Chapter One Lilavati

Chapter One
“Lilavati”

Lilavati stared unblinkingly through the window at the Serenity-Berlin skyline.

The city skyline was dense yet orderly, a collective of boxy buildings rising steadily in height the closer they came towards Lilavati and the city centre. Some were firm and rectangular, whilst others were gentler, tending towards graceful curves and elegant arches growing out of the superstructure. Almost all of them were studded with windows, gleaming dazzlingly in the light of the sun and of the Earth, which sat in the sky above, glowing a bright blue and white amongst the stars.

Between the buildings flew skimmer cars, and these too were dense yet orderly: small, nimble one-seaters alongside ungainly buses and the odd cargo truck. They flew at different altitudes, although only rarely did a car move up or down, and then only at certain points that Lilavati could see, where traffic lights brought cars to a halt before directing them on their way.

Above and around all the buildings and the cars was the skydome, a colossal hemispheric structure that enclosed the city. The skydome itself was tinted dark, reducing the intensity of the sunlight on the city below.

Lilavati stared, as she had been for half an hour. Lilavati had wide, bright green eyes, warm, light brown skin with a tint of copper, and wavy red hair that fell in a tumble to her neck, which hid her round, small ears. Lilavati looked young, in her early twenties, and her face was fresh and clean. She was tall, quite slim with rather wide shoulders, and held her back straight and high. Her hands sat at her sides.

“Lila,” called someone from behind her. Lilavati didn’t turn immediately; instead she placed a hand against the window and finally blinked, just once. Then she turned- and her eyes widened.

“Hi, papa!” Said Lilavati, sounding delighted as well as surprised. She ran across the room and pulled him into a tight hug.

Her father was a tall man, albeit not as tall as Lilavati. He had short brown hair, large, almost protuberant brown eyes and alabaster-pale skin. He had small, rounded ears like Lilavati, and like Lilavati he looked young; unlike Lilavati he had a rather long, broad face, a neat goatee giving his face an oddly pointed appearance. He wore a sharp uniform, made up of a tight, high-collared charcoal grey long-sleeved jacket, the bottom few centimetres of which hung over long black dress trousers. He held his hands behind himself, but quickly wrapped them around Lilavati tightly.

“I didn’t think you’d make it.” Said Lilavati.

“The British king was more pliable to a deal than I’d anticipated.” Said her father. “His mother would’ve been ashamed, I suspect, not that I’m complaining…”

Lilavati pulled back a little, still keeping her hands on her father’s shoulders. “It worked, then?”

“Yes. Britain should be leaving the Commonwealth alone… At least for a little while.” Said her father with a small sigh. But then he smiled as he gazed up at her. “I hurried back as soon as the contract was signed. I wanted to see you off, Lila.”

“Thank you.” Said Lilavati sincerely. “I’d hoped someone would come by, but Luke’s busy with an intel report and mama’s still working on the new far side refinery expansions…”

“They probably think this is all routine by now,” she added with a grin.

“They would.” Said her father solemnly. “To your oh so distinguished brother and mother, us poor diplos are just the front line grunts, after all-”

“Running all over the place,” Cut in Lilavati.

“Getting our hands and feet dirty,” continued her father.

“Ruining our clocks with bloody earthtime,” they finished in unison. They both laughed loudly and happily, the sound filling the empty, austere terminal.

“Still,” continued her father, leading her over to a row of seats, where they both sat down next to one another. “I know better. How are you feeling?”

“Confident. Nervous, a little.” Said Lilavati.

“Nervous! After all this time?” Said her father with a grin.

“Not so routine as mama supposedly thinks.” Said Lilavati wryly. “Dealing with Feudals is always somewhat unsettling.” She waved a hand dismissively in the air. “They’re so suspicious! I keep hoping for a warm welcome, but…”

“Oh, you’re in for a very warm welcome this time.” Said her father, a little too happily. “It’s summertime in Australia, you know. Forty degrees in the day is about average for where you’re going.”

Lilavati grimaced. “I’m well aware. I’ve stacked extra chargepacks for my cooling suit just in case.”

“Good.” Said her father. “At least desert nights are nice and cool…”

“And you don’t have to wait two weeks for them to arrive, either.” Said Lilavati. “Still, such short nights, too…” She sighed. “It’s hardly civilised.”

