Operation Monsoon (0.0)

This scene and much of the story as a whole, contains scenes of violence and death, as well as descriptions of weapons and their effects. Please be advised when reading.

Under a brutal northern snowfall the old Federation capital of Junzien was alive with the fire of history. It was a day when every thread of Nocht’s timeline would tragically collide.

Cheering crowds gathered along the streets as the Presidential motorcade departed the Hotel Reich and made its way toward the Foundation Stone at the site of the former capitol building. Alongside the motorcade the crowd marched as a procession, throwing roses and lighting snapping sticks, hoping to catch a glimpse when the President finally lit the ceremonial fireworks that symbolized the old fortress cannons, their heavy shells striking down the approaching monarchist enemy in the name of independence.

Clad in their thickest winter coats the citizens braved the cold drift to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Federation of Northern States. To the northern people, it was still better known as the Nocht Federation, for the man who first lit the matches that sounded the fateful cannons. But that ancient name was not the one sung on this triumphant day.

President Achim Lehner leaned back in his seat, arms behind his head, listening to the crowd as they chanted his name and recited several of his campaign slogans. He cast a sly smile toward his radiant wife, dolled up in pigments and shiny hair, mink and silk, sitting with one limousine seat between them, hoping she would join the festivities. She coldly and immediately shrugged off his attentions, staring out the window with her head held up on a closed fist. He could see her half-closed, bored eyes reflected in the tinted glass.

No matter; he was riding too high to care. Whatever embittered her this time would soon pass. Chuckling to himself, he leaned forward from his seat, rubbing his hands.

Across from him, his lovely secretary leaned to meet him, and handed him papers.

“Revised copies of the speech, as requested.” She said.

“Cecilia, doll, you never cease to impress.” He replied.

Scanning the lines, he was elated to find his most recent successes were all featured on the pages. He could reveal to the world, even before the press, the capitulation of the Cissean rebellion, and the establishment of Nocht’s newest ally in the global south. He had finally put that war to bed as he had promised. He was almost assured an eight-year term now.

And where were the pundits now? Lehner laughed aloud. This was too good.

Turning out of the hotel avenue, the motorcade drove deep into the urban heart of Junzien, through roads flanked with buildings wedged one between the other, gray, gloomy cement and glass monuments to the city’s endurance. Lehner much preferred the new capital further up Rhinea, a larger, more modern place, sleek and efficient and artful, but Junzien was his people’s heart. So he begrudgingly made space for it in his own.

“We have to start moving quick after this. Build Cissea up.” Lehner said.

“Unfortunately, the island campaigns have sapped the strength of the Bundesmarine.” Cecilia quickly replied. “Our capacity to ship to Cissea is currently very limited.”

“Work on that, darlin’. It’s nothin’ that can’t be be fixed. You gotta find the problems and the solutions and you move heaven and earth — that’s what all of you are here for.”

“We can start on it; but in this case we need to move an ocean.” Cecilia said.

Lehner burst out laughing, slapping his knees. “God. I keep remembering why I hired you. And I just think to myself ‘damn, Lehner, good move, my man, good move.'”

Cecilia pushed up her glasses, her face reflecting his own impish grin.

At Lehner’s side, his wife’s expression soured ever so slightly more.

Outside the snowfall thickened, but the people struggled all the more to keep up. Everyone was used to the conditions of this venerable celebration. It had been this cold on that fateful day, and yet the rebel soldiers fought on nonetheless. Lehner waved through the tinted glass at the marchers, men, women, and children, cheering and running. They were separated from the motorcade by marching policemen in dress uniform.

Slowly the motorcade was poised to escape the tightest confines of Junzien.

Lehner picked a glass of wine from the side of his limousine seat.

There was a flash and a crack from up ahead.

At once the limousine came to a stop sudden enough to shake President Lehner.

Red wine spilled on his shirt and coat.

Lehner threw his hands up in anger. “Fuck! What the hell–”

Red blood sprayed on the window beside him, and there was a thud on the glass as one of the police escorts hit the limousine, falling dead with shells through his chest.

Muzzles flashed skyward, and gunfire rang out from inside the crowd.

Police drew their pistols in a split-second response and fired into the streets.

Panicked marchers ran every which way to escape the carnage.

Grenades flew out from the throngs and detonated among the motorcade.

Glass windshields shattered on police cars and motorcycles. Fuel tanks went up in columns of flame, sending shards of metal screaming through the crowd and roasting special agents and foot police inside their vehicles. Policemen fighting on the streets were grazed or clipped by metal shards and many fell. Amid the massacre the limousine stood unharmed, explosive fragments bouncing off its sloped, disguised armor plating.

From the rapidly thinning crowd, an assailant in a covering trenchcoat and hat opened fire into the window of the limousine. Twin wounds marred the glass, each composed of dozens of concentric circles with a cap lodged between. His gun failed to penetrate.

Agatha Lehner nevertheless screamed and ducked against her husband in fear.

President Lehner grit his teeth.

“Cecilia.” He said, more aggravated than anxious.

Shaking with nervousness, Cecilia slammed her heeled shoe on the floor, and dug out from under a sliding panel a sleek, fully automatic Norgler machine gun, top of the line.

She clumsily pulled up the cover on the feed tray, slid the ammunition belt into it, locked it in place, and pulled back the charging handle to ready the weapon. It fed with a satisfying click, just like they had practiced. She held the gun aloft, her shoulders shaking.

Outside the assailants concentrated their gunfire on the limousine.

Bulletproof glass absorbed a dozen rounds of punishment.

It was getting hard to see the fight.

Lehner nodded his head with determination and Cecilia nodded back. She dropped between the rows of seats in the back of the limousine, sidling close to the door with the Norgler in hand. She pushed it up to the door. Lehner leaned down, holding his wife close, both their heads down under the level of the windows for safety. He pulled a catch.

On the door a panel just large enough for the Norgler opened.

Cecilia pushed the gun through the slot and slipped a slender finger over the trigger.

Swinging the weapon from side to side she opened fire indiscriminately.

At once a noise like an automatic saw overwhelmed the sounds of battle.

Casings dropped to the floor of the limousine by the dozens every second as Cecilia held down the trigger on the Norgler, barely controlling its overwhelming fire. She closed her eyes and held on to the weapon as bursts of automatic fire swept from the side of the limousine. Lehner peered over the window and watched as best as he could through the marred glass as the weapon rained lead on the streets. He strained his eyes and saw the trenchcoat men as they were brutally cut down with barely a struggle.

Another sharp click and the Norgler ejected its last casing.

Once the noise of the automatic fire died down, the street was empty and silent.

Lehner waited in the limousine, stroking his wife’s shoulders and pulling her head to his chest, her tears soaking into the wine-stained coat and shirt. He sighed deeply.

Cecilia stood up from the floor, sweating, breathing heavily.

“It’s a hell of a gun.” She said, her voice trembling.

After several minutes, a surviving police officer knocked on the window.

President Lehner stepped out of his battered limousine and inspected the carnage.

His weary eyes rolled over the blood and viscera, the bodies of innocents, of officers, of assailants alike, the burning wrecks, the bullet casings littered all over the ground, all of the madness that had unfolded on his streets in mere moments on this historic day.

Only one detail burned in his mind at that instant.

All of the weapons he saw gripped in the death-frozen fingers of the soon-to-be infamous Federation Day Terrorists, were of Ayvartan make. Their grenades, their firearms, all of their arsenal had been manufactured in the Socialist Dominances of Solstice.

“That’s damning.” He told himself under a cold breath. “And useful.”

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Ghede River Warfare (41.1)

This scene contains violence and a graphic depiction of disease.

46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu North, near the Ghede

Turning in from the road, Field Marshal Haus’ Sentinel Foot 8-wheeled armored car followed a series of blue flags across several kilometers of the wood. There were no men, and any tracks from patrolmen were carefully covered; but any traveler with a keen enough eye would have been wary of the rags hanging from various trees across the forest. Each flag was a different amount of meters from the next, but the path was still there for those who knew where to look and how to interpret the posted signs.

Standing out of the Sentinel-type 50mm gun turret that was the vehicle’s namesake, Haus directed his driver through the thick, hard terrain, crossing the forest toward the northern riverside. They did not come across a single other soul along the way. Haus knew the significance of the flags, and the lack of patrols did not disturb him.

It was all of his own design, after all. He had ordered the patrols ended.

He would need every last man he could spare in the center for this next effort.

Haus found himself painlessly navigating through the forest into the T-Battalion staging area, an eerie space devoid of trees save for one massive trunk with a hollow that embraced the entire clearing, and a deeply bowed crown of evergreen leaves. Hundreds of men lurked in the outskirts, and what seemed like a hundred loitered within the clearing itself, sitting on the beds of trucks, with their backs against crates, downcast.

Standing under the ancient, mournful giant, they seemed defeated already.

It was an atmosphere that was fit for mourning, punctuated by screams of agony that resounded across the clearing — there was a commotion in a nearby medical tent.

