Chapter Five Lord Darumbal's Knight

Chapter Five
"Lord Darumbal's Knight”

Lord Lachlan charged.

His cataphract moved in leaps and bounds, its clever, seemingly spindly legs sure-footed and swift. Despite its speed, the body of the cataphract was able to sit quite low on those long legs, not quite but almost crouching.

Lachlan lunged at the pale cataphract’s legs with his great claw. The pale cataphract scrambled backward, only barely avoiding the swipe. It swung its pistol up and fired at Lachlan’s chest, but he easily pivoted his upper body aside, the legs barely shifting at all. The shot went wide and Lachlan surged forward. He balled his claw into a large fist, rose sharply from his crouch and uppercut the pale cataphract directly under the chin. Its head snapped backwards and its whole body was lifted off the ground; it flew backwards about ten metres and smashed through the facade of an ornate clothing store. The pale cataphract had barely been prone for a half second before it kicked itself upwards and onto its feet, a chaotic mix of dirt, brick and colourful dresses whirling into the air as it rose. It raised its pistol, but Lachlan was already bearing down on it, claw open and raised in the air. He pounced, grasped the pale cataphract with his claw and squeezed; the claw’s teeth dug deep into its side before suddenly jerking to life, each strip pulling in opposite directions from its neighbours, rending the pale cataphract to pieces. Sparks flew erratically in all directions and a horrid keening sound of metal scraping against stone filled the air.

Lilavati finally pulled herself upwards and free of the debris, just in time to see the pale cataphract suddenly appear out of thin air. It was standing behind Lord Lachlan, and it was completely unharmed.

“It’s behind you!” Shouted Lilavati over the comms. “Look out-”

The cataphract in Lachlan’s claw suddenly dissolved into a cloud of dust and loose fibers. Lachlan swivelled his entire upper body on its point to face the pale cataphract, just in time for it to grab his head and whip it brutally with the grip of its detpistol. Lachlan reeled and his body sagged; his head hung low for a moment, and the pale cataphract leapt upwards, savagely bringing its knee squarely into Lachlan’s face. Lachlan’s entire cataphract stumbled backwards, the legs bending outwardly for a few seconds before springing back. One of Lachlan’s eyes was flickering, and he swayed drunkenly for a moment. The pale cataphract leapt backwards and fired its pistol twice, one at Lachlan’s abdomen and the other at his head.

Lachlan didn’t dodge. Instead, he rose to his full height. Lilavati noticed small, round, regular bulges on Lachlan’s cataphract’s body, stretching its silk-like skin slightly as they protruded. Now they all twisted at once and extended themselves, the skin cleanly splitting to allow them to jut outward. They were cylinders of white metal, the cores of which were bright glowing yellow. The glow intensified and surrounded Lachlan in a nimbus of blinding yellow light. The light then coalesced into a thin, tight, pulsing dome around Lachlan.

The two detshells struck the shimmering dome and disintegrated on impact; they exploded harmlessly outward.

“Lachlan to garrison. Need info on this cataphract’s capabilities.” Said Lachlan. As he spoke, he charged at the pale cataphract, which danced hurriedly away from the sparking perimeter of the dome of light.

“It has a detpistol and some stealth tech. We haven’t seen anything else, your teleforce curtain should be safe.” Said Lilavati. “But there’s an enemy mod-suit nearby toting a teleforce caster.”

Lilavati looked over at that battered Hoplite now, which had spent the brief melee running back and forth trying to draw a clean shot on Lachlan.

“Right.” Said Lachlan. “Hey, take care of it for me?”

“Already on it.” Said Lilavati firmly. She ran out into the city square and snapped off a shot at the Hoplite, which hurriedly sidestepped. The bolt grazed its thick shoulder plate, jolting the mod-suit slightly. The Hoplite turned and fired its teleforce caster at Lilavati. She dove desperately to the right, letting her shield absorb the impact of hitting the ground; the bright beam of yellow light narrowly seared past her and burned through a city blocks’ worth of buildings.

Meanwhile, Lachlan had managed to drive the pale cataphract farther and farther from the square- and from its Hoplite ally. Now he raised his cannon and fired: a blazing green ball of light threw itself outward and at the pale cataphract, which dodged to the right. But Lachlan was prepared: his teleforce curtain suddenly gleamed brightly. A wave rippled from its edges inward toward a point directly in front of Lachlan. The curtain faded, and not even a second later that glowing point abruptly surged forward toward the pale cataphract. The lance of teleforce light struck the pale cataphract squarely in the chest and threw it bodily backward a solid twenty metres, where it landed with a bounce. It lay sprawled on the ground, its front armour smoking from thin, minor cracks in its surface.

