I occasionally write some short fiction. This is a piece that I wrote as a wrapper for a set of games of Infinity that I played, personalizing some of my minis and giving some context for the scenarios.
With legs that were not his own, Santiago swam.
The tanned, muscular Acontecimento native imagined he could feel the cool waters around him, the warmth of the sunlight giving way to chills more than a handful of meters under the surface. With a thought, he switched directions, following a map, and kicking off towards a small blip, less than a kilometer away. For the next two hours, Santiago’s legs would work once more.
Forty-four thousand kilometers away, under the waters of the ocean planet Varuna’s tropical seas, a Cutter changed course slightly, its legs giving an effective but unnecessary kick as its turbines spun up.
Three surface cruisers and a submarine flanked it, moving towards a small, rocky island. The mission was simple and straightforward: two days ago, a terrorist attack left one of Varuna’s primary orbital elevators damaged, causing quite a few deaths and extensive infrastructure damage, not to mention the lost revenue in delayed or cancelled shipments. The group had been well-armed but sloppy, and a tracking device on their escape craft led pursuit to this island. Yesterday, a strike team had entered, the usual crew for a sweep; three Kamau, one of whom was a hacker controlling a Pathfinder Dronbot, and a Naga.
Kamau were Varuna’s standard antiterrorism specialists. Trained in aquatic insertion, they could get in and get out of even the most well-hidden underwater hideouts and flush out any insurgents. Their equipment was expensive, designed to provide superior protection against illegal weaponry, particularly EMP grenades and other devices. It was rare for a terrorist cell to get ahold of such things, but not rare enough to eschew the precaution.
Generally, one of the Kamau was a hacker, a battlefield computer specialist trained to use their prowess offensively. A hacker on the team could shut the lights off or slam doors closed from a hundred meters, or stop outgoing communications, or any number of other tricks, both technical and psychological. Having an hacking uplink available also meant a remote could join the team — an expendable robot with a variety of uses. In this particular case, advanced sensors meant no hiding for the terrorists, and saved money on multispectral visors and other tech — the Kamau suits were often expense enough. The Naga on the team was an advanced lhost, a clone specially grown to serve a specific purpose. In this case, the lhost was an infiltration specialist and a scout for the team.
Yesterday, the team of five went into the underwater entrance. Yesterday, contact was lost. Two of the team confirmed dead, the remote scrap metal, and one Kamau and the Naga unaccounted for. This was not a simple antiterrorism sweep anymore, and the potential repercussions were severe. The deaths of the Kamau were unfortunate but potentially remediable; much of their mental acuity and personality was kept on a Cube, attached to the brain, that recorded their thoughts and memories. With a Cube, the slain soldier could be revived, his mind uploaded into a new body. The waiting lists for new bodies could be long, but death in friendly territory as a result of a superior’s miscalculation tended to hasten the process quite a bit. The problem was, the Cubes needed to be retrieved. Combat casualties were one thing — securing Cubes after a mission was standard procedure. Losing an entire team was nearly unheard-of, though, and lost Cubes were very bad press.
Luckily, the news crews were delayed, and today Santiago and his team were being sent in for “authoritative extraction,” which was code for “get our men out at any cost, and make an example of los cabrones who made this happen”. Santiago himself was the heavy artillery: his Cutter was a five-meter Tactical Armored Gear armed with a heavy machinegun capable of tearing the average tank to shreds with explosive rounds. Armored, fast, and destructive, the Cutter was entirely capable of standing up to nearly any weapon brought by a terrorist cell on its own. As if that weren’t enough, the entire TAG was equipped with a state-of-the-art thermoptic camouflage system, allowing it to vanish from sight despite its size and move nearly silently, despite weighing several tons. With a pilot controlling in real-time from geosynchronous orbit, it was an incredibly efficient weapon, particularly for a mission like this.
This was not, however, a mission about efficiency. Santiago was not a one-man strike force. In the three surface craft above him were five Kamau and ten of Varuna’s Fusiliers, soldiers trained to work as a team and operate as one, armed variously for the situation. Croc Men accompanied the teams, infiltration specialists like the Naga but with superior technology to vanish, much like Santiago’s Cutter.
The submarine was full of ALEPH agents, the AI’s politely enraged response to losing one of its own. The team was formidable, larger than most black ops teams by far. The previous team had been insertion.
This team was shock. Santiago himself was the worst of that, intended to lie in wait until the rest of the force had hit the island and secured exits, then revealing himself as a final psychological assault to break the morale of the terrorists. As such, he crouched invisibly, waiting at the edge of the hideout for a signal to move in and reveal himself.
