The Fall

The following is the first of five short stories from my recently published book, The Sagas of the Iron Hearts: Fragments, which can be found here.  If you enjoyed it, you can peruse at your will the remaining four for the low low price of $5.99 paperback  and $0.99 kindle edition.  Every sale is a step towards paying my utilities and a step away from being evicted from my meager lodgings by my girlfriend, whose mother warned her about me.

Anyways: The Fall

1.

Lost amidst the infinite specks of starry sky there hurtled through the void an errant youth huddled within the still belly of a metal monolith.  The dusky ovaloid capsule—engraved with the ancient production markings of an age beyond memory, scored and seared with centuries of use—was a thing monstrous, several stories in length.  The wild-eyed youth of fluttering heart, the traveler comfortably enshrouded within the armored auspices of the soaring bulwark, could strangely think only of his own inconsequence—how small he was against the titanic backdrop of stars and galaxies that would dwarf him just as easily as the events at hand—and his own part in them.  Dread ruminations of catastrophic failure, that there is no undying glory, crept, slithering like a poisonous thing, unbidden through the hollows of his gray matter, as, with some disbelief, he remembered the sparkling image of the tiny speck he observed from the brazen bridge of the vanguard cruiser, that this tiny point in the umbra sky constituted itself a whole world with its own millions of souls—his destination.

He would drift nearly two hours, only the occasional buffeting of the maneuvering thrusters to keep him company, as he lingered still and tried to calm his respiration, suspended in his cockpit amidst the uncomfortable guard of attitude gel.  It was a long time, two hours, to remain in this state of suspended animation; it was a long time to be cogent but still; life must be murderous for snipers.  By the time he arrived, by the time the defenders got wind of his insertion, it would be altogether too late.  Minutes away now, his ovaloid capsule would come brilliantly alight in the fires of the decelerating atmosphere, roaring groundward with the crackling flames of the sidereal inferno.  It was an impossible feat, virtually unheard of since the time of the rebellions—cast planetside from the vanguard cruiser in orbit of the most adjacent moon—to sojourn alone across so vast a distance with only the protection of maneuvering thrusters and come to a gentle collision with a precision of mere feet upon a world none the wiser, a frozen ball of violet idiosyncrasies under the care of a military junta entirely unprepared for the violence to follow.

“It’s unprofessional, you know, to have your heart a-flutter in your throat just before an engagement.  Thought you were better than that, Artemisius, rather more like your grandfather.”

“It wasn’t for the immortal fame of my grandfather that I agreed to be sealed within a metal shipping container.”

“It’s only by the glory of your grandfather that they agreed to take you, were so eager in fact—that they think so much of the men of your family, that so much is generally thought of them.”

“Give me a break.  I can handle it.  It’s just anxiety, performance butterflies.”

“You’ve been spending too much time with the Melainolith players.”

“Battlefield butterflies then.”

“Don’t make me regret this.”

“I just don’t know.  I feel far removed from my depth.  I’ve seen death before.  I’ve seen cities burn.  I’ve seen good men fall under my own hands.”

“And you’ve seen the downfall of your house.”

“All the men I’ve killed, men I once called “friend,” men that had long served my father with distinction virtually liquefied under my iron heel.”

“So why should slaughtering strangers be any worse?”

“The men that raised me, I watched them burn to death, trapped within the confines of their own iron shells, and it felt good.  I had no doubts.  But who are these?  Someone else’s problem I think.  I had a reason before.  The only reason I have now is… well… convenience.  That—and I’ve been contracted to do so, but I don’t feel like a mercenary, never thought duty and service would seem so antiseptic.  I’ve got the jitters, and I don’t know if I’m afraid or if I’m excited, and I don’t know what to think of myself in the case of either.”

“I shouldn’t laugh, but I have to say, you’re thoughtful for a man so young—perhaps a little too thoughtful.  Remember that all that exists, all that you can do, lingers within this moment, even as the moment travels hand in hand with the slithering sands of time.  Put it out of your mind.  There’s work to be done.”

“If I could have, I would have.

“But be mindful and relax; you’ve got something that only a handful of soldiers in the history of mankind have ever had.”

“And what’s that?”

“Me.”

“Wonderful.”

