VANGUARD (Part II)
I wait ten seconds, blow the door, and peel around the corner, weapon tight against my cheek. All hell breaks loose, but I’m running on pure adrenaline, senses off the chart. Time slows through the lens of my heightened focus, and I sweep the room, right to left. It’s huge—some kind of receiving area. Bay doors on the far right, offices spread along the interior walls. I count nine Kellmari on the far left side, light to medium armor, assault rifles, all scrambling, reacting to my breach. They were expecting a team to pour in guns blazing. Their confusion is my ally. They’re looking for cover, which gives me a little room to breath, but not much. There’s a door on the wall behind them—Authorized Personnel Only. More Kellmari are probably already on the way, but that’s not my immediate concern. The dock equipment and storage crates have all been parked along the outer walls. The middle’s wide open. I got zero cover, and I’m quickly becoming the center of attention. Fuck. Time is the most valuable currency at the moment, and I just burned through my first second.
My HUD beeps, and my drone highlights a stairwell on the far side of the bay. The way up. That’s all I needed to know. I squeeze off a few five-round bursts, and drop two poor bastards just to make sure I’ve got everyone’s attention, then make a beeline for the stairs. My drone’s leading the way, and the squad AI’s in my ear counting down from three. My five seconds are almost up.
I pour on the speed. One by one, the Kellmari settle back into the moment and open up. There’s at least fifty meters between me and the stairs, and everyone’s got a line on me. I’m taking fire, shields cracking and flashing, but I’m fucking relentless, tearing across the middle like a goddamn mag train. I know these guys are pissed. I just kicked in the front door, and killed two of their friends. Every last one of them wants to put me down. Revenge is the only thing on their minds, and it’s the last mistake they’ll ever make.
I’m halfway across the room—and less than two seconds from losing shields—when the AI’s count hits zero, and the rest of my team files in practically unnoticed. My senors are linked with the squad Net, so they already know the situation. They come in weapons ready, targets locked, and get to work.
If I said all hell broke loose when I came through the door, I lied. Hell starts now.
The room erupts with the sound of weapons fire, and suddenly my little Kellmari fan club doesn’t give a shit about me. They’re yelling, barking orders as they scramble to regroup. It’s too late. They’ve already fallen behind the assault curve, dropping faster than they can react to their losses.
I’m twenty meters from the stairwell when the personnel door flies open, and their first wave of reinforcements pour into the room. Time slows. I take it in. Two men—heavy armor, heavy repeaters; a woman—light armor assault rifle.
The squad Net is up. They see what I see, but training’s become reflex, and I call it anyway. “Multiple heavies! Ten o’clock.”
The two men ignore me and head toward the action, but the woman… Shit!
I dive into a roll, as she brings her weapon to bear and starts spraying, barely avoiding her initial stream. My momentum flips me twice, before I jam my foot down and come up on one knee. She’s trying to reacquire me. I’m trying to get a line. It’s a split-second race, and she’s of out her league. She pulls the trigger, but my rounds are already in the air. The burst catches her in the chest. Her armor holds, but she staggers under the impact, and her line goes wide. I set me sights a little higher, squeeze, and put five through her face plate. Her head snaps back as the inside of her visor goes red, and I’m back in motion, heading for the stairs. I know a kill shot when I see it, and I don’t have time to watch the bodies drop.
I hit the wall to the right of the stairs at full speed—so hard my shoulder caves the cheap alloy—but my armor absorbs the impact, and I barely feel the jolt. I see the two heavies trying to assist what’s left of their friends, and I’m a little jealous. I love a good firefight as much as the next girl, but the room was never my concern. I’m the vanguard. I lead the way, and right now, the way is up.
I dropped into a low crouch, while the drone slips into the stairwell to get a read. Damn. More reinforcements. I count two. It’s tight space, and they’re coming down single file. But they’re not wearing armor. I’d say we definitely caught the Kellmari off guard, because these two are in reaction mode, rushing into the fight, being stupid.
I sling my weapon, then reach around with both hands to the small of my back and unsheathe my blades. I hate getting wet—the synaptic interface of my armor makes it too damn personal—but the stairs are too cramped to risk a two-on-one firefight.
I wait until they’re a few steps from the bottom, then peel around the corner and come up hard, driving both blades deep under the first guy’s rib cage, into his lungs. My suit lets me know my hands are slick with blood. I can feel the warmth run down my leg as I brace myself against the weight of his slump. Fuck. Synaptic feedback—if there’s a downside to the tech, this has to be it.
