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robocpf1

I have good news and bad news: The bad news is, in wake of Planetside 2, I’ve pretty much lost the drive to finish the story I was writing (some of you may be familiar with it, it’s in the Creative Works section entitled “Hard to Kill a Ghost”). I may go in and add a final chapter to try and wrap things up because it’s in a good place for that right now, and it’s already a pretty long read.

The good news is, I’m bored, so I’m writing another one.

The setting of this story is a bit of a hybrid between the Auraxis of Planetside 1 and the Auraxis of Planetside 2. You may see some crossover between the two and you may see characters do things that you can’t do in either, because it’s difficult to write a story about a video game if fully immersing yourself in the game world means a small shrub can wreck your tank. However, I am trying to keep it as canon as possible – nobody is shooting beam lasers out of their pinky finger or tearing a tank cannon off a pile of scrap with their bare hands. As in the last story, I will attempt to include as many GOTR members as possible, but the story will focus on a small few – stories tend to work that way. I don’t think I will continue the trend of using real TR and NC players as the antagonists, however.

Feel free to give me feedback on everything, whether it’s my writing style, formatting style (if it weren’t for Sidar all those years ago you’d be reading one long paragraph), and the plot progression. Discuss at your leisure here: https://gotr.us/topic...ion/#entry28301

I hope you enjoy it, and I hope with a new game on the horizon I’ll have the motivation to keep going on this one.

---robocpf1

CHAPTER 1

It was dark and quiet in the mountains of Indar.

The wreckage of the day’s battle smoldered silently at the foot of Mount Titan, the hollow hulls of tanks and transports littering the otherwise peaceful landscape. Almost all of the bodies had deconstructed by now, leaving an elephant’s graveyard of Lightnings, Vanguards, and Prowlers in various states of decay watching over the battlefield. Here and there a crater marked the final resting place of a fighter or gunship, and every so often a sharp crack would announce the delayed explosion of an ammunition magazine or a fuel tank as small fires slowly worked their way into the insides of the wreckage.

Nihil gave the site one last glance as he turned back to his work, toolkit in hand as he pried away the access panel to a Vanguard’s targeting computer.

“Nihil to base, I’m finding a lot of intact parts here. There must be kilometers of untouched cable and wire, not to mention the alloys from the hulls. Requesting transport and a crew.”

“Acknowledged Nihil, you’ll have a fully manned Sunderer there in ten minutes, keep us posted.” Nihil’s commlink, integrated into his helmet, clicked twice and then went into standby mode. Unlike the large self-powered exosuits that normal soldiers used, infiltrator suits were built to stay off of radar or tracking of any kind, and as such had no internal power generator - cloakers had to conserve energy and turn off their devices when not in use, especially considering the relatively massive power needs of the actual cloaking device. Even so, the cloaking device could only stay online for short continuous amounts of time before having to recharge.

He had a few quiet moments to himself, so as usual he began thinking of all the problems his empire had had within the past months. The Terran Republic had imposed martial law and confiscated much of the technology his laboratory had been developing. The so-called “New Conglomerate” had declared they were seceding and was in the process of setting up their own government and armed forces as the TR tried to bring them back under control. His friends and comrade, called the “Vanu Sovereignty” by the other factions (and the name was starting to stick) were caught dead in the water. The Terran government had their work, the Conglomerate’s free market capitalism wouldn’t protect their technology if they decided to join up, and they didn’t have an army to start a rebellion of their own.

So, for now, they scavenged. Late at night or in the middle of the day, on one continent or another, they hunted for bits and pieces of equipment to work with. Anything from tires and cannons to wires and computer chips were gathered by the salvage crews and placed into the massive decommissioned HART shuttle which was the Sovereignty’s only sanctuary from the rest of the planet’s war and strife. Stripped-down Sunderer transports prowled the continents with crews of salvagers wielding fusion-saws, ready to take apart the wreck of a tank or a fighter that had met its demise. They hunted for alloy, electronics, and most valuable of all, the mineral Auraxium: the key to the nanobot technology used to construct vehicles, weapons, armor, and buildings on the planet. Thousands of tiny nanomachines working together to build an object faster and more efficiently than any manual or automated labor method – and consequently the technology that had given the largest company on Auraxis its profits: Nanite Systems.

Nanite Systems produced everything – vehicles, weapons, exosuits, buildings, ammunition, medical supplies, anything an army or government could need to fight a war. In addition, each government had their own proprietary technology that they produced themselves, in their own factories, but Nanite Systems made everything else, and in many cases also the ammunition that was used in the empire-specific tech. But before nanites can replicate an object, a working model has to be built the old-fashioned way. This, Nihil thought, is why I’m out here. This is the last glimmer of hope we have to escape this tyranny and free ourselves from this war.

His musings were interrupted by a loud HONK as the Sunderer transport “bus” arrived at the mountain. The sides of the bus folded down, and shortly afterward ten salvagers were standing in front of him – not standing at attention, per se, but standing there attentively nonetheless. Nihil had done his years in the Terran Republic armed forces, then moved to where his talents and hobby were more useful – the laboratory. These people, however, had not, and Nihil worried how things would go should a TR or NC patrol find them scavenging the wreckage. Not well, probably.

There was nothing for it though, and no use bothering with it yet anyway.

“Droid, you’re on wires and cables, I’ve loosened the access panels of all of the Vanguards in this vicinity. Iopis, you get the fire control boards out of the downed aircraft, I’ve marked them on your HUD. The rest of you, we have a lot of good-condition alloy to harvest, don’t activate your fusion-saws until you’re ready to cut, we have to conserve as much fuel as we can…”

CHAPTER 2

Pawnee looked out over the HART’s vast storage bay and sighed. Rows upon rows of piles of scrap metal, crates of electronics, stacks of tank treads and tires, engines and turrets. All high-quality salvage, but salvage nonetheless. He was awoken from his silent contemplations as a young engineer approached him holding a clipboard. “Report,” Pawnee said.

