“Thirty seconds to insertion.”
The dropship rocked as a stray missile barreled past it, leaving a fiery contrail in its wake. I tore my gaze away from the holographic window to the side of my cockpit and closed my eyes, feeling instead the tremors that rocked the heavily armored transport. Even with the layers of titanium and hardened alloys protecting the hull, the dropship could still be easily torn apart by barrages of missiles, flak and energy blasts. Taking a deep breath, I opened my eyes once again when the dropship listed to the side, the pilot banking hard to avoid another shrieking projectile that detonated a few dozen meters behind us. The visual sensors on the dropship transmitted the data to my armor real time, displaying it in ghostly holographic windows that floated around me.
I didn’t know the pilot’s name. It didn’t matter. My platoon had been ferried to countless warzones by as many pilots, and I didn’t remember talking to any of them.
The anti-air installations continued to bombard the air above. A blinding explosion flashed across the window and I witnessed one of the imperial dropships being torn apart, its burning wreckage plummeting to the earth.
“Fuck!” Isaac Lindley shouted, his knight armor jerking against his safety harness when the dropship swiveled about. “That was 12th platoon!”
“Ten seconds to insertion,” the pilot called out from the front, ignoring the curses of the platoon strapped into the cargo hold of his ship. I took a deep breath and glanced downward at a small window that depicted the floor of the transport. I was no stranger to combat drops, but the feeling of helplessness when airborne was the worst. The dropship shuddered when an anti-air shell detonated against its side, almost knocking its passengers out. The pilot swore under his breath. “Hang in there!”
And then the floor beneath us opened up, revealing the ground below. Explosions dotted the landscape, colossal conflagrations surging upward in orange and red plumes. Bipedal machines dueled against each other, trading laser beams and missiles between them. At their feet, infantry shuffled forward, unleashing energy bolts from their rifles.
“Standby for Knightfall!” the pilot shouted, and then he hit the switch. The safety harnesses snapped open and we were released earthward, our armored forms sailing through the air amidst a storm of flak, energy beams and missiles.
I heard a shriek and Katherine Carlson vanished in an explosion when a missile struck her armor. The remains of her armor, blood, bone and flesh rained down in a grisly manner, spiraling out of sight. I exhaled, feeling my pulse racing while I adjusted the trajectory of my armor’s fall.
No matter how sturdily built my knight armor was, it wasn’t going to withstand an impact from crashing into the ground from a height of three hundred meters. Nor was it going to endure the enemy’s anti-air weaponry.
Focusing my mental energies along the psionic crystals that interlaced my cockpit, I willed my armor to respond to my intentions. Jet thrusters built into the back of my armor flared and I pushed the suit toward the left. A missile wheezed past me, plasma scorching the surface of my armor. Then again, it was painted black, so there wasn’t much of a visible scar.
The ground expanded rapidly beneath me, the window displaying it seeming to shrink as the battlefield reached up to engulf me. A small graph by the side of the window indicated my altitude, the numbers rapidly dropping. Two hundred and fifty meters to the ground. Two hundred meters. Cursing when I caught sight of a ruby laser beam slashing toward my knght armor, I adjusted the thrusters and swerved to the right. One hundred and thirty meters. Seventy-five meters.
At twenty meters, I activated the plasma jets again, cushioning my fall. For a second, my knight armor jerked and rose shakily, and then I switched them off and allowed it to hit the ground with a thunderous thud.
Immediately, I had my armor spring to action, channeling my psionic energies into the frame. The humanoid machine followed my will, sprinting across the ground. Raising its right arm, I focused my psionic energies into the rifle held in the metallic fist and had it manifest in a golden beam of high-intensity energy, cutting down several of the infantry that had reared their heads.
I didn’t pay much attention to their downed bodies, urging my armor forward. Trampling over the corpses of my enemy, I moved toward the installation that command had designated a priority target. If we took that down, the empire could land more troops.
As for the enemy…they weren’t human.
Cyber-ghouls – hideous hybrids of organic flesh and metal – shambled toward my landing position, firing missiles and thermal beams from massive weapons that had been surgically grafted into their bodies. Half of their faces were concealed by visors, while their mouths were frozen in rictus grins, their pale flesh in various states of decay. There wasn’t a single pattern to them – many of the cyber-ghouls were built or grown differently. Some scuttled forward on multiple arachnid-like legs made completely of metal, others grinded forward atop treads. A few were uncannily human, stumbling forward on two legs and sporting shoulder-mounted artillery. On the opposite sides, they were armed with all sorts of close combat weaponry, ranging from drills to hydraulic claws to laser cutters.
