Wildside 2020: Scattered

Chapter Two: Robot Jocks
by R.W. Lander


The other guard walked over and looked into the chip reader, which was now beginning its programmed sequence. He could see a miniature version of the Ruler, with technical data surrounding his body and pointing to various areas of it. The guard holding the chip reader shut it off immediately.

"Come on. The curiosity isn't worth our lives. Let's get this back to the Ruler immediately."

The two guards lifted off, flying with the use of their jet boots. The Overseer robot's spotlight went out, and they were flying using their own illumination for running lights. As they lifted up past one of the tall buildings, one of them saw a flash of movement on a nearby rooftop.

"Did you see something on that roof?"

The other guard, the one without the chip reader, said, "No. Why?"

After checking his internal sensors, the man replied, "I've got movement, do you have that on your scanner?"

"No movement registering. Are you sure?"

Before the other guard could answer, a shadowy form leaped from the building's roof and swung some kind of sword, glowing with red energy, through his partner's neck. At first, he thought the blade had missed, but he saw his partner's armored head tumble off and fall into the alley, followed by the decapitated body.

He found himself unable to move. His thoughts were becoming more peaceful and calm. He decided to land on the roof where the shadowy form had landed.

As he headed for the roof, he found his thoughts leaning towards putting the chip reader down on the ground and leaving. He had the reader out of his pouch when his control implant, put in by the Ruler to insure loyalty, flared at this decision. The man felt the burning sensation start at the back of his neck until his brain was destroyed from within. His jets cut out and he plummeted to the alley below, the chip reader falling with him.

"No!" came a female voice from the rooftop. She leaped out after the reader, firing a cable behind herself to secure herself to the roof. Her form was clearly female, but not much else showed. She was dressed in full-coverage metal body armor colored red and black. A purple cloak flowed out behind her like a cape, only the hood remaining in its place to conceal her face. She swung out and barely missed catching the chip reader. Her heart sank as she heard it impact with the ground.

Letting go of her cable, she executed a double flip and landed next to the reader. She was relieved to find that the casing was damaged, but the memory chips didn't seem to be cracked. Still, in order to read it, she was going to need help. She tapped something on her wrist which beeped and then said, "Legionnaire, this is Enigma. I have the item, but I need technical assistance. Meet me at Safe House Miami Five."

* * * * *

Cindy Hunter fell onto the ground, landing on all fours in the middle of some sort of burned plains. Standing up, she realized that she was inside a small crater, about two feet deep and four feet around. She climbed out and was awed by the sight before her.

A huge swirling mass of energy blotted out everything else on the western horizon. Blue lightning danced through the kaleidoscope of color, adding percussive cracks and booms to the ever-present hum. Cindy was hypnotized, watching the colors dance in front of her.

Her stare was interrupted when a huge metallic leg blocked her view. She looked up and saw that a humanoid body was on top of the metallic legs. The entire machine, standing about thirty feet tall, was painted a bright silver. It had scars and burn marks indicating heavy battle use, and guns and missiles bristled from all sides, showing that it gave as good as it got in combat. A tinny voice boomed, "Halt! Throw down any weapons and lie down on the ground or you will be eliminated!"

The shadow of another monstrous robot fell over Cindy as it closed in behind her. She had no choice but to lie down on the ground and wait. She reached out telepathically, but couldn't penetrate into the mind of the pilot. Some sort of interference prevented it.

A man dressed in khaki padded clothes and a metal helmet approached her. He kept some sort of high-tech pistol pointed at her the whole time and walked with the caution that would be expected of someone approaching a rabid tiger. When he finally got next to her, he leaned down quickly and snapped a pair of plastic handcuffs onto her wrists.

"Hey," she protested. "Is that really necessary?"

The man didn't answer, just waved his gun to indicate where she should walk. She followed that path to a nearby building, made of cement and enclosed in a shimmering force field. The robots went back to standing to either side of the colorful energy mass. Cindy's escort passed through the shimmering force field and aimed his gun at her while indicating that she should come through as well. When she did so, Cindy felt an electric shock shoot from the cuffs into her body. Her last thought was of the escort catching her before she fell to the ground.

When she woke up, Cindy was sitting inside a cell. Her armored leather jacket was gone, leaving her dressed in only a brown shirt marked, "Property of USASF" and brown pants. Her cell was a fairly large metallic room, with a separate bathroom marked off by a curtain and a small cot that would serve as a bed. Instead of bars, there was a large opening into the common room with a force field blocking entrance.

A single guard, the same one who had brought her in, sat at a nearby table. He was examining her jacket with fascination. Cindy saw the man's weapon sitting on the table.

Cindy concentrated and formed a telekinetic hand to reach out and snatch the weapon, but it struck the force field and dissolved, creating a large shower of sparks and a loud buzz. The guard looked up and grabbed his weapon.

