The rocket fuel contained within the onboard jets underwent rapid ignition, reaching absurd temperatures near-instantly. That meant MC and his rig accelerated from zero to oh-shit faster than any human had a right to. Originally designed to traverse active fields of fire faster than gimballed autoguns could track, they paid things like mere G-forces no mind. The designers figured unconscious and alive was better than awake and dead.
That didn’t mean MC wasn’t about to stop cursing them for it.
To his credit, he managed to hang on right up until the retrograde rockets fired into the rapidly approaching compound walls. Then the G-s doubled up in the wrong direction, and MC could swear his brain rattled before the world went black.
He jerked awake moments later to the tune of 50,000 volts, the emergency shock inducing a spasm of arms and legs. It wasn’t the most gentle wake-up call, though it was sure as hell effective.
“Sitrep,” he called out with a voice hoarse and broken from the impact. The suit might have had the best inertial dampening gel in existence, and it did keep him alive, but it still felt like he’d taken a shotgun slug to the gut.
“All systems operating within normal parameters.”
He stood back up and took a look around. The blast from the retrograde thrusters must have weakened the compound walls, as he now found himself on the inside – a portion of the reinforced concrete wall conspicuously missing. The plan had always been to jet over the walls when the time came, but he wasn’t complaining. Two birds, one walking tank.
Make that three - a couple of blackened forms lay sprawled nearby, still smoldering from the heat.
Those retros were no joke.
Ops like these were one of the few perks of being a civilian contractor. Mercenary work, assassination, the black arts of war. It’s all he knew but he knew it well, perhaps better than any man ever should.
Alarms blazed and dozens of Liberación minions ran around, desperately dousing the rampant inferno. It really was the ideal diversion – no one even spared him a look, despite his suit’s nine-foot-tall stature.
“Al, engage active stealth.”
“Active Camouflage: Online
“Multispectral Frequency Absorber: Online”
Then he rippled out of sight as the millions of tiny LED's that peppered his suit displayed an ever-updating image of his surroundings. To both man and machine, the effect was perfect invisibility. It was also transparent to any and all radar, though he had to move really slowly for it to do its magic.
Yet as good as the camo was, he wasn’t amateur enough to rely on it. He stayed hidden as best he could, relying on cover and concealment, and by choosing his entry and egress routes to further decrease any chances of detection.
Easier said than done, since moving the suit was like wading through water. A tiny bit of pressure from him and the suit would instantly detect and amplify the motion to actuate its heavy frame. The downside was that made sneaking around all the more difficult.
As much as he wanted to wipe the floor clean with these Liberación goons, his primary objective was to ensure Nina’s safety – there’d be plenty of time for them later. Still, that didn’t prevent him from popping a few of the goons when he saw an opportunity.
He moved with a mechanical precision past drug production to the darker side of the operation, an area so alien that you’d be hard-pressed to guess what you were even staring at.
Virtual Reality sim pods – dozens and dozens of them, all lined up in neat rows from one end of the long room to the other. Each pod was worth a small fortune and each brought with it a unique form of hell for the poor souls, mostly adolescent boys and girls, trapped within.
Perfectly simulated reality, or at least that’s what the marketing claimed. Indistinguishable from the real world in every way, so good was the tech. Typically used to fulfill wild fantasies, but there existed a special kind of scum who wanted more– apparently having their way with computer-generated characters wasn’t good enough for them. No; they demanded a real human mind behind their perversions, a mind they could break. As there was a demand, so too was there supply. These things were banned in any country you’d want to live in, for good reason.
For the victims it was unspeakable hell, and it was never just a one-time affair - that’d be a waste of resources, or so these psychos reasoned. They'd be forced into a nightmare from which they could not wake. When one scenario ended, they'd load right into the next ad infinitum until their minds cracked & split, at which point they’d be thrown out and incinerated like mere trash. He would know, for this wasn’t the first such operation he’d taken down. These people were like cockroaches; you take one out and another takes its place.
MC tasted blood in his mouth as he walked amongst the pods.
|Name:||Anna Kathryn Walker|
|Total Elapsed Duration:||44 days 12 hours 16 minutes
|Total Elapsed Duration:
||12 days 2 hours 27 minutes
||Elizabeth Lilian Ashman|
|Total Elapsed Duration:
||130 days 9 hours 45 minutes
To think that some of them had been subjected to this horror for months, their only respite being the brief period when they surfaced to prevent Sensory Disconnection Syndrome, or Disconnect as it was usually called.
