Gabriel woke up to a hand roughly shaking his shoulder and someone calling his name. He opened his eyes to find himself face to face with Rachel, her body awkwardly stuffed halfway into the cockpit.
“Gabriel, something’s happened,” said Rachel. The edge of worry in her voice woke Gabriel like a bucket of cold water and he was out of the Kniv and on the floor in a matter of seconds. As he landed the blast doors opened and Sani walked in, flanked by Sara. Sani tossed him a flight suit. Gabriel pulled off his wrinkled uniform without question and began to tug on the flight suit, pausing only when Sara reached out and placed her hand on his chest.
“Wait,” said Sara as she pulled out a large syringe filled with an unfamiliar green fluid. “This is my newest concoction. Stronger than adrenaline and with a little more oomph for your brain. Go easy on it, okay?”
Gabriel nodded before wincing as Sara lined the needle up with the marker and inserted it into his chest. She depressed the plunger, filling up the reservoir in his implant with the mysterious liquid. She gave him a tight squeeze on the shoulder.
“That’s all for me. Good luck, Archangel.” She smiled before quickly exiting the hangar.
“Situation?” Gabriel zipped up his flight suit and looked to Rachel.
“The ELA have launched a preemptive attack against the FOB, Sanctuary, ” Rachel explained. “The Alpha squadron is currently attempting a counter attack. We have launched all available Kniv units from Nova and are rerouting the other Orbital Divisions to assist ASAP.”
“However, the ELA seem to be quite desperate to win this battle.” Sani added. “Freeport contained a larger force than we anticipated and they were more than able to acquire a significant amount of reinforcements. Alpha Division is already reporting casualties and more are expected.”
Gabriel thrust out his hand and Rachel dutifully handed him his helmet. He pulled it on and sealed it against his suit. “When do I Drop?”
“Immediately,” Sani said. He pointed to Titan. “Pick your armaments.”
He gave Gabriel a curt nod before heading to the operations room, leaving Gabriel with alone with Rachel. She waited until the door shut to speak.
“What is your status?” she said.
“Functional.” Gabriel answered without hesitation.
Rachel stared at him for a long time before nodding. Slowly she extended her hand. “Good luck, Archangel.”
“Thank you, Nova-Two.” Gabriel took her hand in a firm grip before turning back to the Knivs.
Rachel watched him for a moment longer before following after Sani. In the operation room she was only slightly surprised to see Lucile standing in front of one of the screens, watching battlefield information pour in.
“I told you it would work,” Sani said smugly as Rachel silent took her seat at the control table and waited for Gabriel to sync.
“That is yet to be seen,” Rachel replied curtly.
Gabriel’s vision wavered and solidified into the clear HUD of his Kniv. He didn’t look at his sync rate. So long as it was high enough to keep his neural link secure he didn’t need to know it. He lifted one arm, then the other. There was latency, but it was minimal enough that he could compensate.
A countdown timer began to tick down and he walked to the wall of the hanger, dragging his eyes over the weapons. He slotted two plasma blades across his lower back, along with a plasma knife in the sheath set into his forearm. A pistol was clipped onto either hip before he picked up a Chaingun and linked it to the magnetic strip over his shoulder. Rachel appeared in the corner of his HUD as he picked up a heavy grenade-cannon in either hand and lumbered back to the center of the hanger.
“Archangel, requesting Emergency Drop,” Gabriel said, ignoring the time he had left. Almost immediately the metal drop-sphere closed around him. Gabriel slipped his arms and legs into the anchor points and winked an acknowledgement.
“Request confirmed,” Rachel nodded. “Prepare for Emergency Drop in three. Two. One. Drop.”
G-force slammed Gabriel’s body against the chair as he was launched from Nova at nearly intolerable speeds. Emergency drops were almost unheard of. They required Nova to be positioned almost directly above the target point and ignored almost every safety requirement and human tolerance. Gabriel had only done an Emergency Drop one time before and had ended up passing out only to wake up seconds before impact. As black began to eat at his vision and his speed continued to climb, he pumped out a small amount of Sara’s concoction into his bloodstream to stave off unconsciousness. The effect was immediate and he sucked in a sharp breath as his vision cleared and his muscles flexed involuntarily.
The pod slammed into the atmosphere and felt the heat from the superheated air work to worm its way inside the pod before he punched through and continued his free fall. His Kniv beeped in alarm but Gabriel silenced it with barely a thought.
All that mattered was reaching Earth.
