Episode 208: Dead Run
by Liberator CDN
The sun To was just rising over a ridge to the east of their position, joining its brother Phet in the sky. The T'Phetti who had been kept underground for weeks welcomed the sight of the twin orbs. The added heat made the darkness behind them fade a little. The humans barely noticed, the only changes being the increased polarization on the powersuit visors, and the higher hum of the suit's coolant system.
"Now as much as I'd like to call in the cavalry and get us the hell out of here, we have to maintain radio silence. We don't know what Freeman has in the way of communications gear." Rico paused for a moment, taking a suck from the food tube of his suit.
"Judging by the rest of his equipment, it's salvaged SICON stuff from the Bug Wars. Probably a Saskernet Mark VII." Gossard jumped in. He rattled off a few technical specifications before getting back to what really interested Rico. "...strictly line of sight type stuff. If we can get 9 clicks out, we should be able to radio for dust off."
"That's what I needed to hear Goss...Dizzy: Take Max and Zim and plot us a route out of here. We don't want to get boxed into one of these canyons without the firepower to fight our way out."
A heavily accented voice spoke up from behind Rico.
"Excuse me Major."
Rico turned to view M'Rette with another T'Phetti. "Yes, M'Rette. How are the other T'Phetti doing?"
"Fine, for the moment. Major..."
"Please. Call me Rico."
"Yes...Rico. This is I'Sil. She has lived here on Erebus for most of her life. She may have valuable information on this area that you might find helpful. She is also a mapper. She can tell you things that don't appear on the official maps."
"That would be most helpful. Since we don't have any talkboxes, you'll have to translate for Diz. Tell I'Sil we appreciate any advice she can offer."
M'Rette began to lead the young T'Phetti female to where the others were pouring over the holo projection of the surrounding terrain before Rico stopped her with a word.
"M'Rette. I can see your father in you..."
She smiled, and turned back to leading I'Sal to the others. Rico watched the group at work while he checked his weapon. Diz was arguing with Max regarding the route they should take out. Rico smiled. She was still beautiful. He remembered why he married her. But this thought led him down another path instead of the happy memories it should have evoked.
The day of his son's birth. The day is marriage, the happiness he had felt, ended. If he had just been there. If he had resigned his commission right then and there. He was a citizen; he'd done his tour. Things could have been different. How the hell would I know? he thought. I wasn't there. But still his boy, his son, died in that hospital. After that, it was just a matter of time.
"I know you still love her, Rico."
Johnny looked up. Doc stood beside him. He hadn't even heard the man walk up.
"And I'm pretty sure she still loves you."
Rico pulled out the clip on the antique Morita rifle and checked it. Loaded with pulse rounds. He slapped it back in.
"Doesn't matter Doc. It's been too long. We hadn't spoken in 3 years before this. It wouldn't work anymore."
Doc sighed and shook his head. "Rico...I saw tons of people get married right after the war. And I thought 3/4 's of them wouldn't last. Hell, I figured Zim and Miriam wouldn't last a year. But out of all those marriages, you and Diz had the best chances of all."
Rico looked up at his comrade, a dead look in his eyes. "Just leave it Doc. It's over..."
"Listen to me Rico, it wasn't your fault. It wasn't anyone's fault..."
"It doesn't matter anymore..." Rico stood up and said in a loud voice. "We move in 5, people." M'Rette translated the command into the T'Phetti language.
Rouche led the pair of recruits that were taking care of the prisoner's meals towards their cells. As much as he disliked it, he could see Freeman's reasoning behind feeding the sub-par recruits, test subjects and mundanes. If things deteriorated beyond their control, then they would make excellent hostages.
Even though he disliked it, it was still an excellent opportunity to train some of the human and T'Phetti telekinetics. He looked back with his mind's eye. L'Phos was performing superbly. The meals traced out in a long thin line behind him. Niven was another matter. His bundles were clumped in ragged bunches, and shaking fiercely. But he was working hard. The sweat poured off his face even in the climate-controlled powersuit. He knew the penalty for letting one of the bundles touch the floor.
Rouche chuckled inwardly. The punishment sessions allowed him to practice his abilities as well.
