The Iron Circle Ch. IV

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Chapter IV: Iron Without

Evening in the Sahara.

The cool sands of the desert, their once-blistering heat now sucked dry by the night's chill, left little dust clouds in the dunes as the wind howled and howled and tossed them about.

Atop of one dune on the endless wastes sat a figure. It was vaguely humanoid and hunched over, keeping its eyes transfixed on the two-thousand foot machine looming over the desert. Gusts of wind threw dust in its eyes, but it didn't notice, didn't even flinch, as its eyes were not of flesh but were instead made of plastic and metal.


At once, the figure swiveled its right eye, and only its right eye, towards the source. Two Ironforms were striding across the sands, accompanied by a floating object. The desert wastes muffled the sounds of their heavy tread. Data archives indicated the Ironforms were both Heavy chassis, the floating object a recon drone.

The figure went death-still. <Audio signatures detected. Activating recording systems...>

" that's when Karla gives me the whole 'let's just be friends' spiel, a-and I just had to, to get out of the room, you know? I mean, how could she just say that? After all we did together?"

The second voice grated, its tone rendered harsher by reluctance. "...yeah. Right. Whatever."

Soul Gem signatures and unique markers on the chassis told it who the pair was. Two Magical Girls from the Toxotes Order, no one on registered as anyone particularly important. Nonetheless, protocol demanded that it keep its recording devices active in case it picked up anything of interest, and so the directional microphone stayed on.

The pair spoke of nothings to stave off boredom. Every step carried them closer and closer to the dune upon which sat the figure.

"Anyway,' said the first, her voice taking on a coy tone. Data archives identified her as Hekate Ervin. "So how about that new girl, hmm?"

"The one from the Ninth?" grunted the other one. Pala Greut, leader of Squad Alpha-Five. "What about her?"

A giggle. "A Japanese girl! Redhead, too! She's my type and everything! Ooh, I wonder what sort Ironform she's gonna end up with."

Twenty feet. Ten feet. Five feet. Any closer, and the patrolling girls would run straight into the figure. They had turned their gaze towards it several times, yet never once did they notice it was there.

"--you saw her too, right? She's got this really tight little--"

Two feet...

Bafflers rendered the figure invisible to the Ironforms' scanners, but all the stealth technology in the world would mean nothing if they simply bumped into it. As they drew closer, programmed contingencies within the figure began to go active.

<Proximity alert. Proximity alert. Arming anti-pursuit countermeasures.>

One foot...

"--shit, now I really want to see her wearing one of those things they have in Japan, that--"

<Priming self-destruct device. Engage evasive maneuvers in 3...2...>


There was a *clang* of metal on metal. The other girl had kicked Hekate in the back of her leg.

"Hekate," she said, "I swear to god: if you signed up to be my patrol buddy just to tell me about your fucking sex life and how fucking cute the new girl is, I'm going to shoot you. I don't care if I end up in Containment for an entire fucking year, and I don't care if I'm Castigated for the rest of my entire fucking life." She punctuated her rant with jabs from her gun-arm.

"So if you say one more goddamn word about the novitiate's butt, face, or boobs, or start bitching about your empty 'receiver jack', I -will- shoot you. And I will shoot you until I fucking run out ammo." One last jab. "Got it?"

"Ok, fine..." grumbled Hekate. "But seriously, I'm not the only one, am I? She's--"

The sound of a high-caliber round cycling rendered her silent.

"Alright, alright! Geez..."

"Also, patrol route's this way," said the other girl, waving a gun-arm off in another direction. "Come on, let's finish this up. Tonight's the season finale for 'Solium Ludi' and I'll be fucked if I miss it."

"Ooh, you've got Webflick, right? Can I watch it with you?"


"What?! Why noooot?!"

And so the pair continued their patrol, squabbling as they went. The rounded, disc-shaped recon drone hovered silently ahead of them.

The figure waited, stock still, as the sounds of the quarreling duo faded into the moaning of the desert wind. Only when the pair was out of sight did it relax its countermeasures and begin its most important duty.

