The response from the ELA forces was immediate.
“Archangel, fall back!” Rachel ordered as gunfire rained down on Gabriel. He dropped down to one knee and pulled David’s Kniv up, using it as a makeshift barrier as the bullets pinged off his kinetic shield, the sustained fire rapidly draining it. His HUD beeped an alarm.
“Wolf Squadron, move to assist Archangel.” Rachel snapped, switching to an open channel and beginning to direct the battlefield operations. "Echo-Six, prepare for retrieval.”
The attack on Gabriel relented as Wolf Squadron charged in, rifles blazing and pushed back the ELA forces. As one of the members passed by Gabriel he dropped him a spare rifle. Gabriel took the weapon and spun over David, joining the attack. He targeted the nearest Kniv, adding his firepower to that of Wolf-Two. The ELA Kniv’s shields dropped quickly and he began to take direct damage. Gabriel kept his rifle targeted on him, aiming for his left leg until the motors gave out and the Kniv began to list to one side. Gabriel discarded his nearly empty rifle and charged across the field. The fallen Kniv lifted up his weapon and fired but was unable to pierce Gabriel’s shield before Gabriel slammed him to the ground with a ferocious kick. Lifting up his leg Gabriel stomped repeatedly on the Kniv’s chest until the metal crumpled beneath his foot and the Kniv began to smoke as a fire broke out in the cockpit.
The ELA Kniv to his left began to fire at him but was quickly knocked back by a member of Wolf Squad before being caught in a flurry of gunfire. The Kniv buckled beneath the onslaught before exploding in a plume of smoke and fire. Outnumbered and out maneuvered, the remaining ELA forces attempted to retreat, but with Rachel’s sharp directions they were quickly surrounded and eliminated by Gabriel and Wolf Squadron.
“All hostiles eliminated,” Gabriel said as the final Kniv was put down with a sustained burst of fire. To his left two members of Wolf Squadron high fived. The clap of their metallic hands echoed loudly across the suddenly silent plain.
“Echo-Six is inbound,” Rachel said. “All Knivs are to return to base and prepare for possible ELA retaliation.”
Sani’s face suddenly appeared on the other side of Gabriel’s HUD. He gave Gabriel a smug smile.
“Excellent work, Archangel,” said Sani. “Executed to perfection.”
“Nova-Three,” Rachel’s voice was sharp. “This is my operation.”
“Was,” Sani corrected. “It was your operation. However, Nova-One has updated the parameters of the operation. I will be taking over. Now, if you would please remove yourself from this COM channel. Nova-One’s orders.”
Rachel bit her tongue to keep from snapping at Sani. Nova-One was Lucile. With no other choice Rachel gave Gabriel a brief apologetic look before terminating the connection.
“That’s better,” Sani said as Rachel’s image snapped out of existence. Gabriel frowned behind his helmet but said nothing. A map appeared on his HUD and lit up with troop movements. “We are going to be rolling with your victory, so to speak. Two Orbital Knight divisions have already dropped with three more planned here, and here.” The map zoomed in to a specific point as Sani’s direction. “The ELA have built munitions factories here, here, and here.”
Gabriel ran through the satellite images. It appeared to be an industrial district located between a river and a largely wooded area. Gabriel moved the camera over to the trees, staring at the lush greenery as Sani continued to speak.
“There is also a Kniv development facility here. You can expect heavy resistance,” said Sani.
Gabriel nodded as Echo-Six dropped down beside him. the satellite images disappeared as he stepped into the open belly of VTOL.
“Orders?” said Gabriel as they began to climb.
“Destroy the factories and eliminate all opposing force. Use as much force as necessary, ” Sani said before adding. “You will be assisted by the Beta Division of the Orbital Knights once they land. Echo-Six will take you to the drop point.”
“Understood,” said Gabriel. He received a smile from Sani before the man cut the COM channel. Unlike Rachel, Sani rarely participated during the actual operation. Gabriel preferred it that way.
After securing his Kniv in place Gabriel opened the coffin and carefully climbed out and onto the shoulder of his Kniv to investigate the damage that David had done. The flight would take a few hours at least and Gabriel wanted to be as prepared as he could.
