make a fast guns pass and then laugh maniacally over the comms. Whatever happened then would be good clean fun even if they subsequently got shredded, because they'd have bounced the Bearcats and extracted some modicum of revenge.

Steering an intercept course on the last known vector the four T-bolts dropped in low and behind the Bearcats. The Cats were cruising and even at full military power the Thunderbolts would quickly overtake them, but Viking decided they'd slash past on full burner. That way by the time the Bearcats realized what had happened they'd either be clear or at least gain enough room to reverse into them for a head-on pass before they were caught.

Viking double-clicked the mic and all four Thunderbolts went into afterburner simultaneously. As they came into range their targeting computers and IFF also came on together, locking up the Bearcats.

"Check six, motherfuckers!" A twitch of the stick and the 'Bolts shot over the top of the Cats leaving them rocking in their wake.

"They're after us," warned Blade.

"Wouldn't have it any other way - let's go!" the Jugs split, one pair going left, the other right. Viking and Blade went high and fast to the right, keeping the 'burners lit and pulling into the vertical [out of the plane of the system]. The Bearcats had gone into burner to catch them and had to pull hard to track them, jockeying between mil and full reheat to stay with the Thuds.

Robber and Mad Dog had gone low and slow, causing the Bearcats to overshoot. Both sides broke hard into the other starting a rolling scissors.

Although the T-bolts had enjoyed an initial advantage of lower speed, forcing the Cats out in front, they couldn't turn tight enough to achieve a firing solution. As the Bearcats crossed the Thunderbolts noses at a high angle-off Robber stared straight into the lead Bearcat's canopy. Both pairs reversed into each other and as the bearcat started to slide toward his six he found himself staring fixedly at it. Familiar nose art -- Jim "Jimbo" Reid's sabertooth cat...

"Shit!" Robber exclaimed, "they're ours! They're off the fucking D'Arby!"

"So what?" Viking argued, "we'll still kick their butts!" Viking seemed unfazed by the revelation, he was leading the flight and Robber had more pressing concerns -- another few degrees of this turn and Jimbo would have him cold. Nothing for it - last ditch maneuvers were called for. "Split!" He slammed the stick forward and left against the stops, the negative "G" making his eyes feel like they wanted to pop out of his skull. Simultaneously Mad Dog jammed his own control column hard back and right into the opposite spiral. The Bearcats were left with a choice - follow one or both of the Thuds. If they ignored one and concentrated on the other the free fighter could come around to their six and cause problems, but if they split they had no mutual cross-cover. Given the superiority of the Bearcats, they obvious choice was the latter but the severity of the defensive maneuver and the moment of hesitation allowed the two Thunderbolts to gain a little separation, delaying the inevitable. In seconds the Bearcat was again on his tail: Robber gave in and waggled his wings, acknowledging he was beaten.

"Jimbo, you're right up my six. Congrats, but I hope you remember I've got a gun there pointing straight at you, too."

"Yeah, Rob, but mine's bigger than yours!" Mad Dog rocked his wings in submission as well, laughing his head off.

Viking was confronted by a similar situation, but rather than slow down he and Blade had stayed in burner, jinking and spiraling to provide as difficult a target as possible. He could almost hear Rat - he knew it was Rat now - cursing with frustration behind him.

"Stick with me," Viking told Blade, then suddenly slapped the throttle to idle and barrel-rolled the big fighter.

Rat panted, his breathing labored under the "G" despite the craft's inertial dampers. Sweat poured down his brow stinging his eyes. He blinked it away. He had his visor locked down and even if it had been up, he couldn't spare a hand from stick or throttle to wipe his forehead as he struggled to stay with the Thunderbolt through its crazy gyrations.

