This chapter 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.
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, everything was simply okay for them.
City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks, Madiha’s HQ
“Have you gathered your forces? Good, thank you! Hold your positions for now! No, don’t attack the 8th Division. Let them handle the air attack however they desire, alone.”
She pulled off her headset for a moment, sighed deeply, and nodded toward Parinita.
“I want to talk to the Majors directly, now that the independent units are accounted for.”
Smiling, Parinita, began to search their channels of communication for Major Burundi.
Sitting on her wheelchair behind a high sandbag wall, alongside Parinita manning a radio on a folding table, Madiha awaited re-connection with one of her officers, hoping to reestablish the cohesion the Regiment had lost in the scramble. At all times the sky overhead was a reminder of their less than ideal situation. Aircraft, the great killer of infantry in this new age of warfare; all across the city her units nearly choked from this unwelcome surprise. There had been unauthorized retreats, people fleeing into buildings for cover, abandoning weaponry in the face of a bombing onslaught that never came.
She cursed under her breath. It was the one thing she had not prepared them for.
“Major Burundi? Major?”
Madiha turned her head from the sky and back to her lover and secretary.
“This is Chief Maharani. Are you there? Hold on, I’m stabilizing the audio.”
Parinita fiddled with the radio, and seemed satisfied with the connection.
Smiling and nodding, she handed the headset back to Madiha.
Madiha took the set and acknowledged her subordinate. “This is Colonel Nakar. Report.”
“Ma’am, apologies for the lack of communication. I’m ashamed to say, I lost control of my troops for a critical moment. We had a lot of folk who weren’t keen on staying in their positions when the air raid began, and everything devolved into chaos even under my personal watch. I will administer on them, and myself, whatever discipline you desire–”
Madiha shook her head to herself, a gesture Burundi obviously could not see.
Parinita made a comforting gesture, still listening in on a secondary handset.
“Major, the shock of Bada Aso is still fresh on my mind. My own will nearly broke under those bombs, and I cannot begrudge anyone their fear of an aerial attack in these conditions. I understand and forgive the instinct of our soldiers. They are still green. But that forgiveness can only extend so far. Rally your forces post-haste, and hold position.”
“Yes ma’am. Thank you. Have you any information on our enemy?”
Madiha and Parinita had been at the radios for nearly half an hour now, pulling together information from every corner of the city they had conquered, from every civilian and non-mutinous government agency still operating and ultimately, put together enough information for a conjecture. Madiha readily shared it with everyone she could reach.
“All of the aircraft overhead are unarmed transports and bombers of the Kingdom of Lubon.” She said. “Some among their number are special gliders, but most are parachute transports. It is an airborne attack meant to deploy troops, likely to create a beachhead for a larger naval deployment. I believe they must have come from the Higwe; they stripped the bombs and armor from the craft for space and weight, and added extra fuel for the journey. They must be making good on their planned alliance with the Nocht Federation.”
“Ancestors defend. We’ll have a hell of a time forming a defensive line against airdrops.”
“We won’t be. Hold position. Once I’ve collected the rest of my troops, I will issue orders.”
“Yes ma’am. Once again, thank you.”
Burundi sounded relieved. Any other military commander might have punished him, even had him shot for incompetence. In all of the history of warfare, a moment’s panic was all it could take to create an instant rout, and a failure of discipline in such conditions was the greatest shame of any officer. Madiha recognized, though, that if she punished every commander who lost cohesion in this dire hour, she would be without any commanders.
Everyone’s troops ran amok for a moment. What mattered now was regrouping quickly.
She could always patch up discipline; as long as she had an army to command at all.
“Parinita, search for Hakan next. Try going back through the frequencies we reserved for the artillery. He may have lost his own radios if his infantry started making a mess of things in his camp. They had the closest contact with Hakan than any other unit.”
“Yes ma’am!” Parinita said.
She was prompt, polite, and cheerful, despite everything happening.
There was a lot of depth to that ‘thank you,’ and perhaps Parinita understood. Madiha was not in the right space of mind to really elaborate on it, but she hoped her partner realized just how much that smile was holding up the crumbling sky above them. Whether or not she knew the feelings bubbling in her lover’s breast, Parinita went to work on the radio immediately. Madiha sat back on her wheelchair, closed her eyes and waited for news.
While her partner worked the dials Madiha continued to pore over the situation.
Burundi was not wrong; the hallmark of a surprise parachute attack on an inexperienced force was usually a panic and a rout. It was a tactic still new and novel and frightening, especially backed by a sky full of intimidating bombers, even ones without a bomb to drop.
