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Precision

PostPosted: Wed Apr 18, 2012 8:54 am
by The Trilobite
Precision

The marketplace was a sprawling mass of semi-permanent structures and canvas-covered galleries, densely packed with refugees, locals, militia, soldiers, and thousands of merchants, their numbers bolstered by those who had come from far and wide to profit from the ongoing conflict. Josephine grimaced, pulling her gloves on tighter and buttoning up her jacket despite the warmth of the sun. She paused, surveying her route and planning her avenue of approach, then entered the swarming mass of humanity.

She followed a sinuous path, taking long, elegant strides and turning sideways to cut through the crowd without touching them. She kept one hand on the hilt of her knife; everything else of value was buttoned away in the inner pockets of her double-breasted hunting jacket.

Her eyes flicked up at the signs, some written in the local language but most simple pictures, checking them off a mental list. She turned right at the great wooden pagoda where pigs and hares turned on spits, slipped between two other stands, and reentered the flow of people, moving toward her target along with the flow of those leaving the market, those who already had their goods.

She stopped across the way, picking up some sweet bread and roasted nuts from a food stall and watching out of the corner of her eye as she ate. Like almost every frame parts dealer, Wyori operated out of a converted hauler, cargo shell opened to display samples of his wares, with most of them tucked in a secure portion behind the display wall.

There were no loiterers, but that wasn't unusual. If you came to buy frame parts, you were serious--either a worker or a warrior, and even the military-grade supplies didn't draw more than the occasional disdainful glance from passerby. She looked up and down the path. A man and his daughter arguing with a dealer over a compact multiped, an overweight woman perusing the games at a gambling stall, an old couple taking a rest in a patch of sun. No one looked out of place. She went across to Wyori's.

"Ah, Josephine." Wyori was a weathered, pear-shaped man of unplaceable ethnicity. Josephine had first found him during the Salt Rebellion and since then, wherever she had fought, from Sadar to Procheskio, Wyori had always been there. The two of them clasped forearms briefly. "Good you came. You're looking for filters, right? Or maybe you want to pick up some more 101? I thought you'd be here, so..." his voice dropped to a confidential whisper, "...I got the good stuff. Clites Armor-Piercing. Original load. 75 of 'em, and they're yours for 1,900."

Josephine raised her eyebrows. That was almost factory price. And the Clites rounds had been made specifically with her 101 rifle in mind. With their original load, they offered highly consistent performance. She didn't hesitate. "Sold. And yes, the filters."

"Primary and secondary?" Wyori asked as he turned away, unlocking his security door.

"Both, yes."

"Okay then." The big man hefted the box of 101 millimeter rounds onto a dolly, placing the environmental filters in their tough plastic seals on top. "No backup secondary today?"

"Not after the 101s, Wyori. A girl has to eat."

Wyori's brown eyes crinkled, and he looked her up and down. A fit, slender woman, with raven hair and almond eyes, Josephine was taller than most frame pilots. She was dressed in high boots, a thick hunting jacket, low mountain cap, and as usual, her long gloves. "I'd buy you dinner--"

"--but I left my little black dress at home," Josephine finished.

"Well, maybe someday," Wyori said with a smile and a grin. "You can't keep fighting forever--"

"--and I could do worse than you, Wyori, I know." She took the dolly after he lowered it to the ground, handed him his payment, and went on her way, grateful to feel that his were the only eyes watching her as she rejoined the crowd.

Back at her truck, she flipped a coin to the boy who had been watching it. A scar ran across his face and under the patch that covered one eye. Raw-boned and wiry, he looked as tough as any highlander boy of his age, his remaining eye glaring. But the security, she knew, came not from any ability on the part of a nine-year-old highlander boy to deter potential thieves: instead her willingness to pay him showed she understood how things were done here. That marked her as one of the better outsiders, and that made her less likely to be troubled. The boy smiled and started to run back toward the huge collection of staked horses and tents of his village's temporary encampment, but Josephine called him back with a sharp whistle. He waited impatiently while she hefted the ammunition into her truck and carefully placed the filters in the cab. She thrust the dolly out at him and proffered another, smaller coin. "Wyori," she said, shaking the cart for emphasis. She didn't speak Njan.

