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Tales of the Phoenix:

The Red Dragon

© 1999-2002 Strata Drake of TWZ.


(Original Version)

The year is 2150, approximately 45 years after the defeat of the Nexus Intruder Program in the mountaineous Northern Sector. Since then, the Project expanded its goal of recovery beyond the previous sights of military technology. Hostile forces like the New Paradigm and Collective were but a memory, and the Project emerged as the continental super-power, inheriting several Nexus technologies in the victory, such as the self-repair diagnostics and satellite sensor technology. Now that military technology was restored, domestic and civilian technologies had to be re-established, for a military regime does not last long when combat ends. Analysis of pre-Collapse civilian structures revealed a marvelous amount of information, and the construction of the first genuine Project city, "Renaissance", began in 2120 and ended thirty years later with success and approximately thirty thousand in population. Other cities were slated to be built in other areas of the continents. In a startling move of diplomacy, peaceful contact was made with several scavenger clans and trade negotiations commenced. Now, in 2150, scavengers were the first lines of Project defense--remote eyes and ears for the commanders and generals at Renaissance home base.

Chapter One: Reconnaissance

(Original Version)

Lewis N. Sheridan--ground coordinator for Team Fenix, the Project's main air defense fleet--was up in the Project control center on a murky Monday morning, poring over his radar control panel. For days nothing had happened. Remote scavenger outpost L-8-R had reported some unusual activity in the far northern sector, one populated mostly by snowfields, wild animals, and open expanses of water. Yet several reconnaissance missions, both by air and water, proved fruitless. Satellite scans confirmed that elsewhere on the planet, there were signs of limitless scavengers, some military groups and other civilization, but contact was yet to be made with any of them.

Sheridan paused and looked to his right. Sitting next to him was his pet mech, "Drake". One Project expedition led to an abandoned research facility built and managed by the late Fuhrthur "Tiger" Brandon. Fuzzy logic calculations and artificial intelligence routines had reached a new level in Pre-Collapse America with the introduction of domestic "Fuhr B." pet mechs. The little creatures were amazing, acting much like a true pet animal. When the fuzzy-logic technology was handed over to Project research teams, Sheridan proposed his own "special" request. Drake was the metal embodiment of that request. A miniature pet cyborg if you will, prancing about on four metal legs and looking about with two electronic eye sensors. A domestic recovery expedition revealed a large database of Pre-Collapse information regarding history and myths. Sheridan was especially interested by the illustration of ancient "dragons", none of whom truly existed, and when Fuhr B.'s research discoveries were recovered, Sheridan used those illustrations to provide a background for Drake. Sheridan submitted special specifications to the research team about what he wanted Drake to be. Four legs, two aerodynamic flaps/"wings" along its side (complete with miniature hover fans), and a small acetylene torch installed near the head for a bit of defense--the last of which had cost Sheridan a large amount of fire extinguishers and almost cost him his residential fire insurance as well. Drake was about as large as a cougar, and true to his mythical sources, his hoverjets allowed him a limited measure of flight. Getting the correct metals for the job was a tough challenge in itself, for Drake's weight needed to be something reasonable in order to fly--somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds--and most metals are much heavier than that. In a word, Sheridan wanted a pet dragon, and even if it was only a robotic mech, he had it.

Sheridan was about to doze off when Drake jumped onto the console with a loud *clang* and woke him back up. Like a cat, Drake watched with interest several Project jets flying a nearby patrol route. Sheridan sighed. Even with a pet mech for company, days are slow without any sort of action. A walk in Renaissance's beautification project--a forested park--would cheer him up for now. He only needed confirmation. Sheridan stood up and walked towards the door. He had almost opened it when a few warning beeps lit up on his monitor and several blips appeared from the far north.

Sheridan ran back to his station. "Air team Fenix, unidentified aerial units approaching 90 mark 2. Investigate and confirm."

Team Fenix's commander, Nigel Brute, responded. "Confirmed. Will rendezvous with unknown units and report. Would you like fries with that?"

Sheridan laughed for a moment. "No jokes, Nigel. Just recon and report. Over."

Sheridan switched to the visual satellite sensor and zoomed in on their location for a close-up. Drake jumped down onto the chair in which Sheridan was sitting and proceeded to watch the radar screen intensely as the red blips traveled closer to home base, placing his two metal forefeet on the screen as he watched.

