Aurora’s Tale

By Tarot Barnes

With edits and advice by JH and Brantley

 

Editorial note: Aurora's Tale is presented here by the kind permission of Tarot Barnes. Five chapters were posted at Alternate Histories before he took his site down for a long hiatus, and four of those are mirrored in the first of three installments at The Bright Empire. But Tarot had completed edits on all but the last chapter, and offered advice on editing that last for presentation here. He also authorized further edits to the earlier chapters, which have been made in regard to matters of spelling, punctuation and style.

This was conceived as the origin story for Aurora Fairchild as she appeared in the Linith and Faré series at Alternate Histories (and hopefully, will again). But it could fit just as easily into the Aurora Universe 3 continuity, since it doesn't touch on the historical backstory of Alternate Histories. Above all, it is a fresh take on one of the classic characters of the AU. As Tarot puts it: "Ever since arriving on Earth, Aurora has been surly, rude to the other Velorians and condescending to Faré. What's more, and to the rising frustration of her erstwhile allies, she has steadfastly refused to explain how she killed the Tset'lar.

This is why..."

 --Brantley Thompson Elkins

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Seven months ago: Betah Stronberg

 

The fields leading to the city had once been green. Only a few weeks before it would have been possible to stand in the hip length grass and see nothing but billowing viridian waves for as far as the eye could track. People had joked that they felt they were the only ones on the planet when standing in those endless acres. This despite being less than an hour’s walk from O Império Brilhante, the planet’s second city.

Now the green had been replaced with the brown, black and red of war. The once lush savannah had been scarified on the altar of combat, its soils poisoned by gunpowder and meadows reduced to sparse patches of stringy brown weeds by incessant shelling. Between the islands of dying plants the seas of mud were stoically guarded by the empty carcasses of warrior machines and the men and women who’d fought along side them.

What remained of the fields had been surrendered to a vast network of trenches that extended from one end of the ex-savannah to the very edge of the city boundaries. Within and above them the city’s warriors fought a desperate battle against the encroaching enemy, using every resource they possessed to stem the black tide.

Yet the tide continued onwards. The opening days had been filled with small, almost cautious battles that were really little more than skirmishes as the enemy probed the city’s weaknesses. That had changed almost overnight. When the real attack began the defenders quickly realized that what victories they’d wrested from the enemy were just the opening gambits in a much vaster strategy.

The city had held its ground for a day. Even as the divisions multiplied and casualties mounted, even as the city itself was ruined to the point where it barely deserved the name, the defenders held the black suited legions at bay.

But the tide turned and the enemy crashed down on the defenders like a wave. Now the dawn of the eighth day was barely over, and already a quarter of the trench network had been overrun, driving the defenders into frantic retreat.

As the soldiers died in the trenches, the Landwarriors above them were directed to fire upon the densest portions of Aurean advance, hoping to do in numbers what was impossible for them as individuals. Yet even as he gave the order, Comandante Alexandre Álvaro knew that, as over reliant as his enemy was upon its infantry, his armor was next to useless against them. The largest of his combat vehicles found it impossible to do more than inconvenience the Primes racing towards him, and would have been lucky to be considered a danger by their opposites in the Imperial mechanized corps.

Furthermore he couldn’t escape the inherent weaknesses in his forces. Made slow by their thick shells, and unable to maneuver in any case for fear of hurting the entrenched troops, Alexandre had to concede the only thing his Landwarriors brought to the battle were their cannons.

Before the war, Alexandre had possessed an entire division of the most advanced Landwarriors on his planet. Now, six months after the Aurean “negotiations” had failed, he had been reduced to a mere four hundred, none of which was more than three months old and all of which were already in such desperate need of repair that some had actually had to suffer the indignity of being towed into position.

Surveying the field, observing the smoke that flowed over the desecrated ground like sick fog and trembled with each shell burst, Alexandre didn’t recognize any of the faces poking out of the neighboring ’warriors. Somewhere along the line, he knew, there would be three or four that were familiar, but he hadn’t known the rest long enough for them to form any lasting impressions The attrition of war, either enemy action or simple reassignment, meant that he would never see his old comrades again.

At least he’d seen his last command; more than three quarters of his Landwarriors were now controlled by people who existed, at least to him, only on paper. He’d never seen the majority of his mixed regiment and chances were he never would; they’d either already been on station before his ninety-eight Landwarrior “battalion” hobbled across the savannah, or limped in afterwards.

It had been a surprise, albeit not one as great as he might have wished, to find he was the most senior officer present. Despite the urgency of the situation, Command simply had not been able to get anyone more senior than a Battalion Controller into place. And not for lack of trying; the Aureans had a terrifying knack for knowing the movements of staff officers.

More explosions roared, this time not cannon fire but hideous tinny bangs, much like a teakettle exploding -- and the Comandante knew the Aureans had begun their murder anew.

Aureans, even Betans, didn’t like or trust Landwarriors. To a species that thought it was indestructible, the idea of wrapping yourself in metal was just asking for trouble; inside your metal shell you were slow moving and vulnerable. The only reason they used Landwarriors at all was because of their ability to carry larger weapons, and even then they only deployed what, under other circumstances, Alexandre would have considered criminally deficient numbers.

Unfortunately that deficiency only spoke to the qualitative superiority his opponents enjoyed; even in ridiculously small numbers, the Aurean ’Warriors were more than capable of decimating any opponent they came across. It had once been said that a Landwarrior controlled any territory that fell under its gaze. The Aureans had changed that, since all too often the first sign of an Aurean vehicle was the sight of a Porturegan Landwarrior brewing up as it was struck by a shell from an enemy sitting – or, more likely, racing – over the next hill.

In addition to their lethal accuracy and unbelievable range, the vehicles were protected by advanced armors and energy shields. Rumor stated that it took fifteen well-placed human Landwarriors to destroy a single Aurean vehicle, but Alexandre Álvaro placed his personal estimate at around seventeen or eighteen. It wasn’t just that the Aurean ’Warriors were tough; they were smart as well. Like every soldier the Empire had sent to this world, their crews were professionals, with skills hardened by a lifetime of war.

Unlike their Porturegan counterparts….

Alexandre ducked lower into his cupola as more Landwarriors blew apart, scoring their surroundings with lethal shards of white hot metal Even in their attack the Aureans showed their contempt for fighting vehicles. Instead of firing on any target that came to bear, they methodically annihilated the ’Warriors in order of their threat assessment, taking out the least damaged first and working down from there.

Even as he ordered another volley into the Aurean ranks, Álvaro wondered where his vehicle was on that list and if he’d be lucky enough to be killed outright, or be cursed to a lifetime as one of the innumerable walking wounded.

Raising his head once again, he felt something flatten his hair against his skull and heard a section of city wall behind him collapse as something exploded against it. Álvaro instinctively ducked deeper into his cupola, raising his head after a few seconds only far enough to slowly sweep his gaze across the field, searching for whatever had shot at him.

He found it in the form of a Betan detachment armed with shoulder-mounted missiles. Silently thanking the Fair Child for his deliverance – had the shell struck, it would have left little more than a hole where his Landwarrior now stood – he ordered the left cannon around and shook with his vehicle as it ripped the Aureans apart.

Yet the armor hadn’t stopped clinking from the vibrations before his attention was diverted by the sound of torn air and sight of dark shadows whipping across the field. Even before he turned his head to the skies, he knew it wasn’t their relief. The sound was too quiet, barely a whisper despite being practically over his head. Only Aurean Airskirmishers were that silent, and he turned his gaze towards the city, watching the fleeting form pull up sharply, its payload of bombs visible only in the destruction it brought to entire streets.

A few native aircraft gave valiant chase to the alien bomber, one even managed to bounce a few cannon rounds off of its shields, but quickly gave up when the Aureans’ guns reduced half their number to ash. Unlike the surface-crawling Landwarriors, the Aurean ’Skirmishers had energy weapons like those mounted upon their spacecraft and weren’t shy about using them.

Many had speculated, even argued and pleaded that it was suicide to continue a campaign against an opponent with such terrifying advantages, both in experience and technology. The Aurean Empire had studied their planet for decades before invading, it had even infiltrated their society and slowly subverted it, priming them for the “Negotiators”-- who arrived in vacuum warcraft and whose only task was to issue an ultimatum: “Surrender, or die.”

Alexandre shook his head. To him it didn’t matter what terms the Aureans offered, or even if they offered them at all. He didn’t care that his leaders had ordered, “Not one step backwards,” because he would have resisted anyway. As far as he was concerned, he had already received his orders from a higher source. She had told his planet about the evils of the Aurean Empire and Alexandre had listened.

Intellectually the Comandante knew She didn’t need reverence; that she’d even begged not to be worshipped. But like so many of his people, Alexandre ignored her because he could only describe her actions in terms of divine intervention. Her celestial physique aside, the Fair Child might as well have admitted her goddesshood when she declared her people were sired by the Ancient Ones themselves. After all, were not her abilities impossible? Had the scientists not said that what she did was impossible? Had it not been those fantastic powers that had kept defeat at bay for months now?

No, she had done more than that. She’d been the only effective weapon his people had against the Aureans. Everything else in their inventory had to struggle just to stall the Aurean forces, if they were lucky, until She arrived.

…Not, he was reluctant to admit, that she was likely to arrive any time soon. Sightings of the Fair Child were rare lately. Ever since the Tset’lar had arrived, the Fair Child had almost disappeared, materializing only fleetingly in the wake of another Aurean attack.

Without her, casualties and losses had risen to unbelievable levels.

Álvaro didn’t like to dwell on such matters. Soldiers who spent long periods of time thinking about defeat didn’t survive very long. Instead he concentrated on the warmth thoughts of the Fair Child always brought.

With Her image in his mind, the world always seemed simpler, more manageable. The Aureans seemed less like omnipotent demons and more like what they were; soldiers on the wrong side of the field.

And they were far from undefeatable, the Fair Child herself had shown them how to exploit the Aureans’ weaknesses, to play to their arrogance, to make them believe in your “inferiority” and, above all else, look to the Betans.

The Betans were the Aureans’ major strength and weakness. Not only did they fuel, maintain and repair the Aurean vehicles, they also made up ninety-nine soldiers in every hundred. And it was there that they fell short, for if you plucked at them enough times, even a rifleman would find the gaps in their body armor and then there’d be one less Aurean to worry about.

Peering over the lip of his cupola once again, Álvaro saw the Prime unit he’d ordered fired upon smashed, or at the very least, dispersed. Knowing that it would take them a few moments to reorganize themselves, he could begin to put his guns to real good.

Re-aiming the turrets for a shallow trajectory, Alexandre gave the order and, even though there was no actual difference between this volley and the last, he imagined it sounded louder, more triumphant than the rounds he’d sent against the Primes.

The results were certainly more effective. Great gaps suddenly appeared in the sea of bodies as countless Betans were blown away by the high-density shrapnel their bodies, even protected by full armor, reduced to little more than a red mist.

Still smiling, Álvaro ordered another volley, this one aimed high so the canisters would explode above the enemy and shower them with round shot. Each piece of shrapnel was all the more lethal for, even if it didn’t strike an Aurean, it would lie in wait until it could deprive some poor Imperial of his foot. Another volley, and then another rained death amongst soldiers forced to bunch together as they entered the trenches, or wade across the muddy sea. Entire companies were decimated and the flow incrementally slowed as the Betans abandoned their advance in favor of cover on the open plains.

Alexandre was halfway through redirecting his command’s fire once again when the front third of his Landwarrior exploded in flame. Superheated gasses from the shaped warhead instantly flooded the lower compartment, not so much crushing as imploding his driver and the gunner before consuming their remains in a firestorm. The only thing that kept the Comandante alive was the fact modern ’warriors were compartmentalized for exactly this reason.

His vehicle disabled and crew dead, Álvaro knew he only had seconds before the heating element at the core of the Aurean shell reduced his Landwarrior to slag. Scrabbling out of the armored cupola and down one rapidly warming side, Alexandre jumped the last meter to the ground, rolled in the mud and ran for the nearest trench. Aurean infantry fire carved the ground before him, cutting off his means of escape and forcing him to flee for a brick wall no higher than his knees.

A thunderous explosion shook the ground as the Aurean shell blew the barely recognizable remains of his Landwarrior into a hundred thousand pieces of shrieking, white hot shrapnel. Álvaro felt two blows to his back and went down screaming.

By sheer luck he fell into the burnt-out shell of what had once been someone’s home, and it was only the scarcest memory of hard-won experience that made him roll aside and give the Aureans a smaller target to shoot at through the wall.

For tense seconds golden orange beams burned effortlessly through the brick and mortar, passed centimeters from Álvaro’s body and vanished in the depths of the ruins. Alexandre felt the very sweat on his brow boil, and smelled the torn, muddied remains of his uniform char, yet that was as close as the lethal rays came. Eventually the marksmen gave up, either assuming their target was dead, or finding something more worthwhile to shoot at.

Lying prostrate and paralyzed by the pain, Alexandre fought to perform a rough self-diagnostic. The first hit, he realized, had struck either in, or just below his left kidney. While agonizing, and without medical assistance, undoubtedly lethal, he could live with it for a while. The second strike was more deadly as it had hit him dead center in the socket of his right arm.

As he lay there, choking on dust, trapped in a bombed out house with only a half-meter wall between him and his next life, the screams of his countrymen filling the air, explosions laying waste to the street around him, Alexandre closed his eyes and prayed.

“Please,” he half thought, half begged, “Protector. If you are out there, if never before, we need you now. Please!

But no one responded. No one answered his prayers and no one came.

At least not from the air.

Over there, do you see him?

See who?

“There, in the ruins. Someone’s alive.

A third voice answered, “Nothing could live in there.

Really? Look closer!

Fair Child, is he still alive?” The second speaker hissed.

He’s still breathing.

Turning his head slowly, the Comandante peered towards the voices but could see only burning smoke and piles of bricks.

Okay, covering fire. Fifteen seconds of restricted bursts towards that AM-RaC. Give us ten seconds to get out there and wait for our signal. See if you can distract that AT-110 while you are at it.

A few moments afterwards Alexandre could see exactly where his saviors were and, from the intensity of the automatic bursts, even make out the expression on their faces.

The next few seconds were a blur of strobe lighting as four men and one woman -- militia, not regular army from their uniforms -- made a frantic dash across the killing grounds, dove into the ruins beside him and started unloading bullets into whichever Aurean thought he’d found a juicy target.

While the woman and three of the men crawled forward to take up firing positions, the fourth man crouched low over the Álvaro’s body and began inspecting his wounds.

“Where you hurt?” he asked gruffly.

“My shoulder.” Alexandre winched as he tried to indicate the injury without actually moving. “And my side… my kidney.”

The medic simply nodded and quickly rolled him over, causing his patient to scream in agony. “Fucking hell! What are you trying to do, kill me?”

The outburst only earned him an impassive grunt from the man above. “Y’ want to get fixed or not?” The medic started pulling something from his pack. “Now stay still and let me see what I can do.”

Against the wall, the woman -- her markings said she was group leader -- shouted. “HĎimer, whatever you are doing. Move it!

“Just give me a sec will yah!” HĎimer yelled back. To his patient he warned, “This is going to hurt for a bit, but it will let y’ move,” before injecting half a vial of grey goo into Alexandre’s shoulder and the other half into his kidney.

For Álvaro it was as if acid had been poured on wounds, yet as the medic promised, the pain lost its edge and let him move again.

Slapping a patch over the injections, HĎimer gripped Álvaro’s good arm and heaved him to his feet. But before they could make it, both became aware of the woman yelling something.

“…Told them to take care of that RaC. Everybody down!” She screamed as a flurry of crimson bursts pummeled the building, bringing down what remained of its walls and tearing into their group.

Mud and white powder exploded from each impact. The ground shuddered, bricks splintered, entire walls collapsed and the street filled with heavy, cloying dust so thick that even the Aurean gunner couldn’t tell what was going on.

For those he’d fired upon the entire landscape had changed.

No one was on their feet. Of the four who’d been seeking shelter behind the wall, one was obviously dead. Even had a burst not decapitated him, his chest and lower abdomen had been laid open to his shattered spinal column. Two more, another man and the woman, were lying near where the Aurean cannon had torn their pathetic barricade apart. There was no sign of the fourth man.

Álvaro sensed movement and looked up to see the medic hovering over him, an expression of pure horror on his blood soaked face as he looked at the remains of his companions. Slowly at first, then faster, he began to back away.

“Wait!” Alexandre called weakly after him. “Wait for me. I am not dead!”

HĎimer didn’t hear him, with eyes so wide it was surprising they didn’t fall from their sockets, he turned and ran at a dead sprint back toward the trenches.

The moment he stepped from the ruins, Aurean GAR fire danced around him, turning the air into a horizontal murder. For a second it looked to Alexandre as if he might make it, and then an energy stream sliced downwards, severing the medic’s arm above the elbow.