The wind whipped at his body and threatened to pluck from the VTOL and fling him into the open air. Gabriel kept a steady grip on the armour plating with one hand as he reached into the hole created during the battle. He was relieved to find the sensitive inner workings of the Kniv’s shoulder motor were still protected by their metal casing. Still, he would need to stay aware of the weak point during the next operation.
“We’re almost to the drop point,” Echo-Six called over the com. “Going to start our ascent to avoid their anti-air. Gonna have to be HALO, otherwise they’re gonna blow us out of the sky. Hold for a sec,”
“Roger,” Gabriel said as a mechanical arm dropped down and attached a parachute to the back of his Kniv. A HALO, or high altitude - low open, drop was similar to a Nova Drop, but instead of a protective shell, the Pilot had nothing more than his Kniv and a parachute. When dropping into hostile territory it wasn’t as safe as a drop pod, but it was decidedly more accurate.
“There are some requips, too,” Echo-Six said as Gabriel climbed back into his coffin and locked himself into place. “Brought the heavy for ya.”
Gabriel looked to his left and ran his eyes over the variety of weapons that had been loaded into the VTOL. Echo-Six had not been exaggerating when he said heavy. Almost all the weapons were oversized, designed to rain down high caliber, sustained fire. It wouldn’t be much help on the ground where maneuverability would be key, but for the HALO drop it would be sufficient to deter the ground forces.
After replacing his lost rifle and sidearm, Gabriel added a grenade launcher, clipping it onto the magnetic strip over his shoulder. As they approached the drop zone he picked up a heavy cannon as well, testing its weight. It was heavier than he would have liked, but he wouldn’t have it for long.
“Ya ready?” said Echo-Six. He flip a switch inside the cockpit and jettisoned a dozen large, glowing canisters from the VTOL. Their heat signatures would hopefully serve as decoys for Gabriel’s decent. “Go!”
“Pilot Archangel, dropping,” Gabriel said as the magnetic clips disabled and he stepped out of the VTOL.
“Give ’em hell, Archangel,” said Echo-Six as Gabriel went into freefall.
It only took a few seconds for his falling mass, and the decoys, to register on the ELA radar but by then Gabriel already had the heavy cannon held out in front of him and his finger firmly on the trigger. His entire body rattled from the recoil as he depressed the trigger again and again. On the ground, large plumes of smoke and fire lit up in the district as the oversized rounds impacted with the ground and exploded. The ELA returned fire, illuminating the dark, cloudy skies with a brilliant display of deadly lights.
Gabriel adjusted his course with quick bursts from his thrusters, dodging from side to side and avoiding the first rounds of anti-air fire. His HUD screamed an alarm as a surface to air missile locked onto his heat signature followed by two others. Gabriel isolated the missiles on his HUD and lifted the cannon. His first two shots missed their mark and struck a building on the ground. His third managed to clip the foremost missile. It veered off course before detonating, taking another out with it. The final missile streamed through the smoke, coming in too close for Gabriel to safely detonate. Boosting to the side Gabriel spun around to avoid it. As it screamed past him he reached out his hand, slammed his fist against the stabilization fin, and sent the missile flying off in an uncontrolled spin. As it exploded behind him, Gabriel angled downward and activated his thrusters, firing off the remaining ammo in the cannon before discarding it as he reached the necessary altitude to pull his chute.
As the chute filled with air his freefall came to a momentary, but abrupt stop and he lurched forward in his cockpit. The restraints tightened in response, keeping him from slamming into the control console. Even with the chute he was still falling at an accelerated pace. He started to activate his thrusters to slow his decent even more when a large chunk of shrapnel impacted with his back. Though it didn’t have the power to penetrate his armour, it was more than enough to cut through many of the cords that connected the parachute to his back. The chute held its integrity for a moment before gravity took over and Gabriel plummeted towards earth. Another round impacted with his body, sending him into an uncontrolled spin. Alarms blared as he fought to correct the spin, firing his thrusters, but it was too late.
