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 10 : Whispers in the Pipeline

Richtersveld National Park
Midway along the Orange River
Namibia, South Africa
Planet Earth
1523 hrs

"I'm still not sure what we're supposed to be doing out here", muttered [SK] John as he climbed out of the sleek black Covert Orbital Personnel Insertion Module, COPIM according to official literature, re-nicknamed COFFIN according to SK's StormTrooper infantry who normally used them, usually amidst loud guffaws and sidelong "you'd be nuts to volunteer" looks.

During the long, bumpy drop down from Low Earth Orbit from one of the multitude of troop transports that belonged to the StormKeepers Fleet, John had been full of burning questions about this particular, strange-sounding mission. But radio silence, necessitated by StormAldur Tsoron's personal orders, as well as the fiery atmospheric re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, had cut off all possibility of asking questions enroute.

Opening a recessed panel embedded in the side of his own module, still warm from the tremendous friction of ripping through the thick layers of air, [SK] Ramrod glanced intently at the readouts before replying. The single-use force shields had held adequately for the trip. Punching a few buttons on the console, Ramrod set the self-destruct sequence, which in five minutes' time would use the remaining energies left in the personnel module to melt itself down, together with some help from specialised disassembler nanotech 'bots, leaving no traces of their approach to be found.

"Well, we're on a covert operation, right? Our orders are straightforward, more or less. Yours are even simpler - just cover me while we get in, and then we get the heck out of here", said Ramrod, armor-encased fingers clicking on a few more of the over-sized buttons, deploying a rectangular package from the underside of the re-entry vehicle.

Taking the package 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-18 energy clips on the left and a slim, contoured backpack behind. The weapons were fairly standard-issue for a modern high-tech soldier, the Standard Trooper Laser Assault Rifle version 7, also known as the Stella-7 after its initials, and the Personal Energy Clip which held the energy for 1800 laser bolts, which at 30 pulsed, vari-frequency shots per second allowed for one full minute of continuous fire.

In contrast to standard-issue 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... well, you're the boss, lead on", John performed a similar procedure on his end, and took another package from his own vehicle.

Ramrod started to sprint the kilometer and a half to the designated waypoint, the glowing route projected onto his faceplate by miniature holo-projectors which comprised the Helmet-Mounted Display. Following closely, at a power-augmented pace of some forty-seven kilometers an hour, John trailed behind, the pair stopping at an abandoned-looking outpost which guarded the mouth of a darkened tunnel that sloped down a gentle incline, seemingly into the depths of the earth.

At this point, the two armor-suited figures activated their low-light display mode, with the entire array of both active and passive sensors embedded into their high-tech helmets displaying a variety of information, the better to make up for the loss of visible sight in the dark interior of the railway tunnel. Wireframe representations revealed the dimensions of the tunnel, while ghostly blues revealed the coolness of the inner surfaces. Silver lines demarcated the magnetic-levitation lines, to the junction where they joined the main maglev railway 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, carrying miners for the 76-km ride to the mines. During the daytime, a different set of carriages would be carrying raw ores back to the town for processing, sifting through the hundreds of tons of soil and extracting the precious stones from the rich deposits washed down from the Kimberly diamond-bearing areas by the Orange River millions of years ago.

Carefully, the StormKeepers put down the packages they had been carrying onto the rails. Sensing the magnetic fields embedded in the rails, the rectangular platforms activated, lifting themselves up to knee level. Steering columns levered themselves up, with hand grips swinging out gracefully from the sides of the columns. Leaping on to the maglev pseudo-carriages, Ramrod and John twisted the handlebars, accelerating themselves to 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..."

The proximity warning that screeched in their helmets and threatened to deafen the two would-be 'Troopers gave them barely two seconds of time left in which to click the undeploy buttons on their individual maglev platforms and fling themselves on their stomachs to the deck, before a multi-ton, ore-laden carriage careened past them, another wagonload of raw materials headed to Kubus for processing. The bottom of the train had missed their backpacks by mere centimeters. Intense magnetic fields played havoc with their Powered Armor's systems, heavily-shielded though they were, for more than a few seconds after the train passed by. Bluish-white lightning played itself around the exterior of the suits and promptly disappeared into the darkness, as sudden as it had come.

