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Hero: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Sunday, December 21, 2003 21:35 EST



    Gorilla huffed as he rose and ran. 0700 had come too early. His 0600 alarm call even earlier. He wasn't hung over, but he was cranky and fatigued even after a shot of drugs to wake him and stabilize his metabolism. He'd known better than to go drinking before an early call, and he'd done it anyway. He promised himself he'd never do it again, and knew he was lying. It was a character flaw in an otherwise very strong personality. He hadn't found a woman, though he did just often enough that he'd keep abusing himself like that for the unlikely chance of doing so.

    So here it was, not yet noon and he was sprinting uphill, in assault suit and extra armor, humping a blocky pack full of killerbots and sensorbots, a sharp rock in his boot top stabbing his calf and sweat greasing him.

    A warning flashed in his visor, and he dropped, skipping behind a thick bush and dodging whipping thorns. To his left, Gun Doll opened up with her assault cannon as she took a position behind a rock. The noise had three frequencies-the basso roar of the firing, the harmonic note of the rapid rate of fire, and the hypersonic cracks of the projectiles. Under those was the whine of the mechanism, barely audible, and the pitch shifting caused by the recoil mechanism varying slightly. The weapon wasn't as accurate as Dagger's rifle, but then, at twelve thousand rounds per minute at full rate, it didn't need to be. She ducked again to confuse anyone as to her whereabouts.

    Gorilla snapped a ball from his kit, tossed it gently out in front into the matted grass on the slope and ignored it. It unrolled into a large insectoid bot and crawled forward. He didn't need to see it; he'd seen thousands of them. It ran a wire behind itself, so he could read its sensors with less chance of detection than via a beam. Meanwhile, he was programming killerbios because he knew they'd be needed.

    Massive fire sounded right after that flash he'd gotten, ranging from pops and cracks to outright roars, screams and booms. A warning flashed across his visor. "ALARM TRIGGERED. RED TEAM GYSGT TIRDAL. ASSAULT REPULSED, FAILED. POINT BLUE TEAM."

    "Oh, blast the little freak," Gorilla muttered under his breath. He got another message, "CONTINUE WITH EXERCISE FROM FAILURE POINT." He nodded. There was no point in stopping; they were here to learn. They'd pretend nothing had gone wrong, move forward and keep trying. As they'd have to evade the Blue Team defenders now they, the Red Team aggressors were positively located, it would be that much harder. Blue was likely to score several more "wins" as the scenario adapted, before final no-joy was called. And at a case of beer per point, it was going to get expensive.



    "That clumsy Darhel can buy the beer," Gorilla muttered.

    An incoming message from Shiva said, "Gorilla, can you get us some distractions, please?" Shiva was still calm, even in the face of incoming swarms of dumb and seeking projectiles and "simulated" explosions that still shook the ground and slapped at the air.

    "Way ahead of you, Sarge," Gorilla replied. He inhaled a deep breath, smelling scorched earth and metallic explosive residue, got a good map image and pressed a key.

    Four of his small killerbios charged forward. Each was loaded with a kilo of hyper explosive (simulated). He took in his split screen in a glance, panning across all four "eyeballs" in the drones. They darted and bounced through the brush just like rabbits, which was no surprise; they'd been genetically engineered from that form. As they hit the five hundred meter mark from the defenders, he cut them loose to seek their own martyrdom and launched three flyer forms. Engineered from Islendian peregrinches, they flew out from him in three directions, and at randomly selected moments erupted straight up. They headed over the enemy and stooped into steep dives. Each was rated at .5 kilos and had a four shot canister weapon that fired a swarm of self-seeking flechettes. That done, he glanced again at the sensorbot he had trundling under it all and slugged its eyes' image to the rest of the team. He turned back to his controls and aimed the already orbiting swarm of killerbees in on terminal, across the line that was the best guess for enemy troops.

    His screen was twinned in miniature to the Captain and the Sarge. They could see what was happening if they chose or if their AI decided the info was important, or as, now, when Gorilla pinged them with a red flash. He had two more bots approaching the line and "created a distraction" by the simple expedient of blowing them in place. As the enemy shifted for cover, the sharp sensors on the flyers caught the movement. The swarm was slower, as it had to buzz the information electronically around its collective intellect.

    It worked, sort of. Interdiction fire ripped the flyers from the sky. The killerbees took damage, but each "death" only slowed their thoughts, not stopped them. Two of the rabbits disappeared under fire, but the third "exploded" mightily. If all was well, at least two Reds were casualties.