"Hey, Ace, how's about giving me back my jacket?" she said casually.

The guard ignored her, setting his gun back down and again looking at the jacket. Cindy hated being ignored.

She concentrated again, but this time tried to use telepathy instead of telekinesis. She reached out and contacted the man's mind.

"Fascinating," he was thinking. "This is substandard technology, but it is in near-mint condition. This woman must have come through the dimensional gate. Perhaps if she joins us she will let me keep the jacket."

"Not likely," she muttered to herself. "Jerk."

"Hey, Ace. I'm kind of hungry here. When do we eat?"

At this, the guard looked somewhat guilty. "I'm not supposed to talk to you."

"Why not? Afraid I'll find out how to shut off this force field?"

At that second, she read the man's mind and found out where the field controls were and that he had a card that would unlock the field. The thought was gone in a second, but she no longer needed his answer. She couldn't remember who had taught her that trick, but it was one of her favorites.

Cindy fired a mental blast at the man. He grunted as the telepathic bolt hit him, but managed to grab his weapon. He aimed it at her, but stopped himself with a frustrated grunt when he noted that the force field was still up. He stood and tried to get out of range, but Cindy hit him again, and he dropped, unconscious.

"Now, then," she said. "That lock mechanism ought to be just about...here."

Cindy used a telepathic fist to hit the wall on her side of the cell. As she expected, the force field didn't react as long as she wasn't striking it directly. She hit the wall repeatedly until it broke open, showing her a mass of wiring. She went to work, using everything she knew from the Vagabond's systems to rewire the card lock from the inside.

It took her ten minutes, and she had to mind blast the guard again once when he nearly woke up, but she managed to shut down the field. She stepped outside and grabbed her jacket and the man's gun.

"Energy weapon," she muttered to herself. "These guys are advanced. Wonder where the hell I am."

At that moment, a concealed door opened into the apparently sealed room and two more guards entered. She aimed the pistol at the one in the lead.

"Freeze. Drop your guns and throw them over here."

Without hesitation, both men dove into the room and overturned the table that the other guard had been sitting at. Cindy's blaster bolt missed them and scorched the hallway where they had been standing.

"Great," she said. "It's going to be another one of those days."

She dove for cover inside her cell, poking her gun out and firing a couple of blasts at the table. The guards returned fire. She was beginning to worry about reinforcements when one of them stumbled out from behind the cover. He looked surprised, and wasn't able to react before Cindy hit him dead center with a blaster bolt.

A blue light shimmered over him and he fell to the ground. From behind the table, another blaster came skittering out and the other man said, "I'm coming out. I'm unarmed. Don't shoot, I just want to talk to you."

The other man stood up and walked out. He looked different than the others. His appearance was the same, rugged, dressed in padded clothes and leather with metallic trim, but he walked without the same stiffness that the others had. Even with Cindy pointing her blaster at him, he seemed perfectly at ease.

"He's not dead, in case you're wondering. That weapon of yours is a stunner. They wanted you alive so they could turn you over to the Historians."

"They?" Cindy said, keeping her blaster trained on him. "If you're not one of them, who the hell are you?"

"My name doesn't matter. I'm a spy for the other side. It's complicated, and I can explain it to you, but we have to get out of here. I'm not worried about surveillance, since all of their equipment monitors the gateway, but somebody heard those gunshots and they'll be coming down to investigate."

Cindy aimed the gun at him and snarled. "Why should I trust you?"

"Don't trust me," he offered. "But I'm offering to take you out of here and they're locking you in a force cell. Who are you going to follow?"

"Fair enough," Cindy answered, slipping the blaster into her waistband. She pulled her leather jacket on and said, "Okay, lead on."

The man led her through the concealed entrance and into a small tunnel just large enough for both of them to stand in. The two of them wandered through a maze of different tunnels and access ways, passing through various rooms on their way. In most rooms, there were clothes strewn all over military looking barracks. It took Cindy back to her Academy days, although the lack of precision and neatness was appalling to her. Some of the rooms had a holographic image of giant robots dueling in different climates. A light board below the projector showed casualties, how long the battle had gone, and other statistics.

Finally, they stepped out of the stale air in the complex and out into the smoke-filled but fresh air of outdoors. Now that she had a chance, Cindy took a good look around. Aside from a small patch of garden that was surrounded by reinforced metal walls, the land looked like desert, with bomb craters and scorch marks all over.

"The Mecha are tough on terrain," Cindy's escort said, noting her expression.

Cindy took this opportunity to read the man's mind, bothered by the fact that she hadn't thought of it before. What she found were surface thoughts, enough to know that he was telling her the truth, and that he was letting her go to his allies.

