The Center of Gravity (75.3)

58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

A photograph-like map of Solstice and its surroundings appeared, projected onto the wall behind the podium. This one had dozens of markings each of which had numbers associated with them. Cathrin Habich went over what the numbers meant, her voice calm, clear, professional. Field Marshal Haus watched the reactions from the crowd. Particularly, from McConnell and Kulbert, representatives for the Federation air force.

“Solstice City,” Cathrin began, her glossy red lips moving with subtlety and elegance, “represents perhaps the most well defended airspace in the world. Thousands of its cannons are dual-purpose 76mm guns, but a significant amount of them are dedicated rapid-fire anti-aircraft guns like the 37mm gun pictured here.” She turned the slide on the projector through a wire control, raising her hand and snapping her fingers on the little button box. Her showmanship was practiced and natural. She made no change in expression or tone as she did any little thing. “This weapon has, so far in the war, been singularly responsible for the destruction of scores of our dive bombers. In the hands of an organized defense like the one in Solstice, they may yet account for hundreds more.”

There was some scoffing from the rugged men in the crowd. Some of them could not believe that any scratch had been made in their pristine army by the Ayvartans at all.

Even the slides with official casualty and death tolls seemed not to move them at all.

Haus found it keenly necessary for everyone to understand that the Ayvartans were both formidable but defeatable. It was the contradictory nature of all of the Federation’s enemies. On the one hand, they had to be subhuman degenerates worthy of the punishment meted out by the higher order civilization represented by Nocht. On the other hand they had to be human also, formidable, powerful, fearful and worthy of respect. Otherwise they could not be fought properly, could not be bargained with and manipulated, and ultimately, could not be rehabilitated to civilization upon defeat.

Few men of the Federation seemed to have the appropriate amount of respect and hatred in them. Haus felt he himself had things correct. Von Drachen, who had been thrown out of the room, fell too closely to sympathy. Men like Wolff and McConnell dehumanized them too much and therefore could be susceptible to arrogance in dealing with them.

This could clearly not be dealt with through education.

Ultimately it would have to be experienced and endured.

“In any projected siege of Solstice, the most devastating weapon Ayvarta will turn against us are the cannons know collectively as ‘the Prajna.'” Cathrin continued, and behind her the projector image turned into grainy photograph of a complex circling three massive black structures. “These are three 800 mm super-heavy fortress guns. A shell detonation from the Prajna can rip the turrets off any tanks within a 20 meter radius, and make a 10 meter deep hole in the ground. Each gun is heavily maintained, with a rotation of several available barrels, and several thousand dedicated artillery personnel operate and maintain each weapon. Solstice can have the Prajna turned fully within an hour, or faster, and once an area is sited, all three guns can fire every 15 minutes. Because of its massive destructive power, we have a special map and special terms for its range.”

Cathrin switched to the next slide. There were old photographs of the guns and their massive railway-style turntables, as well as photos of the guns being swarmed over by men and women working on them. Special artillery cranes with multiple arms were shown lifting massive shells into gantries that then led the shells into the enormous breeches of the Prajna guns. Then, a map of Solstice, that was overlayed with a circle depicting the maximum range of the Prajna, 50 kilometers from its station. This area was labeled the Desolation of the Prajna. However, there was a smaller darker circle inside it.

“Theoretically, there is a minimum distance safe zone close to Solstice. It is essentially in the shadow of the walls, however, and tactically quite useless to us outside a close siege.”

Near the front of the small crowd, General Dreschner raised his hand with a look of skepticism in his eyes. “This seems like an anti-fortress style weapon, and useless against fast moving forces. I’m not convinced it can be tactically relevant to the defenders.”

“Any gun is tactically irrelevant by itself.” Haus responded. “Any piece of artillery is vulnerable against fast-moving forces and could potentially miss its mark. However, once a stiff Ayvartan defense halts our movements, we will become stationary targets.”

It was not even the conventional damage from the gun that concerned Haus. He remembered the “shell shock” of veterans from the great war against the Franks as they encountered comparatively tiny howitzers, 50 and 75 millimeters in shell diameter, firing in great number. He was concerned that such a massive attack on any Nochtish force would cause disarray, cowardice and desertion. Already some of the tank forces had experienced this. He had read accounts of the battle of Bada Aso, where tankers buttoned down when Madiha Nakar’s anti-tank artillery fired on them, suddenly anxious of any retaliation at all. Even when the smaller guns fired, that both Madiha Nakar and the Nochtish commanders knew would not hurt well-armored tanks like the Sentinel.

Clearly, at least one Ayvartan commander took psychology into account for her plans.

There was more to the meeting, but for Haus many of the salient points had already been made. Cathrin went over some slides of Ayvartan equipment they might meet, as well as the famous Ayvartan military officers. One underrrated individual was Madiha Nakar. Aside from Von Drachen nobody had seen this woman, nor heard much of her from before the war. After the founding of the Republic of Ayvartan by Mary Trueday, the cooperating Ayvartan officials from the various conquered local governments dug up all their records for Nochtish perusal. There was some folklore about Nakar, how she was a child soldier for the communists, how she was there in person to see the Emperor killed decades ago. They had an old photograph of her as a young officer cadet, long-haired, tall and skinny, almost passing as light-skinned in the old gray picture, with a fine-featured face that would have been pretty had its expression for the camera not been so grim.

She did not seem formidable. Apparently she had been some stripe of police woman before the war, arresting spies and traitors and turning over houses for hidden radios.

Regardless, she had been at Bada Aso, so she was one to watch. Just not obsessively.

After the meeting, the officers retreated into their cliques, tank men with tank men, air force with air force. A few of the more social officers might have been preparing their plans for the new year. There were prayers to attend, letters to family. Each new year could be the last; even in the Federation, this was the mentality toward the pall of the New Year. Grim resignation. Moreso for these men, stranded on this foreign land.

Haus was left alone with Cathrin, who was picking up the classified files from the projector and storing them into a combination-locked case. After watching the men, he turned to her and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, smiling. She turned her head slightly, just enough for one of her eyes to catch a glance of him behind her.

“Meet me in about an hour in my office, will you dear?” Haus asked.

Cathrin nodded silently and with no change in expression returned to her work.

Before Haus could depart, however, a man walked in from outside and hailed him.

In the hand he waved there was a cardboard folder full of documents.

Haus recognized him as Air Commodore Robin McConnell. Young, spry and sleek, with blond hair and a smooth jaw, well-kept. He was easily handsome, casually, naturally, and not only because Luftlotte officers were barely ever in danger. After a point, many of them never even saw a forward air field again, and mainly concerned themselves with making higher order strategic and logistical decisions for their subordinates.

McConnell was in just such a position.

However, his beauty seemed nevertheless remarkable, attributable only to him.

Haus smiled at him and stretched out a hand to shake.

“I see one of the air force’s young geniuses is here with a proposition.” He said.

McConnell smiled back. “I’ve been waiting for a chance to get in touch, Marshal. I believe the Luftlotte has solutions for all of the problems you and the lovely frau Habich pointed out during our meeting. I have a plan to take a city from the air; the first one in history.”

Haus smirked, and internally he was grinning terribly.

“Habich, can you prepare a table for us?” McConnell asked.

Cathrin did not move a muscle for him.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself Robin, that’s my aide you are talking to.” Haus corrected him.

She looked to Haus for instructions and Haus nodded at her.

Then she went to fix a table for them to talk over.

This whole performance put McConnell in an obvious mood.

Once they finally convened their impromptu briefing, McConnell laid out his documents on the table. They included a review of air frames available on Ayvarta, current and potential air bases, the existence of the Task Force (a generic name representing the prototype weapons force of Wa Pruf) and its miraculous new air elements, and a map covered in spaghetti lines to and from Solstice and various other places.

After the Battle of Bada Aso, Nocht’s aircraft situation had become abysmal. Having underestimated the air defense capability of the city, and restricting themselves to mass daytime bombing by hordes of fast but poorly armored strike craft, they suffered the worst aerial losses the Federation had ever seen. In its wake, President Lehner pissed off the entire chain of command by requiring personal authorization for any more Air Operations of that nature. This meant Nocht performed almost no strategic bombing.

Because Nocht got all of its aircraft from overseas, and because the merchant marine was horribly overburdened, they spent almost all of the Aster’s Gloom, with limited air support on a tactical level. The Adjar-Tambwe front barely had any, and the Shaila-Dbagbo front stretched its remaining aircraft horribly thin and overworked them. Now the situation was improving again. Nocht now possessed heavy aircraft on Ayvarta for the first time, including hundreds of heavy escort fighters and dedicated bombers, and the number of light aircraft rose to 1000 examples of fighters and dive bombers.

Despite Lubon having armed forces on the continent now, no attempt was made to secure their aid. Not even McConnell’s plan accounted for them. Their air force was unreliable even when it was properly supplied. So that was no part of the solution.

Instead McConnell envisioned a strategy of purely Nochtish aerial terror.

“I call this ‘Big Wing’ bombing.” McConnell said. He had drawn up an example formation that contained several waves of dozens big bombers defended by many dozen fighter aircraft, attacking the same city from direct vectors, criss-crossing the air defense net at different intervals and overwhelming and confusing the air defenses. But he reasoned that the goal was not to inflict wanton devastation: it was to insure through numbers that any one bomber could put any one bomb on a factory, base, or other military target.

No matter what happened there would be mass civilian casualties, of course.

However, it was not considered important that Solstice survive the war.

McConnell knew this.

Mary Trueday had openly wanted the post-war capital of the Republic of Ayvarta to be in the agriculturally rich (and largely ethnically Umma) Shaila, not in the wastes of Solstice.

“It looks to me like the same thing you tried at Bada Aso.” Haus said.

“Light compositions look almost exactly the same.” Cathrin said.

At this the Air Commodore seemed offended by the comments of a simple aide.

“But the objective is different.” McConnell said. “Now that we have large bombers, we don’t have to be depend on lightweight fighter and dive bomber attacks to soften up our enemies, like we did at Bada Aso. We can destroy their war capacity and demoralize them with massive firepower the likes of which we simply couldn’t deploy at Bada Aso.”

“So you want us to launch a terror air campaign? What’s the objective other than spending munitions? What is this ‘one bomber’ who will get through, going to hit?”

Haus was skeptical. He would have to talk to Lehner personally about this and he truly did not want to bring any more of these fantasy air conquests to his eye. Without a direct goal, this would just look like setting a pyre in Solstice and burning money in the flames.

McConnell of course had an answer. He pulled out a copy of a slide Cathrin had shown during the presentation: the massive complex at the heart of Ayvarta’s military power.

“Armaments Hill.” McConnell said. “Across a week or two of bombing, we’ll split the Ayvartan air defenses. We’ll use diversionary attacks on targets on the edges of the city, tricking the Ayvartans into believing that we are after their precious defensive walls. This will open the ground for an all-out bombing run on the city center from three directions. We’ll take out Armaments Hill, and with it, the ability for Solstice to coordinate, supply and maintain the Prajna gun complex and the wall defenses.”

He pulled open a map of Ayvarta and plotted the courses of the three bombing attacks.

“I call it Rolling Thunder.” McConnell said, as he drew the lines.

One would fly over the central mountains and desert, starting in Dbagbo; the other would swing from Rangda and over North Ayvarta before turning inward to Solstice; the final attack had elements of the others, coming from Dbagbo but following the southern coast before swinging north toward Solstice in the center. All would be grievously fuel intensive and it would require absolutely perfect coordination and execution for the aircraft to start on a straight course but then alter their trajectory so sharply.

McConnell was quite right that this had never been done. It simply wasn’t done at all.

“We can even use the Mjolnir launch sites. There is one prepared.” McConnell said.

He became more excited with each new startling revelation of his master plan.

Haus shook his head. “I will consider this and we can make a formal presentation with Kulbert to the president in a few weeks time. But I will say that I am skeptical.”

There was for a moment nothing but silence, save the cycling of the air system.

McConnell was obviously shocked. He had a look of boyish frustration.

“That gives the Ayvartans the time to stiffen their defenses, and our ground offensive will have begun by then. I believe I can spare the lives of the infantry by destroying Solstice from the air, all I need is a week’s time to prepare starting right now.”

Haus almost rolled his eyes. McConnell pretended to have pure motives but ‘destroy Solstice’ said it all. McConnell was saving no lives: he was trying to achieve personal glory. A historic victory over a historic city conducted in the most uniquely historic way. Otherwise he would have talked to Kulbert about this too. Because he was talking to Haus, it meant he wanted to circumvent his own superiors so he would be put in charge. This was the sort of thing that was only possible in such a highly political army.

McConnell came from an influential family. He had a brother in the senate who as a protege of Lehner himself. Kulbert was just an old man who knew about warplanes.

And Haus was the grand Marshal with the President’s ear.

McConnell was playing rank games and Haus did not appreciate it.

“I’m afraid I can’t do more for you. I am a very busy man. Leave your plan here and I’ll review it when I can. It is ambitious, clearly, and I do respect your effort. We will talk.”

He waved him away.

McConnell stood there for a moment, stewing in his own anger.

He ultimately stopped staring between Cathrin and Haus to turn around and leave.

Having finished with him, Haus watched McConnell stroll off.

He let him get farther away and then turned to Cathrin.

“We’re still on, don’t forget.” He said cheekily.

Cathrin nodded and turned back to the table she now had to clean up.

Satisfied, Haus followed after McConnel had had enough space to vanish.

Outside was a long hallway with a smooth dark floor and smooth dark walls.

