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The Training Moon

Written by alternate_histories :: [Sunday, 27 October 2013 16:48] Last updated by :: [Thursday, 15 May 2014 15:45]

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Deae Luna

Chapter 1

Forvirki’s bright blue eyes blinked open.

Her ears rang and her stomach hurt. Every individual cell in her body seemed to burn; against all logic, even her Grace ached.

She remembered chains of slate grey explosions blasting either side of her, the obsidian walls of a ravine tumbling down and pulverised basalt rolling as thick as fog … but everything else was a grey haze.

Something was glowing, far above her. Through the floating dust it looked in a lantern, but as she squinted, she realised it was in fact a planet; her planet in fact, Eigenheim. But little of her homeworld’s warmth penetrated the clouds of lunar dust. She had other memories; of running, desperately, shielding her face as the ‘fog’ to left and right of her bloomed white and mushroomed up in showers of car sized boulders.

The massive rocks hadn’t even had the chance to tumble back to the ground before the thick miasma was punched by volley fired artillery which turned another football pitch sized area of rocky floor into a volcanic field of knife edged craters.

What was happening? Her brain ached from the effort of thinking through the pain. She remembered fighting, her friend’s faces; the looks of hope, fear and determination as they received their assignments. What had hers been? Horizontal lightning crackled through ash plumes around her; she recalled trying to outrun it, ducking as it flash painted the clouds gold and black, feeling the heat as white hot lances chewed through the rocks around her feet and bubbled crater lips as she leapt over them.

Unable to move, she let her memories take her, back to when she’d been running. Bent low, arms held tightly to her body, her long legs had hardly seemed to make contact with the ground as she let them propel her from the ridge of one crater to the next, kicking up puffs of grit with every footfall. She couldn’t stop, not even for a moment; her training pushed her forward, telling to push right, dive left and then to bend double before a volley of beams could strike her in the back.

Falling forward into a roll as searing beams spat through the area she’d just occupied, she tumbled in the dust, rose, tensed legs streaked with blood and leapt over a wall of granite. The barrier was little more than the edge of a stone plate, pushed up when the ravine floor had been shattered from above, but it was enough of a refuge to allow two deep breaths before a barrage of mortar shells blew tightly packed craters into the ground where she’d been crouched.

Sweeping lances of energy followed the shelling, first converging over the craters and then swinging wide, leaving hanging trails of burning dust through which gravel fell like rain.

Something was tracking her, something big. Despite the fact its boots were made of steel, it made almost no noise as it moved through the vortices swirling over the heated craters. The figure might have been male, they might have been female; there was no way to tell beneath the heavy plates of armour sliding over its powerful body. Both its armour and long barrelled weapon were camouflaged with a shifting stone grey pattern and despite their obvious weight, hadn’t hindered it as it crept across the battlefield.

As the solider pushed deeper into the rock dust, Forvirki recalled the way it had seemed to shrink and blow away between the dense grey clouds. The ravine was dark, filled with shifting ghosts that formed and twisted at the whim of the wind; the armoured helm ignored them, then hesitated and fixed its heavy gun on her.

A tense moment passed in which Forvirki refused even to breathe … before it was broken as the soldier turned away, dismissing her silhouette as an illusion and resuming its hunt without so much as a shifting of its shoulders.

The rest of its squad were mere steps behind it. Even without being able to see them all, she’d known what they would look like; flowing across the battlefield in loose order, treating the impenetrable clouds of rockdust like a spring mist, training their weapons every time the one on point hesitated.

Suddenly, four, eight, tenbeams had split the dusty haze. White hot sparks had exploded from the grey clouds as millions of granite particles met their incandescent deaths. The whole squad had poured their weapons into a flicker of movement … only for the dust to clear and reveal a bare cliff face.

But it wasn’t just the side of the ravine which had been made visible. The searing heat from their combined weapons had caused the swirling dust to rise over the entire unit, exposing the all twelve of them to Forvirki’s gaze. Suddenly conscious that their screen was gone, they started to back away from the dribbling lines of molten rock and formed a hasty, but well drilled square. Urgently sweeping the surroundings with their weapons, the soldiers found themselves boxed in by an endlessly shifting gallery of false shapes and misleading shadows. Guns spun quickly from one dusty phantom to the next, but when nothing exploded at them from out of the gloom, they began to slowly manoeuvre away from the point of attack. They did not break the square however; even though the ancient formation forced some of the squad to walk sideways, or backwards, with weapons locked to their shoulders and occasional glances upwards, they had 360 degrees of fire to protect them as they sought to hide themselves in the dust clouds again.

Forvirki had dropped out of the sky like a red haired meteor. Landing on one soldier so hard the armour around its head shattered, she’d risen and brought her leg around in the same movement, sweeping two of its immediate colleagues off their feet. Grasping the head of one as it fell, she’d felt its neck crack as she jerked it hard over her rising knee. As it began to spasm in death, her fingers had sought the scabbard on its thigh, curled around the knifelike broemrsax and hurled it at a hazy silhouette to her right. That soldier had clutched at its throat, as if surprised to find a dull handle suddenly protruding there, before collapsing, oily liquid pouring over its fingers in a sticky black torrent.

The swirling dust muffled sound, transforming the clangs and clatter of metal deforming under stress into muted thuds and bangs. A dozen paces away, the point man started to react, but as fast as it whirled to face her, Forvirki was crouched over her third victim before it had completed its circle. As it adjusted its aim to fire, its attention was split by the fact one of her outstretched hands was holding a captured long gun.

It didn’t win the race to the trigger.

She was on top of a fifth squad member, pounding its helmet into the bare rock before the point man’s knees smacked into the ground.

Then, just as suddenly as her attack began, Forvirki vanished back into the dusty fog from which she’d arrived. Two survivors fired long bursts after the glimmer of her auburn hair whilst a third knelt to check for wounded amongst the casualties. It failed to find any; in the six seconds that Forvirki had fought, she had left nine fatalities.

“Fifty eight thousand … three hundred … ninety nine,” The survivors spun toward the hoarse voice, levelling their weapons but unable to pin down a target in the deepest depths of the granite cloud. “Fifty eight thousand, three hundred ninety nine …”

The soldiers tilted their heads, trying to triangulate. They had been following this mantra, which was repeated with the solemnity of prayer, for more than 20 hours. The meaning behind the syllables was beyond them; all that they knew and cared about was that they had to find the source of the noise, and kill it with the uttermost urgency.

Fixing their weapons on the same dark spot in the deeper dust, the trio abandoned the bodies of their comrades and advanced.

Faster than a tank shell, Forviki hurtled at them from the right. One, by sheer chance, managed to fire, the supermagnetic coils of its barrel discharging uselessly into the ground as her elbow came around hard enough to make its helmet clang like a bell. As it fell, she kicked the feet out from under the second and was about to pound the third head over heels when a stone cracked behind her.

It was all the warning she was given, yet it was enough. Forvirki abandoned her attack and lithely twisted away from a razor edged sliver of metal that would have scythed neatly through her backbone.

Skipping back a pace, she turned and came face to faceplate with an entirely different class of enemy.

Whereas the other soldiers had camouflage that slipped and slid over their metallic skin until they were next to invisible in the haze, this one was such a pure white it seemed to glow. Instead of a firearm, it carried a broemrsax in one crooked arm and stalked forward like an assassin.

Sudden pain burned in Forvirki midsection as the figure’s arm blurred and she jumped just a fraction of a second too late to avoid the glittering blade a second time. The hyperdiamond edge bit deep into her flesh before deflecting off a rib. The sudden searing pain made her miss her footing as she landed, causing her to stumble over one of the bodies behind her. All common sense said she have fallen helpless before the titanium white figure … but, somehow, she pivoted in mid-air, spine bending at an impossible angle so her fingers could brush the ground and turn her fall into a flashing upwards kick which caught the advancing figure under its armoured chin with such force its jaw guard crooked sideways.

The white soldier could not help but fall from such a blow, but unlike every other member of the squad, it did not stay down. Clutching at its jaw, it rose unsteadily, legs wobbling like a drunk ballerina.

Forvirki let it regain its balance, using the valuable seconds to regain her breath and assess her wounds. When the solider in white finally stood again, she met its blank helm with a grim smile.

“Fifty eight thousand, three hundred ninety nine,” She announced, white vapour clouds exploding between her dry lips. Staring at her own imperfect reflection in the dull faceplate, she repeated, “I have been training fifty eight thousand, three hundred ninety nine hours for this moment; I am worthy. I will not fail because of a machine.”

The robot crooked its head, as if recognising the weight behind her declaration, then seemed to nod and charged, broemrsax outthrust before it. Forvirki met its blunt force with economical elegance, deflecting its swing with a forearm block before, dancing backwards, letting the machine overextend itself before replying with bone breaking jabs and punches.

