APAGear II Archives Volume 1, Number 6 June, 1999


For the Love of Peet

John Guilfoyle

Zefrim Lennard usually listened to his wife. He'd been married to her going on fifty cycles, and sometimes he felt like she could read this thoughts even before he'd strung them together. She was one of those people who just had an extra sense about them -- she had an insight, a comprehension of the way the world worked beyond anyone else Zefrim had ever met. So it wasn't lightly that he ignored her shouted warnings.

"Zefrim, you damn fool! You get out of there this instant! If you think that rusty old Gear will make it even half-way to the canyon, you've got white sand in your head!"

Looking at his wife through the open cockpit of the dilapidated Heavy Gear he piloted, Zefrim rapidly tapped his finger to his ear and feigned not being able to hear the woman. Before he could elaborate on the deception, she called his bluff.

"Zefrim! I know you can hear me! Turn that thing around and get it back into the shop!"

"I can not hear you, and anyway, I'm going!" the old man yelled over the chugging of the engine behind him. "Peet's dead because of those little bastards -- and I'm not going to let them get away with it! I'm going to kill every last one of them!" With that, whining hydraulics closed the cockpit, sealing the wrinkled Badlander inside the machine that had served him so well during the War of the Alliance.

Myrtil Lennard's shoulders sagged. She stood in the yard, blinking away tears as the four meter tall vehicle lumbered away from her homestead. She was wise, yes. Wise enough to know when her stubborn husband's mind would not be changed. Wise enough to know she'd probably seen the last of him.

Feeling a little queasy from the lurching ride offered by his mechanical mount, Zefrim ran over the controls one more time to reacquaint himself with their layout. The inside of the Gear stank of stale, musty air, the seat was lumpy and uncomfortable, and virtually every switch, knob, stick and button had failed, stuck, or otherwise protested until long after the machine had warmed up. Long cycles of neglect had nearly paralyzed the Gear's limbs, and as it strode across the desert flat it sang a screeching chorus of metallic laments.

"C'mon Patches," Zefrim coaxed. "I know it's been a while since I treated you right, but I'll make it up to you. You see me through this and I'll special order you so many goodies I'll get a street named after me in Peace River."

Without answering, the Warrior plodded on towards its destination, sometimes randomly ejecting a handful of springs or rivets, sometimes belching up a distressing cloud of greasy black smoke from its engine. Despite the machine's troubles, however, Zefrim remained confident. During the war, it had been subjected to far worse than a poor maintenance schedule, and it had been nothing if not reliable. Touching a few buttons whose labels had long ago worn off, he coughed and ran a systems check.

As text scrolled by on a dusty overhead monitor, Zefrim made note of the myriad of warnings and continued his visual inspection of the cockpit. The radio, of course, was gone. Robbed out long ago to boost the homestead's base set. Several of the sensors were inoperative, and the heads-up-display was jittery and more than a little blurry. "Least we got plenty of fuel," he mused aloud.

When a small readout of the current time caught his eye, Zefrim swivelled the Gear's head towards the south. It was starting to get dark, and he could already see signs of the war -- this new, stupid war -- in the air. The glow of tracers, the flash of bombs and shells -- all deadly reminders of the growing conflict infecting the Badlands.

When a particularly violent explosion lit the night sky, Zefrim decided to run down his weapons inventory. An anti-personnel grenade launcher -- operative, but long out of ammunition. Rocket pack, also empty. Vibro-knife, check. Scratch-built flamer, check. The 25mm autocannon the Gear once carried was long gone -- used as a make-shift club in that last, bloody stand at Karta. Zefrim had seen many of his friends die that day; after sending every piece of ammunition they had at the GRELs, they'd kept right on coming. Now, with war raging beyond the horizon, he readied himself for this new, private battle.

It wasn't long before Zefrim and his Gear neared the area where Peet had lost his life. Faintly illuminated by pale moonslight, Higgin's Gap had an other-worldly look to it at this time of the evening. Purple hues bled down the canyon walls, dripping and coalescing into dark pools that seemed to scuttle away from the powerful searchlight Zefrim used to scour the landscape.

There. Not twenty meters ahead, Peet laid dead on his side, swollen and blistered from the hours he'd spent in the sun. Lips peeled back over his yellowed teeth, his face was caught in a permanent snarl -- mute but sure testimony to the painful death the old Barnaby had suffered. After pausing for a few moments over the downed beast that had served him so well for so many cycles, Zefrim wiped his eyes and steeled his nerves. "Bastards," he hissed. "I'm going to kill all of you, you little bastards."

Powering down the chugging engine, Zefrim sat in silence for a moment, then flicked on the makeshift battery of acoustic sensors he'd installed back in his shop. He heard it immediately. Buzzing, loud and distinctive. The sound filled the cockpit, amplified as it was first by the echos of the canyon, then by the sensitive multi-directional microphones affixed to the Warrior's head.

"Got you," Zefrim growled, pinpointing the source of the sound on his heads-up-display, which now displayed a three-dimensional wireframe representation of the landscape. Rather, a three- dimensional wireframe representation of what the landscape looked like twenty cycles ago, before the war. Zefrim hadn't updated his on-board terrain files since then, and the gap had seen heavy combat during the war. A handful of Badlanders had used it as a base of operations until Earth forces had finally caught up to them and shelled the whole place nearly flat. On his screen, Zefrim saw majestic arches rising in the background, he saw precarious columns reaching high into the sky. On the live-feed from his omnicamera, he saw his searchlight playing over piles of splintered stone, over broken-down ridges and over gouged cliff-faces. Other than the savaged landscape, there were few signs that this was a place where a desperate battle had raged -- scavengers of all descriptions had long since removed the human and mechanical remains of the men and women who had died here.

