A rapid series of explosions rocked the Amistad fortress. No one in the City knew why, what, or whom.
Moments later a second series of blasts lit up the Texas night.
“The gates!” a sentry near the outer wall sprinted across the Courtyard, yelling at the top of his lungs. “They’re going to ram the gates!”
The dimly lit Bridge of the Iron Horse shook with a numbing vigor as the APC pushed hard over the raw ground. An excited Lt. Kara Rochelle sharply reported from Operations.
“Commander, the target is not fully compromised! The gates are still up!”
Kroh gripped a pad rail, pulling himself up from his command station. He moved forward across the Bridge, grabbing the rails to stand by the Tactical array.
“M-One, bring those gates down!” Kroh growled. “Full measure! Fire when ready!”
Hedges was already working on it. “Aye sir, full measure!”
Kroh pulled his weight to the Helm. “Best possible speed, Mister Gaines! Stand on it!”
“Full ahead, boss!” The pilot shoved the accelerator down; the Iron Horse shuddered and surged with power, her engines whining.
Kroh moved to Operations, hand-over-hand against the rough ride.
“Lieutenant Rochelle! All hands down!”
Rochelle clicked on the PA. “All hands down, brace for impact! Repeat, all hands down! Impact minus twelve...minus eleven...”
The Iron Horse unleashed a third volley of rocket fire, pulverizing the gates and support frame to the outer wall. Heaps of glowing embers crashed and fell from the structure.
The massive APC approached at better than 100 KPH; her bulk slammed into the ruins, buckling hard and breaking through what was left. She pulled over hard to starboard and began her braking procedure in a long, slowing orbital pattern around the Courtyard.
Bright stadium lights lit up the Yard, exposing the area in full artificial daylight.
Closer to the Great Wall, a chaotic stew boiled in the City. Dogs barked, Optimal soldiers scrambled, townspeople shouted and scurried.
The Iron Horse swooped by the populace like a slowing passenger train. Some stopped and stared at the great machine, dumbfounded.
The M4 mercenaries scrambled low and fast up to Deck Two, into the open air of the Battle Platform. Within seconds the armored turrets were unlocked and ready. The order was given, and the mercs opened fire, spitting lead at the stadium lights. The noise and fireworks were impressive; many of the ancient lamps exploded brilliantly. Townspeople and Optimal soldiers in the Yard scattered like mice.
The Iron Horse had slowed her circle in the Courtyard, easing to a full stop.
The M2 mercs poured out onto the Yard from several exits, staking positions by the natural cover of the APC and her giant wheels. The M3’s fell into position on the forward, aft, and flank rail platforms along the hull of the Iron Horse.
The Yard and the Market were devoid of movement. The element of suprise had given the Away team a three to five-minute window of opportunity to extract Doctor Sloane. With any luck, they would be gone before the Optimal presence fully escalated into the Courtyard.
The Optimum administration had misled their citizens and soldiers, but these were still people of America, brothers and sisters alike. They were human beings first, enemy second. Always, Kroh was adamant that the Mercenary teams apply lethal measures only when absolutely required to. They need only buy some time for the Away team.
The underbelly of the Garage hosted the CATS in their sealed Cradle. The access doors separated and geared open; the airlock hissed in contrast to the outside air. Orange caution lights rotated, warning buzzers sounded in the Cradle as the two treaded CATS deployed, piloted by Captain Marjorie Skyes and the Vulcan diplomat, Mr. Steel.
Many of the world's industrial concerns and commercial giants had collapsed after the War, but many others had survived or rebuilt out of great demand for their products. Levi-Strauss, for example, had resurrected itself in San Francisco long before the Terran Credit Monitor had been established.
Levi's started small in the mid-2060's by rallying private investments of gold coin, and negotiated contracts with dozens of domestic and foreign cotton growers. Business began to boom. The company was very generous to its investors, employees, and the community. Years later, the company transitioned the limited Gold standard for the more lucrative Credit economy of the UNT.
