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Terna NoMort hugged her armored knees to her armored chest. The adrenaline of combat and vengeance fell out of her, making her feel shaky, and a little queasy in the stomach. Crawley sat across from her, regarding her in a way that was certainly fatherly.
She imagined that Zell would react in the same way if not for her total focus within the interactive helmet of the Aeramo Tank that protected them. She heard and felt blasts hit the sides, so she knew that they were in danger. But she didn’t at all feel threatened.
She was protected by her new tribe. And they were mighty.
The thought gave her pause. They were mighty by the hand of BuyMort, the evil being that had ultimately destroyed her tribe and all that she had known since her birth. But maybe it really was as Crawley said.
BuyMort didn’t kill people, people killed people.
Perhaps, when everything was done and they understood the reason for the killing of the NoMorts, she would also use the BuyMort.
After all, it seemed like those who didn’t ended up dead.
“You doing alright?” Crawley asked. He’d just been sitting across from her, watching her, while Zell sat in the command chair mentally guiding their battle tank across the broken terrain of the city.
Terna unclasped her legs, placing them back down to the floor plates below.
“Yeah. It wasn’t bad. Not then. The fighting and the combat — it . . . it felt good.”
Crawley nodded. “Yeah. When you’ve got a good reason for it, it can feel great. But after, well, we start to doubt ourselves sometimes. You have any regrets?”
She thought back to the soldiers from Storage, and their commander. Then to the wooly black aliens she’d torched after.
“I let some of them go,” she said. “Some of them didn’t belong here. They were not of this fight.”
Crawley hunched forward, seeking her eyes. She raised them and they stared into each other for a moment.
“You feel guilty about that?” he asked.
“No,” she answered. “I think they were forced here somehow. The BuyMort made them come.”
Crawley frowned. “Yeah, kinda. They don’t have morties and they live in Storage. Horrid place, no one wants to be there if they can have a job and live instead. I have yet to find a job that is worse than living in Storage. But it isn’t BuyMort. BuyMort is simply what we make of it.”
She frowned back. So much good was stuck in this demon. Mixed with so much bad. But maybe Crawley was right?
“The bad comes from us?” she asked.
He looked very uncomfortable. “I guess? I don’t know. I think those who are good at BuyMort tend to be monsters.” He nodded, agreeing with himself. “BuyMort isn’t bad. They are.”
Terna wasn’t so sure, but she didn’t feel like arguing with him. Especially not in the middle of a battle.
“Is there any way that we can see what is happening outside?” she asked. Crawley nodded and twiddled his fingers at the tank interior. A screen appeared, a seeming replica of what Zell was doing as she rolled through the ruins of the pre-BuyMort city.
The first thing that she noticed was that there didn’t seem to be nearly as much fighting as there had been before, when she was out on the hill and really in the thick of things.
The second thing she noticed was that there were a lot of broken tanks out there. She turned to Crawley, surprise etched over her face.
“How powerful is this tank? How are the other tanks all so kaput?”
Crawley chuckled, his face wrinkling into kind awe as Terna used the word that was quickly becoming one of her namesakes.
“One of the ways that BuyMort works is that those who are good at making or taking stuff, and then selling it, well, they get access to better things than those who don’t.”
She nodded. “Wizneber is the best?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Honestly, given the numbers deployed out there, I’m assuming this other affiliate is doing pretty well themselves. They just don’t give a damn about the people they field. Not as much as we do, at least.”
He put his hand up to his chin.
“I’m guessing a fly-by-night scavenging fleet rather than a planet-based affiliate. The planetary ones, well, they tend to operate more like nations used to.”
He saw something in her face, rolled his eyes back in thought, and explained.
“Tribes. Nations were like tribes. Tribes that extended over huge swathes of surface land on most of the BuyMort nations. Some of them actually survive, become affiliates. But most of them are so damn rotten inside already that when BuyMort gets to them they fall to pieces the first day.”
Terna tried to imagine it. A tribe of thousands of people, each with a huge plot of land over which to roam and scavenge supplies, build, and hunt food. It seemed excessive.
“And the fleets? What are those?”
On the projected screen a series of rapid fire blasts arced in over a line of half-wrecked buildings and slapped into the side of the Aeramo. They both paused, watching the blasts crackle against the vehicles energy shielding, and dissipate. On the side of the video feed a number showed that the tank shielding was still at a comfortable 65%.
“Fleets. Well, they are like tribes of ships. Actually, most of them are more like one small tribe per ship, and then all of those tribes work together in a sort of confederation . . .” He saw Terna’s eyes flutter, confused, and he stopped. “Confederation is like a nation and, you know what, it doesn’t matter. You get the idea.”