To HĎimer’s credit, he didn’t stop running. Even with his lifeblood streaming down his side, adrenaline, or simply instinct kept his legs moving until a second cascade of beams turned his body into a butchers shop of assorted meat.

Alexandre Álvaro was alone once again.

 

* * *

 

“Hey buddy… you alive?”

Alexandre, careful to keep his profile as small as possible, rolled over and towards the blasted wall and what he’d assumed were two corpses. To his great surprise one of them was inching towards him on its elbows.

“Yeah.” He nodded. “Just about.”

“Can you move?” The figure asked in a remarkably clear voice considering its face was practically burnt off.

Seeing the brilliant streams of GAR’s tearing into the front lines and hearing the whistle of Aurean bombs collapsing Brilhante’s proud spires, Alexandre found himself nodding. “I had better.”

“Good.” Still keeping close to the ground, the figure crept closer; as it did Alexandre realized it was a man. “Because if one of their Airskirmishers sees us, we are going to get a fingernail.”

Fingernails were standard Aurean antipersonnel devices. Resembling their namesakes in size and shape, the amount of devastation they could bring was staggering. A handful could devastate a company. Though they were usually dropped by the kilogram, it was common for an Aurean pilot to release a couple if they saw stragglers at the edge of a battle.

Glancing back to the other figure that had to be the woman, Álvaro asked: “What about your group leader?”

The man didn’t look around. “She’s gone.”

Glancing back, Alexandre suddenly saw what he couldn’t before. While most of her body had escaped the bombardment, half the woman’s face had been burned right down to the bone and a single disgustingly white eyeball stared blankly out towards the enemy.

“Fair Child!” Alexandre breathed, he was no stranger to the “glory” of battle, but it still struck him to see a woman on the receiving end.

“You are a Believer?” The soldier asked almost conversationally as he shouldered his weapon. “Never could get into that myself.” Seeing the Aurean bombardment lull, he spoke something into his radio and, after receiving an answer, nodded towards the trench. “Hope HĎimer patched you up right because this is as good a time as any. Get going.”

Alexandre tried to get up but the moment he tried to move his arm his body was wracked with pain. Shaking his head, he motioned for the man to run. “I can not do it. Go on, save yourself.”

The soldier shook his charred head looked at him incredulously. “Are you kidding?”

“No.” Unused to having his orders disobeyed, Álvaro faltered. “I can not move and carrying me would only slow you down. Four people have already died; you do not need to join them.”

“You want me to throw away their sacrifice by abandoning the person they gave their lives to save?” The soldier made it sound like a capital offence. “And who said anything about carrying you? You are going to walk and I am going to support you.”

“It makes no sense,” the Comandante complained as the soldier gripped him under his good arm and pulled him to his feet.

“Why? Even an Aurean will go after a fallen comrade.”

Alexandre couldn’t disagree with that. The Aureans might have marched across the face of the planet, but through it all, the people had stuck together. Even here, faced with unimaginably superior firepower and a city that had been bombed, shelled, shot, blasted, and mortared virtually to rubble, the citizens were still marching up to the lines to preserve their way of life, if only for a couple of minutes.

The Aureans stepped up their offensive as the pair stumbled towards their destination. More aircraft dropped below the low clouds to rip into the city, either pummeling it with missiles, or extinguishing entire streets with their bomb payloads. Aurean Landwarriors, their competition destroyed, now turned their fire from the defense lines to the city buildings, raking them with explosive shells and energy cannons. Not a hundred meters away the last mobile gun was obliterated as two whole Prime companies overran the front lines.

Soil showered around the pair’s ears as a misaimed shell went wild and struck close by. The hiss of GAR’s and the sizzle of rising steam grew louder as more and more lethal energy extinguished itself in the mud around them. Both soldiers stumbled as a wall collapsed, crushing an antique window and showering them in flying splinters that tore at their muddy uniforms and cut their skin. Bombs and shrapnel shook the battlefield and it seemed as if the entire city was screaming as it died around them.

Finally, never more than a couple of steps from death, the soldier and the Comandante made one last heroic leap into the deep trenches.

Fortunately for Alexandre, HĎimer’s injections had had their full effect by the time they made that last jump; otherwise the eight-foot drop into the dark earth would have left him comatose with pain.

As it was, the leap merely left him feeling as if he’d finally torn his arm out of its socket, as well as both legs, his pelvis and a number of ribs.

Within the trench the sounds of the war were muted, transformed into something unearthly, almost as if they were happening on another world. The realities of war shattered that comfortable illusion at birth; the muddy walls shook with every shell burst and broken topsoil rained down from what seemed to be an unending series of explosions. As if that wasn’t enough, the sharp clatter of Porturegan machine guns wasn’t hushed in the least and served as a constant reminder of the fact that what had been the rear to mid-line trenches were very quickly becoming the front as Aurean soldiers overran their defenses.

Lying in the mud, Alexandre’s savior raised his head and asked. “You said you were a Believer?” Alexandre nodded. “Well if I were you, I would start praying for Her presence right now.”

“You think I have not?”

“No, I mean,” the soldier jabbed one finger emphatically at the ground, “as in we need her here, now.”

Álvaro was about to ask what it was about this moment that made it more urgent than any other since the war had began, when a runner, her uniform brown with the mud, ran into view. Tripping over a corpse, the woman didn’t even pause while delivering her message; she simply scrambled to her feet and shouted as she ran.

“The front is gone! Command says grab your gun and retreat into the city. Make the Aureans pay for every meter!”

Strangely, this did not cause instant chaos. Despite the terror the Aureans were trying to inflict, the retreat still bore the resemblance of organization as soldiers fired briefly over the heads of their colleagues, gave up their positions and fell back while they themselves were covered in a staggered pattern that ran across the entire length of the trench.

For an instant Alexandre was proud of his people for that dedication, their willingness to sacrifice for another person. Then he felt pressure on his arm and saw the soldier tugging at him once again.

“You want to wait for the Aureans? We have got to get out of here!”

Álvaro nodded and climbed to his feet. Intellectually he knew he should be watching his movements because the lack of pain didn’t mean he wasn’t damaging himself but that thought was suppressed by the survival instinct, which reminded him, in emphatic language, that it wouldn’t matter what shape his insides were in if the Aureans caught up with him.

Even as he began to retreat, another voice, even louder than his screaming instinct was another voice. It asked just one question over and over.

“Where is She?”

 

Chapter 2

 

The other side of the world.

 

The entire region was alive with moss. In place of grass, giant setas stretched knee high into the air, waving delicate fronds in the wind and presenting a soft, rippling sea of lavender further than the eye could see.

From above the land appeared vast and flat. Occasional ripples in the form of hills or mountains could be seen, but beneath the moss carpet anything less massive was obscured and amalgamated into a single amorphous sheet.

The largest of these ridges stretched the breadth of the continent. In this one area the violet hue lost its hold and a thin crack appeared where sheer cliffs denied even the moss a foothold.

Over the millennia the range had stood as the region’s primary line of defense. Even when the power of flight had been mastered and danger was no longer confined to the ground, the mountains and their harsh and unforgiving air currents had provided a more than adequate layer of defense.

Through this granite wall the plum carpet had managed to colonize only three passageways. In times past two of straits had been barricaded by a succession of embankments and bulwarks that, in recent times, the Aureans had taken great pleasure in taking apart, brick by brick.

The third passage took the form of a wide, gently sloping ravine. At some point in its history there had been a great wall here also, but the extended peace had proved more destructive than any siege as the town growing in its shadow gradually ate away at the barrier that had nurtured its birth.

Deep within the deceptively steep valley basin, a small cloud of earth and moss rose skywards.

Half a second latter the town was shaken to its foundations by the shockwave.

 

* * *

 

Aurora Fairchild glared at her opponent from the pit she’d been driven into.

Grinning triumphantly, Tala’Aerie licked a drop of blood from the corner of her mouth. Aurora shuddered; the blood didn’t belong to the Tset’lar.

“You actually managed to injure me, Fair Child?” Tala dabbed the crimson splatter and glanced at her fingers. “Perhaps not. A shame, because any injury at all would have been a vast improvement over any of your previous attacks.”

Aurora tried, and failed, not to grimace through the pain of a broken jaw and missing tooth. After such a pounding over so long a time, even the Virago’s body had yielded somewhat but, despite the agony flaring through every limb and organ, the Tset’lar’s words managed to strike a nerve. Much to the Virago’s dismay, they weren’t an idle boast. If the small spray of blood droplets crawling down the Tset’lar’s face had indeed belonged to the Aurean, they really would have been the worst injury Aurora had inflicted.

Seeing the Aurean floating above her, supremely confident in her victory, Aurora knew exactly what she should do with the perfect opportunity for a sneak attack presented.

She did precisely nothing, except shift slightly so her ribs would stop aching so much. From painful experience Aurora had learned just how quick the Tset’lar’s reflexes were; Tala might appear relaxed and nonchalant, but it would take her a split second to react and bat away any strike Aurora could make.

Obviously I’m going to have to ask that they rewrite the books – again – about the correct approach to dealing with a Tset’lar, Aurora thought grimly.

That was the primary reason Aurora didn’t try and exploit the incredibly tempting opening. The secondary was that she simply couldn’t find the strength.

For almost a month she’d fought the Aurean. Their battles had been waged on and over all three continents, Aurora had grabbed perhaps a few hours sleep in the last fortnight and been forced to ignore the helpless pleas of those she’d sworn to protect. Her bones ached from the times they’d been broken and reset, her muscles burned raw from the strain of supporting the continued war and her senses were dulled by the lack of rest. Worse, her energy levels, which popular – and personal – belief said were indomitable, were flagging. After so long, Aurora could barley lift her head, let alone contemplate launching another assault.

“Go ahead,” she gasped in Aurean. “Finish it and another will replace me.”

Hands on hips, Tala burst out laughing. “And will she surrender as easily as you have? You’re meant to be the best of the Enlightenment’s Viragos, Fair Child, and I’ve beaten you in a few short weeks. No,” she corrected herself, eyes narrowing, “I’ve beaten you in one battle!” Still roaring with laughter, she shook her head, “How little you understand my kind.”

“You’re an Aurean.” Aurora rolled over, spitting a mouthful of blood onto the moss. “You’re all the same; all you want is death and destruction.”

“And power.” The Tset’lar’s eyes glowed lavender, singeing the Virago with the suggestion of hard radiation. “Isn’t that something else your people say about mine?”

Aurora didn’t dignify that with a response, Tala continued unperturbed.

“What I find strange however, is that in all this time, in all the thousands of years our two races have been at odds – isn’t that another peculiarity; we never got around to calling this a war? – your glorious Enlightenment has never seen that we, Aurean and Velorian, both have the same goal? We both desire peace and order throughout the galaxy, we both wish to end the blood that so many of our humans shed in their needless wars. It’s only our methods that differ; Velorians prefer to hope their example is enough, while we favor more… stringent methods of control.”

Had Tala spoken without a smirk on her face, Aurora might have believed her. Instead she answered.

“You mean you like to massacre humans like cattle.”

Tala shrugged. “Only the weak. It’s a kindness really; with our viral technology it’s not like they feel anything when we uh, we cull the herd.”

“You call that a kindness!” Aurora spat, rubbing her aching jaw as her overtaxed immune system finally got around to knitting it.

“Compared to other methods we could choose, compared to some of the ‘techniques’ they themselves have come up with?” Tala’s eyebrows rose in genuine surprise: “Believe me, putting them to sleep is very  kind. And, really, what do a few million matter in a population of billions?”

“To those millions? Everything.” Aurora answered, slowly crawling out of the hole, every bone buzzing with pain.

“But we improve the species as a whole,” the Tset’lar simply shrugged and floated above the Virago.

“More people have died from their own pollution than from anything we will, or have, done to them. Before we came along and started upgrading their technology, your Protectorates were killing themselves with fluorocarbons and petrochemicals. Now look at them; those people under our jurisdiction have health care, efficient waste management and renewable energy. By contrast the Porturegans you’ve prevented us from accessing live in squalor, have to choke on the fumes generated by the combustion engines of their war machine and pay for chemicals that only alleviate pain instead of cure their illnesses.”

All appearance of joviality fled from Tala’s face as she dropped to within a few feet of Aurora. “As hard it might be for you to admit, we’re doing a better job of protecting these people than you are. I mean, you have to see that we’re the best thing to have happened to this world? We might some take millions during the annexation, and a few more in the purges, but if we weren’t here they’d be killing each other just the same.”

Pure burning furry forced Aurora to her feet; “Until you came these people hadn’t fought a war in a hundred and fifty years!

“Who said anything about war?” Tala asked bobbing innocently in the air. “The corporations were well on the way to bringing this planet down long before we arrived. Dumping pollution, over harvesting resources, bribing politicians, consolidating profits over people? All these factors add up, Aurora; our pre-invasion analysts estimated that without our help in the next twenty years, fifty million people would die from curable diseases. With our technology – with your technology for that matter – creating vaccines and cures is the work of a few hours.”

“What’s your point?” Aurora asked warily; her energies were returning but she wasn’t yet ready to stage her next attack.

“Quite simply my dear Fair Child.” Tala paused just long enough to remind the Virago of the honorific her protectorates insisted upon using. “If we kill ten million in this war, Skietra, if we kill twenty million, yet cure those diseases we save thirty million lives. And that doesn’t even begin to address the millions we’ll save by clearing up the ecological damage and pollution they’ve created.”

“If you continue to fight” -- Tala jabbed Aurora hard in the chest -- “and if you somehow defeat us, then you might as well kill those fifty million yourself. It’ll be kinder in the long term. What’s more, if you do push us off the planet those five million who’ve died already will have done so for nothing.”

The cold logic of the numbers slid into place in Aurora’s mind. She knew that they weren’t simply idle ruminations or theoretical projections, the Aurean Empire really had done such wonders for the worlds it’d conquered. She was also aware that her world had not performed any such miracles, except to gift planets with Protectors, because Velor did believe in leading by example. It pained her in ways she couldn’t properly articulate to admit that; her instincts screamed for her to coddle her planet, to demand that her government cure its illnesses and clean up its environment, but she also knew not to indulge that seductive voice too much.

Humans should not learn to rely on her species like those in Aurean controlled space did. If for no other reason, she’d seen the speciation that could spawn from such reliance. The Aureans called that subspecies, Guíse: “Pets.”

Guíse were an extreme example, of course, and even the Aureans occasionally admitted it had been a mistake to allow humans to evolve along that path; but what they did to the rest of their captive population was little better.

The irony was that Tala had been right; Velorian and Aurean aims were identical. They both wanted to nurture the human species, but their methods couldn’t be more different. Velor believed it was better to stand back and allow humanity to evolve naturally, except when truly exceptional circumstances -- like, for example, an Aurean invasion -- demanded intervention.

Aurea didn’t.

Aurea thought that direct intervention was the best way to improve humanity. They stopped at direct genetic manipulation, thankfully; but as Tala had freely admitted, thought nothing of killing millions to save humanity from itself. It didn’t matter whether this was during the initial occupation or when they improved the gene pool by simply euthanizing those with truly incurable diseases… or blonde hair. So far as Aurora was aware, the Aureans had never justified that particular decision.

Yet concern for their welfare was not the only reason the Empire hungered after her Protectorate; it needed them. Maintaining a civilization as vast as theirs was expensive, and as prolific as the Aureans were, even they couldn’t hope to manage the untold billions of humans in the galaxy by themselves.

Especially not when humans were so much better at it than they were.

It wouldn’t be a cruel exploitation; the Aureans had long since learned they got a better per capita return if humans actually liked their captors. The sad thing was that it actually worked… most of the time. To a civilization as vast as the Empire, it was nothing to buy off its conquered peoples with comfortable lives, especially when most of the tools to that end could be constructed locally.

In return for the high initial cost, the Empire got the resources of an entire planet and a workforce numbers in the tens of millions.

But they wouldn’t care for them, not as Aurora and the rest of her race would. At least she hoped not; it was hard enough to think of the purges Tala had mentioned without imagining that the people committing them might do it out of some kind of love.

And purges were just only the most visible aspect of the damage they inflicted; the Empire also wounded their humans in ways that were impossible to quantify. Early on Aurean academics had realized that change equaled chaos, and chaos was obviously contrary to well being.

And because of that decision, regardless of what they spouted, the Aureans were ultimately the greatest hypocrites the galaxy had ever known.

Ultimately, they had no intention of truly nurturing humanity. They might be able to justify “strengthening” humanity – if that was the word for slaughtering anyone who didn’t conform to Aurean ideals. But to nurture something meant allowing it to grow and the Aureans caused stagnation on every world they touched. The situation was so bad, Aurora knew, that worlds captured during the Empire’s formation three thousand years previously hadn’t changed since.

