"This is a Call to Arms"
North American Alliance
New York City, New York
Collared Corporate Headquarters (NAA East Coast)
"Useless ass," Claire growled as she stormed out of the Collared meeting room, paperwork in hand. Her payout for the last assignment just barely covered the mission expenses, all because of her useless-as-dirt Operator. First he hot-drops her into a combat zone without waiting for the grid layout to render, essentially throwing her on the defensive from the get-go. Then he spills coffee on himself and while he's cleaning himself off he fails to notify her about a barrage of incoming artillery fire that scarred the hell out of her Valkyria.
"Useless ass!" she snapped again. On top of it all, he had the gall to ask for the thirty-five percent of the mission take. If only she hadn't signed a written contract with him before the mission began...but that wasn't how Collared worked.
She glanced down at her paperwork; she'd made only half-a-million dollars on this most recent mission. By any other accounts it would be an exorbitant amount of money for only a day's work, but Irregulars had different budgets. With her useless-as-hell Operator taking thirty-five percent, that left her with a paltry $325,000 to cover her expenses. The repairs alone would cost about $125,000, and then she still had to pay for ammunition and general upkeep; hangar rent, Luminium energy cells, interior cleaning (it sometimes got hot and sweaty in the cockpits). All in all, it would leave her with a mere $125,000 profit; not a bad take for the average Joe, but then again Irregulars were just that: irregular.
"I'll need to take another job soon," Claire muttered. She contemplated maybe even something with a wing-man. It'd certainly help her with the usually-incompetent Operators Collared seemed to enjoy sticking her with. She'd heard that there were some incredible Operators out there, but in seven years working for Collared she hadn't met a single one.
Most Operators spent half the mission trying to flirt with her, and while she appreciated the gesture, romance was the last thing on her mind when in the middle of a hail of gunfire. In the end, she supposed she was just less impressed with Operators, who chose to stay well and safe behind the battle lines. And she had yet to meet an Operator that seemed genuinely concerned with her wellbeing beyond her ability to get him or herself another paycheck.
Claire took out her PDA to check for any new jobs. She fingered through the phone's touch screen menu and opened up the Collared mission bulletin. The credit-card sized device emitted a holographic image as she maneuvered her way through the various missions. One managed to catch her eye: a quick smash-job in Madagascar; an order to take down a rebel group threatening the region's stability. And the price was--
"Fifteen million? There's no way!" she gasped. She wondered what kind of client had that kind of money to throw around, and what kind of insane rebels were worth fifteen million.
Claire glanced over the mission statement again just to make sure her eyes weren't playing tricks on her, and she felt a tingle of excitement run through her. The mission was a group-based one. The client had asked for a team of Irregulars to participate. That was fine with Claire; a team mission meant less ammo expenditure and less risk of damage. Even if it were a ten-way split she'd still go home with more than one million in her pocket, and with the reduced risk she could probably take most of that as profit. She needed the Valkyria ready soon, so she called the hanger operator.
"How quickly can you get the Valkyria back to operational capacity?" she asked the manager as she made her way towards the designated conference room.
"A day or so. Why?" the man answered.
"I need it for a mission again. I'll pay you 125-percent of your standard fee if you get it ready for me in the next 12 hours," she offered, eager to get the next mission started. The last was already a bust, so she didn't mind spending what little she had kept for herself to get her machine ready for the next one.
Claire hung up as she entered the meeting room, and was surprised to find far fewer Irregulars in attendance than she had expected. None of the higher-ranking Collared operatives were there; none of the Originals, either.
"Strange," she muttered as she took a seat in the back of the room and waited for the briefing to start. There were about fifteen Irregulars in attendance, a few that she recognized, but she'd never met any of them personally. Hopefully the mission briefing would discourage some of them from attending, but Claire was determined to see this payday through.
"Welcome. Here is the mission," the Collared representative at the head of the room began. The screen behind him flickered on. "The mission benefactor has chosen to remain anonymous, but funds have already been added to Collared accounts."
Claire raised an eyebrow; anonymous mission donors weren't uncommon, but with something of this scale, it would be hard to keep the source under wraps. Still, it wasn't Collared's business to snoop where they weren't asked to.
"Your target is the rebel group 'Blue Africa' and their inner circle of commanders," the man continued. The image on the screen behind him shifted to show a picture of the rebel group's logo and name, and the information on their ten highest-ranking members. "There are reports that the group has disrupted trade between the countries of the former African Union, and has engaged in attacks against local governments and corporations."
Claire nodded; that was likely where the funding for the mission was coming from. A large group of benefactors would be able to throw together a much larger pile of cash and attract a large group of Irregulars to take care of their problem more quickly. It meant several things; that this 'Blue Africa' was either incredibly powerful and its methods very effective, or its ideals were attracting more people and garnering more influence than the powers-that-be could afford.
