Here we go


Cover Art: Serox

Chapter 26


Jaune had watched documentaries on the Great War, how terrifying it was – the bombardments and the aerial assaults and the fear people felt as they scrambled for cover. He'd always watched with a detached sort of sympathy, knowing it was probably terrible but never being able to truly understand in his own way what it might be like.

Now, he knew.

The shadow of the Atlas battleship above the city followed them menacingly, and the distant whistle and boom of dropships landing, disgorging mechanised units armed with lethal weaponry chased them into the multi-storey car park. Only half their number remained, the other half having split off to escape and mostly being allowed to. That was the volunteers along with Tukson, Deery and Perry, which left him the stronger elements of the White Fang – Trifa, Ilia and Yuma.

He didn't want to say he'd banked on Atlas chasing the larger party because that made him sound like a horrible coward. So, he wouldn't say it. Didn't stop him thinking it.

"What now, boss?" Yuma asked.

"I don't know! I – oh crap, I didn't plan for this! How could I have!?"

"How could you have known Atlas – our constant and forever enemy who has made it their life's work to eradicate us – would come to do just that?" Ilia asked. "At an international event we know Atlas was invited to…?"

"…"

"Shutting up now," she said.

"We need to get to the sewers."

"You and the sewers. Are you a turtle faunus?"

"They're safe! They're kind! They're precious! Atlas Battleships don't fit in them."

"That, they do not. Well." Yuma spread his arms wide. "All in favour of the sewers? Yep. That's all of us. Only problem is getting to them. Ducking in here may have bought us time, but it also locks us in one spot. Listen…"

The burning of thrusters sounded above, left, right and back the way they'd come, signalling the arrival of more units – automatic or otherwise – landing on the roof and outside the carpark.

"That's the sound of us being surrounded."

"Thank you, Yuma. Very helpful." Trifa punched his arm and looked back to Jaune. "Boss. What's the plan?"

Why were they asking him? Nothing had changed in the last twenty seconds. He wished Adam really could take control of his body because this was one of the few times he'd have been okay with it. It wasn't violence if it was against machines, right? "How tough are these robots?" he asked. "Can we fight them?"

"We have before," Ilia said. "The SDC ones are a little more lethal since they only care about legality half the time, especially when dealing with faunus. Atlas units are fairly tame; they have to be deployed in civilian areas after all. Usually bipedal walkers with guns. They go down to a good hit. It's their numbers that count, and the fact they're programmed to use military tactics, flank and pin people down."

"Night vision, too," Yuma said. "One of the first things they installed to take away our natural advantages in the dark. They'll find us quick enough, though there's plenty to hide behind," he remarked, looking around all the cars parked in the multi-storey. It was close to capacity.

Jaune's head whipped around to Yuma. "Are they controlled remotely?"

"I think they can be given group orders and controlled as a unit, but their actual movements and decision-making process are all automated. It's a limited AI built on combat simulation. We have spies in Atlas," he added by way of explanation.

Trifa punched him again. "We don't have spies in Atlas."

"Oh right. We totally don't have spies in Atlas. Honest."

The spider faunus groaned into her hand.

Robots. AI. Computers. Simulations. Jaune looked desperately around the car park, taking in the rows and rows of vehicles, the big stone pillars holding up each level and the eight floors above their own. The whole place was nestled beside the shopping mall to the left and several large office blocks to the right, making it gloomy – even more so than usual given the late hour. The few flickering and half-maintained lights on the ceiling were doing a poor job illuminating the area, with most of the light coming from the shattered moon and some stronger lights by the pay-and-display ticket machines near the elevators and staircase.

"I… I think I have an idea…"

/-/

General Ironwood sat on the Bridge of the Vanguard, Winter Schnee stood beside him and officers sat at their stations. There was more movement than would have been expected for a military vessel – but then movies always did overplay the severity of those situations. Live operation or not, people came and went, hurrying forth with reports and messages.

