52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks
For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, the hospital phone was ringing.
So sudden was the sound that it startled the nurses. Both of them gathered around the phone wondering if it should be picked up. This responsibility was soon transferred. Across the hall, Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani walked out of the first extended stay suites, pushing an occupied wheelchair with a big, beaming smile on her face. She raised a hand up and shouted down the hall, in a firm but amicable tone of voice.
“Put down that phone please! We’ll take the call!”
Gently she pushed the wheelchair forward, all the while the phone rang with abandon.
From the wheelchair, Colonel Madiha Nakar picked up the telephone handset.
“Hujambo.” She said. “How much coverage have we got?
On the other end of the line was Sergeant Agni. Her monotone voice sounded crisp and clear through the telephone lines, all the way across Ocean Road to the Seesea Heights in North Rangda. There was some noise, some hustle and bustle, far in the background. But for the most part Madiha could hear Agni unobstructed and that was a quiet victory.
“Most of the city.”Agni replied.
“Was it a difficult problem to fix?”
“No, the 8th Division hardly cut any lines. They occupied switchboard stations and intimidated the local operators. We didn’t have to spread much cable around.”
“Good. You’re coming in loud and clear. How’s the front?”
“Quiet. We’re the ones making all the noise. Meanwhile the enemy is timid.”
Madiha smiled to herself.
A little more of a push and the 8th Division would surrender. She felt a thrill of satisfaction, realizing that her troops had won this battle. Her plans had succeeded; her theories, though only loosely applied to this battle, were shaping up. They had moved quickly, used deception of every kind in their arsenal to confuse and separate the enemy, and they rushed through the weaknesses in the enemy line to occupy their rear areas. Without their bases in Rangda University and Forest Park, without the centralized route that Ocean Road provided for them, the 8th Division was nothing but isolated, helpless pockets of worn-out, confused fighters waiting for the vice to tighten around them.
“Return to base Agni. Tell your work detachment to keep in touch from over there.”
Madiha set the handset back down on the phone base.
“How was the call?” Parinita asked.
She bent over Madiha’s shoulder from behind, smiling brightly.
Madiha smiled warmly back. “Sounded perfect. Everything’s going according to plan.”
Nodding her head, Parinita wheeled her away from the nurses and back into the suite.
Throughout the morning more and more of the Colonel’s headquarters had been transported to the hospital. Next to her bed was a small desk with the radio, and a chair for Parinita. On one of the beds, Padmaja and Bhishma sat together and worked on reports and paperwork, using a large cutting board from the nearby canteen to have a hard place to write on. Minardo sat in a visitor’s couch, dragged in from the lobby, and took turns with Parinita between handling the radio traffic, updating the maps, and directing staff.
“While you were gone, the Self-Propelled Gun battalion have redeployed to the hinge position between the University and the Park.” Minardo said. She was seated on her the couch with her hands behind the back of her head. “They’re awaiting further orders.”
Parinita wheeled Madiha closer to the bed, and helped her off the wheelchair and onto the mattress. She fluffed up the pillows, and held Madiha as she adjusted herself in bed. Her wounds still hurt. Not just the gunshot, but the sites of the injections she had received. Those had turned red and the surrounding flesh felt stiff still. A lot of Madiha hurt when moved, but she grit her teeth and endured. Parinita took care to be gentle with her.
“Parinita, tell them to await fire support orders from the infantry park or university. Shayma has enough firepower already. We will not be giving them any further missions.”
“Yes ma’am!” Parinita said, saluting cheerfully.
She pushed back her chair and sat behind the radio, donning the headset.
Madiha lay back in bed and heaved a long sigh.
“Nothing else then?”
“No. We’re in the quiet period.” Minardo replied. “It was a violent enough attack.”
“No one attack is enough.” Madiha replied. Her offensive was overwhelmingly strong, she had made sure of it. But no operation could have allowed a Regiment in this situation to completely terminate a Division. The 8th would be back, and she had to be ready.
But it was not up to her alone to be ready yet. That much was out of her hands.
Once the battle went from strategic planning to tactical execution, the role of a Colonel like Madiha became both more and less active, in a strange way. She felt like she had far less sweeping control over the operation once the planning was done. Her will had been set into stone, and carrying it out made it more difficult for sweeping amendments to be made. But she was not completely out of the picture. Madiha still kept in contact with her troops as much as she could, relaying advice and orders to her three Majors, and from them to lower ranked field officers. There was still a lot of radio traffic meant for her.