“Hardly.” Said her father with a chuckle. “But they get by somehow. As we too must get by.” He said, his expression becoming serious. “You know why your brother’s so busy these days…”

“I’m well aware.” Said Lilavati, her own smile fading. She reached out and took her father’s hand. “We still have ten years, and it isn’t as though the Republic has been- or really, can afford to be- complacent. Look how busy we are-”

“Yes, of course…” Said her father. He gave her a warm, yet slightly shaky smile.

Lilavati squeezed his hand. “It’s fine to be scared, papa. I’m scared too.”

“Hmm, even you?” Said her father, his smile widening.

“Even me.” Said Lilavati; she leaned over and rested her head against his. They sat there quietly, hand in hand, for what seemed like half an hour… Until they heard footsteps.

“Lilavati?” Said a new voice. “The Wildcat’s prepped. We can leave at any time.”

Lilavati looked up. The newcomer was of average height, with narrow brown eyes, russet-brown skin, short, straight blonde hair and a feminine form. She had an a rather athletic build, and like Lilavati wore an ‘activity suit’- a form-fitting garment made up of a stretchy skintight body sheath, over which was fitted a padded, quilted layer. Finally, a hard harness was placed over the chest, containing the suite of electronics that managed the suit’s heat, light and air, as well as containing the small thrusters on the back that would be used for propulsion in the void of space.

“Thank you, Serval.” Said Lilavati warmly, sitting up straight. She patted her father’s hand with both of hers. “It’s time for me to go, papa.”

“And what if I don’t want it to be time yet?” grumbled her father.

“Don’t be greedy, Achille.” Said Serval lightly. “Time to share Lila with the dirty Feudal savages, come on.”

“Oh, really.” Said Lilavati with a sigh. “You shouldn’t call them that-”

Serval poked her tongue out at Lilavati.

“So rude.” Said Lilavati, but she smiled nonetheless as she stood up. “Let’s not waste time, then.”

Her father stood too, and together the three of them walked to the end of the terminal, where there was a large double-blast door. On approach, the door opened, leading them to the outside of the tower complex.

In front of them was a shuttlepad, wide, flat and spartan in design, the only colour amongst the dull grey being the red symbols painted onto the ground. These were obscured at the moment by the Wildcat, a ten-metre long, sleek shuttle with a bullet-like appearance, tapering elegantly to a point at the cockpit; its hull was black and glassy, as though made of obsidian. The craft had two wings, the length of which were adjustable; each wing ended in a long, thin cylindrical engine, which in turn could be rotated to provide vertical as well as horizontal thrust. Two repulsor-strips sat along the bottom of the craft: narrow things that ran from the rear of the craft all the way to just before the point where the fuselage began to taper toward the cockpit. Finally, embedded in the aft surface of the shuttle were four large engines, each half a metre in diameter. The shuttle bore an emblem near the cockpit- a round insignia, depicting a crescent moon strung like a bow. Written along the edges of the emblem were the words Lunar Republic Space Forces- Battlefleet Artemis.

“Your other half is looking lovely as always, Serval.” Said Achille.

“Thanks, Achille.” Said Serval, giving him a firm thumbs up. As Serval approached, a door slid open in the nearest side of the shuttle, and a flight of steps extended automatically. “I’ll be inside, Lila.”

“Alright.” Said Lilavati. She turned toward Achille and smiled. “I’ll be home soon, papa. Maybe if you’re home around the same time, we can have a family outing? Just the four of us?”

“I’d like that.” Said Achille. “That said, I have work to do in the Roman Empire…”

Lilavati’s face fell.

“… But I’ll try my very best to be home in time.” He added.

Lilavati’s smile returned. “I know you will, papa. Take care, alright? Please be careful down there.”

“And the same to you, my Lila.” Said her father. He stepped forward and pulled her into another, ever tighter hug. “Be careful, Lila. The Australians think themselves powerful, and that makes them dangerous and reckless. Don’t let your guard down- promise me that.”

“I promise.” Murmured Lilavati. She stayed there in the embrace, her eyes closed, for a few moments longer before she slowly pulled away. “I love you, papa.”

“I love you too, Lila.” He put on a brave face and smiled, as wide as he could. He reached out and tussled her already messy hair.

Lilavati stared at him, smiling in return- then caught his hand in her own before slowly blinking once. With a final squeeze, she let her father go, turned and climbed up onto the Wildcat- waving as the steps recessed into the fuselage and the hatch sealed closed.

