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Jack's insides were still shaking from that turbulent ride through the atmosphere. He threw off his seat belt and tried to sit up from his reclined position. Despite the hundreds of hours he had spent training his abs - while wearing a tungsten suit, no less! - Earth's gravity proved too strong for him. He dropped back into his seat with a miserable groan.
“I've got a falcon circling overhead,” Ellen said over the radio. “Your fiery entrance woke up all the soldiers. They'll be on you any minute now.”
Jack clenched his abs and strained with all his might. When he finally sat upright, a dizzy spell nearly struck him back down. He clutched his armrests to steady himself.
“Hello? Are you guys hearing me?”
“Ellen,” Jack said through gritted teeth. “Just... give us a moment, will ya?”
“You don't have a moment. Get your butts to the supply capsule. Now!”
Jack slid off his seat. He swayed on his feet as white flashes battered his vision. His legs trembled. His spine creaked and groaned. He clutched his racing heart, which beat so fast that he thought it had stopped.
He heard shouting coming from outside. He glanced out the window. A beam of light shone through the glass. He held up his hand to shield his eyes. He saw the black outline of soldiers forming up a firing line.
“Shit,” Ellen cursed. “I'm closing the hatch.”
The hatch whirred as it slid shut. It locked in place with a mechanical click.
Derek sat upright with a pained groan. He clutched his chest. “Jack, how did your old man not die of a heart attack?”
Erwin slid off his seat, stumbled a few steps and fell against the wall. He wilted onto the floor, moaning like a wounded bear. “This was a shit plan. Ya had to land us right next to these soldiers?”
“I suppose I could have dropped you into the ocean,” Ellen said. “Care for a swim?”
“How are we getting out of here?” Derek demanded.
“I've got a plan,” Ellen said. “Just make sure you're ready when I execute.”
Jack resisted the urge to puke. “Just do what you gotta do.”
A huge jet of flame burst from the capsule. The floor shook as the engines roared. Jack squinted as he looked out the window. Black humanoid shapes flailed about in a sea of fire. The engine cut out. The corpses still burned.
“Holy shit,” Derek said with a gasp. “Ellen...”
The hatch popped open once more.
“I didn't get all of them,” Ellen said in a regretful tone. “Now move your asses.”
Jack tore his gaze away from the charred corpses and stumbled out the door. He lost his footing on the steps and fell face-first onto the hard pavement. Upon impact, he nearly blacked out, but he managed to hold onto consciousness by a hair's breadth.
Somebody grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him up. It was Erwin. The two of them half-walked half-jogged away from the Dragonite capsule. “Which way?” Erwin demanded.
“You can't miss it,” Ellen said.
Jack pivoted around. Out of the darkness, a cluster of LED lights flickered to life. It was the supply capsule, less than hundred metres away. The hatch opened and light poured out of the expanding opening. The hatch touched the ground, forming a staircase.
Jack, Erwin and Derek sprinted towards the capsule, the sound of gunfire ringing behind them. Jack heard a ding, followed by the whizz of a speeding bullet. He caught a sharp sting on his left butt cheek. He stumbled forward with a pained cry. “Dammit. They got me in the ass.” Derek and Erwin grabbed Jack by the shoulders and carried him the rest of the way. They leaped into the supply capsule to the din of bullets bouncing off the capsule's carbon hull.
The hatch slid shut and locked in place.
Derek and Erwin eased Jack onto the floor. Jack rolled onto his belly and asked his companions, "How bad is it?"
"That's a fine ass," Derek said. "You'll live."
Erwin pounded his chest plate. “Kinda wish you had a carbon shell to protect your touche, don't ya?”
Jack stood up muttering as he rubbed his bruised butt cheek. “So... where are the weapons at?”
As if in response, the elevator shaft at the centre of the capsule opened. “Take the lift,” Ellen said.
Jack and his companions walked onto the lift. The lift rose to the second deck then opened. Jack saw rows of lockers arranged in a ring around the elevator shaft. He rubbed the chin of his helmet. “Hmm. Which one's mine?” The virtual interface projected by the visor of his helmet highlighted one of the lockers in the first row in a yellow outline. He walked towards the locker.
“Greetings, Jack,” said a cool synthetic female voice. “Our records indicate that you have one utility belt, one Solokov Mark V Gauss rifle, one Kinetoshock P450 handgun, one Kinetoshock P500 Gauss rifle, one Armada utility knife, and five hundred and fifty-rounds of ammunition in storage. Good hunting.” The locker popped open.
Erwin walked up to the adjacent locker.
“Greetings, Erwin,” said the synthetic female voice. “Our records indicate that you have one utility belt, one Dapao Avenger Gauss rifle, two Dapao Durango handguns, one Dapao Shredder, one Prototype Z-1000 tank buster, one Prototype M600 laser rifle, one Armada utility knife, and several thousand rounds of ammunition in storage... Good hunting.” Several lockers popped open simultaneously.
“Erwin, you're a lunatic,” Derek said.
“Why? Because I like to be prepared?” Erwin asked.
Derek retrieved his Solokov from his locker. “Back on Mars, why did you think it necessary to bring a tank buster?”
Erwin shrugged. “Deer huntin'?” He grabbed his Prototpye Z-1000 and loaded a huge magazine drum into it.
Jack and Derek exchanged worried glances.
“What?” Erwin blurted. “I don't gotta justify Big Bertha to you.” He slammed his locker shut and wagged a warning finger at Jack and Derek. “And nobody better touch her. Got it?”
Jack held up his hands. “If a man names his weapon, it's sacred.”
“Head back down,” Ellen said. “Grab a bag. Load up on food and water filters. After you clear out our landing zone, you've got a long journey ahead of you.”