"You're not coming with me?" Cindy asked.

"No," the man replied. "Go west for about ten miles and you'll find a beacon. Tap in a precise number sequence that I give you and wait for a hoverjeep to come and get you. When they show up, give them this."

The man handed Cindy a military knife with a compass in the handle and a skull engraved on the base of the blade.

"Tell them you came through the gateway and that you were told that they would help you get home. And tell them that we're ready for the strike."

"Got it," Cindy said. This reminded her of the general espionage courses she had taken during advanced aerospace force training. Memorization of codes and passwords was a standard class, and besides, the Vagabond had more security codes than any other plane on the force.

After making sure she knew the codes, the man headed back. "Good luck. And if a Mecha combat develops, even though it shouldn't, run. But run west."

Cindy waved halfheartedly and set out into the pockmarked landscape, using the compass as a guide. It took her about four hours to reach the beacon. She was fortunate in that she didn't run into any battles. The closest she came was hearing an artillery shell hit about a mile away and feeling the tremor from the impact.

The beacon was an unremarkable thing, buried in the dirt so that only its miniature sending dish showed. Cindy pulled it up out of the dirt to reveal a metal cylinder about a foot and a half long. On the side was a number keypad and a digital display. Cindy punched in the codes and set the beacon back down. She watched the dish turn and then heard the sound of static as it made a satellite connection.After a few seconds, it beeped and the digital counter went blank again.

Cindy buried the beacon and sat down to wait. It didn't take long until she was bored. She fought the heat and fatigue, but eventually lost and drifted off to sleep on the sand.

When she woke up, Cindy had the sensation of movement. She opened her eyes and saw that she was lying in the back of a jeep. Two men were sitting in the seats in front, talking about various sports and robot wars. Cindy saw the dagger she had been given sitting next to the gear shift.

"Are you the guys I was supposed to contact?" she asked.

The driver answered "Yes" (truthfully, Cindy knew, because she was reading his surface thoughts) and said, "Want to tell us what's going on?"

Cindy relayed the messages she had been given. After that, the ride was silent for a while. A few hours later, the man in the passenger seat was looking through his binoculars and suddenly said, "Uh-oh."

When they came over the next ridge, Cindy saw what he meant. A Mecha was waiting there for them. It trained its guns on their jeep.

"That's one of the bandits," the driver said. "He wants to take our jeep and sell it for scrap. If we don't get out, he'll just blow us up out of spite."

Cindy wasn't about to go down without a fight. She concentrated, trying to contact the pilot's mind, but again there was interference.

"Guys, is there any reason that a telepath wouldn't be able to get through to these Mecha pilots?"

The passenger, not taking his eyes off the Mecha, said, "Maybe. We don't have any telepaths here, except for in fiction, but the induction field that lets the pilots drive might interfere with that kind of thing. Does it really seem that important right now?"

The Mecha raised its right arm and began to power up the laser cannon mounted on it. Reluctantly, the three of them disembarked from the Jeep. Cindy was climbing out when she felt a large metal bulge underneath a blanket in the back. She pulled the blanket up a little and saw a rifle.

Both men saw her smile and realized what it meant. They dove away from the jeep. Before the Mecha pilot could respond, she pulled the huge rifle out, braced it on the jeep's hood, and fired a bolt of energy into the thing's laser cannon.

There was a shower of sparks and then a bit of smoke curled up from the laser cannon's barrel. Cindy fired again, this time at the thing's knee. Its armor stopped the blast.

The driver and the other man got back in the jeep and grabbed Cindy. They started the jeep again and drove off past the Mecha. It tried to run after them, but it didn't have the speed to compete with a full-out hoverjeep. When they got to a safer distance, the passenger exclaimed, "How did you do that? That was a million-to-one shot!"

"I don't know. Seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Am I right in assuming that we have a ways to go to your compound and that leaving that jeep would probably have meant all our deaths?"

The passenger nodded.

"Well, now it doesn't have to. I'm going to take a nap. Wake me up if you need any more robots disabled."

A few hours later, they arrived at a large compound, made up of about six tall steel buildings. Each one had a different shape. The one in the center was a tall, thin building, with a sophisticated communications set-up on the top. On the outskirts, two similar buildings were shaped like giant domes, each one extending about sixty feet in the air. Another was a pyramid, another was shaped like a military airport, and was right next to a long landing strip. The largest one, extending higher than the rest, was shaped like a standard skyscraper, a steel rectangle that reached out to touch the sky.

The jeep came to rest next to the larger dome. Cindy could see through various open doors that this was the motor pool. Hoverjeeps, gravtanks, standard power armor, and Mecha were all lined up inside. One of the men in the jeep got out and helped Cindy out as well.

"They're going to want to see you in Command," he said. His partner drove the hoverjeep into the dome.

