It was said that a Nova could sense your fear.
The quickening of your pulse. The hammering of your heart. It could feel the dread rising from your body like a palpable odor. And then it would come for you, locked onto your fear like a shark scenting blood.
The lead Nova stopped. It tilted its featureless face sideways, and let out a soft, questioning trill. Behind it, three dozen of its kind followed, their pristine, angular bodies hovering in midair. These were not the nigh-unstoppable S-classes that towered over ten story buildings, nor were they the antiquated R-classes, who rooted themselves to the earth and could absorb an unimaginable amount of punishment. These were lesser Novas, foot soldiers in a sense, the grunts of the vast alien war machine. Each was nine feet tall, rigidly constructed, with bodies that resembled the spinning tops a child would play with. A triangular head rested on top of each alien, attached to slender necks that made them look inhumanly graceful. Bladed forelimbs were mounted on each shoulder, two to a side. The lesser Novas did not possess the fearsome particle beam cannons that their higher ranked kin did. Those forelimbs were their main weapons, diamond sharp and capable of punching through the thick plated armor of a tank's hull.
There it was again. The lead Nova could sense an erratic beat coming from the distance. It was an organic rhythm, something that only the indigenous creatures of this world could produce. It was a pulse. A heart. Human. Prey.
The lead Nova abruptly swiveled on its chassis-like body, and sped towards the source of the disturbance. Its minions did the same, accelerating from their motionless positions in a split second and at breakneck speeds.
Their surroundings blurred around them. Burnt out buildings. Half-collapsed skyscrapers. The ruins of a once popular shopping district, now a crater a mile wide, created from the birth of an S-type Nova. A long convoy of wrecked vehicles, most of them nothing more than charred, empty frames, parked on a desolate highway stretching as far as the eye could see.
This was once a metropolis, rich with life and bustling with activity. The Eighth Nova Clash had ripped out the very beating heart of the city, with numerous aliens materializing in the downtown area simultaneously. Far from the nearest Genetics facility, the populace had only the local military garrisoned within the suburbs to rely on. They were subsequently brushed aside. The larger Novas flattened any resistance. The smaller ones swarmed panicked companies and cut them to pieces. The army retreated with seventy-eight percent casualties, most of them dead. With no soldiers to protect them, the civilian population quickly succumbed, with the death toll numbering in the millions. This was not a singular affair. All throughout the world, cities deemed safe became targets for Nova excursions. It was a dark time for humanity. The Chevaliers had been stretched thin. Genetics facilities were forced to send out their first year students, raw and inexperienced, to try and stall the Nova invasion. The dead had been beyond the count of grief.
The Nova pack zipped under the ruins of a destroyed bridge, their motion utterly alien, yet indescribably graceful. Their senses were urging them on, to find this lone human, and dispose of it. They finally found their quarry a minute later, after navigating through a maze of abandoned neighborhoods.
It was residential district. Tall apartment complexes lay around them, though most were close to crumbling. Years of neglect had reduced these buildings to a near inhospitable state. The windows were cracked and caked with dust. The metal ledges and balconies that hung outside each room were pitted with rust. Vines spread like a spider's web up and across each building's surface, some of them hundreds of feet high.
These nuances were ignored by the Nova. Their sole attention was focused on the lone figure that stood in the middle of the district square, back to a derelict fountain. Its body was covered with some form of armor, grey and dull. It almost resembled a carapace, the way the plate fit over its frame. The human's face was hidden by a helm, concealed by a visor that gleamed oddly in the light.
It was not a Pandora. Its armor was too wide, too thick. And whereas a Pandora's armor was smooth and faultless in their combat state, this one was segmented, rough like dragonscale.
The Nova drew in, scythe-like limbs raised to strike. The human was content to let them close the distance. It did nothing but watch as the pack descended, surging forward in a tight swarm. When the Nova were but fifty yards away, it lifted a plated hand towards the oncoming pack, palm outstretched as though in greeting. One word was uttered, made muffled by the confines of the visored helm.
