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Never Again

© 1999-2003 Draconus and Stratadrake of TWZ

Chapter Three: Those Once Lost

(rough draft)

All right men, the area looks clear. Direct the convoy to proceed forwards, we'll escort them through.

They've received the transmission, Commander, and are preparing to move.

Okay. Forward group keep a minute's page ahead of the convoy and watch for Raiders. Rear group, follow behind at 30 seconds. Everyone else, with me.

Okay, Commander, convoy is moving. Forward group in position, and we're taking up the rear. So long as we keep the sensors up, those Raiders won't bother trying to rob us.

Man, look at the trees. How long is this road, anyway?

Jim, you worry to much. This mission should be a milk run by comparison to the last.

I don't know, Mark. We've been getting reports of Raiders striking deeper and farther than their usual grounds. Everyone switch on Vernier and IR sensors, just in case. Trees provide easy defensive cover for Raiders. Forward Group, status?

Nothing yet, Commander. All's quiet and peaceful up here.

Good. Rear group, status?

Well, the hills ain't blocked our view of the sunset. Sky looks mighty pretty right now.

I know. Just keep a watch out for Raiders. They like striking from the dark.

Ha! Jim, quit worrying. IR will pick 'em up long before they get within striking range anyway. They can't approach us without being seen.

What was that?

What was what!?

. . . Nothing, commander. IR sensors detected a few small blips for a sec, but they scattered on approach. Local wildlife; probably deer.

Phew. Don't startle me like that.

Don't worry, Jim. These hills proceed upward at 45 degrees average. The trees are too large to doze over, and underbrush doesn't exactly let you stand on it, either. Even if we ran into Raiders, they'd have to come either from the front, or the rear. Either way we'd take care of them easy.

I guess so. Okay... map status says we'll be shortly approaching a small meadow, once we clear this hill. Stream runs through it. Stars aren't out yet, but it should be a nice thing to look at anyway.

Commander, Forward Group reporting. We've reached the clearing. Scanners show no sign of hostiles at any point.

Gotcha. Maintain scouting of the area; we'll get there soon.

Jim? We've got an update from HQ coming in, check it out. Sat maps picked up some Raiders a few miles northeast.

So much for a milk run....

Right. If the Raiders are in this far, they're probably looking to hit us. Everyone set sensors to max and heat up the weapons; we may need them after all.

We're here, Mark. Hmm... a wide open space like this would be too risky for an ambush. Forward Group, see anything?

Negative -- wait, picking up a few Vernier signatures. Large ones. IR emissions are low however.

How many?

Three... four... -- Commander, watch out!

The distinctive echo of a rail gun being fired could be heard as an enemy 'dart' impacted one of the tanks. It hit low, penetrating completely through the tank's armor layers and out the other side, knocking out the tank's primary propulsion systems and a drive shaft in the process.

Jim, are you all right?!?

Enemy sniper! Somebody take him out!

All units move in closer to the convoy. Raiders won't risk damaging their prize to strike at enemies.

I've got him!

The sound of several rockets being fired could be heard, followed by visible explosions as the rockets found their target and impacted, causing an explosion and throwing smoke and debris into the air.

Enemy down! Commander, status report?

Left propulsion's down, secondary drive shaft damaged, right propulsion nicked. Activating redundancies. No critical systems hit though. All units, any hostiles yet?

Wait -- they're within range and moving fast, approaching our direction!

Everyone lock and load! Choose your targets and take them out; they won't get to the convoy, not so long as we can help it!

Redundancies online, propulsion's back up. Repeat that -- all units fire at will!

They're entering range!

One by one the units in their group opened fire on the incoming raiders. Their rockets acquired and tracked the enemies, impacting with a nearly one-hit-one-kill effectiveness.

Jim, I'm registering about ten enemy units closing from all sides. Save the rockets, switch to cannons and artillery.

They must want this convoy pretty bad. Confirmation on enemy type?

Look at them -- they're fast! Switch to autoguided weaponry and engage!

The enemy units closed distance to the convoy and began opening fire with their own weaponry -- mostly cannon fire, but with some rockets and incendiary artillery mixed in.

I got one! Everyone arm your plasma rounds, we're taking 'em out!

The first wave of incoming Raiders fell to plasma-round fire from the group's cannons. Another wave was on its way, however.

Three more enemies incoming! Cyborg units confirmed.

One of the enemy cyborgs was plainly visible at long range, holding an unidentified sort of weapon.

