VRDF - Hunter or Hunted


Lieutenant Oliver looked around as his Stalwart OmniMech stepped out into the alien landscape of Green Hell, and shuddered. The dark, humid jungle almost seemed to reach out for the walls of the colonial city, across the cleared fields of fire surrounding the defensive barriers. It was all very different from Geordie, the quiet farm and factory world that was his birthplace, and he had to consciously remind himself that he was still in the Veiled Republic as the rest of his lance formed up.

Lieutenant Oliver was the only non-native in this unit. He was nominally part of the PRU on Geordie, but had been sent to Green Hell on exchange duty for experience. His three lancemates were all Wild Hunters, and he was technically junior to Lieutenant Livingston, the native leader and veteran of many battles.

If battles were what the Wild Hunters really fought here, Oliver thought to himself. How hard could killing dumb lizards be? He felt the trigger under his finger, and was satisfied. Surely no dino could be a match for a Mech, in spite of what the locals might say. He snapped out of his reverie as the leader's voice spoke from his own Stalwart.

"Diamond formation, I'll take point. Lieutenant Oliver, flank right; you're new here, and will have much to learn as we go."

As the four OmniMechs moved into formation, he continued speaking.

"Scouts have reported a large herd of bronts moving south, to the west of the city. They're herbivores, and not an immediate threat. However, the predators that follow the herds are a different matter. So, we will be diverting the bronts farther from the city. Now, move out."

A chorus of "C'est la" responses came as the Stalwarts headed into the jungle. It took all of three steps for Oliver to understand why the Wild Hunters liked the Stalwart E variant so much; its torso lasers and hand were necessary to push through the thickest of the tangles, and its active probe gave vision where the Mechs might be otherwise blind. All around was heat and humidity, and a seemingly endless expanse of tangled vines and leaves and branches rising from the swampy ground. The Wild Hunters, more used to the terrain than he was, maneuvered much more easily around the grasping vines and huge trees, ducking and stepping with stealthy grace.

They had gone perhaps two kilometers when suddenly
Livingston gave an order to halt. They had found the trail. Oliver stepped forward to see what Livingston was looking at; what he saw was not what he had expected.

Oliver had always heard that dinos were big, and the long-necked bronts were supposed to be among the biggest. But Oliver had not expected the so-called trail to be a flattened swath of jungle, wide enough to serve as an aerodyne runway. Splayed round footprints, as big as a Mech might leave, wove across the empty space, among the crushed branches and flattened undergrowth. He keyed his radio in amazement.

"Now I understand why you have to divert them. If this is what the bronts do to the jungle normally..."

"It is NOT what they do normally,"
Livingston interrupted emphatically. His Mech was slowly turning, moving carefully, half-bent over as he zoomed in on the ground. "This was a stampede." He straightened and looked down the swath into the distance, obviously concerned. "If this had hit one of the cities, it would have been a disaster. A smaller town would've simply been erased."

Oliver nodded to himself; he needed no further convincing, the sight of meter-thick tree trunks twisted from the ground by the impact of massive bodies was evidence enough. Then a thought struck him. "You said this was a stampede? I'm only a Geordie farm boy, but herds are herds; something must have scared them."

Livingston answered. "That." He pointed, and Oliver zoomed in. there, among the myriad small craters that were the bronts' footprints, was a trail of claw marks. Big ones.

"What is it?"

Livingston was watching the jungle around them now, as were the other two Wild Hunters. Oliver began to feel uneasy.

"What's a gulosaur?"

"Do you know what a wolverine is?"

Oliver pictured in his head...squat four-legged body with a blunt head, tough as nails, all claws and teeth and bad attitude. One of the few Terran creatures besides humans that killed for the sheer bloody hell of it. "Yes."

"Imagine one with armored scales..."

Oliver considered...that couldn't be SO bad...

"...that's the size of a main battle tank."

Oliver's blood froze.

After a moment for Oliver to consider,
Livingston spoke again. "Follow me, carefully. Watch your sensors."

They moved back into the jungle, paralleling the trail.
Livingston stepped out periodically into the swath, checking the gulosaur's path as they trod along through the jungle. "He's following the bronts...probably been feeding off this herd for a while."