Haus stared quizzically from atop his turret.

“Cathrin, I think you should stay in the car for this one.” He said, wincing at the noise.

Below him, seated calmly beside a radio, Cathrin bowed her head in acknowledgment.

Haus pulled himself up from the turret hatch, and climbed down the side of the Sentinel Foot. He hit the floor in a quick stride and hurried to the medical tent. Sweeping aside the entrance flaps, Haus found several men gathered around a bed where another landser lay, struggling against belt bonds and screaming as loudly as his lungs would allow. Between fits and screams sounded recurring snapping noises, and few of the men backed away with each snap. As Haus closed in on the mob, he averted his eyes.

From a bleeding ulcer on the bound man’s leg a long, sharp worm struggled against a stick held from afar by a medic, who was driven to near hysterics by the terror of his task. As he turned his stick, he wound the worm around it, and pulled more of its length from the man’s wound. Haus thought the abomination must have been at least a meter long, and thick as a thumb. At the beast’s front end, dripping jaws snapped at the men.

“Messiah defend.” Haus intoned. “What the hell happened to this man?”

“Sir!” One of the men in the sidelines, a Sergeant judging by his pins, saluted the Field Marshal while the rest of the men watched in stunned horror or wincing sympathy. The Sergeant swallowed hard, glanced at the bloody sight, and explained, “He came in this morning saying his leg hurt. He couldn’t remove his boot, so we got the medic to cut his leg, and we found that thing. He must’ve drank unfiltered water somewhere, maybe a few weeks ago, and got infected; this thing must’ve grown in him and it wants out now!”

“Why the hell would you drink unfiltered water around here?”

Twist; the worm snapped, the man screamed, the medic gingerly turned the stick.

Blood spurted on the bed.

One of the tent guards grabbed hold of his mouth and ran outside, leaving his rifle.

His choking and heaving joined the cacophony of bodily noises in the tent.

The Sergeant cringed. He pinned his eyes on Haus, the least unsettling sight in the tent.

“It was part of our survival training sir! River water is supposed to be fresh!” He said.

“Fresh as in not salt water! It’s still unsafe!” Haus replied. He felt a touch irate that he was being made to witness such a grotesque sight that could’ve been prevented.

He almost wanted to take out his handgun and shoot the worm dead.

But then it might putrefy inside the man and that would definitely cripple him.

“You’re all dismissed from the operation; stay here, tend to this man, and please, for the love of God, enlighten your units about the price of carelessness in this bestial nation.”

Shaking his head at the men, Haus left the tent.

Fresh screaming followed him out.

“Where is Major Troppf?” He called out.

A gaggle of depressed-looking soldiers pointed him into the wood.

“Look lively!” Haus shouted at them. “We’re carrying out an operation today!”

There were nods in response but no change in demeanor.

Haus returned to the Sentinel Foot and tapped his knuckles on the armor. Out from the top popped Cathrin’s blond head, peeking over the hatch just enough for a pair of bespectacled blue eyes and some golden hair to come into view. She blinked, and Haus silently beckoned her to follow. She pulled herself over the hatch, and climbed delicately down the side, clip-board in hand, a radio backpack fastened by her waist-belt and around her shoulders, and its paired headset perched on her crown. She had traded her heels for combat boots, and wore thicker, sturdier black leggings with her skirt uniform.

“What was the commotion?” She asked. Was seemed out of place; the man in the tent had never quite stopped screaming. They had merely gotten used to the noise now, enough that it blended into the background of rustling leaves and billowing breezes and pattering boots.

“I’d rather not recall it.” Haus replied. “Come on.”

Ambling a short distance out from the clearing, Haus and Cathrin followed the landser’s vague directions and found a big tent with the symbol for a headquarters. It was surrounded by bushes and camouflaged with a net entwined with twigs and leaves and green branches. Inside, Major Troppf, an older man with a gaunt face, sat behind a skeletal folding table, spinning a pencil around. He looked sleepy and bored.

At the sight of the Field Marshal, he dropped his pencil and thrust up from his chair.

“Sir!” He raised his arms in salute.

Haus stared inexpressively at the man. “Are your troops ready?”

“Yes sir! We’ve mobilized the entire battalion to this general area.”

“Have they been appraised of the situation?”

“They’ve been taught what they need to do.”

Haus was not especially pleased with that answer.

One could teach a parrot words, but they would not know their context or meaning. A parrot could say your name, but it would never be able to call it out with any emotion or in a complete sentence. He would have hoped in the past few hours he could have told the troops the exact nature of Haus’ plan and the day’s strategy, but it was too late for that now. He would have to hope his parrots could sing their words well enough.

As Haus’ gaze fell more bluntly upon Troppf, the Major averted his own.

“I will be taking tactical command at the front.” Haus said. “Tell your units to keep contact with Ms. Habich here at all times, and to answer any command from myself immediately.”

Major Troppf looked taken aback. His eyes rose again to Haus’ face, and he raised his hands as if trying to calm down an irate child. “Sir, with all due respect, it is too dangerous for the Field Marshal to take to the front! We can command the battle from here; this headquarters might not seem like much, but our radio reception is reliable.”

Haus felt insulted; what commander didn’t pine for the war at the front?

“If I was not willing to get my hands dirty I would not have come this far.” He said.

Without further explanation, Haus turned his back on the Major and ambled nonchalantly out of the tent. Cathrin remained behind only long enough to hand the stunned Troppf a card with the frequencies she would be using. After that, she too turned on her heel and vacated the area. They returned to the Sentinel Foot, through the little gaggles of men lying depressingly about, and under the almost rhythmic cries of the worm-stricken man.

“What was your impression of him?” Haus asked aloud, as if to the air.

Cathrin answered. She pushed up her glasses; her face was coolly dispassionate.

“Another man who thought he could slide by; unwilling to take risks.”

“Unwilling, or incapable?”


“You’re a harsh but precise judge of character.”

Haus offered Cathrin a hand, and helped lift her onto the step at the back of the Sentinel Foot. It was help she did not need, but that he always offered, and that she always took. She opened the hatch, and climbed inside. Haus followed. They settled in their places. A box of ammo for him; the little corner where the radios had been bolted to the armored wall, for her. At the front, their driver waved a greeting. They would not be leaving yet.

“Is Von Sturm’s presence required at the front?” Cathrin asked, sliding her headset gently onto her head and over her ears. She adjusted the microphone on her collar. If necessary, she could ring him up, and he could arrive within the hour. He had more than enough time.

“No, let him come if he wants to.” Haus said.

Cathrin nodded. “Do you desire for him to appear?”

“It would improve my respect for him.” Haus replied.

He looked over his shoulder at the Sentinel turret near the vehicle’s front, set atop the highest point of the Sentinel Foot’s backward-sloping armor. Steps on the wall allowed one to climb into the turret basket, which projected down into the chassis, and from there onto the gunner’s seat. Though the Foot was only lightly armored, its 50mm Sentinel gun packed a better punch than the M5 Light Tanks that constituted most of the 13th’s armor power.

It encapsulated Haus’ view of war. High risk, high reward.

Unlike many of his Generals, he could climb on that turret and fight.

He wanted to.

“How much is your respect worth?” Cathrin asked.

Haus chuckled. He could tell what she was implying.

“In the end, whether he appears or not, Von Sturm will retain a position, because men other than me who gave him a position do not desire to be proven wrong about their judgment. His name, his legacy, and what he represents, make him too big to fail too utterly. Propriety dictates that he will be part of this army, will have missions, and may even share in the glory at the end of the hostilities. He cannot fail anyone but himself.”

“I see.”

Cathrin nodded her head, and turned her back on Haus, returning to her radios.

“Then I don’t think your respect is worth enough for him to come.” She said.

Haus smiled. “You really are a cruel girl.”

Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North

Selene Lucci slept well considering the circumstances.

It helped that prisoners were held in a tent that was exceedingly dark.

She could hardly see the features of her hands or the thick seam stitches on the sleeves of her dress. It was fairly cool when she laid close to the ground, and the earth was soft and comforting. Her captivity was relatively more livable than she had imagined.

Cages had come to mind, but instead she was only chained.

Her legs were chained to a block which had been buried beneath the tent, thus preventing her from even attempting to drag it around. Her arms were chained, but there was a lot of slack, and they were not tied behind her back as they were when she was kidnapped from the village. And she had been left well enough alone since yesterday, so she did not have to contend with any blathering Nochtish interrogators or guards.

God had truly blessed her.

Having carried her through that first night, she hoped He might deign to give her a way out of this test which He had put before her. Comfortable captivity was still captivity.

In the morning, Selene woke, and sat on a chair which had been left for her.

She could not see outside the tent. Her only source of light was a thin slit beneath the door, which was otherwise fastened tight from the outside with a zipper, and made of a fabric that allowed no light to filter through the cloth. Still, she frequently turned her eyes to the slit, and the very dim light filtering into her confinement. Should someone come to the door of the tent even that precious sliver of light would become obvious shadow.

