The Children’s War (79.6)

This chapter contains explicit violence, death, and mentions of mild self harm.

16th of the Postill’s Dew 2031 D.C.E.

Dbagbo — Central Kucha, Baghland

“There’s children down there! Captain, she’s got an entire litter with her!”

“I know that! Focus on your objective!”

“But we have to do something! They’re going to get killed!”

“Stay off the radio and stay on target Lieutenant!”

Anada sounded fully in the grip of hysteria as she shouted into the radio, and Captain Sheba’s near-hoarse shouting back came across as no less panicked and nearly as unproductive. Homa was paying attention to neither of them nor the drama unfolding in the transport plane as Minardo and the KVW agent on the ground deliberated.

She was hardly aware of how much the parameters of the mission had changed as she was charging single-mindedly at the enemy planes with as much non-jet speed as she could muster. Going into a dive, she lunged toward enemy planes that seemed to lumber over the forest like manta rays in the sandy shallows. She aimed for the two-pronged chassis of the target which seemed like the largest and most easily acquired part of it. Her eyes and her reticles lined up for what would surely be an instant kill.

In that same instant, the quadrangular craft performed a miraculous turn.

Moving so tightly that it seemed to turn in a perfect circle, the reconnaissance craft vanished from Homa’s sights. She sped past it, pulling up in a hurry and barely nicking the top of a tree with her wings before swerving skyward and climbing anew. Behind her, a hail of green bullets flew past her wing as the enemy’s machine guns started to light up. Was she seen that quickly? And how did the enemy react with such alacrity using such stupid-looking aerodynamics? It was suddenly coming out of the trees!

Homa took the invitation and turned back herself, sweeping closely over the forest in a graceful semi-circle before giving chase to the bizarre quadrangular plane once more.

At altitudes low enough to have given most pilots pause, the Bennu and its target maneuvered at their peak speeds, the trees waving under and around in their wake.

A pair of rear machine guns spat hundreds of green tracers her way, but Homa felt no fear of it. She maneuvered from side to side, up and down, employing her massive speed advantage. She could disperse her energy any given direction and still easily catch up to the slower enemy. Perhaps she had been careless before, but this time she would line up a perfect picture in her sights, and she would watch the flames up close.

The Bennu held the enemy’s tail for over a minute.

Swaying from side to side, she avoided the gunfire and closed in.

Her enemy was much too slow — she must have had at least 100 km/h on them.

Working her stick and the pedals connected to her control surfaces, Homa swerved around the gunfire and acquired the cockpit in the middle of her sights once more.

Her flesh and blood fingers felt for the trigger on her control stick and rapped it.

A burst of machine gun fire along with a cannon blast flashed red through the sky.

She shredded the canopies of several trees, and the quadrangular craft swung away with unreal alacrity. So tight and immediate was its turning it buzzed right past her.

She thought she would crash into it, but the wings and linked tail simply underflew her chassis with incredible control. It looked so cumbersome when viewed as a shape, but the design must have been light as feather. She could not match it horizontally.

Even her incredible speed became a detriment against this enemy.

It moved like no plane she had ever seen before. She lost track of it entirely.

Suddenly the Bennu shook; a burst of machine gun fire dented the under-wing struts.

Homa took the Bennu into a sudden, banking dive away from the bullets.

“Captain, check my six!” Homa shouted. She physically turned her body around on the cockpit to see behind herself, and she spotted the plane before Sheba could report.

“Wait a moment Anada– Homa, it’s– it’s behind you! What is going on?”

Sheba was incredulous as she saw exactly what Homa herself was seeing.

Behind her, the enemy aircraft turned again in an almost perfect circle, almost fully enclosing its own dimensions. Two machine guns on each wing were brought to bear, and Homa found the Bennu shaking again as the chassis and wings were raked with rifle caliber fire. After coiling in its own air, it had suddenly come up behind her!

Had those guns been cannons, even the all-metal Bennu would have become a fireball.

“There’s one thing you don’t fucking have on me!”

Homa pulled back on the stick and took the Bennu into a sharp climb.

Climbing was all about speed and power.

Weight advantage certainly helped, but if you could only make 300 km/h in a straight line then a plane pulling close to 600 km/h was going to climb much faster than you no matter the weight. Homa relied on the pure power of the Bennu’s engine to soar skyward; looking behind herself, she saw the gunfire halt and the enemy disengage.