They were in an underground bunker, built in a hidden location for use by the regional government in case of an emergency evacuation of the councils. Ayvarta’s infrastructure in general ill suited the secrecy of the Oberkommando’s current meetings, so only this place was deemed suitable. There were few people in the halls other than stationed guards, and the few people walking had destinations in mind. Haus himself began to make his way one story up through a closely guarded staircase. He had to log himself and his destination at the staircase, and he was the Marshal in charge of Ayvarta!

Given the nature of some of the meetings here, Haus welcomed the security, and its impartiality for whom it targeted. Secret superweapons, new forms of energy, and other visions of the future were all being discussed with the Generals, allied politicians, and their most trusted and key staff. The end of the Solstice regime was being plotted here.

Haus meanwhile was headed to a meeting much less dire. In a small office with one table, perhaps once meant for interrogations, he found an older gentleman with a thick mustache and close-cropped hair, unremarkable save for his uniform. Like Haus’ own uniform, it was gray, but cut in Ayvartan fashion and with Ayvartan rank insignia. There was a symbol of a golden sword on its shoulder: the emblem of the Republic of Ayvarta’s VII corps, the “hydra killers.” This man was the first Republican general, Maraesh Jelani.

“Greetings General.” Haus said, taking a seat across from the man. He spoke in slightly tormented standard Ayvartan. He had been learning. He hoped he knew enough now.

Hujambo, Marshal.” Jelani replied, unfazed. “I hope I’m not being arrested.”

Haus laughed. “All the larger rooms are in use.”

“To what do I owe the pleasure then?” Jelani asked.

He spoke in a disinterested tone of voice. Jelani was a managerial man, brought out of retirement upon the birth of the Republic, not someone enthusiastic for battle. As far as Haus understood, there was some worry about old racial tensions with an Arjun princess taking over the old southern haunts of the Umma people and declaring it a new successor to the Empire. Republican democracy was declared as the first conciliation; and an Umma war hero to lead the new anti-communist armies was the second step.

Haus expected that in any battle, he himself would control even the Republic troops, but they all needed Jelani there to issue the orders and to act as a figurehead and example.

“How are the men?”

“Do you mean soldiers? We’ve raised about 30,000 troops so far.”

It was a constant note in Haus’ mind that Nocht referred to soldiers often as “the men,” and he had tried to say the same in Ayvartan. However, Ayvartans had a tradition of frontline fighting women, so just saying “the men” was like talking to someone about “the lads” you went drinking with. Jelani responded with “the troops” which in Ayvarta was the unisex collection of bodies that fought wars. While several officials had wanted to keep the new Republican Ayvartan army exclusive to men, Mary Trueday and Jelani had insisted that they needed to be able to field women, and they eventually got their way.

Language aside, when the communists pulled out, they evacuated a sizeable amount of civilians, mainly union workers, party members and students in state schools. Adjar, Shaila, Tambwe and Dbagbo had massive populations and the refugees did not put a dent in those numbers, but there was something of a brain drain to deal with. Those left behind were not largely ideological people, but stubborn or withdrawn folk. They did not love the Republic as a beacon of anti-communism. They just let the world pass them by no matter who claimed to lead it. They lived only for themselves and their direct locality.

“Are they looking like a corps to you yet?” Haus asked.

“We’re all weary, but we will fight. I will lead them in the capacity I am required to.”

Such sterling enthusiasm for the coming conflict. He was sure his troops felt even less.

At any rate, this was enough introductory chatter for Haus.

Jelani was not needed as a figurehead right then. 

Haus had a different need for him.

“What do you know about Madiha Nakar?” Haus asked.

Jelani blinked. He averted his eyes. “That’s a name I had not heard in a long time.”

“But you have heard of it. I know you must have met her even.”

“Pray, Marshal, what more do you know of this tired old man’s memories?”

Why was he being evasive? He must have had some kind of fondness for her then.

Haus put aside those questions and gave him what he wanted.

“During the Civil War, you were a warlord in the South, but because you only acted for Umma independence and not as an explicit pro-Empire or anti-communist figure, you were allowed diplomacy instead of the sword. You did a tour in the war college in Solstice, because the communist party wanted to test your loyalty and have you in their grasp. You proved yourself useful and harmless and as the government mellowed out, you were allowed to leave. During that time, you trained Madiha Nakar, did you not?”

Maraesh Jelani coughed into the back of one of his fists. He breathed out harshly.

“You characterize our relationship too strongly.” Jelani said. “She was not my protege or anything; but yes, she was one of the many students who passed through my halls.”

“Right now, she’s handed us two terrible defeats. As an ally of the Federation, I had hoped you would divulge any information you know about her. Official records of her are very sparse. Ayvartan birth records from the Imperial period and Civil War period are a disaster, that much I understand. But despite spending significant time living in Dori Dobo, Bada Aso and other Southern locales, we have few recent documents for her.”

Jelani steepled his fingers and stared at the table. “She was always a favorite of Daksha Kansal, you know? I wouldn’t doubt she had official protection behind the scenes.”

“So you understand my plight.” Haus said. “I won’t demand it, but I hope you will volunteer some of your time and information. I’d like us to be partners in this.”

He meant the war effort as a whole and he hoped his language conveyed this.

Jelani seemed to take a moment to consider his words. Perhaps the language barrier between them really was that strong. But no, something told Haus that Jelani had fully understood him, he knew as soon as he saw Jelani begin to fidget on the table.

Finally, Jelani sighed and smiled to himself. “She’s a fool, she’s worthless. I don’t think you have the right girl, Marshal.” He seemed to reminisce about her, and spoke while staring past Haus at the walls. “Here’s what I know. She was my student for many years. At the college, Madiha had a few genius wargame results and did well on historical and philosophy tests. Her physical training was also impressive for an officer cadet. Good marks on athletics, shooting, hand to hand. However, she was clueless at Chess and other strategy games. Her tactical mind was unformed and inconsistent. She was moody; it was always off her official record but she was mentally ill. Clearly taking medications.”

Haus blinked. That was such an unsorted mass of random memories; it was only good to him for establishing that Jelani knew about Nakar. And that he was clearly fond of her.

“What about General Adjar Al-Haza? Did you know him?” Haus pressed him.

Jelani seemed to flinch at the name. “Now that is another name I never thought I would hear again. I will spare you my reminiscing of him: he was the one actually close to Madiha– to Nakar, for many years. She was his protege and aide for a time.”

“He was executed during your season of treasons.” Haus said. He grinned to himself. “Perhaps Nakar herself did the deed? She was a policewoman of some sort, correct?”

“Nakar became a spy hunter of some renown yes, but Al-Haza was investigated and put to death by others, not her. Whether she contributed is unknown to me. I do not know their relationship outside the bounds of my administration.” Jelani replied.

“Adjar Al-Haza was a bright star during the civil war. He was a reformer, who wanted to modernize the armies. It was in part his zeal for military expansion and buildup that prompted your old parliament to push back and clamor for limiting military power.”

“He was. He came up with numerous theories of war and mobilization.” Jelani said.

“Whether Madiha Nakar was a mediocre student of yours or not, do you think she may have become a powerful student of Al-Haza? None of your other generals defeated us.”

Jelani breathed deeply through his nose. He shook his head. “Back in the college we would host these war games using certain rules and settings, meant to test what our students would opt to do in different historical scenarios. Nakar hated these as she hated Chess. She would always complain about moving this or that unit here or there from its starting position. She chafed under the limitations imposed upon her. She would begin every game by retreating all of her units to some other location of her preference. She would waste time and make herself look foolish. She scored low on several games.”

Haus knew that Jelani was trying to under-sell Madiha Nakar as a threat to him, perhaps to protect her out of some old fondness for her childhood self. However, Haus’ eyes drew wide with the realization that they were not speaking of different Madiha Nakars, one a genius warrior and the other a failure of a student. Madiha Nakar had performed surprising retreats during both the battles of Bada Aso and Rangda, luring her enemy to her preferred ground. Under the rules of a board game perhaps Madiha Nakar looked petulant and unable to adapt; but in war time she had proven a vicious manipulator.

“Adjar Al-Haza would have fought Von Sturm, Von Drachen, Mansa and the Elves on their terms through superior fundamentals. He would have emphasized the attack. Speed of deployment, superior firepower, consistent supply, and equivalence in manpower were the tools he advocated. Madiha Nakar was no Adjar Al-Haza, and surely is not now. That she defeated Sturm, Mansa, and your Drachen, was just lady War’s dice falling her way.”

Haus smiled at him. “You are right. She is no Al-Haza. She may be his superior instead.”

Maraesh Jelani paused, his features blanching at Marshal Haus’ response.

“And furthermore: I wouldn’t count Von Drachen out of that match quite yet. After all, he was also a despicable pest at our Academy. Perhaps he will become a pest to match her.”

Haus stood from his chair, bid his guest farewell, and stepped briskly out of the room.

All the while he made a mental note to someday pit this Jelani against Nakar if he could.

Just out of curiosity; to see that look on his face again, perhaps.

He was beginning to understand Von Drachen’s obsession with this character, Madiha Nakar. That being said, obsession and exaltation were steps too far. He had to collect the facts and think soberly about the situation, not give himself in to foolish fantasies.

Haus withdrew to the third underground story, where had a temporary office composed mostly of closed boxes and file folders littering a desk and various bookshelves.

When the door shut behind him it seemed to shut out his own shadow and the air he breathed outside. He felt a sense of freedom and like he could forget the outside world.

This office and many like it had been his fortresses for years now. In these darkened crevices of humanity he could hide from the public and indulge. He could be himself.

Here he could shed that stone-faced professionalism and cocksure aggression he had to display for the men outside to deem him worthy. He could be passionate and warm.

He dropped himself on a couch on the edge of the office, unbuttoning his jacket and shirt. He breathed out a sigh of relief. For a moment, he even let himself think of his beloved. It was an illicit thing, but this was his private place. Discipline could be lax.

There was a knock on the door, but it was one he had expected and contrived himself.

Cathrin Habich arrived as she had been instructed to.

She closed the door behind her carefully and entered the room as discretely as anyone could. She approached the couch and stood deferentially before him, awaiting orders.

“Sir.” She said. Her voice conveyed little emotion.

Always prompt, no matter where she was called or what she was called on to do.

“I’ve got a job for you, Kitty.” He said, smiling.

“Anything, sir.”

Her face was expressionless, and her mannerisms carefully neutral, controlled as they always were no matter what duress she was put under. She adjusted some of her wavy golden hair behind one ear. Her pigments, a little red on her lips and a little black around the eyes, had been recently reapplied. She looked stunning as usual. Perfectly proportioned, like a classical if stoic beauty from the deepest fantasies of the artist.

Cathrin was in some ways a token of Haus’ own position, as much as he disliked characterizing it as such. There were certainly other officers who would have been pleased to have her around. Aside from her good looks, she was smart and skilled.

However, they were kindred spirits; once he discovered this, he had to choose her.

“Very well. It’s the same as usual. You know what to do.”

Haus tipped his hat over his face.

He reached out his arm.

On the desk beside her, he picked up a file folder and handed it to her.

“You can use this as an excuse. There’s enough to do for the night; judging by your typical efficiency, you’ll have time to spare where it matters. Say hello to Andrea for me.”

He smiled at her. With his hat over his eyes he could no longer see her but he almost felt the energy in the room as her carefully stone-like exterior melted with delight.

“Thank you sir.” She said, her voice hushed but clearly grateful.

“I will trust you to be discrete.”

“Yes sir!”

There was a muted note of giddy girlishness in her voice that Haus found delightful.

She practically bounced out of the room, running to the arms of her forbidden lover.

This was all he could do for her in the world they lived in, but he did that much.

He wanted to, because he wanted to nurture people like himself who still had a chance.

His own love was doomed, and he knew it. He had known it since he was a child.

But perhaps Achim might still sense the purity of it, and allow others, like Cathrin, the release of their true selves. That was one thing Haus hoped to get out of a powerful, globe-spanning Nocht Federation. Out of the light of Democracy that was expanding to shine on all shadows. True justice and real freedom for the Nochtish peoples, even those like himself who had been born strange existences longing for the most taboo carnality.

It might have been childish. Perhaps that was why his face never seemed to age.

Regardless of what Achim did or did not do, however, Haus had resigned himself to fighting this war for him. That was the monument to his love he built even as a child.

Whoever got in the way of that would be destroyed. Madiha Nakar or anybody.


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The Center of Gravity (75.2)

It is advised to read the side-story V: The Loss Of Innocence before reading this chapter.

This chapter contains mentions of violence, torture, wounds, suicide and suicidal ideation, corpses, and brief descriptions of illness and abuse.


58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — Northwestern Desert, Cavalryman’s Rock

A trail of red dust followed a small convoy as it moved through the desert.

At the head of the convoy, a Hobgoblin tank brandished its 76mm gun, turning it on each dune as if expecting a counterpart to trundle out in anger. Behind it, two smaller Kobold scout tanks equipped with anti-aircraft autocannons watched the skies. At the far end of the convoy were three additional Kobolds. And between them all was a Gbahali half-track with a special housing in the back, air-conditioned and with its own water supply. Alongside the Gbahali was one truck with food, gas and other supplies just in case.

Solstice was several kilometers behind them. They traveled for hours through seemingly empty desert. There were few landmarks along the path. At the Oasis of Haath the convoy startled several desert creatures, but did not slow. Through the Sea of Sarstra they stormed past a camp of Hadir nomads, all of whom stood from their tents and carpets, reined their horses and prepared, in a panic, to defend themselves. But they were ignored. It was more their fear of heavy machinery than their understanding of the situation that led them to react. In fact, the convoy hardly acknowledged them.

Following a bend in the Qural river they finally came upon a vast stretch of flat wasteland on which stood their destination. There was only one visible landmark framed by the parched earth around it. Cavalryman’s Rock was a massive, flat-topped landform, composed largely of ruddy stone and named for its resemblance to a cavalryman’s traditional hat. The Rock was steep-faced and the size of a castle.

