Level 4Nur Dutchung - pt. 6
By Thane Barnier

Major Ghardoki stumbled into the CAV hanger, still buttoning his pants. It was three in the morning and the alert had caught him just as he had finally drifted off to sleep. He had been fighting insomnia since his unit got here, and only recently had he finally gotten to sleep without the aid of sleeping pills. "No sleep for the Major," Ghardoki groaned.

He descended to the hanger floor and found Captain Spiro standing there, accompanied by Corporal Barnes and Sergeant Major Goran. "What the hell is going on," he roared, "what's all this racket?"

"Well sir," started Captain Spiro, "it appears the local protestors outside our hanger have decided to try a midnight run."

Rigel groaned again. There had been animosity ever since they arrived on this rock. The protests they had encountered on their arrival had become a daily part of life here. These problems had only worsened as the Regents' were more and more successful in the Nur Dutchung bouts over the past weeks. Every match gave the local media something else to throw in the Regent's faces, and that invariably wound up on a protestor's sign. These were usually just a dozen or so bored people who had nothing better to do, nothing serious. These protests had also spawned some pretty shabby treatment of his men by the locals.

This included shop owners and restaurateurs refusing service to Regent soldiers, local drunks trying to start fights, slashed tires, and other spates of minor vandalism. That his men, known for their incorrigible behavior, had managed to control themselves was amazing. He had considered confining them to barracks early on in their stay, but instead he held a meeting of the troops. He told them that in them he was placing his faith, not only to win, but to represent him to the local people. That they had taken this to heart and had kept themselves in control was a testament to the respect he had earned from them, and that touched him. It infuriated him that their self-control hadn't mad a damned bit of difference.

"So what is it that has them pissed off this time?"

"Well Major," said Corporal Alicia Barnes, "apparently they're upset because we beat the Fire Fangs."

"You mean Klaug and his group of choke artists?" Tomas laughed. "It's not our fault we beat them six ways to Sunday. If they had any modicum of talent, it might have been an interesting match."

"Zip it Captain, I'm too tired to deal with you tonight," snapped Rigel. He rubbed his brow and sighed. "Corporal Barnes, what are they upset about this time? Saying we cheated again? Maybe they didn't like the way we used such a deceptive maneuver as textbook battlefield tactics?"

The Corporal looked up shyly. "Well sir, the Fire Fangs unit is actually based on Tourac. They were formed five years ago by a group of locals who returned from their tours of duty with the Imperial Army. They gathered most of their recruits planetside and trained their troops themselves. This is probably why their performance last week was of a less than stellar caliber."

"So we beat the snot out of the local boys and now their buddies decided to get drunk and make a nuisance of themselves?"

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a loud clang rang out across the hanger. "Now what?"

"Nothing serious sir," a private manning a monitor at the security station said, "just a make shift fire bomb. Cheap liquor bottle set on fire and thrown against the door."

Rigel threw his cap across the hanger in fury. "Well that's just great. You know once, just once, I'd like to get a decent night's sleep on this damned mud ball. I think we'll just put a stop to this right now before anyone else gets any ideas about doing anything dumber than they already have." He turned and started to stride across the hanger.

"Um, Chief," started Tomas tentatively, "no offense but I don't think you should go out there. If that mob turns ugly they'll tear you apart."

Rigel stopped. "Them and what army?"

"Maybe you should look at the monitor."

The Major walked over to the security station and looked at the monitor. He stared dumbfounded at the scene before him. There were easily 70 or more men out there, hurling beer bottles, rocks and insults at the hanger doors.

"Ok, so I'll take a little more firepower with me." Ghardoki turned back to the hanger floor. "Simpson, warm up my Gladiator."

"Whoa, hey now boss," said Tomas, grabbing the Major's shoulder, "don't you think this is a little over the top?"

Rigel turned to stare into his XO's eyes. "Tomas, you know me better than that. There's no ammo in the bays and I'm just going out to scare ‘em. When those drunken fools see that monster lumber out, they're gonna turn tail and run, Rach or not." Rigel smiled at the relief on Tomas's face. "Besides, if I really wanted to do permanent damage, I'd have taken the Vanquisher."

