Chapter I: Resurrection
Wells City, Nereidum
January 7, 2183 AD
Nereidum County. Major state and industrial center of the planet Mars, similar to the American state of Detroit on Earth. Home of Nereidum Universal Technologies Limited (NUT Ltd.), Ryan Corporation, Blackwater Industries, Outer Heaven Electronics and a slew of other major industrial bodies and corporations. It all sounded more impressive than it really was, or looked.
It was now 5:30 PM (Nereidum Time) in the county capital Wells City. Cars were driving around the streets, people were walking along the sidewalks and lights were starting to flicker on as the sun began to set in the horizon. Despite the fact that there was a Space Force military base nearby, which was not an uncommon sight in major cities like this one, the Martian population seemed to be content with their day-to-day lives. There was no reason they shouldn't be: Nereidum County was the wealthiest and most technologically advanced county in Mars, as well as the most heavily defended outside the not too far off Margaritifer County. After all, this was the headquarters for NUT Ltd., the Martian corporation responsible for the creation of almost every advanced military weapon out there. Once it had been a supplier to major anti-Earth resistance movements such as BAHRAM, but now that the United Nations (UN) pretty much ran things on Mars and the rest of the Sol System, industrial giant quickly became the major supplier of the United Nations Space Force (UNSF). Anything to keep food on the table and the capitalists happy.
But despite how truly wealthy the county was, it wasn't taken care of by its population. The atmosphere within the protective sphere was heavily polluted by vapors from the factories that dotted the area. The buildings, while technological marvels that looked as though they came out of an old cyberpunk science fiction novel and would have otherwise looked impressive, were mostly cracked and dilapidated now from exposure to toxic vapors and poor maintaining from their occupants, as well as lined with graffiti near their bases, courtesy of the local gangs. As well, there were homeless people lining the streets and alleyways, most of them out-of-work factory personnel that were laid off due to any other given reason. It hardly mattered. The scenery was dark and ugly anyway, and people lining the sidewalks with gas masks added only a negligible amount of further gloom. However, it wasn't the sights that interested himas much as what he originally came all the way to Wells City for.
Parking his old but functional Axion Tornado convertible onto the side of the street, Raven Nicholaiovich Vostrikov couldn't help but sigh in disgust at the sight that was before him. While the rest of the city was hardly considerable for the "Happiest Place on Mars" title, the building that he had parked in front of looked particularly ugly. Generally a two story tall recycled metal/ceramic block with broken windows, a chipped and battered wooden door and a neon sign that read "Johnny Walker's", complete with the second 'n' and 'er' flickering wildly. It didn't take a genius to understand what kind of establishment this place was.
Another dingy, rundown bar. Raven thought cynically. Why can't I ever get a bounty that has beach front property in Elysium?
Taking a breath and deciding to just to get it over with, he got out of the car, not bothering to close the top or take the start up key with him; the Tornado had a notoriously difficult start up system, and aside from Raven there were very few others on Mars that knew how to turn it on or hack through the car's built-in computer. Besides, if he had it his way, Raven wouldn't be in the bar for long.
Without any words, he entered the bar and took a look around, ignoring any glances that were cast on him from the occupants. The place generally looked the same as it did on the outside: rundown and desolate. Once it could have been a decent place to get a drink, but the obnoxious colors, poor lighting, mixed odor of cheap alcohol and human sweat, and the deranged screeching that was supposed to be techno playing off a nearby jukebox only made the bar all the more unpleasant. The occupants didn't help either, as the bar seemed to be infested with criminal types, mostly bikers and prostitutes.
After a good moment or so of scanning, Raven finally came across the back of the individual he had come all this way for. Walking in a stride that made his Tharsis leather boots echo over the horrid background music and his biker style jacket flutter a little, he came over to the man and allowed his mouth to form into a tiny, sinister smirk. "Anton Dickson. Fancy finding you in the first shithole I come across."
When the man turned around on his stool, he was clearly not amused. A man who at one time would have been a perfect lady killer, Anton's face now consisted of several bruises, a black eye and a cracked lip, while his head was topped with greasy blonde hair that hadn't been washed in days and his body was clothed in a cheap hand-me-down suit that was very worse for wear. If looks could kill, Raven knew Anton's glare would have been the equivalent of a shotgun blast at close range. "You..." Anton snarled with hate.
"Yes me. After all the trouble I went through to turn you in the first time, you think I'd just let you jump bail?" Raven asked mockingly. He eyed Anton to see if he would jump up and attack him or make a run for it, but for some reason his quarry seemed relatively calm, and that made Raven all the more cautious. "That said, you're coming with me again, and this time you can wait for daddy to post bail. Not like Don Romero of the Red Harvest Syndicate doesn't have the money to save his worthless brat from a life of crappy food and sodomy."
Despite the pain it had to cause him, Anton allowed a smile to play on his cracked lip. "And what makes you think you can take me again? You going to beat me up if I don't?"
"Look how well it worked last time." Raven replied smartly.
"True, but things have changed. And this time… you're a dead man." Anton said just as proudly. And with that, Anton's right hand deftly drew into his coat and produced a gun, a Ganymede Dragon II to be exact. It didn't take him much longer to pull the trigger.
Fortunately for Raven, he had seen Anton's hand twitch in anticipation before, signaling him to his next action. So when the gun fired, Raven was able to sidestep out of the bullet's path, while closing the gap between the two men and grabbing hold of Anton. He then picked him up off the stool, twisted and forced him to stagger to where Raven was standing before, all the while taking the Dragon II out of his hand.
