“Staff Sergeant, status report.” I asked of Mai Lei, the nervous but enthusiastic chief engineer for 1st Strike.
Around me the jungle flora of Paradiso crowded in. High canopies shaded the broken asphalt and overgrown buildings. The cries of the jungle’s inhabitants competed with the screech of power-tools as the team stripped the broken Red Lotus shuttle down to usable components. I followed Mai Lei’s anxious trot up the steps of the tower, the only structure to breach the claustrophobic canopy. As I stepped out onto the roof I was met with a breathtaking view of an endless sea of green. Even the compound we had holed up in was hidden underneath the emerald blanket. The only break in the vibrant canopy was a large burned scar, still smouldering and releasing an oily black plume of smoke, where the largest remains of the Estrella del Proscrito had crashed.
“It’s not good sir, but it could be much worse.” Mai Lei’s response jolted me out of my inspection of the jungle surrounding us. “We’re in the Pan Oceanian province of Slydavia, south of Fairbanks Sea and roughly 100 clicks from Yinxian territory. We’ve activated a scrambled emergency beacon but comms are acting funny in the jungle. We’re not sure when a pick-up team will come. Sergeant Tai Sheng says PanO forces are bound to investigate the crash and pick up our signal.
“We’re still not sure what it was that hit us. The alien threat shouldn’t be active this far west and it didn’t seem to be a PanO system. Whatever it was, we only managed to get one of the ship’s emergency shuttles and the Red Lotus shuttle out in time. We only lost 3 people in the crash but there’s a lot of injuries and all our heavy equipment is in the wreckage,” Mai Lei paused apprehensively, “and of course, one of the casualties…”
“Was Crane Liu Fe,” I finished for her as we stared at the burning patch of jungle that marked the wreckage. “We need the information in Liu Fe’s Cube. We need him. Tell Tai Sheng to get a team ready to move and inform Lt Jin Li she will be in command while we go in.”
“We?!” Mai Lei squeaked in wide-eyed horror.
“Yes, Mai Lei. I know combat is not your speciality but we don’t know what we’re going find in the wreckage. I’m going to need your skills. Anyway, there may not be any interference. Hopefully, the PanO will be slowed down by the jungle as much as us.”
“Unfortunately, I do not believe that will be the case Captain.”
Mai Lei gasped in shock and we both spun at the unexpected softly-spoken voice. Stood only a couple paces behind us was a man in full servo-armour, the stippled black and green stripes blending in with the scattered shadows cast by the jungle canopy. He leaned casually against the rooftop railing, staring thoughtfully out at the smudge of smoke, his skull white helmet perched precariously beside him.
“Who are you and how the hell did you get past my guards?!” I demanded, reaching for the pistol at my hip as Mai Lei stood staring in shock.
“Apologies if I startled you,” the stranger slowly raised his hands and turned to face us. A small smile tugged at the corner of his lips and the skin around his eyes creased along well-worn laughter lines. In contrast to his apparent quiet humour, however, his pale almond eyes held a tired depth. Staring into them was like peering into twin pools of bottomless melancholy.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Voodoo 6 of the Paradiso Long-Range Special Intervention Unit. My unit has been given this part of the Syldavia-Yinxian DMZ to monitor. You’re lucky I found you first.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” I growled.
“Come, Captain, there are more important matters to discuss,” Voodoo 6 smiled disarmingly, unfazed by the pistol pointed at his face. “Such as the Aconticimento Shock Force I’ve been tracking for the last month. The one that is currently digging through the wreckage of that spacecraft. You’re going to have to be careful if you truly intend to go in there.”
How had he crept up behind us in a heavy armour suit? As I studied the lines of his armour I spotted a discreet but instantly-recongisable taijitu. Finally recognizing the insignia, I slowly lowered my pistol but kept my eyes locked on the Hac Tao in front of me.
“Mai Lei, please inform Sergeant Tai Sheng that she is to ready the team immediately for a raid then to meet me here.”
The engineer failed to move, still staring at the Hac Tao in shock.
“Now, Staff Sergeant!” With a startled apology she ran down the steps in to the oppressive gloom cast by the canopy. Voodoo 6 watched with quiet amusement as Mai Lei gave him a wide berth on leaving.
“Your team appear well trained Captain, however, it’s clear you’re fresh saplings to the jungle. If you’re insistent on entering the wreckage, you’ll need me to guide you in. You lot make more noise than a herd of elephants and I doubt you’d be near as observant. The Bagh-Mari fireteam I’ve been tracking would slot you before you knew they were there. Those bastards slip through the jungle like smoke and can see through the undergrowth as if it were an open plain.
“That’s not your biggest problem though.” Voodoo 6’s casual tone remained light and unconcerned. “One of the main reasons I’ve been able to track this group is that they’re towing cavalry with them. There’s a Dragao TAG they’ve been escorting along the DMZ. Still keen to go in?”
Fuck. Memories of the failed raid on the Wei Chun facility and the Uhlans flashed through my mind. Fuck PanO and their TAGs. I looked out at the smoking crash site and imagined the PanO forces creeping through the jungle towards the body of Liu Fe. Out of the corner of my eye I caught Voodoo 6 watching me intently, waiting for my response.
I turned back to the unsettling Hac Tao. “We go in. You’ve heard the saying: ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’” I said with more confidence than I felt. Voodoo 6’s face split into a wide grin, his amusement finally reaching his sombre eyes and tinting them with a stark hunger.
“Captain I cannot describe how glad I am that you happened along. It’s been far too long since I’ve had a good hunt.”