Two of the other groups they had asked to join were apparently assigned to the same militia group, as they all moved out together. Their assigned position was only a block from the mall, in a park area that was big enough for multiple enemy dropships to land. Cian spotted several large gun emplacements opening up on the rooftops of the nearby buildings. When they arrived they gathered into four large groups around the park, ready to converge on any ship trying to land. Most of the militia troops carried rifles, but a few in each group carried huge box launchers of some kind.
Black specks and movement was the only thing they could see of the battle going on in orbit. Soon, hundreds of tiny specks could be seen moving toward the city.
“Enemy ships on approach! Raise shields and prepare for bombardment!” called the commander of the militia group they were with. He was an average looking fellow in a full suit of standard armor that didn’t look near as impressive as the Royal Marines’ gear. Flickers of light signaled the raising of energy barriers across the soldiers. Booker and Leisal shimmered similarly as their shields were powered up. Every building in sight shimmered with the raising of their own energy barriers and structural fields. A dome shield of some kind was raised over each of the four militia groups, including the one their group was in. The sergeant in charge of their group held their generator – a backpack sized device that glowed with energy. It emitted an annoying droning and an uncomfortable tingling energy filled the dome. A few players stepped out of the domes, trusting in their own defenses.
A tense ninety seconds passed before all hell broke loose. The sound of hundreds of engines and a loud buzzing filled the air. Ground to air missile batteries began firing off salvos. Seconds later, huge, 10’ long spines began striking all around them. One poor player who wasn’t under the domes was speared straight through the chest by one, his body hanging limply. Several hit the shield above Cian, shattering into shards and flying everywhere. Thousands hit the buildings across the city and similarly shattered into shrapnel. The dome shield flickered for a moment and a particularly large chunk of shrapnel hit Jockee, knocking him flat but not piercing his armor.
Jockee and Booker were saying something, but Cian could hear nothing over the noise. The ground based flak artillery began to open fire, filling the air with huge explosions.
The Pa’Ran ships were closer now – hundreds of them screaming toward the city at full blast, their hulls smoking and sloughing off material. The ships looked organic, covered in layers of chitin and oozing yellowish goo where they were hit by the artillery fire. None of the missiles fired made it to them – shot out of the air by clouds of anti-missile fire. Seconds later, the anti-missile chaff began raining down. Millions of tiny spines, only an inch long, pelted the ground all around them. A few ships exploded in the sky, pelting the city with burning debris.
Hundreds remained, rapidly approaching the city. Huge thrusters fired, emitting long blue trails and slowing their approach. Maneuvering thrusters spun the ships, revealing huge spinal mounted barrels on their noses. They began firing gargantuan, neon green masses. One of the blobs hit the gun emplacement on the rooftop next to the park, exploding in a shower of steaming green liquid. The structural field protecting the emplacement flickered and failed. The substance ate through the gun emplacement in seconds and melted down into the building’s structure. A tiny splash hit one of the players in the square. He screamed as his lower leg was consumed in seconds, the acid sizzling on the ground.
Another shell hit the dome above Cian, coating the shield in bubbling goo. It flickered and a few drips of acid got through. The militia sergeant screamed “HOLD!” as several people darted to leave the shield. BarbieGrl ignored him and dove out of the shield in a panic, getting a thin coat of the acid in the process. Her scream stopped the others in their tracks. The sergeant adjusted the shield device and it rippled, quickly pushing the acid out from the center and shedding it onto the ground. When the dome cleared, a few scraps of dissolving armor was all that remained of BarbieGrl and the few people who had still been standing outside the dome when the shell hit.
“Damnit! Don’t jump through the acid, stupid!” screamed Booker at the puddle.
Leisal giggled and said something, lost to the noise. Cian and Jolan shared a bewildered look, that was brutal.
The Pa’Ran ships were much closer now. Only two were still in sight, quickly descending onto opposite ends of the small park. None of the artillery emplacements on nearby buildings remained. The massive spikes had stopped firing, but a steady stream of the smaller projectiles began raining down on the troops as the ships closed in.
“Ready launchers! Groups Alpha Bravo, target North! Charlie Delta, target South!” shouted the militia commander. Dozens of bulky launchers were pulled from the backs of those who had them. They braced them against the ground and aimed them at the ship.
The ships were nearly upon them. A strange humming filled the air, similar to the droning of the shield generators but lower. Now that they were closer, Cian could see that they were a combination of living tissue and technology. They were at least 500 feet long, wider than tall, with three barely separate segments. They looked like giant beetles of some kind, complete with glowing spots that resembled eyes and mandibles that now covered the ‘mouth’ that had fired the acid bombs. The dark green, almost black, hulls were composed of layered chitin with fleshy bits in between that oozed a pale yellowish pus-like substance where it was exposed. There were holes evenly spaced all along the sides. Some were maneuvering thrusters guiding the ship’s descent, others were spewing forth spines to pelt the troops on the ground. The only visibly metallic parts of the ships were the three huge, round engines protruding from the back. They were made of some shiny black alloy that blended with the nearly black shell of the rest of the ship. Landing gear that resembled segmented legs unfolded as the ships came down.