It could not chase her effectively, but it could create opportunities with its maneuvers.

She thought to turn right back around and try to attack it from a dive.

As if sensing her intention, or perhaps realizing the obvious, the enemy took action.

Below her, the quadrangle flew in a tight, twisting circle that made it hard to aim for.

She realized even if she dove at it she was not guaranteed to hit a damn thing.

She was going too fast and it could turn too quickly in any direction.

“What the hell is that thing? Can somebody tell me?” Homa shouted.

“Clearly it’s more aerodynamic than us!” Mannan shouted into the radio.

Off in the distance, Homa saw Mannan chasing after one of the other quadrangles

An even more pathetic display awaited the crafty mechanic.

She was not only less skilled than Homa in a turn, but her stock Garuda I-bis did not have as much of a power advantage on the quadrangles as Homa’s Bennu did.

Though Mannan weaved through the enemy’s gunfire and made some gains in her pursuit, she was losing more energy than Homa in her turns by going wider than needed. Whenever the battle moved horizontally the quadrangle regained any space it had lost to the Garuda. All the while, the tail gunners went berserk, spewing hundreds of rounds that kept Mannan from firing effectively as she weaved to evade the gunfire.

Though she stuck tight to her prey she could not put a single cannon round on it.

She would charge to the enemy’s tail, ferociously exchanging cannon shells for machine gun rounds, while the enemy would turn away and she would swing past it. When she tried to turn with it, she entered its trap — with its tighter turning it would just throw her off in the horizontal battlefield and seize the opportunity to attack.

Mannan was lucky to get off with the scratches she did. Garuda I-bis were not all-metal like the Bennu. Massed machine gun fire could seriously damage the craft, but she had only a few scratches in the undercarriage and the tail to show for the prolonged battle.

It was not until the sides broke off from their battle that Homa noticed the toll it was taking. While the two of them were dancing with the quadrangles, the third enemy craft slunk off toward the edge of battlespace, awaiting an opportunity to attack them.

Judging by the present circumstances it could well prove an effective flanker.

They were losing control of the battlespace, and the ground forces hadn’t even entered.

“Captain, delegate the belly-aching to someone else and come help me!”

Homa knew that by herself, she would not be able to outmaneuver the quadrangles.

There was one final advantage that she had on the enemy.

These kinds of reconnaissance craft, however technologically marvelous they seemed, operated by themselves as part of army aviation, and not in the same tightly controlled and coordinated air force squadrons as the fighter craft did. These two quadrangles were each alone and neither communicating with the other or flying in close combat coordination. Their prodigious maneuverability was theirs and theirs alone to use.

An experienced aviator would have decried Vulture’s teamwork, likely finding it sloppy and improvisational. They rarely worked in the tightly-structured pairs that they taught to fly in, and would not often perform the strict maneuvers they had been instructed in. But they had teamwork at all; numbers was their remaining trump card.

“We need to gang up on them. Come at them from above and below, side to side!”

Homa shouted into the radio. From the other end, Captain Sheba hesitated for a brief moment before returning a message. She had built up some conviction in her voice.

“You’re right. Listen, everyone: designated ground attackers, go after your targets and try to interdict as best as you can. For the rest of us, break into pairs and take down those fliers! We can’t keep the VIPs secure while they’re dancing around overhead!”

A grievous sound followed the Captain’s words, barely audible to the flying Vultures.

More pressing and distracting was the muzzle flash from the cliffside — and the smoke.

Homa’s attention was briefly drawn away by the light and what she could hear of the sound; seconds later a plume of dust and smoke and fire rose up from the ground near the mountain wall, as a mortar round crashed and detonated near the station building.

Those enemy planes were doing their jobs: they were spotting ahead of the guns.

Closely following the first explosion came a second and a third, churning up the earth.

“Agent, status report! Status report!”

In the command plane, Minardo was audibly shaken by the attacks.

“Agent, respond! Agent?”


Everyone’s hearts sank; if those mortar rounds had been turned on the children–

“Mother, the children are safe. But that was too close. We’re hiding in the station.”

A familiar atonal droning came over the radio. It was the Agent, Shamir.

Shaken, but alive.

Minardo’s relieved sighing followed on the radio. “Solid copy.”

“Oh my god,” Anada’s manic voice came over the radio. “What a relief–“

“Stay off the frequency and go stop that artillery!” Sheba cried out.

“Roger, we’re going!” Malik replied, rhetorically pulling Anada away by the hand.

