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Amped To Kill

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    REQUIEM TO LANDFALL
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    "Truth be told, Rook; I find Earth prawn delicious. They're great eating
even if I have them grilled or cooked. Stupid Afrikaner slokaa. Why'd they
call those filthy beasts 'prawn'?"

    Miles, already a bundle of nerves before the drop, only listened with half
an ear to the woman while he walked down the hall and fiddled with the various
protuberances on his battle-dress. While Miles was a soldier, he would not be
taking on the "poleepkwa" in battle fatigues. As the Van De Merwe Incident
demonstrated years ago, that would be suicide, especially the aliens were now
hostile and actively organized to kill anything that looked remotely human.

    Speaking of aliens, the woman with Miles wasn't from Earth per se, but she
was at least humanoid. The Newcomer female was slender, and at least as tall
as Miles; he himself was a prime specimen of humanity at six feet and change,
but that meant little. If Miles and his bald alien ally physically wrestled
like two school children, she'd easily beat him down like a rag doll.

    The Newcomer appeared far more at ease than "the Rook"; she occasionally
stroked her smooth spotted head and kept chatting about her slim pickings of
cooked Earth food as they headed for the drop bay. Soldiers tended towards
nervousness regardless of how much they trained, and Miles suspected she was
using idle chatter to keep her mind off the fact that they were both
underwater in a submarine carrier.

    Any hull breach meant the incoming seawater would dissolve the pretty alien
woman in seconds unless she reached the escape vehicles, sealed herself inside
a battle blister, or scrambled into a survival suit made for her kind.

    Miles reflected on the many aliens now living on planet Earth. The prawn
ship came to a stop over Johannesburg in 1982 and no one stopped to wonder if
that species was the only one in the neighborhood. The insect-like aliens were
called "prawn" by the South Africans, but everyone else called them something
else; "crickets" by the British and Australians, but other countries had other
monikers, all which focused on the JoBurg aliens' speech, which sounded like
clicks and clacks.

    Ultimately, the mystery of why the "prawn ship" stopped on Earth was
answered when the Newcomers' slave ship crashed in California's Mojave Desert
six years later in 1988. Between a space wreck and an inoperable craft, the
best minds humanity had to offer surmised that a mid-space accident had
somehow occurred, and that both craft touched down on the planet much like a
two vehicles after a traffic collision.

    Once dirtside though, the fortunes of the two alien races diverged rapidly.
The Newcomers, having landed in the United States, were first held in
quarantine as a precautionary measure, but ultimately assimilated into the
human population. Not so with the "prawn" in South Africa. Their radically
inhuman appearance, coupled with the vast political and social changes in
South Africa at the time, proved to be the prawns' undoing.

    Then in 2010, Wikus Van De Merwe happened. Miles' mind still reeled at the
ineptitude of Multi-National United, and how poorly they handled the
situation. While the United States was never officially invited to participate
in anything MNU-related (having their own extra-terrestrial situation at
home), America did send unofficial observers - even Newcomer scientists - who
watched the events unfold in District 9.

    Without any idea what would happen if the prawn came back, the United
States erred on the side of caution and prepared. Armed with the scant
technological scraps from their new alien allies and information on the aliens
in South African, DARPA managed to developed the "amplified mobility platform"
(AMP) to combat the hostile alien threat.

    After initial teething troubles, America had started a new technological
revolution in warfare with a militarized version of the AMP, the Gibbon combat
rig. With help from Newcomer scientists, DARPA managed to get their various
armaments programs working, and just in time too. Less than a decade after the
stricken prawn ship departed for its home system, their invasion fleet arrived
on Earth. Strangely, the prawn didn't come to "rescue" their brethren in South
Africa, but to harvest the raw materials instead.

    Miles and his alien comrade-at-arms entered a large loading bay where a
dozen or so other rig drivers were lined up. They were all in similar
body-hugging battledress. Their codpieces sported protuberances and inputs
much like as his. The group's commander - a 'Tactical Sergeant' by his
insignia - was a short, wiry Chinese man with a dour face, and a more dour
disposition.

    "We're wrapping up," the sergeant's bald head glistened under the interior
lighting as he glared at the new arrivals. "Small change of plan. Rook, you're
ridin' alone. Tits will be driving Ginny. Move out."

    At that, the others started moving towards ladders marked with names on
large signs. A blonde woman with a mediocre but perky bust stepped up and
waved to the Newcomer, saying, "C'mon Mary. See you in the Bactrian."

    "All right." The Newcomer - Mary - turned and gave Miles a friendly punch
in the arm as she strode off, "See ya, Rook."

    "Uh, sir?" Miles seemed hesitant as the sergeant started off to his own
ladder.

    "Don' you ever 'sir' me. I work for a livin'."

    "Yes Sergeant Cheng," Miles quickly corrected himself. "So, how's this
going to work? I thought my blister was set for the Bactrian instead of a
Gibbon? I thought I was to escort Miss Webster?"

    "I swapped the control cards," came his response. "Just because you're not
driving the Virgin Mary around -" a play on Webster's name and call sign "-
doesn't mean you're not on baby-sitter duty."

    Miles started up his ladder as Cheng continued in his American drawl.

    "You're still new to movin' in a blister and cradle. Gibbons ain't training
machines. Bein' on your own means you can make mistakes that won't get my
people killed - 'specially my bot controller," the sergeant said simply. "You
stay near the Bactrian, but do exactly as Tanya says. Understand?"

    "Yes sergeant. Understood."

    Probably more so than you want, Miles thought darkly as he settled into his
battle blister. Tanya "Tits" Doyle, the unofficial bodyguard of their squad's
bot controller, was rumored to have been a stripper, a porn star, or a hooker
before the prawns invaded Earth. Miles heard a few sordid stories aboard the
submarine carrier that ran rampant in small circles of how Doyle got into the
combat rig program.

    Some said she and Cheng were having some fun before the invasion, but that
didn't hold up, as the sergeant himself was rumored to be a refugee himself.
In any case, once the shooting started, Doyle, like Sergeant Cheng, quickly
earned new infamy as rig drivers who excelled at their craft - and killing the
enemy.

    Whether "Tits" and Sergeant Cheng were once an item, or still an item
seemed moot - the sergeant and the slender Newcomer female, Mary Webster, were
often found eating together in the mess, much to the disgust of the crew. The
raw meat diet of Newcomers wasn't exactly a welcoming sight except to their
own kind.

    Miles tuned out the innuendo and he concentrated on getting himself ready.
He  connected the waste line to a metal orifice on his codpiece, followed by
the wash/rinse line. That done, Miles slipped his arms and legs into the metal
and polymer cradles inside the blister.

    With his limbs so encompassed, he would be able to control any rig his
blister was installed into just as he would his own body - at least hands,
arms, legs, and feet wise. The cradles' many joints were wired or motorized to
provide resistance to his movements, if just to give the operator a sensation
of feedback; physically and practically, he was a walking five meter tall
metal giant, with proportional strength.

    The blond rookie was primarily standing, although there was a small rest
protruding from the rear wall of the blister to allow Miles to rest on his
buttocks. He seldom did so, as sitting like that was painful if he did it too
long. To actually "sit" comfortably in a blister, Miles had to remove his legs
from the lower limb cradles (in essence letting the auto-walk take over - not
a good idea in combat). So, like any soldier, Miles toughed it out and took
short sits when his legs were feeling tired.

    There was a slight bump, and Miles felt his battle blister shudder. He was
being loaded into his Gibbon. The war machine stood between nearly five meters
tall; its upper body was voluminous enough to encapsulate the cylindrical
cockpit containing its operator. So enclosed, the only means for the person to
see while inside one of these assault suits was through the cam-plate - the
prefabricated armored faceplate with bundles of fiber thin cables serving as
cameras to the outside world.

    The cam-plate wrapped around the Gibbon's bulbous upper-body and came down
in a bib-like fashion over the forward and side facings of the torso. Special
optic mountings in the outer frame's crotch and underarms allowed the to "see"
the ground beneath him.

    Inside his armored cocoon, Miles felt connections being made between his
blister and the rig. A brief moment later, the entire inside of his battle
blister blinked to life. Liquid crystal displays pressed into sheets received
input from the cam-plate and became a virtual window to the world outside. A
clear, electronic voice chimed inside the battle blister.

    :: sensors online. actuators connected ::

    Miles cycled through the various vision modes: low-light and night vision,
infrared, ultraviolet, gamma, motion-sensing, vibratory, infrasound, and
checked them against the various filters that let him distinguish between the
biology of different species: human, prawn, and Newcomer.

    :: weapons online. power optimal ::

    Miles checked his Gibbon's armament. Doyle had either opted for the
standard load-out, or the selection was restored when Sergeant Cheng made the
last minute switch. No matter. Nearly all Gibbons sortied on a standard
load-out; the few exceptions were just that - exceptions; many rig drivers
switched back to the standardized load-out after their attempt at being
different.

    There was no need to mess with perfection: a Particle Impeller Gun (PIG)
firing pellets of antimatter held in stasis, an eighty Terajoule laser on the
operator's off-hand mitt, and two backpack units, one firing soda can sized
antimatter "grenades" and the portable indirect munition platform (PIMP) which
launched small, self-guided cruise missiles.

    Antimatter didn't only figure prominently in the weaponry, but a variation
of the matter/antimatter reaction powered the Gibbon and other war machines.

    Miles' Gibbon slowly clunked onto the landing vehicle; with prawn ships
controlling much of the skies, human and Newcomer alike needed to adapt to
survive, and the sea was one of the few refuges free of prawn control.

    While both races could dig into the mountain terrain or ruined cities that
survived initial bombardment, the underwater military complexes (which doubled
as fall-back positions) saw few, if any, Newcomers. For the bald headed aliens
to live underwater meant a potentially vile death. Many Newcomers opted to
support their human allies by fighting alongside them in various mountain
strongholds; their alien physique made them suited as mountaineering or
SpecWar infantry.

    Where the human-Newcomer forces on land were mostly stalemated by prawn
forces, assaults made by sea were making good progress. Utilizing the cover of
water to confuse prawn detection gear, the naval forces denied the aliens
valuable food and grazing grounds for their eggs in the short term.

    'A single adult humpback whale can yield enough nutrition for 5,000 to
7,500 prawn workers,' Miles remembered from his training.

    While a single prawn could be killed by something as simple as a hunting
rifle, a shotgun, or a fire axe, the creature was still capable of tearing
apart a Newcomer - let alone a human. Miles saw the combat footage of Colonel
Koobus Venter. One moment he was firing on a pack of angry prawn, the next, he
was rendered limb from limb. And when the insect aliens were armed with their
exotic weaponry, human and Newcomer forces were at a disadvantage unless they
attacked with overwhelming firepower from their war machines, or with
artillery.

    Miles had his Gibbon hold onto a support brace of the landing vehicle. Next
to his Gibbon, Doyle's Bactrian - so named for its dorsal "hump" that formed
the second crewman's position (where Webster was) - was already in position.

    The Bactrian stood a meter taller than the Gibbon, but instead of equipping
dorsal weapon pods, it had an instrument laden, semi-independent crew blister
that linked the Bactrian with the engagement robots - affectionately called
EaRLs (Engagement Robot, Legged). EaRLS were unmanned, semi-autonomous killing
machines, friendly to human and Newcomer alike, but responded to prawn by
opening fire and alerting the military authorities.

    "You doin' all right there, Rook?" Doyle's distinctive Manchester accent
clipped through the private frequency to Miles.

    "Yeah," Miles responded.

    The murky underwater environ had nothing interesting, so he opted to put
his escortee's real-time portrait in a pop-up window on his blister's display.
The dirty haired blonde had a flat face, wide lips, and a cowling stare - all
completely at odds with her cheerful and gregarious demeanor which Miles found
attractive.

    "You were a tad slow boarding," Doyle glanced down and fiddled with
something - probably her own codpiece, "You're not upset with the duty change
are you?"

    "No," Miles replied. "It just caught me a little off guard."

    "Well don't you worry your pretty little head," she managed a garishly
toothy smile. "All you do is stay near me an' Ginny."

    "Hello Miles," Webster chimed in. Miles moved her pop-up on his blister's
screen underneath Doyle and felt the landing craft detach itself from the
submarine carrier.

    "Don't forget the Bactrian can't move worth a darn when it comes to movin'
as fast as the Sarge wants," Doyle said. "Not moving quick and not havin'
nothing 'cept a modified PIG and a laser glitterstick - well, if we get in
trouble, we'd be in serious shit, even with Mary's metal pets."

    "Not like we'll have any, slokaa," the Newcomer chimed in. "All of them
will be out. None will be home."

