Chapter Three Birdsville

Chapter Three

“Birdsville”

Isha held the focusing up lens to the sunlight, watching the rays shine and reflect off its surface. After a few seconds he nodded in satisfaction and, using his tweezers, carefully fitted the lens back into the rifle’s exposed innards. With that done, he quickly reassembled the rifle and tugged off his safety goggles.

The rifle was a compact, simple thing. It was made of a hard black synthetic, moulded to fit easily in ones’ hands. The magazine was a simple power cell strapped into the bottom of the chamber, held in place by a twist-and-lock socket. There was another socket atop the casing, currently empty. Above the grip was a small digital display with a red button, a dial and a fire selector lever beneath. Isha tapped the red button and the display flared to life, showing the number ‘40’ and the words ‘BASIC’ and ‘SINGLE’ in bright red.

Isha rose from his workbench and picked up the rifle- nearly knocking over a haphazard toolbox as he did so. He lunged forward, grabbing the toolkit a second before it toppled off the side, and pulled it back into the centre of the bench.

“Close.” He muttered. “Now, then. Let’s see if you work,” he said to the rifle.

Isha raised the rifle to his shoulder and aimed it at a very simple faded bullseye painted on a cheap piece of wood attached to the back of his fence. The fence marked the end of his backyard, no more than a few cramped metres of barren red dirt away. Then he quickly lowered it and turned the dial counter-clockwise: the display’s ‘BASIC’ changed to ‘STUN’. He raised the rifle again, lined up the bullseye, and pulled the trigger.

There was a sharp, loud whip-crack sound; a bright red pulse of light burst from the gun barrel and almost instantaneously struck the bullseye square in the middle. The number on the display changed to ‘39’.

Isha’s eyes widened slightly- then a wide grin broke out on his face. “Haha! Hell yeah! It worked!” He shouted, pumping his left hand in the air.

Isha had high, keen dark brown eyes, short black hair cut close to the scalp, and tawny brown skin, the hue bronzed by the sun. He was skinny, scrawny and rather short; he had a boyish face, with a rather small nose, thin lips and a high, roundish jawline; he’d be lucky to be a day over eighteen. He wore a white work jumpsuit, the top unzipped to reveal a black singlet. Around his neck was a necklace, made of synthetic materials; a hard disk hung on the chain, engraved on which in block writing were the words “MISRA, I”. A round black and white barcode sat beneath the words.

He excitedly raised the rifle again and fired, this time striking just a centimetre above the first shot. Then he pulled the selector lever two spots clockwise, changing the red ‘SINGLE’ to a red ‘AUTO’, and held the trigger down; in the space of a second, four or five blasts burst from the rifle, striking the bullseye rather erratically.

“Yes!” He said to himself, his voice quick and joyful. “Haha, Davo’s gonna love this-”

“Isha?” Came a voice from behind him.

Isha started so sharply that the rifle fell from his grasp; he flailed wildly, only barely grabbing the rifle by the still-hot barrel before it hit the ground.

“Ow, ow, ow.” Muttered Isha, shaking his burnt hand out as he tossed the rifle back on the workbench with the other. “Thanks, Padma, that was real swell of you,” He said, shooting a look at the young girl standing in the doorway.

Much like Isha, Padma was skinny, with short, straight black hair, narrow brown eyes, olive skin and a round face. She was around nine or ten years old, and wore a pair of trousers and a white smock, and around a head shorter than Isha. “Sorry.” She said.

“You’re okay, sis, just- knock or something, please.” Said Isha, giving her a half-hearted smile. “Always creeping up on me, it’s weird… What’s up?”

“I heard a loud noise. Came out to see if you were alright.” She said quietly.

“Yeah, I’m great! It was just this.” Said Isha, snatching up the rifle and holding it out proudly. “I got it working again! Howzat?”

“Ooh.” Said Padma, her eyes widening. “Can you show me?”

“Sure, but quickly, I gotta get to work.” Said Isha. Padma quickly hurried over, staring wide-eyed at the rifle, then over to the bullseye, then up at Isha.

Isha winked. “Watch close,” He said, as he raised the rifle, aimed and fired.

Padma let out a low whistle- then beamed. “You’re a good shot, Isha,” she said, eyeing the cluster of burn marks around the middle of the bullseye.

“Nah.” Said Isha cheerfully. “These things are pretty easy to use. I bet even you could hit the target, no problem.”

“… Can I try it?” She asked hopefully, taking a step toward him.

Isha laughed. “Sure.” He said, and held the rifle out to her. As Padma took it, Isha stepped behind her. “Raise it to your shoulder, and root your legs, bend your knees slightly…”

Padma obeyed the instructions to the letter, her expression deadly serious as she did so. She lined up the shot, her hands grasping the rifle tightly.

“Alright, good. Now, be careful- when you fire, it’ll buck against your shoulder, so watch out for that, don’t lose your grip. You ready?” Said Isha.

“Ready.” Said Padma.

“Alright- go!” Said Isha.

Padma squeezed the trigger once, her frame shuddering only lightly against the rifle’s kick. A single blast smote the bullseye, between the outermost and second-outermost circle.

“I did it!” Said Padma excitedly, whipping around toward Isha. “Did you see-”

“Of course I did.” Said Isha, ruffling her hair. “Alright, sis, I’m gonna need that back.”

“Okay.” Said Padma, handing the rifle to Isha. “Isha, how does it work?”

“The rifle?” Asked Isha. “Okay. So you see this power cell under here? It powers the charge, and…” He paused. “Padma. I need to go to work.”

Padma scowled.

“I do- I do!” Said Isha, waving a hand toward the house a little frantically. “I’m gonna be late as it is- I’ll tell you tonight, ok? Tonight?”

Padma stared up at him, her expression stern.

“I promise.” Said Isha seriously.

Padma’s stare didn’t falter; eventually, she nodded once. “Okay.”

“There we go.” Said Isha lightly; he ruffled her hair again, before tugging her into a quick hug. “See you later, yeah? Be good for mum.”

“I will. Have a good day at work.” Said Padma.

Isha shot her a thumbs up, turned the rifle off, and shoved it into a duffel bag sitting by the door; then he zipped up his jumpsuit, slipped the bag onto his shoulder and stepped inside the house.

