Lone Star – Chapter 33

Sergey was charging down the corridor behind him, glancing back at the squad of guards.  “Didn’t take ’em long to start shooting at us, did it?”

Morgan turned the last corner, and was within sight of the Beta laboratory block.  “I can’t imagine that orders to open fire on us would come down so quick.  Even walking away from Claval wouldn’t bring that on so fast.”  A moment later, they were through the front doors, moving through the smaller corridors inside, and past the first few containment habitats.

As they approached the place marked on the digital map, Morgan slowed down.  A single soldier was in the corridor, right outside the room they were heading for, face down on the floor.  When they were close, Morgan’s computer read the man’s vital signs and received a damage report from the armor.  He was unconscious, and had a rather unpleasant bruise on his left cheek.  Otherwise he was fine.  He’d be up and walking around within an hour.

Sergey moved to Habitat 4’s outer door ahead of him.  “Sir,” he said, simply.  Morgan looked up.  There was a small viewing room inside, with a large transparent wall that gave an excellent view of the large, empty habitat.  There were two mutant canines inside, but not in uniform- they wore rough traveling clothes, almost like some of the civilian pioneers and explorers he’d come across.  They were armed with Northern Gun rifles and vibro-blades.  Those blades had apparently been used to cut a large hole in the plexiglass divider, and they were helping an older human step out.  The cut edges of the hole were still smoldering.  The two scientists that Morgan had been looking for were already through, and were startled by the appearance of the two SAMAS units.  The two canines snarled, but didn’t move to bring their weapons around.

“Dr Winters,  Dr. Nadlia,” Morgan said.  He ordered his computer to open the face-plate again.  The two scientists visibly relaxed.  The canines looked bewildered.

Sergey’s visor opened as well.  “What the hell is going on?”

“Captain, these two canines broke in here to free this man,” Dr Winters said.  “They offered to take us with them.”

Morgan and Sergey looked at each other, then back to the two canines.  For a long time, no one spoke.  Once they’d helped their friend out through the hole, the two canines stood still.  The old man leaned against the mutant pit-bull.  Everyone merely stared at each other.

“Well,” Morgan finally said, “that makes them as brave and stupid as we are.”  He looked up to the canines.  “What was your plan for getting out of here?”

The canines didn’t answer right away.  Morgan couldn’t blame them for not trusting him.  “Look,” he said, “I know how we’re getting to the surface, but we can fly out of the area once we get there.  You three will have a much harder fight, but maybe we can cover you.”

“Cover us?” the pit bull asked, disbelief competing with sarcasm in his voice.

The retriever put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, then stepped forward.  “You should have killed us by now,” he said.  “I’ve been on the run for more than a decade, and this is the human who helped me escape.”  The pit-bull turned, now shocked that his companion had said so much.  But the speaker had been correct- if Morgan had been under orders to stop them, they’d have started shooting by now.

“We came in through the rat-tunnels, but they made it clear that they’d let us get lost if we led guards to them,” the retriever said.  “Our backup plans need the elevators.”

Sergey chuckled.  “Then you will need our help.”

Morgan nodded.  “Doctors, come with us.  We’ll get you out of here, and transportation will be waiting to get us to Chi-town.”  The two scientists visibly relaxed.

Sergey looked over at his captain.  “We hope so, anyway,” he muttered.  Morgan smirked, then ordered his visor closed.  The digitally perfect view returned; the room seemed to brighten and sharpen slightly.  He turned, leading the way back into the corridor and out through the deserted lab offices.  As soon as they reached the corridor, someone started shooting at them.

“Dr. Winters, lead them toward the elevators.  Sergey, lead with him.  I’ll keep these guys off of us.”  He fired a short burst with his railgun, forcing the guards to take cover around a far corner.  He followed the motley line around another corridor, and toward the bay of elevators.  His computer continued to display the map-image in the corner of his Heads-Up display, but he was watching where the scientists went.  They were almost to the elevators when Morgan stopped and turned to look for their pursuers.  They were 40 meters down the corridor, just coming around a corner, and a burst from his rail-gun made them jump back.

When he turned back around, the others were around the last corner and in the elevator lobby- but something was wrong.  He could see Sergey’s power-armor standing still, looking toward where the elevator banks would have been.   Morgan moved forward slowly, then saw the end of a CP-40 rifle pointing at Sergey’s chest.

