"My God, this forsaken place is colder than Siberia!", complained Private Roman as he shoved another block of chopped wood into the oven of the small cabin. He and his comrades - Corporal Maxim Kozlovsky and the Privates Pavel and Andrey - had been tasked to guard this section of the forest which housed a large Russian radar installation. The facility was of vital importance, for it was part of the elaborate anti-aircraft defence network that had been set up on the Scandinavian peninsula in order to protect the Russian homeland against strategic bombing attacks from American carrier groups stationed in the Norwegian Sea.
Kozlovsky nudged Roman's shoulder. "Stop whining, Roma. I'm sure the others will be back soon, hopefully with some stew and vodka from the barracks."
"Seriously, fuck this place!", Andrey interjected with an air of frustrated boredom as he flipped through the pages of an adult magazine. "I joined the Army because I wanted to fight! Not sit in some backwater cabin with cold stew and cheap vodka!"
"You should be glad that we're this far away from the action", Pavel replied. "This war is going to be over soon. I don't even care who wins as long as I can go home and see my wife and kids again." Like the rest of his unit - and indeed the majority of the wartime Russian Army - Pavel had been conscripted into service. Suddenly, a loud blast outside interrupted the banality of their conversation. Eager as usual, Andrey jumped up and peeked out of the window. "I see an orange glow in the forest not too far from here. Come on, let's have a look! Maybe the SAM boys took out an F-22; a little pilot hunt should be a nice distraction for once!"
The soldiers rushed out of the cabin with their weapons at the ready. "Get in line, five metre spread!", Corporal Kozlovsky ordered as he disengaged the safety of his AK-74. Slowly, the unit moved into the woods, the snow creaking loudly with every step they made. As they approached the orange light, they were shocked to discover the burning wreckage of a GAZ Volk patrol car. Inside it, they found the mangled corpses of their comrades Anya and Stas whose lower halves had become indistinguishable from the jagged mass of deformed metal. "Holy shit, would you look at this?", Andrey remarked as he inspected the Volk's burning front section. There was a large, gaping hole that ran clean through the entire engine block which subsequently shattered and exploded straight into the passenger compartment while the back of the vehicle had been ripped open by what must have been the exit of a massive kinetic projectile.
"Pavel, you see anything on the infrared?", Koslovsky asked. "No, it's all cold out here", Pavel replied as he flipped the goggles back up on his helmet. Suddenly, there was a sound, a faint, almost inaudible beep that came from between the trees a few metres into the darkness. "Shhh! Quiet everyone!", the Corporal hissed and noticed a small red dot as it danced over the snowy ground and up on Roman's left leg. "Ambush! Take cover!", he yelled but before he had finished the sentence, a loud blast pierced through the night and an instant later, Roman was writhing on the ground, his stomach torn open by a high-powered canister round.
"Open fire!", Kozlovsky exclaimed and Roman's screams of pain were drowned out by a hail of aimless gunfire that ripped through the entire forest, cutting down several trees and kicking up large clouds of snow. Pavel opened up with his PKP machine gun until the 250 round ammunition box ran dry. The soldiers kept firing for over half a minute, burning through magazine after magazine before they stopped. The thick pine forest in front of them had been turned into a clearing and the stingy mist of burned gunpowder irritated their eyes. "Whatever it was, it better be dead now", Kozlovsky grumbled as he signalled Pavel to take point and scout forward. Suddenly, a large mechanical hand reached out of the darkness behind the Corporal, crushing both his neck and jaw with seemingly no effort. Pavel and Andrey turned around and flinched at the sight of a dark, metallic figure that towered above them. Andrey swung about with the RPG and fired a high-explosive anti-tank round directly at the the hulking monstrosity which promptly raised its weapon and obliterated him with a 40mm grenade aimed at his centre mass.
Pavel dropped the machine gun in panic and fell on his knees before this seemingly invincible beast which glared at him through the thin, cyan-lit visor of its featureless, inhuman face. "P-p-please! I surrender!", he winced with his empty hands raised high above his head. "Don't kill me, please! I am unarmed! I have children!", Pavel plead in whatever bits of English and German he had picked up at school. After a brief moment of silent contemplation, the machine turned around and stomped off into the night. Inside the metal shell, Lieutenant Julie Moreau reported to the rest of her unit: "This is Valkyrie Four, I've linked up with Viking Two and met some minor resistance at the insertion point; took out a small group of sentries and let one of them live to tell the tale. We're making our way to the target now, ETA five minutes."
Ten minutes later, the vital radar installation had disappeared from the grid. It would be the first among several across all of Scandinavia during the following nights...
Fielded relatively late in the war, the Venom is a prototype powered armour which significantly increases the strength, speed and durability of its human operator. Originally designed as a revolutionary hazardous environment suit for ESA astronauts in preparation of a future European colony on the Moon, the military model was significantly enlarged in order to accommodate for several dense layers of hardened composite armour as well as an assortment of heavy weapons. For added mobility, the suit comes equipped with a set of boosters that are strong enough to provide aerodynamic lift within atmospheric conditions, allowing the operator close a considerable distance with a rocket-assisted jump. The few Russian survivors that lived to tell their stories described the Venom as an unstoppable juggernaut, a machine of sheer terror that even surpassed the Shock Troopers due to its imposing, inhuman physique and overwhelming firepower. As a result, Russian propagandists have spread slanderous rumours which painted the Venoms as soulless cyborgs, bio-mechanical abomination who had been subjected to genetic manipulations and forced limb amputations by sinister European scientists in an effort to create the ultimate killer. Contrary to these baseless claims, the Venom suits are operated by healthy, fully conscious human volunteers. Whilst many of the Venom's internal workings remain a well-preserved secret, it is speculated that the operator resides in an internal suspension pod while controlling the machine through a sophisticated neural interface, allowing the mechanical limbs of the suit can be manipulated through natural brain impulses as if they were part of the operator's own body. Similar albeit noticeably less refined versions of this technology are already used as a modern alternative to wheelchairs and limb prostheses around the world whilst some of the Nordic European states even sponsor these medical exo-skeletons as part of their elaborate healthcare systems.
Due to the technical complexity of the suit and the shortage of advanced materials, it is expected that the total number of operators does not exceed the mark of a hundred. The men and women inside the suits are exclusively recruited from the cream of Europe's large special forces community, including the French 1er RPIMa and Poland's famous GROM. Upon selection of the Venom protocol, ECA battlefield commanders can choose to deploy operators from two distinct formations: The CQB specialists of Team Valkyrie, whose suits are equipped with shoulder-mounted anti-tank missiles and a heavy assault weapon that combines a 10 gauge smoothbore cannon (typically loaded with canister rounds) with a 40mm drum-fed grenade launcher or the elite sharpshooters of Team Viking, whose suits come with a miniaturised version of the Starstreak anti-air missile and the Longbow, a 65mm anti-materiel 'rifle' that fires high-velocity tungsten-graphene penetrators at long range.
Activating the Venom Protocol grants European commanders a number of other benefits as well: Basic infantry units like Felin Riflemen and Panzerfaust soldiers will be equipped with simple powersuits in order to improve their survivability and agility. These models are not functionally comparable to the actual Venom as they merely serve to amplify the physical movements of the operator through mechanical power. Even before the outbreak of the Russo-European War, similar suits had been in use by non-combat logistics and engineering units of the US and a number of European militaries. In a pinch, these expensive exo-skeletons can also be issued to frontline troops in order to increase their muscle endurance and fighting power.
The jetpack has been a popular icon of pulp science fiction stories ever since the early years of aviation and during the first half of the 21st century, a number of companies have managed to design and produce the first truly reliable and practical models for commercial purposes, advertising their jetpacks as a modern alternative to individual transport vehicles or high-tech sports equipment. One of the first military units to adopt their own version of the jetpack was the Italian Folgore Parachute Brigade. Having seen action in peacekeeping operations in Lebanon, Somalia, the Balkan, Iraq and Afghanistan, these elite paratroopers quickly became one of the most rapidly deployable unit of the ECA thanks in no small part to their purpose-built Jupiter jetpacks which turned them into an entirely new kind of airborne infantry. Armed with a pair of automatic grenade launchers mounted directly on their flying suits, the Jumpjet Troopers quickly attained a fierce reputation among the Russian forces who learned to fear their lightning fast airborne raids on several occasions. They are also exceptionally nimble and fly under the radar of heavy air defenses whilst lighter anti-air guns can still engage them by eyeballing it. However, due to the relatively intricate training process, Jumpjet Troopers can only be deployed as part of the Venom Protocol, where they serve as a fine complement to the ECA's other special infantry weapons and tactics.