"Another place or time"
The mall was massive. A mega-mall at least eight stories high. A shopping paradise for the rich; depressing for the poor. Actually, in this case, depressing for both because not only was the purple haze that filled the place extremely toxic, but judging by the cobwebs and dust build up, it looked like no one had set foot in it for centuries. No one had. The deadly purple haze that still lingered throughout the halls had made sure of that. All the technology and merchandise in it were themselves centuries more advanced than anything that existed in the 21st century.
Five soldiers in full, heavily worn body armor frantically busted into the building through its unshielded front doors. No part of their bodies was exposed; their helmets were even equipped with built-in gasmasks.
"Jonesy, get on the doors!" yelled their leader. Distinguished by the enormous battle-axe with a diamond-encrusted hammer on the opposite end of its bladed head, strapped to his back and the extraordinarily large pistols in each of his hands. He also wore the insignia of a Terranian colonel. Beneath his armor, the one who would bring humanity into the 'Twilight of Life' carried the body of a man who had long forgotten the pleasures of luxury; a man of rugged, perfect athleticism beyond his age. He was Colonel Azon.
Lt. Jonesy, the young technician, immediately started hacking into the mall's security panel using his wrist-mounted computer. As he focused on controlling his breathing and slowing his heart rate, he wondered if sealing the shutters would buy them enough time - for what, he was still uncertain. Whatever they were coming as, the enemy was after them in force. They had no fear. They knew no fatigue. They had no sense of self-preservation and existed for nothing else but to eliminate people like them, eliminate people. Jonesy feared the truth. It was unlikely they would survive the next few minutes, but he knew that for the sake of his sanice, he had to. For the sake of Hundled, he had to; the boy still had so much to learn from him. For the sake of the world, they had to.
The others, in their bullet ridden, PCAS Terra-Actual combat armor, frantically looked on, also knowing that the information they carried was paramount to the planet's survival - paramount to its continued existence. The sounds of their controlled breathing were filtered through their gasmasks. They knew they were the best soldiers for this situation. It was why they were there. They were the elite under Terrania's Azon and thus the most important group of soldiers in the world.
Suddenly, metal shutters began to slam shut on all entrances throughout the mall. Jonesy had succeeded in reactivating the building's ancient security systems and for that moment, for that very short moment, they had never felt such relief. It was a very short moment indeed.
The colonel called out to his tired soldiers, "Topside, now!"
Even with their bodies completely covered by their armor, they knew he had a way of sensing their fear. Maybe they felt that because they could never sense his. These warriors were the most elite of their company, but they had never known a situation with stakes as high as these, or a man more likely to overcome them than Colonel Jon-Azon. Everyone the colonel knew who had such experience was either already dead or arguing strategies at a war table in a floating fortress on the Pacific Ocean.
"Captain Eagle-Eye, what's your ETA?" The colonel yelled into his helmet radio.
Knowledge Gun Damage, was more than the Motherless Squad's heavy weapons specialist, he was also the most full of useful advice. Terrania’s reining sharpshooter and the second most experienced member of the squad heard the man he had fought side by side with for almost as long as he could remember; he heard the legendary colonel. Even after everything, after all the horrors they had experienced together in the deathtrap also known as the ‘Over-world’, even after watching their entire squads perish time after time, he could not understand how through everything they were currently experiencing, how with the stakes as high as they were, the colonel could still remain so composed. The man still functioned as if fear was not a factor. He still functioned like a true Terranian.
Gun Damage was, however, glad the rest of the squad was doing such an excellent job of not letting each other down. This was their last fight together. They were trapped and surrounded and surviving this, at most, would guarantee them less than 24 more hours of life. Tomorrow, every human alive will die, he considered to himself as he admired his leader, but if I die today, I'll have the eternal honor of dying at his side. Gun Damage closed his eyes for a moment, when he opened them again, the fear was gone.
"ETA five minutes, Colonel. Stay alive, sir. I promise I will get you out." Captain Eagle-Eye's response crackled in the colonel's ear, his promises always true. At this moment, it was an unacceptable answer.
