Brigands [3.10]

“They’re in trouble already, huh? Just what have you unleashed on the seas, Nagavanshi?”

“Capitalism’s contradictions are as inevitable as the surface’s corruption, Premier.”

“Don’t quote Mordecai at me! I’ve read the exact same books that you did.”

Premier Bhavani Jayasankar and Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi stood in the middle of a cozy lounge that the Premier had taken as her office in Thassal. There was a desk, over which stood the seal of the Union: a plow and a sword, crossed over an agrisphere globe.

On a monitor which had been set into the wall, they reviewed footage captured and returned by a spy probe in the Thassalid plain. The Brigand engaged a Leviathan; and using the Cheka, an experimental suit, they annihilated it completely. While the footage was rough and grainy, the speedy objects and their terrifying, superhuman battle were captured enough for casual reference.

“Well, congratulations. All your scheming really payed off.”

Jayasankar shut off the monitor with the footage playing. She sighed deeply.

“I can scarcely believe how far and how thoroughly I’ve been deceived by you.”

Nagavanshi bowed her head. “I didn’t realize you would take it so personally.”

“Don’t play dumb with me! After all I’ve done for you, and you treat me so terribly all of the time. Ugh; this is going to be so much work, you know? All those ships, food, people; all that is going into war instead of working hard. On a growth year for the Plan too! This is so bad for my reputation.”

 “If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t take me that long to set up. As a matter of fact, the previous regime was researching similar capabilities. I finished what they started, ultimately.”

“Really? Ahwalia and all those decaying mummies came up with this?”

“I didn’t say it was going well or rapidly, but it was not entirely my doing.”

“What did they have ready? How much had they worked on this before the coup?”

When Nagavanshi and Jayasankar came together, there was no topic they could not casually discuss; even something as grave as the continuing legacy of of the nation’s founding figures, like ex-Premier Ahwalia. Nagavanshi and then-Justice Minister Jayasankar disagreed with him politically and economically. And they managed to make that disagreement spread to the right people. Ahwali was ultimately made to disappear for Jayasankar’s benefit; the rest was history.

“Before our intervention, they had worked on the hull.” Nagavanshi said. “It was originally going to be a triple-height hauler and icebreaker. They were hoping to be able to open a route to the Cogitum Ocean through the southern ice caps. I can only speculate as to the costs. The hull was actually huge, Bhavani: the Brigand is only half the size of its forebear.”

“So it was part of Op. Red Star.” Jayasankar said. “We were literally starving for this.”

Five years ago, the very two people scheming in this room had unearthed a certain scheme themselves.

“All of this is beside the point, Parvati! You lied! You lied to me! For so long, too!”

Jayasankar pointed her finger at Nagavanshi with a childishly petulant expression.

“I embellished the truth because frankly, it is more effective to work without worrying you about it.” Nagavanshi replied calmly. “Most of the militarizing work on the hull was done in the past 6 months. I started working on this as a military venture because of the border skirmishes. And before you cry any more, I did everything with military resources. I did not divert a single credit worth of Plan resources. So don’t even think about comparing it to Plan Red Star, okay?”

“I wasn’t going to. I don’t want to think about Ahwalia at all. I’m thinking about us.”

Jayasankar sat down behind her desk and laid all the way back that she could on her chair.

She looked up at the ceiling. “Sometimes I wonder if I would just be better off up there.”

Nagavanshi raised her eyebrows, clearly confused by the sudden change in the topic.

“You’d be dead, obviously.”

“You don’t want me to die?” They locked eyes briefly.

Nagavanshi closed and opened her fists, balled up at her sides. She narrowed her eyes.

“If this is a joke you’re making, I’m not amused by it.”

Jayasankar laughed. “Good response! You’ve saved yourself from a purge just then!”

Nagavanshi rolled her eyes. “I am as always grateful for your many mercies, Premier.”

“You’re a demon, you know that? I take care of you, and this is how you repay me.”

“I’m grateful for your attention, but work is work.” Nagavanshi shrugged.

Jayasankar laughed. She felt eerie. All she could do was tease Nagavanshi. She had so much responsibility over so many people and over all of their needs. Clearly, she wouldn’t have ever done what Nagavanshi suggested. Only Nagavanshi had the dark intellect for this sort of thing. The right combination of power, access, ambition and lack of accountability to others.

Deep down, Jayasankar had an ingrained fear of the present circumstances. She hardly wanted to indulge the irony of the situation she had found herself in. After all, Ahwalia had been deposed for the same issues: diverting resources to secret projects at the expense of the people. He and his cohort had their own dreams; they believed they were in the right too. If they had their way, there would have still been a future for the Union. It might have even been a more utopic future than that which Jayasankar promised. There was only one difference between them. Nagavanshi and Jayasankar, fundamentally, would not sacrifice the many for a few.

Despite everything, Jayasankar trusted Nagavanshi to agree with her on that principle.

They would gladly throw a few people into the fire, here and there, to spare the multitude.

Operation Red Star had been frighteningly ambitious. It envisioned a complete reorganization of the Union into an automated society unfettered in technological growth. A second revolution, quietly happening behind closed doors, siphoning food, steel and monies for its ultimate purpose. It was a dream only capable of coming to fruition in the Union, because at that time the Union was nothing if not dreams. It was an overpopulated, under-producing hole in the ground where everyone worked their hardest, and for years, it felt like tragedy after tragedy just set them back.

