Of Mice and Men – with thanks to John Steinbeck.
As his arms and limbs became trapped, ‘Rique suppressed the momentary panic that accompanied the feeling of helplessness and waited for his tac-display to kick in. Around him, servos whirred, settled into place and connected with his armoured suit with small jolts and pulses. In the darkness of the machine, all he could do was wait. It seemed longer each time.
“‘Zilla 6, do you copy?” The audio echoed within the metallic cavity.
“Mission parameters are being uploaded to your operation files. We advise you read them carefully as you head to the LZ.”
In the darkness, his mind played tricks on him. it didn’t matter if his eyes were open or closed; the pitch void was like a starless universe, full of unseen terrors.
“Do you copy, ‘Zilla 6?”
“Copy that. Control, why is my tac-display taking so long to kick in?” he covered the slight break in his voice by clearing his throat.
“It’s not yet been a minute since you plugged in, ‘Zilla 6; Clockmaker advises that all systems are fully functional. Are you okay?”
He wondered if the concern in the voice was for him, or his operational ability in the mission. For a moment, he considered how disappointing it would be to tell his brother that he’d been removed from the mission as a section 8. As the seconds stretched out, he hoped that the suit didn’t detect his sweat.
In the darkness, a blue-white light blinked three times, then blossomed into a series of displays with the statistics of his suit. ‘Rique smiled.
“I’m fine, Control. Just making sure my TAG’s being looked after.”
Taking a deep breath, he logged into the system’s tac-display, stretching his neck with a click as the screen splashed into life in front of him, circling his head to provide a fully rendered 3D display of the environment outside his suit in a monochrome blue; the standard display. Beside him, an engineer looked up from a tablet-reader and gave the thumbs up. ‘Rique returned it; seeing his hand raise alongside a huge, piston operated mechanical appendage that mirrored his own movements. As he began the control check, flexing both hands and all the fingers to check that the synch was complete, the engineer began ticking off the statistics on his screen.
“All systems optimal,” ‘Rique announced, before taking a step towards the dropship that sat waiting by the hangar bay. Despite the cutting edge technology, there was always a fraction of a second lag between his body beginning it’s motion and the TAG copying the movement. At first it was disconcerting, but before long, a good pilot knew what to expect and accepted it as second nature. Each step was slower and more deliberate than he would usually take, making sure that his footing was sturdy. The suit had built in stabilisers, but rushing the complex calculations that ran through the system with each step would still result in him falling on his face. Yet despite his slow movements, the sheer size of the machine made each stride cover far more ground than his usual gait; like walking on an escalator. He’d seen new pilots topple simply from walking in their suits; he’d even done it himself when he’d first piloted his Iguana TAG.
As he ducked into the dropship, careful to stoop, he nestled his TAG in amongst the specially built harness and signalled the pilot that he was secured. As he waited for the rest of the team to file in, he punched up his mission parameters and scanned through them, checking them a little more thoroughly than he usually would.
Serin Prime. The name had become something of a curse amongst the crew and enlisted. They’d been in constantly changing orbit of the planet for five weeks now, living on live-fire shifts of six hours on, six hours off since the first recon team encountered stiff resistance from Steel Phalanx troopers. It took seventeen minutes for the mission to change from observation to military theatre, with a small Corregidor force and a bunch of fresh-out-of-academy officers. Things had been rough since, with constant hit and run raids against the Aleph.
It got slightly better when the Bakunin module arrived, bringing with them much needed cyber-support and fresh medics. They began running counter-hacking programs against the Aleph systems, providing command with vital intel and a heads up as to when the Steel Phalanx forces were going to make a raid. He’d been planet-side twice now, once to support a retrieval and once to act as sentry and neither time had he encountered the enemy. But that was how a small Nomad force waged war; picking the targets and avoiding the fight until they had a clear advantage. It was fresh out of the Corregidor Survival Manual.
