The ash that grazes against the skin of his armored body prickles at the eardrums sealed within. It stirs up images of warm, sunbathed plains.
They are not welcome images. Not amongst the forest of shattered rockcrete that he observes through his sensor cluster now.
Shattered husks of buildings that, as he was told at least, once stood stories high, are all he sees. They're grey, stripped of color. They serve as grotesque canvases for the scorching orange of fires that reach to the sky with pillars of smoke.
He tries to imagine what it looked like before. What it might've looked like under the guiding hand of the Water Caste.
He tries to imagine what the citizens might've looked like, milling about in streets and market squares that are strewn with rubble. He tries to imagine the sounds that must accompany a city of such size, the clamor and bustle in these districts on the outskirts of the planet's largest spaceport.
But the only things he sees moving down the streets are columns of soldiers. The only thing he hears is the marching din of their boots, punctuated by the distant thunder of artillery.
His mind draws blank images over the canvas of devastation. He has never seen a human city untouched by war.
A faint, mechanical whine hums in his ears as his view of the battlefield narrows, focusing in on one of the leading Imperial troopers.
There is no fear that can be seen in its smeared eye lenses, even as it moves out from the cover of buildings into the field of rubble that lies before it.
But its body flinches with the impact of a slug projectile against its breastplate. Its marching pace falters as another bullet ricochets off its helmet.
Audio receptors filter a static-laced peal of cries through the acrid thunder of bullets that belch out towards the Imperial advance. The voices he hears are hoarse, almost as guttural as the metal shriek of their weapons.
It clashes with the words that they speak.
For the Greater Good.
But, at the very least, it's recognizably human. He hears a myriad of different tones and pitches amongst the blaring gunfire, young and old, bellowing and shrill.
The trooper he has been watching marches on, nary a sound slipping out from the ribbed tube that feeds into where its mouth should be as it wades into a storm of tracer bullets.
The beam of red light that flares from its rifle paints the blood staining the butcher's blade affixed just underneath the barrel in a sickly hue. It's the same crimson that splashes onto the rubble beneath it as a bullet slips around its dented chest plate and punches through its collar. The same red that runs down its sleeve from an arm wound torn open by another shot.
But it does not fall. Its arms quiver as it strains to keep its rifle upright in the hail of bullets. A solid slug rips through its thigh. He sees its legs tremble, forcing itself into another step forward, visceral fluids trailing down its tattered coat.
He feels his own arm whirring, adjusting the angle of the plasma rifle mounted on it to center on the trooper's hollow mask of a face.
He's not sure if the impulse to fire that races down to his skull is borne of mercy or disgust. Whether he finds the thing's struggle to march onwards admirable or contemptible.
Perhaps there's shades of both.
The stream of targeting computations racing down to his skull go to waste as he watches. He watches single bullet wounds blossom into clusters of ragged holes that stitch across its limbs. He watches the grey that clothes it become drowned out by red.
Inevitably, its rifle falls from blood soaked gloves.
Its weapon is scooped up by another soldier that follows behind it, this one not even bearing any armor plating over its colorless coat. But the expression beneath its helmet is the same blank stare, the same as the legion of masks that it passes the rifle behind to.
The dead trooper itself is left in the rubble. Boots step over its corpse, its visage as hollow as it was in life.
A shrill whistling pierces the deluge of noise that cascades over the battle below him. It's a sound he's heard too often watching from the confines of his perch.
His head swivels over to the human lines opposing the Imperial march, their hastily dug trenches winding through roads and buildings that have been flattened by artillery fire. His sensors flare up as more shells fall around them, their quaking impacts forcing the ragged men and women manning those battlements back into cover.
He watches blood spurt out from one man's neck as shrapnel tears through his unarmored flesh. The shock and horror that etches into his scar-lined face is met with the grim countenance of the woman that throws down her weapon to catch his falling form.
When the fleeting artillery bombardment tapers off, and their comrades rise again with weapons in hand, she does not join them. She presses a hand over the wounded man's neck, and carries him away.
But even as she is moving, lasfire searing over her head, he sees her craggy lips move in tandem with the cry that roils out from her comrades.
It's a guttural reprise, grating on ears within the cold confines of his battlesuit even more coarsely than the last time he heard it.
For the Greater Good.
