Operation Trident (78.1)

14th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E

Helvetia, La Clarté — Demos Palace

For the Helvetian prime minister every hour of every day had by design been filled with a precisely regimented series of tasks, meetings, social functions and the necessity of food and sleep. Her energetic work gave her little time to contemplate herself. When a meeting was cancelled or some other unfortunate event led to unscheduled rest, she occupied herself instead with personal writing. But increasingly, this served only to bring dark thoughts she wanted to avoid to the fore. History brought only depression.

“Fuck! They’ll never understand me. No matter what I do. How can I even say this?”

Whenever she wrote down her thoughts for her future memoirs, Millennia Alsace’s heart filled with anxiety. Her greatest and most concrete fear was that she would be hated and jeered by history for her actions. All of her life she had struggled for power, prestige and attention only; yet now that she found greater calling in life, now was the time when her soul was most in danger. She had begun to write years ago, when she started playing a secret game of chess against the new Lehner administration in the Federation of Northern States. At the time writing was a way to vent to a confidante, for a deeply lonely woman who had nobody she would let herself confide in otherwise.

Now that she had finally taken power, Millennia understood and feared her loneliness more than ever. She knew nobody would understand or sympathize with her and began feverishly penning all of her thoughts and her explanations for herself. This document would be her rebuttal, to last the infinity that would follow from her death.

Destiny was material; that was something she knew too well.

Economy, the brutal calculus sustaining human life, decided everything for a nation.

When historians pored over Millennia’s history to rip apart every sinew left in her corpse, when they tore into her belly to see if she bled red, the same things that drove her to her own actions would be the things by which they judged her. And because she could never deny material reality she could only seek to explain herself, from day zero.

La Clarté was a beautiful city in the center of Helvetia, a large northwestern country that shared the continent of Nobilis with the Kingdom of Lubon, its satellite realm Afarland, and the many so-called Small Kingdoms that lay between them. A gap caused by some ancient rupture spilled the middle ocean in against western Lubon, and carried aloft the island nation of Borelia and the large, rocky, and icy Svecthan Union. Farther adrift from them, the continent of Extremis hosted the massive lands of Kitan, and the islands of the Hanwan archipelago, and many other smaller nations.

Farther south, as if a part of Nobilis that once split off, was the Socialist Dominances of Solstice in the territory of Ayvarta. And a whole world away, split by the ocean known as “The New Sea,” was the continent of Occultis and the wretched Nocht Federation.

Currently, Helvetia and Nocht were connected by the vast northern ice cap of Aer. It was this temporary geographic anomaly that turned Helvetia’s once useless Far North, the “Helvetian Arctic,” into a zone of direct confrontation with the Federation forces. Even as they spoke, Operation Dethrone was being carried out to create a secure beachhead in the Nocht Far North, Loupland, and perhaps decapitate the Federation. With all of its best troops deployed abroad, this was not an impossible dream to have.

“Even if I win, they’ll despise me.” She could almost cry. “They’ll never understand.”

She reached for a bottle of pills and took two, swallowing them with wine.

Millennia Alsace had grown more paranoid about her reputation with each passing year. Even now, while carried by the winds of history to the destiny she knew she had to secure for her country, her mind was filled with anxiety about the future of her own name. The youngest prime minister of the Confederacy, Millennia was viewed as something of a symbol for the new vibrancy of one of the oldest nations on Aer. Invisible to the public in the years leading up to the Solstice War, Millennia stood suddenly out on a grand stage with her peers and captured democracy’s imagination.

She was strikingly beautiful, in the prime of her mid-thirties, with golden hair and sharp blue eyes behind which a keen intellect nestled. A controlled palette and avoidance of vice helped her retain a healthy figure and vibrant skin. She was fashionable and high-end in dress and speech, always dressed in blue, her eyes and lips elegantly made-up.

Part of her popularity had indeed been a fascination with her looks and life creed.

Her propagandists had even marketed a dietary plan around her that became popular.

Nobody had seen her cry in her office, or saw her spirals of despair when she was left alone and unstimulated, trapped with her thoughts and an obsession with redemption.

Millennia was as visible as she wanted to be. She had learned to be that way.

Riding the same wind of global change as brought the Lehner administration to Nocht, Millennia had begun her climb to power three years ago as the youngest head of Helvetia’s largest bank, Le Charité. Economy was power, and Millennia had quietly made a name for herself in finance, as well as suitable connections in politics. Her genius and drive led her to Le Charité. It was there that she first saw the omens.

Thinking about those times, she began to write feverishly in her draft memoirs.

