Lone Star – Chapter 9

Morgan breathed deeply, drawing in the smell of the hangar. At every posting he had been at, the hangar had smelled differently.  There were always the basic things present in the air- metal, oil, five or six different kinds of fuel depending on the aircraft stationed there.  There was also ozone, the smell of electrical circuitry, and that warm-metal smell from the Tungsten welders.  For some reason, he always picked that out first.  It reminded him of home, of the little chop-shops in the ‘burbs that surrounded Chi-Town.  He’d left all that behind a long time ago, but it was as much home to him as anywhere else.

Here, the unique smell in the air was the dust.  Above ground, there was just no way to avoid it.  The doors on the surface were all airlocks, and had powerful exhaust systems that would pull almost all the dust out of the air.  But here in the hangar, whenever the doors opened, the sand and dust just rolled right inside.  There was a squad of deck-hands permanently assigned to sweeping the floors here.  Morgan absently wondered if that was a punishment duty at Lone Star.  He’d seen worse, and stranger, things.

He looked down at his unit, doing a quick self-inspection as the deck-hand assigned to him ran through their own set of diagnostic tests.  Their tests were all computerized, where Morgan’s used only what he jokingly called the Mark 1 Eyeball.

SAMAS stood for Strategic Armor Military Assault Suit.  Morgan’s was the PA-07A model- 2.5 meters tall, noticeably larger than a human but easily one of the smallest power armor units built by the Coalition States.  It was less bulky than the older model Morgan had flown before, more streamlined and aerodynamic.  He and Sergey, upon seeing their new units, had joked that the SAMAS engineers had taken up jogging between the design of the two different units.  Behind the head was a large air intake for the flight engines, and the back of the armor looked like a jet-pack attached to a normal person.  There were wings there, too, currently folded and looking almost like the wings of a bird, or perhaps a flying beetle.  When extended, the wingspan was a little greater than the armor’s height.  The finish was almost entirely mirror-polished black, except for the white decorative ribs and ‘bones’ that made it look like a living skeleton.  The new helmets had the most entertaining cosmetic change; whereas the old helmets looked like an odd skull, the new helmets had only the mirror-finish black faceplate, with a death-grin motif around the bottom edge.  This is what gave the PA-07A the nickname “Smiling Jack”.

The deck chief approached Morgan’s SAMAS before his unit was fully cleared for flight.  The tech working on his suit punched in a series of commands that posted the diagnostic readout on the large monitor over their heads.  Morgan didn’t turn around to look- he wouldn’t have understood half of the data anyway.  The chief’s voice appeared right in Morgan’s ears, through the communications rig he wore under his helmet.  Sergey and Connor had their comm-rigs on as well, even though they didn’t have their helmets on yet.

“Ok, Captain, your suit is just about warmed up.  You had too many flights last week for us to get your suit systems fully modified for the local conditions, but over the weekend we had time to hack your- and your two LTs- units.  It’ll just take me a minute to go over the changes and you’ll be on the flight deck.  We’ve given you the Lone Star special package.”  He turned so the two LTs, getting their suits buttoned up nearby, would see him as well.

“First, the air intake filters had to be rebuilt.  Down here there’s so much dust that the standard filters just can’t cope.  The filter systems we’ve installed will perform far better, but they’ll cut your airspeed down just a bit.  If you hit the turbo-thrusters, you’ll hit the same top speed but the boosters will overheat faster.  Make sure your computer keeps you informed.”

Lt Dresenick spoke up.  “The dust was hurting the performance more than the new filters will, chief.  My computer was complaining all the way home on our last patrol.”

“You’re right about that, sir,” the chief turned his gold-visored helm back to the other two.  “The dust chews up the engines so fast down here, you can see them coming apart.  Before we came up with this mod, we’d see the old SAMAS spitting engine components out behind them.  Ok, second, you’ve got an extra set of extendable blades in the arms.  The standard blades are still there, same use as before.”  He picked up Morgan’s arm, pointing to the slots housing the retractable vibro-blades in the forearms.  When extended and ‘hot’, these blades could cut through tank armor or even concrete.  Morgan had once found himself too close to a flying demon for his rail-gun, and the hand-to-hand weapons had saved him. The vibro-blades were considered dead weight by a lot of SAMAS pilots, but not the Special Forces.
The chief turned the arm over and pointed to a similar slot on the underside of the wrist.  “Here’s the new ones.  The computer will extend and retract it on command.  There’s one in each wrist.  Just lift the wrist up and out of the way, and use it almost like an open-hand palm strike.”  He nodded to the tech working on Morgan’s unit, who typed in a series of commands on his terminal.  A smaller blade slid out from the new slot, extending nearly a foot past his palm.  “This blade,” the chief said, “is a titanium vibro-blade shaft, but without the vibro system installed, so it will not penetrate heavy armor.  It is, however, plated with silver.”  The blade was grey-white, polished to a mirror finish.  “You’ll have to be a little gentle with these, but they’re kind of a specialized use weapon.”

