The End Of A Chivalrous Era

This story contains violence, death, graphic violence and death, animal death, and quick mention and intimation of suicide. Reader discretion is advised.


18th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2008 D.C.E

Kingdom of Franz, City of Calvado — Von Krupp Salient, XIII Corps Line

22 Years Before The Solstice War.

It was his first time stepping outside the soil of the fatherland.

Though he was still on the continent, the young man had charged from the Federation of Northern States to the Kingdom of Franz. God help him; he was in another country. He was the invader; it really was a war. To think he was at war with the renowned gentlemen of Franz. With the men who had devised everything he knew about war. God help him.

Before all of this he had thought men could settle their differences through rhetoric and rationality, finding common cause and understanding. He was no longer so sure of that.

XIII Corps had a prolific season in central Franz. While Army Group A in the North and Army Group C in the South had floundered spectacularly (C’s mission to invade both Franz’s south and Lachy’s northern border, dividing its forces, was especially disastrous), Army Group B had managed to create a bulge in the line, extending half-into the city of Calvado. It was able to use all of its forces without obstruction or diversion and as such had managed to deploy considerable combat power against its enemies in the year’s final campaign season. Franz’s hard drive against the fledging Nochtish Republic halted.

Dreschner felt a sense of dread in the air around little Calvado. Here the bulge created against the royalist lines was called the Von Krupp Salient after the general whose troops had sweated and bled to push it forward. Now that very General, under orders from President Lehner, called for a cessation of movement and a strategic reassessment. Winter was coming, and the ravages of the war had taken too hard a toll on the Republican forces.

Every corps started preparing its defensive positions for the cold. Oberkommando was confident that the heroic men of the salient, who had fought so well, could hold anything.

But the summer was over; Army Group B was not the force it was in the Yarrow’s Sun.

Private 1st Class Einschel Dreschner could see the evidence of that all around him.

His line was almost empty — only his loader was with him, staring nervously out into the street ahead. His commander was sleeping inside a nearby house and three riflemen were pacing up and down the edge of two foxholes they dug into the soft street. Dreschner and the men had been ordered to form a fighting position on the intersection of Loum street just a few blocks up from the city center. It was a bad place to be fighting defensively. Most of their platoon had been wiped out in the last offensive. Support was long awaited.

Dreschner sat around, fantasizing about leaving the wretched infantry.

He had longed, before the start of the war, to be a cavalryman. To ride fast, to feel the wind at his face and the whipping of the air as he sliced his saber into the enemy. To take them down from the flanks with his bayonet and his dragoon pistol. Infantry were mired in mud and trapped behind trenchlines. Dreschner had seen so much of that. Infantry were just useless, nothing more than fodder for large artillery formations. But the cavalry, they were yet untried, yet unsent into the fray. As he waited in this hole he wondered what victories, what gallant triumphs, could the cavalry score, if they were finally committed to war.

But he was not a cavalryman. He was assigned infantry, the wretched, dirty line infantry.

And he was silently despondent. He showed no inkling of his cynicism, but he was spent.

Should he die, however, he and his fellows would never see home again, let alone a horse.

Regardless of their condition the enemy was still out there. And so, they labored. To block their captured road they built a little barricade from scrap wood, bricks and sandbags. It was haphazard, like a spiked pillar toppled over between the height of the intersection and the broad, open park; nevertheless they set their machine gun behind it and they waited.

It had been a long day, a lonely one, since they set up. Hours in the sun changed their priorities rapidly. They had gone from waiting for the enemy, to waiting for support, to waiting for the food carriers and finally, to waiting, longingly, for the sundown. It was a humble wish, for the cold of night to banish the too-hot fall sun. It was all they had.

“Dreschner!”

At first he thought it was a horse, and was elated for a second, but it wasn’t.

He heard the distinctive rattle of a bicycle gear, and saw a man coming in behind him.

Could it be a food carrier? No; they were never as well decorated as this man.

Dreschner turned around and stood at attention for Major Walter Weddel from Battalion Recon command, riding on his big-wheeled courier bike. The Major seemed to have no time for the pleasantries, and he set aside the bike, and charged to the barricade. He pulled up a pair of binoculars and peered with frantic energy into the city center, looking past the park and the roads and the blown-out, crumbling town hall. He gasped for breath.

“Major? You shouldn’t be at the front! It is dangerous!” Dreschner said.

“You’d know far better than I, but I still can’t just sit around!”

Dreschner knew Weddel tangentially, from some previous engagements.

The Major had never been to the front before. For him to have to move, meant that the Battalion was truly, utterly exhausted. There could have been no available underlings.

Fearing the worst, Dreschner cast eyes down the road along with the Major.

He kneeled next to Weddel and waited for orders or information. Every movement he made brought his skin tightly into contact with his gray coat, and he felt a fleeting cold from the sweat at his back and on his chest. Despite the onset of winter, fighting under the sun, without even the smallest tree for protection, caused him to sweat like a pig on a spit. Noon seemed to have brought the sun directly over them like the eye of the devil.

“Dreschner, reconnaissance planes picked up on a column of Frank horses incoming.”

“Horses? How many?”

“Too many. They must have spotted the gap here. Where is your commanding officer?”

“Sleeping. Over there.”

Dreschner pointed to an abandoned house nearby, an ornate little Frank house with a second floor, a gabled roof and a wide balcony on its face. Like every other building it had been defaced by shells and bombs but it was only mildly damaged and stood freely on its own strength. Since he first saw it, Dreschner’s commander had claimed the house and gave strict orders not to be disturbed while his men worked outside to defend it.

Major Weddel looked upon the house with frustration.

“Dreschner, this place is nothing but a hole in the lines. You’ve got barely a squadron here and we have fifty or sixty horses coming. Your commander must have an auxiliary machine gun somewhere. You need to wake that slob up and get it set up, now!”

“Yes sir!”

Peeling off the line with his heart thrashing in his chest, Dreschner rushed into the house nearby. It was a fine little house, like a gable-topped cake, creamy white with wine-brown trim in the form of glossy wooden frames and doors. There were decadent halls leading upstairs and into the heart of the home, but their treasures had been shaken off their pedestals and out of their cases by the quaking shellfire of the previous week’s fighting. All along the sides of the halls were crumpled paintings and smashed glass and pottery. It was a miracle a shell had not blown open the roof or collapsed the walls. Most of the damage to the exterior and to the supporting structures was barely superficial.

In the drudgery of 2008 warfare, a house was a great prize. Being able to command from a house, or fight from a house. It was like heaven compared to a muddy trench-line.

No doubt, the commander was asleep on a fine bed somewhere. Dreschner hurried.

Upstairs, he called out for his commanding officer several times, hoping to wake him.

There was no response, and Dreschner ran from room to room seeking him out.

He turned around a corner and into a open door into a bedroom with a balcony.

He paused at the doorway; what he saw quenched all of his panicked energy.

Dreschner was forced to halt by the sight of his commanding officer, lying dead on a princely bed with a peaceful face, hands on his chest, eyes closed. At his side was a small girl, blond-haired, in a fur coat a size or two too large and little fur-trimmed boots and a dirty little dress. She had a pair of glasses on her face that were also a size too large.

Though he had seen terrible things in this war, this sight was incomprehensible. Not the dead soldier — soldiers died, even the officers did. It was the child that confounded him. How was she here? Why was she not taken? War was a place without children or animals or anything soft and vulnerable. It had to be. Dreschner had seen men drown in mudholes between trenches; he had seen artillery shells explode and vanish men from existence, taking even the dust of their bones so that nothing could be buried. He had heard the wails of gore-strewn soldiers caught in traps in the no-man’s-land, awaiting death.

Dreschner was a child himself, compared to the men around him.

But he was not this small. Something this small just couldn’t survive this carnage.

He was afraid for this girl, afraid for her mortality and afraid of how she reflected on him.

He was afraid of vulnerability and felt a drive to be strong for this girl.

And yet he did not quite know how to be tender or comforting or even whether to be. Could this child be an enemy? Could she have killed the C.O.? Those sounded like insane things. Things no man should dare indulge. But he had seen so much of this war that anything made sense now save for the existence of a simple innocent in these grand battlefields.

“Are you lost?” He asked.

It was the first sensible-sounding thing to land upon his tongue.

From the bed, the child raised her head and gave Dreschner a blank, tired stare.

“Je ne parle pas Noetais.” She said in Frank. Her voice was a little deeper than he expected, more of a woman’s voice than a child’s, but maybe that was all his shell-addled brain.

Dreschner knew a little Frank; possibly enough to speak to a child.

“What happened?” He asked. Que s’est-il passé?

“He drank. He drank from Mama and Papa’s special bottle.” She said in Frank.

Her Frank was easy to understand. Concentrating on it, he could hear in Nochtish.

She pointed to the bottle, lying on the ground amid a pile of other debris, books and clothes and other things, perhaps pulled out by soldiers hoping to find loot.

Dreschner raised his hands, hoping not to scare her by approaching.

She did not even look at him as he moved.

He picked up the bottle and raised it to his nose.

There was a strong scent of something dire and chemical.

In disgust he dropped the bottle and coughed. It was a fatal preparation.

Dreschner turned to the girl and was surprised to find her speaking again.

“On the radio the king said not to leave our houses. Mama and Papa were very scared of the bad people coming. They put something in that wine bottle to drink, in case the bad people came in. But then they heard shooting, and they ran away. They disobeyed the king and left all of their treasures behind, even me.” She said in a listless drone.

Dreschner blinked, stunned.

“I’m a good girl. I obeyed the king and stayed in the house. Like we should. But the stuff in the bottle smelled gross. So I didn’t drink it like Papa and Mama wanted, before they ran.”

“What is your name?” Dreschner asked, unable to bear the scene any longer.

She looked up at him, making direct eye contact for the first time.

“Cecilia Nouvelle.” She said.

Dreschner nodded. “Cecilia, please go to the basement and stay there. You’re right, for now, it is a good thing to stay in the house like the king said. But later, it may be time to leave. If I tell you it is time to leave, will you leave the house?” He asked, trembling.

Cecilia turned her head and stared at the ground, kicking her little feet softly.

“You’re one of the bad men. But I guess you won the big fight. So I’ll do what you say.”

Without another word, Cecilia dropped off the bed and tottered off to the basement.

Dreschner looked at the corpse of his commanding officer. She must have arranged him, closing his eyes, putting his arms on his chest. Maybe even even cleaning up his face.

He was astonished by this child, so much so he nearly forgot his own mission.

Rushing back down to the street, he called out to Weddel.

“No dice, we’ll have to hold with what we have!” He shouted.

“Are you serious?” Weddel shouted back.

Dreschner kneeled behind the machine gun, his bewildered loader mechanically putting another belt into the MG-99 while an additional rifleman supporter replaced the water jacket. Weddel pulled up his binoculars and stared out into the city before them.

“Dreschner, what happened?” Weddel asked.

His voice trembling, Dreschner replied, “You can go in and look if you want to.”

Walter Weddel seemed to have no desire to do that. Sighing, he resigned himself.

“May god have mercy on us.” He said.

“May god take our fucking side for once.” Dreschner added.

Dreschner took the handles of the machine gun and placed his fingers on the spade grip trigger behind them. He looked down the sights and breathed in, and waited, as he had been waiting. Without the artillery or the sound of shooting the air was still and the city too quiet, yet too noisy. Every pebble dropping from a mound of debris, every mechanical cry from his gun and its unlubricated components, every rustling of a man’s coat. Little sounds became incongruously large, too large, they made Dreschner very nervous. He tried to keep as still as possible hoping no one else would hear the sounds he was making.

He could hear the sounds of his spit going down his throat as he swallowed hard.

When the hoof-claps came it was a tidal wave of noise, ever approaching.

Then Dreschner saw the men in the distance, with their tall plumed helms, sabers, guns at their backs, gallantly clad in their glaringly patriotic red and blue uniforms, and riding on beastly brown horses that seemed like elephants as they rode en-masse. Dust blew in their wake, a dreadful cloud that seemed like it could rival the plumes of a shell-fall. They were a blunt arrowhead, charging without ceremony from an interior street and into the city center, charging the barricade. He had fought them before, but never like this.

They seemed so much more fearsome beyond the trench lines.

Dreschner had seen so much of this war and this sight stilled his heart nonetheless.

To close his eyes to the charge, however, would mean death.

“Engaging target! Free fire!” Dreschner shouted.

With three fingers he pulled the trigger and the bolt went wild.

His loader held up the belt of machine gun ammunition and the MG-99 sucked it up into its boxy shell and spat it out through the barrel. Dreschner heard the water in the barrel jacket bubble and sizzle and froth as a dozen rounds and then six dozen and then a hundred exploded out of the barrel. Steam and smoke blew from the tip of the gun.

It made a sound like a thousand hammers pounding nails in millisecond intervals.

It had an effect like a spear driven right into the heart of the horsemen.

From his fixed position, Dreschner’s gunfire struck the center of the enemy’s formation. In an instant the lead horse was crippled by fire and fell and was trampled. Several more horses tripped over the one falling before them, and the formation was forced to spread and to morph, with men at the flanks riding forward, men in the center halting their gallop to maneuver around corpses of horses and men, creating a generalized confusion.

Throughout all of this Dreschner did not stop shooting.

He traversed the gun from left to right, moving deliberately with steeled nerves, putting down hundreds of rounds that swept across the broad front imposed by his enemy. Long streaks of gunfire sliced the heads and shoulders and limbs off men and left them hanging dead from panicked horses; or struck horses in the center of their bulk like iron fists pounding a slab of ham, and causing the beasts to crumple as if on jelly legs; and in response the cavalry turned into an amorphous mass, groups of horses and men scrambling to avoid the eye of the MG-99, and many running into its fire in the attempt.

Major Walter Weddel stood up amid the cacophony of dying men and blazing fire.

“That’s over a dozen horses down already! We can do this men, stand and fight!”

Weddel produced his pistol and opened fire on the approaching cavalry.

At his sides, the spare riflemen picked up their rifles and joined him.

The Major and his men accounted for a pair of horses, while Dreschner’s gun clicked empty. Frantically his loader produced and fed in a new belt, while his third man replaced the red-hot water jacket, that was steaming and boiling and frothing madly. Beneath the jacket the gun barrel was red hot and smoking fiercely. Soon as the new water jacket was applied, it too began to bubble, the cold water inside cooking from the heat.

Within seconds Dreschner was pulling the trigger and resuming his intense barrage.

Those brilliant, gallant, galloping charges should have deflected the bullets, they were full of such glory that it seemed impossible they could be broken. Each burst of gunfire killed an impossible number, downing horse after horse. Cavalrymen reunited, amassed in new formations, and broke into charges toward the barricade, and died. Five-hundred meters; a group of three horses, their legs exploding and turning them to hanging hams rolling back over themselves. Three hundred meters; a column of horsemen, pistols out, shooting desperately past the barricade, over Dreschner’s own head, before being cut down.

Out a mere hundred meters; two horsemen jumped over a great hunk of concrete, and in mid-air the rifle and pistol and machine gun fire tore the blood and gore from them and sprayed it like fireworks in grizzly arcs and shapes. They fell, turned to meat, and stopped.

