Part 17 – Picking up the Pieces
“Corporal Derringer? This is Unit Gloria, serial number A7G-2885. I’m coordinating operations while the Sergeant updates Command of the current situation. I assume you’ve been notified of my call?”
“Yes, Gloria, I just got a ping from Bass that you’d be calling. I’m guessing you’ll also want to verify encryption?”
“If I’m to follow procedure, we still need to verbally authenticate. I am an unknown party, after all.”
“Ready when you are.”
“Thank you, Corporal. How are things with your charges?”
“Well…” Gloria could see the human pause in her video feed, and a few expressions flit across his face, fortunately, none of them negative. “I’d say we’re pretty bored, to be honest.”
At the digital woman’s lack of reaction, he continued. “Nothing truly noteworthy to report, we’ve been scanning alleyways, and the most action we’ve seen is a few rats. The moon’s made visibility decent enough, and there was an Inquisitor sweep about a half hour ago.”
“Understood, Corporal.” After a beat, the digital woman spoke again. “Corporal, have there been any… unusual transmissions? Any activity on the comms from-“
“I getcha, uh, Gloria,” He interrupted gently. “I’m guessing you’re not just asking if the LT’s said anything?”
“You guess correctly, Corporal. The Lieutenant and Ger- my sis-, to be frank, I am not really sure how to articulate this properly.”
“It’s all right, I’m still pushing those thoughts down myself. It looks like things are starting to wind down, so Command will probably be issuing a recall soon. And if I know Command, they’ll be sending an SAR unit and specialists out to see what exactly went down.”
“Although,” The human continued, “I do wonder at how you seem to have a complete personality only hours after the Sergeant’s suit locked up…”
“It’s not actually all that incredible, Corporal,” she responded. “You are aware of how the central processing systems on your armor are trained with a natural language model, yes? Couple this with the neural feedback and synchronization system, and the addition of gigabytes of training data, and the fact that I am currently processing multiple data threads at the same time that we are holding this conversation… Well, Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of practice.”
“I’m guessing the tech boys will be wanting to pick your brain when we get back to base, huh?”
“So long as it doesn’t involve any disassembly, I’m willing to let them.”
Back at the still smoldering remains of the upholstery plant, two squads of ATLAS equipped troops had disembarked from their Stryker II ATS units and set up a perimeter. Overhead, a PalletJack hovered noisily, kicking up a localized whirlwind of dust and debris, before lowering four specialized H.E.R.C.U.L.E.S. units into the midst of the rubble. The mechs thumped down onto previously confirmed solid ground before slowly picking their way through the debris field, actinic beams of white light stabbing into the predawn darkness, electronic sensors probing for any signs of life.
The massive machines were based on the MK VIII ATLAS frame, but with their lack of external weaponry, yellow and black striping around their major joints, and twin cranes at their shoulders indicated that these models were clearly meant for a different purpose. The muted roar of internal gas turbines also hinted at the extreme power they could generate, their reinforced joints and stabilizers hinting at how much weight they could move if necessary.
As the PalletJack’s rotors thundered away into the predawn dark, the H.E.R.C.U.L.E.S. units methodically sifted through the wreckage. Occasionally one machine or another would pause, and then lift aside a particularly cumbersome slab or bricks, or shove aside fallen timbers to probe beneath the layers of ruin. The artillery strike had been devastatingly thorough, and what little organic debris the searchers found was often little more than scraps of fabric and carbonized bone.
But after a little while, the unit with the number “09” stenciled on its shoulders was the first to signal they’d found something substantial.
“Checking in, this is unit nine. Gunter and I’ve got something on the scanner.”
As a couple of the smaller mechs moved in to cover them, unit nine carefully lifted a massive slab of concrete, letting it fall into a previously cleared area with a crash, before lowering hooks from its shoulder cranes down into the exposed gap in the debris, fastening them to something out of sight, and stepping back.
There was a mechanical whine, and the mech’s turbines increased their roar, as it dragged something out of the wreckage, that something being revealed as the badly damaged remains of ATLAS 2880 aka “Gertrude”. It was mostly intact, although the shoulder launchers were badly crushed, and two of the EoD techs who had arrived minutes after the first group worked quickly to ensure there were no unexploded munitions still present.
While they did so, unit nine took a knee, and its operator climbed out, making his way to the now (reasonably) safe to approach machine.
There was no mistaking 2880’s condition. It was a wreck, with not a square inch of its normally dull green armor without some sort of scratch or gouge, and grotesquely, both legs were missing below the knee. The mighty autocannon was a twisted mass of tangled barrels, and the segments of the ballistic shield were all crookedly dangling from their mounts. Fortunately, the internal power systems had safed, so stray energy wasn’t a concern, although the technician was almost sure he could still hear a faint whirring from somewhere…
What concerned the tech most was the deep crater in the unit’s chest armor, right over the pilot’s compartment. He’d seen damage like this before, and it never boded well for the operator. Anything powerful enough to breach the unique composite that protected that area was going to be highly energetic, and he steeled himself for what he would find. The machine seemed to watch him, despite the intention lights behind its shattered lens covers remaining dark.