Radio was an incredible blessing. She was perturbed by the distance she felt from the battle, but she was not completely disconnected, and that had been her greatest fear when she started. She knew more or less how the battlefield was shaping up. All it took was to have Parinita at her side, taking radio calls as they came. When setbacks occurred the HQ heard about them quickly and could issue new strategic orders — changing major attack routes to avoid unforeseen strongpoints and authorizing the use of extra ammunition and the deployment of greater strategic reserves, such as the regimental long-range artillery.
Outside in the training field, her 152mm howitzers had been deployed for that purpose. They were the sword that she could swing to protect her troops even from miles away.
Exactly five requests for Regimental fire missions had come to her headquarters. All of them had been swiftly authorized, and less than a hundred shells total had been fired by the battery of eleven guns. Only two major changes to the combat script had been called for. Hakan desired to split his forces and attack the park from two sides, which he felt confident he could do, and which he was allowed; Burundi partially lost control of his own attack and requested he be allowed to terminate his strategic movement at Muhimu Shimba without pressing further. Because of Lion’s surrender, this too was allowed.
Shayma executed her part of the plan flawlessly and without support or amendment.
Now everyone was regrouping, repairing damage, and waiting for the next phase.
Madiha was feeling much the same, and she had hardly moved for hours now.
She turned a soft a smile on her assistant and girlfriend, and stretched a hand over hers.
Parinita looked to the hand settled on the makeshift desktop, and looked up with a smile.
“How are you holding up?” Madiha asked.
“I’m fine. Now that you’re here I’m much more confident.” Parinita replied.
Madiha nodded her head, but she desired a deeper answer than that. She drew in a breath and thought of how to arrange her words best. “Parinita, I know for you, this must be particularly difficult; you get to hear or read first-hand about the loss of life out there. All of it is affecting our people this time. I need to know how that is affecting you.”
“Wow, you’re reminding me of myself. I thought I was the worrywart here.” Parinita said. She had an aura of ease and gentleness about her. “I’m perturbed, somewhere deep down, but, well. Madiha, I’m a soldier too. I might fight with a pen and pad most of the time, but I’m here because I wanted to do my part to defend our country. From anyone if necessary.”
“I apologize.” Madiha said. She felt a little jolt to her heart. As a person who had some difficulty gathering and formulating her emotions into thoughts and into speech, Madiha was gravely self-conscious of her social slip-ups. She was sure she had offended Parinita.
For her part, the Chief Warrant Officer showed no sign of distress. She smiled. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for, Madiha. I knew what you meant. I just wanted you to know, in no uncertain terms, that as long as you’re in command, I’ll have faith in our cause.”
“I’m glad.” Madiha said. She felt an incredible comfort having Parinita at her side.
Parinita turned fully toward Madiha on her seat, and gave her a gentle look.
“Being honest, the only anxiety I really have is that we’re advancing so fast.” Parinita said. “I hope we don’t succumb to the same hubris our enemies displayed in Adjar.”
Madiha nodded. “I understand completely. I promise to be cautious.”
“I know you will.”
“A quick response! You do have a lot of faith.”
“Well, you have an uncanny ability with war, Madiha. It’s like you’ve read the script.”
Parinita giggled with delicate fingers over her lips.
“I suppose so!” Madiha chuckled.
“I know so! You’re a regular action hero!” Parinita cheered.
“No!” Madiha replied, laughing. “I couldn’t be! You can’t have high action from a bed!”
“It’s experimental, Madiha! Experimental film!”
Both of them laughed and held hands and felt a great girlish joy in the moment.
Such giddiness was uncharacteristic of Madiha, and she loved the feeling.
They were still on the clock, so to specific, and the hand-holding was brief.
When they separated, Parinita returned with a smile to her business persona.
Madiha put on her gentlest stone-faced officer looks.
“Here’s the current situation.” Parinita said, flipping through a folder of reports. “Our tactical commands all seem to agree that the 8th Division is unlikely to mount a counterattack until outside reinforcements appear in force. Because there were so many pell-mell retreats in every front that we attacked against, the 8th Division’s reformed into something like a dozen isolated clusters instead of organizing a coherent battle line.”
