Lights flash ahead of me, dazzling and beautiful like some light show. Plasma bolts, particle beams, and salvos of missiles wreck against my foe. With every second the Imperium’s line fractures as their ships are destroyed.
The super-fortresses of Ceres deal destruction against the Champion’s center. I see his fleet form a cocoon around the flagship, protecting the hulking mass with their own bodies. It is no matter. Like a hawk tearing through an armadillo’s armour, we will break through eventually, and destroy the Champion.
I feel giddy, my cheeks are flushed beneath the mask as I smile. This will be the first great step. Erasing the Champion will be a feat so glorious that I can leverage it to destroy Ignatios. I will use my popularity to end him.
But a feeling of anxiousness twirls in my stomach at the thought. He’s giving me an opportunity that could potentially ruin him. No, he knows it will ruin him. He knows I’ll destroy him for stealing me from my home, so, why?
My mind drifts back to Myron when he was informed of Monika’s death. The look that he gave me, that look of pure, undiluted, hatred. I should have saved her. His accusation.
I killed her.
Monika. Her name stabs at my gut. She died believing so much evil about me, her goal was to kill me, because she believed it would be protecting her nation. If word ever gets out who I truly am… Then there is no hope for a future.
I know I have to change that. I have to find some way to create trust between them and the Imperials, between who I am in truth. My deeds will not be enough to save me if they ever discover that I am the last surviving son of Magnus Vixiua, the man who nearly ended their Collective when it was just a fledgling democracy.
I look to the screen ahead of me.
“With this act I betray my homeland by undermining its very foundations. Will that be enough?” I whisper to myself, not knowing the answer.
If everything I have studied of the Champion is true, then I know that they won’t just sit back. They won’t be content to let their troops be slaughtered as they do nothing.
It is that predictability of human nature that I am counting on.
Guilt. Lament. Action. The wish to wipe one’s sins away. That very same need will lead to the Champion’s doom.
“Sir!” Gallagher interrupts, “There’s been a break in the cocoon, thousands of WAR-FRAMES are being lead by the Champion. They’re joining with other units as well, their path would put them on a direct course with the Basphenn.
“Ah, so he’s come to cut off the head of the snake. A common tactic.” I raise my hand, smiling to myself. And so I win. “Have the Basphenn withdraw. Launch all Frames.” I comm Garov and Nevra. “Special Defense Units One and Two, wait for my order to move in and engage the Champion. Phobos and Felix Battalions, form a perimeter. Do not allow any of the Imperial Frames past you!” It’s a useless order, they’ll fall eventually to the personal Knights of the Champion. It’s simply a question of how much time they can buy me with their blood.
“You were right,” a soft voice whispers beside me. I turn to see Tristan, his iron gaze locked on the screen before me. “He comes for us.” The Champion screams forward at the head of a wedge, like a sword piercing someone’s chest he crashes through my line.
The Champion comes at us like a demon possessed. My Frame Units immediately form a defensive perimeter, but there is nothing they can do against his Frame. He carves apart the formation like a butcher chopping meat. Elegant. Deadly. Without regard for the lives he takes.
You are the quintessence of what I will destroy. You, ignorant to the suffering of others! As soon as the thought escapes me, I can’t help but laugh. Am I truly any different? Just because I see my motives as pure? I am still willing to sacrifice.
Whoever is within that Frame, they move with inhuman ability and agility. One moment the Frame is there, and then it is not, moving so swiftly through my lines that the camera can’t even keep track of it as it leaves a trail of explosions and words of “Lost” upon the screen. Single-handedly it eviscerates my line. But there are always more, always hundreds more to block the advance with their lives.
The Champion rises high, flashing above the lines In a single move he fires a blazing red beam. It fires a few hundred meters forward, and then stops as if its hit a wall. I see it curl into a ball, building greater and greater.
And then it is unleashed.
Fire dashes my lines. Hundreds of the WAR-FRAMES blocking his path are incinerated. Their Frames burn away to nothing. I see one blast puncture through an asteroid, bearing a hole through one of my cruisers. For a moment the ship is still, before the entire thing explodes in a shower of metal. The Champion flies above my lines, hovering above a formation or a unit, and then erasing it. Thousands are dead in a few seconds.
“Such passion as he fights,” Tristan murmurs beside me. “This is what true regret looks like. The regret of one who failed utterly, and so wishes to make amends in the only way they know how. This is the lamentation of a warrior.” He seems besotted, his eyes locked forward, his mouth open at the destruction being wrought on our own forces.