Until she saw it with her own eyes, Jayasankar could have never realized the evil that nestled still in the hearts of men and women in their precious Union. In five years of being silently freed from this evil, her people were finally thriving a bit. And now, everything was in jeopardy again. She really was helpless. And worse, she could not really tell anyone the full story.

Maybe, sometimes, it was good to be lied to.

Maybe it was even liberating to be lied to.

She couldn’t say such a thing as that to Nagavanshi.

For those reasons; and for others too.

So instead, Jayasankar played the conceited character she knew Nagavanshi wanted to see.

“Tell me this. Would your plan have survived the Emperor being alive right now?”

Nagavanshi, she knew, could take any amount of grief that was launched her way.

“I would have simply use different rhetorical tactics. In the end, it wouldn’t change all the work I had already done to operate within the Empire. There would have been ample opportunity. Buren was already preparing to revolt. I was already preparing to help them. It was inevitable.”

“And it was necessary to lie to me for it to work? For months? I couldn’t have helped?”

“You’ve manipulated me before, so consider it payback. Anyway, If I came to you with no data, no ship, no plan, would you approve of all the work? Or would you say, ‘it’s a Plan Year.’?”

Once more, their gazes met with a conviction that exceeded any casual observation.

Jayasankar smiled so freely in response that it compelled Nagavanshi to smile back a little.

“Fair enough Parvati! You’re right. I concede that point.” Jayasankar said. “But I know this can’t have just been about Buren. I may agree with the plan, but I must unearth its intention.”

“Have you considered that I am doing this to protect you?” Nagavanshi crossed her arms.

“Protecting me? You’re not protecting me! You’re putting me in a vice! We’re at war, it’s supposed to be a growth year; I’ll look terrible for this! When I think about Retainment I–”

Nagavanshi finally laughed. “All of a sudden, you are worried about the vote to Retain?”

“You’ve been going around behind my back, and you ask if I’m worried?” Jayasankar grumbled. “Let me ask you this then, my beautiful, incorruptible guardian angel. With all your conspiracies and your little agents floating out there — are you gunning for the Premiership?”

“What are you saying? Of course not!” Nagavanshi snapped back, clearly flustered.

“Am I supposed to think you’re not after my power?” Jayasankar winked at the Commissar.

“You’re so frustrating! We’re in this together! What do I have to do to show you that?”

Jayasankar loved Nagavanshi’s response. She relished being able to talk to her like this.

She leaned forward on the desk, steepling her fingers and delivering an icy glare.

Nagavanshi leaned back slightly as if she were afraid of being sucked in by the Premier.

“Tell me about your lover in the Empire. Was she any good? Was she better than me? There must be a reason that you did all of this behind my back, after all. And to think, I’ve always been here when you needed comfort. I’m honestly offended you think so cheaply about me!”

Jayasankar finally delivered her bathetic salvo, and Nagavanshi groaned at the contents.

She looked for a moment like she was hitting the limits of her exasperation.

“Sorry to squash your perverted fantasies, but the person I referenced is someone I admire in a way that is not simply sexual. But a transactional cad such as you wouldn’t understand. I can’t believe that you are acting like this, and frankly, I’m offput by your sudden possessiveness.”

Her voice trembled very slightly as she delivered the last line. She realized something.

Jayasankar knew exactly the thing Nagavanshi was thinking about.

The Premier couldn’t help but to feel a thrill at the rising tension.

“Sometimes, Parvati, I really hate your guts.” Jayasankar said, her voice turning sultry.

At this, the Commissar-General seemed animated by a different impulse than before.

Nagavanshi hovered close to Jayasankar’s desk, leaning forward. Closer than they had been in an exceptionally long time. The Commissar’s gentle breath blew right over the Premier’s lips. “It’s because you can hate me that our relationship works so well. So hate me with all your being.”

Her eyes and voice grew eerily intense. Jayasankar felt a thrill rising up in her own chest.

“You’re a real piece of work, Commissar-General.” Jayasankar said, leaning closer as well.

Premier, if you’re so afraid, angry, and upset at me. Then you should punish me for it.”

Suddenly, Jayasankar lifted a hand to Nagavanshi’s cheek and put her thumb right into her mouth, pressing on her tongue. Even Nagavanshi was surprised. She moaned but offered no resistance. “I’ve been wanting to teach you a lesson.” Jayasankar said. She pulled Parvati closer.

In an instant, she was on top of her. This, too, was all part of their understanding.

Even in the darkest times they at least had this form of catharsis — and companionship.


The Great Ayre Reach on the Northern Imbrium Ocean was a colder, shallower slice of water than most of the Imperial forces were used to living in. Operating in the photic zone, they could see bright blue water and in places, at times, even the light of Solceanos playing upon the ceiling of their ambitions: the surface of the ocean, and the forbidden world that was past the water.

A trio of engineering frigates was hard at work cementing Imperial control of Ayre.

Two of them laid down a massive laser relay tower.

A third laid down cable connecting the tower to its counterpart closer to Palatine.

When the tower activated, the Grand Fleet renewed its connection to the network that joined much of the rest of the Empire, allowing them to send and receive much higher bandwidth communications than before. It was this feat that allowed Erich von Fueller to finally speak to his subordinates after many long days of campaign away from home against the Republic.