A blast of winter chill. A howl of icy wind. The Nova saw the ground around the human crystallize into ice. They saw it spreading, like a tidal wave, coming for them. They understood what was happening. What was about to happen. They even understood their predicament. Their eminent fate. But they were helpless against it.
The Freezing field washed over them like water on rock, drowning them in its chilling hold. Hoarfrost materialized on their silicon bodies. Icicles grew from their limbs. The very air around them froze and became still. A drifting leaf. A torn plastic bag, blown by the wind. They were all suspended there, motionless, like some still from an ancient movie.
And then the buildings around them erupted with life.
Helmeted men muscled heavy cannons onto the ledges of broken windows. Armored soldiers shouldered missile launchers and pointed them down from the balconies. Snipers made their presence known, sliding large caliber rounds into their high powered rifles from the rooftops.
Together the human soldiers fired, and Novas began to die.
The autocannons spoke first, drum fed and thirsty for war. They spat exploding rounds in thudding refrain, stitching fist-sized craters across the Novas' crystalline skin. A volley of missiles followed, corkscrewing through the air in haphazard patterns before ploughing into their targets to deliver their devastating payloads. Two of the alien lifeforms ceased to be, their angular bodies blasted into unrecognizable pieces. High caliber bullets streaked from hidden vantage points, shot with unerring accuracy. Their targets were the heads, the necks, anywhere on a Nova body that was more vulnerable. Another Nova died, half of its skull sheared away. Its corpse still remained floating, suspended there, in midair, by the relentless Freezing field.
The ambush was far from complete. From the alleyways dozens of APCs emerged, roaring on six wheels and overclocked engines. They disgorged their passengers, platoons of armored infantrymen, then turned their turret mounted miniguns on the frozen foe. A blistering hail of lead erupted from each vehicle, and that hail swiftly turned into a storm when their passengers lent their own firepower to the fray.
This was when the leader-type died. It had the misfortune to be at the front of the alien formation. The sheer weight of firepower thrown at it simply shredded it apart. Four of its kin followed in death, their inhuman frames riddled with holes.
The last arm of the trap came from behind. Massive, lumbering behemoths rolled onto the square, turrets swiveling to target the helpless Novas. They had been hidden behind the piles of wreckage that littered the city, their crew protected from detection by thick layers of steel. Slow and ponderous on their riveted tracks, they had stalked the aliens from afar, waiting for the foe to fall into the ambush. Now that they had, it was a simple matter to close the final jaws of the trap.
Normally, these heavy vehicles fared poorly against Novas. The aliens were fast and lethal, to such an extent that even the computerized targeting systems implanted in each tank was hard fought to keep up. A tank trying to shoot down a Nova would often find itself outflanked, and could do little besides swivel the turret in a vain attempt to track its vastly more agile foe. But now, locked into place by the Freezing field, the aliens made easy targets for the crew inside.
The ground shook as the tanks unleashed thunder from their cannons. Each shot was a kill. Sabot rounds cored their respective targets, punching through angular bodies in sprays of crystalline shards. Explosive warheads slammed into alien forms, blasting great chunks of silicon away from their frames. Special immolation rounds filled with napalm ignited upon impact, turning Novas into floating, burning torches.
The Novas could not scream like men. They could not express pain like men. There was even debate about whether they could feel pain at all. But they could suffer, and that was what was happening now. Suffering. No longer pristine and perfect, their damaged frames, missing arms, limbs, heads, hung in midair like empty dolls. A few were charred beyond recognition, their listless bodies emanating thick, foul-smelling smoke.
A command rang out across the radio net. The human soldiers gradually ceased their fire. Silence fell, broken only by the thrum of idle engines.
Another command, this time directed to the one who had started it all. The armored figure's outstretched arm lowered. In response, the Freezing field that had riveted the aliens in place abruptly dissipated.
Three dozen Novas crashed to the ground, their broken forms still and lifeless.
The humans began to cheer. Unbeknownst to them, a private communication link opened in their network, so that only one amongst them could hear.
"Good work, Kazuya."
