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First Contact - Chapter 3.1415
"They're coming in hard!" Chaz yelled out. I knew he was half deaf from the constant explosions, his helmet torn away by a heavy mag-ac cannon that had also ripped off half the flesh from the side of his face.
"Stay on them!" I yelled out. I dropped my heavy auto-cannon and kicked it as hard as I could right below the loading tray. The heavy 60mm round popped free, the wet-printed casing flying free, spinning through the air, the dent from where it loaded wrong sparkling in the light from the new stars that kept being born in orbit.
"TWO MINUTES!" Montaguta yelled from where he was crouched down. He had his shielding up, the kind we normally used to bounce heavy artillery and tank rounds.
"Let 'em have it, Regulators!" I roared as the next wave of machines burst past their dead brethren. The heavy Pontiac auto-cannon in my hands chugged and I resisted the urge to up the fire rate. Half my implants were jangly, throwing bad data, but that was the life, baby, and you lived it till you didn't live it any more.
Chaz cursed as more high-v rounds bounced off his personal shielding and I could see the personal battlescreen was only a few seconds from failing. My onboard software backtracked the weapon putting all the heat on him and I swivelled, still clamping my hand down on the cannon's firing handle. Heavy 60mm anti-vehicle shells slammed into the oncoming junk as I put jawnconnor time downrange and into their metal jaws.
I couldn't blink any more, the artificial flesh around my eyes scoured away by a plasma hit, so I had to deal with the slight buzzy feeling of static cleaning charges as my weapon lined up with the clanker putting the heat on Montaguta. I twisted my wrist, bringing the firing rate up, and hammered 60mm hate back at the machine.
Its face crumbled under the impact of the high-vee anti-vehicle shells, the antimatter flashing brightly, sharp snaps amid the greasy yellow and red. It reared up, probably to get its face out of my fire, but just exposed its belly to me.
I gutted it with a handful of rounds that before creation engines would have cost the Confederate taxpayer a cool hundred grand.
Five seconds had passed.
We were down the nitty gritty. The clankers wanted us, wanted the indigenous more, and while the indigs couldn't do anything, we could show the clankers how it felt to want in one hand and shit in the other.
Thirty seconds and the clankers were already starting to pull back, trying to find a new angle to come at us, find a new way to hit us.
Bitch, please, I've been doing this for two hundred years. I'm part of Delta-108 Old Hatred. You can't just be any Confed Ranger and waltz up to Delta. You gotta be the Man.
I'd chosen our LZ carefully.
But they wanted us, and wanted us bad. We'd hurt Little Daddy, hurt him bad, pulled these little guys out of his belly and smashed our way back out when the op had gone to shit and some big googly eyed clanker had spotted us and started screeching like a Treana'ad matron with a freezer full of melted ice cream.
Forty-Five seconds and Chaz kept firing even though he was wreathed in flame that some rusted junkpile had spit on him even as he'd used the heavy gun to smash it into scrap.
Doc Ngo was still working hard, crouched down under the other battlescreen, his hands working fast. I gave him a glance and put him and his patient out of my head for anything more than keeping track of where they were.
I couldn't think of all the wires and probes stuck in that fluffy little indig's head.
"SIXTY SECONDS!" Montaguta called out.
"POUR IT ON!" I bellowed, raking the Pontiac across the ones I could see.
It all gelled. I knew what they'd do. They'd wait for the strikers to come in and blow them out of the sky, that's why there were bringing in long noses. Strikers weren't supposed to land at a hot LZ but they often did because they knew we'd do the same if it was reversed.
For a second I smelled the dust and acrid rain of Tormakinta-9 as my memory stimulator kicked my cortexes and my other metal kicked the memory back down.
The clankers had eased off the pressure on my side, popping smoke and hunkering down like I didn't have the gear in my belly to detect them through smoke.
Bitch, I'm a Ranger.
Seventy Five seconds.
"Chaz, they're bringing in anti-air," I snapped over the team tactical net. "I'm going offense."
"There ain't no coming back from that, sir," Chaz said.
I was looking at the clankers even as I punted shells at them, pulling the rate of fire on the Pontiac down to one round every three seconds. I had heat warnings and slush warnings across the board, but I didn't have time for that.
"No choice. I'll pull them, then try to exfil to a new extract," I said.