Because a paratrooper could drop in any position, forming a coherent defense could become impossible, depending on when the troops dropped, where they dropped, and whether more would be dropping in the future. Elements of the line could become split and isolated. They could be staking their safety on a deployment that was unknowingly already porous and broken; or that could easily become porous and broken in the future.
Madiha reasoned, however, that this deployment was so huge Lubon could not possibly have a thousand other planes to send their way. This had to be it; after these first waves of drops, the planes would be empty and making their escape, while the navy closed in.
It was imperative she destroy the invaders, or escape, before the arrival of the navy.
Thankfully, Madiha did not intend to defend anything. More stubborn or traditional commanders would be forming lines. But from her vantage all of those elven paratroopers arrived conveniently isolated for her. She just had to rush to their landing zones and smash them flat before any of them could link with the others. Until they could coordinate mutual support, the Elves had no Regiments on Ayvartan soil. Platoons were just Platoons by themselves; it was logistics, communications and fire support that turned a Platoon into part of a Company, and a Company into a part of a Battalion, and so on from there.
Paratroopers that were isolated and killed fast enough would thus never grow to become Regiments with commensurate gunnery, logistics and cohesion, to challenge her position.
Madiha fidgeted with her thumbs, drawing in a deep breath. It had to work; it had to.
Offense was the best defense, was it not? Well, it had to be.
“Major Hakan? Come in, Major Hakan! This is Chief Maharani!” She called into the radio.
No response. Parinita moved through the radio booklet, going through the unit lists.
While she worked, the air battle raged under Madiha’s direction, without her involvement.
In the background, all manner of artillery flung shells skyward. Quad machine gun mounts laid down fire on the seemingly thousands of paratroopers dropping, to little visible avail; automatic 35mm guns and slower-firing 57mm, 76mm and 85mm guns fired burning red lances into the sky, several rounds a minute. Crews worked tirelessly, constantly swiveling and elevating and adjusting the guns to meet the enemy. By now the first flights had completely cleared the city, and many had swung away from the interior of Tambwe and doubled back to the sea, crossing Rangda once more. Another chance to shoot them down.
Owing to its neatly centralized position, the headquarters was providing most of the effective anti-air fire across the city. Nearly every shell going out into the sky was going out on her personal instructions. Every other minute Madiha saw a flash in the corner of her eyes and knew a plane had fallen. There was smoke and debris everywhere in the sky, charring the calm blue they had enjoyed all morning and afternoon. Her initial objective had been to fight back in any way possible, fearing an apocalyptic bombing run that would level the city and her army. Any dent she could put in the cloud meant a fighting chance.
She thought that a hundred or two hundred planes must have fallen by now, and yet, the sky looked as thick with enemy aircraft as it had ever been. More debris rained down, but more wings took their place, and more parachutes and more gliders there with them.
“Come in, Hakan, this is Maharani! What is the status of your units?”
Madiha had made a mistake, both in her panicked assessment of the enemy’s intention, and her split second judgment of the enemy’s numbers. This was a rare attack, a paratroop drop, and carried out with an astounding, record-breaking number of planes. Once the unlikely truth became frightfully obvious, the value of anti-air fire dropped precipitously.
With her initial misconception, she had already failed to interdict the bulk of the paratroopers. By first staging a classic air defense against high altitude bombers, instead of reorganizing her troops, she had given up the initiative on preventing the landings altogether. Now she had to play catch-up on the radio. Hundreds of paratroopers had successfully dropped and hundreds more would drop. She could make the environment hostile for them, at least, and every plane crushed now was a plane Lubon would not have earlier. She would make this plan costly for them in every fashion. But not stop it outright.
It was imperative, then, that the ground troops started fighting the noisy elves.
“Major Hakan? Is that you? Yes, she is here!”
Madiha sighed with relief. Hakan had finally answered.
Parinita handed her set over to Madiha, who took over the communications.
“Major, what is your status?”
Hakan sighed over the radio.
“I am afraid that discipline was momentarily lost, and with it, precious time and initiative. In the face of air attack many a commanding position was lost, many a sandbag wall felled in panic, though no enemy has moved to reclaim them. And an enemy now could. Ma’am, I’m afraid to report there are paratroopers falling in the north, east and south of the city.”
“You need not talk to me like a man on the butcher’s block, Major. Gather your forces and you will be fine. The 8th Division will roll out the welcome carpet for most of those Paras.”
Hakan sounded surprised. “I expected a much more irate response, Colonel.”
“Everyone does. But I am quicker to understand than I am to anger, Major.”