Tomas shuddered when he thought about what that beast could do to an unarmored mob. He remembered hearing stories of a Vanquisher being turned on a protesting crowd on some world a few decades back. More than two hundred people had been killed in just a few seconds.

"Ok," shouted Tomas, shaking himself back to the present, "get ready to open the doors. And everyone stay back so no one gets hit with any crap they may want to throw."

Ghardoki crawled up the gantry and was swinging into the cockpit of his Gladiator when a thought struck him. "I need a wizzo, are you busy Barnes?"

Barnes looked nervous, "Sir, you know I'm not qualified, I'm just a communication specialist."

"Relax kid, this ain't a combat mission. We are communicating." He flashed her a wry smile. "We're communicating our intent to step on anyone who keeps me from getting my beauty rest. Think of it as an adventure."

The young corporal blushed, "Ok sir, I'm game."

Rigel crawled into the seat and started bringing systems online. He heard Barnes crawl in through the hatch and turned to make sure she got settled. She had pulled off her fatigue jacket and tossed it to Simpson. Her thin t-shirt didn't leave much to the imagination and Rigel had to look back to his panel to keep from staring.

"First time in a CAV?"

"No sir," said Barnes, "I'm fully qualified in all the communications systems and familiar with the electronic warfare and targeting systems of this generation of CAV."

"This generation? Barnes, are you implying my baby is out of date?" He said over his shoulder, doing his best to sound stern and serious.

"Oh no sir," stammered Barnes, "I didn't mean that. I just meant that since I left the academy there have been a number of advancements that I haven't seen, not being a CAV officer. Not to say that your CAV isn't up to those standards, I'm sure it's able to hold it's own against any of the newer models. Well, what I mean is that advanced technology doesn't necessarily make a superior fighting machine. You can not discount the value of long years of combat experience especially among pilots."

So she thought flattery would get her out of this mess. Rigel wasn't about to let her off that easily. Turning in his seat he looked up at her saying, "So it's not my CAV that's old, it's me, huh?"

"No sir," said Barnes quickly, starting to fidget, "I just meant that after years of duty, I mean an older veteran who's seen dozens of combat, I mean a more mature pilot, oh damn! Sir that's not what I meant to say at all."

Rigel let her sit there writhing under his gaze, few more seconds before he finally lost control and burst out laughing. Corporal Barnes then realized she had been had, and her face turned crimson red.

"Damn Barnes, relax. This isn't a combat mission, it's a joyride. We're going out to paint the town red and raise some hell."

Barnes relaxed a bit, but was still blushing. "Ok sir, let's have some fun. Shall we pipe the gun cameras back into the security monitors so the rest of the gang can enjoy the fun?"

"Great idea Barnes," said Rigel, "go for it."

The Major slowly started to walk the Gladiator forward, maneuvering it in front of the main hanger doors. He reached out and flipped on the comm. "Captain, let's do this. Hit the doors."

The hanger doors split and slid to the side. Rigel saw the mob out side settle for a second, wondering who was coming out to meet them. Smiling evilly, he reached up and punched the floodlights to full. The blasts of light shocked the mob and they fell back a few feet. Behind him he heard Barnes laugh at their reaction. As he walked the huge monster forward, Rigel had the feeling that he was acting a bit less like the commander of a mercenary unit and more like a teenager trying to show off his new car to impress some cheerleader. Oh well, command had its privileges.

The ground shook as the one hundred ton combat assault vehicle pounded its way toward the mob. Suddenly a bottle shattered across the view screen, followed by a rain of rocks and other garbage. Rigel reached to his auxiliary panel and hit power to the main weapon systems. The gauss gatling cannons started to spin and the audible whirring of the barrels cut through the shouts of the crowd.

Rigel smiled and walked the Gladiator right to the center of the mob. The drunken rioters started to scatter and spread out. He swung the barrels back and forth, causing rioters to dive for cover and run. Rigel laughed, "Having fun Barnes?"

"Affirmative sir!" Barnes laughed out loud. Here she was, riding in a monstrous CAV, with an officer she admired, upholding the honor of the unit she was so devoted to. She couldn't have thought of anything better in the world than what she was doing right now. That's when she noticed the threat indicator flash red and her defensive fire gear started to light up.