It was maddening. Dreschner almost wanted to lose this confrontation.

He imagined himself, a proud young lad on a beautiful stallion, riding to a great war.

And on the opposing end some filth-covered scoundrel in a hole with a machine gun.

He felt as if he was shooting down his dreams, shooting down the only beauty left in war.

Dreschner wept; he mumbled to himself to stop but his fingers felt otherwise.

His fingers, that had held seemingly nothing but guns the whole year.

They knew war, and they knew only to shoot. And so they shot, and they shot.

To say they died one by one is to understate the brutal carnage; men died in disparate groups and in glorious processions and in their lonesome and accompanied by such great burdens that even in death they could have never been alone. They died with horses and without them, they died with bodies whole or broken, they died among themselves and with their comrades and among the ghosts. Dreschner could not look out at what he had done. There was such a gruesome landscape before him that he could not take it.

He dried his tears, and he stood up, and he let his legs take him away.

“That’s the platoon! That’s the entire platoon!” Major Weddel celebrated. “Dreschner, you rabid dog, I am giving you a promotion, you will go places my boy, I guarantee–”

But he had no one to celebrate with, for Dreschner had abandoned the gun.

Everyone stared. Dreschner could feel the eyes like knives at his back.

He was abandoning his post, like a coward, filth among the filth of the infantry.

But they had already won. So what did it matter?

Perhaps understanding the situation back then, Major Weddel never charged him with any of the myriad penalties he could have faced for turning away from the battlefield.

Free from the shackles of the gun and the fight, Dreschner returned to the house, and behind the basement door, he found Cecilia, just where he hoped she would be.

She was seated on the stairs in the same way she had been seated on the bed.

She was holding her hands over her ears but seemed eerily calm despite this.

He tapped on her shoulder, and she turned around, and put her hands down.

“Can you leave the house?” He asked her.

“If you say so.” She replied. Her voice was listless, dead, inexpressive.

Dreschner took her hand, and they walked back out onto the street.

Her hand was so small, Dreschner thought, if he held it the way he held a gun, he would likely shatter it. He could not squeeze it. He could barely touch it. It was very eerie.

He dreaded what might happen when Cecilia saw the outside.

Nothing at all happened, however.

If Cecilia caught a glimpse of the field of corpses out in the park, she did not let anyone know. She made no sound, no protest, as Dreschner walked her away from the sight.

She was quiet, and followed along dutifully.

Dreschner led her somewhere, not even knowing where himself. His mind was adrift.

He thought, as he walked, of the cavalry, of the beautiful, ill-fated cavalry.

So that was why they did not fight before.

All of his notions, all of his dreams, had left him, and he was empty.

Empty of any optimism or hope but also empty of juvenile notions and illusions.

Perhaps, he thought, being empty was the better way.

Yet he found himself struck with an aberrant admiration of their bravery, their foolhardy resolve. They had been failed; they themselves had been victorious, but they were betrayed by their tools. Dreschner himself, no matter how gallant it would have been, would ever ride a horse into battle. That age was over. Had these men owned metal horses, perhaps the tide would have swung. Perhaps then, Dreschner would ride a horse into battle.

“What are your parent’s names?” Dreschner asked.

“I don’t think I have any now.” Cecilia said.

He marveled at how well she was taking becoming perhaps as empty as he.

Dreschner figured he must have cried more than Cecilia had this entire time.

Perhaps if he failed to win this war, her generation could do it.

Her generation would understand from the get-go that the chivalrous age was over.


General Einschel Dreschner awoke with a start.

He banged his head on the zeiss telescoping sight, and reared back, holding his face.

For a moment, everything hurt, but his breathing began to steady.

As he became aware of his surroundings he felt calm again.

He was not in a house or on a horse but inside the turret of his Sentinel command tank.

It was not 2008; it was 2030.

There was no Northern War; this was the Solstice War.

“Sir, are you alright? Are you hurt? I can get Eva–“

“It’s fine.”

At his side, Karla Schicksal stared at him with wide, almost child-like eyes.

“It’s fine, return to work.” Dreschner said.

Nodding her head innocently, she returned to the radio and put her headset back on.

Dreschner stared at the back of her head for a moment. He shook his own head.

He had been dreaming an anxious dream of a time annihilated from history.

There was no relevance to it now. Everything had completely changed. Hadn’t it?

“Schicksal, what are your thoughts on horse cavalry?” He asked.

Schicksal turned back to him from the radio, staring quizzically.

She opened and closed her mouth several times, ambushed by this strange question.

“Um, well, I’d guess they would be pretty useless when you have tanks and trucks.”

She sounded fairly certain of this fact when she finally spoke, despite her obvious anxiety.

Shrugging nervously, she then returned to the radio.

Not a shred of sentimentality for those bygone days of the war.

Of course not, she would not have known them.

Dreschner felt eerily satisfied with her generation. He laid back in his seat.


<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

Scornful Steel (Apocalypse 2030)

THIS STORY CONTAINS SCENES OF VIOLENCE, GRAPHIC INJURY AND DEATH.


12th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Slowly the object of her hate came together before her eyes once more.

As she slid the plate into place, and her coworkers began to weld the side-panel armor covering the ammunition rack on the side, the vehicle began to take its shape. Its rounded body seemed almost friendly when she first saw it. People jokingly referred to the turrets as melons because of how round they were; this was funny for the first shift of her first day, before the downward-sloping rear armor had to be welded on and the bogeys bolted into place and the tracks, welded closed and tight around the drive wheels. Before the turret had to be dropped onto the ring, and the interior hydraulics and controls had to be wired and prepared by a specialized technician. Before all that, sure, it was amusing.

Once every bit of the machine was affixed, however, it had a shape only for killing.

She worked nervously on it, with shaking hands. They were held to an exacting standard, and the factory was run like a military base in a lot of ways. Certainly in its discipline.

On her first day the track had gone on too slack, and earned her a slap across the face.

“You’re not building a toy! Work to specification or get out!” shouted the Overseer.

She still heard his shrill voice in her head, every day she worked at the plant.

A lot had changed since then.

Her hands had grown used to the work and its precision; only the product was the same.

It was an M4 Sentinel, and its kin had killed more people than she had ever known.

One of the casualties was the very land under Marit Hale’s oil-stained shoes.


Iron Isle used to have a name, a beautiful, melodic name, but it was taken from it, and could not be spoken of again; and with it went the oil trees and the sweet tree plantations, and the clear skies and the fragrance of the wilds. Those could not be spoken of again as well. Smokestacks went up, blacktops spread out. Iron Isle was closer to the Nochtish war zones than all of its other territories. Once a minuscule line item in the agricultural department’s accounting of Pelagis province, once it became clear that Nocht would prosecute war across the vastness of the sea, Iron Isle transformed overnight to suit the needs of battles that could not be won with sugar and flowers and vacation homes.

At Plant #13 on the broad side of Iron Isle mostly older women worked, and there was only one exception. This was Marit, the tomboy of the Hale family whose many sons were taken for the war. She was an islander girl through and through; messy black hair, a complexion the color of baked clay, and a round, soft face unlike that of the sharp and pale featured Nochtish secretaries and overseers. She was an islander girl; she was not thought of as a woman. Only recently had she exchanged mud and sand in her sandals and fingers with soot and grease. She was thrust through the threshold of adulthood and went from school days and beach nights to four marks an hour for ten hours a day, six days a week.

Ten hours a day; and there was a promised commission for every tenth tank produced.

She had never seen that commission, and many tenth tanks had come and gone.

As the only healthy member of her family left on the island, Marit worked, alongside the mothers and grandmothers and the widows and wives. She showed up at the Plant campus every morning, striding past a half-dozen buildings on a square blacktop amid what was once farmland to reach a tin-walled and tin-roofed assembly building, baking under a hot, cloudless sky. A cool breeze blew in over the open plain beyond the blacktop, in certain places, at certain times in her morning walk, Marit heard the sound of rushing water from the nearby river as it turned the plant’s old water wheel, a holdover from the old farm.

“Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!”

Though less than enthusiastic about work, Marit kept a bright face and a broad smile and made herself good company. She walked out in front of the warehouse, where a chow line formed every morning for a free breakfast of hot oatmeal porridge and coffee. She slid into the line of women and seemed to slot seamlessly into conversations about news, food, weather, and work, greeting everyone around her as she waited for a tray of sweet slop.

“How’s your mother doing, Marit?”

“She’s recovering. Thank you for your concern.”

“Messiah bless her.”

“What about you Marit? Taking care of yourself? You look thin.”

“Oh, I always look thin to the lot of you!”

Marit had a flat, spindly sort of form factor, thin, long-limbed. Though she ate well she always looked partially starved. It was almost vexing. Her attire was shabby. She wore pants handed down from her brothers and a shirt and vest of the same origin. They had stitched holes and mismatched colors where other clothing was cannibalized to fix them.

Unimpressive, but it was all getting covered in grease and smoke anyway.

“Hey, you old bags quit chatting and eat!”

From behind the line, the factory Overseer appeared with a rolled up newspaper.

He struck a woman in the back of the line, for seemingly no reason.

All around him, people started to move faster. There was no longer gossip and loitering.

A line that had moved maybe one person every other minute was now going quickly.

“Nobody pays you to chat and eat!” He shouted. “Get your gruel and get moving!”

After this display, he left their side, and the women collectively comforted the one poor old woman struck by the beastly Overseer, and assured her that there was no reason for it and that she would be fine, that they would help her. Marit saw all of this from afar and didn’t really think much of it. It happened frequently. She wondered if real soldiers got beat around by their officers as much as the workers in this military factory got beaten.

There was grumbling and resentment, but everyone ate and made for their stations.

Marit, however, took a little bit of time to go somewhere more pleasant.

After grabbing her oatmeal and coffee, Marit sat down on a concrete speed bump along the edge of the factory, in the executive parking lot, her back to the chain link fence. There were no cars, because there were no executives present. There almost never were.

It was a place where she could eat in peace, listening to the lonely winds whistling over the blacktop. Almost like the old forest, where she would spend endless hours just sitting around and listening to all the sounds. Only the wind was left, but even it alone helped her to prepare herself mentally for the long hours with the sizzling welding torch, the click-clacking torque wrenches, the crashing hammers, the grinding of the lathes.

As she drank the last of her coffee she heard a clinking noise more than she did the wind.

Behind her, someone was climbing over the fence.

It was a woman (maybe more a girl like her), Marit was certain of that. She made it up to the top of the fence with anxious hand-holds, and produced a tool from her pocket that she used to cut the barbed wire, and to pull the sliced halves to either side to open a gap. She leaned back, and then threw herself up in one sudden effort, making it up and over.

It was there that she lost her footing and her fingers slipped.

Marit bolted upright and threw herself forward.

She caught the girl in her arms and together they crashed onto the blacktop.

Marit hit the ground on her left arm, with a lot of the girl’s weight on falling on her.

She flinched, and shut her eyes tight and grit her teeth.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry!” said the girl. Marit felt warm hands rubbing against her arm.

She found herself responding in Nochtish. “It’s fine, it’s fine.”

Her command of the language of her tormentors was almost impeccable.

When she opened her eyes, she saw a soft pink face looking down at her with blue eyes, and framed by lengths of wavy, luxurious blond hair. A dab of pink colored pursed lips, and a pair of hands held her own. Now that they were touching skin instead of cloth, the hands felt a little rough, calloused, almost incongruent to the angelic picture formed by the rest.

Marit pulled back her hand and crawled out from under the Nochtish girl.

“I’m fine!” She cried out. “But what are you doing? This is private property!”

She bolted onto her feet; was this an industrial spy? She had overhead the Overseer once talking about people paid to infiltrate factories and steal secrets and sabotage production.

Marit had been taught by some of the older women that in Nocht, there were a few big companies always competing to make new products for the army. Those who could make the most acceptable products for the cheapest price won the contracts. Companies like General Auto, who owned this factory, made money by spending the least they could on workers and production. Setbacks like the ones spies cost could dig deep into profits.

And that would mean they would have to dig deep into the workers to make up the rest.

However, the friendly smile put on by this girl did not seem like it could come from a spy.

“I’m Alicia Kolt.” She said, stretching out a hand. “I’m an engineer.”

She was dressed in an almost workmanlike garb, with a big leather apron over a button-down shirt, and a leather cap over her blond hair. She had toolbelts over her waist with numerous pouches and multiple little cutters and drivers and other knickknacks hanging.

Judging by her hands, she must have been doing some work, but her body did not appear affected as much. Marit was skinny and lean from all the back-breaking torture of factory work; but this girl was rounder and softer everywhere that Marit was flat and angular.

And of course, Marit had never heard of a female engineer. Their factory was mostly women, but all they did was put fabricated parts together. When it came time to wire radios and install hydraulics, they had technicians there from the Rescholdt-Kolt firm, men who knew machines. She had no idea what they would let a girl like this do in an engineering firm other than answer the phone and file papers and reply to letters.

Not that she thought it was impossible, she just knew rich men were bastards like that.

Nevertheless, Marit kept her doubts to herself and returned the handshake.

“I’m Marit Hale. So could you please tell me what you are up to?”

Alicia smiled brightly. “You work here, don’t you?”

Marit averted her eyes slightly. This girl had a very fetching smile.

“I do.” Marit said. “I’m in primary, intermediate and final assembly.”

“Goodness! How do you know which one you’re doing on any day then?”

“I don’t. They treat me like a kid and just have me fill in whatever’s needed.”

“I can relate!” Alicia said. “How old are you? Around eighteen I guess? I’m twenty years old and everybody treats me like I learned to walk yesterday. It’s very frustrating!”

“I’m nineteen. And yes, that is all pretty relatable.”

Marit found herself conversing and almost forgot to suspect Alicia of industrial espionage.

“But hey; Hey! Tell me what you’re up to already. I don’t want to get into trouble.”

Looking over her shoulder guardedly, Marit was relieved to find nobody coming in from the main factory grounds or from the office nearby, and the gate guard was in his booth and not paying any attention to his surroundings now that the workers had all checked in. So at least, the danger of being discovered accidentally was lessened, but she still worried.

Alicia flashed her that heart-stirring smile of hers, and winked one bright blue eye.

“I just want to take a tiny peek at something. And besides, look at this, it’ll be fine.”

She opened one of her pouched and produced a company-issued ID card.

It had the large, golden block letters R-K, for Rescholdt-Kolt, the engineering firm responsible for a lot of the complicated technology behind the factory’s products. General Auto had the raw industrial muscle, but the brains that came up with the blueprints and that put the finishing touches on the tanks, all of that came from Rescholdt-Kolt.

And wait; had she not said her name was Alicia Kolt?

Marit looked up from the card and at Alicia’s self-satisfied little grin.

“You’re getting it now huh?” She raised a hand to her chest and patted over her breast. “I’m the younger sister of Maximillian Kolt, the second partner in Rescholdt-Kolt.”

“Oh! Why didn’t you say so? You don’t have to sneak around then!” Marit replied.

She was less impressed with the connection, and more relieved there wouldn’t be trouble.

Alicia did not seem convinced.

