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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Storm The Castle (68.3)

Solstice, Eastern Wall Defensive Line

“Yuck. It reminds me of the final scene in The Last Dragoon. I can’t stand to look.”

Parinita Maharani, Chief Warrant Officer for the 1st Guards Mechanized Division, put down the binoculars and averted her eyes from over the ramparts with disgust.

At her side, Brigadier General Madiha Nakar of the selfsame unit gently touched the woman’s shoulder, comforting her with her presence as best as she could just then.

Madiha held out her hand and her lover gave her the binoculars, and she looked herself at the battlefield. From the ramparts they could see the entire desert unfold before them, a desolate expanse of swirling ruddy sand. But it was hard to see anything around what remained of the First Gate of the Conqueror’s Way, kilometers away. There was so much rubble piled so high and the ramparts viewed the bridge at such an angle that it blocked the vantage. However, though they could not see the death directly around the bridge, on the edge of the desert they saw enough corpses and blood to confirm the slaughter.

“I have never seen that film, but I guess I can imagine what it must be like.” Madiha said.

Parinita got excitable and started to gesticulate wildly as she spoke. “They packed hunks of pork and tomatoes bound in gelatin into uniforms to resemble gore, for the aftermath of the fated charge into the machine guns. It was really gross! I think it just didn’t look like what you think a human being should, even in death, so it was really shocking!”

“I see. Well, death isn’t very pretty, you know? Not in any form, not even in action film.”

Madiha put down the binoculars. Her eyes felt a little heavy from what she had seen in the battlefield, even those little hints from that far way. It never got any easier to see bodies. One learned to not see them, to avoid acknowledging them after a fight. When forced to see the butchery for what it was, Madiha found her stomach unsettled by it all.

Parinita raised a hand to her hair and wrapped long, wavy strawberry locks around a finger. She looked a little embarassed and ashamed of her previous enthusiasm.

“Hey, I’m sorry Madiha. I was being glib, but seriously. I needed to do that to process it.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I’m always happy to hear you talk film, remember?” Madiha replied.

She smiled at Parinita, her lover, confidante, and primary support personnel.

It was a hard smile to hold up, but it was worth it for her. Anything was.

“Right. I get carried away sometimes, though. But, anyway! It looks like the coast is clear.”

Parinita waved a hand over the desert. Madiha smiled and nodded at her lover.

They were dozens of meters above the ground, standing a few meters removed from the edge barriers of the Eastern Wall ramparts. Solstice’s heat bore down on them, it was past midday. Madiha could vaguely hear, even off in a great distance, the firing of the rampart guns on the Southern Wall of the city, which also under attack. Nocht had finally pushed far enough ahead, and slashed through enough of the defenses (or in this case at least, bolted past them), to besiege Solstice directly. Madiha had been put in charge of the defense of the Conqueror’s Way, though she had her own intentions for it.

Conqueror’s Way was so named because it was the route taken into Solstice by several conquering kings in antiquity. It used to be a rocky wasteland. It was said that whoever crossed the Conqueror’s Way, and then left the city victorious and paraded down the Way once more, and survived both journeys, would bless their rule to last a lifetime.

In modernity, it was a massive bridge, its length in the thousands of meters of stone and concrete and steel, suspended just shy of the rushing waters of the great Qural river. Once upon a time it boasted many fortifications; all of which had been pounded to rubble by repeated high-altitude bombardment during the preceding months.

Conqueror’s Way was as close as bombers could get to Solstice before the defenses got them, and as such presented the safest place to bomb where Solstice could heard it.

For a few weeks it had been a topic of great terror how Conqueror’s Way was destroyed.

Madiha intended to ride out through this bridge, or what was left of it, a hero herself.

But not yet; now was not the right time.

For now, she trusted the defenders on the remaining walls, and focused on her own.

“I have to wonder why they thought they could cross Conqueror’s Way with a company.”

Parinita turned to face Madiha with a quizzical expression. Madiha crossed her arms.

“I wager we have succeeded in hiding our numbers from aerial reconnaissance. They must have thought we left the bridge undefended after overflying and bombing it so much and seeing nobody there. Without troops on the bridge, they could walk to the very gate. Likely they intended to absorb the casualties inflicted by the rampart gunners, using those sacrifices as a means to attack the gate itself and ultimately breach the wall.”

“I guess after all that bombing they did, they must have been ready to believe it paid off.”

“That’s precisely why I allowed them the chance. It wound up helping us.” Madiha said.

In truth, there would’ve been a remote possibility of defending the bridge against air attacks. Madiha had calculated that scenario as well. Solstice’s anti-air defenses were strongest at the walls and within the city, and they were focused almost singularly on preventing overflight of the walls. It was possible, like with any artillery, to extend its cover beyond its typical range, to reorganize and retrain the shooters, and thereby extend a thin cover from the Eastern Wall’s dedicated Anti-Air to cover the Way.

It would’ve been bloody.

Conqueror’s Way was far more exposed than any part of Solstice.

Therefore, sacrificing expert anti-air gunners for the task did not sit right with Madiha, especially when the bridge could be so much more useful as a pile of rubble. Nobody understood it except her. The symbolic Conqueror’s Way, bombed out, empty. It was an enticing target, and the enemy took the bait. She had rebuffed a Company-sized attack and destroyed likely the entire enemy unit without casualties using only her recon troops. All because of deception and concealment. She found herself feeling oddly clever and elated, thinking to herself now that her deception had saved lives and killed foes.

“You got the first after-action reports in, right? What do you think?” Madiha asked.

“Gulab and Charvi were just a touch more reckless than they should’ve been.” Parinita said. “It feels like every time you give them an inch they want to fight it all themselves.”

“I will have words with them later.” Madiha replied gently.

“You should, they’re officers, and officers need to mind the back more in this army.”

Madiha nodded. “Well, right now, Chief Warrant Officer, our Kajari and Chadgura–”

Parinita grinned and laid her hands on her hips. “–Jeez, Madiha, you’re so formal–”

“–managed to produce a result,” Madiha continued, unimpeded by her lover’s teasing.

“I know!” Parinita said. “They have it harder than us. Still, it pays to be careful.”

Madiha nodded again. Sometimes she wondered how they did it.

Madiha had been an officer almost all of her career. She had fought on the front several times, and endangered her life plenty; but she could count the number of times she had been in danger at the head of an attack. For a grunt, it was every day, until the days were indeterminate. People like Gulab and Chadgura had volunteered to face death every day. Madiha was always called back to her headquarters. She was far safer than any of them.

She had to play disciplinarian, but a certain guilt tempered her response to recklessness.

“I’ll reacquaint them with the value of their lives.” Madiha said, half-jokingly.

As the desert wind blew away the scent of war, the two of them continued to watch the desert. Defense was not glamorous, and wars of defense even less so. All tales of great wars told of massive offenses and glorious charges and sweeping encirclements. Cunning was sang of when paired with initiative, and forgotten if not. So far, the Golden Army had strengthened itself and proven a tenacious defender, but Nocht kept coming, and they were driven to their last wall. All they could do was wait for an enemy to show up to fight. There was no means for them to launch effective attacks right now.

