|APAGear II Archives||Volume 2, Number 4||May, 2000|
Gliding across the cracked floor of the Eastern Desert, the NCS Resolute slid through the shadowy landscape like a hungry animal on the prowl. She wasn't a big landship, but she was trimmed for war and bristling with weapons, electronics, and young crew thirsty for its first combat of the war. Running dark and moving at high-speed, the ship rumbled towards the southwestern horizon, kicking up a huge cloud of dust in its wake.
On the bridge, Lieutenant Millar looked over at her sensor operator. "Anything yet, Tull?" she asked quietly, her voice terse.
"No ma'am," the young Mercantilist answered. "No sign of the beacon. No sign of anything, yet."
Switching her attention to a lanky man sitting in front of her, Millar frowned. "Make our course one-eight-zero, Gainsworth. Engines ahead full."
Touching a few controls, Corporal Robbert Gainsworth nodded. "Ahead full, course one- eight-zero." Turning in his seat as he felt the ship respond, Gainsworth looked back at his commander, her slim scowl lit only by the greenish glow of the room's instruments. "Are we going to be there in time, ma'am?"
Millar was silent for a moment before she answered. "We're on schedule. We just need the weather to hold."
The rest of the bridge crew exchanged glances. Millar and the captain had argued in the afternoon about the weather report, and the fact that the wind was now screaming across the ship's decks was sure indication that Millar, older and more experienced in desert travel, had been right. A serious storm was brewing.
Footsteps sounded in the narrow corridor leading to the bridge, and Millar knew that at this hour it could only by the captain. Standing, she turned and met him with a salute as he ducked his way into the command center of the ship.
"Status?" he asked, his voice deep and raspy.
Lowering her hand, Millar tugged at her uniform jacket, smoothing its wrinkles. Clasping her hands firmly behind her back, she reported, "We're approximately two hours from the rendezvous, traveling due south at full speed."
Captain Delloch Tomas raised a black eyebrow as he lowered himself into the captain's chair. "Two hours? Are we running slow?"
"No sir, we're right on schedule -- but we're having trouble making better than forty kilometers per hour. We're fighting a very strong head wind."
Delloch, a young man from Fort William in command of his first ship, avoided the woman's gaze. Rebekah Millar was a fine first officer, and knew the ship from stern to bow better than anyone else on board -- except Clon McClusky, but the engineer was practically married to the Resolute. Millar ran the day-to-day operations on the ship, and Delloch knew that most of the crew felt that the ship should had been hers when old Captain Vicars retired. That, of course, was all the more reason to prove himself to the men and women under his command.
"Any sign of the signal yet?"
Millar gripped the side of the captain's chair firmly as a powerful gust of wind rocked the warship. "No sir. No sign. No southern patrols, either, on the ground or in the air."
"One of the advantages of the bad weather," the commander returned, noting the ship's location on the massive holographic map dominating one wall, "is that the southie bastards will all be buttoned down. They certainly won't be expecting us."
"Sir?" Tull interjected. "I've got something coming up on the weather radar, directly in our path. Sir, it looks like a-"
"Sandstorm," Millar finished with a raised eyebrow. "Captain, I was afraid one was brewing."
Delloch peered out the main viewscreen, trying in vain to see something in the dark. "Tull, what's the size of that storm? Windspeed?" I need details."
"One sec, sir," the young sailor returned, focusing on his controls and the readings his instruments produced. Turning back towards his captain, he shook his head. "Doesn't look good, sir. It's over a hundred kilometers across and growing fast. And the winds are already hitting 200+ kph. It's a bad one."
"We've no time to go around it," Delloch stated flatly. "Those paratroopers can't wait. Millar, give the order to clear the decks and batten the hatches. We're going to spear right through that storm and come out the other side."
"Sir, the ship's not built to take that kind of weather. We'll be blind, and we'll certainly run aground or capsize at this speed. I've been on ships on the edge of desert tempests, sir. We need to keep our distance."
"You'd rather strand ten of the North's best soldiers? Leave them at the mercy of the enemy? At the mercy of those godless snakes?"
Millar's expression didn't change. "Sir, no, I don't want to abandon them. But you're putting the whole ship and her crew at risk if you take us into that storm. If we skirt the worst of it, or wait it out-"
The captain's gaze steeled as he looked directly into the woman's eyes. "There's no time. We won't be totally blind -- we'll have the Hermes72 network for navigation, not to mention the high-rez topos. Increase speed to flank, Mr. Gainsworth. Hold your course."