“The Eisenherz makes his own way.  He’s leagues above and beyond the altogether rabble that composes the rest of the army; he doesn’t rely upon his commanders, and he learns to rely upon such comrades as only he can.  You’ve got the thrumming heart of a titan beneath you.  Villagers flee far to the hills, and cities tremble, all at the most distant echo of our earth-breaking stride.  Legends are spoken in roars and whispers whence we have, at last, gone.”

“I suppose that’s just what I’m worried about.”

As the silence pervaded, all he could hear was the gentle humming of the ancient fission reactor secreted into the metal not more than pair of yards distant.  It was a comforting sensation, experienced as much as sound as a textural vibration, reminiscent of the back-and-forth rocking of an old steam engine fed crude coal at the sweltering and stained hands of burly engineers—ancient technology still lingering on here and there in the hinterlands of the colony worlds.  It was here, in the bosom of his ferrous nostalgia, that his thoughts wandered to the matter of his mission.

The world’s first line of defense, its primary guardians, were a garrison fleet that had been constructed locally—long before the floating dry-docks had been disassembled for scrap—absent of any mode of propulsion besides sub-light engines; no ship in the fleet could take advantage of the system’s transit buoys which hailed for distant star systems.  The guardians could not avail themselves of their liberty; they remained fixed upon their battle stations, whether they liked it or not—a sort of penal legion by incident.  Even so, while the first line did not err from their patrols, our earthward vagabond was silent on their scanners, and they would become helpless witness to the violence unavoidable below as an incipient army scattered like stars among the iron sky made landfall.

The time was now.  The maneuvering thrusters shouted panic in unison, and the growing comet of an ovaloid countenance grew incandescent bright, fiery bronze juxtaposed brilliantly with the betraying-cold blue of the maneuvering thrusters and the saffron heat of entry.

One couldn’t have been prepared for the violence of the fall, as the ovaloid capsule threatened to shake apart from its very yokes to temporarily bathe the onyx sky in the waning warmth of a second star, announced with its disintegration.  Turbulence of a sort rarely experienced but in the fleeting moments of a passenger liner’s very final descent, the whip hand of the molten god of war, the blustering blast of the thunder gods lips, the chthonic tremors of the seaward earth-shaker himself—these all threatened at once to smash the old iron townhouse to drifting detritus, but the old and venerable capsule that had witnessed a hundred battles and suffered the passing of generations stood firm, determined to finish what was her final mission with as much grace as her first.  It was a battle; it was a contest, but she concluded her deceleration, slowed to just kiss the surface of the terra with a gentleness and elegance uncharacteristic of her meteoric voyage; seared, she was appointed with the colors of autumn glowing with the searing heating heat of entry, from her tired exhaust expiring her final fumes.

A series of explosive bolts cast away the high-rise panels of her solar skin and revealed her rust-stained inner lattice work, but, gods above, there was something else secreted within.  She must have been four stories in height, a die-cast goliath of swimming brass materializing from the milky-black of groaning Hypnos; in shape only human, she was armed to subdue armies.  She emerged slowly, like the very avatar of all nightmares, from the pregnant shadows of the capsule with the elegant concision of an unchallenged gymnast descending from the balance beam without any memory of having mounted.  With a mixture of awe and wonder, she surveyed the violet horizon and all gathered below, glittering wastes of sometimes fractured and otherwise unblemished crystal that stretched forth in all directions across violated and bedraggled badlands slowly becoming sands.  A thought crossed her pilot, running in an instant from ear-to-ear, who was unnerved—in spite all the training, the many briefings—with a terrible realization felt viscerally, the shock of observing up close a new world for the very first time, that he was—indeed—very far from home.  Apprised of his surroundings, he moved rapidly to his first objective.

2.

