“Doesn’t this feel kind of nostalgic?” I said, applying the layer of shock-absorption gel that formed the first layer of my Inertia Suit.
Vicky, who was stripping off her maid uniform, stopped and looked at me quizzically. “How so?”
“You know. Gearing up to fight a Great Surge. Certain doom on the horizon. The fate of humanity in our hands,” I kept applying the gel, down my legs and feet, as I talked.
“That’s an odd thing to be nostalgic about, Sabina.” Vicky responded, stripping away the last of her clothing before grabbing a tube of gel to apply to her own skin. “Can’t you get nostalgic for, like, clam chowder or your first kiss? Normal stuff?”
“I’ve never had clam chowder OR a kiss. Have YOU?” I responded tartly.
“No, and yes,” she shot right back, smiling slyly.
I stuck out my tongue. “Well, I’m a lifelong soldier. I get nostalgic for war. Sorry for being weird, okay?”
Vicky just chuckled as she finished applying the gel and began to pull on the lower portion of her armor-plated Inertia Suit, wincing a bit as the catheter automatically inserted itself. “Sabina, you need to build up some personality and experiences outside of being a soldier. Otherwise you’ll be completely adrift when the war is over.”
Something in my mind froze, and I gawped at her as she pulled on the chest and greaves. “When the war is… over?” I asked her, blinking rapidly.
“Sure. That’s the point of all this, isn’t it? Zehra’s superweapon, the Fourth Great Surge, Moby. One way or another, this is the end of the war. I prefer to think it will go our way. So what are your plans for afterwards?”
“Afterwards… I… I never really thought about it,” I said honestly.
“Never?” Vicky sounded dubious.
“Nope! I always assumed I’d go out in a blaze of glory, you know? Taking as many ‘phage out as I could, making them pay for every drop of blood. Making them pay for… stuff. Ahem,” Vicky was a good friend, but I wasn’t about to go into my tragic backstory with her so casually. Especially not right before a battle.
Vicky smiled, and her eyes indicated deep understanding. There was an unspoken rule among soldiers: if someone doesn’t wanna talk about their past, you don’t pry. Instead, she returned to teasing me. “Making them pay, huh? Isn’t Genevi supposed to be the yandere one?”
I shrugged. “A glorious death has been both our goals for a long time. We planned to fight until we couldn’t. Genevi seems to have found some happiness beyond that with Sveta, but I’m not really sure what I’m gonna do myself when there’s nothing to kill anymore.”
“Hmm,” Vicky replied thoughtfully, fingers tapping her chin. “I suppose that sentiment will be pretty common among humans after the war, eh? So many of us are lifelong soldiers, and we don’t know how to be anything else.” She chuckled humorlessly.
“What about YOU, Vicky? What are you going to do after?” I asked her.
“Oh, that’s an easy one.” she replied casually. “I want to become a farmer.”
There was a pregnant pause; I hadn’t been expecting THAT answer. “A farmer?!”
“Yup. You know I do shifts in Eros’ communal farm in exchange for cooking ingredients, right?”
I nodded, fondly recalling how delicious her cooking was.
Vicky smiled warmly, her eyes distant with memory. “That farm is where I’m happiest. The simple, repetitive work, the mindlessness of it all, digging into the soil and seeing the fruits of your own labor directly… I find it so fulfilling. Ideally, I’d like to retire to a nice, long, boring life of communal farm work.”
When she put it that way, it made a lot of sense. I’d only heard about Vicky’s farm work secondhand but picturing her in earth-caked coveralls somehow felt right. Moreso than the horny maid outfit, anyway.
I wondered if I should develop a goal like that. Farming sounded boring, but maybe something in construction, techno-archeology, astronomy? There were a lot of options to consider, yet prospect of any life beyond the daily fight-and-die was terra incognita, incredibly daunting to even think about.
I wondered offhandedly if I should talk to Sveta about this. She was sure to have some ideas.
Shaking my head, I pushed those thoughts aside for later. Refocusing on the present, a detail I’d been ignoring up until now bugged me. “Hey, Vicky.”
During my long silence, her attention had shifted back to putting on her Inertia Suit. She was now donning the last piece, the helmet. “Hmm?”
