by Max Barry

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DispatchAccountMilitary

by The Red Tape Singularity of Yegla Islands. . 131 reads.

Twelve

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The earth shakes. Tremors, steeled by springs. Dust rises from the cracked pavement. More cracks - my boots are heavy. My weapon, heavier. Donít feel the weight. 
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Armored shapes ahead, striding in lockstep. A loose column, trudging through deserted streets. Far before them, in the distance, the angular grey silhouette of a tank. Glass shards, already crushed by treads and the footfall of a dozen prior men, crunch underfoot.
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I check the counter. 
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Twelve. 
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Lines of neon only I can see, flaring up against a backdrop of dull beige.
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I take the flare for a defect, a trick of the visor. Then the shockwave hits me. Plating disperses, hydraulics brace. Eyes snap to the tank - now little more than a guttering wreck, surrounded by toppled men. Gunshots echo from wall to wall.
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I heft the Zhiva - its circuits hum to me through the polymer. Already, the visor calls, painting targets. The air around me is ablaze with muzzle flashes - I am not the first to return fire. 
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I may well be the last. 
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Window, third floor. Two men manning a machinegun, unloading wildly into the street. Vision darkens for a moment - the barrel is hot enough to blind thermals. Adjustments are made.
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A hollow chime. A signal I obey without question. A trigger squeezed.
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The roar drowns out my comradesí fire. A streaking lance of light, painting the street with its radiance. Careening towards the window. Two faces, lit up for but a moment - death masks before a xenon flash.
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The window is no more.
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Chunks of mortar topple onto the asphalt. I raise my hand to shield myself from the brick fragments. Scratched plating, nothing more. A token price for two lives.
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The counter flashes as I check it once again.
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Eleven.
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A hollow casing, cast away into the debris-piles.
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The search resumes. The gunfire echoes on. As if in answer to my opening shot, a rocket streaks down onto street level. The pressurized air hits me like a train - it is not enough to overcome the hydraulics. I stand.
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Others are not so lucky. As the fireball fades, I see the remains of the man whoíd stood beside me mere moments prior - all twisted plate and charred un-flesh. 
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The contrail is still seared into my mind - there. Down a side-alley, the perpetrator tries hastily to reload. It is not to be.
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Again, the chime sounds in my headset. Again, the trigger is pulled.
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The world, awash with light for but another moment. Eyes are drawn to details - a hastily strapped-together ballistic vest adorns his torso. It [i]might[/i] have stopped a bullet.
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It is not a bullet that finds him.
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The neon flickers.
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Ten.
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We move once more. The burning wreck of the tank is circumvented, heaved aside. The path is clear. 
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The street itself is not. They snake in and out of derelict apartment blocks, hoping to dodge the fates of their brethren. Leaden bees, more annoyance than danger. Still, their intent is obvious enough. I heft the Zhiva.
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Nine.
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Eight.
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No time for fine aim - a wasted charge serves to supplement the next sweeping blast. Concrete to ashes.
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Six.
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Another rocket, hurtling towards us. The comet-trail of its exhaust shines in the visorís false glare. This time, I am ready. Internals shift at my behest, and now the trigger serves a different purpose. 
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Bands of spectral blue, woven together into a ghostly wall. It springs up in the missileís path, mere centimeters away from the nearest soldier. I twist the grip - the edges snap together, flicking the wall into a sphere, just as the contrail crosses its threshold. 
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The explosion echoes out, but this time there is no shockwave to reach me. The fireball strains against its cage - the bonds hold. Thunder in a jar. I release the grip, and the whole ensemble fades.
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Five.
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There is a message, from further up the column. An order.
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Brace.
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I barely see the rounds, whistling overhead. Their impact is more difficult to miss. Hydraulics hold - the tremors pose no threat. Somewhere, a city block is now more rubble than city. Not here. We move on.
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Up ahead, the shadowy mass of a warehouse. Not our original destination. A destination all the same. 
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We form up - I see others hefting implements like mine. Odd ones out amidst the usual smattering of ballistics. I give one or two a gentle nod.
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The towering door is torn open - rusted iron, beaten out by servo force.
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Almost immediately, the staccato rhythm of exchanged fire resumes. I take cover within, behind a stack of crates. Flashes of recognition - most are on the ground, behind similar perches to mine. Some, up on the catwalks and rafters. A more pertinent threat.
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Another order, trickling on through comms. I am called upon. Parameters are forwarded, the imprint is ready.
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I step out, Zhiva raised. The concrete puffs up into powder at my feet. I donít feel the bullets impacting my chest - the plating does a good job. I focus on whatís important.
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Lock. Ready. Chime - I wrench the trigger.
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Again, I feel nothing. But the bullets cease - up ahead, the air seems to ripple and twist. I see men fall from their perches, pulled down by some unfathomable force, taking sections of catwalk with them. Below, bodies pressed into the floor - an invisible, uncaring hand. I am too far to hear the crunching of bone.
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Those with more mundane arms are quick to follow up. Tracers help keep track. After a moment or two, I lessen my grip on the trigger - no sense in holding down corpses.
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The counter seems almost mocking - I overextended. 
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Three.
