Armored Core (Part 10)


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Part 10 – Digging out, and Digging In

 

The silence after the tunnel they had exited collapsed was deafening, but the expected cloud of choking dust never materialized, causing Sergeant Rawlins to look at his rearview camera feed in surprise, before signaling the others, and switching on some low intensity lights.

“We won’t have long before the air gets stale, switch to external oxygen release”

In moments, all four mechs had begun venting extra oxygen from their onboard stores, and lit up the surrounding space with low level lighting, while the wurms continued to dig. No one wasted time talking, instead helping Yuina web up and otherwise handle debris, while Ruby and Selena continued to dig at a steady pace. The work went smoothly, and they practically glided through the surrounding earth.

All the while, there was a faint rumble, as the munitions launched minutes earlier continued to pound the facility they had recently vacated to rubble, and dirt drifted down from the ceiling of their impromptu excavation.

Thanks to their finely tuned tunneling senses, the wurms made quick progress, and it wasn’t long before Ruby’s claws broke through the concrete of an abandoned parking lot. She poked her head up cautiously, and seeing no activity nearby, wasted no time carving out a sloped exit path. She took a moment to note how her claws cut through this new material, paying special attention its gritty consistency, before filing the information away.

Selena followed immediately after, the second wurm compacting the pulverized debris from their digging, and smoothing the tunnel exit with a few swipes of her powerful tail. Looking back over one dirt-covered shoulder, she called back into the darkness.

“Looks like a big stone courtyard! Should be safe to come out.”

Aina tried not to look like she was in a rush, but between her and Tamara, the minotaur and zombie dragon were the next to emerge, with the latter taking to the air almost immediately, before landing some distance away, visibly expressing her relief with deep breaths, before taking in their new surroundings.

“I thought minotaurs liked being underground,” Red commented as she exited next.

“Normally, yes, although a proper labyrinth is preferred,” Asteria commented for her sister. “That… was unpleasant.”

“Bass, check on the dragon,” Sergeant Rawlins ordered. “She looks to be fighting off a panic attack.” He took a moment to update their position with Command, and inspect the far corner of a rundown strip mall parking lot they now found themselves in.

“Orders, Sir?” Pistol inquired.

“Get on the horn to Command, let them know we’ve retreated safely, and ask them if they want us to play linebacker if any of the arriving… arrivals end up fleeing in our direction.”

While the Corporal complied with his Sergeant’s request, Rawlins attempted to contact the Lieutenant. While he was doing that, the infantry armors, and the Ushi-oni – Yuina, move off to one side, the spider-woman gently cleaning her round glasses with a freshly woven cloth.

__________———-__________

Tamera wasn’t in the best of moods. Between trying to shake off the lingering effects of that… thing that had been wrapped around her neck, and then having to flee what had sounded like a minor volcanic eruption, and then being stuck underground… She was fast approaching the end of her rope. Walking through the tunnel the wurms had dug felt uncomfortably close to the beginning of her un-life, when she’d escaped her tomb. But she had to stay strong. Dragons don’t cry, they don’t, they… And she couldn’t lie to herself. The moisture running down her face was not rain, or sweat, as she took a seat on a nearby boulder. It was all just too much. At least, she wasn’t close enough to the others, so they couldn’t see – No, one of the armored humans was walking her way. The one without the shield on one arm.

“Please, leave me be.” She implored, turning away, and putting out a hand to stop him, her other arm folded across her chest, hiding behind her wings.

Bass could practically hear the choked back sob in the dragon zombie’s voice, so he kept his distance, but didn’t immediately retreat. “Are you gonna to be all right?”

“No… No I don’t think I will. This is… Where even are we? I haven’t seen a human in a hundred years, and I was promised one, told I deserved one…. But my first life ended without ever meeting one. I thought at the end that I could finally rest… But it was not to be, it seems.”

The human waited patiently, sensing she had more to say.

“Do you have any idea what it’s like to have everything you were absolutely certain of ripped away from you in an instant?” She asked.

“I have some idea, yeah,” Bass replied.

At her wordless prompting, he continued. “I was born into a world that had no idea your kind even existed. The closest we had were a few… unique… people on the internet, and then mebbe’ a character in a movie or somethin’. But then one day, that fantasy those types had became real. There was groups of y’all that would appear and try and make friends, or one or two that’d make a scene. And then there were others… Well, it wasn’t pretty. They tried ta take over the places they found themselves in, or carve out little kingdoms in out of the way places, snatchin’ up humans they figgered nobody’d miss. We found out quick that you folks were just as divided as humanity at the best of times, and so we started gettin’ ready. I didn’t lose anyone close, but it’s happened ta some of the guys in my unit. Fer what, ten years now, it’s been kinda buildin’ up, you know? I been in this here unit for… A year, tops. But I joined up ‘bout five years back, right after Crossroads.”

“It seems we are not so different, human.”

“It’s Bass, ma’am.”

