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Silver Wings

© 2000-2001 Strata Drake of NEWST.

Chapter Two: Ghost Hunt

Sheridan conferred with the Phoenix base coordinators after Nigel took Team Phoenix along with Falco's group Seadrake away for the dig. With both Falco's and Nigel's groups away on a mission, it would be Sheridan's responsibility to maintain their patrols and reconnaissance sweeps. Remote tower 34 had picked up some interesting energy signatures. With base defenses set on automatic, Sheridan agreed with the coordinators that it should be his duty to go out and investigate it. He grabbed his radiolink and conferred with the other Raiden tank pilots about their mission for a moment before leaving HQ.

With Drake alongside him, Sheridan walked to Raiden's garage space and climbed aboard his new command unit. Modified Wyvern chassis, modified hover populsion, and command systems similar to the original schematics. Although the paint was still wet by a few months (Sheridan's method of calling it "new"; after all, Project embedded phosphor paints required only one week to completely dry and seal), it was constructed using the schematics of his previous command unit; thus the tank was "familiar" to him. Drake jumped into his favorite spot (the co-pilot seat, which Sheridan even had re-fitted for Drake's four-legged construction) and Sheridan seated himself in the piloting chair before switching on his systems. His command screen verified that the Raiden group pilots, twenty in number, were waiting for him. He switched on the three repair drones by remote--repair units being the only vehicles simple enough to automate using drone technology--and drove out of the garage.

After a quick briefing to his group, he led the way eastwards into the mountains, then south to Sensor Tower 34. That tower stood seven miles due south through snow-laden forest and blanketed travel routes, and the stray energy signature was registered one-half mile west of that, forty minutes ago--and still registering a blip on long-range scanners.

Travelling at group speed, 60 mph (relatively fast, considering that 1/3 of group Raiden is comprised of tracked units; the other 2/3 were equally divided between wheeled and hover vehicles), ten miles meant a flat ten minutes to arrive at ST34. The radar blip was still westward. If it wasn't for the light layer of falling snow, group Raiden could almost see the blip on visual, rather than relying on radar screens and HUD projections.

Sheridan radioed his group. "Everyone, remain stationed here--at least for now. Wheeled units 1 through 5 follow me to investigate it. Everyone else stay put on defensive stations. Could be anything from a snowman to a military outpost out there; so let's go easy." -- words that fate itself would render prophetic, for the Phantoms did indeed refer to their sensor towers as "snowmen". As ordered, five of the wheeled units--assorted light caliber weaponry like flashlights, lancers, and one Firespray (Sheridan's term for an incendiary mortar) unit--separated from the group and regrouped around Sheridan's unit. Sheridan led the way westwards toward the blip, three repair drones and five pilots following him behind.

The sensor blip came into visual and was identified as a Phantom-built sensor tower. Sheridan breathed a sigh of relief. "It's okay, men; just another Phantom construct. Everyone else rendezvous at this location; we're going to check it out."

Sheridan analyzed the Phantom sensor tower. Similar in construction to standard Project sensor towers, but Sheridan was a bit more interested in its instructions. Analyses revealed a hint of its instructions--like all sensor towers, it was scanning for electromagnetic signatures, motion signatures, and thermal signatures, and broadcasting them via radio transmissions. With a little investment of time, the Project researchers could possibly crack their broadcast code and access Phantom sensor scans. Or, given all the sensor towers they had built in their own vicinity, and the Phantoms' long residence in the area, the converse could occur and the Phantoms could tap into Project sensor sweeps.

There would be other things to think about, though. Another blip--recognized as a Phantom recon unit--appeared on Sheridan's radar screen. It appeared to be a small hovertank with a light cliber weapon mounted on top. It approached to within 200 feet of Sheridan's group. Sheridan gave it a puzzled examination. "What are you do--"

Immediately, the Phantom recon unit wheeled about and took off. Sheridan gave a quick order. "One lancer/firespray with me. I'm going after it--everyone else stay here!" The two selected units from his group followed him as he charged his engines to full speed and drove off (repair drones in tow) after the unit. Radar confirmed the tank's heading and Sheridan plotted an intercept course as best as the mountains allowed.

