Seventh Cell

Summer is almost here! Not really sure why I felt like pointing that out. Probably because I can’t really say much about this story without ruining it. I would be interested to know if you saw the ending coming or not. You might. Maybe let me know!

The ground beneath Xeria Parduche’s feet rocks violently due to a nearby explosion. So severe is the tremor that the woman is thrown forward unable to regain her balance and toward a face first collision with the fast approaching polished stone floor that moments earlier she had been briskly striding across.

Out of the blue she is saved from her fate, a strong hand having clamped around her bicep and hauled her back to her feet.

The outcome is a shock, a surprise. She was sure her fate was sealed. To be wrong is….

Xeria never finishes the thought. Rather she lets out a sigh of relief, trying to compose herself.

A turn of her head reveals that her saviour was Colonel Gaaran Melia of the Merrin Militia. She had forgotten he was amongst her entourage currently. He isn’t usually. But then nothing about today is usual, normal. If it were Merrin wouldn’t be under attack.

“Governor, we need to leave, immediately.” The Colonel’s words wrench Xeria from her thoughts. His tone adamant, demanding you might go so far as to say, as if he is the one who is in-charge here. He is not however, Xeria is. As Governor of the city, she remains the one with the power, she who has the unenviable task of making decisions, calling the shots. Problem is the light grey skinned, flat to a point that she might as well not have a nose; woman with her thin purple lips and large beady mauve eyes is only six months into the job.

Truthfully, Xeria never thought she had a chance of winning the election, but the people of Merrin had decided they’d had enough of your traditional political types. The know the kind for they are everywhere and have been for so long it is difficult to remember a time prior to them.

Anyway, the people of Merrin had wanted change and Xeria had been the epitome of that seeing as prior to running for election as Governor she had been a structural engineer.

As fate would have it an engineer who worked for the governor’s office, principally on large scale infrastructure projects. You know the kind, ones which ran the gambit from simple local district municipal buildings to transit hubs to goliath edifice office blocks destined to be occupied by mammoth corporate conglomerates.

None of that matters now! The present, not the past!

Dismissing the reliving of memories relating to how she ended up as Governor, the night that lasted both forever and was over in a blink; Xeria shakes her head to dispel what little remains blocking her from the moment, as little as she wishes it were real.

It is!

I know, she chastises herself.

Taking in her surroundings once more, the faces turned toward her patiently waiting, except for the Colonel whose expression is one of dissatisfaction at not having been issued a response already.

He can wait for a few more moments, Xeria concludes.

Her eyes examine the corridors of Governor House, a wholly uninspired moniker. It’s grand, old, wall panelled in dark rockwood stain that is not at all to her tastes. But alas, as Governor she has to live in this mansion of outdated grandiosity like it or not.

Had she considered that prior to putting her name in the hat as the only opposition to her predecessor she might have not be so inclined.

Too late now, you are Governor.

I’m aware, stop reminding me.

Over some of the dark panels hang oversized painting housed within decorative frames painted a silver-gold colour that is not at all flattering to the pieces at their centre. But in many instances Xeria doubts anything could make those dower faces appear flattering. It isn’t the fault of the subject or even the artists, truth-be-told, it is simply that these pieces are from a certain period in time and because of that they have these hideous qualities.

The gaudy frames however are not period pieces at all. They were the brainchild of her predecessors’ predecessor. A corrupt man who embezzled and laundered where he could for almost the entirety of his tenure, until he’d amassed a monumental fortune. Not that it helped him in the end for he died from heart failure. A sudden attack that stopped his pulse; he was found face down in his morning feast.

Xeria remembers the events which followed well, even though she was but a barely a teen at the time. Investigation after investigation was undertaken.

Those days are behind us. He is gone. Your predecessor is too. You are the Governor now, and the city needs you to govern!

Oh yes, Xeria recalls having forgotten, she doesn’t know quite how, current events.

“Colonel, I concur with your assessment…”

His hand once more grabs her arm, cutting short what she had planned to say.

You see, the Governor has a habit, for better or worse, of over speaking. It isn’t a ramble; it is purely how she converses. How she has always spoken. For a political animal, as she is now, it is seldom useful but in her previous role it was often pivotal.

“I have an Odonata waiting on the lawn; it’ll take us to the bunker network.”

“What?” Is all the Governor can manage in reply, for the Colonel’s words, as plain and simple as they were, confuse her.

“An Odonata, Governor, I have it waiting on the lawn.”

Pulling free from his grasp and stopping dead in her tracks, she fixes the back of the Colonel’s head, until he turns, with a hard stare.

“Why is an Odonata here?”

It might sound like a person’s title but an Odonata is a four winged transport used by Merrin’s Militia. They aren’t permitted inside the cities airspace due to their use of particle engines, three in total, which is complete overkill for the size of the craft.

No hint of remorse or apology on his face, Gaaran replies, “How do you think I got here so swiftly Governor?”

“Those particle engines are not permitted within…”

Another explosion, much closer than the last, throws the entourage this way and that.

A dust cloud having burped thick white particles into the corridor leaves the view in front of everyone’s face obscured. Still, Xeria keeps her mauve eyes locked on the Colonel.

The Governor does not care that her sentence has been left unfinished as she waits for a response, and it better be a good one with the damage Odonata engines do to everything in their wake. Regardless of the fact that Merrin is being assaulted by… She doesn’t know. It might be that no one knows. Common sense would suggest it to be the same invaders who arrived a generation ago but who left without reason or cause seldom a few hours into their campaign. To this day no Flath can explain as to why for they had been no match.

It seems history is repeating itself.

Rather, it was as if something had called to the invaders, ordered an immediate withdrawal. Ever since the Flath have lived in fear of the invaders return; it seems that day is today.

Right now, Xeria thinks she could do with a cup of Jara Tea, maybe with a splash of Ina Whisky to steady her nerves.

This isn’t the time to drink!

I know but it might help, to calm me, to sooth…

“Governor, this is neither the time nor the place. This House has just been hit and you want to discuss how I, who came here at your request, broke protocol while the city is under attack!” The Colonel is incredulous, his eyes wide in disbelief at the words chosen by the cities highest authority.

Breaking her stare, Xeria bites her lower lip. He is right but also wrong. She cannot simply dismiss his casual flaunting of law.

