The first sign something was wrong was the death of Private Hideki Yonai.
“Team Three taking sniper fire.” Sergeant Sadao Kanin announced over his radio. “One man down.”
“Acknowledged.” Captain Ogami Suzuki confirmed. “All teams, hold position.”
It was not an auspicious start to the operation, Captain Suzuki thought. The strike force – roughly equivalent to an Allied quick-response company – had been dispatched to one of the remote islands off Hokkaido to investigate a military research station that had fallen silent. Best guess was a probing Chinese or Soviet raid.
Sergeant Kanin, however, noticed something odd about Private Yonai’s body. The young trooper, barely worthy of the mantle of Imperial Warrior, hadn’t died to a gunshot. Instead, the shaft of an arrow protruded from the trooper’s throat…
“We have their attention.” Rogue-At-Marque Hernandez whispered into his own radio. “They’re holding position.”
“Acknowledged.” Crusader Moore replied. “Hold position and hold fire until I give the order.”
“Confirmed.” The rogue replied simply.
Moore smiled to himself as a series of blips appeared on the Sariel’s radar, so small as to be undetectable... if something their size wasn’t precisely what the radar technician was expecting to see. Imperial tactics in such cases were predictable – send in a flight of dragonfly drones to identify the sniper and detect any other forces waiting in ambush, then either charge, maneuver to flank, or bring up heavier units as the situation demanded. Where the Soviet army might simply choose to bull their way through an ambush, the Empire was more cautious and less willing to take risks. It would cost this captain dearly.
The dragonflies, actually a series of different models collectively dubbed Burst Drones, were manufactured with a linked AI network. Any given drone was in fact quite stupid, but in linked groups, burst drones could coordinate their movements, sweep areas with maximum efficiency, even formulate simple plans. However, the majority of the drones’ mass was given over to a surprisingly sophisticated sensor package that swept the ground below them in several different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, including infrared and radio.
When radio transmissions were detected, the drones immediately zeroed in on the source, and a sweep of their infrared cameras instantly identified the ambush lying ahead of the Imperial force – twelve individuals hiding in cover along the perimeter of the facility. Then the visual-spectrum cameras zoomed in on the ambushers and compared shapes to their databases. Weapons, insignia, styles of clothing, and more than a dozen other factors were identified and compared to thousands of different shapes in each drone’s databank. Preliminary conclusions were reached, and each drone activated its olfactory sensor, capable of identifying the faintest whiff of an Allied spy’s cologne from even a great height. The Soviet soldiers were carrying additional metal objects of unknown configuration, but the drones had been programmed to make allowances for the Soviet Union trying out new weapons.
Preliminary conclusions on the ambushers reached, the drones focused their cameras on the research facility itself, noting that the Imperial insignia and distinctive orange colors had all been freshly painted over. The drone network then briefly activated and the dragonflies compared observations and conclusions. Ninety-eight percent certainty was well within programmed parameters, and the drones transmitted the resulting composite image back to Captain Suzuki’s tactical display: an advance team from the Soviet Union had taken over the facility.
Drone R-7384 was the singular unit responsible for the two-percent uncertainty in the network. The ambushers were in standard cover and formation for a Soviet force according to the drone’s databank, but R-7384 noted a very slight irregularity in the ambushers. Facial hair in the configuration identified as “goatee” had only a 22% chance of appearing on a given Soviet foot soldier. Every ambusher identified possessed the configuration. The other drones noted that the probabilities fell well within acceptable ranges and represented a minor factor compared to the primary identifiers in any event. Drone R-7384 concurred and resumed normal operations, but nevertheless directed a fraction of additional processing power to its personnel identification subroutine.
Decidedly non-Soviet forces obtaining genuine Soviet weapons and uniforms, then dressing up as such and positioning themselves perfectly to mimic what a real Soviet force would do in the same situation, was not a possibility the burst drones had been programmed to consider.
