Try not to die.
That was their mantra, their motto. It was a clause that was repeated again and again whenever they were about to make landfall. It was repeated now, by their Reformer as the dropship slowly descended into the air choked by rounds fired by fighters, missiles sent from the air to the ground, vice versa, and air to air. The ship rocked as it made its way to their designated destination, effect of their pilot attempting and failing to avoid rounds. Turbo checked his armor once more, out of habit, a way to deal with his growing fear. You’d think after facing death for months and biting its nipples, you wouldn’t be afraid of it anymore.
That was not the case for Turbo Swift.
“Hitting ground in five people!” their pilot yelled over the speakers.
“Remember,” Reformer Crank’s voice cut through their com, harsh, tough and coarse like he had been screaming his throat out for hours, “we’re going to land in a Quiet Zone, a few meters north-west our current direction in the Action Zone squad B-78 is stuck in. We assist them however way we can and then we go our separate ways and we make our way back here for extraction!”
The dropship began to slowly decelerate, the shuddering resonating through Turbo’s bones. Turbo glanced at his right, where Peter, his first, sat. The elder triplet nodded at him, and Turbo nodded back. “Try not to die,” he said through their private com.
The ship stopped moving, landing pads gently kissing the ground before bearing the full weight of the ship, which was not as much as it used to be due to the <g gravity the planet had. The engine whines reduced, though they were ever present, just able to hear. The hatch before them popped out and slid aside and Crank was on them, yelling that they moved out in twos. When it was his turn, he made the sign of the cross as he left and said his prayers to Saint Bathledo.
Newest saint, made in 2048, Saint Bathledo was the saint of survival, having survived many snares the devil had laid for him. Turbo prayed the man was watching him now, guiding his feet. . .
The only things that seemed to be looking down on him, were the three moons that lit the world in a bright blue glow, shadows cast thick as mud, dark as night. Yet lights were set up around landfall. A man was talking to Crank, who was shaking his head and pointing at their dropship. The taller man snarled something and set off in a brisk walk towards it, bumping into Turbo. The man's armor was not as thick as Turbo's; white thin armor, probably indicating that he belonged to the lower class infantry. The pawns of chess, except imagine if there were three rows of pawns; they would be the one who felt and took in the brunt of the battle. Turbo snorted as the man hopped into the ship.
Poor guy’s gonna die soon, he thought.
“Alright squad! Head low, eyes cast about, be vigilant not jumpy, and you may very well keep your bloody head,” Crank yelled. “Let’s go!”
They set off in a trot. They passed through dried up basins and emptied lakes, ditches and huge boulders flanking them, hills beyond getting closer while the fire line ahead remain at a constant distance between them. Seemingly, anyway.
Seven minutes later, and Link began to moan and complain, breaking the silence they had kept.
“Damn it, the fear is killing me and the silence ain’t helping. Someone better sing or I’ll blow my brains out,” he complained.
“I got a song,” Bolts said, “called Link The Fucking Tool.”
“Very funny,” Link said, sarcasm evident. Turbo grinned.
“Sing for us, Bolts,” he said, putting more effort into his pumping, making him break from his partner by a few feet, forcing Gum to run faster, which made the train behind them pick up the pace as well.
“Once a tool,
Made by a fool,
For a fool,
To a fool,
Fuck what else,
Goes with tool?
It thought it could fly,
Oh how stupid,
It wondered why,
Oh how insipid,
Poor tool, poor tool,
No purpose, fool,
So it decided to,
Join the army too,
Be a man who,
Turbo laughed hard while Link flung obscenities at Bolts. He glanced at him map on his HUD, they were close. He could see, just ahead, blooms of explosions, sparks of gunfire.
“And so into,
His death he rode,
Without a clue,
Oh, poor fool!
He thought he fought,
For me and you,
Fought for her,
The one who ruled,
With an iron tit,
And a dusty cunt!”
“Ey!” Crank yelled, cutting Bolts short. “Stop that at once!”
“Oh! I forgot, it ain’t dusty no more, is it? No, no Crank’s made sure of that!”
Turbo stumbled, his laughter rocking him and disrupting his flow.
“That’s enough soldier!”
“Fuck you, you old dick-sac,” Bolts said, “I’m gonna sing my song!”
“So the song goes,
But on to Crank,
When he was born,
Oh how he stank!
For he was a great big turd!”
Crank only insulted him. What else could he do? Discipline him? At the moment? No, later yes, but not then.
