The air on Earth had a different taste to it and Gabriel was never sure if he liked it or not. He wouldn’t call it fresh, not with the amount of pollutants in the air, but it definitely wasn’t the same as the stale recycled air that was pumped through Nova.
It was the humidity that was the biggest change. The air in Nova was thin and dry, with maybe a hint of ammonia. Earth’s air was thick and wet. Moisture hung heavy in the air and it always made it hard for him to breath for a few hours until his lungs adjusted to the difference.
He leaned his forehead against the cool window and watched first rays of sunlight try to break through the thick grey clouds that crowded together over the horizon. Seated on the couch behind him Rachel looked up from her tablet.
“Ten minutes, Gabriel,” said Rachel. Gabriel nodded but remained where he was. Rachel almost asked if something was wrong, but it seemed like such a silly question. Of course something was wrong.
“It’s going to rain,” Gabriel said quietly. His right hand slowly clenched into a fist before relaxing.
Rachel stood up and joined him at the window, looking out into the distance. The skies did look ominous, the clouds swirling angrily over the horizon. She looked down at Gabriel.
“You don’t like the rain?” Rachel said, noticing the small frown tugging at his lips.
“The plasma blades don’t work well in rain,” said Gabriel. “If the reactor gets wet it will fail. If the ground is wet it will reduce traction.”
Gabriel spoke the words lightly, but that he took the time to mention it at all sent a spike of doubt shooting through Rachel’s mind. She pushed the feeling of unease down.
“Will it cause any problems? If you need to readjust your strategy we can reschedule the battle. I can contact Luci–”
“No. It will be fine,” said Gabriel. He abruptly pushed off the glass and headed to the far side of the room where his helmet laid waiting. Lifting it up to his head he gave Rachel a final glance before sliding the helmet on and sealing it into place against his flight suit.
Rachel escorted him to the hanger, a single look from her sharp eyes more than enough to keep any soldiers they encountered from saying more than a soft word of encouragement to Gabriel as they marched by.
Rachel cleared her throat as they entered the hanger. The transport pilot that would take Gabriel to the battle site was already waiting, an unlit cigarette hanging loosely from his lip. He gave a small nod to the pair before climbing into his VTOL and began warming up the engines. Rachel winced against the noise and turned to Gabriel who was staring up at his Kniv, focusing on the additions he had made. Rachel followed his gaze and stared at the metal cylinders that had been attached to the underside the Kniv’s arms. She was unsure how they would help, but she had gotten Gabriel what he had asked for. She gave him a small nod before retreating out of the hanger as the noise rose to unbearable levels.
Safe in his helmet Gabriel waited another moment before stepping up to his Kniv. The machine came to life with a rumbling growl and dropped down to one knee. Clambering into the Coffin, Gabriel locked himself into place and ran a quick diagnostic as his neural sync began.
“Archangel, reporting in. All systems normal,” Gabriel announced as his link settled. He blinked and his vision switched to the Kniv’s HUD. “Sync secure at eighty-nine percent.”
“Nova-two, confirming,” Rachel said, her image appearing in the corner of his HUD. Gabriel took a moment to be thankful for the fact that Sani, Nova-three, hadn’t insisted on being present as well. “Your pilot is Echo-Six. He will be taking you to the drop point.”
“This is Echo-Six, ready whenever you are.” The Pilot’s voice cut into Gabriel’s COM channel. Gabriel heard him take what sounded like a long drag from his cigarette. Normally having a lit cigarette inside of the cockpit was without a doubt a violation of procedure, but this was far from a usual situation. Gabriel ambled his Kniv over to the VTOL and stepped into the open belly, his feet magnetically locking into place.
“Archangel, ready,” Gabriel said. He reached up and grabbed the handrail, keeping his other arm free to draw his weapon if the need arose. The VTOL was a massive beast that was able to easily hold six Knivs, along with at least thirty infantry soldiers, but it was not the most well armed vehicle in the Novan military by any stretch of the imagination. If the ELA were going to attempt a sneak attack, now would be the time to do it.
With Gabriel as the only passenger Echo-Six was able to easily lift the bird into the air and begin the flight to the drop zone. A short distance behind them Gabriel watched as another VTOL lifted off from the base, this one loaded down with a full squad of Kniv’s who would serve as his backup, or as the pallbearers for his Coffin. His HUD marked them as Wolf Squadron.
“Looks like a full set of cutlery is coming out!” Echo-Six said loudly.
“What?” said Gabriel, the words coming out as Michael’s through the voice filter.
“You know, Knivs? Like forks and Knivs?” Echo-Six explained.
“Keep communications to a minimum, Echo-Six,” Rachel said sharply.
“Sorry Nova-Two,” Echo-Six said quickly as he cut off the Com channel and silence returned. Safe behind his helmet Gabriel smiled and felt some of the tension he hadn’t even realized was weighing on his mind slip away.