Sitting idle like this, awaiting battle on the enemy’s initiative, took a toll. On the soldiers, absolutely. But also on Madiha, who felt keenly the weight of her decisions every day.

Every defense had a cost. Today’s defenses, so far, had been free. This would change.

Madiha felt exhausted.

She could hardly believe she was still moving fluidly and standing tall.

Parinita hid it well, behind that pretty face and charming smile. But she was hurting too.

It had been a hellish, evil year, 2031.

“I think in Psychology they call it The Uncanny. You know?” Parinita said suddenly.

She had a finger on her cherry-red painted lips, and was staring off in thought.

“What are you talking about?” Madiha asked.

“Oh, um, sorry, I mean the thing from before. About how unsettling the fake corpses were in The Last Dragoon. I remember some papers on film psychology I read about that. It’s because of the unreality of it, you know? We expect things to be a certain way, but war just feels unreal to experience. At least, that’s what I believe. This violence, and all.”

Parinita shifted a little nervously on her feet. Her tongue was starting to slip from her.

Madiha nodded her head. She had understood; and she especially understood having a thought and having it turned to molten cheese in your brain by your own neuroses.

“I agree. We have an idea of what death should look like. And none of this feels right.”

“I feel it’s more that we don’t know how to think about any of it, even now.”

Parinita put her back to one of the rampart barriers and crossed her arms.

Next to her, a 76mm gun stood sentinel. It was unmanned, because the gunners were ready to rotate, and had gone on a little break. Solstice’s heat, especially on the walls, could easily reach 40 degrees or worse, and would cook one’s brain on a full shift. All essential personnel in Solstice’s defense had to be redundant, and consistently rotated.

“I go on my day to day treating it like a job, or like a favor that I’m doing for my girlfriend. When I’m alone, and I have time to myself, and there’s all the reports in front of me and all that. But looking at it like this, being confronted by it, its so eerie. I vacillate from thinking of it like a math problem. I think about stupid essay questions. ‘A train leaves the station carrying 100 tons of ammunition’ and so on.” Parinita continued, raising a finger into the air. “I am good at those. I also think of it like film sometimes. Prologue, act one, act two, climax; and the actors working tirelessly. But that’s not what it is. Just like tomatoes and pork set into jelly aren’t really a murdered human body.”

Madiha remembered what she said before. Parinita was trying to process it. She had to; to try to rationalize the unreality of everything. To try to find a way to live sanely with what they were all doing. That was Parinita. Madiha tried to shove things out of the way of her mind, the same way that same mind pushed physical things with its power.

Reaching out a hand idly, Madiha pushed on a stone on the wall and levitated it.

Parinita followed the stone around with her eyes, like a cat watching a toy.

It was odd that the most unreal thing among them was the easiest one to accept.

“Well. You’re more normal than I am I think. I think of war as a game.” Madiha said.

She was instantly ashamed of it, but she said it.

It helped at least that Parinita did not look disgusted or judging.

She smiled warmly at Madiha, catching the levitated stone out of the air in her fist.

“I learned to strategize via Academy war games. To me, its chess, except, I’m good at it.”

Madiha looked out over the desert and sighed.

It put her in a foul mood to think of it like that.

All those corpses on the desert.

Those misbegotten fools whom she hated; and yet they died because, she was better? Because she had outplayed them? Gambled and won? Any number of metaphors, they were all wrong. They all made the conflict out to be a game, or a film, or a story. There was no way to capture what had happened that wasn’t completely, utterly insane.

“Like I said before, we have to do it to process. We have to do something to understand and to carry on with the fight. We’re the victims here, after all.” Parinita replied. As soon as she said it, she seemed frustrated with herself. “I don’t even know why I’m thinking about this, to be honest. Maybe I am going insane now. It’d be inconvenient as hell.”

“You’re not insane. You’re tired. I’m tired.” Madiha said. “I haven’t slept in a week.”

“I’ve slept poorly. Maybe we need to get in bed together.” Parinita said, beaming cheekily.

“We’ve done plenty of that.” Madiha replied.

“Hah, look who’s lewd now? And you say I’m the minx here. I meant nothing erotic by it.”

Parinita put on a little grin and pretended to be innocent, circling her finger over head as if to suggest there was an angelic halo in the space over it, and not devilish little horns.

“I know you too well.” Madiha replied, grinning herself.

“Say I was being lewd, what would you do about it?”

Parinita took a few steps forward with hands behind her back and leaned into Madiha.

With a gloved finger, she pulled a little on the neck and collar of her shirt and winked.

“I’d sort you out and make you proper again.” Madiha replied.

She turned briefly toward Parinita and slipped her own finger down her coat and the neck of her shirt to grip on it and give it a teasing little tug. Parinita tittered happily.

Madiha was so glad for the shift in the conversation, even if it was a little out there.

“Let’s calm down for right now though. It’s too hot out and the gunners return soon.”

“Hey, I’m a paragon of self-control.” Parinita replied, pressing a hand against her breast.

“Right. Anyway, get the map, we’ll do one last check to make sure we report everything–”

Still feeling jovial, Madiha lifted the binoculars back up to her eyes.

There were the corpses, some of her own soldiers in parts of the bridge where she could see them, such as atop the mounds of rubble that once were gates. There was a sizeable amount of sand, and the Khamsin blowing in from the southeast was turning the air just a touch dusty and yellow, even over the Qural river. Satisfied, Madiha looked farther out.

Parinita returned and pressed herself close to the General.

“I got the map here, so what do you want to–”

Madiha spied something in the desert sand, something– uncanny.

Something large, something difficult to place. Something that shouldn’t have been there.

“Parinita, call back the rampart gunners, now. Right now!” Madiha shouted.


Observers on the eastern wall, such as General Nakar, and even those along the ground with the recon troops on Conqueror’s Way, finally spotted the enemy that now made itself known amid rising and falling dunes of the red desert. It had been carefully crawling in the distance, taking whatever path put the most geometry between itself and the walls. It had come close enough now; nothing could disguise its size, the smoke, the men around it, the vehicles that supported it. This was a battalion-sized formation.

But it was all concentrated around a single, monstrously large entity.

A massive series of camouflage nets shed from its bulk, and sand sifted off its surfaces as if it had risen from the desert like a whale from water. It had traversed the desert on the backs of several tracked tank transporters. Scopes and spyglasses could see letters on the side of the massive, metallic conveyance that held the weapon in its place for travel.

RKPX-003 VISHAP.

Around it, men in yellow and ash-gray uniforms unlocked the crate, and its lid came crashing down like a ramp. Inside, an engine roared to life, loud as a howling dragon.

Around the side of the great machine, two men watched the unfolding deployment.

“Well, General, I believe I have successfully infiltrated your weapon past enemy lines.”

One of the men sighed and patted down his own cap against his head.

“Oh, shut up, Von Drachen.”


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Dominoes (64.1)

This scene contains violence.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Council

Palladin Arsenica Livia Varus felt her brain trembling as she tried to process the sudden, deadly turn in her fortunes. She had hastily recalled all of her radio personnel back to her communications room upon discovering Von Drachen’s escape, and there she stood, pacing, rubbing her temples, eyes wide open, jaw hanging open enough to gasp.

