Effigy for the Blameless

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In Which there is a Silence Most Final...

Sweat rolled down Tessa’s shoulders, drifting, swirling about. At times the droplets swam with all the momentum of a barrel of molasses turned over on a hot summer’s day. At others, particularly as they navigated the curves and contours of the small of her back to caress, rise and fall about the heart of her rear they moved with the celerity of a bullet.

…Bullets…

Tessa’s side and back ached terribly. She ran her fingertips along angry white scars, and gingerly touched throbbing fresh bruises the color of plums and starry night skies. She fingered a gash appraisingly and shivered; the sensation of the spray on sealant still made her feel peculiar. She worked the wound until she was able to find where she’d missed a spot…and could not stop herself from digging at it with the tip of her just a bit longer than regulation nail.

“Leave it.” Reinhardt ordered, his voice rich, dark and calm.

“It itches.” Tessa protested without turning to face him.

“Open wounds tend to when you mess about. Leave it Tess. We’ll fix it after the shower. The fresh water will be good for the healing.”

Tessa turned and held out her arms. They were covered in scorch marks. She bit her lower lip a bit harder than was necessary.

“Lookit. Her butterflies. I’ve got her butterflies.”

Tessa bit her lip a little bit harder.

“And there. You can just make out her hair, can’t you? Right there?” she indicated her chest and stomach region. She shook as though seized by a sudden chill, and a rivulet of red ran down from her swollen lip to her chin.

Tessa Bloomingale would have likely bit her lip until her ivory tore right through it, had Reinhardt not guided her into his arms. He kissed the corner of her mouth, his lips hovering before hers until she ceded at last and released her own. Another kiss soothed her shaking, and a moment later Tessa simply felt tired.

“I can’t get her face out of my mind, y’know? She just knew…she just knew I was going to save her…”

Reinhardt held the back of Tessa’s head in the palm of his large, scarred hand, and rocked with her in his arms.

“…Guess Jonathan Maverick isn’t as good as they say.”

Tessa spat the name as though it were a curse.

Six hours prior…back on McCaffrey, hell was made corporeal for all to see…

****************

Tessa Bloomingale is not a normal human being. Tessa Bloomingale, Tessa of the Twelve, was made to become something more. One of three hundred sixty four children. One of thirty survivors. One of the only twelve that didn’t blow their own brains out when all was said and done.

Tessa Bloomingale was made, moreover engineered, to go beyond. Beyond strength, beyond weakness…

Beyond human.

Deathly calm, she wove through the battlefield with soulless efficiency. Every so often, a certain giggle escaped her lips, and a wicked grin transformed the face of the beautiful siren into that of an execrable sneer.

During times such as those…

“Quit whining. S’only your left arm. S’not like you were usin’ it for anything. Course…there goes your right along with it.”

Tessa pondered if there was such a thing as enjoying your work too much.

Ejecting an empty cartridge from her rifle, she slammed a fresh one in and twirled down into a seated half lotus position, shoving one of her two favorite knives into the face of an Atavaran that had just begun to rise from the ground. She twisted the blade in its eye, and then sprang forth in an overhead somersault as its bladed tentacles snaked their way explosively out all around her. Twin aerials brought her in between each whipping tendril, and a thrown blade between its eyes ended its life once and for all.

As Tessa moved to retrieve her blades, she did so with complete and total calm in spite of the two Atava making their way towards her from behind. They stalked not unlike serial killers. Not animals, not monsters, but murderers. Single minded grim determination, a masque not of death, but of its bringers. Tentacles writhed about in the air, bladed hooks spinning not unlike the colossal squid of earth swirled and danced about, as though moving the air itself.

A moment later, their heads exploded.

“Thanks love!” Tessa waved energetically. Fifteen hundred meters away, Reinhardt waved back. Laying flat atop a high rock formation, he had a clear view of the battlefield perfect for providing supporting fire for his beloved. What’s more, the makeup of the formation rendered burrowing up for a surprise attack impossible for the Atavash. There was of course the option of scaling the side of the formation, however Reinhardt had a little something up his sleeve for any who might attempt that course of action.

Back on the ground, Tessa spun away from a small squad of five Atavash as she watched three of them literally tear two Epheas limb from limb. A third Epheas ran past, drawing long blade that seemed to vibrate and pulse with electric energy. The Epheas, a tall gender unknown clad from head to toe in androgynous silver and plum armor swung their blade to and fro, severing the tentacles of several Atava before whirling about in a manner that would make a dervish pause in awe.