No sooner had Sheridan regained a visual sighting on the unit than it disappeared from radar. Sheridan blinked--the unit was still in sight (and moving fast), but it was gone from radar. The unit drove around another bend and out of sight. Sheridan never did spot the unit again--he had lost it.

Sheridan looked back at his blank radar screen. Suspecting a jamming device of some sort, he picked up the radio. "Men, did you see that?"

The answer came back loud and clear from one of his comrades. "Sure did. What disappearing trick did that guy pull this time?"

"I don't know..." Sheridan radioed the rest of his group. "All units, rendezvous at my coordinates--we've got a puzzle on our hands." As they waited for the rest of the group to catch up, Sheridan kept thinking about how the Phantom unit disappeared so quickly. Glancing at Drake, the answer hit him much like a Tempest (fortress rocket) missile hitting a tank. Drake always had a slight resemblance to the Nova Sky Dragon, and the Sky Dragon had the one device that could answer the situation--stealth technology. By employing stealth devices, the Phantom unit disappeared from radar much sooner than it could disappear from visual--and with the twisting mountain trails and snow-white Phantom units, they didn't exactly stand out from the terrain. If it wasn't for radar, Sheridan might never have noticed the Phantom unit approaching them in the first place.

The rest of his group arrived upon the scene to rejoin. Sheridan radioed them all. "Looks like the Phantoms borrowed a piece or two off of the Nova Sky Dragon after the battle--they've got stealth-tech to hide from radar. Add in their camoflauged color, and--who knows?--they could be anywhere in the terrain; even next door to us without being noticed."

One of his comrades responded with a question. "Sheridan. Three months ago during the war, you observed that wherever the Red Dragon was, the Phantoms weren't far off. If vice-versa applies, does that mean--" Their conversation was interrupted by an incomnig mortar shell, medium caliber, which impacted the ground nearby and inflicted minor damage.

Sheridan's command tank systems plotted where the shell came from. "Everyone defend yourself--firespray unit, counter fire!" The Firespray unit aimed in the uphill direction and fired a shell. It fell short of the cliff and impacted against the hillside. The incendiary compoounds melted the snowfall upon impact, but otherwise refused to ignite. Another shell flew in and impacted the group. Sheridan plotted the source and the Firespray unit returned fire. The shell flew true this time, over the hill and imapcting out of sight. Another shell flew in their direction.

Sheridan glanced at his radar screen and perceived an idea. He gave some modified coordinates to the Firespray unit, they countered with another shell, and this time they hit their mark, as the shell flew over the hill, impacted on top, and some metal debris fell over the edge. Wheel rims, armor plating, and the remnants of a mortar turret. Sheridan examined the debris as it fell. Its blood-red color gave away its identity. "Red Dragon!?"

Sheridan ordered the group to move northwest along the trail, and radioed the group once more. "Either that's a straggler, or they're back. One way or another, we've got to know what it was doing. Everyone to the hilltop!" They proceeded up the side of the hill (at an angle for traction) and in a few minutes reached the top. The incendiary compounds from the Firespray shells were steaming against the cold ground as they melted the snow in the area. A shattered Red Dragon tank was visible lying at ground-zero of one blast area. The Firespray pilot called Sheridan. "Looks like those coordinates worked."

Sheridan nodded. "I guessed that their artillery unit wasn't going to stay put. Looks like I was right..."

Sheridan noticed another thing suspicious--tracks. The snow had all but stopped falling now, and there was a pair of tracks proceeding far northwards. "Let's find out where that thing came from." Sheridan led the way, following the tracks northward through the white mountains.

The tracks stopped in the middle of a small plain. Sheridan spotted nothing in the area, but was worried. More precisely, he was worrying about what he didn't spot--there was no snow in this plain at all. Although snow had been falling all night long and through the earlier hours of the day, this plain was empty of it. There were no signs of snowplowing, either. Sheridan took a wise-spectrum radar scan of the area and received interesting results: The ground they were standing on was warm--about 35 degrees Farenheit, just above freezing. Obviously, the heat from the ground had melted the snow. But, heat from where?