“Still no word from Hull Design, they’ve been working nonstop since last week. Propulsion is making some progress but a lack of intact engine blocks from the salvaging parties is preventing them from moving forward. Fire Control reports a minor success and cause for celebration though, we finally have a turret that rotates,” the other man replied. Pawnee squinted at the man’s chest, trying to make out the name on the smudged tag. “Mist, sir,” the man said, with a smart salute. Well, at least he knows how, Pawnee thought.

“Thank you engineer, feel free to return to your duties.” Mist nodded and turned away, walking back the way he came. Across the HART’s hangar bay a makeshift workshop had been erected, large construction tools currently standing silent, waiting to be put to use. Above the workshop, in what would contain some mundane office or other, a think tank of the Sovereignty’s best and brightest engineers tried to develop an armored weapons platform. Separate teams worked on the weapons systems, propulsion, electronics, and the myriad other aspects of such a venture. Day in and day out, in the cramped little offices above the workshop, the engineers toiled, trying to think of something that could give the Sovereignty an edge if it ever came to blows with the other governments. For now, they were basically prisoners, and no one was happy with that arrangement.

Pawnee thumbed the control for his voice link. “Pawnee to Fire Control team, which deck is the turret being tested on? I’d like to see your progress.”

“Deck 5, sir. We were just about to initiate the first trial, we’ll wait for you.”

Pawnee walked across the hangar bay to the lift shaft and pressed the call button, waiting patiently for a lift to arrive to take him up to Deck 5. Although all of the development and construction was done here in the workshop, testing was done on other specified deck levels where if something should go catastrophically wrong, it wouldn’t damage work on other projects or endanger any sensitive technology the carrier needed to function. The lift arrived and Pawnee stepped on, punching the key for Deck 5. With a soft whirr the lift ascended.

Pawnee stepped out of the lift to find a large group of techs and engineers awaiting him. He nodded to Reignman, the chief engineer, and took his place behind the transparent protective wall serving as a viewing gallery for the test. “Proceed,” he grunted, focused on the turret.

The turret was smaller than expected, with two barrels protruding from a large central dome, one on each side. Techs bustled to their stations and powered up, feeding energy into the turret from cables strewn across the deck. Another tech went to stand beside Pawnee, a control stick in his hand. Reignman looked up from his status panel. “Green light, power is at 100%, begin test one.” The engineer beside Pawnee slowly twisted the stick, the turret on the deck mimicking each rotation. Up, down, swivel left, swivel right. As tests went, it wasn’t particularly impressive except for the fact that the turret had been built from scratch from scraps found by the salvagers.

After displaying a few more rotations and other features such as extending and withdrawing the barrels, the engineer gave the control stick to Pawnee. Pawnee gave the stick a small nudge to the left, and after a delay of at most a second, the turret swiveled left, just as before. “I assume the delay is fixable?” Pawnee asked pointedly at the engineer who had handed him the control stick.

“Yes sir, and most of that comes from the setup here in Testing. The signals the stick is sending out are going through dozens of meters of scavenged power cable – in a real tank, with brand new cable of only a small length, the delay will be negligible.”

“Good, now tell me about the weapon.” Pawnee glanced at the small barrels protruding from the turret’s dome, knowing full well the answer to his question.

“The barrels are multipurpose, created from alloy pipes of different sizes to fit several types of projectiles. Obviously we can’t test the guns inside the carrier, but theoretically they should be able to fire medium-caliber machine gun rounds or flak pellets with ease.” The engineer seemed proud of his answer, but upon seeing the frown on Pawnee’s face, reevaluated. “Something wrong, sir?”

“I thought this was supposed to be an anti-tank turret? The Republic and the Conglomerate have 100mm or 150mm tank shells coming out of their turrets. Is this a turret for a light assault vehicle or a tank?” Pawnee asked.

The team of engineers behind Pawnee shifted uneasily, looking at their feet. “Is there something I’m not aware of?” he asked, looking from face to face. Finally, Reignman broke the silence.

“Sir, it’s just that…we were told the vehicle was going to hover. We can’t mount a large tank cannon on a light hovering platform, the recoil would cause the tank to spin out of control or dip close enough to the ground to throw off the repulsors. So we started….smaller.” He shrugged and gave a sheepish grin, gesturing towards the turret. “Even if we don’t mount this on the tank, it’s a good all-purpose turret we can use for something else.”

Pawnee sighed and left the deck without another word, shaking his head and muttering under his breath as he stepped back into the lift to return to his work.

CHAPTER 3

“Screwdriver,” Loco’s voice came from beneath the deck.

“Screwdriver,” Red replied as he handed the tool in question down to his CO.

“Man Red, I tell you, when the Republic wants to decommission something they decommission it. It’s like someone came down here with a pair of fusion-shears and cut every single line, cable, and wire. Wrench.”

Red took the screwdriver back and handed the next tool down. “Is anything salvageable? Surely some of those wires can be removed and refurbished, right?”

Loco poked his head through the deck to look at his XO. “Not a chance. These lines are completely shredded, no use trying to remove them and rebind them; we’ll waste too much time. Better off to use salvage from other places.” The man sighed, pulling himself out of the wiring access. “I’m also worried about accidentally wrecking the carrier’s power systems. We didn’t build these and the engineers who did are back on Earth. The few HART carriers and shuttles we have are the only ones we’re going to get, so experimenting with them is out of the question.”

Red nodded. The HART-class carrier was possibly one of mankind’s greatest feats to date – a large, neigh-indestructible space vessel with enough room to house thousands and transport anything one could imagine. The smaller shuttles, based on the same design, could only hold people but were much faster and featured the ability to launch supply pods from its underside – the pods were filled with supplies at a base, then the shuttle would lift off and do a fly-by of whatever facility needed assistance. Then, the pods would launch and the facility crew would go and retrieve them. It was a great system – fast, efficient, and accessible.

