A Broken Planet Story
The bleached desert dust swirled gently against the Pilgrim’s boots, swept away by the sickly warm wind. Grit and gravel poured into every nook and cranny of the Pilgrim’s equipment, needing diligent maintenance every few hours to avoid it malfunctioning and failing at the worst possible time.
In the long, long weeks since the pilgrimage started, after awakening among nothing but infinite sand, the Pilgrim had wandered, aimlessly at first, pondering on which options lied ahead and which ones were actually worth pursuing. It was easy enough to discard the most ludicrous conjectures, and to settle for the only viable course of action: survival was paramount, and to achieve that worthy goal meant hunting down the most dangerous beings to draw breath on the Broken Planet.
After days of tracking this elusive prey, the Pilgrim stumbled upon a fresh trail: A Fifth Council outpost, its prefabricated and sterile architecture built upon the ruins of an ancient shrine devoted to whatever deities the Broken Planet’s inhabitants used to worship. How apt a target for the Pilgrim’s prey, to make an example of those who dared to defile this already shattered planet.
The outpost was a veritable ruin. Not a single structure remained intact, and some buildings were destroyed beyond easy recognition of their former purpose. Here and there, marks of the brutal demise of the Fifth Council’s troops remained; broken pieces of the bodies that passed as the Council’s simulacrum of life laid where they fell. All trace of the corpses had vanished in the Aleph deflagration that inevitably follows death, but some components and discarded weapons still remained as sole proof that the outpost had been inhabited at all.
To the Pilgrim’s trained eye, the evidence of who perpetrated such an absolute act of destruction was plain to see. The prey lacked a true military unison of purpose, but what they did not own in discipline they certainly made up with savagery and sheer, unrestrained power. Here, the scorched remains of an APC, blackened by electrical fire, screamed of the deranged scientist’s intervention. There, a half-demolished storage unit, brought down with nothing more than a beast’s fists and rage, delated the Umbra Wardog’s vicious defector.
The battle was less than two days old. “You are getting clossssser,” the head seemed to whisper. The Pilgrim flinched at the sound, and preferred to think that it was just the savage squall that howled along the ruins. This planet’s miserable winds always seemed to carry the voices of ghosts long gone. Contemplating other possibilities was to admit that madness was slowly creeping into the Pilgrim’s mind.
The pilgrimage continued for another two weeks, after the trail ran cold again. Day after day, the Pilgrim wandered through miles of dust and grit, until reaching a temporary settlement, hastily built by one of the local nomadic clans. Signs of recent, ferocious fighting around the hubs was all too noticeable. That fact didn’t surprise the Pilgrim, as it was known that the warrior who led the ragtag combat unit that called themselves “Raiders” made of protecting the Broken Planet’s inhabitants from the invading human factions his most pressing priority.
Some of the local elders came to the Pilgrim’s encounter. That was unexpected. So far, the Broken Planet’s natives’ response to the Pilgrim’s presence had ranged from abject fear to unmasked hatred. There was something at odds with these clan-leaders advancing slowly towards the newcomer.
The three of them, one male, two females, wore the traditional Sh’kuhk robes, covering their whole bodies and marking them as sages among their tribe. Barely a hint of their pale skin or a strand of white hair could be glimpsed under the heavy clothes, but there was something about them that made the Pilgrim’s skin crawl. They didn’t carry themselves with the ungainly thread of those who are approaching their final days, but with an assurance and a confidence that bordered the threat.
“It’ssss a trap,” the head seemed to hiss. Or it could have been just a burst of static over the comm-link? Either way, the Pilgrim agreed with the sentiment.
There, a glint of silver under the male’s robes, and the slightest suggestion of a murderer’s grin reaching his uncovered eyes. He would be the first to attack. The Pilgrim kept advancing with an almost insane calm. One moment, the Pilgrim’s body language showed no trace of threat. The next, a priceless experimental rifle was in her hands, shooting two energy shells aimed to the male figure.
The target was fast. Faster than she had thought possible, but even though he managed to dodge the projectiles, the energy shockwave threw him away five metres, landing badly. The ceremonial robes were blown by the blast, revealing what the Pilgrim already suspected: the assassin. They were here. And now the prey had become the hunter.
The two remaining figures shed their façade away, the deception no longer necessary. There was the markswoman, tall and regal. And with her was the tattooed priestess, moving with an awkward grace while bringing her carbine to bear. A really fine ambush indeed, thought the Pilgrim.
There was scarcely any cover between the Pilgrim and the Raiders, and she hastily threw herself flat behind a nearby boulder to avoid the worst of the incoming fusillade. The sniper woman –“Sssshae. Her name issss Shae.”– clipped her in the hip before she reached the rock. Pain coursed through the Pilgrim’s leg, travelling all the way up her spine.
Firing over the parapet, the Pilgrim saw that the smiling murderer was recovering his footing, while the mystic warrior tried to flank her. Shae kept her pinned with an unrelenting barrage of high calibre shots that were dangerously close to reducing the rock she was using as cover to rubble.
The Pilgrim analysed the situation, and found it less than optimal. Using lethal force would be against her interests, but also was dying. The odds needed to be evened, and fast. With a calm only a few elite soldiers could truly feel during combat, the Pilgrim whispered a single word into the comm-link.
It deployed from low orbit, descending like a meteor and only stopping a few metres short of colliding against the yellow sand. There it stood, hovering on half-functional turbines, barely a shadow of its former glory. Maimed in the fall that had almost killed them both, the red war machine still towered over the battlefield, interposing itself between its master and the advancing warriors with a loyalty that belied its soulless nature.
To everyone’s surprise, including the Pilgrim’s, it roared its challenge to the Raiders. The Pilgrim had used whatever means she had found in repairing her mech, including Aleph-based local technology. The long-term side effects that kind of improvised tinkering could have had in the machine’s logic core was anyone’s guess.
The mech traced a wide arc with its powered blade, keeping the three Raiders at bay and following its master’s command of engaging under non-lethal parameters. The three Broken Planet natives seemed content by keeping their distance now, a fact that made no tactical sense to the Pilgrim, unless…
She rose, pivoting 180 degrees over her position and aiming her weapon with a lightning-fast, expert movement. It availed her to nothing, for the long rifle was already aimed squarely to her head. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, and the Pilgrim could only ascertain the passing of time by the furious beating of her heart.
“I told you it wassss a trap,” the head most definitely said. The Pilgrim looked upon that consummate sniper, who had brought her so low in the past and now had the chance to end her a second time.
“Harec,” the Pilgrim said with the barest hint of a smile. “We need to talk, you and I…”
Without lowering his rifle, the Raiders’ leader spoke.
“I am listening, Aneska.”