APAGear - Volume 6, Number 1 - January 2004

Black Talons, Part 12

Harman Meyerhoff

(Continued from part 11. -ed)

We had pulled it off. A "daring daylight raid against overwhelming odds." Which is to say we had recconoitered a fortified citadel swarming with guards from extreme range and a near-perfect spotting location, watched and waited untill they all methaphorically had their pants down, and kicked them in their metaphoric and collective ass with a distraction-and-supression artillery barrage fit to level a Republican Army firebase. Then a quick run inside while the craters were still smoking, and with liberal use of flashbangs and under cover of a power outage that disabled nearly all the defenses inside and out, rescued a bunch of preapproved and prelocated people with only two casualties to our raiding force.

Within a half hour of the raid we and all our newfound friends were clear. The Lib preplanning shunted everyone off to a hidey-place or cover identity with frightening competence, leaving us with only four or five emancipated higher-ups. Or perhaps I should say emaciated.

(Or perhaps, given that I've used it at least once a chapter for eleven chapters running, I should strive to never use that inane homonym word play ever again.)

Bastille Alpha apparently didn't have a very good meal plan, because all the prisoners I saw were gaunt, smelled like a chemical toilet mixed with a ripe laundry hamper, and did justice by kelp burritos out of genuine hunger rather than courtesy.

Now, before we get all excited, there's a very important thing to say: I did not meet the fabled Petrus. Not then, not ever. Not during the entire mission. It wasn't just compartmentalization, though that's a good reason for not meeting him. I was simply too busy running missions and doing admin and education duty for our allies to ever meet the guy.

And busy I was. My schedule after the raid began with an uncomfortable six-hour I'm-still-gatelagged lurching-and-bumping around in my bunk (and not the good kind) combat nap in the Fury while it transited NOE to a new hideout. Upon landing, I went through the ordeal of tutoring a horde of mediocre guerillas in the use of captured CEF heavy weapons. Four such eat-sleep-teach shifts of screaming at, running into the dirt, and otherwise babying my newly-blooded Lib troopies, and I wasn't really in the mood to be terribly curious if it started raining barnabies, much less wether or not I met some semi-important tribal chieftain. As it was, I only encountered one of our rescuees by chance.

I was just getting back aboard the Fury after a venture outside, cycling through the lock and trying to knock dirt off my boots as I went through. It was useless. The burnt-hair-pumice-and-chalk odor of Caprician dirt was noticeable but completely innocuous through my helmet atmo compressor, but once you let the stuff start to shift around in a large space maintained at decent humidity and air pressure, the smell seemed to grow like a rehydrating meal pouch. And was about as appealing.

But, as I came down the main hallway from the airlock, I almost collided with two burly Libs who were trying to act like they were guarding the door to the medical bay and the door to the meeting room/diningroom/tactical center. But in a meter-wide corridor, even a burly miner whose back is flat against the wall takes up too much space.

Fixing each with a critical and worlessly sarcastic glance, I squeezed between the first guy and the wall, then moved on to stand expectantly before the second gomer, whose back was obscuring the door switchpad. He made a vague effort to straighten up as I paused before him.

I stopped. I waited. I noticed he was about half a meter taller than me. I settled my face into a mask of distainful impatience. He looked nervously at me and squared his shoulders, which ended up being a meter wide if they were a centi. I came to parade rest before him and made niether movement nor any visible sign of my intentions. I was positively radiating in the "mysterious" spectra of energy. And intimidation. I was still acutely aware I was fifteen centimeters below his eye level, but he was the one feeling uncomfortable. Well, more uncomfortable.

I tilted my head to one side, imperceptibly critical.

He stewed for about twenty seconds before it really got to him. He shifted his footing into a semblance of parade rest. It did not placate me. If anything, I let a slightly distainful expression work its way into my blank face.

Nothing beats randomly reducing someone (especially someone who normally should intimidate you) into a neurotic wreck. Especially for no reason. There's a reason Instructor-Sargeants are always so cheerful off duty. They get paid large piles of dinars to do it by hundred-recruit bulk lots.