Then came this mission, high priority and hot as hell. He’d sat in the briefing room with a full team of Wildcats and a Hellcat drop-team as they explained the basics; a communication tower near enemy controlled forces had been transmitting data to an off-world orbital that no-one had known about. Command wanted it manually hacked and the whereabouts of the orbital found, then have the comm tower destroyed to prevent it falling into enemy hands. Straightforward, were it not for the fact that Aleph ground forces were already enroute to intercept. A Reverend Custodier was buying time, along with a compliment of remotes and Zeroes.
They’d all known what “buying time” meant; she was sacrificing herself to slow them down. Within ten minutes, the team had suited up. ‘Rique had donned his personal mobile suit and plugged into the Iguana.
Around him, the Wildcat team stomped aboard and took seats, high-fiving and rallying each other with friendly rough-housing. ‘Rique gave a small nod to the sergeant, his brother, which was quietly returned. It wasn’t common knowledge that they were related. Finally, the Hellcat hopped aboard, checking the ammo feed of his Augur-Class heavy machine gun. ‘Rique felt a moment of sympathy for the man; he’d been part of the first recon. He’d seen his friends get downed. That changed a soldier.
“Intercept team; good luck,” Control’s voice echoed in the dropship. The doors closed and the vessel was loaded for high-orbital drop.
“Listen up,” the voice echoed in the cabin, loud, cutting through the thoughtful reverie of troops readying themselves for a fight. It was ‘Rique’s brother. “Much as I trust Brass to have our best interests at heart, I don’t think they’ve given us the best possible operational tactics.” He punched up a display and transfered his data-feed to it so everyone could see. A map of the zone showed their potential deployment and the base; it was on a raised platform that overlooked an old set of alien ruins jutting out of a rock formation. “Brass wants us to use the TAG as a bastion; it’ll hold the building while we retrieve the data and pull out, while Phoenix,” he nodded to the Hellcat, “Well, he gives them something else to think about. I don’t think that’ll work.”
The Wildcat sergeant punched in a set of figures and markers blossomed into life, showing their projected entry and targets. ‘Rique and the Wildcats were on top of the tower; Phoenix was dropping in amongst the enemy. “Problem is, we’re facing Steel Phalanx and Intel says that Achilles may be with them. Having all of us in one place will be suicide.”
On the display, additional markers appeared showing the potential enemy troops. As they advanced, using the ample cover, it became clear that too many of them would reach the comm-building and swamp the Wildcats. Even if Achilles made it by himself, it would be a bloodbath. As much as they all wanted to believe that Command knew what it was doing, it was clear that the mission was not going to succeed. ‘Rique scowled.
“So here’s what we do,” new locations appeared on the screen, “We’ll hot-foot to the objective and take up position while Gabriella gets us the information. Once that’s done, we’ll lay demo-charges and leave at high speed,” the markers showed a simple tactical in-and-out. “Phoenix, you drop a little further to the east and suppress anything that takes to the walkway leading to the comms building,” the Hellcat nodded. “Zilla 6, you sweep out and away from the comm-tower, drawing the force apart.”
‘Rique blanched, grateful that the TAG hid his face. “What?” typically, his older brother was trying to protect him; keep him out of harms way. “I need to be where the fight is fiercest; you’ll need the heavy firepower against those myth-loving bastards.”
His brother looked up at him, face calm and controlled. “You’re right. We’ve seen Achilles in action. That macho son of a bitch will bee-line straight for you, aiming to take you out as the highest priority. If he’s trying to get you, he’s not trying to get us. You get as far away from us as possible; you’ll keep him busy and we can get our job done.”
Mjombi, the teams heavy weapon specialist, leaned across and patted her rocket launcher, “Even mpira moto would have trouble taking on Achilles and a bunch of Myridons at the same time. I can only carry so much ammo.” The other Wildcats grinned, showing a lot of teeth.
