Hidden 7 yrs ago Post by gorgenmast
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Abd al Kuri Bone dry gravel crunched underneath the Fantasma's landing gear as the plane touched down. The pilot within drew a sigh of relief as his plane rolled down the dusty wash. He tore the oxygen mask from his face and pressed up against the cockpit windshield once his craft ground to a halt on the gravel. A brief burst of air whistling out through the broken seal of the cockpit could be heard as the pilot pushed the windshield canopy up and over his head; the lack of electrical power that had prompted this emergency landing prevented the cabin from depressurizing. He rolled out of the cockpit and slid down onto terra firma before taking in his surroundings. His only companions on this barren and desolate spit of land were wind-worn boulders that rested amongst the vast, flat gravel fields. The only sounds to be heard beside those of his boots crunching against sand and pebbles were the crashing of azure waves against the beach a kilometer or so to the North. As one might expect of a thoroughly inhospitable desert island, it appeared utterly devoid of any life - human or otherwise. Appreciative of the fact that he would not be disturbed, the pilot set about getting his fighter airborne as quickly as possible. A quick glance about the fighter showed no physical damage produced by the lightning strike, as expected. Lightning strikes on airplanes were, in fact, quite common. When they did occur, they almost never produced serious negative impacts to the plane. But in all his years of flying for the Spanish Fuerza Aerea, the pilot could not think of a single instance where a lightning strike had produced a loss of power to the plane. Certainly not on the part of a flash of lightning from a clear sky. The circumstances that had brought the most advanced airplane in Spain back to the Earth were exceedingly bizarre; verging on what was naturally impossible. Thoughts of revolutionary electrical defense technologies played through his mind as he stooped under the cockpit to access the panel that housed the Fantasma's battery. With one of the screwdriver attachment on his standard-issue multitool, the pilot deftly unfastened the rivets holding the aluminum panel against the airframe and peeked within the battery housing. He spotted the problem at once. A wire connector had been dislodged from the positive terminal on the battery stowed within. Fresh sootmarks covered the copper springloaded attachment points, designed to keep the wires attached to the terminals despite the intense forces imposed upon a fighter aircraft, suggested that the lightning strike had somehow caused the connection to disengage. The failure of this particular part would likely become the focus of intense investigation on the part of the Fantasma's engineers, but for the pilot it was a remarkably simple fix. He snapped off the reciprocal attachment point on the negative terminal, replaced the connection on the positive terminal, and then attached the negative terminal. A blue spark and a whiff of ozone materialized when the negative terminal was reattached, signifying that the battery was still in good working order. In three minutes, the aluminum panel was replaced and the pilot was clambering into the cockpit once again. This time, the blades of the jet engine beneath him heeded his command when he beckoned the plane to life. A cone of superheated air shot out into the desert from the exhaust on the plane's tail as the engine warmed up, driving sand and scattering pebbles. With the engine rumbling with sufficient energy below, the pilot disengaged the gear brakes and fell back into his seat as the jet rumbled across the desert with a trail of dust billowing behind. The servos in the wing elevators galvanized the Fantasma up off the desert and back into the air as the pilot yanked back hard against the yoke. A glance back to the tail of the fighter showed that thin yellow island of sand and rock falling away behind him as his Fantasma rocketed upward. The fighter levelled off gradually at its original altitude - nearly an hour now after a bolt from the blue sent it limping back to the Earth. It was likely that its prey had fallen into the sea by now, but the kill would have to be confirmed. Not a single airplane could be permitted to escape Africa before the Armada's landfall. So the pilot turned about in his seat, looking about this way and that. He scanned the cerulean void around him for any sign of the cargo aircraft that he had wounded earlier. The sky was empty. Or so it initially seemed. A flicker of light caught the pilot's eye, directing his attention to the south. A glance down toward the wider Indian Ocean revealed nothing of note. But a similar flash came momentarily into existence once again, joined by another glint of reflected sunlight. Any pilot could readily identify the source of such a fickle glimmer: reflective sunlight. The Fantasma was no longer alone in the sky. The Spanish jet banked and turned about to the south. The pilot inside punched the throttle and felt his inside sink down into his lap, his gloved hands gripping the joystick with white-knuckle force and his index finger resting alongside the trigger. As the Fantasma screamed high above the Gulf of Aden, twin pinpricks appeared in the sky, moving north at the same logic-defying speed as the Spanish fighter. The time required to close the great distance between these objects should have been double the time it actually took. The incoming aircraft before the Fantasma could only be jets. And according to field reports procured by the Oficina de Inteligencia Militar, the Pan-African Empire did not possess the technology to field jet aircraft. A startling realization dawned upon the Fantasma's pilot: These were Chinese planes.
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Hidden 7 yrs ago Post by Vilageidiotx
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Vilageidiotx Jacobin of All Trades

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Addis Ababa

The War Room of the Imperial Palace was a round theatre-style room, with a gallery of benches lining its walls. In the center of the floor was painted forty by thirty foot map of Africa in a dozen shades of brown. Harsh yellow light poured from the ceiling as Hassan stood on the continent The contours of its coast and details of its topography were painted clearly so that Ethiopia's leaders could understand the theaters of their wars visually. Hassan stood in the center. He was broad man, though old age was beginning to make him flabby. His baggy uniform, a starched olive parade outfit, hid some of that though, With one foot in Nekemte and the other in Awasa, he looked like a giant brooding over a helpless Ethiopia.

Yaqob stood as well, black trimmed robes flowing over him like a dress. He took a place just outside the circumference of the map. In the gallery of benches surrounding them sat three men. One was Taytu's assistant Ita Thabiti, a middle aged man who was bald except for a thin horseshoe of wiry, short cut hair crowning his temple. He sat politely at one end of the room, mostly silent. At the other end was Yaqob's old friend Themba Akanni. He was the Prime Minister of the Ethiopian Empire, but his title had done little more than bury him in parliamentary politics. Akanni had once been the type of man to dress in European fashion and keep his hair short, but he was different now. He wore a thick black suit, golden flowers embroidered on the pockets and intricate intertwining patterns of gold trim climbing up the front, meeting with a tight embellished collar. He had let his hair grow out some, and it was beginning to hint at an afro. The third man, sitting across the room from Akanni, was Chitundu.

