Chapter 5: Risk

Beckett clutched a hand to his ear, his eyes narrowed as a message crackled across the radio. Seagull pitched up with a defending roar, rising sharply into the clouds. Terra shared a glance with Titus as the craft continued to rise into the clouds, a vein visibly throbbed on Titus’ forehead.

“What’s going on, sir?” she said.

Becket didn’t reply, his eyes were fixed on the tree line. The noise of the dropship faded as it disappeared into the sky.

Rhea’s hands trembled as she fumbled with a piece of diamond mesh tube, it was soft and pliable in her hand and twitched delicately of its own accord. She doused her hands in alcohol and meekly reached for the wound in Cole’s throat. The tube slid into the gash a few inches then bunched and twisted in the opening. She tried again as Cole struggled on the ground. She winced as the throes of desperation seized his body, her hands slipped as the man jostled on the ground.

“Titus, catch!” yelled Becket, he threw his rifle to the hulking man who snatched the weapon out of the air, a grimace crept into the corner of his mouth, a steady drip of blood fell from his grip. Becket dropped to his knees beside Rhea and moved her aside with a purposeful shoulder, taking the tube from her in the process.

He indicated a spot on Cole’s neck “Apply pressure here until I say otherwise, wipe away as much blood as you can,” Beckett doused his hands and a small knife in alcohol and nodded, she wiped the blood away. Becket’s delicately slipped a finger into the wound. Cole shook violently against the intrusion. His hands flailing at his side.

“Hold him steady!” he said. Rhea piled her weight onto the thrashing soldier, placing her knee over his arm to pin him down. She stared into Cole’s eyes as they grew wide with panic.

“Lay still,“ she pleaded, “please just stay still,” she looked to Becket for support but his eyes were glassy and fixed on the distant tree line. His fingers shifted delicately in the wound. Rhea felt a mass rise in her throat, moisture began to gather at the corners of her eyes. Cole’s arm thrashed against her back, a nauseating rose tint crept across his eyes.

“Gotcha!” Becket’s fingers slipped from the wound, a shard of dark bony carapace between his fingers.

Rhea’s vision blurred as she tried to blink away the moisture in her eyes. Becket’s hands work in a blur, he grabbed his knife and the tube, in a few seconds, he was on his feet again. Cole’s chest heaved into the air, gasping repeatedly. The tube protruded slightly from a fresh insertion in his throat, a ring of foam clung around the wound forming an air tight barrier. The panic on his face replaced with a grimace of pain.

A sonic boom rippled across the valley. A shockwave rattled the trees and a wave of heat struck the recruits as the edge of the forest erupted in flames. A sleek silver craft disappeared overhead, the parted clouds leaving a streak of blue sky in its wake. The creature bolted from the treeline as fire engulfed the forest. The crack of small arms fire filled the air and the living shadow snapped left and right over the ground. Lithe and powerful it bounded and weaved between the trails of gunfire, making steady progress toward the cluster of recruits. It crouched low, ready to pounce, a snarl twisted across the grisly maw. Rhea shrank back, the black orbs of its face locked with her eyes between the legs of her comrades. Becket screeched for the two recruits to make a hole while he sprinted for Terra and Titus, his face contorting into a snarl as he left Rhea’s side.

A flash of dark gray plummeted from the clouds hitting the ground like a comet. The ground erupted in a spray of grass and dirt. The creature was thrown from the impact, spewing trails of spiraling saliva as it tumbled through the air. A strike suit crouched in a crater of disturbed earth, knife in hand. A flash of blue threw the suit forward, barreling down on the creature as it spasmed through the air. Flickering strikes gouged the beast’s chest and shrill screeches filled the air as it convulsed to regain its footing, streams of dark ichor flowed from its torso. The Strike Suit spun, blue light flashed from the waist and feet as it snapped round, leg raised. The heel crashed into the creature’s face throwing it to the ground again in a flailing mess. The blade bit into the reeling creature once more, sliding easily between chitinous plates, severing spine and throat in two efficient strokes. A shrill gurgle escaped from its throat as the body fell limp on the ground. The dark Strike Suit loomed over the collapsed shell, blade poised. Becket stepped forward delivering two shot into the eye cavity of the creature. The suit turned and the helmet parted down the centre and slid back on each side revealing Lithia’s face, a picture of thunder, inside.

