I didn't join the army to go to war.

Crazy, I know. With recruitment quotas so high in the past few years, The Third Royal Rifles and a number of other regiments and recognized branches of service have been forced to lay off a number of people so that new citizens could be inducted as per state policy. Nationalistic zeal is the highest it has been since The Great War, causing cries to approve more types of service or additional state jobs, but there simply aren't enough people. The private sector needs employees too, and there just isn't enough war to justify four billion pairs of adamantine boots on the ground. Or rather, there wasn't, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

So where does that leave me? Why am I here? Let me ask you this: What do all successful people have in common? You get three guesses.

No, it isn't wealth. Where would you get that idea? The Sol Coalition heavily discourages excessive acclimation of sparks, and as such the wealthiest only have around a few million at a time. It just isn't worth it to try and make or store enough money to really get ahead.

Skill or talent? Close. I can attest to these playing a factor, having recently tested through the initial education ranks and partially qualifying for an all-expenses-paid trip through tertiary education, or university. State sponsorship is worth its weight in gold, and the best way to get it is to be really, really good at something. If I was the next Einstein, Hawking, or Adisa, I'd be able to put it off for a little while longer, but I'm not that good.

Ah-hah! There, you've got it. Every last success story on planet Earth since the dawn of the twenty-second century has included a time of service to humankind, be it in the military or at the desks of any state-recognised bureau or department. This system has seen the people of Earth rise from the grave They had dug for us like a phoenix, and has done well at unifying a once fractious people. Everyone knows the figures: Two years with a gun or four with a pen. And I needed to get mine done.

I joined The Third Royal Rifles with the hopes of training to fight, doing some work, learning a few new skills, and making some friends. Then, since I was military, I'd turn in my gear after two years, claim the outrageous government scholarship waiting for me, and start studying at Triumph University in Vancouver. All over at the age of nineteen, having never fired a weapon anywhere but at a targeting range. My plan was flawless: The Coalition hasn't had to deal with any real conflicts in decades, after that revolt in the southern sectors of the Eastern North American Commissariat had to be put down, and that had barely warranted the partial mobilization order and minor civil liberties crackdowns it had caused. Humanity was done fighting amongst ourselves, I had thought. The only way I'll get sent into combat is if They come back, and if that happens I'd probably be drafted anyway.

These are great thoughts to be reminded of when the only sensations you have are your legs complaining about being seated for too long, and the steady vibrations of a Type-429 Fast Infantry Dropship's engines rattling in your bones.

Wait, those aren't the only sensations, I think as the keening whine of an anti-aircraft shell careens through the air and detonates what can only be a handful of metres behind us. The shockwave throws me sideways in my seat and my eyes flash open. The HUD, noticing this, suddenly flickers to life, showing me the world as it appears beyond my solid metal helm. Dim red lighting plays across every surface in the cramped transport, providing barely enough light to see by and casting shadows wherever there isn't direct illumination. A wave of nausea floods through me at the sudden conflict between my sense of balance and position, and my sense of sight.

Yep. This is how I die.

After what seemed like an eternity, the too-calm, synthetic feminine voice of the human warmachine calls out from speakers in my suit.

"We are nearing the combat zone. ETA is two minutes, Alasdair."

The soldiers like to call her Terra, as she is the voice of Earth and its defenders. In reality, she isn't even a real AI, merely thousands of premade voice fragments which can be stitched together in whatever way the situation requires. Her calm, even tones supposedly help soldiers concentrate in dangerous situations, and she is programmed to address the personal situation of each soldier on the battlefield. Personally, though? She just made me more nervous. The combat sims back at armouries were horrifyingly realistic, and the voice of Terra only served to remind me of what was about to happen.

"It's okay," I said to myself. "I can do this. It's going to be just like your time on the simulator. You were good at the simulator once you got over yourself."

An icon winked at me on my HUD, seeking my attention. Blinking to trigger it brought up the system diagnostics sheet.

