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

Black Talons, Part 11 - Enemy of My Enemy

Harman Meyerhoff

Continuing from Part Ten...

The com snapped twice as the northern element broke squelch, a barely-audible doubleclick that heralded a thunder of death and destruction.

There came a triple-click, and this time the southern element reported readiness.

I twitched, my leg muscles starting to shiver as adrenaline built up in my system.

With a hand that remained steady by willpower alone, I eased my throttle stick forward, and felt Hissy begin to gain speed.

Then, a specific sideband channel- one commonly used by liberatti miners, and therefore innocuous enough- screamed to life. With a shrieked "Fire in the hole!" a massive comet streaked across the sky ahead of me, then erupted in a brilliant pyrotechnic blaze as it struck just left of the main gate of the Bastille.

I increased my pace, switching to SMS midstride and roaring toward the distant walls, even as the valley erupted with fire.

Over a hundred pipe-launched mortar rounds and half as many antitank rockets suddenly appeared from amid the rocks, streaking out to batter at the laser turrets atop the walls. With a spectacular triple-detonation, three disintegrated under the weight of explosives, while the fourth shuddered and deformed beneath the onslaught, even as streaking ripple-arcs of Katyusha fire filled the courtyard beyond with shrapnel and death.

Then, just as the first volley finished, two blinding streaks of energy lanced out from cover and punched through the wrecked turret as Malliauxs' railgun and Temples' sniper laser eliminated what bombardment had missed.

Then another comet-strike to the same area of wall, and this time I was close enough to see the front gate shudder under the explosive fury, disintegrating as the breaching charge reduced the northward of the meter-thick doors to twisted shards of wreckage surmounting a shallow crater.

"Left Gate is down!" A terse voice confirmed, even as more rockets from further up the opposing slope arced down into the fortress courtyard, turning what had been a massive protective barricade into a confining slaughter-pen as guided rockets and sniperfire killed anything moving around after the Katyusha volleys.

"VTOL taking off from the roof!" Another excited but disciplined voice announced, even as three separate airburst-fused antiaircraft missiles climbed toward it on pillars of white smoke while stabbing lasers illuminated their contrails and brought it right back down, the prompt overkill destroying it utterly while it was still above the subsidiary tower roof.

I felt rather than heard the impact, not daring to look further as I neared the walls. Taking a deep breath, I punched the throttle to full and waited as the blank slab of the unscalable wall grew and grew in my vision. Then, just as I felt my controlled panic rise, I squeezed the jumpjet trigger and felt The Hand Of God slap me into my seat, as just shy of nine tonnes of Spitting Cobra and one adrenaline-soaked pilot were hurled twenty meters almost straight upward by a military-grade plasma jump-pack.

"Talon One going inside! Accurate fire only!" I screamed, even as I hurtled upward.

Almost in slow motion I felt my wheels retract back to walker mode as I crested the wall right between two panicked human guards like a metal giant leaping off a lit fart, streaking by too fast to drop a grenade, then was plummeting down inside the wall. A quick application of the jets once more, and I grounded on bent legs, undamaged and already springing back into lateral motion. I immediately spotted the generator and transformer farm, smoking but still largely intact.

I launched two satchel charges underhand on four-second fuses to rectify that situation, and leapt high once more, sighting on where the tank-and-strider park was supposed to be even before I could see it around a nearby warehouse. Running down the alleyway between the buildings I cleared the obstruction, and the automatic grenade launcher on my shoulder chuckled to itself as it spat out 30mm HE bomblets in a broad arc, falling over the garages and parked security vehicles and then kicking up puffs of shrapnel and concrete as they exploded like a long string of firecrackers, occasionally touching off subsidiary explosions as they rent apart dormant APCs and parked spider-crawlers.

That's the weird thing about grenade launchers- there's sometimes as much as a full second between fire and impact, and it seems really strange in a firefight. Fortunately, being area-of-effect kinda makes up for it.

Even as I dealt destruction in the form of satchels and grenades with my right hand and laserfire with my left, the shocked and beleaguered prison began to resist.

