Chapter Four The Scared And The Dying

Chapter Four
“The Scared and the Dying”

Even if Lilavati hadn’t known where to go, it was impossible to miss the trail the unmarked modular suits left behind them.

There were the gigantic footprints of course, embedded in sand and the occasional softer soils. The odd smashed tree or flattened bush. Around a hundred kilometres from Birdsville, the signs of human habitation started to creep back into the landscape- signs, a well-paved road, an occasional house, sitting by itself. Here and there she saw broken signs and giant footsteps on the road, framed in red dirt. Before long, the plains gave way to the endless fields of solar farms that encircled the city for kilometres around, and it was here that the passing of the suits was most overt. They hadn’t bothered weaving around the arrays in most cases, simply walking through them or over them, leaving a path of twisted glass and hybrid materials in their wake. Here and there were craters and still-burning fires, becoming more common the closer one came to the city walls.

It was within sight of these walls that Lilavati took her first break since finding the mod-suits in the first place. Her water bottles had been drained down to the last drop, and her body was lathered with sweat; it gathered between her skin and the tight fabric of the bodysheath, creating an intensely irritating, slightly suffocating sensation that she had simply been forced to ignore. By contrast, the sun had long since dried every drop of moisture out of her duster. It was the heat, rather than any tiredness in her legs or body that compelled her to stop: the heat in her head and inside her chest.

The sensation of a reactor close to overheating was like having a swarm of livid, boiling wasps living inside you, just beneath the skin- a swarm that was constantly splitting and multiplying with every second until they filled your entire body. At first it was a frantic feeling, as though the insides of your body were desperate to evacuate themselves, to seep through your pores and into the free, boundless air; but before long the feeling was all throughout your chest, your stomach, filling every empty space inside you. It was a smothering experience, a mix of spiralling panicky noise and unwanted lethargy that strangled and drowned thought. Before long, it simply consumed everything else, leaving nothing but the pressure and the blind desire to escape it.

Try as Lilavati might, this miserable feeling was one she couldn’t ignore. And so instead she stopped amidst the fields of solar arrays, hiding beneath the shade of one, twisted on its side. She looked out at the walls of Birdsville.

The walls were about eight metres high, made of concrete and sloped outwards on the exterior side. They were painted a bright white, but along the top of the wall, every six metres or so, sat a long vertical dark blue banner, bearing the flaming grenade symbol of House Darumbal. Much like Serenity-Berlin, the buildings gradually became higher the closer one came to the centre of the city, and the few that could be said to dominate the skyline were clustered in the middle- the dome of city hall and a laser transmitter tower.

Those white walls now bore burns, scars and fiery gouges. Lilavati’s eyes were drawn to the gatehouse, or rather what was left of it: it had been brutally demolished, its broken remains now strewn all across the courtyard- in several places, chunks of debris had smashed through nearby buildings. The turrets nearest the gate had been blasted apart as well, leaving nothing but mangled wreckage and sparking cable.

The intruders had long since punched past the wall and were within the city limits now- Lilavati couldn’t see any of the mod-suits, whether Darumbal or unmarked, but she could hear the gunfire, the explosions, the crashes.

Lilavati slowly closed her eyes and focused on listening. And she found it, mixed in, muffled by the discharge of sunrifles and the explosions of det-shells: the screaming of the scared and the dying.

Her eyes opened. She stood. There was still a real gap between herself and the walls. She thought about it- it wasn’t likely she’d be able to make it, not with how hot her reactor was running. Her water bottles were empty and her body’s water was rapidly dwindling- even so, she could feel the suffocating pressure within, telling her that she was heating up faster than the water was cooling her down.

Lilavati held her arms out, away from her body. Ever so slightly, the pores of her skin widened- and then she began to bleed. All across her arms and face came trickles of reddish-orange blood that became a stream. The blood dripped off her skin and down onto the sand below, steaming slightly. The blood continued to pour for another few minutes- before abruptly it stopped.

The pressure was still there, buzzing inside her chest, but it was so much less squeezing and insistent that Lilavati felt positively relieved in comparison. She stepped out from behind the shade of the hapless solar panel and one more began to sprint toward the city of Birdsville.

***

At some point, Isha had asked Michael to hand him Davo’s sunrifle. It seemed pathetic, a childish thing compared to the lumbering giants in the playground that was Birdsville, yet nonetheless he kept it cradled in his lap.

Maya drove them toward the clinic, following in the wake of the det-cannon toting Hoplite, which was now out of sight. It had run ahead, heedless of anything in its way- Isha spied a squashed food cart, all bent and twisted- the Hoplite had simply walked over it, but Maya had to drive around it.

“Are they heading toward the city square?” Asked Isha.

“I fucking hope not.” Muttered Maya. “We’re about five minutes out of the centre- probably longer, roads are gonna be blocked I bet.”

Maya took a right-hand corner as quickly as she dared. Almost instantly after she hit the brake: about fifty metres ahead stood the Hoplite, no longer running.

Isha and Maya both stared at it in abject horror, Isha’s eyes popping for a moment- before they realised it wasn’t looking at them. Instead, the Hoplite was standing in the middle of an intersection, staring down four battletanks, each marked in the dark blue of House Darumbal. The tanks were squat, long things, probably eight metres long from rear to tip of their cannons- which were near identical to the massive sunrifles that the Darumbal mod-suits carried.

The tanks opened fire in unison, their cannons spitting out blasts of red light. Despite its bulky shape and its mass, the Hoplite was surprisingly fast; it juked to the left, dodging two of the bolts, which struck a nearby building; chunks of rammed earth showered onto the ground below.

Before the Hoplite had even finished moving, it trained its det-cannon on the tanks and fired across the first three. The det-shells punched halfway through the tanks’ outer armour and exploded, shredding the tanks’ hull and- Isha didn’t need to look to realise- their crews.

The last remaining tank opened fire, this time striking the Hoplite square in the chest. The mod-suit stumbled backwards and nearly fell- but at the last second its knees bent and its torso swayed forward, stabilising itself. It turned and began to run back toward the truck- a smoking hole had been burned through the outmost layer of its chest.

“Shit-” Maya drove, charging through the Hoplite’s legs- again, the mod-suit simply ignored the truck.

It was only after they passed the battletanks that Isha shook his head and spoke up. “Maya, can you go on without me?”

“What?” Maya scowled. “The hell do you mean-”

“I know, I know- but I can help, somehow-” Said Isha. His right knee was skipping up and down in agitation.

Maya glanced sideways at him. For a few long seconds she was silent- then she pulled the truck over. “Alright, Isha. I trust you.” She said. “Just- be careful, yeah?”

