The fiery orange rays of the setting sun seared through the horizon's ash-gray clouds as I guided Angelfire over the last set of hills. The Hughes WK-2 Stallion helicopter dipped gracefully in descent, hugging the crest line closely to minimize the radar signature. My flight path was just skirting the border between Fort Lewis and the Salish council lands, so it would be a good idea for me to keep my head down.
My flight destination was Smuggler's Valley, a valley nestled in these hills, seated just beyond the Seattle Metroplex in Salish lands, near the town of Tenino. I was flying there to deliver a package to some t-bird smugglers en route to Denver. Smuggler's Valley used to be a quarry back when this was still part of the old United States, but it closed shop before the area became tribal land. The tailings in the quarry contained a lot of iron that messed up radar, which combined with the rolling hills in the surroundings, made for a perfect hiding place for t-bird smugglers running from Athabaska to Denver.
As I turned to swing around a rock outcropping, I felt a simsense-induced stiffness in my lower leg. Angelfire's vehicle rig was warning that the tail rotor was acting improperly, but I already knew that. While I was leaving the Tacoma docks on this trip, a Yakuza gang hit the people I was picking up from, and Angelfire took a hit in the tail rotor. The damage wasn't serious by any stretch, but it made turning and maneuvers a little balky.
All of a sudden warning klaxons blazed in my ear as a spray of crimson washed over my sight. Someone was painting Angelfire with radar, causing the copter's sensor warning receiver to scream its head off. Looks like the folks I was supposed to meet are just as edgy as I am.
With the twinkle of a thought, I called up the communications menu, selected the digital transponder, and ordered transmission of the preselected code I had received. A second later the cone of red transformed to a cerulean blue, as the radar recognized me as a "friendly" rather than a potential hostile.
Reassured I wouldn't get shot down while landing, I crested the last ridge as the quarry opened up below me. Two t-birds sat in one section of the rocky pit, a pair of olive drab pillbugs scavenging at the bottom of a rocky-gray flower pot. One had several panels removed for repairs, and on the other I saw visible blast marks on the hull. Seems pretty obvious just why they were so edgy.
Within the simsense environment of Angelfire's rig, I leaned back and spread my arms. The helicopter responded by descending down into the quarry, opposite from the two t-birds. As the walls of the rock pit rose above me, I slowly brought my arms to my side, slowing the copter's rate of descent. By the time my arms met my waist, Angelfire touched down with all the impact of a feather falling on the skin of a custard. I exhaled slowly, and the whine of the engines faded as they powered down.
As I unjacked from the system, my mind attuned itself back to a body left unattended for the past half hour. I removed the flight helmet and undid the ponytail holding my hair together, letting the auburn curls fall freely to my shoulders. Stretching my arms as I hopped out of the cockpit, I straightened my synthleather flight jacket and adjusted the pistol belt hanging at my waist. These smugglers only knew me by reputation, so it was important to convey a striking first impression. I turned towards the t-birds, my boots making a scrunching along the ground as I walked over the loose gravel.
Two of the smugglers, an ork and a woman, were coming to intercept me halfway across the quarry. Although their hands were empty, I could see their sidearms hanging ready at their waists, with holsters unstrapped should they need to draw quickly. I kept my own hands open, freely swinging with each stride, but I made sure my gun hand didn't stray too far from my Predator. Neither of us really wanted a fight, but neither were we going to back down. Showing weakness shortens one's career in the shadows pretty quickly.
The ork was the first to break silence. "You Josie Cruise?"
"Depends," I answered noncommittally, "you one of the Sooners?"
The woman frowned skeptically as she sized me up. "I thought you had died."
"Twice." I smiled as I glanced at her over the top of my mirrorshades. It seems like the reports of my last run-in with the UCAS Air Force were still circulating around.
"I don't think there's any need for that," a voice interrupted. A man in greased-stained coveralls appeared behind the duo. "I heard about your little run-in over McNeil Island. Your reputation precedes you, Ms. Cruise."
"Not as much as yours does, Johnny," I replied as I took his outstretched hand in mine. Johnny Come Sooner had achieved something of a legendary status amongst riggers in the Seattle Metroplex. Long before even I had started running the shadows, Johnny had been jamming t-birds over the Continental Divide smuggling contraband from Seattle to Denver and back again.
"Actually, I'm glad you're here," said Johnny, as his face assumed a grave look. "Can you fly a t-bird? I lost my wingman on the way down here, and I need someone to fly the Silver Bullet tonight." He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder at the dinged-up t-bird behind him.
"It's been a while, but yeah. Terms?" I wore my best poker face. Business was on.
"Fifteen percent of the cut on arrival at Denver."
I let out a small laugh. "If you pay third-stringer rates, no wonder you lose wingmen. Twenty-five percent."
Johnny's face didn't register at all. "Twenty percent."
"Thanks. Between Ghostwalker and this Salish war, it hasn't been safe to fly the Rockies solo." Johnny's face broke out in relief as he gestured to the ork. "This is Phil. He'll be your gunner and will be providing magical overwatch for us."
"Pleased t'meetcha." The ork rumbled. He extended his hand, but at the last moment balled it into a fist and swung a slow punch. Tuned to the game he was playing, I deftly blocked the punch with one hand, sidestepped, and gave a light elbow tap with the other arm. Caught off balance, the ork fell forward, and a cloud of dust arose as he hit the dirt. He chuckled quietly as I pulled him up. "Not bad. You just might work out after all."
