Fireteam Freelance – Episode 0: 0

Welcome to Episode 0 of Fireteam Freelance readers! The episode is beyond the jump to save anyone from spoilers, so hit it to get started! A list of all episodes can be found at the Fireteam Freelance page.


0

Through Adah’s scope, the distant trio of vehicles began to move out at last, shutting up their doors and securing their precious cargo behind armored walls. The security escort had been the last to embark, doing final, pointless glances around the square more for show than for any actual good of real security, their assorted rifles held up and at the ready, as if any of the nearby people were capable of procuring vast arrays of automatic weaponry from beneath their robes in a moment and laying waste to the convoy.

As if, Adah though as the last of the combatants—she couldn’t bring herself to think of them as soldiers, not as sloppy as they were—slapped the roof of the forward vehicle. Another pointless gesture, more for show to the nearby citizens and the People’s Armed Police the group had just finished meeting with than for anything else. But the forward of the vehicles—an old, repurposed JLTV from the look of it, and one that had seen better days—began to roll forward, people darting out of its way as it began to roll down the street. The middle vehicle, the one with the important cargo and her team’s target, began to roll out next, sliding smoothly into the wake of the JLTV. Unlike the more patchwork armored look of the JLTV, the middle vehicle was a much more modern armored civilian vehicle, made to look like a comfortable if slightly stretched limo, but with an armored exterior and powerful motors. Where their target had found it in the Dragon Bloc, she wasn’t sure.

Not that it mattered. It was perfect for the sort of token civilian resistance their target was looking to be protected from as he flexed his expanded muscles and clawed for more territory across the Bloc. But against a trained, well-equipped force, the only real option it had was to run, and fast. Which it could, to its credit, do.

Not that she or her team were planning on letting it come to that.

The third vehicle rolled away from the pap station, another patchwork JLTV like the first, its bulbous tires rolling along the cracked pavement behind the limo and taking up the rear.

“Target’s moving out people,” Adah said, shifting her position slightly as the trio of vehicles drew closer. Civilians rushed to be out of the way, pushing carts with wares and food off the streets as the lone sentry poking from the roof of the forward JLTV eyed them, resting their arms on a mounted gun that looked old and battered but functional.

“Just like we expected,” Adah said, her words slipping out over the secure communications channel between her and the rest of the team. “Mounted gun manned, one driver and five other occupants.”

“Overloaded then,” came the voice of Anvil, the team’s heavy weapons and demolitions specialist.

“Crowded,” Adah replied as she continued to watch the trio of vehicles roll toward her. They were moving slowly through the old city. Not slowly enough that people didn’t have to move quickly to get out of their way, but not fast enough that people would be run down, either.

Posturing. To make the convoy, and its occupant, memorable. So that the people would know just who was rolling away from the local pap station without a care in the world, guns openly on display.

Their new local leader, Cài.

The convoy was getting closer, and Adah slid slowly back and down out of sight. Though she didn’t expect that anyone from the convoy would look up. Their eyes would be on the people around them, daring them to look up and challenge their new rule. She began counting slowly, under her breath, waiting for the convoy to pass.

“Convoy’s passing your position now, Adah.” The soft, almost quiet voice belonged to Owl, their sniper. She was more than a mile down the path the convoy was expected to take, hunkered down amid the upper floor skeleton of an old, partially completed skyscraper from before the collapse of the Bloc. “Any idea how many in the rear vehicle?”

“Six got out, and the vehicle looked empty,” Adah said, still counting silently. “One driver, five passengers.” They’d been far enough away that she hadn’t wanted to risk any form of active scan on the chance the vehicle’s countermeasure systems were newer than they looked and picked up her intrusion. “Four got out with Cài when he spoke with the papcap, but the driver wasn’t among them.”

“Might not have a driver,” Owl suggested.

“Not a chance,” Anvil cut in, her voice loud in comparison to Owls. “Important people have drivers, on it? So he’s going to have a driver.”

“Vehicle did show signs of movement while Cài was meeting with the papcap. I’d guess maybe two more inside, plus a driver.”

“Seven total, not counting Cài.” The fourth and final voice belonged to Ursa. “Any actual neural armor?”

“None that I could see. Just homemade stuff. Four sets.” Four sets of repurposed construction exoskeletons. Dangerous in the right hands, and against the right, unprepared foe. Against a team fully kitted out in neural skinsuit armor, or in Anvil’s case, a military grade exoskeleton? A fly to be swatted aside.

Her count ended, and Adah slowly rose, now facing the opposite to her initial direction, watching as the makeshift warband continued to roll down the street. The crowd around them was thinning now, the convoy moving out of the “city” center and into the less active zones around it.

“Convoy is picking up a little speed,” she advised, lifting her rifle and sighting through the scope once more. “Right down the lane we wanted. Flag’s almost yours Anvil.”

“Oh I’m ready. Convoy’s coming into view now.  That’s right … just stay on the easy path …”

Ahead of the convoy, and right on the path they’d worked very carefully to ensure it would take as Cài rolled along to the next pap station, was a segment where the street narrowed, impressive imperial architecture rising on either side. Stone and concrete fronted architecture, now weathered and dirty after decades of neglect, but once likely some grand focus of what the city had been expected to become after it was built.

Heavy, dangerous stone and concrete fronting. Old. And a slightly narrower street.

The bribes her team had paid out two days ago had been well spent. While there were other avenues that the convoy could conceivably roll down, a few payments of yuan to the local populace had seen those alternatives made less attractive by the deployment of rubble, old vehicles, or in one case a battered old tractor that several locals had partially disassembled. None of this was insurmountable in any way to the old JLTVs in the convoy … But it did make those alternate routes all the less attractive by comparison. And the passage past the old fronted building was the most direct route to Cài’s next destination. The bribes were just nudges to make sure he’d take it.

“Convoy’s entering the box,” Adah said as the lead vehicle rolled past the last intersection and continued straight down the slightly narrower street, not even slowing. “Your show Anvil.”

“Oh you know it,” came the woman’s reply as the limo followed the JLTV. The final member of the convoy rolled along behind a moment later. Adah lifted her rifle, her finger sliding to the trigger. The convoy was a quarter of the way down the street. A third. On either side, the multi-story stone fronts loomed, rising above the vehicles like cliffs.

Wait for it … Wait for it …

Anvil’s voice slipped across the comm channel. “Boom.”

A titanic chorus of explosions echoed across the city as the stonework on both sides of the convoy erupted, the charges Anvil had planted earlier detonating with concussive force. The gunner atop the lead vehicle hardly had time to scream before and avalanche of stone crashed down on him, slabs the size of small cars crushing the JLTV and bottoming out its suspension. The rear vehicle was only slightly luckier, its rear wheels lifting from the ground as its front end was buried under an avalanche of concrete and stone.

Anvil’s demolition work had done its job. The foremost vehicle was almost completely buried, the rearward one partially crushed. And between the two cascades of stone, the limo was sitting untouched save for a few larger fragments that had bounced off of its roof.

