APAGear II Archives Volume 3, Number 1 February, 2001


Black Talons

Part Four

Harman Meyerhoff

[NOTE: Continued from Part Three, which originally appeared in Volume 2, Number 8. -Ed.]

Breifings suck. They take the terror-filled mission and remove the terror part. There's nothing interesting left. Morgans' intel boys managed to also remove those other nice things like expeccted enemies, so it dissolved into narrarating a map.

"Ok. Proust spilled his guts, and now we know where the Earthers have their antimatter-bomb storage base. We're not sure where exactly, but reconsats have detected some vehicles in the valleys near where Proust said the base is supposed to be. They're hovertanks, meaning it's certainly the right area, but that also makes tracking their routes and destination a little difficult... Soo... We're sending in the whole squad, and your sole objective is to level the place, but preserve enough for our intel boys to comb through."

Thanks Morgan. I thought wryly, but now it was time to become the Impressive Leader and make things interesting again.

"Ok boys and girls, this time tomorrow we'll be in-gear and on-scene. If it moves, shoot it, if it doesn't, get the hell behind it. I want zero casualties, at least on our side."

The Talons before me looked fairly alert, but obviously didn't really care about my pep-talk.

"You're all going in in pairs, Red is Vesping and Mallinaux, Blue Temple and Wallace, and green Kage and Sobec. Red will support me and cause general havoc. I want Blue doing scout-and-shell on secondary targets, and Green should be covering anything particularly threatening from the rear. Also, Tech McConolly has reported that the ECM systems are online and your gears are now completely refitted into one-hundred percent Black Talon Special Issue. Don't break 'em on her."

"Hey Boss! Why you go an stick me with the Norlight?" Mallinaux protested, elbowing Vesping.

"Somebody has to teach you how to fight..." Wallace rumbled from his seat behind Mallinaux.

Vesping crowed, and I barely managed to supress a grin even as Mallinaux reached back and slugged Wallace in the shoulder, harmlessly banging his knuckles off a turtleshell shoulder plate.

Wallace grinned and reached forward in response, headlocked Mallinaux, and scrubbed him across the top of his shaved skull.

Mallinaux yelped, and tried to turn around in his seat to retaliate, but Kage leaned across from next to Wallace and pushed them apart. I was relieved that it hadn't escalated, and with our crew that could've happened very easily...

"Thank you, Kenji." I said dryly as the two were pried apart.

"Now, despite the fact you've all heard it before, stay careful, stay sharp, and everybody makes it home alive. But one more thing- we're doing this my way, with my special incentive program.

I grinned, a look that's always promising for mischeif-lovers.

Theatrically, I continued in an archaic tone of voice:

"And the Commander speaks unto thee- He (or She) who kills the most shall have Free Beer, and He, (or She) who recieves the most enemy fire and survives it -and survives me- shall pay for such beer. Also, those who are sharp and On The Bounce shall recieve Some Free Beer. Hearken and obey, and now let us cause Havoc And Warre, for the just causes of Life As We Know It On Terra Nova, Comely Members Of The Opposite Sex, and for Free Beer!"

Everyone seemed a little amused by my Beer Speech, but not enough to prevent them from stampeding out of briefing room the instant the breif adjourned.

"Oh, and everybody, if you haven't already- Don't officially christen your Gears yet. I'll explain later, but please just don't yet." I called after them, causing Wallace to stop and plug the door, forcing the rest of them to listen before shoving him out of the way.

Vesping remained behind for a second, admitting that she had indeed named her Gear, seeing as she had brought it with her. "Megara" was her baby, and everybody else had been spending much more time refitting than thinking of names.

The Naming of the gears in a new unit is one of those superstitions that even I respect...

Speaking of which, I almost missed out on the rest of the mission- that afternoon before the mission, my gear decided to die.

I remember it vividly, because it happened so unusually. We'd just stripped off all the arctic camo and there it was, sitting in the bay in primer, waiting for another coat of Stealth-Eez and combat grade tempra. In preparation for painting, I decided to power it up and get it outside, where the fumes would dissipate in the breeze and I'd have good light to work in.

It started up fine, nice purring whirr of turbines and hydraulics, then did its' usual pat-pat-pat legs/torso/arms visual check, then shut down.