"This is Clio. She's our navigator and my gunner." Johnny gestured to the woman on the right. She said nothing but simply nodded curtly. Ice queen personality, so it would seem.
I jerked my thumb back towards Angelfire. "When do you want me to start loading up the cargo?"
"Soon. We take off at dusk."
"Hey! Jo-girl!" shouted Phil from inside the Banshee. "You finished with that pre-flight check? Clio's screaming at me over the radio!"
"OK! OK! I'll be there as soon as I finish checking the sensor dome," I hollered back. Once I closed the inspection hatch over the dome, I walked to one side and climbed the handholds leading up to the pilot's hatch.
As I was strapping on the flight helmet, the engines of Johnny's Banshee purred to life as he began warming up his t-bird. Thanks to the built-in hearing protection, however, what would normally be the Banshee's deafening signature scream came across as merely a muffled whine.
I swung my legs down the hatch and lowered myself into the pilot's seat. It was a very tight squeeze, as I contorted my body around the various instrument panels and control banks. I pulled the hatch above closed tight, entombing myself deep in the belly of the bird.
Engulfed in near-total darkness with illumination from only a few monitors, I connected the datacord from the flight helmet into the primary control panel at my right hand. A myriad of colors washed over the cabin, as the simsense module activated and ran through its startup routine. The darkness of the cabin dissolved into a panoramic view of the quarry outside. A number of virtual controls appeared at my fingertips, floating in midair above my lap. I keyed the communications "panel" and brought up the internal intercom. "Phil, JC here. How do you read me?"
"Gotcha Lima Charlie, Jo-girl," replied a disembodied voice; Phil's flight lingo told me he heard me loud and clear. I keyed the panel again and selected radio comms. "Speedy Delivery, this is Angelfire," I said, using my own callsign. "Commo check, over."
Johnny's voice crackled in my head. "Lima Charlie, Angelfire. You take off first and provide overwatch, over."
"Wilco, out," I replied in compliance. I concentrated and visualized a red sphere before me. The sphere expanded rapidly until it consumed my view. A few moments later, the field of red dissolved into a panoramic display of the outside environment, as the full simsense interface came on line.
Currently my virtual body was crouched on the ground. I imagined myself crawling away from Johnny's Banshee on my hands and knees, and in the distance I could feel a slight nudge as the t-bird responded in real time. Once I was halfway around the rim of the quarry, I turned to face the center and looked up, to make a final check for aerial observers before taking off. I saw nothing except a hazy red and green glow to the northwest, residual emissions coming from the Metroplex in the distance.
With a sudden burst of motion, I launched forward, like a sprinter out of the blocks at the crack of the starter pistol. I sprinted at breakneck speed, the ground passing rapidly beneath the t-bird. As the opposite edge of the quarry loomed before me, I took a tremendous leap upwards, and the t-bird pulled up, while the walls of the quarry fell away.
Spreading my arms to my sides, I twisted upward, and the t-bird climbed higher and banked right in a slow and lazy arc. I watched below as Johnny's Banshee made its takeoff from the quarry. As the Banshee rose level with me in the sky, Clio's dispassionate voice came over the radio. "Angelfire, this is Starchild. Set your autonav to waypoint one at this time."
"Wilco, Starchild. Angelfire out." With the glimmer of a thought I relayed Clio's order to the t-bird's autonavigation system. In the darkness to the south, a single green dot flashed in my sight, indicating the point we were flying to. A series of numbers and hatch marks floated above my eyes, indicating the azimuth and heading. I watched Johnny's Banshee bank right towards the dot, before turning myself to fall in behind and to the left of Johnny, as we sped quickly into the evening twlight.
We reached our first waypoint, Mt. Rainier, about an hour later. I sprinted ahead of Johnny to clear the way, then swung in a lazy circle around the volcano. The mountain, dormant until Howling Coyote conjured his Great Ghost Dance some forty-odd years ago, glowed burgundy red on the thermographic overlay; however, radar and low-light scanning indicated nothing else out of the ordinary.
I continued my lazy swing around Rainier as Johnny approached the waypoint. As I spread the arms of my virtual body slightly, the throttle of the t-bird eased, allowing me to complete the circle and fall back in position on Johnny's wing. Our t-birds banked in synchronicity around the same curve I had traced previously. As we passed the arc's southern crest, Johnny and I slingshot eastwards, flying headlong like a discus leaving its thrower's hands.
From the corner of my eye I thought I saw something moving behind us. As I turned my head to look back, the visual scanners panned accordingly, until I was watching Mt. Rainier fade into the night. My vision was awash in color, as the orange haze of my own jetwash mixed with the umber glow of the mountain, but I nevertheless spotted what my intuition had caught: a heat signature rising from the mountain's base and settling into the trail directly behind us.
"Hey, Phil, heads up," I warned on the intercom. "We got company. He's using background heat from the mountain to mask his presence from us."
"Yeah, I see it." Phil's disembodied voice fell momentarily silent. "It's not magical, whatever it is. I just did an astral scan."
"Gotcha." I mentally keyed the radio. "Speedy Delivery, this is Angelfire. I've got an unknown behind us, Johnny. Bearing two-six-four, on a direct intercept from behind. Over."
"Roger, Josie, I see him," replied Johnny. "Let's see if we can--"
"Break, break, break," interrupted Phil into our conversation. "Ghost Rider here. We got another two contacts, flying behind the first in V-formation. They're flanking by a couple hundred of meters, looks like. Over."
