© 1999-2002 Strata Drake of TWZ.
The seven days spent preparing for departure were busy. Sheridan discussed vital matters with Nigel: supplies, comrades, crews, units, technologies, and most importantly how many transports they would need. Nigel's recommendations would require about six full-size AGH-88 transports to carry their cargo plus two MA-202 aircraft service transports. Sheridan on the other hand felt that theirs would be a one-way trip, and recommended taking four of the somewhat smaller AG-70 transports plus one of the MA-202's He argued that when they arrived to their new location and set up a base, three of the AG-70's and the MA-202 could be disassembled for additional resources, settling the debate.
Sheridan selected a research crew of twenty scientists (five of them being longtime friends with either him or Nigel) and had told them to pack all the schematics they would need for on-site construction and fit them into one transport. Another transport was filled with the construction and repair crew, fifteen workers and seven constructor units.
The third transport was stocked with twelve medium combat units of varying strengths and weaknesses, and two servicing units. Now the AG-70 type transport was a larger version of the original, "Type I Skylifter" transports used during the Project Campaign, with a capacity of twenty typical combat units -- depending on the actual units, the actual limit could be anywhere from fifteen to twenty five. The AGH-88 on the other hand was almost a skybase in itself, with a capacity for twenty-five typical units plus additional munitions.
In the fourth transport they packed any and all personal items that they were going to take along with them. This too would hold most of the actual personnel and command officers, so they also set it up with facilities for short-term residence.
The MA-202 was loaded with dehydrated fuel crystals -- heavier but more storage-efficient than standard aircraft fuel cells, and consiering that they would be flying over ice and ocean, it would not take too much effort to pick up the water needed for fuel conversion. Nine medium Skydancer aircraft with high-payload weaponry would be their escorts, Nigel riding in his tactical command jet.
Last but definitely not least, Sheridan took his pet mech, Drake, along for the journey. All told, their entire force was approximately 60 soldiers large -- hardly an army by the old standards used nearly a century previous, but in a post-Collapse world it should prove itself more than sufficient.
Bruno, meanwhile, was given a fair tour of Renaissance city and the outlying scavenger suburbs. At the end of the week, Bruno asked to stay in the city; he would not be returning home to Russia, and he constituted the first immigrant to North America in sixty years.
And after the conclusion of this week, they gave their final good-byes and, immediately before lifting off, Sheridan broadcast a quick good-luck speech over the transports' com systems:
"This is Sheridan speaking. By now we've all been well briefed of our mission and what we are expected to do. We are off to answer a call for help, the first intercontinental call for help since the Collapse.
"Leiutenant Drudge from our research division made clear that he believes Nexus -- whether a part of, or an ally of the Nexus our grandfathers fought -- dwells somewhere in Asia. We will be exploring the Russian frontier for traces of Nexus.
"We have already been told that there is a hostile military force operating in Russia, whose numbers are unknown but who has been terrorizing scavenger settlements in its wake. We must expect that this so-called 'Red Dragon' will react in hostility to our arrival. I do not believe this will be an easy mission; but it is one that needs doing, and the sooner we start, the better we may fare.
"And so, on a wing and a prayer, let us go!" Sheridan switched off the comm, gave the order to take off, and they were off. They flew over the buildings of Renaissance -- five transports and ten aircraft of the Skydancer fleet -- and were out of city limits within a few minutes.
Continuing due north on a veritable beeline for Asia, they passed over forested and snow-frosted Canadian mountains, Canadian lakes, and Canadian seas. About two hours later they were flying across the Arctic ocean, and in about four more hours they would reach what pre-Collapse maps identified as Russia's northern coastline.
Throughout this time, the Skydancer jets did numerous rotations, allowing some pilots to rest while the others kept flying. With little else to do, soldiers in the personnel transport formed groups according to their positions and unpacked a few computer workstations, connecting them together in a networked fashion. Knowing that they could not afford to load the aircraft's reactor, two soldiers unpacked and set up two small reactor generators to provide power for the stations. After configuring the tactical program to their tastes, they kicked off a homemade "LAN" party in two groups. Things became more interesting when they radioed the other transports asking if they could secure a public com channel to use for a data transmission between the aircraft. The response was affirmative, and fifteen minutes into the party the other idle soldiers had built similar networks aboard their aircraft and set up a data.