Morgan looked from the blade up to the chief’s visor, nodding.  “Vampires.”

Connor’s eyebrows were creased.  “No way.  There’s that many of them around here that you needed to modify the SAMAS to carry silver?”

“It’s that or y’all carry around a bunch of pine-wood stakes, sir,” the chief said.  The opaque visor didn’t hide the sarcasm at all.  “Anyways, don’t use them on anything but their intended target, and they’ll be fine.  And they can be detached, if you need them to stay inside the target.  That happens a lot, apparently.  Your computer will handle that.”  He turned his visored head up toward the monitors, then over to the crew waiting nearby.  They nodded back at him, confirming his assessment.  “Ok, sirs, diagnostics all check out, you’re just about ready to button up, disconnect and fly.”  He strode away, letting the crew approach with the SAMAS helmets.

Morgan closed his eyes as the helmet came over his head.  For two seconds, it was pitch-black, then the view-systems activated, showing a digital image of the world outside his SAMAS.  It took him a moment to get re-oriented to the new form of vision, and the computer used that time to test-run its targeting and range-finding systems.

“Good evening, Regis,” Morgan said aloud.

“Good evening, sir,” the feminine voice replied.  “All systems are 100% ready for flight, and diagnostic connections are all free.”

“Then lets get out there,” Morgan replied, taking a step forward as the deck-crew waved him forward, then toward the secondary hangar doors.  He and his two LTs met up with the rest of their squad at the doors, marching their powered armor suits out into the open field of the flight deck.

“It’s nice to have a mission again, instead of being on patrol,” Morgan said.  The heads-up display superimposed on his face-plate showed him the location of the other 5 SAMAS pilots in his squad, in take-off formation behind him.  “Saddle up, everyone.  Our job is to provide air support for a ground team incursion.  They will be entering a village on the edge of Pecos territory to recapture 4 mutant runaways who are being sheltered there.  Chances are they will encounter no resistance, but we are the contingency plan.  Aerial radar call-sign is Hawkeye 72, our ground team is Lariat, and it sounds like our semi-permanent callsign will be Shadow flight.  Sound off for flight.”

“Shadow 2, ready,” Sergey called.  One by one the others all called in.

“Let’s get in the air.  They’re in position near the objective and waiting for us to get on-station before they move in.”  Morgan lifted off the ground going straight up nearly 100 meters before arcing west and beginning true flight.  His squad formed up around him, spread out with 30 meters between them.  The sun had just gone down over the western horizon they flew toward.  The sky was a gorgeous red/purple, streaked with clouds that were high enough to capture what sunlight was left.  Below them, the ground was mostly featureless- large plains of grass, patched in places by ranch compounds and occasional trees.  For a few moments, Morgan enjoyed the flight in silence.  Then it was time to get back to work.

“Shadow flight, this is Hawkeye 72, I have you 45 kilos from your destination, Lariat team is in place, awaiting your arrival.”

“Copy that, Hawkeye 72, we’ll be there in 2 minutes,” Morgan replied.  “Lariat team, this is Shadow lead- hows the location look?”

A warm, deep feminie voice replied, “Location looks nice and quiet, Shadow lead.  Nice night for a walk.”

“Sounds lovely, Lariat.  We’ll be on-station in 90 seconds, let us know how you want us to proceed.”

Another voice answered this time, male and gruff.  This was definetly the Major.  “Shadow lead, take one low overpass flight to wake them all up, then hover and spotlight near the middle of town.  The building our quarry is in is a large wood-frame house on the south of the square.  The only building larger is a cement block hangar to the west.  I want two spotlights on the house, one on the hangar.  We want the village awake, and we want them to know who they’re dealing with, but we don’t want them terrified into causing trouble.”