“They are like pirates,” she responded confidently.
He nodded, impressed. “Yeah, exactly. How did you know about pirates?” he asked.
“The BuyMort told me,” she said.
“An ad,” he said.
She nodded, her eyes wide. “I watched them attack a ship and could feel their evil. Those ships, they are like tribes, and the pirates, they are like the people who took me.”
“Don’t interact with them. Make sure you never interact with them. You’ve got something special, Terna. I’m sure of it.”
She thought back to the battle, and back to the comms.
“I think I might know what it is that I have.” She paused, not quite sure of her words. “But, I don’t know why they wanted to study and experiment.”
He regarded her, and waited.
“They said I have no signal. And, when the battle was happening, no one could receive comms. But the enemy, they could. And I could too.”
He rubbed at his chin. “You think BuyMort doesn’t see you?” he asked.
His visage was scrunched and confused. “So how does it send you ads and images?”
Terna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
He looked back up to the screen, watching Zell lay waste to a pair of bulky, slow-moving tanks, then looked back at her.
“They jammed us. But you weren’t affected because you aren’t in the system.”
His eyes were wide and his face was pinched, confusion reigning over him. “That can’t be right? Can it?”
“The BuyMort is in me. It can send me things and tempt me. But all of my life I have ignored it and said no. I think, if I do not answer, the BuyMort doesn’t know me.”
They felt the track shudder and stop beneath them, and Zell took that moment to pop off the helmet.
“Full retreat, baby. We got the bastards. And hey there Terna. Hope you had a good first blood,” she said, shaking her sweaty matted hair out and using her fingers to tear through tangles.
“So what are we all talking about?”
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Dropping to her knees in front of the headless corpse, Terna grabbed ahold of the ribbons bedazzling the man’s chest and tore them from his uniform. They felt like a badge, a tick mark that told her that she had finally begun her journey to avenge her tribe.
There was nowhere to put them, though, and she stared at her hip, puzzled. A small porch formed and she shoved the ribbons inside. The pouch disappeared and she turned away from it, lost in the moment.
Thinking about the young men she’d run off, and the few she’d killed, she frowned. For every worthy enemy like this one, there were going to be so many unworthy ones in between
Sighing, she checked through his gear and found one that looked somewhat like the comms devices that the affiliate used. This one was a bit wonky in that the screen was green and black, and the graphics on said screen were very blocky. But it was recognizable enough that she was able to figure out how to open the contacts list.
Now the question was who to contact. She rolled through, looking for a name that might strike her as commanding.
Nothing at all that sounded like leader, or chieftain. This list rolled on, so many different groups marked into the device.
She finally decided to just choose one at random.
It sounded like a service for battling the many blazes fanning out through the ruins. But maybe they would know where to direct her to. She looked out over the ruins and the people fighting there and thought through what she might say. Then she went ahead and pressed confirm on the device.
It beeped merrily, and the call was patched through.
“Coordinates and position of enemy? Composition and type?” a voice responded from the other end.
Terna paused. This was not the sort of answer she had at all expected.
“I’m the NoMort and I would like to speak with the chieftain,” she said.
There was a gasp on the other line.
“Bullshit,” the voice said. “There’s no way.”
There was doubt in his voice, and she thought through what might be happening, and in what ways the voice might think her affiliate was trying to trap them.
“I am not a prisoner. I am using this device, a scavenged comms from some other world it looks like. You, um, you can’t scan me? He said something like that before I blew his head off.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from the other end.
“He’s dead?” the voice asked.
“Yep,” Terna answered. “I killed some others too. But most of them really don’t want to be here, do they? Who are you?”
She heard excited speaking in the background.
“We’ve triangulated your comms. According to our system you are not here!”
She sighed. They hadn’t answered her question. “Who are you? All of you? And why did you kill my people?”
The man on the other line sighed. “Stay where you are. I’ll get our leader for you.”
Terna heard the man’s comms device clatter, and she put hers onto the ground. She had a sudden bad feeling about all of this. People who ordered the round up of her people and who sent clueless poor youth into war with little equipment and no training were surely cowards, bullies and cheats.
And she’d just told them where to find her.
Terna rose up and moved her selector to dose her with a Speed Battle Brew. She felt it hiss into her veins and she took off at a run, heading for the nearest edge of the city.
From outside the ruins, perhaps, she’d be able to figure out a better way to deal with everything that was going on.
