Submitted for the Pod and Planet Eve Fiction Contest on December 1, 2012.
"Listen. We'll all die screaming."
Reena had all but weaned out the soft rattle of utensils on the table that rang in unison with the heavy thud of munitions. Holding her fork like a pen, she picked at the bowl of slop with glassy eyes fixed on the food. She wasn't quite eating it but in the same sense she wasn't quite avoiding it either. The taste of the frothy food was less than appealing. It was lacking flavor, just a bland soup of nutrients.
The shots were loud and lacked any sort of rhythm. Occasionally she would hear a shout but it was often jumbled in with the sparse sounds of combat that floated beyond the walls of the mess hall. Regardless, those sounds were drawing closer by the minute and all the more prevalent.
The static of it all was redolent of a time she'd since tried to dismiss. A blur of memories or retrospection she dwelled on in what little time she still had.
A heavy sigh loosed her chapped lips and she shoved her food - if it could be called that - toward the end of the table. The veil covering the door parted from the frame and a bulky man clad in rusted armor strode in. Klepto collapsed into a chair with a grunt, rubbing beneath the corroded pauldron which had been stained with blood.
"We have them dug in for the moment. We can take a break." he stated tiredly.
"Shouldn't waste the rounds, Klepto. You've got an eye for gold but we're going to need them sooner or later."
He lifted his hand with the palm facing the ceiling, then dropped it against his thigh as he shook his head. There was a pause of what seemed like ages before he broke the silence, asking, "So, when you going to tell me how you got the name 'Pandora', anyway?"
She chewed on her lower lip, pulling off the dead flesh and causing it to bleed. Her blue eyes were locked onto his in a cold stare that conveyed her response with ease. Reena rose from her seat and trailed toward the eastward window, the sun glinting off of her eyes, a pleasant contrast against the backdrop of marred armor covering her chest. The waves of the polluted ocean battering the cliffside far below reflected the light from the morning sun into the window.
Rumor Zero was an outpost established by the Minmatar Republic and given a complementary platoon of soldiers, which included a dozen Valklear - dangerous convicts turned elite shock troops. Placed on a cliffside that faced the rising sun, it was a strategically advantageous position which masked the garrison by morning's light. The western end faced a valley which held excavated trenches and defensive bulwarks.
The objective of the outpost was to provide reconnaissance on a Holder - a member of the Amarrian caste of elites - who had recently gone destitute. Over the course of a week, the destitute holder was found to have become a rogue and had been trying to reclaim her former power by her own means - separate of the Amarrian Empire. Gradually, Rumor Zero was discovered by the holder's forces and her strength had proven to be drastically underestimated, turning the valley into a blackened warzone.
"Are you just going to shy away from it every time I ask you?" Klepto barked out, his words heated.
Reena pivoted on her heel and fixed her hands to her hips, diverting her dagger-filled gaze toward him. "Seriously? Why the hell are you so interested? Do your own time."
"Well, it must have been something pret-"
She cut him off and spoke out emphatically, "Alright, look, here's the story. I was an underboss, some shit went down and we got caught. I got initiated into the program, same as you, the end."
The woman lifted a hand from her slender physique and brushed back the blonde mohawk that hung over the left side of her face, pulling it behind her ear. Her eyes darted, avoiding his gaze.
A patter of taps arose as the mammoth-sized man rolled his fingers on the table, considering his rebuttal. His lips parted to speak but held his words - at first. Brown eyebrows knitted together as the drawl of words issued from his mouth.
"Why do you do this, exactly? I mean - you just doing it for the reduced time or do you honestly give a damn about anything we're doing here?"
"Yeah, reduced time, we'll go with that."
"Come on, quit acting like I'm the bad guy here. This ice queen shit is getting irritating."
The pace of the anti-material rifle's rounds began to increase, the electric shock tickling at their feet from the floor.
She started, slowly, with a dismissive gesture of her hand. "I want to get away from that. Get done here, go to the Gallente Federation. Start off fresh." She rubbed the gleam of sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand. Beads had begun to run down the bridge of her nose and down her cheeks. The tanned flesh across her body pocked with small scars and caked with dirt.
Klepto made it readily evident why he fought - his spirit might have been battered during the rigorous training that the convicts had gone through but his hatred for Amarr was never dashed. It boiled in his stomach, warmed him. Soon enough he'd have another chance to take the fight to them as a stacatto of gunfire filled the air.