They walked through the complex and Cindy was struck by how much larger and more military this operation seemed. Troops were drilling in firearms and melee combat, and everyone who walked was walking with a purpose.

She was walked over to the tall, thin structure with the communications array. They entered through the only entrance, a pair of electronically-secured, voice-locked blast doors, and went down a single corridor to the elevator. It took a voice command to activate the elevator as well.

They got off at a level which looked like a laboratory. Men and women in white coats observed various technological devices in different states of repair in one section. In another section, people were performing physical activities with sensors strapped to their bare skin. Cindy turned to her escort. "What are we doing here?"

"Checking your story," he replied, placing a metal rod against her forehead. She felt a tingle and then fell into unconsciousness again.

When she woke up, Cindy was really angry. She was also strapped down to a table with electrodes wired to the sides of her head. Her clothes were gone, replaced by a white hospital gown. The wires in the electrodes trailed into a bank of monitors at the side of the bed. A woman with tightly cut red hair and round black sunglasses was looking at them and scribbling notes into a pad. Cindy cleared her throat loudly.

"Oh, you're awake. Before you do anything rash, you should know that you contracted some kind of virus when you got here and your immune system didn't know how to cope. We've introduced antibodies, but it could take a few hours before you're ready to move. If you strain yourself before then, the virus could do irreparable damage to you. I'm Marin, by the way, a Historian."

Cindy saw that on Marin's white jacket there was a gold pin shaped like a caduceus. Marin followed Cindy's gaze.

"I'm also a student of medicine and biotechnology. You're lucky I was here."

"I feel lucky. Why was I knocked unconscious? It wasn't to test for some virus."

Marin shifted nervously. "No, your escort was given orders from the high command to put you out and have you checked to see if you were a dimension traveler. Traveling leaves certain residues in the mind and body. Your story checked out, and the examination is when I saw the virus."

There was silence for a few minutes. Cindy trusted Marin enough, and besides, she looked easy to take in a fight if it came down to it. The name Historian struck a chord with her, and she suddenly realized why.

"I got the impression that the Historians were allied with the enemy."

Marin seemed taken aback, and then relaxed. "Oh, no! Historians are neutral in the war over travel. We simply seek to record and to share the knowledge of our world, so that information is equally available to all. To live in ignorance is unpardonable, given our technology."

"The war over travel?" Cindy echoed. "You want to pretend I'm from another dimension, and that I've already been knocked unconscious by both sides of some war I don't understand, and that I need to know about the situation before I decide which one to join?"

"Certainly," Marin said. "As a Historian, I'm the one you should ask. If you are from a parallel world, this history may sound familiar to you. If at any point it is useless information, tell me and I will skip it."

"In the year 2015, Dr. Isao Takamoshi decided that the creation of battle suits would be the best protection for Japan in the uncertain times ahead. His ideas were a complete success, and soon Japan and most of the other nations of the world had armored infantry in their defense forces. Escalation has always been the way of war technology, and so it was with battle suits. Eventually, they grew so large and powerful that warriors had to ride them instead of wear them."

Cindy held up her hand. "You went from battle suits to giant robots in 5 years?"

"Of course not. It took nearly half a century of warfare before the first Mecha arrived on the battlefield."

"Half a century? What year is it?"

"It is 2118. What year is it where you came from?"

"2020," Cindy answered.

"Well, time in the dimensions moves differently. I have numerous theories on the relative speed of time in dimensions, if you're interested."

Cindy shook her head. "Dimensional theory isn't my strong suit. Just skip it and get on with the story."

"At any rate, the wars grew out of control with Mecha involved. Much of the planet has become the desolate wasteland you see outside. Nations have fallen, and most of those who remain are simply warlords, trying to hang on to what territory they have. The true force in the world today is the Clans. Primary among the Clans is Clan Guardian, also known as the Watchers. They guard the dimensional gate. They are one of the two clans who still have the technology to build new Mecha. They are also the largest clan. It is their firm belief that the gate was a mistake of magic, not a natural occurrence, and that dimensional travel is wrong. If someone enters our world through that gate, they won't let the person back through. And they certainly won't let anyone from our world go through the gate."

"Clan Pioneer, known to the Watchers as Raiders, is the group you are currently with. They believe that the gate is on the world for a reason, and that we are supposed to travel through dimensions for knowledge. They are simply waiting for a chance to storm the gate and go through."

Cindy was aware of another presence at the bed side. She had been distracted by the story, and so she hadn't noticed until Marin turned away to make more notes. Cindy looked over to see a handsome blond man with a short beard. He appeared to be in his mid-fifties, but had a very strong build. He was dressed in a dark black turtleneck and khaki pants, and he had a silver chain necklace on. When he spoke, he had an unfamiliar accent.