Two more contacts? I broke my attention and took another look back. I couldn't see anything at first, so I cranked up the Low-Light amplification on the video. As the night sky brightened into an artificial green, I saw three specks in the distance where there used to be one. White boxes began to form over them, as the sensor's target recognition software began processing the telemetry for tracking.
"This is Angelfire, that's an affirmative on the new contacts," I reported. "Signature analysis indicates the lead bogey to be an Aztechnology Liebre pursuit UAV. The other two look like Wandjina combat drones. Wait... " I zoomed the visual display, until I could get a good look at all three. "... Visual confirmation on a set of ATGMs on each Wandjina. My guess is Outlaw Block IIs. Looks like they're t-bird hunting, Johnny."
"Copy, Josie. Those drones don't have good range, so let's try to outrun--" A high-pitched whine interrupted Johnny's broadcast, as the SWR screamed bloody murder. "Drek! We got painted! Break off, Angelfire, and splash those three bandits."
"Wilco, Speedy Delivery, out." I closed the communications window and mentally rearranged the simsense display for combat configuration. "Hang tight, Phil, time to go to work."
Doing a backwards somersault with my virtual body, I commanded the t-bird's thrusters to kick into reverse. The aircraft jerked suddenly and momentarily lost altitude as the jets worked to halt the craft's forward motion. Within a few seconds, the t-bird was hurtling at full speed in reverse. Meanwhile the three drones, apparently intent on bagging Johnny's Banshee, continued flying forward and passed straight over me.
"Phil, you get the Liebre with the gun. It's probably a spotter for the two tank hunters," I instructed over the intercom. "I'll take care of the wing drones."
"Gotcha, Jo-Girl," replied Phil. A half second later, a loud noise exploded above my head, as tracer rounds buzzed like psychotic fireflies toward the lead drone.
At the same time, I balled both of my virtual hands into fists, activating the missile fire control system and arming two Vogeljäger air-to-air missiles. Concentrating on the Wandjina to the right, a green diamond materialized into view and zigzagged around until it centered on the drone. When the diamond came to rest, a continuous tone squealed in my ear, indicating target lock. I swung one arm forward, my hand opening as it tossed an invisible softball. In the real world, one of the two AAMs launched from the internal missile tubes and hissed as it spiraled ahead.
Once the first missile was under way, I focused my concentration on the second drone, and the green diamond moved from right to left. When the lock tone sounded again, I swung forward the other arm, and a second Vogeljäger launched and spiraled leftwards.
No sooner was the second missile under way when a fiery orange blossom erupted, as one of the tracer rounds from Phil's autocannon ripped through the Liebre's fuel tanks. A few seconds later, the first Vogeljäger connected, as the missile spiraled below the underbelly of the right Wandjina. The missile exploded, sending hot shards through the unmanned craft's underbelly. Several shards penetrated the fuel tanks, causing the drone to vanish in a ball of fire.
But as I turned to watch the other missile take down the last drone, the SWR trilled, warning of radar lock. Without seeing who was painting us, I instinctively twisted into a swan dive.
"Hey!" shouted Phil with a curse. "Wadjatink yer doin', Jo-girl?"
"We got another bandit, Phil, just showed up outta nowhere and painted us with his sensor," I shouted back through the intercom. Looking around to see where the other guy was, I located him when the missile he launched showed up behind our tail.
"Phil! Seeker at six!" I shouted. Immediately the auto-defense systems ejected a chaff bundle of aluminum strips to confuse the missile's radar seeker, while Phil swung the turret around in an attempt to down it. As I mentally switched on the Electronic Countermeasure systems to jam the missile, I simultaneously cut engine power. I could almost feel my stomach jump into my throat, as the thunderbird plummeted several thousand meters, stabilizing only a hair's length above the ground.
Hugging close to the ground, I zigzagged around several hills. By doing this I momentarily broke sensor lock, indicative by the irregular stopping and starting of the alarm. Coupled with ECM, this confused the missile long enough to lose lock, and it wandered off into the night.
"Where is he?" asked Phil. "Didja see who it was?"
"It was another Banshee, Phil," I replied. "I managed to get a visual ID as he got that off."
"Drek!" cursed Phil. "Another Banshee? Our Vogeljägers ain't going to be effective against its armor."
"Yeah," I muttered. "And with his Outlaw antitank missiles, he can snipe at us all day while staying out of range of our autocannon. Hang on!"
I made a sudden dive, directing the t-bird into a valley. The low hills clustered in this area provided a lot of dead zones that would hide us from the other t-bird's sensors. This would force him to come in searching after us.
"Keep your eyes peeled for him, Phil," I warned. "It's going to take all of my concentration to keep us from flying into the hillside."
"Gotcha, Jo-girl," complied Phil. I maneuvered the t-bird over the center of the valley and followed the winding course of the river burbling through it, heading approximately east to northeast.
I switched off the ECM and switched on the electronic deception module. ECM is only an electronic smokescreen, and anyone can figure there's someone present, somewhere in the digital haze. Electronic deception, or ED, was more insidious, manipulating signals through waveform interference. It wouldn't make us invisible, but it could fool the other Banshee to thinking we were heading north instead of south, or flying fast instead of slow.
