Chapter Two The Pale Cataphract

Chapter Two
“The Pale Cataphract”

Lilavati stared unblinkingly at the Wildcat’s inert command interface.

Everywhere Lilavati looked, she saw splashes of Serval’s blood, dripping steadily down the interface’s angled surface and onto the ground below. The interface itself was marked here and there, shrapnel embedded in its surface, cracking the casing and revealing the electronics beneath.

Serval’s broken body had already been removed. Lilavati roughly grabbed Serval’s seat with both arms and strained; a few seconds later the seat’s single leg buckled and broke where it connected with the floor. Having ripped it off the ground, Lilavati now tossed it aside, lowered herself onto her hands and knees, and crawled into the small space beneath the interface. There was a panel here at the very back, completely untouched. Lilavati pried it open, revealing a tiny alcove, within which sat nothing but a small orange flight recorder, which could fit fully into Lilavati’s hand. She pulled it free with her left hand, backed out of the space, and rose to her feet. She took a moment to stare down at the interface.

She hesitated for a moment, then stretched out her right hand, placing it atop the same space Serval had. Lilavati held it there for a minute, standing stock still as she did so, her eyes closed.

Then, in the space of a second, Lilavati pulled her right hand back, palm and fingers outstretched, and levelled it at the console. Dark yellowish bolts of light crackled around her fingertips, forming five bright ribbons; they surged together, meeting in the middle of her palm, before streaming together as a single powerful beam towards the interface. The beam struck, punching straight through the casing and into the electronics below, which instantly sparked and caught fire. The instant it was done, Lilavati turned on her heel and marched straight out of the dead shuttle, walking through the massive, still smoking breach at its rear- and out into the desert.

It was flat land. Flat, arid, hard, dusty orange land in all directions, broken up by scatterings of short, faded green bushes and the odd scraggly white tree. It went on like this forever in all directions, before meeting the perfect, spotless blue sky on the horizon, the sun shining fiercely in the sky, baking all below. Every so often, a stray breeze rustled the tree branches, only to quickly move on.

Lilavati stared into the distance, then looked over at Serval, lying by herself on a large sheet of composite bulkhead about ten metres away. Blood still oozed from her injuries, staining the sheet and the ground below. Lilavati slowed her march, now walking slowly, almost hesitantly over to Serval’s body. Lilavati knelt down next to it and gently ran her hand across Serval’s forehead, ran her fingers through Serval’s hair.

“I wish I could do more for you, my friend.” Said Lilavati quietly. “I can’t take you with me…”

For a second, Lilavati’s shoulders shook. Then she pulled her hand away from Serval, placed both of her hands over her chest, and closed her eyes. “I bear witness to my friend Serval. She was loyal, loving and fearless. I will never forget her, and I ask the same of you. Please take her into your heart, now and forever, to be reborn in a future perfect.”

Lilavati remained kneeling in silence for a minute. A fitful gust of wind ruffled her hair- she’d already taken her cracked helmet off.

Then her eyes snapped open. She leaned forward and raised her right index finger, which crackled with that same yellowish light as before. She touched the finger to Serval’s forehead, burning open the flesh, revealing Serval’s skull- made not of bone but of a hard, whitish substance that looked rather like ceramic. In fact, it looked and felt similar to the composites that had made up much of the interior of the Wildcat.

Lilavati dragged her burning finger across Serval’s scalp, from forehead to the grisly wound at the back of her head. Lilavati pulled the skin away, revealing yet more skull, before she touched her finger to the skull itself. It was tougher than the skin, and took longer to cut through, but eventually Lilavati pierced it. She cut along the dome and pulled it open as well, revealing Serval’s brain- a large, bulbous maze of tightly-woven cables and tiny electronic nodes and organs, all of which was warm and slightly yielding to the touch.

Lilavati hesitated again, her face twisting into a grimace as she cut through this as well. After a few seconds of cutting, she came to the core of the brain- most of which had been ripped and torn into a severed mess by the shrapnel. Embedded within was a small round silvery orb that sat snugly within an electronic port, which itself was surrounded by dozens of tiny bunches of cable. Lilavati dismissed the burning energy from her finger, reached into Serval’s brain and, with a hard twist, pulled the orb free. She held it up to her right eye, the sun gleaming off the shiny surface.

The orb had been spared all but the most superficial of damages- a few scratches across its otherwise perfect surface. Lilavati sighed, clutched the orb to her chest for a moment, then tucked it away within a compartment in her suit.

She looked back down at Serval’s body- then up at the thoroughly ruined head. Lilavati averted her eyes shamefully, raised her right hand, and fired a blast of light at the body of her friend. The beam tore apart Serval’s chest and set it aflame.

Lilavati fired again, torching Serval’s legs.