“At ‘Le Charité’ I saw the stark truth of our relationship to the Federation. At the turn of the millennium they were a young and poorly industrialized nation. While the Frankish Kingdom sharing Occultis with the upstart democracy took lavish loans from the old world to finance a program of industrialization, the Federation was comparatively backward. Its conservative government responded to the turmoil of the millennium with austerity and isolationism, and watched as a string of crises destroyed its fleeting international relationships. The Federation did nothing to repair the falling Ayvartan Empire or to stabilize the self-cannibalizing Kingdom of Lubon, their closest allies.”

“When war broke out between the square-jawed agrarians of Nocht and the sleek, regal lords of Franz who had finally come to settle dominance of the continent, Nocht’s days finally seemed numbered. It would join its backwards conservative allies abroad in decay and collapse. And yet, it was Nocht that ultimately unified Occultis. We underestimated the willpower, strength and the fiendish death drive of the Nocht.”

“Economy settles destiny. There is no hiding from the balance of payments. After the war, Nocht took on Franz’ debt but also its industry, which they hoped to spread westward to the rest of Occultis. Helvetia had not gone to war nor faced turmoil. We took advantage of the world’s debts and strengthened our own development with them. Our mass exports of finished goods sold for the valuable resources of other nations, like the high quality iron ores of Occultis and the agricultural products of the south, chiefly vice goods like tobacco, coffee and sugar. We enriched ourselves off the crushing poverty and misery of the post-war world. Having weathered the storm at the turn of the millennium, Helvetia believed it could pacify the world economically.”

“Nocht’s debt and poorly diversified trade would keep it subservient. Lubon’s lack of raw materials other than oil would open them to weaknesses against sanctions. Ayvarta’s revolutionary communism caused it to retreat into an Autarky from which it was impossible for them to ever emerge. Svechtha was the same. Hanwa was a small and weak nation that would never amount to anything. Kitan was too fractious to be a threat. We congratulated ourselves and believed that world peace was achievable once all of these economies interlinked with our own in a way that kept us profiting.”

“For nearly two decades, a brief eighteen or so years, we believed ourselves to be the center of the world. We were the central hub where all monies flowed into and out of. Because of this, we could speak high-handedly about peace, while nobody listened.”

“Patting ourselves on the back as we enriched our trade, we failed to see where the money and power all of these nations did have was being spent. Currency was useless in volume alone, and we failed to see where it was being spent. Nocht’s military infrastructure hid in Lachy and the Pelagos archipelago until its shocking outright annexation of the islands and its unveiling of its new military powers; the Kingdom of Lubon, that had painfully and unwillingly decolonized for the past hundred years by its own atavism and stupidity, formed a new pole in an East-West militarist axis with the Federation that gave it access to steel, machined goods and a market for its refined oil and crucially, for its growing trade in rubber and plastics for use in industrial goods.”

“And then there was the takeover of Bakor and Higwe, which the Federation excused as a policing action. I alone, as head of La Charité, saw the writing on the wall when the new governments of the island nations cut short their trade in chromium and tungsten with us to favor the Federation and Lubon. I alone saw those economic winds leading to military outcomes. The Federation spent a decade reducing imports from us.”

“Nocht then put its Frankish debts essentially on hold with Lubon’s support. Once both nations formed a coalition, they did not need to fear the financial power of Helvetia, for they had broken its material basis of influence in their economies. The Federation and Lubon extricated their economies from our own by expanding their spheres of influence around us in ways that would isolate us to their benefit. All of it leading to–“


Millennia’s fingers trembled when it came to writing the next part of the story.

Historians might argue that none of this meant war.

Economic powers rose greatly and fell miserably. Helvetia did not need, as a human might need food, to fight Nocht and Lubon. Unlike other great merchant nations who were surrounded and marginalized, Helvetia could not be attacked head-on. Its position across seas and mountains from its enemies, and the relative strength of its defense forces even in a time of peace, made it an unfavorable target. Nocht’s navy took severe damage pacifying even the weak nations of Bakor and Higwe, and the Royal Fleet was too valuable for Lubon to risk in idle combat. Nocht’s military relied too heavily on mobility that would be lost in any Helvetian fight. So Helvetia was safe.

Helvetia’s defensive power was the reason that Nocht and Lubon chose to isolate it rather than conquer it outright. Helvetia could easily accept a subservient position in their world order and live in peace, taking measures to sort out financial losses without resorting to any loss of human life, or any intrusion into more sordid world affairs, while continuing to bolster its personal defense and engage in diplomacy. All along, it had deluded itself to thinking it was central to the world and stood high above it, dictating what its future should be. Perhaps this was always an unnecessary dream.

Such a future, however, never entered into Millennia’s mind, or those of her peers.

It was not enough to be a living slave. Millennia wanted Helvetia to be a world leader.

To do this, she knew the instrument had to be war on equal footing with Nocht.