"The inspectors we sent to Kivu only confirmed it." Chitundu shouted from the gallery. Chitundu was a rare man in the sense that he had risen to the position of Imperial Adviser for Domestic Affairs despite being from poverty-stricken Katanga. The very same Katanga that had rebelled four years ago, though Chitundu had proven his loyalty by staying with Yaqob's government during that fight. His ink-dark skin and wide features stood out amongst the light skinned East-Africans that made up the inner circle of Ethiopian government. He was an older man now, and he suffered pains that made him sit awkwardly, in poses that made him look slightly insolent.

"Nobody cares about your roads." Ras Hassan groaned. He had been put on edge by news that had arrived an hour earlier. The Spanish had brushed aside their defenses in the Mandeb strait as easily as they would swat at flies. This meant that Ethiopia no longer had a navy, but that was not what troubled Hassan. He had expected them to be more prudent, Yaqob knew. Prudence was something that Hassan could exploit, but it looked like Spain had no interest in giving him that chance.

Yaqob could not help but agree with Hassan about the roads. Chitundu was a bureaucrat through and through. He had become so focused on his own career that he seemed to forget about the apocalypse that was coming for them over the sea. Yaqob's mind was on his family, surely in Persia by now, though he had not heard anything about them since they left. That had been nearly nine hours ago. Only five hours had passed since he gave the speech at the Addis Ababa Press Club that officialized the war. This day had been nothing but new stresses for him, and he was beginning to wonder if it would ever end.

"I agree. The war is more important, Ras." Chitundu continued in his obstinance. "But doesn't that make theft from the government a treason?"

Hassan didn't respond.

"It's a grave treason." Akanni said with the melodramatic flair of a charismatic politician. "To betray your people in times of war? They should die for that." Yaqob felt strange to think this was the same man who had accused Yaqob of being too serious when they lived in exile together in China.

Yaqob did not think that this argument needed his input, in truth. It was something that Chitundu's office could surely handle on its own. But it was his job as Emperor to care about the nation, and his very sense of self kept him from staying silent. In times like this, after all, Yaqob got a strange sort of comfort from the youthful benevolence he had prided himself in when he first ascended to the throne. "Have the inspectors had the chance to assess how much money we lost on this?" he said.

"They say that there is at least seventy kilometers of road left undeveloped." he said. "The Kivu office had been too short handed to oversee the contractors..."

"Nevermind the excuses." Yaqob said politely. He knew how weak his government was beyond the urban centers of Africa. Three quarters of the nation remained beyond their ability to tax, even now when they could use the money. "That was seventy kilometers out of how many?"

"Three hundred." Chitundu replied.

Yaqob grimaced. He saw Ita Thabiti stir uncomfortably in his silent corner, and Akanni's expression twist in something between surprise and anger. "That is nearly one a third of everything we payed them to do." Yaqob said. "Criminal charges are definitely in order."

"That's the problem. That's why I brought it here." Chitundu replied. "We can't find the contractors."

Yaqob blinked. Hassan snickered.

"You cannot find the contractors?" Akanni blurted, "How would they disappear?"

"They gave us false personal information." Chitundu waved. "The Kivu offices lost the photographs they took of these men. We are going off of the memory of the old woman who took the photos and a few men who worked on the stretches of road they actually finished. But, that is not enough." Chitundu paused for a moment, and Yaqob could see that he was building up courage. When he continued, he spoke boldly. "We need the Walinzi on this one."

"The Walinzi are busy." Hassan said firmly. "There is a war, if you have forgot. Why is it that we are spending money on roads in Kivu when we can hardly pay for the oil to keep our war machines in the field?"

"The Kivu Road project was funded with Chinese grant money. It was money they earmarked specifically for infrastructural projects." Chitundu said.

"The Chinese shouldn't be telling us how to spend that money." Hassan grumbled. "How many advisers do they have working with us? How many agents?"

"Some men working out of their embassy here." Yaqob responded. "And some working out of Pemba. Not many though." He saw where Hassan was going with this. It was their oldest problem with the Chinese government. Near infinite resources and they horded every bit.

"They cannot tell us how we should be spending this money because they have no idea what the situation on the ground actually is." Hassan said. "They haven't seen Kivu. They haven't combed through our finances. We should have taken that money and spent it on defense."

"We cannot spend all our money on defense." Yaqob reminded. "Or we would have nothing to defend. But Hassan is right about the rest of this. We cannot send agents hunting after thieves when our coasts are under attack by an enemy invader. The war takes extreme precedence." He did not want to talk about roads anymore. It was time to change the subject. "Speaking of the war. Hassan, where are we with it?"

The room-size map had more than just Hassan on it. Three-foot tall wooden poles stood on rounded stands to represent the military forces and their locations. Multiple ribbons of colored cloth hung limply from their tops and told what those poles stood for. A pole with a green ribbon meant that it belonged to Ethiopia. Blue meant it was an allied force - a force that the Ethiopian commanders had no direct control over, but could trust for support. And red meant the enemy. Additional ribbons signified what sort of unit that pole stood for, so that a green ribbon and a black ribbon meant Ethiopian infantry. A blue ribbon and a purple ribbon meant allied armor. And a red ribbon with a white ribbon meant enemy navy. The coast of east Africa was line with poles hanging the red and white ribbons.

"Rais has taken command of the first Sefari here" he walked into the north of Ethiopia. "He will be joined by most of the sixth Sefari, which is coming down from Sudan and leaving a token force to put up a fight should the Spanish attempt to land support to our north. I have taken personal command of the seventh Sefari..."

"Personal command?" Yaqob interrupted. "Wouldn't it be wiser for you to direct this war from behind the lines? If you die..."

"It would be wiser to do things that way." Hassan agreed tentatively. Something in his voice sounded annoyed, but it was clear he was working to hide it. "But it isn't the way I operate. Your majesty."