His cyclopean lens latches onto a trio of humans that passes by the woman. The beige of what remains of their former uniforms as the planet's defense militia are smeared over by soot. They heave under the weight of a pillar-length monstrosity of a weapon- he recognizes it as an autocannon. He is barely able to catch a glimpse of the lead carrier's face through the messy locks of hair that dangles over it before she veers her team up into a nest of walls. It shields them from the hail of lasfire that spears through their other comrades, but it also obscures his view.
A few seconds pass, and he does not see or hear from them.
His view winds back down the trench, scanning over bodies clothed by the same beige uniforms, and others with little more than rags. He is only able to recognize the woman from before by the blood that drenches her hand, now clutching a rifle once more as she rushes back to the front.
Following the trail of red droplets on the rubble behind her, his vision snakes over to another group of humans huddled together in the shadow of a roofless building. The gaping hole in its back wall grants him a clear view inside.
The wounded man from before is sprawled out on a slab of rockcrete. Under the light of a nearby lamp, the paleness of his skin is made apparent- his flesh grows only paler with each drop of blood that trickles out from the mess of bandages wrapped over his throat.
As his view of the building retracts, he notices the bodies that line the floor.
A thudding trio of bassy reports resounds from somewhere down in the human defense line. He does not need to see where it came from to know that their weapons team has settled in.
Three shells flare out over the tracers and las beams that swarm back and forth over the flattened city block, slamming against the Imperial advance. He sees three plumes of dirt and debris kicked up from the earth, faceless bodies scattered in the impact.
A cheer erupts from the human lines, stirred on by the fleeting display of defiance.
They are down there- bleeding, dying. Together.
For the Greater Good.
The bonding knife on the armored surface of his right leg is painted on, a mere sigil. Stark black on a pewter backdrop.
He does not feel the ash prickling against it.
But he feels its weight, as though it is strapped to his thigh. A phantom heaviness, like the void left in the neural network by two that are no longer by his side.
It makes waiting in his perch all the more difficult.
His armor shod hooves brace against the rubble he stands on when he sees his quarry rumble onto the battlefield. He watches, vision warping aside all other details as he focuses in on it. Its treads grind the stumpy remnants of walls into the ground as it rolls out from the cage of buildings around it. It lumbers to a halt, perched on the edge of the shattered cityscape, stout-barreled cannon swiveling ponderously on a blocky turret as more infantry swarms past it.
His marker light flickers to life, planting a small dot on its scarred chassis. The silence that reigns over his comm channels is deafening. The targeting data that streams into his skull skitters against his senses like the ash that brushes against his impassive frame.
A familiar trio of reports thud out over the battlefield. Three shells ricochet uselessly off the Imperial tank's front.
A lance of blinding red flashes from the barrel mounted there, a blazing pillar of light amongst the lines of lasfire that run parallel to its searing path. The clump of rockcrete that the human weapons team is bunkered down in erupts in a plume of flash-fried ammunition.
There is another cry from the human lines. It's almost drowned out by the earth splitting roar of the tank's main cannon.
But their words resound in his ears, within the cold heart of his battlesuit.
His lips move soundlessly, the echo that he whispers lost in the enduring cry that filters through his chassis.
For the Greater Good.
The coiling force in the struts and cables of his legs releases at last, propelling him into the firelit sky. The thrusters on his back flare to life, further accelerating his ascent.
The clouds of ash that had been brushing on his armor plating before now buffet against him. The carnage below dissipates.
His sensor suites paint geometric, clean shapes over the devastation shrouded under the ash. He surveys the grid that scrolls out below him from behind a digitized mask, the outlines that plaster over the enemy and his allies.
His left arm, burdened by the weight of carrying his former team's sole fusion blaster, whirs with an energy that breaks the lethargic stillness in the structure beneath. The missile pod that is clamped on his left shoulder joins in its micro motions.
Imperial infantry masses around their tank, the backbone of the spearhead pushing towards the spaceport.
He knows for a fact that it is one of the few tanks they have left.
He also knows that another will come to replace it.
But he has run the calculations before already. Destroying it will give the transport the critical time it needs to escape.
The flare of his thrusters cuts out. He is left listing at the precipice of his ascent, the storm of ash around his armored frame slowing until the dry flakes are once more billowing against the Fio'tak plating that encases him.
