CATAPHRACT (The Hanged Man)
rating: +37+x
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The Hanged Man

For two thousand years, the cataphract was the terror of the battlefield.

Perfect symbiosis: a sixteen-hand tall warhorse, draped in heavy mail. An armored rider, carrying a weighted lance. The result: a one-ton primitive tank capable of charging across an open field and annihilating anyone in its path. There is no infantryman on the planet that will hold his position when he feels the ground shake and sees a steel-dressed beast charging full force at his line, full intent of crushing him underfoot. A single well-placed cataphract could completely break a well-defended line of infantry. Their mere presence on a battlefield was a show of force, telling the enemy: try and run.

But topple the rider from his horse, and the cataphract is no more. There is only a scared man with a dagger in his teeth, waiting to die.


You don’t eat much anymore.

You could say it’s because it’s hard to keep food down — which is, strictly speaking, true. Every morning the ship is on ready-alert, you report to the infirmary at 0600 hours. Tall, thin, gaunt; people used to joke about how if someone looked at you from the side they wouldn’t even see you. It never feels truer than it does in those moments, awkwardly shifting your feet around the threshold as you wait for one of the medical staff, in their black-blue fatigues, to register your presence.

It’s not their faults you escape their notice, even after two years of this routine. The infirmary is always a chaotic mess, sickbeds filled with soldiers wounded after sorties, bleeding into their bandages and gasping, moaning for their lost mothers or brothers as the medics shunt needles into their bloody arms and the machines hums to life, delivering the all-important drip, drip, drip that makes the horrors fade. These people are the ones really suffering — not you, so the least you can do is wait to make sure they’re attended to first.

But eventually someone does notice you, registers your jocksuit (more like a wetsuit than the body armor the rest of the soldiers wear), and hurriedly seats you on a bed (or, failing that, the nearest flat surface) while they rush into the stockroom and return with the all-important syringe. An indiscriminate, recklessly-addictive cocktail of amphetamines, nootropics, and vasodilators. The needle used to scare you, but you’ve gotten used to it — come to love it, almost, the sharp tick in your arm followed by the almost instant resumption of the thumping of your leg, liquid gold soothing your withdrawal tics, drowning out the dull buzzing of the world around you until every little detail and sound stands out in stark contrast. You feel functional again. You feel like a person again.

Unfortunately, it also means that trying to shovel food down your maw means you’ll inevitably find yourself vomiting into a toilet a few hours later. Your body, hopped up on speed, rejects solid food entirely. You’re reliant on the liquid meal replacements requisitioned for you by command — they’re bland, gray, chunky, but they’re calories. But you could just as easily drink them in the mess with the rest of the soldiers, so why are you here in the hangar bay?

You scare them.

On your first rotation — god, how long ago was that? — you tried hanging out with your fellow soldiers in the canteen during off hours, sitting and eating with them in the mess, making conversation. It didn’t work. You weren’t good with people even then, but you could sense their discomfort. The stilted, awkward pauses in conversation as you said something without realizing none of them understood or related to your troubles with neuro-synchronizing. Their expectant stares as they waited for you to comment on the shitty water in the communal showers, unaware that you had to take electrolysis baths to re-energize your implants. The hushed whispers when they thought you couldn’t hear them — god, they’re a right weird bastard, aren’t they? You can’t really blame them for being discomforted by you, with your face fissured by steel implants under your skin. It’s not their fault they’re normal.

But if it’s not their fault…

After those early failures, you stopped trying. Command didn’t seem to mind this, oddly — you expected more resistance, but your handlers seemed perfectly content to let you spurn the typical rigors of camaraderie and brotherhood and et cetera. So you retreated, and now here you are. Walking down Bay D — not the gargantuan main hangar that runs the length of the ship at its lowest deck, but one of the small side hangars extending off from it. It’s a big, stark-white room — and in the center sits HANGMAN.

You feel a twinge in your chest as you look at her.