    Hence the me and my Gibbon, Miles thought to himself. The bots will be out
busy hunting. Good for them but bad for us if we get caught by a large force.

    The throb of the landing craft increased as Miles felt his ears ache
slightly. Even with a sealed environment, there was no getting away with mild
pressure differences coming from such a depth.

    "Focus people," rasped Sergeant Cheng. "We hit the dance floor in thirty.
Arsenyev, you and your team take the left -" Miles heard quick acknowledgment
"- the scouts, Talua, and I will take the right. Faraz, do the usual. Straight
down the middle. Kill 'em all."

    Miles heard the last team leader exclaim gleefully in Arabic. He was a
former Iraqui Army, or something. It didn't really matter now that the area
around the Dead Sea was a nuclear wasteland for a hundred miles in all
directions. Those damned prawn enjoyed the salt water so much they were
willing to retake the area repeatedly. So, someone high on up decided to lure
in a large number of enemy forces and glass the location with several
mega-tonners.

    The irony was the wholesale destruction of the Dead Sea brought about a
faster truce between Jew and Arab than any number of peace summits or talks
generations before - not that either side had much military might left to do
much except to fight the alien menace and survive.

    All other things considered, it was a small price to pay for victory. The
blast destroyed one prawn ship and crippled a second one. The second ship
eventually succumbed to an extended bombardment and crashed. There were no
survivors, or at least none that the Search and Destroy teams reported when
they went through the wreckage.

    "Ready. Wait," the sergeant's voice was steady. "Ten seconds. Nine. Eight.
Seven ..."

Chapter Text

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    RED AFTERIMAGE
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    "Arsenyev's dead! And so's Brinkmann!"

    Miles thought "frantic" best described the panicky soldier on the other
end, but Sergeant Cheng exhibited little feeling except cold rage in combat.

    "Soltyk, you fucking, chickenshit Polack," Cheng's words were enunciated
with careful menace. "You get your bearings and point your suit, your PIG,
your lasers, and whatever else you can lay your hands on and slice those
hoppers from shitter to mandible or I will personally rip out your gutless
spine if you don't die running, you get me?"

    "Y-yes, sergeant!"

    Just over a few hours before, Miles' squad hit their mark. The opposition
at the initial landing was easy. Only a few prawn drones and few of their
warriors armed with HIVELOC (HIgh VELOCity) small arms guarded the beach
grazing area when Webster's recon bots pounced. They were soon followed by the
manned rigs and the slower bots.

    Raptors, fast bipedal hunter killers resembling beheaded ostriches, raced
ahead and poured weapons fire from their stubby weapon pods into the hapless
sentries while the rest of the squad advanced from the ocean floor. The aliens
didn't stand a chance.

    The heavier Mastiffs came in next, along with their lighter Jackal cousins
on the outer flanks. The Gibbons waded ashore last, protected on all fronts by
a moving wall of bots. Once the beachhead was established, the squad separated
into strike teams while Miles followed Doyle's and Webster's Bactrian.

    The three of them were slowly moving east into enemy territory,
approximately a few dozen kilometers behind the forward teams, when Soltyk's
frantic call came through.

    Miles was to protect the two women while they did their thing. While Doyle
acted as the driver, Webster was free to direct the bot forces and attack the
enemy in coordination with the Gibbon strike teams. With everything before
them completely devastated, there was little chance of any hostile activity
this far back.

    The rookie found he could follow the advance by opening a comm line and
tapping into the bot feeds and gun cameras of his squadmates. From there, it
was almost like a live spectator sport, with very real results.

    Cheng's Gibbon was peppered by a flurry of HIVELOC rounds from a prawn
mech's linear launcher. Within seconds, Miles saw the enemy machine get shot
to pieces with PIG rounds from the sergeant's rig; Cheng's machine suffered
little thanks to the energy absorbent graphene plates and nano-carbon fiber
weave used in its armor.

    "You missed a mech, Faraz," Cheng managed a joke with his choice veteran.
"Your killers are starting to slack."

    "Almost all," Faraz corrected himself. Other sounds came through the comms,
like the death screams of a dozen burning prawn as laser-fire raked across
their unprotected bodies.

    "Rachid say one, maybe two, ran away probably towards you. Sorry," the Arab
team leader managed a snicker, and Miles heard the electronic bleep-bleep
followed by the chuck-a-chunk of grenades being launched. The rail launched
bombs detonated in mid-air over its target, each scattering a cloud of marble
sized antimatter explosives. A second later, the landscape bloomed with
explosive death.

    "Sounds like you have most of your zone covered. Have Hasan or Rachid take
over for you. I want you to lead my advance while I check north."

    Miles heard Faraz's acknowledgment, but Cheng was already talking once
more.

    "Ginny? How are the EaRLs doing?" The sergeant was nonchalant as he took
aim and fired at something at the edge of his vision.

    "Teams One and Two are still clearing the south - your zone. 100%,"
Webster's slender fingers danced across her glowing panels. "Teams Three and
Four are supporting Faraz's team. They're at 95%. Five and Six are reporting
at 35%. I think they have two Jackals, one Mastiff, and a Raptor remaining."

    Not a good sign, Miles thought.

    "Something's holding 'em up." Sergeant Cheng sounded more annoyed than
worried. "If it is what I think it is, we may need some serious commitment and
Soltyk isn't the cowardly bitch he's making himself to be."

    "Have the bots complete their sweeps," Cheng turned his Gibbon and fired
downrange at a group of prawn, "then prep me an EaRL team with the most
firepower."

    "Just don't send 'em 'till I give you the go ahead." The sergeant jumped
back on the comm channel as he finished off some dying aliens.

    "Understood," the Newcomer looked busy, keying in commands and touching
displays out of Mile's view.

    "D'you want us to move with you, boss?" Doyle asked. "We've got Miles and
me. We can mix it up -"

    "Negative on that," Cheng's response was prompt. "Don't go wandering until
we know what's there. We may need to fall back. Where'd you say the Rook was
again?"

    "He's here-"

    "Right here, sarge," Miles cut in as Doyle replied.

    "Sounds like you're ready to do something useful," Cheng sounded smug.
"Make a quick jog to where Rachid is. His team should be near a major highway
entrance. Help them secure the area around it, then let Tanya know. The high
road will be marginally safer."

    "Yessir." Miles cut off the sergeant before he could complain about being
so addressed.

    He tuned a private channel to the British bimbo's Bactrian, "You two going
to be okay, right?"

    "Personally, I'd feel better if we had a bodyguard," Doyle stated flatly,
"but the quicker you scout, the faster we'll know where we'll need to go, so
don't dwaddle. Hurry it up."

    Miles took that as his invitation to leave, and he did so with gusto. His
Gibbon lurched forward awkwardly at first, then slowly regained its composure
as he adjusted his gait to get the machine into a slow run.

    His Gibbon's PIG was heavy enough to throw the his machine off balance,
hence the tendency for rig drivers to hold the weapon in both hands; however,
the weapon's antimatter cyclotron - essentially its "magazine" - could be
crushed by the Gibbon's off-hand, with catastrophic, if not fatal, results.

    'If you need to hold it like a rifle,' Miles remembered from his training,
'grab the bracket anchor like you would a fore-stock, except it's on the side,
so it's like a side-stock. It'll feel funny at first, but no matter, 'cause
your machine's actuators takes on the weight, not you.'

    Miles had to marvel at the amount of thought the engineers put into
incorporating ergonomics into such an ungainly device. The bracket anchor was
designed to hold the PIG upright during maintenance and resupply, but Gibbon
operators soon learned it was just as  useful as a supporting grip.

    Because of how the bracket anchor surrounded the PIG's linear launcher and
the cyclotron, gripping the anchor on its top bar gave the laser mitt a clear
line of fire (albeit off-center to the PIG's centerline aim). Miles had seen
combat footage of this being done, although it was never officially taught in
training.

    The rookie's Gibbon, now at ease in its balance and running full tilt
forward at about 45 MPH (about 72 KPH) crossed the terrain scalded bare by
antimatter weapons. A few uneventful minutes later, he came across a lone
Gibbon standing guard along with a couple of bots.

    "What are you doing here, Rook?" the other rig driver asked. "Thought you
were babysitting the slaggot's secretaries?"

    "New orders," Miles let the man's bigotry slide, "is it secure to bring up
the Bactrian? Sergeant says we need to secure this position, then head out on
the highway across town."

    "The Arabs are clearing out some last minute hold-outs," the other operator
sounded bored and lackadaisical. "Decided they didn't need a Jew to go along
with their XT jihad. Sat me here with some bots as a fallback."

    "Looks like this place is secure enough," Miles clicked the pop-up window
to Doyle's Bactrian. "Tanya? Miles here. I think it's clear. I'll head back
and meet you halfway. How's that sound?"

    "Sounds s'alright."

    Moments later, Miles watched as the Bactrian waddled leisurely towards him.
Doyle was moving carefully like walking across a patch of ice in high heels
while pregnant. Webster's battle blister was prominent on the upper back of
the larger machine.

    Any wild spinning motions of the suit would probably jostle the Newcomer
female silly or even knock her out. It was probably why it made sense for him
to guard them in a separate Gibbon - to do all the wild moves while Doyle
moved their precious cargo across the battlefield.

    "... Sergeant Cheng?" It was Webster. In the confusion of battle, she must
have transmitted over the general channel. "I have a Colonel Hammer on the
line. Says his tanks need some fire support."

    "I hav' none t'give," Cheng said simply. "Just found th' problem up north.
Shut th' fuck up Soltyk," the sergeant snarled at something on his own display
and went on, "It's a 'zerker wi' warriors in tow."

    A berserker? Miles felt his heart skip a beat. Rare footage showed fauna
native to the prawn homeworld used for illegal "pit fighting" back when
District 9 still existed. No one knew those small creatures were in fact, the
early-stage instars of large beasts native to the prawn homeworld.

    Prawn berserkers were huge by Earth's standards; each one stood about ten
or twelve meters tall - as high as a flat-roofed three story building - and
about the size of one as too. Despite their bulk, they were also fast, capable
of keeping up with a Gibbon at full trot. And that wasn't the worst part.

    The prawn grafted their linear launchers, ARC guns, and other weapons onto
the animal, using integrated targeting computers to operate them. Anything
that identified as human or Newcomer was fired on by these quasi-automated
systems. The beast was dropped in enemy territory, and used as a
siege-and-suicide unit. What didn't get destroyed by the rampaging juggernaut
would be decimated trying to take it out.

    Mop up by prawn ground forces proved much easier after one of those
bastards went through an area - one of the many reasons human-Newcomer forces
haven't been making much progress past the foothills. The only thing that kept
the berserkers out of the mountain fortresses were the narrow defilements and
passes that worked against their voluminous bulk. And any prawn mothership
that tried to airdrop a berserker would see its cargo destroyed long before it
reached the ground, thanks to self-guided anti-matter warheads.

    As for the prawn warriors, they were essentially larger drones, but their
second set of arms were fully grown, allowing them to carry a second weapon.
Additionally, they were much more aggressive, and did not require the presence
of a hive coordinator to direct their attacks; theirs was a true hive-like
mentality when it came to full-on war.

    The presence of a berserker with warrior escorts hinted strongly that there
was something major the insect aliens wanted to protect - that or they were
here by mistake.

    "Soltyk's damag'd but o'erwise fine," Cheng went on with his sit-rep.
"Sikarna's 'ere too, plus a scrap pile o' fo'mer bots. Where's the colonel,
Ginny?"

    "About twelve kilometers northeast of ... us," Webster paused then added,
"Less than eight klicks due east of your own position."

    "What's holding him up?" the sergeant asked.

    "Looks like a dozen mechs," the bald bot controller replied.

    "His channel?" Cheng barely flinched as his Gibbon's hand crushed a warrior
who thought it could win in a hand-to-hand duel with a machine.

    "Those tanks are not on standard comms," Webster's slender hands
crisscrossed her face, her fingers moving furiously to keep up with the
action. "Shall I bridge your conference?"

    "Do it. His tanks are too slow agains' mechs," Cheng echoed Miles'
thoughts; however, the sergeant was ahead of the rookie's curve. "but good
enough distraction against a 'zerker. Tell him help's on th' way."

    Jesus, thought Miles. What good were a bunch of tanks - even if they were
firing antimatter rounds - against something that was eight times more
massive, more heavily armed, and moved faster than you did?

    "Listen up," Cheng's voice carried across the general channel, "all Gibbons
wi' two PIMPs to spare, send a one-two t' these spots -" a list of targets
came up, and Miles selected six.

