"Don't focus on the world"
Leon could not concentrate, let alone understand what was being yelled at him and the other boys in his company. They where the Omega Dragoons, a cavalry unit, and while the hard-faced army guy whose rank Leon did not know, described at the top of his lungs the functions of the single wheeled motorcycle before them by saying things like, "Your bike is your life," Leon could not stop hating himself for being such a coward. He'd had the perfect chance to ask Vanny to the Union and now chances were that someone else was going to get to her first.
It's probably going to be Jom-Zayter, he thought to himself, wondering how that hadn't happened already. Jom-Zayter of Clarra was the first of his friends to enter formal training because he was 2 years older than the rest of them. He was a real soldier, now. An exceptional ranker, who had already received the rare distinction of being a 'Jom' - a title of respect given only to the most respected of the young soldiers. He and Leon had always been friends, but because of his and Vanny's popularity, rumors had quickly spread that the Sanice Council had already pegged them as a future couple.
Jom-Zayter had everything a Terranian could want and Leon knew he had blown any advantage over him he may have had by not seizing his opportunity with Vanny. He could not comprehend what was happening around him, beyond that thought. He paid no attention to the male scientist who was injecting each of the unquestioning children in the room with an unknown substance.
Leon turned to look at Jom-Zayter who, like everyone else, was paying attention to the yelling soldier. Zayter would be leading his team into battle. Leon felt slightly comforted by that. At least he would be able to keep an eye on him. No sooner did he have that thought, did they make eye contact. Zayter watched as Leon was injected by the scientist.
A drowsy feeling began to take over Leon as the scientist whispered in his ear, "This will make you invincible to the enemy. Their weapons will not harm you. They will learn fear in your presence," before repeating the process on the next child.
After the meeting, Zayter approached Leon and put an affectionate hand on his shoulder. "Leon, it's really good to see you again, buddy. Not a lot of Clarra's in my unit."
Leon looked at him with a dazed look. He wasn't sure what he was feeling.
"I've been hearing about you, pal."
"What were we injected with?" Leon asked as numbness began to spread throughout his body.
The room had almost completely cleared out. The more the commotion lessened, the more Leon felt as if his heart was slowing down.
"It's going to be very intense up there, bud. What they did, they did to keep our forces moving forward. There's a lot at stake."
"The world,” Leon mumbled to his feet.
Zayter gripped the boy's shoulder in an effort to get him out of his funk. "Don't focus on the world, just on what you can save."
"Is it dark?" It was as if Leon didn't hear him. "Will it be dark up there?"
"Not if you keep your finger on your trigger. Just be careful and I'll take care of you, pal."
It was not the answer Leon was hoping to hear. I'm a coward, he thought in silence. Zayter grabbed his hand and they gripped each other's fists.
"Don't forget we're of Clarra." Zayter stared intensely into Leon's dilating eyes. "Keep your head, Leon. Today's a day for heroes."
"I've often found that in the field, the best way… Maybe the only way to drown out the dying screams of your team is to keep your trigger finger firmly squeezed and hope your ammo doesn’t run out." - Jouhn Duke, Appetizer Squad commander
Vanny could not believe what she was looking at. It was the massive skeletal structure of a rock walker chassis. They laugh at your unease, Vanny. The walkers were the largest human controlled machines in the PCAS’ Over-world artillery. Developed in response to Japan's Tomoko Space Crawlers almost two centuries prior, the UAN Deer CAT - Red Horse heavy duty utility miner had over the years, come to be known as the rock walker and flagship of PCAS heavy-duty Over-word miners. They looked intimidating.
Vanny, your unease is ridiculous.
Used primarily on the planet Mars during the world's great solar-system mining boom, rock walkers were the workhorses of the American mining fleet. They were intentionally designed to use minimal Varentra technology in an effort to increase the Western world's interplanetary human workforce. After the events of Metal Rain, many of the rock walkers had been retrofitted with military hardware and turned into powerful war machines by the human survivors.
Do not listen, Vanny, there is no way you successfully could pilot such a thing. Just leave. She leaned forward to listen.
The vehicles' weighty frames were capable of housing some of the PCAS military's most powerful and cumbersome Terra-Actual weapons alongside their already equipped mining utilities. The land mining vehicles were also capable of withstanding all but the most powerful blasts and asteroid showers the Milky Way could throw at them, even without Diamond Milk or memory alloys. The enormous mining machines were infamous for their difficulty of use in actual combat.
The one they were now looking at was the skeletal structure of a decommissioned version stationed in Terrania's Museum of Our History, a relic from an older world. It was so large, Vanny could not see its far ends or the top of it. It was the largest machine she had ever seen in her life.
