APAGear II Archives Volume 3, Number 10 November, 2001


Black Talons

Part 7: Into the Wild Black Yonder

Harman Meyerhoff

[NOTE: Continued from Part Six, which appeared in Volume 3, Number 4 of APAGear II. -ED.]

After the initial puking and moaning, space training got to be fun. Now, I'm sorry folks, but I can't tell you hardly anything about the training itself, aside from that the people involved are the greatest, and I'd rather not make them dead by revealing where they work, who they are, or how we train to the average Earther sympathizer who sinks a mark or dinar for the latest issue of Gear Week, reads this, and sends it to his buddies on Caprice. Come to think of it, the editors and owners of this fine publication wouldn't like that either. Add "Copyright Infringement" to the list of CEF war crimes...

You'll also hopefully understand that my reluctance is also due to the fact I'd have Westphalia, SRID, and probably even Northie BlackOps assassins competing see who can slit my throat quickest if I leaked classified info, intentionally or not.

So on we plunge to the actual gatejump. We Talons are probably the first Terranovans to gate in umpteen generations. Well, actually, the earthers doubtless took prisoners back with them, but still...

So there we were, our squad strapped down in the Fury, holding alongside the UMFGS Laban Emuros, a singularly ugly ship with what I firmly believe has to be the largest frickin HPA cannon ever built running its' length.

We were waiting. While there's no hiding in empty space, but I still felt the tinglies I get from hiding in ambush. In a sense, we were ambushing. The earther GateCoffin would pop across the Tannhauser Discontinuity, completely unaware of us until it was on our side and righteously screwed.

Despite the urge to stay behind and grin my evil grin as they put a can opener to that sneeky earther pod, I was presently occupied.

Our pilots were up front, sitting around with Morgan and the ops crew in the bridge while I played bookend between Wallace and Sobec in pilots' country.

Not only did I get squashed, but I also was first in line to get spewed on. Beloved Boyden of The Army Of The Lands Of The Divine Prophet, and by extension his stomach, did not do well in nullgrav.

I, at least when not trussed like a holiday roast, had discovered Jeni was right about me. I am quite capable of moving like a swamp otter in freefall.

"Your attention ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking, we're about ready and we're just waiting for our last guest to arrive." The intercom blared. Irritatingly enough, our pilot (I can't name names, sorry) managed that damn quarter-staticked laconic Pilot Drawl just as well as every other damn aerojock. I hate that. There's some cruel law of the universe that no ground-pounder can sound like a Pilot. Well, damnit, I'm a Pilot too. Black Talon no less! Ergo, I should be able to use that voice too!

Laban Emuros chimed in, "Here it comes, reading a particle surge from the gate... Small object coming through."

"Looks like another gate coffin." Fury responded.

"Roger that, we're ready to charge the gate. Standby for burn." Laban announced, firing up its spinal particle cannon at the wombling, streaking tear in space in front of us. On the tactical vectors display I could see two interceptor-fighters streaking after the Coffin, but my attention was unequivocally wrenched back when the Emuros announced "We are charging the gate. Fury standby."

Reminiscent of my first and only experience with particle weapons (though without getting half my Gear melted away), the Laban Emuros fired off its' main attraction. A multi-hepawatt fusion-powered particle beam that could easily reduce a large vessel to a multiklom cloud of single molecules lanced out from the emitters and into empty space.

Still, it didn't seem to do much to the Tannhauser Gate. Damn thing just sucked it up and said 'hungry for more'.

Then the ripply "splash" hanging in space suddenly surged and glowed, throwing off faerie sparks while the Emuros shouted "Fury, you are clear for burn!"

"Roger." Our pilot responded, and a giant sat on my chest. Far from the nice pressure of say, Xia, this was a certified un-fricking-comfortable squashing sensation, reminiscent of my childhood habit of waking through the freestall barns and ending up being pushed between two large cows or barnabies, staying trapped and compressed until the reptiles or bovines dimly recognized my smothered presence. Actually, cows are yielding. This was like getting ground between two fucking springer shells.

Still, I somehow managed to gasp out a last comment as my vision redded-out.

"Hold onto your asses, cuz here we gooooooo!"

And I somehow did it in Pilot Voice.

* * *

Then the pressure abruptly stopped, and the strangeness began.

Everyone's got a different story about the effects of gate travel. Some say it's like being turned inside out. Others say it simply scrambles perceptions.

