Project Armada

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When everything is said and done, when the monsters are gone and the mechs are wasting away in the ocean or landfills or many many storage containers, people will talk about Project Armada. They'll weave tattered memories into stories, fully believing that Armada just sprung out of the ground one day in 2014-2015. But Project Armada went back further. They'd been around since right after the attack in '88, ever since some researchers took a good look at the seismographs and realized that there are things moving down there. Big things. Those staff members had a different name back then, when they were a skeleton crew of scientists looking at the ocean floor with whatever tools they had. And nobody gave too much of a shit about them until the scientists looked at all their data and realized that whatever creatures were down there were starting to make their way up. Their best guess was that everyone had 30 years to prepare. 30 years to build humanity's sentinels.

The scientists got lucky at first. Before they had anything safer than nuclear energy, before they'd invented lightweight wonder-alloy and non-intrusive control mechanisms, they had a prototype mech ready to fight in case the scientists were wrong and the horde came early.

There was no early onslaught of creatures. The few creatures that did show up were… harmless. Unthreatened and unthreatening, the lumbering giants that destroyed The Veil were more interested in being tourist attractions than fighters. The more the scientists insisted that the creatures lurking down there were still a threat, the less anyone cared. They needed to show the public they were more than a bad punchline in a political cartoon. Instead, their prototype stopped being able to communicate with the scientists and ran into the ocean. When billions of dollars and over two decades of your work runs away, you become a much better punchline.

But they kept building. Through sneers and jeers they built like it was the only thing they knew how to do. After all, they had a lot of work to do. A single mech wasn't going to cut it when it mattered most. They needed to build a fleet, each member specialized in something else so that no matter the threat, there was always something to stand up to it.

That was when they started calling themselves Project Armada.

Andrew Morales stares at the simulation room's fishbowl screen. What used to be a panoramic image of the beach had since blurred into a fog of tan and cloudy blue. In front of the fog is a number in white block lettering: 16/20.

"I should be getting 19." He grumbles.

"There's no 'should'." Lucie's voice crackles slightly as it passes through the cockpit speakers. "You could get 19. You just need to stop getting in your own way."

"Okay. Run me through it again."

"Not yet. I want you to cool off a little."

"But if I'm in a real situation and things go sideways—"

"You aren't there yet." Rumor around the compound is that Lucie was a hostage negotiator before she became a pilot. It would explain the precision in her voice, the way that every ounce of tension that is and isn't included feels deliberate. "You're throwing off your own tempo whenever you start to mess up or when you get excited. If I don't give you a mental reset—"

"— I'll just bring the mental baggage into the next round."

Over the speakers, Lucie's chuckle sounds like a plastic bin being pushed across a tile floor. "You sound eager to get back into it. Here, I'll run you through another round, but instead of going off your tempo…"

The sound of Lucie shuffling through her pockets isn't too far off from her laugh. "You can go off mine. How does 45bpm sound?"

The sound of a bass drum metronome swallows the cockpit. THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP.

"A little quieter!" Andy shouts, "And also a bit faster."

"70bpm." Thump thump thump thump.

"Much better."

The fishbowl dims for a moment as the training simulation gets ready for another round. A moment more and the California coast is back in focus, now with the addition of a gargantuan sea creature. From his perspective, Andy is 50 meters off the ground in the cockpit of Mech Number 14, more commonly known as Mississippi Queen. Whoever designed the simulation didn't have graphical fidelity in mind, but it didn't take thousands of polygons to show that a sea monster wants to attack you.

The monster begins on four legs, rising to two as it approaches. It is, more or less, a sturgeon molded into the shape of an armored knight. Most of the scales seem tough, and the rows of bony scutes on its appendages would be impossible for Mississippi Queen to crack. They'd be even harder to block.

Seven hits, six blocks, seven dodges. Follow the tempo.

Morales punches when he can and maneuvers when he can't. Punch-punch dodge. Punch weave-deflect. All to the beat of the drum. The creature latches onto Mississippi Queen's right forearm and yanks it to the ground. She buckles over. Grabbing, twisting, tearing, she frees herself. The creature throws its scute-plated tail into the back of Queen's legs. She stumbles.

"Don't get frazzled. Find your tempo."

Mississippi Queen spins around. The creature's right behind her, two scaled fists raised to the sky. Thump thump. Mississippi Queen jumps to the side. Thump. The creature's arms go sailing past. Thump. Queen's cocks her arm back. Two fists resonate off the creature's skull. Thump thump.

The image on fishbowl blurs as a number comes into focus: 18/20.

"I could—"

"You did better." The negotiator voice is back. "Don't worry about everything else."

