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Never Again

© 1999-2003 Draconus and Stratadrake of TWZ

Chapter Six: Andrake Is Born

(first revision)

"We're reading about a dozen Suits on the southwest quadrant, just out of active firing range. Orders?"

"I'm sorry, but the Commander hasn't arrived yet," responded an officer from Ops. "Continue your standing orders."

There was a chuckle over the radio as Mark responded again. "Tell Jim to get his butt up there..."

A moment later James entered Ops, knowing well that he was expected sooner. Instinctively he wlaked over to his station and paged Mark's team over the radiocom. "Alright Mark, I'm here. What's their ETA?"

"Not applicable, sir. They're sitting outside the window doing nothing. Their antennas must be down or something, we're not picking up any chatter. My guess is, they're waiting for something, and scouting us out in the meantime."

James nodded. "Right. Have any of them opened fire?"

"No sir," Mark responded. He directed his video feed to a small section of the field ahead of them, where two defunct enemy Suits lay on the ground, dismembered by pinpoint hits from rail shells. "The perimeter cannons took out those two when they stepped into range. The rest of them are making sure not to get any closer."

"I see," James stated. What would a small group of Raiders be doing just outside of their defensive perimeter? Planning an assault?

"Mark, what's the composition of their group?"

Mark directed his video feed towards the Raiders and zoomed in for a closer look.

"They look like light or medium class combat units. Can't identify the weapons from here. Eight, nine . . . hold it, I'm showing a large utility pack on one of them. Probably a com unit."

"Commander?" Called an officer in Ops. "Long-range radar is picking up a larger swarm of enemy Suits in their area. Shall I put it on the view?"

"Go ahead," James nodded.

James looked at the radar blips, about twenty in number. "Mark, you getting this?"

"Sure am," Mark responded. "I'd like to know what they're doing out here. That group's too small by Raider standards to risk an assault against an outpost like ours. Besides --"

A message blinked by on James's console. It was from the brass. "Hold on, Mark, we're receiving an update from HQ. Blue priority." James accessed and read the message. It was two days late on delivery, undoubtably the fault of the bureaucracy otherwise referred to as their "intelligence division". James scanned over the message. "Mark, HQ says Raiders hit a shipment of Type 3 RCO units several days ago. The Raiders took out the escorts and stole off with all the goods before reinforcements could arrive, and they were last seen heading our direction . . . ."

"Got that," Mark radioed back. "If that's so, I'm betting most of the Raiders out here are -- wait a minute, did you say Type 3 drones?"

James nodded. "Right. The control units have got to be nearby. If we can take them out --"

"-- Jim," Mark interrupted in a serious tone. "If those are Type 3's, we can't just go after the controllers like with the old Type 1's. We need another tactic."

James realized Mark was right. Type One drones required a continuous signal from their control unit to operate; originally designed as a safeguard against false orders and capture, it left them unable to fight on their own should the control unit be destroyed in combat. Type Three drones, on the other hand, could continue operating under a set of standing orders in the absence of their control signal.

"Right...," James responded. "What do you think we should do?"

Mark responded with an idea. "If I remember the design specs correctly, their standing orders are stored in volatile memory. If we hit them with a strong enough EM pulse we can shut them down."

"What kind of EMP weapons do we have in the arsenal?"

"Errrh...," Mark hesitated. "Not many, I'm afraid. I've got my pulse cannon on me right now, and there's about two or three packs of EMP grenades available in storage. But I don't think it will be enough."

"Make it enough," James recommended. "According to the report, it took the facilities back home two months to produce that shipment of drones. If we can recover some of them intact -- "

"Incoming!!" Mark cut the conversation short as their systems picked up the sounds of weapons fire. Mark's group of cyborg mecha scattered from the entrance, hiding against the perimeter walls as a salvo of artillery shells fell into their area. Several shells landed outside the walls to no effect, others impacted against the wall while some landed inbounds. Splash damage from the explosions was minimal. "Counterattack locations are set," Mark noted. "Return fire!"

