This story does not start with my death. For some reason, I feel like that's how it should go, but if I did die when the ragged hole in reality crackling with colorless lighting and vaguely painful to look at appeared in front of me, then its officially bullshit and doesn't count.

Don't get me wrong; if I'd done something brilliant, like running into the hole in everything or poking it with a stick, it would have been fair game. That said, I did the smart thing and started backing away slowly. As soon as I had a clear path of retreat, I turned to run.

I never got that far. Just as I was turning around and wondering what kind of radiation dose I was soaking up, a massive faintly-clawed hand somehow made of the same absence as the hole appeared reaching out from the hole, grabbed me just tightly enough to be unpleasant, and dragged me out of reality.

The last thing I remembered was turning off the part of my brain responsible for logical thought. It seemed obsolete. Then I hit the event horizon.

I'm fairly sure I disintegrated.

Luv and Drugs-01

Waking up was unusual, for several reasons. For one thing, I rarely needed my alarm clock to wake up on time, but that hardly proves anything. However, the fact that I only had one alarm clock, which should not have been capable of producing the cacophony I was now hearing, was somewhat more concerning.

It took me a second to realize that I was sitting in some sort of chair. This immediately became the most concerning factor in the situation.

I opened my eyes. I was sitting in some kind of control station, almost like the cockpit of an aircraft, sans windows. If it weren't for the relatively simply nature of the control panel laid out in front of me-

System exiting standby mode. Please wait.

Huh. Writing on my vision. Tilting my head confirmed that the words stayed in the same spot on my field of view. That was definitely odd.

At that moment, the standby message disappeared as the cockpit around me came to life. It seemed vaguely familiar, like I'd seen the setup somewhere before.

"Someone help! They're everywhere, we can't hold here much longer-"

"This is Appaloosa Flight 3, we are under heavy attack and ammunition is in the red. Requesting relief or resupply."

"I'm the only one left! How-"

One of the monitors, which appeared to show a sort of simplified map, abruptly lit up red, glowing like a bed of coals. Distress signals.

What was going on?

Several sensations followed in quick succession. A sudden chill, followed by something like my hand falling asleep, but on my entire body and considerably angrier, followed by what can only be described as the feeling of licking a substation transformer. I suffered this in stoic silence, and there isn't anyone who can contradict my account.

Standard Fortified Suit connection established - Nominal

Fortified Suit. I knew I'd heard that one before.

Secondary Array Mind Impulse Unit connection established - Nominal

System ver 1.03 - A-12 Avenger

Fully online.

"Oh God." I muttered, as the system start notification vanished. This couldn't be-

The last thing I remembered was being dragged into a ragged hole in reality. Of course it could be.

July 7 1998. BETA forces have crossed the Tsushima Strait and made landfall in Kyushu, Japan. Estimated strength is upward of one million combat units, Destroyer/Grappler heavy. Die or fly.

Good Hunting.

With that, my main display activated, revealing the hellscape outside.

It was clearly night, though the burning city in the near distance provided plenty of illumination even without my low-light/night vision systems. Flashes of light appeared in quick sequence from somewhere over the horizon, each one briefly highlighting the vast, rolling clouds of smoke presently filling the sky. Corpses littered the ground on one side of the city; opening a zoomed view for a closer look only confirmed what I suppose I already knew.

BETA. Grappler-class, like soft-bodied crustaceans with a pair of massive bludgeons in the place of pincer claws and a strange sensory organ like a deformed human head mounted on a sort of rigid tail rising from the back of the body.

Destroyer-class, six legs supporting a large body, generally unremarkable except for the massive arrowhead-shaped semi-conical carapace neatly covering the front half of the creature and providing near-complete protection against frontal attacks short of the full fury of a naval rifle.

I grinned slightly. We'd see about that.

My face froze. Where did that come from?

Before I could consider the matter any further, my motion detector alert went off. A view window open over my main display, showing a column of nearly a hundred of the larger strains of BETA.

Notably, these were very much alive.

Tentatively, I reached forward and grasped the twin control joysticks. They felt... Right. Not nearly as alien as the controls of a cutting-edge piece of military hardware from another dimension should have been.