But this is not the time! The Colonel is right! The city is under siege! Governor House has been…

“Get us to that Odonata, Colonel; but mark my words this conversation is not over.”

There is conviction in her tone, though Gaaran pays no mind to it. Instead, he once more accosts Xeria a nano second prior to breaking into a half jog that pulls her along quicker than she feels is safety while her entourage of advisors, none of which can aid her in this current predicament, trail close behind.

With the corridor zipping by, Xeria is forced to focus on the placement of her feet so as not to trip, stumble and slam to the polished floor she hates because of how it makes the heels of all shoes clack loudly. Now, to make matters worse with it coated in a thin layer, thus far, of dust, from whatever damage has been wrought, the stone is slippery under foot. If she did not know better the Governor would think the janitorial team have done an uncharacteristically tardy job.

Suddenly, the Governor spies a body slumped on the floor. The head is lilting, its legs hidden behind a chunk of stone which should not be present. At the sight the Governor feels sick, but just as swiftly the sight is gone because Gaaran pays no attention to the death and destruction they are now passing through. He has a job to do, a task to complete. Though, the state of this side of the house does explain what was hit in the previous explosion.

Terror fills the Governor’s chest. She attempts to quell it. To move past the sickness she can taste but it fails when her eyes fall upon yet more devastation wrought by the blast.

The west wing of Governor House has been reduced to rubble, littered with bodies, or at least parts of for she cannot tell if they are whole, lie strewn about. The need to vomit, to expel what her body believes is poison, reaches critical mass. She wrenches her body hard left. Shockingly, it is enough to break the Colonel’s grip on her, which had apparently not been as strong as she would’ve believed if she were aware and not in need of…

She heaves once, then vomits.

A mass of blandly coloured liquid ejects from the back of her throat onto a patch of loose white rubble. The rubble is what is left of some of the stone that once formed the west wing. Such does not register in Xeria’s mind as she expels more of her stomach contents.

Voices are shouting demands, orders. Xeria ignores and barely notices them as the world around her begins to spin.

Is this another explosion?

It is not, it is simply the result of her becoming light-headed from being physically sick. She realises that once she’s reached out to stabilise herself with a palm flat against the remnants of a wall.

“Governor, we need to get moving before there is another…”

As if on cue the ground is rocked, a deafening boom fills Xeria’s ears painfully. She shields them with her hands, in vain for it makes no difference now. The damage has been done. She was a fraction too slow to react.

Not my fault I didn’t know it was coming, she thinks defensively as if her actions need explaining. They don’t. Her reactions were instinctive, natural, inborn.

Somehow the Governor has stayed on her feet. It’s a miracle.

A quick wipe of the inside of her sleeve across her lips clears any embarrassing remnants that might have lingered from her uncharacteristic and unceremonious puking.

With the potential embarrassment averted, Xeria turns. Alas, she turns the wrong direction, her sense of direction absent. Thankfully, Gaaran soon fixes that.

“This way Governor, you don’t want to go back there.” Is the assurance from the Colonel.

He says nothing more than that as he once again grabs her arm and begins to haul her out of the ruin of Governor House and into the open air of the city.

Why doesn’t he want me to look that way?

Feeling defiant the Governor ignores the suggestion to look back over her shoulder. She catches a glimpse of something she can’t quite work out. Not that she gets another look at whatever it was she saw for she rounds a corner feeling it prudent she turn her attention forward once more so as not to. The Governor stops dead in her tracks to gaze open mouthed at the sky. Its appearance is unlike she has ever seen for it is bathed in darkness, broken only by mid-air detonations and traces of lurid… She doesn’t know what.

You need to know, you are Governor!

She is about to ask when Gaaran yanks her forward, forcing her into locomotion.

He had been issuing a quick volley of commands to a panicked looking young Militia man and his female cohort.

Compared to the young man’s face his female cohorts’ was grave but calm. Of the two Xeria feels she could better relate to the young man and imagines her own expression is largely comparable to his.

Suddenly reminded of her position, Xeria forces her face to what she can only pray is a look of steely determination.

If it is the faces she passes show no signs either way of noticing for it is clear they are all too busy rushing back and forth under orders, securing, rescuing, preparing for what might come next.

What can it be? How can they prepare? We have no capabilities similar to this!

“Governor, watch your step!”

Reflexively Xeria leaps in response to the warning. The act just so happens to be the correct reaction for there is a small depression in what had only yesterday been part of an immaculate blue lawn of Ollograss.

Taking note of what lies further afield then immediately surrounding her, the Governor concludes the house gardens would best be described as devastated. Though, the damage they have suffered is nothing compared to the skyline of Merrin as a whole, which has buildings missing or broken at the mid-point, their tops left to lean precariously against a neighbour.

Mauve eyes affixed on the horizon, the outline of the city, with her jaw dropped as low as it can manage, the Governor gawps at Merrin.

Pain filled anger begins to swell. She imagined things had to be bad but with all the booms and bangs but…

Yanked off her feet and thrown between parted doors a half metre off the ground, Xeria lands on a padded seat. For her liking it isn’t padded enough to ease the sudden termination of her velocity which does nothing to ease how jarring, painful, she finds it.

Wanting to know why and who has performed such a disrespectful act, her head comes whipping around. Immediately she notices that she is surrounded by nervous faces. She knows each of them. They belong to the members of her entourage.

A loud rolling sound draws her attention away from the panicked faces a fraction of a second prior to a thud and then a clunk.

Colonel Gaaran Melia drops into the last available seat, the one closest to the doors he has just sealed. Without pause he orders, “Get us out of here pilot.”

“Yes sir, Colonel. Hold onto your hats this is going to be a rough ride, me thinks.” Is the reply from the pilot that Xeria can see nothing but the back of a military cut head of.

“Where are we headed Colonel? I need to know!”

“I told you Governor, the bunker netwo…”

“Never heard of it so you better start explaining or…”

The statement is never finished as truthfully Governor Xeria Parduche doesn’t know how best to complete it. She isn’t a violent person. Never has been.

So where is this coming from?

Fear; you’re afraid.

Of course I’m afraid, Merrin is under attack, who knows how many people are dead and I’m on an Odonata fleeing! How is that right? I’m the Governor, I should be here!