Captain Ogami Suzuki studied the tactical map display intently. A Soviet strike force. That almost certainly meant armor was present. It was insane to bring tanks along on a raid like this, but the Soviets did so love their armor… Suzuki may not have been aware of Drone R-7384’s reservations, but he shared the drone’s concern that something was off about this raid. Ogami Suzuki was a psychic, albeit one of limited power. Like most Imperial citizens identified as having intuitive psionic powers, he had been drafted and sent to officer training immediately, and Suzuki’s gift came in the form of a limited sort of precognition. He was no oracle, but in the back of his head, from that place he’d always associated with his precognition, something told him that this situation was not as it seemed.
Captain Ogami Suzuki’s hesitation condemned fourteen men to death.
Behind the initial front of the ambush, a quartet of armored vehicles received targeting coordinates from the spotter-snipers and opened fire on the Imperial soldiers hiding in cover. These vehicles were self-propelled light artillery units, each carrying a 120mm mortar loaded with white phosphorous shells. White phosphorous as an incendiary weapon had been condemned by the Allied Nations as an inhumane weapon and prohibited its use. The Order of the Talon cared little for such regulations.
Firestorms engulfed the entrenched Imperial infantry, and although the Imperial Warriors favored masks and skin-protecting armor, white phosphorous had a nasty habit of sticking to exposed surfaces and casting burning particles everywhere. Uniforms ignited, plastic masks began to melt, and in one particularly ugly case, the squad’s grenadier was hit and the grenades cooked off with extraordinarily messy results.
The Imperial warriors were well-trained. They immediately scattered and sought shelter from the artillery barrage. Equally, Captain Suzuki realized that he’d been pinned down while he considered alternatives, and ordered Team One to enter the breach. Team One consisted of the strike force’s detachment of mecha: four Hanzo Z medium combat mecha and two Kitsune fire support mecha. Even with his armor in play, however, Suzuki directed the rest of his forces forward and directed the burst drones to survey the entire facility. Hesitation in the face of a probable ambush had cost him, and Suzuki was eager to make up for his mistake.
Crusader Moore frowned. The engagement was still proceeding according to plan, but his intelligence had told him to expect Tengu or VX type mecha in the response force, not the Hanzo Z or Kitsune pattern machines. This could be a problem.
“Jesus Christ, those things are fast.” Rogue-At-Marque Hernandez muttered as the first Imperial mecha element, two of the Hanzos and a Kitsune, raced into the Talon position. Hernadez and the other Rogues had prepared a surprise for any walkers that might try to breach the perimeter, but seeing the impossible agility of the Imperial mecha, Hernandez suddenly had his doubts.
Inside each mecha, an Imperial pilot focused all of their attention on the engagement. They each wore a sophisticated bodyglove laced with electronics that served as an interface between the pilot’s own sub-dermal implants and the mecha itself. Combined with the humanoid shape of most Imperial mecha, this meant that the pilots controlled their machines as extensions of their own bodies.
Lieutenant Hajime Umezu, Team One’s leader, simply walked forward through the hail of incoming fire from the occupied buildings, projectiles that his interlinked computer identified as crossbow bolts and machine gun bullets clattering off the Hanzo-Z’s tungsten shield. The same computer identified the origins of each projectile, and the 40mm rifle held in the mecha’s other arm hosed the target area with fire.
Umezu smiled to himself as the enemy infantry began to fall back in the face of the mecha advance. That they looked nothing like the Soviet troops the Captain had said to expect didn’t matter one bit. Umezu’s rifle brought down several as they ran, and one watchtower to the lieutenant’s right exploded as the Kitsune in the lead element opened fire with its sniper cannon. Then Umezu’s computer identified a priority target: one of the enemy mortar tracks had just dodged around a building straight ahead. Umezu signaled his fellow Hanzo pilot to follow, and the mecha moved into a rapid jog. To Umezu’s chagrin, Ensign Sugiyama managed to take the lead.
There was something to be said for low-tech solutions to high-tech problems, Hernandez decided. The rogues had strung a length of Talon Steel cable between the buildings the Imperial mecha were about to run between – it was the main street leading into the base, but the Imperial walkers were so focused on the mortar track ahead of them that they completely failed to scan for something as innocuous as a tripwire. Of course, there were few metals indeed that were simultaneously flexible enough to be drawn into a cable and strong enough to resist the impact of an Imperial mecha, but Talon Steel happened to fit the bill nicely.
