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Hero: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Tuesday, May 11, 2004 00:08 EDT



    They bivouacked again before dawn, and rose at sunset to keep moving. The local day was a little over nineteen hours, and at this latitude and season they moved for thirteen of it. That odd schedule also had a tiring effect. They went to sleep more easily, but it was neither comfortable nor resting sleep, merely a change of routine for the body.

    "Man, this sucks," Thor bitched softly as he leaned against a tree and tore at a rat pack. "Bites, stings, aches, scratches. You'd think they'd give us Armored Combat Suits for something this long."

    "Good luck, Thor," Doll replied, also quietly. "We're lucky we've got Chameleons. You know how rare the good stuff is."

    "Yeah," Thor said, darkly. "Too cheap to spend the money."

    "That's not it at all. Didn't you know?" Shiva said.

    "Know what?"

    "Ah," Shiva replied, settling into a squat over a stump of tree, after he'd poked it with a stick to ensure it didn't contain any squirming biters. "Listen, young student, to the history of our kind."

    There were snickers, but Thor and Doll paid attention. Gorilla finished messing with his controller and took two long, low steps over. From his outward perch behind a boulder, Dagger cocked an ear in, too. Bell Toll nodded assent to Shiva, and Tirdal sat carefully near Ferret.

    "First of all, all this technology is Galtech," Shiva began. "Some of it is Indowy, some Tchpth, some Darhel…and a hell of a lot of it Aldenata, acquired from caches and not understood. We can build this commo gear, but we still have no idea how it works, a thousand odd years after we first ran into it. Some we reverse engineered from what the Darhel sold us, because they won't tell us how it works. No offense, Tirdal."

    "None taken," he replied with a nod practiced to look human. "That's not my field, and they don't tell me about such things either. Our people are…castes? Sects? Regarding specialties. We do not do the communications gear that you speak of anyway. Darhel technology relates almost entirely to what you would call 'information technology.'"

    "I guess I knew that but had never put it in words," Bell Toll said. "Go on, Shiva."

    "So it's limited to start with," Shiva continued. "Then, things like the suits especially have to be grown in a tank with psi control. It takes a lot of mind power, which is where the Michia Mentat got their position." He paused for a moment, then said, "I suppose we're developing castes, too." He looked faintly disturbed.

    "Anyway, at the time of the Rebellion, we, meaning the Islendian Confederation, before we became a Republic, had settled a bunch of planets, mostly Posleen blight worlds, and were between the SSA and the Tular. Not an enviable position. Earth started this long-term disarmament, expecting us to follow suit. We didn't, because we still have Posleen to worry about. And now the Blobs, too.

    "So we had most of the military installations, a share of the Galtech weapons, and almost all of the weapons humans built. We were the perimeter, still are. Earth has the money and the politicians. And it's a good thing it worked out that way, or we wouldn't be here."

    "I could handle not being here," Thor joked, though he knew what Shiva meant.

    Ferret said, "Shut up, Thor, I want to hear this."

    "We had skirmishes for almost a hundred years, with the SSA on one side, the terrorists all over and the feral Posleen and some last holdout oolts along the border," Shiva continued. It was obvious that history was his specialty and passion.

    "The terrorist groups were mostly Fringer Freedom groups, people who wanted to separate off from the Core worlds with a smattering of local ethnic separatists. They didn't have a lot of general support, either group, but they scared a lot of people and made a lot of noise. And they forced more and more military to be diverted into the Fringe.

    "Finally, Earth began to realize it couldn't dictate terms to us; that was the time they were trying to impose martial law. Most of their ground combat forces were from Fringe planets. Virtually all of their officers were from Fringe worlds. A good bit of their heavy industry was in Fringe worlds. Damned near every single base was in the Fringe. We had the training, the material and the personnel. They had the stranglehold on Galtech. The Michia stayed remote and out of it, which is likely good, or we'd have human blight worlds, too. They would have been a powerful enough ally that Earth would have to waste systems to stop them. And they would have scorched their own share."

    "The Fleet commander in the Islendia sector was Patrick Sunday."

    "Him I've heard of," Thor said.