Gabriel’s HUD suddenly lit up with a handful of red markers. He blinked and switched his vision to thermal. Seven Knivs were waiting, just under a quarter mile away.
“Archangel, targets have been confirmed. Designating David Goli as prime directive. Prepare for Drop,” said Rachel as six of the red markers faded to a duller shade, leaving only the center, and by far largest, Kniv completely highlighted in a bright red that easily cut through the gloomy day. Gabriel rolled the stiffness out his shoulders and flexed his joints as the VTOL began to slowly descend until it reached the designated altitude. The magnetic strips holding his feet in place disengaged.
“Archangel, Dropping,” said Gabriel. He released the handhold and stepped off the side of the transport. Free fall tugged at his stomach as he dropped down to earth, his thrusters firing to slow his descent.
He landed in a crouch, the massive weight of his Kniv shaking the earth from the impact. A series of similar thumps echoed behind him, informing him that the rest of his backup had landed. Rachel confirmed it a moment later.
“Good luck, Archangel,” Rachel said as a Com request blinked to life on Gabriel’s HUD. With a slight tilt of his head he accepted it. There was a momentary crackle of static before a video box containing David’s face lit up beneath Rachel’s. Despite his status as a Pilot he wore no helmet, only a simple neural ring. It was a style Gabriel had only ever seen with civilians piloting non-combat Knivs, known as Knavs.
“Archangel, glad to see you’re not all talk. I almost didn’t think you would show up,” said David. Gabriel said nothing, which only served to infuriate David. “Nothing to say now? You talked a hell of a lot when you accepted the challenge.”
“I’m here,” Gabriel finally said after a long pause.
“I want you to know something before this starts,” David said. The corners of his mouth turned down in disgust. “I hate violence. I hate this war. I hate the fact that I have killed men, and that I will kill many more. But for how much hatred there is between the ELA and Nova, I have never hated the soldiers I fight against. I know they are just like me. They’re scared. They don’t want to be here. They are just following orders. I pity every man I have been forced to kill.” David’s eyes narrowed. “But you, Archangel, I will not pity you. You aren’t a man. You’re a monster. A coward that preys on the weak and the helpless!”
“Cut the COM line, Archangel,” Rachel ordered, but Gabriel did not end the transmission.
“For the friends and family I have lost because of you, for the countless others who have felt the same, I am going to kill you!” David roared and threw his Kniv forward, charging across the open plain and towards Gabriel.
Gabriel closed the video channel but left the COM line open. The video would be too much of a distraction on his HUD, but being able to hear David could prove to be advantageous.
“Pilot Archangel, beginning assault,” said Gabriel as he lifted up his rifle and unleashed a steady stream of fire on David’s rapidly approaching form. The bullets pinged harmlessly off the kinetic shielding. David continued to gain momentum, his arms held tightly bY his side. Gabriel ejected the spent mag from his rifle and loaded in a fresh one. Bringing the rifle back up he was able to empty another half mag into David before the Kniv reached him, but the shields refused to falter.
David lunged at him, the giant hands of the Rhino reaching out to grab onto Gabriel. The Rhino was larger and stronger than his Renegade, but it had been designed for straight charges. As long as he could keep moving, he could out maneuver David.
Gabriel fired his thruster and slid to the side, keeping his rifle trained on David and firing off another spurt of shots that pinged harmlessly off the shields.
David came to a shockingly abrupt stop and pivoted, his thrusters burning to compensate his inertia. His hands swiped out and brushed against the barrel of Gabriel’s rifle. Gabriel tried to back up but wasn’t able to fully escape before David’s hand closed. The barrel of the rifle was crushed as though it were made of tin. Gabriel released his grip on the weapon and jumped back, putting a touch of space between them.
“Don’t let the size fool you. You’re going to have to be faster than that!” David closed the distance between them immediately, throwing a jab that Gabriel was only just able to block with his forearm. The force of the blow dented his armour in and he was sent skidding back a dozen meters.
David did not follow up as he began to circle around Gabriel with his fists up like a boxer. David was far faster than Gabriel had anticipated. Still, that didn’t change his plan. The loss of his rifle wasn’t crucial. He didn’t think it would have the power to punch through David’s shielding, let alone his armour in the first place, but it had given him the information he needed. Reaching back he drew the sword from across his lower back and brought it out in front of him, firing up the reactor. The plasma burned a bloody crimson and spread along the edge of the blade, shining brilliantly in the dark morning.
Stepping forward Gabriel led with the blade, thrusting it out before him and aiming for David’s chest. It was a simple strike and one that David would easily dodge. When he did Gabriel would reverse into a horizontal slash and catch him low, crippling his legs.
David did not dodge.