Soon the slit was shadowed, as she expected.

Outside, the zipper came undone, and the tent flap parted.

Selene expected the sudden entry of sunlight to blind her. But the effect was far less dramatic than she envisioned. When the tent flaps opened, she caught a glimpse of green and brown from the tent’s surroundings, but the light in the tent was still dim, as was the world outside of it. Carrying a little lamp and a tray of food, Kern Beckert entered the tent. He had on the same dismal expression as he did yesterday.

She felt nothing at his appearance. She turned her head from the door.

“I brought food.” He said. He sounded drained.

“Comforting to know I won’t starve.” Selene dryly replied. He cringed a little. Causing him discomfort had become almost empowering to her. He was visibly torn up about what he was doing, but if he did not stop nor change, then he was the same as the rest. His regrets were useless to her; his squirming in her presence was at least mildly amusing.

Kern ambled toward the chair and set the tray on her lap. He put a spoon in her hand.

“It’s oatmeal, with milk. There’s a sugar packet on the tray too.”

Selene considered playing the hard prisoner, and refusing her food, maybe even tossing the tray at Kern and soiling his smart grey uniform. Would that have caused him to recoil? Would he have gotten angry, or felt the words of his uncouth companion with the gun vindicated by her actions? Would he think her a savage in a savage land?

She stared down at the oatmeal, dimly lit by the tiny orange flicker from the lamp.

She dipped her spoon in it, and ate. It was bland, but it was food.

She was hungry, and playing tough would get her nowhere.

Catharthic as it was, she might have to lighten up on the northern boy.

“Are you going to be my guard?” She asked.

“No,” he replied. He sttuttered his next words. “I’m going to the front soon. There’ll be another guard posted. I just thought– I don’t know. I wanted to come see you.”

Selene raised her eyes off her tray and glared at him.

“I’m far from comfortable being in your thoughts.” She said.

“I expected that.” Kern said. He rubbed his hand down his face. “I’m going to go. Please stay put and don’t rile up the guards, Sister. Nobody wants you to come to harm. I think once we’re past this river, they’ll let you go. Everyone thinks you might give up our position if you are released now, but that won’t matter when we move forward.”

Selene scoffed. “This is ridiculous. How could I give up your position now? To whom? I can’t escape north, through your lines, only south. And you’ve conquered the South.”

“I don’t know.” Kern said. He sighed. “I don’t know. I’m truly sorry.”

He turned around, hands in his pockets, head drooping, and left the tent.

Outside, he zipped the tent again.

She vaguely heard his first few steps away from the tent.

Then, like everything else in the outside world, the sound of him was blocked off.

On her lap, she still had the tray.

Oatmeal, sugar, a milk bag, a rounded spoon.

And a hard, metal tray.

Sensing the opportunity, Selene ate voraciously, spooning oatmeal into her mouth with zeal, drinking her milk in one gulp, and tossing aside the sugar. She picked up the tray and hid it behind her back on the chair. She tossed her spoon away as well.

Then she waited.

Time passed, indistinct to her. She finally saw the zipper pulling down.

Again the tent opened. A slim, brown-haired boy entered the room.

Unlike Kern, he did not have a lamp. Like Kern, he left the tent flap open.

“Afternoon ma’am. I’m Private Cohls. I’ll be sitting just outside the tent. Pull on the flap if you need to use the latrine, I’ll unlock ya. Food and drink comes three times a day.”

As he spoke, he closed in to within a few meters.

Selene had tested the length of her leg shackle the previous night.

Young, and smiling, cheerful, the Private entered her little circle.

Perhaps he was happy to have a cute girl for company, or under his power.

“Just gimme a shout if you want something. I’ll try to accomodate. My boss might be wanting to talk to you soon. I’ll give you a heads-up about that. Anyway. Nice to meet–”

He came close enough to stretch out a hand to shake.

Selene bolted up from her chair and hurled herself forward.

Swinging the tray, she struck the man on the jaw.

Blood and teeth sprayed into the air.

Private Cohls hit the ground. Selene heard a keyring jingling as he collapsed.

She knelt beside him and picked his body.

Her shackles soon fell to the floor beside him.

Through the open tent flap, Selene charged into the forest.

“God preserve me, for what I’ve done cannot be taken back.” She prayed.

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The Fallen General (40.1)

This scene contains violence and death.

45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Tambwe-Ajdar Border — Ghede River

Despite the amount of bodies pressed to either side of the river, everyone could still hear the sloshing of the water as it rushed downstream. Everyone was silent. Breaths reached farther than bullets, and faster. Ghede was a slow conquest, and an even slower defense.

Eyes peered over boulders, around sandbags, over grass-covered outcroppings upon which they lay belly-down with scopes and binoculars, peering downhill or uphill over the stream. Shadows flitted around trees, behind bushes. The opposing fronts were separated by only the width of the Ghede. In some areas the lines were as close as a hundred meters. Had it not been for the water they could have charged bayonet-first.

Despite the water, charging bayonet-first was still the choice outcome.

In several places the Ghede was only a half-dozen meters deep, and the rhythm of the battle was predicated on this fact. Men could swim across, if given the opportunity.

Lacking the mobility to cross quickly, the dueling sides fell into a war of munitions.

On the Nochtish side, mortar tubes were gathered by the dozens. Anti-tank and artillery guns of small calibers were pushed to the line of bushes at the edge of the wood, fifty meters from the river and nearly three hundred from the nearest Ayvartan position – not much, but enough to go unnoticed. Snipers climbed to the bushy canopy and adjusted their scopes. Light M5 tanks hid behind the tree line, and adjusted their guns to the same shooting tables in use by the anti-tank guns. Across a river they were merely mobile guns. There would be not armored blitzkrieg over the water of the Ghede yet.

Lines of foxholes formed a divide eerily reminiscent of the battles of the Unification War period, where two trench lines separated by a thousand meter no-man’s-land stared at one another for months, some years, before new technology entered the picture and caused a shift. Whether the abominable but ultimately slight shift caused by chemical weapons – or the dramatic, tide-turning shift caused by the entry of Nochtish tanks.

No new technology would cause a shift here in the Ghede, and the soldiers only wished they had a professional-looking trench line. Scattered foxholes and sandbag walls were broken up by the dips and rises of the uneven riverbanks, and the intermittently rocky and sandy and grassy terrain. Riflemen scraped from various divisions, agglomerated into the new 13th Panzer Division, waited sleepily for the next offensive to be declared.

There had been a few previous build-ups and failed attacks, but the lull between them felt like years’ worth of peace. Munitions built up, and men awaited commands, but on the Nochtish side of the Ghede there was a lazy, almost contented mood, like that of a holiday. There were no Generals here, no shouting orders, just distant voices, the sporadic tossing of a few shells, and half-hearted attempts to wade into the foam.

Bullets wailed and blood splashed, but after the fact everything was easily forgotten.

Until the next build-up, the next command word, the next attack.

“Noble cause.”

When the command came the landser crouched beside the field radio box could scarcely identify it as such. He raised an eyebrow at the strange call and the handset shifted against his ear with the shaking of his hand. Turning his head, he signaled to his superiors nearby that he was on the line. He then cleared his throat, and called back.

“Say again?”

“Noble cause,” came Chief of Signals Fruehauf’s voice once more.

“Noble cause?”

Fruehauf did not reply and the line went suddenly dead.

For several moments the radio man stood staring off into the distance.

He shook his head and his wits returned to him. Noble cause was the command.

That meant this build-up was now complete, and all munitions were to be released.

“We’ve been activated.” He whispered to the nearest man. “Pass it on.”

Word spread quietly across the line. Ayvartans monitored the radio traffic, or so everyone had been told; and they could see and hear across the river fairly well during quiet periods like this one. Therefore the rallying cry could not be loud or electric. Hands and tongues passed along the command, across every gun in the 10.5 cm battery, through the hatches of every M5 Ranger, behind the shields of every 37mm doorknocker gun, to every three-man Norgler machine gun team, into every foxhole and sniper nest.

“Noble cause, we’ve been activated.”

Guns of all sizes were loaded. Discarded helmets set back on vacant heads. Bayonets lugged, for no clear purpose. Men scrambled up, looking out over the river once more. Their movements were mechanical, reflexive, their minds still catching up to the events.

Once the entire river-front had been alerted, a runner was sent back to the guns.

Infantry would fire after the mortars and cannons drew the first blood.

With his upper body bowed low the man took off running.

He made it scarcely a few meters before he heard death whistle overhead.

A column of gray smoke and dirt, seething with hot metal, blossomed behind the trenches, and the runner went flying into a nearby tree, splashing blood and flesh.

They were preempted, despite careful planning.

The Ayvartans had gotten wind of the impending attack.

No sooner had the landsers noticed their dead man that munitions started falling over their line by the dozen, exploding all along the river-front. Small mortar shells came quickest, hitting the earth hundreds a minute along every kilometer of enemy positions, casting thin plumes of smoke and dirt into the air. Fragments of metal went flying over every foxhole and trench, and men huddled to their knees to escape the airborne death.

