Trial by Fire

Part 1

Shas'la Fi'rios pressed her back against the chipped stonework of the central column, flicking her helmet's aural sensors up to maximum. The slight scrape of loose debris kicked up by her hunters echoed faintly through the urban zone, and she checked her pulse carbine's readout for what felt like the hundredth time.

Still at sixty-three percent. She had two more ammunition packs on her belt, spare, but hopefully she wouldn't have to use them. She knew for a fact that two of her pursuers were down; she had stayed long enough to watch them fall, and it had nearly gotten her killed. Despite her efforts, they still followed her.

Two down. That left at least four, and at most twenty-two. Plus support.

A click on her helmet activated its night-vision, bathing the darkness in a ghostly green light. They would be here soon. She clicked the safety off on her carbine, and her helmet superimposed its targeting information onto her vision, drawn from the module mounted atop it, halfway down its length. Ammo count to the top right, aiming reticule currently down low to the left, heat monitor around it.

She could hear faint calls now, echoing through the building. It was a habitation building; evacuated now; cold and empty. Like a tomb waiting for its occupant. She shook her head. No time to get distracted by fatalistic thoughts now.

There! Two shadowy shapes moved slowly forward towards the ground floor entrance, their forms barely visible through the murky window beside it.

She dropped into a tense crouch, carbine raised to her shoulder. Its aiming reticule dropped neatly over the rearmost of the two shapes, and a low beep sounded in her ear. She waited until the leader was through the door before squeezing the trigger.

A high-pitched crack shattered the silence, and a tongue of blue energy discharge spat from her carbine behind the hypersonic pulse.

She was moving before he hit the ground, scrambling from the column towards the stairs behind her. A shout rose from the surviving hunter, and she winced as fire from heavier pulse rifles began slicing through the building. She hit the stairs just ahead of a trio of shots that tore the soft carpet to shreds, and was up them before her hunters could adjust their aims.

Where to go? The first floor was bare and empty; used as a large storage area. Whatever had been stored there had been taken with the evacuation. She supposed she should be flattered that the Aun deemed her enough of a threat to cause such upheaval, but she would have preferred the zone to be inhabited still. Cold, but civilians would give her the distraction she was going to need to get anywhere. Cold, but then, did she really care about that any more?

She got down, lying prone on the floor facing the stairs. If they wanted her now, they'd have to come up those stairs to get her, and they knew it as well as she. She might not be getting out of there alive, but she was damn well going to take as many of them with her as she could.

It was then that the floor behind her exploded upwards in a hail of shots.

She felt the world lurch as the weakened floor began to fall. There was no way she could reach the wall where it was stable; the entire western half of the floor was caving in. She rolled onto her back. One chance, she thought. One chance and then I'm dead.

The centre of the floor hit the ground with a bone-jarring crunch-thump, and she pushed herself up with the impact, twisting in the air. She landed heavily in a clumsy crouch, but her carbine was up and firing as fast as she could pull the trigger. Pulses stabbed out into the dozen-or-so of her hunters that had followed her inside, and she saw four go down before they oriented themselves and returned fire.

She dove right, coming up on one knee and firing off a photon grenade from the carbine's underslung launcher. The grenade detonated in a blinding flash of high-intensity light and a keening crack-whump. She picked off two more in the confusion, firing from her crouch in short bursts.

A hurricane of blue-white pulses ripped through the outer wall to her left, tearing through the stone and gouging ragged craters in the wall behind. She swore, scrambling to her feet, and took cover behind a thin interior wall. It wasn't much, but it was something.

The outer wall finally gave in, and a sleek shape crashed through, searchlights stabbing through the swirling dust for her. The burst cannon mounted on the Devilfish's nose swivelled as its pilot found her, and then a low whine split the air as it fired once more.

She dropped the carbine and ran. Straight for the smashed-in window that opened onto the street to the east. Which meant going past the Devilfish.

Burst cannon fire smashed through the thin walls like it was paper, right behind her as she sprinted for her life. A hurricane of destroyed masonry and plaster roared in her ears, and she was glad that the Devilfish pilot didn't have direct line-of-sight. All he had was a vague heat signal, and the burst cannon would obscure that further.

She was so intent on the Devilfish and its cannon that she completely missed the small step in front of her. The breath went out of her all at once when she hit the ground, and she forced herself to stay down as the burst cannon's fire scythed above her. It stopped, then reversed direction, coming back for her, lower this time.

She pushed up from the floor and leapt. She barely cleared the storm of fire, then she was at the window. A rushed dive took her clear of the building and she hit the street in a hard roll. Pain lanced from her shoulder where she had landed on it, but she forced herself to keep moving. She could lose the tank in the backstreets. Maybe.

No sooner had she started sprinting again than a second Devilfish slipped smoothly round the buildings to her left. She made it to the narrow gap between two houses, and then she was once again being trailed by burst cannon fire, the walls exploding outwards in a snaking line, showering her with red-hot debris.

If she slowed, she'd be dead. She'd seen what vehicle-mounted burst cannons left of what they hit, and it was barely recognisable. She was glad she'd dropped the carbine; there was barely enough room between the maze of houses for her to fit, and the bulky carbine would only have slowed her down.