Another blast, this time roasting the head and the brain within. Serval was now engulfed completely in flame.

“I’m sorry.” Whispered Lilavati. She shut her eyes for a moment- then turned and marched back toward the ship.

It took a depressingly short amount of time to gather together the deprived remains of the cargo bay. Lilavati organised it as best she could into a single small pile- far, far less than what she’d started with. The pile consisted of the distress beacon; twelve small, hand-sized power cells, which she’d intended for her cooling suit, which she hadn’t been able to find after half an hour of looking; three one-litre canisters of water; a light white linen hooded duster; a small credit stick, which recorded as containing 150 Australian dollars; and of course, her foam balls and the bag she carried them in. She also of course still had her now-damaged activity suit, with its cracked helmet and a large gash across the right side. Her wound had healed itself; the suit had not.

Lilavati stripped the outer layers of the suit off, leaving only the black skintight body sheath. Over this she threw the duster, then packed everything else bar the beacon into the bag, which she slung over her shoulders. “All ready to go.” She said to herself. “Only question is where…”

Lilavati left the shuttle behind, walking over to one of the nearby trees; she sat beneath its branches, in the scant shade. She was already starting to sweat lightly in the miserable heat, which caused the air to distort and shimmer in the distance. There, she thought to herself: it had taken the shuttle an hour to reach Earth from Luna- and she’d been here forty minutes. Would help arrive before whoever shot them down did? Would help arrive at all? And if she did leave- where would she go?

Lilavati looked around at the dry expanse around her. No landmarks or noteworthy features outside of trees like the one under which she sat. Wandering aimlessly would see the heat kill her long before her assailants did. She could recall maps- maps of the continent, of each of its counties and duchies, but where exactly on those maps she was, she had no idea.

Lilavati stood up. If help was coming, then they’d find her even if she wandered off. But if help wasn’t coming, then staying was a death sentence. She returned to the shuttle, picked up the beacon and hid it as best she could within the passenger cabin- she couldn’t take it with her lest her hunters track it, she mused. As for where to go…

She looked upwards, and a few seconds later saw a bird in the sky, flying northward.

Lilavati gave Serval’s burning body one long, final look. She blinked slowly, just once, then turned and marched after the bird.

***

It was half an hour before Lilavati saw something that broke up the monotony of the flatness: a depression in the land, starting as a gradual decline in slope which quite quickly became a shallow, winding trench, about ten metres wide and a few metres deep. The trench ran northwards farther than Lilavati could see; more than that, she quickly noticed that in particularly deep areas of the trench, small pools of muddy brown water had formed, no deeper than two metres.

“It’s a river.” She said to herself. “But it’s dried up.”

Nonetheless, a small smile came to Lilavati’s face- she now had some idea of where she was. There weren’t many rivers in this part of the country, she reasoned; if she followed its path for awhile, she’d soon be able to compare its route to her maps.

And so Lilavati climbed down into the dry riverbed, took a mouthful of water from one of her canteens, then began to walk southward. It was still roasting hot, and the air was still, dry and quiet.

It did not remain quiet for very long: a few minutes later, Lilavati heard a noise in the distance- a dull, heavy thud, thud.

She froze, and strained to listen- thud, thud, thud, thud. Like the stamping footsteps of a massive beast, or rather several massive beasts. They were loud, heavy, routine, yet fast-paced; and they were growing louder still, heading toward her.

Lilavati hurried over to the southern lip of the river, climbed up and peered out toward the source of the noise. Her eyes widened as she saw them in the distance.

Six modular suits pounded toward the river in an arrow formation, with five on the perimeter and a sixth in the middle.

The five modular suits on the perimeter were nearly identical. They stood about twelve metres tall and had bent-back bird-like legs, with four thick, heavy-looking toes leaving deep prints in the dust and ground as they went. Their torsos had a stout, hunchbacked look to them, wider at the back and bottom than at the top. The suits’ heads sat not atop this torso, but rather jutted out of its ‘chest’ at shoulder length; the heads were round and featureless, save for a short antenna atop the scalp, and a glowing red electronic optic band that wrapped around the head’s full exterior, through which the pilot could see the outside world. Each suit had two arms, made up of shoulder and upper arm, but where the forearm and hand should’ve been were instead weapons, and it was here that the five suits differed: each suit had two weapons each, the loadout different between suits. Three of the suits had a cannon for one arm and an oversized hand-to-hand weapon for the other; Lilavati saw one with a long lance-like arm, whilst another toted a giant axe. A fourth suit at the left-back of the formation instead had two cannons, whilst the suit on point had a sword for a right arm and a huge shield for its left. The suits were all made with the same hard, grey sloped composite material, thickest around the chest, shoulders and lower legs; the suits’ hulls bore no markings or House colours.