Jaine Millar couldn't help her jaw from stiffening further. "Captain, topo coverage in this area is marginal at best. And the Hermes72-"
"Will have to do. Give the order, lieutenant."
Millar moved to a well-lit panel and switched open the ship-wide comm. "Attention all hands. We have code yellow, repeat, code yellow. We're in for some bad weather, so clear the deck and baton the hatches. Man battle stations... we're entering Southern territory."
Private Zeborah Valentine, manning one of the Resolute's heavy waist-guns, peered first into her snowy ranging scope, then out of her narrow armored viewport. "Jesus Christ," she spoke into her helmet-mounted mic. "I can't see a God-damned thing. This is crazy! My sensors are useless -- how can they even see where we're going? We're going to hit something, I tell you."
Fire control answered the hotheaded landsailor quickly. "Stow the Jerusalemite cursing, Valentine. Just keep watching for snakes."
"In this?! No snakes here. They're all safe and snug under their rocks, I guarantee."
"Right. Sorry, sir. Watching the scope, sir. Not seeing much of anything except sand, sir."
Thirty minutes into the storm, the ship was in the heart of it. She was being stung by sand and struck by airborne debris as she barreled across the desert, and the rocking and swaying motion of the normally smooth-gliding ship had forced several of her crew to void the contents of their stomachs. Not a single crewmember, however, had abandoned their post. The storm beat against the ship mercilessly, but the Northerners were unwilling to yield. Onward, they raced.
Bright tracers flying past the shoulder of his gear, Ranger Jon Somers wrenched the controls, throwing his machine into a serious of left-right jinks. When he saw the tracking shots go wild as his pursuer lost his aim, the skilled pilot jumped his gear into the air and spun to land backwards, reversing his facing and his gear in one swift move. The transmission howled in protest as gears gnashed and bit, but Somers had more pressing matters to attend to -- like the desert-camo Iguana bearing down on his position, already taking bead with its autocannon. Two shots from his grenade launcher detonated near the enemy gear, lighting up the night sky with deadly phosphorous flashes, and as the southern machine ducked right to avoid the blasts, it moved directly into the line of Somers' barking autocannon. Armor piercing shells ripped through the light gear, causing it to stumble, fall and finally explode.
Turning his machine back towards the north, the NorGuard Ranger concentrated on finding cover. On both sides of him his comrades were fighting for their lives, fending off what was sure to be only the first wave of attackers. The two squadrons had dropped in behind enemy lines and destroyed a key supply station, but -- as intelligence had predicted -- Southern Republic forces in the area were concentrated and well-equipped. Swiveling his Jaguar's head, Somers saw with his omni-camera that snake reinforcements were arriving quickly. At least two hoppers were in the air, their bright searchlights combing the rocky landscape, and a cadre or two of gears had taken up the chase along with a few heavier pieces of armor. Clearly, this was a fight the Northern pilots could not win.
They'd accomplished their mission, though. Sure evidence of that was the wrecked base a few kilometers to the southeast, still smoking and being rocked by exploding fuel and ammunition. The ten gears used for the operation, eight of which were now trying to escape pursuit, had been equipped with specialized stealth equipment -- low noise electronics, RAM-coatings and other technologies that they hoped would allow them to escape into the night. None of the paratroop gears were as stealthy as a dedicated black-ops machine -- like a Black Cat -- but if they could put some distance between themselves and their pursuers, they stood a good chance of avoiding detection until the Resolute arrived at the rendezvous point.
Ranger Somers lurched his machine to one side as a gear suddenly appeared from nowhere, leaping from a low ridge to land in front of him, SMS engaged at top speed. The skill of the pilot was plain, and Somers knew without checking that Gunther, his squad mate, had also escaped. Without exchanging radio calls, the pair raced off into the gloom.
The steel plates that had been lowered into place over the big observation windows of the bridge were taking a pounding. Fist-sized stones were slamming into the ship, and the resulting noise inside the bridge was nearly deafening. "Engineering reports a problem with the forward intakes!" Millar shouted at her captain. "Too much sand for the filters!"
Gripping his armrests with white knuckles, Delloch nodded. "We're almost though!" he yelled back. "We've seen the worst of it, and we're only thirty minutes from the pick-up zone!"
A dull boom sounding in the background, behind the ship, carried over the shrieking and clanging of the wind and airborne stones. When another explosion sounded -- this one closer -- Delloch asked, "What the hell was that?"
