The Rangda Tank War (62.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, Arsenica needed to know none of that.

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

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

“Actually, wait!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.


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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 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.

Her song 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.


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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.


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The Battle of Rangda III (55.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Rangda University Campus

“Lay down suppressing fire overhead! We’re storming the Research Library!”

Sergeant Chadgura shouted out to her troops, her dull voice achieving an air of strength.

Rushing up from University Avenue, she and her forces were poised to lay siege. Sniper bullets struck around their cover and stray machine gun fire swept the street, but it did not slow their advance. Smoke cover went up, elements reorganized and the attack pressed.

Machine gunners from Green and Yellow squadrons rushed uphill along the edge of the snaking road, making use of a brief smokescreen to cover their advance. Before the cloud fully thinned, they dropped on their bellies on the streetside green, using the curve of the hill to partially shield them from gunfire. Laying their Danavas down on their bipods, the gunners opened fire at angle on the upper floor windows of a massive square building overlooking the streets, raking every second floor aperture. Continuous gunfire danced between the windows, pitting the stucco exterior. Across the street an allied group of machine gunners performed the same maneuver on a second, opposite building.

Snipers and machine gunners, once commanding the terrain from inside the red brick buildings, quickly ducked away from the windows. They gave up their advantage for safety.

This was the best chance Sergeant Chadgura would get to invade the building and gain a powerful foothold in the University District. She steeled herself; she would seize it.

“Second Platoon will take the building at nine o’ clock, and we are going at three o’ clock! Move quickly; blocking group peels on contact, while the maneuver group keeps running!”

As she shouted this order, Chadgura stood up from behind a bus stop bench and rain shield and held her pistol into the air. Wind swept up her short, silver-white hair, and beads of sweat glistened over her dark skin. On her face was a stoic, unaffected expression, with easy eyes and neutral lips. She looked like a brave hero from a military poster.

Her gallantry was not lost on her troops. A group of twelve riflemen and women from her Green Squadron immediately left their cover in the vicinity of the fighting and joined her as she rushed uphill and past her deployed machine gunners. They ran without question.

Chadgura ran the fastest and hardest and it showed. She ran with abandon, her sense of pain and exhaustion and fear blunted, so that the palpitations of her heart and the raggedness of her breathing and the struggling of the muscles in her limbs felt distant and disassociated. She ran from the fog in her head and ran headlong into the fray instead.

“For Corporal Kajari! Charge!” She shouted, feeling a desperate pang in her heart.

“Oorah!” her comrades shouted back. She could almost feel their own rising spirits too.

Unbeknown to them the Sergeant was not sweating from mere heat and not screaming with h0t-blooded spirit. She was wracked with pain and stress not evident in her voice or mannerisms. She was conditioned to fight on regardless of this; and so she fought on.

Soon as her feet hit the top of the hill she aimed her pistol and laid down fire mid-run, smashing the glass panels of a long basement level window sinking into the lawn at the building’s far wall. Rifle shots rang out between the volleys of her allied machine guns. Tracers swept past her from the door to the Research Library and struck the turf.

There were riflemen stationed at the building’s ground floor doorway, leaning out of the cover of the doorway to fire on her. She felt chips of earth and concrete come flying at her legs and feet as snap shots struck the ground around her as she ran. She did not retaliate.

She was part of the maneuver group, and so she bounded forward. Others would cover her.

Behind her, three riflemen peeled from her group, took a knee atop the hill and engaged the enemy, shooting into the hallway partially concealed behind the glass panels and wooden frames of the doors. Well-timed long rifle shots on the door kept the enemy in the hallway from leaning out to fight, temporarily silencing the ground floor’s gunfire.

Machine gun fire flashed out from behind the hill and struck the second floor overhead, sending bits of the masonry and spent lead raining down over the maneuver group. Both the snipers and the ground floor defenders offered only scattered resistance, unable to deny the movements of their advancing enemies. Chadgura raised a fist in the air.

Her covering group saw the gesture and got ready for their new task.

“You saw her! We’re assaulting the front! Grenade out!” a man shouted behind her.

A safety pin clicked off. A can-shaped grenade went flying and rolling over stairway handrails in front of the building. It slipped in between half-open doors into the Library.

Chadgura heard the explosion go off to her side as she made it to the window she shot out. Six of her troops hurried past her, coming in from the hilltop she had left behind. They shouldered their rifles, stacking at the door with pistols, grenades and machetes in hand.