Lachlan’s teleforce curtain reformed just as he charged forward. The pale cataphract desperately scattered away from the encroaching yellow dome and raised its left hand. A compartment slid open along its arm, and out dropped what looked like a smooth, round grenade. It exploded, filling the air with dense smoke and dust. Lachlan pressed on regardless, and before long the edge of his curtain had collided with the pale cataphract- but this one too was a decoy, and disintegrated into dust a second later.

Lachlan swiftly pivoted around, claw already up- but the pale cataphract hadn’t reappeared behind him. Instead it appeared about fifty metres away, sprinting toward Lilavati. “Hold on!” Shouted Lachlan. Although he could barely see through the smoke and dust, leapt into action and scuttled after the pale cataphract. He didn’t see the Hoplite turn toward him and fire its teleforce caster- the beam struck his curtain, and at the point of impact there came a sudden, overwhelming flash of light. His curtain suddenly collapsed, and his cataphract staggered back, its eyes flickering fretfully and frantically. The teleforce emitters- the cylinders on its body- had all gone dead.

Lilavati had only barely pulled herself off the ground when she saw the pale cataphract on the approach, raising its detpistol. She reflexively threw her shield up in front of her just in time to deflect a det-shell, which ricocheted off and exploded a few metres away. The pale cataphract leapt forward, grabbed the shield with its free hand and, after a brief struggle, wrenched the shield aside. The pale cataphract aimed at the now-exposed arm and fired once; the det-shell tore through the shield-arm’s elbow and exploded, tearing everything below it clear away. It then shoulder-checked Lilavati hard into the ground.

Lilavati was rocked in her cockpit, the back of her head striking the seat hard. She let out a short cry and squeezed her eyes shut for a second. All around her, the cockpit was reading out alerts and alarms. She tried to aim the carbine up at the pale cataphract, but the cataphract simply kicked her carbine aside and pinned her good arm down with its leg. It aimed the detpistol at her mod-suit’s head.

All of a sudden, an explosion threw the pale cataphract roughly backward, slamming it into the pavement fifteen metres away. Another mod-suit hurried into the city square. It was an Iconoclast, sporting Darumbal colours, but instead of a sunrifle it held in its hands a bulky, six-chambered grenade launcher. It wore a heavy-looking rigid weapon pack over its shoulders .

“Sergeant Cornelia Archibald present and accounted for.” Came a young woman’s voice over the comms. Despite the chaos around them, the voice sounded crisp, cool and clean. “Orders, my Lord?”

“Just in the nick of fucking time, sergeant.” Said Lachlan in relief, his cataphract shaking itself out of its stupor. “Sergeants, take down that mod-suit. The phract’s the main threat but we’ll do better without all those guns backing it up.”

“Understood.” Said Archibald. She raised her launcher and fired, the grenade sailing in a wide arc toward the Hoplite. It rapidly looked up, aimed its teleforce caster and blasted the grenade out of the air; the beam went straight on for what seemed like kilometres into the air.

“Teleforce casters.” Murmured Lilavati distastefully. She struggled back onto her feet and pulled her beam blade free. “Thank you for the save, sergeant Archibald.”

“Who’re you-?” Started Archibald, but Lilavati was already running off, making a wide berth around the pale cataphract as she headed toward the Hoplite’s left side.

“Archibald, take the other flank.” Said Lilavati. “Lord Lachlan, I need you to pin the cataphract down for us- we only need one good hit on the Hoplite to take it down-”

“Don’t order the Lord around, outsider!” Snapped O’Reilly over the comms, just before Lilavati shut her off. Archibald, Lilavati noted with grim satisfaction, was already moving around toward the Hoplite’s right.

“Shh, O’Reilly, s’good advice.” Said Lachlan. He charged the already-rising pale cataphract, claw out. The pale cataphract fired a det-shell at one of his legs, but Lachlan’s steps were too swift and the legs too thin; the shot went wide, and the pale cataphract had to hurriedly reload. “I’m counting on you two. Do me proud!”

“Yes, my Lord!” Said Archibald firmly. She fired another grenade at the Hoplite, which furiously backpedaled away- yet was still caught on the edge of the explosion. It staggered but did not fall, although one of its legs sagged dangerously. It turned toward Archibald, its missile launcher aimed toward her. Archibald kept running, making sharp, abrupt turns which forced the Hoplite to constantly readjust its aim; eventually it lowered the launcher toward the ground near Archibald’s feet and fired. At the last second Archibald threw herself backwards, but not quite fast enough; the missile exploded, and the shockwave gave sudden thrust to Archibald’s leap. She flew violently across the city square and landed with a crash on her left arm- mangling it far beyond use.

The Hoplite turned back-

And Lilavati slashed through the barrel of its teleforce caster. The barrel fell to the ground, its sliced edge glowing red hot. The Hoplite started, jerked backward- but there was nothing it could do. Lilavati raised the blade, reversed it and plunged it straight through the Hoplite’s head and chest. A few seconds later the tip of the blade burned through the other side. The Hoplite slumped. Lilavati pulled her blade free and began to walk away.

