Twitch my legs. Hydraulics spurt down plastic capillaries, servo motors whine and grate as electro-mechanical limbs respond creakily to my command. Gyroscopic inertial dampers are the only thing keeping me upright as I totter erratically around the cargo bay.
Something amiss with the neural interface. Proper marines come equipped with a cortal shunt at the rear of their head. Drilled into them along with a haircut that would frighten lice. Plug and play.
Emperors, fortunately, retain an intact skull. And hair. Still got wispy white handfuls of the stuff. My sparse, frizzy locks the last remnants of my fading virility.
Techs fitted a removable electrode net that changes my appearance from a tired old man to a crazy brain-fried geriatric with a head that looks like a superannuated movie prop.
A small price to pay for the essential connection that needs to exist between man and machine. Marines know well enough not to laugh. Not even a snicker. Terse, functional comments from all. Smart enough to know where the real power lies.
Had enough. Pop the see-through nano-carbon fibre visor. Tear off my neural net codpiece. Hurl it in the direction of the nearest anxious looking tech. Fix it, fella.
Extract myself from the Powered Battle Suit with difficulty. Flunkies know by now not to offer a helping hand. Like dismounting a horse whilst wearing iron underpants.
Experience the usual momentary disorientation as I stand on my own two feet. When I put one foot in front of another the only sense of latent power I get is if I pass wind.
Encased in a PBS, even with a faulty interface, I’m Cyborg-man. Outside I’m nothing more than a worn out human body with twitchy, bionic legs and missing tackle.
Small matter of authority. Naturally I’m wielding the big stick. Strangely the Marine Commander isn’t paying much attention to my oversized thumper. Appears immune to the Freddo Death Stare.
Insisting in that gravely, rasping voice of his, that I do as I’m bloody well told. Telling me that if I don’t do exactly as I’m ordered to then the only view of the moon I’ll be getting will be the one out the of the viewport.
Got to respect a man like that. Either that or have him shunted out into space via the garbage chute.
Decide to hold back. Starting to get an inkling that poggo’ng around moonside in my fancy battle suit might not be the one sided shoot up I was expecting.
~ ~ ~
Coffee all round as Mr Marine and myself construct a plan.
Four main cities on the moon. Capital larger than the rest put together. Several notable resource mines scattered around but that’s about it.
Estimated three divisions of Apes. We have only five crack battalions. The crack bit is purely theory at this stage as the Empire of Man has never actually invaded anybody. Shooting Toads doesn’t count for real war experience.
Nevertheless we have something that they haven’t. Space and air superiority. Ape moves sideways and we’ll splat ‘em.
Decide to ignore everything but the Capital – MegaPolis. Take that and we’re with the winners. All five battalions will assault.
We’ll seal off all approaches to MegaPolis by dint of our air/space power. Apes in the Capital will be isolated.
Good plan. I’m happy. Commander Sandpaper *ss is happy. Off we go.
Strapped in tighter than melons in a mouse corset I do my best to hang onto my false teeth as they bang around loose inside my mouth.
‘Mild turbulence and buffeting’ doesn’t describe the ride down in the Drop ship. More of a ballistic freefall experience - with your head stuck firmly inside a washing machine on full rinse cycle.
Blurred eyeballs focus on the viewport. Moon surface rushing towards us. Earth-like.
Shaking. Lots of shaking. Jock strap Pilot on the intercom.
“In the slot five-five people, looking good. Three minutes to insertion.”
As if I needed to know. At our rate of descent any longer than three minutes and we’ll end up as geomorphic bug splatter on a Luna windscreen.
They don’t even issue you with a barf bag. Real men – apparently – don’t spew vomit over everybody’s feet. Swallowing hard I manfully try and be at one with the brotherhood.
“Incoming!” yells Mr Sporty at the controls. “Slip and slide, folk, slip and slide!”
My neck suddenly moves on a different trajectory to my body as our agile drop ship attempts to evade a hypersonic Ape-made electronic welcoming package. The type that goes bang. With a smile.
Jarring bone work and internal organs jammed into a food processor combine to give me the mother of all headaches. Imminent death holds no fear. All I can manage is to remain conscious and keep my stomach contents where they belong.
Beeeepppp! One of my vital biological signs must have failed. My suit’s inbuilt Med AI jabs me in the thigh with a shot of adrenalin in a worrying sign of automated nannying.
If I’d wanted a lift I would have taken a slug of the special stuff in my hip flask. Now I’ve got a heart running laps around my chest. Great. Nobody told the programmer that their Emperor isn’t holding a winning hand in the cardiopulmonary game of life.