So lost in thought he was, he didn't notice the sight before him when he rounded the final corner. He didn't even notice when his two charges rounded the corner. They did though. Niven's bundles hit the floor with a series of wet thwacks. Rouche was just opening the door in his mind to let loose his fury when he finally noticed.
The door to the cell was open. The guards lying on the floor. The prisoners gone.
A psychic call flashed across the compound to every psychic.
Every one of the tophetti psychics' hands went to their heads. They had heard the psychic call as well, such was its power.
M'Rette spoke up. "They know we've escaped. We don't have much time."
Rico snapped immediately back into military mode, leaving the worries of his personal life behind. Whatever the mess his life out of uniform was, he had never let it impact on the mission. And bringing these people home alive was the mission right now.
"Diz, Goss! Take M'Rette and I'Sal and be point. Make sure we don't take a wrong turn. Max, Zim, Doc. Keep the injured T'Phetti moving. Higgins and I will bring up the rear. Let's move out people!"
"Roughnecks, HO!" Higgins yelled out and then looked around when he realized he was the only one who had said it.
Gossard chucked. "Looks like Paperboy's grown a backbone..."
Rico walked over to Higgins.
"You need a quick refresher course on that thing?" he asked.
Higgins slapped in a clip and hefted the Morita rifle like a pro.
"I tell you Rico, you can keep those new NK-60's. Just give me a Morita and a full clip of pulse rounds."
Rico smiled. "I see someone's been keeping up on their certification from behind a desk."
Higgins laughed. "Hey, I needed something to keep me busy after my second divorce. Actually, it's how I met my 4th wife. Or was it my 3rd?"
Rico laughed out loud at this. He needed something to break the tension.
"Move out, Paperboy..." he ordered, lightly punctuated with a friendly slap on the shoulder.
"Sir, Yes sir!"
The first 3 clicks went by quickly. N'Losa was helping D'Fall over a rocky section of land, when the warning flashed in her head. Invaders. And they were coming this way.
She handed D'Fall over to Z'Lor and raced ahead, intent on letting the only person who could tell the humans what was happening. M'Rette.
M'Rette! M'Rette! Invaders are coming! Tell them! She cried as she ran.
"Mr. Gossard. N'Losa says that invaders...I mean Bugs are coming this way."
"Bugs?" Gossard keyed his mic. "Rico! We've got bugs incoming. One of the tophetti just picked up some serious flash traffic."
"What's coming Goss?"
M'Rette translated what N'Losa was saying.
"Rico. Sounds like warriors are incoming."
The groups didn't notice two of the T'Phetti psychics join them.
The male spoke first. M'Rette. We will take care the Invaders.
M'Rette turned with surprise.
No. We must let the humans handle this.
The female burst out in anger. We have been violated by the human, Freeman and his turncoats. We have had out minds prodded and our abilities suppressed. We will destroy them for what they've done to us! We will destroy them and return to you ahead on the trail.
The male chimed back in. Please, M'Rette. Let us do this. Let us help.
M'Rette sighed. All right. Go. But come back with us, do not die needlessly.
The two T'Phetti smiled, and ran as fast as their legs would carry them.
B'Sar and Q'Sin could tell that the human called Rico was not pleased. But he had little choice in the matter. He was needed with the rest in case the Invaders behind them were not the only ones. N'Losa had the danger sense, but once it was activated, it was impossible to control.
The humans rounded the bend, and not a moment later, were the two T'Phetti psychics in each other's arms.
B'Sar, the male, spoke first. My love...it has been so long since I could hold you in my arms.
Q'Sin snuggled into his arms, her head resting in the crook of his shoulder. She looked longingly into his eyes before settling down with a sigh. Tell me...tell me when we get home, we will become life mates.
B'Sar took her face in his hands. Yes my love...we will be life mates.
Both of them leaned in to kiss. Just as their lips touched, the ground by their feet flared up with bullet fragments. The pair looked up to see a dozen powersuits lurching towards them, weapons firing. They closed within 20 meters but not one bullet struck the T'Phetti couple. B'Sar's telekinetic force field protected them. Anything coming in too fast simply veered away.
B'Sar looked down at the woman in his arms. It is your turn, my love.
