CHAPTER NAVIGATION BAR
TALES OF BUFFALO COMMONS
" KEEN "
The explosion came out of no where, knocking Alexei and Karsla to the ground and instantly engulfing Ipovich in a mass of flames. * * *
All around Alexei was fire and indeed it seemed as though he'd suddenly been launched into the very pit of hell.
Joules had ducked at the first burst of explosion. Because of it she hadn't seen the approaching Stik-It Grenade get knocked downward, ricochet off the ground and bounce into the underside of her Starbus where the concussive force of the primary explosion detonated it.
The front side of the Starbus bucked into the air and dropped hard. The jolt threw Joules forward in her seat, where despite having her hands up instinctively to protect herself from the explosion she triggered, she banged her head on the console, dazing herself.
The blast was much more than she had anticipated; she had no way of knowing that was because she'd come very close to being in the cockpit as it was blown out.
Joules shook off the disorientation and then glanced at her status board. She didn't have time to confirm her hit, the Gravity Systems were nominal and the driver's would be on-line shortly. She needed to use whatever diversion the blast had given her to get away.
Joules took the controls and brought the Starbus up, airborne for the first time since the shut down code.
* * *
Alexei rolled over. The heat was searing him even though he was not himself on fire. Karsla laid bleeding and unconscious, her right leg bent at an unnatural angle. To his left was the charred form of Ipovich. His demise would have been extremely painful but thankfully short.
Through the conflagration Alexei saw the Starbus rise. A phoenix admist the smoke and devastation. She was getting away, and once she told people what had happened their mission would be exposed. He had failed his Grand-Father's memory and his nation.
With trembling hands, fighting off the shock of the reality around him, Alexei reached for this Cody rifle, removed the EMP Grenade from it's clip and slid the rod in the ballistic barrel. Then, with waning strength Alexei brought the Rifle up, aimed it at the rising Starbus, and fired as the craft began to ascend over him.
* * *
The EMP Grenade triggered as it closed on the electro-magnetic source. The pulse burned through every system by overwhelming each active circuit.
Joules suddenly felt her Starbus die, mid-flight and fifty metres above ground. She'd never experienced an Electro-Magnetic Pulse before but she'd had system failures. The blessing of the Rigel Aerospace built machine was the multiple redundancies; the curse was knowing how to activate them properly.
Joules popped the cover on the re-sets and override panel and immediately began pulling the levers. Each one was connected to a mechanical, non-electrical hydraulic and from there to a series of cables. Each one began manually shifting systems over to secondary and if necessary tertiary systems.
She actually felt herself rise from the seat, a passenger in a falling landscape, as the front end pitched forward and the fiery horizon loomed ominously. Would the Grav-Plates come back on line in time? Could she keep from crashing, destroying all that she'd struggled to save?
* * *
Alexei opened his eyes as the shadow fell over him. Through the waning embers of the dissipating blaze and smoke he saw the nose of the Starbus bearing down on him. It was a pity the cockpit windows reflected the devastation around him; he would've liked to see the look of panic and horror on her face as she crashed.
At the last moment he closed his eyes, faithful that he'd done what he could to save the mission, hopeful that his sacrifice would earn him his own Hero of the New Soviet distinction. A peace transcending all pain descended upon him as the wind picked up and the air ahead of the Starbus rushed around him. Alexei Podarkin was ready to die.
* * *
The ground has begun to rise before them, a sure sign they were getting closer, when they heard the first explosion. Quickly Yuri found the nearest high ground and looked back in the direction where the Starbus had set down.
Just before he made it another explosion resounded through the valley but he made perch in time to see the hull of the Starbus, apparently thrown into the air from one of the blasts, arc and descend, landing in plume of dirt, dust and debris.
Yuri smiled. Alexei had been successful in stopping the tart, despite his feelings for her. Yuri climbed back down. Tepu approached him.
"What was it, Comrade?" Said the pilot with concern. His heart was too big, it was one reason they left him to flying things.
"Podarkin was successful. The trail ends behind us." Yuri then stepped up his pace of marching. The rest were forced to increase theirs to keep up. With luck they'd be nearly at the rendezvous by night. That would be good. It was always tactically desirable to occupy the ground first.
* * *
Joules' eyes fluttered open to the gentle touch of Bruce Porter and with consciousness came the awareness that she was in one of the bunks of her Starbus. At least the craft survived, at least she survived.
Then she heard footsteps and other voices, strangers were in her ship. Joules tried to get up but Bruce eased her back down, “Relax. They're friends.”
“Friends?” She offered weakly. She couldn't fight him if she tried.
Bruce nodded toward them, “You think I haven't dinged a car or two out here. I can't return Prototypes to the lab dented.”
Joules' brow furrowed, she was confused and suspicious but for once unconcerned about wrinkles, “They're legit?”