Morgan whispered a curse, then spoke to his computer.  “Regis, can you patch me into Dreserick’s sensors?”

“Yes, sir,” the computer replied.  A small window appeared at the side of his HUD, showing him what Sergey was looking at.  Two guards stood between the group and the elevators.  One had his rifle pointed at Sergey, the other had an arm around Dr. Nadlia’s waist and held a sidearm at her head.

“Okay, Regis, is there a route that will get me behind them?”

“Yes, sir,” the computer said, displaying the map image again, and highlighting a short loop around a set of bathrooms.  It would place him right behind the soldier holding Dr. Nadlia hostage.

“Keep them busy, Sergey,” he said over the com-link, then turned to dash down the corridor and around another corner.  He saw the team that was chasing them earlier, but the trio of soldiers had their backs to him now, and were firing farther down the corridor.  The computer helpfully enhanced the visual data it was showing him, seeming to zoom in on the far corridor to show him what they were firing at.  It looked like a human, but larger and more muscular than natural.  He was also hoisting a heavy, Northern Gun-made assault weapon, moving away from the guards and firing behind him as he ran.  From the size of the weapon, Morgan guessed that his own SAMAS would be hard-pressed to physically perform like that.  A natural human wouldn’t come close.

A juicer? Down here?  No wonder the whole base is on alert, he thought, turning another corner.  Stranger things were happening, and he didn’t have time to worry about it.  He was within sight of the elevator banks again, and could see the guard holding Dr. Nadlia.  He was 20 meters away, and the guard would hear his armored footsteps, especially when he was sprinting.

“Regis, fire a two-second boost from the maneuvering thrusters,” he said.  He leaned further forward than normal, feeling the suit get heavier as it tried to fall forward.  The thrusters kicked in just in time.  He lifted off the ground slightly, focusing on the guard’s hands.  The pistol was aimed at the back of Dr. Nadlia’s head, and the guard’s other arm held her by the lab-coat now.  If Morgan could hit him right, and twist the right direction, the gun would fire into the ceiling and the guard would loose his grip on the coat.  But he had to be precise.

The guard took Morgan’s shoulder in his abdomen, and most of the impact was focused there.  The force folded the guard in half, while one of Morgan’s hands re-directed the pistol hand upward.  It didn’t fire- the gun clattered to the ground, close to Dr. Winters.  Morgan and his guard slammed into the far wall, hard, and Morgan held him against the wall.  The dead-boy armor had taken the impact force, and the soldier inside was unhurt.  He was a little stunned by the appearance of a second SAMAS unit, however, and couldn’t hope to wrestle away from Morgan’s power armor unit.  The Captain turned to check on his companions.

Sergey had not hesitated.  He’d gripped the muzzle of the CP-40 aimed at him, pulling it close to his chest armor.  By the time the soldier had pulled the trigger, it was too close to his skin for the energy bolt to fully form.  About half of the force hit Sergey’s armor, but the SAMAS was more than tough enough to take it.  The rest of the energy flashed-back into the weapon itself.  The effect was a little anti-climactic… a few wisps of smoke slithered out of the top, and some more out of the energy clip interface.  But the weapon was obviously useless.  Sergey raised his own weapon, levelling it on the guard’s chest.  The SAMAS rail-gun didn’t have the same issues with point-blank fire that the CP-40 did.  On the other hand, Sergey didn’t really want to kill another CS soldier, even one that had tried to shoot at him.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to.  The canines seemed to figure this out fairly quickly.  “Allow me,” the mutant pit-bull said, slinging his rifle over one shoulder, and producing an electro-shock stunner from a slim pocket of his trousers.  A moment later, the guard was unconscious.

Morgan turned his attention back to the guard he was holding.  It was a Sergeant, but still a non-commissioned officer.  Morgan had no intention of seriously hurting the man, but he couldn’t let the guy follow them out.  And he couldn’t be sure how long he’d stay unconscious from the stunner that the pit-bull had used.

“You’re not going to make it out of here,” the guard said.  “Even if you get in the elevators, they won’t take you up.  They won’t activate without an authorized ID present.”

Morgan looked toward the elevator doors.  A small ID-reader was set into the wall, glowing green/blue, oblivious to the action around it.

“You’re right,” Morgan said.  “But your ID chip is in your left gauntlet, right?”

