|HTL CHAPTER 109: TOEING THE LINE 3 - STRANGE BEDFELLOWS
Written by James Andrew "JAG" Greenhow, with Nick "Chaeronea" Deane and Kevin "Leeloo" Tan
"Great fighter pilots are made not born... A man may possess good eyesight, sensitive hands and perfect co-ordination, but the end product is only fashioned by steady coaching, much practice, and experience."
- Air Vice Marshal J. E. "Johnnie" Johnson, RAF
11th February 2681 (2681.042) 2230 Zulu
Vidlink between Avernus Station and TCS Miles D'Arby
"I've just been talking to Commodore Philip Johnson," Commodore Jeff Turnbull began, "and we were hoping to throw a party, some sort of Valentine's Ball for our boys and girls. We haven't enough room on any of our ships, and we were wondering..."
"If you could use Avernus station," Brigadier General Joanne Harris finished. Harris leaned back in her chair. In another time and age, well, perhaps about five weeks earlier, the thought of having such an occasion would have rankled her, much less everyone else under her down to the rank of Colonel. But she had seen the brave sacrifices the men and women under her have undergone. The grim desperation of a race at war to save itself.
She could tell from the way small problems that were normally shrugged off in a normal situation now turned into shouting matches, of how everyone walked around with the haunted look in their eyes. If he asked this five weeks ago, her answer would have been a firm, simple EN-OH. However, this alternative provided a way to let off steam, and perhaps to show that those who bore arms had as much heart as those they protected. "Of course. I think it's a marvelous idea," she smiled, "and I'll be happy to let you have the party here - as long as I'm invited!"
"I'm sure that can be arranged."
"Good. Call me when you have more details, and we'll work out the arrangements. Good Night, Jeff."
"Please, call me Joanne," she told him, and cut the connection. Her smile stayed in Turnbull's mind's eye for a long time after the screen went blank.
12th February 2681 (2681.043) 0916 Zulu
Pilots' Briefing, TCS Miles D'Arby
"Right, lissen up boys and girls, I've talked to the Sicily’s Air Boss and the Commander of Avernus station, and we're arranging a little get-together for the 14th."
"A Valentine's do?"
"Yes, a Saint Valentine's Ball."
"Um, sir," James 'Chip' Chippenham began, "you do of course realise that most of us are married, don't you?"
"Yes, I know that, but firstly, remember the golden rule: What a man does," he got a couple of dirty looks from the female pilots, "what you do 'overseas' doesn't count." There were several people still looking unconvinced, so he played his last card. "And secondly, it's really just an excuse for a last good piss-up before the balloon really goes up."
"When is the main fleet supposed to get here, sir?"
"Currently I've been told to expect them on the 15th or 16th, but it depends on how things go in Loki. Things might happen sooner than that, which is why we need to get ourselves and our allies ready for the coming battles. That's why today, you’re going to be under the co-ordination of the BWS Sicily and her FCO."
"Any particular reason, sir?" asked Chippenham.
"Yes, actually. They have more escorts and picket ships, so they will probably detect enemy ships first. However, we have a higher proportion of Space Superiority aircraft. We will be providing the CAP and protection for the joint task force, designated Jasmine."
There were murmurs of discontent at that - they were under the Border Worlders' direction, and now part of their task force, rather than the other way round.
"You all have individual briefings to go through, so I'll leave you to it."
Well that went well, he thought to himself - not!
Camelot Flight, 2 Excaliburs
Racetrack orbit on their BARCAP station,
"Camelot, Strike," came the unfamiliar voice of Lt Commander Gerry Walker, the BWS Sicily FCO, [Flight Control Officer] "Vector 300 by 350 for trade."
"Copy, strike. Any more dope?"
"Six plus bogeys, range 120."
"Copy. Turning to three-zero-zero."
"That's the edge of the asteroid field, isn't it?" Zack 'Polaxe' Kocinski asked.
"Thereabouts," agreed James 'Chip' Chippenham, "let's mosey on over and see what's what."
The minutes ticked by and still nothing appeared on the Scanner.
"See anything?" Chippenham asked.
"Nothing. There's a lot of iron and other metals in these 'roids. It's difficult to pick out anything in the clutter."
"Strike, Camelot. Update vector to bogeys, please."