“Governor, calm down.” One of Xeria’s entourage urges only to get a vitriolic, “Calm, we’re under attack! People are dying! How can I be calm?”

The man, having been verbally lashed, shrinks into the seat he is sharing with Xeria’s personal secretary, Harana. Normally the woman is immaculately dressed, her hair locks perfectly coifed and pinned, but not currently. Instead she looks dishevelled, distraught; her pink eyes dull, staring off into the distance.

To call the space they are in cramped might be a bit too kind. Clearly it was never designed for more than a dozen bodies, if that; body armour or no.

To the Governor it is added proof that Odonata’s are pointless hunks of law breaking aeronautic junk. The sooner they are condemned to history the better.

Toys for people who like to play pretend but that have almost no ability to actually defend against…

That’s not fair.

Sure it is. Merrin is ablaze.

Her head twists towards ones of the side windows that run down either side of the fuselage. Xeria stares out the nearest to look over the streets below as if this will prove her point.

However, all she feels is the birthing of a new font of despair. Her venom having been instantly lost now that she is seeing the full extent of what was been wrought against her city. It lies in ruins, burning, shrouded in thick street level clouds she suspects hides the worst sights of all; the bodies of the people.

A large sigh escapes from between her lips alongside an utterance of, “I’m sorry.”

Nothing is said in reply. No forgiveness offered. Not that she expected any. And when finally Xeria feels able, she turns her attention to Colonel Melia.

The man issues a barely perceptible nod, apparently understanding her plight better than she does.

“Governor, this is not the time for apologies. We are at war. The invaders have returned. And we’ve been caught unawares. Our preparations have been sloppy. When this is over you will be accepting my resignation.”

“Colonel, that isn’t…”

Cutting her off, Gaaran continues; “It’s not up for negotiation, nor is it the time for such discussions. You asked me what the bunker network is and why we’re headed there. Well, it’s exactly as it sounds; it’s a network of bunkers, under the city, built in case the invaders ever returned.”

“But when, and to what ends Colonel?”

“The when is unimportant…” The high ranking Militia officer is evidently uncomfortable discussing such matters at this time. Xeria will give him that, for now. Later she will demand to know, and he will tell her, no excuse will suffice.

“…the ends, as you put it; so we would have fortified subterranean bases from which to operate and oppose them.”

“And who is them?” The Governor demands frustrated; knowing full well it may be a question that cannot be answered.

To her surprise he clears his throat, not as if he intends to immediately respond but rather in a manner which suggests he is making efforts to buy time. Gaaran even averts his gaze. Evidently he knows something and is weighing up how much is suitable to tell Merrin’s Governor.

Impatient and teetering on the edge of throwing herself at the man to beat it out of him she utters through gritted teeth, “Colonel…”

It appears he isn’t inclined to make her abreast of the situation.

The Governor couldn’t care less as to why as she reminds, “I’m in command here, you answer to me. So you are going to tell me whatever it is you know.”

This time Xeria doesn’t add an or else. Instead she implies it. And on this occasion she does have an idea as to what it might be if he does decide to push her.

Stupid, suicidal, idiotic, perhaps but the Militia Colonel needs to understand she is deadly serious.

But you’d be risking the lives of everyone aboard!


Begrudgingly, Gaaran relents. He doesn’t make it obvious however.

Always trying to save face aren’t you Colonel?

“From one of the invaders we recovered this.” The Militia officer produces a data chip from seemingly out of nowhere.

“What’s on that chip, Colonel?” The Governor asks in a demanding tone, her sense of control over the situation growing.

Without uttering another word he slides the chip into the overhead relay unit and waits for it to fire into life. The process takes barely a couple seconds. Then he begins to speak again, clearly this is a pre-amble to showing the Governor, and her entourage, something. What it might be, other than obviously important, Xeria cannot imagine; that scares her more than she’d like.

“What I’m about to show you is… above classification AlphaOne.”

An image coalesces. Everyone, bar Colonel Melia, gasps at the sight of a bipedal humanoid machine, clad in armour, armed for combat.

“What is it?” Someone blurts stuttering.

“In its info files it is labelled as Droid. It has an identification number but thus far we have been unable to decipher any meaning from it.”

“How long have you known about this Gaaran?” The Governor demands to know using the Colonels’ name rather than rank. Her mauve fixed again on him, burrowing deep, damning, cursing him for his secrecy, his actions. Or perhaps it would be better to say his inactions.

“Long enough that we learned these droids are the bulk of this invading force.”

“And they can be killed?” A member of the Governor’s team interjects asking a question that needn’t be spoken for it is clear they can be ‘killed’ as otherwise the Militia would not have one in its possession.

“Who is controlling them Colonel? I need to…”

For reasons she is unable to give Xeria feels it necessary to look out the closest window of the Odonata.

Before she gets the chance sirens screech loudly, painfully. Everyone shelters their ears for it feels as though they may split at any moment because of the volume of the alarm.

“We have incoming!” The pilot roars, informing them what the siren is alluding to, somehow louder than the repetitive screeches themselves.

Quite the feat, Governor Xeria Parduche decides until suddenly the Odonata pitches violently right. Everyone inside is thrown that same direction except for Xeria, and the strapped in pilot, who manages to cling to the arm of her and pull herself up to peer out the window.

A velocity cylinder is heading right for them. Her eyes go wide. Death is guaranteed, she can imagine nothing else. That is until the Odonata pulls up sharply sending the cylinder shooting harmlessly under its belly. A heavy sigh of relief passes from between Xeria’s lips. The Odonata returns back to level. The other occupants, terrified and dizzy, begin to brush themselves off. The Governor meanwhile turns her attention back to Gaaran but sees the cylinder out the window behind his head. She watches it with beady eyes as it turns, angles back towards them. She doesn’t understand how it is possible. The Militia have no such capabilities.

She goes to exclaim, to inform that they are still in danger when the screeching alarms roars back into life.

The pilot spits something angrily; the Odonata pitches, zigzags, dives, turns and then pulls back up all while the screech of impending death continues to assault everyone’s ears.

“Brace!” Is the last word Xeria can make out prior to the Odonata rolling sharply one way.

The manoeuvre isn’t enough. There is a boom, a detonation. The Governor feels it even more than she hears it, which is quite the feat.

The Odonata continues to roll over until it has completed a single sideways revolution. After that it erupts into a lateral spin, falling.

