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Tales of the Phoenix:

The Red Dragon

© 1999-2002 Strata Drake of TWZ.

Chapter Three: Lethal Games

(Original Draft)

A hush fell over the group. The several Project officers who had not fought against the Sea Dragon could not imagine the destructive power of two more vehicles like it. Sheridan and Nigel each shuddered at the thought. Aireus maintained his robotic cool and calm temperament. Drake was (as usual) oblivious to their conversation, watching Sheridan with great interest as he [Sheridan] paced about the room in a fret.

Nigel broke the silence. "If they have two more of these Nova Dragons, we'll need a larger base of operations. I can scout out closer to the continent for power resources and suitable landing spots."

Sheridan looked around. "Then ... what about our outpost right here? The Red Dragon must surely know about us by now, and I bet they won't be too happy when they discover that we destroyed their Sea Dragon. They'll surely retaliate, and we don't know how. We can't just abandon this outpost, and even if we demolished it, the wreckage would be too much to carry."

Aireus looked at their radar screen. A small red blip appeared and started moving across. "Looks like one of the Red Dragon's 'eyes' have spotted you...."

Nigel looked at the blip. Energy readings indicated that it was a Red Dragon sensor unit. "Dang!" He relayed an attack order to a freshly-produced drone VTOL. "This one won't get away to report our position." A blue blip flew from their radar location towards the red blip, which soon disappeared from the radar screen as a distant explosion was heard.

Sheridan looked back at Nigel. "I hope that unit didn't break radio silence. Either way, we have to prepare for the worst and assume that they just discovered our position. We've got to leave. Now."

Drake jumped down upon the floor. Nigel looked back at Sheridan. "Then ... what about our outpost?"

Aireus looked back with an idea in mind. "Destroy it."

"What?!?" Sheridan looked at Aireus with terror. "Destroy our own base? Why on earth would we want to do that?"

Aireus looked back. "Exactly."

Sheridan was silent. Nigel suspected Aireus' idea and told it to Sheridan. "If we play our cards right, the Red Dragon will assume that someone else destroyed our base. They'll either relax their defenses, forget about us completely, or start looking for whomever thrashed us. That will buy us some time--and relief--from their forces."

Sheridan understood, now. "But there's something missing..." Sheridan looked down at the airfield where a fresh group of tank and air drones had just been produced. "We'll have to do more than just scrap our structures and defenses. We'll need to scrap our drones as well. If we really did die in an attack, there would be remnants of our units--'us'--lying all over the area. We've got to make them think that we were destroyed along with our base."

The other officers stood up. Sheridan looked at the group. "It's time for some target practice."

First to go were the new drones. Some of the air drones were launched into the air and given a patrol order before being shot down by missiles (for a more realistic wreckage). The sensor towers were demolished by bunker buster-class missiles. Team Fenix levelled their own airpads with plasmite bombs before refueling aboard their VTOL Transport. Antitank fire levelled the HQ and assorted defense emplacements. Targetted Flak shells and surface-to-air missiles shredded the three standard transports, and only the VTOL transport was evacuated with the group. The factories were the last to go. Several more drone parts--hoverpads, assorted chassis and turrets--were produced individually and each one was blown to scrap by missiles and cannon fire before Team Fenix levelled the factories. When they finished with their evacuation, their outpost was a mess, just as planned. They had performed a thorough job, even going as far away as to destroy their three power derricks and their defenses. Just to see what kind of reaction their ploy would give the Red Dragon, one sensor tower was left standing with the standard "intercept-broadcast" programming, but not without receiving near-terminal damage from Sheridan's forces. Then they moved southeast, towards the continent. A thick layer of fog had rolled in, limiting visibility to fourty feet, making radar their number one eye. Team Fenix provided the best radar coverage, all but guaranteeing that they could spot Red Dragon units without being spotted themselves. This was especially important because if Sheridan ran into any Red Dragon forces, their careful destruction of their own outpost would come unto naught.

