: “ Scraps of Honour ”
PART 13 OF 15 : RED SKY AT MORNING ( 2 / 2 )

"Red sky at night, sailor's delight,
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning."
- 16th century nautical saying



Deep Space, Nifelheim System
1017 Hours, 17 February 2681 (2681.048)

Paul Onslow’s concern for his pilots had only deepened as the combat exercise against the Reapers had progressed. Shortly after 0700 Hours both squadrons had started one-on-one dogfighting practice, with half of the Scrappers participating in two duels instead of just one -- the Reapers had eighteen fighters instead of the Scrappers’ twelve. Onslaught had assigned the less experienced pilots in his squadron to double-up on the grounds that they were most in need of practice. It turned out that they needed even more practice than he had hoped - out of the eighteen duels the Scrappers had only won seven. The 349th Composite Fighter Squadron was one of the best units in the Border Worlds Militia, but the Reapers were among the best in all the Border Worlds armed forces.

And then they had progressed to the team exercises. First they had started with two-on-one, then two-on-two and finally four-on-four. The Scrappers had plenty of experience with fighting as a team, but so did the Reapers. The 121st  Superiority Fighter Squadron had fought from Circe to the Bush to Landreich, against enemies ranging from pirates to the Black Lance to the Cult of Sivar, and had defeated them all.

“All right,” the Scrappers’ leader ordered over the comm. “I know you’re all tired and we’re outnumbered, but they’re tired too. And we fight dirty, so that counts in our favor. Besides, this should be a lot harder than any fight we get into against the Nephilim,” he said in an encouraging voice, trying to boost his troops’ spirits.

“Here’s hoping,” Todd ‘Cateran’ McLaughlin grumbled. The Cabrean was usually one of the more cheerful of the Scrappers, and his complaint emphasized just how low the squadron’s morale had sunk after the drubbing the Reapers had given them.

“Complaining won’t do any good,” Onslaught chided. “What we have to do is figure out how we’re going to handle them in the big furball coming up in less than a minute. Suggestions?”

“Stick with your wingman and dogpile them,” Alex "Storm" Morgan offered. “What the hell, it’s the best I can come up with.”

“Maybe you didn’t notice but they outnumber us,” Eric "Zealot" Maslevski replied dryly.

“So?” the former privateer shrugged. “Numbers are only overwhelming if your enemy can bring them to bear on you. We target the rear half-dozen with a missile barrage, and that cuts the odds down to one-on-one.”

“Only for a while,” Jack "Diamond" DeVille shot back as he guided his Intruder into position on Onslaught’s wing. Around him the Scrappers were forming up into a cohesive formation.

“Got an alternative?” Storm demanded. “At least it’ll buy us time.”

“We go with it,” Onslaught ordered. “And we hope they don’t try the same with us.”

“They won’t,” Anthony "Grimlock" Grimm cut in. “Retaliators have a datalink system called STORM -- no smartass comments, Six. It lets them share targeting data on multiple targets and distribute fire evenly, so we’ll all be targeted equally.”

“Enough talk. Fight’s on,” Onslaught snapped. Sure enough a series of yellow dots had appeared on the Scrappers’ HUDs marked the path of a volley of simulated missiles launched by the Reapers. “Bunch up,” the Scrappers’ leader ordered as he tracked the missiles’ path even as the Retaliators closed in. Three missiles on each of us. The kid was right after all, he thought as the fighters flown by his subordinates closed in on each other. “Starburst in three… two… one… Go!”

On cue the 349th hit their afterburners and went into a booster climb en masse. Even as they ejected decoys they separated and boosted away from each other, twisting and turning in evasive maneuvers. Finally the militia pilots evaded the last of the missiles and unleashed a volley of their own. Each Intruder and Marauder fired a salvo of Spiculum image-recognition missiles at the last several Reapers, but unlike the Space Force squadron the Scrappers lacked the STORM datalink network. As a result their missile fire wasn’t spread as evenly as the Reapers’ had been -- three Retaliators were attacked by two missiles each, four Retaliators drew four missiles each while one unfortunate pilot was the target of no fewer than six Spiculums. That left ten of the superfighters unengaged, and that gave the Scrappers a small window of opportunity.