(Ed: Following line abbreviated to comply with northern publication regulations)

WTF?! U G.D. Charilie-Foxtrot P.O.S.!

I cursed some more, and tapped into the diagnostic. Helldamne... The entire armor estimate read zilch, and it thought that the shoulder hydros were shot too!

Fifteen minutes, a spliced armor appraisal system, and a self diagnostic later, the cobra was probably in better shape than it'd ever been.

Manual start up. Computer-initiated shut down.

Start UP. Shutdown.

I boiled off some words I only vaguely knew translations for, kicked the AI box under my seat, and tried again, to no avail.

Then a faint glimmer of logical thought wormed it's unholy self into my mind. Maybe my AI was reacting to no paint. White undercoat and ash were generally visible under damaged armor...

I cleverly tuned the omni on and distorted the color balance, then tried again. Sucess! It started up! But crashed again with a General Fault/-arm structure integrity unsatisfactory message.

Cursing, I checked the settings. Yes, the omni was on, yes the color made the view seem that my cobra was dark green, and yes, the innards were working, and the armor sensors were so bypassed as to convince an Anolis it carried a half meter of titanium plate over every surface.

So whatthehell?

Only one thing to do- steal someone elses' Gear!

Sobec already had his cobra outside, (and working perfectly fine too, my mind grumbled) airing out as he detailed intricate "gashes" painted all across its' surface. There was also a prerequisite guard standing nearby with some sort of Paxie AR, looking like he'd lost a pretty big hand to end up with this shift of guard duty.

I'd already snared Tech McConnoly and a fresh diagnostic box, so we (as to say she) commandeered Sobecs' Gear, yanked out the battered AI box (looked horrible- dents, scars, bullet holes and one corner had even been sheared off, leaking liquid ceramic for what must've been quite awhile before crusting over) and plugged in my slightly more reputable crate.

Now, normally it is not a good idea to swap AIs between Gears; you can permanently disorient a NeuralNet by plugging it from, say a Gila, into a King Cobra- the AI is used to being in a Gila, and has adapted to using a Gila. Put it in a KC, and it will either relearn or translate its' habits and skills and adapt (unlikely), try to adapt and erase/forget/unlearn its' prior skills as it readjusts (pretty likely), or simply go insane from the new and alien sensations (what usually happens).

Fortunately, my second AI, the one I'd brought with me, is Very Clever. I'd initially had it in a Mamba for about a month when I was doing behind-the-lines commando stuff in the Skyhawks, but soon afterwards I was "reassigned" (my gear got chewed and the spit pilot bought it) to a Spitting Cobra for the remainder of the operation.

Seeing as the new AI was still fairly fresh, and the Spits' AI was damaged, (Can they understand and interpret enough to suicide? I'm not so sure they're just glorified autopilots)I plugged in The Box. After four hours of letting it stand there getting its' balance, and another forty odd minutes of stumblewalking, my AI adapted. Not some simple little "it started getting better" adaptation- it... well, I think it simply determined the differences between the two Gears and ran the motions through a conversion factor. But it learned fast. Frighteningly so. It went from stumbling around like a toddler to running-dodging-shooting like a vet in just under five hours. Every habit and skill seemed present, but it started coming up with new ones. It learned that leaning back on the wheels of the halftrack SMS improved road speed. It learned to reload its' mortar automatically. It began to anticipate and compensate for its' larger size, and handling improved.

Then, on a stupid bet, I put it back in my buddys' still-intact Mamba.

It stood stone cold for twenty minutes while I tried to find religion- one that would preferably count ressurecting Gear AIs as in-stock miracles.

Then my old Mamba started up fine. Almost too good to be true, I tried some nice and easy runs and practice. Apparently, this conversion ability now worked both ways, because that gear moved faster, reacted better and handled cleaner than ever before.

From then on, I've tried to (carefully) teach my AI at least superficial responses for most of the larger/heavier Southern gears, and it's positively thrived on the new experiences.

Back on topic, I expected either a complete repeat of the symptoms if it was AI related, a perfect startup if it was purely the Gear (which I doubted) or a shaky start that would leave me reassured but frustrated.

What happened was another matter.

McConnoly plugged in my AI, Sobec gave me his system-lock key, and Ripper growled to life.