By the marshals, couldn't I have just found time to do this back at base. Come on, Alasdair, you need to stop leaving things until the last minute! Surely my budget of waiting anxiously could've been slashed to deal with this when it wasn't mind-blowingly urgent. Well, no point in berating myself about it now, let's get it done. Do do dooo, servos…

I heard metallic whirring from within my suit as dozens of motors disengaged from their housing and spun up to top speed. Within seconds, it stopped, and I heard sharp reports from throughout the H-90 Heracles Combat Suit, or Hinee as the troops liked to call it. A small tick mark appeared and I moved onto the next item, my weapon. Laying my gauntleted hand atop the stock sent the requisite trickle of power through its systems, and after a few seconds it flickered green. With that, I withdrew the rifle from its holster and slotted in the bank of capacitors, followed by the magazine. A quintet of lights blazed to life on my HUD, as the AY-32 Multipurpose Combat Rifle synchronised itself with the computers aboard my suit, and more ticks appeared on my checklist. I glanced at the time. Eighty seconds. Cursing myself for clockwatching, I moved through the rest of the checks. Structural integrity, personal health, computers...

And there's a firmware update. Sigh. Too late for that now, I guess. With that done as best as it can be, I glanced about the remainder of the cramped space, my gaze passing slowly over the rest of my platoon. The majority were in some form of personal pre-battle preparation, be that making small talk with their brothers-in-arms, praying to whatever god or gods they believed in, or simply checking their equipment over and over. I blinked as I almost missed one of them. My HUD identified him/it as Lieutenant John Marshad, my commander at present, but my eyes and the suit's camera gave me a much more interesting piece of information regarding this person. He's an immortal. Those with the means or the skills typically spend them in the effort of acquiring never-ending time. Those who do this and sign up to fight for The Coalition typically run a line of personal combat avatars from secure server hubs behind the lines, and the military loves them for it. Soldiers for which even death is simply a learning experience, or at worst a hindrance. These people tend to be legends on and off the battlefield, and I knew that buried within that adamantine frame of his was a suite of multivariate weapons and defenses, and a self-restructuring endoskeleton which permitted a number of body configurations, many of which were quite suited to the battlefields man had created.

"ETA is twenty seconds," Terra announced in her monochrome voice, "prepare to engage."

As I desperately clutched the rifle to my chest, I wondered why it had to be me. Why did the extremists have to build their marshals-damned pious AI when I would need to go and fight it? Why did this thing have to spew a swarm of religious robotics to bring about a new world order, where all mankind would bow before a god that it told us to? Why did they decide to go experimenting with this when it is outlawed by both our laws and their rhetoric?

Why did I think it was a good idea to pick up a rifle if I never wanted to fire it?

I heard the world around me scream as another round from a flak battery soared through the skies and detonated, shrapnel plunging through the side of the human craft, one piece embedding itself centimetres from my head. In a daze, I looked over to the wicked splinter of metal that nearly ended my life, only to see the soldier beside me reach out and pluck the still-quivering spine from the ship's superstructure and stow it inside what looked to be a modified canteen, muttering something about souvenirs.

I looked down at the rifle. Despite the fact that the armour I wore was designed to dampen twitching and involuntary movement, the weapon was shaking visibly. The thin shafts of moonlight which pierced the punctures in the side of my platoon's vessel had effectively banished the dull crimson glow, and the weapon shone hungrily, showing off its coat of gunmetal blue paint. The thing I now held was everything I had dreaded, and yet it was my only hope of surviving this day, and the next, and the next, until the threat was vanquished. I swallowed, an audible gulp which resounded throughout the public channel I was on. In response, the soldier to my left put their hand on my shoulder. Though it could not be felt through the tough alloy plates of my armour, the gesture still worked to calm my nerves somewhat.

"This your first time?" the soldier asked. I nodded weakly.

"Don't throw up. I did that on my first drop, back in…"

Lieutenant Marshad's voice cut through any small talk that remained, demanding everyone's attention.

"All right, soldiers! The only rule in this combat zone is this: if it is a machine, and doesn't immediately identify as a Coalition asset, your job is to blow it to Their home. I've got spare bodies, you don't, so I don't care if it looks like an immortal. If you don't see the red reticle, you will. Fuck. It. Up. Clear?"

"CLEAR, SIR!" we responded, with my own wavering voice lost in the chorus.

"Right. Then let's go make our people proud, shall we?"

The lieutenant's short and simple pep-talk had the desired effect, as I felt pride washing over my fear. Pride in the nation I called my home. Pride in the humans within it. It was far from perfect, but I actually felt that I could make it through today.

