—Into the Fray—
The abnormal spike in Fiona's brainwaves subsided, and the Backdraft engineers monitoring her from within Ambient's body cooled their excitement. They removed the sensor strips from the organoid and relayed the data with Dr. Laon. The engineers ensured him it was nothing; the increase in the Zoidian's brain activity was to be expected. He accepted their words and dismissed them.
Yes, he supposed much was running through Fiona's mind—rage, uncertainty, vengeance. It was just what Laon desired. He peered out the bay window, resting his elbow upon the window's balcony. The Commission's Ultrasaurus was in view now, and the Hammerhead began making its descent.
Laon fumbled in his coat pocket, setting his fingers around a thin object. He pulled it out and positioned it before his face. There had never been a more powerful photograph to Laon. The soulful eyes of Leena's mother stared back into his, warming and cutting his heart at the same time. How he longed to see her smile again – a smile that made his knees buckle, his heart pound. But that would never be, for in one swift motion, she was taken away from him. However, it was time to let the pass go.
He tore the picture in two.
When the Backdraft succeeded today, everything would change. He needed nothing to remind him of past pains. No memories, nothing familiar.
A glare canceled out Laon's transparent reflection in the bay window, pulling him back into reality. He turned around and glanced into Seraph's mirrored visor on his helmet. The assassin polarized his faceplate, allowing Laon to see, though faded, his eyes.
"We're ready to deploy."
Dr. Laon acknowledged his words with a gesture of the head. He watched Seraph walk away and board his Energy Liger as he went over to the holo-keyboard to open the bomb-bay doors. In mid-stride the bay shook, and Laon stumbled over into the nearby wall. The room tilted as the Hammerhead was dipped into a thirty-five degree angle, trembled and creaked, then leveled out.
Dr. Laon staggered over a wall-mounted monitor, hit the transceiver, and shouted, "Status! What's going on?"
The screen, once sizzling with white noise, descrambled and displayed a young operator. He looked into the monitor. "Enemy Zoids, sir; two of them are closing on our six."
"Give me a visual if you got one," Laon demanded.
The operator motioned off screen, syncing the video feed from the craft's aft external cameras. Dr. Laon leaned closer to the screen and squinted his eyes. Two aerial Zoids—one a Storm Sworder and the other… Laon eased back from the monitor.
His Zoid, his creation – the Fire Phoenix – spun into the camera's viewpoint and fired. The camera went dark. Laon slammed the wall with his fist with a strong obscenity. He hailed the operator again, his voice intense. "Scramble our remaining Zabat forces! Blow them from the sky."
"Roger that," replied the operator.
Jamie guided the Fire Phoenix in beside the Storm Sworder, pulling back into formation. He studied the ammo readout and frowned. The Phoenix was low on ammunition, so every shot would have to count. Compartments along the Hammerhead's bulky exterior suddenly realigned themselves, pulling back like sliding doors.
Zabat fighters spiraled out from their inverted positions, splayed their wings, and set their sights on the Fire Phoenix and Storm Sworder. Pierce hit a holo-key on her console with an aggravated sigh. The key flashed red. Weapons were hot. She locked onto one of the incoming Zabats and opened a visual COM link with it. The cockpit was empty, and the controls toggled on their own accord without human assistance.
Pierce sighed again. "Be advised, Jamie – enemy contacts are drone operated."
"NOVA?" inquired the Phoenix pilot.
"No," Pierce said, rejoicing mentally that it wasn't. "Basic operation protocol integrations only. This should be a snap, but remember our objective."
"Roger," Jamie acknowledged, easing ahead of Pierces' Sworder. "Engaging enemy hostiles!"
The Fire Phoenix rolled out left, just as a pair of Zabats opened fired on it. They lined up behind Jamie, discharging their 145mm Laser Guns. Hemeros was sucked into his seat as he forced his Zoid into a vertical rise; barrel rolled over the Zabats, and slashed over one of them with the Phoenix's laser claws. The Zabat's wings twisted and crumbled in a swirl of flames before the main body detonated.