“He’s ripping us to pieces.” Gallagher growls to my side, she throws an angry glare my way.
I’m impressed that such a weapon is able to be mounted on a Frame. Even so.
“Special Defense Units, engage and eliminate the Champion.” My plan worked. The Champion is truly a warrior like no other.
But that is his weakness.
His soldiers can’t follow, they can’t breach the line of Obliterators and thousands of Frames that I’ve thrown at them. They can push. But we will shove them back. I don’t need to kill them. But I need a clear shot on the Champion.
Your life ends here.
I see Garov’s Frame on a screen, it is the twin of Nevra’s. Both are a deep blue, and both are armed with shoulder-mounted-bolt-repeaters as well as a plasma sword and a titanium-steel blade, for differing circumstances. One of their companions moves in to strike at the Champion while he’s distracted.
An explosion ripples as the Champion decimates the Frame in a single blow, carving it in half before dancing away.
I sigh inwardly. Incompetent…
“Garov, can you beat him?” I ask, noting how the Champion moves with a grace and lethality I have never seen in a warrior before. I find myself hoping Champion can kill this one cretin before he’s destroyed.
“I can, Admiral. Gladly!” His fervour is detestable, he says it with such glee and joy. Such willingness to murder, just because the Champion is an Imperial. Whoever it is, they will have friends, family. Yet he doesn’t care. Garov only wants to kill.
“Then see it done! Erase this threat from our Universal Collective! Strike the killing blow and I’ll call you a hero myself.” A chuckle answers me as the two forces engage. The Special defense Units surround the Champion and fire barrage after barrage at the Frame. The Champion is skilled, however, I’m more than a little impressed as I watch him duck and weave through the fire, managing to kill three of the units before he is forced to dodge again. He’s swift, a blur of energy and death.
Garov and Nevra move in a pincer. When the Champion moves to check Nevra, Garov strikes.
The Champion moved in the last moment, breaking his contact with Nevra and now being above the fight. I see a red pulse of light and Garov narrowly misses being obliterated by the Champion’s particle beam. The Special Defense Unit retaliate, firing a salvo of missiles at him.
The first wave detonates ahead of the Champion. I see the Frame falter as it is held in the space, as the EMP wrecks the system. The shields falter, the Champion is a sitting duck.
The second wave is fired.
And so now you die.
Green blasts shower in front of the Defense Units, obliterating the missiles and a few of them. A second later a white Frame crashes into the Champion, dragging it away from the enemies. I see the Frame turn back and loose death on my soldiers. Two arms extend forward, weapons moving from the shoulders and locking around the hands. A moment later the Frame fires on my soldiers, devastating one of the units, destroying nearly all of the soldiers within it.
“Amazing,” Gallagher whispers behind me. “Their technological and combat advantage makes tactics pointless.” I ground my teeth, infuriated at the failure to kill a single Frame.
“Sir!” Ashley calls for me, “We’ve hacked the Imperium’s communications. Shall we patch them through?”
A sense of curiosity grips me. The Champion is the greatest warrior in the Imperium. Yet I still have no idea who they are. I give her an affirmative nod.
A crackle of static.
“Alexis…” The bemoaned voice of my brother calls over the comms, “Leave me to die. Champion can’t move. I can’t fight. There is nothing I can do now.” I look up at the screen, seeing the white Frame, Alexis, I presume, raising its arms and shielding my brother. I feel the explosions that rock her Frame as an iridescent shield glows and falters as an entire wave of missiles blasts against her.
Kaldratos, but that can’t be. You died. I feel my heart constrict. The blood pumps in my ears, I hear my heart booming in my chest, demanding that I take action.
But I can do nothing but watch.
“I didn’t just save your arse to hear you say you want to die!” The strain in her voice breaks my heart. I knew Alexis as a kind and fun girl. She used to chase Lelliana and myself across the house. She was always quicker than me, though, and never far from a smile and a laugh.
“Kaldratos!” I hear her scream as a bolt pierces through the side of my brother’s Frame.
I hear Garov chuckle as he shoots towards my brother, plasma sword in his grip.
A strangled growl answers, and a silver plasma blade greets him. In three swift strikes, he’s beaten back, having lost one of his Frame’s arms in the short duel.
“Your Highness!” Octavian’s voice, “We can’t break through! Get him out of there, Alexis!”
I hear someone’s fist smash against their screen. Curses rising from a thousand voices as they desperately try to reach my brother. The screen zooms in on a group of Kaldratos’s assault force.