"Droolers!" A young soldier called at the top of his lungs, his voice cracking from the intensity. He resumed his panicked fire over the wall just as the Valklears had arrived, staring out over the abyss of blackened soot and fuming craters.
As the two former criminals pressed their shoulders against the bolstered scrap that had been welded together, their eyes focused on a sight few could stomach: The gold-plated armor of two lumbering giants surrounded by at least a dozen slathering hounds that were closing the distance swiftly.
"Looks like our Holder is less than destitute, wouldn't you agree?" Klepto remarked, the large man took a slow drag of flickering tobacco and smiled in anticipation. No sooner than his hand had lifted, there was an array of light that had fired across the plain in rapid succession. The two Valklears dropped down behind the large wall that they had been standing behind and looked toward the soldier - or what was left of him as his upper half combusted and fell to pieces in a heap around where his legs had been.
Klepto was still reeling from the sudden surge of adrenaline that rushed through his veins at the moment the silent light had ignited the area. Feeling the wall behind him begin to gain heat, he crawled forward and away from it toward a small cache of weaponry that had been stored nearby. He retrieved a missile launcher from its contents and kept it close to his frame.
Soon enough a handful of soldiers rushed to the wall, hardly noticing the remnants of the smoldering carcass nearby. As soon as they had taken their positions they began to take casualities. The rapid bursts of soundless light turned limbs to glowing magma and set flesh ablaze. Screams of agony and hatred filled the air in unison with thunderous booms of small arms fire.
Peaking through a fist sized hole in the wall at least yielded Klepto some insight as to what was causing so much destruction. The metallic MTAC had began opening fire on the fort with a vegeance. It was stationary, its legs locked into position by large pneumatic spikes to stablize its frame as the multi-barreled weaponry spun on either side of it. The hounds were only a few hundred yards away by this point.
"You going to down that thing or let us all die?" Reena snapped, crouching beside him.
Mumbling a jumble of incoherent swears, Klepto staggered to his feet and shouldered the launcher. It didn't take him long to hone in on his target. His green eye stared through the bent iron sight and a blast of warm air encircled him as the missle left its launcher. The missile's flare was a sure sign that it ignited properly, speeding off into the distance. The MTAC's operator was visibly flustered - panicked even - and for a split second it began to disengage it's stabilizers. It was too late.
Portions of its gold plating fell away and the war machine began to sway. It toppled over, plummeting to the ground with a dust cloud bursting from its impact. The operator crawled out of the wreckage with flames licking at the nape of his neck. He swung his arms, clawing madly at the air and rolling through the dirt in a desperate attempt to snuff out the flames. The flesh of his limbs melted and pooled around his body, which soon after faded into lifelessness.
"Good on you." Reena concluded, lifting from her knee and firing over the wall.
"Yeah, well, not like it was hard to spot."
A soldier's knees buckled beneath him out of terror as a hound leapt over the wall. The savage beast landed gracefully and wasted little time rebounding ontop of the man, flaying the flesh from the man's belly, who let out a blood curdling shriek. Escape was rendered futile as hound after hound joined in the fray, tearing him apart.
The morale of the men was destroyed within moments and they began to retreat to higher ground, where three more men had fallen to the mechanized vehicle that still remained, lumbering slowly toward the outpost.
The pair of Valklears were left behind but were largely undeterred. Keeping their focus they held what little ground they had with the woman keeping a watchful eye on the group of hounds while her larger companion readied another missile, dispatching the armored war machine as quickly as the last. Heroic as their actions were, the feat was lost in the confusion.
The man's was seething as he sat down with his back against the wall, reloading his rifle and taking precise shots at the beasts that darted about the outpost.
"Somebody made a big mistake. 'Handful of sentries', my ass." He blurted angrily.
"Shut up and keep shooting. We're not going to live through this arguing over the Fleet's idiocy."
"Oh, you're one to talk."
The weapon's barrel began to glow with each burst of projectiles flung from it's frame. The roar of the rifle was only quieted when his companion heard a heavy thump above her. When her cold gaze lifted to view the source, she was met with maw full of savage-looking teeth and saliva that dripped onto her face.
What remained of the men was broken and battered, slumped over the mess hall's chairs and silent in their collective. A third of their already diminished forces had met horrific ends, been turned to ash or been ripped apart by the slave hounds. Reena winced as her hand had lifted to grasp a communicator with blood trickling down her arm from a gauze wrap now coated crimson.