Aaron Thompson was not by any stretch an ordinary man. Gifted with an unusually high intelligence, he had graduated at the top of his class in the lull between the Seventh and Eighth Nova Clash. Heralded as an up and coming researcher for the Chevaliers, it had been a time of hope and happiness for the new graduate. Despite the looming threat of further Nova incursions, the future had looked bright, with employment offers lined up from various Genetics facilities.
Aaron had honestly thought he was ready. He was wrong. He was simply not prepared for the ruthless and backstabbing ways of his colleagues. Central Command was highly selective in funding, and lavished immense capital on their favorites. This made every day work a competition, a rivalry between men and women who should have been, for all intents and purposes, working together. Aaron would never forget the day the man he thought was his friend stole months of his research and submitted it as his own. Gradually, he had grown disillusioned with his work, skeptical even, of the direction his colleagues were pushing the Pandora project towards.
That was not what troubled him the most, however. No, what bothered him the most was the seemingly callous way the researchers treated their own test subjects. Pandoras and Limiters were mere assets to them, kept if they were valuable, and discarded if they weren't. Many of his colleagues simply didn't regard them as human beings, just means of furthering their own research. That was what ultimately led to his resignation, barely ten years into his career when others in his field were still working into their seventies.
The doctor swept a hand through his greying hair. Those ten years though, were enough to age him considerably. He had been a strapping young lad when he stepped into the shoes of a head researcher for Chevalier. He had come out looking like an old man. Wrinkles had developed from days without sleep. His hair had lost their vibrant yellow color years ago. Even his beard had thinned out. It was a small price to pay for getting out, however. Now he was content, and that was all that mattered.
A knock at his door snapped him out of his reverie.
A boy emerged, slight of build and unimpressive to the casual observer. Short, black hair covered his head. Intelligent, brown eyes stared neutrally back at the doctor, without hostility or compassion.
"Dr. Thompson," he nodded respectfully to the man perched on the sofa.
Aaron nodded back, and gestured for the boy to sit.
"Another successful foray, I presume, Kazuya?"
"Yes, doctor," Kazuya Aoi plopped down on the sofa across him, "We eliminated all the roaming Novas in the city. No casualties on our side," a small, satisfied smile slid across his features, "Central Command better be pleased about this."
"They are," Thompson said in a matter-of-fact way.
His protégé narrowed his eyes.
"Is something wrong, doctor?"
Aaron inwardly cursed at his inability to hide his emotions from his face. Though it wouldn't have mattered anyways. Kazuya had been with him for so long that he could read him like a book. So instead he changed the subject.
"You know son, I think it may be wise for you to start considering a Pandora for your partner."
Kazuya stared at him as though if he had gone crazy.
"No," he said flatly.
"Kazuya, you are an immensely gifted Limiter. You are wasting your talents here, when you could be at a Genetics academy, studying and improving your abilities. You may even find a partner suitable for you."
"No," the boy said again.
His protégé shrugged.
"I don't like Pandoras."
"Your sister was a Pandora."
"Yes, and look where that got her," the boy grimaced, "The Chevalier Project killed her. And for what? So my grandfather could have a few more test subjects?" Kazuya shook his head, "Being a Pandora got her killed doctor, and I'm not going to spit on her memory by following blindly in her footsteps."
"You wouldn't be spitting on her memory, Kazuya. You would be honoring her."
"By what? Dying?" Kazuya snorted, "I'm sure that's what she wanted of me. Sacrifice myself so Gendo could get his hands on another high level Nova? No, I won't be doing that. If it's dying she wants, there's plenty of Pandoras left in the world to do that for her."
"Those Pandoras are the last line of defense mankind has against the Nova. Their dedication and sacrifice is what has allowed us to survive."
"I am perfectly aware of the sacrifices Pandoras make, doctor," Kazuya said coolly, "I understand the danger they face in their everyday lives. I even respect their fighting prowess. That doesn't mean I have to like them."
"They certainly like you though," the older man managed a half-smile, "The Chevaliers you worked with before gave glowing reviews of your abilities. All of them were eager to see you enrolled in the Genetics they graduated from."
"I worked with them because there was no other alternative. I would have preferred working with the military, but in those situations they had already retreated or been wiped out by the Nova."