Pierce flew by the second bat-type Zoid, splitting in two with the Sworder's wing-mounted blades. The puff of fiery smoke it vented went unnoticed by Pierce as she went in toward the Hammerhead. She set her sights on the aft engines and primed her sword missiles. The gyrating reticule flashed red over the target—a deadlock. Pierce went to squeeze the trigger when, suddenly, a Zabat latched onto her Sworder and sunk in its claws. The distinct green, inferred scope on the end of its nose began being red. Pierce vented a boisterous swear.
A suicide Zabat.
She tightened her restraints, boosted her Sworder to maximum velocity, and sent it into a series of cyclone-like spirals. The pressing G-forces constricted her body, and she heard one of her ribs crack. Under the stress of the violent revolutions, the suicide Zabat's claws were forcefully wrenched free from the Sword Sworder, exploding just milliseconds later.
Pierce's teeth clicked from the blast being in close proximity. Blood vessels in her nose erupted, splashing the warm fluid against her upper lip and cheeks. She decelerated before she blacked out, unfortunately gliding within weapons range of the Backdraft Hammerhead.
"Pierce, Hammerhead's got you locked. Get out of there!" Jamie warned.
Pierce fought through the disorientation, reading her instruments before her. Warning signals wailed in her ringing ears. She focused her blurred vision on her motion sensors. Two missiles were gunning for her exposed flank, and one would be enough to reduce her Zoid to a smoldering fireball.
Jamie hurried to her position, ignoring the hits he received from the Zabats swarming around him. He took hold of the joystick-like control to his right that was separate from the main controls and shoved it forward. The Fire Phoenix's rocketed forward, breaching the sound barrier. A sonic boom roiled underneath the Hammerhead, shifting its course by a few degrees.
Jamie traveled alongside the pair of missiles, pulled ahead of them, and, against the massive pressure on his arms, swept across the path of them. The projectiles, affected by the boom, rattled and nudged one another, prematurely detonating. Jamie leveled out; the muscles in his arms felt as if they detached from the bone. He grimaced and moaned sporadically. He'd strained his left bicep, broken a pinky, and stressed his forearms.
"Pierce… you okay?"
"Fine," she strained to say. "Thanks."
"No worries. They're descending toward the city. This could be our only chance to hit 'em now."
Pierce leaned her forehead into her fist, mentally preparing herself. She didn't have the physical strength to keep going, but if she could gear her mind up for the task, maybe her body would follow suit. "Yeah, let's do it."
Seraph, the Fuzors, and Ambient were deployed near the city's edge, just a kilometer from the Ultrasaurus. Dr. Laon stood on the ramp, his coat blowing in the wind from the blaring engines. Seraph didn't have to see his face to tell him what needed to be done. He didn't need a pep talk or some fancy speech; that wasn't the type of soldier that ever needed one.
The assassin was ready for anything, including the inevitable interference from their surprisingly resilient enemy. Who knew that a group of teenagers and millennia-old Zoid warriors had the will and courage? The Blitz Team weren't battle-trained soldiers; they fought for sport, for money, for fame. Why they weren't dead already surprised Seraph. And then there was Van Flyheight – easily the best Zoid warrior and natural fighter Zi had ever breathed life into. His skill rivaled and surpassed that of today's best Zoid pilot in Bit Cloud, but he was out of the picture; and Seraph hoped it remained that way.
The assassin quieted his inner monologue and guided the Energy Liger in the direction of the towering HQ of the Battle Commission. Missiles suddenly struck the Hammerhead from above, leaving molten craters in the craft's hull. The Fire Phoenix and a single Storm Sworder wailed over Seraph and the Fuzors, circled back around, and fired again. Seraph motioned to fight, but Laon rebuked him.
