"If there is a tomorrow"
Mona knew she wasn't dreaming, but was none-the-less having a difficult time grasping her reality. She was piloting War Manger, one of the most battle worn Rock Walkers; known for having always brought its pilot home alive. She was about 30 feet above ground in full control of a machine capable of punching a hole through more than 10 feet of concrete, that is of course, if the pilot did not just use the modified miner’s industrial laser or nuclear capable missiles to do it. Whoa!
The darkness and monotonous pounding of rain on the War Manger’s windshield coupled with the rhythmic sway of the machine from left to right and back again as it walked, was making her surprisingly sleepy; not to mention it felt rather cozy in that cockpit.
It seemed like it was days ago since their crash landing on Terra-Actual. Nothing seemed to be happening now, just a lot of walking. No wonder they're called Rock Walkers, she almost laughed. She knew there was a way to turn her Heads-Up Display blue so she could see better in the dark, thermal optics, but she couldn't remember how. She just told herself there wouldn't be much to see anyway, just dozens of other walkers doing the same thing. One of her monitors suddenly lit up with the cockpit of the General Westmark in full view. Mona was very happy to see Major Cammy's face.
"Hey, Mon,” Cammy smiled in her unique and almost always discomforting way. Mona had never been entirely comfortable with it. She always felt suspicious of the major, but was never quite sure why. "You seem to be handling the machine well enough."
"They're kind of making me sleepy, actually." Mona smiled.
Cammy laughed. "Hey, I'm going to patch you through to Vanny, okay?"
"Thank you, Major." Cammy was always thoughtful.
"No problem. You're battalion's in good hands. I'll see you girls soon." The screen flickered and Vanny's still frightened face replaced Cammy’s.
"Mona!" The pilot of the Wicked Bitch was extremely glad to see her friend and the fear seemed to subside for the time being. The feeling was mutual. The two of them began to talk as each tried to comfort the other. Ever since they had left Terrania, Mona had felt slightly troubled by the last exchange among the group, especially Twombles and Jimmo. She had gotten a sense that something might be wrong before, but the look on Leon's face on that last one had confirmed to her that she was not alone in sensing it. It didn't feel like the appropriate time to ask Vanny about it, but it was becoming increasingly difficult not to. Vanny's expression suddenly changed. "That's weird; everyone seems to be splitting up," she exclaimed.
Their monitors reserved for Group Leader suddenly powered on; it was Sanice Rochelle piloting one of the most recently modified rock walkers – the Redeemer.
What was she doing here? Mona was confused. As far as she knew, no sanice had been called into duty. It really didn't matter now, she was just glad it was the Redeemer leading the Death Walkers into battle, and that it was Sanice Clarra’s closest ally piloting it.
"Nav point Beta reached, Cleo group prepare to enter battle formation on my mark. Cleo 3 form on my left, Cleo 2 on my right, Cleo 4 and 5 cover the rear. Remember tonight you've become more than children, more than rankers. Tonight you're Death Walkers, 182nd Armored Battalion. Stay vigilant." Rochelle appeared surprisingly in control. She showed no sign of fear. How could she in the massive war machine called Redeemer? The girls couldn't get over the strangeness of it all. The Sanice Rochelle abhorred violence.
"The pace is about to quicken. You all understand what's at stake. The next 5 hours will be our last if we fail. Arm all weapons and prepare for battle solutions. We're here, girls."
We're here, Mona thought to herself. Doing as she was told to, she couldn't help but wonder where here was. She noticed that they were starting up an incline, but she still couldn't see any battle. The incline eventually became so steep she found herself sinking back into her puffy seat and practically facing the sky. They were climbing up the base of a mountain. Fumbling through her switches, Mona eventually found the 'night vision' switch. As soon as she turned it on, she was amazed by what she saw.
The screen suddenly became light blue and the world beyond it came into view. Above, the mighty clouds flowed like liquid land, but beneath them, she saw a massive swarm highlighted by bright on screen graphics detailing strategic information she could not understand. She wasn't entirely certain but guessed they were human piloted aircraft of war; zooming in to see a devastating aerial battle confirmed it. She just never thought there could be so many, but then again, this was humanity's last battle against the robot threat. Everyone who could be here was here. How could they not be?
She heard the fear in Vanny's voice. It was right about then that she started to feel a vibration, which she realized, was not caused by her machine. It was like a slight but continuous earthquake and it started to make her sick to her stomach as it intensified.
"Alright, Cleo group. Exit passive and switch to assault mode to keep up with me. Don't be afraid; just do whatever you can to stay alive."
To Mona, that sounded like Twombles’ advice from Rochelle’s mouth. No sooner was the group leader done talking before several warning beeps and lights ignited in Mona's cockpit. She was stunned to see the Redeemer not only accelerate, but start to open fire at an unseen enemy. Even from here, Mona could hear the explosive sound of the Redeemer’s heavily upgraded machine gun blasts.
Mona looked at her radar monitor; it was set to detect all enemies friend or foe within 10 miles; red dots for enemies, green for allies and blue for neutral. There were no blue ones, some green ones and over a 100 red ones. Within 10 miles? Mona wasn't sure she was even breathing anymore, things were getting too intense. Panic was seizing control. The enemy had them surrounded, but where? Where were they?
She hit a button, turning the War Manger’s whole configuration from a more stealthy one to a more active and aggressive one. This increased the mining machine’s combat readiness, but also increased its heat and radar signatures making it more susceptible to enemy detection.
Her HUD sprung to life with unfamiliar graphics. It illuminated enemy targets even through the obstacles in the field of vision. It suddenly appeared as if the ground was littered with tiny, cat-sized, objects as her cockpit came alive with the red graphics. They were burrowing through the mountain slope. That's what Sanice Rochelle is shooting at. They're coming from beneath us!
