© 1999-2002 Strata Drake of TWZ.
The damage warning alarm on Sheridan's console blinked again, indicating 60 percent damage. Sheridan retreated with his group as they endured another harsh salvo of anti-tank missiles. The Sky Dragon kept firing, but as Sheridan evaded, the missiles exploded in vain up against the hillsides that soon got in the way. Sheridan looked at Drake. Drake was looking back with at him with a truly fearstruck expression. Drake wasn't programmed to understand the exact situation, but even for a pet mech, he knew something was wrong and was afraid. Sheridan looked at Nigel, whose head was buried in his arms upon the console and was repeatedly muttering something like "this can't be happening..." Sheridan looked back. The Sky Dragon would soon be upon them, and even if they had truly disabled one of its engines, they were still outmatched.
Sheridan gave a distressed sigh. He looked at Drake and Nigel again. Then, slowly picking up the transmitter and holding it in his hand for a few moments, Sheridan closed his eyes and issued the one command that he was previously afraid of. However, Sheridan had barely finished saying "damage report" before the Nova Sky Dragon appeared once more on top of the hillside as it approached. The report came in almost instantaneously, but Sheridan could pay it no attention now...survival was the top priority as the Sky Dragon launched a few missiles in their direction. He retreated his group--quickly--further into the mountains and around another corner to avoid the missiles. There, he saw it. The forest fire. When the Sky Dragon dropped its plasmite bombs an hour ago onto their remote power resource, a few nearby trees had caught ablaze and the fire was spreading. The sun had since disappeared beneath the western horizon, and the sky was dimming to a dark navy-blue, but the forest fire provided ample lighting of the mountains. A crazy idea breezed through Sheridan's head, and he ordered a new travel path...straight through the heart of the fire. If luck held out, their thermal shielding would protect them from further damage. The Sky Dragon would lose visual contact with them once they entered the blaze, and hopefully, radar contact would be lost as well. It was their only chance.
Sheridan confirmed the order and his group strayed off the mountain path into the burning forest. The Sky Dragon followed for a minute at its normal (quick) pace, but it stopped at the edge of the fire with its sensors on full, as if trying to locate them in the fire. Sheridan's view of the Sky Dragon was blocked by all the burning trees that now surrounded his group. At least the ground itself wasn't burning, and the trees weren't in much danger of falling. Sheridan kept a vigilant watch behind him and crossed his fingers as his group drove over the other side of the hill and as the Sky Dragon was occluded behind it. Suddenly, a few explosions rocked the forest as the Sky Dragon fired a few howitzer shells in their direction. Howitzers...at least without a line of sight, the Sky Dragon was firing blind. It was trying, though. No howitzer shells impacted directly, but the explosions occasionally came close enough to inflict blast damage as Sheridan's group surmounted the burning hillside and proceeded down its other slope, down to a riverway below.
Luck was with them, at least for the moment. On the other side of the hill was a steep slope that they easily (but not dangerously) slid down until they reached the river. Sheridan ordered his group to proceed upstream in the northeast direction. The sound of rushing water identified that a waterfall should be nearby. Quickly but cautiously, Sheridan's group hovered upstream at full speed while the repair drones attempted to make infield repairs. Sheridan's radar confirmed a miracle as they approached the waterfall--there was a cave behind it. Moreover, it was a dry cave with plenty of space for all of their group. There were no visual signs of the Sky Dragon anywhere, nor were there radar signatures, and the Sky Dragon's howitzer shells kept impacting the forest behind them. Of course, the Sky Dragon was invisible to radar, so it wouldn't make a radar signature anyways, but Sheridan hoped for the best as he led the way underneath and behind he waterfall into the cave.
By now, Nigel had finished his mourning for Team Fenix and was looking around in worry. "This cave might not provide much protection for us, you know...."