He stares at me with wide-eyed terror, trying to speak, but he’s got no air. He’s mouthing something as he fades, but I don’t read lips, and I’ve got zero sympathy. Fuck him. He had a choice—we all do. Sometimes we just make the wrong one.
I push forward with the augmented strength of my armor, driving the bloody kabob back into his friend. The second guy stumbles and falls. The first is fading fast—getting heavier by the second, so I step aside and let him tumble down the stairs. His friend’s on his back, trying to get his bearings, struggling to make sense of it all as I move in. He’s acting like he’s got a chance, but deep down, he has to know he was dead when he hit the floor. I just haven’t had a chance to end him.
He tries to raise his weapon. I step on his wrist, pinning his arm to the floor as I draw my sidearm and put two in his chest.
Given the choice, I always avoid the face. Soldiers deserve respect and, despite my current behavior, I am not an animal. I’m the vanguard. I lead the way.
My eyes follow the crimson trail down the stairs to the kabob. He’s a crumpled mess, and I almost feel… Shit. Those blades were a gift.
I take a second to analyze the situation. The firefight in the receiving bay sounds like it’s almost over, and my drone’s already rounded the first landing, heading up the stairs, oblivious to my dilemma. I sigh—fuck ’em—and keep moving.
I holster my sidearm, unsling my rifle, and bound up the remaining stairs two at time until I reach the second floor landing, then dropped into a low crouch and pause. I’ve got my eyes on the second floor hall and the last flight of stairs, which I’m pretty sure lead to the roof. “Jaden, Storm. I’m in position. Status?”
“We’re clear, charges set. Moving to you now. Stand-by.”
The chrono in my HUD says we’ve got time to spare, but I don’t want anyone getting lazy. “Hurry the fuck up, damn it.”
I wait. It’s hard. I’m flooded with adrenaline, and my heart’s pounding in my ears. My sense are on fire. Every second is an hour, and after ten, I’m ready to jump out of my skin. I keep my eyes on the hall and stairs and try to stay in the zone, but I feel like I’m cooling down, falling out of step.
There are rhythms in combat, or at least that’s what I’ve heard. Back at the Academy, Drill Master Isham used to tell me I was able to sense them better than others. He said a battlefield was like a musical instrument, and the elements at play were its strings. He said most soldiers felt the vibration of one or two strings at a time, but I seemed to be able to feel multiple chords—said I was gifted. I didn’t believe him back then—not sure I do now. But sometimes—like the way I dropped that bitch downstairs… I wonder. How did I know she was tracking me? I had my eyes on the two heavies heading for my team. It’s like I just felt her, or something.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. If there’s gonna be a freak on the field, I’d rather it be me, because it damn sure beats getting killed by one.
My helmet mic picks up sound—boots trampling across the warehouse floor. I’m sure it’s the team, but check my HUD anyway to confirm. Assumption is the leading cause of death of among soldiers—something else Isham used to say back at the Academy. And that, I do believe.
My team enters the stairwell, and the smell of seared flesh waifs in with them. Varuna. He’s got a thing for incendiary rounds.
The group clanks their way up the alloy stairs to my position. I move up, stopping just outside the archway to the second floor. Jaden settles in behind me, while Tolen takes my old spot and covers the stairwell leading to the roof. Varuna’s perched on the flight just below the landing, covering our six. We’ve got it locked down, which gives Jaden and I a few seconds to conference. I need an update, and although I could get all the information I need from my HUD, I’m not looking to get shot in the face while reading notes. “Status?”
“Varuna caught some heat from one of those heavies. Took his shields down and bit armor, but it didn’t shred.” Jaden shakes his head. “I don’t know, must have been the angle.”
I look down at Varuna and can see the damage. His chest plating’s pitted to shit; it barely held. He’s got his sights trained down the stairs with a steel-like focus, but I can’t tell if it’s mettle or contemplation. “Is he gonna be all right?”
Jaden shrugs. “Who the fuck knows, Storm. I saw it happen and still can’t figure out how he’s still walking.”
Sounds like Varuna got lucky, and sometimes that shit fucks with your head, especially if you didn’t see it coming. You’re fine in action, but as soon as things settle down, you start thinking what if, replaying it in your mind, stretching those few seconds into minutes that you scrutinize in painstaking detail, trying to figure out what you did wrong because you don’t want it to ever happen again. You think about people—your last fight with a loved one. The things you wish you hadn’t said, and everything you should have. You think about the sorry-ass life you would have left behind, and wish you had done more. You thank the universe for giving you a second chance and promise you’ll start making things right. Trust me. I know from experience.