As the blade approached his chest he swung his massive arm up. The sizzling blade sunk only an inch or two into the his armour before he struck with his other arm, catching Gabriel hard in the chest and knocking him to the ground. Gabriel rolled back to one knee, dodging the hammer strike by David and responding with a quick slash that David blocked with his arms. The blade failed to penetrate more than a few inches before skittering across the surface and leaving Gabriel open to a kick to the side that sent him rolling across the ground.
Activating his thrusters he popped himself back up to his feet and drew his sidearm, firing off a quick salvo of bullets towards David’s head. They failed to penetrate his shield but succeeded in distracting David long enough for Gabriel to regain his bearings.
David bounced from foot to foot and brought his fists up again but did not charge. Gabriel took the brief reprieve to focus on shallow wounds he had managed to leave on David’s arms. His arms were thick. Much thicker than Gabriel had seen in the videos. But even thickness shouldn’t have been able to stop his plasma blade completely.
“It must be some kind of coating,” Rachel said, reading Gabriel’s silent hesitation. “Possibly rhenium or some other extremely heat resistant metal.”
Gabriel nodded and readjusted his grip on his blade, his eyes scanning over David’s form. It was unlikely that David was protected from the blade anywhere else but his arms, otherwise he wouldn’t have tried to block. At the very least, his chest and his legs would be open to attack. Gabriel was just about to prepare for another attack when the a large, fat raindrop landed directly in front of him, crashing against the earth and exploding into a million tiny fragments.
Gabriel had just enough time to deactivate the plasma reactor before the heavens opened and rain came pouring down in thick sheets. He heard David laugh in satisfaction and slam his hands together with a loud crack. Slowly Gabriel returned the sword to the sheath across his lower back. Without being able to use the plasma reactor the blade was all but useless against the heavy armour of David’s Kniv.
Seeing his advantage David charged, his fist cocked back. Gabriel held his ground and lowered his center of gravity slightly. David’s fist came hurtling forward and Gabriel threw out a strike of his own, but he did not aim his fist towards David’s, instead he aimed just over so David’s fist connected with the long, cylinder tubes that had been fitted under Gabriel’s wrists.
They held together for a moment before a deep thump emanated from the cylinder and David reared back, his fingers crushed in and sparking. Gabriel stepped forward and grabbed onto David’s damaged fingers with his right hand. He tugged David forward and shot his arm forward, slamming the left cylinder into David’s face. There was another thump and David’s head was knocked back. He would have stumbled away had Gabriel not still had a firm grip on his broken hand. David roared and went for a feral haymaker with his free hand, but Gabriel slid forward and slammed his shoulder into David’s chest before the punch could connect.
As David stumbled back Gabriel let go his hand and allowed him to fall to the ground. He stepped back and avoided the furious swipes from David as he rose back to his feet.
“What did you do?” David growled as he shook his broken hand, the fingers dangling uselessly. His breath came in short, angry spurts.
Gabriel lifted up his arms and ejected the spent explosive charges from the cylinders with puffs of smoke and new ones automatically loaded in. He rotated one arm, showing off the cylinder.
“Breakers. Miners use these to crush and crack through rock. They attach them to Knavs. The metal rods are extremely dense. Almost unbreakable,” Gabriel said flatly.
“Bastard,” David muttered.
“Breakers,” Rachel said softly. They were usually powered by hydraulics and extremely slow, but Gabriel had replaced their propulsion system with shaped charges. It would give Gabriel’s Renegade strength on par with the much larger Rhino, but wouldn’t reduce his speed or maneuverability. She was shocked he had come up with something so ingenious so quickly. Lucile’s words echoed in her mind.
“It doesn’t matter!” David roared as he threw himself forward. Gabriel met him head on, sliding past his punch and catching him hard in the chest with the Breaker. The thick chest plated dented in, but only slightly. Gabriel hit him again before sliding back as David swung his arms together to grab him. Reaching out, Gabriel grabbed David’s damaged hand and boosted back. David’s arm extended fully and Gabriel swung his arm out and caught David on the back of the elbow. The Breaker boomed three times in quick succession, the metal rod crushing the motors and circuitry within David’s elbow joint. David’s other fist connected weakly with Gabriel’s side, but Gabriel held fast, striking David one final time in the same spot. With a grunt, Gabriel wrenched his arm back and ripped David’s arm off at the elbow.
David shouted in pain as the sudden loss of limb dropped his sync rapidly. He stepped away unsteadily and Gabriel pounced on him, striking him repeatedly in the chest and blocking his sloppy attempt to counterattack. Step by step Gabriel continued to force David back, the dent in David’s chest becoming more prominent with every subsequent strike. Gabriel lashed his foot out and caught David on the knee. The large Kniv buckled but did not fall. Gabriel kicked out again, but David pivoted away. Overcommitted to the attack, Gabriel stumbled by him.