Almost everyone aboard is screaming, bar a few who are pointlessly issuing demands. She thinks she hears Gaaran’s voice amongst them. She isn’t surprised.

The Governor however remains deathly quiet as she clings on for dear life.

There is no saving the Odonata, she is convinced of it. Not that she needs to be with additional projectiles peppering its thick bulky armoured hull.

This is where fighting is at its fiercest in Merrin, unbeknownst to the Governor who is choking on thick black smoke from the butchered particle engines while they continue to spin mercilessly toward ground and certain death.

The wait is agonising; during it Xeria accepts that death is for them all is…

Deep in the city, Yarsha is sure that Merrin is doomed. You’d have to be a fool, in his opinion, not to see it for yourself. Buildings are toppled, some still in the process of doing so, others are piles of rubble, there are fires everywhere, bodies line the streets. All around there is death, signs of suffering.

If he were not a member of the Militia he would’ve got out already. Instead he is on the ground in the middle of this catastrophe without any idea of what it is he is fighting or what the plan is.

Sure, to push the invaders back, deal them a blow, force a victory for the Militia and a defeat for them. But those are all grand, large scale items. What he is meant to achieve as an individual, or with his team, he hasn’t a clue.

Comms are down, reinforcements, if they exist, have not materialised.

“What’re your orders Yarsha?” One of his team queries from behind an unsuitable piece of cover that if they were under fire would almost certainly see them as one of the first to die. Yet, with the air as clogged with dust and debris as it is, Yarsha finds it impossible to ascertain who it is who has issued this question.

Rather than immediately offer a reply he flicks the transmitter in his helmet into the on position. As he expected he is greeted by static, a wall of it. No break or pause in the sound whatsoever. It’s what he expected and in his mind settles his internal debate regarding what should be done next, regardless of whether his superiors would agree with it or not.

They aren’t here, they get no say.

“Pull back, we’re leaving. The cities lost.”

His words cut like a knife for the remaining members of his team. Who offer neither refusal nor signs of conforming to his orders. Rather, they stay in their positions of cover as if they think this a joke meant to lighten the mood, and that Yarsha will soon utter his real orders to be executed. This isn’t a joke, he isn’t about to issue different orders. These are his orders because Merrin is doomed, fallen. If they stay all they’ll achieve is wasting their lives dying out here, and their bodies will be added to those strewn all around them. Most are civilian, no one knew this attack was coming, but some are Militia too.

When they were first deployed there were fifteen of them, now there are seven. The others they lost trying to carry out operations against a foe they never stood a chance against. And to make matters worse Yarsha isn’t sure their enemy has suffered many losses. If they have there are no signs of it. That alone he struggles with, then add in what surrounds him and is it any surprise he wants to save all of those he can? He doesn’t believe so.

Where will you fall back to?

I don’t know, anywhere but here. Outside the city limits probably. It might be safe out there.

Do you really believe that?

Maybe; yeah, it has to be.

And what if it isn’t?

Then we keep marching ‘til we reach safety.

And you think the invaders will let you do that?

Stop arguing! I’m doing the best I can. What would you have me do instead? Do you have a better option in mind? I’d like to hear it if you do.

There is no reply because of course there isn’t. These statements are his doubts, precisely that and nothing more. Their intent is to cause him internal conflict. He doesn’t need nor want it. It’s hard enough to admit because Merrin is his home. The last thing he wants to do is withdraw from it, accept defeat, but what other choice is there?

“On your feet, you heard me, we’re pulling out.”

Hesitantly, those under his command extract themselves from their positions of cover and trudge over to gather around their superior. Each and every one of them looks exhausted, battered, bruised, broken, covered in dust.

That dust, it’s the worst for it is cloying, sticks to everything, including the roof of your mouth.

Feeling he can take no more of the build-up, Yarsha spits. It isn’t as effective as he’d hoped. The epitome of today, he believes.

You see the Militia Sergeant was meant to be on leave, on his way to the mountains a few hours’ drive outside the city. Instead he is here, in the middle of what can only be referred to as extermination by a superior species from somewhere across the stars.

Why come all this way just to start a fight?

He hasn’t the answers, cannot comprehend. To him it seems utterly pointless, counterintuitive. And that is to a Flath who aren’t exactly known for having had a peaceful history. In fact, their history is liberally sprinkled with savage wars and dark periods presided over by ruthless despots.

You would think with all that blood in our past we would be capable of mounting a capable defence, maybe even a counter attack, but no. We’ve been crushed like a bug beneath a boot.

Yarsha is disgusted but pragmatic enough to accept fact, reality.

A quick glance across the confused, horrified faces of his people confirms they are all present; begrudgingly so or not is of little concern.

As a twenty year veteran of the Militia, Yarsha has fought battles, he wouldn’t go so far as to call any of them wars, meanwhile his team could best be described as a group of kids. A little more than truthfully but in his eyes not far off. And they joined up for wholly different reasons to him. Doubtful any of them ever believed they’d be going into battle, even if a conflict broke out.

You see Merrin’s Militia operates two tiers. The upper of which are the career combatants; those who are deployed into battle. Meanwhile the secondary tier is made up of people purely wanting to advance their prospects. Some do it because they come from poverty stricken backgrounds or broken homes. They don’t want to fight or risk their lives. But today is the day that system went out the window. Being under attack by these invaders, Militia needed everyone, regardless of how being in combat might make them feel.

As you might expect Yarsha’s team, what’s left of them, are from the second tier. He isn’t. He is from the upper, the lifers, but some lifers have to train those from the second tier. It’s never been called the lower tier because that sounds… Well, isn’t it obvious how it sounds, I don’t need to explain.

“I’ll take point, keep spread, eyes on a swivel, this is their territory now, not ours, understood?”

Weak nods and disheartened yeps is all that is offered in reply. If circumstances were different he’d feel a need to chastise them, but truthfully he is as warn as they are and so turns on his heels to begin trudging down the shattered street heading for anywhere other than here, the heart of Merrin.

If they make it out alive, those of them that remain, it’ll be a miracle, a sizeable one.

Stop thinking like that. You’ll get them out. You always get your people…

Not this time. This isn’t the same. I’ve lost more than half of them in a few hours. More than I’ve lost in the last eight years.

It’s not your fault.