Completely trapped by two walls of stone.

“Ursa, go!” Adah lifted her rifle as she spoke, sighting down the scope through her hud and aiming at the rearmost vehicle where one of the doors was still clear. The occupants had likely been rattled, but the body hadn’t collapsed. In moments the rag-tag band would be trying to get out and defend their employer.

Back by the limo, several small silver canisters arced through the air, bouncing off of the ground and roof of the vehicle before spraying out clouds of thick grey smoke that put the dust in the air to shame. Sensor and comm-jamming smoke, swirling out around the limo and cutting it off.

The exposed door of the rearward JLTV opened, one of the warband’s members jumping out, mouth open in a yell. Probably a warcry of some kind. It shifted to a scream of pain as the rifle kicked in her hands, a single shot punching through the younth’s right calf. They dropped to the ground, their weapon forgotten as they clutched at their leg.

Body armor does you no good if you’re exposing the unarmored parts, Adah thought as she shifted her rifle up, firing three shots so quickly they would have been seen to the unaided eye as a burst. The bandit that had been trying to get out of the JLTV behind the first fell to the pavement, two shots slamming into their combat vest but the third cutting through their bicep.

She put a fourth and fifth shot into the inside of the armored door, a third figure ducking back as the shots pounded into the frame and leaving their two comrades outside.

Amateurs. But then again, what else an upstart warlord like Cài supposed to work with. Professionals? They were expensive, and what few he had would likely be in the center car with him.

Ursa would see to them.

A rifle barrel poked around the edge of the open door—no, a shotgun—and opened fire. Adah didn’t even flinch. At the range she was at, the odds that a stray shot would find its mark was far off. And since she was in skinsuit armor …

She turned, facing back in the direction of the pap station. The place was just coming to life, a disbelieving constable pointing down the street in the direction of the explosions. Most of the citizens, meanwhile, were smartly rushing off the street.

Adah glanced back in the direction of the convoy, checking to see if anyone had dared get out of the rear vehicle to help their wounded comrades yet. The shotgun was still blindly firing. Back at the pap station, the papcap Cài had just met with ran out onto the street.

Make the smart decision, little man, Adah thought as she watched the papcap gesture and shout to his force. That explosion means you’re outmatched. Do the smart thing and …

Nope. The papcap had drawn his pistol now, motioning in the direction of the ambush and shouting as more and more of his forces rushed out of the stationfront, most with clubs and batons, but many with surplus pistols and rifles. Idiot’s going to honor his agreement with Cài, Must have been promised something pretty cushy. Food from roof gardens, maybe. Or sex. That was a common one. Cài had already cemented his control over the local brothels in the region. And gone “recruiting.”

Part of the reason we have this job, Adah thought as she sighted her rifle in. She let loose a quick trio of shots, the bullets bouncing off of the pavement just in front of the papcap. He skidded to a halt, looking up and around as if he’d spot her position.

Come on you idiot … take the slagging hint!

But no. With a gesture to his men, the captain began rushing forward once again, pistol up and at the ready.

He was an idiot … but he didn’t deserve to die. Her rifle barked again twice in rapid succession, her first shot striking him in the thigh, the second in his opposite hip as he began to fall. He skidded across the dirty asphalt, pistol skittering out of his hands.

Take the warning! Behind the captain, his men skidded to a halt, several of them grabbing him and dragging him back. The captain was in pain, but obviously still conscious, if a little worse for the wear.

Someone must have asked him something, because he shook his head, and the group began to beat a hasty retreat back to the station.

Good. She shifted her position, panning her rifle back over to the ambushed convoy. The smoke from Ursa’s grenades had completely filled the gap around the limo now. If Cài’s guard had left the vehicle, they’d be completely blind.

In her absence, one of the occupants of the rear vehicle had gotten out and was taking cover behind a chunk of stone, weapon at the ready as they scanned for Adah’s position. Her first shot skipped off the nearby concrete, yanking their attention away.

Her second shot hit their helmet, snapping their head to the side and scaring them back down into cover.

“Adah,” Owl said, her quiet voice clear as day inside her helmet. “Just picked up a high-powered distress call to the nearby airfield. Encrypted, but Cài has likely called for help.”

“Anvil?” Adah asked, and her rifle barked again, driving back another bandit.

*             *             *

“Anvil?”

Her name came across the comm channel, and Anvil grinned, rolling her armored shoulders. “On it.”

She turned, moving away from the position she’d taken atop the westernmost of the two buildings the convoy was now trapped between and toward the far side of the building, where she had a clear view of the old city skyline all the way to the distant airfield, just beyond the horizon.

“You’re gonna bring the big guns,” she sang under her breath as she strode across the rooftop, her suit moving smoothly with her every twitch. “And I’m gonna blow them all to hell …”

“Anvil …”

“Sorry.” She grinned despite the apology, shadow-boxing the air as behind her, another quick staccato of shots rang out. Adah keeping the guards occupied.

If they’re worth being called guards. Punk kids with punk shooters and fodder armor. Her eyes darted down to the twenty millimeter autocannon swinging easily in her armored hands. The heavy gun would easily have made short work of any of Cài’s guards. Even of the JLTVs.

But then … she hadn’t brought it to use it, as much as she liked the heavy cascading booms it let out with every squeeze of the trigger. An MMR would have been just as effective against the barely armored convoy and its occupants. But an autocannon looked intimidating.

And who knew. Maybe she’d get to fire off a few rounds in warning. There was always a chance that Cài would do something actually surprising.

Summoning crooked civil air patrol officers in a police gunship wasn’t.

Anvil let out another happy hum without a worry as the end of the roof neared, her suite’s comm gear programmed to screen the sound out. It had been maybe five, ten seconds since the distress call had gone out. Behind her, Ursa would likely be going to work, clearing the limo.

She twitched her brow in a preset pattern, the scanning suites in her armor reacting by magnifying her view of the distant horizon. Passive scans she’d already configured picked up several aircraft from the vicinity of the airfield … but none heading in the direction of the convoy or showing any sign of variance in their flight path.

Sloppy, she thought, trying not to yawn. Cài couldn’t afford to bribe somewhat competent gunship crew?

Then again, “somewhat competent” was, in all fairness, a term one would be hard-pressed to attach to many “civil servants” in this region of the Bloc. Loosely competent was usually about as good as one could hope for. Anyone better … well, they fell in with the gangs, or got out altogether, either by promotion or simply leaving.

A laugh echoed across the team’s comm net as Ursa went to work, and Anvil tilted her head slightly, still watching the distant horizon, but listening for the distant sounds of—

And there it is, she thought as a heavy crunch echoed up from the street. Something, or more likely someone, finding out firsthand exactly how dangerous the large mercenary was.

And there’s my prey, she thought as new contact appeared on visor, indicators snapping into place around it as the suit’s sensors struggled to figure out velocity and direction as quickly as possible while still staying in passive mode.

