With all my baleful thoughts against the Warhammers, I have been slow in responding to Ayn's warning. He is already setting the coordinates for our retreat from the area. I baulk. This isn't the first time we've had an interruption from a Warhammer and I'm not about to let their selfishness interfere with how I operate.

I declare my intention to him with one thought: "Just one more." I have my sights set on a lumbering Hostile that's moving determinedly towards us, its entire array of weaponry trained on us in clunky challenge. It's an impotent challenge, however, since it's still out of range, and it's so slow that it's practically begging to be cut up into unsalvageable hunks.

Ayn doesn't answer. He just engages the acceleration controls. The MuTT begins pulling away from my target. I consider briefly whether I want to wrestle the controls over from him but something stops me: a whisper of a memory—I thought I'd lost you. I breathe in deeply, and with the next breath, expel the last shreds of my impulsive rebellion.

This time, at least I want to be able to say more than 'I tried'.

But that nagging feeling refuses to go away that easily, that persistent voice inside that says I haven't done enough, I should be aiming for more kills, I should be driving those numbers higher and ever higher. I look at the coordinates of the strike that's coming – just for something to do that might distract me from that hounding within me. I can see on the display how we're moving. The estimated impact of the Warhammer strike is in just slightly over a minute, but we'll be at a safe distance by then. Ayn is remarkably good at calculating speed and distance to map out a route that avoids engaging the nearest Hostiles yet efficiently gets us away from the centre of the declared strike.

It's not just Hostiles that we have to contend with, but the unpredictability of the topography; it's almost as if the planet itself is challenging us with sudden dips and rises and unsignalled obstacles. My body adjusts of its own accord to coordinate with Ayn's, helping to balance the zig-zagging MuTT. I've almost forgotten how much the MuTT feels like an extension of myself as it overcomes every hurdle that the terrain throws at us. With the Neural-link on, it feels like we are one mind in two bodies, our movements in perfect sync with each other as well as with the machine that carries us. I take a moment to appreciate Ayn's skill as I settle down for the ride. But the very next moment, my whole body goes rigid with shock.


The Warhammer coordinates have changed.


And the new coordinates are almost directly in front of us.


Only twenty seven seconds left to impact. There is no time for prolonged calculation, only instinctive reaction. Ayn is already attempting to divert the MuTT but I know there isn't enough time for a clean exit. I'm shouting something at him out loud and screaming something else at him in my head at the same time. He isn't responding.

A booming noise from overhead makes me glance up. The sky above us has turned crimson and yellow; translucent ropes of energy are snaking and whipping towards the ground. When they contact the ground, the energy extends outward in a circular wave of destruction. It does not spread out as instantaneously as I'd thought it would. Nevertheless, the speed is still high enough to outstrip even the fastest vehicle.

The centre of the strike is less than a hundred bliks away from us. The MuTT skids to a halt. There is just enough time to get into the braced position under the MuTT, and then it is upon us. Through my fully darkened visor, I catch one fleeting glimpse of the landscape melting into incandescent light, refracted through the field of Ayn's shielding energy field. The shield gives way a moment later; the smell of singed hair and roasting skin invade my nostrils, but I suddenly can't see anything else because my face is being squashed against a ribcage. I can't move either – I've been tucked into a ball by the body that curls itself around me, limbs locked together to surround me with a protective layer of living flesh. The chaos of heat and pain and blind panic becomes my entire world for a few minutes.

Reason returns, but not sight. There is only suffocating darkness, through which I can hear a frantic pulse. I push at the restraints that hold me; whatever it is gives way eventually to my thrashing. I finally manage to bring my face into the light. But I just stare stupidly at first, unable to work out what I'm looking at through the acrid smoke and ashes. And then comprehension kicks me in the stomach.

I clutch his charred hands in mine, and wail out his name to the smouldering sky.

We're stuck here.

Ayn's beloved MuTT is a smoking pile of half-melted metal. I don't dare to move him because it seems to me that if I try to lift him I'd leave most of his skin behind, stuck to the misshapen hunk of whatever's left of what is apparently a melted seat. What I can see of the back of his body is almost entirely black, with bits of unidentifiable material part-fused, part-embedded into the scorched flesh, and even flashes of white bone visible in the mess.

He's still alive, as far as I can read the signs, but I think there isn't much else keeping him that way apart from my willpower. And yet I feel strangely calm.

I'd always thought I'd die out on the Zone and I'd always presumed it'd happen when Ayn was with me. I'd even told him that when the time came for me to go, he was not to bother taking my body back to Base.

I never thought Ayn might be the one to go first.

I can't bear to leave him, and I have no way of contacting Base. In fact, I don't even know which direction Base lies in. So I have stayed here, alternately cursing the Warhammer who did this and mumbling things to Ayn that he couldn't possibly be hearing.

I say cajoling things. "You have to keep fighting. You're stronger than this."

I say reasonable things. "Who else but you could be my shield? Nobody else could endure me."

I say scolding things. "You can't give up now. I forbid you."

In the end, I finally say what I really want to say. "Don't go. Don't leave me behind."

I finally speak the truth. "I need you."

And when I'm done –run out of threats and pleadings, and confronted the feelings that I've never admitted—I just close my eyes, and tell myself not to cry.

It takes two hours for us to be found by one of the Spears limping back to Base with her damaged vehicle, five minutes for me to talk her into putting Ayn on the vehicle—fused seat and all—and another hour for us to get back to Base, pushing and pulling the damaged vehicle along.

Back inside the Base, I offer her credits for her help, but she declines, saying something about having heard of us and being proud to be able to help us. I have no time to ponder what that remark implies. I push past the gatekeeper Tools, commandeer a gurney, and get Ayn straight to that Craftsman whose name I refuse to use.

And now I'm watching him examining Ayn. He looks troubled – there's a furrow in the middle of his forehead. As he compares the front and back views of Ayn, who is lying on his side, the furrow deepens until it looks like a fissure has opened up between his eyes.

He turns to me. The look he is giving me is the kind one would give to someone who's just admitted that she's chewed off her own arm and eaten it.

"I've gotten him killed, haven't I?" I choke.

He shakes his head slowly. "No. Though I'd say you did a fricking good job trying."

Hope ignites in my chest, but I keep it out of my voice. "Can you fix him?"

He makes one of his indefinite hand gestures that encompasses the entire working area. "I reckon all this should help with that."

I whisper, "Thank you." And then I swallow my pride and repeat more loudly, "Thank you, Fletcher."

He smiles warily. "Go get yourself seen to by someone." That instruction is accompanied by a hand waving in the general direction of the door. "I don't want you to wait around."

I leave without argument. It's not that I don't want to stay with Ayn, but I know there is nothing I can do here, and I don't want to distract Fletcher from his work – or antagonise him any further. As it is, there is now one main thought occupying my mind: payback. I have a very good idea which Warhammer it was that had changed coordinates on us, though I have no proof as yet. But I'll find it. I'll uncover the truth.

And when I do, that Warhammer is fricking dust.

Random thought: 'I need you' doesn't mean 'I love you.'