One of the Grapplers stopped, its 'head' twitching in my direction.

I can fight, and if I don't, I die. My grip tightened on the control sticks. Worrying about the little things can come later.

My machine currently rested in a kneeling position; I wanted to fight standing up. So I stood, checking my weapons status.

R 1/2/3/4 - 100% - Ready

L 1/2/3/4 - 100% - Ready

Quench 1 - 100% - Ready

Quench 2 - 100% - Ready

Quench 3 - 100% - Ready

Quench 4 - 100% - Ready

Weapons were good to go. I probably wouldn't need the shoulder cannons for this, and the range was short enough that using indirect-fire weapons would be a waste.

Shifting the footing of my Avenger, I leveled its forearms, and the shield-like ordinance pods mounted on the outside of both, at the enemy. Angles were good, power was normal, fire control was ready.

I took a deep breath, nodded, and pressed the firing studs.

Electromagnetic power uncoiled in each of the eight railguns, energy born from the Avenger's atomic reactor and trapped in layered supercarbon capacitor stacks flowing down the various conductive rails and armatures of each gun. It was an intricate, yet precisely and elegantly choreographed symphony, one which culminated in the expulsion of a 27.5mm shell at more than four times the local speed of sound.

Three of those shells missed their targets entirely. One winged a smaller Tank-class. Its fuse, designed for internal detonation on a Grappler or Destroyer, did not trigger in time, and the round overpenetrated and detonated an instant after exiting the monster.

A second Tank was less lucky, the fifth shell impacting center of body mass and detonating internally, to lethal effect, and the three remaining rounds struck the unarmored back of a Destroyer-class, with similar results.

The next volley arrived less than half a second later.

I focused on the Destroyers, firing in short bursts as I swept the column. They really did go down easily once you had a clear shot at someplace not covered by carapace, and none of them managed to turn in time to make that a problem. The Tank and Grappler-class died after that, far enough away that they never posed a real threat without the Destroyer-class to soak up fire.

Which left me with one key question. What now?

I couldn't survive on my own forever, or even for all that long. I hadn't expended much ammunition, but that had been a very small group of BETA. While the Avenger's atomic power system removed fuel as an immediate concern, but I had no idea what kind of mechanical operational endurance it had.

You couldn't survive something like this on your own, and I did have a giant robot. Saving someone from alien monsters couldn't be the worst way to make a first impression, and I was a bit short on better ideas.

Rail 1 - 100% - Ready

Rail 2 - 100% - Ready

I re-opened the signal register and began sorting through the distress signals I'd received, which appeared to be the only communications I was getting. Weird, but I'd already decided that thinking about weird things was going to be postponed until no Creatures were attempting to eat my face.

For my idea to work, I needed to find a properly imperiled unit. They needed to be in existential danger, but not so much that I'd get myself killed trying to help them. A larger unit was preferable, so as to maximize impact, but condition one would be trickier with a larger formation. If I could...

-There. U.S. Army 32nd Attack Squadron, low on ammo and heavily invested, but only minor actual losses. And... Imperial Guard Flights Zaku 1 and Zaku 3 operating in close proximity. Their losses were unsurprisingly worse, but it was hard to make out many details from the distress call. I wasn't entirely sure if I wanted to touch anything involving the Japanese Guard; political landmines were the last thing I needed, and my Klingon was rusty.

In any case, it was best to get the lay of the land before making a decision. I shifted the Avenger to a kneeling stance and fired.

The idea here was taking the concept of 'reconnaissance by fire' far too literally. Rather than mounting sensor gear on a drone to carry it over the battlefield, and thus incurring the loss of a not-inexpensive drone when it was lasered, I was simply firing a shell consisting of disposable sensors and a broadband tightbeam transmitter from each of the Avenger's back-mounted indirect-fire railguns.

How, exactly, it came to exist here was... Really no less puzzling than everything else that I wasn't thinking about.

The recon shells didn't give a very long look, but it was more than enough. The 32nd Attack Squadron and Zaku flights were...