At the Rock the tanks split up, three kobolds to the left flank and two to the right, still watching the skies for potential air attack, while the Hobgoblin stood sentinel over the half-track and truck. They drove around the Rock and parked close to the red-brown rock for what little cover it offered. From the back of the truck three soldiers armed with Rasha submachine guns and approached a featureless portion of the Rock.

Three more soldiers exited the back of the Gbahali. They very briefly scouted the featureless desert around them and once satisfied they ushered Premier Daksha Kansal out of the Half-Track. She was dressed in a business-like waistcoat suit, and unarmed. It was a different feeling than her old excursions with her paramilitaries. She was a civilian leader; the head of the Government in general, not just the military forces.

Soon as her feet hit the sand, three of the soldiers closed protectively around her, armed with a new, shortened version of the otherwise quite long and quite old bundu bolt action rifle, while the remaining soldiers uncovered a false wall and scouted the tunnel that lay behind it. Moments later, one of them returned and signaled the rest to move.

Daksha and her retinue ran toward to the tunnel, eager to see what awaited inside.

She had come “alone,” with no other officials or military officers, only a small retinue of bodyguards. This had been the request of the scientist currently in charge of the site.

Under normal circumstances she would have objected and brought Cadao and other advisers. However, she knew, trusted, and in fact, appointed the custodian of the Rock.

More specifically, the new custodian of the strange quarters found inside the Rock.

As bizarre as all of this seemed, the SIVIRA had already done half a month’s worth of work sorting out this mystery, and Daksha thought she knew what to expect from the investigation. But Cavalryman’s Rock was the strangest part in a mundane drama that had unfolded within Solstice after two earthshaking events. First, Daksha herself ascended to the Premiership after the dissolution of the Council. Then came Madiha’s battle in Rangda against Mansa’s traitorous forces. Owing to this second event, Daksha purged several associates of Mansa’s from the Party, arresting and interrogating them.

Since both Mansas had been killed in Rangda, this was all they could do now to try to puzzle out the extent of their vile influence: what they stole and the total damage.

Daksha left this task in the hand of Halani Kuracha and soon everybody was talking.

Mansa had several ties to other sources of corruption around the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. He was tied to Gowon the smuggler, who used his military position far in the South to try to enrich himself with illegal mining operations. Mansa was found to be tied to several foreign scientists who had been granted stay in Ayvarta for scientific reasons and were now found to have been aiding Mansa in hoarding historical objects for himself. All of these people who could be found were also arrested and interrogated.

Though a few tribes of nomads were implicated in the investigation, Daksha opted not to harass them. Their nature in such matters was purely mercenary and forgivable. Solstice was better served being graceful around these unincorporated peoples for the moment.

In fact, the bulk of the investigation’s time was soon taken up not by people but by places. In addition to clandestine connections Mansa was found to have possessed numerous properties. Though in communist Ayvarta nobody could own property, buildings and estates and parcels of land could be given purposes. In his official capacity, Mansa assigned disclosed and undisclosed uses to over two dozens sites around the country and as arbiter of their affairs assigned numerous cronies to watch over and work in them.

These were associated with his various dealings. Madiha Nakar testified to what she knew of Mansa’s business, including his appropriation of Imperial artifacts. Many of his properties were either mining sites or training camps, mustering yards and discrete logistics and warehousing for his non-union crews. Mansa was digging everywhere, and he was using his official power under the table to do it and over the table to cover it up.

In all of this, however, the most curious discovery was one undisclosed site found by directly interrogating Mansa’s subordinates. Cavalryman’s Rock had apparently been dug into and used as a special base of operations for Mansa’s archeological team. This seemed far too dramatic: all of his other properties were warehouses and abandoned estates, shabby and forgotten places that nobody was supposed to occupy. Hollowing out a giant rock to hide inside seemed far too whimsical, but it turned out to be true.

Daksha was seeing it for herself for the first time. She had organized a small group to investigate the site, but like all of the other properties, she had never visited it. After all, why would she visit every old warehouse on the list? This conspiracy, while large, was purely borne of greed and eccentricity and did not constitute some grand happening that required the Premier’s attention. Because the staff Mansa assigned to the Rock were civilian scientists, Daksha sent loyal socialist scientists to the Rock (along with many armed guards) to investigate and confiscate whatever they happened to find there.

That should have been the end of that. Except that it was clearly not now.

She had received an urgent message, and she believed it serious enough to heed.

Smooth tunnels had been bored through the Rock using heavy equipment, and lamps had been strung up. Diesel power generators had been wheeled in and hooked up to a system that pumped water up from the underground river, as well as powered several fans, in about a dozen white-walled rooms and hallways that had been built into the complex. A few of the rooms were even sterilized and sealed behind glass doors.

It was a laboratory, Daksha could even smell the chemicals as she walked by.

Mansa’s staff had been cleared out. In every room there were green and beige uniformed Army engineers and assault guards. Many were waiting around for assignments, playing cards or games and cracking open rations in what must have been their dozenth day stuck in here. When Daksha walked past they stood in sudden attention, saluting her.

Then she found what seemed like a large hub room in the middle of the complex.

She was at long last greeted by her assigned agent in this investigation.

“Premier, did you bring the peanuts and jerky? I haven’t eaten in a day.”

She whimpered pathetically and dragged her feet close to Daksha.

“I brought them as you asked. Explain to me why you haven’t eaten?”

“We ran out of green lentils, and that’s the only item in the current ration menu I can stand. I hate the Rotti, it comes with that awful red curry. I hate the spicy items. I would eat the meat items, but I hate sopping wet meat. Everything’s in some infernal curry or chutney.” She raised her hands and clenched her fists in anger. “I just want some jerky.”

Slouching, hands in her coat pockets, tail curled around one leg and with deep black bags under her eyes, Xenon Uwiati looked sincerely pathetic. Her skinny legs trembled, likely from her idiotic self deprivation. Sweat dribbled down her honey-colored face and neck and a hint of exposed chest. Atop her head, her pointy cat-like ears had brown fur the same color as the normal human head of long, silky brown hair she possessed. She was a rare ethnicity, a girl from one of the nomad tribes. Ears and tail marked the extent of her animal-like features: in all other respects she was very much a sorry-looking human.

Xenon turned her sharp green eyes up from the floor and gazed pleadingly at Daksha.

Sighing, Daksha withdrew a special ration pack of pork jerky and handed it to her.

“Thank you, Premier! You have saved my life! You are a merciful ruler!”

“I should shove one of the red curry rations down your neck, box and all.”

“That’s just mean! Look, I need many grams of protein to feed my galaxy-sized brain.”

The scientist squatted down on the floor and nibbled on the jerky in a little ball.

“So that’s where it all goes then.” Daksha said. Xenon was a rather slight woman. “You’re giving me a galaxy-sized headache. I hope you’ve been working and not slacking off.”

She watched the desert cat-girl nibbling on jerky for a moment before letting out a sigh.

“Report?” She shouted, partially in the form of a question.

“Oh! Of course.” Xenon pocketed the jerky and stood back up, dusting off her coat. “Of course, I did call you here for that! I’ve got some interesting news and some bad news.”

“Interesting first.” Daksha said.

“Oh, I wasn’t asking you to determine the order. Here you go.”

She went across the room and picked up a radio set the size of a lunchbox.

Lugging it back the other way, she laid it at Daksha’s feet and squatted near it.

“Tune that to the frequency I scratched into the back of the plastic.”

Daksha squatted alongside Xenon, looked in the back of the radio and turned the knob.

There was a brief rumbling noise. Behind them what had at first glance been another forgettable white-paneled wall slid open to reveal a hidden room. There were stairs clearly descending underground. Every other room Daksha had visited had been erected at ground level on a fairly even plane. This was the first hint at a much large complex.

“After the Akjer incident every investigator became very fond of searching for secret rooms, so we kept our eyes open for them. We found this one relatively easily, because we had a scientist on duty who kept fiddling with the radio for no good reason.”

“By any chance was this scientist a desert cat-kin?” Daksha asked pointedly.

“Yes, it was me.” Her cat-like subordinate sighed and looked embarrassed.

She then stood up from the ground and descended the stairs, nonchalant, hands in her coat pockets, tail gently swaying behind her. Daksha followed after her, looking around the hub area as if with new eyes. This broader, taller room was connected to every other part of the facility at some point. Tables and chairs had been pushed off to the side by the investigators, but this had assuredly been some kind of feeding or recreation room. If there was one secret room connected to this hub, there were probably one or two more.

“We found over thirty people here. Most were fighters loyal to Mansa and a few others were just laborers. We caught them by surprise, they seemed almost completely cut off from the world and largely incoherent in their behaviors. But there were more people than that. Something troubling happened here Premier. But first, let me show this.”

At the bottom of the stairs was the first sign of that “something troubling.” Hidden behind that secret door was a vast room deep underground that tapped into the water flowing beneath the desert. There was a series of pumps and reservoirs to collect and store water, similar to others that Daksha had seen elsewhere in the facility. There were two incongruous sights: one was a massive machine the length of a banquet table, composed of numerous water-filled glass tubes etched with numbers and ruler markings, and various valves and levers that controlled the flow of water into them.

And the second, far more alarming than the fancy plumbing, was a stack of body bags.

“What are those bodies doing there?” Daksha asked, outraged at the sight.

“We didn’t know what to do with them. They died of some horrific illness. I could show you what they look like but they are barely recognizable as human remains now.”

Xenon squatted on the floor and hugged her own knees and nibbled on her own thumb.

“It was very scary Premier, when we found these people. They had quarantined them in this room and left them to die here like they were monsters. When we found them there was no hope for them. And they did look like monsters when we found them but still — it was disturbing. We were scared at first, but later we packed up the bodies while wearing gas masks and rubber suits, and sterilized the place. Then I noticed this thing.”

From her shaking position close to the ground the scientist stretched her arm to point at the machine around them. Daksha couldn’t blame her for forgetting to tinker with some fancy plumbing when there were corpses around. She also wouldn’t blame her for tampering with a crime scene, if the state of the corpses seemed wracked with illness. Nothing could be discerned from the closed bags. With her attention drawn to it, the room did smell faintly of sterilizing gas and bleach and such things — and not like death.

All of that, however, now proved secondary to understanding the machine’s purpose.

On closer inspection, Daksha thought she figured out what kind of machine it was.

“This is a water calculator, isn’t it?” Daksha said. “You do math with it.”

She did not know exactly what type of math — she was not like Xenon, who had changed her name to the chemical element upon graduating from university with some of the highest honors ever seen in the history of Solstice. She was a miracle girl whom Daksha could not match up to. Nevertheless, Daksha knew just enough science to converse.

Xenon’s cat-like ears perked up and she ceased nibbling on her finger. “Yes, it’s among the biggest I’ve ever seen. When I realized what it was, I was stunned by the complexity of calculations that they must have been trying to do in this facility. They’re limited to certain kinds of maths, but invaluable for the tasks they’re designed to tackle. And so I found myself returning to this room again and again despite the presence of the bodies.”

She gave one last trembling look at the stack of corpse bags before standing up, turning around and walking out of the room again. Daksha followed her. Xenon was an eccentric person, whimsical in personal habits and with several special needs. However, that brain which she so richly fed with fat and meat, was an invaluable asset. Daksha wagered Xenon could probably do as much math as that machine, and all in her own head.

To think she had found her trying to enlist in the military! It would’ve been a waste.

Back upstairs in the hub room, Xenon tinkered with the radio, closing one door and opening another. She nonchalantly turned to that passage and made her way into it without saying a word and Daksha continued to follow her. Down a much shorter flight of stairs they found another white-walled room with a sickening display. There were a variety of instruments and two armored, locked vaults big enough to be rooms. Then there was a glass window lined with metal plates. This window offered a glimpse into an adjacent room in which resided three decaying corpses, seemingly unmoved. Each one had exactly one head wound. They huddled around an altar upon which there was a metallic orb-shaped object that seemed to have been vaguely split down the middle. Several cables and mechanical instruments were attached to this enigmatic object.

Daksha felt bile rising to her throat at the sight of the mutilated dead.

“What is the meaning of this? Why have these bodies not been collected?”

Her scientist companion crossed her arms and stood on one leg, crossing the other over.

She stared through the glass, rubbing her hand despondently upon its surface.

Though clearly upset by the sight, her eyes did not waver and she did not blink.

In a calm, matter of fact sort of voice, she began to explain herself.

“Well, given the state we found them in, I suspected the cause of death this time was not man’s inhumanity to man but rather a rare energy called ‘ionizing radiation’. This room is shielded from it by the plates on the walls, but that room would burn a piece of toast black. If toast reacted to ionizing radiation by turning black, that is. I don’t think it–”

“I understand.”

In truth Daksha did not understand. She deferred to the scientist’s judgment.

Gazing once more upon the corpses, she shook her head.

It felt like she had left her precious S.D.S. and walked into another country altogether.

This was the sort of country Mansa was running in secret.

To capitalists and imperialists and the feckless liberals who supported them, this was the meaning behind opportunity, individual responsibility, and all of those other slogans they rallied behind. They had the individual opportunity and responsibility to be used up. In his obsession with the Empire, Mansa sent these brilliant minds to death.

“What happened here?” Daksha asked herself aloud. It felt surreal.

Xenon did not pick up on her tone and quickly formulated a thorough response.