“Hold!” the commander said. The troops waited nervously as the bubble shields flickered under the onslaught, dozens of the small spines getting through and hitting the soldiers within. Judging by the smoke coming out of the generators, they wouldn’t last much longer. The man in front of Cian flinched, blood seeping from a tiny hole in his shoulder armor. Everyone not under a shield bubble was already dead.
A rocket fired from Charlie group. “HOLD!” the commander yelled again, too late to stop it. It barely made it out of the bubble before being hit by enemy fire and exploding. The fiery blast made the shield flash and go out, the soldiers who had been under it scattering and running for cover.
Just before the ships slammed into the ground, thrusters along the bottom ignited to slow their descent just enough to make a hard landing. As the thrusters ignited, the commander yelled “Fire!” and like clockwork the soldiers fired as one, dozens of rockets roaring out of launchers.
The spines had momentarily stopped firing as the thrusters ignited. With nothing to stop them, the rockets all streaked directly at the landing ships. At least twenty explosions rocked the northern ship, destroying most of the thrusters and blasting away huge chunks of the chitin shell as it twisted and slammed into the ground hard on its side. The chitin warped and splintered as the ship flipped on its back, the bottom half splitting off and sliding across the top and through a stand of trees – smearing whatever was left inside across a hundred foot area. The other ship took half as many hits due to the second group aiming for it scattering. With most of its thrusters intact, it lurched to the side a bit and came down hard enough to crush all the landing gear on the left side – but made it to the ground relatively intact. The deep humming that was coming from the ships had died out at some point, leaving behind an eerie quiet once the debris settled.
“All teams target South ship! Beachhead protocol, prepare to repel spears! Fire front, no crossfire!” the commander yelled through his comm, broadcast to everyone in the area. The troops raced out of the failing shield bubbles and moved into a loose circle around the smoking ship, giving it a wide berth and positioning the troops with melee weapons in front.
Leisal and Jolan moved to the front, while the rest of their group – Cian included – moved in behind them. Most of the other surviving players did the same around the circle, but a few stood back further and watched. Cian’s group were facing the rear left side of the ship where several rockets had impacted, the most damaged section.
“Won’t they just shoot us with the turrets?” asked a player off to Cian’s left.
“No. The ship is dead, their guns are part of the ship. Focus, they could come from anywhere along the ship.” answered one of the NPC soldiers.
Several tense minutes passed. Another player broke the silence, “So, are they all dead or what?”
A few players stood up from their spots, remarking on how easy this was. Most of the other players were already looking elsewhere.
“Hold positions! Face the ship!” the commander yelled. One of the players made a rude gesture at him, but he ignored it. “Prepare to fire!”
Suddenly holes opened up across the front left section of the ship. Dozens of black, insectoid shapes blurred out of the ship – flying through the air directly toward the commander’s group as if shot from a cannon. The line opened fire, tearing through them, but they closed on the firing line so fast. As if sensing their inattention, a dozen Pa’Ran had hit the group of players near the commander. Without their suppressing fire, the Pa’Ran quickly closed and began ripping them apart with alarming ease. Their spears blurred and sliced through armor like it wasn’t even there, cutting a hole in the firing line.
A group of NPC soldiers turned and cleared them out, but the damage had been done. All of the players and several of the NPC soldiers next to them had died, leaving a gap in the firing line directly in front of where they had chosen to exit the ship. Slower Pa’Ran swarmed from the hole in the ship, rushing toward the commander’s position. The reinforcements looked bulkier and weren’t near as fast as the initial group, but their armored forms took concentrated fire to bring down.
Cian’s group was off to the side of the fighting. He fired only at the ones coming out of the hole, not wanting to risk hitting friendlies. Some of the others didn’t care. A burst of bullet fire raked across the group, fired from some idiot on their opposite side. Cian ducked as a bullet took a piece out of his ear. Leisal and Jolan took several hits to their armor and Booker’s shield blocked a shot meant for his head. A soldier off to the right collapsed, bleeding from a chest wound.
Half of the players from all around the circle began to break formation, moving toward the fighting.
“Hold! Fire center, keep formation!” the commander broadcast, but his position was quickly being overwhelmed by the heavy Pa’Ran.
A few of them listened, going back to their spots. Most of them ignored the order, rushing toward the fighting and leaving a large gap on the rear side of the ship. One group of players with jetpacks and heavy armor rocketed over the ship, landing right in the midst of the Pa’Ran and hacking at them with various melee weapons.
Leisal looked back at Booker. “What do we do, boss?”