Again, three thousand years had made the Aureans almost sickeningly successful. In areas such as culture, where some movement was not only necessary, but also impossible to avoid, allowances were made although only so that it served their purposes. The humans, with their short lifespans, couldn’t see it, but over the course of centuries it was obvious that fashions, styles and trends were being turned through one large endless cycle.

No one was publicly restricted from expressing themselves – studies revealed that such obvious shows of repression led to unacceptably high levels of dissension – at least not so long as they didn’t cause outrage. But vogues could be created simply by ensuring that certain artists or designers (generally those that relied on past fashions for inspiration) received more attention than those that showed true originality.

Murder, subjugation and endless stagnation was the fate waiting for the Porturegans if they lost this war. It was the reason Aurora stood proud before her enemy and why her voice had such authority now.

“If they die, at least they die free.”

Tala snorted decisively and spat on the blood soaked moss.

“Freedom? It’s an overrated lie. Just how ‘free’ are they, Aurora? How free are you for that matter? You are ‘free’ to patrol this planet. You are ‘free’ to live and die amongst weak, short-lived humans. And finally, if you are lucky enough to survive your tenure, you are ‘free’ to return home and pine away your last days as a bureaucrat within the Protector Council.”

She waited just long enough.

“Assuming your injuries have not, by that point, precluded even such minimal activities.”

It was Aurora’s turn to snort.

“Those are just the requirements of any civilization upon its chosen few. I might ask what… ‘Freedoms’ the Empire places upon you? Eternal battle? The autonomy to die on any world of their choosing? The liberty to swear devotion to an Emperor you’ll never meet, or the sovereignty emplaced upon your genes, your desires, by the geneticists who made you?”

Tala yawned.

“And you were doing so well. Really, Fair Child, falling back upon genetics? Even if you didn’t belong to one of the most infamously engineered castes of the Galaxy’s most recognizably artificial species, it would be a bad defense. What do you think happens among ordinary Aureans when a man and woman couple in hope of producing a child? Even before they get into bed a thousand, a hundred thousand selective processes have taken place to determine that child’s future.

“Strength, height, hair shade” -- Aureans were universally dark haired so shade was the only variable left to them -- “intelligence, personality. They’re all factors narrowed down before their child is ever conceived. I’ll admit the probability of any one particular trait being manifested aren’t as certain as in either of our kind, and the failure rate is considerably higher, but ultimately it’s just a more primitive version of the system that produced us.

“How is that dissimilar from the way our parents – our real parents, those who worked in laboratories and white coats – selected which of our genes would manifest? The only difference between us” -- she waved her finger between herself in the air and the Virago on the ground -- “is evolution; I’m a daughter of the new regime, one which designs its warriors from the molecule up, while you belong to a system which still requires the more primitive methods of physical and emotional selection between two statistically random adults.”

“It is that union between ‘statistically random adults’ that gives us our strength.” Aurora said coldly. “The love of our parents makes us unique and fully actualized individuals. Your computer controlled conception robs you of something you’ll never understand.”

“Love?” Tala cocked her head. “You think we have no love? You think we have no concept of that emotion? Do you know nothing about us!? Our emotions, our passions are what make us strong! Can you honestly believe that the Aurean Empire would spend a century developing us, invest the resources of whole planets, entire legions of warriors and thousands of its best scientists in a project, only to allow it to fall flat because they forgot we needed emotion in order to function!?”

Despite herself, Aurora stepped back at the Tset’lar’s unexpected fury. It was a new development; in all of her previous encounters the Aurean had never taken anything, except the Virago’s humiliation, personally.

Yet even as she watched, Aurora saw the anger vanish from her nemesis’s face as easily as a cloud fled from the sun. Giving the Velorian the bored look of a child tiring of a new toy, Tala somersaulted head over heels away from the Virago. Aurora tensed to pursue, but found it unnecessary since the Tset’lar had moved barely a few inches and was now beaming down at her.

Though she was careful to maintain a steely exterior – showing weakness before an Aurean was like waving bloody meat before a Kintzi – Aurora inwardly cringed. That smile meant Tala was about to launch an entirely different type of attack.

Leaning forward in midair and lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, Tala asked. “Do you want to know the real reason why I’ve been fighting you?”

No answer, Aurora could feel her muscles bunching in preparation.

“Not interested? Well I’ll tell you anyway, it’s quite simple really. Ridiculously obvious if you think about it – which, as your continued presence reveals, you obviously haven’t.”

Still Aurora remained silent, biding her time, and her strength, for the assault to come.

Tala appeared almost affronted by her silence. “Are you sure you don’t want to even make a guess?” she probed. “It’s not what you think.”

Aurora twitched slightly, not in response to the Tset’lar’s words but so as to better position herself. Deep within her muscles, she could feel the power building, feeding upon itself like a primitive beast gorging on her renewed strength.

Really sure?” Tala teased, a grin switching her lips. “Not a clue why I might have decided to tease out these last few battles instead of merely, I don’t know, beating you to death and conquering this planet?”

Aurora tensed one last time. Just a few more seconds! She fixed her eyes on the Aurean and tried not to smile, That’s all I need…

“I wanted to distract you!”

Every iota of tension, every joule of power that’d been building inside Aurora’s body was suddenly released in a sudden sharp shock that shot up her spine like the crack of a whip. It was only through a supreme act of will that she could bring herself to gasp. “What do you mean?”

With each word she’d spoken, Tala had been raising herself higher and higher above the valley. From her new vantage point she looked down at the white dot superimposed upon the lavender pasture and sneered, “Is your knowledge of Aurean that poor? I’d heard Velor’s educational standards were slipping but never believed it till now. I wanted to distract you, Aurora, so that you are where I want, rather than where you’re needed. It’s not a difficult concept.”

“But… why?” Aurora asked, almost praying that the Tset’lar had arranged an ambush; at worst that would mean only her death.

Tala’s voice dripped with sugar, “Because, my dear, a few days ago two hundred and fifty thousand Aurean warriors marched on O Império Brilhante!”

Aurora’s expression imploded, her exclamation stillborn. The idea of so many Aurean troops entering the world’s largest city was unimaginable, it was like hearing Velor had exploded.

Spurned on by her adversary’s shock, Tala sighed and relaxed. “Vindication, at last. You know you’re pretty tough, Fair Child, far tougher than any of the other Protectors, or even Viragos I’ve killed, which is why I decided to keep you alive once it was clear you were beaten. Not too healthy of course – I’m hardly stupid – but alive, just so I could see that expression when you realized how much of an utter moron you’ve been.

“Not all of my sisters agree with my methods you know; some are quite boring without a single artistic inkling. They prefer to kill and be done with it, but I’ve found there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your enemy at that moment when she’s learned that all her efforts to defeat you, all her planning and guile and so called strength have just prolonged her agony and proved how utterly inferior she is. That you’ve actually stopped and listened to me tell you how inferior you are when you could have been saving Frail lives is… hey!

But Aurora didn’t hear the Tset’lar’s scream of outrage. Even if she’d still been standing the deafening roar of blood in her ears would have blotted out the sound of the Aurean’s voice.

She didn’t even feel the impact as her fist struck Tala’s jaw, or see her fall; she hadn’t thought about the action -- which was probably why the Aurean hadn’t been able to predict or block it. Under any other circumstances it might have been the perfect opportunity for a counter attack but Aurora’s mind was moving even faster than her body. It was already in the besieged city, watching the helpless citizens being slaughtered and raped by the Aurean army.

Tala no longer existed in a mind so filled with horror and fear, except as an obstacle between her and the people who were dying because of her. If she’d given the Tset’lar a thought, she might have realized the punch had probably saved her life since now that she’d had her pleasure from Aurora’s humiliation, Tala would never have let her leave the valley.

If she’d given the Tset’lar a thought, she’d be dead. Instead her instincts and training took over, fueled by the hard-won memory that, despite the disparity in their strength, Tala could never hope to catch up with her once she’d reached her speed. Even the moment’s clemency that the punch had brought was enough.

Not that it would make any difference. The Tset’lar didn’t need to catch her if she knew where Aurora was going.

But Aurora never even considered that, she was too busy concentrating on angling her trajectory for the perfect sub-orbital course  -- a maneuver that, despite being faster than anything on the planet, she knew would bring her to the doomed city far too late.

Feeling her muscles tense and ripple against the expanding G-forces and her face burn against the rushing atmosphere, Aurora rose like a star above continents and oceans. She saw stars and the moon rise above the atmosphere and grow to unreal proportions before soaring up out of sight as she immersed herself in the turbulent gasses once again.

Aurora’s depleted energies prevented her from achieving a true sub-orbital, or even truly exiting the atmosphere, but the massive influx of heat absorbed from the super-compressed air was more than enough to lift her out of the most abrasive layers and into a zone where the angry roar of disturbed oxygen was soothed to a quiet whisper.

Normally the sight of land and sea turning below her would normally have comforted Aurora with the beauty of her Protectorate, but now each slowly passing landmass was a painful reminder of her failure. Far from an omnipotent goddess, the Virago was forced to face the fact that, even in peak condition, a trip halfway around the world would take her the better part of an hour. In her present condition it would take considerably longer.

More numbers flowed through Aurora’s subconscious, edging out the fear as her training took over. Her instincts gauged factors, judged mass and strength against wind speed and friction, provided a course and, when the time came, told her when to begin her descent.

 

* * *

 

Racing towards the planet’s surface, Aurora saw the devastation the Aureans had brought to the once green and beautiful land. The sight of the blasted savannah was almost enough to bring tears to her eyes, but it was nothing when compared to the acres of abandoned trenches, the fields of wrecked artillery and the tens of thousands who’d given their lives in defense of what had once been a great city.

It belonged to the Primes now. Thousands of them swarmed through the streets and it was every bit as terrible as Aurora had feared. Nothing breathed where the Primes had walked; any noise, any motion, any sign of life at all brought instant screaming extinction as the Aureans dragged men, women and children out into the streets and tore them in half.

Behind the swarming bodies, the roads and buildings were painted red with blood and offal. Endlessly flowing, diverging, bisecting and converging, the Primes moved and killed. Regardless of its form, if it lived, the Aureans slaughtered it. Flanked by Betans and supported by their machines the Aureans were unstoppable.

The city refused them though. It refused them with every fiber and resource, with every brick in every building. It resisted them with its people.

There were no longer soldiers and civilians, there were only combatants. Their weapons ranged from guns to branches, knives to fists. Their effectiveness ranged from negligible to worthless, yet still the people fought on out of desperation.

Wherever the two sides met, human life expectancy could be measured in seconds or minutes, yet their resolve did not waver. Somehow, despite the relentlessness of the Aurean onslaught, pockets of resistance managed to subsist amongst the ruins.

From two person squads to entire companies, they fought a running guerrilla war. Hundreds of them were dying with every passing second but such was the city’s size that even with a million torn and bloodied bodies behind them, they were a scant fraction of the living population. Even in the military survivors, for every unit a Prime caught and neutralized, a dozen more continued to rain fire upon their attackers.

The sound of destruction was unimaginable, individual gunshots could no longer be heard; they merged into a single unwavering ripping scream of metal striking Aeneucrete, steel and flesh. Masonry exploded as burnt out shells of buildings were blown away by artillery or cleansed by streams of HGAR fire. Streets were ripped up in horrific explosions of sound and color as those few artillery pieces to have survived the massacre outside the walls fired their death in deafening booms. Regiments died in the carnage, their bodies subjected to the most brutal fate imaginable by shrieking shrapnel. Overpasses shook the air like thunder as they collapsed onto freeways, crushing uncounted thousands of abandoned cars beneath hundreds of tons of rubble. Monuments were obliterated and temples defiled as the people who took refuge within were destroyed by the aliens who found them

And intermixed with the hellish sounds of a city dying by inches were the screams. They rose above the rest of the noise, piercing the souls of the living, providing an organic counterpoint to the deafening demolition.

The Aureans didn’t scream, at least not in pain. They screamed in anticipation when they found another holdout, or in pleasure as their bloodlust was momentarily gratified, they shrieked when they wrenched bone from joint, and they cried when they destroyed another piece of Brilhante’s infrastructure. But they made no sound when they died. Such was the weight of artillery being brought to bear of the streets that whenever a chink was found in Betan armor, it was over instantly.

Most Betans didn’t make it very far into the city limits. While out on the plains they’d had cover to protect them from the Porturegans’ fire, every aspect of the city’s terrain had been optimized for their doom.

With their escorts gone, that left only the Prime core.

Yet it was the Betans that caught Aurora’s attention, or rather the lack of them. It took the Virago precious seconds to locate the missing Aureans, and when she did it took her even longer to work out why they were where they were. Instead of flanking the thrust of the assault, they’d surrounded the city.

Their reasoning didn’t become clear until the Virago spotted a group of survivors attempting to flee the slaughter in a truck. Having escaped the hellhole that had been their home, the small vehicle barely cleared the smoke before being immolated by an Aurean anti-personnel missile.

And that truck wasn’t alone. Now that Aurora looked away from the decimated city she could see dozens of tiny flashes ripping into the outskirts and incinerating anyone who somehow escaped the murderers at their backs.

It was only then that Aurora realized what the Aureans wanted: genocide. They had no strategic goal or tactical objective, there was only slaughter. The Aureans didn’t intend to capture the city; they wanted to kill it. They wanted to massacre its people as punishment upon the world that had resisted them for so long, as a harbinger of the depths to which they would sink in the name of victory. That was why they hadn’t simply reduced O Império Brilhante to a crater with a nuclear device, and risked so much materiel in the assault; they wanted something that would devastate the planet’s soul.

The Aureans had no intention of letting anyone within their ring survive.

The thought of such needless slaughter brought bile to Aurora’s throat, almost making her change course and dive on the Betans. While they might laud their superiority over helpless civilians, the Aurean might as well use harsh language as the weapons in their hands against an enraged Virago.

Somehow, she found the strength to ignore the Betans and stayed her course. While punching a hole in the perimeter might allow a few civilians to go free, the time she’d use rescuing a few hundred could spell the doom for tens of thousands.

Aurora struck dead centter in the middle of the largest Aurean gathering where a group of Primes had been ready to ambush one of the city’s last heavy guns and gut the troops surrounding it.

With the constant pound of war. they never noticed her meteoric descent -- and in a matter of minutes they would never notice anything again.

Fifty Primes had gathered to rush the soldiers, and then planned to turn the gun on the city before running through the heart of Brilhante’s civilian population like a buzzaw.

Had they know what was about to happen, the slaughter would have been one-sided; any ten of them could have overpowered the Virago with ease. But with their minds entirely focused on the Frails, none seeing their airborne opponent until it was too late, the unit went from fifty to eighteen, and from eighteen to none, in less than a minute.

Aurora was airborne and heading for the next group of Primes even before the last Aurean finished collapsing.

 

If an outcome for the day had to be made, it would have been called a draw. Though the Aureans were thrown from Brilhante, not one building, road or person escaped without damage. The death toll was in the millions; the city was all but razed to the ground and its defending army devastated.

 

When the last Aurean had fled over the distant dunes, the Virago turned her attention back to the place she’d abandoned in her quest. It might no longer be a symbol of prosperity but already people were turning to the survivors and the incalculable numbers of its citizens that lay trapped beneath the city’s corpse.

Little of Brilhante’s infrastructure had survived the battle and even picks and shovels were in short supply. Hands were likewise limited but every one could work did work, whether it was digging, nursing or just carrying water.

Aurora was the city’s greatest asset and not just because her arms could carve effortlessly through aeneucrete and steel rubble that would have posed an impossible barrier even to industrial equipment. Her eyes and other senses were even more useful for directing others to victims, food and equipment was trapped; even her power of flight was indispensable in transporting materiel across the vast leveled city or past impossible barriers.

But as swift as she was, Aurora’s could not relieve the unfathomable human suffering around her. Even working to her limits she couldn’t save more than a fraction of the wounded and dying.

Eventually, with darkness closing in, she was forced to surrender to the inevitable. She loathed herself for leaving; it went against every instinct to leave her people in pain, especially when she knew that she could save their lives but she couldn’t ignore the fact that while the remnant of the army that had attacked Brilhante was in retreat, there were other armies across the planet that weren’t.

Ultimately it came down to numbers. As one of the surviving capitčos had told her; winning in Brilhante would cost them the war. She could save more lives by fighting the Aureans than by rescuing victims.

 

One of the last people she dragged from the ruins came out of a collapsed cellar and wore the tattered uniform of a Landwarrior Comandante.

Blinking upwards, his eyes red and watering from hours in the hazy room, the man still managed gaze upon the Virago’s yellow, matted hair, filthy uniform and encrusted skin as if she were Skietra incarnate.

“The Fair Child?” He almost whimpered, flicking his eyes to her feet and barely restraining himself from kissing the bricks she stood upon. “Is it you?”

