Skyworld

 

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Prologue

I Am God, God thought to himself as he looked out over the courtyard. He sat atop his throne on a dais, raised ten feet above the ground. No-one dared step on the dais, but they crowded around it, crowded around Him, as they waited. It seemed the entire population of heaven was inside the keep, and God smiled at the unruly mess. Heaven was no place for a fearful rabble, but this one time God would allow it. Afterall, they were his audience, they were to bear witness to His next act.

The siege had only lasted a few hours with God ordering His warriors to guard the gates only as long as it took His subjects to retreat safely into the citadel, then to abandon them. They dared not question him, but he could see that their fear of Him was almost equaled by their fear of the aggressing forces. God should have punished them all in that moment, fear being a sin of weakness, but he had seen the bloodbath out on the streets and chose to forgive them this sin. Instead, God had comforted them, laying a hand on the Captain's shoulder and assuring him that all would be well as long as he and his unit made it into the Citadel once everyone was safely through the gates.

Now they were all here, the man God recognised as the Captain ordering the gate shut with an urgency that told God his enemies were near. The last of the defences were abandoned, but His enemies were cautious, opting for the ground route through the gates as opposed to the sky. Perfect, God thought as the booming of a battering ram echoed through the gates, reverberation through every body in the courtyard, His own included. It gave Him shivers of excitement.

“My loyal subjects,” his voice boomed, louder than that of the rams, compelling all heads to turn his way. “Do not be fearful, do not let your hearts stray or your minds wander from my light.” Boom, boom, boom. God watched the hinges rattle against their massive screws. “Fear is a darkness, let my light guide you through. I promise no harm will come to you this day, or any day hereafter, for I need you all to bear witness.” Boom, boom, boom. God watched as the draw-bar splintered. He raised His voice, drowning out the groans of the wood. “The Second Prophecies are upon us and as they were told in speculation, so they must be told again in their true form. Witness this final deed of mine and sing!”

And with the last, the draw-bar snapped and the gates began to open toward them. The crowd startled, despite his reassurances against their fear. The Captain ordered men against it but God raised his voice, loud enough to burst a human eardrum, making the squeals of the heavy metal hinges sound like rats squeaking in comparison.

“Do not!” He roared. “Let them come!”

The crowd fell silent once again, stoic finally in either trust or fear of their God. It didn’t matter which, as they amounted to the same thing. A thousand silent witnesses to the fulfilment of The Second Prophecy. He stood from His throne and held His arms wide in greeting as the gate opened wide enough to reveal a figure standing at the head of the force. God smiled as He looked upon His old friend, beautiful as the day he was created, wings spread wide. Wings that God had given him, wings that God would take away.

“Lucifer, my old friend. How nice to see you again.”

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Lines

“Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top” – Hunter S. Thompson.

 

Lines. That’s what used to keep people separated. Arbitrary lines drawn on a map, invisible walls, barriers between cultures, societies, civilisations, all neatly laid out and adhered to because those were the rules. He could have been standing on one of those lines right now, but it meant nothing. No-one had claim to more than they could dig their heels into and fight you back from. And so that’s what they did. They stood on this old, imaginary line and they formed real one, men and women who would risk their lives to push their line forward, because if they went backwards then they would all soon be dead.

Ben took a deep breath and flexed his arm. They waited just inside the tree line for a sign of enemy movement but none was forthcoming. He let out a deep breath and flexed his arm, the feeling still not quite natural, as if there were ghost inside of him, waiting for his instructions before deciding to move. It was called Bio-Mechanics, a modern miracle from a time when those things were still possible. It was the science of robotics and human growth amalgamated into a cure for human fragility and decay. In less wanky terms, he’d grown an arm back, albeit one that wasn’t quite gelling with him yet, but he’d never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth. His hand still shook a little but he was certain by the feeling in the pit of his gut that that was the arm being too attuned to his nerves, not the other way around. He turned those nerves into anticipation and gripped a branch of the tree he was leaning on, thicker than his bicep, and snapped it clean off with one twist of his Bio-Mechanical arm. That felt nice.  

He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He could trust the arm, he had to. Reg and Bec had tried to talk him out of this one, each knowing full well what it was like just coming out of the God Machine, but he’d convinced hem he was fine. He’d been in the God Machine before, the stasis chamber that made the growing the Bio side of Bio-Mechanics possible, but he was only a kid, put in there to cure some muscle deficiency and couldn’t really remember what it was like coming out. He was still young enough that learning to use his new body had been the same as it would have been learning to use his old one. Still, he had faked confidence, but to back it up had trained every day since he’d been out of the God-Machine, so even if he wasn’t ready, he was as close to it as he was ever going to be. Almost. 

“Watch the post,” he told the soldier next to him, a boy not much younger than himself, and turned back into the trees.  

