Trigger Warning: Contains blood, gore, dismembered limbs and a liquified child.
Sergeant Thomas was in orbit and about to be shot into war-torn Riyadh.
He wasn’t used to the call sign yet. He wasn’t used to a lot of things about his current situation. The hell was this? The hell was “Firewatch?” The hell was a normal human like him doing on this team of some of the most powerful anomalies employed by The Bureau? “Yeah?”
Ash, strapped into the chair behind him, was her usual composed self. She wore a suit of power armor not unlike Thomas’ own, but unlike Thomas’, hers was composed of translucent yellow mind energy or some shit. A week ago Thomas hadn’t even known the supernatural existed, and now this. Ash said, “Don’t get any of us killed.”
Yep. Firewatch had to be the most rookie-friendly unit in The Bureau. “Don’t plan to.”
Before Thomas could respond, the pod carrying the pair of them shot out of the space station at 5 gees. And yeah, it was uncomfortable.
The pod didn’t start to really shake until it hit atmosphere, at which point Thomas’ teeth threatened to rattle out of his skull. Who knew what anomalous materials the external cameras on the pod were made of, but Thomas had a love/hate relationship with them because on one hand, even through the red-hot haze of reentry he could see the ground speeding towards him. On the other hand, he could see the ground speeding towards him.
Rockets on the pod pushed it through the atmosphere much faster than they would fall naturally. The landmass of Saudi Arabia grew disturbingly large disturbingly quick. Then landmarks, then cities, then individual buildings, then Bam! The retro-rockets fired, subjecting the pod to a hundred gees of acceleration for several seconds. Thomas was no Goku, only the obscene magitech of his Nextgen power armor let him live long enough to experience the pod leaving a crater in the asphalt.
The pod broke open and Ash jumped out, unfazed. Thomas, trying not to howl in pain, was close behind her. They’d landed in the shade of Kingdom Centre. The skyscraper’s windows were shattered and its skybridge destroyed, but it was a sight better than the burned-out husks of buildings that surrounded it.
Ash said, “Shield up. Anti-anomaly bubble up.” A yellow sheen surrounded them. They were drawing fire from a squad of mercs with assault rifles, no threat there, Ash’s shield dealt with the bullets like a bug zapper, and no known power could penetrate Ash’s anti-anomaly bubble. They were in the open in the middle of a war zone and safe as houses. “Pyre, sitrep.”
Thomas’ HUD streamed data. “Cinder’s pod was shot off-course, but she’s reporting green from an impact zone five hundred meters southeast. ‘Ferno and Flare’s pod was destroyed by The Weapon.” Shit. The entire reason for that hellish orbital insertion was that The Weapon shouldn’t have been able to hit them.
“Three out of five elements green, mission is a go,” Ash said, just as an M1 Abrams crested a pile of rubble and fired its main gun at them. Looked like Ash had to concentrate to stop that one. “ETA on Cinder?”
Ash made keeping her cool look easy, but Thomas had to work for it. “Uh, let’s see, five hundred meters with a thirty second head start. She should be here about-” Something slammed into the Abrams, sending it flying. “-now.”
Even if the crew of the tank survived the flip, they didn’t survive the twenty-five meters of of armored serpent that wrapped around their vehicle and crushed it like a tin can. Armor plating and tread fragments exploded with enough force to embed a flying sprocket, like some oversized ninja star, a half foot into concrete. Through the radio Thomas said, “Cinder, report when clear.”
A swing of Cinder’s axe-tail obliterated the assault rifle mercs, along with the ruins they’d tried to use as cover. Then she was with them, half-woman, half-snake, plated to the teeth, with a mechanical claw and shield on each arm and a loaded grenade belt. The look she gave Thomas was one of frigid disdain. “Clear.” Her voice was appropriately terrifying.
Ash wrapped her in the yellow shield, as well as the drop pod. “Explosives, Pyre.”
One would think a psychic goddess and two tons of snakegirl could help out with transporting the C4 but apparently this job was beneath them. Thomas clenched his jaw and said “On it.”
The approach on Kingdom Centre found them harassed by sniper fire, which they couldn’t neutralize; Flare had been their ranged support. Fortunately the psychic shield was sufficient protection, even weathering an air strike with little more than a bloody nose on Ash’s part, and they were soon near the remains of the front doors. There were a hell of a lot of soldiers in there, and even in cover they were being harassed by a hail of small and large arms fire. “Cinder, clear a path to the basement,” Ash said, eyes closed in concentration to keep the shield up.
Cinder grabbed fistfuls of grenades, rings about her fingers, and barreled in. A full spread of a dozen frags neutralized most of the defense, and a minute with the lamia from hell neutralized the rest. Thomas shut off his suit’s audio sensors, but it wasn’t enough to block out the screaming. “Clear,” chirped his radio.
“Move in.” Ash in front, Thomas behind. The lobby had been painted red, and Thomas had to step over bucketworths of what used to be people. He focused on his breathing.
They met up with Cinder in the basement. The enemy must have known the plan, because a second line of defense, complete with fortifications and heavy machine gun nests, laid in ruins. Cinder was gulping down someone, and they were thrashing. Thomas looked away.
“Twenty minutes until extraction,” Ash said. “We’ve already lost two mission elements, Firewatch is going to be pissed enough without us being late. Both of you, start setting up the C4.”
You’re a soldier. You do what you’re told. You serve the greater good. These were the thoughts that kept Thomas focused on the mission. So when those thoughts were interrupted by mental flashes of a sick child hooked up a deathly machine, it gave him pause.
