Thomas Villa, ARM pilot, 201CE

by Ed Jowett

The still-unfamiliar machine clanked and shifted beneath Thomas “Point Man” Villa, responding to his thoughts as promised, though with a quality of movement he could only verbalise as “clunky”. He eased it through the passageway, the three-metre tall metal frame he was controlling from within scraped the ceiling as the squad advanced. Despite the slightly odd sensation of piloting a mechanical object with the movement centre of your brain which didn’t bend in all the same places as a Human body, they moved as a Human would – crouching or turning sideways as needed.

As he bent down to pass under a rocky outcropping, he felt the wires attached to the back of his head pull slightly – not enough to hurt, but enough to be uncomfortable. The machine responded by squatting and waddling forward on its digitigrade legs, as it was not capable of bending in that manner – this contingency had been programmed into it.

Glancing up, he again checked his indicator lights – an odd sensation in itself due to his sensory disconnect, as the machine did not move in the same manner. The row of green lights shone piercingly into his eyes: Full fuel for his flamethrower, over 80% ammunition for his rocket launcher, air supply within tolerance, mechanical overrides on standby, neural interface nominal. The controls inside were minimal, mostly focused on giving him interface with the machine and providing him with a full 360 degree view of his surroundings within the thick armour shell – although they could detect the movements he intended, projection into his brain was currently impossible. He was particularly glad of the ability to see in this manner, having been in the squad which had captured the three prisoners a few years ago. He had seen the roaches appear from nowhere before, and this time, he would be ready.

He heard the explosions from behind him as his comrades held off the oncoming waves of enemies, finally possible for Humans with the Ambulatory Rocket Mount machines. Hurrying to the end of the passage as quickly as he could, he stood again and looked around. The cavern he entered was filled with some kind of solidified goo, eggs, baby bugs and chrysalises larger than a man attached to the walls. The baby roaches scuttled away as their powerful lights struck the surroundings. Thomas could not see any grown bugs, so he signaled back that there was no threat. His display showed several of his comrades following him from the narrow passage behind. Captain Robinson, the unit commander, looked around and walked several paces into the room.

As the firing stopped on the other side for the last of the group to move through the tunnel, he turned to look. Ximian limbs reached around grabbed the bulky form of his comrade Catherine’s walker and overpowered the mechanical limbs, beginning to pull him backwards. While Thomas hesitated, he suddenly saw movement behind him. A moment later a stream of rockets shot past his head from Captain Robinson. The first few were aimed at Catherine, the rest were aimed at the roof of the tunnel. As he gasped, Catherine’s ARM was destroyed, exploding and blasting back the roaches around her. Others from his unit were firing now, collapsing the tunnel to buy themselves some time. At the last moment, he backed up, avoiding the falling debris.

Thomas turned to his commanding officer, but before he could speak, Adam Robinson’s voice was being broadcast, painfully loudly inside his armour. Retaining enough mental control to not cover his ears with his hands, his stunned mind tried to understand what had just been ordered – destroying this area and everything within seemed wrong to him, too much death and destruction. Even the roaches didn’t deserve to have their children massacred. He opened his mouth to speak, but Sanifredo beat him to it, refusing the Captain’s order. Thomas watched in horror as Adam Robinson raised his ARM’s rocket launcher and fired. He automatically raised his own in response, only to feel a massive concussion wave from his right and fall sideways onto the ground.

Thomas cried out in pain and craned his neck, once more aware of the wire bundle at the back of his head. He had just enough time to notice that several of his indicator lights had begun to flash red – his oxygen tank had been punctured, his mechanical overrides were offline, and his neural interface was offline – before another rocket struck him in his flamethower’s fuel tank and everything turned burning hot and blinding white.