Clover appeared with two styrofoam cups of steaming coffee, handing one to General Ironwood and receiving a polite shake of the head from Winter. He kept the second to himself while James added milk and sugar from the thin, disposable packets strapped to the side. Atlesian Black. His favourite. The blend hadn't taken off in Vale – but the people there were weak willed and soft. They hadn't grown up in the snow and blizzards, haunted by Grimm in the cold nights. They liked to sit back in their comfortable homes mixing cinnamon, caramel and other sickeningly sweet messes into their coffee. Disgusting.

"Sir," an office reported. "The multi-storey is surrounded, and units have secured the open-top roof. We have radar in the area, but no unidentified aircraft are showing up. Continuing to monitor."

"Knight Units are in position and ready to enter on your command," another said.

"Bring up their screens."

Bright, holographic displays appeared projected in the air before them, over the central bridge and also the reflective windows that made up the prow. There were over a hundred in total, though the system would automatically minimise and maximise those that detected hostiles.

The Knight Units truly were masterpieces of Atlas technology. They would not replace boots on the ground despite what newscasters claimed and hardworking men and women feared. There would always be a need for human soldiers – for machines were fallible. What they would do, however, was substitute for human lives where overly dangerous assaults were required. Ones like this. In truth, the Knight Units were still less effective than trained soldiers. Less adaptable. Less imaginative.

What they did have, however, was instantaneous communication, and it was impossible to overstate how important that was. When one unit detected a foe, it would send out an instantaneous message to all others in the squad, causing them to adjust their paths to encircle, flank and cut off the escape of their enemies. That kind of reaction speed would be impossible in humans who had to radio in, contest with confusion and error, then consult maps and topography. Ideally in the future, the human soldiers would be the anvil to the mechanised hammer, the far more dangerous job in the hands of machinery.

"Maintain a perimeter with half the units," he ordered. "I want ten remaining on the top floor to ward off aircraft. Do not open fire until confirmed White Fang. I expect media choppers here within moments."

"Sir. We've had a response from Vale Central News. They are preparing for your interview and broadcast. It will take them ten minutes to have everything ready for you."

Ten minutes. Acceptable given the lack of warning he'd offered them. The element of surprise was as much a problem as it was a boon sometimes. "Tell them I'll be ready for them. Let's make sure we have some good news, ladies and gentlemen. Knight Units. Enter and engage!"

The screens began to move as the mechanised units slowly entered the car park. The screens remained in colour while outside but switched to a bright and tinted green on the interior due to the lack of light. Ironwood leaned back, focusing less on one screen out of a hundred and instead waiting for the Knights to find something of interest.

If it were me, I'd station my men one floor below the top floor, he thought. With limited reinforcements and time not on your side, the only way out of a pincer movement is to attack one pincer before the trap can close. He would send a unit down to the bottom levels with orders to stage a fighting retreat and expend overwhelming amounts of ammunition to better simulate a determined defence. Wild firing would be encouraged to make it seem like there were more people.

Meanwhile, the core of his forces would lay an ambush for the units coming down from above – first luring them onto the floor, then encircling and ambushing them. Once they were dealt with, he would surge up to the roof and clear out the remaining ones, simultaneously breaking free of the pincer and clearing a viable escape route for a Bullhead to land and exfiltrate them.

It was time to see what kind of man he was dealing with.

One of the screens blew up to full suddenly. On it, a bright green shape could be seen running up the ramp to the next floor. The number "1" on the top left indicated this unit had found something on the first floor. It didn't open fire. Not immediately. There was no surefire way to know there weren't civilians in the area.

"Contact on first floor." Clover said needlessly, then slurped his coffee.

"They didn't engage." Winter remarked. "Civilians?"

"Civvies shouldn't run."

"Not our citizens, no, but we didn't exactly announce our presence here. You can't expect Valean citizens to know what they're dealing with when they see big, armed, white robots."

Clover chuckled. "True. True. Looks like the units are converging. Some should stay in case it's a sacrificial – ah, yeah, five are staying ground floor. The programming is good."