"Hello. My name is Karl. Marin has been kind enough to give you a rundown on the situation, so now I must ask you one question: Whom do you intend to side with?"

His voice was calm, but the way he spoke the question seemed to imply a threat. Cindy glared at him and struggled a little against her straps.

"I might answer if I could get these things off."

"Of course," he said, snapping his fingers. Marin punched a couple of buttons on the side of Cindy's bed and the plastic restraining straps slid away, leaving her free to sit up. She looked over at Karl.

"Do you guys intend to take me through that dimensional gateway? Because that's my best chance of finding my friends and getting home."

Karl nodded. "Yes, we intend to go through the gateway. If you will join us, we will take you with us."

"What does joining you entail?" Cindy asked suspiciously.

"Merely that you agree to ride one of the Mecha and use it for our purposes. Once we have made the jump, you will be free of your obligations."

Cindy considered the offer while reading Karl's mind to find out if his offer was genuine. After a few seconds of consideration, she said, "Okay. But I'll do better than ride. I'll pilot one of your Mecha."

Karl seemed shaken for a minute, but he then shrugged and said, "As you wish, although it's really not necessary. Training should be easy, just go to the Dome and ask one of the pilots to teach you. By now, you have something of a reputation, so everyone should be very friendly."

Karl got up to leave and was in the doorway when Cindy called out, "What reputation?"

"Why, as the only dimensional traveler ever to visit us, of course."

There was a jab of pain in Cindy's arm. She pulled back and cocked her fist for a counter strike, but held off when she saw Marin holding a high-tech hypodermic.

"This is a general awareness and anti-viral agent. It will give you your full reaction time, which you'll need if you actually plan to ride a Mecha."

Cindy rubbed her shoulder. "Don't you people have air hypos?"

"Of course," Marin answered. "But we only use them on those who aren't warriors, due to a limited supply. If you intend to be a Mecha pilot, you better give up any comforts you planned on having."

"Thanks, Doc," Cindy said, standing up and feeling a breeze flow through the flimsy hospital gown. "Could I get my clothes back? I don't usually like my rear end this air-conditioned."

Marin chuckled and handed Cindy her flight suit, neatly pressed and cleaned. Cindy took off the hospital gown and got into her flight suit. Then she walked out into the hallway.

It didn't take long for Cindy to get out of the medical lab. She was lucky that it was on the first floor, and that it was right near the exit. Once she got outside, the Dome was hard to miss. She walked over to one of the open doorways and started wandering around in the Mecha bays.

There were about forty Mecha in the section she was in. Men and women were hanging by scaffolding or sometimes just by cables tied around the Mecha and using laser torches to correct flaws in the Mecha. A team of about six people were attaching a huge metallic arm with a buzzsaw on the end to one of the Mecha, and others were loading shells the size of a human torso into a gigantic autocannon mounted on a Mecha's shoulder.

Each Mecha was different. Some of them were shaped like boxes with arms and legs, some looked like giant metallic humans, and most were somewhere in between. Half of them were painted with desert camouflage, the other half with standard jungle camouflage. Most of them had their surfaces smeared with slogans or insignia or even cartoonish art. All of them bristled with weapons of destruction. Giant swords, axes, even a couple metallic whips, all scaled to fit the robots, were either welded on or held in their anthropomorphic hands. Cannons of varying types were attached to shoulders, heads, arms, legs, chest, anywhere there was a spare inch of metal. A few of them had separate cannons with bayonets on the end.

"Engines of destruction, that's what the Hippies called them," a voice said behind her.

She turned and saw a woman, blond with blue eyes. The woman was wearing a gray uniform and a silver chain around her neck. She stood at attention, like a true military officer, and at her side was a gigantic sidearm in a metal holster. A black nameplate on her upper right breast read, "Tatya."

"They're pretty mean-looking, I'll admit," Cindy answered. "Are you a pilot?"

Tatya inclined her head to indicate yes. Then she took Cindy's right hand and shook it firmly. "Karl sent me here to instruct you in piloting a Mecha. Do you have a preference?"

Cindy glanced over the Mecha and her eyes settled on one that had a red "V" spray-painted on its forehead. It was jungle camouflage, with no other paint or markings. Its inert arms cradled a silver sword, and it had twin mounted energy cannons on its shoulders. All along its legs were chain guns. Cindy pointed to it and Tatya smiled.

"The Victory. That is Karl's personal Mecha. He will be amused by your choice. Perhaps we should start on another one, it is quite a machine to handle."

Tatya's words fell on deaf ears as Cindy advanced on the Mecha. When Tatya caught up to her, Cindy was standing at the foot of the robot.

"So how do we get in?"