"Focus on the mission. We'll handle things here. Go!"
The seasoned vet heeded Laon's command and led the Fuzors out.
Gun turrets unfolded from the Hammerhead's back, tilted up, and bombarded the air with anti-air artillery slugs. Each round was the size of a watermelon, being able to deliver a whopping ton of damage of aerial or stationary targets. Jamie and Pierce weaved between explosions, pulling in tight together, separating, then crossing over one another in perpendicular angles. The turrets couldn't keep track.
As one turned to target the Fire Phoenix, Pierce soared around to its blindside and took it out. A Zabat dropped down behind her, arming its missiles to fire. Jamie dove for the enemy Zoid, opened the Fire Phoenix's claws, and snatched it away before it could fire. He threw the Zabat into the Hammerhead's hull, spiraled over an AA shell, and armed his last charge missile.
"I've got a lock on their main engines," he reported to Pierce. "I'm taking the shot."
"Do it!" exclaimed Pierce. "I'll cover you."
Jamie released the missile. The aerial explosive traveled admits the crisscrossing Zabat fighters, swarm of bullets, and accelerated for the glowing engines of the Hammerhead. At the last possible moment, however, just as the missile came within striking distance of the target, a Zabat hurled itself into it. The two ignited, and the Zabat drone was consumed with fire. To Jamie's dismay, the blast did nothing to harm the Hammerhead, not even collateral damage.
"No, no, no!" he exploded in rage.
A trio of Zabats glided from around the Hammerhead, set their sights on the Fire Phoenix, and unleashed their homing missiles. Jamie caught them in his peripheral vision. Maybe he hadn't failed yet. The young pilot forced his Zoid into a nosedive, and the missiles followed him accordingly. He swooped underneath the belly of the Hammerhead, decreased his speed, and purposely allowed the missiles to close on him. Jamie set a timer in his head and began to count down. He had only one shot at this.
When the warning alarms began to wail in the cockpit, Jamie boosted the Phoenix up and over the Hammerhead in a sharp vertical ascent. The missiles, unable to adjust, flew right up into the craft's underbelly. Sections of metal gave way, leaving crude, molten breaches in the hull.
Burning Zoids that had yet to be deployed fell from the flagship like meteors, and even Backdraft personnel who found themselves in the lower decks plummeted to the ground with them. Jamie witnessed this, but he felt no compassion. The pilot's usually gentle nature seemed to fade as the day continued to drag on. Rage and revenge were the only emotions Jamie felt, and though such feelings were uncommon in the young warrior, he didn't care; he wanted to further their misery.
"Pierce, concentrate your fire on the keel; it's their weakest point."
"That was a risky maneuver, Jamie," Pierce commented.
"It worked, didn't it?" Hemeros bluntly put, moving in to take another shot at the damaged vessel.
Pierce didn't reply. The tone in the teen's voice was one she hadn't heard before. It was mixed with a horde of surging emotions, some more dominant than others. It made sense, though. He was just a tactical commander, not a war strategist.
He was used to sanctioned, organized battles where the terms were simple—win or lose, and no strings were attached to that. But the kid was fighting for his life now. Losing meant death. Pierce laughed at herself for thinking this. Even she wasn't used to this death on such a grand scale. It could drive a Zoid pilot mad if one let it. She couldn't fight for the dead. Their time was over. She had to focus on the living, the surviving. They're the ones that needed saving, and she would fight to make sure they had a future.
"Being the hero sucks, kid," she confessed.
Jamie cackled. "You get used to it. C'mon, let's take this thing outta the sky."
Pierce smirked and guided her Storm Sworder toward the damaged vessel. "Copy that."
The Chairman of the Battle Commission slumped over his station; blood dripped from his lips, and the man was beginning to come to. An intense heat was felt to his left. The disorientation had begun to fade, and the Chairman fought against his aching extremities to pick himself up. He opened his burning eyes and blinked out the dust from them to clear his vision.
