APAGear - Volume 5, Number 4 - June/July 2003

Black Talons, Part 10

Harman Meyerhoff

Continuing from Part Nine...

In hindsight, the beans probably weren't that good. I mean, no grubby self-appointed band of freedom fighters has ever had anything close to top-of-the-line supplies, or good supply lines, or even reliable supply caches. But still, at the time the burrito tasted fairly good. Some hydroponic kelp, algae, kelp, seagrass, kelp, algae, kidney beans, lentil, peppers, and theoretically some mystery meat that tasted canned even though it was fresh...

Anyway, the company made it palatable. About forty people crammed into one ten-by-ten room in the abandoned processing plant the Lib rebels were using as a tertiary base while Lib nomads habitated the rest of the pressurized space. Folks sitting on ammo crates, piping, all peering about trying to get a good look at me, ooh-ing and aah-ing about the strange and wonderful Terranovans who had gallantly saved their scurfy hides from sure extermination.

To occupy them, I was playing the special "We come in peace. But only to you guys. We're mostly here to snipe at the Earthers so they leave our system alone, except that is really helping you guys out just as much as it's helping us, despite the fact it means the Earthers can't get at us but will still be occupying your world" viddy that we'd been given to help explain our purpose without botching the job. Apparently the Cabinet hired some social scientists and sociopolitical thinkers to figure out the cultural angles for the Capricians, because the film wasn't quite d'accord with what I expect from a ten-minute propaganda reel. Then again, I'm Republican. Desensitized or something.

What I gathered, though, was that the Capricians (and Liberatti especially) value being what I can only summarize as "stubborn and unflinchingly agressive and competitive in the face of a challenge." Berserkers, almost. "Go for it even if it kills you, so long as you accomplish something major in your death."

Next thing you know, that line's going to be going in an official report somewhere.

It was almost scary, in that (judging by just about everything I saw on Caprice) the billions of people living in that big city all ascribe to such a berserker philosophy and yet can still have a functional society that could accept the teamwork needed for the massive corporations I kept hearing about.

But I digress. I was eating burritos while our friends were eating up the exaggerations the propagandists had conjured up for them. Every once in a while, when the melodramatic bullshit got to be too much, their attention would drift to me, sitting crosslegged on a crate, acting rakishly charming and reassuringly competent in my ochre-and-gray patternbreaker-textured Turtleshell. Which incidentally made me not look like a one-hundred-seventy centimeter runt , which my skintight pressure suit would have done with aplomb. Intentionally, I had left my helmet on, but very calculatedly had the breather part of the mask dangling from one chinstrap and the goggle retinal-projectors snapped up on my helmet forehead, so I was emanating the psychological compromise of deadly-bad-mofo and warm, charming human being.

Wallace, who was standing at semi-attention about a meter and a half to my left, was doing it wrong. He still had his helmet on, his Samson bullpup was slung in fast-deploy, and his whole bearing was that of an aloof and suspicious outsider. Which we both were, but I wasn't showing it.

Then again, Nika was helping. That "interesting" voice I'd heard chatting up Radek after we'd cleared out the Earthers and Keffs around the Lib base belonged to an equally interesting body. And person, of course, but holistically... anyways, a pleasantly configured femme about my height and (I guessed, for gentlemen do not ask) age. Quite the striking face was framed beneath a lustrous mop of curly dark-blue hair, which she wore up in an interesting combination of tails and braids, and I reflexively dropped into being properly polite and charming, which made her giggle uncontrollably for some reason.

While I was originally trained to promote l'Republique, it's not too much of a stretch to represent ones' entire world of origin with the same charm and grace. So I smiled, answered questions, and ate.

Finally, Wallaces' isolationism and antisocial posture began to wear on me a little much. So, with my usual charismatic and emotionally-conscious methods, I knocked him out of it.

So, across a crowded room and in a voice that carried, I shouted "Wallace! Relax! You look like a damned GREL standing like that!"

Heads snapped 'round and Wallace lurched like I'd punched him, but then he actually seemed to relax. At least he holstered his damn rifle and took off his helmet.

"That's better. We're here to help these people, not intimidate them. We need their help and you're not going to encourage that acting the way you were. Now grab a burrito and either help answer questions or tell the kids khodaverian parables, or something other than stand there like an unassigned Mordred."

