Mateo watched as the pack closed around Zara and her three companions, his breath caught as the monitor flickered with static. “Don’t make a sound, wait for my signal.” He whispered into the radio. He cast a quick glance around his squad, his three companions stood poised and ready. With a heavy breath, he flicked the switch in his hand and shouted into the radio. “GO!” His comrades bolted through the trees as a wave of fire and dirt consumed the forest behind them.

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Chapter 1: The Promise of a Soldier

Lithia’s nails dug into the palm of her clenched fist, fury splintered across her mind. Their eyes locked across the auditorium, as she crossed the room with terrible purpose. Summoning the emotion and storing it at the periphery of her mind. Her stare drilled mercilessly into the man standing in the aisle, his head darted to the exit twenty paces behind. Lithia’s dark eyes rippled with emotion that was starkly absent from her face. They were devoid of colour except for a scattering of metallic flecks that glinted when they caught the light. Minutes passed as she stared through the man, relentlessly pouring venom into him. Finally, she spoke, her voice was steady, edged with scorn in every syllable. “Return to your seat sir, I am not finished.”

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Chapter 2: Debut

Lithia entered the gymnasium, the vast white room stretched high above her and dwarfed the occupants. Many weapon racks were scattered around and a series of dark grey mats dotted the floor. The walls were bare with a small degree of flexibility if you pressed hard enough. The potential recruits gathered around the gymnasium in small groups, testing the equipment on display and indulging in tentative conversation. Lithia took up a position beside Becket who was observing the new recruits. They wore standard grey skirmish suits with darker sections around the major joints. Accenting each uniform was the colours from their previous divisions. There were four wearing gold trim from the infantry division, three wearing red from the armoured division and five wore blue from the Airborne division. Read more


Chapter 4:

Dusk weighed heavy on the sky when the four children were rushed from the warmth of their beds,Rhea had managed to find one shoe and a jacked before she was dragged from the house by her parents. Summer sun lingered low on the horizon while emergency lighting covered the streets with an insipid blue sheen. Her disheveled red hair fell in bangs stopping just above her shoulders, her large eyes green eyes quaked in the gloom. Sirens blared through the settlement as Rhea wiped a clump of hair out of her eyes with her forearm. Her infant brother pulled at her scruffy sleepwear and wailed incessantly as she clutched him tightly in her arms. Her parents dragged her younger siblings Luna and Jake through the streets, leading the way, casting nervous glances around every corner as they ran.


Rhea cowered against a wall, shouts of panic echoed over the rows of houses. Her father grabbed her roughly by the collar forcing her to run alongside. The infant in her arms wailed against the din of sirens. A bolt of agony lanced through her leg, she tensed her muscles against the pain and stifled a cry in her throat. Broken glass crunched under foot, Rhea slowed to pick her path delicately down the street. Step by step she weaved her way after her rapidly fleeing parents, her cries drowned out by the thundering sirens.


A ball of fire erupted several streets away throwing a tremendous red bloom into the air, undulating layers of fire and smoke consumed each other as a red brilliance shimmered over the clouds. She cried out as she stumbled, her bare foot sliced open on the glass strewn ground. She curled herself into a ball, squatting in the street and cowering from the monstrous cloud of red that consumed the sky. Father scooped her up effortlessly, baby included and ran after mother who was pushing Jake and Luna onwards. Groups of people joined them fleeing through the street. Two children from her school caught her eye, still in their sleepwear, the whites of their eyes bloodshot and tinted red.


“What’s happening?” she heard her father ask one of her neighbour in a hushed tone.


“The garrison’s fallen,” he said with a quick glance at Rhea and the baby in his arms ”They say beasts are swarming the suburbs and heading inwards.”


Rhea’s father nodded gravely and looked to Rhea with a forced smile,


“Don’t worry lady, we’ll be safe in the shelter, beasties can’t get us there.”


“You don’t know what manifested might be out there,” muttered another child, he looked about 4 years older, probably in his early teens. He received a quick slap from a parent and ran on clutching his head.


“We’ll be safe, I promise,” her father repeated.


They rounded a corner and a crush of people swarmed towards them. The wall of bodies jostled them as they found themselves working against the flow. Weeping faces and screams flowed past and threatened to rip her from her father’s grasp. She wrapped her brother tight in her jacket and held him tight to her chest against the crush of people.


The pop of gunfire rang into the night, they were now running with the crowd back on themselves. People were shouting at each other as they ran through the street.


“The center has been overrun, get to the market shelter!”


“The tower shelter is closer!”


“Closer to the perimeter, fool!”


The crowd scattered as quickly as it had appeared as people filtered down side streets and walkways, all convinced of they knew best.


“Jake!” the cry pierced the dusk hard enough to shatter glas, “Jake where are you!” her mother was on her knees pressing Luna to her chest screaming into the gloom. “Jake! Please”-


Her father twisted manically darting from one footpath to the next shouting his name, the crack of gunfire still rang out, closer now but less frequent.


He lowered Rhea gently, she winced while placing down her injured foot.


“I know your foot hurts lady, but I need you to take your mother and run to the tower, can you do that for me? Be the hero for me?” moisture welled in the corner of his eyes as he spoke, Rheas lips tremble, a tightness pulled at the edges of her eyes and her throat threatened to close on her. She nodded deeply as he pulled her into a tight embrace. He turned to their mother and pulled her to her feet, Luna clung to her arm.


