APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 11 December, 2000


Lost and Found

Part One

Steve Hilberg

Wind whistled around her Gear, whining as it found the battle scars in the machine's tough hide and blasting sand across her field of view, no doubt pulling off more of its paint. Catryna Baez struggled to keep the Warrior balanced in the worsening winds of the approaching tempest. "Geraint, this is getting real bad -- we need to find somewhere to hull down for a while or we're fucked," she spit over the radio, hoping her antenna was still intact.

"What if those rovers come back for us? My Longrunners are not combat machines, Baez. Besides, the weather doesn't seem that bad yet." The engine of her Gear coughed and sputtered a bit, as if in response to the doubting merchant. Catryna muttered a curse under her breath -- the Longrunners were a tad bit more surefooted than the four Gears escorting the convoy.

"I doubt they're crazy enough to follow us into this mess. Even if they do, if we don't stop soon to repair our Gears they are going to stop on their own. I'd rather stop on my own terms and be able to run again if we have to than to get stuck with a blown engine and have to leave a Gear behind." A gust of wind blasted against her Gear and she leaned into the controls, trying to keep upright. "Besides, I can barely see my hand in front of my face as it is. I told you we should have looped northwards." And added four days to the trip, but that was his problem, not hers. "Raven One to Raven Group, what's your status?"

"Raven Two to Raven One, I'm hanging in there. Nothin' on the scope, but I think my sensors might be on the fritz after that rocket hit." The rovers had peppered Travis Rehn's Bear with a flight of light rockets early in their last engagement, trying to knock the fire support Gear out quickly.

"Raven Three to Raven One. All clear, but I think my intakes are getting clogged. We should stop soon." Petra Reneau's rolled R's betrayed her Southern origins, as if her Jager didn't do that already. She didn't talk much about her past, but Catryna knew she had been stationed in Basal when she deserted with her Gear, so she had little reason to wonder why the woman had left the service of the MILICIA.

"Raven Four is holding his own, ma'am. I can't see worth shit though. Wait -- looks like there's a hill or outcropping of some sort a little ahead of me; want me to check it out?" Rick Haims' Hunter was the furthest out of all the Gears, running point.

"Sounds good to me, Raven Four. It's as good as we're likely to find in this mess. Check it out; we'll keep heading in your direction." She knew Geraint was technically in charge, but he'd already blown his chance to keep them out of this mess by keeping more towards the Protectorate instead of cleaving straight through the Basin. Raven Four was about two klicks ahead of the rest of the convoy; about four or five minutes of travel time at least in this weather. She hoped her Gear would cooperate for at least that much longer.

Ah, the glorious life of a Badlands mercenary, she thought to herself, sighing softly. She must have missed something in the brochure about dealing with penny-pinching caravaners and tempests that looked like something out of the Jerusalemite Bible. At least she was her own boss though, and didn't have to worry about headquarters shafting her on supplies. Of course, her own bank account might end up doing that anyway, especially with the wear and tear from the battle and storm.

The hill Rick had seen began to emerge from the blinding storm; she looked around for his Gear, trying to get some sense of scale. "Raven Four, this is Raven One -- I can see the hill, but I can't see you -- can you give us a signal of some sort?" She zoomed in with the Gear's omnicam, scanning the base of the hill. Lightning flashed in the sand-filled skies above her and thunder shook the ground beneath her.

"I'll see what I can do -- let me know if you can see me, Cat." She caught sight of flashing lights as she drew closer, and the silhouette of the Hunter slowly became distinct from the gloom of the tempest. She flashed her lights back at him and zoomed back out; the hill dwarfed the Gear -- she hoped it would be enough to shelter them until the storm passed.

"I think we're in luck, Cat....looks like there's a cave here we can hide in -- should be big enough even for the Longrunners. I'll move over towards the entrance so you can get everything inside." His Gear began to walk slowly, visibly fighting the wind, moving towards the north face of the hill.