A fire—one of many—burned beside him where his command station was. He inched away from the heat and tried to stand; his legs gave out. A pair of hands suddenly grabbed him from behind, pulling him down from his station and dragging him down to the main floor. He heard muffled voices around him, but he understood none of it. What had happened? The last thing he remembered was their own satellites firing down at them, then after that, nothing. He forced himself to focus, to regain some type of awareness.
A light flashed into his eyes. He grimaced, swatting the empty air. His hand connected with something, and the light vanished. A person was crouched in front of him now, and their voice gradually became clear to him.
"Sir! Sir, can you hear me?"
Yates; it was Ensign Yates. The Chairman was helped to his feet and surveyed his distressing surroundings: injured officers were being rushed from the bridge, the dead were being covered, and fires were trying to be extinguished. Crewmembers that had avoided serious injuries zigzagged about the deck, checking up on systems that redlined. It wasn't a sight the Chairman wanted to see.
"Incoming hostiles!" an officer exclaimed from his station.
Yates turned aside from his superiors' side. "Can you confirm hostiles?"
"Uploading visual now," replied the officer.
He pecked a key on his keyboard, transferring one of the Ultrasaurus's forward-facing cameras to the main screen. Sections of the monitor were blacked out, but enough of it was clear for confirmation. Five Zoids—identical to the ones that attack before—charged for the Ultrasaurus. They broke off into an obvious attack pattern, and the Chairman's patience had run dry.
"I want a systems check!" he demanded angrily. "What's the status on our weapons?"
Weapons Officer Lieutenant Xavier stood from an injured comrade. He wiped the blood from his hands and acknowledged the Chairman. "Beam cannons are offline, sir. All missiles have been exhausted and we have one linear cannon remaining. The pulse laser guns are still online, though, but they're output are down to thirty percent. We still have the retrofitted machine guns, sir. We haven't used them yet, and they're full of ammo and ready to go."
"Just use whatever's available, son," said the Commission's leader. "I want those targets in a scrap heap by sundown!"
The Weapons Officer did just so.
The Ultrasaurus reflected in the faceplate of Seraph's helmet as he led the charge with the Fuzors around him. They drew within firing range from the injured mobile headquarters of the Battle Commission, and the colossal Zoid had settled on its belly with mangled, inoperable legs. Despite being heavily armed and armored, it posed no threat to the approaching enemy Zoids. A sitting duck it was, but Seraph wasn't convinced it was out of commission just yet.
Dr. Laon appeared on Seraph's left, and the camera pulled in and out of focus as it jumped about across his face and body. "Status, Seraph!"
"We're closing on the target now," the soldier replied.
"Copy that. New orders from the Count: preserve the Battle Commission's leader alive and bring him to us. The Count wants him."
Seraph winced at the order, and it was a tall one. It was an extraordinary risk. They would have to infiltrate the heavily defended interior for one man. It would've been easier to just destroy the whole Ultrasaurus; that would ensure a total extermination of the Commission's headmen. The soldier wouldn't argue, however; whatever the Count wanted, he would get.
"Roger that," Seraph complied.
He uploaded the new objective to the Fuzors and inserted a photo of the Battle Commission's Chairman. The Fuzors acknowledged the order and accepted it. They broke off into formation, devising a strategy among themselves. The Nightwise ascended high, while the Leoblaze, Unenlagia, and Mosasledge remained groundside with the Energy Liger.
Lieutenant Xavier tracked the aerial Zoid and fired up the pulse laser guns. He took aim and locked on; the reticule flashed red over the Nightwise, and the Lieutenant hit the firing key. Lateral beams of superheated ions launched into the sky and traced an outline in the clouds like concert lights. The Nightwise, with extreme precision, glided around the lasers and pulled out of their range. It circled back around, held its wings tight against is bulky body, and dove toward the Ultrasaurus like a dart.
