- Prologue -
THE rain continued to pelt around them, soaking every little thing it touched.
It was the Earth’s way of dousing its own sorrows, an attempt to purge away the plague that had grown unchecked on its surface.
The scourge manifested simply as humans.
Billions of souls which had failed to achieve peace and harmony since their evolution.
For historians, this would be just another moment which would be written grimly by historians into the books – the wording looking something like ‘tragic wars brought tragic ends’. A horrendous yet accurate testament to the events which led to the culmination of this day.
The two figures stood opposite to each other, their eyes locked sharply onto the hungry irises of the other. The depths of weary-brown bore holes into the depths of steel-cold blue.
There was no warmth between them.
Eyes were found to be able to convey a lot of information without having to mutter a single word. They could convey a sense of love. A sense of hate. Even a sense of lust. But today, they remained hostile and devoid of any subtle mannerism such as an inkling of consolation or a crumb of mercy.
Neither of the figures dropped their gaze for even the briefest of moments.
They could not afford to.
That was a sign of weakness, a sign of temporary distraction, and both knew that when such a moment presented itself in the enemy, you damn well seized it in any way you could. That miniscule window of opportunity could be the difference between winning and losing.
It could be the smallest fraction needed to survive rather than fail and suffer the dire consequences.
The pair were so entranced on each other that they did not see the hundreds of desperate people that had gathered around the makeshift battle ring. They stood shoulder to shoulder amongst the debris that now littered a once-prominent boulevard of the CBD. The city was brought to its knees, and the once fair buildings that spired towards the clouds as a shrine to human achievements now smouldered beneath their feet in tattered ruins. It was a senseless act, and one which did not have to happen.
But that was too late now. It all came down to this moment.
This moment was everything, the decider of fate and the decider of history.
The two figures began to slowly skirt to the side, circling each other underneath the opened heavens. They had been conditioned to think one thing and one thing only.
The land was only large enough for one of them. The other would have to put to death.
That was the conditioning from the propaganda which was spewed from the machine, like the hate-filled bile that it was.
The onlookers looked on with dwindled hopes. It looked like an unfair battle and it was obvious why one would arrive at such a stark and sobering conclusion. To the untrained eye, the two combatants may have seemed unfairly matched in kit. It was might against might and the seasoned punters knew that what was hidden beneath the surface counted the most.
Steel and titanium against steel and titanium.
One of the fighters appeared to be sparsely protected, her skin glistening wet and clothes stained with mud. The material hugged to her muscles as continued her precarious dance. In her bare hands, she balanced the handle of a whip. This she had torn from the arms of soldier who had been dispelled a moment before. The tail of retractable spikes snaked on the ground as she moved.
In contrast, her opponent was dressed in an exoskeleton which hummed as the hydraulics worked. The smooth plates slid over each other with every step, and her epaulet panels glowed through the darkness of the storm that had blown over the city. They shone boldly, giving away the fact that she was no less than a high-ranking officer. She only had one mission on her mind and the mission would be completed through any means necessary. Under her belt, she boasted an untarnished and unrivalled record.
Being beaten was not an option and a thought which was not entertained in even the darkest depths of her mind. There was no way in the fiery pits of hell that this was going to be the one to blemish her streak.
Unlike most of her fellow soldiers, she and a few others were specifically bred – a better word, made – for this. Genetics had been modified and spliced to enhance capabilities as part of a hush-hush project, and their full modifications were unknown by anyone to this day. They were part of the elite few, and failure meant that the program failed.
Failure was not an option.
But the onlookers who were part of the movement were filled with a tenacity and hopeful flame.
It was part of human nature root for the underdog, even more so if they were championing your cause.
The soldier smiled underneath her helmet. The thought of disappointing them and ripping away their hope was delicious and she could almost taste the victory on the tip of her tongue.
Shoes sodden with water and grime, the officer took another step to the side with her eyes remaining fixed on her opponent. She was hungry to finish this; to be victorious. Without so much as a telling pre-empt from her muscles, she snatched at the standard-issue baton which was strapped to her side and held it in her hand. Upon sensing her touch through the thickness of her gloves, the weapon instantly came to life and an electrical hum filled the air. She had wished for her plasma suite of weaponry but that had gone down with the transport and there was no way she would turn her back for even a second.