Satellite scans were revealing no activity, so Sheridan switched to a visual sensor display by nearest tower. In a moment, an image of several red jets appeared on the screen. There were about eight jets. One jet was leading the group by a significant distance and flying somewhat erratically. The other seven were travelling faster and...wait a second, their weapon turrets were armed & ready. One of the pursuing jets let off a volley of air-to-air missiles. The lead jet continued to fly erratically, being missed by one of the missiles but grazed in the wing by the second.

"Scan for communications signals." No jets, either Project, Collective, or Nexus-infected, had ever shot at a comrade, so something was definitely wrong with the situation. This was no mere drill, the pursuing seven jets were out for blood as they let of a volley of shells toward their "leader". A faint communication crackled over the radio:

"Anyone within range ... ... need help ... ...repeat, anyone within range?" Sheridan confirmed the report, the leading jet was sending the signal. Moreover, it was a distress signal! Sheridan grabbed the microphone. "Team Fenix. Locate leading jet and escort to Project safety. As for the pursuing seven..." Sheridan paused. These jets were from an unknown force. Any intervention by Project jets could instigate war, but given how the previous Project leaders fought war against the Paradigm and Nexus, war would be nothing from the usual. Sheridan completed the order. "Get the remaining seven out of my sky."

The five Team Fenix jets were approaching air zero. The pursuing seven jets continued to fire their rounds at the distressing red jet when Team Fenix arrived. Instantly, several volleys of Mk2 Scourge air-to-air missiles were unloaded and impacted into one of the pursuing jets, annihilating it in one salvo. Nigel Brute, leading Team Fenix in a special command VTOL, isolated the energy signature of another pursuing jet and relayed instructions to Project anti-air defenses. Within a moment, a hail of Anti-Air flak shells filled the sky and a pair of Avenger missiles impacted the unortunate jet and blew it out of the sky in a smoking heap.

Four of the remaining five pursuing jets broke off to attack Team Fenix. Missiles were fired, and Team Fenix jets took light damage. Nigel designated another pursuer and blew it out of the sky with AA weaponry. The distressing red jet continued on its straight course, now flying more erratically than ever. Team Fenix's four assist jets engaged the remaining three pursuers one-to-one while Nigel broke off to escort the distressing jet and finish off its assailant. As Nigel approached, the erratically-flying jet started smoking. It had been hit in the engines by some stray Flak shalls and was losing altitude. Nigel analyzed the energy signatures of the remaining attacker jet while Team Fenix shot a fourth red jet out of the air. The smoke was interfering with his detection systems, so he maneuvered to the side to get a better lock-on. To late, however, as the assailant shot a pair of air-to-air rockets into the rear of the pursued jet. In a moment, the unfortunate jet was going down. Nigel finally isolated the energy signature from the assailant and relayed orders to ground sites, and within moments the assailant was destroyed by Project AA weapon emplacements.

Team Fenix polished off another assailant and was taking aim at the last enemy when it turned course and retreated at maximum speed. "Target down" resounded throughout the team's radios and Team Fenix quickly travelled to rendezvous with Nigel and the smoking red jet, which was now performing a downwards barrel-roll towards the ground at maximum speed. There was nothing for Nigel to do about the jet, so he switched his jet to hover mode and watched. On the flat side of its barrel-roll, the red jet hit the ground and commenced to slide across it, kicking up a large cloud of dirt and leaving one heck of a smoke trail as it decelerated across one-third of a mile of terrain. When the action stopped, Nigel flew down and in for a closer inspection. Three medical vehicles were already on-scene and two fire-fighting units were quickly en-route to put out any potential fires or forestall any explosions, when Nigel landed and climbed out of the cockpit to meet them.

Nigel walked closer to the wrecked jet as its canopy opened and a scavenger-looking person climbed out, hoisting a bonded pilot with him. The man threw the pilot down to the ground before climbing down himself. Nigel knew the story now. The scavenger person, for whatever reasons, hijacked one of the foreign red jets and used its pilot to get this far. The scav had succeeded in crashlanding near the city of Renaissance.

A small vehicle drove up on-scene. Sheridan and pet Drake jumped out. "Nigel!" Nigel greeted Sheridan and together they walked closer to the scavenger, with Drake following behind. The scav looked at Nigel, then at Sheridan, then at Drake who was peering out from behind. "No...came all this cannot be...."

