There wasn’t room in the pod for two. Mia strapped herself into the chair. Iro collapsed to the floor, curled into a ball, clutched at Mia’s leg to stop himself from being thrown around. Neither of them had ever been in a moving pod before, and neither had been ready for the turbulence. It shook hard enough to make Iro’s teeth rattle. Luckily, the pods were set to follow the leader. Iro didn’t understand the technology that allowed that to happen, but he didn’t need to. The pod flew through space on the same course Master Tannow had taken to the titan.
After minutes that stretched on for an eternity, the pod docked with the titan. It was not a clean landing. It clipped a wall, sending it into a violent spin that made everything go black.
Iro woke to the sound of retching. Mia was on her hands and knees next to him, vomiting up her breakfast of algae. He turned away from the sight before he joined in. The pod was a painful blur, hazy around the edges. Iro lifted a hand to his head and winced in pain. He was bleeding. In a daze, he looked around for his toolbag, found it had fallen into the open hatch, and wrenched it out, hugging it to his chest.
A loud thumping sounded from somewhere. Outside, Iro realised through the dizziness. Someone was hammering on the pod door. He crawled over to it and reached up for the release button.
“Stop!” Mia snarled. She grabbed at his leg, tried to pull him back from the door. “What if it’s a monster?”
Iro stared at her for a moment, trying to understand. Why would a monster knock? He shook his head, snatched Neya’s sword from his toolbag, and pressed the release button on the door. It unlocked with a hiss of escaping air, and then was wrenched open.
“It’s about time, sis. I thought you weren’t…” Cali stopped as she pulled the door all the way open and found Iro’s sword point swaying in her general direction. “Scrap! What are you doing here?” She frowned at him, then looked past Iro to where Mia was still throwing up in the corner of the pod.
Iro staggered forward out of the pod door, bumping into Cali. His legs felt like loose wires, but he needed to get away from the smell of Mia’s vomit. He stumbled away from the pod, blind, then stopped when a large hand landed on his shoulder. “What are you doing here, Iro?” Master Tannow asked. “And why do you have a sword.”
Iro shook his head, still trying to clear the cobwebs away. It was so noisy wherever they were. He heard people shouting, cries of anger, of pain, an explosion. “It was my sister’s sword,” he said before he could think better of it. He’d hidden the sword for years, knowing that they’d take it away from him if they knew he had it. That thought sobered him up and he blinked away the last of the confusion, and looked up to find himself standing at the edge of a battlefield.
They’d landed in a large open dock that led to the thruster section. There were pods everywhere, each with the ship name painted on the side. There were Hoppers from the Courage, from the Vermillion, the Swift, the Grey Haven, the Stormhold, and many more. Further in, past the docking area, the titan opened out into a cavernous space that stretched on into the darkness. The ceiling was so high up Iro could barely see it. The walls were all near seamless bulkheads, and he smelled the acrid heat of engines in use. And then, of course, there were the monsters and Hoppers fighting each other.
Iro stared as a Vanguard ripped a length of metal from the floor and held it up before her as a shield. He knew a little of Vanguards, and watched as her power flowed into the titan metal, strengthening it. A giant insect-like creature with a segmented body ten feet long, reared up before her. Half a dozen bladed legs flashed out at the Vanguard, and she blocked them all with her shield. A section of the metal sheared away, but she held the monster back. Iro desperately tried to remember what the monster was called. He wished he had his notebook with him, where he had written about all the monsters Neya had encountered on her Hops. A Kharapid, he suddenly remembered. Though if Neya’s stories were to be believed, that was a small one.
Over the other side of the engine room, he saw a Scrapper raise his arms. Dozens of little automatons scrabbled out from his robes, and took flight. Only Scrappers could give life to the automatons. The little things swarmed a four legged monster with shaggy fur, stomping hooves, and a horned nose. Each of the automatons slashed gouges from the monster’s hide until it collapsed, blood pooling beneath it.
A huge brute of a monster roared from within the engine room, and charged forward out of the gloom. It almost looked human, but it stood twice as tall as Master Tannow. It twirled a massive hammer in each hand, swinging them at Hoppers as it charged. Iro saw an Enhancer from the Courage point at the Vanguard in the monster’s way. A moment later, one of the giant hammers slammed into the Vanguard and crushed his shield, sending him tumbling away. He rolled to a stop, unharmed thanks to the enhancement, and brought his hands together with a resounding boom that shook the entire room. Every monster in the engine room turned its eyes on the Vanguard for a moment. Iro new that talent. Taunt was an ability Vanguards could only use after breaking through the Fourth Gate. That meant the Vanguard was ridiculously powerful.