The Gladiator jerked to the left as the arm mounted canons tracked toward the threat. There was an audible hollow thunk as the ammo loaders tried to load the canons and dry fired. A bright light filled the view screen.

"Barnes," shouted Rigel, "what are you doing?"

"It's not me sir, the screens are flashing incoming fire."

"What?" The Gladiator's arms and torso spun back to the right and dry fired in another direction. Rigel looked out just in time to see the contrail of a missile streaking past the view screen. That was the glow, someone was shooting at them. "Shut down the defensive fire computer. Do you know how?"

"Yes sir."

"Good, now what the hell is shooting at us?" Rigel's combat reflexes snapped into focus. He scanned the area for hostiles and started the Gladiator moving. He thought to himself, "Where did these drunks get rocket launchers?"

"There sir, to the left," shouted Barnes, "at the corner!"

Rigel looked left to see what looked like a flatbed truck with a portable launcher attached sat with 3 men on the back struggling to reload their weapon. "Oh, it's like that eh?" He took a step toward the truck when something exploded against the Gladiator's leg. Warning lights went off, showing damage to the armor around the ankle joint of the right leg on the CAV. He took another step and there was another explosion, this time on the left leg. Then a missile struck the viewport, followed by a hail of small arms fire.

"What the hell," shouted Rigel and keyed open the comm. "Tomas what's attacking my legs?"

"Rigel, get out of there," said Tomas, his voice thick with concern, "that mob of drunks was a trap. They are swarming you. Those explosions are satchel charges. Oh, and Major, we're now taking fire from the mob."

The Major turned to see men inside the hanger diving for cover as the mob turned their weapons on the hanger and started to move toward the open doors. "Close the doors Tomas, quick!"

"But sir…"

"Do it Captain, that's an order." Rigel chuckled. "Don't worry about me Tomas; I've got a few tricks up my sleeve."

Rigel turned as he saw the doors closing and began stomping the Gladiator's broad feet. Men were crushed beneath the metal hooves of the monster as it waded through a sea of bodies and a spray of gunfire. Shells bounced harmlessly off the CAV's armor and a most of the satchel charges had little effect. Knowing the hanger doors were closed, he began moving down the street toward the makeshift missile truck.

And walked right into the real trap.

The first slug caught him in the shoulder, spinning the Gladiator around. The second took the Gladiator square in the chest knocking the CAV backward a few steps while Rigel fought for control. Looking down the wide boulevard, he saw 2 Hunter tanks, their turrets swing in line with the Gladiator. Around the sides he saw a swarm of armored soldiers packing heavy missiles taking up positions around the tanks, preparing to fire.

"Spiro, I think we might need some help here after all. We've got two Hunter tanks inbound and at least two dozen tin men with missiles."

"Sir I've got 2 more Hunters converging from the other side of the street," cut in Barnes.

"Scratch that Captain," corrected Rigel, "Four Hunters. We are totally defensive and unarmed. I'll tie them up as long as we can, but hurry your ass up!"

"Already on it Chief. Gimme three minutes."

"Sorry I got you into this Barnes," said the Major. "When this is over I owe you a drink."

"Sir if you get us out of this, the drinks are on me."

He knew they were in trouble. "Buckle up girl, it's gonna get rough."

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no way to shoot back. All Rigel could do is back off and try to keep the Hunters from smashing up the base. He had to draw them away from the barracks, which couldn't stand the pounding of those tanks. He had to delay these assailants long enough for Tomas to get some of the Regents moving.

Planting his legs straddling the street, he defiantly stood blocking the path back to the hanger. He thought to himself, if Tomas takes more than two minutes, we're dead. He saw the 4 Hunters converge on him their turrets turning to fire.

"Here it comes Barnes," shouted Rigel as four gauss rounds converged on the Gladiator. The force shook the CAV, buckling its knees, but Rigel kept it upright. "Keep an eye on those infantry. When they break for the base, radio Spiro and let him know company's coming."