Leave this one to me!

Phil, don't wander off! Stay with the convoy!

The enemy cyborg found its opponent and opened fire. A stream of several rail 'darts' fired from the weapon in a quick burst, and Phil's tank was quickly turned into a pincushion. The darts ripped through armor, propulsion, and even critical areas like the engine and pilot's compartment. One or two must have hit the fuel tank and/or magazine, because shortly after the tank exploded violently, killing Phil instantly.


What the hell was that, Jim?

Cyborgs . . . since when are raiders using such well-crafted cyborgs?

Probably stolen weaponry. Missile locks acquired, he won't escape me!

Stay close to the convoy!

You don't need to tell me twice. Firing!

Mark's missiles found their target and destroyed the enemy cyborg in a single burst.

Commander, I'm getting an analysis report from the enemy borgs. Stolen weaponry, all right. It's the alpha 'Stitching' gun, the ones our boys were developing at the RX78 plant.

They still won't risk any damage to their prize. Stay close to the convoy; that'll buy us some protection.

I think they already know that, Jim. I'm reading more enemy Raiders on the fringes and approaching.

How many?

You don't want to know.

Damn.... All right. Everyone remain here but open fire! Start with the alpha borgs. Take out those Stitchers, we should be free to maneuver again -- but not too much.

Jim, alpha borgs are retreating and rejoining with their group. It's gonna be hard taking them out if we can't see 'em.

There must be 30 of them! That's too many! We must fall back!

No! We must protect the convoy!

Mark was the first to open fire, taking out an enemy cyborg. Still more were incoming, and the other members in their group quickly chose their targets and began firing as well.

More? Just how many do they have?

They're closing the distance. Scatter!

As the enemy cyborgs approached, they began opening fire with what appeared to be laser-type weaponry, not exactly the most feared weapon among tank pilots.

Jim, we have to find and eliminate the enemy Stitchers.

Got one!

James set his rocket launcher to scatter fire and emptied the pod in one go. The effect was incredible -- out of sixteen rockets fired, he had destroyed nearly a dozen foes, and nearly another half dozen foes crippled.

Jim, clear my line of fire!

There goes another....

Mark fired anyway, eliminating what would later be identified as one of the 'Stitcher' cyborgs.

Watch your aim!

You should have cleared my line of fire, Jim!

Where are those Stitchers?

Next, an unmistakable volley of another 'Stitching' gun could be heard, as an enemy picked off one of their comrades who had strayed too far from the convoy. As damaging as the weapon was, soon both James and Mark had affixed their weapons to the enemy attacker. James fired a shrapnel round, impacting and destroying it in a single hit and crippling several others.

A second but similar volley, this one from another enemy, could be heard as it ripped apart another unit from their group. The pilot of that tank, however, survived as no shots from the volley had impacted a vital system of his tank.

Tim, you okay?

I-I think so. Damage is severe but coms are okay. Take him out for me, will ya?

Mark found the attacker and took it out.

They're getting desperate, using a weapon like that in such close proximity to their prize. No mercy!

The enemies were changing tactics now, switching from laser weaponry to more effective cannons and rocketry. Another sizable wave of enemy cyborgs could be seen approaching from the fringes of radar, and they were opening fire with artillery. Shells and rockets impacted everywhere; and although most of the hits were insufficient to pierce their tanks' armor, each hit would add up, until one finally penetrates armor and hits a vital system.

Another member of their group became a sterling (if unwitting) example as a direct hit from a howitzer shell impacted a weakened portion of his tank's armor, penetrated and exploded. It caught his tank's fuel supply in the process, causing an extra-large and instantly fatal explosion.

James kept firing shrapnel rounds from the cannon, each hit crippling multiple foes, while Mark kept focusing on (and destroying) one enemy after another with armor-piercing shells delivered into the center of each borg's torso section, killing a different enemy with every shot.

Another one of their group fell to an enemy Stitching gun, and although Mark was quick and efficient to retaliate, the numbers of their group were becoming low. They were now down to five men, four tanks, only their convoy for protection, and as the enemy's firepower concentrated on fewer targets, their tanks' armor was beginning to weaken.

All further communiqué between James, Mark, and their three remaining comrades was lost amid the sounds of cannons, rockets, and missiles being fired, and the sounds of explosions from missiles and artillery. At one point Mark noticed a conspicuous target -- one enemy standing a considerable distance back, simply watching -- and he fired his last available missile at it.