Oliver looked at his map...they were southwest of the city now, well clear of the danger radius. "Why are we still following them?"

Livingston's answer was interrupted by blips appearing on the active probe screens. A chorus of growls and hisses as small figures scampered around the Mechs' feet, swarming their legs. "Look out! Strewths!"

The strewths, as Oliver recalled, were bipedal predators as tall as a large man. They hunted in packs, using swarm tactics against larger prey, even the big bronts. Now they sought to do the same to the Mechs that had strayed across their territory. Oliver kicked desperately, sending one flying. Another took a running leap, and landed on the Stalwart's chest. The strewth's birdlike face looked in at Oliver curiously, its tongue flickering from between its pointy rows of teeth. Then Oliver mashed the foot pedals, and his Mech soared into the air with a roar.

It was the correct response, and the Wild Hunters had done it too. The combination of jet thrust, takeoff and landing scattered the strewths, knocking them off the Mechs' bodies. Cluster rounds blasted and lasers flashed briefly; Oliver brought his own weapons around, but there was nothing left to shoot. The swift strewths had scattered back into the thick jungle undergrowth whence they came.

There was a momentary pause, and then the hunt resumed. "Come on,"
Livingston said, and again they moved out.

"As I was about to say,"
Livingston went on, "before I was so RUDELY interrupted, we are following the herd because of that gulosaur. Gulos are called predators, but they're more like psycho serial killers; they will quite literally kill anything that gets in front of them. This one seems to be content following the bronts for now, but we're too near to the settled areas for my liking. We need to follow a while, and see if the gulo doubles back or breaks off. And if we can, we'll eliminate...FREEZE!"

The four Mechs stopped instantly. Oliver's eyes searched the darkening jungle outside, then back to his sensor screen. The shifting heat of the jungle made infrared, normally so useful against Mechs, unreliable at best. "What is it?"

Livingston sounded concerned. "The gulo's trail stopped." The Stalwart's torso slowly twisted, surveying the silent jungle. The hum of the Mechs' systems was the only noise, Oliver realized. "He's close."

Suddenly there was a deafening CRASH, and a deep hissing animal growl like a fighter overhead. Oliver spun, and found himself face to face with the gulosaur.

The dino was every bit as big as described, and then some. The "scaly wolverine" appearance was an apt description for the blunt-headed, muscular beast. It stood atop one of the Wild Hunters' Stalwarts, where it had leaped onto its back and taken it down. Claws dug into the armor like paper, and the downed Mech creaked under the dino's weight.

Livingston barked only one word. "FIRE!"

Instantly, the guns of the three standing Mechs thundered. Autocannons and lasers lashed out...and all that did was make the gulo mad. It shifted and shook itself, unwilling to give up its kill, and a giant paw came down squarely on the back of the downed Stalwart's head. There was a terrible crushing noise, and a scream over the radio. The downed pilot was still alive.

At that, Oliver reflexively started forward, cycling a cluster round into his autocannon. The point-blank blast stung the huge predator in the face, and it leaped at Oliver's Mech in bloody-minded anger. Oliver saw it coming, and got his arm up just in time, his fist catching the gulo in the chest, holding it off him as the two giants went over backwards...one made of flesh, the other of metal.

Oliver struggled with the controls, trying to free his Mech from the gulo's weight, trying to hold it off him as the claws ripped and tore at his armor. The gulo shifted its weight suddenly, and then it was laying on his Mech's chest, its fangs opening wide enough to engulf his cockpit. Oliver shut his eyes reflexively...

There was a sudden BANG, and a heavy impact. The sound of alarms blared, alarms that had been drowned out in the din of mortal combat, of metal limbs versus fangs and teeth. Slowly, Oliver opened his eyes.

The gulo was dead, its brains blown out from the side.
Livingston was standing there, his autocannon smoking, dino blood splattered on its muzzle from the point-blank shot. He pushed the dead dino's bulk off of Oliver's Mech, helping him to his feet as the other two Wild Hunters gathered themselves.

"Now you know,"
Livingston said simply, "why this world is called Green Hell." He walked over and prodded the gulosaur's body, just to make sure it was dead. Then his voice changed, and it was back to business.

"Form up," he barked. "Let's return to base."