Stepping forward, the young engineer put her warm, soft hands on Marit’s shoulders.

Her big blue eyes and invitingly painted lips were only the length of their noses away.

“Marit, I need your help.” She said.

“You really don’t!” Marit replied, suddenly nervous, excited, aroused(?) far too suddenly.

Alicia sighed. Marit smelled a sweet scent from her and averted her eyes again.

She felt the engineer’s hands squeeze gently with determination.

“Marit, If I just show up, they’ll give me a boring tour of the facilities and use me like a piece of decoration! Listen: there’s something I want to take a quick peek at. I searched around the exterior of the factory, but I can’t tell where to go. When I saw you, I knew that luck was on my side! I just need your help for a teeny-tiny moment, okay? then I’ll be out of your hair for good. Nobody will get in trouble. Trust me; I’m really good at this stuff.”

Marit felt a sudden thrill in her chest, followed by a sinking feeling.

“Pretty please?” Alicia asked again.

She could send her off on her own, go work, and go about her day like any other.

However, Alicia’s presence had suddenly reawakened a fire in Marit’s heart that she thought long since put out. That childish feeling of adventure, of making every day a truly different one, of doing more with oneself than one’s lot allowed. That feeling of defiance, of a child who saw rules and flaunted them, who saw challenges and conquered them, who felt that anything could be possible. That child who wanted to be her own person.

Marit felt suddenly that she had been conforming too much.

After all, what was in it for her if she obeyed the factory boss?

She would still get beaten if she made a mistake. She would still get paid poorly.

Alicia, however, was the promise of something a little different. Even if only for a day.

Besides, she was curious what kind of thing an Alicia Kolt could want with this place.

“I’ll help you.” Marit said. “But we have to be quick. I’ll be yelled at for being late.”

“Oh thank you! Thank you!”

Alicia pulled her into an embrace and kissed her suddenly on the cheek.

Marit felt her head would explode if a pressure valve wasn’t released soon.


“Is there any place where something important might be kept?”

That was Alicia’s only interest and clue, and Marit only really had one answer. There was a specialty workshop on the other side of the factory grounds that was padlocked. She had asked some of the other women if they ever worked there and none of them ever had, so it was not a place for regular assembly. One morning, she was feeling sick, and gave away her coffee to an engineer she found who was driving a crane-pulley tractor in the cold.

“Thanks, kid!” He’d said, “Hey, let me tell you something fun in exchange eh? Sit down.”

Marit had sat in the tractor with him, and heard him brag about how he was part of a team working on new ultra-dense heat-treated steel. There was no facility in the factory Marit had ever seen that could do something like that, so she figured that such things were going on behind the padlock in that specialty workshop. Experimental stuff. That was probably what Alicia wanted to see. If she was treated like a toy at the R-K firm, then maybe she was not allowed to see experimental projects, and it must have vexed her.

“Follow me very closely and keep your head down, okay?” Marit said.

Alicia nodded cheerfully. “Don’t worry, I’m an expert at sneaking.”

As she said this, Alicia carelessly kicked a discarded bolt and sent it rattling around.

Marit snapped her head toward her; Alicia held up her hands defensively, smiling.

“Sorry!”

“Shut up!”

Marit grabbed hold of Alicia’s hand and together they ran across the outer edge of the factory, along the fence, for several dozen meters, and hid behind a stack of discarded wooden pallets. From afar, they watched as a guard with a rifle and a cruel-looking bayonet came from around the corner, to where the bolt had hit a factory wall.

He looked down at the bolt, looked around himself, and kept on patrolling.

“Phew,” Marit sighed, “be careful.”

“Marit! That was a Panzergrenadier! Look at his helmet and coat!”

Marit blinked. She had no idea what Alicia was talking about. He looked like any other soldier to Marit. He had a grey coat, and a gun, and a helmet. Just another Nochtish man.

“To have Panzergrenadiers here– and oh my god, I think that insignia on his shoulder is for the Leibgarde Achim Lehner regiment, elite Presidential guard!” Alicia said.

She covered her mouth and seemed like she wanted to yell with excitement.

“Please calm down. You’ll get us caught.” Marit said.

They stole away around the factory ground, avoiding the guards, with Marit having to gently calm Alicia’s enthusiastic gasps whenever she saw something or other that piqued her interest, whether a model of tractor, or a brief glimpse of a tank being worked on inside one of the warehouses, or more of those soldiers with their strange insignia. Soon they made it to the side wall of the specialty workshop. Unlike the tin buildings around it, this one was concrete and closed. Only the specialty workshop and offices were concrete.

“How do we sneak in?” Alicia asked.

“From the top. There’s a ventilation system connected to the air conditioning.”

“Good! I’m an excellent climber!” Alicia said.

Marit looked at her skeptically and then smiled.

Once more they snuck away around the wall of the workshop and found a garbage bin at the back. Marit gave Alicia a boost onto it, and Alicia helped her climb up. In this way, they also made it from atop the garbage can and onto the roof. There, a series of ventilation grates led down into the workshop itself. Marit kneeled beside one of them and tried to pull it open, but she found it quite stubborn. After a second attempt, she saw the screws.

“Alicia, could you unscrew this for me?”

“I’m extremely good at that. One moment.”

With an inordinately proud look in her eyes, Alicia withdrew a screwdriver of the correct size from her belt and undid the screws locking the vent cover in place. Marit crawled headfirst down the vent, Alicia holding her legs for support, and she found herself at the bottom of the vent shaft quite quickly. Alicia threw down the screwdriver, and Marit opened another vent cover, and squeezed slowly out of the aluminum shafts.

And into open air, with little in the way of support.

Coming out of the vent, Marit fell a few meters down to a stack of asbestos sheets.

“Are you alright?” Alicia called down.

Marit took a few seconds to regain her senses. “Yes! Be careful coming down!”

She had hardly given the warning when Alicia came tumbling down out of the vent and crashed onto the stack of Asbestos sheets as well. She raised her arms and gave a little cheer before standing, and seemed more energized than hurt by the drop. Marit sighed.

“Where are we?”

Marit looked around. They were in a gloomy room, a small section of the shop compared to the exterior size. They were surrounded by stacks of materials along the walls. There were metal plates and the asbestos sheets and a stack of metal tubes. There was something large and covered up in the center of the room. One door led out of the room, and in the back there were a set of double doors that emanated a gentle heat. That was probably the furnace room, and the double doors were probably strongly insulated. No going there.

Alicia produced an electric torch from her belt and pointed the beam at the covered object.

“Marit, help me pull this tarp off it!”

Together, the girls grabbed opposite corners of the tarp and tugged on it several times.

Once the tarp was off, they found a tank under it.

“It’s just an M4 Sentinel.” Marit said. She felt a measure of scorn for the thing.

Alicia’s face lit up.

“It’s not just any old M4!”

She started going over all the things different. She pointed out the tracks, which were separated further for rough terrain coverage necessary for combat in the Ayvartan forests and hills and in the red desert of Solstice; and the circular armor extensions on the sides of the turret, which, in Alicia’s words, could defeat “delayed-action AP-HE.” She showed Marit the gun barrel, which was longer and of a wider bore than normal. She claimed it was a “75mm KwK 31” instead of the “typical” gun, the “50mm KwK 28.” Compared to the smooth, rounded bodies of other M4s, this one was a bit more angular and robust.

“I think the armor thickness has increased from 50 mm to 62 or even 70 mm!”

Alicia climbed up on the track, stepping on the bogeys, and then onto the tank itself.

“It’s amazing! Look at it! So much power! Isn’t it scary, Marit? It’s so scary!”

While she rooted around the top of the tank like a mouse searching for crumbs, Marit moved closer to the side of the tank and read aloud the block text painted on the side.

“M4A4 ‘Rick Sentinel’ Prototype GA-31.” She said.

“It’s not ‘Rick’ Sentinel, you’re verbalizing the R-K. That’s just the R-K mark.”

Alicia bent down from atop the tank to make eye contact with Marit while explaining.

“Rick Sentinel sounds like it has more personality.” Marit said.

“Hmm. I suppose so! It has plenty of personality already though!”

“So this is what you wanted to see?”

Marit looked up at Alicia, who was acting as if she was standing atop the world and not just a tank. She was inordinately pleased with her discovery, jumping up and down, clapping her hands and laughing as she surveyed the metal monster she had unshackled here.

“Yes, it was! I knew my brother was coming up with a big new project, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. All of these changes are completely elementary: judging by designs coming out of Helvetia and Lubon, the 75mm cannons widely deployed in light artillery units are the natural evolution of the comparatively smaller guns on tanks. To defeat the problem of recoil, the counterweight on the back of the turret was added! Ingenious!”

Alicia sat on said counterweight, stretching from the back of the turret, which was otherwise the round, “melon” turret that Marit was used to. She kicked her legs.

Her unrestrained cheer and the way she spoke about it gave Marit discomforting chills.

“So this is what you wanted to see? Just this?” She asked again.

“Yes it was! Thank you for giving me the opportunity Marit–”

“And what will you do now?” Marit asked. “What is your goal here?”

Alicia smiled. “I’m going to draw up something even more visionary. Knowing that this is possible, that counterweights potentially solve the recoil problem, that we can go above 25 tons, and so on; I can write a spec that will blow this one out of the water. Then they will have to acknowledge my abilities at the firm. Even if it’s not accepted, just the design–”

Marit clenched her fist at her side. “So you want to make a tank that can kill even better?”

“Um.” Alicia seemed taken aback suddenly. She stopped rocking her legs.

That savage hatred that Marit felt for the M4 was crashing over her like a cold wave.

“The M4 Sentinels that we make here are already so fearsome and murderous, and you want them to be bigger? To have bigger guns? To shoot more and faster? To be even harder to stop? You see this thing and you want to make one even more frightening than that?”

“Um, hey, Marit, I’m–”

“These things are the reason the island changed! The reason we can’t be free!”

“Marit–”

Alicia tried to speak but Marit staring at her so intensely that she could not continue.

“You asked me if it looks scary? It looks scary. But you’re scarier, Alicia! You’re an even bigger monster than that thing is! You look at it and laugh and want to make it worse!”

Marit’s tone of voice rose to shouting, and she raised her clenched fists in anger.

Alicia shouted back, weeping. “Marit, please, you’re scaring me–”

“No more than you’re scaring me–!”

In the middle of the shouting match, the doors behind them swung open.

Light entered the room suddenly, framing a pair of figures in a white glare.

Both of the shadows darted forward.

Marit felt something hard strike her in the forehead and knock her down.

“Please stop! She didn’t do anything wrong!”

Alicia’s voice protested, but immediately grew muffled and desperate.

She was already wavering, but when a kick to her stomach knocked all the air out of her, Marit felt like something had unplugged her brain. She went out, and the world with her.


13th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Night had fallen, and Marit was still working. She was working under guard.

Outside the assembly building were two men with guns, smoking.

Inside it was the Overseer, tormenting her.

At first some of the women had stayed with her and tried to help her, but eventually everyone was thrown out, until there was only Marit, the guards and the Overseer.

Though they cursed the man and his cruelty, all her coworkers could do was to leave.

And all she could do was to keep working.

Marit felt the heavy throb of her wound on her forehead. Every little movement she made seemed to exacerbate the pain. And yet, here she was. Kneeling on the cold floor of the workshop, slick with grease and oil and sweat, her arms shaking, her teeth chattering. She moved mechanically. Her humanity had slipped away from her somewhere after the fifth hour of forced overtime labor and the second time the Overseer shouted in her ear.

She was a machine; she was truly doing first, intermediate and final assembly now.

All at once.

“We’re going to break a record here, Hale!” Shouted the overseer. “You’ll put together an entire tank by yourself! That’ll teach you to snoop around where you’re not wanted!”

Marit’s eyes welled up with tears involuntarily, her fingers looked like gnarled claws, bruised and spent and curled roughly as she struggled to get her shaking hands to stretch the track around the front and back gears, the rollers and under the bogeys. She stood, unsteadily, nearly falling, walked to the other end of the workshop. Grasping in the dark, she found the welding torch and came back to seal the track. With that accomplished she had only one more job to do — she had to lower the turret onto the turret ring.

Behind her, like a mocking imp, the Overseer watched from a folding chair.

“Obviously I don’t expect a moron like you to install the hydraulics and electric system. Just set the turret down on the ring, we’ll pretend it was finished, and you’ll be done. Free to go. Doesn’t it feel great to make amends? To work off your debt like a real citizen?”

Marit did not respond. She was not capable of response. Her mind was obliterated by exhaustion and pain. She shambled toward the chains attached to the crane pulley and tugged the crane along its supports on the roof, feeling like she would fall over dead with every effort. Once the crane was close enough, she attached the chain to the turret, and revved up a generator to start the lifting motor. She lifted the heavy turret, welded all by herself, every last part of it from the cheek to the hatch to the gun assembly.

Finally, the turret dropped onto the ring, a little unsteadily, but in its place.

“Congratulations Hale! You’ve made idiot history. Now get the fuck out of my face.”

The Overseer pointed her out the workshop door.

Marit, dirty, exhausted, wounded everywhere, with big empty eyes, shambled out of the shop, almost without recognizing what she was doing or what time it even was.

She was escorted by the guards outside the factory grounds and turned out onto the road.

Staring at the moon like a lost calf in the forest, Marit got walking home.

“Marit! Marit!”

There was a long light coming from the edge of the pavement.

Marit flinched when she heard the chugging noise coming closer.

At her side, a motorized bike stopped, cut engine, and someone left it.

“Marit, oh my god!”

She felt someone take her in arms. Sweet scent, golden hair.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! This was all my fault!”

Marit barely recognized Alicia’s voice.

“What time is it?” She asked.

Alicia pulled back from her, to look her in the eyes, still holding her by the shoulder.

“It’s past midnight, Marit.” She said.

“I have to sleep.” Marit said. “I can sleep maybe three hours if I get home in one.”

“I can get you home.” Alicia said. “But you shouldn’t work tomorrow! You’re hurt!”

“I have to.” Marit said. “If I’m absent now after all this, I’ll be beaten and thrown out the next time I show my face. I can’t stop working. My family needs me.”

She couldn’t muster any emotion, love or hate, for Alicia. She couldn’t muster anything.

Her unsteady legs started to shake. Marit felt like her feet would slip out from under her.

They almost did; Marit nearly fell, but Alicia caught her.

“I’ll give you money. It’s the least I can do.” Alicia said.

“Can you keep giving me money?” Marit mumbled. “If I lose my job–”

Alicia hung her head. Her bright and shining smile was nowhere to be found.

“I’ll drive you home. I’m sorry Marit. I’m sorry about everything. I’ve been stupid and preumptuous and naive and I hurt you so much with my foolishness. I’m so sorry.”

Without response, Marit stumbled onto the passenger car on the motorbike.

Visibly weeping, Alicia put on a helmet, and got on the bike herself.

Marit felt the earth start to move, and the surroundings blur in twilight.


