Arria threw herself to the side as the arc of plasma swept across the stones, which exploded into steam at the touch of the immense heat. She rolled and brought her spear up, firing twice and scoring direct hits on the creature’s armored head. She cursed as the black metal reflected her energy blasts away harmlessly.
The alien invader swung its heavy weapon around at her, and Arria knew she had to end this fight quickly or she was going to die. Activating the energy sheath on her parma, she raised it and charged at the figure. As the plasma hit the shield, a high-pitched whine filled her ears and the parma began to vibrate. She closed to within leaping distance and flung the shield down as it shorted out, twisting away from the deadly spray.
As Arria regained her footing, she lunged forward with her hasta, activating its mono-blade as she thrust. The point of the spear hit her opponent right where the invader’s helmet met its body armor. The hasta shuddered in her hand, the shaft cracking as the blade buried itself in the black material of the figure’s protective shell.
For an instant, she was sure she was going to die. If the hasta’s blade couldn’t penetrate the armor of her adversary, there was no way she could possibly survive this fight. But the invader dropped the plasma weapon and took two faltering steps back, reaching up to grab the now-inert blade stuck in its throat. It was obviously not a fatal wound, the point having been mostly stopped by the black armor. But it was enough to distract the invader, giving Arria a chance to try again.
She drew her gladius and tumbled at the being’s legs. The invader stumbled backward and Arria rose up before its black faceplate and shoved her sword point-first at the same spot where the spear’s blade had just penetrated. The energy sheath on her gladius, combined with the weakened point created by her spear, was enough to part the dark material. Her blade slid into the alien’s neck.
Arria let go of the hilt and drove her shoulder into the invader’s chest, knocking it onto its back. It raised an arm and tried to activate something on its wrist, but Arria stomped on the arm and wrenched the hilt of her gladius back and forth.
The invader gave a last shudder and fell still.
Arria took a breath and looked around, worried about her contubernium. None of her sisters could equal her in battle, and she had very nearly lost this fight. Among the trees behind her, she heard a low hum and then a woman’s voice screamed and was cut short.
She yanked her gladius out of the throat of her enemy and charged into the trees. She knew she was likely running to her death, but she was responsible for her sisters, responsible for the contubernium, and she had led them into this ambush. Her blood pounded in her ears as she flung herself out of the trees into a small clearing.
Less than twenty strides away, another of the black-armored invaders had its back to her. The figure stepped forward and vanished, as if stepping behind some kind of curtain. A rush of wind through the clearing brought the smell of burned flesh to her. Arria shook her head and focused on the body lying on the ground in the middle of the clearing.
She stepped up to the corpse, her eyes unable to avoid the dark smear on the grass that had been her sister’s head. Arria noted the leather bracelet on the body’s left wrist.
She wanted to fling herself down beside Lucilia’s body and howl her grief to the gods, but Arria still had to find her other sisters. She saw the shaft of Lucilia’s hasta in the grass a few strides from the body. She grabbed it and made her way back to the site of her own battle.
The body of her enemy was gone.
Arria screamed out the rallying cry of her contubernium, hoping for an answering call. Her voice echoed back to her and faded away. She gave another cry and another, but it was not returned. She bowed her head and said a prayer to Father Mars for her fallen sisters, and let her tears flow down her cheeks.
She moved ahead, searching for any sign of her companions. Streaks of scorched earth led her off the main trail and she came round a boulder to find another of her sisters. Domitia had been cut in half, her parma melted into slag, still attached to the legionary’s arm. Arria’s grief welled up in her again, but a wisp of smoke from the grass a few paces away caught her attention.
She stepped over to find a large patch of burnt and matted grass. A large, burning body had landed on this spot, and it hadn’t been Domitia.
Someone behind her coughed and let out a low moan.
Arria spun into a fighting stance, her spear raised, her gladius in her left hand. Another figure lay in the long grass. Whoever it was, she knew it wasn’t one of her sisters.
It was a man’s voice she had heard.