A small visual feed was kept on their sensor tower back on the island. Dusk was falling, and even in the thick of night, no one dared to switch on their headlights (yet), lest they light up the fog and reveal their position to the enemy. They arrived on-shore of the continent at about 2200 military time, at the foot of a large, cloudy mountain range. Drake was already sleeping in his favorite spot in Sheridan's command tank, while Aireus chose to ride with Sheridan, on ground this time instead of by air. Nigel flew to a high altitude and performed a radar sweep of the surrounding area terrain. Several oil deposits were located nearby. A small lake was to the southwest. Beachside cliffs, part of the large mountain range, blocked eastward and westward travel with a good 200 foot high wall that stretched approximately 500 feet inland. There were several large spires of rock which Sheridan's forces could both hide behind and build upon. Construction orders were relayed. Factories were constructed but kept off-line. Repair facilities were made, and most importantly, a few research laboratories were constructed as well. Anti-Aircraft Flak defenses were built alongside the ridges--a strategic position that would hide them from incoming enemy VTOLs. Som fortress defenses--mostly cannons, but a few missile launchers--were constructed along the shoreline. In the center of the base was an airfield for Team Fenix. Resource sensors detected a large amount of usable oil in the vicinity, so three wells were drilled, derricks built, and reinforced walls constructed for safety.

The HQ was prominently built atop one of the rock spires, giving it a commanding--but still accessible--view of the entire base from 50 feet above ground. Not even the HQ was visible from the sides due to the high cliffs. Besides the water, the only way into the new base was from the south--a winding, sloping path up into the foggy mountains that provided choke points, easy cover, and defense. Several EMP emplacements were constructed near these choke points. The Project had never needed to use EMP turrets before, but given the results of their preliminary test runs, the use of even one EMP turret would significantly lessen the threat posed by an advancing enemy. The anti-air defense sensors were adjusted to accommodate their dug-in position near the cliffs. Any enemy aircraft that entered the base would immediately come under a massive hail of Flak shells, the occasional surface-to-air missile, and Team Fenix. Because the HQ was placed so prominently, Sheridan relayed modified construction orders to the group. The HQ was demolished and then rebuilt as a command relay center, and the real HQ rebuilt near Team Fenix's airfield. Sensor equipment, computers, and databases were uploaded into the HQ, but they were kept off-line. The Command Relay Post would be the true sensor station, collecting all data from units and remote sensors before compiling and uploading that information to the HQ. By 0100 hour, the base was finished. Wide-spectrum sensors, a new combination of sensor technologies uploaded just before their leave, were dug into the hillsides around the base to provide unfailing coverage of the scenery.

Night went by without a single incident, and except for Aireus (who kept a vigilant watch from the HQ), the crew recovered a good 40 winks before the sun rose. Once again, when the sunlight broke over the eastern mountains, Drake was the first to gear up for the morning, followed by Sheridan (whom Drake tripped over on his way to the window). At 800 hours, the officers met at the HQ to discuss the strategy for the day. The visual image of their previous outpost, relayed straight to them from their sensor tower intentionally left functional, provided the first entertainment for the day.

As they watched, a warning message appeared on the sreen as several incoming Red Dragon units were highlighted and identified approaching the former outpost. There were 50 assorted hovertanks of three standard sizes, and shadows flew over their previous outpost as a large group of VTOLs (perhaps 30 or so) hovered overhead. The sensor tower picked up some radio chatter. The chatter seemed to be a report back to Red Dragon HQ, rather than live communication between two pilots. The sensor intercepted the report and its decoded contents were displayed on an adjacent monitor:

Enemy base has been annihilated. Analyses of defense emplacements and unit remains show several attack and defense orders given. Cause unknown--scavenger attacks impossible and improbable. Silver Dragon attack possible, but not probable. Estimated 50 'Project' units, aircraft, and vehicles lost since nightfall. Three Project transports shot down. Survivors possible but not likely; remains of two command units detected. Some minor technologies left intact in database entries; all redundant and already present or equivalent in forces. No life signs or forms detected--possible error in scans due to local radioactivity. Returning southwest, full debriefing upon arrival at base Wyvern.

The officers let out a cheer. So far, so good, and the Red Dragon was believing that they were indeed attacked by some force. Nigel was concerned that the Red Dragon knew who they were, but Sheridan assured him that the Red Dragon could--and did--check the partial database left in the wreckage and found "The Project" written all over it.

The sensor tower's display lit up again--this time, skywards--as a strange aerial craft of some sort approached their previous base. The sensor tower failed to identify--or even register--the skyward unit, but Sheridan and Nigel wouldn't have time either, for the approaching craft destroyed that sensor tower and cut off their entertainment. At least they had a copy of the Red Dragon report safely in their hands. Sheridan looked at Nigel. "Looked as though they wanted to polish off the remains of our previous home...."

