Armored Battalion/Musings in Metal
From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
We call it the Silo.
The technical name is United States Special Powers Directorate Base Oppenheimer, but even abbreviating the name is too unwieldy. So we nicknamed it “the Silo”. There’s some accuracy to the name, because the base’s major feature is the silo that reaches up to the sky at a height of three hundred and ten feet.
The reason for the Silo’s existence, both the base and the silo itself, is because of the armor suit. The center of the silo consists of a launch pad and an odd framework that I have to hold onto in order to start putting on the armor.
That’s what I’m getting ready to do right now.
I walk to the center of the platform, and take a position on it, spreading my feet slightly so that my legs will not interfere with the process. I grab handles on the frame, one handle to each side of me. Not for the first time, I reflect how I must resemble DaVinci’s famous sketch of the human body.
I speak aloud to the empty silo. “Begin.” My words are picked up by microphones sensitive enough to hear my own breath. The word is relayed to the good men and women in Control, the people to whom I entrust my very life every time I put on this armor.
The people who I rely on to get me into the armor.
I hear the machinery moving around me. Large pieces of metal begin the process of encapsulating me in metal. Each piece fits perfectly together, a rigid piece of metal as strong as steel. This process will take on an average of three minutes, and twenty five seconds.
We’ve done this a few times. The full process averages out around a little over fifteen minutes. We’ve gotten it down to about nine in emergency drills, but such cases often results in some kind of fault during operation. 38 percent of such emergency work has shown some system or another failing.
The beginning of the process always is the hardest part.
The beginning of this phase in my life occurred exactly one year after the beginning of the Rikti War. I remember it vividly, because I was delivering a briefing to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the Secretary of Defense. Being a Second Lieutenant in the Marines among a group of top generals was a bit daunting. I sucked it up: what I had to say to them was something I’d been advocating ever since I joined the Marines.
A lot of people join the Marines when they’re just out of high school. I joined after I graduated at the top of my class at M.I.T. I’d wanted to get my education out of the way, first. Full disclosure: I actually graduated high school at the age of 15, college just shy of 19. I’d moved into the commissioned officer program pretty fast, too. Made Second Lieutenant in a year. I learn very, very quickly-and I’ve never made any bones about that fact.
My specialty was in technical systems. That was one of the reasons why I’d written my brief in the first place. What I didn’t know is that someone else had read it, and decided that very, very important people needed to hear it. So I got shipped over to the Pentagon and in short order, I was standing in a small briefing room, by a very large screen, with a laptop with my Powerpoint presentation ready to roll.
“Lieutenant Cooke, it’s your ball game. Make your pitch,” one of the generals said-Army guy, tough looking. Then again, none of them looked exactly soft.
So I hit these important military commanders with the fastball.
“Exactly one year ago today, modern warfare as we knew it came to an end.”
I paused to let that sink in. Then I hit the first slide-Camp Lejeune, a Marine base; the photo had been taken just shy of a year ago. Most of my photos had been. “Here’s a sampling of the first day of the Rikti War. Camp Lejeune. The Marines were cut down by the Rikti advance without doing any appreciable damage. Casualties were about forty percent of the on-base personnel.” As I spoke, I flipped through a number of pictures, all taken around the base. I could see the generals reacting; they didn’t like this reminder of American impotence against the alien threat. Neither had I, to be honest; it was why I’d bothered with this in the first place.
Another set of pictures. “Fort Benning. The Army managed to bring out a pair of Doctor Sheridan’s proton cannons. They didn’t even scratch the shields of the Rikti ships. Casualties: sixty-five percent.”
Another set. “Pearl Harbor. The Japanese didn’t do as much damage as the Rikti strike did. Thirty five percent casualty rate, and every ship there had been sunk-including the subs stationed there.”
A final set of pictures. “Andrews Air Force Base. Lower casualties, mainly because of shift changes, but twenty percent isn’t anything to sneeze at. Plus, all planes in the air were shot down, and most of the ones grounded were taken out. Including Air Force One.”
That one brought a collective shudder through the assembled officers. Protocol demands that the President gets airborne in an emergency, but he had held off on going anywhere until he knew for a fact the portals appearing all over the world represented a clear and present danger. When the attacks began, he had actually been on his way to Andrews; we had all gotten lucky.
“All told, in these and other bases, we lost over a quarter of our military capacity. A full twenty five percent. In a single day.”