Systems green! I grunted in joy, scowling into the hangar at my primered problem child.

Pat-pat-pat... Went the gear, happily going about its' usual startup routine.

Pat-pat-pat... Pat? It repeated, then twisted its' head to peer at as much of itself as it could manage.

Suddenly the targeting display and damage VDU flickered strangely.

Then, incredulously, McConnoly and I watched a targeting scan style image and the legend "Talon Green 2; Sobec" appear insead of the damage display, while what was normally the damage display holo became an enhanced damage display of my Cobra.

To put it simply, my gear had shown another of those little flashes of intellignece- the type that make the little hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.

McConnoly, watching through her instruments and trideo helmet, said something that comprised of a startled curse and a squeak of incredulity.

After the initial shock wore off, I realized it'd done something like this before.

And I started to laugh.

The legend read "Allegiance Unknown Previous Friendly Target", a rehash of the old trick we used to teach our gears in the field- we'd run a 'deo recording, recon snapshots, other pilots' battle tapes, and even pencil sketches through our Gears' sensor nets and let them try and figure out what the images and sensor traces were. In the field this allowed us to be much surer we were shooting Jaguars and not Assault Jaegers, and provided something to do at night other than try to impede the flow of sand into your bedroll.

This not only allowed it to recognize your mates, but recognize itself. This really never meant much more than you never got false locks in water reflections again, but some gears came to recognize themselves pretty well.

The "Allegiance Unknown Previous Friendly Target" was, I swear, the explanation of my problem. On base, even if for only a night, I would always repaint the insigs and stuff over the camo job. Just a habit, but when you're dealing wiht a habit-based system, it could screw up the proggies. Sure it could understand and extrapolate being in control of a different shaped body controlled through the same interface, but change a basic, constant, and fundamental fact of its' existence (the "signature image" I always painted on each of my Gears' shoulders) and to put it simply, "It go Charlie-Foxtrot in hail of haywire".

Soo... I decided to test my theory. Taking a couple of brushes and some time, I put the Black Talon insignia on the left shoulder, and my Spit symbol (a geometric snake head shape) on the right.

Swapping back my AI, (it offered some resistance when I re-seated it, but I jammed it back in) I started up my paint-stinking Gear and let it do its' thing.


Damage display popup, all systems checking...

Main Systems green...

[Cockpit damage detected! 404- CPU electronics/connector 425 loose or not connected]

YesuChristo... That was the AI to control interface again, where the lock-in plugs to my AI hooked into the internal systems.

Experimentally, I kicked the AI under my seat and slugged my elbow into my seat in the hopes of jarring something back in place.

Nothing happened for a second, but then I began to hear a slight hissing, punctuated by that slight sparky sound of crossed wires.

I shut down my Gear quick and unhooked my AI and, with McConnolys' help, the bolts holding my seat to the internal frame.

"Goddamnit!" I screamed, lashing out with my claw. According to McConnoly, I must've gone two full meters from a kneel atop the toolcart we were using as a work platform once I saw that G.D. snake.

Frickin meter long snake, curled up inside the central wiring panel, and hissing like a teapot.

As I once asked a javari; "como se dice 'Holy shit!'?"

The snake wasn't all to pleased with me, either. Aside from trying to bite me, it'd also apparently been worming around in the heater, water seals, and left arm hydraulics.

So, aside from trying to give me Natures' Own Lethal Injection, that scaly bastard had been responsible for my near-drowning and that oh-so-memorable hypothermia-inducing dint up North.

So, using a 6cm wrench as a snake-stick, I clubbed it aside the head. In an effort to get me bit on the leg, one of the nearby techs took the moment to snap a pic of us, flashblinding me and riling the snake back up. Finally, after much dodging and cursing, I brought the wrench down and pinned it, while McConnoly made ready with a screw-top steel ammo can.

Soon enough, we had one canister [DANGER! SNAKE IN JAR 500 rounds/89mm Antitank BEWARE OF SNAKE] and a functioning mechanical cobra.

Seeing as that had nearly comsumed my day, I headed to the mess hall for my evening feeding.

Once there, I realized that a nice rat.pack of Synth-Meet and Vegetable Supplement in the Gear hangar would've been far preferable.

