Training was a blur of pain, sweat, tears. Intermixed with ranks upon ranks of soldiers were those brave enough to volunteer. There weren’t a lot of them left. This was a different sort of task we were asking people.
I recognized a few from the efforts to take down the Lost Boy, but beyond that, the majority were soldiers already in the peak of their fitness. Barking out orders.
Painful classrooms filled with battleplans, meetings where generals and Excelsior barked out flaws in reasoning, plans built out of houses of cards while I stared down at nothing at all.
Days passed like this in a filthy haze; a painful miasma of duty, honor, heroism.
Each night, I thought I heard Colton crying, but I was too sore to do much more than talk.
And we talked about things we never knew we’d share.
He talked about hating peanut butter, how it reminded him of the orphanage he’d spent most of his academy days living in.
I talked about how I didn’t know any of my brothers. The youngest, unable to connect with much of anyone. The weakest.
He talked about wanting to find his father one day.
I talked about the same.
It was all pain. It was all duty. It was all honor. It was all heroism.
But we were training for war.
And we knew we were training for war.
On the fifth day, the Association dropped by a representative. Sharp dressed. Classic hero garb. It had truly been ages since I’d seen someone in their hero outfit.
My own purple cape was tattered, shredded to bits. I wouldn’t be wearing it for the battle.
“Gale! Get your squad together,” Cassandra barked, then turned and surveilled the rest of the soldiers. After a moment, she was back to barking out movements, commands. Testing. Testing.
The building was an old gymnasium. Classes hadn’t been in session in quite some time. A lack of people, food, resources. They wouldn’t mind the place getting destroyed; asbestos still cluttered the walls, with the occasional leak sending students scurrying back home.
The armor was hot and heavy on my body, the twitch in my bad hand back from the gloves pressed against it.
Colton twirled a knife through his gloves, and Hands stood ready.
“Alright,” Cass said, tugging herself off of the wall. “So we know for a fact that Patrickson took scythe tanks with him. They’re an anti hero measure. Spectacularly lethal,” She laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“I’ve always wanted to blow the fuckers up,” Cass said. “And now I get to do it after all. Never seemed right, just sending in a machine to do a man’s job.”
Hands slowly tensed up. “We’re going to be fighting one right now?”
“It’s as good of practice as anything else,” Cass replied, dryly. “After all, you’re going to be going into enemy territory with the rest of us. Precious cargo means jackshit if you get torn apart by the tanks.”
I breathed out. “Alright. So what are we dealing with?”
The back half of the gymnasium was open to the air. Crews had taken it down, piece by piece, and a massive tarp had been draped over top of…
Well, it could only be the tank.
Cass gestured, and soldiers through the tarp back. It gleamed a dark grey, rough in order to prevent a gleam from alerting anyone to its existence. Pair after pair of heated wheels, to move the massive bulk around.
“It’s just a car,” Colton said. “How hard can it be to take it out?”
“Just a car,” Cass tsked. She snapped her fingers.
Dull thumps as black cargo erupted from the top of the vehicle. They trailed high into the air then flipped out, rotors and engines roaring.
Drones. The scythe tank came with a supply of drones.
The drones clicked together, one by one.
“Go on,” Cass said, flicking a grenade about her hand like a soft ball. She tossed it, and I caught it, guiding the path. “Give it a shot.”
I stared at the swarm of drones. What on earth did those even do?
Then I tossed it like a baseball.
Soldiers dove the side, hurling themselves into cover. I hadn’t even pulled the pin.
Twenty yards from the tank, the drones twitched, all at once turning to face the projectile.
Then the projectile promptly ceased to exist under the power of steady lasers, exploding in midair. Shrapnel bounced about, but I threw up a gust of wind to flick them to the side.
“Hardened armor protects it from fast attacks,” Cass said.
“And those drones protect it from slow attacks?” I guessed.
Colton threw a knife into the mess of drones, and the drones communicated with each other and melted it out of the air. He hissed.
“Alright,” Colton said. “I can see how this might be a tough one.”
“Here’s your scenario,” Cass said. “Your target is through heavy urban areas, high buildings all around. You hear the whirring of drones in the distant, intermingled with suppressive fire and explosions. Take out the tank before it scythes you down.”
The tank erupted, ports opening up on either side. The gleam of gun barrels internally.
Hands squeaked. “Holy shit.”