“Order all units to fall back to Council and Ocean Road! Shut them down immediately!”

This nonspecific order belied her helplessness. On all sides the Ayvartan attack was slicing through her units. She was being pushed back from Rangda University, from the old 8th Division base, from Ocean Road itself. Madiha Nakar had come suddenly alive again and was sweeping her aside wherever she moved. Arsenica tried to raise her voice but her voice was not a gun, and all around the Lady Paladin, her guns were being silenced, one by one, shot by shot. Radio contact was sketchy at best, and she was short on field leadership.

It was almost enough to make her regret having sacrificed the Paladin combat team once led by her rival for the throne, Gwendolyn Vittoria. Almost, but not quite. She had her pride and still, and this pride was the rod set against her spine and keeping her upright. Throughout the battle, she waited, and she paced, and she hovered like a grim reaper over her radio personnel, over her tactical advisors, over the maps on the battlefield table.

“I want the Cheshires to dig in right on Ocean Road, do not allow anything through! I want barricades erected with whatever can be spared, and I want every gun we’ve got peering over or around cover and shooting until we’re out of ammunition! Use captured Ayvartan weapons, use anything! Throw rocks if you have to! We cannot let them through!”

Paladin Arsenica shouted as if it was a lack of effort and motivation that rendered a rock unable to pierce a tank. Her radio personnel relayed her orders with trembling voices and shaking hands, and they sat at the edge of their seats as if standing on tip-toe, nervously awaiting futile replies. There was nothing for them to hear back save incredulity and desperation, none of which was communicated back to the Paladin. But she was not as foolish as everyone around her assumed, not completely. She knew what was happening.

She was content, however, to remain uninformed. Ignorance allowed for some hope.

Then came the dreadful final blow in the place least expected. Northern Rangda, so stable, quiet, the bulwark sector that had been clinched by the elves at the start of the battle, began to call Arsenica’s headquarters. They called for help. Arsenica’s operators could hardly pass on the depth of the fear in their contact’s voices, and so Arsenica was coaxed into speaking and listening personally. She discovered then that horrific, final truth.

Amid sounds of heated gunfire, a woman’s voice pleaded, “Lady Paladin, we need support right away, the 8th Division is attacking every defensive line, and they’ve broken through to the east and south, heading into Ocean Road! We can’t contain them like this!”

Arsenica said nothing, and put the handset back onto the radio, and turned away.

The 8th Division, which had been several times humiliated, demoralized, broken, disarmed. Pushed into hiding in the darkest, deepest recesses of the city, cut off from supply and command, their communications compromised. Madiha Nakar had damaged them and the elven landings had broken them. So then, why? How? She thought she was hearing all their radio chatter: were they sending fake broadcasts and communicating personally among themselves? She could have sworn they were defeated, and yet here they were, using the last of their blood, bayonets and paltry ammunition to assault her.

And they were winning.

And they had won.

When this sudden surge of manpower met the lines of the Ayvartan motorized infantry under Nakar, they would become as floodwater uncontained. Surely that was their goal; any fool could see that Madiha Nakar had struck some kind of bargain with her former enemies against the threat of the elves, and this was the result. Arsenica had nothing that could stop such a press of bodies. She was barely hanging on as it was because Madiha Nakar had to stretch herself thin to cover the entirety of Arsenica’s line, as she desired to.

Had Von Drachen realized what was happening? She had taken an interest in him, but like all the toys of her girlhood, she had ignored him and was all but ready to discard him.

She could not indulge this fantasy for too long; gunfire erupted outside.

There was an explosion, one not distant enough, that alarmed the whole building.

The Paladin stared out the door, speechless.

Everyone in the room was looking at her.

Arsenica had a haunted appearance. Her skin had turned ghost-pale, her eyes shadowed.

She turned to the radio operators, then cast a sweeping glare at the knights out in the hall.

“What are you all waiting for? An order to retreat? You will receive none! You will remain here or lose your honor as cowards! Who do you think you are? Who do you think I am?”

She drew her sword, and advanced out into the hall, red in the face.

There was a yelp of fear and a most surprising result.

As Arsenica raised her hand to strike down the first subordinate who looked to eager to run, she was struck in the face by an iron-gloved fist. She felt the cold of the gauntlet and the heat of rushing blood as the fist swiped across her face. Arsenica dropped to the ground, bloody, her nose broken, in excruciating pain. She looked through her hands, pressing on her own face and mouth as if trying to keep the blood in, and saw the face of a stoic, black-haired elven woman, who gave her a filthy look as she lay on the carpet.

“Gisella?” Arsenica cried, in disbelief and despondence.

Gisella turned her back and left the hall at a brisk pace.

From around the departing knight, some lesser subordinates became emboldened.

Three younger girls approached Arsenica, and with vengeance in their eyes, lifted their metal boots and kicked. They struck her breasts, her belly, her limbs. Arsenica cried out and pleaded, but they neither intended to sustain their assault nor stay it completely. Each girl delivered several quick, hit and run kicks, before running away, peeling back one by one as each had their seconds fill of thrashing their superior. Shaking, bleeding, hardly able to move, Arsenica curled up on the ground, and cried, her vision blurring with pain.

Passing beside her, the radio personnel then fled, thankfully without violence.

Within minutes, the hallway and the room and maybe the council building, were empty.

Empty, save for a blonde, classically-elven girl, shaking in her ill-fitting breastplate.

She looked barely an adult and her eyes were filled with tears.

When everyone had left, she approached Arsenica.

The Paladin covered her body with her arms as best as she could, and curled up.

She was expecting to be struck, but instead, the girl touched her gently.

“Lady Paladin, I’m sorry, please, lets get you back up.”

Arsenica groaned, every inch of her body screaming with pain as the girl helped her to stand on one foot, and supported the woman over her shoulder. Huffing and puffing with the effort, the girl struggled to get Arsenica back into the communications room, where she laid her on the couch, and wiped the blood from her face, and brought her wine.

“It’s my ration ma’am. You can have it.”

She poured the drink between Arsenica’s broken, bloody lips.

It was hot. That wine had been in a tin pressed against this girl’s body for days.

And yet, that strange act of kindness gave the drink a strange potency.

Arsenica did not feel better. She could not. But she felt an odd inkling of relief.

Watching her drink, the girl started wiping her own tears, and looking down at her.

“I’m so sorry ma’am. I couldn’t– I wouldn’t have been able to fight them all. I was scared if I pulled my gun they would all start shooting and everyone would die. I’m so sorry.”

She locked eyes with her battered superior, pulling back the tin once it was empty.

“You– you don’t deserve it ma’am. I admired you for a very long time ma’am. Those girls have no upbringing! How dare they do this. I wish I could’ve stopped it. I’m so sorry about everything. All of us, if we’d tried harder, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I’m sorry.”

That girl apologized more and more and the reasons why made less and less sense.

Arsenica wanted to ask her for her name, but she couldn’t find the strength to talk.

Instead, she curled up tighter, and wept, traumatized and uncomprehending.


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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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“V”: The Loss Of Innocence

This chapter contains violence and death.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Southern Dbagbo

Guns sounded from the treeline, and flashes pierced the gloom cast by the wood.

