By Grendel

The free city of Seattle.  Almost five thousand square kilometers.  Almost four million metahumans.  A world unto itself.  People live their entire lives here, never straying beyond its borders, sometimes never leaving the neighborhood they were born in.  The inertia of the urban jungle does that to a person, sucks them in and buries them down beneath a triple canopy of steel and glass and concrete.


Someone, somewhere said something about trains filled with the faithless and cities filled with the foolish.  It isn’t foolishness, though, that enslaves this generation.  Rather, all of the myriad poor choices and unwise decisions made so long ago, that put the corporate oligarchs in place and signed away the freedoms of humanity to the zaibatsus that dominate all aspects of day to day life. 


There is only one virtue left, one option for people yearning for freedom.  To escape the oppressive reality of the city, the utter domination of corporate amorality which reduces metahumanity to a unit of labor, a probability of profit or expense.  There is only one salvation.




From three thousand meters up the city looks almost surreal:  drifting smog illuminated in pastel blues and purples from the countless LCD advertisements, cargo drones shuttling along their routes like neon butterflies flitting from flower to flower, a constant river of red taillights clogging the crosstown arteries even at this late hour.  Distance immunizes you from the harsh reality of the city and its denizens.


I must have made some kind of noise because Vandal threw an interrogative my way, blue text overlaying my vision.  I shook my head, refocusing on the task at hand.


Nothing, I replied, just distracted. 


I let the comms interface take forefront in my virtual reality again, text and graphics flowing across my vision as Vandal kept us plugged in to the various matrix channels and radio frequencies necessary to navigate the skies over the metroplex.  Right now it was all a kind of soothing background noise.  But we would need them as soon as Nothing about the aircraft’s status had changed during my brief moment of introspection, all instruments green across the board.  APU online, engines one through four shutdown but unlocked, ready for immediate start, O2 nominal on stand-by, weapon systems stowed and safe, fuel umbilical connected, gear up and locked.


Apart from Vandall’s Electronic Warfare (EW) console we were running silent, no lights, no radars, as few emissions as possible.  It would be difficult for anyone to even visually break out our outline against the cluttered hull of the cargo zeppelin that housed EddyF’s VALHALLA.


I resisted the urge to stretch, to feel the flight surfaces of the LAV shift in the chill night air.  Submerged in the ASIST link I was no longer trapped by the straight confines of my physical body, but rather my consciousness stretched across the aircraft and its systems.  Titanium and ceramic instead of bones, fiber optics for nerves, hydraulics and myomer for muscles, and jet turbines for a heart.


I don’t fly the LAV.  I am the LAV.


A red icon blazed to life in the center of my display, expanding into a full Exit Solutions 6 Line even as I reached for it.  Vandal was faster in VR.  I scanned the request quickly, we only had a few seconds to decide whether or not to accept.  There were other Exit Solutions riggers out tonight.  The thing which really caught my eye was the red and white border around the request, indicating that this would be a hot extract.  Whoever was asking for help was already deep in the drek.


Immediate extract, briefed Vandal, falling back into his service vernacular.  Two pax, Seattle North Sector Three, three clicks, parking structure rooftop.


Icons spangled the VR display in front of me, a wire frame of the building at the LZ location, a pair of green circles for the two personnel requesting exfil, surrounded by a host of red diamonds.  The disposition of the enemy troops might have been conjecture but I wouldn’t put it past Vandal to have one of his sprites already snooping the LZ and reporting back on hostiles in the area.  There was something about the setup that nagged at me but I couldn’t put my finger on it, regardless it wasn’t going to stop me from making the pickup.


I’m taking it. 


I punched the ‘accept mission’ button on the Exit Solutions app simultaneously with my message to Vandal. 


Rolling hot, get the pax up on comms soonest.  Tell ‘em we’ll be there in….  I did some quick math.  Eighteen seconds.


I spit the fuel umbilical out and slid the access hatch closed, switching comm circuits as I did so.


VALHALLA, DIRAE departing, thanks for the gas!


Not waiting for EddyF to acknowledge, I slipped the winch cables.  The LAV pitched nose down immediately, freefalling away from the zeppelin towards the ground.  Holding down the start buttons on turbines one and two, I advanced the throttles from off to ground idle.  The Ares Venture Low Altitude Vehicle (LAV) Air Training and Operations Manual specifically says not to do this as it increases the likelihood of hot starting the turbines.  The manual was not written to cover situations like this, though, with cold air already streaming through the engines.


