*ARM X BOOK 3 Preview: “Crisis in the Italian Union”*
Italian Union, Ligurian Union
Outside the northern Italian town of Ventimiglia, a crisis brews. A fiery crater in the center of a seaside autostrada there vomits smoke into the crystal-blue Ligurian skies. The mangled, smoldering remains of vehicles that were zipping along this expressway not more than thirty minutes ago line the impact site’s rim as if a funeral wreath. The Italian Union’s Polizia di Stato has formed a second ring around the crater, cordoning off the destruction.
Within that garland of flashing blue lights, fire trucks struggle to keep the crater’s blaze from surging further into the bordering forestry. While hydro-cannons douse the danger zone with water, rescuers clad in fire-retardant gray coats and transparent oxygen masks work their way through the piles of automobile wreckage with a frenetic efficiency. They know all too well that lives are on the line and that every passing second is crucial to the survival of those trapped within the firestorm.
Unfortunately, those first responders who have traveled deepest into the expressway inferno have yet to reemerge. As the clock ticks, and the time limit on survival drains, tension builds in all those caught amidst this extraordinary emergency situation—both victim and rescuer.
Suddenly, a new siren blares toward the secured perimeter; a dark blue-and-red Arma dei Carabinieri squad car arrives on the scene and skids to a halt in front of the barrier made by the Polizia di Stato. A man and woman in military police uniforms emerge from either door of the vehicle and march over to the state policeman coordinating the search-and-rescue operation by a paramedic van.
“Buongiorno, Captain Mezzanotte! I’m Lieutenant Bianchi, and this is Lieutenant Baglioni. What’s the situation?” the male officer asks following the cursory introduction. “The A10’s emergency lines have been lighting up one after another,” the lieutenant adds when he fails to garner a reply.
The state policeman grunts at the presence of the military police officers. “We don’t require the assistance of the Carabinieri! Leave this matter to us. Everything is under control.”
“This is every bit our issue as it is yours, Captain,” the woman interjects. “You of all people should know our station needs to be informed of all internal security matters—especially in the present political climate.”
“Uffa!” grumbles the bearded police captain. “Very well; 118, 115, and 112 were all dialed in half an hour ago on cellular phones by various motorists ahead of us,” he relates, motioning toward the thick smoke and brilliant flames down the road. “From what we have been able to gather, a fireball—twelve to fifteen meters large—fell from the sky and hit the Autostrada dei Fiori. A truck carrying volatile cargo was caught up in the impact, which, upon disruption, expanded the blast radius of the foreign object.”
“So, I take it the cargo consisted of industrial-grade energy cells,” states the cool-faced policewoman.
“Yes, the employers of the truck have confirmed that much by phone. But that’s not of importance, Lieutenants.”
“Maybe; but this ‘foreign object’ that fell from the sky certainly is. What was this object? A rocket, perhaps?” the clean-shaven male Carabinieri officer muses, straightening his shield-mounted hat as a burst of sea breeze passes over them.
“No. One witness claimed it was more like a meteor.”
The two military police members exchange a puzzled glance. “‘A meteor’? Captain, wouldn’t the Gladiator satellites have alerted us of such a hazard? And what of the Cherubic? Can’t that cannon up there in the heavens do its duty yet?”
“Once again—that is not our primary concern right now,” stresses Captain Mezzanotte. “We have to make certain this area’s sealed off so that the rescue teams can perform their duties. You two poking your noses into the situation are only complicating matters. I received a communiqué a minute before you arrived that we’ve already lost contact with one of our rescue teams in that mess ahead. We can’t afford any further mishaps at this stage.”
At this point, a beep is heard, and the captain lifts a portable commune-set from his belt.
“Captain Mezzanotte, I’ve lost contact with the reserve team,” a crackly voice reports through the communication device’s small speaker. “Our commune-network should be able to get through to them, but for whatever reason, we can’t maintain a stable signal in that crater. That’s not the only abnormality, though. My people are acting strangely. The heat in here is absolutely incredible, but both teams inserted into the crater complained of the chills. Worse—even with all of their protective equipment, I’ve had three of my men pass out from involuntary convulsions. I suggest you expand your quarantine line. There may be an unknown biological agent seeping from the crater.”
“…It sounds like a chemical weapon,” the Carabinieri woman utters softly, her eyes wide with bewilderment from overhearing the static-filled transmission.
“But it has EMP-like properties… Could it be some sort of rebel hybrid weapon?” her partner ponders aloud.