The guard stiffened.  Morgan didn’t have to see the man’s face to recognize the surprise and frustration.  The SAMAS unit gripped onto the guard’s dead-boy armor, swinging him around and holding out the left hand.  As they passed the ID scanner, the unit beeped happily, and one of the elevator doors opened.  The rest of the unlikely group nearly leaped inside.  Morgan held the guard still, and again, the pit-bull made use of his stunner.  The guard went limp, and Morgan dropped him.  The computer scanned his vital signs, and like his friend, he would be just fine.  Morgan entered the elevator, and the doors closed behind them.

The mutant retriever was shaking his head.  “Never thought I’d see the day…”

Morgan smirked.  “This has turned out to be an interesting morning.”

“So what is it that made you work against orders?” the pit-bull asked.

“I’m not.” Morgan let the statement hang for a moment before going on.  “My orders are to get these two scientists to Chi-Town, to tell Internal Security what’s been going on in the lower labs.  No one has been able to make it out before.”  He moved his left hand toward the elevator controls, the data port in the forearm interfacing with the electronic lock beside the button for the 8th floor.  After a few seconds, Morgan’s computer over-rode the security, the button lit up, and the elevator began moving downward.  He looked back toward the canines.

“So what will you do now?” the Retriever asked.  “I wouldn’t think you’d want to go out the way we are.”

“Well,” Morgan replied, looking at the two scientists.  “This part will get a little uncomfortable for you two.  These elevators are close to a surface-level exit, and the hangar isn’t far away.  Our transport will be waiting for us, so all we gotta do is get outside, get you two onboard whatever our squadmate has gotten scrounged up, and head north-east.”

“But we’re headed down,” Dr. Nadlia said, confused.

They are headed down,” Morgan said.  The SAMAS was easily tall enough to reach the elevator car’s ceiling, and he pushed open the access hatch with little effort.  Then he held out his hand to Dr. Nadlia, and hoisted her up and onto the car’s ceiling.  Dr. Winters went next, and Sergey followed.  “Good luck,” he said to the canines and their friend.  Then he followed the others upward.  It was a tight squeeze for the power armor units to get through, and above there was less room to stand with the machinery crowding them.

“Ok, this is the part that gets uncomfortable,” Morgan said.  “You’ll have to hold on to us tight, around the necks, and we’ll make the jumps.  Keep your hands clear of the air intake.”  He held a hand out to Dr. Nadlia again, and she reluctantly stepped up.  He put an arm around her waist, and let her get a good hold around his neck.  Morgan looked over at Sergey’s SAMAS, which was standing in front of Dr. Winters, shielding him from what Sergey knew was coming.

They issue a harness for this sort of thing, Morgan thought off-handedly.  He squatted slightly, then leaped upward and triggered his main thrusters for only a few seconds.  It was enough to reach an access ladder beside the 7th floor landing.  Dr. Nadlia screamed, losing a shoe and holding on for dear life.  He leaped again, triggering the thrusters, and this time catching the ladder beside the 6th floor.  Sergey was not far behind him- climbing/leaping up a ladder on the other side of the shaft to keep Dr. Winters clear of Morgan’s thrust-fire.  Leaping a floor at a time, the two SAMAS climbed up the shaft faster than the elevator could ever have.

Morgan paused near Level 3.  He looked down at Dr. Nadlia.  Her head was down, buried in her own shoulder, and she was shaking slightly.  “Two more hops, then we’re on the surface.  And you might as well kick off that other shoe,” he added.  He saw her nod without picking her head up.  He looked up the shaft again, thrusting them upwards again.  One last leap put them outside the surface-level elevator lobby.  He set Dr. Nadlia down, and she shivered for a moment before steadying herself on the shaft’s wall.  She kicked off her remaining shoe, letting it fall back down the shaft, then watched as Sergey and Dr. Winters arrived on the other side.

The SAMAS unit was more than strong enough to pull the elevator doors open.  Morgan looked out, feeling a little foolish for trying to sneak around in a suit of power armor.  The lobby was strangely quiet.  There should have been at least four guards there, but it looked as if the guards were all posted on the other side of the lobby doors.  They were looking outward, not inward, and the doors were closed.

“Sir, we are back inside the range of surface-communication links,” the computer said.  “I am receiving message traffic from Lieutenant Larson.”

“Patch us in,” Morgan replied.  A moment later, Connor’s voice appeared in his ears.

“Welcome back topside, Captain.”

