Prologue

 They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
"Who are you really, wanderer?"
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
"Maybe I'm a king."

 

William Stafford

 

The blistering winds of the northern badlands buffeted the lone walker. He hiked through the unforgiving frost and relentless snowstorms, with little or no rest, and nothing save the impulse to simply soldier on. This is, of course, because he is a soldier.
And no ordinary soldier, either. He’s an imperial soldier. Equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry, and a high-tech battle suit, nothing should be able to defeat him, let alone a battalion. Should be. A siege of the Khein outpost on the borderline of the tundra and the badlands had just taken place. It shouldn’t have happened-there’s nothing out there. The northern wastes mark the edge of the Rotert Empire, and the tundra stretches on for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles after that.
 But beyond…..who knew what lay beyond? If the siege was anything to go by, he didn’t want to find out.
Not only did they have equal technology to the imperial soldiers, they also had something else. Something that struck terror into his heart. Huge hulking beasts that were humanoid in shape, but were definitely NOT human. Standing 70 feet tall, with teeth and claws that could only be imagined in the worst nightmare imaginable, and a leathery whip as a tail. He didn’t even want to know what they were.
He shivered. They had knocked the wall down almost casually, and battlesuits and walkers had poured through the holes, and had killed all in their path.
A clattering brought him out of his trance-like train of thought. He looked down. He had reached a cliff, and he couldn’t see the bottom. He looked around, and, seeing no other way down, tried to start his jet pack to lower him down the cliff. His jetpack, however, had different ideas, and it failed to warm up sufficiently. The soldier cursed the wastes-his jetpack had frozen up
As he searched for a way to start his descent the old fashioned way, he heard a rumbling behind him. He span round, his helmets’ HUD scanning the surrounding area, while his R.A.D.A.R worked overtime. He heard the rumbling again, and realized, with a sinking feeling, that it was coming from BENEATH the ground-he had no idea where it was.
So he ran.
At least, that’s what he wanted to do, but 10 years an imperial soldier left little choice in these situations. While common sense and the survival instinct told him to run, his training and pride told him otherwise. He stood and waited for the fight that was coming, which would almost certainly end with his death. After all-it must be big to make rumblings that sounded like a drawn-out thunderclap.
The ground rumbled again, and shook slightly. It was coming closer. The soldier started up the battle procedures on his suit. The metre-long Anti Infantry Rail Cannon (or AIRC) that was in his right hand whirred in anticipation, as it gathered power from the wind (plenty of that around) to produce its laser ammo. He flicked out his Anti Infantry Energy Blade (AIEB) into his left hand, and prepared the missile pods on both of his shoulders. He had enough firepower in this one battlesuit to level the entire capital city of Roctate in a matter of minutes. And Roctate was 30 miles in diameter.
Cracks appeared in the snow in front of him. He crouched into the ready position: legs bent, left hand touching the floor, head facing forward. More cracks, another thunderclap, accompanied by a tremor. He levelled his AIRC at the position in front of him, and waited.
With a huge explosion of snow and ice, and an earthquake that threw him off his feet, the walker erupted from the ground in front of him. With a grunt, the soldier leapt to his feet, and started to run round the walker in a wide circle. The walker followed his path with difficulty. You see, this was the UAW-the Underground Assault Walker. Whilst able to travel at incredible speeds underground, beneath R.A.D.A.R and HUD scanners, and packing serious firepower, including twin AIRC’s, two pods of thermo-plasma missiles (twice as powerful as nuclear missiles, but 10 times as small), it suffers from above ground speed and manoeuvrability problems, though this rarely outweighs its danger. No one that had half a brain would go up against this thing in a battlesuit. Those things are expensive!
Anyway, he started to run around the walker. Plasma bullets shredded the ground behind him, and he in turn opened fire on the UAW. The bullets wouldn’t do much, he knew, but they did something, and he wasn’t going to stay still long enough for the UAW’s missiles to get a lock-on (although immensely powerful, its explosion range was only 2 or 3 feet in circumference. The force of it exploding nearby would knock you flying, but that much power focused in so small an area would essentially vaporize anything within the explosion range.). His firestorm missiles locked onto the walker. Although not as powerful as the thermo-plasma missiles, they were a hell of a lot more portable. They were used mainly against jeeps and war bikes (not to mention other battlesuits), so he wasn’t hoping for much-maybe a lucky hit that would disable something vital.
He fired his missiles, and as he predicted, they didn’t do much. They splashed onto the cockpit, making it stagger back a step or two. Not much damage, just surprise combined with the force of two or three missiles hitting at the same time. However, this did open up an unexpected opportunity. The UAW was off balance, so he shifted his fire towards its legs. Bullets and missiles slammed into the legs, and because he was already off balance, it knocked him off his feet. Anyone who was even slightly experienced would get up almost right away-walkers all had jets to help with that sort of thing, as well as increase their jump height. Whoever this was, he wasn’t experienced. This meant the battlesuit had a chance. He ran forward, the boosters on his feet adding extra power to each step. He leapt onto the cockpit as it slowly got to its feet. When the pilot realised what was happening, he panicked. He shook his machine wildly, straining to throw off his unwanted passenger, while the battlesuit man (at this point I think I should mention his name is John) hung on for dear life-if he got thrown off now, he would get trampled to death-3 tons of metal doesn’t tend to leave survivors.
Clinging on, John raised his blade, which was pure energy, and swept it down in a wide arc into and through the cockpit, cutting it and the pilot clean in two. Blood soaked the inside of the cockpit, and the top half of the cockpit slid off, and fell with a loud clatter to the ground, and the rest of the body staggered and followed suit. John clambered down from the wreckage and deactivated the battle mode. His slanted helmet whirred as it drew back. The wind and snow stung his eyes, as he turned around and surveyed the cliff. The snowstorm was going with gusto now, so he couldn’t see the bottom of the cliff. But then, he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. Granted, it was silver, but if he couldn’t see something of a different colour right in front of him, he wouldn’t see something the same colour at potentially 2 miles down. The wastes were treacherous like that. He reactivated his helmet. It slid forward with a whirr and a click. He was about to see if his R.A.D.A.R could estimate how long the drop was, when he heard, barely audible over the howling winds and driving snow, a slight crackling. He turned around, already suspecting the worst.
The sparks from the destroyed walker had ignited its fuel tank. The crackling was the growing fire that was slowly consuming the walker.
“Shi- …”
A huge explosion threw him off his feet as the fuel combusted, sending him flying through the air like a rag doll. He landed roughly on the snow, tumbling towards and over the edge of the cliff.
As he went over, he scrabbled for a hand-hold., and managed to grab a tumble weed. The tumble weed was a basic garden pest. It didn’t matter if it was freezing glaciers, or burning desert rocks-it could survive anywhere. And what’s more, when it grew somewhere, no amount of pulling could dislodge it. It was times like this that John thanked the god that was bored one day, and thought: “I’m bored. Why don’t I invent something that grows where people don’t want it to!”
John pulled himself up by the weed, and scrabbled for a better handhold. He searched and searched, and eventually found a bit of rock jutting out of the cliff. He searched with his feet, but couldn’t find anything suitable to put his weight on.
He considered his options.
On the one hand, he could let go. In that case, there were three possible scenarios:

