Chapter 74 – Ace In the Hole

Chapter 74 – Ace In the Hole

“Dagger and Shield squadrons, flank west northwest under the tree cover. Get a line on that Spotter!”

«Dagger 1, copy! Flanking north!»

“Crossbow squadron, keep exchanging fire with that Enforcer. Keep next to Dagger 8; don’t leave its protection under any circumstance!”

«Roger that!»

“If anyone’s shields drop below 30 percent, then pull back immediately! Shield, catch a ride with Dagger if you have to! Now keep pounding the Suns!”

«Yes sir!»

“Alright…” Colonel Saito muttered under his breath as he disengaged his comms. Bullets whipped past his Halberd as the Black Suns mechs, all still intact, exchanged weapons fire with the SERRCom forces. The trees of the forest within a few dozen meters of the Black Suns outpost had already been shredded to bits by the high-power bullets that flew through the air, bullets that moved with such speed and momentum that no material armor in the galaxy could hope to impede them. Energy shielding was the only thing protecting both the Black Suns and the SERRCom mechs, with the vehicles of both sides being constantly covered in flaring golden shields as bullets deflected off of them.

However, while the Black Suns had yet to lose any of their mechs, the SERRCom forces couldn’t say the same. Warily, Saito eyed the wreck of a Halberd that laid on the battlefield a couple hundred meters in front of where he and the remaining Halberds now stood — it had been destroyed during a charge barely a minute prior. Captain Travis’s suspicions of a fifth Black Suns mech had proved correct, down to the model and range, and its deadly sniper fire made short work of the Halberd, even through its energy shielding. SERRCom’s own sniper mechs, the Arbalests, were next; the Black Suns Ace had shown its skill in counter sniping by tracing the Arbalests’ fire back to their hidden locations and obliterating one of them in a single shot. To prevent more loss of life, the other Arbalest was promptly beamed away to safety. The Ace’s pinpoint accuracy also forced the Hawk gunships to retreat before they, too, were felled. If not for the Black Suns Ace, Saito was certain that the SERRCom forces could have rushed and taken the outpost by now — but instead they were forced to hold back, hiding under the significantly stronger shields of the Aegis Mobile Shield Units, which projected a dome-shaped energy shield a couple dozen meters in radius.

Even those are getting beat, though Saito mused, noting the section of his HUD that read out the shield charge of the two Aegus MSUs. At their current shield dome size, both units could withstand up to 50 kilotons of TNT’s worth of damage. Despite that, both were now down to nearly 70% shield charge, just from the weapons fire of the Black Suns mechs alone — weapons fire that had incidentally flattened and felled all trees within several dozen meters. That damn sniper mech is a big part of it, too Saito thought in irritation, glancing to the side as a large patch of the air a couple dozen meters to the east lit up a brilliant gold — a sign that the shield dome had just been impacted by one of the Ace’s bullets. With that one bullet, the Aegis’s shield charge dropped by a full five percent, belying the raw power of Black Suns weaponry. If the shields weren’t here to absorb that blow, half of this forest would be leveled… it’s no wonder they took out that Halberd in just two shots. I knew that Black Suns tech was effective, but clearly, SERRCom’s intel on the Suns’ weapons technology is lacking. Either way, I can’t let this situation stand.

The Colonel took a brief moment to reload his mech’s assault rifle. As he opened fire on the Enforcer in the distance once more, he shouted into his comms. “Flare squadron, Vanguard 6, do we have sights on that damn Ace yet?”

«Negative!» replied the Captain of Flare 1 — one of the Frigates in low orbit. «Surface scans to the east of your position haven’t revealed anything. Their bullets are likely too small or too fast for our sensors to track, so we can’t trace them back to the sniper. The sniper itself might be under a rock overhang or something similar, to hide themselves from aerial and orbital spotting.»

«It’s what I’d do in a situation like this,» Captain Travis remarked. «The slopes to the east have lots of caves and overhangs. I can’t see the Ace itself, but I’d bet it’s in one of two positions — sending speculative coordinates now.»