The tripwire worked perfectly. It caught the first Hanzo-Z at the ankle of the humanoid machine and the mecha smashed itself face-first into the asphalt while its up-scaled assault rifle and shield went skittering across the road. The second mecha had a half-second’s warning from its comrade’s demise, and dropped its own weapon and shield as it tripped… then somehow managed to turn the fall into a goddamn cartwheel, picking its gun back up as it returned to its own feet. Hernandez gaped for a moment at the mecha before he saw three figures in scraps of Talon Steel race towards the mecha, swords held high…
“I said hold your position, for the love of God!” Crusader Moore shouted into the radio. But before he’d even finished taking the Lord’s name in vain, the trio of soldiers reached the downed Hanzo-Z that was beginning to stir.
“Goddamn fanatics…” Moore muttered to no one in particular.
The zealots worked quickly. Sophisticated as Imperial engineering was, it could still be cut through by a few superheated claymores with relative ease, and the fanatics hacked away at the mecha’s head with wild abandon. In seconds, they reached the stunned Imperial pilot and removed his head, too.
One of the fanatics evaporated as Lieutenant Umezu opened fire. The hypervelocity slugs tore the zealot with frightful ease, but the man beside the red smear where his brother in arms had been merely smiled and fired a peculiar-looking crossbow at the mecha. Umezu’s grin at yet another wasted volley of bolts lasted for about a half second before he realized that the bolt lodged in his mecha’s armor was trailing a rope, and that at the other end of that rope was a madman furiously working at a winch on his chest.
In only seconds the fanatic was upon Umezu’s machine, and the lunatic quickly found the glass screen separating Lieutenant Umezu’s helm from the outside world and from which the pilot’s heads-up display was projected. Umezu could only stare at the madman, who had lost his sword while attacking the mecha and now threw his coat aside to reveal an altogether different sort of apparel on the fanatic’s body. Lieutenant Umezu’s final act in life was to reflexively attempt to raise his hand in a warding position, but raising the mecha’s arm did nothing to prevent what happened next.
"Glory be to God!" The fanatic shouted as he pulled a very special cord on his webbing.
One-Three, Ensign Ayame Yoneda, watched the deaths of Ensign Sugiyama and Lieutenant Umezu with horror. These lunatics were using suicide bombers! It was an act that the Empire could respect, but seeing it happen to your team leader was different matter altogether. Then Yoneda’s training reasserted itself and her Kitsune bounded over the tripwire and batted the surviving fanatic aside with a swipe of her mecha’s tail. No sooner did the fanatic explode as he was smashed into the side of the security building than Yoneda transmitted a video of what had just happened to command.
Not Soviet… Not Soviet… Not Soviet Not Soviet Not Soviet Not Soviet
“Captain, you’re not going to believe this…”
Captain Suzuki barely registered his aide’s words as the precognitive part of his mind tore his brain apart.
Images and sounds pummeled his mind, amorphous and unclear, until they suddenly resolved into one image and one word: a golden eagle, swooping in for the kill.
While all of that was happening, Sergeant Kanin and the rest of Second Platoon were fighting for their lives against a tenacious and well-entrenched position. Kanin had survived thus far mainly by learning a few things about these definitely non-Soviet soldiers. First, their crossbows were not to be disregarded – half of Kanin’s squad was dead from metal bolts that had pierced their armor with ease. Second, staying in one place for long was a very bad idea, as the enemy was quick to call in fire from their damnable incendiary mortars. And the third thing was that although the enemy troopers were well-armored and could shrug off a burst of kinetic fire, combined fire and aimed shots at the vulnerable parts of their bodies – arms, legs, and the face – could put them down.
At the moment, however, what Kanin wished for most were tankbusters that he knew were not attached to the formation. An armored vehicle had his squad pinned – it looked like a similar chassis to the mortar vehicles the drones had reported, but had a relatively conventional turret instead of a mortar. Relatively conventional meaning that it fired oversized versions of the same crossbow bolts the enemy infantry fired.
Another heavy bolt buried itself deep in the burned-out husk of a tsunami tank, part of the outpost’s original garrison, that Kanin’s squad had taken cover behind.