He impacted with the earth shoulder first, the metal screeching as it bent in to absorb the landing. Gabriel grit his teeth against the sudden surge of pain. He tried to stand up, but only managed to stay on his feet for a few seconds before he stumbled back to the ground, falling down to his knees. Crawling forward, he used the side of a build to prop himself up and ran an emergency diagnostic.
He had landed on his already damaged shoulder. Its energy output was only at twenty percent. It was enough to lift the arm to at least shoulder height, even if it felt like his bones had been replaced by liquid metal, but it wouldn’t be able to do much more than that. His rifle was also destroyed, leaving him with only the grenade launcher, his side arm, and the plasma blade. The rain hadn’t reached this far yet, so he could still use it, for now.
He was still functional and that was all that mattered.
His uplink to Nova was spotty, the enemy markers ghosting in and out on his map. He tried to contact Nova, but only received static. The ELA was likely trying to scramble the connection. He wouldn’t be able to rely on it. He set waypoints on the target buildings and a guideline came to life on his HUD. The nearest was two streets down.
Hefting the grenade launcher to his shoulder, Gabriel turned the corner and came face to face with an ELA Kniv. From the way he jerked back, it was clear the Kniv hadn’t expected to see him either. Gabriel took advantage of his shock and drew his sidearm, pressing the barrel into the Kniv’s head. Normally the Kniv’s kinetic shielding would be able to block the rounds, but the shield did not work if there was a direct line of contact. The rounds tore through the Kniv’s head and the machine shuddered as the Pilot began to desync. Gabriel pulled the pistol back and slammed it under the Kniv’s armpit, where the armour was weakest. Depressing the trigger he unloaded the remainder of the mag into the Kniv’s chest.
Smoke billowed from the Kniv as it dropped to the ground. Gabriel moved to relieve it of its weapon when gunfire slammed against his shields from the left. Flipping up the grenade launcher he fired down the street towards two more ELA Knivs that had appeared. Behind them he could see a tank rolling down the street, its barrel trained on him. One of the Knivs shot the grenade in midflight and it detonated, filling the street with fire. Gabriel used the sudden cover to fire another grenade, this one in a high, arcing trajectory, before taking off towards his first target. The second explosive would only buy him a few seconds and it was unlikely it would do more than slight damage to either the Knivs or the tank.
The first munitions factory offered minimal resistance as Gabriel rushed through the barricade, side swiping the defensive cannons out of the way and aiming the grenade launcher into the buildings. He fired off four rounds on delayed timers before retreating. His shields dropped down to a dangerously low percent as the Knivs chasing him, or perhaps new ones- he couldn’t tell- caught up and began to fire. One strayed too close to the factory and was caught in the massive explosion, the overwhelming inferno vaporizing the machine in an instant. The others were forced to fall back as the fireball expelled outwards and spread into the district, setting a handful of buildings alight.
Gabriel pushed his Kniv to greater speed, running the thrusters at dangerously high levels as he forced his way through the district and towards his next target.
“Archangel!” Rachel’s voice suddenly cut through the static. “Archangel, come in.”
“Nova-Two?” Gabriel turned down the street and immediately spun back around as he was met with a wall of enemy fire. At least eight Knivs were guarding the development facility, along with mounted auto-cannons and a large number of infantry. Gabriel pushed his grenade launcher around the corner and fired three rounds to deter any attackers from advancing.
“Archangel, you need to get out of there, right now.” Rachel said. Her image finally appeared on his HUD. Her brow was knotted in concentration as she poured over the battlefield information being fed to her from his Kniv.
“Negative, Archangel,” Sani said, appearing on the screen. “Complete your objective.”
“The ELA have shot down Beta Division,” Rachel said. “They aren’t coming.”
“What?” Sani nearly yelped, his voice a stark contrast to Rachel’s.
“Beta Division has been shot down. Their current status is unknown but the ELA are swarming them. Delta and Theta Division have been sent to assist. Delta will be Dropping immediately and Theta is being transported down.” Rachel explained. “I am taking back control of this operation.”