Denim clothing could be stitched by hand, but heavy equipment and powered tools of labor could not be. Many industrial concerns and essential commodity lines had to be Credit-infused to kick-start the Recovery.
The integrity of the Caterpillar name had been important to the Reconstruction. An entirely new generation of construction and exploration vehicles emerged from the resurrected assembly lines. The yellow and black signature colors were welcomed around the world, a sign of progress and patriotism for all the recovering nations.
The Bad Lands of the world, the areas still suffering from radioactive and biological poisons, needed special care. One of the primary duties of the Global Transport Affiliate was to carry the building blocks of recovery to these grotesque landscapes. They must navigate ruined cities, poisoned air, and harsh lands where most lifeforms would sicken or die without protection. The APC’s were secure, but the away teams would require a fitting exploration vehicle to survive such horrors.
The Caterpillar Proving Grounds of Arizona had produced an environmental mech to answer the call, officially named the CXT “TreadWalker.” The efficient mech featured four independent treads, each track affixed to a hydraulic forearm and servomotor elbow. The vehicles were also designed to walk, run and climb in a quadruped mode.
Agile and strong, these metal beasts could go just about anywhere. They were commonly called “Crawlers,” or taking a cue from their four-legged nature and their maker’s namesake, “CATS.”
The two Crawlers were fast and nimble on their treads, cutting through the night. All was still in the Courtyard as they made straight away for the man-made river and the tunnel it flowed from.
The Crawlers quietly whirred and clicked as they approached the mouth. Fast water rushed by.
Skyes’ voice crackled over the comm.
“Steel, you follow on this bank. I will traverse the far side”
Skyes moved her hands and feet into the quick-harness to release the servomotor elbow-locks. The CAT’s four treads tilted forward a few degrees, lifting off the earth. Each arm featured a three-toed manipulator at its fore, now bearing the crawlers’ weight. The cockpit remained low.
Skyes splashed forward and waded across the shallow river. Loose stones skittered as the agile machine stepped fast up the rough embankment. She gained the dry ground and set the CAT back down on its treads.
Skyes and Steel moved the Crawlers swiftly along the narrow strips of earthen riverbank between the water and the wall. Both pilots switched to night vision cameras. The treads splashed and chewed the muddy banks as they covered ground. Before long the soft earth gave way to enormous stones and large chunks of broken concrete.
Steel opened the channel. “It seems we must walk from here, Captain.”
Skyes smiled. “Ask me again about your sense of humor, Steel.”
Both CATS stood up on their feet. They gracefully gained the higher ground, and after a hundred meters or so of climbing over rocks and debris they could spot the lights of the lower dungeons further down the tunnel.
“Steel, remain here and watch our backs.”
“Aye, Captain.” Steel set his CAT down, back against the wall, resting on its treads.
Skyes moved on alone, deftly and quietly as the mech could be, closer toward the Keep.
She could see two armed sentries standing guard in front of a large wooden door. They were pacing around and shouting at each other. One wore a bloodied bandage over his nose. They seemed to be arguing about what they should do. They were not paying any attention to Skyes, as she kept the CAT nearly on its belly and took slow steps forward.
She zoomed the lens and watched for the right moment, then charged at a full out run.
The two sentries didn’t notice until they could hear it over the rushing water. And by then it was too late. In the island of light around the Keep, the CAT leaped into their midst.
It was a grand entrance; Skyes kept the nose low and growled menacingly through the PA, playing with them. Both drew and fired rounds, the slugs glanced off the reinforced plating. Skyes took another intimidating leap forward, and that was enough to send the two packing down the tunnel.
“Steel, you have company coming.”
“I see them, Captain.”
“Let them run. And give them a good scare, Steel.”
“Of course, Captain.”
Skyes turned her attention to the heavy wooden door. She sat the CAT on its haunches, lifting its forward arms high. With a quick, calculated thrust of the crawler’s forearm, the door was broken.
End of Book Five