Lone Star – Chapter 23

The dog-boy ambush had turned out to be a tactical error. Not an unfixable error, but a potential problem.  Perridan hadn’t been sure they could be avoided, and if he couldn’t keep the group hidden, then it most likely couldn’t be done by anyone.  So rather than try to sneak off and hope they weren’t spotted- or sniffed out and followed- the team approached the problem directly.

The initial part of the ambush went well enough.  Perridan had led Jacob and Deliah to the perfect places to intercept the forward scouts for the rest of the patrol, and while there were almost 4 times as many dog-boys as members of the strike team, they were confident.  Deliah could hear over their comm-units that everyone was in position, looking down into a small valley as the patrol moved through.  There were some small trees on the hills, just enough for the team to take cover.  The strike team was less than 80 meters from the trail, on both sides, and the patrol was almost completely within the kill-zone when one of the officers turned his head, sharply, up toward the hill.  He was looking directly at Jasmine’s position.  Her part of the ambush would be to use her mental powers to confuse the patrol, but the patrol officer had caught a mental ‘whiff’ of her preparing her attack.  He barked an order, and the patrol reacted immediately.  Two lines formed, one on either side of the road, with 5 or 6 on a side shrugging oversized, mirror-polished body shields off their backs, planting them on the ground to form a wall and taking cover behind them.  The rest of the squad knelt between and behind the shield carriers, several of them opening their packs and removing heavy energy weapons.

They’re trained and prepared for this sort of ambush, Deliah realized.  They’ve drilled this, so they must have a solution for how to get up the hill and counter-attack.  She looked down the line, and now saw that the last four canines in the line had broken away from the formation, and had taken cover on both sides of the road.  They moved through the trees, looking for whoever their Sergeant had detected and preparing to flank anyone that began firing at their team.  Deliah’s sensors could track them, intermittently.  The officer down on the trail was guiding them right up to where Jasmine was.  She could tell, too, and was on one hand itching to defend herself with her psychic abilities, on the other terrified of using them.  The moment she did, the whole patrol would know precisely where- and what- she was.

After a tense 30 seconds, she cracked.  Deliah could tell, because the master psychic whispered over the non-magical communications link, “They’re immune to me!  I can’t stop them!”

Tristan whispered next.  “I can’t burn them here, I’ll start a forest fire that’ll bring the entire air wing down on us.”

Deliah sighed, looking at Perridan, who knelt 20 meters away.  He was planning on acting as a spotter in this fight, but the situation was changing rapidly.  He nodded to her, then turned his attention back to the line of shields and heavy weapons on the trail.

“Ok, people, we’re going to have to give them something else to pay attention to.  Jacob, shoot and move, just like the plan, but for now, lets just make noise.  Jasmine, move toward me.  Torealis, get their attention.”  Deliah tilted her heavy rail gun slightly downward, aiming for the bottom-half of the shields, then fired a burst than ran the length of the shield-wall.  Then she hoisted the weapon, and moved across the hill and toward Jasmine’s position.

The burst of fire had its intended effect- the attention of the entire patrol was focused on the source of firing.  The canines operating heavy weapons tried to converge on her location, but she was already gone.  The advantage Deliah had was that she was using a weapon heavy enough that the dog-boys wouldn’t think it so easy for her to move.  Jacob carried another, similar in power to her own.  Three seconds later, Jacob fired his own burst, hitting the other side of the formation.  They were startled, even though it had been the second burst of fire directed at them, it was the first to hit the shields they were holding.  A moment later, they buckled down.  These were well-trained soldiers- not one of them lost discipline.

Deliah was 40 meters from Jasmine, who was trying her best to keep down and out-of-sight but was not very good at it.  She wasn’t used to the wild.  The canines homing in on her howled once, then again, as they moved in.  Deliah suddenly saw Finjiarn, moving slower but more covertly toward Jasmine and her pursuers.  Deliah stopped beside him, tapped his shoulder and motioned up-hill.  He nodded, and went that direction, to circle around up-hill of the canines.  Deliah moved downhill, heard Jacob fire a second burst and then saw the answering fire from the trail.