“Understood,” ‘Rique responded, accepting his brothers advice and, in turn, the orders of his lieutenant.
“Then let’s gear up. We drop in two minutes.”
The ground was muddy and unstable, slowing him down as he made for the cover of a nearby shipping container. He’d seen no sign of the enemy since they’d left the dropship, escorting the Wildcats to the steps below the comms-tower before sweeping west to lure out Achilles. As he slammed into the large container, feeling it rock gently as the TAG hit it, ‘Rique wondered if their intel had been incorrect. With luck, they could get in and out before the Steel Phalanx forces even showed up.
The Wildcats climbed the steps, moving with precision as a well-rehearsed team, slapping shoulders as they passed to let each other know that their fire-lanes were now covered. Within moments, the team was in the building, closing the door behind them. As it was, the comm-tower was an exceptionally defensive point; it was raised off the ground and overlooked the entire complex, only accessible via the stairs to the south and an open walkway to the north; with the doors closed and potentially covered from within, it was practically a bunker.
‘Rique eased Zilla 6 to the edge of the container and peered around to try and pin-point the enemy; he would lay down suppressing fire to keep them in place until Phoenix dropped into the theatre. As he did, he noticed a small three-wheeled vehicle running across the open ground towards him. It looked like a strange animal, with two front legs acting as stabilisers and a large rear leg used to propel it. It was coated in slick white ceramic-metal plate with flashing interface lights darting across it’s chassis. Pausing for a moment to work out what it was – as it had no visible armament – he realised far too late the danger he was in.
His blue-white tac-display pinged a cyber-alert before freezing and crashing. Working on instinct, he kicked in protective algorithms and threw up alternating firewalls, but watched in horror as his tac-display refused to respond. His TAG was being hacked.
The panic hit him like a wall of ice, smashing the breath from his lungs and flooding his blood with frozen dread. All the war-stories he’d ever heard about TAGs being immobilised and ripped apart suddenly flooded from his memory into his train of thought, smashing any rational logic under a wave of terror. Stories told in hushed whispers about campaigns where allies had died; stories accompanied with laughter at how an enemy machine had been rendered useless and blown up while they stood as statues. He began to wonder whether they would shoot him, blow him up or slice him apart. His breath came in ragged gasps while tears streamed from his eyes despite him not crying.
To him, it seemed like hours, but in reality it was merely seconds until his tac-display blossomed back into life, with all statistics showing nominal performance. ‘Rique actually laughed out loud and swung back behind the container.
“You okay, Zilla 6?” it was Ryan, the Wildcats Hacker. “I just intercepted a potential cyper-package that hit your net pretty hard?”
“Fuck…” it was all ‘Rique could manage between the stolen breaths.
The response carried the weight of understanding from a man who knew what he’d just gone through, “Yeah, man. Glad you’re okay.”
”Rique stayed behind the container, enjoying the moment of cover and regaining his senses. He’d always hated being confined, ever since his brother used to wrestle with him and trap him until he screamed Uncle. As he’d grown up on the Corregidor ships, he’d overcome his fear, knowing that a small tunnel or duct always had an entrance or exit. It always made him wonder how he’d qualified and graduated as such a decorated TAG pilot with such a powerful fear of claustrophobia, yet all the time he could move a giant robotic machine capable of ripping walls and doors apart and breaking free of his brothers choke-holds, he was fine.
A streak in the sky like a falling chunk of debris suddenly slowed, drop-chute thrusters firing at about 100 metres. As the object slowed it’s descent, it became clear that it was Phoenix, the team’s Hellcat, falling perfectly into place to the flank of the suspected forces. As he began to hit the ground, he opened fire near the walkway leading to the comms-tower, spewing tight, controlled bursts that ‘Rique recognised as suppressing fire. When the Hellcat touched down, he ran for cover, betraying his training and skill by smoothly combining the two, sliding behind a rocky outcropping long enough for his Augur HMG’s heat-sink to kick in.