In that case whose fault is it? I’m the one leading them; meant to look out for them, protect them, keep them safe.

This is different.

You’re telling me.

Not what I mean, and you know it. You had no choice, no way of knowing. These invaders, you’ve never faced anything like them and these kids, they shouldn’t be out here. You didn’t make that call.

No response is offered by Yarsha whose attention has been drawn to a crunching sound; the sort you get when something heavy steps on the remnants of glass, shattered and strewn about.

A gesture orders his team halt their march; they comply.

Waiting with bated breath each of them wonders what might come next. A few hope it is reinforcements; others would rather not hazard guesses.

The Militia Sergeant himself considers whether to call out. It isn’t protocol but would it surprise him if a lost band of his own have forgotten protocol, especially if they are second tiers like those serving under him? No, it wouldn’t. Still, he resists the urge; waits, listens.

A whirring noise, barely audible above the shifting sounds of the ruined buildings around them and the crackling of fires, reaches the Sergeants ears. Yarsha fires a quick gesture ordering everyone to drop to the deck.

The order comes in the nick of time as lurid projectiles lance over their heads and right through the empty space where their torsos had been moments ago.

The Sergeant snarls; the invaders are here, they’ve found them and not for the first time. He props up his weapon, peers down the sight, searches the visibility impairing cloud, spots nothing.

Do I fire? Do I not?

He debates for and against for a time, while projectiles continue to rush past filling his ears with frantic whistles. Finally he deems it too risky with his team right behind him. After all, if he fired there is a good chance the invaders will quickly triangulate and then focus upon his position.

A series of gestures order those under his command to crawl across the wide street to whatever cover there might be. He recalls seeing some examples, rubble and burnt out vehicles. He hopes that is what the kids will hunker behind, though he cannot be sure they will. They are scared, confused, lost. That means he has to work with what he’s got. It isn’t much but…

The projectiles switch from a narrow focus to a wide fan; mercifully it is a horizontal rather than vertical fan that is initiated. Yarsha has seen both thus far today and the latter proved to be devastatingly effective. Unsurprisingly, no one saw it coming until it was too late. Luckily for his team they were not at street level. Rather, they had been part of an overwatch. Not that they had been able to offer much protection to those at ground level.

Think about events later, this isn’t the time!

Shaking himself free of today’s past events, the Sergeant rolls left, away from his subordinates. He keeps going until he bangs into a mixture of twisted metal and shattered stone. Without hesitation he props his weapon up, shoulders it as best he can while prone, peers down the sight, again searches, sees nothing but unlike before this time he fires anyway.

Rounds explode out the barrel of his weapon. His are not lurid and offer no illumination. So when the rounds pierce the cloying cloud of low hanging dust they vanish from sight. Clangs and dull thuds offer him little insight, he finds that frustrating but folds himself behind the cover he rolled into and awaits a peppering of his position.

No such thing occurs. His brow furrows deeply with confusion and uncertainty. Still he remains in cover, waiting, anticipating. The seconds tick by, become minutes. He accepts he’s wrong, rolls out the opposite side of cover just in case, props up his weapon, sights, searches. There is a glint. Yarsha rolls back into cover, rounds pepper where he had been a fraction of a second previously.


The section of road where he had been is becoming eroded; a hole created by the vicious projectiles while Yarsha shields his head. Miraculously there have been no ricochets by the time the hail of projectiles trail off.

Gestures from several of his team query his status. He returns an A-Okay. He hopes it’ll be enough to prevent them from…

Queries of whether he needs assistance are soon frantically issued. In reply he demands no one break from cover.

It’s too late, a couple of them do. The horizontal fan of fire kicks back into life. One of the pair of Flath is cut in two across the waist. The other manages to collapse in time, losing only a couple fingers and their weapon.

Crunching footsteps resume. The invaders are advancing. They must taste blood, be eager to finish those they have located. Yarsha curses the misfortune he calls his own but which includes those under his command, past and present; mainly present for he cannot help those no longer amongst the living.

Can you help anyone?

Shut up! This isn’t the time!

The horizontal fan fire continues, eroding cover for everyone near equally.

The remaining members of the Sergeants team are paralysed with fear, hunkered down, pressed as hard as they can manage against the remnants of what had once been a street. Rubble digs painfully into their flesh. Some sob, some plead; the others make no sound at all.

If Yarsha couldn’t, just barely, see movement from them he might declare them already dead.

They aren’t; do something!

The Sergeant rolls out of cover, sights his weapon and resumes squeezing off rounds.

He is without clear targets to aim for and so has resorted to hoping shots at the murky rough shadows in the clouds will warrant something of merit.

There continues to be clangs of metal on metal. Hearing those confuses Yarsha who could swear his aim is dead on those shapes.

You can’t have been.

Not helpful, he is aware; sights, aims and fires again. More clangs. This time he knows, with certainty, that he was aimed at the shadows in the dust cloud that refuses to disperse, to provide full visibility.

Switching to full auto Yarsha pours the rest of his weapons magazine into the shapes. More clangs are followed by a pause. Is it hesitation?

He soon finds out when all of a sudden the fan sweeps Yarsha’s way. He rolls back into cover feeling the impacts as rounds claw at his cover.

Apparently all enemy attention is on him now. How it should be, he thinks.

But you’re trapped, pinned. They’ll be advancing again soon, if they are not already. You have no way to escape.

I know.

You have no intention to, do you?

Ignoring the query he gestures to the remnants of his team, demands they withdraw and even points to the alley down which they should flee.

Most obey, desperate to escape with their lives. Without consideration of the fate that might await their superior. But a couple refuse. Frustrated, he reiterates his orders angrily; they go ignored. He wonders what he has to do to save Qilla and Feppo when out of nowhere they do the last thing he would ever consider. That is to stand, leap from cover, their weapons on full auto. They spray the advancing invaders who somehow continue to be shrouded by the dust.

“Get down!” Yarsha screams unable to stay silent any longer for these two are going to get themselves killed, and for what?

For you, you idiot! They are risking their lives to save you!

I don’t want saving.

So you were planning to throw your life away!

What I was or was not planning is my business alone, and is not worth the loss of two lives; is the reply delivered while rolling out of cover to shoulder, sight and fire.