"Sounds good to me. Raven Group and Robin Group, converge on Raven Four's position; let's make this quick too. I don't want to sit out here any longer than we have to." She didn't think Geraint was going to like her giving orders, but she doubted he was going to make a big deal of it at this point. Another gust of wind buffeted her Gear and she pulled the Gear to the right, kicking her speed up.

The second Longrunner backed into the cave entrance, the four Gears standing guard outside. Catryna frowned slightly as she looked over her sensors; something wasn't looking right, but she couldn't put her finger on it. A high-pitched whine screamed in the wind, and she snapped her head toward the noise, turning to see a flash of flame and then smoke coming from Travis' Bear.

"Awww....fuck." Travis' slight drawl drifted over the radio, his Gear shaking slightly and going silent as he shut down the engine. "I think my engine's shot, Cat -- not sure if it was the rockets or the sand, but I'm shutting it down. I'll run on battery until we can get inside the cave and have a look." Wonderful -- she hoped they could get the engine repaired; it would be an expensive loss if she had to write off her fire support Gear.

The balloon-tired truck finished disappearing into the cave, fading into darkness and obscured by sand. "All right, everyone inside, on the double," she ordered, scanning the horizon as best she could through the gloom of the storm. Another stroke of lightning struck nearby, illuminating the backs of the other three Gears as they turned to walk into the cave. Hopefully those rovers were smarter than Geraint and decided walking into a sandstorm was a bad idea, she thought, frowning at the increasingly violent display before her. On the other hand, this storm wasn't going to last forever, and the repairs to their vehicles might take quite a bit longer than the storm -- which might mean the rovers would catch up to them after all.

She swung her Warrior around and followed the rest of the mercenary group inside, into the darkness of the cave. Headlights peered from the other vehicles, creating a swirling display of sand that looked like a rolling, gentle rain of grit as opposed to the virtual sandblaster outside. A number of the merchant's men were pulling heavy tarps from the back of one of the Longrunners, usually used as tents, to string up over the cave entrance to protect from the elements and to camouflague their hiding place.

"Cat, there is something really strange about this place -- look at those walls." Petra's curvy Jager pointed towards the far wall ahead of her, and something there glinted in the lights of her Gear. "It looks like some sort of metal." Catryna looked at the rest of the cavern; most of the walls were flat, with some sand and dirt parting to expose something metallic behind them.

She glanced back at the entrance to the cavern -- it looked far too ragged for it to be man-made. "What do you think, maybe an old Colonist shelter of some sort?" asked Rick, moving his Hunter alongside Petra's Gear to study the wall as well. Behind them, Travis moved his Gear against the wall and shut down, popping his hatch soon after.

"We can look at the walls later -- for now, we should shut down and dismount, so we don't fill this place with exhaust fumes. I'm sure there will be plenty of time for lollygagging at the walls later. Raven One out." She moved her Gear over nearby the Bear and shut down, listening to the Gear's V-engine fade into the constant sound of wind wailing outside. She popped the hatch and took off her helmet, running her hand through her short black hair, thankful to be out of the cramped cockpit.

She climbed out of the war machine and walked over to Travis, who was standing behind his wounded Gear with a dark look on his face. "How's it look?" she asked, crossing her arms over her chest. He turned to her and shrugged as the two other Gears parked against the back wall of the cave.

"Can't be too sure. From the outside, I don't see anything horribly wrong, but who knows what happened inside. My guess is that it's just a stripped gear or a torched fan, but it could be worse. We might have the parts to fix it in the Longrunners, but I won't know until I open it up. Give me an hour or so to assess the damage." She nodded and stepped away, leaving him to his repairs, and walked towards the other two Gear pilots, who were looking up at the walls, playing their flashlights over the metallic patches.

"Is that a pair of doors up there?" asked Petra, pointing to an indentation in the wall above them.

"Might be -- why would there be doors way the hell up there though?" Rick panned his flashlight over the rest of the wall, looking for some other clue to the nature of the place.

"All right, you two," said Catryna, looking over their Gears. "Let's see what kind of damage we have to take care of first, before we start looking around. If the storm lets up soon we may have to fight our way out of here." She shook her head slightly -- it was interesting, for sure, and definitely worth looking into; she had to admit she was pretty curious herself. First things first though; she needed all her people ready to go.