‘Rique knew the drill; he wheeled out from behind the container, drawing a bead on where Phoenix was firing, and rained bursts into the staircase and walkway. White-hot sparks erupted along the steel railings, while his tracer fire marked a perfect figure of eight over the area he intended to keep under control. Nothing popped into his tac-display, despite his motion and thermal sensors detecting something. Regardless, he kept up the heavy fire until the over-heat alert for his weapon flashed into his display. With the timing and training expected from Corregidor, he ducked back into cover as Phoenix popped back up and continued his suppressing fire.
“We’ve retrieved the data,” came his brother’s voice, “Setting demo-charges now. Prepare for depart in two minutes.”
He nodded despite nobody looking. His blood was pulsing and his heart racing as his adrenaline started to kick in, shedding all the minor worries about his debts; how he needed to call his friends more often; how he needed to mend his bunk, and replacing them with the irresistible urge to survive; to vent his emotions; to exert his power over another human being. His fears dissolved; it was time to fight.
He wheeled out again, despite Phoenix still suppressing the stairs, and scanned for targets. The Hellcat’s own tracer fire was a rainbow, every tenth round a white-hot dart in a cloud of ever increasing dust as the bullets chewed rock and metal. Behind that, the habitation modules gleamed grey-steel in the dwindling twilight, shifting shadows betraying the forces within. After two missions of standing around waiting for something to happen, he would finally see some real action.
A shape loomed out of the dust beneath Phoenix’s fire, recoiling as one of the Hellcat’s rounds found their mark. ‘Rique almost cheered, but the figure simply jerked and stood straighter. Then it vaulted the stair rail, leaping to the nearby rocky ground and sprinting.
Sprinting straight toward’s ‘Rique’s position.
It was strange. The figure seemed to be an armoured man, but the image seemed blurred and refracted, like an image through a glass of water. As it came toward him, ‘Rique opened fire, his HMG spitting a steady stream of rounds towards what he thought was the target. Yet his perception of it must have been wrong, his rounds chewing the earth around the figure as it closed ground and advanced. Out of the corner of his tac-display, he saw Phoenix draw a bead on the target, his tracer fire following it as it covered the muddy terrain in quick, measured strides a glowing blade now visible in it’s hand.
‘Rique changed his tactics, dropping his aim to just in front of his target, along the path it was taking. As the muddy rock exploded under the withering fire, the blurred figure slowed, stopping momentarily as it almost ran into the hail of fire the Iguana was throwing at it.
The pause was exactly what was needed. With a juddering blast, the demo-charges in the comms-tower detonated, blowing holes in the side of the building. As soon as the debris rained outward, the Wildcats lined the ragged openings, drawing beads on the shimmering target and unloading the clips of their combi-rifles towards it. ‘Rique cheered as the obfuscated figure stopped, tried to return fire against the new targets, then disappeared behind a wall of fire as the Wildcats ignited their flame throwers. As the area became a hell-hole, he poured rounds into the chaos, confident that whatever was there was no longer alive.
“Amazing job,” came his brothers voice, “now all teams prepare for-”
The abrupt cut off shattered ‘Rique’s battle-lust. He blinked, scanning the area, and felt the pit of his stomach drop away as he noticed a pathway of thick smoke that lead from the enemy deployment to the comms-tower. While they had been busy raining fire on the original target, a secondary force had accessed the tower, using the distraction and smoke to move unseen.
The tell-tale lightning strikes and thumps of flash grenades from within the comms-tower confirmed it. The Wildcats assault specialist was “buying them time”. ‘Rique scanned the smoke, switching his tac-display from the standard monochromatic blue through the ultraviolet and infra-red spectrum, but the smoke was zero-vis; he couldn’t see anything. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Phoenix sprinting towards the comms-tower, boosting himself with controlled thrusts from his drop-chute.
