The catapult rocketed to the surface with shocking force. Given more time, its acceleration would have rapidly taken it to a speed that would break the sound barrier. Excessive? Hell yes. Cool as fuck? Also hell yes.
I didn’t feel a thing in the padded interior of the Paladin. The inertial dampeners were working beautifully. They would make it so that anything that placed abnormally large amounts of force on the Paladin, like getting punched across a field by a giant alien or jumping out of a plane and landing at terminal velocity, wouldn’t be felt by the pilot. That saved a lot of internal organ liquefying.
In mere seconds, the catapult slid to a halt just below the surface, sending me soaring into the air. Activating the bottom thrusters, I made a soft descent, and stepped foot above ground for the first time in nine months. The sky was partially cloudy, but the sun shone over the eastern plains of Colorado all the same. I looked around, taking in the sights. Normally, the vast, flat grassland would be incredibly dull. But to me, it was amazingly beautiful. I tried to breathe in the fresh air of the outside, but my Paladin’s filtration system turned the air slightly stale. Annoyed, I seriously considered turning off the system, but my better sense prevailed.
“I hate to interrupt you Sam,” said Adelaide over the coms, and she really did seem regretful, “But you were right about the pursuit. There is a party of eleven Assimilators on the same course as the human group. Eight are animal types, with five M-1 Class and three R-1 Class, while the remaining three are the unknown variety.”
I started moving, following the map on my HUD just like I had in the simulator, taking great, bounding leaps assisted by the thrusters. Part of the reason that the physical training for a Paladin pilot was so intense was because of how fast they ran. The human body was not meant to move itself at those speeds, so you had to train it to do so. A Paladin could move at a top speed of nearly 200 miles per hour. Normally, you didn’t go at top speed because you’d drain the suit like mad, but it was great for getting the fuck out of dodge or intercepting a target. Normal long-distance movement speed was somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 miles per hour, about as fast as a car on the highway. Once I got better at using the anti-grav thrusters, I would be able to move faster, and more efficiently, by ‘skating’ across the ground instead of leaping over it.
Most Assimilators didn’t move nearly that fast, which was one of their weaknesses. The majority of the common Assimilators would move in the neighborhood of 25 miles per hour, faster than a human on foot, slower than practically all vehicles. In quick sprints, Assimilators could move at about twice that speed, but couldn’t keep it going for very long. However, the Assimilators had solved their long-distance movement problem as well, with grotesque troop-carriers made out of a horrible fusion of metal and animal. They could carrier hundreds if not thousands of their smaller brethren at rapid speeds, which was how the aliens moved so quickly during the end.
There weren’t any of those here though, so over the flat lands of the eastern plains, my Paladin rapidly closed on the Assimilators.
“The Assimilator hunting party will reach the humans in an estimated two minutes, Sam. I have no tracking data on the human group, so that estimate assumes they maintain their speed.”
I sped up, my steps taking me farther and faster, the wind rushing by filtered by the external mics, which could pick up minute noises in a large radius around the suit. My intercept course, plotted by the CAS, would let me reach the hunting party in a minute and half. I was cutting it very close, but I was moving as fast as I dared, considering that I did not have any experience running on open ground. I was already allowing the suit to run mostly autonomously. Tripping and faceplanting would not be helpful to those people.
As I neared the Assimilator group, my suit’s external scanners began to give me a clearer picture of their positions. Their red dots had widened into a semi-circle, like jaws opened wide. As I ran, I reached behind me for my railgun. It was folded up and stored on one of the weapon mounts, and would not deploy until I gave it the command to do so. I detached it, holding it in one metal hand in its compacted state, not planning on deploying it until I reached engagement range, which I would be shortly.
I saw them before they saw me, my advanced optics spotting them from afar. They were disgusting creatures. Most of them were the same brand of disgusting chimera. Presumably for efficiency purposes, most Assimilators of a class looked roughly the same. There were a few notable exceptions, namely the Hive Lords and the Matriarchs. Those came in all different flavors of terrifying. The melee class in this group looked to be a cross between a gorilla and an armadillo, their shelled backs rippling as they ran on all fours with long, powerful arms. The ranged ones were even worse, a snake head mounted on a horse’s body, with a mouth that probably spat acid-coated projectiles. There were three that were giant flies with the heads of bloodhounds, the unknown type. Most likely trackers.