They met my conditions, probably better than I could reasonably expect to find again before Kyushu was overrun, which would be sometime tomorrow if I remembered events correctly. And the group wasn't too far away, no more than a few minutes if I stayed low enough to avoid being lasered.

I felt the weight of my Avenger shift as its Jump Units powered up, then eased the craft forward.

"Alea iacta est." I muttered, trying to find a balance between altitude and speed. I managed that fairly, but no longer unexpectedly, quickly.

The BETA would've destroyed that house eventually.

After a few minutes in flight, I heard a crackle of static over my comms array, like someone trying to broadcast through a heavy metal cloud. The signal steadily improved as I drew closer, until my communications system managed to get a solid lock on the source and frequency. Directional antenna aligned, and suddenly I had a clear signal.

"-Say again, this is Wyrm 1 to incoming unit. State your mission and identification."

I needed to play this right. Probably best not to stand out, for now. Present myself like a pilot separated from my unit, and hope they don't draw the much less plausible conclusion. I could figure out the rest later.

"This is Seraph 1, moving to assist. Is that-"

"We have a brigade-scale herd forming up for a supported Destroyer wave." Wyrm 1 said, as she was more frustrated than scared by that fact. "If you're only one unit-"

I fired another set of recon shells, these at a lower speed and set to broadcast much more visibly in the direction of the enemy. Both made it to upwards of five hundred meters before being burned down, meaning there probably weren't any Lasers in the immediate vicinity. But before they burned, the shells had allowed me to confirm the situation. I was approaching from Wyrm Squadron from behind the ridge they had set their backs to, so the Destroyer's frontal carapace would in position to face my guns.

"They're beginning the charge." Wyrm 1 said. "There's no point in dying here with us, Seraph 1. If you can still fight, do it someplace where it might matter."

"Rodger that, Wyrm 1." I said, cresting the ridge and planting my feet a few meters down the reverse slope.

Power began to flow into the supercapacitor banks connected to my shoulder cannons, coolant pumps humming in preparation for extended firing.

"That you for the advice. I believe I'll do exactly as you suggest." Targeting matrix was open. Range/elevation projection complete, detonation commands were ready.

"Good." Wyrm 1 said, actually sounding relived. "I hope we meet one day in that place where warriors take their rest."

The first Destroyer-class were crossing the four-kilometer mark.

"Killer Junior." I muttered, and pulled the trigger.

Electromagnets were energized and quenched in each of my four shoulder cannons, generating a wave of enormously powerful magnetic force that latched onto the casing of a 120mm round designed for just that purpose and accelerated it toward the enemy. Very quickly.

Each round followed a relatively flat trajectory, one calculated to bring it to a point about thirty meters above the ground and directly above the rear edge of a leading Destroyer's carapace.

Canister shot from a 120mm tank gun was not an anti-personnel weapon, at least in the sense that it was fully capable of destroying vehicles not built to withstand machine gun fire. The rounds I'd fired were intended for a similar effect, but not in a cone extending three hundred meters from the barrel.

Instead, the high-explosive filler was intended to turn the thousand-plus metal balls filling the shell into a storm of metal radiating generally away from the detonation point.

The detonation point behind the line of destroyers.

My shells exploded essentially on target, the energetic propellant in each round blooming into blazing orange-white for the half-second it took to cool to invisibility.

I watched three of the living battering rams drop, tissue flayed beyond functionality by dozens or hundreds of supersonic chunks of tungsten carbide. At least as many of the creatures staggered but stayed up, their alien physiology allowing them to endure the damage.

I kept firing, discharging the quenchguns in sequence. One every two and a half seconds, so as to give the cooling systems a chance to keep up with the enormous heat generated by the weapons. And to conserve ammunition; the airburst shells were heavy, and I had fewer of them than I would have liked.

It was working. The airburst rounds weren't killing or maiming all, or even most, of the Destroyers. Events were proceeding as planned nonetheless.