Following the mortars came the ponderous fire of much larger guns, striking farther behind the front, smashing trees, vaporizing bushes, torching holes into the thick green canopy above. Chunks of wood like flying stakes joined the shell fragments in the air. Thousands of fragments and fast-flying debris struck shields and thick trunks and the metal armor of tanks, hitting cover with such frequency it resembled automatic fire.

Amid the thunderous pounding of the enemy artillery, Landsers scrambled to their combat positions, bracing machine guns over rocks, pulling up to the edge of the riverbank on their bellies or scarcely above their holes and raising their battle rifles. As they joined battle their green tracers flew over the water, snapping branches and biting into rocks and flying into bushes. Between the rhythmic pounding of enemy ordnance the infernal noise of the norgler machine guns filled the silence, and lit the air green.

Lines of green bullets stretched over the river, and lines of red flew back the other way.

Behind the infantry line the air stirred as the 10.5 cm batteries finally retaliated.

Within the opposing tree-line the Nochtish fighters saw bright flashes as their own shells went off on the enemy, raising their own pillars of turf and metal as they struck.

There were flashes brighter still as enemy guns lobbed shells directly over their heads.

At the center of the line, a boulder was smashed to pieces as a 122mm Ayvartan gun struck it with direct fire. Chunks of hot rock struck against helmets and sandbags.

Red machine gun tracers from the Ayvartan side bounced off rocks and kicked up lines of dirt and overflew the foxholes, chopping up bushes behind them. Men scrambled to keep under the slicing red lines, unable to hear the thock-thock-thock of the Ayvartan machine gun over the cacophony of explosives landing by the dozens all around them.

Snipers perched atop the trees briefly glanced at the fire flying under their feet before returning to their scopes. They peered across the river, trying to discern the shadows from the enemy troops. The Ayvartan’s side of the river had much less space between the water and the treeline, and the entire Ayvartan line was cloaked in the vegetation.

But the difference between a rustling branch and a shooter was obvious – one flashed red and the other did not. Aiming for the muzzle flashes, snipers shot into the dark, moving from flash to flash in the hopes of scoring a maiming hit. As positions shifted and munitions discharged, however, new flashes and new targets appeared, as if a hundred shining eyes belonging to a monster, and no real effect could be discerned.

Joining the rest of the artillery, the company of M5 Rangers assisting the river offensive dug into the forest and fired blindly into the sky and through the trees, following the coordinates on the shooting tables. Theirs was the most solipsistic work within the battle. Encased in metal, the gunner and commander could hardly see around them in the wood, and the work of shooting was purely mathematical. They were shielded entirely from retaliatory fire, and only when the tank shifted positions to protect itself did the crew seem to awaken from the mechanical slumber of shooting and loading.

In theory an enemy was being hit, but the tank crews would not know it. Even the landsers at the front line, withstanding the brunt of the enemy barrages, couldn’t tell a tank shell apart from any other artillery, much less guess at whether it was accurate. It was all explosions to them, dirt flying and metal slicing through the air and fire briefly rising and abating within seconds. Whether across the river or around them.

Fire and fragments, an atmosphere thick with smoke; everyone was awakening from their dream-like haze to the violence of the Ghede. The first injured were dragged away through the tree-line, and men rushed from behind the tanks to take up vacated holes. Guns and tanks and machine gunners took the lead from the riflemen who clumsily began the battle, and the munitions war played out over every foxhole and trench.

Across days of the mind this war raged, but in the physical realm it was only minutes.

Then the final shell crashed down on the Nochtish side. Nobody was hurt.

Slowly the fire subsided, the colored lines vanishing from the air. Silence followed. Only the crackling of dust, falling to earth, could be heard. Neither side launched an attack.

Within the hectic moment of this offensive, nobody had bothered to cross the water.

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The Fallen Front (39.1)

This scene contains descriptions of burning and violence.

35th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Dominance — Bada Aso, Matumaini Street

Far in the distance, the spiraling pillar of fire and smoke reached out to the heavens, piercing the skies like a javelin hurled from hell. At the epicenter everything burned in moments, and then the fire crept through everything flammable, bursting through every gas line, every petrol tank, through cracks in the streets and roads, over roofs.

It was the most visible thing to the fleeing grenadier. There was nothing but that hellish edifice at his back, and the whistling fires that swarmed over every available surface.

In the heat the flames took the shape of demon’s hands, hungry and greedy.

He ran with all of his might as the red fingers snatched at him from all sides.

Whenever they closed he felt the burning, the agonizing, all-encompassing heat.

There was no part of his body that did not go white-hot, that did not hurt as if bubbling and warping within his skin. He felt that he would melt, even in the open street. He felt the agonizing pressure of the fires everywhere, building over his skin and inside his guts.

His helmet became hot a a frying pan and he threw it away before it cooked his brains.

His vision swam and he could only barely tell he was running by his own clumsy footfalls.

Everything around him raged and thrashed, everything tore and shook and warped.

Angry red tongues slithered from windows in a burst of glass and concrete.

Creeping orange-blue claws reached from the cracking earth to seize him.

Where there was not red fire there was black smoke that made him choke and cry.

Mid-run he searched desperately in every pouch, every pocket. He threw away everything but his gas mask, casting aside his smoking coat and his belts, and donned the object. It was hot, and it hurt, but it cleared his head, allowing him to breathe. Behind him his ammunition cooked off in its pouches. His coat slowly disintegrated in the oven.

Everything hurt. His heart pounded, his teeth chattered, and he screamed.

He screamed for release, for some measure of relief. But he found no respite.

No street numbers, no landmarks; everything wavered within the inferno.

Every second that passed, he felt, as if time was slowed around him. He felt every minute instant of pain, every touch of hurt over his flesh, a horrifying depth of pain.

Layers and layers of agony washed over him but he would not allow himself to stop.

He ran with all of his might, knowing he would be consumed if he did not take each step.

With every step he found the fires staying farther and farther behind. Sweet release!

Gathering the last of his strength, he hurled himself past the fire and into smoke.

He found his body slowly freed from the burning grip of the demons.

In front of him, wavering in the haze, was the hole in the center of Matumaini.

That hole that had been blown in by the artillery; it was the only form of cover.

He dashed for the hole, hearing laughter in his head coming from all sides.

Bada Aso’s burning demons hungered for him, hungered for everything. 

“Help! Help me!”

That voice was not the demons and was not his own. It was his mother tongue, almost forgotten in the scramble. He stopped at the edge of the aperture, and a greater human instinct overtook him. His stressed body, outside the flame, found some equilibrium, enough to pause, to take stock, to gather breath, and to scan the surroundings.

He turned his head over his shoulder and gazed into the creeping wall of fire.

How had he escaped such a thing? He did not know.

“Help me!”

Over the strange crackling sound of the flames, he heard the voice again.

Dashing away from the hole, the grenadier hurried to a nearby ruin, and pushed through the half-collapsed doorway into the rubble. The building had become a skeleton of rebar and concrete that held inside it a mound of gently smoking wood and stone from its ceilings.

There was another scream, and it was much closer. Quickly pushing away rubble, the grenadier found a comrade, trapped under a chunk of board and filler that had fallen.

“I’m here to help you! Try to slide out when I pull it up!” He shouted.

Below him, the trapped person, his face also covered by a gas mask, nodded his head. His screams subsided into gasping, quavering cries between sharp, panicked breaths.

The grenadier seized the slab of debris and lifted it with all of his strength.

From beneath the rubble the trapped soldier slipped out and dashed to the door without another word. The grenadier dropped the slab, and was about to go after him, but the trapped soldier stopped at the door. He was framed suddenly in a bright light.

In front of them, a column of fire and smoke blew skyward from the Matumaini crater.

Black smoke belched from the street and into their building, sucking out the air.

Once more the heat began to permeate their environment.

Their remaining clothes smoked.

While the trapped man stood transfixed at the door, the grenadier slowly and gently settled behind the mound of rubble, nestled into the bowels of the ruin with his arms around his knees and his legs against his chest. All of his energy had left him.

Outside the fires crept and crept, until they overtook them, and everything.

36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, Bada Aso Outskirts

Bada Aso, jewel of the Adjar Dominance, became a ruin choked in smoke and bursting with flames. Although the fires had long since reached their peak, having risen so far that people swore to have seen them from the sea or beyond the mountains, in their place they left a pillar of smoke, a black tower that descended slowly overnight until it covered the area in a choking gloom. Inside the cloud seething red bursts flashed every other hour, whenever something new erupted, snapping like lightning contained in an earthbound sky.

There were still things to burn, and so the unseen demons unleashed from beneath Bada Aso’s earth continued to feed. Some untouched gas line, some discarded petrol container, some hidden pocket of the monstrous gas still dormant below the red-hot earth; whatever the red claws of this monster grasped, instantly and violently exploded and burned.