    "Who hasn't," Shiva smiled. "He was from the Core worlds and his family had been military for as long as the SSA had been around. But, despite that, he could see the way the wind was blowing. He made a deal with the SSA. The Fringe was in virtual separation from the Core. Taxes weren't getting paid, orders among the military were being ignored and planets were starting to figure they were 'on their own' and developing local militias. And in the midst of this were probes from the Tular, rising piratry and, of course, the odd terrorist."

    "The SSA finally gave up. Sunday convinced the majority of bomb throwers and their 'unaffiliated' supporters to come in 'hands up'. They were amnestied but prohibited from taking office. The ones that didn't go for it were ruthlessly hunted down, by their former 'colleagues' among others. And Earth permitted the Republic to split off."

    "It couldn't have been as easy as that," Dagger said. "Where's the money?"

    "It wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination," Shiva admitted. "But, on the other hand, no planets were turned into slag and no suns were detonated. Easy is a relative term."

    "And, really, Earth only relented because we had most of the regular hardware, but did not have Galtech in large quantities. We would have been a threat they couldn't ignore, and not believable as allies. It was lucky, because we basically outgrew each other. Had we been weaker, or stronger, it would have been a fight."



    "So that's why ACS are rare in the Fringe," he said, looking at Thor, "and reserved for very special occasions, and be glad you don't have one, because usually when we toss them into the meatgrinder, it means things are royally succulent and people die. Be glad you have that Chameleon at least. And we're DRT because we're masochists. Not because we get to kill a lot of things. We're tripwires."

    "I guess that explains it," Thor said. He believed it, but he didn't like it. "But I got to wear ACS once, on Tenarif. It was wonderful."

    "Oh?" Bell Toll said. "I didn't see that in your file."

    "It wasn't official," he said. "And it was while I was still infantry. Remember, I qual'd DRT last year."

    "Yeah, so what about it?" Dagger asked.

    "Oh, damn," Thor said, a glazed look in his eyes. "The suit supports you. You want to sleep, you lie down. It can wake you or put you under. It gives artificial neural feedback like bare skin would. It does nanosurgery to fix small wounds," he held up his welted hands to indicate, scored with saw-edged grass and bites. It was easier to sense one's surroundings with bare hands than with gloved, but there was a price to pay. "It uses stasis for major wounds. The AID talks to you, feeds you info, cuts out the crap you don't need and prioritizes the critical stuff. It'll stop damned near anything incoming, and you have real antimatter beads for weapons, no powerpack needed. Hell, it massages tired muscles and will sing you a lullaby if you really want. I got to wear one for a week during an exercise, as a backfill."

    "I'd heard that about them," Gorilla said, scratching the grimy stubble under his chin thoughtfully. The suits kept hair groomed, too. "Be nice for sleeping." His length meant that he often woke with cricks in his neck on deployments, after squeezing into awkward little nooks to hide and rest.

    "Yeah, well speaking of sleeping," Shiva said, "it's time to do that very thing. And I won't sing you a lullaby, Thor."

    "No problem," Thor said with a grin. "Maybe Doll will massage my shoulders."

    "Sure," she said. "With a rock."

    Thor was on watch again. The rest lay back to rest. Tirdal sat up, awake, through Thor's watch before he retired.

    "Meditating, Tirdal? Or just can't sleep?"

    There was no reply. Tirdal sat motionless in an almost lotus with his eyes focused on eternity, and it creeped Thor to hell. Eventually, he turned away from the Darhel, not wanting to see those staring eyes. He could still feel them.

    The next night took them into foothills. The peninsula they'd come from rose steadily to a ridge that joined a mountain range, and they'd be following the higher ground until they reached a plain.

    It was near midnight when Gorilla ordered, "Down!" in a harsh whisper. Everyone dropped silently into the weeds. Ahead, distantly, there was a crashing, rustling sound, muffled by the thickness of the woods. Breaths were restrained, motion frozen, hands gripping weapons and waiting for a threat, a release, anything to break the crisp, dry tension.

    "Stand by," Gorilla said. He ran a diagnostic, then said, "There's a cliff ahead. One of the bots fell and is out of commission."

    "Destroyed?" Bell Toll asked. "Aren't those things hard to damage?"