A Destroyer-class line was so effective because each monster's unarmored flanks were protected by the carapaces of the beasts on either side, effectively preventing a TSF from strafing to the side and firing acute-angle shots at vulnerable rear of the Destroyer. It was effective defensively for largely the same reasons as a phalanx, and it added in the broad-front sweeping shock flavor of a heavy cavalry charge for a truly unpleasant recipe.

That said, phalanxes and heavy cavalry both had the same essential lynchpin.

Cohesion.

It was high time someone took that away from these freaks.

The same incredible momentum that made the Destroyer-class BETA so difficult to face was now working against them. Each one that fell presented a considerable obstacle to those behind it, and apparently Destroyers don't corner well.

But all the same, I wasn't stopping their advance. Their morale wouldn't break, so it was a simple question of arithmetic, and I wasn't killing them nearly fast enough.

Thankfully, I wasn't alone.

As the leading elements of the BETA swarm crossed the three-kilometer mark, the 32nd Attack Squadron went to work.

The twin light flares of Jump Unit drives provided enough illumination for me to make out the shapes of each the Warthogs in the two elements redlining their drives as they boosted in opposite directions perpendicular to the BETA front. Four TSAs in each group, two GAU-8s each.

They reached their positions quickly and went to work. I ceased fire as they opened up; there was no need to waste ammo.

The loss of coherency of the Destroyer-class leading the charge had ruined their parallel protection, leaving individuals exposed to shots from the sides. The acute-angle shots were by no means easy, but the Law of Averages is a powerful thing, and the situation was certainly not one that called for restraint.

The streamers of orange fire extending from the twin rotary cannons on each Warthog reached out toward the swarm, picking out the aliens that had too far forward of their fellows. The bursts of 36mm shells conjured momentarily brilliant fountains of sparks where they struck carapace; the rounds on target we much less visible.

It was like watching an avalanche.

The Warthogs killed the BETA far faster than I had, presenting far more obstacles to those in what were now the secondary ranks. The effect was cascading too quickly for the BETA in the rear to control. The advance of the leading edge of the swarm slowed, then stalled entirely.

And a few moments later, something amazing happened. A Destroyer fell, and there was not another to replace it. Its spot was filled by a Grappler-class, which was ended by one of the three Warthogs holding the center with almost contemptuous ease. It happened again, a few seconds later.

And with that, this sliver of the Invasion of Japan turned from combat to butchery. The Grappler and Tank-class BETA, tightly packed behind the Destroyer wall, had no escape.

Which left me with a nagging feeling that I was missing something.

The Zaku Flights. Eleven A-10s accounted for the 32nd Attack Squadron, but I had yet to see a single TSF. Maybe that was for the best; I'd already gotten lucky here, and...

I sighed. Their distress beacon was still lit.

"I'm going to have to do the right thing here, aren't I?" I muttered, loading both my heavy railguns with recon shells and firing.

This time, both rounds made it more than a kilometer up before the lasers knocked them out. They easily achieved line-of-sight to the rough location of the Zaku flights, but they were considerably deeper in the smoke plume of the burning city, amplifying the problem caused by the ubiquitous heavy metal clouds. I started the analysis algorithms to try and make sense of what was actually in the area.

Then I thought about lasers.

The beams were at a higher angle this time, though. If they'd gotten higher because the intercepting Laser-class were further away, the beam angle would have been the same as a lower interception by proportionally closer aliens.

That meant the Laser-class had engaged later, for one reason or another. Maybe they were dueling a warship or artillery battery, or a TSF squadron had run out of luck.

It wasn't difficult to determine the location of the laser class. The beams were invisible, obviously, but not difficult to track. Some photons were still scattered by the air, and when they struck a target, there would be a significant flash of light reflected off the surface and a plume of vaporized material back in the direction of the beam. Naturally, one you identified some section of the beam, there was only one spot on the ground it could have come from.

The computer had located the laser battery before I'd even finished my firing preparations. I set one knee on the ground; I wanted to keep the trajectory and the flight time both low, which meant high-velocity low-angle shots. Not particularly easy to do standing up.

I leaned forward, the autoloaders on the railguns whirring as they placed new shells at the base of the primary conductor rails. Not recon shells this time.

