“I’m not a xenobiologist, but I’ve never seen vegetation like this so close to a sand sea.” SPC Bernardo, the squad’s Pathfinder, crouched underneath the cap of one of the native plants. It looked like a cactus crossed with a very large toad stool. It’s thick, mottled-brown skin sprouted spiny thorns that were easily 10cm long.
Hundreds of the plants covered the top of rocky escarpment which rose 30 or 40 meters from the sand sea. Clumped in groups of five or six plants, they rose maybe 4 meters and the bottoms of their thorny caps extended uniformly to within maybe 1.5 meters of the ground. Tracking down the science party’s survivor in this terrain wasn’t going to be easy.
“My toxin test is negative,” Bernardo continued. “Still, everybody should avoid getting poked by these thorns. They probably can’t penetrate our battlesuits. But who wants to volunteer to find out?”
Winslow had flown the first drone into the face of the escarpment, and Reno didn’t want to expend a second one unless he absolutely had to. The squad would try to track down survivors the old-fashioned way — at least until their First Sergeant lost patience.
Gamespeak: Turn 28. The entry requirement for the first node in Cave Complex A is “Tracking 2″. Only the Specialist Explorer, Bernardo, has the tracking skill. I draw RN2 for 0 success levels. The squad stays where it is. Since an Event has already been triggered on their current node, there is no Event check and the turn ends.
Most of the squad held in a small clearing near the edge of the escarpment while Bernardo crept farther into the cactus-stool forest with his search gear. Reno sent Buergel and Marsh along with him as security, although they kept 15 meters or so behind the Pathfinder so they didn’t interfere with his various scanners and sniffers.
“Something over here, First Sergeant,” Bernardo announced after 15 minutes of rooting around. “It’s not happy. Check your TID.”
Reno switched his TID to view Bernardo’s video feed. He was looking at a long bowl of loose sand, free from overhanging plants. Two patterns were easily visible in the sand, trailing down the length of the narrow patch for a good 20 meters.
“Looks like footprints here,” Bernardo said. “Two people. Our science team. And over here, this looks like…”
“Robbie,” Reno finished for him. The four-legged tracks of the AI “Grunts” — their basic combat model — were unmistakable. “Maybe… mmmm… four of them?”
“Three, I think,” Bernardo said. “Heading south-west toward that uplift.”
Gamespeak: Turn 27. For the Tracking skill check, I draw RN6 for two successes. Bernardo spots the path of the missing science team. The Event string for the node is “5+/A” and the Event check is RN5. Contact! I draw RN4 on the Enemy Presence Table, yielding a result of 3 “Drones”.
It had been a couple of years since Reno last fought the AI, but he understood how to deal with them. The Grunt models stood about 1.5 meters high, with vaguely humanoid upper bodies fitted onto a drive unit with four rotating, articulated legs. Their “head” was extensible, allowing them to squat behind low bits of terrain while raising their main sensors another 2 or 3 meters. Keeping their frames under cover, they could fire small grenades with fair accuracy. They could also use their “popup” sensors to track an approaching enemy, then spring into the open to cut loose with their long-barreled automatics.
The aiming system for the automatic weapon on an AI Grunt wasn’t very agile, however. Robbie didn’t care much for close combat, and he wasn’t very good at it. Get close enough to put a chain blade into him, and he was screwed.
“OK, One-Seven, listen up,” Reno said. “A quick primer on proper etiquette for greeting Mister Robert. We’re not going to fuck around with these gun-toting vibrators. Get in close and open ‘em up like canned dog food. Phillips, Oppenheimer, pop those flamers and mount your chain blades. This is a no-comms approach, so hand signals only. Kill your uplinks and tactical locaters. The less EM we broadcast, the harder we are to spot. Buergel, Marsh, take point. When you make contact, you stop and hammer whatever you see. Everybody else, flank their fire lanes, run fast. I’ll lay down cover with Sergeant’s Time, then you get so close you can scoop their guts out with a spoon.”
He paused and watched while the assault troopers pulled the quick-relase locks and holstered their combo flamers. They replaced them with wicked-looking power chain blades that extended a half-meter from the front of their VRF barrels.