    "Not when they dislodge rocks on the way down and get crushed under a two hundred kilogram boulder."

    Shiva said, "So watch where you put your feet."

    The cliff appeared in their night vision as they approached, a dark line angling from the right. They were forced to take a narrow path along the edge of the ridge, the cliff gradually turning to tumbled, rocky bluff then to sharp slope before merging with the line of the hills. They walked with one leg bent against the incline, gripping vines and branches for stability as strained muscles trembled on the rocky ledge. The previous day's rain had mostly run off and dried, but enough dampness remained beneath fallen spiky leaves to create a slipping hazard, exacerbated by the surreal contrast created by night vision. As the bluff became a steep slope, Bell Toll stopped.

    "Angle us down, Ferret. There should be a leveling at the two hundred meter contour."

    "Got it, Sir," he replied.

    They'd gone only a few meters before Ferret could be heard to mutter, "Ouch!" over the net. In moments, everyone was twitching and cursing as small creatures chewed at their exposed skin, the bites and the acidic saliva causing sharp stinging pains. A nest of something had been disturbed, and the occupants were protesting this incursion.

    Shiva suddenly clutched at his helmet, fought with the straps and yanked it off. He didn't cry out, but the expression on his face was mean. They'd been at his ears and neck.

    "Retreat one hundred meters, leapfrog by numbers, now!" Bell Toll ordered and the troops scrambled to obey. Noise discipline suffered somewhat, as the minor but painful injuries were very distracting.

    "Keep the perimeter. Shiva, Tirdal, get people treated. Thor, Gun Doll, let us know if anything moves closer. And somebody give me a report!" Bell Toll said.

    "Antlike form," Ferret said, "but looks more like a roach. And the little fuckers bite like angry rats. Think they can fly or jump. I was sliding up on a downed log and out they came."

    "Got it. So watch for downed logs. Shiva, are you okay?"

    "Yes, Sir," Shiva replied. "Going to have huge welts on my cheeks, ears and neck, but I'll manage." As he spoke, Tirdal was spraying an anesthetic/antiseptic salve onto the bites.

    "I think I see a fragment of mandible," Tirdal said. "I'll need to pull it out. Permission to use light, Sir?" Darhel had better night vision than humans, but it was a miniscule little piece of sting he was trying for.

    "Yes, toss up a cover and keep it dim."



    Tirdal pulled his bedroll from the bottom of his ruck, spread it and drew it over their heads. Thus shielded, he could illuminate the wound. There was indeed a small, barbed piece of shell there, and he worried it gently out with a needle and tweezers as Shiva muttered, "Son…of…a…bitch!"

    "Done," Tirdal said. "It is oozing blood and should be allowed to drain. I see no need to lance it further."

    "Thanks, Tirdal," Shiva acknowledged. "Your turn."

    Tirdal held up his hands, which had a dozen small welts on them, though Shiva didn't recall him making any noise or fuss. He took the Darhel targeted nanos and sprayed Tirdal's hands down. There were a couple of stings buried in the skin, but they came out easily. Drops of violet Darhel blood flowed briefly.

    That done, the two of them worked the others over. Ferret was worst, with bites to his neck and almost up to his elbows where some of the fire ants, for want of a better name, had crawled under his cuffs. Dagger was almost as stoic as Tirdal. Gun Doll demonstrated a rich skill of invective, the backs of her hands being badly swollen. Thor, who'd been last, had one single bite.

    "Lucky bastard," Gorilla commented. He'd taken more than a few himself.

    Everyone treated, trash and gear recovered, they resumed, Ferret leading them around the nest and avoiding other rotten trunks. There was no hurry and no need to repeat the experience.

    That day they slept among old, weathered boulders, hunched against their bases or sprawled over their curves, the local sun pattering across them through long leaves. They woke stiff and sore, stretching and flexing to work out kinks.

    "Well, shit," Gorilla muttered.

    "What?" Bell Toll and Shiva asked together.

    "Lost another bot," he groused. "Checking…" he muttered and fussed with his controller.

    "I need cover while I go get it," he said after a moment.