The fuel requirement to run one of the carriers was the issue, now. Since the wormhole collapsed, there was no fuel. These pinnacles of human technological advancement were condemned to probably never fly again, unless a substitute fuel could be found. Now they just sat on the ground as glorified storage hangars, running their generators off of solar power. The smaller shuttles could run off completely off of solar because they were short-distance vessels – lift off, flyby, drop cargo, land. The carriers were meant to be up constantly.

Having extracted himself from the wires, Loco stood up and offered Red a hand. His joints groaning with the discomfort of one who had been crouching too long, Red let himself be pulled up by his CO and attempted to work the kinks out of his knees.

“Getting too old for this?” Loco smiled at the considerably younger Red. “Let’s go get some grub, preferably no spaghetti. I don’t want to look at another wire ever again, even if it is made of pasta…” The CO’s comments were cut short by a beep from his voice link. He clicked the activator and acknoledged.

“Loco here, who needs me?”

“Loco, this is PJC.” The other man’s voice was fresh but strained; he had probably just finished running a combat drill. PJC was one of the only “real” soldiers the Sovereignty had, and he was in high demand all day, every day trying to train as many people as possible to do anything other than shoot themselves with their own weapons. “Big news, though I’m not sure what it is yet. War Room in five, we’ve just been summoned to a council meeting.”

Loco clicked off his link. “Actually Red, it looks like you’ll be solo on this one. I have yet another meeting, and I guarantee you they won’t have food there. See you in a bit.” Loco activated his Surge implant, a feat of bioengineering that would allow a human to run incredibly fast for a short period of time. He accelerated, running down the hallway he had just exited, rapidly approaching the War Room.

He arrived at the door to the War Room in record time. The most secure place in the entire carrier, with security surpassing that even of the workshop and development offices, the War Room was the nerve center of the Vanu Sovereignty. “Treason” was a significant understatement when talking of the things that went on behind that door. Loco deactivated his Surge and palmed his access key, one of only five in existence. The War Room had multiple layers of security: first a retinal scan, then a fingerprint match, then a numeric code – but if he forgot that card, he still couldn’t get in. He removed his helmet to let the retinal scanner check his eyes (both, not one of those that only scanned one), then placed his thumb on the print reader. Two green lights. A keypad presented itself and he typed in the passcode. Three green lights. The keypad split into two, with just enough space for a small card to enter – Loco inserted his access card. Four green lights; the door hissed open.

The War Room was actually a secluded area above the ship’s bridge – the “emergency bridge” it was sometimes called. The carrier had been designed with two command bridges, one for normal use and a second for use if the first one should fail. This secondary bridge was locked away up here, in the War Room, so it couldn’t be accessed by enemy infiltrators or spies that wanted to wreck the ship. It was nearly identical to the bridge one deck below – consoles in a semicircle around a raised platform for the captain, a command chair bristling with instruments and tech on said platform, and a large window crammed with displays and diagnostics overlooking the bow of the ship. The Council had also added a large circular table to the area directly in front of the display window.

Somehow he was the last to arrive. Around the table stood three of the other four members of the Council – Nihil, head of salvage and intelligence, Reignman, head of vehicles and engineering, and PJC, head of training and security. Loco glanced down at his own card, which read “Head of Weapons Research and Logistics”. Each of the council members had a specialty but then also took on a drudge-work job to help decrease the load on the rest of the Sovereignty’s officers. Nihil was trained as an intelligence agent, PJC as a soldier, Reignman as a mechanic, and he himself had been trained as a transport pilot. Additionally, Nihil had volunteered to take on salvage, Reignman engineering, PJC security, and himself weapon development. It was a ragtag bunch, but a dedicated one.

“Bossman around?” Loco asked, checking the rest of the bridge. The Council’s fifth member was apparently not in attendance yet. Suddenly, as if in answer to his question, the display window kicked on and their leader’s face greeted them.

“Gentlemen,” Robo’s voice echoed around the room. “I’ll be joining you in a moment, was running a diagnostic on this panel when the news came through. I’m putting the news feed up here now so you can catch up while I walk over.” Robo’s image disappeared and a news feed from the Nanite Systems News Agency opened. There were also news agencies for both the Republic and the Conglomerate, but because neither trusted anything the other said, generally the population of Auraxis got their news from Nanite Systems – for a small fee, of course.

The image took a moment to adjust, and then showed a woman at a news desk with the large NS logo in the background. Cheesy news music played for a few moments, then she spoke.

“Good afternoon, this is Veronica Morgan with NS News, we have a situation developing on the continent of Indar tonight, here’s Brad Klaus with the story. Brad?”

“Thank you Veronica, it seems the unthinkable has happened and a HART shuttle has actually crashed near the northern foot of Mount Titan. Our people on the ground here say that no one was hurt except for the pilot, who suffered a terrible seizure of some sort immediately after liftoff, causing the crash. Medics on the scene have not been able to identify what caused him to collapse, but NS News will keep you posted.” The camera panned around Brad, showing the smoking wreckage of the shuttle – still intact but obviously wrecked and not flying again anytime soon. The footage suddenly became muted as Veronica and Brad began discussing diplomatic tensions between the Republic and the Conglomerate.

“What do you think?” Robo’s voice came from behind them.

“I don’t know what to think boss, we’ve always been told a HART crash couldn’t happen anymore. This is a bit shocking,” Nihil said.

“Man what I would give for the gear in that thing,” Loco said, speaking what was on all of their minds.

Robo smiled, and they knew what was coming even before they heard it. “I’m glad you all feel that way. We’re going in one hour.”

CHAPTER 4

The sound of the rarely-used emergency intercom system jolted sleeping soldiers out of their seats, caused plates and cups to be dropped in the mess hall, caused pens to waver and heads to turn. “Attention all Sovereignty personnel, priority broadcast in t-minus five minutes. Please save all work at your terminals and turn all displays to the emergency broadcast channel. Attention all Sovereignty personnel...”

The message repeated several times more until ever person loyal to the Vanu Sovereignty had their eyes glued on a monitor. The Sovereignty’s insignia slowly rotated on the screen, its three arms and center circle sharply defined and colored. A timer appeared above the symbol, numbers in red, slowly ticking down from 60 seconds as everyone waited in anticipation.

