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.