“Thanks, Connor.  Why don’t we use first names, and drop the call-signs,” Morgan replied.

“Makes sense, given the situation,” Sergey replied, shepherding the two scientists out into the lobby.

“I’ve got transport up and ready.  Your computers have relayed their position, and I’m on my way.  There’s a whole mess of air traffic up here, and no one really knows what is happening.”  Connor sounded cheerful for someone risking their life.

“Well, they’ll follow us, once they figure out what we’re doing.  I don’t know if we can out-run everything on the base,” Morgan muttered.

“We’ve got help there, too,” Connor said.  “All we gotta do is get to Wichita Falls, as we’re all set.”

Wichita Falls? Morgan thought in surprise.  He had been planning to go much farther North.  Wichita Falls was the main CS military headquarters for the state of Lone Star, and while the lab complex he had been transferred to had a significant military force, it was a fraction of what would be waiting for them at the bigger base to the Northwest.  “You sure we should overfly the base?”

“I’m positive,” Connor replied.  “A friend of ours has a surprise set up for us.”

Morgan shrugged, then turned his mind back to their current situation.  There were two ways out, but both were guarded.  And while their SAMAS would overpower the guards easily, Morgan had no intention of hurting anyone he didn’t have to.  And making noise would only draw attention, which he didn’t want.  He looked from one exit to the other, debating which one would be easier, faster, quieter, but was interrupted by Sergey’s power armor clapping his shoulder.  Then the Lieutenant pointed to the windows.

They were fairly large, plate-glass windows overlooking the parade grounds.  The wind was more chaotic than normal out there, and dust was being whipped up into small tornadoes.  Then Morgan saw that an attack helicopter was landing, way too close to the building.  It was a Black Lightning class, a light attack helicopter whose cockpit and front end followed the ‘giant skull’ motif that the Coalition military engineers had built into most of their aircraft.  And while his SAMAS unit would outmaneuver it easily, Morgan knew it carried much heavier weapons than he did.

Then he saw the pilot waving at them.  Connor’s voice came over the comm-link; “You guys coming out, or what?”

Morgan looked over at Sergey, smirking under his helmet, then turned and shoulder-bashed his way through one of the large windows.  It was tempered safety glass, and turned into a cloud of tiny glass cubes.  Sergey helped the scientists step out and into the dust.  They put their hands over their faces, trying vainly to block the stinging dust.  Connor’s new bird was only 50 meters away.

“Get in the helicopter!”  Morgan ordered, and the two scientists moved as quickly as they could through the sand-storm generated by the rotors.  The two SAMAS moved to flank the larger bird, scanning the skies.  There was indeed a lot of air traffic, but none that looked as if it had been tasked to them.  That could change quickly, and Morgan watched impatiently while the scientists climbed aboard.  The helicopter’s side door slid shut, and the rotors began to spin faster as Connor commanded it to lift off.

“All right, Connor, since you know where we’re going, you might as well lead the way,” Morgan called over the comm-link.

“You got it,” the Lieutenant replied.  The three aircraft lifted off together, turning North by Northeast.

Morgan’s computer spoke next, when they were 60 meters in the air.  “Sir, I’m receiving a line-of-sight direct message from Lieutenant Charles, in the hangar.”

“Put her through,” Morgan replied.  The laser-communication systems were fairly secure- to intercept it, someone else would have to stand in the way of the beam.  How do I handle this? he asked himself.

“Captain- James, Gavin and I have received orders to suit up and pursue you,” she said.  “Mind telling me what’s going on?”

“We’re, ah, rescuing a pair of Coalition States civilians from illegal arrest, and taking them to safety in Chi-Town, Lieutenant.”  Why lie about it? he thought.  “Would it be too much to ask for you to take it slow?”

The initial reply was a chuckle.  “You know, the guys who usually get me suited up aren’t on duty at the moment, and the deck-hand here has messed something up.  Chief Zweig says it’ll take about 20 minutes to get me in the air.”

Morgan almost laughed out loud.  CC would have been right behind them if she’d wanted to be.  “What about the others?”

“They sent someone to look for James, I think he’s in the weight room.  Dunno about Gavin.  I expect he’ll be along shortly.  I must say, Captain, the Major was awfully worked up when he gave the orders.  Watch your tails, wherever you’re going.”

“Roger.  And thanks.”

“Good luck, sir.  Out.”