From the edge of the forest sailed dozens of shells that soared over the open fields and crashed all along the defensive line. Huddled against the earthworks, infantry of the 3rd Rhino Rifle Division cringed back as columns of earth and shattered wood and splintered stone went up into the air in front of their faces. They hid farther back in their trenches, the defenses stacked three deep, each several dozen meters long in an arrowhead shape.

Several minutes and seemingly a hundred shells later, the tanks began to advance from the forest. M4 Sentinel medium tanks led the charge, over two dozen of them, followed by small concentrations of lighter M5 Rangers and a scant few M3 Hunter assault guns with their distinctive hull-mounted cannons. They rolled over the broad green prairie like a storm of steel, rushing the defenses at full steam. Machine guns blared from the front hulls of the M4s and M5s, fired by the assistant drivers, and every few seconds one or more or the tanks fired a cannon volley, putting shells closer and closer into the interior trenches. Creeping and creeping, the tanks and their ordnance broke the defenders.

Unable to suffer the advance of the enemy, the men in the trenches scrambled out of their positions. As they ran the machine guns never ceased firing, and many were cut down where they stood. Anti-tank guns lay abandoned behind the trenches, having never attempted to fire a shot — the old short-barreled 45mm gun was too ineffective beyond 500 meters to matter in this engagement. Well before the first tracks hit the trench walls, the defenses were deserted, and there lay corpses everywhere, hidden beneath the yellow and red flowers and the dew-licked green grasses that stretched behind the trench line.

A kilometer removed from this carnage, the second defensive line began to break from the sights captured in their binoculars and scopes. Men and women dropped their rifles and tore their uniforms and fled into the woods and hills. Without their commanding officer around to shout at them or shoot them discipline was breaking. Aside from being a kilometer farther than the first line, the second line was not much different. Three columns of trenches, each quite long and deep, fortified with wooden logs and sandbags and rocks and whatever could be sourced in a pinch. Dilapidated old anti-tank guns provided meager support for the defense. Once more, not a shot was fired by them.

Several hundred meters away from this scene, Cadao Chakma did not even attempt to rally the defenders of the second line. Doing such a thing would have compromised her plan, wasted her time, irreparably damaged the winning solution that she had drafted.

As much as she desired to save the infantry, doing so was not her job, for she was not an officer, and in fact should not even have been a combatant. These were desperate times, for a chief warrant officer to be fighting out her own plans. From a wooded hill halfway between the lines and offset farther south, cleverly concealed with netting and fake bush, she watched the lines break and the tanks begin to cross the flower field between the two sets of earthworks. It was on this soft ground that she desired her enemy, and she waited.

It was painful to watch the infantry struggle so much, but she had found the winning solution. Cadao was a solver of problems and she had solved this problem in this way. She hated herself for it, and she felt her heart hurt, but this was the only way, she knew.

All she could do was watch and to pray that her solution was truly the winning one.

“On my signal, all guns will fire until ammunition is exhausted, or the enemy retreats.”

In response, every crew started to load explosive shells and to stack replacements.

There was no need for detailed instructions. Her crews were not trained enough to perform any complicated fire orders. Everything they were going to shoot was pre-sited and pre-calculated. All they had to do was load the “150’s” as they called them, and pull to shoot.

Cadao raised her binoculars to her eyes and followed the tanks on their journey to the second defensive line, which was growing more barren of troops by the passing second.

It happened quickly; a plume of smoke rose suddenly somewhere within the tank formations, burning under a few flowers, its origin point invisible amid the moving mass of armor. One tank, an inconsequential M5 Ranger, stalled. Around it, every other tank continued a dauntless advance. Another tank stopped. Its front sank into the ground. And a third, a valuable M4 this time, stopped abruptly, its hatch thrown open by fire.

One by one the tanks started to stall. Some hit pre-dug pits, others drove too close to the ponds and mud puddles caused by the Dbagdo rain and hidden under the prairie flora, and became mired. Still more struck mines, causing them to de-track. Roughly a quarter of the fifty or sixty tanks in motion became trapped, and caused problems for the bulk of the formation that followed behind them. They slowed and turned in place and started to inch around the stalled tanks, trying to negotiate the obstacle presented by their trapped comrades as well as avoiding the traps that immobilized them in the first place.

As the ranks of the panzer battalion became disorganized, Cadao raised her fist to signal.

Her own treeline lit up as brilliantly as the opposing treeline had before.

Dozens of 152mm shells hurtled out from the wooded hill and directly into the prairie.

Where they struck the earth, great geysers of mud and upturned flowers and chewed-up turf went flying into the air. After the first few volleys the artillery crews scored their first grazes on moving and immobilized tanks. Detonations within a meter or two of a tank caused the tracks of the medium tanks to scatter in every direction, and the sides to collapse inward from the explosive pressure. Light tanks failed to survive even the lightest grazes, and any shell that struck anywhere near them left hundreds of shrapnel holes in their thin armor, and set the engines ablaze, and caused hatches to collapse inward.

There were few direct hits, but each was remarkably brutal. An M4, stricken directly in the neck of its turret, was beheaded, and gunner, loader and commander were sent flying in pieces along with their gun and equipment, leaving behind a hull akin to a squashed can. M5 Lights practically disintegrated when struck, their side walls and half the turrets and chunks of the engine compartment disappearing entirely, leaving behind gaping wounds that billowed thick black smoke and tongues of red fire and no sign of survivors within.

Nobody was counting the volleys, nobody was counting the kills. Cadao watched in silence as barrage after barrage went out. On the wooded hill the crews did nothing but load and shoot as fast as possible, collectively launching hundreds of shells for every minute passed. Maybe a dozen minutes and a thousand shells later the supply was utterly cooked off, hundreds of crates emptied and discarded behind her, and the beautiful prairie was reduced to a cratered hellscape, not a meter of grass or a single flower left amid the sea of craters, amid the chewed-up ground and dozens of burning, mutilated metal coffins.

Not a single tank would make it to the second defensive line. All of the lead formation was crippled or destroyed; Cadao took a moment to finally count, and found 24 tanks of various types destroyed. She spotted at least thirty more tanks, most in states of injury, others perfectly intact, all turning and speeding back over the first trench and into the forest.

She sighed deeply. Despite the loss of her C.O., the cowardice and ill preparedness of the infantry, and the inexperience of her own artillery, she had somehow turned back an overwhelming assault. She had perhaps bought the rear echelon of Battlegroup Rhino a day or two worth of respite to reorganize the line and plug the gap here. Whether they could manage to do so was another matter. Dbagbo was slowly but surely falling.

After sighing, letting out all the bad air, she smiled, not for herself, but for the others.

“Good job! Abandon the guns and let us run east to the HQ. If we are lucky, we may be able to return at night and hitch these guns back with some trucks or horses. Move out!”

Cadao was no leader, she thought. She was just someone who liked to come up with solutions, almost like a hobby, at first. But now everyone seemed to defer to her, and to give her the opportunity to solve the problems she saw. And so without question, without the honor of marking their barrels or even celebrating this victory, the artillery crews abandoned their guns, taking only food and water, and followed her out to the field.