Though she had hoped that a few hours of sleep would undo all the damage, it hardly seemed to change things, save to allow her mind to more fully understand her predicament. When she next woke, it was sunset, and Marit was hurting all over, her bandaged forehead feeling as if freshly broken over by a rifle butt. Alicia was sleeping in a chair next to her bed. Her father was passed out drunk in the kitchen. Her mother was still gone, god knows where in town, doing god knows what. It was all the usual.

“Alicia, wake up!”

Marit shoved the blond girl’s shoulder, and prodded her from sleep.

“Marit? Are you feeling better?” She asked.

“No. I need a ride to work.”

Alicia looked like she would cry again. “You shouldn’t.”

“I have to.”

There was no more protesting. Alicia must have learned would get her nowhere.

Marit changed into fresher clothes, also shabby hand-me-downs from her brothers, and she took a loaf of bread from the pantry, the last one they had. She practically shoved it into her mouth along with a glass of milk and honey. She would not make it in time to stand in line for breakfast today. Even with Alicia’s bike it would probably take a while.

Outside, Marit took one last look at her family’s decaying, shabby A-frame cabin as she mounted Alicia’s bike. It looked ever more empty and forlorn on a hurting head.

“Drive.” Marit said.

“Marit, I’m sorry–”

“You’re forgiven, drive.”

She said it brusquely enough that Alicia seemed to get the hint.

It took them thirty minutes to drive from Marit’s house down to the factory around the other side of the island. Marit normally caught a bus for workers, but to catch it, she had to get on before the sun, and she had not today. Alicia probably did not know the significance of the bus and did not wake her for it. Or maybe Alicia was as tired and asleep and also slept through it. Marit did not know if Alicia had been punished for what happened.

Certainly it can’t have been as severe as what Marit faced.

Once they got to the factory, Marit practically jumped off the sidecar, and she ignored Alicia’s protests as she ran through the front gate. Already the chow line had dissolved and people were at their stations. Marit ran through the factory grounds, and stopped at the assembly building. She turned about face, took a deep breath, and tried to walk as casually as she could into the tin building, hoping to not attract any attention–

“You’re late, Hale!”

Immediately she was pounced on by the Overseer.

Without regard for her wound, he rolled his newspaper and struck her in the head.

“That tank you made yesterday was shabby work! And now you’re late too? Get over there and start tightening drive wheels. You’ll be doing every assembly at least once today!”

Marit turned from him to go where assigned, but she stumbled and fell.

No sooner had she hit the floor that she felt the Overseer kick her in the hip.

“Get up, Hale! You’re not feigning sick with me again! I know that trick too well!”

She could hardly believe his words. He was the same man who had yesterday overseen her as she nearly killed herself putting together a whole tank all day and all night, with a head wound. Did he think her a monster, with unlimited power in her limbs? Did he think her darker skin and darker hair conferred him some natural savagery that could withstand this? She could not even move from the floor. Collapsed face-first, she struggled terribly.

“Stop that!”

From inside the assembly building there was a general murmur.

All of the women working on the tanks had stopped and were staring at the Overseer and at Marit. Many of them had stood up from their stations, and started to shout.

“This is monstrous! Leave that girl alone!”

“Can’t you see she’s hurt?”

“You’ve worked her to the bone, you animal! Leave her alone!”

As more people shouted, more people felt emboldened to shout and to shout louder. People started to refer to their own grievances with the Overseer, rather than just what he had done to Marit. Women started to leave their stations and to gather and walk over to the man and to mob. The Overseer swatted in front of him with his newspaper.

“Get back to work! All of you! If you don’t I’m calling the guards!”

Marit turned over on her side, trying to get up.

“And you, I said, up! Now!”

He delivered another kick to her, this time in the stomach, and she cried out.

It was this that triggered the mob of women to stampede.

Marit could not understand how he had gotten the confidence to do what he did. How in the face of everything, he kept attacking her, he kept provoking them. Did he not see them? Did he not see a hundred women, old and tall and tough with skin like baked leather and big meaty arms and fingers and bellies that had borne a half dozen children each?

He started to understand, perhaps, when the first thrown wheels struck him, when the first hurled cans of pain and oil spilled over him, when the first wrench blows knocked him to the ground. When the women kicked him as he had kicked Marit and when they found it in themselves not to stop kicking, when they found bigger things to kick him with, when they found things to stab with and things to crush with and maybe, as the light left him, he understood when they ruined and defaced his body in every achievable way.

After minutes of escalating violence the Overseer was barely recognizable as human.

Then the women took their bloodied weapons and charged the two guards who appeared, alerted by the cries and the commotion, and they beat them down, but they did not murder them as they had the Overseer. They struck them and pushed them and disarmed them and sent them scurrying away from the factory. Marit had barely managed to get back up on her feet, when the women started to chant, and to roar. They called out Marit’s name.

Blinking, incredulous of the events around her, Marit watched as the women charged toward the office, and the specialty workshop, and as more women from the other assembly buildings came out as well, and they shouted and cried and made commotion. Every woman seemed to shout her grievances aloud at once. There were chants for peace, to bring the boys back home; chants to work less hours, to work for more pay, to have the commissions they were promised for good work, to have new bosses or no bosses.

Soon the entire population of the factory was out on the grounds making mess.

Marit had hardly shambled out of the assembly building, when a siren went off.

In front of the specialty workshop, a metal shutter door started going up.

Marit’s heart sank, and she tried to shout, knowing what was coming.

From the workshop, something flew out with thunderous violence.

Over the heads of the women a projectile detonated and cast fire and metal down.

At once the spontaneous crowd started to break apart and disperse.

The M4A4 “R-K Sentinel” emerged from the building, and people scrambled away from it to avoid being crushed. From its front plate, sporadic machine gun fire sailed out over the crowds, flying between the assembled women, grazing many, striking some, hitting pavement and tin walls and causing a panic to unfold suddenly. Atop the turret, the guard commander for the factory stood half out of the cupola with a pistol in hand, screaming.

“All of you will cease this demonstration at once, or you will be hung as traitors to the Federation of Northern States!” He shouted, firing his pistol off into the air. “We hold fire only because of a sense of decency you all lack! Your ransacking of a military installation is high treason! But we will show mercy if you disarm and disperse immediately!”

His own voice made him sound nervous, though he put up a strong front. Clearly he was in a panic too, his every action and word belied that panic, and he had done something extreme that could not be taken back now, in the hopes of disarming a situation likely to kill him. One tank against hundreds of workers at very close range, even older women, would not end well for him either. Like Alicia had before, they could climb onto the tank, and maybe force the hatch. He was trying to scare them off. It was all going crazy.

Many women retreated, collapsed, wounded or unwounded; but a core was forming around the assembly building that continued to show some defiance, and they gathered together.

Callously, hungry for blood, the Sentinel’s turret descended its gun toward them.

Marit ran out of the building.

With one first and final burst of manic energy, she stood between the crowd and gun.

She spread her arms, shaking all over.

“It was my fault! I’ll take responsibility! Please stop this!” She shouted.

Her eyes filled with tears. Her entire being hurt. Her body, her mind, her soul.

Everything was out of control and she couldn’t help but think it was all her fault.

Had she been better, worked harder–

Had she not lost control around Alicia and berated her–

Had anything gone different, had her parents not broken down, had everything–

Her mind was choppy, thoughts cutting each other off, sensations twisted.

She was shaking, shaking violently in front of the women she sought to defend.

“Get out of the way brat! This is not about you! Disperse now! All of you!”

She heard a clicking from inside the barrel. She was so close to the gun.

It must have been the breech. She had done breech assembly before.

Someone inside had loaded a shell that would go right through her.

Marit swallowed hard. Even if she wanted to move, she could not have. She was out of strength. Everything was lost to her. She had given the last of her to stand with these women and to stand before them, to try to protect them, to try to make amends.

Now she was spent. She couldn’t obey the guard commander.

“I warned you!” He shouted. His own voice sounded as desperate as hers.

Marit closed her eyes.

“Fire–HOLD FIRE. HOLD FIRE!”

Marit reopened her eyes in disbelief.

Standing in front of her, even closer to the gun barrel, was Alicia.

“You can shoot her if you want! But you’ll also kill Alicia Kolt if you do! And I’m not moving no matter what! If you really want to end this, call the Governor instead!”

She was shaking too. Her voice quavered perhaps even worse than Marit’s had.

But she was standing, and she was not moving.

Marit felt herself going forward, and falling onto Alicia’s back.

She held on to her waist, resting her head on Alicia’s shoulders.

“I’m sorry.” Alicia whimpered.

“You’re forgiven.” Marit said, this time much more sincerely.

Behind them, the crowd of women took steps forward, and joined Marit and Alicia.

In response, the R-K Sentinel backed down. It reversed into the specialty workshop, shut itself inside again, and made no more noise and caused no more damage until the police arrived, and the governor arrived, and cooler heads seemed more willing to talk.


18th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Ever since the factory closed down, Marit’s mother and father seemed to have disappeared entirely. As a result of their vanishing near-completely into drink and dance, perhaps too distraught at the loss of the income from their sons and now the income from their daughter too, Marit got to keep her final paycheck. It was a pretty fat sum too — she had finally been given all her unpaid commissions for her good work. Despite this, she could not live very large. Had anything in her been broken it would have obliterated even this precious lifeline. But things had worked out well enough, she was healthy and she was free, and now she could use this last bit of money to leave behind her fallen home.

She would move to the Nochtish mainland and seek opportunity there.

It hurt her heart, but it was all she could do now. She had nothing left on Iron Isle.

Nocht, and Nocht’s war, had destroyed her family, her homeland.

With a hundred and fifty marks in hand, all she could do was to go on, to survive.

She packed up a few things, put the money in with her bag, and left the house.

She hoped to catch the bus, and then a ferry to Pelago, and then maybe a plane or a bigger boat to Nocht. She had never had to think about this, so she had no concrete plans.

Outside, however, she heard a distinctive chugging on the road.

“Marit! Hey, Marit!”

On her motor bike again was Alicia Kolt.

“Where are you going, Marit?” She asked, smiling.

Marit felt a strange softness in her heart and averted her eyes a little from the road.

“I don’t know! Anywhere but here, to be honest!” Marit said.

“Coincidentally, I’m headed the same way.” Alicia replied.

She patted her hand on her sidecar.

Sighing, Marit headed for it, and climbed in.

“Why are you helping me?” Marit asked.

“Why did you help me that day?” Alicia asked in turn.

She thought back to it. It seemed petty. There was no life-changing revelation to be had. She had seen a pretty girl who had made her swoon a little and who needed help, and she wanted the sense of adventure, she wanted to do something interest. She did not think it over too much. Her actions could not truly be justified. It was almost completely random.

Unwilling to answer that maybe she had wanted a kiss, Marit instead shrugged.

“Because it was different.” She said.

“Would you accept that as my answer too?” Alicia said.

“Absolutely not. You can do better than that.” Marit said, grinning in jest.

“You’re right. Let me come up with something better.”

Alicia leaned in from the driver’s seat and kissed Marit in the cheek.

Marit flinched and rubbed her own cheek and felt her heart jumping in her chest.

“How’s that? If you want it verbally: it’s because you’re so different.”

“I don’t think I am, but okay.” Marit replied, still rubbing her cheek.

“Trust me, I’m extremely good at these things. You made think a lot, you know.”

Alicia looked out over the road and down the hilly way from Marit’s house.

“I want to do something that a person like you would admire, not despise. If someone as brave and strong and selfless as you thinks it’s wrong– I can’t carry on with it.”

“Hey,” Marit said, suddenly alarmed, “I’m sorry about what I said to you. It was nasty and you didn’t deserve it. You shouldn’t just do whatever I say, who am I to dictate your life?”

Alicia smiled. “It’s okay. I’ve made up my mind. I might still make weapons, you know. But if I do, it wont be for Rescholdt-Kolt. It wont be so they can be used against you.”

She reached out and held Marit’s hand.

“Marit, I don’t know what to do right now, but I know I don’t want to leave you behind, whatever it is that happens. I know this sounds silly, because we just met a while ago, and because I was doing things to assuage my guilt. But I really want to stay with you.”

Marit smiled back. She laid her other hand on Alicia’s too. She liked the feeling of both their worn, callused hands, a little rough and spent, holding each other so closely.

“Whatever happened to wanting to one-up your brother’s designs, huh?” Marit asked.

“Oh, I’ll beat him. I’ll become a better person than him in every way. I’ll build things that will save people and protect people. Things you can be proud of and love, Marit.” Alicia said. “I’ll trample his scornful steel with the power of love. You can count on that.”

Marit burst out laughing. “Oh my god; what a queer bunch of ideas.”

Alicia worked the bike’s ignition and revved up the engine.

“I’m extremely good at this, remember? Anyway, where do you want to go?”

Marit leaned against the backrest, and breathed out. For once, she felt relaxed.

“I want to go with you, Alicia.” She said.


<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XIX

This chapter contains violence and instances of transmisogyny and misgendering.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Vicaria — Saint Orrea’s Hope

Salvatrice Vittoria returned to the living world seated atop a plush, luxurious couch.

She stared groggily about her surroundings as they came slowly into focus, gradually reconstituting themselves before her eyes from the fuzz and noise of dreamless sleep into a gilded and silken room. Circular with a domed roof, highly ornamented, with two stained glass windows depicting the virgin mother of the Messiah, Saint Orrea, the last elf to wield Magic, and banners depicting a green, ivy covered step pyramid, atop which floated an eye.

In the center of the room was an empty tea table with a few chairs.

There was something familiar about the space.

Then her mind regained enough sense to recall what had happened.

She heard the fatal gunshot ring out in her mind and saw her sister’s brains spilling out–

Something between fear and disgust seemed to trigger in her mind, and Salvatrice curled up on the couch, hugging herself as her stomach churned. In a moment the sickness passed, and gave way to further stressful confusion. Salvatrice quickly found that she was richly dressed — she had on a long-sleeved military overcoat, green and gold, old fashioned, fit for a warring prince, and long dress pants. Her hair had been collected into a discrete bun behind her head. She almost feared it had been cut off for a moment.

She slid her fingers over the cloth of her coat, and over her pants. It was extremely fine clothing, soft, smooth, a masterwork in quality. She had never worn boy’s clothes so nice.

Boy’s clothes–

Somebody had taken her here, and somebody had dressed her, deliberately.

She looked about the room again. She heard the chanting in her head. Ave Caesar!

All of this ugly picture was starting to come together.

She stood bolt upright from the couch, glancing in a panic over everything in the room once more, grasping for what to do. She felt her skin protest, her bones rattle with stress.

There was a wooden double door at the end of the room.

Moments after Salvatrice forced herself upright, that door slowly crept open.

Salvatrice expected to see a mask, but the first thing through the door was a maid’s headdress. Inching into the room, Cannelle, dressed uncharacteristically fancy in the vein of a frankish maid, approached the tea table with her head down, shaking hands holding a tray of small antipasti plates and full wine glasses. She set them down on the table, sighed audibly to herself, and began to turn around, when she seemed to catch sight of Salvatrice.

She covered her hands with her mouth.

“Princess, you’re awake! Thank goodness!”

Tears beginning to form in her eyes, Cannelle approached Salvatrice carefully.

Salvatrice in turn spread her arms and took her maid into a tight embrace.