Turning to clear a hillside spur, I suddenly found myself facing the enemy Banshee. Apparently he was as surprised to see me as I was of him, because he veered left to avoid crashing into us. The alarm blared briefly as I reflexively swerved the other way, but the snap shot he got off was wildly inaccurate and veered off-target. I turned and climbed further to the right to leap over the crest of the ridge line.
As we passed over the top, I pulled back hard on the throttle, cutting power once again. The other side dropped off steeply, and so did the t-bird. I adjusted the jets down and forward, effectively halting forward motion. Only the ground effect from the turbine fans kept us from crashing to the ground so dangerously close underneath. I flipped on the intercom. "Okay, Phil, get ready. Swing the turret forward and angle up."
Just as I spoke the other t-bird passed overhead as it crested the ridge. But instead of dropping down and hugging the terrain like we did, the enemy Banshee maintained its altitude and stayed high, to get a better field of view.
"Bad move, chummer. Sic 'im, Phil!" Immediately Phil opened up with the autocannon, raking a full stream of cannon shells along the other t-bird's underbelly. A small explosion popped from one side as a shell hit a critical system. Shuddering out of control and belching black smoke, the enemy t-bird careened headlong into a small hill. A ball of orange flame lit up the night sky, which on the Low-Light vision made the valley brighter than the noonday sun.
Adjusting the jets back, I started our own Banshee moving forward again. Shades of red crept into my green-tinted Low-Light vision, as the burning wreckage started igniting the woods around. I turned to get back on course, flying low and slow to make sure no one else was trailing us. After a few minutes of seeing nobody, I loosened up on the throttle, allowing the t-bird to pick up speed and rise over the hills.
I flipped on the virtual intercom. "Think we're in the clear now, Phil."
"Whew. That's a relief," said Phil. "That other Banshee almost had our number good."
"Yeah," I nodded. "I think he may have been waiting for us."
"How do ya figure?"
"You know how he surprised us after we made the turn? I figure he must have been using Mt. Rainier as a cover." I reasoned. "As we were coming in from the northwest side, he was hiding on the southwest. As we turned, he turned to keep the mountain between us, until he was behind us when we straightened out. Clever bastard."
"Sneaky," admitted Phil. "Ya know, something's been bothering me about this trip."
"What's that?" I asked.
"Well, I dunno," Phil hesitated. "You know that Gonzales, the guy you replaced, got waxed on our way to Seattle, right?"
"Yeah." I don't think I was going to like what he would say next.
"Well, we were just crossing through Tsimshian when Johnny got tagged before, almost the same as now," Phil said. "Gonzales and me dropped back to take care of the bandit, when we got bushwhacked by an anti-aircraft track. They hit us with a zapper missile, which fried Gonzales' brain. I've got backup controls up here, but they're manual, and the only reason I got away was dumb luck."
"You saying you were set up?" I asked suspiciously.
"I dunno. It seems weird this happening the same way twice." A long silence ensued before Phil changed the subject. "We better hurry up and catch up wit' Johnny. He must be a hundred or so kilos ahead of us."
"Roger that, Phil." I cut loose on the throttle, and the Banshee roared ahead into the early evening horizon.
I eased back on the throttle as the t-bird crested the last hill, the final obstacle between us and the rough banks of the Snake River. In the grainy green vision of the Banshee's night-vision sensors, however, it appeared like a wide black ribbon directly in front and below, an irregular liquid blacktop highway belonging to Mother Nature. The remote location of our rendezvous, sixty kilometers away from curious eyes of Richland in the Salish-Shidhe, was uneven and broken, so the only flat stretch available to land for several kilometers was the Snake River itself.
I brought my arms in and leaned slightly to the left in a gentle glide. In response to my virtual body movements, the t-bird's vehicle control rig eased back on the port jets and angled the starboard jets outward. This caused the t-bird to yaw leftwards, until our flight path angled about 20 to 30 degrees to the right of the river's course.
I spread the arms of my simsense body out and straightened my virtual legs below me. The t-bird responded by extending the rear canard flaps and lowering its landing gear. As the nose passed over the water, I cut all power to the maneuvering jets and redirected them into the vertical jets. A giant fan of steam and spray blossomed behind the t-bird like a peacock's plumage at the height of mating season. As speed drained from the bird, the wheels on the landing gear briefly caressed the water's surface, and the aircraft bounced upward, a 30-ton stone skipping across the river's surface.
This gave the t-bird momentum to cross the far side of the bank, barely. The front landing gear plunged into the burbling water, but before the underbelly could meet the river's embrace, the running wheel clawed the gravelly bed of the river. In seconds it emerged from the drink and rolled upon the gravelly beach. By the time the rear wheels touched down, the t-bird had cleared the waters, leaving nothing but spray to moisten the rear tires.
As the engines dwindled to a gentle purr, I redirected the exhaust back into the maneuvering jets, allowing the t-bird to roll off the beach and over the ridge into a nearby clearing. Waiting for me there was a fuel tanker and a Bulldog panel truck, property of our refuel and refit team. At the edge of the t-bird's Low-Light vision, I saw Johnny's t-bird lurking in the darkness, like a giant steel puma peering on a herd of deer in the opening.
As my Banshee entered the clearing, a person wearing Low-Light goggles jumped off the back of the fuel truck and ran towards my vehicle. He switched on a pair of torchlights and began guiding me into parking position. Once I had piloted the Banshee into satisfactory position, the ground guide raised his torches above him in an "X." He then brought one light down across his neck, in a slitting motion, before killing both lights.