“Time to arrival is thirty seconds,” Rachel said. There was none of the usual mission briefing, only direct orders. “Alpha squadron has managed to hold the ELA forces for the time being. Rendezvous with Alpha Fourteen and assist in the counterattack.”
“Orders acknowledged,” Gabriel grit out, the words barely able to escape his lips.
“Twenty seconds to arrival,” Rachel counted off calmly. “Ten seconds. Five. Parachutes opening.”
Gabriel sucked in a deep breath as the chutes opened only seconds before impact and the pod split open. He activated his thrusters and threw himself into the air. His eyes raced over the battlefield, taking in as much as possible before he came crashing down to Earth.
It was a chaotic scene.
Under heavy fire, Alpha Division had broken apart and fallen back into the relative cover of the base, using the military buildings as cover. The ELA had already advanced deep into the area, their Knivs spread out to provide sustained fire and their infantry scrambling like ants. In both categories they outnumbered the Novan’s by a wide margin.
“Pilot Archangel. Beginning assault.”
The harness around Gabriel’s chest tightened as came to a skidding stop on the frontlines, his feet kicking up massive plumes of dirt. As he straightened up his HUD beeped in alarm as two Kniv’s locked onto him. Without hesitation Gabriel brought up the grenade cannons and depressed the triggers. The high explosives traveled on a beeline towards the Knivs before encasing them both in a fiery hell storm. Gabriel continued to fire until both guns clicked empty. He threw the gun in his left hand forward, letting it skid across the ground and sending a squad of ELA infantry running for cover lest they be crushed. Boosting to the side and behind a low building he reloaded the cannon and glanced at his map. Rachel had highlighted friendlies in green and the ELA in red.
There was a lot of red.
Gabriel came around the building and slammed directly into an ELA Kniv. He took a flurry of chaingun rounds, but his shield held. The ELA Kniv started to boost back but Gabriel drew his plasma blade with his left hand and slammed it into the Knivs chest before lifting up the cannon and firing the full mag at three more ELA Knivs approaching from his left. As they boosted through the explosions, Gabriel pushed away the skewered Kniv and dropped the cannon. With calm precision he returned the plasma blade to its sheath and drew his chaingun. Taking careful aim he unleashed a burst of sustained fire at the approaching Knivs.
One Kniv went down almost immediately, its shield already depleted by the grenades and the chaingun rounds tearing through its armour. The other two continued on, the rounds pinging off their rapidly depleting shields. Gabriel held his ground, keeping his weapon trained on the closer of the two. His own shields were beginning to drop from the return fire, but it was sporadic, their aim thrown off from their rapid movement. He could hold on a bit longer.
The closer Kniv stumbled as its shield finally failed and it began to take damage directly. The Kniv increased its speed, drawing a plasma blade. Gabriel did not flinch as he adjusted his aim and fired a sharp burst directly into the Kniv’s chest at close range, the bullets tearing through the hull. The Kniv lifted the plasma blade high above its head before suddenly veering off to the side and crashing face first to the ground in a smoking heap as the Pilot either died or suffered a desync. Gabriel ejected the spent mag and started to load in a fresh one, beginning to boost back as the second Kniv reached striking distance, when something shot by. He saw the sizzling red of a plasma sword before an Orbital Knight ran the ELA Kniv through the chest. The Knight drew back the sword and slashed down viciously, shearing the ELA Kniv from shoulder to hip before jumping back and landing defensively in front of Gabriel.
“This is Alpha Fourteen, ready to assist.” A female voice cut into his communication feed and Gabriel’s heart lept into this throat.
“Roger that,” Gabriel said, fighting to keep the tremble from his voice. He started to move towards the next red marker, keeping his rifle up and ready. “Sitrep?”
“Alpha Division has suffered heavy casualties,” Fairy said. Her voice sounded robotic. “We have lost sectors one through four of Sanctuary, with five and six in contention. Beta Division is holding seven, but is facing heavy opposition. Theta Division should arrive in five minutes.”
“And you?” Gabriel said. He wanted to know where Chance was as well, but there simply wasn’t time.
Fairy hesitated, but only for a moment. “Fully operational, Sir.”
“We’ll move to defend sector five,” Gabriel said before broadcasting on an open channel. “This is Pilot Archangel, moving to defend sector five. Requesting immediate backup. Beta division, divide forces and do not allow Sector six to fall. Acknowledge.”