“Shit.” Ash must have sensed it, because she moved to put Thomas back under her anti-anomaly bubble, which didn’t have nearly the range of her physical shield. “Psychic attack, The Weapon’s growing desperate. Cinder, how are you holding up?”
“Fine.” Cinder finished setting up her C4.
“The Weapon’s just a kid,” Thomas said, paused where he was. His heart had fallen through his stomach.
Ash’s anti-anomaly bubble wavered a little. “Not the time, rookie. Evac in fifteen minutes.” When Thomas didn’t move, “You’re supposed to be a professional. Do your damn job. Cinder.”
Cinder snarled and took the remaining C4 from Thomas and set it up.
“They’re using him against his will,” Thomas said. “This has to change the plan.”
Ash’s anti-anomaly shield flickered more. “This changes nothing. Cinder, finish up here. We’ll meet you outside.”
A mind-armored hand was quite adamant that Thomas follow along, and he did. It was calm outside, as they’d cleared the area of hostiles, but passing through the gore-filled lobby again was the final straw for Thomas. He took off his helmet and vomited. “Fuck, sorry,” he said, once he’d recovered.
Ash said, “Everyone vomits their first time seeing Cinder’s work.”
Thomas shook his head. “Where’s the line?”
“Not for us to decide.”
“Then how are we any different from her?”
At that, Ash’s shields flickered, dropped. It was all The Weapon needed to find the detonator codes and transmit them.
“Oh, Sh-” The shockwave drowned Ash out, and a wave of debris washed over them. Ash got her physical shield back up by the skin of her teeth, but it was too weak to lock them in place. The ball of mind energy rolled with the debris, throwing them about like ragdolls inside. Thomas took the brunt of it.
He must have blacked out, because one moment they were tumbling like a golf ball in a dryer and the next he was staring at the dusty sky through the yellow sheen of Ash’s shield. Some of that dust had penetrated the bubble, and Ash was on her hands and knees, coughing. Apparently that mind armor didn’t include air filtration. “Pyre,” she wheezed. “Status on Cinder.”
Thomas stood.. His head hurt like a motherfucker and his ears were ringing, but the blinking light next to Cinder’s name was unmistakable. “Red.”
He’d never seen Ash legitimately angry before. She stumbled to her feet. “What was the one thing I told you not to do?”
Thomas’ attention wasn’t on her, it was on the ball of red electricity that had spawned behind her. The signature attack of The Weapon. And Ash was too distressed to put up her anti-anomaly bubble. “Get down!”
Now, when your team member yells for you to get down and throws himself to the ground, you didn’t waste time turning around to see what the problem was. If anything, Ash took cover faster than him. A moment later the sparking red ball exploded. The anomalous energy passed through Ash’s physical shield like it wasn’t even there. Thomas’ suit had anti-anomaly defenses, but Ash’s mind armor was just a second layer of her physical shield. Thomas was blown backwards, but not before seeing Ash dismembered by the blast.
Fuck, fuck fuck. After several bounces Thomas came to a rest. He was battered and bruised and his suit was administering medication, but he had more pressing concerns than his own injuries. Somehow The Weapon was still active, and Ash was…yellow? She was still alive?
The Weapon needed a full minute to recharge, intelligence had confirmed that. Which meant Thomas had one minute to find Ash, try to stabilize her, and finish off The Weapon.
Finding Ash wasn’t hard, she’d set up her physical shield like a tower, pointing right to her at its base. She’d landed ten meters away. Thomas dug her out of the rubble and… “Fuck, Ash.” She’d lost both legs and an arm in the explosion, and shrapnel had destroyed her face. She’d redone her mind armor into very effective mind-tourniquets, but who knew how long she’d remain conscious and able to keep them up.
She must have still had some way to sense the world though, Because her remain hand was pointing behind him. Thomas turned to see The Weapon rising out of the wreckage atop a metal sphere. That sphere wasn’t part of The Weapon. His suits sensors confirmed that was some other anomaly, some bodyguard of The Weapon, missed by intelligence. Fucking intelligence. Thomas took the assault rifle off his back and fired.
The liquid metal of the sphere ate the bullets. Oh, well, guns weren’t going to work, now were they? Hell, had guns done anything for either side in this damn fight? Why did they even give him a gun at all? Thirty seconds until The Weapon could fire again.The sphere reformed into some sort of liquid metal golem, cube of machinery containing The Weapon on its back, where Thomas couldn’t shoot it.
So, this was how it ended, eh? Thomas could confidently say he did not see this coming. Might as well go out like a badass. He threw away his gun and drew his knife, giving the golem a “come at me, bro,” gesture. The golem charged.
…And slammed head-first into a wave of rubble that shot out of the ground.
It didn’t do any damage to the thing, but it was enough to give both it and Thomas pause. Then it happened again, and again, before a very battered and very angry Cinder crawled out of the hole she had made. All her gear was destroyed, including the biometric sensor and explaining why she was still a big blinking red dot on the mission element list. Fucking hell, what did it take to kill that monster? Not that Thomas was complaining.
Cinder still had plenty of fight in her, and slammed into the liquid metal golem. The impact jarred loose The Weapon, sending it flying. Cinder tried to go after it, but the golem was a heavyweight in its own right and kept her engaged. “Pyre, finish this.”
Thomas was soon at the cube’s side, and found an eye that belonged to the liquified remains of what had once been a boy staring back at him. The Weapon was sending him mental images of the boy’s childhood. Meanwhile the red ball of electricity was building again, on the inside of Cinder’s body; the crackles and sparks of the thing were visible through her scales. Her armor was too tough to penetrate, but if that thing went off it would turn her organs to mulch. Five seconds.
“Fuck you and your games,” Pyre said to The Weapon. His knife ended it.