Albay Ghazanfar Chubuksu, long-time commanding officer of the 511th Smyrna Mountaineers, had been awoken particularly rudely—that is, to say, at all—from this evening’s slumber by a pale-faced lieutenant, reporting on behalf of the night officer who had insisted, apparently, that the matter, whatever god-forsaken matter, was too important to be left to the night watch.  Shaking the exhaustion from his eyes, he bore himself, half-dressed, to the command bunker—instant coffee in hand encapsulated within a venerable ceramic mug.  What an infernal nuisance.  He had never planned to join this backwater’s planetary defense force.  There was even a time, one out of distant memory, like a fairy tale, but remembered only gravely in the glint of long-chafed eyes, a time in which he had once even had visions of greatness, complete with gilded rooms, beautiful women, and even the occasional deed of military brilliance.  But all it takes is an innocent mistake, the right word at the wrong time, an unbidden sideways glance at another man’s woman, even the occasional error in tactical judgment—it only takes one—and all that potential is lost, cast away to seaward breeze as so much chaff.  Even a casual observer could have grasped the matter immediately; the ships in orbit possessed only stellar drives; they couldn’t leave the system, and neither could he.  This planet was as much as a prison as a garrison, the deployment a punishment—for all involved—an ideal place to dump the undesired and even sometimes the incompetent, the excess from the private military.  There were many such places, some far more dangerous.  At least this deployment was relatively quiet; the locals had been long subdued in some ancient war beyond remembering, and all potential resistance was little more than vagabond rascals who managed to eke out an existence in the wastes of this world called “Star Rudneik.”  “Rudneik,” as it was more commonly known, was an unmitigated hell of a world that should never have been settled; the planet’s rotation and revolution was of such a quality that the one burning, hellfire hemisphere always faced towards the sun, and its opposing hemisphere, a frigid wasteland, always faced away.  Nine tenths of the planet’s surface was essentially uninhabitable, only dotted with the occasional military installation, such as this shivering hole.  Only a single band, running where the hemispheres connect, remained of appropriate temperature so as to support significant habitation, where it remained dawn and dusk at all hours of the day.

The Albay cursed himself, and cursed the world with him, feeling his advancing age as he paced the sterile halls toward the command bunker.  If not for the material wealth of the planet, he would never have been here; the planet would never have even been settled.  It was an unpleasant sort of reality to live under.  The military relied upon such materials as were here derived, and though his labor ensured such provision—he was in a way an essential cog in the supply chain—this deployment was nevertheless a dead end.  So his labor served the largesse of others.  And so painfully, day in and day out he surveyed the hoar-frost wasteland of rock and toxic sand, awaiting a battle that could never come, guarding a vital link in the planet’s defensive network.

He found the master of the night watch staring out from the command bunker across the ice-rink landscape perforated with the innumerable impacts and detritus of countless meaningless meteorites.  He seemed to have his eyes fixed eerily upon an absence in the horizon illuminated in lavender under the waning moon, abutting violet spires of sheer rock rising in like broad spear-shafts.

“Do you have any idea how late it is?” the Albay began, his eyes already red with murderous intent.

And though the master of the night watch should have been terrified—the Albay had a preference for leaving the evidence of his discipline evident, crippled digits, shattered mandibles, just to say the least—he was animated with altogether different horror and stammered out his explanation.  “Sir,” he saluted, “observation satellites detected what they thought at first was a meteorite breaking up in our sector, but upon closer observation, the object appears to have actually made landfall.”

“And you considered this adequate reason to rouse me from—”

“Sir, fleet command observed an object—huge, by their accounts—rising from the site of the impact.  They say we need to identify it.  Neutralize it, if necessary.  They say it might be an armored suit, used out in the colonies.”

Red in face, the Albay showed admirable restraint as his thoughts drifted to visions of the most sumptuous and delicate tortures, and he moved to admonish simply the night officer, asking matter-of-factly and without malice “How many men serve in the 511th, Kaptan?”

“We’re regiment strength—over a thousand all told, plus vehicles and support staff.”

“And what’s the maximum potential threat we’re dealing with?”

“Well, just a single armored vehicle I suppose.”

“So?”

“Well, it’s just that we’ve never had anything resembling a genuine threat since—well since longer than I can remember; you can’t possibly blame me for–”

“Just find it, you idiot!  Do you think a regiment can’t handle one armored vehicle, obsolete tech in the employ of colonist savages?  Wasting my bloody time!”

“Well problem is, Sir,” the kaptan replied nervously, “we’ve already lost contact with several listening stations and a guardhouse, one hundred men in total.”  He wiped the perspiration from his forehead and attempted to hide his myriad desperation amidst the several consoles before his shivering fingers.  “I uhh… deployed several surveillance drones.  That should get us a picture of what we’re dealing with.  It’s probably nothing; perhaps some idiot tech cut the mains, but I wanted to be careful.”