"Can I at least ask how well you tend to do on this drill?"

The speaker makes Lucie's sigh sound like… well, sighs are hard to mishear. "When I was as green as you, I was more than happy to get a 16."

"But what do you get now?"

Every time Lucie goes silent, Andy swears he can hear a subtle whirring. It's almost mechanical enough to be a fan, it never seems important enough to be worth asking about. "Usually 20s, but it shouldn't take much longer for you to get there."

"Do you think I should have used the other weapons?"

More of the probably-not-a-desk fan. "I don't know. Mississippi Queen is a bit of a Swiss army knife, but I never have to ask myself that since all I've got are the javelins. Give yourself time and you'll figure out when you should use what."

A bell chimes 12 times over the intercom. Lunch time.


Placeholder Name: Loch Ness Giant


Still frame of footage taken between camera outages.

Loch Ness Giant was discovered on 05/03/2017 in Hy-Brasil's West Kelp Beach. Foundation personnel were alerted to an anomalous presence when multiple Foundation-accessed cameras simultaneously stopped transmitting footage. After confirming that these cameras had not been physically tampered with, an investigation into all data received by the affected cameras was conducted. All affected cameras had been manually disabled with the login credentials of the late Ken Porter, a mech pilot predating Project Armada. Porter's clearance level was revoked and affected cameras were rebooted. Affected cameras were quickly disabled a second time using the credentials of the late Maria De León, a mech pilot predating Project Armada. Procedure following first camera outage was repeated. An evacuation order has been given to civilians in the area.

Potential Anomalous Properties/Phenomena:

  • Colossal
  • Digital
  • Data-based
  • Spectral

Last updated 13 seconds ago…

A dozen staff members around a cafeteria table. They talk about how they slept, who's waiting for them back home, the usual. At some point they'd collectively decided to never talk about whether the pilots had been hand-selected for the final designs of their mechs or if their mech designs were tinkered to better suit the pilots. Otherwise, the arguments would have never ended. Today, a new topic floats along the stream of casual conversation: how are they going to deal with the new anomaly? If this was it, if this was the fight Armada had spent 30 years preparing for, then whoever the director sent out would become an international hero. The Lucies and Morales were all stationed at the compound, but most people at the table didn't know which (if any) of the mechs had been cleared for combat. After all, the Hy-Brasil was more of a training ground than anything else. Habitable, depopulated, hidden (back when The Veil was a concern), there wasn't anywhere better to test mech designs.

The intercom came to life with a sharp tone. "All personnel, please prepare for deployment of Mech Number 14."

"First time I've heard the director say please." Andy mutters to himself as he grabbed his tray of mashed potatoes.

"Forget about the potatoes, man." Ken snatches the tray out of Andy's hands. "I'll take care of it. You just focus on getting ready to pilot MQ."

"And remember to keep my tempo" Andy adds.

"Re— what?"

"Nevermind. Talk to you later."

Andy weaves through the mess of people in lab coats and officer's uniforms funneling into the cafeteria exit. He hears Ken yell one last thing about making the team proud as he slips into the busy hallway.

The throng flows through the compound like an avalanche down a mountain face: a rolling thunder of footsteps that kept churning, constantly overtaking itself as the quicker walkers shift to the front of the line and the slower ones fall towards the back. It's similarly hard to fight against, a lesson Andrew learns as he forces himself off the avalanche's path and towards his room. Soon enough, the flurry of badges and key cards is replaced by the white tile floor and gray walls that he'd long ago learned to… appreciate. Love is a strong word.

Putting on the control gear another time doesn't feel special. Even in an emergency, routine hammers the adrenaline spike into a short and flat stump. Andrew grabs a plastic syringe from the medicine cabinet, not bothering to check the fading set of instructions he'd taped inside that cabinet forever ago. He washes his hands, making sure not to touch anything before the sensor-covered gloves come on. Then it's time for what the pilots refer to as "sticky soup". Warm, conductive, slightly viscous, Morales takes his syringe and puts 3ml of the stuff into each of the glove's holes. The soup spread out into a thin layer as it came into contact with the water on his skin. The more he wriggles his fingers, the better the coverage. The vest is comparatively simple— once the straps are tight and the gloves are plugged into it, he's ready to go to the hangar.

Source: Audio recording, Foundation-provided secure telephones.

Lucie Boshe, Pilot: Are you sure Morales is the right choice?

Amanda Kohen, Project Director: Did you call me during an emergency just to question my decision making?