“Shredders!” Sip yelled and Turbo’s heart froze. He searched for them on his Threat Map and saw nothing, the only indication of their presence was Sip’s yell and the sharp reports of gunfire.
“Gum, Toy, Snaz, Chin; rip ’em up!!!” Crank yelled. Turbo searched for them wildly, and saw a rolling dark mass make its way towards him. He brought his gun around and aimed at it. When the shredder sprung open.
The Monarchdom of Avex had an advantage there; brilliant mind Davey Chosewell – terrible last name he inherited – had been the designer and programmer of the shredders or rippers. The man had been able to make robots that could barely do menial tasks, into killing machines with complex algorithms. The robots’ appearance had been designed to look like a demon from hell; it had red ‘eyes’ that throbbed every few seconds, teeth that jutted out of mechanical jaws at awkward angles, slim insect-like body that could curl up into a ball, which could roll into a ball and race towards its prey. Blades could be sprung from many parts of its body at many angles at blinding speeds. The robot could transition from ball to full on bipedal form in a flash, and cut through prey before pain could be registered in their brain.
He let his gun do the screaming. Bullets tore into the robot’s head even as three heavy rounds punched through his armor and got stuck in his large intestine, left lung and sternum. The robot turned into a rolling disk and raced off. Despite its absence of head, it still operated normally.
Turbo on the other hand. . .
He could feel his left lung slowly fill up with blood. It was getting difficult to breathe, the pain he felt made colors dance across his vision. The force of the bullets had forced him to stumble backwards and drop to one knee. His gun dipping to the floor. All around him, his men screamed in pain as they were cut down by the rippers.
Gum barely registered the collapse of his partner, as his attention was focused on the one who had caused it. There it stood, putting holes in Bolts, who yelled out in pain, the sound echoing sickly in Gum’s ears. Gum pulled the trigger. The ripper erupted in a storm of detritus, flinging charred metal into the air. His head turned to locate another menace. . .
And watched as a ripper put bullets through him.
Snaz screamed as Gum fell to the floor, dead. She aimed at his killer and pulled the trigger, but the ripper was already gone, the fired explosive plasma striking a boulder and reducing it to grains of sand. She tracked it with her gun, vengeance blinding her to the ripper that rolled towards her from her right side. She didn’t even know when she died.
The killing machines tore through the relief squad as easily as knife cuts butter, Toy and Chin tried their best to put down their oppressors. When they finally did, their squad of twelve was reduced to four, barring the injured, which numbered five, and they were in no shape to go on, or head back on their own. Among the survivors were Chin, Toy, Peter, Link, Crank, Turbo, Harry, Jest and Riddles, out of which only Chin, Riddles, Jest, Harry and Link were able to stand and walk about, searching for more to oppose them.
“So what do we do, Riddles?” Chin asked their second in command. The man thought deeply on it for what felt like hours before his annoyingly calm voice broke the thick blanket of silence.
“We head back to landfall,” he said.
“What?” Jest snapped. “Are you mad? So we just abandon the mission?”
Riddles turned to face him, helmet suddenly retracted, cold dark eyes staring through a sea of brown skin regarded Jest. “The question is, are you mad? You want us to continue with the mission, even after we’ve suffered this much?” the man asked, gesturing at everything.
“We have to, lest our men die for nothing, and the ones pinned down too!”
“Use your brain, you pillock! What if we encounter another squad of rippers, what then? We die for nothing too. And our injured? You ask we leave our injured to die? No, Jest, I shall not be as thick as you are. We head back, treat our wounded, replenish our lost strength and radio for another relief squad.”
“And if we don’t get?” Jest sneered.
Riddles did not answer.
The planet’s gravity made it easier to carry their wounded; they were fastened to their backs with ropes that hooked the holes allotted which were magnetised. Riddles had decided to carry two of their injured; Crank and Turbo were hooked at awkward angles, but it was either that or he left one of them to die. Chin was on point, his db-45 gun cocked, scanning the wasted land for any sign of rippers. The only gun in their arsenal that could stop the monsters in their tracks, the db-45 was a thing of beauty. The nuzzle of the gun was unlike others; wide and deep, it shot not bullets, but large balls of superheated plasma, the first of its kind – guns that shot plasma were not produced by the opponents, a joke went thus; “We got robots made from the pits of hell,” went the opponents, the members of the Monarchdom. “Yeah, well we got hell itself!” went the citizens of the Empire – the gun was their trump card, one that never grew old. Four guns handled by four of the active survivors, hopping across the desert towards a Safe Zone.