Unfortunately, there was nowhere to go. The eastern flank of the outpost had turned into a killing field – more than a dozen bodies littered the ground between the central building of the outpost and the perimeter the Imperial force had tried to flank, Imperial and intruders still on the ground. Or mostly still. A few were still struggling to move and making piteous noises, but Imperial procedure was to ignore the wounded.
Private Oikawa was down, his leg impaled and bone shattered by the vehicle’s weapon.
Click! Whrrrrrr… CRACK!
The enemy vehicle exploded, sowing shrapnel for several meters and mercifully finishing off Private Oikawa with a fragment of metal directly to the head.
Another whir filled the air as Kanin’s savior recharged its sniper rifle, and the Kitsune mecha locked in on one of the buildings ahead. Another crack split the air and a gaping hole in the target building appeared. Two Hanzo mecha advanced, shields up, and their female companion dropped back to quadruped formation to scout ahead of the main force. Kanin tossed the mecha a salute before rallying what was left of the platoon and advancing.
Sublieutenant Kanzaki had seen the footage of the company’s other Hanzo Z mecha falling to, of all things, a tripwire and a handful of madmen with swords and explosives. Therefore, as commander of Team One’s second element, he ordered his companions to advance slowly and carefully. Mortar shells were beginning to fall now, but they were targeting the advancing infantry and did not pose a serious threat to the mecha in any event – One-Six in her Kitsune was vulnerable to even light artillery fire, but the quadruped machine was far too agile to be harmed by something as mundane as mortar fire. The Hanzo Zs themselves were immune to anything but the luckiest of hits.
Fortunately, the mortar barrage seemed to be aimed at covering the intruders’ retreat, and the computer network that linked the entire strike force together seemed to confirm it – the intruders had put up a stiff fight and were not short of courage, but they were unprepared to deal with the presence of Imperial mecha and were attempting to withdraw towards the coast.
A thrill ran down Kanzaki’s spine and into his black carapace – the unofficial nickname for the fully interfaced bodyglove and subdermal implants he wore. Not only did the black carapace allow him to pilot the Hanzo Z like an extension of his own body, it provided feedback from the mecha itself, injecting stimulants or depressants into the pilot to keep his vital signs stable. Right now, Sublieutenant Kanzaki needed to be calm and focused, not eager.
Which was why his reaction to One-Six’s death was almost clinical detachment rather than horror as a trio of rockets pulverized the entirely unarmored Kitsune. One took off the mecha’s head and that of the pilot, another blasted off one of the forward legs, and a third blew the fox-like mecha completely in half. Kanzaki pulled up his own shield, but he was not the next target of the new attacker – more rockets lanced out of the smoke and bracketed One-Five’s Hanzo Z in a wall of explosions and shrapnel. As heavily protected as the Hanzo Z was, that many fragments flying everywhere found weak points, and the mecha slumped over when a large fragment found the pilot’s faceplate itself and shredded the mecha’s meaty innards.
Then the sensors on Kanzaki’s own Hanzo Z pierced the smoke, and identified the enemy now seeking to add One-Four to its list of kills as well. Kanzaki keyed his comm.
“One-Four reporting enemy mecha in eastern quadrant. Repeat, One-Four reporting enemy mecha. I am engaging.”
Sublieutenant Kanzaki’s first thought of the enemy mecha was of a King Oni’s little brother. It was a hulking brute of a humanoid machine, built for power and durability rather than speed or agility. Although shorter than a King Oni, the mecha still towered over Kanzaki’s own Hanzo Z, and had thick, powerful legs widely spaced to avoid undue balance issues. The majority of the machine’s bulk was in its torso, which had been extensively built up – peeking over either shoulder were the rocket batteries that were likely its primary weapons, and a bulky development of its back crowned in several pipes emitting plumes of smoke.
Crude technology, Kanzaki decided, but the walker was crafted of some silver metal that gleamed in the evening’s light, and ornate stylings that someone more familiar with art history would call distinctly Gothic in appearance stood testament to the expense and care that had gone into the machine’s construction. The mecha had arms, but ended in powerful triple claws rather than humanoid hands, and weapons were attached to either arm, built along the length of the arm rather than carried in its claws. Kanzaki’s computer was at a loss to identify either arm weapon – one ran along the back of one arm, and the other weapon was carried underneath its arm like an bayonet's lug.