“Hostile down.” Said Lilavati. “You alright, Archibald?”

“Bruised. Suit’s left arm is beyond use.” Said Archibald. “Can’t use the launcher anymore.”

“Damn-” Began Lilavati, but she suddenly froze. There was a sound coming from the Hoplite- a mechanical hum, growing more shrill by the second. Her eyes widened.

“It’s self-destructing!” She shouted, and as fast as she could pulled herself away. A few seconds later the Hoplite’s torso exploded, as did its missile launcher and all of its ammunition; it all went up in a huge plume of flame and black smoke, completely incinerating the mod-suit and the pilot within.

Lilavati staggered as the shockwave struck, but kept her footing- for which she was silently grateful for, considering her missing arm. She began to hurry toward Lachlan and the pale cataphract.

The two were locked in their duel. Lachlan swiped at the pale cataphract, which nimbly leapt over the claw and landed in a crouch- it grabbed one of Lachlan’s legs and fired the det-pistol point blank into its highest joint, shearing the leg free completely bar a thin sliver of silk. Lachlan crawled away for a moment, readjusted his remaining legs to balance the weight, then was back in the fray- he managed to grab the pale cataphract within the grasp of his claw, but it pried itself free before the claw’s wicked teeth could tear it apart.

“Bastard’s real fast. Can’t get a good hit on him.” Muttered Lachlan, leaning away from another detpistol shot.

“We can give you the window you need,” Said Lilavati. She looked over at Archibald, who had just pulled herself to her feet. “Archibald, form up on me.”

“Understood,” Said Archibald, who left the grenade launcher behind and sprinted across the scorched and shattered city square. She’d pulled one of the grenades free from her weapon pack. “What’s the plan?”

“Interference.” Said Lilavati. “We can’t slow it down for more than a few seconds, but that’s more than enough for the Lord to get a hit in. Hopefully.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Said Lachlan, relish in his voice. “Give me the window and I’ll smear the fucker across the ground.” He caught a tenuous grasp on the pale cataphract’s left arm, only for the cataphract to leap in, headbutt him and kick him away- Lachlan staggered backward, caught himself and lunged forward yet once more.

“I’ll take you at your lordly word, then.” Said Lilavati dryly. She hit the accelerator and pushed her suit toward the pale cataphract’s right. “Archibald, I’m going to go in close- all I need you to do is send it my way as best you can.”

“Understood.” Said Archibald, who ran around so as to face the pale cataphract’s left.

The pale cataphract leapt away from Lachlan, now. It looked around, then tried to run to Lachlan’s right, but Lachlan swiftly threw himself into the way, swinging his claw. The pale cataphract backed away, then tried to run far to Lachlan’s left- but again Lachlan cut him off. The pale cataphract focused all six of its burning red eyes on Lachlan- then once again tried to leap to the right.

A moment later, Archibald threw her grenade- and it landed right at the pale cataphract’s feet. The pale cataphract glanced at it, startled, then jumped away from it, back toward Lachlan’s left. The grenade exploded harmlessly.

The pale cataphract had only barely finished its jump when Lilavati rammed into its side at full speed. Already off-balance, the pale cataphract stumbled backward and nearly fell, only barely keeping its feet as it shoved Lilavati forcefully away. It turned-

Lachlan fired his cannon. The fierce green bolt struck the pale cataphract in the upper chest. The pale cataphract was suddenly shrouded in green flame; whole layers of its incredible armour suddenly melted away, molten lunar obsidian dripping down its body. In many places the armour had sloughed off so much that the pale cataphract’s innards could be seen: thick ropey bands of synthetic muscles and dense, bunched networks of translucent red cables running over and through the muscle like nerves and blood vessels.

The pale cataphract fell to the ground and thrashed madly, slapping at the flame to no avail. Foam started to pour from the breaches in its armour, snuffing out some of the flames and forming a thin shell over the exposed internals. At the same time it scrambled madly away from Lachlan, who was already lining up a second shot with his cannon.

“Gotcha now.” Said Lachlan. He fired.

But this time nothing came from Lachlan’s weapon except gouts of steam. The cannon suddenly glowed bright and fierce with heat. In the cockpit, Lachlan let out a pained shout and spewed a stream of curses; he waved the cannon furiously.

Lilavati rushed the pale cataphract, beam blade at the ready, but it was already dropping a second smoke grenade from a leg compartment. Lilavati struck it- and the pale cataphract dissolved, yet again, into dust.

“What on earth?” Said Archibald, surprise clear in her voice.

