This oneshot may be connected to my previous one, but you don't need to have read one to get the gist of the other.
It is dark and all but silent in the deployment pod, a coffin of steel and ceramic hanging on the very edge of the planet’s ionosphere. Delta-7-Harappa is packed into this narrow space with little room to spare, nestled between cushions in a fetal position.
She has never liked orbital deployment. Delta-7 has performed at least seven such drops in her short life and has grown no fonder of being drop-kicked out of a perfectly good spacecraft. The pod has no weapons of its own and only the most rudimentary of sensors and power cells. Its controls consist of a single red button. Only its charged hull plating protects her from roasting alive during re-entry.
The silence is total, though now and again she feels the rumble of the Harappa’s engines or the rippling shudder of an impact. External communications and sensors have gone dark in preparation for deployment.
The Harappa’s drop tubes fire with a thrum she can feel through the pod’s chassis, and Delta-7 is plummeting towards Kelyos’ surface.
She resists the urge to bring up her HUD, open communications, or check the sensors. The minutes stretch out painfully, not even sound piercing the shell of her pod at first, giving her unruly mind time enough to consider every possible mishap - an overeager gunner, errant winds, or malfunctioning conversion fields - without giving her any options to deal with them.
Delta-7 would prefer to think of more pleasant things, but she has little else on her mind. Synthetic operatives such as Delta-7 must legally undergo three years of service before their debt to their creators is paid. She has never been outside approved military rest and recuperation facilities.
It is halfway through her third year.
Her deployment pod warns her with a high-pitched whine. She does her best to loosen up, the scream of superheated air audible through the pod’s walls. A moment later the fist of God uppercuts the pod and the scream becomes an earth-shattering roar reverberating through the metal of Delta-7’s bones.
When the chaos dies, Delta-7 uncoils herself as much as the pod’s tight confines allow and brings her finger down on the red button. The pod’s designers were firm believers in simplicity. Explosive bolts blow off half the pod’s outer shell, and the air of the outside world floods the narrow space. The smell seeps through the filters of Delta-7’s mask; a caustic bouquet of dust, ashes, petrochemical smoke, corpse-stench, mixed with a faint sweet scent she cannot quite recognize.
The cracks and whistles of weapons are as familiar to her as the sound of her own filtered breathing.
Delta-7 steps from the pod into the impact crater, a slender figure wearing a full body suit the color of new-spread asphalt. Thumbprint-sized plates flex and shift as she bends over the wreckage and pries open a compartment with gloved hands to retrieve the long rectangle of her L-27 Lancet. Then she darts from the LZ without a backwards look, long bounding steps leaving little imprint in the dusty earth.
She has seen a picture of prewar Teprya once in a travel magazine someone left in the Harappa’s lounge. The picture was taken at sunset. Vast spires thrust skywards from the shores of a sapphire lake. Some are brilliant green, their surfaces cultivated with hanging crops and water cascading from their sides. Roads as delicate as ribbons arch from spire to spire or from spire to the ground. Population over twelve million people.
There is little green left in Teprya now. Firelight paints the shattered husks of spires and hab-complexes ruddy bronze. Sparks and embers billow amidst veils of smoke and hot ash. The lakeshore is black with oil and dotted with wreckage. Teprya moans in a voice of crackling flames, far-off-screams, weapons discharges, and the engines of fighting vehicles. It feels familiar already.
Her Raven pinpoints the target holding position at the Archives. Between her and her target are several miles of heavy fighting. Allied forces are embroiled in hab-to-hab combat, pounded by staggered bombardments from JORMUNGANDR units in excellent firing position. The enemy dominates the sky. Tac-com reports heavy casualties.
Initial hostile contact encountered at 1951 local time. Delta-7 is forewarned by the cacophony of weapons fire. Electrothermal weapons’ reports are sharp, crackling thunderclaps. Incendiary weapons roar the way she imagines a dragon does in the stories her handlers dole out to her like drugs. She hunkers low behind a burnt-out civilian vehicle she does not recognize, adjusts sensors to combat mode, and readies her Lancet.
Nothing is particularly remarkable about the ongoing firefight. She has seen dozens like it. Six soldiers broadcasting friendly IF Fs
skitter between whatever battlefield debris passes for cover, their weapons blazing away at a battered three-story structure. Near misses cascade off conversion fields, spreading cracks and fragments of asphalt and armor. Three of their comrades lie in ominously still heaps.
When the Jormungandr unit atop the besieged structure rears its blunt head high, rearing up and reduces a passing aerofighter to a shower of molten steel, Delta-7 understands.
She eases herself out of cover slowly, the plates of her armor flickering, shifting hues to blend in. Her hand tightens around the Lancet; a crosshair appears around her HUD and zooms into the building’s interior. The darkness peels back before her sensors. She spots a helmeted head, fully enclosed. With a surgeon’s precision she gently nudges the crosshairs several centimeters to the right, centering on a spot just above the human ear.
She hesitates – not on whether to kill the man, because such scruples would be a serious impediment to her task, but whether to take part at all. Her orders are extremely clear and present little room for deviation. The enemy Hierarch is valuable and will withdraw if he suspects her presence. Extraneous engagements risk her secrecy.
Delta-7 spends most of her time in the field alone. Her suit isn’t designed for front-line combat; her training focused on surgical strikes. Nobody ever formally prevents her from socializing with others outside the program, but she can count the number of times the Harappa’s docked with ships in the regular navy on one hand. The attacking soldiers are nearly as foreign to her as her targets.
She sees another suited attacker go down out of the corner of her eye, tracers slashing a sharp angle across his midsection. Blood and coolant fountain from the gash. He screams and thrashes on the ground, trying to rise.
Delta-7’s weapon cracks twice in rapid succession. It is a totally mechanical reaction. Her target reels, then crumples, helmet shattered like a dropped egg. Instinct orders her to drop prone again. Her legs tense, she kicks off the civilian vehicle, and skids across the pavement to another patch of cover on her back. Inferno rounds incinerate her erstwhile shelter, molten flame bouncing and splashing on the street, leaping off corners and structure walls.
Delta-7 selects another target, the bearer of the inferno cannon. She aims for his ammo pack, riding high between the suit’s broad shoulders. She ducks and lets him scour the street nearby with waves of superheated fluid. Some of the blazing fuel lands in a puddle only a meter from her shoulder. Sweat beads her forehead and she lets out a long breath, watching the bulky target raise his stubby cannon for another shot. Her hands work automatically to swap ammunition loads.
Implanted chem-feeds pump combat drugs into her system to steady her hands and focus her attention. It is the work of moments to put a hot-shot round into his ammo pack and abandon her new shelter before reprisal. The hostile staggers, soaked in silvery molten metal that drips between plates and runs in glimmering waves to the pavement. Flames gout from the punctured ammo pack; the suit reels drunkenly.
He is shrieking over his comm, a high, desperate sound sounding more like a wounded animal.
Delta-7 is used to hearing men die, but there are things one cannot endure. She loads another two-stage penetration slug and blows a hole through the front of his helmet. Enemy response is decidedly ungrateful. The ledge before her is raked by weapons fire; two micro-missiles hiss past and detonate, showering her with mortar fragments and bits of shrapnel that bounce loudly off her armored plating.
“We have fire support!” she hears one of the friendly contacts call over the radio. The voice is male, clipped, and has the peculiar hollow sibilance of a kiriss. “Unidentified friendlies, please provide cover fire. Compliments to your sniper. Request that you snuff that Heimdall currently cutting our squads to ribbons if you’re in an obliging mood. Johnson, Arian, take point.”
“Acknowledged,” Delta-7 replies, surprised by the rough sound of her voice. She doesn’t talk much. “Only one effective gun here, sir. Be advised.” She sucks in a breath, raises her rifle in hands steady only with chemical assistance, and slides sideways again, seeking a new firing position. Her crosshairs settle upon the newest target, another suit bearing a heavy autocannon in both massive arms.
Heimdall suits are heavily armored units designed to wade into hand-to-hand of combat and hold choke points. Her preferred head or center-of-mass attacks are of limited effectiveness against the target’s overlapping reactive plating and conversion field. A shot to the knees is necessary. The Heimdall stumbles, raising its weapon and raking the storefront behind Delta-7 with bullets designed to penetrate the hulls of armored fighting vehicles and dropships.
Delta-7’s Lancet cracks again. The Heimdall staggers backwards, coolant gushing from punctured hydraulic lines. The squat shape raises its weapon again, its pilot roaring something in the din. Smoke billows from the barrel; the metal glows dull red. Ricocheting shells and fragments of masonry shower Delta-7, small impacts that hiss and pummel her breath from her lungs.