“Homa, I’m joining up on you.”


Homa and Sheba gravitated close to one another.

Wing against wing, they flew in close formation as they approached one of the enemy quadrangles that was trying to gain altitude on the group. It seemed also to be trying to get a better bead on Station; though this intention was purely speculation for Homa.

Soon as the rear gunner spotted them, green tracers started flying their way.

Like a whale diving suddenly back into the water the quadrangle made a too-graceful turn in on itself as bursts of gunfire flew like daggers thrown from its wings and rear.

“Climb! I’ll dive!”

Captain Sheba thus assigned Homa the most crucial task.

Sheba’s Garuda I-bis threw its weight into a dive chasing after the quadrangle.

Like Homa, she was sure to waste her energy trying to chase after it, because its maneuverability would put it out of her sights in an instant. And whoever they were, these army aviation pilots knew their aircraft, they had good instincts. As soon as Sheba’s gunfire flashed red from her Garuda I-bis, the enemy started to maneuver.

Sheba did not have to hit anything, however.

She was the feint.

Soon as the iron fist that was her craft was thrown at the quadrangle, it began to focus its gunfire on her and to swerve away from her direction, tightly maneuvering to avoid her trajectory, and forcing her, the faster, heavier and less agile craft to lose energy in futile horizontal maneuvers. They chased one another, the quadrangle quickly taking Sheba’s tail in slower, tight turns, for a brief opportunity to shoot.

Then Sheba would gain speed and quickly maneuver in a wider circle, throwing it off.

Once she was back on an intersecting line to the enemy, she was shooting anew.

And so the two of them danced, the prodigal captain in her elegant metal dress and the slow, ungainly but swift guest that had so rudely taken her hand to this ballroom.

Meanwhile, Homa climbed until she was several hundred meters up on the fight.

Keeping her eyes peeled on the quadrangle the entire time.

Sheba was making the craft essentially spin in circles for her.

And while it was simply not possible to take that kind of shot up close for craft of their size, weight and maneuverability, it was possible to do it from a significant range.

A tight enough circle, viewed from above, was entirely too predictable.

Homa’s 20 mm cannon was rated for thousands of meters, especially shooting down.

“He might have me in a few turns! Homa, are you ready?”

In the next instant, after Sheba’s plea, the next dancer entered the ballroom.

As she reached the nadir of her ascent, and for a brief instant before the dive, Homa almost felt suspended in mid-air. There was one brief instant of peace, within which she could look down at the world from a position that felt static. She almost wanted to spread her arms out; maybe she would have if her metal arm had not felt so heavy.

Overhead, the morning sun might as well been her spotlight. Soon as her nose started to push down, Homa twisted her craft into a turn, looked down at the enemy from the side of her cockpit, and committed to a deep, hurtling dive toward the battle below.

It was time for Homa to shoo their guest away and take Sheba’s hand herself.

Fast as it went up, the Bennu always came down even faster.

Below her the Quadrangle tangled with Sheba for a few more turns.

But now Homa was seeing the broadest sides of it exposed to her.

And she gained on it quickly.

Seeing her now coming from above, the eccentric enemy aircraft began shooting directly up at her, exposing the remarkable flexibility of its nacelle machine guns.

Around her the Bennu shook and rattled.

Homa’s wing absorbed a burst of gunfire that dented the metal.

One smashed off radiator cover went flying.

However, it was too late. Her eyes, and guns, locked directly on the enemy’s wings.

Rapping the trigger, Homa launched a heavy burst of machine guns and cannons.

An entire belt of machine gun ammunition must have gone, as well as a dozen shells.

Despite its maneuvers, to Homa, the enemy below might as well have spun in place.

Even so, she almost missed her chance.

One round landed where the wing and the body connected, a single shell.

For an instant, one of the engines was disconnected from the main body.

Its connecting strut had been blown open.

Suddenly the tail strut was splitting under the pressure; the wing wanted to fly away from the body, pulled away by the engine and the g-forces from its once mighty turns.

Struggling to reduce speed, the aircraft practically folded in on itself trying to come out of the turn. Now the wing went where the body was not headed. A third of the craft simply split off and flew in its own direction, an engine, a wing and parts of a tail boom launching toward the forest like a rocket and crashing into the wood.

Meanwhile the bulk of the craft spun earthwards in a doomed dive.

Sheba rolled her craft out of the way as the two sudden projectiles hurtled past her.