The house’s floors were a light yellow linoleum, and the walls were made of reddish rammed earth. The living room took up most of the house: to Isha’s right was a cramped, clean kitchen sat in the corner, with a narrow prepping bench, a ceramic sink, a short refrigerator, a corner pantry and a single cupboard; in the middle of the room was a short, squat square wooden table, sitting half a metre off the ground, with four dark blue cushions sitting around it. The only piece of furniture other than these things was a wooden half-bookcase, stacked not with books but with various small electronic gadgets. There were two tiny rooms on the living room’s western wall: a bathroom, with a bathtub, toilet and sink cramped between the two; and a bedroom, consisting of a double-bunk bed against one wall, a single bed against the other, and a wardrobe stuck between them. The house itself ran longways east to west, with two windows looking out onto the north and one each in the bedroom and toilet; metre-long white eaves jutted out of the roof above the northern windows, deflecting away the harsh glare of the sun. It was between these northern windows and the fence that the few tight metres of yard had been squashed in, where the family kept the workbench and the clothesline. The front door itself sat on the eastern wall.

“Mum, I’m off to work.” Said Isha as he entered, whipping a wide-brimmed hat off the kitchen and jamming it on his head.

His mother poked her head out from the bedroom. She had jaw-length straight black hair, and the same brown eyes as her children. “Alright! Be careful,” She said.

“Got it. I’ll swing by the power hub on the way home, yeah? Pick up the HD-cell?” Said Isha, already heading for the front door.

“That’d be a big help. Can you be home early?” Asked his mother.

“I’ll see what Mr. Marriott says.” Said Isha, pulling open the front door. “Seeya!”

“G’bye!” Said his mother.

The moment he was out the door, Isha broke into a sprint, running into the paved street and toward the outskirts of the city, running past houses identical to his own as he went.

***

Isha ran through the open city gate, waving his necklace wildly at the two guards on duty; they simply raised their hands and waved at him lazily.

The Birdsville Solar Farm’s main courtyard sat just outside the city’s eight-metre high sloped concrete walls. It consisted of a handful of identical, squat, ugly concrete buildings, enclosed by a waist-high concrete wall, with a single gap facing the city whilst another led off to a motor pool, within which sat ten cloth-backed cargo trucks. These bland buildings, however, simply couldn’t compare to the landscape around it.

If one looked- and it was hard to miss-, they would see starting, about five hundred metres away from the walls, a seemingly endless field of solar panel arrays, stretching in every direction as far as the eye could see. Every square kilometre or so were tall white towers, looming over the arrays; on these towers were massive mirrors that tracked the sun’s rays. They then, shining with a blinding white light, refocused those rays onto the little arrays below them. Only two things broke up the constant sight of the arrays: a wide, straight road, about fifty metres wide, that started at the city gate and bisected the arrays; and the dried up banks of the Diamantina river, that curled its way through the city and onwards to the south.

Isha spared the solar arrays hardly more than a glance as he bolted toward the Farm’s courtyard, which was already milling with at least a hundred people. One such person- a tall, pale man in his mid-forties wearing a hat and carrying a small computer pad- was standing by the gap in the barrier. Just as Isha was passing through, the man reached out and grabbed him tightly by the arm, causing Isha to stagger.

“You’re late.” Said the man, his thin eyebrows twisting into a frown. He had a rather high, soft voice. “Again.”

Isha pulled himself up, although he remained bent over, taking deep, ragged breaths; beats of sweat were starting to pour down his face. “Yep.” Said Isha, whipping off his hat and wiping at his damp forehead. “What time…?”

“It’s five past eight.” Said the man.

“Oh.” Isha brightened. “Earlier than I thought-”

The man promptly smacked Isha across the back of the head; Isha’s grin curled into a grimace. “Oi!”

“What’s the excuse this time?” Asked the man.

“I…” Isha took a breath, slapped his hat back on and stood up straight, although his shoulders shook slightly. “I’m sorry, Overseer Marriott. I was fixing a… Something for one of the garrison sergeants.”

Marriott stared Isha square in the eye. Isha stared back, trying to keep his expression neutral.

“Which sergeant?” Asked Marriott flatly.

“Sergeant David Robertson, Mr. Marriott.” Said Isha immediately.

Marriott’s stare finally broke after another few seconds. “Fine, fine. Can’t be helped. But this is starting to become a habit, Misra.”

“I know, Mr. Marriott. I’ll try better next time.” Said Isha.

“See that you do, Misra. There’s more than one way to make a recalcitrant Menial work.” Said Marriott, waving Isha away dismissively. “Off, now, get ready for roll call.”

“Yes, Mr. Marriott!” Said Isha with such relief that he instantly drew another suspicious scowl from Marriott.

But Isha was already half-running away toward the milieu of similarly-dressed workers around him: two of them he singled out specifically with a wave. “Hey! Michael, Maya!”

“G’day, Isha.” Said Maya, who’d been watching Isha as he arrived. Maya had bright hazel eyes, a small, slightly crooked nose, a thin mouth and deeply tanned skin; her features had an east asian cast to them. She had straight brown hair that, much like Isha’s, was cut close to the scalp. She had a wiry build and was of average height perhaps a little taller than Isha. Her voice was quiet, yet also firm and clear. “Nice work with the overseer. Were you really fixing something of Davo’s or what?”

“’Course he was. Bloody idiot can’t say no, can he?” Said Michael, who’d left a loud conversation with a small crowd of people to join Isha and Maya. Michael had clear, dark blue eyes, a firm, square jaw, wide, full lips and fair white skin that had tanned in the sun. His blonde hair was also cropped short to the scalp. He was a little taller than either Isha or Maya, and his shoulders were broad. He had a mild, warm voice. “It wasn’t that sunrifle-”

“Shhhhh.” Hissed both Isha and Maya in unison; Michael’s cheeks went slightly pink.

“Sorry.” Said Michael, lowering his voice. He leaned in toward Isha. “But it was, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.” Muttered Isha, self-consciously adjusting his duffel bag.

“Did you get it to work?” Asked Maya curiously.

“Yes.” Said Isha again; he glanced around nervously, but the other workers seemed to be ignoring him.

“Brilliant.” Said Maya, cracking a smile; she punched Isha lightly in the shoulder.

“Serious.” Said Michael, throwing an arm around Isha’s shoulders. “Didn’t doubt it for a second, not at all…”

Maya rolled her eyes as Isha reddened. “Come on.” Said Isha quickly. “Let’s head over to the lockers, I don’t wanna be carrying this around any longer than I have to-”

“You brought it with you?” Said Michael in surprise.

“Yes, now come on…” Said Isha urgently, practically dragging Michael the first few steps toward the lockers.