    Then an alarm shrieked in Gorilla's ears, a shock tingled his spine, and he said, "Aw, shit," and joined the Darhel, who had already been hit again, in simulated death. He'd been too busy running drones to move. Five seconds was all it took sometimes.

    But his distraction had worked; the rest of the team had moved and gotten hid again. Now Gun Doll was hammering away, Thor was providing cross fire with his grav rifle on full, punctuated with raps from the underslung grenade launcher as fast as he could trigger. His fire stopped as he "died," but Shiva and Ferret were around the other flank. One of Dagger's seeker rounds ripped into a grav-boosted dive over a rock, and the Captain tossed some cover fire around it.

    The Blue Team fire was much reduced. They were definitely taking casualties. Shiva died, which left Dagger as NCOIC.

    Dagger, being Dagger, didn't bother with his remaining team of Gun Doll and Gorilla, but just kept shooting. It was good shooting. Still. "Dagger, what do we do?" Doll asked.

    "Keep on 'em," was the taciturn reply. It was encouraging, but not very informative.

    Gorilla sighed. His last two bios, both rabbits were bouncing easily as targets. He'd been hoping he could backtrack the shots that would inevitably kill them.

    It sort of worked. One was shot, Dagger counterfired, and another Blue died. The other bio was ignored. The AI deemed its blast insufficient for the cover involved. Gun Doll laid down a blanket of fire until she got swatted. An incoming flyer nabbed Dagger, which left the Captain with a punch gun and Ferret with a gauss rifle against fortified troops with support weapons and drones.

    "I call!" Bell Toll said. "Well, that was succulent."

    Dagger was talking at once, which was an indication of just how angry he was. "Tirdal, you ever take a step without tripping something?" It had been the second exercise of three today where the Darhel had blown their cover. The third time he'd been slow to return fire.

    Shiva said, "Dagger, did you forget you were Fireteam Leader when I bought it?" His voice was still conversational.

    "Enough, everyone," Bell Toll said. "Let's go watch the after action. And don't sweat it. We worked well as a team, at least. Up until close to the end." He didn't mention Dagger, but the thought was clear to even non-sensats. "And even with that, we inflicted one point six to one casualties against a defended position."

    A bounce pod arrived to pick them up, dropping down on Shiva's beacon. It descended fast, a dot in the sky becoming an inverted cone that seemed to crash to the ground, its recoil mechanism preventing it from bouncing. They clambered aboard the shelf around the bottom, each backing into a hollow that mostly fit their gear. Gorilla was too tall and had to squat, knees bent. He'd ride it that way the entire trip, swearing colorfully about the machine.

    Tirdal was last, attaching the harness across his chest and letting the molecular weave bond with itself. The hardware behind his helmet snaked forward to provide commo and oxygen. There were minor sighs at his tardiness, which ended as the pod abruptly sprung off. Gs rose heavily to more than triple the local level.

    The ground shrank below them, the pod reaching a moderate altitude of 3000 meters in about seventeen seconds. It seemed to loiter at the top of its parabolic trajectory, then it began its descent.

    The designers of the bounce pod had been clever, but not very military minded. With very few exceptions, bouncing high over a battlefield was suicidal. With even fewer exceptions, rear-echelon personnel didn't like speed and altitude, especially when strapped to the outside of said conveyance ("vehicle" being too kind a term for the thing). The craft wasn't practical for combat, and terrified the hell out of support troops so they'd refuse to board. Other than a very few specific rescue operations-in deep gorges, for example, and even that was dangerous with protruding shelves of rock-the only use was for getting around a practice range. How the hell the damned thing had made it through selection in the first place, and who the hell had made a buck off it, and which masochistic sons of bitches actually enjoyed pogoing around with their lunches in their throats were long standing topics of bull sessions.



    The pod was descending. It was dropping like a rock. Bungee jumpers thought they knew what adrenaline was. If they had any idea...

    The ground came up fast. Faster. Despite familiarity, everyone except Dagger and Tirdal clenched and gritted their teeth. Dagger was a sociopath about such things, refusing to flinch, and Tirdal didn't have a human perspective on altitude as it became height and then "Oh-shit-we're-going-to-die."

    The pod hit the ground, their stomachs dropped into their boots, then they were heading up again, brains rattling in their heads as blood was pulled out of their brains.