Sheridan initiated an electromagnetic scan of the area. The ground registered positive. Sheridan was puzzled, but decided to try an idea. Accessing his database systems, he drew up a Pre-Collapse military map of the area. Overlaying it on his radar screen, he found the answer. "Signed, sealed, nuclear missile silo." Recalling Aireus's advice about Pre-Collapse generators, Sheridan recorded all scans, analyses, and searches he could into his computer for later (and more detailed) analysis back at home base.

As they waited, Sheridan identified a welcoming party coming their direction--a lone Red Dragon cyborg mech. It came into visual range and quickly opened fire with a small-caliber 80mm Howitzer. Sheridan ordered his laser units to return fire. That they did, and in three shots they shattered the cyborg.

The ground seemed to rumble underneath them, and Sheridan ordered the group to back off. They retreated to the edge of the plain as the ground opened somewhat, creating a chasm 200 feet wide by 50 feet long, and perhaps 20 floors deep, and revealing what should have been a nuclear missile, but was not--Sheridan registered no nuclear activity from underneath, nor were any missiles visible on the inside; instead, eight elevator lifts appeared from inside and hoisted several combat tanks to the surface before returning down below. The tanks grouped on the opposite side of the chasm, armed their weapons, and began firing.

"All units, fire at will!" Sheridan's comrades returned fire. Laser blasts and missiles flew over the chasm to the Red Dragon tanks as they countered with cannons and rockets. Within a few volleys, two Red Dragon tanks were reduced to smoking wrecks. Sheridan's repair vehicles quickly escorted themselves to his comrades for infield repairs. A few more volleys later, and their enemies were reduced to two tanks. However, the elevator lifts from inside appeared gain and lifted over a dozen cyborgs to the surface. Sheridan fired at the cyborgs as they hopped off the lifts, set up their positions, and fired Scourge-strength missiles in Sheridan's direction. His group took damage; some pilots retreated to the rear and were replaced with other comrades previously waiting behind the front lines.

The cyborgs were falling quickly against Sheridan's lasertanks, but it was not over yet. A lift appeared and a Red Dragon sensor/hovertank appeared. It sped off quickly as the silo doors slowly shut and the last of the Red Dragon cyborgs fell to Sheridan's lasertanks.

Sheridan's tanks cooled off their weapons as the repair drones kept work on the infield repairs. The Red Dragon sensortank disappeared from radar and visual, but in its wake, left a nice fresh trail of melted snow to the north. As soon as the repairs were finished, Sheridan ordered them to move out. "Looks like they're toying with us again. Trying to determine exactly what we're made of...let's see if we can put a stop to that."

Sheridan's group gave chase. Since they had to stay together, they had little hope of catching the Red Dragon unit, but if the Pre-Collapse maps held true, there might be another covered missile silo to the north. The prospect of an underground enemy was a chilling one; most Pre-Collapse missile silos in this area had subterranean connections to each other, which means that if the Red Dragon took over one silo, they could takeover all the silos, use the nuclear missiles at their discretion, and hide from their enemies at a moment's notice. If so, then the only way to shut them down would be to go down there and destroy the silos from the inside.

Sheridan was in luck. Another snow-melted plain came into visual with the Red Dragon sensortank driving across it. The silo doors opened, and like the previous, no nuclear missiles were visible inside, but instead several Red Dragon units were being lifted to the surface. The sensortank sped off to the north as the Red Dragon units attacked. Sheridan could not get a good look at the attacking units, nor could Drake, but one thing was certain--they were fast. The attacking units, ten in number, traversed the mountainsides and flanked Sheridan's units. His comrades tried to return fire, but except for the lasertanks, the enemy units were too fast to hit. Sheridan typed a few commands on his system to access the targetting protocols. Similar algorithms were used for their drones during the early stages of the Red Dragon's War, but by loading those routines into his scanners, Sheridan might be able to help his comrades out some more. The Red Dragon units, in the midst of flanking, paused and fired off Lancer-strength missiles into the group, sending the repair vehicles into a tizzy to fix the damages.