Those with an unpracticed eye might call her huge and bulky, but you know she’s anything but. Weighing in at a paltry 73.4 tons, she’s sleek, smooth, on the lighter side of mechs — well-suited to her role as fast-attack mechanized cavalry. Not that that makes her light, by any means. She’s still plated with enough gunmetal gray ablative-carbon armor to stop a naval shell, and her back and arms bristle with exposed weapon hardpoints: machine guns, autocannons, and the pièce de résistance, a long railgun with the barrel extending far up from her back like a lance. She’s a classic frame — two legs, two arms, and then two additional stubby ‘support arms’ extending from her back. You know that some of the other companies are experimenting with quadrupedal frames, loping across the battlefield, but she’s perfect for you.

You clamber onto the ladder and climb up onto her roof, popping the hatch and slipping inside. It’s dark and tight, the only light coming in through the polarized glass of the cockpit’s bubble window. Just enough space to wriggle around until you settle into the pilot’s chair. You still feel it, your leg twitching and rocking against the tight metal confines, your eyelids fluttering wildly and asymmetrically as a result of the cocktail. It’s not usually this bad. Fuck. You force yourself to pay attention to what’s around you.

You see the rest of the hangar, cables and fuel lines snaking across the floor and robot arms dangling overhead to help with weapon installations. The cockpit window is hued amber — you flick a switch on your armrest and the jack pops out of the headrest behind you, slipping into your neckport. The mech’s systems interface with your implants — instantly, the scene is color-corrected and scanned for mission objectives (“MISSION ID NULL: REPORT TO HANDLER”).

You don’t feel the suit against your skin. The temperature in the cabin is controlled so that you can’t tell where your body ends and the cabin begins. Contributes to a 3% uptick in neurosynchronicity on average. It’s an odd, but not unwelcome feeling — like being underwater but without floating.

You can smell the metallic oil-odor from the deeper parts of the mech. It used to disgust you, but you’ve come to realize that it’s when you can’t smell oil, when the comforting smell is suddenly replaced by acrid burning, that’s what you should be afraid of.

Popping the cap off the bottle of meal-replacement, you place your lips against the built-in straw and suck. You taste faint hints of chocolate.

And finally, you hear the deep, weighty, comforting, reliable rumbling of HANGMAN as she charges. During ready-alert, it’s not practical to shut off the mech entirely: spinning the reactor up to combat-ready output would take precious minutes along with overly discharging the batteries. So for now, a cable the size of our arm (though that’s not saying much) is plugged into her, keeping her going off the excess of the ship’s massive nuclear generators. The dull hum of the reactor running low fills the cabin. It feels like a gentle giant rocking you to sleep.

You keep sucking down the liquid until the square plastic bottle is empty. The leg twitches cease. Your eyes settle shut. It's cold outside, painful. But you can't feel it in here.


MMMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

You hunch over, 73-ton body sheltering against the outer wall of a collapsed building. Two arms supporting your weight, two arms making sure the giant slab of concrete overhead doesn’t pin and crush you. Well, even if you were crushed, you’d probably be fine — your payload, not so much.

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Another wave washes over you. High-energy electromagnetic pulses, shooting out through the collapsed streets of this city. Invisible, but your onboard systems visualize it enough for you to tell where it’s coming from. Around the corner. One klick— no, one-point-two. It’s moving.

All your wiring is electromagnetically shielded, obviously. Even if you were hit by one of the EMPs, it wouldn’t take you out of the fight. Just knock out a few systems for a few minutes while they reboot. But even that's risky. You might lose comms, you might lose TACSAT support — shit, you might even lose targeting.

For now, you hunch over and wait. The radio channels are a cacophony of noise, sergeants on the line screaming for artillery support, anti-cav infantry coordinating a set-up for an ambush, command offering tactical support in their trademark brisk calm. In the back of you head, you turn a dial, flicking through radio frequencies until you settle on what you’re looking for. A familiar, reliable, droning woman’s voice as she rattles off data.

Enemy EM-transport squad southbound on 17th, just passed Promenade. Discharged ten seconds ago, nearly grounded one of our lowbirds. Recharging… negative, they’ve fried their batteries. Cav HANGMAN, you’re the nearest unit. Can you—

Ding.

You explode out of your den, throwing the concrete slab off you and rocketing forward. Every footfall shakes the building you were just against, making it wobble dangerously. This urban warzone is lush with cover and obstacles — collapsed buildings, overturned vehicles.