Not just a punishing defense that made them rethink their encirclement.

She needed to defeat them in an offensive war and bring them all to heel.

This, however, was a verboten idea in the Helvetia of the 2020s.

That being said, there was hope to struggle, even if nothing was guaranteed.

Helvetia never demilitarized, no matter how much it spoke of peace. It’s defensive forces were a long-standing institution dating back hundreds of years, and constantly modernizing. However, a defensive creed meant very limited production of offensive hardware like tanks and long-range artillery. Its aircraft stocks swelled with fighters to fend off enemy air attacks, but few bombers to carry them out on other nation’s soil. Naval production continued unabated, seen as necessary to police its crucial trade with the rest of the world, but it focused on surface defense vessels like cruisers and destroyers, rather than offensive submarines, battleships and aircraft carriers.

Any amount of offensive weaponry they could get in three or four years would be key.

With the Federation’s power multiplying and Helvetia finding itself marginalized, as head of Le Charité Millenia began to gravitate toward a group of reformers and radical liberals who sought to prepare Helvetia for the coming storm, illegally and in secret if need be. Millennia was instrumental in the maneuverings of the “Brumerians” and through her position in Le Charité she created financial instruments that laundered money to the Leclerc steelworks, to the Far Northern DuGalle shipyards; Millennia even essentially organized the selling of Far North land to industrial concerns for a pittance. That a few tent-people lived here and there on that ice never stopped her.

Within years, Helvetia had unaccounted for military powers, developed privately. Two retiring heavy cruisers were sold to Leclerc for seemingly no reason, and reappeared in 2029 converted into aircraft carriers, for seemingly no reason again. A new, fully dedicated air carrier design surfaced in mid-2030 from the far northern shipyard. Dumond Aviation took it upon itself to develop bombers that the Defense Forces then bought on the order of Brumerian generals, admirals and senators. Stocks of old artillery and rifles were bought up and refurbished by reservists, all of it disguised as part of a make-work welfare scheme. Five tank divisions, totaling a fleet of 600 tanks, were raised between 2028 and 2030, unofficially as “tractors.” Once their military uses came to light, excuses abounded. They were for testing purposes, of course, and furthermore to keep the Leclerc Steelwork’s “Galician Motor Plant” from folding under the financial pressure of peacetime. It was a Helvetian industrial legacy after all!

Ridiculous as it seemed, each bald-faced lie was a test of a political will that the old guard simply did not possess, and as such they failed to meet each bluff, and the advantages mounted for Millennia’s side. The Brumerians sewed such a mood of conspiracy and distrust that it created its own silence among those who suspected. Meanwhile, for the general public, the late 2020s brought nothing but good things. Helvetia steered out of potential recession even as their global financial position began startlingly to shift, and they curbed unemployment and homelessness.

In order to stick the landing on any of this, however, the Brumerians needed more than minority parliamentary defectors and upper class financers. All of their work could be undone if the Brumes did not succeed in the elections of 2030. Millennia, with Le Charité as her instrument, positioned the Brumerians to take parliament and with it, the Prime Ministership. Money alone could not do it, however. By supporting young iconoclasts who discredited the old government and gave rise to new ideas, she gained the fascination of the people. Then she secured the gains of her revolution.

Far from a small conspiracy of wealthy individuals, the Brumerians built a strong force, tapping into a swell of political change that transformed Helvetia. Much like they did not see Nocht coming, the establishment did not see the Brumerians taking power.

Was it transformational though? Or would Millennia forever be seen as a murderer, who killed all other possibilities for Helvetia with her manipulations and conspiracies?

Destiny presumed an unavoidable outcome.

Yet, Millennia felt haunted by the path not taken.

There was a knock on the door and Millennia sat bolt upright.

She shuffled her papers into her drawer and urged the visitor to come in.

Through the double doors to the Prime Minister’s office, entered an older gentleman, sharp-eared, gray hair slicked back, and with a thinly styled graying mustache. His suit was black, but with a stark red tie like a slice around the base of his neck. He moved with stiffness, like a statue unused to life, but his eyes glided from object to object with alien grace and curiosity. Millennia felt that she was being seen through.

Her guardedness and anxiety raised an octave around the head of the ULTRA group, a revolutionary foreign intelligence group that throughout the late 2020s was Helvetia’s most powerful military potential. To truly understand the rationale of Helvetia, one had to know that ULTRA could see through everything. They gave Helvetia omniscience.

But Millennia was not prime minister just for her looks.

ULTRA’s power was seeing everything; Millennia’s power was being impossible to see.

So she spoke without a hint of everything that had been spiraling in her mind.

“Sanson, to what do I owe the pleasure?” She gave him an elegant smile.