She held out her left little finger to him. Isha eyed it for a moment- then wrapped his own little finger around it. “I promise.”

A moment later, Isha had was out, sunrifle tucked under his arm- and the truck sped away. He caught Michael, staring out at him- he gave Isha a firm nod.

Isha returned it- then began to run toward those tanks.

The fourth tank, the only one still functioning, had charged forward down the road, pursuing the Hoplite. Isha ignored it, instead running for the nearest destroyed tank. He climbed up onto it shattered hull, careful to avoid impaling his hand or a leg on the jagged edges of its now broken armour. Carefully, he pulled himself over to the very edge of the breach and looked in.

Three soldiers lay inside. Two of them were dead, their bodies barely recognisable messes of blood, bone and metal. The third…

Isha widened his eyes. The man was still alive. His body was awash with blood, and shrapnel shards at least fifteen centimetres long jutted out of the man’s abdomen and arms; he was gagging on his own blood.

But he was still alive.

Isha leapt into the tank’s interior and crawled to the man’s side. “Hey, hey-” He waved a hand in front of the man’s face.

The man turned, his eyes popping with pain and terror. He feebly raised a hand toward Isha- and made an awful gurgling sound.

“You’re gonna be okay!” Said Isha hurriedly. “I’m gonna help you! Just wait-” Isha crawled forward and levered his arms under the man’s body, then as carefully as he could, lifted him up onto his side. The man groaned with pain, and to Isha’s horror the shards seemed to dig themselves deeper into the man’s flesh.

“I’m sorry, I just- your mouth-” Isha grabbed the man’s jaw and prised it open, then tilted his head downward. Instantly a mouthful of blood gushed out. The man coughed and wheezed painfully, but it seemed to Isha that his breathing had cleared. With that done, Isha levered the man onto his back, then tried to move him into a seating position as quickly and carefully as he could- trying desperately to ignore the man’s short, breathless screams with each movement Isha inflicted on him.

“Okay. Okay… Now to stop the bleeding. Fuck, how do I do that?” Muttered Isha. He froze for a second, his mind blank- then he furiously zipped open his jumpsuit, pulled off his black singlet and tore it into three long strips.

At that moment, Isha heard a horrid noise- a squeal of gears and wheels straining fruitlessly. He started, then leapt to his feet to look for the source.

The fourth tank had pursued the Hoplite all the way down the road, which curved off to the left. But the Hoplite had been crouched behind a building on the corner, hiding its profile. As the tank turned the corner, the Hoplite surged into the open, lifted one large bird-like leg into the air and brought it down hard on the tank’s turret. The turret screamed as the operator tried to turn it, to turn the gun on the Hoplite- fruitlessly. The leg was too powerful.

The Hoplite fired its det-cannon point-blank into the tank. The tank never stood a chance: the three shells completely tore it asunder.

The Hoplite then simply walked over the tank. It leaned back, hooked the tip of its axe within a gap in the wrecked vehicle and dragged it down the road; a horrid, high-pitched shriek filled the air as the tracks scraped along the pavement.

Isha turned his head away and squeezed his eyes shut, but he didn’t have time to figure out what the Hoplite was trying to do with the husk of a tank. Instead he turned back to the bleeding soldier next to him. Blood trickled from his wounds, stained his uniform and pooled slowly on the floor beneath him. Isha’s eyes darted rapidly from wound to wound.

“Arms… Start with those.” Murmured Isha. He looked down at the black strips of fabric that had been his shirt, then he leaned forward and wrapped one strip as tightly as he could around the man’s right arm, just below the shoulder and above the wound. He did the same for the other arm- which left only the jagged spike in the man’s abdomen. Isha looked back at it, and all in an instant the blood, the noise and the smell overwhelmed him; he felt dizzy and light-headed, and he had trouble seeing clearly. He let out a gasp, clapped his hand over his mouth and shook his head slowly.

He could barely hear the soldier’s pained mews under the sound of the tank scraping painfully across the road.

“I’m sorry.” Mumbled Isha. He lowered his hands and tried to take several deep, long breaths. After a minute or so, it felt as though his head was starting to clear.

“Okay. I’m going to cut the clothing around your wound, ok?” Said Isha, picking up the sunrifle slowly and deliberately. The soldier nodded, yet there was an agitated, delirious cast to his actions.

Isha turned the sunrifle’s setting dial down until the display showed ‘CUT-LOW’. Then he fired it- this time, it emitted a thin, bright red beam instead of a single blast. With the beam, Isha carefully cut through the man’s uniform in a circle around the grisly abdomen wound. His slightly trembling hands gave the circle a raggedy-edge look, and in a few spots he’d held the beam down a fraction of a second too long, causing tiny burns to the man’s flesh.

“Sorry. You probably didn’t even feel it.” Muttered Isha, mostly to himself. He pulled the cut, blood-soaked clothes away from the wound and threw it aside. Now he could see the horrific injury in all its dubious glory- the shard, the severed skin split around it, still sticking upwards to the shrapnel, and of course the rivulets of blood that flowed constantly across the man’s skin.

Isha unloaded the power cell from the rifle. “Open up, you’ll want to bite down on this,” he said- the soldier obliged, and Isha placed it into his open mouth. Then Isha took the third and last strip of cloth, wrapped it gingerly around this wound then, with an apologetic “This is really gonna hurt,” he pushed down on the wound as tightly as he could.

The man let out a pained gasp, muffled by the cell, that drew a deep wince from Isha- but nonetheless Isha kept pressing.

A shadow fell across Isha- and he suddenly froze. At that moment he realised he could no longer hear the Hoplite dragging the tank. As slowly as he dared, he turned around and looked up.

The Hoplite was standing over the tank- its round, inhuman head stared down at him with that optic band.

Isha stared back- and was acutely, deeply aware at just how large the Hoplite was. The way it towered over him, the way it blocked out the sun with an axe larger than his entire body.

“Hey, you.” Said a voice suddenly. Isha started, then realised that it was coming from loudspeakers just under the Hoplite’s chin. It sounded to Isha like a woman, with a stern, forceful voice. “You’re not a soldier, the hell you doin’ here?”

Isha didn’t, couldn’t reply.

“Answer me.” Said the Hoplite pilot. “You scavenging? What you got there in your hands?”

A chill ran down Isha’s spine- he thought about the situation. This pilot, whoever they were, had been ruthless- she’d brutalised four tanks without pause and clearly had no problem with killing. If the pilot knew that there was still someone alive, would she finish them off? How did he hide this?