A pair of Retaliators raced head-to-head with Harbinger and Cateran, their guns spitting fire even as the two Scrappers opened up on the fighter attacking the flight leader. Bolts from meson and particle guns bit into the heavy fighter’s forward shields just before the two medium fighters raced past. Even as the two heavy fighters began to turn in pursuit, however, the one attacking Harbinger came under attack. Storm and Stardust had been trailing their flightmates by a couple of thousand kilometers and now they hammered their target with the combined fire of eight rapid-fire mass drivers. The Reaper fighter twisted like a fish on a line even as her wingman opened up on Stardust’s Marauder with all guns blazing.

The strawberry-blonde pilot wrenched her attack fighter into an evasive corkscrew, trying to avoid the pounding of four tachyon cannons. This was difficult for two reasons - because the Reaper pilot was one of the best the Union of Border Worlds could offer, and because the Retaliator’s guns were guided by an autotracking system. “I’d appreciate some help, Storm,” she called over the comm even as she snapped her fighter’s nose around for a quick burst of fire, spraying simulated mass driver fire at her attacker. The Retaliator didn’t flinch, continuing its barrage of energy at the Marauder. “Dammit, give me a hand!” she yelled.

Storm was otherwise occupied. Chopping the throttle back to zero he poured a long burst of gunfire into his target, cutting through the remnants of its shields and chewing into the heavy fighter’s already-battered armor. Finally the Retaliator’s red dot on the HUD faded to a green one, signifying a kill. “One down!” the ex-privateer yelled exultantly.

“Great. Now help me out!” demanded Stardust as her fighter’s shields flared under another assault. “There’s more red lights on my status board than in the Strip back home!”

“Nag, nag, nag,” Storm complained as he spun his Marauder around in a tight arc, bringing his guns to bear on the fighter pursuing his wingleader. Even as he pulled the trigger, however, the attacking fighter broke away, a green dot burning in its place on the HUD. “Who got the kill?” he wondered aloud as he quickly scanned the sky around him, looking for targets.

“I did,” Todd McLaughlin admitted as his Intruder came into view. “Harbinger’s gone and I’m banged up. How are you two doing?” It wasn’t exactly Academy-approved radio protocol, but right now nobody really cared.

“Storm here. Everything’s fine with me. Stardust?” Alex Morgan queried his wingleader.

“The armor on my front and left sides is gone,” Kristy Joyce reported crisply. “I’ve got damage to my targeting systems and sensors, but the autorepair systems can handle that given enough time - I hope.”

“Yeah, well time’s one thing we’re running short of,” Storm barked. “Five bad guys coming in, ten o’clock high! Break left!” he ordered as he reefed his Marauder around to face the enemy. The militia pilots sprayed gunfire at the approaching Retaliators who eagerly returned fire. Three of them concentrated on Cateran’s Intruder, hoping to eliminate the weaker threat before having to deal with the pair of heavier fighters. The other two went one-on-one with the Marauders, hoping to buy time for their comrades.

“Someone help me! I’m being torn to bits!” Cateran yelled as he hurled his fighter into a series of dizzying jinks and spins, futilely attempting to evade the dozen streams of tachyon bolts pounding his shields flat and mauling his simulated armor. The Cabrean pilot swore as the shields on his fighter dropped to dangerously low levels. Fuck this, he thought grimly as he locked a pair of missiles onto one of his pursuers. I’m not going to make it through this, but I’ll give them something to remember me by. His thumb pressed the missile release and a pair of virtual Image Recognition missiles dropped from his Intruder’s ordnance bays, racing towards the enemy. One of the Retaliators broke off to dodge the missiles but the other pair kept chopping at the Intruder with short bursts of gunfire, chewing even deeper into the fighter's core.