Terna stood up, and an immediate hail of bullets blasted out in her direction. She sprinted then dove, noticing that every fifth round would flare red through the sky. They were using a similar strategy to that of ol’ Hord, their gunner. He would also tag the fifth round with a red incendiary marker when possible.
Either that, or it came that way.
They used it for tracking where they fired. She, in her sped up state, also saw the world as a bit slowed down. And she’d use that to track the location of the gunner. Allowing a few more of the red streaks to blaze over into her general direction, she pinpointed movement in the dim orange glow of the city battle. A couple of shadows, bereft of the white uniform.
Something more than goofy conscripts, she figured.
The suits targeting reticle rolled over them and a number of various critical points were pointed out to her, but a new number popped up as well. One that bothered her.
54% chance to hit
Seemed like too close a chance to risk it. If they were professionals, it might well give away her new position in the dirt and snow. It might allow them to get her.
And kill her? Didn’t seem like something they’d want to do. But given that this group was firing powder rounds on repeat, she had a feeling they hadn’t gotten the message.
Terna high-crawled, slowly making her way down the slope, all the while eyeing the position. They’d stopped firing, that much she knew, but the figures were silent and scanning. Evidently they didn’t have the sort of smart tech she did. No AI to help guide them.
Reaching a small line of rubble, she bumped herself up to her knees and placed her hand, palm up, on the rocks and concrete. Her XMS-7 went atop it, her shoulder against its stock. She noticed that this time there was no indicator, and she concluded that it only gave such warnings when AI confidence in the shot was middling.
Good. It was time to Kaput the bastards.
The XMS flamed out in slow-motion once, then twice. The energy blasts light up her target, a large and hairy humanoid she saw now, something covered in thick and coarse black fur that quickly lit up under the power of the weapon’s round.
Her second target was one of the same, a beastman whose shaggy coat was perfect for night camouflage — and for setting aflame. The light of the two bodies revealed a third, a hobb by the looks of things. He was screaming and looking around in panic.
A third round fired before Terna even had a chance to think about it. The man looked a lot like her brother had, at least from this distance. The same sort of haircut, the same slender build as she.
She briefly wondered if they’d died in a similar fashion as well.
But the sound of thrusters burned overhead and she saw a group of five saucers heading for her hill, burning slowly through the sky. A thick white ball of energy streaked up from the ground and impacted against the bottom of one, knocking it sideways and covering its surface in lightning.
Seconds later it exploded.
Kaput. She smiled.
Tribe Wizneber was outgunned, but they were giving worse than they were getting.
Still, others were coming. She had to get out of there. She rose up from her place at the rubble and began to sprint. The closest edge of the city was still far away. She couldn’t afford to keep a low silhouette the entire length she had to traverse. She sprinted, her battle brew streamlining her movements, making her bound quickly as if she had been training to run this race for the entirety of her life.
She bounded through a side road and into something that looked to be a straight-away. The road was wide and pitted, ice gleaming from where the snow had been kicked aside. A line of white-uniformed men lay in a line upon it and she fired a round just short of them, letting the melting blaze do the talking.
They got up and scattered. She let them.
Running further, she was beginning to lose her breath. The brew was fading, her speed was dropping. Her muscles ached and begged for her to stop.
An explosion sounded from the sky, and two more of the saucer ships were hit and exploded. She shuffled out of the street to what looked to be the remains of a large store, and she lay on her back, catching her breath, watching the drama of the sky.
More white balls of energy were firing into the mess. But not only that, there were small aircraft flitting to and fro through the ships, blasting little holes into their hulls.
The enemy had come in force.
But they hadn’t come prepared. She hooted and hollered, watching affiliate Wizneber rout the enemy opposition in the sky. She gasped and laughed, and gasped again. So much so that she didn’t even notice the large tank crackling ice through the streets until it was just about at her doorstep.
Eyes wide, breath restored, she got to her feet and walked to the doorway, hope heavy in her heart.
Yes. There it was.
The affiliate’s Aeramo tank sat still a moment, as if deciding on its next move. Then the back slid open, and Crawley popped out, his command suit on but his helmet off and his cybernetics very visible.
Never did she think that piece of BuyMort would be so pleasing to look at as it was now.
“What are you doing out here?” he asking, his face both shocked yet somehow proud.
Terna laughed and ran to him, snagging him in a big hug. “How did you know it was me?” she asked.
He laughed with her. “You’re the only AC5 out here as far as I know. Come on in. Zell’s running the show and it looks like we’re winning. But damn if this wasn’t a close thing.”
The two of them walked into the interior of the tank, and the door slid closed and clamped behind them.