“Got it,” Saito replied as two coordinates appeared on his HUD. Both were far to the east, one slightly north of the other and both of them more than fifteen kilometers away. What absurd range the Colonel thought to himself, only to speak up again a second later. “Flare, did you get those coordinates, too?”

«Roger that. 16 and 18 kilometers east of you.»

“Good. Scan for anti-beaming fields around those points. If you find one, that should be our Ace.”


“…Now, in other news…” Saito muttered under his breath as he shifted his attention to the other side of his HUD, which displayed a small tactical map of the positions of the SERRCom forces around the outpost. The outpost itself was built against a cliff face that ran northwest to southeast; the tanks of Dagger squadron, as well as the supporting infantry of Shield squadron, had already maneuvered to the west northwest position that Saito had commanded earlier, and the Black Suns mechs had maneuvered to compensate. Of the four that Saito knew to be in the outpost, only three appeared to stand against the SERRCom forces: one Enforcer to exchange fire with Saito’s squad of Halberds, and the other Enforcer plus a Defender to fire on the tanks of Dagger squadron. The Black Suns Spotter seemed to be hiding somewhere.

If the specs I read last night are correct, then the Suns’ Spotter- and Ace-model mechs don’t have Chaos shielding… Saito thought to himself. Their electrical energy shields are even weaker than our Halberds, too. Those Enforcers, on the other hand… we don’t have official numbers, but reports suggest their Chaos shields can stand up to more than a cumulative 600 fucking kilotons of TNT’s worth of damage. Chances are they didn’t start this fight with full shield charge, but as much as we managed to whittle away at them while those CENT generators were everywhere, the Suns cleaned those generators up faster than I expected. Not to mention that Electrotechnic of theirs, who can keep topping off the Suns’ shields. There’s no way we’re going to overpower those mechs in a straight fight, which means that our only path to victory is to find and take out that beam jammer. Now where is it…?

The Colonel carefully surveyed the outpost half a kilometer away, obscured by clouds of smoke and dirt as it was. Simply obliterating the outpost from on high to take out the beam jammer would be a simple task, given the Frigates in orbit — at which point the pilots of the Black Suns mechs could just be beamed out to instantly neutralize them. Such a tactic would inevitably involve destroying much of the surrounding Black Suns equipment, however, and Commander Shepherd had made it abundantly clear that he wanted as much of their equipment intact as possible. “The things the brass ask of me…” Saito muttered to himself, “but, if we can at least take out that jammer, then we can focus the rest of our efforts on finding and taking down the Ace. So think, Saito, think. Where is it…?”

He glanced at his tactical map again. The outpost itself consisted of a half dozen temporary structures, and two large tents. When the Eximius Vir swept through the outpost earlier, they were able to confirm the presence of computer systems in two of the buildings — but then they had entered the caves in pursuit of some Black Suns Chaotics, leaving the main assault force to deal with the rest of the outpost. That left four of the buildings as possible homes for the beam jammer.

The Suns have to know that we’re looking to destroy that jammer… Saito thought, all while continuing to exchange weapons fire over the dusty and smoking battlefield. They aren’t dumb. In fact, for a PMC that bills itself primarily as being a bunch of elite Chaotics, they’ve performed better than I expected without ever using those Chaotics against us directly. I have to give them credit for that. But, tactically speaking… surely they must have realized by now that we want to capture their outpost intact. Else we would have carpet-bombed it already. I suspect that’s also why they aren’t yet scuttling their equipment — if they reveal which of those buildings DOESN’T have the beam jammer, then we’ll be able to figure out which one does. Hmm…

A second later, Saito hopped on the comms again. “Vanguard 6, do you see the Spotter?”

«…Positive,» came the Captain’s response after a moment of silence. «Kneeling behind one of the buildings that’s behind the Enforcer you’re engaged with.»

“What is it doing?”

«…Nothing, sir. It’s, uh… just kneeling there. It has its hands on one of the buildings, though. …Wait, is it doing what I think it is…?»

“I think you’ve got it, Vanguard 6. Can you shoot that building for me?”

