Scrambler (Part 1 of 2)
Posted By: The Meep<email@example.com>
Date: 4 June 2010, 2:22 am
The M274 Ultra-Light All-Terrain Vehicle, better known as the Mongoose, had a notorious reputation within the UNSC's rank-and-file soldiers. It's incredible acceleration made it incredibly loud, the basic designed offered no protection to the driver, it could flip and tumble without warning at high speeds, and had zilch for offensive capabilities. The Mongoose couldn't even run down infantry: a collision with even the smallest grunt could flip the entire vehicle and catapult the driver to a grisly demise. It was generally considered a recreational toy for racing, almost always passed over in combat in favor of the much sturdier and well armed Warthog.
For the men and women of the 730th Battalion (10th Regiment), the Mongoose had transcended simple recreation. Since the allocation of fifty M274 ULATVs to their companies, races had been held on the long abandoned landing strips outside of Doolittle Airbase. What had first been simple fun done in the name of breaking up the tedium of military life quickly became a full fledged sport. Every day at noon sharp, most of the 1,120 members of the 730th Battalion would gather on a broad corridor of gravel between the two main landing strips. Despite military regulations, bets were laid en masse as the fifty racers sped down the burned concrete lane at over ninety kilometers per hour, weaving around potholes and narrowly dodging their fellow thrill-seekers as they swerved to gain the lead. Every day, another fifty people would step up to the challenge; every day, the sunbaked tarmac was dominated by cheering, swearing, and the thunderous roar of unmuffled carbon engines.
After each race, as the afternoon taps were called, the competitors carefully returned their prized M274s to the motor pool. During leisure hour, the soldiers would put down their decks of cards and look away from the holos, choosing instead to spend their free time cleaning and decorating the dust-streaked Mongooses. Over time, the individual vehicles gained names and personalities. Some were rumored to be faster, while others gave their drivers good luck. M274 SN091-A83-111 was known as Jeeves, for example, because it had a knack for coming out of the races virtually dirt free. Someone even artfully painted a bow-tie below the windshield. The other ATVs received similar treatment.
The old man of the 730th, Colonel Braidwater, was always absent from the landing strips at noon. He never commented on what the rank-and-file called the "vehicular combat simulations," and neither did any of the company commanders. The fall of Reach had been a devastating loss, and the 730th couldn't lose any more of its soldiers to depression or suicide. Any morale booster was more than welcome, and the local brass were more than willing to look the other way if it meant the men and women under their command could keep a smile on their face and a bounce in their step. Besides, it was training, of a sort.
The men and women of the 730th lost eight of the Mongooses on October 20, the day the Covenant first landed on North America. A single banshee, modified for high altitude, high speed reconnaisance, was shot down by the local SAL laser battery. The directed energy weapon had virtually obliterated the relatively fragile flier, but a piece of the fuselage had escaped vaporization. Still burning, it careened down to Earth and landed in the motor pool, it's impact setting eight of the 730th's prized mongooses ablaze. The UNSC's response had been quick and efficient, but damage was already done.
That astronomically rare misfortune had hit the 730th nearly as hard as Reach had, but this time they had something to focus their rage on. The Covenant's advance fleet had been fought off by UNSC naval forces, but they had quickly reinforced their initial invasion of New Mombasa. This second push was much stronger, covering most of the globe, including the 730th's home: Mexico City. Since it's founding over a millennia earlier, Mexico City had grown from a simple collection of stone temples into the center of one of Earth's largest megalopolises. The UNSC installation Second Earth, known locally as Segundo Terra, was the nerve center for all things military on the American continents. Whether the Covenant knew of the existence of Segundo Terra, or had simply targeted Mexico City for its population, was never discovered.
But, as Colonel Braidwater said on the day of the invasion, "They aren't going anywhere. We're going to bury 'em here."
Plasma fire was raining down on the Seventh Ward, much to Corporal Reynold's annoyance. He gritted his teeth as the air warmed and cooled rapidly. The balls of superheated matter flying through sky sent waves of scorching heat and rapidly cooling atmosphere throughout the area; they didn't do much damage, but the temperature fluctuations were uncomfortable, to say the least. The source of Reynold's irritation was located a mile to the southwest, where a Covenant battlecruiser - code named "Mount Zulu" - had set up shop. The bulbous ship cast a shadow which, despite its massive size, covered only a tiny fraction of the buildings and plazas that made up Mexico City's Seventh Ward. Apparently, Mount Zulu had dropped significant ground forces into the Seventh Ward's main plaza, including not one, not five, but eleven wraiths. The mobile mortars had immediately started bombarding the area around Mount Zulu's gravity lift, seemingly at random.
Another salvo of plasma rocketed overhead, the bolts destined to land at least half a mile behind Reynolds. The corporal swore; it was hot enough already in the Mexican fall, and he and his fireteam were already sweltering in full combat gear. They continued parallel to Mount Zulu down the narrow one-lane street, an old-world job made of ancient asphalt with concrete curbs and littered with all manner of trash and vehicles: rusty cars, unpowered bicycles, and more cluttered the thin urban canyon. Stone and wooden structures rose up on either side of the fireteam, their overlapping balconies jutting out from multiple floors obscuring almost all of the daytime light from above. Whatever sunlight that managed to navigate its way through the terraces and overhangs cut hard slices through the dusty air: literal sunbeams, their edges crisp and sharp. Every time a plasma bolt soared overhead, the now blue tinted sunbeams would slowly meander across the street, as the wraith's mortar shot was bright enough to double as a second sun. The soldiers ignored the delicate lightshow and kept their eyes up, taking note of every window, every balcony, every rooftop. You had to watch more than your footing here.