Sheridan nodded. "Maybe." He switched on his tank's headlights for a good look around at the cave. It was very much as his radar had informed him. Large enough to house his entire group, yet deep enough to be hidden from overhead radar scans. The river in front of the waterfall twisted several times, which would offer some additional stealth to radar. Furthermore, since the entrance was covered by a waterfall, audio and visual scans of the waterfall would register little other than the falling water itself. Sheridan switched off the headlights and listened. Besides the sound of rushing water, there was a frequent 'thump' heard through the above ground, and with each thump, an additional layer of cave dust was disturbed. The Sky Dragon must be near and searching for them. Sheridan waited. He gave a silence order to the group before shutting his tank down, and his group followed suit by turning off their engines and lights.
More falling water. A few more Sky Dragon footsteps above. The footsteps diminished in volume, as if the Sky Dragon was walking somewhere away from their vicinity, and soon they were lost. Sheridan could do little else but hide. Drake had taken his attention away from the action and was now asleep on the cockpit floor. Nigel himself was wide awake. Sheridan was a bit tired, so he told Nigel to examine the damage report and give him a briefing in the morning. Nigel examined the report, and Sheridan took a moment to rest his eyes....
And then, suddenly, Sheridan awoke to the sound of Drake hopping up onto the console for a good look out the cockpit window at the morning-lit waterfall guarding their cave. Fortunately, night had passed without further attack. Sheridan was rested, but a bit weary. Nigel awoke soon afterwards. Sheridan looked at him before activating his tank systems. "Nigel, what's the damage report say?"
"Couldn't tell...you switched off your tank systems last night, after all. I tried getting a good visual look at our group from above the hatch, but that was a no go. So I decided for some shut-eye."
Sheridan nodded. Of course the damage report would be unavailable if the tank's systems were switched off. Sheridan switched on his tank systems, typed a few commands into his console and the report came up on-screen, and believe me, it was not good.
Sheridan could count the surviving units on one hand. There was his command unit, of course, with himself, Drake, and Nigel riding inside. There were two construction units holding four members of the construction crew and two members of their research team. There were two repair drones, with two more members of the research team riding one in each. Sheridan frowned. Of the 100 officers sent for this mission, Sheridan and Nigel were down to a small handful of eight other officers, none of which were combat officers. Furthermore, all the combat units they had produced before and during the fight against the Sky Dragon had been destroyed. Team Fenix was a memory that only Nigel could speak of. Aireus, their robotic informant, was gone. Power reserves were critically low, and worse yet, an analysis of their technological database entries showed signs of damage. Even if they could secure a few power resources, the factory schematics were too damaged to use, and the power-generator schematics were all but deleted. At least the repair units could heal the damages to their group.
Sheridan shook his head in disbelief. Such was the power of the Nova Sky Dragon...? That type of destructive power was beyond belief, even when they had previously witnessed and fought against the previous two Nova Dragons. It could be reasoned that the Nova Sea Dragon was testing them, and the Land Dragon toying with them, but the Sky Dragon removing its gloves and hitting them with all its superdestructive might. Either way, Sheridan recognized the bottom line of the situation. Sent to help the scavengers against the Red Dragon army, Sheridan's forces were now in dire need of help themselves, and they would not locate any help by remaining in the waterfall cave.
Nigel looked at Sheridan. "Any ideas?" Sheridan frowned and replied, "We need reinforcements, and we won't get any if we just stay here." Nigel nodded.
Sheridan radioed his remaining comrades and they soon responded. "Alright, team.... . . . Let's move out."
Sheridan led the group out of the waterfall cave and back onto the riverway. Reviewing his radar screen, he picked out a simple route back to their base location. Wherever the Nova Sky Dragon could be, Sheridan needed to check back at base to see what could be salvaged. His units followed him, and they proceeded along the river for a half mile beore turning off into the mountains. Sheridan caught a good view of the forest fire. The forest must have been too wet to burn entirely, for it was not completely burned to the ground. Knowing that stealth was a mid priority right now, Sheridan charted a route in the unburnt sections of the forest, around a relatively circular (and large) burn area that was last night a lush forest like the one he was now driving through. After a few more minutes of travel, Sheridan caught glimpse of a blackened shoreline, lodged between two cliffs. The nearby hillsides showed telltale signs of one major battle. Burn marks, craters, blasts and small pieces of debris littered the ground everywhere. This was their former base, levelled into the ground by the Sky Dragon itself.
