Tags: Collateral, the Freelancers, Corey “Stormcore” Adams, Vera “Everyperson” Newman, Carolina “Ledger” Smith, Archaven
DISTRICT 014 SUBURB
ARCHAVEN, EASTERN EUROPE
TO: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
SUBJ: [URGENT] APEC: Collateral
ATTENTION ALL AVAILABLE FREELANCERS
Freelancer special resource Collateral has escaped handlers and is currently AT LARGE in the surrounding suburbs. Casualties mounting; more expected. All available Agents will receive 1.5x standard contracting rate for this All-Points Emergency Contract. Available and uncontracted participants in the Social Rehabilitation Program are expected to report to dispatch for possible deployment.
Collateral is to be disabled and subdued by any means. Damage to the head or spine of the contained body at Collateral’s center may cause permanent damage or death to the resource and may void reward.
Three people on a crowded dropship, heading toward ‘Suburb 14’. Fifteen minutes out, they’d said.
Carolina– no, Ledger –looked through her mask at the two available ‘partners’ she’d been assigned for the emergency mission. Corey she knew, though this was her first time seeing him in armor. They’d sparred. He was decent at it, but she knew that his specialty was firearms. The other woman… was the green-haired one who’d given her the cold shoulder in the hallway. Fun.
She shifted her shoulder holsters, still getting used to the light but ever-present weight of the specialized pistols they’d commissioned for her.
“So,” Everyperson said, finally breaking the silence. “How about, that, uh… Corey, don’t you like sports?”
Carolina winced behind the mask. What did this lady know that made her so pissed?
Corey was in the process of checking his systems. He looked up, his one brown eye blinking. “Sports? They’re good for team building?” He said with the hesitance of someone who hasn’t really played sports since he was seven. He picked up his assault rifle, checking the stun pulse shots, and shouldered the weapon. There was no sign of anything heavier on him. “But we should talk strategy.
“I suggest I provide heavy fire and distraction.” He could take it. “And the two of you evacuate any civilians left in the area.”
“They said that they’re gonna bring in a containment ship, but we have to pin her down somehow,” Carolina’s voice was nervous, “can… you do that by yourself?”
Corey considered the question. “Not physically. She’s in my old armour, and that was a tank, if I do say so myself. I can pin her down via firepower, but I’m unsure how much stun blasts will take to bring her to unconsciousness.”
“Here’s a question, what the hell am I supposed to do besides not die?” In truth, Vera knew that the others had no better impression than she did. She’d been given some photos with brief descriptions: this was Collateral’s husband (whom she accidentally killed back when her name was still Rae), her kid (ditto), the scientist who helped install her into Earthcore (dead, replaced by Dr. Bowman), but… it all seemed like shots in the dark. Dispatch had also mentioned something along the lines of providing a decoy for either Ledger or Stormcore, which sounded like a super great idea.
“I dunno,” Ledger shrugged, “um… what do you do, actually?”
“Ssssshape shifting. Uh. Perfect impersonation of any human being.”
There was a long pause as that sunk in. “… oh.”
“Yeah.” Vera busied herself with looking at the files.
Corey looked at the two of them, bemused. “Regardless, I’m trying to recall any weaknesses the Earthcore had. I’ve not been given any up to date schematics of the…attachments to Collateral. I’ll keep her busy and away from the two of you.”
“The dossier said that she can jump almost a half a mile in that rig,” Carolina’s anxiety about the mission managed to overtake the awkwardness. “With two of us evacuating, there’s no way that we can get all of the civilians clear.”
“Then the most important thing is that I lead her away.” Corey sighed. He slipped his helmet on, and it sealed, expelling air and pressurising. “I hope that she’ll come after me in a rage and she’ll ignore the both of you.”
“That’s stupid. You’re the muscle, and you want her to be paying all of the attention to you? No, I’ll lure her, you two hit her hard. You uh, can hit, yeah Carolina? You’re… a Para now?”
Ledger sighed. “You should… probably call me Ledger now. And yeah, I’m a Para, and I can hit hard, but it costs me in a big way. If that’s what it takes, though, that’s what it takes.”
“So let me run, and you two gun. Comprehende?”
She looked over at Corey for confirmation. He seemed to understand this shit better than she did.
“I don’t like it. The threat to you will be much greater than to either of us. But it’s a decent plan. Stay under cover and keep moving.”
“I guess it’s a plan, then,” Ledger tried to keep the tremors out of her voice, “I’ll start out using the guns and if they don’t work I’ll break out the powers.”