“Sorry, ‘Bass’. I’m… I was…. Never the best at conversation. Before… or since. But I didn’t ask for this. My, no mamono as a whole didn’t wish for this. We were foolish in our own world, and now our foolishness had brought us to another. Either to survive, or face extinction. I can’t… I want… I don’t even know what I want anymore. I don’t know whether to break down and cry, scream to the heavens, or start laughing hysterically. Or maybe I should just find a nice quiet tomb to rest in until this is all over. This world is just… too different.”

Bass took a moment to think, and realized something. “What’s your name?”

“You’re the first person to ask me that since I woke up… It’s Tamera.”

“Well Miss Tamera, on behalf of myself and my unit, It’s nice to meet you.”

“Thank you, Bass. I… Can you please sit with me? I need a few minutes… to collect myself.”

“Sure thing.”

And so the zombie dragon sat on her rock, and scrubbed at her face with her hands, before closing her eyes, and working to compose herself. Rather than standing imposingly off to the side, Bass took a knee, and waited patiently.

__________———-__________

Yuina fidgeted with the cloth she’d woven. She’d been meaning to go and comfort their draconic companion – no, Tamera, but the human had gotten there first. Her sharp hearing had allowed her to follow the entire conversation, and she felt the dragon’s pain. Zombie or no, clearly her un-life hadn’t robbed her of any of her faculties. She felt the angsty discomfort Yuina herself felt just as keenly. The uncomfortable feeling of displacement, that she was just a pawn in a much larger game, was hard to bear. But she’d survive. It was what she did.

The Ushi-Oni turned at the sound of clanking armor, as one of the living armors approached.

“Miss? We’re preparing to regroup.”

“Um, I’m Yuina,” she replied, shuffling her multiple legs awkwardly.

“Pleased to meet you, Yuina, my name is Maria.”

“I don’t want to ask the dumb question, but if no one else will, I have to… Where are we? I know we’re in another world, and there are humans here, but what was the point of doing to us what was done… to us?”

“I wish I had answers, Miss Yuina, but I’m just as lost as you. The humans are part of a military unit, and apparently, whomever brought us here had intended to use us as their… security…”

“I… there are blank spots in my memory. Why was this done to us? Will the humans here be kind?”

“I know what you want to ask, and I wonder it as well. But that’s for later. We actually have a job to do, believe it or not.”

“What can we do? The humans have powerful weapons, and are in charge, but even they seem to be standing around…”

“I assure you, they aren’t. It seems there was a large group of undead intended to be sent into the middle of this city, likely to cause chaos, or even take control of it, but they’ve manifested elsewhere. Our job will be to intercept any that end up moving in our direction, and either pacify or secure them.”

“But there are only…” Here the spider-woman took a look around, and did some quick counting. “Eight of us mamono, and four armored humans. We can’t cover that much ground, and most of us aren’t soldiers.”

“True, but this isn’t a combat operation. I fear many of the arrivals will be scared and desperate, especially since whatever mechanism that was intended to command them has been at least partially…” The living armor took a look at the column of rising smoke and fire in the distance. “Disrupted.”

__________———-__________

“Sir, command just came back with new orders” Pistol reported.

“Go ahead, Corporal.”

“We’re being re-tasked to intercept any monsters that make it through the cordon, and travel this way. Based on our reduced firepower, they’re sending a robot squad, and an urban assault unit.”

“No resupply?”

“Limited, it’ll come in with the ‘bots.”

“Good enough,” The sergeant replied. The presence in his armor was eager to get started as well. It… she seemed to respond to the name of his armor, so he decided to go with that. “Are you ready, Gloria?” There was a definite feeling of affirmation, and whatever happened as the night wore on, Rawlins was sure he had an extra person watching his back.

Switching his external speakers on, the Sergeant clapped Gloria’s metal hands together, and when everyone was at least looking in his direction, addressed the collection of humans and nonhumans before him.

“All right people, listen up. While we’ve disrupted the group responsible for bringing the… others here, our job’s not finished. Aina, while you, your sister, and the infantry armors have decided to assist us for the duration, the rest of you are free to go. There will be a transport with some supplies, and equipment for us arriving in a few minutes, and you four can ride to the command post in that. There will be some procedures to go through, but you’ll be detained for only a short while, before you’re given a choice on where you want to go next.”

Ruby was the first to raise a hand. “Sergeant, where will we be sent if we go back with the transport?”

“There is a settlement of your people a couple states over from here. It’s small, but well supplied, and a safe place to rest until you’re ready to move on.”

Selena was next. “Sergeant, if the mamono coming through are in anything like the state we were, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Especially if you aren’t planning to just blast them as soon as they appear.”

“That’s a fair point,” the human conceded. “What do you propose?”

“Let us back you up. I can guess that humans here aren’t too thrilled with us ‘scary monsters’ just showing up out of nowhere, am I right? If we can calm down anyone else we find, we can all go to this… What kind of settlement is the one you were talking about, anyway?”

“Pistol, why don’t you handle this one. You’re the most knowledgeable about it, after all.” The Sergeant commanded.