The lockers were inside one of the ugly, squat buildings, divided into ten rows of ten. Each row was marked with a large letter, A to J, and each locker was marked with a name and number. Isha, Maya and Michael made their way to Row B, where Isha’s locker- marked as ‘4, MISRA’ was sandwiched between Michael’s ‘3, LEON’ and Maya’s ‘5, CHANG’. Isha, necklace still in hand, swiped the medallion through a digital reader just above the locker’s handle; with a beep, it unlocked and swung open.

“We know today’s ticket yet?” Asked Isha, quickly tugging off his duffel bag and stowing it away. The inside of his locker was cluttered with spare clothes and various gadgets- among them were a small computer pad, a pair of low-light goggles, a digital watch and an old, battered-looking camera. Sitting haphazardly atop the clothes was a small, dark blue toolbox.

“We drew vehicle maintenance ‘til 11.” Said Maya. “Then we’ve got medical checks until 12.”

“Oh yeah, medical checks. Forgot about that.” Said Isha, glancing into his locker. “Oh, there’s my watch…”

“Lunch ‘til twenty past noon, then array maintenance ‘til 6.” Said Maya. “Jeremy has us working grid maintenance today…”

“Mmm.” Murmured Isha, strapping his watch on his left hand, set so that the back of the dial sat against his inner wrist. “I was hoping to get off early to help mum change the cell, though…”

“Yeah, I don’t think Marriott’s gonna go for that, mate.” Said Michael sympathetically, patting Isha on the shoulder. “That Capital dickhead’s never been good at giving second chances, ‘specially not to Menials who show up five minutes late.”

Isha sighed. “Yeah, I know.”

“You might get lucky.” Said Maya warmly. “Listen, the best way to ensure you get off early is to just get in there and get it all done as quick and neat as you can. We’ll help you, too. Right, Michael?”

“Right.” Said Michael.

“Alright.” Said Isha, giving them both a smile. He pulled his toolbox from the locker and hefted it onto his shoulder. “Thanks, fellas.”

***

And so Isha went to work. First the trucks needed maintenance. They were checked for dents to their paneling or rips in their cloth covers; their wheels were replaced as needed, and old ones put aside for recycling; their engines were tested, the team alert for signs of wear and tear; coolants were carefully drained into special containers, then put aside with the old wheels whilst new coolant was poured in; and finally the heavy duty power cells- which sat just behind the engine- were checked and, if need be, replaced, which was a job doable by one person, but easier with two, as each heavy duty cell easily weighed at least thirty kilograms. All of this was done in the glare of the relentless desert sun- a good incentive as any for the ten-person team to keep their hats and water canteens close at hand.

The day became steadily hotter as the sun climbed higher into the sky. By 11 o’clock, Isha, Michael, Maya and the rest of B-Team had finished checking the trucks, and now made their way back into the marginally cooler confines of the city toward the city square.

The bustling city square of Birdsville was a white-paved space, about twenty metres wide on all sides; buildings were packed closely to it, and unlike the houses like Isha’s, these buildings were taller, more imposing and made of stronger, rarer materials than rammed earth. Looming over these at six storeys high was city hall: a wide building with a stately facade of smooth sandstone, engraved with various heraldries and scenes. City hall itself was walled off, with access through a wide, curved arch leading to the square; flanking this arch were two banners. The banners were dark blue with golden trimmings, and in the very centre of them was an emblem: a round, golden grenade with seventeen ornate golden flames firing from its top. Beneath the grenade were the words, threaded in gold: We Are The First.

The tallest thing in the square wasn’t city hall itself, however, but a tall, spindly laser transmitter tower, rising above city hall’s walls. It rose for about fifty metres, and was tipped off with a long needle that pointed upwards toward the sky.

But it wasn’t to city hall that Isha and his friends had been sent, but rather to a building next to it: the city clinic. It was a wide, low building, with bright white walls and large glass windows looking out onto the square.

“Come in and take a seat- the doctor will be ready to see you in a few minutes.” said the receptionist with a smile; Isha returned his smile nervously. The rest of B-team didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic either: Maya spent the wait fidgeting and tugging at a loose thread on her hat, whilst Michael tried to strike up a conversation with Jeremy, B-team’s boss.

“So how’s the wife?” Asked Michael.

“Fine.” Said Jeremy flatly.

“She still, ah… What was it? Putting up buildings in Bedourie?” Asked Michael hopefully.

“Yep.” Said Jeremy.

“That’s good. Great. Good for her.” Said Michael; Jeremy didn’t reply, and shot Michael a frazzled look when he opened his mouth to continue.

And so Michael turned in his seat, toward Isha. “So how’s your wife?” Asked Michael with a smirk.

“Oh fuck off, Michael,” Said Isha with a snort, punching Michael in the shoulder.

“You didn’t have to hit me with her.” Said Michael loftily.

“Uggh.” Said Isha and Maya at the same time.

“Why are we stuck with him?” Said Maya with a sigh, still fitfully tugging at the loose thread.

“Too nice to tell him to Michael it up somewhere else, I think.” Said Isha thoughtfully. “Maybe it’s about time-”

“Jeremy Archibald?” Came the voice of the doctor- a tall, fair-skinned woman with black hair. At the sound of her voice, the waiting room fell utterly silent: Michael’s retort died on his lips, Maya started and looked up from her hat, and another one of their teammates- an older man named Tony- dropped his computer pad.

Then all eyes turned toward Jeremy, who coughed and slowly stood up. “That’s me.”

“Come this way, please.” Said the doctor.

Jeremy nodded dumbly and followed, tugging his own computer pad from his pocket. “Uh, doctor? I don’t need to have the needle this time.”

“No?” Said the doctor in surprise.

“N-nah.” Said Jeremy nervously; he handed the doctor the pad, who took it, looked at it carefully for a few long seconds, then nodded and handed it back.

“Congratulations.” Said the doctor with a smile, before the two vanished into the doctor’s office.

“… Say.” Said Michael eventually. “Doesn’t Jeremy have two kids?”

“Yep.” Said Maya. “Guess Lord Darumbal gave him permission for a third.”

“Good for him.” Said Isha quietly. “My dad would’ve loved to have had a third…”

They couldn’t sustain the conversation past that, and before long Maya was back to fidgeting and Isha was staring out of the window, watching the streams of people hurry through the city square. Many of them wore fine clothes: Isha glimpsed collared silken dress shirts, leather shoes, colourful linen dresses with lace trimmings… Amongst the crowd, moving in twos, threes or fours, were serious-faced soldiers, wearing uniforms of dark blue, gold-trimmed jackets over white trousers tucked into black boots. They each carried a sunrifle over their shoulder, and scanned the bustle periodically.