Sheridan got a good look at what had once been their base. It looked less like a battlefield but more like a bleak grey cemetery. As his group proceeded down the trail to their base, they kept a vigilant watch for any unit debris that could be salvaged. They located a few turret pieces from one of the railgun drones on the mountain path and loaded it into one of the construction units. They proceeded down into the main area of their base and searched for remains. No such luck. Not only had their defenses been levelled into the ground, and their base structures blown up by Sky Dragon antistructure missiles, but what had once been the remains of their structures were now reduced to ashes and then burnt into the ground. There was nothing that they could even recognize, let alone have any hope of salvaging. No defensive emplacements, sensor datacharts, intact technology database entries; there literally was nothing left for them here.
A small blip appeared on Sheridan's radar screen up the mountains. Its energy signature was similar to one of the titanium-white tanks that helped Sheridan's forces destroy the Nova Land Dragon. He could identify a white sensortank moving into range of their base debris and pausing for a few moments as it collected the visual data. It soon drove off back towards the mountains.
Sheridan relayed a follow order. Whomever these white tanks belonged to, they had something against the Nova Dragons, and as such they might become a plausible ally for Sheridan. His group followed the path carved out as the white blip moved across Sheridan's radar display. Sheridan was keeping up with the sensortank, but it still was leading at an impressive distance, and as it rounded another bend in the mountains, disappeared from radar. Sheridan's group caught up within a minute, but there still was no trace of the sensortank anywhere.
Sheridan sighed and looked at Nigel. "dang..." A few familiar, yet distant, buzzes sounded across the eastern hillside. Scavengers! Sheridan ordered a retreat back to ex-base. Scavengers may never have been much threat, but Sheridan's group of survivors were in no condition to pick any fights. A few minutes of travel time provided the way back to their former ex-base by the shoreline. The distant buzzing of scavenger vehicles (presumably cycles) didn't diminish in the distance but kept up in intensity as Sheridan grouped his units in the center of the battlefield.
A few more minutes passed by as the buzzing of scavenger engines slowly grew louder. The scavenger vehicles appeared suddenly, but instead of from the mountains, they appeared from the shores. Six high-speed (by scavenger standards) boat units drove by the shoreline in a group. When the scavengers spotted Sheridan's units, their entire group slowed down and landed near shore for a good look. There was another buzzing--a deeper buzz, probably that of a larger vehicle, coming from the mountain path, and soon afterwards, a few scavenger jeeps appeared over the hillside and drove down to the beach. All but two of the jeeps were armed with what looked like scavenger rocket launchers.
Drake was looking at the scavenger vehicles with interest. Sheridan nudged Nigel. "We can't fight them..." Nigel muttered something, and Sheridan opened the top hatch to climb out. Nigel followed him as he jumped down from his command unit. The construction and repair crews did so as well and climbed out of their vehicles.
To Sheridan's surprise, the scavengers did not attack. One of the un-armed jeeps drove up closer to them and parked nearby. A scavenger, wearing what easily resembled a flak jacket and a red bandana, jumped out of the jeep. Two more scavengers in leather armor jumped out behind him. The three approached Sheridan. When they got within range, they spoke up. "Who of you is in charge, here?"
Sheridan and Nigel both answered. Sheridan asked the scavenger a question. "You didn't come here to fight, did you?"
The scavenger shook his head in negative response. "Nope. Your boats may be well armored, but even we can tell that you've got no fighters. This ..." the scavenger waved his hand around the battlefield. "... There was a base here yesterday. Was it yours?"
Sheridan nodded. "Yeah. We lost it all in the Nova Sky Dragon's assault --"
The scavenger seemed taken aback. "Nova Sky Dragon?!? You guys got it into your heads to fight that dragon? You --" the scavenger paused as Drake climbed out of Sheridan's command tank and jumped down upon the ground. "You ... uh, you, ... ? What is that creature of yours?"
Sheridan was quick to answer this time. "Pet mech, completely harmless. You can call him Drake."