“Thirty seconds. Look sharp Marines!”
Explosive crash as the braking jets deploy full force. Get a glimpse of our LZ. Easy to spot. It’s that spot dead centre in the midst of all the smoke and flying debris.
Emperor’s landing on foreign soil do so only after it has been sterilised. Wouldn’t do to step into a stray pile of Ape dung – or even worse – an Ape with a gun. No, best to clear the neighbourhood of all living creatures and arrive unmolested.
Final hot jab into my ribcage as we thump down onto our landing shocks. Billowing clouds of particles envelop the loading bay as the door slams open. Marines jump to their feet and disappear into the dark, wet murk.
Helping hands assist me out, down and through the damp soupy atmosphere.
Clear air at last. Here I stand. Terra ZE9 Firma. Emperor. Conqueror. Smiter down of evil.
Watch out Apes. I’m here you b*stards and I’m coming for you.
Substandard coffee in a substandard tent. That’s war for you. The Real Thing is all about enduring and making do with a raft of poor quality experiences. You’re not supposed to have fun.
Marine Commander taking us through the daily sit-rep. MegaPolis surrounded. Fire base establish. Supply depot in place. Probes into the outer ‘burbs have found only rotting carcasses.
No signs of the Apes. Several patrols have pushed deeper in but are yet to make contact. Orbital survelliance coming up blank. Too much in the way of structure and random heat sources.
Spider bots not doing any better. Limited range not enough to get them into the core where we suspect the Apes have retreated to.
So the plan is to push forward into the industrial zone. A sort of twilight zone between the outer habitation ‘burbs and the inner core. Send our best recon troops in first – just in case – then flood the zone with grunts. Close the noose.
The Black Knights – come on down. Best of the best. Embedded Emperor. Congratulations. Knights on point.
Nobody even attempts to talk me out of it. Already had that conversation on the flagship in near-orbit. Nothing and no-one is going to keep me from a close encounter with an Ape.
Nevertheless precautions are taken. All fire missions cancelled. Fire base slaved exclusively to the Black Knights. Drones and Air support placed on hot standby.
Six hours into our patrol and still no sign of Apes. Covered most of the Industrial zone and have probed the outskirts of the inner core.
All the tension and excitement that comes with the anticipation of a chance to kill bugs up close has dissipated. Nothing left but boredom and fatigue. Anymore monotony and I may have to avail myself of the FCS.
Luna sunrise in thirty. Time to go home. Captain Ross of the Knights signals our team to pull back to an nearby extraction zone. Deal with what’s left of the war tomorrow.
For all we know the Apes have all been killed. Not unheard of for militarily intelligence to get it wrong. Whole exercise is futile. One big downer.
Looking like my odds of adding dead Apes to my personal bug collection are on par with me taking a leak in the manner nature intended.
‘Halt squad!’ Captain Ross not sounding his usual casual self.
Glancing at my HUD I see why. Our path ahead leads directly into a swirling swarm of red dots. Apes!
Where the h*ll did they pop up from?
“Squad, jig right!”
As Captain Ross calls in a fire mission on the ants nest of Apedom I overlay the Megapolis map so I can see where we are at.
Apes are shunting us laterally through the industrial zone. Coin toss either way. Ross says right, we go right.
Always the option of waiting for the fire mission to conclude and punching straight ahead through the debris. Risky. Can’t be sure all the Apes are dead.
Thought crosses my mind that something isn’t right with situation. The Apes have popped up in very large numbers on ground that we already covered earlier in the day. Not even the ‘bots found them on our sweep through so how have they managed to sneak in behind us in such quantities?
Strange. Puzzling. But not a deal breaker. Evac rendezvous still doable in under an hour if we hustle. Home before breakfast.
Crashing of high calibre destruction as the Apes get shredded. Fast response there – twenty seconds turnaround – I’m impressed.
And reassured. My desire to shoot Apes is fading. Just want to go home and rest. Six hours in the saddle is a lot when you’re as ancient as I am. A bath would be nice.
What the heck? Distracted as I was meant that I didn’t notice what Captain Ross did.
Apes, zillions of ‘em, up ahead. Red dots writhing like an angry anaconda searching for something to swallow. HUD flickering badly as the sheer number of contacts overwhelm its memory buffers.
Did I say something? Did somebody break wind? What the h*ll has caused all these damn Apes to suddenly pour forth?
Maybe they really do live in caves underground. Like the Viet Cong of days past they emerge when the time is right.