Agent Sanson bowed his head in respect. “ULTRA has established its branch in Solstice. Larissa brokered a deal by which ULTRA would be run out of the embassy and its operations would be independent. Technical information on ULTRA will be classified and no Ayvartan technical personnel will have access to its methodology.”

“Good.” Millennia said. She never felt like such a thing was in question, so she was not impressed. “Has ULTRA provided the Ayvartans with the technical information on the Nochtish aircraft and deployments? I am worried about this air campaign on Solstice.”

As far as they disagreed ideologically, Ayvarta was a necessary part of Millennia’s vision for Helvetia. To succeed economically, they needed a market for high end exports like finished goods, and they required access to raw materials not found in the north, like chromium, tungsten and other rare metals, and petroleum and rubber, which they were currently denied by the economic axis surrounding the Federation. Ayvarta possessed all these things, and as far as Millennia was concerned, the world was wasting the potential of Ayvarta’s land by pushing them out of international trade.

Not only that, but they needed Ayvarta to be their hunting dog for the time being.

While their demilitarized army seemingly lagged in battle power behind even the Helvetian Defense Force, it had a far greater potential when properly developed. Millennia envisioned millions of Ayvartans fending off the hegemonic vision of the Federation; Helvetia was currently unwilling to create such an army themselves. No matter what Millennia said, Helvetia’s people were simply unwilling to die like that.

Even Dethrone was nothing but a show of force to try to galvanize Ayvartan support and buy the communists time to get into the fight. It was all that Helvetia could do.

Agent Sanson was privy to this vision of the world as well. He nodded his head.

“We now possess a quite well-developed line of communications to the Ayvartan SIVIRA of the Supreme High Command, their overarching headquarters. Anything ULTRA knows, Ayvarta will discover quickly enough, I can assure you.” He replied.

“Good. Ayvarta’s electronic capabilities are primitive. ULTRA’s going to be worth more to them than all the yesteryear classes of aircraft we’re lending them.” Millennia said.

Sanson made no expression. “Indeed. On the subject of their electronic capabilities, our agents in Ayvarta would like to make you a proposal, madame Prime Minister.”

Millennia nodded. But she did not like his language. “What does it entail?”

Without any hesitation, Sanson replied. “We would like to turn ULTRA interception against Ayvartan communications as well, and thus gather intelligence on them.”

“Absolutely not!”

At that point Millennia lost some of her composure.

She could not believe that such a reckless and useless course of action was being contemplated by her agents. She was furious. How much time was wasted on this?

“Have you collected any data? Destroy it. I want this reversed immediately.”

“We took no such steps madame. We realize how sensitive this issue is.”

“Then you will do nothing of the sort. Your proposal is denied.”

Sanson tipped his head ever so slightly to nod. “With all due respect madame, I would like to discuss our position with regards to Ayvarta with you, as someone privy to the world’s worth of data on foreign countries, including Ayvarta, prior to this war.”

Millennia wanted to tell him to shut up and leave.

However, she had to put on the facade of someone who would not do so.

“Explain yourself.”

“I believe war with Ayvarta is inevitable.”

Millennia scoffed. “You’re a war dog, is why. I see things quite differently.”

She cared not for the irony of this statement.

“Madame, if Economy is destiny, we will fight Ayvarta at some point.”

“So what is this data you think you have?” She said, pushing him verbally.

“Ayvarta,” Sanson began, taking a deep breath before continuing to speak, far more at length than he had before, “is currently on the same economic path with us as the Nocht Federation took. Right now we are trading in-kind, their oil, rubber and other precious materials for our finished goods, particularly industrial machinery, like cranes, factory equipment, train cars, and various advanced weapons of our design. Our aid allows Ayvarta to act as if it never suffered any industrial shock last year, and helps them focus exclusively on developing more weapons instead of rebuilding industry. However, their industry will eventually recover and expand beyond raw materials.”

“In addition Ayvarta’s goal is full communism. This is their explicit ideology. Currently Ayvarta’s economy is in a stop-gap mode, where currency and wages exist and there’s a controlled exchange of goods and services financially, backed by a centrally planned bureaucratic apparatus with a limited cooperative and local market structure. But this system is, in their rhetoric, supposed to be temporary, as a form of recovery from their wars. Ayvarta’s increasing autarky and welfare programs in the 2020s show the direction they desire to move in. In essence, if Ayvarta achieves its goals, it will create a unipolar economic bloc that will be incompatible with liberal markets like ours.”

“Simply put, eventually Ayvarta will not need our exports while we will continue to need their imports, for we will never have a world leading supply of raw materials here. And furthermore, if Ayvartan communism develops and spreads, it will have the same effect as Nochtish imperialism, and will lock us out of necessary materials anyway.”