Sheridan looked at him with a puzzled expression. "What?"

"That... that..." the scav pointed at Drake. "'re not Red Dragon, are you?!?" The scav looked at Sheridan with a terrified glare.

Sheridan looked at Drake as well, and Drake back at him. "No...but who's this 'red dragon'?"

"Thank God!" The scavenger's terror melted. He approached and greeted Sheridan with a handshake. "There are others!"

"What??" Sheridan was even more puzzled than before. "What are you talking about?"

"Take me to the top. Important mission to impart."

Nigel interrupted. "Can we at least have your name?"

The scav replied, "Bruno. Where's your leader? Must talk to your leader."

Sheridan looked at Nigel and back at Bruno with a slight smile. "If you want to go any higher, you'll have to go to Heaven and talk with God Himself." Sheridan looked down at the tied-up pilot that Bruno had thrown down upon the ground. "And, what about him, is he alright?"

Bruno looked back. "He softened the impact for me. Remind me to thank him someday."

Sheridan motioned for the medical team to examine the pilot. They did so and confirmed that the pilot was dead. "So, Bruno. What have you come here for?"

Bruno looked back at Sheridan and handed him a folded paper note. Sheridan unfolded the note and read it. It was a recording of a radio message, from one scavenger to another:

"Red Dragons pursuing westwards across our lands (stop). Searching underground catacombs for forbidden weapons used in Cata-Stroph (stop). Red Dragon jet and pilot captured during a night raid (stop). Use jet--get help. Stop."

Sheridan gave the message back to Bruno and looked at Nigel. "Tell the generals we havea situation to discuss. And what was that you said about taking a vacation?"

Nigel, Sheridan, and Drake escorted Bruno back to Renaissance HQ for a debriefing with the other Project generals. They arrived and sat down at the table for discussion. Nigel handed out photoduplicates of Bruno's message to the other generals before sitting down. Sheridan brought a large metal stool over and placed it next to his chair and sat down. Drake was quick to jump up onto the stool and lay down, looking across the table at the generals. Bruno sat down next to Sheridan.

Sheridan stood up as the other general finished browsing through Bruno's message. "You're aware of the situation as their scavengers see it. But that is not enough." He turned to Bruno. "Bruno... your message says that the 'Red Dragons' are searching through these 'catacombs' for 'forbidden' weapons. Could you explain?"

Bruno paused. "Year 2085. Catastroph ensues starting with volleys of weapons fired at our country by others. Our country counterattacks, major militaries wipe each other off face of the planet. But, more weapons lying underground in catacombs. Red Dragon is searching for these weapons, destroying all who oppose them in process."

One of the generals turned to Sheridan. "2085. Year of the Collapse..." Sheridan nodded. Bruno continued.

"Very few surviving peoples existing who were not wiped out in the Catastroph. Peoples band together for survival and endure the endless night, but barely. Other groups, with advanced vehicles and weapons, appear two- or three- decades later in red armor. We call those groups 'Red Dragon', because they destroy our neighboring peoples, enter the underground catacombs, and recover even more powerful weapons. Not only do they destroy us who get in their way, but they become too powerful for anyone to fight against. They're taking over."

Another general spoke up. "Where did the 'Red Dragon' come from?"

Bruno answered. "From the catacombs. There, inside catacombs, they wait out endless night for years until the sky clears. Then they emerge with red armor and vehicles."

"And, what are these 'forbidden' weapons they seek?"

Bruno frowned. "Hard to say. Ever since Catastroph, old weapons were buried in Catacombs. During Catastroph, weapons fire at one another. But not all weapons were used. Some remain--"

Nigel interrupted. "Weapons used in the Collapse. Probably nuclear missiles and bombs...we've scouted out perhaps 100 more silos from air in our territotries, some of which even contained nuclear missiles. Disarming those missiles takes forever and a day."

Bruno complained. "Excuse me I was talking!!" Nigel quieted down. "Some weapons used in Catastroph remain afterwards. We can't use those weapons, we can't shut them down, we don't know anything about them. But Red Dragon does. They plan on grabbing those weapons and putting to use against those who struggle against them. ... Those like us who defend our lands against them."