You vault over the corner of the building, willing your weapons out. As you turn onto the scene, you immediately notice a few things. The squad is on a mule: essentially an armored, all-terrain flatbed truck. A large boxy machine with large copper coils extending upward from it, the EMP generator, is bolted to the bed. It’s sparking dangerously with excess energy, spitting hot blue embers into the air. A few engineers surround the machine, clad in the gray urban camouflage of The Enemy. Their faces are masked with hoods — only two white lenses peering back up at you.

Then you notice the other lenses. The ones peering out from the shadowed overhangs of the collapsed buildings. The ones at shoulder-height, from the second- and third-floors of bombed out offices. The handful overhead, setting up a machine-gun emplacement on the roofs. Little men with their little guns.

HANGMAN, IR imagery reveals multiple other presences. It’s an ambush. Disengage — repeat, HANGMAN, disenga—

You dwarf them all.

You are the apex predator.

You are the threat.

You explode.

In one fluid movement, you lunge forward, arm outstretched, slamming one massive fist down onto the EMP generator. The engineers dive away, shouting. Not fast enough. One is torn in half, viscera spilling out onto the bed of the truck as he writhes. The others are flung away. Small arms fire immediately begins pelting your armor from all directions. Neon warnings in the cabin. But the dull buzz that kept fucking with your systems is gone. Back to black.

If you were inside yourself, you would’ve noticed the dull thumping beginning to reverberate through the cabin. Binaural frequencies, meant to improve focus. But you’re not. You’re staring out of the eyes of the war machine, rockets firing again as you jump halfway across the open plaza, slamming down with enough force to crush an APC underfoot. You pick the twisted hunk of metal up, ignore the red fluid dripping from it, and throw it at a squad across the way. Their sergeant gets flattened, and they scatter.

The guns across your body fold out. Small autocannons, beginning to automatically return fire to the enemy. Everything is happening at once. You see a squad in front of you turned into fine pink mist in a hail of bullets, sawing through their oh-so-nice black armor. Your upper body does a 180 while your legs stay planted, firing indiscriminately in a circle, mowing down tiny little action figures. They dive out of the way of your fire, but not fast enough. Never fast enough.

This is perfection. This is your true form — the twitching and constant pain is gone, flesh replaced with a hundred tons of titanium. The ever-present buzzing in your head is silent, replaced with the music of battle. You crave this, depend on it just as much as you depend on your injections. The rush, the thrill. Don't think about the inevitable comedown. Think about the now.

It’s like a waltz. One. Another squad of four, two-twenty-five degrees. Two. Explosive round. The building they’re inside folds on top of them before they get a full magazine off. Your targeting comes online, finally. You see a reticule settle on one of the gunfighters in the concrete foxhole. Three. His battle rifle is popping pathetically at you. Four. You raise an arm and let fly. The foxhole is a crater. Back to one, settling on a team trying to set up a gun emplacement. Repeat the dance. Nothing can hit you. Nothing can hurt—

Then you stumble forward, shuddering with a sudden impact. Your systems throw a warning again: this one serious, warning of a compromised armor plate on your back. You spin around. An anti-cav squad on a bombed-out floor of the high-rise, at least twenty stories above you, rapidly assembling an anti-mech gun. Shit.

You prepare your rockets for another explosive discharge, to shoot you up at least halfway. Rest you’ll have to climb. Your thrusters fire up. You feel your blood boiling, your mind racing, every cell and particle in your body drenched in fuel and set alight, your soul on fire

Then watch as the upper floors of the high-rise explode, sending out a huge cloud of dust. A sleek bomber passes low overhead before circling around to head back to whatever group it disengaged from to do you a favor. You throw it a raised hand in thanks. It banks to the left twice, returning the salute.


“Are you done?”

You look up in surprise. You don’t know this person. An infantryman, his squad still standing on the other side of the showers. It’s late — you didn’t expect anyone to actually be here at this time, but you weren’t that lucky. That’s fine. You’re generally spared the roughhousing and machismo the enlisted men seem to love doing instead of cleaning themselves.