Bruce smiled, “About as legit are you are, but they know they're way around Rigel systems.”
That brought the concern back, “How bad is it?”
Joules had blacked out on impact; it didn't need to be much worse. Bruce saw the flash of the explosion not knowing what had happened and before he could return half his systems shut down from the Electro-Magnetic Pulse. He'd had a perfect view of the Starbus going down while fighting to keep his own vehicle airborne.
“You hard landed. Knocked out most of your systems, nothing structural thankfully. The Grav-Plates kicked to life in time to avoid that.”
It would take a few more hours to get the ship functional again and even then she'd only be operating at 40% but Bruce knew Joules would want to take care of that back in her hold on Station One with that enigmatic engineer of hers. As long as these mechies said the ship was spaceworthy he wouldn't put up a fuss.
After a pause, while she tried many times to work out the wording she finally squeaked out one work, “Podarkin?”
Bruce didn't know how else to put it so he shook his head, “He's under here somewhere.”
Despite everything a tear welled up and Joules let it go. The memory of the other night deserved at least that. In the stillness and comfort of her bunk, guarded over by one of the few she'd ever trust to see her like this Joules gave in to slumber. The obligations still outstanding would wait.
* * *
Gilmore sat on the deck facing the monitor he'd been tracking events with. The systems on the Starbus were slowly responding so he knew the ship was coming back on online, and that someone was working on it to make that happen, but he still hadn't heard from Joules yet. A worrying concern.
On the display, beside her Starbus, was Bruce Porter's Aerocar and a small beat-up old Grav-Van. Four people had come out of it, presumably this was some sort of work crew Porter had called in to get the Starbus airborne. That bothered Gilmore, the Starbus was his domain, but he had no way of getting to it right now.
He keyed the display back over to the New Soviet soldiers as they continued away from the craft. The shut down that forced the Starbus to the ground had obviously put them short of their target but Gilmore couldn't figure out how far short.
Then he remembered the link they'd used to trigger the shutdown, it would've recorded the keyed navigation information before overriding it. Gilmore rose and then scrolled the records back until he found that information. The ship had landed twenty-one kilometres shy of its programmed destination.
Gilmore scrolled to those coordinates. It was a grove, an open space and the side of a some hills. Gilmore scrolled around looking for something nearby that might be their actual goal but again nothing stood out. Gilmore keyed the LiveEye feed to replay a motion comparison of the last few hours.
At this accelerated frame rate Gilmore was able to spot something that at first he thought was a waterfall, then the water expanded. Gilmore zoomed in on that area and replayed the activity at a slower pace, still ten times faster than normal. From the side of one of the larger hills a series of Armoured Tanks appeared. Then smaller vehicles came out and drove around the territory.
Gilmore counted at least twenty vehicles. He bit his lower lip in thought. What were New Soviets doing in Buffalo Commons? Why were they meeting up with people who had tanks? Who were these people?
He looked around the interior of his hidden alcove on Station Five. He had no one to contact who could alert anyone about this without revealing himself to the very people who couldn't know he was still alive. But whatever was going on down there was serious enough that someone should be investigating.
Gilmore went to his comm-link and held it trying to decide if he should call her. There was probably nothing she could do, but she might have other contacts and through those connections get this looked into, hopefully in time.
* * *
Darkness was descending and while her crew was enjoying another spectular western sunset Lieutenant Angela Bale continued with her normal nighttime routine, setting up her cot outside.
Her crew couldn't understand it, she had first claim to the command alcove in the Carrier, the only solitary space on board, but Bale was always more comfortable outside and the air was so fresh here she was getting better nights sleep than she had in years.
"Lieutenant?" It was Kipling, the senior driver, "Something in your kit is buzzing."
Angela moved back to the Carrier, climbed in and went to her kit bag. She found the socket and opened it, removing her personal comm. That was odd, none of their communication gear was picking up any signals out here. Then she remembered she'd let Gilmore monkey with this unit. He'd promised to extend it's range, looks like he had delivered.
She activated it as she brought it up to her ear, "Bale, here."
The voice on the other side was unmistakeable, “Angela, it's Gilmore. How mobile are you?”
She couldn't fly to Station Five, she almost retorted but thought better of it, "Why? What do you need?"
Gilmore gave her the coordinates and a brief overview of what he'd seen. "Can you get someone to check that out? I think it's serious."
Bale had her Mission Kit open and was comparing the coordinates to their position. It was three days away, that might be too late but they were close enough to check it out themselves. "We're on an open ticket. I'll take care of it."
Gilmore didn't know if that made him feel any better. He'd spend the next few days worrying about Angela as well as Joules. "Call me if you need anything."
Bale rang off and turned to her crew, "Pack up. We're heading out."
Then she headed out for her cot, she didn't know when her next good night of sleep would come, but she knew it probably wasn't for a while.
* * *