She approached cautiously until she could see the man sprawled out on the ground, a weapon of similar shape to the one the invader was wielding in easy reach of his hand. He was not wearing the same black armor as the other invaders, however, and his head was bare. The mottled green and brown clothing the man wore helped him blend into the trees and grass, and Arria might have missed him entirely if he hadn’t made any noise.
The man was obviously wounded, a black scar of scorched clothing and flesh visible across his ribs. But his chest rose and fell with even breaths and Arria knew he would probably live if given even the most basic medical attention. But that was not something she was prepared to do until she knew whether he was friend or foe.
The man opened his eyes and recoiled from Arria. He tried to go for the weapon, but she stepped forward and kicked it out of his reach. He grunted in pain as he rolled onto his side, his pale blue eyes locked on the point of Arrias’—Lucillia’s—hesta.
“Please,” he said hoarsely. “I’m here ta help.”
His words were Imperial, but with a strange accent she had never before encountered. The man made no further move toward his weapon, and she lowered the hesta, though she was still prepared to attack if he posed a threat in any way.
“I’m sorry about yer friend,” he said, lying back on the ground. “My rifle can’t always penetrate their armor. She was dead afore I could get off a real shot.”
“Her name was Domitia.”
She immediately regretted telling the man her sister’s name. He hadn’t earned the right to know it.
“She died a warrior’s death,” the man said in a low voice. “She did honor to yer contubernium.”
Arria looked at the man’s face and had fight down the urge to plunge her hesta into his heart.
“Who are you?” she asked him instead.
He looked her in the eyes and hesitated before answering. She could see him considering his position, wondering how much he should say.
“I’m part of an alliance of worlds far from here. We’re trying to fight these invaders, just like you.”
“These invaders. What are they?”
He grimaced and looked down at the burnt flesh on his chest.
“They…they’re soldiers from a vast empire that reaches across most of this region o’ space.”
“You lie,” she accused the man. “This entire portion of the galaxy belongs to us. We have found no empire—”
“They’re not from this timeline. They come from imaginary time.”
Arria leaned down and grabbed the man by the throat.
“The creature that killed Domitia wasn’t imaginary,” she snarled at him. He gripped her arm weakly, trying in vain to pull his throat free from her grip. She held him for another moment and then let go.
He coughed, and then winced as it sent pain rippling through his injured ribs.
“No…imaginary time is just the name we call it. Look,” he said sticking his finger into the dirt and dragging out a straight line.
“Most people picture time like this, like a line. We sit somewhere along this line, and back here is the past. Ahead of us is the future. And we go along that line, moment to moment.”
He looked up at Arria and she gave a short nod, indicating he should continue.
“But time isn’t just a line. What if, instead o’ going forward along the line, ye went sideways?” At this he drew another line perpendicular to the first, going to off in a different direction.
“Yer invaders occupy the same space, the same region o’ the galaxy, but they come from a time out here, where yer ships and yer instruments can’t ever detect them. But they’ve discovered how to travel sideways in imaginary time. They found this time, yer time. And they want their empire to rule here just as it does in their own time.”
Arria raised her head and looked at the trees around them. The silence weighed heavily on her shoulders. The absence of the noise of battle meant that it was over. She knew in her heart that all her sisters were dead. Arria had been the best, and only she had survived.
“You are also from this other time,” she said, and it was more of an accusation than a question.
He gave a small shake of his head.
“My people are from somewhere else in imaginary time. Of course, we call it real time, but ultimately that’s all just a matter o’ perspective. I’m just a scout, sent here to see how we could help.”
She knelt beside the man and pulled her healer’s kit out of the small pouch at her waist. Pressing the button on the small, black box, she pushed it against the burned skin over his ribs. He let out a hiss, but the box hummed and she watched the pain fade from his eyes.
“How do I fight them?” she asked. “My weapons aren’t strong enough.”
He looked down at the box in her hand and then back up to meet her eyes.
“I don’t know. Our weapons are more powerful than yers, but we don’t have the combat skills to make best use o’ them. Perhaps we can give ye better weapons, help ye defend yerselves against these invaders.”
“You want to give us weapons? And fight by our side?”
