“Two day. Two days of wandering around this stupid, empty forrest.” Freya grumbled to herself as she lightly stepped on the dead leaves that packed the ground under the towering trees. No matter how hard she tried she still heard the sound of crunching when the dead leaves crumbled under her feet. Patterson behind her was even louder with his bigger feet as he followed her.
This forrest was so different from the ones back home with the huge canopy of leaves and branches that grew from the tall trees. The living canopy kept out the sun and killed off any potential of competing vegetation. It also left the ground covered in dry, dead leaves that made traveling through the forest annoyingly hard despite all the active and passive camouflage that she could currently buy. Even with the sound dampeners they were both making a racket every time they took a step.
She looked at her HUD as she got another notification from her ship telling her that someone was using the respawn pod. She did a quick mental count and winced. According to her math there should only be four people left from the third and fourth squads who were escorting the escaped prisoners. She checked who they were and gave a soft sigh of relief. One was still alive. She had no idea if One still had her Mech or not, but Freya hoped that she did. It would give the escaped prisoners more of a chance to climb over the mountain adding to the platoon’s score at the end of the mission.
Freya was still distracted by the notification when her mini map pinged. Her sensor drone had picked up something coming towards them. The done was flying just below the living canopy and she had kept it set on the widest setting to give a general warning of her surroundings. She crouched down and held up her hand to motion Patterson to stop as she waited for the drone to identify what the thing was. That was the downside of setting the drone to its widest setting - while it picked things up further away, it took longer to identify them.
About a second or two later the red dot became a small, four-wheeled vehicle. Cursing to herself she gave the hand signal that meant find cover. She took her own advice and ran forward toward one of the large tree trunks. She sent up a surveillance drone and programmed it to send Patterson and herself a video of what was heading their way. Since it was the drone she made she also had it send a feed to the command staff.
The surveillance drone had been sitting in one of her two forges now for two days in case of something like this. She was happy to finally use it. The drone took a couple of seconds for it to get into position then she got a video feed showing a slow moving, open cab vehicle with two enemy soldiers in it. They had passive camo on but no active. One of the soldiers was driving while the other was doing something in the back seat. She frowned, not sure what the soldier was doing. She got a mic click on her radio and turned around looking for Patterson.
She found him lying in a bush. He flashed her the hand sign for hide then observe and follow. She nodded and turned back around to look at the vehicle. “They are really not in a hurry.” She thought to herself as the vehicle slowly drove past them about a hundred feet away traveling across their path going northeast. Freya and Patterson had been traveling northwest.
She waited a few seconds, letting them get a bit of a lead, before she started to follow the vehicle at a slow jog. While the enemy vehicle quickly moved out her eyesight, her drone kept her on course. A quick glance at her mini map showed Patterson following her about fifty behind her. She started another surveillance drone cooking in her forge while she ran, in case this took more than fifteen minutes and her current drone self-destructed.
Freya had been running for about ten minutes when the vehicle drove past an auto turret. She immediately stopped, crouched down again and held up her hand to tell Patterson to take cover. She was too late to order her done to avoid contact but luckily the auto turrets didn’t spot it. It kept on going and flew into an enemy camp. She immediately sent out a self destruct signal and she lost her feed. She hoped she had been fast enough and the enemy hadn't spotted her drone.
She laid down and pulled out her big gun. She took a peek through the scope and scanned the area in front of her. It took a second for her to spot the passively camouflaged auto turret. It was one of the medium sized ones with the shielded sensor box. She moved her gun slowly in front of her looking for the next one that had to be out there. She found it about a hundred yards away. It too was passively camouflage. She looked in the opposite direction and spotted a third auto cannon.
From what she remembered from her Company Scout training on auto turrets, she and Patterson were currently outside their range. She kept scanning the area looking for any sign that the enemy had spotted her drone. From where she was, she could see a part of the enemy camp and, from the way the soldiers she spotted walking around the edge of the camp were reacting, she didn’t think they had. She could be wrong and they were being sneaky, but she didn’t think so. Not taking her eye off the enemy, she held up her hand and motioned for Patterson to move up next to her.
She winced as she heard the sound of Patterson crawling through the brittle leaves. She kept on scanning in front of her but if they had any sensors that detected sounds of moving troops she didn’t see any. Or if the enemy did she and Patterson were too far away to be picked up.
She felt Patterson tap her shoulder. She looked to her side and saw Patterson laying next to her with his huge gun pointed at the camp in front of them. He motioned for her to send up a drone. She checked on her forge and then motioned to him that she had five more minutes until her next surveillance drone would be ready. He nodded and she returned to watching the camp.
When the timer on the cloud forge finally ran down she sent off her drone. She programmed her drone to send its feed to her, Patterson, and the command staff. She sent her drone to circle the camp, staying far enough away so as not to be discovered. She watched the feed as the drone slowly circled the camp and mentally noted all the auto turrets but, aside from that, she saw no other defenses. Inside the camp was a bunch of portable plastic huts which the enemy was using for everything from storage to living quarters.
When the drone got to the back of the camp, it spotted an opening in the forest’s living canopy. Sitting in the sunlight was a parked cargo ship. The camera on the drone was good enough she could see enemy soldiers unpacking boxes inside the ship. As she watched, an all-terrain forklift left the back of the cargo ship with a new plastic hut and put it down near the edge of the makeshift landing field. Freya cursed. The enemy was redeploying.
The drone circled the camp over ten times before it self-destructed as it ran out of power. Freya sent up a new drone as soon as she could and sent it to follow the same pattern as the first drone. She was on her fourth drone when her mini map pinged her to tell her a friendly was coming up behind her. When he/she got a bit closer, it notified her that it was Toast. She tapped Patterson’s shoulder to warn him that a friendly was coming up behind them. He nodded and looked behind them. Freya returned to looking down her scope and watching the feed in the corner of her HUD at the same time.
Freya heard Toast as he came up from behind them but she didn’t look away from her scope that was tracking an enemy who was walking out of the camp. She watched the soldier unlatch his pants then she saw a stream of pee arch out from him. She shook her head in disgust but didn’t take her eyes off him in case he somehow spotted them. She watched him finish up and turn away. He picked up a box that he had put down to go pee and continued on his way.
As she was watching the soldier walk away, a yellow waypoint appeared on her mini map. It was located behind her. She pulled her face away from the scope of her gun to look at Toast. He pointed to Patterson then pointed behind him telling him to go. Then he pointed at Freya and tapped his chest before he pointed downwards to indicate that they were staying. She nodded her understanding and turned back to watch the enemy camp. Toast moved off to her left and took up a position about twenty feet away. Patterson stomped his way towards the waypoint.
Freya spent the next several hours watching the camp sending up new drones as soon as the old ones died. The only thing that changed during that time was that the cargo ship took off once it was unloaded. The enemy didn’t seem to be in a hurry, as the enemy soldiers took forever to unload the ship. Roughly an hour after the cargo ship left, Freya’s mini map pinged her again.
She looked at it and noticed that her waypoint which had been yellow was now flashing red. She looked over at Toast, fearing something had happened but he gave her the motion for slow down. She took that to mean he wanted her to calm down. As if he was reading her mind the waypoint turned yellow again. He motioned for both of them to go. She left her drone active and followed him towards the waypoint.
About half a mile later her mini map pinged that there were two friendlies in front of her. She looked for them but didn’t spot them. She looked at her mini map again but when she looked at the area where they should be she saw nothing. Even if they had active camouflage on, she should still see them. She was wondering if her sensor cloud was broken somehow but then Toast took a step and disappeared.
She froze, thinking he had somehow stepped into an enemy sentry post. A few seconds later the active camouflage fell and she could see inside. She saw Toast looking at her. Behind him sitting on the ground drinking a liquid nutrition box and bending over laughing was Ostrich. She quickly stepped inside the active camouflage field, pissed.
“Man, you should have seen your face.” Laughed Ostrich.
“What the hell, man.” Toast said looking back at Ostrich. “We are on a mission. You don’t do that crap on the mission, ever. You want us to fail the mission, so you can play some stupid joke?”
“It’s ok. I’m scanning the area. There is nothing out there that can see us.” Ostrich said.
“And what would happen if she thought she was walking into a trap and gunned us all down? You want to explain that to the Colonel, because if that happened I would have reported you in a second, Private.” Toast told him. Freya had never heard him sound so angry.
“Sorry Corporal. Won’t happen again.” Ostrich said, suddenly serious.
“In a freaking tournament too.” Toast said, sounding disgusted. “You know they are going to show this on the stream, don’t you? You’re going to make Torres look like he can’t control his platoon.”
“Sorry, Corporal. I wasn’t thinking.” Ostrich said, sounding scared.
“Magic, you and me are going on a little trip. Ostrich tracked the cargo ship to a base in the city. Torres wants us to monitor it. Ostrich here is going to monitor the camp in our absence. And he is not going to screw around while on duty, is he.” Toast said, turning back to look Ostrich in the facemask.
“No Toast, I promise.” Ostrich replied.
“Patterson, keep the idiot safe. Shoot him if you have to.” Toast said, pointing at Ostrich. Freya was not sure if he was being serious or not from the tone of his voice.
“Magic, let’s move. We have a four hour hike ahead of us.” Toast said, moving out of the active camouflage post. Freya quickly ran after him.
Toast moved faster and far more quietly than she was able too. She ended up sounding like a wild pig running through a river. No matter what she tried she could not be as quiet as he was. She thought about asking him to slow down but in his current mood she didn’t want to upset him further. She gave up trying to be quiet and scanned the area nervously, convinced that enemy would erupt at any second and kill them both.
“Stupid leaves.” Freya thought savagely.
Toast seem to calm down after a few minutes and slowed down enough so that she wasn’t making too much of a racket trying to keep up with him. She knew better than to talk since they were out of the active camo post, so she swallowed any questions she had and just followed her squad leader, trusting he knew what he was doing. He looked at her and motioned for her to spread out and back away from his position. She nodded and slowed her walk so that he pulled ahead, then she angled away from him and started walking to his left.
She started seeing signs of civilisation after about two hours. Toast pointed out an empty bag of chips. The trash looked old and was partially buried under some leaves. As they got closer, signs of trash grew. Not a lot, but enough that they knew humans were around. About thirty minutes later, Freya started to see the skyline of the city. Not long after that she started hearing the sounds of city life. She heard the sound of an emergency vehicle passing by in the distance and some heavy trucks moving around.
Toast crouched down but didn’t stop moving. Freya followed his example. One second they were walking in the woods, the next they were standing at the edge of a road. The road ran on top of a hill overlooking a sprawling city. Toast stopped at the edge of the forest and looked out at the city. Freya followed his gaze and noticed that the city looked busy with people walking around on the sidewalks and light traffic driving on the roads.
A couple of seconds after they stopped, a second waypoint popped up on her map. The first was still pointing at the active camo post while the second waypoint was pointing to the east of the city. Toast looked at her then pointed towards the waypoint. Freya nodded in reply.
Toast led her around the outskirts of the town then stopped and motioned for her to find a hiding place. He then laid down and pushed some leaves over himself. Freya found her own pile of leaves and buried herself in to hide. She wondered how long he was going to hide. There was no one around and he wasn’t rushed when he hid. She guessed he was waiting for nightfall to move in. She wished she could talk but the risk was too great for them to break the silence.
She sent up a surveillance drone and set it to scout the city, staying away from the waypoint that marked the military base. She sent the feeds to command and Toast. She watched as people in the city went about their business. She had her drone scan the area for mass transit stops and other infrastructure. It took several drones to capture all the points of interest in the city, one launching as soon as the old one destroyed itself when it ran out of power.
Toast was indeed waiting for night to fall. The predicted weather called for an overcast night so it would be really dark that evening. When Freya looked up she didn’t see any stars or moons in the darkening sky even though the predicted overcast was only now just covering the sky. She wondered if it was an atmosphere thing or just a digital thing. Whatever it was, no light from the stars or the two moons in the night sky made the area around the city really dark. The city itself was bathed in lights. There were the ever present street lights but there was also light on the buildings themselves. It made the city look amazing against the darkness.
“It also makes a really good target that even a blind person could hit.” Freya thought to herself, amused.
Toast broke cover and waved her up. She followed him up and into the city. Toast stopped in an alley and dropped his active camo. He took off his helmet and changed his camo on his armor to mimic civilian clothes. He handed her his weapons.
“Stay under active camo. Follow me closely. If you find an unencrypted line, use your Personal AI to tap in and get any information you can pull up from news sites. Anything on troop movements, political news, or anything like that.” He said, as he put his helmet into his backpack.
Freya took his weapons and put them in her backpack. They stuck up above her so she would have to be careful while she was walking, but they were under her armor’s active camo and not in plain sight. She pulled out her old GMZ rifle and put away her big gun. She looked up at Toast, but he didn’t look like he was tracking her right with his eyes.
“You ok?” She asked him.
He smiled. “Yeah, just forgot I can’t see you without my helmet on. Stick close to me, so no one runs into you.”