Half her squadron followed her to the corner of the building and crouched with her on the edge of the lawn. Chadgura and three soldiers guarded the broken basement window, while three others crouched and slid inside. From the sounds of it, they had a rough landing. It was an actual drop, from the ground roof to the floor of the basement level. Chadgura could not make out what was directly under them below, and had only a few dozen centimeters-wide glimpse at the long rows of book shelves and ceiling lights.

After a few seconds of low mumbling and groaning the entry team regrouped.

“There’s a table down here that’ll break your fall!” one woman shouted up.

She sounded mildly irritated, and likely still in much pain.

Chadgura unceremoniously ducked under the window and rolled inside herself.

Misjudging the height, she slammed side-first into the aforementioned table.

Very real pain shot through her whole body, and she felt the wind go out of her.

Her face contorted subtly, and her movements were sluggish, shaken.

None of her own self would allow her to really emote, to cry out or gnash her teeth.

Instead, stone-faced, she struggled to her feet, silently shaking.

Partially standing from the table, she raised her hands and clapped them softly.

Behind her, the two remaining soldiers dropped clumsily inside and landed hard on the tiled floor behind the table, missing the mark altogether. Neither recovered very quickly.

They had all landed in a small reading area surrounded by the basement’s shelves.

There was little time to take in the surroundings. Becoming stuck in here would spell death. Upstairs, they heard the sounds of individual shots fired, audible beneath the cacophony of the machine guns and snipers dueling outside. That must have been the ground floor team, engaging the enemy. Chadgura had no rifle, and ordered those who did to either shoulder it or affix bayonets. One woman had a submachine gun. Everyone else switched to their pistols — the bundu was too long to wield in confined spaces.

Chadgura withdrew a machete from her belt.

She wielded it one hand with an automatic pistol in the other.

Raising it like a cavalry sword, she ordered her fire team to hug the basement wall and follow it through the shelves. Two soldiers with bayonets led the team, followed by the submachine gunner, and Chadgura near the rear with the rest of the team. On one side they had a stark white wall, and on the other the long lines of black shelves filled with labeled books. At any point an enemy with an automatic weapon could have turned that cramped lane into a killing field, but none did. Chadgura’s group followed the wall down to a corner, and turned into another reading area that was also empty. There was a recess with a staircase inside, as well as an elevator. Chadgura did not trust the latter to be safe.

“Up the stairs. Private Ngebe, you first.”

She nodded to the submachine gunner, who nodded back. Ngebe was a bright-eyed, curly-haired girl that seemed ill at ease, but she was as trained as anyone there. Despite the perplexed look on her face, Ngebe carried out her duties well. Stepping carefully toward the recess, the submachine gunner stacked against the outer wall, quickly leaned in with her weapon to scout the room, and then proceeded inside carefully. Chadgura and the rest of the team followed, keeping out of sight of the staircase steps until Private Ngebe had taken a step and raised her weapon to the next landing. She raised her hand and urged them forward. Carefully, the team ascended the steps, keeping watchful eyes overhead.

An automatic weapon was vital to command access to obstacles like staircases.

But it seemed the enemy had not thought to defend the basement at all.

No sentries, no mines or traps, not even a locked door.

At the top of the stairs, Ngebe and Chadgura simply burst through an unlocked door and immediately joined the ground floor battle from directly behind the enemy defenses.

They entered a square lobby connecting the front hallway to the building proper. Behind a desk reinforced with sandbags a Khroda machine gun blasted the hallway and forced the entry team to duck behind the narrow strip of brick supporting the interior doorway. Already the door itself had been shredded. Three enemies crouched behind the reinforced desk, and a fourth man well inside the room directed the gunfire from within a stairwell.

Chadgura raised her pistol and shot this last man first, striking the side of his head.

He had barely hit the ground dead when Private Ngebe turned her gun on the desk.

She winced anxiously as she held down the trigger and hosed the defenders down.

Nothing that could be called battle unfolded from this — stricken by a hail of automatic gunfire at their backs, circumventing all of their protections, the defenders collapsed suddenly, their bodies riddled with bullets. Blood pooled over the sandbags and splashed the interior of the Khroda’s metal shield. In an instant the room grew dead silent.

The Sergeant wasted no time contemplating the scene.

“Entry team, form up!” Chadgura ordered.

From the hallway, the entry team crossed inside over the bits of door debris.

Now Chadgura had her whole squadron back, and without casualties.

She picked out one man and urged him out the door. “Go outside and signal for the rest to move in. We’ll advance upstairs to the main library.” Nodding, the man hurried out to do as he was told. Chadgura turned her attention to the rest of the squadron. “Reserves will sweep and hold the ground floor, while we secure the rest of the building. Move out.”

