Another one from a story competiton. Where to stand, where to fall. The waters were dark today. Eifion couldn´t but notice as his unit made his way downstream towards the battle zone. All in all there were ten of them of the 12th Fast Intervention Division of Varuna even though they were far away from the endless blue seas right now. The training exercise in the jungles of this world had been nearing its´ end when they got the call to reinforce the frontlines. Communication has been down ever since. All they knew was that an unknown attacker was bound for the city. Lieutenant Malie had spurred them into the water almost immediately, the sole fact that communications were down did not bode well on the situation. Reduced to short range communication they virtually were blind to the happenings of the outside world. Ikaia said that he was unable to access the satellite net with a frustrated shrug he had started to assemble new defence protocols. Whoever was attacking them obviously knew a way around the standard ones. Right behind him the Cutter, piloted by the lovely Anong Metharom, slid smoothly through the waters. Thankfully the remote control unit of the T.A.G. was still working and its standard range extended well into the city perimeter. Whatever should befall them she would remain to tell the tale. Somehow that eased his thoughts. Still the Soun siblings, Pich Vanna with his Sniper Rifle and Pich Kunthea with her heavy machine gun, who were swimming right in front of him eased him considerably more. Between them paddled Ikaia Makaio, reinforcing the prejudices about hackers by being the worst swimmer in the regiment. To his left was Kuwat Kusuma the medic of their unit and his best friend, they went through boot together and have stuck together ever since. Eifion could imagine his smile of white teeth in his dark skinned face. Kuwat always smiled when on the way to the front, Eifion never had understood this part of him. Gliding through the waters on his right was the lithe form of Melati Dian. As he looked at her the image of her naked body writhing in pleasure in his arms flashed through his mind. Just two days ago they had managed to have two undisturbed hours to themselves in her tent. She turned her head as if she noticed him starring at her behind. He made something akin to a nod, as much as one could nod under water while swimming. The ordered radio silence prevented him from any other form of communication. The lieutenant, flanked by Iokua and Kanani swam in point of the formation. The river was wide enough at this point to easily accommodate their team and this wouldn´t change until they reached the main bridge of the city. So far they had not encountered anything but they could barely see a thing anyway in these dark waters. The time passed almost without noticing and they had made considerable ground when they encountered the first intruder. It moved upstream with considerable speed and had a strangely organic look to it. As it reacted to none of the hails sent at it, the lieutenant ordered to open fire. Utilising the harpoon variant of their ammunition Iokua and Kanani shots were true, Kamau were feared for a reason after all. It took only one impact to detonate the strange device. It sent a strong shockwave through the water. Eifion lost his bearing for a moment and smashed into the Cutter before realigning his body. He could see how everyone made a hand sign to show their well being. Still he was rather troubled as he frantically checked the database for anything similar to this thing. It came up negative. He looked at Kuwat and he saw from his posture that his smile had vanished. He understood only too well why. Silently they pressed on. They almost had reached the city when suddenly something big breached the surface. They dispersed at once to avoid whatever it was. To his shock he recognised it by the comlog signature. It was a Mk 13 “Ironbreaker” Switech Battletank and it was sinking down the river. “Kanani, Iouka take a look. Makaio, Kunthea cover them. Metharom deploy.” The lieutenant broke the radio silence and everyone did as told. The rest dispersed, letting the tank sink by. There was nothing they could do, there was no one to save anyway as the tank was remote controlled. Eifion saw the first two of his comrades break the surface. Almost immediately their comlogs sent back notice of their involvement in action. The display showed their rapidly dropping ammo count then Kananis´ biosignals went dead. Eifion saw a red cloud appear in the water at her last position. “Covered deployment!” The order came in harsh and Eifion quickly snatched a visual through the Cutters lenses to access his best point of leaving the river. He shivered at the sight but had no time to think about it. Almost jumping from the water he left the river on the far side of the city, taking cover behind what seemed to be the remnants of