Her opponent remained sprung in a cat-like position, her eyes focused and the whip held firmly in her grasp. The soldier’s weapon seemed formidable and the opponent knew all too well exactly how much pain such a thing could inflict if given the chance. The secret was to be in the right place in the right time. And the right place was not underneath the striking point of the weapon.
The officer took a swipe with the electrified baton. It landed on vacant ground with sparks and a loud crack!, echoing the thunder that growled overhead. The contact point was marred with a scorch-mark as her opponent leapt to the side.
She missed by a narrow hair.
Recoiling from the near miss, the opponent charged towards the officer and hefted the handle of the whip towards her body. The whip was receptive and the chained tail flew towards the location the officer’s body occupied just a split-second earlier.
But things had just gotten a bit more complicated for the opponent.
The officer had disappeared from sight.
Without seeing where she had gone, the opponent surged along the road and towards the fallen wreck of a downed transport ship. She pushed her back against the buckled plates and took care not to cut herself on edges that had peeled away from the welds and riveting.
With her back covered, it was one less exposed angle she had to look out for.
She scanned her surroundings through the pelting rain, waiting for the officer to come into view. All she could see was the hundreds of gathered onlookers that had placed all their final hopes on her. She had become their saviour – the angel that could put an end to the empire – and their eyes radiated desperation.
The opponent blinked, glancing down at the LED screen that was embedded into her arm. Usually it was the hub of all sorts of combat tactics but not now. It displayed little useful information, only that there was one hostile in the area.
“Damn,” she muttered to herself.
It was likely that the data from the officer had been shielded. Or encrypted to the point that she could not get a reading of movements or even get recognition of the chip embedded into the back of her neck.
And that is when she heard it.
Above her, the metal from the roof of the transport whined. Immense pressure crippled the sheeting as if it was a tin can being squeezed. It was almost like-
The opponent heard the heavy thud of something invisible hitting the ground in front of her. Puddles from underneath the mass sprayed dirty droplets onto her face. Without blinking, the officer materialised from thin air in front of her very eyes.
This changed the playing field.
Reaffirming her grasp on the whip, the opponent lashed out with a quick strike of her wrist. The spiked tail of the weapon cut through the air, striking the officer squarely on the helmet.
The glass shattered into dozens of pieces. The fragments scattered on the ground, glinting like jewels in the dim light. Seemingly unbothered, the officer rose an arm. The tail of the whip curled around the armour of the exoskeleton, crushing the plates as it curled around her limb. The officer gave a powerful tug, and the opponent felt the wet handle of the whip slide in her grip.
The whip connected the two fighters and the underdog opponent knew that this made her vulnerable. She knew that her only weapon could be taken from her in an instant.
A knowing smile tugged at the officer’s lips. The battleground was hers.
She gave a final heave.
The weapon became dislodged and flew from the underdog’s hands.
It was down to the final moments; the last few seconds now critical to the destiny of the Coalition. Desperately searching her surroundings and seeing the officer saunter towards her, the opponent spied the end of a nearby weapon tucked into the holster of another fallen soldier. She reached out with a flailing hand and pulled on the handle as hard as she could. It appeared to be a shaft of sorts but like most things developed by the warlords, she knew it would morph into something else.
Within a single heartbeat, the two fighters moved at the same time.
Taking the shaft into both of her hands, she pushed it upwards just as the officer struck with her own baton.
The opponent cast her gaze upwards just in time to see the blue eyes of the officer widen in shock. The shaft that she held had expanded on impact, hungry to see action. The blade had pierced through the plates of the exoskeleton with ease and protruded right through the cavity of her chest. The stained tip of the weapon shone formidably as it poked out from her back. Warm red and brown liquid oozed onto the opponent’s hands. The red was blood, there was no mistaking the warmth and viscosity. The brown must have been oil.
Letting the rain wash away the sins, she rolled the corpse of the dead officer onto the ground next to her. She stared at the lifeless face that gazed back from behind the broken shield.
Those eyes. They seemed familiar!
And that was when the victor felt a crippling pain surge through her chest and the world around her fell into darkness and blissful silence.