Richtersveld National Park
Midway along the Orange River
Namibia, South Africa
(22 years later)
"I'm still not sure what we're supposed to be doing out here", muttered [SK]
John as he opened the primary hatch and swung his legs over the side.
Up on his feet now, John eyed the sleek black vehicle distastefully. It had
been four of the most terrifying minutes of his life back there. He wondered
how anyone could cope with an experience like that on a regular basis. It was
like those TrumpLand "Super Toboggan" rides back in San Francisco, he
supposed - only faster. Much, much faster.
John ran his fingers over the lettering embossed into the side. In the
periphery of his mind, a thought occurred to him that the metallic composite
material should still be scorchingly hot from the tremendous friction of
ripping through the atmosphere. He almost snatched his hand back before he
remembered that, with all the layers of his suit, he should not feel a
The words on the side of the module, looking a little melted and out of
shape now, read "COPIM-437". The Covert Orbital Personnel Insertion Module did
exactly as its name suggested - designed for what the planners called
"low-observability" missions, it was a high-speed, one-way ticket from a
hundred kilometers in the sky to ground level. The StormTropper infantry who
usually were the ones to use this particular mode of tranport had a fitting,
albeit inauspicious nickname for it - "COFFIN" - one which was often
accompanied by nervous, sidelong glances at those briefings where the names of
the lucky "volunteers" picked to carry out the mission would be called.
During the long, bumpy drop down from Low Earth Orbit from the [SSK]
Altercation, one of the troop transports in the StormKeepers Fleet, John
had been full of burning questions about this strange mission. The hurried
briefing by [SK] Louie, and the communications silence ordered by StormAldur
Tsoron himself had prevented John from speaking to Ramrod until they had both
been tucked in securely into the COPIM vehicles. The fiery atmospheric re-entry
into Earth's atmosphere had also cut off all possibility of raising the issue
Five meters away, a similar module rested on the ground. [SK] Ramrod,
leaning over it, was already going ahead with the touchdown procedure. He
opened a recessed panel behind the cockpit section and checked the readouts,
nodding approvingly as he did so. The single-use force shields had held
adequately for the trip. Punching a pre-determined sequence of buttons on the
console, Ramrod set the self-destruct sequence. In five minutes the remaining
reaction mass left in the personnel module would ignite. The module would melt
itself down, and together with some help from specialised disassembler nanotech
'bots, no traces of their approach would be left on the ground.
Ramrod chose to keep his silence, which in itself was rather untypical of
him. His armor-encased fingers clicked on a few more of the over-sized buttons.
A rectangular package slid out from the back of the re-entry vehicle, which he
scooped up and carried under his arm.
Ramrod looked over at John, clad in the same drab-gray StormTrooper Powered
Armor that he was, with a short-stocked STLAR-7 laser assault rifle strapped to
his right thigh section, a row of PEC-12 energy clips on the left, and a slim,
contoured backpack behind.
Fairly standard issue for a modern high-tech soldier, the Standard Trooper
Laser Assault Rifle version 7 was also known as the Stella-7 after its
initials. Its accompanying ammunition pack, the Personal Energy Clip, was
essentially a high-storage capacitor, a military derivative of
commercially-available xenium-hydrate technology. It held enough power for
approximately 1200 laser bolts, which, at 20 vari-frequency pulses per second
allowed for one full minute of continuous fire.
In contrast to standard armor, however, there were no visible markings or
letterings of any kind on either of the StormKeepers' suits. To an ordinary
observer, they could have come from any of the major squads who had the
resources to afford powered suits for their troops.
"Guess I'll learn on the way, huh," said John as he performed a similar
procedure on his end, and took another package from his own vehicle.
"Well, you're the boss, lead on".
Ramrod started to sprint the kilometer and a half to the designated
waypoint. He was guided along the way by a glowing route projected onto his
faceplate from the miniature holo-projectors which comprised the Helmet-Mounted
Display. John followed closely behind, his own suit keeping up easily with
Ramrod's power-augmented pace at sixty kilometers an hour.
Fifteen minutes later, the pair stopped at an abandoned-looking outpost
which guarded the mouth of a darkened tunnel. The floor of the tunnel sloped
downwards in a gentle incline, seemingly into the depths of the earth.