She smiled and closed her eyes. Three of the powersuits burst into flame. They cracked almost immediately, the bonds of the joints weakened over time. Revealed were not humans inside, but Invaders, in the form of their old enemy.
They snarled at the two tophetti and rushed to attack. Their bodies burst into flame as well. Fueled by the atmosphere of the planet, the Imposters burned until there was nothing left. Q'Sin turned her attention to the others, but they were already pulling back. These were not the mindless drones their people had faced before on Klendathu.
The two laughed at their enemy's retreat. They turned to rejoin their comrades in the escape. They didn't notice the thermal grenades land just a meter from their position.
The force field did little to help break the blast wave. The heat and power swept over them quickly. B'Sar was closer to the blast, and his body blocked most of the energy. The two fell to the ground, B'Sar on top of his ladylove. His body saved her life.
Q'Sin pushed his limp body off, and seeing the charred body of B'Sar, something inside her brain snapped. The natural blocks she had created to hold her power in check, to keep from igniting the atmosphere around her, dissolved in the wash of anger and pain.
The only person, the only male, who would ever be close to her after the manifestation of her ability, was gone. The days they had spent in the parks of the colony. They were over. He would never again hold her in his arms. She would never again feel the hot winds of Tophet on her face, with his hand in hers.
She never even got one last chance to say goodbye...
There was only one thing left to do.
YOU WILL PAY! YOU WILL ALL PAY! She screamed into the canyon towards her foes. They were just starting to emerge from their hiding places, confident that their quarry was no longer a threat.
Two more powersuits went up in flames. Their white-hot intensity matched only by the pain and hatred in Q-Sin's eyes. Instead of running away, she walked forward, pressing her pain in the form of flaming death upon her enemies.
Rouche looked upon the scene from the top of the canyon wall. He was suitably impressed. His scans of the girl showed she had built daunting barriers in her mind. He had never known how to release them. If it had been as simple as killing the male, well, he could have done that long ago.
Calming his mind for a moment, he called back to base.
"Master. What should I do? There seems to be no way to calm her without getting into her line of fire. And she is seriously hampering our forces effectiveness. What should I do?"
Freeman sat back in the chair from his old office back on Earth in his earth atmosphere room. It was one of the few things he brought with him to the hostile planet. He still wore the clothes of the old prospector but his face was changed. He sighed.
"I may have misjudged her abilities, Marcel. Ah well...spilled milk. Dispose of her and continue after them."
Rouche brought his Morita to bear and flipped down the targeting visor on the powersuit. He zoomed in on the tophetti's head and locked on. He smiled. Not one to resist a final torment, he sent her a quick psychic message.
She looked up at him just as he pulled the trigger.
Rico's powersuit picked up the sound of the explosion behind them. He wanted to go back but he couldn't. He had to keep moving. He had to get these people back. Too many people had died already. Too many good people like T'Phai. And the two T'Phetti back there. He didn't even know their names.
He didn't even realize that he had slowed down until Higgins slapped him on the shoulder, breaking him out of the blue funk he was in.
"Let's go, Johnny. Those two gave their lives back there to hold the bugs back. Let's just hope that it was enough to get us out of here. How much farther?"
Rico keyed his mike. "Dizzy, how much farther?"
"Only 4 clicks, and then we can radio for a retrieval ship." Her voice was short and curt. Even now in the thick, she still hated him.
Zim's voice came onto the channel.
"Rico! I'm coming back to help you out. Maybe we can hold them off...buy some time for the others to escape..."
"Keep an eye out for a good spot close to the LZ. Try to get these suckers in a cross fire, keep them pinned down till we can evac."
"You got it Rico."
The group was only a half-kilometer away from the LZ, when the perfect place for a holding position presented itself. The canyon that they were in, narrowed from 4 meters too less than a meter and a half. The other side was filled with boulders and piles of rock. The walls of the canyon were also pretty steep, and had craggy peaks. The only way in was through the front door. Rico called for a halt, and met with the rest of the Roughnecks on the other side.
"OK...Zim, Diz, Goss, Doc...take the tophetti psychics and get them out of here. Max and I will stay back here and hold off Freeman's forces. We'll leave you with two clips each. Max and I will take the rest and make like the Last Stand at San Fran."