Isha shifted his bulk, trying to hide the man from sight as best he could- meanwhile, lies and cover stories raced through his head, but none seemed plausible, and it felt that with each passing second, the Hoplite pilot grew ever more impatient.

“Hurry up-” began the Hoplite pilot, but mid-sentence she broke off, and the mod-suit’s head suddenly looked away, toward one of the streets. Isha would hear footsteps, dozens and dozens of them, all clattering together at once. Isha turned toward the sound- the breach in the hull was low enough that he could see quite clearly what was happening. Fifteen Darumbal soldiers were rushing down the street, spreading out into a loose formation.

Two compartments on the Hoplite’s cheeks- blending in seamlessly with the rest of the head- slid open, revealing a pair of heavy machine guns. The guns spat out toward the soldiers, and instantly six of them went down; the remaining nine bolted for the nearest buildings, kicking their way through doors and jumping through windows to escape the lethal barrage.

And all of a sudden, Isha found his voice. “Stop it!” He shouted upwards at the Hoplite.

The Hoplite ignored him- it raked the buildings with its guns, and another two soldiers fell screaming. The survivors returned fire with their sunrifles, but the blasts did next to nothing to the Hoplite- it barely left superficial burns on its armour.

“Stop it!” Screamed Isha. “They can’t hurt you! Leave them alone! Why are you even here? What do you want?”

But all of his wailing was to no avail- the Hoplite didn’t pay him even the slightest bit of attention. The guns kept firing, and soldiers kept dying.

Isha felt the rage building up in his chest, the desire to do something, anything he could to stop what was happening around him. Without thinking, he let go of the soldier’s wound, picked up the sunrifle and pointed it up at the Hoplite. He set the power output to maximum, aimed…

But before he could fire, three bright blasts of light- much brighter than anything a paltry infantry rifle could spit out- struck the Hoplite. One to the chest and two to the upper arm- the one carrying the axe. These did damage, burning deep into the armour, and the impact had been enough to phase the Hoplite. It turned to face this new threat, and so did Isha.

Three more Darumbal tanks had appeared from the road opposite the infantry- they had fired, and their cannons were already lining up the second shot. Isha could see now what the Hoplite had been doing with the tank carcass- it had been dragged to sit in the middle of this road, creating a literal roadblock for the battletanks.

The Hoplite turned its bulk around to face the tanks now, levelling that murderous det-cannon toward them. The cannon started spinning up- but just before it could fire, the sound of roaring propellant filled Isha’s ears. An infantry soldier had braced a large missile missile launcher- just over a metre long- and fired, sending a heavy missile streaking straight into the back of the Hoplite’s right knee.

The explosion filled Isha’s ears; everything felt muted, muffled, distant. The Hoplite staggered forward and overbalanced, its det-cannon shots firing wildly, missing the tanks completely. For one terrifying second it seemed as though the Hoplite was going to fall on Isha and crush him beneath its bulk, but at the last second it caught itself on the ends of its cannon and axe. Slowly, it pulled itself up- giving Isha a good look at its knee. The armour had buckled, and the inner structure- the ‘bone’- of the knee could be seen. It too had been shredded, masses of cables and synthetic muscle cut and frayed.

The instant the Hoplite rose to its full height, the tanks fired again, all of the fire focused on that damaged knee. The third and final shot not only struck the knee but severed it completely; the Hoplite staggered, teetered uncertainly on its one remaining leg, then fell completely backward, smashing into the ground with a colossal thud that sent Isha’s ears ringing.

The Hoplite sat up at the waist and fired its det-cannon at the tanks once more; but its aim was off, and only one shell struck its intended target, sending the tank up in a massive plume of fire and smoke. The other shell slammed harmlessly into an empty building, whilst the third was blocked by, of all things, the mutilated tank the Hoplite had so painstakingly dragged over.

The tanks accelerated now and spread out, trying to drive around the sides of the husked tank. As they drove, they aimed their cannons and for a third time, fired.

Both pulses struck the Hoplite square in the head- the first buckled its armour and the second punched right through. A second later its glowing red optic band flicked and went dark.

The Hoplite fired again, but its shots were even farther off the mark now, and the tanks were completely unscathed. Isha felt a sense of rage as the Hoplite spun its det-cannon one last time- only to hear a tepid whine followed by an empty click.

The Hoplite sat there, suddenly impotent. The tanks, meanwhile, had driven past the roadblock and were now into the intersection proper. They fired on the Hoplite once, twice, three times, pouring fire into it- severing its axe arm, crippling its good leg, pressing harder and harder on that dense, armoured chest. With the final third shot, the Hoplite’s torso toppled backward, and now stared with blind eyes up at the blue sky.

Cheers arose from the infantry, who now broke cover and rushed into the intersection themselves. “Get to that suit! See if we can crack it open, O’Reilly wants them taken alive!” Barked a man- presumably their leader. “Crake, Orsini, check the tanks for survivors…”

“Help!” Shouted Isha. “Help us, please-”

“There’s one, senior sergeant!” Said one of the soldiers. The senior sergeant and the two soldiers now ran toward Isha’s tank and peered into the breach.

“Holy shit.” Swore the senior sergeant- a short, densely muscled man with short, black hair streaked with white. He had a neat, trimmed beard and white, ruddy skin. “You- wait, you’re not a soldier, you’re a civilian…”

“He’s hurt!” Said Isha. “I-I’ve tried to help him, but he’s bleeding a lot…”

“Orsini, get in there.” Said the senior sergeant. One of the soldiers- Orsini- leapt into the tank, a medical kit at his side.

“I’ll take it from here, civilian.” Said Orsini. All too gladly, Isha let Orsini take over- he rose, his knees now stiff and aching, and looked over at the senior sergeant with tired eyes.

“Out you come, mate.” Said the senior sergeant kindly. “What’re you doing here anyway?”

“I saw it happen.” Mumbled Isha. “I came to see if there was anyone alive.”

The senior sergeant’s thick eyebrows rose. “You jumped into a burned out tank to save someone’s life in the middle of a mod-suit battle?”

Isha nodded wearily; he leapt out of the tank and nearly fell to his knees on impact. The other soldier- Crake, Isha presumed- reached out to steady him.

“Huh.” Said the senior sergeant, and there was an edge of surprise- not unwelcome surprise, either- to his tone. “Civilians should stay in shelter during a battle, son- but you did a fine thing, today. Orsini, is he gonna live?”
“Should do, senior sergeant!” Shouted Orsini.