Beneath the two Vultures, the quadrangle struck earth and erupted in an oil fire.

As Homa descended, Sheba began to climb, and the two met to finish the dance.

One pair of wings charging to the earth, and a second headed skyward past her.

“One down!” Homa shouted triumphantly, waving as Sheba flew by.

“That was a lucky shot!” Captain Sheba teased her.

She almost got a genuine rise out of a Homa.

“Bait doesn’t get to talk about shots!”

In the distance, the remaining two fliers took stock of the situation.

Coming under pursuit from Mannan and Sayyid, they began to disperse further afield.

Enough time had been bought, however, for the true enemy to assert itself.

Anada was overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events in this battle.

She was not foolish or even naive. Not by far as much as she might have seemed.

Even in the most mythical and romanticized accounts of any war, even in the great stories and theater plays of the Ayvartan culture, there was always an understanding that war could reach people who were defenseless and swallow them whole. That was why heroes rose up and fought tyrants; that heroes lived meant that the weak and defenseless existed to be protected. They fought for their families — for their children.

And she knew these mountains had to be full of families and children to be swallowed.

Seeing and hearing of them being here made her tense up.

She recalled the childhood that she barely survived and she felt she would vomit.

Children should not be here. They should not be exposed to this violence.

Within this resurgent trauma in her mind, her role as their protector was far from her thoughts. She felt as helpless to save them as they must have felt helpless to be saved.

Then came the explosions.

Anada held her breath. She felt herself shrink.

“Gregory, form up! I know you don’t want to see those men move a step further!”

Sheba’s orders and Malik’s exhortation knocked some sense into her, however.

“Roger, Vasily. Since they want to bully children so much, lets show them bullying!”

She set her reservations aside, drew in a deep breath, and put herself in the moment.

Flying this craft was like attaining wings; like having a second skin.

The feeling of the weight moving around her as she maneuvered, and the realization of where she was and what she was doing, helped steel her nerves. Movements felt natural again, and the way her body moved transferred directly to the aircraft’s energy, and where she expected the wings to be, and the direction she meant to go.

Clad in this armor and with these swords, she was not that helpless little girl anymore.

Those who were helpless were counting on her this time.

With a fire in her eyes, she swept toward the enemies alongside Malik.

Through the glass of her cockpit she caught a glimpse of Malik staring at her.

She lifted her hand up to wave at her, and tried to smile with determination.

“Beginning strafing run!” She declared into the radio.

Malik was not going to steal all the glory! Anada was diving first.

Atop the cliffsides surrounding the forest, Nochtish infantry had begun to set up the mortars that they had carried with them through the mountain paths. These mortars were of a relatively light caliber for artillery, but they had more than enough explosive power to smash a meter-deep hole into the ground and spray shrapnel thirty or forty meters in every direction. As Anada began her dive she spotted four such mortars and the teams crewing them: the spotter, the launcher and the loader. More men with other weapons were starting to accrue as well. A series of heavy machine guns went up on tall legged stands with high swiveling mounts that allowed them to shoot high.

Within moments, hundreds of green tracers began to fly up at Anada and Malik.

They broke their tight formation, spreading the gunfire as the enemy picked targets.

Gaining ever more speed, they appeared almost to be flying through the bullets.

Where they lacked in raw firepower, they made up for in altitude and speed.

Flying against a ground enemy was the greatest expression of high-ground advantage.

Fighter planes were designed primarily to fight other aircraft. Their complement of machine guns and cannons with incendiary ammunition was designed to be light enough to carry in a speedy craft while giving just enough punch, and no more, to clip the wings off a plane or set fire to the engines of a bomber. However, in war, every weapon was by necessity turned on every available enemy it could physically strike.

Despite the interdicting fire from the ground, Anada and Malik’s speed and agility allowed them to swoop down on the infantry and receive barely handful of rifle caliber bullets to their chassis. Charging through the hail of bullets as if shrugging off a swarm of bees, the two birds of prey unleashed a column of cannon and machine gun bullets upon the cliffside. Slowly leveling off as they approached, they trailed bullets over as much ground as they could before being forced to climb lest they crash into the ground. They were barely meters over the heads of the enemy as they passed.

Lines of red tracers crept over the ground, leading into the exposed artillerymen.