Yet I, being of such nobility as to be worthy of the Talons, was also gracious enough to take on this pathetic lummox pro bono publico.

Self consciously, he brought his subgun up fron where it had been hanging limply from its' lanyard to a vague parody of cross-chest present-arms.

I nodded imperceptably, but remained outwardly unimpressed.

Catching on, he straightened up until I swear his vertebrae were cracking under the strain, and stiffened everything into a passable inspection stance. His web gear and other equipment were pathetic for inspection, of course, but he was at least in proper posture and trying to look professional.

I gave him a nod, then a milimetric smile and snappy salute.

He beamed, and froze at attention.

Then I loosened back up, took half a step back as if I were about to go about my buisiness, and then tapped him on the shoulder. "Perdon, but you are standing directly in front of the door switch."

He veritably leapt aside in shock as I triggered the bulkhead door and ducked through, fishing within the neck of my armor for my necklace. As I was flipping through my dogtags, trophies, and keychips for the one that would allow to my personal-foodstuffs cabinet, and doing it with gloves, I wasn't really paying attention to where I was going.

The next thing I knew, I was feeling that special pain that comes from getting hit in the face. My nose, specifically, was suddenly throbbing in agony about a centimeter behind where it should've been, and my reflexive curse was lost amid the surprised grunt-and-yelp of whoevers' forehead had been inadvertantly volunteered to be my plastic surgeon.

Then the haze of pain started to recede as adrenaline dumped into my bloodstream, my kidneys' little endocrine mahouts making their ten-times-a-day quota yet again, and meanwhile I was processing nonvisual data. Traces of chlorine, the perpetual kelp-burrito and burnt-hair odor, and something too faint to quantify but definitely nice. As my vision took several more milliseconds to resolve, my much-abused nose clarified the faint odor as coming from the same source as a vaguely rank scent of stale lanolin, but pheremones are pheremones. Having taken their sweet miliseconds rebooting, my eyes defuzzed to reveal someones' bedraggled mop of brown hair quickly slipping downward out of my view in an apparent loss of consciousness

Momentarily dismissing the myriad pain-impulses still coming in, I lurched forward and deftly got an arm around the falling body, gracelessly managing to keep my inadvertant victim from flopping to the deck like a gaffed carp and discovering in the process that my nose was beginning to bleed, as a bright red rivulent descended from one nostril and ran down my armor.

Apparently "apparently unconscious" was the truth. As I had grabbed, the blood leaking from my abused nose was suddenly and forcibly slammed back at me by a very consciously aimed palm-strike, even as a kneecap struck at my yet-unsired progeny.

Thankfully, my reaction time and poor aim deflected the former off my jaw with a glancing impact that only made me bite my tongue, while the knee thankfully encountered a centimeter of resinplast turtleshell armor before it could rob me of one of the simpler joys in life.

I grunted in unison with my assailant, blinking away yet more pain and disorientation, and then was suddenly staring into a pair of very very attractive green eyes from about six centimeters away. I foremmost decided not to retaliate, and consequently remained utterly frozen in what I realized was rather close contact for two parties with that much violence already coloring our relationship.

"Perdon, mademoiselle." I managed, despite the fact that my tongue was just as injured as the rest of me. Slowly, I unhooked one arm and delicately extricated myself from the akward bearhug I had used to keep my victim/assailant from laying out on the deck.

Those marvelous green eyes blinked twice, and then she (whoever she was) relaxed slightly and, bracing off me, got her feet underneath her.

Without further hitting, either!

Despite the fact that I was dripping blood from at least two points on my face, I smiled in my best approximation of charm and backed off half a step to a more conversational distance as she steadied herself with the back of one of the mess table chairs.

"Commander Harik Kzyn, First Black Talon Strike Recon. Terra Nova. " I introduced myself, extending one still-gauntleted hand while the other remained half-raised and palm-open in what I hoped was a non-threateaning gesture. "I take it you are one of our newly-liberated allies?"