    "On it," Dagger agreed, leaning over a boulder and ready to shoot. Thor went with Gorilla as close support, and the two hiked out fifty meters to get the device. The rest policed the area, then took cover amongst the formation, awaiting the prognosis.

    "Servos shot on one side," he announced. "Looks like cumulative wear and tear, grit inside and all those kilometers of walking. I can't fix it here. This is the oldest one I have, anyway. Want me to lug it along, Sarge? The sensors still work; it can sit watch."

    "We should be fine," Shiva said after thinking. "It won't help in a battle, it is mass we don't need to carry, and there's little enough to sense between here and there. We have more bots and the sentries will just have to be alert."

    "Gotcha. Let me set the destruct."

    Thirty minutes later, the team well down the slope and the sun still just up, an enzymic reaction followed by a small, hot fire took place in a hollow under a massive boulder. As well as the bot, all their accumulated trash was disposed of in the convenient inferno. It left a congealed puddle of metals and plastic residue. The latter would crack and dust with "age" in a few hours, leaving little evidence of their passage.

    Down the hill they moved. Downhill is not fun in the dark, loaded with gear, footing unsure, mud, debris and leaves that can slip or trip or entangle one. They were cautious, following a single file along Ferret's chosen route. Gun Doll's load caused her to slip here and there, once even puckering the tough fabric of her suit as she passed a broken limb while tobogganing down the slope on her hip. She limped slightly after that, especially when forced to put her entire weight on her right foot. Her only external reaction was to swallow a couple of pain pills and reach inside her suit to slap a nanite patch to her skin when they rested.

    "I'll be fine. Can't dance here, anyway."

    They were all taking damage. That was part of the job. Aches, pains, bruises and nicks, exhaustion and fatigue, blisters on the feet and collarbones grinding under the mass of rucks that strained the limits of the human body were familiar, if despised. Then they were ignored as mere background. No one took this job without understanding its risks, and while griping was a pastime, whining was not acceptable.

    Shortly, the ground started to flatten out to hummocky woods. Here and there the depressions contained puddles or mud, often with some local algae and slime analogs afloat. Ferret moved them between such obstacles when possible, both for comfort and because splashing mud and water were hindrances and noise hazards. Above them, saplings and limbs of heavier trees had been sheared off by some recent severe wind or tornado. The spearlike bases stabbed at the sky while the broken sections bowed low.

    Those and other occasional breaks in the canopy showed the stars wheeling overhead, bright and clear through a sky unbothered by industrial effluent or the lights of civilization. The local moon was ruddy rather than bluish, and showed a small crescent.

    "Pretty," Thor remarked at break time, tilting his faceplate for a quick glance up.

    "I've never seen stars so bright," Tirdal said. "Our planets have little wilderness."

    "We only get to see them out past the Fringe," Ferret said.

    "It almost-" Tirdal said, then twisted. He'd Sensed something. It was a large insectoid akin to the one that had jumped Ferret, mandibles wide, and was skipping forward. He dodged as it came, raising his punch gun and firing a shot that went wide. The bug landed beyond him, twisted in an odd eight-legged bounce and came back. It was in mid leap, ready to shear off chunks with those appalling jaws, when it fractured and tumbled with a sharp crack. It landed on him, but in a fall rather than a leap. Gun Doll and Shiva bounded over and rolled the wriggling corpse off him. The head was sitting by itself about two meters away, antennae and mandibles still twitching in a grotesque imitation of life.

    Dagger was alongside shortly, asking, "Are you alright?"

    "I am," Tirdal replied, sounding breathless. It might have been from the exertion of a fifty plus kilogram bug landing on him and the resulting wrestling match, or perhaps he was distressed at last. "Did you shoot it, Dagger?"

    "Yup. Through the neck, contact fused. I don't know where the brain is, but I figured if the head was separated, it was less of a threat."

    "Good shot!" Gun Doll said, impressed.

    "Thanks," Dagger acknowledged.

    "I owe you one, Dagger," Tirdal said. "Let me know. I'll take a shot for you."

    "Really?" Dagger asked. It didn't sound very Darhel.

    "Surely. But only in the leg."

    After a moment's pause, there were repressed laughs and snorks.