A flurry of lights lit up on his HUD as the Knights accepted his instructions. He watched on the map as they moved to follow his orders. Once Theta arrived they would be able to reinforce any failing sectors, but for now they had to hold off the ELA. He glanced at Fairy’s Kniv besides him and felt his stomach wrench. He could see extensive damage on the hull from where the kinetic shield had failed.
He wouldn’t let her die.
“Archangel!” Fairy suddenly surged forward and knocked him to the side. A plasma blade slashed down where he had just been, the blade missing his body but cutting clean through his gun. Gabriel dropped it and drew his pistols. Flipping them up he slammed the barrel of one into the attacking Kniv’s chest and the other into the side of its head before pulling the trigger. With a direct connection made, the kinetic shield was useless as Gabriel riddled the machine with gunfire. Up close he noted the strange shimmering armour. A stealth coating. It would be invisible to Nova and wouldn’t show up on his map. He started to call out a warning to Fairy when something slammed into him from behind and send him tumbling forward into the destroyed stealth Kniv. Hitting the ground hard Gabriel spun around and had just enough time to see a painfully familiar Kniv jump towards him, a plasma sword lighting up in one hand and a large shield in the other.
The Shield Maiden.
He faltered as she bore down on him, the plasma sword coming down in a high arc. On reflex he pumped a small amount of stimulant into his bloodstream and a plan of attack began to form in his mind. He could drop his pistol and draw his own sword. He could boost away and shoot her. He could catch her wrist and use his Kniv’s greater strength to overpower her.
Gabriel could have done so many things, but in the end he did nothing, watching as the cackling energy sword came rushing towards him before coming to an abrupt halt as Fairy caught it with her own blade and pushed back.
Though he couldn’t hear it, Gabriel knew Charlie was screaming in frustration as she turned on Fairy. She didn’t care about the Orbital Knights. She only wanted one thing from this battle and Fairy stood directly in her path. Charlie charged forward and opened with a slash from her sword. Fairy knocked it to the side and spun as Charlie tried to rush her with the shield.
With a precision boost Fairy came up behind Charlie and sliced her across the back. The cut was shallow and Charlie managed to whirl around, whipping her shield across as she did so. Fairy reacted a moment too slow and the edge of the shield caught her hand and knocked the plasma blade free. Undeterred Fairy slid forward, drawing her pistol and firing a trio of shots point blank into Charlie’s head. Charlie stumbled back. Fairy grabbed Charlie’s sword wrist and wrenched forward. Charlie allowed herself to be pulled forward and swung her shield, slamming Fairy in the side with the large hunk of metal.
The attack threw them both off balance and they went rolling across the ground. Charlie managed to pull herself free of Fairy’s grip and rise up, the plasma blade ready to strike. On her back Fairy quickly responded by lifting up her gun and firing the rest of the magazine towards the plasma blade. A few managed to hit their mark and Charlie hesitated as the blade fizzled and died. Fairy took the moment to roll into a deep crouch before launching forward and tacking Charlie.
The pair flew backwards before colliding with a large brick building. Stone and dust rained down on them as Fairy began to methodically strike at Charlie’s Kniv, slamming her fist into Charlie’s shield bearing shoulder until the motor began to fail under the assault. Trapped in the dangerous position, Charlie tried to boost away but Fairy trapped her, sliding her leg between Charlie’s and locking her against the building.
“Wait...” Gabriel murmured as he tried to rise to his feet, but his Kniv refused to cooperate. His hand came up a few meters, reaching out towards the pair before failing and dropping back down to his side.
“Archangel, you have an imminent desync.” Rachel cautioned, her voice nearly drowned out by warning alarms. A stabbing pain shot through his temple as his sync continued to drop rapidly. Gabriel blinked, trying to clear his eyes as Fairy’s fist slammed into Charlie’s chest, denting in the armour plating in. Charlie tried to escape again, but was completely trapped and all but helpless against Fairy’s superior training and Kniv.
She would not last much longer.
Rachel’s voice was rising. “Neural link at thirty percent and dropping. Cut your neural connection, now.”
Gabriel watched, trapped by his own mind, as Fairy found purchase in Charlie’s chest place and ripped it back, revealing the armored cockpit within. Fairy tossed the scrap metal aside, leaving Charlie completely exposed.
“Neural link at ten percent. Five percent. Archangel, cut the link.” Rachel ordered, but the words were muted, like he was hearing her behind a lead lined wall. Everything was going dark. He saw the world through tiny pinpricks of blurry light. He was stuck there, trapped in purgatory by the weight of his indecision as the question returned, along with others, each more troublesome than the last.