I powered down the engine in response to his signals. As the engines' purr gave way to silence, the vehicle control rig began its shutdown sequence, relinquishing consciousness back into my meat body. A wave of aches and stiffness washed over me as the virtual world melted away into the real one. I stifled a groan as I reached up to activate the dome light and switch off the last few manual controls.
Unjacking the datacord from the vehicle, I slowly climbed upward and released the hatch lock. The hatch swung upwards, as the cool night air descended into the warm cabin confines. Climbing up and out, I pulled off my helmet, allowing my long auburn hair to fall freely.
"That was some crazy stunt ya pulled there, Jo-girl," rumbled a low voice from behind me. I turned around to look at my ork gunner, who sat on the edge of his hatch and stretched his gigantic arms. "Next time ya try sumthin' like that, lemme know first, so I can put on my swimming trunks, 'kay?"
"O ye of little faith. We're here in one piece, aren't we?" I teased. Phil grunted something unintelligible in return.
As I climbed down the ladder, the fuel truck pulled up alongside the t-bird. One of the men in the truck ran over to me, while the others pulled a hose toward the Banshee's fuel cap. I jerked my thumb over my shoulder back toward the Banshee. "Fill 'er up. While you're at it, check the tires and clean the windshield?"
In the dim light, I could almost make out a smile on the crew chief's face. "Would you also like me to check the oil?"
"Nah. I got a million-kilo tune-up next week, I'll check it then."
"You got it," said the crew chief with a mock salute. He then turned to attend to his crew. "Okay, you guys, let's move with a purpose! Lady's got a plane to catch."
"Hey Phil, I'm going to go find Johnny," I called out to my partner. "You hang around and check for battle damage. Oh, and see if we can get some heavier ordnance."
"Gotcha, Jo-girl!" Phil's voice faded in the distance as I made my way over to Johnny's t-bird.
I ran into him halfway there, as he was walking over to come see us. "I'm glad to see you're still with us, Josie."
"Yeah, so am I." I recounted to him our dogfight with the other Banshee. Johnny's brow widened as I told him what Phil and I suspected.
"Are you saying someone set you up?" Johnny asked incredulously.
"I'm just saying it's an awfully strange coincidence we got bushwhacked twice the same way," I replied evenly. As the newcomer to this crew, I wasn't in a position to be leveling accusations. "You don't work for anyone, do you?"
Johnny shook his head. "No, we're completely independent, like most smugglers. Most of my logistical contacts, like the guys refueling your bird, I've worked with for several years, so I can trust them."
"Well, to get that good a drop on us, twice, someone had to have known our route in advance. I hate to say it, but it's the only thing that makes sense," I concluded.
Johnny shrugged and changed the subject. "I gotta go over and pay the refit guys and talk to Phil. Have you gotten the latest navigation data from Clio?"
I shook my head. "No, not yet. Something up?"
"Clio just got off Shadowland and told me there's been a recent raid by Tir forces against Rinelle rebels around Seneca," Johnny noted. "That's a little too close to us, so I thought we'd take a more easterly route."
"I'll head over and download the mapchip overlay from her."
I clambered up the handholds on Johnny's Banshee to get to the turret hatchway. I could see a trio of ghostly rectangular eyes blinking randomly at me; Clio must be busy with the monitors in her cabin, and some of the monitors' illumination escaped out around the hatch window slits.
As my boots clomped on the t-bird's top, the hatchway opened and Clio emerged from below. The display monitors inside bottom-lit her silhouette, making her ascent like a restless phantom from its grave.
"I have new navigational data for you." Clio's voice had as much life as the ghostly illusion.
I held up my hand to interrupt her. "I know, I talked to Johnny. You have a map chip for me?"
"Wait a moment." Clio descended down the gunner's hatch in as ghostly a manner as she had risen. I glanced down the hatch and saw a multitude of consoles, far more than necessary for an ordinary gunner and making the normally roomy turret as cramped as the pilot's seat. I had already guessed that Clio served double-duty for Johnny as both navigator and decker. (Quite normal with most smuggling groups, who hack weather and navigational satellites, not only for the latest forecast, but also to spy on border activity.) Confirming my guess was the tricked-out Fuchi Cyber-8 sitting to the left of the gunner's seat, a deck with so many modern upgrades that belied its antiquity.
Clio's hand suddenly appeared in my face as she thrust a mapchip out to me. "Here's the new route overlay. It will take us through an area with high paranimal activity. You should prepare for opposition."
I took the chip from her. "Well, at least the paracritters shouldn't bushwhack us."
I couldn't see her face with her silhouette backlit, but I could tell that it had twisted into a frown. "What do you mean by that?"
"Hm? Oh, nothing." Clio's suddenly suspicious tone set off an alarm in my head, so I put on my best poker face.
Clio climbed out of the hatch to look at me. Her head cocked to one side as she tried to read me. "No, it's not nothing. What do you mean that the paracritters 'shouldn't bushwhack us'?"
I continued to keep up my stone-faced look. "Nothing. Phil told me about how Gonzales got geeked, but I don't think we have to worry about something like that happening again."
"Mmm hmm." It didn't sound like Clio believed that, but she didn't press the issue. She turned back and descended back into the turret. "We take off again in an hour. Make sure you're ready to leave by then."
Phil's voice cut in over the whine of the turbines. "I got something showing up on thermo."
"Yeah," I responded as I shifted restlessly in the pilot's seat.
