This is going into the next edition of An Ultimate's Guide to Combat, but I figured I'd put it here early, since it's done. Let's hope that the semester I spent taking "Writing Science Fiction" was somewhat worthwhile.
The quiet of vacuum was unsettling, even with the hum of the ship to cover it up. There was nothing left to hear, it seemed, as the gray marble of Earth got smaller and smaller through the view screen. The battle for Earth was over, and they were the losers.
"Listen up, we've got our orders! We're escorting a memory core to a waiting ship. Higher-ups say that the contents are mission critical, and if they're left here they'll give the TITANs an edge against us."
"Why don't we just shoot it and make sure it's dead?"
"Because it makes us a lot more valuable. You think they're going to send down an evac for twelve guys in battlesuits when the refugee camp off the 14th is getting hit?"
Rackham sat back. He'd always been quiet, but people getting on his nerve just made him bottle it up more. He couldn't explode at his CO, but the whole mission was absurd. Too many people had died already; Earth was as good as lost.
"Look alive, we're here!"
Fire erupted from one of the nearby buildings as a TITAN missile landed near its target.
[No danger to suit.]
A warmachine popped up on the horizon, and Rackham aimed the rocket launcher at it. An incoming shot bounced off the launcher's optics, but Rackham heard the lock-on confirmation and fired the missile.
The resulting orchestra of fire and shrapnel shook an abandoned bus, sending it onto its side with an earsplitting clash. The hydrogen batteries sounded like popcorn as they discharged explosively in bursts of flame. Rackham's left eye went dark as a warm tide washed over it.
"Clark! Are you okay?"
Rackham reached up to his helmet. A piece of shrapnel had torn through it, ripping off the left side of the suit's helmet and tearing into his face. The smart-suit glove had covered his face since the injury, and a nanobandage had already been applied to the site.
"I'll be fine. Might be a little hard to see, but I'll make it."
In the following hours, his eye had cleared up as the blood was washed away by tears and sweat. The compound they had been sent to stood in the center of the leveled city. Across the street from an abandoned shopping mall, the area had been entirely leveled by artillery, leaving only a squat concrete bunker and fragments of the security barriers around it.
"This the place? Sibirskiy? Doesn't look like much."
"It's Russia, does it ever look like much? Higher ups said to keep the installation out of the reach of the US, so they stuck it in Novosibirsk."
They turned off the stealth features on their powered armor, letting the blue and yellow regiment logo display on their suits' shoulders. The bunker had its radio transmitters off, but someone had been watching for them, and the metal doors were unsealed with a hiss, before sliding open with a metallic groan.
"Here's the module. Take it off-planet."
"You're going to stay here?"
"I don't have one of those fancy suits, like you have. Besides, I've got a backup on Mars. I'll stay here to keep things under control, since someone has to do it."
Corporal Henkhaus turned to exit the bunker, tucking the small silver rod into a storage compartment of his armor. Nine of them had made it in, now they had to make it out.
[Seven minutes to evacuation.]
The city was a blur beneath them as they flew, their armors' thrusters screaming from being run at red-line. Anti-air fire exploded in black clouds above them, and every once in a while a missile would detonate in a nearby building. The stealth functions worked better for slow movement on the ground.
"Grenier's hit! He's going down!"
One of the armors tumbled from the air and slammed into a park. Rackham saw Henkhaus' armor flicker orange as the gouts of flame erupted from the crash site. Swearing under his breath, he went to fly lower, narrowly avoiding a burst of plasma. He was too tired to announce its presence, even as it cut a red path across the hostile indicator bubble projected into his field of vision.
Everyone else saw it too, and the suits scattered, spreading out so that a good shot couldn't take down the whole squad.
[Henkhaus is hit.]
Rackham dove past a string of railgun shots, firing four smoke grenades to obscure the crash site and launching a flare to divert an incoming missile. The suit's alarms screamed as it neared the ground, but a last minute thrust kept the knees of the exoskeleton from collapsing in on themselves.
The smoldering remains of the wreckage contained little more than ash. Bits of Henkhaus were still intact, but the plasma had torn straight through his suit and turned most of his body to smoke or rubble. The storage module was still intact, and Rackham grabbed it. He took a few steps toward the subway entrance before activating his thrusters again.
[Exit at the next station, up the stairs, and continue north two clicks to the waiting launch vessel.]
The tunnels were dark blurs, the emergency lighting blocked by corpses and debris as Rackham's suit roared through the tunnels. Sweating, he set the autopilot to keep the suit just below the ceiling of the tunnel. He was sealed in the suit, but he couldn't help but imagine the smell of death down here, with the faint after-trace of ionization from energy weapons.
[You have thirty seconds.]
Daylight greeted him, and Rackham ascended, scanning for his Valkyrie. As he crested, he felt the realization of heaviness as the thrusters spat smoke and belched fire. A barrage of railgun fire flew past him; only one slug hit, because of his sudden loss of power, but he grimaced as his abdomen began to burn with a stinging pain.
The clouds above him began to blur as he fell, the drops of rain lifting gently off his visor as he went crashing to the ground. In a final act of desperation, he plugged the data module into the suit, beginning the download. The copy on the on-board computer would survive, even if the original was destroyed in the impact.
"—ake up! Clark! Rackham Clark!"
The cold, bright, sanitary surroundings of the VTOL greeted him. He was out of the battlesuit now, laying on a gurney in his smart armor glove. He ached all over, but he was alive.
"We got it. Good thing you set up the autopilot on your battlesuit. You were out for a half-hour. If there were anything better to do, they would have called you a loss."
"Damn. Any word on what we're doing next?"
"No, we're done. There's no 8th Cavalry any more. No European Union. Henkhaus was supposed to have instructions for where we'd go, but he's gone. One of the black-suits took the data module, but he won't give us grunts the time of day."
"We can't go back to Strasbourg, can we?"
"Nope. Black-suit said we were on our own."
"Hell of a payment. You got a place to go?"
"Had family on Iapetus. Gonna head there, maybe Titan, see if anyone made it out."
"My daughter's on Mars. Part of the terraforming effort. I think I'll head there."
The ship hummed quietly through the vacuum, traveling toward Mars at speeds which would have been terrifying, had there been any points of reference for comparison. Rackham stared at one of the "windows", a display linked to an external hull camera, watching the old world disappear behind him.
One of the black suits walked over to him, extending a hand. Rackham took it, and pulled himself up to a stand.
"I don't think you yet realize the greatness of what you've done for humanity. I represent a particular group interested in keeping everything going. We saw the Fall coming, and we did our best to prevent it. You have recovered some of our greatest research into countermeasures for seed AI."
"Not the talkative type? Doesn't matter. I'm here to offer you a job, because someone has to clean up."
Creator of Street Rats, a CC-BY cyberpunk roleplaying game.