Imagine the worst rollercoaster in the world. One of those elaborate types that you find at the largest theme parks, the type where you end up going backwards at 100mph up and down several impossible steep hills before you're spun upside down for a loop wide enough to fly several jumbo jets through. Then imagine the gymnastic manoeuvres your stomach would go through on such a rollercoaster, compressed into the space of several seconds. Then pretend you're being shot at. Oh, and replace the rollercoaster with a single sheer drop of several thousand metres, and replace the cart or whatever you want to call it with a twenty-ton metal suit. Now you might have an experience that's something like airdropping onto a Militia stronghold in a CaRBA-13 Powered Armour Shell.
I didn't know this on my first drop, of course, but nevertheless I was bricking myself. It wasn't an appealing prospect, however you looked at it. The Militia stronghold in question was an ancient fort situated directly in the middle of a narrow desert valley, and the garrison defending it had seen fit to line the valley sides with dozens of heavy anti-aircraft weapons, capable of shooting down our transports with a single shot. Ground assaults had proven ineffective, thanks to the usual overwhelming power of the Militia's Cerberus troops, and so it seemed, with no other options, command had turned to their usual contingency plan: send in the Armourshell jockeys and their new toy, the factory-fresh CaRBA-13, or the Combat and Recon B-Type Armour mark thirteen, to give it its full title. Buggers, as I thought of them; when you were wearing one, you ended up looking like some kind of giant, hunched-over, four-eyed insect, and they gave you backache like nothing else when you first wore them in training.
On the three-hour airship journey there, we traded nervous jokes and meaningless banter, as soldiers are want to do, but in those few minutes before launch, there was nothing but silence. We each sat already suited up in our CaRBAs, going over our vocal commands in our heads or just generally thinking. I was to be the third out of the airship, following Privates Barnaby and Rorster; their shells were equipped with heavy assault rifles, added reactive armour, and a flight pack each, whilst mine just had the standard set up of light rifle and overly large Energy Disruption Blade. They would fall out from the artificial cloud cover our transport had set up – radar was one of the few technologies our enemy didn't possess, thankfully - blast the enemy from above, and subsequently draw most of their fire, whilst I and the rest of the 28th PAS Platoon made our way to the ground as swiftly as possible, in order to take out the AA weapons from there and in turn allow Barnaby and Rorster to land. I didn't think it was much of a plan, but then I was just a grunt, and anyway, no better ideas had been forthcoming at the briefing. The magnetized rail that our CaRBAs hung from began to buzz, and the two ahead of me, Barnaby's and Rorster's, were dragged towards the airship's closed launch bay door. Mine followed suit a few seconds later, dragging me helplessly along with it, and the butterflies in my stomach began to dance again.
"Hey, lady." My squadmate Brooker said over the com line, his voice distorted and tinny. "How're you holding up?"
"Lady?" I replied, trying and failing to keep my voice from shaking. "I thought it was 'little girl'."
"You get a promotion before the big blow-out, of course." he said. "Now you're all grown up."
"I'm touched, Brooker. And I'm holding up fine just here. How many times have you bricked yourself?"
Brooker laughed, a high-pitched whine of a laugh that sounded something like a cat being throttled. "The Great James T. Brooker emptying his bowels in fear? I know you want to play heroic warrior woman and show all the snivelling cowardly boys up, but that's a bit of a stretch, isn't it? I've only ever shat myself the once, m'dear, and that was when faced in battle with your impressive cleavage."
"Oh, really?" I said, going over every last vocal command assigned to my shell in my head while I talked. "I didn't know the female form was that terrifying."
"I think it might just be yours, lady. We could pack this whole battle in and just send 'em thousands of photocopied pictures of your tits. The war would be over within days."