At the entrance to the tunnel, Ramrod activated the low-light display mode
built into the instrumentation of the suit's helmet. He motioned to John to do
To the two armored troopers, what was at first total darkness turned into a
strange landscape of hues of greens and blues as the infra-red imagers and
image enhancers in their high-tech head-gear rendered the unlit surroundings in
terms of temperature differentials. Image processors looked through the
digitised scenery and threw up wireframe representations which revealed the
dimensions of the tunnel. Silvery lines demarcated the induction loops of the
magnetic-levitation track, leading up to the junction ahead where the disused
line joined the main maglev railway approximately three hundred meters away.
The maglev railway was a vital pipeline carrying workers, supplies and
equipment to the famed Orange IV diamond mines in the Namibian region of the
Southern African continent.
Every morning on working days, trainloads of magnetically-levitated
carriages would leave Town Kubus, ferrying miners the 76-km ride to the mines.
During the daytime, a different set of carriages would carry raw ore back to
the main factory in the town for processing. In the factory, specialised
machines sat in neat rows, sifting through the tons of soil. The final products
at the end of this process were the precious stones from the rich deposits
washed down from the Kimberly diamond-bearing areas by the Orange River
millions of years ago.
The cache of diamonds being extracted at the heavily-guarded factory,
however, was not what Ramrod had come for today. Just before they reached the
junction, Ramrod abruptly turned around and spoke for the first time.
"You know, John, to tell the truth, I'm really not quite sure what we're
here for either. Everyone involved in this mission seems to be operating on a
real tight need-to-know basis. The transport pilots only knew that we were
supposed to do a COPIM drop at such-and-such a location, the real StormTroopers
whose power-suits we are wearing were only told to brief us on the proper and
safe use of these things."
John was incredulous. "What do you mean, you do not know why we're here?
They risk sending a Tempestkeeper and a Fire Rage on this
mission, seeing how we've been trained only in HERC's and tanks and flyers, and
then they tell us to play foot-soldier, and now you say that even
you have no idea what we're doing here, in the remotest part of Africa, of all
Darkstar-forgotten places?" He was almost shouting now.
"Whoa, hold it there, John." Ramrod was glad for the sound-dampening effect
of wearing the power armor, and the encrypted narrowcast radio link between
their suits. If not for those, they might be having an entire security
contingent coming toward them right now.
The clarity and force of John's voice which carried itself over the internal
speakers however, had made Ramrod take a step back. "All I know is that we've
been picked specifically by Stormaldur Tsoron himself. You and I.
Spe-ci-fi-cal-ly." He stretched out each syllable, for emphasis.
"Heck, I don't know why. Tsoron wouldn't tell. You know, he never tells,
anyway. What I do also know, is that we're out here to get something. Something
important. What it is exactly, I have no idea right now. But, yes, it's
important enough to risk two senior Stormkeepers out here for. Tsoron's placing
faith in us, 'bro. Let's live up to it."
Ramrod explained to John the rest of the mission as best as he could. John
continued to grumble for a while more before he, too, accepted that there was
nothing for them to do but to continue with their assigned task.
They walked the remaining distance to the T-junction and turned right into
the main railway. With some care, the two StormKeepers slowly laid down the
packages they had been carrying onto the track.
Proximity sensors hidden somewhere inside the packages detected the ambient
magnetic fields embedded in the rail coils. The rectangular platforms sprang to
life. They lifted themselves up to knee level, floating half a meter above the
ground. Steering columns levered themselves up, and hand grips swung out
gracefully from the sides of the columns.
Leaping on to the mag-lev pseudo-carriages, Ramrod and John twisted the
handlebars, accelerating themselves to over a hundred kilometers an hour.
"Gee.. this is fun", whispered John over the comm-link. "I wonder..."
"Sshh..." Ramrod cautioned, "be on the lookout for..."
A strident warning tone that suddenly screeched in both helmets cut him off
abruptly. Both Stormkeepers reacted instantly, stabbing at the undeploy buttons
on their individual maglev platforms. They flung themselves flat on their
stomachs onto the track. The platforms continued to cruise along for a short
distance before they completed folding back into position and came to a wobbly
rest on the rails.