L. Boshe: Listen, Kohen, it's— he hasn't even been inside Number 14.

A. Kohen: Well, my assumption was that you'd trained him well enough that he'll know what he's doing. If I was mistaken-

L. Boshe: We don't even know what we're coming up against.

A. Kohen: So we send in our most versatile mech.

L. Boshe: But I—

A. Kohen: I've made my decision, Lucie. I don't intend to repeat it.

Despite all the times Morales saw Number 14's metal body through the eyes of the fishbowl, nothing conveyed its scale like seeing it in-person. Towering, unmoving, the image of the titan mounted on the wall brings whatever ghosts haunted the compound into Morales' inner dialogue. One voice tells Andy to throw himself to the floor, to prostrate himself before whatever god of war or steel or cataclysm this machine undeniably represents. Another tells him to spit at its foot, to curse whatever tyrant built this monument to themselves out of their own people's bones. Instead, Morales climbs a staircase higher and higher, spiraling up from the sole of Mississippi Queen's foot to the back of her head. Two assistants and Lucie are waiting for him at the top. While the assistants check Morales' vitals and double check that every apparatus is plugged in and functioning, Lucie silently works near the back of the cockpit, a flash drive dancing from her pocket to her hand to a control panel in the wall. She's the last one to leave Morales in the cockpit.

"It took some basic coding and a spot of elbow grease, but I got the audio file to loop." She says as she steps out, "So if you're out there for a long time, you don't have to worry about losing the metronome." An assistant closes the hatch behind her.

The cockpit's head-up display flickers to life, Project Armada's helm of swords appearing in the top right as system diagnoses dash down the glass. 10 unseen lines appear and disappear with every blink. Somewhere deep in the heart of the colossus, fans begin to hum. A familiar drum finds its way through the speakers. Thump, thump, thump.

"Welcome to the world of real piloting." Director Kohen's voice rises over the metronome. "We don't know exactly what we're dealing with, but our best guess is that it's big, probably humanoid, and walks on two legs. You think you can handle that?"

"What's 'probably humanoid' supposed to mean?"

"This thing, we've been using 'Loch Ness Giant' as a placeholder name, it doesn't leave footprints. It leaves bootprints instead. You still think you're up to snuff?"

"I… guess? Yeah, I can handle it."

"Glad to hear. We're expecting good things from you, Morales."

Morales can't tell if the heat inside the cockpit was making his face flush.

The cockpit shudders as the whine of old metal joints attacks Morales from behind. The clamps binding Mississippi Queen to the wall begin to release, one shrill centimeter at a time.

"I wouldn't have deployed you if I didn't."

Mississippi Queen's weight shifts slightly as she's freed from the wall. It shifts a lot more as she takes a step. Then another. Then another. To Morales, she's a second layer of skin, immune to all the thorns and sticks and stones of the world. The hangar door opens to a different world. One where the boulders Morales would have struggled to climb and the streets he would have hesitated to cross are all passed in a few effortless steps. Here, the world is his stomping ground. In front of him is West Kelp Beach. 30 years ago it was one of Hy-Brasil's liveliest beaches. Now, it's littered with abandoned beach towels. Seared by the nuclear flash, half-buried by time, forgotten by people whose scramble for safety was likely in vain. An abandoned buggy rests dead on the pavement as Mississippi Queen steps over the road and onto the sand.

"Loch Ness Giant's approaching from the north." Kohen says, "We want you to intercept it, but don't try to kill it immediately. We don't know if it's hostile."

Morales hears a thump coming from outside the cockpit as he moves north. Then another. The footfalls of the giant clash against the sounds of the waves again and again. Each time, the giant takes a little more. The thumps grow louder. The crashing waves shift into background noise in favor of the footsteps. Morales takes a deep breath. Then, the giant rounds the cliff in front of him.

It's a walking battleship. Grey plates of curved armor shift back and forth as the giant moves across the sand. Even with the armor, it was clear that this isn't one of the sea beasts Morales was trained to fight. Where one might see flesh beneath the armor, there are pistons, ventilation shafts, and all the other assembly-line organs that allow a giant metal man to walk on two legs. It isn't all artificial— the giant's body is studded with barnacles and slathered in dark blue blood that shimmers in the sun like an oil slick. It hasn't finished drying.

"Where— what is that?" Morales asks rhetorically.

"I'm having a couple people dig through the archives, but it might be Manhattan Child." Director Kohen responds. On one hand, it makes sense: Manhattan Child, one of the prototypes built before Project Armada had its name. The one that walked into the sea and disappeared. On the other hand, it would have taken a daisy chain of miracles for it to have survived this long. "If it is Manhattan Child, then…" the rest of Kohen's sentence is drowned in feedback as her hand tightens around the microphone. "Be careful out there."

"I'll try."

