Eridani Prime, Epsilon Eridani, 2560
The chill, Autumn breeze swept across the rolling hills surrounding Eridani Prime. The sprawling, glittering city, a testament of human civilization and the supremacy of the Eridprimian peoples, bustled with activity in the late afternoon. Families were rushing home, businessmen and women were strolling to elegant dinners, vendors were selling their wares and services. The stock market had closed high again that day, a reassuring sight after the depression of half a decade before.
Nathan Vickers stared out over the hills into the sunset, his light windbreaker splayed open around him as he lay on the grassy knoll. He enjoyed the serenity of the rolling countryside that adorned the city like some simple, beautiful necklace. It gave his mind a time to rest. It gave Nathan peace from life – and war. He was sure his command was out looking for him, and, as always, would find him. But the reprimand he always received was always worth the hour or so of Zen calmness he received from the simplest things; the splash of colors shot across the sky by the intense sunset, the cut of the cold winds across his bare face, the soft, wild grasses between his fingers.
The softest swish of vegetation announced the arrival of the interloper, though Nathan did not turn around. He continued to enjoy his sunset. Another odd rustle of grasses told Nathan that he was closer, though the laziness in his strides betrayed calmness – no harsh words today.
“Sergeant Vickers,” the deep, rumbling voice boomed softly.
Nathan didn’t answer. He didn’t want to be a Sergeant just then.
He turned, and the sight Captain Michael Justinian greeted him. With a blink Nathan activated his digi-sight. Immediately information exploded in his vision: his vitals, surrounding temperature, local time, operational time, Captain Justinian’s personal information, and a small circle centered on the Captain’s face.
“Don’t target me, Nathan,” Michael said. “Besides, you don’t have a weapon.”
“So I can’t target you, but you can target me all you want?”
“Shut it, Sergeant,” Michael shot back, his tone suddenly harsh. “This is the fourth time in two weeks.”
“If you turned off your digi-sight,” Nathan said, “You would see what I see.”
Michael shook his head. “You can’t be normal again, Nathan. You gave that up when you volunteered for our line of work. You knew the consequences, years before you signed the dotted line. You can’t just leave without permission.”
“But I never receive permission,” Nathan retorted. “So what’s the point?”
It was an argument they had had time and again.
“And what if the Suthlunders get you?”
Nathan shrugged. “I’ll kill them.”
Michael sighed and shook his head. “C’mon, Nathan. It’s time to go.”
Nathan didn’t move. Michael noted, through his own digi-sight connection, that Nathan had switched off his eyes again.
“Just a moment longer,” Nathan pleaded. “The best part is coming.”
Michael stood behind his subordinate and waited. The sun was just barely over the Western horizon.
And then it happened. The orange orb slipped behind the distant mountains, and an explosion of golds and wild oranges splayed across the lower sky. Above, the rich violets cascaded up into sheer blackness. Michael had never noticed the event before, and even with his eyes on, he had to admit it was incredible.
Then it was over. Darkest night began to fall, and the stars slowly began to sparkle out of the woodwork.
Nathan stood and turned to his commander.
“Alright,” he whispered. “Let’s go.”
The next morning Captain Micheal Justinian strode through the Delta Company hangar, his olive drab coveralls decorated with unguents and oil – even the warriors in his company worked on their own equipment. As Justinian clipped smartly through the bay, his digi-sight brushed over the machines in his command, statuses populating as he passed. The company’s six tiny Fox armored fighting vehicles were running the gambit of gun calibrating programs, techs and crew watching computer displays carefully. Wobbly industrial walkers shimmied along, transporting ammunition to the line-up of combat vehicles.
It was the two vehicles of war at the end of the long row that made Captain Michael Justinian’s chest swell the most: his Jeffy Combat Mechs. Originally designed for construction and industrial work, the military had taken these cheap, yet rugged frames and mounted weapons and targeting systems on them. Michael’s own Jeffy, which he lovingly called “The Big Bitch”, stood poised in its maintenance gantry, the techs swarming over the six meter tall, plains-camouflage machine.
It was the three machines before his beloved Jeffys that made him cringe. The Infmechs were the baby brothers of the Jeffy. But, unlike the Jeffy with its civilian roots, Infmechs were built with combat in mind. At just over three meters, the Infmechs seemed insignificant compared to the bigger Jeffys. The secret behind the Infmech was its pilot. Jeffys were controlled as every other machine – a man or woman at the controls of a cockpit. The Infmech warrior, on the other hand, was melded to their machine with a series of implants and cables. What the Infmech’s cameras saw was what the pilot saw. Movement was controlled with impulses directly from the soldier’s brain, as if they were controlling their own body.