The Albay had been planetside too long to care.  It was clear that the planet’s defenses were more than adequate to scare off any pirates.  And as far as the “panoply” went, the general term used to refer to the bipedal armed suits, otherwise referred to as “Rittern,” used in colonist militaries, well—the things were ancient—some of them quite literally, the remainder at least in design.  Terran militaries, by contrast, didn’t bother with them.  And besides, the colonists had never shown any interest in Terran affairs, ever since the rebellion; they mostly kept to themselves.  More than likely, it was just life-pods from some civilian freighter; it wouldn’t be the first time they had a shipping accident.

“Sir,” the kaptan added, “I’ve got a signal out by the south-west transformers; should have an image shortly, but I’m patching you in to the radio feed.”

The usual hiss of indistinguishable radio chatter blazed dull throughout the command bunker, as the clatter of fingers pounding upon stiff keyboards came suddenly to a halt; all ears turned in anticipation to the radio signal.

Explosions sung audibly over the cacophony of frantic, pleading voices, calling for reinforcements to this sector and air support in another, voices that one by one were finally silenced to the chorus of mocking, cackling flame sucked in through the receiver.

All eyes turned expectantly upon the Albay, who could not form the intent to speak—to demand a report from the soldiers in the field—choking greedily upon his rehydrated coffee, which was incidentally not even derived from real coffee-beans.

“Sir, a surveillance drone seems to have picked up an image of the object, which apparently has moved past the transformers and on to the Southern Barracks.”

A broad screen occupying the space above the West-facing portal flickered to life in the black and greens of night-vision.  There was no audio, and the command bunker recommitted itself to terrified silence.  Several fires flickered in the foreground of a great aperture where the northern wall of the southern barracks used to be, a huge figure, barely discernible, moving with deliberate intent among its smoldering contents.

“Can we get in closer?” the Albay demanded with childlike curiosity tempered with awe.

“I’ll try, but we may lose the feed.”

“You only sent a single drone?”

“Already on it, but we’ve lost several already; I think it’s using a point-defense system to bring down fliers.”

As the drone moved in, trying to get a better angle, the creature emerged abruptly and all at once from the crumbling aperture, obviously slick with the speedily frozen products of the fire-management system and what may have been human ichor; there being no liquid water available this far into the wastes.  Planetary command had not lied about the size of the creature.  It was gigantic, at least sixty feet in height, probably forty feet from shoulder to shoulder as well.  It was indeed humanoid, and obviously heavily armored, but one detail stood out from the rest.  A pair of terrible red eyes showed forth brilliantly from a roaring leonine maw bathed in the eyes’ crimson light, menacing outwards from between the shoulders, surveying the amply produced carnage without apparent emotional affect.  The screen lit up rudely with a shower of small arms fire rising in protest from the earth, gathering infantry brave enough to play “David” before the graven image of the sanguine-palled devourer before them.  Battling bravely, their pounding hearts were nevertheless silenced forevermore, as a launcher from beneath its shoulder lit up, and an innumerable torrent of tiny blasts murderously elucidated the foreground, bathing erupted environmental suits—armored head to toe against the elements and rifle-fire alike—in a semi-violet concoction of anti-freeze and running gore.

“Looks like some manner of MIRV, Sir, but nothing I’m familiar with.”

It was like watching a man hunched, bawling, helpless, before the initially perfunctory swipes of a great cat, as much amused as confused with its increasingly tiresome prey.  The bite, quite naturally, follows, and moment later the creature’s carried the sputtering corpse off to a shaded rest to consume alive his still trembling flesh.  It is this on a scale orders of magnitude magnified, countless corpses littering the battlefield slaughtered mercilessly in mere moments by a monstrosity they couldn’t have hoped to combat—brave though they were.

The Albay felt sick, not that he cared for his subordinates, but the pain was visceral, inborn, helplessly human.  Though the command staff heard it not, the unmistakable baleful cry of a creature of shadow, a haunter of burial places, a horror from a time before the rise of reason tickled his skin and ran riot up and down his spine, until the Albay thought he was finally going to collapse.  He found himself affixed in his chair, the frozen breath of father death tickling the nape of his neck.