Yaqob paused for a moment. "I do not want to hinder you in any way." he said. "Do what you must do to win this war."

Hassan gave Yaqob a lingering glance. "The seventh with be joined by elements of the fourth, though we cannot bring much into the Rift valley to defend the coast. We'll bring some of the fourth into Somalia and keep the rest in Swahililand." he paused for a moment, thinking. "The only infrastructure in the Afar is the roads leading to Addis and Harar, and the city of Djibouti itself. It would take a great effort to defend, but there would be little pay-off. What I want to do is destroy what little comfort there is there, to kill as many Spaniards as we can, and then fall back and let them keep that desert and see how much they like it."

It sounded like a sensible plan. The Afar Triangle was often said to be the hottest place in the world. It was place where water was scarce, coming out of maintenance-heavy wells and lakes that were half salt. Few people lived there, save for tribal salt miners and the citizens of the port city at Djibouti. They were well into the dry season by now, and the temperatures would be climbing toward one hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit.

"I like that. Break the infrastructure. Can you poison the wells, perhaps?" as he said that, he felt a lump in his throat, and he immediately regretted himself. What about the innocent people? When water was scarce, the Spanish would take it all and leave the people to die. He wanted to do whatever he could to cause suffering to his enemy. This war with Spain felt like his war, a personal battle with Africa as the battleground. He wanted to hurt them, to kill them, and to see the life melt out of their eyes. He hadn't felt these brutal desires since the Katanga rebellion, and they disturbed him.

Hassan grinned. "This is why I like you, your majesty. You might play the sad-sack from time to time, but when times get cruel, you get cruel right along with them."

Insolence. Yaqob cringed. If Hassan has been anybody else, that wouldn't have been acceptable at all. But this was Hassan, and nobody said anything. His self-imagined role as benevolent monarch was beginning to dissolve, and it made him feel stuck and alone.

"I've shuffled most of the artillery into the highlands." Hassan continued over the background whine of incandescent light. "I will make do with a few light-pieces. The highlands are more valuable, and I would rather make them hurt there."

"Couldn't you use it to stop them off the coast?" Yaqob asked.

"Not likely." Hassan replied. "They have that navy of theirs ready to reply. If I throw everything we have at them in the beginning, we will lose the war in a month. They have the guns, and they have that VX. Concentrating our forces is the last thing we should be doing. They can afford casualties in the beginning, that is what their people will expect. If we are going to see the end of this war, it will be by sapping their will to fight. We need to force them to bleed for every hill. They need enter villages counting the ways they can be killed. They need to second guess every tree, and every rock, and every bend in the road. Their families back at home need to see long lists of dead sons, and wonder why they are fighting. If the war lasts long enough, they will decide it is more useful to see Sotelo as their enemy rather than us. After all, if they can't beat us, they can beat that bastard with an election." Hassan smiled slyly. "Or maybe they will kill him for us."

For a moment, Yaqob felt as if victory was assured. It was a foolish feeling, and he quickly shook it.

"The Third will move out of Katanga to bolster the defenses on the border of Spain. We will keep the second, fifth, and eighth in place in Chad, Chari, and the Congo respectively. If they make no moves on the Ivory Coast... we will take it. Deprive them of some of that oil."

"Why don't we do that now?" Yaqob asked.

Hassan shrugged. "I want to see what they are doing. It would be too easy to blunder there. Besides, the border legions are already conducting raids into Spanish territory. I know they crossed over in on place and dragged a Spanish accountant out of his office in some village and hung him up from a tree by his ankles."

"That's not as violent as I expected..." the border legions were the militia's that the Ethiopian government had armed. They were men weened on stories about the demon white men and the horrors they brought one hundred years ago, and they would have no love for the Spaniards. Yaqob expected them to be a wild card in the war. The raid was not too surprising.

"Not by ropes." Hassan grinned. "With hooks. Through the ankles. Man probably won't walk again."

Hooks. Yaqob imagined the weight of the man would have turned his legs to gore. The horror of that thought caused his chest-scar to throb. This man was just the beginning, Yaqob knew.

Yaqob surveyed the map, committing to memory every detail that he could. It was hard, at first, to take his eyes of the border of the Ivory Coast where that grizzly raid had taken place. He wondered what speck coincided with that village. His eyes drifted to the Suez, where the first miserable battle had been fought. He looked over the Red Sea, red-ribboned poles filling its water all the way to the Mandeb where they had lost their second fight. He followed the borders of his Empire, until they rested on a detail that Hassan had forgot to mention.

"What about Tanganyika?"

Hassan looked down at the single blue-ribboned pole in the south of the map. "I sent word we could use them. They haven't responded."

That was worrisome. Tanganyika was an independent country, but Ethiopia had been critical to the success of the current regime. Yaqob wondered if they were stalling because they thought Ethiopia had already lost, or if it was because of the other threat.

The British invasion of South Africa was an unexpected kink in their plans. At first, it had caused some manner of panic within the government when it seemed that Britain might have allied with Spain. As reports continued to flood in, it slowly became apparent that the British were acting of their own accord.

In some ways, their invasion was more a hindrance to Sotelo than it was for Yaqob. There was no love lost between the Pan-African Ethiopians and South Africa's own experiment in regional hegemony. On the other hand, Sotelo's argument to the world that he was doing no more than curtailing the growth of communism became much less believable when Britain decided to take South Africa. Suddenly it wasn't a single war between neighbors, it was a second European scramble for Africa, and Sotelo was no more that a modern day colonial Imperialist.

"Taytu will be in Dar es Salaam" Yaqob assured. "We'll know their intentions soon." There was little else to say.

When the meeting came to a close, Akanni caught up with the Emperor. Yaqob felt a twinge of nostalgia when he saw the Prime Minister's eyes. Akanni had been his fathers Ambassador to China, and when Sahle cut off ties with the Chinese while he was Emperor it had turned Akanni into Yaqob's only companion in exile. That had only been six years ago, but life had stiffled their friendship.

"Your majesty." Akanni said. "There is a man I would like you to meet. A writer who told me he knows how to win this war."