Sani hesitated for a moment before he nodded and his screen winked off. Gabriel was glad to see him go, but he didn’t have time to dwell on that as a rocket streaked past him and detonated against the side of a building a few meters away.
“Move,” Rachel ordered. “You need to get out of the area. Our imaging is being distorted, but you have at least one enemy Kniv coming down the street on your left, two more are moving to assist.”
Gabriel boosted down the street, drawing his plasma blade with his off hand and cutting through the Kniv’s arm just as it turned the corner. In no position to stand and fight he pushed the damaged Kniv out of his way and slid past the two that were behind it, firing off a low grenade between them. The explosion managed to cripple the legs of one, but the other remained functional enough to chase him.
“Kinetic shields down,” Gabriel said as the shield generator failed under the sustained fire, and he began to take direct damage. Gabriel thrust the grenade launcher out behind him and blindly fired off what was left. He dropped the empty weapon and drew his sidearm, sliding in a fresh mag. His ammo count was pathetically low.
“Head north. You might be able to lose them in the trees,” said Rachel. She stared intently at a screen in the control room. “Echo-Six is inbound.”
“Roger,” Gabriel checked on his thrusters. They were almost completely burned out. Even now they were beginning to sputter. He had maybe two more minutes before they went out completely.
He reached the edge of the district and crashed through the defensive wall. He activated his rear camera. The lens had broken and the image was fractured but he could see that the ELA Knivs were directly behind him and had managed to add a few more to their numbers. Far more that he could engage with the weapons he had.
He broke through the tree line at full pelt, the lower hanging branches snapping off as he rushed through them. The tree trunks around him exploded as the ELA continued to fire on him, more and more of their shots managing to puncture through his weakened hull, until one ripped through his coffin.
Gabriel’s sync rate dropped drastically as shrapnel tore through the cockpit. A large piece of metal, about the width of his hand, pierced his stomach. Pain shot through his entire being and he doubled over, his Kniv mimicking the motion and toppling over. Gasping, Gabriel clawed his way back to his feet and kept moving forward.
The life support systems activated automatically and a large needle jutted out from his seat, injecting a concoction into his bloodstream that would slow the bleeding and inhibit his pain receptors. Even so, as the alarms screamed at him from every direction, his vision began to waver and his sync dipped below minimum operating levels. He didn’t need a diagnostic to tell him that the Kniv had only minutes, maybe even seconds, before it would fail completely. Moving as fast as his injuries would allow, Gabriel set the Kniv to autopilot and sent in in a zigzagging course through the woods. It was a long shot that the ruse would work, but with his connection to Nova completely cut off and no reinforcements coming, it was his only choice.
Firing his thrusters one final time Gabriel put as much distance possible between himself and the ELA forces before opening the coffin and throwing himself from the Kniv. Normal ejection procedure would have jettisoned the entire coffin, but he couldn’t risk a coffin ejection with the ELA so close.
His body hung in the air for a moment, the air whistling in his ears and the fresh smell of pine invading his nose. It was a pleasant smell and one he tried to focus on before his body impacted with the ground and he went into an uncontrolled tumble.. He tried to keep his body limp as he skipped across the ground. The metal in his stomach was ripped free at one point and Gabriel would have screamed if had the lung capacity to do so. He was almost completely silent until his roll came to an abrupt stop as he smashed into the base of a very large tree. Something in his chest cracked audibly and his head struck the tree, shattering his visor and splitting his helmet down the side.
His inertia held him against the tree for a moment before he rolled away and onto his back. Black ate at the corners of his vision and he tried to fight it off before succumbing to the darkness and passing out for a few blessed seconds only to have the pain bring him roaring back to consciousness.
Unable to move Gabriel listened to the rumbling sound of the ELA Knivs as they chased after his faltering Kniv. The sound of their giant weapons was nearly deafening outside of the safety of his Kniv and Gabriel sighed in relief when the noise faded away until it sounded like nothing more than thunder in the distance.