She didn’t need most of it. A visual confirmation would do well enough. The image bloomed, expanding and zooming in as she tapped at the underside of one armored wrist, simulated controls reacting to her movements.

Gotcha. It was a civil air patrol VTOL all right, responding to the convoy’s call. And … Her eyes moved to the numbers along one side. “Damn.”

“Trouble?”

“Not unless you count my losing a few thousand yuan to the commander over which bird Cài had bribed, on it?” Anvil replied, snapping her eyes to a very specific control on her hud. From her back there was a sudden electric hum.

“We’re getting paid how much to deal with this, and you’re worried about a few thousand yuan?” Ursa asked. She didn’t even sound winded, despite the damage she had to be inflicting on what was left of Cài’s security force.

Mop up mission indeed, Anvil thought as a targeting indicator appeared on her hud, the heavy weapon module she’d attached to her back coming to life. “It’s the principle.”

“She’s the commander for a reason, Anvil. How’s that AA coming?”

“Dialing in now.” She couldn’t help but grin again as she widened her stance, bracing her armored body against the rooftop. On her back, the weapon module shifted, two additional legs folding out and connecting to the roof with wide, splayed feet. A short, quick shriek announced that both of them had driven their pitons in, and she gave her upper body a quick jostle, checking to make sure they were both secure.

Off to the west, the gunship was rapidly coming closer. She couldn’t hear it yet, but its engines had to be screaming. It was an older model, post-collapse, but still nothing impressive by the standards of most places around the world. Or off it, for that matter.

But that said, it was still a gunship. A Z-65 VTOL, armed with a wide variety of heavy weaponry that could reduce even a skinsuit user to paste and crush a silverback under superior firepower.

If it got close enough. If the force on the ground didn’t have a heavy weapon that could knock it out.

The targeting suite for the canon on her back, picking up the object of her focus, made a prompt to move to active targeting. She waved it away. The VTOL was still too far out. Active targeting could give them a tenth of a second of warning, enough to maybe take a glancing blow rather than a disabling shot or deploy countermeasures.

Closer … closer. She adjusted her aim slightly, the weapon atop her back making minute movements with each twitch. Almost …

With another command, the four primary splines that made up the railgun’s barrel began to extend upwards and out, over her head and in the direction of the VTOL. She waited, eyes fixed on the estimated distance to the gunship, and as it reached a certain point, gave the weapon the command to prime its shot.

The MRH-3 railgun had never been a very popular weapon. It was ungainly, used a heavy weapon mount on an exoskeleton for an anti-armor weapon, required exterior bracing, and only carried two shots in addition to requiring the external bracing or running the risk of both missing its target and sending its user flying when fired. It was ungainly, heavy, and hard to use effectively. With so many lighter and more modern anti-armor solutions out there, it was little wonder that the manufacturer had retired the design after only its second publicly released iteration.

For all its weaknesses, however, it was terrifyingly effective, propelling a uranium round with an island metal core to nearly mach six in moments, an impact even heavy armor couldn’t ignore. There were still far better options, but it was undeniable that the MRH-3 lived up to the name its creators had pinned on it: Hammer.

Even so … If we were facing anyone else, Anvil thought as the charge in the weapon’s capacitors built, a small bar in the corner of her hud climbing upward. I’d have brought a real weapon. But since they were facing poorly armed criminals … No sense not using some of the fun stuff in my collection.

Besides, once the airfield saw what was about to happen to the lone gunship that had just scrambled, there would be no hurry for anyone else to come check on the convoy anytime soon. The charge meter reached its peak, flashing as it did so. She had about ten seconds before the capacitors in the weapon overloaded and melted.

Another reason the Hammer had performed poorly in actual combat, alongside all the others. But if she’d timed it right …

There. The gunship was just about to fly over the scattered bones of the city that had been left incomplete after the collapse, square miles of empty construction sites and skeletal frames that had been abandoned as soon as the economy had imploded. Incomplete, and more importantly, fairly unoccupied. Why bother living in a hole when there were hole empty office and apartment buildings to lay claim to?

She lined up the shot, aiming the crosshairs on her hud square at the boxy, armored cockpit at the front of the VTOL. She wasn’t sure if there was a pilot or not, but whatever was flying the gunship was about to have a very bad day.

Seven seconds to burnout. She held the weapon steady, double-checking the distance with the map in her head and waiting for the best possible shot. Six seconds. Five. Four. The seconds ticked by with long, laborious moments to her enhanced physiology, easily twice as long to her enhanced and adrenaline-fed senses as a normal human.

Three. She smiled as the VTOL turned slightly, presenting a perfect shot. “Boom.”

She flipped to active targeting an instant before she pressed the firing stud, the confirmation on her hud that her target was locked appearing  less than a tenth of a second before a mighty wrenching sensation rippled through her armor, in sync with a thunderous boom that even sealed inside her suit was almost deafening and likely would have been without her augments.

In that same brief tenth of a second the VTOL’s fins and engines flared, the systems reacting to the target lock and attempting to throw the aircraft into another flight path, but it was already too late. The hyperkinetic slug ripped into the gunship’s prow, the force of its impact boiling metal and armor well past its flash-point and continuing on through the VTOL’s less-armored insides. From Anvil’s perspective the aircraft simply seemed to come apart, exploding from the inside out and tearing itself into pieces.

Before the shockwave from the Hammer’s firing had even begun to rattle the nearest windows, the gunship was a burning ball of hot metal and gas, its flight path already dropping, the slug that had killed it shooting out the back in a jet of flame. It had already lost most of its speed, and the rounds were designed to break along lines that would make them less aerodynamic once they hit something. Likely it’d crash to the ground somewhere past the airfield, and some scavenger would go out and claim what was left of the projectile for scrap.

The echoes of the Hammer’s firing continued to roll across the cityscape as the VTOL plummeted from the sky in several flaming pieces. She gave the Hammer the command to pack up, a faint shriek from behind her sounding as the bracing legs pulled themselves free.

“Their bird is down,” she said, rising out of her braced position and watching as the falling VTOL neared the ground. “Repeat—“

“Understood,” Adah said. “Any chance they’ll try again?”

“Well …” The remains of the gunship slammed into the ground, smashing through old weathered I-beams and punching a new gravel pit into the ground. Meanwhile, the sky behind it was suddenly clearing of all aircraft, VTOLs and drones of all shape and sizes either conducting emergency landings or deciding that any piece of sky was safer than the one they were currently in. “Doesn’t look like it, on it?”

“Was the railgun really necessary?”

Anvil shook her head. “Right it was. You know how rarely I actually get to use that thing on a real target?”

“’Not often enough’ would be my guess.”

“Exactly. And it worked.” She scanned over the emptying sky again, then turned and did a full sweep—active this time, rather than passive. “The skies are clearing fast. We own them.”