“Copy that,” Morgan replied.  “Shadow 6, keep an eye on the hangar, Shadows 4 and 5, follow them to the house.  Everyone else, eyes open on the rest of town.  Weapons are tight until you hear from me.”  He could see the town now, a small, unprotected crossroads that looked like its cattle population was its greatest asset.  The wooden house was easy to see, lit up from inside.  Everyone was still awake, which was good- disturbing their sleep would only make them more confused, and more likely to open fire without thinking.  Most of the smaller houses and businesses were lit up as well, and people moved between the buildings and about the small square.

Regis pulled up a new display inside Morgan’s visor, to the right of his primary field of view.  It overlaid a pair of humanoid-shaped machines, slightly different from one another.  “Sir, I show two power signatures to the North, magnetic patters indicate active power-armor suits.  Preliminary scan shows no on-board weapons, no hand-held weapons are powered up.  Much of the frame is without armor plating.  I estimate these are manual labor units, possibly decommissioned combat units.”

“All right- Shadow 2, there’s a pair of power-armor suits active on the north end of town, look like labor machines.  I want you to keep an eye on them, just in case.  Keep a light on them, but don’t even point your weapon at them unless they get hostile.  Let’s be friendly here as long as we can.”

“Roger that, lead,” Sergey replied.  He broke formation to head to the north part of town.

“That last bit applies to everyone in Shadow flight,” Morgan added.  “No threatening moves.  If this is going to get ugly, it’ll be them bringing it to us.  Acknowledge.”

“Acknowledge, lead, we’ll be nice and friendly.” Connor sounded chipper as always.

The other three sounded confused at first, but acknowledged his order.  His command style would take time for them to get used to, so he ignored it.

Morgan angled his suit downward, then arced upward again to hover stationary over the town sqaure.  His squad dispersed to their ordered stations, hovering 20 meters or so off the ground.

“Shadow flight, give us the lights please,” the feminine voice purred.

“You heard the lady,” Morgan said, “light ’em up.”

The high-power halogen lights cut through the darkness, the ultra-brightness a shocking contrast to the twilight.  The face-plates of the SAMAS units adjusted for the light contrasts, leaving Morgan’s vision still digitally perfect, even if the colors were skewed.  The sensory and display software could only do so much.  The residents were in a low-level panic at first, many of them retreating into homes or outbuildings.  Amongst the running forms on the ground, the computer identified 10 of them as being the Lariat team.  3 of them arrayed around the entrance to the large house, two circled around to the back, and the other 5 went inside.  Most of them were mutants, but not all canines.  Two were felines, one of whom circled to the back of the building along with a very large mutant.  By sight, he couldn’t make out what species until the computer helped him out.  It was a mutant bear, and it was huge.  The pair waited by the back door.
The lights from two of the hovering SAMAS units cast harsh shadows from the low bushes and flowers around the front steps.  Two mutant canines in light armor stood by with rifles in hand, looking back over the streets.  At the foot of the stairs was the one human in the unit, dressed in heavy Dead-Boy armor.  Morgan’s computer identified that soldier as Major Claval.  His helmet was on, the visor dark, but from the body language Morgan could tell the Major was impatient.

From the north came the sound of a loudspeaker.  “Power down your units and climb out.  We’re not here for you.”

Sergey’s SAMAS hovered 10 meters off the ground, bathing the two power-armor suits in white light.  Morgan could easily see now that his computer’s estimate had been right- they were just the frames of old combat units, but even the pilot compartments  were open to the outside, and completely unprotected.  The two operators held their hands up to the light, powered down their units, then began to climb out.

“Shadow lead, this is 6.  Hangar doors are open, inside there’s nothing active.  A couple repair teams in here working on hovercycles and some machinery.  Biggest thing in there is what looks like an old Triax bot, but its powered down.”

“Six, this is lead.  Your job is to keep an eye on that hangar.  Anything powers up in there, warn them to power down.  Three, circle around to the south, keep your eyes open.  They’re starting to gather around.”  Three dozen or so people had formed a rough circle around the house from a hundred meters away.  They were curious, but not so much that they’d approach people with heavy weapons.  The five mutants who had entered the house now emerged, leading three mutant canines and one feline.  The prisoners’ hands were cuffed behind them, and the MCR team leading them held their wrists up, forcing them to walk while bowed forward.  Several of the townspeople gasped.  One of the canines, a female retriever who looked not much older than a puppy, tripped and landed on one knee.

