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Artem15's flat treaded, semiclawed metal foot sank into the hillside with all the ponderous weight of her three-thousand-pound, clockwork-geared frame. The robot's pace seemed to be leisurely as she topped the small swell in the terrain, but it was just the illusion cast by her towering fifteen-foot height. Each swing of her long, mechanized legs was accompanied by the soft, melodic whistle of polished joints grinding against each other.
Artem15 was a decidedly female construct. There was no disguising her feminine breastplate, contrasting with the masculine-sculpted copper torsos of her fellow mechanically suited warriors. Her head, a camera-laden module with ruby-red optics placed where the eyes would be in a bronze-forged representation of a woman's face, was hunched between shoulder-mounted guns. A mane of glimmering golden ribbons of polished and colored steel wool hung like real hair.
Diana Pantopoulos, who piloted the one-and-a-half-ton mobile war suit, was one of the elite. Thus she had been rewarded with the identity Artem15. A mere combat drone bore a singular red ID number painted onto a coppery simulation of a pectoral muscle. The rank-and-file drone pilots strode into battle with ID stencils, not names drawn from the gods of ancient Greece. The mane of Diana Pantopoulos's suit glimmered like fire in the sunset, two fat, braided ropes of gold-polished cable falling forward to provide her metallic breasts a modicum of modesty, keeping the Artem15 armor from flashing naked breasts on the battlefield. Though the war suit pilot called the metals that made up the armor copper and bronze, they weren't. They were far older materials, crafted by beings whom Hera Olympiad hadidentified as the gods themselves. The specifics really didn't matter to Diana, because inside the robot walker, she was not just another subject of the New Olympian nation state; she was Artem15, the Artemis of the third millennium.
She swiveled her camera head to the left, spying Are5, with his green copper Mohawk jutting from forehead to the back of his neck, as sharp and aggressive as a circular-saw blade. A glance to the right showed Apo110, his burnished yellow locks a more masculine rendition of her own red-gold wig.
The three of them were Hera's representatives of the pantheon known as Strike Force Olympus. The three towered twice as tall as a man, and they bristled with cannons and wielded massive manipulator claws that could fold into fists easily capable of crushing a boulder. The god-themed robot warriors had their own weapons, based on their larger-than-life inspirations, while the robot drones that they led were styled after helmeted Spartan warriors; one forearm was concealed under a buckler five feet in diameter, while the other arm ended in a spike-knuckled claw that could fold into a two-foot-wide monster fist.
Artem15 looked down into the valley. The commander units and their squadron of Spartan troopers were standing as a copper-colored wall, overseeing a writhing mass that she knew could be nothing but the opposition. The dark one, Thanatos, did not possess the industrial means to match the mechanized might that shielded New Olympus, but the Hydrae hordes below, the warriors of Tartarus, had been produced in clone farms. Despite their primitive technology, they still posed a deadly threat to the Greeks who had striven to rise from postapocalyptic barbarism in the shattered island nation. Thanatos's legion of black, scale-skinned Hydrae snarled, glaring up as one, creating the image of a thousand-handed, thousand-eyed organism of astonishing size. Artem15 knew that the clone horde did indeed act as if it were under the command of a hive mind. Though armed only with muskets and bayonets, the simplest weapons that Thanatos could produce, they were a fearsome force that threatened to overwhelm the town Strike Force Olympus had sworn to protect.
Artem15's pilot clicked on the loudspeaker built into her head unit. "You have only one chance. Turn back, and you all shall live."
As one, the Hydrae horde surged up the hill, their bare, claw-toed feet digging into the grassy slope. The front line opened up with their muskets, and Artem15's copper-colored breastplate shuddered under a sheet of lead balls. The smooth, polished surface sported dozens of pockmarks, creating a terrain of dimples, dents and craters on the lovingly sculpted torso plate.
Artem15 triggered her shoulder-mounted guns. The built-in weapons were belt-fed blasters that fired cartridge ammunition, faster and more powerful rounds than the musket balls, but required more craftsmanship to make.
The other mechanized units matched her actions except for Are5, who deployed his twin thermal axes. The Mohawked war machine leaped across the gulf of fifty yards between the formation of robots and the churning throng of clones, clawed feet crashing into the writhing enemy force. Are5 would engage in conflict his way, which had carried battles to success on a hundred occasions.