"Like how Nexus was recovering the NASDA missiles during 2100?" Sheridan interjected towards the Project generals.

Some of the generals frowned at the news. It appeared, to Sheridan, that a group similar to the Project was advancing across scavenger territory with the specific purpose of obtaining nuclear technologies.

Bruno continued. "Situation worsens. Red Dragon already recovers three big weapons unused in Catastroph and implements into red army. We see power of those weapons. Major destruction power, capable of blowing-up our settlements into bite-sizes pieces and then some. We can not stop those weapons. Instead, we retreat and try to negotiate terms of our survival. We succeed only in partial. They quit blowing up our people, but only as long as we do not interfere with them. When we stand up, they knock us back down with their weapons and sometimes even kill our neighbors. We need help from someone powerful. We recover one of their jets during massive raid on small ground group. We have superior men--ten to one maybe, but still we win by only smallest of margins. We capture pilot along with jet. I use pilot to get here, but Red Dragon pursues after me. Then you show up and blow away Red Dragon jets. You blue men are as powerful as Red Dragon, I think. Please. This is all I have to say--help us." Finally, Bruno sat down.

Drake stood up and walked across the table, sitting down near Bruno. For a moment, Sheridan was embarrassed that his pet was detracting from a serious moment. The generals stood up and conferred with each other in a quiet circle before turning back to Sheridan and Nigel.

One general spoke up. "We don't know what's at stake here. But if Bruno is right, and this Red Dragon is recovering nuclear technologies, they may plan on using them against us. Even in some small way, intervention is in order."

Nigel looked up. "I'll go with Team Fenix. Bruno came by air, it makes sense only if we go by air as well. Hovercraft can only make it so far across the northern waters...."

Sheridan turned to the generals. "I'll go too. There hasn't been any action on my end; I don't want to miss out on an opportunity."

The general returned Sheridan's request. "Then you'd better take that pet mech with you--you're the only one it will listen to. I'd hate to see what it does if you leave it behind."

Sheridan nodded. The general was right, Drake was progammed to obey Sheridan's commands and did not care for anyone else but Sheridan. Besides, Sheridan would need a loyal friend, and his pet mech Drake would have been his first choice anyway.

It took four days to prepare for departure. Four transports were fueled to the brim and several assorted tanks were loaded into each. Repair vehicles, construction vehicles, technology database entries, command vehicles, and last but not least, one transport filled with supplies for use upon arrival. Bruno took several walks throughout the city of Renaissance (under escort by Project personnel, of course) and was so captivated by it that he persuaded the Project generals not to send him back to his home continent. Nigel loaded a few personal belongings into his command VTOL and fueled it to double capacity.

Sheridan packed quickly for the trip, taking Drake (of course) as well as a few tools that he used to maintain and refine Drake over the months. He packed a photograph of his father as a memento, and brought along several other assorted tools and gadgets. Money, even in military credits, would be useless on arrival, and relations with the 'Red Dragon' were bound to be hostile (seeing as how the Project shot down six of their jets upon first contact), so this would be primarily a military campaign. Out of the thirty-five tank vehicles loaded up into the transports, 20 of them were combat vehicles (excluding the two command vehicles and five VTOLs).

When the supplies were ready and packing was completed, over one hundred assorted officers volunteered for the trip. Scavenger reports and satellite overlays confirmed that the northwards route of travel was a quiet one and that no enemy activity was seen or heard. The weather was clear for a first time in two months. The day was set, and when it arrived, all officers boarded the transports, Nigel's Team Fenix boarded their escort jets, Nigel saddled up in his command VTOL, and Sheridan sat in the co-pilot's seat on the transport with Drake at his side.

One of the transports was specially adapted to maintain VTOLs during long air travels. The "VTOL Transport", as it was called, not only carried VTOLs, but also deployed, repaired, refueled, and re-armed them, thanks to a larger-than-normal capacity for fuel and supplies. It was essentially the aircraft carrier of the skies, a mobile VTOL base if you will. If there was any air combat to be performed during the trip, Team Fenix would dish out the damage and be kept in top condition by the VTOL Transport.