Seeing the state of her troops, Cadao wondered whether any amount of planning could turn around the battered wills of her people — and her own flagging hope as well.

Watching the remnants of the infantry flee, she thought that perhaps her people were too gentle now for this war. Perhaps they could not cope anymore with carnage, after peace.


47th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Eastern Dbagbo

After being relieved of duty for abandoning her artillery post, and being confined to camp in the far rear echelon, Cadao thought she would at least have some peace and privacy and time for herself in a state of “tent arrest.” However, one odd morning, the military police practically fled from around her tent, and were soon replaced by one surprising guest.

“Chief Warrant Officer Cadao Chakma, your presence is requested at the motor pool.”

Cadao was startled by the messenger suddenly barging into her tent. She was quite a mess; jotting down imaginary mobilization plans for the nation on a little notebook, her honey-brown skin was slick with sweat, and she was dressed in little more than an immodest tanktop and short pants. Her hair was disheveled. She had zipped up her tent, to prevent just such an intrusion, but the intruder had simply ripped it open to deliver the missive.

“Don’t just barge in!”

She threw her standard issue booklet of socialist wisdom at the messenger’s face, and found the stoic-faced most unconcerned by the attack. After being struck between the eyes, hardly even flinching, the messenger backed away, and waited outside instead. Judging by her behavior, she must have been with the KVW. Cadao blinked, and scrambled to dress herself, finding pieces of her uniform here and there, tying her hair into a ponytail, and gathering up her notes and proposals into a satchel to take with her.

Once ready, she stepped outside the tent, and nervously saluted the messenger.

“No hard feelings.” responded the messenger.

Cadao sighed. At least she was being let out of her tent now.

The messenger led her from her prison tent, which was large and cozy and strung up under a decorative tree planted just off the Gulguru train station platform, and onto the platform itself, and past several rows of track to a train that was recently arrived amid the hustle and bustle of the unannounced but practically unavoidable evacuation from Dbagbo.

Cadao certainly had no knowledge of its presence prior to seeing it there, but then again, she had little special knowledge of who came and went since her punishment. The train was armored, and heavily armed, but it dragged behind itself one car that was red and gilded and fancifully decorated, the kind of car that once upon a time brought holiday-makers on a tour through the wonders of Ayvarta. It was to this car that she was led.

Inside the train car, there was practically a tea party set up. On a table with a frilly cloth and rose-pattern embroidery, lay a set of a porcelain tea cups and plates. There were cakes, halva, and what smelled like fresh coffee, and black tea, and funky yak’s milk. Sugary syrup and honey were plentiful. Behind this table, a woman poured herself a cup, and with a hand gesture invited Cadao to sit down and partake of the sweet little spread.

Behind Cadao, the messenger left the car, and walked around the side of the train.

“Hujambo! I am Commissar-General Halani Kuracha. Please sit!”

She gestured once more for Cadao to sit, and so, Cadao sat.

When she heard the word ‘Commissar’ Cadao always thought of a taciturn older man, but before her there was a young, slender woman, brown-skinned, black-haired, with gentle features. Her hair was arranged in a cutesy, charmingly messy pair of twin tails. Her most striking feature was her eyes, each a different color behind a pair of round spectacles. As she busied herself stirring honey into a cup of coffee and yak’s milk, Cadao stared.

“I am stricken by your expression; you have lovely eyes, C.W.O.” Kuracha said.

Cadao, alarmed, sat up straighter, feeling a jolt along her back.

“I suppose so! They’re my mother’s eyes.” She said nervously.

Kuracha tapped her spoon on her cup, dripping off coffee from it.

She pointed the instrument at Cadao with a foxy grin on her face.

“Such a beautiful combination of features. If I could hazard a guess, Kitanese?”

Cadao averted her eyes momentarily, rubbing one hand on the opposite forearm.

“Um, well, I consider myself– just Ayvartan.” Cadao replied, suddenly self-conscious.

“Oh, I know. But you understand where I’m coming from, right? Certainly your blood runs many colors, it must have, to have assembled such a pleasant tapestry of features.”

Cadao blinked and shivered. Was she being flirted with? Was this flirting?

Kuracha had certainly developed an almost lascivious grin. It could be flirting.

Still, Cadao did not have to indulge it, if it was. “My mother was Kitanese. I’m Ayvartan.”

She said this in a voice that was low and reserved, and Kuracha took notice.

“Ah, comrade, you needn’t continue to assert such things. I do not come at this from a position of prejudice. I myself come from the stock of a north solstice desert tribe, the Budii. My people were barbarian raiders in antiquity. Now they farm along the Marduk.”

She waved her hands as if to blow away the anxiety in the air.

“There a lot of those tribes, aren’t there?” Cadao said, trying to make conversation.

She had never seen a tribeswoman quite like Kuracha. But then again there were few Kitanese that looked quite like Cadao did. Circumstances easily overcame one’s blood.

“Hundreds. Some are still out there, living their lives the ancient way.” Kuracha said.

“I see.”

“It’s a harsh life. I prefer the gentle glow of civilization.” Kuracha replied.

Cadao would not ask whether she thought the use of the word civilization implied her people’s ways to be savagery or barbarism still. She was not good at conversations or interrogations and she was starting to buckle under Kuracha’s boisterous presence. Whatever Kuracha’s ideas on cultures and ethnicities, it did not matter right then.

“Um, for what reason was I summoned, Commissar.” Cadao asked.

“Punctual! I like that.” Kuracha said, pointing an index finger at her like a gun.

Cadao started to sweat again. Was this how people flirted? She just did not know!

Kuracha looked her in the eyes, and her voice took on a less casual tone. “I was dispatched here to quickly retrieve you; your presence is wanted in Solstice, as part of a potential new military high command, likely to be approved soon by the Council and the KVW.”

“My presence?” Cadao blinked. “Military High Command?” Her mind started to spiral away, and her heart rushed. She found it hard to process anything. “How? What?”

“Cadao Chakma. You submitted a thesis to officer school for a potential mobilization plan in case of a southern invasion, four years ago.” Kuracha calmly explained, taking a sip of her coffee between sentences. “Your proposal was rejected and you were barred entry. It was completely politically motivated — you arrived, unfortunately, in time for demilitarization to enter the lexicon. But Solstice recognizes your worth now.”

Her worth. She felt her heart swell and her eyes drew wide open.

It was as if a bright light had exploded in the darkened recesses of her mind.

Something warm and satisfying and powerful welled up within her.

They had read her plans, seen the work of her imagination.

And they thought she was right enough to support. She felt herself glowing.

“All of that is true,” Cadao began, her speech excited, quick, “but that plan was for a potential war against a resurgent Mamlakha and Cissea, not against the Nocht Federation! To draft an effective mobilization plan I would need new data, both on us and on them.”

Kuracha grinned. “Excitable now, are we?”

Cadao caught herself, and drew back into her own shell once more.

Kuracha laughed. “You can have anything you want.”

She gestured behind herself and clapped her hands.

Behind her a door opened, and the next car over had one its rear door pulled open too.

Inside Cadao saw a veritable library.

“Are those–?”

“Copies of records from the Solstice archive.”