These details and more Lilavati took in swiftly, but all too quickly her gaze was drawn toward the sixth and final suit. Her eyes narrowed.

This suit was completely different to the other five. It towered over the others, standing about seventeen metres tall. Unlike the others its long, legs were straight, slender and human-like, even down to the curve of its musculature; when it walked its feet came down as smooth, graceful steps instead of heavy stomps. Its torso too was more human-like, well-proportioned to its arms and legs, straight-backed with the head positioned atop its shoulders on a short neck. The head itself had a high forehead, and six red eyes, arranged into bunches of three, all moving independently of each other; two thin rectangular antenna extended from each side of its head, like ears. Its arms were long, with toned bicep-like upper arms; they ended in fully fingered hands, each finger long and clever. It carried no visible weapons, but two long rectangular containers sat bolted to its back, rising above its shoulders- these, assumed Lilavati, were sheathes, containing the suit’s weapons until it needed them. Like the other suits, it too was unmarked and uncoloured, but its armoured hull wasn’t made from the grey composites of its comrades; instead it was made of the same glossy obsidian-like material that had composed the Wildcat’s outer hull. Where the Wildcat’s hull was black, however, this suit’s hull was a pale silvery off-white. It shone brightly, almost acting like a heat mirror in the burning afternoon sun. The armour was thickest on the chest and lower legs, but an armoured skirt also extended downward over the upper legs; a similar, albeit smaller skirting covered the back of its head and neck, extending around the head like a helmet. Even then the armour was smoother and more form-fitting than the lesser suits around it, giving the pale suit a moulded, sculpted look, like a great marble statue of an old hero or legend.

Lilavati’s grasp on the earthen lip of the riverbank tightened. She didn’t recognise the silvery suit, but then she didn’t expect to: it was a cataphract, and they were always one of a kind. As she stared at it, the cataphract scanned the horizon; Lilavati reflexively ducked beneath the lip of the riverbank as its eyes turned toward her.

The suits were moving at a swift pace toward Lilavati; she estimated about ninety kilometres an hour, which was easily faster than she could run. She didn’t have much time to prepare; perhaps five minutes. If she ran, she’d be seen for sure.

Lilavati turned, slid down the riverbank and hurried to the edge of the deepest waterhole she could see. She opened her bag, pulled out one of her foam balls and dipped it into the water. Then she rolled the dripping ball along the dusty edge until it picked up an impressive thick coating of dirt and mud. Once she was done, she threw it low as hard as she could across the riverbed, managing to send it a good fifty metres before it came to a stop, nestled behind a short cropping of rocks atop the lip of the riverbed overseeing a shallow waterhole. With that done, Lilavati made sure her bag was zipped tightly together before she gently eased herself into the deep waterhole, making sure not to move too quickly and splash the edges. Once she was in, she allowed herself to sink to the very bottom, where she sat, knees held tightly to her chest.

Lilavati closed her eyes and waited.

She felt them as they approached, each footstep sending the water a quiver; Lilavati felt the footfalls reverberate in the pit of her stomach. She remained still and tried to focus her hearing, tuning into certain comm bands as the footfalls stopped.

“This is the Diamantina river.” Came a voice, a few seconds later- it was a man’s voice, rather soft, with an electronic filter from using a radio. Lilavati imagined someone young, a little nervous, trying not to show it. “Dried up, though.”

“Mostly dried up.” Said a second male voice, this one rougher. Someone, thought Lilavati, that probably had a big thick beard. “Wait for the rains in a week, boy; you’ll see this old bed run again.”

“I’d rather not be here to see it.” Said the soft-voiced pilot. “I can’t see the moon-woman anywhere…”

Then Lilavati heard a high-pitched, whining tone for a split second. Wincing, she realised that this would be the cataphract pilot- whoever they were, they were communicating using a much more robust and encoded channel then the baseline modular suits were.

“Yes, sir.” Said the soft-voiced pilot immediately. A second later, the ground began to shake again, more angrily than ever. Lilavati opened her eyes and looked up through the muddy water, seeing the tip of a cannon hanging carelessly over the waterhole.

“It’s probably got maps in its head.” Said the rough-voiced pilot. “Probably on the way to Birdsville already…”

“Those maps might not track its location, though.” Came a third voice, this time a hard-edged woman’s voice. “Your run of the mill Lunar android can geolocate, but they need laser transmitters to access the moon through its distortion clouds. I doubt the android has one of those on it- too easily tracked, too damn heavy.”

The suit above Lilavati took another step, now positioning its bulk directly over her waterhole. Lilavati quivered- whether from the vibrations or from fear, she herself wasn’t even sure. She needed a moment to settle herself.