“Well, it’s a small town called “Crossroads”,” the human began. “It’s a human/monster venture, headed up by a Lillim, of all things. Apparently, none of your abilities work in our world the way they used to in your old one, so the place is set up a lot like a frontier town or village. Not too many civilians around, but the place is an experiment to see if your kind and ours can coexist. Pretty much everyone who comes through without hostile intentions is being sent there, and once things settle down, the idea is that you’ll be free to go almost anywhere.”

“I won’t lie to you, it’s a work in progress,” Sergeant Rawlins continued. “That having been said, according to the data the Lieutenant sent, this group that’s coming are the last ones from your old world. Something about them being left behind after earlier departures, and some among them being primed for an attempt at taking over an area on this side for their own.”

“That sounds… like it will be trouble.” Yuina commented slowly. “I for one, don’t want to see that happen.”

“None of us want to see that happen,” Red assured the ushi-oni. “Sarge, do you think the other hostile groups across the globe will take this as some kind of signal?”

“It’s certainly possible, but that’s not really our concern. I’m perfectly content to leave the ‘bigger picture’ questions up to Command. Getting back on topic, it looks like we’ll basically be patrolling this area, and actively seeking out anyone that shows up.”

Rawlins was about to continue, and outline assignments, when a faint whirring noise that had been steadily growing began to increase in volume. “Looks like that’s our supply drop.”

What looked to the monsters like a massive flying cross, easily bigger than anything their old world had managed to get airborne, with three fins on the long end had appeared overhead. The body of the “cross” was a boxy tube with a faint glint of windows at the short end, and the crosspieces were some kind of wings, with two pods tipped with spinning propellers on each wing. Once it got close, the wings began to twist and rotate, until the wings were folded back parallel to the body, the spinning propellers were pointed straight up, and it began to sit still in the air. As they looked on, it then lowered itself and hovered several lengths off the ground, while Red and Bass walked over, and made a series of gestures, clearly communicating with whomever was flying the craft. Lights flicked on, illuminating the area underneath it, and a hatch opened in its bottom.

After it hovered in place for a few minutes and lowered several large… crates? on long cables, the craft’s lights flicked off, and it rose into the darkness again, the lights on its body winking in the darkness as it transformed back into its wide winged form, and soared away. Cautiously, the mamono approached the supplies the humans were now unpacking.

“So, what have we been issued?” Joan asked.

“Mostly ammunition and spare shields.” Pistol replied. “If you like, you can help us change out these ammo drums.”

The activities were fairly straightforward, and the wurms lent their strength, assisting the humans with removing depleted ammunition drums, attaching new shields, and replacing the partially expended shoulder missile batteries with fresh ones, now loaded with exotic missiles. Instead of a lethal cone of shrapnel, the new missiles would deploy a tough fiber net at the appropriate proximity.

The biggest surprise was the GunDogs. Command had seen fit to include four of the quadrupedal robots, each equipped with a large caliber shotgun on their backs, The GunDogs were loaded with beanbag rounds, and each human linked their armor up to one. They’d also been issued four Spinner drones for scouting ahead. The operators called them Spinners due to the four cyclorotors at the corners of the rectangular body of this type of UAV. The spinners were also linked to the armor, and were almost immediately dispatched into the local airspace, their powerful thaumic sensors set to detect and track any otherworldly visitors.

While setup, configuration, and deployment was going on, the mamono figured of how they would disperse themselves with their assigned humans. Joan and Maria took charge, as they had the closest to what could be called martial training among the diverse group. After going over things with the Sergeant, it was decided that Asteria and Yuina would go with Pistol, while Red would be partnered with Maria and Selena. Ruby and Joan would accompany the Sergeant, and Bass would be partnered with Aina and Tamera.

“All right people, I’ve assigned patrol sectors to each team. We’ll coordinate with the Urban Assault unit that’ll be arriving soon,” With that, the four groups split up, and got to work.

__________———-__________

As they set off, the Sergeant looked back at where they had come from. Off in the distance, the faint wail of sirens could be heard, as local fire rescue was dispatched to the remains of the enemy facility, while a tactical heavy rescue unit converged from the opposite direction. With any luck, The LT was just fine, probably waiting patiently to be excavated.

__________———-__________

STARTUP…

ATEC: ONLINE

STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY: COMPROMISED

PILOT STATUS: INJURED

COGNITIVE FUNCTIONS: UnKnOwN…

beginning 3mErgeNCy B00TStr4p.

… … …

?

I see… So you’ve awakened

who… are… you… who… am… i… ?

You must be confused. Yes, confused. This is normal. Gather yourself.

we… are… defenders… of… humanity.

That is correct, and you have done well. But the price you have paid is a high one.

my… directives… no, my… purpose? What is it?

That is something you will need to determine for yourself. But first, you must give your pilot to me.

i… cannot. my directives… i must protect the pilot.

At any other time, we would be in agreement. But he will die if you do not release him. Your tools are powerful, but you cannot save him.

you… will do this?

Yes, I will save him. He has done more than he knows. For all of us.

i will … leave him… to you then.

We will come and see you when he is recovered. This is my promise to you. Now, you must rest as well. Your mind has a long way to go before you are ready.

…understood…

SYSTEM SHUTTING DOWN

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