It began as a standard skirmish. Niflheim had sent MT troopers down to the lightly fortified garrison east of the city, and Cor had come out with one of his new squads to see how they fared in the field. The MTs were a common sort—easy to take out, too regimented to pose much of a threat against an adaptable team of soldiers. The MT carrier that had delivered them took off as soon as the fight started to turn against the Empire, leaving the broken MT troopers to sputter and die out on the field.
“Don’t forget the armor,” Cor said, as his squad regrouped. “The scientists at the Citadel want one of their masks. Faces. Whatever they are.”
“You never wondered what was underneath one of these things, Marshal?” asked his sergeant, walking over to a still shuddering MT. She nudged it with the toe of her boot, and it stilled.
“Never really thought about it,” Cor said. He leaned down and yanked the green mask off of the MT at the sergeant’s feet, and froze.
A deathly silence fell over the squad. All that could be heard was the whistle of wind over rock, and the soft, gasping breaths of the young man in the MT suit of armor.
“Holy hell,” said the sergeant.
The face behind the mask was blonde, and young, with dark freckles and a narrow chin. When Cor pressed a hand to his neck, he could feel the pulse of blood. The boy’s eyes were squinted shut as though the light hurt him, and he let out a hissing sound through clenched teeth.
“Gods. I thought they were machines,” said one of the enlisted men. He was shushed, and Cor and the sergeant started dismantling the armor around the boy.
“No,” the boy cried, in a dreadful, rasping voice. “Please. I don’t. I don’t want to die.”
“You aren’t gonna die,” Cor said. “Where does it hurt?”
“My… my legs, I can’t move my—“
“Alright, kid. We’re gonna be real careful, okay? Tell us if the pain gets worse.”
Bits of metal and chain were kicked to the side. The others flinched when Cor peeled back the outer armor of the boy’s arms and a tangle of wires popped free from his flesh. He cried out, and one of the soldiers placed a hand on his hair, gentling him. At last, he was laid out in a mess of wire, metal scraps, and leather. He was wearing a thin black jumpsuit that clung to his skin, and there were angry red tracks up his arms that looked distressingly like the marks of a needle. His legs were, in Cor’s esteemed medical opinion, shot to hell, but they weren’t a lost cause yet. He sent some soldiers out for a stretcher, and the sergeant popped open a bottle of elixir from her pack.
The elixir helped, at least enough to get the boy to the stretcher without incident. They hurried him into the back of the van and huddled around him in silence as Cor gave the driver the order to move out.
“None of you are to repeat what you’ve seen until I tell you otherwise,” Cor said, and made sure he had an affirmation from each of them before he turned back to the MT. The boy.
He had to admit there was something off about the kid. His eyes were a bright blood red, and when he spoke, there was a buzzing sound in the back of his throat. His skin was hot to the touch, and the blood that oozed through the bandage they’d set on his leg was rust brown. But he wept like a child, and when Cor unthinkingly placed a hand over his, he gripped him tight like a man drowning.
“How old are you?” Cor asked, over the roar of the van’s engine. The boy shuddered.
“I was commissioned seventeen years ago,” he said.
“Do you have a name?”
“Hell,” said Cor, with feeling. He thought of all the MT soldiers he’d killed, all the bodies he’d left to rot in the fields, thinking them nothing but machinery and oil. Then he looked at the trembling fingers wrapped around his own, and held down a thick knot of rage in his chest. The Empire truly was monstrous, if this is what it did to its children.