"Wyori," the boy said solemnly, snatching the coin from her gloved hand and taking the dolly. He favored her with another smile and then went sprinting off, the dolly rattling chaotically behind him.

Josephine watched him for a moment, then looked at the encampment and the mountains beyond. The highlanders were most likely from Jacan Heights, the only other form of civilization within 200 kilometers and temporary home of a United Mars Foreign Legion squadron. Her target and that of the other freeframers closing on this area from all directions. She watched the thick-coated highlands horses grazing on the scrub grass, and the eldery and children tending to them while their families traded in the marketplace.

+++++

Josephine sat in the forest, a short distance from the meadow where the rest of the force was camped. Birds and insects sang around her, and high overhead she could sometimes hear the distinctive hissing whistle of a V-COG on close air patrol. She watched the forest around her, and the main camp, while her hands worked at tying handfuls of long meadow grass together. To each collection she added something from nearby piles of sorted miscellany: small boughs of pine; clumps of the long mosses which hung from local trees; ferns; a few flowering plants. Behind her were rows of finished pieces, sorted roughly by the height at which the extras appeared in the natural environment.

When she was done, these would be added to the camouflage netting that covered Precision, her C6 AMP. Precision, was a C51, the scout/sniper variant of the C6 AMP. It was one of the original production-line models manufactured in New Fresno before the destruction of the factory by Solar Union forces. The destruction of the factory hadn't accomplished much; the entire C6 line were rugged, simple frames, elegantly simple, and famous for their endurance as a result. Every C6 model had the vast majority of its parts in common with every other C6, and they were easy to swap out. Even the C6 V-COG patrolling overhead was a potential source of parts for her bipedal frame, despite being half the size and a made for close air support.

And the frames themselves were easy to manufacture, or at least approximate, using parts from ordinary labor frames. Before his capture (or escape, depending on who you believed) Rich Bamaeu, the President and chief designer of C6, uploaded comprehensive plans for the entire C6 line, including autolathe and industrial printer instructions and lists of alternate parts. As a result, C6s were a common sight throughout the Free Colonies. Josephine was proud to have one of the originals, and went out of her way to secure production parts and ammunition for her frame whenever she got the chance.

She carefully placed her prepared field materials in a shoulderbag and climbed nimbly up the outside of her frame. Resting on the shoulder, she began securing bundles of pine boughs and hanging moss, supplemented by meadow grass, to the camo netting there. The birds around her stopped signing, and she drew her pistol, turning around.

Lieutenant Mashido was walking toward her with long strides, swatting in annoyance at the cloud of bite-em's that hovered around anyone who hadn't rubbed stingweed into their clothes. She put her pistol away, slowly. "Chacaux," Mashido shouted. Something which had been grazing in the underbrush nearby went leaping away. She grimaced.

"Lieutenant." She climbed down in the hope that Mashido wouldn't shout anymore.

"The decision has come through on the attack timetable." He arched an eyebrow at her significantly. Eventually he got tired of waiting for her to ask and cleared his throat. "We assault Jacan Heights at 0425 local. Tomorrow morning."

Technically, he meant assault the United Mars Foreign Legion forces stationed at Jacan Heights, but she didn't quibble. Mashido got pedantic when contradicted and she wanted the briefing to be over as swiftly as possible. She already knew what the broad outline of her mission would be.

Without asking, Mashido spread out a map on the rock she'd been using as workbench and motioned her over. He thumbed the map, zooming in, and circled an area with his finger. "The main force will be attacking through from the southwest, crossing this tarn here and the marshes here, here, and here." He watched her, but stabbed the map for emphasis each time, causing the features in question to light up briefly. "We'll seize the funicular station and cut off the main garrison from the fuel bladders and ammo dump. Any escapees will be driven northwest, toward the river and this bridge...here."