My take is simple. I got severely wombled. Sit on a galloping barnaby while you hum "wombled" to pronounce it right. That's as close as I can approximate verbally. There were spatial distortions, and everything went red-shifted for a second as we first hit the broach, but the actual transition seemed fairly cheesy. Honest, at first it was like some bad special effect in a grade Z holo. Flashy lights and a strange multilevel vibration, and everything seemed to be turning photographic negative, but somehow the light parts stayed light, and the dark parts stayed dark. And I'd bet I was seeing some wavelengths humans don't normally see, cause several objects glowed with a color I cannot describe. Still, it was fairly tame- I just had to weed out the strange impulses and everything seemed to occasionally resolve for a split second before it dissolved back into watercolor.

Then it dewombled and I took a second to breathe before the Fury retroburned.

Once again a barnaby sat on my guts, and I struggled for air and consciousness.

The pressure finally eased.

Ears ringing and lungs running overdrive, I scrambled to blow my harness and swim over to the corridor, sloughing my bile-covered jumpsuit as Wallace shouted apologies after me.

Underneath my precautionary garb (I knew Wallace would puke...) I was already armored. (Gloating: A full suit of pressureproofed Parachutists L'infantrie Maritime standard-issue Light Turtleshell, over a skinthin Hostile Environment pressure suit.)

I snared a corner rung-pipe with a free hand and nearly pulled my arm from its' socket as I took the ninety-degree turn at full speed, centrifugal force and inertia doing a number on my good hand. I barely managed to hang on for the whole turn, then let slip and catapulted towards the open hangar bay hatch.

Not braking or slowing, I simply tucked my legs underneath me and coasted through the open hatch, spinning myself around as I entered the gear bay.

Taking a hand-off from a pressure-suited and armored McConnoly, I jammed on my helmet and sealed it tight as I whizzed past.

Hissy was lined up perfectly with the outside corridor, and I was able to simply tuck my head and slip into my gear, my body already in a semifetal curl. I whumphfed out a lungful of air as I slammed back-first into the seat, but I still stomped my feet into the foot pedals and reached behind me, checking my rebound as I bucked my restraints with one hand. Even as I did so I was using my other hand to reach up and slam the hatch shut, and then occupying the free half second while it closed plugging the oxyjacks into my mask.

Even as Hissy was coming to life on loop-batteries, the little idiot lights were blinking and then glowing green, as the secondaries tuned to display from Mallinauxs' D'Artagnion followed suit.

"Ready." Mallinaux barked, his gear already in a weightless stance reminiscent of a kickboxer, anxiously waiting across the bay.

I slammed my fists onto the control grips, double-checked the idiot lights, and had Hissy wave McConnoly, who was already securely inside the airlock and awaiting my signal.

With an authoritative but inaudible thump, she slammed her gloved hand down on the evacuate switch, and the world around me exploded.

Spacers tell horror stories about surviving a sudden whistling. That's because anything like the "ShaWHHOOMPssss... ...." that hurled us out into the deep black is not survivable.

Unless properly prepared.

Like two Daks taking to air, Mallinaux and I jumped as the air went out, using the considerable explosive decompress to hurl us across the void.

The Fury was braked very near the CEF gateship, and our current aliveness attributed to it being alone. Apparently the damn coffin insertions had become routine missions- the gateship was of the lightly armed variety and completely unescorted.

Hurtling [down] onto the hull, I braked just above the leviathan with a good solid blast from my thruster pack, those being a bulky array of canisters that replaced the spikes on my gear, transforming me into a miniship.

We had already drilled this down, anyway, practicing on the Emuros. Just like Jeni said, you gotta use enough delta-v to get moving, anticipate where you're gonna want to go, and then make sure you can still stop.

A small chunk of metal glanced off one of my forearms as I closed, and I recognized the shrapnel. Apparently the Gateship had escorts, in the past tense. Our Fury apparently was worth however much we paid for it. That was only the first of several drifting defensive drones, and all were very thoroughly dead, especially considering they were those left intact enough to detect fragments of.

Still, that took all of two seconds, as I was already nearing the surface of the gateship.

Hitting my roll thrusters to put me facing feet-first to the earther vessel, I tapped my jumpjets a bit more and cut my momentum, coming to a smooth-and-deadly landing on the featureless plain of the armored hull.

We were supposed to drop quick, blow the defenses, blow the coms, and leave it ready for unnamed parties to drop "TZ gas" into the pressure sections. Nobody told me we had marines aboard, but nobody said we didn't. Hell, might'a just been a zeegee Fire Egg with a hullcutter and a neutron nuke...

Meanwhile, for those of you wanting violence, I add that we had both been coming in firing, my enormous DiMean-70 recoilless (that's a heavy 'zook to those that don't know) already having spat three of what were basically unguided antitank rockets as we lost pressure and several more later. My target was a stubby something that looked important by its' placement and seemed to be tracking me.

