Prolog

 

Ten years ago ... Central America, the Decline Of The Cartels, and the Colombian Industrial Revolution.

The heat carried through the afternoon air in a visible wave. Washing over everything, bathing it in a sweltering cloak. A insect buzzed over the tops of the jungle canopy. A man made insect. A multi-directional turboshaft encased in a hard metal shell floated and darted the deadly insect about on its mission, it's scream was enough to drown out other natural insects and predators below. Dark green paint, faded identification and insignia were man's answer to natures natural markings. A multi-faceted cockpit canopy allowed the pilot a wide angle of vision, and looked all the more like a compound eye of some tropical fly. The small camo green LOA-6FA Cicada aerodyne circled around the LZ, staying a fifty feet off the ground, using advanced LADAR and NOE terrain following guidance to navigate every gully, river, and beaten path at a speed that would make human aimed weapons useless and give fits to anything set for automatic target acquisition methods.

The wash from the armored nacelle mounted Allison-Pratt turboshaft engine reverberated into the jungle depths, quieting all in its passage. The pilot glanced down at the burning foliage and destruction, searching for any sign of the LRRP team as he banked the aerodyne to the left. Glare from the sun reflected off of the multi-faceted composite laminate armored windshield, into the cramped cockpit, off the control panel, and off the lowered visor of the pilot's helmet.

All of the sensors were blank. Nothing on visual acuity, visual imaging, thermal imaging, or olfactory sourcing. The transponders were dead as well, but then, equipment never did work right down here.

The pilot's finger hovered over the red [LIVE] button on the joystick. A button that was linked to the firing servos controlling the chin turret mounted 5mm electric tri-barrel. Nothing moved below. There were some whiffs of smoke but nothing else. His green targeting reticule moved on the visor of his helmet, digitally projected, it followed his eye movements exactly. With each twist of his head, the servos whined and the minigun followed, exactly projecting itself, aiming where he was looking, ready to hose the jungle below with four thousand rounds of caseless ammunition a minute.

He shook his head side to side in obvious frustration and the minigun whined as it rapidly traversed left and right in simple ignorant mechanical imitation of the otherwise involuntary movement by the human operator. Frustrated, it chafed at the bit to scream its message of death at the enemy. He keyed in his mike.

"Head One this is High Eye. No sign of your team yet. Will hold station. Copy?"

"Rodge that, High Eye. Hold position until visual sighting confirmed. Over."

The Cicada dipped forward and accelerated from its hover position, trading altitude for speed. The ceramic turbine blades roared inside their armored housing as the pilot spun his craft across the jungle roof in NOE mode. A hundred feet below it, hidden by the dense undergrowth, five men waited, separated by the growth, each waited quietly.

The jungle was hot, it was always hot anytime of the year but now it seemed hotter. You could hear the heat, it was audible like a muted big bass drum. Waves shimmered from the foliage. The LZ had been hot also, burning hot. Gwen sat hunkered down. Sweat dripped down from her headband and ran down her face, flowing over caked on dirt and grime. A cut above her left eye oozed blood freely but showed signs of trying to congeal as she blinked quickly to clear her vision. The military spec nanos in her system were running down. When she got back to base, she would have to have another treatment to replace those that she had lost through natural movement and field use. She readjusted a pressure patch she had managed to apply. The compact maser field telephone strapped to her back was starting to dig its straps into her back and she moved the pack to a more favorable position.

She and the team had been on the run for five days now. She was high on combat and speed. Especially speed. She shifted her weight and opened the leg pocket of her fatigues, taking out a dirty bundle of olive drab wax and plastic paper, non-reflective. She laid the paper on her leg and unwrapped it gently, a jagged, amber crystal was within, partially smeared with weapon grease and dirt. It didn't bother Gwen at all.

Speed, military issue.

Originally a cocaine and heroin mixture, modern military pharmaceuticals had improved the formula greatly. The stuff worked better than the older mixture, but was safer, if physical addiction was safe. She broke off a small piece, offering it to Bennet who shook his head. Gwen hunched her shoulders and swallowed the bitter tasting crystal sliver, feeling the rush a few seconds later. With the rush came back sudden and sharp memories of just where she was and why. Crystal clear memories that had been clouded by exhaustion and fatigue, pounded down into her subconscious by constant action and the rip tide of adrenaline. Two days ago, the LRRP team had conducted a two-two bush mission, or in military slang, a search and destroy mission against the enemy.

Parker and his team were back in the villas again. There was a real military name for this operation, but the others had another name they called it. They were bait, moving into and out of the jungle, into and out of the various villages, digging new fighting holes each night, setting up ambushes and waiting, fighting off the heat, the bugs, and the enemy. Always trying to outguess the enemy, the natives. Most of the soldiers just called them 'indigs.'

The six man team had been low on ammunition and supplies and were looking forward to an uneventful return trip. They had come to a little village on the river. Parker had pulled out his much worn laminated map of the area again and consulted it, bringing Kennedy, the TSCS man, and the TSCS up again to call into Operations. Parker snaked out a small uplink cable from the TSCS and connected it to a input feed on his wrinkled map. Instantly, images on the map were updated from the Team Satellite Communications System. He glanced at his map, studying the movements of known units, probably hostile locations, and a lot of other data that his augmented mind processed with the speed of a fine tuned combat machine.

He keyed in a status report, noted the nearby air support potential, and keyed in a request for loiter time.

Request approved.

Parker smiled, and continued to upload his status report from his map to the TSCS and up to the military bird high in orbit. His reports were on the desktop systems of generals in the Pentagon and at the field HQs within twenty seconds. Let them figure out what was going on, he thought as he finished his transmission, disconnected the uplink, and rolled up his map again, storing it back into his thigh pocket. A spare map was carried in a pouch on the TSCS itself, but Parker had never broken the seal on it. His own map was over two years old and still going strong.