She followed him out into the city. She brought up communication on her armor and checked for open connections to the communication net in the city. Symbols appeared on her HUD to tell her that there were several hot spots, but they were all encrypted. She could hack then, but it would take a bit of time. She ignored them and looked for an unsecured access. Three blocks away she found one.
“Toast.” She hissed. “Found one.”
Toast slowed down and started to act like he was talking to someone. She ignored him and accessed the unsecured connection with her Personal AI. She sent off a tag to hide her activities and searched news sights. Most were talking about war with the Federation but a few sites were talking about the fight up in the mountains. She downloaded the information into her armor. There was some political talk sites she found and she added to the information that she was saving.
As she was browsing one site she found a burned out mech that had the Platoon’s emblem on it. It took her a few seconds to recognize the Mech that belonged to Done. She knew he had respawned but seeing his burnt-out Mech was shocking. She shook her head, berating herself for being distracted by the picture.
“Done is fine” She told herself angrily.
She found an old article about Summerset Airforce base. It was in the same area that her waypoint was marking. She downloaded the article then ran a quick search for any other article about the base. She found about twenty of them and quickly downloaded them all without reading them. They had been stopped longer than she felt comfortable.
“Good.” She whispered.
Toast nodded like he was agreeing with someone then started walking again, occasionally taking out loud. He stopped talking about ten seconds later. Freya followed Toast as he walked across half the city. While he was doing that, Freya brought up some of the articles and started reading them. She learned the name of the commanding officer of the base from an article about a change of command. She had a picture of him shaking hands with the outgoing general. She found a map of the base on the very next article. She shook her head at how much information she was getting.
Looking at the map, she saw several places were they could sneak in. She also saw a few places of interest on the base. When she stopped reading she saw that Toast was closing in on the base. He wasn’t going directly to the base, but he was walking towards a street that paralleled the base.
Freya reached out and grabbed his shoulder. “This way.” She whispered directing him the opposite way. She led him to a recreation area just outside the base. It was by the flightline of the base. She led him to a clubhouse that was closed for construction. Once he was inside, he stopped, put his helmet on and turned on his active camouflage. She handed back his weapons.
“Very nice.” He whispered to her as she led him up to the second floor. She found a window that had a good view of the flightline. She opened the window a crack and released a surveillance drone. She programmed it to stay outside the base but monitor the flight line and the main entrance of the base. She sent the feeds to command along with herself and Toast.
When she was done, she saw that Toast had set up by the door and was guarding them. She found a good spot on the other side of the room and started looking at the base through her scope while keeping an eye on her drone. She assumed Toast was also watching the feed from her drone. He confirmed it when he told her to get a better angle on the hangar bays where the aircraft were being kept. She did as he asked with the next drone.
Toast told her to get some sleep after she created the third drone. He took over her spot while she went across the room and leaned on the wall. She thought it would take a while for her to fall asleep but she closed her eyes and a second later, when she opened them again, daylight was shining through the window. She yawned and drank an entire box of liquid nutrient.
“Did you sleep well?” He asked her.
“Yes, thank you for letting me sleep the entire night.” She said as she picked up her rifle. She sent off a surveillance drone that had finished constructing while she had been asleep. “Do you want me to take over?”
“Not yet. See if you can find a deactivated communication access here. If you find one, turn it on and keep searching the news sites.” He told her.
“Sounds like a plan.” She replied and walked out of the room. She found one three doors down in an empty office. She found a connection port but there was no linking device. She smiled as she sat down. She knew how to make one using her suit. If she knew one thing very well, it was how to build communications devices. Five minutes later, she created her link in her armor and linked it to the communication port. Seconds later she was browsing the communication net.
The only bad part was that she was reading a five percent loss of integrity in her suit. It wasn’t too bad. She wouldn’t survive in space for more than thirty seconds and she would not be able to go for a swim anytime soon. Her active and passive camouflages were still working though and that was what was most important at the moment. She went back to the room where Toast was keeping watch.
“Done.” She told him when she walked in.
“Can you hack your way into the base?” He asked her.
“You can’t hack a base.” She told him. “You can hack a system, but I get what you mean. All I can say is that I can try.”
“Great.” He told her, putting down his weapon. “Take over. I’m going to get some sleep. Try to hack a system while I’m out,” he told her, emphasizing system sarcastically.
