Kendall’s immediate peers, Hasami and the Beaulieu’s discounted, broke out into a frantic discussion, leaving the three of them as the only ones actually attempting to strategize. Other groups on the Anarchist’s side were simply walking past and onto the battlefield.
Wasn’t that surprising of a move to make, for Porter, I thought.
“Bye Kendall,” I said, not loud enough for him to hear. He was arguing with Catherine now, and her brothers were making it hard for him to speak.
Ash, Odessa, and Anna followed with me as I joined the crowd. Stepping off the ramp and through the giant gateway, my feet touched down on soft grassy ground, and the environment became immediately apparent.
“It’s Earth,” Anna said. “A replica. I’ve even… I think I’ve been here. This is the lower city, not far from where I live…”
The Anarchists were pouring out into a large park, with fog thick as molasses gathered around us. I could see the outline of a swing set in the distance.
“Let’s walk and talk,” I said. “What is there to know about this place.”
“Well, it’s the Utopian homeworld, Earth One. I was privileged to live here… The uh, the map should only be one sectioned off city, the capital and empty landscape outside. The city is pretty much an onion, with layers, of residential areas, recreational areas, and shopping places. With some really scary droid tunnels, and some government buildings. Power should be offline, you know, because it’s pretty much common sense that the Anarchists would need to disable robotics to have a prayer of winning.”
We’d arrived. I sat down and started swinging.
“Pfft,” Ash said, “I can swing higher than that. I’m a natural-born swinger.”
Odessa was the only one left standing, in her enormous armor, when Anna grabbed a swing as well. We three creaked as we went.
“Goddammit,” Ash said when Anna started swinging at the horizontal. We carried on for a couple minutes like that, arching at random.
I swung higher and jumped off, landed on my feet. Ash followed suit and stuck the landing. Anna tried, flew fifteen feet and landed on her feet, but stumbled into a fall. Ash snickered.
“Guys!” Kendall called. I waved him over because we were no doubt silhouettes in the fog to him. He jogged up and looked at Anna, who was getting up with a groan. “The objectives are in from orbital. We’ve got more time to set up because the story is that the Anarchists are making a surprise attack. There’re a few people already in place, who would have been in the city anyway, like the Sentinel.”
“I know that guy…” Anna ominously murmured.
“Anyway, our goals are to take important hostages, blow things up, and kill everyone that tries to stop us. The Utopians are supposed to try and avoid killing, and secure the city. It’s a war, so there really aren’t any clear-cut goals besides win. And generally, you know you’ve won when the other guys are all dead.”
“Sounds pretty straightforward,” I said.
“Yeah. Hasami wants to trail with you guys, and the Beaulieu’s have agreed to play backup, but will be off on their own for the most part.”
“Where will you be?” I asked, having caught that he disincluded himself.
“We’ve got Miller and his Disciples, well-known Summoners. They hailed me on the radio, gave me a proposition. Despite what some people may think… Doran… I’m actually pretty good at what I do. They need a contract guy and I volunteered. We’ll be here working on a heavy-weight summon, and screwing with the Utopians. You four go do whatever you do. That’s your purpose. Nobody needs to hold your hands, and I’m really not a field guy, I’m a spell guy. Support. So get out there.” He snapped his finger and the invisible connect between him and all of us loosened. Still there, but not so watchful.
The Siblings and The Samurai wandered out of the fog and into sight. Catherine and her brothers were in largely the same casual clothes, and Hasami still without a shirt, katana at his side.
Kendall touched his finger to his earpiece, held up a finger to hush Catherine, who was about to speak. He leveled that finger at Odessa and spoke. “You’re in charge,” the same finger pointed off into the fog. “Somebody brought a tank. Go hitch a ride.”
“I’m out!” Ash declared. I arched an eyebrow at him but he just smiled and turned away without explaining.
Works better on his own, I thought. Still not sure what he does.
“Let’s meet up when this’s all over,” Kendall looked to the other two Disciples.
Ash was already gone, and wordlessly the rest split up. Odessa started off in the direction of the tank without waiting on us. Hasami, with his military-like gait, followed, with Anna only a step behind. The Siblings stayed behind.
Unstructured. I could go off on my own if I wanted… Nah, strength in numbers.
I sped up, lugging my gun with me, to ahead of Hasami, and behind Odessa.
Through the fog, we found our way off of the grass and onto asphalt. Up ahead, the raucous laughter of university students led us to the sight of a heavily modified nineteenth-century tank. The beastly vehicle was covered over with young people in hexagonally patterned jumpsuits. Each with a flair of their own, looking like a rainbow with the assorted paint jobs on their protective suits. Some of them were wearing rubber masks, such as horse-heads. Some of them were wearing added items, like capes, or plating.
Standard issue, Eidolon armored suits, I remembered.
“Why the tank?” Anna shouted over the sounds of the machine.
“It’ll keep rolling if the Technicists take it down,” the one standing up in the hatch said. He was wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.
“Down?” I asked.
“Yuuuuuup,” he disappeared into the tank and a thrumming filled the air. I could feel the hairs on my arm stand up as static electricity hit me. Slowly, steadily, the tank left the pavement to hover a few feet off the ground.
