Standard deployment topside, Crash says over the neurocom as he lands on top of the passenger car, already striding forward the instant his boots hit the roof. On the car behind him Gremlin is already running in the opposite direction towards a bulky silhouette several cars back. The black armored man is halfway across the car's roof as he activates his own stealth systems and flickers from sight.

That lookout retreated to the other side of the ridge, Crash continues. Pan, go find out what's on the other side. Stay low and check the tunnel for booby traps on the way.

If I do that, they'll definitely notice, Pan's light voice warns. I'm not exactly good at being subtle, you know.

If I wanted "subtle" I'd send Mako or Gremlin. We'll be at the tunnel in less than three minutes and I need "fast," so get moving!

Oh, comes Pan's bemused response. Yeah, I can do "fast" really well.

Fast is the only thing you do well, a smooth, mid-pitched voice chimes in.

Aside from annoying Mako. Without his HUD to tell him who was talking Crash wouldn't have noticed that Slide had picked up Slip's thought in mid-sentence. The two voices were, quite literally, identical right down to the sarcastic tone.

Everything annoys Mako, Pan protests.

You more so than most anything else, comes the reply that Crash's HUD tells him is from Slip.

Is that jealousy I detect? Pan replies, his neuroprojected voice carrying a hint of laughter. Feeling a bit short on attention lately?

In your dreams, Signal Flare! That response came from Slide.

Not that there's really a difference where those two are concerned, Crash thinks silently to himself, then "speaks" aloud once more. You three quit flirting and get working, already! Slip, Slide, stay alert, Pan, go!

I'm going already, Pan half whines. Not like it's my fault the Tramp Twins are feeling ornerier than normal.

We repeat, Slip says.

In your dreams Slide again finishes.

Crash is about to rebuke half his team again but stops as a yellow blur wreathed in a nimbus of blue flame blasts by his right side from behind and simply hops the five meter gap to the next car forward with a burst from his own jets as he watches the flier performs a quick rolling crossover to pass by the front of the train to the left of Slip's red armored figure which is now visible atop the lead locomotive, four cars ahead of the one Crash is now standing upon.

XXX

While Mako's flight could easily be called graceful, the first adjective to occur to most people asked to describe Pan's flight would quite likely be spastic. Lacking wings such as those of his taller female comrade the yellow armored cyborg is not only propelled by but also kept aloft by an extensive array of thrusters attached to his back, shoulders, hips, boots, and bracers. He doesn't bank and arc along the path of the train tracks so much as he seems to almost ricochet off of invisible barriers each time he adjusts his posture and vector with some of his numerous thrusters flickering out as others flare brighter.

It barely takes half a minute for him to reach the opening in the base of the steep ridge. The opening seems small at first but quickly looms larger in short order to its impressive fifteen meter wide by by fifteen meter high dimensions. The passage is easily large enough to admit the approaching train and seems to swallow Pan as he flies straight into it's center at full speed. Rapidly swallowed by near total darkness, Pan relies on his augmented senses to see the straight walls, floor, and ceiling by light enhancement, infrared, and echolocation. It's the infrared that notices something ahead of him two thirds of the way through the tunnel. Several somethings, in fact: a half dozen narrow beams extending from one wall to the other at a height of two meters above the tracks.

Trip beams! He neuroshouts to alert his squadmates. The beams are well below his present altitude and he can easily fly right over them, but that would leave whatever nasty surprises they're meant to trigger will still be waiting for the train when it catches up. Grinning to himself, Pan drops down and continues forward at maximum thrust.

XXX

At hearing Pan's warning, Crash reaches down and grabs the grips of the weapons at his hips. Support rails shoot out from the backs of the barrels to brace against his armored forearms as the magnetic clamps holding them into place release. A pair of vertical green bars appear in the corners of his vision to show the weapons' charge status (both one hundred percent) as he hefts them up feeling power literally pulse through his armored hands. The gun in his right hand extends nearly seventy centimeters in front of the grip, it's barrel sleek and cylindrical, but the one in his left is only about a half meter long and sports a bulkier, straight edged barrel that while straight on top angles downward to a point just forward of the bottom of the grip which it is connected to by a narrow support.

Weapons hot! Mako, move to support Pan on the far side, everybody else standby and engage any non-friendly contact at will!

Acknowledged, come's Mako's soprano.

Bounce, locked and loaded, sounds a rumbling voice.

Bastards won't know what hit 'em, Gremlin drawls.

Ready at both ends, Slip and Slide reply simultaneously, just a heartbeat before the rumble of a rapid series of explosions rolls through the valley. Crash hadn't been kidding when he had denied expecting subtlety from Pan.

Woohoo! Pan shouts triumphantly over the neurocom. Shaped charges, tunnel still intact! Ascending and retroing, I've got targets!