The two walkers stared at each other for a long moment across the battlefield. The Imperial Hanzo Z was the smaller of the two, but was fast and agile. The unknown walker was large and ponderous, a weapon of brutal and uncompromising force rather than grace and skill. Kanzaki knew that mighty as his own machine was, the enemy machine had proved by destroying One-Five and One-Six that it was not to be taken lightly. It was almost… even.
Struck by the thought, Kanzaki and his mecha bowed gracefully to the foe.
Within the cockpit of the Champion-class heavy walker, Sir Landry smiled to himself. An honorable trial of combat it would be. He began to pull a few of the levers before him in a precise order.
The steam-powered machine leaned forward and bent its knees slightly, the closest to a bow that the walker could make.
The moment of courtesy past, Kanzaki raised his rifle and shield and attacked, only for his eyes to widen as the hypervelocity slugs of his rifle simply glanced off the metallic hull of the enemy walker. Then the machine raised its left arm, and a massive harpoon trailing a metallic cable lanced towards the Imperial mecha. Kanzaki managed to raise his shield, but the harpoon punched straight through without any appreciable loss in velocity and it was only by a split-second reflex that the Imperial pilot let go of the shield and dodged aside. The harpoon sailed past the more agile mecha, and immediately began to reel back in.
Another burst of 40mm fire only inflicted superficial damage on the walker, and Kanzaki's eyes narrowed as the machine's rocket racks finished reloading. Without his shield, the rockets or harpoon could, and probably would, kill him. He dodged left as the harpoon shot out again, the slow reloading speed of the harpoon buying Kanzaki precious seconds to think. The enemy walker was slow, and without its rockets had trouble targeting fast-moving foes. However, its firepower was lethal if it could be brought to bear, and it shrugged off the Hanzo Z's rifle fire with impunity... not a good situation for the Imperial pilot. Well, nothing ventured...
The Hanzo Z's rocket boosters roared to life, and the walker's volley of rockets sailed past the suddenly rocket-propelled mecha. Kanzaki's linked AI quickly analyzed the enemy walker, scanning for weak points in the machine's armor. Joints, one of the traditional vulnerabilities of mecha, were a no-go: this machine had armored joints, apparently as insurance against precisely that tactic. Engine... also heavily armored, and to strike at the exhaust vents would require a near-vertical angle of attack. Viable for a Tengu or VX, not so much for the Hanzo Z. Faceplate viable. But a small, difficult target. Happily, the walker seemed to be optimized for long-range combat, and Kanzaki slowed to carefully aim a burst at the walker's faceplate.
Kanzaki had failed to take into account a decidedly more low-tech problem that the mech posed. The enemy walker slammed one of its arms into Kanzaki's far lighter mecha like an armored backhand that cracked Kanzaki's faceplate and sent the mecha sprawling. Then the machine applied a similar solution to Kanzaki's gun and simply stomped on the rifle with all the mech's weight. Kanzaki jumped the mech to its feet and rolled away from a probing claw-arm in a languid backwards somersault. Too late, he realized that he'd left himself open to another of the walker's weapons.
The harpoon punched clean through the mecha and out the other side. Painkillers immediately flooded Kanzaki’s body, but he didn’t need the flashing red lights in his HUD to realize that he’d just been completely impaled by the enemy walker, pilot and mecha both, and that his lower biological body no longer responded to his brain’s commands. Then the cable began to retract, and Sublieutenant Kanzaki was dragged forward, reeled in like a fish caught on a line. Several excruciating seconds later, the impaled Hanzo Z was on its knees before the enemy walker. The mecha’s supply of painkillers had already run out, and all Kanzaki could do was stare upwards at his strange assailant as its other arm leveled its underslung weapon before Kanzaki’s faceplate. A torrent of fire blazed forth, and Sublieutenant Kanzaki’s impurities were burned away as the flames carried him into the next realm.