Nigel looked back. "Yep; sure looks that way." Breakfast was served. Military rations weren't the best breakfast on the planet, continent, or even in the vicinity, but there is no space for amenities in a military campaign, so military rations would have to do. Drake and Aireus, being mechanical, needed no meals. Sheridan did notice something interesting though--Drake was quite interested in Aireus, circling several times around while examining him with all sensors before hopping up onto the counter and laying down next to him. Sheridan spoke up. "Aireus...I think Drake likes you."

Aireus, who was looking back at Drake, glanced at Sheridan for a moment. "So it would seem... What type of technology is this pet mech of yours, anyway?" Sheridan stood up and walked over to Drake, who had now jumped up onto one of the consoles and was sitting down. " 'Tiger' domestic technology--adaptable-intelligence routines and other basic-mech programming. Quite a feat in 2040, performed by the Furh. B. research corporation under a government grant."

Aireus looked again at Drake. "Quite a feat indeed. My father had a pet animal that acted much like this mech." Sheridan blinked; for a moment he had forgotten that Aireus was not a true mech, but that he had a human consciousness resulting from Dr. Reed's--that is, Mr. Nexus's--research. Sheridan agreed. "Yeah, Drake is a real piece of work. He's no real animal, like your father's pet, but he's quite alive."

Nigel re-hashed the Red Dragon's report, looking for any details that he might have missed, while Sheridan examined Nigel's last-night sensor sweep of the mountains. A thin trail--wide enough for three, maybe four tanks side to side--wormed its way through the mountains in the general southeast direction before branching off into several travel routes. A color key indicated the density of power reserves. Most of the mountains were coded red, indicating negligible resources, but their base area was coded green (a good sign, equivalent to three standard derricks), and there were several scattered areas coded with orange and yellow. Apparently, there were resources in the mountains, and plenty of them to spare. Sheridan estimated that perhaps nine additional derricks could be built to harvest power from the mountains while he and Nigel begin a reconnaissance mission nearby to build sensor stations and watch for Red Dragon activity.

The plan for the day set, Sheridan turned to his officers and said, "Let's do it!"

Sheridan climbed into his command vehicle, followed by Drake and Aireus. Aireus sat down in the copilot's seat and Drake lay down next to Sheridan's seat. Sheridan switched on his systems. 6 drone tanks and 2 repair drones responded and likewise started up. 3 comrades climbed into their Scourge tanks, and 2 officers climbed aboard their construction vehicles. Nigel hopped into his jet and, like Sheridan, switched on his systems, calibrated his drone jets and radioed his 3 comrades of Team Fenix.

Sheridan's group left the base at full speed, slowly winding their way up the passageway into the mountains. Team Fenix paved the way with their air surveillance. The fog had lifted slightly, with the cloud layer at perhaps 400 feet up, providing both visibility and cover should Team Fenix need it. There were a few Red Dragon power signatures up past the first few bends, but nothing else, yet.

Sheridan wound his way around one of the choke points and caught attention of the first Red Dragon installment--a remote power resource, adequately defended by a few antitank emplacments and two sensor towers of varying types. Sheridan stopped right behind the hill. He relayed orders to Team Fenix. "We have five Red Dragon emplacements in the vicinity. Think you can take them out in one shot each?"

"Not a problem, Sheridan." Nigel descended slightly from below the cloud layer and analyzed the defenses. He relayed orders to his drones, and they approached quickly and fired antistructure missiles at each of the two sensor towers, which shattered upon impact. His Team Fenix comrades subsequently descended and unloaded their missiles into the remaining defenses--also taking out the derrick in the process. The constructiom team began work quickly, first at dousing the smoking oil well (which took a few minutes), then at fortifying the area. A Project oil derrick was built and routed to control from HQ. A few varying sensors, defenses (mostly anti-air and artillery), and most importantly, a small repair facility, were quickly constructed, and the resource was theirs.

Sheridan looked at his map. They were now positioned 1/2 a mile southeast of their base. "This is taken care of; let's head southwest." Sheridan and Nigel led, and their groups followed.