Booker paused for a moment, looking around.
“I get the feeling we should listen.” said Cian.
“Yeah. Hold here. Take what shots you can, but keep an eye on the ship. Those fast bugs are nasty if you don’t see them coming.” said Booker.
More holes opened up in the right rear section of the ship, opposite of the initial breach point. More of the faster Pa’Ran leapt from the ship and caught several groups unaware. The commander was silent, and conflicting orders were being shouted by various players. The orderly firing line devolved into a chaos of friendly fire and broken formations.
After a few moments of chaos, things seemed to settle down a little. The group at the front of the ship was holding them back. One group who had been standing off to the side moved in, reinforcing the rear of the ship and pushing the Pa’Ran back.
Then the whole ship seemed to come open, and all hell broke loose. Dozens of the faster Pa’Ran leapt out from all sides, scything through those who were unprepared. Pockets of groups still in formation held back the Pa’Ran at their position, but half the troops on the field were suddenly surrounded and being cut apart.
The group with Cian opened fire as soon as the Pa’Ran approached. Cian, Jockee, and HellzRaiser took down several with their rifles. Cian stopped to reload every time his rifle was empty and quickly burned through most of his bullets. Booker’s energy cannon blasted one apart right before it collided with Jolan. BulletSponge took down another with his pistols. Leisal cleaved one in half with her axe, a thin shimmer of energy around the blade now that it was active. The chaos returned as Pa’Ran swarmed all around them, leaping from group to group and cutting apart anyone who turned their back on them.
“Eyes open, fire on my target. Go get ‘em if you wanna, Leisal. Watch our back, Jolan.” commanded Booker.
Leisal rocketed off to the side, tearing through a Pa’Ran that was busy flanking a group of soldiers. She quickly jumped again with her jetpack, slamming into another Pa’Ran and taking off its head. They didn’t seem to have a counter for their own tactic, and she quickly took down several more while Booker called out targets.
“Behind!” said Jolan, parrying a hit from a Pa’Ran that had appeared out of nowhere. He skillfully deflected the spear to the side enough to miss them and thrust his sword out. His riposte took it right through the head.
Cian and Booker spun, firing on the other two Pa’Ran that had tried to flank them. Booker’s energy cannon splattered one, while Cian’s rifle hit the other center mass and dropped it in one. Jolan’s had already fell from his riposte. They were fast, but not very durable.
“What’s that?” asked BulletSponge, pointing at a shimmering silver in the air. It seemed to be projecting from inside the ship, with tendrils flowing rapidly in all directions.
“Don’t know. Step closer.” said Booker, subvocalizing some command that made his shield expand to cover the group. “Watch out, Liesel! Silver shit! Some new attack I think!” he said through his group comm.
As if spurred by his warning, a tendril leapt toward them and went right through his energy shield. It split and hit all of them at once. Everyone winced and put their hands to their heads.
Cian dropped his rifle and buckled to his knees. It was like someone drove a spike of pure pain into his brain. His arms moved of their own volition away from his head and back toward his gun. He tried to move, but it felt like he was pushing against a heavy weight. He grabbed his rifle and started to shift his aim toward BulletSponge. Suddenly he was aware of a malign presence in his mind, controlling his movements.
The commander’s voice came over the comm, “Puppetmaster Protocol! Fight it, people!”
As one, all of the NPC troops moved to hit buttons on their own and allies armor. Others pulled auto-injecting syringes and stabbed themselves or their downed comrades in the necks.
Cian pushed back against the presence in his mind, wrenching back control of his arms. His vision went white and pain far beyond what he had felt fighting the Kel rats nearly made him black out, but he kept pushing back and in an instant the pain receded and his vision cleared.
Groups all over the field were kneeling or on the ground, holding their heads. Others were just getting up.
Suddenly HellzRaiser screamed. A sword was sticking through her chest, right where her heart would be. She dropped as Jolan pulled the sword back out.
Stepping and swinging again in one smooth motion, Jolan’s blade neatly decapitated BulletSponge, who had still been kneeling with his head down. His head thumped to the ground.
Jockee fired full-auto on Jolan point blank, but his armor held.
Jolan batted away the gun and thrust at Jockee, barely missing as Jockee fell backwards. He pushed forward at Jockee, preparing to run him through with the blade.
“Jolan! Stop!” yelled Cian, aiming his gun at his friend.
Suddenly a blast of energy took Jolan in the side, sending him to the ground with a smoking hole in his armor. Booker cursed and shot him again in the same spot, vaporizing most of his chest and leaving an empty shell of armor.
“Damnit! What the hell was that? Leisal! Report!” said Booker.
Jockee stood up, “Whew, thanks boss. I thought he was gonna…”
Suddenly an axe tore through the side of Jockee’s head, killing him instantly. Leisal kicked his body off her axe and turned toward Cian.