Morgan glanced over at Sergey’s SAMAS, on the other side of an arrowhead formation.  “Regis, relay my conversation with CC by text, over to Lt. Dreserick, please.”

“Yes, sir.”

After a moment, Morgan heard his Lieutenant chuckle over the comm-link.  “Well, that went better than I expected it to,” he said.

“Yeah.  The hard part is nearly done,” Morgan said.  “I do wish that chopper could move faster than that, Connor.  How’d you end up in it?”

“Chief Zweig’s idea,” Connor replied.  “It was the only thing available that I’m qualified to fly.”

Morgan laughed to himself, then checked his radar display.  They were passing the inner ring of air defenses, and would soon be crossing into the mid-level patrol routes.  There would be some anti-air weapons out there, and they could get orders to open fire at any time.  But there were lots of aircraft up, too.  Morgan wasn’t sure who would be tasked to take them down.

“Captain Grey,” a new voice appeared over the comm-link, on an uncoded, open-broadcast channel.  Every radio within 5 kilometers would hear him loud and clear, which was probably the intention.  “This is Major Claval.  I’m closing on your position, ETA 60 seconds, and I’m going to escort you back to base.”

Morgan turned in mid-air to look behind him, and his eyes widened.  Among the other aircraft swarming the skies, a SuperSAMAS was flying directly toward them.  His Heads-Up-Display gave an enhanced image of it.  Its wings were out, but it wasn’t leaning all the way forward, not truly flying – but it was gaining on them, all the same.  The oversized arms – especially the exaggerated forearms, where several of the weapon systems were housed – were spread outward and reared back, one of the hands gripping an extra weapon like it was a pistol.  The twin air intakes were pulling dust in out of the air around him, which meant the machine was being pushed pretty hard.  Both arms had all three vibro-spikes hot and ready for a fight.  Morgan had no doubts who was flying it.

So here it is, Morgan thought.  “I apologize, Major, but I have orders to return to Chi-Town.  They came down from a Lt. Colonel, sir,” he added.

“And my orders come from Administrator Bradford.  He and I both know who is with you in the chopper, and if you’re not turning around by the time I get there, I’m going to blow you all out of the sky.”

The SuperSAMAS could do it, too.  Morgan was the better pilot, having spent most of his career flying aerial power-armor, and the number-odds were in his group’s favor.  Even so, the SuperSAMAS was a far heavier unit, and carried more firepower.  While the design aesthetic was very similar to Morgan’s own unit, it was bulkier, looking more like a brawler than a sprinter, and it had many more built-in weapons systems.  It would make short work of the helicopter, and while it would take longer to defeat Morgan and Sergey together, the outcome wasn’t hard to guess.

Morgan took a deep breath.  “Well, I’d say I’m sorry, sir, but I’m not.”  He cut thrust, putting some extra space between himself and the helicopter.  This would force Claval to attack him first, and buy the other two some extra time.

Claval didn’t waste any time.  The SuperSAMAS rarely needed a hand-held weapon, but Claval had picked up a standard rail-gun before taking off, and now he began firing it.  The SuperSAMAS had no trouble wielding it single-handedly.  The pattern of fire was erratic, long bursts that were easy for Morgan to anticipate.  His computer had turned most of its attention to the pursuer, and continually updated a ‘safety corridor’ to direct him through the stream of bullets.  Morgan smirked, looking back over his shoulder.  Claval was showing his inexperience by choosing the rail-gun.  The Major had likely chosen the hand held rail-gun because he was more comfortable with it than the other on-board weapons the SuperSAMAS had.  The only problem with that, Morgan knew, was that most SAMAS pilots spent hours of flight time going in circles around a rail gun.  A pilot would have known that, and switched to the other weapons.  There were two shoulder-mounted plasma ejectors, the energy-weapon equivalent of a shotgun.  If Claval could get close enough, he’d have no trouble pinning the smaller SAMAS down with them.  Morgan maneuvered closer to the ground, to make sure that stray fire wouldn’t endanger Sergey or Connor.

Morgan rolled over onto his back and angled upward slightly, firing his own rail-gun past his feet and forcing Claval to maneuver.  A few of the shots hit the torso of the SuperSAMAS, but the armor absorbed them easily.  It would take a long time to get through that armor, to get a crippling hit.  He had to keep the larger unit on the defensive.  Otherwise it was just a matter of time before Claval got wise, or lucky.

