It was called The Battle Bus.
Everyone hated the name. I don’t mean “only those who designed on the Kinetic Mid-Impact Boarding Platform Mk.IV”, I don’t mean the engineers and mechanics who kept it up – I mean, everyone hated it, including the soldiers on it and the commanding officers who know of the colloquial name. Everyone hated the name, and of course since this was the military and the militarys’ sole goal is to hurt as many people as possible, the name stuck. Legend says the soldier who came up with the name is still trying to mop up all the water on Ganymede.
It didn’t look anything like a bus, of course. Long like a torpedo with a tunnel-boring-machine nose and far too many rockets on the back, it was utilitarian in the way that only the lowest possible bidder could create. There were no portholes, the only lights it had were guidance lights for the pilot, and it had nothing outside of gyrojets and flush vents to steer it in any appreciable way. The only way in was also the only way out, and as it disengaged from the mothership and fired all thrusters to full… well. It was like a bullet; once fired, it went until it stopped.
So, the UTF Military, in time honored tradition, allowed the pilots to name their Battle Busses something to hopefully inspire hope and strength in their men – or fear and terror in the enemy. With that being said, the first Battle Bus, Speed, hit the remainder of the hull of The Perfect, slowing far below 50mph. Internal gyroscopes recorded the hit and fed data to the ship’s computers, who spun the TBM drill bit to speeds only possible in the vacuum of space. Much to the delight of everyone involved (save for the pirates) the machine sandpapered the hull before catching, it’s reinforced teeth digging into the relatively soft wonder-metal that the alien ship’s hull was made out of – it’s designers not assuming in a million years that they would have to contend with a rocket powered earth-boring machine in space.
It dug, and dug, hard outer metals yielding and giving way to vacuous compartments and soft, inner material. Speed dug into The Perfect until it was relatively certain to be in deep enough that discharging the crew wouldn’t result in spacing them, and immediately fired all it’s gyro-jets on at once. This accomplished the dual goal of removing any explosive propellant in the vehicle, and spot-welded the damn thing in place.
Like a deranged lamprey.
The TBM nosecone began to yawn open inside the guts of the ship – causing more structural damage because fuck whoever was on the other side – and slowing down the rotating jaws. When they had finally ground to a halt, the first kill team “Kings of Eternity” began disembarking. Red eyes glinted through the flickering light as the last remaining internal systems aboard the butchered ship failed to reroute power and atmosphere in it’s death throes.
It didn’t matter. The Kings of Eternity could see. They could breathe. They could fight.
Ponderously heavy steps slammed down on the whining metal floor, the echo of implied dominance reverberating unquestioned throughout the hallway. The human military – the UTF – knew that they would never win in a fair fight with any xenos species; they’re too quick, too strong, too powerful. Their entire battle philosophy then boiled down to electronic warfare, long-range space dominance, and emotional blackmail; face-to-face or hand-to-hand combat would be a last, desperate measure. However, it was still a measure that had to be taken, from time to time, and so a plan had to be made.
Electronic umbilical cords stretched from open metal holding cages before snapping off, the jolt of the internal systems switching to a wireless power mode causing the entire power armor suit to shake violently. The wearer of the suit, the nameless soldier, didn’t feel the shake… only the tingling glow of electrical fields and combat effectiveness. With another ponderous step he fully disembarked, scanning the damage for any signs of movement, or his objectives. His suit was a close-quarters nightmare: bulky, relatively slow, heavily reliant on the power broadcast from their Battle Bus to even move, let alone sprint or do anything dexterous. A sitting duck, in other words… as long as it didn’t see you.
If it did, you might suffer a terrible fate at the banks of micro-impact grenade launchers, swarm rockets, directed (or omni-directional) flash microwave radiation cannons, a suicide battery overload that measured in the double-digit percentage of kiloton yields, or most soldiers favorite: The automatic shotgun that was simply chambered in 1 gauge.
It fired 60 rounds a minute, could be loaded with multiple ammunition types – and it even came in gunmetal gray.