This had its advantages, Michael admitted grudgingly. Infmechs were fast, as reaction time was based on the swift decisions of the jacked-in pilot. And their small size made them hard targets. It was the disadvantages that made Michael squirm at their sight. In the span of a year he had lost two pilots to cerebral degeneration. Their brains had actually slow-fried from their implants. A third pilot had gone insane, claiming his machine spoke to him, and committed suicide.
Now Nathan was a problem. Michael considered himself lucky that Sergeant Nathan Vickers’ only flaw (so far) was that he wandered off to enjoy the sunset too much. If that was all he had to deal with the rest of his military career, Michael would consider himself lucky.
“Speak of the devil,” Michael grumbled as Nathan came into view.
The lean Infmech pilot wore spandex shorts – no boots, no shirt. The guy was an odd one, even as far as Infmech guys went. Around the addle-brained NCO was his squad – Trooper Benjamin Wilcoxen (thankfully not as naked as his immediate superior), and Trooper Kirsty Leigh-Williams (who, unfortunately, was as naked as Nathan).
“Sergeant Vickers,” Micael called to his Infmech leader.
Slowly Nathan turned and saluted his commanding officer – palm inward, thumb bent. The other Infmech pilots followed suit.
“Yes sir?” Vickers asked.
“Why is your pilot in improper attire?”
Nathan looked casually at Kirsty. “Such is the attire of an Infmech pilot going to war, sir.”
“When in their machine, Sergeant,” Michael corrected. “Have your Trooper at least wear a sports bra when outside of her Infmech, and don’t make me tell you again.”
For a moment, Nathan said nothing.
“Yes sir,” he replied, breaking the silence.
Trooper Leigh-Williams didn’t look a bit phased. With an unemotional shrug, she fetched a black bra out of her nearby gym bag and donned the garment.
“Alright,” Michael said. “Mission briefing in ten.”
Nathan strode into the company’s briefing room as casually as he did anything, his subordinates behind him.
“Why was my nudity so wrong?” Kirsty asked as the five of them took their seats.
Nathan just smiled. “Our Captain is not an Infmech pilot, Trooper. He doesn’t understand our ways.”
Kirsty cocked her head a bit. “Strange we’re all Eridprimians, even soldiers in the same unit, yet we are so different from the others.”
“I take our differences to be strengths,” Nathan replied. “We can see things from a different perspective and defeat mind-numbing groupthink. Don’t worry, Trooper, when the rest aren’t around, you can wear what you wish.”
Kirsty gave her Sergeant a broad smile and settled into her chair.
The entire room shot to their feet as Captain Michael Justinian stomped in, his second, Lieutenant James McFadden, close at his heals.
“As you were, Delta Company,” Justinian ordered his unit. “This is your operations order for this mission. The current situation is the norm. Suthlunder patrols continue to probe our borders. Though Eridprima has the backing of the Procyon Conglomerate, the Suthlunders have been a stubborn lot. They’ve even been able to improve their war fighting technology to match that of the Conglomerate. Their most common weapons are the M121 Horseman medium tanks, Terrier armored cars, and, of course, Jeffys with combat modifications.
“Our mission is to attack the Suthlunders’ Hill 145 Depot no later than fifteen hundred hours today. My intent is to be on the objective no longer than fifteen minutes, and return to base with zero casualties.
As Captain Justinian spoke, the screen behind him zoomed in on the location using the latest satellite imaging and three dimensional graphing. Nathan’s digi-sight recorded everything, from the contours of hills and nearby valleys, to bodies of water and the proximity of local settlements. In his mind – part organic, part computer – he ran through the tactical possibilities. He saw everything as it could be, and logged it into his memory. He would share the information when he and his soldiers were plugged into their machines.
All the while he was still listening.
“We will drop from low orbit approximately five kilometers from the target,” the Captain was saying.
He turned to his tank commander. “Lieutenant Bradley, your Fox’s will land here, and rally at RP X-Ray. From there you will move to RP Yankee. Your platoon will target depot’s guard towers and entry control point, and give the assaulting forces supporting fire. Once the mission is complete, they will screen our retrograde movement.”
Then came the assaulting forces. “The Big Bitch and my wingman will assault the depot once the ECP and guard towers are neutralized.
“Sergeant Vickers,” the Captain said, as if passing judgment, “your Infmechs will drop with us.”
Nathan nodded, recording the troop movement details on the screen.
“As the Jeffys break through the front gate, the Infmechs will target the communications relays here, and the hydrogen fuel containers here. Once finished, we rally back here at RP Zulu, and ride ten klicks North to be picked up by our drop ship.
“Your communications frequencies and IPs should already be programmed. Casualty collection point is at RP Yankee. We will not be taking any prisoners. What are your questions?”
The room was silent.
“Alright, get to your machines. We load on the drop ship in an hour.”