The shuttle’s interior was rather narrow, if not cramped; it was definitely spartan. It had space for ten pairs of seats, five pairs on each side. At the rear of the vessel was a door marked Cargo- Lilavati had loaded her equipment there an hour ago.

Serval was already sitting in the cockpit seat. The interface bore no visible buttons or levers.

“Take your seat, Lila, and I’ll get us going.” Said Serval. She picked up a helmet off the dashboard- the rear of the helmet made of an opaque material, into which the clear front slotted- over her head, sealing it tight to the neckpiece of her activity suit. After that was done, she placed her hands on the interface, which lit up at her touch. Serval closed her eyes.

Lilavati found her own helmet and did the same, taking the right-hand seat on the first right-hand pair, the seat nearest to the entrance she’d just came through. She buckled herself in. “All ready.”

“Great.” Said Serval. “Surovite reactor output at 100%. Locking wings in atmospheric position. Engaging thrusters in three, two, one…”

With the lightest of shakes, the Wildcat lifted, its engines pushing it off the shuttlepad. After gaining an altitude of around twenty metres, the wing-mounted thrusters oriented horizontally- and with that, the Wildcat was away, smoothly and easily joining that very skyline Lilavati had gazed at for so long.

The shuttle made a beeline for an airlock gate in the skydome. “Shuttle Wildcat to Skydome Control, requesting clearance to depart by Skygate Six,” said Serval.

“Shuttle Wildcat, this is Skydome Control. Permission granted, and good luck.” Came a voice over an intercom sitting just above the front viewscreen.

The Skygate- a fifty metre wide gate built into the dome- slid open, not fully, just wide enough to admit the shuttle. Serval took them through, making no visible movements with her hands or feet- yet adjusting the shuttle’s movement somehow. It took only thirty seconds to pass through the first gate- which closed the instant they were through- and out the second, which opened the moment the first closed.

Then they were out into the void. “Setting course for Australia.” Said Serval.

Serenity-Berlin, and the rest of the moon, fell away beneath them.

***

“So, Australia, eh?” Said Serval. For most of the last hour they’d spent talking about various things, for lack of anything better to do. “This your first time, Lila?”

“Yes.” Said Lilavati, who was playing with a set of six soft foam balls. She threw them into the air, one at a time, where they would keep floating in the gravity-less shuttle until they struck a surface, which sent them off in a different direction. “It’s the only continent I haven’t yet visited. What about you? Have you ever been there with other diplomats?”

“Just the once.” Said Serval. “I was there three years ago. Shuttled in the embassy to their new king.”

“The May Embassy of 2476.” Said Lilavati quietly. “Wasn’t that a disaster?”

“I wouldn’t call it a disaster.” Said Serval cheerfully. “No one died, so how bad could it be?”

“Dumb luck.” Muttered Lilavati. “If the regent had had her way, they would’ve mounted the entire mission staff’s heads on poles atop her cataphract…”

“You’re not wrong.” Said Serval lightly. “But hey, new regent, new attitudes, right? Doesn’t mean they’re gonna go hunting for you, Lila.”

“Mmm. I hope as much.” Said Lilavati. “The new regent seems to be a calmer sort at least.”

“You’re not meeting with the regent though, are you?” Said Serval.

“I am and I’m not.” Said Lilavati. “It’s a Feudal law concept. I’m meeting with Lord Henry Darumbal. He’s the Duke of Capricornia and Lord Senior of House Darumbal and Royal Chancellor and Regent, but he’s not negotiating with me as regent, just as a duke. If I were negotiating with Lord Henry Darumbal, Royal Regent, he’d be negotiating on behalf of their boy king, but since I’m really negotiating with Lord Henry Darumbal, Duke of Capricornia, he’s only negotiating for himself.”

“Makes sense.” Said Serval.

“Does it really?” Said Lilavati dryly, lightly backhanding a foam ball against the entry hatch.

“Well. I understand the process.” Said Serval. “It really, really doesn’t appeal to me, though, I mean… Can you imagine what the President would do if a Lunar state started negotiating with some random Feudal all by themselves?”

“Short circuit, I suspect.” Said Lilavati with a laugh. “Hey, you’re proper military. Is it true that the President went berserk at the Joint Chiefs last week?”

“That’s confidential.” Said Serval loftily.

“Damn.”