And after the volunteered officers were accounted for and loaded into the transports, they were off with Nigel in the lead. They flew northwards from Renaissance, in the same direction that the Red Dragon jets originally appeared from. They passed over several expanses of terrain, viewing the ruins of several Pre-Collapse cities, remote Project bases, and numerous scavenger outposts before hitting a smorgasboard of iceburgs and water. After the iceburgs came a vast expanse of northern ocean, where one entire day went by without as much as a sighting of land. When they spotted land, they came upon a large cluster of islands approximately 100 miles offshore of a new and unexplored continent, home to this mysterious group called the 'Red Dragon'. The chain of islands was large enough to set up two Project bases and recover many more supplies for the expected skirmishes against this new opponent. They touched down upon the islands as gentle as a bird and stepped out for a breath of fresh air and to catch the local breeze.

The VTOL Transport was the first to unload its supplies and construction vehicles quickly began working on a VTOL airfield. The officers started unloading the other transports. They boarded the various remaining construction vehicles and began construction of an island outpost. Nigel watched as they quickly furnished a factory for vehicles and another for jets. Sheridan kept a vigilant eye on the horizon until the mobile HQ was constructed and a local sensor network established. Satellite up-links were too expensive to construct for an away mission, so the Project's away team was now on their own. Base defenses for both ground- and air- based attacks were established as a contingency and a research laboratory was constructed just in case new technology should be recovered.

By the end of the first day, the outpost was finished. A slight fog layer was slowly rolling in from the east as the sun set in the southwest waters. It was no Renaissance, but their home-away-from-home was established. Lights activated as night fell, and their outpost was but one small bright spot in a dark and foggy night.

Sheridan was one of the first to rise when morning came around--Drake assured him of that. Drake had a personal power suppy, one of those 'Everlast' power sources guaranteed to run for years on end without fail, but Drake's main source of power was solar energy collected on his two airfoil-wings. When the sun rose, Drake arose with it, and this morning, he had jumped on Sheridan to get a good spot in the sun. Drake may weigh only 100 pounds, but even that was fairly heavy and woke Sheridan from a peaceful night's sleep. At least Drake's padded four feet kept him from actually injuring Sheridan.

The first order of business was to establish the day's agenda. Sheridan was appointed to be the land/hover commander and Nigel was already the commander of their Team Fenix and the other assorted air units. Several air defense fighters, produced during the night, had their control routed to nearby Strike Tower sensors for automatic defense of the outpost. Sheridan's command unit was ready for him, built to his specifications--the most durable chassis possible, advanced Mk4 all-purpose command turret technology, and hover propulsion to make it all-terrain. Several tanks were routed to under Sheridan's control, and artillery defenses were re-routable as well in case Sheridan would need them.

After a brief talk with Nigel, Sheridan called a few combat officers to accompany him as he would take the command group out for a nice Sunday drive on the water. Sensor sweeps revealed one unusual structure, possibly an entrance to an underground building of some sort, and although Nigel could and did check it out by air, a ground examination was in order as well. It was a Pre-Collapse structure, and according to Bruno, the 'Red Dragon' was searching for weapons buried in Pre-Collapse military installments. This could be one of them.

Sheridan climbed into the command vehicle and Drake followed, hovering up to the hatch before jumping on in. Five officers boarded some of the all-purpose support tanks. Scourge missiles had proven very effective against both ground and air units during the Project Campaign (as was how they referred to the year 2100), so Project scientists made special modifications to combine the Scourge's anti-tank systems with anti-air detection capabilities, and the result was a devastating blow to the Nexus' main air force. A few other ground tanks were automatically routed to command control--the away team was a bit short of tank pilots to command them, so these tanks would be drones commanded by Sheridan, should they run into any combat situations. Nigel boarded his command jet with three Team Fenix comrades and prepared for the mission. Reconnaissance and recovery it was, and there were no signs of the Red Dragon anywhere to be seen. With luck, this would be a short mission. And so they were off.

Because of the water expanses between their island and their destination, all of Sheridan's tanks were re-fitted with hover propulsion. The water was clear enough to see perhaps 20 or 30 feet down. There was a thick layer of fog which limited visibility to a scant 150 feet, even though the sun was shining brightly overhead. Radar scanners confirmed their destination and position to prevent them from getting lost. Nigel and Team Fenix hovered over Sheridan's team, at a mere altitude of 50 feet because of the visibility concerns. Radar picked up no blips of any kind as they traversed over the water at a steady pace. After a few minutes of travel, the fog layer lifted slightly, and visibility improved; Sheridan could now see their destination. It was a small, secluded isle. Few plants or vegatation were visible, and still there were no signs of other forces anywhere to be detected. There was a small ridge surrounding most of the island, limiting entry to only one point--a very valuable position should anyone decide to be hiding there.