Greeneyes blinked twice again, and I realized that the impact of my nose on her skull was probably the least of her injuries. A sizeable half-healed bruise ran along one side of her jaw, and one eye was puffed up with a similar accoutrement, and there were what looked like finger bruises along one side of her neck. While admittedly, the Bastille and its' inhabitants were exponentially worse than anything that was left alive to be sent into a Republican gulag, there was still a reason we had an explosive collar on Sobec.

"Lieutenant Carlie Pinter." She responded cautiously. Then, as if making some terrible decision, she continued with "formerly of the Commonwealth Third Fleets' Seventh Mechanized Infantry Command. I opened fire on my commanding officer when he ordered us to summarily execute civillians in order to strike back against the guerillas. My squad stopped me before I could finish off that bastard McKenna, and the higher-ups threw me into the Bastille to rot rather than explain what happened during the courtmartial. And maybe those animals would kill me and solve all their problems, y'know? But Petrus and his people protected me inside, and when they broke out they took me along. I owe them my life, and I can't go back to the Keffs, so I guess I'm Liberatti now." She tenatively offered her hand.

I might be a callous and insensitive, but it's mostly an act. "You almost took out an earther senior officer? Impressive!" I replied with genuine admiration, giving a firm but unthreateaning squeeze to the cautiously proferred hand.

A look of flustered bewilderment crossed her face, and giving no time for recovery, I grinned bloodily and asked "So, having just come from the Bastille, Lieutenant, I must ask how did you enjoy my fireworks display?"

She smiled faintly in response and gave a slight nod of her head. "Very impressive, Commander. I can hardly believe you managed to blow in the main gates of the fortress at the beginning of your assault. They were at least a meter thick!"

"Nothing withstands a determined application of bulk and firepower, much less in conjunction with the element of surprise, comrade lieutenant," I responded proudly, squeezing to one side of her and over to the food lockers. "Now then, I suppose you came in here to eat?" I asked rhetorically, keying the cabinets open with my identification locket.

"For todays meal, we are serving your choice of various forms of cow, chicken, springer, pasta, textured somethingorother I wouldn't reccomend, and some kind of vegetables-only stuff." I rattled off, fishing for a packet of cranberry-flavored electrolyte drink concentrate and a frozen turkeysteak with stuffing.

"Anything is better than the swill they fed us in there." Pinter muttered, looking over my shoulder at the selection. "Any tunafish?"

I snorted. "We've got Emerva fillet in cream sauce and pan-fry MacAllen Carp. Coming as we do from a desert world, not much fish and even less earth exotics. Sorry." I fished around (ugh, apologies. Completely inadvertant pun...) and pulled up a packet of grassrunner cutlets with rice and sauteed yamstalk. "Besides, last time I ordered any, terran saltwater fish were something like eighty dinar a kilo. Try this instead." I determined, passing back the meal packet as I dug out my selection- a kilo of cheese-fried turkey with spelt bread stuffing.

I cracked the heat-up seal and tossed my can on the table while I waited for the hydrator to grudgingly give up the pint of recycled water necessary for my drink. Pinter was already going at her cutlets.

Some people act queasy about recycled water. I don't get it. The number of distillators they put it through on a ship seems reassuringly insane, given that I've had to get my water-ration by sucking swampwater through a filtration straw during my PIM days. If you can trust a handspan-long chunk of centimeter-wide pipe with mysterious innards to make stagnant swampwater drinkable in the two seconds and twelve centimeters between a bubbling black puddle full of mosquito larvae and your mouth all while you're taking a swig, a big 'ol shipboard purification unit is more reassuring than close air support and a cadre of Visigoths.

Just as the can of turkey popped open, so did the door, and in came Wallace, Temple, Vesping and Radek.

I had stopped bleeding, and most of the crusted blood had flaked off, but I still got some strange looks as the four of them filed in. Pinter nearly leapt out of her seat and into a been-in-prison-too-long kick-ass-and-ask-questions-later self-defense mode when the door first swooshed open, but with Radeks' appearance she settled back into her seat, sucking calories.

