X-Com meets Final Fantasy VII meets Left 4 Dead
- Hero Time
The streets of Rocham burned below our Cloudhopper, visible out of the open side of the fast-moving quadcopter, and I couldn’t stop staring at the flames. From up here, the fires below were horrifyingly beautiful, and it was easy to forgot those were homes down there, homes that once held people. This was my first time flying in anything, and I couldn’t decide if being airborne was awesome or terrifying.
Thinking about it also distracted me from the monsters who’d soon be trying to rip my head off.
“Five minutes to target zone,” the Cloudhopper’s pilot informed us over the intercom embedded in its troop area. “Ef-Oh-Gee deployed, Mutes are contained. Special Tactics is falling back.”
Ef-Oh-Gee, or FoG, was short for the Fire of God, a line of specially-formulated napalm mixed with stabilizing chemicals. FoG produced a literal wall of flames when dropped, and burned for hours after it landed, without spreading too far off its initial line. Mutes feared it.
I sank my hands into my short brown hair, scratching and massaging my scalp. Five minutes until people that weren’t people wanted to rip my arms off and eat my flesh. Five minutes until I killed actual people, though I reminded myself Mutes weren’t human.
“Hey, Grant?” a woman asked.
I dropped my hands as my gaze darted to the speaker. From the jumpseat just beside me, wearing her Hallowed armor, Skye Taylor smiled. The Cloudhopper’s harsh interior lights glinted off her tan skin and short, pink hair. She had a button nose, pink lips, and blue eyes.
Taylor was three years older than me, nineteen, and she’d already been on eight missions like this one, with twenty-seven Mute kills to her name. Her kind smile reassured me.
“I know it’s a bit unnerving to take on Mutes for the first time, Grant,” Taylor said. “You’ll be fine. You’ve trained for this, and we’ll be with you every step of the way.”
Taylor had used my first name, again. We didn’t use first names. Captain Sato certainly didn’t use first names, and hearing my name from this woman’s lips felt like breaking the rules.
I’d never minded breaking the rules, but not in battle. That felt dangerous.
Someone thumped my other arm, through my armored suit, and I damn near jumped out of my skin. From my other side, a man laughed. Could he just not?
“Don’t let her baby you, Riven,” Tony Frost said, grinning as I stared at him. “These Mutes aren’t much, at least with Captain Sato leading us. Just think about how fun it’s going to be to finally use that cannon of yours on something that’s not in VR.”
Frost was two years older than me, eighteen, with a clump of spiky black hair only marginally darker than his skin. Intricate tattoos, like complex circuit boards, stretched along the shaved sides of his head. And unlike me, he had perfect white teeth.
Frost wore the same bulky, silver armor we all did, laced with the heaviest and most flexible material Cloud Nine could produce. It was far too heavy for a normal human to walk around in, but we were Hallowed. We had strength normal humans couldn’t match.
“I’m fine,” I lied, praying they couldn’t hear my churning stomach. “Just prepping.”
Thick boots padded on the deck as our commander joined us in the troop area. I instinctively sat straighter, and Frost did too. Captain Sato clutched a hanging safety grip once she entered, though she was agile enough she didn’t need it. She was just setting an example for the new recruit.
Our commander now wore her Hallowed armor as well. She’d tied her stark white hair behind her head in a ponytail. Her pale skin, narrow nose, and glowing green eyes made her as striking as ever, beautiful and deadly.
Objectively, I knew Captain Sato was scarcely twenty, but there was something ageless about her. Something beautiful. Something utterly terrifying.
“You’re going to do great today,” Taylor reminded me from her seat. “Captain Sato has killed over a hundred of these things, and this one is just a Class Two. She’s killed five of those.”
“Six,” Sato corrected. “I ended another last night.”
“See?” Taylor said proudly. “We’re in good hands. Just follow us close, watch our backs, and don’t fire that cannon in our direction.” She gave me a gentle shove. “I’ve got a good track record with these Mutes, so I’d prefer not to be accidentally incinerated.”
“Two minutes to target zone,” our pilot said over the intercom. “DPD and Special Tactics are pulling back. They’ve dispatched two Mutes, both C4s, but have taken multiple casualties. We have more C4s and at least one C3 in the building, along with the confirmed C2.”