He takes a moment to look up from the battlefield overlay beneath him. He watches the motion of the ash, freed from the trappings of the death choked earth beneath them.
It's like watching sand squalls brush over dunes.
But even they cannot obscure the Imperial warship that looms beyond their serene haze. The pyre-orange that stains its glass tapestries peer back at him. The light that emanates from them is enough to illuminate the banners that hang beneath them.
He sees black crosses, on white backdrops that are scorched by the same hue of the glass above them.
It reminds him there is not even any certainty that the transport will make it off-world if it does launch.
A single message comes through his comm channel, encrypted data filtering down from his antenna into his skull.
5 minutes to launch.
He looks down again. He gauges the distance between the transport and the battered rebel lines. He scans over the digitized outlines of their individual forms, holding fast as the Imperial line creeps ever closer.
They are anchored to their posts, their soon to be graves.
They do not retreat. They hold fast. They know they are the only thing left between their foe and the non-combatants in the transport behind them.
Their planet is lost. The liberation that was promised to them, crushed. But still they fight on.
He runs more calculations, estimations. Processes are diverted away from targeting computations that, at his current altitude are of no use, so that he can come to a conclusion.
The chance that the transport escapes is slim. But it is a chance nonetheless.
His altitude starts plummeting. The clouds of ash enveloping him whips up into a storm once more.
For the Greater Good.
The thrusters on his back nudge his descent over the silhouette of the Imperial tank. The details on its chassis slowly fade back into view of his sensor cluster, the grime that smears over its plating, the primitive rivets that bind them to its blocky frame.
The dozen blinking reticules around it sharpen into grey metal helmets.
The missile pod on his shoulder is already swiveling, but its motions have purpose now. It follows the guiding point painted by his marker light.
A pair of black lenses snap up towards him. A mere second passes by before the blearing red reflection of a las rifle discharge glances off of them.
The beam spears up towards him. Its impact is barely felt amongst the turbulence of his fall, but it's enough to burn a divot onto his plated chest. It's enough to warrant a warning from the web of artificial nerves that lace beneath his armored skin for but a moment.
It's more than he's used to from Imperial small arms.
His thrusters flare back to life, and his descent slows. The buffeting ash around him simmers, and then boils with the heat of more lasfire. The beams come in a volley that flares by his sensors, a few glancing by the sloped plating of his legs.
Four missiles lance out from his shoulder. The shudders that rumble in the frame beneath his plating intensify for a split second in the wake of their launch. Faintly, he hears his teeth chattering together.
They spiral down to their target zones in winding paths, thin smoke trails illuminated by bright blue flames.
He guides them with his marker light. He traces a lopsided rectangle over his targets, painting one corner after the other as each missile finds their impact zone. The faint, luminescence of the initial explosions is lost in the dark clouds of debris that they tear out from the ground.
There is no second volley of las fire.
His cyclopean lens refocuses onto the tank, the scattering silhouettes of limbless bodies in the clouds around it warping into obscurity.
He breaches down through the ashen cloud cover, his thrusters guiding his frame in a soaring descent. The ground is rushing up towards him, and landing vectors threading through his vision between the crooked lumps of rockcrete that stand around his prey.
With a mere 10.15 seconds to landfall left, his prey lurches into motion. Its swerves backwards in a surprising burst of speed, its hulking mass taking out the corner of a building in its retreat.
The hatch at the top of its turret flips open, and again his sensor-eye meets a pair of hollow lenses.
The slug thrower that's mounted by the hatch swivels up towards him. The firing angle is steep, but the tank's backward momentum is quickly levelling it out. Tracers whip past his legs. The sheer volume of bullets that fill the air around him could rival the ash that flakes around his armor.
Their impacts are far more noticeable.
The flesh and bone held within his chest shudders as a handful of slugs slam into his leg plating, the reverberations left in the wake of their ricochets travelling down to his neural link.
His thrusters flare and push him further, gliding his descent out of the gunner's firing arc. The tank chassis beneath it continues to surge backwards, heavy treads crushing rubble.
It cannot stop him from soaring clear over it. He pivots his armored frame around, thrusters roaring behind him to slow his final approach.
Distant las fire lights up the air around him for but a few seconds before he skims beneath the cover of a shelled-out building. His armored hooves grind into earth, pulverized stone kicking up with clouds of dust.