Somehow, the machine took the shattering blows. Even though the clangs reverberated off of the ravine’s high walls and the force of each impact made the dust clouds shiver, it refused to submit. It fell several times, but managed to avoid Forvirki long legs and knees long enough to face her again. Its armour was battered and stained with its own oil; thick black liquid dripped from warped plates around its knee, so that it could no longer walk for fear of leaving itself off balance, yet despite all of that, the redhead couldn’t get past its blindingly fast blade and land a decisively lethal blow.

Yet Forvirki was equally tenacious; even as she parried and attacked, she wouldn’t stop reciting her mantra. The count of hours had been her holy hymn and the onlything that had allowed her to ignore both the exhaustion and pain that resulted from fighting for twenty solid hours. She croaked, and sometimes her dry throat caused her words to escape as silent syllables, but the mantra kept her calm and focussed.

Fyándmethra were the ultimate training machines; tough enough to survive her enhanced muscles and programmed to fight, and even die, exactly like the Andskoti soldiers she would face should she pass this trial. They were tough, professional and dangerous in groups, but this had not stopped her from reducing their numbers by a third in the last 20 hours.

Fyándmethra-rekk on the other hand … were something else. More than merely elite, they were designed to replicate, as closely as possible, the abilities and strength of Vífmaethr; the most feared Andskoti.

Fighting a machine with an encyclopaedic memory of martial arts and reflexes that were only theoretically within organic limits was difficult under ordinary circumstances, let alone when her limbs were stiff from exhaustion and she nursed injuries that ranged from bruises to lacerations, but, probably as a result of its injuries, this Fyándmethra-rekk had decided to fight extremely defensively; avoiding any action that might leave it exposed to more damage. It would duck away from her fists or feet, slash at her with its blade, then immediately recoil with a backhanded swipe that gave her no opening.

Such conservative fighting would be eventually be its undoing as it couldn’t make any particularly dangerous attacks and she only needed to land one really good blow to cripple the machine. But there were other Fyándmethra fire teams in the ravine, and no doubt they were already vectoring in on this ones’ ‘enemy engaged’ beacon.

It was a no win situation; in a few second she would have to withdraw to avoid fighting more machines than even she could handle. But as she began to eye up possible escape routes, inspiration struck; the Fyándmethra-rekk was fighting defensively, but it was still trying to ‘kill’ her and that was an opportunity she could exploit.

The next time the woman struck, she consciously overrode her training and dropped her left arm. The ‘rekk automatically lunged at the weakness and seemed almost surprised when she caught its wrist in her supposedly neglected left hand, slammed her right palm into its inside elbow and twisted the broemrsax back into its owner.

However, mortal wounds are not always immediately lethal. Even with the black handle of its knife protruding from the narrow gap between its torso and pelvic armour like an unnatural penis, the ‘Rekk continued to stand there, defying her. The rust haired woman responded with a hiss, ripped the knife from its belly and angrily slashed the droid’s throat. Even blunted, the broemrsax was more than capable of opening the soft armour and spilling more oil down its stained chest.

“I have trained for fifty three thousand, three hundred and ninety nine hours.” The woman turned and bellowed to the fallen droids, wielding the oil slicked blade. “My name is Forvirki Fimtánboer and I am worthy!”

Less than a hundred meters away, what might have been called a tank crawled over a ridge of rock and levelled its gun at her.

The boom of its cannon firing seemed to shake the entire ravine.

 

***

 

Forvirki’s bright blue eyes closed as the series of events leading to the pain in her abdomen finally came back. Her attempt not to groan turned into a spluttering cough as she sucked in a lungful of the mud thick dust which now engulfed her. Still wheezing long, dry coughs, the young woman attempted to sit up and, when that proved too painful, resorted to merely flopping into a foetal position. She couldn’t see very far; the explosion which had ‘killed’ her had created so much dust that her outstretched hand was a mere shadow at the end of an insubstantial arm. Reflexively, she moved her fingers just to ensure that she still had them.

When she was certain she still possessed every digit, she forced herself to peer down at her stomach.

It wasn’t pretty. The dull grey fabric of her uniform was torn open, the metalesque material appearing to have melted, either from the volcanic impact, or where it’d tried to repair itself while she was stunned. Even as she watched, small slits in her tunic turned amorphous along their edges and melded together, drying into pale lines reminiscent of the old wounds she’d seen on her instructor’s faces. But there simply wasn’t enough skruda left to repair the hole over her midsection, so nothing prevented her from seeing the full ruin military grade weapons could do to her bare skin.

It was going to scar. And the blood which was already caking with dust would take a couple of decent showers to wash away. That was … assuming she would be allowed to use the facility’s showers. She was ‘dead’ after all; she had failed.

Fear and dread misery pooled in her stomach. After all those thousands of hours of training, she had proven she was not worthy, and she couldn’t even complain. There were almost no restrictions on what could be included in the final test; she’d even known they were sending tanks against her. But her preparations hadn’t been enough.

Ittook quite a lot of effort to accept that she was a failure. Itwas a taboo subject amongst her caste; she had literally been designed for success. Even the instructors wouldn’t talk about it; occasionally, one might hint at the fate of a less than successful candidate, but only in private. Most of the cadets treated the resulting rumours – if not the original conversation – as either urban myths or attempts to scare students into trying harder.

But now, Forvirki was faced with not just a hypothetical scenario - one on par with hydrogen atoms spontaneous transmuting into lead via some chance conflagration of cosmic radiation - or schoolgirl giggles behind the running track’s shed, but the actual, inescapable reality of her situation.

She had been shot at close range by a Main Battle Tank. Grace or not, she would have been killed if this were not a test and the H-607 had been carrying sharpened flechettes instead of dull training missiles.

Something about that sentence bounced oddly inside Forvirki’s head, but her brain felt so swollen inside her skull that she ignored it; she had … failed! There was no second chance, no appeal, just ignominy and failure. She dreaded the looks her mothers would give her; their sympathy would be worse than scorn.

Pebbles beside her head crunched noisily beneath a heavy boot and it was only ingrained reflex that made her flinch aside from a downward curving broemrsax. What followed was so automatic that Forvirki’s was unsure exactly what had happened, why she was straddling a machine or how her fingers had become embedded in the plating of its broken neck.

She looked down at the machine, her head still ringing from the tank’s shell. Why had this Fyándmethra attacked her? All the drones should have been deactivated at the end of the test …

…The test.

Several different thoughts bounced so quickly into place that they stung. If the machine had tried to kill her, the judges had decided she wasn’t dead, which meant the test was still on going and she hadn’t failed!

Joy and elation bubbled up so fast that Forvirki almost screamed out loud. It was a beautiful, pure emotion that even the proximity of an enemy tank couldn’t graze. She laughed with pure joy, tossing her flame red hair back in a gesture of pure joy before sighing, and returning her mind to the battle.

Riding high on a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline, her thoughts seemed to come with preternatural speed and clarity; the machines talked to each other just like real Andskoti units, therefore the tank wasn’t sure of her position. If it was, she wouldn’t have been able to think for the shelling. The haze only looked like fog; it was actually hundreds of tonnes of molecular basalt, granite, pumice, quartz and other high density materials. Even the most modern sensors would have trouble picking out a person in the middle of what was, in effect, a mountain in aerosol form.

Thoughts came faster and faster as her head cleared. Unfortunately, all that came to mind was that something didn’t add up; the tank hadn’t acted correctly. It hadn’t followed its first volley with a bombardment, which was standard operating procedure for Andskoti tanks. She supposed that someone in Arifell hadn’t wanted to waste dwindling ammunition on a less than guaranteed hit, but it was odd that the rest of its squadron hadn’t given it any support; the maximum range of an H-607 was longer than the entire length of the ravine and they were capable of indirect fire. Even wasting a single shell each, 6 tanks could have made things very uncomfortable for her.

Forvirki remembered the impact of just one shot; the agonising pain of compression, a million needle like stabs to her gut and a flash so bright it was a physical force on her optic nerves … she blinked in surprised realisation. Flechettes were basically oversized darts; there was no wall of overpressure … which meant she had to have been hit by a high explosive shell. Painful, yes, but not necessarily lethal; that was probably why the invigilators hadn’t automatically failed her.

Tanks almost always switched to flechette canisters to engage Vardha up close. High explosives were reserved for longer ranges, where a large area of effect was the only thing which might overcome her speed. But Forvirki had been had been avoiding the tanks while she thinned out their screen of infantry, and in turn, they had been avoiding her because distance was the only real defence they had against her.

Standing to her full 183 centimetres and pulling a strip of cloth from her belt to serve as an improvised mask in the choking atmosphere, Forvirki stretched, grimacing as fire seemed to burn across her stomach, and surveyed as much of her surroundings as she could see. It wasn’t much; though the downed Fyándmethra was already becoming indistinct under the settling dust, it was still impossible to see anything more than a meter away, let alone get a bearing. She might as well have wrapped her head in grey muslin; even her hearing, which had been such an asset in tracking the Fyándmethra scouts, was all but useless.

Forvirki turned a few more times, trying to get a bearing on her surroundings before committing herself, but it was like when she’d been little and got lost in sandstorms; there were no points of reference, or sounds she could use to orientate herself, just endless, impenetrable walls of dust.

