The StormKeepers Chronicles
Volume IV "Masters of the Galaxy"

Copyright (c) 1998 by Low Ee Mien
All references to Hercs and the StarSiege Universe (c) 1998 Dynamix Corporation

Chapter 2 : The Winds of Chaos

Open terrain
16 km from HercBase #3
0947 hrs
Planet Mars
10 minutes before the storm

At a hundred kilometres an hour, it took the StormKeepers squad less than ten minutes to reach the edge of a gradual incline, looking down upon a vast expanse of featureless terrain, broken only by occasional outcroppings of lifeless rock whose edges have long since been blunted by millenia of wind and sand erosion.

Halfway across this forlorn-looking landscape, and coming ever closer, it was an awesome sight indeed that presented itself to the six-strong squad. There were exactly twelve Cybrid Hercs, moving swiftly across the open ground, sweeping up plumes of dust behind them that stretched back for dozens of meters. And each and every one of these incoming Hercs was unmanned, each one being controlled by an individual AI (Artificial Intelligence) of unprecedented sophistication.

A hundred years ago, Mankind, in the ever-accelerating quest for technological perfection, had outdone itself. Humans had, for the first time, created an intelligence, a machine intelligence, that rivalled their own natural capabilities. Prometheus, the first-ever self-aware machine intellect, and endowed with total, unquestioned, computerised control of military hardware had declared humankind obsolete and had begun a campaign of total genocide, creating thousands of cybertronic/electro-mechanical hybrid machines, Cybrids, whose sole purpose was to wipe and destroy out all organic life on Earth.

Thus began the first EarthSiege, and shortly after, EarthSiege II, where, in an extreme gamble, the bravest heroes that Earth could muster lept across the lunar gulf and hunted down Prometheus in its own lair, destroying its moon base totally, and with it, the Prometheus mainframe.

Or so they thought.

Today, Mankind's greatest technological achievement, and gravest mistake, came back to haunt again. The Cybrids that outnumbered the StormKeepers defenders today were the latest generation models, embodying within their cybertronic memories all the lessons learnt in the decades of warfare. And more. Prometheus did not begrudge its creations the very best from its arsenal, for economics meant absolutely nothing to a cold, calculating machine intelligence.

Thinking such morbid thoughts, [SK] Louie waited, more than a little impatiently, for the three minutes that it would take for the Cybrids to come within range. Opening a private communications channel to his counterpart Lollipop, he began, "Okay, activate..." Lollipop finished the sentence for him, "... C-Link.. yup, done."

The C-Link was one of the StormKeepers' own greatest breakthroughs - and darkest secrets. The term was actually short for C5 Link - Command, Control, Communications, Cybernetic and Counterpart Link. Embedded in the center of the brain, in between the left and right halves, and linking both of the halves in an intricate cybernetic network, with both machine and natural intelligence working together, it was tipped to be the ultimate in Herc MMI (Man-Machine Interface) control, and if the StormKeepers' Aldur had his way, it would be the model for the next stage in the evolution of Mankind. Rumour among the senior StormKeepers who were themselves privy to the very existence of the C-Link had it that Aldur Xacalon himself had it installed in Louie and Lollipop around the time when they were about to be listed as casualties in a massive Cybrid surprise assault that had rendered their Minotaurs massive piles of twisted junk on the Martian landscape. It was further rumoured that they were brought, comatose, barely alive, on board the fabled Darkstar, where they became the unwitting subjects of the "C5 Experiment".

As for the Darkstar itself, no-one, not even the most senior StormKeepers officers, knew what it really was. Scuttle-butt was that it was either an alien starship of unknown origin, an autonomous, living alien life-form, or a disembodied intelligence of immeasurable, non-physical power that shifted shapes as it willed itself in, and out of our universe. And there were those who said it was a combination of all of the above. Nobody really knew. Perhaps only the Aldur himself knew. Perhaps he did not.