“Morgan, we’re coming up on a ground patrol.  Look out for ground fire,” Connor advised.  Morgan rolled again, looking at his helmet’s Heads-Up-Display to see what was coming.

A trio of Abolisher bots, a half-kilometer between them, were about two kilometers ahead.  They were turning to bear on the flight of power armor, but hadn’t opened fire yet.  Morgan got an entertaining idea, then dived down dangerously close to the ground.  There weren’t any trees to hit, just open plains, but he had to be cautious even so.

“Let’s see how well you can fly that thing, Major,” Morgan whispered to himself.  He flew right at the middle Abolisher bot, looking it’s skull-face in the eye as he approached.  Within 10 seconds, his computer was sounding a collision warning.  The giant robot was lifting an arm, as if to grab him as he passed.

He pulled to the right of the machine just in time, swinging around past it and just barely missing the outstretched arm.  He rolled over and gained some altitude, preparing to shoot at Claval’s armor as it maneuvered to avoid the Abolisher.

Morgan never had the chance to fire.  The Abolisher’s giant arm caught the SuperSAMAS by the leg as it passed, snatching it out of the sky like a small bird.

“You’re kidding me,” Morgan heard Sergey say over the comm-link.  “Sir… I think that’s Wendy’s unit.”


Captain Williams had thought up this sort of game about a year ago, and had practiced it with the regular army many times.  The sporting contests turned out to be a useful exercise.  Whoever this is, they’re not a full-time pilot, she thought to herself.  But just as she had with the old-style PA-06 units, she’d been able to catch the SuperSAMAS’s left leg.  The monstrous arm unit overcame the power-armor’s thrust easily, but it didn’t stop the pilot from increasing thrust in a vain attempt to escape.

The orders she’d gotten were hurried, and vague.  They’d been broadcast to all units on the mid-range patrol routes.  Intercept escaping SAMAS team, possible helicopter with them.  Capture them and return to base. When she’d seen Sergey’s unit approaching- her on-board computer had identified him immediately- she wasn’t sure what to do.  She couldn’t violate her orders, but…

The solution had presented itself.  She had, after all, just caught one of the power armor units.  Her orders didn’t specify which one.  But she was pretty sure the SuperSAMAS had been shooting at her man and his team.  That made the choice to trap him pretty obvious.  I’ll just take him back to base, nice and calm.

The voice that shouted at her over the radio was pure venom.  It nearly overloaded the microphone, distorting the voice even more.  “This is Major Claval- release my leg immediately!”

Uh, oh, she thought.  She turned to look behind her, at the two gunners in the crew compartment with her.  The three crew positions were back-to-back, all facing away from each other, but she could tell the two gunners were looking over their shoulders at her.  She turned back to her controls, took a deep breath, and answered.

“Sir, my orders are to intercept you and your team, and return you to base.”

Claval’s howled curse came over the comm-link, loud and clear.  He was furious beyond rational thought.  And then he proved it; the rail-gun in his hand swung up to point directly toward the Abolisher’s skull-eye, and opened fire.

Wendy flinched, even though she knew the weapon would take several minutes of continuous fire to breach her Abolisher’s armor.

Hell with it.  He’s a jackass, anyway, she thought.  She swung the Abolisher’s other arm up, and gripped the SuperSAMAS by its right shoulder, twisting its weapon out of position.  The SuperSAMAS loosed a trio of small rockets at them next, but they did little more than pepper the giant skull’s temples.

“Captain?  We’re being fired upon here,” Sgt Crommel called.  Her console told her he had ordered the computers to identify the SuperSAMAS as a target.

“That we are.  Our standard rules of engagement are to protect our robot and crew.  Return fire, Sergeant.”

“Copy that, Captain.”  His head turned back to his own instruments.

Two of the six huge cannons that ringed the skull’s forehead turned to bear on the SuperSAMAS.  The barrels were each large enough for the SuperSAMAS to stick its fist inside.  The power armor was helplessly trapped between the monstrous hands.  Crommel didn’t hesitate, Wendy noticed.  Even from inside the crew compartment, the cannons were loud- the THOU-THOU-THOU-THOU-THOU sound didn’t quite drown out their communications chatter from the base, but almost.  Every blast tore huge pieces of the SuperSAMAS off.  The fifth blast obliterated the armored head.  After 20 seconds of continuous fire, Crommel eased off the triggers, and Wendy manipulated the controls of the Abolisher’s arms.  The hands relaxed, and dropped the destroyed power-armor unit to the ground.