“She couldn’t have gone that far.” Said the soft-voiced pilot. “Does she need to stop to… I dunno, eat or recharge or something?”

Laughter from the other suits now. “You’re so fucking green. Can’t believe this is your first bot hunt.” Said the hard-edged pilot, her tone mocking.

Lilavati’s blood ran cold.

“Fuck off.” Said the soft-voiced pilot defensively. “You watch- I’ll pin her bloody head to the top of my suit before sundown-”

He was cut off, that same keening tone filling the airways again. The pilots instantly fell silent.

For the next few minutes or so, the suits spread out across the riverbed, disturbing the water with each hulking footfall. They didn’t seem in any hurry to move on- did they suspect something? Would they find her? Images filled her mind- her head, impaled on a spike atop one of those ugly suits, her body dragged away to be cannibalised, cut up, torn apart…

She fought to clear her mind of the images. She needed to focus, she needed to wait for the right moment.

One of the suits was starting to walk near where her ball had landed. Slowly, ever so slowly, Lilavati unfolded her body, crept up the side of the pool, raised her ringer just a few centimetres out of the water, and waited. As the suit took another step, Lilavati quirked her finger. The foam ball jerked over the rocks, bounced down the riverbank and into the waterhole. With that, Lilavati immediately dropped back down to the bottom of her hole as quickly as she dared.

She waited, one second, two, then-

“Hey, there’s something here.” Said the rough-voiced pilot. “Yeah, it’s man-made. Looks like some muddy ball… Local trash?”

“Not many people out here, surely?” Asked the soft-voiced pilot. “Lord Darumbal’d flay anyone just dumping crap around.”

“Take a picture and give me a look.” Said the hard-edged pilot.

There was a second’s pause before she spoke again. “I think it’s a moon toy. Little foam balls with metal cores.”

“Why’s it all dirty?” Asked the soft-voiced pilot.

“Our bot probably took a dip to cool off and the ball got wet.” Said the hard-edged pilot. “Then the bot probably dropped it by accident on the way- maybe it was in a hurry, running from us.”

“Seems pretty stupid to just leave it behind.” Said the soft-voiced pilot.

“Bot-hunt tip the first, kiddo: bots get dumb in the heat. They have to turn down their reactor or else they fry their insides. Since their brains get real hot, that gets the least juice, so they can’t think as well as usual.” Said the hard-edged pilot. “S’why we came to the river- we figured it’d want to cool off.”

“If it did drop it, it was probably running north along the river.” Said the rough-voiced pilot. “Away from Birdsville…?”

“Like I said,” said the hard-edged pilot with a hint of smugness, “No geolocation. It’s probably trying to get a feel for the terrain, compare it to its maps and figure out where it is. Ripper for us, though- keeps her away from Birdsville.”

“But aren’t we attacking Birdsville ourselves?” asked the soft-voiced pilot. “Won’t she get away-”

That sharp tone cut into the conversation again, silencing the soft-voiced pilot immediately.

A moment later, the rough-voiced pilot spoke up. “Alright. Kid, you’re with me. Catch and terminate- if we’re quick, we can be in time for the fireworks in Birdsville. Up we go-”

The ground quivered once again as the suits began to stomp away- two pairs of heavy footsteps going north along the river, the rest going swiftly southward.

Lilavati waited for a few minutes until the vibrations faded. Then and only then did she emerge from the waterhole. Her duster was soaked through, the hood now clinging to her wet hair; but the water was already starting to quickly drip off her body sheath’s water-resistant fabric. Her bag too was damp, but the things within were dry and unharmed.

Lilavati clicked her fingers; her muddy ball spun into her hand. After a quick clean, she tucked it away in her bag, then turned toward the south- towards Birdsville. That was on her map- the largest settlement in the County of Diamantina, part of Lord Darumbal’s personal lands, which made Birdsville the closest safe place for Lilavati around.

Assuming, of course, that this wasn’t a plot by the Lord himself, a possibility Lilavati hadn’t yet ruled out.

The pale cataphract and three of the lesser suits were now marching toward Birdsville, intending to attack it, although Lilavati wasn’t sure why. That meant that her one viable safe haven was being taken away from her second by second.

The people of Birdsville were almost certainly oblivious of the coming danger. Lilavati thought about the pale cataphract- its eerie, slender form, and the way its head had cleanly taken in the landscape around it with a single glance around- how close she had been to being seen! The chances of the settlement having something to counter it seemed very low indeed to her.

Lilavati opened her bag and took out one of the water bottles. “I can’t stop the attack.” She murmured to herself. “But I have to help them somehow. The sooner, the better.”

With that, Lilavati drained the bottle of water in a single long gulp, tucked it back in her bag, readied herself- and then broke out into a sprint, off toward the south.

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