Chapter 18

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SACRIFICIAL LAMB

Major Walker’s maintenance chief stood at the top of the ladder extending from the roof of his converted troop carrier which carried the special tools and materials used to maintain the Cats. He struggled to work a flat box with metal clamps into position where the knee joint of Walker’s Cat was still showing damage. A black coil of cable snaked down to a yellow metal box sitting on the ground, it’s lid tossed to the side. Major Walker knelt down next to the box to check the readout.

“I don’t have a contact light yet!” he yelled at the chief.

“Working on it, sir!” the chief yelled back. “Come on you sonofabitch,” he muttered to himself. Struggling to keep his balance as he reached out from the ladder, he grabbed the repair plate with both hands and shoved it as hard as he could against the steel struts that made up the interior of the Cat’s leg. Finally, the clamps closed down and latched onto the frame. “Alright, Major, hit it!”

Major Walker checked the readout to confirm the clamp was in place and then pushed several buttons nestled under thick rubber covers to activate the repair sequence. The repair plate sparked and hummed as a stream of microscopic particles suspended in a stream of hyper-cooled nitrogen flowed through the tubing. Each particle contained its own microprocessor, embedded instructions for its portion of the repair process and a map of the assembly where it was supposed to attach itself for the repair. As one bot completed its repair, the next in line would move in to continue the process for its assigned section. In this manner, millions of the bots could assemble themselves to repair any part of the Cat’s assemblies.

“I don’t have a latcher!” Walker yelled. The problem was the first bot needed to identify a point on the existing structure to latch on and begin the repair process. This depended entirely on the precision with which the repair plate was attached.

“Hold on!” the chief yelled. He swung out from the ladder to plant his boot squarely on the plate, jamming it into place. The steel latches reset themselves and rewarded him with a resonant clang as the plate aligned itself with the existing structure.

“Yeah, alright, there it goes!” Major Walker yelled.

“Coming down!” his chief called back.

As the maintenance chief climbed down the ladder, Walker saw a pair of Marines walking from the headquarters building in the center of the compound. They walked deliberately, but in no real hurry as the chief hopped off the ladder and stood next to Major Walker.

“The box says it’s going to be about 30 minutes,” Walker said.

“She’ll be able to walk right after this one.”

“I don’t like how much patch weld we used for this. How many patches does that make – ten?”

“Whoever hit you had a magic bullet, sir. It wounded her pretty deep.”

The Marines were close enough that Walker could see their eyes. They were stern, official.

“What’s this all about?” the chief asked.

“Invitation to dinner?” Walker mumbled.

“Makes sense. The only way to get somebody to eat the chow they put out tonight would be at gun point.”

When they were 20 feet away, Walker called out, “That’s far enough fellas.” He jammed a thumb towards the maintenance carrier. “Classified and all that.” They didn’t stop.

When they were close enough to salute but didn’t do so, Major Walker took a half step back and quickly surveyed the first Marine, seeing he wore a side arm and handcuffs but was not carrying a weapon.

“Major Walker, the Commanding General would like a word,” the first Marine said.

“Then tell him to send Marines who know when to salute an officer,” Walker said. As he spoke, the chief quietly stepped back to the maintenance carrier.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the Marine said as he grabbed Walker’s arm. The second Marine placed his hand on his own side arm, but did not draw it from its holster. Walker jerked his arm away, took a full step back and put his hand up, trying to stop the Marine from moving any closer.

“Whoa!  Hold on there, Marine.”

The Marine latched back onto Walker’s arm and started to twist it behind his back. “I’m sorry, sir. General’s orders.” As the Marine reached for his cuffs, Walker lunged forward, smashing the Marine’s nose with his forehead. The Marine stumbled back, covering his face with his hands.

The second Marine whipped his side arm from its holster, leveling it at Walker’s chest. Reaching up with his other hand, he tapped his headset and said, “We may need some help out here.” He took a step forward, holding his side arm at arm’s length and said, “Please sir, I need you to get on your knees.”

Walker kept his eyes glued to the Marine’s side arm as it bobbed slightly in his hand. Before the Marine knew what was happening, Walker stepped up, slapped his arm to the side with one hand and jammed the palm of his other hand into the Marine’s nose. The Marine dropped his side arm and stumbled back, covering his face with his hands. “You should have saluted, dumbass.” While the second Marine struggled to stay on his feet, Walker saw four more Marines bolt from the headquarters building at a dead run with rifles in their hands.