house. His squadsight transferred the picture of Kunthea being hit by a projectile which seemed to steer around the corner of the wall behind which she was hiding. It sliced through his thigh with ease. He collapsed. “Hostile promenade, 11.” Eifion registered the order, took aim and sent a grenade in a high trajectory at the estimated hostile. He saw something move in the explosion. “Hit confirmed. Kill not.” He kept his voice steady as he reported in. Something flared over his position, he ducked instinctively. A heartbeat later his old position was enveloped by a hail of projectiles. He saw Dian and Vanna pour fire into the edge of the jungle where it originated from. They hit something and it went down with a strange mixture of a scream and the sound of mechanical failure. Silence followed, only it didn´t because now they finally realised the sound around them for what it was. Battle. The whole city seemed to be under attack. How was this possibly, not even the dumbest heads in the StateEmpire would sanction such an attack. O-12 would have their heads immediately and Yu Jing would pay dearly for this. So who was it? “Eifion, Makaio, check the jungle. Vanna cover them.” No one bothered to acknowledge the order, they just followed it. With the grace of his trained muscles Eifion made way to the bushes where his assailant went down. Now he took in all the craters and holes in the ground around them. Looking through the eyes of the others he also saw the obviously bombed promenade. Torn and turned vehicles everywhere, even things that looked like barricades. Then there were the bodies. Turning to the sight before him he took in the picture of a strange construct. It was of rectangular shape and seemed to be supported by some kind of tentacles which looked – organic. The fact that it had some similarity to the thing they had encountered earlier did not ease his mood. Makaio joined him at the thing. “It has a residual network signature.” “You think it is linked into Maya?” “More likely a remote combat net.” “So it is a remote, right?” “What else?” Makaios´ question baffled him for a moment but then he nodded his agreement. What else could it be, right? “Permission to access its´ datanode?” The lieutenant hesitated for a moment. “Granted. Try to find anything about the situation here.” “Understood.” Eifion took up a more defensive position to cover the hackers work. Makaio knelt down and linked into the thing. A moment later he collapsed. “Medic!” His abrupt scream tore Kuwat from Kunthea who he had patched up already. The medic jumped into the river and made it to Eifions´ position in a very short time. “What happened?” “He just collapsed.” “His vitals show sign of nervous overload. Get his helmet.” Acting as told Eifion linked into the suit of Makaio and released the clamps of the helmet then he tore it from his head. There was blood everywhere. Kuwat injected the hacker with a stimulant but it was no use he was brain dead. “How?” Eifions´ question came out as a whisper. “I don´t know. It is like his brain has been fried by an EVO. This thing must be heavily secured.” “Destroy it.” Eifion and Kuwat dragged the body of their friend some metres backwards before Metharom blasted the thing to pieces with a salvo of high density explosives. “Retrieve his cube. We move on.” A few minutes later they were on the move again along the shoreline of the river towards the bridge. The further they got the more signs of battle were visible. Whole sections of the promenade were missing or piled up with human bodies, soldiers, comrades all of them. The wrecks of tanks, T.A.G.s, shuttles and copters abounded as well. Yet the most eerie thing were the bodies of the others. They all knew about Helots, Antipodes and the Tohaa that lived on planets around the Human Sphere but they already had found bodies of at least three species they had never heard of before. The evidence clearly suggested what was going on, but the consequences and implications were far too much for them to contemplate right now. Eifion instinctively sought the proximity to Melati as they moved on. So much death and uncertainty made him long for the known and comforting. He realised these feelings as he peeked beneath the bridge from behind the wreckage, for the loss of a better word he referred to it as wreckage, of something that appeared to be a giant mechanical insect. “The bridge is rigged, but none of the charges detonated.” He conveyed this news to his comrades. It had the expected effect as it meant only one thing. Whoever these people were they overran the biggest bridge on this part of Paradiso fast enough to prevent its´ destruction. Fear crept up his spine. Surely they were all doomed. He jumped at the touch from Melati. He had seen her coming through her eyes but had been too occupied to register its´ meaning. The distant sounds of fighting were nagging at him. “Are you alright?” She asked on a private channel so that the others couldn´t hear them. “No. Are you?” “No.” He gave her a weak smile which she only could feel through the helmet still he felt her return it. “Vanna, Metharom, Dian. Get up on the promenade and scout for the best way into the city. Mervyn, Iokua and Malie follow up. Kunthea and Kusuma take the rear.” The lieutenant always referred to herself by last name on the channels, it was a peculiar thing to do but somehow it always had eased them, but not today. While Eifion was climbing up the steps of a bullet ridden walkway to the edge of the promenade he received the message that they were to head for sector 187 of the city. It contained the nearest satellite array and therefore their best hope to contact anyone outside. He waited at the edge of the promenade till the clear from Metharom echoed through his comms. Weapon first he rushed up the stairs to jump behind the cover of a broken vehicle. The sight of the city was even worse than he had imagined. Fires were blazing within its´ heart, there was not one building that came unscathed out of the rain of fire that had descended on this place. He never had imagined to see the home of humans tore down like this. He swallowed hard. The lieutenant took position beside him before ordering the rear to follow up. Eifion already was on the move again when that happened. Making some ground under the protective eye of Vannas´ Sniper rifle, he took position behind a tree that for some unbeknownst reason was still standing and mostly intact. The same moment Kunthea set foot on the promenade the demon awoke. A part of the tree started moving and it took Eifion precious seconds to realize that he was witness to a breaking thermo-optic camouflage. It moved fast and fire roared from it. Kunthea was ripped apart mid-movement his body pierced by dozens of bullets within two seconds. The demon sprang behind a vehicle before the first one of them opened fire. They brought destruction upon the wreckage of the car, Eifion thought he heard them hit something else but before anyone felt triumph it emerged from the side again. It moved with an unnatural grace, avoiding some of the bullets send his way by simply stepping out of the way. It jumped over a destroyed barricade and bathed Iokua in blue flames while still none of them had landed a decisive hit on it. Iokua died instantly his vitals dropping into the negative within the span of a second. Standing close by Metharom filled the area with flames herself, her cry of rage filtered from their comms due to its´ volume. The demon jumped sideways but still got covered by the burning liquid. Finally they got a visual of the thing. It stood on two ridiculously small legs and had an elongated torso, it had two arms ending in three fingered claws and two large eyes. Even being on fire its´ camouflage still was partly working and it did not lose one bit of speed. Crawling up the wreckage of a tank as if it would be plain earth it closed in on the lieutenant. All of them poured fire on its position but it seemed almost impervious to normal bullets. As it almost had reached Malie two things happened. Vanna got a good bead on the demon and someone got a bead on Vanna. The high impact bullets ripped a hole into the demons´ side and the force propelled it down onto the river bank. About the same time Vannas´ head exploded. “Sniper on nine!” The call came from Metharom who had the sensors of the cutter at her disposal, not waiting for orders she poured several hundred round into the supposed position of the shooter. Awhile everyone retreated back from the edge of the promenade. “Mervyn Sniper, Metharom River.” Checking the updated map of the region he wheeled round and sent grenades into the nest of the sniper hoping it would be enough. He saw the demon reappear through the eyes of Kuwat who just had taken cover behind the tank, which the demon had climbed seconds ago. It riddled him with holes from its´ main weapon hitting the closing Cutter as well. Kuwat was torn apart just like Kunthea before him and even the Cutter was damaged. Eifions´ heart turned to ice at the death of his friend. He saw a bullet from Metharoms´ machine gun blast away the left half of the demons torso but it still pressed on. It slammed into the Cutter with the full force of its incredible speed. Tearing into the midriff of the T.A.G. a large explosion ensued from the tips of its´ claws. The Cutter was thrown backwards. Gripping the neck of the demon Metharom tried to crunch it to pieces. Firing up its´ own flamer in close combat the demon enveloped both of them in blue flames. Eifion almost had to avert his eyes despite the flash compensators in his visors. He heard something crack. The Cutter turned its´ weight and the torso came off from the legs. Using the momentum it brought the struggling demon beneath its´ bulk crushing the demon with the impact. Metharoms´ link collapsed. The three surviving members stood in shock for a moment. All this had taken place within the span of one minute. One minute in which his hopes of surviving this were reduced to a minimum, one Minute to glance at the reason for all the destruction around them, one minute in which he abandoned all hope to get the people he cared about to safety. He was stricken between rage and despair. “Dian get the HMG, Mervyn keep sharp.” The still firm voice of lieutenant Malie broke his and Melatis´ torpor, watching for any sign of movement in the ruins, he had a hard time of thinking of it as a city anymore, ahead, he eased his breathing. He saw Malie picking up the Medkit from Kuwats´ body before she took up Vannas´ sniper rifle. Three, that was all that was left of the entire squad. Malie gave the order to move out they would proceed on the way to the array, they had to contact someone. The path was upwards as one of the highways was the least obstructed way into the ruins. It was full of wreckage, cover and menace at the same time but cover was imperative right now. Slowly they made their way across the first kilometre awhile the sound of battle never really subsided. He did not dare to imagine how many lives had been lost in this ruin. Why did command decided to make a stand here? Why didn´t they retreat to a more defensible place? Eifion shook these thoughts from his mind, surviving was the only thing that mattered now. As they made their way along the highway he realised what the strange sound was that he kept hearing. It were the holographic advertisements which lined the highway. Most of them were still intact despite the destruction around them. Almost as if they had been deliberately spared, he soon realised that they were. The images that were visible on the screens were no mere advertisements. The sight of these running in a ruin devoid of life and civilization only would have unsettled him on a mostly unconscious level. All boards showed the same images, it was a two legged creature covered in armour plating. It had an organic quality to it, just the machines they had encountered so far. It was shown how it easily dispatched some troops. Eifions´ mind refused to identify the units´ markings it was terrible enough as it was. This thing was named a Charontid and whoever was sending these images went through enough trouble to explain this naming all the way from its´ greek origins. He never looked at an advertising board again after this day. He pressed on. When they reached a crossroad of the highway something stirred in one of the wrecks. Quickly they surrounded it and aimed at the movement. “Who´s there? Humans? Thank God. I´m over here.” Malie nodded in his direction and Eifion went forward to check the situation. He found a fusilier pinned beneath the front part of a car. He was smeared with rust and littered with wounds. It seemed to be a miracle that he still was alive. His right arm and comlog were missing, from the serrated edge of the wound Eifion found himself not wanting to know what had ripped it off. “Thank God. Finally reinforcements. Help me out here please, my legs are stuck.” Eifion transmitted the situation to Malie, the two women closed up. Melati took position to cover the road while Eifion took position to lift the wreck. Malie took hold beneath the man´s armpits to drag him free. He heaved and the wreckage moved with astonishing ease, if only it hadn´t. With a smile on his lips the man jumped to his feet obviously unhurt then he melted. It was the only word that his mind was able to come up with as the form of the man shrunk and fell away like dust in the wind, revealing a slender humanoid form. “Thank you so much.” The words were whispered in a soft voice into the wind as the alien stabbed something into Malies´ stomach. Still baffled by the situation she reacted too late to defend herself. The thing wheeled leftwards around the lieutenant and dragged her weapon upwards. Eifion saw how Malie just fell into two halves. There was no sound, there was no movement beside the gravity induced falling of her mass. He ripped his weapon from his back but he already knew that he would be too late. The thing jumped at Melati. His beloved jerked around with the heavy weapon to rip the thing into pieces but she wasn´t fast enough. The alien landed next to her and slashed at neck height. Melatis´ head reached the ground earlier than the rest of her body. He screamed as he willed his weapon to fire. This time it was too slow and his salvo ripped into the aliens´ torso. It stumbled back and fell over the highway crash barrier tumbling to a 60 metre fall. Without thinking he ran to her corpse but as he got close he staggered and fell, rolling up he came to rest with his back against a physical road sign which someone had put up in a bout of nostalgia. It read only one word. Ravensbrücke.