Episode 5 (2180.05.28)
by Shawn Hagen (all around rapscoundrel and ner-do-well.) (1997)
Starblade Battalion is the Property of R.Talsorian Games.
Kenneth Stac had a lot going for him. A good job. A shelf full of journalism awards. A column that was just controversial enough to keep it being read, and a safe existence. It was all he had ever wanted. Well, maybe a lover who was a little more attractive, but even that was not all that important.
His rather expensive apartment had a balcony that overlooked Central Park. Or where Central Park had been before the entire city of New York had been flooded under four meters of water when the polar caps had finally melted. It had been the best thing that had happened to the Big Apple in a very long time. After all, as some one had once said, if flooded cities were that bad, would Venice get all the tourists?
All that was left of the park were a few areas of high ground, like islands. It was rather pretty he thought. He had seen pictures of the city from before the nuclear bomb had gone off. It was his opinion that the flooded New York was a much more attractive place then the so called 'Heyday' period New York.
The knock at his door shook him from his thoughts. He put his beer down on the balcony railing and turned around, going back into his apartment. It must be Phil, or maybe one of his neighbors, he thought. When he opened his door he found out it was neither.
Two men in dark suits, ones face was covered in what looked like acne scars. Other than that, they were pretty forgettable.
"Yes?" Kenneth asked.
"Are you Mr. Stac?" the one of the right asked.
"Yes. May I ask who you are?"
"Detective Jones," the man said, flipping out a badge. "We'd like you to come down to the station with us."
"We have a warrant for your arrest," the other said, removing an eyes only pad which he handed to Kenneth.
"This must be some sort of mistake."
"We don't make mistakes. Everything will be cleared up at the station."
"I'd like to call my lawyer."
"You can at the station."
"You're blocking my datalink," Kenneth said.
"It is for your own protection. Please Mr. Stac."
"Let me get my coat," Kenneth said, walking into the apartment. The two police officers followed him in. He was not going to get a chance to use one of the hard line phones.
He pulled on a light windbreaker then left his apartment, the two officer close to him at all times. He locked the door and then walked with them to the elevator.
"So, can you tell me what this is all about?" Kenneth asked as they entered the cab.
"When we get to the station," the man with the acne scars said as he pressed the button for the second floor.
"Wait, why the second floor? It is underwater."
"It is for your safety."
Kenneth said nothing more, wondering if this was some elaborate joke on his editors part. Jane always told him that his anti-Gaian stance was bound to get him in trouble one day. He had always said that she was paranoid.
The elevator doors opened on the second floor. The damp, mildewy smell hit him right away, and then there was the incessant drip of water. A lot of the buildings had had their lower floors sealed and pumped out, but no one used the space. No one wanted to.
He was escorted out of the cab, then down a hallway. The walls that were still there were made of concrete. The water had destroyed anything softer.
"This will do," one of the officers said as they came out into a large area.
"What?" Kenneth asked, turning around. The man with the acne scars had pulled out a pistol and was screwing a silencer on to it. "What is that for?"
"To kill you," he said, lifting up the pistol.
"Wait, no, what..."
He was cut off by the sound of a gunshot. It did not come from the pistol pointed at him. In fact that pistol was no longer pointed at him as the owner was falling over, a messy wound in his head. There was another gunshot and the other officer was collapsing to the ground.
Kenneth turned slowly towards where the sound had come from. A tall woman was pulling herself free of some concealing rubble. She held a rifle in her hands. She walked towards him, spared a moment to look at the bodies of the officers, then looked back at him. "Mr. Stac, would you please come with me." Diane said.
"Who are you?"
"Marshall Vichy of the Pleiades," she said.
"Please come along Mr. Stac. There will be others," she looked down at the bodies, then turned around and walked back towards the elevator.
"They said they were police officers," Kenneth said, running after her to catch up.
"Maybe they were, once."
"Your government wants you dead," she told him.
"Are you saying the government was behind this? The USSA?" he said, his tone held disbelief. "If this is true, do you know what kind of story it will make!?"
"A very good one we hope," she told him, pressing the call button for the elevator.
"Later," she told him. "Now I have to get you out of here."
"Quiet," she told him, "I got a message coming in. <What is it?>" she subvocalized.
"Marshall," Emiko's encrypted voice came over her datalink. "One of those officers got a message off a few seconds ago. backup is on the way."
Damn, Diane thought, looking back the way they had come. One of them must have been augmented. <Right, tell Tern that we are going with plan B.>
"Yokai," Emiko said.
"We might be in a little trouble," Diane told Kenneth as the elevator doors opened. "Come on," she stepped in and hit the button for the third floor.
Kenneth decided not to ask anything and just follow the woman. She seemed interested in keeping him alive and that was fine with him.
Diane pulled her long coat open and hid her rifle underneath it. She slid her right hand through the opening in her pocket and put it around the pistol grip. When the doors opened on the third floor the weapon was hidden.
Ken started towards the lobby doors but Diane grabbed his shoulder and directed him to the left. When they started hearing shouts of 'police' in the distance, they began to walk a little faster.
"Where are we going?" Kenneth asked.
"But the back exit..."
"Will be watched," she told him. They exited into a small lounge area that had a large picture window. There were a few people in there, talking, enjoying the view. Diane swung her rifle out from under her coat and blew the window glass out into the canal.
The people in the room started to scream as Diane grabbed Kenneth's arm and ran him towards the window. Kenneth was wondering if she intended them to swim when a powerful-looking speedboat drifted in front of them.
She leapt, pulling him along. She managed to keep her feet when they landed on the deck; he fell and slid.
"Get us out of here," Diane said.
"My pleasure," Tern told her, pushing the throttle right open, turning. Diane fell onto Kenneth at that point.
Up ahead of them two police boats began to move to block them off. Tern turned the wheel sharply to starboard, scrapping, literally, the boat between the police craft and a building. Then he was clear and free, making a run across the open expanse of water where the park had once been.