He was by no means comfortable as he settled himself down among the trees, the wet earth had already soaked under his Kevlar vest and into his skin, but he had a little charge left in his eye pod, so he sat back and tried his best to get comfortable as the music undid the knots in his nerves. Strange thing to call it, he thought as his eye lids got heavier. Eye Pod. But you’re not really watching anything. Seems like it would be better being called an Ear Pod, but who was he to question the mysterious ways of the past. Who cares if they were shit at naming things when they could deliver that smooth Jazz right to your brain? Without it there was no way he’d be able to drift off right before a battle, but with it well hey, what do you know? 

“Oi!” 

He snapped his eyes open and grabbed at a shadow in front of his face as the music was pulled from his ears but stopped short of pulling out his knife as his eyes adjusted to see Bec sitting in front of him with his headphones in her ears. 

“I hope you know I was almost asleep just now, before you rudely interrupted me.”  

“I cant hear you,” she mouthed. “Music’s too loud.” 

She had her eyes closed, tapping along to the music, the metallic drum of gloved fingers on her metal breastplate a ghost of what he was just enjoying. She preferred to wear steel armour to Kevlar. For Ben’s part he kept it the other way around, reckoning that he’d be more likely to dodge a sword thrust than a bullet, but Bec liked to look the part, a bloodstained battle goddess in shining steel armour to strike fear into the hearts of her enemies. And she usually was, a picture of raven locks and silver fury, but now, as she had her head tilted back with a goofy grin on her face in an obvious emulation of himself, it all looked a bit comical. He found the weakness in her armour was her ears as he snatched the eye-pod back, eliciting a cry of pain as the headphones were pulled out were pulled out. He grinned.  He’d rather have his ears chopped off than have the headphones pulled out abruptly. Payback for waking him up. 

“What song was that?” she asked, sitting back on her haunches. “Sounds like you should be about to have some of Father Joes famous mushroom stew not run out into the middle of a war.” 

“Hendrix - All Along The Watchtower,” he said, wrapping the cord around the player and stuffing it back in his pack. “It was always played as soldiers were gearing up for a big fight in all the old war movies grandfather used to show me.” 

“Sitting here dreaming you’re a star in one of those old movies?” 

“Maybe,” he said, picking up his sword in his sheath and pretending to use it as a machine gun, pumping a dozen rounds into her chest. 

“Curious…” she said, moving his aim from her with a lazy finger. “You’d think the Prince of the Union would be a bit more serious before a battle, instead of just playing pretend.” 

He shrugged. “Best to get all of the pretend out now in case we try to break the enemy line with these imaginary rocket launchers here.”  

She clapped gloved hands together. “Wise words from our Crown Prince as always. Got any more for us, on this, the cusp of glorious death?” 

“Yep. Wise men of yesteryear figured out that kissing releases these things called ‘endorphins’ from you brain. Meant to be good for the mind and the body before something stressful.” 

“Oh, but how could I kiss that mouth with so much shit pouring out of it?”  

She leaned over anyway and Ben smiled, pulling her down into the mud. 

“Ah, shit and mud. You do know how to treat a girl don’t you?” 

“You’d spit on me if I gave you roses over mud or poetry over my particular brand of shit.” 

“This is true,” she said, grinning into a kiss. 

“Ahem.” 

They paused as they heard the sound of a throat being cleared behind them. 

“Alright lovebirds, time to get up and at them, Reg wants you front and centre.” 

Sal, Bec’s younger sister strode up to them, looking slightly sheepish at having interrupted them. 

 “We’re marching already?” Bec asked. 

“I don’t think so, but Reg still needs you” she said, offering them both a hand up, which Bec waved away, instead springing upright, a feat that should have been impossible, a fact that was not lost on some of the greener soldiers.  Ben, on the other hand, took the offer and let Sal pull him to his feet. 

“How’s it feel?” she asked, keeping the grip on his wrist and turning his hand over. 

“Still a bit off,” he admitted. “You?” 

She lifted her leg and rotated her ankle. She’d lost it in the same fight that he’d lost his arm, only just coming out of it alive with him pulling her onto the boat with one hand while they both bled from stumps. He honestly thought she wouldn’t make it, the entire time she’d spent in the God Machine had been touch and go, but she’d pulled through and seemed to be recovering better than him. 

 “Yeah, it’s about the same.” She grinned, “but I got an Augmentation so I’m still working that one out.” 

“You got an Augmentation?” he asked, feeling her excitement in himself. An Augmentation was where the robot part of the procedure really came out. People could attach any number of instruments to their bodies in the surgery phase and have them wired into their nervous system whilst inside the God Machine, effectively meaning someone could replace their hand with a gun and make it shoot just as they could make their fingers snap. He knew this example because it was probably the most popular procedure. “What kind?” 