“Alright. And we’re all Freelancers now, so we gotta trust each other. We can do this. When are we landing?”
Carolina pulled up the sleeve of her trenchcoat, checking her watch. “Less than five minutes.”
She unholstered one of the pistols they’d given her, checking its battery housing, lock, readouts, and settings. She’d practiced with the thing, but it felt weird going into combat with a gun that didn’t use plain old chemical propulsion.
“By the way, um,” she said, “in case this sucks and I croak– sorry about. Before. Hope your friend is doing all right.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry too about, uh, the cocaine thing. Friends? Or coworkers, at least?”
“Yeah. And for what it’s worth, I never really cared about… the cause. My parents were real gung-ho. I just wanted to be an accountant.” She checked the other pistol. “Just ended up accounting for the wrong people.”
“We all make mistakes. If we survive this, I’ll tell you about mine.”
“Okay, kids, we should be reaching the drop zone soon. We’re a ways out, because we don’t want to get so close that–“
The intercom was drowned out by a loud crash, metal slamming against metal. The vehicle lurched, then tilted, and the Freelancers drifted upward from their seats as gravity ceased to keep up with the craft’s downward momentum.
Corey stumbled then braced. He really braced. If he went loose in the vehicle, he’d cause some serious damage to both Ledger and Vera. Hands against the roof of the vehicle, and feet planted firmly, he wedged himself securely. Then he patched into the vehicle’s visual feed and nodded in confirmation. “She threw a car at us.”
“Oh, Christ -” Vera is gripping onto the handholds with all her strength. “We need to get on the ground, I can’t lure shit if I’m a smear on the wall.”
“Are you fuckin’ kidding me? We haven’t even started the mission–” Ledger threw her hands outward, trying to catch onto a handhold or wall, then finally gave up and thrust both arms straight outward. A spidery red script poured from her hands and snaked through the cabin, around her arms, around Vera, webbed Corey into the corner, and–
As the stars and the ringing in their ears died down, the Freelancers found themselves frozen in position, bound by the rigid energy cabling that Ledger had thrown up at the last moment. Then the script crumbled, dropping them all on the floor of the wrecked craft.
Corey was neither bruised or shaken by the crash. The suit was good for that. Instead he knelt up and tested his wings. They whirred, moving from closed position to wide open. Then he asked, “Are the two of you injured?”
“Not yet.” Ledger’s tone was resigned.
“Lil’ bit,” Vera grunted. “Broken ribs, I think. Fuck. Fuck. Hurts like a bitch, but I’ll be okay.” She stood and staggered up to Ledger, leaning in to whisper: “If I don’t come back from this, find the Pariah. Tell her I died of my own choice, doing a stupid fucking mission to earn my stupid fucking freedom.”
And then she stepped back, and she was no longer Vera.
She was Collateral’s mother.
And she took off at a sprint.
“HEEEEEEEEEEEY KIDDO C’MAWN AND GIVE YOUR MOM A HUG -”
“She’s going to get herself killed.” Corey reached out and tapped Ledger on the shoulder. “I’ll go first.” He stepped out of the vehicle and zoomed up and out.
“Fuck’s sake,” Carolina groaned, clambering out of the wreckage as quickly as she could. “Noooo. If she hears that you died and I was there, she’ll force-feed me my mask!”
Stumbling steps took the Masked Ledger over rubble and ruin, through the streets of a once probably very nice suburb, until she caught sight of their quarry: it was hard to miss the giant hulking metal mass.
Collateral seemed to be holding still, for a moment, making only small, hesitant movements as she tried to process what she was seeing. A carbon copy of her mother, trying valiantly to get her attention.
Corey flew overhead, hovering to the right of Collateral where her file said her unenhanced natural eye was supposed to be. He hoped to be far enough and that Vera was distraction enough, that Collateral didn’t notice him. His rifle came out and he waited, studying Collateral in his old armour. He wanted her moving when he attacked. She’d have less chance of avoiding hits that way.
“GET DOWN HERE RIGHT NOW YOUNG LADY,” Vera hollered at Collateral. “YOU NEED TO COME GIVE YOUR MOTHER A HUG.”
And then she took off at a sprint again. C’mon c’mon c’mon do I gotta piss in your eye –
The hunk of metal seemed to contract in on itself for a few moments, emitting an earsplitting squeal before Collateral’s amplified voice boomed out from unseen resonators, almost shaking the ground and even louder than the metal noises. “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!!” She screamed. “YOU’RE NOT MY MOTHER! WHY ARE YOU TORTURING ME??!!!”