Using the neural controls was disconcerting, in a way, but amazing at the same time. I could never have moved my own body with the sort of milliradian precision this task called for, and the feedback from the computer assisted motions felt not quite right.

But on the other hand, I was moving a giant robot with my mind. The cloud was pretty big, but I had to try and scrape at least a few chocolate bars worth of silver off of it.

The alternative didn't bear thinking about.

With the guns in position and capacitors charged, I fired.

The heavy railguns exceeded the muzzle velocity of even my shoulder-mount cannons. They were intended for indirect fire, and the distance they would throw a shell was a function of its velocity. That was why long-range artillery pieces often still used a shell and multiple powder charges rather than a single cased round; using fewer charges, and thus firing a shell more slowly, actually made it easier to accurately hit a target closer than the maximum range of the gun.

With my railguns, that was considerably easier; I could dial the velocity up and down at will, like an arquebusier judging the amount of powder his weapon needed for a given shot.

I felt the first volley twice; once via feedback from my suit, and once as I felt myself move, anchored in the cockpit. It only took a moment to correct the angle for the second set, and a few more to accumulate power and cool the weapon.

My best sensor arrays were out of position to watch the shells it flight, but I still detected the plumes of the first two being vaporized just before and just after apogee. There was definitely something else happening; the lasers firing at some other set of target. There were too many beam scatter trails for the lasers to be engaging just me.

I very carefully didn't think about how I knew that. It was getting easier, probably on account of the alarming about of practice I'd had.

The third salvo reached the terminal point; the thermal seekers should have locked on to the massive signature of the waste heat produced by laser fire, then corrected the flight path of the shells to ensure the ICM submunitions were spread over the proper area. I didn't pick up anything indicating that the fourth salvo had been intercepted.

Nearby, the guns of the 32nd Attack Squadron finally went silent. Glancing back at my thermal/ammunition charts, I realized just how short the engagement had been; the heat sinks for my quenchguns had yet to fully cool.

It was a strange, the almost eternal moment after the shooting stopped. I had faced life-or-death combat, but I'd survived. I'd won. The odds were long, but the fight was not unwinnable.

"Seraph 1, this is Wyrm 1."

A communication window opened on my display peripherals, showing me the face of Wyrm 1, a woman identified as Captain Ingrid Jensen. She looked younger than I would have expected for a multi-unit commander, but wartime exigence usually had that effect in extended conflicts. She had blonde hair in a shortish military cut, pale skin that stood in sharp contrast to the jet-black facial components of her fortified suit. Her eyes were faintly odd; the glacial blue of her irises made the red dots cast on her pupils by the retinal projection system much more noticeable.

I glanced down at myself; presumably she could see me. My present attire was essentially a fortified suit without the attempt at a Charisma bonus. I'm sure that was motivated by the shocking discovery that spalling kills, not any sort of concern about radiation leaking into the cockpit. It probably wouldn't cause any further suspicion.

"Rodger Wyrm 1, this is Seraph 1."

"Excellent work, Seraph." Captain Jensen said. "It's nice to finally see one of those experimental weapons in action. You aren't about to go into forced shutdown or something, are you?"

"No." I said. "We are still green in all respects."

"That's good to hear. We've got fuel, but you heard my call." She shook her head. "We're not quite at snake eyes on ammo yet, but that won't last if we have to perform again."

A notification appeared next to the comms window. Apparently my computer had located Zaku Flight and gotten a general idea of the surrounding area. Seven Type-82s still active, two wrecks, and more than a few Grapplers and Tanks.

"There's another unit nearby." I said, sending her the data packet. "It-"

Ingrid's eyes widened. "How old is this?"

"A hundred and thirty seconds. Give or take."

"And you want to-"

"Save seven high-performance mobile weapons, yes." I said. "They were firing infrequently while my probe was up and appear to have swords drawn. Is this really a situation where we can afford to lose anything to something as easily fixed as empty magazines? We give them a chance to reload, and then they can die way more productively."

She grimaced. "That's... One of the colder justifications for an act of charity I've ever heard. But you're probably right, and a few hundred more BETA won't make a difference."

