(Editor’s Note: Welcome to Short Story Sunday! This week we’re continuing ‘The Mindwars’ saga with Episode 4 of ‘Battleframe,’ a new science fiction novel by Michael Gilmour.)
Episode 4: Into The Night
Whizzbang nodded towards his friend and then stepped out through the energy wall that separated the ready room from the cool night air. After the confines and sterile atmosphere of the ready room, the wide-open darkness of the night was a welcome relief.
Tilting his head to the side he spoke into his comnet pickup, “Freehold control, this is Whizzbang, Romeo, Oscar, Sierra, two, niner reporting.”
A handler’s voice crackled over his headset, “Acknowledged, Whizzbang, Romeo, Oscar, Sierra, two niner this is Freehold control.”
“Freehold, is all nominal?”
“Whizzbang, we have green across the board.”
There was a slight pause and the sound of typing on a keyboard. “Scouting recon ten clicks around Freehold.”
“Copy That Freehold.”
Happy looked across at Whizzbang and said, “All green. That sounds like a good sign.”
“It certainly doesn’t happen very often. Let’s head across the square, jump-jet up to get some height and then start our recon.”
“I’m with you Whizz.”
Before heading off Whizzbang pulled his Charge rifle out of its back holster and tightened his hand on the grip. Despite what central command had told him something did not feel right. He could not put his finger on it but it was like an itch that you cannot seem to scratch and it was not going away.
As they walked across the Freehold main town square, Whizzbang moved like the wind slipping between the trees in a forest, while Happy’s metallic Rook boots crunched loudly against the cobblestones with each step. Despite their differences, there was an economy of movement to both their strides. A deadly grace that was mimicked by their shadows dancing in rhythm to the light cast by the large flickering flaming torch raised upon a high narrow pole in the middle of the central courtyard. The Concord raised the torch years earlier as a sign of defiance to the Scourge and pilots now usually referred to it simply as the “Freedom Torch”.
Whizzbang glanced down the hillside towards the pristine beach far below. The moonlight shimmered off the water and he could faintly hear the surf gently lapping the shore in the distance. He had spent many of his rest days soaking up the sun and swimming on that beach. Around him, grass thatched huts provided the illusion of a vacation resort. In reality, Freehold was the second largest Concord military installation on the planet.
As long as a single battleframe remained standing, Free, as it was affectionately known, would never be overrun by the Scourge. It meant too much to the men and women who fought, not for profit or fame, but for the survival of the Concord. Freehold was also where battleframe pilots could relax and have a few drinks with their squad before they once again did their combat duty.
Pilots like Whizzbang and Happy, would ensure that Alpha Three was clear of threats and then return to Freehold to relax by the bar or laze in the sunshine on the beach. The stresses and strains of thrusting themselves into harm’s way and hoping that they would make it out the other side would damage any pilot’s psyche without the “RnR” that Free offered.
With a puzzled look on his face Happy looked back across the courtyard towards the ready room energy wall. “Whizz, something don’t….”
Whizzbang interrupted his friend with an open-handed glove signalling for silence as he took a few deep breaths to slow his beating heart. Closing his eyes Whizzbang sniffed the air a few times and then listened intently to the noises around him, soaking it all in, looking for anything that seemed out of place. After years as a battleframe pilot, he had learned the technique of fully embracing the world around him with his senses. Time after time, it had saved him and his friends from disaster.
A hammer fell from a rack with a clatter, a master technician berated an apprentice and the gentle breeze wafted the smell of tellurite jump jets from a battleframe that had passed earlier. Whizzbang quickly categorised the sensory inputs as friend or foe as his senses continued to roam the area to the limit of their capabilities.
Opening his eyes once again Whizzbang asked, “Happy, can you feel that?”
Happy mimicked his friend’s battle stance, closed his eyes and focused his hearing and smell to identify what his friend was referring. He had known Whizzbang a long time and had never regretted paying close attention to his friend’s sixth sense when he felt something was not quite right.
“Yes, something doesn’t feel right.”
Whizzbang flicked to the local comnet and said, “Whizzbang Romeo, Oscar, Sierra, two niner to any battleframe in the Freehold area.”
Static greeted his broadcast and after waiting for thirty seconds, Whizzbang repeated the message.
Happy finally opened his eyes and said unconvincingly, “Looks like no frames are in range.” Whizzbang did not need to see Happy’s face to know that his friend did not believe what he said any more than he did.
Whizzbang’s veteran steel blue eyes looked around at the normal scene of technicians and mechanics repairing battleframe equipment, noticing every detail, missing nothing. His pupils had seen too many battles, too many friends fall and too many loved ones lost. They were the eyes of loss and the eyes of an expert of his trade.
Whizzbang was one of a handful of older pilots that got that way by keeping a trim fit body and paying attention to what he called his “sixth sense”. Right now, it was tingling like crazy. Something was wrong and he could not put his finger on it.
“Happy, we need to plug directly into the scanning tower and find out what’s going on. Something tells me that central has got it wrong.”
Happy realised the seriousness of Whizzbang’s tone and dropped immediately into the abbreviated staccato form of talking known as battlespeak, “CT,” which means “Copy That” or I understand and agree.
Whizzbang took a few more steps forward and then stopped abruptly and for almost a minute stared up at the stars as if seeking an answer to his questing mind. Why did he feel something was wrong? Happy had become accustomed to his friend’s odd behaviour and on more than one occasion, it was the sole reason he was still alive.
Whizzbang nodded almost politely to the symbol of liberty flickering in a gust of wind above. With a quick blast of their battleframe’s jump jets, both pilots soared over to the scanning tower uplink terminal on the other side of the courtyard. As he landed, a shiver ran up Wbizzbang’s spine and he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end – something was very wrong!
“Happy, combat ready!”
Happy instantly replied with, “G2G.” He then dropped a couple of pods of specialised nanites from his battleframe that instantly commenced building two anti-personnel turrets. The short squat automated guns sat on a tripod that could clamp itself to almost any surface and at any angle. Within ten seconds, the nanites completed assembling the turrets. Each gun automatically began swinging their barrels back and forth scanning for enemies.
“Better to be safe than sorry Whizz,” Happy said a bit sheepishly.
Whizzbang deftly fingered his wrist-comp and tapped directly into the scanning network that provided a detailed map of the surrounding regions and revealed any enemy activity. If there were something out there then they would soon know.
“Haps, you’ve got to see this.”
Happy turned his eyes away from the darkness to look down at Whizzbang’s wrist-comp. What he saw turned his blood to ice.
The Scourge had come.
About the Author:
Since his early childhood Michael Gilmour embraced the excitement and infinite possibilities of science fiction. ‘Battleframe’ is his debut novel in ‘The Mindwars’ and is the culmination of a lifetime of adventures. He resides in Melbourne, Australia with his wife and three children.
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