"Damn the Cardinal!"
"Damn the Cardinal!" We echoed the toast and drank ... again. It was a month before the Big Game -- combat football between the University of Northern California, Berkeley and our archrival, the Stanford Cardinal. Things were not looking good. Our mascot, a seven-foot tall stuffed grizzly named Oski, had been kidnapped in a beautifully executed lightning raid a year ago, and hadn't been heard from since. School spirit (and several campus buildings) were still in shambles. On top of that, two of our star players were injured and out of the Big Game. At first, it appeared that they might die in time for their clones to be used, but now it seemed that they were going to pull through. Eventually. The bastards.
"Damn. We should at least get the bear back this year," I muttered, mostly to myself.
"Well, Andreas, why the hell don't we?" Mike yelled from across the couch. He tried to slam his Cal mug down on the table, missed, and settled for swinging his beer through the air. It splashed all over Jim, but neither seemed to notice or care. A half-hearted chorus of "yeahs" rang out, then quickly faded into a morose silence.
"Look, you guys all know Jenny, right?" Andy piped up suddenly. Jenny -- his girlfriend. So what?
"Jenny's on the spirit committee, and she was over there yesterday to coordinate half-time activities." Andy paused dramatically. "She thinks she saw Oski."
"What!" No way!" "Where?!" He had us now.
"In a closet in the trophy room of Newell Hall. She only got a glimpse -- the girl who was showing her around slammed the door and hustled her out of there as soon as she caught her looking. It was all covered up, but Jenny's sure that she recognized the bear."
Silence reigned for a few moments, as we muddily tried to digest this information. I looked over at Andy and realized that he'd been drinking more than usual. He had a strange gleam in his eye. I glanced over to Steve, who now had a similar look about him. The last time those two had that look, we had ambushed the UCLA cheerleaders with paint guns after a game. Suddenly, everything started to click into place in my mind.
Click. "I was talking to these alumni the other day," the words rushed out, "... the two old guys who own that bar, Raleigh's... and they were talking about how they'd go after Oski themselves, only they're too old. Then they said they'd bankroll a rescue mission, if they knew the right people." Click. "Professor Kusnetz -- my aerial warfare prof -- was telling me about some of the department's latest research projects. He's cool. He might be willing to allow some, ah, 'field tests,' if it was for a good cause." Click. Snap. "Okay, who's in?"
The walls shook as a cheer rang out. Another case or six of Armored Beer disappeared, amidst plans to consolidate our support and execute the mission.
The next day Andy reported that he'd have the plans to the hall where the bear was kept by the end of the week. I hoped my hangover would be gone by then. Steve Kobayashi, a biowarfare major, had talked his cute TA, Janet, into giving him a canister of knockout gas and enough gas masks for our group. By Friday we had accumulated most of our ground assault hardware; now all we needed were vehicles. Over the weekend we arranged to borrow one of the team's duelling cars during Big Game Week -- long enough for us to exchange the paint ammo for the real stuff. But most importantly, our alumni friends supplied us with a bus, a surplus chopper and -- incredibly -- a gasoline-powered camper. Everything needed work, but our main problem was that nobody knew how to drive a bus. Steve was our best driver, so he was elected to learn. Quickly.
Big Game Week came with all the rituals associated with college rivalries. We had our work cut out from us, getting used to the vehicles and going over every step of our plan. We hoped to time our raid to coincide with the Stanford rally; then they'd all be too busy to pay any attention to us.
At dusk I climbed into the Knight Hawk helicopter with Jim, my gunner; I had recently completed my pilot's license, and was the only pilot in the group. Fortunately, the test included a low-level urban assault pattern.
"Comm check. Sky Bear ready to go." I started.
"Papa Bear ready to roll." Steve answered from the driver's seat of the bus.
"Baby Bear set." That was Jung, my roommate and the best duellist in the group. He was driving the borrowed car.
"Mama Bear ready." Andy was in the camper, currently being towed by the bus. Towing the camper there would save gas; besides, none of us could figure out how to stealth a gas motor.
"Roger. Time to go. Papa, your lead." I finished as I lifted the helicopter off the ground. I had to go by my flight pattern until we left Berkeley, otherwise the city's SAM batteries would end my part of tonight's adventure before I had a chance to have any fun.