"Oui, oui, Madame Commandant," said Petra, turning to Cat and grinning. Rick chuckled softly and nodded in agreement, lowering his flashlight as well and going towards his Gear. Catryna walked towards the Longrunners, where Geraint was talking to some of his people as they set up lights and began to look over their own vehicles. As she approached, he looked up and sent the man he was talking to away with a wave of his hand, frowning sourly at her.

"I do not appreciate having my caravan hijacked from under me," he muttered quietly to her, barely audible over the din of wind and work in the background. "In the future, I wish you'd let me give the orders, Ms. Baez." She let her face turn stony and serious, narrowing her eyes at the merchant.

"I am doing what you paid me to do, which is protecting your caravan. If you had listened to me in the first place, Mr. Geraint, we would not even be stuck in this mess, and we would have probably avoided those rovers too." One of the tarps being placed over the entrance tore from it's stakes, sending a sudden gust of sand-carrying wind into the cave. Catryna turned and held her arm up to block the burst of sand, while the merchant turned and pulled his heavy dustcloak around him a bit tighter. The tarp was quickly drawn back over the entrance by two of Geraint's men.

"Regardless, I want you to let me give the orders from now on, understood? If you have a problem, I expect you to speak with me privately on the matter." Catryna frowned, but gave a small nod of acknowledgement. He didn't want to look dumb in front of his own people. She understood, but she wasn't going to put formality above the lives and welfare of her pilots, or their Gears for that matter. "Good. Now that that is settled, how long do you think we will be here? I am told this storm shouldn't last more than an hour or two."

"Travis will need at least an hour just to assess the damage to his Gear. The rest of us escaped without any significant damage I think, but I won't know until we finish checking. If Travis' engine is shot, we'll be in deep trouble. Even if we have the parts, it could take five or six hours to take it apart, clean it out, replace the parts, and put it all back together again, not to mention the other damage he sustained. Considering it's going to be nightfall in about that long, we should consider staying here overnight; I don't the the rovers will find us here, and even if they do, they will be hard pressed to mount an effective attack on us in here." They'd have trouble getting out, too, but she didn't mention that.

"Well....we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Let me know what the damage looks like and I'll decide what to do." He turned to walk back to his truck, and Catryna muttered a curse under her breath. He was free to leave whenever he wanted, but she was sure as hell not leaving if her people were all going to be in strung-out shape and in Gears held together with spit and baling wire. She sighed and turned towards her Warrior, shaking her head as she let her hands fall to her sides.

"I think I can get the engine fixed if we can get the parts. Unfortunately, the electrical system is shorted out in several places and my left leg is leaking pressure juice like a burst artery. I'm not sure we have the parts to patch all of them. We might have to take them from the other Gears or the Longrunners, if we can spare them." Travis' dire assessment of his Bear's condition was not making anyone in the circle of people happy. Catryna cursed under her breath, looking back over at the hulking machine with dismay.

She was lucky it wasn't worse. Petra's Gear had come through the entire mess without trouble, just a few bullet holes which were easy enough to patch over for the time being, although the armor would have to be replaced when they got back to civilization. Rick's Hunter had lost a section of armor plate on his right arm and caused some loss of motor control, but a replacement sheet of durasteel had been slapped on for now and the Gear's hydraulics jury-rigged to keep working for the moment. Her Warrior's sensors and ECM were damaged, but she thought that she had some replacement cerachips that would get them back up and running.

Travis' Bear was a problem though. The Gear's heavy weaponry was a strong anchor for the small force, despite its age. None of the other Gears had anything with that kind of punch, and while it might not matter against lightly-armored modified Prairie Dogs or scout cars, if they ran into anyone with a military Gear or anything heavier, they would need the Bear's punch to carry the day.

She turned back to the circle. "Okay, Travis...see what you can do. Maybe Mr. Geraint has some supplies or people he can spare." She looked over at the merchant with a withering look.