Madiha nodded her head. “How strong are these units, do you think?”
Parinita stopped flipping and settled on a pair of reports clipped to a multi-cell table.
“I’ve compared some of the preliminary reports with an inventory we’re familiar with: that of an Adjar Battlegroup Ox Rifle Division. Ram shouldn’t be that much different. Judging from the captured and destroyed equipment of the Lion Battalion, the 96th Battalion, and the 69th Battalion, Ram’s losses in rifles, machine guns, mortars and tanks must mean the remaining guys and gals in those pockets are nearly unarmed.”
“Have you checked all of that math out yourself?” Madiha asked.
“Triple checked.” Parinita said, adjusting her glasses with a big smile on her face.
“I suppose their heavy artillery is still unaccounted for.” Madiha said.
“Some was captured from Lion, but Burundi, El-Amin and Hakan agree that the pocket in Council probably contains the lion’s share of remaining Howitzers. However, its share of tanks is likely small. There’s been more sightings of Goblins in the south-west pocket.”
“So then, it may be possible to launch a decapitating strike on Council.”
“Major El-Amin could launch it.”
“Has she requested permission for it?”
“No. I’m just making an observation.”
Parinita smiled and Madiha smiled back. It was an easy observation to make. El-Amin was closest to Council. But still, Madiha liked to think that something of her military acumen was rubbing off on Parinita, though her lover and secretary had already been a fairly astute military mind herself, when compared to other staffers Madiha had experience with.
“You’re correct. She could. However, it is a gamble to launch another tank-heavy operation like this. Regrouping around infantry support is better for her, for now.”
“Yes ma’am.” Parinita said, saluting amicably. “Our reserves are on their way there.”
Madha nodded. She crossed her arms and craned her head toward the ceiling, thinking aloud. “Since the 8th Division base here was stripped of equipment when we found it, for the most part, it must mean the stockpiles were moved somewhere else. And knowing the Mansas, Council district likely has much more equipment than we give it credit for.”
“Do you think? The 8th Division was deployed to fight on the front lines. Surely they would have just taken all their stockpiles with them, if the garrison was emptied?”
“Not all of them. Do you remember Gowon?”
Parinita stuck out her tongue. “How could I ever forget that scumbag?”
Madiha laughed. “Gowon, ever the greedy fool, saw the stockpiles as his own entitlement. He wanted to keep them away from the Council, so he would hold the purse strings, so to speak. But the Mansas, the Rangdan Council, are far more influential than Adjar’s Council was. I believe the Mansas probably did the opposite. Distrusting their own Gowons in their military command, they probably decided when the war broke out to keep the stockpiles closer to home and away from a potentially corrupt or disloyal military command.”
“You could be right. Gods defend. I can’t believe what a mess the South has been.”
“Solstice has always had trouble keeping tabs on things down here.” Madiha sighed.
To think that a child herself of the rebellious Ayvartan south, would be here to put it down.
Madiha shook her head. There was no time to contemplate those political failures.
They were in the past. Daksha was in control in Solstice and Nocht was largely in control in the South anyway. To preserve the bridge to Solstice, she had to act decisively now.
“I’m willing to bet Aksara Mansa will redeploy the police and the coast guard and whatever else he can get his hands on to Council district, arm them out of the stockpiles, and form a buffer of paramilitaries to slow us down or fight us off. Attacking Council will be bloody.”
Parinita bowed her head a little. “More comrades trapped on the wrong side of things.”
“All we can do for them is try to fight the Mansas as surgically as possible.”
“Right. Under Gowon I would have felt distraught. But I know you can do it.”
Parinita performed a cute little wink, and Madiha felt her face flush a little.
“Get a private bed you two!” Minardo shouted from across the room, grinning.
Bhishma and Padmaja stared up from the bed they were working off of.
Before Madiha could verbally retaliate, the door to the hospital suite opened.
Dragging a cord behind him, a soldier ran in with a telephone box in hand.
It was ringing intermittently as he dragged it around the room.
“Ma’am, we’ve got an urgent call from Rangda Engineering.” said the soldier.
Madiha beckoned him closer, and he set the box down on the bed. She took the call.
“Hujambo, this is Colonel Nakar. Is that you, C.T.O Parambrahma?”
His voice sounded agitated on the line, but it was indeed the ARG-2 radar’s inventor.