When she was little, her only choices had been to either find shelter and wait out the storm, or pick a direction and hope her clothes survived the sandblasting, since Ulna, the older of her mothers’, had a tongue that was sharper than any sand.

But now that she had matured, she had other options. With a restrained sigh that sent a white cloud of vapour into the air Forvirki accepted that her only option was to Slítna.

It was one of the first gifts that she had been trained in; for obvious reasons it had been recommended that she utilise it whenever she could, but it also had its drawbacks. Principally it was because there was no other single action which was more costly in terms of energy, and she was already exhausted.

But she had no choice; while her plan had been to eliminate the infantry it had been drilled into her over and over again that she should never treat any plan as anything other than a suggestion, or at best a hope, of how she intended to fight. She had to be flexible, and if she had the opportunity to kill one of the tanks then she would be a fool to pass it up, but first she had to find it.

Gazing into the air, she focussed on a spot and then … she was simply gone. Dust swirled in the space where she had been, gracefully fountaining into spirals and vortexes while, ten meters above, Forvirki scanned the ravine.

The four organs inside her chest which allowed her to fix in place burned unevenly on the weak power load, causing her to wobble so severely that that her Wing Mistress would have had harsh words for her. However, Forvirki found herself drunk on the unexpected pleasure of cool, cleanoxygen entering her lungs. She had been breathing the pumice filled air of the ravine for so long she’d stopped noticing the grit between her teeth, or rough particles down her airway. Now she had been reacquainted with real air, she felt an actual pang of reluctance to return to the swirling grey sea below her.

It was a twinge she quickly fought; from eighty meters above the ravine floor, her sharp eyes could make out the faint trails of the Fyándmethra which had been encircling her. Now she was above the haze, it would take them mere seconds to detect her.

The first shot split the air like a thermal lance, a pure stream of neutral particles that missed her by centimetres. It didn’t matter; she had already spotted the white wake betraying the tank’s stealthy glide a little more than two hundred and fifty meters away. That posed a small problem as she could Slítna less than half that distance in one leap, which would mean at least three opportunities for the tank, or the Fyándmethra, to spear her on their weapons.

Her body already aching with energy loss, she Slítnaed, scarcely in time to avoid the first barrage.

The tank was aware of her of course, but its main gun was pointed at the still rising cloud from its first volley and its batteries of ground to air missiles had long since been exhausted.

The next time she reappeared, she didn’t bother to waste energy fighting gravity but instead allowed herself to fall as she refocused on the moving island of metal. Every single surviving Fyándmethra in the ravine shot at her. The tank’s gun was rising, turning, trying to anticipate her next movement and this time, as if she could see down the massive bore of its cannon, she knew it was loaded with flechettes.

With a heart stopping rolling roar, the tank’s gun boomed three times in quick succession, but Forvirki had already she gone, when she re-materialised less than a dozen meters before the tank, the sky behind her was filled with silver knives and she smiled cockily. There was nothing left to stop her now.

Her next Slítna took her directly above the tank’s main gun, facing the way she’d come. Dropping on to the thick cylinder, she straddled it, reached her arms around the barrel, tightened her calves and violently heaved herself backwards. There was a terrific crackas the cladding shattered under her pelvis and the forward third of the barrel bent upwards by forty degrees.

Sitting back up and admired her handiwork, Forvirki panted and grinning at the broken gun. The move she’d just used was ostentatious enough that even her instructors called it the ‘backbreaker’, but it was also the most efficient way of turning a rampaging tank into a hundred and twenty tonne navigation hazard, since now the worst it could do was try and run her over.

For good measure, Forvirki kicked the Heavy BIS mounts off of its four corners. Like the smaller single barrelled versions the Fyándmethra carried, they were line of sight and so less effective against entrenched targets, but they were no less deadly for that limitation.

With the last weapon tumbling uselessly beneath the floating hull, Forvirki snorted as she noticed the machine slow to a humiliating stop, as if it was actually ashamed of its broken its gun. “Fifty eight thousand …” Placing one foot firmly on the turret, Forvirki started her victory mantra, only to mentally slap herself; why hadn’t she considered that this might have been a trap.

The thought would not have changed her decision to attack the tank, but it would have made her more alert to danger; as it was, if this tank had been leading her into a killbox, she could not have made a more perfect target of herself than when she was performing the backbreaker.

But no attack had come; whoever was in charge of the armour tank back in Arifell must have screwed up by the numbers to let one of her tanks get so far out of position without any support.

“Fifty eight thousand …” She began a second time, only to suddenly gasp and leap from the brooding machine’s hull and fall into a sprint. Before she had made a half dozen paces, a sound like heavy rain on a thin tin roof made her skid to a stop and turn around. A torrent of wickedly sharp knives was pouring out of the sky and ricocheting wildly off the tank’s upper hull. She shuddered at the sight of the supersonic knives slicing through where she’d been standing; it might have beena mistake, but if she stood atop a target that was broadcasting its exact position, she had practically invited the staffers in Arifell to call in an artillery strike.

All of a sudden, she felt desperately weak. Normally, she would struggle to notice the energy cost of three Slítnas, but her reserves, emotional as well as physical were drained. She had come so closeto failure, not once, by twice in a few short minutes and it was shocking. She literally could not afford to make such stupid mistakes; that was not why she had trained for fifty eight thousand …

No, that was wrong. With a small smile, she stretched and proudly declared. “Fifty eight thousand, four hundred hours and counting; I am worthy.”

 

***

 

Hours passed. The number of active machines in the ravine dwindled. A thousand kilometers away in their mountain control centre, the Arifell staff officers bent over map tables, plotting moves while their commanders discussed tactics and their decreasing resources. Their ‘war’ was a game, but if the woman they were testing was to succeed when it was real, they had to act as they expected their enemy to act, so they intended to win and as a cloak wearing woman towards the back of the room reminded them; that meant playing dirty.

The stars were shining again by the time Forvirki limped towards the last Fyándmethra entrenchments. What she wore could no longer be called a uniform in any true sense of the word since the skruda it was composed of had exhausted itself hours ago and long strips of dusty grey fabric hung off her left shoulder, back and side. If she hadn’t passed far beyond the point where she cared about the amount of skin on show, Forvirki might have remarked that only a depraved sadist would have found any pleasure in looking at her now; the ravine’s dust had become so indelibly impregnated into her skin that it appeared grey and lifeless, where it wasn’t rubbed red, distressed white, or black with dried blood.

As it was, she could not remember a time when pain had been so awful … though, in fairness, currently she could not precisely remember her own name. One arm hung limply at her side, the lower two fingers unnaturally straight and white; something was burning in her chest and there was a deep lance of pain in her lower stomach that hurt enough that she worried about permanent injury. Every few steps she was halted by long, retching coughs.

It had got to the point where she could no longer merely ignore the pain, or put it somewhere else as she had been conditioned; the mere act of ignoring the damage signals was taking more energy than she had to spare. Instead, she endured it, filling her mind with only two things; the machines clustered in the bright centre of her vision, and the count.

“Fify ate fosand, for hun’red … an, an … sishx.” She mumbled, limping onwards, one foot leaving slightly longer prints in the centimetre deep dust as it refused to lift properly. “Fify ate fosand, for hun’red and sishx.”

Even though her head was swimming, she forced herself to stop and really think about the situation. It was hard. Her every instinct screamed for her to simply charge in and smash the drones; get it finished. There were less than ten machines left, without a single Rekk it would be over in seconds, it would be easy, so very easy and then she could finally close her eyes.

She so desperately wanted to sleep. She craved it, like a drug, or life’s breath and would have traded a fortune for the right to lie down and close her eyes for just one minute.

But she couldn’t; loosing consciousness was an automatic ‘death’ no matter what the cause. The final test was as much one of endurance and self control as it was martial prowess; she lusted for sleep but she craved victory and yearned for the pride she would see on her mothers faces when she was proved worthy.

Nine Fyándmethra were all that stood between her and that sacred moment. But even in her exhaustion, she recognised that this last hurdle was a high one; while their comrades had lured her into the lower ravine and then kept her there with combined arms, feint retreats, enfilading fields of fire, grenades and mortars, these Fyándmethra had fortified themselves, literally, up on a high ridge near the ravine’s head.

They’d been busy. Though their defences were standard diamond shaped sangar, they were nonetheless substantial, the breastworks having been made from slabs of rock half the height of a soldier and a meter or more across. Forvirki didn’t have the mental energy to wonder how the Fyándmethra, which were strong, but barely superhuman, had moved the multi-tonne rocks, only how she might breach them.

However, the forts’ greatest strength wasn’t their walls, but the fact they were positioned to support each other. She couldn’t attack one without drawing fire from the other two. The only weakness she could see was that their arrangement meant only two forts could see her at any one time, but given that they overlooked a kilometre of open ground and were backed by a cliff, this meant very little.