Parker took care of his assigned equipment.

He clicked his signaler twice, imitating the sound of a native beetle. The other team members all drew in on his position, visually and mentally. He subvocalized to their trans-scribers, his voice appearing as a marquee display on their optical feed of their helmet visors. Close range IR laser com. Undetectable, line of sight, and unjammable, as long as he had a line of sight to each team member. Even behind cover, each team member could extend an 'antenna' from their helmet, and the com laser would pick up a IFF style signal that would home it's gimbals in on aiming for the tip of the antenna. A special sensor there would pick up the beam and decipher it.

Parker appraised the others of the situation, and then gave the order to blend into the jungle. The team moved out again, wading a muddy stream, they picked leeches off of their arms and legs on the other bank.

There was the sound of automatic fire from the front of the trail. The team sucked dirt as bullets whined around their heads, echoing through the jungle. The indigs were holed to either side of the main path and had caught the team in a cross-fire of a variety of small arms and light support weapons. More of the indigs could come up from behind them and then the team would have no chance, caught in a three way cross-fire. Parker knew that the team would be cut to pieces in no time at all if something wasn't done quick.

Parker hunkered down and thought hard. The team was in trouble, attrition would slowly kill them off one by one. Ammo was low and the team was rapidly using what little they had left. Parker got Kennedy to put in a priority call for air support. Kennedy acknowledged the support was approved, but it would take the gun 'dynes several minutes to reach the area.

That was just too long to hold out, thought Parker as he returned fire with his M-21A2 rifle, single shots well placed according to the HUD on his combat helmet. The sound of the weapon was a simple 'snick', followed by the wet 'thuck' of the round hitting home. Sometimes there was a scream, or a cry of pain, but usually Parker got his shots in where the target didn't have much of a response time to cry out.

Parker motioned for the team to drawback and retreat when possible. The plan would be to get to some cover between the rock and the hard place that their backs were up against. The plan was communicated above the confusion and roar by way of IR com and hand signals. The plan was working but ever too slowly. The team inched it's way backwards to the safety of the denser jungle growth. The storm of rounds continued to follow them. So far there had been no casualties, and the team had actually claimed three kills, but given the current dire situation, that would quickly turn around and bite them in the ass.

It was only by sheer luck and divine intervention that Parker was able to locate the gully and the half overgrown stream on his map. Using the highest thermographic and topographical scanning resolution, he led the team into and down a swift moving stream, under a canopy of dense jungle growth, and right past the confused indigs.

But the indigs had some fancy electronics of their own, and using olfactory sensors and enhanced visual scanners, it hadn't taken them long to find the carefully concealed trail left by the LRRP team. Toward the end of the trail, right where the LRRP team left the water, the indigs found a claymore mine the wrong way. That had been Gwen's idea, just in case the indigs got smart and followed them. The claymore stalled the indigs in their pursuit, and wrecked the olfactory sensor that they were using.

This gave the lurp team even more time to blend in to the jungle and set up house to welcome the pursuing indigs. It was a one-sided party to be sure.

 

The indigs had closed in on the team relentlessly and the team had a running firefight for the past two days. Sleep came in between fire fights and forced fast marches. Sleep came in minutes and half hours.

Sometimes not at all. That was what the speed was for. It kept you sharp, wired. You could crash when you were in friendly land again. Until then, the speed kept you going.

Gwen wiped the back of her hand across her face, drawing back blood, dust, and sweat before wiping the hand on the leg of her stained fatigues. The rush of stimulants into her system made her hardwiring tweak, honed it to a razor sharpness. She had felt like a piece of piano wire gone slack. Now she had been drawn so taut that she vibrated, almost broke, but nonetheless she vibrated, oscillated, and positively hummed on the inside.

The cut above her eye stopped throbbing. The military nanos were stopping the blood flow by pinching off veins until they could rebuild the damaged sections. The sounds of the firefight in the jungle carried over the hill in front of them and she tried to get closer to the ground while peering through the clinging smoke and dust. She was able to discern shapes moving about the ruined foliage. There came the rapid report of an M-21A2 in the distance, unique for the metallic whisper its very high rate cyclic action made when firing.

American equipment.

Bullets whined and ricocheted through the jungle air followed by screams and shouts as the bullets found their intended or unintentional targets, smacking into warm flesh indiscriminately. A few tracers lit up the shadows of the jungle growth. Gwen swore again, silently. Long Range Recon Patrol out in the bush. The LRRP motto, "First in, last out." Yeah, Brigade L.R.R.P., 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.

Stuck here deep in Bannanaland.

Again.

A strong wind whipped at her collar and blew up more dust as she reached over and picked up her dented kevlar helmet. An owner engraved etching on the side crudely depicted a Grim Reaper and the words "Kill Their Unborn" were stenciled below the etching in black outlined white letters. Her M-21A2 lay next to her, ready. Five meters away lay Malcolm Bennet, the team LT.

Bennet had saved Gwen's life countless times and vice-a-versa during their tour together in South America.

Three meters in front of them was Bradley, the point man. Bradley cradled his rifle, a M205C grenade launcher attached under the barrel. Gwen again nervously wiped her brow with the back of her hand.

"How much mag you got, 'Tenant?" Gwen asked in a whisper.

Bennet didn't move, his eyes darted to the tell-tale on the side of his rifle and back again to the jungle. His peripheral vision would have seen anything moving out there, his mind had recorded the reading on the tell-tale at the first glance. It had taken Bennet a less than a quarter of a second to get the information necessary to answer Gwen's inquiry, and still nothing got past his field of vision.