Clapping her hands — for effect rather than anxiety — Chadgura and her squadron inspected the stairways up to the second floor with the same caution that they approached the ones from the basement to the ground floor. Submachine gunners approached first, poised as they were to defend themselves from ambush with automatic gunfire. There were two staircases from the lobby, on opposite sides. Chadgura split her squadron into two fire teams and then she accompanied her original team up the leftmost stairway.

Quietly and carefully as they could, the squadron climbed each step without incident.

At the top, Chadgura and Private Ngebe left the stairwell first.

Soon as Chadgura set foot on the second floor landing a bullet struck the wall just a centimeter off from her cheek. She felt the force of the impact and winced. Though the mental shock was muted, the response from her body was visibly the same as anyone’s.

Chadgura ducked blindly behind the frame of stairwell opening to avoid the attack.

Several more rifle rounds flew past her. She heard a wet choking sound follow.

“Throw a grenade!” She ordered.

Some suppressed portion of her brain wanted to turn that into a visceral, echoing scream, but the words came out as a dull, slightly higher pitched cry that was still typical to her.

Nevertheless, she heard that grenade go flying out, thrown from the stairwell.

There was a deafening blast several dozen meters outside.

Chadgura waited a few seconds before leaning out and firing her pistol into the room.

Through the thinning smoke she caught a glimpse of where they were.

Ahead of them stretched a vast and broad room that seemed to encompass the entire floor. There were hundreds of shelves full of books to either side of a broad central space with tables and lamps. Many tables had been flipped over for cover. Several that had been stacked close to form a barricade in the center of the room had been blown to pieces by the grenade, killing and exposing the riflemen hidden behind them. There were men behind the tables, men hiding among the shelves, and a few men running between positions.

Behind her, one of her own men had been shot and was dragged downstairs. There was little room to hide or maneuver in the stairwell; most of her squadron was hidden down the steps. Private Ngebe was hiding behind the stairwell doorframe on the side opposite Chadgura’s own. This was the only place she could fit into and only one person could fit.

Chadgura could almost make out her remaining squadron on the far side of the room.

There were fewer positions opposing them than those opposing her.

Flipping on her radio pack, she called out, “Section, attack the central defenses!”

She waved to Private Ngebe, and reloaded her pistol.

At her signal, both of them leaned out and engaged the central defenses. Chadgura’s pistol was automatic, and the same caliber pistol round as Private Ngebe’s submachine gun, but its rate of fire was much lesser. Her fire flew in fits and starts, striking tables and floors and bookshelves inaccurately; Private Ngebe’s gunfire was continuous and accurate, fired from the shoulder, sweeping over the enemy’s cover and along its edges and forcing the defenders of the central position to cower in fear of being stricken wherever could be seen.

Cower they did, but only momentarily.

Seconds into Chadgura’s attack, from behind the defenders the second fireteam started shooting. A second submachine gun burned its ammunition, and this one had little to contend with and a likely unintruded view of the enemy’s backs. Pistols joined the volley and the volume of gunfire saturated the area. Suddenly the enemy found themselves enfiladed, caught between two pincers of brutal automatic fire. Chadgura could not see through the tables facing her, but she saw small holes punctured in the wooden cover; she heard the screams and shouts; she saw blood spatter, and saw wounded men trying to run.

Private Ngebe’s gun clicked empty, and she ducked behind the doorframe to reload.

Chadgura ducked behind as well.

Out in the library the gunfire did not abate.

Over the radio, Chadgura heard a man cry, “Grenade out! Take cover!”

This was soon followed by a blast in the middle of the room.

When Chadgura peeked out of the doorframe again, she found the barricade of upturned tables scattered in pieces, blown apart into bullet-riddled debris over isolated corpses and spreading pools of blood. There was not a living man still deluded enough to take cover in the mess. All of them had dispersed into the ranks of shelves, putting anything between themselves and the omnidirectional killing field the center of the library had become.

Chadgura grabbed hold of her microphone and shouted, as much as she could, “All units advance and clear the room! Shoot through the shelves! Don’t let them regroup!”

From behind her, the soldiers ducking down the steps came charging out.

Raising her pistol, Chadgura rushed out with them, and Ngebe followed.

Dispersing across the width of the room the column advanced. Pistols flashed repeatedly, shooting diagonally through the ranks of shelving units to avoid hitting their counterparts across the room. Lines of red tracers punched through books and wooden shelves and sent paper flying into the air. There was no resistance. Two submachine guns and a half-dozen automatic pistols systematically laid waste to the room, cutting a swathe across what seemed like a hundred rows of shelves each towering over the bloodshed. Rifle-caliber fire from the bayonet-bearing bundu punched through several shelves at once with each shot.