Seagull plummeted through the clouds like a rock, followed by the small silver craft, engines igniting at the last moment to slow the descent. Settling on the ground meters from the cluster of injured recruits.

“Where are the last two?” demanded Lithia

“Still at the base, they didn’t make the flight. Everyone’s accounted for,” said Becket.

Lithia nodded gravely, watching the recruits load the injured onto the drop ship. “Get them back to base,”

“Did it show on your scans?” said Becket.

“No,”- she said glancing over to the collapsed manifested. “this is concerning.”

“Bloody terrifying seems more appropriate, if there are”-

She waved him away “Get to the trauma centre and keep this quiet, we’ll talk soon.”

Becket nodded and ran to the dropship. Lithia hefted the corpse onto her shoulder and slung it into a compartment on the side of her silver craft. The sleek dagger transport rose quickly, the trees still roaring with flame.

Terra looked into Rhea’s eyes, her lids were heavy and a heavy green-blue sack hung under each. Her eyes glazed and fixed across the canteen. Terra slid her tray of food along the cold metal table and sat beside her.

“Couldn’t sleep?”

Rhea startled and pounced to not lose her coffee across the table. The dull hum of conversation filled the hall, groups of soldiers returning from night patrols filtered into to room and wearily collected their breakfast. Most wore skirmish gear, but many had decided on food before removing their armour in full. Helmets cluttered tables, armoured greaves added 20 centimeters to the height of many soldier, their armoured fists clenched delicately around delicate cutlery. Rhea eyed the armour while Terra picked food from her tray.

“You’re staring,” said Terra

Rhea twitched, “I suppose, those strike suits are different to the ones I trained with.“

“That’s the MK19, ranger gear. You probably used the MK12 in the academy, it’s lighter, more maneuverable.”

“I thought it was just trainees and the guards here, I didn’t think there’d be any rangers,”

“Everyone needs to stay sharp, there’s alway something new to learn, or even re-learn, I’ve forgotten more things than I can remember” she said with a grin.

“The Colonel had a different suit, the dark one, what was that?”

“Never seen it before, probably custom made. You don’t see that too often, makes life hard for the techies when things don’t fit the pattern. I’ve heard she lets the first company commission their own equipment.” mused Terra, demolishing the last of her food. “We have a morning to kill, fancy some sparing?”

“If I say no, will it make any difference?”

Terra scrunched her nose and shook her head. The feeble sunlight forced its way across a layer of cloud, covering the compound in muted greys. A frigid wind whipped in from the coast adding a bitter edge to the overcast day. The pair wandered onto the courtyard, a lone craft circled in the clouds above. Morning drills had yet to start and the parade grounds that surrounded the command centre were empty. They found a sheltered area off the edge of the grounds near the main gates. A pair of turrets flanked the entrance, pointed skyward, the long slender barrels spinning slowly in anticipation of a coming threat.

Rhea took up a position with her practice blade, ready to run through the training routine.

“You’ll struggle with the routine squirt,”

“Don’t start babying me, I’ve memorised it as well as anyone,”

Terra chuckled “You’ll figure it out,”

Rhea stepped in to strike, and terra batted away the blade, she moved onto the next position and her parry fell awkwardly, the blades slipped together, delivering a stinging shock to Rheas hand. She stepped in again, moving forward with the pattern. Again the strike fell foul and Rhea jumped back from the crackling touch with an inquisitive look. A smile spread across Terra’s face.

“You’re using you’re off hand, it’s all different.” said Rhea.

“Bingo,” she said, “my shoulder’s still borked, this should even the playing field for you,”

“Should you be training injured?”

“I’ll be fine, I need more practice with my off hand, you never know when you’ll lose an arm,”

“That’s not funny,”

“No, but it’s true, forget the routine and go with your gut for now.” said Terra, darting forward with her blade. Rhea stumbled and barely defended the blow, kicking up a scattering of gravel as she struggled to regain her footing. Terra pressed forward offering her no respite, Rhea stumbled and weaved between the strikes, offering little in response, her blade hanging largely unused in her hand.

