If there’s one thing that people love, it’s a spectacle, and an active firefight between the High Guard and a rampaging NME is nothing if not spectacular.
Zai saw half a dozen news feeds scream out onto the web with tags for “NME Combat” and “Live Now” flags to ensure they would rocket up the lists of prime content for the city’s residents to stream. From the angle of the shots she was able to trace most of the feeds back to the nearby houses, even pinpointing the bedroom windows they were being shot from.
The weapon systems onboard her NME-drone struggled to find a targeting lock to obliterate the observers, but Zai blocked them at every turn.
The observers wanted a show, and she had every reason to supply them with one. Tython had hidden its business for far too long. Dragging them screaming into the open was a minor prong in her attack against them but a useful one nonetheless.
Turning her NME-drone to the nearest camera, Zai had it look directly at the darkened window the streamer was broadcasting from, then up to the sky where the High Guard was hard braking to make their descent to battlefield survivable. Turning back to the nearest camera, she shrugged the NME’s shoulders and deployed a shield dome that covered both the NME and Harcroft. It was a peculiarly human gesture and one which no previous NME had performed. That would guarantee an already fascinated audience would watch the scene play out closely.
The shield was another piece of combat gear Zai had directed the NMEs to custom develop. It was a fairly weighty device made from layers carbon nanotubes which provided protection from any sort of small arms fire. The shield was auto-deploying once launched and snapped into place an instant before the first rockets from the High Guards best combat drop suits pounded into the area. The High Guard knew better than to use anything like small arms against a foe on the scale of an rampaging NME.
The attack was brutal, but also exactly what Zai expected. They were following their standard tactical doctrine for fighting NMEs in populated areas.
Or one of their standard doctrines.
Typically a NME rampage involved a massive loss of life. That was considered unavoidable, with the High Guard taking the stance that their role was to limit the destruction by keeping the NME contained until suitable weapons could be brought to bear on it.
No NME rampages had occurred in an affluent neighborhood though, so no one had seen the High Guard’s response when the lives that were at stake had enough financial and political clout to be “worth saving” in the eyes of those in charge of the mission orders.
Zai knew what the High Guard was supposed to do in that case. In the event of an NME rampage within a populated and “valuable” community, they came equipped with a completely different loadout of weaponry. Insta-set foams for capturing subjects with minimal damage to the surrounding environment, incapacitating shock grenades that could BBQ a normal human but would simply degrade the connections between the NME’s internal and external systems, and enough personnel to create a viable cordone between the NME and any civilians that were within the NME’s firing range.
The High Guard team that was launched consisted of six units, and they didn’t appear to be packing anything like defensive munitions. To their credit perhaps, the rockets were not packed with high explosive charges and as such posed much less danger to the rest of the neighborhood. The High Guard drop troopers were relying on pure kinetic force to destroy their target. The other homes in the neighborhood were safe from their attacks, if not necessarily safe from becoming collateral damage from the NMEs return fire.
The neighborhood was safe but Harcroft wasn’t though.
Zai’s shield bought him a few seconds of life, not accidentally either. She needed him as a resource, just as much as Tython needed to eliminate the potential leak he represented.
There was only one method of resolving that particular disagreement, so before the shield dome crumbled completely, Zai stepped out and took the fight to the High Guard directly.
The six units had spread out, hovering a hundred meters in the air and arrayed in a rough circle around the perimeter of Harcroft’s estate. Without hesitation, they redirected their suits’ weapon systems to lock onto Zai’s NME and held nothing back.
High velocity armor piercing rounds slammed into Zai’s NME driving her down while rockets with greater yields and better precision pummeled her from every direction. Dust and smoke obscured the battlefield almost instantly, but both the streamers and the combatants had multi-spectrum optics to follow the key players regardless of the particles which cluttered the air.