Finally, Sheridan's group hit dirt and was on the ground once again. Nigel scouted out the seclusion in his command jet and returned quickly. He voiced over the radio. "No signs of Red Dragon vehicles, jets, or even as much as a stray track. All's clear."

Sheridan responded. "Roger, Nigel. Construction units begin work on a defense outpost. Repair facilities, sensors, defenses--the works." The construction crew began work immediately. "Nigel. Keep an eye out for any presence and report if anything shows up. Over."

Sheridan examined the remains of the structure. It appeared to be some sort of doorway, large enough to house two, maybe three tanks, but only temporarily. Further through the structure was a smaller passageway that Sheridan could only inspect in person. Whatever this structure was, vehicles could not go any farther than its entrance.

Sheridan moved his command vehicle inside of the structure's entryway, taking some shade from the foggy sunlight up above before climbing out the hatch. Drake followed. Sheridan pulled out a portable communicator. "Second that, Nigel. Construction team will work on sensor network around here. Land and come with me...we're exploring the structure."

"Roger that, Sheridan..." Nigel landed nearby and soon climbed out. He grabbed a flak jacket and tossed it in Sheridan's direction before taking his own and putting it on. Sheridan followed suit and put on the flak jacket. It may not be enough protection against an enemy tank, or even an enemy cyborg, but soldiers nonetheless must be prepared for anything. Besides, it sported a set of utilities and tools, some of the most important of which were a flashlight and a few extra rations.

Nigel approached the inner doorway, where Sheridan and Drake were waiting for him. "Any security systems on the door?"

Drake 'sniffed' out the doorway and looked at Sheridan. Sheridan turned to Nigel. "Don't think so. Now, if this was built in Pre-Collapse times, there should be a manual opener somewhere...." Sheridan fumbled about the door's surface and then on the control panel. He pressed a few buttons on the panel but nothing happened. "Power sources must be out, no surprise here..." Nigel fiddled about more on the control panel and it snapped off, revealing a mass of wires and circuits and...what's this? A small lever. Sheridan grabbed the lever and pushed. Nothing happened, so he pulled. Still nothing, so he turned the lever. A slight click was heard and the door budged. "This might just be it." Sheridan pushed up against the door and it budged again. A third push, and the door swung slowly open, revealing a clean passageway dimly lit by a scant few flourescent lights.

Nigel approached the entryway. "Lights?"

Sheridan looked back. "Apparently..." Just in case, Sheridan withdrew a flashlight from his jacket and flicked it on. He walked in, slowly, followed by Drake and Nigel, who also withdrew a flashlight of his own. Sheridan flickered his flashlight in Drake's optical sensors, and Drake switched on his own lights in response.

Even in dim light, Sheridan could tell that the complex was utterly clean--almost as if the janitor had performed a sweep just before it was abandoned and shut down. They continued down the hallway until it branched into three directions. First, they took a turn left. Sheridan's handheld pocket detector was picking up no signals, a clear indication that there were no electronics active in the base. The lefthand passageway led to a locked door with control panel. Sheridan examined the panel and examined the door. He pushed on the door and, surprisingly, it swung open, revealing a large room with several consoles, monitors, and screens filling it. Not even the most energy-efficient of lights were illuminated. If it were not for their flashlights, the room would have been utterly and pitch black.

Sheridan turned to Nigel. "My that this was their control room." Nigel nodded. Still no responses from Sheridan's signal detector. There was no power for the room, so Sheridan would have no way of accessing any of the console's systems for information. The room was useless, so he turned back and re-entered the hallway with Nigel and Drake following.

Back at the intersection, they took a different branch; this hallway led to an unlocked door which Sheridan quickly opened. Inside was a very large space, large enough to be a hangar for five VTOLs. A railed stairway led to the bottom. Sheridan shown his flashlight across the room. Bulkheads, motors, valves, pipes, and wires...there was a large machine of sorts in this room. One panel had a diamond-shaped label with a lightning bolt icon on it. Sheridan glanced at the label. It was a power generator.