A human child of perhaps ten years old broke free from his parents in the crowd, running forward to the fallen prisoner.  The mutants trained their rifles on him for a moment, but then broke their aim skyward as they saw he wasn’t a real threat.  He was sobbing, squatting down to help her back to her feet.  He whispered something to her that Morgan didn’t pick up, and the audio recievers didn’t zero in on it in time to catch it.  The mutant whispered something comforting, getting back up and nuzzling the young boy before telling him to go back to his parents, that she’d be all right.  Morgan sighed, knowing it was a lie just as well as the prisoner had to.  That canine would be lucky to live through whatever they had in store for her.

“Shadow lead, mind having the locals clear a path?” the feline voice from the ground team asked.

“Certainly,” he replied.  He pointed his halogen light at the crowd to the east, and they shrank away from the harsh light. “We’re going to need you folks to move,” he called over his loudspeaker.  Reluctantly, they began to move out of the way.  Lariat team began to move through the opening in the crowd, with the Major falling in at the end of the line.

“Lead, this is six- that Triax bot is active!” Connor nearly shouted over the comm-link. “Its weapons will be online in 60 seconds!”

Morgan turned his SAMAS north.  “Four and Five, cover Lariat’s path out of here.  Everyone else, converge on the hangar.  Weapons remain tight, acknowledge!”

“Two, acknowledge weapons tight,” came Sergey’s reply.  “What happens when he lights up?”

“He won’t,” Morgan replied, angling his flight over and landing hard in the open area directly in front of the hangar door.  The big Triax bot was coming out of its hangar, stepping into the fading light.  It wasn’t in terrible shape, and its weapons certainly looked powerful enough to do some damage.  He guessed it was 5 meters tall, fairly big for a combat bot, and its limbs and torso carried a hodge-podge of armor plates salvaged from other machines.  Typical for a wilderness town, but deadly enough for his purposes.

“Three, acknowledge weapons tight,”  CC called out.  “Coming from the west.”

“Six, weapons are tight.  I’m real sorry, Captain, his power signature didn’t register with any of the patterns on my computer.  It looked cold until it started walking.”

“It’s all right, six, I’m still not getting normal readings from it,” Morgan replied.  “It might be a techno-wizard rebuild or something.”  He paused for a moment, and took a deep breath.  Then he spoke to his on-board computer.

“Regis, open the visor and activate the helmet diagnostic lights.”

“Yes, sir,” the computer voice replied.  Morgan was glad that it wasn’t intelligent enough to argue with him when he chose to do something stupid.  The digitally-enhanced view clicked off, and the helmet visor swung upward, exposing his face and head.  It was darker outside than he’d realized- the sun had gone down completely now, and the only light was coming from a handful of post-mounted lights around the hangar’s field.  Whoever was piloting the ‘bot could see his face clearly, though- his visor was open, and a series of small lights illuminated the inside of his helmet.

“Stand down there, friend,” he called over the loudspeaker.  “We’ve got what we came for, and we’re leaving now.”

The response from the bot’s loudspeaker was crackly and distorted.  “You CS bastards have to destroy everything you touch, don’t you?!”

“Not today, we don’t,” Morgan replied.  “We came to get four fugitives, and that’s all.  Fortunately your townsfolk out there are smart enough to know not to fight back right now.”

“Those runaways are our people!” the bot called back.  It continued marching forward, and was now clear of the hangar doors.

“Be careful where you place your loyalty,” Morgan warned.  “Those mutants knew they were putting you in harms way when they came here.  They knew someone would be coming for them eventually, and they could have moved on- but they didn’t.”  He sighed.  “Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but that old combat bot is the main defense you folks have around here, isn’t it?”

The large machine was 15 meters away from him now.  His computer’s voice reported that its weapon systems would be fully on-line in another 20 seconds.  He switched his microphone over to the squad comm-link.

“Shadow team, get your targeting systems off of him.  I’m sure he sees you guys lighting him up.”

“Sir, I’m fairly certain he’s not extending you the same courtesy,” CC replied.  “Three is off-target.”

“Two off-target.”  “Six off-target.”

“Very well,” Morgan replied, switching his mic back to loudspeaker.