"Camelot, Strike. Contact lost. Do you wish to continue search pattern?"
"Let's give it a quick box and then bug out, Chip," Poleaxe suggested.
"We'll continue with search, Strike."
"Copy. Listening, out."
A few moments later Walker's face again appeared on their comms VDU, "Camelot, Strike. Return to CAP station, contact assessed as spurious."
"Spurious?" Polaxe was pissed, "Goddamnit."
"Maybe he's just having some fun with us. Maybe there were some blips on his screen, but hell, checking out a contact beats boring holes, doesn't it?"
"Guess so, but we're back to flying in circles," Chip switched frequencies to talk to Walker again, "Copy, Strike. Returning to station."
"Copy, Camelot. Your relief estimates TOT + 7."
"Copy, strike. Camelot out. Looks like we're boring holes a little longer."
"Yup. Fancy a beer when we get back on the deck?"
Vidlink between Avernus Station and TCS Miles D'Arby
12th February 2681 (2681.043) 1657 Zulu
"Did you hear about that secret base they've just found?" The Wing Commander, Michael Black, shook his head, "Tanfen sponsored but under a Border Worlds flag. Plausible deniability!"
"Yes, Chip just told me," Robert 'Robber' Bell confirmed, "turned up shortly after they'd been chasing ghosts in the area. He was a little... annoyed."
"I wonder what else we don't know about things round here, Captain. Anyway, what's the verdict on those rookies you're training?"
"Quite frankly, sir," Robber sounded exasperated as he stood hands on hips at the vidlink, "they're bloody hopeless." Robber shook his head, anger visible in the tense muscles of his hands and face.
"No, I suppose that's a little unfair," he relented. "A couple of them would even make good fighter pilots, given time. They've got the spirit and aggression, but it needs to be tempered with a cool head and knowing instinctively what to do in a given situation. That only comes from practice- lot's of practice."
"What's the overall standard, and how quickly will they be ready for combat? Be honest." Black knew Bell would not pull his punches, but he was reminding him to say what he thought without having to worry about pissing his boss off.
"Well sir, one can hardly fly the sodding aircraft, I've no idea why he's even here. The others, well, mostly they're still behind the fighter. It’s like jumping from your beat-up sedan into a sports car - things happen so much faster, and you've got to be thinking ahead. The Jug's not the fastest of fighters but it's still far faster and accelerates infinitely better than a trash hauler. At the moment the Thud is in charge, not them. They just need time to get used to that, and the feel of the aircraft itself. They can fly, but until you get to know the plane intimately, you can't really fly it. You're only flying it when you just need to think where you want it to go and it does. It goes where you want, not where it wants. If they're still having to try and think about stick and rudder in combat..."
"So, how long will they need?"
"It's difficult to say - with the Sims and training flights all day every day, maybe just a couple of days until they're passable. But to get good, -weeks."
"We don't have weeks. We might not even have days. We should have, but..." Black trailed off.
"Sir, you mean to tell me you know as much about our situation as we do?"
"Yes; approximately nothing." Robber had already guessed, so he may as well be straight with him. Even so, he decided to try and change the subject. "How's the relations with the Bord- our new allies?"
"Not too bad. A little strained. A few acid remarks here and there. They're not too bad when you start to get to know them. Fighter pilots tend to be a bit more laid back and easy going anyway, so they're about what I expected, sir. But I think some Confederation officers I know would have a fit if they realised what passes for discipline over here, though."
"Hmmm. So this Valentine's ball - dress uniform would be a bad idea?"
"Yes, sir. Most definitely a bad idea. Very bad, in fact."
"OK, good work, son. I know you've got a cool head, so try and keep the more temperamental ones in line, won't you?"
"Aye sir, I'll do my best."
"Right then," Black leaned down toward the disconnect button making his face seem huge, ugly and distorted as it came close to the lens, "keep me informed." With that he snapped the vidlink off, saving them both the bother of a salute.
Avernus Station, Robber's quarters.
12th February 2681 (2681.043) 1723 Zulu
Subject: I love you
I know you are probably scared for me after seeing the news the last couple of days. I know you didn't want me out here in the first place - you've been begging me to leave the reserves for years. The problem is, Love, I can't. The flying is as much a part of my life as you and the kids, and far more than my 9 to 5 at the office.