When it was all finished, the two's positions were reversed, with Raven standing just in front of the bar counter and Anton standing where Raven had originally been. When he tried to fire the gun again, Raven held out the Dragon II passively. "You do realize that guns are illegal on Mars, right?" he said, throwing the slide away.
"Bastard…!" Anton snapped and charged. He immediately threw out a punch, but Raven simply dodged it and let the arm pass. Seeing that, Anton attempted to throw his elbow into Raven's face, to which he grabbed the arm and held it from reaching that far. The young bounty hunter then smashed his left fist into Anton's side, earning a small cry of pain from the quarry as well as giving Raven the opening he needed to twist the arm behind Anton's back and flip him to the ground, hard.
"You can give up anytime you know." Raven taunted, encircling the downed Anton like a predator.
Anton snarled back and tried to knock Raven down with a kick to the legs, but this failed. Angered even more, Anton got back up and again attempted to punch his hunter again, but Raven simply grabbed the fist and threw his own into Anton's face, making him stagger. Raven then went purely on the offensive and delivered two punches to Anton's gut and then his head, before driving his arm into his opponent's chest and sending him into a complete midair one-eighty that ended with Anton in a heap on the floor.
As the quarry struggled for breath, Raven without hesitation kicked Anton over so that he was lying on his back, and then with great force drove the heal of his boot into the right knee. A sudden cracking sound and a scream followed, as well as general cringing and astonishment from the bar's other patrons.
"That's so you don't run away again asshole." Raven stated.
"Goddamn half-breed…" Anton muttered through gritted teeth.
That last word stopped Raven in his tracks. "Excuse me?"
"Oh I know your secret mongrel…" Anton continued, chuckling a little despite the pain. "You've got both Terran and Martian blood in you, and I can almost smell the stench of it. Hell, it almost makes me feel sorry for how shitty your life must be, knowing that no matter what you do, you'll always be hated…" And with that, Anton burst into full pained laughter.
And despite the effort Raven gave to quell the fury that was welling up inside him, his face twisted into pure rage. It was pretty apparent that Anton, despite his predicament, managed to get a soft spot, even though Raven still retained control. "Shut up!" he snarled, smashing the foot of his boot into the side of Anton's head, immediately knocking him out.
Looking around at the other occupants of the bar, he waited to see if anyone else wanted to step up to challenge him or come to Anton's defense. None of them seemed interested, although there was a mixture of dirty glares aimed at him. Raven naturally ignored them, until he heard a distinct clicking sound come from behind him. Without a second thought, he reached into his jacket and drew his own gun, his prized Colt Government 2163A1, and turned and aimed it there.
Just as he had expected, the bartender, who looked like a stereotype white supremacist from the twentieth century, was standing behind the counter with a shotgun, ready to blow Raven's head off if so much as a drop of sweat fell off his face and onto the floor. "Get out of my bar mongrel. We don't take kindly to scum like you here."
Raven looked at him with an equal glare for a moment, and then looked back around at the rest of the patrons, who were also looking at him with a distinct hate. All he could do was sigh at them all; he had long since grown used to such gazes, even when he was a child. It didn't stop him from wishing he could kill them all though, and it was hard to resist the temptation of pulling the trigger and seeing who got the shot off the fastest.
Fortunately, Raven's better judgment kept him from making any stupid decisions. Thus, risking being shot in the back, he turned and made his way out, grabbing Anton's legs and dragging him as he did. Returning to his still present car and stuffing Anton into the trunk, he settled back into the driver's seat and wrestled with the ignition to turn it on. A fist to the dashboard later, the familiar engine hum echoed through the air, and Raven was set to deliver Anton to the authorities.
However, even after all the trouble he went through, he somehow felt like it was his loss.
This has got to be one of the top ten dumbest jobs I've ever taken! rambled the mind of Esteraund Legato as he walked down the streets of Wells City, continuing his intrepid search for whatever his masters had sent him out here for. It would have been better if Esteraund had known where he was in the city; last time he bothered to check his GPS, he was somewhere in the industrial sector, not too far from NUT's corporate headquarters, but that had been a while ago. He might as well had been wandering aimlessly now, which was never a good thing to do in Nereidum.
It was one of those times that Esteraund considered having a change of career venue. While the mercenary lifestyle had always been a rewarding one to him, and his current clients in the UNSF had been paying top dollar for his services over the past few years, he hated when the jobs they gave him were little more than wild goose chases around Mars, looking for some mysterious new weapon or armed resistance group that threatened the stability of the planet or the control of the United Nations. The most angering thing was his superior didn't buy into the idea that what he was looking for could have been somewhere in Wells City's red light district.
If only she knew how many of those brothels doubled as caches and legitimate businesses for terrorist operations. Course, knowing myself and all the cash I had in my pocket, maybe Nadia was smart not to let me 'search' there. Esteraund thought to cynically himself with a small smile.
He had been there for hours, and his legs were beginning to hurt from the constant walking. Already in this day alone he had called more than fifteen favors with various sources, some corporate and others criminal, one of which had been a setup that he had just managed to escape from, and had all but totally exhausted his bribery finances. Needless to say, this had not been the most fun trip into Wells that he had ever had. And to make matters worse, he was sure he was being followed at this point; fortunately whoever was tracking him was keeping a fair amount of distance, likely waiting for Esteraund to go into a secluded place before jumping him. Even in the twenty-second century, humans had still not discovered an effective way of committing a crime in a public place without the masses noticing.