In their wake the girls left what their old commander might have called “some merry hell;” one of the machine guns was snapped to pieces by cannon fire, which punctured the mount and sent a man’s leg flying off the cliff with sheer kinetic force. Machine gun fire clipped two of the mortar-men, punching them to the ground into pools of blood and gore that flooded freely out of their perforated bodies. Their mortar took enough rounds that one of its leg-stands shattered, and sent the tube tumbling. Two more cannon rounds struck a carriage that had been pulled up the mountain by mule and set ablaze gods-knew-what. Perhaps food; perhaps fuel; perhaps some officers.

A tank or a machine gun team with the speed and positional advantage of Anada’s aircraft would have certainly killed all or most of the men on that cliffside. However, Anada and Malik managed to kill a handful of men without being touched, destroyed some of their equipment, and pulled up for more, leaving the men without answers.

In the midst of an air attack, most infantry soldiers of their age did not even really understand where their advantages lay against fighter craft. To them, it was hell raining from the sky. Nocht’s men were a step above the rest, in that they stood their ground, but still a cut below par in that they didn’t think to hide behind the rocks.

A 20mm cannon was not about to chop through the thick stones around the cliffs.

Those men, however, likely envisioned a gun much larger than that in their terrors.

“Gregory, lets take a shortcut to stay on top of them!”

Malik’s voice came through the radio, and Anada’s lips spread into a bloodthirsty grin.

Captain Sheba had not assigned them this mission entirely out of whim.Of all the Vultures, Anada and Malik had been ones who had taken most readily to ground attack tactics. They had spent afternoons together flying through rings, low to the ground, and seeing who could shoot the most sandbag dummies out of a tight bank.

Using energy tactics against ground targets was their specialty.

Perhaps it had even been the blossoming of their little romance.

“Just like we did back in the range!” Anada shouted.

Rather than fly away to gain distance and then turn around for another conventional strafing, they had another move they could pull to drag the battle back to their terms.

Anada pulled sharply back on the stick and began to climb.

Behind her, the machine guns had re-positioned and green tracers started to fly past her again. Anada ignored it. Raising her craft so much that it shook, almost to a stall, Anada twisted her wings around. It was like trying to spin underwater. She could feel the aircraft struggle with the forces in which it was enmeshed, the turn made the air seem dangerously solid. Her engine groaned; there was a clamor of clanking parts.

Suddenly, she was dropping down again, nose still directly down over the men below.

And with her Garuda’s nose came her Garuda’s center-line guns.

Holding down the trigger, she unleashed a wild circle of gunfire on the enemy.

Cannon rounds lit up boxes of ammunition on the ground like firecrackers when they struck them, and men tumbled and danced amid a confetti-like spray of their own blood and skin as machine gun bullets rained upon them. Rounds that struck the ground lit their incendiary tips and burst into little fires, setting alight clothes and napsacks and the men who wore them. Two mortars were abandoned in the panic resulting from this attack, and the third fell over along with the bodies of its crew.

Malik, who proposed the idea, dove down wing on wing with Anada as they laid suppressing and killing fire down on the enemy position. Within a few plane-lengths of the ground, the two of them broke off in separate directions, and there was no longer any organized resistance firing at them. That cliffside had broken, and there would be no more mortar fire coming from it. Dozens of men fled, and at least as many were killed, or lay awaiting death amid the bodies of those taken mercifully faster.

Like crossed shooting stars, they flew their separate directions, leaving a fiery flash in their wake. Perhaps to the delirious wounded below, they might have looked beautiful.

“Great job Vasily!” Anada said, remembering to use Malik’s code-name. “That’ll teach–“

Before Anada could boast much more a much larger green tracer flew past her wing.

It detonated overhead, and small sparks and little fires came down over her cockpit.

Anada ducked her head and cried out as if she had been the target of a sniper.

“Gregory, along the northern cliffs, there’s more enemies coming!”

Malik called out to her, and Anada blurted out some barely audible curses.

When she regained the fullness of her senses, Anada trained her sharp eyes on the offending cliffs and found a larger column of Federation forces that had been arriving from the direction where the main village paths would have led them. This unit was not some stray climbers carrying stuff on their backs and on their mules. There was a complement of all terrain cars carrying pack howitzers. One of the trucks, the one that had fired upon them, had a large gun on its bed on an anti-aircraft mount. Was that the feared and mighty 88 mm? No, it could not have been; Anada’s eyes were too good to speculate. She knew that it was smaller gun, maybe a 40mm anti-air cannon instead.