It was fully dark as I shut off my lights, went to Stealth and IR modes and dropped to wavetop to follow the ferry carrying my friends across the San Francisco Bay. The ferry landed at Coyote Point and we headed South on what used to be highway 101. The road was still good, though it was starting to decay from neglect. Had anybody seen us, we would have been a pretty interesting sight: a car, bus towing a truck, and a helicopter flying on the deck, all dark and quiet. We were in a column, doing about 50 in order to utilize everybody's Stealth. Twenty minutes later we turned off, heading West to our target.
Five minutes, two miles. "Baby bear break to target alpha."
Jim said from the gunner's seat behind me.
"Good luck," I whispered to Jung as the lone car headed towards the South end of the Stanford campus.
"Ah, GM, I'm picking up low-level radar." Jim warned, calling me by the callsigns we had chosen earlier that day.
"Any sign we're registering? If not, don't jam it 'til you're sure they've got us." I replied. I started looking for tall buildings I could hide behind in a hurry, just in case.
Kusnetz was working on a radar-absorbing paint; not as good as radarproof armor, but so far it was holding up. I hoped.
"One minute to target. Dwarf, tell the boys to start charging
"Roger, Ranger." Steve replied to Jim.
"Thirty seconds to target," as we passed through the campus gates.
"Okay boys, it's time to rock and roll. Hit hard and fast."
"Find me some targets, Ranger." I activated by HUD, augmented by the Cybertron Mark 8000 cyberlink that my parents had given me last Christmas.
"Roger. Got a grounded chopper on top of the dorm at 11 o'clock."
I aimed the turret and let loose with the tri-barrel machine guns. After tracking the first couple of bursts, I linked the forward tri-barrel. That was one copter we wouldn't have to worry about tonight.
Suddenly I saw the bus rock to one side, a wall of fire flaring briefly alongside. Just as I was about to key the mike and ask if they were okay, the bus rocked again and I realized that the cause was the four portside AT guns firing simultaneously. Some couple out on a date had just had their evening ruined; too bad, but we couldn't risk them radioing ahead or bringing up reinforcements to cut off our retreat.
"15 seconds to target." Ranger reported.
I accelerated and took us up to 200 feet as the opening strains of the 1812 Overture carried across the campus.
"Baby's waking 'em up," I broadcast unnecessarily, considering the whole campus had certainly heard the music.
"Tower around the bend. Five seconds to target."
"Roger. Look for that laser port and light it up," I told Jim. He started tracking with the IR laser mounted in the nose. "Got it."
"Pop him two APs." I instructed as I brought both sets of tri-barrels to bear. Between rockets and the six machine guns loaded with HD ammo, the tower and its x-ray laser quickly turned into an expensive rubble heap. I was real glad that we had caught them napping; armor wouldn't last too long against that powerful a laser. They would probably upgrade security after we left, but then, hopefully, we wouldn't be coming back again.
"Target entrance in sight, Claw team report status," Steve
said over the general frequency.
"Beanpole ready," Andy reported.
"Druid ready," KweiCee announced.
"Elf ready," James acknowledged as the rear crew door opened up.
"Cat ready." That was Gordon.
"Entering the courtyard now. Wait for the ATs and go on my signal," Steve ordered. Two of the starboard ATs roared as Steve brought the bus within feet of the building we hoped Oski was hidden in. "Go, go, go!"
James, Kwei-Cee and Gordon jumped out of the slow-moving bus and ran to the breach in the building. Andy rolled out of the camper to see the others toss the canister of gas into the building. He drew his 'scoped, twin-barrel gyroslugger and donned his gas mask before leading the way into the building. Steve jettisoned the pick-up by blowing the explosive bolts holding the tow bar on. Then the sounds of the cannons from the 1812 Overture boomed over the campus along with a succession of real explosions.
"Sky, this is Goblin. I'm in the stadium parking lot. No trouble yet. Just blew a few cars and the laser tower. How much longer do I have to be here? Over."
"Goblin, Skybear. Claw team just initiated entrance. Expect
two-zero to four-zero seconds more. Ranger out."
"Bloody hell. Goblin out."
"Dwarf, Ranger. Vehicle headed your way at 095. Looks like Stanford security."