Jack strapped his utility belt to his waist and sheathed his combat knife. He grabbed his P450 handgun and loaded a magazine into it. He slipped two P450 magazines into his belt, along with four Solokov magazines. Lastly, he grabbed his Solokov Mark V Gauss rifle and slung its strap over his shoulder. Erwin equipped his belt, knife, dual Durango handguns, and Dapao Shredder in addition to Big Bertha. Derek equipped his belt, knife, P450 handgun, and Solokov Mark V. The three of them returned to ground level, and they each grabbed a backpack and filled it up with no-name nutrient bars, water filters, and first aid supplies. Jack made sure to pack a change of underwear, his smart-visor, and the key card to his Volta Motors XCS-900.
As they gathered before the hatch, Jack quietly confessed to Derek, “I'm a bit nervous.”
Derek clapped him on the back. “We're gonna find your old man. Then I'm gonna marry your sister.”
Jack gave his buddy the thumbs up. “Yay.”
Ellen's voice blared over the radio, “Into the fray in three, two, one...”
The hatch opened. Jack, Erwin and Derek charged out of the capsule and into darkness. Nobody fired at them.
The crickets chirped.
“Ellen,” Derek said, “do you see them?”
A mechanical whir revved up in volume and frequency. A light flashed in the distance. It rose into the air.
“They're trying to escape,” Ellen said. “Shoot 'em down or your cover's blown!”
Jack and Derek aimed their Solokovs at the distant speck of light and opened fire. Jack hadn't had time to get used to his new weapon, so the powerful kickback sent him a few steps back. He dialled down the power to fifty percent, switched on the infrared, aimed through the scope and pulled the trigger.
“The armour's too strong,” Derek said.
Erwin stepped forward and pushed aside Derek's gun. The Huoxing man aimed Big Bertha at the receding speck of light in the black sky. After several seconds, he pulled the trigger.
A sonic boom tore through Jack's helmet, deafening his ears. So powerful was the shock wave that the virtual interface projected by his visor turned to jelly.
Off in the distance, the speck of light spun wildly. Through the ringing in his ears, Jack heard the distinctive high-pitched whirr of a failing jet engine, followed by a muted thud.
Erwin lowered his Prototype Z-1000. “What does a man need a tank buster for, right, Derek?”
“Bird shootin',” Derek said.
“That was a helluva welcoming party,” Ellen said, “but I think we're good. I'm rolling out some ATVs for you guys. With any luck, the fishing trawler our engineers fixed up is still docked at Reykjavik's seaport.”
“What do we need that for?” Jack asked. "We goin' fishing?"
“They've got patrols on the highway,” Ellen replied. “If you go by sea, you can circle around the whole island and land undetected.”
“Land where, exactly?” Derek asked.
“Settisford, located in a fjord on the east end of the island. Gabriella's bunker isn't far from there.”
“And how do we bust into this bunker?” Erwin asked.
“One of the engineers, Phil, contacted me not long after I spoke with Gabriella. He was the only one to escape. He's in hiding. You're to rendezvous with him near Settisford. He can show you to the backdoor.”
“And after we rescue our people,” Derek said, “do we get back on the boat and head back here?”
“I'm thinking we lay siege to her bunker instead,” Ellen said. “If all goes well down there, I'll send down more men. Now about those ATVs...”
Another cluster of lights flickered to life about fifty metres away. It was another supply capsule. The hatch popped open and swivelled down to form a ramp. From the darkness within, a pair of neon-blue lights lit up like eyes. A midnight-black Volta XCS 900 rolled off the ramp, its carbon exterior glistening under the glare of the capsule's LED lights. The electric vehicle parked itself in front of Jack. He got down to his knee and stroked the vehicle's sleek, glossy carbon exterior. “That's my baby,” he whispered.
Two other ATVs rolled down the ramp. One was blood-red, like Erwin's suit; the other was white and blue, like Derek's.
“The black one belongs to Jack,” Ellen said. “The other two belong to the company. I expect you to return them in one piece.”
“How come Jack gets his own?” Erwin asked.
“The Volta Motors chic gave it to me,” Jack replied.
“You mean the hottie back at the meet'n'greet?” Erwin said. “All I got from her was a lousy mug.”
“I guess she just likes me more.” Jack shouldered his weapon and took his key card out of his backpack. He mounted his ATV and inserted the card into the key slot. The vehicle's instrument panel lit up in a dazzling array of neon-blue and orange LED lights.
“Derek, Erwin,” Ellen said, “I'll generate a set of temporary e-keys and send them to you.”
Jack brushed the tip of his gloved fingers over the Volta Motors logo on his steering wheel. A promise is a promise, Snow White. “Visor, begin recording.” The blue camera icon flashed at top left corner of his virtual interface. He focused his gaze on the Volta Motors logo. There. A bit of product placement. That ought to satisfy her.
Derek mounted his ATV. “Jack, you shootin' another one of your adventure videos?”
Jack spread his arms. “It's the First Contact War. Earth versus Mars. Gotta document it for posterity.”
Erwin had both his big guns slung across his back as he sat astride his ATV. The Huoxing man pointed at Jack's visor. “For all you folks watching at home, check this out.” He slammed his foot onto the pedal. The back wheels of his ATV squealed. The front wheels lifted into the air, and he zipped down the tarmac hooting like a drunken redneck.
“Erwin, if you damage that vehicle, I'm sending you the bill,” Ellen said. “Now, you guys should already have SolarNav installed on your helmets. Open it. It'll help you navigate to your next destination: Reykjavik. Be warned. Our satellites have picked up a large garrison of enemy troops stationed near the port. You won't be able to take them on, so it's imperative that you remain undetected.”
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