I study Varuna for a few seconds, but can’t tell where his head’s at. Fuck it. He’s strong. We all are. And right now I need that stone-faced pyromaniac with a fondness for cooking Kellmari at close range.
I nudge Jaden. “So we’re good?”
“Yeah… We got a couple prox charges on the entrance, spread another seven or so around the main level, and set two in the stairs.
I nod. “If intel’s right, we got six hostiles upstairs.”
Jaden snorts “So there’s probably ten.”
“And that’s the easy part,” we chuckle in unison.
We both know things are about to get tricky. Our targets are somewhere on this floor, probably under protection. Putting them down won’t be easy, but not too hard either. The challenge will be getting to the roof for evac. It’s all about timing. Too early, and we’ll have to hold the position until our Scav arrives. Come out too late, we might miss the boat all together. Sure, they’ll hang on as long as they can, but there’s no way to maintain stealth during re-entry. As soon as that Scavenger breaks atmo coming down, they’ll trip someone’s Net. Surprise will give them a head-start, but it won’t be long before Kellmari interceptors catch up. Our guys won’t have much time to give, and that’s assuming that they don’t catch any fire from the ground.
Yeah...like I said, this is where it gets tricky.
As if on queue, I hear a tone in my helm. We all do. Evac’s on it’s way down—roughly eleven minutes until they arrive. Jaden checks his weapon, shrugs. “You’re up,” he tells me, as if I didn’t know.
I flash a curt smile, then remember he can’t see it behind my visor. “Just try and keep up this time, will you?”
He huffs over the comm. “I’d probably be a lot faster if I wasn’t cleaning up after your sloppy ass.” He shifts to show me his back, and I see two blood stained hilts protruding from the top of his pack.
My blades! I snatch ’em up and sheath them. Jaden can’t see me smiling ear to ear, so I rack his helm in gratitude. He could have left them there. I wouldn’t have blamed him. Hell…I wouldn’t even have known he saw them. But that’s Jaden, always looking out for the team, always looking out for me.
“All right ready-up, you fucking slackers.” I switch my weapon to pulse fire and set my sights on the arch leading to the second floor hall. My heart’s trying to drill its way out of my chest, but I’m steady. I set the drone in motion, and watch as it drifts into the hall. Two blips appear on my HUD—Kellmari, thirty meters. I take a second to analyze the drone’s vid. Three doors spread down the hall—two on the left, one on the right. Our hostiles are outside door number three—medium armor, assault rifles. Ten to one says our targets are in there. Time to get to work. “Moving.”
I peel around the corner so tight, the poor bastards don’t see me until I rise from my crouch. They react, trying to bring their weapons to bear. It’s too late. I’ve already got ’em sighted, and I’m closing the distance. I lay into the first one, aiming center mass. A steady stream of pulse fire eats through his shields. He fires back, but only in desperation. His shields flick out, and suddenly I’m shredding armor. I can see the pain on his face as the rounds tear through flesh and bone. He’s still standing, but my HUD shows critical damage, so I shift my line to the second guard. Number one’s a walking corpse; gravity’ll do the rest.
My shields flicker and crack as number two peppers me with a quick burst of fire. But he’s not trying to take me down. This one’s smart. He’s breaking for cover. I hold steady, return fire, and catch the little fucker in the back. His shields light up, but he’s quick and slips around the corner at the end of the hall before I can cut through. Damn it!
“AI, select: Concussion Round—range trigger.”
The AI loads up the new ammunition for my weapon, while I sight the distance to the end of the hall. A second later, my HUD shows ready—ammo selected, range set. I fire.
The round travels too fast to follow with the eye. If the distance was greater, I’d be able to watch the range run down to zero, but twenty-five meters goes by as fast as I can blink, and the round detonates as it passes the corner, sending a shockwave of force radiating in all directions. If number two was standing nearby, he’s on his ass now. If he was close enough—and I can only hope—he’s dead. But my life never seems short of things to complain about, so I’m assuming he survived.
Doesn’t matter. If he’s dumb enough to step out from around that corner, my team will put him down. I’ve got other things to worry about, like door number one. I’m less than three meters from it, and I’ve got no clue what’s inside. If there’s hostiles in there, they’ve heard the commotion, which means they’ve decided to let us pass, or enter. Probably the former, hoping to slip out behind us and catch us in a crossfire with the little fucker down the hall.