Within moments the last shot was fired and there were no sounds of resistance.

Checking between each row they found blood and bodies, some dead, many wounded.

Pleas of surrender went out from those still alive enough to know their plight

Papers soared and glided through the air like a cloud of white and yellow butterflies, stacking on the floor wherever they fell, turning crimson where there was blood. Several damaged shelves collapsed spontaneously as if awaiting the end of the violence. There was a partial domino effect on one end of the room, a dozen shelves falling over and crushing several men beneath their bulk; Chadgura’s forces steered clear of this as they marched.

Regrouping in the center of the room, Green Squadron exchanged clear reports.

Once sure that the situation was well in hand, Chadgura called over the radio.

“Second floor clear. Ground team, what’s your status?”

“Ground looks clear so far Sergeant. Should we join up?” one of the men responded.

“Send four of you. Everyone else barricade the basement and guard the lobby.”

After clearing the room, Chadgura completed her picture of its layout. She found the accursed second floor windows that she was being shot from earlier, vacant, at least one abandoned machine gun left lying there. And she found the next set of stairs, and once more stacked up at the stairwell. Ngebe took the lead again, and again Chadgura followed her up. Six fresh soldiers including four from the ground team followed behind her.

This time they were more cautious, and peered into the upper floor before fully climbing up the stairs. Nobody was shooting at the landing. In fact nobody was out in the open in the third floor. There was only a long hallway with closed doors to a dozen rooms. Austere brown carpets and beige walls, windowless showed no sign of tampering. Still, Chadgura was not going to take any chances. She called the ground floor and had a package brought.

On the closest and farthest doors explosives were quietly affixed.

Wire was drawn back to the stairwell.

Chadgura and her team hid, counted, and electrically set off the bombs.

In quick succession four blasts blew through the room.

Doors blew off their hinges and walls partially crumbled. Fires danced over splintered wooden supports and burnt carpet. Smoke swept across the hallway and into the rooms. Dust sifted from the cracked roof shimmering with the rays of the rising morning sun outside, while splintered walls unveiled the clouded remains of reading rooms.

“Clear the rooms.” Chadgura ordered.

Nodding heads; her soldiers donned gas masks and quickly spread among the doors and through the holes in the walls. Chadgura donned her mask and followed Ngebe into one of the nearest doors, pistol on hand. Behind the smashed doorway she found a room full of injured men and women, their weapons discarded or broken, coughing and choking with every wound conceivable from broken bones to missing fingers and limbs and cuts and bruises of all kinds, disoriented and mildly burned and concussed and dazed by the blasts. They crawled under upturned tables, behind fallen shelves and smashed file cabinets.

Across the floor, Chadgura heard the cries of “Clear!” come echoing from every corner.

She wandered through the debris and bodies, feeling nothing for them.

Her heart was always a little dull; today it was absent entirely.

It was somewhere else, with another person, one who needed it more.

“All clear.” She called on the radio. “Send medics up. We’ve got a lot of enemy wounded in grave need of treatment. Tell the ambulance and supply trucks it’s okay to move in.”

University Avenue was conquered, and now they had a castle from which to guard the Main Street. They were only a step from Muhimu Shimba. It felt like they had been fighting for days, but in reality a handful of hours passed. It was not even the proper time for lunch.

Chadgura started out of the building posthaste.

She feared that if she stopped moving, she would have gone back to her.

And though she wanted nothing more to stare at Gulab, to see her rest angelic and to suffer with her every second that she was not awake and aware among them, Chadgura knew that Gulab would not be safe until Muhimu Shimba was taken. She had to move.

“Orange squadron and Purple squadron move up, with me. We’re on the attack.”


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First Blood (52.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

“G-1 this is Thunder actual, report.”

Behind the sandbag wall guarding the approach to the base gate, a soldier of the 8th Division’s “Lion Battalion” answered the radio. His response was swift: there had been no activity from the 1st Motor Rifles all night. He had at times seen flickers of movement, shades in the dark, but for all he knew it was his eyes tricking him. His enemy was invisible to him.

Across the street from his position there was a brick wall about five meters tall topped with metal spears. Barbed wire wound between each spear and barred entry to prospective climbers. These walls fully encircled the base save for a pair of gates: the one before him, and one facing north. They were strong steel-barred gates topped with barbed wire. Past the gate stood a pair of concrete structures for the gate guards, and then a road that wound down in the base proper. Quite distantly, if he squinted, the radio officer could see nondescript buildings, bereft of people.