The Hunters rolled out into the main street and fired again. Rigel's control panel lit up like a Christmas tree as systems went from green to amber to red. He kicked in the automated repair systems but he knew it was only a matter of time. The Hunters fired again and again, tearing the Gladiator apart. When one of the tanks got too close, Rigel lurched forward and brought his foot down hard on the nose of the tank. The right track broke loose and the tank ground to a halt. Dropping the CAV to a kneeling position, he ground its knee into the side of the tank's turret, popping armor plates and twisting metal on both machines. Bounding to the right he saw that the turret did not rotate to track him anymore. It looked like Rigel was successful in jamming its turret.

"Well that's one," said Rigel grinning, "If I only had a few rounds of ammo."

Suddenly he realized he had gotten excited and forgotten his position. He had let 2 of the Hunters get past him. "Damn are those Hunters heading for the hanger?"

"No sir their turning on us," replied Barnes.

"That doesn't make any sense, why wouldn't they…" Rigel stopped amid sentence as he realized what was really happening here "Barnes what are the infantry doing?"

"They're converging on us sir" was the reply in a calm but rushed tone.

"I was afraid of that. Brace yourself Barnes, incoming!"

Missiles exploded all around the Gladiator. Armor plates burst open, internal systems shredded, and alarms went off. Barnes again engaged the repair systems, but Rigel knew it was futile. The Hunters swung in line one last time and fired. The slug tore through the CAV and all of Rigel's panels went black. The Gladiator rocked unsteadily and toppled, rolling right and landing atop the tank. Rigel's head slammed into the main display, shattering the display and causing his world to dim to grey before snapping back into sharp resolution.

"Barnes you still with me?"

A groan came from the seat above him. "Yes sir, all parts present and accounted for."

A loud banging echoed through the cockpit.

"What was that," asked Barnes.

"Well Corporal, unless I'm mistaken that's the sound of a dozen armored infantry trying to get in here and get to us." He reached for his sidearm and swore. In his haste, he'd left his piece on the nightstand. He looked around and saw that the Gladiator had fallen on one of the tanks, covering a hatch and trapping the crew inside. That could work to their advantage and make it harder for the enemy to get in to them. The drawback was it also made them sitting ducks if they enemy decided to just rip them apart with missile fire.

He heard Barnes struggling to get out of her seat and stand upright. The Gladiator had fallen awkwardly on its side and there wasn't much to stand on but sparking shattered consoles.

She moved to Rigel, concern plainly written on her face. "Sir are you hurt? How bad is it?"

"Well I'm not exactly ready to go ballroom dancing right now," he chuckled, "but I'm alright. The console has completely crushed into my legs. Their still working but unless you have a plasma torch, I'm not getting out from under this mess."

"Uh Major, I think we are really in trouble."

"Tell me something I don't know Barnes," said Rigel wryly.

"No sir," she said, "look."

Rigel looked up to see an APC emblazoned with the Fire Fangs crest pulling up and a full platoon of scruffy warriors jump out and start heading for the wreckage of the CAV. "Looks like the posse's coming for us, eh?"

"Major!" Barnes had cried out pointing down the street.

Rigel looked up. "And here comes the ringleader."

Stepping out of a side street, just 3 blocks away from the downed Gladiator was a massive Dictator. The metal beast was a 30 foot tall swirl of red and orange which game the impression of flames licking the metal torso. Across the nose, clearly visible in the halogen street light was a series of reddish silver fangs. It was the commander of the Fire Fangs, Colonel Klaug.

"Get down," shouted Rigel as he saw the blue muzzle flash from the Dictator's main guns. He threw his arms over his face as Barnes hit the deck. One of the supersonic slugs slammed into the Gladiators shoulder while the other glanced off the view port and skipped down the street. Plasglass shattered and rained down on them, cutting Rigel's arms and face.

"Hey Barnes, do me a favor and get the hell out of here."

"No sir," replied the Corporal, "I'm staying with you."

"Damnit that's an..."

"With all do respect sir, forget it. I'm not a combat trooper sir, I'll never avoid all those soldiers out there. Out there, in here, either way I'm just as screwed.

"Besides," said Barnes trying to smile, "if we die here, I can always blame it on loyalty to my commander, dying in his defense."