His left arm is already adjusting its angle before he slides to a halt, right behind his prey.
It tears down what was once a street towards him, its turret swiveling laboriously to bring its cannon to bear on him. Its engine is roaring, bellowing over the grinding of its treads.
It's also practically searing in his vision, its thermal signature drowning out those of the crew behind it.
It's nothing compared to what he sees when he fires the fusion blaster on his arm. The molten flash that flares out lasts for barely a second, but he can almost feel the nerve link between the flesh in his chassis and the sensor cluster in his head quivering in its blinding wake.
It reduces the rear armor of his prey to bubbling slag. The crew inside liquifies, their heat signatures blossoming and coalescing with the detonation that cascades out from the gas tank.
Plates of armor are blown clear of its flaming hulk in a hail of warped rivets. Its hatch-gunner is swallowed by the explosions that ripple out from its turret. Its treads grind against its own buckling chassis and the ground below in a screeching wail.
The shockwaves of its death roil out. The rockcrete husks of buildings quake. Walls and pillars crumble, particles blasted out from their rubble and scattered to the wind.
When the wave reaches him, it sends shudders through his armored frame.
For a moment, he understands what it's like to hunt these armored behemoths. He feels what he used to merely watch from afar.
And it's something he would do a thousand more times if it meant somebody else wouldn't have to.
The cry from the human lines sounds off again, thundering in triumphant resonance.
For the Greater Good.
He hears his own voice ringing in tandem, echoing under the plating that encases him. He can almost feel his heartbeat, thrumming with the war drum hymn of his Fire Caste ancestors.
He leaps up once more, thrusters carrying him towards a new perch amongst the crumbling rooftops.
He marauds the infantry swarming through the city. He perches on the rooftops, the battered buildings still standing stalwart despite the devastation wrought upon them. He halts advances through the streets with single shots from his plasma rifle.
The lances of molten blue that spear from his barrel do so with the heat of miniature suns. They boil the air they pass through, leaving thin trails of vapor in their wake. They're made to melt through armor that even pulse rifles cannot penetrate in a single shot.
The targets he chooses have little more than grey coats to protect them. They all fall to the ground with mists of steaming viscera spilling out from liquefied chest cavities.
It's how he forces the attention of entire troop columns onto him. How he shatters their impassive march down the streets and sends them scattering for cover.
And when their lasfire inevitably comes flashing back at him, he's gone, leaping towards a new perch in the shattered cityscape, stringing his prey along with him.
But even his chassis cannot ignore the strain from dozens of stray hits. And it's not long before he starts drawing the attention of heavier guns.
Rockcrete chunks crunch and splinter under him as he touches down in the shadow of a building.
Alarms needle at his skull as his left leg lists under the weight of his landing, a bellowing groan from its shaken and scorched structure rumbling up to his ears. Loose flakes of Fio'tak flutter like leaves in the ash above him.
A cold droplet beads down his forehead as he filters out the painless warnings that swarm his mind. He can feel his brows furrow above closed eyes, an organic impulse that does nothing for the cyclopean lens embedded in his head.
He studies the fuzzy outlines painted by his sensors, trying to piece together the thermal blobs he sees through the wall before him into bodies.
One group breaks off to his left, no doubt looking to flank him from the alley.
It's the three forms on the second floor of a building to the left of and behind them that keeps him from leaping up to the rooftop across the street. It's the autocannon protruding from the glassless remains of a corner window there that stripped layers off of his left leg.
2 minutes until launch. Withdraw immediately.
The tremor that he feels in his bones is, for once, not from the hulking structure of the battlesuit that encases him. Perhaps it's an enduring echo from the quaking impact of the shell against his leg.
A ragged breath blows out from his lips in the sterile confines of his chest, his heart pounding in his ears. The seismic tremors that buzz amongst the heat signatures through the walls and ash are nearly lost in the tidal adrenaline that flushes through his veins.
The cry he hears from the human lines beyond rings clearly as ever. As though the voices comprising it aren't any weaker the last time he heard them bellow out in reprise, as though they're not any more distant.
When he breathes in again, he stills the shaking in the flesh of his curled legs. He adjusts his weight on his armorclad ones, leaning on the sturdiness of his right. The one that still bears the sigil of his bonding knife.