Sneaky f*king Apes.
No matter. Captain Ross is a study in fire mission Zen. Who knows, we may singlehandedly wipe out every Ape in the ‘polis in two surgical artillery strikes?
Not quite the same as dealing with them in person but good enough. Vibes of video games past wash over me as I watch the red dots on the HUD await their doom.
Yet I, Emperor Fred, destroyer of Apes, have yet to see a single living or dead Ape in the flesh, so to speak. Bunch of crawling red dots on a screen my only feedback.
Disappointing but we can’t stay and watch. Danger close in ten seconds and counting. Hit the turbo boost as we leap back along the path we came. Incredible roaring sound surging through my noise dampeners as the last remnant of Apedom gets blown to bits.
Love this leaping. Like riding a wild mustang. Which I did once, long ago. Just before I shot it. Didn’t respond to my commands. Eyeballed me. Animal way above its station.
“SQUAD, HALT!” Captain Ross audibly upset. Angry. Rattled. Shaken.
Our HUDs filling up again with more red dots. Directly ahead! Where we have just come from, two minutes ago.
How can that be? Even Apes don’t move that fast. Why are there now five hundred Apes in a space that only a few minutes back was empty? That’s not right.
Nobody has seen an Ape. Could be decoys. Emitters. Fake Apes. Switched on by remote at the appropriate moment.
But what if they aren’t? Black Knights are only a six element team plus me. Haven’t got the makings of a military success story here. More like a total catastrophic wipeout.
Can’t risk it. Listen as Captain Ross argues with the Controller back at the Fire Base. Controller can’t believe what is going on. Thinks our thermal scanners are on the blink. All seven of them.
Captain Ross pulling rank. Reminds the Controller of my presence. Tells him to let rip ASAP on the latest concentration of scary red dots.
Controller explaining that he’d love nothing better but he’s clean run out of tubes. Automated firing systems can’t reorientate mid-salvo. A third mission in three minutes one too many.
Compromise. Ross gets the Controller to call in an airstrike. Fast movers on loiter heading our way. Less accurate. No time for precision. We have to vacate the area. Now. Right now.
But which way? Only one option. A single path that isn’t either red dot paradise or ground zero.
The Apes – I notice, along with the entire Black Knight team – are funnelling us.
Back. Coreward. Into the Sprawl.
I’m feeling cold. Faint-headed. Sweating heavily. Confused.
Briefing Officer this morning, pre-mission, said lots. Most of it military mumbo-jumbo not worth remembering. Let the jarheads deal with it.
Only thing that stuck in my mind was his emphatic warning. Repeated no less than five times.
The Sprawl. Don’t go there. No matter what. Indian country. Bad Juju. Once you’re in, we might not be able to get you out.
Going to war, I suddenly realise, isn’t fun anymore.
The Sprawl. Hard to know where to walk. Junk everywhere. Busted up vehicles, piles of steaming organic refuse and smoking stacks of synthetic rubber tyres.
Switched to IR vision but the relentless onslaught of pulsating flouro-neon signage bouncing off the heavy nano particle dust cloud turned my viewscreen HUD into an high-tech white noise generator.
Lost sight of the Knights. Moving through all obstructions has degenerated our loose patrol formation into more of a spaghetti threading competition. Checked my BLUFOR tracker. Don’t want to lose touch. Emperors who value their ancient leathery hide need to stick with their protection detail.
Five Knights present. All within fifty metres. Open lines of sight nothing but a pipedream in the midst of the Sprawl.
Five. Hold on. Where’s number six? Cato… I think, yep Cato. The backmarker. I give my head a quick shake. Rattle the jury rigged neural net about. Faulty connection?
Doesn’t appear to be. I call Cato on the intercom. Emperor to Cato. Come in Cato.
No response. My peripheral vision picks up something flitting past on the left. Birds? This time of night? Bats perhaps. Big bat, though. Really big.
Check the BLUFOR tracker once more. Only count four blue dots now. What’s going on?
Call the Captain. This needs sorting out. Cato and another probably lost. Took a wrong turn through the urban junkyard.
No reply. Hello?
Peer hard at my HUD. Try to make sense of the more technical iconography that I’ve previously ignored. Find what I’m after. Channel selector.
Wrong channel! That’s why I’m unable to talk to anyone. Must have bumped a switch with my nose. Or thought the wrong thought.
That’s the problem with a neural interface. Everything that you think counts. Forget about daydreaming on the job. Likely to find yourself being emergency ejected out the top of your battle suit.