The perplexed Captain Mezzanotte stares blankly at the Carabinieri duo, when he hears faint but frantic cries from the portable commune-set at his side: “It’s cold! It’s so cold!”
A new commotion builds from the autostrada impact site then; heart-piercing screams escape the crackling rumble of the inferno and travel all the way to the ears at the police barricade. Rushing to his squad car, the state police captain retrieves a pair of binoculars and gazes ahead. He sees a bloodied rescue team stumble from the firestorm, their fire-retardant suits half torn or melted, and yanks the binoculars away from his eyes to escape the horrible sight.
“Che macello!” Mezzanotte exclaims, aghast.
The Carabinieri officers demand answers from their state counterpart, when the humming whir of a helicopter is heard. The three Italian law enforcers turn their heads upward to see a news chopper sidling dangerously close to the flaring fingers of the expressway inferno.
“Get that helicopter out of here this instant!” the captain shouts to a subordinate, waving his arms madly. “Our air rescue unit should be returning any minute!”
Just then, an abrupt flash of silver speeds from the crater-inferno and slams into the news helicopter. The civilian aircraft’s splintered wreckage spews outward and spills into the aquamarine coastal waters of the Ligurian Sea, nearly tipping over a state police boat there. Another flash of silver shoots out of the firestorm. Darting and coiling into the array of fire trucks and ambulances, the silver streak sends the emergency vehicles flying high into the air and crashing at the feet of the police with a bang.
Taking pistols and semiautomatic weapons out, the police seek cover behind their cars and open fire on the silver lightning as it retreats into the crater. Seconds after the rattling gunfire begins, a dark giant leaps from the burning rim of the impact site—its thick, silvery, bladed snake-arms flailing—and lands just shy of the defensive blockade.
The behemoth’s monumental, clawed feet flatten an overturned fire truck and produce an expanding web of cracks on the autostrada that threatens the balance of the law enforcement agents ahead.
“What on all of earth…is that?” gulps one of the Carabinieri lieutenants at the sight of the looming, bulbous giant, reaching for their own sidearm while shouts and gunfire continue to erupt all across the police line.
Its crimson, cyclopean eye burning brightly, the bulbaceous metallic monster that emerged from the crater sends its left arm directly at the police captain and his Carabinieri associates. Their two cars and the nearby paramedic van are bowled over—mauled from the initial force of the strike—and the three officers are sent sprawling to the pavement. Those left standing send hapless shot after shot at the towering black mecha, but the otherworldly machine-giant swings its right arm and knocks the whole line of police cars over the guard rails and into the bordering sea waters.
As the panicked police officers scramble away from the fifty-five-foot-tall, limbed orb, two white-and-black blurs zoom overhead. Not surrendering a whisper, these small objects slice through the air with power and purpose. Without warning, the blue-tailed UFOs each free a speedy missile. The twin projectiles make a beeline for the unidentified machine-monster’s red-plated heart, and pierce it with a deafening blast.
The tri-winged UFO saviors veer out of the way of the ball-mecha’s thrashing metallic limbs, soaring out of sight, while the menacing giant teeters, stumbles off of the freeway, and plunges into the Ligurian waters below. The foreign beast explodes under the sea, sending a wave of water across the road of the A10 that puts out the fires threatening the adjacent forest. The police authorities are dumbfounded by the sudden appearance and demise of this seemingly invincible monster, and now strain their eyes to catch a glimpse of the white-and-black UFOs, which have disappeared into the crystalline northern Italian skies above.
* * *
Far away, the cerulean streaks of flame seeping from the UFOs fade. Returning to their standard configuration, the third wing on this design’s underside retracts out of sight, while the remaining two wings nudge forward to take on a form more representative of a fighter craft. For, while a “UFO” to the World Union, these strange objects are not of extraterrestrial origin like the slain mechanical monster that caused the crisis on the A10’s coastal extension. These UFOs are known as Whisper fighters, and they are from the secret, international, and paramilitary society of the ARM X.
“Mother-4, this is Aero-Lieutenant Saleno. Target eliminated. V Three and V Four, returning now.”
“Boy, am I getting sick of this,” utters Aero-Corporal Vince Garret after Mother-4’s acknowledgment of his teammate’s transmission. “These aliens are just toying with us! We’ve been chasin’ these things all over the world and, one after the next, they keep cryin’ wolf!”