The decision turned out to be a brilliant one. The missile unerringly found and eliminated its sole target. To everyone's surprise, as pieces of the lone enemy fell all over the area, every other enemy they were fighting fell silent!

They quickly realized that the dozens of enemies they were fighting were merely unmanned cyborg drones, and Mark had destroyed the pilot who was operating them all via an RCO interface. Only two other enemy cyborgs remained active -- both of which were carrying a 'Stitching' gun -- and as the enemy pilots simply stood there, aghast at the spectacle of what happened, James, Mark, and their now last able comrade quickly acquired them as targets and eliminated them.

Commander... I think we did it!

Radio HQ and tell them to send a recovery team this way. I doubt the Raiders will hit us again after a loss like that.


Yes, what is it?


"Blast it, Commander, wake up already!" Screamed Reed across James's link, which had been set aside on a nightstand. Jim, currently sleeping in his bed, stirred slightly.

"Commander! Pick up the link!"

James was gradually beginning to wake up to the alarm-clock sound of Reed's repeated shouting across his comlink.


James found strength to grab his comlink and give an answer. "Reed...?"

"Ah, finally! I've been trying for the past five minutes to reach you!"

James squinted at the time readout on the comlink. "Reed, it's . . . five in the morning...? What could you possibly want...?"

"I couldn't sleep, so I decided to run another check on the system. And then, right in the middle of it all, it refuses me access, and -- just get down here!"

James blinked several times to get focused. "... On my way...."

"THANK YOU!" Reed shouted across the comlink before hanging up.

James sighed and lay in his bed for awhile longer, resting. Right now, he didn't care so much about what Reed was up to, as much as he cared that Reed had awoken him from a sound night's sleep, a good four hours before his usual wakeup time.

Nonetheless, James spent the next ten minutes getting up, switching on the lights, and dressing himself in his uniform. After combing through his hair and strapping the comlink to his left wrist like always, he left his quarters and proceeded down the hallway.

No, wait a minute, James corrected. Reed's lab is in the other direction. So James turned around and began heading the other way. The hallway was dimly illuminated by the half-lights they used for the early morning hours, and aside from James's footsteps echoing up and down, it was quiet as a grave.

James reached the outside door, which was the shortest route from the residence building to the research building next door. Opening it, he was hit by a gust of cold wind and snow.


Sure enough, it was snowing outside. James stepped outside and stood in place for a moment. Twenty feet of three-inch high snow lay on the ground between the two buildings. Despite a dark, clouded sky and the only other light coming from the safety lights by each building's entrance, the snow was a color not unlike James's old tank the day it rolled off of its production line. A kind of white brighter than the moon, it was as if James was looking at a heavy shower of falling stars, each snowflake shining with a light of its own.

After a moment of enjoying the snow, James's comlink beeped again. "Commander?"

"Yes, Reed?" James answered quickly.

"What's taking you so long? I need you over here, now!"

"Just admiring the weather," James said. It hadn't snowed in their area for ages. "I'll be there in a few."

James hit the 'end' button on the comlink, hanging up. He took another minute to gaze up at the falling snow. The moon's light was just barely visible through the heavy cloud covering.

James then proceeded through the snow, leaving a fresh set of footprints in an otherwise unbroken carpet of white. Judging by the current snowfall, the footprints would be erased by morning, so they would probably be in for five or six inches total snow -- nothing that the morning crew can't shovel aside.

James used his clearance card to open the door to the research building. After walking down two hallways to Reed's lab, James was surprised to find it empty. Reed wasn't there, only the red robotic frame from yesterday, lifeless of course, still lying on its bed.

James checked the other lab. Reed wasn't there either, but this was somewhat different. Neither was the blue frame from last week.

James grabbed the comlink and hit a button to page Reed. "Reed, where are you?"

"Ah, commander," came a response over the link, "I was just about to call. I'm in Arena C. Get over here, you have got to see this!"

"On my way," James sighed. That particular training room was in the same building as the labs, just on the upper level. James walked towards the nearest stairway, climbed up, and made his way to the training room.

"All right, Reed," James began saying as he opened the door to the training room and walked in. "What is so important that you had to wake me up at, five in the --" James's words left him the moment it registered what was in the arena. It wasn't so much the sight of Reed holding using one of the mockup weapons himself, but rather who he was practicing with. Or more specifically, what.

The blue robotic frame was practicing swings with Reed. Was it 'alive'?