Federation soldiers rapidly swiveled the gun on its pintle and elevated the barrel with a wheel, adjusting for the elevation and leading a series of rapid-fire cannon blasts.

Anada pounded her fist against the radio and shouted.

“Vasily, break!”

Below them the barrel flashed a menacing green as it launched tracer after tracer.

She wanted to warn Malik again, but she had to move. Having no more time to look after anyone but herself, Anada took her plane into a steep dive to evade the gunfire.

Taking her craft into a spiraling turn, up and down, Anada executed a “scissors” roll.

Climbing and falling in a circling pattern of varying widths, she evaded the gunfire.

Anada gained speed in her descent, even while maneuvering.

Behind her tail and above her cockpit, the fire and smoke expanded like blossoming flowers, as the time-delayed fuzes in the rounds caused them to detonate in the air. A dozen incendiary AP shells each the size of her forearm sliced through the air before exploding into tongues of fire seeking any part of the plane that might suddenly ignite.

She shook from several near-hits, hearing tinkling bits of metal bouncing off her.

Each sharp bit of shrapnel took some of the paint and surfacing right off.

However, Anada had not just thrown herself into a dive to avoid the enemy.

Nearly level with the cliff, she tore from the spiraling maneuver and attacked.

She angled her nose and tried to put the truck in her sights, ready to fire–

And immediately pulled away in a sweeping arc toward the enemy’s flank– her keen eyes found a second cannon in one of the trucks just as it was uncovered and readied.

She peppered the ground with random machine gun fire that startled a few men, but she had to abort the general attack, turning her wings toward the earth and sky and pulling away hard from the cliff. It was all she could do to give herself room to evade.

Anada was not merely farsighted, but she had quick reflexes too.

Anyone else would have run headlong into a dozen cannon shells at that point.

She would have presented a juicy target by flying right at the trucks.

With the second gun ready to fire, the pressure became immense.

Anada thought she could feel the shocks as the two cannons tore apart the air around her, slashing the sky with dozens of rounds of anti-aircraft fire at a time. She felt like she had kicked a nest and now she was ducking the hornets. She rolled in erratic patterns, jerking the stick left and right and with it, throwing her plane’s weight into grueling turns. Her body was wrenched every which way by the g-forces, and she grit her teeth. Her ribcages felt like they were shrinking from the pressure, squeezing her.

One shell detonated ahead of her craft.

Flying through the cloud of debris, Anada felt her Garuda jerk, and maybe stall–

Had her prop gone?

She ducked her head briefly to look at the instruments closely. Her RPMs were fine.

However, the next bit of divination those gunners pulled would be the last.

Feeling like she was caged amid the bullets, Anada was at the end of her wits.

“I need help!” She said, shouting with the last gasp of oxygen. “I can’t shake them!”

“Gregory! Hang on, I’m coming back!”

From up above, Malik’s Garuda suddenly reappeared and dove down over the trucks.

Her wings crossed Anada’s once again, and the air in her wake blew away smoke.

This time she leaped into the fire that Anada had fled.

Her Garuda was not the target of the gunners, and they scarcely had time to retrain their fire effectively, as they had already been committed to their pursuit of Anada.

She came down upon them as if a shell herself.

Her nose guns lit up the column.

Cannon and machine gun fire tore apart the bed and rear wheels of one of the gun trucks. A burst of fire split the rear axle and sent the wheels flying with such force that they sliced the leg off a nearby soldier and beheaded another. The swiveling mount holding the anti-air gun easily snapped. As the floor collapsed under it the men fell with their equipment. Shells went flying and cooked off from a spreading fire and subsequent strikes from Malik’s own incendiaries. Amid the fire and the flying metal and their own exploding ammo the gunners themselves turned to bloody pieces.

In one elegant arc, Malik had flown through the fire and come out with bloodstained wings. Doused in the enemy’s blood and none of her own. That was a strafing run.

Malik rose triumphantly, leaving a burning husk of a truck and a pool of viscera and oil and gun lubricant behind her. For a moment the remaining gun was silenced; all the trucks in the once tight-knit column had revved to action and put distance between themselves and the remains. Malik had successfully scattered the enemies apart.

Bearing witness, Anada could scarcely believe the carnage that had unfolded.

When Malik rejoined Anada in the skies, the cat-kin had gone from panic to almost pouting, a petty look in her eyes and her ears twitching visibly with sudden irritation.