They fell into an easy silence, Serval focusing on piloting whilst Lilavati batted her foam balls around. All but one were in the air now; Lilavati held up the sixth and last, eyed it carefully with her right eye, then flicked it upwards. It struck another foam ball, sending it careening into another, which ricocheted off the floor, struck a third, knocking it into a fourth, deflecting that one downward, where it clipped a fifth, which glided toward the back of the shuttle. It bounced off the cargo door, floated all the way back, and struck the sixth- the one Lilavati had flicked in the first place. This one now hurtled directly into the back of Serval’s helmet, which it struck with a light ‘thok’.

Serval went stiff for a moment, her shoulders tensing; then she sighed. “Damnit, Lila.”

Lilavati was already giggling helplessly.

“I hate you.” Muttered Serval with a rueful little smile to herself. “Are you that bored?”

“What? No. This is my special interrogation technique.” Said Lilavati, grinning. “It’s one hundred percent effective.”

“Oh, so this is practice?” Said Serval. “Gonna pelt Feudals with foam balls, too?”

“I wasn’t, but now I’m giving it serious thought.” Said Lilavati, her tone thoughtful.

“Please don’t pelt Feudals with foam balls, Lila.” Said Serval. “They’ll probably think the dumb things are evil moon-people grenades and try to shoot you.”

Lilavati snorted. “That’s why I’m doing it now, against someone I know won’t complain too much.”

“Hmph. I hope a heat wave fries you the whole time you’re down there.” Muttered Serval.

“Wow, you’re mean.” Lilavati’s grin faded, and she let out a sigh. “You’ll probably get your wish, though. Everyone seems very keen on reminding me on just how hot the Australian desert’s supposed to be. At this point I’m half expecting to vaporise the second I step out of the shuttle. It’s fine for you, you get to fly back- I’m stuck down there for at least two weeks.”

“Aww, poor angel.” Said Serval lightly.

“Trade places?” Asked Lilavati.

“Not a chance. Like you could fly the Wildcat anyway.” Said Serval with a snort.

“Come now. Flying a shuttle can’t be much harder than piloting a modular suit.” Said Lilavati. “Tell you what. Take my place, and you can keep ten percent of whatever price you make the Duke pay for the trade deal. Sound fair?”

“Fifty.” Said Serval instantly.

“See? That’s the spirit. You’ll have this, no problem.” Said Lilavati, beaming.

“Thanks.” Said Serval, poking her tongue out at Lilavati before turning back to the viewscreen. “Speaking of hot, we’re entering earth’s atmosphere in one minute. You know the drill-”

“It’s really unfair. My last four missions have been deserts.” Said Lilavati, scowling. “I’d love to go somewhere green and cool next time, somewhere where it rains. I like rain. I’m never allowed to see rain…”

“Fifty seconds.” Said Serval, talking over Lilavati. “Lowering the teleforce barriers and switching to navigational shield.”

The space around the Wildcat seemed to shimmer and ripple for a moment, distorting the image of the earth which now filled the viewscreen. Front and centre was Australia: a wide continent, huge swathes from the west coast to the near-east coast looking brown and burned. Starting in the middle of the southern coast was a thin band of green which ran along the coast, thickening the more southerly it went, before the coast turned northward; the band followed the coast, all the way up to the great peninsular that defined Australia’s northeast. Then it ran down again, filling in the edges of a great bay, before finally petering out.

The heart ran out of Lilavati’s monologue; she fell silent and her expression faltered. She stared seriously, unblinkingly at that view, at the continent below. She raised her left hand, and the foam balls all spun toward her, where she stowed them safely in a bag buckled beneath her seat. Then she grasped the edge of her chair tightly and waited.

“Beginning reentry in three, two, one…” Said Serval.

The Wildcat shuddered and began to buckle. The air around the front of the shuttle began to burn brightly, a great sleeve of fire rippling around the craft. Lilavati could feel the heat increasing; she let out a light pant, and started to sweat within her helmet. Serval was focused forwards toward the viewscreen, hands still flat against the black surface of the controls, her eyes still closed, her breathing calm and steady even as Lilavati felt her own start to speed up.

Lilavati’s grip on the chair’s edge tightened ever harder. With a thought, she slowed her breathing, bringing it back to an even, steady rhythm. The air outside was burning a fierce white now; Lilavati stared unblinkingly at the shock wave, the very heat of the earth taking form around them. The only thing seemingly between them and the worst of it was the navigational shield: an invisible cocoon encasing the entire vessel that every few seconds was pressured by the heat into appearing, suddenly quite opaque, forcibly pressing back at the sheer friction around them.