I settle into a crouch just outside the door and call for support. “Breach!”
Jaden responds. “Covering.” He orders Tolen to assist, and his lanky ass springs to it.
A few seconds tick by. I hear Tolen settle in behind me, so I spin to the other side of the doorway and ready up. Jaden and Varuna have crept out of the stairwell. They maintain their distance, keeping their sights on the hall. If anything comes out of those other two doors, Tolen and I won’t need to worry about it.
The access panel just above my head tells me the door’s locked, but the AI’s already run a scan. It’s an older design, single bolt, and the walls are thin. The AI uses my HUD screen to paint the wall and show me where the locking arm should be. I look across to Tolen. I can’t see his face, but know he’s watching. “Stunner.”
He pulls a black metallic cylinder from his tac-vest. It’s no longer than the width of his hand, and it’s casing’s patterned with holes. Tolen flips the safety cap open with his thumb, revealing the little red button that activates the device, but stops short of pressing it and waits for my signal.
I set my weapon for close quarters—high impact, wide spread—then close my eyes and take a few deep breaths to steady myself.
My skin’s crawling, and my heart’s on a rampage. If a pin dropped next to me, I’d blow it’s fucking head off. I’m too tight. Understandable, given I have no idea what we’re about to step into, but I’d rather be sharp than tight. Sharp keeps you focused; tight makes you overreact. When you overreact, you’re not thinking, and that lack of thought will get you killed. I need to maintain my focus—respond instead of reacting—and make every move a deliberate action.
By the second breath I start to feel it. That crazy freak-like focus that comes over me. Everything beyond the immediate begins to fade into the background, and by the fourth breath there’s only me, Tolen, and the door. It’s so quiet, everything becomes loud. Time slows to a crawl. I grip my weapon tight and when I open my eyes, I am the vanguard.
I squeeze the trigger and hold. My weapon whines, storing power, amplifying the charge for the next round as it waits for me to release. I push away from the wall, rise, spin, and fire. The plasma punches through the door’s alloy frame and shatters the locking arm. I’m back against the wall before the door snaps open.
A torrent of weapons fire streams out of the room, riddling the wall across the hall. Our drone’s hovering above the door, analyzing the lines of fire to determine enemy positions within the room. Fucking Kellmari. That’s what happens when you’re too tight. They overreacted, and it’s gonna cost them.
Tolen backhands the stunner into the room, and we both turn away from the door. A brilliant flash spills into the hallway, and I hear the deep muffled thump of a mind-numbing concussion. The drone slips in and scans the room. I’m a step behind, already receiving data in my HUD. Five hostiles—one heavy repeater, four assault rifles, all armored. No secondary access or windows. Shit! That heavy’s gonna be a serious fucking problem. But first things first.
The AI’s already painting targets, highlighting them on my HUD. The stunner got them all. They’re blind and deaf, so distance and line of sight are the AI’s priority. It takes less than a second to calculate the spread, and it’s an even split. Two for me, two for Tolen, then we double up on the big one with the heavy repeater. If we had more room to work, he’d be our main concern, but we’re in close quarters, and there isn’t much cover available. If we don’t take the other four down first, they’ll shred us in a crossfire before we even make a dent in the big guy’s shields. We have to move quick. In less than five seconds their vision will start to clear. Sound will take longer, but they don’t need ears to shoot, and that repeater has a cyclic rate so high it won’t matter if the big guy’s seeing double. He’ll just spray all four of us.
My focus is still sharp, and everything unfolds in slow motion. My first target’s on the right, less than three meters away. Poor bastard. I’ve been holding the trigger since I blew the lock, and he just won the door prize. He catches the weapon’s full charge point-blank, center mass. It takes him off his feet and sends him crashing into the wall a few meters behind him. There’s no time to max out another charge, but I don’t need to. His shields are gone, and his weapon skittered out of reach. My next shot’s immediate. I take him out of the equation as soon as he hits the ground and move on.
I hear Tolen behind me. He’s laying into someone, probably finishing off his first, but I’ve got no time to look. My second target’s trying to move away. He’s partially blind and still a little disoriented. Damn. I want to feel sorry for him, but I don’t. He’d put me down if he had the chance, and he’s not gonna get it. He’s further away than my first, about ten meters to my left, and something in my gut’s telling me to switch to rapid fire. The clock’s ticking, and that heavy’s gonna be on our asses soon.