Things that point other things at me aren't usually good, especially if they are or are-used-by enemies, so I let the offending bulge have it.

Sighting and taking into account my significant inertia, I had fired the trio and watched the rockets swim hungrily towards the protrusion on the armored hull.

The vapor trails finally converged, and the blister was flattened into the hull as it disappeared in a flash of bright light.

Disappointingly, there was no concussion, but the blister-turret I'd aimed for was popped like a blister and glowing red around the edges by the time I was touching hull with my Gears' hooves.

Now, one of the reasons only Antoine and myself were outside was that we were the only ones up to it and equipped for it. Temples' Cheetah leaked air in vac, all the northies got pukesick just looking at Outside, and I wasn't about to let Sobec loose during a Gate crossing. Sticking me with some punkass Black Rapier gearhead. Noire aux. is fearsome, but that's not nearly as good a rep out there in void as it is on dirt.

I immediately bounced a little as Hissy absorbed the shock of landing, springing back up and bobbing as our feet had literally been welded to the deck on contact. Now came the dangerous part- when "loose" and relying on the GMU pack on Hissys' back, I was in control, though Hissy had started to understand and shift our center of mass to help. But now, in zero-G and having to rely on Hissy compromising conventional walking, which relied on gravity, and our new annealant-padded suction cup walking, and do it all in battle.

Not to worry. Apparently three thousand dins for a custom feedback-capable neural net was worth it, because Hissy took half-step, seemed to remember to anneal when our foot didn't stick, then stuck it down properly and began moving quite well across the hull. Pleased, I gave a small pulse of positive feedback to the NNet as I watched Malliaux drift in.

Or try. A faint bluish pulse of something strobed across my vision, I heard Mallinaux scream, and his gear disappeared in a flash of ablative and the late detonation of a packet of antilaser chaff.

A half second later, flailing wildly, Maillaux appeared from the far side of the cloud. D'artagnion wasn't dead, but it sure wasn't safe, spewing a jet of crystallizing atmosphere through a melted hole near its' right hip.

"Holy Shit!" Was my immediate response, and without thinking I spun Hissy around to face him, dropped half a mag of rockets towards whatever shot him, and leapt. I simply oriented and fired my dirtside jumpjets, trusting my instincts and NNet.

Lady Chaos apparently was working in concert with Hissy and my hindbrain, as my course was directly in line with the axis of my jump, sending me caroming into D'artagnion and, as I grabbed a flailing Mamba arm and leg, propelling us both towards the Fury with quite a bit of residual momentum.

Stabilizing properly, I braced and hit my jumpjets again. While the thrusters are a bolt-on, installing the jumpjets to Hissy was a one-way deal. They're physically integrated into the chassis, and were still there even with the GMU. Because of their axial shove and the lack of gravity, I'd been advised not to use them unless I wanted to go at a forty five degree angle up and forward. With D'artagnion clamped between Hissys' paws and my cockpit hatch, I was lucky enough to keep him centered and give another push. Letting go, I curled and backrolled, then pushed off with Hissys' hooves, simultaneously further assisting Mallinaux across the final thirty meters to the gear hangar, and pushing myself back toward the Gateship.

Elapsed time since he'd been shot, maybe three seconds.

Seeing as I was completely out in the open, and my AL/refractive-chaff grens were starting to disperse, I reoriented on the Gateship hull and jetted for a nearby strut.

As I clamped to it, I realized it was actually one of the three coms antennae I was supposed to blow.

Pushing off, I swapped from a hug to tightrope and carefully made my way "down" the antenna. Space is really hostile. Not only does it kill you quick when given the change, but it screws with your head in an effort to make you screw up just so it can get that chance to kill you.

Still, I only had a second of vertigo before I reoriented my mind to think of the Gateship stretching across my vision as being "up", and the stars as "down".

So rather than tightroping over a black chasm, I was simply scaling a sheer steel stalactite depending from the Gateship.

That didn't work too well either, so I cut grip and floated free. Jeni was right again, you really do better when you're not attached. No vertigo, more maneuver.

"Sir! Infantry spotted exiting the airlocks!" Morgan announced, and I saw a little white-suited figure bound from shadow to light and back to shadow further along the hull.

Great. Me against grunts with high-powered lasers and a knowledge of the "terrain".

I distanced myself from the antenna and blinked hard, cartwheeling until I had gone feet-down on the hull. Now space was "up" and the hull was "down", and I was in shadow, concealed from the intrusive white suited little bastards while I went about my business.