"Anti-ship mines, sir," Millar returned loudly. "We're in a minefiel-"
Millar's explanation was cut short when one of the explosive devices went off directly under the rear port thruster. The ship rocked almost forty-five degrees onto her side, throwing the non-secured members of her crew around mercilessly. It took several seconds for the ship to stabilize, and when she did Captain Delloch was about to bellow for a damage report when the collision klaxons sounded.
"We're off course!" Gainsworth yelled. Wrenching the helm full to port, he added, "Brace for impact!"
Kneeling to escape the howling high winds, Senior Ranger Eduard Nirisko gave his men a gear-sized thumbs-up signal when he activated the beacon. They had maintained radio silence, but each of the surviving six Northern gear pilots now knew their fate was in the hands of the Resolute and her captain. They aren't coming, most of them thought. The squall that was raging out in the desert plain was surely too powerful to bring a landship through. Gunther knew better, however. He knew they were coming.
The impact was glancing but still jarringly violent. Gainsworth had managed to steer the vessel away from certain destruction; instead it sideswiped a series of high ridges and rock outcroppings, shattering stone and twisting steel with each thunderous collision. The entire fragile sensor array -- including the Hermes72 receiver -- was torn off and sent flying. Several gun stations on the starboard side were destroyed, Valentine and three other gunners killed. Fires broke out in several locations, and a below-deck explosion rocked the aft of the ship. Miraculously, though, the Resolute sailed on. Straining to be heard above the storm and wailing alarms, Captain Delloch fought to regain control of his ship and the situation. The next few minutes saw damage control crews racing all over the ship, trying to keep her afloat while medics tended to the many injured.
"We're blind, captain," Millar said, steadying herself by hanging onto an overhead beam. A trickle of blood ran down her cheek, but she didn't seem to notice. "Sensors are down, as is the H72 receiver. If we don't slow down, we're going to run aground again."
Satisfied that the immediate danger was over, Delloch nodded. "Agreed. Helm, all ahead one-half. Slow us down." Pressing a button to lift the storm plates off of the forward window, he added, "We're going to have to trust our eyes."
Checking his ammunition load, Ranger Somers shook his head. His grenade launcher was empty, and his last clip of rifle ammunition was less than half full. Overhead, the Varis that had spotted the low-lying war party circled around, spitting 25mm fire from its belly- mounted autocannon. The Northern gears put up a hail of return fire, but the fast-moving hopper sped overhead unharmed. Cursing their bad luck, Senior Ranger Nirisko ordered his men to split up into pairs and move out. He knew that if they stayed in position, they'd be overrun in a matter of moments by Republican forces. Bursting from their hiding places, the remnants of the CNCS strike team resumed their desperate flight. It wasn't long before a Titan attack helicopter joined the fight and a pair of Long Fang Nagas crested a distant hill and began raining down deadly artillery rounds on the NorGuard forces. As a full-scale battle erupted, it was obvious that the Northern forces were badly outmatched. Damaged and out of ammo, they began to fall. First Elliot, obliterated by a direct hit from one of the Nagas, then Sherman, his gear blasted to pieces by a rocket barrage from the Titan.
Somers loosed the last of his autocannon rounds at the helicopter, hitting but not damaging it seriously. A near miss from one of the artillery rounds knocked the Ranger and his gear to the ground, and Somers didn't see the Titan get blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. The hopper was next, swatted down another missile screaming in from the north.
"They're here!" Gunther yelled into the radio. "They're here! I knew he'd come!" A number of kilometers away, the Resolute, listing slightly to one side and smoking badly, rumbled towards their position. Bright flashes from her foredeck were followed by tremendous, blooming explosions on the hillside where the Nagas had nested themselves. Even though she was hurt, the landship was able to flex her muscles and showed why landships were such feared weapons of war. Over the next few minutes, the ship's weapon crews hit southern positions with a fury. When the pursuing Republican forces turned back in the face of such withering fire, the Northern gears broke onto open ground, racing for the safety of the ship.
Cruising to a halt, the ship's main battery continued to thunder as the four relatively tiny bipedal machines came alongside. With practiced precision, the starboard cranes lifted the paratroopers aboard two at a time. Within three minutes, they were back underway, slowly turning towards the northwest. Less than half the team had been recovered, but a serious blow had been struck against the South; the Northern advance into Basin Rouge could begin.
Stepping down from his battle-scarred mount, Jon Somers smiled at the other men in his squad. Looking at Ranger Delloch, he asked, "Gunther -- a few minutes ago you said "he'd" come. Who did you mean?"
Gunther grinned broadly. "My brother. He commands this tub, and I knew he wouldn't hang his baby brother out to dry. Let's go. I'll introduce you to him."
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 2, Number 4||May, 2000|
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