© 1999-2002 Strata Drake of TWZ.
The year is 2150. Forty-five years ago, the group of survivors known as the 'Project' had been waging war against hostile military forces guided by a computer parasite identifying itself as 'Nexus'. In a climactic showdown, the Project successfully eradicated the Nexus parasite from North America by destroying one of its mainframes. However, it was clear that Nexus may still exist elsewhere in the world.
An elite group of Project forces was sent into Europe to explore and rebuild. That group met heavy resistance at the hands of a second computer parasite, referred to as 'Dr. Boot' and having obvious affiliations with the Nexus program. Though the exact date of victory remains unknown, the Project's European forces ultimately emerged victorious over the hostile European fighters led by the Dr. Boot parasite.
Meanwhile, friendly contact with American scavenger clans was finally made peacefully in 2120. Focusing all efforts on trying to rebuild what was once one of the most powerful nations in the world, the scavengers became allies and compatriots of the Project.
With the help of scavenger clans, in the year 2130, the Project began a program of home reconstruction. Building the first civilian city since the Collapse took nearly twenty years, and now in 2150, the Project's new capital city has been christined with the name 'Renaissance' and a population of thirty thousand citizens.
But even so, though the atmosphere at home is tranquil, the second generation of Project warriors will soon be called to follow in their forefathers' steps, to take another bold step into the unknown and to attempt rebuilding the world from its lingering ashes.
Lewis N. Sheridan--ground commander and coordinator for Skydancer aircraft, the reserve air-defense fleet for Renaissance City--was up in the Project control center on a murky Monday morning, poring over his radar control panel. Nothing had happened for days since the transfer to his new station. Not that it was unusual, it was -- well, just plain dull. The cloudy weather wasn't helping either, and Sheridan had a particular distaste for Mondays. The scavenger villa in sector L-8 had reported some unusual activity in the far northern sector -- one populated only by snowflakes, ice, and water -- but reconnaissance missions over there had proven fruitless.
Sheridan shifted his attention for a moment from the radar console to his right, where Drake sat atop the console. Drake was the result of a Project expedition in the Silica Mountains. Five years ago, that expedition had located a defunct research facility built and managed by the late Furthur "Tiger" Brandon, owner and CEO of the F.R.B. Robotics Corporation. This corporation specialized in the development of "True-I", a type of adaptive artificial-intelligence with routines complex and interleaved enough to give an appearance of independent thought. Even as the Project scientists began outfitting the FRBI ("FRB Intelligence", as they were soon called) routines for use in basic automated drones, Sheridan put in his own unusual request for a drone, handing the research team a hand-sketch of a small dragon for inspiration, and not long after that, Drake was born.
Sheridan loved and treated his pet mech with as much care as any normal person would give to a live domestic pet. Drake was approximately the same size as a cougar, about four feet high, seven or eight feet long, and about thirty inches wide. Despite his rugged, four-legged metal construction, his mass and weight were rather light -- only about 200 pounds. In accordance to the inspiration Sheridan had given, Drake had a set of two hover engines mounted along his torso for a limited measure of flight and gliding, and the scientists even installed a small acetylene torch in Drake's headpiece for effect.
Drake, noticing Sheridan's gaze, returned a glance at Sheridan through his two green optical sensors before returning his attention to the outside. Drake seemed to be watching something.
A few blips on the radar screen, followed by a few communiqués from elsewhere in the base, appeared on Sheridan's radar even before the blips entered within visual range outside. Sheridan ran a quick glance over the radar screen. There were no scheduled flights today; who or what could those blips be?
In another moment, Sheridan had his answer when an "UNKNOWN ID" tag appeared next to the blip. Another viewscreen appeared on the console, showing a visual profile of the incoming craft. Actually, there were seven of them. The first was travelling fast but moderately damaged, and unarmed. The rest were in prime condition and chasing it.
Wait a minute, was Sheridan hearing weapons fire?
Sheridan switched to another base camera. Correct; the first jet was being attacked by the others. And as a small black puff of smoke exploded into view, Sheridan chose a side and grabbed the com.
"ADP Alpha, come in!" Sheridan touched the pursuing blips on the radar screen, and in response the computer highlighted them and displayed their coordinates. Sheridan hit another button no later than air-defense-point Alpha chimed in on the com. "Commander?"