A few minutes later, Jeremy returned, a bit of colour having returned to his expression.

“All good, Jeremy?” Asked Maya. Jeremy gave them all a thumbs up before hurrying out into the crowd, where he stood out in his white jumpsuit.

“Nice of him to stick around.” Said Michael sarcastically. “Can’t blame him, though…”

“Maya Chang,” called the doctor; Maya started, leapt to her feet, and quickly followed the doctor into her office. She returned a few minutes later, flopping back into her seat. After Maya was Michael, who emerged looking much cheerier than when he’d gone in; and then finally…

“Isha Misra.”

Isha rose. “See you fellas on the other side, then.” He said, a nervous crackle edging into his voice.

“You’ll be fine, Isha.” Said Maya encouragingly.

Isha shot her a smile before following the doctor into her office.

The office was a functional, spartan affair, about four metres wide and long. An adjustable medical bed had been pushed up against the wall opposite the door, whilst cabinets sat against the left hand wall. The right hand wall housed a desk, on which a sleek-looking computer and several computer pads sat. Two chairs sat at the desk: a tall-backed wheeled leather chair, sitting against the middle; and a simpler wooden chair sitting aside the desk’s left hand edge.

“Just take a seat.” Said the doctor warmly.

Isha did so immediately, sitting with his legs firmly together, his hands folded together on his lap.

“Now then.” Said the doctor. “Any medical complications recently?”

“No, doctor.” Said Isha, his tone polite.

“Nothing at all?” Said the doctor. When Isha remained silent, she gave the tiniest of shrugs and gestured to the desk. “Okay. We’ll test your blood pressure first, then- just put your arm here for me, and try to relax. You can relax, can’t you?”

“Yes, doctor.” Said Isha quietly. He obediently placed his arm on the desk.

“I don’t understand why Menials are always so keyed up about these things.” Said the doctor, placing the cuff around his upper arm; then she began to squeeze the pump quickly. “Seems all routine enough to me…”

Isha wasn’t sure how to answer the question, and so he simply stayed silent, watching and tensing slightly as the cuff compressed his bicep ever tighter.

“I don’t suppose you can shed some light on that little mystery, Misra?” Asked the doctor.

Isha gave her a slightly desperate look. “You’re really asking me, doctor?” He said.

“Of course.” Said the doctor.

Isha frowned; he stared down at his lap, his eyes narrowed. Eventually he looked up at the doctor and shrugged helplessly. “… You’re an Erudite. We’re Menials.”

“That’s it?” Asked the doctor, her eyebrows raised. “That’s not really much of an explanation.”

“Sorry, doctor.” Said Isha, lowering his gaze. “But if that doesn’t explain it, there’s nothing I can say to make you get it.”

“… Mmm.” Grunted the doctor, clearly unsatisfied. “Well, your blood pressure seems to be fine.” She said, taking the cuff off. “Now let’s have a look at your teeth…”

In the course of the next few minutes, the doctor checked his teeth for cavities or infections; had him read off an eyesight test chart; took a small blood sample with a tiny, sophisticated handheld scanner; tested his weight and height; then finally sat him back down and took out a small black box from her cabinet. Inside the box was a syringe as well as six small doses of a black liquid.

“Almost done.” Said the doctor, giving him an encouraging smile as she took out the syringe. “Have you engaged in any sexual activity in the last year?”

“Do I have to answer that?” Muttered Isha.

The doctor’s smile vanished; she gave him an irritated look.

“… Sorry.” Said Isha, abashed. “No, I haven’t. But you’re going to inject me anyway, right, doctor?”

“That’s the law.” Said the doctor flatly. She filled the syringe and injected it into Isha’s arm. A strange, cold sensation ran up through his arm and into his chest, and for a moment he shuddered.

“There, all done.” Said the doctor, putting the syringe inside. “Now, just one final matter to clear up. Did you bring your pad?”

“Yes, doctor.” Said Isha. He reached into his jumpsuit and took out a computer pad, which he handed to her. “Is everything alright?”

“Of course.” She said, jamming a data rod into the side. “I’m just uploading a special certificate that I want you to give to your overseer.” Said the doctor.

“Yes, doctor. What’s the certificate say, if I’m allowed to ask?” Asked Isha.

“It informs your overseer that you won’t be going to work on friday.” Said the doctor. “A psychologist from the University of Melbourne is coming to interview you.”

Isha’s jaw dropped, his eyes widened and he went pale. “What? A psychol- why? What did I do?” he asked, wringing his hands together slowly.

“Relax.” Said the doctor. “The psychologist just wants to ask you some questions about your future vocation, that’s all. You turn seventeen this year, correct?”

“Yeah.” Said Isha- then he frowned. “No, actually, it’s kind of a stupid story- I’m actually turning eighteen, but my dad was on campaign, and it was during the war with Java- my birth records were screwed up and they dropped a year at some point. They just haven’t ever decided to fix it.”

“Oh.” Said the doctor, staring at him with an expression of bemusement. “… Well. Vocation Week starts on the first of February, to see about your potential aptitudes. Did you have anything in mind that you wanted to do?”

“I- well, I was hoping I might be selected to be a modular suit sergeant, like my dad was.” Said Isha. “… But I hear it’s real competitive, I’ll be lucky if they let me be even a levy pilot-”

But the doctor had started snickering to herself.

“What’s so funny?” Asked Isha suspiciously.

“Nothing.” Said the doctor, regaining her composure. “I’ll let the psychologist explain it to you. He’s just going to give you some advice and ideas on achieving your desired vocation, that’s all.”

“… Is that standard practice?” Asked Isha.

“You could say that.” Said the doctor. “But, that’s all you need from me, Misra. Seems like you check out as healthy- good for you.”

“Thank you.” Said Isha. “… I’m allowed to leave?”

“Of course. Have a good day, Misra.” Said the doctor.

Isha stood, gave her a short bow, then walked out the door. The moment it closed behind him he hurried across the room.

“All good, mate?” Asked Michael as he and Maya stood.

“Sure.” Said Isha quietly. “Talk about it later?”

***

After leaving the clinic, Isha, Maya and Michael left the city square behind, instead going toward the southern outskirts of the city. There weren’t any people wearing rich clothing here- instead they wore simple cotton shirts, straw hats and the occasional linen robe or dress, rarely of a colour other than white. It wasn’t long either before the sophisticated, elaborate architecture of the city square gave way to practical, simple buildings of rammed earth once more.