Josephine studied the terrain as the Lieutenant continued to watch her, his finger stabbing the map repeatedly as punctuation. "The control of this bridge is crucial, and you will be in position in advance of the main operation to accomplish that." He leaned a little closer. "We don't want anyone getting out. The TTA will pay these people good money to learn about our disposition, our capabilities." She looked up at the V-COG, a dark speck moving below the thin clouds, then out at camp, where over a dozen freeframers and their mobile frames were parked. Freeframers who had come from as far away as Aruve, following word-of-mouth instructions, asking questions and buying supplies all the way.

Mashido followed her gaze, and then looked back at her. "We need the supplies they have in the region," He admitted, his voice low. "Can't let anyone take things out. I don't care if it looks like a military transport or not-- we can't take the chance that someone has ammunition or parts with them. Stop anyone driving over that bridge, got it?"

+++++

The bridge was stone, and looked as though it might have been as old as the colony itself. Two narrow spans arced across the canyon side by side, linked by a series of round platforms. The buttresses at each end looked like squat figures, maybe mythical animals of some type, worn by the elements until they were unidentifiable. The beasts held pyramids on their backs made of greenish stone laden with glittering flakes, totally different from the red, volcanic rock and sharp-edged boulders typical of the highlands.

Precision was in place on a forested ridge a little over a kilometer away and just under thirty meters higher. The ridge was heavily forested, and she had parked her frame in the kneeling position, her 101mm rifle covering the bridge. The path that led this way wound along a cliffside, so only portions of it were visible, but from here, looking at the bridge side-on, she could see a good seventeen meters of the approach and still have plenty of concealment. Her rifle barrel rested within the treeline, and she'd pulled camo netting out and over it, letting it drape down and adjusting it so that the pine boughs she'd carefully worked in aligned with those of the trees. After taking her position, she'd shaken the trees nearest her frame, bringing fresh needles down on her position, further concealing her frame and blending it with the local surroundings. From the bridge, especially in the dark, Precision should look like nothing more than a slight rise on the ridge with yet another pine tree coming up from behind it. She would have preferred some hard cover, but here at least she had good angle of fire, a pair of alternate firing positions, and an escape route covered by what passed for the group's security element.

The walls of the canyon were steep, dropping straight down with only the occasional thin overhang. Far below, the river was a narrow band of white water in the starlight. Bats filled the canyon and the skies above. While performing a systems check Josephine had taken a series of stills of various locations worked out their density. She estimated that between 1.4 and 2 million bats made their home in the stretch of canyon visible from her position.

People lived there too, or at least worked there: tiny huts were suspended from latticeworks of rope clustered under the overhangs. The ropes and attached ladders lead to the narrow crevices which lined the canyon walls. Neither motion nor heat signatures showed in any of the huts. Combined with their size and precarious location, this made Jospehine suspect that they were workrooms rather than living quarters, perhaps for people to collect bats or their droppings.

She was trying, and failing, to find flaws in the huts' precarious-looking suspension system when the explosions began. She turned up the speakers and listened. AF-12s, the standard anti-frame rocket pods mounted on V-COGs, firing rapid volleys in quick succession.

She flicked her eyes over the the chronometer. 0409. She frowned. More than fifteen minutes early and way off-plan: the gunships were supposed to be the reserve. Something had gone wrong. Something invariably did. There was little she could do about it; she could only concentrate on her part of the plan and hope that whoever had messed up hadn't thrown the entire schedule off course and murdered the rest of the strike force, herself included.

A moment later she head the rattle of heavy machineguns returning fire, followed by more rocket explosions. Then there was a single, sharp crack, felt through the soles of her feet even inside the frame at this distance: a railgun. As if the heavy weapon had been the cue, the firing began to swell into a low roar that made the individual weapons indistinguishable from each other. It was the sound of a frame assault, attackers rushing forward under a hail of fire and defenders letting loose at everything that moved.