He seemed torn between indignance and realization that I was right. For a moment, I though that he might get pissed. But, carrying my streak of luck, he seeemed chagrined and almost thankful.

But, just to get things going, I stirred the melting pot a bit more, whistling shrilly to get everyones' attention and then shouting: "Hey, everybody! This is Lieutenant Boyden Wallace! He's from the northern part of Terra Nova, he drives that really big and blocky Dark Kodiak parked outside, he's technically second in command, his Gear is meant for fire-support and heavy assaults, and he's the closest thing to a preacher we have in the unit. "

There was scattered applause. Wallace blushed.

Then Radek appeared in the doorway and motioned for me and Wallace to make our way to him through the trid-mesmerized crowd.

Grudgingly leaving my supply of food and companionship, I waded through the throng towards Radek. That didn't work. Too many people, too densely packed. I veered for the wall, similarly lined but possibly passable.

Possibly not. Halfway through, I had at least one person shaking each hand and three kids attached to my legs.

Despite the encumbrance I waded along, until I was about even with the vidscreen.

At which point being a pack-rat paid off. When I'm in-gear, I always carry my data sticks (I don't like discs. So sue me, they're just not a stowable shape) in the little indent-space on the top of my NNet. When I'm out-gear for a while, I put them the bottom right clip sleeve (the one for a spare sidearm mag) on my combat harness or dive vest.

So, with a little fishing, I pulled out the blue crystal rod marked FZ:TAS EP#1-153, found the appropriate receptacle on the top of the viddy, plugged it, whacked play, and waded away quick as I could. Momentarily, I prayed it wasn't one of my "recreational" trids...

Don't make me have to spell it out. Even you northies can probably guess...

Fortunately, it was Ferretzilla, and as the theme music came on, heads snapped 'round and I was able to move unmolested.

Only once I was out into the hall did I notice how stifling it had been in there. But I was forced to remind Radek of my presence, as he was just as mesmerized as the rest of the tribe, and the intro was only half through

Then it reached the part where Ferretzilla does the double-flamethrower thing at a bunch of zombie-esque GRELs, right before the flashing FERRETZILLA logo appears. The GRELs went whoosh, and everyone started screaming. Cheering. Laughing. Scared the living hell out of me.

Radek turned to look at me, kinda distantly. His eyes were either teary or glazed, and he muttered "Can you make copies of that? I'd like some." very softly as Wallace and I followed him down the hall to the command center.


What a Command Chamber it was. Indeed, every nefarious villain would be envious. It was a hollowed-out natural cave that'd been a sorting-point when the tunnels were still being worked for ore. Was about a hundred meters under the complex, a ten-by-ten space lined with crates of supplies and with a fairly decent trid tank and pair of tables in its' center. I saw everything from Human Concordat-era Expedition-40s (.454 caliber Gateship crew sidearms, last manufactured during the Age of Exploration) to a fresh crate of CEF-issue ACAT 76mm antitank missiles with launchers. Libs were wandering in and out with equipment almost constantly, checking weapons and stacking and unstacking crates of unmarked goods.

There was a singularly ugly mountain centered in the tank when we entered the room. A near-vertical cone of rock, with what could be cliche'dly referred to as a "foreboding citadel" capping it off. As Radek entered, the underling manipulating the trid swapped to a wireframe, revealing a massive subterranian complex.

"This is Bastille Alpha." Radek explained. "The lifer prison for the entire Trench. Anyone too mean to get let off but not worth executing gets dumped inside. Overpopulated and brutal. Electrified floors, CEF guards, massive defense capability from within and without, no access from any direction but a single transport aircraft bay filled with security. Lately, the guards even carry flamethrowers to ensure the prisoners remain docile. Unassailable.

He paused for a moment, waving at the henchman to spin the view. The scene tilted dizzily, looking almost straight down, at an only-slightly-less-forbidding fort at the base of the mountain.

"Petrus is being held there. You're going to help us get him out."

That was probably the first and likely the last time I've heard Wallace swear.