The entire operation was coming apart, Ensign Yoneda realized. The last surviving mecha pilot in the strike force, she was forced to remain flat on her belly in the Kitsune's quad configuration. If she stood up, she would die. The intruders had rallied and were counterattacking with a vengeance, anchored in the east by their own mecha and in the west by a trio of the light tanks with the crossbow turrets, and Yoneda couldn't stand up long enough to get a shot off without exposing the fragile Kitsune to hostile fire. Captain Suzuki was attempting to withdraw the force to the rear, but Yoneda was under fire from both the research outpost and the rear - the intruders had managed to flank the engaged Imperial force.
Yoneda allowed the Kitsune's own semisentient AI control over the mecha's movement as she continued to scout for a weakness in the intruders' lines. It was always a deeply uncomfortable feeling to allow the AI half of the mecha/pilot unit a degree of control through the black carapace, but she needed time to think and review sensor logs of the battle thus far. The initial mecha push had definitely caught the intruders by surprise, Yoneda realized - they had fallen back in disorganized fashion, with some improvised stands like the madmen who had killed Lieutenant Umezu and Ensign Sugiyama. But a few minutes in, the enemy retreat had become more organized and directed. They had rallied and fallen back in good order. And the Imperial forces in pursuit had obligingly walked into kill-zone.
Briefly linking into the burst drone network confirmed the Kitsune pilot's worst fears. Chagrined by his initial hesitation and subsequent punishment by artillery, Captain Suzuki had charged into the outpost behind the mecha... and was trapped there. While the Imperial strike force engaged the intruders in the base, more enemy units had managed to flank the Imperials from both rear quarters in a pincer. There was still a chance to break out before the jaws of the trap closed, but the odds of success were falling rapidly. Outmaneuvered. Isolated. Surrounded. And now about to be crushed like a nut. Yoneda allowed herself a fleeting moment of admiration for the enemy commander before she returned to the business of trying to figure out how to survive.
Sergeant Kanin was leading the breakout attempt. The strike force was down to barely a platoon of infantry and the Captain himself, who was worse than useless. Captain Suzuki had done nothing but scream about eagles and talons for about the last fifteen minutes, and Sergeant Kanin had assumed practical command of the surviving soldiers. Their situation was not good, to say the least. One of the Imperials' biggest problems was ammunition: the intruders wore some sort of armor that was very resistant to kinetic-burst weaponry, and although scavenging more ammunition from dead troopers helped, the survivors were running very low. Still, Kanin had ordered the strike force's detachment of Masamune drones to link up with the survivors for the push. Although intended to deal with aircraft, none of which had shown themselves, the drones would be, if nothing else, additional targets for the enemy.
Drone R-7384 sped ahead of the retreating forces. Light anti-aircraft fire had shredded most of the burst drones, but R-7384 had managed to survive so far. Its observations were not encouraging.
Crusader Moore smiled to himself, and his hand fell to the chessboard he habitually brought with him in the field. The white pieces had suffered losses, but almost all had been pawns. The black pieces had a considerably more ragged order of battle, and were moving to escape a check by a white bishop. It was brave, but futile. Moore moved his queen into position on the chessboard, and around him the Eden superheavy track growled to life.
It was, ironically, the Masamune that realized the problem well before it appeared. They noticed a disruption in their own functioning, and the disruption was growing worse. What they were detecting was the ambiaric generator aboard Crusader Moore's Eden-class command track, and Sergeant Kanin's order that the Masamune scout ahead of the retreating infantry merely meant that they were the first to fall to the Order's checkmate. The hapless drones transmitted a still image of the enormous vehicle approaching, then shut down as every electronic circuit in their bodies shorted out.
Then the infernal machine was upon the infantry. Sergeant Kanin's jaw fell a split-second before a massive wave of electromagnetic force tore him and the rest of his squad into their constituent molecules. It was, at least, a painless death - like their robots, the Imperial troopers simply shut down in the instant before the ambiaric cannons fired, all electrical signals dead even before the directed magnetic singularity pulled the soldiers apart at a molecular level.