Point being, the UTF ended up adopting a very… soviet way of thinking when it came to close quarters combat: Not one step back. No part of any front line would fall without a dear price, for the alternative would be a massacre at the hands of whatever enemy they faced. Never backwards, always forwards, always maximum intensity, always push, for the alternative was the death of everyone you were fighting with. Serial #01KOE slowly moved forward, taking point, as the hiss and snap of other umbilicals breaking free punctuated the relative silence of the ship. #02KOE hopped out of the Speed, landing with a heavy thump and turning away from #01KOE.
No movement. Nothing.
“I’m beginning to think we’re not going to be welcomed.” #01KOE said, flicking through various EM configurations to see if anything was lying in wait.
“Doesn’t look like it.” #03KOE replied, stepping down from the Speed, slowly and ponderously walking down the hallway to expand the beachhead before #01KOE. “Evens, you got anything?”
#02KOE Shrugged, as best she could. “Nothing moving, but it’s warmer on my side according to thermals.”
#04KOE stepped around his battle buddy, the shoulder of his suit pressing into the metal of the wall and digging a groove into it. “Well. Heat usually means activity. What’s the goal?”
#01KOE thought for a moment, as the rest of the Kings of Eternity slowly poured out of Speed like a flow of deadly, trauma-inducing molasses. “Evens will go and check out the heat, Odds with me. Absolute priority is stealing the fridge; VIP is second and crew is third. Do we have our saw?”
#07KOE hooted an affirmative, raising his one arm that had been removed and replaced with something that could generously be considered a circular masonry saw if it was left to the design of panzerchokolade-addled operation paperclip survivors. Intimidation was good, and utility was better, but everyone agreed that a saw without some form of flamethrower attached just wasn’t worth taking.
There was a round of affirmations, and the group split in two to begin their mission.
= = =
The South London Express had “landed” quite nicely. The pilot picked the biggest rock out of the cluster, fired the thrusters at full blast, hit the nickel iron meteorite at full bore, and drilled through it like a hot knife through butter. He drilled, fired his jets, welded himself to the rock, and opened the TBM. All of this, too, was to spec, and was not in and of itself surprising. As the jaws yawned open, the kill team “Bloody Tears” turned to look out the opening, their stability cages blowing open.
As one, they stared, red-eyed and hulking, at broken stall walls, a slurry of sewage and water, annihilated sanitation equipment and a single Jornissian female who they actually scared shitless.
“Do you have time?” #01BT asked, as he faced the shaking pirate, eyes glowing with terawatts of power pumping into his suit.
“[What’s going on?! Who are you – I surren-]”
“Do you have time to hear the good word of our personal lord and savior, JOHN MOSES BROWNING?” #01BT asked, and fired his weapon once. The round, for him, carried no recoil – gas escaping in chambers and pistons that nullified the majority of the kick, with computer stabilization taking up the rest of the force. The round, for the unfortunate pirate, impacted her unarmored body with such force that it spun her perpendicular to the floor, passing through her torso with ease and into the next few stalls until it exploded against the solid nickel-iron wall in a shower of sparks and shrapnel.
“I fucking guess not!” Laughed #02BT as he stood up in the South London Express, the two kill team members leaping off of their Battle Bus to establish a perimeter. “They never do~”
“Fair, fair.” #03BT replied, landing behind them as their team began to disembark and spread out, blind-firing into the stalls as they went. As the kill team fanned out from the ladies’ restroom and into the wider hallway, an invisible war was being fought all around them; electronic attacks and countermeasures were being spawned and swept away, attack and defense programs born and mutated and defeated and co-oped and churning in the systems around them at the speed of light itself. Biles’ crew was good, but the UTF – as stated earlier – realized that EM/ECM immediately leveled the playing field in any battle, and designed programs as if their lives depended on it.
The battle, which saw ten thousand programs fight, mutate, and die, was over in a matter of seconds. The station intercoms crackled to life, every commbead, kiosk, terminal and PDA barking to life with a brutal, computer-generated voice.