“Oh shit,” Ledger drew both of her pistols and took off running toward Collateral, moments too late: like a great robotic animal, the metal mess took off in a screaming, loping, four-‘legged’ run toward Vera, fast. Way too fast.
“HOJESUS I’M GON’ DIE -” Vera vaulted herself to the side, not able to roll with any grace, just launching herself away from Collateral’s impact point.
If that wasn’t Corey’s cue to swoop down, he didn’t know anything. He let gravity pull him as his jets blazed. His rifle was at ready and he hovered for a few scant seconds in front of Collateral and let loose a burst of stun blasts. White pulses of light spat out of his rifle, each connecting against the massive target that was Collateral. They should have disrupted her systems, and would more than sting. Then the turned and sped away, luring her away from Vera.
The scream of pain that Collateral let loose upon being struck with the stun blasts was enough to nearly deafen Ledger, and she imagined it must be worse for Vera, who was only paces away from the monstrosity. The hulk turned, and lurched, and stood still for a moment– then it was gone, only a crater where it stood moments ago.
A faint, tinny, muffled crash made its way into Ledger’s senses through her ringing ears. A moment later, Collateral crashed to the ground, only paces away from her. In huge, malformed metal ‘arms’, Stormcore struggled to avoid being crushed, or at least to bring his stun rifle to bear.
“Uh– UH–” Ledger raised one of her pistols and fired several times, but the stun bolts weren’t nearly as powerful as the ones Corey had fired earlier. She didn’t even know if Collateral felt them.
There was a scream of metal, but it was fine, it was just his precious wings being crushed. Slag smeltin-. Corey didn’t have time to swear, but this close to Collateral, he had one trick. Slapping a hand onto Collateral’s faceplate, he hacked into her own systems….and what did you know. She actually had some good firewalls. Corey felt his armour bend and redoubled his efforts. If he could get past her walls, he could paralyse her systems.
“What’re you–” Corey heard her voice, confused, then scared, then he was through and wait a second no why was it feeding back it’s not supposed to
Collateral and Corey screamed together as his armor and hers caught each other in a vicious feedback loop, suffusing both users with blinding pain and sending arcs of electricity through the air. Though she shed plates and parts rapidly, Collateral’s grip remained, and Corey’s armor started to buckle in earnest.
“Corey, Corey – no no no -” Vera shifted again, into Collateral’s daughter. “Mom, no!”
It felt cheap.
But sometimes a cheapshot is necessary.
“Baby?” The feedback loop stopped for just a moment, and the mech turned, and plates unfolded, and a woman’s badly scarred face was visible– and she reeled as a stun bolt hit her face, dropping Corey so he lay just next to his stun rifle.
Collateral turned toward the offender, her face exposed in a mask of rage for just a moment before the metal closed down over it and she leaped upon Ledger, who shrieked in panicked surprise and dropped the stun pistol.
Corey, likely barely conscious by now, saw that most of the excess armor that had been piled atop Earthcore by Collateral’s horrific powers had sloughed away. She was almost uncovered. Almost.
… wait, was that an exposed elbow? When she pulled her arm back?
He reached for his rifle, painfully slow. Ah yes. His pain dampeners were overloaded. Crushed ribs were likely. The suit will worked despite all his damage alarms. He pushed himself up, synced with the rifle, aimed and fired one single accurate shot.
With a startled shudder, Collateral just… stopped moving. Corey’s suit struggled to inform him that the human host inside Earthcore’s twisted remains had fallen unconscious, and the device’s power had gone toward sustaining her life and repairing itself. They’d won.
“Oh God someone please help me,” Ledger croaked from underneath the metal hulk.
“HQ. Send containment in. She’s down for now. We require medevac.” It wasn’t sent in Corey’s voice, but through a synch version. He didn’t feel like he could manage manual vocalisations just yet. He pulled himself up, and yes, there was the suit digging into his side. He stumbled towards the metal hulk and tried to push it off Ledger.
Vera, wheezing and sweating and dealing with a case of shaky knees, moves to the other side of the hulk and strains with her skinny arms.
The hulk doesn’t move. Vera’s strength makes no difference whatsoever, and Corey’s suit, while it would have been able to do the job normally, was operating with limited hydraulic capacity thanks to its damage.
“Oh, this is going to suck so bad later,” Ledger whimpered before bracing herself and shoving the hulk away with ridiculous strength, using Corey’s efforts to roll it to the side as she lifted. That done, she collapsed on her back, pulled her mask up, and looked up at the sky.
“Really not looking forward to paying this one off.”