Cadao was speechless. It was wall to wall in that massive train car.

“I should get to work.” She said, still stunned by this turn of events.

Kuracha clapped her hands cheerfully. “You should.”


55th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City, South Gate

Council had fallen bloodlessly, and Daksha Kansal was elevated to Premier.

After a short confrontation, Cadao managed to hold her own against the Premier well enough to receive her post, and she quickly set about to work. Her people, her gentle, peace-loving Ayvartan people, her farmers, her factory workers; she had, as was her custom, identified their problem, and come up with a solution. It was a dire solution.

Under Kansal, Cadao Chakma was now the civilian head of the armed forces. Battle plans were not her responsibility; as she sat, in a small restaurant just off Solstice’s south gate, her head swam with production numbers, potential efficiencies, procurements, R&D, and other engineering and logistical topics. The Wall outside dwarfed everything around it ten times over, and the gate, too, was massive, and very visible even inside the restaurant, even in an aisle seat. Despite this, she paid it little attention. She had become accustomed to the wall and no longer marveled at it. It was big. There were bigger edifices in the world.

Her people, this war, and the structure of communism.

Those were far bigger than the Walls.

She had turned over these problems and her own solutions in her head, over and over.

Always she attacked her own answers. She had to be completely certain.

There was too much now riding on her decisions.

She thought she would be ready for her new position. But it was one thing to solve small problems. From the heights she had attained, she saw a world an infinitude larger than before, and she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem before her.

And she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the solutions.

Everything hung in the balance.

Not only flesh and blood, but now the soul, too.

“Hujambo, here’s your lentils.”

“Thank you.”

A gentle serving girl with frizzy hair beneath a scarf laid down a bowl of lentils and a spread of flatbreads, and accompaniments like mint yogurt and mango-chili puree. Cadao poured the mango-chili mix into the lentil soup and mixed it up. She did this almost absentmindedly, while looking over a thick folder of documents she had prepared.

“Um, excuse me. You’re with the army, right?”

At her side, the service girl looked at her with meek eyes.

Cadao was in uniform and clearly looking at military-stamped documents.

But she was gentle; she was a part of a gentle people and she was gentle herself.

“Indeed, I am.” She said. She smiled. “Is there anything I can do for you, comrade?”

“Yes. Um. I know this is silly but. Have you heard or served with a lad my age, name of Kambaru Chafulu? He,” she paused for a moment, “He means a lot to me, and I–”

“I’m afraid I haven’t.” Cadao replied.

“Thank you. I am sorry to trouble to you.”

There were tears in the girl’s eyes as she bowed down, and turned swiftly away.

A soft and soft-hearted girl, victim of this war.

There would be more if her answers were not the correct ones.

Cadao sighed deeply.

She returned to work, reading over the same lines, doing the math in her head.

Over and over and over, attacking every line from every angle.

There was a war in her head, and it was this war, and it was its own.

Should those two meet, there would be great success.

And if she could not force them together, reality would crush her gentle people.

“Hujambo.”

It was a deeper voice this time. Cadao looked up.

Appearing at the side of the table was Premier Daksha Kansal. Tall, serious in expression, almost regal, with mixed black and grey hair in a big bun, dark skin and eyes, and a face that was only mildly weathered by age and suffering. She looked mature, but perhaps not entirely her own age. Her uniform was unchanged since becoming Premier. She wore the KVW black, red and gold, without visible honors. Her demeanor, attitude, the way she held her head high and her gaze hard, made it obvious that she was a person of authority.

She was a vibrant character who gave off a fiery aura.

Cadao, at first, buckled completely in her presence. Now, she felt more uncomfortable with her own thoughts than with anything Daksha Kansal could say or do.

“Have a seat, comrade Premier.” Cadao said.

Kansal nodded, and sat opposite her.

Soon, the girl appeared again, her eyes and cheeks clearly marked with dried tears.

“What will you have, comrade?” She asked.

“Hello, Yanna.” Kansal said.

She waved gently. Opposite her, the girl stared for a moment and then gasped.

“You’re the one who helped get me to a doctor, weren’t you?” Yanna said.

Cadao looked between Daksha and the girl with a quizzical expression.

“I only made a few phone calls.” Kansal said.

Yanna bowed deeply.

“I apologize ma’am. My brother should not have asked such a thing of you.”

“He was a child concerned for his family. We should all be so caring toward each other.”

“Thank you ma’am.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank the doctor for your speedy recovery. I will have what Cadao had.”

Yanna bowed again, and skipped and hopped away to the kitchen, giggling.

How quickly the whims of her people turned! Cadao thought, they were truly soft souls.

It hurt her heart, how kind everyone was.

“So, talk to me about this plan of yours.” Kansal said.

“That was why you chose this restaurant?” Cadao asked, smiling.

“No, I just like the food. Tell me about your plan, Cadao.”

Cadao sighed, losing her energy instantly. She had thought it over and over again.

No matter how many times she played out the moves in the chessboard of her mind, no matter what data she read or what facts she tried to plug into the formula for a different result, all she could come up with was the dire series of orders written in the terrible little folder she had laid on the table. She spread it open, and pushed it toward the Premier.

She had sealed the fate of Ayvarta with that move, she thought.

For better or for worse. She didn’t know. Perhaps both. She couldn’t know!

That was the solution and she was committing to it even though it hurt.

That was her custom.

“Premier, to accompany the mobilization plan of troops, it is absolutely necessary we mobilize the civilian sector as well, to the fullest capacity. Right now, we can easily raise 500,000 troops to defend Solstice by the Hazel’s Frost, and one million by early next year. But they will all be equipped with the subpar old weapons of the demilitarization regime.”

“So this is a procurement plan?” Kansal said.

“No. It is something bigger.”

“An ambitious procurement plan?”

“It is a change in our very way of life.”

Kansal raised an eyebrow.

“All I’m seeing in this document are R&D profiles of weapons I already know about, and a lot of mathematics that it is too early, and that I am too hungry, to parse. Please explain.”

Cadao nodded. She took in a deep breath and prepared to deliver the dire news.

“That project is called War Plan ‘V’; it is the fifth War Plan ever drafted by the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, and coincidentally, that five can easily stand for Victory. To achieve victory, I have created a plan that assumes the unconquered half of Ayvarta, with Solstice and its five remaining Dominances of Chunar, Govam, Ayanta, Jomba and Karnata, will operate at a hundred percent of its capacity. Everyone who can work, will work. Every factory, every input, very asset, will produce, for the war. Just for the war.”

Kansal blinked. Whether or not she understood the implications immediately, was unclear. Yanna came by with her food, and set it down on the table, and for a moment there were pleasantries exchanged that interrupted the discussion. Kansal took a few bites, drank some cold, spiced milk, and then turned her gaze back to Cadao again.

“Just for the war?”

“Just for the war.”

“You realize you are in a communist country?”

“To each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

“Right. You know that, so–”

“Right now, we have a great need of things for a war, ma’am.”

Cadao was straining to continue this discussion. It weighed so heavily on her.

She like a villain; truly, she must have been. She must have been the villain.

Kansal seemed a touch irritated by everything.