"Captain Jimmo," the colonel growled with a calm anger. "You need to be here yesterday. We don't have five minutes." He looked at his squad; brave soldiers, as always, about to die. "We don't have one."
The startled soldiers suddenly heard one of the ground floor shutters get blown open by a powerful explosion. It was soon followed by the sounds of hundreds of tiny metallic feet in fast pursuit. The enemy knew exactly where they were and was coming right for them. They reached the escalators in only a few seconds.
Gun Damage turned to the young Destiny whom he had groomed for years and reminded him, "Remember, D, it's going to get crazy, keep your head."
Lieutenant Jom-Vark D was getting the rush of his life, because he knew his day had come. Things had fallen into place in such a way that he knew he was now in position to save his squad and glorify his mentor. He was now in a position to save the world. The job of saving the world had been narrowed down and simplified to just saving his squad. He believed this fight somehow was the reason they called him 'D', why they called him Destiny. All he had to do now was prove it. His adrenaline levels were almost out of control and even without the visual contact of any enemy, it still took a considerable amount of effort for him not to squeeze his trigger. He would get his chance soon enough. Too soon.
As the youngest member of any of the Azon's scouting parties at fifteen years old, Vark Destiny was also one of the most naturally skilled in weapons and tactics and had an overeager desire to lead. He was good at it too; he had to be, why else would they give him the title of Jom?
When the colonel spotted a half shut shutter and yelled for his soldiers to exit through it, Vark Destiny was the first to respond, "I'll lead the way!" He opened fire on the glass, the rest of the squad soon followed suit. The colonel decided to use his Harbingers, powerful over-sized pistols with built in explosive charges. Their distinctive cry when fired overshadowed the echoed blasts of the others.
After shattering the 'blast proof' windows with their heavy duty, rapid firing weapons, Vark D dove into the parking garage, rolled back onto his feet and led their escape up the driving ramps all in one swift motion. He knew this was the most important day of his life. He knew this day was the reason he existed. He would make his sanice proud. He would fulfill his promise. He would not be forgotten.
They finally got to the rooftop where the unusually bright yellow sun still appeared to float just beneath the surface of a flowing, blood colored sky. Vark D had always been mesmerized by how the yellow and red glow from above illuminated the purple haze that covered the completely deserted mega-metropolis that surrounded them. The sun looked like a fiercely burning ball that refused to drown in the deadly sky. This was Terra-actual, long called the Over-world by those considered misinformed - those who would soon be dead.
Unnatural and devoid of Earthly beauty, it was a place long forgotten by love and hope. It was a place long forsaken by the self-preserving Terranian states.
The city itself was much taller than the 21st century New York City and larger than the 21st century City of Los Angeles. It was on the verge of crumbling under its own weight. As sophisticated as the city was, it was also completely devoid of life. Desolate buildings towered in the horizon, blind to their own existence and serving no action. The remains of past souls and the machine slaves they once called vehicles littered the forgotten streets, markers of a history become irrelevant in the wake of oblivion.
"Stand fast!" ordered their colonel. "Today, no one breaks. Death is not an option." If we die, so does our world.
They tried to obey their commander and enter defensive positions. The rooftop of the parking garage, like almost everything else in the city, had remained relatively untouched for centuries. Dozens of vehicles remained parked on it. A few human remains were scattered around. For those experienced in Terra-Actual cities, it was a typical scene. As the squad got into formation and covered all points of attack, War Angel, the least experienced of the group suddenly had a moment of weakness and the panic at her doors found its way in.
"Sir! What do we do? What the fuck do we do?" Her voice trembled. One of the most intellectual minds in the group, she had once held a longing to experience some of the Over-world action, it was her technological and environmental expertise that had awarded her a spot on this elite team, but she was starting to second-guess her decision to leave the PCAS’ Science and Research division for the battle forces. It had been a difficult choice for her, especially since she had been under the wing of the brilliant Dr. Pow. Her announcement of the transfer was the only time she could recall ever seeing an emotion on the doctor's face, even if she still could not identify which it was. She never told anyone that the doctor’s secret romance with Major Brett Mosquainne was a primary factor in her decision to leave – his continued presence in their labs threatened to undermine the authority of the division and she wanted no part of that.
