The StormKeepers Chronicles
Volume V "Rebel Conversion"

Copyright (c) 1999 by Low Ee Mien
All references to Hercs and the StarSiege Universe (c) 1999 Dynamix Corporation

Chapter 3 : Fly and Flight

my notes

Mole Research Labs
Mole Deep
Planet Mars

Piranha, piranha, it's more like a piranha...

The fully-rendered scale model of the Predator spun about in thin air, the product of an impressively realistic illusion brought together by multiple holographic projectors hidden in Roger's particular cosy little corner of Mole Research. An unseen array of Imtrax-Cyclone 8.5Gx32K massively-parallel processors provided the brute-force calculative power, down in the lab's main computing center two floors below.

His mind wandering, Roger made a small motion with his stylus. The spinning Predator went round, and round, faster and faster until it hit the targeted frame rate of 180 fps - a continuous blur of motion which made Roger instantly dizzy. Reaching out again, he dialed it back, changed a few settings, and watched the model spin in three views at once - isometric, top-down and sideways.

Should watch the Imps jump when they finally figure out how much resources this "Rebellion" really has.

The Free Mars Alliance or FMA had attracted all manner of "dusters" from all over the planet, from down-and-out ex-mercenaries on the run from the Empire, to skilled technicians fixing up the Hercs, to research and design engineers, like...

Roger always felt that there was more than a little bit of incongruity whenever he thought of himself as any sort of engineer. Losing everything dear to him in a freakish accident barely four months ago, including his parents, his home, his prized flyer-racer, and his long-distance college education account, he had thrown in his lot with the FMA when it became clear that there wasn't much else to do, or anyplace else to go, on the unfriendly, ever-dusty planet. It had always been a harsh environment, even after Mankind's grand terraforming efforts, still ongoing, that had only in recent memory started turning larger patches of the Red Planet into greens and blues. It was not much, but it was a good start. Similarly grandiose efforts were being made on Venus, but over there, it was even earlier days yet. The Oberwinds of Venus, fiercer even than the regular dust storms on Mars, regularly tore ships up with its unbridled rage.

Well, at least it's much safer here underground.

Roger Simmons, Mechanical Design Engineer, Propulsion Systems, of the Predator Project, finally got his mind back to work. The all-nighters were starting to get to him, but he couldn't quite help it. A rather strange biological cycle, which he knew was common among many engineers, dictated that he was at his prime only way past midnight - not that it made for that much difference anyway, in the windowless labyrinth at Mole Deep. Loading up yesterday's, or rather, the files saved from earlier in the morning, Roger started to go through the force-projection sim models all over again.

The problem seemed simple enough, yet proved more than intriguing enough in its layers of complexity. A floating battle-tank, built by parties unknown, with all the right proportions that seemed tailor-made for a Human-sized cockpit. It even came with spare parts and some kind of owner's manual, presumably, that even now was being feverishly decoded by Xeno-Linguistics two doors down the corridor.

Supported by alien anti-gravity drives, powered by a compact lightweight energy source that spoke volumes of some other unknown race's engineering ability, the original Predator was a remarkable work of technology that mere Human science could barely struggle to comprehend, let alone reproduce.

And that was precisely the problem.

Harabec's Super Predator, as this original model came to be known, was a find that was one-of-a-kind. The problem was making copies of it, and quickly enough, to help in the ongoing war against the Imperials - to give the Rebellion a fighting chance. But alien technology was not all that simple as setting up an assembly line and churning out look-alikes. Hunter knew, the guys down at Manufacturing probably had a dozen fuselage sections churned out already, but everyone was waiting for the Dev Team to solve a number of fundamental problems.

Flying along smooth as silk, Harabec's original Predator had no problems whatsoever negotiating all sorts of terrain, from dust plains to rocky hills. It barely made ripples over the small patches of water that it encountered. But when Roger's crew fitted a twin set of spare anti-grav drives into a reproduced Human Predator and tried to drive it around, the ride was bumpy enough to bruise the poor test pilot inside. It was then back to the drawing board for everyone.