Monsters swarmed over each other to get to the Vanguard. A trio of Strikers, bolstered by Enhancers, picked at the rear lines of the monsters, their swords slashing. They moved so fast Iro could barely see them. One sent a wave of crackling yellow energy slashing out from her sword’s arc. It cut down half a dozen Rustlings, severing limbs and spraying blood.
The giant monster with the two hammers reached the Vanguard, screaming in fury, its hammers raised to strike. The Vanguard crossed his arms, screamed his own challenge back, and erected a shield of hazy blue energy just moments before the hammers struck.
Master Tannow stepped infant of Iro, blocking his view. “I said what are you doing here, Iro?”
Iro shook his head, still in shock from the sight of the battle. Was this what his sister had experienced every time she set foot on the old titan? He’d always known she was strong, she made through her Third Gate, after all, but to face off against monsters like he was seeing now. She was so brave.
“The door shut,” Iro said dumbly. “The pod launched before I could open it again.”
“Scrap!” Master Tannow grabbed his chin, ran his fingers through his beard. All his trainees were here now, they assembled around him. Mia had finished throwing up and was staring at the battle with wide eyes. Iro hoped he hadn’t looked so stupid. Cali was next to her sister, twirling her knives in her hands, an eager look on her face. Dobi stood slightly apart from the rest, hands in pockets. His eyes were darting about as he watched the battle.
“I’ll take the pod back,” Iro said. “I shouldn’t be here.” This was what he had always wanted. To be a Hopper just like Neya. But he wasn’t like her. He had no talent. No skill with the sword he clutched. No chance of fighting back. And now he was here, it was terrifying. To see monsters up close. To hear them, smell them. To his right, a burly Hopper dragged a slight woman out of the battle, towards the pods. Blood trailed behind her, and Iro realised her left leg was missing past the knee. She was unconscious, green froth bubbling at the corners of her mouth.
“Can’t,” Master Tannow growled. “One way trip, remember. Until we find some fuel to fill the engines, none of us are going anywhere.” He sighed and shook his head. “Can’t leave you here. Stay close.” He grabbed Iro’s shoulder and shoved him towards the others. Mia glared at him, and Iro dropped his gaze to the ground.
Iro saw Mia reach for her sister’s hand, a moment later they were clinging to each other, fingers intertwined. Iro understood. He gripped Neya’s sword so tight his knuckles were white, and the sword danced in his grip. Even Master Tannow seemed worried. The old Hopper stood facing the battle and didn’t move. His hands shook.
“Stay at the back of the battle,” Master Tannow said, his voice quiet as though he were talking to himself. “We’re Enhancers. No need to get in the thick of it.” He started forwards, already raising a hand and bestowing an enhancement on another Hopper. Bolstered by a burst of speed, the Striker darted around a plume of spat flame, and rushed the toad-like monster, gutting its bulging red belly with a single slash. A flash of flame roared out of the monster’s open gut and engulfed it. That was a Fuel Spitter, Iro remembered. They were a particularly odd type of monster only found near the engine sections of titans. Neya had described their squat frames and gaping maws in great detail, and that they consumed fuel pellets and exhaled fire.
Mia, Cali, and Dobi followed their master. As trainees, they hadn’t even opened their First Gates yet. That meant they only knew one talent, the easiest for any Enhancer to learn, the ability to harden another person’s skin like stone. They bestowed their Enhancements liberally, often only on Vanguards, taking it in turns when the effort of holding the enhancement in place became too great. Iro had heard Enhancers who had opened their Fourth Gate could hold enhancements for hours, but for trainees it was tough to hold it for a few seconds.
The front lines of the battle moved further into the engine section as the Hoppers pushed out from the landing zone. Iro gawked at the sheer size of it. He’d done some study of the old titan maps, and had stared at the new titan out of the window for hours as the Home Fleet approached. The engine section here was a single feeding line into a single thruster. According to the maps from the old titan, each thruster would have two dozen feeding lines to ensure enough fuel pellets were fed to the engines. The wing they were standing in now had thirty-two thrusters. That meant three-hundred-and-eighty-four feeding engine sections like this for each wing. And the engines were only a small part of the overall wing. And he was fairly certain they could fit the entire Courage in this one section. The sheer size of the titan being revealed to him made him feel small in a way he never had before. He’d spent his entire life aboard the Courage. The cramp apartments, close halls, and crowded workstations were all he had ever known. But their entire civilisation could live inside a single wing of the titan without even venturing down to the lower levels. Well, except that monsters were drawn to humans for some inexplicable reason, so if they ever tried to live on a titan, they would come constant attack.