"This blows." Esteraund said out loud with a yawn, ignoring the people that were walking by him with the annoyed glances. He flipped them the finger as they past.
It was at that point Esteraund's ears picked up the sound of a car motor coming around the corner. At first, he chose to ignore it; there were more cars in Wells City alone than there were practically anywhere else on Mars, and aside from a whiney engine this one didn't sound any different from the other hundred or so he had seen earlier today. However, when he caught sight of the convertible coming around from his peripheral vision, he thought he noticed something about the driver. Black hair, white skin, leather jacket, generally looked like another degenerate youth that called the planet Mars home. But for some reason, there was something familiar about the kid, something that Esteraund's mind was racing to pick up on. It was almost as if that kid was recognizable from somewhere.
Unfortunately, that feeling of déjà vu only lasted for a brief moment, which ended when the car ran through a puddle on the street that splashed onto Esteraund's trench coat. Looking at the massive stain, and then looking back toward the car vanishing in the distance, the undercover mercenary groaned. "Figures. If only that had been a woman..." he said, brushing a hand over the stain.
And as if fate hadn't had enough fun playing with him, Esteraund felt his cellphone vibrate in his pocket, and there was only one person he knew would be calling at a time like this. Speaking of broads with attitude…
Putting on a smile that could best described as mischievous, he took the phone out of his pocket and placed it next to his ear. "Hey baby. What are you wearing for me now?"
One could almost hear the grimace on the other side of the line, but it only lasted for a moment. "Sitrep, Mr. Legato?"
"Same as usual." Esteraund replied, pursing his lips. "I've been up and down Nereidum so much I'm leaving shoeprints indented on the street. I've already gone by most of my contacts and did some snooping around NUT's main office, but so far nobody's heard anything about a prototype Orbital Frame that NUT is keeping away from you guys. It's scary I tell you; the last time nobody knew anything about anything was right before the Deimos Incident."
There was a small pause on the other end. "This isn't good, Mr. Legato. I thought you would have better information gathering skills than that."
Esteraund let out a small laugh. "Colonel, I can without any doubt say I'm the best out there. However, you've sent me out here to chase a ghost. I can't even confirm if there is a new Orbital Frame prototype or not, but assuming there is one, NUT is keeping it hidden from everybody, including their usual clientele. Even Don Basilisk claims he hasn't heard anything about it on any market, and he's been doing under the table deals with Nereidum for over a decade."
"There must be a good reason why they're keeping it hidden then." the Colonel inquired. "Perhaps they don't wish to sell it to the local anti-Earth groups as was suggested."
"From where I'm standing, it's like they don't want to sell it at all. Whose going to buy an Orbital Frame that nobody knows even exists?" Esteraund replied as he took a cigarette package out from his other coat pocket, drew a cylinder out with his lips, and then tip it into a newly lit lighter. A puff later, he continued. "I mean, the only thing your insider in NUT found was a components list that included a shipment order for Metatron to one of their factories. There was no clear indication that Metatron was going toward making a new OF, and for everything your guy knew, the order could have been created before the Martian Wars."
"Trust me Mr. Legato, we would not have sent you all the way to Nereidum if we thought your services would be wasted there. It really comes down to logic; the amount of Metatron on that shipment order was enough to create a Type B Orbital Frame. As well, it was moved to an off-site factory complex as opposed to storage center like the one in Argyre, which could only mean NUT is planning to use it for construction purposes. Even you can figure the rest out on your own." the Colonel explained.
"Did it have President Ishtar's signature at the bottom?" Esteraund said with great sarcasm.
The mercenary could feel the glare emanating from the opposite end, like solar radiation hitting an atmosphere. "I don't think I have to tell you that NUT's activities have always been, as you Terrans like to say, 'shady'. They might be under a private contract with the Space Force, but just because General Jaeger is willing to trust them does not mean Special Taskforce Aegis is inclined to do the same. We cannot risk their products ending up in the hands of terrorists, therefore we cannot take any chances."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. For the preservation of peace and order and all that crap." Esteraund retorted, waving it off. "Look, I can keep snooping around here if you want me to, but I doubt I will find anything. Your best bet is to wait it out until people start talking again, because at the rate we're going, we'll be extending time and resources for nothing."
"The problem with that idea, Mr. Legato, is that by the time we do get reliable intelligence, it would likely be too late and the OF would be well out of our reach." the Colonel replied.
"Nothing is ever out of reach Nadia, not as long as it can be found." Esteraund said. "Just trust me on this one. Even in the intel biz, sometimes the best approach is to step back and let probability take its course."
"That's not exactly a convincing argument." the Colonel said, although Esteraund could tell it had the opposite effect on her just from her vocal tone. "But considering the circumstances, I suppose there's little choice in the matter. Very well Mr. Legato. I suppose you have other business in Nereidum to take care of."
"You could say that." Esteraund replied, grinning.
"Get it done with and then return to the Abydos as soon as possible." the Colonel ordered, then staunchly hung up.
With his business concluded, Esteraund placed the phone back in his pocket and rubbed his hands together. "Finally, I get time off for good behavior." He said with great anticipation, taking the cigarette out of his mouth and throwing it on the sidewalk, quickly stomping it out.