"Live how you can, die like a human, soldier,” the colonel replied, coldly. He had neither the time nor the patience for cowardice. Die like a human, how often these words entered his mind, he could never guess. They were simply the echoes of voices he had heard in a former life. An innocent one. Any other life but this, because in this one, there was no choice - the enemy cannot die like a human, only we can. The shallowness of those words bothered him every time he said them. He made yet another mental note never to utter them again. "Remember who you are. Remember what we die for!" He added.
They all repeated in disciplined unison, "What we die for, sir!"
Fear no longer an option, War Angel's moment had passed. Their weapons remained steady even as the purple haze seemed to thicken around them, reducing their visibility.
Fucking wind, thought Gun Damage also known as Knowledge.
"They're coming," informed Vark D readjusting his stance. "The fucking slaves!" Rhythmic breathing was becoming evermore difficult for him to maintain, but he knew he would not fail. "This is it!"
Sure enough, they all began to hear the unmistakable sound of the incoming feet running on concrete above the sound of the winds. They may be tiny, the squad thought in one way or another, but the bastards are fast!
"Okay, soldiers,” the colonel raised his two Harbingers, preparing to fire them at the ramp's entrance. The others also prepared themselves one last time. "Who are we?" The colonel yelled so hard with his gruff voice, they would not have been surprised if his throat bled.
"The Motherless Squad!" their response was surprisingly calm, cold. Their courage and clarity of mission had completely returned. Once again, they were the deadly unit; ever fearless, even for soldiers who were not sure they could survive the next two minutes.
"Don't worry, my lady,” Jonesy turned to War Angel. “I'll once again be laughing at your Pow jokes after this." Jonesy was surprisingly reassuring. War Angel and Hundled, the young green-and-blue-eyed boy he mentored, were close. The three of them were like… Like something the state did not allow.
War Angel embraced her regained confidence as they heard their pursuers begin to run up the final ramp. If anyone was going to survive, it was going to be her; after all, she was the expert on the enemy's true capabilities, limitations and behavior. She made a mental note to ask Dr. Pow for reinstatement. She wondered how the doctor would respond, let alone the squad. She also thought about trying to convince Jonesy to join her in leaving the battlefield. The two of them shared something - something that had to be more important than serving with the Azon. Even the Sanice Council had approved them.
Just then, the entire roof shook violently, as if a bomb had gone off beneath it. A mound of cracked concrete formed a tiny hill at the point of impact where a few vehicles had briefly been thrown about.
"What the..." Vark D turned to aim at whatever seemed to be trying to break through behind them. From his earliest memories, he had always wanted to join the PCAS battle forces and become a permanent Over-world ranker, a Jon, just like Colonel Azon. Captain Damage had been a good mentor to him. He'd taught Destiny as much as there was to learn. Sweat stung the scout's eyes. A feeling traveled up and down his spine. No, it was not a feeling, it was a certainty he could not explain, but knew to be true; today will not be our last, I will give us another.
Charging up the ramp, the enemy finally attacked in force. They were cat-sized insect-like robots with bladed wing-like compartments that doubled as decapitators and housed their actual silicone based wings. Their design resembled the general shape of the Anopheles mosquito and they were given the uninspired nickname 'Skeetos'. These version 1 models also came equipped with intense weapons-grade, beam capable devices. They were nothing the soldiers' modified Mark 20, Techthyam coated Dragon's Skin full body armor and specialized weapons could not normally handle. When encountered in small amounts, the Skeetos were mostly annoying, but in large groups, they were downright deadly. Gun Damage glanced at Vark D, knowing just how fearful his protégé was of death by Skeeto. As the enemy continued to charge up the ramp into the squad's barrage of firepower, it became apparent that it was not a large group attacking the soldiers; it was a swarm.