Anna laughed excitedly and jumped up onto the tank. Odessa climbed on, only to hang off the side, and Hasami joined her. I took a run-up and scaled onto the top of the gun. The tank purred and lurched up and forward into the fog.
The Frankentank carried all ten or so of us into the cloud layer. We ascended until a road suspended in the air came up next to us, in which case we hovered over and set down. From there we rolled along, a little higher up now, a little more light penetrating to give the air a glow.
“Feel that wind,” Anna said.
It has picked up.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
I could feel stuff going on, all around. Noises, sensations, emotions. I had to read into it, to get an idea of what it actually translated to. There were a number of demonic presences on the battlefield, that much I could tell. Strangely, though, there was a quietness surrounding our immediate area.
“We’re gonna roll down main street,” a girl I didn’t know said.
That’s a horrible idea. Unless… “You’ve got a cloaker,” I realized.
“Yup. They literally won’t know what hit ’em,” Guy Fawkes said.
“So, we’re setting a snare,” Odessa inquired.
“Yuuuup.” Slightly annoying. The tank makes up for it.
We rolled along until an alley come up on our right, after about ten minutes. We pulled out into the road and backed in. The Horse Head guy, apparently the cloaker, informed us we could make noise if we wanted, while we waited for the battle to begin.
“You a native?” Anna asked Hasami.
“Not Earth, but yes. My parents were proponents of cultural value. Not a so popular notion, but I love my heritage.”
“I think it’s nice,” Anna said.
“It’s divisive,” Guy Fawkes said. “Cultures are rarely compatible. Your parents should have been segregated, and unpermitted.”
“Orokana inu, insipid opinions are best kept silent,” Hasami growled.
“Straight to offense!” he mocked. “No wonder your people’s allowance rates are down. You should consider splicing.”
Hasami was heading straight for a boiling point, and his hand had found the handle of his sword. Three of the other students were laughing, and the rest looked still and ready for a fight. Anna jumped in. “Stop trolling him. If you’re right, then now is not the time to be an asshat about it. So, sh-”
A thundering crack echoed through the city.
I was positive things had started when the cannon was followed up by three much louder explosions. I wished I could be sure, but I felt safe in assuming the strike had been ours.
“Lock and load bitches!”
I switched my rifle on. The gun’s nozzle was three prongs, with a small laser light in the center, which emitted a guiding beam. I pressed my comms button.
“Aku, can I get a visual assist?”
The brim of my hood glowed dimly to project a three-dimensional hologram into my field of vision. The images were pale, but the augmented reality helped me to define the shapes of the road outside the alley, and the buildings beyond.
You ask a robot for utilitarian clothing, and you get what you ask for. I was everything from armored to airtight. I reached into my pocket to slip on the suit’s accompanying gloves, so the air seal could activate.
Locked and loaded.
Now we wait.
More explosions sounded, far off, and we waited.
And waited. Until finally, one of the students on the tank raised a hand. “Incoming,” she said. I could hear the low sound of rapid footsteps.
This is starting. I need to keep my mind present. I felt slightly scattered.
The runner closed that distance quickly, and for an instant, I thought he would pass our alleyway.
I was thrown off the top of the tank as it blasted a shell, which I could hear tearing through the buildings across the street. I rolled and landed on my hands and knees, on the ground beside the tank. I recovered and wandered around to the front, to see the building we’d hit crumbling.
The students were laughing. The driver, Guy Fawkes, poked his head out of the hatch. “That was so much better than I’d expected. Set it to autofire and boom!”
“Our cloak didn’t cover that,” I said. I kept my eyes on the street. Something wasn’t right. Something was missing.
“Shit,” he swore. “He’s right, Mark?… Then we gotta move.” He ducked back in and the tank started rolling again. I didn’t hop on just yet. I kept staring.
I’m an idiot. It hit me.
There wasn’t a body. There wasn’t even any blood.
What there was, was a man climbing out of the rubble.
Only one or two people on the tank were reacting, but I’d already leveled my rifle at him. I pulled its trigger. A literal lighting bolt connected me to him, striking and blacking out the surrounding area with the purple and white flare of light.
He fell to his knees and shook, but was already rising. The tank was still rolling away without me, turning right down the road, but with its gun pointed back.
I struck him again, but he was less fazed, this time, stopping only for a twitching fit. Odessa had dismounted the tank and brought up her sword.
Another shell blasted, but the man had seen it coming and leaned out of its way. It smashed through the rubble behind him. He let out a laugh, as Odessa charged forward, slinging her sword back.
He ran at her and she heaved the sword through the air, almost too fast to see.
In its wake, the sword left a path through the fog and smoke of the tank’s fire, indicating that the Bruiser had been sent skyward.
I lowered my gun, slowly, surprised at how suddenly she’d handled that.
Horse Head nervously laughed. The tank was still rolling, and I heard Guy Fawkes shout from the inside, “we’ve gotta move!”
Odessa and I caught up, climbing or jumping onto the tank as it went.
I doubted that our cloaker would be able to keep us hidden. We’d broadcast our location, and the battle had begun. It would be direct conflict from now on.
My gun was supposed to have vaporized him. It was the only thing I’d brought to the table really, offensively speaking, and its effect had been disappointing.
I wasn’t feeling very good about this.