“I’m sure you’ll find out in an hour or two,” she said with a wink, “but for now you’ve got to hurry up. Reg sent me to get you and he didn’t seem too happy.” 

They reached the edge of the tree line where Reg was giving orders to two runners, a young boy and girl duo who saluted and ran off before they arrived. Technically the gruff, anvil of a man was Ben’s second in command, but Ben was more than happy to let him call the shots and the old campaigner was more than happy to be the one calling them.  

“We fighting?” he asked as he approached Reg, gripping the older man’s shoulder. He was basically an uncle to Ben, having been his fathers best friend all these long years, Ben’s mentor and tutor in all things war since the first time he left the God Machine and his second-in-command since Ben became first. He would have happily had it the other way around, but deep down Reg preferred to be the fist, not the mouth, and if that’s the way it had to be, well then Ben was just happy knowing he had a haymaker in his right fist. 

“White flag,” Reg said with disgust, nodding toward the middle of the field where distant figures held up the offending piece of white fabric flapping on a stick. “Looks like we’re chatting first.” 

 

 

They left the tree cover with a contingent of Reg’s finest killers, his ‘Finest’ he called them, made up of some lesser Bio-Mechs and those proficient enough at killing that they didn’t need Augmentation to make the cut. Reg and Bec walked out in front, laughing about something or other. If Reg was like an uncle to Ben then he was a father to Bec and Sal, and it was only when he was with them that Ben ever saw a smile crack his stern face. He’d do anything for the girls, which was fortunate for them because he was quite literally a killing machine. He was popularly referred to as the Grey Death by allies and enemies alike. Feared by both as well. Stories went he’d even taken down an Angel in his youth. Ben had never asked, too frightened when he was younger and too realistic once he’d worked up the courage to even bother. The last of the Angels had stopped their purge over two centuries ago and hadn’t been seen since. If they were, Ben reckoned the crusty old bastard still might have what it took to take one down though. 

He was the result of one lifetime and millions of dollars worth of Bio-Mechanics, put together by Ben’s father, the leader of The Union, to be it’s weapon, and that’s what he was. He was almost entirely Bio-mech, with augmentations that only a few other Bio-Mechs could even dream of having. Relics from the old world that couldn’t even be made in Empire City, let alone The Union, namely his Gate Arm.  

A Gate was a portal that that could transport any amount of matter to any other gate so long as there was enough power going to it. These alone were rarities, Ben only having seen two in his entire life, back before Smoke City went under water, so to have one grafted into the palm of your hand was obscenely rare. Granted the distance one could travel through gates generated by a Gate Arm was in the tens of metres, it’s application in any aspect of war, from battle to espionage, was unrivalled. And there he walked, the champion of the Union, laughing at some crude joke Bec had most probably made, obviously not letting the truth that he was The Union’s last hope weigh him down overly much. 

They left the contingent of Reg’s killers in Sal’s command around a hundred metres out from the delegation. She gave Reg a tighter hug than it seemed he was even capable of withstanding without a grimace, the two sharing some words before she moved onto Bec, clasping each other’s wrists as they shared a brief, intense look before nodding and moving on. She clasped Ben’s wrist too, but this time more tenderly. 

“Stay safe,” she said, holding his hand tight and holding his gaze tighter before dropping it quickly to examine his hand. “It’ll feel the most natural when you’re not thinking about it.” 

“Good thing for me then,” he said, giving her hand a squeeze before turning and moving past the others, taking up his spot in the middle as they crossed the rest of the ground.  

Out here the wind was violent, savage like a primal beast, wet with the anticipation of a storm as the three of them walked in a grim silence toward the three opposing figures standing under the grimy white flag. The wind whipped the white fabric about, indiscriminate of direction or velocity as it did the same to the three figures that they now opposed. Two of them Ben recognised, Sharps and Rask, hardened Empire City killers and Bio-Mechs both. Between the battles the three of them had fought against one another they’d flirted with death enough to at least have to buy her dinner. Ben couldn’t help but smile as he got close enough to notice his handiwork across Rask’s right side, a sickening network of burns from his neck to his cheek, delivered by the Taser Augmentation on the mans own arm that Ben had managed to turn back onto himself. Sharps was another that Ben had faced off against, but usually more in this vocal format and from behind their respective command posts than up close and personal. But when it did get that way, Ben knew the old man well enough to be wary. 

The third man Ben wasn’t on dancing terms with. He stood, wrapped in a black cloak so all Ben could see was his face. But what a fucking face it was, with the blue eyes, strong jaw and cowlick that reminded him of Superman from the old comics his grandfather had left him. He certainly held himself like a Bio-Mech, with an almost disdainful look on his beautiful face that was clean enough to tell Ben that he might have just been freshly synced. A Bio-Mech that Ben hadn’t heard of was never a good sign, especially not a fresh one, and Ben reflexively rotated his right wrist behind his back. Feeling the strength in it gave him confidence and he flashed a grin back at Superman which wasn’t returned. Rask was the first to step forward, swaggering with hands lounging on the hilt of his knives.  