How could he save everyone?
Nova or the ELA?
Fairy or Charlie?
How could he choose either side?
The last vestiges of light faded to black and he began to fall, the weight dragging him deeper and deeper into the endless void.
What if he didn’t?
The thought drifted lazily through his mind, no more than a tiny spark caught on the wind, brilliant for only a single, shimmering instance. In that fleeting moment Gabriel latched onto it and breathed life into it.
He couldn’t choose either side. He was no longer a Novan, nor was he a member of the ELA.
He was alone.
That was his answer.
Gabriel’s eyes flicked open as the implant in his chest activated and flushed his bloodstream with massive amounts of stimulant. His muscles tensed before he threw himself forward, the thrusters on his Kniv burning brilliantly as he hurtled towards Fairy, her arm cocked back to deliver the finishing blow. In a single movement he drew the plasma knife from the sheath on his arm and sliced upward, cutting clean through Fairy’s arm, just under the elbow.
As he came to a stop, everything seemed to go silent, before Gabriel heard a noise he knew would haunt him forever.
A high-pitched, agony filled scream.
Her Kniv lurched to the side as her sync rate began to drop. Gabriel silenced her with a quick slash to the neck, beheading her Kniv. Her desync was immediate and her Kniv collapsed to the ground, shaking uncontrollably before falling still. Unconscious inside the cockpit, Fairy looked like just another fallen combatant.
Rachel was calling his name, but he ignored her as he turned to stare at Charlie. She struggled to move, her one good arm forming a fist as she stumbled towards him. Gabriel stepped forward and with a single thrust of his knife disabled her other arm. It would not be enough to desync her, but she would no longer be able to fight.
“Order a retreat,” Gabriel said, his voice booming from his Kniv’s external speakers. He grabbed her by the shoulder and gave her a rough shove back towards the ELA line. She tried to turn around but he struck her again, sending her stumbling forward a handful of steps.
“Charlie! Order a retreat!” Gabriel ordered with more force. He saw Charlie’s shoulders hunch before her head shook and she began to fall back, her movements jerky and awkward. The shield slipped from her fingers as she broke into an unsteady trot.
“Archangel!” Sani’s face appeared on the center of his screen. “What in god’s name are you doing?”
Gabriel gave no answer as he brought up the map and began to run south, drawing the plasma blade with his other hand. Sani began to scream something at him, but Gabriel ended the transmission along with Rachel’s. Knivs appeared out in front of him and he cut through them, ELA and Novan alike. He aimed for their arms and legs, cutting through their limbs and rendering them unable to battle, leaving a trail of broken, twisted metal in his wake.
“Archangel!” Sani’s face was back. “This is treason.”
“I know,” Gabriel answered as he cut through a Knight, taking off both his arms before he could react. The other Knights were beginning to fire back at him now. He barely noticed his shields dropping as he turned and sliced through the leg of an approaching ELA Kniv before spinning and throwing his knife, catching a member of the newly arrived Theta Division in the arm. The Knight stumbled back and Gabriel pounced on him.
“Archangel,” Rachel said in a much calmer voice. “Desist immediately.”
“I can’t,” Gabriel said. He grabbed the Knight by the head and threw him into another. Someone shot him in the back, breaking through his shield and he stumbled forward into another Knight. Gabriel’s plasma blade flashed twice and the Kniv dropped at his feet. He tilted his head up as thick, yellow smoke began to rise up into the sky.
The ELA were calling a retreat.
The momentary distraction gave a nearby Knight enough time to stab him through the stomach with a plasma blade. Gabriel’s sync dipped as pain washed over his nerves, but he didn’t slow down, boosting back and pulling the blade free before lunging forward and slamming his shoulder into the Knight’s chest. The armour crumpled and Gabriel sliced him across the waist, severing the Kniv’s torso from its legs.
A burst of gunfire struck him high in the shoulder and sent him staggering to the side before he crashed into a building. He pulled a smoke grenade and dropped it at his feet. Even as his Kniv was obscured, the Knights opened fire on him. Bullets pinged off his armour. Alarms screamed as his hull integrity began to drop. A round caught him in the left arm and the motor died. His fingers went numb and the plasma blade slipped from his fingers.
Rachel’s face appeared on his screen as he burst through the smoke. Drawing his remaining plasma blade he cut through the nearest Knight, before charging in the opposite direction. Dropping the weapon he pulled two grenades, one smoke and one fragmentation. He dropped them together, the smoke popping first to cover his retreat. A second later he heard the thump of the frag grenade and one of the Knights on his map flashed repeatedly as it was disabled. The others warily fell back but continued to fire blindly at him.