To ordinary infantry, these cyber-ghouls must look intimidating. Most of them towered over three meters, their pallid flesh and grotesque fusions of biological and machine making them appear like abominations out of nightmares. They could cut down a crowd of unarmored humans in seconds with a swipe of their laser cutters, if their ranged weaponry didn’t incinerate them into ash first.
To us knights, encased within nine-meter tall titanium armor suits, they were bugs.
Hefting the rifle up, I allowed a searing bolt of amplified psionic energy to disintegrate a squadron of cyber-ghouls before they could open fire. Advancing toward the anti-air installation they were advancing toward, I let off another barrage of energy bolts that hammered into their ranks, throwing up limbs, heads and machine parts into the air, along with a cloud of dust.
An outflanking squadron fired thermal beams, laser bolts and missiles from my right. An alert window popped up, warning me of the imminent assault. With a thought, I spun my armor around and conjured a psionic shield. A shimmering field of azure aura enveloped my machine and soaked up the devastating projectiles, the energy beams dissipating harmlessly about half a meter away from my armor. The missiles exploded harmlessly against the protective barrier, small infernos that winked out almost immediately.
Then I responded with a volley of psionic energy bolts from my armor’s rifle. Detonations rang along their lines, but a few of them braved the conflagrations to collide against me. Hydraulic claws swung, destructive energies crackling along their lengths, while drills whirled deafeningly as they sought to pierce through the psionic shield that now enveloped my armor.
I had no choice. With a thought, I flicked the left arm of my armor forward. Psionic energies crackled to life before being projected from a wrist-mounted weapon. Once it manifested as a glowing azure blade, I swung the arm about and cleaved through the approaching cyber-ghouls. Drills, laser cutters and hydraulic weapons fell apart, their edges molten and dripping red from the sheer heat. Twisting my armor about, I struck once more, cutting the cyber-ghouls into pieces before stomping on their remains to ensure they were dead.
Cyber-ghouls were unusually resilient. Sometimes they played dead, only to rise once more to ambush unsuspecting infantry who pass through the area. It paid handsomely to make sure.
A gigantic shell slammed into my psionic shield and detonated, the tremendous impact shaking my armor off its feet. I threw out one hand to steady my machine and flipped it upward with a dexterity that would otherwise be impossible if not for a combination of psychic abilities and advanced technology. Twisting around, I caught sight of a massive cyber-beast crawling toward me on fours.
Unlike the vaguely humanoid cyber-ghouls, the cyber-beasts were visibly more animalistic. Monstrous creatures paired with cybernetic augmentations, the one that attacked me was a massive crocodile with a 240mm cannon grafted to its back.
The once brightly glowing azure psionic shield blinked, fading to a transparent color and I winced from the psycho-stigmatic feedback. Aware that my psionic barrier wouldn’t be able to withstand another blow, I shifted my aim and fired a stream of energy bolts at the artillery crocodile. Unfortunately, its thick armor – a combination of organic scales and metal plating – resisted the energy bolts, the ruby projectiles dissipating ineffectively against its massive body.
The artillery crocodile fired again, and I dove to the side, jet thrusters flaring to accelerate. The shell smashed into the ground and the shockwaves from the explosion rocked my armor, almost knocking it off its feet. Gritting my teeth, I adjusted the equilibrium of my armor before charging at the artillery crocodile.
The cyber-beast fired once more, its shell screaming straight at me. I swerved to the side, just barely dodging the deadly projectile, which gouged a crater out of the ground behind me and dealing friendly fire to a pack of cyber-ghouls clamoring to mob me. Ignoring the smaller enemy, I headed directly for the artillery crocodile. Activating the psionic blade once more, I sliced through the cannon mounted to its back, causing it to roar.
Without missing a beat, I swiveled my armor around and fired the beam rifle directly into the wound I had just sliced into its back. The artillery crocodile went into spasms, thrashing about wildly. An alert popped up in a red window and I instinctively flipped my armor about, evading the cyber-beast’s augmented tail that would have cleaved my armor in half.
I then whirled my armor about and plunged the psionic blade into the artillery crocodile’s head, destroying both its organic brain and computing processor that had been interlaced into its neural tissue. Dragging the psionic blade out, I then finished off the creature with a bolt from my beam rifle. While the cyber-beasts went into its death throes, I activated the jet thrusters to boost me away. Landing upon a pack of approaching cyber-ghouls ad crushing them under the weight of my forty-ton armor, I then fired another volley at a charging cyber-beast – a fire-breathing bull with metallic plates nailed to its sides and head. Designated as Taurus, it was a fearsome cyber-beast whose jaw-mounted flamethrower could incinerate whole infantry platoons.
