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Freelancers

Newsletter Archive

FREELANCERS #26 - 03/15/24

Apologies for the late send. What I thought were allergies turned into a cold that slowed me down. Enjoy this action-packed story. <3

Hey, Freelancers!

Lina Ro'Shaer here with this month's Bullet Points.

I know there’s a separate board for job postings, but this story felt appropriate to signal boost. The people of Crypsom VII are in dire, immediate need of help from skilled freelancers such as yourself.

An independent mining colony southeast of the Erissian Empire, Crypsom VII is a rocky, rough planet orbiting a bright blue star. Diamond Dynamics financed the establishment of a colony a century and a half ago during a gold rush in the larger region with the standard promise of independence for the settlers once their investment paid off. A lot can change over the span of 150 years, however.

Citing fine print in the contract and other superfluous technicalities, the corporation repeatedly delayed setting the colony free. After almost two decades of empty promises amid record profits, the execs didn’t start listening until the colonists rallied for an armed revolution and delivered an ultimatum.

In an act of supreme petulance, the company clawed back as much equipment and infrastructure as it could amid protests as they left. In an act of insidious spite to ensure no one benefited from Crypsom’s rich mineral veins, they left their former workers a parting gift.

After several outposts went dark, the newly independent colonists discovered a drop pod containing ravager beetle larvae. These ravenous bugs, lifted from another rocky planet in the Void called Rakuur, multiply out of control and consume whole worlds in the absence of other beetle colonies or natural predators.

The settlers pursue legal action against Diamond Dynamics, who deny the whole thing despite evidence of their involvement with the infestation. While the biological warfare case moves through galactic courts, the people of Crypsom VII fight for their lives against a horrible menace threatening to overrun the home they’ve built.

So to any and all freelancers capable of offering assistance, I ask that you jump in and respond to their call for aid. The bonds they offer will be worth a great deal once the miners get back on their feet.

Be the heroes I know you can be, freelancers. Just be sure to bring protection from caustic acid and ammo. Lots of ammo.

Heavy Metal

 

Blood trickled down Arthur’s ear. A swipe from one of the accursed bugs that breached the first line of defence ruined his helmet and its ear protection while knocking his head real good. Despite the numbness wracking his body from the twin autocannon emplacement’s constant firing, he had to press on. His family hadn’t evacuated yet, and the hungry tide of ravager beetles felt unending.

He’d heard stories before today, but seeing the real thing chilled him to the bone. Though a respectable-sized man, the lowest rank of bug had twice his size and weight to throw around. The memories still haunted him. Arthur’s uncle had a leg torn off by one of the ravager beetle grunt’s mandibles. He watched his old history teacher waste away screaming when a spitter engulfed him in a jet of vile acid. Horror stories permeated the news feed of behemoths the size of buildings levelling entire villages on their own.

Arthur wasn’t a soldier. The second son of a mine foreman, the infestation interrupted the teenager’s plans to attend a tech school in the Erissian Empire. A place where he could learn skills to take home and build Crypsom VII.

He had an opportunity to leave a week ago, but it wasn’t much of a choice. If he and others like him didn’t step up, the home they worked so hard to build would be crushed under chitinous feet. So when the call went out for anyone capable of helping to report to Rigel’s Redoubt, the colony’s last line of defence, he kissed his mom goodbye and hopped on the truck.

Arthur’s childhood friend loaded the last of their ammo reserve into the feed and looked at him with desperate, terrified eyes. The lad took a breath to gaze up at the beautiful bright blue sky and wondered if this was the last time he’d see it. Knowing they couldn’t hold back this threat alone, everyone hoped and prayed someone would answer their call for help.

But the galaxy was a vast place. Who would care enough about their little colony to risk diving into this hellscape?


***


Up in orbit, a sleek spacecraft sailed toward Crypsom VII’s upper atmosphere. Azira leaned in to get a closer look at the holographic view port on the bridge. The planet lit up with warning pings and sensor reports. The biological scan painted a bleak picture as the immense tide of bugs funnelled toward Rigel’s Redoubt. Dressed in a sophisticated, skintight black jumpsuit, the athletic, genetically enhanced human woman listened to the frantic distress calls piping in over the comms.