Wearily, Forvirki scanned her surroundings for inspiration. She was dully surprised to realise how much the ravine had transformed since she began her trial. In 30 hours, she and the Fyándmethra had laid waste to the training ground. Starlight and the faint yellow glow of her homeworld filtered through the thin atmosphere to give the cracked and pitted stone walls a jaundiced parlour, as if the entire ravine was the puckered flesh around an enormous knife wound.

None of it gave Forvirki any idea how to attack the forts. She was eager to simply rush in and knock heads together, but such a situation demanded finesse; a rapier instead of a hammer. Slowly sinking to her knees in the shadow of a large sharp edged boulder, Forvirki found it oddly amusing to reflect on how disappointed Instructor Vandi would be in her for only considering delicacy now her strength was almost gone. She could actually hear the old witch’s gravely voice lecturing her … and to her disquiet, she found herself agreeing with the mistress. If she had conserved herself the day before, she could simply have dropped rocks on the Fyándmethra … but now she had no energy for a fight.

Sighing deeply, she rested her head back against the cool stone and closed her eyes. The rock felt deliciously comfortable; if she could just get a little bit of rest …

With a start, the red head snapped her blue eyes wide open and slapped a cool dry hand to her forehead. The mild shock helped her wake up and she applied a harder slap to her cheek; the fierce adrenaline rush brought her back to nearly full consciousness and she cursed; how she could she have been so foolish? Sleep was the enemy.

Baring her teeth, she glared at the hand she’d slapped herself with. It still stung from the force of the blow and with a vicious self loathing, she slowly curled her fingers inwards and squeezed until bright blood started to drip from her palm. She stared at it, shocked at how paper thin her was; another hour, a few more minutes and it might be gone completely and she’d be automatically be declared KIA. This had to end now.

The pain helped to focus her thoughts. Getting onto her knees and edging one eye over the top of the rock, her fingers chipped away flakes of stone as she saw the machines shift behind their granite barricades and focuss their weapons on her.

They didn’t fire though.

That was … interesting; Andskoti troops would have chanced the shot. But, though she was not supposed to acknowledge the fact, she wasn’t facing real Andskoti.

Arifell went to enormous lengths to maintain verisimilitude; it used the same camouflage which had been observed on the enemy’s tanks and even included useless affectations like tea pots, despite the fact the vehicles were crewed by robots. Yet, for all that it tried, it could never be truly authentic. The ravine around her might look like a warzone, but everything was a façade; the Fyandemthra were merely the most obvious part of it. They used Helsat armoury pattern BIS, but the weapons had actually been build on Triguard; a Harmony planet eighteen thousand light years from Goethgá’s borders. Some of the ‘stars’ overhead were in fact invigilators in their silly silver uniforms and even the ravine was fake; it had been cut from the naked rock of the moon by an orbiting construction laser and would be unmade once it was no longer needed.

Everything around her was a hairs’ breadth from being real, and most of the time that was enough. But at the same time, she was a highly trained, highly observant young woman playing what amounted to the galaxy’s most expensive role-playing game. The scenarios had patterns and the machines had programmed behaviours that didn’t exist in real life. She was officially forbidden from exploiting any of those behaviours but despite the most fervent wishes of her instructors, it was impossible to forget them once recognised.

One of those behaviours was that, Fyándmethra would alwaysshoot at a target presented to them.

Always.

Unless it was more than 1900 meters away and they had less than 20 seconds of discharge time left on their weapons.

Forvirki’s pebble dashed and bleeding lips curled into a smile. She’d pounced on more than a few squads policing powerpacks from dropped BIS but that had been normal behaviour, something any real Andskori would do; she’d never suspected that the Fyándmethra were even more desperate for energy than she was.

But that didn’t help her particularly much. Eight continuous seconds of exposure to a BIS beam would be all it took for her to be declared ‘dead’ and the effect was cumulative; if all nine Fyándmethra managed to get a beam on her, she would be officially incapacitated in .88 seconds, perhaps not even that, if the adjudicators took her depleted state into account. She couldn’t Slítna, she couldn’t run, she certainly couldn’t hurl boulders two kilometres in her current state … but there had to be something.

Her eyes fell on an angular projection sticking out from behind a rock some distance away; the dust lying in a thick layer gave it the same colour and texture as the ravine floor, which was why she hadn’t seen it until now. With a mischievous smirk, the young woman forced herself to her feet. Perhaps she needed to think inside the box for once?

 

***

 

With a barely audible hum, the tank came to life beneath Forvirki’s pale fingers and she bit her lip. Holograms and more mundane displays around her flicked into life with pleasing speed; it seemed no one had thought to disable the tank after the Fyándmethra bailed out of it, perhaps because no one had expected her to make use of one … except, maybe, as a projectile.

However, for broadly similar reasons, she had never, specifically, been taught to control one. What she was planning to do was entirely dependent on what she could remember from technical manuals and the few hours of perfunctory cross disciplinary training.

She had forgotten how tight the confines of the tank were. It might be a mountain of metal but the crew spaces were so small she could literally reach out and touch the far bulkhead without fully extending her arm. She’d cracked her head twice just adjusting the tank commander’s chair. Yet that chair was a throne compared to the drivers position, which was less a chair than a coffin sized space in primary hull. Vardha, being creatures of air and speed, did not do well in confined spaces; the thought of being trapped in metal tomb, surrounded by meters of laminated armour plate and infernal machinery was abhorrent. Fortunately, in this instance, the Andskoti were efficient and practiced warsmiths, programming redundant controls in multiple areas so she could control the tank from the ‘relative’ freedom of the turret.

Sliding stiff fingers over undulating holograms, Forvirki found the one for ‘outside’ and breathed a sigh of relief as the bulkheads around her appeared to melt away. The resulting scene was voxel perfect enough to fool even her senses and she luxuriated in the sense of freedom as she booted up the vehicle controls.

A second later, she had to clutch that console tightly, pain lancing up from her injured fingers, as her inexpert handling unbalanced the negative-mass fields and caused one side of the huge vehicle to accelerate into the air twice as fast as the other.

Biting her lip to stifle the cry of pain, Forvirki fought to rebalance the machine and maintain a level rise. Only when it was resting a comfortable meter and a half from the ravine floor did she risk looking around.

Two other tanks floated nearby, dust shedding from their sides like water. In the ravine’s semi-twilight they put her in mind of the great yxenof Skósveinn; they were massive, brutish, and powerful. Even their bent barrels now looked like the upright horns of those legendary animals and with an approving pat on the console, she murmured the words Skósveinn had used to drive the beasts to plough a continent and feed a planet, “Stokkva. Stokkva. Stokkva!

The great tank began to move ponderously towards the embedded Fyándmethra. Before it could get too far ahead of its sisters, Forvirki climbed out of the hatch and bounding to the next vehicle, setting it on a course parallel to the first and jumping to the last. It was a leap any human could have made, yet her legs failed and she nearly missed the smooth hull. Berating her weakness, she crawled into the hatch and collapsed into the commander’s chair; she would control this one herself and directed it behind the other two before dogging the hatch tight above her head.

Forvirki inspected her position, her ‘command’. It felt impossibly close; even with the hyper real holograms, she could sense the hard metal walls mere centimetres from her nose. The subtle motion of the vehicle, combined with the engine noise and delicate hiss of air compressors working to over pressurise the atmosphere didn’t help. She felt confined and helpless, forced to rely on the limitations of this machine instead of her own muscles and mind.

Sweat made her skin itch, yet she dared not take her hands off the controls for fear that the direction governor would choose that moment to malfunction. She forced herself to stare ahead and distract herself with what was happening outside; the view was much the same as in the other tanks, except that she had, by accident, discovered the tactical overlay so her sight was augmented with information from the vehicle’s sensors. Ammunition and shield statuses, the former all but depleted, the latter utterly spent, hovered over the other two tanks, while luminous blue Friend or Foe tags on the far bluff betrayed the exact position of the Fyándmethra hiding in the rocks.

It felt odd to be moving and yet not feel air on her face. Forvirki struggled to find a recent memory she could compare it too. The only ones that came to mind were the long maglev journeys that had connected the valley people with the rest of civilisation.

The valley. Home. The memory was so sudden and so sharp that she gasped, once again seeing stark, red banded rocks against an azure sky. She remembered how golden sand had swept down the gentle slopes below the wind whittled pillars until it met the scree and vegetation that hung to the edge of the farmsteads.

Faethra knew no favourites; despite her elevated genes, she had been decanted into an impoverished Territory. Her parents loved her and her grace had brought a measure of affluence and respect to the valley, but it had not been a charmed life; farming was not easy, even with modern computers and automated machines to control every drop of water. But it had taught her endurance, patience and fortitude; she did not quit easily.

The memory departed as quickly as it came. The Ravine seemed a perverse recreation of her childhood; in place of endless summer and the gentle susurration of sand, eternal night reigned while she watched high, dead walls through a military lens.

The tank made things feel … unreal, dislocated, like she was back in one of the Academy simulators. She wondered why the Andskoti didn’t go mad; they were such fragile creatures, how could they bear the unnatural separation of their senses from their surroundings, or did the tenuous protection of their metal shells illicit enough security to overcome the unease?