“I see that now, ma’am. Thank you for your clemency. What are our orders?”
“For now, hold your position. I’m not going to leave anyone to the elements. Once I have regrouped as many of our forces as I can, we will coordinate an attack with the same cohesion we proudly displayed this morning. Does that sound possible to you?”
She was, in a thinly veiled way, demanding he shape up his troops.
“It will be done, ma’am.” Hakan confidently replied.
“Good. Let our old friends in the 8th Division respond to the elves as they desire. Offer them no battle, and perhaps our two problems will reduce themselves before our eyes.”
She bid her temporary farewell.
“Parinita, we need to contact Shayma El-Amin. I’d hoped the other units would have leads on her, but it appears our communications are much more disparate than I feared.”
Parinita nodded. “I was about to say. Nobody seems to know where anybody is. Until we contacted them all personally, we had no cohesion or mutual support whatsoever in the Regiment. I thought I taught them better than this.” She kinda huffed a little bit.
Madiha smiled. Parinita looked humorously charming when just a touch irate.
“You only taught a handful of people.” Madiha said. “Don’t blame yourself.”
“I suppose so.”
“You did a fine job, but we’re running on a tenth of the radio personnel we should have.”
Parinita sighed. “And who knows how many even remain.”
Madiha tried to smile at her. “Rally, and find me my tanks, Chief Warrant Officer. Your competence has never been in dispute in my headquarters, and you know this.”
Parinita smiled back fondly, and returned to her labors with new determination.
Shayma El-Amin was critical. She had to be found.
Ocean Road, being the main thoroughfare of Rangda, would likely see heavy paratrooper activity. Madiha had to be sure that the bulk of her tanks were safe and rallying. Guns and trucks could be temporarily abandoned and reclaimed. Paratroopers stealing her freshly-supplied tanks would be a disaster she could not recover from. El-Amin was necessary.
“Every tank has a radio, so theoretically, I should be able to blast the general tanker frequency and have someone respond.” Parinita idly said, twiddling the knobs on the radio while holding the headset to her ear. “But I’m doing that and I’m not getting anything. That worries me. I think a lot of our tanks might be abandoned or unmanned, Madiha.”
Madiha bowed her head. That was not good news at all.
“Once Minardo returns from the Engineer’s tent we may have to–”
The Colonel paused upon hearing her partner make a distressed little noise.
Parinita’s hand stopped twitching on the radio control panel, and she put on a focused expression, listening in on something. Madiha turned her way when she saw Parinita flinch. The Chief Warrant Officer, clearly disturbed, finally pulled off the headset after what felt like an eternity of listening to something that seemed loud and disturbing.
“Madiha, Shayma’s been captured. Ocean Road’s in big trouble.” She said grimly.
North Ayvartan Sea — N.D.M. Imperatrix
There was not a plane in the sky over the Elven invasion fleet. The die had been cast.
For better or worse, it was Garzoni’s show to run. There was nothing to do but wait.
Knight Commandant Anna Marlborough removed herself to her quarters in the interior of the ship, feeling a measure of disgust after her encounter with craven Garzoni. Naturally a crowd began to form; the invasion was hectic and everyone sought her counsel, owing both to her aristocratic blood, and her bureaucratic position. But she dismissed all staffers and officers and waved away the men and women who simply wanted a look at her face.
Like many Knights, she was in a dual position, both Lady and War-maker, and as Knight Commandant, she was an Elite among Elites. She was the past and the present, her rank both traditional and new, archaic and yet, thrust into a painful modernity. On the ship, she was not as unapproachable as Garzoni, in his codified, regimented military role.
Anna Marlborough was a woman of her people. But she fought for the Queen’s justice.
That was the simplest way to describe her complicated position, and why in the wake of her cape, there would be supplicants even aboard this steel vessel of modern war.
Once alone, and in her quarters, Anna opened the metal door and found her Shieldmaiden waiting, as she expected. Anna, stone-faced, approached and bowed her head to the shorter woman. Their blue-green eyes met and their long ears twitched just a bit.
The Shieldmaiden craned her head, and Anna met her lips. Though deep and passionate, it was a quick kiss, barely more than a strike and a few seconds’ tug of war between the lovers’ lips; a hint of tongue on the final parting betrayed a repressed appetite behind it.
“How was the star of the show?” Marcia asked.
“A terrible imp, ill fit to swab the decks, much less command the swabbing.”
“You’re ruthless, Anna! So what of his plan?”
“Not much I can do but wait and pick up the pieces.”
Marcia raised a hand over her lips and laughed delicately. They were a study in contrasts.