Von Sturm stood dumbfounded atop a hill in the outskirts of the city. His blonde, slightly wavy hair was disheveled, sticking up; he had not had the presence of mind to gel it back into the smart style he usually wore. He was a short, soft-faced man who looked as if too boyish, too unripe for war, and facing the devastated city, his youth seemed all the more pernicious. It made him seem smaller, helpless, easier to break where he stood.

Through his tear-swollen, reddened eyes and through the foggy lenses of his binoculars, the General watched silently as the fire and smoke carried on its implacable course.

One night’s fitful sleep was not enough to make sense of the scale of the carnage. Yesterday he was leading a triumphant assault; today he was thoroughly beaten, his forces, his battlefield, everything blasted to pieces too dramatically for even the wildest imgination. For once, he had a sense of fear so strong that it stifled his passion and a sense of confusion and helplessness that overwhelmed his pride. He had no idea what to do.

It was as if his mind had burnt away with the city, and there was only the holy awe left.

He was staring into the billowing black face of a god as it ate his city, the city out of which he was destined to lead a glorious campaign that would cement his name in history. Matumaini, the Umaiha Riverside, Penance, the central districts, the open, grassy north of the city upon which he had intended to blitz through with his tanks, all of it was buried under that black cloud and the red bursts that periodically raged enough to be seen through it.

Just after the explosion, much of the city could still be seen, in the midst of its destruction. As the survivors retreated from it, and the smoke slowly descended, everything was obscured. At the edges of the city he could see fires spreading as if fed by invisible magma.

Any farther and the cloud became too thick to really see through. He could see outlines, sometimes, when something exploded violently enough. Outlines of ruined buildings that jutted at alien angles and seemed like architecture from hell. Faces, he saw them too; groaning, hurting faces in the cloud; cheerful, mad-driven grimaces in the fires–

That might have been his own head. He was afraid to confirm these sights with others.

Nobody came to fetch him, but the movement of the sun overhead indicated to Von Sturm that a long time had passed. He had been transfixed with the flames and smoke, drawn as if out of his own body to watch the devastation unfold in a dull, quiet panic.

Slowly he pried himself from the grip of Bada Aso. He scanned the surroundings with his binoculars. He watched the road. A line of water-tank equipped Sd.Kfz B Squire half-tracks wound their way toward the city, carrying a platoon of fire-fighters armed with everything they could muster to fight the fires and look for survivors in the black poison. Water guns, shovels, asbestos suits with oxygen masks; they were diving into hell now.

In a time that felt like another world away, Bada Aso and its port were critical to the supply line running through Adjar and aiding in the push to Tambwe. Putting out the burning city was necessary, but seeing it from the hill, Von Sturm found it a hopeless task.

He felt a strange desire to reach out with his hands and stop them. To tell them to stop. To tell them that it was futile, that it couldn’t be fought, that nobody would be in there. That there was nothing here for them, on this continent, that they should’ve never–

But he stopped. Stopping them, stopping this, meant the final death of him.

What else could one call rendering irrelevant nearly a decade of one’s life?

Von Sturm felt the fear of a God much closer to him; the peril of his own existence.

There was too much inertia here to stop. Too much inertia in the wheels of those armored carriers, in the solemn hearts of those men, and in the angry, desperate need of the man with the violent, noble surname who could not now stop. There was a weight of history behind them that would– no, must, carry them all forward. In a fraction of a second, the doubt was dispelled from him, and buried, and forgotten. Because it had to be.

Von Sturm left the holy awe behind and turned his back on Bada Aso as he turned his back on all other useless things. For his simple ambitions, no introspection was necessary. His heart hardened again, encased so that it could neither breathe nor bleed in this war.

But It wouldn’t be the same as before. His hands were still shaking. His eyes were still red.

There was a chain-link in him that had been inexorably severed, just as the 1st Vorkampfer had been inexorably destroyed and Bada Aso inexorably burnt to the ground.

He returned to his command post to await his demotion, and to seize back control of his weary staff from the panic of the moment. Yelling at others would at least distract him.

Far in the background, another explosion raged within the cloud. Its sound shook him.

It was like laughter.

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The 1st Regimental Headquarters (37.1)

This story segment contains violence and some frightening imagery.

45th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Red Banner Apartments

Madiha woke in the middle of the night in a bleary, dream-like haze where every angle became soft and everything except the edges of her vision was a rolling blur. Her shirt clung to her back and breast, cold and wet with a midnight sweat, and she felt a terrible headache and stomachache, borne of stress and lack of restful sleep. When she moved her fingers, hands, feet, they felt too heavy and too limp, alternating at a moment’s notice.

She heard something heavy hit the windowsill and it reverberated in her skull.

Alarmed, Madiha stumbled upright, and nearly hit her set of drawers as she made toward the open window. Her vision warped, tilted, came in and out, until it settled.

Framed in the moonlight, Kali stood guard at the windowsill, growling softly.

Half-closing her eyes, squinting to see, Madiha approached. Holding herself up by the curtains, she leaned half out of the window and scanned the street and the road.

Her eyes were aimless at first, but were then drawn in by the mask.

Across the street, the standing thing was shorter than an adult human.

It wore a fully white mask, featureless save for an inset gold face the size of a nose.

This small face on the mask had its own dull impression of a nose and tiny slitted eyes that moved haphazardly around like spinning billiard balls when stricken by the cue.

When they stopped moving they focused on her briefly. She felt their weight even from this far. Then they would roll again like a slot machine, moving inside and out of their sockets.

Everything of the creature’s face was obscured by the mask saved for a red chin and mouth, lips broken, a faint impression of white teeth. Around the edges of the mask was the black line formed by a thick hood that covered the being’s entire body save for its five long, dangling limbs that would occasionally thrash and dance like flailing noodles.

Nothing of the creature was congruous — every limb a different size, one shoulder lower than the other, one leg taller, and its visible mouth slanted to one side.

“Majini.” Madiha whispered to herself.

Her drawing of breath alerted the creature. Under its hood its thick legs stirred. It turned from the street to the window, and the little gold face on its white mask sniffed the air.

Jagged teeth burst through from between the creature’s lips in every direction.

Madiha’s recently recovered life flashed in her mind.

She felt those arms closing around her neck, a little neck, a child’s neck.

She felt the kicking and screaming, and the crunching of the mask as a brick struck the face in the middle and drew copious, filthy-smelling blood and shrieking screams.

“I killed you all.” Madiha’s jaw quivered. “I thought–”

A click-clacking, gurgling scream interrupted her.

Red spittle flew from the creature’s gnashing jaws. Hands flailing as if pulling on the air, the monsters twitched from one place to the next, hurtling toward the window. It moved like a cheetah on a full sprint, but it accelerated to a charge from a standing position in a second flat, and in an instant it tumbled from the street over the flower beds flanking the steps to the apartment building’s stairs, and slammed a pair of fists into the brick.

Its neck cracked as it craned its head to stare at the window.

Around the edges of its lips the teeth turned as if spinning on a wheel.

Madiha reached into her undershirt instinctively, but it was not her tunic, it did not have her holster. All of that was back at the foot of her bed, discarded. She drew back.

Raising a hand to her temple, she drew on the fire, the primordial fire.

Her eyes burnt, and the edges of her sight went red.

Every second the red was expanding, and smoke covered her vision.

All other Majini had perished in the heat of this ancient flame.

This one would join them.

“Kali, run!” Madiha cried out, her legs buckling as she struggled to kindle the flame.

Kali did not retreat as instructed.

It reared back on the window and drew air into its mouth.

In front of the window the creature appeared for a split second in mid-leap.

Kali breathed out the window, launching a blurring cone of barely-visible force.

Madiha could not hear the sound, but she felt it inside her head and in her gut.

Outside the window the Majini fell to the ground with a thud and let out its own cry.

At once Madiha’s concentration broke, and the flame she nursed was snuffed out.

Night’s colors returned to her surroundings, and all of the red was gone.

In its place there was only a sting and a nosebleed.

Madiha hurried to the window and found the creature’s mask shattered into bloody pieces. Its limbs were snapped and twisted by the strength of Kali’s breath, and its hood caved in at the center. Soon it began to die the Majini’s death — it disappeared slowly. As the body and cloak melted away like wax and sank through the earth itself, Madiha saw the impression of a sewn-up face flash briefly from behind the shards of white porcelain.

It was gone as if it had never existed.

Madiha gingerly reached a finger to her blood-soaked upper lip.

The pain of her own brains burning felt very real, but nothing else did.

A thin shaft of light expanded across Madiha’s window to encompass much of her room as the apartment bore the full brunt of Rangda’s dawn. At pace with the light a small, dragon-shape shadow extended across the room, the bed, and over Madiha’s face.

Madiha opened her eyes, facing the ceiling. She turned her head to face the window.

Last night felt like a dream. Some parts she could confirm, but others were ephemeral.

She touched her thin nose, and removed a pair of bloody tissue papers from it.