"It should be," Ironwood said. "It's based off training exercises we ran elite teams through. Everything they do is based on what our own special forces do, mimicking human behaviour."

"Good Day, Potential Citizen," a robotic voice played out. "Submit and lay flat on the floor. Do not resist. Atlas is here to help. It is 2127 hours and 7 degrees Celsius. Please wrap up warmly to not contract any seasonal illnesses."

Ironwood, Winter, Clover and every single person on the Bridge cringed.

"Except that," Winter said.

"The Council wants them deployed out for law enforcement and crowd control," Ironwood said. "The eggheads have been trying to come up with something… personable. Or at least useful. Ideally, we want them capable of providing directions to people who ask and assisting with and reporting crimes people bring to their attention. Let's just say the researchers haven't narrowed down the human angle yet."

"Potential Citizen, you are still running." The Knight Units all said in unison – which, Ironwood was forced to admit, was rather unsettling. Probably terrifying if you met them in a dark multi-storey car park. "You have been upgraded from `POTENTIAL CITIZEN`-" For some reason that title came out quite literally in a soft, feminine voice – the kind of voice who would be on half the answering machines in a Kingdom. "-to `POTENTIAL TARGET`. If you would like to protest your upgrade, please report to the nearest Knight Unit and file a complaint. Thank you for your time."

"Clover."

"Yes sir?"

"Make a note that I'm to speak with programming tomorrow."

"Yes sir."

One of the screens flickered and took over – showing a single web crack in the glass along with a single slug buried in it. The unit had been shot at! Ironwood was grimly pleased to see that though the camera rocked back, it soon righted itself and kept going.

"Your complaint has been filed. On review, your status has been updated to `ENEMY`. Thank you for your patience in reviewing this matter. We, and all of Atlas, wish you a good day. Opening fire."

Muzzle flare appeared on the screen, the shots all raking the ramp up to the next floor where the shot had come from. Half the units maintained suppressive fire while the others moved to engage. The way the shots halted at just the right moments so as not to hit their own units was awe-inspiring – and quite impossible (or at least horrendously inadvisable) to try with actual soldiers.

The first up the ramp took over the camera. It looked left and saw cars, but when it turned right, there was a brief flash in the distance before a shot sparked off the ceiling above it. The Knight brought its gun up and advanced, accurately reading that firing when its opponent had ducked behind a car was meaningless.

Given the shortage of dust, ammo conservation was more important than a lot of people realised. The average soldier used more ammo than anyone could imagine in an engagement – far more than was needed. But then that was the terror of war and the often necessary use of fire to suppress an enemy even if it had little to no chance of hitting. Luckily, the Knights could take a few hits and so could afford to walk into fire.

Here is the delaying action, Ironwood thought. But where is the attack on the upper floors? You're running out of time, Arc.

"Bring up a camera on the upper floor."

A new view came up. This one dark, still and empty. The green shapes of vehicles of different sizes flashed by as the Knights trekked down the two aisles – both left and right – warily. Ironwood's fingers drummed on the armrest of his seat, waiting for the ambush. It didn't come. He hummed quietly to himself. Was this defiance of expectation a sign he was dealing with a genius or an idiot? It was hard to tell, and all too often leaders attributed a foe surprising them as a clever move. It wasn't always.

"It's quiet." Winter said. "Too quiet."

"If we were in there and you said that to me, I'd smack you for jinxing us," Clover said.

"We're not – there! Bottom left!"

The screen flashed up on Winter's command. On it, a huddled shape could be seen running along the fronts of the cars, in the incredibly thin gap between the bumpers and the wall. In the night vision, Ironwood could just make out the mask. Perfect. They had him!

The faunus jumped up suddenly, kicking off the wall and landing on the bonnet of a car. He or she stamped down, kicking off and landing with one foot on the next, pressing the thin metal down and shaking the vehicle. The result was immediate and predictable.

The car alarm began to blare.