UNSF Special Taskforce Aegis battleship Abydos
January 7, 2183 AD
With an annoyed scowl stretched across her face like a Martian sandstorm, Colonel Nadia Velasgo replaced the cellular phone into the pocket of her black and red Aegis uniform, fighting the urge to run back to her quarters for a decent shower. As good at whatever job they gave him as he was, Nadia tended to feel dirty after having a lengthy conversation with the mercenary named Esteraund Legato, and despite his years of service she was never able to grow used to his flamboyant presence and unprofessional attitude towards everything. It didn't help that Nadia was often the target of the mercenary's more perverted tendencies, which was often responded to with physical violence; this exchange system had been in place since the first day her superior had chosen to acquire Legato's services.
But despite the feeling of revulsion over her, the athletic built aqua haired Colonel's professional demeanor kept her from making a mad dash down the Abydos to her quarters. That and the fact that her commander was expecting her on the bridge, and she knew better than to keep him waiting. Without any second thoughts, she marched out from the empty galley, where she had held her phone conversation with Esteraund over a cup of coffee, which had been rarer-than-average Columbian roast fresh from the last supply transfer from Earth, and marched toward the nearest elevator. A short ride later, she arrived at her destination, the Abydos' cathedral like bridge. Besides guiding the ship all around Mars, the bridge doubled as the ship's Command-In-Control (CIC) center; it was from here that all of Aegis' assets were directed and maintained on the various vidscreens and stations that were lined across it like desks in an office building. Naturally, each station was manned by an operator, enlisted and officer alike, dressed in the same black and red version of the UNSF uniform that Nadia was wearing.
With no hesitation on her part, she took her seat at one of the two command chairs at the center of the bridge. In the opposite chair, an elderly man who was dressed in the same uniform that she and everyone else on the bridge was wearing, only with a greatcoat added over the top of it that seemed to radiate his authority, looked glanced over to her without turning his head to face her. "I trust your conference call was informative?"
"Unfortunately no." Nadia replied grimly. "One would think that this would be a simple matter for a man with the connections and credentials as Mr. Legato, but it's not. We may have to hand this over to the CIA's Martian branch."
General Alan Taggart, commander of Special Taskforce Aegis, couldn't but take notice at his second-in-command's frustration, even if she did do a good job hiding it. If there was one way to get Nadia upset without outright angering her, it was keeping her in the dark; despite her being a well rounded commander, and a gifted LEV pilot and Orbital Frame runner on top of that, she just did not handle the unknown so well. "I doubt they would find any more than our own man has. They've grown soft since the Martian Wars, and their inability to track viable threats to the UN shows it."
"You are referring to the attacks on our bases in Tharsis and Solis?" Nadia inquired.
The General nodded in acknowledgement. "I've gone over the reports and recorded footage myself. Although High Command has dismissed them as random terrorist attacks, I believe they were too well organized and thought out for that; they knew where to hit us and how to hit us hard. And to top it off, they were using Orbital Frames, yet our intel services have next to nothing."
"Shouldn't we be involved in the investigation then? Aegis' main reason for existing is to hunt down terrorists in possession of Metatron or OFs after all." Nadia suggested.
"I've also gone over that with Deimos, but they still want to let the regular forces deal with it. If I had to guess, I'd say General Jaeger wants to show that the UNSF doesn't need a special autonomous force like ours every time some fool with a Raptor shows up." Taggart explained dryly.
Nadia did her best to keep from rolling her eyes at the mention of General Patrick Jaeger, commander-in-chief of the Space Force expedition on Mars, and one of the larger thorns in Aegis' side. Instead, she settled on coming up with a few choice words and suggestions in her head for what the regular forces General could do with his authority on the matter, along with those idiots in the Space Force's makeshift command center in Deimos Station.
"So in the meantime, we have no choice but to hunt down ghosts like the old Scooby Gang." Taggart finished explaining.
Nadia shot the General a confused look from the corner of her eye, and Taggart mentally sighed at himself for failing to remember she wasn't Terran. Not that she would have understood Taggart's comparison to the ancient twentieth century cartoon show anyway; most people on Earth wouldn't have. "Don't worry about it."
The Colonel decided to take her superior's word for it, and moved on. "If there's anything that bothers me the most, it's that our enemies are somehow managing to avoid all of our surveillance assets, including satellites, yet they always attack with a sizeable force. Might as well be real ghosts."
"It is standard military tactics to move swiftly and silently, but still strike hard; even Sun Tzu dictated something to that effect over two thousand years ago." Taggart said.
That was one reference Nadia was familiar with. "'Move as swift as the wind, stay as silent as the forest, attack as fiercely as the fire and defend as strongly as the mountain.' Even so, it's one thing to intend to operate like that, and quite another to actually accomplish it like this."
"All the more reason to believe we're dealing with professionals who know what they're doing as opposed to terrorists that hide in the ruins of Vascilia." Taggart concluded. "Fortunately, there's only so much they can do with the current set of tactics they're following, and now that we know they're out there, we stand a better chance of tracking them down before they cause any serious damage."
Nadia arched an eyebrow. "You sound like you know where they're going to attack next."
"Let's just say I have a fairly good guess on that." Taggart explained, the right corner of his mouth forming into a barely noticeable smirk. "And like our phantom Orbital Frame, it also just so happens to be in Nereidum."
He was running, not daring to look back. He could feel his eyes sting from his forcing them to stay open, absolutely refusing to break down where he was despite what he had just witnessed. He was going to survive; he had to survive, and that meant he could not stop to cry out even when it felt like his soul was going to tear its way out of his skin. All he could do to prevent that was focusing on running to the shelter he sought, the only place aside from his home that had been a haven for him from the rest of the universe. So he ran and did not look back.