Another knight crashed into the Taurus, the thick frame of his bipedal armor causing his target to topple to its side. Piloting the same type of Guardian armor as me, its hulking, almost slouched silhouette easily recognizable, the knight activated his psionic blade and stabbed the Taurus, peeling off its thick armor layer by layer. His other arm held the Taurus’s jaws at bay, sending streams of napalm astray that ended up bathing the cyber-ghouls instead.
“Thanks, Schwartz,” I said, only for my platoon mate to snort.
“Someone has to watch your back,” he sneered, his contempt clear in his voice. “Far East scum. I don’t know how a loser like you made a knight, but parasites like you pollute our platoon. Command should have kept us pure. Only we highborn natives should be allowed to be knights.”
I ignored his insults, already searching for a target. They stung, but I was used to them. Such was the fate of descendants of immigrant families. Beams flared brightly but harmlessly against my now restored psionic shield, and I retaliated against the attackers with another bombardment from my beam rifle. The carapace missile launcher roared, the rockets streaking from them and hammering into fortified positions. More cyber-ghouls were blown into the air.
Stomping through the field, I finally caught sight of a target that was a worthy foe for a knight. A behemoth trampled through its own forces, pulverizing cyber-ghouls under its clawed feet. An oversized head, twin power claws, shoulder-mounted cannons…an ogre-class behemoth.
A knight was the true dominant force on the battlefield. Clad in titanium armor, there was little that could threaten us…except overwhelming force, a Titan or an equal.
Activating my psionic blade, I began sprinting forward. The ogre spotted me, its huge jaw opening in a snarl and uttering a mixture of guttural noises and machine screeching. Its cannons boomed, 50mm shells arcing over the battlefield to smash into me.
Knowing that my psionic shields would be wiped out in a single salvo, I relied on the speed of my machine to carry me through. Activating the plasma jets, I had my hunchbacked armor accelerate forward, just before the massive shells bombarded the earth and blasted a molten crater into the ground. I let loose a volley of psionic bolts from the rifle, but they clanged weakly against the thick armor of the ogre. It grunted from the stinging shots, more irritated than from any real pain, and then fired another burst at my location.
I spun my armor about, altering the trajectory of my charge and boosted to the side. Even as the shells detonated behind me, I swerved about from the side and covered the last remaining distance in a single bound. Holstering the rifle, I activated the psionic blades on both arms and swung them from opposite sides.
The ogre wasn’t to be outdone. Snarling, it threw out its power claws and parried the blows, stopping the crackling azure beams from its armor. Sparks flew between us and powder fields collided, generating intense heat. I pulled back, retreating from a clumsy blow from the ogre, and then hacked one of its arms apart. A glancing blow, but I had at least severed a cable or two. The arm now moved jerkily and sluggishly, partially disabled.
The ogre growled and countered with its other power claw, forcing me to keep my distance. I parried its follow up strike with my second psionic blade before thrusting the other at its chest. My enemy managed to catch it before it could penetrate to far, the sizzling energies turning the metal of its claw red.
Backpedaling, I evaded another unwieldy slash from the ogre, its power claws clanking. The partially disabled one tried to snap shut around one of my machine’s arms, but I yanked it out of the way in time. Even damaged, it was still a threat, so I couldn’t ignore it.
So I decided to go for a feint. I stabbed at its neck, forcing it to block. Then I quickly cleaved through the slower, damaged power claw with my other psionic blade. Sparks flew and there was a shrill shriek as my psionic blade met resistance, but I gritted my teeth and focused more of my psionic energies into the crystals woven into my armor. The blade glowed brighter and I managed to shear off the power claw in a single, vicious strike.
The ogre roared in fury and swung its remaining power claw at the head of my armor, where my cockpit was located. I somehow managed to parry it with my other psionic blade, the servos screaming from the effort. I grunted, feeling the psychic pain lance through my corresponding arm, but I didn’t let up because I knew that the blow would be fatal. Leaning back in my seat and clenching my fingers in my haptic gloves into a fist, I channeled more psychic energy to increase the strength of the overtaxed mechanical limb.
However, the ogre’s superior strength was winning out. My Guardian stumbled, no longer able to withstand the blow.
Fortunately, I still had another card to play.
Whirling the other arm of my armor about, I stabbed the ogre in the throat with my second psionic blade. The behemoth gurgled, a mixture of blood and machine oil leaking from its half metallic jaws. On the other hand, its wound was cauterized, but the lubricant within had caught fire and was igniting its insides.
With a tremendous effort, I managed to yank my psionic blade free, cutting through part of its neck. The ogre staggered back, its head almost flopping off and attached only by a flap of skin and some bone.