Sheridan relayed the information as quick as he could. "We've got seven hawks chasing a dove out there, take them out!"
"Roger that," came the reply. As Sheridan turned his attention back towards the window, a few vehicles rolled into sight and locked onto the pursuing aircraft's signatures. They each fired volleys of Avenger SAM's into the air to intercept the pursuers.
The lead jet swerved left, then down as the missiles streaked by, impacting the pursuing jets. Two exploded completely in mid-air; three more lost flight and came crashing down. Another few took evasive action, but to no avail; the last pursuer turned a sharp bank and began to retreat from whence it had come.
As the debris and pursuing jets fell and impacted the ground, Sheridan sighed in relief with the knowledge that his station was located at the perimeter to Renaissance city, and not in the center.
Even so, as something on the leading, damaged aircraft exploded and it too began careening towards the ground, Sheridan knew that medical help would be required. Also, since this was the first action for the day, Sheridan decided to out check the damage in person. He walked to the door and whistled for Drake to follow; Drake happily jumped down from the console onto the floor and trotted after Sheridan to keep up.
A few minutes later, Sheridan was riding to the scene of the crashdown with one of the medical team. Fire-prevention teams had already arrived, and were working to douse the smoking jet's engines, lest they ignite the fuel tank and explode. They stopped the medical vehicle at a distance of thirty feet from the downed jet and piled out, as the fire-prevention crews struggled to crack open the cockpit of the aircraft and look for survivors.
A moment later, they had cut open the canopy and removed a man from the cockpit. The man had been injured in the crash, and was bleeding through his clothing. Quickly, he was placed on a stretcher and the medics began cleaning tman's he injuries on site. The person was apparently the pilot of the aircraft, but no one here could identify why he was being chased and shot down.
The man lost consciousness and passed out before they could get any answers from him. Noting this, they secured him on the stretcher and carried him back to the medical vehicle.
"What's the condition?" Sheridan asked.
"Moderate," one of the medics replied. "He's lucky to still be alive considering the force of impact. He has at least one broken arm; we won't know the rest until we get him some help."
"All right then," Sheridan spouted back. "Let me know when he comes to. I want to know who he is, where he's from, and what he's doing here," Sheridan glanced over at the wrecked jet, thinking aloud, "I've never seen that configuration of aircraft before...."
The medics nodded and put the man into the medical vehicle for transportation to the city hospital. Given his injuries, Sheridan expected that it would be another day or two before the man came to.
Fate, though, had different plans; about two hours later a com came into Ops for Sheridan; the man was awake, though barely.
Nonetheless, Sheridan made haste to the hospital and checked into the man's room a little after receiving the message and taking care of some other business. Nigel, pilot and commander of their Skydancer aircraft fleet, was standing by the door, looking one way and then the other. He stopped his gaze in Sheridan's direction.
"Sheridan, you're here," spoke Nigel without even offering Sheridan a salute or handshake. "Come on in."
Nigel opened the door and the two commanders walked into the room. Drake, as was his habit, followed Sheridan in before the door closed.
The patient cast one glance at Drake, then looked up at the white ceiling of the room and began complaining. "Don't tell me, we come all this distance just to get caught by the enemy...."
Sheridan frowned. "What are you talking about? Who are you?"
The man cast a glance at Drake again. "That thing... take it away..."
Sheridan nodded to Nigel, and Nigel led (more like dragged) Drake out of the room.
The man then turned his eyes to Sheridan. His expression calmed when he noticed the Project badge on Sheridan's uniform. "You, ... you aren't with them then?"
Sheridan shook his head. "You'll have to be more specific than that, I'm afraid. I just want to know who you are and where you came from."
"Thank the Maker," the man said, relieved. "You aren't with them...."
"Who or what are you talking about, um..." Sheridan motioned at the man, hoping for a name.
"Bruno. Call me Bruno," came the reply.
"Okay, Mr. Bruno. I'd like to get at least another straight answer for my question. Who is this 'they' you are referring to?"
"Are you leader?" Bruno asked.
"One of several," Sheridan replied plainly. "Will do," was Bruno's answer.
"Who is your enemy?" Sheridan asked again, a little more specific this time.
Bruno shook his head. "They have no name. We only call them by what we see on their battletanx: We call them 'Red Dragon'."
"Okay," Sheridan nodded. "Where do you come from?"