“Jasmine, break cover and run.  Come right past me,” Deliah said.  She fired another burst at the canine formation on the trail, then moved again as they tried vainly to hit her.  “Finjiarn, hit them from behind when they come for me.”

When Jasmine stood up and ran, the two dog-boys spotted her instantly.  They weren’t close enough to shoot her, not through the trees and with the sun going down, but they could run much faster than she could.  They charged across the hill, passing Finjiarn without noticing him.

Then Deliah took a big risk.  With her cyborg body, she could take a few hits, even from energy weapons, while Jasmine would be seriously injured even by a low-power hit.  Deliah twisted the flash-suppressor oattached the end of her weapon, and let it fall to the ground.  When she fired the next burst, the heat coming out of the end of the end of the barrel lit up the night, giving her position away not only to the cluster of canines on the trail below, but also to the two who chased Jasmine.  She was now the closer target.  She turned her head to those two the moment her finger came off the trigger, hearing them bark a warning to their friends.  They didn’t want to get hit by friendly fire, and had eyes-on their target.  They did an excellent manouver, each dropping mid-sprint and falling to one knee as their weapons came up and trained on Deliah’s body.

Fortunately, that was where her chassis armor was strongest.  She presented this target to them, turning as if to point her own weapon at them, and both their rifles fired.  The impacts hit her center-mass, pushing her back but not knocking her down.  It was the only shot they would get- Finjiarn cut the throat of one of them from behind, then knocked the other flat on his back.  Deliah stood, then turned her attention back to the team on the trail.

Jasmine broke her discipline again, speaking mentally to the entire team even though her message was for only one of them.  Finjiarn, please don’t hurt him! Again, the canines on the trail howled.  Deliah was thinking through tactics that would break the shield formation when another voice appeared over their comm-links.

“Deliah, is it dark enough for me to help you?”  It was Martiniros.

She looked west, toward the setting sun.  It was behind hills now, and the trees cast shadows all along the trail.  “I think it is, Padre.  Think you can get through their fire?”

She heard his chuckle.  “I’ve done so before.  Fortunately, this time I thought brought a change of clothes.”

She looked down at her own torso, suddenly remembering that those shots she’d taken had had to get through her own shirt before hitting her.  Sure enough, there were two smouldering holes, one right about where her heart would have been.  She shrugged, then looked back across the hills toward Jacob’s last firing position.  He, too, was being flanked by a pair of canines.  Torealis was with him, and Deliah was confident the two of them could handle it.  Her attention returned to the trail when she heard the dog boys below start yelping.  This time, there was pain in their howls, not anger.

It was over so fast, Deliah could hardly believe it.  Her own optical sensors picked up the vampire’s movement, hitting each of the canines solidly and precisely, crippling each of them but not mortally wounding them.  They had very little time to even see him, let alone react to him.  Within ten seconds, he had knocked the entire squad to the ground, and had taken only one hit.

The team moved out from their positions, with no one hit besides Deliah.  Her chassis armor would need some patching, but it could take a dozen hits of that sort and would be fine for many more engagements.  Jasmine was shaken, but ok- Tristan helped her down from the hill.  Kierla and Darien came in from their hiding places a few moments later- they’d stayed hidden for this fight.

“They must be wearing something, or they’re gifted,” Jasmine said.  “They might be breeding the new crop with a high resistance to my skills.”

Finjiarn joined them last, leading his captive downhill and controlling him with a twisted arm hold that made the canine very uncomfortable.  “You asked me to spare this one, psychic.  Care to tell me why?”

Martiniros spoke first, stepping up beside Jasmine.  “I spared most of the patrol- crippled and unconscious from the pain, but alive and able to be repaired.”

“No, it’s this one,” she said.  She put a hand on the back of the canine’s head.  “He’s a potential runaway, and has been wondering about breaking free for some time.  He just hasn’t had the opportunity.”

Jacob rested the but-end of his oversize rail-gun on the ground, and leaned on the barrel.  “And we should just let him go?  Even if he did decide to run from here, he’d get picked up by another patrol.  And these guys doubtless have help coming.”