You want me to stay home, safe, with you and the kids. But who would keep us safe if I did that?
Why me? Why should I be the one risking life and limb out here? Someone has to, and it's what I enjoy doing. I wish you could understand that. If you love me, you'll understand it's something I have to do. It's what I am. You knew that before you married me.
I don't really know what else to say; I love you, little Jimmy and Sarah, and if anything happens to me, I know you'll look after them and that you will be looked after: You're a Space Force wife, whether you like it or not.
They'll take care of you.
I'd like to say something more personal, Pet, but these mails are being censored and I don't want someone else reading my most intimate thoughts about you - but they'll be reaching out across space to you.
Whatever happens, remember - I love you.
Your loving husband,
BWS Sicily, Canteen
12th February 2681 (2681.043) 2012 Zulu
"Hey, Mongrel - what are you doing here?"
"Oh, you know," the German shrugged, "anything to get away from Viking!"
"Heh! Tell me about it!"
"Well, actually, I heard there was a good poker game on the Sicily, and I wanted to try and get in on it, so I managed to hop a shuttle coming over here. "
"OK, mate, I'd love to come with you but I was going to the bar, see what the local wildlife is like," he winked, and Mongrel rolled his eyes, "but those guys over there look the type. Long leather jackets, shifty looking.
They look like card sharks."
"Ja, maybe. OK, Rat, I'll see you later before I head back to Avernus."
Mongrel wandered over to the table Rat had pointed out. A group of three men and a woman. The largest of the men towered above his companions, even seated. He turned toward Mongrel as he approached their table.
"You want something?"
"Well, I was told there was a good poker game on this ship. I was hoping maybe you guys could get me in on it."
"Oh, were you now?"
"Ja, so if you people know how I can get into a good game, great. If not, I will get out of your face."
"Oh, yeah, don't worry," the tall man broke into a broad grin, "we know how you can get into an excellent game!"
BWS Sicily, Tanfen Pilots quarters
12th February 2681 (2681.043) 2033 Zulu
"So you're the guy that took a potshot at our mutual allies?"
"That's right," Mongrel said cautiously. He wasn't sure which direction this conversation was going.
The Tanfenner seemed to notice this and broke into a broad grin that gleamed with a hint of gold, "Don't worry about it," Brin 'Hotshot' Hoffman told him. "See this?" He pulled open his mouth to reveal fully the gold tooth he flashed a second earlier, "This is a souvenir from the party we had with them last week in the Wild Hart on Lennox III!"
"They don't like me much," Mongrel said absently, concentrating on the Majhong tiles before him.
"Don't take it to heart, Delilah 'Tiger' Tarrant said, "those guys seem to hate everyone. They bear grudges and resent authority."
"But they can fight," Errol 'Foxbat' Chandler said, rubbing his chin and working his jaw as if it still ached, "in and out of the cockpit."
"Ach, not again!" Mongrel groaned as he realised he would have to pay up once more, "How much do I owe this time?" Just nickel & dime stakes, they were playing for the gossip, the 'crack', not the money involved. It was some years since Mongrel had played Majhong, ["sparrow"] and it showed. The game was in some ways similar to Rummy but with tiles instead of cards. You had to make various sets whilst preventing your opponents from completing theirs.
"Not much, amigo. We'll just add it to the tally and you can knock it off our bar tab later! So, come on - why did you shoot at those Border Worlders in the first place?"
Mongrel sighed. He'd already explained the whole incident dozens of times to his superiors and his squadron mates and getting rather tired of reciting it. "Well, we didn't know anyone else was here!"
"Oh, come on! Pull the other one- it’s got fucking bells on!" Hoffman shook his head in disbelief, "it's a Border Worlds system, complete with starbase - and you weren't expecting them?"
"Well, no. Look at it from my point of view," Mongrel spread his arms in exasperation, "we were told the entire system, except the lifers on the prison colony, had been evacuated. No Border World militia, no civilians, no miners, station on automatic - and certainly no secret Research base!"
"Ah, well..." Rueful grins. It wasn't their fault it had been found, or that it was there in the first place, but it was embarrassing to them.
"You know how it is," Delilah looked Mongrel in the eye as she talked, "everyone's entitled to their little secrets. Think of the Black Lance, for instance!"