There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment. Rico plunged on, not even noticing.
"If we don't make it back by the time the retrieval ship shows up, get them out of here. That is an order. Am I understood?"
The humans looked at each other. Higgins finally broke the silence.
"We're not going to leave you behind, Rico. Roughnecks never leave a man behind."
Rico let out an exasperated sigh. "Then damnit Higgins...I didn't want to have to do this. In accordance with SICON rules of procedure, Citizen's not currently active members of Mobile Infantry and Fleet command units are subject to first priority extraction from militarily sensitive situations. That means you're going out on those retrieval ships."
The humans, including Max, were stunned.
Gossard finally regained use of his voice. "You're pulling regs on us?! Unbelievable."
Rico continued on. "And if you do not obey the orders of the highest ranking officer on scene, you risk fines and possible removal of your status as Citizen. Am I making myself clear?" He softened for a moment. "Listen, I didn't know we'd be in this much of a jam, and I don't want the rest of you to get hurt in this."
Doc chimed in with his own comments. "Rico, you asked for our help and we came running. We're not going to leave you out here to die."
The rest of the Roughnecks added their voices to the fray. It got to the point that no one was listening to what anyone said. The only person not engaging in this back and forth argument was Max. Finally he added his voice. "SHUT THE HELL UP YOU MAGGOTS!"
The humans fell silent and looked at Max.
"God dammit all to hell and gone, you are addressing a superior officer! You're acting like a bunch of sniveling, god-forsaken first week washouts! Just shut the hell up, pack up, and get these Skinnie psychics out of here!"
Stunned silence surrounded everyone, including the T'Phetti. Hardly anyone said three words as they collected their charges and moved out, weapons at the ready. As the group passed out of sight into a wash, Rico leaned over to Max and whispered, "Thanks for the back-up there, Max."
"Shove it...sir. I don't like this plan any more than they do. I've got better things to do tonight than die. Let's just set up so we can kill some bugs and get the hell off this wretched dust ball."
Max turned and walked away, setting up a pair of thermal detonators on either edge of the narrow part of the canyon. Rico set about clearing avenues of fire, and setting up cover. Their powersuits, although antique, still had the strength enhancers to do the job correctly.
When everything was set, all they could do was wait.
Those last 10 minutes while they waited seemed like the longest in the world. They always did. The Mobile Infantry's unofficial motto was "Hurry up and Wait", but most of the waiting never really bothered Rico. It's just that waiting before you know you're going to be attacked. That knowing that somewhere out there, there are bugs, or skinnies or humans, just getting ready to attack you.
In 10 years of this, Rico never got used to it. Maybe it was because it was against his nature. When you're on the attack, you have the momentum. You can dictate the pace; give the defenders something to react to. You make them play your game. Defense was a whole 'nother matter.
The sound of chittering and light clanking broke him from his self-induced reverie. They were coming.
The plan was simple. Wait until they come through the gap, blow the thermals and then mow them down. Simple yet highly effective. The first two powersuits came through the gap, and kept coming.
"That's right you bastards, don't notice the thermals." Rico thought. That was a mistake.
The powersuit clad bug looked directly at Rico's position. It was like it had heard what he was thinking. It turned, and looked at the thermals on the wall. Moving incredibly fast, the two bugs pulled the detonators off of the wall. They leaped onto the edge of the canyon walls and skittered across, each making a beeline for Max and Rico's positions.
"Max! Blow the thermals! If they get on top of us, we're dead!"
Max's finger stabbed the radio switch and exploded the thermals. The heat and shock waves blew Rico to the ground, but he was otherwise, unharmed. Max was not as lucky. The computer's voice filled his ears.
"Electrical systems damaged. Repair systems online. Discontinue physical movement until repair cycle is complete."
"Yeah, right..." Max fired off a burst from the Morita into a powersuit clad Imposter that was moving through the breach while the computer system of his own suit seemed determined to get him killed. The Imposter went down with a thud, only to be replaced with another powersuit. This one took cover behind a boulder and began to fire towards Rico.
"Reserve power down to 68%. Once reserve power drops below 40%, repair cycle cannot be completed. Discontinue physical movement until repair cycle is complete."
