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AngelFall

Errah was just another fire-baked rock corewards of the Antarean border. A small colony herding meat stock - two, maybe three thousand heads on the whole sphere. Inbred locals, nasty hybrid insects imported to balance the ecology (although what part of a balanced ecology a foot long scorpion who's mating cry sounded like babies being murdered was supposed to fit didn't bear thinking about)

Halligan didn't mind too much. The last posting had been Castillio where the whole planet seemed to be one big horizontal rainstorm. Here the sky was heartbreak blue and the stillness gave one plenty of space to think.

Halligan peered out over the cupola of his Quad Tank. Parked up on the edge of a huge canyon, his horizon extended hundreds of miles through the clear thin Erran air. The planet was so small one could almost perceive its curve from here.

Freyss sauntered out from the shade beside the MBQ, kicking idly at some rocks. He squinted up at Halligan, raising his rifle to shield his eyes.

"You seen anything yet?... I ain't seen anything..." Halligan peered upwards, wincing against the light, saying nothing. Freyss had been bugging him all afternoon. Little bastard thought that the enemy delivered engagements like the mess hall delivered soup. No idea about the waiting. The painful, tortuous waiting - worse by far than the fight.

"Nothing up there" said Halligan after letting the kid stew for a minute. "Clear blue to black..." he heard Freyss exhale irritably and mentally rolled his eyes.

He scanned the sky again. Freyss picked his way back under the MBQ and sat on the ground. "You think they'll come today, Hal?". Halligan remained silent for a moment, deciding whether it was worth telling the kid to just shut the fuck up or tolerate another few hours of questions to avoid hurting his feelings. He pushed images of kicked puppies to the back of his mind.

"Like i said. Command will probably tell us before we see anything. That's what auxiliary means - 'don't call us, we'll call you' ". Freyss frowned.

He began to ramble - "Well my cousin Jammeh in the four oh fives reckons he was posted upspin of Lellebah just after the big push, and he was like, on skywatch and before any of the fleet scouts called anythin', him and his bro saw like thirty league assault frigates jump in fifty klicks above his position and they called it in and nobody believed em cause everybody said that fleet would have caught them in orbit...so..." he tailed off.

Halligan grunted. "This the same guy who shot down three dropships with a RID launcher?" Freyss said nothing. There was a gravelly crunching noise from behind the tank, and Arwin paced into view, his own MBQ a hundred odd yards behind him and shimmering in the mid day heat. his rifle was slung over his neck, both hands resting on it, man-in-stock style.

He nodded at Freyss "Aye. Tough man his cousin. Last I heard he was holding lastford base against the 33rd fleet with only a saber and a herd-poke" His jungle boy grin lit up his dark face with a slash of white as he winked at the indignant Freyss. "Oh drop off man" Freyss scowled. "You think its so freakin funny sitting out here in this all fresco oven just cause your skin don't burn." Absently he picked at the scarred tops of his ears. "I wish I was in the four oh fives with Jammeh. He's getting all the action. Hal you'd think division would approve a transfer?"

"Yeah I can see it now..." Halligan turned and swept majestically at the air with his canteen "Arn Freyss, Crack Spaceborne Assault Commando. No job Too Small" he watched Freyss's face drop. He sighed. "Seriously kid, you don't want to be in no hardcore outfit. Give it some time and see how you go."

This seemed to bolster Freyss's confidence a little more than Halligan had hoped for "I could do it hal. you know i'm a great shot. and I've been spacejumping since I was eleven. I'm not scared of nuthin'." Halligan swigged at the canteen and eyed the youngster "aye. not scared enough. not scared of a court martial when the commander finds out how old you really are..." freyss looked up, alarmed and suddenly looking as young as he really was. "...what like I'm gonna dob you in? you still owe me for the last ten games of down-to-fives..." Freyss smiled. relieved.

Arwin lit up his grin again "man you never even killed nobody yet. how you know you ain't gonna get all choked up and emotional?" freyss kicked another rock "i wont man..." Arwin continued. "shit man i know a guy thought he was such a bad ass, joined up, went through all the combat special courses he could. used to view all the archive discs and trainers every frickin night. big guy too. worked out alot, boosted straight through physical like he was a god damn Araen Jumpin Bird.