“Doctor, now. Adjar fell, commander, and the ARG-2 returned to civilian science, alongside myself. I’m merely the only one of my colleagues who dared contact you.”
“Why is that? Have you bought into the newspaper narrative?”
“Whether or not is true, it is an intergovernmental dispute, and my fellows all believed and collectively agreed to remain neutral throughout. In the spirit of this neutrality, they attempted to contact Council with important information, but were quickly rebuffed.”
She could sense sarcasm and anger in his voice. He must have considered that a betrayal. For one who came from Adjar into Rangda in order to do important work, and who saw his former comrades vilified and agreed not to intervene, it must have felt like the basest hypocrisy to see the Rangdans all align with their own people despite a vow of neutrality.
She wondered how similarly compromised other intellectual circles in Rangda were.
“So you are contacting me? For what purpose?” Madiha asked.
“To defend Rangda. Whether you do it or the Council does makes no difference, but Colonel, this is important. We have precious little time to respond to it. The ARG-2 is picking up an unprecedented amount of airborne signals coming in from the sea!”
Madiha nearly dropped the phone. Her heart started racing.
“We can’t pick up an exact amount. The ARG-2’s radar picture is too saturated.”
“Could that just be a bug in the design?”
“No. Trust me, Colonel, please. There are real planes out there. Whom do they belong to?”
“Then you must do something about them, because Mansa will not.”
Madiha hung up on Parambrahma without saying another word.
“Parinita, we have to go.”
Mustering up her strength, Madiha pushed herself off from the bed and onto her feet.
Her boots hit the ground and her legs seemed to bend and buckle like jelly. Her flank burned, and her arms protested heavily, particularly at the sites where Mansa’s grusesome needles stuck her flesh again and again. She nearly stumbled to the floor, but Parinita practically leaped up onto her own two feet and grabbed hold of her, and righted her.
“Madiha, you can’t just jump up off the bed like that, you’ll break something!”
“Parinita, we need to sound an air raid alarm, now.”
Every head in the room turned toward them with sudden shock.
Thankfully the Staff Sergeant wasted no time questioning it.
“You two!” Minardo shouted at Bhishma and Padmaja. “You’re young and spry! Run to the depots and alert the troops there. We have some AA deployed, but we need all of it. Now!”
Bhishma and Padmaja dropped everything and ran out the door.
The soldier with the telephone stood dumbly for a moment and then followed them.
“I’ll keep an eye on the radio. You two should go.” Minardo said.
Perhaps sensing the urgency with which Madiha wanted to leave, Parinita shouldered the weight of her, and hefted her to the wheelchair, and then quickly sped her out of the hospital and to the field. By noon the skies were largely clear and the sun had risen high over the earth. The day was warm but cool, and bright, and there was good visibility.
Nothing in the sky, not yet.
Arrayed around the base were circular defenses of sandbags around anti-tank guns and machine guns and the scattered anti-air gun, their crews relaxed now that the 8th Division seemed to be falling to pieces in the face of them. Madiha approached the closest such defense, near which there was a Goblin tank with an antennae protruding from its turret, captured from the 8th Division and used now as a command station.
Parinita climbed atop the tank in Madiha’s place.
“Commander, call in an air raid alarm across all defenses, right now!”
Without question the Goblin’s commander started to broadcast.
Swiftly as this order traveled, however, the enemy was swifter.
The ARG-2 had a range of around a hundred kilometers, give or take an extra fifty. This was a distance that even the slowest aircraft could travel in twenty or thirty minutes.
No sooner had the Regiment begun to rouse to the threat, that the horizon became spotted with black flecks moving closer and closer, gaining size and definition and form and every second becoming more obviously a threat. They were a threat in their bulk, for many of the high-flying ships seemed to be large bombers, but also a threat in their number. Before anyone knew it, before a strong reaction could be had, the sky was thick with them.
It was like a flock of birds or bats, just appearing in one’s field of vision without warning.
Madiha looked up at the sky, seated on her wheelchair in front of the hospital, and it seemed to her that a hundred ranks that could have only added up to a thousand planes, had all of a sudden taken hold of her sky. They crossed the ocean, overflew the docks, and penetrated into the urban core in a matter of moments. Many planes remained high up, others maneuvered and circled, but just as many started to descend toward the city.