    :: targets selected. standing by. please finalize strike ::

    "Rook, choose three." It was Cheng again. "Double up one target. Hav' t'
make sure there's enough of the colonel left for phase two."

    "Got it." Miles deleted three of his choices, and re-selected his first
three targets.

    :: targets re-selected. standing by. please finalize strike ::

    The list quickly became filled by the other members of the squad. Every
PIMP (Portable Indirect Munitions Platform) was loaded with three cruise
missiles. Each missile carried six antimatter warheads. Each warhead was the
same size as a single soda grenade and equipped with their own guidance and
propulsion system.

    Standard engagement procedure was to launch one such missile over the
combat zone after designating targets on the Gibbon's guidance systems.

    Each missile's payload would act like a pack of well-coordinated predators
against a single prey once they were released, with some circling waiting to
strike while others would pounce and attack when the prey's defences were
distracted.

    The system's user can designate six targets, hitting them with one warhead
each (usually done against concentrations of enemy troops or bunkers), or hit
a single target with six deadly blows (often a high threat target - like a
prawn berserker), or make any combination of such strikes with his six shots.

    :: system alert. munitions deployed ::

    The sergeant (or Webster) group-fired the squad's PIMPs and Miles felt the
clunk-whoosh from the back of his Gibbon. Somewhere on the other side of the
battlefield, there will be some unlucky recipients of antimatter-laden death
from above.

    Miles counted to himself. One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand.
Three-one-thousand. In the middle of his count eight, his blister's display
came alive with new chatter and an update from his weapons system.

    :: target one destroyed. target two destroyed. target three destroyed ::

    "The colonel extends his thanks," Webster sounded relieved. "He's asking
what can he do to repay the favor?"

    "Give him th' sit-rep," Cheng said calmly. "Tell him to have his tanks
gang-fire on the berserker once in range, but fire an' retreat, fire and
retreat. I don't want him overrun by the warriors, and we need to buy some
time. Sikarna, Soltyk, and myself will hit the 'zerker from one side. Send me
that bot team you've been cobbling together. The rest of you, prepare to PIMP
slap that 'zerker with an all-or-nothing shot."

    Holy Jesus, though Miles. That meant zoning all six target selections on a
single spot. That was pretty much overkill. Assuming the prawn berserker was
only crippled and not destroyed outright, it'd have other ordnance on it, and
... of course. Miles felt like hitting himself.

    Once the enemy juggernaut was stopped, weapons intact or not, they could
lob grenades and carpet bomb the giant bug into oblivion from cover. And if
there was any weapon with plenty of destructive potential, it was the grenade
launchers almost every unit carried, down to the Mastiffs and Jackals. Plenty
of ammo to go around.

    "Rook, pay attention."

    Miles blinked and his mind came back to reality as Doyle tapped loudly on
her pop-up window to get his attention.

    "D'you hear me?" Doyle sounded annoyed, "The sergeant wants us on that
highway, ready to move in case the 'zerker lives and decides to rip us a new
one. That's ev'ryone. Us included."

    "Oh, gotcha," barely had Miles replied when several metal blurs zipped past
him.

    The faster bots had already raced into position and were waiting patiently
for the slower units to mount the assault. A quick change of formation as
well. The southern strike team had pulled closer to the rest of the team, in
range to lend direct fire to the team in the center. It would seem that the
firepower of the entire squad - or what was left of it - would be directed
against the enemy juggernaut and its small cadre of prawn warriors.

    The colonel's tanks were sending shells downrange towards the berserker by
now, and Miles' external microphones was picking up the booming cracks of the
hits. The rookie followed the Bactrian up the highway entrance ramp. If his
Gibbon wasn't so geared for line combat, he could have tacked on a thruster
pack to go faster. But Miles was thankful for the extra firepower. Who knows
when he'll need it?

    "Er, Sergeant Cheng?" It was Webster again. "Something big incoming. It's
not hostile. Weird. Has our signature. I wonder what -"

    The Newcomer's transmission was quickly squelched as the prawn berserker
was engulfed in a blaze of nuclear fire. Even safe inside his nano-carbon
fiber cocoon, Miles thought he felt the warmth from the nuclear flash, and
that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

    "WH-T TH- LIV-N- F-C-?!" Doyle screamed, her feed sizzled with static.
Their comm systems were hardened against EMP, but even they had problems
dealing with tight stream pulses at close proximity.

    "- that - nuke?! Was - a nuke?!" Webster lost her composure and asked
repeatedly, "Was that a nuke?!"

    Miles could barely hear over the multitude of chatter, and started closing
the comm channels to reduce the noise. It finally dawned on him to leave the
channels open, but to squelch the noise by lowering the volume inside his
battle blister. Eventually, a simple text message clarified the situation. It
played across the blister display like a marquee.

    :: SQUAD TO ESCORT BOT UNIT TO HIGH PRIORITY TARGET. OBJECTIVE PRAWN VESSEL ::

Chapter Text

===============================================================================
    CROSS THE BREEZE
===============================================================================

    Miles learned later that the tank colonel was to provide an escort to a new
model of robot - a missile carrier - one which could fight its way across the
city to destroy the prawn ship to the north.

    The colonel was unable to follow, not with the scant survivors of his
decimated tank company. And despite the obvious strategic nature of the
exercise, there was a lack of coordination somewhere "higher up" at United
Command, and Miles' squad was not considered when it came to a nuclear strike
by a robotic missile tank.

    Now of course, much fuss was being made back to UniCom about this gross
oversight, not just by Sergeant Cheng's commanding officer, but by the rest of
the squad.

    That, plus the message which flashed across their battle blisters, were
rubbing everyone wrong. The message was from the robot itself, and someone had
asked aloud if it was legal for a machine to order live soldiers around.

    To the sergeant's credit, he allowed the complaint to go through before he
quelled all dissension. Orders were issued, if not by the robot tank, then at
least it was a courier for the same orders from some general in a mountain
enclave. In any case, there was a new objective, and rightly or wrongly,
Cheng's Gibbon squad was there to do the job.

    The situation though, was less than ideal. Arsenyev and Brinkmann, already
dead, were vaporized along with their machines when their rigs' antimatter
containment fields failed. No effort was made to salvage remains because there
weren't any.

    Soltyk's Gibbon, damaged before by the berserker's rampage that caught his
two luckless squadmates by surprise, came through surprisingly undamaged,
along with Sikarna and Cheng. It was all thanks to the latter's timely action
to collapse the street they were on to shield them from the nuke blast. Even
then, their machines were hot enough that their rigs' outer frames would
probably be relegated to the scrap pile should they return to base.

    Losses were appalling only in terms of the bot forces near the 'zerker when
the nuke landed. The sergeant had Webster send her mechanical task force
forward just seconds before the big tank's warhead impacted. Now, the Newcomer
had approximately half of her bots remaining. It was enough to make a retreat
or a last stand, but not quite enough to do what was coming next.

    Still, if the big new missile tank was going to do most of the work, why
not let it?

    Miles glanced at their escortee, now silhouetted against the dim light of
the dying day. From his brief examination of their new model robot, he was
impressed. Instead of limbs, the missile carrier reverted to the centuries old
caterpillar track design. Each bogey wheel was about half as high as a Gibbon
stood (over two meters) and they were spaced fairly evenly in two rows, with
interspaced drive sprockets on the bottom row.

    Without a crew, the tank could afford plenty of redundant equipment, like
extra engines ... and even extra armor and weapons.

    The robot was articulated, with a stout forward fighting engine encased in
a domed carapace made from a potent mixture of graphene blocks and super-dense
nano-carbon fiber. The curved dome mounted several rotating PIG emplacements,
and the dome itself seemed to be able to rotate like a tank's main turret.

    An array of warheads (probably antimatter micro-missiles, Miles thought)
peeked out from under the dome's outer rim, like evil metal bats nestled in a
mountain of moving death.

    Miles gaze swept towards the tank's rear carrier, and he wondered if it was
being towed, or if it could run on its own power. He noticed it sported a
similar wheel and track arrangement but had limpet-type PIG emplacements. The
newbie could see some were missing or simply molten pits of slag - probably
destroyed earlier in the fighting. What was most interesting were the large
silo covers running all along the length of the vehicle on both sides.

    The rookie counted ten on his side. If symmetry held true, he hazarded a
guess the machine probably had twenty nuclear missiles at its disposal. Minus
the one it used on the berserker, it meant it'd have nineteen left, although
if the tank had fought other targets before, it would have fewer.

    It's like having our own berserker, Miles thought.

    The group of manned machines and accompanying bots followed the overhead
highway. Big missing sections in the elevated roadway convinced the sergeant
to leave only the scout Gibbons - Oiguchi and Sudek - up top with their
thruster packs and laser armaments to deal with prawn missiles and attack
drones while the rest of the squad followed the robot juggernaut on ground
level.

    While there had been no enemy contact since the bot tank destroyed its
alien opponent, Miles was uneasy as he knew they were headed right into the
jaws of the enemy camp. A simple text message played across the squad's
display like a marquee.

    :: CAUTION. ENVIRONMENTAL IMPEDIMENT DETECTED ::

    "Heads up," Cheng rasped on the comms. "The big bot just bitched 'bout
something it don't like."

    "Hey Ginny," it was one of the scouts asking, "can't you control that
thing?"

    "Can't," Webster said simply. "It's self-contained, down to the tactical
command level. All we can do is watch it do what it's been ordered to do."

    "It won't blast us, right?" someone else asked.

    "I don't think so," the Newcomer was thoughtful. "Not directly."

    "Tell it again," Soltyk sounded doubtful. "It didn't seem to notice - or
care - that we were near that hopper dreadnaught when the nuke went off."

    "Think of it as an occupational hazard," Sergeant Cheng cut in. "UniCom
says the ship is o'er a large nest 'bout eighty klicks outside the city
limits."

    "I see it from here," someone said.

    "So can we, Sudek. It do'n't have its scrambler field on. Which means it's
deliberately not hidin' or somethin' inside broke."

    "That or it's a trap," Sudek was smug. Miles saw her partner, Oiguchi,
snicker in silent agreement on his pop-up display.

    "S'you think it's a trap, boss?" Doyle pressed home the question.

    "There could be 'nough XTs there to slag Mex'co, even if we sent in two
dozen rig teams," the sergeant quirked a brow before he let the surprise drop.
"It could also mean that th' ship got the same sort'o xeno-plague that killed
the JoBurg ship an' its crew."

    There was a moment of silence, then general clamor broke out.

    "New plague?" "Is it dangerous?" "How'd we know that?" "Won't nukes
sterilize it?"

    Cheng let the chatter die down before he answered their most pressing
questions.

    "First off, we don' know if the ship is ridden wi' plague. If t'isn't, the
big bot here has orders to blast it."

    "And if it's xeno-plague?" Webster's face was impassive. "What then?"

    Cheng's expression was equally nonchalant. "We still put down th' ship, but
as intact as possible. An' once we do, we dig in an' secure until UniCom sends
in th' cavalry and a salvage crew. Should be easy wi' this nuke-flinger
backin' us up."

    Miles almost rolled his eyes at that, but didn't, since he'd be seen. That
plan sounded ridiculously impossible given the hit and run nature of the
squad's initial mission. Even if Webster's bots were up to full strength, and
the squad wasn't down two machines, there was little to keep the prawn ship
from dropping multiple berserkers and annihilating them in an overrun.

    I think I just signed up for a suicide mission, Miles thought.

    He spied Doyle's window, and her expression more or less mirrored his
feelings about the whole thing. While Miles was ruminating on the stupidity of
military planning, the group had come across a large aqueduct cutting across
their path - the "environmental impediment" the big bot had alerted the squad
about.

    The men and women in the Gibbons halted, along with the bots under
Webster's command, but the bot tank seemed to play down the tenacity of the
obstacle. Suddenly, the robotic gargantuan stopped, then just as quickly
revved its motors, changed course, and started off towards the ditch at an
oblique angle. Another text message played across the battle blisters

    :: WILL ATTEMPT CROSSING. STAND BY ::

    "Looks like it's going to break its hitch," remarked Soltyk.

    There was a loud metal clang from the big bot tank's hitch, but the linkage
didn't break. Instead the two vehicles that formed the bot carrier separated.
The lead bot tank scurried down the escarpment and sat idling on the
aqueduct's bottom, waiting while the nuke carrying half tried its best to
climb the opposite bank.

    "Smartass mothe'fucker," Cheng muttered under his breath. "All right,
Sikarna, Sudek, Oiguchi, and me will cover until everyone gets across. Move
it."