"All units, prepare for launch." Lieutenant Ruiz interrupted, overriding all com channels to his signal. "We're moving out now. You guys know the plan. Hit 'em hard, hit 'em fast-"
"-give 'em bruises sure to last." the platoon chimed in wearily. It was a slogan from an old advertising campaign, for a children's video game, and one Lieutenant Ruiz seemed to be endeared towards. Slowly, the launch bay doors began to winch open, and I sat back, slightly calmed by my conversation with Brooker. He was a lech, a gambler and a drunkard, but also my closest friend in the whole outfit. It was funny how things worked out that way.
My shell began to move again with a judder. "Twenty eight-one, go!" Ruiz barked, and Private Barnaby was shot out of the airship's belly, out into the cloud-ridden wilderness outside. "Twenty eight-two, go!" Private Rorster's did the same, and suddenly with a lurch I was next, perched precariously on the edge of the launch bay. I could see Barnaby and Rorster falling, and then they left our cloud cover, their guns blazing, as wildly inaccurate tracer fire from the Militia's AA guns tore through the sky around them.
I gulped. "Twenty eight-three, go!" Suddenly, I was thrown back in my shell, and then the airship's launch bay was gone entirely. I fell wildly, clearing the cloud cover with startling speed, whilst I struggled to keep my lunch from painting the interior of my helmet several interesting new colours. The desert below was approaching quickly, too quickly. If I hit it at this speed my CaRBA would shatter like a porcelain doll dropped from a skyscraper. But then if I activated my thrusters too soon, I'd be stuck in mid-air, a sitting duck for the AA guns. The key was timing. I checked a meter to my right. 500 metres until I went kerplat on the valley ground. At 200, I was supposed to start the thrusters.
350. The rest of the platoon would be above me now, and Barnaby and Rorster would've activated their thrusters, taking whatever the Militia guns threw at them while they waited for us. We were to split into two teams; one, consisting of me, Bradbury, and Schmidt, was to land on the western hillside, and to take out the AA guns both there and on the east, the other, consisting of Brooker, Takahashi, and Jones, was to hold the fort's garrison at bay until we'd done our job and Barnaby and Rorster had landed. Then, with the entire platoon on the ground, we were to destroy the fort and its garrison completely.
If everything went according to plan. There! 200! "Thrusters on." I said, and blue flame erupted from the thrusters nozzles positioned on my thighs and shoulders. I came to a sudden halt, and I was slammed hard against my shell - if it weren't for the layer of cushioning gel between me and the hard metal that made up its exterior, I would've been broken every bone in my body. Now, a slower descent. I eased my CaRBA down towards the ground while the nearest AA guns hurriedly tried to get a bead on me before I moved below their angle of descent. The Militia built their AA guns for power – as I mentioned, they could've shot through our transport with a single round if they'd seen it – but of course that came at a price. The bigger the gun, the less mobile it was, and now only the Militia's smaller AA guns could touch me...but their rounds were too weak to do any real damage.
I unhooked my rifle from the magnetic strip on my shell's back and curled my right finger around the trigger of the bulky weapon, feeling reassured already. There was something about holding metal death in your hands that calmed you down instantly.
I could see the nearest AA gun on my in-helmet viewscreen now, and I turned my head to get a better view. Various crosshairs and icons popped up around the poor ack-ack, and I raised my right arm. My crosshair locked directly onto the AA gun, and I pulled the trigger. It exploded in a shower of burnt metal, and I landed, touching down with a light thump.
"Thrusters off." I said, and they cut off. I took a moment to look around; there were four of the big AA guns left on the west side, where I had landed, and a full five on the east. Well, then. It was time to get to work. I took aim at the next AA gun along. There were Militia troops climbing down from it, fleeing, and I pulled the trigger, engulfing them in flames. I felt a brief pang of regret; seeing your own kind killed before you and knowing you're the one who did it is never a pleasant feeling.
"Slow down, there, lady." Bradbury said over the com. A soft thump told me he'd just touched down behind me. His CaRBA stomped forward ahead of me – he was always an eager, cocky bastard – and as he was moving several of the smaller AA guns seemed to spontaneously explode. I blinked. Surely Bradbury wasn't that good a soldier?