The pods could sustain life near-indefinitely by feeding the body everything it needed, but they weren’t perfect. One month was about the max a human could stay under before the brain finally realized the sim for what it was. The result wasn’t pretty - paranoia and hallucinations, followed by a slow descent into madness that ended in death.
They probably forced her right back under after spending the bare minimum topside to reset the clock. To wake from that nightmare only to realize that there was no escape, that you’d be forced to endure yet another month of unspeakable horror – MC raised a mechanical hand up to the cold glass. He’d seen a lot of shit over the years, but humans never ceased to amaze him with their capacity for brutality.
Why was he always so powerless when it really counted? Why couldn’t he have stopped this atrocity before it ever happened?
Pointless thoughts flitted past, but he purged them as ruthless rationality took over once more – he had a job to do.
Intel put the number of pods at twenty to thirty, but there were well over a hundred in here. It went without saying that they all needed rescue, yet he’d come equipped to save just one this night. The rest would have to hang on for just a bit longer.
“Paladin-One, this is Machine-One, over.”
“This is Paladin-One, we read you loud and clear.”
“Transmitting telemetry now. I count one-hundred-ten caged birds awaiting evac. Better make some plans.”
“Jesus Christ… Copy that. We’ll get them home. You’re doing God’s work over there. Paladin-One out.”
He added another objective – protect the compound housing the VR pods at all cost. Once he’d eliminated Liberación and tipped off the local government, they’d be only too happy to swoop in and claim credit for defeating the syndicate.
MC didn’t give a shit. It didn’t matter who got the credit so long as these poor souls were freed with whatever was left of their sanity. As for what happened after, that was sadly out of his hands. Who knew if they’d ever manage to recover any semblance of a normal life after what they’d been through.
He passed by each pod, scanning their names until he found the one he was looking for. Both the youngest and the most endearing of all of his siblings – and the only one still alive.
The princess, that spoiled brat of a little sister who’d always run to him – usually bawling – asking big bro to come fix all of her problems.
|Total Elapsed Duration:||1 day 3 hours 44 minutes
How he’d so tragically failed at that. He never should have let her on that diplomatic mission, not without a hundred times the protection she had.
He took a deep breath as the pod righted itself, revealing his sister’s emaciated face. Barely a day had gone by and she already looked like this, what would this thing do to those who stayed under for longer?
The fluid surrounding her drained from the pod before it opened and released its unconscious occupant. She fell out, but MC caught her before she hit the ground.
“Hey there princess,” he croaked, simultaneously overjoyed and terrified for her.
Her eyelids flitted open and she looked around in confusion before her expression turned to one of pure hatred. “NO! Not again. I’ll kill you asshole!” She yelled as she struggled in vain against his suit - a giant mechanical demon replete with three glowing red eyes, seemingly ready to send her to oblivion.
Cursing his mistake, MC retracted the faceplate and covered her mouth with the suit’s giant hand right before she could scream.
“Nina it’s me, it’s Magnus. I’m here, so everything’s going to be alright.”
She resisted for a few moments, though eventually calmed down enough for him to release his hand.
“Wha? M-Magnus!? Where... No. Oh God, I, they–oh god Magnus. Oh my god!” She wailed through clenched teeth, sobbing into his hard armor.
She was about to panic again when he raised a finger to her lips.
“Shush sis. I can’t even imagine what you’ve been through, but we’re in a really dangerous place right now. I will do anything to make this up to you, but you gotta listen to me. You need to get out of here, and you don’t need me to tell you how bad these fuckers are. You understand?”
She was clearly in shock though shook her head nonetheless, wiping away the tears that crept their way down her face. Her expression of fear warped into one of hatred. “N-No way. You’re here to kill these assholes, aren’t you? I want to help. After what they did!? I'm gonna rip these motherfuckers to shreds... You know I’m up for it.”
He smiled. That was his little sister, such spirit in such a tiny, fragile frame.
“No sis, you’re really not.”
He held up his hands before she interjected, “Look I'm sure you could wipe out this entire compound if you wanted, but you should take a look at yourself… You don’t look so hot right now.”