“Contacts on the ground,” Owl said, her voice cutting across the calms with that same soft calmness it always seemed to possess. “Those theoretical seconds command predicted just materialized out of a parking garage about two miles east. Convoy of five, led by another JLTV and some homemade armored cars. Heading toward us at high speed along Xinghua Road.”

“Copy,” Adah answered. Above Anvil’s head, the lone rails of the hammer finally retracted, the weapon pinging her hud that it had finished collapsing itself back down to a portable module.

Rails last. One more reason it didn’t do very well in actual combat. Move too soon? Risk wrecking the thing or throwing off its calibrations.

A good idea. Just too early and too much.

A good old-fashioned twenty-millimeter autocannon, however … She lifted the long, boxy weapon in her armored hands just as Adah’s voice rang out over the comm net again.

“Anvil, feel like shooting some armored cars with that autocannon of yours?”

She grinned and turned eastward, her armored boots already ringing across the rooftop, the autocannon swinging easily in her arms. “And now I know all of you really do love me.” She picked up speed as the gap the convoy was trapped in neared, shifting her weight forward and going into a sprint. She kicked off just before the edge arrived, her armored body sailing over the smoke-filled gap.

From somewhere inside the smoke, someone screamed.

*             *             *

Ursa shoved the screaming figure away and they vanished into the thick smoke, clutching their shattered wrist. “Idiot.” She kept the mutter low enough that her comm’s wouldn’t relay it. What did they think was going to happen? They punched someone wearing skinsuit armor barehanded while wearing a construction exoskeleton.

There was a reason that most skinsuit users were augmented in bone strength, not just muscle and reflexes.

She took a brief moment to disable the shotgun she’d swiped from the now-crying combatant, cycling the chamber so fast it almost appeared to be an automatic, unused shells flying out into the smoke, and then tossed the weapon aside. It vanished into the smoke as well, leaving her alone in a world of grey.

Mostly alone. Her comm unit was still powerful enough to punch through the smoke’s jamming effect, though her range was heavily limited. Still, she hadn’t counted on any of Cài’s men having military-grade comm equipment. Not new equipment, anyway.

She moved through the smoke like a hunting cat, her body hunched as she circled back toward the armored limo. She’d taken down four guards so far, but that still left the driver and an uncertain chance of other guards the team hadn’t seen yet. With each step she gauged her distance, the smoke so thick that she could barely see her own armored boots. By her own judgement, she was now on the left side of the vehicle, and she’d found two of Cài’s escort on the right side, both lost in the smoke. Both were now also lost to the world as well, one unconscious, the other dead.

She’d recognized their face from the dossier. The world wouldn’t miss her.

But two guards on the right side likely mean that two more had been deployed on the left. And she’d already found and dealt with the one … loudly. Which meant …

She continued forward, moving almost silently through the smoke, ears alert for any sound of movement. She could still hear the sobbing of the one who’s wrist had been broken, as well as the distant cracks of Adah’s rifle. Around her, however, there was …

A faint click, off to her right. Rubble shifting as someone tried to move.

There. The sound wasn’t exact enough for her to tell precisely where it was, but a direction was good enough. She moved toward it in a low crouch, her legs ready to spring at a moment’s notice. A moment later there was a louder clatter, followed by a faint curse in Mandarin.

They were close. As was the limo. They were trying to get back inside it.

Perfect. She bared her teeth. It’s a lot more fun when they’re running scared. Maybe not running, in this case, but trying to beat a hasty retreat. There was another clatter, and a louder whispered curse that cut off as several faint, distant booms echoed through the air. Ursa recognized the sound. Anvil’s autocannon.

The next clatter was louder, and mixed with the sound of a step. Anvil’s autocannon had spurred the guard to abandon stealth.

Excellent. She lunged forward, her target appearing out of the smoke. They had just enough time to see her coming from the corner of their eyes and start to turn, mouth opening to scream, before she slammed into them, the breath blasting from their lungs as her massive armored form carried them across the ground and into the side of the limo. The vehicle rocked as their combined masses slammed into it, and her target’s head slammed into the side with a hollow thunk, their eyes rolling back into their head and body going limp. Their weapon, a FOX-7 submachine gun, slid from their fingers and clattered across the ground.

She let the body slip after it a moment later, sliding down the side of the limo and sprawling on the ground. She’d seen similar before, back in the ring. Even with modern medical technology, without treatment they’d likely be dead in minutes.

Given some of the things Cài had called upon his guard to do in the last few months, however, it was hard to feel as though it would be a loss in any way.

Four guards. Driver. Unknowns in the vehicle. And our target.

Cài.

From nearby there was a faint, electric hum, her suit’s sensors picking it up and amplifying the sound perfectly in her ears relative to its position. She knew that hum. She’d heard it night after night back when she’d been in the circuit.

A car window lowering.

“Jiang?” The name was quick, and whispered through the thick smoke like a breeze. “Nǐ hái hǎo ma?”

Mandarin. It was either one of Cài’s other guards … or the man himself. And he was bare feet away through the smoke. And a partially open window.

Two quick steps to the side was all it took to bring the window into view. The glass was heavily tinted, preventing her from seeing through it even if she’d had the proper security visor and the air hadn’t been full of smoke, but the gap at the top was enough for her to see a pair of eyes that opened wide as she slid out of the smoke. The pulled back, the window starting to move upward once again—

Only for her armored fingers to crash into the gap, wrenching the armored glass back and down. Sharp pops sounded as cracks shot through the glass, followed by a loud crescendo as the glass broke completely free of the door, spinning away into the smoke with a flick of her wrist and exposing the inside of the limo.

It was clear of smoke, thanks to its filtration systems, so she could easily see the figure of Cài scrambling away from her, slipping and sliding over the faux-leather seats. There were two more people inside the limo as well, a young man and woman who, from their dress, were less bodyguards and more “entertainment” of some kind. Both of them were huddled at the front end of the limo, eyes wide with horror.

There were, however, no other guards. Cài was alone. Ursa opened the door, stooping as she stepped into the vehicle, the suspension rocking slightly as she moved toward Cài. He was babbling something in Mandarin, probably an attempt to bribe her or a statement that he knew very powerful people and she was making a mistake … but whatever it was it couldn’t hide the fear in his eyes. Or the stain of urine on his expensive clothes.

However, when he stopped, his eyes flicking to the front of the car, she reacted immediately, dropping to one knee and sweeping up a shot glass that had been left on the limo floor with one hand. She had just the briefest glimpse of the driver poking a shotgun through the partition from the front before it erupted in fire, pellets slamming into the armor over her shoulder and bouncing off the composite plating. The shot glass she’d hurled, meanwhile, clipped the side of the driver’s head, and he jerked back out of reflex.

She lunged across the inside of the limo, catching him before he’d retreated, one hand slapping the shotgun out of his hand, the other grabbing him by the collar. The driver let out a scream that mixed with the screams of Cài’s “entertainment” as she hauled him halfway through the partition and then slammed him down hard on the carpeted floor. He went limp, though not completely. He was dazed, and would definitely need medical attention, but he wasn’t dead.