Sheridan knew exactly what they were up to. It would be a fair number of hours before arrival, and bored soldiers needed something to do. Sheridan hadn't authorized such an activity, but had they asked he would have assuredly agreed and given them permission anyway. Sheridan also knew that the "tactical program", as Project HQ officially referred to it, was little more than a modified computer game salvaged intact from a pre-Collapse corporate facility. No one knew which company had produced it, nor which company had sold it, if indeed it was sold at all in Pre-Collapse times. It was identified only by its ancronymic title -- T.W.Z. -- and no one knew what the title may have once stood for. Project soldiers had received it exceptionally well, and Project HQ sanctioned its use on the grounds of strategic and tactical training. But at heart, it was still a game, often pulled out of mothballs when soldiers have nothing better to do.
Sheridan, meanwhile, found a computer console and loaded a different computer program on it. This second computer program had been found in the same pre-Collapse complex as the first, and Project soldiers in many ways considered it to be a counterpart to the first. It, too, had been built as a game, presumably by the same company as the first; it even shared the same network protocols and base data. But while the other program was tactical in nature, this one was more action-based, a sort of mech simulator, if you will. Though Sheridan did like the tactical game, he moreover liked the mech simulator game; it allowed him to pilot a virtual cyborg mech, something Sheridan took quite a liking too. Sheridan himself could have been a synaptic pilot and thus a cyborg commander; but Sheridan could not abide by the concept of the synaptic link itself, and instead became a base and ground-assault commander.
Sheridan allied his virtual self to one of the major powers currently waging for dominance elsewhere in the LAN party, and in no time at all Sheridan had started a trend. Several other soldiers, seeing their squads being defeated at Sheridan's hands, decided to take up a more active role in the mech-simulator game, becoming their own commanders of virtual squads.
It was nightfall by the time they sighted Russian land. Sheridan's virtual mech had suffered the least overall damage and kills during the match, and the war for LAN dominance, still persisting when the announcement of their destination was given, was settled in armistice. The party over, they began to dissassemble the network and repack the computer workstations -- a bit more loosely this time to make for easier assembly on site.
Gradually returning his focus to the situation now at hand, Sheridan loaded the radar map and designated one large island, probably two square miles in size, and ordered them to land there to set up a temporary refueling station for this night only.
Nighttime came and went without problem or skirmish as they recharged their power supplies and refuelled the transports using some of the fuel cells stored on the MA-202. In the morning, they packed up and resumed flying towards the main continent, by now only four miles distance. Touching down on mid-morning, Sheridan ordered the group to unload here and establish a base.
First to go up were the sensors and automated defenses, which currently were programmed to hold their fire. Then the team built solar, wind, and hydropower generators to harvest energy from the environment until they could find a more reliable source. After that, they began dismantling the transports for their materials, and they built a repair-and-rearming facility with them. The construction crew began searching the vicinity around their area for parts. They were in luck -- there was the ruins of a pre-Collapse coastal city slightly northeast, and what looked like a stone quarry less than a mile the other direction. There were no signs of life in the ruined city, so the construction crew went silently about harvesting supplies for refinement and construction.
Sheridan surveyed the area. The beachhead was about a half mile wide and long, with a mountain (and quarry) on one side, a small hill (and ruins) on the other, and a valley between the two, stretching south by southeast.
About midday, with construction well underway, one member of the research crew informed Sheridan of some unusual but ambient energy readings noticed on the island they were at last night, then asked Sheridan if they could explore the place. Sheridan denied the request on the grounds that they had packed only a few hovercraft along with them, and would not be able to offer a proper escort for the group. The construction crew, meanwhile, had begun work on the factory, announcing that it should be operational in a few more hours.
Sheridan smiled as he watched the construction crew go about their work. Even before the Collapse, improved smelter and arcwelding technologies enabled buildings to be completed in a matter of days, rather than weeks or months; and considering how they were dismantling two of the transports for parts, theirs was a matter of hours instead of days.
It was about 1600 hours of the day when they completed the factory and began constructing drone units. Drone units were a relatively new development in Project technology, by supplanting the pilot of a combat vehicle (usually a tank of one sort or another) with combat AI routines and remote-control orders. Although combat drones are not much more intelligent than the average 20th-century commercial AI, the ability to give them simple orders like move, attack, and retreat allowed Project commanders to forestall what otherwise could have been a massive loss of life when fighting Nexus.