I could see the anti-air trying to hide behind two heavy armor clankers, the guns depressed to try to make them look like anything but point defense and anti-air. I leveled the Pontiac and stepped forward, slashing at the clanker.
The damn thing deployed micro-drones right before its screen dropped, putting the drones between me and it, making them suck up the fire to protect itself.
I only needed to keep the clankers busy for two minutes. Just long enough to load the indigs onto the strikers and the strikers to go balls to the wall and floor it out of here.
Two minutes was eternity and I knew it.
But my credit card statement had arrived.
One hundred five seconds.
I'm down the slope of the hill. The clankers can't ignore me, the heavy Pontiac is capable of hammering them into junk and they know it. I've made it obvious I'm going for their anti-air, dropped my stealth shielding so they're getting a good look at me.
Four hundred kilograms of twisted warsteel and sex appeal, coming straight at them with Pontiac door prizes and enough hate to ignite a sun.
I'm taking hits, bad enough to tear away synth-flesh. Twice they hit hard enough I got warning alarms. My body armor is gone, trashed, nothing but chunks of laminate hanging from straps. Another hit to the face and I'm blind in one eye so I go to sensor hybrid, the hardware in my chest and on the gun synching with what I can see providing me targets.
One hundred ten seconds.
I can hear the strikers coming in.
The anti-air one lunges up, deploying the guns.
I twist the firing handle, racking the Pontiac's feed up into the danger zone, but running it at lowered cyclic rate had cooled the nano-forge and the gun and it can take it. My linkages still work and I put every shot where I want it, raking back and forth.
One hundred twenty seconds.
High explosive armor defeating anti-matter hypervelocity rounds scream out of the Pontiac with the peculiar whistle that every Terran grunt recognizes. It's a steady shriek, the one tracer out of every four rounds turning my fire into solid shafts of light as I pour fire into the clanker.
More rounds hit, they're turning, I'm hurting them too bad for them to ignore. They're snapping back at me, high-v rounds bouncing off my warsteel chassis, lasers trying to get a bite in but the superconductor layer of the laminate spreading the heat all across me while my thermal shock sinks gobble down the heat.
One hundred thirty seconds.
Loading flashes in my vision. Chaz letting me know that they're getting the indigs on the slicks.
Another clanker roars into my vision and I see it.
One hundred forty five seconds.
There's a black dog sitting in front of the clanker as it pushes aside its comrades, even as the two escort strikers hammer at it.
The clanker surges forward and the black dog nimbly moves out of the way, its red tongue lolling out of its jaws, its tail straight up, its fur drinking the light.
The clanker's eating everything I can feed it, ignoring the two striker escorts like they're insects.
I move to the right, planning on getting on its side and ripping its treads apart, figuring its going for the strikers.
One hundred fifty five seconds.
All loaded. We're away. Get out of there.
Chaz can't see the black dog.
The clanker doesn't charge the hill, doesn't give me a shot at its flank.
It turns directly toward me as a high-v round find the Pontiac and it comes apart in my hands, taking three of my fingers with it. A PPC hit me low, the rampaging electrical current making my legs go numb.
I'm down to my onboard weaponry. Wrist cocked back, firing the 10mm munitions from my implant.
That's OK, I've been in worse situations, although I can't remember when off the top of my head. The nanoforge in my forearm is running hot, no synthetic blood to cool it and pump the heat away to my chest mounted thermal sinks.
That's OK, half my chest embedded thermal sinks in my chest were crushed and damaged, leaking thick clear fluid down my exposed hardware.
So I'll be running hot. So what?
I keep raking the front of the crawler, the smartlink in my arm still working, making it so my shots pop sensor nodules, explode 'teeth', find cracks in the armor. 10mm is only a little guy.
But he's friendly and the clanker's feeling it.
The clanker's mad, he's turning, crushing his little buddies.
My implo-grenade, my last non-intregal weapon, goes off on his face with a crack, crumpling the battle steel skin of the clanker.
I take another hit. Hard. Can't really feel my arms and legs now, but that's OK, I've been in worse spots.
Although I really couldn't remember when.
One hundred eighty seconds.
I'm being swarmed now as I stagger backwards, up the hill.
The clankers follow, their fire ripping at me, punishing me for daring to deny them the meal they wanted.
The black dog is weaving between them.