The scavenger looked back at Sheridan. "Anyway; as I was saying. You guys tried to fight that thing? Either you are very brave, or you are very stupid to even think about confronting Nova Sky Dragon!"
Nigel interrupted. "Actually, the Sky Dragon confronted us...."
The scavenger looked at their tanks, and then at them. "I see...." He thought for a moment before continuing. "Wait a minute. You must be the Blue Project forces that we were told about earlier! I guess that means Bruno's job was successful."
That name rang a bell in Sheridan's mind. "You know Bruno?"
The scavenger continued. "Yep. We caught a small Red Dragon patrol off-guard, at night, and captured one of their jets. We loaded Bruno into that jet and gave him orders to go find help of any sort. Then we cleared out in case Red Dragon forces would counterattack us. We may have beat them that time, but we aren't exactly in any shape to defend against them. Which was why we needed Bruno to get help. I wonder ... where is he?"
Sheridan looked back. "He asked to remain on our continent in one of our cities while we took a small group--about 100 officers--overseas to find out what's going on."
Nigel interrupted. "We haven't been introduced, either... I'm the air commander for Team . . . " Nigel frowned for a moment. "I mean, former Team Fenix, Nigel Brute; Nigel for short. He's ground commander Lewis Sheridan--just call him Sheridan."
The scavenger looked at them. "We received word that you guys had slain the Nova Sea Dragon and were fighting the Nova Land Dragon as well. Preybird Scavenger clan, mobile team leader, call me Falco." He gave them a quick salute. "Brave or stupid, you destroyed two of Red Dragon's Nova Dragons. Red Dragon was always invading our territory, and smashing us should we try to defend ourselves, at least until we set up a truce line. Even still, we're at their mercy. Now that you've destroyed their two largest weapons, in my book, that makes you heroes." Falco extended his arm in greeting, and Sheridan gave him a handshake.
For the first time in Project history, first contact with scavengers had been made under friendly circumstances. There was a faint glimmer of hope in Sheridan's eyes. Nigel shook hands with Falco as well. Drake, interested somewhat in the conversation, walked over and sniffed out Falco, seeming to decide that he was okay before returning to Sheridan's side.
Sheridan was puzzled, though. "What do you mean, setting up a truce? You mean negotations, right?"
Falco looked away. "Well... I guess you could call them negotiations...."
Nigel spoke up. "We destroyed one of the Red Dragon's bases, "base Wyvern" just northeast of here, but it was empty of any Red Dragon officers. As if it was abandond. If you negotiated a truce with their forces, how?"
Falco was still looking away. "I dunno if you'll believe this, but ... Nova Sky Dragon was the mediator between the Red Dragon's army and us when we set up the truce. Under the terms of our truce, as long as we don't attack the Red Dragon themself, they don't attack us. They've even adjusted their defenses not to target our units when we drive by. Although when one of our men tried to actually enter their base, their inner defenses weren't as forgiving." Falco looked up at the cloudy sky. "Talk about this later. We should get going."
Sheridan responded. "Where, and why?"
Falco continued looking upwards. "You guys were being attacked and hunted by Nova Sky Dragon. Even if it was recalled back to Red Dragon base, it never forgets an opponent; it will return to be looking for you. And you don't have any strength to fight against it this time. You should come with us."
Sheridan nodded. "By land, or by sea?"
Falco thought for a moment. He pulled out a pocket communicator. "Jetboaters. Lead our heroes back home for us, you'll be a bit quicker than we. See you when y'all arrive. Over." A voice sounded over Falco's communicator. "Roger, Falco." There was some activiy on the shoreline as the boating scavengers started up their engines to prepare for departure.
Falco turned to Sheridan again. "Follow them...."
Sheridan climbed back onto, and then into his command unit, followed by Drake. Nigel volunteered to ride with Falco on the scavenger jeep across terrain. The construction and researc crews climbed into the remaining Project units. Sheridan gave a following order to the group and, together, they travelled to the shoreline where the scavenger boaters were waiting for them. Falco and Nigel climbed into the scavenger jeep along with the other scavengers, and in two groups, they took off.