The advent of combat drones also made command operating systems more effective on the battlefield, for an entire batallion of drones could be controlled by a single pilot. As a contingency against jamming or pilot mishaps, all combat drones were programmed to automatically attack anything that either fires at them or fires at a registered friendly unit (typically another drone). But simultaneously, since they knew Nexus was a computer-based foe, Project generals adopted the Asimov Contingency Plan and had never programmed the drones for independent target acquisition.
Drake made sure that Sheridan was the first one up. Like most drones and mechs, Drake contained two power cells, a standard Project practice which allows one power cell to power the mech or drone while the other one is removed for recharging. But unlike most drones and mechs, much of Drake's operating power came not from power cells, but from solar energy. The crew who built Drake had coated his torso and wings with an array of solar cells; aside from the obvious purpose of providing power, they also gave Drake a nice, dark iridescent-green shine in direct sunlight. Underneath the solar cells were thermocouples used to generate power not only from sunlight but also from solar heat as well. This particular setup allowed Drake a higher power efficiency than the standard mech or drone, but because of it Drake had also grown accustomed to resting in sunny spots during his periods of inactivity. Sheridan's quarters in this base were aligned with a wide window rolling from the southeast to southwest, to allow sunlight in at any time of day. And no sooner had Drake detected the morning sunrise than he had jumped onto the foot of Sheridan's bed to lie in it, waking Sheridan abruptly from an otherwise sound sleep.
After another hour of dozing off and waking up, Sheridan finally decided to get ready for the day, then a few minutes later he appeared in Ops, fully uniformed and Drake following him as usual. He was pleasantly surprised to see that their new factory had assembled about twenty combat hoverdrones, arranged in four groups, each group having a different type of weapon system. Unfortunate as it was that the combat group all shared the same tactical weaknesses, it was their only choice besides aircraft for getting to the site. Furthermore, Sheridan saw that they had assembled his personal command unit and repair drones. Visually, it was little more than a Wyvern hovertank with twin scourge missiles, but internally, the armor was much thicker around critical areas and it had a larger engine block for greater maneuverability.
Lt. Drudge, the now-commanding officer of their research division, came in to Ops a little while later looking for Sheridan. Seeing Sheridan looking over the consoles and Drake lying on top of them, Drudge walked over to Sheridan and restated his question from yesterday. "Morning, Commander."
"What's the situation?" Sheridan asked.
"Most of it is what you see," Drudge replied. "They've assembled your combat group and are ready for action. When can we investigate the energy reads from yesterday?"
"If the hovergroup is ready, we may leave at any time. Nigel can oversee the finishing touches on the airfield and defenses."
"Ah-ha," Drudge smirked. "I thought you'd want to come along. My crew should be ready at about 1100. You should get your crew ready too."
"1100 it is. I'll see you then," Sheridan said back. Lt. Drudge then left Ops and headed back to the Labs to work with his crew.
Come 1100 hours, Sheridan had chosen ten pilots to accompany him, and asked Nigel for some aircraft to follow along. Altogether they had Sheridan's command group of about twelve varied drones, ten pilots each with one drone under their direct control, the research crew, and five support aircraft. After a quick debriefing for the fellow pilots, Sheridan led the way out of the garages and then out across the water towards the former island.
Sensor sweeps of the area revealed nothing too unusual -- debris from their previous night's stay, land, and a lot of water. However there was a strange, small energy signature detected about a quarter-mile north. A quick trip there revealed a circular ridge about 50 feet high, with the only viable entry point being at the south. The energy source was tracking from somewhere in this direction.
Lt. Drudge's crew quickly located it and, after a little exploration, found a large, dusty entrance door made of lead. It looked like the sort of door that would lead into a military complex. Calculating from oxidation samples, this structure definitely dated back to before the Collapse. Just how far before the Collapse, however, would be anyone's best guess.
Sheridan parked his command vehicle nearby to the door while Drudge's group began clearing the area, looking for some sort of control panel or lock. They found it and began working, and as Sheridan -- now suited up in a Flak jacket and laser rifle -- climbed out of his command unit for a closer look, they unlocked the door and it opened. Slowly. The door split into two halves, each piece moving to the side to reveal a corridor behind. After opening about two feet, the doors began sliding downwards, into the ground.