The maintenance closet was in no way special, except for its close proximity to the central computer room. Emiko had found it easy to splice into the system. She watched as data scrolled across her screen, and made slight changes to it, sending the backup units to where they would just miss Tern's boat.
"Emiko," Juan's voice came over her headphones.
"Yea," she said softly.
"Pull out, you're done."
"Yes. Now go."
"Right," Emiko told him, reaching up to pull her computer's leads from the splice points. She shut the computer down, then hid it in the cleaning cart, burying it under some trash. She pulled her cap down low so the brim shaded her face, then headed out.
No one paid any attention to a member of the janitorial staff making her way towards the recycling bins. No one thought about how close to the exit the bins were. She was invisible, just like Juan had said she would be. Look like you belong, wear the right clothes, no one will notice you.
Tern was smiling as he twisted the wheel back and forth. They were on what had once been Broadway, and still was in a way. Few of the theaters had survived though, stages and main floor seats flooded out. It was a busy stretch of water, a lot of traffic on it. Threading through all the other boats took a lot of skill and he was glad of the vacations he had spent at Waikiki.
The police were trying, he gave them a lot of credit for that, but they were a little outclassed. The ten meter cigar boat he had was an old alcohol-burner, its engine putting out a lot more power than then police electrics could. They did have him when it came to numbers, though. There were always more of them.
"Helicopters," Diane yelled up to him.
"We still need some time. Can you distract them?"
"Can I distract them?" she mumbled, flipping open a chest at the back of the boat and removing an old lever-action rifle. Propping it up on the back of the boat she cocked the weapon and scanned for targets.
Nothing useful on the water, so that meant taking out the main problem. She shifted her aim upwards. She did not like shooting at aircraft. Too much chance of something going wrong. Most of the officers following them did not know the truth. They all thought they were after a group of terrorists and cop killers. She did not have much choice, though.
It took her two shots to hurt the first helicopter's engine. The second took three. After that the remaining two were no longer flying so close. Diane turned around, put her back to the chest, and reloaded the rifle. She noticed Kenneth was staring at her.
"Who are you?" he asked.
She smiled. "Well Pilgrim," she used her often-practiced John Wayne drawl. "I'm the woman who's saving your life."
"Oh," he said, wondering why she was talking funny.
Diane popped back up and fired on the boats pursuing them aiming at the waterline of the hulls.
In the front Tern decided they were just going to have to go faster. He pushed the throttle up and hoped that he had not gotten rusty.
The boat flew over the water, finding openings were there should have been none, or scraping the paint of other boats where there really weren't. Tern took turns at speed, once smacking the aft of the boat up against the side of a building. It put a small crack in the hull and they started taking on water.
He took another turn and they were out in the open, lots of space around them, little in the way of other traffic, but for the other police boats.
"We're surrounded," Kenneth said, looking at all the boats closing on them.
"Get down," Diane snapped, pulling him to the damp deck of the boat.
Tern had let up on the throttle and was looking around, getting his bearings. He could hear a voice coming over a loudspeaker, ordering them to come to a stop and throw their weapons over board.
"Pretty exciting," he looked back over his shoulder at Diane.
"Shut up and drive."
Tern nodded as he pushed the throttle back up, turning sharply, almost capsizing the boat in the process. He was moving at full speed again, bouncing over the water, a group of police boats behind him, even more in front of him. The distance began to shrink, the boats ahead of him getting closer and closer. He could see that some of the officers lost there nerve as their boats broke off. Not all of them did. Enough were still heading right for him to keep it interesting.
He picked his target, a sleek job that looked like it might be an internal combustion monster like his. The distance shrank even more. He could make out the people on the boat he was charging. Some of them did not look happy about the driver's course.
He was almost on them when a Galliard swept down low, grasped the cigar boat on either side, and lifted it from the water. It passed over the other boat with only a few centimeters clearance.
Ree adjusted her flight, hit her thrusters, and climbed rapidly. The thruster wash created several waves powerful enough to capsize a number of the police boats.
From his place on deck Kenneth looked up at the HA above them, then at the city rapidly dwindling behind them. Then he fainted.
"Kind of easily upset isn't he?" Tern looked back at Diane.
"Rumor mill has it you wet your pants the first time you tried to land an HA on a spinner," She said.
"Yea, but at least I didn't faint."
Emiko was the last to show up at the old warehouse that they had made their temporary base. It was in the mountains, a deserted area. She pulled up on the motorcycle, then removed her helmet and the filter mask she was wearing.
"How did it go?" she asked Tern who was sitting out front.
"Smooth as glass," he told her.
"Good," she got off the bike then walked towards the doors.
"You know, this is a dirty little planet you got here," he said.
"Why do you think we want to keep you from gutting the cluster," she told him, smiling.
"I think I'll be a little more lenient towards the next Gaians that decide to preach to me."
"Not too much I hope," Emiko said, walking through the doors.
There was a lot of activity going on in the warehouse. There were about twenty Ravagers there, organizing the show. There were three people from the list currently in the warehouse. There were supposed to be four but they hadn't made it in time for one. She saw Juan and two of the Ravagers talking to the man they had just brought in. Juan would be telling him exactly what had happened, and what was going to happen. He had told Emiko that Kenneth Stac could be of great use to them. He knew how to write and he already had an understanding of the darker side of Gaian politics.
She noticed Ree up on a maintenance platform, working on the Galliard. Emiko walked over and then climbed up the platform.
"Ree-san, what are you doing?"
"Just working out a few bugs in my pal," she said.
"But we are leaving it behind."
"So," she turned to look at Emiko.
"Well, it just seems odd."
"Emi-chan, what can I say. I love these stupid suits. I can't get enough of them. Come on, give me a hand. I'll give you a basic lesson in preventive maintenance."
Emiko pulled herself up on the platform and moved in beside Ree. For almost two hours Ree taught her a little of HA maintenance, how to do all the little things. Emiko enjoyed herself. It was interesting and Ree was very interested in the subject matter.