“Well then, there you go.” Said the senior sergeant. “Thanks to you, that man has his life. Now you should go to a shelter proper this time, alright, mate? You look like you had a real fucking time of it in there.”

Isha nodded half-heartedly. He turned to the senior sergeant and asked in a quiet voice, “why are they attacking us? What did we do?”

“I wish I could answer you, mate, but I don’t have a fucking clue.” Said the senior sergeant. “Answers come later. For now we’ve got a city to save-”

A shadow passed over the intersection. Through reflex, everyone looked up- and saw a shape leaping off a nearby building. It sailed through the air, landed between the two functioning tanks and, in one sleek movement, reached down, grabbed them by the turrets, yanked them clean off the ground, slammed them together then hurled them as hard as possible into the nearest building. The tanks flew like bullets into the building, collapsing its entire facade; within a second the two-storey building had crumbled into a ruin, two mangled tanks now embedded halfway through to the other side.

Everyone in that intersection- including Isha- cried out in horror. Isha felt his eyes shrink in fear as he registered what he was seeing.

It was the pale cataphract.

The pale cataphract turned; it raised its right hand toward a rectangular container hoisted on its back, rising above the shoulder. The front of the container snapped open; from within came its massive det-pistol, carried out atop a hydraulic arm. The cataphract pulled its pistol free and pointed it toward Isha and the infantry.

Just about everyone scattered, and in every direction: the senior sergeant and Crake bolted into the nearest building, dropping their guns as they went; the other soldiers ran down the streets, covering their heads as they went. Isha started to run as well, following the senior sergeant, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Orsini: the medic was still with the wounded tank operator. Just as quickly as Isha had started to run, he froze- and left himself standing stock-still in the middle of the intersection, directly in the sights of the cataphract and its det-pistol.

The pale cataphract loped toward him. It was far taller than the Hoplite; Isha felt a chill shooting down his spine as he saw the cataphract move. Its steps were easy, smooth and organic- they struck Isha as being strangely delicate and inexpressibly wrong.

The cataphract now stood over him, pistol still pointed down toward him; one of its six eyes stared down at him, the other five looking at the rest of the area; the gaze constantly shifted, never staying on one spot for long. Isha still did not move. After a few seconds of this, the cataphract reached out with its free hand, pinched Isha around the chest- the grip vise-firm yet merely highly uncomfortable instead of painful- and gently set him on the side of the road. With Isha out of the way, the cataphract walked over to the downed Hoplite, bent over it, and with one clean jerk, shoved its hand into the Hoplite’s chest and tore free the entire cockpit block. It had the appearance of a grey, dull blocky slab, the sides covered in now-sparking exposed cables and wiring.

The cataphract tucked the cockpit block against its chest before turning back down the road toward the city centre at a run, where the road turned into a t-junction, leading left and right.

Isha, who was still standing in shock where the pale cataphract had placed him, stared after it- and his heart skipped. There were buildings on the corners of the t-junction: poking out from just behind the one on the left was the barrel of a sunrifle.

A moment later, two mod-suits stepped out into the open. These ones identical to Davo’s, and painted in the same colours, marking them as modular suits from the local garrison. They aimed their rifles at the pale cataphract and fired.

The pale cataphract jumped smoothly to the right, and the two blazing bolts swept right past. Before the cataphract could finish its jump, however, the building nearest suddenly burst outwards. Out of the cloud of masonry and dust came a third garrison suit at full speed. In its right hand was a white cylinder that fit snugly in its palm; the tip of this cylinder emitted a constant, glowing blade made entirely of red light, about five metres long. The point of this blade was aimed directly at the pale cataphract’s head.

The cataphract wove down and to the side, evading the blade. As part of the same movement it whipped its left leg toward the charging suit, sweeping its own legs out from under it; the suit toppled, sailed a good ten metres, and crashed into the ground with such force that Isha was thrown off his feet.

But a fourth modular suit now charged out of that same breach, this one carrying a shield in its left hand and a carbine, similar to the sunrifles, in its right. It rammed the shield directly toward the cataphract’s face; the cataphract threw up its right, pistol-holding arm. Shield struck arm, and the sheer momentum pushed the cataphract stumbling back a few metres.

A fifth garrison suit ran in from the road behind the infantry. Isha stared at it- and somehow he recognised it, perhaps of the way it was being piloted, as Davo’s suit. Davo raised his sunrifle at the cataphract and fired on full burst, spitting a spray of heat bolts down the road.

The pale cataphract flicked the Hoplite’s cockpit block down the road, where it skipped a few times before landing on its side. It then crouched and pivoted tightly on its left ankle, putting it behind the shield-bearing suit. The sudden shift caused the shield-bearing suit to stumble precariously forward; the cataphract caught its left arm with its own and tugged the suit violently toward it. This put the shield-bearing suit between Davo and the cataphract; so quickly was this done that Davo’s barrage struck nothing but the shield-bearing suit, blasting across its chest and upper legs. The shield-bearing suit spasmed, as though in pain. The pale cataphract now hooked its left arm underneath the suit’s left armpit and grabbed its right shoulder- pinning the shield-arm itself back and pinning its right arm in place.

In one clean movement the cataphract raised its det-pistol and fired into the right hip of the sword-bearing suit; the hip shattered and splintered, and the suit, halfway standing, fell back to the ground hard. The cataphract then placed its pistol just half a metre away from the shield-bearing suit’s right temple and fired, tearing the head asunder. It then spun about, placing the shield-bearing suit between it and the two suits at the t-junction just as they fired two single-shot high-powered blasts. Both bolts struck the shield-bearing suit’s chest and burned right through; the cataphract threw it aside, held its pistol with both hands, and fired twice into the left-hand suit’s chest. The first shot shredded the outer plating and sent the suit stumbling, but the second hit something volatile. The suit’s entire torso exploded, consuming the suit and everything within five metres in a massive raging fireball. The heat was so intense that even Isha felt it all the way down the road.

The sword-bearing suit had struggled onto its back by now; it threw aside its sword and picked up the shield-bearing suit’s abandoned carbine. The cataphract promptly shot the suit in the head, ejected its pistol’s now-empty clip, grabbed another from its left-shoulder container and reloaded it, all in the space of around a second and a half. It then leapt left into the shattered building; a few seconds later it reappeared, bursting out of the building closest to the right-hand suit. Before it could react, the cataphract fired a det-shell into its chest then, as it stumbled backward, caught it in the chin with a second shot; the head exploded in flames, and the suit went down.

The cataphract now loped back down the road; it scooped up the Hoplite’s cockpit block and levelled its pistol at Davo’s suit. All six of those eyes were focused on Davo.