Three thousand pounds of machinery easily crushed a dozen Hydrae under the huge, four taloned feet. The force of Are5's impact jarred the hillside loose. A small landslide rushed down the slope, tripping up scores more Hydrae as the wave of freed soil cascaded into shins and thighs. While the other war suits relied on their shoulder-mounted machine guns, Are5 preferred a more hands-on approach. His twin double-headed ax blades, heated to five hundred degrees Fahrenheit by internal thermal elements, carved through flesh in wide, sweeping strokes that separated torsos and severed limbs all around him. The axes had been folded and stored in customized housings, and Are5 used the axes to clear a fifteen-foot-wide swath in two body-shredding swings of the robot's long arms. The clone horde had taken the war god avatar's bait and swarmed toward him, rising to the challenge of bayonet versus red-hot ax blade.
Artem15 let her shoulder guns fall silent, drawing one of her javelins. Like the goddess of the hunt she emulated, the war armor she piloted favored the slender, accurate, explosive spears. A powerful throw launched the warhead-tipped javelin at more than a thousand feet per second, and though Artem15 could easily and accurately toss the spear two miles, at the spitting-range distance between her and the savage Hydrae, it was like shooting a bullet into an anthill. The custom-tipped spear burst through relatively fragile humanoid forms, tearing them to pieces before the internal fuse was finally armed with the right amount of kinetic energy and impacted on the mass of one reptilian. The deceleration-based fuse enabled the gore-spattered missile to explode and scythe out a deadly storm of shrapnel, clearing out a crowd of mutants who rushed to overtake Are5.
To her left, Apo110 unleashed the heat of the sun itself. Greek fire consumed a flank of irate clones who had swept around in an attempt to outmaneuver the guardian war machines. Powdered, aerosol-based orichalcum reacted on contact with sunlight and flashed brilliantly, long tongues licking through the scale-skinned Hydrae and leaving behind only blackened bones. Robot drone troopers lashed out with spike-adorned, two-foot-wide metal fists even as their shoulder guns blazed incessantly. The Spartan suits featured massive arms able to deliver nearly seventy tons of kinetic force with each punch. Even without the lethal spikes, the massive paws of the clockwork warrior robots would have turned any smaller humanoid into a pulped mass of gore. The spikes were there to keep a glancing punch from merely tossing a stunned opponent to the ground.
"Dammit! Get off!" a Spartan pilot yelled.
Artem15 turned her head and spotted a swarm of scaled flesh piled into a mound twenty feet high. She watched as a clockwork fist burst through the surface before being swallowed again by the writhing melee. She triggered the shoulder weaponry, but for every two she knocked aside, four more rose. The Hydrae were indeed like their namesake Hydra as they swarmed over the cleared body.
"Artie! There's more heading to the town!" another Spartan called. "A second formation is in motion!"
Artem15 whirled away from her beleagured ally. "Airy, Pollie! Hold the line here! You two, with me!"
Hydraulic leg pistons hurled Diana into the air with enough force to shove her deep into her pilot's couch. The twenty-yard bound took her to the top of the hill. Those same hydraulics compressed on landing, cushioning the impact. The two drone infantry she'd directed to follow her were close on her heels, and together they shoved off down the far slope of the hill, riding their front and hind toes like skis as they utilized gravity and forward momentum to rocket down the hillside. Moving at more than one hundred miles per hour, they closed the distance to intercept the maddened clones charging toward the town.
The town's militia, armed with pikes and crude muzzle loaders, were braced for the enemy assault. Artem15 admired the courage of those she was sworn to protect, but she knew that the Hydrae were bred for ruthlessness, great strength and endurance. The picket line of human defenders was outnumbered by the savage attackers whose aplomb for killing made them more than a match for simple citizens defending their homes.
Artem15 opened fire with her shoulder guns, perforating the flank of Hydrae as they bypassed the mechanized hilltop force. Three pairs of machine guns, however, were not enough to counter the Tartarus hordes. Artem15 drew another of her javelins and hurled it into the heart of the group. The detonation of the 70 mm warhead devastated the back half of the column of Hydrae mutants. Bodies stumbled and tripped over downed brethren.
The town's militia opened fire with its own primitive muskets and bolt-action rifles, joining the fight. As the Hydrae at the head of the charging remnants fell with bullets puncturing their organs, the remaining attackers renewed their charge, leaping over black-scaled corpses twisted in the dirt.