"Three quarter of a drum."

"Good enough. Don't save singles. Chuck and load." Gwen said. "We don't have time for fancy trick pops."

She looked up to the jungle roof as the sound of aerodynes and the high pitched scream of a turbine passed by overhead and disappeared off in the distance. She gave a hand signal to Bennet who nodded back.

Gwen undid the receiver of the TSCS and keyed in the TRANSMIT key.

"High Eye, this is Bravo. Do you copy? High Eye, this is Bravo. Do you copy?"

Gwen listened carefully to the nearly silent TSCS. There was a burst of static in her ear piece and then a voice, carried by bone induction vibration in her mastoid.

"Bravo, this is High Eye. I copy. Transmit call sign repeat status and request. Over."

"High Eye, this is Bravo Tango. We are down and one hundred percent defensive. Request evac now. Over." Gwen said as she subvocalized the words.

The sounds of automatic weapons and hasty indig orders bring shouted were audible now above the general din. Bennet lifted his head up and stared straight ahead.

"It looks bad, sister." Bennet said as he lifted himself up on one arm in a modified prone position.

"We've seen worse, el-tee." Gwen said. "We've seen worse."

"This is our last two two bush. We get rotated back to the rear after this. Man, I'm so short, I could parachute off of a dime."

"Don't worry, man ..." Gwen began but Bennet waved his hand in a signal to be quiet and listen.

Long seconds passed and nothing appeared. Both strained their eyes to dissect the jungle around them. A flash, a hint of movement was all that they were looking for. Something that didn't belong in the natural array of the undergrowth. Nothing. They relaxed somewhat, still peering over the sights of their rifles.

"What are you going to do in the rear when you get there?" Bennet asked Gwen.

"I really don't know. Don't matter. This is Ti-Ti. Don't matter at all. Hell, today we ventilated boo coo indigs, no lie?"

"No lie." Bennet replied, looking around.

"Wonder what's keeping Parker and Kennedy?" he asked.

"Don't know." Gwen replied quietly, still staring out into the jungle.

"Parker. That's one crazy assed son of a bitch ..." Gwen added quietly. "That man would sell his own family for a profit if he could. Dude has got the wrong set of scruples if you ask me. Sometimes, he gets on my nerves, talking about money all the time, about how rich he's going to be when he gets out ... He's good, don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade him for anyone else on any other team. I just don't like the way he does things sometimes is all. Does things like no one else mattered but him, know what I mean? Dude is strange, you know." Bennet nodded.

"He is pretty strange sometimes. What do you think ..."

Before Bennet could finish saying what he wanted to, another sound filled the air, a familiar sound that both knew. A constant whine that signaled the approach of a aerodyne.

Aerodyne.

"Bravo, this is High Eye. How do you read me? Over." Gwen struggled with the TSCS, keying it in.

"Copy, High Eye. Request extraction. Code Delta Lima Niner. Over."

"Bravo, this is High Eye. LZ is too hot. Repeat. LZ is too hot. New LZ at Charlie Tango Lima Sigma. Repeat Charlie Tango Lima Sigma. Do you copy? Over." Gwen swore as she hastily removed a laminated map from her pocket and checked the coordinates the aerodyne pilot had just given her.

The map, once plugged into the uplink of the TSCS, showed the new coordinates. The new coordinates were a lot farther away than they had hoped for. They had some walking to do.

"Copy High Eye. New LZ is looking OK. We'll be waiting for the Downtown Bus. Meanwhile, we're getting some bad publicity down here. Do you think some of your friends could show some of our friends the goods? Over."

"Uh, roger that Bravo, Downtown Bus in route with the goods. Keep your heads down. I've cleared a gun on approach. Freq is on your display, show him where you want the delivery. Over."

Gwen looked at her map, saw the approaching gunship, and then keyed in through tactile finger pressure the coordinates that she wanted obliterated. Those coordinates had been fed to her by secure com a few seconds ago by Parker, out in the bush. He and his partner had the indigs in sight, and were painting them for real time hand off of air to ground ordinance. The indigs didn't even know that they were being set up to be slaughtered.

"Copy High Eye. Pass this address on to your friend and see if he can do any rural improvement to the real estate. Over." Gwen closed off as she motioned for Bennet to stay low. A gun was on approach.

'Dynes,' aerodynes, and it was a welcome sound to hear as the Toyota-Sikorsky TUH-62c Roach slowly appeared above the dust and smoke, its heavy turbine blade wash beating down at the ground below. Gwen motioned and Bennet nodded. A new sound filled Gwen and Bennet's ears, the sound of indigs conducting a hasty search of the area. They had heard and seen the aerodyne, and to them, anything American deserved to be fired at.

"Yeah ... Come and get some." Gwen muttered.

She slowly caressed her M-21A1, the polymer and impact resin automatic rifle that had replaced the aging M-16 series six years ago. Bullpup design, light weight, magazine located behind the pistol grip, a rapid heat dispersion alloy for the barrel prevented overheating, and the barrel was manufactured out of high strength alloy straight out of a zero grav factory itself. The magazine held ninety-five rounds of 5mm NATO caseless ammunition. Integral flash suppressor, tritium dot scope, daybright variable tunable infra-red and visible light laser designator for rapid target acquisition, and gyrostabilizer built into the stock for accuracy. It was one sweet piece and contrary to typical army equipment, it actually worked, and worked well. Gwen checked the tell-tale on the side of the weapon. Green numbers on a display located above the pistol grip indicated that the magazine had only two rounds left, the display reading 02 RNDS.