Stardust cursed as the blue blip of Cateran's fighter turned green on her HUD. Five against two was bad odds, especially when the five were more skilled than the two. She brought her fighter’s nose up and snapped off a burst of fire at her attacker even as it flashed past. A quick glance at her HUD showed her that the last exchange of fire had left her almost bereft of shields to her front. “Cateran’s down. How you doing?” Kristy asked her wingman through clenched teeth even as she banked high and to the right, trying to bring her Marauder around on the flank of her opponent. But even if she managed to out-turn the more agile Retaliator, the more advanced fighter could just autoslide and still put its guns on her. Dead if I fight, dead if I run, but I’m going to fight to the end. I’m a Scrapper, dammit, and proud of it! the redhaired medic snarled silently.

“Could be better,” Storm admitted as he wrenched his fighter through a punishing vertical scissors with his opponent, both fighters trying to force the other out in front of their guns. “You holding up okay?”

“My front shields are down and I’m still dancing with this joker. I think this is it,” Stardust replied. “I’ll do my best -- “

“Bugger that!” Storm exclaimed. “Hold on a few more seconds and I’ll be there. I’m the bait, you’re the hook. Just stay alive until I get there!” the ex-privateer ordered as he rammed the throttles to the stops and broke away hard, leaving his opponent in the dust. His grey eyes glinted as he set course for the three fighters which had just finished off Cateran and now were moving to get Stardust in their sights. As he raced up behind them Storm hastily locked a pair of Javelin heatseekers onto the centre Retaliator, ignoring the fire of its aft turret. “Smile, wise guy,” the reckless Scrapper snarled as he let fly. But instead of staying to confirm the kill he blazed through the formation on full afterburner, intent on the Reaper still shooting at his wingleader.

The Retaliator cut loose with a volley of fire from its tachyon cannons, barely missing Stardust’s Marauder as it dodged and wove. The pilot lined up for another shot but almost jumped out of his ejection seat as Storm ripped into his fighter with a long burst of simulated mass driver fire. Virtual bolts ripped into the Reaper’s shields and armor as it whipped over into a brutal wingover, trying futilely to evade the hail of fire from the former privateer’s Marauder. Storm raced past the savaged Retaliator on full afterburner and, for a second, the Reaper pilot thought he’d managed to survive the Scrapper’s wrath.

Then the two Pilum IFF missiles that Storm had launched at point-blank range slammed into the fighter, ripping it apart in a spray of electronic data.

“All right!” Storm hissed triumphantly as his target’s blip shifted from red to green. The other four Retaliators were coming up fast behind him with blood in their eyes, which was just what he wanted. If they were concentrating on him then that gave Stardust time to regenerate her fighter’s shields and move into position. The hot-tempered pilot spun his Marauder into a series of sharp spins and rolls, punching out decoys as his pursuers attempted to lock missiles onto his careening fighter. Tachyon bolts pounded his shields and raced past him as he jinked back and forth, using occasional spurts of afterburner to confuse the Reapers on his tail even more before turning to face his foes. And then he heard the most welcome words he’d heard this day.

“Fox two.”

Stardust had whipped into position and locked onto the Retaliator in the centre of the formation, and now she punched off a pair of simulated Javelin heatseekers. The missiles homed in on their target, crippling the Reaper fighter. A burst from Stardust’s guns delivered the coup de grace. “Three left,” she reported curtly as she followed the Retaliator on the far left into a tight turn.

“Copy.” Storm let his Marauder sideslip so he would pass between the two remaining Retaliators. Gotta get through the merge as quick as I can. They’ve still got ImRecs on the racks and I’ve only got heatseekers, so they can shoot at me from head-on. But my Javs will only lock on from the rear, which leaves me at a disadvantage. What the hell - if you get lemons, you make lemonade. He rammed the throttles wide open and hit the afterburners as soon as the range scrolled down to six thousand kilometers. The fighters converged at nearly two thousand KPS and Storm gritted his teeth as the numbers reeled off. Here’s where it gets interesting….