Fires blazed from the burning buildings that made up the neighborhood, and debris and human corpses, some intact others broken, were littered as far as the eye could see. The air was filled with the stench of charred flesh, to the point where he could have vomited had he been able to. Along with the smell was mixture of sounds; the sounds of explosions, weapons discharges, and the predators that flew overhead, like the harpies that were said to have inhabited Hell, their shrieks deafening and their power unchallenged. It was because of them that the land was on fire, and its inhabitants purged.
And then he found his shelter; a lone church, standing in the midst of the devastation like a beacon, miraculously untouched as if God himself held it beyond the reach of the attackers. The next few moments were a blur to him, as without thinking his body past through the two oak doors at the front and then slammed them shut behind him, allowing him to rest for a moment. It was at that point that the emotions he had fought so hard to suppress while on the run finally broke free of their restraint and overwhelmed him, and he found himself collapsing onto the floor, crying out as he felt his world at last collapse and implode. Only a short time ago, everything that he had held dear had been taken away, all by one who he had called 'friend'…
Wells City, Nereidum
January 8, 2183 AD
With the suddenness of a lightning bolt, Raven Vostrikov bolted up from his slumber with a loud cry. His breathing rapid and sweat pouring from his forehead, it took him more than a few moments to calm down, even after he had realized it was only a dream. A dream that had been spawned from an actual event that had happened a long time ago, but still just a dream in the end. Even if Raven did feel as though he had relived one of the worst days in his lifespan.
It took him just a little longer to remember that he was in a twenty four hour motel at the side of the city. Even after the fair amount of money he had received from turning in Anton Dickson, he could still only afford the most basic of living spaces for himself; in fact, the rooms he usually stayed in looked as though they had come out of a twentieth century horror movie than anything else. It was one of the lesser benefits of his current occupation, but at least it was better than living in a box on a street corner somewhere. Shifting a little, he found no light shining from the room's only window, which meant that it was still night time out. Although tempted to check the time, Raven really didn't feel like looking at his watch; for the moment, he could function without knowing what unholy hour it was.
Eyes adjusting to the darkness quite easily, he managed to bring himself into a sitting position on the side of the bed. Raven knew at this point he wouldn't be able to sleep, at least not for a long while; this wasn't the first time he had that dream, and he knew that it was as effective at keeping him awake as a cup of coffee laced with Coca Cola and Red Bull. That, along with the fear he felt deep in himself that if he did actually fall asleep again he'd have the same dream all over again, pretty much kept Raven awake until the late morning, where physical exhaustion would force him to fall asleep even if he didn't want to.
"Fuck it." he muttered in distaste, getting up. While he decided to leave the lights off in the room, as he preferred darkness over light, he instead switched on the satellite radio clock that was beside his bed, switching it to the nearest classic rock station. A little more than a second later, the beginning of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle" began to fill the room.
Letting the lyrics of the one hundred plus year old song reverberate in his ears, he reached back and clasped his hands, stretching so that his spine and ribs all cracked, suddenly feeling life within him again. If he couldn't sleep, he might as well find something to do, and although he had not been in Wells City for that long, it was not a stretch that the city had some form of night life. And if all else failed, he could go out and find some stupid bastard(s) to thrash with indiscriminate justice; those were never in short supply, not even on Mars.
Casually he got up, put on some clothing and walked to the bathroom, this time actually turning the light on. Straining his eyes to adjust to the unnatural brightness, he squinted as the picture in front of him developed. Sure enough, he saw his image in the mirror; pure black hair, purple eyes that seemed to be both light and dark at the same time, and a decent muscular physique for someone his age. As he had been told a few times, his eyes were his main selling point; looking into them was like looking into a void, in which you were completely drawn to but never able to see the end, making them quite alluring to interested parties. Unfortunately this was put off by the sneer that he seemed to be a natural part of his face; even looking at his own face now, Raven could see why most people would choose to avoid him, aside from those brave enough to test his temperament.
Turning on the faucet, he reached down and splashed cold water on his face, the chill making him feel refreshed. At the very least it calmed his nerves enough that he could be at ease, which was all he wanted. That finished, he picked up one of the towels and began to wipe his face.
And it was precisely at that moment that the cataclysm occurred.
What the-!Raven felt the explosion erupt long before he heard it, but even then he was still unable to prepare for it. One moment he was walking out of the bathroom with a towel across his face, and the next he felt a great rumble flow across the room, enough that the walls cracked and random objects fell onto the floor, followed by the thunderous sound that could only be caused by one thing: destruction.
After picking himself off the floor, Raven ran to the window and opened it to see what exactly was going on. What he saw made his heart stop and his already white skin grow paler. In the sky he saw the unmistakable white vestiges of Raptors, the Orbital Frame type that had been used by BAHRAM during the Martian Wars as their military backbone. Raven had seen them before, a long time ago, and he had tried his best to forget that memory. But now they were here, in Nereidum, flying across the sphere's skies and firing their weapons down onto the city below. There hadn't even been an air raid siren to warn the citizens of Wells City that they had come.
His body acting before his mind could make a single decision, Raven suddenly found himself out of the motel and into the streets. At some point of time between his seeing the Raptors and his current position, he had managed snag his leather jacket and his other personal effects in his duffel bag, how Raven had managed to pack so fast even he didn't know. But now that he had regained control of himself, he begun to realize that running out into the open streets with no protection in the middle of a battle was not the smartest move on his part. That was, at least, until a stray laser shot fell from the sky and struck the motel, which erupted in a sea of flames just as quickly.