"I see you're getting along well with the earther." Wallace grumbled as he squeezed down along the narrow aisle between the table and the bulkhead, opening up his private ration locker and digging out some sort of fruit bar.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" I grumbled, taking a pull off my cranberry juice. For once the syrup has reconstituted evenly, and it tasted so very good...

"Oh nothing." He replied loftily. Of course it was something. Namely baiting me for a South-Versus-North sociopolitical argument where we would each denounce each others' national and moral character. Not really serious, but he seemed to think he would somehow convert me to his puritanical theo-faschism. Radeck looked like a springer surrounded by hungry dawgs, but Vesping poked him in the guts and gestured for him to relax and watch the show as she leaned up against the bulkhead and waited for the opening volley.

"I just assumed that the two of you would find many things in common now that you're not worrying about things like what your political officers might overhear."

I grinned. Stupid northie.

"But messeur Wallace! Ze northern armies h'are no differant!" I exclaimed in a mocking falsetto and heavy U-french accent, giving him no time to elaborate.

"What are you talking about! We do not." He replied in gruff surprise.

"Zanpolit," I elaborated, pointing at Pinter. "Responsible for ensuring the loyalty of the troops, making sure they conduct themselves according to the directives of authority, and otherwise serving as a observer to ensure things remain under control. Reports subversive or disobediant soldiers to higher-ups for various forms of unpleasantness."

Pointing at myself, I continued; "Officer du Politique, same thing. Ensuring the loyalty of the Republican Army and ensuring none stain the honor of the Regiment, the Army, or the Republic. Making sure soldiers meet the requirements and standards of the nation."

I paused for effect, reveling in the look of suspicious confusion writhing on his face.

"And as for you poor Northies..." I waved over at Vesping. "Care to make a guess? Ensures loyalty, ruins careers, always watching, not directly in the chain of command, et-cetera? C'mon..."

I couldn't hold the audience hostage much longer, as Radeck was looking like he'd blundered into a motion-sensor minefield, despite the reassurance from Vespings' relaxed demeanor, and Pinter was losing interest and probably consciousness as her blood-sugar skyrocketed. I had to put up or shut up quick.

"Chaplain." I declared flatly. Five face cards and massive stakes. Vesping snickered and barked out "Point!" before Wallace could even begin to splutter a response.

I smirked, nodded urbanely at him, and downed my cranberry juice in silent toast to a massively outclassed and utterly defeated foe. But as a point had been (in)disputably claimed, and I am and will forever be a honorable Republican, I honored my victim with a moment of silence.

He didn't say or do anything, but I was sure he wanted to, and probably something not at all in keeping with his supposedly superior Revisionist ideals. Which made my victory all the sweeter.

"Radek, what's up?" I asked next, digging into my can of cholesterol.

"Morgan has something to show us, said he'd be here in a moment." Vesping interrupted, "And pass over a chocolate bar, please. One of the ones with the sorrento figs."

Radeck made a sort of halfhearted gesture confirming Vespings' statement. For some reason he always seemed repressed around the squad. Guess it was culture shock. All the intel said Pulciano, being liason and all, was going to be the one doing the back-and-forth between us and the Libs. We ended up seeing her about five times during the entire mission. Radek, on the other hand, was like a combination team mascot and obsequitous little brother trying to follow around and help the big kids.

I obediently flung a sweet-ration across the table to Vesping and returned to my tryptophan.

Just about when my can was half-finished, Morgan and Pulciano appeared. Morgan was exstatic, though given the cold expression on Pulcianos' face, I ruled her out of probable causes.

"What's the good news?" Vesping asked, rolling the foil from her candy into a little ball between her palms and then juggling it back and forth.

"We've got a great mission," he declared, oblivious to the fact that he wouldn't be doing the hard part. "A senior CEF General is making an inspection tour of outlying garrisons and research installations. He's travelling with only a light escort through rough terrain, and we should be able to intercept him and capture his encrypted data core. Voila, half the mission is complete once we've got that in our posession. We'll know disposition and numbers of enemy troops, their supply situation, patrol routes, reinforcements, combat capability, everything."