Three of Mark's comrades readied their artillery cannons and fired off a volley of rounds back towards the enemy location, followed shortly by plumes of smoke and dirt as their shells impacted.

James looked at the base radar as the Raider group appeared from behind the hill and came forward. They began entering range, maneuvering over and around the two Raider mecha previously struck down by the base defense turrets. As they came within range, the defense turrets immediately acquired their targets and fired.

The turrets missed.

Quickly, James checked the radar screen. The blips representing enemy units were jittering, as if something was wrong with the monitor. "Mark, what's wrong with the radar?"

"I see it too. Countermeasures are scattering their radar signatures to spoof the turrets. We'll have to hit them ourselves. Enemy drones are nearing our range--"

"I'm switching to visual tracking systems," James said, tapping a series of keys on his console to access and adjust the defense perimeter settings.

Another of Mark's comrades arrived with a fresh pack of EMP grenades. He readied one of them into a launcher and fired it over the wall as Mark readied his EM pulse cannon. He peered around the wall to the field outside and took aim.

The Raiders fired off another volley of artillery shells, which also landed all over the place. Outside, inside, against the walls and turrets they impacted and exploed. Cracks appeared against one section of wall as it neared its maximum tolerance for damage. Mark and his group promptly returned fire in a combination of electromagnetic and regular volleys, their salvo knocking out approximately half a dozen enemy units.

Something felt amiss as the enemy units began opening fire, concentrating mostly on damaged sections of the perimeter wall. "Mark, where's the defensive cover? I set it on visual tracking. What's going on?"

Mark responded quickly, but the message was slightly garbled in a form of background chatter. "I zee --" Mark's com channel cut out for a moment, then came back. "Electro-kromik -- pleatin. Some kine -- camel flossing --"

"Mark, your transmission is breaking up..."

There was nothing but noise across the radio channel. James switched to laser communication. "Mark, do you copy?"

"I'm still here," Mark responded as he fired a shockwave from his pulse cannon, knocking two enemy units off-line. "There's a scrambler unit at the rear of their group. Whatever their plans, they don't want us sending for reinforcements."

Suddenly, a ten-foot section of wall, previously undamaged from weapons fire, burst asunder from an unusually explosive rocket warhead. Mark's comrades cleared the area and then promptly returned fire to subdue more of the incoming Raiders. Another volley of enemy artillery arrived, again landing mostly against the walls. One lucky shell, however, impacted the roof of on one of their maintenance warehouses, penetrating right through its skylight and detonating inside. The thinly-armored building crumbled to the ground amid calls for an emergency response team.

Four more of Mark's comrades soon arrived from their garages, two of them carrying one pack of EMP grenades apiece. Mark ordered them to fire the grenades in the direction of the enemy artillery units, somewhere over the ridge. To do so they unloaded a set of howitzer-class cannons, attached the EMP packs onto them as magazines, then returned fire.

Another section of wall crumbled as the cumulative enemy shells overcame its tolerance levels, leaving a nine foot wide hole in their perimeter. Another enemy shot impacted a mostly undamaged section of wall, blowing clear through it in a single burst.

"Jim, I've got a bead on two or three Devastator class launchers in the enemy group. Taking them out..." Mark maneuvered his mecha directly into one of the breaches and fired off two pulses from his cannon. Direct hits.

Another minute of defense and exchanged shots passed without a single volley of enemy artillery, and more interestingly, without a direct hit on any of Mark's group. It seemed the Raiders were focusing their efforts on the perimeter walls itself -- they weren't striking Mark or his defending comrades and, save for the crumbled maintenance warehouse, nor were they trying to attack the base itself.

Then, with about one-third of the Raider's group either destroyed or off-line, they changed direction and began backing off, firing almost no weapons on their way out of range.

"Jim, it looks like they're giving up," Mark radioed.

"Don't let them," James responded. "They started this fight. We're going to finish it. Keep up the bombardment."

"Gotcha," Mark responded. "Okay men, let's mop them up. Aim for legs and weapon systems; we want to to capture them as intact as possible." Mark led the way, firing bursts from his pulse cannon to disable one enemy unit at a time, while his comrades filled in with a layer of carefully targetted rail shells.