“I think, if I were to piece the last days of this facility together, that the culmination of various experiments led the armed guards to turn against the scientists. Collectively, all of them were ill to various degrees. I think their food or air became contaminated. The guards did their best to isolate every experiment and every person involved. There was a air system that had been blown out when we got here: I think they staged some kind of drastic explosion that vented all the contaminants out of the Rock. Everyone we found was malnourished and most were docile. Some were nearly catatonic. But these three bodies here still look much more human than the ones we found in the water room.”

Daksha shuddered to think what those other bodies looked like if that was true.

“How do we know it’s safe in here?” She asked.

“I used a Ligier counter and a survey meter on each room. They’re clean except for the one behind the shielding. I think something dramatic happened in there.” Xenon said.

“How did this place operate?” Daksha asked aloud, almost to herself. She was shocked.

Again, Xenon did not seem able to read her tone and answered her matter-of-factually.

“We don’t know. Mansa obviously supported them financially, but it seemed a lot of them were here for the science moreso than for anything else. It may remain a mystery.”

Daksha’s hatred of Mansa burned ever brighter. Thank God that he was dead.

“I thought this place would be an archeological site for Imperial artefacts.” Daksha said, shaking her head. “This is like something out of a Northerner pulp book. Science fiction.”

“There is an imperial artifact here.” Xenon said.

Daksha felt a sudden shock of anxiety to her heart. “Do I want to know what it is?”

“You do. It is very important. Perhaps the most important thing in this desert.”

Xenon, still bouncing around on one leg, made her way to the vault.

It was already unlocked, so she turned the lever and then feebly, slowly pulled on it.

Eventually Daksha joined in, and together they unveiled a room full of glass cases.

There were ores inside. A few jagged, messy conglomerate rocks. Some processed stuff.

The scientist carefully donned an armored glove taken from a nearby shelf.

Very thin sheets of a shiny grey metal adorned it.

She set the foot she had been crossing up back down on the ground and straightened up.

Using the hand protected by the glove, she reached into one of the unassuming cases.

“I’ve tested it several times, gambling my own life. I think this is safe.”

In her hands she now held a very dark cubic object.

Tiny, dull veins of purple ran across its otherwise smooth, perfectly cut surfaces.

“Doctor Vante, over there,” She nodded her head in the direction of the corpses, “he called this ‘Agarthicite’ after the myth of the city inside of a hollow Aer. This particular piece was found in the Kinywa mine that the traitor Gowon was mining illegally.”

She held out the object to Daksha, assuring her that it was safe.

Daksha grasped it in her bare hands. It was smooth, completely smooth, and vaguely warm. She felt something of a thrum or a pulse, like a tiny little animal breathing.

“This is an Imperial Artifact?” Daksha asked in disbelief.

“According to Dr. Vante’s notes, there are historical accounts of the mineral playing some kind of ceremonial or ritual role within the occult beliefs of the last few Emperors.”

“Fascinating.”

“Turn it over in your fingers, create friction.” The scientist instructed her.

Curiously enough she turned her head away from Daksha, averting her gaze.

Daksha squeezed the stone gently, rubbing her fingers over it. She could see the oils in her hands making impressions of her fingers upon it. But those impressions seemed to disappear almost instantly. There was a brief, minuscule spark and the stone began to glow a dim purple on its outer edges, but brighter on the inside. It was as if the outer surface of the mineral contained a light within. Like a torch, cradled in the stone.

Xenon put a hand up to her own forehead. She seemed suddenly uncomfortable.

“Are you okay?” Daksha asked. She felt a rush of fear that this was the ‘ionizing radiation’ that Xenon had alluded to before, though Daksha did not know what that actually meant.

“Agarthicite,” she continued explaining, with some difficulty. “It has three states. When I gave it to you it was inert. Now it is in a stage where it is actually storing a very tiny amount of potential energy. I call this phase of Agarthicite activation the ‘stressed’ state. Doctor Vante called it the ‘dormant’ state, because he underestimated its behaviors.”

She was straining to speak and breathing heavily. She was clearly affected.

“Xenon, is this thing making you sick?” Daksha asked in a commanding tone of voice.

“I can only speculate, but I think Agarthicite in all states generates a theoretical waveform that disrupts the brains of people with a special neurophysiology.”

Daksha herself was unaffected by the Agarthicite, but Xenon was clearly suffering.

“Hold it up to me–”

“Absolutely not!”

“Premier, hold it up to me for a moment and then put it away.”

Daksha grit her teeth but the cat was serious. She must have thought this was important.

Despite her reservations, Daksha thrust the Agarthicite in front of Xenon.

In the next instant, her eyes turned cold and dull, and she stared intently at the rock.

She was almost limp; she responded as if she had fallen into a trance.

Daksha put the Agarthicite into her pocket, hoping it would not burn through.

It settled there, gently, thrumming and seemingly harmless.

Xenon regained control of her faculties and withdrew from her pocket a little metal clip that she put on her hair. It was deep grey and very shiny and much like her glove.

“Forgive me, Premier, I wanted to illustrate these properties. It reminds one of the testimony of Madiha Nakar, doesn’t it? She said that Mansa carried a strange object of imperial make, a cube that caused discomfort. I believe Agarthicite is this object.”

Every top level official handling Mansa’s business had access to Madiha’s testimony about her capture and torture at the hands of the old councilman. It was a classified but valuable source. Not every investigator could have access, but everyone Daksha trusted to lead the anti-Mansa cleanup operations had access to most of this information.

A very small subset of them had access to other information in this puzzle too.

Xenon continued demurely, as if cowed by the enormity of what she was saying and afraid of some danger she might incur for saying it. “It is classified information known only to the most important, top-level personnel of the S.D.S, that Madiha Nakar possesses a unique neurophysiology. It was well before my time, but I have read material produced by Doctor Agrawal on Madiha’s specific extrasensory potential. I believe based on all of this evidence that I possess a similar neurophysiology that is obstructed by Agarthicite.”

“So you’re also magic now?” Daksha asked, crossing her arms, exasperated.

“Not magic! You make it sound so childish. It’s E.S.P.” The scientist protested.

“Can you set buildings on fire spontaneously?” Daksha asked.

“No. I believe Madiha Nakar is a special case in that regard.”

“Any other grand revelations?” Daksha said dismissively.

“You may not be impressed, but I think it’s very important. At any rate, as I suspected you are utterly unaffected by Agarthicite because your brain is completely normal.”

“My brain is decidedly not normal.” Daksha said. Intrusive thoughts; suicidal ideation.

Xenon seemed to realize the shift in tone and her tail stood on end.

“Um, anyway, I am now wearing a piece of osmium in my hair.” Xenon pointed out the hair clip she just attached. “Osmium is a very rare metal with a very strange relationship to Agarthicite. It seems to be able to block Agarthicite’s theoretical waves, as well as control other aspect’s of Agarthicite’s behavior and even forcibly induce its inert state.”

She produced a stick of presumably osmium. It was grey and shiny like her glove.

Daksha withdrew the Agarthicite. This time, Xenon could stare at it unharmed.

One tap of the stick and the Agarthicite went back to its near-black, inert state.

“Normally Osmium is extremely rare: one of the rarest metals on Aer. It is normally found exclusively as a trace byproduct of refining platinum ores. Ayvarta consumes maybe 50 kilograms of Osmium a year, for things like high durability electric contacts. Compare this to the untold thousands of tons of iron and copper we use each year.”

In the middle of this explanation Xenon turned around and picked up the jagged, unprocessed compound rock in one of the glass cases. She turned it around to show Daksha. While most of it was the shiny grey metal she had so recently become acquainted with, around the back of it, arranged as a strange growth, there were many perfectly square cubes of Agarthicite stacked together like a child’s block pyramid.

“Agarthicite is found embedded in deposits of pure Osmium that are simply impossible to find elsewhere in nature. Maybe even physically impossible in general. It’s as if some intelligence decided to hide all the Agarthicite inert in its enemy element to stifle it.”

Xenon put the ore back. All of this was incredibly interesting from a purely academic perspective, and Daksha was not opposed to learning it. It was certainly valuable and piqued her curiosity. She would definitely have Xenon continue to study this rock. But she still did not understand its full significance. It was, in some way, poisonous, and it could be used to dull Madiha’s mind (Daksha still denied to herself that Xenon was like Madiha in any way.) None of this seemed to justify Xenon’s level of urgency toward it.

She then remembered there was one more state. Xenon had said there were three.

“Tell me about the third state of Agarthicite. Is that what makes this rock important?”

“Important, dangerous, impossible to explain with physics. Yes indeed.”

She took back the rock Daksha had been holding, and produced a different tool. This one had a battery pack attached, like an electric torch, and a prod on one end. Xenon hid a button within the handle of the device that produced an electric spark inside it, and transferred a jolt of electricity to the tip. She then touched the tip to the Agarthicite.

There was a brief but intense flash of purple and red light.

At once the Agarthicite began to hover above Xenon’s gloved hand.

It circled gently in midair, turning its six surfaces over like a block toyed with by a child.

Xenon smiled. “I call this the kinetic phase of Agarthicite activation. It is producing a miniscule amount of ionizing radiation. It is only a little bit hotter than trying to sunbathe in Solstice, in terms of the radiation you’ll soak up. You see, it appears Agarthicite generates an amount of energy and radiation greater than the energy that triggered it. A tiny jolt makes the Agarthicite float for about an hour. I believe that hellish room over there was an attempt to energize Agarthicite to a greater degree.”

Daksha blinked with disbelief, staring at the rock levitating in front of her.

One small and controlled jolt from a prod and a torchlight battery pack could do this.

And in that other room, how much power did they put into a piece of Agarthicite? Was that room connected to the generators she had seen around the facility? Perhaps they fed the entire facility’s worth of power into the Agarthicite and created a massive surge of this ‘ionizing radiation’ that swept through the base and contaminated everyone.

“Physics cannot describe what Agarthicite does. It should be impossible. It is not as ludicrous as a perpetual motion machine, since it is not moving perpetually. But it is generating impossible amounts of power for the very little energy that it received.”

Daksha had seen many shocking things in this facility, but certainly, this Agarthicite was the most stunning of them. Of course one would need something like that massive water calculator to deal with this phenomenon. Even then, the machine must have felt useless after enough observation of the mineral. Xenon had it right. This was impossible.

However, if they could harness a mineral that could convert a small electrical jolt into an hour of motion– it would make anything possible! It was a miracle energy for socialism!

“Premier, there is one last thing you must know about Agarthicite. Ionizing radiation is a new, poorly understood and deadly energy. Its capacity to do harm was first discovered through the deaths of radium watch makers. They made glow-in-the-dark novelty clocks, but the radium’s energies sickened and killed the workers and the company closed.”

Xenon tapped the Agarthicite with the Osmium stick in the middle of her explanation.

It dropped back down to her osmium-gloved hand.

“Ionizing radiation is the least of our worries with Agarthicite.”

Mysteriously, she walked past Daksha and exited the vault.

Daksha followed her.

She thought to shout at her to be discreet with the mineral, but Xenon had already been in this facility for many days and despite her eccentricities she took science very seriously. She hid the Agarthicite when they exited back to the hub room, but continued on her way, past all the guards, through the tunnels and out into the open desert again.

Soon as Daksha joined her outside, Xenon picked up the Agarthicite and threw it.

She pitched it at a rock. Her throw was limp and clearly untrained, but direct.

Daksha was speechless both from this sudden, insane action, and from its results.

In the instant the Agarthicite hit the rock, Daksha could almost feel a surge of something, like a shockwave that reverberated through her body but had no physical energy with which to push her. There was a bright purple flash, nothing like the dull light given off by the stone in its various harmless energetic states. Around the rock, perceivable reality seemed to collapse. Daksha had come to understand that, to science, everything humans could see was a result of light entering their eyes. In her mind, she thought, the Agarthicite must have warped and bent light to create a brief ripple in the world, a wound in reality itself. In the next instant it was perceptible as a fleeting black dome.

All of this happened in perhaps a second, perhaps even less than that.

Describing it as a perceivable effect and not pure mental fancy, the Agarthicite seemed to swallow up an orb-shaped chunk of the floor, carving out the rock and sand from it.

There was no trace of the mineral whatsoever. It and the matter around it had vanished.

Xenon and Daksha stood side by side staring at this stolen patch of land.

One in disbelief and the other in stern, grim resignation.

“This is the most dangerous property of Agarthicite.” Xenon explained. “Dr. Vante called it the Annihilation Effect or the ‘Circle of Annihilation.’ These were some of his final notes. I was lucky he did not destroy his materials and that the crazed guards did not do so either. Simply put: Agarthicite can convert electrical energy, but it also converts kinetic energy. If enough trauma is inflicted on it, it collapses, taking a sphere of matter with it. I hypothesize that, as with its other behaviors, the size of the sphere is multiplied by the amount of force that was imparted upon the Agarthicite to make it collapse.”

Daksha’s heart was pumping terribly fast. Her chest felt like it would seize up.

That little piece of mineral had made a crater as large as that of a 152mm shell impact.

“So you’re telling me–” Daksha’s voice caught in her throat. “This thing–”

“It could potentially destroy a house, a street, a city, a state, a continent. A planet?”

One brutal thought immediately embedded itself in Daksha’s psyche.

She murmured aloud to herself, her mouth agape, her eyes so wide they teared up.

“It could destroy Nocht.”

Daksha found herself standing in the middle of the desert in a great void of silence.

It was as if she herself had been swallowed in the Agarthicite’s annihilation sphere.

Trapped in this twisted reality where the matters of life and death that she dealt with for the sake of her people, had taken on a macabre new characteristic. She felt like she was quite literally playing with life and death now. Holding a reaper’s scythe that could change the world entirely and utterly in a way that could never be taken back.

“Is Agarthicite exclusive to the Ayvartan continent?” Daksha asked.