Multiple rings of red lights encircled the pulse laser guns through the Nightwise's vision, and its missiles were primed and locked. Meters before suffering a suicidal direct hit, the Zoid pulled up, simultaneously releasing its armed missiles. The projectiles hit their marks, vaporizing the guns.
The Weapons Officer snatched off his communications headset and threw it across his station in rage. Those were the best weapons the Ultrasaurus had at their disposal. The retrofitted machine guns wouldn't do anything but spray suppressive fire; that wasn't enough, and one linear cannon would do squat. They had to deploy mobile troops.
Xavier retrieved his headset and raised the lower decks. "Hangar bays A through D, this is Bridge Control. Weapons are exhausted up here; we need mobile troops on the ground now to repel this attack. How copy?"
"We copy that, Bridge Control," responded Hangar C. "Mobilizing mobile units. Got a snag, though – deployment doors were jammed shut from the collapse. Suggestions?"
"Blow them open!" Lieutenant Xavier barked. "Just get our troops out there. Any word on Bays A, B, and D?"
"Bays A and B sustained heavy losses. They may have twenty-thirty operational Zoids combined. D has gone dark complete; no word from them yet. We're the only ones at full capacity."
The Weapons Officer sighed and ran his hand across his face before holding it steady over his mouth. Minimal forces were better than none. "Just make it fast. Ground forces are… Hangar C, standby."
Xavier shifted over to the radar, picking up additional contacts closing fast on the rear of the enemy Zoids. He transferred the contacts on the main monitor and couldn't believe what he was seeing.
"Get a load of this!" he exclaimed to the bridge.
The crew glued their eyes to the monitor and viewed in disbelief. A team of Zoids raced across the devastated outskirts of Capital City toward the Ultrasaurus, and they were led by a Geno Saurer and the Liger Zero.
The Chairman, brow furrowed, limped toward the down to the main floor of the bridge and looked up into the screen. He folded his arms across his chest and smirked with a wagging head. By the looks of some of the Zoids, it was indeed the Blitz Team with some added company. The Chairman didn't know why or how they were here, but dared not ask questions. And judging from the conditions of their Zoids, they'd been fighting for quite some time. Had they been here since the beginning?
"Lieutenant Xavier." The Chairman's voice resonated across the bridge, and it surging with refueled confidence.
The Weapons Officer turned to him from his slumped, exhausted position. "Sir?"
"Hurry up that deployment, son. The Blitz Team's going to need our help."
Seraph and the other Fuzors made it to the base of the Ultrasaurus. He glared at the lengthy neck of the Zoid and its massive head that undoubtedly held the Backdraft's prize. Once the Chairman was apprehended, the satellite would finish off the mobile HQ for good. With the head of the Commission of the severed, the victory would be sealed. The Backdraft would then exterminate the remaining allies of the defeated government, thus completing the Count's vision. What a glorious time that would…
The Fire Phoenix and Storm Sworder screamed over the Energy Liger and the Fuzors, ringing the ears of Seraph as they flew back around and perched on the neck of the Ultrasaurus. Enemy contacts appeared upon his motion sensors from the rear, and the soldier turned aside from facing the Ultrasaurus angled his Zoid toward the incoming hostiles. An expression of unbridled fury coated his face.
The Liger Zero, Psycho Geno Saurer, Shadow Fox, Elephander, Photo Zaber, Lightning Saix was all lined up against them.
Seraph vented a humorless laugh. "Your durability is impressive. Unfortunately, time was run out. You've lost."
A cold silence radiated from the pilots. The indescribable fury boiling within them had since bubbled over and melted through the surface of their tolerance. Amidst the pain of loss, the struggle for control, and the agony of repeated defeat, abolished all compassion and mercy. A fire churned in their hearts that vengeance could only extinguish. Words of promised defeat held no substance, and the threat of harm no longer needed to be said. Win or lose; live or die—by the end of the day, one would remain from the fray.