Arria saw something change in his eyes, like a veil had dropped down to cover him and now his expression revealed nothing of what he was thinking. There was more to this situation that what he was telling her, that much was obvious. But what choice did she have? If these invaders returned in force, they could march right into Rome and lay waste to the entire city. The Legion wouldn’t be able to stop them.
“Can you contact your people?” she asked him. He nodded and pressed a small screen on a silver bracelet around his wrist.
“Command,” said another man’s voice from the screen.
“I’ve made contact,” the man said. “Lock onto my coordinates.”
There was a high-pitched whine as the air around the clearing began to churn. And then, as if they had been standing behind a curtain that Arria couldn’t see, four figures stepped into view and were suddenly standing around her and the man on the ground. Two of the figures were carrying a heavy case between them.
Arria raised the hesta and sank into a fighting stance as her reflexes took over, but the new arrivals made no threatening move.
A woman stood facing Arria, tall with fiery red hair pulled back in a long braid that hung down behind her. She looked down at the man and concern filled her gaze.
“Connor!” She knelt down at his side and began to examine his wounds.
“He will survive,” Arria informed her. “I have treated the injury.”
The woman looked up and gave Arria a forced smile.
“Thank ye for yer help.”
The woman’s accent was similar to the man’s and Arria found it strange and offputting.
“He said you have weapons,” she told the woman, who stood and faced Arria.
“My name is Gavina,” she said, holding out her hand. Arria grasped her forarm and felt hard muscles beneath the black bodysuit.
“I am Arria, a soldier of Rome. I am the last of my contubernium—my sisters all died at the hands of these invaders.”
Gavina nodded solemnly and then gestured for the others to bring the large case over. They set it down beside Arria and unlatched the lid. Gavina reached inside and drew forth a gladius. Its form was unmistakeable, but the controls on the hilt were unfamiliar to her. This was a design she had not seen before now.
Gavina handed it to her, hilt-first.
“The weapon is similar to yer current version, though significantly more powerful. It also fires energy bolts like yer hasta.”
Arria examined the controls on the hilt and immediately saw the similarities to her own weapons, but combined into a single device. This was far more advanced than anything the Legion had developed for its warriors.
Gavina pulled out the arm band for a parma and Arria slipped it over her forearm. She activated the shield and it sprang into life, a large circle of glowing blue energy.
“This one can withstand direct hits by their plasma weapons,” Gavina explained.
Arria looked Gavina in the eye.
“Is this all you have? I am a great warrior, but I cannot defeat these invaders alone.”
“We’ve managed t’ manufacture almost five hundred sets like this. We’d like ye to escort us into Rome so we can present them to yer Legion commanders to distribute to yer best warriors. It’s no guarantee ye can defeat the invaders, but it’ll give ye a much better chance than ye have now.”
One of the other members of Gavina’s group had helped the man, Connor, to his feet. He still needed help standing, but Arria knew he would survive his injuries. She saluted him with the gladius and turned back to Gavina.
“I will escort you back to Rome. With these weapons, we will turn the tide on these invaders and drive them from our homeworld.”
A wind suddenly whipped through the clearing and Arria saw Gavina’s eyes widen. Arria was already moving as a beam of plasma swept through the spot where she had been standing an instant before, vaporizing Gavina’s flesh as it cut through her body from left shoulder to right hip.
Arria spun, bringing the parma around to block a second beam that spattered off the shield. A wave of heat from the plasma swept across her face, but she touched a button on the hilt of the gladius and fired an energy bolt at the second figure. Her own shot scored a direct hit and the invader staggered and fell to one knee.
Arria spared a glance at the people who had given her the weapons in her hands, and she saw that three of them were dead. The fourth had thrown himself and Connor to the ground to avoid the deadly beams, and the man was desperately trying to activate the device on his wrist.
Not waiting to see if the invader she had shot was fully out of the fight, Arria charged the other attacker and stabbed out with her gladius. Her opponent dodged the thrust and dropped the plasma projector, drawing its own gladius-like sword.
The invader was fast and well-practiced at fighting with short blades, but Arria had few equals. She used her parma to good effect, not only blocking her opponent’s thrust, but shoving the invader off balance long enough to bury her gladius in the creature’s chest.