They leaned in close as tears streamed down her mother’s face, foreheads touching, she couldn’t hear what was said over the sirens, until her mother exploded


“No you won’t, you liar!”


He crouched to hug her sister, and shuffled Luna to where Rhea was waiting, “Start running girls go as fast as you can, I’ll find you in the shelter when I have your brother.”


Her mother scooped up a hand from Rhea and Luna and they were running down the street once more.


The street were filled with people now, panic and screams were round every corner. There was no more gunfire. The night was filled with howls that made Rhea’s spine shudder (show don’t tell). Red liquid flowed into the gutters from people sleeping in the streets. They rounded the last corner and the tower loomed ahead. An imposing block rising against the night, her mother slowed as the stood before the monolith.


“Where’re the soldiers?”

Rhea saw a heap of sleeping people laying before the massive armoured doors. Sparks rained down from the building where the guns father always pointed out should have been. Mother began to back away slowly, the grip on her shoulder tightening till Rhea thought she would need to cry out. Dark shapes were moving among the sleeping people, fur covered and prowling on four legs. They were edging closer as Rhea backed away slowly. Her mother stepped in front and pushed her behind linking her hand with Luna’s.


“Run as fast as you can” her mother said, as tears began to stream down her red mottled cheeks.


Rhea clenched her teeth against the pain in her foot, every step was agony, the cut on her foot opened further with each laboured stride. She clutched the baby to her chest with one hand and dragged Luna along with the other, tears rolling down her face, dark auburn hair plastered to her round face. Her stride was broken, her lungs burned like she’d never know, if there was anything in her stomach she would have emptied it. When her legs refused to carry her anymore she collapsed with her brother and sister in the street and crawled on her bare hands and knees.


She didn’t know where to run, to crawl, but she kept going, to find safety, to get her brother and sister to safety, she’d made the promise, father asked her to be his hero, they were in her hands, they would make it through the night, she would make it happen.


The three siblings huddled together beside a waste container, hugging the shadows against the terrible sounds of the night. It was quiet, Luna was sleeping in her lap, while the baby stirred gently in her arms. The stabbing pain in her leg had began to throb in time with her heartbeat, she shifted her weight off the injured leg and felt her heavy eyelids slip closed and welcomed the rush of sleep.


Rhea bolted upright, her heart beating furiously in her chest a cold sweat covering her face and plastering her tanktop to her back. She glanced around in a panic, straining to make out her dark surroundings. Slowly her eyes adjusted and she began to make out rows of bunks and lockers along the walls of the long hall. She forced her breathing to slow and tentatively laid back in her bunk, heart still racing. She closed her eyes and thought back to that night, 7 years ago. The huge invasion had came out of nowhere, the local garrison had been quickly broken and the beasts were roaming freely through the streets. Salvation had come in the form of riotous thunder claps as high altitude drop pods cracked the clouds open and slammed into the streets. Rhea had marveled as warriors emerged from the dust in a flurry of blades and bullets. Vaulting effortlessly through the streets, dispatching death to the invading creatures the way she would brush aside a stalk or grass.


During her training at the academy, she’d learned that colonel Lithia had lead her first company in the rescue operation that saved her brother and sister. Her father had been found in the streets later that night. Jake and her mother weren’t so lucky.


Rhea had become mildly infatuated with the stories surrounding the colonel afterwards. The myth had only been reinforced at the academy, the instructors weren’t always kind about the colonel, but there was a grudging reverence in their their reports. She was said to be unbreakable, made of steel and swift as thunder. Fiercely protective of her soldiers and afraid of no man or beast. They called her the night witch as an insult but Rhea thought it darkly fitting for the raven haired officer. Rhea released a long sigh and attempted to claim sleep once more.


Rhea clung to the edge of the gymnasium her hands clutched behind her back. Red hair hung around her face in lively waves, swept casually away from her face. The skirmish gear she wore was baggy around her small frame, she thought back to her sister wearing ill-fitting hand me downs and a smile crept into the corner of her mouth. She shunted the memory aside when it began to ache in her chest.


She watched the other recruits through a tousled clump of hair. The giant of a man, Titus, was posturing in the midst of the recruits, throwing insults at those around him. Yul and Setsu were by his side forcing guttural laughs at his clumsy Jibes. Rhea stared at her feet and wished she could slip further out of sight before his attention turned to her.


She thought back to her performance in yesterday’s training sessions, she hadn’t managed to hit her opponent once but had only been struck once in return. She cursed her foolishness and attempted to banish the Lithia’s disapproving glare from her mind.  

Becket sauntered into the gymnasium, a cheerful bounce in his step. She sighed in relief as they were directed into a line. His features were rugged but handsome with dark brown hair, the smile he liked to flash about complimented his face well. Lean and athletic without being heavily muscled. She watched as he beamed a smile along the line of recruits, a mischievous glint creeping into his eyes.

“Right you wonderful bunch of misfits and renegades, Lady Luck has smiled on you today and I don’t mean our hopelessly cheerful colonel. This morning you’re mine, and I’m going to make you wish you’d stayed in bed,” he said with a broad grin, “We’re going cross country and when you’re on the verge of voiding your bowels, our lovely colonel has a test for you.”

“Will anyone be leaving today, sir?” asked Cole from within the line of recruits.

“That all depends on you recruit. I’ll warn you now, she’s in a foul mood, don’t let yourself down. There’s a dropship waiting in the courtyard, grab a pack on your way out, miss your flight and you miss the test!” he said as he hefted a pack over his shoulders and bolted for the door.