Some careened so fast and far they appeared to crash.
One such plane did not just appear to crash — it slammed to earth with mad energy.
“Watch out! Everybody down!” Madiha shouted.
Parinita huddled near her and held her with both arms. Madiha crouched on her chair.
Overflying the training field, a large plane, broad-winged but without engines, without landing gear, dove from the heavens, peeling off from the larger flock along with dozens of others. Launching down at a steep angle, the plane swiped carelessly at the ground, throwing up a geyser of dirt and grass, losing its wings and flipping over on the grass.
It rolled and bounced and broke in half and scattered bodies and boxes from its bulk.
Behind it, all across the training field, debris and scattered equipment littered the earth.
Soldiers from the defensive line left their useless anti-tank guns and ran to the crash.
Madiha and Parinita, shocked to silence for a moment where they stood, watched more planes go down in the distance, falling over every sector they had mapped out in the city for their battle. Planes ferrying elven men and women and equipment to war. Planes bearing the Father-Tree of the Kingdom of Lubon and the battle standards of its Queen Passionale Vittoria. The Battle of Rangda was no longer fought largely by Ayvartans alone.
Madiha shook her head, and shouted at the radio Goblin as the scene unfolded.
“Deploy all anti-air we have. Now, right now! Open fire on anything in the sky!”
Again the order was swift, and the defense rapidly organized, but it was all desperate.
Flak started to fly, and the skies started to turn red, but the chaos was only beginning.
North Ayvartan Sea — Regia Marina, Flagship Imperatrix
“When you said a thousand planes I thought it mere bluster. And yet, somehow–”
“Hah! I told you, I had found a thousand, and it is a thousand I sent flying.”
Marshal Adolfo Garzoni gazed out from the tower of the N.d.M. Imperatrix at a sky thick with planes. Within the operations room of the largest elven Battleship ever built, he could see the troops and sailors of the invasion fleet rushing out into the open, packing the decks of cruisers and aircraft carriers and frigates sailing all around the flagship. His men and women gazed overhead with an awe that was palpable even from this far up.
Flying over the fleet were a thousand planes headed for the Ayvartan coast.
Garzoni felt no similar awe to his troops, for awe was reserved for the bystander; he felt the elation of a craftsman. He smiled to himself, and he lit his ceremonial cigar, confident that it would not be smoked for naught. He would make history, with the largest aerial attack ever conducted by a modern industrial power. One thousand planes; one thousand.
“What a fine send-off to our Higwean lease, wouldn’t you say?” He said.
“Perhaps. I still believe those thousand planes must land to succeed. Though you did not bluster in your logistics, this Operation Millennium of yours is bluster to me in other ways.”
“Oh, truly? Why don’t we put it up to a bet, my lady?”
“Gambling is beneath me; and gambling with the lives of my troops is disgraceful.”
She sneered at him; that Knight wench always sneered at him.
At his side, watching with what was certainly awe, no matter how much she tried to conceal it with her outward cynicism, stood a tall, bright-skinned, emerald eyed knight. She was Lady Anna Marlborough of the Royal Knights XX Corps. She was, as far as Garzoni was concerned, a pest. But one that had to be put up with. She was stunningly beautiful, with long golden hair and a delicate face, and looked slender and perfectly fit in her ceremonial armor, a breastplate, gauntlets and fauld around a blue uniform.
She was also a Knight, and Knights ever competed for attention with the Regulars, such as he, of the Elven army. Despite his status as a marshal, her status as Knight Commandant made her an equal, even while her troops were nominally under his command. Knightly officers were also royalty of a sort; a Regular like him was only a highly skilled laborer. Anna Marlborough had lands and servants and noblesse oblige. She was a Lady of war.
And yet, it had been him who did the impossible and found the Queen a foot into Ayvarta within weeks instead of months. While Lady Marlborough and her ilk drank their wine and fucked their squires, Garzoni had pored over every possibility. It was clear to everyone in GHQ that an invasion unsupported by air power would have been impossible, and that the Kingdom’s spare biplane carriers would not be enough to support a landing. Their Air Force was, frankly, inferior even to the shambolic communist air defenders. Even with all their obsolete planes, the Regia Aeronautica could not have easily deployed anyway. No air bases existed for the Kingdom that could reach any suitable invasion coast. Except one.