"This looks like the generator chambers..." Nigel muttered to himself as the group walked down the stairway to the lower level of the room. As they set foot upon the lower floor, Drake stumbled over something. A quick examination revealed the remains of what appeared to be some form of small mechanical cyborg. If you could call it a cyborg, that had no apparent weapons systems and no bulky armor. It was no combat cyborg, but it was no functional cyborg, either. It had several broken limbs, a large gash in its visor, and several other burn marks along its torso. Almost as if an in-base firefight had happened sometime near the Collapse and terminated it.

Nothing could be done about the cyborg, so Sheridan focused on the generator next. As he examined it more closely, he noticed several scars, burn marks, and other debris lying around. Something, or more probably, someone, had thrashed the base's power generator. Sheridan knew little of the Collapse, but from the records he read, nothing was mentioned about base invasions or actual tank-to-tank combat. Apparently, this base must have had something valuable inside of it--something valuable enough to fight and kill for. Sheridan walked over to the generator console when a faint 'beep' from his signal detector alerted him. He withdrew the detector and placed it on the generator. It beeped again. "There's power. ... A faint trickle of it, but it's there." Sheridan looked over the console. Getting an idea, he switched off his flashlight and looked for some light. A small LED was glowing dimly. A green LED. Green. Red would indicate a warning, or danger. He switched on his flashlight and looked at the LED again. There was a label next to it--"Safety Restart".

Nigel walked over to Sheridan and Drake followed, jumping carefully up onto the console while kicking up a layer of dust. Sheridan looked at Nigel. "Any ideas?"

Nigel looked back. "Yours are as good as mine."

Next to the green LED was a small button. Sheridan pressed this button. Nothing happened at first, but slowly, the generator creaked to life--first with a groan, then subsiding into a quiet whirr. A few lights switched on in the room from the ceiling, providing diffused (albeit dim) illumination for the entire place. Sheridan looked at the console again. A lit-up red LED indicated that the main generator was off-line, prbably due to the damage it had endured. A lit-up yellow LED indicated that the emergency generator was the one running. Sheridan breathed a sigh of relief. He kept his flashlight switched on just in case. Upon returning to the exit stairway, he looked again at the cyborg. It wasn't a cyborg after all, but the remains of one of the base's crew. He was a soldier, dressed in light armor (complete with helmet, radio, wonder they had mistaken him for a cyborg) and sporting a few hand weapons, like a machinegun and pair of grenades. Nigel rolled the body over onto its back. No, this was not a member of the base's crew at all. The insignia on his uniform was a golden eagle and flag. Sheridan blinked--if he remembered his history files correctly, this was the insignia for the Great Western Continental Army. Looking around on the generator, Nigel spotted another insignia, one with a yellow fireball emplaced between two wings. Nigel pointed at the insignia. "Sheridan. Look at that. 'Red Dragon'?"

Sheridan looked at the insignia. His memory sparked. According to history files, the Red Dragon was the offensive branch of the Great Eurasian Continental Army before the Collapse. The story was now complete. This base had been invaded during the Collapse, and this invading soldier was apparently shot down after destroying the power generators.

Sheridan started climbing the stairs. "Let's keep moving." Drake, then Nigel followed as the group returned to the first intersection. This time, they chose the last branch. At the end of this hallway were seven doors, three on each side, one on the end--and strangely enough, all seven doors had no locks on them. One by one, Sheridan and Nigel opened the doors and glanced inside. The three doors on the left were barracks. Two doors on the right led to shower rooms, while the third revealed nothing but a small closet stocked full of assorted chemicals. The final door on the end revealed what appeared to be dining quarters and kitchen. Home away from home, even for pre-Collapse soldiers. There was a large heap in the center of the room. Closer examination revealed it to be a mass of dead Western Continent soldiers. There were no signs of pre-collapse Red Dragon baseworkers anywhere. Invasion had happened, but something had stopped the invaders.