Mark and his group chased after the retreating Raiders and, within five more minutes, had subdued the enemy.

"Okay, Jim, they're down," Mark finally radioed back. "Get a security team out here, we'll need a hand taking them in."

Thirty minutes later, most of the enemy units had been confiscated and set down in a designated area near one of the mecha garages. Along with twenty-four recovered RCO drones, they had taken nine Raiders prisoner, and Mark promptly secured them in a brig after reading them their rights.

James, meanwhile, was in the medical wing watching Sarah and her teams take care of injuries. Five maintenance workers had been killed and three severely injured when the enemy shell shattered through their building. Now, Sarah's coworkers were busy filing reports about the casualties, while Sarah was treating the survivors. "They'll live...," Sarah noted to James, waving over her console where it indicated the current readings of the patients. "With assistance, two of them can recover completely. But the third..." Sarah pointed at the monitor where it displayed a reading of forty percent. "He's paralyzed on both legs, and we don't have the necessary equiment to rebuild the nerve channels."

James looked down at the soldier, a member of their third infantry group. "Well...," James muttered. "At least he's a cyborg pilot. He's probably still fit for combat--"

Then James's link beeped. James held it up and responded. "James. What is it?"

"This is Adrius..."

"Excuse me?" James blinked a few times before the realization hit him that it was, of course, their 'new' Adrius, Reed's metasoldier, on the link.

"Yes. Reed installed a radiocom module into my systems. He says you need to get down here. It has to do with the lieutenant."

"Leiutenant . . . ? Which lieutenant?" James asked.

"Lt. Xander, of course. Are you coming?"

Oh, that Xander. James thought about it. "Let me guess . . . -- actually, no, I'm not guessing this time. I'll be down there in a minute or two."

James signed off the link. Sarah looked at him. "What is it?"

James shook his head. ". . . it's nothing."

"No, it's something. What is it?" Sarah asked.

"It's Reed's . . . 'metasoldier'. I can't quite get used to it."

"Perhaps you should have given it a different name besides 'Adrius'?" Sarah inquired.

"I don't know," James shook his head. "But Reed wants me over there, so I'd better get moving."

It wouldn't have surprised James to walk into Reed's lab and see him standing there, talking to a robot. But this time, as James arrived and entered Reed's lab -- his other lab, as it were -- it wasn't one robot that James saw when he entered, but two. The red-frame metasoldier -- Reed's second attempt, the one that cost them Lieutenant Xander -- appeared to be operational! It and the Adrius robot appeared to be talking with each other.

Reed noticed James as he entered. "Commander . . . meet our second breakthrough."

James looked at the red robot soldier, who returned his glance for a moment before resuming its conversation with Adrius. "What happened?" James asked.

Reed shrugged. "Much the same thing as when the Adrius meta came online. I tried running a scan of its systems, when it refuses access and then, the thing just seems to wake up. As if it were in standby or something."

Reed looked at James. "Any ideas what we should name it?"

James didn't have any ideas and neither did Reed.

The Adrius robot broke away from its conversation for a moment. "Why not ask him?" It said, pointing to the other robot.

James looked at the red robot. "This time, let's not name it after anyone we know -- I'm having trouble keeping the two Adrius's straight."

Reed nodded. "Alright. Anything but 'Xander'...."

"Xander?" Retorted the red robot, in a gruff sort of voice. "What kind of a name is that?"

James stared at the red robot as it continued. "You are kidding me. A name like that doesn't fit. It's too old...."

"Does anyone have any better ideas?" James inquired.

Surpsingly, the red robot was the one to answer. "Now a name like [i]Andrake[/i], that would be more like it. Wouldn't you agree, commander?"

James shrugged. " 'Andrake' it is, then."

The Adrius robot walked over to James. "With your permission, I would like to take this . . . 'Andrake' down to the arena for combat testing."

"I don't see a problem with a little testing," James responded. "Reed?"

"You three go on ahead. I have to update my report before I send it back to HQ."