Xenon dropped down on her back, whimsically moving her arms and legs over the sand.

Her expression, however, was blank and emotionless.

“No more than Radium is. It’s thanks to Nocht we know about ionizing radiation.”

“So you think Nocht has access to Agarthicite?”

“I want to believe our knowledge of the mineral is in its infancy.”

She wanted to believe. So she did not know, but she probably feared the worst.

Swinging her arms up and down against the sand, Xenon made wings around herself.

“Premier, when I ran away from home, I was greeted in Solstice with fresh clothes, a meal card, room and board. I was taught how to read and allowed into a university. It might not seem like it, but in my own way, I love this country. I want to protect it.”

Her tone of voice was deadly serious. It was graver than she ever heard Xenon speak.

It was almost as if her previous antics had been a reprieve from weeks of bleak thinking.

“If you ask me to, Premier, I will become a monster in the eyes of history.”

She laid her hands over her chest, staring up at the empty sky over the desert.

Around her the wings in the sand framed her body.

“I will be the demon who unleashed Agarthicite onto the world.”

Daksha had heard this kind of speech before. Cadao Chakma, her defense minister, once asked her, during a meeting about logistics, if she would become a monster for turning toy factories into gun factories, putting teenagers behind anti-aircraft guns, and diverting food to soldiers. Daksha had the same answer for Xenon as she did for Cadao.

“Tell the historians I made you do it. I’ll be the monster in your place.” She said.

She would have withdrawn a pistol and threatened the scientist with it.

Just to make it plain that she was the villain and no one else.

But she did not carry a weapon anymore, as Solstice’s civilian leader.

Regardless, Xenon did not seem very relieved by the gesture.

“Everyone will ask why I didn’t turn my back on this when I could. Why I didn’t bury it; Premier, I started to think, during the past week, that Dr. Vante was not betrayed by the guards like I initially suspected. I fancy that perhaps he was afraid and ashamed of what he had done and he tried to stop it. He ended his life to escape the aura of Agarthicite.”

Tears started to build up in her eyes.

“I wanted to end my own life too, but Solstice saved me. I was treated like I mattered.”

Daksha looked down upon the soil, the wasted earth of the rocky desert.

Xenon’s voice was small and weak and broken up. Blown away by the empty winds.

“Premier, I think I can make Agarthicite into a weapon. We can use the sphere of annihilation that it creates to destroy anything. I just need time. Maybe a year, maybe two years, I don’t know. I feel like this black glow will both redeem and curse me.”

Daksha squatted down beside Xenon and petted her head gently.

Her ears folded under Daksha’s hand. For a brief instant she purred gently.

“You don’t need to be redeemed.” Daksha said.

Xenon raised her sleeve over her own eyes and gritted her teeth, sobbing.

This past week, she must have taken it upon herself to become the devil’s assistant and kill millions and billions if necessary, to protect the little patch of earth that she loved.

In the middle of this desert, that lonely city that somehow made itself care about people.

Perhaps, in some other warped history glimpsed within the sphere of annihilation, there was a way to turn back from the black glow and repair this broken world peacefully.

Regardless, they both knew the answer to these questions and dilemmas.

Mansa had indeed made his evil mark on history.

There was simply no way that Agarthicite could now be hidden and forgotten.

Whether it took months or years to develop it, whether another nation struck it first; they both knew this terrifying power was now a passenger to their fates forever on.

Like the knife, like the gun, like the tank. Socialism would make use of it.

It had to.

As she always said, Daksha said again. “I’ll be the monster, Xenon. Not you.”


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E.S.P. (72.1)

This scene contains violence.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — Conqueror’s Way

Wordlessly, the battle began.

Madiha’s wrist had barely recovered from the previous clash when Aatto jerked her arm toward the side of the bridge as if grasping for something that had fallen from her hand. Madiha saw the foam washing up along the sides of the bridge before the wave came flying over the barriers. It was not as a wave should be, it was not a long sheet of water; it was water sliced from the source, contorted, shaped into a weapon. Madiha pushed on herself and leaped out of the way as river smashed into the bridge where she stood.

Behind her she left a hole, bored clean through the bridge as if by a drill.

Around the rim of this orifice was a sheet of ice.

Everything had happened so quickly and yet the action and reaction both seemed so eerily natural and understandable to Madiha, as if it had all been rehearsed for her.

E.S.P. was like touch, like smell, like sight; active and passive all at once, innate.

It took seeing Aatto’s E.S.P. to really understand.

Madiha was being pushed to use it, where before she loathed to.

It was the battle that was pushing her. But it was also something else.

Something frighteningly like an instinct.

“You’re not like any of the spoonbenders at the Institute.” Aatto said.

Madiha taunted her. “Are they all savages like you?”

She needled her.

Aatto grit her teeth, and turned sharply to the other side of the bridge with both arms up.

Water started to rise once more.

She opened herself up. She committed her E.S.P. and Madiha would punish it.

Madiha drew her pistol and in a blink put two shots into Aatto’s forehead and nose.

She staggered back with a cry, seizing hold of her own face in pain.

Along the sides of the bridge the water harmlessly descended.

“God damn it!” Aatto cried. “Right to the face? To the face? And I’m the goddamn savage?”

Blood had drawn from her enemy’s forehead. But when Aatto started to peel her own hand away from its reflexive grip on her wounds, Madiha saw cracks, as if on glass, that were merely dribbled red. She had not been killed, or even seriously wounded.

“Should’ve known there was nothing important there to shoot.” Madiha said.

“Ha ha.” Aatto grinned viciously. “Very funny. You don’t get it, do you?”

“I do.”

She had some kind of armor on her body.

Did she cover herself in ice? Madiha realized that must have been it.

Her mind started to race. How many layers? How deep? What sort of attack would–

As Madiha had done before, Aatto pushed on herself for speed.

“You’re not the only one with tricks!”

Madiha wasn’t the only one learning.

In an instant Aatto had made her way to Madiha, so close that Madiha could feel the cold emanating from her body where warmth should be. Where Madiha was wreathed in fire as she used her abilities, Aatto grew colder, steaming with an inhumanly icy aura.

Growling in anger, Aatto threw a punch.

Pushing away from it, Madiha sidestepped the attack and found Aatto briefly vulnerable.

Madiha drew a knife and tried to engage in close quarters combat, but Aatto was not fighting by the book, not by anyone’s book. Army combat manuals taught effective fighting for disabling and killing enemies with fists or knives, but these counted on human enemies behaving in human ways.  When Aatto swung around to meet her, she was not moving nor behaving like a human. Her speed was such that Madiha could do little to retaliate but to drive the knife toward her enemy with all her strength and pray.

Thankfully for her, Madiha was also inhumanly quick when she needed it.

Her knife met Aatto’s flesh before the woman could swing again.

Cracks formed as she struck the base of the neck, where Aatto’s head and torso met.

It was no use. Madiha found her blade caught in the icy armor, drawing little blood.

Aatto shrugged it off, and grabbed hold of Madiha, taking her in a brutal embrace.

“I was afraid if I pushed on myself too hard I’d break my body, but you did it so easily.”

At the moment she improvised those steps, Madiha felt no regard for her own safety. It wasn’t a technique she had honed, it was spur of the moment. Everything in this battle felt like a spur of the moment idea, a figment brought to life by two inhuman minds pitted like dogs inside a cage. Only new brutality and new evil could come of their fight.

She would have to think fast once more, because Aatto was innovating too.

Aatto took a deep breath and suddenly squeezed. Madiha felt the air going out of her lungs, and though she tried to push back, Aatto was using all her power to keep her grappled. But she saw an opportunity. Arms forced to her sides, Madiha turned her wrist and stabbed Aatto in her rib. She could only muster short thrusts but she pushed on each.

Her own wrists screamed in pain, but she could feel the knife digging into Aatto each time as if it had been swung with the full force of the arm. Blood and ice splashed out.

Despite this Aatto stood undaunted. She grinned, and she laughed.

“You ever wrestle before? Up north we love it.”

She enjoyed it; Aatto liked hurting people. Aatto thrived on power.

Or she was an idiot who talked too much.

Madiha pushed again — on herself.

She thrust her head forward and butted foreheads with Aatto.

Blood from the woman’s forehead spilled over Madiha’s nose and mouth.

For a moment they were frozen, a brutal sculpture to this messy, primeval battle.

Forehead-to-forehead, blood to blood.

Madiha could feel the chaos in Aatto’s head, as if a storm brewing from the wound.

She was angry, angrier than she had ever been. She was sad and hurt and furious.

“You think you’re better than me. You think you got me this easy. I hate it. I hate it!”

Aatto started screaming. She was emotionally unstable; she was losing control.

She squeezed tighter, and forced a gasp out of Madiha. She was choking her now.

“You think you’re better than me! I feel it! You think I’m trash! AND I HATE IT!”

Aatto pressed Madiha tighter against her chest, set her legs, and pushed.

Madiha could feel the strength of the psychic thrust as Aatto launched upward.

Mid-air, Aatto swung the other way and made suddenly for the ground.

Her mind started to fog; Madiha desperately pushed on her other wrist and broke it.

She twisted the hand holding the pistol, and twisted the finger on the trigger.

She twisted the pistol toward Aatto’s chest, between them.

“Use your inside voice–!”

Madiha forced the words out before unloading a magazine into Aatto.

She saw shards of ice go flying from Aatto’s back in six different places.

Bullet penetration; that armor had shattered.

Blood splashed from her belly and chest, and her grip slackened dramatically.

Madiha pushed away from her and from the ground.

For an instant Conqueror’s Way shook, just enough to perceivably disturb the skin.

Aatto and Madiha hit ground. The two landed meters apart and on their backs.

Recognizing from the terrible pain what she had done to her hand, Madiha screamed.

She grit her teeth, and with her remaining, functional hand she pushed herself up.

Over her shoulder, she saw Aatto slowly forcing herself up on violently shaking knees.

She turned around to meet her, and watched as the ice around her wounds melted.

Her armor turned to water, and turned to blood. It started to seep into her wounds.

Madiha winced from the pain in her wrist. “How many lives do dogs have?”

She was no good at taunting, but she knew now that Aatto had no self-control.

That was an advantage, even if it didn’t look like it right then.

“Shut your fucking mouth, you stuck-up little princess!”

Princess? Had she read Madiha’s anxiety? Had Madiha left herself that open?

Or was it just low-key misogyny?

Without warning Aatto peeled a chunk of ice as if out from the air itself and launched it.

It was needle-thin and ultra-sharp, a wedge shaped knife spinning through the air.

Madiha ducked under it, and realized the cloud around them was a mortal trap to be in.

There was a reason Aatto made this cloud, and it was not just for cover.

Aatto controlled water. She controlled moisture, she controlled the droplets in the air.

Whatever merciful old gods prevented Aatto from simply peeling all of the blood out of Madiha’s body with her E.S.P. were not as keen to keep her from wielding all the rest of the water around them. And there was a lot. In their every breath, in the air itself, in the river that rushed below and around them. There was a lot of water. It belonged to Aatto.

All this time Madiha was matching E.S.P., but she had to recognize her core competency.

Aatto was water and Madiha was fire. However much she feared the flame that was her legacy from the conquerors and emperors old and maybe new, she had to wield it now. Though she hated that flame that linked her to the Empire she destroyed, if Madiha did not stop Aatto now, there would be nothing keeping her from the walls of Solstice. From her people; from the nation she gave everything up to found; and from Parinita.

There seemed to be no other way. She had to burn Aatto to death.

But fire was not so easily brought to bear. Madiha couldn’t just take fire out of the air.

She realized that she could take something else.

“Even during a tantrum, you like your clouds a consistent, moist 2 degrees or so.”

Madiha, having seen the cloud, knew how to influence it almost on instinct.

Or maybe she knew because Aatto knew.

She raised her hand in front of herself and snapped her fingers together, producing a flame on her thumb as if from the end of a match. She did not push on this flame the way she did to objects and even to herself, but she caressed it, nurtured it, fed it, spread it. An aura of fire grew from the match on her thumb to cover the immediate area.

Aatto stared in stunned disbelief as the cloud around her started to heat up and dry out.

Beads of sweat drew from Aatto’s forehead, and became little wisps of vapor.

“I prefer a nice 50 degrees.” Madiha said. “Are you melting? Should’ve stayed up north.”

Around them the thick, fluffy blue cloud was turning almost to sand, dry, dark, choked.

Even Madiha was straining to breathe in the heat. Aatto, however, was despondent.

She grabbed at her throat, coughing, sweating, covered in vapors. Her knees buckled, her tongue lolled, hanging dry from her mouth. Her eyes started to tear up, but the tears were evaporating even as she wept them. It was a horrifying sight.

“No, no, no, no, no–”

Aatto grit her teeth.

“No! Stop it!”

She stamped her feet into the earth, and her eyes flashed blue, and the vapors chilled.

Madiha felt an lightning-fast instant of cold and reflexively resisted.

Her nose bled; she felt a sharp pain as if a knife had excavated a vein in her brain.

Her hand shook, and the fire spreading from it started to twist and hiss and sputter.

Within moments, the blue spreading from Aatto overtook the dark heat in the cloud.

Madiha’s influence was snuffed out, and she staggered back, holding her head.

Her eyes were bleeding, and her nose was too, and her vision was foggy.

She should have realized it. She was not strong enough. Not like when she was a kid.

She was spent; she had been debilitated by the deeds she performed in her youth.

Aatto had never been challenged, not like Madiha had been. She was still at her peak.

Madiha’s legs quivered, and she dropped to one knee, unable to stand.

