|APAGear II Archives||Volume 3, Number 11||December, 2001|
Lieutenant Daral "Archer" Arnquist looked up at his long-time companion in war, "Rikter."
He heard the pressure doors of the vehicle hangars hissing open and shut again as other pilots of the Night Wind Division of Roman's Legion scrambled for their assigned vehicles. There was a tension to the air, a certain metallic flavor, the feeling that always preceded a combat drop into a hot zone. Subtle changes in air pressure told him that the hangars were being sealed against sudden decompression during the imminent orbital insertion. Minute changes in the virtual gravity of the ship's hangar decks wrote a story for his senses. Outside, thousands of rounds were in flight toward the RMS Night Wind itself. Tiny course corrections were made, point-defense guns rippled off volley after volley, and shield generators strained to dissipate the hellish energies of incoming megawatt lasers and close-in P-beams from orbital defense drones and ASATs. Tens of aerospace superiority fighters were launched to clear a path towards the planet below, carving a bloody swath through its orbital defenses and strafing antiorbital emplacements on the ground.
Nobody in the hangar felt a thing, and only the background hum on the tactical channels really impinged on the conscious mind of any soldier in the Night Wind's hangars. All of them were too busy preparing for combat to really appreciate the relative tranquility of the hangar in contrast to the chaos outside. Space battles might well be games of stealth, but at close range they devolved into the same mad scramble as a dogfight between air superiority fighters.
Amid the seething activity of the hangar, Daral simply stood. Immovable, impassive. Ultimately, unimpressed.
"Archer!" Daral's head snapped around at the voice of his teammate and wingman, Lucas Quaid. "Mount up, bucko! You've still gotta get through your startup check, and Yinnie's gonna be peeved if ya don't hurry up." The burly man jogged past his slender, immobile compatriot. Skidding to a halt, Quaid scrambled up the rungs of his gear's berth to the cockpit gantry three meters up. His booted feet clanked against the fine metal supports as he entered the access hatch to his gear and sat down.
Daral smiled silently, flashing his wingman a thumbs-up before turning again to regard his own machine.
The pattern-breaker paint scheme of his wingman's gear couldn't hide the fact that it was just plain big. The Rhino chassis design was well on its way to one hundred years old. But even so, it was dwarfed in both age and hulking, brutal bulk by Daral's own Manticore gear. Rikter's optic sensors seemed to gleam with delight as Daral approached the ladder. There was just something odd about the gear; its neural processor had been around the block awhile, and Daral had inherited it from his father, who had in turn gotten it from his own father. Three generations of Arnquists had piloted Manticores, and all three had benefitted from Rikter's watchful presence. There were days when Daral could honestly believe that the machine could tell when a fight was coming up: it almost seemed to hum, somewhere deep down inside.
He knew that optical neural processors could learn, and that they were a form of ultra-Weak AI. But it still bothered him that the vehicle he piloted sometimes gave the impression of being ridden, as if it were a warhorse with a mind of its own.
Shrugging off these strange musings, he mounted the ladder to his gear's berth gantry and strolled the two meters to the cockpit hatch. It was cracked slightly open, as if waiting for him. Waiting for me? The thought very nearly gave the normally unemotional Daral a shudder.
Below him a sudden loud click announced the presence of Yin-Tannabalawhurisophaphani, Beta Squadron's technician. Daral glanced down at an unexpected pressure on his right heel; Yinnie had tapped him sharply with one long, textured finger. The three-meter-tall, three-eyed alien grinned from his primary mouth and handed Daral his helmet; it had been left on the hangar floor below when Daral was lost in thought moments before.
"Ghoudh lhouckh, Arsher. Thry noth to come home inh a bhodhy bhagh. Ahndh mhindh yhour ehs-ehm-ehs thrahcks. Theyh ahre fhiveh phershenth ohff ohpthimuhm phohr lhefth thurnhs." Yinnie smirked, triple-blinking his blessing for the coming battle, and padded around behind Rikter to fine-tune the engine's fuel feeds and polysis filters. Daral chuckled. Yinnie hadn't been among humans for very many years, and he still spoke with that odd, breathy inflection of an unacclimated Q'ranni immigrant into the Empire.
"Thanks, Yin-Tan. And I'll mind the tracks on left turns, don't worry. Got it." Daral sighed loudly. He liked the aliens as much as the next guy, but sometimes they were just too placid to deal with. Even by Daral's standards.
