by Escher - 16th Aug 1999
His ears ringing, Khantur took a deep breath and opened his eyes. The HUD quickly flashed green lights, indicating no damage to the machine or it’s pilot. Sensors swept the area and declared no hostiles. Growling, he picked himself up and inspected the scene.
Smoke and dust billowed on the ground, interspersed with the occasional lick of flame. Glancing around he saw members of his squad, lying in the dirt like discarded rag dolls. The ground around him was a ragged cluster of craters. Movement caught his eye, and he swung his weapon, wary. It was one of the scouts, struggling to their feet.
‘Scouts! Report in!’
‘Shanni, no damage, sir.’
‘Grimar here, no damage.’
‘Derah here, railgun’s damaged but repairable, sir.’
A moment’s silence.
Khantur listened. ‘Tors, report!’
Nothing. Khantur turned and scowled up at the higher ground where he’d left Tors.
The attack had swept along their battle line, impacts scattered from Derah’s flank all the way across them and up the hill.
‘Tors! Dammit!’ That last was little more than a growl as he raced up to the hill, easily picking his way over the broken ground. The summit was pitted and scorched. There was no sign of Tors Du’ran.
Khantur spat some harsh words, then twitched his comm back on. ‘He must be man down. Grim, Derah, you’re with me. Search pattern, fifty metre spread. Shanni, up the hill, maximum range active scans. If he’s still here we’ll find him.’ That last was little more than a snarl.
Shanni ran up the hill, her mek’s powered strides propelling her easily over the treacherous terrain. She ran a passive scan first, making use of her wide field of view. Three dots danced across the scan, the scouts searching the surrounding area by hand.
She gasped as the craters caught her eye. The scouts’ previous position was devastated, she counted at least twenty impacts. The hill she was standing on had been all but blown apart, huge chunks of smoking turf lay all around. As she began the active scan, she couldn’t help but wonder how they’d survived the bombing run.
Had Tors been less fortunate? Was it possible he’d been killed?
Shanni bit back that thought. Tors was injured, it was likely the attack had just knocked him out. Nobody else had been hurt by the attack, the blasts weren’t powerful enough to do any real damage other than throw them about a little.
Icons flashed. A half-dozen blips at extreme range and closing. She muttered a curse under her breath. So soon?
‘Sir, incoming targets on one-thirty, eighteen and closing at forty kliks.’
Khantur growled. ‘Dammit. At this rate we’ll have the whole planet on top of us.’ His mind raced through options. The robots were moving slowly, which either meant they hadn’t spotted the scouts, or they were heavy. Heavy robots meant heavy firepower and heavy armour, possibly more than the four scouts could handle.
He took a deep breath. ‘Derah, how bad’s that railgun?’
‘I think it’s the coils, sir. Field strength is at sixty percent.’
‘It’ll have to do.’ Though in truth the situation looked grave. They were going to have to dismantle the robots in melee, through a hail of gunfire. It was going to be tense.
+++ Fenrir Special Forces/Recon/Cmndr R'Tan/a4bl29-427-40299 +++
+++ From KFS 'Carnosaur'/GC mrc./Cptn Kodan/closed channel +++
+++ Please respond... +++
Khantur blinked as the message flickered over his HUD. Suspicions filled his thoughts for a split second before he authorised the link.
‘This is Aruna Kodan of the Kalai vessel Carnosaur calling commander R’Tan.’ A female voice, with a very faint kalai accent. ‘You guys had better move your tails, because I’m here to pick ya up, and I ain’t hanging around.’
Shanni cut in. ‘Sir? Bots at sixteen and closing, sir.’
Khantur frowned. ‘Captain, transmit your authorisation codes.’
A moment’s pause while the mek verified the codes, and Khantur grunted assent. He replied by sending the team’s location.
‘I gotcha on the scope, commander, we’re on our way. Everything cosy down there?’