"Intelligence reports have positioned the rebels' base somewhere within Lybia," the Collared rep reported. The screen behind him showed a satellite view of the island. "Satellite and thermal imaging positions their base of operations in Tripoli. Your objective is to eliminate Blue Africa's ability to disrupt the economic and political workings of the region, and to either capture or eliminate the inner circle of commanders."
"How are we getting to the region?" Claire asked, eager to get started. She wasn't sure how they would organize the command structure either, but was less concerned.
"Collared will provide transportation to the USS Tungsten, an NAA aircraft carrier stationed in the area that we've been allowed use of for the mission," the man responded. "Your Operators will run specs from there while the Irregular team breaks into the compound. Once Blue Africa is neutralized and its command is either restrained or eliminated, crew from the Tungsten will be dispatched to confirm or collect them."
"Seems like you got this all thought out," Claire said, stepping forward from the back of the room. "Why do you need so many Irregulars anyway? Two or three would be more than enough...unless you don't know the enemy's capabilities."
"An astute observation, Scarlet," the man said with a smirk. "Which is why we chose you as one of the possible candidates to participate in this mission to begin with."
Claire frowned; so that was why there were so few Irregulars present for the briefing for such a high-paying job. Collared had only posted the bulletin to a select few individuals and would be selecting the participants from the smaller pool of candidates that showed. But what were their criteria? Was it just random, or was there something the Irregulars in the room shared?
"So there's no information on the enemy's armament?" Claire asked, still frowning. The man was entirely too at ease with withholding information. Claire suspected that if she hadn't broached the subject, they wouldn't have been informed of the enemy's capabilities whatsoever.
"You can assume the standard armaments of most militia," the man said offhandedly. "Anti-aircraft guns, heavy tanks and gunships, and likely several configurations of third and fourth generation Armored Core Normal units and first and second generation Armored Core Mobile-Turret units. Nothing a unit of skilled Irregulars like yourselves can't handle."
"Unless there's more than that," Claire chipped in. "You said so yourself, we don't know whether Blue Africa has Irregulars of its own at its disposal, and that could considerably even the playing field."
"It's highly unlikely that--"
"But according to your own information, it's not beyond the realm of possibility," Claire interjected. "Which would be another reason to hire a team of Collared Irregulars instead of just one or two as usual."
The man was stunned to silence; it wasn't every day that Irregulars spoke out against the intelligence provided to them, so when they did it was something worth noting. He didn't lash out, however, and made a mental note to review Claire's file.
"That is all, ladies and gentlemen," he said, standing straight. The screen behind him flickered off and the lights in the room turned on. "You'll be receiving word of your acceptance in two hours, once the decisions have been made. Your departure time and place will be included in the full briefing. Thank you."
"That was new," Claire muttered as she watched the man leave.
"You all enjoy this one," said one of the Irregulars. Claire recognized him as Jessie Hoyt, the Collared Rank-28 Irregular. "No way I'm getting roped into this mess." He gave them a wave and left the room.
"I'm with him," said a woman, probably around Claire's age. Her name, Kathleen Lawrence, was embroidered onto her jacket; she was the Rank-27 Irregular, if Claire wasn't mistaken.
Claire frowned as the two left. They weren't of the highest ranks, but their Armored Cores, the Kodiak Hammer and the Blood Titan, were exceptionally powerful: heavyweight bombardment and combat types. If they were concerned with the outcome of the mission...
"More for me then," Claire said decidedly. She wouldn't put off a big pay-day like this just because some of the others were getting cold feet. And she'd already promised the hangar manager a bonus of he completed her repairs ahead of schedule.
May 11th, 2099
North American Alliance
New York City, New York
Collared Irregular Quarters
Lance woke from a dreamless sleep. He never dreamed, not for a long time anyway, not since the day his happy little world exploded and everything was taken away. He figured there was nothing left to dream about after that. He didn't think he was missing out on much anyway, so it never bothered him.
Because he didn't dream, when he woke his vision was sharp. He was instantly aware of his surroundings, of exits and entrances, of obstacles and obstructions. It wasn't a panicked concern or paranoia; he never really felt things like that. Rather, it was an extreme awareness, built and honed from years of necessity that sharpened him and brought him clarity when everyone else would still be reeling from the mind-numbing haze of sleep. It made the eerie morning calm that much more disconcerting. Because there was danger in silence, anticipation of swift, violent movement lurked in the still darkness.
His trepidation last only for an instant. Only for a brief moment he was alone, only for the space of time between when his eyes snapped open and took their first blink. Then he felt it stir again, as it did each morning. He felt it, drawing up, rising within him, huge and vast. With a single breath it swelled and filled the dark spaces behind his eyes. That dark thing, his passenger, was always with him. It was an animal acknowledging and evaluating its surroundings, and it took only a moment to reaffirm that it was indeed still the most dangerous thing in the immediate vicinity; the top of the food chain, the apex predator. Hyper-lethal.
And then the darkness wasn't dangerous anymore, and neither was the silence, because they both belonged to the thing.
He felt something move beside him in the dark, a shifting of warm bed sheets and soft skin. He looked to the silk-covered form next to him; she was all blonde hair and gentle curves, still drowned in warm slumber, curled beneath the sheets.
Serra must have come in last night, as she always seemed to do, after some night-noise or nightmare left her shaken.
Another reason why he appreciated his not-dreaming.
She'd crawl in, shuffling the blankets, moving pillows, shifting the mattress, and slide next to him. She'd curl up and turn away, her back just barely touching his arm, just enough that he could feel the heat, the nearness of her body. And he had to admit, that was actually kinda nice.
She started doing it the third night after they'd moved in together. She probably would have done it the first two also, but unlike him she had a sense of social decorum and held off as long as she could. Which, apparently, was two whole nights. At first, he found it unbearable: that she would just walk in and interrupt his sleep! It was one of the very few things he actually enjoyed. Of the three things he did genuinely enjoy, it was rather high on the list. Definitely in the top three. Maybe even in the top two.
But Serra didn't care about any of that, because fear has a way of making itself seem more important than anything else, especially his sleep habits. And though Serra put on as brave a face as anyone else, he knew she was afraid. He always knew, because his passenger could tell these things about people, and he knew whatever it knew. He didn't exactly know what she was afraid of, but the little scars on her back and arms, and just above one eyebrow, told a story. And scars were stories he was familiar with.
He ran a few calloused fingertips lightly over the exposed skin of her back. He traced one of the small scars, and his gaze lingered on the two larger ones that crossed over either shoulder blade. Here, despite the marks and scars, she was unblemished in the realness of her beauty. She was marred by physical abuse, and yet she was perfect: pure, flawless beauty. Even he could see that. All the imperfections, the scars, the crass intrusion into his sleep cycle, the annoying way she constantly pulled the blankets up around her that left his feet freezing cold the next morning, and the way she would stab him with one of those viciously-pointed elbows when he shoved his freezing feet up against her legs…it made her real, so unlike him. Serra was truly human: everything he was not.
"That explains why my feet are so damn cold," he said in a voice that was probably just a bit too loud for that early-morning, because Serra heard him, and whether she was aware of it or not, she mumbled a sleepy "fuck you" and rolled over, pulling even more of the blankets with her. He resisted the sudden urge to yank away the blankets and flip her off the mattress. Not because of any crisis of conscience, no, he was lucky to not be burdened with one of those useless things, but because then she'd groggily storm out to her room leaving him to clean up, wasting more of his early-morning than he wanted. And he wasn't quite ready to give that up.
He rose from the bed in a single purposeful motion, not because of any sense of urgency or purpose, but simply because that was the way he always moved. Move quickly, quietly, swiftly, and you'll survive longer. He readjusted his awkwardly sleep-twisted boxers that pressed certain bits against other bits and really made walking uncomfortable, and shivered as the cold climbed over his bare, sleep-warmed torso. And that warm spot next to Serra looked much more inviting than the cold apartment and cold tile floor, but laying wide awake in bed didn't seem like a very productive use of his time, and he had things to do. So he let the cold settle over him in a wave that seemed to ripple down the length of his body and excite the passenger with the prospect of a new day. He never understood why.
He padded softly into the kitchen, together with his passenger. They left the lights off, let the grey early-morning filter through the rain-spattered windows. They liked the dark. The dark was safe, because if one stayed there long enough one's eyes adjusted, and pitch black became a world of grey, and everyone else was blind, but he could see. He, and his dark thing, that sat behind his eyes in the back passenger seat of his brain-car. The thing was king of the dark, of the pitch-black. It and it alone ruled that shadowy world, and because it was currently residing in his brain, it sort of made him a prince…or at least a duke of the dark. He liked the sound of that.
The passenger chuckled.
The whirling, sputtering noise of his coffee brewer clamored through the grey-blue silence. Like sleep, coffee—at least good coffee—was one of his three genuine pleasures. And like sleep it was definitely up there, possibly, in top three. He didn't know why, but something about its warmth...
He turned to face the windows and looked over the bleak city skyline, or what little he could see from the apartment. He watched the heavy black clouds roll by. There was never rain like this in Israel, only heat and sand and sun. And sometimes fire. More than sometimes, really. A cold wind swept through, ruffling the falling rain. And he would've been cold if it weren't for the coffee in his hand and belly, warming his body.
He stretched, wincing as every joint and ligament from his back to his shoulders all the way to his fingers made cracking noises that seemed far too loud for someone his age. But explosions and bullets and shrapnel and broken bones had a way of making you feel older. He felt a shiver crawl up his back and over his shoulders, and he glared down accusingly at the coffee that wasn't doing its job.
And there was a chuckle, low and throaty and condescending, from the passenger behind his eyes.
His eyesight sharpened as the bedroom door opened and Serra strode out. He let out a calming breath; he was on edge, and that wasn't good, or safe...for anyone.
"Thank you for waking me," she said, her voice even. Anyone unfamiliar with Serra's mannerisms might have taken that statement at face value, but Lance was far more adept at reading and understanding her, and he sensed the well of sarcasm in her voice.
"I didn't think you needed looking-after," Lance said back, his voice just as matter-of-fact. "And you have a habit of drinking my coffee."
"Since when was there a limit on how much we can make?" Serra asked, her eyes sharp and accusing. But there was a playfulness in her voice that only Lance could have discerned. It was the game they played. He tried his best to appear human and vulnerable, while she did her best not to, and they'd call each other on it. Not in so many words, of course.
Lance shrugged and stepped out of her way. Despite their comfort with one another, and despite what others might have believed, they were not a couple, or lovers, or fuck-buddies...well, not most of the time, at least. He could only describe their relationship as allies, partners, or even perhaps...accomplices.
"Briefing is in twenty-five minutes," Lance said. He passed her an empty mug. Serra didn't answer directly, but he sensed her minute change in body posture that indicated she had heard him.
"I've heard rumors that Collared is assembling an entire flight-group," said Serra. "Seems like some rebel group in Madagascar has been giving the UN forces a bit of trouble."
"Since when were you one to indulge the rumor mill?" Lance asked with a smirk.
"A girl has to indulge once in a while," Serra replied, though her meaning was double-edged. She leaned forward provocatively, posed against the counter-top. "Care to join me?"
It was their game again, always trying to break the mask of the other. Lance knew she was being less-than-serious...mostly. Their arrangement only worked because they were both unable to offer anything more, and refused to break their unspoken truce, the agreement of what was and what had to be.
"We'd end up being late," he said. Game or not, unspoken or not, he refused to let her have the last word, to win their war of wits and wills.
Lance glanced outside; the dark storm clouds hung low, filling the early-morning sky. Rain pattered against the window, lulling Lance into a false sense of white-noise security. He stood watching the rain for a few minutes, allowing himself to be drawn into its rhythm and form. In another time and place, the same rains had extinguished the fire and washed away the blood of his second birth, when he was ripped screaming and crying from beneath the charred and sopping corpses of his mother and father. When he first met his passenger in the back of that ambulance. When it first began to whisper in his ear. The rains seemed to welcome him once more.
Then he withdrew, and returned himself to the sky-darkened room. Alone except for Serra; except for the hushed fall of water droplets over window panes and soft skin. A silence settled between them, but it was a comfortable one.
"Ready?" Serra gave him a smile, a real one, a sad one; because all her real smiles were sad.
He nodded and led the way down to the elevator. Their walk to and ride down the elevator was taken in that same comfortable silence, one that developed from a deeper connection and understanding than most could recognize. Because He understood her, and she understood him and, perhaps, even accepted him.
Lance's car was waiting for them by their building's valet. All--or at least many--of Collared's North American Irregulars were required to have some sort of semi-permanent residence in the building. Lance wasn't sure why; putting that many killers together under one roof was only inviting disaster. He could only guess that they wanted to keep the greatest weapons in the world somewhere that they could keep their eyes on them; keep them under their control. Collared.
Lance banished those thoughts from his mind as he slid into the front passenger's seat of the white Audi. Beside him, Serra adjusted the mirrors and seat before seamlessly pulling forward and merging with the fevered flow of city traffic. The Audi was one of Lance's only possessions of any real value apart from his Armored Core, and he was reluctant to let anyone else go near it. But Serra wasn't just anyone. Between the two of them he might have been the ace pilot, but she was one hell of a driver.
Serra wove between city traffic, skimming past other drivers by a matter of mere inches. Horns blared in their wake, but Serra paid them no heed, blitzing through stop signs and red lights without breaking stride. She remained passive, completely at ease as she tore down crowded city streets and weaved into oncoming lanes of traffic.
Though they were moving at more than ninety miles per hour, the world seemed to crawl by. After the accelerated speeds of his Armored Core, other modes of transportation seemed crushingly slow. Part of Lance longed for the embrace of the White Glint; it was one of only two places where things seemed to make sense; where he had a purpose. Another part, the tiny part of him that still held to some shred of humanity, loathed it and the other thing he did; hated the sound of gunfire, the scream of missiles, the pop of energy bolts, and flashing of silver. But the last part of him, his dweller within, the Dark Passenger, cared little either way. It pushed Lance forward, silently demanding--urging--him. To what, Lance didn't always know. But it was the loudest voice he'd ever heard.