Those designations summoned the constant training I’d had drilled into me every day for the past two weeks. Class Four Mutes were the weakest, people with one extra mutated arm. They were only five times as strong as the average human, but fast as sprinters.
It took a whole lot of bullets to bring down a Class Four, which why Captain Sato preferred to slice them apart. If the Mute reached you before dropped it, of course, it’d rip your arms off.
Class Threes were deadlier. They weren’t as fast as Class Fours and didn’t have an extra arm, but they were twice as tall, often standing ten feet or more. Bullets didn’t do a damned thing to them, thanks to their aggressive regenerative capabilities, and even if they didn’t toss a car at you or stomp you flat, their jaws could unhinge wide enough to bite your head off with their bony teeth.
The best way to deal with a Class Three, I remembered, was Dismay, my immensely powerful hand cannon. I could incinerate a Class Three entirely with an Inferno round, or freeze it and shatter it with a Zero round. Voltage actually didn’t do much to Class Threes, because they fed off electricity. Voltage would only piss it off.
As for the Class Two in that building, it was going to be the most challenging. Class Twos were as tall as Class Threes, had two extra arms, could sprint and climb as fast as Class Fours, and had the ability to spit powerful acid half a block. That acid would melt standard body armor in seconds, and reduce a human to goop in a few more.
That acid wouldn’t kill us, not immediately, but it’d max out our healing factor, as the acid burned our flesh away and our mutated cells valiantly struggled to create new flesh. Being constantly dissolved would take us completely out of the fight, even if it didn’t kill us. It didn’t sound fun.
I’d much prefer a clean death, like a decapitation, which was about the only other way a Hallowed like me could die. As for Class One Mutes, well … no one knew if those existed, yet. I just knew that Mutes got more powerful the lower you went—Four, Three, Two—and neither Sergeant Ortiz nor our training videos had ever mentioned a Class One Mute. So maybe Class Ones didn’t exist.
Or maybe they did, and Cloud Nine knew we’d never take a mission if we knew what one was.
“We’re here,” our pilot said. “Dropping you on the roof.”
Taylor thumped my shoulder again. “Helmets on.”
She pulled her dark combat helmet off the rack above. Despite the large, transparent bubble on front, the whole helmet was bullet-resistant. It was also fireproof, like our armor, which meant we could even run through lines of burning FoG. Mutes couldn’t follow us through those.
Taylor popped on her helmet with a distinctive snap-hiss. Frost grabbed his helmet as well, which was my cue to do the same. I snatched the last helmet.
Even after the helmet clicked over me, I retained perfect vision on all sides. Other than a slight distortion from the bulletproof bubble on the front, it felt like I wasn’t wearing a helmet at all. The air gained a rubbery smell once I sealed it tight.
Our Cloudhopper pulled in over the debris-strewn rooftop of a five-story building in Rocham, where the latest Mute rampage had broken out. Usually, Mutes popped up alone and ate a person or two, at which point Special Tactics corralled them and called us. I’d never heard of Mutes congregating.
Cloudhoppers had dropped FoG lines all around the building and beyond. The sight of those searing lines of fence-tall flame made me glad I wore sealed armor. Otherwise, the heat, even all the way up here, might have suffocated me.
Captain Sato strode past us, green eyes glowing behind her transparent helmet bubble. “Jump,” she said, before dropping out of the Cloudhopper. Frost jumped after her.
Taylor thumped my shoulder and smiled through her bubble helmet. “Hero time,” she said. Her voice came through my ear-comm, clear as crystal. She, too, dropped out of the Cloudhopper.
Time to go kill monsters. Time to not die. I jumped.
I dropped at least five meters to the roof of the battered apartment building. My panacea-enhanced muscles absorbed the hard landing like all the engineers back at Cloud Nine had promised me they would. I rolled with the impact and came up with Dismay drawn from his holster, pointed at the single closed steel door in a small hut, leading down in the building.
The Cloudhopper’s quad engines roared as the pilot pulled off, getting well clear. Class Two Mutes could also spit their acid up, and I doubted our pilot was in the mood to get his fancy flying machine dissolved. That would also leave us without a ride home, and I didn’t fancy the idea of fighting my way through twenty blocks of FoG-covered streets, facing Mute attacks from every corner.
We’d already lost half of Rocham, and if we failed this mission, we might lose it all.
