“Pilot Archangel. ETA five minutes. Hanger Three. Standby for sortie.”
Archangel lifted up his head and gave a small nod, though in his isolated room there was no one there to see it. Silently he adjusted his flight suit and grabbed his helmet, tucking the bulky sphere under his arm.
Small lights on the floor illuminated his path towards the hanger. The hallways were dark and blissfully silent with no one else up this early. The heels of his boots clicked loudly against the polished floor and echoed down the hall. In the silence he heard the inner workings of the colony; the hum of the electricity, the hiss of the air filtration system, and if he closed his eyes and really listened, he could even make out the muted roar of the engines that kept the colony in its tight orbit around earth.
Hanger Three was populated completely by Kinetic Neural Infantry Vehicles, more commonly known as Knivs. Lined up in neat rows they waited silently, a mechanized army ready to be unleashed at a moment’s notice.
Every Kniv in Hanger Three was the same model: a type P-13 Renegade. Still, Archangel walked to a specific one. Like the rest of the massive, armored combat vehicles, it stood just under thirteen meters, but it had been given larger thruster packs and increased armour plating, along with a number of other upgrades. Its hull was painted white, unlike the standard black, and it showed signs of extensive wear. The paint was chipped and scratched in a few places, exposing the dull, unpolished metal beneath, and the chest plate had a sharp dent just under the left breast. It was a lasting memory of a battle that had very nearly taken his life.
He reached up and rested his hand against the Kniv’s leg and the giant shuddered to life, dropping to one knee as the cockpit located in the chest opened up with a pneumatic hiss. Tossing his helmet in first, Archangel pulled himself into the cockpit and settled into the heavily padded chair.
The hatch slid shut and he was left in total darkness. As he waited blindly for the combat system to boot up, Archangel was reminded of the rather morbid name that Kniv cockpits carried.
More often than not, when a Kniv Pilot was killed in combat, the body would not be recovered. The cockpit, the most reinforced part of the Kniv, would serve as their only grave marker.
There were countless such markers scattered along the battlefield known as earth.
Archangel didn’t pay that thought much mind as the red emergency lights of the Kniv lit up and he strapped himself into place. Once secured, he pulled on his helmet and sealed it into place. The neural ring pressed against his skin and a tingle started at the base of his skull. The strange feeling traveled through the rest of his body before finally stopping at his toes as the neural link between his body and the machine began to solidify.
His vision began to waver as the link reached the twenty percent threshold. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. The stale taste of his helmet’s recycled air filled his mouth as he felt the link grow more secure. When he opened his eyes again the crystal clear HUD of his Kniv replaced his red tinted vision. His fingers flexed over the controls and the Kniv responded in kind, its massive digits opening and closing. He lifted one arm, then the other, testing for latency.
His HUD informed him as his sync rate reached fifty percent. The minimum required for battle operations.
Sixty percent. The Average Student rating.
Seventy Percent. The Average Pilot rating.
Eighty Percent. The Average Orbital Knight rating.
The link held steady and Archangel sighed, rolling his shoulders as he did so. The Kniv groaned into motion as it copied his actions.
The link was secure.
A video channel opened up in the corner of his HUD. A woman with severe, hazel eyes and short, black hair stared at him. Archangel knew her as Nova-two and felt a small sense of relief. Nova-two was by far his favorite Handler. She had a no-nonsense attitude combined with a calm and efficient way of speaking that made her directions extremely easy to follow even in the worst of situations.
It was a skill that Archangel valued very highly.
“Hello, Archangel. Are you ready?” said Nova-two.
Archangel had just enough time to blink a confirmation before a large metallic sphere enveloped his Kniv and left him in darkness. His HUD switched to night vision, but there was not much to see inside of the drop pod. With practiced movements he locked his hands and feet into the pod’s anchor points and waited.
Nova-two gave him a small nod. “Prepare for Drop in three. Two. One. Drop.”
Though it was called a drop, Archangel had always found the term to be slightly misleading. While he would eventually drop into earth’s orbit, in order to reach his required destination the drop pod he was currently contained in was actually fired out through a launching device known simply at The Cannon.
The sudden acceleration was often more than enough to make the Pilot pass out.
Archangel’s stomach leapt into his throat as he hurtled through space and down towards Earth. He had wisely pushed his head flat against the cushioned headrest of his chair, saving himself from the severe whiplash that rookie Pilots often experienced during their first Drop.