Sure enough the RHAWS screamed in his headphones as missiles flew at him. Storm frantically wrenched the joystick back and to the left, stomped on the left rudder pedal and dropped a number of decoys in an effort to confound the Spiculums chasing his fighter, and he almost succeeded. Five of the missiles sped past but one slammed into his fighter’s right side, stripping it of its shielding along the right flank. Even as the Scrapper struggled to bring his fighter back on course, the Retaliators spun in place and blazed away at him with their main guns. White bolts of energy ripped into the Marauder’s unshielded side armor and the computer wailed even as it faithfully displayed the list of ‘damaged’ components and systems to its pilot. Storm glanced at the wire-frame graphic of his fighter and winced as he saw it was almost entirely red from simulated internal damage. Even as he twisted the HOTAS to jink yet again another volley of tachyon bolts tore into his fighter’s core and his computer chimed insistently, over and over again.

For Alex Morgan the exercise was over.

“God-fucking-damn it!” he snared as he switched his comm unit to the exercise’s general frequency. “Scrapper Six, good kill. I’m dead,” he grumbled aloud as he guided his fighter towards the area where the fighters killed in the exercise would wait until the exercise was concluded. Almost instantly dubbed the ‘penalty box’, the regrouping area was thirty thousand kilometers from the region of space where the exercise was being held so Storm had plenty of time to think about his performance. At least he would have if the Retaliator he’d shot down hadn’t decided to open a comm channel to him.

“This is Reaper Seven. Who just shot me down?”

“Scrapper Six here,” Storm replied to the figure on his commscreen VDU. “Lieutenant Alex ‘Storm’ Morgan, 349th Composite Fighter Squadron,” he introduced himself.

“Captain Warwick ‘Blade'' Harrigan,” the Retaliator pilot answered. “Formerly of the 156th Superiority Fighter Squadron, currently attached to the 121st SFS.” 

“Okay, I’ve heard of the 121st,” the Scrapper told Blade. “They’re the Reapers and they fly off the Valeria. But I’ve never heard of the 156th. Who are they?”

“Starkillers,” Harrigan answered curtly. “We flew off the Littenia. Of course that’s kind of difficult now that the Littenia’s lost, so we got folded in with the Reapers to replace their losses.”

“Oops,” Alex apologized as the two fighters approached the ‘penalty box’. He quickly switched comm channels. “Little Eyes, this is Scrapper Six. Requesting datafeed for myself and Reaper Seven, over.”

"Copy that, Scrapper Six. Linking you now," came the reply. Little Eyes was one of six R-type shuttles converted to SWACS use that was undergoing testing at Research Station G-243, the 'black barn' testing facility in the Nifelheim system. The SWACS spacecraft deployed by Confed carriers gave them a decisive advantage the Border Worlds were struggling to match, even with samples of the Gratha command-and-control shuttle used by the Kilrathi during the First Kilrathi War. The squadron-level exercises taking place throughout the Nifelheim system were a golden opportunity for not only the fighter pilots to hone their skills against one another, but also for the SWACS controllers aboard the shuttle to get in some valuable practice time to get used to their equipment. Hopefully the Nephilim would hold off for a couple more days so that the reserve group’s fighter squadrons could get in some training at being coached by the cobbled-together SWACS shuttles, but wars are not won by hopes.

The datafeed from Little Eyes suddenly appeared on each fighter’s HUD as they moved into the "penalty box," showing the location of each fighter still in the dogfight as well as those which had been ‘destroyed’. The dead fighters were shown with green dots, the Scrappers still in the fight were blue dots and the Reapers still active were red dots. “Now all we need is some popcorn so we can properly watch the show,” Storm joked.