"GAH!" Raven yelled out, covering his ears from the BOOM as shrapnel and debris fell over him like solid raindrops. Now he was truly vulnerable. He had no shelter to run to, and his car was on the other side of the burning building; even if it still worked and was unaffected by the shockwave or falling debris, Raven doubted he could have reached it in time. And that was assuming that he could somehow break through the flood of people that were running out of the burning building in droves, screaming as they did.
And so, Raven did all he could do. He ran, just like he did in the dream. Just like he did all those years ago. He ran past the burning buildings, past the other fleeing humans, and past the falling debris and stray weapon shots. Only this time, he didn't have a destination to fall back to. This time, he had no idea where he was going.
It really didn't take long for the citizenry of Wells City to realize that their fair city was under attack, not that it took much to realize there were hostile Orbital Frames flying around from above as well as UNSF LEVs and support units, a mixture of ground skimming Phantomas and Wyvern unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), fired at them from both the ground and air. And although very few battles occurred in Nereidum during the Martian Wars, there were plenty of people in the city that could remember those dark days. Not that it really mattered, because both the ones that remembered and the ones who didn't still had the human race's trademark survival instinct, which caused them to run for their lives in all directions as death rained from above and all around.
Esteraund Legato was not one of them, although he was beginning to wish he was. He had been walking down a clear street before it started, minding his own business and reminiscing about the great time he had in one of the city's local "hot coffee shops". Then all of a sudden the Raptors began flying around and shooting lasers, and the next thing Esteraund was doing was fighting his way through swarms of fleeing pedestrians like a fish trying to swim upstream. Didn't help that he was of the larger stature, which made it far more difficult to maneuver and people were constantly colliding into him.
After throwing off the latest idiot to run into him, Esteraund finally relented on his struggle and ducked into a nearby alleyway. "Damn, it's like these people have never seen a Raptor before." he muttered in annoyance, as he resisted the temptation to draw a cigarette. He was only down to two more sticks. "This planet sure has gotten soft since the Wars ended."
As he looked up at the sky and the flying Raptors that flew overhead however, Esteraund couldn't blame the people for running. As he had experienced firsthand not long ago, Orbital Frames were destructive creations, and several could quite easily exterminate thousands of human lives with just a single shot of energy. However, it wasn't the Frames themselves that bothered Esteraund at this point, but how they managed to apparently slip into Wells City unnoticed, even with the ever watchful eye of UNSF surveillance satellites scattered across Mars' orbit. However they got in, somebody knew exactly what he or she was doing in throwing the Space Force off the trail.
And to top it all off, Special Taskforce Aegis' headquarters battleship Abydosand its own Orbital Frames were still flying somewhere in Argyre, and its own Orbital Frame patrols were god knows where. All that being said and done, Esteraund knew that he and his own machine were the only ones who could throw off these mysterious invaders at this point.
"I swear I'm going to collect overtime after this…" Esteraund muttered as he brought up his watch, which at first looked like any other, but on closer inspection one could see blue Metatron lines flow up and down the face. "Big M, it's showtime!"
At some point or another, Raven had ended up running into an abandoned tunnel somewhere on the outskirts of the city, possibly connected to the old underground network that had once been used as the sphere's main transportation source for the original colonists, but had been otherwise abandoned when more conventional means were discovered. While a certain rumbling could be heard and felt here, it seemed to be the safest place from the attack that he could get. However, that didn't mean it was entirely safe; it was darker here than on the outside, and local gangs were known to use these tunnels as hideaways from the authorities. So, as Raven's eyes adjusted to the darkness, though his own body was far more used to moving through it than his eyes were to seeing through it, he continued to make his way into the tunnel.
Aside from the rumbling, the boy's heavy and rapid breathing was the only thing that could be heard in the entirety of the tunnel; even the local rodents didn't seem to make a sound here. Not that it mattered to Raven, as he preferred dark, silent places the most. The only problem was, as said before, that he was less able to detect an incoming threat here than he would have been on the outside, so he was not able to relax just yet. The fact Raven couldn't see the end of the tunnel didn't make things any better for him either, and he didn't like the idea of having to spend all night wandering deep into it, especially with the risk that one end could get caved in by stray weapons fire. Even so, he pressed on, seeking some form of shelter from the outside, as well as the terrible memories that ran through his mind.
In the darkness, Raven could still remember the things that caused him to have many a sleepless night, as well as fill him with regret and despair. The attack now was so similar to the one eleven years ago, down to the Raptors, that it seemed as though Raven had never left that colony to begin with. Only instead of hiding away in a church and praying to God that he would somehow survive, he was now wandering alone in the abyss wondering if even God could find him here. At the very least he hadn't broken down like he did back then; Raven had no time to shed tears at a time like this.
Then, at some point during his passing, Raven's eyes caught something that stood out from the rest of the void. Like a single star shining in the night sky, much like the kind that was recorded in numerous religious texts and astronomy studies, a kind of light stood in the middle of the abyss. At first Raven thought it was someone coming in, but for some reason this light did not strike him as a hostile force. In fact, if his mind wasn't playing a trick on him, then he could have sworn he felt warmth emanate from the light.
Is it the end of the tunnel? No, that can't be. I haven't been walking in here for that long, and why would the light on the other side be colored red? Something's not right here.