Garzoni had made the discovery. They had a lease on Higwean lands that was meant for a bomber force that was all but forgotten in the mid-2020s. It could be quickly, sloppily but usefully rehabilitated. He devoted all of his intellect and power to gathering a thousand of whatever planes could be found, refurbished or sparingly shipping to the Higwe. He exhausted every avenue, employed every favor and every trick that he could muster.
A thousand planes took off from the Higwe. Even with this feat accomplished, the operation was dubious. It was not a traditional bombing run. It simply could not be. Under normal circumstances the old Whitford and Cheshire bombers of the Higwean air fields could not have made it to Ayvarta with a full bomb load, not even from the Higwe. It was even more dubious that they could have made it with their current cargo. No; his attack was different.
Hundreds of heavy twin-engine bombers led the flock, lightly armed and carrying little but extra fuel, crammed everywhere that it could be safely stored. No bombs; instead they dragged behind themselves by steel tow rope a number of engine-less gliding transports. Every transport was filled with troops; some even had tanks and gemini armored cars and light artillery inside them. It would be their task to capture Ayvarta’s shining port of Rangda to give Lubon its foothold. Not even Nocht would know what hit Ayvarta today.
Garzoni’s improvisational genius flew on wings half a decade old. But he was confident.
“Have a little more faith in me.” Garzoni said, in place of saying anything offensive.
Lady Marlborough crossed her arms over her chest, staring up at the sky.
“I entrusted you some of my soldiers. That is an uncharacteristic display of my faith.”
Garzoni kept himself from snorting. “Ayvarta’s military position is precarious. Their forces are weak. Within a few hours, your Gryphon Riders Regiment, and the Royal Highlander Rifles, will land in their midst and the confusion will be enough for a rout.”
“Can those gliders land in an urban setting like Rangda?” Lady Marlborough asked.
“Every glider has a pilot to control the descent. They have been highly trained.”
“Have they ever practiced urban landings? I ask because my Gryphon Riders have not. We have only been authorized practice landings in the countryside.” She said.
Garzoni gave her no answer. Because she was right; it was too dangerous to practice glider landing in an urban setting. But the principals were the same for landing any aircraft. You found a clean strip of land and you landed. You reduced speed, nose up, all of those things; air men knew them. They had to. Garzoni was not an air man; he was strictly infantry. But he had air men assigned to this task and he trusted air men to do the job. They knew how.
Lady Marlborough turned suddenly from the window, and spoke with her back turned.
“Garzoni, the moment we touch land, we are telling Nocht about this operation and we are linking up with them. This is their war, and you will never take it from their grasp.”
“That’s out of your hands. Just watch me, milady.” Garzoni said, grinning to himself.
He said the last word in the slimiest tone that he could muster, and she clearly felt it.
Lady Marlborough stormed off the Imperatrix’s tower with a flourish of her cape and a flash of her golden hair, and Garzoni could muster no strong emotion in return against her. She was now beneath him and beneath his glory and he was glad that she was gone. Watching the planes headed for Ayvarta in long, seemingly invincible ranks, he thought– no, he knew he saw the beggining of the Elven Empire’s climb back to global conquest.
All he needed was Rangda, the Shining Port, just a place to land. And then the 9th, 10th and 11th Armies of the Kingdom of Lubon, armed to the teeth with tanks, machine guns, and artillery, backed by the elite Knights and the vicious Blackshirt Legion and supported by over a third of the ships of the world’s most experienced and storied Navy, would march to Solstice and claim it for the elven monarch, as their ancestors had twice tried and failed to. This time, their natural defenses would not spare the Ayvartans Elven wrath.
And Lubon’s wonderful ally, Nocht, would unknowingly pave the way to this glory.
City of Rangda — Ocean Road
She heard the cries but she also heard overwhelming, encroaching buzzing and whirring.
Her partner shouted the words, but in Danielle’s mind the name merely reverberated. She was frozen in silence, watching as the sky began to teem with mechanical life. Hundreds of planes sliced through the air in a uniquely terrifying scene, a surreal picture. From one second to the next, without fanfare, without transition, as if they had always been there, the planes merely were. It seemed to take everyone a few moments to register it.
Everyone but Caelia; Caelia ran from down the street, crying out her name.
It was strange and sudden. Why was she running? Wasn’t she happy with her friend? Did she not want to spend some time with Major El-Amin, a person greater than little Santos?