No more blood drew from her nostrils. And the psychic sting in her brain had passed.

She sighed. As a child she could throw several flares before feeling anything.

It seemed she would not have to start over from scratch.

As she sat up by the side of her bed, eyeing her uniform and hazily piecing back together her plans for the day, someone knocked on the door twice quickly.

The door then opened a crack, and Parinita peeked her head in cheerfully.

“I come bearing gifts!” She shouted, holding a paper bag in her hand.

Seeing Madiha sweaty and in her underwear, a little gasp escaped her glossy pink lips.

“Sorry! I shouldn’t have barged in. Should I go?”

Madiha shook her head, gently waving about her black hair, nearer to shoulder length after almost a month of new growth, and messy from her tumultuous sleep. She stood up off the bed, leaned back, raised her arms, pushed her chest forward and let out a yawn. Glistening sweat delineated the lines of lean muscle on her bare limbs, and trickled down the brown skin of her slim, toned body. She felt no hint of awkwardness.

“It’s perfectly fine.” She said, through a long exhalation. “So long as it’s just you.”

Parinita laughed, delicately covering her mouth with her hand while ogling.

“I suppose it’s alright anyway since we’re both girls–”

At the window, Kali groaned audibly and slammed its tail on the wall.

“Eep! It still doesn’t like me.” Parinita moaned, retreating further behind the door.

Madiha shot Kali a frowning look.

“It’ll have to warm up to you eventually.” She said, in the tone of a command.

Kali blew a little air from the nostrils at the edge of its beak.

Madiha shook her head at it. “Come in Parinita, don’t stay by the doorway.”

Parinita nodded. She entered, her hair pulled into a ponytail, wearing a fresh skirt and dress uniform. A light dusting of cosmetics gave her lightly bronzed skin a bit of a blush, and the reading spectacles perched on her nose made her look more a secretary than ever. She wore a skirt uniform and a pair of classy flat shoes in green to match. Though fairly fit, Parinita was slightly rounder and softer than Madiha in form, and at least ten centimeters shorter.

Examining her, Madiha felt a little thrill in her chest. She was always a lovely sight.

Closing the door behind herself, Parinita tottered up to Madiha, and put her hands on the woman’s head. Madiha felt a cooling touch seep in through her cheeks and smiled as a wonderful, relaxing feeling spread through her, touching her strained body and her too-hot heart and head. She locked eyes with her secretary as the eldritch fires invisibly dispersed.

“You are far too hot this morning, Colonel.” Parinita said, smiling faintly.

Her hands were still on Madiha’s face. Madiha reached her own hand up to touch hers.

“I’m still unsure exactly how it happened.” Madiha said. It played into the little entendre Parinita might have been setting up, but it was also true. Her memory of the past night was a fading blur. She recognized something happened, but it felt too unreal to be true.

“Just be careful with it.” Parinita said. “I might not always be around catch sight of it.”

“Someday I’m going to have to interrogate you about that.” Madiha said, smiling.

“I owe you the conversation.” Parinita replied. “But we’d need more time than we have.”

Madiha nodded. Like her, Parinita had her own illogical secrets, and she probably yearned to share them. Madiha was perhaps the only soul who could relate to the alien things Parinita must have known. But life always pulled them harshly in certain directions, and they hadn’t yet found enough peace to fully confess to one another. Each of them held pieces of the other’s puzzle; everything was strewn on the floor without interlocking.

And yet it felt like both of them could still see a lot of the picture nevertheless.

Their day would come sooner or later, but Madiha felt that they had an unspoken understanding on this matter regardless. Each was drawn to the other, sharing a kinship in and out of battle since the day they were thrust, violently, into each other’s orbit.

It was rushed, and strange, and perhaps dysfunctional. And yet it felt natural.

Had not Aer and its Moon been bound together by a cosmic disaster? That was the last science Madiha read on the subject. The two were inseparable now. It felt quite right.

Contented, Madiha replied, “I’m not worried. We’ll discuss everything when it’s right.”

Parinita nodded her head, tufts of strawberry hair bouncing just over her forehead.

In a way, Madiha felt like she already knew everything. Such was their bond now.

After lingering for several moments, their eyes, so tightly locked before, finally parted, and they set about preparing for the day. Madiha entered the adjacent bathroom to wash her face and teeth, and Parinita returned to the door, and took from a hanger outside the apartment a fresh uniform and a bundle of needed sundries that had been left for the Colonel, and set it down on the bed for her. When Madiha returned, she sat at the edge of the bed and set apart all the layers of her uniform to begin dressing up.

“What’s on the agenda today?” Madiha asked while picking out her socks. She quickly found that she had been given were women’s long stockings, which she never wore.

Sighing, she pulled them up along her long legs.

Parinita giggled at the sight. “Hopefully we can get the headquarters ready by today, I’m thinking that will take the bulk of the afternoon to do. We also need to go over our table of organization and draft some simple training programs our troops can start on soon.”

As she listened, Madiha mechanically donned a white shirt, hastily buttoned the collar, and started doing her long red tie in a simple knot; seeing this, Parinita reached suddenly down, pushed her hands aside, and finished tying it herself. Madiha was surprised.

“I know how to tie it.” She said, as her secretary’s skillful hands completed the knot.

“Think so? Give it a quick look.” Parinita cheekily said.

Madiha pulled her tie up and stared at the knot. Somehow the red and gold lines of the tie formed a complicated pattern. Parinita had managed to divide the knot into neat little quadrants. It was a much more eyecatching knot than anything Madiha knew how to do.

“Oh ho ho! You see? It’s called a lover’s knot, because it’s hard to tie it for yourself.”

Parinita stuck out her chest, satisfied with herself, while Madiha turned a little red.

Once the Colonel was fully in uniform once more, Parinita combed her hair as best as she could, and the two of them left the building side by side to get a start on the day. Parinita handed her some candied fruit and a bread roll from the bag she had brought into the room, and they ate as they went. A fuller breakfast could wait. Madiha expected to relocate to the base quickly. She started thinking about hailing a cab to take them.

Directly outside, a sleek black soft-top car with its canopy pulled back awaited them.

Behind the wheel of the car, reading a newspaper, Logia Minardo leaned back on the chair. Her uniform looked as crisp as ever, and her cheeks and lips were delicately touched with pigments, but her hair wasn’t collected into a bun. It hung down to her shoulders, a little messy, looking recently wet. Perched on her nose were a pair of shaded glasses.

The Staff Sergeant had a pen and paper in hand and was plotting out the daily crossword puzzle on the driver’s seat. When the door to the apartments opened and shut, Minardo turned her head, spotted her superiors, and waved her pen to greet them.

She pointed at the newspaper.

“Do either of you know an eight-letter word for ‘used to make instrument strings?'”

Madiha blinked hard at her, still bewildered by the vehicle, while Parinita smiled.

“Drakegut!” Parinita cheerfully replied, after less than a second’s hesitation.

At the open window to Madiha’s room, Kali shuddered violently and bowed its head.

Minardo looked down at the paper, counted the spaces, and wrote it down.

“Perfect! As a token of my gratitude, you get a free ride.” She said, winking.

Madiha tipped her head with confusion. She still could not place the car. Her companion was much more energized by the prospect. Cheering, Parinita took Madiha by the hand and led her to the vehicle, pushing her into the back seat and making a big show of sitting near her.

“We have our own chauffeur Madiha!” She chirped. “Now we’re VIPs!”

Instead of metal seats like the scout cars, this civilian model car had plush wool-stuffed seats. The back seat was especially bouncy and comfortable, with a tall, rounded backrest. A roomy interior accommodated the two passengers well, with sizable legroom. Even the floor was snazzy, softly carpeted in a gray color that complimented the shiny black exterior.

All of this was posh, but the most stunning piece on the car was the dashboard radio.

It was set into the middle of the car’s front, extending the instruments panel.

Separating the driver’s and the front passengers’ legroom was the radio’s thick box, with a printed meter and needle in a white plate on the front. A piece of paper taped to the dashboard contained a list of civilian frequencies, scribbled in Minardo’s compact and neat writing. Aware of everyone’s attention on this item, Minardo turned it up. Immediately a steady drum beat, energetic shakers and quick strings played from the large speakers.

“Wonderful, isn’t it? Very dancey!” Minardo shouted over the radio.

Parinita’s face lit up, and she clapped her hands and nodded along to the music.

“Minardo, where did you get this? How did you get this?” Madiha snapped.

Unconcerned, Minardo turned down the volume on the radio, until the drums became background noise, “It’s a M.A.W. Bijali 2030! It’s brand new, fresh out of the depots.”

She sounded quite excited, but this information only made everything more puzzling.

“That does not answer my question at all!” Madiha replied.

On the rear-view mirror, Minardo winked again. “To some people, I’m a VIP, Colonel.”

“Neither does that! What do you even mean?” Madiha demanded.