The giant doesn't approach like a fighter. No raised arms, no squared-off stance. After all, the giant isn't sure that there's a fight to be had. The robot standing in front of it is… unfamiliar, but it looks like another fancy piece of Foundation equipment. The same Foundation that told the giant to go off slaying monsters and then went strangely silent. The same Foundation that had been on the giant's side before changing their digital locks and sending a colossal bouncer to greet it. The giant's cameras peer into Mississippi Queen's head, a human pilot faintly visible through the cockpit's tainted windows. As if the Foundation had ever been able to work with living pilots. As if they could interface a human with a mech without The Longest Game, The Eternity Game, The Last Game I'll Ever Play. As if any of that was possible without melding mind and mechanism or without the extra tiles, extra pieces, and extra players that the giant used. They couldn't. The giant can't be the only one piloted by souls. They can't.

Inside the giant's head is a thicket of wires and sensors. At the heart of that thicket is a black box small enough to fit under a Christmas tree. By design, that box takes in all the data, all the camera footage and audio and recordings it had picked up over the last 14 years, and makes its move:

Alfil to e16 — "Foundation equipment and/or personnel commandeered by unknown forces. Engaging."

The giant's arm reaches for Mississippi Queen's shoulder. Morales forces it aside. The giant's left arm cocks back. Queen bobs to the side and sends a punch into the giant's torso. It's time for Morales to perform.

First comes the percussion section. Andrew can see the training monster in his mind. His body remembers what punches to throw. His mech follows. Bob, weave, retaliate. Mississippi Queen punches in single paradiddle: right, left, right, right, left, right, left, left. The giant misses again. Morales lands another two punches. Routine tells him to aim for anything that would cause internal bleeding. The giant doesn't bleed. Instead, a glowing light escapes through the gaps in its torso armor. The light's a nuclear cyan. With each punch, it grows like a flame stoked by a bellow.

The giant retreats a step. Then another. Queen closes the gap every time. The giant's armor grows divots. Then dimples. Then dents. Too slow to escape, too massive to get knocked away to safety, the giant kicks at Queen's right hip. Routine tells Morales to catch the leg. Wrong move. Mississippi Queen stumbles away from more inertia than she was ready for. Being built before the invention of lightweight armor plating did more than make the giant slow. It made the giant close to unstoppable.

Queen catches herself and turns. It's the giant's turn to close the gap. Its fists come crashing down— Queen tries to sidestep them. An armor plate on her arm gets caught. It crumples. She disengages. She still has some backpedaling left in her.

"You're going to let two hits scare you off!?" Kohen yells.

"I'm finding my tempo!" Morales yells back.

As the giant chases him, Morales realized that it's hardly gotten any slower. All the dents he'd given it, all the claw and teeth marks it had received from past foes, they only mattered when they caused the warped armor plates to scrape against each other. If he wanted to beat the giant this way, he'd have to pulverize the armor and then destroy whatever was underneath. Or, he could try something else.

The giant lunges towards Morales, its closed fist eager to catch his retreat. Morales steps forward and to the side. He ducks the punch. All he can see is the giant's exposed flank. Morales was ready to bring out the string section.

Mississippi Queen's right pinky falls towards the earth. An unspooling length of metal still connects it to her hand. To a human, it's a bridge cable. At the scale of a mech, it's a garotte wire. Morales couldn't choke the mechanical giant, but he could bring it to the ground. She flicks her wrist. The pinky finger sails past the giant's neck before being caught in Queen's left hand. The giant feels a yank from behind. It hardly stumbles. Too heavy.

"What the hell?" Andy asks the air.

The giant's elbow smashes into Queen's chin. The giant won't let her fall. A yank on the cable throws her back into the giant's shoulder. A left hook collides with her temple. Her left hand drops the cable. The giant's grip on it tightens.

Director Kohen wants to yell at Morales to free himself. She stops herself. He knew what he has to do, it's just that neither of them know how to do it.

Mississippi Queen is yanked up for another hit. Morales brings Queen's arm in front of her face to block it. It helps. Barely.

Catherine Clarke's screen flashes warnings at her. She's staring at a diagram of Mississippi Queen. Everything above the shoulders is changing from yellow to orange to red. Connectors, mechanical joints, neck stabilizers, they're all starting to fail. She flips the override switch just in case she needs to use it. She prays she won't. She prays she wouldn't have to eject Morales remotely.

Morales lost track of how many hits he'd taken since the giant turned Queen's right arm into a leash. As he fights back another wave of nausea, an epiphany: Tchaikovsky. The tops of Queen's rail mounts pop off. Underneath are two artillery cannons. All he needs is a clear shot. All he needs is to get perpendicular to the giant. And he has to do it while Queen's right arm is being held up.