---

“You ready, boss?” Nihil asked as Robo punched the last few keystrokes to activate the news feed.

“A bit anxious, but yes, I’m ready,” he replied. “You don’t think this is too risky for us, do you?”

“Everything’s risky. We have to do something. We’ll be fine, and it isn’t as if anyone can actually die, anyway.”

“I just don’t want our cover being blown so soon,” Robo thought aloud. “But we won’t get a chance like this again.”

“Fifteen seconds!” Loco yelled from the comm station across the room. “Keying the newsfeed, you’re on, bossman.”

---

The Sovereignty’s insignia pulsed once to alert everyone that the broadcast was beginning, the timer hit 00:00:00, and the black background faded to show the by-now-familiar faces of Veronica Morgan and Brad Klaus. The news feed played through once then became muted, as before.

“This is our objective,” Robo’s voice intoned from some unseen place. “This shuttle represents a window for us to get away from the clutches of the Republic. We are going, immediately, to the crash site and taking as much of that ship away with us in pieces as we possibly can. Alert your families to begin evacuation of the Republic civilian housing structures, we’ve reached the point of no return. Here with me is Intelligence and Salvage Chief Nihil, he’ll be giving you your instructions and running this operation on the ground. Good luck.” The newsfeed blinked out of existence, replaced by Nihil’s face on the secondary command bridge.

“Salvage Crews One through Five will begin loading ground transports immediately,” he flicked his fingers at his monitor, bringing up a list of personnel and vehicles and displaying them on the broadcast screen. “You can see your crew designations and vehicle assignments here. Crews Five through Ten will begin prepping the heavy salvage equipment and loading it into the Galaxy Dropship. This is a big job, bigger than we’ve ever pulled off before, we need the heavy stuff. We’ve timed it so that the first ground transports should have time to load up before the dropship arrives, and the second wave of transports should arrive as the first group leaves. This is going to be a constant stream of salvaging, you need to be on your A game.”

The other council members ran through instructions to their own personnel, PJC scrambling the escort fighters and Reignman and Loco working out pilot assignments and convoy composition. There wasn’t really much to work with – the Sovereignty’s assets included a paltry array of the nine Sunderers outfitted for salvage work, a handful of stolen Republic “Mosquito” fighters, and a few “Lightning” light tanks. The Galaxy Dropship was a new addition to the force, having been legitimately requisitioned from the Republic government under pretenses of needing to move civilians safely to their homes because of the war with the Conglomerate. The main escort force consisted of dozens of “Assault Quads”, small one-man all-terrain vehicles that had been jury rigged with a multi-purpose high-caliber machine gun.

A thought occurred to Robo as he was about to give the green light for the first salvage crews to set out. He thumbed his voice link. “Robo here, Loco, do you copy?”

“Loco copies, what can I do for you? Are we about to move out?”

“I’m just about to give the order, but how are we going to get all of these people out of the carrier? This is going to attract a lot of attention,” Robo replied.

“Oh that. I sent Xlander up to the observation deck with his sniper rifle, the cameras should be already down.”

“The Republic can fix the cameras fairly quickly though, can’t they?” Robo asked.

“Not if our own repair man gets there first!” Loco chuckled to himself and cut his link. Robo frowned into his voice link, wondering what the man was talking about.

---

Emy pulled another wrench out of his toolkit and smashed the side of the rear camera one more time as he saw the Republic mechanic approaching. They thought they were pretty smart, setting up cameras around the Sovereignty’s carrier. Because of the size and exhaust emissions, carriers couldn’t exactly land or stay berthed in the middle of a city block – they required a good amount of clear space all around. The Republic had long ago installed “security cameras” around the landing field “for the scientists’ protection”. They were really just spycams pointed at every entrance to the carrier so the government could keep tabs on the Sovereignty.

Emy looked up from the camera right in time to see the mechanic come to a halt. “Can I help you?” he asked, channeling as much of a scientist’s all-booksmart, no-common-sense personality as he could.

“I’ve got orders to see that this camera is fixed immediately. What happened to it?” the mechanic demanded.

Emy leveled a bored stare at the man. “I’m already fixing it. Probably just a short, you guys don’t know how to build anything. That’s what we’re for, remember?” Shaking his head, he went back to tightening a bolt on the camera’s housing, completely ignoring the mechanic’s incredulous look.

“No, now – look – I was told to fix this camera!” the mechanic stomped his feet with impatience, not knowing how to respond.

“Well we got reports that another one’s shorted out, you can go fix that one.” Emy turned back to his work, humming an old song that he knew. The mechanic opened his mouth, raised his hand to make a point, and then stopped. Grunting, he turned around and stalked away towards the next camera, unable to argue with Emy any longer. Emy made sure the man was well out of earshot, then keyed his voice link “Emy to Xurran, another one’s coming your way. Try not to make such a mess this time.”

“Copy. And hey, this is a precision weapon, it’s not like I’m sitting up here banging a wrench against a metal box.” The link cut out and Emy chuckled to himself, then glanced over his shoulder to observe the mechanic in the distance.

“Of all the pompous, self-absorbed, idiot scientists I’ve ever m— wugh.“ The mechanic’s ramblings were cut short as he fell to the ground, a small dart protruding from his neck. The access panel from a nearby maintenance tunnel popped open, and two Sovereignty soldiers sprinted out, grabbed the mechanic by the arms, and dragged him into the tunnel. When the access panel closed, there was no sign that anyone had ever been there.

“That’s three down. How many mechanics do you think they’re going to send?” Xurran asked through his voice link.

“No idea. I hope they have enough room in the maintenance shaft.” Beginning to hum again, Emy turned back to his work.

CHAPTER 5

It was fairly calm in the carrier’s hangar until the green light came.

The chime sounded from all of the ship’s intercoms at once, startling focused crews out of their reveries and sending them hurrying to their stations. The hangar doors opened, revealing nighttime outside the ship. The ramp lowered and five Sunderer-class ground transports thundered out, escorted by a dozen Assault Quads, a Lightning, and two Mosquitoes.