Three Atavash dropped to the ground in various states of dismemberment as Tessa’s rifle ended the life of a fourth. The remaining Atavash launched a flurry of tentacles at the Epheas, who leaned round and round the hooks until they stood at close range. At point blank the Epheas pulled the trigger of their hand cannon thrice, turning the skull of the alien into slag.

“Much obliged for the assist.” The Epheas nodded, their voice masked by an electronic modulator.

Tessa only grinned, trying not to hyperventilate with a joy that bordered on delirium.

“Tess, focus. Stay on mission.” Came Reinhardt’s stern voice in her ear.

“Happy to help.” She said to the Epheas soldier before turning and dashing off, adding

“What mission? We’re literally just here to kill everything that isn’t H.U.F.” in reply to Reinhardt’s reprimand.

“That, and survive. Watch it Tess, find somewhere to settle in for a spell. You’re at seventeen hundred; you’re gonna run out of my range in about another four.”

As Reinhardt answered, he fired off two more rounds, each finding their mark in a vital organ of an Atavarian.

“Almost at the colony. I’ll dig in there.” Tessa breathed as her grin broadened.

“Negative Tessa! You’re at nineteen fifty! You are almost out of range! I need you to…dammit, hold on…”

Reinhardt rolled around to his back and leapt to his feet with a kippup. Striding purposefully to the edge of the grand rock formation he stared down at five Atavash moving with a gait not unlike swimming through the air. Their tentacles dug powerfully into the rock, and at the speed they moved they would reach him in no time.

“Writhing bastards… Tess, stay put dammit! You’re at twenty one, you keep going and I cannot provide suppressing fire!” Reinhardt growled into his earpiece as he pulled a collapsible weapon from his pack. A few tense moments later, he had his deterrent in hand.

Tessa gave no real reply. The only sound Reinhardt could hear from her earpiece was eerie laughter. There was a brief pause followed by a grunt that made his heart clench. The pause was followed by raucous cachinnation.

“TESSA! Son of a… STAY ON MISSION!!!” Reinhardt bellowed as he primed his weapon, and pulled the trigger.

The already fetid air became writhe with the scent of burning flesh as jets of blue flame erupted from the Mk11 Dragon Slayer in Rheinhardt’s hands. The Atavash roared in misery as they were cooked within their own thick flesh.

Back on the ground, Tessa’s eyes were wild with an emotion that lived somewhere between fury and madness. A fellow mercenary shrieked as her navel was penetrated by several Atavan tentacles. Her screams became dull whimpers as the rotating hooks therein proceeded to transform her internal organs to slurry. Tessa aimed her rifle and unloaded half of her clip into the Atavan’s throat and spine. The alien dropped to the ground, however its tentacles continued to blend the mercenary’s body. Knowing it was pointless, Tessa drew her knife and slashed the tentacles from their host.

“Melia? Amelia? Love come on! COME ON!” Tessa cried out, shaking her compatriot in her arms. Amelia’s eyes shook about, rolling chaotically in her head. Her whimpers became gurgles as blood and bile filled her throat.

She stared up at Tessa with a gaze of mind snapping agony.

“…Okay love…okay. Shhh, it’s okay. You’re okay. It’s okay… It’s okay…”

Tessa place her pistol on Amelia’s temple, never breaking eye contact…and pulled the trigger.

****************

“That blasted woman is going to be the death of me…” Rheinhardt muttered as he pumped his legs, running as fast as they would take him towards Tessa’s location. The Atavash he’d scorched had, of course, sabotaged his ATD, or All Terrain Dyad. The only benefit to all the dying going on around him, was that somewhere on the battlefield there had to be a workable ATD that would allow him to prevent Tessa from becoming yet another statistic on the KTD ratio.

To say that Tessa was always a loose cannon was an understatement to the tune of saying it’s hot on the sun. After all, one does not simply get over being picked up as an orphan, starving in a gutter, and being subjected to ten years of exceedingly painful and invasive genetic modification. Tessa on most days kept a semblance of sanity; indeed the mercenary woman was just as capable of throwing down shots at a bar as she was stunning aristocrats at wine tastings, however…

Tessa had her days. And, at times those days stretched on to weeks.

Rheinhardt’s mind snapped back to the task at hand as an enemy mortar went off far too close for comfort. His ears were ringing; the atmosphere and ambiance of the road to McCaffrey was all explosions and slaughter. Rheinhardt made no notice of who was dying; there’d be time enough for that later. There could be no rational thought at present beyond survival.

Push forward, keep running, keep shooting, keep killing…survive.

At long last, Rheinhardt set his eyes upon the object he’d been searching for. Reaching past his sniper rifle, he drew a laser based shotgun and readied the firearm.