She rubbed her face against Cannelle’s shoulders and felt like crying.

It was such a relief to see her after all of this.

Cannelle herself started to sob and weep with building emotion.

“I’m so sorry Princess! Those barbarians came to the apartment and I couldn’t deny them after they told me they had you in custody. They gave me this outfit to wear and brought me here, saying that I would be honored to attend to the divine emperor or something!”

Salvatrice pulled away from Cannelle, looking at her maid with worry.

“Did they hurt you?” She asked, her voice trembling.

Cannelle shook her head. “I resisted enough that they left the apartment briefly. But they had guns and they told me if I didn’t dress up nice and come along quietly, they would certainly shoot. I had to comply, but I used the opportunity to make off with a few things.”

She searched under her skirt, pulling something from her thigh-high stockings.

It was a little wrapped bundle, inside of which were some pink pills.

“Those monsters said you wouldn’t be needing it, but I brought your medicine.”

Salvatrice wished Cannelle had thought to sneak their gun out; but she was also thankful. Even one day without her medicine these days felt hellish. She depended strongly on them for her health, physical, emotional, and mental. And she would need to have a clear head to navigate this mess. Taking the gift, Salvatrice drank one pill with a sip of the wine.

Poor Cannelle! To think her loyal maid had been forced to take part in this charade.

There was no undoing it, however. And her presence was not wholly unfortunate.

She had come from outside the room, delivering food. So, Cannelle had access.

“What is this place?” Salvatrice asked, setting down the glass.

Cannelle shook her head. “It’s some kind of tower. I don’t know what this place looks like outside of the courtyard around this tower and the building connecting to it. I was brought here blindfolded and I’ve been working in a kitchen downstairs, under guard. I’m sorry. ”

“It’s not your fault.” Salvatrice said. She offered a small smile. “Thank you for your help. You’ve been extremely brave, Cannelle. I’m sorry you have been put in this position.”

“Don’t blame yourself either, Princess.” Cannelle gently replied.

Behind them the doors swung open, breaking up their tender moment.

Through the threshold, a young, blond woman in a purple dress stumbled forward.

She looked up from the floor in surprise. The Princess locked eyes with her and gasped.

“Carmela!” Salvatrice shouted.

As she called to her, a familiar, imposing figure emerged from the doorway.

His footsteps cried metal on stone, as if the floor was ready to give under his weight, and yet so feather-light was his movement that there was not a scratch or mark left on the tiles. From chest to feet, Legatus Tarkus Marcel was armored in a pale white, shiny metal, segmented like the body of a bug, each piece and shaped sloped down across the chest and around the arms, waist and legs. Swords and bullets would meet steep angles on his person. And yet it was not merely workmanlike. Studded on his gauntlets and chest were deeply purple, cubic gems the likes of which Salvatrice had never seen. They glowed with a palpable darkness — not merely an illusory contradiction, but as if sucking in the light.

Judging by the helm he carried on his arms, and the flourish of gilded wings on his shoulders and lower back, Legatus Marcel did not style himself a beetle, but a dragon.

“Ave Caesar!” He said, saluting Salvatrice.

Salvatrice rushed forward, leaned down, and took Carmela’s hand.

At once, with tears in her eyes, the heiress reached out, and Salvatrice pulled her up.

Hand in hand, and arm-in-arm, the two women stood and stepped back from Tarkus.

“Did he hurt you?” Salvatrice whispered.

“No. But his men made a mighty fuss in my home.” Carmela replied.

“Did they say anything, Carmela?”

She shook her head. “Not a word. I was blindfolded, too. I’m sorry, Salva.”

“It’s alright. I am glad to see you.”

Her hand was shaking in Salvatrice’s own. The Princess was shaking too – but with rage.

She turned a hateful eye on the Legatus, and through her fangs shouted at him.

“Tarkus, you will drown in smoke for this! I swear to you!” Salvatrice shouted.

One of Vittoria’s favorite, sadistic methods of execution. Interred in a sealed, concrete room, the victim would succumb to heat and choke on coal smoke until death.

Tarkus had himself probably condemned people to this fate.

He betrayed no emotion with his response.

“I resign myself to the fact that if such a thing were to happen it could only be by the hands of our divine Caesar and not that wretched witch.” Tarkus replied.

“What is he talking about?” Carmela whispered.

Salvatrice shook her head.

“Tarkus, what is the meaning of all this? Who is Caesar?” Salvatrice shouted. “Are you talking about the anarchist leader Cesare? What exactly is your point here?”

Tarkus closed his eyes and bowed his head, as if with shame.

“Do you really not know? My liege, Cesare Regale has been dead for a long time. He exists as a convenient fiction, an illusion spun to tame a disorganized rabble. He is I, or at least, a spectre of my control. You are, of course, nothing of the sort. You are our Caesar, our divine king, whose banner we long to serve. Who else would you be?” Tarkus gently said.

He was making no sense now. He reminded her of the men in the forest. But back then, he had seemed the more clear-headed among them. Now he was just as dull-witted as they, speaking of nothing but the myths of this Caesar. Had something been done to him?

Salvatrice grumbled. It didn’t matter.

“Let us be even more elemental then: what is Caesar?” She asked.

Tarkus smiled self-assuredly. “Our one true king, our destined elven king.”

She looked into his eyes. She could not see them so well in the forest, and at any rate, she was in no condition for details back then. Now, in the light of this beautifully furnished room, she met eyes with him, and saw a blank, red-ringed, eerie stare looking back at her.

Dispassionate, consumed by something, perfectly, unilaterally focused.

“And where have you deigned to take your king, as you disrespectfully call me.”

“To Saint Orrea’s Hope. You do not remember this place?” He asked her.

“Not one bit.” Salvatrice replied.

She searched her mind for a ‘Saint Orrea’s Hope,’ and found nothing there.

So many estates, so many homes, a childhood spent running; how could she remember?

All she knew was that Tarkus had taken her away many times.

She could have been in Saint Orrea’s before. But there was no confirming it.

“Whether or not you remember, this place is vital to you, my Caesar. Here in Saint Orrea’s, the impossible has occurred. Great and beautiful things have been unearthed. My radio center at the top of Orrea’s Peak is a black mark on this holy site. Your presence is in turn a benediction. Soon, however, my signal will go out, and both of us shall leave.”

Salvatrice grit her teeth. That was his plan. He would invoke the ghost of Cesare one last time and order all of the anarchists in the region to begin their revolt. They stood no chance of winning. It would be a slaughter. But convinced that the conditions of their revolution had been achieved, that the Blackshirt Legion was weak and the Kingdom blind to their intentions, the anarchists would throw themselves at the provincial armies, and they would bleed slow enough for Tarkus to sweep in and claim the throne for himself–

No, for her. For some reason that was what he settled for.

“And once your signal goes out, and we leave, where will we go?”

“To Pallas; to our destiny.”

“And what is your destiny, Legatus?”

“To make a King.”

Salvatrice closed her fists and grit her teeth with anger.

“You have a monarch already, and you once served her!” Salvatrice snapped back. “What madness compels you to fan the flames of the anarchist’s revolt? What do you gain?”

Her words did nothing to sway him. He was implacable, as if without emotion.

“There is everything to gain.” Tarkus said calmly. “Caesar, it is the Illuminati’s goal to return the Elven Empire to the height of its glory. Ever since the usurpation and tyranny of the witch Vittoria, we have labored in shadows to create the conditions for her demise. Vittoria has eroded the power, dignity and morality of the Elven race. We must show the world again our superiority, and span the globe. Vittoria has proven she cannot do this.”

Salvatrice knew this had to be the case, and yet, nonetheless, to hear it said so plainly was shocking. She felt the words like a fist aimed at her chest, and it was hard to bear the weight of them. They intended to kill her mother; and who knows how many more. They had been planning; for how long? When Tarkus protected her as a child, did he plot then?

“Why are you doing this Tarkus? Why? I simply can’t understand it!” Salvatrice shouted.

“I am doing it because it is just.”

Legatus Tarkus was one of the most powerful men under Vittoria’s administration, but he commanded no great armies, achieved no legendary victories. Even among the staunchest elven nationalists, what sort of place would an intelligence specialist, a spy, a bodyguard, have in a revolutionary coup? He could at best be an assassin. But its leader, organizer? Without the prestige afforded the wings of the Queen he labored under he was a lowlife.

Great revolutionaries were thinkers, generals, charismatic men of the public, no?

Justice had nothing to do with this.

His Justice was as convenient and false as Vittoria’s love.

“I am doing it to protect you, Caesar. I have always labored to protect you.”

His voice was hauntingly confident. He reminded her too much of her own mother.

“You have been nothing but an accomplice to my torment!” Salvatrice shouted.

Tarkus shook his head. “Vittoria has been your torturer, Caesar. Anyone who hurt you did so under her duress, whether or not she ordered it directly. That is the nature of her rule. Do you not desire vengeance against her? I thought that you yearned for freedom.”

He withdrew, from one of his ammunition pouches, a folded tube of rolled papers.

Snapping the rubber band keeping them in check, he launched the papers into the air.

Several landed at Salvatrice and Carmela’s feet.

“Our letters!” Carmela shouted in horror.

The Princess needed only a glimpse to confirm. They were copies of her private letters.

Salvatrice wanted to shout, How dare you! but her mind became stuck on How–?

“Each one of these pages is a cry for help. I heeded that cry. I am the White Knight that has come to save a Princess; and the only way that can be done, is to make her a King.”

Tarkus stood ever more poised, ever taller, in his shining armor, and it vexed Salvatrice.

She grit her teeth and stood to her own full height, taking a solid stance herself.

“So that is why you brought Carmela here?” Salvatrice shouted. “You kidnapped her thinking I wanted her to be ripped from her life and forced into this game of yours?”

Carmela glanced briefly at Salvatrice and put on a demure expression.

“She is here because you have impeccable taste in partners.” Tarkus replied. “Simply put, an alliance with the Sabbadin fuel dynasty is a very convenient power-play for the ruler of an industrial nation. That the marriage would be a happy one is secondary but joyous.”

Salvatrice sighed. So nobody was safe from this conspiracy then.

Just by having her attentions, Carmela was in danger too.

The Heiress seemed to notice the change in her demeanor and subtly shook her head.

“Don’t blame yourself.” She whispered.

Salvatrice bit back at Tarkus.

“Tarkus, your commitment to this fiction is frankly astounding, and I commend you. But if what you desire is an end to the queendom, you are sadly mistaken in your choice of recruit. I am Princess Salvatrice Vittoria. I will not be your Caesar. I too am a Queen.”

Tarkus shook his head as if making ready to chide a small, ignorant child.

“The Kingdom of Lubon was a hereditary institution stemming from a dynasty of men. To unseat the witch, it is necessary for there to be a King. Only this will be accepted and proper. When Vittoria usurped the throne, she made any able men were all removed.”

Tarkus pointed a finger at Salvatrice without expression in his face.

“Are you ignorant of what you mean to her, Caesar? You will understand soon.”

“Shut up.” Salvatrice murmured, her voice trembled.

“Caesar, your ability to become a King is a grave threat to Vittoria. You know this.”

“Stop it.” Salvatrice said, gritting her teeth, wilting under the barrage of his words.

“You have labored to become kingly in your own fashion, haven’t you?”

“Cease your worthless fantasies at once Tarkus!”

Tarkus, without any compassion, continue his same course. “Vittoria has told you about all of these mysterious circumstances of your birth; can any be proven? Is anyone alive who knows the real truth? You would’ve made her but a Regent; now you’re another Princess.”

Salvatrice could not muster a response anymore. She felt instantly sick. She felt too acutely the fact that the eyes of someone like Tarkus attacked what she felt she was.

This whole conversation, this attitude, this line of questioning, this thinking, it made her sick. It made her sick to her stomach. It was disgusting. It made her flesh scream. It made her mind heavy. She held her arms around her chest, gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, feeling a visceral discomfort with her surroundings, with the clothes she wore. All of the ambivalence that she felt about herself as a person, and all the careful, comfortable things she told herself about herself, seemed suddenly under attack then. It was fine for her in her time and her mind to style herself a man. It was fine because she did it, because she flitted in and out of that skin as her body desired. But suddenly, these men styled her king.

She would be their KingKing. Their King. They were making her their King

“You were meant to be the King whose miraculous power will restore us–”

“Shut up!”

This time it was not Salvatrice’s voice admonishing the man.

From her sound, the demand came like the report of a gun.

“Shut up! Shut up right now!”

Carmela withdrew one of her sharp-heeled shoes from her feet and struck Tarkus.

She had an incredible arm; Tarkus reeled as the shoe caught him in his unguarded face.

“Shut up! Never speak to her like this again! I’ll be the one who has you smoked to death!” Carmela shouted. “Do you know who I am? My family will erase you from history!”

She shouted so loudly it felt as if the windows would burst.

Cannelle covered her mouth in shock.

Salvatrice blinked.

Tarkus raised himself back to his full stature, wincing, bleeding from over his right eye.

And yet there was a strange calm even to his then-obvious fury.

“Were your fortune, name and your hand in marriage to the Caesar any less valuable, you impudent harlot, I would have you thrown from the tower.” Tarkus icily replied.

“Come claim me then, Legatus!” Carmela shouted mockingly.

Salvatrice shook her head, trying to clear the miasma that Tarkus had planted in the recesses of her mind. She set herself on guard beside Carmela, opposing the Legatus.

She was exhausted, in every fashion. But she could not give in. Resistance was all she had.

Tarkus reached up to his forehead, and turned over his own blood in his steel fingers.

Toward this, too, he had no emotion. It was as if he was working off a script.

“Whether or not you cooperate, your destiny is set. I brought you here to Saint Orrea as a child, and I confirmed it: you have the Power of the King. I brought you here again, on this fateful eve, to claim your power, and to claim your throne. Saint Orrea will be your path to ascension, Caesar. It cannot be undone. You will thank your loyal servant, as you stand over the world, as you should, as you must, as it was destined since we left the Cuvenen.”

Tarkus twisted around and made for the door.

Salvatrice wanted to rush him, but she knew it would do no good. He was bigger, he was armored and armed, and there were probably more men right outside. At worst she would probably provoke them enough to threaten Carmela or something equally befitting the ruffians they really were. These Illuminati had her chained to the ground without need of metal. They had won. Despite all she knew, Salvatrice, truly, still knew nothing now.

She was not a religious person, but in that instant, she found herself wishing for a miracle.

She knew not the ancient elven words, for she paid little attention to religious study.

But something in her supplicated itself to destiny, and prayed that it was not Tarkus’ destiny which would unfold for her, but something else. Anything else, at that moment.

Before Tarkus was out the door, it seemed that destiny answered.

First with a sharp report in the distance.

And then with a series of booming bellows, and a rumbling along the ground.

Tarkus stumbled under the threshold of the doors.

“Artillery?” He shouted, his emotionless drone slightly tinged with outrage.

Two men appeared on the edge of the door, visibly shaken in their uniforms and masks.

“Sir, it’s a coordinated attack, mortars, anti-armor, assault fire, it could be Limitanae–”

“Absolutely not.” Tarkus responded to them.