Anna a tall, stoic, imposing woman with high cheekbones, striking features, long, free golden hair; a classical Elven goddess fit for a bust in the Pantheon. Marcia was a common, cheerful woman, shorter by a head, with mousy brown hair tied in an elegant braided bun. She had rounded features, and a more commonly rural and earthen beauty to her.
As a Shieldmaiden, Marcia did not wear the plate of the Knight. In its place, of course, she would have borne Anna’s shield, exemplifying their bond: the trust Anna placed in her, and Marcia’s support for Anna. Nowadays, for convenience, this only meant an armband in one arm, and a small buckler shield strapped to the other, rather than a tower shield.
“Oh, Anna, I can never tell with you whether you’re dissatisfied with the man or generally dissatisfied with everything around the man.” Marcia said, waving an amicable hand.
Anna blinked, betraying little emotion. “I called him a terrible imp.”
“Well, I suppose that does settle it!” Marcia laughed again.
“But you are correct. The Kingdom is not what it used to be. The Regulars aren’t.”
“No more glory in the office? All goin’ to pot eh?”
“We’re all falling from grace, yes.”
“Speak for yourself; I’m plenty graceful still.”
Marcia talked to her like nobody else did, and Anna loved her so much for it.
They were Knight Commandant and Shieldmaiden, but more important than the tradition, than the past, was their present; the two women who had long loved one another.
More important than the accouterments, was the kiss, and now, the holding of hands.
This was inappropriate, but it was not uncommon. Knights were segregated, and battle forged miraculous bonds; and Knights were once, and still many were, aristocratic. And many in their class would find no love from men. Elven Ladies were given and taken in loveless political arrangements. That had been the way for untold generations.
For them, the tradition gave them freedom and opportunity. Impropriety be damned.
Marcia gave her love; her husband an estate and a name and other dull, material things.
On Marcia’s part, she was unmarried, and gladly remained so. Her life was simpler.
“While you were away, I went over the rosters, and I wanted to ask you something.”
Anna sat down behind her desk, feeling the weight of the armor acutely as she did so.
Marcia sat across from her, and leaned forward, her head resting on her hands.
“Is there a reason you assigned the Lycenia girl to be with the Vittoria girl?”
Anna blinked. “They have been together since basic training, bunked together, trained together in tankery, parachute drops, coastal landing; every course. Why separate them?”
Marcia smiled. “How cold; I can’t believe you don’t see it.”
What on earth was she talking about? Of course, it was usually inevitable for the Knight Commandant to feel something for her Paladins. There were few Paladins among any unit of Knights. Paladins were more than officers; they were adept in every form of warfare. A Paladin could command tanks, could site artillery, could take a beach or cross a river. They were rigorously trained in everything their country could demand of them. And the Knight Commandant picked them and pulled at them personally until they were molded to shape.
She knew Lydia Lycenia, and she knew Gwendolyn Vittoria; what did she not see?
“Don’t they remind you of us?” Marcia asked.
“No. Not at all.” Anna replied.
Marcia was the romantic; Anna could indeed be a little cold, she recognized it.
“Aww. I thought you were trying to give the Vittoria girl a cool-headed, strong female protector that she could fall in love with and have grand adventures with.” Marcia said.
“What? No such thing. The Queen decreed she not be coddled. Front-line service, no protection. Lycenia was assigned to her to increase unit cohesion, nothing more.”
“So cold, chilling cold, like a blizzard.” Marcia replied.
“Don’t bully me.” Anna said.
Marcia looked around the room briefly, as if thinking over what to say next.
As was often the case, when around Anna, her tongue loosened a little far.
“Do you think the Queen wants her cousin to die in battle?”
Anna was quick to rebuke her.
“I think Her Highness desires Gwendolyn prove herself and attain her own glory, rather than coast on the Vittoria name. I think the Queen values our institutions.” Anna said.
Marcia got the hint, and started whistling a ditty as if nothing had happened.
What was worse than her glib attitude, however, was that she was right. Marcia correctly deduced what Anna deemed to be the Kingdom’s fall from grace, exemplified by this operation. Everyone was headed for Ayvartan soil to settle personal agendas and carry out their own plans, rather than to fight and win a war. Anna and Marcia; Gwendolyn and Lydia; even Garzoni, and Varus, and Scipio, and the rest, every Paladin, every General.
Even the Queen, who sent her well-trained but untested cousin to the thick of the enemy.
Ayvarta was not Anna’s triumphal grounds It was an expedient solution to other people’s ambitions. Maybe her own ambitions. Maybe not even a solution at all.
Perhaps that was enough.
It had to be.