Wendy sighed.  They’d catch hell for this, she knew.  She turned to look behind her, and met Crommel’s gaze as he looked over his own shoulder at her.

He was strangely calm.  “He was a jackass, anyway, Captain.”


“Wow,” Morgan breathed, not aware he had spoken with his comm-link still open to the rest of his team.  He was hovering, 50 meters up, and his computer had provided him with a digitally enhanced close-up view of Claval’s death.  A little too close-up, he thought.

“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that before,” Connor said.

“Copy that, Connor,” Morgan replied.

Sergey was oddly quiet.  Morgan thought he heard his Lieutenant sniffle a little bit, but didn’t point it out.  He turned back to rejoin them, and saw Sergey hovering, looking back at the giant Abolisher unit.  His power armor waved, just once.  As Morgan approached the helicopter, he turned his head to see the Abolisher reach toward them, then open and close its hand as if grabbing at the dust and sand in the air.  He shook his head, wishing things could have worked out differently.

They flew in silence for about five minutes, heading Northwest and staying low to the ground.  They tried to use the terrain to cover their movements, or at least make themselves less obvious.  Then Morgan’s computer spoke up again.  “Sir, I am reading a flight of 6 attack fighters closing on us.  Speed 500, ETA three minutes.”

“Well, Connor, the fighter jets are after us.  We’ve got three minutes before they’re within firing range.”  Morgan sighed.  “So what’s the next surprise?”

“I think its just ahead of us,” Connor replied.  They approached a large, gentle hill, and when they reached the crest they could just see the air base at Witchita Falls, perhaps 30 kilometers ahead.  And in the sky above the base, almost 100 flying vehicles were darting around each other.  They seemed to be set into layers, like sedimentary rock; the fighter jets were at the highest altitudes, then below them were smaller SAMAS units, like their own, then a few squads of SuperSAMAS below that, and nearest the ground were a few dozen attack helicopters of different models.  It took Morgan’s computer almost 30 seconds to catalog everything.

“Sir, I have a line-of-sight communications link request from one of the SuperSAMAS units ahead.  No identification sent,” the computer added.

Morgan shrugged, despite his power armor suit.  “Patch them through.”

“Captain Grey, this is Lt. Colonel Murphy.  Glad you made it.”

Morgan breathed a sigh of relief.  “Good to hear from you, sir.”

“Your Lieutenant briefed me on your situation and intentions.  Have him land on Helo Deck 4, there’s a SuperSAMAS unit waiting for him to fly out, and a Skylifter-class unit waiting for your passengers.  You’ll have to play escort back to Chi-Town, but the Skylifter will move faster than Connor’s little whirly-bird will.”  The sarcasm directed at Connor’s current machine was thick in Murphy’s voice.  Morgan smirked- he thought the same things of helicopters; slow and vulnerable.  “I wish I could do more to help you out,” the Lt Colonel continued, “but I’m afraid I’m in the middle of a rather large air-combat exercise.”

They were close enough now that Morgan could see what was going on more clearly.  He could almost make out the two sides of the huge dogfight, at least spot when two or three units worked together for a short time to ‘tag’ an opponent, who would then move out of the fight.  A handful of aircraft, of all different kinds, were flying racetrack-patterns off to the sides.  They were spectators now, and stayed out of the way.  It was a big enough mess that the pursuing fighters from Lone Star base wouldn’t come near.  By the time everything got sorted out, Morgan and his group would be long gone.

Morgan chuckled.  “That’s more than we could have hoped for, sir.  Thank you.”

“No, Captain, thank you.  I may look big and bad up here in the air, but I wouldn’t have the balls to go down that deep into the labs for anyone I wasn’t blood-related to.”  Murphy snickered.  “You guys can land with the helo if you like, but the new birds are warmed up and ready.  We’ll have you on your way in two minutes.”  There was a pause over the radio.  “Is Claval coming after you?  Is he in one of those jets?”

“No, sir,” Morgan replied.  “I’m afraid that Claval was killed by friendly fire while he was pursuing us.”

Another pause.  “Well, that’s unfortunate,” the Lt. Colonel replied.  Morgan could hear a number of things in the digitally-perfect voice- both satisfaction at hearing the news, and disappointment that Murphy hadn’t gotten the chance to reckon with Claval himself.

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