"Asgard, this is Rumor Zero. Request for reinforcements was denied and we're down to a handful of men, all wounded. Will not survive the night if we don't receive evac." She quietly spoke to the communicator, staring out the window at the rising cluster of moons in the orange sky on the eastern horizon.
"Rumor Zero, this is Asgard. Evac is inbound, ETA three hours."
Those words failed to herald any relief among the soldiers. Exhaustion had set in and all but the two Valklears were lost in thousand yard stares at the floor. Wide-eyed with partial smiles on their faces in sculptural defeat. The smell of grit and copper hung in the air with dust particles drifting in the light that shown through the single window.
The woman took a seat adjacent of the broad shouldered man, who scratched at the stubble that encompassed his jawline. He glanced over at the men and gestured with his hand toward them, displaying their remaining forces. Nine were left, including the two of them.
Her lips pulled back in disgust. Maybe from the pain in her arm or the news, perhaps both. She leaned back in her seat with a creak of the synthetic leather coat grinding against the chair. She bore a gash that lined along the entire left side of her face that would keep her expressions from moving very far.
The two sat in silence for what felt like hours but what was only a short moment. This brief period was broken when Klepto began to pat himself down in a hurry, realizing he had somehow lost his smoke simulator. He let out a groan and met Reena's eyes. They stared briefly until he threw his hand up in submission. A smirk played upon her damaged lips.
Reena was the commanding officer of the unit, thanks to the chain of command and substantial casuality rate. Every higher up had met an untimely end and in one case chose that path by their own hand. Now holding less than a dozen soldiers, the garrison was a fraction of its original size.
The veil serving as a makeshift door parted as a slender man stepped inside. The man spoke in a swift jumble of incorherent words. It was as if he was speaking before his mind could finish the sentence itself. Despite his grungy appearance, he held a bright yellow-toothed smile.
"Picked apart the vehicles, nothing worth while in there. One of the pilots was still alive, missing his legs. Don't think he liked me much toward the end." He stared vacantly with wide, jaundiced eyes.
"Damnit, Patches, you been hitting the drop again?" Reena replied with an angered tone.
"Hell yeah I been hitting the drop again, what makes you think I'm going in there with those crazies without the finest the cartels have to offer? You know, I kinda like to mix it up sometimes. Get some crash, mix it with a little blast powder, I like to call that a Drooler, you know?"
"Would you shut your mouth before I carve it out?" Klepto blurted.
The man managed to conjure up some restraint by gnawing away at his thumbnail. He was scant, with long, lanky limbs that looked as though they had belonged on another man's body. Something about his frame seemed much too thin to keep himself standing up straight. His thick brown dreadlocks hung at shoulder's length and were caked with debris.
Reena rose from her seat, showing her distaste for the present company. Exiting the building, she placed her boot firmly on the balcony's rail and rested her elbow against her knee. The land had a predominately grim look to it now, with the smoke that rose from the broken remnants of the war vehicles. She wondered how a destitute holder could acquire such things, much less a rogue holder.
Her thoughts were short-lived as Klepto appeared at her flank. He placed a gloved hand on her slender shoulder while his other held his weight against the balcony.
"We'll make it out of this. Three hours isn't a long time to wait." He mentioned.
She was not so easily convinced. The sun cast a warm glow over the sky with deep purple clouds splotching the scenary in an artistic fashion. It was relaxing, but perhaps too much so. She felt a sharp pain dance in her chest, glancing down and checking for physical wounds but could find none.
The woman's blue eyes trailed over the large man's figure with a brief glance. Her elbow nudged into his side, catching his attention and motioning toward the barracks. He rose his brows in confusion. This lasted only briefly as a wolfish grin crossed the woman's wounded visage. She gestured for him to follow and they made their way into the barracks.
Kicking the door closed behind her with the sole of her boot she shoved him against the wall. By now he'd caught the brunt of her intentions and was quick to remove the tarnished pauldron from his shoulder, dropping it carelessly to the floor. Not long after that she had finished removing her armored vest.
Klepto's rough fingers traced along Reena's shoulder in repetition. In a ceaseless pattern his eyes trailed over her deadpan expression. Her focus locked in a stare across the room as the haze of smoke lifted in front of her face, shrouding it in a gray veil in the stagnant air of the barracks.
"So why are you so quiet - must have a lot to think about with how much you just trail off into space like that." His words hanging, concerned as to how far he should proceed with his intentions.