“Why are YOU putting on an Inertia Suit, anyway?”
Her grin burst with so much overflowing joy I thought her cheeks might explode. “Because I’m going to pilot a Gravity Frame.”
“You are?!” I’d only ever known Vicky as a stiff NKVD suit, or a horny maid. I’d never heard anything about her being a Frame pilot.
“Yup! Zehra’s been cranking out Velocipedes at such a high pace that we now have more units than available pilots. So that means anyone with piloting experience gets shoved into an Inertia Suit and dumped into a Frame. How do I look, by the way? I haven’t worn this thing in two years, but it still fits like a glove!” She did a mock fashion-model strutting pose, hands on her hips.
Inertia Suits were one-size-fits-all, automatically adjusting themselves to the bodily proportions of whoever wore them, but I wisely chose not to mention that. I did feel a tinge of jealousy though; Vicky’s hourglass figure was thick in all the right places, so much that her curves showed through even the bulky metallic armor. I looked down at my own half-naked, gel-colored body with a tinge of despair; I was short and twiggy, a direct result of the malnourishment I’d suffered during the first half of my life. Genevi was much the same, although I suppose she could look like whatever she wanted to now.
I felt pangs of jealousy intensify. I was jealous of Vicky’s bombshell body, and Genevi’s ability to change how she looked as an AI. I was also jealous of the sense of purpose they seemed to share, and the futures they saw for themselves. Meanwhile I was stuck like this, without any charm or goals beyond my rote existence as a soldier. Was that all there was to Sabina Giacosa? Was I nothing more than a self-forged weapon, to be pointed at whatever enemy was closest?
Perhaps sensing my ennui, Vicky placed a hand on my shoulder, drawing me out of my daze. “Oy, you getting all philosophical before a battle? You KNOW that’s bad luck.”
An old soldier’s superstition. “You started it," I said petulantly, before letting out a deep sigh. "Sorry. Usually Genevi’s here to pull me out of it, but…”
The rest went unsaid, but Vicky caught my drift. Genevi was currently in a computer core which was bolted to the floor of Zehra’s lab. That meant I’d be fighting alone, without my precious sister by my side, and that always frayed my nerves.
Suddenly, Genevi’s voice boomed through the dressing room. “Did someone call for me?” she said cheerfully, popping up on a screen attached to the wall.
I was a bit startled; Genevi could now pop up anywhere that was networked, and it took some getting used to. Still, I was happy to see her, and couldn’t keep a big smile off my face. “Hey there.”
“Hey Sabina, I have something to show you!” she continued, sounding a bit too cheerful.
I looked down at my half-exposed body. “…Let me finish getting dressed first?”
In the hanger adjacent Zehra’s lab stood a Velocipede, seemingly exactly like all the others. Genevi, now projecting on a tablet I was carrying, excitedly pointed to it.
“That’s a Mark II Velocipede, CC Type!” she declared proudly.
Vicky and I looked at each other. I asked the obvious question. “And CC means?”
“Computer Core! It has a miniaturized AI computer core installed! Zehra built this as a backup unit for Sveta or Kometka in case all their X-23s were ever destroyed.”
“Huh.” I idly wondered where Zehra found the free time to construct all this reserve technology; I was pretty sure she’d built hundreds of Telepresence Dolls by this point, for example. Maybe she never slept.
“So you know what that means, right?” she said excitedly.
We stared at her, still not comprehending. She indignantly puffed up her cheeks.
“It means I can pilot it! I’m completely lost when it comes to Strike Fins and all that stuff, but I know how to pilot a Gravity Frame just fine! Velocipedes are nice and easy to use!” she gushed excitedly.
“You’re… gonna pilot this one?” I said, feeling a warm feeling bubble up inside me. “But you’re currently in the core in Zehra’s lab, right? Wouldn’t you need to copy…”
“I already did!” she eagerly interrupted. “To be more precise, I put an… what’s Sveta always calling it… an INSTANCE of myself into this Frame’s computer core. The real, original me is still in that core in Zehra’s lab, but I made a copy for this Frame! That way I can keep fighting alongside you, Sabina!”
