The taste of her blood, whipped into my mouth by the searing wind; the feel of the limp body behind me, held in place only by the harness that attached her to me; the dead silence over the Neural-link... I never want to experience any of that again.

But whose fault was it that I had to experience all that at all? If I'm honest, mine.

There I go again, having conversations with my imaginary critic.

I shake my head to clear out the unpleasant thoughts, but enough of a shadow remains to make me shiver with the dread of the recollected sensations. It draws a sigh out of me, one that is all at once exasperated, frustrated and guilty, and loud enough to echo across the chamber. Sighing isn't something that I characteristically do, but I feel it's justified under the circumstances.

Some outing that turned out to be. Sure, I'm fine. But Xi got hurt... bad. And the MuTT is looking very much like a pile of junk.

'Serviceable' – that was the status report I'd filed on the Multi-Terrain Transport - I prefer to call it a MuTT. Which means that if the two-person MuTT were alive, it would have non life-threatening injuries and would be able to walk—or limp, or crawl—away from the battlefield back to base. But unlike a living being, I can't just fix it with a single injection of repair serum the way Piqa would fix Xi. That reminds me: I need to tell him I've replenished the Med Kit. I don't have to do that, but nevertheless I know he'll feel better for knowing it.

The thought of Xi brings a feeling of profound guilt that I can feel writing itself across my face. It is rapidly followed by a further bout of remorseful reflection.

She got hurt again.

It's my fault, no question about it. Slamming a fist against the metal of the MuTT has the immediate effect of making me feel slightly better, but I regret doing that immediately when my knuckles point out the folly of doing so. On top of that, there is now a slight indentation in the dull surface. Cursing and waving my smarting hand helps a little, but somehow, that starts off a loop of events in my head – events that I don't really want to recall. But it's too late, because I am there in that seat again, Xi's presence inside my head.

The Hostile was at least three bliks tall, which made it more than twice our size. The lesser units forming its vanguard we'd gone through easily, but this monstrosity was no pushover, bristling with firepower and covered with heavy armour as thick as my waist.

Xi came through on the Neural-link. "Get us closer. Right underneath."

I disagreed instantly. "Too risky."

She insisted. I could feel her adamant demand pushing the MuTT against my control towards her objective.

I resisted stubbornly. The vehicle skidded momentarily from our tussle of wills.

Impatience shaded her next communication. "Dammit, Ayn, don't make me use the override!"

I knew she was capable of carrying out her threat. I also knew that if she were to try to operate the MuTT AND fight at the same time, our survival was decidedly a questionable proposition. I had to make an instantaneous decision.

I gave in, did as she wanted.

She went into it with everything she had. The intensity of her strike enveloped me in a blinding whiteout.

When I could see again, we were behind the Hostile, only it was now in two pieces that were slowly toppling in opposite directions.

'We've done it!' I barely had time to finish the thought, much less savour the exultation, before we were faced with a new threat. The blast from the exploding Hostile was rushing towards us, a ball of incandescent gasses and white-hot metal moving too fast to avoid. I cursed at the foolishness of my decision. I'd barely gotten the last syllable out my mouth before the concussive shock wave sent us both hurtling through the air along with a swarm of piercing metal shards.

The vehicle slammed to a halt on its side. Instinct backed up by repeated training took over – I got it upright, did a quick assessment of the damage. I didn't have to look too closely at Xi to know that she wasn't alright, but there was no time for anything else except to secure her in the harness and set a course for the base.

I smooth out the dent with a handheld laser tool, sighing again under the cover of its noisy operation. My jaw muscles tighten as I continue to think the incident over.

Was there any way I could have prevented it?

My inner critic would like to insist that the answer to that is a big fricking 'No''. Well, if I wanted to split hairs, I could say that it had been as much her fault as mine. After all, she was the one who had stubbornly refused to heed my warning. But I still hold myself responsible; I should have been able to deal with it. The fact was that I had been the one handling the vehicle, and I could simply have refused to execute the command. Sure, she'd have chewed my head off later, but that would have been better than her body taking more damage that she couldn't afford. I could continue making excuses for my sorry self, but in the end, the point was that I failed her.

I suppose it really doesn't take much to convince myself that I was at fault.

I let Xi down; I didn't protect my Sword.

There's nothing worse that a Shield can do.



From the writer:

The story consists of arcs from the various characters' points of views. Arcs are sufficiently self-contained for you to start reading at any of the chapters with (i) in them and still be able to make sense of what's happening. Each time there is a change in POV, a summary will be provided of what has happened up to that point.

It has been pointed out that my chapters are short, and so indeed, they are, at least to begin with. I will combine chapters when I revise the story later. Later chapters do get longer though.