Erich von Fueller stood alone on the bridge of the Irmingard, mother ship to an entire class of new dreadnoughts. He had cleared the bridge, and all of his officers dutifully left him, without a single remark. All of them saluted him, paid him respect as Grand Admiral of the Fleet, and went on their way. He had ceased to accept the title of “Prince” to refer to himself. In his mind there was no longer any Empire, for what had held the semblance of Empire they once believed in was the shadow of his father’s exploits. He was dead, and so was the Empire. There was only territory, and the bickering landlords scheming to improve their own holdings.

“It was always going to be this way.”

When Konstantin von Fueller slaughtered Emperor Nocht II, he called out to all those who had stood on the sidelines of his war: “You are free to challenge me, as I challenged him!” At that moment, not a soul dared to step forward and fight him. But that idea had lingered in the currents.

His father had demonstrated that the Emperor was not all-powerful. He could be usurped.

Now, the man who seeded this idea had passed on, choking on his own blood and bile.

It would not be long before the disparate states of the Empire turned on each other.

“In his absence, everyone will challenge me. Like him, I now welcome it.”

He would not build an Empire over the rubble. He had other ideas.

An encrypted laser communication connected Erich to a subordinate on the video screen.

A seemingly youthful woman, her glasses reflecting the light of the video screen.

She was in a dark place, but all manner of terrifying things could be inferred from the shadows in the background. Tubes containing mutilated things; machines of unknown description. Amid all of this, a woman, her hair in a long, functional ponytail, dressed in a bodysuit and coat.

“Grand Admiral, congratulations on a successful campaign.” She said in a sweet voice.

“It’s no accomplishment. The Empire and Republic trade this piece of the Imbrium often. Doubtless they will take it back when I’ve ceased to pay attention to it.” Erich said in response.

His tone was untroubled, sober. He was calm. His mind was truly clear.

“If I might be so bold as to say, your humility is your most charming quality.”

Erich felt almost annoyed. “And your worst quality is all the false flattery.”

Mocking him, the woman made a face as though she had been struck and rendered docile.

“Well. It was you who demanded to speak to me. How may I serve you then, Herr Fuhrer?”

Her lips turned back into a grin as soon as the phrase left her mouth.

“I will soon return to Palatine, and from there I will cross into Bosporus. I will be expecting the timely delivery of your tributes. Will the Jagdkaiser be ready? Will the rest of your promises?”

“Everything will be ready, my lord. As certain as the sun rising.”

“This may surprise you, but I do not care where the sun goes or doesn’t. Therefore you would do well to understand that my tolerance toward you will end if my demands go unmet.”

Erich’s voice remained clear and confident, but his counterpart was unmoved.

“I understand. But taking a long view, all my predecessors died violently, yet the Sunlight Foundation remains. I can surpass this one body; I know one day, a form of me will see the Sun.”

She waved at him.

“But I will uphold my end, Fuhrer. May you one day bask in the light of the Sun.”

With the Foundation’s common parting words, the laser connection cut off.

Erich was suspicious, but he could do nothing but trust her, despite everything.

He allowed himself the briefest sigh. No one was watching him.

Soon he would have the power to never rely on snakes like her again.

He would continue with the plan. Lead a small fleet to Palatine, Bosporus, Volgia. Augment his power along the way with the innovations from his disdained vassals. Make a show of force. Soon, the Sunlight Foundation, the Inquisition, the Church of Solceanos: none would matter. All of them would fall. The world would be transformed. And he would be its Fuhrer.

At his bidding, a second connection traveled out of the Irmingard and made its way through the relays back to Palatine. His call was answered by a communications officer in Vogelheim, a young woman in servant’s outfit, rather than a military uniform. An apron and frilly cap; but the large headset for communications was clearly visible too. She bowed gently when she saw him.

“Tell Lieutenant Patroscu to make sure my sister’s birthday guests find their way easily.”

On the other end, the maid bowed her head once more in acknowledgment.

Erich cut off the feed. He had no emotion about what had transpired, or what would.

“Mind if I come in, milord?”

A sweet, soft voice came from the door to the bridge.

“You’re always welcome in, Carthus.” Erich said. “I was about to declare a 4-hour rest.”

Erich turned fully around from the console to meet the angelic young man coming in. Behind him the bridge door locked, with an access only the two of them possessed. The Prince looked over his guest, with his long, bright blond hair done up, and his green eyes open and inviting. The Prince was captivated with him, even when he wore just the simple blue Grand Fleet uniform. The young men stood before the throne replica on the bridge, and Carthus von Skarsgaard strongly embraced the Prince who stood like a pillar before him, offering no reciprocation but a small smile. None was needed, as the pair understood the character of the other perfectly.

“Since you’re declaring a rest, would I be able to sing for you today?”

“I would love that. I haven’t had a moment’s peace in ages.”

“I knew it. You haven’t rested at all since we left Palatine.”

Carthus got behind the taller Erich and reached over his cape to squeeze his shoulders.

Erich laughed. “Stop it, that’s not what I need from you. Perhaps soon.”

“Whatever you wish.”

He continued to hold on to Erich from behind, sinking his soft face into the Prince’s back.

“May I confess to something grave, milord?”

“Anything. You can say anything you want to me. You know this.”

“Erich, I do not wish to rule over Skarsgaard when all of this is over.”

Carthus sighed deeply. As a nobleman, that was an answer to a question that Erich’s actions had implicitly posed to him and challenged him with. It was an answer that meant dishonorable failure for any of the Empire’s top families. It was an affront to his ancestors, and an abdication of a holy duty that Emperor Nocht had given his family hundreds of generations ago.

