by J Parker
The rattling was the first noise that broke through. followed by the hissing of the craft adjusting to the upper atmosphere. Verum Ryger was only vaguely aware of the noise thanks to the insulation of the metal coffin he was neatly tucked inside.
The machine that surrounded him, his other body, was asleep. The cockpit was transitory, a way to access the eyes and ears, the other self. The outer self. It was not a new way to pilot. Exotic Materials had been doing it for years. Expanse Dynamics preferred the manual method. Encouraged hard work, in theory.
Verum preferred this. Seeing like the machine did. Visceral. Brutal. Yeah, maybe it weren’t Expanse pretty but it worked. Not everyone could be the disconnected ace. Some of them needed this, he thought. Then another thought which brought a wry smile. He needed this.
The rattling intensified and suddenly the comms-unit broke through the silence. He was at 10,000 feet? Maybe. He was only guessing.
“Headsman, this is Red Star. Mark one for drop. Thirty seconds,” a voice crackled through the unit.
Good, he thought. Finally, he was getting close. He leant back into the neural connector and let his mind fall into his outer self.
His eyes adjusted to his ‘other body’. And suddenly he saw in slate grey. He flexed his fingers and found the metal pliable. His body burned a little, heating itself to a point. He recognised that the promethium tanks were ready and that the inbuilt vents were sitting comfortably, a little over purge capacity. Restricted Operating Units were not meant to be utilised like this. They were meant to be controlled at arms length, seen through viewscreens and monitors and other external battlefield abstractions. It was supposed to be something noted, acknowledged and hidden away at some distance.
He was not something to be seen at a distance, he figured.
His eyes didn’t recognise colour anymore. Battlefield information screams through and is sublimated into so much grey. Then, the craft’s bay doors opened. Altitude calculators identified that he was at some six thousand feet, and he was pulling in closer to the ground – fast.
He looked down and his eyes were filled with blazing stars, brilliant points of light. IFF tags, red blinking dots. They all looked the same from up here. He spoke, but his voice came out emotionless. Cold. Menacing. His voice. Proper like.
Then he sprinted forward, as fast as he could. His body rocked the craft, metal pushing against metal.
And he falls.
The smell was difficult to grasp. It was more like a ghostly imprint of. Ash, lilac. hints of battle. Rubble, gunsmoke. Cordite.
Someone screamed. The information barely registered. He landed and his legs absorbed the shock, pushing his body down with the weight of terminal velocity. Then it stopped.
He stood to full height and took in the surroundings.
The environment was ruined, rubble-strewn. It would’ve been a city once. Now it was a battlefield. Behind him, the reassuring red dots appeared. They came closer, cautiously. Clearly they recognised him because they stopped dead. He saw them exchanging handshake codes, rapidly comms-checking the IFF and identifying him as Headsman. They didn’t speak to him. Didn’t need to. Or likely want to for that matter. Monsters weren’t something to be spoken with, just pointed in the right direction.
Forward, stalking through the ruined city streets were the remnants of the Imperial Parranian Civil Defence. Soldiers, patriots. Anyone idiotic enough to come between the Expanse and Progress.
Targeted frames, white boxes moved across the environment exchanging light gunfire with Expanse Dynamics positions. It wasn’t much, not even a proper counterattack. It was almost performative.
It was an insult.
“[HEADSMAN]:FOLLOW ME TO THE FIRE.”
He moved to his first target and the blurry white shape solidified as a little boxy thing. It shuddered as it fired its heavy rifle and shook its own arm out of place as it struggled to bring up its dented shield. Verrum slammed his fist down through its jaw. It tried vainly for a moment to fire into his cockpit but the shot went wide when he slammed the other fist through its stomach, ripping out electrics and blood in a shower of mechanical gore. It took him a second to wrench his fingers free and swipe away the oil that covered them.
Someone else, a friendly unit, notched the kill. Marking it down by firing two rounds of APDS through the cavity where its engine would’ve been.
