She was sticky and cold. And wet. The sticky, cold stuff was all around her, heavy, pressing against her face. She couldn’t breath.
She lifted her arms, trying to push at it, but the stuff was slick, too, and it just sank back into whatever holes she made. She batted at it frantically, desperately trying to figure out why she couldn’t move. Why couldn’t she move? She was trapped. She couldn’t breathe ….
The fire in her chest flashed, warming her whole body.
She stilled, panic receding.
Safety belts. Foam. Impact foam.
Fumbling, she felt blindly around her waist. The latch clicked and the belt loosened. Two more latches and the shoulder harnesses also opened. She slipped down off the seat, half-crawling, half-rolling across the floor. Sharp bits of metal cut into her hands, tore her dress. She kept moving, pressing against the foam. Something cool and vaguely round: a helmet. She pushed it aside.
The weight of the foam suddenly lessened and then was gone completely.
She tumbled free of the ship, tearing her dress again. She coughed, spitting foul-tasting impact foam. When she was finally able to open her eyes, blinking in the reddish sunlight, her breath stuttered again. Coughing violently, she struggled to her feet.
The jungle was on fire.
A deep gouge cut through the trees and soil. Trees had been flung to the side or blackened to ash where they stood. Others were still burning, dropping fiery limbs to the ground. Bits of the ship littered their trail: some of the hull there, bits of the wing over there, the cockpit —
Camilla gagged and pressed a bleeding hand to her mouth.
The cockpit had broken free of the rest of the ship. It was half-buried and smashed up against a large stand of boulders.
Valentia. One of the flitters that had been crashed in Valentia had looked like that ….
A hand grabbed her shoulder and she screamed.
She blinked, focused. “Palladius?”
He had his helmet on and his titan-metal armor was scorched. Impact foam clung to him, dribbling slowly from his arms and knees and the tips of his skirt.
“Are you unhurt, Domina?”
“I — yes — I think. Where … the pilots ….” She pointed a shaking hand at the crumpled cockpit.
Palladius cast a quick glance over his shoulder at the wreckage, then turned back to her with a grim nod. “Yes, Domina. This way, please.” He grasped her arm, pulling with just enough force that her legs finally unlocked.
She stumbled, one arm out for balance as he led her around the body of the Virgo Secunda, passed lumps of half-melted plasteen and twisted pieces of metal and burning puddles of fuel. She lifted her veil (vaguely surprised that it was still around her shoulders) and pressed it to her face, hoping to keep out the stink of smoke; but the harsh smell of the foam made her gag and she quickly dropped the cloth.
On the far side of the craft, she found Niobe leaning against a piece of wing. She was covered in dirt and foam and her leg …. Camilla cringed in sympathy at the jagged piece of plasteen that stuck of out the lictor’s thigh. It had slipped between the strips of her skirt and ripped through the protective bodysuit, which was rapidly turning a deep reddish-black.
She sank to her knees. “Oh, Niobe. I … how can I help?”
The lictor shook her head, jaw clenched.
A flash of movement caught Camilla’s eye. Looking up, she spotted Ravan off to her right, at the very edge of the gash which the ship had cleared through the jungle. He prowled along the line of trees, pistol in one hand, sword in the other.
“What is Ra — Oh, Gods! Micah!” She looked from Niobe to Palladius and back again, heart pounding. “Where is Micah?!”
Palladius shook his head while Niobe answered, her voice shaking. “We have not seen him.”
Camilla’s mouth opened and then closed.
Niobe tipped her chin towards the wreck. “Palladius, supplies. And, check for ben Gideon … just in case.”
The lictor nodded. He tapped a button on the cheek plate of his helmet and the visor descended. Turning, he quickly made his way back into the ruined ship, shoving foam out of his way with great sweeps of his arms.
“Yes, Niobe, yes? What can I do?”
The lictor shook her head, jaw still tight. Her eyes looked glassy. “Domina, it is possible that whoever ambushed us also followed us to the ground. We don’t know if the pilots made contact with our escort or if anyone else saw us.” She hissed in pain, eyes closing for a long moment. When she opened them again, Camilla saw no fear — only determination. “We cannot take that risk. Ravan and Palladius will escort — ”
The lictor shook her head. “Ravan and Palladius will escort you to safety.”
Crying, Camilla looked up as Palladius reappeared at her side, a flat-bottomed bag in his hand. A glop of impact foam slid off his helmet and landed with a wet splutch beside her.
He shook his head. “Ben Gideon’s not in there. He may have been thrown clear.”
Niobe shuddered, eyes tightening in pain.