The sea was a quiet one for Sheridan as his group followed the scavenger boats across the waters. Communications with the scavenger units would not be possible, due to radio wavelengths and the simple fact that Sheridan had nothing to say to the scavengers. They were actually a step more advanced than the scavengers the Project had met in the Western sectors of post-America. They had decent communicators, what appeared to be improved scavenger weaponry, and aquatic units of their own. Still nothing that the Project would truly call advanced, or even equal, but by scavenger standards they were a cut above the rest.
Due to the relatively slow speed of scavenger units, it took a full twenty minutes for Sheridan to arrive at the scavenger's home. It was a very large scavenger base. There were a few walls here and there, but most of the scavenger defense came from strategic placement near cliffsides, dug-out pits and trenches, and the shoreline itself. There were a multitude of buildings, all of which had a slightly less run-down appearance than most typical scavengers. There was one high-tech sensor tower prominently constructed near the center of the village. Five power resources were tapped and in use for the scavenger generators and fueling stations. A few large buildings--perhaps the size of a standard cyborg factory--in the area were probably the factories, while another building situated between two derricks was undoubtably the generator. Several scavenger dug-outs -- quasi-underground structures that served as a vehicle garage, with a ramp proceeding from ground to lower level -- were easily visible from the distance. And the entire area was bustling with town-like activity. There appeared to be a rifle range in the southeast area of the base, and a larger enclosed range that could be used to test assorted weapons for plausible use in combat. Most interestingly, though, were the patches of green in one area of the scavenger base. The patches of green had occasional flags and white marks stuck in them, and a few scavengers were visible walking around on those greens and swinging some sort of stick across the grass to send little white balls whirling through the air towards another portion of the greens. Nearby was a modest pond, and a few scavengers were visible playing in and near its water. Sheridan looked at the base as his group approached. He was most intrigued by the greens and the pond, which apparently were being used as recreational areas. Quite clearly, this was a scavenger tribe that had not seen much combat for awhile. Remembering Bruno's report given in the city of Renaissance, Sheridan reasoned that by negotiating some sort of truce between them and the Red Dragon's army, the scavengers could relax a bit. Relaxation was a welcome thought for Sheridan right now, given the concerns he had regarding the Nova Sky Dragon and their vulnerability.
As Sheridan touched land near the base, he could identify Falco's jeep nearby with Nigel hopping out of it. Nigel radioed Sheridan. "What took you guys so long? Taking the scenic route, maybe?"
Sheridan radioed back with a smile on his face. "Maybe...anything interesting on your end?"
Nigel returned the call. "I've got to tell you that in person. Anyway, Falco's ordered a few of their garages cleared out so we can park our hovertanks in them. That'll provide some cover against Red Dragon--and Sky Dragon--recon sweeps."
"Roger that, Nigel." Nigel relayed directions for the empty garages to Sheridan. Sheridan relayed the orders to his group. It took a minute or two, but Sheridan's group safely docked and parked in the scavenger's garages.
Sheridan gathered around with his comrades on top of the garage he parked under. Nigel walked over with Falco and two scavenger guards. Nigel started. "You won't believe what we saw on the way here."
Sheridan looked back. "Try me...."
Nigel continued. "The Nova Sky Dragon flew over our heads when we circled around where base Wyvern used to be. You should see the damage we inflicted on it last night! It was quite literally painted over with scorches, blast marks, and perhaps two dozen railgun impacts."
"Wait a minute...you said the the Nova Sky Dragon was flying?!? I thought we disabled one of its flight engines!"
Nigel answered. "They must've fixed the engine, but it definitely was flying. Also got a good look at its wings. We took out a good four missile launchers and five bomb bays during the fight. If anything, we may not have wounded it, but it's definitely impaired."
Sheridan sighed. "Yeah...but still, we don't have the means to fight against it now."
Falco was smiling, and he spoke up. "We may be able to help you guys out. Anything in return for your services."
Sheridan shook his head. "Thanks, but no thanks. Even with your power resources, some of our database schematics were damaged from the attack. Factory schematics in particular; we could't build more of our tanks if we wanted to."