"Hold still, goddamn it! Stop jinking, you bastard! C'mon, motherfucker, gimme a shot!" Rat blinked again, sweat obscuring his vision. When he opened his eyes he couldn't believe what he saw -- Viking's tumbling Thunderbolt filled his entire view out of the cockpit. Rat instinctively yanked the throttle to idle and hauled back on the stick but it was too late. Far too late. The two fighters smashed heavily into each other and with a sound of bending, screaming metal, bounced off each other. Rat wrestled with the controls, trying to recover from the spin. The Bearcat slowly started to come under control, but his stick inputs seemed to be having little effect. He jammed the throttle forward, hoping speed might help stabilize the fighter. It did. Gradually the spin turned into heavy porpoising and then a wallowing, unsteady, "straight-and-level" flight.

"Knock it off! Knock it off!" Blade was screaming over the comms but to start with Rat was too busy trying to gain control. Even when he had the Bearcat straightened out he held his tongue -- anything he said right then would be profanity anyway.

"Everyone okay?" Robber asked urgently.

"Sabertooth, call off!" Jimbo demanded.


"Yeah," Rat growled, "I'm all right, no fucking thanks to that twat Viking."

"Four's okay."

"Juggernaught?" Robber's voice, not Viking. Worried, too.

"What the bloody hell were you doing?" Viking exploded, suddenly letting the universe know he was still alive.

"What was I doing? what the fuck sort of stunt was that YOU pulled? You could have killed us both, you stupid bastard!"

"You were the one who hit me on full 'burners! Were you asleep or something?"

"Cut it out, both of you!" Robber ordered, "there's a time and a place, and this isn't it!"

"It wasn't the time or the place to pull shit like that either," Rat snapped angrily, "Viking, you're a fucking prick, you know that?"

"Up yours, Rat! We caught you napping and you couldn't touch us!"

"Bullshit! I had you cold, except you couldn't admit it and pulled that -- what was that, a Vaktoth move?"

"At least you recognized it!"

"For fuck's sake!" Robber exclaimed, "let's just get these things back on the deck. You're going to have to explain it again then anyway!"

"I don't know if I'm going to make it that far, Rob," Rat told him, "the controls are getting very soft. Reactor temp is up, too."

"Hold on," Robber slid his 'Bolt over to the stricken Bearcat. Sparks and debris trailed behind the fighter as Robber slowly eased up to it from underneath, then slowly rolled around it, looking it over.

"You're definitely spewing some sort of liquid. I can't tell what it is - could be hydraulic fluid, AB fuel or reactor coolant."

"I think it could be all three."

"Yeah, there's at least two distinct leaks." The worry was plain in their voices; afterburner fuel wasn't important but either of the other two fluids were. Without hydraulics the fighter would be uncontrollable, and without reactor coolant the power source for the fighter would overheat and meltdown. Before either ran out completely the Bearcat had to be on the deck or Rat would be hitch-hiking.

"Think you can nurse it home?"

"I'll try."

"Viking, how are you doing?"

"Lost my afterburners and tail gun. Shields aren't regenerating, either. Nothing serious."

"That's a pity," said Rat.

Ordinarily, heavily damaged planes landed last on a carrier (or an airfield if only one runway was available) so that if they piled it up on landing it didn't prevent the undamaged or lightly damaged aircraft from getting down safely. There was a cruel logic to it, but since Rat's Bearcat was running on borrowed time anyway he was allowed to land first. If the worst should happen there were two other flat-tops within diversion distance anyway.

"Pan, pan, pan. Sabertooth Three requesting emergency landing." Rat sounded remarkably calm.

"You are cleared to land, ALS is on-line."

"Roger that. Control effectiveness is severely limited so I don't know if the autopilot will cope, but I'll give it a go."

"Copy, Sabertooth Three. Call the ball."

"Bearcat ball, state zero point zero, high and centered."

"We concur. Fly your needles," the LSO confirmed his autopilot glidepath was correct. Rat hesitated momentarily and let it bring him down.

"Still high," the LSO told him, "and drifting a little left."

Rat instantly slapped the autopilot off and nudged the stick a little to the right whilst taking off a little power.

"Height okay but you're still too far left."

Rat pushed harder on the control column.