No it flaming well isn’t. Khantur scowled at the woman’s flippancy. ‘Negative, heavy assault robots ETA in twenty minutes.’
‘We’ll be there. You better get your jets in gear, I’m running a Miranda-class on fly-by at three thousand feet, ETA fifteen minutes.’
Khantur grimaced. A mid-air pickup. He twitched his comm open. ‘Muzzles up, scouts. Dust off in fifteen minutes. Ascent to one kay, then hyperbolic ascent to three thousand. Questions?’
The silence was laden with unspoken worries, but nobody spoke. Khantur decided to meet them head on. ‘Tors is outside our sensor range, there’s nothing more we can do here. Shanni, keep watching those bots.’
‘Check your thrusterpacks. We lift off in ten.’
It took only a minute to verify that everybody’s thrusterpack was in working order, and then all they had to do was wait. The robots were getting slowly closer, but so far nothing else had appeared on scanners.
So far. Khantur cursed. The robots had Tors, that much was obvious, but capture wasn’t their style. They could have killed the entire pack, but instead they had spirited a single scout away. Why?
The mesh-mek. That had to be it, they had wanted to study the technology. That still didn’t explain why the others had been spared.
‘Entering atmosphere now, commander.’ Captain Kodan interrupted. ‘Time to alley-oop out of there.’
As one, the four meks activated their thrusterjets and took off. Grimar kept a watchful eye on his sensors as the pack spiralled upwards. The bots on the ground had stopped.
‘Scouts, prepare to dive on my mark.’ Khantur’s command grated in his ears, and Grim braced himself for the negative-G dive.
‘Mark!’ The lead mek’s thrusters flared, it’s wings twisting back into an aerodart as Khantur began his descent. Shanni was next, then Derah, leaving Grimar to follow their lead.
His nose pointed almost vertical, Grimar’s HUD identified the three dots ahead of him, almost invisible behind the wash from their jets. Warning icons lit to his right: incoming fire.
‘Active wing, pull up in five seconds.’ Khantur’s order was barely audible over the roaring wind. Grim grit his teeth and shifted his wing back into an active wing configuration. ‘Two, one, NOW!’
The change in velocity was incredible. One instant the three scouts were in front of him, the next they were gone, streaking away into the sky. Grim pulled up, the suit protesting as it hurled itself skywards. His vision tinged red as his HUD flashed G-force warnings. The other scouts whirled and spiraled in the air, and Grimar did likewise. When the pressure lifted sufficiently, his breath finally returned to him in a howl.
‘EeeeeeeeeeyyyyYOOOOOOOOWWWWR WHAT A RUSH!’
Turbulence shook him then, flashes and explosions nearby. The robots were putting up flak. There was no way to return fire at this speed, and the scouts’ weapons were useless at this range anyway.
Khantur’s voice cut through his thoughts. ‘Our pickup is a Miranda-class transport, a Kalai ship. Should be dead ahead. Stay battle-ready until we know who we’re dealing with.’
Grimar groaned. A Miranda class transport, in a warzone? They’d be lucky to make it back into orbit.
Derah Ans’Kil rolled her eyes. This was the best Orion could spare to pick them up? Obviously the human didn’t appreciate their situation.
Her sensor package detected a large vessel speeding in from her left. She glanced aside, and sure enough a large shadow was visible in the cloud cover, a sizable wake behind it.
‘Sir, transport in visual range.’
‘Okay, scouts, intercept and board. Be ready for-’
The rest of the message was lost as a cluster of shells exploded almost in front of Derah’s path. Derah was rocked and buffeted by the explosion, fragments striking her flight planes and disrupting her course. She swore, struggling to keep the mek under control.
It only took her a split second to regain control, but already the ship was on top of them. Her left thruster was behaving erratically, but she managed to follow the others as they approached the rear of the ship. Another cluster of explosions lit the clouds.