I bring my weapon around and put a steady stream of plasma rounds on number two. I whittle away his shields and armor until my rounds bite flesh, but I don’t stop until he’s on the ground. My freak-like instincts are screaming inside my head, and no sooner than Tolen puts his last hostile down, the big guy opens up with the repeater. I’m already in motion.
I take three steps toward the far wall, launch myself into the air, and dive behind a storage crate. It’s the only thing between me and the heavy, and the casing looks like carbonite alloy. It better be, because that asshole’s vision hasn’t totally cleared and he’s waving that repeater back and forth, shredding everything in the room.
The weapon cycles so fast, its rapid fire is just one long, deep menacing buzz. The muzzle flash strobes the room as he hoses it down. Shit’s flying everywhere, kicking up off the desks, falling from the tall shelves that line the room. Stray rounds stream over my head and past my side. I’ve got me back pressed hard against my crate. It’s holding, but I feel the impact of every round on the other side.
Tolen’s tucked behind a workstation on the other side of the room. The desk is bigger than my crate, but not as sturdy, and the way that repeater’s chipping away at it, he won’t last twenty seconds once the big guy’s sight clears. Tolen looks at me from his side of the room and with a stiff finger and stern manner I point to the another carbonite crate not more than three meters behind him. I can’t see his face, but his shoulders slump when he looks at the crate, and I know he understands. Why the fuck did you pick the desk?
Whatever, it’s hindsight, and we need to make a move, now.
“Concussion,” Tolen calls over comm. “We double up when he hits the floor.”
It sounds more like a question than a suggestion, but it’s a damn good idea. “Do it!”
I grip my weapon tight and try to get my feet under me while maintaining cover. The big guy’s wearing Type-III armor. He's got more shield strength than either of us. If we try to stand toe-to-toe with his repeater, he'll cut us both down. Concussion rounds lack penetration, but pack a serious punch, designed to knock a target down and disrupt enemy movement.
I give Tolen the nod, then pop up and squeeze off a few rounds to draw the heavy’s fire. His shields flicker, and I drop to the floor as he swings his weapon around, flooding my crate with hot light.
The rounds strike the carbonite hard. It feels like someone’s throwing bricks against my back, and I wonder if the crate is as cheap as the rest of the alloy in this place. But my distraction worked, and Tolen doesn’t waste any time. He takes the shot.
A loud pop rings, and big guy’s stream of fire jerks up into the air. That's my queue. I spring up, aiming low. He should be on the ground by now. Why isn’t he on the fucking ground?
The big guy’s staggering back, arms flailing for balance. I open up and lay into his shields, hoping he topples over. Tolen switches modes and joins the effort, but... Fuck! “He’s not gonna fall!”
My freaks-sense takes over and I charge, squeezing the trigger, following my line of fire straight across the room. I’m not even half way there, when the big guy steadies himself, but I’m committed; there’s no turning back. He’s pre-firing, holding the trigger down as he brings his weapon around to greet me, and I can see his line of fire arcing across the room. I power through a few more strides, then drop into a slide, hitting the ground hard. A stream of hot light passes above me, and my momentum bowls me right into the big guy’s legs.
That’s the thing about kinetic shielding. It only reacts to fast moving objects, like projectiles. Someone throws a rock or punch, you best duck, because your shields could care less.
I slide through the collision, and he topples like a tree, face first. He’s scrambling to get his arms under him, but it’s already too late. I reach around to the small of my back and lunge before he can turn himself over, coming down hard with my left forearm, driving his face back into the ground. I follow through with my right and shove my blade deep into the soft mesh at the neck of his armor. His body spasms beneath me. I twist the hilt of my blade before snatching it out, and a geyser erupts from the wound, surging with each remaining beat. There aren’t many. The flow slows to a trickle, pooling beneath him as I roll off and rise to my feet. My breath’s heavy and my heart’s racing like I just pulled out of a kilometer long sprint.
“Nice!” Tolen yells through the comm.
“Thanks,” I say with a bit of reluctance. Did I react or respond? I can't tell, but part of me is wondering why I didn't just call for I backup. The blood pool oozes toward my feet, and I take a step back. I'm ready to call “all clear” when I hear weapons fire kick off outside the room.
“Contact.” It’s Jaden on the comm.
My HUD shows me the enemy’s position. There’s three of them, west end of the hall. If our intel’s right, the stairs on that end only lead up. Which means it’s the two primates from the roof, and probably that slippery little shit that got away in the hall.
“Acknowledged,” I reply. “We're coming out. Watch your fire.”
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