The first wave of Fusiliers were met by a rocket, followed by a withering hail of surprisingly accurate fire. Regrouping quickly, the strike team got a visual on one of the targets. As the visual was passed along wirelessly to the other members of the team, Santiago inhaled sharply. The terrorists were no simple insurgents, they were Druze mercenaries. Druze Shock Teams were infamous for their aggressive, scorched-earth tendencies, and they were no simple combatants. With access to excellent technology and weapons, they could easily be a match for the military forces of any nation, even the wealthy, high-tech PanOceania that controlled Varuna and several other planets.
Hidden from sight at the edge of the firefight, Santiago checked his weapon, carefully and silently. With the mercenaries on the scene, he would be needed. Shock and awe wouldn’t work on the Druze, only firepower.
In orbit above Varuna, the tactical support ship Avehielo kept watch over the strike team. The image of the Druze sent ripples throughout the ship, surprise evoking speculation like wildfire. Juliet Aeterra tried to keep out of it. She was an Auxilia, a police force used primarily on the metropolis planet of Neoterra, but also as guards on orbital craft. As reserve forces on the largely peaceful capital planet of PanOceania, Auxilia had a tendency to have little actual work to do, and turned to gossip between training and practice sessions. This was exacerbated on the Avehielo, as a fairly large contingent of ALEPH agents were posted on board. Their alert, professional, tireless security only caused the Auxilia on the ship to be even more bored, and gossip more than usual. Juliet found it tiresome, so opted to spend time working on her own personal remote, a monowheeled Auxbot that she affectionately called Zip.
Auxilia were trained to work in tandem with lightly armed Auxbots, and Juliet had developed an attachment to hers, stenciling ‘Zip’ on the lip above the remote’s single massive headlight. She activated Zip and brought it over to Tactical Remote Control, the portion of the ship that bristled with communications arrays and allowed the remote hackers to be present on the battlefield below, in mind if not in body. Guarding the hackers was as good an excuse as any for hanging around in one place, and Juliet figured she could work on Zip in the meantime, undisturbed in the nearly empty room. The only active hacker right now was Santiago Sims, a good friend of Juliet and an excellent TAG pilot. His wheelchair had rolled up against the wall, and Juliet moved it back next to Santiago’s uplink chair to make his life a little easier after the mission. Standing next to the uplink chair, she was close enough to hear him gasp.
The Druze were professionals. Expensive, well-trained, and brutal. Santiago stayed hidden, waiting for orders, but inwardly gritted his teeth as the Druze poured out of cover and opened fire in greater numbers than could possibly have been expected. It was very clear how the initial PanOceanian force had been overwhelmed; Santiago’s tactical map showed at least twenty Druze, many heavily armed.
The PanOceanian forces were far better equipped, however, and had the advantage of versatility, not to mention Santiago’s Cutter. He caught flickers of the Naga well ahead of the force, the almost-human ALEPH construct undoubtedly placing mines. The use of monofilament mines was authorized in certain situations to cut off the escape of insurgents. They blanketed an area with a mesh of monofilament fibers, which would slice through most materials with contemptuous ease. Without special tools, it was very difficult and dangerous to remove a monofilament mesh. Best of all, they had an intelligent friend-or-foe system in place, that would protect friendly fire without compromising functionality. In this case, they would prove invaluable in preventing the Druze from closing the distance necessary to threaten with powerful, close-range weaponry. Santiago appreciated the consideration; for all the armor on his Cutter, it wasn’t invincible by any means.
The Kamau, Naga, and other infiltrators moved forward quickly, trying to secure locations. The group of Fusiliers took position behind the mines and laid down suppressive fire, giving the infiltrators more chance to move forward. A silent cue spurred Santiago forward, and he moved into position behind them, waiting for his order to open fire. It almost looked like he would be redundant, as the Fusilier fire and the infiltrators’ precise shots sent the Druze into retreat. The Cutter wouldn’t fit into the tight spaces here; it would be up to the infantry to clean up. The order to move forward came, and Santiago watched as the Fusiliers moved forward. His attentive, mild relief turned to horror as the line of mines detonated, blanketing the area with monofilament mesh that sliced through most of the Fusiliers before they had the chance to react. Most were cut to ribbons in under a second, while those with the presence of mind to dodge were largely unable to escape the meshes. The Kamau and other infiltrators turned in horror, realizing what had just happened, just in time for the Druze to appear, having feigned retreat, and pin the surviving forces in between their guns and the blanket of deadly monofilament mesh.
Santiago’s horror turned to surprise, as his Cutter sustained several direct hits. Looking around in a panic, on either side of him he saw two tall, slender women wielding rifles. They casually loaded rounds into their guns and fired directly at the Cutter, its camouflage somehow no defense against their inhumanly accurate shots. Santiago barely had time to register the lithe women in white before their withering fire pierced through the Cutter’s armor, damaging internal systems. The uplink disconnected, and Santiago was unceremoniously thrust back into his body in orbit, convulsing with the shock.