“Its quirk.” Said Lilavati. “Decoys made of dust- try to find it as it reappears-”

The pale cataphract reappeared at the far end of the city square. Most of the green flame had been put out. It didn’t stay to fight, however; it bolted over to a nearby damaged building, reached into it and pulled a cockpit block free. Then it turned and sprinted down the main road.

Lachlan was already in pursuit; his cannon seemed to have cooled down, and was no longer venting copious amounts of steam. “Fucking plasma guns!” He swore to himself. “Unreliable- overheating- pieces of crap-”

He chased the pale cataphract, and fired another shot from his plasma gun. But the pale cataphract was faster, and too far away: after a few hundred metres the plasma bolt unraveled itself and shriveled into nothing more than a heat haze. Lachlan sprinted after it- but the pale cataphract dropped another smoke grenade. When it cleared, all that was left was a decoy standing in the middle of the road. Wherever it had reappeared, it had done so where no one could see it.

“Damnit!” Swore Lachlan bitterly. “Shit. Lachlan to Charlie- intruding cataphract’s escaped the city limits. Scout from the skies and try to track it…”

Lilavati looked around at the city square. It was a scene of chaos- buildings and shopfronts had collapsed, the air was greasy with smoke, fire was still raging in many corners and much of the pavement itself had been split, cracked, rent open and blasted apart- all in the space of a few minutes.

She turned toward city square, looked up at the ruined wreck of the laser transmitter, and sighed.

“I want to go home…” She muttered to herself.

***

“What a disaster,” said Lord Lachlan with a sigh.

After the battle had ended, Lilavati had steered her mod-suit to the city hangar- located underground and accessible only by special elevators and ramps hidden beneath whole buildings. After returning the suit to its proper owners, she’d made her way to city hall on foot and presented herself to the guards. A few minutes of suspicious glances and twitchy trigger fingers later she’d been escorted to the Conference Hall- a wide, rectangular room with wood paneled walls and polished hardwood floors, dominated by a long set of mahogany table and chairs that ran the length of the room; a balcony allowed one to look out onto the city.

And it was here on this balcony that Lachlan had spoken. Lord Lachlan Darumbal was a young, man of somewhat above average height; he had soft, light brown eyes, rich black skin and medium-length curly dark brown hair. He had a toned, athletic build, broad shoulders and long legs. He had a high forehead, thin eyebrows, wide cheekbones and a mouth that curved naturally into a smile- even if he wasn’t smiling now. He wore a white bodysheath, practically identical to the one Lilavati herself wore except for colour. He’d haphazardly thrown a long double-breasted coat of dark blue with golden buttons, hems, cuffs and epaulettes over his shoulders; the empty sleeves swayed softly with the breeze.

Lord Lachlan turned back around toward; he was framed by the still-burning city and the baleful red of the setting sun. “Commander O’Reilly,” Said Lachlan, his tone calm, “How do you explain what happened today?”

O’Reilly was sitting, like Lilavati, at the table. O’Reilly was a rather tall, muscular woman with grey eyes, tanned, burnished skin and short black hair. She wore the uniform of a House Darumbal soldier, her rank denoted by a star brooch on her collar. As Lachlan spoke, O’Reilly rose from the chair and bowed. “My Lord, I cannot explain why we were attacked,” She said. “Or who our attackers were. But I can explain our failure: we were unprepared for any attack, especially one by a cataphract and three Hoplites.”

“That’s my thought.” Said Lachlan; his arms were folded, his right hand scratching at his cleanshaven chin. He turned his gaze away from O’Reilly and toward a man sitting at the far end of the table away from O’Reilly. “Mayor Paul, why was the Birdsville garrison so unprepared?”

Mayor Paul was a short, heavyset man. He was older, looking to be in his mid-sixties; he was mostly bald and the remaining wisps of hair along the side of his head were grey. He wore a loose white silken shirt over a pair of denim jeans. He too rose from his chair. “Uh… Well. I suppose the city hasn’t funded an expansion for, uh, sometime…” Said Paul, his tone nervous and halting.

“Yeah, how ‘bout that, then, eh?” Said Lachlan, his tone cool. “Weird business, that, weird business- Birdsville’s the richest city in the entire duchy, you’d think it could afford more than a few under-equipped iconoclasts and some bloody tanks.”

“So it seems, my Lord.” Said Paul. “I… Suppose the Guild Council assumed that there was little threat to the city, being so close to Bedourie and being so far away from lands not overseen by the Lord Duke… We assumed that if an attack did come, it’d be nothing like, well… Today.”

Lachlan frowned. “Understandable,” he said, “But if war comes, and my father calls on Birdsville to provide troops, what’ll we get? Ten Iconoclasts with a single grenade launcher to share? Twenty tanks? A handful of poor bloody footsloggers without a single APC? I mean…” He spread his arms wide and gave Paul a smile. “Come on.”

“W-Well, we’d call up our levies and reserves-” Began Paul, but Lachlan cut him off with a scoff.