A sudden deceleration told him that he had entered Earth’s atmosphere. Even through the thick lining of the pod he could feel the warmth of the superheated air around him. The Kniv automatically compensated, activating cooling coils and dropping the temperature inside the cockpit back to comfortable levels.
“Time until arrival is approximately three minutes,” Nova-two said as images began to pop up on his HUD. Archangel cycled through them wordlessly. “Your targets are located with the city of Feli. The city and surrounding areas are currently under the control of the ELA. Your main mission is the destruction of this building.”
Archangel nodded as a wire frame diagram of the building came up on his HUD. “Defensive measure?”
“We are currently tracking Six ELA Knivs within the city. I have labeled them on your map, designation Red One through Six.”
Archangel switched to the map. His drop would land him outside the city, just far enough to avoid any anti-air measures. Four of the Knivs were on the far side of city. It would take them at least five minutes to reach him traveling at full speed. That just left the other two. It would be impossible to disguise his landing and they were traveling in pairs, but it would matter little.
“Understood. Orders acknowledged,” said Archangel as he cleared his HUD with a small shake of his head.
Nova-two gave him a curt nod and cut her video feed. “Good luck, Archangel.”
Archangel took in a deep breath and watched the counter on his HUD tick down as the pod continued to slow. At ten seconds a klaxon alarm rang off and the pod came to an abrupt, shuddering stop as the emergency parachutes were released. In that same moment the drop pod split open. Archangel was thrown free and careened through the air. Gritting his teeth against the force, he fired the correctional thrusters located on the Knivs back and legs, keeping the metal behemoth from spiraling into an uncontrolled spin.
His landing was harder than he would have liked, his feet digging deep gorges into the soil as he came to a skidding stop. His muscles burned as he pulled his entire body back, fighting against the force of the landing as he threatened to go crashing face first to the ground, before he finally regained control. A large, flat piece of the pod landed near him and he reached down and wrenched it from the ground.
“Pilot Archangel. Beginning assault.”
An acknowledgment light winked on his HUD and he charged towards the city.
A siren was already screaming and he could see people in the city bursting into action. Vehicles clogged the streets as the civilians rushed to evacuate to safety. Archangel ignored them and trained his eyes on the two highlighted Knivs that appeared on his HUD. They charged through the city to meet him, their weapons drawn and trained on him.
Red Three and Four.
They opened fire as soon as he was in range, coming to a halt to steady their aim. Archangel lifted up the remnants of his drop pod, using it as a shield as he quickly crossed the distance between them. The bullets pinged harmlessly off the drop pod’s reinforced hull and those that did manage to get through were not strong enough to penetrate his kinetic shield.
Red Three was the first to realize the danger he was in, taking an unsteady step back as he reloaded his rifle. It was a mistake. Archangel spun around and used the momentum to fling the hunk of the drop pod towards him. The jagged metal slammed Three in the chest and sent him flying back and into a housing unit. Four turned towards his partner, giving Archangel the precious few seconds to step forward and grab the barrel of Four’s rifle. Tightening his grip, Archangel wrenched it free from Four’s hands.
Swinging the weapon like a club, he cracked Four across the head. Slightly dazed, Four lifted his arm to block the next attack only to have Archangel strike him with his free hand, catching him hard in the chest. The metal crumped beneath the force of the blow and Four shuddered and fell back a step.
Archangel used the moment to flip the rifle over and aim it at Four’s already damaged chest. Depressing the trigger he unleashed a salvo of bullets. Four’s kinetic shielding held for a moment before flashing once and failing. Archangel continued to hold down the trigger until the weapon’s magazine clicked empty and Four’s torso was riddled with holes. Stepping forward, he kicked Four in the chest and sent him to the ground.
Archangel dropped the empty weapon and turned back to deal with Three when his HUD flashed in alarm.
A red contact appeared on his map.
Four new contacts in all.
Excluding the one he had already finished, and the second he was about to deal with, that left eight enemy Knivs.
“Nova-two, the situation has changed. Requesting reinforcements.” Archangel pinged his handler as he took advantage of Three’s defenseless state to quickly pull out his pistol and finish him off with a few well placed shots to the cockpit.
“Negative Archangel… Reinforcements are not available at this time.” Nova-two responded after a moment of hesitation. “Designating enemy combatants, Red One through Ten. Mission Parameters unchanged. Confirm?”