“Crews One through Five are away,” PJC reported from his station on the bridge. “Escorts are in holding pattern, group is out of camera view.”

“Will you be joining them?” Robo asked from the command center’s holo-table. The holo-table was a strategic mainstay of the Republic, a platform that could render a battlefield and everything on it to scale, in three dimensions. All carriers and facilities had one.

“I’m leading the escort for the dropship, they will be leaving in a few minutes,” PJC replied, grabbing his helmet from the prep room as he jogged towards the door. “Are you on ops lead?”

“I figure that’s the best option. I’m still training the rest of the commanders on how to use some of this tech, might as well use my one area of expertise while I’m the expert. “ Robo gave him a wink and a salute as PJC left the bridge, then turned back to his remaining bridge staff. “Open a secure channel to the Intelligence Chief if you would please Shiny, then you’re free to go complete prep for Crews Six through Ten. “

“Roger, channel is open…now.” A sharp crackle filled the air on the bridge and then subsided, followed by a low humming.

“Nihil here, go HQ.”

“Status report?” Robo asked.

“We’re almost to the crash site, all is well so far. Who’s leading the other groups?”

“Hang on, might as well make this a conference call.” Robo gestured to Shiny to put all of the commanders on the channel. After a few clicks of her display, Nihil was joined by the other three council members.

“Reporting,” came PJC’s voice.

“Copy,” Loco said, a roaring sound in the background.

“Go,” Reignman acknowledged.

“Right, Nihil is on primary salvage operations. Loco is dropship detail, PJC is running escort, and Reign is bringing up the rear with the last Sunderers. From there, Loco is setting up the forward operating base via the dropship and coordinating operations in the field. PJC will continue to assign and run escorts for the Sunderers while Reign takes a group to scout the area around the shuttle so we don’t get any nasty surprises.”

“What’s the end game here, command?” Nihil’s voice came from the monitor.

“Priority is getting to the bridge of the shuttle. It’s much smaller than a carrier’s bridge but the tech is the same. Remove as many intact wires, panels, and displays as you can, then follow that up with ripping out the power and optic cables from the deck accesses. They should be mostly in good condition; the crash should not have ruptured the protective coverings on the cables.”

“Affirmative command, those coverings are a pain in the neck,” Loco laughed from the Galaxy’s cockpit. “Are there any armaments on one of those?”

“Negative, no guns of any sort on a shuttle. They’re deployment and resupply vehicles only. Good thought though,” Robo grinned at the prospect of a cannon mounted on a HART shuttle, then returned to reality. “All acknowledge? Let’s do this.”

---

All was quiet at the crash site, some pillars of smoke still rising from the remains of the HART shuttle. The body was mostly intact, if dented, and the engines appeared to be in pristine condition. The front, however, where the drop pod launch bay was located, was completely wrecked – the bay doors were turned back in upon themselves, their colossal hinges detached from the hull. A couple of the launch tubes were cracked, the rest structurally sound but embedded in the ground. The bridge, located towards the bow but on the top of the craft, was untouched. Then again, thought Nihil, that’s why they put the bridge there. He keyed his voice link.

“Nihil to command, the shuttle seems like a gold mine. I’m moving my recon team into position to breach the hull, salvage crews are standing by to come after us and pillage the good stuff. Loco, ETA on that dropship?”

“Loco here – Galaxy is still a few minutes out, we had to fly wide to avoid the anti-aircraft battery on that watch tower. We were not spotted, but better safe than sorry.”

“Affirmative. In that case, command…we’re going in.”

Strom lifted the Heavy Fusion Drill onto his shoulder as Droid adjusted the tripod that it stood on. “Ok, try it now.” Strom obliged, setting the drill down, the base coming to rest perfectly in line with the mark on the side of the shuttle. “Perfect. Demo, do you copy?”

“Demo copies, go.”

“Give us thirty seconds to clear out then turn ‘er on, full blast.”

“Roger.” Demo fiddled with the drill’s controls a bit more, lining up the extremely powerful cutting laser with what they were certain was a non-volatile part of the ship. Still, it paid to be cautious. “I’m ready when you are, do I have the green light Nihil?”

“Light it up!” The head salvager set his helmet optics to the darkest shade possible and looked over the hill he was crouched behind. A few seconds later a faint whirring could be heard, and then a light as brilliant as a sun shot from the barrel of the drill into the side of the hull.

“Contact,” came Demo’s voice, barely audible over the sound of the drill. “And…we’re through! Starting the cross cut now, we’ll have an opening in a minute or two.” The drill began to sweep slowly back and forth across the hull, creating a large gash in the metal. “How much space do you want, sir?”

Nihil thought for a moment. “Five meters across, three high. Enough room for three men to stand abreast and still be comfortable. Some of this equipment is pretty unwieldy.”

“Roger that.”

“Salvage Crew One, we’re ready for you at the shuttle. Get over here asap.” Nihil ordered into his voice link, already readying his scanning equipment. He signed to Demo to kill the laser, then hefted a coolant cylinder, spraying the gash. The laser burned at thousands of degrees, melting anything it came into contact with. Although they couldn’t die, nobody enjoyed a third-degree burn.

Nihil finished spraying down the entryway just as Salvage Team One arrived. “Where do you want us, sir?” the lead crew member asked.

“With me. Don’t rip anything out yet, we’re heading straight to the bridge. Let’s go, move!”

CHAPTER 6

Nihil and his team breached the hull and began to progress rapidly through the shuttle’s corridors, quickly making their way towards the bridge. A sealed blast door barred them from entering. Taking out a shaped C4 charge from his pack, Nihil flicked on his voice link.

“Nihil to FOB, we’re at the bridge. Loco, do you copy?”

“Yes Nihil, what’s your status?”

“We reached the interior blast door, about to take it down with some C4. From your location it should only be a small popping sound, just wanted you to be aware.

“Roger that, standing by.”