She was gratified to see the energy-sheathed blade could cut through the black armor.
The second invader had regained its senses and brought the plasma weapon to bear on Arria. She noticed the movement out of the corner of her eye, but Connor sat up and screamed a warning at her. Arria spun and held up her shield to block the beam, but the invader turned and fired at Connor as his last companion finally activated his device and disappeared.
Connor’s head vanished under the power of the plasma beam, and his body fell backward onto the ground.
Arria bellowed a challenge at the second invader, who seemed to realize that the weapon in its hands wasn’t powerful enough to burn through her shield. It turned sideways and disappeared.
She looked over at the invader she had killed, expecting its body to have disappeared as well, but it was still there. Perhaps the invaders had to physically collect their fallen comrades, which meant that more were on their way.
Arria moved over to Connor’s body. The silver bracelet was still attached to his wrist. She removed it and placed it in her pouch. If she was going to defend Rome from these aliens, she would need the rest of the weapons they had promised her.
She knew she should leave this area and make it back to Rome as quickly as possible. She needed to get this communications device back to her commanders. But something in the back of her mind kept returning to the dead invader. There had been something…familiar…about the way it fought.
Keeping careful watch, Arria jogged over to the dead body. Perhaps she could bring the creature’s head back with her to study this alien race. She planted the gladius in the ground beside her and deactivated her parma before reaching down to unhook the helmet from the creature’s armor.
As she lifted the helmet clear, she looked down into a face she knew.
Lucilia’s eyes were blank in death, but there was no mistaking her sister.
Arria dropped the helmet and staggered back. It was impossible. It couldn’t be Lucilia in that suit of black armor. Lucilia had already been killed by one of the invaders.
She stepped back up to the body and dropped to her knees, grabbing the woman’s left arm and tearing at the heavy glove. It took her a moment to figure out how to disengage it from the sleeve, but she managed to pull the woman’s hand loose. She stuck her fingers into the open sleeve, feeling around the wrist for…
Arria pulled Lucilia’s bracelet out from under the sleeve.
She threw her head back and screamed at the sky. This couldn’t be real. She had killed her own sister and that was impossible. She would never…
A gust of wind blew through the clearing and Arria knew she was no longer alone.
She was in no position to defend herself. The parma was turned off, her weapon was in the ground just out of her reach. What was the point of this struggle when all that she cared about was gone?
That’s not true, she thought. You live and die to defend Rome. Just like your sisters.
Despite her vulnerable position, no plasma blast burned through her flesh to end her existence. She looked over her shoulder and saw a single black-clad invader standing just across the clearing, watching her.
Arria dragged herself to her feet and faced the invader.
“Why have you come here?” she yelled at the figure. “What do you want with our world? My sisters…my sisters died at the hands of your people.”
And then, somehow, Lucilia died again by my own hand.
The figure placed the plasma weapon on the ground at its feet and reached up to unhook the helmet that covered its head. Arria wanted to tell it to stop. She didn’t want to know who was under that armor. Didn’t want to fight another one of her own sisters.
But when the helmet was pulled free, she found herself looking at her own face.
Of course. I was always the best warrior. Only I would come for…myself.
“You’re not the first,” the other Arria said. “I’ve taken this world many times. In many times.”
“We always fight each other?” Arria asked her black-clad twin. The other woman shook her head.
“In some times, our empire doesn’t even exist. In some, neither does this world. But we bring the empire with us, wherever we go. Don’t we?”
“The empire is already here,” Arria answered. “I don’t understand why you attack it.”
The other-Arria smiled grimly.
“There’s only one empire. And it must always expand, lest it reach its limits. You know our oath, don’t you?”
The other woman drew her gladius and activated its power sheath.
“For the glory of Rome,” she said, saluting Arria.
Arria walked over to her gladius and drew it from the ground. She activated it, along with her parma, and then turned to face the other woman and returned the salute.
The best warrior.
Arria took a deep breath and readied herself for the fight of her life.
“For the glory of Rome!”
© 2016 Andrew J. Luther
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