But Davo’s suit wasn’t moving. It simply stood still. A second later, its eyes went dark and its cockpit hatch burst open, disgorging a rope ladder. Davo scrambled down the ladder with such haste that a metre from the ground he lost his grip, fell and hit the road shoulders-first. He flailed and kicked out, screaming; tears ran down his face. As soon as he managed to find his footing, he bolted away from the battle, down the same road Isha had come down.

The cataphract paused for a moment. Then it seemed to shrug lightly, turned, and ran down away from the intersection, toward the city centre.

A heavy, stunned silence fell on the intersection, broken only by the crackling of the fires on the still-burning suits. Slowly, ever so slowly, the senior sergeant came out into the open, followed by Crake. He looked over at Orsini, who stared at the cataphract then quickly tapped his right hand to his forehead, chest, then both shoulders.

“Fucking coward.” Swore the senior sergeant as he stared up at Davo’s now-empty suit.

Isha felt warmth and energy returning to his body all in a rush now; he felt lightheaded again. He walked briskly toward the senior sergeant. “What was he supposed to do? Five suits took on that thing- you saw what happened!”

“That doesn’t matter!” Roared the senior sergeant. “He shoulda fought to the last-”

“What, and died?” Said Isha.

“If that’s what it took.” Said the senior sergeant.

“Fuck you.” Swore Isha, a sudden burning heat rising in his chest. “You and your men ran the second it appeared, you’re no better-”

“That’s different! We’re infantry! We didn’t have a chance against a fucking cataphract!” Shouted the senior sergeant.

“Well neither did he!” Said Isha, his voice raw and hot.

The senior sergeant glowered at Isha for a few long seconds. Isha matched his look, his hands balled into fists. The two of them stood there like that, staring each other down- until eventually the senior sergeant shook his head. “Damnit. I just- fucking- you lot!” Shouted the senior sergeant. “Pilot retrieval duty! Now!”

Isha watched as the soldiers- those who had slunk back to the intersection- now dispersed and headed toward the disabled suits. The senior sergeant, on the other hand, walked toward Davo’s empty suit, beckoning Isha to follow.

“Sorry, kid.” Said the senior sergeant. “Didn’t mean to go off my head. It’s… Well, you know.” Said the senior sergeant, waving a hand at the three disabled suits, the seven destroyed tanks and the wounded and dead infantry, who had long since been stacked- sitting or lying down- against nearby walls. “Bit of a shitfight…”

“Yeah.” Said Isha quietly. “Don’t worry about it. He’s just- he’s my friend.”

“Oh.” Said the senior sergeant.

A silence heavy and uncomfortable fell on the pair, until the senior sergeant broke it. “This thing’s still in top nick; reckon one of us could pilot it?” He said, gesturing up at Davo’s suit.

“Probably not.” Said Isha. “It’s not like driving a car. And besides, each modular suit needs to be unlocked with a special passcode…”

“Real shame.” Said the senior sergeant. “Lords aren’t gonna like it when they find out one of their suit sergeants cut and ran.”

“Mmm.” Murmured Isha to himself.

“If no one’s using it, mind if I take it?” Asked a new and unfamiliar voice. Isha and the senior sergeant both turned toward the speaker, who was standing in the shadow of the building nearest the suit.

The speaker looked to be a woman, tall, slim and wide-shouldered. She looked to be young, only a few years older than Isha if he had to guess; she had light brown skin, bright, messy neck-length red hair and big, bright green eyes. To Isha’s eyes, she had petite, smooth features, although her face was also streaked with dirt and had an odd, orange sheen to it. She wore a rather dirty duster over a black skintight bodysheath.

“Who’re you?” Asked the senior sergeant.

“I’m on your side.” Said the woman. She had a strange accent, one Isha could never remember hearing before- it was clear, warm and lilting. “I also have bad business with that cataphract- it’d help if I had a modular suit of my own.”

“You’re going to take on a cataphract in just a modular suit?” Said Isha; his eyes widened.

“I admit, it sounds rather reckless, doesn’t it?” Said the woman lightly, walking over to them.

Isha had to lift his head up to look at her- she was at least a head taller than he was. “It sounds like a death wish, miss.” Said Isha quietly.

The woman gave him a warm smile. “I’m not intending to defeat it. My plan’s to slow it down long enough for the Knights to arrive…” She glanced back over at the suit. “I would’ve preferred one of those Hoplites, but an Iconoclast will do. You said he was your friend, young man?”

“Huh?” Said Isha, thrown off-guard by the quick change in subject. “Uh, y-yeah-”

“Can you tell me his passcode?” Said the woman. “I don’t need it, but time’s of the essence.”

“I, uhm.” Isha frowned. He met the woman’s gaze, eye to eye- then quickly looked away. “He’d get in trouble.”

“More trouble than fleeing the field?” Said the woman. “Alright, young man. If you tell me the passcode, I promise to put in a good word on his behalf to Lord Darumbal.” She turned toward the senior sergeant. “The punishment for cowardice under Lord Darumbal is…?”

“Firing squad.” Said the senior sergeant gruffly; to Isha’s surprise, he couldn’t quite meet the woman’s gaze either.

“Firing squad. Maybe I can have that mitigated to lashes with a thoric whip instead?” Said the woman.

Isha was quiet for a few seconds longer- then he glanced up at her. “The passcode is 04022446.” Said Isha quietly.

The woman’s eyebrows rose. “That’s just his birthday, isn’t it?”

“… Yes.”

The woman beamed; then she turned and climbed swiftly and assuredly up the ladder. A moment after she entered the cockpit the ladder followed her, zipping back to the top. The cockpit hatch closed- and the eyes flared red once more.

The suit stepped over them- Isha and the senior sergeant flinched and ducked- and started off down the road. It barely went five steps before it stopped and turned; the cockpit hatch opened once again, and the woman leaned out, standing atop the lowered hatch- which doubled as a small ramp.

“Young man!” She shouted. “Might I ask your name?”

“My-?” Isha stared up at her. “Misra- ah, Isha. Isha Misra.”

He could see her smile from the ground. “Isha. Thank you for being so helpful, Isha.”

The woman stepped back inside. The cockpit hatch closed, the suit turned and walked down the road. It paused to grab the now-abandoned carbine and stuck it inside a holster on the back; then it grabbed the beam sword in its left hand and the shield in its right before it broke out into a run, heading along the same path the pale cataphract did- toward the city centre.

***

Lilavati found the cockpit to be a tight, busy space.

