Five days, and the torn muscles still hadn't fully healed.

Pain is inevitable, and while some say that suffering is optional, for me both were usually genuine curiosities more than anything else. You see, the most horrifying aspect of sprinting anywhere above a hundred miles an hour is the excruciating pain--never mind doing so to intercept ordnance designed to take out main battle tanks.

Using the JAW-180 armor's radio transponder to remotely trigger a split-second reboot of the fired missile's pressure and proximity sensors was easy enough, but it had already broken the sound barrier and was only fifteen meters off the ground.

To my shame, I barely managed five pumping strides before my entire right foot fractured from the impacts; my left calf damn near ruptured at full load to maintain the hundred and twenty mile an hour sprint while I simultaneously launched airborne to deflect the missile.

Immediately after the distant blast's shockwave crashed into me and cast me downward, I counted several ruptured organs. My heart definitely stopped--twice. As I landed and went on the offense, I couldn't help but smile when I realized I'd never again have to look up the definition of the word 'excruciating'.

I could shut down my ability to feel pain, but that would go against the meaning of the Sanskrit name I chose for myself, which denoted someone admirable. Besides, as the one burdened with the continuity of the human race, it was only fitting to endure life like they did.

With this in mind, I turned to the three following me through the dawn.

Adam and Chitra supported Miranda between them. Each had a quiet perseverance and professionalism wholly at odds with what I expected, and that made me curious enough to not abandon them and continue babysitting Kael like I was supposed to.

She'll live, I convinced myself. Probably. Maybe. If she's anything like me.

"Just fifteen more miles to the city wall," I told them.

"Oh, that's nice." Miranda laughed. "Just fifteen miles, since that's a reasonable walking distance."

Of course it is, I thought. You don't have to swim at any point, but of course no well adjusted person would probably say that in this situation. So...

I sped up my perception--which effectively stretched time to a point for me--to look up the definition of the word 'sarcasm' in my mind, and it appeared to me as text on a simple translucent rectangle. After this, I browsed through a list that showed every permutation of every single thing my current persona would say to such a sarcastic remark under these circumstances.

See, decades ago I learned that even if my engineered body had the similar living flesh, blood and bones of the people around me, I was incomplete both physically--hence the relatively weak durability, plus a five foot petite stature--and  incomplete mentally because my mind lacked a certain...humanity. At every social interaction, I had to feign with convincing mimicry all the human mannerisms I showed. About half a second later, I decided on the appropriate response, tone of voice and stressed words.

"After a year's training, it sure as fuck should be walking distance."

"I'm just saying," Miranda replied, "we should have gone back for the working rover."

I tried my hand at sarcasm: "yeah--because the same shit-heads who can run such a coordinated ambush haven't thought about that. Look, that was an Armorclad hunter-killer squad, and someone on our side gave them those suits and weapons."

"Meaning we're completely exposed," Adam clarified to Miranda.

"That still doesn't explain why we're maintaining radio silence--or why no one even came to look for us. Worse yet, your genius plan is to walk right into Athernis anyways. The same city that hunter-killer squad was headed to."

The same hunter-killer squad that's been tracking us for days and would've killed you by now if I hadn't chosen to babysit you, I consoled my flaring temper with more sarcasm. So please, enlighten me. Go on, please. I know nothing about warfare.

"Yep," I confirmed again, since she was after all a child. "And we're on our own precisely because everyone else is just as fucked as we are, if not worse. In fact, probably much worse."

"Okay, then what's the grand master plan when we get to Athernis?"

"No idea," I lied. You should really watch your fucking mouth, kid.

"I'm surprised you ran out of ideas all of a sudden--"

I spun to face Miranda, both arms at my waist and all. 

I was a bit shorter, so my would-be opponent smirked in a moment of superiority.

A dozen attack vectors had already appeared in my sights, but of course I thought better of it. Such simple savagery would merely award me with three corpses that would immediately pose lifeless--as all corpses do--and leave me without an audience for hours on end. 

"Let's just get there first," I told Miranda, sure to express that patronizing smile for added effect; the kid was clearly fragile in more ways than one. "Since you look like you need a lot of help, we'll take care of you first."

Miranda scoffed--cringed as she turned away, gritted her teeth against the pain.

So you learned to hide all that frustration from being looked down upon behind this sarcasm? Good. It's the only thing that kept you going, and the only damn thing keeping you going right now besides the endurance medical cocktails.

The Therrite strips at Miranda's midsection and chest had cracked and crumbled away under concentrated gunfire; dried bloodstains had darkened her bullet resistant under suit, and her helmet had several fractures. "I'll be fine," Miranda said, all imperious and proud like. "I'm still alive, aren't I?"

Five, I guessed. At least five bullets in her, and some of them are migrating after days of hiking, yet still she dare talk back to me. What were you trying to prove by sacrificing yourself for the company back there--especially when you still loathe everyone just a bit more than yourself?

I led them along the river, and by sunset a grey haze of smoky rain clouds drifted across the sky, stabbed through with pale shafts of sunlight. We arrived atop a small hill, where I stood on a rocky prominence and had a better panoramic view.

The setting sun lit the dwindling, mist-filled rainforest below, down to the grassy flatlands beyond. Past that, I saw a sinuous strip of black road that knifed through the wilderness and snaked toward a sudden, flat ridge that rose against the golden horizon. Like many colony-world capital cities, Athernis was built into a massive, ancient impact crater.

We slowed while I--an otherwise harmless-looking petite college girl at just five feet tall--pretended to struggle while supporting Miranda, and walked through the city gates well past the lonely hour of midnight while rain fell from the stirring dark clouds above in otherwise dead silence. It seemed like the entire city of three million was evacuated, and not just recently--weeks, or months ago.

"Shit," Chitra muttered. "What the fuck is going on?"

The End

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