The recruits stood dumbfounded as their instructor sprinted out the door. Terra sprang from the line with a shriek of excitement, quickly followed by Rhea and the others with Titus bringing up the rear.

Floodlights still covered the base with harsh artificial light. The yellow haze of morning crept over the horizon, frail sunlight probed the canopy with life-giving warmth. Becket stood on the ramp of a small VT-S dropship, the callsign seagull was stencilled beneath the cockpit. Glass enclosed the pilot and allowed excellent visibility of the ground during flight, a large three barreled cannon was mounted underneath the pilot. Sweeping back from the cockpit was a long neck that grew into the transport compartment. The front wall lowered to make the entry ramp.

The craft kicked up a vast cloud of dust, the whine of the engines intensified. It began to shake free of the ground as Terra dashed up the ramp, Rhea followed immediately. A few paces behind were the infantry recruits Eda and Ahmet, followed by the armoured division recruit Yul. Cole stumbled onto the ramp as it began to lift off the ground and landed on his back. No change there thought Becket. The final recruits from the Airborne Brigade, Milo, Raik and Setsu scrambled up the ramp as it left the ground. With a monumental leap Titus threw himself at the ramp, desperately he clutched at the steel floor for something to grasp. His face reddened as the craft rose higher, his legs flailed in the air and his knuckles grew white.

“Need a hand big guy?” said Terra as she sauntered over.

Titus Scowled furiously as his face pressed against the metal flooring, his cheeks a deep shade of scarlet. Becket knelt down and took hold of one huge arm, Terra clutched the other and together they dragged the bulk of the man over the ledge. Titus panted heavily as he lay on his back in the middle of the floor. Becket watched the final two recruits fade into the morning haze.

He turned and winked at Rhea, “Two down.”

A short flight later the dropship slowed over a grassy clearing, the ramp lowered to reveal the dense forest below. Sunlight bathed the trees creating a fine summer’s day. Becket stood at the precipice and threw out a spool of cable. He grabbed the runner from his pack and slapped it onto the cable, hopping off the ship without a word.

Terra stepped forwards with her runner in hand but Rhea slipped in first, her short red hair bounced as she jumped off the platform, the exhilarating rush of air washed over her as she plummeted to the ground. She slapped her runner on as the ground began to loom closer, kicking her legs out to spin the cable in a graceful spiral.

The recruits sprinted after Becket as he disappeared into the tree line, some of them struggled to adjust their packs and rapidly fell behind. Terra burst through the trees as Rhea took an early lead in the pursuit. The engines of the dropship roared as it loitered overhead, weapons scanning the ground below.

She sprinted after the slight recruit as they scrambled over log piles and huge fallen branches. The nimble redhead bounded over obstructions with graceful abandon, throwing her small frame about with no small degree of enjoyment, slowly pulling ahead of Terra. She leapt from platform to branch and back again, clearing obstacles and drawing closer to Becket. A euphoric smile spread across her face as she twisted in the air.

Terra grimaced as she fumbled over a cluster of felled trees, and the girl slipped further ahead. Gathering her determination, she suppressed the burning feeling in her lungs and pumped her legs harder into the soft earth.

They cleared the last obstacle and began sprinting over open ground. Terra began to close on Rhea and before long the two drew level. The remaining recruits far behind now. They shared a  brief grin before.. Fatigue was building in her limbs now, they’d been running for at least an hour without pause and her movements were becoming clumsy. She looked to see becket keeping a steady pace ahead, showing no signs of stopping. Her small companion beamed as they approached the next set of obstacles. Rhea sprang lightly and pivoted over the vast stack of felled logs, using one hand to guide her turn, landing daintily on the other side with her feet together and arms spread in the air. She flashed a smile at Terra, gave a shallow bow and was running again.  

Becket spared a quick glance back and saw Rhea closing on him with Terra in pursuit, the rest of the unit was far behind and didn’t appear to be catching up. A voice from the dropship crackled in his ear.

“Scans show nothing prickly in the area, you have a few stragglers dropping behind, might want to loop round soon.”

“Guide them to the test field,” Becket panted, “can’t let these recruits show me up so soon.”

Becket pounced over a dirt ridge, leading to a shaded ravine. Leaves scattered around his feet as he sprinted through the shaded canopy. Rhea landed in the chasm with a tidy roll and was running after him immediately, Terra burst over the ridge and struggled for balance, sliding wildly down the steep sides. Dappled sunlight flickered across the floor as the three sprinted through the tunnel of greenery.

The sun was high in the sky and midday was rapidly approaching, the dirt walls towered high on each side. Exposed roots twisted into ragged tentacles along the sides of the ravine. Becket maintained a healthy lead over his pursuers. When he reached his destination he bolted to one side, scaling the wall until his momentum gave out. He grasped a thick knot of exposed roots marked with white paint and scaled the wall. The recruits arrived in time to see Becket drag the long vine out of reach and leave it hanging far overhead. He gave them a quick salute and vanished from the ledge. Terra took a step back and ran at the wall, she scaled a third, before gravity dragged her down in a cloud of dust and loose gravel. Rhea came to a halt beside scanning the trees where Becket had vanished.

“Is it safe out here?” she asked, noticing they were now without instructor, numbers or dropship.

Terra chuckled as a small tuft of roots that came away in her hands. “We’ll be fine, they didn’t bring us out here to kill us.”

Rhea eyed the white vine dangling near the lip of the dirt wall. “Boost me.” she said, “I can reach that.”