She discarded the near empty magazine, kicking a hole in the ground with her boot heel, depositing the magazine into the hole, and then using her heel to cover the magazine over again. She took another fresh magazine from her webbing, noticing that she only had five left, stripped off the safety tab and inserted the magazine into the weapon. It fit smoothly and she slapped it home with a snick. She released the safety on the rifle she cradled in her arms, gently letting the arming switch click home as she chambered one of the rounds. The arming bolt snicked shut with a quiet snap.

More indigs now appeared and their shadowy outlines moved around in the smoke surrounding the ruined foliage. Gwen raised the weapon and took aim, the tritium dot positioning itself over her field of vision. Gwen's finger took up the slack on the trigger, ready to fire the laser that would paint her target with an infra-red dot that only her battlefield optics would pick up and amplify.

Gently, her finger tightened on the trigger.

A shape loomed up out of the undergrowth, hidden in the shadows and the foliage. Bennet held up a small clicker and tapped the plastic device in his hand. The sound was reminiscent of a beetle chirping and was immediately answered by another similar sound produced from an identical device. At the same time, a coded IFF burst from a microtransponder was sent from Bradley's shoulder web mounted unit, to be answered by the unit in the jungle, and then returned as a 'FRIEND' reading.

A camo clad soldier materialized out of the jungle and slid down into the space between Bennet and Gwen, turning and laying flat to cover the jungle in front of them. Gwen released the tension in her finger on the trigger. A second later, another click and another man slid down into place from behind. There were now five of them in the ruins and at least twice that many indigs in the nearby jungle. Parker and Kennedy. Both good men to have around in a fire fight. Parker was a career man, a lifer, from some backwater part of New Mexico. He wasn't well liked because his MOs were very mercenary and weren't met with much approval in the higher echelons, but he did get the job done.

Done his way.

Kennedy was the second late comer to join the motley group and also a career man of sorts.

Kennedy had volunteered for a second tour when he had found out that the Army was going to draft his younger brother. He was the teams specialist, heavy weapons were his skill and he carried the 4.8mm M250 SAW squad automatic weapon. Current policy was only one member from a family. As long as Kennedy stayed in, his brother stayed at home. In school where his brother belonged.

"Man, how are those skids going to find us in this bush?" Parker asked.

Gwen tapped the TSCS.

"LZs been moved. This one's too hot. We're going to have to hump it if we want to make it."

"The LZ's been moved?" Parker subvocalized. "When I get back, I'm going to kill everyone in military intelligence. This was supposed to be one simple ambush, set up on a trail, dust a few indigs, hump it out again ..."

"Typical. Intelligence really screwed the pooch on this one." Bennet said.

Parker grunted and became quiet as he looked up. The Roach drew their attention once again as it seemed to materialize above them in a break in the jungle. It seemed to falter then slowly dipped its ponderous nose downward and with a increase in turbine pitch, the skid was moving off toward a clearer LZ.

The indigs saw the 'aerodyne and opened fire on the slow mover. Several of the rounds apparently hit the aerodyne but to no effect. Ceramic and carbon armored, the Roach could shrug off just about anything up to 20mm. Anything man portable but the towed and vehicle mounted stuff made even a Roach scurry for cover. More tracers leapt from the jungle canopy, arcing into the air to slap against the belly and nose of the Roach. The Roach took a renewed interest in the indigs and did a slow bank.

"Nail those damn indigs!" shouted Kennedy. "Show 'em what it's like to mess with Air Cav!"

A door gunner leaned slightly out of the side, taking aim with a 'free' hanging 7mm M-65 GPMG and with a rapid, almost hypnotizing thumping of the rapid fire weapon, he began firing on the indigs. The M-65 hosed the indigs with a stream of crimson tracers. Dust and dirt rose all around the bodies in waist high gouts as organs were pulped, and holes were drilled through warm bodies. The feed chutes whirred as an electric motor pulled 7mm caseless fed through the floor ammo box and into the weapon's free floating action. The lifeless bodies fell to the ground as the Roach roared and banked away again, the door gunner continuing to pour fire out of the M-65 into the dense jungle, hanging almost upside down, out the door, and under the Roach, firing to the rear and below the departing 'Dyne. The Roach continued its slow pass across the LZ. Crimson fire continued to pour from both doors as the 'aerodyne banked away once again on another pass across the LZ. Gwen watched the 'aerodyne slowly move on.

A second skid, a AAD-16C Wasp, came in low against the jungle, perpendicular to the tree line. This 'dyne was a true gunship, its insect-like profile appeared above the jungle roof as the wash from its twin GE T-7C turboshaft engines drowned out any other sound. The variable pitch venturi-like exhausts whined as they rotated, bleeding off speed, trading momentum for hovering and lateral maneuverability. The Wasp sported a front mounted FLIR / ATADS targeting system which swiveled like the compound eye of some angry insect. There were two, sixteen tube 40mm rocket pods, one under each side mounted wing, paired with two box launchers housing four Ferret AAGM launchers, flanked by a box launcher housing a pair of Killer Bee ASRAAM air to air missiles that adorned the tip of each wing. Under the front nose of the gunship was a recessed brace of quad 7mm GPMGs and a turret mounted 30mm chaingun; a very rapid fire automatic cannon capable of killing tanks and bunkers as well as loads of softer targets.

The automatic cannon servos whined, swiveled to follow the tracking of the front ATADS system and where the gunner was looking. The 'dyne was on a attack run as it came in low and fast against the jungle line. The chaingun began to fire. A bright torch-like flash from the muzzle and a constant thump thump thump noise that was unmistakable anywhere. On the receiving end, however, the jungle and the indigs were being scythed down by high explosive rounds.