The Stormkeepers had barely made contact with the ground before a multi-ton,
ore-laden carriage careened past them and disappeared rapidly around a bend.
The rush of air in the confined tunnel whooshing past was picked up by the
StormTrooper helmets, sounding loud and clear in their heads, complete with
receding Doppler effects.
The bottom of the train had missed their backpacks by mere centimeters.
Intense magnetic fields from the train's powerful electro-magnets played havoc
with the systems in the powered armor despite the heavy shielding. Bluish-white
lightning played itself around the exterior of the suits for a few seconds, and
then disappeared back into the darkness, as sudden as it had come.
It was a long while before John regained his composure enough to prop
himself slowly into a sitting position. He shook his head to clear away some of
the dizziness from the leftover field interaction effects.
"Darn, I think we're both too old for this stuff," John remarked ruefully to
his partner. He moved an arm tentatively, sure that he had stretched something
somewhere, though he could not seem to locate it at that point in time.
Chuckling softly, Ramrod patted John on the back as he sat up and leaned
awkwardly against the tunnel wall. He began to run a series of diagnostic
routines on the powered armor.
"Well, there goes another wagonload of raw material," said Ramrod.
The diagnostic finished its run. Finding no major problems with his suit,
Ramrod stood up and started to walk ahead. "Come on, we'll have to carry on
with it. There's still about halfway more to go."
John mumbled something about the Darkstar Continuum not being able to
meet its lofty ideals. "... yea yea, 'We Watch, We Listen', indeed."
"It's okay, buddy," replied Ramrod. "Even our best friends in the DC can't
give us the exact train schedule if it's asynchronous like what we've just
seen. Foreign intel isn't always exact. You know that."
Ramrod continued, "Just be careful, okay, bro' ... take it easy and all. No
sweat. Systems okay over at your end?" John nodded. "Good. Let's get back to
The remainder of the journey was accomplished without further incident.
Arriving at the end of the line at a large, dimly-lit underground cavern,
Ramrod and John flicked on their armor's nanotech camouflage films, merging
further into the shadows of the walls. They moved slowly, passing by dozens of
workers busily loading the next consignment of materials onto an open carriage
of yet another maglev train. The carriage hovered in the air, bouncing slightly
as loads of diamond-bearing rock were heaped onto it.
Presently, Ramrod and John arrived at a freshly-dug tunnel. The signs of
recent digging were lying on the ground - pieces of broken drill bits, various
litter strewn around, and of course, the huge, three-meter-tall deep-tunnelling
machine lying at the far corner. The place was deserted. It seemed that
all the available labor had been deployed elsewhere.
Disengaging his backpack, Ramrod got down to work. He took out a portable
laser drill and began lasing at a spot outlined by his helmet's displays. The
precise location co-ordinates had been pre-programmed by Tsoron himself. He
recalled Tsoron's simple instructions - "Find this place, dig there."
John looked around nervously. He fingered his laser rifle, detached from his
thigh and unholstered now. He swept the area with his suit sensors, covering
Ramrod as had been planned.
It took all of five minutes before the laser drill hit something. The twin
beams disappeared as the drill's sensors detected a change in the material and
cut the power feed, as they had been programmed to do.
"Looks like this is it," muttered Ramrod as he extracted a cylindrical
object from the crevice. Fine dust fell to the ground as he shook it.
"What is it?" John asked as he came in closer and peered at the device. It
was rust-colored, and came with a carrying handle at the top. Ramrod shrugged
as he handed it over to John, who turned it around and looked at it every which
"I have absolutely no idea," Ramrod replied. "We'll probably get the answer
when we get back. He held up his backpack, "Here - help me stuff it in."
After a brief check to ensure that they had taken all their personal
belongings with them, Ramrod and John stole past the busy workers at the
still-stationary train again. It looked like the previous carriage had left;
the workers were loading up on an empty one.
It was another twenty minutes before the Stormkeepers returned to the
junction from which they had come in.
Emerging from the tunnel, Ramrod and John travelled back toward the spot
where they had landed. Ramrod was about to comment that it seemed all too
remarkably easy when they burst into a clearing - and ran right into a hail of
"What in the glitchin' -- where did these guys come from?" yelled
John as he detached his STLAR-7 from the storage nacelle on his
Ramrod, too, had drawn his laser rifle and was taking aim. "Can't be sure -
may just be a roving patrol."