The ork apparently wasn't reassured. "Hey, Jo-girl, don't go to sleep on me."
"I'm not." That much was true. Although it was way past midnight, I'd been jacked in for the past seven hours, which messed up my biological clock so I couldn't sleep if I wanted to. In fact, I was so keyed up I was flying on manual, with only the minimal simsense to keep us from ramming into the mountainside.
"Well, you want to do something about it, or should we just let it walk up and say 'hi'?" Phil was getting annoyed.
I glanced at the sensors. The contact was radiating in the far-infrared spectrum, not hot enough to be a vehicle. That must mean that it was a paracritter, and judging by the sensor feed, a pretty big one, too.
I reached up to my flight helmet and clicked on the mike. "Looks like a critter, Phil. I'm not getting a good fix on sensors, though. Can you scout it out on astral?"
"No probs, Jo-girl." As Phil's voice cut out, I felt a brief shiver up my spine and noticed a slight distortion in the forward visual sensors, probably Phil's astral form shooting forward and passing through me and the sensor dome. While technology and magic don't mix, I've always noticed some distortion whenever I watched magic through sensors, centered around the spellslinger. Not enough to interfere, but still enough to notice.
While Phil was having his out-of-body experience, I decided to slip into mine. I reached forward with my left arm to press a simsense-generated button floating in front, and the darkened view of the cabin interior dissolved into the green-tinted Low-Light view of the surrounding landscape. I could feel my pulse quicken slightly as the simsense translated the engine activity into bodily sensations.
I reached out with a virtual hand and called up the communications window. "Speedy Delivery, this is Angelfire. We got a contact on long-range, possibly a biological. Ghost Rider's checking it out on the astral. Over."
"Roger, Angelfire. Check it out and advise. Out." As Johnny's radio cut out, I dove forward as the engines kicked on the afterburners.
"Awww, frag!" Phil's voice suddenly cut into the intercom as he snapped back into consciousness. "Bad news, Jo-girl, it's a thunderbird. Actually, two thunderbirds. And I mean bird, as in feathers, wings, and bad attitude."
"What?" I looked at the scanners again. He was right-there were two signatures, so close together that they only looked like one at casual glance. "Can't be right. Even two birds don't create that big a thermal signature."
"Look, Jo-girl, I ain't drekking ya," said Phil. "Maybe they got SURGEd or mutated to grow big, but those are definitely thunderbirds. One of 'em almost tagged my astral form with a lightning strike."
"Oh, crapola." Thunderbirds are a kind of Awakened giant eagle that generate lightning storms around them. If a thunderbird hit our Banshee with its lightning bolts, it could fry the rigger control module and generate nasty ASIST spikes that would turn my noggin into hot Sloppy Soy.
"Looks like they're heading our way," I noted. "You didn't attract their attention, did you?"
"No," denied Phil, "I think they're just hunting for dinner. Thunderbirds are dual-natured, so I probably startled them when I showed up in the astral. I zipped out of there after that."
"Well, they're definitely heading our way," I observed. "They're still a ways out, so we can probably just alter course and take evasive action."
"Good idea, Jo-girl," agreed Phil. "Critters generally leave you alone if you leave them alone, and I've already seen too many dogfights on this trip."
I keyed the communications window and radioed Johnny. "Speedy Delivery, this is Angelfire. Confirmed the biological as two giant thunderbirds. Probably SURGEd or something. Suggest we break off and take evasive action, over."
There was no reply from Johnny. "Speedy Delivery, do you copy? Over."
I glanced back to make sure Johnny was still there. Not only was he there, he was gunning his engines to catch up. "Johnny, did you hear me? We should break off and leave them alone. Over!"
As Johnny's t-bird closed on mine, his turret turned on us and opened fire. Giant sparks flew, and the aircraft shuddered slightly to the right as the autocannon slugs strafed down the left flank. I felt a sharp pain in my left arm as one of the slugs penetrated through the armor on the canard and struck a circuit box.
"JOHNNY! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!?" I screamed. Phil swung the turret to return fire, but his shots went low and whizzed underneath the belly of the Banshee.
"I can't get a good fix on 'im, Jo-girl!" yelled Phil through the intercom. "His ECM must be jamming our sensors!"
"He damaged one of the control circuits for the port flaps, but it's not serious." I fought to keep the t-bird under control. I could keep flying straight, but right turns were going to be a slitch. "Phil, if I can get behind him, think you can disable his engines and force him down in one piece?"
"I'll try, but it's gonna be-- what's he doing now?!?" As Phil shouted out in confusion, the turret on Johnny's t-bird snapped forward and let out a long burst at the two thunderbirds. The flurry of rounds flitted through the air between the two critters, but the t-bird made no effort to walk the fire towards either one of them. As soon as it had their attention, the t-bird launched a flare, momentarily blinding my Low-Light vision. Although I couldn't see, the radar tracked the craft as it ducked into a side valley and hightailed out.
"He hosed us, Phil," I said. "He riled up those two thunderbirds and then popped a flare to screen his escape. Those two birds will think we shot them and come after us."
"Jo-girl, look out!" One of the thunderbirds swooped above the aircraft. The tip of one wing brushed against the side, and sparks flew from incidental contact. I yelped in pain as a simsense spike shot through my head.
The other thunderbird rose high into the sky and joined the tips of its wings together. Lightning bolts crackled from the wingtips as an electrical aura began to form around the bird. As the bird parted its wings, the aura burst, and a torrent of lightning roared towards us.