Aurora had just sighed and extended a hand. It would have been nice if she could’ve said his was the most extreme response she’d received; instead it was borderline average. No matter what steps she took to avoid the stereotype, the people of her Protectorate seemed determined to worship her.

The incident would have merged with the fuzzy haze all her memories from the past few months had passed into, had the man not stared at her with such intensity as she lifted him out of the hole.

Setting him down on the wrecked street, Aurora finally couldn’t take his glare any longer and snapped. “What! Why are you looking at me like that?”

Far from his earlier deferential reverence, the soldier continued to stare at her with red-flecked eyes. “You were not there. Why were you not there for us? We were dying and we needed you, but you did not come. Why?”

For an instant Aurora was about to tell him her truth; that she’d had more important things to do; because she’d been trying to save his world; because there were creatures a thousand times more deadly than the Primes he’d been fighting and she’d been trying to hold one of them at bay.

Then the smell of fresh and clotted blood, shit, pus and open wounds struck her. For the first time she really saw the lacerations that’d cut deep into his muscles and metal fragments that were buried in his flesh instead of ignoring them as part of the background horror. At that moment she realized her truth, was not necessarily the truth.

A truth was that she had been doing her job fighting Aureans. Her truth was that she’d been risking her life fighting the planet’s greatest threat. The truth was that while she’d been risking her life, these people had been giving theirs, and they’d done so doing her duty.

Looking at the soldier and feeling the pain in his plea, she could give the only answer that applied.

“I was arrogant and it cost a lot of people their lives. It won’t happen again.”

And it wouldn’t, she would make sure of that.

  

 

Chapter 3

 

The bunker’s floor swayed and shook with the walls and ceiling. The low lighting flickered and returned, flickered, faltered and failed.  Just when it seemed the light was gone for good, the lamps glowed dimly, nearly failed and then returned.

 Distant explosions echoed throughout the complex, keeping those awake on edge and rousing the sleepers. In the secure room at the centre of the complex though, the soundproofing was such that even a Virago could hear only faint echoes of destruction.

All things considered, it was a quiet day in the war. The events of the past week had produced more than enough noise for both sides. Today’s aerial bombardment was simply a pointed reminder that the Aureans had not yet been banished from their world.

The room, even had the lighting not been on the verge of failing, would have been dark. What light there was pooled beneath an intense blue ring that encircled a large octagonal table in its center. One man sat at the table’s head, a tall woman stood nearby, observing the somewhat threadbare tapestries depicting ancient victories.  The man was dressed in crumpled, deep violet fatigues.  The woman wore much less.

“The inescapable reality, Ms Fair Child, is that we can not afford another Brilhante.” General Anselmo Teixeira, commander of Betah Stronberg’s military forces, sighed wearily. He was a large man, almost as tall as his companion’s two meters, and he wore a bristling salt and pepper moustache that normally called attention to his size.  From the way he was slumping in his chair, though, a casual observer could have been forgiven for thinking he was a small man, especially when compared to his Amazonian companion. “What assurances can you give me that such an event will not recur?”

 “I have none to give.” Aurora, whose thoughts had been literally miles away, sighed.

 “No?” The moustache wobbled in surprise. “…That is a surprising statement. Not one I would expect that from a Virago.”

 Quickly bringing herself back the room, and the reason she had been invited, she shrugged and tried to sound nonchalant. “I will not hide from the truth.”

 “Neither can we, it would seem.” Teixeira’s attention drifted to a monitor set into the table and its tableau of destruction.

 “No.” The blue strip lights combined with the monochrome displays to drain what little emotion remained on Aurora’s face. “But I do not expect them to repeat such an attack.”

 “Oh.” Teixeira raised his head out of his chest. “Why is that?”

 “Precedent.” Aurora answered. “The Aureans are methodical.  They have been… ‘acquiring’ planets for a very long time – longer than your world has been populated in fact – and they follow the lessons their possessions have taught them.  They have progressed their art to the point where they think they can predict responses, even draw up a standardized timetable of events. And their program always provides for the possibility of a massacre, usually if the war is going poorly. Such massacres drain enemy morale and make surrender seem justified.”

 “But…” The General started.

 “But they will only try it once; if the world has the stomach to survive one slaughter more butchery will only intensify resistance.” 

 The general’s eyebrows, which were almost as bushy as the moustache, met in confusion. “That is your only reason?”

 “Not my only one, of course,” Aurora quickly backtracked. “Even a successful sacking of a major industrial centre is expensive in terms of troops and materiel, and Brilhante was not a successful sacking.”

 “It almost was.” Teixeira reminded her pointedly.

 “Yes… it almost was,” Aurora grudgingly conceded. “But if intelligence is to be believed, the effort cost them dearly, body counts--”

 “Indicate that every third Aurean who entered the battlefield, did not leave it. I know.”  Teixeira’s voice bore more than irritation. “But our casualties were even higher, and while every Aurean we face is a seasoned warrior, my people are still re-learning the realities of war.”

 And they’re learning them all too well. Aurora held her face absolutely steady. “I do realize that, sir, but with respect to the departed, you can always train more people. The Aureans will not land more troops so long as I am alive.”

 “And so long as the network remains intact,” Texeira retorted, speaking of the vast network of sensors orbiting beyond his world’s moon. It had taken a decade to complete but once in place it formed a unique web that was so sensitive it could detect even the stealthiest of Aurean vessels.

 “Exactly.” The Virago chose to take his sentence at face value. “They may be… more effective on a battlefield, but so long as you retain the numerical advantage, victory is still possible. There is also another factor we must consider; the effect on the Aurean psyche.”

 “I do not understand?” One of Teixeira’s eyebrows twitched, “I thought Aureans liked killing?”

 “They do, but even Primes can not maintain the bloodlust to slaughter an entire city.  It requires a…” Aurora gritted her teeth, “‘unique’ mind to perform such a feat.”

 “It can not be that unique. They devoted a tenth of a million soldiers to that assault.”

 “But only a few thousand entered the city. With a few hundred berserkers in their ranks, the less enthusiastic Primes simply followed their lead.”

 Teixeira considered this, then nodded. “Who knew even an Aurean could get tired of killing? It is enough to know another slaughter is unlikely, I would prefer a guarantee but, if nothing else, this war has taught us how unrealistic such an expectation would be.” He sighed and straightened slightly in his chair. “At least the fighting is over with and civilian authorities can oversee…” he caught Aurora’s gaze. “What?”

 “It is not over.”

 “What is not?” Teixeira’s eyes flickered to a monitor displaying Brilhante’s smoking, but still untaken, corpse. “The Aureans are in retreat, their forces on this continent are in tatters and--.”

 “I wasn’t referring to the Aureans.” Aurora descended into the chair next to him. “I’m talking about your people.”

 “I do not understand?”

 “Do you know what effect this attack is having on them?”

 Aurora could almost see the thoughts cascading behind the deep eyes before her, and resisted sighing. Please, Skietra, tell me he understands. Tell me that half a year of fighting has given him some impression of just how enormous an effect war has on people. Of course, her own people had been informally at war with the Aurean Empire for millennia and the only impact it’d had on their lives -- aside from the Protector corps -- was an intense dislike of anything with dark hair; but Aurora chose not to dwell on this point.

 The General looked like a man who’d been asked what color the sky is and was trying to find the trick. “…It will demoralize them?”

 Fairchild breathed a silent thank you to Skietra; he had finally made a connection between military and civilian worlds. “Yes.”

 “But that is obvious?” Teixeira shrugged, “And not my concern. Such matters are for the civilian administrators.”

 “To ameliorate the damage, yes,” said Aurora, exasperated. “But if you do not do something that gives hope to your people, your problems with the Aureans are only going to multiply.”

 The General waved his hand in dismissal. “We are already overstretched; diverting troops is--”

 “Not what I am talking about.” Aurora interrupted as tactfully as she could. “Warriors make poor police. What you, and your people need right now is a victory, a clear one.”

 “We already have that, you smashed their garrison at Chinturga and cost the Empire a thousand men and women.”

 “But I was the one who won that victory. You contributed little more than a scouting element and they had to be evacuated when the Aureans spotted them.”

 “And you believe that we will need to achieve a victory on our own to counter Brilhante?” Teixeira asked, with a curious tone in his voice.  His despair was beginning to lift.  He almost chuckled as he went on, “If it were that simple this war would have been over before it began.”

 Aurora nodded. “That is exactly what I think.”

 “And have you given any thought to how this miraculous change might come about? I am sure I do not need to remind you that our victories against the Empire are few and far between.”

 “You do not.” Aurora bowed her head graciously, and the cascade of golden hair hid her smile.  “I was thinking of a token effort; a single, highly visible, yet vulnerable, target against which you can throw all of your might.”

 The General’s smile was more visible, but less joyous than the Virago’s.  “And would this ‘target’ walk, or rather, fly, on two legs and possess hair the color of midnight?”

 Stunned that he had so easily anticipated her, Aurora had to gather herself before she could reply, “…Yes, that is exactly what I was thinking… Tala is clearly a threat to us all--”

 “She is a threat to you.” Teixeira shook his head. “Not to us. I have seen no evidence that the Tuhset Lar has shown any hostility towards the Porturegan people, indeed she appears to be taking every opportunity to avoid contact with us.”

 “The Zet’lar,” Aurora savored the correct pronunciation, “is an Aurean. She’s an enemy to us all!”

 “Maybe.” The General nodded. “But that does not change the fact that she has yet to show the least interest in harming us. Until she does, I have no intention of enraging her.”

 “And what of the thousands she’s murdered in the past? I have seen the reports of the people this… ‘woman’ has butchered.” Aurora’s lips curled at the idea that she shared even the same sex as her enemy. In desperation she pleaded, “In Skietra’s name, don’t you see the threat she poses?”

 “Of course,” Teixeira answered briskly. “And that is exactly why we will not pursue her. Our resources are stretched thin enough without having to engage a Tset’lar.”

 Aurora bit her lip. “I would… consider it a personal favor if you would do this.”

 Teixeira gazed implacably back at her. “I hope,” he said with great deliberation, “that you are not serious. While I cannot deny that your assistance has been monumental, can you not realize how impossible your request is? Short of full-scale nuclear bombardment, we do not have the ability to destroy even a single Prime. How would you propose we destroy a creature more powerful than yourself?”

 Aurora didn’t have that answer. She had hoped to commit him, and then improvise a plan with the Porturegans. Swallowing, she played her last card.

 “Please?”

 “I am sorry.” The dark hazel eyes softened slightly.  Aurora had been a pillar of strength from the arrival of the first Aurean scouts, but now she was pleading like a little girl no older than his daughters.

 “I’m begging you.” Aurora swallowed heavily. “I can not defeat her, and if she kills me… i-it will takes months for my replacement to arrive from Velor and I fear for what will happen to you.”

 Teixeira didn’t answer immediately, because that wasn’t in his nature. Instead he paused and waited for Aurora to raise any other thoughts while he organized his own.  It was a habit that, when seen along with his expressive eyebrows, had given him a reputation as being somewhat slow witted.  Porturegans who had jumped to that conclusion usually lived to regret it.  The few Aureans who had met him and come to the same conclusion usually didn’t.

 Now, he reflected on Aurora’s motives, and finally achieved some understanding of her dilemma.  When he finally answered, it was with a deep sigh and a long shake of his head. “I am sorry, but I cannot agree with you. Tala does pose a threat, and if she succeeds in…” he couldn’t bring himself to say kill, “defeating you, our chances of survival are less than those of a raybur amongst a group of pakislaks.  Nevertheless, I cannot risk our immediate present against a possible future. Moreover I can not ask so many people to give their lives for a single person.”

 “Have you asked them?” Aurora’s voice sounded as if it had come direct from one of the poles. “I am sure that if you did, they would answer differently.”

 “I am certain they would,” the General concurred. “And that is precisely why I will not give them the option. A military is not a democracy -- one person must command. If asked a great many people, even those who do not see you as a divine goddess, would flock to your banner, and we can not afford the diversion of effort or the casualties such a mission would sustain.”

His great chest rose and fell as he raised his hand to forestall her objection. “That is my final word on the matter. I am truly sorry but there must be another target for us.”

 Aurora bit back her bile and squeezed her hands into fists behind her back lest the anger take another form. Instead she forcibly reminded herself that she was at the behest of her Protectorate, not the other way around.  Teixeira was, at least as far as any Porturegan could be, a military genius, and when it came down to it, he was probably right. Slowly, her nerves calmed and she unclenched her fists.

 Finally she asked, “Do you have any suggestions?”

 In answer, the General tapped a few keys set into the table before him and turned to a large screen set into the wall. A world map, colored by the amount of territory controlled by either side, materialized. To the both of them it was reassuring to see that, despite their advanced technology and near-infinite strength, the Aureans had managed to capture only a small fraction of the planet’s surface. It was less reassuring to know that their holdings enveloped most of the militarily valuable fractions of the planet.

 A few more clicks augmented the East continent and its vivid green grass; a couple more isolated a city and the huge, obviously Aurean structures surrounding it.

 Aurora raised an eyebrow. “You want to go after one of their starships?” Despite her wonder, she was impressed that they would go after such an imposing target.

“Not quite.”

Teixeira actually allowed a small smirk to appear on his face before he used a stylus to open a video file. It was less than a minute long and showed the area at an even higher level of magnification, but even so, Aurora had to stand before she could make out the tiny column of men and machines emerging from a starship’s vast shadow.

“What’s that?”

“That,” Teixeira rose to stand beside her, “is the Aurean Sixth Infantry.”

“Impossible!” Aurora exclaimed. “I destroyed them two months ago.”

“Apparently not.”

The General brought up a collection of secondary images, captured from a variety of angles and all clearly displaying the markings of the Aurean Sixth on every uniform and machine.

“Intelligence compiled these a few days ago, its assessment is that you smashed only a part of their true number, and that the rest were still in hibernation. They have yet to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why the Aureans have not reanimated them before now.”

“This isn’t one of the new ships?” Despite her casual tone of voice, Aurora was inwardly cringing. It was to her shame that while she was… occupied with Tala, the entire remaining Aurean fleet – at least half a dozen vessels – had rushed the planet and landed deep within the Aurean zone. Teixeira shook his head.

“No, it’s a transport; Georgrego, 2172.”

Aurora’s brow furled in concentration. “That ship was bracketed by missiles as it came down, is it possible some of the incubation chambers were damaged?”

Teixeira shrugged disinterestedly. “That was Intelligence’s assessment as well, but the damage was to the bow of the vessel, far away from where soldiers are usually sequestered. It does not really matter; these soldiers are here and I think they provide us with an opportunity.”

“How?” Aurora studied the repeating image. “There have to be twelve thousand Aureans in that column.”

“Twelve thousand four hundred and fifty.” Teixeira corrected. “All of them Betans.”

“The Sixth that I fought was unusually small, and entirely Primal, this must be the Betan component,” Aurora mused aloud. “But you’re not sure?”

“There are three that might, might, be Primes. We are still checking but we expended most of our agents getting what little we have.” He waved to the collection of animated and still images. Aurora tried not to notice how he euphemized the dead.

“If there are any Primes at all, you will need me,” she warned.

“I know. Originally we were going to use you as the vanguard of our attack, but, after hearing your advice I think, given their restricted numbers, we can keep your involvement to a minimum.”

Aurora’s attention returned to the screen. “That is still a lot of Aureans. More than you have ever engaged and satisfactorily defeated. What makes you think you can take them?”

“Several reasons.” Teixeira walked along side her and began ticking off his fingers. “One, they are new to this world. You’ll remember how sluggishly the initial invasion force responded to our climate; we managed to achieve several victories in that first month that we now could not. Being recently released from stasis, these new troops will no doubt have the same problems adapting.”

“Probably true.” Aurora – who had her own opinions about why the Aureans had performed so poorly – cocked her head in consideration and, mimicking his earlier attitude, asked, “But that can not be your only reason?”

The General ticked off another finger. “For the moment they are at half strength.  From their movements we have determined that they are not going to be assigned additional reinforcements, rather they have been allocated to a new unit, meaning they will remain underpowered for some time to come.” Another large digit went down. “We have also determined that they have not been fully provisioned, making them vulnerable.” He touched another finger. “Despite this, they have been ordered to move out along the Serra do Caixhador with only minimal support.  We conclude that their intention is to reinforce the Brilhante units.”

“The mountains would make them easy to ambush.” Aurora almost smiled; she was warming to the idea. “Assuming you could get some personnel into position… you’ll forgive me for pointing out that this sounds incredibly convenient?”

“We have had similar concerns.” Teixeira agreed. “But you can not deny that their destruction would be an excellent response to Brilhante’s’ slaughter.”