Yaqob blinked. "A writer? I don't think writers win wars."

"Ahh!" Akanni grinned. "Writers win wars all the time. They write their wars, and then they write their victories. I think more writers have won more wars than generals." Yaqob smiled. That was the wit he knew his old friend for.

"My writer friend was an officer once, too. I know he has seen wars." Akanni continued.

"Do I know this man?" Yaqob asked

"You might" Akanni replied "His name is Zenon Bie Bwana. He is..."

"A Pan-Africanist." Yaqob interrupted. "I read one of his books when we lived in China. He argued that the ancient Berbers were the ancestors of the Mande, and the modern Berbers are just Arabs." Pan-African literature was rife with writers claiming that the classical ancient civilizations had roots in black Africa, though their arguments were always based on suspicious suppositions and hackneyed ethnography. Yaqob was no anthropologist, but he took these theories with a grain of salt.

"He wrote a biography of Hannibal Barca, and he invited me to read it before it is published" Akanni said. "He was telling me that he learned a lot in his research that you might be able to use."

Yaqob thought that he sounded like a crackpot, but he needed the distraction. "I'll invite him to dinner." Yaqob said. "We need all the help we can get, anyway."
Hidden 7 yrs ago Post by Chapatrap
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Batumi, Georgia

Sergeant Mamuka shivered in the warm, evening air. Not from cold - Batumi was quite a warm area of Georgia, after all - but from anticipation. The rifle in his hands felt heavier than usual and his clothes (a standard Guard uniform made up of mix-matched old uni) felt thread-bear. The jeep was turned off behind him yet the lights atop it were left on. His shadow was stretched down the long, dark street and within seconds, it was joined by several more. Sabuari, who was out of the jeep for the first time since Mamuka had met him, could finally be seen in his full glory.

While sitting in the front seat of a jeep, he was a large man but an even larger man standing at full height. He had broad shoulders and a rather muscly abdomen. His legs were long and built like tree trunks. His face was covered in a very Russian, shaggy, black beard and moustache while his head was shaved close to the scalp. In some ways, he reminded Mamuka of Milidani, one of his colleagues, except Sabuari was much younger and larger. He wore a heavier version of the Guard uniform, with shining boots and a thick fur coat that looked much too warm for a summer night. His men were dressed identically except they wore helmets or hats of some kind - Sabuari's shaved head was bare. On each hip hung a holster holding some kind of pistol of Persian origin and a large hunting rifle hung around his shoulders.

Compared to Mamuka's youthful and lanky body, Sabuari was a god. His men easily had more experience in a single finger than all of Mamukas put together. These boys were the best of the Guard, recruited from the harsh rural towns around the Adzhara Republic. The large Caucasian shepherd, who Sabuari affectionately called "Tsarina", had padded its way to some nearby grass and sniffed at a pile of fox shit suspiciously.

Mamukas men wearily rallied behind, awaiting orders and unsure. They were a rag-tag bunch from the Batumi side of the Guard - men of all ages and skills, from young green eared boys to older, world wary ex-soldiers. They wore no constant uniform as Sabuari's guerrillas wore and their weapons were mostly salvaged from stolen Turkish soldiers. Some were in a dire state of repair and compared to the shining efficiency of Sabuari's rifles, they were figurative shit.

Sabuari snorted as he looked at the small city divison rally around each other. "Jesus, Davit told me you lads weren't much but I was expecting a bit more than this" he sneered. Mamuka bit his tongue and did not answer. Sabuari motioned for all 11 men and Tsarina to gather around him in a rough semi circle as he went through the plan.

"Well, anyway, we've got a job to do. Around this corner, there's a small Turkish barracks, one of two in the city. It's mainly used for training new recruits to Polat's army and according to the report Davit sent me, Turks were seen bringing crates stamped with Sinop Weaponry, some shitty Ottoman company that makes guns. Even if the guns are shit, we need to arm the Guards more effectively and that's where we come in. We're going to get in there, make as much noise as possible and steal anything that's not nailed down. Once we have it, we'll take it to Freedom Square in the jeep and start arming the guards who are using slingshots or throwing rocks. If there's any left over, we'll give them to citizens. Remember - ammunition is important too. Also remember not to kill too many Turks in there - we're only hitting them quickly, not taking over the base and we don't want a war crime on our hands. Any questions?"

There was silence as each man looked at each other expectantly. "Good" said Sabuari happily, patting one nearby man on the back. "Gelovani, you keep the jeep running. When you hear shooting, drive around and open all the doors. We might need to get out of here quickly" ordered Sabuari. Gelovani just nodded from underneath his brown ushanka, murmured a confirmation and ran back to the jeep.

"Right, lads. Follow me and listen to Mamuka and I. And keep quiet" his voice lowered and he motioned for the group to follow them. They formed a tight line and stuck to the shadows of a building as he approached the corner to the street that held the barracks. Sabuari glanced quickly around the corner, surveying his options. One side of the street held the barracks smack-dab in the middle. A chain-link fence separated it from the street and opposite it in the street, the buildings were boarded up. Up the street from Sabuari, a small group of soldiers were talking quickly around a jeep. They all climbed in and the jeep revved out of the street quickly.

The barracks themselves looked lightly defended. A few men with torches wandered around the edges of the fence and the gate itself looked more like a door with a small office beside it than anything. Sabuari signaled to his men and they all quickly followed. Mamuka copied what the man ahead of him did, unsure what these hand signals meant. They all spread out quickly around the street and walked directly towards the barrack gates. The guardsman, a Georgian, snorted in his sleep and woke with a start at the sound of approaching boots.

"Wha-Er, hey, who are you guys?" he asked groggily, desperately reaching around him for a pistol. Sabuari looked unimpressed with a rifle in his hands as the guardsman finally found his pistol and pointed it at him through the small window. "Well, we're here to liberate you, first of all. If you'd put that pistol away, that'd be great" started Sabuari. The guardsman, now fully awake, didn't move and instead licked his lips nervously. "This is Republic of Adzhara property. Unauthorised access from...erm....armed groups other than the army of the Republic of Adzhara is strictly prohibited and will be dealt with in a serious manner" said the guardsman, his voice cracking as he read off a card above the window. Sabuari snorted and pointed his rifle at the guardsman. His troops followed suit.