The first Marine let his hands down to reveal blood trickling down his face. He reached for his own side arm, but before he could raise it, the chief flung a wrench as long his arm that knocked the Marine out cold.

“Sir, you need to leave,” he said.

“The patch isn’t ready.”

“She’ll walk funny, but she’ll walk.”

“Alright chief. You too. Take the carrier straight to the rendezvous.”

“I’ll be right behind you, sir.”

“You better be ahead of me.”

As they both turned to run, the chief lurched forward and fell face-first to the ground. Walker reached down to help him, but the chief didn’t stand up as he tugged at his arm. He knelt down and rolled the chief over to see a patch of blood seeping out in a wide circle over his shoulder.

“They shot me,” the chief said, surprised.

Rounds pecked the dirt around them as Walker tugged at the chief’s arm, trying to pull him to his feet.

“Screw it, sir, I can’t move. You gotta’ go.”

“Negative, get on your fucking feet Marine.”

“I can’t sir.” The chief looked down at his own belly where a second swath of blood was soaking through his utility blouse. He smiled a toothy grin. “I can’t feel a thing. Go.”

Walker looked up to see the Marines fanning out into a firing line and getting ready to kneel. They wouldn’t miss after that. Turning back to the chief, he said, “Watch this.”

“Get ’em.”

Walker forced himself to stand up and run towards his Cat, bounding onto the ladder extended from the cockpit. He moved as fast as he could to present a moving target, but braced for an incoming shot. He knew they would be ready to shoot before he got to the top. As he passed the halfway point on the ladder, he felt a burning bite in his left leg. Grimacing with pain, he crawled up the rest of the ladder, dragging his left leg like a dead piece of wood. Reaching the cockpit, he heaved himself in and sprawled across the pilot’s seat and the consoles next to it. As rounds smacked against the front canopy, he reached down and pulled his leg in.

Propping himself up on one elbow, he stepped into the right foot well and screamed in pain as he jammed his left foot in the other. He sat up, grunting, and felt sweat dripping from his forehead. The Cat was partially powered for the maintenance they had been conducting, but most of his systems were powered down and he didn’t have time for a checklist. He quickly prioritized the tasks he needed to accomplish before he found himself staring down the barrel of a 120 mm tank cannon. “Maneuver” he said through clenched teeth. He reached up to the overhead panel and thumbed the APU switch. Panting from the pain searing his left leg, he watched the EGT meter fill up from red to green as the small turbine engine spooled up. Releasing the switch, he flipped up a red cover over the starter switch for the main turbine engine. The faint sound of rounds plinking against metal rang outside the canopy. He leaned over and saw the weld patch spark as rounds impacted its surface. “Nice try boys,” he grunted. He turned his attention to the engine display on the center console as the main turbine came to life. As soon as it gained enough power, he pulled all four switches for the hydraulic system. The turbine whined under the strain as pumps activated, flooding the lines and pistons that drove the main mechanical drives of the Cat. He jerked back on the left control handle, manually forcing the left leg of his Cat to take a step back. Without the stabilizers on line, the cockpit lurched to one side as the Cat took a drunken step back with the faint sound of metal scraping from the incomplete repair. Next, he flipped two switches on the overhead panel to activate the main generators that provided the electrical power for the stabilizers, computers, and most importantly, the heavy servos that controlled his weapons.

Just as the generators came to life, he saw a second detail of Marines running up with an anti-armor missile launcher. “Don’t do it,” he hissed. He tapped the side of his head and realized he didn’t have his headset on. He looked down at the carrier, where he had left it while he was helping the chief with his work. “Fire,” he whispered to himself, moving onto the next step in his ad hoc checklist. The gyros for the weapons guidance system took 15 minutes to spool up. He didn’t have time for that. He reached up and flipped a switch to activate the weapons control system. The display in front of him flickered to life, screaming at him with the banner: NOT READY. He jammed a button along the side of the display and the banner changed to MANUAL. He ran his fingers along the bottom and selected the button for the machine guns. READY FOR ARM. He grabbed the weapons control stick, flipped up the red cover and jammed the arm switch forward. One machine gun on either side of his canopy swung down and he heard the whir of feeders stuffing  belts of .50 caliber steel slugs into their feed trays. ARMED.