Forcing the discomfort aside, Forvirki watched the approaching hillside with curiosity and wondered how the Arifell staff would react; they were infamous for their preparedness, but she was wagering her future career on the hope they hadn’t anticipated a need for anti-tank weapons.

A sudden terrific flash, followed by a crack that she could hear even through the dogged hatch, lit the sky and the lead tank simply disappeared in a broiling cloud of smoke and bits of flying metal and armour. “Danger” and “ally killed” warnings flashed before her but there was nothing Forvirki could do except watch as her second tank continued mindlessly forward and suffered an explosion as devastating as the first.

Mines,’ she realised dully. ‘Or … what were they called? Fougasse?’ She waved a tired arm at the warning, dismissing it. No doubt there was some control or setting that would have let her sweep for hidden explosives or other booby traps, but if she had learned the technique, it was beyond her sleep addled brain to remember and trying to find it amongst the constellations of controls before her would have been a waste of time. ‘Theyhavebeen industrious.

The thought had barely formed when she realised her own tank was still hurtling headlong for the same stretch of ground that had consumed her vanguard. Grabbing the controls with hands that felt like they were made from lead, she pulled the vehicle into a sharp right turn, then drove it between its sisters; fougasse were improvised weapons and required a great deal of explosives. With luck, the two tanks would have cleared everything in that direction … if they hadn’t, she might not live to learn of her failure.

Feverishly scanning the ground as she approached the two smoking tank skeletons, Forvirki uttered a prayer that whomever had overseen her gene sequencing had worked overtime on her situational awareness; did that pile of scree seem a bit too fresh? She turned the tank aside.

The tank shuddered as it scraped between the wrecked machines and Forvirki was thrust against the console before her. For a moment, the view to right and left shifted colours as the hologram replaced visible light with a false spectrum made up from its other sensors. Forvirki caught sight of huge cracks in the other machines armour, showing where the concentrated force had ripped straight through its belly and gutted the vehicles. She shuddered, glad that she hadn’t been above the improvised mines when they’d gone off, and then wondered where the Fyándmethra had got the explosives from.

A particularly jarring thud knocked her head against the bulkhead. The clang brought a moment of clarity; if the Fyándmethra could scavenge power packs for their depleted BIS’, they could take shells from the wrecked tanks. Searching the utilitarian console before her for elevator controls, Forvirki tapped at a few likely looking symbols … and watched as a holographic shell was conveyed from the ammunition locker behind her into the firing chamber overhead. Clearly that was the wrong kind of elevator control so she tried another. Finally, she slid her hand over what she had assumed was the range finder and felt the tank climb another half a meter. Two meters of clearance taxed the negative mass fields to a hum that was audible even over the shriek of metal grinding against metal, but it was enough.

Once or twice, the tank threatened to stick as some tooth of ragged metal bit into the underside of the tank, but Forvirki kept up the pressure, easing herself back and forth until the obstruction broke. With a final convulsive jerk, the tank surged free of the greasy pyres and plunged back to the ground with an armour rattling crash.

The pain, this time was in her belly. It felt like a múswas crawling through her guts, chewing, and Forvirki could only hold herself rigid, breathing deep until the agony subsided and spots faded from before her eyes. Ordering the tank to regain its balance, Forvirki noted sudden movements among the hilltop friend or foe beacons as the defenders abandoned the furthest fort to face her in strength from the other two. She silently blessed whichever Arifell officer had forgotten they could simply have switched off the transponders … and the tank for that matter; the Andskoti would have, she was sure. Maybe they were just too stunned by her ingenuity? Forvirki felt like laughing as that thought spurred a new plan; flicking a tendril of red hair out of her eyes she slid the tank into motion once again.

Angling the tank towards the largest concentration of Fyándmethra, Forvirki gritted her teeth as the bottom of her machine scraped first the steep slope below the sangars, then the breastworks themselves. Fjándmethra fled before her as the unstoppable machine tumbled multi tonne slabs and swept cleanly through the left most fort.

However, while her charge was overwhelming, there was little e space on the narrow bluff and demolishing the fort had not slowed the powerful machine significantly. Only too late did she start to swerve away from the cliff wall, her stiff, inexperienced hands fighting to balance power, direction, and the incomprehensible negative mass fields, causing the tank to bank like an aircraft.

In the end, she tried too hard. The tank, already angled at a dangerous 40 degrees, hit the cliff on its left edge, momentum wedging it further and further up against the wall until, like a hovercraft that had lost its air cushion, there was too little negative mass beneath her to support the vehicle’s enormous weight and it fell, its right side striking the ground with shattering force. Cantered at an angle, her head ringing from where it’d bounced off the bulkheads, Forvirki tried surging the engines, but while the tank grunted and shuffled like a beast with a mortal wound, it had never been designed to move under its full weight. Instead of an almighty lurch, it scraped mere centimetres, its sides scratched to bare bright metal by the unyielding granite of cliff and ground.

The Fyándmethra were quick to react to the disaster. Emerging from behind whatever cover they had scrambled, half of them lifted their long weapons to their shoulders and cautiously approached the wedged tank while the rest covered them.

Through the ceiling holograms, Forvirki watched their guarded advance, unable to keep the victorious smirk from her face, while her finger tensed around the trigger for the main gun. When they were close enough, she squeezed it.

…And squeezed it again. Then a third time. The grin turned to a look of confusion, then one of near panic as nothing happened and the Fyándmethra continued to close in. Instead of an enormous explosion turning the entire upper portion of the tank into a gigantic shrapnel grenade, the shell she had accidentally loaded into the firing chamber earlier, remained where it was.

Forvirki was about to pull the trigger a fourth time when she finally paid attention to red text blinking insistently at eye level.

“‘Obstruction; Main Cannon Disabled.’” Forvirki read in a muted tone, then, with rather more emotion cried, “Why in a shower of shitdo they have written warnings for machines that can’t read?” the steel frame of the panel bent as she slapped her palm onto it. With a growl, she balled her fists and smacked them both down on the console. The equipment buckled so badly the metal wrapped around her hands and … wouldn’t let go. Forvirki screamed with rage and frustration and ripped her hands outwards, practically tearing the console in two.

As metal pinged off the walls, Forvirki slumped in her chair, panting from the effort. “Why can’t it just work?” She shouted at the invisible ceiling. Pain signals were beginning to fire again as the adrenaline drained from her system and she spat bloody saliva as the múscrawling around her insides grew hooked claws.

The tank’s armour was thick and dense, designed to turn aside the strongest most powerful destructive force its designer could imagine. But even through the bonded layers of metal and carbon plate, the young woman could hear the Fjándmethra skittering over the upper hull, their approximate location displayed as blue icons; the tank still thought they were friendly after all. It wouldn’t take the machines long to blast open the hatch and then, if she was lucky, it’d be combat in extremely close quarters but more likely it would simply be close acquaintance with grenades.

She would have to get out before the Fjándmethra thought of that, but as Forvirki stood and prepared herself for battle, her eyes came to rest on the compartment’s thickly armoured rear bulkhead. The ammunition was behind that wall, stored furthest from any threat the tank might face, in a locker designed to angle an explosion away from the crew.

Her eyes traced an imaginary line from the locker, around the inside of the turret to the main gun. The H-607 was an auto loader, but the Andskoti wouldn’t be who they were if they hadn’t built in manual system somewhere. Forvirki’s forehead creased in concentration; she knew this. If she wasn’t so tired …

Her eyes snapped open and focussed on the engineer’s compartment; like the pilot’s coffin, it was set in the main body of the tank, below the turret. Ammunition had to pass directly overhead as it was fed from the locker to the gun so it would be logical to assume if there was any access, it would be there.

The gap joining her compartment to the engineer’s was so narrow Forvirki was briefly worried she might not be able to squeeze her hips through it as she snaked into abyssal cave. She managed it somehow and was forced to squint as console lights seemed to attack her from every direction; there was no sky vista down here, or anything else that would distract the engineer from the fact they were trapped in a small, metal box. When something, then multiple somethings, started to hammer on the turret hatch, she had to restrain a scream.

Cold sweat beaded on her brow as Forvirki looked at the perilously close ceiling, finding what she was after almost directly over the engineer’s seat. She didn’t even need to stand to her full height in order to reach the hatch.

As the lights turned red and a warning claxon announced someone was trying to cut into the turret hatch, Forvirki squeezed her hand into a blade and stabbed it into the paper thin gap around the ammunition access hatch, her steel hard nails chipping away bits of metal until she could work her fingers around the metal. The plates squealed in protest as they warped, then shrieked as Forvirki braced herself and tore the metal plate out of the ceiling. Sweat made pale worms in the grime on her neck as she tossed the mangled square over her shoulder and jammed her arm up to the shoulder in darkness of the ceiling. It would have been so much easier if she hadn’t smashed the control console, or knew how to access the ammunition locker directly, but there was just enough room in the narrow tube. Her fingers flailed around in the cramped confines of the locker, brushing against smooth cold tubes which kept slipping just out of reach.