The hatch opened silently on well-oiled hydraulic rails. He settled himself into the crash couch, attaching the thigh straps and shoulder locks that would hold him in place. Daral shut the hatch and locked it, taking satisfaction in the heavy sound of the seal lock clicking into place and pitching him into a familiar, utter darkness.
Almost like a metal womb.
It took him another moment to settle his helmet in place and lock it to its collar cuff. Once the thick visor was in place, he leaned his head far back against the headrest and gripped the armrests of the crash couch tightly. He never had gotten used to this part. Nothing could ever compare quite with the experience of neurolinking into a vehicle.
The chill of the contact needle sliding a few millimeters into his head was mostly psychosomatic, he knew. The datajack implant was a surface attachment and anyway it had no sense of touch to tell him about the needle. But somehow he knew nonetheless.
And then there was Contact.
The feeling started in the back of his consciousness, with the creeping sensation of being immersed in thick gel or warm, bubbling water. By relaxing he allowed the data stream to flow through into his conscious mind. It brought with it the awareness of more of himself, only not quite himself. His natural kinesthetic sense, the ability to know where all of his own body was and how it was positioned, slowly ebbed away, only to be replaced by an overlay sense. He could still feel his own body, could move his hands and legs in the cockpit. But beyond that, he felt the hum of power in his engine and generator, the idling electrostatic motors in his feet, and the inexplicable sensation of two more arms, full of power.
With a quick mental command he enhanced the neurolinkage, activating all of the support routines which would bring more life into his suddenly restricted view of the world. First the optical processor: activating it, he pulled in the datastream from Rikter's sensor suite. The main eye sensors and cameras switched on, and all of the peripheral sensors sprang to life. Daral could see from Rikter's eyes, and called up secondary view windows in his field of vision to monitor the berth behind him, where Yinnie was hard at work loading his weapons with ammunition.
Next came the audioprocessor, and with it a flood of sound on both the tactical comm band and the much louder external audio pickup. Wincing, Daral turned down the gain on his audio sensors with a mental command. As the babble died down to more reasonable levels, he picked out a few random conversations in the busy hangar.
"...shoulda seen it, I never saw such a fast win..."
"...but there's a three-degree rise in my telemetry on that! You can't be ser..."
"...love you too, honey. I'll be just fine; you just make s..."
Suddenly feeling like a voyeur, Daral killed the external directional mic and manually keyed up the neural access to Rikter's onboard computer. He concentrated intently for a moment on the startup checklist and let his awareness of the outside fade a bit. Finally, satisfied that all his lights were green, he stowed the keyboard film out of the way and concentrated on activating his usual group of expert routines in Rikter's computer system. Fire control and fire path plotting, electronic warfare, tactical circuit, group command map. The last included the mission's parameters, which he read as Yinnie completed the weapons load and hot check.
Daral activated the external speaker. "All set, Yin-Tan?"
The alien looked at him, a suddenly incomprehensible face. Then it spoke, and familiarity returned. "Yhesh. Lhightsh ahre ghreehn. Gho." Yinnie leapt a full eight meters straight up to the next gantry level, clearing Rikter's berth for egress. Daral was thankful; he hated waiting at this stage in a mission. He though-keyed the access code to the berth's clamps and gantry retraction arm, and seconds later was free to move Rikter's bulk into the main accessway. Firing up the SMS tracks in "his" feet, he wheeled down the row to the vehicle lift at the center of H-Deck, joining the other five members of Beta Squadron.
"Strike Command, Beta Three status holding for deploy."
Time to go, Mommy.
"Beta Squadron, this is Strike Command. Lock for deck transit to launch deck." There was a momentary pause on the other end of the audio datalink as the control operator thought for a second. "Try not to get blown up, boys and girls."
Yes, Mommy. We'll behave.
High-Altitude/Low-Orbit combat drops were not one of Daral's favorite activities, consisting as they did of a long, sudden fall ending an a short, sudden spike of deceleration and a not overly gentle landing. Couple this with anti-aircraft and anti-orbital fire and the inability to fight back, and it made for one hell of a ride.
Daral was not fond of wild rides. He liked being in control. It kept him calm.
He glanced to his left, catching a glimpse of Quaid being sealed in his own drop pod. Quaid's gear was looking at him, and responded to the glance with a thumbs-up signal. Daral replied in kind as his bullet-shaped HALO case sealed up around him like a closing flower bloom, closing him off from all direct contact with the outside. He patched into the drop bay's internal camera system via Rikter's comm array, and watched Beta Squadron's HALO cases being lined up vertically like bullets in a magazine. Or coffins in a mausoleum.
