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Ghosts of the Past - Chapter 2

The enemy are alert. They know the assault is coming. They are well-prepared and well-drilled. Their plans are solid and each one knows them perfectly. They stand in perfectly-spaced ranks, their positions calculated to give them the best lanes of fire and optimal cover to protect their compound and the valuable merchandise at its centre. They are robots, built to fight and programmed to kill. They wait.

Their opponents approach quickly, using their jetpacks to bound up the sides of the buildings between their step-off point and the objective and leap over low obstacles in the roads. Their speed would be considered reckless if they were any other collection of individuals. But these are Enforcers. Every one of them is the finest soldier mankind has yet produced and carries the best equipment money can buy. Because nothing but the best is good enough for the will of the Council personified. They were also built to fight and programmed to kill. But they are not robots.

Epsilon 3-1’s unit talks and jokes as it reaches the roof of the tallest building they could find overlooking the target compound. 3-10 is the newest member of the assault team, and finds rich material in the number of replacement parts some of the more seasoned veterans have in place of their original organics. He is first to the summit and turns around, offering a mocking helpful hand to 3-4, a veteran operator 3-10 knows has had one of his legs replaced several times in recent operations. 3-4 waves him off. He is still just as combat-efficient as any rookie and they all know the new guy will carry his own scars soon enough.

The Enforcers did not bother to make their approach to the target covert. Making noise is all part of the plan. The banter is necessary too, for other reasons. It is a bonding thing, natural for elite warriors. But as the teams settle into their insertion point and their conditioning starts to kick in, it stops.

To 3-1 it feels as if the colour drains out of the world somehow. But his vision does not fade or blur at all, rather it becomes, if anything, sharper. Where a normal man might have felt fear, looking from the top of a three-storey building at a walled compound full of enemies that will soon be trying to kill him, 3-1 now feels - nothing. Maybe some anticipation. Maybe a little eagerness. But instead of threats he see only opportunities. He is aware of his enemy’s strengths, but he sees their weaknesses too. It feels like someone has peeled off the top of 3-1’s skull and poured liquid coolant around his brain. All that matters to him now is that it is the will of the Council that 3-1 take the Primary objective from the bunker at the centre of the compound, whatever the cost. All other objectives are secondary.

The tech in his armour works in tandem with the tech built into his brain and body, readying him for action. As he looks around himself he sees the glowing outlines of the other operators and their numeric designators. Stimulant reservoirs open, ready to boost the power and energy in his musculature, and he realises he is now desperate to move, to begin the assault, to destroy something. To show how good he is at his job.

Finally, all disposition lights in 3-1’s visor turn green. The counter in the corner of his view counts down to zero. There is no need for any further signal from Command. Every asset is ready and in position so 3-1 and his unit leap from the edge of the rooftop and engage their jet packs. As they do, heavy weapons teams on the floors below them fire their rocket launchers and burst lasers and a squadron of three GR-77 Striders breaks from an alley and marches towards the compound’s main gate.

The heavy weapons don’t do much damage to the compound walls, but they are not expected to. They keep the defender’s heads down and give the slower-moving GR-77s the chance to get across the open ground between them and the gate. The Striders’ guns are powerful, but it is not until two of the giant walkers each raise a heavy leg and, together, kick the doors off their hinges that the entry is breached. Enforcers on foot, firing their Genling rifles, guns that are too heavy for a normal human to wield effectively, surge forwards from cover, dropping targets along the walls as they run.

3-1 does not see this. His unit have already cleared the gate and, although his helmet notifies him that one of the Striders has been brought down by concentrated fire from one of the watchtowers along the wall, it does not change the plan at all.

The jetpacks are not powerful enough for true flight, it is more of a controlled fall. But their starting elevation and momentum mean the assault unit has covered some distance and built up considerable speed as they come to ground outside the entrance to the bunker. Most of the defenders have been successfully drawn to the gate, but there are still dozens more waiting for them. Several are crushed under the assault unit’s heavy armoured feet and then 3-1 and his men have to fight hard to clear their landing zone. A dozen mechs, humanoids with thick armoured torsos on powerful legs, go down to headshots from the unit’s 32 HLP-X pistols, the blasts exploding from the back of their skull casings in showers of sparks and metallic fragments.

The defenders regroup quickly, pouring out of the buildings on the far side of the bunker. This is the point where 3-1, when he was just a man, before his induction into the corps, before his training and enhancements, might have felt panic as he and the men with him are surrounded by a swarm of cold-eyed monsters with no relief in sight. But he is not just a man any more. The corps broke him down and rebuilt him. Harder. Stronger. Colder and more deadly than any monster he has had to face since. So he does not feel panic or indeed any other emotion.

Instead, he deploys his Dionetik combat blade from its sheath on his left arm and charges into combat. The others do the same. The blades are straight-edged and look like the gladii ancient fighters might use, perhaps only useful for short stabbing motions. But they have a mono-molecular edge and, backed up by the Enforcers’ enhanced strength and reflexes, they make light work of the defenders’ armour.

This is what must be done now. Fight, slash, stab, kill. 3-1 dodges a volley of laser fire and plunges his blade into the chest of a mech. Withdraws it, drives his elbow into the optics of another mech, shoots a third as it tries to gut him with its blade.

The fighting is not one-sided though. 3-7 takes a shot to the chest and collapses, a neat section drilled clean through his plastron. 3-5 turns a mech’s momentum against it and destroys its brain-core with his blade but then he staggers as his armour absorbs a shot to his upper back.