She emerged from the backstreets and onto a wide accessway in a roll, and it took her a second to realise that the burst cannon had stopped firing. Reloading? Or had she lost them? She croaked a laugh. She'd lost them. Now all she had to do was get out of this damned city.

The two Devilfishes banked round the houses onto the accessway, one to her left, one to her right. They slowed, knowing they had her trapped, and the hatch swung open on the one in front of her. She could see Fire Warriors moving up behind them, completing the circle around her.

From the open hatch emerged the top half of its commander. "Shas'la Fi'rios!" he shouted. "Surrender, for the Greater Good!"

She said nothing, inching her right hand down to her belt, and the small pulse pistol there. Any fast movements, and she was dead. She fought down a harsh laugh. She was dead anyway. All she was doing now was making them pay for it.

"We will not hesitate to use lethal force, Shas'la Fi'rios," the Devilfish commander said. "The Aun have ordered your capture, and sanctioned your termination if necessary. This is for the Greater Good."

The Greater Good. Was it really? She used to think it was the be-all, end-all of everything. It was what she had been raised to believe. Decisions all came down to the Greater Good. That Greater Good never seemed to be the same as what she could see needed to be done, though. It was always what the Aun decided.

"This is your last chance," announced the Devilfish commander. "Declare your surrender, or we will kill you."

This was it. She opened her mouth at the same time as she drew the pulse pistol up and out. And the Devilfish exploded.

The Fire Warriors reacted as smoothly as she had once done, moving fluidly into the cover of the houses to either side of the accessway. The surviving Devilfish slipped sideways towards the buildings, its weapons moving wildly.

She took the opportunity to find cover, crouching in the shadow of a more-than-slightly damaged house. What the hell?

"Target One confirmed destroyed," reported the Shas'ui combat pilot of the Orca dropship. "Moving in low. Package identity confirmed. Life signals strong"

The deep drone of the Orca's engines changed slightly as he banked it down in a smooth curve towards the scattering ground troops. Lackeys, he thought, and clicked the comm on again. "Multiple enemy contacts. Looks like one Devilfish and fifteen to twenty Fire Warriors. Deploy units one to four."

There was a moment of static, and then the reply came back from the transport bay. "Drop confirmed. Units one through four ready in five."

"Confirmed." He levelled the Orca off, giving the gunners an easier shot. He watched with satisfaction as the railgun thumped again, and the second Devilfish exploded violently as the hypervelocity slug punched through its engines.

"Drop ready," came the report from the transport bay.

"Acknowledged," he replied. "Deployment in six." He let a slight smile creep onto his features as he brought the Orca down lower and hit the switch to open the rear doors.

A deafening drone howled as the massive shape of an Orca dropship banked in low from the north. Four shapes dropped from the back of it as it screamed overhead, and the Fire Warriors began firing almost instantaneously. Pulse fire stabbed up at the falling shapes, but those shots that hit scored off them. They landed about thirty metres from her, and hit the ground with jetpacks running.

Crisis Battlesuits.

They opened fire with missile pods and plasma rifles, their unerringly-accurate fire felling the Fire Warriors like so many targets. Pulse fire traced black lines across their armour as they charged forwards, but did no serious damage. XV8's were combat tested against pulse fire. They were designed to stand up to it.

Three stopped, bracing their legs wide in a rough firing line, and one continued forwards, drawing what looked like a blade from the side of its jetpack. The dozen remaining Fire Warriors stood their ground, firing non-stop at the Battlesuits.

Eight were picked off by the three stationary suits, and the other four fell to the fourth. Its pilot had obviously trained for the situation, and he manoeuvred the Battlesuit with consummate skill, slicing his oversized blade around in tight arcs that split the infantrymen apart effortlessly.

It was over in seconds, though it felt like days to her, watching the Crisis suits take apart the Fire Warriors so completely. When the last Fire Warrior lay dead, the Battlesuits formed a rough semicircle in front of her as the Orca returned. The dropship came in slowly, anti-gravitic generators glowing hotly, until it hovered less than a metre from the ground in the centre of the accessway.

She saw a tall figure emerge from the back, and then the lead Crisis suit hit her. Her world shattered into blackness.

Shas'vre Vior'la Vral M'yen stepped from the back of the Orca. He winced as he saw Ui'Or'es strike, and walked over to the fallen Tau. He pushed through the XV8's, and knelt by her.

After so long… It didn't seem like it could really be her, but he couldn't mistake that face. His memories were blurred from back then; a side-effect of the treatment, but of the few fragments he had left, she was still there. He had thought – had been told – that she was dead. Missing in action, which was as good as dead on an enemy-held world.

And now she was here. Back on Fi'rios, her homeworld. She had been the last he expected to find as their objective. If the rumours were true about her, if she was the one…

He straightened. "She's down," he said, forcing his voice to be calm and cool. "Get her into the Orca's medical bay, and let's go. After this, it won't be long before they realise we aren't cleared. By then, I want us back on the Ky'ralas before dawn."

Or'es nodded, his XV8's small head moving along with its pilot's movements. He stooped, stowing his blade, and picked her up.

M'yen turned and walked back to the Orca. She looked exactly the same as she had three years ago. And, by the reports, she was so different from everyone else that the Ethereals wanted her dead.

And if they wanted her dead, then the Enclaves wanted her alive.