Steve acknowledged as I brought the chopper around to assist. Steve pointed the bus at the courtyard exit road that the hostile vehicle was using for its approach as I flew ahead and peppered the Stanford car with some hot lead from the linked tri-barrels. Papa Bear came into range as I banked for another run. The bus' blast cannon tore away the front armor of the wildly-jinking security sedan. In an attempt to keep his front side away from us he drove right alongside Papa Bear. He realized his mistake too late as the first shot of the portside ATs shredded his armor and the second pair ended any threat he posed to us, as the car plowed into a tree and exploded. "That's a kill for us, thanks for the assist!" Mike "Tree" Madden yelled jubilantly.
"Yeah, but how's your armor?" I asked.
"Kinda thrashed; took a couple of AC hits. We'll hold it together," Steve replied as he began to swing the bus around in a u-turn. The hedges would never be the same again.
"Claw team status report: we've leapfrogged our way to the target's location. Only minor resistance so far; my gyroslugger took them out. Druid and Cat are about to blow the door .. ." Andy reported. A series of explosions crackled over the opened channel, and I continued to fly lazy figure eights in a covering pattern.
"Look out for that tripod gun! Damn! Druid's down."
"I got it. Blast, I hit the armor. Take it out man, take it out!"
"Good shot, good shot. Got 'em on the run. Move in."
"Claw team report. Lots of torn-up body armor, and Druid's wounded but conscious. Our objective is here. We're blowing the security systems .. ." Andy reported, panting heavily.
"Hostile radar ... damn, they've got us, GM." Ranger broke in. I debated between gaining altitude or speed, and decided to keep clearance height and get as much speed as possible.
"Hey Papa Bear, company's coming. If your friend Sammy decides to say hello, make sure it's to a stranger, okay?" A chuckle was the only response Ranger got.
"You got range and bearing yet?" I asked impatiently.
"Just another second ... yeah, bearing 170 at 850 yards, course 350, altitude 500, speed 75 knots," Ranger reported.
"When he gets within 250, pop the RGMs; he won't be able to dodge them, I hope." I ordered as I set the intercept course.
"Second bogey, 260 at 1,500 yards, course 195, altitude 500, speed 150. He hasn't got us on radar yet."
"Can you tell which is the bigger target?" I asked.
Great. The bigger threat hadn't acquired us, which meant that he was probably going after Jung. To take the heat off of him, we'd have to make ourselves the target. Well, that would happen soon enough. I beat on the throttles to get all the speed I could out of the chopper, as I didn't have any altitude to spare. "Start trying to light him up with the laser, maybe we can scare him a little."
"Yeah, right." Jim sounded disgusted. I grinned. "Five seconds to RGM launch, GM. Bogey 2 is changing course to 180 and diving."
"Claw team report. We've got the bear ... I mean objective ... and we're headed out. Elf out," James reported over the general frequency.
Although I couldn't hear it, I knew Steve was starting the pick-up by remote control. The roar of the supercharged gas engine was sure to make this an even more popular spot for Stanford security.
"Dwarf, three vehicles coming your way. One from our entrance, two from the West road. Look for lights." At least they didn't have IR systems.
"Roger, got 'em sighted."
"Tree, give us some cover." The turreted RLs belched and smoke engulfed the area for yards behind the huge bus.
"We've got flies." Steve reported, detonating a few of his flechette dischargers to deal with those people foolish enough to attack the bus on foot.
"In range, firing RGMs now." That brought me back to our opponents in a hurry as the helicopter lurched from the release of the missiles. Then the targeting laser started firing; Jim probably wouldn't hit anything, but was preparing to release more guided rockets as opportunities arose.
"He's banking away ... not going to make it. Uh oh, bogey 2 has us and is coming to join the party." Ranger reported as our missiles impacted on the helicopter's tail. The damage might not have been enough to penetrate armor, but shook him up enough to lose control. It was extreme range, but I switched to incendiary ammo and started firing the turret guns.
"Call Goblin, tell him to get his butt out of there."
"Goblin, Ranger. You can come in out of the cold now, over."
"Aw, just when I was starting to have fun. Goblin out."
As we closed on the damaged helicopter, Jim let lose with a pair of AP rockets and I linked in the front guns with the turret. There was a series of sharp cracks on the windshield, and I realized we'd been hit. But our fire had been enough to make the other pilot lose control again and settle heavily through the trees to land in a student parking lot.
"Incoming RGMs at 245!" Jim yelled.
"Jam them," I snapped, banking away from the downed helicopter.