Deliah nodded.  “They did get a call for assistance out, and the base will send a SAMAS squad to support them.  We have to move.”  She looked at Jasmine.  “What was your plan for him?” she asked, motioning at the pup.

Jasmine smiled, then turned to look down the trail.  “Actually, there is a convenient solution approaching from the West.  Someone you’ve met, Deliah.”  The cyborg followed her gaze, and her super-human optical sensors picked up the trio of hoverbikes as they crested a distant hill.  Her mechanical face smirked, only slightly since it wasn’t designed for a lot of facial expression.  She handed her rail gun to Jacob, who took it easily and set it beside his own, leaning on both of them.

“Let’s move West, meet our fellow travelers, and get clear of the SAMAS team’s approach,” Deliah said.  “And don’t worry about these three we’ll be meeting.  I’ve met them, in Tolkeen, and they’re on a mission not that much different than ours.”  She began walking up the hillside, toward a clearing that would give the approaching riders a clear view of her across the small valley between them.

Within two minutes, Jasmine had guided the trio of hoverbikes to their group as it moved away from the scene of the encounter.  Their captive came quietly, oddly submissive for a CS canine.  Jasmine stayed close to him, talking quietly as they moved.  The three riders turned out to be mutant canines themselves.  Jacob went on guard immediately after realizing this, and seeing him tense put the others on alert.  Deliah patted his shoulder, and he lowered his weapon.

The leader of the three was a Golden Retriever breed, average height for both his breed and humans.  His companions were a tall, white-pelted Akita, and a short, stocky Cocker Spaniel.  They were certainly not regular CS troops, evident both from their appearance and their demeanor.  They wore travelling clothes of leather and cotton, and looked more like mercenaries than soldiers.  And while the others obviously deferred to the Retriever, it was a lot less formal than a military unit.  The three dismounted and approached Deliah and Jacob.

“Greetings, Yaran,” Deliah called when they’d come close.  “You don’t remember me looking like this- I swapped into this body before we left Tolkeen.  But I was at Quenlia’s when you met your companions for this mission.”

Yaran’s confusion was plain to see, even on his canine face, but soon understanding showed.  “The cyborg who sat in on the meeting, yes.  I’m afraid we weren’t introduced.”

Deliah came closer, and shook Yaran’s hand.  “My name is Deliah.  Personally, I think Quenlia should have let you know that there was another team heading this way.  Travelling together would have been a mistake, but we can help each other out while we’re here.”

“Be glad to, but I don’t know how much help we’ll be to you guys,” Yaran replied, looking over the group.  “You’re all outfitted for heavy combat, and we’re here to be invisible.”  His eyes drifted to Jasmine and the canine she accompanied.  His face creased with concern.  “Mitchell!” he called, then approached him.

The canine merely stared back, too shocked by the earlier fight to show any more confusion.  He was just glad to be alive.

“What happened?” Yaran asked, looking around the strike team.

Jasmine answered him.  “We encountered his unit.  That was the noise that drew you this way.  I sensed his thoughts about leaving the army, and asked the others to let him live.”

Jacob snorted.  “Yeah, for all the good it’ll do him.  How’s he going to get out of here without getting picked up?”

Yaran turned, smiling.  “Well, as it happens, that’s precisely what my team is down here for.  We’re looking for runaways, and potential runaways, and trying to help them get away from the Coalition.”  His companions had followed him into the midst of the strike team, looking around at the others and trying not to look intimidated.  As Yaran had observed, the canines had intended to rely on stealth, and had outfitted themselves accordingly.  This team- a heavy cyborg in the lead, a Juicer who was big even by Juicer standards, an obviously powerful psychic- they, too, could sniff her out- and a young woman with white hair that was radiating power of a kind they’d never felt.  And then there was the – gulp!- vampire…

Jacob laughed.  “Of all the people to run into out here,” he said.

“Yes,” Yaran replied.  “I’d made contact with Mitchell earlier today, and had planned to come back in a week and see if he was ready to leave.  That’s how these things work.”

