Part 9 - The Road to AgraMature

"Crap!" Private Stassen cried, firing up as he went. "Look out!"

The rover charged down the steep mountain road at two hundred kilometers an hour. Unit 03 gripped the steering wheel tighter, wrenching it to the left as ectoplasm splashed into the road in front of them.

The asphalt exploded from the heat as she steered, but the right wheel caught the pothole. The entire vehicle bounced—up and over into the air—and skidded clear across the road.

It smashed into the left guard rail. Beyond, a sheer gorge lengthened to perilous depths. She steered away in an instant, centered the rover. She heard Stassen screaming in the back, blindly firing his assault rifle.

Two large shadows flashed past the rover, followed by a heated blast of air. The pair of Lotas shot past them, then broke to a turn and etched brilliant white contrail.

She saw Locklear in the passenger seat, raising their heat-seeker rocket launcher. He aimed—but cursed and ducked. Liquid heat splashed across the rover's passenger side.

The right wheel exploded from its mount and vaporized. The vehicle dropped balance and jack hammered into the ground. There was an explosion of glass as she and the soldiers flew clear of the rover, followed by sky and black road rapidly tumbling before her.

Her harsh reunion with the ground came suddenly and all at once: her force shields vanished the instant she crashed onto her back, and in a blaze of sparks skidded down the steep highway.

The Loti shot past them once more, and the air screamed as they broke into another strafing run. Tumbling farther down were the two soldiers. Much farther down she saw the remains of the rover, nothing more than a twisted cage of burning steel rolling down the track. They had no vehicle now, slow and easy prey for those Loti in their next run.

She skid another hundred meters down the road on her back, a blur of white hot sparks. She then dug both heels into the road, absorbed the impact at her knees and flipped into a forward drop.

The stunt should have dashed her face-first into the road in an instant. Instead her hands impacted the ground, rapidly followed by her boots crushing the road as she catapulted to her feet.

She launched into a flat-out sprint after the burning rover down range. She closed the hundred meters in six leaping strides, during which the two Loti at her back finished their turn and arrowed into a downward dive for the kill.

Turning to face the threats, she wrenched the straightest spar of steel from the rover's frame and crushed one end to a point. When the leading Lotas emerged before her, she launched the instrument like a javelin.

The wicked spear split the air like a flash of lightning, red hot. It gutted the leading Lotas stem to stern. Despite its formidable mass, the creature flew to pieces in an instant. The trailing Lotas now had her dead in its sights, a hundred meters away. With her reflexes, she still had a reasonable fraction of a second to leap, but instead she remained where she was and stared right back at it.

She noticed that it had no eyes. There were only slits where the ears should be. Armored as she was, an impact with one Lotas was no contest. To kill, all it had to do was bash into her with its half ton body.

A plume of heat flashed past her from behind.

The heat-seeking missile met the Lotas at the open maw, where it spat torrents of ectoplasm for the three minutes it chased them down the high way. Shreds of stinking flesh flecked her gold visor like wet snow.

Locklear rose behind her, missile launcher smoking. Between the facts he was flung from an exploding rover and being in the sights of a diving Lotas a moment earlier, the man simply laughed in honest terror.

They saw the city of Agra in the distance, so they finished the last leg of the journey on foot. They found Stassen lying in a heap a kilometer farther down. Locklear dragged the younger soldier from his private impact crater.

The soldiers marched through Agra's broken gates by high noon, when the sun shone brightly through the sky. The outskirts emerged from the blinding white sunlight as a haze of gray, paper bags and dust. Empty bazaars filled the alleys. Bicycles, old vans, and motorcycles rusted in the sweltering heat, just as they were left seven years ago.

Unit 03 wondered why Captain Wilkes insisted Agra was the best place to start reclaiming land on Earth. To get to Agra, they had to drive through open desert. Things were fine as long as air support was there. When the aircraft lagged behind for in-flight refueling, the Loti invariably raided them. Now, of the two dozen soldiers that left the rally point, only Stassen and Locklear remained. What was Captain Wilkes trying to do?

No, it was best not to question such decisions. Captain Wilkes had always been right about everything, so there must be a good reason why she sent her to Agra. Though empty, the buildings still stood, and after surviving waves of Lotas in open desert, she felt some sense of relief. She led the soldiers deeper into the city, halting only when they stood in the center of the ruins.

"Stassen!" Locklear barked. "Where is our radio?

"I don't know," the younger soldier said. "Maybe it got hit."

"Great," Locklear threw up his hands. "Now what—"

"Good work everyone," Captain Wilkes sounded in all their helmets, speaking through Unit 03's emergency data channel. "Hold your position, that's our new landing zone."

"The Admiral is sending in Ravens from the orbital platform. Mostly mothballed supplies, but they still work. Once the supply Ravens touch down, the techs will erect Camp New Heaven and set up anti-aircraft batteries. When the home fleet arrives, this will become central command for all of India."

"Sounds like a perfect plan," Locklear said.

"Hopefully. Anyone else with something to say?"

"I like it," Stassen beamed. "We might actually win this time."

The soldiers hunkered down and waited. They watched the sun set among the ruins, light peel into shadows. Stassen complained about holding their ground with just one rocket launcher, which in his opinion was either a waste of ammo against a handful of acolytes or woefully underpowered when facing an entire mob. Locklear paced in a circle.

"Sir!" Stassen yelled to Locklear. "Ravens! Inbound!"

Unit 03 followed Locklear's upward gaze. The yellow moon watched over them. Hulls aglow with re-entry heat, eight Raven drop ships descended through brown dust clouds and dove toward their position.

But then something else drifted above the dust clouds, so much bigger than any drop ship. She saw a brief glimpse of the new creature, under the moon's sickly fluorescence.

It was larger than any Lotas she'd ever seen. Borne on wings spanning fifty meters across, the creature dove after the transports. Wicked talons bruised the clouds and gleamed in the moonlight, fit for shredding steel.

The End

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