Tatya indicated a ladder on the side of the Mecha and the two women climbed up to the head. Once there, they climbed in through the glassy eyes which served as view ports for the Mecha.

Cindy was looking around the cockpit for a place to sit. It looked like a circular steel room, with computers and sensor readouts all around, but there were no seats.

"Where do we sit?" she asked.

"I will sit below, in the passenger compartment. If I stay up here, my mind will interfere with the neural network. I'll call up instructions if you look like you need my help."

Tatya turned and began to climb down a ladder at the far end of the cockpit. Cindy repeated her question.

"Okay, where do I sit?"

"Sit? No. You move, the Mecha moves with you. Neural induction fields. Think to yourself anything else you want to do, and the Mecha will do it. But to move, you move. To go forward, lean forward while stepping in place. To go back, lean back while stepping in place. To turn, lean to either side. To jump, crouch and then leap. I wouldn't recommend jumping until we get the hang of it."

Cindy watched the hatch on the stairway clang shut and then she was alone in the cockpit. She looked out at the hangar and leaned forward, stepping in place. Nothing happened.

"Nothing's happening," she said in frustration.

"Think to activate the neural induction field," came Tatya's voice over an internal speaker.

Cindy thought, activate neural induction field, and suddenly she heard the air crackle, and felt a tingle going through her entire body. A feminine computer voice said, "NIF engaged. Please wait while NIF is synchronized with pilot biorhythms."

For a second, Cindy had a pounding headache, but it faded away when she heard the computer voice say, "NIF Synchronization Complete. Begin when ready, pilot."

Now, Cindy had a buzzing in her head, not unlike what she got when she'd had a little too much to drink. She felt happy and energetic. She leaned forward a little, making a stepping motion, and watched the Mecha begin to move forward. As soon as her view screen indicated that she was clear of Mecha on the other side, she turned and began walking towards the exit of the Dome. She leaned even more into it, and the Mecha picked up pace. Many of the mechanics and pilots pointed at her Mecha. She waved, blushing as the Mecha imitated her action, and the others outside laughed.

"Slow down. If you run too hard, we'll overheat, And put the sword away! Think the sheathe command."

Cindy thought sheathe, and her right arm lifted the sword and slid it into a metallic sheathe on the Mecha's back. She also leaned back a little, slowing the Mecha to a walking stance. As she walked out into the open air, she got a burst of excitement just like the first time she had flown the Vagabond. This was freedom, a machine that did exactly what she felt it needed to do.

She took them off the complex and out into the desert. Even at walking speeds, the gigantic strides of the Victory took them away quickly. After a few minutes of silence, Tatya said, "Stop here."

Cindy leaned back to a straight-forward stand and said, "Why?" Her own voice echoed in her head, and she felt slightly dizzy. It made her giggle, something she never did unless she had been drinking.

"Weapons drills. Think 3-D Weapon Schematic."

Cindy did as she was told, and floating letters appeared in the world around her. She saw a display of power levels and weapons. She had fifteen chain guns on the legs, all with 1000 rounds of ammunition, and two plasma repeating cannons with 100% charge. In addition, her electron sword was charging in its sheathe, and was at 100% power.

Cindy looked back at the view port and saw that a targeting scope had appeared. Wherever she moved her head, the targeting scope moved. If her gaze stayed steady for more than a second, the targeting scope locked in and magnified its target. She was shocked to find that she was targeting lizards that couldn't be more than 2 feet long.

"These targeting systems are fantastic! How do they know what to aim for?"

"Whenever your gaze stops, they look for anything that could be a target, starting with the largest, like a battle ship, and moving on down until it reaches the lowest of creatures. Its limit is cockroaches. It won't target fleas."

There was a loud screeching sound and the cockpit lights flashed red for a second. "Tatya? What was that?"

"What was what?"

"The cockpit flashed red and I heard a loud screeching sound."

"That's a proximity alarm. Think alarm scan."

Cindy did and a visual screen behind her lit up. On it, she saw four man-sized battle suits leap frogging towards her by means of backpack jets. Each of them carried a six foot long rifle. Range was indicated next to each one, and the farthest was at 100 feet. The nearest was 75.

"Four man-sized battle suits at 100 feet and closing."

"Scavengers," Tatya said. "We wandered too far out and they think we're an outcast. We can't outrun them, we'll have to fight."

Cindy turned back to the viewscreen and started scanning the horizon, but she couldn't see the targets beyond the dunes that were about forty feet away.

"Where are they?"

"Your alarm was probably satellite-recon," Tatya answered. "You may not have visual yet. Just be patient."

A few seconds later, Cindy's targeting scope zeroed in on one of the man-sized suits as it leaped over the sand dune. Cindy gritted her teeth and thought fire both plasma cannons.