“I reject this premise completely.”

After hearing all of his explanation without interruption, Millennia spoke confidently.

“Ayvarta was moved to autarky because the Federation, pre-Brumerian Helvetia and other market powers wanted to choke out their political system. I see no reason to think Ayvarta will bring about some money-less future, much less globalize it. As long as they continue to receive our warmest embrace, I believe they will only liberalize more and more and ultimately they will ease into the current world system as a vast and powerful consumer nation looking to raise its standard of living as easily as it can.”

Ultimately, people accepted what was easiest for them, Millennia thought.

Helvetia would show them the benefits of open trade they had been missing for so long, and after profiting from them, why would Ayvarta turn their backs? Systems eased into what was easiest. Helvetia found it impossible to exist as a pacifist power and so it resorted to war. Ayvarta would emerge a destroyed nation and require the world’s aid to recover from it. Millennia believed they could achieve a symbiosis by focusing Ayvarta on its vast raw materials and pleasing them with cheap goods. Unlike the Federation, Ayvarta had no debts to shirk and no source of animosity to revenge. They had all the raw material they needed, so they did not have to expand through conquest. Their political system was inwardly stable enough so they needed no adventures to distract them. All they ever wanted, she thought, was the world’s consent to be allowed to live, and in exchange all they ever got was the world’s contempt. Remove that contempt, replace it with peerage, and you pacify them.

Things could turn out differently this time if a strong Helvetia made them different.

Sanson made no expression as he responded.

“I apologize madame. Clearly your own vision is also well thought out. I have another proposal, this time from the military. It may be more palatable to your current views.”

Millennia was again immediately skeptical of him.

“Continue.” She said.

Again, despite the gravity of his words, Agent Sanson’s expression changed little. His tone of voice did not even slightly deviate from its smooth and confident affect.

“ULTRA’s homeland operations have given us a clear picture of the military weakness of the small kingdoms to our east, particularly Mauricia. Mauricia is a humble local source of petroleum and minerals. I have it on good information the new Brumerian generals in GQG will soon draft a plan for an invasion of Mauricia, under the name of protecting our neighbor from the influence of the Allies. It may give us some leverage with the Ayvartans and open a path to a future Pact attack on Lubon. Consider it.”

Sanson bowed deeply. Millennia exhaled quietly and covertly.

“I will consider it.” She said.

This was no secret. Millennia herself had thought about Mauricia for years.

It was as good as done.

‘For World Peace,’ they would say. And it would be true.

World Peace just looked different these days.

Agent Sanson took his leave, and Millennia was left wondering at her desk.

What would Ayvarta look like if they all survived this war?

Could Ayvarta survive this war at all?

She looked out her window at the clear, unbroken blue sky overhead.

In all aspects military, the Nocht Federation, those square-jawed agrarian savages, were the superiors of everyone in the world. In technology and the will to employ it.

The Federation’s air campaign would test Ayvarta’s resolve to keep fighting.

All Millennia could do was watch from afar for them to prove themselves or not.

“I’ve enough futures to worry about with just my own.” She told herself, sighing deeply.

After all — what would Helvetia look like if they survived this war?

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Sickle Airfield

Later in the morning an alarm sounded across Sickle Airfield. Malik was quite startled. She raised her head from the math book she had been finally perusing, and took off from the barracks when she heard Vulture squadron being called to the runway at 13 for a meeting. She felt a nervous pressure in her chest. Anada had not returned yet.

“Malik, go change! Where’s Anada?”

Captain Sheba called out to her when she arrived. She and Homa had donned their pilot’s suits. On the runway, there was a flurry of activity. Led by Mannan, whose breasts were out as she was half-way dressing up in her suit and half-way directing the effort, the mechanics pushed out several aircraft and fitted launch rails and opened up the wing plates in order to quickly wire the rails up to the launch triggers.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know!” Malik replied.

Homa shook her head, sighing with exasperation at the missing Anada.

“Alright,” Sheba said, gloom taking over her face, “go change! We have a mission!”

Malik nodded ran into the hangar and dressed up by herself in her private corner.

When she came out, Anada was still nowhere to be seen. A pair of base workers pushed a cart over to the mechanics, containing crates of secured aircraft rockets. Mannan, now finally fully dressed in her pilot suit, helped them lift the missiles. All of these were installed onto the rails. Vulture’s five Garuda I’s were equipped with the rockets. The Bennu had nothing installed. Janjid was even standing guard over it as if anxious about the sudden flooding of the runway with mechanics and technicians.

“General Nakar is holding a briefing in the hangar. Hurry!”

Captain Sheba called out to the Vultures on the runway.

Malik looked around, hoping to see Anada coming from somewhere out there.