Gasping for breath, and laughing cruelly between each gasp, Aatto stumbled closer to Madiha, as the cold started to mount and the latter’s body to shake both with the pain she had caused herself and the unbearable environment around her. She had been able to suppress it when her special fire was at its peak, but weakened and vulnerable as she was, Madiha was just a little girl of the southern continent facing down a raging blizzard.

Aatto’s sweat started to freeze up, and she collected it into a jagged chunk.

She put the weapon to Madiha’s temple, staring down at her with malice.

“I came here for the idiot who is too loud and the useless hunk of metal; but you’ve convinced me that while I’m here I might as well take your walls and your life too.”

She raised the icy pick into the air to bring it down on the helpless Madiha’s head.

Madiha did not blink or flinch, she couldn’t have even if she wanted to.

She saw Aatto thrust down and in a blink, saw her thrust away on a sudden gale force.

Aatto stood her ground as much as she could, but she was forced a step back by the gust.

“What the hell–?”

Madiha found her vision blocked by the appearance of a new figure.

Standing guard, with her hands open in front of her in a defensive stance, was a young Yu woman, dressed in an eastern style. She glanced over her shoulder at Madiha, her characteristic eyes soft and almost admiring, and smiled at her.  She looked untouched by the carnage around her, even as she had so suddenly moved. Her brown hair was done up with a pair of picks, and from the back, the ends flared up like a bird’s tail. It was immaculate. Her skin bore not one bead of sweat nor the touch of Aatto’s frost.

Her green eyes glowed softly yellow and she gave off an aura like a slight breeze.

“General, I am humbled to stand between you and the enemy.” Yanyu Zhuge said.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

BERSERKER (71.2)

This scene contains graphic violence and death, and brief homophobia.


To the outside world it seemed Loupland was covered in a perpetual snow.

In the spring, however, Loupland thawed just like the world beyond the arctic sea.

Green grasses peered from under their blanket of snow. Flowers, covered in cold dew, rose from the earth, seeking the returning sun. It was the eye in the storm that seemed to consume the little country. A respite from the blizzards. In days gone by, the folk would have come out to till the fields and hold markets and dance under the festival wreaths.

Times changed, but at least the children still laughed and played.

That spring, a little girl from the village decided to go climb the mountain. She did not climb far, but she climbed far for a child. For a child, she felt she had climbed the entire mountain, in her kirtle and smock, getting dirty, laughing aloud and alone. She climbed over big boulders and ran up little hills and after an hour or two she could look back and see the village below her like a little brown square etched on the green and white earth.

On that day and atop that climb, the little girl met a demon on the mountain.

She was scared at first, to see the creature bundled up in a cloak, huffing and puffing and making noises to scare her away. But her curiosity led her to draw nearer to the monster and to stare into its eyes, and she laughed and called it a little imp and ruffled its cloak.

“I’m not an imp.” said the creature dejectedly.

“Can I stay here and play?” asked the village girl.

“Whatever. Don’t tell anyone about me.” replied the imp.

She returned the next day, and found the imp again and brought some food.

She found the imp not wanting for food, its lair strewn with frozen bones.

She returned the next day and brought the imp toys since it was clearly a child.

She found the imp to be a girl by her choice of a doll, which she clung to tightly.

She returned the next day and brought the imp a kirtle and a little smock.

“I don’t wanna dress up.” said the imp dejectedly.

“Will you dress up for me?” asked the village girl.

“No!”

And the imp dressed in the kirtle and smock, but kept her cloak wrapped around herself.

“I’ll come back with more tomorrow!”

“You really do not have to.”

She returned the next day having brought a blanket, stitched up into a cloak.

“Will you wear this for me?” asked the village girl.

“Ugh.”

She helped the imp into her new cloak.

She found the imp had a furry little tail, and she wagged her own furry little tail.

Day after day, the village girl awakened early, ate her porridge and drank her milk quickly, and ran off laughing and smiling to the mountain to play with her newfound friend. She showed her friend many things from the village, fruits and toys and sweets. The imp barely played, choosing mostly to watch, but it was enough that she remained. She followed the village girl wherever the village girl wanted, and they explored the caves and crevices of the mountain, and climbed higher and lower, and had fun.

One day the imp stopped the village girl and spoke to her in a new voice.

“Want to see something strange?”

“Yes! Show me!”

Eager to learn anything at all about her new friend, the village girl followed the imp to a spring formed out of thawing ice, where the imp reached down into the water, and took from it a big fistful of frost. As her hand rose from the water, the spring froze where the fist had entered, the little waves and ripples on its surface etched hard in the ice.

She really was a demon! A demon that could do witchcraft! It was amazing!

Never had the village girl been this excited.

“Promise me you’ll keep it a secret.”

“I promise!”

“Don’t tell anyone I’m here.”

“I won’t! I never have!”

And so the village girl returned home, and every day she would leave for the mountains to play again, and she enjoyed many moons of the thaw season in this fashion. But the thaw season was too short for the village and too short for the girl. Soon the snows began to blow over Loupland once more, and the thaw season, and its thaw jobs began to wane.

Despite this the village girl was resolved. Whenever she had no lessons or finished them early, she would put on her coat, put on warm leggings and thick boots, and she would go out, though the mountain was treacherous and slippery. Though she even took a few bumps, the village girl was very brave and made it to the Imp’s hideout without fail.

“Stop coming here.” Said the imp.

“No! Lets play.”

Reluctant as always the little imp would play with the village girl.

“Soon we’ll be separated by the ice. Or something else.” said the imp.

“No! Lets play.” replied the village girl.

She made a great effort to meet her friend whenever she could.

However, the village around her was changing. With the coming of the snow, there were more people walking the street with nothing to do, crowding the shops and bars, being loud. There was a lot of tension in the air, and it felt dangerous to go outside, but the village girl kept going, heedless of anyone’s caution. Her routine went unchanged.

One day, however, without her noticing, three men followed her right to the mountain.

They had bottles in their hands, and strange expressions on their faces.

“Every bloody day you leave the village, and come here, for what? Ain’t nothin’ here.”

“Little girls shouldn’t be running around making a racket when the village is struggling.”

“You’re too carefree! It pisses everybody off. What’s up here that’s so special?”

They reminded the village girl of her own father; drunk, jobless, shouting every word.

She felt very nervous, and could not answer their questions, and it made them irate.

“Didn’t your mother teach you respect? Huh? You think you can look down on us?”

One of the men shoved the girl down at the maw of the imp’s cave, and she cried.

In the next instant, the imp stepped out from the shadowed rocks.

She gazed coldly at the men and they gazed quizzically back at her.

“Who’s this? Why she hiding out here? Who’s daughter is she?”

“I’m nobody’s daughter. Go away.”

Confused, the drunks commiserated while the imp stared all of them down.

“Huh? What’s with that tone, you brat? You think you can talk to us like that?”

All three men had emptied their bottles and held them like clubs.

Across from them the imp stood unfazed.

Her tail stretched straight behind her, and her ears were raised in alert.

Meanwhile the village girl tried to calm everybody down.

“She’s not bad! She plays with me! She’s just living out here. She doesn’t mean any harm.”

“You shut up, you brat. You wanna get hit again?”

One of the men raised an arm to strike the village girl with cruel ease.

In mid-air, the arm stopped moving.

The Imp’s eyes turned icy blue.

“What is–”

Suddenly the man started to scream.

His raised arm started to shake, and his whole body contorted in pain. Dark black veins threaded visibly through her skin, becoming harder and sharper as if the blood inside them was thickening, hardening, stretching. Everyone present watched in horror as the man’s arm started to peel away along lines of the sinews like a blossoming flower of skin and gore, and the stem, blood frozen sharp right under his skin, glowing, and glowing!

The captive man was in such pain and terror that he could not scream anymore. He slobbered and twitched and hung as if his arm was dangling from an invisible shackle, suspended by some unknown force like a sack of meat, the blood in his veins freezing.

“Aatto no!” shouted Petra, little village girl Petra who only wanted everyone to get along.

“It’s a witch! It’s a witch! Kill her! Kill her!”

In an insane frenzy the remaining two men charged past their dying ally, bottles in hand.

“I’m sorry Petra, but you can’t hear what is in their disgusting heads like I can.”

Aatto, Petra’s friend, the mystical little imp of the mountain, raised her hand and without expression, pushed on the men and sent them flying off the mountainside, their bodies twisting and smashing and clinging to the snow and rock, collecting into balls of slush and blood. Blood drew from her nose and from her eyes, her glowing, icy-blue eyes.

Petra saw it, the blue steam that emanated from Aatto whenever she committed this sin.

She rushed to her friend and hugged her around the waist, weeping openly into her.

“Why are you crying?” Aatto shouted angrily. “They were going to hurt you!”

“I’m not crying for them.” Petra said, sobbing and screaming. “I’m crying for you!”

At Petra’s touch, the steam started to calm, and Aatto started to shake. She wept a little.

“Shut up, Petra. I did a good thing for once. I did a good thing.” Aatto muttered.


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

“Aatto! Open up!”

Atop a wooden staircase, Petra banged on the door of the camp’s command center module, a small air-conditioned mobile home set on the bed of a tank transporter. She saw beads of water dancing on the shuttered windows, and could feel air coming from under the door, so she knew Aatto was inside. She banged on the door twice, but there was no response. Behind her, General Von Fennec tapped his feet on the step impatiently.

“Why did she lock herself in here? I’ll have you both know this is my command center!”

Petra sheepishly turned to the General with her hands clapped together as if in prayer.

“Ah, well, Aatto really doesn’t like the heat, anything above 20 celsius is bad for her see–”

“Get that door open this instant, and that punk out in the desert fighting! Now!”

“Yes sir!”

Petra twisted sharply back around to face the door and started to twist the handle.

She brought a foot up to the door and kicked it, doing little to move it.

Though she had basic combat training, Petra Hamalainen Happydays was not a fighter, but a support officer. Specifically, a radio operator, as well as deputy to Lieutenant Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather. She was, compared to the tall and fit Lt. Stormyweather, smaller, plumper, and far less capable of battering down a door. She stopped for a moment to tie her golden hair up into a ponytail, her tail swishing to and fro with excitement.

This pause to gather herself before her next attack prompted Von Fennec to scoff.

“Good god you’re all so useless. Out of my way!”

Von Fennec pushed Petra aside, and put his shoulder up to the door.

In the next instant, the General charged the door, and the door suddenly opened.

Von Fennec tumbled into the room, smashing into the carpet.

Petra stood at the doorway, her hands raised in alarm.

“Petra,” someone mumbled in an aggrieved-sounding tone.

Inside the command center, behind Von Fennec’s desk, was Aatto herself, seated sloppily on a rotating chair with her arms dangling, her head thrown back. Her black uniform jacket and shirt were both unbuttoned down to the belly, bearing glistening brown skin and a hint of muscle — and well over a hint of her breasts, her brassiere’s central clip snapped apart so as to almost fully bare them also. Her hair was down, long and black. She was sweating like, well, a dog; all of her body was profusely moist, and her icy blue eyes looked like they would roll back into her head. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth.

“Petra, I’m dying.” Aatto said. “Petra it’s 44 degrees. I am going to die here.”

Sighing, Petra wiped sweat from her own brow and maneuvered around the fallen Von Fennec as carefully as she could. She rushed to Aatto’s side and immediately fastened her brassiere back and started to unbutton her shirt and jacket, trying to save her dignity.

“Aatto you’re an officer now! And in an army of men! You can’t behave this way!”

“Petra, I’m absolutely going to die. I am melting.” Aatto mumbled.

She fixed Petra with a pathetic look. She had absolutely beautiful eyes, even then.

Petra tried not to stare too deep into them as she fixed the Lieutenant back up.

“Aatto, you slob! You barbarian!”

Petra sighed again, and behind her, Von Fennec helped himself up from the ground.

“You have a mission, you witch! You monster! Go out there this instant.”

“Petra, I’m so hot.” Aatto said, ignoring Von Fennec.

Von Fennec grit his teeth, while on the chair Aatto swooned and slumped.

“Aatto!”

Petra raised a hand to Aatto’s brow and found her blazing hot.

She couldn’t spot any of the blue steam, the sign that Aatto had overdone it with her ESP.

So it was not a supernatural malady — that fact scared Petra even more.

She could, somehow, heal Aatto’s self-inflicted psychic wounds. But she couldn’t heal this.

“She’s burning up, General!” Petra said.

Von Fennec stood, silent, stupefied.

“If I lose her, and the Vishap, and Von Drachen. My career– no, I’ll be over! I’ll be killed!”

He rushed to the desk and started shaking Aatto.

Petra grabbed hold of him and shoved him back.

“This isn’t helping, General!”

“Do something Petra! Do something for God’s sake!”

“I regret so much. I’ll never get to marry Petra.” Aatto said.

Von Fennec blinked and stopped struggling. Petra covered her mouth, scandalized.

“WHAT?” She then shouted.

“We’ll never get to raise a litter of pups–”

“EXCUSE ME?” Petra shouted again.

Von Fennec took a step back from the chair and rubbed a hand over his mouth.

He then suddenly kicked the chair, knocking it from under Aatto.

“Lieutenant Stormyweather, I order you to assault Conqueror’s Way this instant! Your sexual deviancy will be overlooked if you succeed!” General Von Fennec shouted.

On the floor, Aatto started laughing uproariously, and the room suddenly cooled.

It was as if all the heat of the desert had been extinguished with a thought.

“Will do, General Von Fennec! Just give me some water and a target.” Aatto said.

“There’s an entire goddamn river where you’re going! Move! Both of you!”

Petra, mortified, red in the face, and far more tantalized by these sapphic ideas than any good girl of Loupland should be, stormed off with her hands balled into fists, stomping.

Aatto raised herself off the ground, and looked out the door with distress.