“We are already producing at a high capacity. And industry from the south is being evacuated to Chunar and will be running again in a few months.” Kansal said.

Cadao sighed. “Ma’am, if I told you I could turn a toy factory into a gun factory what would you say? Would you really say that the toy factory producing toys, is being efficient here?”

Kansal narrowed her eyes. “I’d wonder what your opinion of our children is.”

It hurt to hear that, truly. It hurt to hear it said in that way. It really cast Cadao as a villain.

She took a deep breath and prepared to lean into villainhood fully.

Cadao shook her head. “If I turn every toy factory into a gun factory in just Solstice, I can equip a Division with Rifles and Grenades every week, and with enough ammunition to fight for a month, at the cost of a few unhappy kids who can learn to play pretend.”

Kansal hesitated to speak again. That was the kind of math that she truly understood.

“What else are you thinking?” Kansal asked. “What else is in War Plan V?”

Her heart was buckling, and her speech started to stir a bit. Cadao spoke quickly.

“Textile factories can make uniforms for infantry, bodysuits for tankers, camouflage nets, ammunition sacks, straps of various kinds that we need; tractor factories can make tanks, including the Hobgoblin. Automobile clubs can be pressed into patriotic service in making and repairing combat craft, including Aircraft like the Garuda II, which we sorely need. Women and men and children can construct earthworks and man air defenses. We could double the Solstice Air Defense Network, and have round the clock gun shifts, in a week.”

“And when the first teenage girl you allowed behind a gun is blown up by a bomber?”

Cadao almost wanted to weep hearing that. Her composure was starting to shake, but she held herself together as best as she could, shaking, and a little weeping, and yet firm.

“We’ll be secure in the knowledge that we have reserves.” Cadao replied.

She hated herself so much; she hated herself for having said that. Hated!

Even Kansal seemed shocked by Cadao’s response.

There was no more holding it back. Cadao was starting to break.

War Plan “V” was the solution and she had to have it approved.

“Ma’am, I understand what I am saying and proposing. The Socialist Dominances of Solstice was founded and built upon the promise that the state serves and protects its people and takes care of their needs first. To fully embroil them in this war, to use them in this way as a resource, to totalize this war into their everyday lives, is to break the great Ayvartan peace that we were enjoying, to break that gentleness we so valued. But ma’am, the state needs the people’s help. We cannot fight the Federation’s forces alone.”

Cadao broke out into tears over her own words. She felt she was becoming a monster.

But there was a problem, and she had the solution. She had the horrible solution and she could not let it go because that was her nature. She had won over this problem now and she had to declare it. No matter what was destroyed in the process. This was the only way.

“Right now we are producing 300 Hobgoblin tanks a month. I can make 1000 in a week, if I can have men and women currently painting sports cars for a dwindling export market, or building surplus wheelchairs, or putting together children’s bicycles; if I can have those people building tanks every day, on a fair schedule, for fair compensation. I can do that.”

“So,” Cadao’s voice started to crack. “So, ma’am, we may cause harm to Ayvarta. But we may save it too. Do you desire to save Ayvarta, even if it is not the exact same after?”

It was perhaps the polar opposite of demilitarization. Everyone had prayed and hoped for a society that could be at peace with the world and free of war. Cadao was proposing to make a society that was steeped in war, and functioned only to prosecute it at its most total, most consuming and brutal, in order to survive. What kind of Ayvarta could survive such a thing, she did not know. That was not the problem right now. She had the solution for the problem that they had. 1000 Hobgoblins a month in two months; after that, tens of thousands if the southern industry could come online in Chunar fast enough. Similar numbers of Garudas and Wyverns in the skies. Qote class aircraft carriers and Megalodon submarines. Millions of Salamander rockets. Untold billions of rifles and grenades.

And, ultimately, an army of several million, whole populations living to fight.

And even greater still a civilian army of billions who lived to support that fight.

Cadao’s horrible, inescapable, haunting vision of total war for the survival of Ayvarta.

“I will think about it.” Kansal said.

Her expression betrayed nothing of what she could be thinking.

She stood, saluted Cadao, and left the scene, stone-faced.

With her superior gone, Cadao finally allowed herself to break down completely.

She screamed, and thrashed, and cried, and nobody around her understood why.

People came up to her and tried to console her. Yanna told her everything would be fine.

All of those gentle souls, who might, in a year, or in two years, see that gentleness gone.

It made Cadao weep and scream all the more. She did not deserve that kindness.


1st of the Hazel’s Frost

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City, SIVIRA

Cadao Chakma appeared before Daksha Kansal one cold evening in Solstice.

She had spent the past few days on forced leave, to recuperate from “an illness.”

It was cold and getting colder, so she had some kind of excuse. Shifting weather.

That the desert was starting to become so unbearably cold at night meant winter was here.

Weather wasn’t it however; weather did not bother her.

Not the physical weather. It was more the philosophical weather bothering her.

There was a storm in her heart, pouring rain in her mind.

To think, Kansal had put so much trust in her, and she was already buckling.

What a joke; for a monster, she was very week.

“Cadao,”

She did not sit. She was not invited to sit, nor would she.

Cadao knew why she was there.

Under her arms, she had brought it. That hated thing, that fateful thing.

Kansal stretched out a hand and beckoned.

“Give it to me. I have decided to disseminate this.” She said.

Cadao nodded grimly. Her eyes almost welled up in tears again.

“Are you afraid, Cadao?”

“Yes.”

Cadao was deathly afraid. Of what she was doing, of the role she would play in it.

“Can you continue your work even so?”

“I can. I have medications.”

Kansal nodded. She pushed back her chair.

“Cadao, I believe that the goodness of the Ayvartan people can survive anything. It blossomed even under the brutality of the Empire. We are not perverting it.”

Kansal stood, and she approached Cadao, in time for the young officer to break down.

Her knees grew weak, and she sank into Kansal’s breast.

Kansal took her in her arms and gave her a strong, reassuring embrace.

“We are saving it, Cadao, you are saving it. That you’re crying right now about all of this, despite being such a genius, with such a strong will to set this into motion. You are not excluded from the beauty and nobility of the Ayvartan people. You are the noblest of us.”

Cadao could hardly think anymore.

From under her arms, War Plan “V” spilled into the floor.

She cried and shouted terribly into Kansal’s chest.

This was an evil thing, it was not a good thing, not a communist thing.

It could not be anything but evil and she was doing it. She was the architect.

“Cadao, if it turns out that what we’re doing is evil and monstrous, I will be the monster. History will judge me, and never you. I will protect you. I promise.” Kansal said.

Cadao withdrew from Kansal and looked her in the eyes, shaking.

“Ma’am–”

Kansal smiled a motherly smile and looked her in the eyes too.

“I will be the monster. Never you.”

Moved by this display, Cadao cried once again, the loudest she ever had.


 

1st of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

War Plan “V” is approved. Beginning of War Communism and Ayvartan Total War.


<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

The Rangda Tank War (62.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council

Outside the Council Building the brutalized lawn, littered with spent cases, pitted by artillery fire and clouded in the smoke from mortars and guns, suffered a final indignity as an enormous gliding aircraft crashed onto its turf. Chunks of manicured green topsoil went flying as the craft dug into the earth and skidded to a stop just off the street.

