May 11, 3056
ROM Special Operation Strike Force Smythe
Circinus, Circinus Federation
“I thought you claimed to know the location of this hidden facility,” Justin Hawk asked the ROM agent over the holographic link.
Smythe frowned and he cocked his head to one side. “Demi-Precentor . . . are you questioning me?” he asked softly.
The Word of Blake official swallowed and he quickly shook his head. “N-no,” he answered. “I just do not understand why your men are roaming the jungle instead of waiting for these Clanners at the facility.”
Smythe sighed. “Demi-Precentor, we know the approximate location of General Kerensky’s old headquarters on Laredo . . . unfortunately, the details of its exact coordinates were never entered into the secure archives, if we even had them to begin with. That is what my term was tasked with—once you had secured an agreement with McIntyre, then we were to located the exact coordinates and breach the facility. The Master wishes us to discover if the rumors Kerensky had ‘Mech production lines here are true—and whether or not we can restore them to function in service of the Word. This . . . incident has made McIntyre side with us, so now I can do my job—once the Clanner infestation of this world has been cleansed.”
Smythe paused and he smiled at the pick-up lens of the field communicator. “Now, could you explain why the overflights I requested four hours ago have not yet arrived, Demi-Precentor?”
“The shuttles are en route to your location, Adept,” Hawk replied with as much indignation as he could muster. “They consume less fuel staying atmospheric, which will give you more time on station.”
“That is acceptable, Demi-Precentor. I shall contact you again once we have purified the infidels,” and with that, without waiting for a reply, Smythe terminated the communication link. “Jonas,” he said quietly, “you have word from the search parties?”
“Squad Sigma reports one casualty—but contact was broken. They are attempting to track those responsible. I have vectored Tau and Upsilon to assist in the search.”
The acolyte showed Smythe the location on a map and the older ROM agent nodded to himself. “Right where we thought they would try to cross the river. Our information on the location of the ruins must be correct—pursue them, but not too close. If they know the exact coordinate, Jonas, they might well lead us to the facility and cut months off of our mission here. Afterwards, we can take our time killing them.”
“As Blake wills, Sir,” the junior officer replied.
“And the Master dictates,” Smythe added.
May 11, 3056
Scorpion Expeditionary Party
Circinus, Circinus Federation
“The remote sensors we left behind confirm it, Star Captain,” Evelyn whispered. “They are following us—but slowly. Right now, they are about a kilometer and a half behind us.”
Jason took a sip of tepid water from his hydration pack as he considered the situation. “Are they communicating?” he asked.
“Aff. They are using encrypted burst transmissions.”
“So . . . either they are waiting for additional forces to cut in ahead of us—lay out an ambush, perhaps . . . or,” his voice trailed off. And then he nodded. “Or they want the HQ and they are letting us lead them to it.” He paused again and listened the distant faint roar of a shuttle’s engines at high altitude. “Point Commander, I believe that is time we discouraged them from following us too closely. How many directional mines do we have?”
“A dozen, Star Captain.”
“Good. Let us lay in a surprise for them once we cross the gorge,” he finished. He gauged the distance again—the two cliff edges narrowed together here, but the separation was still at least ten meters if it was a decimeter. Unfortunately, the gorge was not likely to narrow any further.
“We will cross here—Lucien, we will require the grapple launcher you are carrying. Can you put the hook in the fork of that tree trunk on the opposite side?”
Lucien took a long look at the target and then he hefted the grapple launcher and its coils of high-tension line. “Aff, Star Captain. But the hook may not hold against my mass—or those of your security team.”
“Understood, Bondsman. Amanda, you are the lightest Warrior we have—can you cross once Lucien makes the shot and secures the anchor?”
“With ease, Star Captain,” she answered, shedding her pack and all weapons except for a laser pistol and a zulkari.
“Take the shot, Lucien,” Jason ordered quietly. The elemental raised the grapple launcher and he carefully aimed, raising the barrel as he evaluated the distance and the wind. There was a sudden POP and a puff of carbon dioxide as the gas cartridge propelled the grapple and line forward—the slender shaft flew through the air in a ballistic, wobbling slightly as the line trailed out behind it, then it flew through the Y-fork in the tree’s trunk and Lucien grunted. He pressed a button on the grapple launcher and the small motor within began to retract the line and the hook, the prongs of which had automatically deployed once it struck the ground beyond. Suddenly the motor began to whine, and the line hung taut—Lucien shut down the grapple launcher and extracted the line, wrapping it around his arm four times and he pulled hard with all of his mass . . . and the hook remained seated in the timber.
Jason nodded and his team anchored the line on this side securely around a nearby tree as he walked up to the edge. Beneath him, the gorge dropped nearly fifty meters to the rock-strewn river below. He turned back to Amanda, who was pulling on a climber’s rig attached to a a bulky device with a paired set of twin polymer wheels; Evelyn tied three heavier ropes to her belt as well. Jason approached her and he made a final check of the rig, pulling against the buckles and clasps and then he at last nodded in satisfaction.
Lucien and Evelyn lifted her up and she fixed the upper wheels to the line, then the lower, and locked the device in place, buckling onto the crawler with D-rings set in her harness. She nodded and both the Elementals stepped away and she hung there suspended on her back, facing up to the line, and she gave Jason a thumbs up. Jason smiled and he made the hand signal that WarShip crew gave the pilot of an aerospace fighter authorized for launch; she grinned in reply and saluted, and began to pull herself along the line slowly crossing over the gorge.
“Star Captain,” Evelyn said as Amanda pulled her across the chasm centimeter by centimeter. “The mines will delay them, certainly—but they will be able to follow the tracks these technicians are leaving, if our opponents are even reasonably skilled.”
“You have a suggestion, then, Point Commander, quiaff?”
“Aff. Once on the far side, I take the security team and the technicians, and we lead our pursuers on a wild goose chase—away from you and your team and away from the facility. You, Star Commander Djerassi, Pilot Tyrell, your bondsman, Walker Roche, and Scientist Mathias will go to ground until those who hunt us pass, and then you proceed to the facility without having the hounds on your heels.”
Jason frowned. “You realize that it is extremely unlikely that you and your Warriors will ever leave this planet again, if I accept your suggestion, quiaff?”
“Aff. Star Captain, this is our job. The mission has to come first, and our legacy will live on in our genetic heritage. And the civilians have had no survival training to speak of—except for the Scientist. I and my point will lead them as far away as we can, until the civilians drop from exhaustion, and then we will show our foes the meaning of the word Warrior.”
The Seeker nodded again and he sighed. Evelyn was a true Scorpion—she would make certain that none of those under her command survived to be interrogated. “What of Technician Robin? She has some survival training, after all.”
“Not enough, Star Captain. Not for this. She is much better than the other civilians, but she is still leaving a trail behind that any competent tracker can follow.”
It gnawed at him, leaving civilians to play the role of the sacrificial lamb, but damn it, Evelyn was right. He nodded. “Very well, Point Commander—pull the data-storage modules from codexes and we will return them to the Clan, along with your giftake.”
The woman smiled and she nodded. “We will do the Clan proud, Star Captain.”
“Aff. And I will see to it that you and your Warriors are honored.”
Jason turned back to the chasm and he noted that Amanda had crossed, unhooked her harness and secured the three parallel ropes upon which the rest of the team would make their own transit.
“Civilians first, then our gear and weapons, followed by Mathias, Walker, and Tyrell—Elementals last,” he ordered as he pulled off his own heavy rucksack began to buckle on his climbing harness. “Quickly, Scorpions.