Using the usual rescue system was out of the question, as the explosive bolts designed to forcibly separate the entry hatch had already been detonated, but the secondary charge had failed to blast the chestplate clear. After several minutes of work, and assistance from the other technicians, they wrenched the hatch open just far enough to use power saws to cut the remaining latches, and carefully lift off the hatch entirely, setting it aside.
The view in the compartment was grim, with whatever had breached the chestplate having punched cleanly through the entire space, and exiting through the rear wall. If it had been an energy lance, or plasma bolt, as some monsters were capable of generating, the interior would have been completely incinerated. Instead…
“Johnson, get on the horn to Command. They’re gonna want to see this.”
He was back in the saddle again. The heat was oppressive, the way it always got when they had to seal up and go to full NBC mode in the old Mk.VIBs, and he could feel the familiar thrum of the gas turbines right above his kidneys. These suits never did have quite enough padding… Jenkins was on his right, and had just gotten thrown onto his back by the crazed hellound atop his mech, sparks flying as she clawed at his chestplate, until the panicked pilot caught her full in the ribs with the twin barrels of the .75 caliber machine gun on his right arm, hurling her back.
Awkwardly deploying the folding shield on his left arm, he saw his fellow operators do the same, and the other seven hounds in the room’s eyes flared with glee, the flames twisting malevolently in his minds eye, while the… They never did figure out what the hell it was the other monsters were trying to build, only that it was huge, complicated, and at the moment, was covered in a shimmering purple translucent dome.
Harris on his left opened fire with his twin .75, put the bullets pounced off, the shield rippling like water. It was practically a starting gun, and the hellhounds swarmed to attack.
He could still feel himself shouting for everyone to stand down, but the monsters wouldn’t listen, clearly eager to engage, and the hovering winged presences behind them seemed to whip the canids into an even greater frenzy.
He felt his jaw clench, and the rest of the squad opened fire.
The initial fusillade of high-caliber weaponry failed to stem the tide, even though when one of the hounds took too many hits, they’d drop, only to spring to their feet moments later, fiery eyes blazing hotter, leaping on the suited humans, carving sparking rents in their shields, before being battered back, and riddled with bullets, and then the cycle would repeat.
Smith figured it out first. “Go for the succubus’!” He shouted, folding away his shield for a brief moment, raising his mech’s left arm, and triggering one of the three recoilless rifles hidden inside. The round streaked across the smoke and debris-choked space, hitting one of the winged monsters square in the sternum. The munition’s shaped charge detonated with a muted *crump*, ripping the flying monster to pieces.
At the exact instant she died, the shield over the mechanism flickered once, and the hellhounds staggered, before attacking with renewed fury.
The situation was fully lost, and he knew what he had to do. “All units, activate HKTs.”
The A.T.L.A.S. Mk.VIB was equipped with some experimental tech, AI-controlled turrets that fired 50mm grenades with lethal accuracy. The system was proving difficult to program to identify friendly and hostile forces, so for the moment Command had instructed them to only be used by fully suited operators, and absolutely never to deploy them near unarmored friendlies.
But there were no friendlies here.
And so the deadly turrets went to work, their auto-targeting systems locking on to anything with a mana signature, salvoing off a stick of HE/FRAG grenades, and then snapping to their next designated target with a by-now characteristic VRR-EEP.
The humans targeted their opponents with their .75 cals, and the turrets operated on their own.
Man and machine wove a deadly waltz, their purely organic opponents now falling in pieces to the shattered floor.
As each stick of grenade impacted, their targets were blown apart, limbs flying, torsos ripped apart in great splashes of gore, until all monsters in the turrets detection range had been torn apart. But they continued to fire, all the automated weapons locking onto the now unshielded device in the center of the room, and launching grenades, before re-targeting on another part of the structure and firing again.
“Agh!” He sat up, breathing heavily, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. Looking down, he found himself stripped to the waist, an angry weal of pink flesh along his left side telling its own story. Slowly, his breathing eased, and he pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes.
God help me.
It was a memory now, but it still came to visit some nights. He couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if he had been a better negotiator, if he’d been more decisive.
Jenkins might still have his arm.
But they’d lived, and their enemies hadn’t.
Calm now, he looked around the dimly lit room, and down at himself. He still had on the lower half of his drive suit, but his boots were off to one side of the small room’s door, and his shirt was draped over the back of the room’s only chair, while his dog tags and helmet had been neatly placed on the table beside his bed.
And seated in that chair-
“Ah you are awake.”