Falco was undisturbed. "You could use our factories. We may not build much, but you might be able to build something of your own with them."
Sheridan thought it over. "Maybe... At least our weapon schematics are intact. We've also salvaged a few rail gun parts from our base. They worked against the Sky Dragon, but now --"
Nigel interrupted. "Sheridan, our research crew can handle the salvaged rail gun. You've got to cheer up!"
Sheridan looked back. "Sorry, Nigel. We lost our base, most of our comrades, and almost lost ourselves with them. Besides, we lost in a mliitary situation. The Sky Dragon didn't nuke our bases with nuclear missiles like Nexus had. It just ... beat the snot out of it. You expect me to cheer up after this?"
Nigel paused for a moment but continued. "C'mon, Sheridan. It can't be that bad. I talked with Falco on the way here. If there's anything he or his people can do to help us slay the Red Dragon's army and their Sky Dragon, they'll do it. Even if it doesn't work, at least they're willing to try."
Sheridan was about to answer Nigel, except that Drake suddenly jumped to Sheridan's side and, as if pursuing something, leaped about fifteen feet away from Sheridan in two bounds. Nigel looked back. "What do you suppose...?"
Falco, never having seen Drake before, was amazed at Drake's actions. "Must be a snake he's found. Mostly harmless, but there are a few every now and then."
Sheridan watched as Drake tiptoed forwards across the ground. Suddenly, Drake sprang forwards some more and let out a cloud of dust on impact. It was a snake alright. Drake had pounced on it like a cat and was now frying it with his small built-in torch. Sheridan walked over to where Drake was standing and looked at the snake. It was of an almost solid orange color and perhaps five feet long, and it was dead. Drake was proudly eyeing Sheridan as Sheridan examined the reptile. Sheridan thought to himself about Drake's programming. Drake's adaptable-intelligence routines were capable of almost anything, yet Drake wasn't specifically programmed how to hunt. Something about the snake had alerted Drake's sensors, and Drake reacted in an evasive manner, before deciding to examine the threat more closely. Then the snake, perhaps in trying to defend itself, tried attacking Drake, only to be later fried when Drake countered with his mini torch. The overall result was an amazing one, one with the semblance of a true hunting routine. Not knowing how to truly hunt, Drake had improvised rather well. Sheridan called in Nigel's direction. "Yea, he's caught a snake." Sheridan turned to Drake and muttered, 'now, Drake, what are you going to do with it?'
Drake, being mechanical, could not devour the snake like a true animal would have. Furthermore, since the snake was dead, it was fading from Drake's attention, so chances were that it would just be left there. And when Drake walked around over to Nigel, it was clear what would happen. Let come what did, Drake caught the snake but didn't know what to do with it. Falco did, however. He walked over and picked up the dead snake with one glove. "A bit small, but of the flavor variety." Falco looked at Sheridan and Nigel. "You guys must be starved. If you want breakfast, meet me over by the messhall near the rec pond."
For once since yesterday's breakfast (when Drake took interest in Aireus), Sheridan smiled. "Snakemeat?" The city of Renaissance offered much more than standard military rations, but snakemeat was still unheard of.
Snake may not sound like an appetizing meat, but nonetheless Sheridan was a tad hungry. Nigel looked at him. "Looks like we get to eat out today...."
Sheridan discussed a moment with the other officers then, as a group, they followed in Falco's direction towards the messhall, and breakfast was served. Compared to military rations, the meal was quite a tasty--and filling--one.
Still, Sheridan knew that even with scavenger help, their forces would be in no condition to pick a fight with the Red Dragon's army (let alone do a second bout with the Nova Sky Dragon) . Even if Sheridan could implement Project minilasers and perhaps a rail gun into scavenger vehicles, the scavenger's low armor strength would certainly be their demise up against Red Dragon arsenals. Sheridan looked across the rec pond as a player on the greens scored a birdie on the fourth hole. Sheridan knew what they needed. They needed something to stack the deck in their favor. They needed an edge . . . .