    "Are you otherwise okay, Tirdal?" Shiva asked.

    "Fine, and ready to move," he said.



    "Everyone else?" Shiva asked around. Getting nods, he said, "Then let's hump."

    They'd made good time so far. The next couple of days slowed progress immensely. They came to a narrow chunk of grassland that led into the savanna proper to the north. The grass forms and bushes were tall enough for cover, but hindered visibility.

    Gorilla switched the bots to manual and had them crawl out slowly under the grass. He guided them with an inertial joystick attached by a wire to his helmet, which was attached in turn to a small module, to which the wires on the bots were connected. The hair thin threads that the bots unspooled as they went were fairly tough, but were considered one-use items. Rewinding them would take additional mechanisms aboard the bots and the wires would be covered in crud anyway, even if they didn't break. He had a package of spares in his ruck, but they were a finite resource. With less cover for the troops and clear ground for the bots, it made sense to use them for a time.

    "What do you want to do, Captain?" he asked, slaving his image to the Captain's channel.

    "I want to see more," Bell Toll said after a moment's pondering. "Can you send up some flyers?"

    "Right away," he agreed. Clear ground was the bane of infiltrating troops, and they were understandably cautious. Still, if it were safe, cutting across would save much time over detouring to the south.

    Gorilla reached back into yet another compartment of his seemingly bottomless ruck and pulled out a handful of feathery stuff. He lofted it gently into the air and the bundle of small drones untangled and flapped free to fly above their likely route, buzzing and circling like dragonflies while feeding imagery back to him. They spread out and fluttered "randomly," each one a dumb eye sending back a single view that switched between infrared and enhanced low light, the twelve such views sorted by an AI and displayed for Dagger and the Captain. They could operate as a collective, like the swarm of bees, but were less detectable singly.

    The flock detoured wide around a family herd of something rhinoceros sized, arching shellbacks visible above grass while the snouts stayed near ground.

    "Herd beasts," Gorilla said. "Likely not very intelligent. But dangerous if they have hooves like that beetle thing did."

    While this was going on, Bell Toll decided the scientists would have a field day. The local life was insectoid on a scale never seen anywhere else, and they grew those armored carapaces that could stop small arms fire. What else here was new and arcane?

    "Well, that answers that question," Gorilla said with a tinge of disgust.

    "What?" Bell Toll asked.

    "The local flyers will attack my drones. I've lost two of the dozen," he explained.

    "Might make sense to limit the number you have airborne, then, if you've done a scan of the area," Bell Toll advised.

    "Will do." He brought eight of the remaining ones back, letting them alight on his shoulders like so many pets, though one wouldn't normally wad pets into a ball, albeit carefully, and stuff them into airtight pouches on one's harness.

    "Okay," Bell Toll said, "we may as well get going. It's likely going to take two nights to do this. We'll need to stop in plenty of time to pitch a camp. And no one trip anything. Ferret, lead on, then Doll. Tirdal, you'll follow Gorilla. Let me know if you sense anything."

    "Understood, and will do," Tirdal acknowledged. A human might have felt slighted, being bumped in position as a threat to stealth. No one knew how a Darhel took it, nor did they care. No mistakes that could spook a herd would be allowed.

    They made a good three kilometers in a low, slow crawl through and under the grass, getting dusty and sweaty and occasionally smeared by the mountainous piles of bug droppings that smaller scarab-forms were chewing into little piles to rot or wash into the ground. The stuff didn't smell like anything on a human world, nor likely a Darhel one, but it stank just the same, a rotting odor of fermented plant life and anaerobic bacteria.

    About an hour before local dawn, just as Bell Toll and Shiva were getting antsy, Ferret reported, "Got a depression here. Dry. Good spot to dig in."

    "Outstanding. Everyone stay put," Shiva said. He shimmied through the formation until he could see what Ferret saw. "Yes, that'll do fine. Let's get in quick, dawn's coming."

    That day found them skulking in the hollow for cover, wrapped well in blonde grass, with half-cylindrical camouflage screens overhead. They were close together, and kept two on watch at a time, dug into shallow fighting positions to the north and south. Nothing happened until after noon, and the sleeping went fitfully, sweaty and gritty.