<Proximity warning canceled. Returning to standby mode. Preparing to transmit recorded data...>


Far, far away, in the cold gloom of the underground, she smiled at the streams of data flickering across her eyes. Beneath her the man moaned as he lay on a metal surgical table, restraints creaking as he struggled, futilely, for his freedom.

The sounds of his misery brought out of her stupor, though she continued to digest the information even as she brought out another tool. 'A new lamb brought into the fold?' she mused, as she lowered the whining, spinning buzzsaw through the man's leg, just below the knee. 'Curious. I wonder what she is like...'

The man's choking screams brought her out of her pensive mood. Already her eye-lenses were smeared with his splattered life-fluids.

"Hush now," she cooed, stroking his trembling, sweating, face. She ignored the spittle that sprayed from his lips, his whimpered pleas for mercy. "Hush, for you will be reborn into a body far more glorious than this one of stinking flesh and blood. A beautiful form, a sublime form..."

She lowered the buzzsaw again, this time on the man's other leg. Screaming filled the gloom once more, and to her ears it was a grating, unpleasant noise. How sweeter the voice would be when disgusting meat and bone would be supplanted by wondrous machine. Agony was the fire through which this wretched creature would be forged, and she was the hammer--in this way did she honor the Omnissiah.

As her arm changed from a circular saw to a scalpel, she let out a whisper that reeked of devotion.

"...a form holy in the eyes of the Blessed Lady of Machines."

And there, in the cool gloom of the underground, the sound of screaming mingled and mixed with the shriek of cutting tools, until they all became one.


'Well, this isn't the worst situation I've ever been in, but it's up there.'

Honoka Iwakura found herself crouched behind a low brick wall. She was in a quiet little town--somewhere in Europe, judging from the architecture--whose name she was too distracted to bother remembering. There was dust around her feet, sun in her eyes, and a blocky battle rifle in her fists.

She was also wearing state-of-the-art powered armor--courtesy of the Fourth--and surrounded by more firepower than she'd ever been.

The Vindicare started to slide the magazine out of her rifle to check its load, before realizing her visor's HUD already displayed the information. Crunching the box of bullets back home, she brought up a map of the local area, reviewing the local layout and the marked heat signatures showing her were the enemies lay.

Fifteen signatures, plus the heat-wash of a heavy engine--an IFV, from the looks of it. All of them arrayed in a semi-circle around the lone low wall that served as her cover, nestled in a scattering of brick houses two or three stories tall or hiding in the alleyways between them. Images from her recon drone told her she was up against trained, well-equipped professionals. Not Magical Girls, or else she would have been cut to pieces already, but nor were they the undisciplined yakuza muscleheads with peashooters she was used to; they had military-grade body armor, assault rifles, iron discipline, and a goddamn armored vehicle. All she had on her was a battle rifle, six magazines of ammunition, a sidearm, two of each of smoke grenades and frag grenades, and her armor. Those were the tools she'd been given to kill fifteen soldiers and an IFV. No magic allowed either, according to mission parameters.

Again, not the worst situation she'd ever been in--taking out a Witch with just a pistol won that one--but not the best, either.

A part of her wondered why she was even here. Back in Japan, her job was to provide long-range fire support or overwatch. None of this run 'n gun Rambo business. That sort of thing was nutcases like the new Warmaster or Eversor wannabes--hers was the methodical elegance of the marksman's rifle. Long range, preferably somewhere up high with a nice view, one shot one kill.

Alas, she thought, as she viciously racked the slide of her sidearm.

Putting the discouraging thoughts aside, Honoka's mind worked to formulate a plan. Her objective was to neutralize all hostiles in the mission area; given that she was outnumbered, she opted to divide and conquer.

'Smoke grenade it is,' she thought to herself. She unhooked the tube-shaped munition from her belt and tossed it up and down once, twice, trying to get a feel for the weight of the device while wearing her suit.

'Here goes.'

She tossed the grenade. It spun end over end through the air and landed with a *clink* in the dirt in front of the IFV. Honoka crouched back down before someone could draw a bead on her, and tensed, ready to sprint.