“Stay alert,” the sergeant instructed. “Keep quiet. Be lethal. Move out.”
The squad moved another 100 meters or so toward a sharp uplift in the escarpment. As they got closer, Reno could see a large split in the giant rock slab. Torn vegetation and more footprints led directly toward it.
Phillips and Oppenheimer abruptly froze and threw up hand signals for the squad to stop and drop. Phillips turned to look back toward Reno, put up three fingers, then pointed straight ahead. The sergeant nodded. He moved up a few meters until he found a clear overhead for his grenade launcher, then signalled for the squad to attack in five seconds.
As the two fire team troopers cut loose with their heavy automatics, Reno hit the master switch on his battlesuit’s electronics. His helmet’s TID lit up with target and range information. The ABG-12′s fire control system automatically slaved to the suit’s sophisticated sensors. The four assaulting troopers had taken maybe four running steps when Reno’s TID flashed the little red “meatball” that indicated the launcher rack had a firing solution.
“Sergeant’s Time!” Reno shouted as he thumbed the firing stud. The launcher coughed three times in quick succession as it spat three pairs of explosive charges downrange. Robbie was only about 65 meters away. One grenade fouled off and struck the overhang behind the three robots, sending a spray of high-velocity rock shards into the air. The other five grenades rippled down the length of the rocky hollow. One of the squat, four-legged robots took a direct hit; everything from its legs up simply vanished in an angry, orange flash. The other two machines were pummeled by the heavy blasts and rain of debris. One of them sprayed automatic gunfire wildly into the air as it banged into the side of the narrow canyon.
Before the machines could recover, the Cav troopers were into them. The high-pitched whine of Miller’s battlesaw gave way to the screech of rending metal as he used the momentum of his heavy battlesuit to barrel into one of them. He slammed the gutted wreck into the rocky face, then turned to seek another target.
Basinger circled off to the right, pumping sabot rounds at the remaining robot. He checked his fire as Miller, Phillips and Oppenheimer all closed in. The robot’s combat logic went into panic mode and started firing grenades in all directions. One of the grenades rocked Miller, but his suit’s heavy armor shrugged off the shrapnel. In a matter of seconds, the Cav troopers reduced the machine to a smoking heap of scrap metal.
Gamespeak: Turn 27. Combat Round 1. I draw RN3 for the Command check. With +1 for Reno’s ADC Talent, the squad leader gets a Command Point. He issues the Deploy order for a -1 modifier to the Range Table. Range check is RN2, so the first round will be at Melee range. The squad expends a Grenade (G) resource — Sergeant’s Time — which scores 4 hits. The Fire team, Close Combat specialist and Shotgunner score successes on their Melee skill checks, for a total of 7 hits against the three robots. AI “Drone” units have a Melee skill of 5; they score no successes. The robots have an enhanced armor save (RN 3+ vice the normal RN 4+). All three make their armor save, leaving 4 total hits. Drones have two wounds, so one robot is KIA; the other two get one wound each.
Turn 27. Combat Round 2. I draw RN6 for the Command check, again yielding 1 CP. Another Deploy order. RN3 on the Range check keeps the combat at Melee range. The Assault team and CC specialist get Melee successes. The Assault team’s “Deadly Strike” Talent yields 2 wounds per success, so that’s a total of 3 wounds. Both robots make armor saves again, but the leftover wound kills off another one. In return the robots score 1 wound, which is assigned to the CC specialist — who has both heavy armor (save on RN4+) and three wounds, thanks to his “Bull Strength” Talent. He makes his save, so the wound is cancelled.
Turn 27. Combat Round 3. The Command check again yields a CP, so another Deploy order. Range check is RN2, so combat is again at Melee range. The Assault team pulls RN6 for two successes (four wounds), the CC specialist gets another success and the Shotgunner (with two Melee attacks) scores two more successes — a total of 7 wounds. The robot fails to score a success, blows its superfluous armor, takes 7 wounds and ends up looking like a microwave oven dropped out of a 20-story building. The node gets an Event marker and play proceeds to the next turn.