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chapter nine
Part One

As the great beast heaved to Senior Leftenant Finnegan slammed against the hard sides of the cavern and then awoke, very disoriented. He bolted upright, alarmed that he'd been dreaming of dragons and the bellies of whales. He looked around wondering, as he shook off the slumber and remembered where he was. What could possibly have caused such a violent pitch to the Troop Carrier?

Astral Troop Carriers were a bit of an anomaly in the 23rd Century. Ground based vehicles built of components from a variety of suppliers. Typically, when an organization wanted to construct a product for sale and needed a specialty part to make that happen, they merely found a small supplier and bought them out. It was something that Rigel Aerospace had begun years earlier in order to ensure their trendsetting level of quality control and having set the bar so high, it was something every potential competitor attempted to emulate.

But many years earlier, the wiley Network Procurement Officer in charge of the tender to build the Astral Troop Carriers realized that 70 percent of the requirements were not only met, but exceeded by the civilian contractor Grand Designs and their Grav-Assist Fire and Rescue vehicles, yet Grand Designs was not in the business of weapons and armour manufacturing. Nor was it capable of taking over producers of those parts, at least not at the minimum quality required by the Network.

Insistent that Astral Troops had the best possible equipment this person, Procurement Specialist First Class Fredrick Lunds, worked through the many levels of involvement and created the conditions necessary to ensure that the high quality avionics and structure only Grand Designs seemed capable of providing were the basis of a heavily armed, multiple redundantly powered and extremely well shielded vehicle that technically, because of "last place of assembly" rules, was built by Anex Astralnautics in Sao Paulo Brazil. It was a feat that earned Captain Lunds the Award For Excellence in Procurement and Development at that year's LADIS CEREMONY in Calgary.

The other benefit of this design was that the 12 metre long craft could, were the operators unconcerned about fuel consumption, hover at higher altitudes. It could technically fly up to a kilometre above ground, a very useful tool in the rescue and fire fighting industry.

But here, deep inside Buffalo Commons, unsure when the next refueling opportunity might avail itself, the Squad did their best to conserve power and that mean "gliding" over the uneven surface of the Commons at a mere half metre. It was a decision Finn was quickly regretting as he bit down a mouthful of bile.

The sudden lurches reminded him of a bad re-entry flight during his Academy days, one of those wild rides that too often ends a young pilot's career, and occasionally his life.

Another pitch, the reverse direction, pulled him violently across the bed and against the forward bulkhead. Thankfully, because he was lying down he landed on his feet, but he wondered how those in back would be doing. More importantly he wondered why a Troop Carrier, hovering barely a meter above the ground, was behaving like an untamed bronco.

A tap of the controls caused the two chairs in the Command alcove to retract from the single bed alignment back into their upright seating position. Finn steadied himself against either side of the Command space and gingerly stood until he could reach the overhead grip, where he brushed and fussed a moment, tugging his tunic back into place, before toggling the partition open.

"What the devil is going on?" He bellowed into the cab as he stepped out of his private space and the vehicle lurched again, this time to starboard.

Corporal Livingston, at nearly seven feet tall, looked ill placed behind the controls of the Troop Carrier. His gangly arms flailed about while he flipped switches and toggles, adjusting the touch sensitive displays, trying vainly to compensate for the jarring jerks and lurches.

"The sensitivities are set too high on the compensators, sir!"

Typical techno-mumble, it meant almost nothing to Finn as he climbed up the vehicle and into the archway of the cab. "Pull over!"

Pulling over wasn't much of a command considering they were crossing a rough patch of otherwise open plan. Whatever roadways had been here had been rubbled up by a hundred years of freezing, thawing, stampedes and flash floods. Despite that Livingston found a relatively level patch and powered down the craft on it.

Finn turned aft and toggled the door open to the back half of the vehicle where he was surprised to see his entire squad out of their bunks and huddled on the deck, in the fetal position and various states of slumber. He glanced at the chrono of his cuff-display, it was oh two thirty five. Mid way through the night. He frowned at them.

"How long have you been like this?" Finn said.

Sergeant Sherona Jones responded as she rose, "Most of the night, sir. The pitching started back at twenty-three hundred."

Finn looked at each of the faces, some greener than others but all reflecting a similar misery. He made a decision, more borne out of a desire for a good nights sleep for himself than any actual concern for others, but not without that either.

"Jones, set up rotation. Two on, for two hours each. Best combo for day break." The faces around the room screwed up in confusion. Two on, for two hours each was a phrase implying a sentry schedule. Sentries meant they'd be staying put, no bucking, no pitching, no nausea. In the ten days they'd been on this mission they hadn't stopped for the night once.

Finn turned to the cab where Livingston seemed much less out of place now that the seat was turned around, "I want those scanners running constantly but all other systems will be on stand-by, each night from here on unless the mission dictates otherwise."

That almost brought a cheer from the group, but they knew better. Their commander wasn't above playfulness but when he was using this tone and body language he was all business and even the least experienced among them picked that up in the first week.

Jones rose and looked around the room. She'd leave Livingston on the first shift, along with Private Armstrong who took the assignment at a nod and moved fore. Jones bristled about the reminder for 'best combo on the daybreak shift'. You didn't get out of basic training without knowing that just before dawn was your most vulnerable time for attack because it best benefited your attacker. She'd take that shift along with Corporal Lumly.

Finn had already turned back to the Command alcove and sequestered himself. It was good that he'd get a full night's sleep, Jones thought, it was better that this would become the norm from here on in. The commander set the tone for the squad and a rested leader meant a smoother, calmer mission. Sad fact, but true.

After assigning the timetable and instructions for rotation and bunk allotment to smooth that transition Jones finally closed the door separating the back of the Troop Carrier from the Command alcove and Cab and then pulled down the side cot she'd hop in for the next two hours. The lack of stimuli brought slumber around quickly.

* * *

Trinity Zimmerman continued to try and catch her breath while the moving house rested. She brought the Cody Rifle up and peered through the scope because that was the only way to see that far with any clarity. After zeroing in on the flying box she switched through some of the settings she'd been shown until she got saw a group of glowing blobs. Most of them horizontal. Were these the beast's organs? She'd been told they weren't but she had a hard time believing that these ghostly images could be people.

She turned to Roman Calib and spoke quietly, "Get back to the Village and find Horst. Let him know the beast has stopped near the rock at White Creek."

Andrew nodded and then slunk off trying not to make noise. He was pretty good at that apparently because by the time Trinity could no longer see him, she couldn't hear him either.

She turned back to the ridge and brought the box of ghosts back into her sights. They've been warned something like this would be coming, but if that was true then the nightmare they'd been warned would follow was probably true as well..

* * *