APAGear - Volume 5, Number 3 - May 2003
Previously: Lieutenant Heiser of the 28th Merchant's Point Gear Regiment lead two squads of Gears from his base to a location south by southwest. His orders were to eliminate the Gears and equipment the gangs have and leave survivors to spread rumors. However, a second group of Gears and their pilots are making their way towards this very same point, with a different agenda in mind.
The VTOL aircraft shook violently in the wind as it flew through a dust storm. The aircraft felt like it swung on a pendulum, pitching left and right as the pilot tries to hold the same heading. The mission not only depends on this man's ability to fly through the storm, but to actually land the craft, intact, in a trench just wide enough with a few meters to spare on either side. The flight took six hours at full speed, through forsaken skies, and Sous-Caporal Althern Feloma of the 176th Death Vipers Gear Regiment did not like the ride one bit.
"Relax, Feloma," Lieutenant Griggs says. "We're almost to the rally point. You'll feel better on the ground."
"Why are we flying through a storm? Is the pilot crazy?"
"Beauty of black ops, Feloma. We don't have to be sane." Griggs flashes a grin. "Don't worry, the pilot knows what he's doing."
"He had better. I want to at least start the mission before I die." Althern pulls the blanket tighter around his body, trying to protect himself from the high altitude cold.
Griggs pokes Althern's shoulder. "I don't want to hear any of that. We're all going to come back in one piece. And, to make sure, I personally promise you that you, Feloma, will get home to see your girl."
Althern's heart skipped a beat as he thought of his girl with her straight hair and youthful face. Just the idea of his girl smelling like caramel from the candy shop almost makes Althern forget what he is supposed to do. "I wouldn't mind at all. She hasn't heard from me since last season."
"And she'll greet you very warmly. They always do," Griggs reassures as the VTOL craft enters a calm patch of air. "Well, it seems we've come out of hell. Congratulations, Feloma. You've survived your first black-ops trip to a rally point."
"I would not count on it until we're on the ground."
"Heh. At least you know when not to count your chickens."
"Sir, one question about the mission," Althern asks.
"Why are we traveling this close to the North? We're almost in spitting distance of one of their towers."
"That's the point, Althern. We want to catch their attention. You see, intelligence says the northern base commander has an ego because he was a duelist once. The current regimental duelist there is so good that the poor commander feels his record is threatened. Thus, we set the stage for a strike against this duelist and his squad. We will gain glory for the South when we defeat this squad."
"True," Althern says, thinking about how he can soon brag about his first kill as a black ops pilot. "It would be a great story I could tell my girl."
"She'll be happy to hear it," Griggs chimes in.
A burst of laughter echoes through the hold. "I wonder who won that game. They've been at it since we left."
"If you ask me, they're playing Marabou Hold 'Em, and Deyver probably won. No matter, we're gonna have to prep up our Gears. Get started, Feloma."
Feloma watches his commanding officer walk towards the front hold in a very Southern strut. Feloma stands up and tries to shrug off the cold as he walks to his Gear, a Black Mamba. He stands at its leg, rubbing the coarse armor shell that provides the passive stealth abilities. The armor is colder than the air he breathes and it does not vibrate when he knocks on it. Feloma pulls out an access pad, places it in the Gear's access port, and puts his thumb on the black reader. The computer activates, reads the print, and opens the cockpit with a hiss.
Feeling more at ease, Althern climbs into the sitting Gear and begins the warm-up sequence. He looks forward to the mission, hoping to get his first kill as a Death Viper pilot.
It is one hour since landing, and Althern is far from confident.
His readings have been accurate at every turn, but they were wrong according to his map. Every bearing Althern shot has conflicted with the survey map, and the problem has gotten worse with the last bearing off by four degrees. The Oberon Canyon Maze was living up to its reputation for being a navigator's nightmare.
Althern was silent, thinking that the errors are the cartographer's mistakes. Then a new and disturbing mistake: a fork on the map appears as an abrupt right turn ahead of the group. Now Althern sweats in his Gear, fearing that he has gotten the squad lost.
"Feloma, you've been silent for ten minutes. Are we approaching the coordinates yet?" Griggs asks over the communications link.
Althern shakes out of his trance. He has been reprimanded before for Cockpit Desensitization, a problem he thought he had conquered. "Sir, I am sure that we are close to the attack coordinates."
"Great to hear that, Feloma."
"However," Althern interrupts, "the map is wrong compared to the route we have been following. It's been off by four degrees the last bearing shoot and the last turn we took should have been at two diverging paths, not a right turn."
"Are you saying we're lost?" Izzley jokes. The rest of the squad chuckles at this.
"No, sir," Althern answers, regretting he mentioned the errors. "I'm saying that the map is wrong according to the path we travel."
"Everyone, shoot this bearing and send it to Feloma. Feloma, compare those measurements to the map," Griggs barks.
A minute passes when all the measurements trickle through to Feloma's Gear. He averages the numbers and comes up with heading two hundred ninety-one. "Sir, our measurements say heading 2-9-1. I've compared it to the map which says we should be on heading 2-8-3."
"Eight degrees off." A long moment passes, one in which Feloma breathes heavily. He felt the tingle of fear creep up his spine as he waits for an order.
Please order us home. Please order us home, Feloma thinks to himself.
Griggs' Gear looks back at the direction they came from. Then he looks forward to where they are going. "We continue forward, but I want everyone to keep an eye on their sensors, especially Izzley in the back. Forward, Vipers."
Griggs' name on the comm list changed to yellow, indicating private line. "Feloma, what do you think the mistakes mean?"
"I don't know, sir. This is only the second time I have been the navigator in any squad. My experience covers open terrain with navigational landmarks. And that was from a landship. Nothing like this." Althern realizes he is shaking from his fear and tries to calm down, lest someone else sees his Gear mimic his shaking.
"Feloma, our cartographers are notorious for being accurate on their maps. It's a point of pride and to have a map this inconsistent, even for the Oberon Maze, is an indication that someone doesn't like us. Did you map the real maze?"
"Pass the map of the route we took to the whole squad. If we are outnumbered, then everyone will retreat. I won't let pride kill us."
Althern swallows hard as his squad continues following the directions given. It will be thirty more minutes before they reach the battle coordinates, but his heart is already beating hard at what will come next.
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