"I will see what I can find. I will of course deduct the cost of the supplies from your pay." Catryna felt her temperature rise about 50 degrees -- but she could argue about the pay later, but at least he was going to let the replacement parts out of his tight little hands. She nodded slightly, keeping a lid on her objections.

"Cap'n...." Rick spoke up from his seat on the sandy ground. "There might be another possibility too." Catryna looked over at the Hunter pilot, raising her thin black eyebrows. "Pet and I think that we've figured out what this place was." He pointed up at the large indentation in the back wall, right under the ceiling. "We're in the drop bay of a crashed dropship -- probably CEF, since we're close enough to Port Arthur."

"What makes you think that?" asked Geraint, looking around at the cavern.

"First of all, the door up there -- this thing is probably upside down. Not many bunkers are built upside-down. The entrance to this place was probably made by one of our missiles. Probably hit more than once, since I don't think a hit to a drop bay would necessarily kill a dropship." Rick grinned slightly. "And if it is a CEF dropship, we might be able to find some replacement parts for the Gears and maybe even something extra. I bet Travis could use one of those GREL rifles, Cat." He looked over at the big Bear pilot, who chuckled softly.

"It might be worth looking into," agreed Catryna, looking back over at Geraint. "CEF hardware goes for a lot in Peace River, or almost anywhere else. Even if we can only take a little, selling the location to Paxton might be worth a ton -- but they'll want to see proof we found the real thing." She curled her lips into a knowing smile. Geraint's desire to get moving as soon as possible was going to give in to his eye for a quick dollar.

Geraint ground his teeth, thinking, then shrugged slightly. "I suppose that would be worth a try. I do not particularly want to send my mechanics and drivers on this quest for some parts that may or may not be there." He kicked at the dirt, frowning.

"I don't want to send all my pilots into the bowels of a spacecraft with rovers lurking outside still either. I suggest we send in two teams of two people each; Petra and Rick can each take one of your mechanics, and we should be able to find what we need in short order that way. Travis and I will try to get his Gear working the best we can with what we have available now and stand ready to go if the storm lifts and the rovers start poking around here." She looked over at Rick and Petra, who were nodding in agreement. "Does that sound okay to you?" she asked the merchant.

"I suppose. I will see who I can spare. How do you plan to get inside anyway?" he replied, turning to look over at Rick and Petra.

"Presumably that door up there has some sort of manual override; we'll have one of the Gears boost us up there and try to throw it. It shouldn't be too hard. Once we get in we'll drop a line down so we can get up and down easily," said Rick, glancing over at the doors, which were at least 7 or 8 meters above the floor.

"Let's get started then -- I don't want to waste any more time than we absolutely have to. Rick and Petra, get your equipment ready to go and I will boost you up to take care of getting the door open; once we get that Mr. Geraint can spare his mechanics for our search." Cat looked over at Geraint, who was nodding slowly. "Let's get to it then."

It took about an hour, but they were able to find and release the doors' manual override and get them open with a great deal of effort. Each team was fitted out with a radio, memcompass, rope, and other equipment; Catryna made sure each of her pilots' sidearms were loaded and ready, just in case some of the Badlands' various dangerous fauna had been able to get inside the hulk. Geraint had frowned slightly, but raised no objections; he knew as well as she did that they had to be prepared, just in case. He gave a 9mm to each of his mechanics as well, even though their proficiency with a gun was rather lacking compared to her pilots'.

The two teams disappeared into the dark corridors of the crashed ship and the dozen or so others left went back to getting ready to go again once they returned. Geraint went to oversee a few of his people looking over an axle on one of the Longrunners that had evidently been damaged by a sand egg, while Catryna and Travis looked over his battered Gear.

"Shit. I think this pump here is dead, Travis," said Catryna as she looked over the partially disassembled V-engine on the back of the Bear. "I think we have a spare in the truck. How are you doing with the communications relays?"

He pulled his head from the cockpit and looked around the gear at Catryna, shaking his head. "Petra might have better luck, she's the electronics wiz. I don't think I'm going to be able to get sensors and communications working -- maybe one or the other, with the parts I've got. I think I'd rather have sensors at this point." He smirked mirthlessly and she sighed, nodding. "The leg seems to be holding up though...at least I shouldn't have trouble walking, once we get the engine fixed."