A squad of prison guards in heavy armor appeared around a corner as I finished emptying my HGL clip into the burning wreckage of the garages, pausing in shock as I twisted towards them, a monumental black armored form with a single glowing red eye, crunching wreckage and shattered concrete beneath its' massive steel hooves.

Just for effect, I hunched over slightly and let loose with a battlecry. The hunting call of a Harrimans' Lesser Hellfrog, a PIM call to battle- a horrible screeching croak that died off into a clicking gurgle, scaring the shit out of anything up to and including a Manx Barnaby, only this time amplified twentypower by my loudspeakers.

Snarks and Webbley would be proud. Two of the little bastards outright cut and ran, one dropped his gun and stood frozen, and the other two took about three seconds to get their weapons up and aimed, during which I had drawn my vibroblade right-handed and closed the distance.

When I try to do something complex in a Gear, it always seems to either be a spontaneous action that works perfectly, or a chained series of macros that fails to work right. This time, with not margin for error, I managed to pull it off. A vibroswipe with the right hand to the rightside trooper, a stomp on the dropped gun of the terrified statue, and then a massive backhand with my laser rifle to the left-side idiot.

As an afterthought, I knocked the statue-guard on his ass as I slapped a new drum-mag into my grenade launcher, then popped two accurate pulses of coherent energy into the autoturrets that had emerged to either side of the prison door as an alarm began to wail.

Moving quickly, I slapped detpacks to the hinge mechanisms of the still-standing right gate door and ran.

The concussion earlier was nothing compared to the immediate and gratifying thunder and crash as the reinforced door toppled inward. Almost... damnit... what's Latin for beautiful? When this get to an editor, replace this with whatever the translation of "Beautiful death" is from Latin.

"Courtyard is clear! Alpha platoon move in!" I screamed, even as a faint and distant hum of APC engines grew in proximity and volume. Emptying my grenade clip once more, this time on anything that looked even vaguely like it needed suppressing, I took up a partially-concealed firing position to cover the inbound troops from anything that might pop out, even as Vesping and Kage burst through the wrecked portal at the head of a column of wheeled APCs and armored Mule trucks.

"Go! Go! Go!" Their leader screamed, as the vehicles roared up the impromptu ramp and across the shattered expanse of the parade ground, screeching to a halt before the ruined doors and disgorging a swarm of Lib infantry.

"Okay, Vesping, Kage- watch that damn gateway. Mallinaux, Temple, snipercover north and south. Sobec, Wallace, watch for armor counterattack. Artillery support, fall back now. Mortar teams, pack your gear and load up. Choketeam South, stay alert, Choketeam North, begin picking up but stay alert. AT squads, consolidate yourselves into your squads for embarkment, but maintain your distance intervals until we're sure we're done here." I chattered, swapping channels and flinging orders as our forces executed the first stages of a carefully-executed dispersal. "And I don't get paid enough for this shit." I muttered, as the "vindicator" squads dispersed inside the prison, blowing barlocks and freeing hordes of prisoners.

Outside, I had tipped the APC I was using as a makeshift sandbag and was hunkered down behind it, trying to simultaneously monitor the parked APCs for signs of success and the gate for signs of counterattack.

And so I waited for about a minute, until I realized what a horrible position I was in to cover our exit. While my field of fire meant the gateway into the courtyard was utterly defensible, it also meant that the walls restricted my fire soley to a wedge-shaped area visible through the hole and anything within the walls.

So, signalling the two-fingered down-point, throwing-motion, point-ahead gesture for "I'm moving from cover and advancing."

But just as I began to move, I heard the muffled sound of the backfill bomb closing off the corridors as our squads began to emerge from the prison, helping and hurrying weak and stumbling figures out the door and into the APCs. They all wore emergency thermsuits and breathermasks, just enough to get them the ten meters from door to truck, so I couldn't get a good look at them. However, I did notice that there were a helluva lot of 'em. The original gameplan was for something like thirty escapees, but my target list was well over fifty and still climbing as a mortar round broke my count.

"Shit! Incoming fire, indirect rounds, get those people loaded NOW!" I screamed, bolting for the gate even as another AP round streaked through the sky and blew a new divot in the parade ground. My FireFinder was clucking to itself, spotting more rounds incoming by their vapor/thermal trail, and projecting glowing spots of varying but increasing brightness on the landscape as it analyzed trajectory and probable blast and fed it into my VInP.