A click from behind her made her spin, her quarry halfway through the act of opening the limo’s other door. Another spring brought her right to him, one hand shoving him back into the seat as he began babbling mandarin at her once more, holding up his hands as if that could stave her off. She batted them aside, then gave him a light, backhanded slap, just enough to daze, but not damage. Well, not too much anyway.

Still, the blow shut him up, and he fell back, reeling. Giving her time to dig through one of the pouches on her armor and pull out several thick, plastic zip-ties. Cài’s eyes tried to fix on her as she worked, slamming his wrists and then his ankles together before securing them with two ties, but by the time enough awareness had come back to his senses to start to protest what she was doing, it was already done. He let out a mewling cry as she grabbed him by the collar and drug him flat across the seat, head pointed toward the door he’d been trying to open.

She opened it and stepped out, pausing only to glance back at the young man and woman cringing at the front of the compartment.

“You should leave,” she said, the pair clutching tighter at one another as she spoke. “Before more of this one’s people arrive.” Then she stepped out of the limo and grabbed Cài with one hand, lifting him by the front of his expensive robes and throwing him over her shoulder like a sack of meat. A quick thrust upward with her torso as he started to struggled was rewarded with a whoosh of breath, and the struggling stopped.

She ran for the edge of the smoke, leaving the limo and the remains of Cài’s guard behind her. “Package is secure. Moving for LZ-1.”

*             *             *

“Copy that.” Owl shifted slightly as Adah spoke, watching through her scope as the titanic figure that was Ursa move out of the smoke around the limo like a wraith and darted into the nearby building, the figure slung over her shoulder almost a child by comparison. “Calling it in.”

Ursa’s on the move. She shifted her scope east, where Anvil had pinned down would-be rescue convoy in an open square with heavy barrages of fire. The lead vehicle had already succumbed to a withering barrage of fire, both front tires thoroughly destroyed and front windows shattered. What gang members who had managed to exit their vehicles were clustered behind them, most of them looking as though they wanted to be anywhere else other than under the muzzle of Anvil’s gun.

She adjusted her scope, zooming in further and playing her view over the weapons on display. Mostly old submachine guns and shotguns. Nothing too threatening in the hands of a bunch of scared criminals. Half of them looked makeshift or patchwork.

Maybe Cài was throwing his weight around as a bluff. She finished scanning the group, then made a quick note for her spotter drone to keep watching them, its own view shifting in the corner of her visor to follow her commands. There wasn’t a single heavy weapon on display among the group. Reaching for territory fast to make up for what he lacked.

She’d seen gangs make that move before, even small ones. Rush out with a hard, aggressive stance, putting on a big show for anyone who looked. Grab some turf and enforce it as brutally as possible, daring anyone to challenge them for it. When in fact, anyone could. The hope was that the show would scare the other gangs into backing off, that no one would notice that it was always the same three enforcers or something similar.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.

And sometimes the paps just punish the lot of you, she thought, rolling her view back over to the distant pap station. It was still locked down, without a hint of movement … Though they had admitted what looked like a local doctor through the back lot, dragging an old but battered medical suite behind him on one broken wheel. Come in with clubs and gas and beat a few of you to death for good measure.

Thankfully, their gang had never lost too many. Thankfully, because she’d been the lookout, always ready to call warning, and thankfully because if they had, she’d have been beaten within and inch of her life herself.

Old memories. But part of the tapestry of who she was.

She shifted the scope again, back to the original convoy they’d trapped. Anvil’s demolition work had done its job well. The rear vehicle was still taking the occasional plinking shot from Adah, but the fact that any of them were still alive was a sure sign that she was letting them live, given how easily she could have killed all of them. Keeping the pinned with treatable injuries. A questionable mercy … but then again, Adah liked to believe in second chances and warning shots.

The smoke was clearing around the limo, still enough to kick up obstruction alerts from her scope’s sensors, but enough that she could make out most of its shape now. It was completely motionless save for the occasional rock of the vehicle on its suspension. Someone Ursa had subdued, most likely. Much like the four bodies lying on the ground, some very clearly dead. Most, she corrected. Only one was moving, rocking back and forth on the ground while cradling a shattered wrist that hung at a limp angle. It wasn’t hard to tell from the stripped down construction exoskeleton they wore what had happened.

Still, they weren’t about to become an immediate threat. She moved her gaze to the final and first vehicle in the convoy, the one that had been almost completely—

A large piece of rubble atop the vehicle shifted, and she paused, fixing it in the center of her view. On her hud, the scene at the other convoy was much the same, Anvil’s occasional shots keeping the vehicles pinned, the message clear. There was no need to shift back. Not when—

The rubble shifted again, then slid to one side, the battered hatch of the lead JLTV shoving it aside to expose a figure wearing another construction exoskeleton, though this one was unmodified. In addition, the user had used the reinforced pegs on the side of the arms to push the hatch open, rather than breaking their own arms or putting undue stress on them. The dented JLTV shifted slightly as the rubble rolled off.

The inside of the hatch, Owl noted, was smeared with fresh blood, likely from where it had impacted the head of the one who’d originally been manning it when the ambush had taken place.

Let’s see what you do … The newly freed gang member had ducked partially back down into the JLTV and appeared to be grabbing something. Are you going to sit this one out or … Nope!

The figure rose, an old HJ-18 man-portable missile launcher held in both hands. A weapon that could easily track and take out Adah’s position at the other end of the ambush.

Her rifle kicked before he’d even begun to lift the launcher to his shoulders, and the top part of the man’s head evaporated in a red spray, the bullet cleaving his skull cleanly in to several pieces. For a moment the exoskeleton continued on, but then its operator’s new movements took control, and it slumped back, the launcher bouncing across the roof of the JLTV until it hit rubble.

Someone shoved the body out of the way and yanked the hatch shut.

Good work … But still … “Adah?”

“Yes?”

“You might want to think about repositioning. The lead JLTV had an anti-armor missile. The operator is down, but if it had telemetry tracking it might have locked your position.”

“Copy that. Team, VTOL is inbound to LZ-1 ETA two minutes. When Ursa gives the word, break off.”

“Acknowledged.” Owl ran her scope back over to the second convoy, the huddled gang members once again filling her view. On her hud, the secondary image from her spotter shifted to what she had just been looking at, the drone going back to its original observation.

Anvil’s occasional fire slacked off, then stopped completely. Owl smiled slightly, waiting for the inevitable. It took almost fifteen seconds, but the first head poked up slowly and skittishly, like a stray dog trying to sneak after someone’s  garbage. Only when there was no answering fire did another head come up, and then another, the clustered gang members rising from their positions and lifting their weapons.

Only to dive to the ground as a full barrage of autocannon fire ripped into one of their jury-rigged vehicles, punching holes clean through the armor and ripping the vehicle to shred. Metal fragments flew through the air as the fuel cell detonated, adding to the chaos. Several of the gangsters weren’t quick enough to get into cover, and landed with blood flowing freely from multiple wounds.