"You neglected to take care of the smaller targets, Chenevier." Schmidt's cold voice said, and he touched down in front of me moments later. "Focus more."
"Lighten up, Manny." Bradbury said cheerfully. "We're at war, not at a sodding funeral." He continued to advance forward, with me and Schmidt trying our best to keep up with his reckless pace. "You done with those guns, yet?" Lieutenant Ruiz said from nowhere. "We could use a hand down here. The Militia tanks are getting antsy, and Takahashi's gone and busted his shell."
"Just a few more, sir." Bradbury replied, as the fourth AA gun went up in flames. I took care of the last with another volley of rifle fire. "There we go, Lieutenant. All done on this side."
"On this side?!" Ruiz snapped. There was the sound of an explosion on his end. "Bradbury, you dickless waste of space, get your worthless ass in gear and take care of those other five ack-acks!"
"Yes, sir!" Bradbury replied, unable to keep a confrontational edge out of his voice; he'd never been any good at all at deferring to authority. He turned his attention to us. "Schmidt, you've got that electric sniper rifle thing, right? Take them out from here. I'll cover you."
"With relish." Schmidt said, raising the heavy rifle, at least three times the length of its arm, and taking aim.
"And you, lady. Get your ass down there and help out the Lieutenant. We can take care of things up here."
"Roger." I said. I leapt forward, my shell's artificial muscles giving the motion far more power than it should've had, and cleared the hillside within seconds, hitting the valley proper with a soft thump. The three active CaRBAs of the other team, Ruiz's, Brooker's, and Jones', were engaging a group of Militia tanks that had entrenched themselves in the entrance to the stony fortress's courtyard, although 'engaging' was a very generous term; they were dodging the fire from the dug-in vehicles well enough, but aiming a CaRBA's rifle whilst moving so swiftly was an almost impossible task at the best of times. Takahashi was lying crippled, just away from the others. I swore. Open warfare was not something shell troopers excelled at, but in this situation Ruiz and his team had been forced into it by their objective. No wonder they needed assistance. I slowly edged my way into the firefight, around the corner of the fortress's outer walls until the first tank was visible in my sights. I fired, and it died in a spectacular display of flame.
Distracted, the second tank's turret swung round to face me, but this just gave Jones an opportunity to slow down and fire, and within seconds both other tanks had joined their brother as burning wrecks. "Chenevier!" Jones said. "Nice to see some relief!"
"Was that a kill you just got, lady?" Brooker asked. "First time for everything, I guess-"
"Private Chenevier!" Ruiz interrupted. "Take Takahashi's place in our little squad." I heard Schmidt's electric sniper rifle crack from above, and one of the east side's AA guns exploded. "You stay where you are. Brooker, move to the opposite side. We'll stay here and wait for Rorster and Barnaby to get here with the big guns. Then we can move in." Schmidt's rifle cracked again. "Shouldn't be long now."
"Sir," Takahashi said. "What about me?"
"What about you, you piss-eating worm?" Ruiz said, suddenly hostile. "Don't get your ass toasted so easily next time. Take what remains of your shell out of here and get to the rendezvous point."
"R-right, sir." Takahashi replied. "I'll do better next time, I promise." Then he exploded.
Exploded was too simple a word, actually. It was more as if it disintegrated, exploded and imploded all at once; if you can picture that and how utterly impossible and mind-boggling those three things happening simultaneously to a single object is, then you'll know what we saw happen to Takahashi's CaRBA that day. It happened in just a few seconds, accompanied by a horrific noise that brought to mind a million washboards being scraped by a million knives at once.
Almost immediately, the situation changed. All of us knew there was only one weapon capable of doing something so unrelentlessly brutal with a single shot.
"Cerberus, on the east side!" Bradbury reported, panic finding its way into his voice. "There's just the one, but-" there was a crash, and the line went dead. Schmidt's sniper rifle cracked again, but there was no follow-up explosion this time. Just that horrific knife-on-washboard noise again.