Captain Suzuki, however, was not slain by the encroaching behemoth. Instead, a great hawk descended on the hapless officer, still reeling from this own precognitive visions, and grasped him firmly by the shoulder. To call the Order's prized birds hawks was in fact something of a misnomer. Bred over the centuries for strength and speed, the Order's avian spotters were closer to eagles than true hawks, and their talons were not only sheathed in Talon Steel but dipped in a powerful anesthetic as well. Their talons dug into the Imperial officer and the chemical agent went to work. Less than a minute later, Captain Suzuki was limp and unconscious, and well within the birds' carrying capacity.
With the destruction of Sergeant Kanin's unit, Imperial resistance had ceased. And none too soon - Imperial reinforcements would arrive soon, and the Order worked quickly. The dead were gathered up, as were the disabled Masamune and wounded on both sides, including more than a few Imperial soldiers that had in fact survived their wounds, but were unconscious or otherwise abandoned. The wreckage of the Order's fighting machines was gathered up, too, and as many spent crossbow bolts and arrows as possible. No one could realistically remove all of the Order's presence, but what remained would be enough only to intrigue and confuse Imperial authorities. The smashed Imperial mecha, the Order left behind, although Rogue-At-Marque Hernandez noted that there were only five wrecked machines when he could have sworn there had been six total, but dismissed the thought.
Their mission complete, the Talon forces withdrew to the coast a few miles to the north where an Imperial supertanker lay at anchor. Or rather, what appeared to be an Imperial supertanker. It was in fact a large transport vessel for the Order of the Talon, and there was more than enough room for the entire Talon strike force aboard, including Moore's command vehicle, Sir Landry and his walker, and the handful of Hussar and Wrath light armored vehicles. The wounded were taken to the heavily guarded medical bay for evaluation and treatment, and the operation's leaders congratulated themselves on a job well done.
One-Three was very, very angry. Playing dead might have been seen as the height of dishonorable tactics by the Imperial army, but it meant that the Empire would receive full sensor logs of the intruders, including that massive tank that had ended the battle so decisively. Well, it was a tank, but Ensign Yoneda decided it looked more like a shrine that someone had grafted onto a tank. And now they were withdrawing... not so fast, the pilot decided.
The Kitsune shadowed the retreating enemy to their transport, and without hesitation Yoneda dove her mecha into the water. There was still a chance to avenge this disaster - the Kitsune was designed with water in mind and was an excellent swimmer in quad configuration. Unfortunately, in doing so Ayame Yoneda made a very basic, and very fatal, mistake: in her fury, she wasn't paying attention to her surroundings. Otherwise she might have noticed that the small yacht anchored next to the false supertanker had a heavily reinforced spar mounted on the bow, and that on that spar was a large bundle of smaller objects bound together with wire.
Ensign Ayame Yoneda never saw the spar torpedo that struck her Kitsune and blew the million-yen mecha into metallic confetti.
"Eighteen dead, another twenty wounded, and we're down two Hussars and a Wrath." Brother-Captain Magnusson shook his head. "All for one Imperial officer and a bunch of robots. Begging your pardon, my lord, but how can you call this a success?"
"It's a success because it's what the Grand Inquisitor wanted." Crusader Moore answered between sips of favored victory ritual - a bottle of fine Tennessee bourbon. "Apparently this guy's a psychic. Didn't do him much good, but the Grand Inquisitor wanted him alive."
"Psychic, huh? You think the Inquisition is about to make like it's fifteenth-century Spain?"
"Could be. I wouldn't put it past them."
"I hope not. That could be messy. What about the tin cans?"
"No idea. We're to drop them off at Ayers Rock and I don't have a clue who exactly wants them or why."
Soon, the officers' talk turned to more mundane matters, such as the eternally unresolved question of which was better: American bourbon, or Scandinavian mead? It was a subject the pair had argued over countless times, but each held out hope that they might convince the other.
Captain Suzuki woke up. It didn't take long to realize his situation: he was in a prison cell, and shackled very, very securely to the ground. Around him in other cells were about a dozen other prisoners, mostly Imperial infantry, but also a small woman in the black carapace of a mecha pilot. She looked like she'd recently gone swimming, and her carapace had suffered extensive damage, but their captors seemed to place a value on taking prisoners. The guards were not obtrusive, but they were present - faceless figures in armor of silvery metal, armed with both the lethal crossbows that had slain so many warriors and swords scabbarded at their sides.