"he used to pin imigs of leaguer generals on the targets when shootin up the range. he wanted to be a whole damn army on his own. got a disciplinary for filing down a mag of GAR into dumdums. real nasty bastard...." he paused and took the canteen halligan had proffered, swigging on it and handing it on to freyss.

"well the short of it was, the guy pestered his commander so badly for a transfer out to a frontline unit, so they sent him to the four oh nineteens - you remember Hal they were point on the Lellebah job, we drank with em just before Hayderman Sul and the Barthui siege..." Halligan scratched his sharply stubbled chin. "yeh. nice guys. only sparked out three of em, and one of em even managed to hit me..."

Arwin wiped his mouth and continued. "so they go off to do the thing in lellebah and this guy is on one of the last boats in on their drop. most of the fight was over. so he gets sent on a perimeter patrol to mop up the remaining bad guys.

"it was like near dark - high atmo world, low vis all over. they found a group of survivors and the bastards werent gonna be captured. the league spingenerals stuff em full of bullshit all about how we skin em alive and chew on their balls and that makes em pretty hard to capture alive.

"so they get in a short messy firefight, and the guys' squad takes down the leaguers. then they have to go over and confirm the kills. and this big tough guy gets to see what an eight point one three does to a man's face, to his arms and legs the rest of his body. he told me that one of em was still alive.

the dude had been hit in the jaw with an SD round, his left arm was gone above the elbow. all his armour was like, shredded and embedded in him... and the guy's still trying to go for his gun. i mean this guy's a mess. he aint gonna last another five minutes but he's still going for his gun because he thinks it will be worse for him if we capture him. so our guy has to shoot him. only he's totally freaked out and he's shakin real bad so he misses. shoots the guy in the leg. has to shoot him again. and again. six shots it took to kill this poor bastard, and all the while he's still trying to go for his gun."

Arwin paused again to take another swig of the canteen. hal recieved it and recapped it "is there a point to this charming fairytale, Win?" Arwin smacked his lips "you wanna tell this story man? no. so shut up. where was i? yeh so it takes him like two minutes to shoot this guy to death and by the end of it he's cryin like a baby. cant even walk. they had to ship him back to Fort Given for a psych-over"

the trio reflected on this for a moment. Freyss was the first to speak "so what are you afraid of killing someone?" Arwin revved the grin up a notch. "Hell no man. i got balls of steel."

just as halligan was about to debte this spurious claim, the com crackled in both the MBQs, the distant tinny sound of Arwin's com slighly delayed in the thin air lending an echo to the sound . the three soldiers immediately froze.

"Occulus Two Seven this is Occulus Two Niner, stand by"... a moment's clicking and repatching... "OC Two Seven this is OC Two Niner, be advised possible incursion, details unclear, we..." another moment of static and clickering. Freyss, who had apparently been holding his breath since the first transmission heaved a breath... "incursion? thats a ground sighting? like i said, we - " halligan cut him short, suddenly all seriousness... "shut up kid. wait and listen" ...

They waited and listened. after what seemed an eternity the transmission resumed. this time it was another voice, more urgent and with the muted stammer of many other urgent voices in the background "OC two seven this is OC Primary, be advised incoming contacts on your position, heading one nine two mark five five niner ETA two minutes..."

Without a word halligan dived down into the cockpit of the MBQ and smacked the comm toggle "OC Primary this is OC two seven requesting additional information, what the hell happened? we didnt hear from fleet?"

the line hissed and fizzed at him for a few seconds before the voice returned "i dont know sir, this was called in by OC two niner about a minute ago and now we can't raise them (anything from two niner, Bal?....no?) no we can't raise them..." halligan frowned and clicked the com again "alright. two seven stands up, out." he flicked off the com and pulled himself up onto the tank, looking about him for the rest of the crew.

Below him, Arwin and Freyss stared up at him expectantly. he looked down at them dumbly for a moment before recalling his wits "uh, yeah. we're standing up, win. get Sheba revved up and tell Dorf and Studer to man the buggy. Freyss where's Damarus?"