“I used to dream about this when I was younger,” Cass trailed, sliding in behind us. “A bunch of Association heroes teaming up against a Scythe tank. They use these to patrol the badlands, you know. It’s a good sight to see if they’re on your side.”
I tugged my right hand into a fist, and tugged at the drones in the air. It was a bit distant, but perhaps…
“How many targets can it handle at once?” I asked.
“Multiple attacks?” Colton guessed.
“According to the engineers, it should be able to take on at least three separate attacks at once, though it’ll attempt more,” Cass replied. “Too many things and it’ll confuse the machine intelligence inside.”
“It’s autonomous?!” I squeaked. “Who the fuck thought that was a good idea?”
“Cuban Patrol,” Colton spat.
“It’s a good tool against the Weird, the strange, the badlands,” Cass said. “Prevents them from roasting the brains of whoever is controlling it.” I counted too many guns strapped to the damn thing, assuming all of the ports were for that.
“Battery power?” I asked.
“Couple of hours,” Cass admitted. “Most of the weight is in fuel and batteries.”
“Needs to keep the drones charged, and those wheels moving,” Hands guessed.
Colton whistled. “Well. I guess it beats fighting another unimaginable horror, right?”
I grit my teeth and stared at it. “This isn’t something we can do. Not reliably.”
Cass tsked, clicking her tongue. “I had a feeling you were going to say that.”
“Luckily for you, you’re not going to be doing this alone,” Cass said, brightly. “Your Association’s finally sending someone over to help.”
There was a tension in the air as I slid forward, gesturing at Colton. Hands. We were now the best of the best in Mobile. Perhaps not in sheer force of power; there were still a few heroes left who hadn’t joined up into the military, who had backed out.
A few heroes left who were retired, couldn’t join in.
The conference room was tucked inside of a mobile building, dragged in by heavy equipment. Rebecca sat in the room, wringing her fingers.
“Boreas,” Rebecca said, flat. “How grateful were the Association that you were available?”
She was talking to another person. I recognized the haircolor. The vague shape of his face.
“When I heard Gale was involved,” Boreas said, turning familiar eyes upon me. He was every inch my father, in blood, in total, in totality. It was like looking at the statues and shrines again. “How could I turn down helping family?”
Hand’s invisible hand squeezed my shoulder. I didn’t have to look at Colton to know he was clenching his jaw, the quiver of his heart was all I heard.
“How’s the bombing up north?” I asked. Wasn’t sure how to feel; another brother. Vague memories.
“Messy,” Boreas admitted. “Looking forward to doing some real work with you guys.”
An awkward silence.
“As a B-rank, Boreas,” Rebecca said. “Why are you here?”
Boreas saluted lazily and slid into a chair. “I assist in bomb guidance. If you mark a target for me, I can guarantee our planes will hit it.”
I snapped my fingers. “You’re going to be the one making sure the scythe tanks stay down.”
Boreas’s grin slipped very slightly. “Well. That’s what I would say, but I can tell you right now that Montgomery’s covered in anti Air. They’ve spent the last month erecting it.”
My heart sank.
“Which is why you’re going to be training with my squad,” Cass said, her red skin glinting with a smile. “Because we’re going to be going in together to make sure that the defences are down enough to move in properly.”
Rebecca tsked. “How’d they get the guns in?”
“No idea,” Boreas said. “They’d’ve had to get them in through the bay…”
“Nothing’s passed through the bay in ages,” I said. “We’d know, it wasn’t hard to convince people to start keeping watch for pirates.”
I didn’t like mysteries. They tended to get the shit beaten out of me.
Colton flicked his eyes over to Boreas. “So how’re we going to mark them?”
Boreas lifted a bag up onto the meeting table, then knocked it over. Glints of metal shone in the air, reflecting the fluorescents overhead.
“Transmitters,” Boreas said. “I’ll be able to hit anything you mark with these. So mark everything remotely important.”
But Colton already had one in his hand. His hands formed blade after blade, testing out the various shapes and compositions, until he found one that made the transmitted grip it appropriately.
“How do I turn it on?” He asked.
Boreas gestured at a button. He pressed it, and it clicked once. High pitched, then my ears drifted away from the tone instead of hearing it.
Then the knife slammed into the far wall. Colton shot Boreas a grin. “I think I’m starting to like your family after, Gale.”
“Bear in mind,” Boreas said. “I’m not leading my planes anywhere near that place until the guns are taken care of. Shit’s already bad enough up in Birmingham, I don’t want to know what’ll happen if we’re down all the planes we need.”
“What is happening in Birmingham?”
