The squad moved across the blasted, sulfuric landscape, lightning bolts arcing in the air, the sky above them swirling with multiple storms. The air nonexistent, the atmosphere extremely thin, Io was an inhospitable world.
“And yet here we are,” mused 1st Lt. Jack Hanley in the cockpit of his custom H.A.K.M., Heavy-Duty Armored Kinetically-Armed Mobile-Weapons Platform, Class Two, courtesy of Nobunaga Industries. While it is the most technologically advanced, the damn thing is far from comfortable. The cockpit was cramped and the seats were hard. Those were the least problematic things with the H.A.K.M.â€™s, since the things leaked plasma even with maintenance, the IFF system malfunctioned which lead to friendly fire (That made things difficult during the corporateÂ wars with the Vipers and the Colony Insurrections.), the size made a big target for the enemy. Making orbital drops also lend itself to the pile of problems, starting with the fact that if you fell in a lake or a pond, the weight would drag a soldier down to the very bottom and nobody would be able to help them. The power source would keep them running for about a month, although sometimes it shorts out and the soldier would have to chance the hostile environment if they so choose to leave.
This wouldnâ€™t be a problem in most cases but since the atmosphere here is pretty nil, Iâ€™d say maybe five minutes max and then they keel over, gasping for air, Hanley thought as he remembered all too well the many examples of men and women desperate for air since they feared asphyxiation, only for the atmosphere to kill them in a much more agonizing manner. Like a fish out of a tank, Hanley thought with disgust and regret as the memories of the dead men and women flashed through his mind.
While the H.A.K.M.â€™s lacked in luxuries, it more than made up for in firepower, defense, and especially offense. Standing at 7 meters, the H.A.K.M. would tower over their enemies, and naturally this would psychologically affect them. The HUD system would be in the helmet the operator wore, letting them know where friend and foe (When the IFF functioned for the most part.), and the current bio-signals of the squad. Cameras were attached to several points on the armor, showing the operator almost everything. It could even switch to infrared, night-vision, X-ray, sonar, etc. Attached to its right arm was a seven barreled rotary cannon that could spit out 37mm incendiary rounds, for close-quarters-combat, in case some asshole got too close for comfort. A boxy Long Range Multi-Missile Launcher unit sat on its right shoulder, in case some asshole got too far away for comfort. On the left shoulder, a state-of-the-art sensorÂ system sat there, a softkill measure, or in layman’s terms to prevent electronically guided projectile from even dinging the armor. The armor plating being made out of turbinium and being several layers thick, thus being the hardkill measure. And the H.A.K.M.â€™s primary weapon, the M-5000 Kinetic Assault Rifle, basically a tank cannon combined with the firing rate of an assault rifle. The M-5000 Kinetic Assault Rifle, with its drum magazine giving it the appearance of a Tommy gun, albeit one built for giants, had up to nine thousand magnetically accelerated 100mm HE rounds. So whoever fucked with them would have a bad day.
Except for the fuckinâ€™ Ghouls, who never pass up a chance to fight and eat their prey. They were nasty fuckers, nine feet tall, six limbs, big pincers, and nauseating to look at. Made even worse by how nobody knows where they come from. Not even the Vipers knew; who were running away from them and made first contact around 2015, if you could call an invasion first contact. The Vipers simply called them Ghouls and left it at that. What made them really nasty was the fact that these things could make wormholes and transport themselves to any place, defying the laws of astrophysics. They loved to swarm all over colonies, spaceports, space stations, and the like. They ate everybody, not even leaving an entire skeleton, because Ghouls ate everythingÂ for the helluva it.
Lately, there had been reports of Ghoul activity on Io, so the higher ups gave orders for 1st Lt. Hanley to take a squad and check out the area. What the hell would a squad do? A platoon would be better, hell, a brigade would do just dandy. Even then, it would turn into a battle of attrition until the Terrans would give up, leave, and nuke the region from a suborbital satellite. This was suicide.