    Just after the primary peaked in the blue sky that was brightly decorated with towering, puffy cumulus, local life intruded when a herd of smaller grazers browsed through on Gorilla and Bell Toll's watch. They approached slowly and started to wander by. Then, as if drawn to the smells from the camp, they turned towards it.

    "What do we do, Sir?" Gorilla asked.

    "We don't spook them, first of all," Bell Toll said. "Let's just hope they drift past. We won't bother them if they won't bother us."

    "Yes, Sir," Gorilla agreed, but kept a tight grip on his weapon. He held that pose while a family group of six crawled right over him, feet carefully avoiding the unsteady surface of his back after one step, mandibles clipping grass near him, then brushing against him, nuzzling his right cheek and ear. He was freaked but unhurt, and clamped down on his sphincters and nerves as the pony-sized creatures decided he wasn't food and moved on. "Glad that's over," he muttered.

    "It might get worse," the captain reminded him.

    "Thanks, Sir. You're all heart."

    True to form, it did get worse. The local pseudo-mammalian bat analogs ranged up to something the size of a pterosaur, and five of those rode thermals lazily around the grassland. Then, apparently sharp-eyed, they came over to investigate. Shortly, they were orbiting the bivouac like horrific vultures gone awry. The shadows were big enough to have provided shade for the team, if one were to perch spread.

    "What the hell do we do now, Sir?" Gorilla asked.

    "Well, don't shoot. That'll be obvious and might stir them up."

    "Yes, Sir. But I would like to do something to get rid of them," he insisted. "It's like having a floating billboard announcing our presence. And I think they're getting lower. I'd rather not be lunch either, seeing as those things can likely carry off one of these grass chewers."

    "Right. Got one of your bots out there?" Bell Toll asked, an idea forming. Heck, it might work.

    "About fifty meters in front of me, Sir," Gorilla agreed. "I think I see where you're going. We have it stagger about and see if one will attack it."

    "Yes," Bell Toll confirmed. "But be ready to scoot if they freak. We don't know how similar they are to Earth vultures or Garambi rocs."

    "No problem, Sir. Want me to shoot if they freak?"

    "Only if you're being attacked directly. Do it now, they're definitely lower."

    "Yes, Sir." He called up the bot as he clutched his gauss rifle closely, and sent the lumbering creature out at a trot, circling as if injured on its right side.

    One of the long-snouted flyers peeled off, looking amazingly like a fighter aircraft in an historical vid. It dove, wings spread rather than in a stoop, and opened its mouth. The teeth within were obviously meant for cracking shells and rending flesh. And it was huge. It might measure eight meters across the wings.

    Then it was on the drone, wings flared to airbrake, neck cracking down like a whip and jaws snapping shut. The mock beetle reacted exactly as programmed, and the molecularly thin spikes drove out, taking it through the jaw and face. It squawked, rather quieter than an earth creature, dropped to the ground and thrashed about, its clawed and fingered wingtips beating at the inedible, hurtful little morsel stuck in its mouth. Confused and wounded, it alternated between trying to flap away and flopping around in agony. The defensive needles withdrew back into the drone, but the damage was done. Staggering and disoriented, the creature fell over and twitched.

    Sensing something beyond their ken but clearly uncouth, the other four flapped for altitude and soared away to seek more familiar prey.

    "That done," Gorilla said, with a sigh of relief. "I think I'm going to crawl back and drain before I wet my pants. That okay, Sir?"

    "Nerve wracking, yeah," Bell Toll said. "It's shift time, so says me. Wake Dagger and do what you gotta do. And don't waste time. I'm next."

    When they prepped to move out at nightfall, Gorilla discovered the drone had been damaged worse than he'd thought. Reluctantly, he dropped it into the latrine slit, where its enzymes and destruct device would be unnoticed beneath the ground.

    Across the mini-veldt, the woods began again. This ridge was the one from which they would hopefully see their target. They slept at the base, dug in well under weeds, and posted sentries in pairs with Gorilla's small flying bots perched on trees, sensors wide open for any hints. He stayed up most of the day, popping chemicals to keep himself awake. That night would begin the infiltration proper.

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