“All of which we already know,” said the Admiral of the Navy; he wasn’t known for his patience. “Get to the point.”
“Yes, sir.” The pitch had certainly gotten through. Now it was time for the analysis. “We have an obvious gap in technology now. In spite of the pool of talent we have available, the United States military is behind-especially now that it seems that the superhuman element is taking a stronger hand in international affairs. The obvious way to rectify this would be to reverse engineer the Rikti tech, but the Vanguard has managed to stake claims on all of it-and they aren’t exactly sharing with the military organizations around the world.”
“You have a solution?” the Admiral prompted.
“A partial one, sir, yes.” I took a breath. “There are plenty of brilliant minds in the country, and there are a lot of them in the military-and without being immodest about it, I’m one of them.”
The Commandant of the Marines snorted, choking back a laugh. As the other officers around the table looked at him, the general said, “First in his class at MIT. We’re lucky to have him.” I was impressed-I didn’t realize I’d been vetted so thoroughly for this briefing.
“We need to start using those minds. Develop the next generation of military hardware for all branches of the Armed Forces. The next war isn’t going to be fought with the conventional weaponry we have available now. It’s going to be fought with superhumans as primary assets. We need to be ready to deal with it. We can’t contract this out, either; too many contractors are willing to cut corners to put in lowball bids-and for a project this important, we can’t afford that. It’s a different way of doing business, sirs: I don’t know how it would fly in Congress. But it is what our future needs to be in order to defend America.”
I hit a few schematics. Vehicles, weapons, and a suit of combat armor that I had designed on a lark. “These are some designs; pie in the sky stuff at the moment, but it’s a starting point. I’ve done a couple, and a few other officers in the Service contributed. We’re a resource that needs to be tapped. Because we can do this, and because we’re military, we’ve got an appreciation for exactly what we need.”
“The costs may be prohibitive,” the General of the Army said. But his tone was thoughtful-I’d picked up one supporter.
Another man spoke up-I hadn’t really noticed him in the room before. I think he may have come in while I’d been speaking. He was a Major General, from his uniform, of the Army. Addressing the Secretary of Defense, he said, “Independent confirmation, sir. You said that you needed something like that for my proposal.”
I felt a little ticked off; was that why I was brought in? To shore up someone else’s agenda? I had to take a deep breath; I don’t think any of them had seen me do that. Ultimately, I figured if this agenda at least included what I’d said, I could live with it. That’s the way it is, sometimes.
The General of the Air Force asked, “Just what are you proposing, General Hunter? I haven’t heard about this.”
“A cross-service shop, sir. One that draws from the Armed Services the brightest innovators. The ones who can not only imagine these things, but come up with ways to make them real. A Research and Development group for our military. It would develop new weapons, new defenses, new transports-get us back to the footing we had before the War. More importantly, to put us on an equal footing with the superhumans among us-because you can bet that we’ll be seeing some of them acting as foreign agents sooner or later. And if we can get superhuman assets of our own, that would bolster our military considerably.”
The General awaited a response. He got one. The Secretary of Defense said, “We’ll take your suggestion under consideration.” He then nodded to me. “Thank you, Lieutenant. You are dismissed.”
I left the briefing room, completely uncertain as to whether or not it was a good sign or a bad one.
The armor is almost completely on, now. My body is held rigid by the unmoving metal. The frame’s handles were pulled away once my arms were locked into the armor, and the gauntlets were put on. Each gauntlet and boot could be counted amongst the strongest parts of the suit. The boots could deliver thrust that could propel me just over the speed of sound, although maneuvering was pretty tricky at that speed. In the environments that the armor was designed for, a much slower-and safer-speed was called for. The gauntlets were the impact points, and the emission points for the beta energy.
The energy is a byproduct of the beta particle generator which powers the suit. It has an odd effect on electrical systems-including those of the human brain. A punch from those gauntlets can disorient almost any living organism, and most electronic sentients. For some reason, it has a similar effect versus beings of arcane origins, although we haven’t quite nailed down why that is.
Once those are firmly affixed, it’s time for the helmet. The helmet is always saved for last. It settles around my head, enclosing me in darkness. I do my best to restrict my breathing-it takes about a minute before the system can power up, and for the electrical discharge required to turn the armor from a rigid statue into living metal.