The undulating noise made everyone on the Bridge flinch, and someone turn the volume down. The Knights didn't care. They trekked the faunus' path and opened fire, forcing the assailant to duck down. They didn't stop running, though, and despite the shots being assisted by aiming computers, many still missed, impacting the stone walls and also onto the cars themselves.

More alarms sounded. Lights flashed. Each differed in tone and pitch, but one consistent factor was that their lights – both the orange indicators on the back and the bright, white headlights, flashed on and off wildly.

That wouldn't have been a problem if they were all parked front to the wall like most of them were, but there were always those ridiculous people who liked to reverse into parking spaces. Headlamps blared out into the oncoming visors of the Knight Units, right into their night vision. The screens went white, forcing Ironwood and everyone else to look away at the sheer intensity of it.

"Knight Unit 2-21 is down!" someone shouted. "2-22 and 2-23 are also out of commission! They're attacking from behind!"

The ambush was on the lower floor. From between the cars! Ironwood stood up angrily, watching the screens flash bright and dim. The pulsating car alarms weren't in concert, so it was more blinding light than not. On one screen, he saw a humanoid shape in the brief instances between blinding light.

"Engaging."

"No, you idiot!" Ironwood roared.

Too late. The Knight Unit opened fire and riddled its very stationary and very clearly not panicking foe. On the Bridge, a miserable voice said, "2-31 is out of commission. Cause: friendly fire."

"Switch off the night vision! Get them back on normal optics!"

The cameras became dark again – so dark that they could only see when the car lights flashed. It was like a nightclub or a rave, all bright light and gunfire, then nothing. Dark. Silence. The only sound his officer reporting the fallen Knight Units as they were picked apart.

"Send more in!" Ironwood ordered. "Reinforce them!"

"Sending ten units in through the ground floor. They should be there in a few-" Bright lights shone into the screens of the reinforcements. They had their night vision off for obvious reasons, but even then the twin glare of two headlamps rushing right toward them was enough to blind.

"Potential Citizen Vehicle. You are required to-"

The Knight's request was cut off as a pick-up truck slammed into the unit, smashing them apart like bowling pins, carrying on into the bollards that would have lowered down to let it out if it presented its paid ticket to the machine there, and wrapped its front around it. Through a cracked and flickering camera of a Knight smashed on the bonnet and pinned against a bollard, they saw a masked figure in the front seat shake their head, kick the door open and run out.

"They must have broken into a vehicle, hotwired it and hid beneath the dash." Clover said. "The Knights didn't think to check the interior of every car. We might have seen him sit up in the driver's seat if we had night vision on."

Had Arc predicted this far ahead? Not only his reinforcements, but the fact those would be using normal optics. That wasn't possible!

"More units are down! The Knights on the top floor are hurrying to reinforce-"

"No!" Ironwood shouted. "They'll walk into another-"

Too late. Tyres squealed as a sports car came up the ramp, jumped and landed with a crash, turning to look down the single-lane one-way road the Knights were running down. Its engine revved and its lights flashed on, flooding the cameras as it surged forward. Ironwood didn't need to hear the report to imagine their fate.

"Why aren't they dodging? Why aren't they moving!?"

"I don't know. T-There's a lag, sir." A technician tried inputting orders. "It's taking them three and a half seconds to respond to direct commands – that's two seconds worse than testing. Is it the noise? It might be interfering or forcing the CPU's to deal with too much. It's causing a delay."

"The units are lagging." Clover said miserably.

"They must have set off every single car alarm in the building." Winter said. "If the Knights are dedicating processing power to try and filter all of that out…"

Then it explained their poor performance. Ironwood clutched his armrests so tight that the one under his cybernetic hand crumpled up. How? How had Arc known that would work? Spies. There had to be spies. They weren't done yet. The Knight Units were just the vanguard; they still had aircraft, more units and a battleship in reserve.

"Visuals from outside!" someone yelled suddenly. "They're… pushing cars off?"