“True…” But the Virago’s response indicated her mind was not on the conversation. “I am wondering, though, why I was not made aware of this earlier. You have known of this column for some time and obviously put a great deal of thought into attacking it.  As the only person on your side with extensive battle experience, I should have been brought in sooner.”

“You were occupied at the time.” Teixeira’s eyes bored into the Virago’s.

“Surely I was not so occupied that…” The penny dropped and Aurora remembered exactly what she had been doing when the column was discovered. Her eyes broke contact with the General’s. “I am sorry. I spoke before I thought.”

“Yes,” Teixeira replied without rancor. “But to the problem at hand. We were going to hold off the attack for another month, until the column exited the Mahatran pass.” The map expanded back to show the whole mountain range and then augmented a narrow ravine. “Do you think we should act sooner?”

“Within the next two or three days would be preferable,” Aurora answered.“But I realize how impossible that would be. Even so, you should not wait more than a week--”

“We could stage an assault the day after tomorrow if it was required.” Teixeira responded coolly and without an ounce of the pride he was feeling. “The majority of our forces are already moving into place.”

“They are?” Aurora was astonished, “You have managed to pull enough forces to smash ten thousand Betans?”

Teixeira’s smile faded slightly and he shifted his stance. “…Not quite. The One Hundred and First Cavalry was already in the area and we’ve been able to support them with elements of the Thirty Second and Ninety Eighth Light Infantry; but we were hoping to infiltrate at least another division of ground troops. There’s nothing left of the Second Rapiers, but with luck we could have moved in some more aerial units…” He sighed. “I suppose we can act without them; there are lots of passes in those mountains, with the right terrain we should maintain the element of surprise.”

 “True.” Aurora nodded, reading the statistics accompanying the human units. “But even then they’d be engaging a force two dozen times greater than themselves. So far all of your victories have occurred when the numbers were reversed.”

 “They have.” The General shrugged. “But they have also been in open terrain where we required the numbers to counter the Aureans’ superior technology and experience. In the mountains the limited space will be to our advantage.”

“Again true.” Aurora’s lips curled. “But you intend for the bulk of your forces to be made up by cavalry? Landwarriors would be ideally suited for the slaughter, but they do not move well in rough terrain.”

“They will move well enough,” Teixeira responded. “In the eight generations since our last war, my people have had nothing but time to refine and test our machines.”

 Yes, it’s just a shame you didn’t think to improve upon them, Aurora thought to herself. It had been a very long time since the Porturegans had fought a war and their military had been maintained, at times, only by the unceasing warnings of a succession of Protectors.

 Unfortunately, without a threat to promote constant evolution, the Porturegans faced the first Aurean assault with military technology identical to that of a hundred and fifty years earlier.

“Are you sure?” Aurora raised a golden eyebrow. “I have flown over those mountains, they’re pretty steep.”

“The Landcruisers will prevail.” Teixeira announced confidently. “If we are to attack within the next few days, the terrain will not be as ideal as their commanders might like, but the machines will function.”

“And air support?” Aurora turned back to the map. “You mentioned that possibility?”

It was the fashion amongst Porturegan generals to show little emotion, and Teixeira usually followed that to the letter; but now the gleam that’d been in his eyes all through his announcement vanished. “We could have placed a squadron of Airskirmishers within striking distance of the pass in three weeks, but if we are forced to move our timetable up, then there is no way they can be involved.”

“What were you thinking of using?”

“Long range barragers and surface attack craft.”

“Good choices.” Aurora thought about it. And we’ll miss them… She briefly debated offering her services but quickly vetoed the idea; this was meant to be a Porturegan effort. “I’m still worried about the Sixth’s vulnerability though… it’s not like the Aureans to place their units, particularly a Betan force, out in the open like that, especially without their satellites.”

Destroying the Imperial command and control ship (and consequently causing all of their surveillance satellites to crash) had been one of the first major victories in the war.

“You have not been watching the trend.” Teixeira replied, “Ever since Brilhante, they have been rushing troops from all over the continent to reinforce their army… you truly scared them.”

 “I cleared up.” Aurora retorted. “You put the fear in them; they never expected you to hold out as long as you did.”

 Giving her a glance that said he had different ideas, Teixeira covered his mouth as he yawned. “Perhaps, but that argument can wait for another time. Now we must attend to the moment and while you have the fortune not to require sleep I most certainly do, and I will have to get these orders changed before I go to my cot…” He looked up, curiosity in eyes that hadn’t seemed quite so red or lined a few minutes before. “Unless there is anything else you feel the need to discuss?”

“Nothing you need to worry about.” Fairchild allowed herself a small smile. It wasn’t that she didn’t like these briefings; on the contrary Teixeira’s deep voice was usually a pleasant distraction from the war, but it was not the only distraction and after the violence of war she had an itch that’d been waiting to be scratched for quite some time. “And now if you’ll excuse me, I have some private… business to attend to. It is not like the Aureans will dare attack any time soon...” -- the occasional boom of a distant explosion made a liar out of her-- “…Not seriously at least,” she rectified.

 “Of course?” Teixeira’s moustache bristled as the old general gave her a tired smile, “if anyone deserves a rest it is you.”

 “Thank you.” Aurora bobbed her head. “I am not sure that I deserve such faith after my recent actions, but the thought is appreciated.”

 Teixeira’s purple-covered shoulders raised and sunk in a shrug, “What is done is done and whatever your transgressions… if indeed they are transgressions… you have done more than enough before and to credit a little tolerance. Without you after all we would not have a Brilhante to mourn over.”

 Aurora expected to twitch at his mention of the destroyed city but instead his warm tone only made her smile in gratitude, “Thank you, General. Now, if you’ll excuse me?”

 “Of course.” He gestured to the door, watched her retreating backside and then returned to his maps, silently swearing to himself that, before going to bed, he needed a cold shower.

 Teixeira had known the Virago practically since she’d landed on the planet, but even know he didn’t entirely understand the power she held over his people. Part of it was her personality, which was forceful, commanding and yet almost infinitively kind, but there was something else. Aurora was so powerful and yet seemed so young. It seemed impossible that the youthful expression he’d seen so many times could hide the most lethal warrior he would ever wish to meet, yet he’d seen it happen more times than he liked to count.

 Teixeira shuddered, from lust or resignation he couldn’t tell, and tried to concentrate on the mission. At least he’d gone for most of the meeting without staring down her cleavage.

 

* * *

 

  Alighting upon the warm hill, Aurora made a cursory check of the surrounding area to check she truly was alone before almost skipping into the deeper shrubbery surrounding a dense copse.

 In contrast to the desolation of the plains surrounding Brilhante, the small hill was a haven. Every tree and plant glowed with life, viridian leaves stirred in the breeze and overripe fruits dangled in succulent glory. Insects chirped softly from their places amongst the branches and the call of a large turr searching for its mate could be heard over the wind.

 With senses still vigilant for hidden observers, Aurora floated deeper within the thicket. Her passage was invisible, with feet inches clear of the lush green grass she left not one twig broken or leaf bent. Even her uniform, which could glow brightly on a starless night, muted itself to the point where she was a mere shadow against the brown trunks.

 Finally she arrived in a small clearing. The sun was not quite over the horizon and it dappled the glade in a lazy yellow light.

 Everything was still, even the insects were silent.

 “All right, you’re not impressing anyone, I’ve been tracking you for two minutes now.” Aurora called out into the dusk. When there was no response, she turned and faced a patch of shadow that appeared no different than any other. “I thought you’d have learned by now; you can’t hide from me.”

 The shadow shifted slightly and detached itself from the trunk. As it approached the glade, it gained depth and form. Gradually, distinguishing features could be made out. An unruly thatch of dark brown hair tumbled out from beneath a black cap and spilled down the sides of a dark round face whose eyes, despite their steely blue hardness, betrayed a surprising softness.

 Aurora’s own face softened with the sight, and it was all she could do not to rush up, take the man in her arms and hug him until his bones creaked. Instead she composed her emotions and, in a disapproving tone of voice, warned. “You’re off station, soldier. What would General Secretária Casimiro say if I were to tell him that his planets’ premier vacuum Comandante was AWOL, traipsing about in a darkened copse just waiting for the Aureans to capture him. Again.”

 Benigno Allvariz just grinned and rubbed the back of his neck. “Oh, I am sure that wouldn’t happen; not with a powerful Virago around to protect me.”

 “And who says I would?” Aurora asked, crossing her arms. “If you were foolish enough to wander off into the countryside, perhaps I’d let them take you as a lesson?”

 “But then what would you tell Casimiro? I am after all a valuable asset to my world’s military, representing eighteen million moras, tens of thousands of work hours, at least half a forest’s worth of paperwork--”

 “And Skietra knows how much hot air.” Aurora stifled her laugh. “I think you learned your lessons in PR too well.”

 Putting his hands on his hips, thrusting his chest out and turning his head up and to the sky, the man adopted the same confident grin that could be seen the world over on posters the world over. “Well I am the ‘great’ Benigno Allvariz, vacuum Comandante extraordinaire.”

 Aurora waited; Beni was only able to hold the ridiculous stance for a couple of seconds longer before collapsing into a laughing heap.

 “Okay, so maybe I’m not quite as great as the Vacuum Core Elite might wish,” he admitted.

 Aurora tilted her head and looked the sprawled man up and down. He was one of the few men actually taller than she was and though slightly on the lanky side, his arms and legs bulged pleasantly from years of hard work. “Hmm… I don’t know, Beni, you look pretty great to me.”

 Benigno stopped laughing long enough to raise his head. “You really think so?”

 “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.” Aurora answered softly, taking a few dignified steps towards her paramour, only to be surprised when he stood swiftly and effortlessly swept her off her feet and started raining kisses upon her face and neck.

 The Virago squirmed pleasantly in his soft embrace as he lowered them both to the grass. After weeks of nothing but the cruel hardness of Tala’s muscles, the feel of his slightly soft body against her was a welcome change.

 It couldn’t last however. As enjoyable as his enthusiasm was, a tree root was sticking between her shoulder blades and even she couldn’t ignore it for long.

 At least not when there were far more pleasant distractions at hand.

 “Okay, okay. Enou--.” She chuckled as his lips covered her, muffling her words and making cotton wool of her thoughts. Gracefully turning her head this way and that, trying, without much success, to avoid his enthusiasm long enough to complete a sentence.  Finally she gathered enough of her thoughts to playfully break her lover’s embrace and hold him away while using her powers of flight to lift them both off the intrusive root.

“I said--” She tried to speak though she was beaming so much she was mumbling -- Benigno’s almost frantic adoration wasn’t helping either her word formation, or mental processes -- “I said, that’s enough.”

“No.” Beni beamed back. “What if I do not want it to be ‘enough?’ I am quite comfortable here.”

Aurora directed her gaze towards the grip she was exerting on his arms. When she spoke next it was with a grin. “Somehow I doubt that.”

“I am lying atop my goddess.” He grinned back, “I would still be comfortable if a chiternick had singled me out for her young.”

“That is a very big bird.” Aurora giggled. “Are you absolutely sure about that? I mean I could probably go and find one if you wanted.”

“Would you really waste our time together in such a way?” He retorted.

“Good point” Aurora grinned and, taking a firm grip on his shoulders, rolled them over so that she was straddling his waist. “But let’s see how you like having twigs stuck in your back.”

Benigno winced at the sudden discomfort, but maintained a boyish grin. “It is… ah, a bed of petals… my goddess”

Aurora frowned in mock annoyance, “Thank you Beni, but you know I don’t like to be called that.”

“But you are, at least to me. I mean,” He reached up to gently squeeze her breasts through her uniform with his large hands, “what else could describe such divine perfection?”

“Good genetics?” Aurora tilted her head and playfully shook her chest, enjoying the expression on her lover’s face as he tried to hold her bouncing flesh. “But as you said you and I didn’t come here to discuss that. I’ve only a few hours before the Aureans miss me and start making enquiries. And,” She laughed, touching the tip of his nose, “you know how insistent they can be.”

“More than most.”

A touch of pain entered Allvariz’s voice and, almost reflexively he felt his right shoulder where, a few months earlier, a Betan had decided to speed his interrogation up by breaking a clavicle. That had been the day before he’d met Aurora for the first time, a day before she’d broken him, and every other surviving member of his crew out of their cells.  By then the Aurean medic -- or at least what passed for one in the POW camp -- had set the wound, badly, and accelerated the healing.

 His shoulder had never completely healed. One would have had to break it again, and reset the bone -- a procedure that had no guarantee of success, and an all too likely chance of making the injury worse, even if they’d had the surgeons available to perform it. Which, again thanks to the Aureans, they didn’t, not for a non life-threatening operation.

But there were compensations, as the warm body gently undulating against his stomach proved. He still had no idea what had made Aurora single him out for what she called “special treatment.” It wasn’t an apology for what her dark cousins had done, and it wasn’t sympathy for his injury -- there were others far more deserving for her tender mercies. She just genuinely seemed to like and respect him, in which case he certainly wasn’t going to complain

 Returning his mind to the present and the woman atop him, Benigno allowed his hands to drift to her sides. “And what do you propose we use this time for, my goddess?”

“Oh, I think we can come up with something.” Aurora smirked, wiggling her hips further down his body until she could feel a hard protrusion pressing against her panties. “And--” she gave her hips an experimental wiggle-- “I think you do to, my Gentler”

At the mention of his Velorian soubriquet, Benigno’s expression suddenly became more serious. “Are you sure about that?”

Very sure.” Aurora laughed, rubbing herself harder against his rising erection.

“No,” Beni shook his head, “I mean about us, here and now? You said what… being intimate with a Porturegan does to you, how it can make you weaker, more vulnerable?”

“More gentle is the word you’re looking for.” Aurora kissed him on the lips, “And after the past few weeks, that’s exactly what I need.”

“But… the Aureans!” Benigno yelped as he felt her fingers working their way into his trousers

“Can wait. I need this, Beni. I need something, something human. Something soft and… well not so soft--” she giggled feeling his hardness-- “but something that can be protected and loved, and which reminds me why I’m here. Why I must never allow something like Brilhante to happen again.” She paused her furtive fumbling and looked directly into his eyes. “Think of it as your contribution to the war effort.”

Allvariz pretended to think about his options for a second. “So you’re saying I could stay here and make love to a warrior goddess, or I could refuse and we will play… cards or something?”

“No.” Aurora shook her head, momentarily breaking the fading sun with a cascade of corn yellow hair, “I’m saying that we’re going to make love right here, right now. Your permission is welcome but not necessary. Do you understand?” She grinned, feeling him stiffen even more.

Feeling the Virago’s powerful fingers begin to stroke him, Benigno realized just how little influence he had over what was happening, especially now the scent of her own arousal was beginning to fill the glade. Nodding, he smiled and said, “Uh… yes ma’am”

His enthusiasm sent a surge of sudden dampness to Aurora’s nether regions. As a Velorian she enjoyed casual sex but nothing turned her on more than a lover who really wanted her, and she loved Beni more than anything.

The sudden scent of wildflowers melted the very last of Benigno’s resistance. Any thoughts of preserving his lover’s strength were replaced with the desire to see her beautiful face twisted in orgasm.

Almost of their own volition, Benigno’s hands came up to her magnificent chest and squeezed the sensitive flesh through the silky fabric. Aurora moaned in pleasure and fumbled under her uniform, pulling at her invulnerable top until one breast slipped free.

Immediately Beni switched his attention to the gently swaying teat, making Aurora gasp as amber heat rose inside her. It had been a long time since she had had a man; the war had forced unexpected abstinence upon her and the hot sparks being generated by Beni’s touch were shockingly intense.

Beni’s hard fingers pressed deep into her soft flesh while his thumb played her rubbery nipple, using all of their strength to squeeze and play with it, generating small shocks of pleasure that that made her body quiver and jump.

As good as his hands were making her feel, she knew that it was only a shallow precursor to the pleasures to come. Yet as much as she knew this and wanted to move on, she found it impossible to do so because it would require removing his hands from her chest and ending the exquisite sensations.

Greater sense prevailed however and with a hiss of frustration, Aurora pulled his hands away from her and roughly hoisted her top over her head. At the sight of her magnificent globes, Benigno growled and pulled himself upright bumping her roughly back onto his legs, locking his mouth around one hard nipple while his hands busied themselves on the firm flesh of her back.

The sensation of his sucking mouth at her breast and his tracing fingers along her spine was too much for Aurora and she jerked sharply as her passion peaked. With every moment that passed she could feel wet heat bubbling within her, feeding on lust and sensation, and cresting just this side of completion.

And they hadn’t even removed all their clothes yet.

It was a mistake quickly corrected. Benigno barley knew what was happening to him as Aurora quickly stripped him of his jacket and shirt, barley taking heed of their fragility, before pushing him down on his back and tasting the salt on his broad chest.