But Emperor Nocht was dead. Emperor von Fueller was dead. And there were no Gods in heaven nor holy duties left on Earth. For the first time in weeks, Erich felt truly, transcendentally happy. He reached to his flank and took Carthus’ hand in his own. Carthus couldn’t see his face, but Erich was smiling. He was smiling so broadly and openly that he could almost cry.

“Thank you, Carthus. In the future I will create, neither Skarsgaard nor Fueller will weigh us down anymore. You will be something far greater than an Imperial Duke. I promise you.”

Without looking at the other’s eyes, the two men sealed their pact through those held hands.


In a dim, humid room in an undisclosed part of Imbria, the Sovereign of the Sunlight Foundation was both delighted and bothered by her conversation with the future Fuhrer of the Imperium. In the vastness of her thought, she found his behavior amusing. A tin-pot dictator like all of the rest who had come before him. He thought himself the most novel, of course.

The Sovereign had seen plenty of men just like him.

What bothered her then, more than anything, was that unlike with those men, whom she could safely ignore, she had to cooperate with Erich Fueller. This time, she could not simply stand idle and watch the irrelevant political histories of Imbria continue to turn. For the good of not just Imbria, but all of Aer, it was necessary — necessary ­— for the Empire to retain its unity and power. Though she abhorred the unproductive game of politics, she would have to play it, to save science and the future.

Behind her, there was the sound of a sliding door.

“I am leaving for the Northern Imbrium. I want to render a complaint.”

The Sovereign turned around to greet her guest. She found a familiar young woman, also shrouded in the dim, wet shadows of the laboratory. She was eyeing the test subjects with open disdain. The Sovereign’s present fixation was with exotic leviathans, and there were a great many, fetal and adult, large and small, complete or in pieces, in tubes and machines around her.

“Are you taking Tigris with you?” asked the Sovereign.

“Yes I am. We make a good team. About my complaint–”

“Go on. Actionable feedback is the lifeblood of any management structure.”

At this, her subordinate groaned openly at her. “Quit being coy. I sat on your inbound communication with Erich von Fueller. Supplying him with intelligence is bad enough. I cannot in good conscience see us supplying him with weapons too. What are you doing, Yangtze?”

Yangtze spread her lips in a wide, beaming smile.

Her subordinate narrowed her eyes in return.

“Euphrates, what I’m giving him is paltry compared to the scope of our power. It’s just an insurance policy to maintain the status quo in a chaotic time. I share your distaste for politics. Sometimes the only way to remain neutral, is to create the conditions for neutrality. We need to hedge our bets on an outcome to this war, if we’re not going to outright interfere.”

“I disagree; and I’ll stop at disagreeing. But you must reform your ideas.”

“Ooh, scary. Am I being threatened right now, I wonder?”

Euphrates made an irritated noise. She crossed her arms. “You are our Sovereign, and we want to trust your decisions, Yangtze. That has become harder for all of us to do lately. Rethink things; please.”

She turned around to leave, having had the last word. But the Sovereign called to her again.

“Euphrates, if you’re going to the Northern Imbrium, I’d like you to do something for me.”

“I’m not your errand-girl. You can get one of your Imperial flunkies to do it for you.”

“You’re so cold to me now! We used to be friends; you know?”

Sovereign Yangtze put on an aggrieved face, hugging herself as if shivering with pain.

Across the room, Euphrates was unmoved. She did not even turn around to see her talking.

“You and I have been peers. Don’t misunderstand. I put the Foundation first.”

“You and Tigris have been quite independent of late.” The Sovereign said.

Her tone of voice had changed, and Euphrates clearly noticed.

“We uphold the duties that others are neglecting. Is that all it takes to lose your trust?”

“Trust has to go both ways. Do something simple for me, and I’ll consider your advice as coming from a peer and not, say, a saboteur, or a usurper. How do you respond to that, friend?”

Yangtze said this casually, but she knew the barb had bitten under Euphrates’ stone skin.

Euphrates turned fully around, and coolly ran her hands back over her short, wavy hair.

“Yangtze– Sovereign. I take umbrage at having my loyalty tested again after everything I’ve done for you. I’ll acquiesce, but only to show my commitment to keeping the peace. What do you want?”

“Thank you for being so considerate.” Yangtze raised her hand toward one of the monitors hovering behind her. She thought about what she wanted it to show, and the monitor responded, and showed Euphrates a station in what was now called the Palatinate or Palatine, in North Imbria. “I want you to leak the location of this place to a Republic spy in North Imbria. She’ll do the rest.”

“I think I know who you mean. I’m not going to contact her directly, however.”

“Whatever you think will be most effective.”

“I see. Should I also leak the contents of Vogelheim to her? She’ll be interested to hear it.”

“You’ve done your homework!” Yangtze clapped her hands. “Indeed, it’s part and parcel. I trust your judgment and your intellect. Craft a suitable scenario to lead that woman to Vogelheim.”

“I’ll take care of it. Though I don’t relish continuing to participate in your political games.” Euphrates said. “But I’m glad you’re at least playing multiple sides. Ultimately my fear was that you had become obsessed with a fascist Imbrium. My criticism is not rescinded, but I feel better.”

“I’d never expect you to shut up about something so easily, don’t worry.”

Yangtze turned her back on Euphrates and made a gesture with her hands for her to leave.

“Acknowledged, Sovereign.”

Euphrates again turned, and this time departed the room through the sliding bulkhead.

Yangtze cracked up in a smile, laughing a bit at the situation.