Death, murder, genocide.

Rheinhardt took careful aim at an Atavaran’s back, and pulled the trigger. As the shot rang out, his leg gave and he fell, a tooth coming loose upon impact with the ground! Moments before an Atavaran could impale him, an Epheas soldier hurled a javelin through its chest, only for the soldier to be stabbed through by three more. Rheinhardt rolled to one side as the Epheas sent a mental command to their armor. Moments later, a bright azure light spread all about the armor preceding a violent explosion that took its bearer as well as the soldier’s assailants to their deaths.

Rheinhardt rose, was shot in the arm, and thanked God that his plating held out as he returned fire. Launching a grenade from a secondary cavity on his shotgun, he blew the Atavaran away and resumed a now limping race to the ATD.

Murder, genocide, slaughter.

Everything else faded, save for one nagging voice that kept repeating itself in Rheinhardt’s ear. He only allowed himself to focus on it once he reached the ATD, a large and surprisingly agile vehicle resembling a motorcycle with a massive frame and set of wheels to match.

“I repeat, there will be no backup from Severan forces! Execute evacuation protocol Rapture! There will be no backup from Severan forces! Be advised, we have visual on a large scale Atavaran payload! Assist all nearby civilians in evacuation and make your way to the nearest extraction point! I repeat—”

The voice droned on and on, but it may as well have been speaking in another language at that point. There was only one clear thought racing through Rheinhardt’s mind.

Tessa…I’ve got to get to Tessa!

****************

Tessa Bloomingale was nothing if not tenacious. Engineered for an age where humanity by necessity required an evolutionary advantage it had long forgotten, while not an immortal ikkitoussen, she was still made of tougher stuff. Built to give as good as she was given, Tessa could be accused of many things. Running from a fight, however, was not one of them.

“You hit like a bitch.” Tessa muttered as she staggered to her feet, blood running down her mouth and to her front. Her armor was cracked and her woven unitard beneath it was gashed in several places. Her side ached where she suspected the bruise she had sustained would soon give way to internal bleeding, and she found it difficult to see anything more than crimson out of her capillary burst right eye.

Before her stood a tougher breed of Atavaran. Larger and more stout of frame, the stocky ebony shelled Atavash had a multitude of tendrils hanging from where one might expect an upper lip. These tendrils constantly wriggled about, tasting the air and sensing the most subtle of vibrations in the atmosphere, giving it an almost psychic sense of prediction when it came to its foe’s movements. Rather than the traditional circulating hooked tentacles, this particular breed of Atavash instead sported four thick protuberances that began at its shoulder and ran down to the tips of its claws. These protuberances were brought together on each arm to form twin razor sharp blades.

As her opponent brought these twin blades to battle, Tessa at long last had reason enough to move beyond her pistol, rifle and knives. Held tightly in her left hand was a collapsible sword made from incredibly thin and incredibly sharp microfibers. Attached to her right forearm was an expanding shield. And, in her heart…

Nothing save the danse macabre.

Choking up her grip on her blade, Tessa moved. Twisting her body almost unnaturally, she blocked one blade and spun airborne betwixt the other. Vaulting forth, she completed her twirl bringing her sword down furiously with a roar of explosive power. The weapon lacerated the flesh of her foe, cutting a wide wound in its back. Skidding to a halt on her feet, Tessa felt a rush of exhilaration bordering on perversion as its ridged foot, resembling a massive scaly letter Y crashed into her chest.

As Tessa somersaulted, she parried one slash with her shield, caught an explosive fist to the face, and turned with the momentum. Her sword flashed upward, shaving off a large chunk of flesh from the Atavaran elite’s bicep. Executing a butterfly kick to maneuver out of the way of two more slashes, she leapt forward, slamming her knee into its face as hard as she could.

She felt her own bone bruise even as the Atavash bit off a bit of its tongue. She twisted in mid-air, its blade gashing her side as her sword impaled its shoulder.

“Now there’s clever!” she grunted as it gripped her arm, thrusting her sword deeper through its meat in order to bring its skull like a cudgel into hers. The alien made to bite her throat, and cracked several teeth on her shield instead. The two were locked in an impossible situation, with Tessa’s wrist threatening to break in the hand of the beast. A swift kick to the groin would be pointless; Atavaran male reproductive organs spent much of their time up in a cavity near the stomach region.

Just as Tessa considered with a sick sort of glee sacrificing her shield arm to bite out her aggressor’s throat, she heard Rheinhardt’s panicked voice screaming into her headset.

