Where Do You Run When A World Wants You Dead
Total system shock.
Neeraja couldn’t breathe. She clawed at the collar of her carapace armor, struggling for air through the thick atmosphere.
The Heretic’s world wanted them dead. The air was a worm, thick and wet.
All around her, the howl. A cacophony, washed out and crackling.
She slipped her fingers under the seal of her golden helm and threw it off her head: it had cracked to the subcarapace webbing anyways.
The remains of her section lay scattered and broken around her, their HALO a smear of slag at the end of a furrowed city street.
The grit of alien dirt on her cheek. Air like oil.
A midnight sky lit by flare and flame that flitted and flashed into cracks of white, visible even through the thick chaff.
Combat in low orbit. Neeraja had seen it before. Not her concern, but a prayer to the fleetmasters above.
The maddening buzz of hardlight beams snapped and whined over her head.
Neeraja scrambled, pressed herself low as she could, reached to her hip and cursed. Her PDW was lost somewhere in the rubble.
Flat, cloth-tear buzz. Gunfire, stinking and metal. She wished for her helm.
The earth rumbled, lurched up. She opened her mouth in time for the pressure wave.
A squadron of Ofanim moved through the chaffsmoke, guns leveled.
Manquellers streamed about their legs, hunched over their hardlights, sprinting between ruined blocks that once were buildings.
They spared her not a glance as they passed, quiet but: labored breathing, the rustle and rattle of their carapace armor, their cloth.
One muttering a prayer as he trooped by, another wheezing. Haggard creatures in stained and muddy kit, faces blackened by smoke, eyes white.
Neeraja dragged herself across the ground, staying low: the battle had swept past like a wave, carried on down the ruined street.
She sat, back to a fallen stone block, legs out before her. She couldn’t breathe.
Training: Sip the air sharp, so you feel your tongue click against your teeth. Need to force the air until you acclimate. At least you can breathe this atmosphere, pilot.
It was humid, and faint was the acrid curl of fire.
More rumbling, approaching.
An Ofanim loped around the corner, a clutch of manquellers hanging on to its scaffold, Its wide shield painted in red and gold chevrons.
“Sister.” One of the manquellers hanging on to the chassis. “This street is zeroed, you need to keep moving.” The manqueller held out a hand.
Neeraja nodded. She stood, unsteady.
“The base of the uplift lies beyond these blocks,” the manqueller said, pulling Neeraja up to a free handhold. “We cannot rest.”
Neeraja held on with both hands as they moved. Lumbering, plate shield raised to protect the manquellers.
“Martyrs, all of us.” The manqueller looked at his fellows hanging on to the armored chassis. “Take heart from our Sister-Pilot, Martyrs,” the manqueller shouted. “She fights on, even with her Ofanim slain.”
Neeraja could weep. The manquellers did not cheer.
“I am Roland, Sister,” The manqueller said. His face was hidden behind his sealed helm. “You are with us now, yes?”
He slung his hardlight and, with one hand, offered his pistol.
Neeraja took it, the weight a comfort.
Roland nodded. “Good. Now look,” he said. “Our orders are to advance into the city and secure the outer uplift, there,” he pointed up ahead, impossible to see through the smoke. “Word is there’s a Lancer unit dug in under--”
The world went white.
Neeraja’s sight came back slow as she blinked and massaged, tears spilling down her face. The burnt afterimage of the first light lingered.
Still, she held to the Ofanim. It lurched, backpedaling. Some of the manquellers had fallen, they scrambled behind, weapons forgotten.
“What happened?” Neeraja shouted at Roland. “My helm -- I cannot read the ‘net!”
Gunfire out at them from the ruins. Streets distant, something deeper and more terrible arced shells over their heads, range not yet found. Shadows moved in the belly of the city, backlit by flame.
“The orbital!” Roland shouted. He held on as the Ofanim picked up its pace, lumbering back to the Aun lines. “Union ships above!” He cocked his head, listening. “Expect counterorbital, more Lancer units!”
“What do we do?” Neeraja asked, though she knew the answer.
Neeraja sat with Roland, quiet, back at the Aunic lines. She’d found a hardlight for herself, and a discarded helm.
They watched the sunrise. The morning was lit by momentary flares, as debris from the orbital streaked into the atmosphere.
Boundary still stood.
“Will they send us again, Sister-Pilot?” Roland asked. He passed Neeraja tea as he spoke.
Neeraja watched a chunk of debris write a line across the morning sky. “We cannot let the city stand, and they cannot let it fall,” she whispered.
Roland looked down, at the earth.