“Confirmed,” Archangel frowned as Red One and Two reached him. He ducked behind a building as they unleashed a quick burst of fire at him. Pulling out his own rifle he spun back around and returned fire, training his weapon on Two. The bullets failed to penetrate Two’s kinetic shielding and Archangel was forced to fall back as One and Two both returned fire.
He glanced at the map at the other contacts continued to quickly descend on his position. If they managed to flank him, even with his superior Kniv and weaponry, he would not be able to overcome their numbers.
He needed to move.
Sliding out from behind the building he lifted up his rifle and sprayed One and Two with sustained fire as he ran towards them. They returned fire, holding position as he approached. Out of the corner of his eye, Archangel watched as his shield was chipped away bit by bit. Gritting his teeth he urged his Kniv to greater speeds, bounding down the street as he began to slide from side to side, forcing One and Two to track his movements and lowering their accuracy.
As he moved within range he released his grip on his rifle and drew the large, flat bladed sword that was secured along his Kniv’s lower back. He swung the blade out towards One and the blade burst into a bloody red as the plasma reactor activated.
One tried to stumble back to avoid the plasma blade, but was too slow as the shining blade sheared through his armour as though it were paper. Small explosions rippled through One as Archangel’s blade tore through him. Two leveled his weapon point blank and unloaded into Archangel’s side, but was unable to fully puncture the shielding before Archangel spun the blade around and sliced cleanly through Two, starting at the head and bringing the blade arcing straight down.
Archangel didn’t stop moving as his shields began to recharge. He reached the next Kniv just as it began to turn a corner. Thrusting forward, he ran the plasma blade through the chest plate, vaporizing anything inside of the cockpit. Without slowing he pulled his sidearm and pressed it into the head of the Kniv that had appeared beside him. The kinetic shielding was all but useless from a direct shot and the Kniv dropped to the ground and began to spasm, as the neural link was forcibly terminated between Pilot and Kniv. Archangel stopped its movements with a quick stomp to the chest.
A loud report rang out and the plasma blade in his hand exploded in a shower of metal. Archangel recognized the sound. Devastator slugs. Designed specifically for Anti-Kniv countermeasures. Extremely destructive and just as expensive to develop and produce. It was unlikely for any ELA Kniv to carry more than a handful of them at any given time. Still, if one connected, it could easily punch straight through his shielding and ravage his Kniv.
As another crack rang out he jumped back. The slug actually skimmed across his shield, reducing them down to almost nothing, before it whistled past him and connected with a building behind him, blowing out the entire row of windows and showering him with glass. Archangel followed the smoking trail from the Devastator and fixed his eyes on Ten. The Kniv was positioned down the street with a monstrous rifle cradled in his arms. As he began to reload, Archangel popped a smoke grenade and threw it high into the air.
The smoke only gave him a moment of cover as the remaining ELA forces switched to thermal vision, but it was enough time for Archangel to reload his rifle and get off a smattering of shots at Ten that sent him scuttling for cover. This left him exposed to Nine, Seven, and Six who quickly converged on him, firing at him through the smokescreen. The sustained fire quickly ate away at his remaining shields and with a loud pop they failed. Warning alarms rang off and he silenced them without a second thought. His brow furrowed as the rounds connected directly with his Kniv’s amour. He felt pinpricks of numbness in his body as the rounds pierced though and he was forced to fall back, using the buildings as cover. The ELA gave chase, all save Ten who remained where he was. The ELA would try to herd him out into a relatively open space so Ten could finish him with a single slug.
Turning down another street, Archangel primed a grenade and dropped it before he drew a blade from the sheath on his forearm. Sliding into an alleyway that was almost too narrow to fit he counted down as the red markers on his map closed in.
The grenade exploded, but too soon to cause any real damage to his pursuers. It did, however, cause them to momentarily pause as the explosion lit up in front of them.
Hesitation was death.
Archangel was in their midst before the dust had even begun to settle. Sidearm in one hand and knife in the other, he danced through them, cutting through their shields and delivering quick, devastating, point blank shots to the weakened points in their armour. Unable to retreat, the unfortunate ELA Pilots did their best to fight back, but it was a vain effort. With Archangel between them, there was little their rifles could do without risking shooting each other. Even when Seven did commit to firing, it was too late. Archangel spun behind him and slammed the knife into the weak spot at the base of his neck before slamming the pistol into the joint beneath his arm and unloading into the cockpit.
