Theo applied the last brushstroke with a flourish, and stepped back to get a better look at the canvas. It would do, he decided. Not his best, but he was sure it would sell for even more than his last one. His favourite gallery had drummed up massive hype for his paintings, which had netted progressively larger amounts of money. His last sold for a seven-figure sum.

No longer concentrating on his painting, he started to hear the newscast after tuning it out a few hours ago.

"... are hearing reports that a surprise attack has been launched against Marduk by the Draconis Combine. According to a source in Federated Suns Intelligence, they had hidden their military movements, apparently simultaneously openly preparing for an attack on Lima. Over to our guest analysts now."

"Thank you, Jan. We were just discussing the possible intentions of the Combine. If the Federated Suns lose Lima, then supply lines to Marduk will be stretched thin, probably to breaking point. This will make it much harder to defend the planet, and it will probably be lost to the Combine. The conflict will also likely draw out several regiments of Suns forces and leave surrounding systems less well-defended. This could in turn lead to..."

Theo turned away from the screen and walked to a window overlooking the park next to his apartment building. It was the largest in the capital, a verdant expanse of green easily seven or eight kilometres on a side. He had chosen this apartment for precisely this view; high enough to get a good view, low enough to seem close.

Faintly, he could hear a bass booming, coming from the direction of the nearby military base. He looked left, and saw vivid puple beams spearing into the sky, one after the other, leaving seared silhouettes across his vision. Squinting, he followed their path, and saw what he thought was a meteor shower, until he clicked 'invasion' and 'orbital defence lasers' together.

He was aware that Marduk was one of the first major worlds on the Federated Suns' side of the border, but the possibility of attack had always seemed remote to him. And now, Dropships were thundering down towards the planet, towards him.

He watched, fraught with worry, as the lasers pounded the air. A few Dropships were hit, and tumbled down out of control. He couldn't see enough of the sky at once, he was looking left and right so fast he felt like he was having a fit. He saw a Dropship, a big blocky thing, clear the buildings on the other side of the park, on fire. It dipped, lower and lower, and ploughed into the grassy hill, throwing up a cloud of dirt and dust.

The shockwave of the impact rippled outward, finally meeting the bottom of his apartment complex and travelling upward, shattering every window it touched. Theo screamed as he was thrown to the floor, his hands scraping across the shards of broken glass littering the carpet. His easel, still with his drying painting on it, toppled forward and landed face down on the floor.

There was a rumbling sound outside, different from the impact. He crawled over to the window over the road, gingerly used the sill to lever himself upright, gasping as his lacerated palms gripped the edge, and looked down on the street. A pair of tanks growled past, towards the park, their main barrels sweeping left and right, hunting. The floor shook rhythmically with titanic footsteps.

The 'Mech stomped down the causeway, arms held ready, four metre long lasers aimed forward, humming. It stopped between his building and the one opposite, almost directly in front of him. The pilot inside looked tiny, dwarfed by her war machine. He could see her flicking switches and watching readouts, before she glanced up and looked around. She saw Theo standing at what was left of his window, watching, and waved a greeting. The cavalry's here, the wave said. We'll show them.

As he watched, her head snapped round, facing forward and looking at her instruments, and the 'Mech set its feet. It fired a laser, the bright ruby beam stabbing forth. Theo looked quickly back to the park, but the beam faded before he could see what she was shooting at.

Suddenly, a shockingly loud triple sonic boom echoed between his apartment building and the one across the street, followed a second later by a muffled thoom from between the trees in the park. The thoom was accompanied by the screech of tearing metal and groaning myomer muscle bundles as the cockpit of the 'Mech was ripped apart, debris flying backwards. It staggered back a step, then seemed to topple back in slow motion, striking the concrete with an almighty clang.

Theo couldn't move. That 'Mech was the largest weapon he'd ever seen; how could it be gone? There were several little voices nagging at him to move, to get out of there, but he couldn't. It was like his legs belonged to someone else. He was distracted by the growl of more engines, and turned to watch almost dispassionately.

Another pair of tanks threaded their way around the 'Mech, autocannon hammering the air. Another 'Mech, much smaller than the one with the female pilot, sprinted out from between the trees. It scored a glancing laser strike on the flank of one tank before the other hit it in the shoulder with its main cannon. The arm hit on the 'Mech flailed, loosing a flight of missiles towards Theo's building. They struck a couple of floors above him, sending him to his knees. A cracked support beam swung down from the ceiling and clipped his temple, throwing him spinning to the floor, greyness exploding across his vision.

The sounds of battle became quieter and quieter, fading to nothing as he lost consciousness.