The New Olympian pilot reached for anotherjavelin, but the horde was suddenly too close to the skirmish line defending the town. They would be caught in the spear's blast radius. Artem15 leaped, soaring over the space between herself and the Hydrae as the first bayonet sank into a citizen's chest. Anger stirred inside the metal-wrapped warrior's heart. With a feral rage that Are5 would have been proud of, she landed on the necks of a half-dozen clones, her four-toed hydraulic leg squashing them into the soil with the force that only a ton and a half of metal propelled at 150 miles per hour could produce. As she landed, Diana bellowed through her suit's loudspeakers, an inarticulate, amplified war cry that froze a score more of the deadly clones.
Her backup opened fire, slicing through the stunned and distracted Hydrae, ending their vat-born lives in a hail of bullets. Artem15's throat filled with bile, however, as she saw Greek men and women twist and fall alongside the Hydrae.
"Fall back!" Artem15 ordered. "I'll hold the line!"
The horde of attackers twisted, eyeing Artem15 as she drew her javelin from its hip quiver. They lunged forward, snarling, swinging, stabbing their bayonet-tipped muskets, determined to down an elite clockwork warrior. Pike-sharp points penetrated her armor, razor-sharp steel coming far too close to Diana's all too vulnerable human body in the pilot's compartment. She didn't dare sweep the enemy away, not if she wanted to protect the New Olympians who raced back to shelter. Diana had vowed to defend the citizens with her blood.
A clawing bayonet opened a gash on her cheek. Another needled into her thigh. The strength and fury of the Hydrae horde were more than the metal skin of her war suit could fend off.
Artem15 stabbed the earth with her javelin, and the warhead belched out a sheet of flaming death and flying metal. The concussive shock wave and heat were dampened by the cushioned tub of armor that cradled her pilot's seat, and the mobile suit's armor deflected the notched razor wire that had wrapped the explosive core of the javelin's point. Hydrae corpses were hurled off the armored battle suit's massive frame.
Dazed by the nearby detonation, Artem15 looked down to her hydraulic right arm. The metal sleeve that protected the skeleton's carpal manipulators and ulna framework had peeled back like the petals of a steel flower. The clockwork gears and pistons, composed of secondary orichalcum, had withstood the powerful detonation as if it were nothing more than a stiff breeze.
The attacking Hydrae, however, were retreating, fearing another lethal javelin strike.
"Artie!" Are5 called out. "Artie, report!"
She took a tentative step, noting that the right leg's mechanisms had been knocked out of alignment. The metal components of her legs were vulnerable to explosive displacement. She'd need realignment back at the base.
"I'm still standing, Airy. So is the town," she stated. "But it'll take some extra time to walk home."
"Thank Hera," Are5 answered.
Artem15 glared silently at the two backup units as they stood between the fleeing Hydrae and the besieged townspeople. Diana pulled aside her microphone and opened the window on her cockpit. "You two!"
The pair took a step closer and their own cockpit windows opened. They both knew what was coming.
"You fired on your fellow citizens," she hissed.
"They were overwhelmed," one offered. "We couldn't rescue them. They were dead anyway."
"That is not your call to make," Diana said. She looked at the tangle of human and mutant bodies. Six Greek men and women lay among the scores of Hydrae mutants. Bite marks and bayonet wounds marred faces and chests, but she also saw the ugly puckers of gunshot wounds on the humans. "They trusted us to die for them. Instead, they died because I was too slow and you were too hasty."
The warrior drone heads lowered.
"Remember this in the future," she snarled. She turned away from the drones. "Airy, Pollie, how goes it?"
"The Hydrae are pulling back," Apo110 answered. "They no longer have any stomach for battle."
"Airy?" Diana called.
"Broke one of my axes again," Are5 complained. "But I found something in the mix. You have to come see this."
"Bring it back to base, "Artem15 replied. "I'm too slow as it is to make the walk worth it. If it's that important, then we have to show Zoo and Her Highness, as well."
Are5 transmitted his camera image to her screen. "Just look, Artie."
It appeared to be another reptilian variant, similar to the basic Hydrae clone. However, where the scaled hordes of Thanatos were naked, bony-limbed and distorted abominations, this reptilian was tall, strong and of perfect build. He also wore a second skin that conformed to his muscular frame, glinting in the sunlight like metal.
"What the hell is that?" Artem15 asked.
"Beats me, but we're bringing the remains back," Are5 confirmed.