Danielle almost wanted to ask why she was here, wasting her time with a loser like her.
But Danielle couldn’t move. Her haze of self-hatred was pierced through by the sudden sight of a plane, coming down sharply from the vast flock that congregated overhead.
It was one plane among what seemed like hundreds, but it trapped her gaze.
One large plane circled the city, looking for a good run, and it swept in a perpendicular path over Ocean Road. From its flanks a dozen ant-like objects, small and distant, little flecks that could have been dust in Danielle’s eyes, dropped out into the air and were borne gently down by bursting white blossoms from their backs. Paratroopers.
Soon more of the large planes were breaking formation and dropping their troops.
Danielle wanted to cry out but her tongue was turned to stone.
Caelia shouted again, and she stopped, two blocks away. She stared skyward.
From somewhere distant, flashing red shots launched into the air by the hundreds.
Anti-air guns detonated fragmentation rounds within the teeming mass of the invading aircraft fleet, and the results were instantaneous. Hundreds of bursts of smoke and metal tinged the blue sky gray and black and sent the once placid formations into convulsions.
Engine-less gliding planes maneuvered their bulk toward the ground in a panic and crashed in places distant; smaller, swifter interceptor craft that had accompanied the fleet started to dance and circle and strafe to avoid the shots. Slow bombers went up in the sky like their own bombs would have on the ground, exploding into gigantic fireballs.
Paratroopers caught mid-fall were turned to red mist by the flak.
One plane flew right over Danielle’s shoulder and nearly swept her into the air.
It crashed behind her, splintering, exploding like a suicide diver.
Metal and blood started to rain down on Ocean Road and it looked like the sky was falling.
Caelia was calling her name; she could see her partner’s lips moving.
But she could not hear her under the sounds of the blasts and the sweeping rush of the enemy aircraft and the panic that screamed within the confines of her own mind.
Danielle fixated on her, on her familiar face and form, on that warm gentle girl whom she loved so much, that tall lovely unique girl with a charming voice and a rare but lovely smile, who she wanted to know everything about, who made her feel like she was worth something, whom she would do anything for. That beautiful girl who was a bit awkward and made her feel so good about being awkward herself. That wonderful girl whom she had long ago resolved to support and protect. She watched her standing across the way with the unfolding carnage between her. And then she watched her suddenly disappear.
From the sky, a massive bomber plane was hit in its engines by flak, disgorging the prop from its nacelle and starting fires, and the machine careened earthward at terrific speed.
Upon Ocean Road it landed, its bulk crushing the path between Caelia and Danielle.
Behind that wreck, she disappeared. Danielle snapped out of her slumber.
She turned around and rushed for the alleway where Harmony was parked.
Gendarmes and stray soldiers started to shout aimless orders. There was confusion.
At Danielle’s side a second bomber dropped, crushing flat a Hobgoblin in an alleyway.
She felt a brief surging of heat from the explosion at her side, and Danielle shouted and held herself with her arms and ran headlong toward where the tank should have been; where it must have been or else everything was lost. She ran past the confused soldiers, past cars and tractors being abandoned or driven away from the scene, past the touching down elven soldiers that fell disoriented from the sky and stumbled to their feet.
I can’t lose her. I can’t lose her.
Hurtling around a corner and into an alleyway she found the Kobold intact.
Danielle rushed to open the hatch and climb into her driver’s seat.
She reached behind herself into a compartment that sat under Caelia.
From inside she withdrew a Danava light machine gun with a special mount.
It would partially block her vision when installed, but that did not matter.
She had hardly ever shot the emergency gun. There was little need to practice with it. It should not have been necessary. And yet she did not think twice about seizing it.
Affixing the gun in front of her propped-open front hatch, she put a hand on the sticks and kept a hand on the gun, so she could both drive and shoot. She slammed the clutches, turned the power, and watched the gauges rise with renewed life. Repairs had not been completed before everything went upside-down. But that, too, did not matter.
Harmony roared to life.
Danielle, weeping, sobbing, shaking, felt its power surge into her.
I will not lose her.
Despite the planes saturating the sky, and the enemy dropping on her head.
She knew then that if she gave up on Caelia, regardless of the odds, she would hate herself more than she ever had before. However much she felt undeserving — Caelia needed her.