|APAGear II Archives||Volume 2, Number 3||April, 2000|
Ranger Mandorellen Nessen walked into Captain Schoening's office and stood at attention as the balding, trim and stone-faced man sat at his desk, perusing some documents. A minute passed before Schoening even looked up, grimacing slightly.
"Ranger Nessen, I have your discharge papers here," the captain spoke slowly, deliberately, "everything is in order, but please, I must ask you to reconsider your decision. You're the best NCO I've ever had," Captain Shoening pursed his lips in his best attempt at a smile.
"I appreciate you saying that sir, but my service time is up, and I'd like to get back, sir...to start new," Mandorellen answered, in a steady voice, his gaze never leaving his commander's face.
"Very well, Mr. Nessen. As of this moment, you're a civvie," he handed Mandorellen the large manila envelope, "good luck."
"Thank you sir. Let me say that it has been an honour to serve with you."
He was home. It hadn't changed. Uncle Hubert provided for him and his mother ever since Mandorellen's father died in the War. It was a small apartment in the poorer part of Lyonesse, but it was home. Mandorellen dumped his duffle bag on his bedroom floor, and collapsed on his bed.
"Hello?" a woman's voice carried through the apartment.
"Mother?" Mandorellen said.
The door to Mandorellen's room opened. His mother stood in the doorway, leaning heavily on the doorknob. She smiled, and he got up, and embraced her. The scent of Fort James Special combined with his mother's perfume assaulted his nostrils in the worst possible way. She slumped a little in his arms. Mandorellen put his mother to bed gently, and sat at the foot of the bed, watching her sleep.
He wept, knowing that he couldn't stay here.
"Now that you've finished mucking about in the army Mandorellen, I want you to come work for me," said Uncle Hubert later that evening at the dinner table. Dinner was roasted hopper with sautéed onions, covered in gravy. Uncle Hubert leaned his massive frame over the table, and speared another piece of hopper with his fork. He shoved it into his mouth quickly, chewing forcefully, fast, and swallowing.
"I can get you started out as a sight manager for the irrigation parts plant," he said, eyeing another piece of hopper, "or perhaps you'd like to work in the distribution, leading a caravan? There's one leaving for Port Arthur in a week," he continued, as Mandorellen picked a little at his food. It was excellent, but the prospect of working for Uncle Hubert sapped away his appetite. It was the last thing he ever wanted to do.
"Actually, that caravan to Port Arthur sounds like an interesting idea. You've already got a caravan leader, of course?" Mandorellen asked politely.
"Yes, I'm sure we can get you in as an escort. I just had one of the Hunters refurbished."
"Oh, excellent, I'll prepare to leave as soon as possible."
"Shotgun-2, run a sweep ahead," the com piped into Mandorellen's ears. The caravan leader, Grunov was taking no risks. There were reports of heavily armed rovers operating in this area, and his caravan was carrying goods that would turn a hefty profit for him in Port Arthur.
"Roger, initiating sweep," Mandorellen replied. He throttled the secondary movement system up, and sped ahead across the flat hard packed sand of the Karak Wastes. The refurbished Hunter was performing well, though Mandorellen was pretty sure there was something quirky about the neural network CPU. But it was not his machine, and this was only an escort run. The Hunter crouched down, as Mandorellen skated around some of the larger rocks. He smiled. It was then that the active sensor sweep he had been running picked up the vehicles bearing down on the caravan.
"Grunov, this is Shotgun-2. Be advised, you have inbound. I am moving to flank," Mandorellen spoke into the com.
"We copy Shotgun-2,"
Mandorellen kicked the gear into walker mode, and took it up a ridge quickly. Scanning, he picked up the vehicles on his visuals a few hundred meters away. There were at least ten bikes, and a few buggies, all with weapons clearly mounted. He dropped the gear onto the ridge crest, and watched carefully. The vehicles were screaming in front of him, oblivious to his presence on their flank.
Mandorellen's collision warning light flashed on suddenly! He rolled the gear left, out of the way of another gear's foot. He cursed, and got the gear standing quickly. Another warning light came on, and he jerked the controls sideways, barely getting out of the way of a vibroblade slash.