A tall figure approached and loomed over her. Squinting at the planet’s display, her keen-eyed compatriot, Namik, said, “I think I can see them moving from orbit.” Dressed in a similar jumpsuit coloured blue, Namik was a Valhai. The lithe predator was somewhere between humanoid, avian, feline, and canine in form.

A third figure, broader but just as tall as Namik, marched over. “Good. More for us. Never knew you to be squeamish, Namik.” The last member of the freelancer trio was a Kagoran named Vektar. Built like a more agile, animalistic ork, the imposing man stretched his shoulder as he finished fastening his orange jumpsuit.

The Valhai raised the hardened brow plate over one of his dark eyes. “It’s not fear. Someone on this vessel needs to be the voice of reason and question how economical this venture is. I’m not so sure the reward lines up with the risk. It’s not too late to turn back.”

Vektar gave Namik a rough pat on the shoulder. “Turn back? What happened to your warrior spirit in the face of a worthy foe?”

Namik placed his clawed hands on his hips. “It’s being tempered by my pragmatic mercenary spirit. Between the ship, crew, armigers, suit maintenance, ammunition, and this one’s food budget, we need high-paying jobs to stay afloat.” He pointed a thumb at Vektar. “Unfortunate as it is, we’re not running a charity. Those bonds the Crypsomites are promising sound lucrative, but they might not pay out for years. If they ever do, considering all… this.” The Valhai gestured toward the imperilled planet.

Azira locked in the coordinates for Rigel’s Redoubt. “We can float around waiting for an opportunity that may never come, or we can jump in and make it happen. Stay back if you’d like, Namik, but I’m going in.”

As she marched to the launch bay, Namik chuckled and fell into step with the other two. “After a speech like that? I’ll race you down.”

Vektar guffawed and climbed through a doorway not quite built to his size. “Now you’re talking. How about the usual wager on kill count if it’ll satisfy your mercenary sensibilities?”

Upon reaching the launch bay, Namik leaped over the railing while the other two took the stairs. “I wouldn’t dream of robbing a lumberous beast like you. How’s about we descend from the sky in such a spectacular fashion that we can negotiate better terms?”

Azira and Vektar laughed as their armigers helped them into their PAXs. Often custom-made for their user, the Powered Armour eXosuits were a staple of power projection across the galaxy. Though expensive to field because of the high-quality materials used to build them, they allowed their pilots to mix the mobility of infantry with the impact of armoured vehicles. Often carefully controlled for knights and elite warriors to maintain power, this trio was rare in the freelancer community. The patchwork repairs on their mighty machines told the tale of their adventures making do with what they could pull together after losing the support of their former masters.

Once secure inside the suits, a spike inserted into the cybernetic input at the base of their skulls. Their nervous systems linked with the wiring making flesh and machine became one. The rush of power they felt when the suit’s reactors spooled up amplified their exhilaration for the coming battle.

Once free of the docking clamps outside the ship, the Metal Warriors ignited their thrusters and rocketed toward Crypsom VII.


***


Smoke from the red hot autocannon barrels fogged up Arthur’s goggles. As one of the militia leaders shouted at him to lay it on them, a loud pop pierced the air. The barrels burst from overuse. A shaky finger hovering over the trigger urged him to keep shooting, but he knew that would be disastrous.

Dragging himself out of the emplacement, Arthur struggled to find his footing after what felt like an hour of constant fire. He took a moment to survey the battlefield. With his autocannons unable to hold them at bay, the ravaging tide finally swept over the second line of defences. Several militia fighters sacrificed themselves to hold the bugs back with bayonets and makeshift pikes so their fellows could retreat.

Standing on the last line of battlements before the edge of the city behind him, Arthur had difficulty catching his breath. The smoking barrel mixed with the stench of ravager beetle acid and death to create a sickening melange of smells.