Trees and indigs were cut in half, bush and jungle swept away, and dense growth parted effortlessly. Four rockets howled away from their launchers, riding downward arcing white contrails of exhaust quickly toward the ground, and then the gunship broke off it's run, banking away steeply. A second later, the white rocket contrails softly touched ground and the jungle erupted in harsh cyan and bright yellow as the high explosives detonated with a force that even the entrenched lurp team could feel through the ground that they were hugging. Jagged pieces of men and various equipment tumbled away from the explosion. White concussion waves spread out from the point of impact, stirring up dust and pieces of jungle as dirty debris rained down amid the clearing smoke. The Wasp continued to strafe the jungle, using its large supply of 7mm caseless fired from the recessed gun pits on each side of the cockpit and the nose. Four M65s could lay down a hell of a lot of fire in a very short amount of time. It was like watching a lawnmower in an overgrown yard, only this lawnmower was a flying gunship, and the overgrown yard was a hostile jungle.

"Thank God for air support." Bennet said, spitting out dust.

"Amen." replied Kennedy, almost reverently, after he had just witnessed the display of air delivered firepower.

Parker was still holding his M-21A2 close to him as Gwen looked at the smoldering bodies. The cries of the wounded and the silence of the dead. Kennedy just looked at the tree line as Bennet pointed to it while getting Gwen's attention. Gwen nodded. They began getting ready to leave the jungle for the cover of the thicker woods and the promise of reaching a 'Dyne waiting on station at another LZ. Time to hump out.

"Okay, saddle up and move 'em out." Bennet said. "The LZ should be twenty-five hundred meters beyond that treeline."

Gwen, Kennedy, Bradley, and Bennet started to move out. Bradley followed Gwen while Parker took up rearguard. Bennet stopped and took a claymore mine from his hip pack, setting the mine into the ground on its placement spikes and then running the trip wire across the trail path. He then attached the wire to the detonator and stepped back, covering the tripwire with dust to camouflage it and putting a small branch in front of the mine itself.

"There." he said as he joined the others. "That'll slow them down a little ..."

They stopped at the base of the trail.

"Quick, like bunnies do it." Gwen said, as she waved each member of the team forward, covering for them as they ran.

The team made the denser jungle growth and then worked their way further on deeper. Cautiously. Parker took the point, searching the jungle with the heavy M250 and it's hardwired sensors. He skirted on ahead while the others stopped. Gwen pulled her canteen off her belt and offered it to Bennet who took it gladly. Kennedy looked around as he sat hunched down, cradling his M-21A2. A insect buzzed around his face and he swatted at it then rubbed his forehead by pushing his helmet up on top of his head. Long minutes passed. Bennet took another swig and handed the canteen back to Gwen. Parker appeared silently in the bushes behind them. They turned in surprise at the clicking noise behind them and the buzzing from their transponders which indicated a friendly return signal. Parker grunted and looked back over his shoulder at Kennedy.

"What did you see?" Bennet asked, attracting the man's attention.

Parker shrugged and sighed as he hunched down and held his weapon close.

"There's a clear LZ about a klick and a half to the north and another one a klick to the north-east. The indigs know where we're headed, and they're moving in to secure them but if we move fast, we can still grab a ride out of here." Parker said.

"Otherwise we apply for citizenship..." Gwen muttered.

Gwen picked up her rifle and shouldered the TSCS to a more comfortable position. Kennedy stayed behind them as Parker moved on ahead at a quicker pace, leaving the other three behind. Parker disappeared into the underbrush. In the distance, the long drawn out whooshing sound of the claymore mine detonating followed by startled cries and high pitched screams sounded. Bennet held his thumb up.

"Get some more, Clay." he said.

The two topped the hill and could see the LZ in the distance. A clear hole in the jungle roof. Bennet heard hushed voices on his left and saw shapes moving in the bush. Indig shapes took form as Kennedy shouted a warning, bracing his rifle and cutting loose with a long burst. There was a stutter of automatic fire as the burst caught the first three shapes, scything through bush and bodies, slicing both in half.

Thick dust kicked up around the jerking indigs as the 4.8mm slugs screamed and slapped into bodies and foliage. Bennet and Gwen joined in with controlled cyclic three round bursts of 4.8mm from their M-21A2 rifles. The cyclic rate of the assault rifles was so high, that there was very little rise to the barrel, giving very high accuracy with a high number of rounds before the rifle would start to 'walk' the rounds away from the target due to recoil. Three round bursts could be grouped to a target as easily as single shots could. Bradley joined in, sending short three round bursts into the indigs. Movement to the rear with no response from his transponder caused Kennedy to spin and bring his weapon to bear but a burst of automatic rifle fire caught him in the chest and lifted the man up, throwing him backwards onto the ground limply in a spray of red. Nine indigs broke through the foliage and open fired on the remaining three Americans.

Bradley cocked his M25C grenade launcher and let go with a 'BLOOP' from the four centimeter weapon. A second later, there was a loud explosion as the fragrenade smart-fuse detonated at a meter above ground level. The high explosive was packed with over two hundred, one millimeter alloy shot and a belt of high density plasticarbon that would splinter nicely was imbedded in the explosive. The fragrenade detonated with a subdued crack, shredding three of the indigs in its blossoming flash, throwing dirt into the air and bodies to the ground where the jagged plasticarbon splinters and shot hit.