Gabriel gave himself another thirty seconds to stare at the dark skies through the foliage. Even though it was nearly midday the sun had yet to truly peek out. Taking in a pained, shallow breath he gave up on cloud gazing and carefully rolled onto his side. The pain nearly made him throw up and he curled his legs up to his chest, rocking back and forth for a moment before he managed to get onto his hands and knees. He let out a painful cough and a large amount of blood splattered through his broken visor and dripped down to the ground in front of him. He reached up with one hand and carefully pulled his helmet off. The effort just to do that was nearly overwhelming and it took him several minutes of heavy breathing before he was able to gingerly pick himself up, relying on the tree for support.
He glanced down at the ground, watching the blood beginning to pool at his feet. He was losing blood fast. If he didn’t get medical attention soon he was going to go into shock and die.
Gabriel slowly lifted his head up and a trickle of blood dripped down from a cut on his head and into his eye. He didn’t bother to reach up and wipe it away. A young ELA soldier stared at him, a rifle held in his hands, the barrel aimed squarely at Gabriel.
“Hey,” said Gabriel.
“A-are you him?” The soldier asked. He took an unsteady step closer. “Are you the Archangel?”
Gabriel leaned against the tree and held his helmet lightly in one hand. There was no point in lying. It wasn’t like he could pretend to be anyone else in the situation. “It would seem so.”
“Don’t move!” The soldier shouted. “Stay right there!”
The soldier removed one hand from his rifle and slowly reached down to grab his radio to call for backup. Gabriel took in a deep breath and tightened his grip on his helmet before triggering his implant and injecting the last few doses of adrenaline into his blood. His pain lessened for a moment and the world sharpened as he whipped his arm forward and launched the helmet across the short distance. It hit the soldier in the face just before he could activate his radio. He cried out in pain and Gabriel threw himself forward, grabbing the rifle and wrenching it out of the soldier’s hands, breaking his fingers in the process. The soldier screamed and fell to his knees before Gabriel flipped the rifle around and fired a single shot into his temple.
Gabriel dropped down to one knee and brought the rifle to his shoulder as two more soldiers appeared. He dropped the first one with a shot to the head. The second managed to return fire, but the spray went wide and Gabriel put three in his chest. Eyes wide, Gabriel waited for another minute after that, the rifle up and ready, but no one else came.
Almost immediately the pain returned like a sledgehammer to his stomach and Gabriel dropped the rifle and stumbled forward, grasping at his bleeding wound. With the threat neutralized for the moment, he needed to come up with a plan. As he began to lose feeling in his fingers, he grabbed a pistol from one of the dead soldiers and started walking back towards the district. While it was possible he was walking to his own grave, trying to go off on his own, injured, and in the unfamiliar territory would mean almost certain death.
The walk was long, but Gabriel forced himself to keep marching on ahead. If he stopped to rest, even for a moment, he would not be able to rise again.
He smelled smoke long before he could actually see the district. When he came to the edge of the woods he was amazed at the heat that he felt. Fire raged all over the area, most spreading from the destroyed munitions factory, but many others started during the resulting combat. People scrambled in every direction, some trying to put out the fires and others simply trying to escape. The pandemonium was exactly what he needed.
With effort, he stripped himself free from his bloody flight suit and hid it as best he could beneath a partially uprooted tree trunk. Clad only his boxers and a torn shirt he hobbled across the short divide between the district and the woods and slipped into the chaos.
No one gave him a second glance as he stumbled by, many people looking just as bad as he did, if not worse. Gabriel noticed that there were a shocking number of civilians, including women and children, among the overwhelmed ELA, who were doing their best to contain the fires and direct the civilians out of the area. He tried to process this information, but couldn’t quite manage it as a ringing in his ears that he hadn’t noticed before began to grow to a crescendo. His pace slowed down to a crawl as he walked slowly through the streets. Someone bumped into him and he lost his balance. As he crashed to the ground he heard someone shout.
A hand was on his shoulder and he was given a rough shake.
His vision went blurry then black.
The ringing was so loud it eclipsed his entire world. It felt like his head would split open. He wanted to scream, but there was no air in his lungs. He couldn’t breath. He couldn’t move.
Everything went silent.