Seeing little point in going back where he had been before, he continued to walk further and further toward the light. Naturally, it grew with each amount of distance that Raven crossed to meet it, and the warmth Raven felt suddenly began to overwhelm even the cold of the Martian winter. On any other day, Raven could have sworn that he was actually walking toward the Sun, and he almost had to squint his eyes as the brightness threatened to overwhelm him. Just what the hell am I walking to! his mind roared at any celestial force that bothered to listen, seeking an answer to the question that none of his five senses were able to produce. Fortunately, it didn't take much longer before an answer was given to him, even if it wasn't what Raven was expecting.
"Holy Mother of God…" he muttered as the crimson light took shape before his eyes. As he entered what seemed to be a great clearing in the midst of the tunnel, Raven stood in awe as he beheld standing in the middle of the tunnel was, for lack of better description, a monolith. A monolith, not quite the kind from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was a favorite film of Raven's. Instead, it larger, smoother and rounder around the edges; in fact, Raven likened the whole appearance to that of a sarcophagus, the kind used by the ancient Egyptians back on Earth. It even seemed articulated in a similar way. It also notably seemed to glow in a crimson aura of energy, which illuminated the clearing in the tunnel and was obviously the source of the light Raven saw.
Despite his apprehensions, Raven for some reason couldn't resist the urge to reach out and touch it. When his hand came across the base however, red lines began to glow as energy travelled across the surface.
"Metatron?" Raven wondered. His mind quickly raced as to explain how or why anyone would construct what was essentially a block of Metatron, in spite of the laws in place that prevented manufacturers from using it, and then placing it in what was basically the middle of nowhere. No explanation came up, unfortunately.
When he reached out touch it again however, instead of just Metatron lines flowing up and down, the monolith began to shift, and Raven nearly jumped back as what appeared to be an open doorway appeared in front of him. His eyes tried to peer into it and see what was on the other side, but even his sharp eyes couldn't see past. Thus, taking a breath, Raven entered into the doorway to see what exactly was before him.
As he past inside, the doorway closed behind him. At first Raven was about to turn around and pound the wall until the doorway opened again, but what he saw before him stopped him before he could. Standing at several meters in height seemed to be a strange figure-shaped object, like an ancient mummy stored within the sarcophagus. Although it was pitch black in the monolith as opposed to the bright crimson light that shined outside, Raven could just make out a pair of equally crimson eyes that seemed to be dimmed, as if whatever he had just found was sleeping.
Looking down, he found a familiar cone-shaped object that seemed to have a hatch to it. When Raven reached out and ran his hand on the hatch, it appeared to shatter before him, but he soon realized that it had just opened, revealing a chair and cockpit setup before him.
"This is… an Orbital Frame?" Raven realized out loud. Now he really didn't know what the hell was going on.
The moment he muttered that, Raven felt another rumbling echo to his location. The attack outside was still going on, but he knew that it would not be long before the Orbital Frames on the outside detected the Metatron within the tunnel, and come to investigate if not outright destroy it. Therefore, there was only one course of action Raven had.
He jumped into the cockpit, with the canopy closing around him, while putting his hands over the OF's control orbs, the same way he had seen it done in the movies. Immediately, crimson energy lines began to run from the control orbs up and down the Orbital Frame, generating power, and soon the cockpit and Raven were awash with the light. And then finally, a cockpit monitor formed in front of Raven, with the initials "DELPHI" scrawled out in front.
"Good morning. Ready for combat operation." said a digitized feminine voice that seemed to echo across the entire cockpit.
With the ferocity of the bird of prey that was its namesake, the Raptor launched a javelin burst that reached out and connected to its Phantoma prey, exploding in a great light that ruptured the LEV's arc reactor and causing it to detonate, taking the machine and its pilot with it. In turn, one of the other Phantomas turned and launched a full burst of machinegun fire at the Orbital Frame that had just killed its comrade, but the Raptor simply engaged its energy shield to weather the blows and moved away. Not long after a nearby Cyclops dove down and drove one of its hardened clamps straight through the Phantoma, punching a massive hole that went from front to back, then withdrawing so that it may fly away as that unit joined its comrade in oblivion.
Not too far off, a Mummyhead launched its massive halberd cannons, with the twin beams of light scorching the Earth as they trace across one more Phantoma, destroying it before the beams were cut. However, that Mummyhead was soon attacked by another charging LEV, which drew shoulder slammed into the Mummyhead's dome shaped carapace all the while drawing its laser blade and slashing a deep gash across it. It wasn't enough to destroy the entirety of the machine, but it did force the Raptor core unit to abandon the carapace and fly away as it shattered. While it was a spectacular accomplishment for the intrepid Phantoma pilot, there were still more OFs out there to deal with, and they were not going down so easily.
It was now around nine years since the end of the Martian Wars, but despite their superiorities over conventional technology, the United Nations was still reluctant to adapt Orbital Frames for their own military forces' usage. As such, their main forces were still relegated to using basic LEVs, which fared no better against OFs than they did in the Martian Wars. In fact, they fared much worse as the majority of Space Force pilots were new recruits that had joined right after the Wars had ended, in an effort to replace all of the veterans that had died then, thus they were not used to fighting OFs with their meager machines. The only LEV that had ever been a match for Orbital Frames had been the aerial combat Vic Viper, but unfortunately that machine had never left the prototype stage for mass production, as the brass deemed it too costly.