Captain Sato pulled Despair, her absurdly long sword, from the sheath on her back. She advanced on the door. Frost pulled his sword as well, a massive two-handed blade named Massacre, but Taylor left her twin pistols, Rhyme and Ruin, tucked in the holsters on each side of her waist. Those weapons fired concentrated blasts of laser energy that burned so hot, even Mutes couldn’t regenerate.
Yet Taylor wasn’t just here to shoot things. She was also our medic, with vials of panacea-rich stimpacks tucked in her vest and, when those failed, additional shots of quick seal that would reattach severed limbs with plastic and pain. Proximity allowed our mutated bodies to reattach any limbs the Mutes ripped off of us, if we retrieved them.
Frost and Taylor fell in on either side of Captain Sato, right and left, and I slipped into the space directly behind Sato. We advanced in a diamond, as a team. I simply needed to trust my instincts to do what I’d been trained to do, this past week, in VR.
And also, not die.
Yet flashes of videos came back to me as we approached the door. I’d seen panacea mutations happen in real time, watched innocent people shriek and thrash as new limbs tore out of their flesh. I’d seen shaky battle footage from Mute attacks, watched as soldiers shot and screamed and died, ripped apart by multi-limbed monstrosities that ate bullets and spit blood.
I focused on Captain Sato, because she, I knew, could kill anything. She’d sliced apart hundreds of these things, and she’d even killed six Class Twos. Captain Sato would keep us all safe.
Her blade, Despair, was indestructible, laced with projectors that instantly disassembled organic and inorganic matter on a molecular level. She could even slice through concrete. It also, of course, required a godly amount of power, which is why no one else used a blade like it. Yet Captain Sato generated her own power—the panacea-induced mutation that made her Hallowed—just like me.
“Taylor,” Sato said. “Get the door.” She glanced at me. “Riven, crowd control.”
Sato could easily open that door, but wouldn’t. Mutes had very good hearing, and the sound of a door being hacked in half could draw them right to us. For the moment, stealth was our goal, and being stealthy required quietly opening doors. Not destroying them.
Captain Sato moved to the right side of the door, Despair raised and glistening, as Frost mirrored her on the other side of the door. His big two-hander, Massacre, could easily slice through a car. They could take down a few Class Fours, if they emerged, but a horde would overrun us.
That was what Dismay and I were here for. One of Dismay’s Inferno rounds would incinerate a dozen Mutes in a single shot. I set my feet evenly and pointed Dismay at the closed door.
Taylor, pistols holstered, walked up to the steel door and pointed her clenched fingers. A low whir came as the cybernetic enhancers in her gloves hardened. Taylor drove her extended fingers into either side of the door, lock and hinge. Metal shrieked as her gloves pushed.
Taylor took a firm grip, grunted, and then ripped the steel door clean off its hinges, leaving concrete dust spurting. My finger danced from Dismay’s trigger guard to his trigger. Taylor tossed the door aside and stepped away to reveal a darkened set of stairs.
No Mutes came shrieking out at us. No acid vomit burst from the dark. Concrete dust swirled in the late afternoon light, but the stairs remained silent. My finger slipped back to Dismay’s trigger guard.
“Clear,” Sato announced, as if we couldn’t all see that. “I’ll take point.”
Captain Sato moved into the stairwell without saying anything else, but that made sense. She was the most highly skilled and trained of all of us. On the flight over, Frost had told me on his last mission, with Sato, he didn’t even kill any Mutes. Sato sliced them apart before he got a chance.
Frost had seemed pissed about it, on the flight over, but I didn’t seem why. We were a team, and we weren’t out to notch our lockers. We were here to take back Rocham … or at least kill the bastards who wrecked it.
“Lights,” Sato ordered, once we were all inside.
I tapped the side of my helmet. A light above my bubble helmet split the darkness with brilliant, panacea-powered illumination. A tiny cel sat inside my lamp, one which would burn for decades. Panacea had productive uses, when it wasn’t mutating people.
Taylor and Frost flipped on their lights as well, but Captain Sato didn’t light hers, because she didn’t wear one. I’d heard rumors Sato could see perfectly in the dark, using pupillary implants that adjusted to see perfectly in bright light and pitch black. The rumors seemed plausible.