It wasn't quite as suicidal as it seemed. Which is rather inane to say, considering it was fairly insane regardless, but the Libs had prepped to carry out the operation by themselves, so we were going to be amping their forces, not spearheading.

The reason they had held off was their critical lack of armor. Shoulder-launched ATMs and infantry mortars might be effective, but they just don't have the concentrated kill-power that a tank or Gear has.

Fortunately for them, I and my merry band of marauders fell from the sky, and they were suddenly in business. They had ammo and fuel in plentiful quantities, all covertly precached, teams ready to hide the prisoners we were going to bust out, false trails and extraction paths, emergency med support, diversionary attacks to draw off the guards, and (while they didn't admit it) probably some folks inside the system throwing their weight and monkeywrenches around too.

Not that it mattered to me. "Commander" read "Squad Leader" in talonspeak, I'd found. Not that I wanted to be in charge of anything more, but it was slightly surreal having my innocuous subordinate lordily telling me exactly what to do, and when to do it down to sleeping and eating. Still, c'est vie militaire...


The Fury set down about twenty kay away from target, we rapid-unloaded E-med shelters and our quick-change ammo and weapons. Then the Fury dusted off and disappeared, leaving me alone with the squad, a pile of high explosives, two autodoc modules, and a bunch of scurfy freedom fighters.

I momentarily recalled the confused ideas they had about the raid, and it unnerved me, to say the least. Especially since our current plan was so much better and un-suicidal.

I had been sitting in the Command Chamber, notching bullets with a vibroshiv (part of acclimitization and medical prep had meant my "claw" was removed and my wrist put back to "proper" structure, so I'd dug my old combat knife out of my kit and brought it along with a shoulder sheath). Radek and some of his henchies were clustered around the holotable back at base, arguing about how they were going to place charges that would knock down the base gates, then burst in with makeshift APCs filled with close-in troops while a horde of ACAT-equipped troopies popped rockets at guard striders and sniped infantry. They had misguidedly assumed we would escort the trucks in and out, when I asked what their plan for my squad was going to be.

I managed not to slice off my thumb or laugh in their faces. But I did rewrite their plan rather completely.

First off, I sacrificed my seating and showed them the potential they were wasting.

Not just how to use Gears in a CAO (combined arms op), but that they had an entire crate of tetraoctol cratering munition warheads that (despite having ranks choc-full of mining demo specialists, they claimed they didn't know how to employ). It's elitist shoptalk, but only a good demo would know both what to do with a box full of CEF-issue TCMs, and how to employ them.

The result is something rather impolitely referred to as a "clusterfucker" by those who employ them, and having a Saragossan vet (read: survivor) as my demo master, I knew all about them. You take the shells, which are about "the size and shape of a nice tit" (his words, not mine, but true) and stack them in a roughly conical arrangement three layers deep around a large artillery shell or other self-oxidizing tactical-scale warhead. Then you wrap it all up in thermite and proximity-fuse it for about thirteen centimeters. Spiffies use them to knock buildings down on APC and Gear patrols. Malcontented little bastards...

What happens is the first cratering shell busts a shallow hole, which the thermite helps heat-shock and weaken. This also compresses nearby air into a debreis-clearing gust (so nothing muffles the direct application of force), the second layer enlarges the shallow crater by taking chunks out of the rim and deepening it, and then the inner layer detonates synchronously (or a few microseconds before) the main warhead, creating a big explosion surrounded by (and amplified by) subsidiary explosions. Since an explosive is generally either a hemisphere or sphere, your power theoretically decreases at a cube the further from the epicenter you go. Multiple boom-booms create compression-wave interactions, which is basically turbulence in the explosion. You can even cheat and chain for every-other detonation on that third layer, to stagger the blasts yet again. Thus, rather than a massive unidirectional impact, you've got a slightly less powerful series of devastating blows followed by one massive home-run strike. All in all, a nifty jackhammer effect that does bad things to reinforced structures.

The hard part (getting the damn thing to where you want it to explode) actually turned out to be suprisingly easy. The libs crammed my volatile pine-cone-'o-firey-doom into a mail rocket, of all things. We then screwed three common prox-fuses taken from antitank rockets on independent firing circuits, and called it good.