“G-g-get me the fleet.  I want everything they’ve got on it—now!”

But before that message could be relayed, a sudden blast that over-saturated the camera bathed the hollow command cabin in niveous white.  He couldn’t help but hope, even as he felt a fool, as Pandora’s paltry bounty tugged painfully at his heavy heart.  But it was all for naught; as the flash and smoke cleared, the creature revealed itself unharmed, resounding with a deafening brassy ululation indecipherable as it turned to punish its attacker.  A co-axial machine gun network affixed between the sadly howling lips an old man’s venerable countenance consumed within a lion’s jaws liquefied the anti-tank crew and slashed their armaments to ribbons, a crude soup crystallizing rapidly in the unspeakable frost.

“Looks like a shaped charge—an anti-tank missile.”

“It should have at least put a dent in the damn thing!”

“That flash wasn’t explosion alone.  It’s using an old-fashioned shield system, a hardening dilatant suspended by a field in a bubble about the frame.  Upon the application of pressure, it not only hardens, it illuminates.  You don’t see these that often anymore.  Shaped charge would be unlikely to penetrate—better off with a long tungsten rod.  ”

The walker went on the move, with a dancer’s measured stride, galloping now northwards, in the direction of the command bunker, as the surveillance drone, as yet unnoticed, pursued close behind.

“Again, get me the fleet!”  Pointing to another subordinate he demanded, “Where the hell’s the armor?  There’s supposed to be a tank detail between us and the southern defenses!”

“They’re reporting in, and moving to intercept the object.  They should make contact within thirty seconds.”

3.

“Hostile transmissions indicate the presence of a company of armored vehicles holding position on the road to the command center, to be reinforced very shortly.”

“Reinforced with what, exactly?”

“Likely a mix of conventional infantry and support vehicles.”

“Anything else?”

“Make it quick; there’s a company of crawlers on the North road, likely to arrive within fifteen minutes—ten, possibly.”

The moon-illuminated salt flats, held in eternal reverence, hissed with the death rattle of countless young men, whispering their last, “I want to go home,” huddled amongst the multitudes of towering rock that unmarked would serve as their gravestone.  The peculiar thump of iron heels resounded over the whispering din of slowly departing dead souls and smoldering flames.  The primary objective was still some distance away, whither he briskly recommenced.

Within the belly of this metal beast, which had been dyed in reduplicating crystalline patterns of purple to match the rocky salt flats, lay young Artemisius in the fair repose of rest, as his consciousness drifted further and further away from his bones, now only a dim memory, and into the being, into the body, into the awareness of the creature that contained him, itself alive with the alien sapience of a created mind—together two just as much one and increasingly one.  The body of the machine, a strange thing to consider, was experienced much as one would one’s own.  Through its optical sights, aural apparatus, pressure sensors, and even limited capacity of olfaction, a fair resemblance of physical awareness had been manifested.  He manipulated each humanoid limb as naturally as he would his own, producing even his own unique gait not possessed merely by the machine.

There remained still much to do.  The defenders had been bloodied, but their numbers remained vast.  Speed, therefore, was the utmost necessity; the defenders had to be broken before they could reorganize themselves, draw their numbers together, dig in.

The advanced elements of the armored company—tracked vehicles, as it appeared—rattled quickly into view, attempting to obscure themselves, their profile, amidst an outcropping of sheer rock, according to their training.  They didn’t waste a moment.  Streams of plasma clementine sung out in tightly measured and strictly controlled volleys intended upon the presupposed weak points of their opponent from their many barrels; long projectiles of hardened tungsten, proof against armored plating, and warheads of seething magma hurtled inexorably towards this brazen tower’s unblemished sheen, enough to blind the eyes, enough to saturate every photo-reactive cell of every camera, a brilliant contest of midnight streamers surmounting the glory of day.  So it seemed, but before the gently whispering wind could carry this rosy-fingered extravagance to the four directions, the buck of several asses struck hard on unrelenting steel, and a dozen tanks, carrying four poor souls a piece, were nothing now but molten metal, shredded shortly with the secondary explosions of unexpended ammunition.

4.

“Kaptan, where the hell’s the fleet?”

“They’re not responding, Sir.  Looks like outward radio communications are being jammed.  Could be the object—?”