Her eyebrows furrowed and she turned toward him with a cold stare, gritting her teeth with a flex of her jaw muscles. "You just won't give this interrogation up, will you?"
"Oh, so now it's an interrogation? Why can't you just let me in? You can't just keep that shit bottled up forever."
"I can do whatever I damn well please - I outrank you."
"By formality, if anything."
She threw the thin blanket off of her body, the synthetic material collapsing into a pile on the floor. Her arm swung and loosed the electronic cigarette which fell in an arch that found it's place in Klepto's lap. The man shook his head irritably, rising up as well to stand off with the scarred woman; both were still naked.
"You know, it's no wonder you lived this long. You throw people in front of you to catch rounds and save your own ass too?" Klepto barked.
"Just shut up and get out." She crossed her arms beneath her breasts and turned her attention away from him. There was a pause, both waiting for the other to speak. Reena broke first and jutted her head toward the door in gesture for him to leave, biting down on her tongue and narrowing her eyes.
The bulky man shifted his weight, crossing his arms and mirroring her. The quiet was unsettling for them both but neither had the audacity to relinquish their pride, or perhaps their stubbornness. Klepto shook his head and threw his hand up in submission.
"So, how'd you get caught anyway?" He asked, quietly.
"Killed someone. They found me." She hastily responded.
"Don't land a spot in this hole just for killing someone. Who'd you off? Why does it have you so beat up?"
Reena's eyes trailed to the floor, her gaze limp and unfocused. Memories raced across her thoughts but only a handful of images found their place. The sounds were the worst part: an imaginary, rhythmic, whistling sound piercing her ears.
Her imagination played the scene like a recording. Kneeling before her was a teenager, his throat split apart with blood flowing down in slight waves against his shirt. His eyes were wide, colored a gentle blue, as they stared into her own. Every breath he took came as a sharp hiss through his ruined neck.
"People talk about killing. How it's hard, how the faces haunt them and the nightmares never stop. They don't know what it's like to blade someone and look in their eyes. To watch those black dots in their eyes swell up when they run out of blood.
Was the only thing I could do - sit there and think about that, to myself. So, they found me - took me. I deserved more than what I got but this is a second chance for me. A chance to do right and go without being a baby killer in the eyes of society."
Klepto idled, mindlessly rolling the cigarette between his fingers as he listened. The silence was all too familiar to these two. His lips tightened and he quietly approached her, lifting his hand out to touch her shoulder. She withdrew and lifted her own hand in protest.
"Listen, we'll all die screaming." Klepto said authoritatively.
"You don't care, so don't act like you do. All it is with you is gold. As long as it's gold and dead or dieing, you don't care." She stated bluntly.
Klepto knew she was right but it didn't stop a sickly feeling arising from those words. He lowered his head and crossed his arms quietly.
It was well known among the men that Klepto was a blatant racist, having killed Amarrians on more than one occasion before becoming a Valklear and granting himself the same predicament Reena was in. This was unfortunate as it just so happened that he enjoyed every minute of his service as a Valklear by comparison to her. To kill the Amarrians without consequence - to be endeared for it.
Patches erupted into the room, scanning their naked forms over briefly before calling out, "Something's wrong."
The sky lit with crimson as the husk of a Matari troop transport broke the clouds. The twilight burst with a glorious glow of fire, the convoluted hulk spiraling down like a rocket toward the earth and detonating with the ground in a violent display of light that lit the valley.
What remained of the Valklears and Republic Infantry stood on the western wall of the outpost. Their attention fixed on the rupturing overcast as large spiked constructs followed in the wake of the destroyed personnel ship. Each bore a hull which color was like oil on standing water. A dazzling display of tinted metal.
"Well, that was our ride out of here." Klepto commented, calmly.
"What the hell does Sansha want with this rock?" Reena replied, loading a round into her rifle.
"Soldiers. Slaves. It's not like a madman with that much power has any shortage of women and booze."
Laser fire burst across the smoldering valley, illuminating troop positions by their golden armor. The Amarrians numbered in the dozens (possibly hundreds) as they forced a preemptive attack against the invading Sansha Slaves - subservient cyborgs loyal only to Sansha Kuvakei and his nation. The bright demonstration was returned with an equally spectacular blast of energy weapons that revealed the cyborgs' counter-attack, rushing from the landing ships and outnumbering the Amarrians within seconds.