Mona began to rub her trigger with her index finger, wondering if she was ready to squeeze it as instructed. Suddenly a red flash on her windshield follow by a sharp electric sound startled her. It was quickly followed by another and yet another. Laser beams. Mona was being shot at and was receiving a lot of fire.
Mona started to hear machinegun fire from the other Death Walkers in the battalion. The world became electrified with gun blast lights. Just stay alive. She squeezed the War Manger’s trigger.
Her battle had begun.
"Dad's always asking me how I feel after school now. It's kind of weird, because I haven't even been sick since I can remember." - Melissa Adamson, from her diary (2022)
The Emergency Protection Centre was not too dissimilar from a 21st century stadium. Formally a vehicle and heavy machinery warehouse, it was now essentially a field encompassed by inclining rows of booths, seats and rooms and was one of Terrania's oldest buildings.
The centre served several purposes, but most importantly, it was a last resort in the event of a flooding catastrophe. It was also a place where residents could retreat to if Terranian domes were ever infiltrated by an enemy force. Most were aware this was nothing more than a formality. The only enemy they faced was not concerned with infiltration, just total annihilation.
Silent wind generators created a fake yet gentle breeze. Music from several eras played throughout the building. Commander-in-chief Lital never bothered to formally investigate why the sanice mostly chose music from the 21st century. He had at times wanted to, but this was sanice territory and of course, he trusted they knew what they were doing.
Lital had been sitting on a preserved tree stump for the last two hours. Bran, who had been standing beside him the whole time, never complained.
The white, flowing dresses of the sanice almost glowed beneath the building's bright, artificial sun. The EPC's internal design was a sorry excuse for nature, but next to the less shielded gardens of Estmarla, it was the best the capital of the Terranian Pacific Alliance could do and better than any other domed city had to offer.
The importance of the sanice and their council could not be overstated. Lital knew they were the most vital link in the children's development. They taught the future warriors humanity, without which, would leave humankind with no better reason for existence than the enemy. This was something he felt some of his more hardened colleagues often forgot. These were the women who for one reason or another could not fight in the war. While many were appointed by prior sanice, most had been too badly injured, born with limiting birth defects or themselves pregnant. The sanice represented life. To most, they were Terrania's vital and most sacred element. Most rankers thought of them when told to remember what they died for. Most would never get a chance to tell them that.
The children spent all their time with the sanice. Although they were categorized by age, anyone who wasn't old enough to be a ranker was considered a child and was thus under the authority of the Sanice Council. Children loved them, even if they never really learned the word. They would often be told that they would be reunited with their sanice once the war was over. They would often keep that belief all the way to their graves.
"We live like cockroaches at the bottom of the ocean."
Bran wasn't sure if it was the suddenness of the commander's words or their content that startled him more, but he silently let the man continue.
"The land above is almost entirely uninhabitable. What's left for our future, Bran? Devolve back into sea creatures?"
It's definitely the content, realized the chief of staff.
"You know, there was a time when mothers could raise their own children instead of these… These sanice." Lital had been observing one particular sanice group and had barely said a word. Bran recognized that it was the class of Sanice Clarra, which was looking unusually large; still he could only imagine what was going through Lital's mind. Is he really going to leave this fight all to Terachi’s band of warlords and stay down here? He couldn't imagine that the PCAS' supreme commander would do that. He had to lead more than just Terrania. He had to lead the world.
The commander seemed to be paying particular attention to a certain 6-year-old girl. Although it was not within protocol, Bran knew Lital had enough influence to obtain information on his own 'biologicals' if he desired to. He wondered if that's who the girl was. Is she his daughter? She hardly resembled him. Darker complexion. Lighter hair. Not scarred.
Who ever she was, Bran knew he had to fill the man in on the most recent piece of information he had just received. One reason he hesitated was the proximity of the children. He worried they might overhear him, but even more, Bran wanted to tell the man some good news. It was killing him to see the man in this condition. "Sir, may I speak to you?" Bran's voice cracked under his attempted whisper.
"The flooding in the docks is now under control."
It hardly seemed to register with Lital, who knew that leaving the deployment of the engineers for last was a wise tactical move. The scientists, healers, they weren't so needed since this was the last fight, but engineers would always be needed to make sure everyone else's departures ran smoothly. They saved the docks and it was all Terachi's idea.
Bran took another hesitant look at the kids. The commander knew there was more to come.
"It's okay, Bran. If there is a tomorrow, it's going to be their turn, anyway." To Bran's surprise, Lital suddenly sounded almost jovial.
"Sir, we've taken unrecoverable losses in the Kappa sector." In other words, the second front has completely failed. That bomb will explode; the war has already been lost. It was the most difficult sentence Bran had ever completed. He felt a sickness begin to creep up on him.
"I see. How much time?" The commander sounded much less optimistic.
"Three hours." That sentence was even more difficult.
Neither said a word for the next few moments. Bran watched the little girl. The sanice had called her to the front of the class to tell her peers what she knew about ‘The Phantom Harmony’. The sanice called her Cinda Rochelle and from what Bran could hear, it sounded like the little girl knew a lot.
"You know what the worst thing about our extinction will be?" Lital finally responded to Bran.
A few things came to mind which Bran wished had not. He didn't bother to ask for the answer, it was guaranteed. "In 3 hours, after all life will have ended... There will be nothing left to forget what it ever even meant to be alive in the first place." He sighed and let out a smile. "Maybe that's not so bad. Maybe we've been overrating it all along."