Suddenly, Sveta’s face popped up on the tablet as well, crowding out Genevi’s. “She was very insistent about it,” Sveta said wryly. “In fact, she was practically inconsolable at the thought of you going to battle alone. We hauled a hundred-meter data cable from Zehra’s lab to this Frame just to get Genevi’s second instance copied over. It took four Construction Frames! Big pain in the ass!”
Genevi shifted her eyes downwards and blushed. “W-Well… I couldn’t…”
“I’m happy you’ll be fighting beside me, Genevi.” I said warmly. I really didn’t need to say any more; she knew. “So what should I call you? Evil Genevi? Spider-Genevi?”
“J-Just Genevi is fine!” she replied awkwardly. “The goofy names are Sveta’s thing!”
“GOOFY?!” Sveta exclaimed, hurt. “Every one of my alter egos is given the utmost consideration and care in its construction! To dismiss them as merely ‘goofy’ is a disservice to all the hard work I put it!”
Genevi stuck out her tongue. “No, they’re pretty goofy. YOU’RE pretty goofy, Sveta.” She followed up the barb with a tender remark delivered in a softer tone. “But we wouldn’t have you any other way.”
Sveta’s rage deflated as Genevi smiled fondly, and the two became lost in each other's eyes. Oh god, please don’t start making out right now, you damned computer girlfriends. Time and a place, you know?
Between Genevi’s download, dredging up every reserve pilot on Eros and Sveta remote-piloting a half-dozen unmanned Velocipedes via her Evil Sveta and Svetazilla instances, we managed to scrape together a whole extra Velocipede squadron. Subtracting attrition from our battle with Moby, that put us at a whopping 82 Gravity Frames total.
Only 80 of those Frames were being fielded at the moment, however. Our lineup had two very significant gaps in it.
“Alright, everyone, listen up.” Maurice barked over the comms as we lined up for the linear accelerator tube. “We’re short two Frames in Maid Squadron. Miette and Sveta Prime are attending to re-awakening Moby, who currently resides in Prime’s computer core, and Lydia plus Kometka are preparing to negotiate with her once she awakens. That means the rest of you gotta work twice as hard until they get their rears in gear and join us, okay?”
Genevi, Sveta, Vicky and I all voiced our assent. The absence of two X-23s was a pretty big knock to our lineup, but we were used to dealing with hopeless situations.
“Now, most of you fought in the Third Great Surge so you know the deal. This battle will last for DAYS. Your suits are configured to deploy regular doses of stims and nutrients intravenously, as well as evacuate waste, and this will be all be monitored by Sveta. Our primary priority is the protection of Eros, followed by the Almaz stations. Focus on suppressive fire and passing targeting solutions back to our carriers for larger targets; Beelzebubs, Belphegors, Leviathans, that kinda stuff.”
Maurice was right; we all knew the drill. It was practically second nature to us.
“Alright, everyone. This is important.” Maurice’s tone grew quieter, and his eyes narrowed. “We just need to buy enough time for Sveta and Zehra to work their magic. Nobody get heroic. I wanna see all you on the other end of this, okay?”
We all nodded. At this point, we all had a lot to live for, so we all planned on making it out alive. Even me, the perennial sacrificial soldier, agreed with that sentiment.
As I walked into the open end of the linear accelerator and braced myself for acceleration, Sveta made one final announcement on open comms.
“I pray for your glory in battle, my pilots.”
There were no sun or stars outside, not anymore. Instead, all we could see was a writhing wall of alien flesh that stretched infinitely in every direction. It moved towards us inexorably, illuminated by blue flashes of positron fire.
Sveta let out a low whistle, “Damn.”
I looked at her, smiling slightly. “First time?”
“I mean, I’ve seen the records, but… in person… wow.”
“Wow indeed,” I responded. “Let’s light them up.”
“Should I even bother marking targets?” she asked.
“High priority ones, sure.” I shrugged. “But… well, we can shoot in almost any direction and hit something, so let’s not get too pedantic about it. At least, not at first. We’ve got a long battle ahead.”
We added our positron fire to the torrent pouring into the oncoming wall of flesh.
The Fourth Great Surge had begun.