She waited a minute, standing out of the way and looking in every direction until she could not afford to wait any longer. Everyone else had gone in, and Malik had to follow.

Hangar 13’s main floor had been cleared out with all the planes and tools in the runway. For the first time since Malik had joined the army air service, there were many more people than just the Vultures in the hangar. She counted twenty additional pilots before she stopped, and realized there must have been two other full squadrons.

As she settled into the crowd, Malik spotted Abeer and Parveen, the leading pair of Ibis squadron, at the head of one group of pilots. Homa and Sheba stood opposite them, and amid the ring of pilots stood General Madiha Nakar, flanked by her secretary Parinita Maharina and a blue-uniformed, blond man with slightly pointed ears. Behind them, something was scrawled on the wheeled chalkboard that Sheba used in her own briefings. Malik could make out a drawing of a bomber with something under it.

The Vultures assembled together roughly in the center of the crowd.

“Is that an elf?” Sayyid asked. She pointed surreptitiously at the blue-uniformed man.

“Oui, you could say that.” Marcy replied. “I believe he is from Helvetian intelligence. We are relatives of the elves, you could say. But we Helvetians prefer not to be called as such. Lubon has turned that moniker into a supremacist concept we don’t approve of.”

“Helvetian, huh? He’s Helvetian?” Sayyid asked.

“Of course he is.” Mannan said exasperatedly.

Sayyid, with an interested expression, pointed at their own Helvetian comrade.

“Then, Marcy, are your ears like that too?”

Because of the way her hair framed her face, Marcy’s ears were not readily visible.

When prompted, their Helvetian teammate lifted and tossed her hair gently, winking one eye with a sultry smile. Briefly visible were a pair of slightly pointed ears, elvish but not quite as sharp as the ones belonging to the Helvetian agent beside the General.

“Amazing.” Sayyid said, staring with renewed attention at Marcy.

Merci beaucoup.” Marcy said, a coquettish expression on her face.

At that point Captain Sheba raised a finger to her lips and shushed them.

Ahead of them, the General stood forward, and Maharani and the Helvetian cleared away from the board. With a pointer in her hand, General Nakar tapped on the board.

“Ibis squadron, Crane squadron and Vulture squadron.” She began. “All three of your squadrons, totaling 30 aircraft, have been called to collaborate on our most pressing interception mission to date in the battle for Solstice. This will be your opponent.”

On the board was a rough chalk drawing of a bomber with some kind of structure under it housing what seemed like a gun barrel. It was like a flying, upside down tank.

Abeer whistled. “Ma’am, does that board really say 30 meter wingspan?”

“It’s an estimation, but yes.” General Nakar said. “This is the Hierophant-class artillery bomber. Helvetia’s ULTRA intelligence bureau alerted us to the presence of this craft in Dbagbo last night and shared its specifications with us. Unfortunately, we did not expect it to be employed this quickly, since it seemed like a cumbersome project. Originally intended as an anti-ship weapon, the Hierophant-class bomber sports a 102 millimeter gun drawn from a Federation destroyer turret. It has a maximum range of 15 kilometers, more than most ground artillery currently in Federation service in Ayvarta.”

General Nakar pointed at the superstructure mounting the gun under the bomber.

“It is installed on what I assume is a limited-traverse mount replacing the bomb bay and it is likely they have realized it has more uses than shipping harassment. This morning the remaining operable Kucha spotting station spotted several Hierophant in flight. We have reports that the Hierophant are flying alongside 40 to 50 ‘Crossbow-class’ twin-engine escorts. Since the original spotting, the Hierophant battlegroup has been making mincemeat of observation stations and anti-aircraft positions in the desert. Judging by its previous targets, the battlegroup is merely flying in a straight line directly to Solstice. Make no mistake, this is meant to be a blunt show of force.”

Parinita Maharani flipped the chalkboard to reveal a plan drawn on the other side. There were a few words written on it, like “Canary,” “Trident,” and “Vajra.” A few drawings of aircraft formations were accompanied by a series of altitude markings.

“We scrambled an initial response a few minutes after the sighting. Canary squadron intercepted the Hierophant group, but their weapons proved ineffective in bringing down the bombers, and they were overwhelmed by the enemy escorts. They brought down a few Crossbows and even an accompanying Wizard, but the Hierophants were too heavily armored. Canary retreated with two regrettable losses, but they learned crucial information, such as the altitude and the relatively slow speed of the group.”

Malik blinked. She felt her heart sink at the idea of an enemy too armored for the standard weapons of the Garuda I-bis’ that they all flew. What kind of monster plane could just ignore a 20 mm cannon? She realized the rockets must be the solution.