    "I think it's havin' some trouble. Too big," Doyle slid her machine
smoothly down the into dry water channel, then looked around. "Just like us.
Too bad the stupid thing can't make and use hand-holds."

    Miles saw Doyle's Bactrian use her modified PIG like a crutch, one mitt on
the bracket anchor while she leveled a powerful kick on the concrete
escarpment.

    "Step up an' step lively, lads," Doyle leaned her weapon against an
undamaged facing of the aqueduct wall and leaned her Bactrian forwards against
the bank, slowly climbing the concrete face. "Up, up and away!"

    Oiguchi and Sudek, with their thruster packs, easily crossed over. One of
the scouts even grabbed Doyle's weapon and put it down on the opposite side,
ready for her to pick it back up. Miles followed the other rigs, using a side
protrusion in the dry channel as a step for his machine so he need not drop
his own weapon. The different bots crossed over in a variety of methods, but
they managed.

    Only the big tank seemed stuck, and too stupid to realize it was stuck ...

    Before anyone could step in to help it, the front half of the tank - the
armored dome with the PIG emplacements - swiveled one of its guns and fired on
the embankment. Miles and a few others nervously shifted their weapons, but
before long, the robot tank had created a rough ramp for itself. The missile
carrying tank half growled its way up the rubble strewn slope.

    "Hmph, so the thing can learn by observation," Webster mused. "I always
wondered how good AI would develop once it got cut out from a network."

    "Well, now y'know," Cheng said, then his tone got business-like quick.
"We'd better move. Soon as its better half joins up, we can -"

    :: threat alert. threat alert. threat alert ::

    The sergeant didn't have time to state the obvious when the front half of
the big tank rotated its PIGs and fired down the dry canal as HIVELOC rounds
zipped back the same path towards the squad. None of the Gibbons were
seriously affected, but one Raptor's sensor snout was torn off and the leg of
a Mastiff caught a few more rounds than usual, causing it to spark.

    Almost immediately, the entire troop of Webster's bots spread out to shield
the manned rigs, and to present individual targets to the enemy as they
selectively returned fire. Despite their best efforts of not drawing enemy
attention, the big tank's attempt to create a path for itself carried the
distinctive signature of antimatter explosives. Enemy patrols were of course,
sensitive to that and would've investigated.

    The tank's robot brain could learn from this, if it survived, Miles thought
as he ran towards a low revetment for cover.

    Miles looked around his battle blister's windows to see where his
squadmates were by their shared video feed, and found it was too confusing to
follow. He decided to extend a small peeping wand from his own cam-plate to
see what his own situation was. No sooner than his spying antennae poked past
cover than a warrior's ugly tendril laden face came into view and roared.

    :: threat alert ::

    Goddamn! Miles jumped back and fired. The electromagnetic warble of his
weapon was soon followed by the deathly booming cracks of explosive shots
hitting their mark. The enemy stood little chance against such a flurry of
firepower, but Miles and his squad were being overrun by sheer numbers. His
M/AM rounds demolished the rubble, revealing a small band of warriors carrying
a weapon in each arm pairing.

    "Clusterfuck! Fall back! It's a clusterfuck!" Miles didn't know whether it
was someone on the comms or his brain that kept yelling even as he fired at
the enemy.

    Prawn blood and guts splattered the rubble and his rig's outer frame as
M/AM rounds shed their containment fields and detonated against alien
exoskeleton. While antimatter explosions  were nearly devoid of extraneous
matter, the explosive effect was - in effect - chunking the enemy into prawn
giblets.

    The alien bio-matter xeno-formed humans and Miles felt mildly queasy as his
display gelled up with their innards. No Newcomer was insane enough to see if
the insect aliens biology would do the same to them. 

    That uncomfortable thought in mind, Miles stopped firing his PIG, and used
his laser mitt to fry the enemy. Cooked prawn residue made people sick, but it
certainly didn't transform them into prawn. Tissue tests in UniCom's labs
suggested it was unlikely, but it was better to be safe than sorry.

    HIVELOC rounds pinged his armor once or twice, but did no noticeable
damage. While switching his weapons, a dying warrior managed to squeeze off a
final ARC shot. The bolt of electricity would have been blinding, but the
battle blister's display automatically darkened the flash of light so Miles
could still see what he fought. The bolt blackened his combat frame, but apart
from the tingling feeling, it did nothing to phase him.

    :: threat alert. threat alert. threat alert ::

    Markers of different colors, shapes, and sizes populated his blister's
view, displaying different prawn units he and his squadmates could detect and
identify on his HUD.

    Solid red squares were prawn warriors, as opposed to red triangles, which
denoted prawn drones. A hollow red circle represented prawn units that other
units had detected, but were not yet engaged by Miles - at least not yet.

    Basically, the rule went that the bigger the marker, with more red on it,
the more dangerous it was. As Miles walked backward towards his unit, blazing
away with his laser mitt, red gear icons started polluting on his blister's
display.

    Shit, he thought. "Mechs!"

    "Rook, get your ass back to Tits, now! Fallback!" Cheng's rasp cut through
the din. Miles thought the sergeant might have overridden his volume control
to get himself heard.

    The rookie wanted to turn and run, but it was too late. Against a single
prawn mech, a Gibbon would've destroyed it without much of a thought. The
alien machine was smaller, and had weapons that wasn't as effective as the
M/AM armament UniCom's rigs used.

    UniCom strategists had estimated (somewhat correctly) that an average rig
driver operating a Gibbon, was victorious against three enemy machines. It'd
take four to call it a draw (whether the rig driver survived was moot, only
the destruction of enemy machines counted), and if the enemy attacked at five
to one odds, they would win.

    Of course, turning away and running wasn't an option at the moment, since
the enemy's weapons traveled faster than Miles could run. If the prawn's
HIVELOCs and ARC shots didn't shake up a fleeing machine, their missiles could
shred a limb. Once that occurred, the aliens could take their time ripping
apart the armored shell to get to the man inside.

    With no intention to become canned lunch, Miles quickly selected a spot
about ten meters in front of his position. A point, swipe, and a tap on his
battle blister's display gave the Gibbon's targeting computer enough
information to launch a pattern of antimatter grenades in a high arc and a
wide fan pattern. By the time the enemy got to him, the bombs would be
dropping.

    As Miles heard his soda pack launcher thump their deadly payloads overhead,
he took aim with his PIG and blew apart one prawn mech, then another. Two
enemy machines downed, but another four clambered over the rubble, firing
towards his direction. A third mech fell apart after Miles knocked it off
balance, then shot it to pieces while it struggled to get back up.

    "Get out of there, Rook!"

    Miles couldn't remember who was talking, but he realized his grenades would
soon reach the apex when he ordered them to drop their antimatter payloads.
Anything and everything underneath that shower of antimatter would be flashed
into energy regardless of what they were.

    "RUN MILES! RUN!!" It was Doyle screaming. "G'dam'it, Rook! The big bot's
goin' t' blow!"

Chapter Text

===============================================================================
    COLOR OF NIGHT
===============================================================================

    Stupid fucking robot, thought Miles. He couldn't believe he was still
alive. The tank's forward half, still in the sluice channel when the shooting
started, didn't make it out before enemy mechs swarmed the machine en masse.
Its PIG systems destroyed or disabled, it decided to shut off its power
plant's containment field, creating an uncontrolled and devastating reaction.

    Unfortunately, the rear half decided it would fire its cruise missiles from
the aqueduct rather than get close to the prawn ship. Even more unfortunately,
the missile half of the bot decided that the best position to launch its
payload of volatile antimatter warheads was the bank next to the
self-destructing front half.

    What kind of fucked up logic was that, Miles wondered as he mulled over his
mission performance. The blond rookie relieved himself, and was amazed he
hadn't sweated himself dry from his last encounter with the enemy. Still, he
may have had drank a good portion of the distilled water installed in his
survival column; the same water was used to rinse his privates after he went.

    He was supposed to be safeguarding the Bactrian, to which Sergeant Cheng
demonstrated he could do by himself, command the squad, and save the ass of
the idiot newbie without breaking a sweat.

    Miles was more or less intact, thanks to the fast thinking of the sergeant
and the skills of his scouts. Cheng covered the two scout Gibbons as they
jetted in and hauled Miles to safety in two big jet-assisted leaps just before
both halves of the bot tank leveled most of the immediate area.

    Thankfully, the sluice funneled most of the resulting blast along the
channel, sparing the Gibbon drivers.

    It was now nighttime, and after the very destructive mess in the city,
Sergeant Cheng moved the squad and the surviving bots - a limping Jackal, a
Mastiff with a body partially cored by an explosion, and a pair of sparking
Raptors - away from ground zero. The goal was now to circle around the enemy,
who were sure to send in forces to pursue. Despite the temptation to send the
bots to act as a decoy force, the sergeant had Webster keep her loyal metal
pets close.

    Thankfully, there were no further human casualties, except the expected
battle damage. Displays were probably fizzing out on some of the more heavily
scarred machines, like Soltyk's, but all in all the squad's rigs were holding
up well given what they went through.

    The group was moving - on auto-walk so everyone could rest their legs -
silently through the filthy slums outside the city. There wasn't much debris
or vegetation to hide a five meter tall metal machine (let alone a group of
them) but the surrounding hills confounded radar detection, at least from the
enemy's ground patrols.

    "Given how things are goin', I think it's best to have Faraz lead th'
second team," Cheng stated his case. "Objections?"

    Miles kept silent, although others murmured their opinions. Too put it
mildly, the Rook was too embarrassed to speak after his rescue. And the
meeting wasn't a normal situation conference, especially not for a leader of
Cheng's temperament. It wasn't routine for someone like the sergeant to ask
subordinates for input.

    Then again, the squad wasn't run-of-the-mill infantry; each rig driver
controlled a good amount of fighting strength on their Gibbon, and not
coordinating as a team could lead to disastrous results.

    "If you're divvying up the recon element," Sudek sounded displeased,
"should we divvy up the remaining bots?"

    Cheng kept silent and motioned for Webster to answer, and she did.

    "Personally, I don't think so Nastasha," the pretty Newcomer managed a cute
frown of frustration. "I can't do much with four bots. Splitting them up makes
it worse. I'd rather have them around the Bactrian defending it 'til me and
Tits get blasted. That frees up the Rook - Miles - to go on the front line."

    "I can't argue with that logic. I don't have to like it though." Sudek
sounded unhappy at losing her scouting partner, Oiguchi.

    Of course, if Miles believed more of the shipboard rumor-mongering, Sudek
and Oiguchi were much more than friends. And neither were bad looking either,
for a couple of muff-diving dykes.

    "No one's askin' you to 'like it'," Cheng took command once more. "No one
likes bein' out here. If I had my way, I'd send out bots to corral the hoppers
into containment zones before we nuke 'em en-masse, but there are some things
even bots can't do right."

    "Case in point." Miles surprised himself by finally speaking. The bot
tank's performance was definitely a sore point today. Webster busied herself
with a post-battle report about its performance before sending it to UniCom.

    "An' some things bots do better than people," the sergeant barely skipped a
beat at the rookie's outburst. Miles quickly lapsed into silence once more.

    "Who go with me?" Faraz asked in his broken English.

    "Your usual," Cheng was referring to Rachid and Hasan. "Plus Oiguchi,
Menshik, and the Rook."

    Miles kept quiet. Effectively, his job of protecting Doyle and Webster was
over. While it was boring, it was also light, and didn't involve him running
around getting shot at much. Except for his broken peeping wand and a few
holes in his armor, his Gibbon was one of the least damaged. Now, it was all
combat going forward, and he wondered about his luck.

    "Sergeant?" It was Webster. "There's something ahead. Five hundred meters
out."

    "Let's put our shit to th' test. Faraz, take your team forward. The rest of
us find cover - quietly."

    Cover? What cover? Miles looked around his battle blister, the display lit
up showing an artificially bright hillside with little else apart from a few
boulders and ramshackle shacks piled on top of one another.

    "Over here," Menshik waved his Gibbon's arm while it stood beside the
rubble. Miles recognized the pilot from earlier in the day; he was the one who
was waiting at the highway ramp.

    "Thanks."

    Menshik didn't respond. Instead he slipped his left arm out of the cradle
to make a "ssh" motion on his window before slipping his arm back in position.
Miles looked at his battle map, and saw Sergeant Cheng and Faraz both drawing
colored arrows, directing which direction their respective teams would shoot
at when contact was made.

    "Mary, any luck wi' what's coming?" Miles heard Doyle whisper. Contact
could be anything, be it human, Newcomer, or prawn.