He can't hold back an entire army on his own.
But every shell he takes, every lasbolt that scorches him, every infantryman funnelled into his sights, is one less directed towards the human lines.
Perhaps that's what will give the transport the last 2 minutes it needs.
He exhales, the phantom weight on the sloped plate of his leg palpable.
He relays a response back up the needle-like link in his skull.
Unable to withdraw. Continuing interdiction operations.
The signatures on his left draw closer, close enough that he can see them sharpen into distinct shapes. There's a half dozen, the thudding footfalls of their boots against the cracked ground all clustered together.
Two pull ahead from their formation as the remainder kneel down, weapons aimed down the alley.
The alley. Of course.
He steps towards them, armored hoof crushing down on rockcrete with a reverberating tremor. He straightens himself and hefts his left arm, joints whirring loudly as he levels the blocky barrel of his fusion blaster onto the searing outlines of the two Imperial troopers through the wall.
The leading one of the two raises its hand. The both of them skid to a halt, mere meters away from him now around the corner.
He takes another step forward, a grimace creasing over his face when his foot comes down and he lists to the side again. Perhaps it's the beastly groan that grinds out from his leg that sends the two soldiers backpedaling towards their comrades.
A reply races back to his skull, the signal cold against his nerves in a way that's almost soothing.
Acknowledged. Your sacrifice will be remembered.
For the Greater Good.
For the Greater Good, he whispers to himself. His voice echoes in the confines of his chest as, with a numbing serenity flushing the quivers out of his flesh within, he leans his armored frame around the corner.
A lattice of lasfire flashes against his sensor-eyes, the reports of two slug-weapons barking out amongst them. A surge of impact warnings blare across his nerves. They wash off of his mind like water across stone, just as his chassis shrugs off the beams that scorch him, the solid slugs that ricochet off him. It's with a numbing steadiness in his chest that he traces his marker light down from the hollow mask of a trooper to the grimy coat behind its rifle.
A single missile launches from his shoulder. The shudder that rumbles through his battlesuit structure in its wake does not reflect in his flesh this time. Neither does the shockwave that roils back at him when it detonates amongst the cluster of Imperial troopers.
Through the dust and flame, he sees the outlines of six kneeling figures peel apart. Four limbless bodies are blown against the walls, the weapons they once bore scattering over the ground with their blood.
Two others are thrown to the ground, dazed and reeling, the segmented breastplates drawn over their tunics seeming to have borne the brunt of the explosion for them.
They do nothing against the sear of energy that lashes out at them from his fusion blaster. They're reduced to molten sludge, slathered over the ground with the melted remains of their wearers.
He bursts through the cloud of dust and visceral steam amongst them before it settles, thrusters on his back flaring for just a second to push off his clanking sprint down the alley. His torso bobs from side to side, right shoulder scraping against the wall with every second step.
There's a scramble of movement in the street beyond there. He sees the swarm of figures flounder in their advance as he thunders past them.
They form into a surging backflow on his thermals.
But by then, he's already airborne. Soaring up the side of the building on his right, thrusters rocketing him straight up.
There's no rooftop on it to speak of, but the top floor is nearly barren of walls. The few uneven slabs that do remain on the side to his right would offer poor cover from the mass of infantry in the street below.
But he's not taking to the right side.
He's already aiming his plasma rifle down towards the three outlines painted over the corner across the street by the time he lands, already adjusting for the limp on his left before his weight comes down fully. His right leg pushes him off into a bounding step forward as soon as it comes down on the floor. Faintly, he hears loose debris showering down onto the floor below him in his stomping wake.
When he crests over the edge of the building, the thermal and seismic outlines of his targets sharpen over a clump of grey huddled in the ruins of an equally grey building.
The autocannon they're manning is a wheel-mounted monstrosity, one that evidently takes the strength of two to turn. They're barely able to shift its angle by a few degrees before he fires.
The plasma bolt cuts through the metal shield mounted before the weapon's barrel like it's paper. It cores out the chest of the gunner in a steaming cloud of blood-tinged vapor. It fries the shells held in the cannon's drum magazine, enveloping both the weapon and its crew in a plume of smoke-choked fire.