I didn't even have to shuck on waldoes. My AI has gotten horseshoe charge laying down almost as well as I do, and it can't forget pieces.

So, with a saturnalia wreath of specially formulated hull breaching charges, I slapped the timer to ten seconds and leapt for the next spine, barely visible a third of the way 'round the hull.

Unfortunately, I made a mistake. And in space, mistakes are bad.

At least one laser turret was still left on the hull, and it tagged me good. I hadn't even launched a antilas aerosol, for fear of alerting the little pesks on the hull.

The first hit (as I believe it was a gattling turret) tagged my leg, burn-exploding a nice long divot out of my RAM shell around the calf, making the little 'SMS DAMAGE' indicator start blinking. I had about a quarter second to mentally laugh at that dire warning (Flat tire? Oh horror, no skating in space...) before the next pulse carved into the front of my cockpit hull.

Now, I used to be a PIM. Infantry have great flexibility. Flexibility and using cover are good. Then I piloted a Gila in the Skyhawks, when being shot at with nothing but a light-flak swim vest on got old. The Gila taught me speed is also good. You can dodge things, and you can chase things and you can run away from things. Better than just hiding from things. But it was mostly the former and the latter, because to have speed, you can't have armor, even though a Gear is helluva lot better than Light Flak and a helmet.

And when a few aggressive, electrically-excited photons try to punch through your Gear, carve a hole in your guts and spill your oxy on the way out, you should be very glad to have lots and lots of ablative laser-diffusing armor plates between yourself and the enemy.

And just as this example illustrates, the ninety-odd milims of sandwiched composite ablative armor adorning my Gear made a difference. It definitely did its best to kill me, but all that armor reduced it to a terrific buffet and a loud that transmitted through the chassis and banged my head against my headrest. The only comparison I can honestly make is it was like that treasured childhood memory we all have- being hit in the head with a dodgeball, except this was all over my body.

I hit my jumpjets and launched two antilaser-aerosol grenades in response, heading for cover as my sensors tracked the beam and gave me a lock for my ARM-loaded antitank pod.

But just as I hit things decided to stay worse- the little infantry bastards I'd tried to avoid came popping over the "horizon", zapping towards me with pulse-laser rifles and something other than love and compassion in their hearts.

So, dodging and charging, I opened up with my hip-mounted 15mm and started popping grunts. While I don't really like killing people, nor believe I truly could wish decompression-death on anyone, when those little white-armored pukes got hit and did a popcorn imitation, it was certainly reassuring and gratifying. But time was a'wastin, and we needed that gateship muted quickly.

Infantry suppressed for the moment, I drew out my backup weapon (a home-made, rocket-propelled, SDG-panzerfaust) from my hip plates, sighted on the com 'tenna, and thumbed it.

Sparks and gas shot out the one end, but nothing else happened. You cheap piece of shit! I thought, pressed the button again to no effect, then hurled said misfiring piece of shit away, taking a bit of care in my frustration to make sure it didn't end up pointing at me if it decided to work later on.

I resumed firing 15mm at the infantry and readied myself to fall back and get the other remaining antenna before circling back. But, floating leisurely midspace along my throw vector, that defective panzerfaust decided to get its shit together, and ignited. Facing away from the ship, admittedly, but it quickly changed its' mind, fishtailed, closed to about twenty meters off the hull, and went off.

The entire act was silent, but the sudden puffs and splats from the area of effect told me luck was on my side. Just to be sure, I emptied about five or six dumb rockets from my shoulder pod into the fringes and hop-skimmed up towards the antenna. Horsey-shoe of plastiques (old note to self, use links, not patties...), timer, and run like hell. An excellent, reliable, satisfying, and almost instinctive pattern for me.

Two down, no hostiles apparent.

I quickly swung around another hull horizon, this time remembering to fire off ALAS grens, and managed to off the intact turret that tried to zap me, before it could.

The last spine got garlanded, and I slapped the timer up to twenty before I started running. Halfway down the length and a third clockwise around the hull, I had cleared blast radius and even fired off a few range-set aerosol grenades for an escape corridor when the charge went.

Then the whole ship shook, and looking back I could see a free-spinning, burnt-and-twisted com strut and an expanding cloud of heated debris heading into the Big Dark.

"Coms disabled! Prep retrieval and drop the egg, we've got a date with a miss Del Pulciano." Morgan declared, as something tapered and silver dropped out of the ventral weapon bay of the Fury and headed towards the gateship.

Taking the hint, I fired my jets and closed towards the hangar. Maybe Caprice wasn't going to be so bad after all.

To be continued...

Back to APAGear II Archives

APAGear II Archives Volume 3, Number 10 November, 2001