“So you can run off and leave me here? I don’t think so.”

“I wouldn’t, besides, the longer we wait, the further he gets.”

Terra paused and looked Rhea in the eyes for a moment, trying to read her expression for signs of deceit. She shrugged and gave the girl a nod.

“Okay do it, but leave me down here and you won’t enjoy the short time you have left.”

Terra locked her fingers together. Rhea stepped back and sprang at the crouching soldier, her foot sunk into Terra’s hands and with a mighty shout she launched the small girl skywards. Rhea tore through the air, sprinting up the side of the chasm and landing at the top with a delicate turn. Terra’s eyes narrowed as she disappeared in a flurry of leaves, her breath stalled for a moment as she second guessed her instincts, a moment later the thick white root uncurled over the side.

The pair came to the edge of the forest and slowed as they approached a wide open valley, Becket stood waiting in the center, his pack discarded, busying himself on his tablet. Rhea propped herself on her knees to catch her breath, Terra approached and gave her a playful shove, the two shared a laugh before the small girl collapsed on the ground.

“I didn’t see it before squirt, but now I get in now, why you’re here.” said Terra.

She beamed up from the floor, breathing deeply, drinking in the smell of the valley and forest around them. The well muscled warrior sank down beside her as they waited for rest of the recruits, Becket hovered within earshott.

“Fancy moves, Rhea, don’t know why you were worried.” he said.

Terra unzipped her skirmish gear and threw the jacket onto her abandoned pack. Her green tank top revealed many markings over her back and down her arms. A collection of badges dominated her shoulder blades, the largest was the Paladin’s crest, a blade and helmet of ancient design on a tapered shield. Down her arms extended a series of vicious creatures and armoured suits, scrolls with passages of text were scattered throughout the scenes. Rhea couldn’t identify a coherent theme but found the chaos oddly appealing.

“Why so many tattoos?” she asked.

“I started with my unit badges but kept changing units, pretty soon I just started enjoying the feeling. Guess I’ll need another one when we’re Rangers.”

“You’ll be a Ranger, I don’t know if I’ll make it.”

“Name me another soldier who throws twirls into an endurance race for fun,” she said, throwing her arms wide in a faux twirl. “You made that course your bitch and you know it”

“I didn’t know it was a race,” said Rhea, with a minute smirk.

Terra released a deep laugh, “You loved it, it’s written all over your face. So what weird lab did you come from?”

“Nowhere special, I graduated from the airborne academy two months ago.”

Terra paused in thought “Nope, doesn’t add up, no-one moves like that from the academy, you must be a Manifested or something.”

She released a timid laugh “I was a gymnast before the Academy. I used to love tumbling.”

“Well, I’ll hold off on the execution for now,” said Terra, sucking air through her teeth, “but I still don’t think you’re normal.”

Terra’s ink patterns rippled as she flexed her arms overhead and collapsed back on the grass next to Rhea.

“I can’t remember the last time I laid on grass.” said the green haired soldier.

Rhea spread her fingers across the ground digging her nails into the earth, “Not much grass on the continent?”

“Loads of it, but I was always driving a kill suit or inside one fortress or another. Could roll around in the dust if I wanted, but that’d get you some strange looks.”

“What are the colonies like?”

“You seen the vids? They’re pretty accurate, people cling to the forts and walls where they can, but that doesn’t get work done. There’s military all over the farmland but people still go missing, maybe they Manifest, maybe something takes ‘em, we don’t usually find out.”

Rhea hesitated as she ran her fingers over the soft grass, “Have you ever seen someone Manifest?”

“Never seen anything change, don’t think many people have. Killed a few, but never saw one born.”

Rhea stroked the blades of grass between her fingers, gazing up at the clouds that hung effortlessly overhead. The dewy smell of the plants around saturated her senses, and for a moment she was disconnected from the troubles of the world. “What were they like?” she finally asked.

“First one was huge, some sort of mutated cattle, stampeded into a village and tore through the market. Crushed about thirty people before we got there. Found it trying to break open the emergency shelter, building was blast resistant but it tore the shielding right off. Twelve of us tried to take it down but we had nothing heavy with us, all we did was piss it off. Didn’t go down until a dropship turned up and filled it with rockets. Second was a weird dog thing that wouldn’t stand still and take a bullet like a good dog. Tore through a town on the second line, nothing was fast enough to chase it down, damn thing could stick to walls like a bug. In the end, we had to evacuate the town and dust the neighbourhood.”

“Dust?” asked Rhea.

“Artillery and airstrikes, blow it to dust.”

“That doesn’t happen here,” she said, rising to look Terra in the eyes, “on the mainland maybe, but not on the second line. They wouldn’t?”

“Sorry squirt happens wherever it needs to, can’t be picky when it comes to wiping out those monsters.”

Rhea’s eyes grew wide and Terra changed the subject.

“Took your sweet time!” she called as Titus lead the main group into the clearing. The dropship kicked up a cloud of dirt and threw chunks of turf into the air as it came into land. Becket instructed the recruits to carry a set of cases from the transport.

“I’m sure you all remember yesterday’s drills, pop the cases and help yourself to a blade, Rhea you’re with Cole, Terra take Titus, Yul with Ahmet and Eda with Raik. You two with me,” he said to the final pair.

“We’ve been running for 3 hours! I’m about ready to eat one of the small ones,” said Titus as he eyed Rhea.