Screams and gunfire drew his attention to his right. The ravager grunts built enough of a ramp with their bodies to scale the wall. His childhood friend tossed him a heavy nail gun, the closest thing they had to rifles, and they rushed over to assist.

Two ravager grunts reached over the top of the wall and impaled some militia with their pickaxe-like arms. Arthur and his friend rushed forward and fired a deluge of steel spikes to topple the two grunts. A third beetle leaped over the side and slammed Arthur’s friend with the back side of its claw. The lad called out her name as she went down, then opened fire. Even after a spike pierced its eye, the enraged bug charged in with an uncanny roar and pushed Arthur into a barricade.

The impact knocked the wind out of him and sent his weapon tumbling over the edge. Everything moved in slow motion as the sightless grunt glowered at him. Acidic spittle dripped from its jaws as it reared up one of the pickaxe claws to deliver a killing strike. Arthur raised his hands, even though they had no chance of stopping what was coming.

Something obscured the light coming from the bright blue star above. The plascrete beneath him cracked from the impact as Azira’s black-clad PAX with pink accents and a half cape landed through the charging grunt’s shell. Even with its lower half destroyed, the simple-minded beast still struggled to bite Arthur. The lad curled into a ball as the intense heat of a plasma blade extended out of Azira’s left forearm and severed the grunt’s head.

The next few moments burned into Arthur’s memory as Azira’s PAX stood to its full height at three metres tall. With her suit’s sensors granting her awareness of more bugs approaching from behind, she grabbed what remained of the grunt corpse and hurled it at the new wave of attackers to slow them down. The first grunt ducked low, then charged in. It stopped in its tracks as Azira raised her rifle and jammed it into the beast’s open maw.

Arthur watched in awe as she fired autocannon rounds one-handed to blast the grunt’s insides. The warrior snap kicked another to launch it back over the wall, then fired one high-explosive round each into the heads of four more grunts scaling the battlement.

As she stepped up to the edge of the wall and opened fire into the horde below, Namik soared through the sky in his lighter, more agile blue and silver PAX. His helmet had metal feathers along the crest of the head matching his own and vectored thrusters, allowing more sustained flight. He dodged several jets of acid from ravager beetle spitters, then unleashed a torrent of fire from wrist mounted blasters to thin the tide.

Arthur curled into a ball once more as a third PAX, orange and more hulking than the other two, landed with enough force to further crack the plascrete beneath them. This orange and red beast, built like a hulking warrior with a faceplate styled like a demon, turned to Arthur. “Well fought, karysh. The Metal Warriors will take it from here.”

With a war cry enhanced by the speaker on the PAX helmet, Vektar slammed several grunts off the battlement with his heavy tower shield, then obliterated another with his flail that emitted a sonic burst as it struck.

Within a minute after arriving, the three PAX warriors tore apart this wave of ravager beetles assaulting Rigel’s Redoubt.

As the smoke cleared and the din of battle died down, three armoured titans stood along the battlements. Arthur and some of the beleaguered defenders raised their hands in the air and cheered. They hoped against hope that someone, anyone, would answer their call for help. Several of the militia wept as they realized they might be able to defend their home against the ravagers.

The bugs sent a message to remind their prey who they were dealing with.

Azira’s sensors caught it first. She bent down, scooped up Arthur and his injured friend, then activated her thrusters for a short jump as a ball of acid the size of a compact car exploded against the battlements. The caustic fluid disintegrated that section of the fort in a matter of seconds. Several militia fighters with binoculars called out the new threat.

“Behemoth! They got a lobber!”

Azira’s optics zoomed in on the horizon. An immense ravager beetle standing three stories tall burst forth from the ground. Layers of thick, chitinous armour plates covered the front of its body and all of its limbs. Its abdomen pulsated with roiling, volatile chemicals. The plates on its back peeled open to reveal a biological cannon that hurled globs of acid up to half a kilometre away.

Worse yet, another wave of grunts and spitters poured out of the rocky earth to continue the assault.

Namik spoke to the others in their private comm channel. “Might be wise to reconsider our objective. We could pull back and help facilitate an evacuation until the Crypsomites can figure out a more terminal solution to their little infestation.”