Propping himself slowly into a sitting position, John took a long while to regain his composure before remarking ruefully to his partner, "Darn, I think we're both too old for this stuff..." Chuckling softly, Ramrod patted John on the back, "Come on, we'll have to carry on, we still have halfway more to go. Be careful, okay, buddy... take it easy, no sweat. All systems okay? Good, then, let's get to it."

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, hovering in the air, which bounced 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.

Disengaging his backpack, Ramrod got down to work, fishing out a handheld portable laser drill of his own and began lasing at a spot outlined by his helmet's displays, from precise global X/Y/Z co-ordinates handed to him by Tsoron himself.

John looked around nervously, fingering his laser rifle, detached from his thigh and unholstered now, covering Ramrod as planned, while the latter calmly finished his business, extracting a roughly circular sphere of rock from the hole he had dug, and putting it into his backpack.

Next, Ramrod took out another piece of rock which he had apparently been carrying all along in his backpack, and shoved it back into the crevice. Setting the drill to another mode of operation, Ramrod fused the crack closed, smoothening it over with a few final blasts. Putting back his tools, Ramrod re-attached the backpack to his armored suit.

[SK] John couldn't contain himself any further. "Just what the heck are we doing skulking around here? I'm not at all into all this, this... cloak-and-dagger stuff, you know."

"It is only honorable that we put back something of value in return for what we have taken. It is our way, and the 'Aldur's wishes. Now we have gotten what we have been... entrusted with. Let us return", Ramrod was uncharacteristically cryptic today. John wondered if Ramrod's hour-long personal briefing with the Leader of the StormKeepers back at Headquarters had made him that way. Perhaps it was an earth-shaking revelation about the job they were doing today. Or something.

After a brief check to ensure that they had taken all their personal belongings with them, John and Ramrod stole past the busy workers at the still-stationary train again, re-deployed their hovering platforms and whizzed back to their starting point.

It looked like it was going to be a cakewalk, but it turned out that whilst emerging from the side-tunnel, they bumped right into a roving patrol, a rag-tag bunch of mercenaries really, hired by the De Beers Corporation which owned the large majority of diamond mines in the area. The patrol was a recent security measure against pro-green environmentalists, or rather, activists, which had been sabotaging maglev operations in the past six months, charging that De Beers had been destroying entire patches of prime cultivatable land in its mining forays into the rich alluvial region of the Orange River.

The ensuing fire-fight that followed was decidedly one-sided, although the StormKeepers were hampered by the fact that they really did not wish to have anyone killed. A bunch of twenty-five green-fatigued 'Mercs, 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 rifles, calmly taking the hail of bullets that bounced like raindrops off their suits while aiming carefully and decisively to shoot to injure, and not to kill. 'Mercs dropped like stones, clutching busted shoulders, or hobbing away on kneecaps shot out from under them.

The whine of aircraft engines, and an even deadlier stream of 30-mm autocannon shells fell from the sky which ripped the surrounding vegetation into shreds, scared the rest of the 'Mercs away, screaming as they left as best as they could, not wanting in the least to argue with a trio of StratoStar air/space fighters which had appeared without warning in the skies above them.

Ramrod was positively ecstatic with joy. He waved enthusiastically, "[SK] Huh? !!! You've come just at the right time!! Alright!! Yes!! And thanks for bringing the ride, buddy-boy!!"

John was mightily impressed. [SK] Huh? had slave-controlled two StratoStar fighters to his own, and was even now remote-operating both of them to settle down to a soft landing on the ground, opening their canopies as they did so. It took a lot of co-ordination to fly a single jet fighter, let alone three at a time. He was also suprised, and glad that Huh? had been thoughtful enough to rip out the standard seats and install bulkier ones suited for pilots decked out in full Powered Armor suits. Taking the controls, John lifted the air/space fighter into the evening air, and together with Ramrod and Huh? engaged full 'burners, skimming the ground on the next phase of the journey - the return back to StormKeepers Headquarters.

Taking the differing time zones into account, [SK] John figured that they should be able to get back in time for dinner...

... continued