More mechs, a reserve force, appear from within the bunker. Their weapons, a mix of solid shot and lasers, are built into their frames and they fire into the melee, shredding several of their fellow robots when they do.

This is a new tactic, something the Enforcers have not seen this brand of defender do before. Apparently there is nothing the enemy will not do to win the engagement and 3-4 is caught out. The robot he was in the process of eviscerating is cut down by a hail of heavy shots and two of the rounds impact 3-4. One cracks his femur, and there is a shower of blood from the joint between his right arm and shoulder where the other hits him. 3-1 knows his team-mate will be annoyed about the loss of his leg, again, when the battle is over. For now though, he does not call out, but he does drop to one knee as blood coagulates on his armour.

The other operators do not hesitate. They turn this new wrinkle to their advantage, manoeuvring to place more robots between themselves and the reinforcements. They pivot and duck until there is a wall of metal obscuring them completely from the incoming fire, using the bodies of dead defenders as shields.

When the ground teams arrive, shooting their way through the defenders at the gates and fighting to catch up with the assault team, the extra firepower turns the tide of the battle until eventually all the defenders are taken down. Three members of Team 3 have been wounded, two of them severely, but there is now nothing between them and the entrance to the bunker.

This is when the defenders play their last card.

From the darkened entrance emerge three humans. The mechs have hostages, held in the most secure place in their compound. Two males and one female are marched out, blinking in the dusty sunlight. Each one is held close by a mech who uses its other arm to hold a gun to its captive’s head. One of the males speaks, his voice sounding stressed and cracking under the strain of what he is enduring.

“Please, don’t shoot! They say they’ll let us go if you pull back now!”

The Enforcers do not move but they do not lower their weapons either. The hostages look tense, one of them starts to cry.

3-1 can see 3-10, moving slowly around the side of the bunker, behind the mechs, and the other operators signal their readiness. Even 3-4, kneeling, tells him he is now combat-effective, his wounds managed adequately. 3-10 has his pistol aimed at the back of one of the mech’s heads now and he signals to 3-1 he wishes to take the shot.

“Hold.” 3-1 says and the other operators obey.

A series of explosions rocks the ground around the bunker then and through the rubble of a collapsing building to 3-1’s right stride four bulky shapes. Team 4, Enforcers in Peacekeeper armour. Their armour is amongst the heaviest available to the corps and carry some of its most powerful weapons. But that weight makes them slower too and they needed time to reach the Primary from their own insertion point. A timer in 3-1’s visor tells him they are still running within acceptable variance of the plan.

As they clear the debris the robots holding the hostages swivel to face them. One of the robots lowers its weapon, the barrel pointing now towards the Peacekeepers. The female hostage screams.

“Now.” 3-1 says.

The Peacekeepers immediately open fire, pouring heavy beams into the group outside the bunker. 3-1’s unit and the other strike teams with them open up too, annihilating the six figures, cutting them down in a merciless fusillade of blue fire. Sparks fly as the robots are destroyed and smoking chunks of neocrete are blasted from the walls behind where they stood. The Enforcers fire until there is nothing left moving outside the bunker.

When it is done, 3-1 sends 3-10 inside. The rookie returns a few moments later with the Primary objective held in his hands. It is a small red flag and he waves it above his head, from side to side and a siren sounds across the compound.

The op is over. Another training mission, against robotic defenders, successfully completed. The Primary objective has been secured, exactly according to plan. Teams of med-techs drift into the area on hovering platforms and move towards the wounded operators as those still standing go through their post-op procedures, unloading their weapons and gradually coming out of their combat state.

3-1 walks over to the pile of broken mech parts on the ground outside the bunker and kneels down amongst them. He has sheathed his blade and he pulls a few blasted components apart, identifying them as he does. He finds parts of the Secondaries too. Also robots, made to look as much like real humans as possible, but still robots. He can see a human-sized torso and what looks like entrails and blood spilling out from it and, for a moment, he feels something twist in his own gut. It is as if something is wriggling inside him and some kind of colour, red maybe, seems to creep into the edges of his vision. Then he feels a familiar trickle of coolness spread through his body, starting from somewhere near the base of his skull. It is calming, numbing, and pleasant. He looks closer and realises it is simply wiring and hydraulic tubing he is holding.

3-1 walks over to where several techs are going to work on 3-7, stripping off his armour and pumping various chemicals into the access ports on his upper spine. This is a good sign. This much effort signifies they believe the operator can be saved and sent back to a team. A pair of medics have pulled 3-4 to his feet and are guiding him, limping, towards a transport where the rest of the unit is waiting for him.

A signal flashes up on 3-1’s visor, summoning him and the other team leaders to a debriefing session and 3-1 is glad, feels actually happy. This is the last training mission on this rotation and he knows he will most likely receive his unit’s new duty assignment at the debriefing. He hopes it will be a combat mission. He knows all the units in Epsilon are ready for it.

As the unit mounts its transport and glides out of the battlezone, 3-10 asks him whether he thinks it would have been possible to save the hostages as well as the Primary objective of securing the bunker.

Maybe, he tells him. Maybe in a real live op they could have secured the hostages alive. But then again, maybe not.

Perhaps the enemy would have used the time while they stood there negotiating to call up more reserves. Perhaps they would have just taken the chance to kill more Enforcers as soon as their guard was down.

But none of this matters. Enforcers don’t exist for theoreticals and ‘maybes’. Those are for the officers and planners to work out. Enforcers exist only to carry out the missions they are given, nothing more, nothing less. The hostages were not the mission, just part of the plan.

The Enforcers need only to carry out the will of the Council, whatever the cost. All other objectives are secondary.

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