    "No luck. The Raptor that picked this up has a damaged sniffer," Webster
frowned more in annoyance than in fear. "Looks like a sentry though. One
medium signature moving slowly."

    Miles hefted his PIG and aimed in the direction Faraz had indicated for
him. He noticed he was aiming effectively down range with a lot of ground to
cover.

    "Steady," Cheng rasped. "Hold fire unless it shoots. Conserve ammo."

    Of course, thought Miles. We've been fighting all day, or at least the
others were. Only he and Menshik had plenty of ammunition. They were directed
to aim straight ahead, down towards where the unknowns were coming towards
them. Miles waited with bated breath and wondered what was to come next.

    "Sergeant?" It was Webster again. "The blip's stopped."

    "Think it saw us?" Cheng asked.

    "I don't know. It just stopped." The Newcomer swiped at something on her
screen.

    "Faraz," the tactical sergeant rasped. "Check it out."

    At that, the Arab team leader tapped at Menshik's and Miles' markers on his
blister display, then made a forward motion with his hand. That was the signal
to move. Feeling a mild sense of dread, Miles ambled forward alongside
Menshik, who was equally as apprehensive walking point. Their rigs lumbered
forth, PIGs wagging ungainly in the dark of night.

    The blister did not sound any alarm, and Miles slowly eased his itchy
finger on his PIG. As soon as he set sights on the "unknown" enemy, he lowered
his weapon. It appeared to be another rig, but it was not any design he'd seen
before. However, it sported the UniCom logo and it was too large - and too
human-looking - to be prawn-made.

    The unknown machine also sported a strange, pronged tube-like weapon
perched on its shoulder, but with it lying awkwardly on its side, Miles
figured it was probably not combat ready.

    Miles wondered if it was occupied or if it auto-walked until it detected a
friendly UniCom signal. He thought he could hear the light hum of its power
plant in the cold night air from his external earphones, and could almost feel
the vibrations of its servos through his blister's cradles. Perhaps the driver
within was too injured to move?

    "Sergeant?" Webster called to her commander, then suddenly dipped into her
throaty native Newcomer tongue to speak.

    Miles watched Cheng's face harden before the scrappy sergeant barked new
orders.

    "Hold position. No one move. Faraz, private line with me and Ginny, now."

    "All hold station," the Arab managed to say before his portrait blurred
into a white hazy cloud. Cheng, Webster, and Faraz were now in a closed
conference in their respective battle blisters while the rest of the squad
stood guard in the cold black night.

    "I wonder what's going on?" Miles broke the silence over the general
channel.

    "Who knows? When the chief's talkin' behind closed doors, it ain't ever
good." Menshik sounded impatient, but he didn't venture near the fallen
machine. Sergeant Cheng was not a commander to be disobeyed, especially on a
battlefield.

    "Hang tight now," Doyle chimed in. "The virgin's bound to tell. I still
have to lug her around, 'member?"

    "Yea, you're right," Miles shot her a grin of bravado.

    "Yeah, I s'pose." Menshik did not sound happy, but then again, he never
seemed to be either.

    After a lengthy moment of tense silence and gossip, Cheng's, Faraz's, and
Webster's portraits sharpened once more.

    "People," the sergeant proceeded slowly. "I know we've a mission t' take
out that hopper ship, but we have t' make an urgent detour t'night."

    Cripes, thought Miles. What now?

    "Faraz? Send Rachid and Hasan to relieve the Rook and Menshik."

    "Sarge?" Menshik barely got his word out before Cheng rudely cut him off.

    "Follow orders, skin-dick. Fall back. Now."

    Miles moved past Hasan's and Rachid's Gibbons as Menshik grumbled and
followed his lead. Cheng continued as they were relieved.

    "Most of you know what prawn bio-matter does t'Newcomers an' humans."

    Of course, of course, Miles soured. Who could forget what happened to Van
Der Merwe?

    "Now, I'm askin' you all t' stay calm an' hear what this fellow has t' say.
Under no circumstances are you t' interrupt, or do anything stupid, like
firin'. Understand?"

    Open fire? What the hell, Miles thought. Cheng made sure the squad mumbled
their acknowledgments before he muttered something in Newcomer to Webster. The
pretty bald-headed alien put on a brave smile and put up a portrait that
caused Miles to blanch.

    It wasn't human, or it wasn't anymore, that thing that was inside the
battle blister. Someone cursed, and there was nervous laughter in the
background. Miles thought it could have been him. Or it could have been
someone else.

    "Ladies an' gentlemen," Cheng growled, "This's Lieutenant Clifford
Lansford, of -?"

    "Firrrst Marrrauder. Schpeshall Oppperrrashuns Grrroop."

    Miles looked on in patient shock as what was left of a man's mouth tried to
work human speech. The prawn-like growths that were supposed to be mandibles
were interfering with Lansford's efforts. It took a little effort to
understand his deep lisp, that Cheng jumped in to speed things along.

    "SOG/1E - One Echo - was here t' disable th' prawn mothership with the big
missile tank earlier," the sergeant explained. "Obviously, that didn't go as
planned. What you're seeing is a SOG rig - a Dhampir - with an Einvelocity
Cannon."

    Damn, thought Miles. He thought he'd never see one in his lifetime. The
sergeant was referring to the metallic tube with the prongs and forks on the
SpecOps rig. The weapon - also called the "Void Cannon" or "Space Gun" - gave
Miles a chill down his spine.

    It was considered dangerous, using hitherto unknown concepts from adopted
Newcomer technology to discharge a de-synchronous wave that accelerated normal
matter to barely faster-than-light speeds. A thin beam of antimatter was then
directed through the center of the wave, and the resultant reaction turned all
matter in the wave's path "vanish" into nothing.

    The first live test of this weapon turned the Melbourne Research Facility
into a gaping hole of nothing - as well as the surrounding area 20 miles
equi-distant. A large bay now sat in southeast Australia, the ocean having
rushed into the gap after the accident, along with part of Earth's atmosphere.
There were no human survivors. 

The only positives to have come out of that was the test was being monitored by
UniCom, so the error (chiefly in power output, but also in the vector of the
wave's discharge) was corrected and the weapon refined.

    The other positive was that the prawn ship that routinely savaged the area
got half of itself disintegrated with the accident, and the remaining wreckage
crashed into the sea. UniCom forces made sure nothing escaped - not alive
anyway.

    "One Echo was supposed to be the bot's back-up along with Colonel Hammer's
tanks," Cheng continued his explanation as the squad regrouped on Lansford's
machine. "Deploying the Void Cannon was a fall-back plan."

    "So what happened?" Miles heard someone ask.

    "The bot tank didn't make it, obviously," the sergeant replied, "but while
One Echo was busy followin' it, they got ambushed near a refugee camp not too
far from here."

    "Refugee camp? Here?" asked Doyle.

    "They ain't our kind'o refugees," Cheng rasped. "How many of you know a
Doctor Clara McKay?"

    "Her name sounds familiar," Sudek temporarily freed a hand of its cradle to
scratch an itch under her breast. "Don't know why though."

    "McKay's the Shrimp Lover, Tasha," Doyle's tone went cold. "The Prawn
Doctor."

    "Half right, slokaa," Webster corrected her. "She's a xenologist. She
studied my people too, when we were in Quarantine."

    "You knew her?" Cheng asked.

    "Just barely," Webster smiled blandly. "I didn't know who she was until I
saw her again on the news in the assimilation center. After that, I had a name
to put on her face."

    "I thought all us humans look alike to you," Menshik managed to get in his
barbs.

    "Almost all." The Newcomer appeared unphased, but her reply was
unmistakably curt.

    "So, who is this Dr. McKay?" Miles asked.

    "I'm guessing you don't follow news much." Doyle's nostrils flared slightly
before she gave the rookie a short history lesson.

    "Like I said, McKay's a a shrimp lover. In short, a sympathizer. She
protested the MNU when the cricket districts were created, and supported the
Newcomers to be discharged from Quarantine, but when X-Day came, her tone
changed."

    "Everything changed, Tanya." Cold fury was in Sergeant Cheng's voice, but
he let Doyle continue.

    "Well, she would've been left alone for the most part. Maybe someone in a
sanctuary might've slashed her face or beat her silly for prattling on about
prawn rights, but she took things too far."

    "What'd she do?" someone asked.

    "McKay used her UniCom credentials to break into a hazmat vault and stole
some XT bio-fuel," Cheng answered before Doyle could speak.

    "What? But why?"

    "The doc went and exposed people to that shit," Doyle explained angrily,
"in vain hope we'd broker some sort of peace with the prawn."

    "That's insane," Miles felt ill. "What was she thinking?"

    "I don't know," the sergeant growled in aggravation, "but more importantly,
I don't care. Lansford says McKay's at th' refugee camp. She an' her bitch
friends bush-whacked One Echo, took their juice packs for the space gun, and
exposed them t' hopper shit."

    "Innnjehckt," the half-human Lansford managed to lisp, but his deformed
fingers mimed a needle going into his neck. "Mmmussst ssstohp."

    Jesus, thought Miles. That doctor must have went completely psycho to
inject prawn bio-matter into people.

    "All-right," Cheng growled imperiously. "This is war, and war can get ugly.
I have no idea what McKay wants with those juice packs, but we need 'em for
One Echo's cannon. With ev'ry inch of land a free-fire zone, I don't e'spect
there will be anyone to rescue."

    Miles shifted uneasily in his blister cradle. Did the sergeant just imply
what Miles thought he implied?

    "Although I'm not all opposed to savin' anyone who ain't a sympathizer,"
Cheng finished.

    "And how will we be able to discriminate?" Miles heard someone ask.

Right sergeant. How are we able to tell? Mind-reading?

    "Simple," the sergeant's voice hardened, "we find the camp, and anyone who
don't run can be considered a sympathizer."

    "That should be easy." Miles heard someone say. The rookie tried rubbing
his fingers and thumb, but his limb cradle limited him to stroking empty air;
his Gibbon was carrying a PIG, and its stout handle was securely held by his
machine.

    "We can't use PIGs or any explosives," Cheng said soberly, "we need 'em
later at the mothership. Bound to be heavy resistance there."

    "Lasers then?" asked Oiguchi.

    "Gettin' to that," Cheng knitted his brow. "Any lasers or glittersticks are
going to be a dead give-away to patrols if we miss. It'll be a light show in
the dead of night."

    "So, what are you sayin' sarge?" Menshik asked the obvious question on
everyone's mind. "How are we going to secure the place and get the job done?"

    Tactical Sergeant Cheng's window temporarily changed from his portrait to
the arm camera on his Gibbon. The squad watched as his machine tilted
slightly, grab a long piece of steel rebar, then heft it like a crude baton.
When the sergeant's window changed back to showing Cheng's face, Miles saw the
man smiling grimly.

    "We do it the old fashioned way."

Chapter Text

===============================================================================
    UNDER THE CRACK
===============================================================================

    Miles' machine waded slowly in the muck that streamed through the narrow
tunnel. The Gibbon's servos and actuators whined and hissed softly despite
being mired in a potent mixture of human waste and sewage run-off. The rookie
counted himself lucky that he had drawn a relatively easy assignment - he,
Menshik, and Oiguchi, the team's scout, were to locate the batch of immobile
prawn mechs near the refugee camp.

    The two rig teams broke into even smaller groups as they neared their
objective. Cheng's team was to secure the juice packs needed to power One
Echo's Void Cannon. Faraz's team was tasked to destroy tactical targets of
opportunity, and to provide both distraction and security.

   Rachid or Hasan had reported a large collection of alloy in a side cistern;
from the size and cluster of blips, they appeared to be mechs. Faraz split his
team in half - one half (which included Miles) would destroy the enemy
machines before they could be manned while the other half (Faraz and his
former mates) would seize the sleeping area and keep everyone they find there
contained. Hopefully, that would be enough.

    The camp itself was tucked away under the city, away from eyes human,
Newcomer, and prawn, under a labyrinth of sewers. There, under a civilization
that was being ravaged and slowly xenomorphed, the camp's survivors eked a
near subsistence-level of existence.

    Though they were probably not "refugees", Miles reminded himself. They may
prove to be more sympathetic to the invading aliens than to their own species.

    Hardly something to quibble over if they start protesting. Miles felt his
mouth go dry at the thought. Would some even look human anymore? Or would they
be something that resembled Specialist Lansford? A walking parody of the
enemy, destined for a lifetime of painful genetic therapy and social shunning?

    Miles thought back to Doyle's story about the crazy doctor and her poorly
thought out attempt at forcing a peace - an unwanted and unsavory one - on her
own people. Her own species.