“G-1, maintain a high alert. We’re reinforcing your position soon.”

With those words, the platoon commander became silent anew.

This was only the second set of orders G-1 had been given.

The radio-man felt like they were all being sacrificed to give an early warning of 1st Regiment activity. He looked around himself for support.

At his side, a young woman grabbed hold of the padded handles on the sides of a Khroda water-cooled machine gun, keeping the gun raised on the gate barring them from their old barracks. She was tense; her grip on the handles was stiff and rigid. Crouching behind the sandbags were eight riflemen, armed with a single grenade and a Bundu rifle with 100 rounds. In the middle of the night two men and two women had run in from around the corner carrying a light mortar in three pieces. It had been assembled just behind the bus bench, and they crouched around it.

“We may be getting reinforcements soon.” said the radio man.

“Thank the ancestors for that!” replied the machine gunner, exasperated.

“No matter how many reinforcements we get there’s still thousands of people in there.” one of the mortar crew said, pointing into the base.

“It’s fine, they haven’t moved.” said the radio man. “Once the governor gives the go-ahead we’ll surround them and that’ll be the end of it. They had their chance to attack and they didn’t all night. We’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, these folk ain’t Nocht.” said one of the riflemen.

Everyone went silent then. The rifleman’s clumsy implication was that the 1st Regiment was full of weak Ayvartans like themselves who had been bested by Nocht before. But that was not entirely true. For one, the 1st Regiment had defeated Nocht before. And most importantly, the 8th Division was, in a way, affiliated with Nocht. They were like Nocht, now.

Like them in allegiance, in whom they fought against; not in experience or equipment or in numbers, but in the dark deeds they committed.

But the fact was that there was nowhere for them to go but that sandbag wall overlooking the gate. It was either that or a stay in a prison camp, Nochtish or Ayvartan. Or worse. They had thrown their lot in with their own comrades over comrades in the broader sense. Without the mutual support of their dire pact they were nothing, and so, they remained.

So thought the radio man, until the machine gunner stomped her boot.

“Something’s happening!” She called out, holding her gun steady.

Across the road and behind the gate, a thin white mist had begun to spread. At first it the haze was barely noticeable, as thin as a cloud of smoke coming from the tip of a cigarette, blowing away in a gentle wind. Within minutes it had thickened into fog as thick as in a lowland swamp. Behind the bars there was no longer a road or gatehouses, only smoke.

“What do we do? What do we do?” shouted the machine gunner.

Forming a firing line to both sides of her, the riflemen aimed for the gate. Behind them the mortar crew scrambled to rip open the crates for their rounds, which they had not thought to unpack and lay out for use earlier. The radio officer thought his heart would climb out of his throat, so hard was it beating and thrashing in his chest. He mustered the will to speak.

“I’ll call it in.” He shouted back. “Calm down and don’t shoot.”

He lifted the handset to his mouth and switched on broadcasting–

From the speaker in his ear he heard a sharp, horrendous thrashing noise.

Wincing, he put down the handset and grabbed his head in pain.

But the noise was still there, distant, boring in his head. Was it a tinnitus?

He strained to raise eyes toward the gate, and found a black shape moving toward them within the smoke, tall as an elephant and just as broad.

In a split second’s glance the radio man noticed the gate had opened.

Everyone around him was paralyzed with fear.

At the edge of the cloud the black figure paused and shifted its weight.

There was a great thunderous cry and a bright flash that parted smoke.

From the edge of the street a 152mm round cut the distance to the sandbag wall in an instant. Detonating just over the sandbag wall it sent men and sandbags alike flying every which way. Metal sprayed in the faces of the riflemen, blinding and killing them; the machine gunner was flung back from her gun and died from the shock before hitting the floor again.

Surviving the first shot with only deafness and disorientation to account for it, the mortar crew rose from the ground and abandoned the position and their weapon, holding their heads low while hurtling down the street.

Lying on the ground, his stomach speared by an enormous chunk of shell casing, the radio man watched them go. He prayed for their escape with his last breaths; but in his final moments, he saw as a massive vehicle, with a turret like a destroyer’s mounting an absolutely enormous gun.

He did not see the vehicle shoot again.

Instead, seemingly a dozen men and women clinging to the tank’s rear and turret opened fire on the retreating mortar crew and picked them off before they could escape. In his final moments the radio man witnessed the birth of a new kind of Ayvartan warfare, and realized that nobody would know of his death, and that Nakar had dealt first blood.

She was throwing her iron fist right into the gut of the Lion battalion.

On the ground, at his side, the radio was still emitting alien noise.


 

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