The canine prisoner spoke for the first time.  “That… that was you?”

“Yes,” Yaran said, taking another step closer.  “I know you’re not quite comfortable with the idea yet, but if you’re separated from your unit, and they’ve suffered an attack…” he looked at Deliah.  “Did any of the others…”

She shook her head.  “I’m afraid one of them was killed, but the others will live.  There will be a SAMAS team out here to find them, which reminds me…”  She turned to meet the gaze of her scouts.

Perridan nodded, then turned and spoke quickly to Finjiarn.  The apprentice turned and moved off into the woods.  “It’s been five minutes since the call went out, and at this distance to the base, we should have another 7 before the SAMAS arrive,” Perridan said.  “That’s the minimum, but it depends on how much… importance… they put on a canine patrol.”

Yaran nodded, a grimace on his face.  “Yes, we rank rather low on their priority list.”  He looked back to the prisoner.  “My name is Yaran, and if you want to come with us, my friends and I can help you find the life you have been wishing for.  If you don’t, you should return to your unit… but they’ll wonder why the others are hurt, and you aren’t.”

The younger canine shook his head.  “No… no, I want to come along.”  Jasmine smiled, nodding her head at Deliah.  If there was even the hint of a double-cross in the canine’s mind, Jasmine would be able to tell.  Or would she, if this one and his squad were immune to her attacks earlier? Deliah thought for a moment, then decided that he hadn’t seen enough to compromise their mission if he did decide to turn them in.  And while the reward for double-crossing them would be enticing, it would only take a few days of life outside the command structure to make him realize how much better it was out in the rest of the world.

Yaran patted the prisoner- no, the runaway- on the shoulder.  “I knew you would eventually.  It’ll be a lot better for you with us.”

The Cocker Spaniel spoke next.  “So, you know what we’re doing down here… what is it you guys are here for?”

Deliah looked pointedly at the runaway, then back to the Spaniel.  “Can’t tell you too much.”

Jacob smiled.  “Short version, we’re here to cause trouble.”

The Spaniel grinned, nodding knowingly.  Then, his head snapped around to the Southeast.  “Si-shon, we should get going.”

Perridan looked over to the Spaniel, smiled and nodded his agreement.  “He’s right- I can hear them, too.  Finjiarn will have a route for us.”  The two scouts exchanged a look of mutual respect, then turned their attention back to the task at hand.  Gordon moved back toward his hoverbike, and Perridan moved into the trees.

Tristan spoke next.  “Si-shon… that’s old Chinese, isn’t it?”

Yaran nodded at him, and smiled.  “Yes, it means Big Brother.  It’s the nickname many of my runaways use for me, since in many ways, I become a big brother for them while they’re trying to get to safety.  Billie, do you mind letting him ride with you?”  The Akita nodded, then led the runaway back toward his hoverbike.  Gordon was already mounted up.

“Good luck,” Deliah said.  “We’ll try to help you out if we can.  Chaos on the base works in your favor, doesn’t it?”

Yaran looked askance at her.  “That depends on how much chaos you mean.”

Deliah laughed.  “Most of it will happen underground.”

The canine nodded.  “That makes sense- that’s where their most valuable systems are.  I wish we could offer some help- we’re taking cover in a village West by Southwest, out in Pecos territory.  We can give you shelter there if the need strikes you, at least for a short time.”

“Thanks- but I believe we’ll be best served by staying mobile.  Speaking of which,” she said, looking over her shoulder at the sky.

“Right.  One more thing- we’ve found out that the man who used to be the starting point of the mutant underground is still alive- captured by the CS.  And they might be holding him somewhere in the base or the lab complex.  If you hear anything about him, or can help us get him out…”

Deliah nodded.  “We’ll keep our ears open.  When it’s time for us to go in, perhaps we can give you enough cover to get inside.”

Yaran nodded, then turned and jogged over to his hoverbike.  He mounted it smoothly, and kicked off from the ground.  The three bikes turned West together, and soon disappeared over a hill.

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