Vanny knew there was a lot more about rock walkers that she did not know, but even as the Lieutenant barked instructions at her new battalion, she only had one truly puzzling question; what on Earth was a little girl like her doing as part of a Terranian artillery battalion?
She listened as the robotic vehicle's functions were hurriedly explained to all the girls in her group, but she couldn't believe it. Jom-Zayter had told her about them before and she had listened in passing, but she never would have imagined a situation like this. How could she? How?
There hadn't been time to mobilize all the walker pilot protective suits and those who normally piloted them, the experienced ones, were already playing their parts in what was likely Terra-actual's last grand act of defiance.
She listened as the sergeant tried to comfort them by telling them that even without their hazard suits, they would still be the safest soldiers in the battle since they would be the most protected from the fire, poison and radiation of the hazardous zones within the machine's impenetrable armor.
She listened as it was explained that the Death Walkers' armored battalion, unlike Leon's Terra-Cavalry Omega Dragoons, would serve as distanced artillery support and thus were 'unlikely' to be caught in the middle of the battle. She listened to all this and more, but even as she too was drugged with the liquid courage along with the other girls by barely noticed scientists, she still could not understand how any little girl was supposed to operate a 40 ton, 30 foot tall, missile and heavy laser mounted, quadruped iron behemoth with two arms the size of her bedroom. How?
Vanny was glad Mona and Major Cammy were right there, listening with her. Jom-Zayter had already promised her that there would be some incredibly talented people looking out for her when the battle began, none like you, Zay. He had even given her a communication device that would allow them to communicate and track each other privately. She decided to think more about him instead. His good looks and charming smile made her feel lucky, but there was still something that bothered her about their relationship. Anyone would be lucky to have you looking out for them. She believed Jom-Zayter was the most attractive soldier she knew. He was nice to her, in fact, he was pretty much perfect and their relationship felt destined; too destined. As much as they seemed perfect for each other, it felt more like an image for others to enjoy than a reality for her. He was a good ranker. The sanice looked forward to their matrimony, as did Terrania. Vanny changed her focus. She thought about what they did behind the EPC. What they promised to never tell. She couldn’t understand her feelings. I don't know why it ended between us, Zay, but it was special.
"Vanny," she heard Major Cammy interrupt and call out to her. "You should listen to everything said here; it could save your life."
She nodded. Sanice Rochelle was right about her, Vanny thought, Major Cammy would have been a great sanice.
"Daddy's friend, Mr. Park, says he has a surprise for me when I go back to Korea again. I don't want to go. It was so boring last time, but I want to know what it is. I hope it's the new Jackal Ranger video-game. Jackal Ranger is my favorite." - Melissa Adamson, from her diary (2020)
As the Omega Dragoons carried themselves toward Terrania's docks where their shuttles lay in wait, Twombles, who was on his way to meet Terachi after the admiral's meeting with Jimmo, could not help but worry about Leon. He still did not know Leon very well, but somehow, the boy seemed to be pretty popular, probably in no small part because, like himself he was from the popular class of Clarra. Twombles also believed a lot had to do with the boy's not so secret feelings for the girl from Rochelle; Mona's friend. He saw Leon's group heading toward the docks where their Omega monocycles were being loaded into waiting subflies. Leon's group looked nothing like the Paladin Knights he had seen earlier. Unlike the major's elite squad, the Omega Dragoons almost completely lacked the confidence and experience necessary to stand in the face of violent death, and Twombles could not imagine a combination more vital than confidence and experience in warfare. The bodyguard who'd always refused to fight was now passing the Omega Dragoons. He hung his own head as he passed those who would soon be dead.
Leon was an average sized 12 year old and thus on the small side to be a full Terranian combat soldier. The oversized, overweight armor he wore made him look even smaller. The parts of the uniform that were supposed to be skin tight on him looked more like dangling flesh. He managed a tired smile when he saw Twombles.
A surge of energy seemed to overcome the Admiral Guard; Twombles pulled him aside. "Fuck, they have you going up there?"
"Oh, you know," Leon seemed to shrug, "I guess they needed more people or something, I get to finally be a ranker, though. Maybe I'll become a Jom, or a Jon,” Leon was almost incoherent.
"Finally be a ranker?" Twombles seemed genuinely upset. He grabbed the young Clarra and pulled him aside then forcefully pinned him to a large metal container. The others did not seem to notice. "You know, Leon. When I was talking to Major Brett," Twombles said as he pulled out a small, black device and started scanning Leon's armor.
"Sergeant Twombles," Leon felt compelled to interject. He had a feeling where the conversation was going to go. Adrenaline pumped through him, it felt good. The feeling was quickly disappearing.
"What do you know about his sanice?"