And Anvil, of course, was already gone, moving for LZ-1. Owl shifted her view, bringing the armored woman into her gaze. The silverback was moving across the rooftops at a steady run, heading for the unfinished floor of a nearby skyscraper. Ursa, and by now likely Adah, would also be moving toward it.

Which was fine. She’d watch them load, at which point she’d break for LZ-2, where the team would pick her up.

She moved her focus back to the rotation she’d set for herself. Pap station, convoy, secondary convoy, and now LZ-1. She kept the timing of each change as random as she was able, just in case someone was counting on regularity in any way. Her spotter drone trailed behind, its hud feed serving as a second point of watch.

Anvil was almost at the LZ when the VTOL arrived, swooping up from below the skyline and ducking through the framework of the old skyscraper with a deft twist. The VTOL was a top-of-the-line Stalker-class stealth gunship, with extensive customization and modification. As she watched, it landed on the top floor and popped a side hatch, its engines still hot. Anvil arrived a moment later, but dropped to one knee rather than boarding, bringing her autocannon up to survey the LZ. A precaution, but not an unwelcome one. Ursa arrived a moment later, the giant woman coming up the stairs with her battered cargo still slung on her back. Anvil rose to give her a high five, and Owl smiled at the oddity. Outside their armor, the two couldn’t be more different, Ursa’s six and a half foot stature towering over the much shorter and more diminutive Anvil by more than a foot. But in armor, thanks to Anvil’s exoskeleton, the two were almost the same size.

Adah arrived a moment later with a flourish, leaping up from a lower floor and waving to the team.

“Owl, we’re all at the LZ. Dusting for LZ-2.” Ursa was the first to board the VTOL, roughly dropping her cargo onto the deck. What came next Owl didn’t see, as she dropped her scope and snapped her fingers, a cue for her spotter drone to disengage. It dropped back into its housing atop her right shoulder blade, folding into its housing on her armor.

She shimmied back, away from the small ledge she’d been using as her roost, and then carefully turned herself around before she reached the tripwire grenade she’d left armed behind her. Carefully she held one finger up against the grenade itself, and the device complied, a light flashing and the trip-wires going slack as it disarmed. Moments later, it was secure at her waist, and she slid forward across the concrete until she was out of sight of anything that could have seen her vantage point.

Twenty seconds later, the Stalker was landing right in front of her, the rear hatch opening, and she jumped, catching it easily and pulling herself up and in.

Moments later, they were gone, the VTOL shooting across the old city at high speeds.

*             *             *

The occasional whimper from Cài and the hum of the Stalker’s engines were the only sound for the next leg of the journey. Well, once a well-timed kick to the ribs had shut Cài up. No sooner had the VTOL taken off with all four of them aboard than the man had tried desperately pleading to them in Mandarin, then English, and even in broken, butchered Span-Portuguese, bouncing rapidly between threats and bribery in equal portions. Owl had been the one to give the man a kick, probably cracking more than a few of his ribs in the process, then continuing on to rack her weapons without so much as a glance.

And then they’d waited, seated around the interior of the VTOL as it had rocketed toward their destination. None of them had spoken, which was a little unusual … but the mission wasn’t over yet, and with Cài in their midst the VTOL felt … sullied.

Not for much longer, Adah thought as her hud pinged. They were less than a minute away from their destination now, and the final moments of their mission. A quick glance at the rest of the members of the team showed slight, minute shifts in their body language—well, not so slight in Anvil’s case—that showed each of them had also been tracking their progress.

“Ursa?” Adah asked as their craft began its descent, the motion almost imperceptible beneath the high-grade gravitics. It could have been completely invisible, but each of them preferred to feel a small bit of the VTOL’s movement. “Would you do the honors of presenting our cargo?”

Ursa nodded and rose, the woman towering inside the VTOL, her armored helmet only a few inches from the ceiling. Cài attempted to kick himself away as she neared, only to let out a cry of pain as some part of him protested the movement. Ursa reached out, one large hand grabbing the man by the back of the neck and pulling him upright.

It was probably painful, Adah knew. While the “claws” Ursa had formed on the tips of her armored fingers were mostly for show, mostly didn’t mean “entirely.” They had to be digging into the fat flesh on the back of Cài’s neck.

The interior lit up, viewscreens all around the team coming to life with views from the exterior of the gunship. They were in a rural, mountainous area now, far from the city where they’d snatched Cài, and rich with green leaves. There was a small town off to the VTOL’s right side, the craft circling around it.

“See that?” Ursa shoved Cài toward the right side of the craft. “That little town? Recognize it?”

Cài whimpered something unintelligible but managed to shake his head.

“Well, you’ve been there before,” Ursa said, her voice low, almost a growl. “Two weeks ago. Remember it now?”

First a shake, then a nod.

“You brought your gang in to make a statement,” Ursa continued, shoving the man closer, one hand still firmly holding him by the back of the neck, his legs almost dragging behind him. “You wanted money. Goods. Young men and women for your brothels. And when the town refused …”

The VTOL circled closer. Blackened buildings were coming into view now, and crops that looked as though they had been burned.

“You plundered, raped, looted, tortured, and murdered.” Ursa tightened her grip slightly, Cài wincing and letting out a whimper of pain, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Men, women … kids. Just one town of many from what I hear.” Cài let out another whimper of pain as the VTOL turned, heading straight for the center of the town, where a small square stood open and clear.

Surrounded by people.

“Unfortunately for you,” Ursa continued. “Some of these particular people had connections. Those connections were family. Who had money. And they just wanted one thing.”

She rose, roughly pulling Cài to his feet and jerking him in the direction of the rear hatch. Dust swirled up around the viewscreens as the Stalker began to land, engines shifting pitch. There was a momentary twitch in their momentum as the craft came to rest on the ground, and then the rear hatch began to drop, folding down and out.

Exposing a very angry looking crowd. One with quite a few farming tools spread among them. Sharp ones.

Méiyǒu! Méiyǒu!” Cài began to struggle as he saw the angry faces, jerking back and forth in Ursa’s grip, but even without bound limbs the warlord would have stood no chance. “You cannot do this!”

Adah stepped forward alongside Ursa onto the rear hatch, now a rear ramp. “Everyone!” Her voice echoed above the whine of the Stalker’s engines. It was almost enough to pull their attention to her, but most went right back to the sight of the struggling Cài. The local village magistrate, however, locked eyes with her and stepped forward.

“Magistrate,” Adah said with a polite nod. The magistrate—who was still sporting a cast from where Cài’s bandits had broken her arm—nodded in return. “One warlord Cài, as requested.”

At her words Ursa threw Cài forward off the ramp. The warlord hit the dirt with a howl of pain and rolled, coming to a stop some feet away from the magistrate.

