Chapter 9:

Thirty Seconds to Contact

Challengers


After racking the slide of my issue .45 automatic pistol I slipped the safety on, then carefully re-holstered it. The pistol had originally been designed way back in 1911 for the last of the U.S. Army’s horse cavalry units. It looked incredibly crude and brutal in contrast to the sleek, black mini-submachine gun that the Mistral Challenger’s resident ninja was currently loading.

But then, I supposed I looked crude and brutal as well, so the .45 was a good match for me.

In one corner of the Mistral’s cavernous main hold Aiko slung her weapon and stepped onto an elevator platform. She was followed by a snarling Tama, who lashed his tail and looked as if he was spoiling for a fight. His mistress knelt down and gently stroked the big cat’s fur, then looked over at me as our headsets came to life.

This is Mistral Sierra-One. Hostiles inbound, 30 seconds to contact,” Minori announced. “We’re still working to get the engines online.” A 3-D lidar plot of the descending Cyclad attackers appeared on my heads-up display. I changed the output to show camera footage of the upper deck where the enemy would land. For the moment, it was clear.

Time to move out. I pulled the charging handle back on my assault rifle, let the bolt slide forward, and smacked the bolt assist out of habit. Switching to tactical comms, I contacted Aiko. “Weapons hot. Time for me to go, Challenger Alpha-Three.”

Copy, Alpha-Six. Good luck.” I was pleasantly surprised. It was the first time I could recall that Aiko had said something nice to me without being sarcastic.

Rio’s breathless voice came over my headset. “Is Lieutenant Peterson really going to attack them all by himself, Minori? Will he be okay?” In spite of my apprehension over the coming battle, I couldn’t help but laugh. She’d left her microphone on while monitoring the tactical channel.

Challenger Alpha-Six will be fine,” Minori said. She gave a short laugh. “And I’m sure he appreciates your concern, since you’re on an open mike.”

There was a gasp, then a click followed by silence as Rio hastily shut off her microphone.

I could hear the smile in Minori’s voice as she continued to speak. “Alpha-Six, this is Sierra-One. Please remember to observe all safety protocols when using the cargo lift. Hard hats and safety harnesses are recommended.”

I swapped a grin and a thumbs-up with Aiko, then punched a red button on the platform controls. Above me, a panel in the ceiling slid open, letting in the evening sun filtered through the smoke of the Mistral’s crash landing. I keyed my microphone.

“Six, advancing. The cargo lift I was standing on jerked, then moved slowly upward to the top deck.

Where I was about to engage thirty heavily armed cyborgs in combat.

***

I could see them seconds before they landed. Humanoid shapes plummeted downward, small pulses of flame coming from what seemed to be auxiliary jets on their pack-mounted contra-gravity engines. A split-second before landing, the jets flared, allowing the Cyclad raiders to drop the remaining few feet without harm. Metallic thuds sounded all across the billiard-table main deck of the Mistral Challenger as they dropped their packs and readied their weapons.

One of the descending raiders experienced a catastrophic failure with his engine and spun like a pinwheel before smashing into the deck. A violent explosion threw shrapnel and debris with enough force to take out one of his squad mates. None of the deceased Cyclad’s companions so much as glanced their way.

I caught the entire debacle on camera. “Alpha-Three, did you see that?”

Copy, Alpha-Six. There have been reports that the contra-grav technology used in their harnesses is unreliable.”

That’s an understatement, I thought. But their loss was our gain. Two enemies down, twenty-eight to go.

If the main deck was a billiard table, the cargo lift I stood on was one of the two side pockets. I peeked over a heavy crate, one of several Aiko and I had piled onto the lift to act as cover, and got my first good look at the enemy. They were clustered near the stern of the ship and hadn’t noticed me yet.

Skeletons in jungle-camouflage suits of armor was my first impression. Although encased in what looked like curved plastic and metal armor plates, their heads were exposed.

They looked terrifying. Imagine a skull with black orbs for eyes and jaws with serrated teeth capable of shearing through concrete rebar. Then equip this frightening apparition with a suit of armor, a charged-particle beam rifle, and an attitude. That was a Cyclad raider.

Alpha-Six, this is Mistral Sierra-One. Remember your ROE. Do you copy?”

“Roger.” I groaned. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency had strict Rules of Engagement for this kind of situation. It totally sucked but Minori had insisted.

Feeling like a gopher confronting a pack of coyotes, I poked my head above cover. Twenty-eight pairs of dead black shark eyes locked onto me.

I raised my voice and shouted “You are trespassing on a Japanese government vessel! Lay down your weapons and --”

My announcement was met with a flurry of automatic weapons fire. Streaks of charged particles streamed from the enemy’s guns, punching into and through my wall of supply crates.

I hit the ground as fast as I could and tried to become part of the deck. So much for demanding their surrender. Thanks for the expert guidance, JAXA.

But as I’d hoped, all of the enemy were now looking my way. I chucked a grenade over my hasty fortification and spoke into my microphone. Alpha-Three, this is Alpha-Six. Activate your lift!

The ka-whump of the grenade’s detonation reverberated through the deck. That should have cleared my immediate front of rude visitors.

I leaned around the side of the wall of crates and entered into my first firefight of the 22nd century.

The grenade had only knocked the first wave of attackers off their feet. I fired a burst at a Cyclad as he tried to stand. The bullets caught him in the chest, staggering him, but didn’t fully penetrate his armor. I ripped off the rest of the magazine and finally downed him when several rounds tore into the less heavily-armored skull.

Snatching a quick breath, I reloaded and opened fire again.

The raiders moved forward, heedless of the bullets I fired in their direction and not even bothering to take cover. One Cyclad went down and stopped moving, another crashed into the deck not three meters from me when I destroyed his leg. But he kept crawling forward, his unblinking eyes focused on me.

By this time the other cargo lift had arrived at the top deck. Most of the enemy was right where I wanted them, so I keyed my mike. “Alpha-Three, this is --”

Suddenly, my breath seemed to stick in my throat and I froze. The wounded Cyclad was close enough now to see details. And, other than a few cosmetic changes, and different weaponry…

I knew what these things were. I was fighting the Soviet Army’s heavy cyborg units.

Dreadnoughts.

Aiko brought me back to the present. “Alpha-Six, repeat your last transmission. I say again, repeat your last.”

I snapped out of my daze. “Three, this is Six. Fire the charges now!” I threw myself down behind my crates.

Across the deck from me, three booms sounded in quick succession. Hundreds of depleted uranium pellets sheeted out from my Claymore DU mines mounted atop the other lift, slamming into the Cyclad formation. Since I was inside the blast radius, the top rows of crates on my mini-fort were blown clear as well.

Had I been standing, or even kneeling, I would have been obliterated.

I waited a few seconds for the debris to stop pattering down, then looked over the top of one of my demolished makeshift walls.

Most of the Cyclad assault force lay in shattered pieces on the deck. I breathed a sigh of relief, which was cut short when I noticed that five of the enemy had been outside the cone of the blast. They were now firing at the improvised fighting position on the second lift across the deck from me, where the attack had come from.

Like shooting fish in a barrel, I thought as I aimed my rifle.

Something hard fastened onto my leg and yanked my feet out from under me. I landed heavily on my chest. My rifle bounced free of my hands and skittered across the deck.

I twisted around. My eyes widened and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. 

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