Allvariz endured the hard edge of her tongue for a few moments before wrapping his arms once again behind her back and rolling them over so that he was on top. The change of direction meant nothing to a being who was so accustomed to the freedom of the sky. Aurora simply held him tighter, wrapping her legs around his hips and using her flight ability to press their bodies close together while her lips made their way up his chest and neck.

As her kisses reached Benigno’s mouth, her hands had moved lower, grasped the waistband of his trousers and underwear together before pushing them down.

Aurora purred in delight as her eyes came to rest on Benigno’s erect manhood, and oddly found herself split two ways. Her body desired foreplay. It wanted to be teased, excited and pleasured. It wanted to waste the night dancing on the edge of passion and to be pleased by a virtuoso.

Her mind however knew that this was impossible. It knew that they’d be lucky to have half a night before she was recalled and… besides, the slickness between her legs said that after a month of abstinence, she required little in the way of foreplay to be satisfied.

After seconds of indecision, she made a deal with herself and, while one hand snaked its way around the back of Benigno’s head, pulling him deeper into their kiss, the other was tugging at the lower half of her uniform.

Kicking the white scraps of material away into the bushes, Aurora began sliding up, inviting her lover to lavish her body with attention as she directed him to the apex of her desire.

As Aurora’s breasts came into view, Benigno couldn’t help but give them each one last kiss. Gnawing on the tender nubs of flesh with his lips and swirling his tongue around the soft tanned flesh. Aurora’s coos of pleasure told him that she appreciated his attention, but way she effortlessly detached him from her nipple said she wanted more.

As Aurora continued to slide up under him, Benigno continued to ravish her golden skin, more precious than the gold she wore to protect him, kissing the flat expanse of her stomach and giving her bellybutton an inquisitive poke with his tongue before descending even deeper between his lovers’ outstretched legs.

Aurora’s passion was reaching crisis point as she gently forced Benigno further downwards. Ever considerate, he resisted her long enough to explore the perfect smoothness of her lower belly, his maddening patience and delicate caress causing liquid fire to gush inside her.

With a less than gentle shove, she got him back on target.

The mere sensation of his breath was like fire against Aurora’s ultra-sensitive petals, making her clench ineffectually at empty air.

Aurora’s chest heaved and she moaned again; she wouldn’t be able to stand much more of his teasing. Keeping one hand firmly on the back of his head, she brought the other up to cup her breast, pulling and squeezing it deeply, adding to the liquid pleasure her lover was drawing from her depths.

“Please…” The Virago begged as Benigno extended his tongue and gave the very tips of her sexual lips a tiny lick. “Please. More.” Then, when her lover returned to his agonizing teasing, she said more insistently, “More!”

The vacuum pilot heard the raw desperation in her voice and acquiesced, to a degree, by wetting his fingers in her desire and using them to gently probe the Velorian’s innermost being, stilling their movement with every quiver he elicited before moving ever inwards.

While his hands were engaged, Benigno’s mouth never stopped moving. Without breaking contact with her skin, he nuzzled his way up her innermost thigh, leaving a wet trail almost indistinguishable from the floral nectar whose taste and scent was driving him insane.

A single honeyed drop had gathered on the pearl of her desire and the sight of it was just too much for the lust crazed Porturegan. Leaning forward he extended his tongue and pressed it deeply into the Virago.

At the touch of his soft flesh against her sex, Aurora tensed, her hips bucked and her fingers sank deeper into her breast as a small climax crashed over her body.

 More! Aurora’s mind screamed, no longer able to even contemplate the thought of more maddening. Instead her hands abandoned her breasts to press Benigno’s head deeper between her thighs.

Somehow shemanaged to avoid turning her lover’s head to pulp in her passion, and was instead rewarded with ecstasy as Benigno placed the flat of his tongue over the length of her sex and began to lap up her fluids in earnest.

As his lips and teeth ravished Aurora’s nether lips, and his tongue played with her clit, Benigno’s hands rose up her sides, slowly stroking her soft skin and surrounding her heaving breasts. For a moment Aurora was content to let him, then the pleasure grew too intense and she brushed one of his hands aside to replace it with her own stronger one.

Kneading and twisting the firm flesh, Aurora panted sharply as her hips began to shudder. Through the haze of pleasure that came with being on the cusp of climax, Aurora became aware of Benigno’s hand sliding on top of her own, pressing on it and using its strength to enhance his own.

As Benigno tried harder, the waves of pleasure began surge faster and faster, building into small hills that crashed over Aurora until she couldn’t tell where one ended and the next began.

Aurora knew she was on the road of no return; that even if Benigno stopped now it was too late. But as inevitable as that outcome was, thoughts of his leaving her now were unthinkable and she clutched his head harder to her sex and squeezed her eyes shut as her orgasm finally exploded deep within her body

Aurora’s head snapped back her eyes suddenly flung open but unseeing with the intensity of the pleasure. Raw ecstasy pulsed through every vein and fiber of her being. Wave after wave crashed outwards from the epicenter of her sex, shaking her body to its soaking wet core.

Eventually the orgasm had to pass and the pair of lovers collapsed to the ground. Panting their exhaustion, each stared at the other for a second before Benigno breathed. “That… was impressive.”

“You’re telling…” Aurora gulped another a lungful of air, “me. You were incredible.”

“Thank… you…” Benigno grinned and leaned down to lick one last drop of essence from Aurora’s vulva, causing the Virago to shiver delightfully.

“Are you up for more?” Aurora’s tone made the question a challenge and she smirked as she issued it; she had yet to meet a man who could turn down the chance.

“Of course.” Benigno replied, crawling up her body and kissing her deeply on the lips. “Any time you want and every time you need me.”

“But what of my strength?” Aurora teased. “Are you no longer afraid of wasting it on your body?”

“Fuck your strength,” Benigno cursed.

“No.” Aurora smirked, spreading her legs so that his manhood was pressed against her pubic bone. “I’d rather you fucked my body.”

“Of course, my goddess.” Benigno answered slyly, and was rewarded with a sharp flick on the nose.

“What have I told you about calling me that?” Aurora asked, but it was clear her heart wasn’t in it. Instead of letting Benigno answer, she undulated her hips so that his hard shaft came to rest just before her entrance.

For a couple of instants he remained there, teasing Aurora with the head, barely entering her before withdrawing, only to press into her once again, extracting a series of soft whimpers from the Virago as she valiantly struggled against her compulsion to end his actions and pull him forcibly within her.

Aurora’s legs had curled over her partner’s hips. Initially she’d been content to let them remain there, simply resting on the back of Benigno’s thighs while he entertained her. But no longer, Benigno’s minute thrusts had breached some subconscious threshold and suddenly her legs turned to warm steel, locking Benigno in the deepest part of his lunge.

Smiling up at his suddenly confused expression, Aurora grinned predatorily up at him and whispered in Benigno’s ear, “No -- more -- foreplay.”

With each word she’d contracted her legs a little bit more, drawing Benigno helplessly into her depths one half inch at a time.

The sensation of feeling Benigno inside her was unbelievable. After so long in abstinence it was almost like that magical night when she’d first lain atop a man. Yet more important than the pleasure that drove thought from Aurora’s mind was the sense of intimacy, the scent, the sensation of his skin brushing against hers, the surge of his pulse imbedded so deeply within her vagina. They all screamed of the love and affection she knew existed between them.

The connection was almost telepathic. Gazing up into Benigno’s blue eyes -- so unusual, she remembered thinking when they’d first met, especially on a world whose population was almost as dark as Aurea itself -- Aurora could feel the bond between them deepening even further, to the point where she could almost sense his thoughts, and feel his desire.

The physical connection became a secondary concern as Benigno reached his depth and bottomed out within her. The sense of connection at that moment was bliss. It wasn’t raw sexuality, but gentle pleasure that was exactly what she needed. Aurora wanted to avoid the madness because it wasn’t what she needed. As much as the role of a gentler was to restrain her strength, it was also to soothe her emotional needs, and while she might enjoy a hard fuck, she also needed to make love.

Very slowly, Benigno began to withdraw, Aurora was far too engrossed in the uniquely female sensation of being filled to hinder the action, and even if she hadn’t, the pleasures of his movements would have made doing so impossible.

Her reflexes kicked in just before he withdrew entirely. She wasn’t sure that’d been his intention, but her legs didn’t want to take the risk and locked behind Benigno.

A soft groan arose from Aurora’s throat as she moaned, “No… escape… lover. Not yet.” And grinned, almost delirious with pleasure as she began to constrict her legs again, scraping the ridges of his shaft pleasurably against the wet walls of her sex.

“I can think of no place I’d rather be entrapped.” Benigno answered, his movements no longer his own but rather an extension of Aurora’s arousal. Trapped between warm thighs, Benigno winced as he fought to hold off his own climax and asked. “Am I to have any part of this?”

In answer Aurora wiggled her hips, causing the Porturegan man to bounce up and down slightly. The unexpected extra force behind the involuntary thrusts against her clit drove small squeaks of pleasure from between Aurora’s lips and elicited several more inadvertent hip jerks before she could speak again. “You took all the control before. Now it’s my turn.”

“As… it should be.” Benigno winced from an entirely different pain as his hand wandered down to Aurora’s sex and began to massage her clit, making her legs flex in sympathetic pleasure.

“Do that again and I’ll come.” Aurora hissed, then grabbed her lover’s hands as they moved back to their target. Transplanting them further up her body to the needy slopes of her breasts, Aurora shook her head, “When I decide. Not before.”

“Yes… ma’am.” Benigno whimpered, his last words of the evening as Aurora’s pheromones finally finished converting his higher thought processes to jelly

Sensing her lover’s ultimate submission, Aurora merely smiled and lay further back, content to let her legs manipulate Benigno into pleasing her in the ways she needed.

 For Benigno, sex had descended into a sensuous hell. Simply being with the Virago was nearly enough to make him spend himself early, actually being within her was heaven, especially when she began to flex her vaginal muscles in ways that were so uniquely Velorian. But what tormented him was the fact that, even if he tried, he couldn’t breach that final precipice and give himself release; every time he did, Aurora’s internal muscles would squeeze him hard enough to stop his approaching orgasm without restraining his passion.

As Aurora’s peak approached her thoughts became even more nonsensical as every synapse polarized towards the ultimate goal of completion. Every sensation, from Benigno’s hands on her breasts to the rapid fluctuations of her sex, to the brush of the ground as she rubbed her head back and forth against the underbrush.

Her entire body was alive. Undulating in time with Benigno’s thrusts, she flung her arms back and tried to hold off the coming storm. It was a task made all the more difficult when Benigno began to suck softly on the base of her neck, making her quiver down to her curling toes.

All the while Aurora’s pants were getting stronger and deeper, rising in time with her passion and peaking with each thrust into her body. Her hips thrust up with her suddenly arched back, effortlessly lifting the uncaring Allvariz as she felt a surge of wet pleasure deep within her sex.

Pure ecstasy exploded within Aurora’s body, flushing her skin and making her force her lover too her even as she squeezed him intensely from within. In the depths of her orgasm she grasped his head between splayed hands and pulled him into a deep kiss before waves of pleasure snapped her head back and banged it repeatedly against the ground. She couldn’t control herself; the frenzy was so intense she squeezed her eyes shut and screamed loud enough to startled birds half a kilometer away.

For long seconds Aurora held that position, floating above the ground while her body quivered in minute expressions of the monumental pleasures coursing through her form. Finally it broke its seizure and began to thrust spasmodically against Benigno as she slid down the backside of her climax—and finally triggered his. He screamed with joy few men could ever know as he poured his love deep into the Velorian goddess.

As the last of the pleasures exhausted itself within her, Aurora made a few gradually diminishing squeaks of joy and rubbed herself up against her lover.

Pecking him gently on the nose, and then allowing her lips to drift down to his own, Aurora delicately brought Benigno out of his pheromone-induced euphoria and whispered.

“Was I as good for you as you were for me?”

Benigno, his head still spinning from a combination of Aurora’s pheromones and sheer disbelief over what had just happened, began to laugh, “You are a Velorian; a being made for love, and my mate. How could it possibly be any other way?”

“Good.” Aurora’s smirk became playful. “Because with that beginning, I know you’re not a once a night male.”

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 Seen from the low flat plains, Serra do Caixhador was a fortress of unimaginable scale. Its vast bluffs rose from the ocean and impaled much of the continent on its barbed walls, sheer canyons and sharp precipices.

 Millions of years ago Caixhador had started life as a fragment of Betah Stronberg’s core. Baked by the heat, battered by the tides and crushed by the pressure, it had eventually broken free of its hellish prison and risen to the surface like a demonic soap bubble.

 Tectonic had plates had slowed its upward progress, but never stopped it. Over the course of millennia, the malevolent mass of molten rock had broken the crust and forged a red citadel from the very bones of the planet.

 Its arrival had been heralded by choking black cloud and flaming skies as earthquakes and volcanoes erupted across the world. And yet, over the course of a million years, Hell’s fortress was conquered.

 By incremental steps, eons of wind, rain, sleet and snow took the edge from its granite peaks. Small plants found their way in and were followed by the advance of animals. Eventually humans arrived on Betah Stronberg and inexorably pushed their way up wherever they could, carving trails into narrow defiles, forging paths through wind-blown passes and finally completed the humiliation by founding a city in its peaks.

 The monster was broken, but had kept some of its claws. When a far more powerful species surpassed humanity for dominance of the world, it refused to yield and forced them follow the same hard paths it had grudgingly ceded to their predecessors.

 One of those routes was in use now. At the bottom of a wide ravine, surrounded by thousand-foot cliffs and observed by carrion eaters, a long trail of fat dots made their way along a turgid stream.

 Deciding that there would be no stragglers to pick off, one such scavenger turned a multifaceted eye away from the unobtainable feast and flapped leathery wings in the biting wind.

 Aurora shivered and tried to put it out of her mind. Denndes always made her uncomfortable; their huge teeth belonged on creatures of the deep ocean more than they did on a lizard of the high mountains.

 Lying next to her, a Porturegan scout shivered as well, though his tremors came from the cold rather than his proximity to the feathered reptile.

 “What do you see?”Aurora was careful to speak directly into his earpiece, and held her voice to a whisper; it was almost certain that the wind covered her words, but she had learned not to underestimate Aurean technology.

 “Probably no more than you can,” the scout answered, his voice sounding tinny after being processed through the electronic filter of his mask.

 “Don’t bet on it.” Aurora gave him a small smile. “My eyes are confined to two very specific frequencies. Your visor--” too close to point, she laid her hand on his monocular-- “sees every part of the EM spectrum.”

 “Nothing is happening,” the scout answered. “No sign that they are aware of our presence.”

 Aurora allowed a thin smile to crease her lips. “I guessed that from the lack of artillery fire. I meant, have there been any developments?”

 The scout shook his head, the grey metal of his faceplate, dulled to avoid giveaway reflections, gave him a mechanical, inhuman appearance even greater than the electronic buzz of his voice synthesizer. “None that I can see.”

 “Good. I don’t want any last minute surprises…” Craning over the ledge, she winced and asked, “Is that big Emperor still heading the column?”

 The monocular shifted south slightly. “…Yes ma’am.”

 “Shit,” Aurora hissed. “I thought they had pulled it back.”

 The scout’s fingers shifted on his device, switching spectra to pick out additional detail. “I think they put it back on point an hour ago, Fair Child. But it is already a priority is it not?”

 “I know, but that does not make my statement any less true; the glacis plate alone is thicker than my forearm and it has a shield that belongs on a corvette. What units are going after it?”

 “One second.” The scout’s fingers twitched again. “Twenty-two anvils from the Hundred and First.”

 “Twenty-two of your best against one of their best,” Aurora shook her head. “Skietra, I wish you had some aircraft.”

 “They would help?”

 Not really, but it’d certainly look more impressive, Aurora thought to herself. Out loud she said. “A bit; Aurean crews are trained to take aircraft more seriously than ground attacks; they might distract the Emperor and buy your crews some time.”

 “Defeatist talk does more for the enemy than it does for us,” the scout replied, almost automatically.

 “I see the Cabinet for Propaganda is finally doing its job,” the Virago responded dryly, half wondering if the Porturegans’ newest war measure was entirely a good thing.

Glancing back at the slow moving column – the rugged ground, ravines and chuckholes posed no trouble to the tanks, but they were playing hell with the infantry – she sighed and patted the scout on the shoulder. “Maintain your position, do your duty and when the action starts, keep your head down. I would hate it if you gave the Aureans an easy kill.”

 “Of course, Fair Child,” he nodded and lowered his eyes respectfully.

 Given his distance from the ambush, the chances of anyone even noticing him were almost nonexistent, but hard experience had taught her not to take unnecessary chances -- in the terror of combat a panicked Aurean might decide killing a distant, helpless Porturegan was preferable to angering those who could shoot back.