I tensed as the lightning storm overwhelmed the craft. Many of the bolts crackled harmlessly past. One struck us, but the electricity seemed to wash over. Little sparks popped as the lightning crossed over some rough surfaces, and I felt sharp pinpricks on random parts of my body as ASIST spikes pulsed across the simsense. As quickly as the electrical torrent had arrived, it passed us by.
I blinked in surprise that we survived mostly unscathed. "Phil... ?"
Phil was breathing heavily into the mike. "Spell defense. Never tried that against a critter. Get us outta here--I need to catch my breath."
Pulling up on a virtual flight stick, I cut loose on the throttle. The aircraft pointed upwards at an angle and roared as the afterburners kicked in. We were out of there at the crack of a whip as the t-bird broke the sound barrier, leaving the real birds spinning in our vapor trails.
"Frag!" I cursed, as the flashlight slipped from my headband and clattered on the t-bird's hull. I got up from where I was kneeling over the circuit box and tried to stretch the kinks out of my back. Massaging my neck, I looked up into the starry night sky.
The sonic boom caused by our getaway undoubtedly set off a number of ground sensors, especially considering how close we were to the Tir Tairngire border. So I found a remote valley a few dozen kilometers northeast in Salish territory to set down, cool our heels, and make some necessary repairs.
I picked up my jacket from where it was lying and put it back on to ward off the night chill. As I bent down to pick up the flashlight, I heard the faint thumping of helicopter blades in the distance. Switching on the Low-Light amplifiers in my cybereyes, I scanned the surrounding slopes and spotted Phil clambering down from his vantage point on the hillside.
"See anything?" I asked.
"Naw, we're clear," Phil replied as he approached. "The only thing was that patrol copter you heard, and it was heading away from us. We should be alone for at least a few hours."
"Good. Get up here and help me pull out this LRU." I held out a hand to help Phil up onto the canard. Seeing the circuit box I had been struggling with, Phil got down to look. Finding a handhold, he reached in and pulled it out a little more. Seeing where the box had caught on a jagged edge, I put the heel of my boot on it and kicked. Between the two of us we managed to wriggle the box out, albeit with much struggle and profanity.
With the circuit box out, it was much easier to repair the damaged sections I had been trying to fix. Phil stood over to watch as I knelt down to attend to the box. "How long d'ya think this'll take, Jo-girl?"
"Shouldn't be more than a few minutes, now that the box is out," I guessed.
Phil walked off and plopped down to sit on top of the turret. His head hung in defeat. "I'm sure Johnny's already halfway to Denver by now with our commission."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that."
The ork raised his head to look at me. "Why not?"
"I logged onto Shadowland after we landed," I replied. "Remember that Tir raid Clio mentioned? Well, whoever called it in got it wrong. Someone else posted later with a correction; it was actually a cross-border raid into Salish territory near Boise, and that lies smack dab in the middle of the new route."
"He could just find a new route," Phil countered.
"Not after all that noise we made. Every Salish and Tir patrol within a hundred kilometers of Boise has got to be on alert. Lucky we headed in the opposite direction." I closed the lid on the circuit box. It wasn't the best of patch-ups, but it should at least hold up to Denver (assuming we made it that far, of course).
I waved my gunner over to help me set the circuit box back in place. It was a lot easier to put back in than it was to take out. Phil placed a steel plate over the hole and mumbled a few words under his breath. The plate momentarily glowed red as the edges softened and melded with the rest of the armor. The ork stood up and admired his handiwork. "Kinda sloppy, but it should hold up."
I picked up a rag to wipe my hands clean. "Now all we have to do is find a needle in a thousand kilometer haystack."
"You sure about this, Phil?"
"Trust me, Jo-girl, I know just about all of Johnny's hideaways," reassured Phil. "If you think Johnny went this way to beat the heat, then this hideout is the perfect spot."
"No, I didn't mean that," I clarified. "I was asking, are you sure he's not going to spot us this way?"
The ork burst out laughing into the intercom. "Not unless he Awakened in the past couple of hours. As long as we find him before sunrise, this sky spirit will keep anyone from finding us."
By now I knew well enough to take magicians for their word, but I still couldn't help having doubts. After we had taken off Phil called up a nature spirit to mask our presence. Ever since then we'd been flying through cloud coverage that hadn't been around at all earlier this evening. We even flew over a ground patrol once by accident, and they didn't even blink.
I pulled out of full immersion back into minimal simsense. Although the same darkened cabin surrounded my view, it was eerily silent. I partially unbuckled my helmet, and all I could hear was the wind whistling around us as we passed.
As I buckled up the flight helmet again, I called up the navigational map, which materialized in my simsense-enhanced view as a separate window. The view outside was dimmer, because we were flying on passive sensors, to better improve our odds of sneaking up unnoticed.
As we got within a few kilometers, I eased back on the throttle and let out the flaps. I didn't so much plan on landing, but more like coasting to a rest. The stall warning came on as we approached the last hill, bleeping that speed was dangerously low. I bent back slightly, and the t-bird's nose rose slightly. We touched ground on a grassy slope and began rolling uphill. As gravity sapped away the last bit of momentum, I swerved the t-bird to one side, to bring it perpendicular to the incline. The t-bird finally came to rest on the reverse slope, just below the crest of the hilltop.