Geared up and suited up, Terna stood in her corner and watched as Roger went back to the rest of his crew. She noticed that the pace wasn’t as frantic as before, as if the weapons and ammunition had already been shipped.
She took a closer look.
Indeed the capsules were no longer filled with weapons, instead their contents now consisted of more ammunition and the telltale vials, syringes and patches that indicated medical supplies.
She growled. It hurt to know that people were taking hits for her while she was waiting around down here, ultra protected and suited.
There was a loud clunk and the echo of a boom. Smoke began to pour out, white and gray, from one of the feeder chutes.
“One of the bunkers is down. Close the vent!” Roger yelled, waving smoke out of his face.
“Why didn’t they scrap the vent when they was going, hey?” asked a scrappy human kid, looked about thirteen. She cocked her helmeted head, interested in hearing the answer.
Instead there was another boom and a blow of smoke.
“Another fucking one? By the goddamn church, what are they using up there? Goddamn ninjas?”
Terna moved her head to see who was talking and was surprised to see the gray hair of an old and plump grandmother type, dainty spectacles perched on the bridge of her nose and somehow hanging on for dear life despite the chaos around them.
“No. Something is off. Hey, boss man. Crawley? You there?” Roger shouted into his comms, before noticing that the device wasn’t even online. There was just crackle and a hiss. No login, no network.
“I can’t open main comms either!” someone yelled. Terna turned to see a man tapping furiously and a console. “Whatever is happening up there, they’ve got us jammed.”
“Fucking app,” Roger groaned. “We put a lot of morties into our comms protection but they must have outbid us.”
He shook his head slowly. “Why would anyone be worth so many morties?” he asked. His face was clouded over in a mixture of confusion and awe.
Terna weighed the capsules with her eyes, the supply pods through which unit gear was sent up to the bunkers. She estimated the length and width, comparing them to herself.
And then she kicked off, starting to run across the way in an obvious direction towards one of the tubes, her rifle cradled in her arms and the rest of her equipment rattling stoically against her body.
“I’ll go up and check, see what is going on,” she said.
Roger’s eyes went wide. “Wha—? No! No way!”
He made a move as if to intercept her, his arms outstretched and ready — and she juked, watched him fall to one knee, then ran and leapt over him.
“Sorry, Roger. We need to know what is happening. And I need to know if we all need to get out of here.”
No one else moved to stop her and she thought she could make out even a little affirmative nod from the old grandmother. She eyed the tube aperture.
She was just the perfect size.
Diving in, Terna felt the pressure of the pneumatic suction action yank on her suit and pull her up hard. It felt like flying. Up and up she went, in full darkness now.
To her surprise, the helmet of her suit remedied that quite easily, a full cast of floodlights casting out from just underneath her visor. She saw that there were yellow hash marks in the tubes indicating various locations.
And just above her was the ceiling, a sort of trap door hanging open just waiting to receive her.
She clanged against the ceiling, and the door snapped shut.
And a door clanged open. Two confused faces peered in, wearing white helmets with strange little radio antennas sticking out from above each eye.
“Who the hell are you?” one asked, reaching for a holster.
“Hands up,” the other commanded simultaneously.
Without really thinking about anything other than the fact that she didn’t recognize the uniforms, Terna swung her rifle butt around while activating a dose of Strength Battle brew. Her first strike knocked them back in surprise, kicking them away just far enough for her to make out all-white uniforms with gold insignia. But as the battle brew fizzed into her system, her second strike flung them clear across the room.
She hunched her way out of the tube opening, looking out into the madness of the outer world. Roger had said bunker, down below. But what she saw here was simply a ruin. It looked like a giant had stomped through, kicking the side of the reinforced concrete bunker in before stumbling off to do some other madness elsewhere.
Through the cracks and holes she saw dirt; above her she saw the blackness of a starry night. But there flickered orange and red flames, and doom.
And on the floor of the bunker lay the squished, jellied remains of the defenders. The bones remained, but the flesh lay sloughed off in foul-smelling piles that squeaked and squirted.
She stared at them unbelievingly. The BuyMort had come here. One of its demons had done this.
Unwittingly her eyes went to the soldiers she had flung across the room. Both stared vacantly into the ceiling, their necks at strange angles.
They were not good soldiers, she realized, seeing that their faces were smooth and young. About her age, but certainly they’d never been given the sort of training that Wizneber had given her. She sighed and picked her way around, looking for some means of exit.