One hundred ninety five seconds.
The top of the hill is barren. Just me and the black dog.
And every clanker in the whole damn world.
DANGER CLOSE appears in what's left of my vision and I think I'm smiling even though I know my face had been torn off to leave nothing behind but a warsteel skull.
The artillery starts pounding, driving the clankers into even more desperation. Heavy artillery smashes armor, explosions strip tracks and sensor. Dirt is gouting into the air.
I don't bother to take cover.
I've been in worse situations.
Although I really don't remem...
I don't even hear the shot that brings the darkness as the SUDS chip cracks open and tries to suck me in.
System Power 3.14%
I wake up. I hurt. Bad. My mouth tastes like cherry nipple gloss from the joygirl on Nexite-7 but I hardly notice through the pain.
I've hurt worse. A Mar-gite ripped off one of my arms.
I could remember the way its cillia-teeth clamped onto my armored hand, sucking my whole arm into it. The jaws closing. The bright spark of pain that turned into a torrent of agony as it rippled its starfish like body and my arm tore off at the shoulder, crazily leaving behind half my battle dress sleeve. I managed to fire three API shots into it as I staggered back, still screaming, watching as my arm startled to dissolve from the enzymes the Mar-gite had excreted before the armor piercing incendiary rounds had cracked and burnt its brain case. It fell back, onto the floor of the room I was too familiar with but that was now so different.
A kick inside my head made the memory dissolve.
I could see the words, floating in the darkness.
Bootstrap 3.14 (c) Syntex Cybernetics Division
Warning, severe chassis damage
Warning, severe neural damage
CASE OMAHA OVERRIDE
My mother smiles as she sets down the trikkanberry pie. The crust is browned just right, steam coming off of it. Its fresh from the oven and smells delicious. My sisters are sitting at the table, dressed in their good clothes, smiling at me. My youngest sister's poofy hair is pulled in a bun, her tightly curled hair so different from my straight and thick hair, my older sister's air like someone combined out two hairs to give her long locks of naturally wavy honey colored locks.
The air is clean and sweet, I can taste the scent of the pie, smell my mother's perfume, my father's cologne. The sun glints off of my mother's left earring, sparkling off of the ruby set in into it. The light reflecting off of the delicate platinum. My father's watch is sparkling, he wears time pieces, preferring them over just using his retinal display or an embedded time keeper. I can see the sun sparkling on the gems set in the face, on the metals its made of.
My presents are on the table, one from each of my family members. The sun sparkles on the ribbons, dances on the metallic inks on the papers. My little sister is beaming, she has something she thinks I'll love.
She idolizes me. I'm her hero.
The sun dances on her hair.
Long Term Memory Damage
CASE OMAHA OVERRIDE
"As you have proved you are worth more than whatever shit I have scraped off of my boot, I have decided, in my endless benevolence, that you may each have a dessert, seeing as you were all a first time go on the rifle marksmanship unassisted range," the DI yells out. She's a mean one, a Rigellian, which means, of course, she's female. She'd seen action, her Combat Action patch on her uniform.
Not that I was thinking about that. I was eagerly moving down the line, uncaring about the food they put on my tray. I was looking at the dessert.
Terran cherry pie.
I was drooling as I moved up to the pie.
"Since you pulled fifty out of fifty, Private, you can have a big piece," Drill Instructor Gwlarkak said, her rough voice full of pleasure. She pointed at one of the bigger ones. "Give Deadeye McGee that piece."
I stared at the pie, salivating, slowly moving to the table and sitting down.
I ate the meat, sauce, and noodles first. The vegetable next. Then slowly savored each bite. Closing my eyes.
We were supposed to eat as fast as possible, but I didn't want to rush.
It was perfect. A perfect slice of pie.
Cortex reflex damage
Locking out wired reflexes
Locking out bioreflexes
Warning. Severe damage to biological component
CASE OMAHA OVERRIDE
I felt the belts, the straps, tighten even through my body armor as the light in the drop-pod went yellow. My mouth went dry and I suddenly had to pee. I looked around and saw that half of the guys in the pod were asleep or looking bored, the other half looked like I probably did.
Captain Dietrich looked at me and nodded. "You'll be fine, Private, less than 15% of green troops die on their first podding," she told me.
The lights went red and my belly rose up into my throat as a fist punched us straight down.