There was a sneer on her face and Mongrel shot back a filthy look. "Tolwyn was ... misguided. But his project was intended to save the human race. It wasn't for a profit."
"Well..." Tarrant still held his gaze, "I suppose it's just a question of priorities, isn't it?"
"What's your top priority then?" Mongrel demanded.
"I should ask you the same thing. We're all here to save the human race, right? But we're all getting paid for it, aren't we? Hell, flying isn't even your main job!"
Mongrel's lip twitched, curling with anger. "I would fly for nothing," he said, still staring her out, "I would pay to fly the damn aircraft. And if I wasn't prepared to fly and die to defend the Confederation, or the rest of the human race, I wouldn't be in the reserves. What's your excuse?"
Tarrant finally looked away, "Good question," she said.
BWS Sicily, Pilots' Lounge
12th February 2681 (2681.043) 2044 Zulu
Tony 'Rat' Carruthers entered the pilots' lounge and made straight for the bar. He ordered a beer and downed it in just a couple of swallows, then quickly asked for a refill.
Like a predatory animal, a raptor perhaps, Rat surveyed his hunting ground with practised nonchalance from his vantage point, perched not on a high crag but a bar stool. He sighted his prey: A young, blonde pilot sitting alone on the far side of the room at a window table. Feigning disinterest, he looked away before she felt his gaze upon her.
Rat had elevated chatting women up to the level of an art form or an Olympic sport, and he was a consummate professional, never failing to 'pull' any 'bird' he set his sights on. But it took discipline and a cool head to assess the situation and decide on what approach to take, and how fast to take it.
Usually all it took was just being his self, having a laugh and a good time until the correct moment when it became "get yer knickers off". Sometimes though, suave sophistication was required (the change in personality and accent always amazed those who thought they knew him the first time they saw this act) and very rarely - "hard to get", letting the girl think she was having to work hard to get him.
He realised he was again staring at her like a love-struck school kid. Platinum blonde hair, dark blue eyes, and a body to die for. But there was something else about her that he found attractive, something he couldn't quite put his finger on.
She seemed to sense his eyes boring into her and looked back at him. Their eyes met briefly before she turned away in disdain even as he tried to avert his vision.
Shit! What are you doing? You idiot! He scolded himself. Suddenly he became nervous about going over to talk to her. That hadn't happened in a long while. He took a last gulp of beer before trying to stroll casually over.
His body had a mind of it's own, going from a swagger to a stiff wooden gait as he approached her.
"Uh..." he stammered, gesturing to the vacant place beside her, "is this seat taken?" She glanced up at him with disinterest.
"What does it look like?" Her voice was quiet but had an edge to it. Seeing the hurt look in his eyes she relented, "sit down, then, Confee."
"Thanks," he said, and tried to smile, but instead his expression was just a sheepish grin.
"Er... would you, ah, that is, er, can I buy you a, er..."
"Drink?" She finished for him.
"Yeah, can I buy you a drink?"
"I'll have a Vodka and Coke, thanks."
Oh, fer fuck's sake! Rat swore softly as he crossed the few strides to the bar, you're acting like a lovesick teenager on a first date! Get a grip!
Dani 'Dancer' Owens shook her head almost imperceptibly as she watched him at the bar. She wished he hadn't sat down. She wished she hadn't let him.
Why the hell did I do that? she wondered. When she'd first seen him at the bar she'd expected... well, not the nervous wreck that fell over his tongue trying to talk to her. Still, at least his eyes had been staring at my face, and not at my chest, she realised.
She watched him as he returned with their drinks. His hands were shaking so badly he was having trouble not spilling their drinks. It was actually kind of cute, she thought.
"Here you go," he said. Her hand touched his as he handed her her drink. Her fingers were cold but he got a strange tingling from his fingertips all the way to his loins from their touch. Instantly he had a hard-on, about as easy to hide in his tailored flightsuit as a baseball bat.
He hoped the bulge was hidden by the table but he was aware that the blood from his pounding heart wasn't only being pumped to his body parts - it was flooding the capillaries in his face too. He was blushing with embarrassment.
Maybe she hadn't noticed because she suddenly looked at his face and asked a question.
"Don't you want to know my name, Captain Carruthers?"
"How did you -?"
"Know your name?" she rolled her eyes. "Your name tag is above your breast pocket."