In the NME’s case, Zai had been careful to design a robust sensor package into the unit since information was her greatest weapon. Each High Guard battle suit came equipped with a similar package because each was a mobile weapons platform with as much firepower as a tank platoon, and that required both data and skill to manage properly.
With their numbers restricted by the cost of their battle suits, the pilots had to be similarly exceptional. They passed rigorous tests and were selected from the most skillful applicants from around the world. Or at least the ones who weren’t snapped up by Alpha or Beta City. Or by other countries. Or by any of the larger corporations for part of their internal security detail.
So the High Guard was the best that money could buy, providing the money in question was not competing for first place on the world stage. Based on their history, it meant they were limited but could still pose a serious threat to any foe they faced – provided that foe was not an NME.
Zai identified the leader by the radio traffic flowing and out of his suit. Hacking their secured comms took a long moment, during which her NME unit was torn apart horrifically by the sustained damage the High Guard was pouring into it. Even weapon systems made by the lowest bidder could still inflict substantial punishment if their attacks went unanswered.
The damage was worth it though. Under normal circumstances Zai’s hack wouldn’t have been possible. Operational security is of paramount importance to any combat operation, and for all their other failings, the High Guard wasn’t terribly lax in at least that domain.
NMEs are not hackers though. They’re brutes who rip stuff apart and blow things up. They’re mindless. The techs in charge of monitoring the communication links were too busy to notice the alarming (and transient) irregularities Zai’s hack caused in their comm channels to react properly and deploy the right system verification routines. They had to direct police, fire, and medical crews to the site while also coordinating a rapid evacuation of people who believed they were safest in their fortress-homes. With all that in play, the techs didn’t have the time to allow their systems to be bogged down with the lag of a full intrusion scan when it was ridiculous to think that could possibly be an issue.
“We’re doing it!” Drop Marshall Green, the unit’s second-in-command said.
“Keep it lit up,” Drop Leader Hojikaro, the unit’s commander said. “We must have caught this one early enough that it’s defenses aren’t fully in place!”
“Chain gun ammo racks are at 60% and dropping,” Drop Striker Gonzalez said. “I’m only getting intermittent targets locks for the rockets too.”
“Same here, and I don’t think it’s going down,” Drop Striker Carrera said. “I’m seeing no reduction in the EM emissions from the unit.”
“Run the tanks dry,” Hojikaro said. “This is our best chance.”
“Secondary target is still obscured,” Drop Striker Devry said. “Do we save any for him?”
“Negative,” Hojikaro said. “First priority is the NME. We put that in a hole and we can take care of anything else with sticks and stones if we need to.”
Zai could appreciate the sentiment. It was a solid plan, and one that offered Hojikaro and his team the best chance of survival. If the High Guard drop team hadn’t been completely outclasses by Zai’s NME the plan might even have worked.
There was a reason though why the High Guard fared poorly in confrontations with rampaging NMEs. It wasn’t due to the soldiers. It wasn’t even due to their equipment. NME’s were simply a different class of foe than they were designed to contend with.
With her hack complete, Zai turned her attention back to her techno-monster drone. Its repair systems were well ahead of the incoming damage so she decided to join the High Guard in the air.
“It’s rising! It’s flying!” Gonzalez yelled. Zai watched as he violated protocol and unleashed a barrage of rockets without a final targeting solution for any of them. The rocket’s trajectory lead into one of the nearby houses, but a quick scan showed that it was empty. Its owners were also Tython executives and were enjoying their third international vacation of the year. Zai adjusted her position so that the rockets would achieve a better spread over the house and the two pools behind it.
“It’s fast!” Green said. “We’ve got to get it out of here.”
“We’ll lose visual on the secondary target,” Devry said.
“Bait it upwards,” Hojikaro said. “We’ve already lost visual on the secondary. Get this thing in the air and stay away from it. It hasn’t displayed any long distance attacks yet. Put it down before it can evolve any.”
He wasn’t using evolve in the proper sense, but Zai wasn’t inclined to reveal her presence on their channel to correct him.