You register that you’ve been staring at him for several seconds in silence. “No,” you rasp out, throat sore from dehydration. The cocktail will do that to you. The water from the shower continues to flow down your body.

He looks at the shower, then back at you. His group mutters among themselves. For a second, your muscles tense up — expecting a confrontation of some kind. You almost wish for a confrontation, because that’s what you know. You’re good at fighting. But no. He just shrugs, then roughly pushes past you to one of the other free showers. The towel slips off your back.

You cringe as it falls to the wet, tiled floor. It exposes you — all of you, longish hair (regulations don’t really apply the same to jockeys), your shoulder blades, reinforced subdermally. Your back, criss-crossed with little threads of titanium peeking out from between cracks in your damaged skin, down to your buttocks and your groin, water washing over them, onto the floor, down the drain. Your body is a marvel of modern bioengineering, and right now, you want nothing more than to curl up into yourself and cease to be.

You shakily steady yourself, and continue rinsing. You feel their gazes scraping over your lean body, raking their eyes over you. You’re a thing. A curiosity. Like an animal at the zoo.

I didn’t know those things took showers.

Course they take showers, idiot. They need to get water in their bodies somehow, can’t drink the stuff. Fries their vocal implants.

Jesus, can’t believe how close I was to landing in the cavalry corps. Never-fucking-mind. Wouldn’t mind taking one of them for a spin, though…

You mean the mechs, right?

Laughter. They’re fascinated by you. They’ve never seen anything quite like you before. Is that their fault? You’re a unique specimen, you know that. You’re a walking contradiction: their unabashed disgust for you is only tempered by some kind of sick fascination with you, your body, your shell, what you’re capable of. You don’t know if it’s better or worse than just being hated.

Your neck aches.


Occasionally, the bioengineers need to bring you in to do some work.

Usually, it’s just adjusting firmware — noninvasive updates to make sure the microcomputer that takes over the most primitive functions of your brainstem when you’re jacked in won’t kill you. But you and HANGMAN are both complicated, intricate, expensive pieces of machinery, and both bought and paid for on Command’s dime. They want to ensure their investment is paying off.

So sometimes it needs to be more than that. Usually it’s in your hangar bay. The engineering team found that the panic attacks you suffered during system reboots happened less frequently if the work was performed under HANGMAN’s watchful eye. So the engineers in their white cleanroom suits tell you to strip, lay you out face-down on a long rolling table, and get to work with their scalpels and syringes and wires and microcomputers.

It’s a surprisingly intimate thing. You don’t know a single thing about your bioengineers, of course — presumably you could’ve asked their names, but what’s the point? — but they’re still the people arguably closest to you. They have seen every inch of your skin and most underneath it. They have injected you full of all sorts of chemical cocktails and substances. They quite literally hold your brain in their hands — and much more importantly, your connection to your frame. If they ground you, it’s over.

So you try to be on your best behaviour for them. They reciprocate by making the procedures as quick and straightforward as possible. It’s a good professional relationship. They gently push or press on a limb when they need you to move it or alter something. You’re in a vulnerable position for them, but you’ve never felt vulnerable, or even discomforted. They work with a robotic, passionless precision. Military precision. It’s regular, consistent, reliable. There are few things in your life you could qualify as comforting, but this is one of them.

But the facts of what is being done to you are not lost on you. Every injection into your forearms (entirely synthmuscle) increases your efficiency in manipulating the frame controls. Every rubber-gloved hand gently plugging a wire into your neckjack comes with the knowledge that you’re being changed, altered, improved in your ability to complete your purpose.

HANGMAN’s railgun looms over you as you stare at the ceiling.

Another hand gently, almost lovingly pushes back your hair. You’re startled by the gesture for a second before you realize they’re shining a light into your ocular implants, testing to see your pupil response. The care you’re being shown now is contingent — contingent on you doing your job, contingent on your continued assent and ability to slaughter the enemy.

You have no problems with that. You didn’t choose this life, after all — it chose you. We live in hostile times, and there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing, if you’re doing it to survive. Because you are doing it to survive. You roll that idea around in your head a few times. It’s not very convincing.

