APAGear - Volume 5, Number 3 - May 2003

Black Talons Nine

Harman Meyerhoff

Continued from Part Eight, which appeared in Volume 4, Number 8.

His name was Radek. First, last, if he even had a last, I don't know. I got the immediate impression of two parts wolverine crossed with one part longfang hopper. All dark and muscle with this innocent expression, which just warned anyone with a healthy amount of paranoia just how bad he would hurt if or when he struck.

He'd been in charge of the local Liberatti cell, smuggling weapon grade explosives in a resupply convoy heading out into the wilderness to resupply several mining outposts, and along the way skipping off to clandestinely deposit the plastiques in a cache near a major resistance encampment. The Earthers had been on long-range random patrol, stopped to investigate, and had reacted with violence to the discovery of all those unregistered explosives. And so a hasty flight down a box canyon had ensued, spurred on by someone putting a home-made thermite shell through one of the hovertanks.

Unfortunately, the jouncing of the trucks and the winding nature of the canyon had prevented him from firing his own rocket, until they had finally become trapped. Then, before he'd realized what was going on, and immediately as I'd popped my omnicam over the ridge, he'd sight-acquire-fired.

At me.

Not a good first impression. Nor did being unable to at least come close to his intended target improve my regard of him. In a strictly professional context, of course.

Still, Pulciano seemed to think he was legitimate, and Morgan was overjoyed that I'd found him a new friend, so we allowed him and one truck to backtrack to a break in the escarpment and then up the twisty passage to the top of the plateau and onward into our base.

Under guard, of course. It was a welcoming sight to see the DFE-11-5 turrets set up, little black periscopes peeping up every few seconds to quickly look around, while the collapsable gatling-laser autoturrets remained folded in rest position, like nice sleeping watchdawgs ready to go for the throat the instant something woke them.

It was also appreciable to watch the triangular blue blip of Temples' sniper-scope laser flicker across the Mule transport as we came into view of the base, settling on the juncture of the front wheel-legs, where shrapnel from the vapor-explosion would both likely kill the crew and cause the vehicle to collapse forward and to a complete stop, spoiling the aim of any weapons hidden inside.

It might be unpleasant to be constantly thinking of how people around you might die, but I find it reassuring to keep a working plan about how not to be amongst them.

Fortunately, we had no sign of further recriminations from the earthers, and we pulled inot base just as the engineering Gears finished setting up rapid-reload munitions bay, and the welcoming shape of the pressurized hangar tent loomed just beyond, a irregular construct of ghillie cloth and thermal regulator vanes that looked like a paper-mache rock formation up close and like the real thing at any kind of range.

Rather than a tedious suit drill involving heated skinthin gloves and a breather to fix something, we could now bring two damaged Gears inside and work on them in relative comfort in a warm pressurized atmosphere.

But repairs weren't necessary yet, and I was not going to let them become necessary.

So we pulled up alongside the Fury and dismounted. While that meant depressurizing my cockpit and squeeeeeezing out the hatch in my roly-poly turtleshell suit in my particular case, while the Liberatti truckers just blew their doorseals and clambered out, one guy still seating his pressure gear as he skipped the steps with practiced distain and dropped almost a meter to the gravel, mask in place.

Meanwhile, my crew was doing as they'd been trained, everybody splitting up and taking a zone to cover while our guests stared at the Fury hiding underneath its' camo drapery.

So we cautiously invited them inside, let Morgan chat them up for awhile, and then got our marching orders.

Yes, I just skipped twelve-ish hours of time in two lines, but *I* was bored with it, and I was guarding the door the whole time.

No, I wasn't inside. Compartmentalization in more than just the need-to-know-only (-so-if-you're-captured-we're-not-screwed) sense. Tiny cabins on the Fury meant it was a squeeze just to get a four-person squad briefed, much less a unitwide meeting.

So I slept at attention for a half-hour, then snapped back to the land of the living as the hatch cycled open and Morgan told me to follow our new friends home.

Temple and Mallinaux were currently the ones up and about on patrol, so I ordered them to turn in, kicked Wallace and Vesping from chitchat in the mess-closet and into gear, both literally and figuratively, and hopped into Hissy.

A moment later, our new friends emerged, followed a moment later by Miss Pulciano, and clambered into their truck.

"Okay, escort the trucks to the sector Liberatti base." Morgan added helpfully, his little currently-monitoring-everything-you-say-and-do light blinking in my HUD.

"Talon Blue, form up and cover the truck. You know the drill- keep sharp, stay close, and kill anything that bothers us."

They both vocally confirmed, and we moved out into the wastes, a three-gear wedge galloping across the rubble, trying not to let the monotonous rolling of our gears lull us.

And so it went for about an hour and a half. Between the rough trail and the slow speeds of both our gears on walker and the truck, we probably only covered a hundred kilometers, but it might as well have been the other side of the Gate, for all we were concerned. After the first fifty, we were effectively "SOL-o" as we called it when I once did even less-socially-acceptable things for parties unnamed. No backup, and aside from the all-clear pulse-beacon, no comms back or forth with the Fury.