No. Don't think like that.
The squadron leader, Innes, had given all of them a pep talk only moments before. Daral didn't recall a single syllable of it. All he could think about was the sight before his eyes: a huge mechanical arm grasping Innes's HALO case and loading it into the launch tube. The sudden burst and crackle of static on Daral's tac channel spoke volumes about the amount of energy used to hyperaccelerate Innes away from the ship an instant later, suspending the squadron leader in virtual null-grav for the brief launch. His pod seemed to simply vanish from the launch tube.
Beta One and Two, Carol Chang and Merv Apter, followed close behind and were whisked away just as Innes had been.
Then it was Daral's turn. The virtual gravity of the deck was null, so he didn't have a sense of up or down during the acceleration. If he had, he might not have retained his sanity. Through the medium of the bay's cameras, he watched himself being picked up by the great yellow metal arm, its grapnel pad latching onto the lid of his HALO case. Through the hull of Rikter, he felt the sudden jolt of motion and the jarring sensation of being picked up and then dropped. In his mind's sensor eyes, he watched himself as he was placed into the launch tube.
Then he disappeared from the picture, and the world dropped out from underneath him.
Daral was not a very religious man. The Ban Church had never held much appeal for him, and neither did any of the thousands of faiths it kept preserved within itself. He trusted the one-shot shield generator in the landing base of his HALO capsule more than any diety, real or imagined.
Falling at thousands of meters per second toward the cosmopolitan world of Utopia far below, Daral Arnquist prayed.
Mommy! I'm falling!
The assault had gone reasonably well.
Although, thought Daral, assault might be a bit of a strong word. Beach landing is more like it.
Orbitally dropped gears and sleds had managed to clear enough of an LZ for the infantry dropships to make it to the surface with only moderate fighter cover. Most of the LZ sites for the initial orbital drops had been hotbeds of enemy activity; the sudden appearance of an assault force from orbit had broken the attackers' lines, and they were so busy regrouping that they failed to keep additional Legion troops from landing outside the besieged Western Bloc capitol of Schreidia.
The defeat of orbital defense systems had immediately preceded the landing movement, and Division Commander Captain Ng of the Night Wind had also ordered limited orbital bombardment by the three Narwhal-class frigates in the Division. Apparently the idiot leader of one of the other two supernations of Utopia had felt the need to interrupt Captain Ng's assault orchestration with demands for a teleconference. Ng was basically a calm, pleasant man. Outside of battle, anyway.
The Legion had been hired by the Chancellor of the Western Bloc to repel another offworlder invading force which threatened his nation; it couldn't be part of either of the other two supernations' militaries, as the Empire did not permit them standing surface or air military assets sufficient for an invasion.
Or for proper defense, it seemed.
Daral's squadron had been dropped right into an enemy encampment. Their objectives were twofold: vandalism and intelligence-gathering. In that order. The five large gears had almost completely destroyed the firebase, landing while only a few infantry were able to respond immediately. A few rounds from Daral's howitzer rifle and Quaid's bazooka made short work of the parked hovertank squadrons and gears, and a shaped charge eliminated the base's shield generators to prevent their use later in the conflict.
Their intel objective had been met passably as well.
Daral surveyed the scrapped remains of the matte-black hovertank before him. It was long, low-slung, and blocky. Its louvres had obviously been designed to boost vertical motion and allow high-altitude parachuteless drops. The giveaway was the lack of shield generators or a turreted beam weapon: the HT was obviously an internal-combustion model rather than fusion, even though it was big enough to use a fusion plant.
Even more telling were the gear chasses used by the unnamed foes. Daral surveyed his computer database and matched each and every one. All of them were old designs, in use since before the Reunification War on their world of origin. Terra Nova had gained independent status from the Empire almost seven hundred years ago, in TN 2102. Looking at their specifications, Daral knew that the machines were of recent manufacture and old design. Tried and true.
"Jager mark five. Fire Iguana. Shadowbox Iguana. Standing Cobra. Hero Jager. Anaconda. Boalisk. Silver Mamba." As he named off each chassis to himself, his suspicions became firmer. And darker. Literally. "Anolis Sunburst. Moloch. Dartjager. Smart Cobra. Brahmin Cobra."
Innes spoke up via tightbeam, just a few meters away. "Got something, Archer?"
"Just a thought, Cap. Have you run an ID on these bastards? I have. Cross-index the classes of gear they're using here."
"Yeah. So? These've been around forever. They're old Terranovan models. Older'n dirt, really. Gears basically came from Terra Nova, after all. You think they've not gotten circulated a bit?"