They squeeze your shoulder, signaling that they’re done. Your heart aches strangely. A part of you wants to continue lying on that table, exposed, beg them to keep working on you, keep supplying you with the contact you don’t deserve. But you don’t.

You slide smoothly off the table, pull your jocksuit back on, zip yourself up with a definite feeling of change about you. Like just having put on new glasses — a clearer mode of interfacing with the world. More connected than ever to the hulking war machine quietly thrummmmming a few feet behind you.

Your throat tightens.


You rock back and forth in the cramped cabin, hands braced against the metal ceiling. It’s supposed to be temperature-controlled, but that’s during combat — right now, your exertions have made the tiny crawlspace almost unbearably hot. You pant breathlessly. You could tell yourself that this is another side effect of the cocktail, but you know it’s not. The human mind is a chemical machine; this is you hacking it, you rationalize, keeping yourself going. Nevermind the diminishing returns. It’s how you stay sane, under these circumstances.

In spite of the physical intensity, of the motion and sensation, your mind is somewhere else entirely. Somewhere far outside this billion-dollar war machine, outside of this carrier ship miles above the surface of a collapsing ecumenopolis, even outside this solar system torn apart by a war so old most people don’t know what they’re fighting for. On a beach planet, maybe, one of those ones you hear about that are never colonized because of how distant they are from the nearest settlement. Just you, along, steel skin against the sand and toes touching the cool water. Alone.

You shudder and twitch. Overwhelming. Reaching into the back of your head, you turn a dial down a few notches. Better. You’re jacked in, and the distinction of where you end and HANGMAN begins is unclear as ever (neckport plugged in, jocksuit long since stripped off and thrown to the corner). This is what pleasure has come to mean for you. In this tiny metal space the size of a cubicle laid on its side, charging through destroyed streets and crushing APCs underfoot, this is where you are powerful.

Not outside. Not when wandering the halls of the ship, restrained to a five-foot-three form of mostly meat. Not when twitching and fiending for another fix, eyes bloodshot and popping out of your head. Not when avoiding other soldiers as best you can until you almost — scratch that, entirely prefer the combat.

Your jaw locks and your back arches. You thank god the cabin is soundproofed — not because of the noise you make, but because of how you explode afterward, your body wracked by open sobbing. Just, too much feeling, good and bad. You don’t remember the last time you cried. But then, you don’t remember the last time it was this bad. You curl up in the jockey’s chair, letting the river of emotion take you.

Your breath catches.


You were supporting a few squads in a firefight, your arm-guns spraying a hail of bullets at a tank across the way, when your radio buzzed to life.

HANGMAN, aerial imagery indicates a fortified artillery battery three klicks south-southwest. Overlooks our central engagement point. Move and engage ASAP.

You immediately pull back from the firefight, ducking behind a fallen concrete pillar and then slipping around the corner. The tank stupidly blind-fires, turning the pillar into dust after you’ve already left it. Every instinct in your body tells you to press your advantage and to charge while they’re reloading, but no. Orders are orders. You leave the squads to encircle and take the tank on their own.

However bad it’s been the last few weeks, it’s worse now. You don’t know if this even counts as a battle or a siege anymore; this outlying urban district of the planet-city is, for whatever reason, a key strategic objective for both you and the enemy holding it. You don’t pretend to understand why; high-level strategy isn’t in your pay grade. But your division has been battering this chokepoint for over two months now, gaining inch after inch of bloody ground from three different directions. And today’s the day it all comes together: the battalions are pushing the last mile or so to meet in the middle, shattering the enemy forces into three.

The resistance is as dug-in as you’d expect. You find yourself once again glad the cabin is soundproofed — though this time it’s because for the past seventeen hours, the air has been filled with near-constant explosions and cannon fire. Your HUD throws up a satellite map to your destination. You push the throttle forward, charging down a quiet side street, shaking the earth around you. An enemy soldier makes the mistake of dipping out cover as you pass — one hand slaps him roughly away, sending him flying.

Five minutes later, you round the corner of a torched apartment building and see the target laid out in front of you.

Shit.