I unjacked quickly and squirreled up and out the hatchway. Pulling myself out of the hatch, I ripped off my flight helmet and quietly slid down the hull's forward slope, landing softly on the ground. As the ork jumped down, I withdrew my Predator. Phil held up his hand for me to wait, closed his eyes, and softly chanted under his breath. Although I saw nothing, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and sensed a presence around us. Next thing I knew, I found myself behind a large bush that I didn't remember being there before. The ork nodded and hefted his shotgun, indicating me to proceed.
Phil and I bounded over the top of the hill and descended down into the valley. On the other side was a simple wood cabin next to a dirt trail, possibly an old ranger station abandoned from disuse. Although I couldn't spot Johnny's t-bird, I could see lights on inside the cabin. We quietly made our way down over to one side of the cabin. Thanks to whatever mojo Phil conjured up, we always seemed to find ourselves behind cover, even when we crossed the trail, and the ground was unusually free from noisemaking debris. Circling around the cabin corner, I made my way over to one of the windows and peered inside.
Clio was impatiently pacing back and forth across the cabin floor. She was showing far more emotion than I'd ever seen before. "How much longer do we have to wait here?"
Johnny's back was to the windows, but his slumped shoulders pretty much indicated his mood. "Not for a couple more hours, at least. There's too much activity for us to be going anywhere right now."
Clio pounded her fist on the table in frustration. "That's too long! We need to get to San Francisco by dawn."
Johnny turned his head to look at Clio. My God, he was a wreck. "Then we shouldn't have betrayed Phil like that. If we had him on overwatch we'd be there by now."
Clio turned to face Johnny. "Get a grip on yourself. I know Phil was your longtime partner, but my people will find a better replacement. We'll help you out, but you must uphold your end of the bargain."
Clio plopped into a chair in the corner. "At least we got rid of that slitch Cruise. She was starting to figure out too much. Maybe I miscalculated, and she was the mole all along."
"Just because you're paranoid, Clio, it doesn't ALWAYS mean someone's out to get you." As I stepped into the cabin, I smiled sweetly at Clio while keeping my Predator leveled on her. "For the record, I'm nobody's gal but my own. I don't mind hitching along, but I don't like being taken for a ride."
If looks could kill, Clio's face would be an atom bomb. Phil stepped into the cabin to back me up. "Just tell me one thing, Johnny: Why? Why did you sell out?"
Johnny didn't look his partner in the eye. "Time. Let's be honest Phil, I'm not the same t-bird jammer I used to be twelve years ago, and the Northwest's changed over the past few years. So when Clio told me she had contacts in the Karatsa-gumi who could help out, the answer seemed obvious."
My brow crinkled as I tried to figure out the name. "What do a bunch of San Fran yaks have to do with our little smuggling run to Denver?"
"I would suspect they are interested in the product you brought from Seattle, Ms. Cruise," said a voice from behind me. Standing in the doorway was another ork, taller than Phil and adorned in native garb garnished with white feathers.
With Phil and I momentarily distracted by our surprise visitor, Clio attempted to draw her pistol and make a break for it. However, as she struggled with her pistol, an Indian dancer suddenly appeared in the cabin and tackled her to the ground. As he raised a tomahawk to put her down, the ork glanced sharply, sending a sharp look of silent yet stern objection. The spirit paused, bowed, and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
Between his garb and this display of power, it was obvious who our new visitor was. "You're a long way from Denver, aren't you, Mr. Whitebird?"
Nicholas Whitebird, translator for the Great Dragon Ghostwalker, simply nodded acknowledgement. "When Gonzales didn't report in at Smuggler's Valley, my master became concerned. So when your associate started summoning spirits to conceal your aircraft, we took notice. Transport was arranged to bring me here."
That meant the Denver Zonies weren't too far away. Terrific.
The ork stood over Clio. "As for you, I have a message for you to deliver. Ghostwalker has no interest in the personal feud between your master and Lung, but he does not appreciate your attempts to steal Lung's gift from T'ai Shan. If you choose to persist in this foolishness, then the consequences will be severe."
Clio said nothing but tried to meet his gaze in an attempt at defiance. However, after three seconds she dropped her head and shuffled quietly out the door into the night.
After Clio had left with her tail between her legs, Whitebird turned to us and presented several credsticks. "My associates will take charge of your cargo from here. Consider your services rendered complete. There is also an added bonus for maintaining confidentiality in this matter."
In other words, keep our mouths shut. As Phil and Johnny took their share, Whitebird spoke to them. "While your best days may be behind you, you still have much to contribute, Johnny. My master would be willing to provide you the assistance that Clio's masters would, if you would be watchful of what's abreast in the smuggling community."
Johnny shook his head. "Thank you, but no. After tonight I think it's high time to quit the field and retire."
Whitebird nodded in empathy. "It is wise to understand one's own limitations."
"Well, I'll bite," said Phil. "I'm not ready to quit yet."
"I know some associates in the Denver shadows who may be willing to talk to you," said Whitebird. "What about you, Ms. Cruise?"
I shook my head. "Thanks, but no thanks. I'm strictly freelance, and I prefer staying in Seattle. Besides, I've got too much personal baggage to deal with."
"We're already aware of your 'personal baggage,'" said Whitebird. I'm not sure if I liked that or not. "Nevertheless, we respect your wishes, so long as you respect ours. I can, however, offer you transportation back to Seattle, if you wish."
"Do you think it can wait until the morning?" I asked as I stifled a yawn. "It's been a long night, and I could use some shut-eye."