“You’ll eat when you earn it, big man.” said Becket, as he threw two ration packets to Terra and Rhea.

Becket left the Group to their practice and took his two helpers into the dropship, pausing on the ramp, he examined the greenery at the edge of the clearing.

“Is the area still clear, seagull?”

“Scans are clear, sir. Colonel Lithia says she’s on her way, will be here shortly.”

“Gotcha, you two” he indicated to his helpers, “grab those cases and move them outside. Keep an eye on the scanner for me seagull.”

“Yes, sir.”

Becket lingered on the loading ramp watching the trees as the recruits moved more crates from the dropship. Finally, he moved into the ship and busied himself amongst the equipment store. When his two helpers had finished transporting the white crates, they joined in the training drills. The boxes had been placed at regular intervals and began to shift and grow as Becket poked at his tablet. The cases grew with a mechanical hum, some high into the air with scattered hand holds, others unfolded into a series of hurdles or slim unstable platforms.

Terra glanced over Titus’ shoulder, “Guess we know what the test is,” she said, as their blades clattered in the air.

“The tests are pointless, half these runts are just waiting to die. They shouldn’t be given false hope,” said the goliath as he swung his blade at Terra’s gut.

“I wouldn’t encourage people to jump to conclusions big guy, I don’t think you’d measure up well.” she said, throwing her weight into a thrust at his heart.

“I don’t need these weaklings approval, nor your lectures.” he said, blocking the strike and delivering a hefty punch into Terra’s ribs. She staggered back deflecting a follow-up strike away from her head.

A sly grin crept onto her face as she eyed the man mountain, “So that’s the way it’s gonna be?”

She swung her sword high and bellowed, the muscled giant raised his sword to block as Terra delivered a solid kick to his stomach, throwing him back. She charged, weapon poised to strike. Titus fell back, using his long reach to keep her at bay, taking huge swipes at the advancing Amazon. Their blades rattled together and Terra, muscled as she was, had to fight to keep hold of her blade during the massive strikes. She recalled Cole’s fight, the big man was surprisingly nimble and had predicted Coles moves perfectly. He wasn’t an idiot and wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice.

Blades flashed back and forward, each opponent probing for weaknesses. Titus grabbed at her blade as she turned away his strike, seizing her wrist and pulling her close, Terra sprang forward planting her forehead in the bridge of Titus’ nose with a damp crunch.

“Glory damn you, filthy wretch!” spat Titus as he reeled back.

“Don’t start what you can’t finish, big guy.”

“You two!” shouted Becket, “Stick to the routine or the colonel will make sure no one gets desert! I’m not kidding, there’s a group of recruits on the mainland right now without dried ice cream, are you willing to risk it?” he said as he flicked two fingers between his eyes and the recruits.

Rhea watched the spat diffuse before returning her attention to Cole who waited patiently. She apologised when she noticed the scowl on his face. There wasn’t much of a size difference between them, and Rhea didn’t know if this was a blessing or an insult.

“Don’t hold back,” she said as they assumed their positions.

“He’s an animal, I hope she broke something,” muttered Cole.

The pair began to trade blows at a modest pace, Cole telegraphed his attacks allowing Rhea time to react. For a while, it took a concerted effort for Rhea to deflect the blows, but soon she found her rhythm. She adjusted to the movements, flowing efficiently from one pose to the next, learning to deflect and not absorb the attacks.

“It’s almost like dancing,” she said, as the pair settled into the pattern. She closed her eyes and felt the soft ground compress beneath her feet as she spun into her next parry. What should have been a tremendous insult captivated Cole, the joyful smile a rare sight for a career soldier. She continued to parry his strikes in the correct order, what could he complain about?

Becket approached with a raised eyebrow, a blade in his hand and a compact rifle on his hip. He raised the sword and slapped the flat of the blade down on Rhea’s head. The redhead blinked out of her trance with wide eyes as she saw the instructor standing before her.

“Why would you think it’s a good idea to close your eyes recruit? And you,” he swung to Cole, ”you think that’s a good habit to encourage? Glory help me we’ll be dead by winter with a few more of you idiots.”  

Becket stalked off and called everyone together with the promise of lunch.

Terra slumped on the ground next to Rhea with a heavy breath, a smear of red marred her cheek, a healthy coating of sweat glistening across her shoulders.

“Did he do that?” asked Cole, pointing to her cheek.

“Yea, he got a few good hits in, but I think I came out better,” she said, prodding the graze.

Cole looked over to see Titus nursing a bloody nose as he slumped against a tree. Yul and Setsu had joined him and were retrieving bandages from one of their packs. Titus lashed out in pain and pushed Setsu to the ground, ending the attempted intervention.

“How’d this one do?” said Terra, as she pointed a thumb to Rhea.

“This one can hear you, and I did fine, almost enjoyed it actually.”

“Did you dance much before you joined the military?” said Cole.

“All the time, whenever I could get away from my family I was practising,”

“Did she go funny again?” Terra asked, “Start twirling and spinning?”  

“Fought with her eyes closed at one point,” Cole said with a chuckle.

“That’s a first, but it doesn’t surprise me, be careful the Colonel doesn’t see,” Terra said, as she sprawled on the grass.  

“I don’t think Becket was impressed,” said the readhead into her chest.

“Don’t stress, I think you bought yourself more than a few weeks during the run.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Why are you here?” Cole cut in “I don’t want to offend, but you don’t seem like the type to apply for this unit, you know how dangerous a Ranger’s job is?”