“Wait, Petra! I wasn’t kidding! Let’s get married!”

She ran out the door herself, Von Fennec staring at her back with gritted teeth.

Like Petra, he too knew the weapon that lurked inside that oafish bush-tailed girl.


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The 3rd Superweapon (69.4)

This scene contains violence and death.


On the road leading to the eastern gate sixteen trucks and tractors assembled, each of them supporting via metal scaffolds a bed of 132mm rockets. They assembled in a formation that took up much of the clay road between a pair of evacuated shops and restaurants at the edge of the city. Each driver, accompanied by a small gunnery team, exited the vehicles. Together the teams began to adjust the angle of the rocket launchers. There were at least twelve rockets per truck, and around eight rockets to a tractor.

Madiha Nakar watched the so-called “Guards Heavy Mortar” teams setting up Ayvarta’s secret weapons. She helped them adjust the elevation of the launchers via short-range hand-radio, feeding them the distance and coordinates to the approaching Vishap.

Once all the trucks and tractors were situated and their rockets ready, Madiha left them.

She turned around and ran to the opposite end of the ramparts, fixing her gaze back to the Conqueror’s Way, whenever she heard the Vishap fire its main gun. She guessed the weapon must have been at least 150mm caliber for all the damage it was doing, and loaded with anti-concrete explosives. From her high vantage, directly in line with the bridge, it was hard to see, but she knew the massive vehicle, surrounded by infantrymen, had punched neatly through the first gate. She saw the smoke and some of the rubble go flying into the water in pieces. Now the ruins of the Second Gate obstructed her view.

“Parinita, stay here on the main radio, I’m running farther up the wall!” Madiha shouted.

Parinita nodded her acknolwedgment, and the General took off running. She kept her eyes on the bridge, and as she got an angle on it from the wall, she could see around the rubble of the gates, and spotted the Vishap trundling toward the second gate. Its machine guns were firing at all sides, and the main gun fired an explosive shell the second she caught a glimpse of it. A horrid green fireball launched from the front of the tank and struck the rubble of the second gate and instantly reduced to dust a substantial amount.

Her troops around that ruined gate had taken blocking positions. Small caliber anti-tank guns, the only sort that could be hidden around the rubble, shot little red shells of 45mm caliber at the Vishap that ricocheted off its armor and exploded harmlessly on its bulldozer blades. There were six or seven shots Madiha saw flying out, but the Vishap hardly slowed, charging into the blasts confidently. Its frontal machine guns swept over her troops’ firing positions, covering the ruins of the second gate in automatic fire.

Under this assault, and all too aware of the approaching hulk, her troops retreated.

Madiha raised the hand radio to her lips. “Ready a creeping barrage, fifty across.”

Below the walls, in the city at her back, the rocket teams prepared their payloads.

“We’re golden, General!” replied the men on the radio.

“Acknowledged! Salamander 132mm rocket barrage, fire!” Madiha shouted back.

Organized in their staggered ranks, rows of trucks and tractors unleashed their rockets.

Dozens flew at a time with an unearthly sound, a haunting, howling noise. Arcing over the wall, they left trails of fire in the sky. Even the Ayvartan troops turned their heads up to watch the explosives cut across the firmament. Neat lines of bright orange flame drew overhead, past the second gate, and fell directly into the bridge. In quick succession the rockets crashed and violently exploded, setting off a series of deafeningly loud blasts. One after another, great fires bloomed from the earth around the advancing Vishap, churning up the top of the bridge, casting geysers of smoke and stone into the air.

Madiha watched the carnage unfold below, and she licked her lips absentmindedly.

Most of the rockets smashed into the bridge in front of or around the Vishap. One rocket struck the Vishap directly in its bulldozer blades and blew off a section in the top-left; two rockets struck the top center of the Vishap and left fleeting fires burning atop the locked-down cupola. When the fire cleared the thick cupola was deformed and stuck.

But the machine relentlessly ground forward through the smoke. Its top armor was thicker than Madiha had thought. Then again, the rockets weren’t armor-piercing.

No, she had a different target. Her lips curled into a fleeting but wicked smile as she heard the wailing and howling behind her. She thought she felt the heat as the rockets ascended the heavens from behind her back, soaring just over the wall and descending sharply into the bridge once more. This time the payload landed right behind the Vishap.

The Cissean and Nochtish infantry on the bridge had halted their charge after the first rocket barrage. They shrank back from the Vishap, afraid of the fire and shrapnel, and stood paralyzed, a dense mass concentrated around using the remaining rubble for cover, with the Vishap pulling farther ahead of them. They stared, dumbfounded, as the second rocket barrage overshot the Vishap entirely and came down upon them instead.

“You’ll enter this city as ash on the wind, imperialist scum.” Madiha whispered solemnly.

She raised her binoculars and watched with morbid curiosity and a strange sense of duty as the rockets started coming down. Every line of rockets crept deeper and deeper into the enemy formation. Each descent resulted in a torrent of fire spreading and rising, and a column of smoke and rubble following in its wake. Men were thrown about like stones skipped over water, flying whole or in pieces or aflame in every direction. When the fiery explosions didn’t dismember their bodies, or failed to set their equipment and uniforms aflame and condemn them to a slow death, the concussive forces felt even at the far edge of the blast jerked the soldiers in awful directions. Men struck the stones, and flew against the concrete barrier, and tripped and tumbled brutally over rubble.

There was chaos and panic all behind the Vishap, and every man condemned to stand on the bridge was on fire or crushed to a pulp or both. Then came the final series of rockets, that reached as far as the desert, and even the rearmost ranks of the enemy felt some punishment. The farther the rockets reached, the more the lines spread, and several rockets were landing off the bridge, in the water, on the concrete barriers. Behind the Vishap, a long, awful line of butchered men and ephemeral fires, perhaps numbering a low hundreds dead, stretched out to the desert. There were more men coming, but they were paused at the edge of the bridge with fear, and when they moved they did so tremulously, inching their way and watching the skies in anxiety and disbelief.

This was the Salamander, Ayvarta’s howling demon of flames. It was a weapon of fear.

Madiha had succeeded. The Vishap was isolated. There was no man alive to aid it.

She turned from the horror at the bridge and ran back to Parinita and the gunners.

There was a familiar face waiting there alongside her secretary. Long, silky dark hair, dark eyes, an impassive face. A young woman of unremarkable stature, wearing a big pair of goggles and the padded suit and thick gloves of an engineer. Sergeant Agni.

She raised a hand without an expression on her face, and said, “Hujambo, General.”

“I’m glad to see you Agni. How soon until the drawbridge descends?” Madiha asked.

The bridge part itself was no longer needed. Conqueror’s Way had for at least a hundred years now become a fully stone and steel bridge connecting both ends of the river. However, the drawbridge was kept as a gate. There was even space for it atop the bridge so horses and trucks could move seamlessly over it. And so the troublesome raising and lowering was still necessary: and currently, a major issue, owing to its malfunction.

Sergeant Agni shook her head, while fidgeting a little with her goggles.

“It will not be down in time. We need to source a very specific motor in low production.”

Madiha sighed. “Are the climbing troops prepared for action?”

“We have a dearth of climbing gear, but we’re almost there.” Agni said.

“We need to make greater haste.” Madiha said, a hint of frustration creeping in.

“Madiha,” Parinita called out from the floor.

Madiha crouched down behind the rampart stones to confer with her lover.

“Status?” She asked. She tried to put on a gentle face for Parinita.

Parinita was tougher than anyone gave her credit for; she didn’t need it.

“Everything’s a mess, but listen,” Parinita started, her face dripping sweat, and her breathing clearly affected, but with a resolute look in her eyes, “Regiment has just scrounged up a 152mm gun from the battery that got destroyed a few days ago at Sadr. It’s been repaired enough to work again, the shocks and carriage aren’t great, but it’ll shoot if it’s assembled. They’re coming in with a truck, ETA two or three minutes.”

Any additional heavy gun was useful in this situation, but it was a long shot.

“The Vishap’s roof might be too strong.” Madiha said. “And we’d need to immobilize it.”

“I have an idea.” Parinita said. “Madiha, what’s the heaviest thing you’ve ever lifted?”

Madiha looked at her own arm and flexed it a little with a quizzical expression.

“Lifted? I’m reasonably fit, Parinita, you know this, but I don’t think–”

Lifted,” Parinita said again, with a wink this time.

Madiha blinked, and she understood immediately what Parinita was thinking.

She turned to Sergeant Agni and looked at her with haste and intensity in her eyes.

Sergeant Agni, inexpressive as always, seemed to understand the urgency.

“It’ll take a miracle to get a shot over the wall without it killing you.” Agni said.

“I’ll show you a miracle.” Madiha said.

“Please, trust her, Agni.” Parinita added.

Sergeant Agni nodded. She replied in a dispassionate voice, but with a hint of curiosity.

“Then if the General shows me a miracle, it is only fair I show a miracle in kind. I can assemble it enough to shoot in a few minutes if you can bring it up here for me.”

Madiha embraced Parinita, kissed her on the cheek, and bolted back onto her feet.

She rushed to the wall, and spotted a truck cutting in between the rocket launchers.

On the back, tied up under a tarp, were the pieces of the refurbished heavy gun.

Madiha reached out with her hand, focused on one of the recoil tubes sticking out.

She felt a tiny pinprick of hurt in her brain as she pulled on the object.

In the next instant, the recoil tube went flying out of the bundle as if kicked away.

It soared like a Nochtish football over the ramparts, twisting and turning.

Parinita and Agni both gasped all at once as the object came flying at them.

“I can catch it!”

Madiha quickly pushed on the object, and in a blink, countered its spin and stopped it dead in the air, preventing it from smashing her fingers off as she caught it in hand.

It was very heavy, and nearly pulled her arm to the ground in a second.

But she brought it up the wall, and she caught it.

The General shouted with girlish excitement, reminiscent of her childhood days.

Agni stared at the tube, at Madiha’s arm, and then at Madiha.

Parinita sighed. “Remind me to never ask you to do things again.”

Madiha smiled. “Oh, don’t worry, you won’t have to. This will be my idea from now on if you don’t.” She said, deftly twirling a bullet in the empty air with nothing but her mind.

Far below her, the ground crew was stupefied with the disappearance of the recoil tube.


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HEADHUNTERS (63.1)

this scene contains violence and death


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — North Rangda

Lydia braced her LMG atop a mound of debris, wedging it between the rocks.

The bipod had broken, and she needed to stabilize it.

“Lydia, watch out!”

Gwendolyn’s voice forewarned her, and Lydia ducked her head.

Gunshots struck the rock and chipped dust and fragments that flew in her face.

Gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, she held the trigger and pressed down the gun.

The Myrta unleashed a volley of gunfire, a hitching, stopping-and-starting barrage that was forcing the gun up and back. Lydia struggled with the recoil, unable to see the enemy or even to peek her head out to look. She felt movement. Individual sharp snaps joined the repeating chunk chunk chunk of the light machine gun. Her fellow knights had joined her.

Lydia spread a tearful eye open, irritated by the dust.

She saw Gwendolyn standing tall beside her, holding her rifle up, aiming and firing.

She appeared to Lydia so gallant and powerful in that glimpse, her hair waving in the wind, her armor glistening, droplets of sweat falling from her face onto steel. Undaunted in the fire, with a steely gaze. Like a valkyrie of northern myths; she was so beautiful.

“Lydia, get up, we cleared the position!”

Gwendolyn’s voice was forceful, and Lydia felt an arm on her shoulder.

She let go of the light machine gun, wiped her face, and stood up from the ground.

Though the metal breastplate was decent at stopping pistol rounds, it was heavy and burdensome and drained one’s stamina. Lydia was already running on fumes, and having to stand and crouch and move around in the breastplate, symbol of her status, made it worse. Regardless, the helping hand of Gwendolyn was enough to right her, and she rose.

Ahead of them a sandbag emplacement was ripped and pitted and splashed with blood.

There were Ayvartan corpses around the defensive line, and an abandoned anti-tank gun wedged between sandbags, its operator laying dead behind the unshielded cannon. It was a lone, roadblock position with ten people, a few of them unarmed. Beyond them was a series of industrial buildings. Gwendolyn crouched beside a girl with a radio box, stolen from Ayvartans of the 8th Division, and took the handset and raised it to her ear.

“Paladin, we have cleared the anti-tank position. Patriarchs will be moving up.” She said.

Behind them, Lydia saw the tanks moving in from around the corner. Because of their thin armor, they were worried about the anti-tank gun. Lydia, Gwendolyn and a squadron of their knights had taken the decisive lead in the assault, and now the tanks shrugged off the sandbags in front of them, and opened the way. Farther ahead was the heart of the broken 8th Division. Once scattered to the winds, the elves would dominate North Rangda.

Gwendolyn set down the radio handset and waved to Lydia.

“Lady Paladin, Lord Arsenica ordered us to take out an artillery position.” Gwendolyn said.

“Breaking off from the main force, huh?” Lydia said.

“Orders are orders.”

Lydia smiled. Gwendolyn turned her head sheepishly away.

Though Lydia was nominally the vanguard, Gwendolyn had taken charge too.

Gwendolyn had transitioned so seamlessly to the front of the pack. It was almost as if it was in her blood, just a fact of nature that Gwendolyn was meant to be followed. Ever since they touched down in this forsaken continent, Gwendolyn’s meek voice had gained a measure of weight, and the people around her were listening. Lydia was listening.

She turned to the rest of the women of their squadron, and beckoned them.

Rifles in hand, breastplates yet untouched by gunfire, the women of the Knight’s corps fell in behind Lydia and Gwendolyn, and together, the unit broke off from the Patriarch tanks and the men in universal carrier APCs trailing behind them, and tore off into a nearby alleyway, cutting through the urban jungle. In the distance, as they moved farther away, the group heard gunfire as the tanks engaged the 8th Division in the industrial district.