Freyss looked back at an anonymous rock as Arwin jogged off to the other tank "he's takin a dump behind that rock, you want i should get him?" Halligan wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and stared at the sky. "yeh get him. get him quick, and get set up. go. now."

freyss turned and trotted off to the anonymous rock, shouting as he ran. back at the other MBQ Arwin was already in the cockpit and the machine snap-cracked as the hydraulics kicked in, rising up on its ponderous legs and treading the ground in readiness, the huge anti-air gatling rail cannons on the top mount swivelling as Kerbie the gunner loosened the fine grit from the mountings. halligan watched her for a second before ducking back into the cockpit of his own tank.

Automatically he thumbed pads and control surfaces, bringing the brutal looking machine up to power. He felt the twin jolt as Damarus and Freyss entered the vehicle and the whine of the turbines was thumped into a muted hum as freyss closed the hatch behind him. he reset his headpiece and pulled the visor down over his eyes. the dark interior of the MBQ was replaced by a perfect replica of the vew from his open cupola. he flicked through a few light modes and the vista snapped from green to red to blue to yellow as he cycled the display through EM, IR, UV etc etc. Damarus shouted over the hum "guns up". freyss followed suit - "tac up".

Halligan yanked the twin helm handles up into position and twisted the grips into ONLINE mode, stepping down onto the foot pedals as he did so. and the tank jerked as it stood and settled. The com links clicked as the squadron's computers interfaced. finally there was a ready tone. Halligan barked into the headset "Squadron sound off"

"Three rolling, awaiting orders"

"Two standing, awaiting orders"

halligan completed the call "One standing, orders are scan active for contacts, headings uploaded and locked, fire at will". a single reply. the tone registered it as being internal. freyss. "what now hal?..." Halligan sighed for the umpteenth time that day "Now, we wait. watch your screens"

Five minutes passed before anyone spoke. The tone was Arwin's tank. "Aint seein nothin on these screens braw. we're well past t minus here..." Halligan breathed deep. he wasnt feeling too patient himself. "you want i should file a complaint? you sound like the kid."

As if on cue Freyss clicked into the com, but his voice was loud and urgent "contacts, inbound one three three mark oh eight oh!" Arwin clicked again - "Dorf concurs that hal," halligan wrenched his camera round to one three three and snarled into the mic. "guns up, boys. shoot like you mean it. Freyss gimme an expo on those contacts"

"uhh, mass reads light - attack craft, but hazy signal, could be a few of em, maybe four"

he could hear Freyss manipulating his console just inches behind him. "i think they're bombers. they're coming in low, fast... one three eight, one three nine... watch that mountain range to the southwest... should be in vis any second... "

"Sight! one four zero!" damarus swung the huge guns around as halligan focussed on the distant haze and switched into EM, throwing the arid landscape into an aquatic series of blues and greens, contrasted sharply by the sudden emergence of a small cluster of bright red dots, soon picked out by a red square recticle by his tank's computer. they were going really fast. and straight towards his squadron. "theyre coming right at us Dammo, nail the bastards"

in a matter of seconds the tiny dots had filled the highly magnified viewport, and the recticle changed from square to diamond shaped. simultaneously Damarus opened up the massive quad railguns and the view jittered and blurred as the whole vehicle was shaken violently to a sound like a thousand steel hornets divebombing a metal drum. the interior of the tank was lit up in sync with the stacatto howling as the white hot ammunition sheaths were funnelled down an interior rail and ejected from the vehicle's belly.

Halligan adjusted the tank's stance against the recoil and tried to keep the targets in his viewport as they raced towards him. he thought he saw one of the red blurs detatch, trailing something, and peel off into the ground, but it dissapeared below his viewscreen and he didnt follow it. the others were almost upon him.

at three miles out, the EM signal blossomed into noise and signal distortion. Damarus kept right on firing the guns while freyss shouted into the com "theyre jamming us on EM, go optical, dammo" Halligan flicked back to optical just in time to see the second stream of tracer from Arwin's tank 'Sheba' catch on the hull of one of the now clearly defined craft. a small flame licked from the wound for a second before the tracer tore deeper and the whole ship rolled over and blossomed into a fireball. still, Halligan did not deviate his view. there were three left. he could see them clearly now, all jutting fins and bulky bodywork. scimitars. short range bombers. that means they came from somewhere close.