The weapons reticle filled with a red X as it floated across the canopy in a repeating box pattern. Beyond that, he saw the missile detail preparing to load their first round. He squeezed the trigger and a flurry of bullets flew from his guns, spattering the ground between him and the detail. The Marine loading the missile launcher stopped while the rest of the detail went to ground. “That’s right,” he said. The loader looked him straight in the eye and smiled as he resumed loading the missile. Walker squeezed the trigger again and watched to see where the first rounds impacted, then pulled back on the control to walk the stream of bullets up to the launcher. Sparks flew off the launcher as his rounds landed home and then he watched in horror as the loader was tossed back in pieces. He let go of the trigger and started to hyperventilate. “You can question an order that is immoral or otherwise unlawful,” he yelled.

His vision began to blur and he looked down at his left leg, now slick with blood. He reached over his shoulder, ripped a small red box off the bulkhead and dropped it in his lap. He snapped open the plastic cover to rummage through its contents, until he found a compress patch. Holding the spongy patch in his mouth, he grabbed his leg with both hands and pulled it up so there were a few inches between his leg and his pilot’s seat. Grunting in pain, his hand shook as he pulled the patch from his mouth and unrolled it around what looked like the bloodiest part of his leg. Sucking in his breath in tight gasps, he put his finger through a plastic ring fastened to the patch and yanked it free. The patch fattened up as a small canister injected a stiff foam gel into the padding so it tightened around his leg. “Alright,” he said in between pants. “Alright.”

Peering back through the canopy, he saw another Marine pick up the missile. “Well now they’re just pissed off,” he said. He reached down to the console next to his right hand and flipped a switch to turn on the cabin microphone. He dialed in the frequency for the main command net and pressed the mic button. “Two Bravo Delta -” He let off the mic button as a bolt of pain surged through his leg. He took deep breaths through his nose, waiting for the pain to pass. He keyed the microphone again. “Two Bravo Delta, all nets. You guys down there need to rethink this thing. You tell General Lane I’m not granting you permission to arrest me tonight. So just stand down and I’ll be on my way.” He let go of the mic button and saw the Marines in the first detail look at each other.

His cabin speaker crackled. “Sorry Major. Orders.”

Walker closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. “Fucking orders,” he said to himself. He moved his hand to the right control lever and yanked it back. The Cat’s leg moved smoothly back and the gyros, now on line, held his cockpit steady. The reticle was still dancing in front of him with its red X. He pressed another button along the bottom of the weapons display and the heavy barrels of the plasma cannons swung down and locked into place with a loud clunk. He pressed another button to select arm coupling so both weapons would fire at the same time.

He squeezed the release trigger on the left control handle and shoved it forward. Releasing the trigger, he pulled the handle back and the left leg groaned with grinding metal as it slowly stomped back, moving him another step away from the Marines getting ready to shoot him. He could hear the servos on the left side of his Cat whirring as they struggled to stabilize the damaged leg. Clutching the weapons controller, he eyeballed the missile team as best he could and pulled the trigger. A blanket of blue fire enveloped the team in a glowing ball. Walker looked away, his face wet with tears and sweat. He let out a quivering sigh when he saw the Marines from the first detail pick up and run.

His maintenance chief’s body was still lying next to the carrier, unmoving. He clutched both control handles, working them in concert to walk the Cat back out of the compound until the chief’s body was hidden from him behind the carrier. He cranked the Cat around until it was facing away from the compound and stopped. Reaching up to the console above him, He grabbed a wide red handle mounted on a large swivel and yanked it forward. Two jets straddling the side of the Cat lit up as two small wings flipped out above them. The Cat lifted off the ground, slowly at first, and then picked up speed until it was 200 feet in the air. Working the control handles, he steered the Cat in a long jump towards the low sandy ridges outside the compound. The ground shook hard when the Cat landed, the hydraulics easing it into a crouch as they absorbed the impact. He punched a button in the center display to confirm that the stabilizers were on line and then dialed in a heading on the thin strip of navigation controls along the top of the console deck. He flipped a switch and eased back in his seat as the autopilot took over and moved his Cat forward in a steady walk away from the compound.

Letting out a long sigh, he looked at the patch on his leg, relieved to see the blood from his wound had not soaked through. He reached into the medical kit and pulled out a small bottle of water. He ripped open a packet of antibiotics, washed them down with the water and let both drop to the floor. He briefly eyed the packet of pain killers and closed the lid.

Through the canopy, he watched the far horizon ebb into a dark blue haze as the brightest stars began to twinkle in the shimmering air. He felt a warm haze infuse his body and struggled to keep his eyes open. As his mind raced to unravel the meaning behind what had just happened, he fell asleep as his Cat stomped and whirred across the desserts of Shoahn’Tu, carrying him to the safety of his comrades.

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence