Dense threads of plasma fire lit up the sky the night our JumpSquad got Zepped into position.

My group was part of the third-wave offensive on the western side of the Baltimore-Washington Crater. Having a human handler along was necessary due to the high failure rate of WarDogs near the alpha-emitter zone. High energy particles tore though the shielding and flipped bits at random, resulting in performance loss or complete system crashes.

I was loaded down with P-Armour, dense sheets designed to absorb the particles and redirect them away from vital organs. The WarDogs weren’t as lucky, their design spec had been frozen a while ago to contain costs – its easier to strip a disabled unit to repair another than it is to waste materials on a larger more bulky design. The efficiency of local conflicts were dictated by the algorithms back at central command, and it was way above my paygrade to argue details, I was just there to fix things.

I wasn’t going in blind, we had two AirHawks painting the terrain with various RF and non-visible spectra, creating a false-color map of the entire battlefield. Local fire was dense, as the Caliphate Army were intent on gaining access to the buried treasures of our former sovereign’s secretive agency.

We had to prevent complete extraction and upload of all the data, especially those documents that languished in the deeper levels of the complex, buried after the initial bombing run on capitol went awry and detonated mid-way between Old Baltimore and the redrawn borders of New Washington.

The bomb wasn’t designed for mass fatalities, it had one singular purpose – reduce the symbol of the old empire to granite and marble rubble, while keeping its secrets intact. Its core was an alpha-particle emitter, slaved to an encrypted frequency under Caliphate control. It was designed to keep an area “hot” for a short time, just long enough to keep us at bay before they moved in to plunder the target zone.

The Caliphate arrived in long parabolic arcs, fired out of their own Sub-Carriers in missile transports. A hybrid between the old cruise missiles and newer attack drones. They didn’t mind that one of the larger troves of military data lay within their reach. The Capitol wrecking plans could wait, as it was too tempting of a target to pass up.

Standing at the rear of the Zepp, the back bay door slowly opened, the thin air tugging at my parachute pack. WarDogs leapt out in clumps, into the dark night sky. Command was running the show, bursts of encrypted RF signaling the next group out of the Zepp, optimized for pure chaotic movement through the air to prevent the ground forces from locking on too easily.

I was nested in the middle of a larger group of WarDogs, their newly fabbed carbon frames squeaking in the cold air as we crab-walked into position. Then a coordinated leap, and freefall. Air roaring around us as the WarDogs extended and retracted limbs, making our metal-and-flesh snowflake tumble through the air with maximum abandon.

Under the cloud deck, the chutes appeared, then a larger canopy from my pack. Cutting away, I drifted the last 100 feet down to the pockmarked earth, charred roots and blowing ash scattering as my boots hit the ground. My VR display informed me that two of our clusters didn’t make it, blown to bits by the luminous plasma bolts fired from Caliphate forces. Reviewing the stats, the mission still looked good, an estimated 90% chance of success still painted on the upper right of my view.

I hit the ‘call’ tab on my forearm, climbing aboard the WarDog that clambered over the felled trees. The AirHawks squirted an updated map, showing a smaller square in my lower right with a triangle in the center. I oriented towards the first Caliphate strike group, and tapped my feet on the WarDog, accelerating to maximum running speed.

We leaped from tree trunks to the ground, off of toppled walls and bent I-beams. The trajectory was jarring, but maximized our speed and lowered the risk of being locked on to by a random spotter. We were getting close, I was getting some RF bleeding out from their mobile command, as the makeshift antennas kept the alpha-core pumping out deadly beams in the crater center.

It was midleap, cresting the far wall of their outer perimeter when I felt the pain. The WarDog froze, limbs articulated in a far leap, forelegs extended to maximum while the rear was tucked for aerodynamic precision. Bastards, they had a few pulse-mines that we hadn’t picked up, and I had just gotten caught in the upward blast of energy. My VR display went to snow as we fell, the battle system display crashing just as badly as the WarDog’s brain.

I might have a chance. I leapt off the back as we neared the ground, tumbling and hitting a pile of rubble. It was hard to breathe, my goggles were useless and I pulled them down, dangling from the strap around my neck. The voices of a nearby patrol crested the hill, and probing lights found my position. So this was it. The Caliphate weren’t known for taking prisoners. Two of them rushed to the WarDog, and started stripping parts, talking excitedly to each other.

Oh shit. I’ve got to move. Trying to will my hands to unclasp my sidearm, my body was wracked by a new kind of pain. One of the sentries had a Millimeter-Wave gun, the kind designed to incapacitate human subjects. It felt like my skin was on fire. Groaning, I twitched on the ground like a squashed insect. Another Caliphate soldier stalked closer, sidearm drawn.

My pain-washed mind was elsewhere, I couldn’t see through my tearing eyes. In my mind I saw the AirHawks, circling above. Inside their circuitry, a signal decremented a counter and updated the battle summary;

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