They came to one such building, little more than a large hall filled with long benches and an expansive kitchen at the far end gated behind a serving counter. A sign above the main double-door said ‘Menial Work Mess’. The tables were dotted with workers, all of them still in work clothes- a few were from the solar farm. There was a lineup of about sixty people when Isha, Maya and Michael arrived. Nonetheless, the lineup passed quickly, and on reaching the front kitchen, the three of them slid their medallions through a scanner and were in turn given a single bowl of vegetable stew, a bread roll and a refill of their water canteens each.

“Time to fess up, I ‘spose.” Said Michael as they sat.

“What do you mean?” Asked Isha curiously.

Michael sighed, picked up his bread roll and handed it to Maya, who gave him a smug look.

“… What happened?” Asked Isha, a great deal more suspiciously now.

“I lost a bet.” Said Michael.

“What bet?” Asked Isha.

“He bet that you wouldn’t be able to fix Davo’s sunrifle.” Said Maya.

“What?” Isha whipped back toward Michael. “You ratbastard!”

It took about ten minutes for them to scoff down their meals; after that, it was back to the solar farm. As they passed through the city gates, a modular suit- painted in the dark blue of House Darumbal and bearing the same flaming grenade emblem as the banners at city hall- waved them down.

This modular suit resembled a human being- two long legs, two long arms ending in hands, and a round head resting atop shoulders, in which sat two angular red eyes. It wasn’t a particularly graceful-looking facsimile of the human form, however, with rather chunky legs and arms and blocky, rigid metal armour. The overall impression was of a bulky, hulking thing, all thundering mass and momentum. A gigantic rifle- very similar to the one Isha had repaired this morning in design if not in size, being roughly three or four metres long- rested in a holster along its back.

Isha, Maya and Michael instantly slowed to a halt.

The frontal plate of the modular suit’s chest slid upwards, revealing the pilot- a stocky, ruddy-skinned man with short brown hair and a well-trimmed bead. “G’day, Isha,” he said cheerfully, waving a hand downward.

“G’day, Davo.” Said Isha, waving in return and flashing a smile. “How’s the day?”

“Nice and comfy in this cool suit.” Said Davo with a grin. “How’s life on the farm, eh?”

“Hot and fucking miserable.” Said Isha. “That Capital son of a bitch’ll have us running off to the farthest bloody corner of the farm the moment we get back, don’t you worry.”

“Ah, that’s no good. Marriott always was a bit of a tosser.” Said Davo. “Well, soon mate, soon- all three of you’ll be joining me in one of these, righto?”

“That’s the hope.” Said Maya lightly. “Odds improve if you die between now and Feb, though.”

“Oof.” Said Davo, clapping a hand over his heart. “You’re makin’ good on that then already, Maz.”

Maya smiled sweetly; Michael simply laughed.

“Oh, Davo. I managed to fix your sunrifle.” Said Isha.

Davo’s expression, already bright, became positively jolly. “You beauty! I never doubted ya for a second!”

“Thanks, Davo.” Said Isha, shooting Michael a truly filthy look. “Michael bet against me, would you believe it?”

“Yeah, I would.” Said Davo. “His dad’s a fucking shit gambler too-”

“Die in a fire, suitjockey!” Shouted Michael.

“Anyway, I’ll swing by with it after work. Sound good?” Said Isha.

“Sounds great.” Said Davo. “But it’s startin’ to get hot with the cockpit open, so you kids run off, yeah? Don’t give that shit Capital a chance to grill you anymore’n the sun’s gonna.”

“Cheers, Davo.” Said Michael. “Don’t waste too much of the battery on air conditioning, eh?”

“No promises!”

And with cheery waves, Isha, Maya and Michael left Davo and his suit behind and returned to the solar farm’s central courtyard. As Isha predicted, Overseer Marriott wasted no time in sending B-team off to work.

“Oi, B-Team!” Shouted Marriott across the courtyard. “Sector D20’s power output is 3% below expected levels!”

“What?” Said Isha in surprise. “That’s strange. They shouldn’t be. The sun’s bloody burning today…”

Just to be safe, Isha glanced up at the sky: it was completely lacking in clouds. Nothing but endless, stark blue.

“The Erudites say we’ll start getting rain in five to ten days.” Said Michael, who’d also glanced up. “Could be a fault in one of the arrays?”

“But D20 was checked last week.” Said Maya. “It was working perfectly. No problems whatsoever…”

“Maybe it was a really pissed off kangaroo.” Suggested Michael. “Had a bad day, decided to kick a solar panel’s arse-”

“No use yammering on.” Said Jeremy, who’d been waiting for them. “B-Team, in the truck. Maya, you’re behind the wheel. Isha, you grab the usual suspects- cables, replacement cells…”

And so five minutes later, Isha, Maya, Michael and the rest of B-Team had piled into one of the trucks: Maya and Jeremy in the front, the other eight in the back along with supplies and tools. There was a gap in the canvas and the cabin of the truck, allowing the group to talk to each other. Isha sat up near the cabin, crates of tools, cables and replacement cells next to him- along with the duffel bag containing the sunrifle.

Maya turned on the engine, which elicited little more than a quiet purr, before putting the truck into drive and taking it out of the motor pool. She deftly navigated it into the maze of arrays, and within ten minutes they’d arrived. Maya parked, and B-Team climbed out.

“Let’s see. First we need to identify which solar panel’s fucked up.” Said Jeremy as the team gathered.

Isha looked around. As it turned out, finding the erring solar panel wasn’t hard: one of the solar arrays had been damaged. Some force had slammed into them, twisting several panels into a broken mess. “Found it.”

The team turned to look.

“… Huh.” Said Michael. “That hasn’t happened before.”

“Alright, team.” Said Jeremy. “Looks like something smacked into it. Let’s see if we can find anything that might tell us what caused it, and once that’s done we can get to fixing.”

As it turned out, it didn’t take the team very long to find the culprit. Embedded in the ground, having shorn right through the panel, was a long, heavy-looking wing made of a black obsidian-like material. It had gouged through the earth, evidently having fallen from somewhere with extreme speed.

“A wing?” Asked Maya. “Where did it come from?”

“No idea.” Said Michael. “It’s not off some mod-suit, is it?”

But Isha was kneeling down next to the wing. He reached out to touch it, his expression strangely focused. “I know what this is. They use it on some cataphracts- it’s the strongest, heaviest armour you can find.”

“What is it, Isha?” Asked Jeremy.

“It’s called Lunar Obsidian. It comes from the Lunar Republic, on the moon.” Said Isha.