The window went to standby. A few seconds later, the Warthogs began shifting formation, and Ingrid re-appeared on my display.

"We're ready, for whatever it's worth." She said, something faintly predatory visible in her expression. "The Blizzard Wyrms, at your service. Is there any specific way you want to play this?"

It had occurred to be while I was bombarding the lasers that getting reloads might not be particularly easy. All of my electromagnetic weapons fired fairly simple projectiles, but they weren't the sort of thing that just grew on TOE charts. I needed to conserve ammunition somehow.

My Avenger had one weapon left that I hadn't deployed yet.

"Get your squad into firing positions around the target basin." I said, suppressing the sudden bout of nausea. "I'll move down to make contact and engage the enemy in-"

I sighed "-close combat."

[x]

Brigadier General Herschel Maxwell looked at his theater map. It wasn't so much that he needed to pull a rabbit out of a hat; that could be done. This situation, though, called for something much harder.

The massive BETA swarm had made landfall under the cover of the typhon, which had impeded satellite observation and made it difficult for smaller warships to deploy against them. The submariners had done what they could, but with upwards of a million BETA moving in a single swarm, it probably would have been impossible to completely prevent the enemy from making landfall even under normal conditions.

Already, mere hours after the invasion had begun, at least two million people were already dead or 'effective casualties'. The military losses had been bad, but were not catastrophic. Yet.

Naturally, it was never just one problem. The U.S. Forces were present, well-supplied and outfitted with modern equipment, but they were hardly a ready garrison, and it showed. The idea of fixed fortifications may have fallen out of favor, but there was still plenty that could be done to prepare a defense; pre-placed ammunition caches, communication repeaters and fiber-optic landlines, ready fire plans with pieces pre-sighted for likely trouble spots and abundant ready ammunition.

It was sad, really. None of the measures he'd advocated would have been all that expensive, not compared to the cost of forward-deploying a corps-level formation. But 'digging in' would have sent signals and carried implications that certain armchair generals and elected officials would have found unacceptable.

On the Japanese side, the problem was more one of equipment. While the Imperial Army Expeditionary Force formations were well equipped with Type-94s and F-15J units operated by veteran pilots, many of the Home Army and Royal Guard units were still using Gen 1.5 machines. Heavily upgraded in most cases, but that could only go so far. On top of that, it seemed that they'd dug up Josef Stalin and declared him Shogun. It had been hours since Hershel had stopped trying to count how many orders essentially boiled down to 'not one step back'.

At least he hadn't been idle in the months since he'd been assigned this posting. Most notably, he had acquired of several dozen Squad Support Guns from the Australians, along with more 105mm ammunition than the General Inspector could shake a stick at. That was already paying dividends; if he didn't make it off this island alive, he'd need to figure out how to return long enough to haunt the Armed Forces Committee into licensing the damn things.

The enemy had landed on a front across the north-western coast of the island just shy of thirty-five miles long, stretching from Fukuoka to just short of Kitakyushu. They'd then split into two Army Group-scale swarms, which advanced at roughly right angles. Army Group One advanced north-east and crossed into Honshu, while Army Group Two was focusing its advance along the north-east coast of the island.

Apparently, they were content to keep their left flank snug against the coastline. It seemed like they were trying to mask the garrison forces on the southern island, either in preparation for an annihilating blow or to stabilize Army Group One's advance into Honshu.

But regardless of their goal, the maneuvering BETA had pushed an enormous number of fleeing civilians toward his command, on the Northern border of the Nagasaki Prefecture.

He'd wondered if he'd done the right thing in protecting them. Perhaps half his casualties thus far could have been avoided if he'd explicitly ordered his men to withdraw and leave them to their fate when a situation became untenable.

And he had no idea if their sacrifice had bought those fleeing anything but a stay of execution, one purchased with the lives of soldiers who might have been used to inflict far more damage upon the enemy in the days to come.

But his Regiments were still intact. Seven squadrons of Strike Eagles, ten of Fighting Falcons, and... God, it was entirely possible that he was the only general officer left in this little corner of the world.