A smoking hulk of slag is all that remains of them by the time it dissipates, sinking into the dust cloud that swells out from the crumbling corner. Its thudding impact against the ground is lost to him, along with the torrential downpour of debris that follows it, as he pivots around and bounds for the rooftop he originally intended to take perch in.
He grits his teeth against the flash of las fire that greets him as soon as he steps into the hollow-lensed sightline of a trooper kneeling by the base of that building. A sharp alarm pierces his skull as its shot peels a nano-thin layer of armor off his left shoulder.
The hastily aimed plasma bolt he snaps off in retaliation melts away his target's entire arm. The two troopers sprinting by its listing form don't even look up, short-barreled slug throwers slung over the plated pads adorning their shoulders.
He has hardly a second to consider what they're doing before another volley from the street below cascades over him. One beam finds the wound dug out by the autocannon on his leg, searing at the exposed structure. It does nothing to weaken the push of his hooves that sends him leaping over the street.
He's airborne for mere seconds, thrusters propelling him up and over the infantry column. The crimson bolts they fire at him flash past his soaring frame. They're still boiling the air around him by the time he crests over the rooftop.
He allows himself a short breath as he backs away from the edge, head sweeping his sensors over the just-over dozen of troops in the street below.
Even with their signatures hidden behind the roof, he still sees their rifles blazing away. A fresh volley digs into the rockcrete edge, the debris peeled loose by their impact trickling in his ears.
His brow furrows as he waits another second and watches the wave of lasfire rhythmically flare off once more.
Two. There were two amongst their number that weren't carrying las rifles. They had slug throwers, just like the two he'd encountered in the alley.
He's not hearing ballistic reports from the street.
His head swivels past the swarm below him, a spark of remembrance pulsing through to his chassis as he traces over the direction he saw them running in before he leapt. He finds them by the far side of the building, just standing up from kneeling positions.
And then they're running. Scrambling away.
Nanoseconds after he realizes what they've done, a monstrous detonation rocks through his frame. The rockcrete he's standing upon lurches, singular slab fracturing into chunks.
By the time he engages his thrusters, he's already plummeted down into the torrential collapse of the building. Entire floors shatter and rain upon him, alarms now screeching in his ears as slabs of debris crush down on his chassis. A dark shadow falls over him before something smashes over his head. Desperate escape vectors that he'd been threading now flicker and spin wildly through his dust-choked vision in the wake of its impact.
His thrusters sputter out as he feels himself careening. His joints whir at a frantic pitch, legs kicking and metal hooves scrabbling to try and right himself in his fall.
The quaking foundation of the building envelops him in a jolting embrace, punching the breath out of lips sealed within his armored chest. Slabs plow out through the dust above him, plummeting down towards him.
His vision flickers out. The alarms cease their blaring, and his limbs stop obeying his frantic motions. It feels like his nerves are contracting, detaching, sinking back inwards as though the digital web they're strung up in is imploding.
When his eyes open, he's no longer looking through the lens of an armored, cyclopean beast. All he sees is darkness.
His flesh and bones quake with the cold metal that cradles his curled form. His heaving breaths drown in the torrent of metallic booms that drum on his ears, their blaringly loud echoes reverberating off the walls that enclose him.
He can feel his heart skipping a beat. He can feel the sweat that slicks down his skin, chafing against the synthetic padding that's pressed against his back.
He tries to move his arms, his legs, tries to unfurl from his cowering posture – but they do not budge. The cold sensation of a thin needle still faintly stings at his nerves from the back of his skull.
His breaths grow more frantic.
He squeezes his organic eyes shut, as though that alone will help restore the sight of his sensor clusters. All it accomplishes is plunge him further into the murky heartbeat that's now fluttering in his flesh.
He swallows, nearly choking on his own saliva. Tears sting in the lenses beneath his eyelids.
Not like this. Please, not like this.
Just like when he watched his team blown away before his very eyes, his vigil over them from afar amounting to naught. The blood that they shed together with their bonding knives, incinerated.
How can he make his penance in death if he dies like this?
It's as though he can still feel the weight of the knife painted on his leg. Pressing upon his nerves through the rubble that pins it down.
His breathing quiets for a moment, tapering off until it's little more than a gentle breeze from his nostrils.
He hears something budge in the darkness around him, a rustle of loose debris skittering down metal. Somehow, he knows it's from his leg. His right leg, the one that bears his bonding knife.