The effect of these words was instantaneous. Suddenly the entire team were on edge; they started looking around nervously, heads jerking back and forth toward the horizon, toward each other. Maya’s face had drained of colour, and Michael had unconsciously moved much closer to both Maya and Isha, hands balling into fists.

“… Moon-people?” Said Jeremy finally. “Here?”

“Not necessarily.” Said Isha, but he too looked worried. “Some Lords are able to buy Lunar Obsidian for their cataphracts- might just be a rich local Lord. A Darumbal, maybe. But if it is, what’s this doing here at all? It’s obviously been torn off by something pretty ferocious…”

The suggestion that the wing had been shorn off a cataphract instead of having been put there by the moon-people seemed to have a slightly calming effect on the team; a few of them weren’t quite so agitated in the way they whirled about, looking for threats.

Maya, however, wasn’t one of them. “A cataphract duel nearby? That can’t be right, Davo would’ve warned us, or the sirens would’ve gone off. Besides, this is the heart of Darumbal country, who’s gonna be picking a fight here…?”

“No one’s told us anything, so we’re gonna assume it’s fine.” Said Jeremy, his voice wavering only a little. “If we see anything… Suspicious, though, I want us all back in the truck and out of here. Got it?”

“Fine by me.” Said Isha. “We should move this wing, but be careful- it’s real fucking heavy, and if there’s any broken pieces, they can cut you up really bad.”

B-Team surrounded the wing and, very carefully- making sure to have all their gloves on, for a sense of security if nothing else- hefted the wing up and moved it into a clearing. Then they returned to the damaged panels, checking to see exactly what needed replacing and what repairs they could make here and now.

After an hour and a half’s worth of work, the team had finally settled from their attack of the jitters. Gradually, the team had gone from talking purely in terse, flat tones to a more casual, more relaxed way. There were more jokes now, and most of the team had stopped looking around every five minutes.

“Can’t believe we got so buoyed up over all that.” Said a tanned, tall, muscular woman with short black hair named Erica. “Moon people here. Can’t believe we went on like we did.”

“I can.” Wallace, a similarly tanned, but rather scrawny young man with short-cut copper hair, said seriously. “They say they look just like people, you know.”

“Nah, that ain’t it.” Said Michael. “Story is that they’re all three metres tall, but they disguise themselves as people with holofields and disguises and crap. Then they kill people and take their place, and no one’s any the wiser.”

“Come off it.” Said Aidan, a tall, thin black-skinned man with a high forehead and short, curly dark brown hair. “Three metres stands out too much, holofields or no. They’re just human-sized, but what they do is they can wear the skins of the people they kill…”

“Murderous body-snatching chameleons.” Muttered Isha. “I heard that the Erudites hate the moon-people because they’re always trying to take over control of all the Universities’ computers- all from space.”

“Ugh. Don’t even go there.” Said Erica. “Moon people with Erudite stuff- that’s too fucking much… What, they can’t just be happy with the moon?”

“I hear it’s just how they’re programmed. The Commonwealth designed them as killing machines…” Said Isha. “Did you hear about that? Maya?”

But Maya wasn’t paying attention. In fact she’d stopped work altogether and was now staring off at the horizon.

“Maya? Hey, Maya!” Said Isha.

Maya didn’t turn- instead she beckoned Isha over. “Hey, come quick.”

“What is it?” Asked Isha curiously. He walked over to her, still holding a bundle of cable.

“Look out there. There’s a bunch of modular suits heading this way.” Said Maya, pointing in the distance. “Do you recognise them? Are they Darumbal suits?”

There were four modular suits- three hunchbacked suits with weapons for arms, and a single very tall lithe humanoid one clad in pale-coloured Lunar Obsidian. They were unmarked, and moving rapidly toward them.

Isha squinted into the distance. “Hrm. Those are Hoplite-class modular suits. Pretty sure House Darumbal only uses Bombardiers, Iconoclasts and Raptors. I don’t recognise the cataphract either. And… They’re not wearing any colours. That’s strange.”

“I thought all House suits were supposed to be coloured?” Asked Maya.

“Yeah, so did I.” Said Isha quietly. “I don’t like it. Let’s tell Jeremy, but keep it down so we don’t panic the others.”

“Good idea.” Said Maya. She turned toward Jeremy and waved him over.

“What’s wrong?” Asked Jeremy.

Isha pointed out toward the modular suits- who were visibly closer, and growing so every second- and repeated what he’d said to Maya.

Jeremy paled. “… Yeah, that’s suss. Alright, team!” Said Jeremy, turning around to address the others. “Back in the truck, real orderly now. Don’t bother with any of the crap, we can come back to it later-”

Jeremy’s words were cut off by a piercing, whistling sound; a quarter-second later, a barrage of football-sized metal cannon shells tore through the solar arrays and smashed into the ground around the team, shaking the ground with the impact. Each smash of bullet into the earth caused such shockwaves of sound and dirt that the team became dazed- for a few seconds, Isha’s ears rang and throbbed painfully and he had trouble seeing straight.

Isha’s mind had locked up. At any given second he wanted to run, but he wasn’t sure where, or in which direction, and so he simply stood frozen, hunched over, his hands over his ears and his eyes squeezed shut. He heard terrified screams: the team’s, but also his own.

Suddenly someone grabbed Isha’s arm and dragged him up, toward the truck. Isha recoiled in panic, strained his eyes open- and saw Maya, her face white with fear and her eyes wide- but she was alert and moving. “Come on!” She shouted, her voice seeming distant in Isha’s ears. “In the truck! C’mon, Isha!”

Isha obeyed unthinkingly, bolting toward the truck- it was only when he’d reached the safety of its canopy that he stopped and turned to look back at his team.

The first shells had torn apart one of them, a man named Stuart- little of him remained, and what did was bloody and ragged. Wallace and Erica had both been struck by shrapnel, Erica in the left shoulder and Wallace in the left leg; Michael had leapt over to Wallace to help him limp toward the truck. The rest of the team seemed unhurt, although just like Isha they’d been paralysed with fear, and it was only thanks to Maya that they were being roused. Now they too were leaping onto the truck, running faster than Isha had ever seen them run.

“Jeremy! C’mon!” Shouted Maya, shaking a stunned Jeremy by the lapels. “The truck! Go!”

Jeremy stared at her for a moment, clearly not seeing her; then a fog seemed to lift from his eyes. He shook his head, looked around, and started to run for the truck.

“Maya!” Said Isha. “The truck, you get to the wheel, I’ll- I’ll try to help them-”

Maya turned, flashed Isha a quick thumbs-up, then sprinted to the cabin door, which she yanked open before leaping inside.