    The newbie surprised himself with this line of thought. Perhaps that's the
same type of thoughts that made Menshik say what he said.

    Miles glanced at his blister display and saw that Menshik still had his PIG
out, despite the order to hold fire. If anyone had ammunition to expend, it
was either he or Menshik, not that they needed to; a Gibbon was quite capable
of destroying almost anything its size (or smaller) as long as it was not
moving.

    For a prawn mech, Miles could simply stake a piece of steel rebar - or more
practically punch - through the alien machine's opened chest cavity to wreck
the interface connections for its single crew.

    As Faraz said in his broken English, "Easy job."

    Yes, thought Miles. Easy job indeed.

    Oiguchi was ahead of Miles and Menshik. The scout's rig was seared and
cooked from several explosive misses, but it still moved fluidly and with
little protest. What damage would have been to her rig's exterior cameras;
however, Yuko Oiguchi was not only an experienced rig driver, ballet dancer,
and aerial gymnast, but she was one observant bitch.

    Miles remembered how she wagged her finger back and forth when she caught
him drooling over her ample cleavage back at the submarine carrier. Or was it
her partner Sudek's chest? Maybe he was staring at one of their athletic
asses.

    The rookie quickly snapped out of his pathetic daydreaming when Oiguchi's
rig suddenly stopped and raised its left arm in a crude signal. Miles quickly
froze. The scout's machine occupied most of the tunnel, and the rookie
couldn't see what was going on.

    "Take another six steps -" Gibbon sized steps, Miles translated internally
as Oiguchi whispered "- and we drop right into their mech garage. Ready up.
I'll head left, you two take center and right. Remember, no firing. That means
you, Menshik."

    "I'll put it down once we're in," the spunky Semite hissed back unkindly,
"but I'm not putting it away."

    Oiguchi only snorted and Miles saw her Gibbon dip slightly.

    She's going to sprint in, he realized. Without waiting for us to tell her
where -

    "Menshik, go take the right," Miles spoke quickly as the scout's machine
suddenly lurched forward in an awkward sort of run. "I'll head straight
ahead."

    He didn't wait for Menshik's response as he followed on Oiguchi's heels.
The tunnel seemed to extend a bit further than what she had said; then Miles
remembered that he may have been a step or two behind her. Sure enough, the
scout's rig dropped as she exited the tunnel, then just as she did, Oiguchi
instinctively fired up her thruster pack.

    Bad mistake.

    With a high decibel whine and blast similar to a jet turbine, a thruster
pack was as loud as a PIG round's explosive reaction. Certainly, three rigs
stumbling through an enclosed sewer was loud, but the dampeners on their
footpads had significantly reduced their audio signatures (and they were
moving slowly, to boot); furthermore, their machines  could have crossed the
distance in the cistern before the camp was alerted with loud noises this far
inside their perimeter.

    Miles saw Oiguchi realize her mistake as she suddenly cut her thrusters;
this forced her machine to slam down into the basin's underlying cement with a
heavier (and louder) than normal impact. However, it was too late. Miles could
see activity in the various tunnels leading into the waste basin.

    :: threat alert ::

    Small arms fire sparked against his rig's outer frame and the occasional
BOOM CRACK of a rocket exploding nearby, but Miles was most afraid of the
running figures.

    Rig drivers. Or in this case, individuals who appeared partially human.
Miles could see the chitinous plates on their exposed skin, the enlarged
inhuman looking eye, and the unmistakable bounding gait of someone with prawn
legs.

    So, that's how they'd interface with the prawn mechs, Miles shivered. His
own machine sprinted forward as Oiguchi, realizing surprise was lost, quickly
fired her thrusters, giving her a much-needed boost forward to a batch of
parked machines on the basin's left. She reached them in record time and began
smashing them apart with her rig's alloyed fists.

    Miles soon got to his self-assigned section and only had a moment to admire
the intricate details of the silent line of prawn mechs before he proceeded to
break them apart.

    'Punch t'rough the chest cavity while its open,' Cheng had instructed. 'You
want to destroy the neural needles housed in the upper cavity so they can't
start up.'

    'And wrecking the cradle won't do the job if the neural needles still
work.' Doyle added. 'They can still boot up and access weapons. Tear in and up
towards the head. Rip it clean off.'

    Miles took her words to heart and crudely punched into the opened chest
cavity of each prawn mech. He then rotated his hand actuator, formed a claw,
and wrenched his arm upwards. The result was the mech's shoulders and
insect-like head would part from the rest of its frame.

    After a few tries, Miles began to hurry; he simply brought a servo-powered
first down on the head of a prawn mech. The result was just as effective -
caving in the upper chest cavity such that it was nearly impossible for
someone to get inside.

    Clearly, these machines weren't meant to sustain such punishment. That
thought gave Miles a reassuring feeling as he set upon the next batch of
machines.

    "I hear weapons-fire," Cheng's familiar rasp came over the general
frequency. "Who the hell's violatin' orders?"

    "Lasers if we don't miss, boss." It was Menshik. "I didn't miss."

    "Cut that shit out," Cheng snapped back, "and get back t' work."

    "Understood. Menshik out."

    In the general whirlwind of destruction, Miles had forgotten about Menshik.
As the rookie tipped over the last machine in his batch before crushing the
torso underfoot, he looked around the cistern and saw that Menshik had opted
to stay back, using his laser mitt to fry the camp's drivers from afar.

    Fortunately, the angry Jew didn't miss his targets. Unfortunately, he was
unable to hit one, who made it to his machine and booting it up as if his life
depended on it.

    "Done here!" It was Oiguchi. "Hey, Rook?! Where's Menshik?"

    "Taking it easy," came the swarmy reply.

    On his battle blister's display, Miles could see Menshik's confident smirk
slowly turn to grim surprise as the little man realized that he had missed a
target. Menshik was still at the tunnel entrance that dropped into the
rectangular basin, and there was no way he could get to the enemy mech before
it started up.

    Miles released his grip on his weapons, letting it drop onto the pile of
broken and mangled metal at his feet.

    "Watch my gun!" the rookie shouted at her as he took to a sprint.

    He reached the errant mech just as its hatch was about to close - the
rookie had no other choice but to stop the enemy machine before it caused any
trouble. The rookie jammed his rig's fingers into the closing cavity, and
grimaced as he heard a sickening sound come through his external microphones.

    Miles tuned out the mortal scream which was suddenly cut off when his
machine's hand was palm deep in the enemy machine. The limbs of the prawn mech
seemed to jerk to life, spasmed, then just as quickly went limp as its
operator inside expired.

    Only the sounds of falling water and the occasional thump of metal on stone
returned to the area as Miles withdrew his mechanical limb. The small arms
fire quickly stopped as the refugees saw their chance of resistance vanish in
the blink of an eye. No sane person was going to attack a five meter tall war
machine with an assault rifle and some primitive rocket bombs. Their only
chance to survive was retreat, and hope no one would pursue  them.

    Oiguchi came up to Miles, holding her glitterstick in one hand and Miles'
PIG in the other.

    "You okay?" she asked.

    "Yeah, just give me a minute." Miles rinsed the stains on his Gibbon's
alloyed fingers in sewer run-off before he took his weapon.

    "Oiguchi to Faraz. Enemy mechs neutralized."

    "Faraz copy," the Arabic team leader yawned, then scowled. "Regroup on
sergeant. He want to talk to us."

    Probably about Menshik, Miles thought darkly.

    The three rig drivers followed the virtual path Faraz transmitted to their
blisters' displays. One of the tunnels on the basin's ground level led to a
larger space, which seemed to be where the area's sewage collected before
going to a treatment facility.

    Once there, Miles saw the squad's machines standing near a large pile of
hastily assembled equipment. What caught the rookie's attention, aside the
rack of evil looking delta-shaped Drache drones, were a half dozen large
energy cells, each the size of a shipping container. Quite impressive,
considering the juicepacks for a Gibbon's laser mitt was about the size of a
small sofa (minus the back and arm rests). That combination was enough to
power a laser mitt for over a thousand 3 second bursts at an 80 Terajoule
setting.

    Those in the squad who carried glittersticks sported half a dozen cells to
power their weapons, along with a handy number of spare juicepacks (chiefly
used by the scouts). Miles was no engineer, but an energy cell the size of a
shipping container could probably let a laser mitt continuously discharge for
hours or even a whole day without interruption. That the space gun would
require something that size to work was a testament to the power it devoured.

    "Man, those are huge," Miles said as he came to a stop.

    "Yes, they certainly are," Doyle nodded.

    The rookie gave her a cheery grin and she gave him a toothy smile. Miles'
grin thinned though, as he caught the sight of what he thought was something
under Doyle's Bactrian. The long ugly knot of blonde hair and the shredded lab
coat he could dismiss as fuzz on his display, but the bloody, mangled arm that
was both prawn and human removed all doubt of what was crushed underfoot of
the huge rig.

    Doyle saw Miles' expression, and her smile relaxed a bit. Her mouth
twitched and he saw her shrug; that told him more than any words would.

    "All right, we got what we came for," Cheng rasped stonily. "Lansford's
told me th' space gun needs two or three of these fully charged sum'bitches t'
fire, but we're not takin' chances. We are goin' to use 'em all on that ship.
Scrap that heap, you get me?"

    "The question is how to carry them," Webster mused. "That Mastiff doesn't
have enough back left to carry something that size, but we can drag it. And I
can use the Draches to screen."

    "Save 'em. B'sides, it's too noisy and slow," Cheng said. "No, we do it
this way: Lansford, you stick with me, Ginny, and Tits. The rest of you, pair
up an' each take up one end of these cells."

    "You're not kidding, are you sarge?" Miles saw Menshik's jaw drop. "How are
we going to defend ourselves?"

    "One hand on a juicebox handle, the other on a PIG or laser mitt." Cheng's
icy tone didn't do much to boost morale.

    "But -!"

    "We need to hurry. Get to that saucer ASAP, find a spot for Lansford to
deploy. While Tits helps set-up, Ginny's bots can do guard duty. The rest of
us will spread out and screen One Echo until the job's done."

    "Excuse me for speaking out of turn, sergeant," Menshik said angrily, "but
I think that's a recipe for suicide."

    "That depends on how on well things go; Lansford's first priority is t'
down that ship. He'll do that by vaping th' control module."

    "That doesn't help out situation on the ground," Menshik sounded confused.

    "With the hopper saucer crippled, we can use it as cover once it crashes,"
Cheng explained. "We should have enough juice and ammo t' hold out using laser
mitts an' glittersticks. The key is to down that ship on the first shot."

    "And if we don't, sarge?" someone asked.

    "Then you'd better start prayin' for a miracle," the sergeant said grimly,
"'cause I got nothin' left."

Chapter Text

===============================================================================
    VERMILLION SUN
===============================================================================

    Moving and fighting all night had the newbie on edge. Miles was sure that
he had taken more than a safe dose of stimulant, but he no longer cared. Even
leaving his rig on auto-walk, he had to remain alert to enemy activity as he
carried his half of the massive juicebox with Talua.

    As much as he had shared experiences with Menshik, Miles avoided him. He
was disgruntled for sure, and Miles wasn't sure why such a individual was
still retained as a rig driver. That could explain why he was often relegated
to lone duty no one else wanted.

    Lansford, his fingers barely human now, had to satisfy himself with
guarding Sergeant Cheng while his Gibbon and Doyle's Bactrian hauled one
juicebox. Miles had grim respect for the ailing ex-human; his machine - a
Dhampir - carried not only the Einvelocity Cannon, but also the rack of Drache
drones. With this much on his rig, it took dedicated deftness to move through
rough terrain, especially in Lansford's condition.

    Meanwhile, the rest of the squad paired off and humped the remaining
juiceboxes out of the sewers: the two scouts (Oiguchi and Sudek), Faraz and
Hasan, Sikarna and Rachid, Soltyk and Menshik, and Miles and Talua.

    The prawn mega-ship floated like a massive city above a depression of
rubble. The sun's rays had not risen over the lip of the crater that sprawled
below, but Miles could see well enough through his machine's eyes.

    The rookie wondered if the ship had landed once before, only to take off
once more. Unlike other prawn ships he had seen, this one was not buzzing with
activity; instead, it seemed eerily silent and unresponsive. The only activity
was on the ground under the vessel.

    There were aliens everywhere, huddled in small groups, much like when the
prawn first made planetfall. Many seemed still but there was movement here and
there, with prawn dragging their weapons on the ground. Near the center of the
depression, a prawn berserker lay inert, its many legs seemed to have given
out under the massive bulk shouldered upon them. However, as still as the
juggernaut was, the many weapons grafted onto its exoskeleton were lit,
meaning they had power.