Nihil placed the charge and pulled out his detonator remote. “Clear, get back, explosion in ten.” He and the other salvagers pulled back around the nearest corner; after a silent count to ten, Nihil hit the trigger. A loud roar of heat and shrapnel burst down the corridor as the door blew in, bits and pieces rocketing past Nihil and Salvage Team 1. The dust settled and they walked onto the bridge. “Alright then,” he said, looking around, “This is about as pristine a bridge as I’ve ever seen, excellent.”

One of the other salvagers piped up “Sir, there isn’t any gear or anything lying around, what happened to the crew?”

“It was a routine supply run, a decent pilot can run a shuttle by himself,” Nihil replied. “Still, you raise a good point. See if you can find his despawn gear anywhere. His body will have deconstructed by now, but we should find his weapons and ID somewhere. Spread out.”

Salvage Team 1 did as ordered and canvassed the area, looking at every console and seat on the bridge. After only a few moments, they found what they were looking for. “What in the world…” Nihil muttered.

The body had indeed deconstructed. The gear had indeed been left behind. The unlucky man’s uniform, however, was in shredded pieces on the ground at the team’s feet. It had been ripped into fragments with frayed edges and material everywhere. Xeno, one of the salvagers, bent down to examine the pieces.

“The sides of the uniform are fine, as are the legs. The pants seem to be in perfect condition. The front of the shirt, on the other hand, is a mess,” he said, waving his hand towards the ripped fragments. “Was he attacked by something while he was flying the shuttle? Maybe that caused the crash.”

“For now, let’s remember why we’re here,” Nihil said, starting to inspect the panels and monitors. “Prep the fusion saws and start dismantling everything. You should find the wires and cables running underneath that main console, they’re Priority One, get them first…”

Robo paced back and forth on his own command bridge back at the carrier, looking over status reports from the various teams in place at the crash site. The transports had begun ferrying equipment from the shuttle back to the carrier. Security patrols had encountered no problems. All personnel accounted for and doing their jobs to the T. Loco had the forward operations base set up and running smoothly coordinating everything from the field while he was sitting here in the carrier. Not a hitch yet. Then why, he wondered, was he suddenly feeling so paranoid?

He flicked a random report from his monitor up onto the bridge display for the fifteenth time, quickly scanning for irregularities. Seeing nothing of interest, he went back to pacing.

Across the island that comprised both the military and civilian population center of Auraxis, a Terran Republic official was similarly pacing in his office. The Vanu Sovereignty was a problem, a big problem – his problem. They refused to cooperate with the Republic, so he had their development labs shut down and all property seized. They responded by moving their operations to one of the HART carriers to carry on their experiments – a carrier he couldn’t gain access to for all of his many efforts to do so. To all outside observers, they had shut themselves in the carrier to tinker away.

Why did they find it so important to do all of this, he wondered. What was the bigger picture? Humans now had nanite technology and were basically immortal. Next to that, having the ability to hover a few feet above the ground seemed insignificant. That seemed to be what their experiments were boiling down to anyway, from the reports he had read about the seized laboratories. Just a lot of anti-gravity and propulsion equipment. Tank treads had worked fine for his father and his grandfather before him – don’t fix what isn’t broken, he thought to himself.

Regardless, he should probably at least check the security cameras.

He walked over to his desk to key the intercom for his personal assistant. “Larus, come in here please.”

Almost immediately the door to his office opened, the assistant in question striding to his side. “Governor Hakon,” he said, with a perfect military salute. “What can I do for you?”

“Bring up the security footage for the Sovereignty’s HART Carrier from the past twenty-four hours, put it on the large display please,” Hakon said, gesturing at the screen. Larus obliged.

“How would you like it displayed, sir?”

“For now just put up the feed from Camera 1, put the footage up in one-hour segments, grid view.”

“Yes, sir.”

A few moments later twenty-four freeze-frame pictures representing the past twenty-four hours of Camera 1’s footage were on the screen – except, in the last three, there were only black, empty frames. As Hakon sifted through the data on the touch screen, he paused when get got to the black frames.

“What happened to the footage for those three hours?” Hakon asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Governor, the log indicates that Camera 1 is being repaired,” Larus replied. His commander sighed.

“Very well, nothing spectacular in this group anyway,” Hakon said. “Move on to Camera 2.” Larus complied, and twenty-four new frames replaced the ones from the first camera. Again, the last three hours of footage were gone. “Larus?” Hakon asked, his voice much sterner now.

“Sir, the log says Camera 2 is under repair,” Larus said, beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable.

“Pull up Camera Thr- No. Pull up the composite,” he muttered, his eyes narrowing, walking over to the holotable on the other side of the room. The same camera technology that made the holotable work for field commanders, via camera drones, could also be utilized with static cameras – if you had enough cameras at enough angles you could put together a 3-D model of the area under surveillance.

“The same time frame, sir?” Larus asked, already knowing the answer. Hakon nodded.

“Start at the beginning of the footage and fast forward.” The governor closely eyed the holotable’s projection as it sped up to many times faster than real-time. “When it gets to the point Camera 1 malfunctioned, rewind five seconds and slow to one-eighth speed.” The footage showed a normal day around the Sovereignty’s carrier – goods were transported in and out of the cargo bay, maintenance work was completed, various personnel entered and left. The holotable then went completely black and a red warning message floated to eye-level “Camera Malfunction, Composite View Not Available.” Larus rewound the footage.

“Sir, we are now at five seconds before malfunction, slowed to 1/8 speed,” the assistant reported.

The footage slowly ticked away, the images moving impossibly slow at one eighth of their normal speed. There didn’t seem to be anything special or irregular here, Larus thought privately. The timer got to the last eighth of a second before the malfunction when Hakon yelled. “FREEZE IT!” he shouted. Larus was so startled he hit the pause button with his entire fist. “There,” Hakon said, breathing heavily. On the screen in front of them, one eighth of a second before the cameras died, four streaks of light extended from the top of the carrier to four points around the image – the locations of the security cameras.