As he watched, pricks of light emerged from the wingtips and noses of the craft, growing steadily brighter. in two seconds the first rounds hit. the tank was kicked and buffeted as explosions concussed it from all sides, and skidded a full ninety degrees starboard as one of her back legs was kicked out from under her. halligan's head smacked resoundingly against the heavily padded interior and his thoughts span for a timeless moment before the inertia of the jolt set him heavily back into his seat again, visor askew. Hastily he repositioned it and panned around to follow the bombers around whilst jerking the tank back onto four legs with compulsive movements of his limbs, risking a quick sideways glance at the crew to see if they had sustained any injury.

Damarus was even quicker than he, and the apparently undamaged guns howled and flitted once more as he wrenched them around after the bombers. he shouted and swore into his screens like a man possessed as he white-knuckled the triggers. freyss had his hands over his face, and was bent over his desk, shouting right along with him. Halligan swiveled the cameras around to track the retreating craft. they ducked out of sight about two miles out, diving into the huge canyon and disappearing behind a rock face.

damarus had reluctantly let go of the triggers by this point, and freyss was once again working his console franitically. the com was hissing at him, something about wings...

"...clipped him and he went down, so that leaves three and i think i may have touched one of them as well" Arwin, who had apparently survived also, was boasting of his gunner's prowess already.

Halligan clicked back on "we're ok, think dammo got one, they'll be back, change position. i'm point." he yanked the sticks and the tank began to move. surprisingly agile for things of their size, the MBQs stalked over the heavily crevassed ground as Halligan and Arwin raced towards an outcrop clasping the edge of the canyon. a small buggy sped out from under an overhang nearby and joined them. halligan parked his tank up against the south face, and arwin clambered down beside him with the buggy tucked up behind them.

"hal we're not gonna get a shot at them as they approach from this angle" Arwin complained. Halligan settled his tank and replied "relax. they'll follow the canyon round to the north thinking they can pop at us from behind the northern ranges. we shoot as they split over where they thought we were." Freyss clicked into the comm - "hal i can't track them from behind this rock, we dont know they're coming that way, we..." halligan cut him off. "save it. track forwards, heading oh double oh. be ready for a quick capture, dammo, cover center to starboard. Arwin, you hearin me over there? you're taking the port sector ok?"...a click and a tone - "yassuh, tracking forwards"

no sooner had the guns swivveled around to face front than the crack-bang of hypersonic aero craft thumped the hulls of the tanks, and the gunners opened up on the craft which had swept past above them and directly into their sights. the three bombers split, two right one left. dammo's shouting filled the tank as halligan panned with the foremost rightward rolling craft. the tracer crept up on it from below, and neatly sawed through the hull, sending spiralling pieces flaming groundwards. luck was not on the side of the second bomber in damo's sights, and as he lifted his nose to avoid the enroaching tracer fire, the rear hull section of the first craft crushed in the cockpit like so much origami and the craft nosedived and blended with the wreckage of its sister ship.

halligan breathed out and the hell hornet pounding of the guns stopped, the mechanism crackling and creaking as it cooled. he quickly panned across to the left but couldn't find the third craft. the comm was buzzing with chat from the other tank - "...and we got the sonofabitch, square in the god damn face man i swear, it was like fooooom all over man..."

halligan allowed himself a grin. the bombers had been rookies. easy. painless. but they had come from nearby. the grin faded. he turned to eyeball the crew. "you boys ok" thumbs up all round. he pulled the mic back into position. "squadron sound off, sitrep"

"three rolling, awaiting orders"

"Two standing, two confirmed kills for the good lookin badasses in the number two tank"

"heh. One standing. three kills, suck on it. stand by and keep scanning, im calling it in."

halligan thumbed a code into the com, and clicked into it - "Occulus Primary this is Occulus Two Seven reporting engaged five enemy scimitars. nix all, repeat nix all". the comm clattered for a few seconds. "...cieve you, say again all after two seven.." halligan repeated the call in. the operator responded, "roger that two seven, your sector clear, fleet contingent en route orbital. be advised you sector expecting angelfall during next hour. continue defense. nice job guys. out. " the line faded out and halligan sat back in the seat.

Arwin clicked in, breathless. "we sho whacked them sonsofbitches in the ass, hal." befor halligan could reply, freyss cut in on the com. "What's angelfall, hal?" again halligan was interrupted before he could reply. this time by arwin, exuberent in victory "When the good soldiers of the lord lose their faith in his love, when they cast out innocence for the deceits of vanity, those creatures are foul in his sight and fall from the grace of heaven into the darkness of the world, and in their spite they cast about the lives of men, and test us in the sight of the lord, amen motherfucker!"

halligan chuckled at the man's high spirits and poetic bent. freyss clicked in again "seriously hal, what's angelfall mean?"