“I asked for help, not for you to play the big damn hero without me.” Anada said.

“You’re welcome.” Malik replied in good humor. “I’ll bring you along next time.”

“Hmph! I thought we were a team. To think I even asked you to marry–“

Even by just briefly looking over her shoulder, Anada quickly realized there would be many more opportunities to absolve herself of her perceived second place at this hour.

More and more enemies appeared from the mountain paths and the cliffsides.

Breaking from her romance-comedy routine, the cat-kin sounded a sudden alert.

“Captain, we’ve got a big one coming!” Anada called out, her farsighted eyes drawn to one large, trundling enemy that had crawled its way to the cliff. “i don’t know that we can do anything about it! Whatever the plan is, we need to get moving, right now!”

Before anyone could respond, the M5A2 “Rick” Hunter opened fire with its main gun.

From the mountain path, a 75 mm explosive shell hurtled down toward the forest.

A series of near-hits on the observation post’s main building had left the spartan interiors completely dilapidated. Documents too unimportant to be burned had been sent flying by the shocks, loose baubles and instruments fell to the ground and shattered, personal effects leaped off the main desk in the office and fell off the walls.

It was an open question whether the walls themselves would fall soon.

Special Agent Shamir Mahapratham lifted a thumb up to her mouth and bit the skin off the edge of the cuticle. Her thumb was already marked with a small, dark red spots where she had bit it beforehand the past few days. She was nervous; she was helpless, watching Vulture squadron tear through the skies, struggling to push back the tide of grey uniforms. It was a miracle she and the children even survived the initial barrages.

Huddling back inside the main room in the building’s first floor, she hid the children under a metal table that had been made from armor-grade steel. It was a placebo; nominally an “earthquake-proof” “tactical” table for use in god-knows-what situation. It was the only place that made sense for them to hide. This building had no bunker or panic room, it was an office, a dark-room for pictures, an observation stage in the second floor, and a few miscellaneous quarters. It was not made to be besieged.

Every blast outside blew heat and debris into the building, the windows long since shattered by the shockwaves. Shamir had counted several such blasts now. Nocht’s inability to land a shot directly on the building could be attributed either to the range of their light mortars or perhaps, to a knowledge of what they might be shooting at.

Not the children; they didn’t care. But what was inside the mountains, and maybe even in the floor around them. Shamir knew about it, and that was why Solstice prized her.

Hiding along with the children, as if one of their own, was the box with the geode in it.

That was not only her passage out, but also that of the children now guarding it.

But she had to survive to be able to pay the toll.

Still biting herself, she grabbed hold of the radio handset and waited to call. She had drawn blood from the biting and flinched — it happened absent any conscious input. It was just something she did to herself; she used to do it more often. Before she joined the KVW all of the fingers on all of her hands were gnawed raw in nervous panics.

Before calling, she withdrew her fingers, drew in a breath, and gripped her own shirt.

“Vulture squadron, what is the rescue plan? Can you take the children?” Shamir asked.

Her voice still carried some of the atonal affect of KVW soldiers, but it was breaking.

Nobody seemed to notice her emotional state, thankfully.

There was a lot of chatter on the radio as the various Vulture members fought.

Amid the voices, however, there was Logia Minardo, the chief of the airborne infantry.

“We’re assessing, Agent! As much as I understand and respect your heroism, it has really put us in a bind presently. We were not ready to exfiltrate this many people.”

Shamir knew this was not coldness on their part, and did not blame them for it.

“Understood. Please strongly consider it. If I understand the mechanics of this rescue, it involves the old Fuchs technology, doesn’t it? I believe we can take the children if so.”

“How do you know about that?”

Logia Minardo sounded disconcerted.

She was momentarily distracted by Shamir’s forbidden knowledge.

“I’m an intelligence agent. Knowing things I shouldn’t is part of my value.”

In truth, she had been on a mountain for a long time with limited contact with Solstice, so her intelligence role was not so important these days. However, she had learned about Fuchs’ inventions during the Akjer fiasco, and she could easily put two and two together now. There was no way that they could land a plane on this mountain.

It was the mountain itself that had gifted her the information that made her valuable today. Or at least valuable enough to be worth the gamble of a daring high-tech rescue.

Her own powers of deduction had little to do with it.

Her salvation had come from the rocks.

She found herself biting again — the index this time.

Her teeth lingered near the cuticle.

She drew blood. A steady dribble of blood that did not abate quickly.