    Miles zoomed in as much as his sensors could allow and the sight was the
same everywhere he looked. If the prawn ship detected the presence of their
rig squad, it did not react.

    "Rook. Tal." It was Sergeant Cheng. "See anythin' interesting?"

    "Yes sergeant," Talua responded in properly accented English, his West
African face showing confusion. "The enemy seems to be - I do not know how
else to put it - drunk."

    Drunk, Miles thought. That seemed to be the keyword here.

    "Same here," the rookie chimed in.

    "An' here." Miles saw Cheng glance to his side. "Tanya? What d'you make of
it?"

    "Dunno. I'll get back to you," Doyle paused briefly to reply as she busied
herself stacking the last of the power cells for Lansford's space cannon.

    Cheng checked with the other rig pairings while he awaited her response.
The squad had split into teams of two and did their best to surround the alien
vessel once it was apparent it wasn't reacting as usual. Miles and Talua were
deployed with the two scouts to their right, and Rachid and Sikarna to their
left.

    Only the sergeant, along with Lansford and the Bactrian's crew, were
clustered near the entrance to this place, along with their special weapon,
ready to deliver the killing blow to the menace in the sky.

    "If you want MY opinion," Webster busied tying what was left of her bot
force directly to her control, "I think they found a large dump of cat food."

    "I think Ginny's right." Doyle finally brought her machine into position,
right behind a low escarpment that shielded the bottom two thirds of the
Bactrian. Her rig's modified PIG was bundled into a glitterstick. Essentially,
it was a sharpshooter's weapon mated with a laser shotgun - a perfect weapon
for both ambush and picking off targets at a distance.

    "How do you mean?" Cheng brought his Gibbon to position to cover the two
women in the larger machine.

    "R'member that multi-national that tried to trade cat food in bulk to the
crickets?"

    "Barely. When was it?"

    "Just a few days before the invasion start'd, I think," Doyle said. "T'is
might be one of their places they stock'd up catnip."

    "If it is, that s'plains this."

    Miles nodded in agreement. The aliens was fond of cat (strangely, not dog)
food, and it was only logical that they enjoyed much of the same things as
Earth's felines. The rookie stabbed at the icon for the external air scanner
on his battle blister. After few more pokes and swipes that told him the air
outside was moderately safe for humans, his machine sent a small burst of
sampled air inside his blister.

    It smelled fresh and awful at the same time. The fresh air made Miles'
nostrils open up, but the stench of prawn excrement was mixed in with their
garbage and the sweet smell of ozone from their weapons. The newbie sharply
exhaled through his nose to clear it out; once he did though, a faint smell of
mint lingered.

    "Rook? Were you stupid enough to take a whiff outside?" Cheng barked.

    Miles blinked, and saw the rest of the squad looking at him through their
respective panels on his blister's viewer. Some were rolling their eyes, and a
few were shaking their heads in disbelief or staring back like he was a moron
child who did something incredibly stupid.

    "Uh, the air sampler said it was safe," Miles said weakly.

    "Goddamn," Cheng shook his head, but there was a wry grin on his lips.
"Well son, you got more balls than brains. Smell anything?"

    "Yeah. Kinda," Miles brought an arm out of his cradle to rub his nose.
"Smelled minty, nippy, after all the other crap got filtered."

    "Good," Cheng's face hardened. "Lansford's going t' fire on the control
module as planned. Your duties will simply be mop up."

    "So, we're just going to dust 'em all?"

    "Yep," came the laconic reply.

    "Uh, sergeant?" It was Webster. "Movement towards us. I think we've been
spotted."

    No sooner had she uttered those words than the buzz-whing of HIVELOC rounds
came through Miles' speakers. The rookie raised his PIG and started firing
down into the alien inhabited rubble; they were coming out their drunken
stupor and realized they were being watched. Sergeant Cheng quickly gave an
order to fire.

    "It's now or never, Lansford! The control module - NOW!!"

    Miles thought he felt time slow as a wave of energy seemed to engulf the
rubble clearing below him. The rosy tinge of the dawning day seemed to wink
out into sheer nothingness as the Einvelocity Cannon's linear wave washed
through the sky and cut diagonally through the prawn ship.

    There was no bright explosion. No sound. No obvious indication that
anything had occurred save that of a winking, blinking void of nothing that
came and went like a light breeze rustling past fallen leaves.

   Cheng's flat baritone cut through the silence, "Shot made. Repeat, shot
made. Target hit, but negative impact. Repeat, the saucer's still flyin'."

    In the blink of an eye, nearly half of the prawn mega-ship was missing, but
the vessel was still afloat.

    A big, big chunk of it, however, was gone. Vanished - along with a good
portion of the nearby atmosphere. Now, the void was being filled in by the
surrounding air, and the pressure of such a vast space being filled up was
overpowering. Even the rigs were being sucked into the void left by the space
gun's discharge.

    "Dammit! The vacuum!" Cheng squawked as his machine seemed to lean forward.
"Brace! Brace! Brace! Find somethun' an' hang on!"

    The explosive BOOM that followed nearly blew out Miles' eardrums as his
machine was lifted up by incredible forces and tumbled into the midst of the
enemy. Thankfully, there were built-in safeties - his battle blister dampened
the incoming decibels to a level that numbed his eardrums, but did not burst
them. However, those systems didn't account for being buffeted by the winds
stemming from localized depressurization on a planet surface.

    Chaos broke out as most of the squad found themselves in the midst of the
enemy.

    "Holy God!" "FUCK! We're getting sucked in!" "SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!"

    "Lansford!" Cheng shouted. "Aim down into th' crater an' prep to fire on my
mark! All units fall back on One Echo! Move it people!!"

    "Dammit Stephen!" Webster's hysteric scream did little to bring calm to the
rapidly escalating situation. "I've lost my bots!"

    "That nearly killed us," Doyle shrieked unkindly. "Lucky I anchored myself
to this retaining wall, damn you!"

    "Sound me dry later, Tits," Cheng snapped back. "Lansford, release Drache
control t' Ginny."

    Instead of the slow agonizing slurring, Miles only heard a series of clicks
and clacks from Lansford's Dhampir, followed by the rig's system voice.

    :: command priority override ::

    :: drone control transferred ::

    So he's pretty much gone, the rookie thought sadly. Miles knew the man's
condition was partially reversible with gene therapy. However, the longer the
delay in getting someone to treatment, the more he (or she) resembled a prawn.
Those who survived bore noticeable scarring, and occasionally retained enough
prawn genetic markers to make living in a human sanctuary problematic; armed
bots fired on them, security sensors restricted their access, and patrol
drones dogged them.

    Nevertheless, Specialist Lansford's mind was still human, and he was still
a loyal soldier. Webster quickly acknowledged that she now had control over
One Echo's Draches.

    "Shall I launch?" the pretty Newcomer asked nervously.

    "Hold f'r now," Cheng's voice cut through. "All units, you are weapons
free. You have limited cover, so I sugges' you to hurry th' hell up an' get
back here. We're goin' to dust th' crater with th' space gun."

    At that, the focus became every person for himself or herself. Survival
came first as Miles got his Gibbon back upright. He was lucky to have landed
forward from his tumble; Talua wasn't. The black struggled to right his rig,
rotating both his machine's arms back to prop himself up; however, this meant
that he was unable to defend himself when the aliens swarmed him.

    Miles was now standing, and was about to step in to help when the prawn
berserker appeared almost out of nowhere and crushed Talua and his attackers
without a second thought.

    :: threat alert ::

    The guttural roar of the alien juggernaut came from a tough thick diaphragm
nestled deep in the beast's depths. The baritone sound of its war cry
contrasted with the high-pitched warble of Miles' PIG as he fired on the alien
hulk. Chunks of exoskeleton not flashed into energy by his M/AM rounds flew
off in every direction as his shots impacted.

    A higher pitched whine, either the antimatter core on Talua's rig or his
PIG's cyclotron, reached Miles' ears, and he quickly took off running. The
berserker roared once when a good portion of its body sucked up the reaction,
but despite losing so much of itself, it still lurched after Miles' Gibbon,
albeit at a slower pace.

    Lucky me, thought Miles as he traced a route back to Lansford and Sergeant
Cheng.

    The rookie took a look at how his other squadmates were faring as he
sprinted past and shot up a group of prawn warriors who showed up on his
flank. Oiguchi and Sudek, thanks to their thrust pods, were able to overtake
him, despite having started further away. Miles, Sikarna, and Rachid were now
the ones most distant, and time was running out.

    "Faraz, Hasan, Menshik, Soltyk! Hold near th' Dhampir and Bactrian! Cover
their retreat!" Cheng shouted. "Scouts! Rachid! Sikh! Rook! You have three
minutes t' get back here b'fore Lansford fires!"

    "PIMP out!" Menshik's voice crackled over his fizzing portrait.

    Good, thought Miles. Maybe that would slow that giant tick hurling after
him. He saw the scouts bouncing a few hundred yards ahead of him, firing
backwards as they bounded to safety and avoiding the berserker's beams with
the grace of ballerinas.

    Sikarna and Rachid now joined him, and the three quickly fell into a fluid
pattern of retreat, cover fire, retreat, and cover fire. Miles set his soda
launcher on automatic – the weapon pod hurling canisters of antimatter towards
the enemy signatures hounding his retreat. This was like giving the blond
rookie a helping hand as he ran for his life.

    "Splash!" Menshik exclaimed with glee. However, none of the warheads hit
anything near Miles' position, so he was no better off than before.

    "Two mikes fifteen left," Cheng snapped. "Hurry the fuck up."

    :: threat alert ::

    Miles had stopped to cover Sikarna with Rachid when he saw red gear icons
on his battle blister's periphery. The rookie managed to take down two of the
incoming machines before a third, using its jets to boost its jump, latched
onto his Gibbon's right arm - the one holding the PIG - and would not let go.

    He switched to his laser mitt to fry the menace, but the alien machine used
his captured arm as leverage and kicked his attacking limb with its feet,
sending the beam's discharge into the air. Miles' assailant was too close for
him to do much but batter it in melee; Rachid could not – or would not - help,
as that meant stopping to fight and letting the berserker catch up.

    "Someone!! Help me!" Sikarna screamed as a swarm of aliens hurled
explosives and HIVELOC rounds towards his machine. Then, "I've lost my soda
launcher! Damn chirpers pranged the trigger!"

    "Ditch it!" Cheng roared. "Squad! Cover fire, now!"

    "Keep running, boys!" Doyle's voice reached them. "Tash and Yoyo are here
and you're all that's left!"

    "You heard her, now run!" the sergeant snapped.

    Miles felt a BOOM-CRACK as the prawn mech on his rig's arm jerked from an
antimatter explosion. Doyle's marksmanship with her Precision PIG was
unmistakably remarkable. The rookie could have sworn that any deviation would
have crippled his machine or ruptured his weapon's cyclotron. He pulled his
weapon arm free, turned his PIG onto some nearby enemies shadowing Rachid,
shot them dead, then went into a full run.

    He saw Sikarna's machine lumbering a few paces away, the shiny pod ports
exposed from having jettisoned the soda grenade pack; the rookie didn't look
back when a second larger BOOM CRACK came and a big flash of energy several
meters behind him. Doyle had hit Sikarna's bombs, with spectacular results.

    "Ginny?" Cheng rasped. "There's your opening. Launch 'em now. Dive bomb
'em."

    :: alert drone launch ::

    "Launching now." Webster held her fingers out before her, like a maestro
conducting a symphony. "Lansford, do you know how big of a charge these drones
pack?"

    The now alien-looking Specialist could only make a few short clicks.

    "Low-medium yield?" Webster wrinkled her cute nose. "All right. It'll have
to do."

    "Almost there!"

    Miles' legs felt like jelly, even though his machine did most of the work.
He, Sikarna, and Menshik cleared a ditch as explosions and laser fire blazed
around them. Aliens were being cut down, their severed limbs spewing exotic
viscous blood, or their bodies cut and cauterized from laser fire.

    Webster guided her drones and flew them into the sluggish berserker still
single mindedly plodding towards them. With the bot-controller's deft
guidance, six of the ten bomb drones found their mark while the other four
veered away to kill other enemy concentrations. The berserker lurched, then
leaned to one side, its body horrifically scarred and burned from low-yield
nukes. Still, its grafted weapons worked, if erratically, and they hounded and
nipped at the three retreating Gibbons.

    "Fifty seconds," Cheng sounded off mechanically.

    "Almost there," Miles started up the incline to the edge of the depression.

    "Forty seconds."