Sheridan shut the door, muttering 'rest in peace' to himself as he latched it. "If there are any answers, they're probably in the control room." He proceeded back to the intersection as his comrades followed. Back in the control room, the place was lit up. Dimly, of course, but the monitors were visible, the several radar screens in the center, the varied consoles, and something else in the corner of the room was blinking. Sheridan walked over to the blinking light. A blinking green light. At least it was green. Cautiously, Sheridan pushed the button next to the light. The light doused, but in its place, two monitors came to life and the radar screen lit up with an intelligence display. The island itself took up a large portion of the radar display, with an accurate aerial representation painted onto the console. Several blue blips appeared across the screen on the island, cradled inside of the island's perimeter ridge. These blue blips were the Project forward outpost and units. Sheridan counted ten, twelve, no... 25 assorted units roaming about on the radar screen. Reinforcements from their main island had arrived.

Drake walked about the room, looking curiously at every light and monitor as he circled. Nigel looked at one of the monitors. It was displaying a time log. Nigel read out loud: "42-6-2085. 1200: Security breach detected. 1215: Firefights ensued. 1220: Main Generator shut down. 1230: Security breach contained and eradicated. 1245: 9 of 10 EMP dampers sabotaged and down. Evacuation orders given. Sensors detect incoming--" The log ended abruptly. Apparently, some form of electromagnetic-pulse wave had washed over the base, shutting down virtually all electronic systems inside. The base was evacuated, but because of the incoming whatever-it-was (proably a missile), none of the soldiers survived to reclaim the base.

Sheridan turned to the other monitor and read its display. If the information was trustworthy, one of the EMP dampers, identity number CU-L-8R, was still online. Sheridan looked above the monitor and spotted a base-layout plan drawn into the wall, outlining most of the important systems. It took a few minutes, but Sheridan found the location of EMP damper CU-L-8R. It was in the control room. More accurately, it was directly to the left of the consoles. Sheridan withdrew an aloy detector and looked at that wall location. The detector identified a large quantity of lead alloy in that location. "Nigel. I think we've got something here."

Nigel walked over to Sheridan's position and looked at the detector. "Lead plates?" Drake trotted along over to the wall and examined it. He took great interest in a small apparent hole in the wall. He pawed, then nosed at it, but no luck. Sheridan knelt down beside him. "Let me see that, Drake." Sheridan looked. It was some form of secure pushbutton, recessed into the wall to provide safety. Sheridan pushed against it with the short, stubby antenna on his alloy detector. There was a small "hiss" as the wall shook slightly, shaking an exceptionally thick layer of red dust off of the red wall. It was now visible that the lead plate was a panel of some sort. There was no apparent means of opening the panel, however. Nigel looked at the panel carefully. "A hidden safe?"

Sheridan withdrew a knifeblade and lodged it underneath the panel. He pushed against the handle, and the panel budged slightly. He pushed again, and leverage caused the large metal plate to pop off. Nigel quickly backed aside as the plate fell to the ground--or more accurately, onto Drake, nailing him against the floor. Drake quickly crawled out from under and jumped on top of it.

A control panel was now visible behind the plate. There were a few green buttons blinking methodically. Sheridan looked at the buttons but could make out no labels, descriptions, or anything. There was a handle, however. Cautiously, Sheridan grabbed the handle and tried it. It turned clockwise for three full circles before pulling outwards. Then, suddenly, the revealed control panel shifted and opened. Inside was a large chamber, lit by green lights. A dark figure was visible inside the chamber.

Drake shone his headlights upon the figure. Sheridan and Nigel flicked on their flashlights and examined it as well. It looked like a cyborg. It was a bit small, though. The average Project cyborg measured a good eight or ten feet high; this one was only five or six feet high. There were no signs of weapons systems anywhere on it, and it lacked the typical bulky armor that granted cyborgs protection against attack. It was, in fact, very stylish for a cyborg. A ceremonial cyborg, if you will, one designed with form-over-function kept tightly in mind. One label on its chestplate identified its model number or something--it read "Astron."

Sheridan and Nigel were surprised at the mere appearance of it. They were even more surprised, however, when the thing came to life. Two green optical sensors on its head lit up and it looked at them with a purely mechanical glare. It looked down at Drake as well, who was inquisitively looking back up at it.

Sheridan and Nigel took a few steps back. Sheridan muttered to hismelf, "It's ... still active?" Nigel looked at it. "What type of cyborg is this?"

It stepped out of the chamber and onto the floor, still maintaining its glare upon the group. Then it spoke in a loud, deep, metallic voice:

"I am no cyborg! And who are you?!?"