“Levies.” Said Lachlan, his tone mildly contemptuous. “We expect levied bastards from bloody Betoota, Mayor, not from Birdsville.” He walked over to the table and tapped on it three times. “Tell you what, Mayor. When I go back to Bedourie and tell my father about this shitfight, I’ll also tell him that the Mayor of Birdsville has wisely decided to quadruple his city’s military budget. It’s make the old man a lot less cranky if he knew Birdsville was gonna, I dunno, add another twenty mod-suits, maybe a few Bombardiers and Raptors, heck, even a missile launcher and a few more grenades here and there? I don’t mean to press the point, but it’s literally on our fucking coat of arms, Paul.”

To Illustrate the point, Lachlan grabbed the sleeve of his coat and held it out- embroidered into the shoulder was the flaming golden grenade emblem of House Darumbal. “See?”

Paul’s face flushed red. “Y-Yes, my Lord. I’ll… I’ll speak to the Council.” He said.

“Good.” Said Lachlan. He suddenly gave the Mayor a warm smile. “I’m sure my father will be happy to cover the city’s repair bill, of course.”

“Y-Yes, of course. His Grace is most generous.” Mumbled Paul. Lachlan nodded, then turned toward Lilavati- Paul hurriedly sitting back down the moment Lachlan’s focus was off him.

“Madame Lilavati.” Said Lachlan warmly; he bowed slightly. “I’m sorry that you came all this way only to be caught up in this horrid mess.” He said. “To arrive just as we were attacked… That’s a miserable coincidence.”

Lilavati rose from her seat as well and smiled in return. “My Lord, thank you- but as I’m sure you suspect, it’s not a coincidence at all.”

“Is that a threat, moon-woman?” Said Paul suddenly.

“Oi, Paul. Settle.” Said Lachlan firmly; he scowled at Paul until the latter grew pale. He turned back toward Lilavati. “How do you mean? Explain for me.”

“The Lord Duke told you that I would be arriving today, correct?” Said Lilavati. Lachlan nodded, and Lilavati continued. “It seems someone outside of your house knew as well- my shuttle was ambushed shortly after entering the atmosphere. I was lucky to survive-”

Serval’s face- eyes hollow, her body in flames- flashed through Lilavati’s mind. She paused for a second- then with a shake of the head, pressed on. “… And I believe that cataphract and its allies were the instigators. There’s a lot I’m leaving out, but I’d prefer to tell the story straight to the Lord Duke and so only tell it once, if you’d be so kind, Lord Lachlan.”

Lachlan nodded quickly. “Look, you helped us as best you could- I owe you that much.”

“Thank you.” Said Lilavati; her smile widened.

“Don’t mention it.” Said Lachlan. “In fact, we should leave things here for now. We’re all tired, and you look like you could use a bath. Er, assuming Lunarians need baths…?”

“We do.” Said Lilavati with a chuckle. “Especially this one, right now.”

“Good, great. Something we have in common.” Said Lachlan with a smile. “House Darumbal own a manor in the city- you can lodge there for tonight.”

“Thank you, Lord Darumbal.” Said Lilavati; she bowed- then a thought occurred to her. “Lord Lachlan, forgive me if I’m sounding greedy, but I’m in need of another favour immediately.”

“Oh dear, been here half a day and already you sound like a Capital. Bad business.” Said Lord Lachlan lightly. O’Reilly laughed; Paul laughed, but without enthusiasm.

Lilavati smiled. “The mod-suit I commandeered- its pilot fled the battle shortly after running into the pale cataphract.”

Lord Lachlan’s eyebrows rose. “He fled? Ugly.” He muttered.

“Indeed, Lord Lachlan, but as providence would have it, his fleeing both spared the suit and allowed me to take it. If the pilot hadn’t fled, you’d have gone into that battle down a suit and possibly fighting two Hoplites at once.” Said Lilavati.

“Good point. Still ugly.” Said Lord Lachlan. “I’ll still need to punish him.”

“So you say,” Said Lilavati quickly, “but I’ll cut to the point- I needed the suit’s passcode. A young man named Isha Misra gave it to me, but only if I promised him I’d try to mitigate the punishment. Thoric lashings over execution.”

Lord Lachlan stared at Lilavati, his eyes widening. “Sorry, you said- Isha Misra?”

“That’s right.” Said Lilavati; she tilted her head slightly. “Is he a problem, Lord Lachlan?”

“What?” Lord Lachlan shook his head. “No no, no. Consider it done,” he said.

“Thank you, Lord Lachlan.” Said Lilavati; she gave him a broad, warm smile. “With that, I think I’ll take my leave.”

“Yes- if you need directions…”

“I’ll ask one of your soldiers.” Said Lilavati. She bowed again and quickly left the room.