Shamir flinched. Every time she stopped talking one of her fingers went to her lips.

“I have a way we can stymie the ground attack; but I have to be in the air.”

“Oh? Do you know a weak point in the cliff? Are we discussing a rockslide?”

Minardo sounded intrigued, but it was not something Shamir could propose lightly.

“Negative. I can only explain when I’m up there.”

“We’ll be down there. Just hold on!”

“I’m holding.”

Shamir actively resisted biting this time. She had to at least try to look strong.

Becoming one of the communist’s shadow agents was a way to both purge herself of the things troubling her mind as well as way to give her life a purpose. “Brainwashing” was used derisively, but if you wanted your mind to be cleaned, would you object? She was almost disappointed that the procedures had not been more invasive. Within a week after her initial neurotherapies she had already regressed, chewing her fingers.

Nowhere near as much as before, of course. You never did things the same as before.

But you still did them enough, to remind you that you had not been made perfect at all.

She put down the handset, and crawled along the floor over to the children.

She was not their mother or their guardian or any sort of surrogate.

In fact, the emotions she felt for them surprised even herself.

When she arrived, they did not feel comforted immediately.

All of the children were staring at her as she huddled near them, the bulletproof window glass scattered all around them from the blasts. There were nearly a dozen kids, all the littlest children of the village. She had wanted to take the teenagers too, those who had come; they had been mature enough to realize there was no escape for them. Even if everything went perfectly, there was no way an air rescue could take everyone. Herself and a few little children were already gravely testing the limits.

Shamir tried her best to smile at the kids, but smiling was something she never did. Even the memory of it had only recently returned to her. Her mental conditioning was fading; this allowed her to smile more sincerely, but it also made her show the children much more fear than she wanted to. Nevertheless, they smiled wearily back at her too.

“I have friends who will help us. They are outside now.” She said.

Some children nodded. For the smallest, they wept as quietly as they would allow themselves to in the presence of a stranger. They had scarcely met, and she had taken them from their parents. But these were mountain village children; from a very young age they were taught to be hard, to put on a stone face and lead lives of acceptance.

“We will be out of this soon. You’ll like Solstice. The desert is beautiful–“

Outside, the world briefly flashed hot and white.

Debris blew in over their heads along with shrapnel and smoke from the blast outside.

The village children screamed and huddled together under the table.

Shamir found herself reflexively diving upon them, taking them into her arms.

A second blast sounded, and a third, and all of the world was shaking and flashing.

Heat blew in over them like never before. The walls must have collapsed!

And yet Shamir was not yet crushed out of existence.

For those moments she could only live between fears, fears that she should not have experienced. She felt afraid, she felt anxious, she felt helpless, and yet, for the kids–

She felt guilty, so guilty she wanted to gnaw her fingers off and scream.

Herself, and her kind — they had been useless to help these people!

All this time all she did was make notes of the sky from her isolated hut and spy on the villagers. For years her mission was never to help them, only to listen to them, to study them, to spy on them under cover of spying on their skies. Now she was acting the big hero and trying to atone for everything she never did for them when they lost family to the mountain creatures, when they got sick and died up here removed from society, and when an invader they should have turned back was allowed to move on them with impunity. Even knowing keenly that she was not there to help them at all–

It was they who had come to her, and then it was they who stayed behind as martyrs.

All she could do was huddle with the children they left behind and beg for rescue.

She waited several minutes for the calm between blasts to confirm that she had been allowed to live longer still. When she opened her eyes, in her arms, and the children’s arms, was the purple geode, its box half-open. She almost felt like that eerie glow was accelerating the decline of those locks she had put on all the evils in her rotten brain.

Shamir took the geode in her hand; it hovered just off her palm with an eerie power.

Her eyes drew wide. All of the children with her stared in awe of the geode.

Knowing what she did of the item’s properties, a desperate plan hatched in her mind.

Just thinking about it made her thumb go back to up her mouth for thirds.

Crawling out from under the table in a hurry, she grabbed hold of the radio handset.

She saw the box covered in soot and dust, but operational. She flipped the call switch.

“–Agent, are you still there? Answer us! We’re coming down!”

Shamir bit down hard on her thumb, and almost spoke through the blood.

“Vultures squadron, I think I can silence them, but I’ll need a clear sky.”

She put down the handset and picked up the geode again.

If she was correct, then perhaps Nocht would witness the legendary light of the Kucha.

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