"Cap, why would they be here? Why so many? And why all from the same place? They're all models developed for use by the Southern Kingdoms or one of their predecessors. The northern hemisphere of Terra Nova hasn't put out anything since they signed all of their designs over to the USMC back in '03." Daral shrugged. "I dunno if this is really significant or not, but think about the paint schemes. All matte black. No unit insignia, no number, no nothing. Sound familiar?"
Innes thought for a second. "Well, wasn't there an elite Southern Kingdoms army or something, way back when?"
"Yep." Daral's voice tightened. "The Legion of Night. Used to be called the Legion Noire before the Reunification War. Supposedly they were disbanded awhile back."
"Again, so what, Archer? If they're disbanded, why are they here? In force, no less?" Innes sounded irritated.
"You ever listen to the old stories about the Legion of Night? They were supposed to be pretty creepy." Daral hesitated. "I think they never did disband. Terra Nova is an indep world, right? What's to keep 'em from countermanding the disband order?"
"Okay, fine. Have it your way. Bogeymen armies are here to get us. Wooo." Innes sounded less than enthused. "Anyway, job here's done. The assault's over for the time being while we group around the city and send some strike boys out to blow important things sky-high." He chuckled. "That's us, if you'll recall. Just leave the deep thinking up to Intel upstairs and blow the hell outta what they point us at, why don't ya?"
Innes turned to move deeper into the ruined firebase, searching out any last stragglers or hiding enemy troops. Quaid moved up next to Daral, placing his gear's hand on Rikter's shoulder. Daral couldn't feel it: no sensors were there. "I believe ya, man. But like the boss says, it's not in your job description. Just keep that in mind." Quaid smiled broadly.
"You'll never guess what those bastards in Echo Squad were up to!" He laughed harshly. "Poor sods pulled MASH guard duty and still got shot at! No casualties, though. Just hadda use their gears to manually move the MASH trucks into cover. I heard over the tac beam that the creepy guy bagged a whole buncha baddies for his kill count!"
Daral had heard about the men of Echo Squadron. That was the place the higher-ups put all the crazies in each Division who were too good to waste as grunts but too wierd to put in with a reasonable squadron. They always drew the interesting mission assignments, in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse.
"Anyway," continued Quaid, "they're supposed to be rendezvousing with Alpha through Delta Squadrons in three hours, here, for salvage duty. We bagged us a treasure trove o' parts, man!" Daral got the impression that his wingman would be slapping his back, if he had one that would feel it.
Something about that bothered him.
Mommy, he's touching me!
Daral slid to the ground, Rikter idling quietly above him. He strolled toward the others of Beta Squadron and the other four Squadrons in their tactical strike group. Most of the members of Alpha, Beta, Charlie, and Delta Squadrons were chatting, primarily about the day's events and their places in them.
As he neared, the sun's twilight glow set off deep shadows in the ruined compound. A sudden flash of heat and claustrophobia struck Daral, and he turned sharply on his heel towards the sounds off to his right. A few hundred meters away from him, Echo Squadron moved like men possessed. Or possibly just men wanting to possess.
A hulking Adder-class gear had set aside its long, spindly gyrocket cannon to help move debris off of one of the more intact hovertanks, still in its hangar. At its side was a short, stumpy engineering Ferret, using a second set of fine arms to move some of the smaller rubble away. A Babylonian-made Agamemnon-class assault gear was busy lifting a slab of ferrocrete off of a second hovertank, also relatively unharmed by the fight. In the distance Daral could make out the silent shape of a heavily stealthed gear skulking around the southern perimeter of the compound. Suddenly it vanished; apparently the rumormill was correct, and one of the members of Echo Squadron had enough clout to get himself a chameleonic holo-rig for his gear.
Perhaps four meters away from him, near where he'd parked Rikter, two severely dressed men were speaking quietly, occasionally gesturing. Daral recognized one of them: Liet Vuchetichov, Chaplain for the unit. He was dressed in the ancient black suit and white collar, cut as a combat pilot's uniform and equipped with battle harness. Vuchetichov was a tall man, with mournful eyes and expressive hands. His Den Mother-class gear stood behind him, shut down, next to an idling Grizzly Panda M&M support gear.
The fellow Vuchetichov was speaking to, however, was not so familiar. Daral looked more closely at the man. He was dressed similarly to the Chaplain, and wore the colors of Echo Squadron. His name badge said, simply, "Abernathy." Something about that tickled the back of Daral's mind, but before he could bring it into focus something more important managed to gain his attention.