Mississippi Queen's head lazily sways into the giant's punches. Morales tries to shut everything out. To think through the whiplash. Closing his eyes only makes the nausea worse. How much more vomit can the cockpit take? His hands come off his face. Queen drops her left shoulder, her palm falling to the ground. There.

The first shot careens into the giant's face. The second shot finds its lower torso. Two direct hits. Morales hears the giant stumble back. He feels it let go of Mississippi Queen. She starts to stand up—

"YOU NEED TO MAKE MORE ROOM" Kohen's voice screams through the cockpit. Morales looks up. The giant's done stumbling. It's hardly an arm's length away. A push off the giant's back foot covers most of the distance. It swings—

What happened next was a matter of perspective:

Morales sees a fist, then the sky, then the ground, then the sky, and so on. He sees the eject lever, placed impossibly far from him by centrifugal force. His hands are pinned.

Clarke sees a warning for critical joint damage, and then an error. The diagnostic system wasn't built to handle these sorts of incidents.

Kohen sees the first half of her career's biggest failure.

Everyone else in the command room sees Mississippi Queen's head tumble through the air as her body stands comparatively still.

Source: Command Room, wall-mounted camera.

Clarke presses the remote eject button.

MISSISSIPPI QUEEN is unresponsive.

Clarke presses the remote eject button two additional times.

MISSISSIPPI QUEEN is unresponsive. Clarke's hand slowly covers her mouth.

A. Kohen: Pull him out! What's wrong with you!

Director Kohen reaches over Clarke's shoulder and presses the remove eject button.

MISSISSIPPI QUEEN is unresponsive.

C. Clarke: The signal receiver's in the torso…

That's the second half of Kohen's biggest failure.

The last thing Andrew Morales saw was the ground, but everyone would come to convince themselves it was the sky. Somehow, it felt better that way.

And then it's over.

A few people in the command room pray. To God. To the universe. To the gargantuan robot that appeared suddenly, almost magically, from the sea right before it was Morales' time to die. It's standing there now, unmoving, the body of Mississippi Queen resting against it like a tired lover. The right side of its face is blasted open, colorful wires and magnetic tape dangling out the wound. Its chest plating is punctured and torn, dented metal regressing into warped and twisted ribbons. Its functioning cameras fixate on the mechanical head that holds Andrew Morales' corpse. The black box in the giant's head shudders against its bindings as a new player is fit into its game.

Catherine closes the diagnostics window and pauses. There's a request to change the Project Armada database. In most cases, this means updating the clearance level of a researcher or changing the measurements of a part that was redesigned. These requests are the kind of things that happens on slow weekdays, not during an emergency. She opens it while Kohen peers over her shoulder.

"So it really is…" Kohen looks at the command room screen. Manhattan Child's head has turned. Not towards the cameras, but towards the Armada compound itself. "Clarke, does Manhattan Child have the same mounting mechanism as our current mechs?"

"I…" Clarke squints at the command room screen. "It disappeared before I was hired, so I can't say for sure. The mounting rails look the same, but even minute differences can prevent it from being mounted properly."

Kohen nods. "Open the hangar doors. We'll modify Manhattan Child as needed."

"Open the— Director, you can't be serious." A line of fire shoots from Kohen's eyes to Clarke's. "You… That's a hostile anomaly! It killed our—"

"HE'S NOT GONE YET!" Kohen's finger slices the air between her and Clarke, a few strands of Clarke's ginger hair swaying as Kohen points at Manhattan Child. "Morales isn't gone yet. This is how we save him."

Clarke doesn't move.

"Open the database. Update the hangar. That's an order from your commander." Kohen's hand drops to her side as she considers grabbing Clarke by the collar. Clarke opens the hangar before it comes to that.

And so Manhattan Child, the firstborn, the prototype, the ghost vessel, the loch ness titan with a uranium heart, traces Andrew Morales' gargantuan steps back to the hangar. The corpse of Mississippi Queen is not so lucky. Stripped for parts, left to rot, she's salted and sanded by the elements. And when everything is said and done, when Hy-Brasil once again becomes a place that a child can grow, Project Armada Mech Number 14's empty frame and forgotten armor plates will become a forbidden jungle gym for Hy-Brasil's most daring children. Some of the more creative ones will spin tall tales about the robot's head. Some will say it was hit so hard you can still hear its echo, others will say that its brain has a living person trapped inside who's desperate to get out. Regardless of how the stories start, they'll all end the same way: if you put your ear against the robot's head on a silent night, you can just barely hear a thumping.

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