Jom-Destiny hated the Skeeto class of Varentra because it was always so easy to underestimate them. Their greatest strength had always been their maneuverability. Their agile legs allowed them vertical leaps of up to twenty feet. Their wings allowed them erratic, instant velocity changes in midair making them almost impossible targets to shoot down. It was their ability to behead people in battle without the victim immediately realizing what had just happened that bothered Lt. Destiny the most. He always felt there was something unfair about it. The victim’s last sight as they watched their body die would most likely be their killer standing over them, far away from their glorious Terrania.
Gun Damage had always tried to calm him down by telling him that if he did ever lose his head that way, at least he would have time to imagine their city-state's beautiful gardens of Estmarla one more time and thus, in a sense, die in Terrania. It would be peaceful and tranquil; but they were far from home.
Absorbing the Skeeto blasts to the best of their abilities, the soldiers fought for balance and fired back at them with extreme prejudice. Smoke formed on their armors where flames died quickly. Although hundreds of machine-gun rounds per second were destroying the enemy at a rapid rate, their numbers were quickly becoming overwhelming.
Jon-Azon's Harbingers fired powerful charged munitions that ripped through their targets and exploded with enough force to immobilize several Skeetos with a single blast.
The powerful Gun Damage fired his portable smart-cluster bomb launcher. Each smart bomb exploded with the force of a grenade, sending tiny clusters that were electromagnetically attracted to Varentra emissions. Once attached, they would burrow into any metal alloy and individually explode. They were the most destructive launchers a human being could carry.
Tiny chunks of Skeeto debris began to shower the slowly retreating soldiers making it even harder for them to hit the leaping killers. The destruction in the fog was too intense. Fortunately enough, there were so many Skeetos flipping about and advancing, aim was not particularly necessary. Each shot was sure to destroy something. The swarm got closer and closer as it began to surround the squad relentlessly.
Vark D ignored everything around him. The enemy's high voltage energy based weapons. The human military arsenal; products of centuries of development, modification and war usage. The ever-approaching Skeetos. The screams of his squad, any urge to run; he ignored everything. Instead, he focused all his attention on this new and unknown enemy, this thing that lurked beneath the ground. He knew the fact that he was able to do so was an important sign. A good sign.
"Lieutenant Destiny!" Gun Damage continued to worry, concerned about his protégé who appeared to have ignored the fight to stare at a mound of concrete. "Defend your position!"
Vark D was defending more than just that. He was surrounded by his greatest fear, but he remained focused on what needed to be done. His target remained whatever it was that made that dent in the concrete. Whatever it was, every bone in his body told him it would soon be coming through that concrete mound. It's there for a reason, that's the real threat, he thought to himself, that's what we don't have the firepower to stop. He ignored the fear because he knew he was meant to. He would save the squad. He would save the world. He would not be forgotten.
With a thunderous boom, the mound of concrete was suddenly launched into the air with enough force to send several of the vehicles, including two trucks violently crashing onto their sides. Vark D was knocked onto his back. He recovered in time to see a car-sized iron fist recede back into the hole. An ear piercing shrill echoed in the garage below them and that was when it attacked.
Leaping several feet into the air emerged a thirty-foot tall, 10-ton iron machine that resembled a cross between a bulldog and a gorilla more than anything else. The powerful force of its landing launched all nearby vehicles, chunks of concrete and soldiers back into the air with intense ferocity. Roaring mechanically at the recovering soldiers with a deafening metal on metal sound, it clenched its oversized iron fists that supported its massive upper body as debris continued to drizzle down through the dust. It was an Iron Beast!
The moment of incapacitation proved fatal for the soldiers as it gave the rest of the swarm enough time to overwhelm them completely. With blazing speed, the Varentra robots were essentially running and jumping circles around them. With their perimeter defense broken, the soldiers risked shooting themselves, which put them at a greater disadvantage.
