The fighters and bombers came in as a group, laying pinpoint drops of bombs on the roadblocks, ambush points, and rooftops being used by the first and second line. Many in the second line escaped the devastation, but the enemy air strikes were powerful and deadly accurate. Raylene could hear the windows of the convenience store shatter against the cinderblocks as blast after blast rocked the building to its foundation. Florescent lights fell free from the ceiling, people on their feet were thrown to the ground, and the command center was plunged into darkness as the power was cut by the explosions.
Raylene had watched the earth churn under French artillery at Verdun during the Great War. She had experienced firsthand the Nazi bombing of Stalingrad as she impersonated a male Soviet colonel there. This was something entirely different. She lost all track of time as the bombs fell around them. Her teeth vibrated in her gums and her eyes stung with brick dust as gusts of hot air howled as they tore down the streets and through the shattered windows of the city. The bombs would seem to stop and then the explosions would begin again, vibrating the ground beneath her feet and sending nearly everything possible crashing to the linoleum floor. When it was finally done the air stunk of burning fuel and crackled with the hungry flames of a hundred fires.
Emergency power flickered with life and the command center awoke. No one was seriously hurt, but the damage done to the first line as it retreated had been appalling. Nearly all of them were dead.
"Now," Raylene said, rising to her feet and wiping blood from her nose, "they will begin their assault."
"Are you alright, ma'am?" Eliza asked once again.
"My gun." Raylene replied and pointed to her dropped pistol.
Eliza returned it to her and she tucked it under her armpit like a marshal's baton so that she could straighten her gloves. She turned to the elderly Princeps in charge of the command center.
"Try to stabilize the third line. Expect a flanking assault to be a diversion and react accordingly. I'm going out there." Raylene finished with her gloves and took her pistol in her hand. "Those of you who would like to die sooner rather than later, come with me."
Raylene's entourage, the command center's security detachment, and even some of the technicians followed her out into the smoldering air. Everything felt hyper real to Raylene as she faced her death. Convection tornadoes spun up from burning buildings. Cooking ammunition popped a few blocks away at a predictable pace, as if a line of fire was making its way slowly up a belt of ammunition. Moans and screams of the injured drifted in from all directions, some cried for help, others simply groaned with pain or terror. There was a smell like burning hair and Raylene could taste the cloying thickness of the smoke in the air. Somewhere in the sky a whining sound grew in intensity.
Raylene looked up just as the Imperatrixian drop ships plummeted through the smoke like the sinister axe heads of three dozen titanic executioners.
"This should be fun." She said, surprised at her own casualness.
She watched the nearest drop ship descend towards the city and headed towards it as if drawn by some unseen force. The others followed behind her.
From the side profile the drop ship took on the unmistakable black beetle-shape that Raylene had seen in numerous video feeds. It sheered through a power line in a welter of sparks and its jets screamed as it prepared to touch down on the street. Dust, paper, and glowing embers swirled around it as it landed. Raylene stood upright as she walked at a steady pace down the middle of the street. The first Imperatrixian out of the side ramped paused to stare at her quizzically and then raised its nuclear reaper to fire. One of the women behind Raylene launched an anti-tank rocket that streaked down the street on a thin wisp of white smoke. It blasted the creature back into the drop ship's hatch.
More piled out and these did not hesitate to fire. Sisters sought what cover they could find as streams of fat yellow tracers burned towards them. The huge shells punched through concrete and steel with equal ease and left scorched basketball-sized holes as they cut through the women. In the first few seconds more than a dozen Sisters were killed outright and more lost their limbs or began the process of dying. Raylene walked on, accompanied in her seemingly suicidal course by only Eliza and one Conservator who was either very brave or very stupid.
Raylene felt a tug on her arm and looked down to see that her left hand was gone, just a few smoking strips of flesh hung in its place. She looked at the Imperatrixian who had shot her, raised her pistol, and pulled the trigger. There was a thin popping sound lost in the din of battle as compressed air launched the projectile out of her gun. Ten feet past the barrel a miniscule chemical rocket motor activated and the bullet accelerated with a commensurate booming sound. The round shed its sabot and tiny articulated fins popped up and began beating faster than a hummingbird's wings. Guided by the compact computer in the grip of the pistol the shot curved its trajectory and went directly through the red lens of the alien's helmet. There was a gurgle of surprise and the creature pitched backwards, clawing at its face even as it died.
Raylene fired again as another of the aliens swung the spinning barrels of its reaper around to gun her down. Her shot zipped through the air and burrowed easily through the oxygen vents on the Imperitrixian's faceplate. Blood gushed out of the perfectly circular hole and the creature staggered back, still trying to raise its weapon. Raylene fired at the Imperatrixian a second time and her bullet went through the flexible cuff of its elbow joint, cut a searing course up the creature's arm, and buried itself in the Imperatrixian's heart. She aimed at a third creature and prepared to fire. Her vision became crazed with light and she realized that she was spinning and falling.
Something wet splashed across her face and she felt a searing pain in the back of her skull. Raylene could see an undulating cloth of suede but could hear nothing. Eliza's face drifted dreamily into view, a look of fear and concern making the young aide appear much older than she actually was.
"You look beautiful, Tara." Raylene gurgled, blood pouring out of the sides of her mouth and back into her ears.
Eliza lifted Raylene's head with one hand and began injecting syrettes of coagulant and antibiotic into the woman's wounded left side. A medic hurried over and was promptly decapitated by a shot from a nuclear reaper. The woman's body flopped lifelessly next to Raylene. Eliza fumbled with the dead medic's pack as reaper rounds blasted the pavement around her and sent stinging shards of concrete into her hands and face. She found the can of spray binder and applied it as best she could to the ruined stump of a shoulder where Raylene's arm had been.
The human anatomy is home to more than three hundred organs. Doctors and chocolatiers agree that the vast majority of these revolting lumps of tissue serve little to no function. If you find yourself standing in a long line or stuck at the airport waiting for a delayed flight, consider taking a few minutes to remove the following from your person.
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