The moment comes suddenly, as it always does. First, the internal systems become active. I can see through the visor on the helmet, and the Heads-Up Display becomes active, flashing its information directly into my retina. Filtration systems become active, allowing me to breathe normally. Then the discharge comes.
The electrical discharge is accompanied by a signal of a certain frequency. That frequency is classified above Top Secret, and is a military secret. The armor’s outer shell is composed of what we’ve called “flexmetal”; once the metal is exposed to the frequency and electrical discharge, it becomes as supple as muscles and skin.
I glance at the clock in the HUD; so far, so good. We’re seven minutes, eight seconds in. We’re a little ahead of schedule.
The US-SPD was behind schedule far too quickly in the early days after that fateful briefing. Congress balked and whined like they always do when looking at the Defense budget, but in the end, the Special Powers Directorate was chartered, a branch of service roughly co-equal to the Coast Guard. Major General Brian Hunter, formerly of the Army, was put in charge, and he wasted no time grabbing the most tech savvy folks in the Armed Services.
He got most of what he asked for in that respect. Some military men and women resisted, preferring to serve the branch of their choice. Others saw it as an opportunity, both personal and as patriots, to make their mark on a new branch of service. I fell into that category, and I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that my presence was personally requested by the General.
Roughly ten minutes after I emailed the acceptance notice to General Hunter, I got a phone call from the General informing me of my promotion to First Lieutenant. Fast track, indeed.
That was probably the best news of the next few years. While US-SPD was doing a great job as a think tank, we weren’t able to actually get most of our work put down in practice. The sad fact was that most of the tech we had imagined would require new technology to even build. Or, in other words, we needed new tech to make new tech.
Our earliest efforts didn’t perform to our expectations, either. The media had a field day with the hovertank prototype, and the less said about the variable ammunition assault rifle, the better. Ironically, I’d seen similar rifle designs in operation at Paragon City, making me wonder if the woman who’d designed it had sneaked it out to the heroes of the city.
My own personal pet project was called Project Armored Battalion. Oh, it was a marvel of engineering; personal combat armor that would give a single soldier the effective battlefield strength of a full battalion of troops. Multiply that by a full battalion, and you end up with an obscenely potent force on the battlefield. It had full sat-com access, allowing realtime orders to be relayed anywhere on the globe, modular weapons systems that allowed the soldier (or Marine) to adapt to any battle situation. Jump-jet design for mobility. It would be an awesome sight on the battlefield.
It would also cost about as much as a fleet of aircraft carriers. And after those two highly-visible debacles, Congress quietly began slashing our budget. It demoralized everyone-especially one of the General’s adjuncts, Brigadier General Donnell. He eventually deserted; I’ve heard rumors that he’s put together some kind of merc group in the Rogue Islands, but that’s all I’ve gotten.
The General himself, though-he was confident he’d be vindicated in the end. And it was his will that drove us to do more with less. My design for the Armored Battalion began to shrink, began to incorporate new technologies as we developed them; but then time ran out on us, and the US-SPD was deactivated. We were still in the service, but our operations were officially suspended pending Congressional review.
Four years was all it took for a project full of promise to completely fall apart.
“Left arm musculature check complete. Testing right.” I run through the Litany of the Checklist, the process to make sure all the internal and external armor systems are working properly. I swivel the right arm around, test the fingers. “Right arm musculature check complete.”
The armor is a prototype; the only one built, and quite likely the only one that will ever be built. Its cost is classified, but I’ll say it was more expensive to build than the Silo was.
I hear the voice of one of the folks in Control. “All right, check the defense screens.” There are twenty people who work in Control, and they all have varying responsibilities. Some monitor the armor as I put it through its paces. Some are responsible for the pre-operation checks, like the one I’m doing now. And some are responsible for prying me out of the sardine can once I return.
“SIF check,” I say, and activate the Structural Integrity Field. Combined with the flexmetal armor itself, it becomes very, very hard to damage. It tends to keep the man inside the armor. The invisible field activates, and I see a green light shine on the HUD. “Checks out. Psionic screen check.” Another green light, noting I am protected-to an extent-from mental attack. A recent encounter with the Vahzilok demonstrated there was a hole in its protection, as I got to “enjoy” the wonders of mind control. We’re still working on that.
The armor is good, but it isn’t perfect. Every time I take it out, I learn something new; something that I can use to improve it.