Micah. Micah is gone. “Give me that.” Camilla grabbed the bag, flipping it open to reveal nutritional bars and bags of nutrition water and medical supplies. She grabbed a handful of the bars and shoved them at Niobe. “Take these. We’ll be back — ”
Niobe pushed her hand away. “You’ll need them.”
“Niobe — ”
“Domina.” Her voice was hard, her gaze steady. “I will be dead within the hour. Take the food.”
Camilla stared at her.
“It has been my great honor to serve the Republic and to serve the Vestals, and to walk beside my brother and sister lictores.”
Camilla’s voice was a bare thread of sound. “May Dis Pater and his bride show you welcome in Elysium.”
Niobe smiled, her lips white.
There was a loud whine and a flash of light and something exploded against the wreck behind them. Camilla screamed. Palladius swore, crouching down beside her, and she heard Ravan shout “Hostiles in — ” And then nothing as his voice was cut off in a gurgle.
Niobe shoved her. “Take her!” Pulling her pistols, she twisted around, sighting over the top of the wing. “Go!”
More loud whines and flashes of light. Camilla scrambled to her knees. Palladius grabbed her hand, yanked her up, and led her at a dead run around the wreckage, passed the crumpled cockpit, and into the jungle. Shrubs and branches and sharp leaves cut her. Loud yells and the whine of pistols and rifles behind them. Camilla stumbled, found her feet. She grabbed her skirt, hiking it high up around her knees. Her breath wheezed. His grip was too tight. Her hand was beginning to hurt. Over logs, over roots, through mud.
And then silence.
Palladius slid to a halt, pulling her behind a fat tree. Somewhere in the back of her brain, she wondered what kind of tree it was. She had never studied the flora of Venus.
She fought down a hysterical giggle even as she tried to catch her breath.
Palladius peered around the trunk of the tree, back towards the crash site. A moment later he pulled his head back and held up two fingers. She nodded in understanding and when he held the bag out to her, she took it, hugging it to her chest. He quietly slipped the rifle from his back and peered back around the tree.
A flicker to her left. Not a tree branch, not a bird. She turned her head and saw him: red bodysuit and protective armor, a stylized black gorgon on his chest.
He saw her at the same time, lifted his rifle —
— and jerked. His weapon fell and he pitched face first into the ground.
Micah. Micah in his scorched armor and stained bodysuit, a knife in each hand. One was already dark with blood.
A second later, it flashed through the air and sank hilt deep into the throat of another Imperialist.
Palladius’ rifle whined low and the third Imperialist was down.
“Micah,” Camilla whispered.
She clutched the bag, eyes wide, watching as he dashed through the undergrowth to retrieve his knife. And then he was at her side and she could see that he was bleeding from cuts on his face and there was another wound on his head, the hair matted with blood.
She opened her mouth again. He gave a sharp shake of his head, then motioned for Palladius to lead the way. Bent slightly, steps quick, the lictor moved deeper into the jungle. Camilla followed close on his heels, still clutching the bag, Micah at her back.
They wove in and among the trees, reddish sunlight slanting through the branches. She could hear birds now, high up in the canopy, their songs alien, and insects hummed around her head. She hissed, swatting at one that seemed to like the smell of her blood.
A shout behind them.
Micah grabbed her arm and dragged her down behind a fallen tree. A moment later, Palladius crouched beside them, sighting over the top of the log with his rifle.
Micah tucked his knives back into his greaves, took the bag from her, and dug through it. Nodding in approval, he handed it back to her — and pulled her veil from her shoulders.
She frowned at him in confusion as he leaned around her. Voice barely above a whisper, he held out the cloth to Palladius. “Take this. Lead them north.”
The lictor paused, then nodded. Rifle still in one hand, he grabbed the veil and made to move out from behind the fallen tree.
“What?” Camilla hissed. She latched on to his knee. “No. Absolutely not. I forbid it!”
For a long moment, Micah looked at her with something like pity. Then he jutted his chin at Palladius again and the lictor was gone, swallowed by the jungle.
Tears collected in the back of her throat, born of fear and helplessness and anger. The flame twisted in her heart, a wrathful heat. She did the only thing she could: she punched Micah in the chest. The titan-metal was hard. She flinched as she unfolded her fingers, only then remembering that she had cut her hands while crawling out of the ship.
Gently, he took her stiff, bruised fingers. He studied her bleeding palm and the pads of her fingers, then carefully turned her wrist and kissed the back of her hand. His breath was warm, his lips soft. They lingered for a moment too long.
He tugged a knife from its sheath, lifted her to her feet, and silently led her away.
[End Part Seven. Continue to Part Eight.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her poems and stories can be found there.]