Focus. Focus on the mission.
Switch to the correct channel. As in I think “correct channel please”. Important to be polite. Tried swearing at it once early on. “Do this or else, *sshole”. Bloody suit thought I’d been shot in the behind and auto-injected my nether region with antibiotics and flesh plastic.
Straight through the nappy.
Did I mention the nappy? No. That’s what you wear in a Powered Battle Suit. That’s what the best brains in the Empire have come up with for dealing with an operator who might be overcome by a sudden urge to take a dump mid-battle.
The FCS they call it. Fecal Containment System. Gross. I the Emperor, encased in a fearsome PBS, am wearing a nappy.
Hard to feel like you are a warrior material when you are worried about nappy rash.
Knights’ squad channel up. Nothing but a wall of noise. Isn’t there such a thing as maintaining radio discipline?
“…..right, right! On your six, jig right! Swarming in behind… Move, move, move! Where’s Cato? Juice is down…can’t reach him….too many. Drones, we need more drones!”
Whoa there. Hackles on the back of my neck jump to attention. Emperors surrounded by elite troops aren’t supposed to find themselves in this situation.
“…all units, close on me!”
Right. Make to swing around and head for the Captain. Rapid movement ahead of me. Black shapes flitting across the walls. Not on the ground, up high. Intermittent sightings. There one moment, gone the next.
Big balls of black fur moving fast. Spiders on steroids. Apes on speed. Bad news all.
Straining to pick them up. To much background clutter. Swivelling a full three sixty. Apes wearing some kind of camo-suit. Or has their fur been treated? Blending in with background structures. Only really see them when they move.
Which they do. Fast. Scary fast. Racing up, over and through the urban jungle of the Sprawl.
Up high in the canopy. That’s why we didn’t see them before. Too busy concentrating on the chaotic ground conditions.
J*sus. Can’t afford to turn my back. Start edging slowly rearwards. Captain’s deep blue indicator twenty metres back. Offset slightly over my right shoulder. Several big piles of junk between him and me.
“…dust off and drones inbound. ETA three minutes…Close on me.”
Captain’s reassuring deep tones. Help is on the way. Cavalry at the gallop.
Weapons free. Targeting electronics suite struggling to get a lock-on. Apes nothing more than flitting ephemeral shapes that are there one moment, gone the next.
Not good. Switch to beehive.
Take aim at an overhead Passover. Thumb the fire button. Wall of flechette darts hammer into the walkway’s underbelly. Spray and pray.
Think twice about it. Limited ammunition. Hard to tell if I nailed an Ape. Nothing dropped off. Then again nothing dropped on me either as I backed underneath so I guess I can count that as a win.
Under and through. Ten metres to the Captain.
“…Walker down. Zippo cover north and east. Frankie, south and west… Emperor move in on me.”
Three little blue blips left. Plus me.
How is the happening? Black Knights the ultimate trained killing machine. Never lost a man.
Five metres around a broken commute cab. Big ball of teeth and fur leaps off a wall and launches itself at me. Pulse laser set to auto.
Shoulder mounted unit takes him out mid-leap.
Wincing smile. Roll my shoulders. Feel the adrenalin surge. Been here before. Back to the wall.
Five hundred years and multiple iterations of improved tech later and it’s still the same. Fight your way out or die in the gutter. Rules aren’t any different. Grit, balls and a steady aim is what counts. The weak go under, the strong survive.
Reach the Captain. He moves out to take up his spot on the tiny perimeter along with Zippo and Frankie. Circle of the best with me at the centre.
Two minutes to dust-off. Going to be tricky in the confines of the Sprawl. Not sure how they will handle it. Not fussed either.
One way or another they’ll find a way to get their Emperor out of this h*ll hole.
Frankie spitting flame from every available weapon. Apes swarming in from three points, Frankie at ground zero.
Can’t help. Frankie in the way. Ape on his head. Another on his back. One grabs his leg.
Man down! Frankie writhing about, munitions zinging in all directions. Disappearing under a black sea of Apes.
Bugger this. I let rip with the beehive and take the lot out. What’s left of Frankie goes with them. Shredded fur and flesh hurtle through the air in a rain of blood.
“Move, move!” Captain making the call. It ain’t safe here.
Captain on point, me in the middle, Zippo holding up the rear, walking backwards, firing for all he’s worth.
“Chain with me, man! Chain your ammo!”
“Running out here, chain in your suit to mine!”
Apes dropping down in waves. Apes leaping over the ground cover. Hurling themselves off the walls.