 Aurora cast her eyes down. There would be enough “unnecessary casualties” today without adding another to the pyre. Reflexively her fingers scratched shallow groves in the rock at the thought. Every death in the war had been unnecessary; she was a Virago, more than that she was the Virago, the first Velorian ever to have been born without need of enhancement. She was stronger, faster and better trained than any other Protector, how could any world she was protecting suffer such appalling defeat?

 The obvious answer, a seditious part of her suggested, was that it was her Protectorates’ fault. Aurora and her predecessors had been warning the Porturegans about the Aureans for centuries; they had no excuse to have allowed their weapons to stagnate for so long.

 Her instincts and training killed the idea almost instantly, but their imprint remained, glowing like a burning filament. The Porturegans had had two hundred years to prepare and they’d ignored the danger. Now they were paying for that mistake.

 Paying unnecessarily; the blood being spilt should be mine, Aurora concluded. Regardless of what should have been done, it was her duty to take the situation and make it better. Her protectorates shouldn’t have to play anything more than a peripheral role.

 A twitch to her right drew Aurora’s attention back to the scout.  While his face betrayed no expression, she could sense his confusion. It didn’t take her long to realize it was because she’d been lying motionless for almost a minute.  She flashed him a faint smile, patted him once more and disappeared amongst the teeth-like projections of rock that flanked the canyon. Only when she was out of direct line of sight with the convoy did she risk a short flight back to the forward command centre.

  

***

 

“How are things progessing?”

General Inácio didn’t look up from the table where he and his staff were scrutinizing the situation map. Only a year ago he would have used a paper diagram, but the flat device before him was the offspring of the new technologies spawned by the invasion.

Strictly speaking, he shouldn’t have needed her opinion; the map, as primitive as it was with a merely two dimensional interface, was compiled in real time reports from the scouts Aurora had met, and should have given him everything he needed. But the General preferred, correctly in her opinion, personal experience to anything created by a computer.

 “Good,” she answered. “They’ve reinforced their rear a little, but it is nothing you need worry about. Aside from that things are as they should be. I presume nothing has changed here?”

 “Yes. A mahgin of luck.” He used a stylus to tap on a section of map, enhancing a collection of green shapes. “These arrived just efore you did.”

 “Besouros Protetors?” Aurora’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “Where did they come from?”

 “An estranged unit caught between lines. Originly they were heading for  Brilhante but had the ill fate of being seen by sum Airskirmizers. They managed to shoot dem down but suffered enough damage to prevent the unit from reaching the battle. Since then they have ‘een wandering, trying to get back into the fight…” he sighed, “but ‘ey were north west of  Liberdade…”

 “Directly in the path of the Aurean retreat.” Aurora nodded. “But even a quarter-strength unit will be invaluable.” She was thinking of the Aurean super tank at the head of the column.

 “More so because of ‘eir intelligence.” He looked up, reflecting Aurora’s surprise in his glasses. The intensity of her expression was matched by the grin on his face. It was not an expression that suited him particularly well.

 Adčo Inácio was a young man, barely into his forties, and thinly handsome so long as you only saw him in profile; the shell that had landed him his promotion, had also removed the rear portion of his jaw and a significant portion of his neck. Prosthetics had replaced the bone, but his flesh had failed to heal properly, leaving him with a drawn, desiccated face where white scar tissue drew the dark skin into taught pits. When he grinned it was all too easy to imagine the wet bones moving beneath damaged muscle. It also gave him a unique lisp.

“Az I sayd, they were caught east of Liberdade. They hav had the better part of two days to watch an entire Aurean column in full retreat; intelligence prosspects aside, the properganda footage alone is werf the cost they paid.”

 Aurora’s jaw tensed as she bit back her immediate reply.

 Instead she reminded herself that the enemy deserved her anger for making otherwise reasonable men into ruthless cynics. When she replied to Inácio, it was through gritted teeth. “Yes?”

 Inácio twitched at her tone, “You disagree?”

 “I would… argue that no propaganda would be worth the lives of so many men. Regardless of how effective it is, within weeks it will be worthless.”

 “Do not judge ush so harshly.” Inácio replied. “We understand the cost they payd, probably more than you do, and our interest extends far beyond propaganda. As I said they observed the Aurean retreat and because they did we now know their strengths, their deployments, have a better idea of their command hierarchy and surviving leadership – you will be pleazed to know that general De’źr does not appear to be amougst the living. With this information we can start to plan an effective counterattack, perhaps even put them on the defenzive for once.”

 Aurora merely grunted. The news about De’źr was good -- aside from Brilhante, the bloodthirsty Prime had been the director of half a dozen ‘lesser’ massacres-- but her stomach cramped at the idea of her protectorates trying to do anything other than run from the Aureans.

Almost without exception, every other attempt to force a victory had resulted in disaster. Only when the Porturegans had vastly superior numbers or the Aureans were at their most desperate had they been able to call the result a success. Anything less and at best the Porturegans could slow them down. For now Aurora knew the numbers were still in their favor, but every defeat and Pyrrhic victory drew the odds further and further against them.

 The thoughts took only a few milliseconds to course through her mind, but she still needed to shake her head to clear them away and return to her mission.  More for her own benefit that for the General’s, she murmured, “Concentrate on today, tomorrow will come at its own pace.”

 “Believe me.” Inácio tapped on the hard polymer protecting the map. “I am.”

 Aurora watched the quarter-strength unit race up a gulley. Their intelligence must have been radioed in; even pushing themselves they wouldn’t arrive at the battle until it was well underway. Even so she felt better knowing they existed.

 She shifted her gaze to the units already in position. Most of the heavy armor was on the ridges to either side of the ambush, well out of sight of the enemy and camouflaged against Aurean satellites, but it would take only moments for them to roll up a few meters and present the Aureans with the full force of their cannons.

 West of them, a smaller line of armor had taken position on the other side of the valley. Hidden in a depression and concealed beneath soil and canvas, this detachment was on the valley floor, like the Aureans. While the first unit would sow panic and fear from their position of relative safety, the second group would take advantage of that confusion by sallying out into the enemy columns, slaughtering the infantry, intensifying disorder and breaking up the units.

 As poor at fighting as they were, the Porturegans had quickly learned that armies were only strong when they had cohesion.

In the rocks that had tumbled to the valley floor to the north and south, squads of infantry hid, waiting for that disharmony so they could pick off their enemies at a comfortable range. Close combat was out of the question but it wouldn’t need to be, between the infantry and the Aureans were two hundred meters of mines, anti-tank defenses, razor wire and large caliber machineguns. Despite their gadgets and machines, the Aureans were as vulnerable to an ambush as anyone else and with careful positioning and re-supply, the Porturegan ordnance would eventually penetrate the Aurean armour.

 “Where will you be?” Inácio asked.

 “Here, up on the ridge.” Aurora pointed, indicating an area above the ambush site. “I’ll have a good view of the battle from there.”

 The General nodded and turned his attention to the Aurean column outlined in red on the map, “Then I suggeyst you get moving. At their payse the Aurean will be in position inside five minutos.” He nodded towards a capitčo standing on the peripheral of his group. “Make sure the men understand that as well; we can’t fail so close to our goal just because some gabo got careloss.”

 “Of course, sir.” The capitčo saluted smartly and disappeared in the direction of the radio tent.

 Inácio  returned to the map, apparently erasing Aurora from his immediate universe. With nothing else to report, and slightly affronted by the General’s behavior, the Virago turned stiffly and departed. She wasn’t used to being ignored.

 The camp wasn’t far from the ambush, but neither was it so close that it was at risk from an opportunistic Aurean, or an unlucky shell. Finding her spot was only a short flight over the bladelike terrain.

 

* * *

  

 Through the rocks she could see the last of the Aurean rear guard negotiating a treacherous, obstacle filled slope which interrupted the gentle rise of the valley floor. It was certainly far more perilous than it had been a day before, thanks to the Porturegan engineering corps.

Aurora grinned.  In the panic of retreat, with everyone clambering over each other to get out of the cordon of death, the slope would be impossible, especially because the engineers had taken the time to fill the yellow rock with high explosives. With a flick of a switch the incline would be turned into a killing field.

 The last vehicle stumbled over the top of the slope and entered the ambush. The valley was wide here, wide and flat. The only cover was the two or three foot high banks of the now dried-up river which meandered to one side. Everything looked two dimensional under the high midday sun. No shadows appeared around the baked rocks, denying panicked troops any place to hide and making the camouflage covering the hidden ‘warriors all the more difficult to spot.

 Thunder rippled through the canyon, and a few Betans looked up in curiosity, wondering how a storm could occur in sun-baked mountains.  Half a second later dust clouds exploded amongst the column, ripping metal as easily as flesh. Though the harder machines withstood the attack, more than a dozen personnel carriers were reduced to columns of greasy black smoke.

 The first salvo wasn’t utterly devastating. The Aureans were good soldiers and had foreseen the ambush potential of this route.  The leading tanks had engaged shields, while most of the infantry carriers were gliding between the floating hulks, out of sight of potential attackers.

 The precautions, although they saved lives, didn’t protect them from the disorder the barrage created. No one had been truly expecting an attack, and the sudden descent from order to chaos paralyzed them. The entire column froze as the infantry hit the ground and turrets began traversing the canyon walls, silently scanning for their attackers. One or two even fired randomly at the rocks before someone enforced fire discipline and made them wait for actual targets.

The Porturegan ’Warriors were able to get  two more volleys off – an amazing feat in Aurora’s opinion – before the Aurean weapons could bear on them. Background to the din was the unending crackle of rifle fire. Unlike that from the cannons there was no end, no distinction between each round, there was simply an unchanging vibration, not rising or falling, just a continuous rattle.

 As the seconds passed, the raw sizzle of Aurean GAR’s were added to the mix and moments after that, the deafening roars of the Aurean main armament. Half a breath later tinny bangs signaled the death of some of the ambushers.

 Aurean tanks spoke again, and again more Porturegans died. Yet fewer than would have in a stand-up battle, for as good as the Aurean targeting was, all they had to shoot at was a tiny sliver of machine that appeared over the edge.  Worse, the Aureans relied on heat to distinguish their targets and after hours of preparation in the desert sun, the Porturegan ’Warriors were virtually the same temperature as their surroundings.  Shell after shell impacted rock walls, sending orange cascades of stone down into the valley, even more soared into the sky. It was the worst targeting Aurora had ever seen from the Aureans but even their worst was better than the Porturegans’ finest.

 Then another sound emerged from the din, and Aurora directed her attention to the units embedded in the valley’s west side.

 Driving straight up through their canvas coverings, the Landwarriors resembled large moving dust heaps. Shedding sand and cloth, they piled into the disintegrating column, spilling Aureans before them as they struck from point blank range.

 For the beleaguered enemy it was the final straw. Already confused by the suddenness of the attack, the sight of dozens of armored behemoths speeding through their ranks at more than a hundred kilometers per hour caused total terror. Even the tanks moved aside rather than risk an impact that might crush their shields. Senior officers rallied their men and prevented total disaster, but even Porturegan shells could penetrate the Aurean armor at close range and soon the column was a charnel house of smoking machines and missing limbs. 

Eventually, even the Emperor-class tank leading the Aurean column succumbed to the bombardment.  Though it took its pound of flesh from the attackers, the Emperor’s shields finally collapsed after a twenty-minute barrage. Without them it was only a matter of time before the hull imploded. Hatches flipped and a couple of the crew managed to escape the destruction, but only one of the Anvils raked the area with its machinegun.

 

* * *

  

 From the top of a ridge, Aurora saw a victory unfold, a victory that left ashes in her mouth.  Everything was falling depressingly into place. Teixeira and Inácio’s casualty estimates were turning out to be horrifically accurate. Ten ’Warriors had been destroyed in the Aureans’ first return salvo, and the losses had only swelled from there.

 But there She was, standing on the ridge, making herself so visible to the Aureans. She might have been asked to refrain from taking an active role in the attack but there was nothing to stop her presenting an obvious target. All Aurean vehicles were outfitted with equipment that detected Velorians; they literally couldn’t miss her. Now if only they would take it one step further and start shooting her instead of her protectorates.

 No one took the bait. Perhaps it was the more immediate Porturegan threat that compelled their attention, or maybe the Aureans simply knew that mere tank brigade was hopelessly outclassed by a Virago. 

Aurora sighed and found a suitable – highly visible – rock to sit on. It was going to be a long, painful day for her. She looked at the battle and knew that for too many of the people below, it was going to a terminally short day. The Aureans were regrouping faster than anticipated; they’d managed to smash the ’Warrior charge, without which the infantry attack was reduced to a nuisance, a dangerous nuisance, but still just a nuisance.

 The Aureans were going to lose. The Porturegans had inflicted enough damage to make that a certainty, but it would be an expensive victory. Aurora could only hope it would be worth it.

 And she was responsible. The Porturegans would never have committed so many lives to the ambush without her constant badgering. As necessary as this battle might be, people, innocents, were dying because of her. They were dying for her.

 

* * *

  

 “An impressive plan.” Tala’Aerie whispered into her ear. “And under other circumstances it might have succeeded.”

 Aurora was turning even before her conscious mind had registered the words. Flinging out her fist even as her body spun, the Virago put every iota of power, every modicum of hate, every bad thought born of having to watch good men die needlessly behind the blow.

 Tala deflected her fist without effort and batted the Virago aside with a single strike to the face.

 “Your reactions have improved.” She announced with something approaching bemused respect. “Last time you weren’t anywhere near as fast.”

 Rubbing her jaw, Aurora slowly stepped away from the Tset’lar. “What are you here for?” She asked, rolling her shoulders into a casual defensive stance.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Tala arched one obsidian eyebrow before tilting her head down towards the valley. “I’m here for them.”

“You are here for me.” Aurora corrected automatically.

“No.” A cruel smile appeared on the Tset’lar’s already amused face. “I’m here for them. It was a near thing actually; I was very nearly not called in, but in attacking this convoy your protectorates have shown a degree of military awareness that, if allowed to fester, could make them dangerous. Naturally this can not be allowed to happen and I must, regretfully, close this trap.”

 Aurora only just stopped herself from reacting; if the Aureans knew that the Porturegans had attacked on her advice, it could be disastrous; they would place an even higher emphasis on killing her and if that happened, Betah Stronberg would be finished.

“Trap.”  She mouthed the word. “You set this up.”

“Did you honestly believe we would send an entire Infantry division through a canyon with only a few combat vehicles for support?”

 Tala’s tone was mocking and Aurora couldn’t help but look ashamed; she hadn’t seen it. “…After Brilhante we assumed you had placed expediency over individual safety; without reinforcements your troops were vulnerable.” The instant her mouth stopped moving she cursed herself; physically, mentally, verbally, you never left yourself open to the enemy. Had Tala affected her so much that she’d forgotten such a basic rule of combat?

 As if taking pity on the Virago, Tala’s smile dipped in intensity and she cocked her head. “Actually you’re right.”

 “I’m what?”

 “You’re right.” Tala repeated slowly. “We are. After the debacle emphasis was placed on regrouping and one general made the fatal--” her smile implied she wasn’t speaking in metaphor-- “mistake of directing this convoy through this canyon. Fortunately I was in camp at the time and was able to ensure his staff realized the severity of his error in judgment.” She licked her lips and when she next spoke, her eyes were bright. “It was an enjoyable half hour, more so for me than him I’m sure.”

 Aurora resisted the temptation to retch. Tset’lar were bred to gain loyalty from those around them, more often through terror than inspiration, but she never realized anyone could take delight in torturing a subordinates just to make a point.

 “Of course you are a bonus.” Tala continued. “I suspected, considering the importance of this attack, that you would be here but couldn’t be certain. What I can’t figure however is why you’re up here and not down there?” She dipped her head towards the battle again. “Surely you know their casualties will be far higher…”

Realization flashed across her face and she clapped both hands to her cheeks in joyous surprise. “You aren’t a part of this battle, are you? You, you’ve opted out for some reason… but why, why would a Virago stay out of a battle in which hundreds, perhaps thousands of her protectorates will die?”

Pinching her chin in bewilderment, she started pacing around the Virago. Aurora, unwilling to provoke a confrontation so close to the army, demurely stood her ground and let her enemy finish her appraisal. Finally Tala admitted.

“No, I’m stumped. There is no tactical reason I can think of that would allow you to stay here away from the fighting. From all appearances you are unhurt and at full power. You might attract some fire away from your precious humans, but that’s nothing compared to the damage you could inflict on that column. So… why are you up here?”

“You’re the one who’s been tactically trained from birth,” Aurora sneered, “you work it out.”

Tala glanced from her to the battle then at her again. She looked down, she looked up, she stared curiously into Aurora’s eyes, cocked her head and studied the fight once again. The Aurean’s pink tongue wetted her lips and for a few seconds she was stumped, like a habilidade tática master discovering that the opponent they considered a novice had somehow maneuvered themselves into a winning gambit.