Rhea fumbled with her packet of food, she opened her mouth to speak but her voice cracked.

Terra spoke up, “You don’t have to answer squirt, everyone’s got their reasons and you don’t need to share if you don’t want to.”

Small talk dominated the next twenty minutes, the recruits ate as well as they could on field rations and discussed the approaching test. The series of white blocks had unfolded into a makeshift obstacle course, high walls, unsteady platforms, and long beams jutted out on multiple levels. Titus remained separate from the majority of the recruits with Yul and Setsu. He glared from under his thick brow at the tattooed woman and her small friend.

“Break time is over!” announced Becket from a platform high up on the test equipment. Collect your blades and get back to your drills!”

A low collective moan rippled across the recruits as they rose and gravitated towards their sparring partners. Titus and Terra locked eyes as they marched together.

“We have about five minutes until”- Becket snapped around 180 degrees, gun in hand. -”Get to the ship NOW!”

A shadow darted across the edge of the clearing, bounding along the treeline in a dark blur. Becket’s weapon spat fire at the creature as it shot forward in an erratic path. The scattered recruits ran for the dropship, Milo and Raik were close by and sprinted inside, Terra and Titus were next, they flanked the ramp as Yul, Eda and Ahmet neared. The creature closed impossibly fast on the furthest recruits. It’s body covered in a glistening segmented exoskeleton, vicious barbs protruded around the shoulders, knees and torso. It’s narrow limbs tapered to a thin blade flanked by two clawed toes. Setsu, Cole and Rhea Sprinted from the creature as it snaked behind them. Bursts of suppressing fire peppered the ground as Becket dashed across the field. The creature ducked low, close to the three recruits, skittering on all fours. It released a piercing shriek as the carapace maw retracted to display several rows of long thin teeth.

Setsu howled and dropped to the floor, her leg missing below the knee as the fiend surged past her. Cole turned with his blade raised as the creature’s limbs folded and sprang open, hurling it forward in a dark blur. Rhea turned in time to see Cole fall to his knees, a long blade exiting his back. She screamed as a second blade shot through the back of his throat. His blade pressed limply against the creature solid chest to no effect. Cole tumbled back and the fiend barrel towards her. The bladed limbs sliding out of Cole with a sickening slosh.

Once more the creature folded its limbs and surged forward, Rhea leapt desperately, spinning on her side between the razor arms. It skidded to a halt, limbs flailing in the turf, kicking up great chunks of grass, bullets peppered the ground around the creature as it serpentined towards her. Teeth bared in a sickening hiss, it reared on its hind legs and dived for her. Spindly limbs splayed out as it darted forward, faster than any creature had the right to be. There was nowhere for Rhea to go.

Rhea was struck by a massive force, dark patterns and flesh flashed before her eyes as she threw her hand up in defence. The impact threw her to the ground her face buried in the grass, and a metallic taste seeped into her mouth. A shout echoed through the air, but it wasn’t her voice. There was pain from the impact, but where was the blood? Rhea rolled onto her back and scrambled to her feet as the panic eased momentarily.

Terra stood over her, a huge slick of blood flowing down her left arm, a wicked cut running deep across her trapezium. Her left arm hung limp at her side as she furiously slashed at the creature with her remaining arm. Blue sparks flashed as the knife like limbs clashed with the desperate warrior’s training blade. The fiend hissed, spraying mucus across the grass. A massive figure pounced from the side, Titus buried his weapon in the ground as the creature sprang aside. Bullets ricocheted off the beast chest carapace as Becket closed in from the other side.

Terra dropped to the ground clutching her wound. Rhea scrambled to her pack, dumping the contents on the floor and grasping at disinfectant sprays and wound binders.

Terra grabbed Rheas trembling hands as she went for the wound on her neck, and pointed unsteadily to Cole and Setsu behind her, then proceeded to dump the contents of her own pack on the ground. Rhea stumbled to the downed recruits, the sounds of steel and gunshots still ringing out behind. Training took over and Rhea worked on auto pilot, Setsu was pale but had a faint pulse. She bound the leg to stem the bleeding and sealed the stump with a binding pack. The plastic wrapper shrivelled around the missing limb and closed the wound tightly. She injected a stimulant shot into her chest and satisfied she could do nothing else stumbled over to Cole.

Titus Bellowed at the hissing creature as he beat it back with his pole weapon, the creature dodged and weaved, attempting to break past the wall of muscle. He thrust at the fiend as it ducked low. The strike was true and it pushed the fiends head to the ground. Titus threw his weight into the weapon to cleave the head in two. The head splintered into a spiral of dust and smoke, twisting around the weapon. Titus’ eyes grew wide as the body lurched forward, the head forming again through the fading smoke, open-mawed, inches from his face. It lunged for his throat, the rows of thin teeth undulating like a heartbeat. A flash of steel grazed Titus’ shoulder, plunging straight into the creature’s open maw. Sparks flickered around its mouth as the creature ground his teeth into the steel.

“Got your back, big guy.” said Terra.

Titus released his weapon and grabbed the creature’s neck. Blood seeped around his grip and began to coat his hands. A grimace spreads across his face as he began to strain against the fiend. Terra released a mighty bellow as she wrenched her blade deeper into the creature’s mouth and jerked it into the air and away from Titus’ face.