The unit that was currently stationed in Wells City and therefore tasked with defending the city from the orbital frames was Sierra Company, better known as Storm Company, which was part of the 58th Mechanized Infantry Division that was stationed throughout Nereidum. While a highly decorated veteran unit that served the United Nations valiantly during the Martian Wars, and being one of the few Space Force units to survive that conflict relatively unscathed, even they were unable to make up the performance gap between LEVs and OFs in this current engagement. To make matters worse for them, all of the UCAVs that had been launched to intercept the Raptors had been shot down in only the first few minutes, pretty much leaving the Phantomas alone to deal with the threat.
"Storm One, you have two bogeys coming up on ya!" yelled a hapless Phantoma pilots voice over the radio, in the midst of unleashing a full barrage from his unit's machinegun at the free flying prey.
Captain Moses Bowman, CO of Storm Company, flitted his eyes to the side to see an incoming Raptor and Cyclops flying down to his position. He sneered at the skeletal machines as they approached for the kill. "I'm not letting you bastards take me without a fight!"
And with that, Captain Bowman's Phantoma unleashed the fury of its back mounted missile launchers, with the newly produced projectiles streaking into the air and slammed into the Raptor and Cyclops before they could raise their shields. Even Orbital Frames couldn't handle explosives well without their energy shields, and the two OFs' remains rained to the ground. Nevertheless, Bowman knew better than to celebrate the feet of killing two OFs at once, especially when he knew he was just lucky.
Putting the Phantoma into a thruster assisted dash that made it speed across a street, Bowman switched back to his unit's machinegun and fired up at another Raptor, but this time the OF was quick enough to engage its energy shield to deflect the warshots. Cursing that he wasn't able to score another kill so easily, Bowman pulled his Phantoma back before the Raptor could respond; it would have been suicide to attempt to try and overpower it or wait for it to drop its shield to attack again. All he could do was hope that it didn't choose to pursue as he searched for other, more vulnerable targets.
Just then a javelin tore into the left side of the Phantoma, ripping away the arm and shoulder attached to that area as well as damaging the back booster pod. The machine buckled under the force of the resulting explosion, which rocked the titan and almost caused it to fall on its side had Bowman not been able to maintain control. Two other of Bowman's men moved beside him to cover him from the attacking Raptor, as Bowman checked how bad the damage was. He was grateful to learn that aside from missing one arm and damage to the shoulder armor, his machine was still capable of fighting.
Fuck it, I'm no better off against these things, even if I had a laser rifle with me! Bowman thought with a sense of dread. At the rate things were going, Storm Company would be wiped out before doing any sufficient damage to the enemy forces.
Two Cyclops suddenly came down from the air and quickly destroyed Bowman's squadmates, leaving him open for another Raptor to dive in with its laser swords poised for the kill. Bowman attempted to bring his machinegun around to take it out before it could reach him, but he knew he wouldn't be able to make it in time. His eyes widened as his cockpit monitor was filled with the Raptor's mono-eye camera. Ah shit…!
But just as the sword was about to come down, the Raptor stopped in its tracks and turned away from the damaged Phantoma and flew away toward a different direction. In fact, all of the Raptors abandoned their attacks and did the same. At first Bowman was confused when he suddenly felt the ground shake from underneath his machine's legs. "What the-?" he uttered out loud as the ground shook more violently.
"Since when are there earthquakes on Mars!?" one of the surviving Phantoma pilots also started.
Rather than make a response to that inquiry, Bowman shifted his Phantoma's sensors to scan the ground. It was obvious that whatever was happening wasn't caused by a natural quake, and if his readings were accurate, there was a massive surge of energy coming up from underground. In fact, much to Bowman's dread, it looked to be Metatron related. "Impossible…!"
And then with a burst of power, a street corner not far from where the battle was taking place burst upward in a great explosion, as a crimson stream of energy shot into the sky like a pillar of light. As the Phantoma pilots, orbiting Raptors and nearby civilians all observed, a certain coffin-shaped monolith rose up from the newly created hole, floating through the stream like a boat on a river, slowly climbing into the air. At this point, no one dared say a thing; all they could do is watch as this new object kept rising and rising through the stream until it nearly reached the point between the city and the sphere's ceiling. Even the Raptors seemed hesitant to move against it.
Then, just as the monolith suspended itself, the stream faded away, only leaving a crimson aura that encased the object. The onlookers below watched in awe as its outer skin began to crack, much like how an insect's exoskeleton would before it is shed. It took more than a couple of seconds for this, as if whatever was underneath the outer shell actually had to struggle a little to break it, until nearly the entire surface was covered with criss-crossing red colored tears.
And then it long last, it was over. With the force of a thunderbolt as well as a similar sounding BANG, the monolith shattered into millions of tiny shards, which all began to rain down onto the city below. However, it wasn't the shards that captivated those who were watching, nor was it what drove them to the edge of horror. Rather, it was the Orbital Frame that came out of the shell that caused everyone to look on as if the Grim Reaper itself had come over Mars.
Still bathed in the crimson aura that made it glow brightly and darkly at the same time, the single Frame shone as its narrowed red eyes, menacing and cold, gazed down at its surroundings. Its jet black and grey armor hummed and vibrated as if alive, as it lowered its articulate face plate into view. At the same time, its large wings split into six separate binders, spreading around the back into a narrowed circumference, with only the connection roots keeping the wings attached to the body. And behind, the Frame's tail cord, which ended in a single blade-shaped wedge, whipped to and fro as if representing eagerness on the part of the machine.
Seemingly awakened from its slumber, the Orbital Frame Anubis hovered in the skies of Nereidum, emanating death and darkness from every part of its being like the Egyptian God of the Dead whose image it held. And from its resurrection, chaos would reign supreme.
TO BE CONTINUED…