Sheridan activated the algorithm and relayed his radar map to all of his combat units except the lasers. After a small pause, the group aimed precisely along those marks and now, with successive salvoes of rail shells and missiles, were scoring hits on the enemy units and shattering them in three salvoes apiece. Sheridan watched the silo doors close again as a few more of the Red Dragon units fell to their fire. "They're still just toying with us...northwards!" As with before, the Red Dragon sensortank left a brilliantly visible trail behind it for Sheridan to follow.

Sheridan's group followed the trail northwards again. After a few minutes of travelling, the trail split in two directions--one to the northeast and the other to the west. Sheridan took the northeast branch and within minutes, arrived at their home base from the western entrance.

"What the..." Sheridan was puzzled, but at least they were home for now. Sheridan thought of an idea. "Reserve seadrake units, respond..."

Five pilots responded to Sheridan's radio call, and Sheridan briefed them. "There's a speedy Red Dragon sensortank somewhere to our west, and we can't let it get away. We need all the spped we can get, so you guys come along. All non-hover Raiden units remain here."

Except for the three repair drones and one laser unit, all other Raiden group members were to stay home. The five pilots from group Seadrake drove their hovertanks to Sheridan's location. Without another word, Sheridan took off to the west to chase down the sensortank.

After a few minutes of trail-following, the Red Dragon tank was still nowhere to be seen, but at least to Sheridan's consolation, there were sounds of a few combat weapons being fired across the hills for a minute. His now-smaller group kept following the trail, and after five more minutes of travel, spotted bullet and cannon shells lying about a snow-cleared area of the trail. One set of tracks led southwards, but the trail they were following led northwest. Deciding not to check out the southward tracks (which were probably from Phantom units), Sheridan led the group northwest.

They soon arrived at a crystal-clear lake, and the sensortank had passed clean through it. Sheridan's group sped on down to the shore and across the water. The energy signature from the Red Dragon sensortank was starting to appear on radar, but it wasn't within visible range yet. One minute of travel, and they crossed to the other side of the lake, located the enemy's tracks, and continued to give chase.

More mountains, trees, snowfall, and tracks through it to follow. The tracks were marred slightly with occasional drips of tank fluid--a clear indication that their quarry was now damaged and thus they should be catchin gup to it soon. After a few more minutes of travel, they arrived at the ocean shore and could see their damaged enemy escaping northwards across the water. With the speed of the Seadrake units, Sheridan's group chased down and disabled the Red Dragon unit. Unfortunately, by knocking its hoverdrive off-line, they also sank it, and would be unable to recover anything from it.

Strangely, though, its signature was still registering on radar scans--and as far as scrap heaps go, travelling northeast at a surprising rate. "What the heck...?" Sheridan could only deduce one possibility--sub-aquatic propulsion systems. At least it was still visible on radar; Sheridan and his hovergroup gave chase.

However, after three solid minutes of chasing them across water, the blip suddenly disappeared from radar as an island came into view. Sheridan recognized the island--several jets of airfleet Phoenix and hovertanks from group Seadrake were waiting at the entrance to the Pre-Collapse establishment inside of which they originally found Aireus. Sheridan radioed the units. "What's the situation?"

One of the Phoenix pilots responded. "Hard to's been an hour since Nigel and Falco went underground with Aireus. Lieutenant Bryson came back up a few minutes ago with some data disks, but other than that, we've had no response from them. According to Bryson, there's a genuine nuclear missile underground in the base, and someone else too--he says Aireus is helping the rest to avoid some security traps. There's someone down there."

Sheridan responded quickly. "It's got to be the Red Dragon. Ran across a few silos of theirs that they were using to store units for their armies."

The pilot responded. "No way?!? I thought we finished them off months ago!"

Sheridan nodded. "So did I.... However, this site is potentially a Red Dragon base. We shouldn't be hanging around for long--we've got to go back to base."

The answer came back. "But what about our men down below?"

Sheridan paused and thought about it. Logically, if the Red Dragon built an aboveground base on the outpost, then Sheridan should take everything--jets, materials, and all of group Seadrake--back home to safety. However, that would also mean abandoning Nigel, Falco, Aireus, and Shaera to that location. Or they could leave the group there and maintain a remote establishment on the sea. It was a deadlock between the two choices, and neither one looked good.