As the wooden door closed behind her, she heard Paul speak up, sounding distant yet clear enough for her ears: “Isha Misra? Who’s he? One of your pilots, O’Reilly?”

“No… As far as I know he’s just a young Menial kid working on the solar farms. He radioed ahead to tell us about the incursion, gave us time to marshal the garrison- but he’s no one special.” Said O’Reilly.

“That’s true today,” Said Lachlan. “Today he’s just a Menial. This time tomorrow, though, you’d both feel like giving bloody anything to take his place.”

“Hmm.” Murmured Lilavati to herself. Then she smiled and walked away.

***

The day was ending. Isha couldn’t wait for it to be over.

After the woman had taken Davo’s suit, Isha had more or less fallen in with the infantry squad. He wasn’t a soldier, but the squad had all more or less agreed that the chances of them actually returning to the battle at this point were nil. Besides, they’d helped take down a modular suit- no one could accuse the squad of bludging. So for the rest of the day- long after the battle itself had ended in a distant showdown at the city square- Isha and the squad worked on cleanup. They retrieved friendly pilots from downed suits, pulled tank crews- living and dead- from immobilised or gutted tanks, and joined up with work crews to help clear out the copious amounts of debris the battle had left behind. At some point the all-clear had sounded, and the denizens of the city emerged from the underground bunkers. Many of them turned out to volunteer with the cleanup however they could- some brought food and set up soup kitchens, whilst others did their best with raw labour.

It was 7 o’clock when the senior sergeant took Isha aside. “Alright, mate,” he said gently. “You’ve done more than enough for us today. Time you headed back home and rest up. There’ll be work for you tomorrow, don’t worry.”

And so Isha gratefully headed home, back through the outer areas of the city, where the buildings were squat and broad.

His neighbourhood, to Isha’s relief, was practically untouched; it was too far out of the way for the intruders to bother with, apparently. But Isha did not go straight home. His neighbourhood was roughly a collection of houses and simple shops organised in circles around a central plaza, and it was to this plaza that he went first.

The plaza was a broad, flat open space of sparse grasses and reddish soil, dotted here and there with ghost gum trees- tall trees of startling white bark with a dusky, olive-green crown of leaves. Between the ghost gums were stone tables, around which had been placed long, low stone benches.

It was around these tables that Isha saw what he’d been looking for- the community. Hundreds of people, entire families were gathered here. Isha saw them talk with each other, share food and drink into haphazard free-for-all buffets, dance and sing in relief- and a few individuals wept and cast around with hollow looks as they sat surrounded by friends- or by themselves.

Isha hurriedly scanned the crowd- and it felt as though his heart had leapt painfully into his throat. Everywhere there were faces he recognised, but where was his mother? Where was Padma? He couldn’t see them, nor could he see Maya, or Michael, or the others of his work group…

Isha felt the tiredness in his body suddenly wash away beneath a flood of panic. He broke out into a run. Into the middle of the plaza he ran, pushing past loose clusters of people as he went; he looked around fitfully, frantically. “Mama!” He shouted desperately. “Padma! Maya? Michael?”

No response. Isha grabbed the nearest person- an old, tall woman with a firm, straight back and short grey hair. “Auntie, have you seen my mother?” He said quickly. “Or my sister? The Misras, have you seen them at all?”

The woman stared at him for a moment, then gently patted his hand shook her head. “Sorry, lad.” She said regretfully. “I’m sure they’re fine, though. I’ll keep an ear out, righo?”

“Yes, please.” Said Isha tightly. He let her go, picked a random direction and ran through. “Mama! Padma-”

Something solid and fast suddenly crashed into his side; he tumbled to the ground. Isha flailed madly, lashing out at the daring projectile- which turned out to be a something but a someone. A someone with short blond hair and blue eyes, filled with tears-

“M-Michael?” Said Isha, his hands suddenly freezing mid-air. “Michael, is that you?!”

“It fucking well is, you stupid son of a bitch!” Said Michael fervently. He groggily pulled himself up and tugged at Isha’s arm. “Where the fuck- we were looking for you- thought you’d died-”

But Isha didn’t say anything; he merely grabbed Michael and hugged him as tightly as he could. Michael quickly hugged Isha back, tight enough to squeeze the air out of Isha’s tired lungs.

“Bloody idiot.” Muttered Michael. “Thought you were so fucking great, eh? Off to help some poor fucker in a tank-”

“I missed you too, Michael.” Said Isha sincerely. He pulled away enough to be able to look at Michael’s face. “My mother, Padma, Maya-?”

“Y-Yeah, they’re all ok, they’re over here.” Said Michael, wiping tears from his eyes. He led Isha through the crowds toward a particular stone table. The first thing Isha saw were the people sitting around it- his mother, thin and short, tending to a stew. Sitting next to her was Padma, who stared out solemnly at the crowd around them. Sitting opposite was Maya, speaking enthusiastically and lightly with his mother despite how tired and dirty she looked.