“Ah, the Union has arrived!” 

Ben, Bec and Reg stopped in a line about ten metres off from the opposing side. Rask spread his arms in welcome. 

“Benny, good to see ya again young lad!” 

“And you Rask,” Ben said, not unfriendly. There was something calming about the conversational tone, the familiarity of Rask, even though they’d be trying to kill each other in about ten minutes time. 

“Reg, you old dog. Still kicking about are we?” 

“Aye,” Reg said with a nod. About to try and stab him or not, that was about as much as anyone but the girls were likely to get out of Reg. 

“And Becs, is it just me or have you gotten prettier?” 

Bec smiled sweetly. “Oh Rask, always were quite the snake charmer weren’t you? For that, maybe I won’t kill you right away.” 

“What a compliment. I always knew you had to have a bit of a thing for me.” 

“Mmm, not really since Ben gave you that make over, sorry.” She said it as sweetly as honey, but the words stung like the bee and even Rask seemed to take exception to that one. He spat to the side and shuffled back into his spot in the line. 

“Right then,” Reg said, “did you raise that flag so you could have a crack at Becs or did we come here to talk?” 

“Talk,” Sharps said, about as interested in fucking spiders as Reg was. 

“If diplomacy hasn’t worked for the City Lords in their high-rises then why do you reckon it’ll work standing beneath your bedsheet flapping in what is most likely a category two hurricane?” Ben asked, feeling the rain start to spit down on his face. 

“This ain’t diplomacy,” Sharps said. 

“What is it then?” 

“It’s terms,” Sharps said. 

“Terms of what?” Reg asked. 

“Terms of surrender.” 

Bec clapped her hands together. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Right then, go and pack it on up before it starts shitting down out here.”  

“Your surrender,” Sharps said, not even looking her way.  

Bec laughed, nothing genuine about it, but she kept it going for a good ten seconds. 

“Us surrender to you? What a fucking concept!”  

Sharps ignored her again, this time looking at Reg. 

“You’ve been around a while Reg, you know there’s gonna be bloodshed. A lot of bloodshed. Why bother over a patch of mud?” 

“But it’s not just a patch of mud, is it Sharps? You’ve been around just as long and you know which way the water is coming in. We can’t afford take a backwards step so either you do or we fight.” 

Sharps shook his head before looking to Ben. 

“What about you Wonderboy? These are your men. You gonna have their lives on your conscience?” 

“I reckon most of them would say they’d rather die fighting here than see their families drown back there. I’m with Reg, if you don’t wanna see the blood then you’ll have to walk away.” 

“We can’t,” Sharps said, more intense than Ben had ever seen the old killer, and Ben had been at the point of his sword several times. 

“And we wouldn’t either,” Rask said, aggravated. “We done with this chat or what Sharps?” The younger man having lost all of his previous joviality. 

“Aye, I reckon we are,” Reg said, but Ben was still looking at Sharps. Bec and Reg made steps to leave but Ben stood a second longer, sharing a look with Sharps. The older man’s eyes were asking, pleading. 

“Why?” Ben asked. The rest of them stopped and turned back. “We’ve got more men than you, more arms, more supplies, better ground, and we’ve got Reg. We know for a fact that you’re the only two Bio-Mech’s The Empire has this side of The Twine and Reg could tear you two apart if you’d let him get close enough. So unless your new friend here has wings I don’t think we’re surr...”  

Ben realised what was happening before he’d finished the sentence. He’d fucking guessed it with his last shitty joke. The angels were back, and they were fighting on the Empire’s side. He made to step sideways, to push Bec out of the way of whatever was coming but before he could lift his feet out of the mud Rask had his gun out and pointed at Ben’s chest. He fired a split second later and Ben felt the air leave his chest just as his feet left the ground.  

The last thing he saw before the sky took up his vision was filled with wings. He saw it all in that split second, the bored look of contempt not leaving it’s face as jet black wings spread from it’s back. It lunged, knocking Reg down right as he opened a gate, but Ben didn’t see one appear and wondered if it had malfunctioned as he lurched backwards and hit the ground hard. For a moment he thought the Kevlar hadn’t worked, that the pain in his chest was too much, that it had pierced through, but feeling started to dissipate. It always did.  

He rolled to the side and stood, drawing his sword in the same motion, knowing that a moment’s hesitation would be the difference between a dance with death or eternity with her. He spun, ready to block the blow that would be coming from one of the three, but as he turned he saw Sal with confusion and terror missed in equal parts across her face. He looked over his shoulder and saw the gate Reg had made. Not one to protect himself, or one to save Bec, but one to get him as close to safety as he could. 