"Oh, yeah." He risked dropping his eyes to her chest for an instant. As well as noting her own nametag only bore the callsign 'Dancer', he briefly appraised the shapely curve of her breasts and the inch or so of cleavage exposed at her flightsuit zipper.
Dragging his eyes quickly back to her face, particularly her own blue eyes, he told her sincerely that yes, he would love to know her name.
"Danica Owens. Call me Dani. What about you - what does the 'A' stand for, Captain Carruthers?"
"'A'?" Rat frowned for an instant, "Oh, Anthony, only people call me Tony. Well, actually they tend to call me Rat, but I'd rather you call me Tony."
"Rat? How'd you get that nickname?"
Carruthers swallowed. Normally at this point, a lie would roll easily off his tongue, but for some reason he didn't want to lie to this girl. Of course he didn't really want to tell her the truth either. As he desperately tried
to devise an answer, he was jolted by a hard slap on the shoulder.
"Look, piss off, will you? Can't you see she doesn't want to talk to you?"
"Kristy, wait," Dani tried to intervene but Rat had already stood up.
"That's all right, I was just leaving anyway. It was very pleasant meeting you, Dani. Goodnight, ladies."
Rat turned and strode briskly away, back to the bar but couldn't resist a quick glance back over his shoulder. The two blonde pilots seemed to be arguing.
He sank onto the stool at the bar. He clenched his fist and thumped his leg, then tossed back the remains of his pint in a single gulp. Without being asked, the barman furnished him with another beer. Rat nodded his gratitude. Taking another swig he started to dissect a soggy beer mat using only his fingernails.
"What did you do that for, Kristy?" Dani angrily demanded.
"Do what?" Kristy 'Stardust' Joyce asked innocently.
"Told him to piss off!"
"You do know who that was, don't you?" Asked Kristy, "You know what his callsign is?"
"Yes, Rat. Short for Love Rat. A lying, cheating, womanising bastard, by all accounts. You're well rid of him."
"He wasn't like that. He was kind of sweet really, embarrassed to talk to me."
"Hmmmph!" Stardust didn't seem convinced. "Well, even if it were true it's for his own good as well."
"What?!" Heads turned towards the pair at the platinum-blonde pilot's exclamation. Kristy lowered her voice as she replied to her friend.
"Well, I've just saved him time, money and emotional distress. You know you'd just have pushed him away as soon as he got too close."
"I suppose you're right," admitted Dani.
"Damn straight. You know I'm right, girlfriend. I'm just looking out for you. A man like that - you might say 'no' but if you say it too late he might not stop. Some people don't know how to take no for an answer."
"Like Gorthaur," Dani murmured. Her eyes darkened with remembered pain and her friend winced.
"Well I don't know if I'd lump Rat in the same class as that feral bastard," Kristy admitted, "but I'd bet you'd have to talk really fast to convince him that 'No' meant 'No'." Dani shrugged as if she was physically shaking off the memory.
"Oh, Come on, girl! You know what he wanted - all he wanted was a screw, a hole to use as a surrogate hand to masturbate with!"
"How the hell would you know? He was talking to me, not you!"
"He would have hurt you! C'mon, I'm just trying to look after you!"
"Mind your own bloody business next time. I can look after myself!" Dani snapped. She knocked back the rest of her drink in one pull and stormed out of the lounge.
"Oh, girl, "Kristy murmured as she watched her friend leave, "I sure hope you know what you're doing!"
Rec Dec Observation area, 2053 Zulu
Major Michelle 'Maneater' Ross stood staring out of the thick plastiglass bay window at the world turning slowly below. A hurricane swirled slowly across the shallow tropical seas near the dark side. Elsewhere, emerald green patches showed through, patches of the dense jungle that covered most of the planet's land surface. It was beautiful, like the Earth before the cities and the pollution. Before the Kilrathi bombed half the cities on the planet. Before they destroyed Chicago, killing her parents.
"Hell of a view, isn't it, Major Ross?" Major Jack 'Diamond' DeVille said from right beside her.
"Oh," Ross had been lost in thought, and hadn't heard him approach, "yes, yes it is."
"Something bothering you? You seem a bit... distant. Like you're down there."
"Just thinking Earth was like that once, Major- " Ross glanced at the blond Border Worlder's nametag. " - DeVille."
He smiled at her and extended his hand. "Call me Jack."