Gwen threw Bennet roughly to the ground as rounds landed in front of them. The wet slapping sound of metal hitting flesh and a hoarse cry from Bennet. Gwen dropped prone behind a fallen tree, bringing her rifle up as she hit the ground to roll and fire. The indigs were charging and Bennet dropped one of the indig with a burst from his rifle that caught the indig in the upper chest and head. Gwen cut loose with a sustained burst from her rifle that caught two more at chest level and flipped them backwards in a shower of red mist. The 4.8mm round was designed to tumble when it hit so that it tore flesh, bone, sinew, and organs viscously. The carefully aimed bursts of rounds spewing from Gwen's and Bradley's M-21A2s were doing their work with the typical indifference that bullets usually took.

The tell-tales on the weapons constantly updated themselves.

46 RNDS
43 RNDS
40 RNDS
37 RNDS
34 RNDS
31 RNDS

Each new display followed a brief flash and a short bark from the weapon. The crisp, clear sound of weapon fire ringing like a huge bell in Gwen's ears, hyped up by the speed and the hardwiring. Three indigs were still coming at them. Gwen looked over at Kennedy but the man was dead. The wounds to his chest were of no consequence to the hole in his cheek, eye socket, and forehead. Most of his head had been taken off. Gwen stared at him for what seemed an eternity, trying to bring him back to life through sheer willpower alone. She felt a heavy hand on her shoulder which jerked her back to reality briskly.

"Forget him, he's gone!" Bradley shouted as he let go with another burst.

Rounds whined and threw up dust near them. A banshee wail roared through Gwen's left ear as a round creased her left shoulder, drawing blood and pain. She turned back again and managed to drop another indig with a three round burst. The next two indigs stopped and spasmed in mid-charge as a sustained burst of slugs hosed them down. When the dust settled, Kennedy was dead, along with nine indigs. Parker stood near a small rise with a smoking M-21A2 in his hands.

"Man! It ain't supposed to happen like this! It ain't supposed ... ain't supposed to happen ..." Gwen began.

"Shut up!" Parker shouted.

Fatigue was a specter fighting her combat and speed high imparted inertia. She fought it down. The jungle was suddenly quiet. Parker lowered his rifle and hopped over to them. Gwen went over to Bennet who now sported a pair of drilled holes in his right leg. Blood was flowing freely as Gwen fought his webbing to remove his trauma kit. Bennet rocked back and forth, holding his leg close to him and gritting his teeth, the harsh rush of air from his lungs was as close as he dared to cry out. The speed helped Bennet fight the pain, which washed over him in his hyped sense like a red tidal wave.

"Christ!" Gwen said, looking at the damage to the el-tee.

Gwen accessed her OROM Occupational Read Only Memory, calling up a hardwire managed database on First Aid and Trauma Treatment Procedures. As the information was fed directly to the information center of her brain, she tore open Bennet's fatigues and broke open the trauma kit. Bennet was going into shock as Gwen started to administer additional pain killers and to try to stop the bleeding with pressure patches and artificial coagulants. She took a wound cauterizer and started to seal the wound as best as she could, after dressing it with antibiotics and quickheal.

The medical laser hummed and the smell of burning flesh almost made Gwen choke. She was doing a rush job, but it would have to do. Two slugs had done a good job of tearing up the real estate but with proper medical treatment, Gwen thought that Bennet could have his leg saved. It wasn't a pretty sight though. If not, then there would be a replacement. She got confirmation from a extended probe that the nanos in his body were working as fast as they could to stop any internal bleeding.

"I came back to ..." Parker began.

He looked down at Bennet and then over at Kennedy, realization dawning on his face and then he went to solemnly inspect the body, squatting and covering the jungle with his rifle. Bradley removed the ammunition belts for the M250 and then hefted the weapon, slinging his own M-21A2. He accessed the combat wetware, loading the database on Support Weapons. Instantly, he knew everything about the M250. It felt good in his hands.

"Aw, Jesus. Our last mission and we get KIA! This ain't good, man!" Bradley said. "We ain't never bled before on a mission ... Buddha ain't looking our way this time ..."

"Shut the hell up!" Gwen said as she tried to stop the bleeding.

"Jesus!" Bradley said as he hit the ground next to Kennedy with his fist. "This just ain't happening, man, it just ain't happening ..."

"Come here and help us with the ell tee, damnit!" Parker shouted.

Bradley seemed to snap out of it then, crawling over to the other two and helping Gwen to stop the bleeding. The dressing was temporary. They needed to get to the LZ.

"You take the Lieutenant. I'll get Kennedy." Gwen said.

"He's dead ..." Bradley said.

Parker reached out and grabbed Bradley by his collar, throttling him roughly.

"Recon does not leave their dead! Now, help the Lieutenant up and let's get the hell out of here!"

"I'll help." Bradley said at last, quietly.

Parker helped Bennet to stand and they headed for the aerodyne and the open LZ as Gwen picked Kennedy up and started to carry the dead body on through the jungle at a pace that surprised both Bennet and Parker. Bennet watched as Gwen topped the rise and disappeared over. Parker looked around at the jungle and foliage that could hide anything. Parker tried to adjust to the added weight of Marcus Bennet as he and Bradley helped the el-tee to move, half force walking him, half dragging him. The bushes to their right rustled and parted as a indig appeared on their right and screamed as he charged them.

Parker snorted once then the indig tackled both Bennet and himself, knocking the two of them to the ground. Parker rolled out of the way scrambling for his fallen rifle as the indig brought a knife down into the chest of a struggling Marcus Bennet. Bennet sat up, let out a long whumphh, and then fell back down slowly as the indig yanked the knife back out, throwing a long arc of splattering of blood away from the blade as he turned to face Parker and Bradley. Parker snorted again and with a sidewards glance of his M-21A2, he shot the indig in the face with a one handed burst of automatic fire. The twitching headless indig fell to the ground dead next to the el-tee's body.