Delta-7 loads a penetration round and aims for the collar. She feels the Lancet kick, sees the Heimdall reel. Fragments of armor and bloody mist spray. The autocannon jolts in weak hands, still spraying bullets.
Then the sky falls in on her head.
She can’t have been out long- combat drugs would make sure of that. It’s first the sound of her breathing that reminds her she’s conscious again. The inside of her helmet has gone dark. Her mouth is filled with the taste of what passes for her blood, and she can smell smoke and burning plastics from somewhere distant. Someone seems to be firing off artillery bombardments inside her skull. Her body trembles with synthesized adrenalin and burns with excess energy.
There are strips and dots of ruddy light filtering to her camera. A great weight has settled across her body. Maybe she could move it, but it’s hard to think. Her limbs seem more like noodles than useful appendages. But her comm is active.
“No dice, Sarge,” says a woman’s voice. She’s dour, rough, no nonsense. Delta-7’s flickering HUD paints her a picture as it triangulates IFF data. Pvt. Anna Martinez. A short, athletic-looking woman, plain-featured, dark-haired. She’s grinning in the ID picture, a smirk full of mischief that gives her face far more light. Third term of service. Military family. Several commendations for courage.
“I can’t find her,” Martinez is saying. “Or signs of anybody. Sonovabitch blew this whole quarter to shit. We sure there was more than one of ‘em?”
“I’m not sure of anything, Martinez.” The kiriss’ distinctive voice; young if Delta-7’s any judge, unhappy. “We owe them a gesture if nothing else.” Her onboard records identifies him as Sergeant Chakvi nix Alukrin pan Hacifu, 3rd Arkis, 7th Platoon. The image is startling. Kiriss’ humanoid shapes are the result of deliberate gene-modification to bring themselves closer to their new allies’ appearance, but between the spindly body with its pronounced sternum ridges and segmented exoskeletal plates and the gray-green face with its expressive, deep-set compound eyes, stubby antennae and beaklike mandibles it’s obviously a work in progress.
“I’m not getting anything, sir,” Martinez replies. “Nothing but rubble. Fire’s spreading. Suggest we get the hell out of here before we get barbequed.”
Delta-7 nearly laughs, but it makes her head hurt to try. Her suit is designed for stealth. Had she been wearing a common Aesir infantry model they could have triangulated her position rapidly so long as its transponder worked, and tracked it by emissions if it didn’t. But her transponder is encrypted, and her miniaturized reactor designed to mask its emissions.
“Unfortunate,” Chakvi replies. She hears him sigh, a peculiar whistling noise. “Arnold, status on our wounded?”
“Serious, sir.” Arnold Mc Kenzie
, squad medic. Her HUD displays a tanned man with dark, graying hair and a lined face. He has one of those amazing voices that always seems only moments from a diatribe.
“Johnson took a shot in the shoulder, but he’ll be able to hold a gun. Ariel’s got multiple punctures and may be suffering from coolant infection. Alek and Cohen are a mess.”
“Kvast,” Chakvi curses. He chirps once, a peculiar noise. Delta-7 is unaware of its significance. “We need to get them off the street. The Jormy’s snuffed.” He pauses. “Martinez, no signs of life in there?”
“Dead as New Dresden, sir.” Martinez pauses. “Sorry, Cohen.” She raises her voice and switches to wide-broadcast. “Anyone alive out there? Last time!”
Delta-7’s head throbs with a flood of liquid pain and confusion. The notion of taking any complex action makes her head swim. Her suit’s computer diagnoses brain activity and displays the word Concussion in red letters. The sense of helplessness swamps her all at once and she wants nothing more than to call out to the soldiers outside.
Combining a concussion and combat stims is unpleasant. Her body throbs with excess energy that her numbed mind cannot put to use. It does not feel like hers. The shapes of her fingers and toes, numbed anyways from her captivity inside this vault of steel and polymers, seem unfamiliar.
But if her flesh and blood is betraying her, her mechanical parts are treacherously faithful. Redundancy processors compensate for the head injury. Sharp, electric strands of mechanical thought skitter across the muddled workings of her gray matter, bright and hot. A sequence paints itself in fire in her mind.
When she calls out to the soldiers, there is a significant risk of detection. Delta-7 is alone for a reason. Her careless broadcasts were already foolish. Furthermore, her allies are unlikely to permit her to continue her assignment. They will demand she rest, recover…or that she allow their aid. And the squad from 3rd Platoon are not precisely stealthy. One way or the other, the Hierarch learns hunter-killer operatives are targeting him.