Reed returned to his computer and pulled up his report for some last-minute additions, while James -- still a little uncomfortable around the two metasoldiers -- led the way out of the lab and escorted them to the arena.

Mark stopped everything when James walked in. He was about to ask James for a duel when he noticed the red robot, Andrake, operational. "Jim! What's that?"

James walked over to the training console where Mark was standing. "You've seen the Adrius robot. Meet, erm . . . 'Andrake'."

"Andrake, huh?" Mark smirked. "So that one works too?"

"Looks like it," James noted. " 'Adrius' wants to test a duel against 'Andrake'. Can you clear space for one?"

Mark's men were already cleared from the center mat as the Adrius robot withdrew a mock double-edged plasma cutter from a locker. It tossed the blade to Andrake, who caught it in its left hand. Then the Adrius robot drew a pair of double-edged mock plasma cutters for itself.

James sat down in one of the chairs as Mark prepped the console for a new match. Adrius and Andrake both took their positions. At the sound of the electronic bell, they were on.

Andrake charged Adrius first, clanging into Adrius's defense and counter attacks in the process. They clashed one blade against another several times, each without landing a blow.

James turned to Mark. "So, Mark, tell me again, how did you know about the Four Swords?"

Mark looked back to James as Adrius landed a hit on Andrake's shoulder and knocked him over.

"Well, Jim...," Mark began. "Am I the only one to notice that third place medal in your quarters?"

"That?" That object had been on the wall so long, James never paid it any mind.

"So I did some research," Mark continued. He switched the terminal away from the sparring program for a moment and, after searching across a network drive, found and loaded a picture. On it were three contestants from the Four Swords tournament standing on a victory pedastal, surrounded by five more. Mark pointed at a familiar-looking contestant in 3rd place. "Western Division finals, third place. That's you, isn't it?"

James nodded, turning his attention back to the duel for a moment as Adrius knocked Andrake down again with another blow. "Yeah. It was."

"I knew it," Mark commented. "You may not have made it to the champions but that doesn't matter. Third place in any division is still quite a feat. I even watched some of the vids they had of the finals. You were a good fighter even back then. What happened?"

James thought about it. "Damn, that was some time ago. I think it was the War, and the draft."

"Right. But something happened. You could've been an infantry commander; maybe even another Adrius. Was it the Link?"

James nodded. "Yeah. Had to be the Link. I can't stand those things. It's -- it's just not right."

Mark shook his head. "Whatever."

"No," James objected. There was a small stream of applause as Andrake managed to land a successful blow against Adrius, knocking him down. Their score was now five points to one, Adrius's favor.

James turned his attention back to Mark. "It's wrong. I've read about it myself. Extensive use causes muscle atrophy and bone degeneration. EMP attacks can cause massive, deadly feedback. And -- I don't know who said it -- if the human mind can control a machine, couldn't it go the other way around?"

"Hah!" Mark laughed. "Jim, you read too much fiction. We rotate our pilots regularly to prevent overusing the Link. And they are well shielded againt EMP spikes. And it's not possible to simply 'hack into' the human mind...."

"Then what about them?" James asked sternly, motioning to the two robots fighting, as Adrius landed yet another blow against Andrake.

"That's out of my league," Mark responded. "And yours too."

". . . I know," James apologized.

The electronic bell sounded again, indicating the end of the match. The final score was 10 to 2, Adrius's favor. Clearly, Andrake's skills were no match for Adrius.

Mark stood up and walked around the console towards the mat. "What do you say, Jim? Care for a duel?"

James smiled. "Why, for old time's sake?"

"Why not?" Mark chuckled. He motioned to Adrius. "Here, toss me one of those --"

Adrius tossed one of the practice blades to Mark, a lot quicker than Mark was expecting. Mark caught the blade somewhat, fumbling it for a few seconds until he found a grip on it. Adrius then tossed the other practice blade to Mark, and Mark caught it easily.

The two robots stepped aside as James walked silently out onto the mat, near Mark. Mark handed James one of the blades.

"Alright, Jim, enough for training. Show me what you've got!"

James swung the blade a few times to get used to its feel. Soon, the console's electronic bell sounded. The match was on.