“They took out our cameras,” Hakon was almost hyperventilating now. “They took out our cameras THREE HOURS AGO! Larus, priority alpha, get Mosquitos in the air and get them to the carrier, but don’t lock down the docking bay or they’ll know we’re on to them – find any vehicles travelling to or from the carrier and tail them,” Larus locked up, staring blankly at his commander. “WHY ARE YOU STILL STANDING HERE?” Hakon bellowed, and a panicked Larus sprinted out the door.

CHAPTER 7

Reignman sat behind the wheel of a converted Sunderer transport vehicle, humming his favorite tune as he continued to lead the salvage convoy through the twisting hills and rocky terrain of Indar. To his bus’s left was his ground escort, one of the handful of Lightning tanks the Sovereignty had procured. To his right, another Lightning; in front, a trio of Flash ATVs served as his advanced scouts; finally, somewhere a few hundred meters above him, was PJC’s Mosquito squadron keeping tabs on any Republic air activity. It would all hit the fan eventually, but for now all he could worry about was getting the convoy safely back to the carrier. His headset crackled to life and PJC’s voice began coming through.

“Reign this is PJC, do you copy?”

“Yes PJ, I copy. What’s going on?” Reign asked.

“We seem to have picked up a tail,” the other man said gruffly. “He doesn’t know we’re up here, but your convoy seems to have attracted his attention. “ Reign made a cursory glance over his shoulder and sure enough, a Republic Mosquito was flying high behind the convoy, keeping his distance but also just barely visible if you knew he was there. Things may begin hitting the hypothetical fan pretty quickly, Reign thought to himself. “When did he find us PJ?”

“Just a moment ago - I’ve seen him sweeping the area for a while now but figured it was just a routine check. Looks like it’s a bit more than that.”

“Yeah…” Reign weighed his options for a moment. He was perfectly safe right now, as he was on a trip back to the carrier. The pilot of the Mosquito didn’t know where they were coming from, and that was the important bit. “Thanks PJ, let me know if anything changes.”

“You got it. PJC out.”

Reign thumbed the comms control and punched in the command frequency. “This is Reign to Forward Operations Base, you around Loco?”

“Loco copies, something the matter Reign?”

“We’ve picked up a nosy TR pilot, I think I’m going to run him around in a few circles. The other bus pilots know how to get back to the carrier from here, we’ll split up and whoever doesn’t get followed can run the salvage back. I’ll keep the bugger on me and lead him on a treasure hunt. Make sure to inform Robo and Nihil, this won’t last forever.”

“Roger that, if we can help out let us know,” Loco said, already keying the frequency for the carrier’s voice link. “I’ll get them up to speed, don’t worry”.

After Loco had finished his report, Robo sat thinking on the bridge’s command chair for a few minutes. They still didn’t have everything they needed from the shuttle, not by a long shot. The next few busloads of salvage would go a long way toward stocking the Sovereignty with a lot of very valuable, important equipment – equipment they needed badly. Getting just a few more of the carrier’s systems online would be a great boon to their operations. He could give the long-awaited order to kill any interfering TR on sight, but that would bring a large Republic response force within minutes. Reign could lead the scout on a wild goose chase for a little while, but there were bound to be more scouts around that could find the convoys again. Word had come from the housing structures that the last of their families had been evacuated and were now hidden away in special bunkers that the Sovereignty had designed and built over the last few weeks – a protection against the Republic using the families as leverage later.

Their window of opportunity was quickly shrinking. The Republic would put two and two together at some point very soon – what was he going to do about it? He got up and began pacing restlessly. The carrier was an indomitable fortress – the only thing capable of damaging it was heavy, sustained fire from another carrier’s defense cannons, and there were no carriers still in service. The orbital strike platforms in the upper atmosphere that the Republic thought it was building discreetly weren’t operational yet, and he wasn’t sure of their capabilities anyway. Combined tank fire, Liberator fire, small arms, gunships, C4 – none of it would so much as scratch the outer hull. It would be more of a siege, really – another unacceptable outcome.

For now, he supposed, the best thing he could do was wait.

“Robo to command, Reign you are clear to proceed with your plan. Let’s allow them the next move; in the meantime keep a sharp eye on any other Republic aircraft, try to get as much salvage back to the carrier as possible. Split up the convoys if you have to, they won’t fire on us yet and the escorts are only drawing a lot of undue attention at the moment. Have them scatter and stand by.”

The other commanders acknowledged and signed off. Robo sighed and went back to sifting through his reports.

At the crash site, Nihil was sifting through some material of his own. Wires, panels, monitors, keyboards, and other electronics were strewn about the floor in the cargo bay of the crashed shuttle. He would mark and sort the equipment as the salvagers brought it in, then designate which parts went back in the buses. DroidbotGamma came in with what looked like an octopus made of cables. “What do I do with this one, sir?” he asked, turning the device around in his hands.

“Droid, I’m not entirely sure what that is. You didn’t rip out any plumbing did you?” Nihil laughed, taking the cable octopus from the other man. “I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”

Droid saluted and exited the cargo bay, presumably heading back to find more interesting-looking parts for Nihil to sort. Nihil shook his head and flipped on his Magnifier implant, a special ocular modification to his suit that allowed him to magnify anything he looked at without a microscope or magnifying glass. Footsteps announced another visitor to his domain. “Droid, I said I’d let you know when I figured out what --- ” Nihil looked up from the device to find that he was alone in the cargo bay. “…Droid?”

His suspicion now aroused, he gently laid the cable contraption on the floor and started humming. He got to his feet and walked out the door. “Oh Droiiiidddd, where are you? I figured out what the thing does!” As soon as he got around the corner, now blocked from the view of anyone in the cargo bay, he activated his cloaking suit and disappeared. Silently treading back into the room, he leaned against a wall and waited. Surely it was just one of his recon trainees playing a practical joke on him.

His heart sunk as a woman materialized and began sifting through the parts on the floor, deactivating what appeared to also be an infiltrator suit – an infiltrator suit with the blue and yellow eagle of the New Conglomerate boldly emblazoned on the shoulder and chest.