However, the cybernetic behemoth was incredibly resilient. It snarled and tried to seize my machine with its power claw once more. This time, I slid my armor to the side, sidestepping its lunge, and then I brought the psionic blade down and amputated its other arm. Planting a mechanical foot into its gut, I kicked the ogre aside.
With a grunt, the behemoth hit the ground and rolled about. It tried to rise to its feet once more – a difficult feat, given that it was now armless. Not wanting to give it a chance to get up again, I moved forward and pulverized its head with a single stomp.
I exhaled in relief, feeling exhausted from the duel. My weariness was reflected in the flickering psionic shields of my armor. That wasn’t good. The power levels and armaments of my Guardian were dependent on my mental state.
“Private Tanaka, Private Schwartz! Form up on my positon!”
Sergeant Samuels’s voice crackled over the psionic crystals, transmitted to my armor through telepathic signals. A window opened up next to me, displaying the veteran’s wizened face. I nodded, about to comply, only to notice that the form up point differed from the original plan. The sergeant was pulling our platoon back.
“Sergeant, aren’t we supposed to assault the anti-air installation? I just cleared out the defensive forces around it. We can push in now.”
Consulting my visual display, I saw that the installation was merely dozens of meters away. My attack had decimated its defenders and the way forward was clear. All I needed to do was surge forward and I would be inside, able to sabotage the huge guns from within. The ogre had been the biggest obstacle to that goal, their strongest guard.
“Change in orders,” Samuels said sharply. “Command has dropped in a prototype knight armor in the battlefield, but it has been hit hard. We are to form a defensive ring around it until the pilot gets it back online.”
“Prototype armor?” Schwartz repeated incredulously. “Why would they throw a prototype armor right into the battlefield?”
“You should ask command, not me. Scratch that, it’s not our job to ask questions. We just follow orders. Now form up on me!”
“Yes, sergeant,” I replied, already moving toward the form up point where the rest of my platoon was gathering. A small holographic window had winked into being, representing a mini-map. Friendly units were indicated by blue icons, and enemy units were marked as red.
I blasted holes in cyber-ghouls’ ranks with the beam rifle as I had my armor sprint toward their position. Fortunately, Sergeant Samuels and the rest weren’t too far away. I approached them, clearing the distance between us rapidly.
“Schwartz? Hey, where are you?” Samuels’s frustrated voice, along with his annoyed expression, came from a window next to me. I consulted another window and saw that Schwartz was moving away from the platoon rather than toward them. Raising an eyebrow at his insubordination, I realized that he was charging straight into the thick of the enemy.
“Forget about escort duty,” he snapped. “There’s no glory in protecting a wreck. I’m going to kill as many of the enemy as I can. For the Empire!”
“Get back here! That’s an order!”
Samuels cursed when Schwartz shut off his communication, presumably throwing up a psychic barrier to block telepathic signals. He shook his head and then glanced at me – or rather, a window displaying me.
“Tanaka, over here.” he marked a position in a holographic map and I obeyed. As I neared, I caught sight of a massive, hulking object in the center of the clearing. It was bulky and boxy, its surface painted entirely black. Honestly, it reminded me of a capsule…or a coffin. I couldn’t help but shudder at the ominous thought.
That must be the prototype we were ordered to protect.
Forming up a defensive ring, I joined my platoon mates in firing at an encroaching line of cyber-ghouls and cyber-beasts. Taking aim, I unleashed a volley of psionic bolts with my beam rifle. With the other arm, I transformed my psionic energies into a web of lightning that danced from the heavily armed cyborgs, frying their organic matter and shorting out their circuitry.
Then a colossal shadow loomed over us.
“Sergeant! A Titan!”
At the warning, I glanced up at a window, my pulse racing. A Titan…one of the only cybernetic constructs that could threaten a knight. Towering over even our immense machines, the thirty-meter high colossi carried city-leveling firepower. They were rarely seen, and I had thought them to be legends, but now I saw one of the skyscraper sized cyborgs ambling toward us.
All pretense of humanoid had been lost…the Titans didn’t even resemble terrestrial beasts. They were eldritch cyborgs, a nest of writhing cables that resembled tentacles, and carrying house-sized cannons. A plasma obliterator lowered to point its enormous barrel at us.
“Evade!” Samuels shouted, but his warning came too late. A blinding flash roared from the massive weapon and a tsunami of superheated matter washed over our position, turning earth into molten lava. My visual receptors automatically blinked out to protect my eyes, but there was no armor or psionic shield that could save me from the titanic wave of plasma that disintegrated both enemy and ally alike.
screamed in pain as my Guardian was bathed in scorching heat, and then
everything went black.