“Internal systems check out. Prep for mass induction.” One of the last steps in the process; it was a contribution from one of the other techs in Control, who reasoned that increased mass meant increased strength, increased power-so he designed a machine that could do that. It works, too-the armor is rated to lift about two tons before the process is over, but it can handle nearly forty once it is complete. The increased mass applies to the man inside the armor as well; fortunately, I’ve never seen what I look like with increased mass with the armor off. I think it might be a bit overwhelming.
Overwhelming was probably the best word to describe the news that hit almost a year later. I got a call from General Hunter himself.
“Your project has been reactivated,” he told me, without preamble. “How soon can you have a finished product?”
I’m not often at a loss for words. “I’ve done some refining of the designs, and in theory, I could have a prototype available in....” I thought for a second, doing the math in my head. “Probably six months. Providing I had a budget that could sink a battleship.”
“You’ll get it,” the General said. “Those bastards are back. The Rikti are sending in drop ships to Paragon City.”
When the news first broke, there was panic all over the country. It settled down a great deal when it became apparent that there were no new mother ships in the skies, no endless stream of Rikti soldiers. They were limited assaults, hitting an island group in the Atlantic and Paragon City. Military analysis seemed to indicate that they were carrying a grudge against the superhuman set, and were going to put them down before reigniting a wider war.
I spent months on something other than design, at last. During construction of the Armored Battalion, word came down that I was being assigned not only as the head of the project, but as the pilot of the combat suit. I’d expected it, to be honest about it. Nobody knew the ins and outs of the Armored Battalion like me.
The money I’d needed to purchase materials was allocated-but it was made clear that there was only going to be enough for a single suit. Accordingly, it was going to be the standard bearer for the newly-reactivated US-SPD. The branch would live or die based on my work, and my performance in the suit.
The schedule was accelerated at the last minute; there had been a crisis involving a UN sponsored supergroup, and the Joint Chiefs decided that the best use of the armor was to test it against the super-villains of Paragon City. They also wanted someone to keep the government from looking like total idiots again; the aforementioned crisis had put a lot of egg on the faces of a number of important people, and if something like it happened again, they wanted someone on the inside who could set them straight-or to act if needed.
I’d planned on a dramatic entrance, flying to the City Hall, landing, and boldly registering Armored Battalion as a hero of the city. Unfortunately, first time out, the boot jets developed a fault, and I ended up walking. God does his level best to keep us humble, sometimes.
“Mass induction complete.” I look at the HUD. Seventeen minutes. A little longer than average, but we’d had to make sure that one of the defensive screens was working properly-it had shut down at a very inappropriate moment recently.
I was a lot bigger now. I stand usually at about five foot, nine inches. Not a tall guy. But in the armor, I stand in at almost seven and a half feet. I take a moment to look myself over-the red-and-silver gauntlets and boots, the silver-and-blue armor. The paint job was last minute when the armor had been completed. When I had heard I was being assigned to Paragon City, I wanted to make a very visible reminder that I was a citizen of the United States of America and damned proud to serve in its Armed Services.
I’ve always wanted to serve my country. It’s why I joined the Marines, why I worked so hard to design this armor. The fighting men and women of the Armed Forces had always been my heroes; is it any wonder why I wanted to do my part for the country?
Now, I’m a hero in my own right, for the country, and the world.
“Open the Silo,” I said. It was time. I looked up, and saw the ceiling irising open high above me, showing blue skies. A mental command is interpreted by the cybernetic systems in the helmet, transmitting a signal all the way down to my feet. The boot jets ignite, and I hover in place for a moment.
Control reports, “The FAA has been notified of your flight path. You are go to launch.”
It is about one hundred miles to Paragon City. It will take me approximately ten minutes to reach the city. “Don’t wait up for me,” I say. With my arms spread wide, I am propelled by the jets, rocketing out of the Silo, and into the open sky. The HUD points my way to Paragon, even though I know the way by now. In less than five seconds, I’ve hit MACH 1, en-route to the city.
I don’t stop the grin on my face. I can’t. This is the best feeling in the world. I kill the comm for a moment, letting the joyful laughter out. I wouldn’t trade this for anything. I’m crying from the sheer joy of the moment-something I’d never admit to my brothers-in-arms.
But I’ll bet they’d do the same, too.
It was time to go to work.
“Comm check: Armored Battalion is on duty.”