It’s nested deep, deep inside of a bombed-out apartment building. Soldiers swarm around a fortified setup of several mortars, howitzers, rocket trucks, and other artillery units. A collapsed roof gives a clear line of sight downhill to an open broadway — you realize with a start that it’s the same broadway several battalions are going to move down in just a few short hours if they want to hit the rendezvous point on schedule. It’s completely exposed to the battery; it’s going to be a massacre.

Your mind races. How the hell was this not seen before? This must’ve taken days of setup at least.

A shout cuts across the way. Someone’s noticed you. A solitary sergeant, dressed in hooded black camouflage. He’s yelling now, trying to make his voice heard over the constant, deafening THUMP-thump of the artillery barrage. You raise your forearm and fire, targeting systems adjusting the angle for you. His torso rocks backward and his head turns into a pink mist.

That gets their attention. And you begin the dance.

Dodge the first couple of shots fired at you. Left, right, weaving through hails of gunfire. They’ve all noticed you now. The artillery can’t be moved, but the smaller gun emplacements can. The squads push their little armored machine guns around, trying to get a bead on you.

It’s not working. You’re fast, faster than they are. Need to close the gap. Your thrusters begin to burn — you don’t have much fuel left, but it’s enough to supplement your jump, sending you sailing into the air across the plaza.

You land with a gigantic crash, shattering the concrete and crushing a few soldiers underfoot. The ground is getting bloodier by the second. The facility is huge, you’re realizing — it sprawls the entire interior of this building. They begin to swarm out, guns drawn. Just small arms, which normally never worry you. But there are a lot of them.

More targets. Your guns fold out of the paneling on your body, firing indiscriminately into the mass. Your HUD is out of control, applying targets and finding firing solutions faster than you can act on them. Your autocannon sprays into a fireteam, sending them crumpling to the ground. Your chainguns begins slamming shots into the side of an armored APC until it begins to smoke and explodes into flames, sending shrapnel flying and soldiers scattering. You’re vaguely aware of screaming into the radio for backup or aerial cavalry or something, as the artillery barrage continues unabated.

All the while, small arms fire begins to pelt your armor. Normally, not an issue. But the sheer quantity, coupled with the cracks in your plating from earlier in the day — it’s not good. You turn around, looking for an exit point. It doesn’t exist. They’ve filled the cracks in their defense — leaving you trapped inside. The only way out is through. An eye flicks to your fuel levels. Just under 3% — not enough for a big jump, but maybe enough for a boost, if you get a running start.

Your main gun continues the reliable pattern of firing wildly, reloading, firing wildly, reloading. The fist-sized bullets literally throw some of the camouflaged soldiers back as they die, but somehow there are always more to fill the gap. This isn’t a fortified artillery battery. This is a fucking bunker. And you just walked right into it.

It doesn’t matter. You have the mission.

You charge forward again, throwing soldiers out of the way while you build momentum. Every servo in your legs tenses up and then springs, sending you flying up — then the thrusters activate, carrying you up. And the moment the fuel level hits 0%, everything goes out of control.

Left thruster gives out a second earlier than the right, sending you careening wildly into that direction. You make it to the upper floor you were aiming for, but instead of landing in the middle, you’ve collided with one of the smaller howitzers, crushing it under your weight. You manage to recover decently well, rolling and then getting to your feet, but the hard metal damaged your plating even further. The metal underneath is exposed.

fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck

The soldiers up here are less armored, less prepared. They’re artillery sergeants, not infantry. They pull back on your advance, throwing some token fire while you kick out, sending more of the howitzers off the cliff they’re perched on. The soldiers underneath are moving up.

Your brain, split in two — neurons and microprocessors — rapidly draws a few conclusions based on nearby input.

1. Overhead, you hear a characteristic repeating thhOOOm: rockets taking off, one after the other.
2. They wouldn’t waste rockets on a secondary target.
3. The battalion must be moving through the promenade now, ahead of schedule.
4. If you don’t do something, in a few seconds, a lot of people are going to die.