Parker crawled over to his Lieutenant. He reached down and examined the wound that Bennet had received. Blood ran freely as Marcus groaned at the sucking chest wound. The transponder buzzed and Parker looked over his shoulder. The jungle parted once again as Gwen appeared, cradling her rifle. Bradley swore and covered the jungle around them with quick glances and jerks of his rifle.

"What the hell happened? I heard busting caps ..." She asked, trying to see over Parker.

"The ell tee is hit!" she cried out as she saw Bennet laying there.

"Parker and I ..." Bradley began as he stared down at Bennet, shaking.

Parker took the trauma kit and ripped open Bennet's fatigue shirt, stripping off his web gear. The pack was getting low on supplies and he tried to stem the flow of blood from the chest wound as Gwen keyed in the TSCS. A shot of the last of the mil-spec nanos went directly into Bennet's abdomen, but it might not be enough. The little bugs could only work so fast, and the damage was extensive.

Bradley edged closer to the three, duck walking on his haunches backwards while covering the jungle.

"High Eye, this is Bravo! Over!" Static. "High Eye! This is Bravo! Please respond! Over!"

"High Eye. I read you. Over."

"High Eye. Request immediate evac now. We have one KIA and a CWIA. Serious condition. Repeat. Serious condition. Immediate evac now and dust off. Over."

"Bravo, what is your position?"

Gwen consulted her map again, staring around for landmarks, reading the coordinates from the digital inertial compass.

"High Eye, we are at Alpha Tango Sigma Delta. We have a hard roof and getting heavy fire. Request immediate evac now."

"Bravo, will try to evac now at one hundred meters north by north east. Repeat. Position north north east. Looks like a clearing. Call sign is Buster, red pop. Over."

"Call sign Buster, pop red." Gwen repeated.

"Rodge that, High Eye. Over."

Parker had been paying attention to the conversation and nodded. Gwen put the TSCS in its holder and looked down as Parker continued to work on Bennet. Gwen just stared at the still form of her best friend lying there on the jungle floor. Parker shrugged his shoulders and said something that Gwen didn't hear. Gwen ignored the man, taking over herself when Parker had done all that he could for the el-tee. They managed to drag Kennedy and Bennet to the clearing, waiting just inside the jungle for the evac. Bradley brought up the rear.

Bennet's hand reached out and grabbed onto Gwen's shoulder. Gwen grabbed the arm and tried to pull Bennet up but Bennet tugged on Gwen and then he leaned close to Gwen's ear and spoke in a voice that was barely a whisper over the nauseous sound of the sucking chest wound.

"Don't you leave me ..." Bennet whispered hoarsely.

"I'm going nowhere." Gwen said.

"I got a bad ...feeling about this ... one, sister." Bennet whispered.

"You always got a bad feeling about a mission." Gwen replied as she scanned the nearby foliage for any sign of the indigs.

"Naw ... it's ...different this ...time and ...I ... can't feel my legs. I want ... want you to promise ... me something, that you'll do if I ... don't make it back." Bennet said in labored breaths.

"You're going to make it back now just shut up and keep moving."

"Listen to me ... damn it ..." Bennet shouted hoarsely in Gwen's ear.

Bennet suddenly arced his back and breathed out a long gurgling breath. Bennet shook his head and laid his cheek on the floor of the jungle. It was cool and he was so tired and hot. A trickle of blood left it's mark down his face from the corner of his mouth. Bennet gasped for air and shook his head slowly. A moan from him silenced Gwen as more blood flowed from the corner of Bennet's mouth.

"You're gonna make it ..." Gwen replied. "Once we get you back to base, those docs will stitch you some new guts. Hell, they might just do something to that ugly pus of yours."

Bennet looked up at Gwen and spoke.

"Don't make ... promises that you can't ... keep."

"Hell, don't you start any of that crap with me, you hear. Just don't start that crap with me." Gwen said as she held Bennet's hand.

Bennet grabbed Gwen's arm and squeezed tighter. Gwen hung her head low with the knowledge that her friend would not receive any medical aid now. Or ever. Gwen swore, holding her friend's hand and rocking slightly back and forth on her haunches. Bennet stared straight up at the ceiling of jungle growth and continued to drone on in slow, labored breaths.

"I ..." Gwen began.

Bennet slowly whispered again. "You owe me ... big ..."

Gwen was silent for a minute then nodded her head. Bennet smiled as a thin rivulet of blood ran out the corner of his mouth and from his left nostril. Bennet gripped his friend's arm tighter. Bennet's grip faded and the eyes closed slowly as Gwen fought back the tears that were welling up inside and behind her eyes. Bennet's eyes stared blankly. Bradley looked on and then turned away, swearing and shaking his head as he cradled his weapon.

The sound of approaching aerodynes was in the distance, the scream of twin 1500 horse GE T-700 turboshaft engines, the smell of death. Sweat continued to fall from his skin. Bradley took up the TSCS, easing it away from Gwen and headed for the tree line. Parker looked up as a huge shadow loomed over the broken foliage of the jungle roof. A squat metallic shadow of a TUH-62C Roach tactical aerodyne appeared. The TSCS spat static and then a voice.

"Bravo. This is Downtown Bus. We have no visual. Pop your smoke now. I repeat. Pop smoke."

"Do you think we got to them in time, DB?" came another voice over the TSCS.

"Looking for smoke. Anyone see smoke? Check the tree line, Jones. Keep us covered."

Gwen managed to weakly pull a HCS canister from her web gear, never taking her eyes off Bennet, she pulled the pin and let the canister fall limply from her hands. The canister broke with a loud pop and red smoke started to rise through the jungle canopy. She coughed as she breathed in the acidic chemical fumes.