As they travelled, their sensors picked up emissions from several more Red Dragon resources. Using a similar strategy as before, they levelled the defenses and claimed the resources for Project hands, one by one. Since they were farther away from their base, they built a higher concentration of defenses just in case someone--namely, the Red Dragon--would retaliate. By 1400 hours, they had claimed five power resources.

Travelling southwest once more, Sheridan's group came face-to-face with a large sheer cliff, similar to the ones that sidelined their base. Nigel and Team Fenix ascended to a higher altitude for a better look. What they saw astonished them. Immediately on the other side of the cliff was a sizable Red Dragon base (probably 'Base Wyvern' as the Red Dragon report had indicated), stocked with a good 50 ground units and a large 30-jet airforce. To avoid detection, Team Fenix ducked quickly behind the cliff face. Nigel radioed Sheridan. "This must be base Wyvern."

Sheridan examined Nigel's scans of the base layout. The airfield itself was quite large, containing a good 20 airpads and 30 jets. There were several factories and repair centers alike. Defenses ringed the insides of the cliff (much like Sheridan's forces had done with their anti-air defenses) and a few more were placed at strategic entrance points. Sizing up the plan, Sheridan proposed a strategy. They should first attract the Red Dragon's attention somehow, then draw them out of their own base and attack them. The construction units began work on dug-in anti-air defenses to surprise the Red Dragon's VTOLs before constructing remote airpads for Team Fenix. Two small repair facilities were established and a lot of defenses--perhaps 10 each of anti-tank, laser, and anti-air emplacements, were constructed as a second line of defense. Several artillery emplacements--mostly Hellstorm, but a few Ground Shakers for impact--were constructed and routed to Sheridan's control. Sheridan took a deep breath, then relayed target coordinates for one of the Red Dragon's factories to the artillery. The artillery signalled the attack with a triumphant blast of Ground Shaker shells. The ground shook slightly as the shells launched skywards, over the cliff, and the sounds of explosions echoed overhead.

Like angry bees from a hive, the first thing to appear were ten Red Dragon airjets. Team Fenix quickly engaged as Sheridan's anti-air defenses kicked in and filled the sky with Flak shells. Within moments, five Red Dragon jets were shot down and four more were on the retreat. The last jet was knocked out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile and crashlanded down in one of the sides. Strangely, this last jet did not explode. The construction crew carefully approached, then captured, the downed jet.

A second wave of Red Dragon jets--a smaller wave than before, numbering five jets--appeared from the north and south. Sheridan reasoned that these jets had probably circled around the cliff for a more strategic view to attack. They attacked with anti-structure missiles and levelled a few of Sheridan's anti-air defenses, but not before Team Fenix had engaged and shot two jets out of the sky. The remaining three jets retreated. Team Fenix now went on the offensive, employing a "hide-and-strike" method of long-range attack. They lifted themselves above the cliff, let off a volley of their missiles, and touched back down for re-arming. This would keep them out of the Red Dragon's airspace and they would be less open to attack, despite the fact that they had a tougher time aiming at their targets because of the distance. Sheridan spotted a passageway up the side of the cliff, and began carefully proceeding upwards.

Sheridan had no sooner noticed a Red Dragon sensor placed atop the cliffside than a rain of light artillery shells began impacting all around him. He relayed a quick attack order to his drone tanks, which approached the sensor tower and attacked it with missiles. Sheridan kept watch under the endurance of artillery. His two repair drones were quickly at work fixing up any nearby tanks, including his own, but they were barely making any sort of headway in the bombardment. His drone tanks fired another volley of missiles and demolished the Red Dragon sensor.

Sheridan did not expect what came next. A fleet of fifteen Red Dragon jets flew overhead and turned around for attack. Sheridan targetted one of them and his missile tanks began firing. Team Fenix engaged the rest while Project anti-air defenses quickly activated and began impaling the Red Dragon jets with Flak shell after Flak shell. The Red Dragon jets were in range of Sheridan's forces and let off a volley of lasers. Many of the lasers missed, but Sheridan could see and feel the impact from the few that hit his tank. At least command tanks were the most durable unit (aside from the Nova Dragons) on the planet, so by a relative scale, the damage was minor. Nigel's team continued to engage the enemy jets. One, then two, enemy jets lost altitude and spiraled downwards, being shredded by Flak shells in the process. Another volley of lasers was fired--this time, spread out across Sheridan's entire group, inflicting significant damage on his drone tanks and nearly destroying one of his repair drones. Nigel's team kept up their assault, and so did Project defenses, and within moments five more enemy jets were shot down. The remaining eight circled backwards and prepared for a return to their base, but not soon enough, as several Project anti-air missile launchers locked on and ensured their destruction with Scourge and Avenger missiles.