"Still, I must insist that it would be a good idea for you to find a Pandora that is compatible with you, Kazuya. The two of you would greatly benefit from one another."
"Why?" Kazuya repeated, "I mean, why now? You've known my opinion of Pandoras for a long time, doctor, and you've never pressed me before like this. There must be some reason why you've made this matter more… urgent."
Adam closed his eyes wearily. Sometimes he wished the boy was less sharp. It would be easier to keep secrets from him that way.
"Your grandfather has found us."
Kazuya stiffened. A scowl spread across his features.
"Why won't that old bastard just leave me alone?"
"Is that a serious question, Kazuya?" when his protégé did not respond, the old man sighed, "You are a Limiter with a Stigmata Body, the only one in the world. That makes your Freezing ability stronger, more potent, and far more lethal than a normal Limiter's. If your sister was the strongest Pandora in her generation, then certainly you are the strongest Limiter in yours. That fact alone forces Gengo to try and find you. He would be remiss in his duties as a researcher and founder of the Pandora project if he did not."
Kazuya lowered his head. Aaron's gaze softened. Reality had a tendency of rearing its ugly head at the most inopportune of times. Sadly, the old doctor knew that Kazuya understood this. Years of fighting the Nova had taught him that much, at the very least.
"How did he find us?" acceptance now, though the boy was far from defeated, "I thought our project was a secret commission granted by Central Command."
"Granted by the research arm of Central Command," Aaron corrected, "A branch that is influenced solely by the works of your grandfather. They may answer to Central Command, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were members within their ranks who passed along information to Gengo himself."
"Information? What information?"
"Rumors, mainly," the doctor answered, "It takes a great deal of discretion to cover up what we do. A Limiter who can help the military defeat small scale Nova incursions when past experiences have taught us that a single Nova is sufficient enough to destroy whole regiments? That's bound to leave some impressions. And trust me when I say that soldiers are the least likely to keep a confidential matter, well… confidential. The fact that we have kept you hidden from the public for this long is a miracle in itself," Aaron allowed himself a small chuckle, "And dare I say that a few of those Chevaliers you worked with were far more enthusiastic than the rest when it came to securing your chances of attending their Genetics academy."
The boy grunted.
"Still, it doesn't mean I have to go anywhere near him, right? Just because he found me doesn't mean I have to attend his choice of academy."
"No," Aaron admitted, "But you know your grandfather's ways. No one is better at attrition than Gengo Aoi. If you do not agree to his commands, he will erode your will to resist. Maybe he'll move a few people you know to other projects. I might be one of them. Maybe he'll start cutting off funds for our own project. Maybe he'll shut the project down entirely. You know what that means, Kazuya? I won't be able help you anymore, let alone advise you."
Kazuya looked down glumly.
"That old bastard."
Aaron let out a wry smile.
"Gengo didn't become what he is today by being pleasant and agreeable. Being a top researcher in his field is stressful, to say the least. Competition everywhere, as well as the threat of sabotage. And Central Command does nothing, but watch. It benefits them, to see the researchers fighting amongst themselves for funding. Easier to control that way."
"I still don't want to go."
The old doctor leaned forward and patted his protégé's shoulder comfortingly.
"I think it will be a good experience for you," he sighed when Kazuya stared unbelievingly at him, "I am serious, you know, when I say you are wasting your talents here. If there is one thing I agree with your grandfather, it is that a Limiter and a Pandora should be paired together. Only then will their full potential be realized. Think, about it Kazuya. A single Pandora partnered with you would be able to achieve the same victory that the entire army regiment you were attached to today spent hours preparing for. And isn't that what matters most? Finding the most efficient and effective way of defeating the Nova?"
Kazuya stayed silent. Aaron knew from the clouded look in his eyes he was in the midst of careful deliberation. What seemed like an eternity passed. Finally, he looked up, and Aaron was pleased to see the uncertainness had passed away.
"I will miss you, doctor."
The older man laughed and relaxed back into his seat.
"Don't say that boy," Aaron winked, "I won't be able to help you where you're at, but that doesn't mean I won't be able to see you again. And besides," he jerked his head towards the back of the lab, "there's still the rest of the project I have to deliver to you."