"Crap!" Mandorellen shouted, as he worked the controls, sidestepping away from the Jager, and had his gear pull out a hand grenade. He gritted his teeth as he eyed the Jager, as it stood motionless ten meters away, for a second. Both gears were crouched low, as everything slowed down. He had to time this perfectly.
The Jager leaped at the Hunter, rocketing forwards with the vibroblade out, ready to slash. Mandorellen sidestepped at the last possible moment, avoiding the blade and the gear's armoured shoulders. He threw the grenade about ten meters ahead of the Jager, opened up on the throttle and ran, the Hunter's V-engine roaring loudly behind him. The Jager's momentum carried it right over the grenade, when it exploded.
"This is Shotgun-2, what's your status Grunov?" Mandorellen called into the com as his gear bounded towards the caravan. All he got back was static.
"Grunov, what's your status? Caravan? This is Shotgun-2, come in Caravan!" Mandorellen called again, more urgently, he was pushing his machine to its very limits, taking it back to Grunov's last known position.
His visuals were picking up smoke, but that could mean anything. Mandorellen bounded over the ridge, running, bringing his medium autocannon to the ready.
"Oh, sweet Prophet," he whispered to himself, bringing his Hunter into a crouching jog downhill, and started firing.
There wasn't much left after a minute. Mandorellen managed to drive off the rovers before they got an organized resistance mounted. He counted three buggies driven off, with five destroyed. There were bodies strewn about the area, mostly people he was supposed to protect. Grunov's Antelope buggy was totalled, a blazing wreck, with the other vehicles in the convoy spread out in a futile attempt to break the ambush. The other Hunter, Shotgun-1, was scattered about the place where a crude rocket had impacted, leaving little more than hot fragments and boiling pressure juice. Mandorellen dismounted, and walked around slowly, in a daze. The crackling sounds of flames from the wrecks, licked by the brisk wind, caressed his ears. He approached one of the caravan vehicles. The cab was riddled with large holes. The cargo bay was empty. The rovers were quick, and efficient.
"They probably have done this before. I didn't give them much time," he said to himself absentmindedly, his mind trying hard to blot out the image of the vehicle driver's maimed and lifeless body, as it fell out to the ground when he opened the door to the cab.
Searching for survivors took the better part of an hour. Mandorellen carefully went through each wreck, and checked the bodies. Those the rovers hadn't killed in the initial volley were dragged from their vehicles and shot point blank. There were no survivors. Except him.
"They didn't make off with too much. I guess Uncle Hubert will be able to recover something," he was babbling now, "I mean, he can always get more people to drive his caravans. He can always buy more escorts..."
The Support Cobra didn't know what hit it, as the gear collapsed, a forty-millimetre rifle shell hole having punctured the crew compartment.
"Big Kahuna, this is Jabberwokky, area secured," Mandorellen spoke confidently into the com of his Jaguar Pathfinder.
"Acknowledged Jabberwokky," Captain Schoening's voice came over the channel, "do a sweep. Check for any leftover surprises, the snake knew we were coming."
He sure did. Mandorellen was the only one left of his entire squadron. They had been ambushed by a Southern anti-gear infantry unit, and got badly mauled as his company advanced into Roanoak. But he had managed to keep himself alive, and was reporting back information for the past three days, playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with a search-and-destroy gear escouade among the craters and ruined bombed out buildings.
Mandorellen quickly and quietly did his reconnaissance. As he passed the ruins of a brick building, his sensors picked up something under him.
"What the hell?"
Mandorellen clawed away at the rubble, using his gear's huge manipulator arms.
He found a heavy alloy door in the floor. And beyond, were thermal signatures-people. Mandorellen spoke into the external audio system.
"This is Ranger Nessen of the Northern Guard. It is safe to come out," the speakers on this Jaguar resonated strangely in the ruined building.
He tried again.
He ripped the door out of its frame, and stopped. He was still getting a heat signature from the bodies. Just beyond the door, in the ruins, Mandorellen saw the artillery crater. The shelter must have collapsed under the explosion. He was the only advance-recon Pathfinders to survive. The only one who could have called in an artillery strike to hit this area.
Mandorellen sat next to his Hunter, amidst the carnage of the ambushed convoy. There was nothing to go back to, he realised. Uncle Hubert didn't matter. The convoy didn't matter. All that mattered was that he had to get as far away as he could, and start again.
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 2, Number 3||April, 2000|
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