He stepped down the engines and removed his visor."Wait and see. come on. i dont think there will be any more for a little while, now theyre sending fleet over here". he cracked the hatch and the stark light of the open sky pierced the tank hull. the three men clambered out onto the hull of their tank to inspect the damage. the armour plating was severely dented on the back leg, and a hydraulic line needed replacing, but other than that she was fine. lucky.

halligan rubbed at the dent with a gloved hand and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "it lives" he breathed. freyss was peering over the canyon edge, hands over his eyes whilst Damarus cracked open a fresh canteen and sat on the mbq's front right foot, the thin gunner's fingers shaking and taut but a smile on his wide froglike mouth.

Halligan turned to him "great shooting dammo. thats fourteen, man. you ok there?" Damarus nodded. he hardly ever spoke save responding to orders and calling contacts. and of course the screaming at his targets. halligan couldnt say he didnt appreciate guys like that. Dammo shifted on the giant ceramic fiber limb. "barely finished me dump din i. no fuckin leaves in the desert man. youlee bassards gin me fuckin skidmarks."

halligan winced. "bad luck man." dammo rolled his eyes, "iss better than wipin your arse wiv a rock innit." Before Halligan could weigh up this proposition, a nervous shout from Freyss drew his attention to the edge of the canyon. "uhh hal? i can see one of the wrecks from here..." Halligan drew himself up and walked over to where Freyss was standing, reaching for the active monocular clipped on his webbing. He flicked on the device and raised it Nelson-style to his eye, zooming on the distant dark blotch on the canyon floor that Freyss was pointing to.

As he focussed, the monocular found the range, windspeed, temperature and a myriad other tiny details which the manufacturers thought may be relevent to the discerning tank commander. The wreck came sharply into view. the explosive surpressant foam had leaked out and baked solid on the mottled blue-grey hull, an engine was torn off, lying dessicated about a hundred yards back. She was sitting in a strewn pool of her own component parts, as if with a little water and sunshine, by next season there would be a healthy field of bombers grown straight out of the ground. the whole thing smoked and steamed as the engine cores cooled and dying batteries shorted and fused.

As he watched, the stricken bomber seemed to quiver slightly. once. then again. then something seemed to peel off the hull on the far side, hanging open like a fresh wound. he maxed out the zoom and kicked in the auto-steadies. now he could see what the wound was. it was a hatch, and someone was trying to get out of it. Halligan frowned. they'd have to go down there and get this guy. he didnt appear to be making much progress. must be banged up some, Halligan thought.

He lowered the monocular and turned back to the tanks. Arwin was out of his tank also and was busy with a white painter, lovingly marking the two fresh kills onto the front of his tank's armour alongside the other nine dusty white marks. Freyss was still squinting at the distant wreck, shielding his eyes and leaning over the canyon as if the extra few inches would bring the object into sharp focus. halligan tapped him lightly on the shoulder. "Back in the tank, kid..." Freyss looked at him quizzically as he strode back to the MBQ. "Where are we goin hal?" halligan pulled himself up onto the hull and paused over the hatch. "we're goin to inspect dammo's handiwork. see if we can't catch us some P.O.W's..." he turned and waved at Arwin, who had been watching. "win, stand up and cover me from here man, gonna go take a looksee at that wreck."

Arwin tossed the painter into the trunk bag and vaulted up onto the leg of his tank, waving back at halligan. "Sure man, whatever."

Halligan's tank stood and made off down a small incline, gripping the surface lizardlike and kicking up clouds of grit and scree, occasionally bucking onto it's rear legs to obtain a foothold with its' front feet. Progress was good and in five minutes they'd hit the canyon floor and were pacing out at top speed over the dark red groundtowards the smouldering wreckage of the bomber.

Halligan slowed to a halt about one hundred yards from the wreck. he stood the machine down and beckoned to Freyss to follow him out of the hatch, indicating to Damarus to remain and scan for contacts. Freyss and Halligan unhooked their rifles from the underbelly of the tank and hoisted them up to their shoulders in a ready stance. for a moment neither of them moved, halligan simply studying the wreck. there was no sign of movement now, although the hatch was still on the far side of the craft. He beckoned to Freyss and began walking towards the bomber, head cocked against the sight of his rifle.