Rebecca cleared her throat.
“They’re apart of this,” Boreas protected. “We might as well tell them.”
Rebecca closed her eyes. “Fine. Tell them.”
“The entire thing is turned into a massive writhing jungle. We’ve got it temporarily contained with fire and napalm, but I don’t want to think what’ll happen if we don’t take back Montgomery,” Boreas admitted. “We need /something/ under our control here, or the Association’s going to call the entire gulf coast a fucking loss and pull back to reinforce somewhere else.”
“They’d leave it all for dead?” Hands asked. Angrily.
“It’s about saving the most lives here,” Boreas said, matter of fact. If we waste everything we have on the gulf coast, we might be making less efficient choices.”
“Screw your efficiency,” Hands said, spitting. It arced, and came to a halt before it could touch my brother’s face.
I hated him too, but I wasn’t going to try and alienate our allies, no matter how despicable their policies were.
The spit hovered in mid air, and then whisked away to the trashcan at the side of the room.
“I’ll give you that one,” Boreas said. “But try it again and I’ll show you exactly why I’m a B-rank and Gale’s-”
I cut him off.
“Why is Rebecca here?” I asked.
“She’s one of the two highest ranking members in the gulf,” Excelsior said, stepping in. “So she should be a leader in all seriousness.”
“Bizarrely,” Boreas said. “I was under the impression that Gale was the leader here.”
Excelsior clapped me on the shoulder and I nearly fell over in my chair. “That Gale is,” He laughed. “So, Gale? What do you think of the plans?”
Cass clicked her tongue from the entrance. “So we move in, get inside, disable the guns, which’ll let Gale and Co work on the tanks. Then we’ll get inside, slam the beacon into place, and from then we have guaranteed protection from everything else.”
“It’ll mean we can have our forces fully in on storming the city,” Excelsior said, grim. “Instead of focusing on just surviving everything else.”
I breathed in, turned, and looked over at Hands. She shrugged. Looked over at Colton.
He sighed, his eyes closed. Hefting the transmitter attached to a knife. Parabolas and equations.
It was incredibly dangerous. It was incredibly stupid. It was all of those things.
But it was almost time, and we were running out of time.
“How’re we getting in?” I asked.
Excelsior slapped down a prepared map. Struggles with keeping it rolled out, until Rebecca caught the other edge and held it in place.
Cass grinned, drew her fingers across it. “We’re going to knock, very politely, with a truck packed with explosives, right at their front door.” She tapped right on Highway 65.
“And the rest of us?” I asked.
She tapped the airport. “Small plane. It’ll be a one way trip in, we won’t be able to get out until everything’s down inside,” her smile softened. “Hope you guys don’t get mission sick.”
My fingers clenched. “And what about Patrickson’s monsters?”
“If you can put that beacon down.” Boreas said, looking rather uncomfortable at saying that. “Then they should be sitting ducks.”
“I don’t like should be,” Hands said. “What do you mean, should be?”
Boreas held up a hand. “Woah there, D-rank. I mean that I haven’t been a part of any campaign like this before.”
“Boreas here has mostly made a name for himself cutting through the monsters around Birmingham.” Excelsior said.
“That’s how we met,” Boreas said. “Did you know Excelsior broke through the barricades himself?”
I flicked my eyes over to him. Excelsior didn’t look back at me, staring down at the map. His fingers on his right hand touched the map, where a star had been drawn. “Guinivere’s last position,” He muttered. “I wasn’t quick enough.”
“We’ll find her body,” Rebecca promised, solemnly.
Excelsior turned away, clenching his jaw hard enough to make it crack.
“We need to find Gunze’s body as well,” I said. “He deserves a proper burial.”
Silence in the room for a long moment.
“How’s the rest of the nation doing?”
Boreas sighed. “The east coast has been retaken, mostly. Large areas of it are exclusion zones, now, we’re going to have to clean them up by hand. The center is still mostly intact, so we’re not going to starve to death. The border with mexico… and the west coast, well,” Boreas grit his teeth. “Very few communications. I think we’ve been compromised, or the information is so bad that they aren’t bothering to share in order to keep morale up.”
More silence. Cass coughed.
“It’s not that bad,” Boreas admitted. “We just need to take a few areas, and then we can use all of those troops to take everything else. We just need stability. We just need…”
He laughed, pointed down at the map. “We need this place cleared out, and it’ll be better for all of us.”
Excelsior sighed. “Better for all of us.”