Chain how? Should have spent more time in the simulator. Which obscure icon does that?
“Ammo, come on man, I’m just about bingo!”
I thought push a few icons at random. Nothing noticeable happens. What do I do?
Zippo blazing away at a rushing wall of Ape flesh. Look at those teeth! Can’t see anything else other than those sharp fangs. Apes have more dentures than a Great White shark.
All of a sudden Zippo’s guns go quiet. Wall of Apes slam into him. Bam, bam, BAM!
Gyro stabilisers not coping, knocked flat. More Apes piling on.
Horrified I stare at writhing black mass as they rip and tear their way into the PBS, searching for Zippo’s vulnerable flesh.
“He’s gone!” Yells the Captain, pulling me away. “Can’t EVAC here. Run for it! Head north to the plaza, I’ll cover you!”
Run means run. Hydraulics surge through to the gang of servo motors powering my armoured legs. I’m off. Not bothering to bypass the obstacles. Straight up and over. Leaping like a Kangaroo.
Behind me Captain Ross morphs into Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Love to stop and help but I’m the Emperor and it’s vital that I survive.
Friendly drone overhead. Tracking my movements. Pumping uranium-hex rounds directly ahead of me. Clearing a path.
Sound of the extraction pod hovering nearby. I can do this. I can make it.
Drone drops lower. Couple of metres above my bobbing head. Needs to come lower to get line of sight to the Apes skittering along the first floor under hangs. Hiding beneath the balconies.
HUD flashing red. No more blue dot. Captain Ross a goner. Red dots all over. Everywhere. How can there be so many Apes?
Plaza round the next corner. Legs pumping. Shoulder mounted pulse laser regularly taking out leapers. Drone unable to deal with them all.
Red swarm on my HUD coming up behind faster than a tsunami rolling in on an unsuspecting beach full of nudists. Don’t dare to look behind me. Keep running. Pump and run. Pump and run!
Frantically yank vortex grenades from my sleeve rack as I hurtle through a thick black pall of smoke. Heave them over my shoulder as I run.
Blast waves push me onwards. Stabilisers dealing with it. Drops of sweat splattering against my HUD. Pulse laser swivelling faster than a mad woman’s eyes. Shoulder sore, starting to ache.
Heart rate warning flashes in front of me. Need to slow down. Calm down.
To h*ll with that. Run like there’s no tomorrow.
Last grenade. Red tide overtaking.
Ape flops onto the drone, both crashing explosively to the ground.
Make the plaza. Extraction Pod ship twenty metres away. Side gunners laying down suppressive fire.
Something thumps hard into my back. I stumble, veering off track. Two Apes land nimbly next to me. A third latches onto my rear power supply.
Still moving. Apes in front now, ignoring the gunners. Thump! Thump! Two more on my back, clawing at my helmet.
Face to face with an open jawed Ape trying to fang his way through the visor. Yellow, cracked canines.
Try and flick him off but my arms are no longer responding to commands. Flaying hydraulic lines blowing in the wind as I lurch and stumble the remaining distance.
Five metres. Apes crash into my legs. Apes on my back flinging themselves sideways in an attempt to twist my torso. Nothing but red warning lights as my power supply gets torn asunder. Servo motors failing. Left leg buckles.
Three metres. See the hesitation of the door gunner as he baulks at shooting the scrum of Apes smothering his Emperor. Too risky.
Ape leaps into the Pod. Fangs through the light armour of the gunner. Hesitation proving fatal.
Face in the dirt. Electrostatic neutraliser no longer working. Visor clogging up with black nano dust.
Having trouble moving. Apes piling onto me. Weapons no longer firing. But there’s a knife. A big, mean, Ape slashing knife on my thigh.
If only I could reach it.
Immobilised. Raise my neck. Extraction pod crawling with Apes. Blood spurting across the pilot’s viewport.
Heart hammering nail-guns into my consciousness. Battle suit failing. Sharp fangs searching for the weak links between armour plates. Incisors sinking into soft flesh.
Need to fight. All I can think off, fight, fight, FIGHT!
Terrible pain. Kidney gone. Ripped out. Sucking sound. Large intestines unravelling as claws frantically tug and pull.
Face held firmly down. Nothing to see but greasy, filthy, broken pavement.
Sickly pool of blood oozing into my limited view.
Spastic reflex jerk as my spinal column crunches apart.
Blurred vision. Waves of nausea. Shock overload. Body no longer my own. Torn, ripped, eaten.