“I wouldn’t be complaining, Vince. They’re easier to handle this way,” replies Antone Saleno, his voice reserved, almost mechanical in cadence. “Still, the enemy’s strategy is rather erratic. It doesn’t match the parameters of their calculated actions earlier in the month; nor does it correspond to their previously seen numerical strength.”
“Yeah,” affirms the more vociferous ARM X Whisper pilot. “That’s what I’m trying to say. These space invaders are up to something.”
“You may be right,” Antone replies.
“Heh. And here I thought you’d be all over this with the way you do all that tactical thinking in the heat of battle. Especially since they showed up here; I mean, this is your backyard, right? Didn’t Zevlin say you’re from somewhere around these parts?”
“Hm? Yes, that’s right,” admits Vince’s superior, his intonation altering for a nanosecond. “That introductory briefing was quite some time ago. I’m surprised you’d remember a fact like that. Regardless, even I cannot calculate the logic of beings from another world.”
“OK. So, you ever miss it?” Vince inquires, firing off the question in a curt manner.
“—The Italian Union. Come on. It’s right there below you. This is probably your first time back since you joined the ARM X. Any thoughts?”
“I find no need to be sentimental over the years I’ve lost on the peninsula. In the ARM X, I can protect it.”
“So, any family down there? Friends?” presses Vince.
“I don’t waste my time with idle thoughts like those.”
“And why the heck not? What’s your hang-up?”
“—Why would you say something like that?”
“Because you’re my wingman and you keep to yourself way too darn much for your own good,” Vince responds, a not-so-subtle tinge of irritation in his tone now.
“I’m afraid I fail to follow your logic,” confesses Antone.
At this interval, the ARM X aerospace dropship Mother-4 interrupts the airborne pair of Victory Squadron pilots with an unexpected order.
“V Three, V Four, this is Mother-4. A pair of Class-2 Orbs has appeared south of Genoa. Forwarding coordinates now. Please meet and eliminate these targets immediately.”
“Acknowledged. V Three, here. Proceeding to target zone with V Four. Will eliminate targets on sight,” Antone rattles off.
“Shit. More alien bandits?” Vince mutters with a wince. “See what I mean? It’s just like I said—they’re all over the place!”
“Subsequent complaints won’t change the enemy’s mind, Vince. We have our orders.”
With that, the two Whispers switch to Impulse Attack mode and rocket northeast to intercept the extraterrestrial bogeys.
“Judging by their flight vector, it appears they’re heading straight for the city. Vince, take the bandit on the right. The other one is mine.”
“Roger that. This is your territory, so sink your teeth into ’em, Sky Dog! And now, it’s time for the Wild Card to do his thing!” Vince grunts out as he boosts right at his assigned bogey. “Surprise!” he shouts, launching a Mini-Mach missile on his opponent. Locked onto the enemy’s psionic signature, the missile coils and banks, following the airborne, limbed black ball-mecha’s every movement. But a second later, a stream of red beams from below cuts down the ultra-tech projectile.
“Huh? What in tarnation?!” Vince blurts out, reacting to the unexpected anti-aircraft fire and the appearance of three more bright yellow blips on his psionic radar. “Hey, Antone, there’s more of them!”
“Don’t let them advance into the city!” Antone replies, downing the bogey he had centered his digital sights on with a spray of psionic bullets.
“All right, already! You don’t have to bark twice! I’ll get ’em!” Vince increases his speed and rolls off a pass by one of the newcomers bursting from the Gulf of Genoa. As he does so, he frees a pair of Mini-Mach missiles on his original target. The eight-foot enemy manages to swat down one of the explosive items, but it is smacked in the side by the second. The harsh light of his kill still pulsating before him, Vince performs an evasive loop-the-loop around another of the newcomers and chases after the pair of mecha racing along the shoreline toward the city. “That stray one’s all yours, Cerberus! This Wild Card’s got a full house to save!”
“Roger,” says Antone, intercepting the reinforcement unit that was stalking Vince.
Vince barrels onward; lowering his altitude, he sweeps the aliens sailing over the beach with psionic gatling beams. However, he misses, and soon realizes he cannot fire so recklessly; for, the closer the ARM X pilot and his prey get to Genoa city, the more civilians there are standing upon the sandy playground. Whether they are spreading beach blankets, building sand castles, lying beneath multicolored sun umbrellas, or knee-deep in the waves of the rolling sea, each and every one of them are now watching the spectacle of the alien ball-mecha and their swift pursuer with awed expressions or cries of alarm.