You’re trying to figure out a movement strategy to the next floor, maybe try and take out one of the rocket trucks, when you’re suddenly thrown forward. As you fall, you’re dimly aware of a blurry alert on your HUD of an incoming projectile, displayed just a half-second too late. You collide with the ground, hard. The dance breaks. In a moment, you’re no longer you (76.3 ton CATAPHRACT-class Type-III fast-attack mechanized cavalry unit), you’re you (60 kg frail flesh-and-blood human concussion, bleeding head injury).

Everything’s hazy, shaking. Putting thoughts together is like trudging through molasses, and your eyes can’t quite seem to focus on anything. The deafening thhOOOM-thhOOOm overhead is muffled, but still there. You gradually come to realize you’re upside-down, limbs hanging towards the ground while your torso is still strapped into the pilot’s chair.

The glass of the cockpit is spiderwebbed with cracks, but the digital display inside reads “CATASTROPHIC DAMAGE: MAIN POWER ONLINE, AUXILIARY BATTERY OFFLINE, TARGETING OFFLINE, WEAPON MANAGEMENT OFFLINE…”. The list goes on. Interestingly, communications are still online. Reaching into the back of your head, which now feels more like forcing your hand through a crack in a wall, you manage to turn the dial.

Shouting. Shouting and screaming. From dozens of voices, overlapping, into one homogeneous mass of terror and anger. Words jump out at you: artillery barrage, rockets, heavy casualties, aerial cavalry, bombing run, air support unavailable. They’re coming for you. Who’s coming for you? Whoever shot you in the back, obviously. You can’t do anything about it. A phrase swims to the front of your mind.

MAIN POWER: ONLINE”. That means the reactors are still running — the reactors burning with enough explosive power to level a city block.

They’re coming for you. Who’s coming for you? Whoever shot you in the back. They’re not gonna let you live, obviously. You have a few minutes, at best. But every second you wait comes at a price.

Hanging upside down, you remember. You remember every little incidence of disgust or mistreatment or the casual sort of cruelty you learned to accept as a requisite part of your life. You remember the recruiters staring at your neurosynchronicity scores as part of the standard battery of tests, you remember the brutal, soul-crushing training where you watched too many of your cohorts’ minds and bodies turned into mush, you remember your separate barracks framed as a luxury even though it was brutally isolating and command knew it, you remember the complete disinterest of the other soldiers in engaging with you and how that disinterest morphed into outright disgust when your body began to take shape from titanium and synthflesh, you remember the little cruelties enacted on you like disinfecting anything you touched as though your curse was communicable, you remember the fascinated-hungry stares from the others when they realized that at your core you were not like them and had indeed never been like them, you remember command’s ignorance to your requests for reassignment which you now recognize as the intentional act of isolation it was, you remember the sickness and nausea as the cocktails began to tear apart your digestive system after you didn’t eat for three days, you remember lying in the infirmary in critical condition after a naval shell tore through your armor and blew off your arm, you remember when it all became too much and it flipped a switch in your head and you began believing you deserved it, you remember receiving the occasional small act of kindness from a new enlistee not-quite-familiar enough to understand your place and feeling that you sincerely didn’t deserve it, you remember the only respect you got being afforded to you when you were in your true bulletproof-and-reactor-powered body, you remembered the thankful cheers from your fellows as you would pass by them after crushing a tank and then the quiet laughter from the same men hours later not recognizing you in only your jocksuit when you waved at them, you remember the sweaty sex in the cabin of your mech after-hours until pleasure was inextricably associated with this war machine, you remember the gentle gloved hands of the bioengineers groping across your body as the system whispered to you: “I love you, as long as you kill for me. And when you stop killing for me, I will stop loving you.”

This is who you would be sacrificing yourself for. They don’t deserve your sacrifices; they never have. But you’ll still sacrifice it freely anyway. You don’t know why. Maybe you’re the lamb, too good for this world, meant to die to absolve your captors. Maybe you’re a delusional idiot who deserves everything laid upon you, and this is a last moment of rationalization in the face of oblivion. It doesn’t really matter. Because you are who you are, you’re broken, and you will take your last comfort in giving up the very last parts of yourself for the desires of others.

You reach into the back of your head, still jacked into the mech, deeper, deeper, rooting around until you find the switch you’re looking for. You flick it — at the same time, your right hand flicks an actual switch in the cockpit.

The noose tightens.

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