Enemy doctrine is fundamentally conservative. Civilian conversion is a lower priority than the preservation of their hierarchical leaders, who control a significant portion of the enemy arsenal personally across their network links. The Hierarch orders a withdrawal, using his JORMUNGANDR units to keep her countrymen grounded. Captured civilians are airlifted; those still in resistance or at large are left to their fate. Informational intelligences are scoured from the planet’s cybernetic network for later interrogation and recycling. Safe in orbit the Hierarch purges the planet.
Spires collapse. Lakes and oceans boil. Earth and sand turn to glass. Kelyos and every sapient still on its surface wither in the inferno.
Delta-7’s head throbs to match the holocaust of her imagination. The clarity in her thoughts is painful, and her emotions rebel.
Loneliness and hysteria flood her mind in a tidal wave. She wants to be rescued so badly her flesh-and-blood brain can hardly think of anything else. The companionship of the squad from 3rd Platoon is like a knife in her brain.
Repaying their help with apocalyptic fire would be a poor gesture.
Delta-7 swallows and holds onto the pain like holding heated steel. She closes her eyes and lets the wave of hysteria and confusion break upon the white-hot spider’s web of her mechanical thoughts. The concussed thoughts sizzle and evaporate in an instant, and the unwieldy emotions yield. She remains silent.
“Sarge, we need to get out of here,” Martinez says on the too-empty comm network.
“Understood,” Chakvi replies. The face in one corner of her HUD twists in frustration. “Private Martinez, Corporal Arnold, take note. Unidentified friendly contact MIA, presumed KIA, Teprya, Kelyos, 2100 Standard Terran Time, Fidelity Square. Append notation: Sargeant Chakvi commends contact for their vital assistance in destroying Jormungandr Alpha-Niner-Delta in Fidelity Square and nominates them for posthumous commendation. End notation.”
The words hit Delta-7 like the stock of her Lancet pounding her shoulder when it snuffs out a life. But she is not entirely unhappy. Some part of her is morbidly pleased. She has a commendation. There’s a record of her now.
She clicks her comm off and waits.
Time crawls in silence. Her breathing is very loud in her ears. She feels feverish. Sweat rolls down her forehead. Her head hurts. She is lonely.
When her mechanical thoughts deem it safe, she stirs. It takes some effort, true. The greater part of a building fell on her. But the rest of her is glad to have the distraction. Rubble, warm but not yet scalding, shifts and slides. When enough of the debris has fallen off, she pushes herself up on her forearms, then her knees, and kicks a path out of the heap.
She can’t find her Lancet at first, and that bothers her immensely.
Her hands shake as she rummages through the wreckage, an empty feeling in her chest. Her heart actually seems to jerk when she finds the poor thing, battered and dented and altogether useless for combat. If she tried to fire it in its present condition, even odds it would explode in her face.
That hurts. She likes that gun. Irrational tears burn in her eyes. Concussion, no doubt. Or perhaps shock. She picks the Lancet up anyways, forces it into its collapsed state. It doesn’t collapse quite right- a few inches are off- but it’ll do until she can get it to a gunsmith. She stows it on her back.
The guns from the Heimdall and Surtr suits she killed are useless, of course. Even with her enhanced strength, lugging their massive cannons about would be idiocy; she could hardly carry enough ammunition to use either effectively and it would make stealth impossible. One of the other dead suits has a brace of shock grenades. Another has a battle shotgun with its own combat blade and a full mag. She takes them both.
Then she stumbles away from the expanding blaze in the square, finds a quiet alleyway, and drops to her knees. She pops her helmet seals. Air hisses. Delta-7 pulls the mask away and falls against the wall, ashen skin slick with sweat and short ink-hued hair hanging in strips before her eyes. Smells raw and unfiltered attack her nostrils all at once.
She wipes her forehead and takes a cursory look around her. There are corpses here, of course. Civilians, not soldiers. Maybe irregulars, judging by the over-the-counter firearms near the bodies. They’ve probably been dead for hours. Their skin is only a bit grayer than hers.
Delta-7 hesitates. She’s used to seeing dead people- usually in suits. When the enemy fields conscripts, they’ve tended to not look that much different than armored soldiers anyways. The bodies disturb her, but not so much as she might have thought. Her mechanical thoughts are focused on planning attack routes, but the rest of her adds the confused sense of vague shame to its frothing cocktail of emotion.