There was a distinct pop as the smoke grenade went off. She waited a few seconds for the smoke to spread, and then it was time to move.

She dashed out of cover, hurtling towards a ruin of a shack, her feet and the bullets of enemy fire kicking up dust as she went. Her own speed, enhanced as it was by her 'Maximus' armor, almost made her stumble and pause in shock--her magical nature meant she was already faster than most Olympic athletes, but this...she felt like she'd reached the shack in a blink of an eye. She'd moved so fast she almost crashed into the building's wall, just barely managing to come to a skidding halt in time. Before she could reflect on this, though, shouts from the opposing soldiers kept her focused on the situation.

Her recon drone drifted momentarily out of cover. It sent its sensor feed back to her visor, rebuilding the tactical map she'd been looking at before.

Already the soldiers were displacing, waving to one another with hand-signs. She'd have to move soon, she realized, or they were going to flank her. Noting a weakness in their deployment on the tactical map, she dashed out of cover once more, towards the blasted remains of a two-story house.

A window shattered, demolished, as Honoka dove through it. Even as a Magical Girl such a maneuver would have left her with deep albeit inconsequential scratches, but her new armor could easily resist several hits from a rifle. The only thing she felt was the light impact of the floor as she rolled into a prone position, aiming with her rifle as she did.

Target, fifteen feet to the right: a tall, muscular man with a red crosshair painted over his face by her visor. A targeting laser on her weapon told her where to aim, and Honoka complied without hesitation.

She squeezed the trigger. A burst of fire from her rifle smashed through the soldier's helmet and face, throwing him to the floor. Another man landed in her sights and she dropped him, too. A third appeared, his assault rifle roaring, and Honoka rolled to her left avoid the oncoming hail of death, the weather-beaten lamp table behind her shredding into splinters. A stray bullet smacked into her right shoulder guard--grunting at what felt like hard punch into her flesh--and it sparked as it left a dent in her armor.

Honoka had dove into a small hallway, one that connected a set of stairs to the living room on the first floor. There was no cover to be found, nothing to put between herself and the third soldier save backing further away towards the stairway. Rolling into a sitting position with her rifle readied, she scrambled backwards while laying down shots of her own, hoping to keep her foe's head down and buy her space to get into cover. As it turned out, however, what was meant to be a potshot became a kill shot, as she instinctively followed her armor's aiming systems and landed a clean hit on the man's neck. He crumpled to the floor in a boneless heap.

Silence. Silence punctuated only by the growl of her armor's servos.

As quickly as it had begun, it had ended. Honoka sat still, recovering from the unfamiliar rush of power-armored combat. Though the sounds of boots stamping and an engine roaring started to cut their way into the dusty little house, the red-haired Vindicare only noticed the sound of her beating, thumping heart.

She let out the breath she'd been holding.

Her recon drone blipped and alerted her of twelve humanoid heat-signatures and one vehicle signature moving towards her position. Groaning, Honoka stood up, the dust that had layered the floor wafting from her armor, and as she walked up the stairway to the second floor she considered her next move.

Outnumbered as she was thirteen to one, none of the options she could think of made her particularly happy.


In the end, she chose to get a little creative.

The twelve remaining soldiers had closed in. Dividing themselves into three squads of four, each man covered another as they'd moved in lock-step discipline, building to building and cover to cover. One squad in particular had already reached the house she was in, and Honoka had no desire to be on the receiving end of a professional breach-and-entry.

Letting her visor's targeting systems do the heavy lifting--she was already starting to rely on its aiming systems--Honoka popped off a shot that badly winged a soldier from the other squads, sending the rest his squadmates scurrying for cover. Then she sprinted away from the window to another one, one she knew was directly above the back door the breaching squad was about to use, and leapt, getting the drop on them.


The four had stacked up along the wall near the door, all of them to the door's right: the classic pattern for a safe, methodical breach. As she fell, she landed on the rearmost soldier, then slung out her rifle and emptied her magazine into the trio before her.

Bodies jerked and twitched as rifle rounds smashed into them. One managed to let off a wild burst, a reflex twitch from a dying finger. A glance under her told Honoka the fourth soldier didn't survive having a heavily armored Magical Girl crash on top of him.

Nine more to go.

There was no time to waste--she could already hear the sound of eight pairs of boots trampling the earth. Sending her recon drone out to scout out the incoming enemy, she jammed the spent magazine into a pocket and slammed a new one home. The Vindicare was sliding the charging handle, loading a fresh round into the rifle chamber, when an alert went off in her visor.

<Warning. Enemy detected.>

Crosshairs painted the pair of gunmen that were flanking her. They were leaning around the corner of the house, using the wall as cover, one man crouched and the other man standing. Twin barrels leveled their black gaze, promising a storm of metal that would tear her apart even through her armor, or at least cripple her enough to be easily finished off.

'Shit they're fast--'

Honoka threw herself to the right, back into the house she'd reaved clean of life. Most of the shots went wide, but a few left dents on the armor guarding her ribs.

Her mind raced as she picked herself back off the floor. There had been only two men firing, but she heard much more than just two pairs of boots. No doubt the other six were here; Honoka guessed the rest stayed back to give the first two soldiers a clear shot at her, maybe even left a few on the other side of the building to keep her from escaping.

This, mused Honoka, was why she hated taking on professionals.

She switched to her audio-trackers, trying to pinpoint enemy locations by sound. Vibrations from their footsteps told her they were stacking up on the door. Given their hesitation in entering, she guessed one of them was priming a grenade.

Her mind was racing. Viable options were rapidly decreasing. If she charged out the door, they'd pump her full of lead. If she stayed, the grenade would surely at least stun her at best, armor or no, maybe even blow her to pieces. If she retreated further into the house, she had no doubts the soldiers at the back of the house would move in, cutting her off and bringing her back to square one..

What do I do? She thought. What do I do? What do I do?

What do I do?

Instinct decided for her. Vindicare training, beaten into her over the course of four brutal years of killing gangsters and Witches alike, sent her blurring into action. She tore a frag grenade from her pouch and tossed it out the door. Its pin remained unremoved--the grenade was just a decoy, to get the soldiers to hesitate while she made a run for the stairs.

She got to the very top when the air behind her was torn apart by a swarm of bullets. Armor enhancements meant she was too fast to be in the line of fire for long, but she felt a round glance off the back of her helmet.

There was nothing for it. She couldn't hold the second floor by herself, not with eight heavily-armed veterans coming after her. In yet another bout of window-vandalism, Honoka leapt out of a second-story window.

Haste had diminished her control over her armor. She'd leapt too hard, too far out. Her shock at how far she'd jumped meant she smashed into the ground, driving the breath out of her lungs. She was coughing, gasping, struggling for air when her visor beeped out a warning.

<Alert. Vehicle-class heat signature detected.>

Sputtering, she looked up. She realized she had precisely one second.

One second to realize there was an IFV parked not forty feet away from her. One second to realize its light cannon had been aimed at the two-story house she'd been in, and now it had already drawn a bead on her. One long, painful second to realize that she was going to die, and there was nothing she could do about it.

It was quick, at least. Her shiny new armor, fresh from the forges of the Fourth Officio, could withstand multiple impacts from a rifle at close range, and against sidearms it made her practically invulnerable. It made her faster and stronger, beyond the magical enhancements already bestowed upon her by an alien race beyond human comprehension, and it came with a built-in sensor suite and HUD that was a tactical godsend.

But against an autocannon that could murder armored vehicles, she might as well have been naked.

The first round pulverized her torso, the second her hip. Those wounds alone would have killed her in less than a minute, even with her magically enhanced body, but the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth ensured she wasn't going to survive the next second.

After the seventh, the IFV went still, and a dead calm took hold over the battlefield.


The dust of a corpse-town swirled around Honoka Iwakura's remains.

Her severed hand, laying palm-up on a pile of broken glass, twitched once, twice, then went still as its dying nerves spasmed one last time in a feeble struggle to stay alive. Dry earth drank in the blood spilling from her ruptured corpse until it became wine-dark.

And then the simulation ended.