He moved on. The next presented more of a challenge, rounding the corner into his frame it latched on like a hyena, slamming a blade down into his shoulder. He screamed and bit down as the servo-motors fluid began to leak and the arm fell to the side, a little weaker. He didn’t feel it. It still moved but the pain was inching up his arm now. So he used his other one, holding the mech in place as it continued to stab vainly into the ruined arm, trying to wrench it off as he brought his fuel-rod gun to bear.
He opened his mouth.
The gun superheated. He didn’t fire, instead letting the frame melt away as the extreme heat burnt it to a fine crisp. The blade remained, but the body that had used it became nothing more than a limp and ashen corpse. He dropped the thing and trod across it. His heavy-set frame broke the now burning machine in two, the plexi-glass covering across its cockpit shattered and his audio-receptors spiked, then went quiet again.
Forward. Always forward. More enemy frames moved close. His head began to pulse as counter payloads of virus-packets streamed back along the digital tether that hung from the embedded hack-mech that sat behind its two bodyguards. They closed tentatively, delicately. Trying to keep distance in case the monster, the salamander woke back up and ate their heads.
Smart kids. Not smart enough to run. Smart though. His head rang, the grey became red and red became white and white became nothing at all. Shit. Force system eject would fry the Northland. Then a second or so later, would fry him. He needed to make this stop. As the two bodyguards closed, Verum pretended to lie dormant. Stone-like. Low-Op.
Then he slammed his head back and mentally unchecked the switch that kept the Restricted Operating Unit in its playmate mode. Keeping the reserves topped off and the reactor cool enough to not melt the pilot, the people around him and the city block around them.
[VESUVIUS PROTOCOL ENGAGED]
And he leapt forward and grabbed one of the bodyguards by the head. The frame struggled, firing with its autocannons to try and force the arm off. But this was an Expanse Dynamics ROU designed to walk through fire and the ashes of a dead world. Puny little autocannon fire from head mounted weapons weren’t going to do much of anything. He held a moment and squeezed. The glass popped, the frame blinked from target to killed then to target again. The reactor still burned but when he squeezed again and the head collapsed, it flickered black and stayed that way. The other one communicates something on broadband, a cry of rage maybe?
Anger? Begging for mercy? It all comes in as so much noise. The static was getting louder now, the killcode wormed its way through all the Expanse installed countermeasures and was getting close. He could hear the blood pooling in his eyes as it began its scrambling. Bastard.
He began a sprint, pushing past the other bodyguard and slamming the hacker-frame into a small hab-block, crushing it. As the tripedal frame toppled over and the tether of the force-eject stopped halfway as its operator was pounded into the ground by Verum’s fists. He could’ve been more prompt, more able to see the other, enraged bodyguard line up a shot but he was angry and he didn’t care much. How dare someone attempt to do that to him. Fry him like he was some sort of shock-jock? He was going to make them pay.
The shot rang out, slammed into his core. Copper, blood. He coughed, faltered. He could feel the swell of crimson in his mouth as his eyes shuttered in and out of the neural connection. Shot went right through the lower leg. The next goes through his already deadened arm. Bastard had a Expanse rifle. He recognised the shell as it tumbled out and down. It was a cut-job of a ZR-44, a proper anti-mechanised rifle. Shells big enough to blow a tank in half and cripple a modern mech. It’d sure as shit hurt him. As the bodyguard approached, he saw the count on the weapon.
Three shells, five round magazine.
Okay. He could do that.
He forced his body forward and slammed open the reserve promethium tanks, charging at the bodyguard. In a panic, the lone mech fired the fourth shot. It splashed against his other arm, blowing off a finger. Verum felt it, felt its loss and his real finger curled. Synapse loss. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. This hurts.
Fifth shot went wide as Verum pulled the bodyguard into a deadlock, embracing them. Burning them away. He was angry. Because he’s a son of the Expanse, because no one, NO ONE messes with him and lives he turned on the broadband, pulled himself way out of the neural connector and spoke proper. His voice.
“I hope you burn, prick.”
He relaxed a moment as the flames ran their course, burning through the other. He let go and faded out. Slid back into his steel coffin.
He took a breath and the colours in his eyes adjusted. Not grey and white and red. Just colour.
The blood rolled in his mouth, he wiped it away. Flexed his ghostly missing finger back into reality.