  1. He could fall only a few feet, tumble down a hill, and look a bit silly. But since there was no one else around, he preferred that option.
  2. He could fall a considerable distance, and injure himself. Then, if he damaged his battlesuit in the fall, he would then have to abandon it, and die of exposure. That is, if the things didn’t find him first.
  3. He could fall a long way, and exposure would be the least of his problems, as he would die from the fall.

Or, he could hold on and either lose his grip, or climb up. If he did climb up, he still had to walk in an endless wasteland of snow, maybe for weeks before he either was found and killed by search parties (he deduced that the Demons didn’t want word getting back to the emperor about their attack-they had some sense, then), or die of starvation., and the chances of being found by an imperial transport was slim to none. All in all, the situation looked pretty bleak.
A cracking interrupted his train of thought. He looked up, and his HUD detected the source of the sound. The ledge he was hanging from was unstable anyway-the extra half ton of metal and weapons didn’t help much. The rock was breaking.
“Well, that solves that dilemma” he muttered. “This is definitely not my day!”
With that, almost as if someone had planned it, (*cough*) the rock broke, sending John plummeting down the cliff. After a couple of seconds, he concluded that he was probably going to die, but John thudded into the snow a few moments later.
And he lay there, bleeding, unmoving. His battlesuit sparked dangerously.
Well, here I go. He thought. I always thought I’d die in action. Oh well.
He heard something hovering above him. He staggered to his feet, pain exploding through him like a volcanic eruption. A dropship was hovering above him. When it saw him getting up, it had started to circle. It had come to rest facing him.
“This is more like it” growled John, as he loaded his missile pods and aimed his gun at the ship. Blood dribbled out of his mouth, and he was clutching his side with his left hand. “COME ON! GIVE IT YOUR BEST SHOT!!!!!” he roared his challenge, and flicked out his blade. Despite the excruciating pain, bellowing formless curses, he charged at the dropship.

The End

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