"Put the gun down, boy and let us in. We don't want to kill Georgians tonight" said Sabuari, his voice taking a patronising tone. The guardsman stared down the barrels of 10 rifles held by his enemies and suddenly decided the gate wasn't worth his life, so he placed the gun firmly on the table and sat back into his chair, defeated. "Stay down, son" grinned Sabuari, picking up the pistol and emptying it of all bullets.

The guardsman hung his head in shame, somewhat glad that he'd not needlessly died. Others, however, weren't as lucky.

Beria Street, outside of Freedom Square

The dead and wounded lay on the streets, full of Turkish bullets. Many had fought to make their way off the streets and into the sides of buildings, where they now lay covering their heads in fear. Among the dead and wounded were several Guards, who's corpses lay in a pile just metres from the Turkish line. They had given their lives to protect citizens who had stood behind them and they hadn't died in vain.

The Turkish rifles rattled on for a few moments longer after a majority of people had left the street but soon silenced. Every now and then, a Turkish marksman from the tower far above would pick out a target and splatter their head across the street. Davit stared out at the dead men from behind an overturned dumpster and silently cursed the Turkish. His men were confused, scattered after that. They needed to be organised before they left in fear.

He hadn't anticipated in this many dying so soon.
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Madison, Wisconsin

Clay Foulke looked out the window of the car and thought of home. Scenic Madison with its lakes and beautiful trees was a long way from Harlan, Kentucky. In Harlan they had trees, but they were sparse due to the strip mining. The once rolling hills were flattened, every ounce of anthracite sucked dry from them. Clay’s dad, granddad, and great-granddad had all been coal miners. They worked twelve and sixteen hour days down in those cramped mine shafts, doing whatever it took to get that four hundred foot quota of coal. His great-granddad died in a mine collapse, his granddad got the black lung and died of it at the ripe old age of forty-five after almost thirty years in the mines. Clay was four at the time and he couldn’t remember what his granddad looked like, but he would never forget that wheezing cough that filled the house, the way he always sounded like each breath was going to be his last. Clay was fourteen when his dad died. One errant spark in the shaft caused an explosion that killed Roger Foulke and twenty-four other miners. Standing in the chapel with his mom and four sisters, looking at their father’s closed casket because his body was too torn up to leave it open, Clay made a vow that he would never dig coal. He also decided then and there to help people like his family and the miners in Harlan. People who had no options, people who were forced to dig coal.

He’d gotten out of Harlan by working four different part-time jobs through the week, helping take care of his sister's, and attending school at night. He got his law degree at UK and went straight into politics. He was twenty-five when he won a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives. Ten years in state politics, followed by another sixteen as a US congressman for Kentucky’s 5th district and now he was Speaker of the House. Second in line for the presidency behind his mentor, Russell Reed, and a strong Speaker committed to using the powers of the gavel to get progressive legislation through the House. After eight terms he had yet to suffer from incumbent creep like a lot of long-serving politicians. He knew he was there for the people in his district and, as Speaker, every American across the country. He caucused with the Socialist during his earlier days in congress before he saw the way the wind was blowing and defected to the Democrats. He kept his strongly liberal bent when it came to politics, though. That was why he found himself here in Madison today. With no pressing bills in committee or on the floor, congress had recessed for a one-week summer vacation and he was taking advantage of it to do a little backroom politicking.

Jennifer Armstrong drove the car. Jen was Clay’s majority whip and acted as his enforcer in Congress. She looked like an average housewife, late 30’s with strawberry blonde hair kept in an updo. A gentle smile was always on her face and she spoke with a slight Midwestern accent that came from spending her entire life in Iowa. It was alarming to most people how quickly that charm faded when she got mad or wanted to intimidate. The housewife became a pitbull and once she got her teeth into something, not even Clay could get her to let go. Like Clay she had a modest upbringing, but unlike him she was still part of the Socialist caucus. Appointing her as whip was part of the compromise coalition to get the gavel. Clay the slightly left of center Democrat as speaker, Hayes a conservative southerner as majority leader, and Jen the Socialist as whip appeased all major factions inside the House Democratic caucus. All part of the give and take nature of politics.

“I’m nervous,” Jen said as she pulled into the long, dirt driveway leading up to a ranch-style home with a large yard.

“Why? You’ve met him before, right?”

“Of course, but that was always as part of some delegation or as part of the leadership, never one on one with him like this. I’ve never had an actual conversation with him.”

“Bring up the Packers,” Clay said with a grin. “He likes the Packers.”

The home was five miles outside of Madison on Lake Mendota. They were subtle, but Clay saw the waiting Secret Service agent in the driveway. He gave them the go ahead once he checked to see that they were who they said they were, that they were expected and that they carried no weapons.

“He’s in the back with his grandkids,” said the agent. “You can get out and walk around, I'll park your car.”

The agent took over the rental car and drove it up the road while Clay and Jen rounded the corner of the modest home. Two young children flew by, laughing and giggling while they played. Another Secret Service agent stood by a tree and watched while Eric Fernandez, the thirty-sixth president of the United States, sat in a lounge chair overlooking the lake and smoking a cigar.

To Clay, Fernandez looked wholly unnatural in his lakeside clothing. He’d never seen the president in anything other than a conservative suit and tie and maybe a collared shirt with khakis. Now he wore a garish Hawaiian shirt with pineapples printed on it. He had on swim trunks and flip-flops with a large pair of aviator sunglasses on his face.

“Clay,” said Fernandez, rising to shake his hand. Ever the charmer, he kissed Jen’s hand and smiled at her. “Mrs. Armstrong.”

“Mr. President,” Clay said before Fernandez waved his cigar at him.

“It’s Eric now. Cut the president crap out and I won’t call you Mr. Speaker and Madam Whip. Follow me, you two.”