There are three. Black and blue Frames, silver Lances in their grips. They stalk towards a destroyer, dodging the flak and the anti-air weapons. One goes over the top, the others come from the side. Together the three of them open fire, their lances’ points coming away to unleash a hail of bolts on the destroyer.
They don’t turn back. The destroyer erupts behind them as they carry onwards, trying to punch through my lines of ships and Frames.
The same three are ambushed by Myron’s unit. Three against four thousand.
Their deaths are quick.
All along their vanguard the Imperium loses formation. There is no more strategy. No more tactics. Only a fanatic attempt to cut through my forces to save my brother.
When I look back at Champion, my brother isn’t dead. Alexis carries my brother’s Frame, moving at a much slower pace than before due to the weight. Every now and again she turns and opens on the troops that follow her.
“Admiral,” I hear Galvian’s voice in my ear. “Give the order for my unit to engage. We’ll surround and eliminate the two of them together! This is our time to strike!”
The words snap me back to reality.
Kaldratos, I can’t let you die.
“So this is what you intended.” The words comes out as a mangled gurgle.
Ignatios! You bastard! You sent me here to kill Kaldratos!
I clutch at my chest, my heart hurts as the emotions bombard it. Never have I known such a betrayal as this. I feel sick as I contemplate what to do.
I have to save him. I can’t let him die! I can’t…
“Sir?” Ashley asks me, “Are you alright?”
No, you stupid girl. Be silent. I release my chest and straighten.
Garov. Nevra. You knew, didn’t you? You knew and you decided to keep this from me.
I turn my gaze to Tristan, dutifully yelling orders to members of my fleet. The fight is going well, especially since his plan to acquire all the defensive structures in Ceres had been successful. But, even so, they have far superior numbers than I.
Did you know too, Tristan? Did you keep me in the dark about trying to make me kill my own brother?
It hits me like a punch as I can envision no way out.
The white Frame from earlier still desperately tries to protect my brother, firing again and again at the enemies. Blocking Garov and Nevra at every attack. Never letting either of them anywhere near him. It is a testament to Alexis’ skill and determination that they’ve survived this long. You have my greatest respect, pilot. And my undying gratitude, for defending Kaldratos.
The Basphenn unleashes on the Imperial formation, its heavy bolts blasting through the formation of frenzied soldiers as they try to reach Kaldratos, to protect him.
It dawns on me that I could do nothing. That I could give no orders. Not say a thing, and a gate would open to rule of the Universal Collective.
Power at the cost of his life.
No! I march forward, bringing up my command console. I will not be a pawn in your game, Ignatios. I will not kill him! I will accept all repercussions to keep him alive.
My fingers tap furiously as I take command of the frontal gun turrets.
I set a cone around the Champion, a large swathe of my own forces trying to strike him are in the centre of my firing arc.
I take a deep, rattling breath.
I press the button.
I turn to Ashley, not allowing her to register what I just did. “Command a full retreat from Ceres! Now!” I turn back, seeing as Kaldratos is carried back. The white Frame flying him along, it’s arms wrapped around Champion as if it was in a tackle.
Kaldratos. You’re alive.
My joy is soured by the hate that burns in my chest. The fear as the consequences of my actions ring true in my head. I just killed hundreds of my own soldiers to save him, to save an Imperial. My soldiers, my commanders. They won’t understand why, and if they knew the truth…
Carnage reigns as the communication goes out to retreat. Many choose to disobey and continue their onslaught. Those that agree retreat under fire, and my formation breaks apart. All at once the paradigm of the battle changes. The Imperium’s troops move against my units that disobey. Galvian Moore curses me over the comms, demanding a reason for my change of heart, when victory was so clearly in our grasp.
Ashley can’t meet my eyes as I tell her to end his communication.
Within two hours all of my forces are withdrawing from Ceres. All Frames have been transported into their ships. The full casualty list of my soldiers numbers over half a million.
All around me, my own crew throw daggers with their eyes. The casualty list is on every screen. The thousands of names hammering into my skull as my own guards spit as I walk past.
I feel sick as I make my way to my chambers, my feet feeling as if they drag a planet behind me, for I know that this is where it ends.
I dab against my cheeks with a wet towel, wiping the sick from my lips. When I look up, I stare at my face. My golden locks fall along my face, my hair having grown to hovering just over my shoulders. A curled, mangled mess. When I look at my eyes, I stare for several moments. Were they always so full of hate? So bleak and piercing?