Titus let go as she threw the creature onto the ground with a colossal effort, sweat now pouring down her face. The creature convulsed to regain its feet. Limbs scattered into dust and reformed in the opposite direction, writhing on the floor, the head twisted 180 degrees in a series of nauseating pops. Titus stared at his hand now slick with blood and pierced with many lacerated barbs. The dropship engines roared and the ground shook as it pitched up sharply, the front rising quickly as it launched into the air. The turret under the cockpit snapped to face Terra as she stood over the Creature, staggered by the impossible scene she was witnessing. In the space of a second the creature’s body was reversed, It bounded towards Rhea who pressed desperately on Cole’s wounds.

A trench streaked across the ground, throwing geysers of dirt and rock into the air. Seagull’s turret ripped into the ground, barrels spinning furiously, spouting fire into the air. The creature darted left and right, it’s lengthy claws digging deep gashes in the turf as it veered away.

Blood welled in Cole’s throat despite the binding. Rhea’s hands pressed hard on his chest, the blood flowed down the side of his skirmish gear in a crimson stream that she couldn’t hold back. He lifted a limp finger as he choked on the word he tried to speak. She turned to see the beast surge towards her. Her heart stopped and she stared wide-eyed as a spray of earth ripped in front of her and the creature darted away into the trees. Becket joined Titus and Terra to form a wall between the injured and the fleeing creature. Becket Shouted into his radio and the creature disappeared into the tree line. Streams of metallic death tore into the canopy as the dropship peppered the forest.

Becket stood before them, rifle at his shoulder, eyes pinned on the trees. He drew a pistol and threw it to Terra. The three of them formed a triangle around Cole, Setsu and Rhea,

“How’re your hands, Titus?” asked Becket.

Titus grunted a response that fell under the roar of the engines. The rain of fire ceased and quiet settled over the valley.

“Confirm the kill Seagull!”

“Negative commander, I can’t track it, thing doesn’t register.”

“Land the ship, we need to get to a doctor!” pleaded Rhea.

“The only reason that thing is hiding in the trees is the dropship. If seagull lands it’ll be in the middle of us slitting throats before you can take two steps onto the ramp,” said Becket

“So what do we do?”

“You have to put a tube in his throat before he chokes on his own blood.”

A cold sweat shuddered over Rhea, “I’ve only done basic”-

“Do it, or he dies in this field.” said Becket with a chilling lack of emotion.

“You two”, Beckett shot a glance at the two recruits still standing. “stay sharp, help’s coming.”


Chapter 3: Duty

Dawn was still hours away, Lithia could hear the birds stirring outside her quarters as she stretched in her bunk. She rose at the sound of approaching footsteps, her black hair hung down to her elbows. She bunched it tightly as she crossed to the window and tied it in a neat ponytail. Loose strands hung at the edges of her face, framing her sharp features. She flicked a switch and the armoured shutters slid open. The artificial light of the compound stabbed at the surrounding forest, illuminating the clearing around the perimeter. Her dark eyes scanned the treeline for movement, before settling on the soldiers in the watchtowers.
The Rangers training facility was located deep in the wilds of the second line, a large chain of islands to the west of the Inner Circle. The Second Line wasn’t considered safe like the Inner Circle, but it was a paradise compared to The Colonies. Towns and cities dotted the islands, there was enough farmland to support the population and people were generally content.

Vast areas of thick forest still covered some of the larger islands. Creatures lurked in the depths of these wild lands, but the military kept them under observation. They were large and varied but lacked the hyper-aggressive tendencies of the mainland beasts. The semi-intelligent tribes of the islands had been wiped out nearly four hundred years ago. Settlers from the inner circle moved in for the natural resources and the tribes were forced out soon after.

The forest surrounding the training compound was a suitable mirror of those on the continent. It made an excellent training environment but came with its own set of risks. Packs of Borax had taken to prowling the perimeter fence and it had put the guards on edge.

The Footsteps stopped outside Lithia’s quarters.

“What is it?” she called.

“Captain Wilder wants to speak to you urgently sir.”

“I’ll take the call in the command centre, tell him to expect me shortly.”

Lithia dressed in her grey skirmish gear and collected a packet of rations as she departed her quarters. Large banks of floodlights battered the darkness with unnatural light. A frigid wind whipped at her extremities bringing the scent of the coast with it. The command bunker stood in the centre of the compound. Extending only a meter above the ground, sloped walls gave the building a sleek profile. A radio tower pierced high into the sky, sprouting numerous dishes and aerials, connecting the training facility with the wider world. The heavy metal doors slid open and the hum of radio chatter and fluorescent light spilt into the gloom.
Lithia settled into an empty chair, the collection of screens in front of her shifted to a comfortable viewing angle, a light flashed onto her face and the screens flickered to life. A man with broad shoulders and a strong jaw waited on screen, short brown hair swept across his brow. Deep shadows hung around his bloodshot eyes.

“Colonel Lithia sir.”

“Captain Wilder, what’s the problem?”

“Omega platoon has gone missing, sir,”

“How many are missing captain?”

“Everyone, all five units,”

“Half your company? What happened!”

“I, I don’t know sir, I’ve been reviewing the information but there’s little to go on. They last checked-in five days ago, nothing unusual. They were due to resupply last night but the airship failed to make contact…” The captain trailed off. Lithia was busy scrutinising a map of the mainland. Her fingers danced over glowing icons, tracing patterns in the soft aqua light. Forty blue markers appeared on the map and melded to form five larger icons scattered around the western plains.

“My remaining platoon is suiting up as we speak, we should be in the area in 8 hours to reestablish contact or begin a search as appropriate,” said Captain Wilder. Lithia sat silently, her fingers forming a peak in front of her face. “With your permission, sir,” added the Captain.