It was quiet for a few minutes, and in that span, Sheridan's repair drones began infield repairs on his group while Team Fenix re-armed, and the construction units touched up the defenses and replaced their lost emplacements. The quiet ended when, one by one, a large force of Red Dragon tanks began appearing over the ridge. As the enemy tanks approached one by one, so too did Sheridan and Nigel destroy them one by one. Choke points were always a viable David-and-Goliath type of defense, and Sheridan was using them successfully. Two dozen Red Dragon tanks were blown up as they rounded the choke point, and Sheridan's team was barely scratched. Then the tank assault ended. Sheridan decided to go on the offensive now. Nigel's team swung around the cliff somewhat for a better view. Sure enough, the Red Dragon's army was trying to scale the cliffside passageway. A vulnerable position it was, and Nigel sprung an idea. He relayed their coordinates to Sheridan and Sheridan relayed an attack order to the Groundshakers. They let off a single volley of shells, and explosions rocked the other sie of the cliff. Slowly and cautiosly, Sheridan ascended the cliff and prepared to round the choke point into Red Dragon territory.

Team Fenix returned to their pads for a change of strategy, as their repair crews quickly removed their missile launchers and replaced them with high-capacity bomb bays. The adjustments would require a few minutes, so Sheridan needed to make the first move. He rounded the bend.

Looking down over Red Dragon base Wyvern, he saw the exact extent of his Ground Shaker assault. The cliffside was cracked slightly, and the pathway was little better. Half of the Red Dragon's tanks had been knocked off of the cliffside and had rolled down the side, crashing into and disabling several Red Dragon anti-air defenses. The remaining tanks were at too far a range to attack. Sheridan relayed an attack order to the Groundshakers, and within moments, three Ground Shaker shells flew in from over the cliff and impacted the Red Dragon tanks. Sheridan was amazed at the sight. The force of the explosion instantly destroyed a few, but it sent debris--and a few Red Dragon tanks--in all directions. A few rocks broke loose from the top of the cliff face and tumbled down. Sheridan thought up an idea. He relayed a different attack order to all Hellstorms, and could see the results as the artillery impacted the Project side of the cliff and sent more dust, dirt, and debris rolling down into the Red Dragon base. Like the Sea Dragon before them, Sheridan was now trying to blast his way through a cliff with artillery. Artillery lacked the punch that the Sea Dragon's missiles had, but it was working, albeit slowly.

Nigel and Team Fenix flew overhead to attack the base. They dropped their incendiary bombs upon several strategic targets--namely, the remaining anti-air and other defenses--before circling around for a run back to their pads. The Red Dragon defenses melted from the bombs and were destroyed. The path was clear.

A few more Howitzer explosions, and a large cluster of boudlers broke loose from the cliff and rolled down into Red Dragon hands. Sheridan watched as several Red Dragon construction vehicles were busy at work with the anti-air defenses, and were crushed underneath. Sheridan winced at the thought, then drove down the cliffside pathway with his group.

Red Dragon defenses were in a shambles now, and Sheridan seized the opportunity--and the fresh hole in the cliff--to send volley afte rvolley of artillery fire down upon it. He gave instructions to his tanks to engage and destroy any active Red Dragon units. The artillery took care of the remaining base structures, Sheridan's army took down the remaining enemy units, and Team Fenix mopped up. Minutes later, only wreckage was left, and their construction crew was busy at work recovering any useful technologies. Among them were assorted artillery targetting routines and schematics of warhead compounds, but the most prominent among the discoveries was the Red Dragon jet they had captured themselves. The body of the jet was of an unknown type, but a search through the Red Dragon's remaining database entries provided full schematics for it. The chassis was codenamed "Hawk." It was a sleek chassis, clearly designed for VTOL use, and could outpace any Project VTOL. Most Project VTOLs could barely travel faster than 600 km/hr in flight, but this one could reach a good thousand km/hr. Its armor plating was an interesting compound as well, capable of withstanding enough Flak shells and missiles to down a good Tiger VTOL. Analyzing the materials, the crew reported that the cost of producing such a chassis would be low. Unfortunately, further analysis of the armor compound revealed that it had literally no thermal shielding. One or two lasers could easily melt the jet and send it to Crashville. Nigel's forces may not need this chassis for their jets, but at least by analyzing an enemy jet, they gained an idea of how to more-easily defend against Red Dragon airstrikes.