“They’ve all become so ignorant. The world truly rests on my shoulders.”


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.3]

“If this is what married life might look like, sign me up right now!”

Karuniya leaned back until her head came to rest on Murati’s lap.

“We are trying to sign up. It takes a while.”

“Oh, shut up. You know what I mean!”

She looked up with those precious emerald eyes, full of warmth. Setting aside her mini-computer, Murati caressed Karuniya’s hair, returning the wide, beaming smile that her girlfriend gave her. She put her back against the wall adjacent her bed and sighed contentedly. She did know exactly what Karuniya meant. Their feelings were entwined more than ever.

Something about surviving certain death cast new light on what was profoundly important.

One part of their resolution from the battle at Thassal was that they had to spend more time together. Once Murati got out of the hospital, they immediately put their date back on the calendar. Both of them had committed to the Reserve due to the intense fighting they saw in Thassal, and due to the arrival of more experienced troops from Solstice. So they had nothing but free time.

For this date, they agreed to take it a little easier than they had during their last rendezvous.

They gathered everything they could want for a lazy afternoon.

Rented mini-computers, and the proper cables for a direct LAN connection; beet-sugar sodas; and a big bowl of toasted corn and peanuts, drizzled with a little bit of oil and yeast flakes. They could eat snacks, watch and listen to different media, maybe even play some video games.

There was also another pressing bit of business the computers would allow them to tackle.

Once they were ready, the two of them convened in Murati’s room with fluttering hearts.

They booted the computers they had taken out. They felt the anticipation in their fingertips.

Sitting together on the bed, holding hands, they locked eyes, with serious expressions.

“Let’s make it official then.” Murati said.

“Absolutely! Official, above-board girlfriends!” Karuniya replied.

This determination led them to the Union government’s intranet portal for Thassal.

Together, they filled out the computer form and applied for permanent cohabitation.

For now, they were registered as authorized administrators of each other’s rooms.

Eventually, they hoped to apply for a double-wide apartment and free up their singles.

All it took was a few taps on the screen. Technology had really come quite far.

It had been so easy and instantaneous that the dramatic tension they both felt had dissipated.

At that point, they collapsed against one another and played around on the computers.

Murati was seated, holding her minicomputer up, and Karuniya had her head on her lap.

“Murati, let me show this BBS I found! It’s so full of haughty students.”

She gave Murati the numbered address of the BBS and Murati navigated directly to it. While the design of the page was very sparse, it had all they needed for a spirited conversation on Union civics. Columned text posts, the perpetrators of them, and all of the associated metadata.

Some posts had photographs attached of the posters. Others had symbols or identifying marks. Any wall camera could take a picture for you and upload it to your room or a minicomputer as was convenient for you, but some folks got creative. There was a poster named ‘Agora’ who had as their avatar a picture of a barter table. Another, ‘Baerotrauma69’ had a more avant-garde style, known only to them. Murati had been in the Academy when intranet forums usage began to rise sharply. Originally intended for educational discussion, they had become an outlet for a very room-bound population to make friends and accost their enemies, as more and more computers were built and made accessible to the public through the government lending libraries.

Murati and Karuniya had a mutual fascination with ‘the net’.

Neither of them felt like using it for educational purposes.

Smirking, Karuniya began to type. “Judging by your avatar you must be a Camposist, as it is evident you’ve been on quite a conquest for bread.” Her fingers hovered over the keys waiting for Murati’s approval. Her loving partner cuddled up beside her and read the message.

“That’s so mean. Send it. Let me look at his picture– ok, yeah, send it.”

A tiny ‘hehehe’ accompanied Karuniya striking the “send” key on the contextual keyboard.

“The debate room is too easy.” Murati said. “Here’s where the real artisanal grief can be stricken. They’ve got a BBS for video games. Those kinds of posters can’t help themselves.”

Murati raised her eyes to the ceiling, thinking for a moment, then began to thumb-type. “I found a secret in the 8th level ‘Climbing Comrades’. Walk off the ledge just before the castle exit!”

“Seriously? That’s kids’ stuff.” Karuniya said. “Try making a case for ‘Constant Attack II’ being a puzzle game. People will get way angrier if you just assert things like that without basis.”

“Oatmeal is a soup.” Murati said in direct voice, perfectly suppressing the urge to laugh.

Karuniya stuck her tongue out at her. Murati laughed and continued her intranet journey.

“There’s a BBS for trading stuff. Want to look? There’s handmade goods, room mods–”

In response Karuniya rolled her head around on Murati’s lap, flailing her arms.

“We’re thinking about new a room this early huh?” She wailed. “Overwhelming.”

“Oh don’t be like that. We could get some nice things to make it feel cozy.”

“I just don’t want to think about difficult things. I’m done making choices for the day.”

“It’s not difficult at all!” Murati said. “Look, someone is trading a virtual aquarium. Hand-made pixel art wallpapers on diskette for room computers. An old cleaning drone that is programmed to whine and act like an animal to work as a cyber-pet. Isn’t that fun sounding?”

Karuniya scowled. “Should we get a crib for the baby?”

Murati instantly petrified. For a split second she went over the night they spent together. She vividly remembered a condom; how could she forget who put it on, and how? Then Karuniya started to laugh openly at her, before her imagination could get any further carried away.

“Hey, don’t joke about that.” Murati said, her tone of voice lower and more severe.

“I wouldn’t try to raise a kid if we had one anyway.” Karuniya mumbled.