A lot still had to be learnt in controlling those mystical anti-gravity waves that the drives produced. John Ghisler, the lab head, had explained this to Roger just a month earlier upon Roger's signing up with the project. Taking a flat piece of paper, Dr Ghisler had shown how AG-waves, or -particles as they behaved sometimes, pushed uniformly on flat surfaces, but reacted violently and non-linearly when faced with rough terrain.

"Anti-grav isn't just one free ride, one single mighty Force pushing you up against gravity. No, nothing like that. Think of it as lots of small forces, each wanting to push exactly this much, according to the amount of power you put into each element, or cluster of AG-modules. Control is the key. No control, no workable anti-grav."

Roger had thought back then, it was just like his Speeder III, balancing delicately on its four thrusters. But now, he was faced with a million elements or more, and the computing power to do all the required calculations was tremendous. Even if he were to somehow squeeze the entire Imtrax-Cyclone supercomputer into the Predator's bulky turret, Roger was not quite sure if it would be enough to do everything in real time. And that did not yet include the point that all those quantum-theory equations they had were only approximations and were barely adequate for the job at hand.

Roger threw himself into his work yet again, finding solutions, throwing down batch processes to the Cyclone array, until he was interrupted by Max Kayne's abrupt entrance into the pristine lab.

"Man, haven't you heard? Caanon's here!!"

"Finally, huh."

The name belonged to Caanon Weathers, sharing the same family name as Harabec. Two brothers on diametrically-opposite sides, one, an Imperial Knight with the Great Human Empire, and the other, a bona-fide Rebel with the Free Mars Alliance.

The arrival of Caanon meant that the Imperial Knights had been brought all the way to Mars to bear down on the upstart Rebellion - with the Grand Fleet itself not far behind. The rebels were going to be rapidly having their worst fears realised , unless some miracle were to assert itself.

"... and I tell ya frankly, mano-a-mano, we ain't got not much hope here unless you lab boys come up with something or the other, eh?"

Roger nodded. He knew full well what Max meant.

In the coming days, Roger and his Propulsion team worked at a pace beyond frantic, as they spent long days and sleepless nights designing, implementing and testing dozens of ways to solve the balance problem.

Field trials were stepped up. Xeno-Linguistics sent in tantalising bits of information from the "owner's manual" - as everyone called it. Manufacturing promised to churn out a dozen copies a day - "so long as you fix that bumpity ride, you hear??!"

Meanwhile on the frontlines, the news was grim, as the Imperial Knights pushed hard on the rebels who hung on tenaciously to each and every inch of territory as best they could. In the end, the sheer numbers, uncanny precision, and professional training of the Knights gave them the upper hand as zone after zone was taken down. From the first battle at Carter Flats, the rebels were driven every which way. The crucial city of Victoria was lost, and nearly the entire BDU - a merc squad under Harabec's employ - had to be left behind at Rio de Luz. Many a time, rebel groupings found themselves in an unenviable position - if they chose to stay and fight, they faced crushing defeat, or if they chose to take flight, they would only be driven elsewhere.

Admidst all these goings-on, the Mole Research teams continued their work. For many of the scientists and engineers holed up underground at Mole Deep, the war was still a rather distant thing, but with high hopes riding on Project Predator, time was running out as they transported their Human Predator from one location to another for terrain try-outs.

It was during one of these field trials that Fate finally caught up with them. Forty miles south of Melas, an advance Knight formation chanced upon the convoy ferrying the Predator team and pounced mercilessly.

Pandemonium ensued as autocannon rounds and high-energy projectiles flew everywhere as the Rebel Hercs closed ranks to protect their prized asset. The battle net was filled with shouted orders, frantic replies - and screams.

"There're too many of 'em!!"

"... get him off my tail, get him out.... crzzz..."

"... protect the Predator, Hunter-be-damned, who's driving it???"