    Miles could see the squad spread out line abreast. Their weapons - laser
mitts, glittersticks, PIGs, soda packs - all firing at the enemy who were
being cut down behind him.

    "Thirty. Squad get ready to fall back," Cheng rasped. "Lansford, make
ready."

    Miles saw the squad fall back behind Lansford's Dhampir, one at a time,
then resumed firing at their pursuers. The momentary gaps of weapons fire gave
the enemy small gaps to advance on the position, but their numbers were not as
great as before.

    "Twenty." Cheng raised his PIG and blew apart a mech that bounded over the
battlefield to flank them. Sikarna and Rachid took position near him, allowing
the sergeant to stride ahead and pick apart some enemies nipping at Miles'
heels.

    The rookie was last to reach the firing line. Cheng reached out with his
Gibbon's off hand, grabbed Miles' machine and pulled him to safety past the
Dhampir. Miles quickly regained his balance, sliding close to Doyle's
Bactrian.

    The dirty British blonde flashed him an encouraging grin, almost saying
'Glad you made it!'

    Miles grinned back before he got himself back to the firing line, picking
off the enemy elements still advancing on their position.

    "Ten seconds." By now, the countdown was a mere formality. The line held,
and there was no more panic.

    "Nine. Eight. Seven. Six ..."

===============================================================================
    IN CLOSING
===============================================================================

    The old man cooked a simple meal in his similarly spartan quarters. There
was a kitchen, a combined shower and bathroom, and a coffin like bed which
flipped around to reveal a closet ... of sorts. Among his belongings was a
faded portrait of a regal looking bald woman with liver spots on her head
dressed in a incongruously fancy wedding gown. The portrait was an antique -
the frame was made of real silver, and the image itself was printed on actual
material.

    As the stew simmered, he mindlessly scrolled through the news feed on his
view sheet. The man's eyes were resigned to the continuous display of bad
news. He stopped and lingered though, on an item that had a familiar name.

----
----2154 AUGUST 24
----
----Colonel Miles Quaritch (RET.) formerly of UniCom's 1st Army's 14th
----Combat Rig Battalion and First Recon, and lately the Chief of Security
----of the Resource Development Administration, has been reported killed in
----action by aboriginal inhabitants on Pandora, one of the inhabitable
----moons of Polyphemus in the Alpha Centuari system.
----
----Witnesses describe that one of the moon's native fauna attacked
----Quaritch while he was in operation of a RDA AMP Suit ...
----
----

    He arched a brow as he read. When he had finished, the old man set down his
diaphanous reading sheet, then got two glasses and a bottle of brown liquid
from the drawer. Pouring the contents into the cups, he began muttering to
himself.

    "Always had you pegged as smart, but guess I was wrong," Cheng growled as
he stared at the second glass. "Fightin' giant Smurfs with construction
equipment? That's sheer stupidity, Rook."

Chapter Text

===============================================================================
    AUTHOR APPENDIX
===============================================================================

    Errata and miscellaneous notes during the writing of this fun little short.
Some back story elements influenced the character's motivations, but were not
explored within the time the story takes place.

--- CHARACTERS ---

STEPHEN CHENG - Male. Chinese. Approximately 40 to 50 at the start of the
story. Tactical Sergeant in a United Command assault rig squad. Catherine
Cheng, his last surviving blood relative, was a pediatric nurse killed during
the first wave of the prawn invasion. Exhibits a blood thirst when it comes to
anti-prawn combat.

MILES (THE ROOKIE) - Male. Caucasian. Approximately 20 to 30 at the start of
the story. Member of a United Command assault rig squad. Rank not given.
Principal narrator.

TANYA DOYLE - Female. Caucasian. Approximately 30 to 40 at the start of the
story. Member in a United Command assault rig squad. Informal call sign
"Tits". British (specifically Manchester). Shady or sordid past as an adult
entertainer turned alien hunter and rig driver. This character is based off
adult entertainer Tanya Tate - of whom the author knew personally. Doyle's
last name is an anagram of sorts.

MIRIAM WEBSTER - Female. Newcomer. Apparent age young adult at the start of the
story. Member in a United Command assault rig squad; serves as robot
controller. Informal call sign "Virgin". Webster and Cheng were childhood
classmates (although she would have been much younger than Sergeant Cheng).
This character is based off a classmate of the author's with a similar first
name. The first/last name combination is a play on the cruel jokes employed by
American immigration officials to Romanize immigrant names.

NASTASHA SUDEK - Female. Russian or Slavic. Approximately 30 at the start of
the story. Member in a United Command assault rig squad, serving as a scout.
Romantically involved with OIGUCHI ... because the author loves lesbians.
Partly based off the fictional character of Viktoriya Lychenko (who herself
was based off Madame Drubetskaya).

YUKO OIGUCHI - Female. Japanese. Approximately 30 at the start of the story.
Member in a United Command assault rig squad, serving as a scout. Romantically
involved with SUDEK ... because the author loves lesbians. Partly based off
Rinko Kikuchi's character in Del Toro's "Pacific Rim".

--- GLOSSARY ---

ACTUATOR - Machine capable of imparting motion in multiple directions, often a
combination of several motors. Used in AMP and rig manufacture.

AMP - Short for Amplified Mobility Platform. Human operable machine that
exaggerates and amplifies basic movement, physical strength, etc. Term
introduced in James Cameron's "Avatar".

BACTRIAN - United Command combat rig model that carries a warbot control module
into combat to issue mid tier strategic orders to semi-autonomous combat
robots. Crew of two.

BATTLE BLISTER - Common name for the BLISTER.

BERSERKER - Large alien fauna possibly native or gen-engineered by the prawn.
Used as a siege and shock surface unit.

BLISTER - Operator's control chamber for a fully enclosed combat rig, featuring
an interface CRADLE, connections for liquid waste disposal, connections to the
CAM PLATE, and liquid crystal touch screens for human interface.

BOT - Short for robot. Robots are generally not autonomous, and generally
follow instructions without questioning them.

CAM PLATE - Short for camera plate, the piece of instrumentation on the outer
frame of an enclosed rig that features various devices by which the rig's
operator may view his environment without exposing himself.

CHIRPER - Derogatory slang for POLEEPKWA. Chiefly Canadian.

COMBAT RIG - A militarized version of the AMP, featuring a fully enclosed
environment that protects its user from unwanted or alien hazards. Usually
shortened to RIG.

CRADLE - Physical interface device in a BLISTER for a rig driver to translate
the motions of his limbs to his machine's limbs, usually on a 1-to-1 ratio
basis.

CRICKET - Derogatory slang for POLEEPKWA. Chiefly British.

DHAMPIR - United Command combat rig model made for their Special Operations
Groups. Crew of one.

DRACHE - Unmanned aerial vehicle launched from a V-rack. May be set to
semi-autonomous or non-autonomous (controlled) flight. Carries a variety of
ordnance, including low-yield nuclear packages.

DRONE - Unmanned vehicle capable of autonomous or programmed actions.
Militarized versions often use biological IFF devices to determine the
validity of engagement targets.

EINVELOCITY CANNON - Classified United Command weapon using "adopted Newcomer
technology to discharge a de-synchronous wave that accelerated normal matter
to barely faster-than-light speeds." A thin beam of antimatter was then
directed through the center of the wave, and the resultant reaction turned all
matter in the wave's path 'vanish' into nothing."

FRAME - Referring to the outer frame of a combat rig. This is to distinguish
the "expendable" hardware of a military AMP from the less expendable (and more
expensive) BATTLE BLISTER.

GIBBON - United Command combat rig model manufactured for mass deployment. Crew
of one.

GLITTERSTICK - Rig weapon that bundles six laser emitters around a carbon fiber
pole. Each emitter may be fired in sequence, in pattern, in a simultaneous
pulse, and/or directed to discharge their beams at differing angles,
essentially functioning as a "laser shotgun."

HOPPER - Derogatory slang for POLEEPKWA. Chiefly American.

LASER MITT - Rig weapon that emits an 80 Terajoule beam in 3 second bursts.
Often installed on a rig's off-hand.

M/AM ROUNDS - Matter / Anti-Matter ammunition. Used primarily in rig weaponry,
chiefly the PIG.

MECH - Short for mecha. Mecha derived from "mechanical". Applies to mechanized
apparati used to enhance an individual's physical performance.

NEWCOMER - English term used for the humanoid aliens who crash landed in the
United States' Mojave Desert in 1988.

PIG - Particle Impeller Gun. Rig weapon that uses Gaussian principals and
magnetic fields to propel antimatter laden rounds from a cyclotron down and
out a linear launcher.

PIMP - Portable Indirect Munition Platform. Rig weapon that functions as a
short range cruise missile with MARV capable antimatter armed warheads.
Mounted on a rig's back.

POLEEPKWA - Afrikaaner term used for the insectoid aliens who landed near
Johannesburg, South Africa in 1982.

PRAWN - Derogative Afrikaaner term for POLEEPKWA.

RIG - Military grade AMP.

RIG DRIVER - User or operator of a RIG.

SKINDICK - Racial slur for a man of Jewish descent.

SLAG - Racial slur for a Newcomer (gender neutral).

SLAGGOT - Gender neutral derogative for a human who engages in sexual activity
with a Newcomer.

SODA PACK - Rig weapon that launches antimatter canisters each with the
approximate dimension of a 12 ounce soda can.

SPACE GUN - Slang for EINVELOCITY CANNON.

VOID CANNON - Slang for EINVELOCITY CANNON.

UNICOM - See United Command.

UNITED COMMAND - Military organization formed of various human and Newcomer
military and paramilitary groups to fight the alien Poleepkwa.

WARRIOR - Caste or sub-species of PRAWN who are larger than their worker
drones. Has two fully functioning pairs of upper arms and is capable of
independent action.

===============================================================================
    AUTHOR AND TECHNICAL NOTES
===============================================================================

    I originally wanted to write this back in 2009, when Blomkamp's D9 and
Cameron's Avatar were released that same year. I first saw Blomkamp's original
work, Alive in JoBurg, in 2007 when it was featured on ImageMakers (a good
reason to donate to PBS) and thought it was an interesting approach to South
Africa's era of apartheid.

    I did not think much of Alive in JoBurg as a technical demonstration of
military mecha until the 2009 version of District 9 showed off WETA's "prawn
mech" on the silver screen. As impressive as the prawn mech was, it was still
not meant for human habitation (especially not feasible was the drilling of
neuro-bolts into the pilot's temples).

    Thankfully, James Cameron's Avatar visualized a more pragmatic approach to
exoskeletons, but something about how the AMPs were portrayed disturbed me. If
the purpose of military mecha was to protect and enhance the soldier within,
why would the Cameron AMP use plexiglass for its canopy? Certainly the
all-enclosed environment of D9's prawn mech was a better approach to design.

    With that in mind, I set about "designing" an ideal mecha ideally suitable
for human use. I am a terrible illustrator, but what I lacked in hand-eye
coordination, I made up in the ability to cherry-pick the best traits of one
thing and merge them with another to create the best possible combination.
Hence, a completely enclosed powered suit with a deadly payload of effective
weapons was the answer.

    There have been many approaches to the machine suit in the past:
Battletech's Elementals and Protomechs, the Veritech Fighters of Macross, the
Fire Marines from Warhammer 40K, et al., with Heinlein's StarShip Troopers
being the most revolutionary and Haldeman's Forever War being more rooted in
real-life physics. That still leaves a lot of room for improvement since the
original powered armor suit concept of 1959.

    However, those concepts (with the exceptions of Heinlein and Haldeman) were
chiefly one to create a universe where people use large fighting robots to do
fictional battle (e.g., Mobile Suit Gundam, et al.). We often forget that old
Frank Wright adage, "Form follows function." A military mecha is a tool
designed to kill your enemy and to protect its user (at least until the first
task is completed); hence, its very appearance, shape, and motion should be
designed to do those two jobs and to do it well.

    So, the Gibbon was designed with those goals in mind and then some:
intimidate the enemy, correctly deploy lethal measures when required, automate
the mundane things to simplify operator training, and - above all - be
effective.

    Mechanized warfare will continue to evolve. The human element of initiating
the killshot (or putting into motion the events leading to killing another)
will still be there, but the procedures and methods will be simplified, and in
some cases, automated.

    While completing this story, there have been mecha/robot movies (like
Travis Beacham's atrocious "Pacific Rim") that has served as good examples for
what not to follow. It's my sincere hope that the CoRi combat rigs - whether
Gibbon, Bactrian, or Dhampir - and the units described herein will serve as a
better example of what military machines ought to be.

2014 // grey228 | hotmail