“I really don’t want to think about anything like that, Karu.”

“Now you know how I feel.”

“It’s entirely different! Orders of magnitude different! I’m asking you about wallpaper!”

“Yes, and I don’t want to think about it.”

Karuniya poked at Murati’s inner thigh with her finger while mumbling childishly.

Murati was exasperated at first.

She could not help but slowly devolve into sniffling laughter. What a ridiculous woman! She put a hand on Karuniya’s head and rubbed her hair all over, flooded with affection for her.

“Who is being a troublemaker now?” Murati said mockingly.

“Ah! Stop it! It’s your fault! You’re rubbing off on me!”

“You’re being so petty!”

“I love you!”

Karuniya sat up suddenly and planted a kiss on Murati’s cheek.

She whispered in a sultry voice in Murati’s ear.

“Shut up for a little bit and I’ll kiss somewhere else.”

When she dropped back onto her lap, Murati was dead silent, smiling down at her.

“Unfortunately for you, I’m not actually in the mood.”

Murati reached down and started to tickle Karuniya’s stomach.

“Ah! No!”

This affectionate battle characterized their cohabitation for a few minutes.

Then peace returned to the apartment as the two of them settled back down.

“Oh, this is interesting.”

Sitting up, Karuniya showed Murati her own minicomputer. There was a board for sharing pictures of life on the station. One post had a photo attached which had been taken by an exterior berth camera. It showed the hundreds of ships saturating the waters of Thassal Station. Many of them had recognizable hulls for a pair of soldiers who had just fought a fleet action not long ago.

There was one ship in the photo that looked markedly different.

“Everyone’s talking about this one. Nobody can identify the class it’s supposed to be.”

“It’s gigantic. Must be at least cruiser sized. Maybe it’s an old hauler.” Murati said.

Murati got up close to the computer, taking in the picture. It was a remarkable ship.

“It looks so worn out.” Karuniya said. “I knew you’d love it. Why do you think it’s here?”

“Maybe it is bringing supplies. It looks a bit like an old hauler, but not any of our newer transporters. We could have brought it out of reserve to make up for a shortfall of cargo ships.”

“I hope that’s not the case. I’d hate to think we’re having logistical problems this early.”

This early — in the war they were both sure would be coming now.

In their little island of peace, with their thoughts for a romantic future.

All around there were hundreds of warships, and far beyond, lay thousands of enemy ships.

“I don’t want to think about it!”

Karuniya raised her arms in protest and pushed Murati to stand up off the bed.

Confused, Murati quietly acquiesced.

“Go fetch us some lunch. I want to use the bandwidth we have to download a film.”

“Karuniya, that will take hours. The LAN speed for non-government stuff is atrocious.”

“Which is why you can use the time to have a nice walk, and I can have a nice nap!”

Karuniya took up all of the bed, setting the computer aside to download several hundred megabytes worth of a movie file at 256 kbps. From the look of the file name and the particular FTP site she was getting it from it appeared to be a schlocky horror film. Murati heaved a sigh, but it truly seemed that Karuniya wanted to be lazy and nothing would convince her otherwise.

Murati knew how troubled she was, even though she tried to blow it off.

Before the battle for Thassal, her partner had not been saccharine about their relationship. That she sincerely wanted to live together and make big steps in their relationship meant she had been affected by everything that transpired. Murati felt blessed by this. Getting lunch for her was a simple task, and the reward of coming back into the room and seeing her there waiting was enough.

“I’ll be back!”

With a spring in her step, Murati headed over to the canteen at Bubble. There was a buzz of activity around the lower Block. Several new arrivals had to be housed, at least temporarily, so there were people in front of every door, being led to their new accommodations, shown the amenities and being read the Thassal housing charter. A few rooms looked like they would be crowded with three soldiers at a time. With a hundred more ships at the station than before, and no immediate mission, it meant thousands of off-duty soldiers mixed up with the familiar neighbors.

At the canteen, she chose one of each menu item. When there were two to feed, it didn’t make sense to pick two A menus or two B menus: they could share every item. It turned out to be a great haul this time. Pickled eggs, tomato relish, broth-soaked biscuits, eggplant; it was a king’s ransom. She wondered if they were being grandiose with the meals as a celebration of the battle. Soldiers returning to the station or being rotated out to the reserve could use the extra comfort.

When she was on her way back, Murati found someone waiting at the entrance to the block.

Her eyes first noticed the armband, with a stylized serpent.

Ashura.

That armband represented the communist party’s elite forces. They served in security and intelligence roles, as well as in arbitration of civil conflicts. And the person before her was not just any Ashura. Judging by the insignia on her uniform, four red and gold stars, she would have been an Admiral. There were no Admirals among the Ashura, however. They had different ranks.

Those stylized stars were instead meant to be read as “Commissar-General.”

When she fully realized this, Murati stopped in front of the woman with a wide-eyed stare.

“Murati Nakara, correct? I am Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi.”

Murati shifted the way she was carrying her boxes so she could salute Nagavanshi.

Nagavanshi shook her head. “No need for formalities. You’re in the reserve. Is civilian life treating you and Maharapratham well? I heard you took the first step with her a few hours ago.”

The first step— it was a euphemism. Cohabitation was the first step to marriage. In the Union, marriage was chiefly tied to space. Couples that wanted to live together needed larger rooms, and they freed up smaller living spaces for others, like young adults who were leaving the school dorms. To be married, to live in a space befitting two people, was the next step.