A burst of red fire flew past the Mecha's head on either side as the plasma bursts struck the man-sized target. There was an explosion, and when the smoke cleared, Cindy saw that the first opponent was down on the ground, his armor smoking. She grinned at the excitement of using the cannons.

The other three crossed over the ridge, but Cindy was having a tougher time drawing a bead on them. They were still leaping and crisscrossing, and the targeting scope was switching back and forth between them.

"It won't lock on! How do I select a target?" Cindy yelled. Her pleasant "buzz" was turning into an annoying headache.

"You'll have to go to manual, use the hand controls."

Cindy saw a yoke in front of her and she pulled on it. The cross hair moved quickly upwards as she pulled back. She started using the yoke to move the cross hairs onto the nearest suit. Unfortunately, her opponents had noticed the slight movement of her Mecha arms when she grabbed the yoke and they had dug in and were aiming their rifles at her.

A burst of energy erupted from one of the cannons and struck the leg of the Mecha. Damage reports flashed in, indicating that two of the chain guns on that leg were damaged. A red line on her right side was showing 70%.

"What's this red line?"

"That's your heat indicator," Tatya answered. "If you go to 100%, the Mecha shuts down until it's cool again. Every time you fire or move, it goes up, so watch it."

Cindy realized she couldn't afford to fire the plasma cannon again until she had cooled a bit, so she triggered a couple of the chain guns. Their bullets struck her target, but had no visible effect. One of the other attackers fired a missile from their gun and it streaked into the cockpit. Cindy's view turned bright orange for a second as the missile impacted the sensors. When her view came back, it was dim on the left side. Her Mecha was tilting back from the force of the explosion. She planted her left foot behind her and slid into a kneeling position to regain balance. She watched the heat indicator go down to 47% and decided to chance the guns again. She let go of the yoke and let her targeting work for her.

As soon as a target was chosen, Cindy fired both plasma cannons and fried the target who had hit her with his energy cannon. She took another blast from the other opponent, who was closing fast. Her targeting scope opted to aim at the missile firer, who was still kneeling.

Her heat indicator was at 73% now, but she risked firing one of the plasma cannons at her target. The beam hit home, but didn't demolish the target the way linked cannons had. Some kind of force field protected her target. A quick glance showed her heat indicator at 87%. She fired again, and it rose to 99%. She breathed a sigh of relief as the beam wiped out the missile wielding attacker.

A loud buzz sounded and the message, "Integrity breached" flashed across the screen. She focused her vision down and saw the last target cutting into her wounded leg with a monowire buzz saw. She thought for all chain guns to target and fire. Most of the bullets just ricocheted off the armor, but it forced her opponent out a little.

Her heat level was still at 97%, but she risked one last move. She stood up and lifted her left leg, bringing it down on top of the man before he could run. There was a sound of metal crunching and she prepared to pull her leg back when she saw the heat level rise to 100%. All systems shut down, except for minimum life support and lights. Her view screen went dim and the temperature in the cockpit went up about twenty degrees. She wiped some of the forming sweat off her brow and said, "Tatya? Can you hear me?"

There was a pause, and then she heard, "Not exactly what I had in mind for your first day out. But it will do."

"Thanks. How long until the systems come back on-line?"
"It should take about two or three minutes for the Mecha to vent all of its waste heat now. Once it's shutdown, the heat leakage is much slower, but there is a much smaller chance of explosion."

Cindy felt the headache intensify, and then she was lost in a world of pain. She came back to the land of the living when she heard Tatya's voice again.

"Cindy? Are you there?"

"I'm here," Cindy answered, still feeling pain in the back of her head. "What's the matter?"

"What's the matter? You haven't answered your comm for five minutes! I was just about to head up there, NIF Interference be damned!"

"Can you run this thing on manual?"

"Yes," Tatya answered. Cindy followed her instructions to use a completely manual control system. It wasn't as efficient or quick, but it didn't give Cindy a pounding headache.

Cindy's headache had nearly subsided by the time she got the Mecha back into the Dome where she had found it. She disembarked along with Tatya. Tatya gave a few orders to some of the techs and they got to work repairing the Victory. Karl was waiting for the two of them. He gave Tatya a little peck on the cheek.

"I trust you and my daughter got along well?" Karl said.

"Yeah," Cindy answered, noting the family resemblance for the first time. "We have a lot in common. She's a good teacher."

"I suspected as much. Well, the Historian Marin has been asking for you, she says she had something to tell you. She's in her lab. Meanwhile, Tatya, would you like to have some dinner?"

Tatya waved goodbye to Cindy and walked off with her father. Cindy went up to the medical lab to go and see Marin.