Nothing happened.

"Wave off, wave off!" The LSO knew he wasn't going to make it, and suddenly the Bearcat's left wing dropped and it started to slow roll down and away from the carrier.

Rat swore viciously into his helmet and reached for the ejection handles. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the reactor core temperatures climbing well into the red. He took his left hand off the black and yellow stripped handle and shut down the reactor, made sure he was in the correct position to minimize spinal injury and waited. He had to wait until the canopy was pointing away from the carrier as the Cat slow-rolled directly underneath it. Flat blackness changed to a sprinkling of stars, and Rat pulled the handle.


Briefing Theatre
10 Feb 2681 (2681.041) 1800 ZULU

"In the past," the Wing Commander Michael Black began, "unlike some air wings, you have been allowed, even encouraged to practice fighter combat in real fighters during the normal course of operations. From now until further notice this practice is prohibited.

"This is partly because I want to preserve our remaining airframes -- we've now lost two F-104s and a third is only fit to be used as a hangar queen -- but mostly because I want you all to get familiar with the Nephilim. The sims have been updated to give accurate flight models and tactics from other ships encounters with these bugs, and I want you to know them inside and out by the time you meet them for real," he didn't have to add "you'll need to" -- they could guess from his expression, "so from now on, other than the usual CAP, all scheduled flying time is instead to be used on the sims."

Black shook his head as they filed out. He wasn't just short of aircraft, he was now short of two veteran pilots as well, including a squadron CO. Major Svensson was grounded for dangerous flying and Captain Carruthers was in the brig awaiting court martial after punching Major Svensson. Worse than that, the pilots no longer trusted one another. They were going to be going into combat against a formidable foe and they needed to trust the guy protecting their six, and it just wasn't there. He'd hoped that with them flying together day after day rather than just a few weekends here and there it would draw them together as a team, but if anything it had pushed them further apart.

But what to do about it? What to do with the two people at the center of it? If he punished them he'd martyr them, but if he gave them a slap on the wrist discipline would go to hell and he'd be back to square one. In peacetime there would be no problem, but this was war - declared or not, they were living the grim reality of it -- and peacetime rules didn't always apply.

"Come in!" Viking was sitting alone in his stateroom, and paused the vid-comm he was recording to send home. He swung to face the Wing Commander.

"I'm sorry to disturb you but we need to get this business sorted out, Major."

"Yes, sir, we do," Viking proffered a chair to the tall man standing in the doorway. Black shut the door and sat down.

"There are two ways that we can handle this. The first way, by the book, is that you get a severe reprimand for flying safety breaches, probably get busted down to Captain and possibly even out of the reserves. Captain Carruthers gets court-martialed and smashes big rocks into smaller ones for a year or two. Or alternatively, we can handle this internally."

"Which means what, exactly?"

"Well, apart from a lot less paperwork and bad press, it means you drop the charges against Captain Carruthers, and all that you get is a lower grade on your next assessment -- maybe not even that if we do well against these bugs." If we don't, it won't really matter...

"What about Rat?" Viking demanded.

"Carruthers - what about him? He's got an unfavorable assessment coming up next time anyway -- he'll never make Major even in the reserves."

"All right. I suppose you want us to kiss and make up, too?" Viking asked.

"I was thinking more along the lines of a simple handshake!"


"This is for everyone's benefit, you realize."

"I know, sir. Desperate times, and all that."

"Quite. I'll leave you to get on, then." The Wing Commander stood up and quietly closed the door behind him as he left. As it shut, he and Viking both let out a sigh of relief.


TCS Miles D'Arby, Pilots' Lounge
Near the Elohim-Nifelheim jump point
10 Feb 2681 (2681.041) 2200 ZULU

"So you're off the hook, then?" Robber asked Rat.

"Looks that way."

"Are you sure?" Mongrel asked them, "after I was on the sims this evening, I don't think any of us are off the hook."

"Hmmph," Rat grunted and downed his pint.