Mid-hop, Riddle heard the call. “This is Jakob to squad c7-89, Jacob of squad B-78, where the fuck are you?”
Riddles hissed as his feet touched down. He hopped again and he was, once more, in the air. “We got hit hard by rippers, Reformer Jakob; heading back towards a Quiet Zone now to—”
“Are you fucked? You’re going to leave us to die?” the reports of guns very audible in the background.
“Can’t do a fucking thing, Reformer; as I said we’ve been hit and hit hard; more than half our squad is inactive, just us four hopping to safety now. We have injured and—”
“Fuck, so do we!”
“I doubt four persons would do little to turn the tides at your end, so—”
“You got db-45s yeah? We don’t, so if rippers come we’re fucked. Surprised they aren’t even here yet.”
“What is the ratio of how they outnumber you?”
“Do I sound like a cold Data-Stat Officer to you? I mean, you do, but I don’t—”
Touchdown, stumble, grunt, pitch, balance, liftoff. “Take a fucking guess,” Riddles hissed, his patience thinning
“Twenty to one,” the man at the other end snapped.
“Look; we have hit the Quiet Zone, we’re about to pass through the gate. Once through, we’ll send the message to—”
“And if they can’t spare more? And if we can’t wait?”
“Damn it, there aren’t other options! We can’t do anything else!”
“You can bloody well act like a fucking soldier, and fucking help—”
There was a strangely loud gunfire, a wet splat and then silence. Riddles’ heart sank as he feared the worst.
Touchdown, halt, walk. He cut the connection as he arrived at the gate. The sentries that guarded the gate straightened at his approach. Riddles activated his loudspeakers. “We have injured men and women on our backs, open the damned door!” he yelled at them. They saluted briskly and tapped the buttons on their forearms, prompting the sliding apart of the large metal doors. They peeled apart smoothly, kicking pale dust into the air. Riddles walked briskly through the portal, pace steadily increasing.
Before them was a small encampment, with an impromptu landing pad at its center. The designer of the camp had been smart enough to place the Medi-bay a few meters away from the portal. Riddles and his men stepped through the door leading into the dome and were greeted by a man in all white armor, tapping something into his long forearm. He glanced up at them and grunted through the speakers of his helmet. “Just place ’em in beds, we’ll attend to them. Riddles walked towards one bed and unhooked his load. Released, they drifted towards the floor. His arms grabbed them and gently laid them upon opposite beds. He glanced around; his squad members did the same. Men and women in armor began to attend to them.
The one who had spoken to Riddles simply stood, tapping away on his arm.
“So what now?” Jest asked as the nurses used an assortment of tools as they worked on their injured friends.
Riddles shrugged. He glanced around and set out of the Medi-bay, Jest in tow, the others simply standing and watching as the nurses operated. No doubt, they would be sent away soon.
Ahead, the wind was alive on the landing pad, dancing wildly as a dropship approached. He wondered if it was stocked with supplies or men, he prayed to whatever gods existed that it was the latter.
“In contact with B-78?” Jest asked with a snarl evident in his voice.
His heart felt like it was being ripped apart. “Yes.” He answered, voice tight. He halted and watched as the ship drew closer and closer to the pad.
Riddles tried to hail them as the silence spoke to Jest.
“Fuck,” he hissed. “We should have fucking—”
“Fucking what? Huh?” He asked, whirling around, helmet retracted, eyes hard and glaring. “Run towards danger, guns blazing, only to be gunned down or torn to shreds by rippers!”
“How do you know that?!”
Riddles shook his head, amazed at Jest’s stubbornness. No, he thought, this isn’t stubbornness, this is stupidity. He turned around, headed for the landing pad that was now occupied by a dropship, who’s hanger door popped open, a squad of, one, two…thirteen, eighteen, twenty able-bodied soldiers hopped down, guns cradled in their arms. Their Reformer was a head taller than Riddles at least. He backed his squad as they formed a line behind the closing hanger door.
“There’s reinforcement,” Jest observed. Riddles frowned. The lad was not listening; what was the point of reinforcement, if there was no one to reinforce?
There was a soft click as someone connected to his channel. “This is Jared of squad B-78; bloody fucking miracle is what happened. There we were, pinned down, our Reformer dead and the three after him as well, numbers diminished to a barely capable force, when out of the fucking blue, a fighter comes, tearing through thick clouds, backside on fire, unleashing bullets in hails unto the enemy before crashing in their midst. The rocks we hid behind survived the full brunt of the explosion…to a point. We’re less than a quarter of our original team, four in all including myself, but we fucking breathe!”