For humanity. For The Sol Coalition.

"YES, SIR!" we bellowed, with my own voice adding to the chorus.

I heard the vessel we were in drum against the ground as the doors at the rear began counting down. The randomizer read three seconds to take up a firing position. I was in one in two, but the door opened to reveal no adversary. Without a second's hesitation, we filed out in twos, our training taking over. After a bootful of seconds, it was my turn.

My HUD paired itself with another in the dropship, having worked out an ideal match based on psych profiles and interpersonal interactions. Or, as is my case, lack thereof. With the blue pathing laying itself over the terrain, and both myself and my new partner running along it, moving from cover to cover, I wondered what kind of person I'd be put with. I silently wished that I had bit the cap that one time and gone to the pub with that group that asked me. I could've made some friends and given the AI that does the matching something to work with. I looked up at the status marker in the corner of my visor. Lance Corporal Alice Desdemona. Wasn't that the person who tried to help me back at the dropship? Maybe the AI makes the pairings right at the last second, I don't know. I had never seen her before today, so maybe it was based on the one interaction we had. It was certainly more than I had with most of the others on board.

After a time, we stopped behind the same shattered concrete wall. I was about to advance, but noticed that a number of unknowns had been flagged in the positions beyond. Could be sensor ghosts, but it was best to be sure.

"What do you think?" her voice startled me.

"Wha… umm… about what?" I responded, unsure of my answer.

I wasn't expecting anyone who outranked me to be asking questions, so I was caught off guard. She elaborated her query.

"You hesitated when you were about to go ahead. What were you thinking?"

Marshals… okay. Well, the order has been given. Better share my baseless assumption.

"The sensor ghosts, LC." I kept my answer short. Even though I wasn't in combat proper, I remained absolutely jittery with nerves.

"Yes, but what about them?"

I took a deep breath, clearing my thoughts.

"Their pattern. Each of them is well positioned for an ambush, and they are concealed from above and all standard approach vectors. Ghosts wouldn't be placed so symmetrically. Therefore they are either mimics, or enemy units. And I doubt that such a large group would be comprised entirely of emission mimics."

My tactical analysis issued forth clearly and concisely, with only a few missteps along the way. I was satisfied with it, and the Lance Corporal nodded in agreement.

"My thoughts as well." She turned and marked each of the ghosts, making protracted gestures with her hands, before patching into the STRATCOM frequency. Terra spoke in response, utilizing her normal, calm tone.

"Provide situation and recommend response."

"Sixteen to twenty entities fortified for ambush, marked unknown presumed hostile in quadrant Alpha Tango 297, grid 348921, approx. twelve metres north-west from my position. Requesting fire mission using low-priority support assets in T - 28 seconds, over." Alice's voice was firm and professional.

"GAAA available and locked on. Confirm fire mission."

"Fire mission confirmed, fire for effect. Out." The audio connection to STRATCOM terminated, and a timer blinked to life on my HUD. T - 28 seconds. I saw the local communication network expand to include the rest of the section, though there was little chatter. Each of us knew the objective, and our roles in achieving it. The comms were for necessary questions, requests, and comments. As the timer counted down into single digits, the grid ahead of the section highlighted itself in yellow, signifying incoming ordinance.

T - 4 seconds. I looked around and above myself. In the skies above Coalition Air Superiority Fighters dueled with the angular lines of craft designed by something both deranged and viciously intelligent. As I watched, a series of supersonic projectiles sailed towards me from the human lines, silently bursting into a cluster of munitions. They gave no indication that they were intelligent that a human could perceive, as they were built to ride the air currents of their mother rounds with minute winglets, burning a small reserve of fuel at the last second. I only knew they were more than shrapnel by the tiny red icons that followed them through the air on my HUD. I returned my attention to the imminent offensive, and as the timer hit T - 2, the path flicked from red to blue, and I moved forward.

I felt the shockwave as the storm of Guided Antipersonnel Airburst munitions sundered the air above our heads, burying themselves in the locations of the sensor ghosts. As I was about to reach my first point of cover, I heard the distinctive whirring of a multi barrel weapon preparing to fire. Glancing about, I saw it. A sleek metal drone upon tracks, bearing a plethora of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle weapons, spinning up what was clearly an updated version of the long-abandoned gatling gun. As it did so, a number of other turrets swiveled into position.