The new footage came from a Bullhead and showed the outer edge of the car park. Much of it was open and exposed but for a metal railing keeping the cars within. The construction company had clearly saved money on not having to make walls. Now, it was coming back to bite them. A car pulled out and through the barrier, breaking through it and plummeting down two storeys where it crashed and exploded on the ground, glass and doors flying off in pieces. More followed – two, three, six, ten and more. From the sounds of impacts, it appeared they were being shunted from behind.

"What's the point of that?" Clover wondered out loud.

Ironwood didn't know, and that was a problem. "Check every vehicle!" he ordered. "Cover them all. They have aura and they might try and sneak out by crashing themselves out, surviving the fall and running away while we're distracted."

"Sir, yes sir." The officer paused. "Should I send Knights or…?"

"Use the Bullhead crews. Radar will detect if enemy aircraft appear." To another, he said, "Send the rest of the Knights in. This time, have them fan out and move between the cars. Optics only. This is ridiculous," he muttered. "They're making us look like idiots. Our elite teams provided the squad data for these units."

"To be fair, sir, I'm not sure we ran any simulations in a car park. If it were us, we'd move from car to car for cover, checking the interior of each and covering the long angles." Clover nodded to the screens. "Soldiers adapt and use their brains, but these things are running off whatever we programmed into them – even if it turns out to be a bad idea."

He was right. By now, any real squad would have realised the area was a problem and pulled out, but the Knights kept walking to their deaths like they were getting off on it.

We put them into a setting they weren't programmed for. We ran urban tests and simulations, but that must have been street-to-street fighting or assaulting houses and offices. How often do we run simulations in a place like this?

Never. It wasn't the typical battlefield for an Atlas soldier.

"More cars coming down. There's no one in any of them so far, sir."

"Keep looking! There has to be a reason they're doing this!"

/-/

"STOP!" Ilia warned, gripping onto her seat with one hand and the dash with the other. "BRAKE! BRAKE! BRAKE!"

Jaune slammed his right foot down but the car accelerated instead, jumping into high revs and crashing into the back of another. The other car buckled and bumped forward, toppling through the already broken barrier and off the edge with a mighty crash.

"THAT'S NOT THE BRAKE!" Ilia screamed. "WHERE DID YOU LEARN TO DRIVE!?"

"I didn't!" Jaune Arc shouted back, cranking the stick into reverse. And it was a crank. A nasty, horrible, metal-crunching, grinding, crank that said some internal part of the car wasn't enjoying it. It worked, though. He hit the pedal and the vehicle lunged back quicker than he expected.

It hit a white robot and pinned it back against a van door, crushing it. Jaune then snapped the stick forward again and spun the wheel to the right, completing his three-point turn while only sending four cars plummeting to their death and killing six or so robots.

"Why couldn't this be automatic? Those look way easier."

"How are you worse than Perry!?" Ilia sobbed. "How is anyone a worse driver than- look out!"

The sharp turn ahead that led down onto a ramp to the floor below was way sharper than it had any right to be. Jaune tried his best, but the car was slugging and instead of a sweet turn and steer down, he impacted the stone pillar beyond, wrapping the bonnet around it and a poor Atlas robot that had the misfortune of getting in the way. The thing's head smashed down on the window just as the airbags puffed up into their own, flattening Jaune back into the seat and muffling Ilia's voice.

"Mmm-hate-yoummm!"

Working the door open, Jaune stumbled out and caught his breath. Luckily, they hadn't been going that fast. The robot's gun had been knocked from its hands, leaving it mostly harmless.

"G-Greetings Citizen," it buzzed and fizzled. "Y-You are in-bzt–p-parking violation- vrnnn…" Its visor dimmed as it shut down.

"Never again!" Ilia howled, climbing out and glaring at him. "You're not driving ever again!"

Jaune shrugged. "I can't drive anyway."

"I CAN TELL!"

"Guys!" Yuma came up the ramp with a whistle at the downed Knight. "Nice work, boss. Trifa and I have cleared up the ones on the lower level. Atlas is backing off, but I'm not sure what for."

"They're probably planning on sending in soldiers," Trifa said. "We've bought time, but we need a way out."