Small arms fire echoed around the outpost, while a jet of flame spilled from the comms-tower. Gabriella, the teams engineer, stumbled from the door and staggered down the walkway, throwing herself clear of the building. There were several “whoofs” of light flame-throwers igniting and the shouts of men being burnt alive. As the smoke along the walkway cleared, silence fell upon the outpost, the assault finished as quickly as it had started. Phoenix reached Gabriella and checked she was okay, sitting her up and accessing her vitals. ‘Rique, his mind swimming so furiously that he couldn’t piece any real train of thought together, lurched his TAG towards the comms-tower, scanning it’s ruined walls and gutted interior for any sign of movement. He took the stairs leading to the doorway in two steps, ripping the door and most of the wall away with his TAGs piston-empowered arms. The mission was forgotten, a success, but costly in the undertaking. All that mattered now was the condition of his brother.
Within was a tangle of bodies, three Wildcats and the rest a group of Myrmidon soldiers, most of them still aflame where the teams flame-throwers had hit them. Thankfully, the TAG kept the stench of blood, burnt flesh and death from reaching him, but the sight of mangled bodies and fire creeping over blackened flesh still made his stomach turn. In a panicked voice, he called for his brother, expecting the worst.
The Wildcat sergeant, his brother, sat nursing a leg wound and checking over the prone and unmoving form of Mjombi, th eteams heavy specialist. He’d removed his helmet and looked grim; she had a ragged slice that ran from her shoulder to her hip and blood was pooling the ground. Beyond her, he could see their assault specialist, or at least he could see his torso; the rest had been sheared away. Deep within ‘Rique’s conscious, he wondered why he had no reaction to that; he guessed it was shock.
“Intercept 1 to control, do you copy?” his brother asked, raising the inside of his helmet to his mouth.
“This is Mission Control; please update your status, Intercept 1.”
“Mission is a success, control,” his brother paused, clearly finding the next sentence difficult. “Minimal casualties; I will need a cubevac for three.”
“Copy that, Intercept 1; good job.”
It was clear from ‘Rique’s brothers face that it hadn’t been a good job.
The return was quiet, with minimal chatter from the four of them left in the cockpit. Beside him, sat in a metallic box, ‘Rique’s brother held onto the three cubes of his friends, watching over them personally so that they could be re-implanted into newly grown bodies to replace his comrades. Again, ‘Rique reflected upon where his brain took him when thinking about this process, remembering a conversation with a hacker during a brief stay-over in a Bakunin run outpost.
“The new bodies cost hardly a thing,” the hacker had slurred over his third glass, “it’s the hours of the programmer who removes the cube and reintegrates the conscious that costs all that money!”
Gabriella had sobbed a little as the journey started. The Hellcat had moved off, clearly uncomfortable, but his brother had simply paced a hand on her shoulder and given her a “it happens” look. She’d stopped shortly after that. No one had spoken since.
A comms-panel pinged into life; the display informed them that it was mission control. The Wildcat sergeant left it for a long time before reaching over to acknowledge it.
“Intercept 1, this is Control. We’ve received a confirmed distress call from the Reverend Custodier who was sent to slow the Steel Phalanx forces. She has requested evac for her and her remaining team and you are the only group nearby.”
“No can do, control,” replied ‘Rique’s brother, “I’m down three of my team.”
‘Rique sighed, checking his display for the Iguana’s operational status. They were thirteen minutes from the next orbital window; thirteen minutes before a ship could even initiate drop to the planet and even longer to reach the Bakunin force.
“Control,” he said, his voice more confident than he felt, “My TAG is fully operational. I can cover the Custodier until you can get a retrieval team there.”
There was a brief pause as Control calculated the parameters. “Copy that, Zilla 6. Please drop at these coordinates and provide relief to the forces. ETA is nineteen minutes for a retrieval.”
“Affirmative, control.” He said, looking towards his brother.
The Wildcats sergeant smiled and nodded. It was all ‘Rique ever needed.