Sheridan received a call from the Raiden group members. "Commander! Long-range sensors are registering Red Dragon activity near our vicinity, and they're approaching home. Defenses are set on automatic and we're charging them up. We can hold them for now, but we may need additional firepower--over!"

Sheridan made up his mind. "Load up the command units and let's take them all back home--they may need the additional defense. Leave two hovertanks here for our men and keep that sensor tower up 24-7. Let's move!"

The Phoenix pilots helped load Nigel's command jet and Shaera's support jet into one of the cargo trucks, and one Seadrake pilot climbed aboard Falco's command hovertank to drive it. As ordered, two hovertanks were left behind for Nigel's team and the sensor tower was fortified for long-term use. Everything--and everyone--else followed Sheridan back to base.

It took ten minutes to arrive back at home base. Already, the sounds of combat were underway. Sheridan gave orders to the Phoenix pilots to fly & fire at will, while routing group Seadrake to base command and assuming command of his own, group Raiden.

The Red Dragon energy signatures intensified--a clear indication of high numbers--and began approaching the base at a quick speed. Sheridan uploaded the modified targetting algorithms to the base HQ coordinators (just in case) as the first wave of Red Dragon units appeared over the western ridge. Sheridan couldn't get a clear reading from the approaching units, but the recognized them as the high-speed combatants from beforehand. Group Seadrake remained alert at the northern entrance to their base while airfleet Phoenix took to their wings and started their first attack run.

The Red Dragon group scattered as the Phoenix jets attacked, dropping incendiary bombs and firing lasers. Only the lasers hit their mark, disabling a few of the attackers, but the rest returned fire skywards at the Phoenix jets, inflicting moderate damage on them. Sheridan ordered the Magmarock (incendiary) howitzers on-line and gave coordinates for firing. The artillery shells flew through the air and, upon their incendiary impact, melted the snow and caught a few of the enemy units on fire. Those units melted down while retreating back to where they came, but the others kept up their attacks--this time focusing on their base defenses. The attackers' shells were impacting against their defense walls, but the walls were holding--for now. Sheridan moved group Raiden towards the front lines to attack. Using their lasers, they compensated for airfleet Phoenix's fire, and with Sheridan directing them, they were scoring more hits upon the attackers than were the defenses.

Another group of blips--twenty in number--approached from the north, and group Seadrake was quick to engage them, hovertank against hovertank, circling about each other in an ongoing out-flanking attempt. The enemy blips kept arriving from the west, and Sheridan kept up their defense against them, with artillery and group fire.

Sensor Tower 27, to the west, reported several more blips coming in from that direction, at higher speeds which could only mean aircraft. Sheridan transmitted the corodinates to team Phoenix at their pads, and within a few minutes, the Red Dragon jets were flying in on-scene. Team Phoenix engaged the enemy jets with freshly-armed air-to-air missiles. The jets' armor proved more resiliant than expected, and all of the Red Dragon jets returned fire against team Phoenix with missiles alike. Each side received similar damage, but with the anti-air defenses mixed in, the advantage was in Project territory. Of the enemy jets, half were shot down, and the other half were retreating at heavy damage. Surprisingly, those jets landed a bit outside of the western entrance--not very far for safe re-arming.

Sheridan noticed a few Red Dragon repair drones mixed into their attack group. Sheridan ordered his group to take them out, and they did so in a few salvoes. Red Dragon tanks rolled onto the scene, and Sheridan's comrades targetted their missiles at the tanks while they kept firing their lasers at the mobile units. Using missiles on tanks proved more accurate (not to mention more effective), while the lasers continued to damage and destroy the mobile units.

Another group of Red Dragon jets flew in, armed with bombs this time. The base coordinators ordered all noncombatant personnel into the reinforced structures for protection as the jets started bombing their base structures. Base HQ took substantial damage from the hits, as did the factories and generators. Their AA defenses fired at and shot down several of the Red Dragon jets.