But at the very end of the trek, we started encountering signs of at habitation. The rough trail seemed to smooth out a bit, and despite the lack of weather on that godforsaken rustball, there appeared to be fairly fresh crawler tracks on the road.

"The base is just up ahead, maybe two kilometers. Go up the cut ahead and let the sentries see you."

Not a great plan, given that they might've been armed with more of those home-made panzerfausts, but I deferred and consented.

The trail, such as it still was, snaked up though a nasty little notch cut out of what looked like the leading edge of a lava flow, leaving a forty-five-or-so degree ramp to the top of the flow, which would probably have been fifteen meters straight vertical otherwise.

Motioning Vesping and Wallace to hold with the truck, I shoved Hissy forward up the grade. My massive hooves slipped enough that I had to catch myself with one armored paw, but the trail was fairly good, and I made it up slowly, but without too much trouble. Only in hindsight did I realize I could've easily leapt the damn thing, and hindsight thankfully vetoed that idea with the mental image of my jet-lit sillohette suddenly popping over a ridge being covered by a picket force with no warning of our approach- that, of course, being the purpose of my little climb.

But, concerned as I was with using one waldo and one stick to guide my massive self up the last quarter of the escarpment, I didn't even notice the two giant crablike things hunkered down to either side of the pass untill I was rather rudely lit up like a regimental parade banner on saturnalia. The missile-lock sensor system, sensor-detection danger level, threat/contact/display... I swear, everything short of a prophet-cursed mentally-deficient end-of-the-world streetcorner preacher decided to chime in to my imminent chastisement.

Fortunately, the crablike things didn't fire. My mental catalogue pinned them with some obscure jerusalemite clan name, and suggested their armament consisted of twin laser cannon. The former was worthless, and the latter obvious, but the crabs continued their initiative by lighting me up with searchlights. Having not yet moved beyond a startled half-leap, I was illuminated (both with sensors and the police-style spotlights) like a giant RAM-coated idiot, giving them plenty of time to finish muttering their surprise as their loudspeakers cut in.

"-ow what it is! Stand down and surrender, you are under the jurisdiction of the Gallatine Reach Resourcing Group Corporate Security Force! You are bound by law, further resistance will be met with lethal force!"

I stopped, in a stupefied combination of shock and suprise, and I'm fairly certain Hissy articulated similar body language. However, it set off one of those ephiphany moments, the adrenaline and fear chems making your average chemhead buzz seem benign. A sensible corner of my mind took the opportunity to chew halfway through a stack of uncollated and unrelated ideas, while my forebrain snapped out a remearkably sensible self-preservation solution.

"Toyvhu maht! Fhat the hell du you t'ink you colonial fools are doing? This is P'colnye Alexksi Narmanov of the Colonyal Espeditionary Force Dark Claw reconnaisance squad, and this area is supposed to be cleared of corp-serf patrols!" I barked aloud in a quite convincing Siberian accent, gesticulating angrily with one manipulator while my other hand thumbed my ECM and com-jammers to active/maximum and painted both targets with my designator lasers.

They stood there, confused for several seconds, while I continued babbling something loud, accented, and angry. Unfortunately, they seemed not to have bought it, and discovered their comlines were being supressed, as the lethal-looking laser cannons extended from the sides of both and trained on my position. However, just as they clicked into place, both crab-walkers conveniently erupted in spectacular fireballs and collapsed in a tangle of legs as I donated the conflagration a grenade and dove for cover.

The secondary explosion went off a three-count later, and looking over the boulder behind which I lay, I detected no other suprises.

"T'ank yu lootenaunt Vespeen." I muttered aloud, and motioned for my comrades and their charge to move the rest of the way up the steep incline.

"Doubre, tavarishnya Kzyn." She replied in a good-natured mocking tone, apparently using real Siberian rather than my bad play-acting. Well, I didn't blame her. I'd hit the wall harder than that time Webbley got wasted and hit on a Sargeant who had been one of his boot instructors, and Vesping was letting me know it. And rubbing it in.

(Then again, this monologue doesn't help my dignity or my squads' elite reputation, now does it?)

But I digress... Vesping and Megara lithely clambered up the escarpment, and Wallace and the truck folowed a ways behind, both having more than a bit of difficultly with the combination of steep grade and rough surface.

However, once the truck was on relatively level ground, they took one look at the lightly burning and thouroughly-melted wrecks, gunned their engine, and shouted "If they've posted scouts here, they've found the base! Quickly, we've got to go help the defenders!" as we lurched after them in the dense dust cloud they raised in their hasty departure.

Why they thought an unarmed ammo truck with our Talon-Liberatti liason could accomplish anything by leaving two Assault and one Heavy Gear behind, I wasn't sure. But I kicked out my SMS wheels and roared after them.