Juliet listened over the intercom as a crew meeting was called. The ALEPH liason on the ship sounded like a normal woman, but her synthesized voice had an edge to it that made Juliet’s skin crawl. Zip was still partially open, and Juliet resolved to take her time showing up to the meeting, to ensure Zip was closed up. She didn’t particularly relish listening to that machine voice talk once more about security protocol or non-disclosure agreements. ALEPH made Juliet and most of her team redundant on the ship, so their continual ‘crew meetings’ tended to rub people the wrong way. ALEPH’s Deva- and Naga-class agents probably outnumbered the security teams on the ship, now that the strike force was on Varuna — they were handling everything. Perhaps the AI thought it would be a comfort to keep the crew in the loop, but it came off as patronizing. Juliet closed up Zip and sent it ahead while she cleaned up her tools, squeezing every moment to keep her away from the unnecessary meeting.
Juliet’s delay left her in the uplink room long enough that when Santiago convulsed with shock, she was close enough to startle and drop her spanner. Years of training meant that the startle was paired with the drawing of her pistol, the more at-hand of her standard weapons, but she quickly felt a bit sheepish pointing a gun at the bleary paraplegic, particularly as his eyes widened in shock. Scolding herself inwardly, she holstered the gun and moved to help Santiago into his wheelchair. If the Acontecimentan pilot came, at least she’d a friend there for company. A bit of cheer found its way into her voice at the thought.
“Hey, I didn’t expect you back so soon. The AI just called a meeting, figure I can walk over there with you if you like.” Juliet immediately regretted her choice of words, but Santiago didn’t appear to notice, paling at the mention of the AI.
“Don’t go to that meeting, amiga. Something isn’t right.” Santiago winced through a sudden pain: the shock of suddenly disconnecting was usually followed by a severe migraine. He had to tell someone what he’d seen, though. “ALEPH turned on us. God only knows why. The entire strike team is dead.” Juliet paled. She had seen the strike team, much bigger and well-equipped than most. If it had been brought down, it wasn’t by some simple terrorists– but an ALEPH betrayal? It was unthinkable. As she opened her mouth to respond, her helmet beeped, an alert from Zip. Still watching Santiago, she picked up the helmet and glanced inside. On one of the graphical panels, she could see the viewpoint of her auxbot, seeing through Zip’s eyes, as it were. Zip was looking through a window, alerted by gunfire, and Juliet had a few seconds to register the scene before the ALEPH forces on the ship gunned down the entire team of security personnel on board the Avehielo, all gathered in one place. She dimly realized Santiago was putting a comforting hand on her shoulder as she watched her team, the other Auxilia and Fusiliers, her friends, gasp in surprise before bullets ended their lives. She had seen death before, but not like this. Her stunned reverie was interrupted by a sudden lurching of the ship. The entire Avehielo shook.
“Madre de Dios. Boarding hooks. What idiotas would attack this ship in PanOceania space?” Santiago took Juliet by the wrist, gently shaking her to get her attention. “Amiga, we need to go. They’ll find we weren’t there soon, if they aren’t already coming to kill me.”
Juliet shook her head, trying to clear her mind of the faces of her companions. “The escape pods. If we hurry, we’ll get there before the boarders do. Who are they?”
“No se. I would rather not find out, no?” Santiago forced a grin. “You have your little buddy, amiga?” Juliet nodded, already plugging in her helmet. The synchronization between herself and Zip clicked in instantly, giving her the momentarily disorienting feeling of being in two places at once. The sensation passed quickly, however, as training kicked in, and Juliet moved down the hall with Santiago. The tanned man held her rifle while she pushed his wheelchair, and Zip closed the distance between them, watching for pursuers. The two humans were down the hall only slightly before the ship’s klaxons blared, followed quickly by an announcement: Santiago Sims and Juliet Aeterra, report to the bridge for processing. The machine voice sent chills up Juliet’s spine, and she saw Santiago shudder in his chair.
The orders were simple: extraction. Interventors had hacked into the ALEPH strategic planning database and discovered the plan to eliminate the PanOceanian crew. A strike team was dispatched to interrupt the ALEPH timetable and extract any survivors. The odds of defection were extremely high, particularly if the strike could occur after the betrayal.
The team itself was tight and slim, but very well equipped. Two Intruders, insertion and suppression specialists. Two Spektrs, stealth specialists. Two Zeroes, infiltration and extraction. One Reverend Custodier, the religious representative of the Observance and the overwatch for the team. One Meteor Zond, a remote capable of sweeping the area and scanning for survivors.