“You’ve just been through some serious fucking shit, so let me handle this. You know I’ll take real good care of these upstanding gentlemen.”
She chuckled. Then the tears started running down her face again.
“Magnus, you were right. They killed everyone… It was an IED. Our guard detail was doing sweeps, but they missed one. I just didn’t think they’d kill the diplomats too…
“I managed to shoot one or two but it was no use. They were my friends, Magnus… good people, trying to make a real difference.”
“I haven’t felt so powerless since… ”
Since the day our family was murdered, “I know. Al, dismount.”
“Command confirmed. Purging frame.”
The impact-gel covering his body purged into the frame as the armor dismantled, splitting apart from the front to allow him to exit. Stepping down he emerged wearing his slim burgundy ceramic body armor, his black hair messy and wild.
“So… what the hell took you so long?”
“Wha- well, I uh--”
Yet before he could respond, she’d lunged for the rail pistol attached to his leg, unholstered it and fired thrice in quick succession.
MC turned around to see a Liberación goon bleeding out on the ground.
“Fuck… That’s my princess alright!”
“Two in the chest, one in the head. N-not bad huh?”
He laughed as he gently took the pistol from her trembling hands, “Not bad at all.”
He holstered the gun and bear-hugged his sister for a few precious seconds. Then he held her shoulders and touched his forehead to hers.
“Nina you are the brightest star in my world. You have a strength that I will never have, and you have no idea how much I respect what you’re trying to do with your diplomacy efforts. Don’t let this hiccup stop you, you hear?”
She nodded, the tears streaming silently down her face, “Why do you make it sound like I’ll never see you again?”
“Oh you’ll be seeing me soon enough, whether you like it or not,” he said as a water droplet flowed freely down his face.
“Magnus are you crying!? I've never seen you cry!”
The guilt threatened to crush him as he whispered, “I'm so, so sorry, Nina.”
After a long moment he broke their embrace to draw his Knights Armament railgun and a tactical chest rig from the suit’s internal armory, slinging them over his shoulder. The chest carrier contained all sorts of goodies that’d help out this evening.
Then he turned back around to a staring Nina and lifted her into the suit in one smooth motion thanks to his cybernetic left arm.
“Magnus what the hell? Is that how you treat a lady? This is why you’re still single you know.”
“Shut up… Al, initiate Phase Two”
“Remote voice command confirmed. Commencing Phase Two. Autopilot Engaged. Moving to LZ Bravo.”
“You’re really sending me back!?” She shouted as the suit began to close around her.
“Nina, listen to me – you’re going to be ok, alright? My friends are going to make sure you get home, safe and sound. They’ll have a chopper waiting for you and doctors to check you out.”
Mistaking her pained expression for doubt he continued, “I’m sorry, princess. There are a million replacements out there for me, but there’s only one of you.”
“That’s not true,” she whispered, too softly to be heard.
He hesitated for a sec, then issued one final command to the suit’s AI.
“Al, allow manual override of primary weapons.”
“Remote voice command confirmed. Relinquishing weapons control to current occupant.”
Her eyes lit up and her mood did a one-eighty, “Now we’re talking! You’d better come home alive. Or else.”
He shook his head. What a violent little princess.
“I’ll be right behind you. Just need you to remember three things. First – whatever happened in that pod, it wasn’t real, you hear me? I know how tough you are, but you need to remember that. Second – by the time you reach my friends, every single fucker in this compound will be dead.
“And Third – I love you.”
With a series of hisses and whirs, the suit finished sealing her in. The camo activated and it disappeared, though it hardly mattered. Almost immediately the dual back-mounted Vulcan Railers opened up with a deafening roar, tearing anything caught in its path to shreds. He could only imagine the terror his dear sister was causing, even if she did seem to target equipment rather than people. Letting her vent a bit was the least he could do if it meant easing her pain even a little.
The program he had the suit run would have it retrace his exact steps back out the compound and into the jungle where it would run on its own power until it rendezvoused with his friends. They were his buddies back from the war who could bring the thunder if need be. She’d be far safer with them than here, because here was about to become a slaughterhouse.
He strapped the chest rig to his combat armor and shoved a fresh battery and a 60 round mag into the railgun. The weapon came to life with a low hum.
The time had come to kick some ass.