“No,” Ben managed to choke out. “No!” 

He watched on as Rask and Sharps held Reg to his knees. Reg’s Killers had begun to form up a protective perimeter around him but he pushed through, racing toward Reg as the two Imperials wrestled with him. 

“Ben!” Sal called after him, but he ignored it.  

It was all happening so quickly. The Empire forces were advancing and there were screams behind him and the third man, the Angel, was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Bec. He put two and two together in his mind but he still struggled to accept it. 

“No!”  

He got halfway to the white flag before Sal caught him. He tried to pull against her but she was strong, planted in the ground. 

“We have to go!” she yelled. When had it gotten so loud? The storm was on them.  

“We’ve got to help them!”  

Ben watched as her eyes widened, not at him, but behind him. He turned to see Sharps putting Reg down slowly as Rask held something over his head, triumphant. Reg’s arm, the Gate Arm, the most valuable piece of Mech on the continent. 

“Now,” Sal said behind him. “We’ve got to go now!” 

The storm had gotten louder, it was all around him but he was beside it. He locked eyes with Rask. The man threw Reg’s arm to Sharps and pulled out his sword, making toward Ben but Sharps was up in an instant, holding the younger man back just like Sal was to Ben. They were the calmer heads. Sharps knew they had men coming close behind for the clean up. They’d accomplished their mission, there was no use cheapening it by dying themselves. Sal, for her part, knew that they were fucked if they didn’t move now. Ben knew it too. Still he hesitated, and it was that hesitation that saved their lives.  

When they finally turned back the storm was deafening but as they crossed the ground back to relative safety it faded away to complete silence. Ben stopped and looked up into the storm as it crashed down to earth in the middle of Reg’s Finest. An Angel, different from the one that had been under the white flag. He swept down, spinning with his sword as he landed, dropping several of Reg’s men. He danced around them, dropping two more as they tried to steel themselves. Ben could see the smirk on the things face from the distance he stood, but it had underestimated the resolve and murderous ability of Reg’s contingent. They formed up in a circle, guns shooting where they had them, spears where they did not. As another fell the soldiers only seemed to settle, closing in on the Angel. Why didn’t he just fly away?  

Ben looked to the sky, wondering if another was coming, if that was the reason he didn’t flee, but the “storm” from up there had died down, but the noise hadn’t completely gone away. The Imperials were closing in. It didn’t have to hold Reg’s solders much longer, they’d be run down soon enough. For their own part, Reg’s soldiers didn’t seem to notice or care that there was an army at their back, focusing on their quarry with an assassin’s precision. 

There was a shout from the trees and Ben saw his own men forming up. They had the larger army, and even without Reg and Bec they still had more Mechs. All they had to do is take down this Angel and hope no more came, all before the opposing army bore down on them. Impossible, probably, but it was a direction to swing in.  Sal knew it too and she picked up her pace, Bio-Mechanically enhanced legs pumping her ahead as they approached the circle. 

“Harpy!” she yelled and the man closest to her took a step back and dropped to one knee as the two next to him held their spears defensively to protect him. Ben heard gunshots from the opposite side of the circle before the Angel could turn to face her and he turned back, lunging for them and dropping another two for the sake of distraction. She leapt off the kneeling man’s back and Ben finally got to see what her Augmentation was. A long, flat blade, around the length of his forearm, slid from her boots, one on each side as she flew through the air. The Angel turned, but too late, as Sal screeched and impaled him with the blade on her left foot, keeping her elevated while she kicked with her right, stabbing him again and again. He roared and threw her off, spreading his wings to leap after her but Ben had joined the circle. He pulled out his gun and shot at the part where the wings met the body, not sure why he was aiming there but figuring it would hurt like a son-of-a-bitch if he was a bird. He unloaded his clip as the Angel roared louder. He turned to face Ben, tucking one wing back at his side, but the one that Ben had shot hung limply to the ground. He looked enraged and dangerous, but Ben knew and The Finest knew better when there was blood in the water. They closed in. 

The Angel swept out, and in more ordinary circumstances The Finest would have taken down their pray without loss of life, but these were not ordinary circumstances and this was far from ordinary prey. They had an army closing in at their backs and they had to be done with this before they could turn around and face it. Another three fell before The Finest had to stop advancing. Ben, however, did not. He took a breath in and tried to channel that bullshit he’d been thinking about before the battle. He let it out and felt his heartrate slow, and then almost cease completely as the seconds between each one spaced out, more and more time packing into the gaps. The Angel swung at him as Ben stepped within it’s circle. At this speed Ben could see the animal determination in it’s face. Not human at all, but a cornered beast. He stepped to the side, the blade missing him by an inch, but it may as well have been a mile. He flicked his sword out, an effortless manoeuvre but his biomechanical arm put strength into. Too much strength. He’d aimed for the arm that had just struck out at him, just above the elbow and, while expecting to hit it, he would have been safe to assume that the Angel had Biomechanical skin which would deflect the blow like a blunt object. Instead his blade went right through.  