One and two blazed to life, turbine speed and temperature instrumentation rising through amber into green.  I slammed the throttles forward into flight power, switched to crossbleed, and punched the starters for turbines three and four.  Our altitude continued to unroll as the engines spooled up, howling with greed.  Three thousand meters might sound like a lot but the reality of concrete rushing up to meet you at freefall speeds was enough to get the adrenaline pumping.


I felt power come on the aircraft as a fierce surge, like the first deep breath of fresh air after a swimmer surfaces from underwater.  We weren’t a brick falling through space anymore, now we were a stooping hawk, an armored raptor diving towards its prey.  Savage glee filled me as the LAV arrowed into the city, dipping below the clouds and into the urban canyons.


A glance at the EW board updated my situational awareness with what Vandal had been working on.  He’d fed SkyGuide a bogus transponder code and flight plan, one that the system would accept until we’d done something blatantly illegal.  The situation at the LZ overlaid my VR display in a thirty percent mask, although his recommended route through the intervening terrain glowed a brilliant saffron.  The zones of corporate airspace as well as locations of OmniStar patrol drones were also marked.


I leveled off at three hundred meters, blazing along at the better part of six hundred kilometers per hour.  Buildings flashed past, cliffs of neon lit glass that trembled to the roar of the turbines.  Advertising and cargo drones bleated forlornly in our wake, spun and battered by the jetwash.  SkyGuide blasted us with a speed violation.  In any other vehicle the metroplex’s air control system would have seized control, automatically slowing and rerouting us for law enforcement interdiction.  The lockout circuit in our transponder, coupled with Vandal’s deft hands at the EW console, prevented that.  I flicked away the notification, clearing my VR for the upcoming action.


Ten seconds!


Roger, drawled Vandal, managing somehow to sound bored.  I’ve got our pax on the line, callsign Saregan, two pax confirmed.  LZ is hot, small arms fire from corporate security forces.


Vandal didn’t bother briefing locations, he’d updated the VR iconography as the situation clarified.  I spared a glance for the landing zone layout, running some geometry through my head based on terrain and likely obstacles.


Copy all, we’ll ingress South to North, touch and go.  With only two for pick-up, we can just suppress.


“Where the frag are you?!!”  Vandal’s reply was stepped on by a voice on the radio, tight with adrenaline and punctuated by gunfire.


“Saregan, this is Exit Two Seven, we’re six seconds out, stand-by,” I replied.  We were on the deck now with the LZ in sight, our jetwash blasting a tornado of dirt and trash behind us, the overpressure cracking building windows and setting off car alarms.  The EW board was a christmas tree of angry lights as SkyGuide drones clawed for us with their targeting lidars.


I heard Vandal key the mike again as he briefed the pick-up plan.  “Saregan, Exit Two Seven, this will be a hot extract touch and go, we’ll be on the ground for two seconds.  Anyone not aboard after that gets left.”


“Yeah, I got it chummer, just hurry!”


I slapped the Master Arm from Safe to Arm, and the LAV’s weapon console went from stand-by amber to green.  Selecting the forward weapon station, I targeted a burst from the grenade launcher across the front of the hostile firing line.  The LAV’s own sensors fed the airburst link that would electrically prime the grenades to detonate on target.


Hang on! I snapped over the link, tense in the moment.  Vandal gave me an electronic thumbs up.


Yanking the nose of the aircraft back, I stood the LAV on its tail, chopping the throttles to turbines one and two while simultaneously pulling the trigger on the grenade launcher.  The LAV popped over the edge of the five story parking structure with about a meter to spare as I traded velocity for altitude, slamming down onto the concrete with enough force to crack it as we compressed the landing struts to their max.  I forced the pressure in the oleos to bleed off slowly to keep us from bouncing off the deck.  The grenades were time on target, detonating in thunderous concussions even as the aircraft slewed to a stop.


Small arms fire spanged off our hull, the rounds not heavy enough to have immediate effect.