"Barnaby, Rorster!" Ruiz ordered. "Cut your thrusters immediately! We've got a C incoming! All units, engage it from a distance, but be ready to switch to your ED Blades ASAP!"
I moved back, away from the east hillside, my rifle trained on the horizon. In all honesty, I was perilously close to doing what I'd been taunting Brooker about earlier. This would be it. The CaRBA's – and my – first battle with the infamous Cerberus. CaRBA squads had been deployed before now, of course...but so far they had had the good fortune to avoid coming into contact with the Cerberus. This would their trial by fire, their test to see if they were any good at fighting the enemy they were built to fight.
"There it is!" Brooker said. "To the left!" It was an imprecise aid, but nevertheless, I turned my head to the left, and saw it, advancing down the hillside as calmly as possible. My stomach butterflies kicked in again. I heard Rorster and Barnaby touch down somewhere behind me, but paid them no mind, entirely focused on the abomination making its way down the hill ahead of me.
My rifle was for close combat only, and so I couldn't zoom in, but I could make it out clearly enough. It was a tall, humanoid creature, roughly on par with my CaRBA in height, and it moved in the same mechanical fashion, but that was where the similarities ended. It looked organic, in a way that reminded me of a turtle to some degree, what with having a large shell covering its back and belly, but then it had thick, muscular limbs, and a multi-eyed head with a mouth full of assorted teeth and tusks, which gave me the ridiculous image of the thing trying to bite its way through my armour – but then, with a shiver of fear, I realised that was probably what it would do.
It carried the massive, rounded cannon our brass had termed a Mass Termination Weapon and what we merely called an Oh-Shit. The weapon that had melted Takahashi, Bradbury and Schmidt, and was now pointed to the right of me. For an idle moment I wondered who it was aimed at, then the shock was dispelled and almost unconsciously I nudged my crosshair over its monstrous head and pulled the trigger. It fell back, injured, but not from my attack – every other member of the platoon had opened fire at once, it seemed, and each hit different parts of the body. Grey blood sprayed from the Cerberus' various new wounds, and it bellowed in rage, leaping off of the hillside with speed that made my descent from the airship look like wading through jelly. It landed next to Jones with a heavy thump, or should I say it landed on Jones, knocking his CaRBA to the ground and snapping his legs with a crunch. We continued to fire on it with all we had, but although our attacks were injuring it – we could see more and more grey blood spilling onto the sand – it seemed to shrug off the pain and focus solely on tearing apart Jones's CaRBA. It tore the arms off in a single motion, and then got to work on the torso, wrapping its teeth around the chest and biting down. We heard Jones's death rattle, and his frantic, pathetic cries to his mother beforehand, with crystal clear clarity. "Rorster, Barnaby," Ruiz said, sounding slightly hoarse. "Open fire on that with everything you've got. Chenevier, Brooker, we'll rush it in the confusion."
"Yes, sir." Four voices said at once. Lifting its head up from Jones's remains, the Cerberus tensed, and again it began to move, leaping from place to place with unerring speed and agility. Rorster and Barnaby's shots threw up plumes of sand as they hit where the Cerberus had been just a second too late; the creature was too fast for them, and I could see through its erratic, zigzagging pattern that it was gradually moving closer to Rorster's CaRBA.
I began to move. "Chenevier, wait!" Ruiz barked.
I switched out my rifle for the heavy ED Blade mounted on my shell's back, and leapt forward, towards where I thought the monster would go next. "Faster." The CaRBA's thrusters kicked in, and I shot forward in mid-air; still dodging towards Rorster, the Cerberus hadn't noticed me. In a single second, or less, I landed, and the Cerberus dashed right in front of me. I thrust my ED Blade forward, and there was an awful sickly moan and a wet plop as it burst through the Cerberus's torso.