She retreats a few feet from the bodies, finds a better spot to sit, and produces a ration tube from her supply package. The thick gel tastes soothing, vaguely citrus-flavored. It helps a little. She permits herself five minutes of rest. Any longer and it’ll be too hard to get up again.
It takes Delta-7 some time to triangulate her way to the target. Her Raven makes repeated, steady sweeps of the nearby city, giving her updated survey data, but it can’t get too close or risk detection. The picture isn’t good. Enemy armor is mounting a fierce attack on the allied LZ. Casualties are still heavy. The 14th is at 50% effective strength.
She resists the urge to speed up. Stealth is more important than haste at this point. Enemy pickets become increasingly common. She avoids them.
Hours pass as she skulks and skitters her way up the skyways. The upper spires of this district of Teprya are devoted to governmental buildings. The enemy has held the Archives for days; it was the first target they struck. Briefing suggested that they wanted something inside; the target hasn’t left since the invasion commenced. Delta-7 doesn’t know why. She’s used to ignorance.
At 0200, she reaches the Archives. The graceful post-Ascent structure is a soaring needle of white and blue, quiet but for the steady trickle of its fountains and the tickle of the wind. High above the fire, smoke and the sounds of battle, it’s as calm a refuge now as it must be from the daily urban bustle and clamor. Something about the place reminds Delta-7 of the pictures she’s seen of old Earth cathedrals. The spire has its own gardens, and a huge atrium filled with trees and open to the sky.
It takes Delta-7 several minutes to bypass the first pickets. Praetorians in Vanir suits, formidable opponents and best left un-fought. Getting inside isn’t easy, but her suit hides her from sensors and even men driven by the Hierarchy’s commands lose their edge after hours or days of standing guard. She’s grateful. In this place of reverent stillness any scuffle would be difficult to miss.
Three floors’ worth of evasion follows. Delta-7 blesses her mechanical thoughts. The rest of her just wants to curl up in a little ball in one of the comfortable-looking chairs, fall asleep. There are rooms upon rooms filled with data storage units, net terminals, forms and data slates, even ancient dry books whispering and crinkling when they’re brushed by air or a careless finger. Delta-7’s never seen anything on its scale. She wishes she could stop and read.
She is beginning to doubt she has any chance of escaping. Those are gloomy thoughts, and she tries to avoid them. Instead she wonders idly why there have been so few bodies. Perhaps the enemy cleaned the place up. Or perhaps the staff is cooperating with the invaders. Willingly or otherwise.
Stairwell, fifth floor. Delta-7 pauses. Her nav system is screaming, having detected over fifteen contacts on this floor. One very large power signature stands out; she has little doubt it belongs to her target. She sidles up to the door out the stairwell, plucks a small rectangular attachment from the side of her helmet, and nudges the tiny detachable camera under the door. A small segment of her HUD splits off to display the feed.
Of course, there are three Vanir suits huddled about in what appears to be another reading lobby. The guards seem to playing a game, though of course this just consists of them standing close together concentrating on something other than their duties.
Delta-7 takes a breath. She’s been lucky so far. It’ll have to be fast and quiet.
She nudges open the door with a hip, raises a forearm, and darts forward. Her camo-scutes make an indistinct blur of her movements.
The guards aren’t stupid. They were facing an entrance each- one the hallway out, one the window, one the stairwell. It takes him a moment, but the first Vanir to spot her begins to bring his rifle to bear. Her enemies probably have secondary processors of their own. The first shot grazes her conversion field and ricochets off to one side, and before he can get off another burst she’s in melee range.
She punches out with one open-handed palm, aiming for the Vanir suit’s chin. Delta-7 knows the weak spots of most infantry suits commonly fielded by both sides. The suit’s head snaps up, and then she wraps her fingers around the neck and flexes her wrist. A matte-black piton jabs out from its compartment on the underside of her forearm, crackles on the conversion field, and penetrates armor with an audible crunch. She thinks she can actually hear the suit’s occupant choking, and she can certainly see the blood gushing from a punctured throat to stain her suit’s scutes.
She latches on to the staggering suit with arms and legs, triggers the jump charges in her boots, and kicks her dying victim with both legs towards his compatriot by the window. It’s a good solid kick; she feels the hapless suit go flying. Delta-7 lands roughly, rolls, and hears the airborne suit smash through the windows. His comrade is stumbling, off-balance, and she sees him teeter unsteadily before toppling off the edge with a cry.
