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Seen through squinted eyes, the bright flashing in the sky could have been a lightning storm. Perhaps a particularly heavy one, but a lightning storm nonetheless.

“Eyes peeled, Vat Two-Twenty.”

Anna’s eyes jerked open at the sound of Operative Charles’s voice and recognized the orbital bombardment for what it was. She moved her leg slightly to make herself more comfortable and peered through the binoculars at their target. The pyramid in the distance appeared as a dark silhouette set against a world lit by streaks of light that rained down from the heavens.

Three figures stood in front of the pyramid, pointing at the fires that raged in the distance; they were tall--nearly ten feet each--and held glaive-like weapons with blades made of black energy that absorbed the light around them. Anna had seen those weapons in combat before; they could cut through anything, from thick metal plating to the protective layer of keratin that covered most of the body of a Clone soldier. She shivered when her mind recalled the images.

She looked to her left for confirmation. Operative Charles lay in the undergrowth, pressed against the damp earth in a way that seemed highly uncomfortable. His neck was arched up at an unnatural angle and his single sensor eye was focused on the pyramid ahead--even though magnification was needed to make out any level of detail. Where his armor plating had folded away to accommodate his prone position, Charles’s metallic joints were visible. He turned his head towards her almost instantly. His sensor held her eyes; the single, glowing pupil dilated slightly.

“Go ahead, Vat Two-Twenty,” Charles said.

Anna turned back to the binoculars. She read out loud the coordinates that flashed on the display and listened as the targeting technician on the other end of the com-link confirmed them to her. A moment later, a series of intermittently flashing red dots--visible only through Anna’s binoculars--marked the approximate area of impact; it neatly covered the pyramid and the three tall figures that stood in front of it.

“Fire for effect,” Anna said.

In an instant, a bright flash shot down from the sky. When it connected, it consumed the pyramid and its three guards in a perfect orb of blinding light.

Anna averted her eyes and looked to her right. In the corner of her eyes, she saw Charles, his sensor locked on the explosion. There was always something unnerving about how he stared at destruction, and Anna had always wondered why he did it. Perhaps it was because the light was no discomfort to him, or perhaps the sight of a perfect orb was aesthetically pleasing to his synthetic sensibilities, or perhaps he just took pleasure in his job--to visit a great many different worlds and set fire to each of them.

When the flash had died away, Anna looked through the binoculars. The pyramid had been reduced to a pile of partially melted rubble: there was no trace of the three guards. She watched for a few seconds as the wreckage cooled down, switching between the binoculars’ different modes of vision, and searched for life signs.

There were none.

“Good effect on target,” she finally said. The targeting technician on the other end of the com-link confirmed with smugness in his voice.

She looked at Charles again, whose sensor was still fixed on the smoldering pile of glassed ruin in the distance. His left arm jerked: a movement that was unnecessary, and odd to observe in an AI.

“Sector clear for sweeping teams.”

AI might mimic humans, but the satisfaction Anna heard in Charles’s voice was genuine enough.

#


The surveillance equipment in Anna's binoculars picked up the landing craft before she saw it. She tracked its signal and homed in on the small atmospheric craft as it zoomed down from the clouds at high speed, its hull lit up by the distant, colorful flashes of the orbital bombardment.

Anna glanced to her right. Charles had set up his high-powered sniper rifle and had assumed a prone firing position. The weapon’s scope and Anna’s binoculars were linked so that she could spot and mark targets for him. She looked back at the landing craft.

“We have eyes on,” Anna said. Two voices on the other end confirmed--one was the targeting technician, the other the squad leader.

She watched as the strike team jumped from the landing craft, deployed ballistic shields, and carefully proceeded towards the ruins. The soldiers went from cover to cover; only half of them moved at any given time, while the rest kept their eyes on their surroundings, alert and weapons at the ready--a routine born out of years of extensive training and experience.

They were Clones, just as she was. She had suspected it when she had heard the squad leader’s voice--all Clones sound alike, but she was certain now she saw the team in operation. She felt a tinge of pride as she watched them. It was an irrational feeling: a sensation of being part of a greater, stronger whole and feeling better for it.