“Oh for god’s sake.”

“Sir?”

“Get me everything you can.  Shift all defenders to the southern road, as fast as possible.”

At that moment, a tank drifted, uplifted on monopole suspensors, into the left field of the camera, just large enough to make out.  Its cannon went alight, hurling an armor-piercing warhead towards the object’s armored viscera, propelled forth on a column of flame.  Whirling jets of smoke consumed the whole scope of the camera, and hope once again tugged at the unrelenting thumping of the Albay’s moribund heart, but as the enkindling obstructions cleared, the walker was once again visibly unharmed, not even an apparent scratch.  A blinding ray of light blotted out the camera’s feed, rocketing forth a set of projectiles from a monstrous cannon clasped tightly in the walker’s two hands, held in the manner of a rifle.  Four more tanks, their ammunition racks ignited, practically soared on seraph wings skyward, embroiled in an aura of seething hellfire, and clattered with a sickening crunch again upon the soil, blackened and twisted and virtually unidentifiable, trickles of escaping atmosphere hissing serpent-like into the near vacuum.

“Kaptan!”

“Yes, Albay?”

“Where the hell is the goddamn fleet?!”

“I’m trying, Sir; I really am.”

“Well try harder; the thing’s a fucking menace!”

5.

Behind him there lingered only in graven loneliness strong men seized stiff in the rigor of woeful silence; death had carved its name among the legion, who would forever now call this strange setting their final resting place—a lamentable sight and grisly memorial.  But there was no time to introspect about strangers slaughtered in a strange land; there still remained the mission, the utmost necessity, that should see the skies filled with the now-familiar crimson-white deceleration of bronzed pods and barges bearing their deadly cargo upon the planet’s soon-to-be defenseless surface.  But between him and the command center, there still remained a company of crawling tanks, an opponent for whom he remained untrained; there were few such things in the colonies, certainly not in the hinterlands of Molossos.

A pair of crawlers, tire-bearing tanks born aloft on insectoid appendages—light vehicles, in actuality, and lightly armed—of woeful insufficiency against a towering warrior—abutted a road surrounded on all sides by such thick and rocky cover that might well conceal an entire company of such vehicles and abundantly.  All of it screamed “TRAP!”  It didn’t require the collected experience of untold generations of pilots stored within this brassy metal.  You couldn’t see them, if there they were, and conventional methods of detection would prove ineffective; unless one should abscond himself from the rocky outcroppings, he would show no different on radar than being rock himself.

But Artemisius feigned ignorance, and strode onward his monstrous form upon the observed pair, obscuring the twinkling stars with the illumination of the gifts of his muzzles, making good his assault on what was then clearly evident.  And this had been the moment, just what they’d been waiting for; crawlers of company strength emerged, ever-so-slightly, their light armaments trained rapidly upon the walker’s lavender limbs, the go-ahead already given and their hurtling lead their last chance.  But the voice of their timely victory was stifled with a sudden dispersal of thickest smoke, making imperceptible the fruits of their slaughter, drawing from those resolute and defending boulders those assassins quick to make confirmation.  Unknown to them, in spite of the blinding smoke, the panoply had noted, with long-wave detection, each and every attacker and the defensive positions they had chosen.  The hissing cackle of a carving laser—more tool than a weapon—ripped the boulders out from beneath the rubber soles of those sanguine assassins, accompanied shortly by the hollow crunch of an eight-inch gun, more a piece of artillery, more suitable for a naval engagement, more than enough to ensure a kill.

The survivors, by their training thinking more lost from indecision than poor decision, surged forward, dancing without collision or incident among the plentiful boulders, eager for one thing and one thing alone; all they esteemed would rescue them from pitiless fate and restore the honor of their slain comrades was to succeed within the minimum killing distance of that merciless gun.  Some nevertheless fell for their endeavors, twisted and gnarled, their limbs curled inwards, in the facsimile of a slain spider idly enjoying the repose of death upon a white-painted windowsill.  Nevertheless, they made it, achieving the close distance, and they launched forth in rapid fashion a thousand and one deadly little uranium teeth that lit up the battlefield in the reflected glory of his shielding dilatant, thinking this they should by fury overcome.  Their desperate plan, hasty as it had been, had been peerless, save for what they could not have estimated.  Idling within killing reach, they mocked the bronze titan’s alacrity; for he moved unexpectedly, like lightning, hurling his own Goliath mass with the perfectly balanced grace of the ballet, stomping his heavy heel through the semi-circular canopy of one pilot, driving his flattened form into the earth—a greasy puddle surrounded by twisted metal.  The second, reacting only too late, was snatched easily in a pair of monstrous hands that made a mockery of its peerless construction—ripped utterly to pieces and cast away to the frozen terra, upon shattered limbs vainly seeking to rise as it leaked hydraulic fluids profusely.