I heard more digs about that snake than the time Xiang and his Jaeger accidentally ended up fighting hand-to-hand with a Hunter because he'd left his MACs' safety on.

Then came the toasts to "The glorious Special Ops Commander and Protector Of The Civilized World From The Earthers And Indigenous Wildlife".

By the time that was finished, it was nearly time for sleep. But one last thing came to mind after we'd finished our rehydrated dessert, the naming of our Gears.

"Kay folks, introduce us..." I responded when Vesping asked about it.

So, as a sleepy and for once amicable squad, we wandered out to the Gear hangars to perform the ritual.

Mallinaux was first, if only because he'd parked nearest the door. "D'Artagnion" He stated simply, and whirled the dust cover from the mamba. Beautiful. A fleur-de-lise on one shoulder, with crossed rapiers in the background, and a Southern Eagle rampant above it all.

The Gear wasn't armed yet, but a Vibrorapier with a ornamental sheath hung from the right hip.

We oohed and ahhed for a minute or two, and then Mallinaux ceremoniously chugged off half his beer and poured the other half in the fuel tank.

Next was Wallace, who apparently had quite a bit of showmanship behind that zealots' mask. With a thundering announcers' voice he proclaimed his Gear to be "Black Knight". Again, a heraldric sigil, this time the goblet symbol of revisionism, on a a geometric black shape meant to resemble a cloaked and hooded figure holding a sword over his head. Not particularly impressive from a creative standpoint, but still very nice. He performed the alcohol-share differently, taking the smallest sip of the beer and pouring the rest in the tank. Treated it like christian communion wine.

Temple suprised us with hers, though; "Sirs and madam, may I present "DeathKitty".

No points for fearsomeness, but the cheshire cat face emblazoned on the shoulder was very well crafted. She took a sip and poured the rest into the tank.

Kage followed suit, revealing his Gear in the opposite stall. Jet black with one caligraphic (japanese?) symbol on the shoulder, until he explained it, nobody quite understood. "Ronin" He declared simply, and the heiroglyph glared like fresh blood in the semidarkness. He did not drink. His gear was already cleansed- with the blood of his city, his friends, and his family.

"Shredder" Sobec growled, standing off to one side to reveal his creation in its' entirety. Taking a generic gray pattern-breaker, he'd meticulously detailed the edges to resemble serrations and gashes in the steel, and the shoulder bore a buzz-saw blade sillouhette with a geometric skull in the center. He swigged his beer, poured, and then smashed the bottle against the kneecap of his mount.

Knowing his unstable disposition, the squad and I jumped about a meter back, but all he did was chuck the broken neck to the ground. And chuckle at us.

I was last, and so help me god, I didn't have a name for it yet. Perhaps once I got hte cover off I could think of something...

I climbed up on the knee of my kneeling Spit and pulled the dustcover off the torso, turning to face my squad and think think think for a name in the few seconds I had left...

Immediately, everyone burst out laughing.

Then the overhead lights came on, spotlighting me as more laughter echoed from the doorway and overhead catwalks.

Despite the glare of the floods, I could make out most of the techs and Talon support personell gazing intently at me.

With a feeling of supreme dread, I turned around and peered up at my Gear.

And came face to face with a computer-cartooned version of the picture of that goddamn snake! Looking like it'd just been slugged, its' tongue drooped out of the corner of its' mouth, and one eye bulged as its' pose made it appear ready to tip over.

I couldn't believe what had replaced my own conservative serpent design.

I stood there for a second, just looking at the cute pop-eyed-and-dizzy cartoon snake on my fierce Gears' shoulder.

"Mahmmoud, Harik! Don't have a hissy fit!" Called McConnoly from the upper level, as she shut the spotlight off.

Immediately everyone was chuckling, giving me more seconds to panic-think.

And then, like all ideas, it hit me.

The constantly-charging jumpjets.

The leaking cockpit.

The wind whistiling through the cockpit.

The snake!

Voila! Synergy!

I felt somewhat disoriented after the revelation, but in a supreme feat of showmanship, I slugged my beer, poured half into the fuel cell, and proclaimed:

"Laydeez and Shentleman, I give you... Hissy!"

And they roared.

To be continued...

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APAGear II Archives Volume 3, Number 1 February, 2001