It was roughly square, with the pilot’s seat in the middle: a high-backed chair, padded with a soft yet surprisingly firm material. To the left and right of the chair were banks of terminals and readouts, displaying all manner of details, such as damage reports, reactor outputs, ammo stores and communications. The cockpit hatch was in front of the seat, about a metre away; as the cockpit hatch closed, an internal wall shut over it. This wall doubled as a huge monitor, showing direct feed from the mod-suit’s eyes and other sensors. A heads-up display had been overlaid over this monitor, displaying sensor and radar readouts and three targeting reticules that roved to and fro around the middle of the display.

Perhaps the most elaborate thing in this cramped space was the control armature. This was a wide ring attached to the roof that lowered around the seat as the pilot took their spot. Along the ring were two grooves, starting on the point of ring directly in front of the pilot and ending on the point directly behind; in each groove was a joystick, a row of buttons running down their sides within reach of a grasping thumb. On each side of the pilot was a large leathery elbow-length glove, studded with little ports along the knuckles; each port was connected by green tubes to the back of the cockpit. Finally, positioned just in front of the seat’s footrest were four pedals: centre-left was an accelerator, marked with up arrow, centre-right was a brake, marked with a blunted arrow; far left was marked with an arrow pointing left and far right was marked the opposite.

A narrow place, filled with screens demanding attention. But, Lilavati noted to herself, it was also wondrously, blessedly cold within the cockpit. Now shielded from the sun, the fluttering of her reactor was already dying down.

Lilavati sat within the seat, her arms snug within the gloves, both of which were gripping the joysticks. Her left foot was firm on the accelerator, pushing the mod-suit as fast as she dared within such a dense place as Birdsville. As she came to the t-junction she pushed down on the right-arrow pedal: the mod-suit obligingly turned right until she took her foot off.

Lilavati glanced up at the sensor readout- it showed dozens of signatures, but each one identified as a Darumbal friendly. “Strange. Not much use tracking the cataphract through that…”

The streets of Birdsville were not like the untamed wilderness that lay beyond the walls. There were no thick dusts to imprint on, or crumbling loose earth to disturb. Where one could see the flat plains of the desert roll on seemingly forever, the city was packed with obstacles that blocked one’s line of sight, even in a modular suit. Furthermore, the buildings only became taller and denser the closer one came to the city square. The roads and the buildings were all built to withstand the shock of a modular suit passing by, and so not even cracked pavements could lead one in the right direction.

Which is not to say that Lilavati felt she couldn’t track her hunters, only that she had to look for different signs. Some signs were obvious: she saw a pair of crushed tanks at the end of her current road. She scanned the skyline for plumes of smoke. She kept quiet and paid attention to the noise of the city: the thumping of mod-suit feet, the whip-crack retort of sunrifles, the roars of detshells. The treads of battletanks and the cries and screams of dying infantry. And, of course, the mod-suit had its own special equipment.

“System, vision overlay thermal.” Said Lilavati. The cockpit’s monitor feed shimmered, and the view changed. The world was now a stark contrast of cold blues and warm oranges and reds. The buildings around her were all cold and dark, so that anything warm or hot stood out against them: a fire burning on a nearby wrecked tank bloomed brightly, as did a trio of forlorn soldiers dodging through the alleyways.

About a hundred metres away, behind several tall apartments, erratic bursts of heat suddenly flashed into existence, hurtled down a street then vanished. A few seconds later it happened again.

“Sunrifle fire.” Said Lilavati to herself. She kept her focus on that sight and pushed down hard on the accelerator.

As Lilavati came closer to the source, the sounds became sharper, louder: screams, the discharge of gunfire, the crackling of fires. A minute later, she emerged into the heart of the warzone.

It was a wide road, probably one of the main thoroughfares of the city, Lilavati thought. It ran from the north - toward the city square- to the south, toward the walls. The road was thronged with buildings as well as turrets, most of which were burning and broken. Every ten metres or so were six-metre tall sloped barricades, just wide enough for a single modular suit; each barricade had risen out of the ground itself it seemed, and were arrayed in a zig-zag pattern to each other. Two Hoplites stood to the south- the right- of Lilavati, crouching behind shattered and rubbled buildings. To the left were a haphazard collection of garrison forces: three battletanks, perhaps forty infantry and a single Iconoclast modular suit, which crouched behind a barricade and emerged to fire off a barrage of sunrifle bolts toward the intruders.

There was a tall apartment building to her right, on the corner between her own street and the main road. Lilavati steered her modular suit up against against it, then pressed both the left and right pedals at the same time; in response her suit crouched, bending at the knee.

“System, swap beam blade for sun carbine.” Said Lilavati. The suit responded, hooking the beam blade’s emitter within a tight loop on its waist. Then it raised its left hand and pulled the sun carbine off the long holster strapped to its back. “Good. Now patch me into garrison comms.”

There was a crackle of static over the suit’s speakers- then a voice came through.

“… This is Sergeant Thomas. Keeping them pinned for now,” said the voice, which Lilavati assumed was from the nearby Iconoclast. It sounded like an older man’s voice, calm and composed. “But I’m outgunned and need reinforcement.”

“Archibald’s on her way.” came a second voice, this time a woman. “ETA three minutes.”

“Probably gonna need help sooner, O’Reilly.” Said Thomas.

“Will I do?” Said Lilavati.

There was a moment of silence. Then- “Who’re you?” Asked O’Reilly.

“Lilavati.” Said Lilavati lightly. “I’m on a special mission involving Lord Darumbal. I’m here to help. Sergeant Thomas, do you see me? Look to your right.”

Thomas’s suit turned toward her. “… Oh. I see you. Commander, she’s got one of our suits.”

“How did you-” Began O’Reilly.

“I happened to need it. Don’t think the original pilot minded.” Said Lilavati. “Let’s hash this out later. For now, we need to take out those Hoplites before their reinforcements arrive.”

“They’re bringing reinforcements?” Said Thomas, his voice wavering just for a moment.

“Two more Hoplites. Doesn’t matter.” Said Lilavati. “Let’s deal with what we have. System, vision overlay normal.”

As the monitor’s view changed back to real colour, Lilavati leaned out from behind cover and studied the two Hoplites. One of them carried what looked like a large gatling gun on its left hand and a long, sharp-tipped lance on its right. The other Hoplite, however, had firearms on both arms: a very long, narrow cannon on its right and what Lilavati recognised as a missile launcher on its left. Both Hoplites sported damage- the lance-bearing Hoplite had a large gouge across the left side of its face and chest, whilst the launcher-armed Hoplite was smoking slightly from cracks in its armour.

Within a second, the lance-armed Hoplite turned its gatling gun toward her and fired. A hail of solid shells slammed into the building and the road around her, narrowly missing Lilavati as she ducked back into cover.

“Outgunned is right.” Said Lilavati. “We’re better off fighting them close quarters; have you tried sneaking around the side?”

“We lost two suits doing that.” Said Thomas. “They can detect us even if we go slow and low-power, but we have a devil of a time detecting them.”

“I noticed.” Said Lilavati. She stepped out of cover, raised her shield in front of her and braced the sun carbine on the top, and aimed at the launcher-Hoplite. She scowled as the three targeting reticules continued to weave restlessly across the monitor. Lilavati fired, but her aim was off, and the Hoplite was already pulling away into cover. The lance-Hoplite fired once more, forcing Lilavati back into hiding.

“I’m struggling to achieve lock-on.” Said Lilavati, watching as the facade of the building started to crumble around her. “That true for everyone else?”

“Yeah,” said Thomas. “Same for the turrets and the tanks- unless we’re point blank or they’re distracted, hitting them’s a pain in the ass.”

“Subterfuge module, maybe. Doesn’t matter. The Hoplite with the launcher- I’m going to mark it with my carbine. You and the tanks should be able to lock onto that for a few seconds. Cover me.”

“Understood.” Said Thomas. He fired his sunrifle erratically toward the lance-Hoplite. The bolts sailed past it or struck the building behind which it hunkered, but it did the trick: the Hoplite seemed unwilling to step out into the open.

Lilavati waited a few seconds until the launcher-Hoplite edged out of cover- and she took the opening. she leaned out into the open and raised her carbine. “System, carbine setting to ‘mark’.”

She pulled the trigger once. Instead of a red bolt, this time a very thin red beam crossed the distance instantaneously and struck the Hoplite on the chest. It didn’t seem to do any damage- in fact the Hoplite didn’t even seem to notice.

The Hoplite wasn’t showing up on sensors, but a sudden spike of radiation was, a spike that just so happened to be centred right on the Hoplite. Lilavati beamed.

“Mark identified!” Shouted Thomas. “Locking on now!”

The three battletanks charged forward out from behind a barricade; they trained their turrets on the launcher-Hoplite and fired; three bolts struck the Hoplite square in the chest and staggered it backward, knocking it into the open as it lowered its enormous launcher in a desperate attempt to keep from toppling over. Thomas turned his rifle toward it and fired, hitting it four times; two across the head, scoring deep gouges, and another two into the chest. The front chestplate cracked and sloughed off, exposing vulnerable, unguarded cables, synthetic muscle and modules- including the cockpit.

Unseen by the Hoplites, a squad of infantry had snuck through the maze of alleys and now emerged, leaning out of the windows of the building the launcher-Hoplite had been hiding behind. One soldier had climbed the roof, an infantry missile launcher held in his arms; he crouched, braced the launcher against the edge of the building and aimed for the cockpit.

At that moment the lance-Hoplite burst from cover; it sprayed its gatling gun toward Lilavati, the tanks and Thomas. Lilavati and Thomas ducked back behind cover, but three of the shells struck struck a tank. The first shell punched through its right tracks, the second bounced off its armour, but the third ripped straight through the turret. The tank rocked violently and tried to back away, onto for the right track to completely unravel- the tank was now stranded in no-man’s land.

But the lance-Hoplite didn’t stop there. It charged the building housing the infantry with its lance, building up momentum as it went. The infantry screamed and scattered, a few leaping out of windows, but for many it was too late- the lance and the Hoplite both crashed into the building, shattering it apart. A moment later the building had collapsed in on itself in a cloud of choking dust, many of the screams cut short; some simply became louder and sharper.

The lance-Hoplite loomed over the rubble of the building, staring at it in a way that Lilavati found almost contemptuous; and then it turned away dismissively toward Thomas and Lilavati.

A second later, a single missile streaked out of the rubble, struck the lance-Hoplite square in the neck and exploded. The light armouring around the neck joint ruptured completely, exposing now-rent wires and cables. The optical band around the Hoplite’s head flickered for a few seconds- and when the flickering stopped, the band’s glow seemed dimmer somehow.

The Hoplite turned its head back toward the building; a pair of infantry-scale machine guns emerged from its cheeks. The Hoplite fired the machine guns wildly into the rubble for a few seconds before turning back toward Lilavati and Thomas.

Thomas rose from behind cover and fired a burst at the lance-Hoplite. The lance-Hoplite just barely leapt to the side and nearly stumbled over a barricade. Thomas chuckled.

But as the lance-Hoplite leapt, Lilavati saw the launcher-Hoplite rise back onto its feet. It aimed its narrow cannon at Thomas and fired.

A crackling, blinding yellow beam- identical to the sort Lilavati fired from her fingertips- surged across the space, punched straight through the chest of Thomas’s suit, out the other side and through several buildings before stopping. Thomas’s chuckle cut away abruptly.

His suit remained unsteady for a second, a large round hole cut through its entire torso, exactly where the cockpit would’ve been. A second later it fell heavily into the ground and burst into flame.

Lilavati’s eyes widened, and she felt her grip on her joysticks tighten.

“Thomas? Thomas! Come in!” Shouted O’Reilly over the comms.

“… Thomas is gone, Commander.” Said Lilavati, her voice tight and quiet. “One of the Hoplites is armed with a teleforce caster- it sniped his cockpit.”

“Fuck!” Swore O’Reilly. “Archibald isn’t going to get there in time- I’m pulling my tanks back, you should-”

But Lilavati couldn’t afford to pay any further attention- the lance-Hoplite had turned toward her now and charged, lance high. It thundered toward her, firing its gatling gun as it went: the rest of her cover collapsed, and Lilavati desperately raised her shield, covering her torso. The shield was more than just a slab of thick armour- it was sloped and angled as well, and several shells struck it only to rebound off. Nonetheless the sheer force of impact forced Lilavati backward, her suit stumbling as it went.

The Hoplite now loomed over her and lunged downward with the lance, aiming squarely for the cockpit; Lilavati only barely regained her balance in time to shift her shield, putting the thickest section between herself and the lance.

The lance’s tip punched straight through the shield. Nonetheless it had been slowed, and it just barely scraped Lilavati’s chestplate.

Lilavati saw her opportunity. She yanked the shield to the side, jerking the lance and the Hoplite with it- then she raised her carbine. “System, carbine setting to overcharge!”