Sheridan grabbed his com and radioed Drudge. "Come with me. Also," Sheridan switched over to a general com to radio his entire group. "I need two other men to accompany us. Armor and weapons; there's no telling what may be down there." After a minute, two pilots hopped out of their respective vehicles and came over next to the opened door. Sheridan radioed the rest of the group. "The rest of you guard the area."
As Sheridan, Drake, Drudge, and their two other men walked down the corridor, it was obvious they were in a military establishment. This corridor led down at a relatively steep angle of twenty degrees, and it soon opened into a large two-floor vertical shaft leading downwards. The corridor split into twin spiral staircases leading further down. Carefully and quietly, flashlights leading the way, they made their way down the steps to the bottom.
The corridor now branched off in two directions. Sheridan pointed in one direction. "Let's try this one...." And they proceeded forward. This corridor led to a door, and after opening the door they found themselves in a fairly sizable room, probably an Ops sort of place, but with a curious construct in the center.
It looked like a pair of holographic projectors; one on the floor and one on the ceiling. However, there was a slight EM reading from it, and when Sheridan touched it with the butt of his rifle, it repelled with an electrical crackle of energy. An energy barrier. This was a technology that pre-Collapse scientists could only dream of: the use of pure energy to form a tangible, physical barrier.
The troupe's attention soon turned to what was being confined within the energy barrier. It looked like a cyborg, though its six-foot size was decidedly much smaller than the typical combat cyborg. Its armor appeared to be a light cyan in color -- unfortunately this was not saying much, as the energy field surrounding it cast a cyan glow about the room. Therefore this cyborg was probably white, or some shade of blue, in its dominant color. Instead of the bulky armor that is usually seen on cyborgs, the armor on this one was distinctively stylish. Almost ceremonial. It would be anyone's guess how tough the armor actually was. Its forearms were noticeably thicker than its upper arms, which probably meant it contained some form of concealed weapons. On another examination, a sheath was located on its left shoulder, and a blade of some sort was stored inside. This cyborg wore a thruster pack, indicating some degree of flight capabilities. Its headpiece had an interesting "V"-shaped brow on it that was probably golden in color, for it appeared to be green through the color of the energy barrier.
A few other things were strange about this cyborg. It was looking back at them. Naturally, this could be expected when they stand in front of it, but as they circled around, the headpiece moved slightly to keep them within its field of view. In other words, it was functional. not only that, but it was restrained. A few cables kept its upper half affixed under the ceiling, and a sort of "shackles" on its legs kept its lower half firmly in place as well.
For some reason, Drake showed an extraordinary interest in this new cyborg.
A small beep on Sheridan's handheld com sounded, and when Sheridan turned to it, he noticed a small message on it from Drake. The message displayed an image of the cyborg's headpiece and the letters "S.O.S.". Sheridan looked back at the cyborg. Its eyepieces were glowing. Bright, soft, bright again, soft again -- wait a minute, they weren't just glowing, they were blinking. Slow blink, fast blink. Fast and fast again, followed by another slow blink. Sheridan nodded. "Good boy," Sheridan thanked Drake.
"Matt," Sheridan said towards Lt. Drudge. "I'm reading a Morse SOS from the cyborg. Is there some sort of control for the energy barrier?"
Lt. Drudge looked around and found a peculiar console at the foot of the energy field. It had two buttons -- one red, one green. The red button was currently lit. Lt. Drudge tried pressing the red button. No effect. Then, he pressed the green button. The red button doused and the green button lit. Then, as a humming sound filled the air, the energy barrier faded and disappeared. This room suddenly became much darker as well.
"Found it," Lt. Drudge replied after the fact.
"Now what?" Sheridan asked.
"If you could disengage these shackles I would be grateful," came a short, strange, metallic response.
"What??" Sheridan turned to the cyborg. It looked back at him. Did it speak? More importantly, if it did, did it actually use the first person to refer to itself? The Project had experimented in the past with cyborgs capable of vocalization, but as a rule such cyborgs would always refer to themselves in machinelike, third-person "this unit". Even so, Project officials had deemed that text messages are more efficient to communicate, so "talking" cyborgs had all but disappeared from Project arsenals. So it came as quite a surprise to see a cyborg talk.
"Well?" Repeated the cyborg. "There is no time for small talk. If you aren't going to help then you had better re-set the field before--"
Suddenly, an alarm sounded and red lights lit in several places about the room.
"Damn--" came a response from the cyborg. "Get out of here!"