The magistrate nodded and then took several steps forward, peering down at Cài with an expression Adah could only describe as civil contempt. Then she spoke.

“It is Cài.” She spit on the warlord, her saliva mixing with the dirt and tears on the crying warlord’s face. Then she turned to look at them.

“You have done as you asked. Payment will be delivered. As for this one …” Her final words came out like a hiss as she turned and kicked dirt over the prone figure. “His fate has been decided: Death.”

With a roar, the crowd of villagers surged forward, swarming around Cài and punching and kicking at his body. From somewhere inside the mass of swirling humanity, the warlord began to scream, only for the sound to be cut off, probably at the end of a villager’s boot.

The magistrate nodded at her, and Adah returned the nod before turning and signaling Ursa with one hand. The hatch began to close behind them as they moved back into the VTOL, closing out the outside world and the angry roar of the crowd, making them nothing more than silent images on the viewscreens. A moment later the engine’s whined, dust kicking up and momentarily pressing the crowd back as the VTOL lifted off.

As they circled away, they were given one last look at the one-time warlord as the angry crowd lifted him above their heads and carried him away from the square … no doubt to some fitting end.

“Well,” Anvil said, her armored helmet folding back and exposing her face. Ursa was the next to remove her helmet, and Adah reached up to tug hers off as well. “So much for that warlord.”

“Anyone feel bad for him?” Ursa asked, stepping further into the VTOL and setting her helmet by her rack.

“Are you kidding?” Anvil let out a laugh as she stomped over to her own rack. Manipulator arms folded out of the ceiling as she docked her suit, the entire armature unfolding and opening up, allowing her to step out of the exoskeleton. “Asshole’s probably getting what he deserved, on it?”

“Or as best they can manage, anyway,” Adah agreed, setting her helmet down on her own rack. The visor appeared to stare up at her, a faint silvery reflection of her own face peering back from the material.

“They will manage,” Owl said as she pulled off her own helmet, giving her head a shake and letting her long black hair fall against her shoulders. She was the only member of the team who kept her hair any length at all, binding it up for every mission. The explanation she’d always given was that she’d never been able to have it long when she was younger, and she wasn’t about to cut it now. “China has a lot of ancient torture methods.”

“Think his band will come looking for him?” Ursa asked as she opened her equipment locker and began removing her armor plates one by one.

“Not likely,” Adah answered, her hands coming up to detach one of the plates of her own skinsuit.  “This wasn’t just our op. Commander Castillo said she saw an alert hit the government channels before we deployed. Former warlord Cài’s troops are about to find that every account they had has been locked and seized. They’re broke.”

“And broke mercs don’t fight much,” Anvil said with a laugh, stretching her arms above her head. “And if’n one or two did …”

“The town’d probably do to them what they’re doing to Cài right now,” Adah finished as another grey plate of composite armor detached from her skinsuit. She racked it in her locker like the others. Her weapon sat nearby, still waiting to be cleaned. She’d take care of it once she was out of the armor.

Anvil crossed the cabin of the VTOL in a single, graceful hop, coming to a stop next to Ursa, and reaching up to give the much taller woman a playful punch to the shoulder. “So, post debrief … You feel like hitting up a few bars? Maybe finding a few scraps?”

Ursa rolled her eyes but grinned. “You only want to take me along because next to me, everyone wants to fight you.”

“Yeah well what works, on it?” Anvil gave Ursa another tap on the shoulder. “Come on … there’s this new bar down on Huzhu … It’ll be a fresh crowd. Might be able to get some free drinks.”

Adah let out a quick laugh. “Anvil, if there’s any bar left in the city that doesn’t have some picture of you next to it combined with a warning of one kind or another—“

“It’s a new bar,” Anvil said, spinning on one heel to face her and cocking her head to one side. “Besides, I changed my hair again, on it?” She ran her fingers through the shock of short green hair atop her head. “Some sunglasses, a new hoodie, some earrings … They’ll never know it’s me.”

“And when you walk in with me?” Ursa asked, looking down at Anvil and rolling her eyes as she detached a piece of composite armor plate from her torso. “That won’t be a red flag?”

“We’ll put you in a hoodie too. And you can slouch.”

“Your new hair looks like you seeded your head with grass.”

Anvil spun to face Owl, shock on her face. Real or mock, Adah wasn’t really certain. It was hard to tell where Anvil was concerned.

“How could you? Grass would be cheaper.” Then she spun back to Ursa. “But how about it, Ursa? Come on … you want to, on it?”

Ursa paused. “All right, fine.”

“Yes!” Anvil pumped a fist.

“But after the debrief. And not a new bar.”

“Not …?”

“Pick a seedy one. Trashy. Like, two walls trashy. Maybe with drugs. And then you are going to get a fight going.”

Anvil grinned. “You want a bar fight? Right, I can do a bar fight.”

“At a trashy bar full of lowlifes that deserve it,” Ursa continued. “It’ll feel good to unwind a little. Do that, and I’ll hunch.”

“Yes!” Anvil made another fist pump motion, then turned. “Adah,” she asked. “You in?”

Adah shook her head as she stepped out of her armored boots. “No thanks. I’ve got other plans tonight.”

“Symphony performance,” Owl said from the front of the VTOL. “The Planets or something similar.”

“The Planets suite by Holst,” she confirmed as she closed her locker and turned to look at Anvil. “Performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.”

“Ooh, nice,” Anvil said, grinning. “Right, I won’t bug you then. You do you. Owl?”

“Thank you, but no,” Owl said, now fully out of her armor as well, clad only in a neural skinsuit. Rather than take one of the provided seats, she dropped to the deck, crossing her legs in a smooth fashion, and began stripping her rifle. “I’ll be attended the symphony with Adah.”

“Right, fair enough,” Anvil said, stepping across the deck to where her heavy autocannon hung in its rack. “Good plans then. After the debrief?” The question had been directed at Ursa.

“And after lunch,” Adah cut in before Ursa could reply. “It’s her turn to cook today, and she promised pulled pork. I did not trade fire with a bunch of warlord bandits to not have pulled pork at the end of it, alright?”

“On it,” Anvil said with a grin. “But it’s pork. Aren’t you Jewish?”

It was a familiar jibe. “It’s vat-grown kosher pork,” she shot back. Then she grinned. “But my grandfather would be happy to hear you say that. He thinks it’s too far. Maybe I’m not the best, but …” She shrugged and picked up her rifle. “Maybe I’m not that traditional, but Ursa’s making it, and I’ve got to support my squadmates. Guess I’ll just have to take one for the team. Besides,” she said, sitting in one of the seats and unfolding a small table to strip her weapon down on. “I love bacon. Plus I see you eating beef all the time.”

“Touché, but I’m not from old India.”

“What goes around comes around, Ania.”

“Oh, breaking out the real names now, right? Oh, it’s getting serious.”