Sheridan was a bit disturbed when the casualty report came in. Sheridan and Nigel had played the cards to their favor and suffered no damages, lost drones, or casualties. Strangely, though, the Red Dragon had suffered no casualties either. They had lost a sizable airforce and ground army, as well as one of their bases, but they had taken no casualties. It was almost as if the base was abandoned, or being controlled remotely--either of which would have explained the easy victory.

Sheridan opened the hatch and climbed out of his vehicle for a good look around. Sure enough, the enemy base was in shambles and everything useful had been taken by Project hands, yet Sheridan was left wondering exactly why there would be no living persons inside of the base. Could the Red Dragon be playing a game with them, just as Sheridan and Nigel were when they levelled their own base?

Sheridan caught ear of a distant enemy tank approaching. He relayed orders to the construction crew for a quick remote base. Repair facilities, airpads, and tons of defenses. Whatever army was approaching in their direction, it wasn't over yet and Sheridan would have another battle on his hands.

They had barely put the finishing touches on their sensors when they spotted it. Aireus instantly identified the approaching enemy as the Nova Land Dragon. It was the size of a fortress, and if Aireus's previous report was any indication, would fall by no easy means. It had a fortress-size turret with two dual missile launchers and two large railgun-class cannons. For a treaded tank of its size, it was remarkably quick. Sheridan looked at it and noticed two sets of treads on each side, covered in heavy armor--the impenetrable "Dragonplated armor", as the Project would later call it--and with mini rocket launchers on the armor. It had two plasmite flame launchers on its front fender, and three smaller Flak launchers on its back fins. As it approached, Aireus warned Sheridan, "About your orders...give them now, or never."

Sheridan paused for a moment but, deciding not to ask why, gave his orders. "Okay, team. Attack its weapon turrets, flanking if possible. Retreat at minimal damage on opposite side of cliff." Sheridan radioed Nigel. "According to Aireus, relay your group orders now or not at all."

"Roger that, Sheridan." Nigel relayed similar orders to Team Fenix.

As the Land Dragon approached, the radio crackled with static and Sheridan's radar screen went blank. Aireus looked at Sheridan. "Nova Land Dragon is designed to intercept, decode, and jam any transmissions it detects. The jamming is short-range, but rest assured, anything within that range is unreachable by communications. Unreachable even by your command systems."

Sheridan nodded. He had never met a jammer that he didn't dislike, but the Land Dragon's jammer was the worst, preventing him from even relaying orders to his comrades or drones. "We'd better back out of range, just in case." Sheridan retreated to the cliffside, but only one of his two repair drones followed. He was atop the cliff, at the choke point, when his radio cleared from the Land Dragon's jamming signal. It moved closer to the group. Following their standing orders, the group engaged the Land Dragon while Sheridan could only watch. Nigel left the bttle and landed near Sheridan's tank, radioing Sheridan, "That was some static it was broadcasting. I couldn't even talk to Team Fenix."

Flanking the Land Dragon was difficult, so Sheridan's group did their best to simply surround it. Like the Sea Dragon before it, its turret was rotatable, but the rest of its weapons systems could only fire straightforwards. Unlike the Sea Dragon, the Land Dragon was keeping a better aim on the group. It fired a few missiles and shots into the group while they countered with shells, Team Fenix's lasers, and more missiles. Sheridan kept an eye on the Land Dragon. As according to their orders, his group concentrated their fire on the Land Dragon's various weapons systems, and it was working, but painfully, as the Land Dragon incinerated three drone tanks with its front-mounted flamers. Within another minute of combat, the Land Dragon's three plasmite flamers were scrap. Two units, badly damaged (even after only one shot) were retreating in Sheridan's direction. The Team Fenix jets continued to circle the Land Dragon, letting off volleys of lasers, but soon they as well were retreating in Sheridan's direction to their pads.