More grey blood spurted out, all over my CaRBA's body, but the creature lost none of its strength; it span sidewards in an effort to dislodge my sword, shaking me around like a ragdoll. I still clung onto my imaginary sword, trying to keep the Cerberus occupied with me; hopefully, it wouldn't be able to kill anyone else that way. The Cerberus roared with anger, spittle and blood splattering over my viewscreen, and slammed its hands into my ED Blade, shattering it clean in two. I looked at the broken weapon dumbly for a moment, before the Cerberus threw a fist into my chest, cracking my shell's armour badly and sending me toppling clumsily to the ground.
It stood over me for a second, before leaning forward, saliva dripping from its jaw. It dawned on me that within moments I'd be eaten alive just like Jones had been, but I was determined not to die with the same hysteria he had. I steeled myself as best I could, and waited. The Cerberus roared in triumph, its cavernous jaws growing closer and closer to my suddenly precarious position in the cockpit. I forced myself to stare at it and quelled my shaking as best as I could. This thing was going to eat me. I'd be shredded apart by the bloody knives that passed for the thing's teeth, and then what was left of me would disappear down that scaly throat forever.
I felt moist warmth trickle down my leg, and realised that I'd pissed myself. In any other circumstances it would've been embarrassing, but I was too busy staring up at the three metres of reptilian death that were about to kill me.
Then the three metres became two point eight. I blinked. The top half of the Cerberus's head was gone, shaved clean off, exposing a mess of alien brains and gore. It swayed for a moment, and then fell to the ground with an almighty slam.
I blinked again, still unable to process what had just happened.
"Next time, try to hold him still, lady." Rorster chided. "Or I'll have to shoot straight through you."
"Chenevier." Lieutenant Ruiz said wearily. "That was the stupidest stunt I have ever seen in a long time. Pull anything that utterly, utterly retarded every again and I will kill you with my bare hands, do you understand? These machines are valuable, you ass."
"Sorry, sir. It won't happen again." I managed to reply as my CaRBA went into its automatic self-righting program, standing itself up again robotically.
"It better not." Ruiz said. "Or else-" suddenly, there was a heavy thump, and the ground in front of him exploded. "Shit! There's still the rest of this place's defences!"
I turned to see another group of tanks waiting in the castle's courtyard, smoke pouring from the lengthy barrel of the nearest. "28th Platoon, retreat!" Ruiz ordered, his CaRBA beginning to hastily dash away from the stony fortress.. "We'll hail the Cloudship that brought us here and rendezvous with it in the desert, understood?"
"Yes, sir." Rorster, Barnaby and Brooker replied. I merely grunted, occupied with avoiding the fire of one of the tanks behind us, and slowly, haltingly, our CaRBAs barely holding themselves together, we fled from Pernine Castle.
It goes without saying that my first – and last, as later events would ensure – operation in the 28th Platoon was a complete and utter failure. After the loss of four whole CaRBAs, we had had been rendered woefully understrength, and, without the numbers need to force entry to the fort, there'd been no other options but to flee through the desert, our tails between our metaphorical legs. It was exhausting, dull, and uncomfortable, spending every waking moment inside the cramped metal interior of my CaRBA, only ever seeing the outside world for myself when rations were passed round. None of us did much talking. We were each dealing with the loss of so many of our squad in our own separate ways. Licking our wounds, an unsentimental person might say.
Of course, deep down I couldn't help but wonder if I was the only person not being talked to. It would've made sense, to a degree; human grief worked that way sometimes. Despite this, if it was the case that I was being purposefully ignored and I wasn't just being paranoid, it was hard not to be put out.
It had been fifty years since the amphibious humanoids known as the Gellan had first contacted humanity. It had been forty years since the first Gellan settled on the surface of the planet. Thirty five years since the Gellan Rights Act was passed by the new universal Earth Government. Twenty four years since I had been born. Two years since I had joined the Earth Government's military arm, the (somewhat pompously named) Protectorate, as one of the first Gellan soldiers to enlist. And one year - give or take a few months - since the Gellan Militia's several dozen fleets of ships had arrived in the earth's orbit and declared war.