“You talk about taking Ursa away before she has time to cook that pulled pork she promised?” Adah asked, shaking a half-empty magazine in Anvil’s direction with an expression of mock seriousness on her face. “You’d better bet I’m rolling out the serious. We get done with the debrief, I’m gonna be ready for some pork.” She glanced over at Ursa. “You’re still good with that, right?”

“A deal’s a deal. It’s my turn. Besides,” Ursa said, folding her muscled arms across her chest as she dropped into another seat. Even sitting down she was still tall. “Pork’s already cooking. Can’t back out now.”

“Besides,” she continued, dropping her arms and then doing a stretch of her own. “We all need a good meal after an op like that.”

“And maybe a shower,” Owl added.

“No kidding. There’s probably slime on my armor from carrying him.”

The conversation dissolved into laughter and jibes, each of them waiting as the VTOL carried them back. Adah finished cleaning her rifle and had just checked her datapad for the latest news, when her name caught her attention.

“Sorry, what?” she asked, looking up. Ursa was looking at her.

“I asked if you had any idea what our next op would be, or when. Interesting news?”

She shook her head. “Nope. Pisces is still dark. Most of the news nets are speculating on that one. As for our next op … No idea.” She set the datapad down. “But the way the UN and megacorps are at each other’s throats these days, more work probably won’t be far off.”

“Right … so play while we have the time,” Anvil said, grinning. “So girls, any plans for your cut of the cash for this op?”

“Savings,” Ursa said. “How about you? Still looking at buying that old tank?”

“The American Abrams? I’m getting closer. Real rust bucket these days, but a collection has to start somewhere.”

“Where will you keep it?”

“We’ve got spare floors.”

“Commander Callisto know that’s what you’re planning?”

“Her? Probably. She knows everything. Probably has our next three ops already lined out.”

Adah rolled her eyes as she picked up the datapad again, staring down at the headlines. “PISCES STILL UNRESPONSIVE” dominated the feeds in one form or another, with everyone speculating what it meant, from a solar flare having killed off the entire colony to a revolution with quantum weapons—the latter even more unlikely in her opinion. Still, there was something—

“Adah?”

Owl’s voice pulled her from her thoughts, and she looked up. “Yes?”

“Is something wrong? You’ve been giving that pad a fairly intense stare.”

She shook her head. “Just the news. Pisces is still dark.”

“I’m calling it now,” Anvil said, her shoulders shrugging. “Equipment failure.”

“They have backups.”

“Those can fail too.”

“All at once?”

“Probably just the one station. In fact, I’ll bet on it. All it takes is a good rock.”

“Just the news,” Adah said, nodding at Owl, who went back to carefully checking and cleaning her equipment.

Still, as they neared home, she couldn’t help but glance down at the news feeds once again, a faint sense of unease in her gut crawling up like a slimy creature out of the depths.

It could just be a malfunction … she thought. But if it isn’t … regardless of what it is, something tells me we could find ourselves with a lot more work.

She wasn’t sure if she liked the thought or not.


 

And that’s a wrap for Episode 0. If you’ve got comments, leave them below! Thanks for reading!

Fireteam Freelance is copyright 2020 Max Florschutz, all rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Fireteam Freelance – Episode 0: 0

  1. (This is a bit late, but I’m going to take a stab at it.)

    I have to admit, the first, joking thing I thought when I realized the whole cast were mercenary women, was an entire gang of Annas running around causing havoc. To some extent, it is a little like that, I guess, but the characters aren’t much like her, apart from being mercenaries – which isn’t unexpected. I like how you let them still be women (and a little crazy, in Anvil’s case, at least) despite being mercenaries, without leaning too far to either the tough, manly lady, or the completely useless cry-baby side of things.

    Anywho, as for the actual chapter, there are a couple of things I noted, but pretty much everything else didn’t set off any bells for me. The first thing I have to note is that at the start, in Adah’s section, her and Anvil seem to drop commas before and after names or tags (such as “everyone,” or “people”), which caught my attention, though you seemed to drop that by the end.
    Another thing was the smoke. Although it’s clearly there, and it’s mentioned as being quite thick, sometimes (especially the part where Ursa was in it, just after that guy broke his wrist on her) it seemed like they were seeing right through it a second later. It was possibly just the wording, such as when she noted him crying, though not that she was hearing it, until later. It was just little places, really, as most of the rest of it felt like she really was in thick fog, but I felt it worth noting, just in case. Also in Owl’s pov, too, when she was looking over the scene.
    There was one little line, where someone was mentioned as being a they, and then a she, which felt a little odd.
    When they were going to the LZ, Owl’s pov suddenly seemed to get lost. It felt a little like it slipped into omniscient, there, possibly because Anvil was the first one mentioned in the particular paragraph I’m thinking of. Maybe it was just the way they approached and got in being described, but it feels a little like the camera shifts there.
    And for the last noted thing: I don’t know if that grenade was right behind Owl or not, but if it was, that might be bad for her health. It felt like it was right behind her. Maybe it’s a directional thingy or something – I don’t know anything about grenades except that they go boom – but I’m not sure if that’s exactly healthy.

    All in all, though, I liked it. It was a little hard to read all at once – being ten-thousand plus words or so – but the characters have my interest, and I’m looking forwards to getting around to reading further on them (I wish we got to see what happened at that bar. Now that, that would be a sight to see). I’m sorry if this is a little disjointed, I’m not exactly the best at writing reviews unless they’re little comments or notes.

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    • I have to admit, the first, joking thing I thought when I realized the whole cast were mercenary women, was an entire gang of Annas running around causing havoc. To some extent, it is a little like that, I guess, but the characters aren’t much like her, apart from being mercenaries – which isn’t unexpected.

      I’ll admit, this very thing happened was something I was worried about for a moment when drafting this all up … but then I recalled Meelo, Dawn, Sky, and all the other female protagonists I’ve written over the years, and charged ahead. Glad to hear I wasn’t wrong!

      Anywho, as for the actual chapter, there are a couple of things I noted, but pretty much everything else didn’t set off any bells for me. The first thing I have to note is that at the start, in Adah’s section, her and Anvil seem to drop commas before and after names or tags (such as “everyone,” or “people”), which caught my attention, though you seemed to drop that by the end.

      Yeah, as mentioned on the primary page this is all pre-Alpha, and stuff like that would (and will be) cleaned up in pre-Alpha, Alpha, and Beta passes before a final publication as a stand-alone title. Right now, though, it’s as it’s written! There’s definitely going to be some tweaks to clean stuff up then. Even so, sounds like that old comment I received about having some of the cleaner pre-Alpha drafts out there. There’s definitely room for improvement (sounds like the fog will get more presence, for example), but that’s for after the whole “season” is complete!

      Forward to Kamchatka!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The thing about the commas was mostly me wondering whether that was a typo or an interesting part of their speech pattern, since it was pretty consistent throughout that first section.

    But yes indeed, onwards to Kamchatka! I’ll hope to leave a comment there (hopefully a little more thought-out than this one was…) within the next couple of days.

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