The first method she tried was the old fake message with a virus. She first had to find some message addresses, but that wasn’t all that hard. Then she sent a spam message containing her virus to all the addresses she had access to. It was a virus within a virus. Most cybersecurity systems looked for that type of an attack. The first virus was a simple, crappy-looking virus which delivered a secondary virus that was much more sophisticated. It copied the system structure and send the information to an address that was created seconds before the message was sent. She would access that message and look for weak points in the structure in whatever system she had just invaded.
She sent off five-hundred messages and got twelve returns. Keeping the occasional eye on the drone feed she began to examine the system structures she got a snapshot of. Like she thought, the code was really tight with no obvious exploits but she did find a piece of code here and there that looked odd. She copied them, put them together and smiled. She had found her hole. Somewhere out there, someone had an unauthorized device. To get it to work someone had to have put a physical device on the server, possibly on their authorized device in an office somewhere. It left a weakness in the security that she could exploit.
She started to write a program to see what she could do to piggyback on the signal. Four hours later she was in. It was an admin server, but that was fine. There was no information that she really needed on the server, but it did allow her to create a fictitious person and get them hired on base. Then she logged a request for a minor server clearance, which she was able to authorise with her access to the admin server. Then she promoted that person and processed a request for more secure access. Then used that person to requisition admin to hire a second person. Creating a second fictitious person allowed her more security clearance. Then she transferred the fake person to another department and so on. Eight fictitious people later she had access to the server she wanted.
She requested and got access to war records and blinked at what she saw. She was deep in the records when Toast interrupted her by clearing his throat. She looked up from her tablet and saw him back in position near the door. He was casually drinking a nutrition shake.
“Find something interesting?” He asked her.
“Oh yeah.” She said smiling. “This sim is crazy detailed. I’m reading some reports of Federation Marines fighting battles all across this world. It’s why we haven't been hit by the entire army yet. They are busy fighting multiple battles all across the globe. We own the space station and the major space port. The capital has fallen, but the leadership has escaped and is in hiding. There is a huge battle going on right now with what I think must might be the entire third division and native forces.”
“That hasn’t happened yet and might not happen at all. It’s just the first sim in the tournament. All of us, from the unchosen in the fourth division to the first division, are doing this same sim. That isn’t to say that we won’t be doing some of those missions, so download all that you can but don’t read into it just yet.” He told her. “You find anything else?”
“Yeah, they know where the prisoners are by the mountain and they have encircled them. They are still getting reports of a Mech but, according to their intel, the Mech is low on ammo. They are closing in on her. The reports they are getting expect One’s Mech to be taken out within the next twenty-two hours. Hey, did you know that this world makes one of the ingredients of Batk, the fast cloning fluid? They have mines by the equator that are mining the stuff.” Freya told him.
“This is just a sim, Magic. I ignore the lore and just do your job. So how many of the prisoners made it over the mountain?” He asked her.
“There are no reports on that. They have issued orders to kill all the escapees though and not to accept any surrender from any of us.” She told him.
“Makes sense. What do you have on the camp in the woods and what their plans are on searching the woods?” He asked her.
“It’s a ‘just in case’ order. Like, just in case we split up and are hiding in the woods. Once they confirm everyone in the mountains are dead, then they plan on doing a grid search of the woods. They’re already doing a search in the city and they have sent out propaganda vids about reporting anyone suspicious and the normal paranoid crap. There is a pretty good CCTV system already set up but as far as I can tell they didn’t spot us.” She told him.
“Is there any way to get this info to Torres without them finding out?” He asked her. “I don’t want to leave this position.”
“Sure. I have multiple message accounts already set up. I can send a blind message to him and attach everything we have. He won’t be able to reply, but he will get the message. Also, I have some insane access right now. I don’t expect it to last, but I think I’ve got at least a couple of days before I’m discovered.”
“That’s awesome. Monitor what’s going on and send anything important to Torres.” He told her. She nodded and created another fake person, then used that identity to send everything she found so far to Sergeant Torres before she went back and deleted the identity. They could trace the message back to the deleted account but she doubted anyone would be able to connect farther than that.
She was going over some orders that were being sent from the hidden command leader when she smiled. She caught an order and edited it, giving one of her IDs a promotion. She waited for a conformation and laughed when it got approved. She was now a LT Colonel in the planet’s army. Looking at the access she now had been granted she smiled as an idea came to her.
“Hey, Toast. I got this crazy idea…” She told him, looking up from her tablet.
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Bio: An old US sailor living in the rainy and sometimes sunny Florida. I have a lovely wife, two great kids, a cat named Hades (because she is evil but a cool kinda of evil), and a dog name Muneca (Spanish meaning doll).