After depositing Arthur and his friend in relative safety, Azira looked at the city in the valley behind them. “There’s no evidence that starport is ready for a full evacuation. The colony has a population of over 400,000. We could squeeze maybe three dozen in our ship.”

Namik turned to Vektar. “Bet I could guess your thoughts on the matter.”

The Kagoran pounded a metal fist on his chestplate. “I’d rather die a fool than a coward.”

Azira reloaded her rifle. “Stay back and help however you can. We’ll buy you some time.”

The Valhai laughed. “After a speech like that? Not a chance. We’ll go down in history as the Metal Fools, but at least we’ll go down together.”

The three companions pounded their fists together, then engaged their thrusters over the fort walls. The freelancers charged in to meet the insectoid horde head-on.

As a row of spitters lined up to fire a volley, Namik took to the skies, drawing their fire upward. Before they could ready another jet of acid, Azira and Vektar were already upon them. A weaponized particle projector extended over Azira’s left shoulder, charged up, then fired a screaming blue projectile at the spitters. The explosion created a hole that Vektar could slam through with his shield. Up ahead, the lobber fired another glob of acid artillery at the fort, reminding them they had a priority target.

Another squad of grunts burst out of the ground to intercept them on their way to the colossal siege weapon. Azira’s advanced sensors detected the seismic disturbance and raised her rifle to pour explosive cannon rounds into the hole before they could spread out. This left Vektar to face down the wave of grunts that came with the lobber alone.

The Kagoran’s warrior heart wanted to charge into glorious melee with the flail, but he knew they didn’t have time. With his shield up to catch shots from a few errant spitters in the crowd, he raised a massive shotgun and blasted apart as many grunts as he could in a hail of incendiary pellets.

Namik did his best to deal with the first group of spitters before they could shoot his compatriots in the back, but a sharphooter among them disabled one of his blasters. He dodged a shot from the lobber midair, then dashed forward to help the others.

Now back-to-back, firing multiple weapons in all directions, Azira and Vektar shuffled forward as the grunts swarmed them. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Vektar slammed his shield into the ground and emitted a concussive blast to send a squad of grunts flying backward. With line of sight open to their target, he extended a folded rail gun on his back, braced it on the shield, loaded an armour piercing round and fired at the lobber.

Normally enough to disable a tank in one shot, the lobber’s sloped layers of armour plates splintered and took the brunt of the impact. The monster let out a roar in protest that shook the mountain range. Like the others, it had no eyes, but stared the Warriors down with a baleful glare all the same.

It angled its weapon down as far as it could and returned fire on the pesky PAXs. Azira slid behind Vektar as he retracted the rail gun and raised his tower shield. Though treated for acid protection, the thick caustic sludge proved too powerful. Warning lights flared in both of their helmets as some of the acid splash eroded parts of their advanced armour. Vektar ejected the shield from its mount before it wasted away.

As the rest of the horde charged them, Azira and Vektar braced for impact. A cavalcade of rockets rained down from above as Namik launched his full salvo to clear a path. In wordless concert, the other two rushed up and to the side to get a better position on the behemoth.

The agile Valhai fired up the afterburners and pushed his PAX to the limit. He buzzed around the great beast, harassing it with his remaining blaster, inciting it to swat at him with its claws. Namik dove low and positioned himself so that the nearby spitters hit the behemoth. It stepped on them out of reflex.

An ambitious grunt clambered up the behemoth’s carapace and leaped through the air to tackle Namik. He twisted to fight it off, but a pickaxe claw damaged one of his two thruster packs. The airborne combatants spun and crashed hard into the rocky ground.

Though badly damaged, the merged nervous system of a PAX warrior was wired to push through pain and keep fighting. The agile Valhai swept the grunt’s legs as it tore off his remaining blaster. In a flash, Namik was on his feet with twin vibra-blades humming in his hands. He tore the beast apart with enhanced speed, then turned as more rushed in. Though normally confident in his prowess, a chill surged up his spine as the behemoth turned and aimed its cannon at him.