Why the CEF would dare leave so much sensitive data in physical form in the hands of one officer, I dunno. Not really compartmentalized, nor prudent, no matter the encrypts. Though even after four millenia of technological improvement, anything above 128-bit is still damn near unbreakable...

"So, where do we grab the guy?" Vesping asked suspiciously, beating me to the punch by miliseconds. Neither of us was terribly enthusiastic to know, given our past track record of mediocre intel quality and suicidal mission objectives.

"Actually, Petrus has decided to carry out an assault on a CEF outpost General Trilkin is due to be inspecting. We plan to surprise him and the base, thus securing both objectives with one strike."

I rolled my eyes up into my head and tried very hard not to have an aneurism.

"Generals' escorts, additional security measures, stationary base defenses, patrol routes, topography, possible enemy orbital surveillance workup, enemy response capability in units and timeframe, friendly support, evacuation routes, contingency evacuation routes, local emergency med and repair capability, and requote my freakin' health insurance." I chanted, keeping my eyes screwed shut and my blood pressure within tolerances. "You've given me too little data to argue with my gut feeling, but just enough for me to know it's probably right. We're supposed to be commando intel-gatherers. Strike-recon. Why the hell are we doing nothing but attacking fortified positions?" I finished disgustedly.

Pulciano looked righteously pissed at me. Given that I hadn't even really been introduced, I was less than sympathetic.

However, both Wallace and Vesping agreed with me, their crossed arms and straight backs making their body language more eloquent than their flat grunts of agreement.

"Morgan, this isn't personal, it isn't even seditious. It's simple: Come up with a better plan. You're supposed to be intel and liason, putting together what we need to know, not regurgitating someone elses' half-formed notions of a battle plan and expecting us to make it run right."

Right then Malliaux appeared, slamming through the door and right into Pulcianos' backside. There was a grunt, a squeal, probably something inappropriate and physical between the two, and then he had somehow gotten past or away from her and was caroming off the bulkhead towards the table. Halting with his hands already on my shoulders, he shook me and positively growled: "Monsieur Commandeur, do you have any idea what the hell these peasants are expecting us to do? They just formed up their half of this operation. Forty miners with assault rifles and rocket launchers, two flatbed trucks, two APCs with light autocannon, and a Katyusha! Against a CEF base reinforced for a visiting general, and his escorts!" He punctuated his discourse with a few swooping hand gestures.

"We already covered that, sargeant." Vesping said derisively, drawing his attention to the fact that she and Wallace were standing behind me and quite obviously pissed.

Finally taking note, as I calmly and deliberately pushed his grabby hands off my person and out of my personal space, he managed a sort of self conscious "Oh."

Then, arraying himself in line with the others, he awaited my response.

"Okay." I began, hating my job every syllable of the wheedling and feelings-smoothing I was preparing to do. "The Lib plan sucks. No offense to Morgan, no offense to our staunch allies. However, they are correct that the objective they have found for us is too tasty for us to pass up. So we've got a very good why but no real how. The Liberatti have provided us the former, so I feel we're obligated to chip in and do our part by providing all of the latter."

It was cliche, it was simplistic, but it was the sort of heroic drivel expected of a leader. Everyone sort-of bought it, probably because it made them realize how they'd been about to claw each other's throats out. Pulciano was still looking pissed, but at least

"Now, Wallace, Vesping, stick around. Malliaux, go get Temple and Kage over here and tell the Gear bay crew to start prepping- basic fueling and arming, nothing special yet. Radek, go tell your people to calm down, and see if you can get us some maps and things. Miss Pinter, I assume you know Keff equipment at least as well as the rest of us, so I guess you're hired. We'll see about getting you a mount in a bit." I glanced at my chrono and stole a bite of turkey. "I know it's cliche, but we'll meet back here in twenty minutes to discuss the attack. So let's do this right, people."

And I returned to my lunch.

To be continued...