"Contact! Heavy contact at Choke North! Six count six incoming Moab combat Mounts with inbound armor support!" Our infantry screamed after the fact, and despite the thin atmosphere I heard the screeching roar of AT-rockets in the distance.

"Ninety seconds!" Radek screamed, my peripheral awareness logging the fact as my conscious attended to other matters, such as not catching a 26mm on the head as I wove and dove around the falling shells and screamed at Kage and Vesping to stay with the convoy.

Meanwhile, the thud of falling arty continued to randomly pock the yard. The shells might not have been accurate, but they weren't decreasing in frequency as I cleared the blasted gate and began focusing my teleoptics in the direction of their source.

I was just in time to see Malliaux' railgun cough a pellet into it, whatever it was. The rocks just suddenly blinked bright as the magcoils hauled the crystalline monopole round up to a couple million kliks per sec, streaking blue-green plasma in a long angry tail as it swatted something out of view. A middlin' sized explosion boiled up from the general vicinity, followed by a second flare as Temple zapped something else with her laser.

"Mark four Mounts remaining, three APCs in their wake. Any day now, mes amis!" Malliaux shouted, firing another round into the distance.

"Make that two!" Wallace shouted, as a 90mm shell I hadn't even known about blossomed amid the incoming column, though a series of small AP mortar rounds arced toward the hill in retaliation.

Fortunately, our cover and the fact that I had ordered a withdrawl with distance intervals meant that through the com chatter and flying gravel, I gathered there was only two infantry casualties as a result, while a volley of AT and Gear weaponsfire wiped out the incoming hostiles.

"Let's move it, people! Infantry, get stowed! Radek, what's our sitch on the evac?!" I shouted hoarsely, dropping into a fresh crater in the permafrost and scanning the wrecked column for survivors. There were none, and I began to pull back our remaining forces. "Mortar teams, you are cleared to withdraw, AT squads, get loaded up now!" I shouted, as Radek finally came on the line with a single scream of "Loaded! Pulling out now!"

"Ball is rolling, all active assets provide support." I intoned solemly, snapping a glance over at the now-filled APCs beginning to clamber across the pitted courtyard and toward the gates. "Convoy, what is your casualty status?" I asked anxiously, wondering how the Lib infantry had fared, and how much we would have to push beyond safety margins to get clear.

"Two dead, three walking wounded, and two stable but serious." Radek responded after a moment, cursing as his squat armored crawler heaved over a pile of rubble and slammed back down onto the pavement, the driver cautious on the uneven terrain between him and the gate. "We also recovered every one of our objectives, plus some extras. One-hundred and seven prisoners total, alive and intact!" He added as his track clambered over the wrecked gates and out onto the relatively level surface of the patrol road.

"By the Prophet, who are all those people?!" Wallace interrupted angrily, his transmission fairly weak due to the rocks and hillside between him and us.

"Friends." Radek replied. "Liberatti, resistors, spies whose cover was blown, earther defectors..." The column began to gain speed, and I switched to SMS to keep up, forming a wedge with Kage and Vesping at the head of the line. In passing, I waved at one of the pintle gunners, a masked and goggled shape hunched over a pintle-mounted heavy antivehicle automatic.

"You mean to tell me we risked our lives to free the stinking dawgs that raped our planet?!" Wallace shouted, livid.

"Earthers?" Kage hissed in similarly angered suprise, and his Gear slowed slightly.

"Yes, Earthers!" Radek shouted back, in what has to be one of the most insanely, idiotically brave perfectly-right-argument-at-the-worst-possible-time things I've ever heard, "Unlike you Terranovans, we don't have the luxury of picking and choosing our allies, just making the best of what we have, and that includes Earthers!"

"An enemy of my enemy is my friend." I and Vesping countered, eerily speaking in unison and incidentally scaring the hell out of me.

Laugh all you want. You go to say something in a battle situation and hear a voice of the opposite gender speaking your words. It's freaky.

"Besides," I added. "You don't necessarily have to like it, just to do it. So, soldier, shut up and soldier!"

And our convoy roared off into the night.

To be continued...