    Luckily, it was only two bounces in to range control.

    Ration packs were the rule for exercises, so as to practice. Never mind that they'd be practicing with them for the next several weeks. It was SOP.

    "Hell, I can't eat after that," Thor said, looking a bit green around the ears.

    "Yeah, let's just sit for a bit first," Gun Doll agreed, panting. They both sought seats on the hewn wooden benches available under a shelter roof. Tourists would have found them rustic. To the troops, it was simply an indication of the military's cheap attitude about them. Why spend money for the grunts, when there were conference rooms that needed shamogany tables? They collapsed, still staggering, and dropped their harnesses behind them. Weapons slumped across knees or down to lean against the bench, but still controlled and with muzzles away from each other. An accidental discharge, even with the practice projectiles that evaporated upon hitting armor, would be messily lethal at close range.

    Soon, they were all seated, Bell Toll up front with the range instructor, a hologram building between them. "Tirdal," Bell Toll said.

    "Sir," the Darhel acknowledged. He and everyone else knew what was coming.

    "You've got the dexterity of a herd of goonyaks." The Captain's voice wasn't mean, but certainly had a ring of disgust to it.

    "Sorry, Sir," Tirdal replied. There wasn't much he could say against the charge. It was a human metaphor, and he had been clumsy.

    "Dagger," Bell Toll said as he turned.

    "Yo," the sniper replied around a mouthful of ration packaging.

    "'Yo, Sir,'" if you don't mind." Without waiting for a response, he said, "'Keep on 'em,' is not a very practical order, would you agree?"

    "Ah, hell. I'm sorry, Sir. But I was getting good shots and we all knew we were screwed anyway."

    "'Screwed anyway.'" There was a moment's pause and the Captain said, "If you have that attitude, yes. But look here," he indicated the holo and waited until he had everyone's attention. It only took a moment; they were fundamentally good troops, if high strung. "Had you paid attention to anything other than your shooting, you could have had everyone suppress for Doll, and had her lay fire from here," he waved a pointer into the image, sending minor ripples as he disrupted the transmission, "and then the rest of you could have closed. Think you might have done more damage that way?"

    "Yes, Sir," Dagger agreed, chastised.

    "Good shooting, yes. Keep an eye on other things, too. Gorilla."

    "Sir," the hulk replied. He knew it was about not moving enough.

    "If you want to sit still and be a target, we can arrange it."

    "I know, Sir. Over eager on the task."

    "Yes, and it cost you. But that was one hell of a job with the critters," was the admission, with a grin. "Can you do that on the run?"

    "I can, Sir. And will."


    They ate, they watched themselves screw up all over again in the holo, and a few snide comments flew at Tirdal, who had made more than his share of mistakes, being the new guy. But he'd also moved fast on the assault, and gotten into good cover. He had some raw edges still, but was no slouch and the rest of them knew it. He said nothing. Neither did they, after the initial cracks.

    "Okay, on top of all that," Bell Toll concluded, and everyone focused, "the incidents with feral Posleen are up sixty percent. Three God Kings came trotting into Bergen over the weekend, as you may have heard." There were nods. The three had come in as a co-ordinated attack, in fact, with almost 200 normals under their control. They wielded primarily sticks and stones, with a couple of scavenged shotguns and some flammable fluids, but it had taken most of an afternoon for the town Militia to round them up and exterminate them. Damage had been described as "moderate," but that included destroyed buildings and forty casualties. At least six had been fatal so far, with others likely to die from their wounds. "Well, Governor General Sunday is not happy, and we're about to start a series of patrols to crop the damned things again. So as soon as we're back from this mission, you can plan on some hunting." To the enthusiastic response he said, "I knew that would make you happy." It didn't make the captain happy. It would play even more hell with the evaluation schedule. But the troops would get to break things and kill Posies, which was the real point of having them.

    "So, all in all, we know what we did wrong. And I let it go wrong, to see how things would play out. More practice would be good, but it's what we've got. And we should be avoiding contact on this mission anyway. We'll do one more this afternoon, a sneak instead of a crash. Tirdal, stick close to Ferret and learn how to be quiet. Then we'll dog off and pack for lift."

    Tirdal nodded, the others murmured, and lunch was choked down in a hurry at the prospect of wrapping up.

    There were still mutters about Tirdal. There would be. But they'd disappear if he worked out to be as quiet as he was determined and stoic.

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