The Angel roared. The sound didn’t register for Ben but the face of the monster did. Agony and anger and then… fear. The stories of the Angels were old, but not old enough to be forgotten just yet. They were complete Bio-Mechs, built from scratch in some lab up in the sky to be replicas of paintings and stories from a time now long past from artists and authors now long dead. Designed to be perfect in every human way and then more, and immune from human imperfection, fear being second only to empathy in the regard of their designer. Well, he was proving that part wrong, wasn’t he? The Angel tried to take flight, a powerful gust of wind pushing Ben back as it lifted off the ground. Ben knelt against the force of it, watching the Angel rise as if it were flying through syrup. He dropped his sword to his non Bio-Mech hand and reached out, grabbing the Angel’s limp wing with an iron strong grip and pulling down. He was lifted back over The Finest and for a moment he thought he would be carried away, but the Angel flagged and dropped back toward the ground. Ben hit first, letting go of the wing and rolling, standing then swinging with both arms as powerfully as he could, blind in all but a knowledge of the Angels falling trajectory. His blow struck and sheared through flesh before stopping short, imbedded an inch inside the things neck. He pulled the blade out and grabbed The Angel by the throat, thumb sticking into the wound. There was blood in there, and with it he could feel pain. He pushed deeper. 

"Where did he take her?" Ben said through gritted teeth. 

The Angel didn't respond, eyes swimming in a daze of confusion and contempt. 

Ben pressed his thumb in deeper still. "Where did he take her?" 

He could feel soft flesh and hard tendon resist against his push, but he could only elicit a clench-toothed whimper from The Angel. It went to fight one last time, to push up to its feet and throw a punch into his ribs but Ben saw it seemingly before it happened. He caught its wrist in his other hand and pressed even further with his thumb, pushing The Angel back down into the mud. 

"Where?" he screamed. 

"Heaven," it whispered. 

There was a tremendous beating as Ben’s heartbeats and time caught back up, thunderous and echoing all around him. He looked up and saw Sal running towards him. 

“Ben!” she shouted, pointing past him. 

He turned to see the cavalry closing in, mud and muck turning up into the air all around them. His cavalry wouldn’t be far behind them, but not close enough. He turned back and in one clean swipe finished the job of beheading the Angel, letting its head tumble to the ground before grabbing it by the hair and lifting it up. 

“His mate isn’t coming back, is he Sharps?” Ben yelled over the drum.  

Anyone else wouldn’t have heard him, but Sharps had Sense Augmentations, meaning he’d be able to see and hear everything that had transpired as if it was going on in front of him. That’s if he’d been paying attention, but something told Ben that he was. The Finest had already recovered and were forming up on him and Sal, spears in the front, guns and arrows in the back and everything in between on the sides. Ben continued to walk forward, outside of their protection. 

“What are you doing?” Sal yelled, but Ben kept on. 

“No point losing your army over this. We’ve got twice your men, still got twice your Mech’s and change. So are you willing to bet your men’s lives on your bird friend getting back in time?” 

He tossed the head on the ground in front of him to punctuate his point and stepped back to form up with The Finest, gritting his teeth and hoping he hadn’t been talking to air. The cavalry continued on and Ben set himself in for another fight, even though every fibre in his body protested. He heard guns cocking around him and pulled out his own, figuring he could unload a clip into the lead rider in hopes that it was fucking Rask, but before he could reload the clip the lead rider veered off and the line split, parting around them like, what was it? The Black Sea? The Red Sea? That sounded about right. It would have been a red one if it didn’t split, that much Ben knew. 

The Finest adapted and quickly formed a phalanx but instead of turning inwards to encircle them, the riders kept on veering out, turning full circle and riding back toward their own lines. Ben looked back to see his own cavalry still 100 metres off. Sharps must have heard him then, and been smart enough to call it in. That, or seen him behead an Angel. The stories of them were old, but definitely not old enough to be forgotten As the thundering of the hooves died off Ben relished in finally knowing silence. They’d lasted the day. He looked up at the sky, the storm still brewing heavy overhead. Now they had to last the night. 

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Nights

The once desired stretch of land that they fought over was now a graveyard, one haunted with bad omens that told them to leave. Quickly. They waited around long enough to not show the Imperials their backs and then made for the trees. Once they were there, Ben organised the retreat. 