A sharp smell of burning tin assaulted her nostrils as the Fyándmethra burned into the hatch and Forvirki forced herself to close her eyes, putting the thought of being cornered in this little hole out of her mind. She remembered what she’d been taught about tanks, using it, and what her hand was telling her, to imagine the neatly stacked ammunition in the locker above her.

The turret hatch was being to glow a dull red as the Fyándmethra drained the last of their weapons into it and with a desperate lunge, Forvirki snatched for a conical shape that was teasing the tips of her fingers. Her nails scratched fine ribbons of steel from its casing before, finally, she felt some purchase and yanked it out. Metal objects rattled and clattered above her in a way that that made her heart stop beating. Her Grace was unbelievably; even at full strength she wasn’t sure it would protect her hand from such a powerful point blank detonation in a tightly confined space

But nothing happened; there was no frightful boom or searing agony of a detached extremity. With rather more care, Forvirki eased the shell the rest of the way out of the hatch and sat there, cradling it in her lap, thanking the eflavinna.

A fresh alarm, coming simultaneously with a blinding stream of golden light through the now cherry red centre of the hatch brought her back to reality and she scrambled for the ready arms cache. Above her, metal fingers sunk into the glowing edges of the hole and began to peel it back.

The ready arms cache contained the weapons the crew would use to defend themselves if the tank was breached. Naturally, the Fyándmethra had already looted it, but a couple of steel grey sticks still rolled around the bottom of the locker. Forvirki clutched them to her chest with relief; the machines hadn’t taken all the grenades.

The near molten hatch groaned as strong fingers wrenched back a triangular section. Forvirki worked quickly, sticking the grenade to the shell with tape stolen from the engineers toolbox, she crushed the glass firing pin, lobbed the improvised explosive between the Fyándmethra peering down the hole before diving for the floor and clasping her hands over her ears.

The close range aerial explosion nearly ripped the turret from the hull and rang the tank like a bell. Inside the machine, Forvirki rolled around the vibrating floor clutching her head and trying not to vomit as her brain felt like it was coming out through her ears. Even when the explosion was finished, she could still feel it, as if her bones were vibrating inside her muscles; when she finally opened her eyes she saw … a broad blue sky?

Forvirki blinked, but the view was still there when she looked again. She was beginning to wonder if it was possible to hallucinate if you were aware it wasn’t real when she remembered she hadn’t seen a properly sky since she had come to the moon, and what she was looking at was an awfully … violet shade of blue. Bracing herself for the vertigo, Forvirki forced herself to look to the left; the worn metal consoles were a reassuringly solid anchor to attach her sanity too. With another force of effort, the red head reached for the command chair’s arm, catching it on the second attempt.

With her skull off the ringing floor plates, the world seemed a little more focussed. Forvirki blinked slowly several times; her bones felt so limp they might have been reduced to pure cartilage and she stretched out her hand to steady herself. Now her head wasn’t vibrating, she could see the ‘no signal’ warnings floating all over the ceiling. She hoped that the explosion had done something equally devastating to the five Fyándmethra who had been on the hull because with every upwards facing sensor stripped away, she was blind.

Of course, that had been her plan. More or less.

Liquid metal oozed between her fingers like yellow putty, causing her skin oil to burst into brief flames until, after a moment to brace herself, she tensed her arms and flicked herself up and into the air.

It wasn’t true flight; it was simple ballistics, little different from the ones she’d used to kill músfeeding on the farm’s grain stores with pebbles when she was a child. Of course Fyándmethra were somewhat larger than mús, and she had never been the projectile before.

With the rising smoke and heat of the explosion to hide her lithe form, the Fyándmethra never saw her … but because it was un-powered flight, the only influence she had over her descent was the meagre control her outstretched arms and legs could provide.

Nonetheless, it was close enough to drop her within foot sweeping range of a Fyándmethra. The droid went down with a clank, never even having seen her land. Forvirki met the rising barrel of its nearest friend with a forearm swing that deflected its shot into the upper atmosphere, then closed her hand around the long weapon and tugged the machine towards her, using it as an inhuman shield.

The other Fyándmethra watched her down the length of its BIS while its comrade twitched in her arms, its struggles as easy to ignore as an insect’s. Out of the corner of her eye, Forvirki spotted a fist sized rock lying on the ground and eased towards it, dragging her shield with her; a simple kick would give her the opening she needed to end this and then finally, prove her worth.

The free Fyándmethra tracked her, no more able to risk its comrade with an attack than a flesh and blood Andskoti would. The wide barrel of its weapon twitched between the visible fraction of her head, and her arms.

Then it did something that if she had not been there to see it, she would not have believed.

It ran away.

Forvirki was so stunned by the sight of the Fyándmethra’s back that she simply stood there, mouth agape as it vaulted the nearest palisade with gymnastic grace and kept on sprinting. It was impossible; Fyándmethra simply did not flee!

Something drove her head into ground. It felt like a pile driver. When came back to her senses mere seconds later, she found her face being ground into rough basalt. Blood was in her mouth from where she’d bitten her tongue, but when she tried to move, the machine with its knee in the small of her back bunched its fingers in her hair and smacked her head into the ground.

The blow was so brutal that Forvirki’s brain collided with the inside of her skull. Neurons fired randomly and her limbs shook spastically as pure white pain flooded her vision.

As the machine pulled her head back for another blow, Forvirki thought three words.

I – Am – Worthy.

Her arms twitched. The machine drove her face into the ground hard enough to break her nose and the women in Arifell unleashed their low altitude bombers.

The massive warplanes snapped over the canyon’s walls so quickly that they tore sediment from the upper lip. There was no warning; by the time anyone heard the supersonic crack of their passage, the broad delta winged craft were kilometres away, bomb bays closing, their lethal cargo settling over the canyon like cotton buds.

Then, the entire canyon, from its headland to its wide delta, simply turned to fire.

The air literally ignited as uncountable millions of ninth generation thermobaric sub-munitions simultaneously detonated, creating a pulverising wall of white hot force which consumed every rock, pebble and boulder. Rock ran like wax and flames lapped over the ravine’s walls, flaring bright enough to be seen from the planet above.

And yet the warplanes weren’t finished. In a coordinated manoeuvre more reminiscent of ballet than military exercise, both aircraft banked sharply, nearly crisscrossing one another’s paths as they circled back to the glowing V shaped scar in the moon’s surface. Despite their active camouflage rendering them all but invisible, the machines acted as if they expected Forvirki to come out and find them and hugged the ground as closely as their terrain following sensors would allow.

Only at the last moment, when they were in danger of overshooting the canyon itself, did they pull up, using the instant of exposure to chain fire missiles from rotating helix launchers into the canyon, tearing a line of destruction up the bluff and pounding the semi-liquid remnants of the breastworks into flaming comets.

Their deadly work complete, the aircraft dipped back over the lunar crevices and vanished. The entire attack had taken less than twenty seconds and they had never once been sighted by their target.

The fury of the fire was matched only by its brevity; the fuel air explosion burned almost all of the valley’s oxygen very quickly and carried what little remained in a rising mushroom cloud, forcing frigid atmosphere from around the valley to pour over the semi-molten rock with a booming crack.

As pressure normalised in the valley, rocks fissured as they rapidly cooled into dark crystals and obsidian folds. It took a long time for the noise to descend to a point where Forvirki could hear herself think.

She was staring up at a sky that was heart-stoppingly beautiful; between the glassy black walls of the ravine, the red orange globe of her home world hung like a glowing bauble against the black velvet of space. It looked so small. It was hard to believe that half a galaxy relied upon it for protection … and the other half feared its very existence.

From here, she could see everything, from the brown streaks of mountains in the red deserts to the green seaswamps to the mud yellow storm belt that bisected the entire planet. It was so … beautifulthat it took her several seconds to realise only half the world was visible.

Forvirki blinked her eyes, first one, then the other. Her right eye was the one that was working then. She was aware that that fact should distress her. More than that, she was aware she should hurtbut, she didn’t. She could feel whereshattered bones poked her skin, and was aware of torn flesh sliding wetly against torn flesh, but they were just sensations, data she could use to assess her body, nothing more.

Though she was not in any state to name her condition, she recognised what was happening; her body had forgotten it was in a controlled environment and assumed the sudden, overwhelming assault meant it was in immediatedanger of death. Its response had been to dump truly staggering amounts of Epinephrine, Serotonin and Endocannabinoids into her system and render her, for all intensive purposes, immune to paid and shock.

It was a dangerous response, because it shut down her ability to tell how much she was damaging herself at a time when she was already badly injured, but it was also something she had been trained for. Time felt sticky and curiously diametric; as if she was moving both very slowly, and yet doing everything incredibly quickly.

Her training told her that this was normal, and that should perform a briefself diagnostic. She did so, and determined that, at the very least that both her lungs were intact, and her heart was sufficiently undamaged to keep her blood flowing. That latter fact was of some concern since it meant blood would continue to pump out of the various punctures in her system, but vasoconstriction was sufficient to keep it from becoming life threatening in the immediate future. Her extremities were of more concern since, in addition to the loss of her eye, her left arm was shattered above the elbow and therefore useless. She would need to use her less dominant arm for a while.