For those who wanted to raise their own families, rather than put their children in government custody, there was another step beyond marriage, to acquiring a larger living space. Such faculties were rare. But that was the cultural touchstone Nagavanshi was alluding to. The steps two people took.

And it haunted Murati when she realized how much Nagavanshi knew about her. All of those records were public, but it meant Nagavanshi was searching for information about her. And she had been searching as recently as a few hours ago when Karuniya joined her to make the first request, for cohabitation. Perhaps she was still collecting data about her even as they spoke.

The intelligence services really were a force to be feared.

Now Murati was even more worried about the Commissar-General’s presence.

“Ma’am, with all due respect, I don’t know how to respond to that.”

“I read about the battle of Thassalid Trench. You were recorded by Deshnov as one of the architects of that battle’s strategy. We won because of you; of course you would earn notoriety.”

“I know. I am being considered for a position at HQ in the Strategy department, by Rear Admiral Goswani. Until my review I was asked to remain in the Reserve.” Murati said.

“That is not what you want, right?”

Nagavanshi produced from her black and gold coat a document in a folder.

“You’ve made the most petitions out of anyone in your peer group. You don’t want to plot behind a desk at the HQ. You want to command; you want to be in the middle of the action.”

She opened the folder briefly. It was full of review documents for Murati’s petitions.

Murati’s words caught in her throat.

Maybe a week or two ago she would have responded with confidence. She would have said in the affirmative that she was destined to Captain a ship. She was born to fight the enemies of the Union. She would live to take the Union’s justice to the Empire that threatened to destroy them. All of these things she so staunchly believed where shaken now, however.

At the battle of Thassal she had killed many people and won victory.

It had shown her the suddenness, the terror, the surreal insanity of war.

Karuniya and her were starting to assemble a different kind of life.

“Commissar-General, at the moment I’m in the Navy reserve, so–”

She tried to deflect, but Nagavanshi was not letting her escape so easily.

“I’m assembling a crew. I’ve got a ship, and a revolutionary mission that cannot succeed without you.” Nagavanshi said. “I hope that you will join us because as a staunch mordecist you understand our historic conditions. We can assemble all the ships we want at Ferris. Our Navy is at best 1000 strong, which is maybe a fifth of active Imperial war power, not to mention reserves. We can hide away and build our strength and bide our time, but we will never build 4000 ships in a year or two. Our time is short. I want to take decisive action; to take the fight to the Empire within a week.”

What frightened Murati the most was this was not someone’s lunatic raving.

Nagavanshi was speaking unopposed, but she spoke with a casual confidence.

Everything she was saying, she had thought through with immense care.

And yet there was an underlying contradiction that made her sound insane.

“That isn’t possible.” Murati said. “You just said we don’t have enough fighting strength. Then you’re saying we need to confront the Empire. With one ship? I don’t understand ma’am.”

Nagavanshi did not waver. Her voice was steadied by a palpable conviction.

“All of the fighting power we need is mustering in the Empire as we speak. They are going to take advantage of their own historic conditions and take a gamble for their futures. They might fail without us. I’m not asking you to fight alone. I’m asking you to join my one ship so you can take up arms with all of the dispossessed in the Empire itself and help them follow our footsteps.”

 A revolution was brewing– in the Empire itself. How was this possible?

“Will you turn away from their revolution? When they need you?”

Nagavanshi was extremely dangerous.

She knew exactly how to pitch something to Murati that she could not resist.

All of this time, Murati had devoted herself to fighting in memory of her revolution.

A thousand generations lived inside her. That’s what the Union told its youth.

Was the Empire truly on the cusp of revolution? An event that all of her life had seemed outside the realm of possibility; something never spoken to her, never taught to her, something that was in no books she had ever read. The Empire’s poor and the Empire’s weak, the Empire’s young; would they too, spill the blood of an entire generation to overturn their oppression?

Murati’s fist shook with frustration.

It was the part of her Karuniya called “a troublemaker” preventing her from turning away.

A part of her that would always agitate for what was right, what was fair.

That would always stand with those who faced injustice.

That would always take the comfortable and the elite to task for their complacency.

And yet, she was so conflicted. Because she had become complacent herself.

“Commissar-General, I’m not convinced the Empire can have revolutionary potential. And even if it were to be developed I’m not convinced that it can be truly effective.” She was lying, she was practically lying to herself and to Nagavanshi, and it was evident in her face, eyes closed, her jaw trembling with anxiety. “I’m furthermore not convinced your idea of sending one ship out into the Empire to do who-knows-what, could possibly further that potential. So I’m afraid–”

“I’m disappointed, and unmoved.”

Nagavanshi produced from the other side of her coat a minicomputer.

It was smaller than most of its kind and emblazoned with her logo.

But the screen was bright and clear. And Karuniya’s face was on that screen.

“I’ve dispatched a message to your fiancé. She will not refuse my offer.”

Her golden eyes locked onto Murati’s own auburn eyes with imperious contempt.

“I had hoped you would join us out of your own intellect and moral development. Clearly I overestimated you. Nonetheless, I will do whatever it takes to launch this mission, Lieutenant.”

Murati dropped her lunch boxes and grabbed hold of Nagavanshi by her coat.

By force, she practically lifted her opponent.

She was a head taller; the Commissar-General could not resist her.

Nagavanshi never tried to struggle. She was completely unfazed.

Those terrifying golden eyes remained steadily locked on Murati’s own.