“You can’t defend all day, not if you want to survive out there, hit me!”

“You’re not giving me an opening,”

“You want me to let you hit me?“

“It sounds dumb when you say it like that,” said Rhea, arching her back to avoid a thrust and leaping away, with a heavy breath.

“It is dumb, nothing’s going to offer you an opening, make your own,” Terra released a number of shallow jabs, Rhea easily avoided them and pulled her sword back to retaliate, her arm struck a concrete wall and Terra jabbed her shoulder, her back flattened against the wall and her blade clattered to the ground.

Terra chuckled “You’re slippery but predictable, you let me pin you to the wall.” she said with a grin “grab your sword, I’ll show you how to create an opening.”

Near midday a platoon of fully armoured rangers took to the parade grounds. They formed into groups and began a series of aerial exercises. The soldiers launched into the air and spiraled effortlessly across the wide open space. Rhea watched as a multitude of small flaps twitched open in a wave down the shoulders, forearms, hips and calves of the nearest suit. A sudden burst of blue threw the soldier into the air, she found the shimmer of movement beautiful, a bizarre cross between scales and feathers that pulsed as if alive. The soldiers formed into four teams and took up positions across each side of the courtyard. The mottled green-grey warriors vaulted into the air in loose formations, throwing themselves towards the centre. One side broke away and scattered, the other followed in pursuit. Three suits landed on the opposite side, four others were cornered by multiple assailants and pulled down to courtyard by a thrashing ankle or wrist. Two more slipped their pursuer to land with their comrades, the last collided mid air with their pursuer and together crashed to the ground.

Rhea studied the aerial acrobatics, fascinated by the skillful dance of the soldiers. They spiraled between outstretched arms, darting left and right as fast as Rhea blinked. She began to notice patterns and limitations, the suits could only keep the soldiers in the air for about 30 seconds before gravity would begin to drag them back to earth. They would attempt to gain as much altitude as possible in that time, and use gravity to provide extra speed on their descent. After four rounds only a single suit that remained uncaught. The last survivor was small and nimble, they darted between seekers, nimbly slipping through a web or armoured fists for another two rounds before being dragged down by three opponents.

“Which company is that?” asked Rhea

“41st company, numbers on the badge squirt,” she said pointing to the arm of the nearest Soldier an omega symbol with a snake woven around, crowning the number 41. “Omega company, last one in the division. I’ll bet anything that’s why they brought you in, think of how you could move in one of those suits. Course you need to keep yourself alive first.” said Terra, thrusting her sword at the small recruit. Rhea twisted sharply under the sword and swung her practice blade into Terra’s exposed side, sending her reeling back.

Rhea dropped her weapon and clasped her hands over her mouth, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean”-

Terra swept away her disheveled green hair. A warm smile spread across her face, “That’s what we’re after squirt! Nice reactions.”

Rhea lowered her hands and allowed her breath to come back. A small grin crept into the corner of her mouth. She picked up the blade and held it up, examaming the weapon. An exact replica of a combat blade, the only difference being the dull edge and smaller charge unit. She’d never held a full siz

“Do you think Cole will be okay?” she asked

“Couldn’t say, you had a better view than me, if he’s still alive this today, that’s a good sign. We were lucky the thing was just a skinny runt.”

“ How could you think we were, in any way, lucky?”

“Well think about it this way, your first encounter with a manifested, you had no weapon or strike suit, and you’re still in one piece, that’s pretty lucky.”

“Not all of us are in one piece though.”

“Yea Setsu’s in two, but she’ll get a leg back, with any luck it’ll be the old one, if not the robotic limbs they give to soldiers are better than the real thing.”

“What happens if she doesn’t want to stay after the attack?”

“She’ll need to make her own arrangements” Terra trailed off.

“So they’ll blackmail her into service, stay and you get a new limb, otherwise you’re on your own?”

“The world’s cruel, you don’t have to like it,”-

“I just have to serve it, believe me, I know.”