The drop ship was a beast of a craft, some ten-thousand tons. The Jeffys, Infmechs, and Fox’s fit snugly into its storage bay like so many sardines in a can. Although Michael had been combat dropping since he was a lowly Trooper, he never really got used to the bone-jarring take off of the immense drop craft that ferried forces into sub-orbital space, only to spit them out onto the planet’s surface at dizzying speeds. The Orca-class drop ship they sat in now was an older design, introduced by the Procyon Conglomerate half a century earlier when Eridprimia joined the interstellar empire. By now the Conglomerate and several of its richer subordinate fiefs had larger, more up to date craft. Eridprimia was not one of those lucky few, and made due with they had.
Their Orca for this mission, the Brimstone, had broken Epsilon Eridani’s atmosphere moments before, and now came the short fifteen minute ride before drop. All was quiet in the ship, save for the overwhelming hum of the giant shuttle’s fission reactor. Some of Michael’s troops were catching a few quick minutes of sleep – though how they could sleep in space was beyond him. Others were too psyched to sleep, and instead attempted to busy themselves while waiting.
Staring at him from across the bay was Nathan’s Infmeech. The squat, humanoid machine stood like a tin soldier on guard. Clenched in its right hand was a small, yet powerful twenty-five millimeter cannon. Nathan had chosen potent high explosive rounds for this mission. Michael only hoped that Nathan could hold it together. It nagged him that the Infmech pilot continued to disobey his orders, but he didn’t want to push the potentially volatile man over the edge, especially before a mission.
“Sergeant Vickers,” Michael called over a private channel.
Yes sir, was the eerie, disembodied response he received.
“Are you ready for this mission?”
Is my state of readiness in question, sir?
Michael wanted to just admit it. “No, Sergeant, not at all. Just wanted to make sure everything was alright. You’ve been running off a lot lately. I want to make sure that your head is in the game. If something’s wrong, then tell me.”
There was a long stretch of silence.
Have you seen a sea eagle from the East coast, Captain?
“Yes I have. Incredible bird. So large, yet so elegant and…”
Free, Nathan finished for him. The sea eagle is free.
“We talked about this Nathan,” Michael said. “They don’t have Infmechs in Suthlund. If they got their hands on you or your people, they could find out secrets and use them against us.”
I acknowledge that, Nathan replied. But I can’t stay cooped up forever. I need to be free, sir. I want to see another sunset.
Michael didn’t agree with the order to keep his Infmech pilots cooped up on base, but it was a necessity as long as Suthlund posed a threat (and it always did). He warred inside about the decision.
“Two minutes until drop,” came the Orca pilot’s voice.
“We’ll talk about this when we get back, Sergeant,” Michael said, ending the conversation. “For now, focus on the mission.”
The Orca began to shake violently as it reentered the Epsilon Eridani’s thick atmosphere, and the temperature began to rise noticeably within the craft.
“One minute until drop.”
Moments later the chaotic shake and rumble stopped, and the Orca was cutting above the billowing clouds.
There was a sudden clank as the Big Bitch was readied for drop. It was the only warning Michael had before she shot through her chute and into the wild blue. Had he not been strapped into his command couch, Michael would have slammed into the ceiling of his cockpit. The experience of falling through the air, and watching it, helplessly, drove Michael’s heart beating to bust out of his chest.
With his digi-sight wirelessly linked to his onboard computer, Michael watched the altitude counter tick down. Around him were his command. Lieutenant Bradley’s Jeffy far off to his left. The six Fox’s dove nose first, far on his right. And, in front of him, the three Infmechs plummeted, their controllers keeping their machines stock still as they fell.
They were four kilometers above the ground. Without warning each machine’s disposable parachutes deployed with a resounding whump. Their descent was arrested immediately as each vehicle’s three gargantuan parachutes inflated. Moments later they were down.
And they hit the ground running.
The Fox’s, fast armored trucks with powerful electric engines, buzzed away to take their positions. Michael hit was a brain-jarring crunch, but he was unfazed. Immediately he pressed the Big Bitch forward, bringing her 105mm cannon and rocket launchers to bear. McFadden was right behind him, the Lieutenant’s own cannon bobbing as he ran. Where the Big Bitch had rockets in her left arm, McFadden's machine sported a bevy of high caliber machine guns – a deterrent against pesky enemy infantry.
Loping like giant humans were Nathan and his light Infmechs. From a distance, the casual observer would have mistaken them for regular infantry. But they would be sorely mistaken as the five ton robots packed a bit more punch. The three light machines kept good order, sprinting along in wedge formation. Michael noticed on his heads up display that Nathan was running his sensors in active mode; they could see more, but the enemy could see them, too.
“Sergeant Vickers,” Michael called. “Turn sensors to passive. I don’t want those Suthies to see us coming.”
I recommend use of active radar, sir, Nathan returned. Trooper Leigh-Williams noticed something out of place from our briefing data. Besides, a drop during daylight would have already sparked considerable attention.