“Roger that,” Blade chuckled. “Let’s go to the videotape.”

“If you’re looking for munchies, Storm, there’s certainly enough nuts out here,” Dani "Dancer" Owens commented tartly. “In both squadrons.”

“Hey, don’t you talk about crazy,” an unfamiliar voice cut in over the comm channel. Has to be one of the Reapers, the taciturn ex-privateer realized. “You’re the one who tried taking me out by using a torpedo as a dumbfire!”

“And it worked, didn’t it Striker?” the platinum-blonde Scrapper fired back. “I got you with it!”

“Only in the two-vee-two,” Striker replied. “You tried the same trick in this melee, but you took your shot from too far away. You gave me time to dodge, and that’s not good.”

“So did you get him, Dani?” Storm asked his fellow militia pilot. In the comm VDU he saw her shake her head.

“Nah. He broke away and was on my six before I could take another shot at him,” she admitted. “He would have got me if Bloodhawk hadn’t taken him down.”

“At least he didn’t forget the major advantage your Marauders have,” Striker commented as Storm and Blade’s fighters joined up with the gaggle of fighters flying a slow racetrack pattern in the 'penalty box’. “He’s the only one I’ve seen use his cloaking device all day.” There was a long pause before anyone spoke.

“Uh… cloaking device?” Zealot asked hesitantly, almost as if he was afraid of the answer.

“Yeah, we were told not to use our tachyon detection grids to spot any Marauders that went to cloak,” the Reaper pilot confirmed. “The Bugs can’t spot cloaked ships any better than our normal ships -- Retaliators were especially designed to spot cloaked ships -- so it was thought that we could simulate Bugs better if we ignored you while you were cloaked.”

“Um… what’s this about the Marauders having cloaking devices?” Stardust asked. A quick glance at the feed from the SWACS confirmed that she had been finally killed and was making her way to join her other ‘dead’ comrades.

“Take a look on the control panel just in front of the throttle quadrant,” Dancer advised the other Scrappers in a resigned voice. ”You’ll find the activation switch there.”

“Don’t tell me you’d forgotten!” Blade interrupted in an incredulous voice. “Jesus, I can’t believe you people!”

“Hey, it's not like we've had time to get used to these birds! We’ve had them for less than two weeks!” Sandra "Riot" Lynch barked. Storm’s eyebrows rose in surprise -- Lynch was about as excitable as the basalt mountains of her homeworld of Masa IV. For her to snap like this was almost unheard of. But then again, so was the stress the Scrappers were under at the moment. “Besides, most of what we’ve heard about the Nephilim is that they can see right through cloaking. That’s how they took down the recon birds sent to investigate Kilrah, right?”

Striker shook his head. “Not with the modifications to the cloaking systems that our engineers cam up with. They should have been sent across to your own tech crews by now but I’ll double-check to make sure that’s happened if you want.” The older man’s placating tones managed to calm the rising tensions as effectively as a blanket smothered a fire.

“That would be great, Striker,” Riot told him, her voice calm and controlled once more. “If it’s no trouble -“

“Shouldn’t be,” the Retaliator pilot replied. “I’ll get onto it as soon as we land back on the Valeria, which should be any time soon.”

As if to confirm his words the voice of the chief controller from Little Eyes came over the comm channels. “Scrappers, Reapers, the fight is over. Contact your carriers for landing vectors. Little Eyes out.”

“Little Eyes this is Scrapper Lead. What’s the scorecard?” Onslaught asked the SWACS controller, curiosity in his voice. He was proud of his people and wanted to know just how they had fared in their battle with one of the best squadron in the Border Worlds. Also he wouldn’t be too surprised to find out that they’d put down a number of bets on the battle’s outcome.

“Final kill count is as follows: Scrappers eight, Reapers twelve,” Little Eyes replied. A chorus of groans broke out over the comm net.