"WE'RE ON AN EXPRESS ELEVATOR TO HELL!" Sergeant Mason crowed out.
I clenched my teeth and tried not to vomit.
Nanite repair systems online
CASE OMAHA OVERRIDE
Nanite systems deployed
I ripped the foil off, sitting on a rock and facing the burnt out ground car, and tilted the package so the steam didn't rush up and fog my goggles.
"I don't care if you aren't hungry. Eat now, we'll move out later. Everyone swallow down some fluids," Sergeant Mason yelled out. "Squad leaders, check your men. Ammo count, armor status. Newbies, enjoy your lunch."
Still no reason for the colony to be silent. They hadn't responded to any communication. The ground car was the first sign that anything bad had happened. The doors were torn off, tossed to the side.
Something was making colonies go dark and, for my sins, my unit had been sent to see why.
The Terran peach pie tasted good as I squeezed it out of the foil package and into my mouth.
With a screech the thing lunged up out of the ground. A dark blue and green starfish looking creature with some kind of eyeball staring from the end of each of the five sections. Its underbelly was nothing but reddish cilia with a mouth full of crude teeth in the middle surrounded by more eyes. It wrapped its arms around Private Pak, who I'd gone to advanced infantry school with, and he started to scream in absolute unfathomable agony.
I dropped the pouch, grabbing my rifle.
"ENEMY CONTACT!" Captain Dietrich shouted.
System Recovery at 22% Total
Warning: Biological degredation
CASE OMAHA OVERRIDE
Continuing System Recovery
Captain Deitriech walked into my berthing bay, looking around. She motioned at the rest of the squad, motioning at them. They all silently filed out.
"I don't normally take a soldier's personal history into account when planning an operation, but I felt I needed to speak to you," she said. Her freckles were faded on her umber skin and her eyes were still shadowed with the memory of being killed two weeks prior.
I nodded. "I understand."
"They've been silent for nearly a month before we were deployed. It's been another month, and I was informed that they aren't responding to the hailing from the Task Force," she told me, sitting down on Pak's bunk.
I nodded again, my mouth dry.
"You're a good soldier, and I'd hate to lose you," she said. "But I understand if you can't take part in the drop."
"I can," I told her.
"We're dropping on your Home of Record, Private," she said softly. "There's at least three clusters in the city."
I swallowed thickly, trying not to think.
The smell of my mother's perfume and my father's cologne welled up.
"I am willing to excuse you from this mission, Private," she said, trying to be gentle and kind.
She was never good at that. She'd been infantry too long.
"No. I have to know," I said. "Let's get it on."
She nodded, giving me a lopsided smile. "That's the spirit, trooper."
I followed her out.
The drop pods awaited.
System damage exceeds threshold
CASE OMAHA OVERRIDE
Attempting system startup
"I've got your back," Pak told me. Like me, he had his face mask off. It made you a little more at risk, but it let you smell the thick cloying smell of pine scented cleaning products, which was sometimes the only warning you got that the Starfish were around.
"Thanks," I said. I moved in and touched the door pad. It still had power and still recognized me.
The front door unlocked.
We moved through the house, slowly, Pak behind me, his armor on a reflex trigger.
"Smell it?" He asked.
"Yeah. Fresh, too," I said softly. The Starfish didn't really 'hear' the same way we did. They used pheromones as far as we could tell.
I paused at one door. I didn't want to open it.
But I had to.
The room looked the same, but different. She'd grown in the time I was gone. The child's posters and decorations were gone, replaced with stuff more fitting for a teenage girl. There were still pictures of me on her dresser.
I was her hero.
I was also probably too late.
I turned to tell Pak that I'd seen enough when the floorboards shattered and the thing, the Starfish, burst out from under the house. Its cilia were pale pink, it was starving, as it grabbed my hand with the rough calcite teeth.
My arm filled with fire as I managed to get my pistol into play.
I pulled the trigger as my arm pulled off. Pak was turning back toward me, trying to get his rifle into play as I screamed.
Standing in my baby sister's room.
Bootstrap personality loading successful!
Warning! Neural Damage Outside Recommended Levels
CASE OMAHA OVERRIDE
Invoking most recent memories.
The black dog stared at me as I clawed away the dirt and debris covering me.
I must have gotten buried underneath debris.