"I'm Shelly," Ross replied as she shook his hand. They both turned back to the window and looked at the planet below. Finally DeVille spoke.
"Millions of years ago Earth was like this- strange forests on the land, huge monsters in the sea, tropical climate everywhere but the poles. Alright for a holiday but I wouldn't want to live there!"
"I was thinking more recently. Before the Kilrathi destroyed many of our cities."
"Earth was changed far more by man than the Kats. I take it you lost family when they bombed the Earth?"
"Mmmm. There's people, our people, who lost family when you did the same to us. Bloodhawk lost his wife and kid on Telamon, for a start."
"That wasn't -"
"I know. It was the Black Lance," DeVille sighed, "You can't hate all Kilrathi because of what happened back then any more than I can hate all Confederation citizens because I lost friends flying against Confed pilots
in '73. You can't generalise over such large numbers of people."
"You can't call Kilrathi people," Ross growled.
DeVille continued on as if he hadn't heard her, "And now, we all have to work together against a common enemy, one that, if the reports are true, we can hate as a single entity, the hive mind. We can hate the Nephilim."
"I don't feel any hate for them yet," she told him, "I haven't seen them yet, haven't fought them yet. I mean, the news is so... sterile. Not real."
"All the people they've killed, all the ships they've destroyed..."
"It's not real to me yet. It's hard to explain. Not until it happens to me or those around me. I'm sure I'll hate them then."
"It's funny," DeVille said, "you're not what I was expecting. I was expecting..." he trailed off.
"A bitch?" She grinned, "I am a bitch, when I want to be. When I have to be: Women still aren't entirely equal in this universe, you know."
"No," agreed DeVille, "usually they swear they're far better!"
"That's because they usually are far better!" They both burst out laughing. Maneater suddenly realised the Border Worlder's arm was around her waist.
"Pretty romantic view," she said.
"I thought so," he said as he bent down to kiss her.
BWS Sicily, Pilots' Lounge
12th February 2681 (2681.043) 2104 Zulu
"What's up with you, mate?"
"Uh?" Rat looked up blearily, "Oh, howdo Jimbo. Nowt. Nowt's up. I'm areet."
"You don't look alright. Too much to drink?"
"No, mate, it's not the drink. Forget it, I'm OK."
"My God!" Realisation swept across Major Jim 'Jimbo' Reid's face like a hurricane, "it's a girl, isn't it?! You actually failed to pull! Wait until I tell the others..."
"You keep your bloody gob shut, or else!"
Reid carried on completely unconcerned, "I bet it was that blonde bit of fluff over by the window, wasn't it?"
"Oh, OK. Maybe her mate I saw leaving. Trying to rob the cradle again, eh? She throw her dolly out of the pram at you?"
"She was cute though, wasn't she? Had that fragile look."
"Jimbo, if you don't fuck off and leave me alone, you're going to really regret it. Understand?"
Something in Carruthers' eyes sent a cold shiver down Reid's spine, "Reading you loud and clear, man. Fucking off now."
Reid moved a few stools along the bar and ordered a double scotch. He should have gone with Mongrel to find a poker game, anything to keep his mind off his wife. Maybe it was just that time of year, but everyone seemed like
Cupid was either emptying his quiver into them, or standing thumbing his nose at them.
Avernus station, Jack DeVille's temporary quarters.
13th February 2681 (2681.044) 0211 Zulu
Jack DeVille stroked Michelle Ross' hair as they lay together, entangled. The room still smelled of sweat and lovemaking, but they had lain a while, spent.
"You do that a lot, don't you?" Ross suddenly said, more a statement that a question.
"Yeah, I guess I do." He kept stroking her hair, twisting the curls between his fingers.
"So I was just another screw?" She sounded bitter.
"It wasn't like that."
"I'm not a slut, you know. I don't just jump in the sack with anyone."
"Shh, I know you're not," he reassured her.
"I just... needed someone."
"I know. There have been times when I've been in the same boat."
"Hey!" Ross turned her head to look over her shoulder at him, "Don't worry about it. I enjoyed myself; you're pretty good in bed, y'know."
"I've been told," he grinned, "and I've had a lot of practice!"
"Want some more?" Ross asked, rolling over to straddle him.
DeVille smiled. "Practice makes perfect!"