Padma was the first to see him. Her eyes widened; she leapt up from the bench and shrieked. “Isha!”

Both his mother and Maya whipped their heads around toward her- and then at him. But Padma was already bolting toward him; before Isha could react she’d thrown at him, burying her head into his chest. “Isha, you idiot!”

“Hey, don’t call me an idiot.” Said Isha, ruffling Padma’s hair. “You’re an idiot.”

“How am I the idiot?!” She said, and Isha could feel her scowl even if he couldn’t see it.

“For worrying so much, silly.” Said Isha, grinning. The tight, pounding panic in his chest had gone as soon as it had come, replaced with an almost light-headed sense of relief- mixed in with a moment of pain as Padma punched him in the stomach.

“Ow, hey.” Said Isha; he laughed and pulled her aside, tucking her under his left arm.

“I was scared.” Mumbled Padma.

“I was too, for awhile.” Said Isha; he squeezed Padma a little closer into his side. “But we’re all okay now. Alright, Padma? We’re all okay.”

“Isha!” Maya had risen from the table a moment after Padma, but Isha gratefully saw now that Maya had hung back, giving Padma her moment. “Thank God you’re alright- I was sick with worry…”

“Sorry, Maz.” Said Isha lightly. “You’re not gonna call me an idiot too, are you?”

“No! Yes! Shut up!” Said Maya, rubbing furiously at her eyes. “You… You should’ve seen your mum’s expression when I told her what you’d done-”

“I bet she was really impressed.” Said Isha with a grin.

“No, she was fucking terrified-” Said Maya; a few tears fell from her eyes, but she wiped them away and grinned.

“Language please, Maya, love.” Said his mother warmly. “And I wasn’t terrified, I was very proud. Very proud!” She gave Isha a firm nod. “You did the right thing.”

“Thanks, ma-” Began Isha.

“And if you do it again I’ll die of a heart attack.” She muttered. “And then your little sister will have to live with the Changs, which is exactly what Maya wants.”

“Guilty as charged.” Said Maya. She walked over to Isha and Padma, giving Isha a quick, firm hug and a kiss on the cheek before pulling back to pinch Padma’s cheek. “C’mon, don’t you want to be my little sister?”

Padma fixed Maya with a firm scowl. “No. If you want a kid sister, go ask your parents.”

“Can’t, honey. Already have a little brother, who I’d trade for you in a heartbeat.” Said Maya with a sigh. “Life isn’t fair.”

“Seems fair from where I’m standing.” Said Padma hotly, squeezing Isha in an almost protective manner. Maya grinned and returned to her seat, giving Padma a wink as she went.

Isha laughed as he reached the table. “Sorry, mama. I wasn’t able to bring home that power cell after all. Bit of a mess downtown, eh?”

His mother reached out and cuffed him lightly across the back of the head. “Silly boy.” She said fondly. “Come on, now. Sit down, eat- and tell me what you’ve actually been doing…”

“Yeah, did you end up saving anyone after all that, mate?” Asked Michael, who took his own seat next to Maya.

“I… Actually did.” Said Isha, carefully taking a seat next to his mother, with Padma on his right side now. He opened his mouth to speak- and then stopped. Before him on the table lay a broad spread of food- there were fresh brown breadrolls, still warm to the touch; cold, hard cards of cheese; bottles of cold water and jugs of warm beer; and stone pots full of hot, thick vegetable stew, full of carrots and potatoes and the odd spring of herb. The comforting, curling scent of warm bread mingled with the hearty, inviting and heavy smell of the stew. The sensations of the day- the frantic fumbling as he saved the dying man, the red rage as he saw the Hoplite gun down those men, the blank, mind-emptying fettering terror of staring down the barrel of the pale cataphract’s pistol- all suddenly gave way to the sudden and powerful realisation that he was famished.

“Let him eat first.” Said his mother with a shrewd smile.

Isha grinned; he grabbed several bread-rolls, a fistful of cheese, a generous bowlful of stew and a mug of beer.

For the rest of the evening, Isha ate, drank and talked. He talked of the tank soldier’s injuries, and how he tended to them as best he could- of the Hoplite towering over the intersection- and, to the cries of horror and awe from his audience, of what it felt like to look up at a cataphract. In turn they told him of what happened for them- of being redirected to a field hospital, of tending to Jeremy, Wallace and Erica’s injuries, and of helping the field hospital as best they could by being stand-in nurses. Michael talked about how he bandaged the wounds of half a dozen soldiers, all of whom bore grisly injuries from shrapnel fire meant to shred tanks; Maya explained that she meanwhile had driven around with the others of the team, acting as a sort of field ambulance. Meanwhile Padma sat and ate and leaned against him, apparently unconcerned about the talk of injury and death.