“Everyone feels entitled to put their hands on me today.” Nagavanshi lamented.

Murati felt ridiculous and furious in equal proportion.

To do this was a flagrant, violent act that was wholly unwarranted.

And yet she wanted nothing more than to rip Nagavanshi’s head clean off.

“Leave Karuniya out of this.” Murati said through a stiff, fang-bearing grimace.

Nagavanshi made no expression in return.

“So you would leave without taking your fiancé? It had always been my intention for the two of you to go together. In fact I planned such a thing for your sake. I could have gotten any Oceanographer, but she is the best choice to make sure you are operating at maximum efficiency.”

“What?”

It had not even occurred to Murati that all of this would involve Karuniya.

Was she wrong to think so? She wanted to protect Karuniya.

To protect her– but they had sworn to be together now.

Nagavanshi saw the opportunity and interjected.

“I don’t mean to pry into private matters, but if you were intending to leave by yourself, it would void your cohabitation agreement, and probably also your partner’s affection and trust–”

Murati had enough.

She slammed Nagavanshi down to the ground.

The Commissar-General toppled over easily as if she had no physical strength to respond.

She looked the silliest that she had the entire conversation. Her cap went rolling. She fell into her own cape and looked more like a heap of clothes than a person for a few seconds. Her hair broke from its neat bun and fell down the front of her face. Her arm band nearly slid off her arm.

Slowly, the Commissar-General collected herself.

Murati was frozen in place.

Her head was spinning, drunk on a cocktail of impossible emotions and sensations.

She had never known herself to be this impulsive. She had struck a superior officer.

“Solceanos defend! Commissar, I’m so sorry–”

She genuinely meant it. And maybe Nagavanshi even knew that to be the case.

As before, the Ashura’s chief betrayed no emotion. When she stood back up, it was as if she had never been thrown, save for her wild hair and the slightest tremor in her hands.

“As a sign of goodwill, I will not press any charges or hold what you have done against you.” Nagavanshi said. “I will be expecting you in the Naval HQ for further debriefing tonight. You shall be pleased to know that commensurate with your new position as First Officer and Diver Leader of the UNX-001 Brigand, you will be promoted to Senior Lieutenant.”

Her black-gloved hand thrust something into Murati’s chest. A picture of the ship?

Then, without another word, she walked away. Murati almost wanted to describe it as “storming off” in her own reckoning. She felt that the Commissar-General was clearly aggravated in her body language despite her inexpressive face. Soon as she had appeared, she had vanished.

The entire discussion had felt like a flood swept over Murati. Had her lunch boxes not been on the ground, she might have wondered whether she was hallucinating in the middle of the hall.

At least the lunch boxes were clasped shut and sturdy.

She picked them up, took them under her arms and took off in a full sprint towards home.

As she ran, she almost wanted to cry.

Because they lived in the Union, there was truly no escaping war with the Empire.

To have even thought she could for an instant made Murati feel so foolish.

Nagavanshi had been right. She had been naïve to think she would just stay at the station.

Murati’s ideas had changed the battle at Thassal. She was inextricably linked to this war.

As she arrived at her room, she tried to compose herself before opening the door.

Inside, Karuniya was reading something. A message had appeared on the wall.

“Are you alright, Murati?” She asked. She did not look distressed.

Murati could not make out the wall message from the door. Because Karuniya had summoned it from her vantage on the bed, the text was big enough for her, but not for Murati. So she could not tell what kind of message Karuniya had received. She had a guess, however.

“I’m fine.”

She put on a smile and walked in with a lunchbox in each hand.

“There was some good stuff today.” Murati said. “I think you’ll love the eggplant–”

“Knock it off.”

Karuniya stopped her while she was going to put the lunches on the bed.

She looked up at Murati from the bed, her eyes narrowed, her brow furrowed.

“Murati, never do that again. Don’t hide things from me. You’re terrible at it.”

Karuniya reached out and took Murati’s hands into her own.

Feeling those soft hands, seeing Karuniya right in front of her.

It really was a blessing, even though everything else seemed to grow ever darker.

“I’ll be with you no matter what.” Karuniya said.

Murati threw her arms around her in embrace, holding her tight, in complete silence. On the wall behind them, the message from Nagavanshi updated with a picture of the ship.

“You’re going to do this?” Murati asked.

“She contacted you too?”

They parted briefly, looking into each other’s eyes.

“Murati, I don’t think we have a choice.”

Karuniya touched Murati’s cheek.

“Yes, she offered me a lab and all kinds of things so I would join whatever mission they are getting up to. But the instant I saw the messages I knew that what the Ashura really wanted was ‘The Genius of Thassal’ to join their ship. And being honest, I thought you would love to go.”

“I’m conflicted.”

Murati averted her gaze.

Karuniya gently guided Murati’s eyes back to her own. Slowly, she kissed Murati on the lips. They shared a moment that was brief, warm, and immeasurably kind. Murati nearly wept with emotion.

“Besides being a scientist, I’m a soldier. That’s how things are in the Union. And besides being citizens of the Union, we’re soldiers. Besides even that, we’re revolutionaries. And the Murati I fell in love would cause no end of trouble for her own rights and those of others.”

Murati sighed. She looked well and truly resigned.

“It’ll put you in danger.” She said, weakly.            

Karuniya embraced her. No more was discussed about this.

Both of them had made their decision together. They held each other in enduring silence as if to say ‘no, it will put us in danger.’ They accepted it.


Previous ~ Next

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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