And yet, Hanley complained not even once, he justÂ suited up and handpicked some volunteers for the mission. It wasnâ€™t a recon mission since the squad would have been outfitted in Class One suits as opposed to the Class Twos. But they sure as hell didnâ€™t have enough members to do a Goddamn thing other than to annoy the Ghouls. Maybe thatâ€™s what the mission was, a diversion, to distract the bastards from the real attack, Hanley thought. Is that the reason for all the secrecy?
â€œAll right, SSgt, have the squad halt and sound off,â€ Hanley ordered, stopping to check his map.
â€œAll right, you heard the Lieutenant, halt and sound off!â€ SSgt. Williams boomed, a burly and intimidating fellow.
â€œRamirez here, so when do we get some ass and booze here, Staff Sarge?â€
â€œKnock it off, Joker,â€ SSgt. Williams snapped, “Everyone, sound off.”
And so on, until the newbie sounded off. Well, she looked nothing like a rookie at all, being a Lieutenant Commander. The brass sent her to tag along for this mission.
â€œLangley,â€ said Lieutenant CommanderÂ Ryoko Langley; so far, she had been serving as an observer. Or at least thatâ€™s what he was told. Ever since sheâ€™d been assigned to the platoon, she had mostly kept to herself, which is not unusual.
â€œCommander, weâ€™re pretty close to the package, it’s right over that ridge there.â€ Hanley pointed with his metallic hand. So far the sensors had picked up nothing. Then again, even with the rad hardened suit, it made everything fuzzy.
â€œGood, shouldnâ€™t be too long now before the objectives are complete.â€
â€œCommander, if I may ask, what are here for exactly? I think itâ€™s better if I knew we werenâ€™t getting into a skirmish.â€ Hanley asked, hoping she wouldnâ€™t give him that need to know basis crap. To his mild surprise, she gave him a straight answer.
â€œLieutenant, donâ€™t bother switching to another channel. I think now is the time to tell you and your what weâ€™re here for. Intel says that an intact Ifrit is on Io. Our mission is to locate and safeguard it until a squadron lands and extracts it. The Ghouls may have already found it. In which case we go in there and take it by force.â€
Everyone stood in silence. Then Ramirez spoke up. â€œOkay, Staff Sarge, permission to speak freely? She canâ€™t be serious. I mean, if the Ghouls have found it, that means theyâ€™re fried. Toast. Done for. If what I remember in history class, Earth got cleaned out by those fuckers without even batting an eye. I say we just bail.â€
The squad seemed to agree with him until LangleyÂ replied. â€œNot an option. We canâ€™t let it fall into enemy hands. If we canâ€™t salvage it, then weâ€™ll fucking nuke it and then nuke it some more to make sure nobody gets their hands on it. Lieutenant, order your men to get ready.â€
Hanley had learned what Ifrits were capable of and frankly, he didnâ€™t want to be near one at all. Yet he had his orders, so he ordered the squad to get into battle formations. Ramirez cursed loudly, followed by the Staff Sarge telling him to can it. Making it to the ridge, the squad peered over it. Beyond the incline was the valley. And sure enough, the tell-tale form of the Ifrit lay half buried in the valley. And nothing was guarding it.
â€œSeems unprotected, which means the Ghouls definitely know weâ€™re here and theyâ€™re waiting to ambush us.â€ Hanley said, scanning with his visor. â€œI say we bombard the area with-â€œ
A cry from one of his men cut him off. Roberts fired his rotary cannon at the ground, as several claws pulled him down into the collapsing hole. From that hole, several Ghouls emerged shrieking their unholy battle cry. The squad had stumbled upon the Ghoul nest.
â€œWeapons free, weapons free!â€ Hanley shouted, the squad already firing their assault rifles. The effect was devastating as several Ghouls exploded, showering the ground with black chunks of blood and gore. Roberts still screamed incoherently through the radio, followed by bursts of fire and Ghouls shrieking. And then his pulse flat lined. Even with the massive firepower, the Ghouls kept on coming. One of them got close to Weber, only for him to backhand its head, smashing it to a bloody pulp. Flecks of skin stuck his fist as Weber shot at another one, before being overwhelmed, the various claws tearing at the weak points in the armor. They opened it up, dragged Weber out and tore him in half, his intestines spilling all over them as the maw of a Ghoul closed on his skull, not quite tearing his head off all the way.