“But sir–”

“There is no force in Vicaria that could possibly respond to us–”

In an instant, his eyes widened, and then almost immediately, narrowed again.

“Geta.” He said, slowly and deliberately, as if to himself.

Salvatrice’s own eyes drew wide, and she felt her heart lift as the world shook around her.

Geta?

That reckless, selfish, low-class, black-hearted Centurion–

She was alive.

And she was here.

Tarkus shoved past his men, running down what sounded like steps.

Though the doors closed on the tower, Salvatrice knew the doors of Saint Orrea had been thrown open. Holding Carmela close, and catching her breath, she knew she had a chance.

The Illuminati were being forced from the shadows, into the light of day.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

Alea Iacta Est II (60.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Ocean Road

Harmony charged out of the alleyway to reclaim the street, and found itself alone.

At the sight of the air raid, it seemed everyone had fled into cover. And even when the guns started shooting back at the sky, no comrades emerged into the street to capitalize.

She was truly alone. And more painfully, she felt she had engineered this for herself.

Not the planes; not the fleeing; but the fact that she was alone. She shouldn’t have been.

But she couldn’t become mired in that guilt. Losing hope now would surely kill her.

Gunnerless, Harmony’s only defense was the DNV light machine gun tenuously attached by an improvised mount beneath the open front hatch. Far down the street, the remains of the elven bomber had split pilot Danielle Santos from her (beloved) partner Caelia Suessen. Rescuing her became Danielle’s singular priority as she leaped into her tank in a panic.

Seeing the hulk, however, sowed distress in Danielle’s breast. Fallen near-intact save its wings, Danielle was sure such a heavy, large bomber wouldn’t be dented by her 45mm gun.

Breathing quickly and intermittently, Danielle felt overwhelmed by the situation. She felt a tingling in the front of her head, a weight, as if a swarm of ants were crawling over her brain. Her hands were shaking wildly, one deftly twitching between the two control sticks and the other gripping handle and guiding the swivel on the removable DNV machine gun.

She leaned forward and put her head through the hatch. Gradually the sky had become a chaotic palette of red, blue, black and white. Every few seconds a shell went off, or an aircraft exploded or crashed, and the reek of smoke and metal started to fall from the heavens and come down to the city. Several aircraft seemed to deliberately be crashing into the city. There was noise and violence everywhere above — and it was spreading.

There were no enemies on the ground that she could see.

But Danielle soon found more white in the sky than just the wind-battered clouds.

Strings of parachutes started descending from the airborne no-man’s land at an alarming pace. Hundreds of troops were falling on the city. Automatic fire consumed many immediately, but more and more began to drop after them. As she leaned out of her Kobold tank she saw a dozen parachute troops coming closer to her, only a few hundred feet away, and even saw a few disappear behind distant buildings. She dove back inside.

From the pilot’s seat, she put both hands on the machine gun, and aimed high.

Drawing in a breath, putting the reticle on a cloudy white parachute, she hit the trigger.

From the front of the Kobold a stream of automatic fire launched skyward. Danielle, unable to aim for the small figures, instead aimed to clip the parachutes wherever she could get them. She could hardly see through the muzzle flash and the gun itself, blocking her hatch. But between three-shot bursts she spied parachutes precipitously dropping from holes punched in them, parachutes holding hanging men who seemed not to move.

She popped out a pan magazine from atop the gun, discarded it, attached a new one.

Rapping the trigger, pressing for a second or two and depressing for burst fire, reloading quickly from magazines she had dropped at her side, she sent hundreds of rounds sailing.

Soon she could see no more parachutes between her gunfire.

Satisfied with what little hindrance she caused the flow of men onto Rangda, Danielle pushed the control sticks forward and started Harmony down the road toward the bomber. She crossed a few blocks, and parked the tank several dozen meters from the obstacle. Now that she was closer to it, the fallen fuselage seemed ever larger and more daunting.

It had fallen in just about the worst place it could have. Rammed between opposing alleyways attached to buildings with ruined, blocked off entrances, the bomber fuselage could not be easily walked around. Previous fighting had taken its toll on Ocean Road. Caelia could have run into the alleys on her own side, but there was no telling where a parachutist had landed, or where debris, new or old, might bar the way forward again.

Danielle had no idea what Caelia might decide to do. If only she could signal her–

She remembered, from back in training camp. They had a signal. Tankers had flare guns with yellow smoke. Infantry had red smoke and white smoke. Maybe if Caelia remembered this detail she would know that Danielle was on the other side. Maybe she would hold on.

It was not just a matter of keeping her safe. To survive, both needed to be in this tank.

They had learned long ago they did exceptionally better together than apart.

Without each other, it was doubtful they would have even gotten to where they were now.

Caelia, an exceptional gunner, but a clueless driver. Danielle, a worthless commander, but a pilot who could make a tank glide over any terrain as if centimeters above the ground. They had known something of each other before all of that, but it was in the metal confines of a tank, separated by the turret ring, blind to each other and communicating exclusively over radio, that they found each other’s true selves, and maybe even their own.

Unglamorous as it was, they had achieved this goal together. Full-fledged tankers. From out of nothing, from everything they had left behind, from everything holding them back.

Danielle grit her teeth. She couldn’t believe how easily she had let petty jealousy root itself in her heart before. She should have known better. Caelia was special to her and she was special to Caelia. They had all of this; more importantly, they had always had it together. No matter where it was, what they did, it was always a medium for them, together.

Danielle had to trust her. She would hate herself forever if she lost Caelia for lack of trust.

Seizing the flare gun from the emergency kit, she reached her arm out the front hatch.

She pulled the trigger, and the flare launched right over the bomber fuselage.

It detonated over the barrier between them in a bright yellow flash and yellow smoke.

Caelia must have seen it. She must have — and she must have understood what it meant.

Now, however, she had to get that fuselage out of the way, some way or another.

Clumsily, she left the sticks and climbed up into Caelia’s seat, a place she never had occasion to see. A tank’s gun was probably the sturdiest part of the whole design. Engines and tracks and suspensions were under constant stress and frequently wore out during operations. Correctly mounted, the gun could last extremely long, and it was the one part that Danielle was not certified to repair. It required heavy equipment and a crew.

This was Caelia’s domain, walled off during operations. Danielle had her own space.

Now, however, she was gone and the gun was needed.

She was immediately struck with something she did not expect to see.

Sitting down on Caelia’s seat, she immediately spotted two photographs clipped to the gun sight. One had a large, friendly-looking black cat, staring inquisitively at the camera.

Another was of Danielle, sitting atop their old Goblin. Caelia herself had taken that one.

Shaking her head and stifling tears, Danielle reached into the rack for a 45mm AP round.

They had hardly been restocked. There were maybe a dozen fresh rounds available and a handful of leftovers from earlier in the day. Danielle grit her teeth. Even if she could penetrate the armor on the bomber’s hull, a small round would just poke a hole through it, and would get her no closer to removing it from the way. She felt helpless and trapped.

Sighing, praying for a miracle, she closed her eyes, she loaded the round, and looked down the sights. There was no need to aim. Her target was massive and it was very close.

Remembering how the gun operated, from her short-lived career as a gunner in training camp, Danielle shouted to no one in particular that she was firing an armor piercing shell.

There was a boom and a crack and a sharp, striking ding on metal.

Looking through the sight again, she found the bomber’s armor penetrated by a fist-sized hole. Moreover, she found something rather astonishing about the hole itself.

Danielle pushed open the top hatch and leaned out to look upon the wound she inflicted.

Her eyes were not deceiving her. This was not a well-armored bomber plane.

It was a ramshackle wooden plane with a layer of silver foil on the exterior.

How it survived the fall with any remaining integrity of form, Danielle did not know.

But she felt her heart soar suddenly. She felt a combination of foolishness and euphoria.

All of this time, that great impenetrable obstacle, forever separating her from Caelia; it was all in her mind. There was no invincible steel barrier isolating her. Caelia and her were separated by little more than a dozen millimeters of wooden skin with foil glued over it. She had been drowning in a glass of water. Danielle laughed, a bit bitterly, but relieved.

Perhaps this was not the only barrier that she had completely imagined.

Climbing back down to the driver’s seat, Danielle took the Danava machine gun mount off the front, backed the tank several dozen meters more into the street and lined herself up with the side hatch on the bomber plane. She shut her own front hatch, and then thrust the sticks as far forward as she would go, accelerating downhill at the plane with abandon.

“I’m coming, Caelia!”


Caelia Suessen found herself whistling, alone in the middle of the street.

Around her there was an uproarious battle happening between sky and earth.

She did not think about it, not at first. She was fixated on the way forward.

In front of her, in a scene that seemed fake, as if it had been staged for a production, stood the fuselage of a bomber plane. It had fallen from the sky, and in an instant, barred the way higher up Ocean Road. Behind her, a similar hulk had also fallen out of the sky, trapping her in a block of ruined buildings. Danielle was somewhere on the other side; she had ran out of their meeting in clear distress, and Caelia, deeply worried, had ran after.

But she was too late running, and not fast enough to make up the difference.

Danielle had been offended or hurt, that much she knew. Whether it had been Shayma’s effusive praise, or her own fault in overlooking Danielle, or something else entirely. Those were not the steps of an unwounded woman. She could imagine what happened, though she did not want to presume, lest she risk hurting her feelings even more. Danielle was soft in ways Caelia was not as much; or at least in ways Caelia did not let on as readily.

Now, though, they were in a situation where she could be killed.

Losing Danielle, never again having her in her life–

Caelia was not fond of mental time travel, but that was a future she had to prevent.

She was still processing what would happen next, and what to do.

She spontaneously whistled a song from a play. It was near and dear to her.

Though it was not necessarily calming, it was an outlet for her nerves.

Mustering her resolve, and shaking her head hard to relieve the dazedness she felt, Caelia started searching her surroundings. There seemed to be nobody around. Most of the buildings around her had collapsed, either in earlier fighting or because of the falling aircraft and aircraft debris. She was blocked off on all sides it seemed. She had her pistol in her possession, and she drew it and made sure it was loaded. She had no other weapons, no grenades, not even a knife. She had left much of her kit behind with the tank.

Any kind of fighting in this state would be pointless. She didn’t even have spare ammo.

Caelia thought of trying to climb the unsteady rubble and jump over the plane.

Suddenly she heard a loud buzzing overhead and raised her eyes to the sky.

She was ripped from her reverie, and forced to confront the wider world.

Flying low, a plane with a long and rounded fuselage, trailing smoke from its twin engines, swooped over Caelia, over Ocean Road, and crashed somewhere close by. Caelia could feel the impact, diffusing through the earth itself, and the vibration in her gut unsettled her.

But the plane mattered less than what followed it. High in the sky, and descending much more gently than their transport, a line of parachutes blossomed on high, popping from their packs and spreading like hard clouds against the smoke and fire in the blue.

Everywhere, it seemed, there were parachutes dropping, and planes falling.

One pack was closest and closing in. Any kind of wind would drop them right on her head.

“Almost a full platoon.” She whispered to herself. She immediately began to whistle.

There was nowhere really to hide, and if they landed close enough, they could dispatch her easily. They had rifles, numbers, and time was on their side. She had a pistol and music.

And she barely had music, and barely had a pistol in any way that counted.

Her hands shook with the futility of it, but she raised her pistol to the sky to fight back–

Soon as she pulled the trigger, a stream of tracers went flying overhead into the enemy.

Caelia watched as a succession of quick, bright red volleys went flying into the platoon, cutting parachutes, striking men. There were dozens of rounds going out in practiced bursts, and anywhere they struck would be tragic for the vulnerable paratroopers. Parachutes with holes in them or missing strings struggled to stay aloft but quickly and ultimately collapsed and sent the wearers plummeting to their deaths. Several surviving parachutes spilled blood onto the ground, carrying corpses. All the remaining living Parachutists struggled to influence the direction of their drop away from the gunfire.

Then, coming from behind her, Caelia saw the yellow flare and the smoke.

She knew immediately who it was. Danielle had come to her defense, to pick her up.

She had no way to signal back, but she knew it was a tanker, a tanker who was stuck on the other side of this fuselage. A tanker who was trying to get to this side. It had to be Danielle. She was trying to find a way through. Despite everything, she had turned around and sought her out. Caelia, briefly elated, moved to the side of the street, hiding behind a pile of rubble, and she drew in a breath. She heard shots, sounds of struggle. She felt the fuselage shake. But nobody was coming through yet. She still had some time to wait.

Caelia started to whistle again. She thought of what she could even say to Danielle now.

Whistling, music; though she had given them up, those were things she was good at.

Being forward with her partner was not something that came as naturally to her.

I love you, was a set of words that eluded her tongue. For one reason or another.

Even then, they were perhaps not fitting for their situation anyway.

She felt her heat beat faster as she thought of Danielle, of how to mend things.

If things needed mending; if they could be mended at all.

Caelia drew in a breath. She began to whistle again–

Soon as the first notes of Winter’s On The Wing drew from her lips, she was interrupted.

A rifle bullet struck the fuselage near to her, forcing her to duck farther behind the rubble.

She peered briefly into the street, just in time for a handful of paratroopers to drop from out of nowhere, silently yet solidly. Blue-uniformed elves with sharp ears, long, blond hair, and piercing green eyes. They dropped, stumbling onto the pavement and quickly rising, and threw off the bulk of their parachutes. Four rifles pointed her way.

She had been concentrating on hiding and waiting, and Danielle had probably been concentrating on trying to break through to her. Neither of them realized that the parachutes were still dropping. That they would continue dropping, for who knew how long. Rangda was under siege from the sky. Caelia felt foolish for feeling a little safe.

Desistere!” they shouted, jabbing their bayonets into the air in front of them.

Winter’s On The Wing wouldn’t last many more notes. Caelia paused to sigh and breathe.

Across from her the elves responded to the lack of compliance by opening fire.

Caelia crawled tighter behind the rubble. She heard the bullets striking the fuselage, and felt the hot lead bouncing off the surface and coming suddenly down on her back.

All they had to do was run forward and stab. Caelia wanted to cry. Though she had a hard time grappling with emotion, Caelia knew then and there who’s name she would cry.

“Danielle!”

Behind her the fuselage gave a great shudder that no rifle could have caused.

Chunks of wood burst from it, and a great metal thing thundered past as if through a door.

Caelia watched as Harmony hurtled through the fuselage toward the riflemen.

Surprised and speechless, the men did not move fast enough to avoid their fate.

Harmony trundled through them, crushing whatever of them it caught underfoot.

Two men it mashed to bits beneath its tracks. One man rolled out of the way, and a second attempted to evade far too late, and he dropped to the floor and lost his legs to the tank.

Harmony ground to a halt.

Caelia drew in a breath and stepped out from cover.

Standing to full height, she held her pistol up.

Across from her, the man with the rifle dropped his weapon, broke, and ran.

She did not fire after him. He disappeared, panicked, into the buildings.

Was this their foe?

Caelia shook her head. It didn’t matter. Not now. There was someone more important.

Whistling again, scarcely believing all that transpired, she ran swiftly past the corpses and around to the front hatch of the tank, where Danielle sat, stupefied, with her front hatch swung open. She was the same Danielle, with her brown skin and messy, curly black hair and her glasses, unharmed, just as she had been left. Her Danielle; her Danielle.