Stairs descended several flights, far past where I could see. There was blood on them, and torn paper, and a woman’s upper body at the bottom of the steps. My gorge rose. I spotted the woman’s lower half a moment later, stocking-clad legs hanging over the stair rails a flight down.
The woman wasn’t suffering anymore. I hoped she hadn’t suffered before some Mute ripped her in half as she fled to the roof, but I couldn’t know. I just had to hope the majority of the civilians escaped before the Mutes arrived.
Sato descended the stairs and stepped right over the woman’s bloodied torso. “This is not a rescue mission. Civilian rescue is the responsibility of DPD and Special Tactics, and they have verified all surviving civilians are clear. Our mission is to search and destroy.”
“Yes ma’am!” Taylor and Frost said, in unison.
“Yes ma’am,” I whispered, as I followed Sato and Frost down the stairs. I passed the woman’s bloodied torso next, trying not to look too closely at her wide, terrified eyes. Thank God I couldn’t smell her. If I could smell her, I’d probably throw up.
From behind and above me, Taylor spoke over comms. “We’ll see much worse on the lower floors,” she said quietly. “Remember your training, Grant. We’re taking this building back, and we’ll ensure the monsters that did this don’t leave here alive.”
I nodded without looking back. I kept my eyes on the stairs, on Tony Frost and Captain Sato. I gripped Dismay and reminded myself I couldn’t shoot until my squadmates were clear.
We passed a few more bodies on the next few flights, but they weren’t as recognizable as the woman at the top. According to our intel, the Mutes had all congregated on the first floor, then fallen back inside the building after Special Tactics flooded the streets with the Fire of God.
The Mutes were trapped inside this building, waiting for the fires to go out, which left us free to kill them. With luck, we’d open the door on the first floor and I’d fire a single Inferno round, clearing the whole building. Just like I’d been trained to do.
We reached the first floor without being attacked, and as before, Captain Sato and Frost took up positions on the left and right. I braced myself against the stairwell and pointed Dismay as Taylor slipped in between me and the door, much closer this time. This stairwell was cramped.
“Ready?” Taylor asked.
She jammed her gloved fingers into the door as she had earlier, hinges and lock, and pulled.
Some thing knocked the door off its hinges so violently it flew into Taylor, which sent her flying into me. I slammed into the concrete as Taylor crushed me, and the door crushed both of us. My ears rang and my body ached, even inside my armor, but I remained conscious. A normal man wouldn’t have.
“Free them!” Sato shouted, before a Mute shrieked in pain.
Taylor was pressed so close to me I couldn’t see much more than a cracked helmet bubble and pink hair, but the chill up my spine assured me my crushed ribs were valiantly regenerating. Our ability to regenerate was why Cloud Nine chose us to kill these things. We were powerful, but not cannibalistic or insane.
And I’d be damned before I’d willingly call myself a Mute.
Someone ripped the door off us. Light flooded the stairwell. Frost lifted Taylor off me and set her aside, then stepped in front of us. He raised Massacre to defend us from anything that attacked.
Beyond Frost, through the open door, I saw flashes of movement and flashes of sword. Mute shrieks, muffled, echoed beyond the transparent portion of my helmet. Captain Sato was in the room beyond the stairwell, doing what she did best, alone.
“Check on Skye,” Frost said. He launched himself through the door.
Beside me, Taylor coughed and groaned. “That hurt. Stupid door.” She tapped her helmet, which had a spider-webbed crater radiating from its center, and laughed. “Least I still have a head.”
I pushed up, my whole body crackling with pain. That steel door had hit us like an elevated train, and Taylor had taken most of the impact. Then I’d been impacted by her. She had to be in worse shape than I was, so I went to her.
Taylor waved me off and pointed at the doorway. “Cover them. I can’t see a damn thing.”
I raised Dismay, surveying the building beyond the doorframe, but all movement had ceased. I saw no Mutes, no Sato, and no Frost.
“Clear!” Captain Sato shouted from inside the room.
“Clear!” Frost shouted from somewhere else. “Get in here, you two.”
Taylor thumped my back. “See? We’re fine.”
I frowned and nodded, but I didn’t feel fine. All I’d done today was almost throw up at the sight of a body and get crushed by a flying door. Despite my bravado from earlier tonight, I hadn’t contributed much at all to this mission.