Warning icons flashed on her HUD, collision course. Frowning at the computer, she cut thrust slightly. ‘Stupid thing,’ she muttered. ‘we’re not colliding, we’re boarding.’
Just then a loud shriek split the air, and a skimmer dropped out of the clouds, coming right at them. Derah caught a glimpse of viciously-styled wings, utterly alien in design. Her blood ran cold.
Derah’s ears rang as everybody shouted at once, drowning out her own cursing, but the ship was already past them, had already banked to avoid them and continued on it’s path.
It only took a second to figure out it’s destination: the robots. The incoming fire warning abruptly ceased.
Khantur tilted his nose towards the collosal ship as it dipped below the clouds. The rear cargo door was open, a vast opening, large enough for a squad of full-size meks.
‘Scouts, embark!’ He led the way, noticing a brief flicker as he entered the shields. Once out of the backwash of the huge engines, he swooped downwards into the hold.
Almost before touching down, he shifted the mek back into combat configuration, weapons at the ready. Moments later, the others did likewise.
They were greeted by a human female, clad in tight-fitting black. She waved to indicate that they should move further into the hold, and away from the doors.
Grimar felt a growl low in his throat. This didn’t look like any Miranda he’d ever seen, and what was a human doing aboard a kalai vessel? He kept his weapon trained on the woman while he ran a quick scan of the area.
A shadow passed overhead, and he ducked, raising his weapon. It took an effort of will to restrain himself. Grimar he told himself, you’re spooked. The fighter hovered over them and landed a short distance away, near the front of the ship. Grimar watched it, all wicked curves and razor points. It’s hull was a dark green, slithery, like lizard hide, with patches of dark, golden-coloured metal. Spikey, triangular symbols adorned one side of the cockpit, etched in blood red.
Grimar muttered into his comm. ‘Now that is NOT a standard issue skimmer.’
‘Stay lively, people.’ replied Khantur. ‘If this is sour, we may need to bail out.’
‘Can we take the ship, sir?’ Shanni.
‘Negative.’ Khantur surreptitiously pointed upward. ‘Defense weapons everywhere.’
The ship shuddered then, and Grim turned to look from the rear of the ship and cursed softly. If not for his mek’s filters, the flare from the engines would surely have temporarily blinded him. He felt the deck lurch underfoot as the ship began to accelerate, and the vast cargo doors began to close.
Khantur muttered something unintelligible. He activated his external speaker then turned and pointed at the human. ‘You. Where is Captain Kodan?’
The woman looked up at Khantur’s gauntlet, the spikes and blades partially extended. She blinked slowly, looking not the least bit perturbed. ‘On her way.’ The woman spoke so softly Grim almost missed it.
‘I need complete active scans of the planet’s surface, I need sensor sweeps for any lifesigns, and I need a secure comm channel to VDS-1 immediately.’
The woman didn’t move. Grimar wondered if she’d heard. After a moment’s pause, she replied. ‘I’m sorry, this isn’t my ship. You ought to ask Aruna.’
Grim took a closer look at her. Pale skin, big dusky eyes and dark hair. He supposed she was quite attractive by human standards. The shiny black suit she wore played highlights over her contours as she moved. Grim noticed she was unarmed, and barefoot. He’d never really looked at a human foot before. It looked uncomfortable.
‘Commander R’Tan!’ four armoured heads turned to face the new voice. ‘I’m Aruna Kodan, welcome aboard.’
The female who approached was undeniably Kalai, white fur with patches of tortoiseshell, eyes sparkling as she approached. To his experience, the Kalai were a fiercely honourable race, proud and warlike. Males and females alike carried ornate force swords at all times, to avenge matters of honour and face. Straight-backed and very formal.
This kalai had plainly spent far too long around humans. She wore a human-style bomber jacket over a pair of denim coveralls. A bulky pistol hung at her hip, which the mek’s computer identified as a molecule stripper, while a coil of flex turned out to be a neurowhip. Very nasty. mused Grim.