 Nothing happened and then Tala burst into delighted laughter. Her face a rictus of pleasure, she jabbed a finger at the Virago, “This is some kind of… I don’t know; a test isn’t it? – No,” she corrected herself. “Test isn’t the right word, but it’s close; something you – no, they – are doing to prove… what, themselves? Isn’t quite right; Brilhante showed they aren’t totally ineffective enemies. Shit, I had it a second ago…” She tailed off again, apparently in deep though. Aurora’s instincts screamed that she should attack but her intellect told her to stay; there was a deeper gleam behind the Aurean’s eyes. While she might appear to be playing, Tala was more than prepared to defend herself.

“Propaganda!” the Tset’lar announced. “You’ve actually managed to convince them that saying ‘The Aureans are bad, go out and die’ isn’t a very good way of motivating people.” She shook her head and brought her hands together in sincere admiration. “I am impressed; I had no idea you were so willing to sacrifice your protectorates. All that talk about your willingness to give anything for them and yet you’re able to watch a thousand of them be butchered just so their leaders can say, ‘Look, we’re not quite as bad as you think we are, go off and die.’”

She moved forward, as if she was about to slap Aurora heartily on the back then thought better of it and merely resumed her previous applause. “That is Aurean thinking at its finest. Well done! I shall take great pleasure in telling my sisters. Believe me you shan’t be forgotten for this, not in a thousand years.”

 That’s what I’m afraid of, Aurora thought dejectedly. Protectors were trained to defend lives, not sacrifice them. If word of her actions, and lack of such, ever got back to the Hall her name would be remembered for the next thousand years because no Acolyte would be allowed to graduate without cursing it.

 She was suddenly pissed. Tala was allowed to be a better fighter -- it was what she was bred to be -- she was even allowed to be stronger and faster. But to so easily guessing her plans made her truly inhuman; no one  save Skietra had any right to be that smart.

 The suddenness with which she moved caught Tala completely off guard. Never had thee Tset’lar seen the Velorian attack so quickly, or with such ferocity. In the space of an eye blink Aurora had gone from being relaxed to punching her adversary so hard that the Tset’lar was sent literally flying head over heels, crushing boulders and bushes beneath her until she finally crashed into an enormous outcropping.

 The impact of Supremis flesh meeting hard basalt was so loud that Aurean and Porturegan alike raised their heads as one to see the vast cloud of superheated, pulverized rock rising from the impact site.  The fighters immediately assumed the worst, that someone had set off an Aurean CNR-01 Groundleveler. A 0.1 kiloton bomb. But no one could understand why it had been set off so far from the battle.

 Speculation was forgotten as shrapnel began to rain. Blades of black obsidian that slammed down with the force of cannon rounds lacerated the air, already cloudy from the dust kicked up by the Imperial and Porturegan weapons.

The Betans took it hardest. Exposed, their armour already weakened by hours of heavy combat, the lethal avalanche was like grapeshot above a cornfield to them. Whole companies were cut down, their bodies splayed open or impaled by meter long fragments of rock.

The Porturegans were more fortunate; firing from concealed positions close to the canyon walls, they were spared the worst of the deluge but even they took casualties as the wind shifted and caused the final burst to rain down upon them.

 For Tala the world had been turned on its head. Literally. When she recovered from her surprise, she found herself stuck upside down, pinned within a small outcropping by the force of Aurora’s blow.

 The granite, as tightly as it gripped her, proved little obstacle to her muscles and cracked loudly as she tensed her arms and legs. Finally she pushed away from the rock’s stiff embrace, shattering it and with one final cataclysmic snap sending the entire outcropping crashing into the valley below.

 Still partially stunned from the violence of Aurora’s attack, Tala jumped at the roar of hundreds of tones of rock ramming the valley floor.

 Aurora threw herself at the Tset’lar’s back. Driving her to the ground she kicked hard and had the momentary satisfaction of hearing Tala scream in pain as she was thrown into a thicket of knife sharp rocks. Before the Tset’lar could rise fully, Aurora was on her, punching down as the Virago’s knee rose. The twin impacts of the Aurean’s face meeting Aurora’s body cracked liked gunshots across the valley.

 Tala fell again, crushing more of the strange rock but managed to roll aside before Aurora could drive a knee into her exposed midsection. Her reflexes were still rattled and left her vulnerable to an uppercut that tossed the Aurean high into the air.

 Tala caught herself before she rose more than a few hundred meters yet only had time to see Aurora rising like a missile to meet her before the two crashed together. Aurora stuck out with a fist and was rewarded with another grunt of pain before the Aurean slashed a foot across her face, knocking her away.

 Falling a dozen yards, Aurora twisted sharply and soared upwards once again. Rather than fall towards her foe, Tala merely hovered in place, waiting while Aurora burned up energy in her ludicrously fast ascent. At the last moment she swung aside, only feeling a brush of the Virago’s skin before Aurora’s own momentum carried her past.

 With a shriek of rage, Aurora turned yet again and dove hard. Again Tala dodged and allowed Aurora to see an arrogant smirk as once more she regained the high ground.

 Rather than fly again, Aurora stopped and forced herself to think. Realizing what the Aurean was trying to do she smiled and allowed herself to calm before rising a final time.

 With her thoughts under control, Aurora expected the Tset’lar to rally by striking her volatai – the tiny organ near her heart that was the source of her flight – and thereby forcing her to fight on the ground while Tala retained air superiority. As a precaution she guarded her chest, pulling both arms up in to a defensive position. It spoiled her flight profile and cost energy, but it was a small price to pay for the defense it afforded, not to mention its usefulness as the foundation for an attack.

 She wasn’t alone in knowing the advantages of such a posture; unfortunately she wasn’t as familiar with its weaknesses.

 Tala waited eagerly for the attack. Like all Tset’lar she had spent her life studying Velorian tactics and was more than willing to demonstrate that knowledge to Aurora.

 A fraction of a second before Aurora was in range to strike, Tala cut left and down, dropping into a random spin past the Virago. As she fell she lashed out and caught Aurora squarely between her shoulder blades, badly bruising the muscles and shooting pain through the Velorian’s body.

 The punch wasn’t as good as a direct hit to her Volatai but it didn’t need to be. Already exerted by the rapid changes in velocity and direction, the tiny organ fluttered as the shockwaves crashed through Aurora’s tensed muscle, then failed, announcing Tala’s victory with paralyzing pain.

 Tala watched the Velorian fall with a cruel smile on her face. She hadn’t damaged Aurora’s volatai, only shocked it. Aurora would recover quickly, almost certainly before she hit the ground, but it allowed the Tset’lar precious moments to recover. Even though she didn’t allow herself to show it, her body ached from Aurora’s pummeling yet she processed the pain as an enticement for revenge and regarded the her helpless prey with all the mercy of a ravenous cat.

 She licked her lips and darted downwards. Already her hindbrain was preparing the next stage of the fight, estimating Aurora’s new strategy and comparing it against her encyclopedia of compatible attacks.

 Helpless and blinded by pain, Aurora was oblivious to the Tset’lar’s approach until rigid bands of steel wrapped around her chest, crushed her flesh and forced her into an even faster plummet towards the hard rock of the canyon bottom.

 Even at her prime Aurora couldn’t have broken the hold. With her back still spasming and her arms pinned to her sides, she could only crane her head back and watch the mountain rush up towards her.

For a few desperate moments she thought Tala was going to accompany her all the way into the ground, but in the last instant the Aurean pushed away and watched as the Virago slammed headfirst into the canyon floor.

It was as if a nuclear bomb had been set off. A shockwave of compressed air scythed into the soldiers like a rake into reeds, ripping them from their feet and hurling them like leaves before a storm. The ground shook so violently that even the Landwarriors were in danger of toppling. Pillars of rock that had stood for millennia crumbled and crashed as vast splits and cracks spread out from when Aurora lay entombed.

 Tala drifted lazily down and surveyed the damage. Most of the Betans were dead, either from the Porturegan bombardment or as a consequence of her fight with Aurora. A fair number of the natives still breathed and most of their equipment was intact -- though not, she grinned, for too much longer. Killing them would be a pleasant followup to the tremendous rush of destroying the Virago, as a good wine improved a fine meal. Tset’lars were gourmets of pain after all; she might not even kill them all at once.

 There was a stirring in the crater as Aurora gathered herself, then another explosion as Tala plunged on her like a pile driver, pounding the air from her lungs and burying her even deeper underground.

 The dust wasn’t given time to settle before there were yet more deafening booms as the Tset’lar’s fists slammed into Aurora’s steel-hard back. Faster and faster they pummeled the Virago’s flesh, every smack, blow and groan of pain music to the Aurean’s ears as Aurora grew weaker. The deafening din grew so loud that nearby soldiers had to cover their ears against it.

 Aurora was screaming though her voice was lost in the maelstrom. Even Tala could not hear, so intent was she upon savoring her task. She throbbed with pleasure at every punch, surged with the flow of adrenaline running through her veins, groaned at the sensation of Aurora’s flesh gradually deforming beneath her knuckles and sighed as a rib crumpled.

 She paused only when Aurora was inches from death, when the Virago’s great heart was pattering feebly in her chest and her face was so swollen she couldn’t have recognized herself in a mirror. It was tactically ill advised; as hideous as the injuries were, the Virago would recover if given enough time. But with her own heart pumping the sweet song of endorphins through her body, Tala couldn’t help but stand back and admire her handiwork; Aurora was defeated and disgraced not just in battle, but before her protectorate; she wanted to relish the moment so she could relate every detail of the kill to her sister Tset’lar later

 Velor’s finest lay at her feet. A woman who had killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of Primes in her short life and almost single-handedly saved this world from conquest. Even as one set of instincts were crying at her to finish the task at hand, another set entirely were forcing her lips back into a predatory grin and her husky voice to whisper, “Endgame.”

To her amazement, Aurora answered back. “No.”

The statement was so ridiculous that Tala laughed. “I think so. You will not escape this time.”

“I… will be… replaced.” Spitting fragments of rock, Aurora struggled to raise her head the few centimeters to face her enemy. “You may kill me, but there will always be another.”

Tala just shrugged and drew back her fist. “Maybe, probably. But she won’t be you and I’ll enjoy killing her just as much.”

Her arm lashed out, seeking the vulnerable expanse of skin just beneath the Velorian’s ribcage. Aurora, with an enormous gasp of effort, just managed to turn the strike aside and respond with one of her own.

The punch, so pitiful as to be almost a slap, surprised the triumphant Aurean into actually stepping back a pace and a half. Shocked, she could only watch as Aurora slowly dragged her battered body from its tomb and crawled to her knees before her.

Thin rivulets of blood ran down Aurora’s face and a small smile touched her bruised lips as she whispered, “Maybe… not.”

 Only Tala’s superb timing stopped the Virago’s next blow from connecting, and the one after that, and after that. She could simply not believe what was happening. It was impossible. All of her senses told her that Aurora should be at death’s doorstep, her body too battered to do anything more complex than breathing. Yet Aurora was fighting back. The strikes were frail, but they caused her to lose ground as she blocked, blocked and re-blocked the Virago’s frantic flailing.

 Eventually she shook her head and concentrated. Whatever the mechanism -- maybe Aurora had an extra adrenal gland or something --it wasn’t enough. In her present condition even a Betan would have only moderate difficulty in subduing her.

 With a single backhand swipe she sent Aurora back to the ground and moved in. “No more delays.” She announced passively: “You die now.”

 Aurora, crimson blood trickling down her split lips, could not even move her head to watch as Tala drew back her fist for the final time. There was no joy in the Tset’lar’s eyes now. By retaliating she had at least denied Tala the pleasure of an honorable kill; instead of accepting her fate like a good Velorinna and affording the killing act some dignity, she’d resisted and broken the moment. The thought warmed her as the Aurean’s fingers flexed just once before darting forward.

  An explosion illuminated the crater.

  Debris swirled. A thick dry cloud of vapor rose from the hole where two near goddesses had fought. There was no sound except the faint patter of pebbles coming to rest,

 Aurora blinked.

 She blinked again.

 She blinked a third time.

 She was still alive?

 Not that she was complaining.

 There was a shape beside her.

 With a stab of pain, she turned her head to look at it. She could not trust what her eyes revealed. Tala was lying there, her face tilted in her direction, eyes momentarily closed in surprise.

 But only for a moment. With a start Tala’s eyes stared at Aurora.

 For one fleeting instant in time, the adversaries shared each other’s incomprehension; this was not how things were meant to have gone. Like a woman going to a tragedy and finding comedy, Aurora felt a tendril of laughter trying to push its way through the pain and past her lips.

 Then the moment passed and Tala sprang to her feet, hurt yet alert, every sense hunting for the source of the attack.

 There was the briefest of whistles and Tala felt a blow to her face before being felled once again. This time she didn’t stay down but rebounded immediately, a demonic snarl on her face, searching for the source of the indignity.

 She found it.

 Found them.

 All along the east canyon walls, the long cannons of Porturegan Landwarriors glared down at her.  The Besouros Protetors, the extra unit Aurora had noted back at headquarters, had finally arrived and joined their guns to those of the ’Warriors already in place. 

 While Tala and Aurora had bickered and fought, the Porturegans had taken the initiative, aided in no small measure by the clash of superwomen. Those Betans who had survived the slaughter had quickly been cleared by Porturegan fire, leaving only one Aurean on the field -- and to the Porturegans she was killing, if not a goddess, then an expression of divine will.

 The first shell had almost been an accident, the result of a gunner caught between his training, commander, beliefs and biology. All of which said that someone very dear to him was about to perish.

 The second shell had not been an accident.  Now that the precedent had been set another Landwarrior decided that it could not stand idle either.

 Now, standing at the bottom of a canyon, staring up the smooth bored interiors of one hundred and fifty armored killing machines, Tala, for perhaps the first time in her life, felt a trickle of fear.

 There was a clicking sound and, as one, every ’Warrior spoke.

 It wasn’t just the vehicles on top of the canyon; those few that had survived the raid on the valley floor also fired, as did the infantry imbedded in the rock. All had a stake in what was happening and all wanted to help their Protector.

 Everything from bullets to rockets to shells and missiles slammed into the Tset’Lar’s body, knocking her off her feet. She stood shakily only to hear a scream and see the unfurling white snake of an anti-tank rocket whistling towards her.

 She dodged it, barely, and even the next one -- but there were so many, and every one was guided by a soldier with blood in his eyes. Bullets peppered her body, itching like the bites of a hundred thousand mosquitoes, a grenade landed at her feet and pelted her with stinging hot shrapnel, a mortar team finally got her bracketed and knocked her down. Finally, the Landwarriors reloaded and fired again.

 Rage clouded the Tset’lar’s mind. She was being attacked by insects; they didn’t even have the dignity of Betans -- yet their every shell struck with the force of one of Aurora’s best punches ,and she was already tired from the battle.

 Furious, she leapt into the air, swearing to rid the planet of the insignificant race, which dared to harm her.  Instantly,  she was struck down again. She got up, but no matter which way she flew or evaded she found herself slamming into another projectile, going in the other direction.

 Literally shell-shocked, battered with billions of joules of kinetic energy, hopelessly pummeled, the flight centers of Tala’s brain simply shut down and she fell into the shallow canyon stream. Even if she had intended to, it would have been a vain maneuver.  On the ground, she found that the incoming fire simply tossed her about with greater ease. Valiantly she tried to find the vehicles again but the tons of explosives detonating against her body made it impossible to focus.

 Even in this maelstrom, Tala knew at some level that she was in no danger. It would take a direct hit by a nuclear warhead to penetrate her skin, and even if they could fire ten times as hard as they were now the tanks didn’t come close to that level of force. She only had to wait for them to exhaust their ammunition, and she could exact her revenge.

 But every second she delayed afforded Aurora more time in which to heal. And while the native weaponry could not kill her, it was as if she were still fighting the Virago; every shot hurt.

Deep down she could feel the primitive weapons damaging her, perhaps only bruises but over time even such minor injuries might mount up -- and even if they didn’t, the constant irregular bombardment, vibration, noise and flashes were playing hell with her perceptive centers. Simply by attacking the Porturegans were exhausting her, and she was already tired; she had after all entered the battle only after playing with the Prime who’d sent this regiment to their deaths.

Her mind only half functioning, physically battered and sensorially blinded, Tala did something she would never have thought possible, something no Tset’lar had ever done.

 She fled.

 Disoriented and reeling, she leaped randomly into the air, veering randomly as shells and rockets continued to slam into her body.  Her escape was not the ordered, graceful flight she was accustomed to but a chaotic, painful experience as she ricocheted off the canyon walls and finally into the freedom of the open sky.

 Aurora, still in agony from the assault, could barely follow the Tset’lar’s crazed retreat before her vision faded and she slipped to the ground and unconsciousness.

There she remained until the Porturegans recovered her.

 

 

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