That was as much as she could determine in one breath, but it was enough to tell her she could risk moving, if only because doing so was less dangerous than remaining where she was. With a grunt, she used her right hand to heave the dead weight of the Fyándmethra-rekk off of her and sit up.

Forvirki wasn’t entirely sure what had happened; her memories of the last few minutes were a jumble of confusing sensations and images leading up to … something. The collection of teal coloured metal needles buried bone deep in her left arm offered some suggestions. She had a flash of memory in which she had grabbed the Fyándmethra and pulled it on top of her as … something started to fall, but it was not conductive to immediate survival and therefore immaterial. Forvirki clutched the bloody needles in her right hand and with a yank, ripped them free, feeling nothing more than an unpleasant grinding sensation as fragmented bones grated against each other inside her arm.

The rekk flopped to the ground; ‘dead’. An Andskoti Vífmaethr probably would be merely unconscious, but whatever force had torn the ravine apart had been sufficient to rip the machine’s arm from its shoulder and gouge grooves deep enough to reach the hvítr layer of its armour; either was an automatic kill command for the machine.

The air was baking hot. It might have been barely warm enough to keep water from freezing outside the ravine, but the rocks it had been poured over could have been used to roast yxen. Had she been able to feel it, she would have known her skin was flushed red from extreme thermal damage, and every step sizzled as sweat boiled away.

“Fifty eight thousand, four hundred …” She wasn’t even aware she was speaking as she staggered forward, broken arm swaying unsupported and forgotten at her side. The mantra was simply a part of her and as regular as her breathing.

Movement caught her eye; something that wavered even more than the rising air currents. Turning her head in an effort to fully see whatever it was, Forvirki couldn’t find it, but she was sure it had been there. Her exact purpose currently escaped her, but she knew it had something to do with finding something moving so she started to walk in that direction.

As she stepped closer, she became more and more aware than something wasbefore her. It looked like a flat, silver oblong lying on the ground; the movement she had perceived was her own reflection.

An impulse told her that approaching the shape would be bad, so Forvirki stopped and, because another impulse told her that letting the shape continue to exist would also be bad, looked around for something she could crack it with.

Before she could find a suitable boulder, the entrenching shield collapsed, and the last survivor of the Fyándmethran regiment leapt at her, broemrsax in hand.

Forvikri’s reaction was instantaneous; with a cocktail of pure survival hormones stripping away higher thoughts it could be nothing less. She back stepped, flicked to the right as the Fyándmethra lunged, then sent it head over heels with a punch to its chest plate. This wasn’t enough to kill the machine, she noted without rancour or disappoint, but it did appear disorientated and its next swing was sloppy, passing her neck easily and leaving it open to her counterattack.

Forvirki watched the Fyándmethra collapse with a slight feeling of giddiness as the survival cocktail finally ran out. That was it. She’d done it; she’d passed the final test! It she wasn’t feeling so weak she’d do a little dance, or jump for joy or something!

Something warm was dripping onto her chest. It was red, very red and there was so much of it …

With an expression of puzzled surprise, Forvirki pressed her hand to her neck; it felt slippery, wet, the skin parted beneath her fingers and warmth gouted onto her shoulder.

She clapped her hand over the wound, but the blood wouldn’t stop flowing. Her knees could no longer support her and she folded more than fell. Landing first on her knees. Then her hands. Then her forearms and finally, her head.

Eyes already starting to glaze, she stared at the orange glow of her homeworld.

“But I was worthy …”

 

***

 

The test was over. The war had ended and the ravine was being decommissioned in preparation for disassembly.

Nearly seven hundred workers in austere blue coveralls scoured the dusty rocks, picking up bits and pieces of gear that had been scattered by the test. With luminous strips around their wrists, shoulders and thighs the workforce had the appearance of glowing ants spreading out from their nest.

Armswomen and range mistresses had already policed the ravine for discarded weapons and marked suspect munitions with glo-wands so the mechanics that woke the Fyándmethra still capable of walking could do so in relative safety.

Behind the mechanics, and their swelling army of marching Fyándmethra, came the finders. Three rows of them stretched from one wall of the ravine to the other; armed with flashlights and metal detectors, they paced with deliberate slowness, meticulously sweeping the ground and probing every crevice for the smallest piece of debris for the Final Test was so expensive and vast in scale that every last thread of wire was precious, especially on top of the gravity well. They fed anything they found, from buckled plate armour to springs, into hoppers; large semi-organic bee striped machines which scuttled back and forth between the seekers on short insectile legs.

Finally, there came the mechanics, who moved slowest of all. It was their job to either repair the damaged Fyándmethra, or condemn them; they worked in groups of two or three to a machine, stripping off warped armour, replacing shattered circuits and soldering perfunctory sensors to replace damaged heads. If after five minutes the Fyándmethra still could not walk or follow orders it was tipped, sometimes still kicking, into the mouth of a hopper for disassembly and recycling.

Overseeing and directing the decommissioning were the worklords. Scores of them gathered around dozens of tables, arguing in ever louder voices with an even greater number of logisticians in an attempt to be heard over the deep rumble of machinery and whine of aircraft.

On the edge of the cliff overlooking the ravine, two women stood, their long red hair trailing like flaming banners against the night black sky as they observed the slow search. It was something they had seen literally hundreds of times before; it was in fact being repeated dozens of identical ravines all over this sector of the moon, but this was different. Decommissioning a test site took days of hard, monotonous labour but the workers were not normally lethargic; the cadets were their sole reason for being on this moon and the final test was supposed to rebirth them as Vardha. It was a word that meant either Guardian, or Goddess and when the tasks were done the workers would normally celebrate the young woman’s ascension with a feast that would only end when the fires that closed ravine burned cold.

But not this time. Some births are stillborn.

Strictly speaking, the women had no right to be there, but it would be a brave person who could confront even one venerable Vardha, let alone two. Especially today.

Wrapped in the high collared cloaks of academy instructors, the two women were similar enough in appearance that they might have been mistaken for sisters. One, dressed in near black, her right arm thick with medal braid with an imperial bearing, pulled her cloak tightly to herself and glared at the workers, watching as they sluggishly plucked wire and shrapnel from the ground.

“Such a waste.”

Broken out of her brooding, the woman turned quizzically back to find her companion gazing sadly at the decapitated head of a Fyándmethra which had, somehow, found its way to the top of the ravine.

“I’m sorry, Hlíta,” She shook her head. “I was kilometres away; what did you say?”

Her companion’s cloak was blue, reflecting her less senior status, though the light glinting off the gold aiguillette around her shoulders, revealed it was due to vocation rather than age; they had in fact, been friends since they themselves trained on this moon, a long, long time ago.

“I said it is such a waste, Svik.” She sighed, picking up the head and rolling it over to check the serial number, tutting when she found it.

Svik Kerling snorted. Her face was hard and sharp, with deep blue intelligent eyes, when she spoke, her breath blooming as a white cloud. “Yes.”

“You … agree?” Shocked, Hlíta lifted ruby eyebrows and peered at her friend.

“Of course.” Svik folded her arms. Beneath her cloak, her uniform appeared so dark that if it wasn’t for the pale sheen of moon dust and occasional glint of gold, she might have been a shadow. “If Cadet Fimtánboer was going to let herself be killed, she should have done us the kindness of doing so at the start of the test, before she cost us an entire day and tens of millions of crowns.”

Hlíta’s lips twitched. Though she was younger than her friend, people usually mistook her for being the older, due in part to her compassionate nature. As much as she respected her friend, she disliked her hard headedness; it made her a brutally effective warrior, but often made her forget their purpose.

Tapping her fingers on the Fyándmethra’s faceplate, Hlíta carefully selected her response. “I’ve heard you speak better of candidates who actually failed.”

“Are you suggesting she didn’t?” Svik shot back.

Hlíta held up the metallic head, “The objective of the final test is to destroy a Fyándmethran regiment. Forvirki did that.”

“She also died!”

Hlíta’s eyes hardened fractionally, but her soft tone did not change, “The rules merely say she may not lose consciousness. I checked the logs; Forvirki was awake for twenty two seconds after the final drone registered itself as dead.”

“You know that that is not the spirit of the rules.” Svik crossed her arms.

“Are you really going to argue that a cadet who technically passed the final test should be denied the recognition due to her?”

“That kind of distinction is for lawyers. We are Vardha and if we admit she passed the final test, we would have to declare hera Vardha. Cadet Fimtánboer is dead.How does rewarding her failure change that?”

“It might bring a measure of relief to her parents?” Hlíta stared at her friend’s pinched face, then quietly asked, “Forviki was one of your students. Why are you determined to fail her?”

“I-“ Svik started, then paused and looked pained. Her throat swallowed several times before she managed to reply, “I am not trying to fail her. How can a cadet have passed if the test killed her?”

Hlíta held her chin out stiffly. “It would give her honour.”