“WE HAVE BEEN TRYING TO REACH YOU ABOUT SECURING YOUR SAFETY.” It echoed in three dozen common tongues at once, the cacophony of noise forcing the xenos to stop what they were doing to set audio filters to something less abusive.
“LET IT BE KNOWN.” The message continued, the sound of gunfire loud in the background. “WE ARE HERE. IF YOU SURRENDER, YOU WILL NOT DIE. IF YOU FIGHT, WE WILL NOT TAKE PRISONERS. IT IS NO DIFFERENCE TO US.”
#03BT turned to the left outside of the ladies’ room as the message played on repeat, taking a directed energy weapon to the head; his helmet – although a masterwork of human engineering – glowed at the force of energy sent it’s way, partially beginning to warp and melt. His shoulder panel exploded outwards, his suit’s AI determining that no, this was unacceptable and automatically responding with a volley of swarm rockets. Fourty entropy-guided rockets shot from his body, the force rocking him to the side and glancing the beam weapon as they detonated everywhere, on the ceilings and walls, on the vending machines and terminals, on those who were both attacking and fleeing. #04BT stood at his shoulder, unloading his main cannon into the center of the smoking, burning mass, and continued until his drum ran dry.
It made no difference to them, once the smoke settled.
“You having fun over there?” #01BT asked, slight concern in his voice. “Suit says you’re fucked in the head.”
#03BT laughed. “They shot me in the head, so it did no fucking damage! Right eye’s shot though, and I’ve lost some traversing.”
#01BT hummed to himself as his crew began to push further into the station, securing the immediate hallway and the surrounding rooms. “Then you hug the left wall. Who’s your buddy – 09?”
#09BT responded with a sound-off, taking #04BT’s place as the former began to move down the hallway. “Yessir. I’ll keep him out of more trouble.”
“Well that’s no fun.” #03BT said, his grin somehow radiating through his suit. “We on fridge duty? Or what’s the deal here now?”
“Deal’s the same as it has been.” #01BT said, stepping over a Karnakian who was going into seizures from the gaping stomach wound he had suffered. “Fridge duty if we get close. VIP duty otherwise. If the general crew is still alive, we secure them as well.”
“Fuck, that was what. 40 people? Ish?” #05BT asked, looking around at the carnage opportunity that he just missed. “Guess we should look for a big room.”
“Sounds good. Low evens will stay here – Two, Four, that’s you – and Three. If we get prisoners we’ll cuff them and go from there; if we don’t, we don’t. Let’s try to get the crew first… more hands, more eyes, we can get an actual sitrep.” #01BT commanded, and was met with a round of affirmations.
= = =
“Ok ok ok ok ok ok ok-” Nate hyperventilated, pacing in his room with the kind of all-consuming, nervous energy that hits us all when shit is hitting the fan. He had no idea what was happening; one second he was waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop, most likely being found out by the pirates and used for ransom of some sort – and the next moment, his suit had cheerfully informed him that help was on the way on something called The Magic Schoolbus, and it was approaching at roughly 800km/h and if he could be so kind as to not move that would be great.
This information had gotten him out of Bleppy’s coils with excitement and anticipation. With sign language, pantomime and drawings on the sandpit bed he got his message through, and the change in the brothers was immediate: Hrrs-tssk’ grew antsy, nervous, but Bleppy became… resigned, almost. Bittersweet. Before Nate could dispense enough reassuring headpats something had rocked the relatively small asteroid to the side; there were the sounds of rushing air, of gnawing metal, of fire and steel and fury. That didn’t concern Nate; he’s had many nights like that after eating gas station sushi.
What concerned him was all the screaming from just outside his door.
“Uhh, uhh. YOU.” Nate yelled, pointing to Hrrs-tssk’. The Jornissian pointed to himself, and waved his hand in a “lay down”, “flat” motion. It took Hrrs-tssk’ a few moments to connect the dots, but he took his weapon, his armor and his military clothing and dumped it in a pile on the other end of the room, laying down flat opposite it with his hands on his head, fingers interlocked. Nate furrowed his brow at the apparent ease Hrrs-tssk’ went into a submissive posture, but couldn’t spare any time for it.