Once it settled, the craft’s entire front section lifted, and from inside, a tank growled to life. It trundled gingerly off the glider and onto the Rangdan ground, and made its way toward the edge of Council street, anticipating some kind of defensive action. All around the city, in places near, far and disparate, several more gliders and their cargo would drop onto Rangda, and the crews emerging from them began their singular, vague mission to support the parachute troops. Tanks, tracked Universal Carriers, and scout cars, all landed inside the bellies of a hundred or so of the thousand aircraft cutting the skies over Rangda.

Most common among these were the 50 or so Patriarch tanks dropped in stray groups across the city, and the lone example now defending the occupied Council Building.

Owing to the strict take-off weight limits of the elven gliders, the Patriarch was a light tank weighing at just around 30 tons, boasting a compact form factor of flat, boxy surfaces. Four large road wheels turned the track, without need of a visible forward sprocket or a return roller. Mounted in front of a gently curved turret with thin, flat, slightly angled sides, was the ubiquitous 2-pounder anti-tank gun, along with a coaxial machine gun.

Von Drachen had never seen its like before, but he found it inferior to even the obsolete M5 Ranger of the Nochtish forces and as such he struck the thing from his mind.

All of this information he pieced together from both the blathering of “Lady” Arsenica but more importantly also from the radio reports frantically coming in from betrayed 8th Division forces across the city. With the capitol occupied, and several Council staff cooperating with the occupation, the invading Elven enemy had unfettered access to all 8th Division communications. The already hobbled Division was now fully and thoroughly compromised. It was only the Elves’ inability to cobble back together their distantly landed troops that gave the 8th Division any kind of lease on life. They were done for.

As he watched the tank land on the Council lawn, Von Drachen realized that the 8th Division was not the only force that was done for. There would be another casualty.

“Attention Elven forces across the target city of Rangda!”

Using the Ayvartan emergency voice-projection system, headquartered in the Council building, Knight Lady Arsenica hailed everyone in the city, though she specifically addressed only the Elves, as if she had a choice of whom to speak to. She gesticulated with sweeping motions and wore a haughty, manic grin on her face, luxuriating in her moment. Von Drachen watched her from across the communications center with a quizzical look.

“This is Paladin Arsenica Livia Varus, fourth in line to the throne of the Kingdom of Lubon!” This particular line she delivered with an almost orgasmic zeal. “I have captured the Ayvartan’s command center, and am placing myself in overall command of royal army ground operations, by virtue of my rank, noble blood and access to communications equipment! My orders to you are as follows. All Elven units are to regroup, forming battle groups around our armored vehicles, and then move westward, toward the port of Rangda, to capture its naval defenses and docking apparatus for the use of the Royal Navy!”

She then left the emergency communications system and sat down on a metal chair near a desk with a heavy-duty telephone terminus and radio system, which she could attempt to use contact those elves who had personal radios or who had stolen 8th Division radio. Von Drachen was mildly aware of such things happening. He had been listening attentively to unencrypted 8th Division communications for a while, as a personal project that he had convinced Paladin Varus was actually her own project and done for her own good.

“Drachen, I require your cooperation in contacting specific units with instructions.”

Von Drachen (though he would not labor this point again) nodded his head.

He sat down beside her, and donned a headset to assist her in radio operation.

She was not quick to broadcast any instructions. Instead, she looked at him for a moment.

“You seem a shrewd man, Drachen.” She said. “Your eyes betray hidden depths.”

Von Drachen smiled. “I am but a humble person who tries his best; mediocre of late.”

“Well, if you say so.” She frowned slightly. “This situation has been twisting and turning in inscrutable ways for the past few days, I take it. What do you think of everything?”

“You are doing everything you can to lose this battle, and it is admirable in an odd way.”

Arsenica grumbled. That was clearly not the answer she wanted. That this little dictator did not have him shot for such things spoke to the level at which she was drawn to him. Perhaps she was coming to believe he was more than he professed to be (on both occasions he professed to be something) or perhaps independently of such obvious high-minded analysis she had found him and his situation interesting. Nonethless, she was tolerating him like she tolerated nobody else. Von Drachen did not care; he treated her as he treated everybody. Few people in Von Drachen’s eyes deserved a ginger hand less than Arsenica.

“I’m not a fool Drachen. I know that this mission is incredibly risky; and that by themselves the airborne troops of the kingdom, quality as they are, may not be able to take this city outright. But the Kingdom of Lubon fights with the ancient Elven art of war. We may lose battles but we will win wars. Boldness and gallantry inevitably pay off.”

Von Drachen made no outward expression in response. He found her answer typical of the prideful Elven noble-warrior who achieved combat command through birthright.

“You can lose battles to win wars; if your logistics are much better, or if you have strong reinforcements waiting to re-engage quickly,or if an enemy’s strength could collapse from attrition, and so on. Yes, there are many scenarios where a certain loss is still the right course of action in an overall strategy, but you cannot do so here. Even if you met all of the other conditions, your strategy has a fundamental flaw. You see, there will be no battle.”

Arsenica raised her eyebrows, surprised but quickly skeptical. “What makes you say that?”

Von Drachen crossed his arms and fixed Arsenica with a suddenly serious look.

“You think because you have broken the enemy’s defenses and fomented disorganization in their ranks, that they will see it as a natural disadvantage and wish it seized from you. But Madiha Nakar will not respond to this situation by reforming her battle line for you to engage in classical pitched combat. You are probably hoping she attempts to restore her defense and regroup her forces, wasting time while you fight your losing battle against her, and therefore tying her up until your Navy wins your war. Ultimately, you are wrong.”

He raised his hands and made a cutting motion with one just in front of Arsenica.

“She will not duel you. She’ll behead you and then walk past the twitching corpse.”

Arsenica seemed taken aback, disgusted by the imagery. She embraced herself and shuddered as if the thought of her own headless body had intruded in her psyche.

“How could you know? What makes you speak so boldly and certainly?” She snapped.

Von Drachen grinned viciously. “Because it’s what I would do.”

Granted, Von Drachen was planning to do something very different at that moment.

But it wasn’t the same situation and though Madiha was almost as good as he was at this little game they called war, she was her own animal, and he could truly only speculate.

Still, Arsenica needed to know none of that.

“I believe I ordered you to take on a task, Von Drachen!” Arsenica cried out.

Nodding amicably, Von Drachen returned his attention to the radios.

“Actually, wait!”

Arsenica lashed out and seized the headset from Von Drachen, placing it on her own head.

“You and your unit will go reinforce our defense outside. I’ll take care of this personally.”

She gave Von Drachen a vulnerable, uncomfortable look. He returned a vicious grin.

“I longed for such an assignment, my liege.”

Von Drachen gave a mock bow. Arsenica seemed to feel a jolt down her body. She shook.

Before she had a chance to reconsider, if she was considering such a thing, Von Drachen stood from the chair and ambled out the door in good humor. He truly had wished to be assigned the role of cannon fodder for the Elves. He knew, if he made himself both useful and pestilent enough that they would think they were consigning him to death.

In reality, there was no bigger coffin than any Council building Arsenica hid herself in.


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