He Approached the blistered pile of twisted metal from the right, edging his way around it carefully, freyss picking his way through the debris after him, twitching his rifle left and right, breathing hard. Eventually they reached the far side, where the open hatch flapped slightly in the breeze and below it...

The only sounds up till that point had been their footsteps,the quiescent hiss of cooling metal and the hard, frightened breathing from Freyss. At that moment freyss stopped breathing, making the desolate landscape tingle with silence.

The league pilot was badly burned. unrecognisable as human. halligan could just about make out the rising and falling of the man's chest, and a ragged hole that he assumed was a mouth. one side of his torso had been pierced by something and halligan could see at least two ribs, white and raw against the dark red-stained blue of the man's charred armour. there was blood everywhere. a big red steak down the side of the hull where the poor bastard had slid down onto the ground.

halligan grimaced and closed his nose to the smell of cooked meat and ozone. The pilot seemed to register their presence, because he started to try and talk. The man's throat was completely ruined however, so all he succeeded in doing was emmitting a low rattling gargle which he eventually began to cough on, fountaining blood and bile from his mouth and the wound on his torso. Halligan had seen enough. he raised his rifle to shoot.

"Wait." Freyss reached out suddenly and pulled halligan's rifle down to point at the ground. "What?" Freyss was looking pale and there was something halligan hadn't seen before in his eyes. what was the kid up to?

Freyss swallowed hard. "I wanna do it."

"You what?"

"I wanna do it. i wanna shoot him. let me shoot him." halligan stared at the skinny boy. "what? why do you wanna shoot him?" Freyss looked up at him, distracted, edgy... "i dunno. dont want the boys tellin me i aint killed nobody no more. i gotta do it sometime, right hal? lemme shoot him man. i can do it. i aint scared of nuthin man."

Halligan turned away sharply, swearing under his breath. he snapped back at Freyss "kid this aint no glory kill. im just puttin the guy down. you dont want a part of this. shit like this comes back at you for the rest of your life. you shoot him now, you'll see his messed up face in your nightmares forever..." freyss looked away, back at the wreck. "i wanna do it hal. lemme shoot him." halligan couldnt see Freyss's expression but there was a crack in the voice.

he sniffed. wiped his mouth with his sleeve and scratched at his neck in consternation. "Fine. shoot the fuck. be a big man. i'll be in the tank." without looking back he turned on his heels and strode back off towards the MBQ.

About fifty yards from the tank, a single shot rang out across the canyon floor, echoing back off the steep walls a few seconds later. halligan didn't stop walking until the second shot rang out. oh jesus. he stood perfectly still, not looking back, and waited. after a few more seconds a third shot filled the vacuum like lightning. halligan shut his eyes and held his breath for what seemed forever. silence. thank fuck for that. he let out his breath and started once more for the tank.

He pulled himself up onto the knee of the giant metal walker and glanced back over his shoulder.

Freyss was starting out from behind the wreck towards the tank. his rifle was held loosely in one hand, his head bowed at the ground. he kicked rocks as he walked.

halligan waited until he was within speaking distance. "you done, kid?"

"yeh"

"you ok?"

a nod. another rock kicked. Freyss didnt look up. halligan watched him for a second or so, before nodding to himself and lowering himself into the cockpit. Damarus leaned down from the gunner's seat nad tapped halligan's shoulder. "what happened?"

Halligan punched the startups and the machine began to vibrate into life. "One guy left. Freyss put him down." Damarus reclined back into the seat slowly, fingering his triggers. "shit" he said, as if hidden somewhere in the word was the story of a great classical tragedy.

the hatch flapped and freyss climbed into the tank. he locked himself in and booted his tac station. "Tac up " he said, and fell silent, hands over his board. Halligan craned round and looked at him, as did Damarus. Freyss didn't meet their glances. they looked at eachother. halligan sighed and turned back to his controls, locking the grips and pulling the great tank up into stance.