As she approached, Kodan’s ear twitched, and she frowned. ‘Only four of you? I was told there’d be five.’
Khantur looked down at her. ‘We lost a scout on the surface. It’s imperative we locate him immediately. I want a full sensor sweep, active scans, life signs, everything. I need a direct secure comm channel to VDS1. I need-’
‘You need to move.’ she interrupted. ‘I’ve got two skimmers coming in and you’re standing in their parking spot. Come on.’ As she turned to walk away, she paused and looked back. ‘I thought you’d be taller.’
Khantur seethed inwardly. Kodan chattered as she led them to an empty spot. Thick red lines and a huge numeral 8 dominated the area. The human woman wandered off, apparently having lost interest.
‘We’re on course to VDS-1 already. We scanned the area when you sent us your coordinates, but apart from those robots, the place is clean.’ She shrugged. ‘If you’ve left somebody down there, they’ve got problems.’
Khantur grit his teeth. Did she have to state the obvious? ‘I need a comm channel to VDS-1, I need to speak to Captain Orion immediately.’
The captain appeared to consider for a moment, then prodded a fingertip against the mek, roughly where Khantur’s stomach was. ‘You can’t bring that thing up to the bridge. You can park ‘em here for now, they’ll be fine.’
Khantur nodded, then disabled his external speaker. Over the comm he muttered. ‘Keep your eyes open. I’m going up to the bridge.’
He backed up almost to the wall, and instructed the mek to disengage. The HUD displayed progress indicators as the separation instructions were uploaded to the nanomachines. Five seconds. In an emergency, the process could be completed in two, but the designers had coded in a wide safety margin.
He felt the mek shift around him, and in his mind’s eye he could imagine the nanites flowing into their new shape, crawling over themselves, detaching, moving and reknitting the molecular bonds that held the suit together. His fur stood on end as the nanites in his body began to sever their connection to the suit’s computers. With a loud click the helmet split and came apart, drawing back over his shoulders to melt into the block that was rapidly forming behind him.
The shell covering his torso began to thin, then parted and peeled away, slipping off his fur and around his back. If he had been lying on his back, it would have seemed the suit was liquid, and Khantur was floating to the top. As it bared his shoulder, the arms came apart. There was a subtle click as the mek’s weapon systems clipped themselves back in place. As the nanomachines in his body disconnected, those linked to them drew away, each broken link making the tiniest sound. To Khantur’s ears it was a quiet rushing noise, a sensation he was better able to feel than to hear. He smiled inwardly as the feline’s expression changed from fascination to surprise. Obviously the captain of clunky old cargo vessel would never have encountered the peak of fenrir military technology.
As the process completed, Khantur took a deep breath and stepped away from the now rectangular block of nanomachines. There was a last residual tugging sensation as his shoulderblades came away, and then Khantur stood, naked.
Aruna blinked. ‘Uhh... I, umm, commander, I uhh...’ A faint blush crept into the feline’s face, just visible beneath the fur. ‘...clothes?’
Khantur turned and removed his jumpsuit from it’s compartment in the now-inert mek. ‘Stow the meks, but stay alert. I’ll just be a minute.’
Khantur allowed himself a small smile. He could smell the captain’s bewilderment, and more, quite easily. Once dressed, he stood up straight. ‘The comm.’
She seemed to have regained her composure. ‘Sure. Come on up to the bridge.’
Captain Kodan led Khantur through the ship and up to the bridge. They didn’t speak on the way, though she did pause to pick up a discarded toolbox, which she later deposited into a holding bracket further down the corridor.
Signs marked their progress: ‘Galley’, ‘Engineering’, ‘Tactical’ and more. At one point he caught a faint scent, human, but most of all he could smell the kalai female. Not strongly, but... permeating. It seemed to be everywhere at once, confusing his nose. Under normal conditions Khantur could easily place a person using only his sense of smell.