"Old country, great country. Proud Russia."
"Now we're getting somewhere," Sheridan thought to himself. He unfolded a metal chair in the room and sat down on it near Bruno. "Why did you come here?"
Bruno gave out a large sigh. "Sent for help. Red Dragon come, they attack us with no reason. They did not take prisoners, seek only to destroy. Later, they give us agreement. They draw a line on the sand, we stay on one side and do what we want, they said that we take one step over and they wipe us all off the map. But they do not restrict to their side, they invade our side day in, day out, they look for something. Cannot let them proceed, we need help. So we ambush their group during night, four of us take their aircraft to get help. Come morning, Red Dragon sends other jets after us, to hunt us down. Other three comrades shot down over ocean, over pole, over bays. Me, I get shot down here."
Sheridan nodded again. "From what you're saying, it sounds as if your folks are being harassed and oppressed. But I don't understand, what does it have to do with us?"
"Sorry," Bruno replied. "Too tired right now, should ask later."
Sheridan stood back up, refolded the chair, and placed it against a wall. "Get some rest, then, there will be plenty of time later. Call if you need anything." Sheridan then left the room.
It was tomorrow mid-morning when Sheridan received a call from the medical wing. Bruno had asked to speak to all the commanding officers; furthermore, Sheridan had received a memo that the generals wanted to discuss the situation in a meeting. To accommodate both sides, Sheridan thought it best to take Bruno to the meeting and have the visitor give his information there. A medical officer escorted Bruno to the conference room just as the meeting was about to begin.
At the motion of General Radford, Sheridan addressed the brass first. "You've read my reports, sir. This man was shot down over our airspace trying to escape hostile forces in his homeland, Russia. He has asked for our help against them, but--"
"--But," interrupted Radford with little more than a muttered "apologies" to Sheridan. "We don't mean to be rude to outsiders," Radford turned towards Bruno. "But, to phrase things quickly and concisely, I don't see how your situation involves us. We have already committed several branches of our forces to other reclamation campaigns elsewhere in the world, but due to the damage wrought in the Collapse we have not heard a single word of them since. We need to evaluate the direness of your situation. Sheridan has briefed us a little about where you are coming from. We need to know the rest."
"Ahh," Bruno sighed. "Unfortunate, we do not have much more to say. The Red Dragon confines us to specific places, specific towns and outposts. They forbid us to leave the area and venture out. Because of this, we do not know what they plan to do."
"That must be exactly their plan." Radford said back. "If they want to keep scavengers like yours --"
Bruno was insulted at the remark.
"Sorry," Radford apologized when he saw Bruno's reaction. "If they want to shut out all prying eyes, even survivors like yours, they must have something worth hiding."
"May I chime in, sir?" Asked Lt. Drudge a member of Renaissance's large research division and a self-taught historian. "Only one thing is powerful enough to rationalize such measures -- Nukes."
There was a moment of silence.
"Everyone knows that it was Russia with the largest stockpile of pre-Collapse nuclear weaponry. God knows how many silos they've hidden inside their mountains and hills, it should be obvious that if anyone sufficiently hostile acquires nuclear capabilities in this world, the results could be disastrous."
"After all, it wasn't the nuclear strikes alone that ushered in the Collapse. After taking out most major cities, with casualties already in the hundred-million range, pre-Collapse terrorists interpreted the attacks as a divine sign to go out and crush the so-called Infidels. Their attacks quickened the death toll, burning even what survived the nukes. Furthermore...."
"Lt. Drudge?" Radford interrupted. "You're digressing again. This is no time for a history lecture, if isn't relevant to the question at hand, you will please can it."
"Sir!" Drudge spouted back. "There is one more thing. According to pre-Collapse records, when Dr. Reed was discharged from the Old U.S. Military, not only did he swear revenge, but he also took what research he could and fled to Russia. He was never heard from again. We already know he must have had some sort of European contact to instigate the Collapse. It's possible that he may have had an Asian -- or more specifically, a Russian contact as well."
"Fair game then," Radford said. This was his way of telling everyone when he feels that meetings like this one should be adjourned.
"Shall we lend them a hand, then?" Sheridan asked.
Radford sighed -- apparently he wasn't to thrilled at the idea but felt like putting it to a vote. "All who want to help, say 'aye'...."
The 'ayes' had it, almost unanimously.