“Let us hope they will be enough.” Lydia said.

“They must be.” Gwendolyn said.

They moved through the alleys in a column, Lydia and Gwen at the head, and the rest of the girls behind them. There were two light machine guns among them, Lydia holding one. Most of the girls had rifles; one had a scoped rifle for distance shooting. Two girls had submachine guns for added close-quarters automatic gunfire. They were shabby pieces from the old war, over a decade prior to these hostilities. But they still fired when needed.

Every girl carried two grenades. One anti-personnel frag, and one smoke grenade.

“Arsenica said it was an artillery position, right? Where is it?” Lydia asked.

“In a park just outside these alleys. And it’s Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica, Lydia.”

Lydia was not entirely thrilled to be reminded of Arsenica’s many honorifics.

In the midst of this maddening operation, a hand-fed, pampered noblewoman like Arsenica only took command because she got lucky and did the least amount of fighting. While she and Gwendolyn had been destroying Ayvartan anti-air positions and fighting the 8th Division head-on, outnumbered and in enemy territory, Arsenica had simply happened to land where the enemy radios were. Everyone deferred to her authority because she had come into possession of the crucial intelligence needed to win.

It did not sit right with Lydia. Arsenica was unworthy of leading them.

Someone like Gwendolyn was better suited. Gwendolyn was better suited.

Still, Gwen had made a demand of her and she would answer it.

“Yes, Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica it shall be, Lady Paladin Vittoria.”

“Ugh.” Gwendolyn grumbled, without even turning to meet her eyes.

Lydia laughed.

She accelerated her pace to catch up with Gwendolyn, and laid a hand on her shoulder.

“How are you holding up?” She whispered.

“I’m fine.” Gwen said.

“Are you really? I’m supposed to be in charge, but you’ve almost broke into a run ahead.”

Gwendolyn paused for a second to allow Lydia to walk a step past her.

“I apologize.”

“Gwen, you do not have to be formal with me.”

“I know. But appearances are important.”

“Gwen–”

“I’m fine, Lydia. As fine as I can be in this place.”

She did not sound fine. Lydia sighed.

“Gwen–”

Again, Gwendolyn interrupted. This time, she shot Lydia a fiery gaze.

“Lydia, I was sent here to die. And if they want me dead, I’ll die fighting.”

Lydia felt a sense of alarm.

“There’s no need to be so reckless. We can outlast this, Gwendolyn.”

“The Queen wants to be rid of me. I can never outlast that. But I’m foolish, Lydia. You know I don’t overthink things. I’m tired of sitting meekly around. That’s what I decided.”

Lydia squeezed harder on Gwendolyn’s shoulder.

“If you’re just doing it for me, you can stop with this act already.” Lydia said.

Gwendolyn blinked. Her expression turned briefly meek. Then she turned her head.

She marched at the head of the column once more. Lydia sighed.

“I’m doing it for me too.” Gwen whimpered.

Clear of the alleys, the group exited into a broader street. There was a cable car track occupying one lane of the road, and some of the cable cars lay abandoned along various points. Adjacent to it was a lane for cars, this one empty all the way up and down as far as Lydia could see. Along the concrete streets there were several tall, square, homogenous houses that probably served as rented flats (Lydia knew not how Ayvartans distributed their housing; did they have rent?). It was thick, dense terrain. Between the cable cars and the daunting wall of houses ahead of them there was a lot of cover for the enemy.

Hesitant to step out among these sights, the knights grouped in the alleyway.

“How much farther to the gun battery?” asked one of the girls.

Lydia looked around, squinting her eyes. She looked skyward. No trails; nothing.

“I don’t see any evidence of shooting. And I don’t hear anything near.”

There was always some kind of sound of gunfire in Rangda. There was a war going on. Rifles and machine guns could be heard continuously in the far off distance, reduced to a sound akin to the snapping of a door lock. Every so often there would be a far-away blast as a shell dropped, and to Lydia these distant explosions sounded like an overzealous oven burner upon its first lighting, a fizzing, gaseous sound bereft the rumble of proximity.

Despite all of this a gun firing in their vicinity would have been unmistakable.

They would have seen the trail, felt it in the ground and in their stomachs, and heard it.

“They wouldn’t keep a battery in a place like this. We should find more open ground.”

After delivering this advice, Gwendolyn then broke the huddle without warning.

She dashed out onto the road, and put her back behind an old, riveted steel mailbox.

Lydia almost wanted to shout, but her beloved 3rd Princess made it to cover safely.

Sighing with relief, she quietly signaled the next girl out by tapping her shoulder, pointing at her own eyes to tell her that she would be covered, and then pointing sharply out to the road. She would run past Gwendolyn’s mailbox and stack up behind one of the cable cars.

Nodding her head, the girl raised her rifle diagonally against her chest and breathed in.

She rushed out of the alleyway, passed the street and stepped down onto the road.

Lydia turned from her, and pointed to the next girl in the same way.

When the second girl ran out, the first one was almost to the cable cars.

Lydia watched them, her light machine gun trained on the road.

Her eyes squinted, reflexively. Tears drew from them. She caught a sharp glint of light.

This disturbance drew her gaze up to the roof of a nearby apartment building.

“Take cover!” Lydia shouted.

Just as she spoke the first shot rang out.

A rifle round perforated the neck of the first runner.

She fell to the ground, clutching her neck as if her head would fall off.

A second shot struck the ground near Gwendolyn and she pulled her legs up.

Horrified, Lydia raised her gun skyward, still catching the glint of the sniper’s scope.

They had made a mistake and positioned themselves clumsily. By the glint of the scope in the sun, she tracked the enemy down to the correct roof, and immediately laid a withering hail of automatic fire against them. She braced the gun against her shoulder and her back against the brick wall of the alley buildings. Because of its top-mounted magazine the myrta was difficult to aim and had a terrible balance, but with its trigger held down it performed as any machine gun would. Dozens of rounds chipped away at the concrete parapet and dozens more sailed over them. Her remaining squadron joined her, firing from around the corner edge of the alleyway at the rooftop. The enemy hid away.

Behind the mailbox, Gwendolyn withdrew a rifle grenade from her satchel and loaded it.

Rising from cover, she fired on the rooftop.

There was a flash and a burst of smoke from her muzzle, and the rifle grenade soared over the parapet and detonated with a sharp, sudden crack like a heavy whip. Their sniper rose over the parapet once more, but there was no glint from their rifle. Disoriented and wounded, the sniper stumbled over the edge of the building and fell to their death below.

Lydia lowered her myrta, its barrel shroud smoking, red and hot.

From her side, one of the girls ran out, screaming and crying, dropping her rifle.

Lydia and Gwendolyn both shouted a warning that went unheeded.

“Silica, no!”

Silica dropped to her knees beside the knight slain on the road, her pants soaking up blood from the ground. Her partner, the victim, was still holding her neck, gurgling incomprehensible words that bubbled with blood. Everything had happened so fast that though it felt like an eternity, only seconds seem to have flown, and the girl was still dreadfully alive in her agony. Silica bent over the fallen knight, her head on the dying girl’s breastplate, and started to cry and shout. “Jasmine! Jasmine no! No please!”

“Get back here!” Lydia shouted. She was exposed in the middle of the street.

Her screaming could draw the enemy to them!

Gwendolyn removed the spent rifle-grenade cup from her rifle, punched out the blank, loaded a real magazine, and charged out to the road, perhaps aiming to drag Parthia back.

Watching all this transpire, Lydia hastily snapped off the spent top-loading magazine from her Myrta, and one of her companions shakily withdrew and loaded a new magazine.

As Gwendolyn cleared the street, a burst of gunfire went off.

Silica froze, shook, leaned, like a pillar struck with a sledgehammer.

Perforated in a dozen places by machine gun fire, she fell, forming a bloody heap along with Jasmine. Neither of them would gibber again. Cheek to cheek, they died then.

Lydia stood frozen for a second. Gwendolyn too.

But the world did not stop for anyone else.

From farther up the road a second burst of machine gun fire trailed the ground in front of Gwendolyn. She fell back, startled, and Lydia saw her last moments flash before her eyes. Riddled with bullets like a training dummy, her golden hair and peachy skin caked with blackening, clotting blood, a gorey fountain of it, and then the fall, twitching, ungainly–

Lydia underestimated her partner. Gwendolyn surged forward, and with an acrobatic tumble fit for the olympic stage, she soared over the corpses in their deathly embrace, hitting the ground hard, and taking a sudden roll to hide behind the elusive cable car.

Machine gun fire struck the corner of the alleyway, and Lydia hid again.

Her squadron followed, cowering against the bricks.

“What the hell is going on!” Lydia shouted.

She peered quickly around the corner and saw the muzzle flash of the Ayvartan machine gun. It was entrenched in one of the cable cars along the road farther ahead, near the top of a gently sloping hill. Lydia grit her teeth. Bracing the machine gun against the corner of the alley, she pivoted just enough to bring the barrel to bear on the enemy emplacement.

Her fingers rapped the trigger to fire a controlled burst.

Crack!

Suddenly the trigger was stuck fast, and the bolt caught, and nothing fed.

Her myrta was jammed.

She felt ice cold despair gripping her heart.

Just across the street from her, Gwendolyn crouched behind the cable car as a storm of gunfire flew all around her. Dozens of holes formed on the surface of the car, every window shattered, the doors unhinged, the front falling off, as it absorbed nearly endless gunfire from farther up the hill. Lydia stared between Gwendolyn and the hill and the corpses of Silica and Jasmine. Would that be them? Was that their fate all along?

Arsenica had led them to this fate.

Lydia grit her teeth, despair turning to anger.

Arsenica, 4th in line to the throne, had commanded brave Paladin Vittoria, 3rd in line, to hunt for an artillery position in this sector. Dutiful Arsenica, who had full control over 8th Division Ayvartan radio and full intelligence on its positions from the Council that once fully controlled and commanded these armies. How had this slipped from her grasp?

“Everyone throw smokes! We’re retreating!”

Lydia had hardly shouted this, when her own smoke grenade went out.

In the middle of the street, where the mailbox was, the gas cloud started to spread.

At her side, more of her comrades joined her, throwing their smoke grenades out.

Soon the entire street was covered by the cloud.

Within the cloud the red tracers flew erratically, like fireflies buzzing by.

Lydia drew in a deep breath, and ran out.

She could not see where she was going, and she felt the pressure build in her chest and head as she tried not to breathe the smoke. She nearly stumbled as she blindly cleared the street and stepped down into the gutter, and then onto the black. Her boots stamped something wet and grisly; she nearly tripped on the corpses she could only presume to have been lovers, and she grit her teeth, and she felt bile rising in her throat, and she hoped to God that they could be happy in heaven now, hoping not to join them soon.

Ahead of her she saw the outline of Gwendolyn in the smoke.

All around her, the machine gun tracers flew.

“Gwendolyn!”

She breathed in smoke, coughed.

Lydia took the final plunge, and ran straight into a bullet.

A rifle round struck the welding seam directly over her sternum.

It was like the force of a cannonball. Her chest felt like it would cave-in.

Her breastplate dented, her left breast quivered with agony.

Lydia, choked up, screaming, collapsed just short of the cable car.

Weeping with agony, she thought for sure that she was now dead.

Then she felt the hands, the desperate tugging and the gentle grasp on her hair.

Gwendolyn pulled her behind the cable car, and laid her on her lap.

“Lydia!”

She opened her eyes and amid the smoke saw her beloved’s radiant face.

She was dirty from the smoke, and the sweat.

There was blood on her forehead.

“Gwendolyn.” Lydia mumbled weakly. “Are you hurt?”

“I was grazed. You could’ve been killed! You should’ve retreated!”

“No. Not without you.” Lydia said.

She glanced back at the road.

Gwendolyn seized her head by the cheeks and pulled her gaze away from that.

“Stop it! Just. Don’t look at them.”

She winced as a fresh round of automatic fire flew past them.

Lydia coughed. Her chest was screaming with pain.

“Arsenica is trying to kill you.”

Gwendolyn looked over her shoulder as if she would see anything but the battered cable car at their backs. Perhaps as if she could see that artillery battery they had been sent to claim. This was maybe the most despair-inducing event that could occur to a soldier. To know that one’s commander, in whom one entrusts her very life, whose good faith is absolutely necessary to succeed in an operation, is sending you to death deliberately.

Though Gwendolyn did not cry for Lydia’s wounds, she was crying now.

Lydia almost wanted to smile. Gwendolyn was much more of a soldier than she knew.

She was a perfectly mannered lady, a skilled ballet dancer, a gymnast, a singer, the best hostess she ever knew, and a wonderful lover. But she had trained, for longer and harder than anyone gave her credit for. They all had; but for Gwendolyn it felt extraordinary.

“Gwendolyn, I love you. And I’m happy to die like this than live–”

Lydia cringed reflexively, and Gwendolyn grit her teeth and shut her eyes, as something with a lot of force sailed suddenly past them, parting smoke, very close and extremely fast.

There was an explosion in the near distance.

Lydia heard footsteps, and she heard the grinding turn of tank tracks.

Behind them, a Patriarch I tank of the airborne forces advanced past the cable car.

Several men moved up to the car, putting the tank between them and the enemy.

They crouched near the two knights and offered assistance.

“You two ok? You wounded? This is an 8th Division roadblock up ahead!”

Medics moved up. A Universal Carrier, an odd-looking little armored tractor, arrived.

Gwendolyn wiped away her tears.

“I love you too, Lydia.” She whispered, as the men arrived to take care of them.


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