"What? We didn't even break even?"

"This is bullshit!"

"Break it up!" the Scrappers' leader ordered. After a few more grumbles and muttered complaints the militia pilots lapsed into silence. "Mirage? How did we do?" he asked the Reapers' leader.

"Pretty good," Mirage admitted. "You've got some good people here, Colonel, especially the one who nearly took me out -- "

"Thank you," John "Bloodhawk" Hawke acknowledged dryly. Rhodes ignored the interruption and continued speaking.

"The main thing you have to remember against the Bugs is to support each other and to use any advantages you can," she warned the militia pilots as her squadron formed up around her. "This is a war of annihilation -- gatagak'vu as the Cats call it -- so Hoyle's gets thrown right out the airlock. Any trick you can come up with is fine so long as it works."

"That includes using your cloaking devices," Blade added somewhat snippily, ignoring the Bronx cheers from the Scrappers his cheap shot provoked.

"We get the message," Storrm growled, unable to suppress his irritation at the former Starkiller. "And when it comes to fighting dirty, that's our motto." The former privateer paused then added, "Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for."

"Exactly," Mirage agreed.


Commodore's Cabin, BWS Sicily
Nifelheim System
1528 Hours, 17 February 2681 (2681.048)

"Enter!" Philip Johnson snapped testily as the buzzer to his room sounded. His desk was almost covered with scattered datapads, data crystals and written reports. Life was so much simpler when I was tac officer on the Resolute. Hell, even when I was captain! the task force commander silently lamented. Twenty-three years ago he'd started his naval career aboard a battered Gilgamesh-class destroyer, and now he was commanding one of the largest task forces the Union of Border Worlds currently fielded. And while that gave him a great deal of power it also gave him a great deal of paperwork, exacerbated by the fact that Task Force Jasmine was an ad hoc mixture of Navy ships with Marine Corps, Space Force and Militia squadrons. The Nephilim are chaos incarnate on the battlefield, so I wonder how they keep all their logistics straight, the rotund officer mused as three people marched into his quarters. "All right, Felix, what's the story?" he asked.

Commander Felix Abbott rarely smiled. He took his role as Task Force Jasmine's intelligence officer extremely seriously. Then again, as far as Johnson knew, he took everything seriously. The tall skinny bespectacled man was immaculately precise in appearance, with even the creases of his uniform razor-sharp. Luckily for Johnson and the Border Worlds taskforce that precision carried over to his work as well. Now, however, his normally concerned expression was several orders of magnitude more somber. "Sir, Colonel Onslow and Lieutenant Grimm have some news that I think you should hear. I feel that this should be sent off to Looking Glass, but that's your decision as task force commander," he advised.

The spook's recommendation made Johnson sit up and take notice even as he gestured for his three unexpected guests to sit down. Abbott liked to have as much data as possible before making a decision or recommendation, but he wouldn't pass the buck just to avoid having to present an unpopular conclusion. "All right, Paul," he asked the leader of the Scrappers. "Let's hear it."

"Actually, sir, Tony found out the information so I'll let him present it," Onslow disagreed before looking at the lanky blond pilot next to him. "Tell him what you told me and Commander Abbott," he instructed.

Anthony Grimm swallowed nervously. This was the third time in an hour he'd delivered an impromptu off-the-cuff briefing to a superior officer, and the shy young man was no more comfortable now than when he'd first gone to his commanding officer. The knowledge that his information could affect the future of his entire nation didn't help in the least. "Sir," he began woodenly, "approximately two hours ago my flight escorted a supply shuttle to the TCS Hades. My wingman's F/A-43 had developed a minor coolant leak, so we landed aboard the Hades so that their ground crews could conduct repairs. While I was on the Hades, I started chatting to a pilot named Roger Elliot. He was one of the survivors from the Valley Forge - actually, sir, he was also one of the two surviving pilots from the Bunker Hill - and was fairly eager to talk about what happened aboard the Forge during her last days." The blond Scrapper rolled his eyes. "Actually, getting him to shut up was harder than getting him to talk about what had happened," he noted dryly. "He gave me some very interesting information from him about just why the Valley Forge was destroyed."