“Gabriel,” Rachel used his first name, breaking operation protocol. Gabriel glanced at her. Her brow was furrowed and her mouth was set into a hard line. “This is your final chance. Power down your Kniv and turn yourself over to the Novan Knights.”
“Rachel...” Gabriel’s throat grew tight. A well placed round drilled through his back and fragments pierced through his cockpit, showing him with sparks and metal. He barely felt the pain as blood began to pour down his back.
“Tell Fairy, I’m sorry,” Gabriel said softly before he reached into the broken control console and ripped out a handful of wires. He never heard Rachel’s response as the connection to Nova was terminated.
Now he really was alone.
“You traitor!” Sani roared at the blank screen. Beside him Rachel remained composed, her eyes quickly reading over the battlefield reports.
“The ELA are in full retreat,” she relayed. “However, Alpha and Beta Divisions are reporting high casualties. Theta is eighty percent functional.”
Lucile leaned forward and stared at the screen, watching Gabriel’s marker move further and further away from the battle. Only a handful of Knights were chasing him and none were particularly close.
“Call them off,” Lucile said after a moment of thought.
“What?” Sani nearly yelped.
“Call them off,” Lucile repeated. “We don’t know if the ELA has a second wave prepared. Even with Delta Division nearby, our manpower is too low to waste against a single combatant.”
“But—” Sani began to argue but Lucile silenced him with a single, delicate finger.
“Rachel?” Lucile said, turning her head. “Is Gabriel still inside his Kniv?”
Rachel tapped a few keys and nodded. “Yes.”
“Wonderful,” said Lucile. “Please lock the Titan’s cockpit. We can’t have Gabriel escaping the same way he did before.”
Rachel nodded slowly and typed out the order. “The cockpit is locked.”
“Perfect. Thank you, Rachel.” Lucile let out a tranquil sigh. “It is unfortunate we cannot power down the Kniv remotely. It seems to shame to lose such a valuable asset, but it can’t be helped.”
Rachel’s hands rested over the keyboard and she turned to look at Lucile, her breath bated as she waited for the order.
“Initiate Wormwood,” Lucile said.
Rachel hesitated. “Lucile… Gabriel is still—“
“Gabriel is a traitor to Nova,” Lucile said, her voice taking on the barest hint of an edge. It set Rachel’s hair on end. “He has made his decision and we must make ours. Initiate Wormwood.”
Rachel’s clenched her teeth before turning back to the terminal. Slowly she began to type out the order that would erase every trace of Gabriel’s life from existence. His records would be destroyed and his image scrubbed from every database. It would be as though he had never existed on Nova.
Rachel’s hand hovered over the final keystroke. There was one last component to Wormwood. A single loose end that had to be tied. She closed her eyes and pressed her finger against the execute key.
A timer popped up on the screen, rapidly counting down from ten.
The Titan would self-destruct with Gabriel trapped inside. There would be nothing left but a few charred remains of the mangled Kniv. With Gabriel’s death, Wormwood would be complete.
Rachel’s eyes flicked open as an explosion rocked the room. Sani yelled out in surprise as he slipped from his chair and landed in a heap on the floor. Lucile staggered forward before catching herself on the nearest screen.
“What was that?” Lucile said as she stepped back and looked down to Rachel.
Rachel’s fingers glided over the keyboard. “There was an explosion in Hanger eight.”
“Are we under attack?” said Sani as he shakily returned to his seat.
There was a moment of confused silence before Lucile let out a soft laugh and lifted up her hand to point at the screen. Rachel and Sani followed her gesture. Rachel sucked in a sharp breath and Sani cursed.
“No,” Sani shook his head as he stared at Gabriel’s marker, watching as it continued to move away from the battle at a steady pace. “How?”
“Because the Titan never left the hanger,” Rachel said as Gabriel’s marker began to flash before abruptly going dark and the connection was completely lost. She pulled up a still image of Gabriel from earlier in the battle. “He switched Knivs. He took the Renegade. His communications have been cut off and he’s moving out of the range of our imaging already. There is nothing we can do.”
Sani swore again and slammed his fist against the console, cracking the plastic casing. Behind him Lucile smiled, her dark eyes lighting up with amusement.
“How resourceful,” she said softly. “How wonderfully resourceful.”