Namik mumbled to himself, “I should really listen to my own advice sometimes.”

Off to the side, Vektar climbed up a cliff face and yanked a spitter off the edge to splat on the rocks below. He reached down and boosted Azira over the edge as more grunts hissed and charged with pickaxe claws raised. She met them head-on and grappled the first before they could strike. Flexing her legs, she used the grunt as a shield while the second attacked its shell. Her plasma blade flared to cut open its belly as it dug a claw into her pauldron.

Using a burst of his thrusters to lift his heavy frame over the edge, Vektar grabbed the second grunt and threw them both against a nearby wall. Azira extended the wicked bayonet on her rifle and skewered both remaining bugs.

With the behemoth’s flank exposed to them, the warriors saw the roiling chemicals stirring in its abdomen. It was moments away from firing a shot point blank at Namik.

Wasting no time, Vektar unfolded his rail gun and loaded another armour piercing shot. With no shield to brace the long barrel, Azira spun around and held it on her right shoulder. As the rails on the Kagoran’s weapon energized, Azira activated her particle projector and primed a full charge. Sharing targeting data in their helmets, Vektar’s shot punched a hole in the behemoth’s thinner rear carapace. Azira fired a screaming blue projectile in right behind it.

The behemoth roared as a terrible chemical reaction took place in its innards. It motioned to vent as much as it could out the cannon in Namik’s direction, but a catastrophic explosion ruptured it, sending acid gushing forth from its sides. Namik used a beetle corpse as cover while the others dove behind some rocks.

As their companion kicked the disintegrating grunt body off of him, Azira and Vektar jumped down to regroup.

Careful not to step in the sizzling pools of acid, Vektar laughed and helped Namik to his feet. “See? That wasn’t so bad.”

The Valhai ran a diagnostic on his damaged and difficult to repair systems. “Yeah. Easiest charity work I’ve done.”

Azira said, “Don’t jinx it.”

As if on cue, her seismic sensors triggered again. Loose rocks on the ground quaked before more holes opened up around them. Three more behemoths clawed their way out of the earth and roared. These variants were stone-breakers. Instead of the engorged abdomen full of acid, these super-sized grunts had colossal pickaxe claws. Another horde of grunts and spitters released themselves from its spiky carapace and marched for the trio.

As the Metal Warriors closed ranks and prepared for a last stand, Namik readied his blades and sighed. “I can’t believe my last words will be, ‘I told you so.’”

The ground rumbled as thousands of insectoid legs charged toward them.

Azira received a message from an unknown source. Text in her helmet read: DANGER CLOSE. BRACE. BRACE. BRACE.

She shouted, “Get down!” The three companions turned to each other and crouched. Vektar activated an emergency energy shield that enveloped them as ravager claws closed in.

The first salvo descending from the sky contained airburst shells. They peppered the mountain pass in deadly shrapnel that tore apart most of the smaller beetles. The second salvo slammed the behemoths with armour cracking shells, typically used for busting bunkers. As they bucked and roared from the deafening crack of their thick carapaces being sundered, a third salvo of high explosive ordnance cratered the surrounding area.

Though they couldn’t see, the underground dwelling beetles were keenly attuned to tremors in the ground. Even for their simple minds, the earth-shattering artillery convinced the survivors to scurry back in their holes.  

As the dust cleared, Namik and Azira helped lift Vektar, who burned through most of his power supply on that shield. Proximity to a barrage like that would’ve blasted apart anyone in lesser gear. The Metal Warriors looked up to see an Erissian cruiser entering the atmosphere. They laughed as several other ships from the rapid response force followed.

Up on the battlements of Rigel’s Redoubt, Arthur looked at the bright blue sky of his beloved home with tears in his eyes. His childhood friend hugged him close. Maybe there was hope for Crypsom VII after all.

Hope you enjoyed seeing some bug-squashing PAXs in action!

 

Here's the link to the archive of newsletters in case you missed any.

 

Talk to you next month. Have a good one!

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