What remained constituted only a pair, hardly a pair at that, their spinning cannons shining white-hot with the heat of their projectile hatred and miserable disdain for the loss of their comrades.  Brave men, undoubtedly, and deserving a better fate than fate would allow—they inevitably joined their undaunted friends, breathing their last amidst a sarcophagus cemented with flaming gifts of the walker’s myriad ordnance.

6.

The camera revealed in gory detail the remainder of the battle.  Practically dancing between the shells and the explosions, the walker made short work of the terrified defenders, the fire from her weapons illuminating the image, lighting up the sky.  It was hopeless.  Their vehicles had been shattered.  The frozen remains of their men had gasped their last amidst the venomous vapors of the nearly-absent atmosphere, their concrete fingers fixed, forever-clutched vainly upon their weapons as their profuse blood produced queer red crystals that instantly turned solid in the frost.

The realization that he had just witnessed the deaths of hundreds of his own men, the destruction of virtually all their military material, all in less than twenty minutes, sank slowly into the stricken heart of the Albay, who could not even form the intent to escape, the intent to even imagine escaping.  Seized with horror, his eyes did not blink, and his hands did not shiver, as he stared intently into the dying light of the groundward surveillance drone; its broken battery shortly gave out.

“We have to get out of here!  Sir?  We really don’t have time to tarry!  He’ll be upon us in a few minutes; we can still make it to an escape craft,” the kaptan gesticulated in vain, as the power to the command bunker suddenly ceased with the deafening whine of twisting, deforming metal and the crunch of crumbling concrete.  The temperate air of the artificial atmosphere was quickly drawn from all about them with the violent incursion of the exterior aether as the very vault of the command bunker was ripped away from its seams by a pair of steely hands, each larger than a man.  All that they could see, under the waning light of the moon, was the outline of something that shouldn’t have existed, the intense glare of a pair of unblinking crimson eyes, the sole illumination now of the freezing room.  A hand launched forth from the darkness, as the kaptan, snatched away, was lifted upwards screaming, and with an indescribable splattering of flesh and bone, the room was sprayed in his rapidly frozen blood.  The Albay’s eyes fixed on those terrible sanguine orbs, the last thing he saw before the searing blaze of a fire-borne gel consumed all those that remained within, rendering them instantly and painlessly down into ash.

Finally alone, complete in his privacy, the walker produced from a hidden compartment a small-device, placing this upon the flame-scorched floor of what had once been the command bunker.  It at once glowed to life, eager to fulfill its function.  With that, the walker and her pilot were gone, rapidly making their progress away, far to the west, as they outran the blast, their optical sensors overwhelmed with a bright flash of light followed by a billowing plume of smoke that coalesced into a mushroom fit for the vault of heaven.

With a crackle, his radio sprung to life, its hoary shout still ringing in his ears.  “Panoply Artemisius, this is the vanguard command; we’re reading an explosion from the Eastern Battery Network.  Can you confirm mission completion?”

Without a second thought, still reeling from the realization of his own outrageous potency, uncomfortably numb, he replied emotionlessly, “This is panoply Artemisius, destruction of installation confirmed, moving on to secondary objectives.”

“Roger that, panoply Artemisius; keep us informed.”

As the cockpit went silent, Artemisius felt the unpleasant warmth of the attitude gel drain away, jettisoned away to the planet floor, even as he did not see it nor hear it, a strange relic of the interface between Eisenherz and Ritter.

The panoply addressed him reverentially, with pride apparent in her voice.  “I haven’t experienced a feeling like this since…”

“Hundreds of years?”

“The rebellions.”

“That good?”

“Your father would be proud.”