It was hard for my squadmates, of course, and I understood that. I looked just like the enemy soldiers they were told on a daily basis were uncivilised, baby-eating barbarians. My skin had a green tint to it, one I'd heard described by people before as sickly. I had a pair of protruding stink glands just below my neck. My teeth were sharp and pointed, my hands and toes webbed. I often inadvertently left slime on objects I'd touched. And let's not even get into the mating cycle. I was just lucky to end up with a squad with people as accepting as Brooker and Lieutenant Ruiz.
At least, that's what I'd thought.
On our third night through the desert, unable to take the uncertainty of not knowing whether my squadmates detested me or not, I decided the best course of action was to be blunt.
"Do I what!?" Brooker asked, looking up from his ration-pack in surprise. We had left our CaRBAs for a brief, blessed few minutes, and were sat around an impromptu fire the ever-prepared Barnaby had set up.
"Do you hate me?" I repeated calmly. Brooker was a big, heavy-set man, normally so confident and boisterous, but Bradbury's death in particular seemed to age him twenty years. He looked at me with sad, weary eyes, eyes that normally twinkled with good humour and cheer. "Marie," he said, and then I knew he was speaking seriously. He hadn't addressed me with my forename once in the year we'd known each other so far. "You are, out of all the frogfuckers I've ever met, the absolute dumbest."
This caught me off guard. "Frogfuckers..." I repeated, the word sounding unpleasant on my tongue. It was a slang term initially used by the more anti-Gellan segments of the earth's human population; it came from some budding Oscar Wilde's stunningly witty observation that, apparently, my kind looked like they were the result of a human and a frog interbreeding. Of course, now that the Gellan were officially The Enemy it was quickly becoming a word I was used to hearing.
Brooker smirked. "Yeah, I used it. That word. Does it offend you?"
I thought for a moment. "No. Because I don't think you're using it in malice."
"So, then. Do you think I hate you, you frogfucker piece of shit?"
I smiled, catching on. "No, James," I said, placing special emphasis on that first name he loathed so much. "I don't think you hate me."
Slowly, Brooker met my smile with one of his own, and turned back to his rations. "Good. I'd like to save my hatred for the frogfuckers who are trying to kill me, if you don't mind. Innocent and beautiful ones such as yourself I have no beef with."
"Beautiful? Sir, I think you might be slightly inebriated."
A cartoonish expression of mock-offense crossed Brooker's face. "Inebriated? Me? And on what, pray tell?"
I tapped my stink gland smugly. "These aren't just for stinking up the place, you know."
"Stinking up the place? I happen to find the odour of your stink glands charming, in a fermenting-dogshit kind of way."
"Fermenting dogshit has a charm?"
"It does when the dog has curves like yours."
We continued bantering like this for a good while, soon forgetting all about the war, our dead squadmates, and the species divide between us. Somehow, talking with Brooker just made me feel better about everything.
To diverge for a moment, earlier I said our species was amphibious; we are, to a degree, but not in the same way as the earth's amphibians. If we were to fit into an earth classification, we would technically be mammals – warm-blooded, mammary glands, and capable of growing hair.
In addition, both physically and physiologically we are extremely similar to the average human, which makes sense; humanity is the most successful species on the planet, after all. It's only natural that, somewhere, other species should evolve in a similar, if not identical, fashion. Of course, the surface similarities between our species had a number of effects. For one thing, it made it far easier for us to integrate into human society, at least until the war (if the Gellan had been squirming tentacle monsters like in so many old earth films I doubt we'd have been as well received). And, secondly, and most importantly to this story, it also meant members of both species could find members of the other attractive.
And I definitely thought Brooker was handsome, in a rugged kind of way, and I was maybe tolerable to look at if I wasn't seeping slime from somewhere. Had things gone their normal course, it might've ended up a perfectly safe interspecies romance between two military professionals.
Then the schism happened.