He feels the blocky digits at the end of his left arm clench, joints creaking as he hefts his team's fusion blaster.
A message races down to his skull, its spearing coldness enough to elicit a gasp from his lips within his chest.
1 minute until launch.
His sensor-eye flickers back to life. It gazes upon the sky beyond, the drifts of ash that billow upon its dark canvas.
Like sand squalls on dunes.
A comforting whir fills his hears as his head angles downwards, circuits and cables obeying the pulse that travels through his nerves. His vision comes alight with outlines, standing beyond the crooked remnants of the building's foundation.
There's three new ones amongst their number, striding in from the back. Even in the distance, they tower over the rest.
Even before he senses the message filtering down his antenna, he knows what they are.
Imperial breakthrough imminent. Gue'ron'sha presence confirmed.
The screeching groan that grinds out of his armored frame is matched only by the shrill alarms in his ears as he pulls himself out of the rubble that would have entombed him. He grits his teeth, and welcomes the influx of noise.
He embraces the weight that he feels pressing against the battered and dust-smeared plating of his right leg. He anchors himself to it as his left foot digs into the ground.
There's a flurry of movement from the ground level, the mass of signatures scattering out, arms waving. He hears something clang off a warped strut of rebar above him, then plunk down into the rubble behind him.
He's already leaping out by the time he identifies it as a grenade. His thrusters fizzle, barely adding any momentum to his ascent. He doesn't need it.
Time seems to slow as he clears over the rubble pit that the building has been reduced to, organic veins pulsing with thrumming energy. Seconds seem to pass as minutes as he scans over his foe, their las rifles snapping up at what seems like a slothlike pace, his reflection in their hollow eyepieces crawling up just as slowly.
There's no such reflection to be seen in the lenses of the three that tower behind them. Those eyes are shrouded in crimson, searing back at him with the intensity of lasbolts.
Whereas the masks of those around them are dull and expressionless, their visages bear metal snarls. Whereas the ones they tower over are garbed in grey coats, they're clad in soot black plate adorned by ashen white cloth.
But he knows that the flesh behind is more grotesque than any human's. He's seen the way it's twisted, fused with the armor they hide behind.
It's the one with the color of blood painted onto its pauldron rims that he focuses on. The blade that it holds with chained hands may be pristine, bathed in a shimmering sheath of blue, but it wears its tabard like a butcher's apron.
The barrel of his plasma rifle pivots over to it with what feels like a painful lethargy in the milliseconds that pass.
Perhaps it's just his imagination, an auditory mirage amongst the ash-whipped wind howling in the sky- but he swears he hears one last cry of defiance ring out from the distant human lines. Whether or not it's actually there, his voice bellows out in booming resonance.
For the Greater Good.
When the plasma bolt pooling in his weapon's firing chamber finally flies free, his sense of time seems to follow its blazing trail.
Las fire stitches over his battered frame, the scorching intensity of them at this range peeling flakes off of his chassis. A slug-shell roars out from at him from the deluge of energy beams, slamming against his chest in a detonation that rocks down to his skull. It rings even louder than the grenade that explodes behind him.
His own shot flies true. It spears through the air like it's hurled forth with the might of his ancestors.
But instead of coring through the chest of his target, the bolt grazes against its shoulder. His target moves with a speed and grace that defies its hulking frame, stepping around the projectile and pushing off in a sprint towards him in the same motion.
He'd failed his team because he had underestimated the capabilities of these monsters of flesh and metal. He had let his shock manifest as hesitation.
He does not make the same mistake again.
He holds fast in the hail of las and slug fire that picks at his chassis. He maintains a razor focus amongst the alarms that blare in his ears. He holds fast to the phantom weight borne on his right leg even as layers of armor are stripped from it.
The last missile held in his shoulder spirals out in a trail of smoke, winding wildly down towards the marker light he traces along his target's trajectory.
His fusion blaster fires, the vengeful weight that has been burdening his arm flaring out in a searing release.
It narrowly misses his target, warping the white of its shoulder plating into twisted slag.
It also funnels his target right into the guiding beam of his marker light.
A lump forms in his throat as he watches it stumble, chunks of its shoulder blown clear by the impact of his missile. He lens follows the black cross on its tabard like it's a beacon in the smoke and fire that washes over its form.