Cindy was distracted, thinking about all that had happened already and what was bound to happen next. When she was ten feet from the door of the medical lab, she saw it explode outward. Flames and smoke poured from the lab. Cindy ran over, but couldn't even see in. She called out for Marin, but there was no answer. She saw a hand waving behind one of the desks and used her telekinesis to pull it out. The person she lifted was on fire, and Cindy telekinetically lifted her out into the hallway and smothered the flames with her jacket. It was obviously Marin.

Marin was badly burned, and Cindy could tell that it was fatal. To her surprise, Marin was still breathing. She tried to force words past her cracked lips, but they wouldn't come. Cindy tried to read her mind, but found the buzzing sensation she had felt inside the Mecha return.

Marin pulled a pen from Cindy's jacket and started to write something, but her hand fell limp before she finished. Cindy looked down at what Marin had scrawled on her jacket. It was a swastika.

Some of the other Raiders had reached her by now, and one of them rushed in to look at Marin. One of them looked around, "Does anyone know what to do?"

Cindy put a hand on the man's shoulder. "I do. She's gone, and there's nothing anyone can do."

Another explosion rocked the complex, and the Raiders looked over to see a burst of flame rising from the tower.

"That's the high council's living quarters!" one of them yelled.

Cindy followed the group to the area after covering Marin's face with some cloth. She got to the building in time to see Karl staggering out of the building. His hair was singed and his face was red from heat. Tears ran down his face.

"Tatya is dead."

The crowd fell into muted silence. Then someone asked, "Who is responsible?"

"Who else?" Karl responded, his voice hoarse with rage. "The Guardians. They know of our plans, and they sought to destroy the high council before we could act. We must act now, while their intelligence about the attack is faulty. Gather the Mecha, we will go into battle!"

A loud cheer went up. Cindy growled in frustration as her questions about why Marin was killed went unanswered by the mob. She grabbed Karl's arm as he headed for the Dome.

"I'm piloting the Victory."

Karl met her gaze and stared at her for about thirty seconds. Finally, he nodded. She ran with him to the Victory and got inside.

Once inside, she powered up all systems. This time, the mental rush that she got from the Neural Induction Field was not at all pleasant. She knew that it would counter her mental powers for a time, leaving her vulnerable.

She followed the rest of the Mecha, pouring out into the desert like a bunch of crazed berserkers. They fell into a sort of default formation, grouping in five Mecha squads and spreading out. The Mecha ran full out, heading towards the Watcher's camp.

"Mecha instruction, running without Neural Induction Field," Cindy said. In response, a schematic appeared on the windshield. It indicated that there would be a considerable loss of control, and that it was not recommended in combat. Cindy disregarded the warnings.

"Disengage NIF. Bring up manual controls."

In response, the field shut down. The Victory stopped for a minute while a control chair rose under Cindy and armchair controls raised to meet her outstretched arms. She took a few seconds to get a general idea of the layout. From below, Karl's voice came over the intercom.

"Why are we stopping?"

"Heat overrun. I don't see how everyone else is avoiding it," she lied.

"Set your running speed on maximum and relax. Let the Mecha do the work of regulating speed and heat."

"Thanks." Cindy found the manual controls to do so and sat back as the Mecha matched speed with four of the others. She brought all weapons systems on-line.

The Watchers weren't ready for the attack. Satellite systems and motion detectors had picked up the movement, but they had no idea that the Raiders were going all out until they saw the force of more than 150 Mecha coming over the hill. They responded by sending out their standard garrison of 30 Mecha and calling on their artillery to defend until the reinforcements could be brought out.

The melee was brutally short. Artillery strikes brought down 20 of the Raider Mecha before they got in and disabled the cannons. The more powerful Watcher Mecha fought bravely, taking out nearly two Raider Mecha for each one of theirs that fell. But in the end, the numbers overwhelmed them.

77 Raider Mecha remained when the smoke cleared. Karl began talking over the radio channel. "All right, everyone through the gate. The Victory's dimensional equipment will hold the warp steady so we all wind up in the same place. We'll come through last."

With that, the Victory shot out a beam of multicolored light into the gateway, freezing it into a dull gray color. The rest of the Mecha began charging through. All but fifteen of the force had made it when the Watcher reinforcements, numbering in the hundreds, showed up on both sides.

"Take us in!" Karl screamed.

"But the rest of them will be scattered or destroyed!" Cindy yelled.

"Damn it, woman, don't you want to get home again? Go! We can't save the others!"

Cindy gritted her teeth and realized that he was right. She needed to get back home, she didn't want to die here, fighting for a cause she didn't even believe in. She charged the Mecha straight into the dimensional gate, allowing a few more Mecha to get in front of her at the last second. She cast a last glance behind her to see the other seven Mecha being left behind, probably to die. Then she felt the familiar stomach-churning that always came with dimensional travel. She closed her eyes, knowing that when she woke up, she would be in a different place.

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