A young woman with a split lip, still bleeding, and a jaw like a bulkhead, limped toward them. Her armour stopped at her pauldrons, leaving her heavily muscled arms bare. Her chest plate was spattered with green blood, but Iro saw an emblem on her breast of a clenched fist. She was a Breaker, specialising in martial combat. Iro knew little about the Breakers other than that they were the most powerful of the physical Hopper classes.
“Tannow, we need an Enhancer in there,” she pointed into the gloom. The noise coming from from the engine section was intense. And explosion lit up the struggle for a moment, and Iro glimpsed a huge monster standing almost to the ceiling. It appeared to be made from metal, its scaly skin shining. It stood on two legs, had a long, bladed tail, and a giant maw already dripping with gore. Iro had never even heard of such a monster before. A Vanguard stood beneath it, struggling to hold a shield above her head as the monster tried to crush her with one of its feet. A Striker leapt thirty feet into the air, glowing sword slicing down on the monster’s nose. Sparks flew from the impact. The monster lurched to the side, slamming the Striker from the air. Iro never saw what happened then, the gloom reclaiming the distant battle.
Master Tannow clenched his fists, trembling. Then turned to the trainees. “Stay back here. Protect each other.” He turned and ran off into the gloom with the Breaker. Iro stood behind the others, clutching his sister’s sword. He was out of his depth. Way out of it. He’d dreamed of this for years, all his life. The only thing he’d ever really wanted was to be a Hopper. To board a titan and fight alongside his sister for the good of the fleet. To join her in her adventures. But Neya had only ever told him of how exciting her Hops were, the thrill of battling monsters and dodging traps, the feeling of rightness when she brought back supplies to the Courage. She had never told Iro about the fear of facing monsters who were trying to kill you. The horror of watching comrades hurt, killed. Iro saw it all now and he was terrified. He wanted to go home. He wanted his cramped quarters and the persistent buzz of electrical wires. He wanted to be safe.
They weren’t the only Hoppers hanging back, away from the front lines of the fight. The injured were dragged back to the pods, Surveyors tending to their wounds. Surveyors were both trap hunters, and the best battlefield medics in the fleet. Their talents were so variable Neya had once told him a Surveyor who had opened their Fourth Gate could slow down time around a wound. There were trainees from other ships, those also experiencing their first Hop. Not all were Enhancers, and many couldn’t help from the backlines, but at least they were getting the experience.
Mia and Cali stood close to each other, talking in whispers. Dobi stood ahead of them, squinting into the gloom as though he could see the battle taking place further in.
A scream of rage startled Iro and he spun about to see two Rustlings bounce over a metal crate, heading straight for them. The Rustlings were only three feet tall, their bodies almost perfectly spherical, their skin a rusty red. They had beady eyes, huge mouths full of razor sharp teeth, and each one ran on overly muscled legs, with spindly arms, each topped with a crude claw that gripped shards of metal like knives. One screamed like it was on fire, and the other garbled a string of unintelligible words.
“Cali,” Mia shouted, already slipping her hammer from her back. She stepped in towards the Rustlings and swung her hammer, grunting at the effort. The first of the Rustlings dropped the ground and rolled under the swing, but the hammer connected with the second. It crunched into the monster, sending it sprawling, half its grotesque body pulped by Mia’s strike. The Rustling garbled some more nonsense, and began crawling towards them with its one good arm. The first Rustling had already recovered and leapt on Mia, knives stabbing.
“Stone!” Cali shouted just as the Rustling hit Mia. Both girl and monster staggered and fell, the Rustling on top of Mia, stabbing at her again and again. It’s knives bounced off her scraps of armour, scraped against her enhanced skin, and Mia screamed. A stone enhancement might stop the knives cutting her, but they didn’t stop the impacts or the pain.
“Get it off. Get if off!” Mia squealed, desperately trying to cover her face from the monster’s strikes.
Cali collapsed to one knee, sweating and panting from holding the enhancement on her sister for so long.
Iro stared. Unable to move. He wanted to. To run to Mia’s side and stab Neya’s sword into the Rustling, but his feet wouldn’t move. He just stared, hearing Mia’s screams as if from far away, drowned out by the deafening rasp of his own breathing. Neya’s sword trembled in his grasp and he didn’t move.
Dobi ran to Mia’s side. Metal gauntlets on his hands. He thumped two solid blows into the Rustling’s bulbous body, grabbed one of its arms, dragged it off the screaming girl. It roared at him, spun about in Dobi’s grip and flailed with its unhindered arm. The knife found a gap between Dobi’s armour and sliced along his arm. He shouted in pain, dropped the monster, and staggered away, clutching at his wounded arm. The Rustling took only a moment to right itself, then leapt at Dobi, both knives flashing. Mia rose from the ground, screaming not in fear but in rage, her hammer rose with her, then she brought it down with enough force to crack metal. The Rustling’s body crumpled from the blow, orange ichor spraying from its eyes and mouth.
Mia let go of the hammer now lodged in the monster’s body and collapsed to her hands and knees. She was shaking, breathing hard. Cali staggered upright, wiped sweat from her head, and ran to her sister’s side. Dobi just stared down at the dead Rustling at his feet. His eyes were wide, and he was frowning at it. The monster’s body twitched, and Dobi stumbled back, holding up his fists, read to defend. Then he winced and clutched at his wounded arm.
Iro couldn’t quite understand. Rustlings were one of the lowest level monsters Hoppers had to fight. Neya had told him stories of facing down hordes of the things. Dozens of Rustling rolling over each other to get to her and the other Hoppers. Five Hoppers against fifty, and that was the easy Hops. Mia, Cali, and Dobi had fought just two of them, and had nearly lost. That was the difference between a trainee, and a Hopper who had opened one of the gates, he supposed.
Cali screamed in agony. Iro looked to see the wounded Rustling wasn’t quite dead. It had crawled towards her as she saw to her sister, and stabbed a knife into her thigh. The wounded monster wrenched on the knife, dragging its grotesque body closer, opening a mouth full of dagger-like teeth to bite her.
Dobi rushed to the rescue again, dragging the Rustling away. “Mia, get her to the pods.” He wrestled with the wounded monster for a few moments, then knocked its remaining knife away and knelt atop it, punching it again and again.
Mia hauled Cali up, supporting her sister, and dragged her away towards the pods where the Surveyors could see to the wound. Meanwhile, Dobi kept thumping away at the Rustling. Shouting wordlessly at it with each strike. After a dozen punches, the monster stopped twitching. It was dead. Dobi got up, staggered away, turned and collapsed. He was clearly exhausted, sweat pouring down his face, chest heaving.
Iro cursed himself for the coward he was. The other three had fought for their lives against the two monsters, and he had just stood there and watched, unable to even move. Neya’s sword trembled in his grip, and he felt tears blur his eyes and run down his cheeks. He stared at the sword. A solid three feet of titan-steel, chipped where he had been carelessly swinging it about. It had a wide cross guard without ornament. The hilt was wrapped in some leather taken from a monster from the old titan. The pommel was weighty, to balance the heft of the sword. How many monsters had the sword slain in his sister’s hands? And now it was useless in his own, just as he was useless. Talentless.
Dobi cried out in alarm. Iro wiped tears on his sleeve and stared to see the other boy backing away, fists held up before him defensively. A Kharapid scuttled towards Dobi and lurched up before him, bladed limbs slashing. Dobi deflected two of the limbs, but another caught him on the arm, the same one the Rustling had injured. Dobi fell back, clutching at his wounded arm. The Kharapid scuttled forward, the front half of its body still reared up and limbs slashing.
Kharapids were not the sort of monsters a trainee could fight. Even Hoppers who has opened their First Gates were ill-advised to face such powerful foes. Dobi, injured and alone, and still a trainee stood no chance.
Iro had to help. He thrust his hand forward, focused on the idle power nestled within, and projected it out to Dobi. “Stone!” he shouted. He felt the power fizzle uselessly before him, just as it had every time before.
The Kharapid slashed at Dobi again. He tried to block with his one working fist, but the monster was too strong. It crushed through his defence and buried a bladed limb in the boy’s shoulder. Dobi screamed in pain, and the Kharapid flung him away to sprawl on the floor.
“Move,” Iro said through gritted teeth, ordering his legs forward. The Kharapid scuttled on. Dobi pushed himself to his knees. He couldn’t even raise his arms.
“Move!” Iro said again. The Kharapid closed on Dobi and reared up for a finishing strike.
“MOVE!” Iro screamed at himself. He raised his sister’s sword to strike and the world lurched beneath him.