Her eyes found Charles. His metallic frame reflected the bombardment’s wide array of colors while he lay motionless in prone position, impervious to the sharp branches that poked him in the stomach and sides.

Did he experience anything akin to pride as he watched the strike team? Did he experience any emotion at all? Or was it all just ruthless efficiency?

"Eyes peeled, Vat Two-Twenty." Charles still peered through the scope of his rifle, as if he could feel her watching.

When she looked through the binoculars, the strike team had reached the smoldering ruins. Two men took position to each side of the half-collapsed entrance and covered a third as he scanned the interior of the pyramid. He then went in, followed by his two squad mates.

It took the strike team just under five minutes to survey the ruins and the surrounding area. When they were done, the soldiers reconvened in front of the ruined pyramid and huddled around the squad leader to discuss their findings. It was all standard procedure; she had seen it a hundred times before--yet, this time, something was off about it.

“Seems to be something going on,” she said, eyes still on the squad.

Charles didn’t respond.

A short beep indicated the com-link with the strike team opened. The squad leader’s voice came through with background static that was unusual for this type of connection.

"Forward team, can you confirm this station was manned?" Despite the static, Anna could hear hesitation in the squad leader’s voice.

"Confirmed," Anna replied.

"Count?"

"Three outside, inside unknown."

The other end of the com-link was silent. Anna looked sideways at Charles. He had not moved an inch since when she had last looked at him.

"Why?" She asked.

"There are no dead bodies here."

#


The trees around their hilltop had seemed so calm, even during the bombardment. Now, they were alive with sound and motion. Anna could not tell if it was real or imagined. She did not rise from her prone position, and when she reached for her rifle, she noticed her hands trembled.

Direct engagements were not her strong point.

“They probably won’t come up here, right?” Her voice trembled, too.

“Humans would not,” Charles said. “Priests are different.”

Anna peered down the sights of her rifle. The flashing in the sky conjured a veritable dance of shadows among the trees and shrubs below; it was impossible to see if anything was out there, watching them.

“Humans,” Charles said, “would flee, regroup, and look for a place from which to safely fire their artillery and unleash their hordes of combat AI. Their flesh is weak, and they fear death.”

Anna chanced a quick look at Charles; he was still in that same, uncomfortable position.

“Priests, however, are made of other stuff.” Charles looked back at Anna. The single sensor eye glowed soft blue. In a moment of silence in the storm, she heard the lenses whir softly as the eye focused on her. “To them, the body is a shell: they do not die when they lose it. As with my kind, if you seek to kill them permanently, you must kill their minds. . .”

In an instant, Charles was up from his prone position and shot past her.

Anna blinked twice before she rolled onto her back. In a single motion, she pulled the buttstock of her rifle against her shoulder and curled her finger around the trigger.

When her eyes found Charles, he stood between three shapes, each easily three feet higher than he. Yet for all their size, the shapes were not real; they shone with a light that was not of this world, a light Anna had not seen before and that was of no single color she knew. The shapes were almost upon her, but she had neither seen nor heard them come.

Years of training took over; she squeezed the trigger and was almost caught off-guard by the rifle’s recoil. Her aim was true, yet the salvo of kinetic projectiles passed through the glowing shapes and tore to splinters a tree not far behind them.

Her second and third volleys suffered the same fate; but still she fired, until one of the glowing shapes tore itself free of the fighting mass and raced at her with incredible speed. The four-fingered hands held no weapon of any kind but shone with a light that seemed malicious, hurtful. The dread light drew Anna in until she nearly drowned in it; it stole all light, life, and energy around it, and she could do nothing but freeze. . .

But no pain came.

Instead, darkness returned: a nothingness that felt a blessing after the otherworldly, mad glow she had witnessed.

The darkness was broken by a flash of light as the orbital bombardment resumed. In the flash, Anna saw only Charles, his frame suffused by tendrils of black energy that drank the very light around them: a psionic power that Anna felt would be able to sap her strength and eat away at her mind, until her body was nothing but an empty husk. Charles focused the blue sensor eye on her.

“They. . . they surprised me,” she said.

Had Charles been physically able, he would probably have smiled.

“I told you to keep your eyes peeled.”

[End]

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