He needed to make sure they lived.
He spun on his heel as the sound of gunfire stopped, a low thumping sound reverberating through the corridor just outside their welded-shut door. It automatically pinged an opening sequence chime, motors whining against the force of the emergency weld as it attempted to swing open at someone elses’ bidding. The door attempted to open a second, and then a third time before quitting just as the footfalls ended outside the door itself.
“Just BUY the fucking car warranty!” A voice yelled over a local intercom, reverberating through the relatively thin metal of the door. Nate tapped a switch on his wrist, his suit speakers dialed up to 11.
“I GAVE AT THE OFFICE.”
“COMING IN.” The other voice barked, and the metal door bowed inward as pressure was applied on the other side. There was a grinding noise, a whine of industrial motors, and a thin line of sparks began to spray through the door as it was cut open. Nate turned towards Bleppy, who was clutching one of his idols tightly to his chest.
“Hey. HEY!” Nate yelled, jumping up and down to get Bleppy’s attention. With an exasperated growl he jumped up and grabbed Bleppy’s hood, pulling him down to his level and breaking whatever mesmerizing spell he had fallen under.
“Look. At. Me.” Nate said, staring the best he could into the eyes… eye of his friend. With his right hand he pointed to his face, then to the ground, and made a winnowing, minnowing gesture. He repeated the sequence again, before Bleppy nodded slightly and began to burrow down.
He disappeared under the sand, the last bit of his snout covered with faux gravel as the door was peeled open like a can. Nate turned in place again and held up his hands in surrender as a giant, black war machine bowed down to get through the opening, before standing up to it’s full height.
“Well I see you eat your wheaties.” Nate said, letting out a chuckle. “Glad to-”
“Identification Phrase.” The killing machine barked, weapons leveled.
“Ozymandias is what zero pussy does to a motherfucker.” Nate responded, hands still up and the mirth out of his voice.
“Last Three of your Citizen ID plus your Identification Number.”
“17776.” Nate replied, staring intently at his rescuer. The first killing machine was joined by a second, and then a third – weapons scanning the room.
The Killing machine sighed. “Duress?”
“Negative. The Jornissian on the floor is an ally and should not be harmed.” Nate said, lowering his arms slowly. “My life raft is attached by tethers to the other side of this vent. I don’t know where my crew is-”
“And the Jornissian under your feet?” One of the killing machines said, as his partner put Hrrs-tssk’s arms in irons and the other killing machines finished ripping apart the door.
Nate swallowed, hard, and attempted to somehow stand taller. “That’s… That’s my emotional support animal.”
“Don’t fuck with me, Callaway.” The third killing machine said, staring intently at the ground beneath Nate’s feet. “Why is he on the manifest? What’s going on?”
Nate, without looking away from his rescuers, kneeled down and scratched at the gravel bedding. Slowly Bleppy rose out of his bed, clutching in his hands the small human hero figurine. He stood there, staring at everything that his warmcuddles were not supposed to be, eyes downcast in both fear and sorrow. Kill Team “Spite” stared at the malformed Jornissian in silence, unmoving, as they examined him in a way that the poor boy had never been scrutinized before.
“[I… um.]” Bleppy said, staring at the feet of the men who would take away the only thing that brought him joy. “[W-would you like to see my figurines? I… made them myself.]”
Bleppy looked up at the unmoving, unflinching, borderline suicidal soldiers, before ashamedly looking away. And as he sat, stewing in his own dark thoughts, Nate lifted his hands to the heavens and began to tell Bleppy’s story. He spoke of the hard times, of well meaning family, of being abandoned, of the scorn, of the abuse, of hiding away, of finding hope and losing it, of desperate choices made by a prodigal son, of a thousand other tragedies that had befallen this Jornissian – this man, with hard hands and a soft heart, who deserved none of the pain that had been laid across his mind and his body, who had endured in the darkness with no hope of seeing the light for decades.
And Spite listened, intently.
And they were Goddamned furious.