“We can’t stick together,” he said to Sal and Karl, the next in charge of The Finest and therefore the rightful next in command after their hasty reshuffle. Not two hours ago he was walking the other way with Reg and Bec. Now… He shook the thoughts from his head. If you don’t pull it together then you’ll have more than two lives to mourn. “We’ll split the force into three groups, each of us taking lead of one.” 

“Split?” Sal asked. “But you just saw what happened before. We can take them if they come.” 

Ben shook his head, a pointless gesture in the growing twilight. “It came by itself, underprepared and unwilling to retreat when it should have.” 

“It underestimated us,” Karl said, a grim satisfaction in his voice. 

“It did,” Ben acknowledged, “but with the corpse of their brother out there they wont be making that mistake again. One of them we can take again, maybe. But any more than that and it wont make a difference if we’re 100 men or 1000, they’ll harry us through the night, pick us off like meat at the bone, and in the morning there’ll be nothing left.” 

“So what does splitting up do for us?” Sal asked.  

“They’re bound to attack in force, especially after what we did to them today. I saw in that fucking things eyes, there was only pride and hateful retribution. They’re not going to like that we got one of theirs. They’re going to hit back. If any, any, of the old stories are true then we’re in for one hell of a night. Splitting up gives us a better chance of at least one of us making it back to The Union.” 

“And the others?” Karl asked. 

Ben looked at the man. If not for this stupid fucking title before Ben’s name, it would be Karl’s conscience that this next decision rested on. “We can hope, but right now the priority is getting one person getting back to warn Union City. We’ll split the Elites up, then maybe we can get one of them down, but the priority is getting a message back.” 

“Why don’t we stay?” Karl suggested. “Dig in and wait for reinforcements?” 

“The reinforcements are gone,” Sal said, looking out into the night and swallowing the same bitter pill that was lodged in his throat. Ben swallowed it himself as flashes of the day ran through the darkness. Reg being torn apart. The Angel taking Bec. 

 “She’s right.” Ben said past the lump that pill left in his throat. “We’re what’s left of the Unions fighting force and without Bec and Reg, we’re not much of that anymore. Granted we’ve got a few Mechs, but if they bring Bain or Silk or any of the private Mechs they’ve got in Empire City then it’s been nice knowing ya. And that’s all without the Angels coming down on top of us. We’ve gotta run.” 

Karl and Sal both looked at him then and Ben realised it was the first time he’d named them. Angels. That word had been a whisper for so long. They’d been boogeymen his entire life, only hushed mentions ever making it past loose lips. They hadn’t been real to him, to any of them, the horrors of the past often looking like fantasy if they weren’t witnessed first hand. But now they had witnessed them first hand and they were discussing them freely, making them and their deeds more real with every word. 

“Right,” Karl said, accepting their new situation with a soldiers fluidity. “I’ll get the Finest split into three groups and have the men form up. First party will be ready to set off in an hour. What do you want with horses?”  

Ben chewed the inside of his lip on that. If any of the three parties were attacked a each horse would be worth ten men. But one message could be worth the lives of an entire city. Ben bit the inside of his mouth so hard he tasted blood. What use was an army without a city to protect? But by that same logic how long could a city last without an army to protect it? Sal and Karl were both looking at him, doubt slowly setting into their faces the longer he hesitated. 

“I want twenty horses packed light and ready to leave. The riders are to understand that they turn back for nothing, they stop for nothing. Each of them will take a different route and each of them will ride under the assumption that they could be the only one to make it back to the city.” 

“Right away,” Karl said. “I’ll get the men moving… You two take yourselves a minute.” 

The man was much older than Ben, but he treated him with a respect that Ben had never felt before, despite being the Prince of The Union and commander of her armies. It was today, in the circle against The Angel. He was there. He saw what you did. Ben looked around and saw the quick glances from the rest of The Finest. They all were. They believed in him now, like they did Reg. He didn’t want to look weak in front of them, not so soon at least, but he understood the mercy Karl was offering him and realised he needed it. He put a hand on Karl’s shoulder. 

“Thank you,” he said.  

The older soldier nodded and was off, barking orders in a way that Ben knew would be the man’s idea of what ‘Reg would have done’. That thought hung in his head a moment longer as he turned to Sal. Would have he made the same decision that Ben did? To split and run? Or would have he stayed and fought? Ben knew which one was most likely but he wouldn’t afford to think about it because he couldn’t afford to doubt himself. Sal raised a hand to his cheek, snapping him out of his thoughts. 

“You’re so serious,” she said, her voice sounding far away. “What happened to all of your jokes?” 

He looked down at her, unable to part his trembling lips. 

“Please,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “Please just make a fucking joke.” 

“I can’t.” 

Sal broke down into sobs, burying her head into his chest. 

“They’re gone,” she said through sobs and clothing. “Just like that, gone.” Ben nodded and held her tighter. “She was my sister, Reg was basically my father. He was my father, and now they’re both gone.” 