“Let’s go!” Shouted Isha, trying to dispel the quaver in his voice. He ran forward to help Michael with Wallace, and grabbed him as gently as he could around the legs- trying to ignore Wallace’s cries of agony- before half-running him over to the truck and stowing him on the edge of the rear compartment. Those already in the truck quickly grabbed Wallace and took him deeper within.

A sudden sound caught Isha’s ears- a mechanical whirring, very faint, like something starting to speed up.

His eyes widened; a moment later he threw himself to the ground. “Get down! They’re firing-”

Another hail of shells raked the area, pulverising a dozen more solar panels and sending a wave of shrapnel in all directions. Isha heard pained screams cut short. He looked up- and saw that another two teammates had fallen, their bodies torn apart by the shrapnel. But a third teammate was still screaming- Jeremy was lying on the ground, the lower half of his right leg having been brutally cut off. A pool of blood was spreading quickly from the wound; it soaked into the dry sand.

“Jeremy!” Shouted Isha; he scrambled to his feet. “Jeremy-”

“Isha! Truck! Now!” Shouted Maya. “We gotta go-”

“I need to help Jeremy!” Replied Isha. He scurried toward Jeremy, running at an awkward hunched angle as he did so.

Maya let out a panicked scream. “Isha! Isha-! Hurry-”

The belligerent modular suit opened fire once more, and Isha dove to the ground, hands over his head. One of the shells burst alongside the truck, showering the cabin and the canvas with hot, burning shards of metal. The screams of those within could be barely heard, piercing and loud, over the leaden blasts of the shells striking home.

Isha shivered in terror for a few helpless seconds- but Jeremy was still out there, unable to move. He gawked at Isha with popping eyes.

“Isha- go- leave me-” Croaked Jeremy, his voice swollen with pain.

Isha stared at him for a second- and then suddenly his eyes narrowed. Isha balled his hands into fists, and he leapt up once again to his feet. “Fuck off! Stupid bastard-” He ran forward, hefted Jeremy up and over his shoulders, then began to belt back toward the truck.

“Isha! Hurry up!” Shouted Michael, who crouched on the edge of the truck’s cargo compartment, waving frantically at Isha.

Isha ran. He heard the suit fire once again, the retort echoing around him- but this time he didn’t dive or hunker down. He kept running, even as the shells landed.

“Isha, come on-” Said Michael, half to himself.

“Isha!” Shouted Maya, her right hand pounding against the steering wheel.

“Just go-!” Roared Wallace.

“Fuck you-” Snapped Michael.

The shells burst around them, the air filling with shrapnel. At the very last second, Isha jumped, tossing Jeremy onto the truck- and falling to earth, only to have his hand caught by Michael at the last second.

“I’ve got him! Go! Go!” Shouted Michael. Maya didn’t need telling twice; she slammed her foot on the pedal just as Isha finished scrambling up the side.

The truck sped off, kicking up plumes of red dirt as it went tearing back toward Birdsville, which seemed desperately distant. Isha, sitting against the canvas wall of the truck, stared back out toward the attackers- four modular suits, one of which was a cataphract. They’d gained greatly on B-Team, and showed no sign of slowing down.

“Fuck.” Swore Isha. He clambered unsteadily to his feet- and toppled instantly as Maya turned sharply to the right. He scrambled across the floor of the truck, reached the rear window of the cabin, and knocked twice. “Open it up!”

Maya hastily grabbed the window handle and pulled it open, creating a small open gap between them. Isha immediately turned his body around and started to squeeze his way through the window- a tight, cramped fit, but Isha had a slim frame and managed to bend and contort his body flexibly enough to push his way through. Half a minute later, he was done, sitting in the seat next to Maya.

“Hi.” Said Maya breathlessly.

“Hi. Radio.” Said Isha. He swiped the receiver off of its cradle, tuned the radio and started to speak. “Hello?! Birdsville garrison? Hello?!”

A second passed- then a reply. “Who is this?” Asked the soldier on the other side, a man with a dry, cynical voice- his tone was suspicious.

“Misra- Isha Misra- we’re Menials on the solar farm- there’s an emergency! We’re being attacked by modular suits!”

“What? Modular suits-” The soldier’s voice suddenly became distant, and Isha could only barely hear him shouting to someone else on his end- instructions, perhaps.

A minute passed without a response. “Hello?” Said Isha desperately into the receiver.

Another minute, then finally a response- but not from the same person. “This is garrison commander O’Reilly.” Came a voice- a woman’s, firm and hard. “We’re picking up the intruders’ heat signatures, Menial Misra, but we can’t tell how many there are or how they’re armed-”

“I can tell you!” Shouted Isha.

“Okay, go ahead-”

“Four modular suits, three mass-produced Hoplites, and one is a cataphract. The cataphract’s hull is all Lunar Obsidian-” Said Isha.

“Damn! That’d be why we’re having trouble picking that up at least-” Said O’Reilly. “What are their colours? What about their weapons?”

“N-No, they’re colourless…One of the Hoplites is armed with a mag-gatling gun, uh…” Isha’s panicked brain froze for a second; he waved his free hand frantically, as though trying to start his thought process back up by turning an invisible crank. Sharply, an image of his teammates being shredded by shrapnel shards forced itself into his mind. He shuddered. “Uh- shells, right, shrapnel shells-”

A sudden dull chemical roar filled Isha’s ears. A second later a huge black shell, much larger than the others had been, slammed into the earth around five metres to the left of the truck- and instantly exploded, sending a tremendous plume of red and orange flame upwards. A wave of dry, burning heat washed over Isha, and the sudden impact sent the truck careening wildly to the right, and a second later its left side was completely off the ground.

“Fuck, fuck-” Swore Maya, barely audible over the shrieks of the passengers in the back. She grabbed the wheel, twisted hard left. The truck teetered unpredictably for a second, then with a heavy shock fell to back to earth- only to smash through a hapless solar array as it did so.

Isha had shrunk back in his seat, his mind going blank with terror; but as he realised to his surprise that he was still alive, he shook his head, reached out to firmly squeeze Maya’s shoulder, then held the receiver back up to his mouth. “A detgun! They’ve got a detgun, probably a det avenger cannon but I can’t be sure, oh fuck, please, please help, they’ve already killed three of us and we’ve got hurt people-”

“Misra, you’ll be fine.” Said O’Reilly, her tone calm. “Listen, we’ve got ten mod-suits, twenty battletanks and an infantry company ready to go with lots of defenses- and we’re already requesting help from Lord Darumbal and Cataphract Knights are on their way. All you need to do is get yourself behind the walls and let us take care of this.”