“Hold on-” Said Serval, as the shuttle began to shake with ever greater violence. The bag beneath Lilavati’s chair began to rattle forcefully against its straps; she pressed her heels firmly against it, keeping it in place. More beads of sweat dripped down her forehead, one drop running down the side of her nose, along the curve of her eyelid before dripping down onto her cheek. For just a moment, she longed to wipe at it, but there was nothing she could do with her helmet in place.

And then quite suddenly the vicious turbulence began to settle down, and with it the heat wave around the shuttle. The navigational shield began to appear less commonly; after about half a minute it simply stopped appearing. To Lilavati’s relief, the heat within the shuttle began to drop as well.

“And we’re through the worst of it.” Said Serval with a happy sigh. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“I’m starting to think you enjoy it.” Muttered Lilavati.

“Would I be a proper ace if I didn’t, hon?” Said Serval with a laugh.

“I suppose not.” Said Lilavati, finally cracking a smile. “When are you extending the wings?”

“In about half a minute.” Said Serval. “We’ll give the engines a chance to cool down, and just freefall until then. I’ll start switching us back to teleforce barriers, however, shouldn’t take more than ten seconds.”

“And then it’s smooth sailing.” Said Lilavati, leaning back in her chair.

“And then it’s smooth sailing.” Repeated Serval, throwing Lilavati a cheery thumbs up.

Lilavati gave Serval her own thumbs up and beamed.

Suddenly, a shrill, harsh alarm sounded throughout the shuttle. Serval’s console suddenly lit up, a mosaic of red triangles appearing along the edges. Serval whipped her hand back toward the console. “Proximity alert! Incoming projectile!”

“What?!” Shouted Lilavati. “From where?”

“The ground!” Said Serval, both hands firmly pressed against the console.

“Can we evade?” Said Lilavati, her grip on her chair tightening.

“The engines are still down, we’ll have to rely on the hull.” Said Serval tightly. “Brace for impa-”

An incredible force tore through the rear of the shuttle, knocking it violently forward, filling Lilavati’s ears with an oppressive noise of all-consuming, pressuring sound. Lilavati jerked forward, held in her seat only by the straps- for a moment the world seemed blurry, and she couldn’t see. The shuttle interior filled with a wave of intense heat; Lilavati felt it wash over her, penetrating right through her activity suit.

The moment her vision recovered, she turned in her seat and looked backward at the cargo bay.

It had been torn apart, a massive breach in the hull showing the blue sky above. Most of the cargo within had been absolutely shredded, and the remainder was now being jettisoned wildly into the air; parts of the cargo bay itself were burning wildly, black smoke leaving an ugly trail across the sky. With a sudden rush of panic, Lilavati realised that she couldn’t see the shuttle’s surovite reactor, its power source, hidden behind the cargo bay- mainly because the reactor chamber simply wasn’t there anymore.

They were freefalling the entire way. They were going to crash.

“Serval!” Shouted Lilavati, turning back toward the front. “The engine-”

“I know.” Said Serval, and although she had to shout to be heard over the rushing air and the twisting of metal, her voice was still calm. “We still have half a minute of reserve power- I can angle the Wildcat, try to control the damage-”

“Alright. I’ll try to call home-” Said Lilavati. She closed her eyes- a second later she opened them. “No good, shuttle’s lost its transmitter. Can you access the onboard distress-?”

“No good-” Said Serval.

Lilavati twisted in her chair. With her left hand she grasped the back of the chair tightly; with her right, she unclasped her buckle. “Leave it to me-”

She was almost instantly tossed upwards from her chair; only her vise-like grip on the chair kept her from hurtling into the ceiling. Grimly, she pulled herself over the chair, then leapt to the row of chairs behind.

“Be careful!” Shouted Serval.

“I will.” Said Lilavati. She tensed, pulled herself up and jumped toward the next row of chairs. Not even a second after she left, the shuttle tilted sharply forwards, almost slamming her against the back of the chairs. Worse, a shard from the twisted wreck of hull around the breach suddenly tore itself free, a long, lethal spear that hurtled into the passenger section- straight towards Lilavati.

She twisted to her left, only barely missing the shard as it gouged deep into the wall behind her. She took a moment, keeping her head down- then clambered up and over the seat, crouching on its back. Only two rows left.