In seconds Archangel was the only Pilot standing, but he didn’t have time to savor his victory in the slightest as Ten was still out there, and he was moving now. Archangel moved with him, keeping close to building and doing his best to minimize himself as a target.
Ten would only have a few shots left, maybe even one. If he missed the first shot, he wouldn’t have time to reload and would be forced to switch weapons. Archangel would prefer to engage him from distance and force him to take the shot, but in the melee with the other ELA Knivs, Archangel’s rifle had broken. He was down to only his sidearm and his knife.
Archangel came to a stop beside the remnants of a burned out office building. It had collapsed in on itself and never been repaired. On the other side of the building, Ten did the same. Glancing at his HUD, Archangel saw he had only three rounds left in his sidearm. He gripped the controls tightly and took a calming breath before spinning around the building and surging forward, the pistol raised up and ready.
He saw the barrel of Ten’s rifle before he saw Ten. He squeezed off a shot before Ten could fully turn. It pinged off Ten’s shield, but didn’t slow him. The next two shots also failed to penetrate as Ten swung the rifle up and pulled the trigger.
As the muzzle of the rifle flashed, adrenaline burned through Archangel’s veins and the world slowed.
The slug traveled on a direct line for his cockpit. Activating the Kniv’s thrusters, Archangel threw himself forward and angled to the side. The round made contact with his shoulder and obliterated the armour plating with a shower of sparks and fire. Archangel bit back a scream as his neural sync dropped a dozen points and the blood in his arm felt like it had been replaced with liquid fire.
Still he kept his eyes open as the force of the shot spun him around like a top. He continued forward, correcting his spin just as he came to a stop in front of Ten. Ten fumbled to switch weapons and managed to bring his secondary rifle up and fire a few shots into Archangel’s legs before Archangel slammed his knife into Ten’s side and wrenched the blade up, tearing a large hole in the Kniv’s hull. Releasing the knife, Archangel jabbed his finger into the weakened hull and found the cockpit. Without hesitation he crushed the metal coffin. Ten’s Kniv tensed up for singlement before slumping over and collapsing to the ground.
“All opposition forces eliminated,” Archangel let out a soft breath and reached down to retrieve Ten’s rifle. Checking his map, he made his way over to the final target. Reaching the building he lifted up his rifle and paused. The building was outlined with a thick green marker. He lowered the rifle a fraction. With the opposition dealt with, the entire city was once again a civilian sector, including this building.
“Nova-two, target marker is set on building designated in a civilian sector, please advise.”
There was a moment of silence before Nova-two’s voice crackled through his cockpit. “That building has been designated as an ELA asset. Updating your mission parameters. Stand by.”
Archangel’s HUD flashed once and the building, along with the rest of the city, flicked to red
“Mission parameters updated. You are clear to engage hostile structure,” said Nova-two. “Confirm order.”
Archangel lifted up his rifle and trained his sights on the building. The evacuation of the city had already been well in progress, but many people remained in the building and some on the street, just outside of it. Some were unsure where to go. Others had been sure the ELA would win. Even more simply stood, staring up at him, rapt with fear.
“Order confirmed,” Archangel said as he depressed the trigger.
Rachel Lane, call sign Nova-two, removed her headset and rubbed at her tired eyes. She would need to review Archangel’s performance, but for the moment, she couldn’t find the energy.
The door behind her opened and a tall, well dressed man entered. She didn’t bother to turn around as he came to stand behind her, leaning down to watch the video feed.
“You shouldn’t have done that to him, Sani” Rachel said. “He requested help for a reason.”
“Yet, he is still alive,” Sani replied as he leaned down to rewind the video, stopping to watch Archangel engage with Red Nine, Six, and Seven. “Amazing. I will make sure to put this in the next video. I want everyone in Nova to see that. Broadcast it to Earth as well.”
Rachel ignored him and moved the video to where Archangel was shot by the devastator slug, pausing the video and pointing to his vitals. “His neural link was severely damaged by that attack. If it had hit any closer the shock could have knocked him out.”
“Your point?” said Sani said as he continued to flick through the video, highlighting a few more key points.
“You’re setting him up to fail.”
“No. I’m setting him up for glory.”
Rachel’s hand tightened into a fist. “And if he dies?”
“If he dies…” Sani straightened up and adjusted his tie. “If he dies we will replace him.”
Rachel let out a deep breath. “Then you can be the one to tell Lucile when you’re responsible for the loss of her favorite toy.”
Sani shrugged. “Lucile will understand. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time an Angel has fallen.”