Sheridan drew a small thermal knife from his belt, heated it up, then began melting through a cable holding the cyborg's right arm in place.
"What are you doing?!" exclaimed the cyborg.
"You wanted us to free you?" inquired Sheridan. "Matt, cut the left arm free. You two work on the leg straps."
Sheridan finished cutting through the strap on the cyborg's right arm. It hit Sheridan with its arm, knocking him back. "Very well -- stand back, all of you!"
The cyborg reached across to its left shoulder and withdrew its blade. Energizing it with a faint crackle of electricity, it sliced through the cables holding its left arm in place. After that it sliced quickly through the cables on its legs, and then finally, the cables holding it below the ceiling. It fell to its knees, then put its blade away in its sheath.
"Thank you...," replied the cyborg.
"Who or what are you?" Sheridan asked in surprise.
"Not now!" The cyborg looked down the hall from where they had came. "They will be sending reinforcements any minute!"
The sound of several metal footsteps could be heard echoing through the corridor. Sheridan motioned to Lt. Drudge and their two soldiers. "All right men, let's move!!"
The cyborg led the way. The echoes of metal footsteps grew quickeningly louder as they ran back to the staircase leading up. Sheridan and Drake went up first, followed by Drudge and the other two. The cyborg stayed at the bottom and opened up the weapons system concealed in its right arm -- a microrocket launcher. The cyborg saw something and fired a shot down the corridor, which quickly found its mark and detonated.
Lt. Drudge looked back down as some debris bounced down the corridor and through the bottom of the staircase where the cyborg was standing. It turned around and fired a second rocket, this one in the other direction. It too found its mark and detonated. After that the cyborg began bounding up the steps.
"Go!!" The cyborg shouted to the troupe as it caught up to them. At the top junction of the stairway, the cyborg withdrew its blade and sliced through the railing and steps in two locations, breaking a segment of stairs off, which fell to the bottom of the staircase and, by the sounds of it, crushed something on the way down.
Sheridan and everyone else was already waiting outside when the cyborg ran through the entrance. It hit a button on the control panel near the door and the surface door rose up out of its compartment and then clamped shut.
The cyborg turned to Sheridan and noticed his command group. "Prepare for battle, commanders. They won't let you get away this easily, that much is for sure."
Sheridan ran to his command tank, and Drake hopped in. Sheridan motioned to the cyborg. "Come with me!" The cyborg nodded and ran over, climbing in and sitting down in the passenger seat, right behind Drake who was sitting on a mat in the place of a co-pilot's chair. Sheridan climbed in and shut the hatch.
Sheridan checked the sensors while the other men climbed back into their vehicles and started them up. Strange... all sensors read clear. Infrared could detect nothing unusual coming from any direction, nor could the aerial drones detect anything unusual on radar.
Lt. Drudge radioed Sheridan. "Commander! My sensors are picking up a secondary energy source bearing northwest, increasing in strength. We must be careful."
"Roger that," Sheridan responded. "Everyone, let's move out!" Sheridan instructed the drones to move first and last, keeping the human pilots in the middle of the combat group. They moved south onto the main area of the island. Ground and air sensors still read clear. Who and where was the enemy?
They had no sooner left the shores of the island than a strange transmission came in on the radio. It sounded half-mechanical.
"HALT AT YOUR PRESENT LOCATION, OR BE DESTROYED."
"Everyone hold position!" Sheridan ordered in response. No need provoking the enemy ... whomever or wherever they may be. Sheridan sent a response out on the same frequency as the incoming transmission. "Who are you?"
"YOU HAVE STOLEN PROPERTY BELONGING TO SEA UNIT ALPHA. YOU HAVE THIRTY SECONDS TO COMPLY, OR YOU WILL BE DESTROYED."
Sheridan looked at the cyborg. "Are they talking about you?"
The cyborg nodded. "Yes, they are. My codename was Aireus, long ago. They have been keeping me as a prisoner for over forty years."
"TWENTY SECONDS", came the other party across the transmission.
"What about you?" asked Sheridan.
Aireus did not respond at first, but then decided an answer to give. "I do not care to be imprisoned."
"TEN SECONDS", the enemy party said over the transmission.
Sheridan radioed his group. "All right, men, heat 'em up and prepare for evasive maneuvers. There's no telling where the enemy will strike from."
"FIVE SECONDS", the enemy hailed.
It was a very quiet five seconds.