"I know that right now, she's the head of the Sanice Council." Leon tried to sound tough and in control. It was almost laughable.
"Do you know why?" Twombles asked, still scanning away at his armor. "It's because a sanice was murdered by a military general. They just put Mosquainne..."
"Sanice Mosquainne," Leon corrected. Twombles paused for a second to look him in the eyes.
"Sanice Mosquainne is in charge because the military wants to keep an eye on her at the same time as they mend the damage caused to their relationship with the council,” he continued matter of factly. "Like the Govvi and Jano classes, the Mosquainnes are religious believers, even if they try to hide that. We're not liberal Rochelleans, Leon. Can you imagine how Sanice Clarra would feel if she found out who you spent your time with?"
Leon let out a frustrated sigh. He could not understand why everyone seemed to be so focused on ending his relationship with the Falco Paladin.
"Anyway, Leon, I want you to be careful up there, okay? It's important that you know this; it's okay to hide if you have to. Or run away. The important thing if you want to see Cammy again..."
"Sure. The point’s if you want to see Mona's friend again, you stay alive. No matter what."
Leon was surprised. He had never directly mentioned his feelings about her to Twombles, except that he would rather not be around her.
"Your armor checks out, Leon. You're lucky. You'll be protected." Twombles said as he stopped inspecting Leon's armor and patted him on the shoulder.
Leon did not know what Twombles was talking about, but it sounded good. "The God will protect me."
"Paul said if I believe in It, I'll be saved."
Twombles could not believe what he was hearing. "Saved? Saved from what?"
Zayter suddenly emerged from the disorganized marching crowd and interrupted them. "Sergeant, for Law and Righteousness."
Twombles let go of Leon. "Now, forever." The sergeant nodded back and saluted.
Jom-Zayter quickly relieved him. "Leave me time with the child ranker."
They again nodded to each other and without another glance at Leon, Twombles walked away.
"Come, Leon. It's time to get ready." Zayter said as they continued their journey to the docks together.
Soon the Omega Dragoons arrived at their platform in the docking station. Most had never been there before. The docking station was probably the single largest room ever constructed. It encompassed the entire perimeter of the Terranian states, covering each individual city and was the only place anyone could see the main dome ceiling touch the 'ground'. Around them, hundreds of Terrania's submersible, flying carriers, or subflies as they were more commonly known, were being loaded with artillery, weapons and soldiers. They were essentially massive submarines with wings and powered by pre-Metal Rain antimatter reactors. There were many models and classes, some of the more massive ones, like the Mjolnir class bombers were even capable of launching small aircraft in midair, if necessary.
The operation was truly an awesome sight, enough to make Leon, in his drugged up state, momentarily forget about Vanny.
Jom-Zayter suddenly pulled Leon to the side, shocking him back into alertness.
What...? What's going on? Leon expected his friend to give him some more important advice about what they were about to face. The young Clarra began to laugh to himself. This guy was so much better than he was. A damn good soldier. Why would he even want Vanny to be with anyone else, let alone a damn coward?
"Hey, listen." Zayter spoke gently. Something was different about him. It looked like fear, but Leon knew it couldn't be. "I want you to take this," Zayter continued, handing Leon a device the size of a bottle cap. "It's a direct communicator and tracker."
"What? To you?" Leon asked.
"Plug it into your helmet receiver. I told Vanny if she gets into any trouble to radio in. Your helmet HUD will show you her location. She's part of the 82nd Battalion. The Over-world Death Walkers."
"Vanny? I don't… But, why are you giving it to me?" Maybe it was the ‘courage juice’ in his blood, or maybe he was just plain confused.
"This is my gift to the state." Jom-Zayter patted him on the back and smiled, "I think you two would make for better babies."
Before Leon could respond, Jom-Zayter was already running off. More confused than he had ever been in his life, Leon rejoined the Dragoons. After Zayter ordered the squad to get into formation next to their ready-to-be-submerged subfly,
Leon took a moment to take in the sights of the docks as they waited for their commanding officer to arrive. He was fascinated by the way the powerful halogen lights shone over the black, oily water of the ocean. He knew the water was actually a dark purple, like the rest of the ink-like ocean. Most vessels were suspended over the water by powerful cranes before being submerged, although those that were land mobile as well did not need to; they were simply driven into it.
Eventually their commanding officer arrived and Leon got the shock of his life. He recognized the man - the living legend. The white hair, the dark black skin and defining hand print bruise. It was Colonel Jon-Azon. Wow, if he's leading us then we should be fine, were Leon's first thoughts, but then he soon remembered what Jimmo sometimes said about the legend; it's too bad his teams are never as good survivors as he is. Leon's sudden confidence was just as suddenly shattered. He hadn't said goodbye to Vanny.