Fernandez led them to the patio deck at the rear of the house beside the lake. A picnic table sat in the middle of the deck. On top sat a pitcher of tea and three glasses.

“I made sure they put sugar in it, Clay. I know how you southerners like your sweet tea.”

“When did you take up smoking, sir?” Jen asked as they sat down at the table.

“What did I say about the formalities,” he said with a scowl. “And I used to smoke like a chimney when I was younger. I easily smoked forty cigarettes a day; my fingers were stained yellow with nicotine. In ’61, I collapsed in my office at the Senate building and almost died from a massive heart attack. The doctors told me to stop smoking then and there and I quit cold turkey. For almost twenty years I didn’t touch a cigarette. I picked it back up after I left the White House, just a single cigar every few days. Mavis gets on to me for it, but I like smoking. I'm retired now, nothing to worry about staying alive for and, besides you gotta die of something, right?”

“I had a grandfather die of black lung,” Clay said quietly. “I can think of plenty of better ways to die than that.”

Fernandez shrugged and puffed on his cigar. The three of them spent a half hour making small talk, they talked about their families and the two congress members gave Fernandez the latest Capitol Hill gossip that he was out of the loop on.

“They’re working on my library over at UW-Madison,” Fernandez said, flicking cigar ashes off the deck. “I lobbied with Governor Reese to have it in Green Bay, but they said it was too small. It should be completed sometime next summer.”

“You don’t sound excited,” said Jen.

“It’s because I don’t like it. It’s a creepy shrine to me; it makes me uncomfortable as hell to have people honoring me like I’m some dead Egyptian pharaoh.”

Fernandez took a long drag off his cigar and exhaled smoke, cutting his eyes at the two legislators as their conversation lapsed into silence.

“So when are you two going to stop beating around the bush and get to what you came here for.”

Clay and Jen exchanged looks before Clay leaned forward in his chair to meet the ex-president’s gaze.

“We know it’s early days, and there’s plenty of time between now and then, but we want you out on the stump in ’82, campaigning.”

Fernandez bit down on his cigar, showing his teeth to Clay and Jen while he spoke.

“Why the hell would I want to do that?”

“Because the socialist party is becoming irrelevant,” said Jen. “Norman’s moving the country away from all the hard work you did, Mr. President. We had something great and unique in this country and its going away. There are maybe less than one hundred congressmen who even partially align with the socialist party.”

“The vice president is a former socialist,” said Fernandez, before he pointed a finger at Clay. “And so are you.”

“Russell Reed’s a political animal,” said Clay. “He went with us when were on top, but now he’s nowhere to be found. He’d wear high heels and a dress if it got him elected.”

“Funny, but the man knows where the people are going,” said Fernandez. “Norman beat my own goddamn vice president in a landslide. They wanted a change.”

“He’s a war hero,” Jen argued. “He could have run Republican and still got the same outcome.”

”For God’s sake,” Fernandez said, flicking ashes. “The man isn’t that far from a socialist. He just nationalized New England Weapons and he’s advocating civil rights in the South, something I could never get passed through congress thanks to your mentor in the Senate, Clay. He’s a democrat in name, but a socialist in spirit.”

“There’s also something beyond ’82,” Clay said quietly. “A strong showing by you on the stump could lead to something else.”

“A third term in ’84,” Jen said. “We’re a long way from ’84, but if Norman’s term doesn’t go well it could open the door to you.”

“You both need to clam down,” Fernandez said with a scowl. “You’re putting the cart way before the horse and asking me something I don’t want to do.”

“We just want you to think about it,” Clay said assuredly. “Norman got elected on his reputation from the war, but that won’t help if he has a weak record as president.”

“I’m thinking,” said Fernandez. “This sounds like 1912 all over again. A third party candidate splits the liberal and democratic vote and opens the door to the Republicans. I’d rather have Jaret Arnold in the White House than a Republican.”

“A weak sitting president could mean a Republican in the White House regardless, Mr. President,” said Jen. “Dixon is the likeliest candidate to come out for them. You’d cream him but he could give Norman a run for his money.”

Fernandez stared at his smoldering cigar while Clay and Jen waited for his response. The former president stubbed the cigar out in the ashtray on the table before he stood up.

“I’ll think about it," he said gruffly before adding, "and that's all I'll be doing. Come on in, my wife made steaks for dinner.”

Clay couldn’t help but smile when, as they followed Fernandez though his house, he heard him instruct the secret service at his side to throw all the cigars in the house out.

Vancouver

Inspector Mark Echols hobbled down the hallway as fast as his busted knee would let him move. He was on the fourth floor CTPF headquarters, struggling to keep up with his new partner. Special Agent Bryan Simpson, part of the Federal Crime Bureau’s special team sent to Vancouver, was working with Echols on the Brian Shea case. The two had managed a rough timeline of the dead sergeant’s whereabouts leading up to his murder.

“Come on, Echols,” Simpson chided. His ruddy face held a grin on it. “This scumbag isn’t going to catch himself.”

Back at Homicide, the big board was covered in evidence from the Shea case. What had started as just Brian Shea’s autopsy photo was now covered in paperwork, witness interviews, and Brian Shea’s Army service record. Simpson and the feebs had muscle when it came to red tape. They were able to get the Army to unass its files on the murdered sergeant. Prior to his disappearance, the Shea was part of the 203rd Engineer Battalion working out of Fort Dixon. His company handled all explosive ordnance for the base. Following the EOD led them a path to potential criminal behavior. It wasn’t uncommon for people on the base to trade goods. And if someone like Shea could get his hands on explosives then it wouldn’t be too much a stretch to tie him to—

“Reg Boland,” said Echols.

The mugshot of the surly man with shaggy brown hair was tacked up in the middle of the board alongside his rap sheet.

“Former Major in the NWC armed forces turned weapons smuggler.”

“I’ve got the FCB’s quick response team downstairs,” said Simpson. “They’re suiting up and getting ready for the raid.”

“Good,” Echols said with a creeping smile. “Let’s nail this son of a bitch.”