I limped through the doorway to find blood and body parts everywhere, and again, my traitorous gorge threatened to spew lunch everywhere. Even without the smell, which I was certain must be horrific, the sight was enough to fill my nostrils in.
Limbs and other human body parts were scattered across a wreckage of broken desk, shattered chairs, and a snowfall of broken glass. Blood and viscera rose from the glittering glass like grotesque flowers. More hung like crimson ivy from the walls, much of it still dripping.
The human wreckage threatened to drop me to my knees, yet none of the others seemed affected by it. That wasn’t fair, for them to be unaffected. I’d grown up tougher than this.
Sato spoke. “That’s all the C4s down and, I think, the C3.” She grimaced behind her helmet bubble. “I didn’t see the C2. Could Special Tactics have been wrong about that?”
It was plausible. Special Tactics were all human badasses, military commandos trained to deal with even Mutes, but even badasses got jumpy and confused when they were surrounded by ravenous multi-limbed monstrosities trying to tear their heads off.
It was possible Special Tactics had reported a Class Two in panic, but we couldn’t trust that. We had to clear the rest of the building, and if the Mutes weren’t above us…
“Does this place have a basement?” I asked.
“Let me check,” Taylor said, followed by, “Dammit, I still can’t see.”
A snap-hiss sounded as Taylor grabbed her spider-webbed helmet. She pulled it off. Her eyes widened as she gagged, visibly, from the smell. Frost gripped her shoulder before I could.
“You okay?” Frost asked.
Taylor nodded. Eyes watering, she tapped her wrist. A holographic representation of the building displayed.
She spun the projection two fingers, then pointed at the large area beneath us. “Basement.” She grinned despite the carnage, pink lips wet in the dim light.
“I’ll clear it,” Sato said. “You three secure the first floor.”
Frost grabbed her arm as she stepped away. “Wait!”
Sato frowned at him, and Frost relinquished her arm like he’d been burned. Yet he didn’t step back or look away.
“Let me go with you,” Frost said. “You might need a massacre down there.”
“I’ve got it,” Sato said, with steel in her voice. “Stay with the new kid until he gets his combat legs, and make sure nothing bites our medic’s head off.”
“Captain—“ Frost protested
“That’s an order,” Sato said, before fixing her green eyes on me. “Riven, if anything comes up those basement stairs that isn’t me, incinerate it.”
I grimaced and nodded, feeling rather useless at the moment. “Yes, Captain.”
Captain Sato stalked away, toward the basement stairs, a separate set of stairs than the one we’d descended from the roof. One swipe of Despair halved the door. She wrenched it free with one hand, tossed it aside, and descended into darkness, Despair gleaming.
Frost shook his head. “Dammit. I should be going with her.”
Taylor fingered her jaw with one hand. “Let the captain handle the C2.” She pressed two fingers to the bridge of her nose. “Man, this still hurts. Getting crushed by a flying door is the worst.”
Frost glanced at her, brow furrowed noticeably. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Taylor blushed as she smiled at him. “I’m fine, you idiot. God, you’re such a baby.”
Were they dating? They acted like they were dating. Wood creaked above, from the ceiling.
I glanced up. Was the building shifting? Then I saw the horrific, multi-limbed shadow hanging above, and heard a sound I could only describe as a giant throwing up its lunch. The hell was that?
Taylor dashed forward and shoved me hard. “Move!”
I stumbled back and barely kept my feet. A drop of acid landed on my helmet bubble, hissing, but at least ten buckets of the putrid stuff landed on Taylor. It consumed her pink hair first, seared the vulnerable scalp beneath, and melted its way down her tan skin to incinerate her cute nose.
By the time she screamed, her pink lips were already on fire.
Taylor’s shrieking tore me apart, inside and out, as Frost howled with her. Taylor dropped, burning, as the acidic vomit from the Class Two Mute on the ceiling melted her alive. It did all it could to dissolve her flesh as her bones, Hallowed to the core, fought to survive.
I spun and pointed Dismay at the broken ceiling. The massive, multi-limbed shadow detached from broken wood and dropped on us like a spider. I screamed with useless rage as I squeezed Dismay’s trigger and unleashed hell on our descending enemy.
Yet hell came too late to save Skye Taylor.