“Proceed with your preparations Captain, but await my call before you deploy.”

“Yes, sir.” said Captain Wilder and the call cut off.

Lithia rocked back in her chair with a heavy breath, swiping at the glowing icons at her fingertips. The map swept around the plains, markers traced a path across the map showing the movements of the platoon, from their last known location to their initial deployment. Her eyes flicked between the screens as she layered on creature movements, weather anomalies, herds of beasts and tribal movements. Coloured overlays shifted as she gestured back and forth over the timeline, areas of reds, orange, violets and greens flowed across the map. Sometimes one colour would concentrate in a vast, all-consuming pool and scatter to nothing weeks or days later. More markers appeared as Lithia’s fingers flourished, her brow furrowed with frustration. Nothing yielded a satisfactory answer.

She sat staring at the continent, the plains to the west give way to the jungles in the east and the mountains that circled the north far beyond. The defensive line of walls and forts encircled the colonies to the south and kept the beasts and tribes of the continent at bay. A gesture made a multitude of blue markers appear across the mainland, a prominent gap now present to the west.

Lithia jerked around in her seat and pointed to a nearby communications officer.

“Send a message to every Company, I want everyone checking in twice as often.” the soldier nodded and busied himself at the console. She turned to another, “Contact my First Company. I want them gathered here within 24 hours. Let Captain Wilder know he can begin the search as soon as he sees fit.”

She returned her attention to the monitors and began to review the night’s reports. The Tribes were gathering near the defensive line again, and herds of creatures had been battering the defences in greater numbers than expected. It would only get worse until winter hit. She packaged the information and distributed the likely attack routes to the armoured and infantry divisions. They would organise the appropriate defences and the airborne division would plug the gaps as usual.

She penned a message to general Isken, as she did every week, asking for permission to travel further into the mainland. They needed more information and this perpetual reactionary defence couldn’t last, there had to be a reason for this storm.

Daylight began to creep over the horizon outside the command building, bringing an orange haze to the morning. Carrion cries rattled in the distance and huge leathery wings scattered over the trees as something disturbed their morning meal.

The armoury hummed with the din of heavy equipment, vibrations rattled through the metal floor and up Lithia’s legs as she marched past the rows of workbenches. Yellow sparks arced across the room and bright flashes of plasma welding stole her vision. The smell of grease and metallic sweat hung heavy in the air. Racks of strike suits lined the walls several stories high, mechanical arms swung through the air racking away the freshly serviced armour and retrieving fresh suits. Mesh cages underneath held cases of rifles and small arms ready for transport.

The far end or the workshop opened into and sizeable garage, small silver craft were suspended on servicing platforms. A technician cursed as he pulled a handful of cables free from an access hatch and showered his assistant in grime and leaking coolant. Disassembled strike suits hung on work frames as teams of engineers picked through detached limbs for salvageable parts.

Lithia turned into a small alcove beside the vehicle pit and the frustration of the morning reports vanished from her mind. Her personal strike suit hung on a diagnostic frame, arms suspended at its side in T shape. The profile was light and sleek when compared to the strike suit racked outside, mottled shades of misty grey covered the suit. A cruel v formed a brow on the helmet, deep recesses the colour of night peered out at the world.

The corners of her mouth curled up little more than a millimetre as she ran her fingers along smooth forearms and reached behind the neck. The suit relaxed into the frame with a mechanical sigh as her hand slipped out of a groove behind the neck. Panels lining the major joints flicked open and a pulse of blue light drained from the circuits inside. With meticulous care, she began to uncouple the limbs from the suit.

When Becket rounded the corner she was sat on the floor with a precise pattern of servos, cables, armour plates and assorted machinery arrayed around her. He knocked on a metal post as he approached, Lithia focused on the ceramic ring she was cleaning.

“What is it, Becket?”

“The recruits will be assembling in the gymnasium soon, should we expect you?”

Lithia tapped her wrist and the time appeared as a series of blue numbers on her skin. She stood and cast her eyes around the display of parts, “A morning run might be in order,” she said with a sigh, “Keep them busy, I should be finished here by midday.”
Becket gestured over at the mechanics working on the suits behind.

“I’m sure one of them”-

“No,” she stated. “They never get it… right”

A series of customizations distinguished Lithia’s suit from the multitude of identical strike suits in the armoury. Speed and agility were the obvious design goals, even more so than the standard ranger gear.

“Is there something wrong with it?” he said

“Her legs are sluggish, techs say it’s fine, but it doesn’t feel right.”

“They know what they’re doing.”

“So do I.,” she said with a glare. “Have you read the reports this morning?”

Becket nodded, “General Izken, politely declined your request a few minutes ago, poor use of resources and the usual excuses.”

“No surprise,” she said with a sigh “I’ve recalled the first Company, they’ll be here tomorrow. Pick four to help you with the training, the rest I want on hand for the search.”

“Do you think that’s the best use for them right now? I know it’s odd to lose a platoon but”-

“It is not odd Becket, It is unheard of, platoons don’t just vanish for no reason! Something is different out there and I need to know what.” Lithia hushed her voice and stepped close to Becket. “It’s not your place to question my decisions, see to the recruits.”

Lithia turned and sat in the midst of the parts, scooping up another washer and scouring it. Becket turned and walked back into the workshop receiving a sympathetic shrug from a grease covered mechanic.