"Did you manage to find a sewer?"

"Not in here. There's a manhole outside, though. It's by the back entrance with the staircase. Only about fifty feet out."

Fifty feet. That wasn't far but it would feel a hell of a lot further with an entire army on their tail. A shame it wasn't out the front, or they could have driven a car out front and made a run for it, though.

"Wait a second…"

/-/

"Sir! There's movement from inside. It's a large vehicle, a van. It's on the first floor and angling up toward the broken barriers."

Ironwood leaned in to try and see through the cameras, but it was impossible to make out much detail with all the car alarms going off still. All he could see was that a van had indeed manoeuvred itself so that it was lined up with the drop, and the road below. Assuming it survived the landing, it could speed off on the road and join the freeway soon after.

"This is it." he ordered. "Make no move to impede it for now, but the second it lands, I want its tyres shot out. Then surround it – I want Bullheads above and cameras rolling. We'll broadcast Arc's arrest across the whole CCT if we have to. The White Fang will know that this is over."

The van's headlights flicked on and it lunged forward. Arc must have thought he'd catch them by surprise, but he greatly underestimated the surveillance of the Atlas military. The white vehicle marked as some kind of trade joiners vehicle jumped out and hung in the air, suspended in a moment of shocking audacity far above the ground.

Gravity would not let it remain so indefinitely, however. The vehicle tipped down, falling at great speed. Another thing Arc had underestimated was just how much damage a drop like that could create. The van remained in one piece, but shooting its tyres out wasn't needed because they flattened under it, splaying out at horrific angles like broken legs. When it tried to keep moving, one sheared off and bounced away, impacting a nearby wall.

They still tried to make a run for it. Of course they did. The vehicle scraped, ground and sparked its way forward, screeching across the tarmac as his soldiers did their jobs and shot off the remaining tyres. It lurched and skidded to the side, off the road and into a solid concrete wall, coming to a stop with a sad crunch.

Across the Bridge, officers cheered. Ironwood let them, smiling grimly as his men moved in from every direction, weapons trained on the vehicle front and back, prepared for a last minute break out or last stand. A single camera screen was projected up, this one recording and held by a soldier as he followed his unit in. The camera bobbed and shook, but the quality was enough that they had complete clarity.

The windows of the van had been shattered inward and the airbags had expanded, obscuring the drivers from view. Soldiers knelt by the back door and trained their guns on it, while two more took either door on the side and the cameraman pushed his lens up against the opening. They could hear the voice of the soldier with him.

"Jaune Arc of the White Fang. You are hereby under arrest by the Kingdom of Atlas. You are charged with crimes of international and domestic terrorism. How do you plead?"

The airbag was shifted away by the soldier. Ironwood held his breath.

"I-It is 2137 hours and i-it is 6 d-degrees." Jaune Arc responded in an awfully tinny voice. "Y-You appear to h-have been in an accident t-that wasn't your f-fault. W-Would you like this unit to request an ambulance?"

The cracked visor of a Knight unit strapped into the seat – with its foot pinned down to the accelerator pedal – turned to regard the camera.

"No…" the soldier whispered.

"Y-You have e-elected to not c-call for an ambulance. We, and-and-and all of Atlas, w-w-wish you a g-good daaaaaayyyyy…"

Its head clunked forward with a spark.

The Bridge hung silent. So silent a pin dropping might have started the second Great War. Nervously – very nervously – an officer coughed to draw attention to himself, holding up a comms device.

"Um. S-Sir. It's Lisa Lavender of Vale Central News. She… She asks if you're ready for your interview..."


Poor Ironwood. Poor robot.

Honestly, the robot was taken a little from recent-ish news where an automated robot (I think in California) was being tested as a method for people to report crimes and be assured of police presence. A woman ran up to it to report a crime as was its purpose. Apparently, the robot told her to "Step out of the way" and then ignored her reported crime, trundling off singing a song and occasionally calling out for people to keep the park clean. All while there was a brawl going on nearby.


Next Chapter: 1st December

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