“Got you!” David bellowed.
Gabriel spun around and raised his arm to block an expected strike from David’s remaining arm, only to see a thin blade stabbing straight towards his chest. Activating his thruster Gabriel managed to twist his body to the side. He avoided being impaled through the chest but the blade still slammed into his shoulder. His armour held for a moment before the blade slipped through. David wrenched the weapon down and blade sheared down and towards Gabriel’s chest before Gabriel was able to throw out his arms and catch David in the torso with both Breakers. The blow knocked them apart and the blade was ripped from Gabriel’s shoulder with a shrill scream of metal on metal.
Gabriel winced as he rotated his shoulder, testing it. The pain was manageable and hadn’t impacted his sync by more than a few points.
“Lucky,” David breathed as he stared at Gabriel from across the short distance.
Gabriel didn’t answer as he stared at the extra limb that had sprouted from David’s side. It was thin and almost completely lacking in armour. It had swung out from just under his broken arm. Instead of a hand it had only a single blade. Gabriel rolled his injured shoulder and David swung the blade experimentally, his broken arm hanging limply at his side. Gabriel guessed he had rerouted neural control from the main arm to the back up. It was a smart move and one that had almost paid off.
“That’s a tremor sword,” Rachel informed Gabriel as David took a few steps forward, trying to bait Gabriel into moving first. “It was a precursor to the Plasma sword. It vibrates at an extremely high frequency, which allows it to cut through most materials. The blade is extremely sharp, but was considered too fragile for long term use.”
Considering the ease at which it had pierced through his Kniv’s armour Gabriel wasn’t sure how much he agreed with that assessment, but he remained silent as David finally broke and moved into striking distance. He led with his bladed arm, throwing out quick thrusts that Gabriel was forced to dodge.
“Tell me something!” David called out as Gabriel avoided another attack. “Tell me what kind of disgusting person brags about how many people they have killed? Who kills civilians? How can you smile about that? How can you look in the mirror and laugh?”
David threw a swing that Gabriel managed to duck under. He came up behind David and landed a strike to his back and knocked him a step forward. David caught himself and swung his blade arm around. Gabriel caught the strike, locking David’s arm in place. David didn’t allow him a chance to break this one, diving back and taking them both to the ground. Gabriel rolled across the ground and came up kneeling. He boosted forward and slammed into David’s side before the larger Kniv could fully recover. They went tumbling again and David managed to land a wild slash that sliced through the breaker on Gabriel’s left arm, disabling it. Gabriel ejected the weapon from his arm as he got back to his feet. David rose as well before sliding forward and attacking with increased vigor. With only one weapon to respond Gabriel was forced on the defensive.
David thrust forward and Gabriel managed to dodge the blade, but not the following fist. The blow spun him around and David slashed him across the back. As Gabriel stumbled David kicked forward and knocked him into the mud. Gabriel managed to rotate as he fell. David dove towards him, the sword held high to deliver the final blow.
Gabriel lifted up his arm and activated the Breaker, releasing the lock on the rod. With nothing to hold it in place the rod was propelled from the cylinder like shot from a cannon. The super dense projectile crashed into David’s chest, crushing in the already dented metal and knocking him back long enough for Gabriel to get back to his feet.
“Looks like you’re out of tricks,” David said as he recovered from the surprise attack. He brought his bladed arm around and held it out in front of him, waiting.
Lightning lit up the sky and David lunged forward, a battle cry tearing from his lips.
Gabriel let out a soft breath before he activated the implant in his chest and released a surge of pure adrenaline into his bloodstream. His vision enhanced drastically as his sync jumped a handful of points. Time slowed as he watched David’s blade move closer to him, water droplets pinging off the blade.
David’s blade was only meters away.
Still Gabriel waited.
The Rhino’s massive body was fully committed to the charge.
Gabriel twisted his body and let the David’s blade pass by him, so close that the edge of the blade just scratched against the surface of his armour. As the blade passed by he drew his plasma sword and stabbed it forward with both hands. The tip connected with David’s broken and dented chest piece. Gabriel set his thrusters to full burn, propelling him forward until. Aided by David’s momentum the tip of the blade finally managed to find a crack in David’s armour and slide up to the hilt.
“No water,” Gabriel said softly as he activated the plasma reactor.
Safe from the rain inside of the Kniv’s chest, the plasma ignited and easily burned through the internals and into the cockpit. If David had time to scream Gabriel did not hear it over the roar of blood in his ears.
David’s Kniv shuddered as the neural link was forcibly terminated and Gabriel pulled the blade free, powering down the plasma reactor and returning the weapon to the sheathe across his back. David’s Kniv remained standing for only a moment longer before it tipped back and fell to the mud.
“Pilot Archangel, target has been eliminated.”