“Shit!” yelled Cian, firing at Leisal, but the bullets just bounced off her energy shield.
“Stop! Damnit!” yelled Booker.
Leisal swung at Cian, barely missing as he jumped out of the way. She engaged her jetpack and flew at Cian, barely missing again as he desperately dove onto the ground, dropping his rifle.
Booker fired his energy cannon, hitting Leisal in the back.
Her energy shield flickered, and she turned toward Booker. Her jetpack ignited again and she zoomed toward Booker, her axe raised for a killing blow.
Booker fired again, then raised his weapon to block.
Leisal’s shield failed after the second hit, then her axe cut into the gun.
Energy sparked as the energized axe cut into the energy cannon. A bright flash blinded Cian as both weapons suddenly exploded, sending Leisal and Booker flying in opposite directions.
Cian reflexively shielded his face with his hands as the explosion went off. He rubbed his eyes, seeing spots. His whole body was burned, but not badly – his hands had saved his face.
Leisal was worse off – her armor had mostly protected her, but her face was exposed and bloody. One of her arms was hanging limply and one leg was bent the wrong way. Still she got up and ignited her jetpack, pulling a knife as she flew toward Cian.
Cian drew his pistol and fired six shots at her exposed head as she flew toward him.
At least one of the bullets struck home and Leisal’s bloodied corpse flew past him and into the distance, the jetpack on autopilot without mental control.
The commander’s voice came over the comm. “I repeat, immediate air strike needed. Pa’Ran Boundless. Taking heavy casualties.”
Cian finally took stock of the battlefield. It was chaos. Most of the players had died. Almost all of the melee oriented players had turned on the others, along with a few of the other classes.
Pa’Ran shock troops were cutting the survivors apart. More of them formed a ring around a tall Pa’Ran with a silver hand. The same shimmering effect seemed to permeate the area around it.
Boundless? That must be what that one was called. Cian looked at it and his interface agreed, even offering him a very lucrative quest. Even a small participation percentage would be worth a lot!
Pa’Ran Boundless – Elite leader class of the Pa’Ran hives. Capabilities include kinetic energy manipulation, gravity control, rapid repair of organic ships, and limited mind control. Full capabilities unknown. Extreme threat level.
Quest Alert! – Eliminate Pa’Ran Boundless threatening Valcim. Reward: 1,000,000 credits. +50000 experience.
A group of NPC soldiers managed to break through the Pa’Ran troops and began firing at the tall Pa’Ran.
The Pa’Ran Boundless raised the silver hand and suddenly the entire squad flew into the air a dozen feet. Just as suddenly, they all came down hard with a sickening crunch. None of them got back up.
A player in the distance fired some kind of box launcher at the Pa’Ran. Four missiles launched out, headed straight for the Boundless.
The Boundless raised his hand again and a silver tendril seemed to whip out, lashing the distant player in the head. The player screamed and dropped, clawing at his face. With a wave of his hand, the tall Pa’Ran sent the missiles arcing overhead to land on top of a group of militia behind them, blasting them apart.
Cian snapped out of his inaction and holstered his pistol, diving for his rifle. He brought it up just in time to catch a Pa’Ran soldier about to stab him. His rounds tore through the Pa’Ran and the two others who had started approaching him. His gun clicked empty and he reached for his ammo – the box was empty. He grabbed his spare mag that he had been saving, quickly reloading his gun. Cian lay prone on the ground, surrounded by bodies. The other Pa’Ran didn’t seem to notice him in the chaos of the battle, and he had a clear shot at the Boundless. Cian seemed to be the only one with a clear shot.
Firing in three round bursts and aiming carefully, Cian started firing directly into the Boundless. The first dozen or so shots hit a force shield, but at least a few made it through before the other Pa’Ran stepped in the way and took the rest of the hits.
The Pa’Ran Boundless shrieked and fell to a kneeling position, holding its silver hand over the bleeding holes in its side.
A group of Pa’Ran shock troops rushed at Cian, spears raised and shrieking an awful warcry.
Cian reached for his other mag and remembered it was empty. He had fired his last rifle round. He drew his pistol again fired three shots at the lead Pa’Ran soldier. Two of the shots bounced off, leaving behind nothing but small cracks in their shell. The third shot penetrated, but didn’t stop the creature’s charge.
“Screw this!” yelled Cian as he turned to flee, jumping over bodies and ducking under debris as he ran.
Just then a shuttle of some type zoomed overhead, barely missing the buildings. As it passed, several clusters of objects fell. Bombs!
The shuttle carpet bombed the whole area, friend and foe alike.
Purely by luck, Cian had run in the right direction and was out of the worst of it, but one of the smaller bombs bounced off a piece of debris and hit only a few feet from him. He barely had a moment to register what was happening before pain tore through him and he blacked out.