“Hey,” Caelia said, leaning into the hatch. She stifled a hint of tears of her own.

Inside, Danielle was shaking, and weeping, holding the tank’s sticks with a deathly grip.

“H-Hello.” Danielle said.

They looked into each other’s eyes, both shaking from toe to top, teeth slightly chattering, hair on end, sweating, breathing heavily. Exhausted; having both fought, both killed, and yet, both still surrounded by the enemy nonetheless. Both having suffered some shocks. Caelia’s eyes began to water as she reached a hand down to Danielle and wiped the tears from her partner’s eyes. A little sob escaped her, and briefly interrupted her whistling.

“I’m sorry I made such a big show in the tent. I was an idiot.” Danielle stammered.

“It’s okay.” Caelia said simply.

And for the moment, perhaps everything was simply okay for them.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Stelle Cadenti (59.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Ave.

Inside the medical tent the entry curtains stirred and spread at her behest, and behind them, Corporal Gulab Kajari found a familiar pale-haired, dark-skinned girl with a very blank expression, sitting alongside a nurse. Gulab smiled and stretched her arms wide.

“Hey! Guess who’s back? Gimme a hug!” Gulab called out amicably.

Charvi Chadgura almost leaped from atop the stretcher and seized upon Gulab, resting her head on the woman’s chest and surprising her with her energy. Despite the empty look to her eyes and the neutral setting of her lips, Charvi’s affection and relief was evident in the dead-tight grip she had on Gulab’s chest, and in her gentle, almost purr-like stirring.

“Well, it works, but it feels more like you’re clinging than hugging.” Gulab said.

“I want to cling.” Charvi replied. Her unaffected monotone remained the same too.

Gulab giggled.

She closed her arms around Charvi’s shoulders and back and nestled with her.

“See, I’m perfectly ok.” Gulab said.

“I was still worried. You nearly died.”

“Hmph! Nearly nothin’! If a Rock Bear can’t kill me, nothing can!”

“I will still worry.”

“That’s fair.”

Behind them, the nurse watched with a patient, smiling face.

Gulab caught sight of her over Charvi’s shoulder and felt self-conscious for a moment.

“Anyway, you should get yourself fixed up.”

She gently separated herself from Charvi, who looked at her in the eyes and blinked.

“Nothing is wrong with me.” Charvi said.

Interjecting, the nurse raised her hand with a concerned expression.

“Actually comrade, you have a fragment wound in your leg that should be cared for.”

Looking down, Gulab found torn cloth and seeping blood near Charvi’s knee.

“You should get that taken care of.” Gulab insisted.

“It’s fine.” Charvi said. “I don’t feel pain.”

“Infection respects no hero, comrade.” replied the nurse. “I must clean it at least.”

Gulab chuckled at Charvi’s casual obstinancy. She clearly wanted to spend time with her now that there was a hard-won instant of calm after all they had gone through. Gulab appreciated it; she wanted to be by Charvi’s side too, even if they did nothing more than sit down and sleep against each other’s shoulders in the back of a truck back to base.

“Nurse, would it be okay if I just stayed here?” Gulab asked.

“I don’t see why not!” said the nurse, smiling.

“Well then.” Gulab nodded to the nurse. “Charvi, I’ll be right here, so get patched up.”

Charvi clapped her hands gently.

“If you say so.”

The Nurse found Gulab a seat, and she sat back to watch the nurse snip away part of Charvi’s pants leg and dab her wound gently with a saline solution to clean it. Gulab watched the procedure with a placid smile, but her mind was mostly empty of thought. She was coming down from the rush and panic of the previous battle. She felt an eerie sense of satisfaction. A lot had gone wrong — she had been hurt, Charvi had been hurt, and many of their comrades suffered worse. However, they managed to pull through.

They protected so many others, and worked together to defeat an enemy that was vicious, numerous and ostensibly prepared for battle. Despite everything, they had won.

Gulab herself had hunted a giant; almost in the way that her ancestors always had.

Though she hated her interaction with that tradition, she realized that sometimes the giants were hunted because they could kill the people you love, and not for its own sake. She felt that she would fight any enemy to safeguard the people she cared about. For her comrades; for people like Adesh and the kids, or Caelia and Danielle; for Charvi. Anyone who would hurt them, who would hurt innocents; if she could hunt them then she would.

She felt a burden start to lift in that regard. Maybe even that side of her was not indelibly her father’s, not indelibly owned by men. Maybe it could be a part of her as a woman too.

Maybe it didn’t all have to end up like it did with her grandfather.

“All done! You were a swell patient, Sergeant.”

Charvi stood up from the stretcher and waved a hand at the nurse as a quiet thanks.

Her knee was wrapped in a big patch with a red blotch on it, but she could walk.

Gulab stood from her seat, and stretched her arms. She felt a hint of drowsiness.

“I think we’ve earned a bite and a long, quiet truck ride to the barracks, no?” She said.

“We have. I can go see how my stamp book is doing.” Charvi said.

“Where did you leave it?”

“I left it with the company commissary, back at the base. They have waterproof lockers.”

“Someday I’m going to make you a case for that thing.”

“A case?”

“Yup! You wouldn’t know it, but I’m pretty handy with leather.”

Chatting idly, they walked outside the tent and down the road.

The University and its surroundings felt like they had completely transformed.

After the fall of Muhimu Shimba the Lion Battalion was quickly mopped up. Lion’s remaining troops overwhelmingly surrendered outright; though they had no way of knowing their commander had been defeated, the presence of enemy forces in Muhimu Shimba was enough to break their faith. It became clear that at Lion’s last stand only a fraction of the battalion’s remaining troops were present. Had the entire battalion rallied the battle would have been bloodier; had the Jotun remained in place, it might have become a temporary rout. In the heat of the moment, everything had become hectic and improvisational but they managed to win out regardless. Now the location was theirs.

University Avenue had become the nerve center of the 2nd Battalion’s operations. Its logistics train back to Colonel Nakar’s HQ was solidified and trucks were coming and going unmolested, carrying troops and support personnel to and fro. Tents for the medics and signals personnel and computer support teams had begun to sprout, many hidden within or between buildings for some cover from enemy spotters. Burundi’s organic artillery support had begun to arrive too. Gulab spotted the light howitzers, towed in by truck, setting up in groups of three in a little sitting park along the way down from the medical tent. Broken-down buildings, damaged in the fighting, were used to conceal ammunition.

There was a lot of hustle and bustle. Not everyone could breathe as easy as she yet.

Though the battle raged on in spirit, it was no longer Gulab’s battle to fight now.

It was expected that Gulab and Charvi and their comrades would be rotated out for fresher troops. She had been given to understand that she could expect to fight much longer battles in the future, but to survive today against the 8th’s numerical advantages they needed troops to maintain a “high combat quality.” So rotations for rest were necessary. This was especially necessary for prized veterans like herself, who were invaluable.

Gulab had puffed up her chest quite a bit upon hearing such accolades.

But the promise of sleep and food was much more important at the moment.

Quietly basking in each other’s orbit, the pair sidled up to a fresh truck, newly arrived and with an empty bed, and climbed up onto the back, maneuvering around a machine gun on a mount grafted to the center of the bed, no doubt in haste. They sat with their backs to metal and their rumps on the cold floor. Gulab felt a little sleepy as soon as she took her body weight off her legs. Everything she had done in the past few hours seemed to have finally caught up to her, now that she had allowed it. She leaned against Chadgura.

“Hey, if you’re awake, lemme know when we get back to base.”

“Okay.”

“I wanna grab some hot lentils before they’re out a batch, you know?”

“I will keep my eyes open.”

“Oh no, you should sleep too! I just mean, if you happen to be awake.”

Chadgura clapped her hands softly.

They waited in the truck, while more people arrived from around the block with their weapons and remaining ammunition in tow, sitting in whatever truck was closest or fancied them best. Gulab began to nod off. Whenever she blinked, she held her eyes in darkness longer each time, and felt she could see more and more of a dream each time.

Each glimpse of the horizon, briefer and briefer, put into stark relief a group of shadows.

They could have been specks of dust, so distant were they, or mere tricks of the light and the dreaming dark upon Gulab’s eyes. But their movement was predictable and relentless in the way only physical things could achieve, utterly lacking the whimsy of a fantasy. As they came closer and closer, as the mite-like shadows gained definite form and began to issue noise and part the clouds they sailed through, the drowsy Gulab started to realize she was seeing something materially real; and that she was not the only witness.

Slowly, across one street and then another, heads began to turn, eyes began to climb.

Everyone measured the sky and found objects fast approaching.

Visions of Bada Aso returned unbidden to the collective unconscious of the Regiment.

At first stupefied, the various units around University were joined under a singular call:

“AIRCRAFT APPROACHING! Sound the air raid sirens and find shelter!”

This call came not from a Major or a Lieutenant but a Sergeant in charge of a spool of telephone wire. Nonetheless, everyone was all too eager to comply, despite the lack of an air raid siren or any formal shelter — this was not Bada Aso. Soon Gulab found the truck around her emptying suddenly, and similar trucks as well. There was a mad rush away from open space and into the buildings. Doors to places left inviolate after the fighting, were finally kicked to the floor; everyone dispersed into the shops and galleries.

Gulab finally snapped from her half-awake stupor. Aircraft. Air Raid.

“Charvi!” She cried out.

At her side, Charvi had stood upright and was looking over the walls of the truck.

“Excuse me,” she said aloud, trying to get the attention of running passersby.

Nobody answered her, and the dispersing troops made every effort to get as far away as they could from the sight of the aircraft during their brief moment of leaderlessness.

Gulab grabbed her belt and helped herself to stand.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

Charvi looked at her, blank-faced as usual.

“Wondering what our orders will be now.” She said.

To her seeming confusion, nobody appeared to have orders to give as the aircraft overflew their skies with relative impunity. Gulab watched her comrades dispersing, and having never been under the bombs in Bada Aso, she wondered what she could now do.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XVIII

This chapter contains violence and death and mild misogyny.


??nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, ???? Province of — ????

Byanca Geta awakened in a thick darkness reminiscent of sleep.

She could feel the movement of her body. She was sure of her own weight in space.

Everything was so dark, however, that she felt like a mind floating in the ether. Had she been blinded? What had even happened? She felt a sharp pain in the back of her head as she tried to move, and it confirmed to her that she was awake and alive somewhere.

A cold terror swept across her body. She did not know her condition or space.

Byanca patted herself down. She felt her uniform. Her arms, her chest, her belly, her hips and legs and feet; everything was in its place and as clothed as it was before. Her pockets were empty, and she had no holsters or weapons. Her belt was still there. She was sitting, and she felt the hard, stone-like perch upon which she sat. She raised her arms, and she stretched them. She stretched her legs. She touched walls, cold walls, on all sides.

When she tried to stand, she found that she could, but she felt her ponytail brush against the ceiling when fully upright. She was in a box, a cold stone box, unmoving, with a perch to sit on and enough room that she could stand, and that her arms could just barely not outstretch, and her legs could just barely fail to draw out to their full length.

Touching the walls she found nothing that suggested a doorway or even a slot for food.

She drew in a deep breath. This was not a cement burial; there was too much room.

Trying not to panic, she told herself this was probably a solitary confinement and sensory deprivation box in a prison complex somewhere. If they wanted to starve her to death they would have just buried her alive. And if they wanted to kill her they would have shot her. She reasoned that they wanted her alive and just needed to keep her isolated until she cracked. It was torture, not torture to death. She had to believe that for her own sake.

For Salvatrice’s sake. The Princess was in the hands of the Legatus and his deranged conspirators and who knew what they would have her do; or what they would do to her?

Byanca breathed in deep. She did not feel light-headed, so there was enough air coming in from somewhere that it could sustain her breathing. So there had to be a gap somewhere.

She could still be blind, and that was a frightening thought. She looked around the box, trying to get a feel that she was facing where her arms were touching, and trying to find a gap anywhere that could filter in even the smallest of lights. But there was nothing. Every surface was perfectly smooth and seemed to fit perfectly well. She pulled off her gloves and started to touch, where corners met, where a lid or a door might be placed.

Overhead, she found she could slip a fingernail and a bit of the flesh of her index finger through a gap. So it was not a perfect crate. It had a lid that could come off the top.

So if there was no light coming in, then it was still night, or the lid was further covered, with a tarp or a second lid or something that blocked the outside world but not air tight.

Byanca sat back on the perch and heaved a heavy sigh.

Her head hurt. Sharply at first, but the pain dulled over an unknown length of time.

She was cold and sweating colder still.

At this point, Byanca was almost positive that she was not buried alive in cement, a torture that she greatly feared, and as such had temporarily calmed a bubbling panic in her heart. However, she was also sure she could not extricate herself from her predicament and might still in some other fashion die or be killed, either in this box or its proximity.

And any more time wasted could be horrific for Salvatrice, and for Lubon.

Knowing no other solution Byanca maneuvered her body such that she could kneel with her hands on her sitting perch. She bowed her head and entwined her fingers in prayer.

As a child she had lived in Saint Orrea’s Hope, a monastery dedicated to the Messiah, as they all were, but also to the restoration of magic. She was a choir girl, and a servant, and in her teens she had been something of a nun. During those days, she prayed; she prayed almost on reflex, in the morning, before every meal, at night. When she left St. Orrea, she stopped praying eventually. It was hard to pray while homeless on the street. It was hard to pray while fighting in the Borelian brush. It was hard to pray even here in Lubon.

Saint Orrea’s Hope was that miracles were real and the faith could be materially rewarded.

It was hard to imagine such a thing in the kind of world they inhabited now. It was hard to believe in Gods and Miracles when there was discontent, poverty, homelessness; war and death and devastation; when every authority and order that professed to give security and solace to the people preyed on and destroyed them instead. Byanca would not have called herself an atheist, but she couldn’t understand a God who would allow a world like this.

But having nothing else, knowing nothing else, Byanca prostrated herself and prayed.

Benedicite,”

In the ancient tongue of the elves, as she had been taught, she beseeched the God Of Many Names and his earth-bound martyred form, The Messiah, for succor, for strength. She extolled his virtues. Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae. For he was a God who demanded acknowledgment before considering mercy. Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam aelfia, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam. For her was a God of many powers, and whose powers had to be respected and feared before they could ever be called upon by the humble.

Having humiliated herself as a lowly human before his great power, she could now beg.

“Please grant me the power to save her. I would die if that’s what it took.”

She craned her head skyward, at the great yawning dark she felt just overhead.

“Please. I love her; I loved her as a child, and I love her still. I know it’s stupid. She doesn’t remember me. She doesn’t remember that she promised me a pony and that I’d be a knight and that she would have big tea parties with me in the castle. But she was the light that shone on my soul in Saint Orrea; stranded in a place where I was nothing, no family, no ambitions, no future. I don’t even need to be something to her anymore; I just need her to be okay. I just want her to live and find happiness. Please, if I can do that, I will–”

Dust sifted from overhead, and a thin beam of light shone into the enclosure.