There could have been even more subjects, more experiments than the C-Link technology which had been implanted into Louie and Lollipop. Half the Solar System away, on the frigid moon of Titan, it was said that a squad of so-called "Hi-Breds" was being put through their paces, and that the first "Hi-Bred" subject was none other than [SK] Shadow-Axe, who had likewise disappeared from Mars under mysterious circumstances and was not heard of again since.

Shrugging himself back into the present, [SK] Louie touched the base of his nondescript-looking Herc pilot's helmet, his finger locating a hidden button enmeshed in the internal foam padding. Out of sight, an unseen metallic connector reached out and touched the flesh behind Louie's right ear. Upon contact, one and a half square centimeters of synth-flesh dissolved, thanks to a miracle of nanotechnology, and a row of metallic contacts interfaced with the C5 Connector. Whispering the activation password in his mind, Louie made direct contact with the command computers in his Basilisk.

In less than a millisecond, Louie's world-view changed dramatically. The C-Link was activated. No longer was he sitting in a cramped cockpit with flashing lights and a Heads-Up Display in front of him. As far as he could discern, he was the Basilisk, standing ten meters tall, with senses linked directly to the Basilisk's far-flung array, stretching from the visible wavelengths, down into the thermal/infra-red, and up into the Gigahertz millimeter radar wavelengths.

To the right of Louie's Basilisk (14.53 m away, according to the Basilisk's enhanced sensors), Lollipop was undergoing a similar process. Louie could feel Lollipop staring back at him, even though he could not see him through the tinted, Transparillium cockpit. 20.26 m in front, Hanuman's sleek, black Basilisk stood at attention, surveying the upcoming battle scene. No doubt the squad commander was sizing up the enemy forces and forming a complex strategic plan of attack, master tactician that he was.

To Louie's left, Jeffr and Sinclair stood tall in their 32-ton Minotaurs, swiveling their weapons mounts and tracking the oncoming invaders. At the extreme edge of the group, Dire Wolf likewise tested the swiveling of his top-mounted, "lightning-bolt-on-a-leash", ELF cannon. Louie was not quite kidding to Dire Wolf earlier on about this one. He had Lollipop install the ultra-powerful ELF on the spare 18-ton Emancipator two weeks ago, "in case we need it some time later".

Presently, Hanuman sent the first part of his plan in an encrypted spread-spectrum burst of radio data to his squad of six. Hanuman never really divulged the entire plan all at once, that was his style, and prerogative of command. Besides, you don't really want to argue with a TempestAldur once you've been ordered to move out into battle.

Jeffr and Sinclair, together with Dire Wolf, would take on the four fast-moving 26-ton Bolo tanks in the front of the Cybrid group. Meanwhile, Louie and Lollipop would sweep through the frontal ranks and target the four Goads in the center, sowing chaos within the meticulously-ordered Cybrid formation, and, as Louie would usually put it, "wiping the smiles off the Goads' faces", though Cybrids had no real emotions whatsoever.

As for the four menacing, monstrous 70-ton Adjudicators hanging at the far end, and yet to come within range, Hanuman had other plans for them.. and for himself.

"Okay guys, it's party time.... CHARGE!!!!," Louie fairly shouted over the voice intercomm channel, a sentiment echoed by the whoops and "yee-ha"'s of the other pilots. Lollipop, permanently-cute guy that he was, sent a yellow smiley-face GFX image over the C-Link.

The five StormKeepers charged down the slightly-sloping incline. Sensing this, the lead Cybrid Bolos increased their speed, pouring in full power from their internal fusion reactors.

The battle was joined.

Meanwhile, un-noticed except by enhanced senses, the wind speed had picked up considerably over the last minute. Martian air that was still moments before had steadily become a whirling maelstrom of sand and dust. An F7 class full-force sand storm, the irregular but highly dangerous facet of the Martian climate, was blowing in from the north-east.

The Winds of Chaos had arrived, and a total of seven hundred tons worth of dueling Hercs would be caught right in its path, fighting on opposing sides, and against Nature itself for their very survival...

... continued