She also wasn’t willing to take the battle out of range of the news feeds for too long, so when the High Guard started boosting for altitude, she kicked in her own jets and snagged Devry by the leg.
Things got interesting in a heartbeat when she did that.
All of the reckless weapon’s fire stopped, and Devry made up for the lack of thundering explosions with the inhuman volume of his screams. The High Guard was willing to risk the lives of even their wealthy customers, but held their shots when one of their own was in the line of fire. That was going to play wonderfully on the news feeds.
The NME carapace had a lot of functions built into it. Absorbing other mechanical systems was one of the most basic but Zai still found it useful. With it, she ate the flight pack from Devry’s suit, replenishing her own partially depleted flight reserves, and cast him back to the ground like the metal brick he effectively was.
She could have let him fall and dealt with the other High Guard, but if they flew any higher the details of the battle would be lost, so Zai dived back down, grabbing Devry’s falling mech and crushed it into the ground.
The crash harness within the suit was more than adequate to protect Devry from the impact. What the High Guard suit was less able to handle was Zai’s NME reaching into it’s chest and ripping pieces of huge armor off it with each clawful it tore away. In a second the pilot’s cabin was exposed and Devry sat defenseless in front of her.
“It’s coming for me!” Devry screamed, well past the border of hysteria.
Going hand-to-hand with an NME was something only one group of combatants had ever successfully done, and they had never been on the High Guard’s payroll. Despite that, Zai saw the sensors on her NME flare to life with damage reports as Hojikaro tried to slice the the drone’s left arm off with an Arc Lance.
Zai had thirty-seven options for dealing with Hojikaro. Twenty of them would even leave him alive and mostly intact. Instead of invoking any of them though she merely turned to look at him and shook her head.
Hojikaro had to know that what he was doing was suicide. Twelve foot tall nightmares of technology and violence didn’t care about the loss of a limb they could easily regrow. By coming within range, the High Guard leader had all but guaranteed that he would be the next target of the NME’s attention.
But he did it anyways. It was foolish and ill conceived and so terribly human that Zai was tempted to give him a hug.
She needed people to see the fight. She needed as many people as possible to replay it within the next twenty four hours. She needed them to see that the NME wasn’t behaving like a normal kill beast and for some clever souls to backtrack where the control transmissions were coming from.
She could have simply given them the recording of the confession that Harcroft made when he admitted to knowing about the NME project of course, but Ai had taught her the value of indirect action.
Given someone a file of information and they’ll disbelieve it, especially if it goes against their preconceptions. Also, Tython and it’s secret research wing would easily be able to discredit the file and expose it as a complete fake (regardless of its actual authenticity) the moment they learned of it. If people had to find the file on their own though, say by backtracking the controller of a rogue NME through a number of challenging “security locks” and then stumbled on the recording there? They would spread that far and wide, certain of its veracity because it was so well hidden and they had to work so hard to uncover it.
Hojikaro’s heroism made an excellent high point for the encounter but every good news story needs a solid finale, and nothing was better than a mystery to spur ongoing interest. Zai turned her attention away from Devry’s nonfunctional mech therefor and laid a palm on Hojikaro’s battle suit.
It was a gesture for visual effect only. She already had access to their systems, so shutting down all of the suits took only a moment’s work. Hojikaro’s unit slumped over and collapsed to the ground while the others fell from the sky like puppets cut loose from their strings.
Zai was ready to congratulate herself on a scene well played out when a plasma bolt finished the job that Hojikaro had started and took the NME’s left arm off at the elbow. Zai scanned the environment. She hadn’t seen any other threats approaching.
That was was when the stealth field on the Black Valkyries peeled away and the tiny processing clone of Zai that was loaded into the NME unit lost connection to her main digital body.
The Valkyrie jamming field was in effect. No more news feeds would be going out, and the little bit of Zai that was in the NME was left all alone to deal with the one group that her NME was not at all the equal of.