"Trying ... got 'em." Jim sighed with relief. I started zig-zagging to confuse the other gunner's aim. I hoped it would help, since we were rapidly being overhauled by a helicopter that had the edge on us in speed, size and altitude. We wound up flying close enough to the stadium parking lot to see at least 20 cars damaged and on fire -- the result of Jung's plastique and FOJ. I fired the turret; the two guns loaded with incendiary ammo should add to the fun they were having down there.
"Go to MF mode and see if you can find our friend," I ordered, craning my neck around to try and spot the other helicopter. With the radar jammer on, everybody's radar was useless -- in theory. We had an edge, a multiple frequency radar ... a device my friend, Alec, had been building for his electronic warfare project. He wasn't about to part with his prototypes until I swore him to secrecy and revealed our plans. Then he jumped at the chance to equip all our vehicles.
"Damn, he's going to fly right over us! Coming 270."
There was a roar as he passed about 30 feet over our heads on a perpendicular path, hammering our right side with Gauss shells. Then a bright flame blossomed from his backside and our helicopter shook as though swatted by a giant.
"Hell, that's a tank gun!" Ranger yelled. I was too busy trying to regain control to make the reply the popped into my mind.
"Take the turret! Return fire!" I yelled, still trying to regain some semblance of control. I managed to straighten out at treetop level just as the other 'copter came in for another pass. "Argh! " I yelled as the searchlight hit me in the face. The windows polarized as I shook my head to clear my dazzled retinas and I banked to keep our left side out of his fire arcs. This time their gunners were more selective -- they blew off a maneuvering foil. I swore and ejected what was left.
"GM, this is Tree. Can you give us some support here?"
"Ah, sorry guys. No top cover -- repeat -- you have no top cover for a little while." It hurt me to admit it, but we were outclassed and might not be much help to anyone very soon.
"Hey, GM. Take the road at 340," Ranger suggested while firing the turret. As my eyes cleared, I saw a road covered by an arch of branches. I grinned and dove for it, which caught the other gunners by surprise. It would take a couple of seconds for the other pilot to turn around and follow us. Fortunately, most pilots are a little crazy, so I was reasonably sure that he would pursue us despite the obvious lack of maneuvering room. Another surge of adrenalin hit me as I began to fully realize that I was flying down a narrow tunnel at 120 mile per hour on a path designed for, maybe, a third of that. For cars.
"He's following us." Ranger noted. I hoped Jim would not look forward -- if he did, he might ask if I knew what I was doing. I heard an exclamation, then ...
"Ah, Andreas.. ."
"Don't ask. It was your idea."
The helicopter shook as we took another hit. I fought to retain control, with no margin for error.
"We just lost a stabilizer blade," Jim reported. So that was what was causing the extra vibration.
"What's the range?" I snapped.
"Fifty yards and closing fast." I still had one trick up my sleeve. I could feel a cruel smile form on my lips.
"Hit the streamer."
Seventy-five feet of paint streamed out behind us and then burst into flame.
"lf he makes it through, hit it again, Ranger."
Even if his armor survived, his rotors wouldn't last through two streams, and there was no place for him to go except straight ahead.
"How's he doing?"
"Can't tell. Fire's screwing up the IR." Ranger answered.
"Pop the second stream just to be sure." My weapons status board noted the firing by lighting the red "empty mag" indicator. Three seconds later came a loud crashing, ear-piercing screech of tortured metal, as the pursuing helicopter plowed into the ground at over 100 miles per hour. We flew on; I couldn't worry about anything else, as we were still travelling under the trees and I didn't intend to slow down unless I had to. Jim busied himself by trying to find out how everyone else was doing, probably so that he wouldn't have to watch the branches reaching for us as I banked us through a turn.
"Yo, Baby B. Ranger calling. How's it going?"
"Almost out of ammo and armor. Been having a hell of a lot of fun, though. Headed home, out."
"Papa Bear, you there? Ranger calling Papa Bear .. ."
"Ranger, we'll call back. Kinda busy at the moment," Mike sent back, then warned, "Claw team, stay put. It's not safe outside yet."
"Yeah, yeah. We're loading the cargo. Try not to shoot us, okay?" Andy replied.
"Yo, Beanpole! What's happening?" Jim asked.
"We're loading now. It's a hot firefight out here. Papa's sides have taken a beating. Right rear quarter's been breached. He's got two -- no, make that one more car to deal with.
We roared by some rather startled pedestrians who jumped for the safety of the trees. "GM, we should be back in the action in a few seconds."