Vanir suits have jump jets, so that’s not a confirmed kill. But it buys her a few minutes. She gathers herself for a spring and vaults upwards, hand going to the back of her waist for her commandeered shotgun.
Something smashes into her conversion field, a short burst delivered at almost center mass. Delta-7 stumbles; cracks splinter outwards from her feet through the floor and dust fills the air in a thick haze. The windows blow out en masse. She ignores her aching chest and springs to the left; another burst tears through the dust cloud.
Delta-7 raises her shotgun and fires on instinct. She hears the last guard grunt and stagger, ducks as another burst zips through the dust cloud, and springs forward. The two armored soldiers collide like a collapsing foundry, kicking and struggling. Delta-7’s shotgun rises, combat blade extended, and strikes again and again. Metal screeches, the prone soldier cries out in pain. Then she presses her weapon’s muzzle into the gash and pulls the trigger.
The guard screams wetly. Blood spurts out from under the helmet’s lip. Delta-7 shoves her weapon’s muzzle under the guard’s collar and shoots again for good measure. Throat wounds are almost always a safe bet. The guard’s arms and legs thrash wildly, and then her victim goes limp.
Delta-7’s mechanical thoughts ignore the natural repulsion of killing up close. She hasn’t got long now. She scrolls through her suit’s HUD and opens her list of electronic countermeasures programs. She brings up the blackout program she was issued at briefing, a specialized application designed to broadcast an endless stream of nonsense information over Hierarchy group-mind networks. It’s a crude but effective way to disrupt their operations. Delta-7 extends a finger tipped with a data uplink pad, finds the receptor pad on her victim’s suit, and uploads the program through firewalls she knows how to circumvent.
It’s a good thing she dialed down her comm’s volume, because the airwaves on this floor are now filled with frantic screaming.
Things speed up. Her nav system tracks the screaming and compares voices against vocal samples, analyzes energy emissions. The most likely match is located inside a chamber overlooking the central atrium, down a hallway and past two data storage rooms. Delta-7 hefts her shotgun and breaks into a sprint.
What she does to the bodyguards in the foyer is nothing less than murder. The five contacts are huddled upon the floor, some shaking in agony, others trying to claw off their helmets. Only one has the presence of mind to look up and fire off a badly-aimed shot. It zips past her shoulder. She can see his face through the visor, rigid with pain, cybernetic eyes darting this way and that. They focus on the muzzle of her shotgun just before she presses it to the visor and pulls the trigger.
She snaps off shots at each of the other thrashing forms, then rolls a primed grenade their way and keeps going without a backwards glance. Delta-7 doesn’t break stride as it goes off.
If the archives reminded Delta-7 of a cathedral, the chamber she finds herself in now is its altar. Ranks of monolithic databanks are built into the floors, some still lowered in their receptacles, others raised and aglow with flickering lights and projected images. Cords of ethereal light, raw data being transmitted in a quasi-solid state, hang from the active monoliths in dense profusion, flashing as information courses from them at quicksilver speed into the being floating at the center dais.
Her target. He’s young.
Delta-7’s veins burn with the unnatural concoction of stimulants, painkillers, and miscellaneous combat drugs. She lowers her head, raises the shotgun to her shoulder, and charges before her enemy has the chance to cut his links to his troop. The weapon barks twice in the four point two seconds before she’s in melee range of the stunned Hierarch. The robed figure’s shields engage; cracks splinter through the floor and the data cords fizzle out.
The Hierarch stumbles backwards. Delta-7 can’t help but take in his appearance. Delicate nose and chin, fair skin and hair like fiber optic cables. His limbs are encased in gleaming blued metal of some unknown composition; his glowing robe looks more ornamental than functional. The object in his hand seems more a staff of office than a weapon. He’s beautiful, almost painfully so, aglow with light and knowledge. There’s perfection there that her scrawny shape could never begin to match.
She’s used to hurting. Delta-7 pumps the shotgun and fires again, swinging the combat blade in a professional arc. The floor beneath them cracks further under redirected force and the Hierarch reels, catching himself weakly on his staff. Delta-7 forces him down with a fourth shot, gritting her teeth.
A flash of light, an unholy screech, and Delta-7 finds herself flat on her back. Her HUD is filled with red warning signs. Electricity sparks and arcs from her damaged suit. It’s a small miracle she’s not roasted inside. Her mechanical thoughts discard the worry for now and order her to get to her feet. She wobbles a bit, but the blessed flood of interesting pharmaceuticals compensates well enough.