Red Dragon blips were starting to dim from radar, a clear indication of enemy numbers winding down. The last wave, however, was comprised of two Dragon-chassis tanks. The Red Dragon units stopped firing and withdrew in preparation. Sheridan watched as the Dragon units rolled onto the scene and identified them as two command units. Sheridan gave the attack order against the command unit. The three units grouped their forces and rolled towards the front base. Upon their command, the remaining Red Dragon tanks opened fir on one solitary defensive post, and due to combined fire (not to mention one bunker buster), quickly shattered it. Sheridan returned fire against the BB unit while the Phoenix jets took shots at the enemy command unit. Minor damage, as could be expected from Dragon-strength units. It aimed at another defense post and its group opened fire, taking it out in a mere few seconds with focused firepower.

Sheridan looked at the enemy commander. "I could play that way too. Raiden units, concentrate fire on my mark..." Sheridan targetted one of the Red Dragon tanks, and with his group's firepower, took it out in one salvo. Sheridan turned to the next Red Dragon tank and in a similar salvo, blasted it too.

The enemy commander returned fire against Sheridan's group--specifically, at the repair drones. Each drone fell within one enemy salvo apiece. Team Phoenix added their firepower together to take out another single Red Dragon unit. The enemy commander returned fire against their defenses. Team Phoenix changed tactics and concentrated on one of the enemy commanders. Sheridan assisted them, and inflicted considerable damage against the commander. It returned fire against Sheridan's comrades, and inflicted enough damage for the comrades to retreat for repairs at the facility. With a second strike, one of the enemy commanders retreated from the field while the remaining commander took the lead and attacked the base. Sheridan ordered a strike on the remaining commander. It countered by attacking Sheridan's own unit, inflicting some 30 percent damage in one salvo, at which Sheridan retreated for his safety and repairs while the Phoenix jets gave support against the commander.

Glancing at group Seadrake, Sheridan spotted their hovertanks fighting effectively against a third Red Dragon command unit, of no less armor strength than the other two. The hovergroup needed no support, as they had already sunk most of the Red Dragon's hover units and were concentrating their fire on the now-retreating enemy commander.

Sheridan returned his attention to the lone Red Dragon commander and its forces. He looked closely at it as they fired, and noticed the commander using an emergency system--an EMF generator similar to that of the Nova Sea Dragon. However, judging by the relative inactivity of its support tanks, its EMF generator was a defensive tactic only. Sheridan siezed the opportunity to attack the enemy tanks. The tanks returned fire, but under Sheridan's own fire, did not last long and fell within two salvoes apiece.

The remaining Red Dragon commander was a bit more difficult. It had no forces to mobilize, but still refused to retreat while its emergency EMF generator protected it from Sheridan's attack. Sheridan ordered a complete cease-fire; missiles and shells would have little (if any) effect against an EMF, and the enemy commander had especially high thermal shielding against lasers. Group Seadrake returned from their bout on the waterfront, fleet Phoenix returned to their pads, Sheridan's comrades held their fire, and Sheridan ordered the defenses put on standby.

The command unit hailed them, and Sheridan received it.

"Well met, Project Commanders. More resiliant than expected."

Sheridan was in no mood for salutations and shouted back over his radio link. "What is the meaning of this attack?!?"

The response was so terse that it was almost mechanical. "Rendezvous at coordinates 90-75 to negotiate invasion-of-territory by Project subcommanders. Arrive within 012 hours or execution will commence."

Sheridan was shocked. "What?!?"

Another harsh response. "Rendezvous at coordinates 90-75 with 012 hours, or execution will commence." Under its EMF protection, the command unit left the scene. Indicating stealth technology, it disappeared from radar even before rounding the first hill and rolling out of sight.

Sheridan ordered all units back to the garage, except for the Seadrake pilots. The coordinates given to him were 10 miles NW of their position, located on a moderately-sized island in the Arctic Ocean. One thing troubled Sheridan however. "Project subcommanders" could only mean one thing, and Sheridan realized this with a shock.



(click and drag to reveal answers)

The Red Dragon's new residence, underground in missile silos, gives them a large defensive advantage. But does it give them any weaknesses at the same time?

There is one weakness associated with the Red Dragon taking residence in nuclear missile silos; it will be demonstrated in the next few chapters.

Apparently, both the Red Dragon and the Phantoms have access to radar-stealth technology. Could there be some connection between the two forces?

Speculate as much as you will for now; I have made a decision about this issue, and will reveal that answer much later into this story.