Patches lifted a damp cloth to his upper arm and clasped it against his flesh. The liquid Drop seeped out in streams along his elbow and there was a notable shift in his demeanor. He held a menacing axe blade in his hand and attached it to a scatter-gun like an improvised bayonet. He began sprinting toward the valley with little between to slow him down. A few of the Matari infantry followed him, the rest looking to Reena and Klepto questioningly.
Klepto's lips pulled into a smile at the sight of the Sansha forces overpowering the Amarrian infantry. The Matari Infantry beside him were not so enthusiastic. It was clear to them all that they would lose, outnumbered and outgunned by what was now two factions of highly trained militants.
"You want to die here or out there?" Klepto asked Reena.
"Kind of wanted to take a vacation before getting my skin burnt off."
"Well, if I'm going to die, I'm going to get some gold before I go."
Reena let out a heavy sigh and ground her teeth. She gave Klepto an irritable look before walking through the gate of the outpost. The small collection of soldiers followed and glanced back at what was probably the last time they would ever see Rumor Zero. They walked, conserving their energy. Each step bringing them closer to the onslaught. Soon enough they could see Patches illuminated by the strobing laser weaponry, using his weapon like a hatchet to cleave the helmet off a Paladin.
The first beam of energy that set the ground beside them ablaze was the signal they'd be waiting for, rushing into the fray and firing off rounds. Loud blasts and the ringing of spent casings littering the valley floor heralded their entrance into the melee as three factions engaged in a free-for-all. Combatants viciously tearing each other apart with whatever they could muster.
Reena ducked into a crater as a rapid pulse of laser fire ignited the area around her. She rolled onto her back and shouldered her weapon, trying to find a way out but to no avail. Her blood sped through her veins, a cold sweat pouring from her skin. She was panicked at the realization that everywhere she looked there was a Sansha Slave. With the Amarrian Paladins issuing a full retreat, she was the only one left that they could fire at.
Her eyes found the silhouette of Klepto kneeling in the light of one of the Sansha Ships a short distance away, cybernetic soldiers surrounding him. Each had their weapon trained on the man, his hands clasped to the back of his head.
"Klepto, what the hell are you doing?!" She screamed out as she lifted her rifle to fire but dared not in fear of accidentally hitting him.
"I figure it's better to keep killing Amarr as a True Citizen than to die here today, Reena."
"They're Slaves - they're all Slaves, Klepto!"
"Ironic, isn't it?" He replied with a smile as they began to haul him away.
A cybernetic soldier entered the crater in attempt to apprehend Reena. Her reaction was instinctual, jerking her arm to point the rifle at her oppressor and firing. The flicker of the cyborg's personal shield was brief before the rounds began to tear through metal and flesh. It fell, sliding deeper into the crater with a ragged exhalation. It's death was quickly noticed by it's companions and they began to fire at Reena, who began bounding out of the crater.
Her flesh seared as her armor melted, dripping down her back, nearly biting her tongue off as the grievous pain that shot throughout her body caused her to clench her teeth. She fought through the agony, dashing toward Rumor Zero as quickly as she could despite the laser fire bursting around her boots.
Reena winced as she pulled herself across the floor into the mess hall of the Rumor Zero outpost. A trail of blood smeared where she had crawled into the room. Her breathing was labored from her pain and eventually she rested in the center of the room beneath a table, listening as a distant explosion vibrated the building and shook the utensils that were scattered about. She tried to remove her armor, screaming briefly at the sudden intense burning in her wounds at the attempt.
She laid motionless until another explosion, closer and louder than the last, rocked the table, sending a bowl of gray muck to the floor beside her. It landed unnaturally, swiveling in place until it came to rest upright without losing any of it's contents. She reached out slowly and retrieved a fork that had fallen to the ground and slid the bowl closer to her.
Holding the fork like a pen she picked at the food in the bowl with tired and weary eyes focused on the food. It was lacking flavor, just a bland soup of nutrients. The sound of combat was drawing closer but she couldn't discern as to who or what it was. The Sansha Slaves, the Amarrians or perhaps even some survivors of the Republic's infantry.
"It doesn't matter anymore." She thought to herself as the sounds of war drew closer. She could hear shouting but it was hard to understand in the muddle of loud gunfire and explosions. The static of it all was redolent of a time she'd since tried to dismiss. A blur of memories or retrospection she dwelled on in what little time she still had.