Cat winced. "I don't know how well that will pan out. Other than this pump, your radiator is shot to hell, and I think there's some damage to the carburetor too. I think I might be able to fix some of it, but who knows how well it will hold." She looked over the guts of the engine again. "We might be able to jury-rig something though, so you could get at least some power from your engine and we could just take it slow. I doubt Geraint will go for that though."

Travis frowned darkly. "Yeah, well, we'll see about that. I do not plan to leave this guy sitting in the middle of the Badlands if I can help it." He patted the Gear's leg. "Besides, if Geraint doesn't let us do that, he might never get outta the Basin alive anyway."

"I'm not sure that's the best bargaining position to take though, Travis." She flashed him a grin. "I'm going to go look in the trucks for a replacement pump. Get your sensors working now, we'll let Petra have a crack at the comm gear when she gets back." Cat climbed down from the back of the Gear and walked over to the open Longrunner. She went through the crate of spare parts and other mechanical supplies, biting her lip. She swore they had brought at least one spare pump for the V-engine.

Her radio headset crackled static for a moment around her neck and then she heard Rick's voice. "Cat? Someone there? I've got a problem here," she heard, abandoning her search and putting the headset on her head. "Hello?" She could almost taste the anxiousness in his voice.

"Go ahead Rick...what's up?" She began going through the machine parts again.

"I'm not sure exactly -- Geraint's mechanic seems to have vanished. We were here in the engine room looking for the spare parts stores and I went over to a set of lockers over here and was going through them, and when I looked back over at where he had been, he wasn't there. I looked around and I can't find him anywhere around here."

She frowned and put down the pump she had found. "You're sure he's gone? He left without the radio, without anything?"

"As far as I can tell, Cap'n. I can't say I really want to try walking out of here alone; it was tough enough with two people." She saw Geraint poke his head into the truck, looking at her with a look of concern on his face. She gestured for him to find a radio.

"Don't move, Rick. Petra....are you there?" She took her pump and climbed out of the Longrunner, walking back over towards the Bear.

"I'm here, Cat....we're almost to the bridge, I think."

"What's going on?" Geraint growled over the radio.

"One of your mechanics disappeared. Rick's stuck in the engine room alone now." Cat tapped Travis on the back and handed him the pump, gesturing towards her headset to let him know she was busy. "Try putting that in....I'll be right back," she said hoarsely, cupping her hand over the mic.

"What do you mean, he disappeared?"

"Vanished. Poof. Into thin air. I can't find him -- one minute he was there and the next he was gone. I can't find his flashlight or any sign of him."

"Petra, this is Cat. How long is it going to take you to check the bridge?" Catryna began walking over towards Geraint's truck, tugging on the back of her black hair.

"I am not sure, Catryna. Perhaps an hour or so. We could head back to get Rick first."

"No, it'll take too long. I think Travis has things under control here; I'll grab someone and go after him. Rick, you hang in there. We'll be there in a bit. See what you can find, but don't move too far. I'll need directions." She climbed into Geraint's Longrunner and walked towards the merchant, who was sitting at a makeshift desk.

"Roger that, Cat. Haims out."

Geraint stood up as best he could in the cramped vehicle, walking toward the Gear pilot with an angry look on his face. "What the hell is going on here, Baez?"

"Your man is the one who disappeared, Geraint -- don't even try to pin this shit on me. I need one more of your men and I'll go get Rick and begin a search for the missing guy."

"All mine other men are busy. I can't spare any more for this wild goose chase --"

"Then you come with me. I'm not going to in there alone -- unless you want to be down two Gear pilots when you go back out against those rovers. It's almost nightfall -- we should try and get what we can done now so we can head out in the morning." She grabbed some rope from a crate of supplies and held it out to the merchant.

Geraint looked at the nylon rope for a moment, caught off guard by her suggestion. He glanced around, looking for a way to pull himself out of the corner he was trapped in. "All right. Let me get my things together."

To be continued...

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APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 11 December, 2000