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We approach the rear of the structure. A shot echoes out, here and there - some were not thorough enough. Acts of mercy. 
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But something is wrong. Nowhere near enough opposition, given the purported value this place holds. A premature evacuation? OrÖ
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As the next set of doors is torn open, I glance over the visorís readings. 
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Simple paranoia, surely.
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And then, the darkness beyond is darkness no more. Arrows of light, lancing outwards - an indistinct figure, dancing in their midst.
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I leap behind the nearest container. Hydraulics serve me still. Where I stood, the air is pierced a thousandfold.
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I am not alone in this islet of cover - there is some kernel of amusement to be had in the fact that i need comms to hear the man right beside me. I glance over his Zhiva - the panels are dull. Heís run dry.
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No time to process as the corrugated steel is torn away. Mutterings drift to me over the comms - indistinct syllables, not meant for the sane. He gargles Void. Mantra - homemade, and certainly unsanctioned. If Iím lucky enough to be able to file a post-op reprimand, Iíll consider it.
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I see the world in freeze-frames. His Zhiva, unfolding - polymer plate, woven into petals. Circuitry bound into an orb of vibrant blue. The grips remain - flower or not, he still seems intent on firing it. 
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As the arrows arc closer, its petals lash out - primitive point-defense, but it saves my life. The core sends forth a pulsing wave of azure, and our attacker is forced to evade. He answers with a sweeping, blazing-white beam - I barely have time to weigh the benefits of using another charge before instinct drives me to yank the trigger.
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The beam curves away from our position - it slices through a support column before fading. I could have directed it better, used it as a weapon of my ownÖ but charges are precious.
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Two.
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I weigh my options. My comrade staggers - wherever it is heís drawing power from, itís taking its toll. I see our opponent right himself - defiant eyes flicker through a kaleidoscope of light-blades.
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I have a plan. Itís terrible.
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Hydraulics serve once again as I rush forwards. The Conduitís eyes widen - clearly, this sort of idiocy was unexpected. Good.
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No sense in waiting for the chime. It wonít come. I key in imprints by muscle memory. Emergency override - the trigger is jolted.
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No single blast this time - both remaining charges, funneled into a continuous stream of pulsefire. There is recoil, but the hydraulics hold. My rushing advance is barely slowed.
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Light twists into a makeshift wall - no more arrows arc out. I squeeze out one last, desperate pulse of power - there is a hollow [i]kerchunk[/i]. 
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Zero.
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The light-wall flickers. I see waving limbs beyond - the next step in whatever incantation is being wrought. 
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The Zhiva is a fine-tuned instrument. It is robust, impeccably-balanced, and masterfully efficient.
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Iím out of charges, so I have to rely on the fact that it is also very, [i]very[/i] heavy.
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The Conduit stares up in shock at the hulking mass of plating and servos, bludgeoning its way through the shield by brute-force alone. At me.
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Another tremor through the suit. Closer. A movement at my side - a dust-cover, unsealed. I canít look down, but I know. An opportunity to reload. A flat, plate-sized drum. Twelve more charges.
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There is no time. The Conduit raises his hand, wreathed in a crackling glow. Eyes full of hatred.
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I yank out the drum, swing it forwards.
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Thaumaturgy. Power by guile. A path of three parts.
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Will.
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Medium.
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Focus.
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The first is simple enough. The threat of death spurs the will to live.
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The Zhiva serves me as the second, but it is not at hand. The suit I bear, and the flesh within - is it not fundamentally parallel? A shell of polymer over a circuit-core. Fanciful wiring. It will do.
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The thirdÖ those hateful eyes. I know not the root for the hatred - his life, to me, is a closed book. But hate can be answered in kind.
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I swing my mailed fist forwards. Hydraulics serve, one last time. The canister, still clutched tight between plated fingers, buckles inwards.
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Twelve.
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Will shapes the Thaum. Imprints shape will. What shape is given by simple, focused malice?
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My answer is an eye-searing, world-filling gleam, and a deafening roar.
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Zero.
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The neon glints at me - a nagging reminder that Iíve yet to reload. Its colors shift, against a backdrop of cloudless sky.
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I stagger to my feet. Hydraulics continue to serve. Head doesnít turn - canít tell if itís the suit or my neck. Hope for the former. Dull tingles down a mostly-numb arm - still, the visor tells me Iím fine. At this point, Iím inclined to believe it.
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The Zhiva lies at my feet. I pull it out of the rubble with the one arm that still obeys me - charred, but apparently in working order. Doesnít surprise me. Itís built to last.
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Takes me a while to trudge back through the debris. I find my erstwhile comrade prone on a pile of bricks - his vitals are intact. Heíll live. His own projector-unit, now little more than sheared plates around a molten mass of circuitry.
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I can already see the form. ďDamage to UYDF property, inflicted in the course of unsanctioned equipment misuse.Ē 
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A tithe of polymer, preserving two lives. Iíll skip out on the report.
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Hefting him up onto one shoulder, I continue forwards. Ahead, more figures. Most, more intact than he or I. Stretchers already being unfolded - I try to nod in gratitude as his prone form is taken off my hands. Head is still locked. I make do with a crude bow.
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Eyes flicker back to the counter. Still, it nags. I sigh within the helmís confines - at my side, another drum is readied.
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I slot it in, and receive a chime in answer.
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