Roger clambered out of the shotgun seat of the halted open-air rover whose driver had taken a shrapnel hit to the head. Averting his eyes away from the gruesome mess, he ran the remaining ten meters to the trailer where the Predator was parked. All around him, the very earth trembled with the footsteps of Hercs, mechanical giants which paced, circled each other, fought - and died, crashing to the ground in flames.

Right in front of Roger, he could see the cab with the Predator's test pilot inside careening down a steep incline. Its hydraulic system shot to pieces, there was to be no braking for the passengers in there till it hit bottom.

Wasting no time, Roger triggered the manual release control and climbed into the cockpit. Amazingly, the various systems were up and ready to go. Roger made a mental note to thank Dr Ghisler who had insisted on the test pilots "keeping the systems hot" in case of just such an eventuality. If he ever got out of this alive, of course.

The sensor screen was crowded with dots. Roger's mind went blank for an instant as he tried to remember the combat colors. Red is Bad, Blue is Good. At the moment, three Very Bad Red Dots were heading straight for Roger's position. Transient lines criss-crossed each other, indicating detected weapons fire. The fear-inspiring plink-plink-plink of autocannon rounds hitting armor got louder as the Imperial Apocalpyses found their mark.

Sweating bullets, Roger grabbed the controls and commanded the tank to fly. A couple of precious moments went by as he realised that the docking clamps holding the Predator close to the trailer were still engaged and he had to enter his remote key access code to blow them away.

Ride height set to 1.5 m ... reactor energy level at 85% and increasing ... anti-grav drives ready ... weapons system online...

Once on the move, the Predator moved like no other vehicle in existence. Instantaneously accelerating away, it raced past the enclosing circle of Imperial Apocalypses, Basilisks and Minotaurs threatening to hem it in.

Roger was no combat pilot, but he managed to surprise a Basilisk Knight pilot under attack from two sides. A couple of twin Heavy Blaster shots at the left knee joint, and the Herc went down. The Rebel Gorgon and Emancipator besieging it turned their attention elsewhere.

In a few moments' time, Roger was even beginning to enjoy his first baptism of fire on the battlefield when a fresh volley of firepower opened up on the western flank, taking down a rebel Avenger tank in the first three heartbeats.

"Christ and Hunter!! What was that??" Roger yelled into the headset.

"Heads up people, we've got more company..."

"Hey, look... is that... Caanon's crew...??"

"Roj, this is Max. I think you'd better get OUT of here."

"No way, Max! I'm staying!!"

"Now you listen to me, Roj. Dr Ghisler told me specifically that..."

The transmission was cut off as Max Kayne's Olympian got hit by a trio of Electro-Magnetic Pulse projectiles, scrambling its radio signals for a long moment.

Roger swung his turret, looking desperately around. Rebel Hercs and tanks alike were collapsing in on themselves, their pilots getting their rides shot out from under them.

He took two more precious seconds to decide. He could stay, and possibly help out as he had done in the two minutes before, adding blaster shots at an opening whenever he found one. At the rate things were going, he might last another half a minute, or so. And then he might also be dead, and the FMA would lose not only its prototype Predator, but also the Predator's chief Propulsion Systems engineer.

"Go, dammit, Roj, go!!!" Max was back on the line.

The Knights were near now. Roger could make out the distinctive reds of their skin colorations in the stark Martian sunlight. They were moving as one, stretched in a horizontal line for maximum weapons effect, picking out one target after another.

There was nothing else that could be done.

"Alright I'm going. Take care, Max. Seeya some time."

Roger turned the Predator on its nose, facing east. Engaging the turbo boosters, he leaned back into the seat as the Predator took him, just like his Speeder III had done a long time before, past 280 kilometers an hour.

Trying not to think of what had happened the last time he went this fast, Roger grimaced and concentrated hard to keeping the flying anti-grav tank on balance, and went on until he could no longer see the firefight on the horizon.

... continued