«Heh. Roger that, Vanguard 0.»

As the exchanged wrapped up, so did the magazine currently slotted into the assault rifle of Saito’s Halberd. He quickly ejected the newly empty magazine and slotted in one more, at which point he lifted the mech’s hands to begin firing once again.

«Got it!» Captain Travis exclaimed over the comms. «Vanguard 0, my bullet deflected off of the building the Spotter’s grabbed. None of the other buildings have that protection. The Spotter must be shielding it!»

“As I thought…” Saito replied. While the Spotter’s shields may have been weak, they were still far better than the zero shielding that most beam jammers came with. The jammer must be in that building, then. The Enforcer is even standing in front of it, as if to protect it from our weapons fire. The other Enforcer and the Defender are protecting it from the tanks, as well… if we’re to destroy that jammer, then we need to get a clear line on it. But…

The Colonel’s attention shifted to the side again, to part of the air that once again glowed brilliantly in response to the Black Suns sniper mech firing on the dome shield. Saito had seen with his own two eyes that a mere two shots from that sniper could take out a Halberd; the only way to stay safe was to hide under the dome shields of one of the two Aegis MSUs, but that also meant that the movements of the SERRCom forces were predictable.

Three alarm bleeps drew the Colonel’s attention to the part of his HUD that listed the shield strength of the Aegises — the one that was protecting him and the other Halberds had just dropped below 45%. We don’t have much time… An irritated scowl crossed Saito’s face as he considered his options. To get a line on the jammer and destroy it, we need someone to split from the two Aegises… but doing that would be a death sentence with that sniper out there. …Although… that Ace has been sniping stationary targets this whole time. We haven’t made any sudden movements… or appearances.

A plan quickly formed in the Colonel’s mind as he glanced up at the mountain slopes behind the outpost. “Flare 1,” he said over the comms, “I need you to set something up for me.”

«Roger that, Vanguard 0. What do you need?»

“I’m sending you a coordinate now…” Saito replied as he commanded his mech’s computers, through its neural dive interface, to transmit a set of numbers. “On my mark, I need two things to happen instantly: replace my Halberd’s gun with a MWR-S03, and beam me to the listed coordinate.”

«…Sorry. Repeat, Vanguard 0? You want to beam out of shield protection?»

“I know the Ace is still at large, Flare. Just do what I ask. And the moment the outpost’s beam jammer is destroyed, I need you to beam me back to Dagger 8!”

«…Right. Roger that, Vanguard 0. Your package is ready. Good luck.»

“Alright…” Saito muttered under his breath. Without knowing the Ace’s exact location, it was impossible to know what areas would be in its field of fire — but for Saito’s plan, that didn’t matter. All that mattered was timing — and the handful of seconds that passed between each bullet the Ace fired.

The air above and to the east of Saito again flared a brilliant golden color, indicating that the Ace had again fired upon the dome shield. Ichi… ni… san… shi… go—! the Colonel mentally counted the seconds, using the clock on his HUD to pace himself until the dome shield lit up again from the impact of yet another bullet. Barely five seconds… this’ll be close, Saito thought to himself, and then steeled his nerves and furrowed his brow in concentration. Here… we… go…!

The very moment before the dome shield flared up again, Saito shouted over the comms. “Flare 1! NOW!

Bright white immediately engulfed the Colonel’s vision, blocking out the smoky and dust-covered battlefield before him. Replacing it was a bright blue sky above and a rocky gray underfoot, with a far rougher texture and steeper slope than the flat ground Saito had been standing on barely a second prior. His mech began to stumble due to the sudden terrain change, but he immediately righted himself and firmly grasped the sniper rifle that had suddenly replaced his assault rifle. Bringing it to bear, he aimed down and to the west — at the Black Suns outpost that now stood nearly 10 kilometers east of him.

San… shi…! Saito counted mentally as he aimed his rifle, watching both the distant dome shield that he had once stood under and the shielded building that was completely exposed to his new angle of attack. As he expected, this time, the dome shield failed to flare up under sniper fire — the Ace hadn’t yet fired. It wants to know where I went. Well, it’s about to learn!