"This is Beanpole. I'm loaded and ready to roll. See you guys
"Good luck; take good care of our friend."
"You bet." Andy accelerated; in three seconds the camper was doing 60. "Oops. Couple of silly pedestrians just tried to stop me and couldn't get out of the way in time. Oh well." Andy informed us. Of course, it is kind of hard to dodge something that is swerving towards you.
"Claw team, prepare for pick-up," Steve announced.
The pick-up plan for the recovery team was as crazy as the rest of the operation. Under smoke cover, the team would line up along the street and jump in the open passenger door while the bus drove by at 20 miles per hour. I was glad I wasn't doing it. Of course, flying under the trees at high speed at night might not be the sanest or smartest thing I had done today.
"Stand by. Ready on my mark .. ." Mike told the team while
Steve drove as close as he dared.
"Damn, Elfs hit! I'll get him." Gordon yelled. "We're okay, ready for pick-up."
"Go!" Mike screamed as he fired the RLs.
"We're in. Get us out of here!" Gordon yelled as he slammed the door shut.
We finally came out of the trees in time to seethe back of the bus turn the corner. Now any gunners still in the buildings would be shooting at us. Great. Just what I needed right now.
"Hose 'em down," I shouted as sparks flew from an instrument panel, the result of a shot that had entered our breached left side. The turret spat bullets, taking out the few windows across the street that had lasted this long. I accelerated, trying to reach the relative security of the bay. Or at least make it off campus in something resembling a flying vehicle. I was glad that we wouldn't have to worry about the gate defenses. 1 didn't know how, but a deal had been struck and the gates were unmanned tonight.
"GM, target at 090, course 078, range 5,000, speed 100 ...
"Oh no! Beanpole! Come in, Beanpole. You've got company coming fast!" Roger warned frantically.
"Keep your pants on. I'm on the freeway. He won't catch me."
"Keep track of them," I told Jim.
As we passed the campus boundary, I eased off the throttle to get into stealth mode again and to keep the bus from falling too far behind. Apparently Steve and Mike had taken out the ready northern security forces, and Jung had confused the southern forces well enough that we were all able to make it to the freeway without incident.
"That helicopter is still hounding Beanpole. Wait, Beanpole's pulling away. The chopper just popped two RGMs. Wow! Beanpole must have hit the nitrous, he's outracing the missiles."
"Great. What's the 'copter doing now?"
"He gave up. Headed west."
"Hey Dwarf, how are things down there?"
"Trashed, but we'll make it home."
"Glad to hear it. Looks like smooth sailing from here on out. GM out."
We continued along Route 101 for another ten minutes without seeing another vehicle. I wasn't too worried about gang activity; few people were actually stupid enough to make an unplanned attack on a bus escorted by a helicopter.
"Nine o'clock! Bandit at nine o'clock," the radio suddenly came to life.
"Wha .. ." Jim sputtered.
I veered left to get my breached side away. Too late. The helicopter shuddered as it absorbed the recoilless shell. The power plant whined in protest as shell fragments tore their way through the compartment. I ignored the warning my engine gauges were trying to give me, concentrating instead on keeping my guns tracked for a head-on pass. "Eat lead! Damn! Missed!" I cried. I jinked wildly and his return shots missed to port. Now it became a race to see who could turn faster. We lost. The other pilot blew off another of our stabilizer blades, but had forgotten about the bus beneath him. it proved a costly error, as a volley of SAMs and rockets pounded the bottom armor. The Stanford pilot struggled to regain control as smoke poured out of the holes that Mike and Steve had created. More rockets poured into the copter's underbody as the pilot decided to get rid of some excess weight. The bus' turret was tossing up smoke; I realized that Mike was out of regular ammunition, as the pair of bombs arced gracefully down and turned the turret into scrap metal. I finally got back into a decent firing position and brought the other pilot's attention back to us by blowing out his windshield. He veered away and headed for the bay as my hammers clicked on empty chambers. Being completely out of ammunition, I decided to be generous and let the other pilot continue his escape.
A half hour later I climbed up to Berkeley approach altitude and watched the bus stagger into the city. Fortunately, we hadn't had to do any more fighting - we'd have had a hard time fighting off a Girl Scout troop. As we entered the city, the opening strains to the Cal fight song came over the radio. I sagged back in weariness and relief. The signal meant that our mission had been successful. The next day the bear was back where he belonged for the Big Game.