Weapons fire focused from three different shooters positioned on opposite sides of the street directed at the shrouded masses of the invaders has no effect on their capacity to continue their wide arcs of lurid projectile fire.

To make matters worse the invaders refuse to focus on Yarsha; that’s what he hoped they would do. Alas the focus remains largely on Qilla and Feppo, which makes sense as they are two targets to his one, as they dip in and out of cover, themselves advancing.

“No, withdraw, do not advance!”

Yarsha’s demands go unheard.

Believing there to be no other option, Yarsha breaks from cover so he is a direct target; visible and out in the open. It works. The fan quickly narrows and is directed toward the Sergeant while he sprints from one side of the street toward the other. He doesn’t have the chance to return fire, slow, think. He simply keeps running. That is until something slashes across the back of his leg. He screams, looses balance, trips, falls, slams hard into the debris strewn road. Eyes closed he waits for death. It doesn’t come. Opening his eyes the Sergeant discovers he is behind cover. Fortune has favoured him, saved his life. He breathes a sigh of relief then hears a fresh scream. He looks up. Feppo has been hit, hard, in the chest. His body flops backwards away from the spray of his blood.

It is abundantly clear, to Yarsha as least, that Feppo is dead.

Alti makes it clear she intends to break from the mouth of the alley Yarsha ordered them flee down to offer aid. Yarsha gestures an order which Alti begrudgingly adheres to.

Meanwhile Qilla is incandescent, a wild beast firing and screaming as if he is possessed, crazed.

The veteran Militia NCO turns his attention towards the young man; he’s going to get himself killed. There is no doubt that the Sergeant has to end this. Regrettably he won’t be able to stop the invaders, how he would love to, so that means he needs to prevent Qilla from continuing his madness any longer.

Scrambling to his feet, Yarsha learns the wound suffered is purely of the flesh, which means he remains mobile.

Ignoring uttering any blessing for this discovery, he shoulders his weapon, flips it into burst and begins to advance while making efforts to draw the invaders fire his way.

Qilla remains reckless, suicidal in his efforts. Yet, somehow his non-tactics are working. Perhaps it is he is so unpredictable the invaders are unsure of how to best deal with him. It seems unlikely but…

The Sergeant is but a couple metres from Qilla now, one point of cover rests between them.

It is at that moment Yarsha gets a proper look at the invaders. His jaw drops. They are not organic like him, or his people, rather they are mechanical. Confusion overwhelms him. He shakes it off moments after for this is not the time for contemplation. He needs to save the berserk young man under his command, or die trying.

“Qilla, get in cover; that is an order!” The Sergeant bellows at the top of his lungs; a final desperate hope his voice his wrench the man out of whatever would best to call this state he is in.

His efforts prove fruitless; his words go unheard. It’s why the Sergeant doesn’t make such attempts again. Rather, he breaks from cover sprinting toward Qilla.

His plan, if it can be called such, is to tackle the young man, drag him away, restrain him if needs be.

Inches from tackling Qilla the young man is pummelled with projectiles. His body writhes in response to most and then topples. Yarsha lets out an agonising scream, slides to Qilla’s side, drags him into cover.

The young Flath in his arms is spluttering, his chest a mess of blue blood, shredded flesh and splintered bone.

“Did I get them?” Qilla asks with a smile across his face.

The expression doesn’t last and quickly fades as his eyes turn glassy.

“Huh.” Yarsha lets out an enormous sigh. Rage boiling inside him he considers embarking on a revenge trip of his own.

Thankfully his training overrides his primitive desires, forcing him to consider the fact that he still has people under his command who are counting on him.

Cover being eroded, Yarsha gathers his weapon, some spare ammo from Qilla, his tag, then retreats back to the alley mouth where the four remaining souls under his command are huddled together frightened, and in one case injured.

“We need to get moving, I know it’s hard but that is what we have to do, understood?”

Nods are all the response Yarsha gets. He’ll take them. It’s better than he hoped for as ravenous weapons fire continues to fill the air barely a metre away from the alleys narrow mouth.

Relentless mechanical bastards, Yarsha thinks gesturing that they make haste, and that he’ll bring up the rear to cover their flank as they withdraw.

It’s what a good commander does.

There’s been no sign of the invaders for a good while; that leads Yarsha to believe they’ve lost them, for now anyway.

It wasn’t as difficult as he expected it would be. Yet, they are a long way from being out of Merrin. An hour at the very least and with all the walking they’ve been doing it is long past time they take a break, if only for a couple minutes.

A couple snaps of his fingers garner him the attention he requires and is followed swiftly by a quick series of gestures that tell everyone they are taking a break.

It might seem like a bad idea to stop in the confines of alleyways without cover, overhead or otherwise, but with how damaged the cities building are it is unlikely sheltering inside would be much safer.

Plus, there is another reason he feels it prudent they take a pause; there’s something he needs to tell them. He doesn’t want to but they have the right to know.

He’ll let them get comfortable first, quench any thirst they may have; he’ll do the same. Well, apart from the get comfortable part that is. He can’t allow himself such a luxury. At least until they are out of Merrin, and even then he can’t promise it will be forthcoming. Old habit, not learned but innate; he’s struggled with it ever since he joined and was first deployed.

Must be the penance I get for the life I’ve lead.

Thankfully there is no retort this time like there had been before. It might mean his subconscious has given up the ghost for a bit. Pleasant, unexpected, surprise but one he will gladly accept as he fishes his canteen from a pocket on his body armour, unscrews the cap, swishes the contents around out of habit definitely learned only to then take a long slurp.

His weapon remains within reach, slung across his chest.

When he’d been young and headstrong he’d timed how long it took for him to transition from a stance like he is in currently back to full readiness, weapon levelled, finger on the trigger. It had been some idiotic handful of seconds, he doesn’t recall exactly. Its personal importance had greatly diminished in the years since. Without doubt he’d be slower now than he’d been in his prime.

I should still be quick enough however, is his conclusion for he doesn’t believe he’s gotten too slow over his decades of service.

He’d find it pretty worrying if he had.

Wouldn’t they test for that?

He likes to think so. That someone would’ve noticed, pulled him aside, made him aware or kicked his ass out of the Militia.

Several more swigs are taken prior to Yarsha replacing the screw cap, stashing the canteen back where he says it belongs and readying himself.

It’s been a few minutes, no time at all really, since he called for this rest.