"Nag, nag, nag..." Max fired a grenade into the boulder, blowing it to bits and disabling the powersuit. A long burst into the still twitching body eliminated that threat.
Rico's voice came over the com. "What's your situation over their Sergeant?"
"R Triple-D, Rico. My electricals are shot, and they ain't getting any better."
Max pulled the pin, on his only plasma grenade and tossed it into the breach. The plasma wall gave them a few moments of respite from bug reinforcements, but not from the ones already on this side of the breach. They were still very much alive. And very pissed off.
Max stood up a little more slowly than normal, due to the power drain from systems repair. He tore off a long burst, keeping the bug heads down while Rico moved position. He thought that odd. Bugs didn't usually dive for cover...
Rico dropped to the ground behind Max. Max quickly followed suit, holding his little area of ground. Rico pulled out a length of transfer cable and jacked it into the external power port on Max's powersuit. Max's computer finally shut up about discontinuing physical movement.
"Thanks for the juice. Now unhook and let's get the hell out of here."
"No can do...your power reserves are almost non-existent. The juice I'm transferring over is the only thing keeping..." Rico fired into a powersuit that was trying to flank them. It fell to the ground and didn't get back up. "...your repair systems online. The rest of your reserves are powering your life support and motor functions. Like it or not, we're going to be hooked together until your electricals are back online. And that's the good news..."
"What's the bad news?"
"They aren't going to be back online for another 5 minutes. Maybe Goss could have sped things up, I don't know. And now the worse news..."
"What's the worse news?" Max asked, firing at a bug out of its powersuit.
"We gotta move. Right now."
Max sighed. "FUBAR."
Rico nodded. "FUBAR."
"Well, then let's just get it over with..."
Max leaped to his feet, nearly disconnecting the power cable in the process. The two powersuit-clad humans ran down the length of the canyon, firing backwards at their pursuers. The ground beneath their feet chipped upwards with the pulse rounds. The air around them was filled with tracers. If they could just get around the corner up ahead...
They did, and it was no better than what was behind them. Climbing out of a tunnel was one of those huge tanker-like bugs with the spider attributes. You could see the current flow along its body towards its claws. With immense speed, it rushed out of its hole, and slashed at Max with its claw. Max dived to the side. The claw missed him, but it pulled out the power cable.
"Rico! I...can't...move!" He yelled, immobile on the ground.
Rico set his Morita on full auto, and fired into the huge bug with everything he had. Spurts of black fluids jetted from every hole he made. It didn't slow it down. It didn't even draw its attention from Johnny's fallen comrade.
A tophetti war cry filled the air. Rico's head turned. Behind the bug stood M'Rette and three of the other psychics. One of them was yelling something is tophetti. Rico couldn't understand it.
SLEEP! SLEEP! SLEEP!
Rico's continued to fire at the bug, hoping whatever the psychic did, it would work. It did start to slow. Its movements were not at quick. Every time it raised one of its claws, it would lower it, like it was too heavy to lift. The electrical current slowed from its frantic abstractions to a slow, methodical rhythm. Finally, it just stopped.
The T'Phetti that was yelling nearly collapsed. The young female picked him up and brought him along with M'Rette and the other psychic.
"Major! The retrieval ship has arrived. We must hurry. Admiral Ibanez said there wasn't much time!"
'Carmen?' Rico thought. 'What's she doing here?' It didn't matter right at this particular time.
"Help me with Max! We've got bugs coming around this bend any second."
The other male tophetti spoke to M'Rette. She relayed his message.
"U'Lino says that they are moving forward slowly, but will be here soon." She added her own words. "H'Olanis and L'Kanina will stay and hold them off."
Rico and the male, U'Lino were able to get Max to his feet between them. He couldn't fully walk under his own power, but he was slowly getting there.
The two T'Phetti took position behind the fallen bug; careful not to touch it's body, the current still fluxing along its body. Rico looked at M'Rette.
"What did he do to it?"
"H'Olanis is what we call a 'sleeper'. He can put things to sleep by his touch. With the help of a lens, even an inexperienced one like L'Kanina, he can project that power over short distances. But we must hurry, your ship in orbit is preparing to leave the system. Admiral Ibanez flew down herself to rescue us."