And if no orders came, he would hold until relived.

[x]

Pilot Karen Nishimura, Zaku 8, tried to keep her hands steady as she loaded her last 36mm magazine into her assault cannon, one of the two she'd started the battle with.

She and the other six surviving members of Zaku Squadron were formed into a rough circle, blades drawn. There were BETA, mostly Tank and Grappler-class, on three sides; there numbers wouldn't have been truly dangerous, were it not for the fact that the squad had ammo totaling slightly less than three chaingun magazines left.

First Saori had been burned down by a laser, becoming another victim of the Eight Minutes of Death. Norio had been rammed by a Destroyer just after making it through his eight minutes.

Then they'd lost the Captain. He'd died well, at least, blades flashing as he was swarmed by Grapplers and dogpiled by Tanks, and the detonation of his jump units had given her squad, and a nearby artillery battery, time to withdraw. But then it seemed like everything started going wrong; she'd lost two more of her comrades as they were cornered in this basin, the laser threat too severe to jump out high enough to clear the numerous Grapplers.

"-Contact!" Hinata shouted. "Airborne, huge thermal signature. No IFF-"

Suddenly, tracers like a jet of sparks reached down and touched a Grappler a few hundred yards away, reducing the alien to a bloody ruin, with the scene repeating itself a dozen times within a few seconds.

Then Karen picked up the 'huge thermal signature', moments before it touched down thirty meters in front of her.

At once, the scale of its heat output made sense. The Jump Units on its legs shone like orbital boosters, which would be necessary to move the sheer bulk of the machine. Most TSFs were built like fencers or Samurai swordsmen; lithe, with agility and graceful strength.

This machine was built like one of the Golems of western lore; solid, with thick limbs and a stout body, shaped armor ridged with what had to be heat rejection surfaces in a way that gave it a sort of elegance shocking for something of such barbaric conception. And then there were the guns; at least six large cannon that she could see.

It bore the insignia of the United States on the rear of its strangely-shaped shoulder blocks; the usual star-in-circle surrounded by something else, like a mosaic outline of wings. Karen had heard of the American Tactical Surface Attackers, but had never seen one in person. She'd expected something more... Simplistic.

Then the probably-American did something really surprising. A pylon, mounted over the spine of his machine between the pair of cannons, elevated to horizontal, almost like an Eishi drawing a PB-blade. Something folded out from the pylon, extending past the side of the machine's head, the machine reached up and grabbed it with its right hand as a second, shorter, section unfolded further forward.

Then the TSA raised the weapon as bolts released, revealing a silvery-metallic blade mounted on a long, dull grey shaft.

The blade was straight-edged and slightly shorter than that of a Type-74 but with an odd angular extension over a short portion of the pole, and came to what was almost certainly a sharp piercing point.

Holding the vertically weapon in both hands, the American struck the ground with the counterweight, paused, then swung the polearm into a horizontal position, holding it next to his forearm vaguely like a cavalry lance.

It was about then that the BETA attacked in earnest.

The Melee-Attacker took three steps forward, running and using pulsed thrust to boost each step, as a gaggle of Grapplers charged over a pair of Destroyer corpses to attack.

He brought his weapon down in an overhead chop between the claws of a Grappler. The blade connected, and the Attacker raised his weapon and sidestepped, aiming for a repeat attack on the next BETA.

This one defected the blade with its armored forearm and countered, though the Attacker slid back before the claw got dangerously close, then dispatched the BETA with a pair of diagonal chops.

The Surface Attacker continued to fight as the streams of tracers fell. Karen was finally able to pick up the IFF signals of another eleven units in a long arc around the basin, all apparently other Tactical Surface Attackers.

"Huh." Hinata said, after a moment. "He's actually pretty good."

"I don't think that's right." Karen watched a group of Tanks attempting to approach the Attacker from its off-side turn to meat chunks. "If you look, he's using the same few moves over and over. He's just using the reach and leverage of that naginata to compound the extra strength of his frame. He's practically cheating."

"Sis, this is a war." Kanata said. "There's no such thing as cheating in a war."