Hanley fired a couple of bursts from his assault rifle, tearing apart some Ghouls. Ramirez fired his assault rifle one handed and his rotary cannon at the same time, slowly backing away from the horde. The Staff Sarge yelled at him to conserve ammo before a Ghoul jumped on him, only to have its neck crushed by Staff Sargeâ€™s hand. The Staff Sarge aimed his rifle at itâ€™s body and squeezed the trigger, shredding it into bloody gibs.
Col. Langley fired at the Ghouls, before turning around and heading towards the Ifrit. â€œWe need to fall back on the Ifrit so I can set up the beacon! How long do you think we can hold them off?â€
â€œAre you insane!? The LZ is gonna be hot! Forget about the Ifrit, Langley, we gotta evac to the extraction zone,â€ Hanley said, aghast that she still wanted the damn thing.
â€œTell your men to fall back to the Ifrit now.â€ Langley said.
Hanley could see there was no point in arguing with her. She was determined to get that thing, even if it killed them.
â€œDammit, everyone fall back on the Ifrit.â€ Hanley ordered, firing a couple more bursts from his rifle before turning and following Langley. The rest of the squad did the same, chucking some grenades in the general direction of the Ghouls. That should slow them down, Hanley thought. They slid down on the other side of the ridge, the incline being too damn steep, their legs crashing the ground as they reached the bottom. LangleyÂ had already made it to the Ifrit, the beacon stuck in the ground as she began to set up some automated turrets. Up close, the Ifrit was gargantuan. If it had been alive, the thing would be over one hundred meters in height, nearly blotting out the sky. Now it was laid in the ground, half buried in the volcanic ash, looking more like a crumbling statue from a bygone era. The LCDRÂ came up to him.
â€œAll right, we should be fine at the moment. The drop ships should be coming in about twenty minutes.â€ Langley said in a detached manner.
â€œCommander, weâ€™re dead if thatâ€™s the case. So why did we come down here to begin with!?â€ Hanley barked, now feeling dread. We donâ€™t stand a chance now. The squad had set up defensive positions around the Ifrit.
Iâ€™ve lead them to their deaths. And itâ€™s my fault. Hanley looked back at the ridge, as a black patch began to form at the top, before spilling down the side. The Ghouls were coming out in full force and there was nothing they could do. Except to make one last stand, Hanley thought as he readied his rifle and aimed at the oncoming army of Ghouls.
Charlie couldnâ€™t see anything at first so he tried opening his eyes, before realizing that his eyes were already opened. Panicked, he tried moving his arms but found that he couldnâ€™t move. His arms were being held down by something solid. His whole body was being pressed down and it felt slimy. He tried to scream but upon opening his mouth, the slime went into his mouth and into his lungs. Oh God, Iâ€™m drowning, Charlie thought. But he could breathe fine. He exhaled, feeling weird as he inhaled more that slime.
Wait, whereâ€™s Sam? Is she right next to me? Is she still alive?
He tried turning his head but he couldnâ€™t move it either. He couldnâ€™t do anything and that frightened and frustrated him at the same time.
Why canâ€™t I do anything, where am I, and where is Sam? Charlie thought.
Iâ€™m here, Charlie. Where are you?
Charlie gasped, swallowing more of that slime. I heard her voice. If only she could hear me.
I can hear you just fine.
Charlie was thrown for a loop. How did she know what was in his mind? There was only one way to find out.
Holy shit, you can read my mind! How can you do that?!
Uh, Charlie, I canâ€™t read minds. I just heard your voice and I-
No, I swear, I was thinking that word. And you heard it, if that makes any sense.
He canâ€™t be serious? Does he expect me to believe that?
Hey! Itâ€™s true, I swear!
Okay, how did YOU know what I was thinking?
Becauseâ€¦I can read your mind too. Whoa. This is heavy. Where are you?
Itâ€™s dark and really really really slimy. I canâ€™t move and I canâ€™t see.