The shock that rocked Riddles prevented him from speaking.
“Hello? There anyone there? Fuck me and my loquaciousness, been talking to a dead end ping is what I’ve been doing. Damned is what I am; still—”
“Jared this is Riddles of codename Phoenix Squad, your relief team. You been speaking to a newly made Reformer who was so shocked he couldn’t find his tongue.”
“Relief team? Shit. Where the fuck are you?!”
“Got cut off on our way to you. Lost a lot of good soldiers, couldn’t move on. Able-bodied soldiers numbered the same as you do now…I take it you are a Reformer, Jared?”
“Shit,” he said, ignoring Riddles question as the newly arrived squad marched towards the gate. Riddles intercepted their Reformer as Jared continued. “Sorry to hear that, us. Fuckers planned it, do you think?”
“Hold on please,” he said.
“No problem, I’ll talk to static is what I’d do, don’t—”
Riddles put him on hold. He raised his brow at the Reformer who had her helmet peeled back, eyes betraying the confusion she felt. “Something the matter, Reformer?”
she asked, taking him in.
“Where you heading, Reformer?”
“Action Zone; we’re a relief team for squad codename Balderdash.”
Riddles frowned. They numbered more, about eight more than his squad did at the beginning. Jove, we could have used eight more. . . “Where’s that?”
She tapped a few buttons on her forearm and a holographic display was projected a few inches above it. It depicted a large crater with red and blue dots indicating the allies and foes. By the side were the crater’s coordinates.
What a string of luck, Jove, he thought, just a stone’s throw from Jared and his three.
“I need you to split your squad.” He said.
She blinked. “Why is that?”
“Meters away is a battered squad of four who need to be extracted. I need you to perform the extraction.”
She thought for a moment. “Four? Sorry, but I can not do that. I can not spare any of my squad members; Balderdash is choked with heavy infantry troops, along with a score of rippers. They’ve been riding things out in a cave but they can’t—”
“It’s a win for you, Reformer. Think on it; four able-bodied soldiers—” he had no idea if Jared and his three were badly injured, but the loquacious man had said nothing on that, “—along with mine, that’s eight in total. Eight would do wonders in a war like this.”
She hesitated, but her hesitation was a good sign, it meant—
“No, I still can’t do that, I’m sorry, but if I split my numbers and try to liberate Balderdash, I will fail without a doubt, and—”
“Fine; three is all I need, three plus my four, seven, plus the other four, eleven. Eleven of us would meet up at Balderdash’s location and turn the tides should there be need. Surely you can release three?”
She glanced back at her soldiers, who were no doubt curious as to why they weren’t killing anything yet. She sighed and nodded.
“Fine, three of my picking.” She turned towards her squad and addressed them, explaining the plan.
“Nigel, Sparks and Lit! You three, follow the man to the pits of hell if need be; you’re under his command for now.”
The soldiers groaned audibly. Riddles knew they could have done that through their private channel, but they just wanted to show their discomfort to him.
“None of that! Rest of you, follow!”
The rest trotted away, leaving the them to it. Sparks – he could tell it was, her or him, by the painting of sparks on his or her armor – stepped towards him and retracted her helmet, showing a calm baby face, scalp lacking hair, like the rest of them, eyes brown and bored, lips twitchy like she couldn’t decide which position they ought to be in. “Kesk,” she said with a solemn salute. She glanced behind him, eyes squinted and lips settling for a frown before grinning savagely. “Jester! That you there?!”
Riddles glanced back and saw the man in question, who had been behind him all along, flush as she recognized him. “You know her?” he asked.
Jest made a quick nod
“Know me? Fucker’s my brother!”
“Ah. Let me allow you catch up on lost times as I inform the rest of the plan. Remain.” He turned around and walked away, the sound of their conversation reaching his ears.
“Its Jest now, sis.”
“Shortened it, have you? Soon it would be Joke now wouldn’t it? Or Jay, ey? Bloody pillock, come here!”
“We can’t hug!” Jest yelled, voice shrill.
“Sure we can! Better hug lest I tell the world about Mr. Pan-Pan! There, that so hard? No-no! Don’t pull away so quickly! Oh how I’ve missed you. Your panda-bear doll says hello, from Lisa; mom’s lent it to her to help her sleep.”
“She made me swear not to tell you, but I figured you’d best know in case we all die today.”