Burnaby
Cascadia Territory


Reg Boland shuffled his feet as he walked down the side street. While he walked calmly enough, he kept jerking his head around every so often to check to see if he was being followed. What he didn’t know was that he was in fact being followed at this very moment. He had five tails on him total, three front tails that rotated every mile and then two back tails that gave Boland a very long lease. One of the men watching from afar was Silas Crystal. He and Corporal Allen were the back team while Burress and Green were one front team. The two CIA men were the second front team, trailing in nondescript vans. They would follow before one of the CIA vans picked them up for a change of clothes and disguise before they were dropped back out to continue following the suspected arms dealer.

Six hours into their tail and Boland had taken them through Vancouver and out east where he met some shady people. The CIA intelligence was solid that Boland had to be the one supplying the Friends of Northwest Soverigenty with their weapons. Part of the annexation of the NWC was stricter gun control laws, at least until the territory could be brought into the fold as an official state. The type of firepower they were using had to come from someone like Boland.

“Eddie to the Cruisers,” their CIA handler Smith said over the radio, the agent’s voice coming through on the earwig wedged in Silas’ right ear. “We’re pulling the stakes on this one, Cruisers 1 and 2, move in and subdue the target.”

Silas ducked into an alley and pulled his radio from his jacket.

“Cruiser 1 to Eddie, what’s the problem?”

“I got some intel just now. The Territorial Police are coming for the target. We can’t let them fall into his hands. Move in and snatch him.”

Silas cursed and rogered his order before taking off after Boland. The skittish man spooked when he saw Silas running towards him and took off.

“He’s going rabbit,” Silas said into his radio. “Move in now!”
Hidden 7 yrs ago Post by Dinh AaronMk
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Dinh AaronMk Free Gorgenmast!

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Omsk, Russia

Through the tinted dusty windshield Tsung watched as the nature of the city changed over. The overbearing gray and the ruin of conflict was laid over with bolts of victorious red. Fiery streamers hung haphazardly off the face of the buildings and decorated the streets with a strong revolutionary light. It was nothing planned over weeks or months, had was clearly thrown up in hours. The chaos and peculiarity of the decoration was random and order less. And on closer inspection much of the banners and flags were re-purposed. Hanging from broken windows on wires or cables flew bed sheets and curtains. Anything that happened to be deep fiery red or bloody maroon waved in the warm breeze alongside war-shredded, battle torn flags.

The knotted and twisting rags hung draped across the streets as they passed through.

“Fuck them all, did those Siberian fucks really have so little to do?” Hala Khan groaned from the front seat.

The armored transport had no side windows to speak of. Tsung's only window to the outside was the windshield. And in that he could only make out so little. There was celebration by appearance, though he couldn't tell for sure. Civilian? Soldier? He craned his neck to peer past the soldiers with him. He tried to shut out the injured man at his feet.

“Hala Khan this is communications.” the radio sparked, “We have the location of the officer you requests.”

Khan lifted the receiver up to his lips. “Copy that.” he replied, “Where is he?”

“Sun Song. He just arrived at Dormition Cathedral.” buzzed the radio, “On a crew of two others in his tank and down one in his squadron.”

“Got it.” Hala Khan nodded. He turned back in his chair, lowering the talk box to his lap. “This man is your commander?” he asked in a low voice.

“Y-yes. I'm his driver...” nodded Tsung nervously. His head fluttered and danced. They had gotten out.

“We got his driver, did he make a missing report?”

“He did. For a Li Tsung. Driver.” the radio droned, pausing briefly, “We'll write him off the list then.”

“Thank you. Hala Khan out.”

Tsung breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone was fine, for the most part he hoped. His head was inundated with relief. He lay back against the rattling walls of the armored carrier as they drove through the streets. Even the knocking of his skull against the cold hard steel disturbed that flow of tensity and fear. If having to feel concern on whether or not he'll end up in a worse place than Russia.

“Dormition Cathedral happens to be where we're going too.” Hala said in a droning voice, “Non essential forward units were asked to report to the city center to receive commander Huei Wen.

“And we're almost there.”

Tsun could feel a smile cross his face. There was an odd comfort in knowing they were alive still. He yet knew little about them. But in the face of conflict he felt as if they were more important to him than any other individual. It was a eerie sensation. Made all the more nauseating at the blood at his feet.

He grimaced, thinking about it. Did the soldier here feel the same about his men? He had been told many did, it was a given. But was laying on the floor in his own blood a respect? Or a necessity he understood in some fashion? In the end, there was things he didn't know.

He felt the transport shake as they drove over a road bump. The injured soldier cried out in pain. Someone mumbled down to him as they went. “Fucking road bumps, they had to shell here so hard?” Hala Khan complained.

“It was this bad when we came through.” Tsun said quietly.

“Well lucky you.” Hala Khan replied groaning, “The sooner we move out the better.

“And the church's square is up ahead. I can see where they're paraded all us lucky fucks.” he gestured to the growing mass of soldiers. Black arm-banded military police stood along the roads, gesturing men in, checking the vehicles.

“I think you can walk from here.” Khan said in a low voice, “It'll be a while for us, comrade. Go ahead, get out.” he grunted. His men by the door obliged by silent instinct to open the rear hatch. Carefully, Tsun scrambled out into the dusty gray light of a city conquered.

His boots hit the ground and the door shut fast. Clamping shut before driving away leaving him with no ceremony. For Hala Khan, he left that to the rally before he and Tsun. The disconnected carnival atmosphere of Chinese self-salute fumed into the air about him. Detached from reality, it seemed almost foreign. Just hours ago Tsun had been shelled by a distant enemy. Hours ago he felt he was the only one left in a gray abysmal city alone. But now he was among a sea of ceremonious red and crimson, at the edge of a great sea orbiting about a Russian church.

Its opulent copulas stood in defiance to the violence, still glimmering in the dim over cast sun despite the debris settled on it. The bright blue highlights and clustered towers a decadent swatch of color in their own right. Roaming around its edge men armed with cameras and microphones hastened about, whipping chords and cables frantically. If something was going to happen, it was soon.