“Cadet Fimtánboer has no honour,” Svik snapped. “She is dead. What honour can a corpse have?”

“If not for her, than for whom she leaves behind?” Hlíta reached out for her friend. “Her parents-

Svik turned sharply away and marched further along the cliff edge, the toes of her boots kicking up a cloud of dust that were illuminated white by phosphorous bright lights below. “We all have parents.”

Stymied for a response to the thread of pain in her friend’s voice, Hlíta cast about, examining, like a dentist might, for a way to find the source of the problem without undue pain. Laying a reassuring hand on her shoulder, she twitched as she felt Svik’s muscles tense then spoke in a soft voice, “Have you worked out what you are going to tell hers yet?”

“…No.” The older instructor answered bitterly, subjecting the ravine workers to her fiercest glare as she muttered. “I would think I would be better practiced by now.”

“You have lost cadets before, the only difference here is you-.”

“I did not kill Forvirki!” Svik shouted, so loudly that a site forewoman, who had been locked in a debate with an engineer, pushed back her cap to peer at them. With a cowing glare in the woman’s direction, Svik forced herself to calm and clarified. “The inquest has ruled out the air strike as a cause of her death.”

Hlíta arched her eyebrows, but did not move away from her outraged friend. “…That is good, but I did not think that you wereresponsible? What I was going to say is that you have not seen your students die in the final test. I have; I know how painful it is.” Seeing Svik’s expression soften from outrage to embarrassment, she pressed on curiously, “…How is it that you know the Inquest’s findings? I thought they were still gathering evidence?”

Svik, realising that she had embarrassed herself with her outburst and offended her companion lowered her tone. “I am sorry. That was uncalled for. The Enquiry finished its investigation this morning.”

“Only this morning? But –”

“A copy of the draft report … fell into my in tray.”

Hlíta gave her a questioning glance; as a principal witness Svik should have been insulated from the investigation. But there was no answer in those cold eyes and she did not pursue it; Svik had retired from active service after 218 years of front line experience. It would have been more surprising if she had not been able to acquire a copy of the report if she wanted one.

However, when Svik declined to explain further, she pressed, “And?”

“And … in the opinion of Inspector Kanna, cadet Fimtánboer died due to,” she hesitated, her teeth actually grinding together, “A mistake.”

“‘A mistake?’” Hlíta blinked. “That’s all she has to say? Kanna is placing the blame on Forviki and that’s why you don’t want to pass her?”

“No,” Svirk shook her head bitterly, “Forvirki was not to blame. The mistake was made by the Fyándmethra.” She paused, expecting a response but when none came she looked up to see Hlíta appeared almost pale.

“An … error with the Fyándmethra?” The other woman’s eyes were wide open. “Is there something wrong with them?”

Svik lifted her shoulders then dropped them to signify she didn’t know. Her friend’s reaction was not unreasonable; considering how they and their students interacted with the machines, it was not hard to imagine what kind of disasters would result from buggy programming. “The Fyándmethra was aiming for the cadet’s shoulder, but Fimtánboer didn’t move in a way it expected. A fraction of a second or a millimetre up or down and she might still be here.”

“I’ve always thought the carotid artery is too close to the surface,” Hlíta shook her head, “why the Feigtívar, in their wisdom, left such obvious weaknesses is a mystery.”

“Expediency.” Svik stated. “We are the pattern of our ancestors.”

Further down in the ravine, a group of engineers clustered around a growing forest of white poles, convincing them via light wands and computer signals to branch inwards. Once the questing boughs touched, a great white cloud seemed to bloom over the structure as three of the engineers took hold of a sheet skruda and quickly scaled the new building’s skeleton, pulling it taut when they landed on the other side to form a tent.

Watching the skruda shrink and form around the new storehouse, Hlíta broke the tension by commenting, “It never fails to amaze me how much is built when we tear down these ravines. Will they be examining the other Fyándmethra?”

“Perhaps, I don’t know; as I said it was only a draft report and no recommendations were included. I would guess not; it’s a … programming shortcoming.” She looked up at the countless stars overhead and sighed. “Which will mean a high priority buoy to Phestus, we’ve exhausted our hotfixes for this quarter so they will charge us for three months of building and beta testing at out of contract rates. That will be at least another quarter million in expenses and we don’t even have a living Vardha to show for it.”

Hlíta peered at her friend’s uncharacteristic frugality, “…That’s the second time you’ve brought up the cost of training. Since when have you concerned yourself with finances?”

Svik gave her a pained glance and pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders, “Since they told us to expect fifty percent more candidates, but only increased our budget by a third.”

“Then why did you order the airstrike; flight hours are hardly cheap.”

Svik looked taken aback by the question, then ruefully kicked a pebble over the lip of a ravine. “Cadet Fimtánboer struggled to be a mediocre student yet her tank idea was inspired. It … impressed me; I wanted to see if she could do so again.”

“And so you ordered a thermobaric airstrike? If you wish to challenge a cadet, an artillery bombardment is more traditional.”

The other woman refused to bend under her faint accusation, merely flicked her hands dismissively, “She had already survived one and we are free to test the cadets in any manner we choose, so long as it is not unfair.”

“Like field promoting a Fyándmethra to Rekk? We are only supposed to do that in case of mechanical failure.”

“An extra one was needed build the sangars,”Svik explained patiently, “Afterwards it seemed … appropriate not to demote it and before you judge me, I got the idea from you! How many times now have you surprised your students with an extra Rekk; fifteen, sixteen?”

“I … do not recall,” Hlíta shuffled her feet for, while the rules did allow for a single extra Rekk, it was frowned upon; Andskoti regiments had been encountered with as many as 31 Vífmaethr, but most could only field 29. There were even strong rumours that the practice would be disallowed in the next semester’s rulebook. Feeling the need to defend herself, Hlíta thrust a finger at the other woman, “That might be true, but I have never included one, and an airstrike.”

“Perhaps you should?” Svik arched a pale eyebrow, “Cadet Fimtánboer was able to use the former as an effective shield against the latter.”

“You sound impressed.”

“I was …” the instructor tailed off, biting her lower lip.

“Then why do you act as if Forviki did something wrong?”

“Because it was so pointless!” Svik flung her cloak about her. “Forviki had no right to let herself get killed like that.”

“You think she wanted to? You said yourself it was an accident-“

“Would an Andskoti aim for her shoulder?” Svik exploded with such rare fury that Hlíta was taken aback. “We are desperately in need of Vardha and now all Cadet Fimtánboer can do now is serve as a reminder that a Fyándmethra doesn’t need to be a Rekk to be dangerous.” She pinched her nose and gave her friend an apologetic glance, “I’m sorry. I tell my students that the final minutes of a mission are its most dangerous; it’s frustrating when they fail to listen.”

“Cadets make that mistake all the time.”

“True. So why should CadetFimtánboer be elevated?”

Hlíta considered her words, and then said. “…Her family are farmers in the seconderite valley. It would be a kindness to let them think that they had successfully raised a Vardha.”

Svik stared at her harshly, then dropped her head in defeat. “I will … speak with the examination board. Perhaps the exact wording of the rules can be invoked.”

Her friend slapped her lightly, raising a cloud of dust. “Thank you.”

“It is not for you.”

“I wasn’t thanking you for me.” Hlíta gestured upwards with her chin. “What is the point of saving the galaxy if we can’t even bring some spark of happiness to a grieving family?”

The two looked up, at the light which fell from the very heart of galactic civilisation. Eigenheim was an endless desert, and so contaminated that no human could step on its surface and hope to live, But the cities which were strung out like pearls across the dunes were worth more than their weight in rubies and diamonds.

However, they were not the source of Eigenheim’s power. The true strength of Eigenheim was in gold, and silver, and iron; all the resources of the galaxy, which flowed through the Great Trade Stations orbiting the planet’s equator. Every hour of every day, fleets of merchant ships descended upon Eigenheim seeking to sell, barter, trade, exchange and buy, until the stations poured with wealth.

Economic domination of half the galaxy had inexorably led to other forms of control. More than five hundred Daughter Worlds and countless thousands of colonies looked to Eigenheim for leadership and assistance. Under their direction, all those planets worked in harmony, manufacturing miracles like baubles and re-sculpting continents on a whim.

Yet Eigenheim paid for the moral right to its stewardship with the lives of its daughters. The Vardha were the second part of Eigenheim’s strength. While the planet itself was a place for trade, the Vardha created an environment where people were safe to do so. Vardha were not the Galaxy’s police, nor were they its military; they were simply its protectors.

An entire world could be defended by a single wing of Eigenheim’s finest and they performed their duty with such faultless dedication that, in a species which could easily live to be 300 or more, most would be lucky to live out a human lifespan.

It was a hard life, one that required great sacrifice. What had happened to Forvirki was a tragedy, but she was not the first cadet to be killed during testing, nor would she be the last. Eigenheim required five hundred women just like her every 1,000 days simply to replace their losses; it was a manufacturing line with exceptional tolerances and the price for failure was nothing less than Armageddon.

Categories SWM Library

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