He rested his chin on her head and gripped his fingers into her shirt. It was all he could do as the scene played over and over in his mind. So close and then so far away as he disappeared through the gate, helpless to do anything but watch, but safe, while Bec got taken away. Reg was her father, so why did he save him? 

Being a survivor meant there was always guilt, but this was one step worse. He had no right to be alive, out of the three of them, no right whatsoever. But here he was. He was unable to continue holding Sal because of it, couldn’t even look her in the eye. What did she think? Was it something in the back of her mind, wishing that it could have been the other way around? Ben instead of Bec. 

“We’ve got to make this all for something,” he said. “We’ve got to get home.” 

Sal let out a deep breath. “We’ll make it home,” she said, then blurted out a laugh. 

“What?” he asked, finding himself laughing as well with the sheer abruptness of it. 

“We’ll make it home, and I’ll get you there. I’m now your head bodyguard and chief confidant. It’s now my duty to get you home, Mr Prince of the Union.” 

Ben’s smile faded and he tried his best to plaster it back on. He knew Sal was just trying to cheer him up by joking with him like Bec would, but the thought of joking like that again just stabbed him in the heart. Sal saw it too and caught herself. 

“I’m sorry,” she said, dropping her head. 

“Don’t be,” he said, catching her chin before it could dip below horizontal. 

“We’ll get them back, and then it’ll all be normal again.” She said it with an intensity that blew away all of her grief and in that moment he knew she believed it. Not denial, genuine belief, a belief that could drag a person down quicker than even vengeance could. 

“We will,” he said, not wanting to be dragged down by the belief himself but even so he could feel a small amount of that poisonous hope creep under his skin.  

They made their way to the front, out of the tree cover, and Ben couldn’t help but look up into the night sky. They were out there somewhere, somewhere up there, coming for them. He hunched his shoulders against the thought and made his way to the front where Karl was getting the cavalry ready, holding the reins of a particularly restless horse, it’s rider standing just as restless behind it. 

“Just waiting for your say-so chief,” Karl said over the thrum of the army preparing itself. 

Ben gave a nod and Karl threw the reins to the rider who swung himself onto the horse. He gave them a quick nod and then was off into the night. Ben couldn’t help but think of the hare making its way from burrow to burrow, tiny heart pumping as the hawk circled overhead, waiting to swoop. He turned back to Karl. 

“You take yours first, up through Sheridan. You’ll have the most direct route so we’ll send the riders from your contingent. Send them once an hour for as long as you’ve got some to spare. Sal, you go the long way, up through Broadus. It’ll take the longest, but it’ll be furthest from their forces.” 

“And you?” Sal asked. 

“I’ll go the other side, through Buffalo, then the forest and back up to Union City from the south.” 

“That’ll take you damn close to Ghost Town,” Karl said. “That’s where they’re likely to have regrouped.” 

“Yep,” Ben said. “If they catch wind it’ll put them in two minds. They’ll want to chase us up the most direct route, the one you’re taking, but if they see me going through the forest then they’ll split just like us. It’s not much, but it’s something.” 

Karl nodded, but Sal looked unsure. Ben knew what she was thinking, she’d object on the grounds that she didn’t want to loose the only thing she had left, him, so he didn’t give her time to think it. He turned to Karl. 

“Are the men ready?” he asked. 

“Have been since before I told them to form up.”   

“Then let’s go,” Ben said, heading off to his own command. 

“What do you think you’re doing?” she whispered to him as she followed him off. His back tensed. She’d been thinking it anyways. 

“What I think is best,” he said. 

“You’re sending me away from the fight while basically running headfirst into it yourself.” 

“It’s the logical option.” 

“To get you killed?” 

“To get the message and the army back to Union City.” 

“Then let me take the Ghost Town route. You’re the fucking Prince of The Union, you should be escorted back the safest way with all of The Finest protecting you.” 

“And if we did it that way then there’s not going to be a Union to be Prince of. Besides, we’ve got artillery moving with the refugees from Rapid City into Union, that’s what this is all about anyway. If the Angels are back then we need that more than ever and you’ve got to protect that route. This is the way it’s gotta go so this is the way it’s going. Talking about it is just making it more and more likely we’re gonna get killed.” 

“I liked you better when you made jokes,” she said, shaking her head. 

He laughed. “Are you kidding? This is the biggest joke of them all. Me with the weight of the world on my shoulders, trying desperately not so shit myself both figuratively and literally.

She shook her head, but he could see the smile creeping through. She touched his cheek and leaned in. 

“Don’t you die on me Ben, I’m going to need someone to make me laugh when all of this sinks in.” 

“And don’t shit yourself,” she said as she walked off, to take her place at the head of her army, leaving him to take his own. In that moment he couldn’t make any promises.

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