It was impossible to get any more information out of the din at this point. Josephine steadied her breathing and focused on the bridge and its approach, keeping her mind aware of the screens in her peripheral vision that showed flank and rear views from Precision's cameras.

She waited.

Movement. A horse came around the cliffs, racing toward the bridge. The rider was a man, bent low over the horse, a sarape flying behind him. He wore unpowered armor, battered and missing its pauldrons, and had a hunting rifle at his side. The man had nothing else with him, and was riding flat-out. His bearded face was a mask of fear and concentration as he scanned the dark path ahead of him. Josephine held him in her crosshairs. He crossed the bridge.

As he passed out of sight, a group of four men rounded the bend, riding single file and carrying HV rifles. They rode a little more slowly, upright, rifles held comfortably. Sarapes partially hid their armor, old and battered as the scout's. The lead rider work a multioptics helmet three generations out of date, making him look as though some mechanical insect was clutching the upper part of his bearded face. They slowed as they reached the bridge. Josephine could see fuel canisters and net bags full of D-rations slung on their saddlebags. Her crosshairs rested on the rear rider's chest. A shot now would obliterate the man in front of him and leave almost nothing recognizable of the target himself, plus put two panicking horses in the path. The other two, even if they galloped across the bridge at full speed, would be easy targets from this angle.

She waited.

The men continued across the bridge, the rearmost rider waiting with his rifle unlimbered until his partners were across and out of sight. He gave a short call, like a screech owl, and then rode on, taking position at the far side of the bridge and turning back to cover it.

A woman in armor rode around the corner next, her horse laden with fuel, ammunition, and other supplies. Clinging to her back, trying to bury himself in her sarape, was a terrified young boy, little more than a toddler. The woman looked about with ready rifle and burning eyes, then waved to someone behind her before trotting her horse across the bridge.

A stream of riders followed. young and old, men and women, many of them doubled up on horses and almost all of them riding with or carrying children or infants. Lashed to their bulging saddlebags were replacement muscle cylinders, boxes of D-rations, HV rounds, grenades, blankets, cooking utensils, clocks, throw rugs, pillows, camp stoves, mechanical parts, tools, a rocking chair--all of Jacan Heights seemed to be here, crossing the bridge with their entire homes on horseback. The highland horses moved over the narrow bridge in the dark without complaining.

All but one. In the midst of the procession, one horse looked to be stumbling, veering toward the edge of the bridge before drawing back, tossing its head in irritation. Its rider was alone, covered in a sarape with some sort of rain hood drawn up and over his or her head. She could see heavy boots clutching the animal's flanks, with no sign of stirrups or saddle. Gauntlet hands held the horses' mane as if for dear life, and the horse's pelt rippled continuously at the unaccustomed pull. An old woman pulled up alongside the rider, looking over with a mixture of concern and suspicion. She spoke, but the rider attempted to wave her off.

The last of the group were in sight now, the lead elements beyond and vanishing around the cliffs once more.

Josephine let out a long, slow breath, and pulled the trigger.

The old woman jumped and her horse reared as the rider next to her vanished, his horse flipping onto its side and frantically righting itself. A moment later the woman and everyone else turned toward Josephine's position as the sound of the shot reached them. By then, Josephine had already relocated.

"Lion 2, this is Jaguar Actual," Lt. Mashido's voice came over the comm. "There are indications of targets heading toward your position. What is your situation, end?"

"Jaguar Actual, this is Lion 2. No sign of vehicles here, end." Josephine watched the bridge. They were really riding now, racing across the bridge, leaving possessions behind where they fell. The big highland horses trampled it all, but stepped delicately over one object, a twisted wad of cloth attached to a heavy boot. A boy rode across, bringing up the rear, clutching a hunting rifle and looking up toward her position with his one good eye.