"Ready to go?" Diane called up from the floor.
"Yea," Ree said, sounding a bit down as she closed up the maintenance hatch. "Well, those are some of the basics Emi-chan."
"Thank you for the lesson," Emiko said, bowing.
"No problem. We'll get you a datalink soon and I'll show you how to fly them."
Emiko stiffened when Ree said that and took a step back.
"I was only joking Emi-chan. Sorry."
"It's all right," Emiko said, turning around and climbing down the ladder.
Odd girl, Ree thought to herself.
"Where are you going now?" one of the Ravagers asked Juan.
"San Francisco," Juan told her. "Got a target to scoop up."
"Not many of them left now," she said.
"So we'll be finished soon."
"You're a good bunch to work with. That Marshall looks like she is thinking of shooting all of us half the time, but other than that, it's been fun."
"Take care," he told her.
"You too," she flashed him a smile then headed towards one of the trucks. Juan turned around and walked towards the large helicopter they would be using to get around in.
"Who are we today?" he asked Emiko as he climbed into the passenger compartment.
"Gaian Special Investigations Team," she said, not looking up from her computer.
"Have I told you that I love you?"
"Baka jijii (dirty old man)," she said.
The planet of Telluria had not been an easily colonized world. It wasn't the thin atmosphere that had been the problem. It was the dinosaurs. Or pseudo dinosaurus telluria, as the scientist had called them. Huge monsters, the largest easily capable of taking on an HA suit, and often winning.
It had taken a lot of work, a number of battles and finally a sonic generator system that played on the Tellursaur's hearing, causing them non-damaging pain, that had finally opened the world. Even so, the colonists often looked out into the jungle and felt a little insecure. Huge beasts, some thirty meters long were out there, held back by the generators. And there were also the smaller ones, the ones that some scientist claimed were on the verge of developing intelligence. Raptosaurus was bad enough, raptorsaurus sapiens was not a pleasant thought.
Still, the fences worked well enough, and most people's fears were something that did not effect their daily lives too much, or were often driven away by the roadstriker weapon systems that sold well on the planet.
A young woman, her black hair in a braid, except for the bangs that hung down over her forehead, approached the main power station of the city of Kroft. She had been in the city for more than a week, quietly doing her work.
Before the Nemyss had come into her life, before he had shown her the way, she had been an SAC commando. The few, the proud, the completely deniable. She had been good at her job. One of the best. Now she was completing one last mission, for ideals higher than those she had followed at the USSA's bidding.
She walked up the stairs, attracting no attention. She walked past the reception desk, through the security scanners, past the offices, even past the guards-who where the only ones who took any special notice of her and were satisfied by the fake ID she showed them-into the main generator station.
Brushing her bangs back from her forehead, she looked around until she spotted one of the security cameras. Staring right into that cold eye she reached into her jacket, removed the detonator, and pressed the button.
Almost ten kilograms of military grade explosive, covered by shielding clothing, went off, killing her, killing everyone in the area and destroying the generator, setting up several secondary explosions.
At the same time a number of other explosives, many of those fire bombs, went off. Everything had been placed to ensure maximum disorder. There were fires, power outages, many, many wounded and too many dead.
No one thought about the sonic perimeter with everything else that was going on. No one thought there was need. The emergency power stations were still up, the instrumentation showed the perimeter units still broadcasting. Everything seemed as it should be. It wasn't until the first Tellursaurs showed up nearly three hours later that the problem was realized.
At that point there was little to do but evacuate the citizens to safe areas as the militia went in with their HAs to clear the animals out.
It was a comfortable room in a fair sized house in the Silicon Valley Geofront. The huge cavern was not a natural occurrence like the one Tokyo had been built in. It had been artificially extruded from the mountains. There were no buildings on the ceiling, it would not support their weight. Still, there were enough similarities between it and Tokyo to make Emiko homesick.
"Emiko," Juan called. "We're ready to begin the briefing."
"Gomen," Emiko said, moving away from the window and taking a seat at the dining table. "All right, let's begin," he pressed a button on a remote, causing the window to darken. "This is our target, Tess Belin," a picture of a woman, average appearance, brown hair to her shoulders, brown eyes, appeared on the screen on the far wall.
"Who is she?" Diane asked.
"Member of Team Buckaroo, one of Bahn/Zai's more colourful teams. As I understand it, she is a fair designer but plays a very good guitar and sings like an angel."
"So?" Tern asked.
"One of the reasons she is on the team. Probably one of the reasons the inner circle is willing to kill her to get to her boyfriend, Carter Jones."
"How long till they go after her?" Diane asked.
"I'd say soon. The inner circle is beginning to get a little desperate, what with all their targets being snatched on them. They are bound to go after the remaining ones as soon as possible. This mission will be a little tougher than the rest. This entire area is high security."
"So what's the plan?" Ree asked.
"More or less the same as before. I've already got you, the Marshall and Emiko the passes you need to get into the labs Buckaroo uses. Emiko will handle computer monitoring, there are several places where you can tie into the security network. Pick one and I'll get you in. The Marshall will be keeping a close tail on Tess, ready to move in when they do. Ree, you will be doing back up, but when we leave we might need some support."
"Where am I supposed to get the ride?"
"There are about thirty suits on display in those labs, kind of a show around deal if the brass comes. I'm sure you can find one to your liking."
"Up to hacking me the codes," Ree looked at Emiko.
"If I must," Emiko said, sounding put upon.
Ree smiled and grabbed Emiko in a headlock, digging her middle knuckle into the top of Emiko's head. "You must," she said.
"Don't hurt her brain," Juan said. "We need it.
"Thanks for the help," Emiko said, freeing herself of Ree's hold.
"What about me?" Tern asked.
"Once we finish this job we are moving. You'll bring your ship in, get us all out."
"What, into the geofront? I can do it of course, but still..."
"There is a landing field that connects to the labs and testing area. You will be able to bring your ship down there."
"So once I save this woman I bring her to the labs?" Diane asked.
"And I run interference if the security reacts faster then we expect," Ree said.
"That's the plan."
"Sounds good," Diane nodded.
"Then let's get down to the details," Juan said.
Emiko sat at the table, taking a few notes, asking questions when she had to. For the most part the meeting was more of a formality. In the time they had worked together they had come to function as a team. They had learned that they could trust each other. While the mission was certainly tough, it was nothing that they could not do.
She looked over at Ree. Ree, other than the fact she still liked teasing Emiko every chance she got, had become Emiko's best friend. She was smart, tough, and a lot of fun. While her recent background sometimes made Emiko a little uncomfortable, she was impressed by the way Ree handled it. It was just something in her past, not something she was proud of, but neither was she ashamed about it. It was just a job she had done for a while.
Tern was an interesting one. She had found out he was very wealthy, came from a wealthy family. He was a thrill-seeker, pure and simple. He did not care how hard it got, just as long as it remained challenging. Emiko often felt that he cared more about the danger stopping the war represented rather than the people who would die in it. Still, for all that, she still liked him. He was brave, a little crazy and fun to be around.
Diane on the other hand was not quite so fun. She held herself to a strict code of ethics, though she did not expect others to live up to similar ones. Emiko had realized that she had her reasons for her behavior. Policing the Pleiades' outback was no easy task. The Marshals were something special and according to Juan she was special among Marshals. Diane's main problems with Juan and Tern seemed to revolve around the fact they broke the law without really caring about it and with no real need.
For all the time she had spent with Juan, she still did not quite understand him. He just always knew what was going on, had an incredible grasp of tactics, and kept them together when Emiko thought internal pressures might throw them apart. All she really knew was that she liked him.
She looked around the table as she listened to the briefing and realized that the first time since she had had to run from Tokyo, that she felt a part of something. While it made her feel good it also made her worried. Any of them could be taken away so suddenly. Things had already come very close on one mission.
She cleared her head of such thoughts and turned her attention to the briefing. It was not a time for her to be daydreaming.
Ree walked along the corridors of the nearly deserted Bahn/Zai labs. Juan and Emiko had arranged a security guard job for her. It gave her nearly full access to the building. Anywhere she could not get to was not somewhere she needed to go anyway.
She nodded to a group of technicians in the hall. There were always a few people staying late, finishing up work, or just not wanting to leave it. The war had everyone one on a bit of an edge. Bahn/Zai's people were just working that much harder for it.
Several minutes later she unlocked a door and stepped into the small storage room. Emiko looked over her shoulder, one hand hidden in the cleaning cart she was standing by.
"Relax," Ree said. "Everything is fine."
Emiko nodded and took her hand from the cart, leaving her pistol hidden.
"I found the one I want."
"Which one?" Emiko asked, pushing the cart away from the small desk she had set up. A rather powerful computer system was resting on it. Being in Silicon Valley had a number of bonuses as Emiko saw it.
"Unit D5, east hangar," Ree said, excitement in her voice.
"D5," Emiko said, entering the information. "Whoa," she suddenly began to type much faster.
"Thanks for mentioning it was marked high security," Emiko said, canceling the trace. "All right, Manticore test platform, MM-8Btest-HA," she looked over her shoulder at Ree. "You want this one?"
"Come on Emi-chan, I thought you were good."
"It is not a matter of being good. Even if I get the codes there is bound to be more security."
"The basic set up that they use is a code to get in, and another to activate battery power. After that everything is locked up until the pilot undergoes a retinal scan."
"I'd have to get in to the suit to get by a retinal scanner."
"You don't have to. There is a third code, emergency access type of deal. You enter it and then you can load a new retinal pattern into the computer."
"How do you know all this?"
"I was talking to one of the test pilots. I batted my lashes at him, told him how brave he must be and explained how I was worried about some unit being stolen while I was on duty. A few kisses and a hickey later he had given me the basics. The rest I filled in from my own experience."
"So you don't know for sure if the set up is as you said?"
"Well, if you find three access codes for the unit they we will know that I am right. I got to get back to my rounds," she said. "Good luck Emi-chan."
"Wait, this could take all night."
"And I'll be ever so grateful," Ree said, leaving the room. The door closed and locked behind her.
"I'll be ever so grateful," Emiko mocked the woman, then she turned her attention to the computer. This was going to take some work, she thought.
"How's it going," Juan asked, taking a seat beside Diane. The restaurant was busy, full of the after hours crowd. No one paid the two of them any particular attention.
"Our girl has picked up a tail."
"Probably. More bad news."
"The tail has surveillance."
"So they are getting wise."
"Had to happen," Diane took a drink of her coffee. "They want her taken care of as well as whoever has been snatching their prizes."
"Think we need to change the plan?"
"No, but they will be alert after we grab her. There is no way we walk away from this one with out a bit of a dust up."
"Like you said, had to happen."
"I'm worried about Emiko-kun. She's untested."
"She won't fold."
"She might get killed. She is a rank amateur. The rest of us have been in our fair share of fights, some of us more than our fair share, she's green."
"But she has..." Juan smiled and tapped his hand on the table. "...what would you say...?"
"True grit," Diane smiled as well. "Be that as it may, there might not be anyone close enough to pull her out of the snake pit."
"Well, yes," Juan said, now lost to the movie references that Diane sometimes used. "Don't worry about her. She'll come through."
"You're awfully confident about this kid."
"I have to be, don't I?"
"If she gets killed I am almost sure that I can charge you with some kind of manslaughter."
"Wartime, you'd never get it to hold."
"That's ultimately why I don't like you," she said, getting to feet, heading out of the restaurant.
Juan watched her go. Diane was a hard case. She was lightening up a little though. She had just stuck him with the bill after all.
Emiko stumbled into the house, half-asleep. She walked into the living room, placed her briefcase gently on the floor, then flopped forward onto the couch. A moment later, she was asleep.
Juan watched it all from his seat by the window. He took a drink of his coffee and wondered what she had been up to all night.
A few minutes later Ree came in, looking quite well. She took a seat across from Juan and deftly removed the still half-full cup of coffee from his hands and took a drink. "This stuff is horrible. Who taught you to make coffee?" she asked.
"My mother. I improved on the basic recipe during university."
"But potent sludge."
"How long has she been in for," Ree looked over at Emiko.
"She looks really tired."
"That's is what I thought."
"Too bad," Ree handed the cup back to Juan, stood up, and walked over to Emiko. "Emi-chan," she said, leaning close to the girl. "Time for school, okite."
Emiko mumbled something but did not wake.
Ree looked at her for a moment then gave her a yank, pulling her off the couch, stepping away at the same time, dropping into a nearby chair.
Emiko woke right after hitting the floor. She was still a little out of it and got to her knees, looking around. "Nani o okota (what happened)?" she asked.
"You rolled off the couch. Did you have a bad dream?" Ree asked, her voice full of concern.
"I guess," Emiko said after a moment.
"So, did you get them for me?" Ree asked, getting out of her chair to kneel in front of Emiko.
"I got them," Emiko said. She wanted to go back to sleep. She had spent the entire night working on the computers. The only good part of it had been that she had arranged a direct connection so she had not had to mess around with any time delay virus programs.
"Show me," Ree said.
Emiko sighed and turned around, pulling her briefcase over, putting it in between them. "The last code was the hardest to find. For a time I thought it might not exist," she told Ree as opened the briefcase and turned the computer on. "It was hidden in a special security measures file."
"These are the codes," she yawned then turned the screen to face Ree. "It is everything you wanted."
"I could kiss you," Ree said, looking at the screen. "In fact, I think I will," she moved forward, pushing Emiko over, pinning her to the ground.
"Iiiyada," Emiko protested, trying to force the woman off her.
Juan watched for a moment then picked up his coffee cup and headed into the kitchen.
"I'll give you your first hickey," was the last thing Juan heard from Ree a moment before the kitchen door closed.
Tess Belin packed away her guitar as the club lights went off. She took more care of the instrument than was actually needed, but then again, it was an authentic Fender from the 20th century. As she saw it, the excessive care was just what the instrument deserved.
"Tess, want a ride home?" one of the bartenders called, like he always did.
"No, I'm all right," Tess answered back, like she always did.
"Have a good night then," he said.
Tess nodded and picked up the case, heading for the door. She felt dead tired. The three encores had been a mistake. Tomorrow there were testing some upgrades to the Manticore and she was expected to be there, bright eyed and bushy tailed, figuratively, with the rest of the team when the HA was shown off to some brass.
All things considered she would rather sleep in and dream about tall, hunky movie stars. Of course that went without saying.
Yawning, she left the bar and turned to her right. She could go home but she felt she would ultimately be better off if she just crashed in her lab. There was a very comfortable couch there, the shower room close by and she had a change of clothes in her office. What more did she need?
The walk was a long one, but she decided to walk instead of taking a cab. She had drank a lot near the end and the fresh air would help to clear her head. As she walked she hummed, then began to sing softly. No real words, just a string of sounds that had a pleasant sound to her.
She was feeling good-the fresh air had chased away some of her tiredness; she was thinking of a new song; she had realized if she sat in the back it was likely no one would notice her sleeping the next day-when the two people stepped out in front of her.
Tess was not exactly worried. There were a lot of places that one had to worry about walking alone late at night, but Silicon Valley was not one of them. Not really. Still, it always paid to be a little careful. She was about to turn down a side street and start running when one of them called her.
"Miss Belin, we're with the police. We have to talk to you."
Tess looked at them, then began to walk towards them. As she got close she saw one was holding out a badge. She relaxed slightly. "What is it?"
"We need to talk to you. It's about your job," the other one, a woman, said.
"Please," the woman indicated the alley they had stepped out of. "It is more private."
"Then why not down at the station, or at my office?" she asked.
"Hell," the woman said, going into her coat, pulling out a pistol.
Tess did not have much warning, but she took what little she had and threw the guitar case in front of her, much like a shield and began moving backwards. The case bucked in her hands as several rounds tore into it. Already off balance, she ended up falling over. She was about to scream when she heard a series of quiet, rapid shots, then nothing.
"Miss Belin," she heard a voice come from behind her. "I think we should leave."
Tess tilted her head back and saw a woman standing behind her. She was holding a pistol in each hand, looking down at her. "Who are you?"
"Marshall Vichy of the Pleiades."
Diane came forward, putting one of her pistols away into her jacket. She offered her free hand to Tess. Tess reached up and took it, letting the woman pull her to her feet.
"Let's go," Diane said. "I can't explain now," she set off and did not look back to see if Tess was following. Tess looked at the two bodies and then quickly ran after Diane.
"What is going on here?" Tess demanded.
"Part of the Gaian government wants you dead to send a message to your boyfriend."
Tess was about to say that she did not believe it when she remembered what Carter had told her, that he felt he was being pressured by some higher ups to take a posting elsewhere. "Are you really from the Pleiades?"
"Yes," Diane said, looking around, heading off down a side street.
"Then why are you here?"
"If they want you dead, we want you alive."
"No. I am not part of the ODF."
"Then why..." Tess stopped, in the distance she heard sirens. She looked back towards Diane and noticed she was running. After a moment, Tess was running after her.
Diane followed the instructions Emiko was giving her, heading for the lab in a round about way to avoid security. After almost half an hour they reached it.
"The lab?" Tess asked between breaths.
"Listen. This is too crazy. Thank you for saving me, but I have friends here. They can help me."
Diane looked at her for a moment, then turned and walked away. "Your choice," she said.
"Wait! Where are you going?"
Diane did not answer and was soon lost in the darkness.
Tess shook her head, then turned and ran towards one of the doors the led into the lab. As always there was a guard there. She recognized him and felt better immediately. What ever was going on, she'd soon have it cleared up.
"Karl," she called out.
The man in the booth turned to look at her. His eyes widened and he pulled out his pistol, bringing it up to point at her. "Freeze," he called out.
Tess stopped so fast that she almost fell over. "Karl, it's me."
"Don't move," he said.
"But Karl," she tool a step forward, wondering if he could see her properly.
"I suggest you put the pistol down," Tess heard the Marshall say from behind her.
Karl kept his weapon pointed at Tess. Diane fired three times, putting a tight grouping into the glass. Karl put his pistol down.
"Smart," Diane said, then shot him with another pistol. Karl looked at the small tuft of red sticking out of his arm, then fell over.
"What is happening!?" Tess demanded.
"They've put your picture all over the place. Your wanted for several murders, suspected Midnight Sun involvement," Diane told her, relaying the information that Emiko had given her.
"No, it's just getting tired. I'll show you," she walked past Tess towards the security booth.
Tess watched her for a moment, then followed. When Diane got to the booth she reached in and opened the door. She looked at the guard laying on the ground, unconscious. She knelt down to check his pulse then got back up. "Here, take a look at this," she said to Tess.
Tess looked at what Diane was pointing at. It was the security monitor. On it was a picture of her. Text scrolling across the bottom identified her as a terrorist. "I don't believe it."
"He's datalinked for some backup. Let's go," Diane said, walking into the lab building. Tess took one more look at the monitor then followed her.
Things had changed over the last hour. She suddenly was not sure of anything. She looked down at the guitar case she was still carrying. Shaking her head, she dropped it. The bullets had probably messed it up beyond repair anyway.
Tern liked contour flying. Nap of the earth, high speed, it was a great ride. Of course doing it in a helicopter was a lot easier than doing it in a sixty meter space craft. That just made it more fun, though.
He was keeping his speed just below sound, not wanting to shake anyone up with sonic booms. It wouldn't do to announce his presence prematurely. He had tagged a few warning alarms, laser fences and the like that his ship's stealth setup just could not completely beat. He was not worried about that. The techs would tag it as a computer anomaly without anything else to back it up. He had played the game before.
He looked at the map board and nodded. Ten minutes to landing area. Once he got there all bets were off and everything depended on everyone else. He did not mind that. He had come to trust them all. They would not let him down.
Ree dropped into the combat cockpit. She made it a habit to stay out of the head cockpits. They were just a big target and other than serving as an escape pod, she saw no point in them. After pulling on the four point restraint harness she reached down and entered the second code that Emiko had gotten for her. The instrumentation flashed to life as limited battery power came on line. The retinal scanner swung down.
Ree nodded, then tapped in the third code that Emiko had supplied her. The full computer system came on. She was directed to insert the key disk into the drive. Ree smiled as looked around the cockpit, finally finding what she wanted. Moving a small screen to the side revealed a second drive.
It was a very nice set up, she thought, pushing the disk with her retinal pattern into place, but she had seen similar in the past. That was the reason she knew how to get around it.
She waited until the computer had digested the data, then she placed her eye against the retinal scanner. There was a breathless moment as nothing happened before the fusion generator came on line and everything lit up.
"Okay," she said to herself, grasping the controls, synching with the HA. "Let's see if all the hype has any basis."
Emiko stepped out of Silicon Valley's main police building. Juan pulled up in a red mini. She got in and he drove away.
"Everything go as planned?" he asked her.
"More or less. I couldn't keep this quiet. They are getting ready to shut this place down. Someone high up is making a lot of noise."
"Couldn't be helped," he told her.
"To the landing field. Tern should be there in about five minutes."
"Cutting it close."
"That's the way we have to do it."
"We're not out of it yet, are we?"
"We're not out of it until we are back in the Pleiades. Maybe not even then."
Bahn/Zai-Silicon Valley had built a landing field in a small valley, directly connected to their labs. It wasn't particularly big, but if was more than sufficient for their HAs. The walls that surrounded it, and the short space made it really only accessible to VTOL craft. Fortunately the Sloop John B. was VTOL.
It came in low, almost brushing the tree tops, then dropped straight into the valley. The powerful vectored thrust engines kicked up a huge amount of dirt and uprooted some small trees as it came down.
Tower control was used to odd things happening-with the work done in the labs they had to be-so the first thing they did was to check the computer to see if the ship was actually supposed to be there.
Tern was not too worried about what the people in the control tower were thinking. He ignored their demands that he identify himself and dropped his ship on to the field. Right on time, he thought, looking at the clock on his instrument panel. Now if everyone else would show up he could leave.
Tower control must have finally decided that he did not belong because they were making threatening noises. He continued to ignore them and looked over his monitors, hoping that he would not have a long wait. He saw a red mini come speeding along one of the outer roads that led to the field. He watched as the driver shot across the concrete, making straight for the ship. The car skidded to a stop near one of the landing struts.
He waited until he had identified Juan before opening the closest hatch.
"<You Ready?>" Diane transmitted over her datalink.
"I'm always ready," he said.
"<Better be, we are coming to you.>"
Tern caught sight of the two women running across the landing field. Everything looked good he thought. Juan and Emiko were in the ship, probably soon to be in the cockpit, Diane and their target were on their way, and he assumed Ree would show up soon as well. It was then that the two Galliards appeared.
"Damn," Tern swore, putting his hand on the controls for his ship's only weapon. If they started to fire his chances were not good. He had built the ship to run away from fights, not to stay around in them.
"Unidentified craft," someone from the tower called. "Shut down your engines and exit the craft. You have one minute to comply before you will be fired up."
Tern looked at the two HAs, they had their rifles pointed directly at his ship. Not good. If he hit his ECM and pushed the engines to the maximum output he might get clear, but he would be leaving Diane, Ree and the Belin woman behind.
He was on the cusp of a difficult decision when part of the canyon wall was blown out. That was followed up by one of the Galliards going down a moment later. When the dust settled he saw a third HA had joined them.
Ree watched as the Galliard across from her went over, its lower body blasted away at the waist. Scratch one, she thought, shifting the huge gauss cannon over the second one.
The Manticore was handling surprisingly well for such a big unit. It was very agile. She was quite pleased with it.
The Galliard moved quickly firing at her. She moved to the side, the verniers in the thrust pack unit giving her the maneuverability to pull it off. She fired, spraying the area with the heavy, high velocity rounds. Her first burst took the Galliard right leg off, the second blew the head off.
"Ree," she heard over her radio. "Stop showing off and get in here," Juan ordered.
"I'm coming," Ree said, running the HA over towards the ship.
"Hurry up," that was Tern's voice. "They got more HAs coming. We don't have time."
"Just let me get out of this thing," Ree said, closing on the ship.
"No time," Tern told her. "Everyone else is on. We're going."
"Wait!" Ree yelled, seeing the ship lift off from the field.
"Grab on," Tern told her. "I'm popping the holds."
Ree watched as sections of the ships hull folded outwards, becoming what looked like HA docking gear. She smiled as she hit the suit's thrusters, taking to the air just long enough to grab onto the holds and lock her HA's hands into place.
The Sloop John B. suddenly rose out of the valley, then it turned, the nose pointing into the air. A moment later there was a roar as the engines went to their maximum output. The concrete below was actually cracked by the force of the blast. Then the ship was gone.
"What do you mean a space craft just blasted off from your landing field," the woman from Metro Command asked. "We have nothing on the radar."
"I'm telling you," a panicked voice told her. "They just left not more then twenty seconds ago. The ship was about sixty meters long and must have hit at least mach 4!"
"We have anything on radar like that?" she looked at one of her techs.
"No, there is something though. It's hard to tell much about it, but I'd say it's an HA."
"Fast. Looks like it is trying to make escape velocity."
"An HA?" she looked at the tech. She knew few suits that could produce that much thrust, actually there was only one and that was a Midnight Sun unit. "Find someone close by and order them to check that out."
"Yes ma'am," the tech said.
"We have a slight problem," Tern said, grunting due to the Gs the ship was pulling.
"What?" Juan asked, also grunting.
"I got a suit that weighs close to half of what this ship does clinging to the hull. The engines can't produce enough thrust to get us into orbit."
"Ree," Juan called. "You hear that?"
"I'm listening. I got an idea. Tern, this might get a bit rough."
"What..." Tern started to ask, then his ship suddenly lurched to the side. He barely kept the ship from going into a spin. "Stop moving around," he shouted.
"Just give me a second, I have to get the foot free."
"What the hell are you doing?" he asked as the ship lurched again. From behind him he heard the sound of someone being sick. That has to be unpleasant he thought.
"Impromptu booster rocket," she said.
"Wait, you can't be serious."
"Lighting them up."
"Oh shit," Tern said, getting ready for the wild behavior he knew the ship was about to display. He was not, as it were, disappointed. The HA was putting out plenty of thrust, it was just not centered. He managed to keep the ship under control, using the ship's thrusters to offset the unbalanced thrust of the HA. "No one is going to believe this."
Tern watched the monitors, expecting something the go wrong, for the hand holds to be ripped out of the hull, for the thrusters to fail, or something else. It did not though. In the end it was incredibly close, but they managed to reach escape velocity.
"We made it," Tern said, he did not sound as if he believed it.
"Ree, you okay?" Juan asked.
"A bit bruised, but fine. I'm surprised this beast made it."
"You shouldn't be," Tess said. "We built that suit to take a beating."
"My compliments," Ree said.
"I'm going back to throw this out," Emiko said, an airsickness bag in her hands.
"What is this all about?" Tess asked.
"Give us a couple of minutes," Juan told her. "Tern, get us out of here."
"I know one. Hey, Ree, you coming in?"
"I don't have a vacc suit in here."
"We'll figure something out soon enough. Get us out of here, Tern."
"Right," he said, grasping the controls.
"Miss Belin, if you would come with me, we have things to talk about," Juan said, getting out of his chair.
"We certainly do."
No one on Earth or in the orbital stations were quite sure what had happened. They did know a ship had landed in a secure area, picked up a fugitive, and then blasted into space. The ship was both fast and nearly invisible. Tracking stations had something on their screens but it was too small to be the ship. It was something though and units were sent to intercept.
Tess stared across the table at Juan. "You're serious," she said.
"Okay, that someone wants me dead, I can accept. That it is the USSA and they are doing it to send a message to Carter, yea. That you want to stop this war," she shook her head. "That is way too out there."
"How about this then. We are interested in dealing with those members of the USSA who basically signed your death warrant. Want in?"
She shook her head. "I can't deal with this right now. I need some time to think about it."
"You have about a day before we leave. You can wait longer at Free Fall but someone will eventually want an answer of one sort or another."
"Hey, Juan," Diane called as she sailed into the galley, grabbing a handhold to stop her flight. "Tern wants to see you. We got trouble."
"If you'll excuse me Miss Belin," he said, then pushed himself out of the chair and kicked off towards the cockpit.
Tess watched him go and sighed. She almost believed him and truth be told she wasn't very thrilled with the war either.
"What is it Tern," Juan asked, slipping into the co-pilots seat."
"Company," he pointed to one of the screens. "That's a cruiser, that's two battle riders, one on top of the other so they look like one. These are a couple of fighters, behind them is a cruiser. These are four Zephyrs."
"So, why are they coming after us?"
Tern indicated the ceiling with his thumb.
"Jammed their spotting radar as soon as I realized what was going on, but they know basically where I am right now."
Juan looked at the screen then turned the skin to skin radio on. "Ree, how are you?" he asked.
"Fine, though I am thinking that some sort of basic sanitary system in HAs would be of use."
"Cross your legs," Juan laughed.
"I'll remember that."
"We got a problem."
"Bunch of unfriendlies closing on us. They are going to close us in a net, but I see a way out."
"You do?" Tern asked.
"Think you are up to handling four Zephyrs?" he asked her, ignoring Tern.
"Those are the fast jackrabbits aren't they. Four," she went silent. "Yea, what the hell."
"Good. Okay Tern, head right at them. Ree, We'll drop you off about two kilometers away from them. Once you are off the ship they'll spot you. You got about six minutes to deal with them."
"If I don't?"
"We'll try to pick you up and run."
"You'll be cutting it awfully close," Tern said. "If we don't clear out of there fast enough we'll be back in the same situation."
"I know. Lot of this is riding on you Ree."
"Hey, I'm the best pilot there is. This suit handles all right for such a big monster. They are going down."
"Good luck Ree."
"I don't need luck." She told him, her confidence coming clearly across.
"I'll wish you it anyway."
Ree undid the four point harness then twisted around, undoing the shoelace of her boot. After returning to her seat she reached around to tie her hair into a ponytail. She was going into combat, no skinsuit, no vac-suit, with no real protection at all. The Manticore could operate in space, and it would take a bit to expose the cockpit to vacuum, but anything was possible.
She put her hands on the controls, watched the timer, then cut loose when it hit zero. The Zephyrs would pick her up on their sensors now, they would be making directly towards her. She smiled and opened the engines up. It was good to be back.
"To the pilot of that Manticore, we know you have stolen it," one of the other pilots, a woman, said over the radio. "Shut it down or you will be destroyed."
"No quarter asked," Ree said, heading right at the tight formation of HAs. "None given." I'm so cool, she thought.
The Zephyrs opened fire almost immediately. Ree jerked at the controls, sending the big HA into a corkscrew, avoiding their fire. The suit was much more maneuverable then she would have expected. It was more maneuverable than a lot of other suits she had flown. They had obviously done something to the test model.
The other suits had broken out of their tight formation, getting ready to surround her. Good choice, she thought, choosing her target. She could beat that strategy.
She closed on one of the suits, keeping it in her sights. She wondered what the pilot in that suit was thinking. Probably thought she was suicidal. Keep thinking that, Ree thought, pushing the thrusters for what little they had left.
A moment before she would have hit she flipped her suit around the other, reversing its body, using the thrusters to brake. She grabbed the other suit about the shoulders, yanking it off course as she pulled it in front of her like a shield. She kept one arm around the other HA's upper body, freeing up the other. All right, Ree thought, drawing the Manticore's rail pistol, let's see if you can handle a hostage crisis. She took aim at one and began to fire.
To the other pilot's credit she, or he, made their suit very hard to hit. Ree dealt with it by aiming with more care. The tracer ammunition made everything so much easier and she watched as the Zephyr was knocked back as pieces of its armour were blown off.
Deciding she would not see any threat from that quarter for a time, she shifted her attention to the other targets. Both Zephyrs had circled back and were coming at her together. Stupid, Ree thought, twisting around, putting the struggling suit between her and both of the incoming units. She fired at them, more to keep them on their toes than in any hope of hitting them. she received a pleasant surprise as one of them moved a bit too slow and was actually clipped by one of her bursts.
They would be getting smart now, Ree decided. Break off and come in from different directions, get one behind her. That was okay, she planned to change tactics. Driving the gauss pistol into the back of the other suit, she pulled the trigger and held it down, making a mess of the unit's rear armour.
She pushed away from the suit a second before the power plant went up. Even a 'cool' fusion system had its limits. The explosion masked her suit for a few seconds. Even the advanced sensor packages the suits were equipped with would have trouble faced with an exploding power plant.
She rode out the force of the explosion, trusting the Manticore's heavy armour to keep her safe. As her suit was moving backwards the huge gauss cannon swung over its shoulder, locking into the torso mount. Ree gripped the weapon in the HA's huge hands. She flipped off the safety and kicked in the thrusters, heading back the way she had come, flying through the debris of what had once been another HA.
She took one of the Zephyrs by surprise, coming out right on top of it. Swinging the cannon around, she caressed the trigger. The huge rounds cut the other HA in half, leaving it floating dead in space.
Yanking on the controls she spun back, avoiding another of the Zephyrs' fire. Only steadying her suit enough so she could shoot, Ree took it out, the rounds tearing into the chest armour, blowing one of the arms off. Before the suit exploded she had already turned away, looking for the last unit.
That pilot was good, or maybe just lucky. The last Zephyr was on her tail, firing at her. Ree jerked the Manticore around, making the HA a harder target to hit. When it became clear that she was not going to be able to break the tail-the Zephyr was faster and a little more agile then her suit-Ree kicked in the verniers and spun the HA one hundred and eighty degrees.
The other pilot tried to climb out of her arc of fire, with limited success. Ree blew the suit's right leg off at the hip. The other suit went cart wheeling off, obviously out of control.
The Manticore swung about, the cannon swinging up, returning to the storage position. She looked at her watch. A little over two minutes for the entire fight. Tern and Juan would be happy about that. Her sensors were clear, though she knew the Sloop John B. was close by, and they had a clear run ahead of them.
"I'm back," she said softly.
Ending Credits-Same as before.
Game Notes: Manticore MM-8Btest-HA
With the gearing up for the coming war, Bahn/Zai was asked for innovations, better, faster, deadlier, they were told to produce. In an attempt to maintain the Gaian philosophy of minimum waste, Bahn/Zai's design teams were asked to produce modifications to existing units that could be made in the field.
Team Buckaroo, faced with what amounted to carte blanche when it came to design and funding, went to work on the Manticore. While there was little they could do to the formidable unit, they made a few changes, the largest being replacing most of the old thruster/vernier system with a more powerful and compact design. The result was a faster and much more agile Manticore and also a Manticore that was hideously expensive, and the Manticore was already pretty expensive. No one actually believed that the modifications would be used except in very limited numbers.
It was a good design though, and the team was quite pleased with it, though understandably upset that it had been stolen.
Flight MA 12
"Watashi wa anata no ane, soshite haha, soshite anata."
--Miyu Kyuuketsuki ga Yui ni itta
Shawn Hagen <email@example.com>