Vandal was shouting over the radio.  He’d keyed up the exterior LCD panels on the LAV to strobe asynchronously, producing a nauseating flare effect for anyone trying to target us with heavier ordnance.  The harsh white light threw bizarre, grotesque shadows across the vehicles parked around us.  It also gave me a glimpse of our pax, anonymous figures in ponchos and armored jumpsuits, as they struggled aboard.  The second, clearly larger one, tossed the other onto the cargo ramp.  Something about the size discrepancy and the way the second one leaped to cover the first said child in my mind but I had no other data to go on.  Regardless, they were aboard.


I jammed all the throttles to full power, then threw three and four into afterburner.  The intense heat from the jetwash burned and blistered the concrete, peeling away chunks that sandblasted the parked cars.  The LAV accelerated north in a nose low attitude that would prevent our pax from tumbling out of the still open cargo bay, diving for the deck once again as we cleared the edge of the parking garage.


My display immediately washed with red and the aircraft lurched as it took several rounds of 12mm anti-aircraft fire from one of SkyGuide’s rotodrones.  I snarled in pain, jinking around a building while bringing the rest of the LAV’s weapons online.  I would rather run than fight, bullets are pricey and all the rotodrones had to do was delay us until more heavily armed interceptors could be vectored to our location.  But that wasn’t going to stop me from splashing whatever drones fell under my gunsights.


Vandal threw up a new recommended course to the drop off, but my vector to intercept was off and I would have to loop back after this next building.  I threw my planned course into VR with subconscious carelessness.  In the meantime, though.


Sleaze that motherfragger! I tagged the closest hostile drone even as I rolled us through a high yo-yo turn so tight that only an LAV, with its vectored thrust nacelles, could manage.  I heard a thump and a crash followed by vicious cursing from the cargo bay.  I clicked over to the intercom.


“This is your captain speaking, we’re experiencing some turbulence due to gunfire so I’ve turned on the fasten your seatbelt signs.”


The taller of the two figures, struggling to strap themselves into a jumpseat after tumbling around the cargo bay, gave me the finger.  Again, I was struck by the sense that they were protecting the other, having ensured the smaller figure was buckled in first.


I had more pressing matters to attend to, though.  Vandal’s EW attack had left the nearest rotodrone spinning uselessly in place, hunting vainly for a target amidst the sensor ghosts.  But we weren’t out of the woods yet.  I had three more drones vectoring to intercept, and it looked like my last evasion maneuver had pushed us far enough into some corporation’s airspace to prompt a response.  My VR display was set to echo Vandal’s Missile Attack Warning (MAWS) app on the EW console, and it was flashing a dangerous red.  Somewhere along the line I’d missed his spike call, but it gave me an idea.


You up for a little shake ‘n bake?  I threw a graphic at Vandal to let him know my plan.


Yeah, do some of that pilot drek! He laughed.


I slowed and climbed, angling towards the incoming rotodrones in order to shallow the intercept angle.  This would also notch us into whatever missile turret was tracking us, degrading the radar return and prompting it to switch to some other targeting, IR or LIDAR.  Gunfire from the approaching rotodrones slashed the air around the LAV.  They were engaging at max range which meant that someone out there REALLY didn’t like us.  I dropped the nose without changing our velocity vector, hawking the MAWS display.


It was quiescent for half a second before all Hell broke loose.  The turret tracking us rifled off a pair of short range anti-aircraft missiles, IR guided killers that were homing on the heat blooms from our jet turbines.  Despite the cooling baffles that routed ram air into the exhaust we were still hotter than anything else in the area.


SAM, five o’clock, three k!  I was breaking into the rotodrones even as Vandal called the threat, diving for the deck in a fast, three dimensional maneuver designed to get the LAV outside the missile’s track box in a way that the seeker couldn’t compensate for.  Simultaneously I slid the gunsight of the forward 20mm over the nearest drone and chopped it out of the air with a quick burst.


Flares!  I thought, and the countermeasure system obediently spat out half a dozen magnesium decoys that burned with a close spectral signature to that of our turbines.  The rotodrones slowed and pivoted, using their greater maneuverability to swing their weapons on to target.  They wouldn’t get a chance to engage.  The AAMs, motors already exhausted and guiding solely with their steering fins, arrowed in towards the conglomeration of IR targets in my wake.  Their proximity fused warheads liked the rotodrones just as much as they would have liked the LAV, detonating in high velocity blossoms of shrapnel.  Metal and shaped composites rained out of the skies onto the streets below.  The LAV thundered away into the night.

Game Time

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