“Look, friend, you’ll have time to blast me before my squad takes you out, sure.  But if you make us shoot that thing full of holes, whats going to keep your people safe?  It’s not worth it.  We didn’t come here to burn your town to the ground.  We got what we came for.  Power down, and we’ll leave you be.”

Just as his computer was about to report the bot’s weapons fully active, it stopped advancing.  The large cannon it carried in the right hand slowly angled downward, pointing harmlessly at the ground.  The pilot compartment in the chest flipped open.  “Why do you need to come here for them?  They were no threat to you!”

“You’d have to ask them why they left their posts,” Morgan said.  “They’re deserters, and in most armies they’d be shot on sight.  At least we’re taking them back alive.”  He paused, then started to turn away.  “Thanks for doing the right thing.”

The computer shut his visor automatically as he lit up the flight engines, taking to the air and forming up with his squad as they left the sky over the town.  The Lariat team was already in a pair of wheeled transports, rolling back to base.

“Shadow flight, form up on me and check in.”  Morgan sighed again, cracking a thin smile.

“Shadow two.  Its good to see you didn’t leave your crazy behind when we transferred down here, lead.”  Morgan chuckled.

“Shadow three.”

“Shadow four here, and Lariat team is safely aboard transports and rolling home.”

“Roger, four.”

“Shadow five.”

“Shadow six.”

“Hawkeye 72, this is Shadow lead.  Any sign of pursuit from that old Triax bot?”

“Shadow lead, Hawkeye 72.  His magnetic signature is stationary.  He’s not following you.”

20 minutes later, Morgan watched as the two wheeled transports pulled up to the gates of the Lone Star complex, passed through the outer checkpoint, and rolled toward the administration building that housed the elevators down to the underground laboratory system.  He ordered his squad to land, then followed them down, marching into the hangar and toward his team’s ‘tree’.  He watched Connor and Sergey back their units up into place, then turned his unit around and guided it back into its own parking spot.  Two deck-hands each were working to re-connect his squad-mates.  CC was already out of her armor, waiting for the rest of them.  Morgan had the impression that one or two of the deck crew were smitten with her, going out of their way to get her out of her unit extra-fast, because she was always the first one out of armor.  He couldn’t really blame them, either- the one-piece arming suit they wore while piloting the SAMAS was a form-fitting outfit that made her look pretty darn good.

As one of the crew moved toward his own unit, and began connecting it to the hangar systems, Morgan spotted Major Claval striding across the hangar deck, flanked by the mutant feline he’d seen in the Major’s office.  He still wore his dead-boy armor, and she was wearing her field uniform.  The two came right up to Morgan, waiting for a few moments while the deck-hand disconnected his helmet and lifted it clear.

“That was a ballsy move you made out there, Captain,” the Major said, looking upward.  He was taller than Morgan by a few inches, but while in his SAMAS, Morgan towered over almost everyone.  The Major’s face was inscrutable, and for a long moment, Morgan had no idea whether he was being complemented or reprimanded.

“It seemed like the best way to resolve the situation was to talk him down, and that wouldn’t have worked by pointing guns at him.”  Morgan shrugged, as much as he could in the powered-down armor.  “I think he’d have expected us to come at him with our guns first, and seeing me drop down and open up shocked him into thinking about what he was doing.  And it won’t hurt future missions if word gets out that we aren’t shooting first.”

“Well, because of your action, we accomplished our mission without a shot fired,” Claval said, a smirk finally crossing his lips.  “Its not how things usually go for us, but it worked out well.  I’d like your squad to join us for the debrief.  Take 20 minutes to shower, then meet in ready room 6.”

Morgan nodded.  “Yes, sir.”  He’d be grateful for the time – it didn’t seem to matter whether he was in his SAMAS for 10 minutes or 10 hours, he was sweaty every time he got un-suited.  Major Claval turned and strode away, but the feline sargeant took a step closer to Morgan, just as the tech was opening the suit for him to climb out.  She spoke quietly, but intensely; it was the same warm voice that had come across the comlink during the mission, but now the professional edge was gone.  She was speaking personally.

“Captain, you may have been the greater threat to that Triax bot, but to the pilot, it was us on the ground who were taking away his friends.  He would have fired on us first.”  He stepped clear of the opened SAMAS unit.  “You risked your life, and whether you knew it or not, you saved ours.  Mutants don’t forget things like that.”  She turned, then quickly caught up to the Major before he left the hangar building.

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