After a few minutes of talking with his fellow prisoners and determining that no one was seriously hurt, Suzuki proudly announced that these captors wouldn't get away with their attack on the Empire.
"You'd be surprised." A Japanese voice announced.
Suzuki turned to the speaker - it was a Japanese woman, and she had spoken with the accent of Tokyo. Wealthy Tokyo, at that. She wore a simple black robe. Behind her was a man of African descent in a far more ornate robe.
"You see, captain, we've already gotten away with it." The woman informed the prisoners with a faint smile. "A mysterious attack that wiped out an entire strike force and left no bodies behind? Come now, captain. You know Imperial culture too well to think that the Shogunate will care one bit about you and the others. They'll sweep the entire attack under the rug and pretend it never happened. A shocking defeat by an unknown enemy? That's shameful, and the Empire never likes to feel shame."
"Traitor!" Suzuki cried. "How much did your loyalty cost?!"
"Nothing, captain, and please bear in mind that I'm just an engineer, not an inquisitor. That's the business of my friend here, Mordecai Toth. I've just been loaned here on account of my language skills." She chuckled, and quickly exchanged words with her companion, but in some language that Suzuki could not understand. She then addressed the entire brig. "My friend wishes to apologize for not granting you all the honorable deaths that are your due as warriors, but the conflict our Order is involved with is too important to waste lives. Every life is precious to us, and we cannot grant you death while you yet have more to do."
"More to do?" Suzuki spat at the woman, but it fell well short. "No son of the Empire would cooperate with you!"
"You aren't the first to speak those words." The woman shook her head. "Please, all of you... don't make this harder than it has to be. From this moment forth, whether you like it or not, you serve the Order of the Talon and through it, the Lord God Almighty."
Ayame Yoneda understood the brief conversation between the inquisitor and woman, though no one thought to ask her. Depending on what sort of mecha they're expected to join, pilots receive a variety of different implants in addition to the core components of the black carapace, and one of the implants Kitsune pilots receive is a translator module.
"The captain is the only one we need." The inquisitor had said. "The rest are idolaters. They have nothing to offer us."
"A man who has nothing can still have faith." The woman had responded, reciting the words like an old proverb. "Remember that I was once like them, my friend. Let them receive their chance for absolution."
Absolution? Yoneda wondered what that word meant.
Some OOC notes on this story:
1. The Champion walker does not have a flamethrower, cannot make melee attacks, and cannot target ground units with its rockets or harpoon as currently planned. These were purely artistic license on my part, and the Champion is actually a dedicated and very powerful anti-air unit rather than anti-ground.. The extra weapons featured in this article may be added as veterancy upgrades for the Champion in-game, which is what they were intended to be in this story, but should not be taken as gospel.
2. The stuff about how mecha are controlled and mecha pilots have cybernetic implants should not be taken as canon. Again, artistic license on my part.
3. I don't know what the Order wants with psychics or the Masamune drones, so don't ask.
4. This battle as a whole is not canon until and unless Open Sketchbook or someone acting on his behalf says so. Consider it a "what may have been" battle.
Briefing: Kitsune Prime
The primary production model of the Kitsune mecha transforms into a 4x4 all-terrain vehicle with integral stealth generator in mobility configuration. However, the model of Kitsune that fought in the Rebun Island Incident is an early model known as the Kitsune Prime. The Kitsune Prime lacked a true transformation mode, and instead would drop to all fours, reconfiguring arms and legs for quadrupedal motion. Another oddity is the tail featured in the design, used in humanoid mode to stabilize the mecha and compensate for the sniper cannon's ferocious recoil and in quad mode as a limited form of self-defense as demonstrated here. While efficient, the Kitsune Prime's quad configuration was deemed too fragile for warfare, and the addition of a stealth field generator would grievously mar the mecha's lovely contours. As a result, the next model of Kitsune lost both the tail and the quadrupedal configuration, and the remaining Kitsune Primes serve exclusively in garrison and police roles in low-threat areas like the home islands.
- - Umeko Takegi, Imperial Tactical College