Now that Sheridan's forces were largely in retreat, the Land Dragon was starting to win against the remaining units. The Land Dragon fired several volleys of missiles towards the cliff, knocking a few tanks (drone and piloted) off of the pathway and down below. Sheridan and Nigel summed up the situation and retreated themselves back to their outpost on the safe side of the cliff while the Land Dragon pounded away at the cliff and eliminated all retreating tanks except three (two of which who were the first to retreat). Sheridan sent a message towards base HQ for reinforcements, but by land, the reinforcements would require a good seven minutes to arrive. The cliffside pathway was too slim for the Land Dragon to use, and the cliff too sheer for its treads to climb, but as the Sea Dragon before it, it began blasting the cliffside with volley after volley of shells and missiles. Two minutes of relentless pounding went by as Nigel, Sheridan, and Team Fenix waited and watched for the first signs of danger. The cliffside cracked slightly. Suddenly, the pounding stopped. Sheridan was uneasy about what the Land Dragon was doing. It could be waiting for them on the other side, or it could be pausing for a moment before it finally breaks through. Aireus looked at Sheridan. "It's up to something..."

Sheridan looked back. "Aireus, you talk about this tank as if it's alive..."

Aireus responded. "If you had seen it in its trial runs, so would you. It's just playing with us."

Project reinforcements were five minutes away. Nigel volunteered to take a look. He ascended to get a good view of the area, then proceeded over the cliff. Sheridan's radio crackled as Nigel sent word. "Sheridan. Radar and communications are clear. The Nova Land Dragon is nowhere in sight."

Sheridan replied to Nigel, "Roger that, Nigel. What's the situation?"

Nigel radioed back. "Good thing we retreated as we did. The Land Dragon didn't leave anything on this side of the cliff. No defenses, no airpads, no nothing...and that cliffside looks like a piece of Swiss Cheese from my position. The path along it was shot to heck. I don't know where the Land Dragon is, but...."

Sheridan's radio went silent. "Nigel, you there?"

Sheridan spotted Nigel flying back over the cliff, descending, and touching down upon the airpad. He radioed back. "Encountered some static on my end. Probably the Land Dragon's jammer."

Out of nowhere, the ground behind Sheridan exploded in a vicious cloud of debris as an incoming enemy shell hit with fortress-strength impact. The ground shook. Sheridan looked at the impact. It was a small impact--perhaps 2 feet wide--for the cloud of dirt it had thrown up. Counter-battery sensors went to work and before Sheridan could say "rail gun", a calculated blip appeared on his radar about 1 mile north. The Ground Shaker batteries activated and began firing towards that location. Sheridan saw the shells impact at that distance and could make out a large shape in their clouds. "Land Dragon! Everyone--standing orders remain. Eastward retreat path towards previous power resource."

Heavy rail gun shels flew through the air as the Land Dragon fired once more in their direction, knocking out their Ground Shaker batteries. CB Radar confirmed the Land Dragon's location, now 3/4 of a mile northwards, but that was still too far for the Hellstorms to counter. Sheridan's radio started crackling as the Land Dragon approached within jamming range. Now, even if the Land Dragon fired artillery in their direction, their CB radar would fail to activate the Hellstorm batteries. Team Fenix ascended to attack altitude and prepared to engage. Before either Team Fenix or Sheridan's tanks could get within range, though, a few explosions richochetted off of the Land Dragon's armor, and it turned westwards to counter.

Sheridan was startled. "We didn't fire that...who did?"

A few unknown tanks, titanium white in color, moved into distant view and engaged the Land Dragon. The white tanks focused their firepower on a single area of the Land Dragon--what appeared to be a small fin standing behind the Land Dragon's main turret. The fin exploded, and Sheridan's radio cleared, his radar re-activated, and the Hellstorm batteries sprang into action. Whomever the white tanks were, they had just knocked out the Land Dragon's jammer unit.

Without any hesitation, Team Fenix engaged, followed by Nigel. Their reinforcements finally arrived, and Sheridan quickly routed them to his control and approached the Land Dragon for battle.

In minutes, the Land Dragon's weapons systems (except for the main turret's twin rail guns) fell like chipped paint from a wall. Sheridan had lost a few drones in the attack, and the white tanks were hardly scratched, but now the Land Dragon was virtually defenseless. Unfortunately, no gaps in its outer armor had been created, and ... what's this? Sheridan watched as the Land Dragon performed an unprecedented feat.