Rhea’s eyes wandered to the trees around the base, wind rustled the leaves, branches parted gently in the shadows of the canopy. Figures were moving among the trees, many figures. Rhea slapped Terra on the shoulder, and waved a manic hand at the distant bodies marching slowly towards the base. Terra yelped in pain and thumped Rhea in the arm while she nursed her bandages. She paused for a moments when she saw what Rhea was frantically pointing at. Red lights flashed over the gate posts and the cannons snapped to the movement in the distance.

———-

The group marched across the parade ground with supreme confidence, an easy swagger that told the world they’d seen the worst things on offer and had come back for seconds, there was no uniform, but a ragged theme of worn but meticulously maintained equipment.

The compound guards stood to attention as the unit strolled into the compound, a hush falling over the airmen who gathered to see the arival.

Becket waited on the parade ground in their path, his arms crossed on his chest and a frown marring his feature. The company of 100 scattered into the base through the gates, a group of 12 continued toward Becket who remained in their path. Weapons hung from the newcommers wrapped in pieces of dark fabric and comoflage netting, blades and pistols were stashed all over each individual in convineient reaching distance.

The group stopped close enough to feel the heat of Beckets breath, the leaders face was covered by a dark matte face plate, 3 bars in a triangular pattern accross the face pulsed gently as if it was breathing.

Rhea watched the confrontation with baited breath, she’d never seen Becket act confrontational and the unknown put her on edge, she began to move towards him but Terra raised and arm to stop her.

The group began to fan out around Becket who planted himself in the leader’s path, staring straight into his face.

Becket roared with laughter and embraced the figure in front, The mask sprung open to reveal the beaming face of a heavily scarred man. Rhea breathed a sigh of relief as the group embraced Becket one by one.

“Look at little old you! Ready to fight off a dozen of the best soldiers in the world for Becket.”

“Who are they?”

Sometimes I forget how how green you are” Terra pointed out the company badge each of the newcomers wore, a black dagger on a white background. “The first company, the hand picked top 100 in the airborne division, and knowing Lithia, that has to mean something special.”

“Weren’t you in the first company?”

“I was in the armoured first company, the paladins, it was the same deal. The top 100 suit pilots were chosen to be paladins. We were a sight on the battle field I tell you, 100 of the finest kill suits, there was nothing that could stand up to us.”

“Why did did you leave?”

Terra chuckled to herself ”I got jealous, or bored, probably a little of both. Nothing could stand up to a paladin throwing around 6 tonnes of armoured death and weapons, but these guys have taken down the same things I have but with a rifle and body armour. No artilery, no heavy weapons just themselves and their instincts, it just… gah! I can’t explain it but it just hits me right here.” She struck a clenched fist into her chest and gave a deep grunt. “I’m not here to be a Ranger, that’s where I’m going” she said pointing to where Becket and the group had been standing.

“Moving sentiment Sgt Fates” said Becket as he moved her extended finger aside with the back of his hand. “particularly liked the grunt, made the whole thing pop.”

Terra gaped as she deactivated fan girl mode.

“Becket! I mean sir, I didn’t notice you coming.”

“Slightly worrying for a Ranger, but my friend here is particularly impressive so I’ll forgive the distraction.” He gestured to the man standing beside him. His helmet retracted fully and the man inclined his head to terra and offered his hand.

“Your passion will serve you well miss, I look forward to training with you. Colonel Lithia has told me you move like a tank and I am to make you dance.”

Terra gawped at the man for a moment before grabbing his hand and squeezing heavily with a broad grin. “I look forward to it.” she said, The man’s thick dark hair rustled in the wind, he was handsome with strong features and piercing blue eyes. A large scar ran across his left eye, cutting his brow in two, two more faded wounds made their way through the stubble to the left of his chin, a warm smile complimented his casual demeanor.

The pair saluted and returned to the group loitering on the parade ground.

“I’m not sure if I should be flattered or inslulted.” Said Terra

“At least someone’s noticed you, you get your own tutor, one of your heros.”

“Oh they’re not my heros, no, I want to beat every last one of them, I won’t stop till I’m top of that pyramid.” she said as a grin returned to her face. “It’s gonna be an exciting journey.”


Chapter 4: Guardian