An explosion went off to the south of the camp, and all of the members of Echo Squadron suddenly perked up, their tactical commlinks coming to life instantly. The pilots already in their gears dropped the rubble in their manipulators and charged south and then east. The man speaking to the Chaplain simply stood very still, as if concentrating on a particularly intriguing math problem.
Another explosion sent rubble flying, closer this time, and followed by the hiss of rocket launches and a chain of smaller detonations. Daral started for his gear as the members of the other squadrons scrambled to reach their own vehicles. Neurolinking wouldn't be an option for this fight; there simply wasn't time to synchronize with the system, and normal controls would be necessary.
A twinkling of motion caught Daral's eye, and he turned to find time seeming to slow around him. In the distance a hellish explosion went off as round after round from the guns of Echo Squadron's gears caught their assailant, a Stalking Cobra stealth gear. The first shot struck the engine, setting off an electrical fire in the silent-running capacitor power plant. The second and third both penetrated its missile drum, and the shoulder-mounted weapon detonated violently. The force of the blast blew off the gear's head, certainly killing the pilot.
In the same instant, the neurolinked Cobra's pilot thrashed, twitching reflexively as he or she perished. The dying machine imitated the motions of its master, almost to perfection. In a graceful piroutette, the Stalking Cobra spun on one heel, and its right arm flew to full extension at it fell. The right hand, open and almost expressive, convulsed shut. Within its grip was the handle and trigger of the particle beam rifle that made up the Cobra's primary armament.
Even with the time-distorting effects of the adrenaline in his blood, Daral couldn't win against physics. He couldn't dodge the beam, even though he knew it to be coming. The angle of the rifle had been perfect as it fell, and he knew he'd die as soon as the trigger compressed.
Mommy! No! Please, Mommy, no!
Searing heat washed over him, and his eyes shut.
The last dying rays of the setting sun on the war-scarred world of Utopia lit on the quiet, pensive face of Liet Vuchetichov. Above him, the once-fearsome Manticore gear stood like a monument to war and to the losses it gifts even victors with. Its broad, scarred shoulders stood proud, and its arms seemed angled defensively, almost as if to cradle something...or someone. The crimson-and-violet tapestry of the sunset clouds could be plainly seen through the gaping rents in its upper torso, however, and the armoplas and ceramite of its hull had melted and run, mingling with cockpit electronics, sensor pods, actuator housings, and chassis struts. The war machine had run like a melting candle in an instant of violent light and electricity, its torso and upper legs deforming inward and backward.
Abernathy stepped up to his mentor's side, and scanned the vehicle with his not-human senses. No electrical activity to speak of; the characteristic hum of simple machine life was not present. Abernathy followed Liet's gaze downward, to the form curled in a tight fetal ball behind the huge feet of the gear. The ground around Lieutenant Arnquist had been blackened, and his combat armor was melted in some places and scorched in most. His hair was patchy, either burned off or electrified into straight frizz, standing away from his blistered skull as if afraid to touch it. He was breathing shallowly but regularly. He would live.
Behind the unconscious Lieutenant and his ruined gear, the blast had incinerated the paint on one of the few remaining upright walls in the firebase ruins.
Except for one shape. Plainly silhouetted by the hell-light burns was the form of a Manticore-class gear, standing defiantly, arms outstretched.
Lucas Quaid, Liet Vuchetichov, and Abernathy studied the scene for a moment, watching Daral's gentle breathing. Abernathy sighed, an odd sound coming from one who did not need to breathe. It sounded practiced, contrived, and more heartfelt than anything most humans could ever hope to manage. He stepped forward to the still giant, a machine intelligence of the weakest order, given human form for the sole purpose of killing. He was as far above it as a human above a mouse.
"Still," the quiet man said to himself, "a mouse may have courage. Could a killing machine learn the value of life?" He touched Rikter's slag-covered knee block, and the still-hot metal and ceramic hissed. Abernathy did not notice and did not burn.
Behind him, Vuchetichov spoke. His voice was soft, gentle, and warm. The voice of a saint with the heart of a poet. "Abernathy, my boy, you may as well ask whether you yourself have a soul." He smiled and stepped forward.
"Sometimes, son, you just have to take these things on faith."
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 3, Number 11||December, 2001|
Heavy Gear is © 2001, Dream Pod 9, Inc. All rights reserved. APAGear is not affiliated with Dream Pod 9 in any way. Submitted material remains the property of the creator.