Michael didn’t like the back talk, but he wasn’t going to dismiss intel.
“Alright, keep active sensors. Let me know if you identify the discrepancy.”
Sure enough, the depot was already on high alert. The Fox platoon had done their jobs well, the vehicles bombarding the gate and towers with machine gun and grenade fire, while the deployed infantry rained rockets into the defenders. Fires were burning out of control in the compound. Dozens of bodies lay scattered, unmoving. Men, like so many ants, skittered around, attempting to put out the blaze and set up a defense.
Michael and his command walked into chaos. The few infantry that could put up a fight plinked away with rifles and pistols – no match for the reinforced armor of the Jeffys and Infmechs. These poor defenders were dealt with swiftly.
“Alright, move to hit our objectives.”
Nathan and his light Infmechs were moving swiftly through the burning depot. The communications array was placed neatly at the rear of the depot, and the three humanoid machines danced around vehicle hangars and office buildings, sewing destruction as they went.
Eagle two, Nathan called to Kirsty, Watch your three. Eagle three, take out that secondary generator.
They were hitting incidentals. Buildings and assets that weren’t specified in the mission. But one less generator, or one less office of staffers sending calls for help was directly supporting the ultimate goal.
The three Infmechs rounded a corner – and suddenly stopped.
It seems, Kirsty said, we’ve found our discrepancy.
In front of them stood a massive prefabricated building, larger than any other structure save the communications hub itself.
I wonder, Nathan said. Let’s hit the array, and then link back up with the Captain.
The hydrogen fuel tanks exploded brilliantly. It was like a fireworks show, so bright that Michael had to avert his eyes. Mission accomplished, Michael called over to McFadden.
“Hey LT, let’s round up the kids and head back.”
“Roger, sir,” McFadden responded.
Suddenly cannon fire ripped out of the crackling flames and into Bradley’s Jeffy. Michael heard the man scream over the net as the industrial walker shook violently. Another stream of cannon fire and several missiles slammed into McFadden’s legs, and the Jeffy went down hard.
“What the hell?” Michael cursed.
The thing that had dropped Bradley strode out of the fires, and Michael’s mouth went dry.
It was a combat mech. Not the utility chassis of the Jeffy. A full bodied, military grade combat mech. Such things were rare, as the price and upkeep of just one of the things could cripple most planetary economies. Michael had heard of some, on richer planets, with lasers (he was lucky this one did not have such weaponry, or he really would have been done for).
The humanoid robot took a step forward, towering over Michael’s Jeffy, its giant metal feet splaying out to support it as it brought its massive, arm mounted 125mm cannon to bear.
It wasn’t fair, Michael thought in the last few moments. How could such an underdeveloped, backwater like Suthlund get a real mech? And why did he have to be the one to face it and be killed by it? It just wasn’t fair.
Suddenly the combat mech lurched sideways as multiple explosions racked its right arm and torso. At first Michael was bewildered at what could possibly displace a combat mech. Then he saw the forms of three, tiny, insignificant light Infmechs, raining dozens of rounds into the beast’s side.
Hit it sir! Nathan exclaimed.
Michael didn’t need to be told twice. With a positive target lock buzzing in his ears, Michael released a hail of cannon fire and a hornet’s nest of rockets into the combat mech’s front. Another volley, and the Suthlunder mech toppled, it’s right arm gone, and its front armor and cockpit thrashed. Smoke billowed from dozens of holes rent in the now bent and twisted armor.
“Alright, Delta Company,” Michael called over the radio. “Let get home.”
Lieutenant McFadden turned out to be fine, and hitched a ride inside the Big Bitch. Though they were slightly late, the Orca was ready and waiting at the pick-up. They returned to base, mission accomplished. The combat footage of the Suthlund combat mech was confiscated by the intel spooks, but it was clear Suthlund was working with someone outside of Epsilon Eridani. Some speculated the slowly growing Struve Alliance, others the Ceti Protectorate. Whoever it was, it prompted the Procyon Conglomerate to poor more funds into Eridprimia’s economy. There was even talk of a combat mech.
That night, the whole company sat on the hillside outside the city of Eridani Prime. Michael sat with Nathan, his digi-sight shut down to enjoy the beautiful sunset. The biting Autumn wind was colder tonight, heralding an early Winter.
“Thank you,” Nathan said, breaking the silence.
“No, thank you,” Michael replied. “If you hadn’t noticed that buildings and came back when you did I’d be done for.”
“Just doing a soldier’s duty.”
“Well, it earned you a night of freedom.”
The sun set, and the dance of colors across the sky began.
Nathan smiled. “Maybe next you’ll let Trooper Leigh-Williams walk around as an Infmech warrior should.”
“Don’t count on it, buster.”