I continued my pursuit, noticing that the humans they were chasing had slowed down. Curiously though, the hunting party was slowing down too. Maybe the sick fucks were enjoying tormenting their prey.
Nothing like a good ol’ spat of violence to cure that issue.
I skidded to a halt a bit after entering my engagement range, which was quite long. I started a slow jog, keeping my distance, and I deployed the railgun, which I had affectionately named the Caliburn R01. It unfurled to a size of about three feet, and began to hum in preparedness, a madrium-tipped round sliding into the firing chamber. It was a sleek beast of a weapon, capable of firing a projectile at 11,000 feet per second. I hefted it, my CAS locking on to my target, one of the ranged Worms. The HUD showed me the proper place to aim in order to score a hit, updating in real time. My finger tightened on the trigger, the barrel shifted to compensate for my aim, I held my breath, and I fired.
When you fire a railgun, the results are awe-inspiring. The projectile is accelerated along two conductive rails, reaching a truly astonishing speed by the time it exits the muzzle. The burst of plasma that follows as the projectile tears through the air is blinding, which is why most normal infantry never used railguns. The Paladin’s CAS intelligently blocks the plasma’s light, allowing the Paladin to see after using the deadly weapon. A railgun’s projectile is not a complicated thing. It’s just a solid slug of metal, sometimes with a reinforced tip. There are no fancy propellants or explosive. But the impact of a railgun round is like getting hit with a bus going at the speed of jet fighter, all condensed into a small point.
When the round hit the ranged Worm, the alien exploded into a mess of tendrils, almost completely blown apart. The round kept going, smashing the legs of the melee type next to it, causing it to crash into the ground. As the startled Assimilators tried to figure out what the fuck had just happened, the next projectile had already splattered another of the ranged classes over the plains. Their confusion did not last for long, and they bolted for cover, which, on the plains, is sparse. That suited me just fine, as I continued to barrel towards them, trying to get close enough that they would engage me instead of the civilians.
A red icon in the bottom left corner of my HUD turned to green when the railgun was ready to fire again. It could chamber another round almost instantly, but the limiting factor was heat. The railgun passed so much energy through its rails that they would warp into an unusable state with rapid use. Active cooling prevented that, but it needed a bit of time to get the rails to a manageable temperature. Currently, I could fire about a hundred rounds per minute, though I planned to get that up.
I cursed, my next shot whizzing wide as a Worm darted behind a small depression in the ground. They were darting towards me now, clearly seeing me as the most pressing threat. I noticed that one of the trackers was still following the civilians, and then a projectile took it in the abdomen, ripping it to shreds. My goal was to protect those people, and that’s what I was going to do.
I was closing in on the Assimilators now, and they were all very pissed off at me. I had seven to kill and plenty of ways to do it. I stopped my run, and planted my feet in the ground. The melee ones were sprinting at me full tilt, but I still had time to get a couple shots off. My first blew the head off the remaining ranged Worm, while the second tore a hole open in the side off one of the melee gorillas rushing towards me. Three melees, two trackers to go, but the melee Worms were almost on me, so I distanced myself from them by firing the front-facing thrusters, pushing me back. As I did I retracted the railgun with a thought and placed it back on its mount. I landed, planting my feet and taking a solid stance.