“TESSA, GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE! THEY’RE GONNA BOMB THE COLONY! HELP ISN’T COMING, AND WE DON’T HAVE THE RESOURCES TO STOP IT!”

“S’just a bomb! What’re the odds they’re going to—” she grunted, jockeying for the upper hand.

“TESS, WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS!”

“Look Rhein, I’ll just—”

“IT’S VOLCANIC! TESS THEY’RE GOING TO JUST BURY THE PLACE IN LAVA, THERE’S GONNA BE NOTHING LEFT WHEN ITS OVER!”

At this, some modicum of sanity returned to Tessa’s senses. The Atavaran pulled her close with a manic grin; it was more than willing to keep her pinned there, letting the both of them die in order to make certain she didn’t walk away from their duel alive.

Running through the calculations in her head, Tessa jerked her shield arm and dislocated her shoulder. She ran the edge of the shield across the throat of the Atavash, and then dislocated her sword hand. She released the weapon and twisted away from the gurgling alien as it swung its blade all about. Hurling herself backward, she slammed her shoulder back into place painfully upon impact. Rolling on her shoulders to a crouch, she disengaged her shield and rushed her foe. Diving once more, Tessa wrenched her sword up and out of its body and hopped up to stand perfectly atop its shoulders.

She pirouetted, leapt skyward…and brought her sword point down through the top of its head and out of its pelvis.

The Atavash slid to its knees as Tessa popped her wrist back into place, and then gripping her sword with both hands swung the blade out of her dead foe.

“Good fight, good night.”

As Tessa turned to leave however…

“…Son of a…”

Standing barefoot and terrified in a doorway across the hall of the already shuddering building was a little girl. Her arms were covered in butterfly stickers, her hair long, brown and wraith like.

“Well hey there brown beauty. Aren’t you a brave little thing, standing there watchin’ us monsters fighting. It’s okay though lovely; see, I’m a monster too, but I’m the good sort. I’m the sort that’s gonna make sure you get out of here safely. Now, I know I look awful covered in all this muck, but I—”

Without a word the little brown girl ran across the hall and wrapped her arms around Tessa’s waist. The child buried her face in Tessa’s front and wept silently. Tessa raised a weary hand, wiped the blood off on her uniform as best she could, and then placed it on the child’s head.

“Come on then love. Let’s get you out of here.”

****************

“MOVE TESSA! WE DON’T HAVE TIME TO…Tess?”

Off in the distance Rheinhardt watched Tessa run as fast as she could, traveling at a rate of eighteen metres per second, or approximately thirty nine miles per hour.

Even so…

“Jesus…she’s not gonna make it…and neither am I…”

However, Rheinhardt’s concern was not for Tessa…rather the small life in her arms.

****************

“Almost there love, almost there! We’re almost there!” Tessa yelled, desperately squeezing off round after round from her sidearm as she leapt over some obstacles, and others plowed right through.

“We’re almost there! Hold on tight love, we’re almost there!”

A piece of shrapnel from a nearby grenade embedded itself in Tessa’s thigh. She ignored it and kept moving.

“Just hang on beauty, we’re gonna make it! We’re gonna make it! We’re—”

All noise drained from the air. All was darkness, and then, all was light. At first the only sound Tessa could hear was the blood rushing in her veins, pulsing in her ears, and she was acutely aware of the sound of her labored, haggard breathe.

And then…

There was naught save for the fire.

****************

Rheinhardt dismounted his ATD as it drifted towards his beloved. He ran, feeling as though he were swimming through wet cement. His blood became frigid, shards of icicles slashing through his veins. He slowed to a stop, and could only stare.

“You’re alright love…you’re alright… We made it… We made it out… You’re alright love…you’re alright…”

Tessa rocked on her knees, her armor and unitard all but burnt away. Cradled in her arms, clutched against her chest was the scorched and smoking corpse of a child.

“…Tess…”

“She’s alright Rheinhardt. Look…see…she’s alright. We got out of there. She’s fine…”

“…Tessa…” Rheinhardt took a step towards her.

“SHE’S FINE! SHE’S FINE!!! EVERYTHING’S FINE…she’s fine…”

“…”

“She’s just tired…just a little dirty…but she’s fine…she’s—”

The corpse of the child…began to fall away as ash drifting in the wind.

Tessa’s voice caught, strangled in her throat. She stared, fixated, and then slowly sank in on herself. Rheinhardt reached out to her as she fell, crashing to the ground.

Tessa stared at her arms, at the butterflies seared into her flesh, and then down at the white and red patterns in her breast and stomach from the child’s hair.

Rheinhardt placed his hand on Tessa’s shoulder…and pulled her into his arms as she screamed.

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