By the time they'd climbed back up the incline to where Arwin's tank and the buggy were parked, Arwin had unfastened an armour plate from the rear of his MBQ and was busy frying thin strips of meat on the rear side of it over a small chemical-thermal stove. he didnt look up as halligan vaulted down from his tank and paced over to the makeshift barbeque. "Aha. the great white hunters return. how dit go?"

halligan glanced back at freyss and dammo climbing down from the tank. "one guy. kid killed him."

Arwin looked up from his meat. "he ok?". halligan didnt answer.

"hm. guess we'll find out." Arwin turned a couple of meaty strips and they hissed and spat and pooled fat an the center of the concave armour plate, the paint darkening under the heat. "ey kid you hungry?" freyss walked past him, rifle over his shoulder. Arwin looked at halligan, who shrugged.

Damarus broke the awkward silence as he strode up and dropped his webbing next to the fire with a clump. "e'l be aright man. now dish some of that shit up. i could eat a fuckin rock scorp"

Arwin obliged.

They sat on the cool shaded earth in th late afternoon heat, munching on paint flavoured meat and beans a la can. after fifteen minutes of concentrated silence save for the mastication and digestion of victuals, the reverie was broken by the crackle of Arwin's tank com. everybody stopped eating, strings of meat hung from suddenly attentive mouths.

"Occulus Two Seven this is Occulus Primary, Be Advised Engagement South Orbital of your position, please observe and report every ten, over"

Halligan fumbled on his wrist DAIS for a second, patching to his tank comm. he swallowed the mouthful of beans, belched and flicked the toggle.

"OC primary this is OC two seven, observing that engagement and reporting in ten. got a more precise fix on that hotspot for us?"... the com fell silent and halligan waited for the operator to reply. around him faces were turned towards him. the com clicked agiain.

"OC two seven, heading one two oh at height five seven kay. shouldnt be anywhere near you but you'll be able to confirm kills visually, over"

"Roger that OC primary, Two seven observing heading one two oh, out." he flicked off the DAIS and turned to his squadron. "well boys you heard the man. lets get up to the high ridge behind us. we can see half the continent from there."

The two tanks glistened in the sun at the very tip of a jagged precipice, almost two kilometers from ground level. the crew paced around in their shade, occasionally squinting up at the deep blue sky, scanning to the southwest.

Freyss stood alone, on the edge of the precipice, staring upwards. Halligan picked his way out from under the tank and walked out to stand beside him. "should be any second now." Freyss didnt say anything. halligan sighed. "it's ok kid. you learn to live with it." he put his hand on the young man's shoulder. Freyss turned and looked at him. "I'm ok." halligan looked at the thin face and knit brows. he ''was'' ok. Freyss tuened his face once more to the sky and raised his hand, hiding his eyes from halligan.

Halligan removed his hand and turned his gaze upwards also. ''"When they cast out Innocence for the Deceits of Vanity..."'' he thought.

suddenly, in the distant sky, pinpricks of light blossomed from nowhere, incredibly far away, shortly followed by another set of flashes a short distance away. the two clusters of light raced towards eachother in slow motion, the occasional one peeling away in a trail of light and flashing out of existence. their paths crossed, and they carried on, seeminlgy racing towards' each other's point of origin. at roughly the same time, they met their targets. twin blossoming maelstroms of energy lit the sky, as around them the blue sky was lit up with fingers of light, flashes and pinpricks of tracer and beam weaponry.

The battle must have been a hundred miles away. still, it was in such a low orbit and so spread out that fully a quarter of the sky was set ablaze. after a while, huge clouds of debris began to obscure the bright tracery of neon, and the battle grew muddy and indistinct. after a few minutes, in the far distcnce, halligan couuld make out a dark finger of smoke tracing a huge parabolic curve over the horizon. then two more became clear, racing out of the fresh nebula of detritus and accellerating groundwards. as they hit the atmosphere they burst into white hot streaks of fire, plummeting to the ground like a spent firework casing, trailing a smear of black smoke so solid it looked like you could grab hold of it. it was a nother minute before the columns of smoke and fire were discenable as discreet objects, even with the monocular, and by then the sky was full of them.

halligan leaned close to freyss who had been watching in total silence.

"Look kid. Angelfall."

They remained in silence whilst the cataclysm raged to the south of them. The ground shaking gently as hundreds of miles away, each dying warship plummetted from the sky. League and imperial alike.