It was the dim, eerie light of a part-dawning sun as earth shifted above and unveiled a sky.

In place of an angel, however, was a short, sturdy fellow in a black uniform.

He had lifted the ceiling of the enclosure and revealed its true position in the ground.

“Geta, take my hand!” He whispered, leaning down into the cell.

Much to her surprise, Byanca found herself raising her arms to take Legionnaire Minimus’ hand, and furthermore found herself being pulled up from her prison by this man. Minimus, whom she had so often wronged before. He was the last person she had ever thought she would see. Especially not standing over her concrete grave plot.

“We have to be quick. Here, I brought you a stovepipe.” He said.

From a bag in his hands, he produced a small submachine gun and a magazine.

She took the weapon, loaded it quickly, and found it to be startlingly real.

This was not some kind of trick; Minimus was really here to help her.

“We don’t have time to be surprised. We have to move.” He said sternly.

He had not changed at all since they first met several years ago. He was a stocky and a round lad with a shaved head and big hands. He wore a white armband over his black uniform that marked him as a medic. She found herself looking for signs of the bruise she left him in their scuffle years ago, but of course, it would have long since healed by then.

Byanca shook her head and took a step back in defense.

“I need answers Minimus. What happened here and why are you helping me?”

Minimus shook his head and waved his hands.

“Listen, I need answers too, but we’ll talk while we move. It’s crucial we go now.”

Byanca cast a quick glance around herself. It just as quickly became more deliberate.

They were in the middle of a stretch of green grass out by a pair of power generating stations. There were several other concrete-lidded plots nearby. Near each of the plots there lay a grass camouflaged tarp that had been pulled aside. A line of decorative trees blocked the view of the unsightly power station from what was clearly a Legionnaire garrison’s administrative building. It was a familiar one — the headquarters of the 17th Blackshirt Legion. Byanca’s legion; Legatus Tarkus’ legion; the traitorous legion.

“What about those cells? Did a man and a woman with me get thrown in those?”

Minimus sighed. “Yes, they did. Are they as good as you? We need to travel light.”

Byanca was almost shocked to hear the casual compliment.

“They’re competent. Help me get them out. They were very expensive.”

“Mercenaries? Good lord.”

Despite his reticence, Minimus helped Byanca to slowly undo the catches holding the concrete lids in place, and lift them from two of the tombs. Inside, she found Torvald praying and Giuseppa sleeping. Both of them had been roughed about as much as she had been, and neither had trouble accepting her hand and climbing out of the enclosures.

“How are you holding up?” Byanca asked.

Giuseppa shook her head. “You did not pay me enough to be buried alive.”

“You weren’t, quit being a baby.”

Torvald crossed his arms. “I’m with her. We’re gonna unionize against this kind of shit.”

Byanca grinned. Her redcoats grinned back at her.

Minimus snorted. “We can catch up while we run away from here. Soon the next shift of guards will be headed this way, and I don’t want to start a firefight this quickly.”

“But you do want to start one.” Byanca said.

“We’ve got to. I’ll explain as we go. Follow me to the detainment building.”

Minimus bowed himself and snuck out along the row of trees.

Byanca nodded her head to her subordinates, and they followed after.

She caught up and moved with Minimus, as close and quietly as possible.

Judging by the way he moved, he had been practicing for this kind of moment.

He knew his route. He knew where to hide and from what vantages. He had a plan.

Together they stole from behind the administrative building and around a trimmed, tree-studded green grounds toward a place Byanca remembered not as a detainment facility but as the warehouses where trucks brought food and fuel and ammunition and stockpiled everything the Legion’s Headquarters staff along with its training and security garrisons would need. The Legion Headquarters was not a base for combat troops, but a logistics and training center first and foremost. They had a small brig for troublemakers but nothing worthy of being called a “detainment facility” had ever been part of the base.

Much had changed under the mysterious new administration, it seemed.

“Minimus–”

“I’m doing this because it’s right.”

As they inched toward the warehouse facilities, Minimus answered very suddenly.

“You asked why I was helping you; because it’s right. I’ve only been saving my own skin until now and I can’t live like that. I can’t keep ignoring what’s happening here. I told myself the first opportunity I get, I’m going to put a hole in their dam. And there’s no bigger hole than the one you’re capable of making, Centurion, if I sprung you out.”

“Did you know that they would be capturing me?”

“Not specifically, but they threw damn near everyone else into containment, so.”

“You sound more confident in me than even I am.”

“You throw a mean punch.”

Byanca felt a little grin forming on her lips.

“Okay. Great. So what is happening here Minimus? Who are the Illuminati?”

She remembered them all too clearly from the forest; and from her wounds.

Minimus seemed to feel a chill then in mid-run.

They paused behind a brick enclosure around an outdoor water pump. Enough distance had been put between them and the administrative building that they could make the gamble of facing its vantage to hide from their new destination. It was now in their sights.

Beyond their hiding place, a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire separated the old warehouses from the rest of the 17th Legion’s grounds. There was a gate, guarded; several rows of tall buildings with locked shutter doors made up the fenced-in facilities. Judging by the flashlight beams in the distance there were several guards. From a distance, she spotted a literal ammunition dump. There were stacked-up crates, maybe of howitzer shells, out in the open. Likely emptied from the warehouse when it became a prison.

Minimus shook his head and sighed again.

“Hearing you say the word is a little startling, even though you had to have seen them. It’s still hard to believe this is all real. The Illuminati are a bunch of traitors. I don’t really get it; and I’m technically with them. The Legatus has some kind of influence over them.”

Byanca blinked. “You’re with them? Are they from the 17th Legion then?” She asked.

“Almost all of them. Some outside guys, but it’s mostly legionnaires that the Legatus convinced to join his coup movement. Listen: I’d suspected there was something going on but I figured the Legatus and his croneys just had a secret privileged boy’s club with a first pick of the secretaries to fuck.” His crass behavior had already earned him a strike from Byanca before, but Minimus would be Minimus regardless. Byanca contained herself as the Legionnaire continued his tale, and figured she would save the punching for peace time.

“Then a while back,” Minimus continued, with a look of dread on his face, “when they announced we’d gotten all the anarchists, which we very much did not, people started being transferred from the active Maniples to the 4th Reserve Maniple. At first this was just standard demobilization paperwork that you do when a years-long operation is ending. But then the people they targeted started being recalled here to train as part of that Reserve Maniple, which we have never done before. And then they started not being allowed back out. Those are the guys in the warehouses. Then the guys in the masks started showing up at night. And if thought they could use you, you got sent on an isolating errand, so those guys could get to you, and then you got read the ultimatum.”

“Join us or die?”

“Pledge yourself to elven supremacy under the future Caesar, or stagnation in a pit.”

“Amazing. They’re quite full of themselves. But what are they exactly, Minimus?”

“Well, I don’t know everything. I joined them because I was scared, but Tarkus is a 25-karat paranoid and he and his goons won’t tell you anything going on in their heads. But if you listen for it you can learn a lot. Especially if you’re a medic who is writing their prescriptions. What I know: they’re planning a coup; and they have a puppet ruler lined up that they call The Caesar. They think this Caesar is something real special, and I can’t imagine why. All of the inner circle are from the Legatus’ signals battalion. He thinks they can control people’s minds over the radio or something. It’s insane. It’s like a cult, Geta.”

Byanca remembered how they saluted and shouted in unison in the forest.

It was indeed like a cult. But when had its dogma been laid down?

Judging by the situation, even a week ago, the Legatus already had plans for Salvatrice.

How long ago had he started to plot? Had he really groomed Salvatrice all of this time?

That was not possible; Byanca knew that was just arrogant bluster from Tarkus Marcel.

He would say anything to render Salvatrice vulnerable to his demands.

He needed to cultivate that sense of inevitability and omnipotence. All of this time he had more control over Salvatrice’s life and environment than any other person in the world. He didn’t just need her to acquiesce to being his puppet. He wanted, he needed, for her to accept the strings as a part of her. To use her as a ruler, nothing short of that would do.

Maybe that was the magic of the radio, the magic of surveillance. To scare people into believing it controlled the world around them. To make them acknowledge it as a God.

Byanca grit her teeth. Salvatrice did not deserve this abuse. It was abominable.

And to stop it she would have to depend on every ally she could immediately attain.

“Legatus Tarkus ambushed myself and the princess. He has her captive now.”

Byanca said it abruptly. Minimus suddenly looked over his shoulder, his eyes wide.

“Well, fuck. I figured it had to be something like that, but good lord.”

He then put on a little grin just as suddenly. Perhaps it was his idea of being reassuring.

“Luckily, I happen to know where the Legatus is keeping himself these days.”

Byanca gave him a critical look. “Do you know, or are you guessing?”

“I’ll tell you my evidence once we’ve got the army you’ll need to get through him.”

When Giuseppa and Torvald stacked up with them behind the brick walls, Minimus led them down a little hill into a ditch running alongside one stretch of the wall. There was loose earth beneath parts of the fence, and he pulled up a sizable chunk, creating enough space for them to crawl under. Ahead of them were the backs of several of the lower warehouse buildings and no guards in the vicinity. They rushed to the warehouse walls.

“There’s shutter doors on the other side.” Minimus said.

He opened his bag once again and withdrew a second submachine gun, for himself.

“Do you have a knife?” Byanca asked.

Minimus searched his pockets and found a scalpel and shrugged.

“I’m a doctor!” He whispered.

Byanca took the scalpel. It would do.

She handed her submachine gun to Giuseppa and crept around the corner.

Listening for footsteps, watching for the beam of light.

Moving along the side of the building and between the two rows of warehouses, she caught a glimpse of a guard, masked, with the familiar uniform from the forest. Byanca rushed him, seized him and pulled him around the corner in a lighting-quick ambush. She forced the scalpel into his throat and covered his mouth as she dragged him away, butchering his neck until his hands ceased to thrash against her own and his body went slowly limp.

Blood cascaded from the wound, staining her hands slick and dark.

She felt momentarily a little sick.

Were these the hands of a knight who rescued princesses?

In that instant the guard’s flashlight rolled off his fingers.

Byanca felt a moment of panic.

But from behind her a hand seized the flashlight. It was Legionnaire Minimus.

“Be more careful!” He whispered, his own voice growing strained with worry.

Byanca sighed deeply and nodded her head. She pulled the corpse back around the corner.

With the guard gone, there was at least one row of warehouses that could be accessed.

Everyone quickly reconvened before the series of shutter doors.

Minimus drew a lock cutter from his bag and started snapping the prisons open.

Byanca pushed open one of the shutters.

Dozens of eyes seemed to turn her direction at once.

Behind the shutter the warehouse had been emptied of goods and crammed with men, who huddled together making use of any available amount of space. They were weary, sitting back to back and side to side without even room to stretch their legs. It almost seemed like they would fall out in a cascade into the space created by opening the door. There were maybe fifty men all crammed into a storage space meant for a few crates.

“Stand up slowly, and come out.” Byanca urged them.

Incredulous at first, not one man allowed himself even to flinch in their presence.

“We’re not with the black masks. We’re here to fight them. To free you.” She added.

Given that piece of information, they were quicker to move. One by one the haggard faces lit up, and the men helped themselves to stand and walked out of the warehouse as if they were being freed from prison after years instead of days. They looked worn, but freedom seemed to urge them on. Minimus went through the shutters, unlocking each prison. Meanwhile the freed men started immediately to arm themselves. Stray bricks, drainage pipes, chains and chunks of wood. Byanca handed Torvald the pistol from the dead guard.

“I am Centurion Byanca Geta.” She said aloud. “Those black masks are conspiring to–”

There were few among the crowd paying her any attention. Though they did not show her any outright hostility, it was clear that they were– they had to be– suspicious of anyone in the Legion, given their own former comrades had become their jailers. Most of the men were still disoriented. Those who were arming themselves seem to do so out of reflex. Nobody was organizing, nobody was speaking. Some part of them was spoiling for a fight, but imprisonment could beat the strategic mind out of any soldier. They were half-awake.

At this point, it struck Byanca that they were in no condition to be led except by example.

“Minimus, on me. We’re taking the remaining cells by storm.” She said.

“Well. Okay. Fine. Ugh. Geta, I expected a more measured approach.”

“Being measured right now is a half-measure. These men need to see carnage.”

Minimus raised a finger in protest but Byanca started moving, with or without him.

Minimus heaved a heavy, exasperated sigh, and he had an uneasy grip on his submachine gun as he ran, but he followed behind her nonetheless as she turned the corner around the back of the next row of warehouses. Surprisingly, a trickle of the prisoners, armed with whatever loose debris they could find, seemed to slowly follow behind her as well.

When the expected patrol rounded the corner ahead, Byanca aimed for the light.

With a strong pull of the trigger she loosed a hailstorm of automatic fire.

Through the warehouse rows there echoed the tinny rap-rap-rap-rap of the gun.

Wet gurgling and choked screams followed in its wake.

Flashlight beams that once pointed in her direction swung wildly and then rolled along the ground, falling with the crumpling, shredded bodies of the guards holding them. Their corpses made more promising sounds than simple thudding. Among their equipment was a new pair of submachine guns. Byanca handed one gun to Giuseppa, and she waved another toward the prisoners that had been aware enough to follow in her wake.

“I am Centurion Byanca Geta! Follow my lead and stamp out these traitors!”

She slid the submachine gun along the ground, and one man set out a boot to catch it.

He picked up the weapon, handed it to an empty-handed prisoner, and took up a pipe club.

“We of the Maniple swore to follow the Centuria to death!” He cried out. “Forward!”

At once, the rest of the prisoners revitalized and charged suddenly past Byanca.

As another disparate group of guards arrived to survey the disturbance, they were instantly mobbed. Their black masks were ripped from their faces and they were pummeled into the ground, kicked, clubbed, stabbed with glass. More guns were freed from them and passed around. Byanca ran ahead to the group; leaning around the corner, she opened fire down the warehouse row, and forced another pair of guards into hiding.

Covering her men in this way, she gave them opportunity to run to the warehouse shutters and cut and smash free more prisoners. Giuseppa and Torvald rushed past her to the corner across from her own, and covered a different approach. Minimus seemed to stand behind her in awe, as the flashing gunfire flew over the heads of an ever-enlarging mob of angry, haggard, rampaging men hungering to mutilate anyone wearing a black mask.

“He’s taken her to Saint Orrea.” Minimus said suddenly amid the carnage.

Byanca looked over her shoulder at him, incredulous.

“How do you know?” She asked.

From around the corner a string of fiery blue tracers hurtled past, forcing her to cover.

Minimus covered his ears momentarily, but kept speaking as loud as he could muster.

“He had his medicines sent there. Morphine. Pervitin. Cholesterol Testosterone.”

 

Byanca put her back to the wall and raised her submachine gun to her chest.

“We need to hurry then.” She said. She leaned out of the corner and opened fire.

Alarms and searchlights came alive. It was starting. Now it was a fight.

But she had a swelling mass of wrathful legionnaires, and a heart lit with holy fire.

She knew no matter the odds she overcame, she could never be a Knight. Not now.

But if she was doomed to be an evil dragon, then that fire would burn her enemies away.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter