Lone Star – Chapter 17

Morgan’s hair was still wet when he entered the pilot’s lounge. He’d taken his time showering, knowing that his run had gotten him dirtier than usual.  The lab complex had a wonderful, dome-encased garden on top of one of the accessory buildings.  Morgan could tell that the designers had intended it to serve as many purposes as possible.  It was the perfect place for a stroll, whether at dawn, noon, dusk, or midnight.  The stars were often clearly visible from there, and the local astronomy club often set up in one spot or another amongst the short trees and shrubs.  It was also the only place where the staff and soldiers had any chance of doing any gardening, so those with green thumbs had formed a club to care for the flora.  Of particular interest to Morgan, the designers had built the two paved paths to be 400 meters and 800 meters long, respectively- perfect for running, and the view was the best he’d get at this posting.

Its popularity also meant that it was one of the most heavily trafficked location for off-duty personnel, and that meant a heavier maintenance schedule.  It had been closed for two days now for HVAC problems- dust in the fan motors, they’d said.  Morgan had been forced to use the treadmills in the exercise center, which was hotter and more humid.  He swore that if the garden was closed the next time he went running, he would check out an infantry armor uniform and run outside in the dust.

The lounge was busy that afternoon.  His squad was there, all except for LT Kline, who was lifting weights.  Morgan had passed him on his way out of the gym.  He sat down heavily, in a chair beside CC, and looked around.  The conversation had stopped when he’d approached, which he was used to.

Next he noted that no one had alcoholic drinks in front of them.  He looked over to Connor, who shrugged.  When he and Sergey had told their new squadmates that Connor got ‘a feeling’ that they’d get called up for a mission after normal shifts, they’d gotten a good laugh.  He’d been right six times in a row.  So now, when he warned them that they shouldn’t drink alcohol, they listened.

“What can I say, Captain?”  Connor lifted his drink- a caffeine free soda.  “If I didn’t speak up, what would you think when they called us?”

“Not a problem, Connor.  Better to know, instead of wonder.”  He waved one of the lounge staff over.  “If we got the call, but had to pass it ‘cause we’re all drunk, the Major would never let us live it down.”  He turned, and ordered a soft drink for himself.  “Besides, the soft stuff is free here.”

“Just means we go to the head more often, sir,” Sergey said, taking a drink.  Then he stood, and headed off to the bathroom door across the lounge.  On the way there, he passed another table populated by three young women and one man from the Combat Robot brigade.  Sergey had been seeing one of them for a few weeks- a red-haired, fair-skinned woman with bright eyes and a quick smile.  Her name was Wendy Williams, and Sergey had introduced her to his captain as they’d passed her squad in the hangar.  She’d seemed nice enough.  Since they were from different units, and widely separated units, the regulations allowed their romance.  Sergey didn’t give too many details, but he had told his Captain a little about her, and Morgan was happy for his man.  As the LT passed his girl, she extended a hand up and behind her.  He slid his own hand down her arm, clasping her fingers for just a moment as he went by, then releasing her as he kept walking.  She turned her head toward Morgan and the others, and flashed a smile before returning her attention to her card game.

“Ground-pounders,” McInsley mumbled with a smirk.  “She’s pretty enough, but I’d have thought he’d pick another pilot.  It’s tough enough for us to get along with non-SF troops.”

Connor smiled.  “He’s not one to hold a girl’s MOS against her.  I’ve only seen him date a few women, and I’ve known him a good long time.”

“She’s a tiny little thing,” CC observed.  “He probably outweighs her 2-to-1.”

“Yeah, but you know what she drives, right?”  Connor asked.  CC shook her head, and so did McInsley.

“She’s rated in just about every non-flight combat robot on the base, but her specialty is the Abolisher,” Morgan answered.  “And before you say anything about a bumbling giant, remember that those drivers are experts in 4 different kinds of hand-to-hand combat.”

The pilots of the bigger combat robots had to be- the balance and co-ordination that martial arts training instilled were essential, especially in the case of the IAR-2 Abolisher.  Nine meters tall, and shaped like a titanic skull with arms and legs.  The pilot had to be able to make the giant dance when the need arose, and it wasn’t easy.  While the infantry, especially the special-forces infantry, produced some of the overall toughest men and women in the Coalition States military, it was the pilots of the larger robot combat vehicles that dominated the annual martial arts tournaments.

Morgan’s announcement made his squad-mates eyebrows rise.  CC’s comment summed it up; “Someone her size, and in charge of that much iron…”

The Captain shrugged.  “She’s got the talent for it.  I know I couldn’t do it.  Damn things are just too big.”  His eyes wandered around the room for a moment, then something near the door attracted his attention.  A young sergeant in uniform, part of the internal security force, entered.  He didn’t have his helmet with him, but the look in his eyes said he was on duty.  Morgan recognized him as one of the four non-commissioned officers that the Major’s office would send off to deliver messages.  He’d collected Morgan and his team from the lounge twice before.  The young man scanned the room, then locked in on Morgan’s gaze.  He began to approach the table at once.

“Well, if I’m not mistaken, our party is over,” Morgan said.  The others turned to look, then quickly finished their drinks.  They were all standing by the time the sergeant made it within earshot.

“How bad is it, Sarge?” CC asked with a smile.  The Sergeant had always been all-business with the MCR team- probably afraid of seeming disrespectful- and CC enjoyed twisting his tail a little bit.

“Ma’am, it sounds pretty serious.  Major Claval has already sent orders for your SAMAS units to get pre-flighted and ready to lift off.  He wants you to be in the air within 15 minutes.  He and his team are already on their way out the door.”

No more playing around, Morgan decided, and a look at his team told him that they had reached the same conclusion.  15 minutes would give them just enough time to suit up and strap in, presuming they sprinted the entire way to their changing rooms.

“Connor, give the Men’s room door a knock, and tell Sergey to hustle,” Morgan said, coming around the table and heading toward the exit as quickly as he could without pushing the other patrons.

“Roger that, sir,” Connor replied, heading off at a tangent from the others to collect Sergey.

Morgan kept pace with the sergeant as they left the room, both of them breaking into an easy run.  “Have you sent anyone to get LT Kline?”

The sergeant nodded.  “Yes, sir, I passed the gym on the way here.”

“They tell you anything about what we’re going to be doing up there?”  Morgan noticed Connor and Sergey catching up to them.  If Sergey was put out by the summons, he wasn’t showing it.

“No sir, just that you’ll be providing support for the Major and his ground team.  They went out on AFC-111’s, with a Mark 7 APC trying to keep up with them.”  That made Morgan chuckle a little bit, but then made him wonder.  The AFC-111 rocket cycle, lovingly nicknamed the Slingshot, was one of the fastest vehicles that an infantry soldier could hop aboard and drive away with.  His own SAMAS could keep pace with it, up to 600kph, but he needed a lot of time to suit up.  With the Slingshot, Major Claval and his team could be going top-speed 3 minutes after walking out of his office.  Having a wheeled armored personell carrier like the Mark 7 rolling along behind them, at a top speed of 100kph or so over rough terrain, suggested that this operation had been put together awfully fast.

That’s the Special Forces for you, he grumbled to himself.  He and his team entered the elevator that would take them down to hangar level.  The Sergeant did not board with them, but passed their elevator and took the stairs, heading back up to his own desk.

The deck crew didn’t have too much activity at the time.  With the priority of Morgan’s orders, they’d doubled-up the technicians working to get them flight-ready.  One of the deck crew stepped up onto a short ladder, fitting the communications rig over his temples and around his ears.  The moment she activated the system, Major Claval’s voice was talking to him.

“Captain Grey, you reading me?”  The digital transmission didn’t quite filter out the background noise, which meant there was a lot of it.

“I read you, Major,” he replied.  “We’re suiting up right now.”

“Good.  I’ll brief you in, and you can relay it to your team.”  The Major spoke for two minutes, and when he finished, Morgan’s SAMAS was just about buttoned up.  The helmet came down over his head, and the digitized display activated.  His team would be ready to leave the hangar in 80 more seconds.  He reported this to the Major.

Regis spoke up at last.  “Good evening, sir.  All systems report ready for flight.  The dust contamination issue in the left wing actuator has been resolved.”  The deck crew had reported this already, but he had instructed Regis to give her own update, just to be sure.

“Glad to hear it, Regis,” Morgan replied.  “We’re going out in a bit of a hurry tonight, it seems.”  Then he opened the communications link to the squad.

“Shadow flight, sound off when you’re ready for the flight-line.”  The deck crew detached the last of the connections to Morgan’s SAMAS, and directed him toward the open hangar doors.  He marched off, not waiting for his squad to catch up.

“Shadow 4, right behind you,” LT Kline replied.  He’d arrived at the locker rooms first, and had his arming clothes on when the others got there.

“Shadow 3, they just pulled the last plug,” CC reported.

The other three took only 45 seconds longer.  Morgan lifted off the ground with Shadow 3 and 4 on either side, and the remainder of his squad marched to the flight line as soon as the air cleared.  They assumed formation in the air, and Morgan called for another check.  Then he pushed up his speed, heading south-east.

“Ok, so you’re all wondering why I called you out here tonight…” Morgan said, dramatically.  Then he got to business.  “Major Claval and his team were instructed to find a small group of thieves that were operating out of the nearby wilderness, maybe out of the outskirts of Lone Star City.  But they got something important, apparently, because the Major’s team was sent after them, and they were sent out in a serious hurry.  The MCR team is riding AFC-111’s, with a wheeled Mark 7 APC coming along for a prisoner pick-up.  The bandits’ heading is Southeast, and our job is to stop them before they get too deep into Pecos territory.  We’ll encircle them from the air, and let the people on the ground round ‘em up and take them home.”

“Sounds simple enough.  What’s the catch?” Sergey asked.

“The catch is that our thieves have a good head start, and might already be far enough into the Pecos Empire to get help- or at least lead us all into more trouble with the locals,” Morgan replied.  “Otherwise I doubt the Major would have called in any air support at all.”  The sun was just about set, and within 15 minutes would be below the horizon.  Morgan was a bit relieved they were flying more East than West- while the helmet display would filter out the excess light, the contrast would make it tough to see what was on the ground.

The Pecos Empire had a misleading name.  Using the term ‘Empire’ suggested that there was an emperor, some monarch or gang-leader who was more or less in charge.  The reality was more or less anarchy.  Small villages and towns looked after themselves as best they could, but the patches of civilization that were most successful were protected somehow- either a ‘mayor’ who was a power-armor pilot, a family of strong fighters, or a group that designated themselves ‘marshals’ and kept the peace.  There were enough bandit gangs roaming that part of the world to keep every single human settlement under a constant threat of invasion.

However chaotic it appeared, it would be a mistake to underestimate the threat this area posed to the Coalition.  Years earlier, the CS has mounted a campaign to ‘bring civilization and security’ to Pecos territory, and it had united the tribes and gangs into an unbreakable guerilla force.  The CS invasion force withdrew in shame, and while the Pecos raiders didn’t have much hope of successfully striking back, the Coalition military brass had learned their lesson.  Ever since, despite small border skirmishes started by both sides, the two opposing forces had more or less kept to their own knitting.

At the times when CS troops received orders to go into Pecos territory (there was no clear boundary, which made it all the more nerve-wracking) they were very cautious.  They either came in great force, or came in very quietly.  And they always left as soon as their business was concluded.  There was literally no telling what they could run into.

Morgan wasn’t sure if the group currently heading south-east was strong enough to be considered ‘in great force’.  A squad of SAMAS and a dozen or so rocket cycles was fairly formidable, but without knowing what they were headed toward, he was uneasy.

Regis spoke to him again, interrupting his wandering thoughts.  “Sir, I read the Lariat team on radar.”  The helmet display showed their relative positions.

“Lariat Lead, this is Shadow Lead.  We show you 35 kilometers ahead of us.  Let me know where you want us.”

Major Claval’s voice answered him.  “Shadow Lead, this is Lariat.  Our quarry is on 5 hovercycles, 7 kilometers ahead of us at speed 200.  We’re seeing heavy exhaust smoke from two of them; looks like their rides are in need of a tune-up.  We’re going to come up around them from the North.  Angle southward to intercept them.”

“Roger that, Lariat.”  Morgan’s radar system could just barely make out the thieves at the edge of its range.  “Shadow Team, spread out to half-kilo intervals and follow my course change.  Drop down to tree-top level.  Lariat team will drive them into us; we’ll surround them and keep them until the APC gets there for pickup.”

He got confirmation from his team, changed his vector, then watched his people spread out in the air.  Then, as a group, they angled downward, skimming the highest branches of the clumps of oak and elm trees that they passed.  They would have better visibility from a higher altitude, but they would also be spotted faster.  They might also be easier to hear, but even well-maintained hoverbikes made considerable noise.  Whoever their quarry was, Morgan was guessing they’d be keeping their eyes open, but not able to hear the roar of the SAMAS engines over their own mounts.

As it turned out, he was correct.  Within five minutes, Regis reported their relative positions as being optimal for intercept.  Claval’s team was north-northwest of them, and had gotten close enough to the quarry to convince them to turn more southward.

“Regis, report all contacts on any of the sensors,” Morgan ordered.

“Sir, I detect only Lariat team in pursuit of 5 hoverbikes, heading south-southeast toward us.  I must say the ground is warm from the day’s sun, so the thermal scope could potentially miss something at this flight speed.”

“Understood.”  He switched on his com-link to the team.  “Allright, Shadow 6, keep your eyes east.  5, watch the west.  4, look south.  Everyone else, we’re going to land right in front of them, stopping in that bare patch they’re about to enter.  I want us to drop out of the sky around them.   On my mark, 3… 2… 1…”

Morgan’s SAMAS got much heavier on him when he cut thrust, folded the wings, and dropped to the ground.  He was ready for it, but it always surprised him.  Even with as well-fitted as his SAMAS was, his shoulders seemed to hold up the suit for a long moment before it pulled him earth-ward.  Sergey and CC came in 30 meters to each side, just enough room to sort-of surround the hoverbikes as they approached.

Morgan hit the ground hard, landing in a half-crouch.  It had precisely the effect he’d hoped for- dust and gravel flew from the impact, and the fleeing bikers were within 20 meters of him.  They hit their brakes hard, startled and disoriented by the sudden appearance of the power armor units.  Sergey and CC both did the same, landing hard but with their rail guns up and ready to turn the bikes and their riders into hamburger.  The three also turned up their search-lights, bathing the group of fleeing bikers in near-daylight.  The lights were pointed downward as much as possible- Morgan didn’t want the lights to attract any more attention than they absolutely had to.  It was all a little over-dramatic, but it had the desired effect.

The riders had clearly not detected Morgan’s team up to that point.  He was too far to see their expressions, especially under the protective helmets they all wore.  But their actions and movements conveyed the same message.  They’d been on hoverbikes, and thought they were fleeing from hoverbikes.  They’d had a chance before.  The appearance of a squad of SAMAS units meant that there was no escape, and if they were to try, the rail guns would speak in their deadliest of languages.  Now, they turned different directions, hoping to find a reasonable escape route, but blocked in on three sides by much faster opponents and knowing their original hunters were still coming from the North.  After a few moments of doubt, one of the bikers powered down his ride and dismounted.  He was apparently the leader of the group, Morgan surmised, because one by one the others followed his example.

They were dressed well, but not uniformly, each in well-cut leather jackets and pants.  Their helmets were fairly new, made by Northern Gun, one of the only manufacturers of technology and weapons that could approach the sophistication that the CS military was known for.  It seemed strange to Morgan that their hoverbikes should be at odds with their clothing… perhaps the smoking engine on one of them had been a problem that came up during their current adventure.

“Sir,” Regis reported, “I am not showing any signs of portable weapons on any of the riders.”

“If they had them, they would certainly have dropped them, once we pointed a trio of these rail guns at them,” Morgan said, half to himself.

“Very true, sir,” Regis replied.

“Shadow flight, report any other contacts.”

Kline reported first.  “No contacts in sight southward, and nothing on sensors.”

“Clear to the east,” LT Larson called.

“Nothin out here but us, sir,” McInsley added.  “Might want to kill those lights as soon as you can, though,” he added.

“Roger that,” Morgan said.  “Lariat will be here soon enough.”  Then he turned his attention back to the quintet of bikers.  Their leader had removed his helmet, and slowly approached Morgan’s SAMAS unit.  He was young- early 30s at most- and his expression wasn’t fear of his own life, which struck Morgan as odd.  But the man was distressed about something.

Morgan let him approach, lowering his own rail gun to point at the ground.  It was a bit redundant anyway, since his squad had two other identical weapons trained on the man as he walked.

“Sir, let me speak to you, please,” the man called.  “My name is Garret Olson, and my father is most likely somewhere above you in the chain of command.”

Fantastic, Morgan thought to himself.  He recognized the name, all right.  Brigadier General Michael Olson was in command of almost all of the aerial combat units assigned to the Lone Star complex.  While his station was at the above-ground part of the lab complex, and he reported to the local base commander as a matter of courtesy, he was truly under the command of General Kashbrook, the commander of all of CS Forces in the state of Lone Star.  Her base was at Wichita Falls, not the LSC itself.  The power-politics here were above Morgan’s pay grade, but he was aware that there was a little bit of institutional friction.  Whatever happened here would be repeated to the General back home, word for word.  Garret had decidedly not followed in his father’s footsteps; after a failed year in the flight academy, followed a single tour of duty in the Infantry stationed at Lone Star- which meant standing around in the dust most of the day- the young man had left the complex and headed off south-east, to try to make a living outside of the shadow of the CS, or his father, or both.

Other rumors that Morgan had heard began to add up.  Garret had been known to use his father’s name to curry favor in many of the smaller towns around the state, and he’d been known to come back to the LSC occasionally to ‘visit’ with his father.  There were some reports that equipment or hand-carried weapons of various types had disappeared at those times, but such reports were uniformly buried and forgotten.  Could that be what was happening here?

Morgan decided to play it straight.  “I’m Capt. Grey, Special Forces assigned to Mutant Containment and Recovery.  We’re outside the regular air wing command structure.  The team catching up to you is headed by Major Claval.”

Garret’s eyes widened at the news.  He had apparently been planning to bluster his way out of trouble, but now he knew that the soldiers chasing him down were not answerable to his father- not directly, anyway.  Their orders had come from elsewhere.  His tone changed dramatically.

“Sir, please, what we’ve taken from the complex will save people’s lives.  It’s a low-tech line of weaponry that has been abandoned by the military and gathering dust for over a year, because it is only effective against one class of target.  But it’ll be invaluable to us.”  Garret was within 2 meters of the Captain’s SAMAS, open hands out to the sides.  “Please- tell them we slipped past you, or let two of the five of us make our escape.  We need to get this stuff down to our people.  I don’t have to be with them- I’ll fare better back at Lone Star than they will.  Just please, let them go.”

Morgan sighed, then looked up to a large clump of trees behind the bikers.  Major Claval’s team had just swung around it, and the seven rocket-bikes encircled the thieves.  Morgan stepped backward, turning the situation over to the Major.

Claval was very, very quiet.  Morgan had seen him angry before, but there was no outward sign of fury here, no shouting.  He stepped very close to Garret Olson, whispering something to him that the SAMAS audio sensors didn’t pick up.  Regis adjusted the sensors quickly, picking up the reply; “You wouldn’t dare to.  You’d never be able to hide it.”

Major Claval responded by drawing his sidearm.  In one fluid movement, he brought the weapon up to the younger man’s head, and fired a full-power blast that quite simply made the entire head disappear.  The neck tissue smoldered for a moment, and the limp body fell without losing a drop of blood.

Just as quickly, just as smoothly, Claval turned his weapon on each of the other thieves, firing a single shot at each.  They were struck in the upper chest area each time, and a large hole was carved right through them.  Not a single one of them wore armor strong enough to stop the blast.  Not one of them had a chance.  They were too shocked even to move.

So were Morgan and his team.  The captain heard Sergey swear over the comlink, but didn’t respond.  The Major seemed to hear it, and fixed a glare at the SAMAS unit that looked mean enough to melt through the armored visor.  Sergey’s unit turned its head to look at Morgan, avoiding Claval’s stare.  The Major turned to Morgan next, as if challenging the entire squad to speak their mind about what they’d just seen.

What we’ve just seen is a murder, Morgan’s subconscious whispered insistently.  Cold blooded murder of CS citizens wasn’t what I signed on for.  And no matter who Claval has backing him up and covering him, killing the only child of a CS General is going to have consequences.

Connor’s voice was the next to speak.  “Lead, six- did he just-”

“Silence, Shadow team,” Morgan cut him off.  He looked over at CC’s unit.  Her SAMAS’s head shook from side to side, slowly.  It was a clear enough warning.

“Those are CS citizens!”  Connor insisted.

“I said quiet!” Morgan hissed.  He kept his eyes locked on Claval, glad his own visor kept the Major from seeing his expression.

Claval turned back to his hoverbike team, and barked an abbreviated order.  Two of them- both mutant canines- dismounted from their AFC-111s and drew a handful of nano-plasma scuttling charges out of the rear storage compartments.  They placed one of the charges just behind the controls of each of the orphaned hoverbikes.  Once they were all in place, one of the canines mounted his rocket bike again, while the other pulled a small wireless remote controller from a pocket, typed in a few commands, then waited to watch the results.

The NPD-14 was a relatively new invention, created right in the lower level labs of the LSC.  It was often referred to as a scuttling charge, since it had the effect of permanently disabling a machine, vehicle, or weapon system.  The method of destruction was far more impressive than an explosion, was almost completely silent, and left far less behind after it was all done.

Upon activation, the device would analyze the target it was affixed to for weight, mass, and presence of organic material- upon the latter it would have no effect.  Then the device would release two streams of nanobots which would adhere to the surface of the doomed machine. The first type would immediately get to work disassembling the target on an atomic level.  As they pulled molecules apart, the second type would re-assemble the components, building more of both types of nanobots and speeding the process.  They would soon devour the NPD-14 shell as well, but by that point there would be no saving the target.  Its structure would break down until it fell into pieces, then into fragments, then finally stop when all of the inorganic material was converted.  At this point, each of the nanobots would self-destruct- not creating a noticeable explosion at all, just some foul-smelling smoke that would dissipate in the open air within a few minutes.

“Those things just scare me,” CC whispered over the comlink.

“They should, Three,” Gavin replied.  “I saw them test it on an old UAR-1.  6 meters of combat robot and it was a pile of warm dust in 8 minutes.”

“All right guys, it looks like we’re done here,” Morgan said, cutting the chatter short.  He switched communication channels.  It took him a moment to find the right words.  “Lariat, this is Shadow.  Doesn’t look like you need us for anything else.”

“That’s affirmative, Shadow.  Get back in the air, we’ll be saddled up in a minute.”  Claval was mounting his hoverbike, and several members of his team were already turning back toward the base.

“Roger,” he replied.  He switched channels again.  “Shadow 2 and 3, lets get back in the air.  Perimeter formation Delta until Lariat gets underway.”  He activated his thrusters, squatting just slightly to leap into the air.  He had hoped it would burn off some of the stress and frustration he was feeling.  It didn’t work.

He’d just watched his commanding officer gun down 5 helpless captives- CS citizens, on top of that.  Once the SAMAS team had shown itself, they had given up running, and had at no time even hinted at resisting arrest.  The fact that one of them had a father who was a general officer only made it worse- there was no way they’d avoid intense questioning.  For runaway mutants, D-Bees or a few dozen other kinds of unexplainable creatures that roamed the world, execution on the spot was more or less standard protocol for CS troops, even prisoners.  But these five had been natural humans, and even as thieves they should have been granted some sort of due process.  Whatever it was that Claval had said to the late Mr Olson, it hadn’t been friendly.

While he was running this through his mind, Lariat team had mounted back up and was heading northward.  His squad remained more or less silent, replying to his orders with little more than a “Roger, lead”.  They were about 10 minutes of fast flight from relative safety.

“Sir,” Regis piped up about 3 minutes after getting underway, “I have a set of odd sensory contacts ahead.  I’m reading a cluster of 7 contacts on the ground, heading toward us at 25kph. I’m getting a limited radar return on them, and strong magnetic presence, but no thermal signature.  They appear to be leaping, making 8 to 10 meters in a bound.”

Morgan relayed that to the rest of his team.  McInsley seemed to know immediately what they were.  His response to the data was to say, “Well, it was bound to happen to you new guys eventually.”

“Please clarify, LT, and make it fast because because we’re 90 seconds from contact.”

“Lead, this is 3.  How many humanoid-shaped critters down here will wear only chest-plates for protection, leap 8 or 10 meters at a time, and have no body heat?”

Morgan sighed.  From what he had heard, both before his posting at Lone Star and during, Lt. McInley was right.  “Lariat Team, be advised, we have multiple radar and magnetic contacts approaching us from the North, coming right at us.  Early guess is that a pack of 7 vampires is going to try to make a snack out of you.  Recommend you boost up over the treetops and turn west.  We’ll engage and cover your escape.  Estimate 60 seconds to contact.”

“Roger, Shadow, we’re coming up to join you.  We’ll maintain formation until you engage them, and break off at that time.”

“Affirmitive, Lariat.”

Normally, the rocket bikes would move slower and stay closer to the ground rather than above the treetops.  The SAMAS units were a fully armored and well-protected flying power armor suit that would be able to absorb a pot-shot or sniper attack fairly easily.  Anything that could pose a single-shot level of danger to the armor was big enough to be detected fairly early on.  The rocket bikes, however, left their riders much more exposed, and therefore the standard doctrine for their use meant staying below the treelines, if any, even if the rider had heavy personal armor on.  And while the Dead-Boy infantry armor worn by the Lariat team was a fully-enclosed armor system, standard doctrine wasn’t designed to take unnecessary chances.

Against vampires, however, the risk factors were different.  Sometimes, CS manufactured armor could stop their fangs, but sometimes not, and some reports had come in of vampires whose claws could pierce the armored joints as well.  One video recording that had made it into the LSC archives showed a pack of 12 vampires attack a full platoon of CS special forces soldiers.  At its most exciting moment, it showed two of the vampires literally tearing the armor off of the troops as if it were cotton fabric.  (The video was transmitted back to base live- the soldier who had opened the communications link to send his last visuals back home didn’t survive to make a written report.)  The risk of flying high, being spotted by other flying things, and being a better target for a sniper or ambush, was now negligible.  If the AFC-111 could maintain enough altitude to keep them out of leaping range of the vampires, they would have done so and avoided contact altogether… unfortunately, the rocket cycles wouldn’t fly quite that high.  Not high enough to be certain, anyway.

The bikes appeared above the trees a moment later, in a tight triangle formation that was enclosed by the rough circle of the SAMAS formation.  The aggressors continued to close on them, head on, and as they approached Regis had more and more information for her pilot.

“Sir, magnetic readings from their chest armor indicates high strength materials, strong enough to turn your specialty weapons.  I recommend removing or destroying their armor plating before using the silver blades.  I am also detecting what looks like vibro-weapons in the hands of each of them.”  Morgan relayed the information to his team.

“Sounds about right, lead.  We’ll have to blast their armor off before drawing silver.”  McInsley observed.

When the figures leaped into the air ahead of them, Morgan could hardly believe what he was seeing.  He’d heard descriptions of their speed and agility, but the ability to leap from a tree top, 10 meters clear above the highest leaves, was something he had to see to believe.  He was at the front of the formation, and two of the creatures leaped right at him.  They both had a vibro-knife in each hand, and they gave him about two seconds to respond.

Fortune smiles upon the prepared, he whispered to himself.  He’d had Regis prepare a firing solution for the small missiles he carried, letting her continually update their targeting and tracking pattern until the moment they cleared the trees.  The blast was close enough that the concussion slowed him down and buffeted him upwards, but the effect was precisely what he’d wanted.  The impact of one rocket may or may not have been absorbed by the chest-plate the vampire was wearing, but three armor-piercing rockets in succession was too much to ask.  And while they didn’t harm the vampire’s flesh, the explosions pushed it backward and downward into the trees.  He concentrated his own attention on the second of them, pouring a continuous stream of rail-gun fire onto it.  Perhaps half of the bullets struck the chest armor, but the force of the impacts pushed the monster back down into the trees.  Morgan guessed that he’d see the effect of his work in a few moments.  It wouldn’t take long for the vampires to leap up at them again.

In the meantime, the squad had closed around him.  The remaining vampires tried to leap at their Captain, attempting to hit him while his focus was elsewhere and overwhelm him.  Morgan noticed, in a half-conscious way, that the rocket bike squadron had veered off to the West and pushed their speed up to their limits.  Even the SAMAS would have to work to keep pace with them now.

Morgan’s team had done an effective job of keeping the vampires from leaping onto him, but LT Kline had been grabbed onto by one of them, and was engaged in an aerial wrestling match.  His SAMAS had enough engine power to maintain altitude, despite the added weight.  A SAMAS could fly while carrying heavier things than a vampire.  But as he grappled with his attacker, no one could shoot at him.  The creature still had his chest armor intact, and had a long vibro-blade active in one hand.  Kline’s armor already bore two scars from the weapon, but they weren’t deep enough to be critical.  LT McInsley reacted fastest, joining the fight from behind the vampire.  The SAMAS vibro-blade from behind surprised it, and had carved two large slashes in the back of its cuirass before it could react.  Then the silver came out, pushing the tattered metal of the high-strength armor aside and piercing the vampire. The initial blow had missed the heart, but McInsley forced the blade upward just as the vampire let go of his squad-mate.  The vampire’s own body weight, no longer supported by the SAMAS it had been grappling, added force to the cut and helped the silver blade cleave the heart in two.  At a command from its pilot, the SAMAS released the shaft of the blade from the forearm, leaving it wedged inside the vampire’s chest cavity.  Kline and McInsley both caught the creature before it fell, then boosted themselves farther from the ground.  Now that the rocket cycles were safely away, the SAMAS squad could gain altitude and disengage.  Exterminating the vampires was not their mission for the evening, and they were still too far from Coalition bases to take chances.

“You take back vampires, too, huh?” Shadow 2 commented, once the entire squadron was flying at a height of 50 meters.

“Affirmitive, two,” McInsley replied.  “They give good bonuses for a source of the infected blood.  I guess they do a lot of research on it, trying to develop a weapon system that will allow us to mitigate the threat.”

Morgan smirked at that.  He was pretty sure that anti-vampire weapons would be used as part of a Coalition campaign to push southwards, rather than as a defensive measure.  To the south, the Pecos Empire was only the tip of the iceberg.  Beyond it, the land was reportedly over-run by, swarming with, and completely under the control of, vampires.  CS scout missions had a record of 1 returning for every 30 that went out.  Not good odds.

“Lariat Team, this is Shadow Lead.  We are disengaged, heading north-northwest to follow you.  We’re bringing back a souvenir,” Morgan reported.

The reply came after a long pause, via line-of-sight laser that took an extra moment to home in on Morgan’s power armor unit.  “Roger that, Shadow Lead.  Call control and they’ll have a receiving team ready for you,” Claval’s voice said evenly.  “Once that’s handled, see that your team gets a shower, then meet us in ready-room 2 for the AAR.”

“Copy that,” Morgan replied.

“Before the meeting, I’ll need a word with you in private, Captain,” the Major went on.

“Yes, sir.”

Over normal, wide-broadcast radio transmissions, they wouldn’t use any terms that would tell an eavesdropping radio operator who was the senior officer, or even what sort of officers were out.  The LOS laser com-link, however, was more secure.  The breach of radio protocol was deliberate, Morgan knew, and the message hidden in Claval’s use of the secure channel was to make sure his squad kept their mouths shut.  Morgan could guess at what the substance of the meeting would be.  He was curious as to what precise form it would take.

*****

“Gold Corral, this is Shadow Flight returning to the barn, ETA 2 minutes,” Morgan called.  “Be advised we are carrying a hostile subject, code Victor Nightshade, unconscious and immobilized.”

“Shadow flight, this is Gold Corral, we show you inbound.  Acknowledge your Victor Nightshade.  Proceed to landing zone 6 and have your carriers land last, repeat carriers land last.  Receiving team is mobilizing, and will be ready for you.  Good work, shadow flight.”

“Thank you.  Proceeding to landing zone 6.”

The vampire body had twitched a few times, alarming McInsley as he carried it, but hadn’t tried to get loose or fight back.  Morgan guessed that the body was trying to eject the silver blade embedded in the chest.  He had also guessed that this indicated a strong, old vampire, and the others had concurred.  The Victor code word indicated a vampire or potential vampire- someone who had been recently infected, but hadn’t completely changed- and the Nightshade suffix meant they guessed it was a powerful subject.  No chances were taken with vampires inside LSC, but the guard duty on this one would be beefed up, possibly even exchanged for a special-forces watch team that specialized in the creatures.

The five unburdened SAMAS landed together.  Landing zone 6 was a circle of pavement large enough for three squads of aerial power armor to land at once.  Far larger vehicles were usually directed to this patch, and smaller groups of SAMAS were often sent to the smaller zones.  In this case, the receiving team that would take the vampire off their hands wanted/needed the extra space to secure their subject.

It was special forces that came out on the deck first.  Their uniforms were markedly different from the standard Dead Boy suit, with a more skull-like helmet and smaller faceplate for them to look through.  As McInsley landed, 15 of these uniforms surrounded him and his burden, all carrying oversized projectile weapons loaded with large silver weapons, almost like crossbow bolts.  They were accompanied by a trio of Mauler power armor units.  These looked like bigger, bulkier cousins of the PA-07 SAMAS that Morgan piloted, and shared many cosmetic traits.  They carried considerably more firepower to offset their inability to fly.  All their weapons trained on McInsley.  Through the formation pushed a small four-wheeled ordinance tractor, one that spent most of its time delivering bombs and ammunition to the power armor suits and combat robots. This time it was pulling a trailer that was more or less a 3-meter-square polymer box on wheels.  Most of the panels were transparent.  Regis recognized the box for what it was, but Morgan couldn’t understand the chemical composition that would make it strong enough to contain a vampire. It didn’t matter too much- he trusted the lab rats in the basement to know what they were doing.  McInsley was directed to drop his load through a hatch in the top of the box, and it fell in a heap as he let go.  The tractor took a wide turn, and the special forces team followed it inside.  The Maulers left last, trooping back to the same hangar that Shadow Flight would retire to.  A moment later, they recieved permission to stand down, and get out of their suits.

“Regis, has Lariat Team gotten settled in yet?” he asked, off-handedly.  He’d assumed that the rocket cycles would make it back long before he would.

“Sir, the network reports that all of the cycles have returned except for one.  The one still not returned was issued to Major Claval.”

What?! Where is he?”

“The locator on his armor is not signaling the base.”

“So no one knows where he is,” Morgan grumbled.  “Can you raise his sergeant on her personal computer?”

“Yes, sir,” Regis replied.  His speakers played back the long beeps that signaled a connection, waiting for the other user to answer.  Then the familiar voice appeared, so clearly that she might have been right next to him.

“Hello, Captain.  Thank you for keeping those monsters off of us.”

“You’re welcome, Sarge,” he replied.  He had noticed that the mutant soldiers, and the dogs in particular, appreciated the shortened nickname for that rank- they liked being treated like soldiers first, and mutants second.  Apparently few human officers granted them this little slice of respect, so Morgan made a point to do so whenever the opportunity arose.  “My on-board computer reports that the Major didn’t come home with you.  Know where he is?”

“He broke off from our course about a kilo from the outer gates,” she replied evenly.  “He goes off on his own sometimes, but I would think he’d have gotten back by now.”

Morgan grimaced.  He thought for a long moment, standing still as his squad trooped off toward the hangar.  They’d all shut down their flight engines, and it would take 10 minutes or more to get them warmed back up and ready to fly.  His SAMAS was the only one of the squad that could fly right away.

He took a long breath, then let it out sharply.  “Shadow team, return to the hangar as ordered.  Major Claval isn’t home yet, I’m going to go look for him.”

Sergey replied immediately, stopping his SAMAS and turning back around.  “I can have my flight engines back up quick enough, sir.”

“No- return to your tree.  You guys go ahead and take your time in the showers, we’ll have some extra time before the AAR.”  There was no reason to start the after-action report until after the two commanding officers got back.  The deck crew would need to take extra precautions with them tonight, anyway- some of the vampires had left blood on the outer skin of the SAMAS units.

“Regis, please inform Control that I will be flying out to locate Major Claval on my own authority.”

“Yes, sir.” The computer hesitated a moment before continuing.  “The entry is logged and noted, permission neither granted nor denied.”  Since Control wasn’t in contact with Morgan’s superior officer, they’d leave off judgement on Morgan’s unscheduled flight.  It would get sorted out later on.  Normal aerial units wouldn’t be allowed such indiscretion, but Special Forces were allowed some slack.  Apparently MCR was as well.

Morgan turned away from the base, checked to see that the landing pad was clear, then ignited his flight engines, heading East to try to retrace Lariat Team’s return to base.  He cleared the outer perimeter a few seconds later, flying low to the treetops.  It surprised him to hear the MCR Sergeant’s voice again- he’d thought the connection had been closed.

“Captain, there’s no need for you to go out after him,” she purred.  “He leaves the base grounds alone quite often.”

“I believe you, Sarge, but after our encounter earlier, my gut tells me to make sure of it.  Those vampires might have tried to follow him.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied.  The connection closed, and Morgan returned his attention to his sensors.

He was 10 kilometers from the perimeter when his sensors picked up the Major’s beacon.  Regis reported it first.

“What’s his position?” he asked.

“Stationary, six kilometers to the South-West.  I believe he had his beacon turned off, and had turned it on a moment before I picked up the signal.”

“Anything else in the area with him?”

“Strong magnetic reading close to him, probably a metal building.  I’m also reading heat patterns from 3 warm bodies nearby him- I’ll be able to identify them when we get closer.”

“Thank you,” he replied.  Only a few seconds later, he could see the Major, sitting astride his AFC-111.  He had just started it moving, and was turning it to point back toward the base.  Regis had been correct about the magnetic readings- he was near a fairly large metal building, perhaps an old storage building of some kind.  The thermal signals Regis had picked up were given off by three small, furry creatures that dashed into the building through an open door.  Regis hadn’t been able to identify them before losing sight of them, and couldn’t get a reading from the other sensors once they were inside- the metal of the building threw off the magnetic scans, and the thermal sensors lost contact a few moments later.

Morgan’s comm-links had been active the entire time, so when the Major spoke, the Captain heard it immediately.  “I appreciate the escort, Captain, but it wasn’t necessary.”  His voice was amused, but with an undercurrent of anger.

“After our encounter, I thought there was a chance one of our attackers had caught up to you.”

“Understandable.  Let’s go home,” the Major replied.  He pushed the rocket bike up to a fast-but-comfortable 400kph, and the two were back at the hangar in just a few minutes.

*****

Morgan made sure his team was connected, paying extra attention to McInsley’s unit. The techs didn’t need anyone to point out the scars on the chest and left arm of his unit.  They did exercise extreme caution- there were splotches of vampire blood on the armored skin, which would be treated as contagious until it had been decontaminated.  The deck crew searched the entire surface of Morgan’s unit before starting to un-button him, making sure he didn’t have any blood on his surface.  This only took a moment- he’d engaged his two vampires with missiles and guns, and hadn’t gotten close enough to be contaminated- but he didn’t mind the extra precaution.  He had half-wondered if they’d make him and his team stand out on the landing pad until the sun came up.  Instead, they placed a series of ultra-violet lights around each of the units in his squad.

McInsley was just getting out of the showers when Morgan got to the locker room.  The others were all dressed, or nearly so, and were discussing their encounter.  Morgan told them to get some food, then meet him in the ready room.  He didn’t take his time with his own shower, but he did turn the heat up a little higher than normal.

The encounter with the vampires wasn’t sticking with him, he noticed.  It was his first meeting with that particular creature, but there was a long list of ‘first time encounters’ with strange and powerful opponents, and in that way, the vampires really weren’t all that different.  He’d fought dragons before, and they’d been much tougher.  As far as cleverness went, the blood-suckers hadn’t shown him anything surprising.  Just another inhuman thing, and it was his job to fight them so the normal people wouldn’t have to.

It was the conversation with the leader of the thieves that was eating at him.  They’d offered no resistance, and could easily have been brought back to the base.  Executing them on contact was brutal, and Morgan was sure that Olson’s father would come looking for answers.  Major Claval didn’t have direct involvement in the security of the base or the lab complex.  And if he had, he’d have brought their quarry home, not killed them in the wild.

There must have been orders from above.  But how high did those orders go?  And what would happen if General Olson came to Morgan for answers?

Morgan found Major Claval easily enough.  The two of them, accompanied by the mutant feline sergeant on Claval’s team, entered a quiet conference room.  The cat closed the door behind them.  Morgan realized that he had never learned her name.

“Good work tonight, Captain,” the Major said.  “Again, you’ve proven yourself as good as your reputation.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Before the AAR, we need to discuss the disposition of those thieves.  You had enough time for them to try to speak to you, and I’m sure they did.”

There was no point hiding it.  “Yes, sir.  Their leader identified himself as Garret Olson.  Is his father really General Olson, here at the base?”

“That’s correct, Captain.”  Claval looked out through one of the wide windows at the heavily-lit airfield, drew a long breath, then let it out sharply.  “What happened tonight was a matter of him getting what he’s had coming for a long time.  He’s used his father’s name to bluster his way onto the base several times, each time making off with CS weapons and equipment that he claims will help keep his adopted village safe.”  Claval chuckled.  “If he really wanted to keep them safe, he’d have brought them North and into protected territory.”

Morgan shrugged.  “Sounds like he made his choice, sir.”  He didn’t know what else to say- certainly not what he was really thinking.

“That’s precisely right,” Claval said, his voice rising slightly.  He seemed to be reading Morgan’s underlying thoughts.  “My team is tasked with going after runaway mutants, not humans who breach our security.  I shouldn’t have been out there, and neither should you.  The orders to send us out took a while to get squared away because high command was trying to decide whether he should be brought back this time or not.  And they decided that he should not be allowed to escape or brought back.  That’s why they sent us- we’re outside his father’s chain of command, and if General Olson decides to retaliate, he can’t do it against us directly.  And he won’t come after me or anyone under my command, not when I have direct orders from the facility administrator.”

Of all the things said that night, those were the words that carried the most weight.  Administrator Bradford was ‘the man’ at Lone Star, answerable only to Emperor Prosek himself- and the Emperor was a long way away.  Not even the commander of all CS Military forces in the state of Lone Star, General Kashbrook, could pull rank on Bradford.  And while his official purview was the laboratory complex and scientific operations, he exerted actual control over almost everything at LSC and the surrounding area.  Major Claval needed his SAMAS Captain to hear where the orders originated, and he didn’t want the surprise to hit the Captain in front of the other pilots.  For that heads-up, Morgan was thankful.  It was another sign that Major Claval was still more of a shooter than a desk-jockey.  Morgan merely nodded his understanding.

But the facts of the encounter were still disturbing, and they kept leading Morgan’s thoughts back to the same place;  How long has Claval been taking orders like that?  How often has he been the personal assasin of the Administrator?  What kind of a soldier takes- and keeps- a job like that?

“None of this needs to be kept from your squad, but I will impress upon them the need to keep it to themselves, and you will emphasize this point.  Even with the orders in hand, we don’t want to make this into a bigger event than it already is.  Understood?”

“Perfectly, sir,” Morgan replied.

“Good.  Now, about my meeting afterward, with the rats,” he said.  His steel-grey eyes locked with Morgan’s.

“My computer hadn’t identified them before they went inside,” Morgan said, honestly.

Claval nodded.  “They like keeping out of sight.  It may seem odd that I am allowing any mutant to remain free of the base complex- and yes, they did originally come from downstairs.  It looks more odd that I have regular contact with them.”  He shrugged, then looked at his sergeant.  “The population of mutant rats in the Lone Star area has grown to the point that there’s no realistic way of getting them all home, and nowhere to put them.  We could try to exterminate them, I suppose,” he paused for a breath, “but it wouldn’t be worth the effort.  We’d never get them all, and when they had bred their numbers back, they’d be a sworn enemy.  As things are, they have some value as an information source, and I make use of their information.”

Morgan merely nodded.

“Olson and his friends got onto the grounds the same way they always do, but they had to get out past the patrols somehow.  And the rats may be able to find out how.  With the job I have, and with my contacts among their population, I’m often the point of contact the intelligence brass uses to talk to them.”  He looked toward the door.  “There goes your squad, Captain, and mine is already inside.  Let’s go hear the AAR on your first vampire encounter.”

Morgan nodded, then followed the Major and his feline Sergeant out into the corridor.  No matter what was going on inside his own head, Morgan would keep it to himself.  At least until it all got sorted out.  But the thought that kept returning to him resounded with his orders from Lt. Colonel Bronson, way back before he’d been sent to Lone Star.  And now Claval had more or less openly admitted to breaking the law, both the CS military code and the general law of the Coalition States, upon orders from the Administrator.  His immediate officer was one of the people he was sent for.

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