Starting his Gear's engine, Zefrim focused on the task at hand. He lit his jury-rigged flamer's burner and started off in the direction indicated by the acoustic array. The virtual terrain overlay may have been wrong, but there was no questioning the strength and accuracy of the signal; the nest was nearby. As he moved deeper into the gap, the Gear pilot felt his pulse quicken. It wouldn't be long before the battle was joined.

After only a few moments of tracking the signal, Patches and Zefrim were upon it. The Gear climbed up to the edge of a pock-marked plateau, and there, on the other side of the mesa, was a great, buzzing hive of redjackets. A cloud of the insects hovered near the nest, and with each passing second more poured out of the fat, dimpled mound that sat nestled in the bottom of a deep crater. Zefrim knew that his approach had already alarmed them, and that he would have to act fast if he wanted to catch most of them in the nest.

As the Gear closed the distance, hundreds, perhaps thousands of redjackets spun into a swirling frenzy and attacked. The sound of so many humming wings was eerie enough, but hearing the queer rapid-fire clicks of the creatures' legs and stingers on the Warrior's steel hide sent shivers straight down Zefrim's spine. Calming his nerves, he lifted his flamer and sent a two-second blast into the thick of the swarm. Dozens, hundreds of redjackets fell to the earth, some with their wings burned off, others scorched to death, some virtually incinerated. When he took his finger off the trigger, though, Zefrim saw that as many again raced to the fight from the hive. Noting the fuel level of his flamer, he loosed another gout of liquid fire as he approached the edge of the crater. The Badlander's jaw fell open when he was able to see the full size of the nest, for it nearly filled the bottom of the crater. It was fully ten meters across, and nearly four high. There would be hundreds of thousands -- millions perhaps -- of the insects inside. Fumbling with the controls for a moment, Zefrim readied a demolition charge and briefly wondered if he'd brought enough explosives to do the job. He was preparing to throw the charge into the middle of the nest when a loud buzzing filled the cockpit and a sharp pain stabbed into the back of his neck.

Zefrim howled and reached back with one hand to fend off the insect, twisting in his seat as he fought to remove the redjacket from his bleeding neck. When he finally succeeded in killing the thing, two more appeared and began attacking him mercilessly. "Mamoud!" the man yelled, being stung repeatedly on the face and hands by the agile creatures. Squirming and flinching despite himself, he accidentally throttled the controls and sent the Gear forward, toward the crumbling edge of the crater. The machine, by now covered by a writhing carpet of redjackets, pitched head-first down onto the nest.

Several tons in weight, Patches crashed through the hard but brittle exterior surface of the hive while Zefrim, who hadn't belted himself in, slammed hard against the inside of the hull. Pain exploded in his head, and he felt a sickly rush of blood from his scalp. His daze was short-lived though, as the redjackets that had infiltrated the cockpit began their assault anew. Yowling in pain as he was stung multiple times on the legs and back, the desperate man brushed the armored insects off and pressed himself back into his seat. Once there, he started wrestling with the stiff controls in an effort to get the Gear back up on its feet. The fall had taken the omnicamera off-line, but Zefrim could tell from the unearthly buzz he felt rather than heard that he was in fact at least partially inside the nest.

Separated from the human intruder by the thin skin of the war machine, an army of fat, white larvae squirmed helplessly in the honeycombs exposed and sundered by the Gear's fall. In the air above, thousands of frenzied redjackets swarmed, ready to defend their queen and her brood to the death. The queen, a flightless, beautiful creature nearly a meter long, directed the fight from deep within the hive by using a series of complex leg, head and body movements.

"Got you!" Zefrim yelled, crushing one of the winged assailants against the wall. As if in response, three more redjackets found their way into the cockpit and immediately began stinging the man. "Mamoud damn you !" he screamed, releasing the controls and recoiling from their attack. Acting on instinct, the old pilot flipped a switch cover and jammed his thumb hard against the switch. A loud sputtering sounded, followed by a blast of air from each of the vents. A split-second later, the fire-suppression system kicked in, high-pressure nozzles spraying the cockpit with thick, flame-retardant foam. A pair of redjackets had their wings torn from their bodies, and the other two buzzed about in confusion, obviously disoriented by the foam. After firing the system twice more, Zefrim killed the four bugs and grabbed the controls with renewed vigor and intent.

Amidst a veritable storm of insects, the Gear, its engine sputtering as redjackets choked its intakes, crawled first out of the nest and then up out of the crater. Ignoring new redjackets that had found their way into the cockpit, Zefrim grimly set the fuses on two demolition charges and dropped them into the cloven hive. "That's for Peet!" he roared, shaking his head and gritting his teeth as he was stung in the ear. Before he could turn to make his getaway, however, one of the old explosives went off prematurely, immediately igniting the other. The bedlam that had reigned since Zefrim's arrival culminated in an explosion that shook the air like a peal of divine thunder. A glorious plume of fire rose into the night air to match the resounding boom, fueled by countless redjackets, their nest, Zefrim and his faithful Gear, Patches. Silence descended on the scene like a death shroud laid over an old soldier and his mount. A smoky silence, broken only by the low crackle of flames -- and the faint buzzing of redjackets.

Author's Note

Yes, as you might have guessed, this was supposed to be part of my 'Creature Feature' submission. I didn't have time to work on it that month, but I didn't want to abandon the idea, so here it is. I have several critters in the works, and as I complete them, I'll tack them on to future submissions.

Back to APAGear II Archives

APAGear II Archives Volume 1, Number 6 June, 1999