When his plasma rifle fires again, there's no escape from the bolt that sears out.
The butcher's blade clatters to the ground, the chains that bound the barbaric weapon to its armored fingers melted through.
A cloud of luminescent blue bursts out from the fissure burned through its breastplate, the steaming viscera wrought from its twisted organs spilling out in a molten spray. It falls to a pillar-like knee, warped armor of its fist crashing into the ground.
The armor shod hoof of his right leg stomps down on the cracked rockcrete of the street in triumphant resonance, mere meters away from his fallen prey.
The stream of slug fire tearing at his chest tapers off amongst the las fire still peeling at his chassis.
He swivels, scanning impassively over the hollow masks that flare with reflections from their rifles. His attention settles on to the next set of crimson eyes that stands amongst them, the snarl forged in its visage glaring impotently back at him.
Its armored form towers in the open, the smoking barrel of its brutish weapon held listlessly by its hip. Even as his torso pivots ponderously over in suit, every whir of his internals punctuated by a grinding metal groan, it does not move. It does not fire. It continues staring back at him with empty red eyes.
If death is what it seeks, he'll gladly deliver it.
But the flare of searing blue plasma that lances past its shoulder does not come from his arm.
It comes from the third pair of crimson eyes, the luminescent blue coils of its rifle having been lost to his sensors in the shimmering light of the first's butcher blade.
It splashes over his chest in a steaming cloud of vapor that blinds his sensors, that melts and warps the battered plating beneath his head. Like a hellish mirage in the blue mist warping around his chest, he sees his first target rise from its deathly kneel.
By the time he's pivoted back towards it, weapons whirring blindly in the digital garble that flickers over his vision, it's already closed the remaining distance between them.
The metal groan rumbling from his left leg peaks into a shrill screech as it slams into him. Power cables are torn loose in showers of sparks, and structural supports snap like broken bones.
When he falls to his back this time, the crushing embrace of the rockcrete racing up to his skull, a gentle breath is all that exhales from his dry mouth.
Alarms warn him of a heavy obstruction pinning down his left arm. A bellow peals out from the same direction, the words carried by it lost to his ears in the metal snarl that chokes them.
Somehow, his left arm feels less burdened than it's been in months.
His cyclopean gaze meets those of his would-be second target once more.
Its slug thrower hangs from its hip. Its soot-plated hands pick up the butcher's blade from the ground.
It's surging towards him in mere seconds, warped handle of the butcher's blade clasped tightly.
He brings his plasma rifle back up to meet its charge, arm scraping against the ground.
There's a flash of blue. But rather than being rewarded with another vapor-spray of viscera, he sees the barrel of his plasma rifle pushed aside by the flat of the butcher's blade.
His head cranes over to follow the trajectory of the plasma bolt he looses, following its blazing trail until it's a mere speck in the dune-shrouded sky.
A cold calmness washes over him as he realizes there's only 6 seconds left on the timer ticking in the back of his skull.
"Wait," he croaks out.
He looks back to his front, the tip of the butcher's blade held mere inches away from the still-steaming plate of his chest. The red eyes of its wielder are as hollow as the masks surging up behind it.
Another roar bellows out, from the metal maw pinning down his left arm.
The timer stops at a mere 1.64 seconds left.
He watches as his right arm goes limp, plasma rifle slumping down to the ground. The shrill blare warning him of a catastrophic breach in his chassis fades into white noise.
The beat of his heart joins it in ringing silence. Lungs expel a thin breath, and do not draw in another.
Through the flickering lens of his sensor-eye, he watches his blood steam out in a wisp, trailing up the length of the butcher's blade embedded in his chest. They snake past the black crossguard and wrap over the soot-plated hands that clasp its handle.
He sees another hand, warped and battered, reach up towards there.
The melted remains of a chain slides out from its scorched fingers, dangling links falling over the crossguard. Entwining the fingers that still grasp the handle with the vapors that shimmer around it.
Encrypted data races down his antenna, withering processes with nothing left to do in the crumbling neural net of his battlesuit managing to decode it into a simple text string that splays out over his eye.
He's not sure why, but he can't feel that weight on his right leg now either.
The last thing he glimpses before his sensor-eye finally flickers is out is the sky- the clouds of ash that billow there, like sand squalls over the dunes of his home.