No, that wasn’t right, she realized. She had to tell the armory to close all of their pipes. At least temporarily. She opened her comms and was surprised to see them working. But when she tried to ping Roger, then Crawley, then Horta and Zell, there was no answer.
Terna sighed, and grabbed a powdery white chunk of concrete she dipped her fingers in the remains of the defenders and used the goo to write a short message.
Danger. Close the tubes.
She shoved it into the aperture, fumbled around with the controls, then hit the right button. It was the same as the one she remembered them hitting back down on the bottom. Hopefully her package would go through.
Terna left the tube behind, her stage-one strength really pounding through her now, and she examined the wall closest to her. It was cracked and pin-holed all over. Putting both of her palms on it, she pushed, grunting her effort into the arctic air. A solid crack rewarded her efforts. The wall toppled outward and spilled out over the snowy ruinous landscape.
It was the first glimpse of the outside that she’d gotten in a month. She had no idea what this whole thing even looked like. When they’d mentioned bunkers before, she couldn’t imagine what they were.
And now she saw them. They were concrete pill boxes placed with the larger skeletons of the ruins of her people. Around her was the crumpled and burning frame of an old home, but the looks of things. The bunker had been put into the basement, its roof apparently even with the former first floor above. But that floor was well gone to pieces now, just a thin line of it remaining near the home’s edges.
And judging by the echoes and screams, the rest of them quite probably were as well.
She clambered out through the shattered hole and onto the edge nearest the front door, and grabbed a hold of its knob. The knob and the door fell to pieces at her initial turn, and she hunched down, peering around the door frame to the chaos of the outside.
The first thing that registered was that she was on a hill, affording her a horrific but informative view of the battle. Wherever she looked, she was greeted by utter pandemonium.
In the ruins of the city squads battled squads, some vehicles running support but mostly unable to move and battle freely due to the cramped and cluttered terrain. Overhead, an array of saucer shaped disks flew through the sky. So many that they filled the sky. They were firing rays and beams into energy shields that still rose and sparkled under their onslaught.
She looked back at the house she knelt in, understanding flooding through. The bunkers were being reduced from above by forces well more powerful than any of them had ever expected.
And they’d done something to the comms. Something that didn’t let the others open them up and send messages.
And yet, for whatever reason, it did not affect her.
The others couldn’t answer her, but unlike Roger below, she was able to login and send messages.
“NoMort,” she whispered, a thought beginning to trek its way through her. What conclusion it might have come to, though, was lost when she spotted a platoon of men cresting the side of her hill.
One of them, a somewhat pot-bellied man, held up a device and regarded it, then pointed at her.
“No signal! That’s her. Get the NoMort!” he yelled. He wore the same silly helmet that the two in the bunker had been wearing, but his uniform was more distinguished with ribbons of multiple colors in full display on his chest. Behind him were a dozen men, foolishly clumped together and all quite naive-looking and young.
She growled. Whatever the reason these younglings were here to wage war didn’t matter. They were part of those who had kaput her first tribe. And now they were after her second.
“For my village,” she roared, rearing back and slinging her rifle into place. The clear leader of the platoon dove to the snowy dirt below.
The ones behind him were not so lucky. The blast of the XMS-7 tore through three of their silhouettes, bursting each of them into screaming torched flame as it did so. A couple of powder shots rang out and Terna noticed that these ones were using pistols and bolt-action rifles.
Understanding lit her through. The men here, they were from the Storage. Or something like it. They were here without good weapons or training just so they could die and be replaced by more people from Storage.
A sob choked her chest.
“Get out!” she screamed. “Get the fuck out of here. Go back to your tribe! One chance!”
She monitored the figures and saw one leap up and take off running. She heard a curse, then saw the leader of the platoon aim his much-higher quality rifle and fire beams of red at the figures back. It tore through the fleeing Storage man, ending his life all over the melting, muddy ground.
Terna’s visor zeroed in on the man, providing her with the perfect targeting reticule. Small pressures here and there in her suit angled her into the same sight-picture as her last shot, and she felt her trigger release.
The leader’s head disappeared from his shoulders, a shower of cooked flesh splattering everywhere.
“Last chance!” she screamed, tears streaming down her face within the mask. The cruelty of this universe was in forcing her to kill people who didn’t want to be here. And forcing those people to do the same.
They got up and ran. And then one dropped to his knee and took a shot at her, the bullet tearing a gouge into the door frame. She took him in the shoulder, spinning him around as his body burst into flame and torqued him down the side of the hill.
Then she moved cautiously forward to the body of the leader. If comms worked for her, maybe she could call the leaders of this operation and come to an understanding.