As you can likely understand, Binis, the injured party amongst them, continues to cradle his mutilated hand. If it were a leg it would be easier to recoup. Just slam a stock peg into place and voila, replacement limb. Fingers, they’ve never been the sort of thing Flath have been able to offer replacements for.

Maybe it’s because it is seldom what has tended to be lost in the heat of battle. Legs are most common, hence the existence of stock pegs. Strange name, Yarsha has to admit without really understanding how or why they came to be known as such. There has to be a reason, he’s simply never considered it previously. Same goes for a lot of things he supposes.

I’m stalling, he thinks. Need to face it sooner rather than later. It’s not going to get any easier.

He wants to let out a sigh. Resists the urge, turns toward what remains of his team, clears his throat. Again that garners the attention he requires; he can’t say wants because he doesn’t really.

“There’s no easy way of saying this…” A pause, hesitation as the Sergeant considers for the ninth time whether what he’s about to reveal is for the best, or because selfishly he wants to share the burden.

Of course it’s for the best they know!

There you are, knew you wouldn’t leave me in peace for long.

Stop your belly aching and get on with it.

“…the invaders; they’re not organic like us.”

An exchange of shocked, bewildered looks is accompanied by a number of gasps.

Before anyone gets the chance to interject and ask how he can be so sure he continues.

“Got a glimpse at them out on the street…” He doesn’t expand to inform that the glimpse was while he was trying to save Qilla’s life.

Failed on that one didn’t you?

 “They’re mechanical.”

“So we’re done. They’ve won.”

The Sergeant feels it imperative he remain strong, defiant, which is why he utters calmly, “No.”

“Then why are we retreating?”

“Merrin is done, we’re not.” He explains succinctly.

“There’s a difference?”

“Hell yeah there’s a difference. A city is a thing. It can be rebuilt, replaced. Lives cannot. We’re alive and as long as we are so is the possibility of victory.” A speech, small as it might be, isn’t what he’d had planned.

“You really believe that Sergeant?” Is the question uttered by Binis while he continues to cradle his injured hand.

The manner in which the young injured man has hold of his damaged appendage looks more like it is meant to serve as a reminder than not.

Don’t hesitate, they’ll see it.

“Yeah, I do Binis. I do.”

“Then we better get moving.” The injured Flath of twenty proclaims rising back to his feet, a determined look in his pale yellow eyes.

The others follow suit as though Binis is their compass, their guide.

The Sergeant nods and then advises, “We’ll cut through the estates, it’ll be quicker.”

“We won’t get much cover.”

“Hopefully won’t need it. And I’ll take point.”

“Isn’t Governor House round here somehow?” Is the last thing uttered prior to them moving out, their respite, as brief as it was, over.

It is, as far as Yarsha can remember. He doubts there is much left of it. He doesn’t know, and could be wrong. It might be intact. It’s just if he were the invaders, the mechanical murderers, he’d hit the House. It’s a representation of the seat of governance in Merrin.

Do the invaders know that?

Who knows! They seem to know most everything else.

Now you’re being cynical.

Am I?

Yarsha is pleased when he gets no reply, no comeback to continue the internal debate. It makes him almost want to smile, well smirk. He does neither. For now is not the time or place for such, plus he doesn’t really have the energy to.

Will I ever smile again? He doesn’t know. Feels he cannot answer that. Its early days; maybe, someday, he will. It’s a have to wait and see, because no one knows how this is going to pan out. Hell, the invaders came once before and that inexplicably left.

It could happen again.

You really believe that?

I don’t know what I believe anymore.

Yes you do.

Can’t you leave me in peace again; it was serene without your nagging voice.

It’s your voice too.

You know what I mean; Yarsha thinks rounding a corner, his view no longer blocked by towering stately abodes. Instead, he gets full view of the devastation wrought upon the old grand estates in this part of the city.

It doesn’t surprise him, but from the gasps behind it clearly has those under his command. Nevertheless, he pushes on. They’ll have to cross these wide open ‘fields’ if they want to get out of Merrin.

It’s a bad idea; perfect place for an ambush.

Zip it, he thinks trudging over the blackened Ollograss pitted with holes, littered with shrapnel, crunchy.

Soon sick of the sight of the ground immediately ahead of him, the Sergeant looks up toward that dark sky. He spies a thick column of black smoke. It isn’t coming from a building as far as he can tell.

Something, he doesn’t know what, tells him whatever the source might be is important, needs to be investigated. He issues gestures to convey his change of destination. There is muttering but no refusal to his orders.

You’re pushing your luck. Before long they will refuse if you keep changing things on them like this.

The Sergeant ignores the thought. It’s true but unhelpful.

They close on the rubble. Some of it is the remains of a wall. The rest he cannot decipher. It wasn’t a house; of that much he is confident in saying for there isn’t enough of it.

What does it matter?

It doesn’t, he decides holding his weapon level so that it’s ready to fire if needs be.

Really think you can take one of the invaders down?

Does it matter what I think, you’ll berate me either way. Dig at what I think, get under my skin.

True, you’re learning.

Frustrated; Yarsha clambers over the tail end of the rubble mound until he is behind where the wall once would’ve been as well as whatever else stood here.

Hearing his heart in his ears he prepares for the worst, a surprise attack. What he discovers is nothing. Simply the burned remains of a tail section lodged deep into the stone, smoking.

Evidently, it isn’t the source of the acrid column of black reaching towards the dark sky. No wonders how he got that wrong.

‘Cause you’re not thinking, you’re out of your depth.

“Nothing here; let’s keep moving.”

And keep moving they do, the five of them conquering the wide fields until they reach the boundary of Governor House. Miraculously the boundary has remained intact; at least it has from where they are stood currently. Unsurprisingly, the same cannot be said for the building itself. Its current state would best be described as ruined at best, a hill of shattered rock at worst.

Yarsha sees no point doing recon on it to see if anyone survived; they won’t have. He knows that for a fact.

It isn’t the source of the column either.

Completing the crossing of another half dozen ‘fields’ they soon learn what the source of the black column is, the remnants of a house. Beyond a shadow of a doubt it is not the main building of the estate, judging by its size.

“Are those Odonata wings?” Someone queries referring to the sweeping blade shaped, mangled, metal lengths jutting awkwardly through the remains of what Yarsha has conclude might’ve been a guest house.