General Nakar pointed to the altitude markers. “Based on our observations of the enemy, we believe they mean to employ the following strategy. When last observed, the Hierophants were flying 2000 meters off the ground. Due to Nocht’s current lack of sophisticated navigation equipment in the air, I believe they need to reorient themselves close to the ground to insure they are flying toward Solstice. So that might explain their initial approach. Now that they’ve been attacked I expect they will climb. Because a Hierophant is much heavier than the Wizards it is based on, the Hierophant needs to climb slowly and steadily. They will likely aim for an altitude beyond our interception ceiling. Our guess is 12000 to 15000 meters. At that point, they will be able to safely reach the attack distance of the mounted 102 mm cannons and, pointed directly at Solstice, will continuously fire on the city until they are out of ammunition.”

At that point, officer Parinita Maharani took over explanations for General Nakar, in a perfectly choreographed verbal baton pass. “We’ve been developing high altitude countermeasures just in case, but they are not yet ready. By our calculations, if they are allowed to climb past our ceiling, five Hierophants in the group will shell Solstice to the tune of 300 rounds of explosive ammunition before departing. We don’t believe this will result in significant industrial damage, but this is clearly intended as a terror attack against civilians. Nocht cannot possibly fire accurately with this strategy.”

“Right now,” General Nakar took the floor once again. “We believe the Hierophants are on course to shell the surroundings of Sickle Airbase up to the government sector.”

“Of course, we can’t take such a thing lying down, can we?” Maharani smiled.

“Not a chance!” General Nakar said. She smiled defiantly and pointed at the board. “Since being informed of the Hierophant I’ve been hard at work devising a counter. Operation Trident will be a three-stage, joint air and land defense of Solstice!”

Parinita Maharani seemed energized by her superior’s confidence. When next she spoke she had a hint of a saleswoman’s enthusiasm for the plan she was describing. “Trident’s operational area will involve three anti-aircraft positions ending at the town of Apsara. Once attacked in force, the Hierophants will likely accelerate their climb. Should they do so, they will be out of reach around the Oasis of Rapat. Crane and Ibis squadron’s main objective is to keep the fighters busy or drive them away. Vulture squadron and the ground forces will engage the Hierophants with everything they’ve got: anti-aircraft rockets have been installed on Vulture’s craft, and I believe the Experimental craft was modified to have a 37 mm gun that could work. Our ground forces will attack with 76 mm and 85 mm artillery. We have a final resort at Apsaras.”

For the more technical explanations, General Nakar took over once more. She pointed at a chalk outline of a bomber, facing head on, and a second one of the bomber’s flanks. “Vulture Squadron will constitute our principal striking power. Five of Vulture’s aircraft are equipped with heavy rockets, so each craft is tasked with taking down one Hierophant. Lieutenant Champeaux-Challigne will provide support, and Baumann will help the strikers approach using her speed and reputation to draw away enemy fire.”

Homa crossed her arms and grumbled. “Reputation?”

Parinita Maharani grinned gently. “You think they haven’t noticed you yet?”

General Nakar nodded. “According to ULTRA, the enemy has been discussing the deployment of an Ayvartan jet-based fighter with trepidation. You’re on their hit list.”

“Oh, great.” Homa mumbled.

“At any rate,” General Nakar continued the briefing. “The Hierophant is defended by the standard Wizard ventral and dorsal machine guns. Be careful of their fire as you approach the Hierophant. Attack when it is distracted. Because the A.A. Rockets are unguided, to insure a hit, you should try to fly perpendicular to the Hierophant’s flank, and line up the rockets over the wing and to the upper fuselage. In desperation, diving can also work. But the more angled your craft is compared to the target, the more difficult it will be for you to land a hit. We can’t help that, so use your better judgment.”

Malik felt like her head would spin looking at the diagram and hearing the instructions.

“While the Hierophant’s wings and fuselage have incorporated more plate than we anticipated, I suspect that it remains vulnerable to 20mm cannon fire in two key areas.” General Nakar pointed at the drawings again. “Attacking head-on, you can strike the propeller engines. From the flank, you can try the starboard escape hatch. You can also fire on the defensive turrets, but they are isolated, so it won’t do much.”

After her explanation, General Nakar struck the palm of her own hand with the pointer.

“Any questions? Time is of the essence, but the Hierophant’s slow speed is working to our advantage in that regard. Our foe won’t hit the operational area for thirty minutes.”

One hand went up from the left-hand side of the group, the pilots belonging to Ibis squadron. Abeer looked enthusiastic, jumping up and down as he called for the General’s attention. At his side, Parveen was collecting his long hair into a bun and shaking his head at the antics of his partner. Several other men and women around them were discussing the mission among themselves in barely audible whispers.