Ghardoki couldn't help but to chuckle. Here was a subordinate, appearing to be way too young to be in uniform, who was a communications specialist with little or no combat training. And she looked more like a model than a soldier, yet was showing more mettle than half of the seasoned vets he had fought with over the years. If this was how she dealt with the fear, why wasn't she a combat officer? He quickly cleared his head, they had to survive first if he ever had hopes of promoting her.

A large explosion blossomed to the right of the view port. "What the hell was that?" exclaimed Rigel.

Barnes scrambled to the view port to see what was going on now. Looking out she saw one of the Hunters burst into flames as the machine gun ammo cooked off. "Sir," she replied, "one of the tanks just went nova."

They heard projectiles ping off the armor of the downed Gladiator and she jumped back from the view screen. A red and orange shape of an armored infantryman fell onto the screen, opening a hole in the cracked plasglass before sliding heavily off to the ground. Through the opening in the view screen Rigel heard the unmistakable whine of the quad-gatling cannons of a Vanquisher CAV.

Looking out they could see the newly arrived platoon of infantrymen running for cover. A shadow fell over the Gladiator as the royal blue and silver shape of the Regents' Vanquisher blocked out the street light. Both continued to watch as the Vanquisher opened up all four of its cannons, the hail of supersonic projectiles spraying the fleeing foot soldiers. Corporal Barnes had heard of the horrible effectiveness of the Vanquisher against soft targets, but seeing it firsthand was downright terrifying. Bodies were shredded by the storm of supersonic metal, limbs torn off, and the street was covered with blood and gore. She quickly hopped down from the viewport, the horror clearly visible on her face. Rigel continued to watch, not wavering a bit as the Vanquisher walked its fire into the improvised missile truck. It disintegrated under the cannons' fury before the gas tanks blew in a brilliant pillar of fire that lit the battle in the street and blinded him for a second.

Rigel felt the ground shake as another CAV, this one much heavier than the Vanquisher, raced past. He looked up and saw the unmistakable form of Tomas's Assassin take aim at the Dictator. The Assassin fired a pair of gauss slugs, followed by a full flight of missiles directly at the Dictator. Before Klaug could turn, he was hit square in the chest by all three weapons.

The Dictator was a powerful CAV, but it was not known for its tough hide. The Dictator staggered like a punch-drunk fighter, and smoke billowed from a gaping hole in its chest. The internal repair systems poured nanobot-filled foam onto the wound in a vain attempt to repair the damage, but it was too severe. Klaug turned to flee down the side street; but it was too late.

The Assassin had stopped between the downed Gladiator and the damaged Dictator, protecting its commander from further harm. Rigel could hear a deep humming sound resonate in the cockpit as the coils for the twin gauss cannons charged, two nearly simultaneous thunks of metal as each weapon's loader pumped another round into the chamber, then covered his ears as two sonic booms rang out like the cracking of a whip, propelling a pair of ferrous slugs faster than the speed of sound into the Dictator's flank. The Dictator‘s entire left side caved in under the assault. The massive war machine folded in half and collapsed in on itself, smoking. The Assassin took a step back, straddling the downed Gladiator as if daring anyone to try and take it.

"Sir!" came the shout from outside the shattered viewport, "Sir are you alright? Major Ghardoki?"

"That depends on how you look at it soldier," snapped the Major. He looked up to see a quartet of Regent troopers, two kneeling covering the area with heavy rifles, two breaking out the rest of the viewport with a plasma torch.

"The Major is trapped," replied Barnes, "we need to cut away this console and extricate him."

"Wilco ma'am." The soldier reached up to help her out of the cockpit. "Please step out so I can get in there and start cutting.

Barnes took the offered hand and jumped from the console to the concrete below. She crouched low, taking the sidearm that one of the troopers offered her and scanned the area for unfriendlies. A minute later the two soldiers gently lowered the Major to the waiting stretcher.

"Major I thought you said your legs were fine," snapped Barnes concernedly.

"No problem ma'am," said the medic strapping the Major to the stretcher, "he just lost circulation from being pinned so long. We can't wait for him to get the feeling back in them just now."

Grabbing the stretcher the two medics took off for the APC parked next to the destroyed Gladiator. As Barnes jumped in beside him, Rigel sat up and laughed. "Well," he chuckled, "it looks like you owe me a drink, Corporal."


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