They are, the Sergreant would know those wing blades anyway, which is why he’s broken into a sprint heading for the remains of the buildings interior.

What is an Odonata doing inside Merrin’s city limits? They aren’t permitted here.

Maybe it has to do with the Governor?

There is no way, Yarsha concludes, leaping pits and troughs carved into what once would have been pristine gardens.

In hot pursuit are the other four members of his team. They don’t understand why their CO is drawn to what they’ve found but are following all the same. After all, he hasn’t lead them astray yet, in their eyes. And the losses they’ve suffered aren’t his fault. He’s done the best he could, better than most each could hope to manage, each of them thinks.

Before long the group reaches the outer perimeter of where the buildings outer wall once would have been.

Yarsha levels his weapon out of habit and moves cautiously, gesturing the others do the same, but also that they fan out.

They need to keep distance between them in case this is an ambush.

The interior of the building is naught but debris, soon they step through a hole on the opposite side of it and into a courtyard where the shredded carcass of an Odonata rests.

Bodies are strewn all around it. Every one of them is clearly deceased. The sight weighs heavily on all of them.

Still, the Sergeant cannot comprehend as to who these people might have been, for none of them are dressed in uniform and Odonata’s are exclusively ran by Merrin’s Militia.

You aren’t Militia, so who are you?

There is a spluttering, it is coming from within the wreckage. The Sergeant gestures for his remaining four to take up covering positions, then he slinks inside.

The barrel of his weapon drops when he sets sights on the dead body of Colonel Melia and the sole ‘survivor’ Governor Xeria Parduche.

Hurrying to her side, calling for his team to collapse on his position and secure the Odonata, Yarsha begins his assessment of the woman’s injuries when suddenly the Governor’s eyes open to take in the sight of Yarsha and his team.

“Who are you?” She splutters weakly.

“Sergeant Yarsha…”

“Militia, good. I possess something you need. It’s imperative.” Is the assurance from the woman with mauve eyes, dull and endlessly shifting as if they can’t properly focus.

“Governor you’re hurt, we need to make you stable, to extract you.”

“It’s too late. You know it as much as I do.” Her blunt words are more than a tad surprising, though she is right. Yarsha is fully aware that there is little hope of saving Governor Parduche really.

By looks of things she’s lost a lot of blood and her right leg is shredded to nothing but flaps of tattered gory flesh. Still, he can buy her a little extra time.

“Need a stock peg, stat!” Is the order he barks reflexively feeling there is no need to explain nor consider the options any further.

One is quickly issued to him. The Governor goes to protest. Before she gets chance, Yarsha slams the mechanical substitute limb into place. It locks. The Governor winces, whines. Then the peg extends to mimic a leg.

It won’t save her life but it should stem the bleeding and give her the time she feels is vital to convey whatever it is she believes is so crucial.

“Deep breaths Governor; they’ll help to slow the bleeding, give you more time.”

Xeria nods; her body feels wrong, so very very wrong. She could look away from the Sergeant, his eyes, his team. They look young, too young. She detests that they are facing this madness but can’t bring herself to look beside her.

She is acutely aware of who is next to her, Gaaran, for that is where he is slumped.

He too survived the crash after they were hit, their tail section torn free. No one else was so ‘lucky.’ They all died on impact.

Regrettably, he’d not and had been more severely wounded than her; even seemed to know his time was going to be shorter and that he would be unable to hold on.

Not that Xeria had believed someone would find her. She continues to believe that to be a miracle.

Still, before he died Gaaran had managed to impart unto her what the upper echelon of the Militia had learned about the invaders from the one they ‘recovered.’ And that is what she knows she must pass on.

Will it save us?

I don’t know, but I feel I have to try.

“Sergeant, the invaders they’re…”

“Machines, we know Governor.”

Xeria shakes her head, usually someone interrupting her would boil her blood, she doesn’t have the energy to be angry and finds she cannot speak; her mouth is dry, too dry. Her words stuck in the back of her throat while she fights to swallow. Finally she manages to.

“They are but pawns. Controlled by…” Her voice gives out, becomes a squeak.

When it returns Yarsha hears, “…Umaniss. That is what a captured ‘droid’ uttered. Umaniss controls those machines.”

Yarsha’s face drops for Umaniss is a Flatherin word, an ancient one. It means one, or singular.

Automatically he asks, “They are controlled by one?”

The Governor can manage only a weak nod; she doesn’t have much time left.

 This development is revelatory; it could change everything. It certainly opens up hope, real hope, if they can find this Umaniss, of a possible victory.

“Governor, we are going to get you out of here, out of the city. There we can regroup.” The Sergeant feels, no is, hopeful; he even hears it in his own voice.

Perhaps he shouldn’t be, but doesn’t believe himself capable of preventing it.

“No, under the city there are bunkers. You must find the entrance, tell those who are left…” Her speech is slow, slurred, broken by heavy panting breathes.

“We will Governor, but first we have to…”

A storm of lurid projectiles assault the downed Odonata from several angles all at once.

In a flash Binis, Atla, Denva and Relle are cut down, their lives ended. Sergeant Yarsha doesn’t get chance to react for he too is hit. Unlike his team however, he is not killed, only wounded.

Splayed out on the floor, desperate to avoid further injury but unable to see much of anything he settles on taking a risk. A quick flick of his body and Yarsha is on his back. Immediately he learns that Governor Parduche is dead. Despair fills his chest; he grabs his weapon, sure this is the end. He curses the invader for their cowardice, prepares for his final defiance…

A ricochet bounces off some of the interior plating of the downed Odonata and gouges Yarsha’s helmet. The headpiece saves his life, but between his wounds and the ringing in his ears he no longer has anything left to give, his vision is blurred. His body betrays him; goes limp leaving him to lie there, waiting for death while his sight grows ever narrower.

A face, blurred, appears in his limited vision. In many ways it is like his; though in a few more it is quite different. Chiefly the jutting pointed nose and the small eyes with thin bands of hair above. Those are in complete contrast to the protruding hairless bulges above his own eyes which as a result leave all of his kind with faces that appear somewhat sunken.

“Umaniss.” He manages to mutter, surprised.

No sooner does he say the word than two more faces appear in his vision. They are similar to the first but darker.

The world, his world, goes black.

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