“Ma’am, you said the entire escort force is composed of twin engine fighters? Can we expect that single engine Archers might join the battle at any point?” Abeer said.

“Good question.” General Nakar said. “Nocht’s forward air bases in the desert are able to deploy Archers with the range to escort bombers to the 15 kilometer zone around Solstice before having to return. They can get to Solstice within forty to fifty minutes, so unless they fly out right now, I wouldn’t expect it. Keep your guard up in any case.”

“Yes ma’am, thank you. Honestly, this seems like it will be a cinch.” Abeer said.

“A cinch? For you, maybe,”

Captain Sheba curled a lock of hair around her finger, looking nervous.

“Oh, come now, don’t fret.” Abeer said. “You Vulture girls are our lucky charm!”

Sheba grunted. “Just keep those fighters off of us.”

At Sheba’s side, a young woman appeared from the crowd of pilots and raised her hand to ask a question. She was Crane’s lead pilot, Lotus Rajavari. She was slightly shorter than Sheba, with wavy black shoulder-length hair and rich brown skin. Dark flecks dotted the skin around her nose. Malik had heard that, despite Ibis’ reputation as the combined best squadron in Sickle, Crane had the best pilot, Lotus herself.

“Ma’am, if the Hierophant is that big and slow, and has that much trouble climbing, how did it get up in the air in the first place? How do we know we aren’t miscalculating and it’s faster than we believe?” She asked. At her side, a sheepish-looking pilot, likely her companion, tried to hold her back. Lotus had been taking a step forward with every word she said, and would’ve gone out to the General had she not been stopped.

General Nakar seemed unfazed by this strange mannerism. “The Hierophant probably launched from Kubera Air Base in central Dbagbo. It would have the infrastructure for some kind of assisted launch. We don’t know exactly what just yet, but it’s possible. This also explains the twin-engine escorts. No Archers launched from Kubera would ever reach Solstice, so for the Hierophant to have a native escort from Dbagbo, it needed Crossbows. Had they been able to launch it closer, they would have, I’m sure.”

“Fair enough. Good luck out there, everyone!” Lotus cheered, waving both her hands.

Captain Sheba then raised her own hand. General Nakar noded her head at her.

“Ma’am, with all due respect to our comrades from abroad,” Sheba tipped her head to the side, to gesture toward Marcy, “how do we know the information from Helvetia is accurate? If their specifications are wrong, that would gravely endanger my pilots.”

Behind Parinita and General Nakar, the Helvetian informant adjusted his hat idly.

“ULTRA’s methodology is classified, but every piece of intelligence we have received from them has been actionable. This is not their first outing with us.” General Nakar said. “I am not assigning you this task without having given it thorough consideration.”

“Thank you ma’am.”

Clearly Captain Sheba was not satisfied with that response, but there was nothing she could do. When they all heard that General Nakar had interest in their squadron, no one could have guessed she would give them such an important role in her planning. Vulture as the main attacking element in a plot to defend Solstice from a new enemy weapon; who could have foreseen such a thing? Vulture wasn’t even up to strength!

“Alright, that’s the end of the briefing. I’m giving permission to coordinate over the radio. Get out there and commence Operation Trident! Destroy the Hierophants!”

General Nakar raised a fist up into the air dramatically.

Around her, the pilots cheered and raised their own fists to join her.

Everyone began to disperse, running to their own groups and then to their planes.

Malik turned her head, giving one last look around the hangar–

Through the hangar door, swimming against the throng of pilots moving out, she spotted the cat-like ears of Avana Anada, standing on end. After she made her way through the pilots, she ran a short way to stand before her comrades in Vulture squadron, bending nearly double and gasping with effort. She had clearly been running for far longer than they had seen. She was soaked in sweat, and her hair bun was shaken undone, her hair falling in disheveled brown locks around her shoulders.

“Captain, I’m so sorry.” She said, out of breath. “I was– I was trying to–“

Clearly the cat-kin lieutenant was too exhausted to explain herself quickly.

Sheba sighed. “Get dressed! I’ll explain the mission while you do. Everyone else, go!”

Anada, still bending over, turned her head and gave Malik a little smile, a feeble glance.

“Ha– Hari– Haritha– I got you–“

Malik smiled back, and patted Anada on the shoulder.

“Go with the Captain. We’ll talk when we get back from the mission, okay?” She said.

Captain Sheba looked between the two of them with brows raised in suspicion.

Without waiting for Anada’s ragged voice to answer, Malik turned around and walked away. She could feel Anada’s longing gaze at her back, but this was enough for her now. She sighed inside, feeling relief that Anada had returned in time, and was safe. Now was clearly not the time to have their talk. Solstice’s skies awaited them again.

An explanation could wait until after the mission.

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