The boarding action was clean, airlocks prepped for insertion. Charges placed. Detonated.
As Juliet and Santiago raced down the hall, Juliet heard an alert ping from Zip. Fast, deadly ALEPH remotes were chasing them, followed quickly by the AI lhost bodies. The intent was obvious, and Zip shook from a bullet ricocheting off of its outer shell. Juliet closed her eyes for a moment, crossing a line in her mind, then sent a mental command to Zip.
Three ALEPH security remotes raced down the hall, chasing the small auxbot. A trio of Devas followed closely, flanking a slender woman, apparently lightly armored, but wielding a heavier gun than the rest, as if it weighed nothing. She was an Asura, the elite of ALEPH’s agents, and under the guise of the slender woman, she was as well armored as any shock troop, capable of taking direct missile fire and shrugging it off. She gestured forward, indicating to the Devas and their remotes to cut off the fleeing auxbot. When the small, monowheeled remote abruptly stopped and spun around, the Asura stopped, enhanced artificial intelligence warning her of upcoming events. As a result, when a massive gout of flame poured down the hallway, the Asura was already behind cover, shielded from much of the force of the blast. Briefly considering the wrecked remains and charred bodies of the Devas and their Devabots, the Asura calmly returned fire, a single, powerful shot shattering the auxbot into so much scrap metal.
Juliet stiffened as she saw the muzzle flash, a split second before Zip disconnected. As she ran down the hall, fighting tears at the destruction of her companion, she glanced behind her, seeing the Asura moving with inhuman speed in their direction. Santiago let out a shout as the hallway in front of them exploded, an airlock door slamming across the hallway and indistinct shapes pouring out. Juliet mistook the hints of red armor for her lost Auxilia teammates for a brief moment, and while Santiago frantically swung the rifle around, trying to pin down one of the blurry, technologically camouflaged shapes, a voice rang out from the newcomers.
“Calm down, mates. We’re gettin’ ya out of here. Hurry.” The voice resolved into a white shape, a faceless mask with a single glowing green eye, above a white-and-orange armored jumpsuit. The Zero gestured towards the hole where the airlock used to be. “C’mon now, we’ve got to–”
The Zero’s calming voice was cut off suddenly, as the Asura rounded the corner. Two shapes in red armor coalesced, six glowing green eyes focusing on the oncoming ALEPH agent. Heavy machine guns erupted, slowing but not stopping the machine-woman. In a moment of realization, the Asura turned with her gun and simply smashed a wall with inhuman strength, ripping through the hull to the vacuum beyond. As Juliet’s ears popped and she felt a trickle of blood drip down the sides of her neck, her last sight before the spots around her eyes enveloped her in blackness was Santiago, slumping in his wheelchair.
Santiago awoke in a cold room, an incessant vibration suggesting a spacecraft, and the deep resonance of the vibration suggesting a spacecraft larger than he had ever been on. A single light illuminated a nightstand next to him, where a Bible and a rosary sat. He smiled to himself, and accepted the gift. It wasn’t the Bible he was used to, but it was close enough.
When he had said his prayers and read from the Good Book for a few hours, a knock came from the darkness, followed by a feminine shape cloaked in orange and white. A hood covered her head, and a mask her face, but her voice was soft, almost musical.
“Santiago Sims. I’m glad you woke up.” Santiago’s mind caught up with him, and he realized what was happening, and who he was speaking to.
“This is a Nomad ship. You’re a Catholic. You’re recruiting me, aren’t you?” The cloaked woman tilted her head.
“Is it working? If not, you are of course free to go. Your medical treatment is courtesy of Bakunin. I’d rather not interview you in bed, though. Come talk to me outside when you’re ready.” With a curt nod, she spun on her heel and left.
“Madre, wait!” Santiago sat up, pulling himself forward from the bed. Habit sent him towards where his wheelchair usually was, but it wasn’t there. He braced himself to crash onto the floor, but long-lost reflexes kicked in, and his legs swung out underneath him. For a moment, Santiago tottered on his feet, eyes wide in shock. One hand traced his lower back, feeling the sown skin and implanted metal that had repaired his ruined spine. The Reverend Custodier turned back, her mask watching Santiago carefully.
“Madre, you did this? For free?” Santiago took a delicate step forward, his strong legs supporting him. Past the Custodier he could see Juliet, watching excitedly in a white jacket and baggy orange pants.
“Yes, my child. It is what we do. Tell me, do you think you can pilot a Szalamandra?” The Custodier began walking out of the room again.
Santiago laughed at the question. “You gave me my legs back, madre. I will pilot whatever you ask.”
With legs that were his own, new and strong, Santiago followed her out.