Rico shook his head. What the hell?"
Leaving the two T'Phetti to hold off a horde of bugs, the two humans and two T'Phetti made their way to the retrieval ship.
The weapons pods on the port side of the retrieval ship provided ample cover as they ran and stumbled the last 20 meters without natural cover. It simply hovered there with its entrance ramp down, waiting to take off the second its charges were on board.
When Rico entered, Zim and Higgins were manning the weapons, and Dizzy and Goss were strapping the T'Phetti psychics into the seats. Everyone was still wearing their powersuits as the ship had to remain T'Phetti atmosphere neutral. There just wasn't enough T'Phetti powersuits on board to give all the psychics one.
"Goss! Get over here and make sure Max's suit can last the trip back. I'm going up to talk to Carmen!"
"You got it, Rico."
No more words were said among the Roughnecks. Everyone was doing their job. It was like 9 years had never passed and they were evacing scientists back on Pluto. Rico climbed the ladder to the cockpit, and plopped down in the empty co-pilot's seat.
"Carmen! What are you doing here?"
"Just a second Johnny..." She activated the intercom. "Everyone strapped in back there?"
Higgins voice came back. "Snug as 20 bugs in a rug, Admiral."
Carmen smiled, and set course for the Thomas Davis. "Things have seriously changed, Johnny...When T'Phal got back and the news of T'Phai's death spread, T'Phal took a seat on the High Council. His first act was a motion for Tophet to leave the Alliance. It passed."
Rico was stunned. He knew things were bad, but not this bad. Carmen continued.
"T'Phetti airspace is off-limits to SICON aircraft. I couldn't ask any of my crew to violate the orders of the Sky Marshal. I was lucky to get off before a tophetti fighter squadron showed up to escort us out of the system and T'Phetti space."
The shock started to subside in Rico, and he started thinking tactically about the situation at hand rather than strategically.
"We have to drop these psychics off at the colony, or the Ruling Council might think we've kidnapped them. T'Phal probably would. And then we have to go after Carl, he needs our help more than ever."
"Sounds like a plan, Johnny. I'll contact the ship and inform them of our plans." Carmen tuned the comm unit to a secure frequency. "Thomas Davis, this is Striped Tiger..."
Rico sat in his seat back on the Thomas Davis, antique powersuit off and back in some clean clothes. His hands were clasped in front of him and his mind deep in thought. So much has changed in the short period of time. T'Phai was dead. T'Phal lead the tophetti people and were now going things alone. And Carl was still missing.
They had a new enemy. An alliance of psychics with access to and control of new species of bugs that had never been seen before. And Carl was still missing.
"Major? May I sit for a moment?"
Rico looked up to see M'Rette standing before him, clad in a T'Phetti powersuit.
"Please...sit. And remember, call me Rico."
M'Rette smiled. "I...just wanted to say thank you. Thank you from my fellow psychics for your help. They did not have the time thank you when we dropped them off at the colony."
"You're welcome. I just wish we could have gotten everyone out."
"I sent a short message to my brother when we landed at the colony. The entire T'Phetti people will mourn B'Sar, Q'Sin, H'Olanis, and L'Kanina. I would also like to thank you for allowing me to accompany you. I only met Carl Jenkins once, with my father, but he is a good man."
Rico chuckled. "That he is...that he is..."
"If I may ask...where are we going to start looking for him?"
"On a planet 12 systems from here. Let me show you..."
Freeman opened his eyes and smiled. Everything was going to plan. With that little Skinnie psychic, and his implanted suggestions, he could monitor their entire progress.
A small, high-pitched chuckle of glee escaped from his mouth. It was so easy to let them escape. All it cost them were a few of the bugs, and more of those could always be made. Carl was too smart to leave things open for someone like Freeman to look at. He would never be able to find out what he wanted to know on his own. But Carl always had a soft spot for the Roughnecks, and that would be his undoing.
"Oh yes Carl...once you've found what I need to know, you will soon be of no use to me. But until that time, leave the breadcrumbs, and the little T'Phetti will lead you right to me..."
Next Episode: 209A: Out of the Frying Pan - Part 1