She tensed, coiling her body- then leapt upwards. Lilavati grabbed the headrest of the chair above, only this time she didn’t wait; she pulled herself upwards, propelling her toward the very last row. Hands outstretched, she only barely grasped the chair with her left hand.

The force pulling back on her was immense- yet she squeezed tightly and pulled herself up onto the back of the very last row.

At that moment, the shuttle pivoted again, this time tilting backwards. Quite suddenly, up was now down- and down meant that terrifying hull breach, now showing nothing but an endless expanse of brown, barren earth.

Lilavati fell, dropping sharply toward the breach, toward a horrific freefall- and her death. She tumbled into the shredded, twisted remains of the cargo bay- most of the hull itself had vanished, leaving only the barest fragment behind. She had only a second- and she spent it looking for metal. The hull itself wasn’t metal, and nor was the floor or walls. The first piece she saw was a jagged, metre-long splinter embedded in the wall, apparently all that remained of the surovite reactor.

Lilavati flung her hands out toward it, palms outstretched. The air seemed to hum for a moment- and the splinter trembled. But ultimately it remained stuck to the wall, and so Lilavati began to fly- not toward the breach but toward the shard. In fact she flew toward it too quickly to stop herself; she twisted in the air, narrowly avoiding impaling herself on the splinter.

Pain flared behind her eyes nonetheless- the splinter had slashed open her right side, just above her waist. With a sharp breath, she suppressed the pain and looked around.

The distress signal box- about a quarter of a metre wide and high- was less than a metre to her left, strapped to the wall by a pair of hardened ceramic composite handles.

“Found it!” Shouted Lilavati. She leapt towards it, grasping the handles tightly just as the shuttle jerked downwards again. A flood of debris and shards flooded inwards, into the passenger and cockpit sections where Lilavati could no longer see. After taking a moment to centre herself, she slid the signal box’s front cover open, revealing a series of buttons, dials and digital displays.

Lilavati didn’t waste time; she switched the box on, the displays flaring to life, emitting a bright blue light. Then she turned the dials, switching the frequency to emergency channels and broadcasting it as strongly as possible. “It’s on! Serval, it’s on-”

The shuttle suddenly jerked backwards; Lilavati threw herself onto those handles, clutching them tight. She turned to look at the breach. They weren’t upside down now, nor were they straight plummeting. They seemed to have evened out.

“Serval! You did it! You’re amazing-”

A moment later the shuttle crashed home, ploughing into the ground with such force that Lilavati was lifted upwards then dashed hard against the wall. She struck it helmet first, the hardened transparent shell cracking. For a moment, Lilavati’s vision simply went blank. Her ears were filled with chaotic noise- cargo slamming against each other, pieces of bulkhead coming loose, the screech and roar of the hull scraping and gouging the hard dirt ground below. Lilavati hunkered down and waited for the maelstrom of noise and force to pass.

Eventually, after what seemed like far too long, the shuttle came to a stop, as did the sound, leaving only the steady, rhythmic trill of the distress beacon. Lilavati remained curled up against the wall for a few seconds- before slowly rising to her feet and looking around.

She was lucky to be alive, that much she appreciated. The impact had finished off most of the cargo bay and hadn’t stopped there, tearing the back half of the passenger cabin asunder. Clouds of dirt and debris filled the shuttle. Lilavati touched her right side- and her hand came back slick with reddish-orange blood.

She let out a long, shuddering breath. “Serval… We made it.” Said Lilavati, suddenly feeling giddy. She began to run toward the passenger cabin, heedless of the dust and the flotsam at her feet. “Serval, that was a one in a million-”

Lilavati ran out into the passenger cabin and suddenly froze.

A lance of hull had struck square through the back of the cockpit seat, piercing Serval completely through the chest. Splashes of blood covered the viewscreen and the walls around her, as well as Serval’s palms- she had, apparently, been able to touch the wound, and judging by the bloody handprints on the controls, had gone right back to piloting. The second fragment, however, had pierced Serval through the back of the head, the point now buried deep in her brain.

“No…”

Serval didn’t move. She sat, pinned to her chair, hands still on her console, blood gushing from her injuries, dripping down onto the floor. She was dead.

All Lilavati could hear now was the steady ping of the distress beacon, sounding out into the empty, lonely Australian wasteland.

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