In lieu of an answer, Minardo hit the clutch, pulled the stick back, and started to gently slide out from the side of the street and onto the road. She crept little by little onto the asphalt and then corrected the nose of the car, and with the gentlest little step on the acceleration pedal, she started them forward at about fifteen kilometers per hour.

There were no other vehicles in the immediate vicinity, and few people on the streets.

Structures and pedestrians scrolled leisurely by as the car inched forward.

“Just relax, Colonel! You’re looking too high strung this morning!” Minardo said.

Madiha let go of a deep breath and dropped against the seat, defeated.

There was a bump behind them. Kali dropped onto the back of the car and laid on the rolled back canvas frame of the vehicle’s soft canopy. It yawned and purred at them.

“It better not scratch the paint!” Minardo cried out.

Kali growled lightly and made a show of retracting its claws.

Madiha said nothing.

After several minutes, Minardo finally shifted to second gear, and accelerated to a relaxing thirty kilometers per hour. They did not go the direct route to the base. Instead, Minardo seemed to delight in taking them for a very leisurely little stroll around the corner from the apartment and farther north into the urban heart of Rangda.

It felt more like riding a horse-drawn carriage than a brand new car.

“Don’t just stare ahead!” She instructed. “Give your necks some exercise! Rangda has a lot of scenery. Our ratty old base won’t go anywhere. Try to enjoy the town for a bit!”

Madiha grumbled inaudibly, annoyed at the distraction. She turned her head away.

On the adjacent street, a teenage girl, perhaps training for a dash, bolted past their car.

“Minardo, you could stand to go a little faster.” Parinita said, her enthusiasm deflated.

Up front, their driver adjusted her rearview mirror so she could see them and scowl.

“Why, I never! I’m with child! If I have an accident, what would become of my baby?”

Parinita looked puzzled, but she kept quiet, perhaps seeing as how she had already stepped on her own tongue around Minardo once before on this very subject.  She sighed.

“Well, there are better services for orphans now than ever in Ayvarta’s history.”

Madiha spoke up nonchalantly, holding her head up with a fist against her cheek and an elbow on the car door, staring at the street. She thought she sounded perfectly logical, but from the startled way that Parinita turned to stare at her, she surmised she had done wrong.

Minardo practically growled. “There wouldn’t be an orphan born at all if I was hurt badly!”

“Oh.” Madiha said. Somehow those dots had not connected fully for her before.

From her tunic, Parinita withdrew an army code booklet and tapped Madiha in the head with the book’s spine. Madiha took her scolding with as much dignity as she could muster.

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Gloom On The Shining Port (36.1)

This story segment contains brief violence.

42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Core Ocean — West Ayvartan Waters

At noon, amid the deep blue of the ocean, the Heavy Cruiser Revenant launched a floatplane patrol. Near the bow of the ship, the Revenant’s two catapults were turned northward and Remora float planes hurled to begin their journey. Each would cover hundreds of kilometers of sea and return within hours, reporting via radio any contacts with enemy ships.

From the operations deck, at the fore of the massive, armored citadel of the ship’s forward superstructure, Captain-At-Sea Monashir stood with her hands behind her back, staring seriously at their operational map of the West Ayvartan Naval Sector, as they knew it in their strategic planning. Her chief concern now was the Bundesmarine of Nocht.

At her flanks, the Selkie class frigates and the Aircraft Carrier Admiral Qote were getting ready to depart and rejoin the East Ayvartan Fleet as a potential defense against Hanwa, whose role in the conflict everyone suspected, but no one knew for certain. In any conflict with Hanwa, their first strike would definitely be an assault on the nation’s Navy, and likely a first-strike against their naval command. Chayat was sure to become a target.

Admiral Qote would certainly be needed in such a situation. Not so much the Revenant.

As such it would be up to the Revenant to escort the Charybdis back to Rangda in Tambwe, while the Admiral Qote was relocated, and the Selkies covered it in transit.

Captain Monashir was used to acting alone or on limited resources. Nevertheless it paid to be cautious and use everything at her disposal. Before her support ships departed, Captain Monashir had requested enough time for a full reconnaissance patrol. The Admiral Qote had gracefully acquiesced to her request and delayed its departure a few hours.

She waited with her breath held in her chest, surrounded by radio and navigation equipment, viewing the ocean through slit windows at the front of the compartment.

Though she loved the view of the sea, it was no longer important to the crew.

In this new age of warfare, what she saw with her senses hardly mattered to the fight. A battle might be decided far before she even knew a battle was imminent. Seaplane recon was the best Monashir could hope for at the moment. The Revenant had an underwater sound detection system, and while the navy was intrigued by the ARG-2’s capabilities in Bada Aso, there was no time currently to install such a thing on the Revenant.

She watched her float monoplanes launched, and could not quite see them fly away.

Radio reports came in every fifteen minutes from both planes.

No contacts; clear seas; etc, for the first few hours.

Then a report came in: “Remora-3 has sighted a heavy cruiser. Looks like a Lubon Gloucester judging by all the big guns strapped to it ma’am. I don’t see any supporting ships, and it seems westbound. It’s far from home. I can’t imagine what it’s up to.”

That’s what it took; in this age of aircraft and signals, those words were worth more than the sharpest eyes on the deck of any ship. She had her contacts, hundreds of kilometers away.

Quickly the crew began to work on triangulation, while their aircraft shadowed the enemy. Soon they worked out a possible course for the Gloucester, as well as a potential combat area. Such an action begged the question: would they engage the Gloucester?

They couldn’t reach it on the surface. But passing this information to the Admiral Qote would allow them to deploy some of the 62 aircraft on-board. Though the Qote would have flushed at the request — 14 of its aircraft had been lost in Bada Aso, 10 to landing accidents, rendering the crew gun-shy — they might have ultimately agreed to do it.

Garuda and Roc aircraft could have attacked the Gloucester within the hour.

This would be an easy fight for them, and would eliminate a royal navy heavy-hitter. No resources would have to be diverted other than the planes and a few travel delays.

However, they were only two days out from Rangda, and the stray ship did not seem to be headed for their land. Though it had no business in these waters in war-time, and though Lubon was certainly Nocht’s crony in this war, Ayvarta and Lubon had not yet engaged in shooting. This attack would mean the Ayvartans shed first blood on the Elves.

It was all well to destroy this one ship. Captain Monashir, however, saw further risks.

“Let the Gloucester go. All Seaplanes return to base. We speed to Rangda.”

Captain Monashir knew she had lost her nerve. She had been confronted with a situation and turned her head from it. Bitterly she recalled her first impression of Madiha Nakar before her own battle — a battle the Captain had seen as reckless and unnecessary. Nakar had achieved an incredible result. But the thought of going out of her way now to destroy this Elven ship, while tempting, still felt reckless and unnecessary.

Monashir was not Nakar, and the sea was not Bada Aso.

Operations in the western Ayvartan waters were thus concluded. Admiral Qote broke off, and met new escorts. Captain Monashir sailed for Rangda. She was sure of her choice.

44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Core Ocean, Ayvartan Waters — Heavy Cruiser Revenant, around Tambwe.

Easterly winds carried cold from the Kucha over the little dominance of Tambwe across the lower northwest coast. Under the hot noon sun blaring over the ocean, the cold turned into a fresh breeze. But much of the deck was vacant, and there were few around to savor the air. On their final approach to the city of Rangda, only several hundred kilometers from harbor, the cruiser Revenant and its crew took a deserved break for lunch belowdecks.

Floating on the opportune breeze, a certain creature found the empty deck suitable.

And weary of the ship’s confines, a certain Warrant Officer found the creature in turn.

Hidden behind one of the lifeboats on the ship starboard, Parinita Maharani peered out onto the raised prow, near the forward gun turret housing the massive 300mm double cannons, where she found this beast bathing in the sun. Her eyes drew wide open and she pushed a hand against her own lips to stifle all the little noises her mouth spontaneously generated.

This was a Drake, one of the many large, reptilian animals in Ayvarta. In the continent’s vast wilds, the Drake in its various forms was a fairly common form of solitary predator.

However, this was a most uncommon form of drake.

Slender and the size of a big cat, it was much smaller than its siblings. Instead of a snout, like other drakes, it possessed a hard, beak-like mouth with a jagged interior. Instead of scales, the creature was covered in fuzzy down, like a baby bird. Though it lacked true wings, and had quite developed front and back limbs with stubby claws and strong muscles, there were fleshy, earth-tone membranes extending between its front legs and flanks, that amassed into folds while it lay in repose. What drew Parinita’s gaze the most was the gaudy purple-and-teal coloration of the creature’s fuzz, that shifted with one’s eyes and the position of the sun’s light as though the creature were encrusted with a gradient of gems.

“A Kite Dragon!” She squealed to herself, staring at the creature from afar.

Though still a Drake, its ability to “fly” on the wind lent this creature its name.

And a legendary reputation. Parinita’s head filled with little girlish fantasies.