The three gorilla-like Worms worked together well. Melee type Assimilators were shocktroops, meant to get in close and fuck up your day. Without even a glance, they split up, coming at me in a trident. The one moving in on my right was slightly faster though, and I was going to take advantage of that. Rather than wait for them to reach me, I gave a short blast of my thrusters and burst towards the rightmost Worm, raising a fist at it. It reacted, turning its sprint into a leap. Up close, I could see that the belly of the gorilla-armadillo was coated in armor similar to its back, thick plates of tightly woven tendrils. As it leapt at me, a small, double barreled weapon popped out of the armor behind my upraised fist. I’d like to imagine I saw shock in its glowing red eyes as the tight spread of pellets fired from the wrist-mounted shotgun took it full in the face, arresting its movement and causing it crash into the ground in a tangle of limbs. The shotgun was a very close-ranged weapon with limited use. I only had four shots total, two on the right, two on the left.
I planted my legs as my thrusters turned my maneuver into a sliding stop, whirling to face the last two melee Worms. As I did, I felt a massive impact on my back, strong enough to make the Paladin miss its footing and slightly stumble. A glance at my HUD told me that one of the trackers had made a pass at me. Before I could regain my balance, the second gorilla Assimilator had caught me in a flying tackle, intent on grappling me. I took the fall, disoriented, and we both smashed into the dirt. The alien tried to pin my arms together, to buy time for its friend to get to me, but I grinned within my suit. I would win a strength contest all day long. I broke its hold on me with ease, and to its credit it immediately jumped back, cautious of my strength.
The two melee Worms watched me for a second, until I ducked a tracker that had been swooping at the back of my head, and then they both lunged at me. I planted my boot in the chest of first and gave a thruster-assisted kick, sending it arcing backwards, while I blocked a wide swing from the second with an upraised arm. The Paladin allowed me to stay steady while doing this, anti-gravs firing in all directions to keep me upright. The one who I had just blocked started raining blows on me, but instead of trying to stop them I just fired my main thrusters and slammed directly into it, bowling it over. The shocked Assimilator rolled onto the ground, and using my momentum I launched into a short hover directly over it, planted a boot on its head, and cancelled the anti-grav thrusters. There was a satisfying crunch as its head was flattened by my falling one-ton weight.
The last gorilla was sprinting back towards me, recovered from my kick, howling with rage. The trackers buzzed a fairly long way behind it. It looks like they decided to sit the rest of the fight out, which was good news. The approaching gorilla-armadillo, apparently not learning from its friend’s mistake, threw massive punch at me. I ducked it, then planted my right fist into its heavily-plated side. If the Assimilator was expecting just a punch, it must’ve been surprised when the wickedly sharp, retractable blade over my knuckles cut its armor like butter, tearing deeply into its torso. It screamed as I pulled my arm back through its stomach. The disemboweled Worm pitched forward with a gurgle, limbs flailing ineffectually. As it fell I grabbed its face with my left hand, and squeezed hard. Not sure if you’ve ever smashed an overripe pumpkin, but I imagine the sensation was similar. Its head was crushed by the Paladin’s raw strength, splattering me with tendrils.
Letting the Worm’s corpse fall to the ground, I checked my HUD for the location of the two trackers. They were currently bugging the fuck out, flying at full tilt towards the north. I was tempted to take them out with anti-aircraft rockets just to test them, but they were flying so low and slow that it would be a waste. Instead, I pulled out my railgun again, the CAS locking on to them, and a few seconds later, both fly-like trackers had been brought down. I took a deep, shaky breath, and lowered my gun. Holy shit.
I stood there for a second, then shook my head, the Paladin copying my movement. Gotta focus. I walked to each Assimilator I had taken out, making sure they were dead with a quick stomp of my giant metal boot. The CAS was pretty accurate in determining what was alive or not, but a good old fashioned curb stomp was phenomenal insurance. Only two were still drawing breath, both melee types. One was the Worm I had blown the side off of, the other was the one whose legs I destroyed with my first shot. Confirming that none of the Assimilators were going to pop back up like a cheap zombie gag, I breathed a sigh of relief. Okay. Now I just had to get back to the base so I could get this suit off and debrief with Adelaide. I felt like I was forgetting something though.
My suit picked up the sound of steps in the grass, and I noticed the white dots on my HUD had grown much closer to me, appearing almost directly behind me on my map, and I heard a nervous voice sound out, “Um, sir? Hello?”. Oh yeah. The people.