"High Eye, this is Downtown Bus. I have smoke. Bravo, you boys better hump it. This place is really hot!" Her brow beaded once again with sweat. She saw the Roach banking in gracefully for a landing in the clearing. She grabbed Bennet and shouldered the body as she ran towards the waiting skid. Behind her, Parker had Kennedy's body and was dragging it behind him, keeping them covered with the squad automatic weapon.

Bradley threw the TSCS into the waiting aerodyne and started to run back to help Gwen and Parker. The blast from the VTOL nozzles swayed the tall grass down and away from the aerodyne in visible concentric circles that expanded ever outward. The crewmen in the door of the aerodyne were waving frantically for the two men to hurry.

Suddenly, rounds began to fall among the grass. Loud vip vip vip sounds filled her ears, carrying above the down wash of the turbines. The door gunner opened up on the jungle with his M-65, sweeping the dense growth with tracers. Grass exploded around Gwen and a few slugs whacked into the side of the aerodyne, eliciting curses from the crew. Ten meters to go and the jungle line behind them exploded into various running shapes and the sound of automatic weapons filled the air.

So close.

The TSCS, forgotten for the moment, erupted in a fury of sound.

"High Eye, this is Downtown Bus. We are one hundred percent defensive. We are down and receiving ground fire. Can you assist?"

Six meters to go.

Gwen humped harder, the limp form of Bennet's body slapping her roughly with each step. Her vision dimmed as outstretched arms from the aerodyne reached for her. Bradley was pushing her forward from behind. Pushing her hard, shouting at her. The sound of rounds hitting nearby and a heavy weight falling into her from behind with a 'whumph.' She felt someone grab her and she felt the cool metal of the floor as it vibrated. She heard the crew shouting, felt small caliber rounds smack into the aerodyne as it started to lift up. Parker was screaming for Bradley to hurry up and get on but Bradley had taken a round to the hip.

The man was slowly crawling forward as bullets tore the ground around him, throwing dirt and grass into the air. There was a roar overhead as the Cicada screamed in, the minigun was just a loud buzz followed by gray smoke from the cycling action of the multi-barreled weapon. Tracers and rounds slashed down the running indigs, sweeping away small trees and brush in the hosing. The Cicada roared away, banking around for another pass as crimson tracers arced up trying to tag it. More shapes appeared among the trees. Tracers leapt out from the tree line to arc towards the stationary aerodyne.

"Downtown, get the hell out of there! LZ is too hot! Do you copy? Lift now!" came the TSCS.

"Negative, High Eye. Repeat negative. We still have a friendly in the LZ."

Gwen saw Bradley trying to reach for the skid, his arm caked in blood and dirt and sweat. The man was grimacing in pain as the door gunner was leaning out the door to help him. Several rounds slapped at the interior of the Roach, punching holes in the plastic and metal siding and the door gunner jerked backwards instinctively, ducking to one side.

"We've got a fire warning!" shouted the co-pilot to the pilot.

Thick smoke began to seep from the engine cowling panel of the right engine. Several more rounds landed near Bradley. The man cried out as two rounds found him in the lower and upper back, collapsing him. Gwen started toward the open door to help the man, swinging her feet over the edge as the door gunner slapped her backwards, holding her back. The second door gunner moved to help restrain her. Gwen fought them as the aerodyne started to lift off.

"Bradley!" she shouted, throwing herself flat across the floor and reaching toward the loading door with both arms.

The stutter of the M-65 machinegun, the wind whipping at her through the open doors. Parker pulling her into an upright position and the sight of Bennet and Kennedy laying there on the floor. Bennet's eyes stared emptily out the right side door, Kennedy stared out the left. Gwen reached down, her hands shaking as she closed Bennet's eyes. Parker looked out the open door, leaning in his webbing as the Roach circled the LZ, gaining altitude, red tracers arcing up from the jungle trying to connect with it. The indigs had found Bradley's body and one grabbed the man's M-21A2, pushing it to the American's head and let go with a burst that caused the man's body to jerk upright and then waving the captured rifle in the air like a trophy.

"You bastards!" Gwen shouted at the top of her lungs, moving for the open door, but again Parker and her own webbing restrained her.

The door gunner stood to get elevation as he swiveled his weapon to track the gathering indigs on the ground. Parker sat on the edge of the door with the M250, cycling the belt through the weapon on full auto. They finished the job, hosing Bradley and the gathered indigs with tracers from both the M-65 and the M250, scything down the indigs like so many weeds. The stutter of the automatic weapons pounded the inside of Gwen's head as she turned away, physically ill.

Thick smoke was still coming from the right side engine as Gwen and the second door gunner worked to use a pair of hand held fire extinguishers on the fire. There was a sharp shrill as the co-pilot shut the engine down, bringing the left engine up to full power.

"He's gone! Nothing we can do for him now!" the door gunner said as he swung the M-65 to a rest position, the smell of spent propellant heavy and oppressing in the aerodyne.

"High Eye, this is Downtown Bus. We got most of your boys out ... Three confirmed KIAs. Two survivors. We are one legged inbound with a master caution showing. Over."

Gwen didn't say anything, just stared out the open door of the Roach, holding the empty fire extinguisher in her hand. The pilot looked backwards at his passengers, shaking his head, then turned forward and keyed in his mike as he looked over at the Cicada that was shadowing the Roach just fifteen meters to their port side, both aerodynes flying just ten meters off the ground and racing toward the nearest friendly firebase at top speed.

"Roger, Downtown Bus. Let's call it. Mission is a scrub. Over."

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