The Kite Dragon raised its head and stared lazily around itself, awoken. Parinita feared that it might take off, but it did not. It raised one of its front legs over its head, and with this motion it stretched taut the flap of beautifully colored skin that made up its “wing.” Bending its head it nibbled on its own skin, likely to relieve an itch, and then laid again under the sun, unconcerned with the surrounding machinery of this giant modern warship.

Such a shocking sight; the futuristic grey meeting the regal purple of the past.

Watching this living treasure, Parinita could hardly contain her excitement. She hesitated to approach it. She was awed, seeing the history of the world that she had been taught, the mythical history, a part of it at least, confirmed before her eyes. Though on the one hand she had hated her grandmother, those stories she told had become quite a part of her the past month. Those ideas that she kept alive, those things only she knew.

To see them in flesh, to interact with them, made her proud. It made her special.

In her mind, she did not even question where this being came from. It was fated to come.

But what pure maiden did it seek? Perhaps; could it be? Herself? Parinita was giddy.

“Chief Warrant Officer, I have safely removed the rat from your bed quarters–”

Parinita turned around and sharply shushed the person coming in behind her, snapping instantly out of her pleasurable reverie. It was Sergeant Agni, whom she had tasked with removing a pest from her room. It had been a hasty compact. Parinita had run screaming out of her room and found Agni outside the door by sheer coincidence. Seeing a familiar face, she hid behind Agni for several minutes and then shoved her into the room, shut the door and ran way. Informal, unspoken; as one does with these sorts of things.

Standing out in the open, Agni turned her head from Parinita and toward the deck and finally seemed to notice the Drake. There was no change in her disinterested expression upon spotting the majestic being laying on their ship. She blinked, and stared, dead-eyed. Agni never emoted, and the sight of the Kite Dragon had no visible effect on her.

“What is that?” She asked simply.

“It’s a Kite Dragon.” Parinita triumphantly said.

“What is it?” Agni reiterated with no change in tone.

“Haven’t you heard the stories?”

“No.” Agni dryly replied.

Of course she hadn’t. Barely anybody did anymore.

As a child, whenever her grandmother deigned to pay her attention, Parinita received a thorough instruction on Ayvartan mythology. Her family, she had been told, where once faith healers and spirit priests, highly valued by their people in supernatural matters. They were also keepers of the histories of tribes and ancestral, nascent nations. She knew all about Kite Dragons, and as she spoke, she carried herself quite proudly for this.

“Kite Dragons are the highest order among dragonkind that is left in the world. Drakes cannot fly, but Kite Dragons have achieved such a status, that they needn’t fly. They merely trick the wind into ferrying them, like a kite. It is said that the regal Kite Dragon moves under its own power only in the presence of pure maidens, such as princesses and saints and songstresses, whom it takes very kindly to. It is said that an ancient King once followed a Kite Dragon for days to find a beautiful bride in Dbagbo, suited for queenship.”

Parinita finished with a flourish of her hands, awaiting a response from her audience.

“What a lazy little Drake; it sounds quite ridiculous.” Agni said, touched not by the tale.

“What? Ridiculous? It’s amazing. This is an extremely rare, majestic being!”

“Can it breathe fire?”

Parinita threw her hands up. “No!”

Agni shrugged. “I’m not interested then. I’m not a pure maiden anyway.”

“You’re damn right you aren’t! Not with this attitude!” Parinita said.

Agni opened her pouch, and pulled up a black, furry thing from it.

“Here’s your rat, by the way.”

Parinita drew back.


Agni shuddered. The Kite Dragon crooked an eyebrow at the sudden screech.

Parinita bolted up the nearby lifeboat hoist, finding a strength hitherto unknown to her. In two lightning-fast hand-holds she made it onto the life raft and threw herself under its covering tarp, crying aloud. Agni must have lost her mind! That rat was at least 100 cm!

“Agni, kill it! Shoot it! Throw it in the ocean! It’s a rat! A rat!” Parinita cried.

She peered out from under the tarp and found Agni staring at her with those same blank eyes, mindlessly petting the rat’s head as its plump body dangled from her fingers. She felt a skin-tingling disgust with the little beast, it’s pink fleshy little limbs, its stringy tail. She could see it in her mind creeping around, teeny-tiny, festering in people’s garbage!

“It’s harmless.” Agni said, holding up the little fiend and shaking him dismissively.

“Rats bite you and scratch you and carry diseases!”

From under the tarp Parinita flailed her arms helplessly.

On the deck, the engineer seemed to finally realize her officer’s disgust, and nodded her head solemnly. She averted her gaze, looking almost remorseful of her current conduct.

“I’m sorry; I did not understand just how much they affected you. I shall rectify this.”

Agni withdrew her pistol from her hip and put it to the rat’s pathetic round head.

She locked eyes with the rat as Agni prepared to finish it.

Parinita groaned sharply as if deflating. “No! No! Ok! Don’t do that!”

“Should I just let it go then? There’s really nowhere else for it–”

“Fine! Fine! Let it go! You barbarian! Let it go!”

Instead of shooting, Agni nodded, put down the rat and released her hands.

Parinita watched in horror as the furry devil scurried away.

Freed, the beast flounced up the deck, crawled over a fire extinguisher box, leaped to the prow, and was then snatched in mid-air by a sudden lunge from the Kite Dragon.

Clacking its beak, the creature tossed the rat into the air and swallowed it whole. A gross bulge formed on the creature’s throat as its meal went down. Uncharismatic noises issued from its beak and nostrils; once its meal had fallen far enough, the dragon relaxed, laid back and stretched out on the deck, its belly glinting royal purple in the sunlight.

“It ate the rat.” Agni said, sounding very lightly puzzled.

“It ate the rat.” Parinita mimed in a much more anguished tone.

She climbed back down from the life rafts and set foot on the deck once more.

Seizing Agni by the shoulders, she shook up the engineer, gritting her teeth in frustration.

“I blame you! I blame you!” Parinita shouted as Agni’s head bobbed.

“Did something happen up here?”

One of the side doors from the conning tower opened, and Colonel Madiha Nakar emerged.

Tall and fit, and quite well-dressed in her black, red and gold KVW uniform, the Colonel managed quite a presence. There was a look of consternation on the normally soft features of the Colonel’s brown face, her dark eyes locked onto Parinita’s hands as the guilty secretary manhandled Sergeant Agni. Parinita withdrew her hands and fidgeted, looping some of her strawberry hair around her finger and laughing perhaps a little too girlishly.

For her part, Agni seemed unaffected by the gentle thrashing.

“That happened,” She said, pointing out onto the prow.

Madiha turned her head to look and stared at the creature, narrowing her eyes.

She raised a hand atop the gentle bridge of her nose to shield her eyes from the sun.

Her lips curled into a serious expression.

“That thing is in the way and needs to get off the deck promptly.” Madiha said.

She started toward the prow before Parinita could relate to her the myths she told Agni.

Parinita watched as the Colonel approached the Kite Dragon and started shooing it.

She was in distress, waiting for the creature to lunge angrily at the impure Colonel.

The Drake opened its double-lidded green eyes, and raised its head in consternation.

Madiha tapped her feet hard near it, and nudged it brusquely with her shoes.

Spotting her, the creature narrowed its eyes and sniffed. Parinita was ready to cry out.

Suddenly it sprang up onto Madiha’s chest and curled its tail around her in embrace.

“Parinita!” Madiha cried. “Why is this strange bird attacking me!”

Parinita’s jaw dropped in response. She wasn’t being attacked; the Kite Dragon had just acknowledged her as a pure maiden. Perhaps the purest it had ever seen judging by how it nudged its head lovingly over Madiha’s breast, and curled its tail around her waist. It seemed almost positively in love with her, hooting and clacking its beak, its down standing on end.

“I think it likes you.” Agni said dully.

“It does!” Parinita said. She made a little squeeing noise. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sight! She almost wanted to rush belowdecks and get the cameras. “It really likes you!”

Madiha stood still and stared in dismay at the gently stirring creature.

“Gross.” Madiha moaned.

Nonchalantly Madiha pushed on the Kite Dragon. It unfurled and fell back on the deck.

Like a strange cat, it bounced back against Madiha’s legs, rubbing its flank on her.

Madiha sighed. “I don’t want this.”

Parinita gasped. She was in disbelief at everyone’s sheer lack of curiosity. Even if they knew nothing, this made no sense! “Madiha, look at it! It’s beautiful! It’s such a rare, majestic–”

“It eats rats.” Agni interjected.

At once Madiha looked down again at the creature and seemed to have new eyes for it. She knelt, picked it up by its front legs, and raised it to her face. She gently spread its gliding flaps, and blinked at the colorful display of its bejeweled fuzz once exposed to sunlight. Eyes closed, contented, the creature lifted its long gradient colored tail and slipped it beneath Madiha’s neck-length hair, lifting several tufts of her messy bob.

Nonchalantly, she deposited the creature back onto the deck and walked away.

“I will reassess its utility, I suppose.” She said without affect.

Parinita raised her hands to her face, shaking her head and muttering to herself.

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