With that thought, the Colonel fired his rifle at the shielded building. However, as good with a gun as he was, he wasn’t Captain Travis — his shot deflected off the side of the building, and its shields remained intact. Shit. Still. One more shot from this gun should be enough to take it out—!

Saito’s thoughts were interrupted as the rock face barely a hundred meters away from him exploded violently, as though someone had detonated a massive explosive next to the mountain. It found me! And almost hit me, from well over 20 klicks away! With pursed lips, the Colonel quickly adjusted his aim and fired once more. This time, his bullet slammed directly into his target, imparting all of its kinetic energy directly into the shields — and completely overpowering them. A visual static fuzz encased the building, indicating that its shields had overloaded as the remaining kinetic energy from the bullet carried it through the flimsy walls and obliterated whatever stood inside.

As soon as Saito saw the static fuzz, his mech was rocked by a massive blow, followed by intense flickering in his HUD and blaring alarms. The Ace had just nailed him, and wiped out a full half of the Halberd’s shield charge in the process — just one more shot, and the Halberd was as good as scrap. Immediately, Saito issued an ejection command to his mech’s computers. A tense second passed as the neural dive system unlinked from his mind, causing his vision to go momentarily black. Then, a loud hiss and a bang filled his ears, followed by the sensation of rushing air across his body as he was launched high into the air. He grit his teeth and grimaced, his head growing woozy under the g-forces of the ejection, compounded by the fact that his vision had yet to return. And then, a second later, it did, allowing him to see the wide-open blue skies with his own two eyes —

— as well as an incredible eruption of dirt and stone from the mountain below him as a 75mm sniper bullet hit the Halberd mech he had been piloting at well above hypersonic speeds, instantly obliterating both the mech and a chunk of the surrounding rock.

The shockwave from the powerful blow blasted Saito through the air to the north, sending him tumbling painfully to the ground. His own personal armor protected him from the fall, its energy shields flaring as they absorbed the shock — and then, a split second later, a bright white light engulfed him. Took you long enough, he thought bitterly as his surroundings spontaneously changed once more, this time back to the battlefield that he had first been standing on. Upon his return, however, the sounds of gunfire and explosions had subsided; the three Black Suns mechs, once alight with heavy weapons fire, now stood as still as statues.

«Flare 1 to Vanguard 0, come in.»

“Vanguard 0, here,” Saito spoke into his headset while clambering onto the Aegis MSU that was parked amidst the remaining two Halberd mechs. “Did you get the pilots?”

«Yes, sir. We can confirm the beam jammer is down. The mechs within the outpost have been neutralized, and their pilots imprisoned in our brig! We’ve beamed a temporary shield generator down to the outpost, as well, to prevent the enemy sniper from scuttling it!»

«…You really did it again, huh?» came Captain Travis’s amused voice. «Just had to go and put yourself out there, huh, sir?»

“You shut up, Vanguard 6,” Saito retorted, though he couldn’t help but allow a relieved smile to cross his face. The air above him suddenly flared golden again, however, serving as an important reminder. “But our work here isn’t done!” the Colonel barked over the comms, this time to the entire assault force. “The outpost exterior is as good as ours, but we still need to neutralize the remaining mech and secure the caves! Don’t let your guards down now! Everyone, regroup within the outpost! It’s time for the final stage of this op!”

«Understood!!» replied a chorus of voices, all of them filled with a mixture of relief and determination. The two Halberds and the Aegis that Saito was riding began to approach the newly empty outpost, allowing the Colonel a brief respite to collect his thoughts. He glanced off to the east, in the direction of where he knew the Ace to be, and then glanced down at the wreck of a Halberd that laid in the middle of the battlefield — the first SERRCom casualty of the operation.

“…Three destroyed mechs, and two dead pilots. More casualties than I would have liked, but overall, less than I expected…” he muttered to himself. “Eximius Vir, Hackett, let’s hope you’re having an easier time of this than us…”