I felt the jumping of my weapon and heard the supersonic reports of rounds exiting the barrel before I brought the weapon to the calculated firing line. The first few bullets from my enemy whirled towards me, some missing and cracking the concrete walls behind me, others deflecting off of the hardened reactive plates of my armour, and still others striking true, burying deep within the flexible exoskeleton. Finally, my weapon found its mark, and the weapon mount was damaged and then destroyed. I moved on, amputating each lethal device with the surgical precision offered only to those with guides on where to aim. Until, of course, a stray bullet lodged itself in the cycling chamber, jamming my weapon.

Without hesitation, I flicked the rifle to a very different setting and charged forth, adjusting the parameters as my adamantine-clad feet drummed against the earth. I then pitched backwards, letting my momentum carry me in a supine slide across the rough surface, and ignited the breaching torch, length adjusted for 50 centimetres.

As I predicted, the veritable plasma bayonet gutted the machine as I slid below it, while still keeping the structure of the drone intact. Baked at over 10000ºC, the electrical systems within sparked and died, and I made certain to remove the few drops of molten metal that had made their way onto my armour.

It wasn't until I looked out from behind what was once a part of a harmonious warmachine that I realized my conflict was one of about a dozen. It made sense in retrospect; that bullet had to come from someplace, but I simply focused on the one thing in front of me.

I looked over the burning husk that once had the capacity to kill, and reminded myself that this was simultaneously exactly like the simulators, and not at all like them. A mistake like that could've ended my life. As my HUD wasn't throwing any other hostile contacts, I stepped out into the open to find the rest of my section, and was instantly approached by our section's technician. I propped myself against the side of the nearest convenient piece of debris as my armour convulsed, mending several bullet wounds. Coalition nanotechnology was one of the few things we had that simultaneously surpassed anything found during The Golden Age of Man, and wasn't handed to us on a platter by the grand orbiting derelicts left over from The Great War.

As an aside, I find it really annoying that someone decided to call it "The Great War". I know it fits, but Humanity already had one of those. It and its successor helped set the tone for an entire century, and that century is the agreed-upon starting point for The Golden Age. So it remains quite important. Not that whoever was in charge of naming things cared that there was already a Great War. That one was THE Great War, and no war in the future is going to take away the title from my precious darling!

It just sort of annoys me that people like me, who actually know a thing or two about history, have to juggle more than one "great war". But I'm probably just being selfish. Knowing all of the history I do, I know that what you learn in schools is enough, and the more people like myself know just gives us headaches. Like the two great wars thing. Nothing too major.

Man, that was a tangent, wasn't it? Where was I… nanotech.

The surface of my suit shifted and re-armoured, as the material was put back together by the hardworking nanites. Before long, my armour was at 94%. There wasn't enough of the original plating left, so the nanites were forced to use the bullets left embedded in it. Better than nothing. As they worked, I removed the offending round from my rifle, bringing it back up to full combat capacity. While there were some in the army that preferred to use the breaching torch as their primary weapon, I was not the kind of person for that fighting style. I prefer to have some distance or other protection between myself and my enemy. The breaching torch is, at best, a weapon of last resort.

I looked about. One casualty, marked for medivac. The rest of them were up and ready to go. I took a deep breath. I can do this.

I spoke a line under my breath, one from an old movie from The Golden Age: "Maximum effort."

Oh, you didn't get that reference, huh? Well, I don't blame you. Despite all of the good stuff that was left behind back there, most people focus on the present media culture. Only ancient history buffs like myself, or 20% of the global population, recognize that stuff.

I moved forward, joining the advance of the others in my platoon. None of them commented on my words. We had a war to fight.

A/N: Hi there, reader! As it is not immediately obvious, this is the introduction to a story based on the events of the PixelFade VN Crystalline. I'd like to thank you for considering my work as potentially worth your time, and hope to update this with some degree of frequency. Shouldn't be too hard, I do have something of a backlog going.

If you notice any inconsistencies in my writing, or you think something can be improved, do not hesitate to leave a review or PM me suggestions. I might've noticed it myself and just don't know how to fix it, or, obviously, I haven't realized I've done something wrong.