CHAPTER 8

Nihil froze. If it hadn’t been for the noise dampening of the cloak, the woman may have been able to hear his heart thumping in his chest. Slowly, he backed away into the corridor. He couldn’t activate his comm set because she would hear him and disappear – but he couldn’t let her out of his sight, either.

The woman was pacing around now, as if looking for something specific in the piles of equipment on the floor. Every second there was more of a chance that she would find whatever it was, or she’d give up and go home. He couldn’t let either of those happen, not yet anyway. If any of his comrades happened to make a timely entrance, he’d work with that, but they were all still on the bridge salvaging.

Silently, he came up behind her, mirroring her long strides so she couldn’t differentiate her footsteps from his. The audio dampeners on the Vanu suits were good, but at a distance of only a few feet a trained ear could still hear an infiltrator approach. The woman stopped suddenly, looking down at a small conducting array. She picked it up and studied it, turning it in her hands.

Why would she be interested in that, Nihil thought. It’s a nice piece of equipment, sure, but with the money the corporations funding the New Conglomerate had, she could probably get a thousand of them made in a week. It was pretty basic; copper-alloy was what humans had been using for conduction for centuries. An array that small probably went on the bridge for encrypted personal communication, probably auraxium-plated and –

Auraxium. She wasn’t after the equipment for its use – she wanted the scrap value.

Auraxium was a new metal discovered on the planet soon after the Republic had colonized. It was iridescent, had a light blue color, and was both flexible and hard depending on the chemicals it reacted with. That was about all the scientists could figure out at the moment. At the moment nobody really knew the use for it, but like gold on Earth, the value was in its rarity. The corporations that now comprised the New Conglomerate had been doing extensive research into the metal, proclaiming it was the alloy of the future. They had started plating comm arrays and other various pieces of equipment with it about a year ago – all of the shuttles had been fitted with the new arrays.

The woman had stopped inspecting the equipment and was now grinning at the array in her hand. Apparently she had found her prize, Nihil thought. He took two long, powerful steps forward and sharply twisted the woman’s hand. In the same motion, he swept her knees with one leg and knocked the breath out of her with his other elbow. With a cry, she dropped the array and fell to the ground hard. Nihil followed up with a choke grip but didn’t apply much pressure – she couldn’t answer his questions if she couldn’t breathe. He smiled – he had been wanting to test something for a while. He flicked a small pressure pad on his wrist pad.

A deep, tinny alien voice emitted from Nihil’s helmet, masking anything he said. “It isn’t nice to take things from others, nck,” the voice hissed, with a click at the end for effect. He uncloaked so she could see her own reflection in his V-shaped visor.

She didn’t exactly look terrified, but then again it was a cheap trick anyway. She raised one of her eyebrows questioningly.

“There’s no use trying to get out of this hold, you might as well relax. You can’t reach your weapon and I’ve got your neck in one hand and my weapon in the other.” She sighed and Nihil could feel her body tension disappear. “Good,” Nihil said. “What are you doing with my equipment?”

“Your equipment?” the woman chided. Her voice became suddenly very proper, in mocking imitation of a Republic official. “This shuttle and everything it contains is the property of the Terran Republic. Any graffiti, vandalism, or sabotage will be prosecuted to the highest extent of the law.” She chuckled despite herself and rolled her eyes. Nihil could tell he wasn’t going to get anywhere fast. In a world where soldiers could come back to life in a clone within a minute of death, interrogation had become pointless. Once in a while there was a green recruit who hadn’t been respawned enough times to understand, but the veterans would just keep joking and insulting you until you had had enough and shot them. He was at that point with this woman.

“Have a happy respawn,” he muttered, positioning his pistol.

“We could say the same to you,” a man’s voice said from behind him. Turning, he saw a squad of New Conglomerate infiltrators decloak, their rifles pointed squarely at his chest. He had just enough time to mutter an expletive before they fired.

---

Alarms started going off on Loco’s Galaxy. He pulled up the notification on his console screen – someone had just been killed. “Loco to all Salvage Teams, who died? Who’s near enough?” Droid replied immediately.

“That was Nihil, sir. I heard several shots coming from the cargo bay, I was close enough to get the ping.”

Since the advent of respawn technology, the military had been thinking of new ways to use their soldiers’ endless deaths as a means to gather information. Currently, if a soldier died, their suit sensed the precise moment the heart stopped and sent out a “death ping” to all in the vicinity. It didn’t have a very long range, but nearby soldiers would see a notification on their HUD informing them that one of their comrades had been killed. This cut the “element of surprise” down immensely – if there was anyone else in the area of an attack, they’d get the ping and inform their command. The powerful arrays on the carriers could also detect pings, but at such a long range they could only tell that there were indeed friendly soldiers dying in the area – but not who or how. The technology was still evolving.

“Roger that Droid, scout the area if you can but wait for back-up.”

“Yes, sir.” Droid signed off. Loco pulled up another comm channel.

“Forward base to command and all units, somebody killed Nihil. The cat may be out of the bag, ladies and gentlemen.” A loud explosion erupted from the area of the shuttle and chatter spiked on the communication channel. After listening for a moment, Loco began again. “Forward base to command and all units – the cat is definitely out of the bag. Contingency plan is in effect starting now, await further instructions.”

---

Hakon sat at his desk fuming. None of his “elite” pilots had been able to find out what the Sovereignty was doing or why the cameras had been taken out. Some details were slowly starting to emerge, however – the missing mechanics sent to fix the cameras hours earlier were found in a storage room in the access tunnel running under the Sovereignty’s carrier. They all gave the same story – they were walking towards Camera Two after finding a Sovereignty mechanic already working on Camera One. None of them remembered anything after that. A burst of static from his desk intercom roused him from his musings.

“This is Hakon.”

“Governor, long range scanners on Indar are picking up explosions at the crash site of the HART Shuttle that went down earlier today.”

Hakon just smiled.

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