I stood up, looking around. My vision was compromised and my self-diagnostics reported that one eye no longer worked.
DISCOVER SOURCE OF ANOMALOUS SIGNAL appeared in my vision.
It shifted as I breathed deep. There was a weird whistling sound when I did so, a wheezing accompanied it, like bellows with the side split.
I was in pain, but I'd been hurt worse.
HOLD EXTRACTION POINT UNTIL RELIEF 2:00 MINUTES UNTIL EVAC appeared.
I looked around. I was on top of a steep hill, only one side approachable. It only took me a split second to figure out that there was only one side they could easily come at I/Them/Me/He/We/Us.
There were rocks that could be used to construct emergency fighting positions.
HOLD UNTIL RELIEVED
ENSURE SAFETY OF INDIGENOUS NON-COMBATANTS
2:00 MINUTES UNTIL EVAC
I got to work.
I could see eight of them. Cute little things, like something my sister would have a stuffy of. Another one, bigger, fluffier, sleeker fur, with a bushy furry tail, was curled up with them. Her head was shaved, down her spine was shaved, but it didn't look like the probes and crude machinery attached to her body was hurting her.
I'd need to make her and the little ones a shelter first to protect them from shrapnel.
HOLD UNTIL RELIEVED 2:00 MINUTES REMAINING TILL EVAC
I didn't have a weapon, but that was OK.
There are no dangerous weapons.
Only dangerous men.
And I am a Ranger.
I looked at one of the little fuzzy ones, staring at me with wide curious eyes.
"Don't worry. We'll get out of here and I'll get you some pie," I said, smiling.
HOLD UNTIL RELIEVED
2:00 MINUTES UNTIL EVAC
It smiled shyly at me.
THREE WEEKS AFTER CASE OMAHA
Halna'atik set the grav-lifter down carefully. Her passenger, Ms. Smith, had her eyes closed. Halna'atik had learned that she did that to concentrate on her retinal link. The grav-lifted shut down, only the power plant online.
"This one may take a while," Ms. Smith said. "I will be back some time after dark. If I am not back by morning, return and report me as overdue."
Halna'atik nodded as the Terran female exited the craft, pausing to make sure her suit was perfect. She approached the forest, walking toward the upraised hill that was crowned by trees that looked decades old.
Halna'atik had checked. There had been a major fight between Terran forces and a Balor attempting to build something called a 'screaming array' out of Telkan broodcarriers.
The thought of broodcarriers at the mercy of the Precursor Autonomous War Machine's cold metal claws nauseated her.
Time went by slowly until suddenly her comlink clinked.
"Halna'atik Tourist Flights," she said.
"Is this Halna'atik, System Identification Number 3282720-17312?" a crisp voice asked.
"Yes," Halna'atik said.
"Hold please," the voice said. The line clicked and light tinkling music filled.
Halna'atik frowned. Who calls me just to put me on hold?
The picture opened in her retinal link and Halna'atik recognized the other Telkan immediately. The patterning of her fur, the premature silver on her muzzle and around her eyes and on the tips of her ears.
"Director Brentili'ik," Halna'atik said.
"Pilot," the Director of the Telkan System said, her voice firm but not unfriendly.
"How may I help you?" Halna'atik wondered, her mind whirling. What would the Director herself want with her.
"You are assisting a Ms. Smith from Confederate Grave Recovery Services, correct?" the Director asked.
"Yes, ma'am," Halna'atik said.
"I don't have to tell you how politically sensitive what you are doing is, do I?" the Director asked.
"No, ma'am," Halna'atik said.
"Terrans are a strange people, with many rituals and customs we may find strange. I realize that I am asking a lot of you, but as a recently approved Citizen, you know that you now carry a heavy burden," the Telkan Matron said.
"Yes, ma'am," Halna'atik answered. She didn't have to ask how she ended up a Citizen. She could guess.
"Be careful, be considerate, be polite. That is all I'm asking," the Director said. "You may get strange requests, but as long as they are legal and do not provide too much discomfort, I am asking you to give consent whenever you are able."
"Yes, ma'am," Halna'atik said.
"Thank you," the Director said. She nodded, and the call ended.
Halna'atik blinked then gave a shuddering sigh.
We are sisters now, you and I.
Halna'atik looked at the quiet forest and wondered who was out there.
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