Vark D knew there was no time to hesitate, the world was at stake and his quad needed him. They would take down the Skeetos; he had a plan. He was going to use the enormous robot to their advantage. As he attempted to get back to his feet, he found himself falling back to the ground but not knowing why. He had lost complete control of his body. He felt nothing. It was only after his head stopped rolling in his final seconds that he saw his own decapitated body twitching next to him. He didn't know... He didn't know. He tried to think about Estmarla, but could not help staring in wonderment at the amount of blood that poured from his severed neck and stained the ground.
"No! Lt. Destiny!" Gun Damage realized he had just failed his squad and his colonel. He had just openly mourned the loss of another Terranian. He had just shown weakness at Destiny's beheading. There was no time to worry about it. He realized his mistake and set about fixing it. In all the gun blazing ferocity, Lt. Commander Gun Damage noticed that no more Skeetos were coming up the ramp. Good, he thought. Now all they had to do was finish off the rest while trying to survive this Iron Beast. He had promised their sanice that he would watch over him... Over D... No, he was just another soldier at war, dying is part of the job.
Knowledge heard War Angel scream in terror next to him. He could only imagine what Colonel Jon-Azon felt when they called his name. They always seemed to involuntary choose it as their last words.
The Iron Beast had War Angel's arm gripped tightly in its hand as it lifted her high into the air. Her other arm had already opened fire on it, but her explosive rounds did absolutely nothing to deter it. Her legs kicked haplessly in the air as she fought to free her arm.
"Fuck you!" Gun Damage screamed as he swung his enormous SLT Vextrover ICEM (Intelligent Cluster Explosive Munitions) launcher at the mighty mechanized war monstrosity. Bullets did little more than get swallowed by the robot’s self-healing memory armor. Without warning, a fine mist of black spray fumed out of the robot's modifiable shoulder mounted weapon’s bay.
"Corrosive acid!" Jonesy suddenly recognized as he turned his attention to War Angel's defense. Their armor was quickly covered by the spray and slowly began to erode. In an instant, the Iron Beast flung War Angel's steaming body toward the mall entrance. She never felt herself burst within her armor upon impact with the building wall. That was at least what Jonesy hoped. There was nothing he could do about her now. Nothing he could do about their future.
He found himself running toward the robot, determined to destroy it by instinct - Terranian instinct. The Beast, however, was not done with War Angel. In a parting shot, it buried its fingers into the roof and pulled up a slab of concrete. With incredible force, it flung the slab at War Angel's slithering body, completely pulverizing it against the mall's wall. "No!" Jonesy entered a blind rage.
The colonel turned just in time to see the monstrosity reaching for him, catching him off guard. It seemed to jerk violently for a split second, but that hesitation was enough time for the colonel to prolong his own life a little more. Instinctively diving out of the way, he managed to destroy a few more of the remaining Skeetos with two quick bursts before hitting the ground in a tuck-and-roll. The Iron Beast just missed him.
Jonesy was not so lucky. The bot grabbed both his legs in one of its hands, lifting him up. "Argh!" The technician's armored head smashed against the roof as he rose upside down. "Colonel!" Jonesy died with his finger squeezed tightly on his trigger. Explosively, chunks of his armor flew everywhere as the Iron Beast repeatedly bashed him into the concrete like an enraged toddler hitting a doll into the ground. It was every bit as fast as a human. The acidic spray spewing from it gave it an almost mystical appearance.
Jonesy's bullets hailed in every direction without regard to any target. His visor smashed open. Acid and radioactive poisonous toxins ate through his face. His muzzle continuously flashed with gunfire, momentarily making the massive robot look like it was dancing in a strobe light.
The murderous robot finally threw Jonesy's corpse so far over the city, it disappeared from sight. The enemy bot then turned its attention to the colonel and Knowledge Gun Damage, the last of the survivors.