Fortunately, the dirt trail they were following was far smoother, mostly bare and clear of the soft spots that can wrench a leg when the wheels lose traction momentarily. And we encountered another truck in less than a kilometer, this one sporting an improvised barrage panzerfaust rack instead of a cargo body. The two crewers were hunkered down behind a rock some distance away, one rather nervously watching the approaching column through some binocs, while the other fiddled with a console, probably remote-controlling their improvised MLRS.

Unfortunately, they were outgunned and outmanned - a whole line of those spider-crawlers I'd encountered was marching up the valley towards them, at what I estimated was two kay, just out of range for a improv job like that barrage truck.

As our comrades' truck skidded to a stop nearby, the spotter whipped out a nasty looking bullpup and came a hairsbreadth from hosing down our impulsive allies, though the creeping trio of targeting lasers swimming across his torso and weapon gave him sufficient pause for Radek to leap out and reassure him.

I'm not certain what they discussed, but the gesticulations involved made Radeks' panicked message to me fairly redundant.

"Our base is under attack by CEF and Corp-Serf forces! Our defenders are barely holding out, and the reinforcements down there are going to overwhelm us if they reach the base. We'll soften them up with the Katyusha, you finish off what's left, and then we head up that pass and try to help out as best we can, okay?"

Use rickety pipebomb launching truck to destroy walker convoy. Mop up survivors. Proceed into a hot combat zone from behind enemy lines, while friendly forces had no advance knowledge of us...

"Roger that, but pick up those two and stay the hell back from that rocket truck when you fire it off. I don't trust it." I muttered, directing Vesping and Wallace to good overlook points paralell to the truck, but also by my judgement half again a safe distance away.

"Our Katyushas are fairly safe, Commander. But we'd best keep away in case they use fire-finders against it. We're going to need to preserve our manpower every bit as much as equipment." Radek protested, helping the two into the truck and pulling away.

"Radek, less talk, more shoot." I muttered, and crouched down in a safe spot that overlooked the valley and had a fairly good number of shielding boulders between me and the firecracker cart.

"They're in range, fire?" Someone asked, as I engaged my sniper optics and drew a bead on the tail vehicle. Vespings' targeting dot was securely fastened on the leader, and my battlefield group targeting data overlay showed Wallace had a mortar lock on the middle.

"Fireaway, roger." I barked, and the calliope opened up.

Glancing to one side, my secondary spatial awareness cams depicted a brilliant strobing flicker from the launcher, somewhat anticlimatically dimmed out to prevent flashglare, and a erratic but fairly lethal looking barrage of vapor-trailing projectiles arced down onto the unsuspecting convoy.

Simulataneous with that launch, my pulse-laser rifle hum-zap-roared, and my selected target disappeared in a flash-greyed flare, eclipsed by the flash-greyed malestrom caused by the descent of the dumbfire rockets on the rest of the convoy.

Within seconds, it was over. Cliche, but entirely accurate. Smoke and meager flame occluded parts, but all that remained of the armored column was craters and tangles of heat-warped and shattered spider legs.

"Clear!" I barked, echoed a second later by Vesping and then Wallace.

"Roger that, let's go!" Radek agreed, and this time waited for us to precede him before spraying gravel and making his rapid departure.

From our starting point above the valley, it was only a half-kay run before we sighted on the battle, a rusted and seemingly abandoned mining facility now flickering with weapon impacts and firing flashes, slowly being encircled by spider-walkers and a trio of HT-68s despite the streaking flare of the occasional AT rocket or billowing cloud of a Katyusha discharge from within the compound, and the secondary pyrotechnics they imparted on contact with their target or nearby surfaces.

I calmly surveyed the situation, found cover, lit my ECMs and jammers, and directed my comrades to "Engage at will."

Drawing a bead on one HT-68, I burned it between the front and back exhausts, blasting a sizeable amount of spall and vitals free. I waited patiently for the quarter-second recharge on my laser capacitor, taking the opportunity to do the manouver part of fire-and-move as I watched it buck wildly and try to recover. It almost had before I zapped it again, and while moving again I saw it ground hard and ignite in a skidding fire-raft that cut the legs out from under a spider and set both of them off in a pyromaniacal communion of destruction.

Meanwhile, Vesping and Wallace were following suit, operating every bit as efficiently as I, and quickly reducing the suddenly sandwitched attackers to burning husks.

The whole battle probably only lasted two minutes, and even then I sent Vesping to a nearby hillock to reccie for any escaping foes.

Meanwhile, exuberant but prudently cautious Liberattis emerged from their fort and defensive works, checking for surviors and, depending on side rescuing or dispatching them with a fair degree of efficiency.

"Who are they?" An... "intriguingly toned" voice asked of Radek via a mediocre encrypt that hissys' decrypt progs broke with professional efficiency.

"Tell Petrus they're Terranovans!" He exclaimed in response, a bit too exuberantly for someone who hadn't done any fighting.

Whups. I correct myself. Who'd only shot at his allies, and failed to hit even that. Not that I hold it against him, mind you.

"Um, the Keffs raided Tierze ten days ago, and they got Petrus."

I groaned, aloud and on that supposedly secure channel. They had to be kidding me.

To be continued...