XXX

Pan emerges from the tunnel flying on his back, arms crossed his chest, bracer thrusters extinguished. He spreads his arms wide with a forty centimeter long, gold-like plated pistol gripped in each hand as he "stands up" in the air to lean forward against his momentum, forearm thrusters again igniting as he arcs up facing the steep slope of the tunnel. Alarms ring in his mind as three sets of flashing red brackets appear on his HUD directly above the tunnel he just exited and a pair of vertical green bars blink into existence at the corners of his vision with a matching colored "1X" below each. He suddenly jerks to his left an instant before three red beams, one noticeably wider and brighter than the others, pass through the space he otherwise would have been. He stalls his upward thrust and jerks back to the right just in time to dodge another pair of beams stabbing at him, this time blue instead of red.

My turn, he thinks to himself and swings both arms forward, cutting his arm thrusters while a pair of yellow cross hairs moving into the center of his vision as his weapons come to bear. The targeting reticles flash red as they overlap the outside pair of brackets and he opens fire as he ramps his upward thrust back up to full. A flurry of crimson beams flash between Pan's guns and his targets as he rockets skyward with renewed speed, still drifting away from the slope at a considerable velocity, and the green bars on his HUD rapidly dwindle, first turning yellow until disappearing altogether with each leaving only red "1X" below where they just were less than a second ago. Nearly half of his shots miss their targets to blast fist sized divots into the mountainside because of his shifting motion, but his targets are stationary and six of the ten beams strike their targets and produce bright flashes as they hit invisible barriers just short of the trio of heavily armored people.

Maintaining his main thrust in the direction of his foes, Pan cartwheels to his right, again extending his arms to get better effect from the extra thrusters in his bracers while the bars slowly regrow in the corners of his vision, first red then yellow as he feels a tingle running through his palms and fingers. Another pair of red beams flash to his left and he does a second cartwheel, this time narrowly avoiding a pair of blue beams and another of the larger red ones. His HUD adds abbreviated notations to the brackets.

Three Cruisers, he announces over the neurocom channel as he again shoots upward, just above the tunnel. Two loaded like the twins and one with a big ass laser. I'm barely denting their shields. A new alert sounds in his mind and a fourth set of brackets appears on his HUD, this one halfway up the slope and still above him. Missile lock!

Pan jinks right again to avoid another pair of ruby laser beams as the flare of a missile flies out from the newly bracketed dark orange figure, this one clearly even larger and more heavily armored than the trio of similarly colored ones below. He swings his left arm forward again killing power to its thrusters but keeps his right outstretched and at full blaze causing him to go into an off kilter arc to his left, again narrowly evading a pair of blue beams and another one of the big laser blasts. His charge bars are just over halfway to their full height as his targeting reticle falls over the incoming missile and he squeezes off three quick shots, making the left charge bar again disappear. The third shot proves superfluous as the second one hits, detonating the missile.

A huge fireball erupts halfway between the erratically flying yellow armored cyborg and the slope. Despite the considerably distance Pan is still rocked and pushed back against his own forward thrust by the shock wave.

Shit! New contact is a Heavy and the bastard's got thermobaric missiles!

I have him, Mako's soprano interjects as Pan regains control of his flight, now nearly upside down. See if you can soften him up a bit.

For you, Pan replies with a smirk, realigning his thrusters to point "up" at the ground and switching the arrangement of his arms, coming right up! The right charge bar on his HUD reaches full strength, turns green, and the "1X" beneath it changes to a "5X" an instant before his sight quadrisects the bulky figure and he pulls the trigger. A much brighter beam flashes out of his pistol's muzzle and the right charge bar vanishes instantly. Despite being an obviously more powerful shot than his others, the beam impotently flashes against his foe's shields. Then another red beam, this one equal in intensity to the heavier ones recently fired at Pan from below, lances downward onto the same target, eliciting a much brighter flash. A second beam follows an eye blink after the first with the same result. Pan kicks his thrusters back on at full power to avoid another volley of fire from below as a missile rapidly follows the laser beams downward and slams into the sturdy target, engulfing the enemy cyborg in a brilliant green blast of focused plasma. The nearly blinding explosion vanishes nearly as suddenly as it had appeared, and the cyborg that was standing there a heartbeat earlier is simply is not present anymore.

Sweet shooting, Mako! Pan neuroshouts as he flips back upright and rockets upward at an angle and glances up to see his winged comrade pulling up from her attack dive, banking away from the mountain, already flickering out of sight again. That bastard's nothing but a scorch ma-shit!

Fuck! Mako's neuroshout is almost a loud squeak as a laser beam flashes upward through the air where she just vanished. Goddammit, that singed my leg! Stealthed Striker just this side of the crest, it's the lookout!

Mako! Pan silently screams as he jinks left to avoid more beams, Are you okay?

Barely grazed me, she answers with a mix of wincing pain and snarling anger, nothing some of the good burn ointment can't fix. That asshole's mine next time he drops his veil, you just keep those Cruisers busy!

Why is it, Pan remarks as his momentum is finally reversed by his thrust and he suddenly begins to rocket back towards their antagonists, that all my dance partners seem bring heavy weapons to the ball?

Must be your amazing personality, Mako snarks, making Pan grin inside his helmet.

I know have a certain charm, but if they want to play that way it would be more fun if they could actually keep up with the steps. Pan goes into a wildly erratic spiral as his charge indicators steadily regrow.