Several panels in its armor opened, and the remains of its weapons systems were quickly tucked inside. The panels closed for a moment. Two large wing-shaped panels opened up from its sides and extended, revealing a quad set of rocket launchers on each new wing. Its two rear fins folded over, and new stabilized fins--each with one bomb bay--folded out. The Land Dragon itself split into several pieces. The turret, wings, chassis, and rocket launchers hovered into the air at 20 feet up, and each treaded propulsion unit activated as its own small tank. Now, in place of one Land Dragon stood four armored tanks and one transport-sized hovering attack unit.

The hovering portion of the Land Dragon fired several dozen ballistic rockets from its launchers, and they all impacted around Sheridan's forces. Surprisingly, none of the rockets detonated. Aireus grabbed Sheridan on the shoulder. "Don't move even one tank!"

Sheridan shouted at Aireus but relayed the order. "We're sitting ducks if we can't move! Why stay put?"

Sheridan's question was quickly answered. One of the drone repair vehicles kept moving around on its repair runs when a medium-sized explosion rippled through its armor and shattered it. Sheridan was shocked. Aireus told Sheridan. "Does that tell you?"

Sheridan recognized the situation. The Land Dragon's rocket salvoes had inflicted no direct damage, but instead, had instantly transformed the vicinity into a hostile minefield. At least the white tanks weren't in that vicinity. They engaged the Land Dragon's four tanks with full force and were winning. The Land Dragon--the hovering portion that was left of it, anyway--moved into Sheridan's area.

Nigel relayed the next order. "Team Fenix, engage!" Team Fenix, now fresh from a quick re-arming, circled around the hovering Land Dragon, impacting it with their laser blasts.

Some of the laser blasts were causing visible damage upon the Land Dragon. Sheridan analyzed his console and picked out a strategic portion of the Land Dragon, right underneath its wing where its rocket/mine launchers had previously been stored. "Fire!!"

Sheridan's blasts not only caused visible damage to the Land Dragon, but they must have hit its internal systems as well, for it noticeably reeled back (and descended slightly) from the damage. Nigel noticed this and relayed a similar attack order, directed at its left underwing, to Team Fenix. The Land Dragon let off a few railgun shells, destroying one of Sheridan's drones and inflicting some--albeit minor--damage on Sheridan's tank itself. Team Fenix swung around and let off another laser volley, causing the Land Dragon to drop to the ground with a thud.

Sheridan repeated his order. "Fire!!" They fired more missiles into the Land Dragon as Team Fenix swung around for a third pass.

"Fire!!" Sheridan's group let off another volley as the Land Dragon seemed to crumble slightly into the ground. The Land Dragon's energy signature was starting to fade from Sheridan's radar. "Fire!!"

Suddenly, the Land Dragon burst asunder in a ground-shaker sized explosion, strewing turrets, pieces, and a few launchers everywhere with the rest of its debris. As if on cue, the Land Dragon's mines detonated simultaneously (though harmlessly) and sent several pillars of dust into the air.

When the dust cleared, Sheridan looked around for the white tanks. They were gone. There was no white wreckage anywhere, so it was clear that they had retreated. There were three scrapped hulls from the Land Dragon's mini-tanks lying around. The fourth mini-tank was nowhere to be seen. Sheridan thought. I guess those white tanks got their prize.

Sheridan's construction crew approached the Land Dragon's wreckage and began leafing through it for salvageable parts. They found two interesting items--one of the Land Dragon's mine launchers, and a large portion of its twin railgun turret. Rail guns were well-known to Project forces, for they had been both on the giving and receiving ends of them during the war against Nexus; but when packing for the trip, Sheridan chose to leave the railgun and Nexus-class chassis schematics (among other things) behind, because not every Project technology could be taken along for the ride, and those were--in Sheridan's opinion--expendable. Sheridan was puzzled, though, about the mysterious appearance (and disappearance) of the white tanks. Help had arrived, but from where? Who were they? What sort of technology did they want off of the Nova Land Dragon? Why did they just up and leave when victory was imminent?

Sheridan would have no more time to think about the white tanks. Aireus grabbed Sheridan's attention and pointed westwards. Sheridan looked and immediately ordered an all-out retreat. Whatever advantages could be gained from the implementation of the mine-launcher and rail guns were unknown; but Sheridan needed them, and he needed them now . . . .