"Indeed. Just a roving patrol," swore John as he squeezed
off a steady stream of laser shots. The trees at the edge of the
clearing burst into flames, as two fatigue-clad soldiers fell from
"Shoot to injure, not to kill," ordered Ramrod. "We have no argument
with these people. Probably some hired 'mercs on guard duty."
John answered with a terse "Roj that" as he swivelled his weapon, shooting
left and right in tight, controlled bursts. He paused for the briefest of
moments to dial back the rifle's power settings, and continued firing
The De Beers Corporation which owned the large majority of diamond mines in
the area had been a target of pro-green environmentalists in recent months. The
activists had charged that De Beers was destroying entire patches of prime
cultivatable land in its mining forays into the rich alluvial region of the
Orange River, which had remained untouched for generations until new
deregulatory laws opened up the land for commercialisation.
Mag-lev railway operations had been disrupted a few times when some of the
more fundamentalist types took to short-circuiting the tracks - or simply blew
them up. The African governments assumed a neutral stance, and that had led the
corporation to hiring local mercenaries to supplement its own security
The ensuing fire-fight that followed was short and decidedly one-sided.
A bunch of twenty-odd green-fatigued 'Mercs armed with obsolete
projectile-based sub-machine guns was no match for two Power-Armored
StormKeepers firing deadly state-of-the-art rapid-fire laser assault
Ramrod and John calmly stood their ground, taking the hail of bullets that
bounced like raindrops off their suits while aiming carefully and decisively to
avoid death or debilitating injury. 'Mercs dropped like stones, clutching
busted shoulders, or hobbling away on kneecaps shot out from under them.
The whine of aircraft engines accompanied by a stream of 30-mm LATC shells
falling from the sky marked an end to the conflict. The long-range autocannon
drew a line of fire between the mercenaries and the armored troopers, ripping
the surrounding vegetation into shreds.
The mercenaries retreated as fast as they could the moment they saw the trio
of StratoStar aerospace fighters gunning directly for them. They scattered
helter-skelter in different directions.
In a few moments, the field was cleared.
Ramrod looked up just as the aerospace-craft flashed past and made a reverse
loop. As the fighters turned around and started to descend, he waved
enthusiastically, "Hey!! Over here!!"
The lead fighter dipped its wings in reply. Over the Tactical Data-Link, a
message scrolled up. "Hi, Ramrod. It's me, [SK] Huh here. Need a ride?"
"Oh yes! Thanks for bringing the transport, buddy-boy!!" Ramrod started to
run towards the StratoStars as they extended their stick-like landing gear and
came to rest on an open field extending out from the tree line.
John followed closely behind Ramrod, watching as the canopies opened.
He paused as he realised that only one of the cockpits was occupied.
"Whoa. You brought all three of these here by yourself?" John asked.
"Yup, sure did. Tele-op," replied Huh as he waved back. "Come on.
I've put in StormTrooper seats for you - just climb in!"
John was impressed. [SK] Huh must have slave-controlled the other two
StratoStar fighters on his own all the way from Darkstorm Headquarters. It took
a lot of co-ordination to fly a single aircraft, let alone three at a time. He
sprinted to the closest StratoStar, mounted the side-ladder, and peered in
gingerly. True to his word, Huh had indeed somehow installed huge bucket-shaped
seats suitable for power-armored pilots.
John climbed in, an awkward maneuver in the bulky suit. The fit was tight,
but manageable. He took a cursory glance at the heads-up display. The "Tele-Op
In Effect" indicator continued to blink on the HUD for a short while before Huh
switched off the remote controller, transferring control back to the local
Satisfied that everything else was in order, John lifted the aerospace
fighter into the air.
"Home, here we come!" exclaimed Ramrod.
"Home sweet home, yea," agreed John, as he turned the nose around to follow
the exit profile indicated in the display before him. "Think we could make it
back to Darkstorm in time for dinner?"
[SK] Huh called up a timezone display, and punched in a few calculations.
"Hey, yeah, why not? But only if we hurry."
"Let's hurry then," said Ramrod. Together, the three StratoStar fighters
engaged full afterburners and climbed into the evening sky.
... to be continued