He did his best to ignore it, concentrating on his other senses.
This ship was in far better shape than he had anticipated. As they entered the bridge, he was pleasantly surprised to find a modern layout, with up-to-date equipment. He glanced around for the comms station, and found a fenrir manning the post. The black-clad vulpine was busily using the manual entry system, clawtips dancing over a keyboard.
‘We’re a mixed crew.’ said the captain, by way of explanation.
Khantur grunted. Fine, whatever.
Quickly the fox finished what he was doing and moved aside, quickly busying himself elsewhere. Not an alpha, it looks like this female is in charge here. Khantur quickly forgot all about the vulpine and tapped in his access codes. ‘Get me Captain Orion.’
Down in the cargo bays, Shanni, Grimar and Derah kept a watchful eye on the peculiar goings-on around them. The front door opened up to admit a pair of skimmers, one dark blue, the other a dark grey. Grimar noted that neither ship bore GC markings.
‘I’d be surprised those ships are even registered.’ he muttered.
Shanni turned to look at him, concerned. ‘What’s going on here, Grim?’
‘Damned if I know, Shanni.’ He turned to glance back at the meks, stacked neatly against the wall. ‘But something’s not right here. I’ve seen pictures of Miranda-class cruisers, and this ship doesn’t look right.’
The skimmers disgorged their crews, four humanoids, all different. One male human, a female, probably vendorian, despite her dark hair. The other two creatures defied identification, one covered in dark green plates, while the other resembled nothing so much as a walking tree. The human looked over in Grim’s direction and flashed a friendly smile.
‘Yer gear’s in the salvage scoops, what we could find. We’ll sort if through later, aye?’ He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
Unsure what to say, Grimar nodded. ‘Sure.’
Khantur’s talk with Captain Orion was short and to the point. VDS1 would do what it could to locate Tors Du’ran and the missing mek, but Orion hadn’t looked optimistic. Khantur rubbed his muzzle.
Khantur turned to face the captain. The feline slouched on a padded leather seat, as relaxed as only a cat could manage. ‘I need a full density active scan of the planet’s surface, filtered for-’
‘No point, we’re well away.’
‘I need to find my scout, Captain.’ He let just the hint of a growl enter his voice. In the corner of his eye he saw the fox glance up. Khantur ignored him. This was between the alphas.
The captain didn’t seem phased. ‘We ran all the scans we could earlier, I told you, nothing.’
‘Did you scan for nano-signatures?’
‘We don’t have that kind of equipment! This isn’t a military vessel, you know?’
Khantur frowned. ‘There are guns all over this ship. Do you think we’re blind?’
Kodan waved a paw. ‘Those are defensive mounts, nothing more. This is a transport ship, I move cargo from one place to another.’
‘Then what are you doing on Vendoria?’
‘Hauling your tail out of the fat.’ She snapped. ‘That’s what. We were in the area and I offered assistance. I told you, we carry cargo.’
‘What cargo are you carrying at the moment?’
Khantur blinked. ‘That’s all? Nothing else?’
In one movement she rose from the chair and moved to his side. ‘ETA is about two hours, commander. The best thing you can do right now is go get some rest.’
Khantur sighed. He was in somebody else’s territory, he would have to play by her rules or risk a confrontation, and he had no real idea what he would be facing. Grimly he nodded. ‘Fine.’
The woman broke into a wide feline smile and tugged playfully on his cheekfur. ‘Good lad. You leave this to us, we know what we’re doing. We’ll have you back with your soldier friends in no time.’
Khantur stood up, eyes wide. Who did this female think she was? He fought to calm himself. Quickly he regained his composure. Kodan didn’t seem to have realised the danger. His eyes flashed and he walked past her, towards the door.
Despite his rigid self-control, Khantur almost yelped when he felt a paw slap his rump on the way out.
Eyes wide, he practically ran from the bridge.