“A fun day at the beach,” he quips behind a grimace, reminded of his own homeland. I’ve got to steer these targets out of here pronto, or the collateral damage is gonna start piling up big time, Vince tells himself as he follows the aliens past a two hundred-plus-foot-tall ancient lighthouse into the industrial domain of Genoa’s seaport. “Let’s get crazy!” the aero-corporal exclaims, deploying his clutch crane over the nearest enemy. The alien fires off its spear-hand on him, but Vince parries this melee weapon with the blunt pincer of his clutch crane, grabbing the bulbous enemy by its arm and dragging it upward with his fighter. As the Wild Card’s otherworldly opponent is about to open fire with its free arm, Vince tosses the rival machine upward and tears it apart by way of a psionic barrage.
“As usual, no time to sit and catch my breath!”Flipping around on its underside boosters, he plows his Whisper fighter through the clouds and swoops back down on the city. By this point, the remaining XT bogey has entered a canal and is firing indiscriminately at everything in its path.
Vince continues the chase. He shadows the alien machine, weaving through the tightly packed classic and modern architecture of the city’s urban confines. The alternating stone, brick, and composite walls of the Genoan buildings are but dull blurs, his body pitched back and forth in his cockpit, before Vince at last twists into another narrow waterway. Dipping under a large canal bridge, the aero-corporal punches forward at top speed and cuts off his prey, forcing the limbed black orb to veer toward the gulf waters. The ball-mecha eventually comes to a standstill hover outside the seaport and fires wildly at Vince, who rolls through it all, his psionic gatlings spewing out a return volley.
Yellow and red beams fly to and fro across the blue sky; but, after five rotations, the yellow psionic beams add up to the alien bandit’s destruction, and Vince sails through its detonating frame. “I call that one the ‘Tampa Bay Tornado!’” he hollers back, high on his aerobatic adrenaline rush. The Whisper’s wings are lightly burned, but Vince somehow avoided all direct hits throughout the bold feat.
In that same moment, he looks off to his right via vid-screen and spots a strange bright light. The glowing, disembodied aerial anomaly seems to change color from orange to green, and then to blue. The uncanny sight mesmerizes Vince; however, he ultimately has to blink his eyes, and when he opens them, the floating ball of light is nowhere to be found.
“Nice work, Four. The Wild Card certainly won this hand,” remarks Antone, meeting up with Vince as the two return their Whisper fighters to Standard mode and circle the city of Genoa at a higher altitude.
“That last bogey got off a few more shots in there than I would have liked…” Vince murmurs.
“The city still stands. Nobody said we could save everyone, Vince. Casualties are a fact of life in war.”
“Yeah…but that doesn’t mean I have to like it,” he grumbles, while Antone updates Mother-4. “Say, uh, Antone. Did you see a weird, vibrant light over the city at nine o’clock high earlier? It was, like, multicolored…kind of.”
“No. I didn’t,” Antone replies flatly.
“Huh. I swear I saw something. It was as bright as the sun; but the sun…was at three o’clock.”
“You were in IA mode, weren’t you? At that speed, any number of visual aberrations can occur. And, if I’m not mistaken, we’ve had this conversation before,” relates the stoic aero-lieutenant.
Vince suddenly becomes unsettled by the topic. “Oh. Well…yeah, I saw something like this a week ago. But it wasn’t as bright…” he notes, the image of this latest encounter still fresh in his mind.
“If this problem of yours persists, you might want to see a doctor. At the very least, I’d have your impulse suit looked over. I don’t want you to red out while we’re on one of these missions.”
“…Sure,” says Vince, not impressed by what he feels is a false assessment. “Well, just do me a favor and keep your eyes peeled for anything out of place next time we’re sent out on one of these sorties.”
“It sounds to me that the number of missions lately has the Wild Card a little paranoid; but I might give it a try if it will put you more at ease. Now, enough stalling. Let’s return to the dropship.”
“Roger,” acknowledges Vince. “By now, I bet Commander Zevlin and the Sky Hunter have already returned from their mission. They’re probably wondering what the holdup is on our end.”
However, even as he says this, the curious, haunting image in his mind refuses to fade. Memories of the past begin to pry at this ball of light burned into Vince’s mental retinas, trying to discern a possible connection to a day of loss. That day back home—the day the sky stole everything left of my old life—was it the same kind of object? For years now, I’ve been playing the odds as the Wild Card. Maybe this is a sign…that I’m gonna be the next one to go…
TO BE CONTINUED IN ARM X BOOK 3…
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