The colonel and Gun Damage began to hop and skip backwards as they fired on the electrifying storm of robots that flew at them through the persistent purple haze. Their vision remained minimal through the smoke and haze, but they could still make out the advancing, towering acidic phantom of an Iron Beast that shook the ground beneath them with every step. It grabbed vehicles and threw them toward the evasive soldiers. Even as the colonel destroyed dozens of Skeetos flying into view, Gun Damage was aiming at four wheel drives and motorcycles that came crashing down on them, blasting them off the roof's edge and sending them to join the remains of civilization's past on the streets below in balls of flaming wreckage.
Almost as if in frustration, the Iron Beast raised its arms into the air and roared. Behind it, through the haze, the colonel barely saw something approaching overhead as surface-to-air gunfire erupted from nearby buildings. Help was coming from the sky. It was the Skyscreamer, an extremely advanced military transport and fighter aircraft and as the city became alive with anti-air firepower, it became clearer than ever to the humans that this was a planned ambush by their soulless enemy.
Designed to deliver any payload or personnel unit into the heart of the battle and bring its crew home without being detected, such a design was not as effective against this enemy, but Skyscreamers were the last none fully Varentra automated military aircraft humanity had ever produced. This one was piloted by the captain of the Birds of Prey.
"Gun Damage, on my lead!" the colonel screamed to his last remaining soldier as they gave their backs to the pursuing enemy and fled. They had to survive. Their death would mean the end of the world.
Sprinting as fast as they could to the building's edge, Gun Damage was only a few feet behind the leader he could barely see through the thickening haze of smoke and poison. It was extremely difficult to run as the ground trembled violently from the weight of the pursuing Iron Beast. It was like being chased by an earthquake. Knowing neither of them was fast enough to outrun it, Gun Damage considered turning to fight. It would mean a glorious death at his colonel's side. Maybe he could hit a vital sensor and buy them some time. Time for what? All they were doing now was delaying the inevitable. That was when he heard it.
Over the sound of the Beast he could hear the unmistakable high pitched hum of the approaching Skyscreamer - Gun Damage finally realized that Captain Eagle Eye's rescue had arrived! For the first time since this chase had begun, Gun Damage believed he might actually live to find out the end to all of this. The acid was quickly eating through their armor, his steaming visor had even started cracking, threatening to expose him to the deadly air, but he still believed he now had a chance to find out if humanity would survive the next day. At the very least, to see if they could come up with a plan.
The soldiers were now almost at the edge. The Skyscreamer, which had descended below the city's skyline, was so close. Tracer bullets raided its hull as gunfire continued to erupt from building windows, but it focused on dodging and evading the numerous guided missiles fired at it. The ambush's scope was awing. Rockets screamed and exploded like a fireworks show. Smoke and flak filled the space between buildings, but the aircraft's armor held true. The building's edge was only a few feet away now. Gun Damage suddenly understood the plan; the Skyscreamer would fly low over the edge, they would jump onto it and be flown to relative safety... At least what would be left of it for the next few hours.
They held the most important information in the world, they absolutely needed to be rescued and this would be a rescue in classic Birds of Prey fashion. The colonel was already preparing to make the leap. The idea gave the veteran Knowledge Gun Damage a new surge of life that was just as soon squeezed out of him by the solid iron grasp suddenly wrapped around his body. Fuck, was all Vark D's mentor and the Jon-Azon's second in command had the time to think before his organs were squeezed out of his mouth by the bot known as an Iron Beast.
"I loved and lost 50% of almost everything... Can't see what that was supposed to be better than, but would've had an open mind about it if the bitch didn't also take 100% of my dog." - Joseph Tolmeer, Author, commenting on his divorce
He looked down at the once fertile sphere the sun could no longer support and saw that humankind had lost their way. He watched as the planet was robbed of its life giving forces. He watched in disappointment as they set into motion the mechanisms of their own extinction. How dare they attempt to create new life? He watched.
He was not pleased.
The planet was a gift to you so that you may thrive; it was not yours to destroy. He watched as the rest of the farmers prepared for what was about to come. It was no longer a matter of having patience for the humans; they had decided their own fate. All was clear now; the time for harvest had arrived. It was, quite simply, time to close the book on the way of life that called itself humanity.
He was not pleased at all.