Having delayed my further explanation of large scale plans by an indulgence in rampant pyrofetishism, I was rubbing grit and sleep out of my eyes with fingers that stank acridly of det-foam and binary layered-plastique as I patiently explained how to do things The Right Way during our assault.

Foremost, we needed eyes-on data. All the ATM-packing mujaddein on Caprice couldn't get in there if nobody knew there was a regiment of GRELs randomly parked outside the front gate. But, in the absence of hard data, I sketched what we should generally do-

First, since the sattellite brig was nestled in a sort of cove set in the side of the mountain, frontal assault was the only way in. The walls were about fifteen meters tall and topped with four laser turrets, and encircled about a half-kay of parade ground that included an independent generator farm, a strider park, an execution area, and a guard barrack.

However, while the gate was exactly dead-center on the wall and flanked by those laser turrets, it was actually really poorly placed. A forty-meter ridgeline was only about half a kilometer beyond the edge of the wall, and forced traffic to come at the prison from either side, driving along the road that followed the bottom of the pseudovalley.

Needless to say, that ridge was going to be useful. We were going to set the mortar troopies up behind it, then bombard the base to cover our advance.

Wallace, Sobec, Mallinaux, and Temple would provide fire-support in the form of artillery and sniper fire from the ridgetop itself, while several groups of AT troops would plug off both ends of the valley to simultaneously keep defenders from fleeing and slow down reinforcements. The southern end of the valley would additionally be supported by Katyusha rocket-fire, concentrating on the turrets atop the walls as designated by my snipers.

Nineteen seconds in, the Pine Cone Of Doom would be launched, along with a righteous fusillade of one-shot mortars (actually just shells launched from lengths of pipes and fired by one det circuit, because of a shortage of launchers) with the intent to "sweep the decks" yet again.

Meanwhile, I would be storming an innocuous chunk of the southern wall with the intent to jumpjet it and blow the generator farm, which was just out of range of the mortar teams on the ridge. Simultaneously, Vesping and Kage would be coming from the north, mopping up guards that had survived the shelling, clearing out a path for the close-combat teams and their APCs.

But first we needed eyes-on recon.

With the Fury gone, we were as close to committed as our swift-deadly-unseen methods would permit. A sizeable chunk of our best equipment was in the munitions pile, and losing the autodocs would suck beyond words. So we were extremely careful to conceal them in the dugout niche in the permafrost some nomadic frost-miners had just happened to create near our planned dropsite. Having backfilled it, I divided the squad. Wallace, Kage, Sobec, and Vesping remained on station near the gear, since the heavies were already loaded for bear and not exactly stealthy with that much hardware breaking up their return-diminishing outlines.

So I took Mallinaux, Temple, and Radek (in what was supposed to have been Del Pulciano's Jaguar) with me and went scouting. Because I wasn't going to be on artillery support and was going to try to jump a fifteen-meter wall, Hissy was already stripped down to minimal kit- a heavy grenade launcher on shoulder-mount, the pulse laser I'd been using, and a goodly load of throwable and plantable explosives hidden up my armored kilt.

We moved in pairs, Mallinaux and Temple ghosting along preceding me and Radek doing a passable job of keeping alongside my gear, mostly thanks to my slower pace.

About halfway there, the single click on the coms was all the warning I got before a larger and meaner cousin of those "centaur" Mounts came into view in the distance, picking its' way along the uneven terrain below the ridge we were headed for. Radek stopped and dropped instantly, though not necessarily behind the best cover. I had slightly more presence of mind, and hunkered down behind a piece of slab rock, with only my antenna-periscope peeping above.

It took nearly seven minutes before it disappeared from view, still methodically stumping along the valley floor, and still oblivious to us.

"Clickclick...Clickclick." Rasped the coms, and Radek and I resumed our careful advance.

Fortunately, nothing else interrupted us untill we had reached the safety of the ridge slope, which was just horribly uneven. From afar it had looked like a piece of flaky pastry impaled on a bed of spikes. Up close, it was beautiful. Cover in plentitude, easily navigable by Gear and infantry, utterly impassable by track or hovertank.

We had just gotten situated with Mallinaux and Temple when another big mount came down the valley floor, doing a similarly halfassed patrol of the area.