"Didn't she self-destruct in Loki?" Johnson asked, his brow furrowed in concentration. "Took out a Nephilim dreadnought that was caught in the blast radius or something." He couldn't see just where this line of thought was going, but he trusted Felix Abbott and Paul Onslow enough to know that it was important.

“Yes sir,” the young Scrapper confirmed, warming to his story. “But she suffered a lot of casualties in her flight wing and Marine detachment even before the Loki battle due to what appear to be some pretty dubious tactical decisions. And if what Chatterbox -- I mean, Captain Elliot -- is correct, those decisions take on a whole new dimension."

"How so? And which decisions are you referring to?"

"The decisions to have the Forge's Marine detachment conduct not one, but two, suicidal boarding missions against Nephilim vessels," Grimm grated. "The decision to refuse to let damaged fighters land. The decision to refuse to call for help from nearby forces, just like the Bunker Hill. Those all fitted in with their plan, all right."

"Plan? Whose plan?" the commander of the Border Worlds reserves demanded. It was plain that the kid had been nervous about telling his tale to such a high-ranking officer, but the commodore sensed that they were approaching the crux of the topic.

"The captain and executive officer of the Valley Forge planned to have the carrier and her entire battle group eliminated through natural attrition," the blond pilot said darkly, looking around the cabin at the three officers. "Their goal was to let the group be wiped out so that a gap in the Combined Fleet's line would open up. Then the Nephilim could either head straight on into Confederation space, or destroy the rest of the Combined Fleet and then run roughshod throughout this entire region of space. Either way they got what they wanted -- Confed worlds reduced to ash by the Bugs."

"But why?" Philip Johnson demanded, rising from his chair to pace around his cabin. "They were Confederation Navy officers, sworn to defend -- "

"So were the Black Lance," Anthony replied coldly. His audience stared at him in shock, and the younger man smiled humorlessly. Paul Onslow had already heard his story twice, and Commander Abbott had heard it once, but it was still hard for them to believe. It had been hard for the rookie Scrapper to believe when he'd first heard it aboard the Hades, but it made too much sense to be disbelieved.

"The Lance were wiped out during the Huntdown. They haven't been heard from since then," the taskforce's intelligence officer protested, his first words since he had sat down. Anthony gave him a cool glance, his usual shyness suppressed by the urgency of his news.

"Commander, if you believe that then you're definitely in the minority," Grimm shot back. "The Black Lance are still out there -- maybe they aren't churning out G.E.s and Dragons anymore, but they're deeply entrenched in Confed’s bureaucracy." He paused then added, "Deeply enough to manipulate personnel assignments, such as the assignment of a captain to a new carrier."

Commodore Johnson got the hint. "Lieutenant, are you saying that the captain and XO of the Valley Forge were agents of the Black Lance?" he asked incredulously.

Finally someone came out and said it, Anthony Grimm thought with an almost palpable sense of relief. He nodded curtly. "Yes, sir. That's what Captain Vandermann said on the Valley Forge's bridge when he denounced his XO before he could self-destruct the ship. They both went back to the days of Unit 212, the Belisarius Group, the whole kit and caboodle. They and their supporters wanted the Nephilim to ravage a few Confed worlds and cause panic."

"But why?" Johnson muttered half to himself. "What would they get out of -- oh my God. It's just like last time," he breathed. "They get Confed into a war, arrange for a few massacres of civilians so they can wave the bloody shirt in the Senate and get the entire Confederation to militarize."

"And the entire Confederation becomes their tool to mold humanity however they want," the blond young Scrapper agreed grimly.
As if the Nephilim don't give us enough to keep us busy…