Reynolds, who was rear cover, glanced over his shoulder at the rest of his fireteam. The pointman held up a fist, and the group came to an immediate halt at the corner of an intersection; a large bus, its nose lodged in a crumbling brick wall, cut the far end of the three way intersection off. Another plasma salvo flew overheard; hot sweat suddenly covered Reynold's body. The mortars were getting closer.
A familiar roar filled the canyon, echoing and reverberating off of the walls of the buildings. Reynolds snuck another peak over his shoulder, his M7 cradled in his arms. A pair of M274s sped around the corner, their wheels almost nicking the curb, and almost nicking the pointman as well. The fireteam took an involuntary step back as the two drivers suddenly braked, letting their rear wheels skid around in order to better shed their velocity. Reynolds automatically knew the pair were from the 730th, quickly recognizing the paint jobs on the vehicles. The one with the white streaks was Yama, and the one adorned in red flames was Lucifer.
The closest driver, a woman dressed in full battle kit, immediately pushed her visor up, revealing a face flushed cherry red from heat. "What's the quickest way to Mount Zulu from here?"
The fireteam's Sergeant lowered his weapon, noting the Lieutenant's insignia etched onto her shoulder. "This street'll lead you right to Pallo Avenue, which goes right into Tavari Plaza." Tavari Plaza being where Mount Zulu's grav lift was. Reynolds looked away from her face, his eyes drawn to the cube secured onto the back footpad. It was about half a meter to a side, constructed from a dull, reflectionless gray metal. It almost looked like steel, but considering how the Mongoose's suspension was barely compressed, it must have be a really light alloy. Curiously, its entire surface was etched with odd geometry and swirling runes, giving it a very ornate appearance despite its simple design. It looked almost... Covenant. He had seen similar markings on their weaponry.
The second driver's voice drew Reynolds' gaze. He was squeezing the acceleration pad, but there was no response from the Mongoose. "Fuck! This-- Yama's not working."
"Wait, let me take a look," Reynolds offered, slinging his SMG and stepping forward. He noticed Yama had an identical object secured on the back. "I worked on the M274s back at Doolittle. Call me a mechanic."
The second driver looked at the Lieutenant; she met his gaze and twitched her head impatiently. He dismounted. "Make it quick. I'm leaving in one minute either way," she warned Reynolds, her gloved hands flexing on Lucifer's handlebars.
The corporal nodded curtly, straddling Yama's seat and popping open the engine cover located halfway between the handlebars and the seat. He saw the problem immediately: the brake feed had been popped off its contact, probably from the abrupt stop made seconds earlier. If the Mongoose detected any malfunction of equipment - brakes, acceleration, fuel line, etc. - it automatically powered down the engine and became impossible to start. Reynolds yanked off his gloves and gently dipped his fingers into the relatively simple tangle of wires, tubes, and panels. Five seconds later, the brake feed was back where it was supposed to be. Now to--
The unmistakable whistle of a beam rifle followed by the sound of its core overheating cut through the nervous silence in the canyon; the second driver was dead before he hit the ground.
"GO!" the Lieutenant yelled as the fireteam returned fire, revving Lucifer and accelerating down the street. Reynolds immediately reached for his SMG, but the Lieutenant's voice cut through his helmet's speakers. "Hit the gas, Corporal! Go go go!"
Reynolds reacted as any soldier would when confronted with a superior's orders in the heat of the moment: he slapped the panel closed, mounted his feet on the bracers, and squeezed the acceleration trigger. The wheels caught on the pavement immediately, and the Mongoose tore off down the road behind the Lieutenant, it's rear fishtaling slightly on a patch of gravel. The Corporal held onto the handlebars tightly, the rapid acceleration threatening to throw him off the back of the ATV. A fierce wind laden with dust whipped at his unprotected face, and he found himself squinting down the street, his eyes watering as his skin reddened.
He had raced at Doolittle before, several times. He even won once. Like many other soldiers in the 730th, he was exceptionally good at handling the light, flimsy Mongoose. The cracked pavement of the canyon street made for an internal-organ-liquifying ride, but there was plenty of grip for the tires. He swerved around a car parked on the curb, Yama's suspension absorbing the blow as the Mongoose veered to the left. He felt the center of gravity shift and quickly leaned back to the right, falling in behind the Lieutenant. Already, his adrenaline saturated his bloodstream. For a few seconds amid the chaos of their flight, Reynolds felt blissfully exhilarated. He was going ninety kilometers an hour down a slalom of a backstreet, dodging cars and leaving a plume of dust in his wake that filled the urban canyon! Fucking awesome!
Up ahead, the Lieutenant's helmet turned and stole a glance back at him as her voice crackled in his ear. "Corporal, listen to me! That thing on your back seat is something the Covenant want really fuckin' bad, and now they know you have it. We put a scrambler in it; jams electronics, fucks with sensors and targeting. We need to get it to Mount Zulu."
Out of the frying pan...
...and onto the oven.
To be continued next week.