The Hierarch makes a grand gesture above her, and suddenly the entire room is filled with explosions. Most of her is preoccupied with a sudden desperate bound, vaulting onto the higher monolith to get clear of the expanding blue fireball. A fragment of her mechanical thoughts observe that whatever he wanted to find, he’s clearly found by now; otherwise he wouldn’t be so cavalier about the destruction.
The floor gives way beneath her. She throws herself from the collapsing pillar and tackles him from midair. They fall together, punching and kicking, her pitons extended, and in the midair grapple she acts without even thinking about it. Her hand presses the remaining shock grenade onto his waist, primes it. She lets go.
Delta-7 stabs into the nearest wall with one piton, then the other, slowing her fall. Her arms ache at the jerking stop. Then the grenade goes off, and a far greater blast tears the atrium’s walls open. She hears the Hierarch scream, hears glass and debris bounce off walls and her armored back. Then she kicks off the wall again and throws herself towards his plummeting shape with a full blast of her jump charges.
The fall takes forever. He hits her hard. She feels her ribs crack; scutes splinter from their backing and fall. Acting without conscious thought she kicks him and puts all her weight into it, flipping him underneath, then blasts him with another charge jolt. He screams. Then there’s a crunching noise as they hit the ground together.
Delta-7 finds herself sprawled on her hands and knees in water maybe a foot deep. They’ve fallen into one of the fountains. She gropes for a handhold and finds a tree branch, steadying herself enough to stand but her head swimming. One of her legs throbs as she limps forward.
Her victim is a moaning tangle of limbs bending the wrong way and blackened metal. He landed on something hard, and his back is bowed like green wood. Water ripples off his sputtering shield, ebbing and flowing as it flickers like the tide. His blood forms a growing ruby stain.
The Hierarch struggles weakly, fumbling for his lost staff, and his eyes seem to fix on hers through the mask. He’s young. He doesn’t look much older than her. “Please,” he wheezes. Blood oozes from between his lips. “Please.”
Delta-7 swallows and shakes her head. “I can’t,” she rasps. Then she raises her remaining piton – the other’s broken in the fall - and rams it through his throat. The Hierarch chokes. Then she eases his head back down. Her shotgun’s gone, so she has to watch him die.
Mercifully, it doesn’t take very long.
Delta-7 reaches down to close his eyes and limps from the fountain. She can’t manage a run, but luck is, at last, with her today. None of the Praetorians find her as she stumbles out of the Archives.
Her mechanical thoughts no longer provide Delta-7 with support. She hobbles down the skyway, not entirely sure of where she’s going. She has no scheduled evac until the Jormungandrs are removed. Briefings specified that she should attempt to make contact with friendly forces. If she had more energy, she would try. Right now, all she wants to do is find someplace quiet to sleep.
Her progress down the skyway is a drug-induced blur. She plants one foot before the other, gritting her teeth against the pain. Murky darkness hovers at the corners of her eyes. If any of the enemy patrols she saw earlier spotted her now, she would be dead in seconds. By some further miracle from her guardian angel, none of them do.
It’s the peculiar scent she couldn’t identify earlier that leads her to the park. It’s nothing as large as the Archives’ green, a verdant garden with a grove of old willows huddled close together like frightened children. A thin spray of sparkling water rises from sprinklers artfully concealed within the rows of bushes, glistening in the soft blue glow of evening lamps.
A thin slit of gray predawn light breaks the clouds of smoke.
Delta-7’s legs buckle beneath her. She slides down against one of the planter boxes, all the strength gone from her limbs. Weakly her hand fumbles for the clasp on her helmet and pops the seal, letting the useless thing fall to the wet grass.
The strange scent floods her nostrils: sweet, with the faintest hint of spice. She reaches out and picks one of the blossoms from the bush. It is the source of the pleasant bouquet. She’s never smelled flowers before. She pinches her fingers and raises the delicate bloom, marveling at its softness and the subtle interplay of lines in its petals.
“You’re beautiful,” she mumbles.
She thinks she can hear something stirring in the trees. The comm in her dropped helmet squawks faintly. “Sarge?” it says in a voice she distantly remembers. “Sarge, contact. Is that-”
Delta-7 closes her eyes with a sleepy smile on her face. Maybe she’ll stay here a while.