Being within twenty meters of my squadmates, I felt daring and used the special coms systems, which used microvibrations in my hull to send and recieve audio, and relayed my opinion of the guards to Blue team.

"Eleven minutes, more or less?" I asked in a quiet voice, despite the assurance that our short-range com transmissions were undetectable.

"About eleven and a half, I'd say, sir." Temple responded, a little bit of the shakes showing in her voice. Couldn't blame her. I get twitchy being stealthful too.

"About. I make eleven minutes and forty-seven seconds from grid point zero-nine-point-five by one-one-point-three." Mallinaux corrected absently, illuminating the precise spot with his targeting laser, which my overlay placed a flashing holographic diamond around. Our Gears were all synchronized to the same special phase-shifting pattern of lasing frequencies, so even if an enemy happened to be in synch with their lase frequency at some point, it would shift out of his viewable range a milisecond later. Virtually undetectable.

"Looks like only one patroller, with about a ten-minute window between patrols. Plenty of time, don't you think?" I observed, watching the oblivious "Crabfly" (as I had mentally nicknamed it) march down the valley. I motioned Temple to lead off.

"It should be. But I don't like this, sir. What happens if one of us buys it during this assault? We can't be risking our necks for every errand these Liberatti need doing but are too afraid to attempt." Mallinaux confided cautiously as d'Artagnion carefully rose from cover and began to clamber up the jagged slope after the Death Kitty

"You've got a point, Sargeant." Radek replied, suprising myself and Mallinaux. We'd both assumed he was just out of range of Mallinauxs' critique. "The truth is, we don't honestly know what we're doing. We've been lucky, and we've been keeping a low profile, and Petrus has been managing most of our operations. Without him, we're at a severe disadvantage."

He paused for a moment as his Gear somewhat clumsily rose and began to follow me. Once he seemed to have his Gear under control and moving along at pace, he dropped quite a pearl: "Besides, if this jailbreak goes right, I know someone in there who can pilot one of your machines."

Ah, the ways of war, where friends cause near as much stress as enemies...


After another five or so minutes of climbing, we were right below the crest of the ridge, and with a little bit of crawling from obscuring boulder to obscuring boulder, we were able to cross over to the opposite slope without being sillouhetted.

Once well-ensconced behind cover, I dared to peek my entire head around a boulder and have a full-sensors look at this prison. After periscoping first, of course.

It was pretty much as the holo depicted it. Most people say inane things to the effect that "it was more real in person," but I found it to be just about exactly what the holo had shown. Nasty pyramidal prison complex, nasty secondary tower linked by a windowless skyway, exit elevators for the underground strider park, power transformers and backup generators, and guard barrack. A second barrack looked to be under construction, but I saw no evidence of any work being done recently.

Then, with nary a warning, a loud shriek and sonic-boom heralded the arrival of a Slepilnir, which swooped low over our position as it dropped from sonic to VTOL just over the prison and settled atop the main tower.

"Holy shit!" Radek choked, flattening behind his rock and looking about nervously.

"I..I don't think it saw us. " Temple commented, reacting similarly but trying not to seem panicked.

"Hesuchristo... I don't get paid enough for that kind of shit." I responded simultaneously. Then, trying to set a good example, I dispensed some confidence and speculation. "Minerva four driving some VIP with a skag up their ass, probably. Didn't see us, or the guards would be scrambling and the dropship would circle around and strafe our asses to hell. Still, I think it's best if only one of us stays here to observe."

Since Radek couldn't be trusted to fight his Gear against a dumpster and win and Temple was rattled enough I didn't want to leave her alone, I politely enquired "Sous-Caporal Temple, if you would be so kind as to stay on watch? And Sargeant Malliaux, I hope you wouldn't mind keeping the good Sous-Caporal company?"

Apparently Mallinaux was on the same page, because he cut in with flawless grace and timing: "Oui, mon commandant. I'll stay here and act as spotter for Temple. Make sure none of those infantry fools gets clumsy on the way here and alerts our prey. I'll be expecting them in an hour, I'll send a burst when I get the patrols fully mapped out and everyone is in position."

"Good. Mister Radek, let's get back to the stockpile and ready up. Only an hour and change until we storm the bastille."

To be continued...