Iâ€™ll be damned. Me too. Goddammit, how do we get out?
Charlie tried move his right hand as hard as he could, but he failed to budge an inch. He felt angrier, the fear ebbing away just a bit.
Charlie, are you okay?
I CANâ€™T FUCKING MOVE AND ITâ€™S PISSING ME OFF.
Charlie, you need to calm do-
FUCK THIS SHIT I CANâ€™T MOVE. WHAT HAPPENS IF I CANâ€™T TAKE A FUCKING LEAK? LET ME FUCKING-
And then the lights turned on, blinding him momentarily. It took several seconds for his eyes to adjust, as the night sky appeared, filled with so many stormsÂ that it nearly overwhelmed him.
And then, able to move freely, he reached his right hand towards the sky.
Corporal Juan Ramirez gritted his teeth, waiting for these pinche chupavergas to come at him with all they got, when he noticed the ground beginning to shake. Damn, that must be the whole fucking family charging at us. Then ground shifted beneath his legs, nearly throwing his suit off balance. He looked at his bros to see what was up, and they were trying to keep their balance as well. Then he noticed the Ghouls had stopped completely, right in the automated turrets range. A few of them were cut down, but they didnâ€™t seem to mind getting mowed downÂ by the turrets. They were too busy looking at the sky. So Ramirez looked up to see what made them stop and blanched.
The Ifritâ€™s right arm had moved and it was reaching for the sky. The rock and debris sliding off it seemed to take a while to fall down, and when it did, a boulder crashed right next to him. This seemed to snap him back to reality, as he ran towards the unmoving Ghoul horde, as did the rest of the squad, who tried to dodge the falling rocks. When Ramirez pushed the Ghouls blocking his way, they didnâ€™t even flinch as they turned into mush from his blows.
The giant tried to sitting up, tearing up the ground, causing massive quakes. It tried to stand up, nearly falling but regaining its balance. The entire area trembled under its weight, as more debris fell off its towering body.
â€œJesus Fucking Christ, I knew we shouldnâ€™t have come here, fucking hell!â€ Ramirez shouted as another boulder crushed a bunch of Ghouls to his left. Fuck, this canâ€™t get any worse than it is now.
Right at that moment, the ground trembled even more violently, as another giant hand shot through the surface to Ramirezâ€™s right, sending scores of Ghouls, along with Jackson, up into the air. They all fell down hard, especially Jackson, and the massive rocks falling down crushed them, including Jackson. On the HUD, Jacksonâ€™s pulse flat lined.
â€œFuck this fucking weird shit, man!â€ Ramirez bellowed, as another Ifrit dug its way out of the surface. It stood up and held itself up just barely, turning towards the other one. And what happened next made the whole thing even more surreal.
It waved to the first one.
Langley couldnâ€™t believe her eyes. There are two Ifrits and they have woken up. Her first instinct was to get to as far away as possible and have the entire site nuked. Hell, the entire moon, if possible.
What would that accomplish? Not a Goddamn thing,Â Langley thought. The two Ifrits would shrug it off like a person shrugs off a fly. Nothing could be done.
But what happened next was something even her training couldnâ€™t prepare her. It started small, just a twinkling light over the horizon of the ridge. And then the light turned into this jagged, vertical column that resembled the light from a Ghoul wormhole. A wormhole, thatâ€™s what it is, thought Langley as it tore apart the very existence of the horizon right in front of her. It hurt her eyes to look it. It should not be and yet it is. A scaly limb stepped out, followed by another, and anotherâ€¦
She lost count and nearly her sanity as the multi-limbed thing, with several eyes that had no pupils, and several suckers dripping with ichor as it held the corpse of another thing in its mouth. Or in its sucker. She couldnâ€™t tell. Not a fucking thing about it was remotely familiar. It nearly dwarfed them in size, 150 meters in height. Itâ€™s bloated body made the Ifrits look normal by comparison. And then it dawned on her, as Lieutenant CommanderÂ Ryoko Langley realized that she and the squad were right between the two Ifrits and theÂ tentacled horror, that a fight was imminent.