There was a hum from the carbine, and a second later Lilavati fired. A roaring bolt of red light struck straight into the Hoplite’s chest, punched through the armour and set fire to its innards. The Hoplite reared away as though in pain, its arms spasming- it yanked its lance free- before toppling backward into the debris of the building it had leveled in its haste to pounce on Lilavati.

Lilavati rose. She quickly holstered the carbine and tugged the beam blade from its loop. “System, manual close combat controls, engage.”

In the cockpit, Lilavati physically pulled the joysticks up out of the groove- they both remained connected to the groove through a black cable attached to the base. With a flick of her wrist the beam blade burst into being, a bright tube of light gleaming red and angry. She tucked her right arm in toward her chest- and after a half second of delay the suit’s right arm moved too, bringing the shield up between her and the Hoplite. She raised her left arm- and the suit’s left arm raised as well.

Lilavati charged forward and brought the blade down on the prone Hoplite. It frantically raised its lance and the two met, creating a shower of sparks. Lilavati pressed hard against the lance, its metal surface growing redder and redder by the second.

The Hoplite suddenly pushed the lance back, jerked to the left as best it could and fired its gatling gun point-blank at Lilavati. The first two shells struck the shield but the rest flew past harmlessly- Lilavati had already leapt to the right. She brought the blade up past her right shoulder and swung out violently toward the gatling gun; the tip of the blade cut straight through several barrels as well as the stock. The gun stuttered for a moment, crackled with electricity, then exploded. Lilavati jumped backward just in time as the area was shrouded with fire and smoke.

It cleared a few seconds later- just in time to watch the launcher-Hoplite bolt past toward the city square, the two tanks in hot pursuit.

The lance-Hoplite squirmed beneath her. Chest aflame, gun-arm ruined, neck sparking- it looked a mess. It tried to struggle away from Lilavati and onto its back.

Lilavati threw her shield aside. With her hand now free she grabbed the lance, yanked it back and stabbed the blade directly beneath the lance-arm’s armpit. The Hoplite spasmed- a few seconds of burning later, the blade’s beam cut through to the other side of the shoulder. With a single slash, Lilavati cut the arm free.

With a second, she beheaded it.

And with a third, she cut its legs off at the knees.

The Hoplite now lay helpless in front of her. Lilavati stared unblinkingly at it, her expression cold.

A second later she leaned in, punched her hand through the Hoplite’s chest and yanked its cockpit block free. This she stowed away in an ammo pouch on her hip, clearing its power cell free first. She deactivated and sheathed the blade, picked up and reloaded the carbine, grabbed the battered shield and turned toward the city square at a run.

The Hoplite had a head start- and nothing to slow it down. Lilavati fired at its back, but her bolts hit nothing- the Hoplite wove across the road, making for a highly difficult target to hit. And on a sprint like this, the Hoplite was proving to be faster.

After a minute of pursuit, the Hoplite burst into the city square. The pale cataphract was already there, surrounded by six more destroyed turrets, four burning tanks and the husk of a dead Iconoclast suit. Many of the buildings around it were shattered or even on fire.

The pale cataphract stared at the Hoplite as it arrived, then turned its gaze toward Lilavati. Lilavati was already running to the side, toward cover as the cataphract raised its pistol. Scurrying as she was, she was powerless to stop the Hoplite: it ran into the city square, raised its missile launcher toward the laser transmitter tower, and fired. The missile burst forth like a lance of flame- it struck the tower near the base and exploded.

Within a second, the tower was toppling toward the ground in pieces. It took with it Lilavati’s closest chance to contact home.

She closed her eyes. Her grip on the joysticks tightened.

The cataphract turned its gaze toward the tanks- and they both promptly scattered down two different side roads.

The cataphract now began to walk away from the square, its pistol raised, ready and waiting- and then turned abruptly toward a nearby building. Lilavati peered out of cover just in time to see the cataphract leap forward, punch its hand through the building’s wall and pull back out- within was a soldier, carrying a missile launcher.

The cataphract squeezed- and threw the bloody mess aside.

Lilavati’s eyes widened. “No-”

She leapt out from cover and fired her carbine full-burst toward the cataphract. It easily leapt aside and fired its pistol as it did so- it only barely missed, scraping Lilavati’s left elbow as it went.

Lilavati stumbled slightly, caught her footing- just in time to dive toward the nearest building as the cataphract fired again. The det-shell shattered an apartment tower behind her, sending the debris raining down upon her suit.

Lilavati thrashed about, trying to clear herself free of the masonry and ruin. The cockpit suddenly seemed very hot, at least to her. “No, no-”

The cataphract broke cover and began to walk toward Lilavati-

But suddenly it leapt sharply away, and after a moment Lilavati knew why: a moment later a massive, actinic green blast struck the ground where the pale cataphract had been standing. A shower of dirt and muck rose into the air- and when it cleared, a crater six metres wide and eight metres deep had been left in the ground.

Lilavati looked up.

Far above, just barely visible, was what looked like an aircraft: it streaked across the sky and flew off to the northeast. But something had been dropped from it as it went, and a second later this landed in the city square, a slight tremor vibrating through the nearby buildings.

It was a modular suit, standing about sixteen metres tall. It had six long, elegant legs, pointed and segmented like a spider’s, with three to each side of its body. It had a slender, humanlike torso, but its head was round and bulbous, long at the back; it had two long slits along each side of its head for eyes, and two long antenna running along its jawline. It had long, muscular yet lean arms. Its right arm ended in a massive claw, easily large enough to grab a whole modular suit within it; the inner sides of the claw were covered in dozens of serrated, long, sharp teeth-like protrusions. Its left arm ended in a cannon, similar to the Hoplites, but the transition was more natural, the cannon itself sleek and black, its barrel smoking slightly. A hose ran from the underside of the cannon up the arm and into a compact box attached to the suit’s back. The suit’s hull was made of what looked like a lustrous fabric, woven so tightly as to look like skin; and indeed, Lilavati could see the light twitching of synthetic muscle beneath the right arm. The suit’s hull was a dark blue, and bore on its chest and head the golden flaming grenade of House Darumbal.

The pale cataphract stared warily at this new interloper- it slowly backed away.

The spider-like cataphract turned toward it and raised its claw, pointing one long wicked finger toward its foe. Then it spoke, the pilot’s voice ringing throughout the square:

“I am Lord Lachlan Darumbal, third child of Lord Henry!” Said the pilot; he had a youthful voice, a voice edged with what sounded to Lilavati like a fierce sort of joy. “Your intrusion is without reason, cause or warning. By the laws of the Four Estates, your life is hereby forfeit.”

Lord Darumbal’s Knights had arrived at last.

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