Then in a lower voice. "I would like to know what's going on here, though."

[x]

I drove my glaive into the unarmored back of a lone Destroyer-class and twisted, withdrawing the blade as the alien shuttered and died. The motion detectors and IR were reading clear, so it was probably finally over.

That had been unpleasant.

This time, I'd gotten much closer to the BETA. It made the danger of the situation seem far more real and, probably, far more significant. I could have been killed, and that was... sobering.

I looked out at the scattered corpses. If something had gone wrong, I almost certainly would not have been gone before I had time to think about it. There might have been nothing I could do, but I'd have time to contemplate the fact that I was dying.

Maybe that was part of the unique horror.

"Seraph 1, are you all-clear?" Captain Jensen asked, opening a comm line.

I nodded. "Yeah. That was... certainly different. Did your-"

"We're fine." She shook her head. "What was that about, though?"

"Multi-role operability under adverse field conditions evaluation." I said. Hopefully development-procurement bureaucratese was opaque in all universes.

"Interesting. I didn't think we were developing that." Ingrid looked up for a moment. "I wonder what changed the policy on close-engagement. Maybe the shift from continental defense lines toward offshore containment and raiding."

"Or maybe High Command decided that we weren't sacrificing enough soldiers to the BETA."

Ingrid frowned. "Two problems with that. First, we already have the Orbital Divers as professional human sacrifices. Second, if we actually did get a decent screening unit, it might actually reduce casualties, and then we'd be right back where we started."

"Don't underestimate the capacity of high command to turn an asset into a liability whenever they can." I replied. "As Squad-level units are now equipped to engage enemies at close ranges, all calls for fire must be individually approved by divisional headquarters or higher so as to avoid excessive munitions expenditures."

"Heh. Speaking of casualties..." Ingrid did something, and a second communication window opened, showing a young Japanese man in a white fortified suit.

"This is Zaku 3. Kanata Nishimura, acting squadron leader." He shook his head. "You're a sight for sore eyes, Wyrm Squadron."

"I can imagine." Ingrid said. "But we burned the last of our ammo here, so we won't be much good until we resupply."

"I don't know about that." Kanata said, the head unit of his white Zuikaku turning to look at me. "That polearm work was pretty good. I've never seen gear like that before. In any case, we're in the same ammo situation. Both major supply bases outside Saga are still broadcasting, so we were trying to get there to refuel and rearm.

Before Ingrid could respond, a third window opened. "Thank you, cousin, but that is enough. As the highest-ranked survivor, command falls to me by Guard protocol."

Kanata frowned. "Is this really a time for that sort of thing, Karen?" He said, though he sounded more weary than he did frustrated or angry.

"Of course. Strict hierarchy exists precisely for times of crisis."

The girl, Karen, did look very similar to Kanata, though female and a few years younger. I'd have no trouble believing they were related. They both looked... typically Japanese, assuming purple-black hair was included in that category, with appropriately noble features. Neither looked like they got much sun, Kanata more than his cousin, though I assumed that had more to do with sealed cockpits and space-age body gloves than it did with video games.

Kanata lowered his head slightly. "Then I stand relived. What are your orders?"

"We will proceed to the Saga supply base at best speed. That is all." She glanced to the side. "It hardly matters what they do. You should know that better than I do."

Karen's comm window closed. Kanata left his open for a moment. Ingrid nodded, and he closed the line.

"Wonder what that was about?" Ingrid asked.

"She mentioned protocol." I said, looking up at the secondary display of the sky over my head. "Maybe she felt like it would have reflected poorly on her if she let a lower-ranking relative maintain command? Or she was just being immature."

"Hardly matters, I suppose." Ingrid shrugged, then switched to general broadcast. "All units, we're falling back to resupply. Standard NOE formation, transmitting coordinates. Take off on my mark and from up on me."

The Warthogs' engines ignited as they lifted off, shifting into formation as the Imperial Guard TSFs began to move. I sort of... tagged along near the back.

And with that, eighteen soldiers of mankind and one liar set off into the darkened sky.