“But they’re moving too fast-” Said Isha quickly.

“Misra, listen to me. Just get behind the walls and it’ll be alright. Okay?”

Isha fell silent for a few seconds. He looked over at Maya, who looked back- her eyes narrow and grim, the terror within carefully suppressed, held taut. She nodded at him.

“Okay.” Said Isha, trying to force his voice to be calm, to shove out the tremble. “Okay.”

“We’ve been lucky so far, but one hit from that exploding shell-” Began Maya.

“Det-shell,” cut in Isha.

“Right, one of those and we’re fucked. Dunno if we can make it just going straight- too easy to hit.” Said Maya.

“What’re you gonna do?” Asked Isha.

Maya took a deep breath, waited for the next path between the arrays- and then sharply veered right. There were curses and shouts from the rear as cargo and people toppled painfully to the left.

“Jesus Christ!” Swore Michael. “Someone get Jeremy’s leg bound up again-”

They sped off down the road, and not a moment too soon: a second later a det-shell slammed square into where they’d been. The explosion filled Isha’s rear-view mirror.

“They really want us dead, huh?” Muttered Maya, her eyes sharply on the road. She curled the truck and took the next left, again drawing shouts and oaths from the rest of the team.

“They’re afraid we’ll raise an alarm.” Said Isha. “I think.”

“But we already did-”

“Yeah, but they don’t know that!”

Maya drifted the truck to the left, this time before the curve of the road proper- she tore through several solar panels on the way, the truck juddering and shaking with each hit- but it hadn’t been a mistake on Maya’s part. Just as the threatening mod-suit prepared to fire, the truck passed one of those tall white solar towers- putting the tower between them and the mod-suit.

It bought them a few seconds of respite, allowing Maya to turn right and reorient themselves towards Birdsville. The walls were now perhaps a few kilometre away now, the gates and the walls visible. They could hear the klaxons sounding, the loudspeakers shouting, telling the people of the city to get to bunkers and wait for the fighting to be over.

It was at that moment that the turrets deployed.

Along the inner side of the city walls were certain buildings, short, squat square buildings that looked much like the others, with rammed earth walls. There were five per side. To passersby- or spies- they would look nondescript, just another storehouse or some other sundry dwelling.

The buildings now suddenly moved, the rammed earth facades splitting down the middle, then sliding away from each other- metal tracks now revealed, hidden under the dirt. These facades then slid down into the earth, revealing the guts of the building for what they were- robust square towers made of white composites, which suddenly telescoped upwards, up so that they loomed over the city walls. From the tops of these towers now emerged gun turrets, bearing what looked like six sunrifle barrels strapped together to a larger black chamber. These turrets now turned, faced outward toward the invaders, and began to fire- filling the sky above the truck with endless sheets of red bolts of light.

The invading mod-suits began to curl away, slowing slightly and detouring to evade the heaviest concentrations of bolts. At that range, many of the bolts grew dim and faded altogether, although some struck the mod-suits, doing little damage. Nonetheless, it distracted them- giving Isha and the truck some cover.

The det-shells had stopped now. As the truck sped toward the city gates, modular suits, six of them, identical to Davo’s and wearing the dark blue colours of House Darumbal manned the walls. Each bore a sunrifle scaled to its size, which they braced against the top of the city wall. Unlike the turrets, the mod-suits didn’t fire, but instead lined up their targets and waited.

“We’re gonna make it.” Breathed Maya, as though scarcely able to believe it. “Isha, we’re gonna make it-”

They passed through the city gates, which slammed shut the second they were clear. Maya pushed the truck onwards for another half minute, parking it in the first space she had that wasn’t in the way of the road.

Maya sat back in her chair, took deep breaths- and turned to Isha. “We made it.”

They stared at each other- and then a second later were in each other’s arms. Isha squeezed Maya tightly as tears formed in his eyes. “You saved us…”

“Don’t forget it,” Mumbled Maya with a choking laugh, her head against his shoulder. “I thought we were dead, Isha…”

“Yeah-”

The images of his teammates filled his head again. He shivered, then slowly pulled away. “Uh- Jeremy, Wallace, Erica. We’ve gotta get them to the clinic.”

“Yeah.” Said Maya. She took a deep breath, then started up the truck again.

At that moment, amidst the endless sound of the turrets’ pulsing cannons, the Darumbal mod-suits fired, their rifles firing single blasts- but blasts greater and brighter than those of the turrets. A few seconds later they fired again- then again.

“Are they gonna assault the walls?” Said Maya.

“I think so.” Said Isha quietly.

At that moment, the gatehouse of the walls shuddered, buckled, then exploded inwards, showing the courtyard with debris. A moment later, a Hoplite mod-suit was inside the walls- on its right arm it bore a heavy triple-barreled cannon of a calibre much larger than the sunrifles, and on its left it bore a giant axe. Along its hull were scores of burn marks, including a gouge in its left leg that exposed circuitry and the inner skeleton of the suit.

Two Darumbal suits turned toward it, their rifles tracking as they did so, but the Hoplite was already on the move, charging down the main road- the exact same road the truck was on.

“Oh fuck.” Said Maya breathlessly. “Hold on!”

She slammed her foot down. The Hoplite’s upper torso rotated toward the nearest turret and fired its gun- one cannon firing, before rotating to the next, which also fired, then to the third, all in the space of a second. Three det-shells slammed into the turret, punched through its outer armour, then exploded whilst embedded within. It tore the turret outwards, sending plumes of smoke and fire into the air and detritus onto the ground. For a moment, the Hoplite was hidden in the clouds of blackened smoke- but it emerged a second later, the smoke clinging in acrid trails. It stamped toward the truck-

Maya and Isha both shrieked and crouched-

Only for the Hoplite to stomp right over. It didn’t spare the truck a look.

“Ignoring us.” Whispered Isha.

“Thank God.” Mumbled Maya.

The Hoplite now lurched its way inward, toward the centre of the city. But Isha was no longer watching- something else had caught his eye.

“Maya, look.” Murmured Isha, pointing in the rear-view mirror. In it, one could see the crest of the wall.

Standing on the top was the pale cataphract. It held a heavy pistol in both hands, of a similar calibre to the det-cannon. It bore no marks of damage at all. It was only there for a second before it leapt into the city below- and out of sight of the truck.

The pale cataphract and its comrades were inside the city now- and Isha did not know how long it would take for Lord Darumbal’s Knights to arrive.

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