I look down at the sink again and splash water on my face from the running tap.
Calm. Calm. Your only way out of this is with measured thought.
But I can’t see a way out of this. I murdered my own soldiers to save Kaldratos. My own soldiers.
For an Imperial.
They won’t forgive that, they can’t forgive that.
I hear a door slide, the door to my chambers.
“Sir?” Ashley’s voice comes in through the bathroom door.
I reach over, snatching the mask from the dresser. My hands shake as I bring it over my face, my teeth chatter as the adrenaline eats me inside.
I place the cold mask over my face.
“Yes, Ashley?” I ask, stalking from the room to where I keep my pulseblade, hoping to prepare for enemies that are likely to come.
“Stop,” she commands, taking a tone I have never heard before. When I turn to her, she holds a plasma pistol in her grip, aiming it at my chest.
I’m going through this same situation too much.
I begin to reach for my drawers. “I said stop!” She clicks the safety.
I could let her do it. She intends to kill me. Kaldratos lives. Am I truly willing to oppose him? To go against him? All this time, I thought you were dead. Will I be forced to kill you myself just so I can achieve what I must?
No. I won’t let you be a sacrifice.
I raise my hands and step away from my weapon. I am unarmed, not even equipped with my own boltor pistol.
“Why’d you do it?” She demands an answer.
“Why?” She screams at me, sweat running down her brow as a crazed look gleams in her eyes. Her hands shake. “He was an enemy. You killed our own people for him. Tell me why.”
“It’s complicated,” I say. She shakes her head, smiling to herself.
“Don’t give me that shit. Don’t pretend you’re a genius and everyone else is just too fucking stupid to understand. I don’t buy it. So, spit.” She aims the gun at my leg and fires. The bolt sizzles into the ground beside me. Whether she intentionally misses or just didn’t hit her target, she doesn’t fire again. Her eyes tear away the mask, accuse me of a thousand things, and demand an answer to her question.
“Traitor!” Galvian Morne screams from the doorway. His face is red as he charges into my room. Followed by Tarvitz, Namen, Cero and Myron Polrana. Ashley throws me a nervous look, knowing that while she may have been merciful, they most certainly won’t.
“Gentlemen, and lady.” I spread my arms, greeting them. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“You should have killed him!” Galvian screams at me, pacing in front of me. His fingers tightly wound around the hilt of a boltor pistol. He continues to throw crimes at me. Negligence of duty. Treason. Failure to uphold the moral values of decency.
When he is finished, Namen continues, throwing a disturbed look at Galvian. “Sir, Hannibal. The issues here run deep to the core. We do not know who you are.” They nod, “You repeatedly throw soldiers lives away for tactical advantage. You have a disregard for human life. And, you killed our own to save an Imperial. To save the Champion.” They align themselves in front of me like a panel of judges.
Ashley looks back at me, waiting.
“You expect an explanation?” I laugh at them, “I can give you none. You know that I was assigned by her High Ladyship personally to oversee this fleet. She has entrusted me with power, with responsibility. Have you ever talked with her, Morne? Sat down with her?” He looks at me with envy and anger.
“You’re an Imperial sympathiser!” he spits the words at me. I laugh at him, I provoke him. “You’re a traitor! A sympathiser and we cannot abide you leading us. I will not abide a lover of those bastards to command us!”
He raises his pistol. He is the first. Myron is the last, a look of dejected horror on his face.
“I’m sorry, sir.” Tarvitz says, unable to look at my mask, “But this is best for the Universal Collective. We can’t trust your motives after what you’ve done.”
“Wait!” Ashley steps in front of me, “Shouldn’t we allow him to at least defend himself?”
“Would you like to die with him?” Morne asks harshly.
lowers her arms and steps away from me, looking angry, but not willing to sacrifice herself for someone she doesn’t truly know.
Galvian Morne clicks the safety off his pistol.
“Bloody fucking traitor.”
He pulls the trigger.
I step forward, my hand clutches at my chest. The bolt blasted through the left side of my chest, but it didn’t come out the other side. I gasp on reflex, my hand burns as I press it against the wound.
I jerk and spasm as more bolts hit me, as they fire again and again, tearing away bits of my body with their fury.
My right leg jerks as it bursts apart at the shin, severing my ankle from the rest of my leg. My left forearm is taken off just above the elbow. The point of my shoulder sizzles as a hole is ripped through it.
I fall to my knees, my mouth agape as blood flows from my mouth.
And so this is how it ends.