Surrounded by his friends and family, all safe and sound, the events of the day seemed far less frightening to Isha now. It seemed strangely less real… Perhaps, he thought, it was a luxury he had, having lost no one close to him- would he feel that comforting sense of normality start to return if any one sitting at this table was missing?

He tried not to think about such things. Everyone had returned, and with them came normality. Tonight he would eat and drink, then sleep, and tomorrow he’d wake up and go to work, as he had for years and would for years ahead.

***

The first thing next morning saw the city’s people summoned to assemble in the city square.

Isha marveled in silent horror at the damage that had been wreaked on the beautiful place. In the space of a few hours, it had gone from a place of wealth and even grandeur to a gutted ruin. Practically no building had been left untouched by the awesome battle that had been raged here- not even city hall itself.

It was more than just an appearance issue- much damage had been done to the ground as well, and trying to pack so many people into such an uneven, damaged space had proven difficult. Through pure luck, Isha had somehow managed a spot near city hall- where a high scaffold, topped with a metal pillory, had been placed.

Isha reflected that on retrospect, it was probably bad luck.

After half an hour of waiting, a squad of soldiers emerged from city hall, bearing the uniforms of House Darumbal underneath sculpted and fitted suits of metal armour, which covered the chest, arms and upper legs. Following behind them were two people- one of them was Davo, naked from the waist up, looking distraught and hollow, his hands in manacles. The other was a Lord, taller than Isha, with black skin and curly dark brown hair. He wore a fine uniform consisting of a dark blue double-breasted coat with golden trimmings and epaulettes worn tight white trousers and high black boots. Held tightly in his right hand was a whip.

“Oh no, Davo…” Murmured Maya. “So that’s what this is about…”

“And it looks like we have an actual Darumbal here to mete out the sentence too.” Said Michael grimly.

Two soldiers placed Davo in the pillory, snapping it shut tight on his neck and hands- forcing him to stand at an awkward, hunched angle. The soldiers then marched off the scaffold to join the rest of their squad.

The Lord leapt up onto the scaffold and looked out over the crowded square. “People of Birdsville,” Said the Lord, his voice carrying easily and firmly across the square, “yesterday, a terrible calamity befell this city. Unknown and malevolent enemies fell on the city, dealing great damage to it- and its defenders were sadly not equal to the task of fending them away. Many of them fought bravely nonetheless, and fought to the very end- to their deaths.”

The Lord then flourished his hand toward Davo. “This one did not. In the face of an enemy, he fled the battle, abandoning a modular suit to do so. In doing so he left a squad of brave soldiers to the tender mercies of the enemy- a savage and fierce cataphract.”

The crowd murmured darkly- Isha couldn’t tell if they were angry at Davo or the Lord.

“The punishment for such cowardice is death.” Said the Lord sternly; the crowd fell deathly silent.

“However, we, in our wisdom, have decided to show this man mercy and forgiveness for his human failing of fear. To that end, this man, David Robertson, is to be stripped of the position of modular suit sergeant for one year, during which his name will be recorded on the levy rolls. Furthermore, he will suffer fifty lashes of the thoric whip on a near-fatal setting.”

Every eye was transfixed on the Lord as he walked over to Davo. He bent down and whispered something to Davo before talking up a spot about three metres behind him. Then, the Lord raised his whip and brought it sharply down across Davo’s back.

As the whip struck flesh it let out a sudden burst of electricity. Davo let out a jerking scream.

The whip came down again. Davo’s hands spasmed against their restraints.

The whip came down once more. Davo’s knees suddenly gave way; he sagged in the pillory, his body twitching.

But the whip kept coming. Over and over, fifty lashes with the thoric whip. The Lord did not hesitate, did not pause.

Isha could not look away. A terrible sense of shame and anger boiled up in his chest, fighting with the realisation that this was surely preferable to death? Yet each time Davo let out a cry of pain, Isha’s heart wrenched and he felt his hands curl into fists. A sudden, reckless thought entered his mind- to leap onto the scaffold and wrestle that whip out of the Lord’s hand. It was stupid, absolutely nonsensical, yet…

Just as Isha took the first step, Maya reached out and grabbed his arm; at the same time, the Lord lashed Davo one final time before primly curling the whip with a single flick of the wrist. The Lord turned and left without ceremony, leaving the guards to free Davo and drag him back into city hall. Isha saw Davo’s back as he went- marred with long, thin gashes which leaked rivulets of blood.

The crowd started to filter away now. But Isha did not move- he stared at the city hall until Davo vanished behind its heavy gates.

“C’mon, Isha.” Said Maya softly in his ear. “Let’s go to work.”

Tears bubbled up in his eyes- but he wiped them away and followed Maya and Michael out of the square.

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