And again Tsun felt as lost here as he did when he first arrived to this army. Men of mixed station sat atop the ruin and abandonment of Omsk smoking cigarettes, idly wasting the time. Riflemen, engineers, medium and light infantry. They gave the lost tanker no heed as he wound through the woven crowds. But it all didn't seem as full as it could be. As if those present were plucked at random to simply be here. Were all these men nonessential?

It didn't take him long to locate the tanks. An orbit of the church to its front side wrong him around to a line of tanks stopped in a ceremonial salute to the stage, spaced far enough apart for the crowd to mill into the center of their aim. Tsun's hopes rocketed upwards being so close. He darted between the crews, many taking advantage of their station early and sitting bored atop the turrets. Suited and coated commanding officers and sweaty gunners alike stood in the open air waiting.

“That lucky son of a bitch! He's not dead!” he heard a woman below allowed. Tsun froze, his guts choking up into his throat. “Song, Tsun caught up!” Tse Lin called out, laughing.

“I know.” Song crooned. Tsun turned about to his comrades. He felt a warm smile again come to his face. Sat up mid-way down the row was the tank he was supposed to be driving. Battered, dented, and chipped. By all the same in one place. Long streaks of char ran along its carapace. And large chunks of olive paint had peeled away from the angular shell, leaving behind an exposed warped steel.

“Comrade, come on up here. I think the show's about to start.” Song demanded. He sat on the edge of the turret hatch. Lin further up along the raised barrel as the bald Hui lay himself down on the back. If perhaps eager, Tsun joined them.

“The lucky bastard comes home.” Hui mumbled as the driver climbed aboard, “I didn't think I'd know it.” He sat up and turned towards him, dark rings sagged under his eyes. He hadn't been sleeping well, and getting out of the fire no doubt made it worse, “Not many can get away from being shelled and live to tell about it.” he grunted.

“I can tell.” Tsun said. Thinking about it made him sore. His arm heart, his shoulder heart. His entire side felt bruised and torn. But he was alive with only a scabbing cut on his forehead.

“I've seen people get peeled apart.” he added dryly before laying back down. The comment dampened Tsung's mood and he felt a cold chill wash down his spine and his stomach churn.

“We know he's staying anyways.” Song added in a definite tone of voice, “It'll only get better from here.” he added, as on stage stepped the general.

Tsung looked up from his mud-caked boots when the microphone whined, heralding the assumption of commander Wen.

“Brothers in arms!” he started, holding out his arms. Wen was a wide man, in no part made easier than the coat that hung off his shoulders. And even at the distance between Tsung and he his age was visible to the driver, “Here on this day I have the privilege and duty to declare the first major victory against our reactionary enemies of the revolution. The first step to a great mission we as a people have embarked upon ten years ago, knowing many of us here did not participate in that early spring. But indeed, a fresh rotation and a fresh command has seen to things furthering beyond what our predecessor sought to achieve!”

On the stage, Wen acted like a politician. Despite his visible age he moved and gestured energetically. Drumming on energy to build his decleration. “And today we have shown our Russian enemies that we are not sheep!” he boomed, “Today we have shown them we are dragons! Strong and fierce, we bring the winds of change. We bring a glorious fire of freedom and magnificent liberation! And we have sent the message here at Omsk that no failed regime shall last, that we will push ahead and bring unity as they have failed. That their status in this world is that of isolation. That there is no other in the world who will come to their aid as the full strength of our people come upon them.

“And comrades, I ask of you: do you know why we succeed where they fail? Why we won today?

“It is not that our enemy is a fool, grasping on a dying order. But it is that we are an army of a hundred banners! There is no greater essence of unity here among us brothers in all of Russia! We have purpose, our enemy has only dire greed to hold onto. We are a million tribes, a thousand villages, a hundred cities, and a dozen nations. And they are none.

“Han, Mongolian, Manchu, Hui, Uyghur, and Russian. United in the common bounds of human brotherliness against an enemy who hopes to be just that. We are the great many faces of the new world. And they are the single dying gray of the old! They bear the sins of the past era while we cast it off. By fire, sweat, blood, and duty.

“Not only to prove to the world China's rightness, but for the honor of our own allies. For their fight is our own. We fight for a people who have a better claim to this state that has died.

“The Republic has no claim to a nation that does not exist. This is our reason. Our goodness is we do a charity. Their sin is they continue to bleed it dry. We bring the salvation of unity and stability. They failed, they broke and left their country to mob rule.

“And so we start, so we will go, so we will come. An army of banners. Of many colors, of many faces, and of many guns. And we shall put down the hammer!”

“I sure hope he doesn't do this again.” Lin cringed.

“I'm sure it's just a show for the press staff.” Song nodded.

Perm, Russia

“I feel fine.” Jun protested loudly, still laid out on the table. He impatiently rapped his fingers on the wooden surface. The aforementioned doctor brought up earlier in the day standing over him. He was tall, strongly built. Some might call him handsome if it weren't for the tired bags under his eyes and the thin beard growth over his broad chin. He stared down at the agent with an empty contempt in his pale blue eyes.

“That's what scares me.” he said, putting his hands on the table, leaning his weight on them. Behind him several students loitered by the door. Their eyes wide and expressions pale and ghostly, “Obviously you're not feeling any discomfort from your injuries, not in any serious degree. I'm afraid if I do let you out you'll break something worse from moving. I really insist that you stay still for as long as possible. We'll even find a proper be-”

“I don't fucking need to stay put.” Jun sneered. He lifted himself on an arm, “I've had worse.”

“No doubt you have.” the young man nodded dismissively, “But I'm not concerned about those, I'm concerned about the right now. And I can't in good conscious let you go on your current injuries.”

Jun thudded his head against the table surface, staring angrily up at the Russian leaning over him. “I do have some questions of my own.” asked the doctor, “For formality.”

“What are they?” Jun groaned.

“Well for a start, I could use a name.” asked the doctor to the tinging resentment of Jun. The sharp sneer on the agent's face must have bit him, for he stepped back nervously.

“I'm not at liberty.” Jun responded.

“Right, top-secret spy-radio show stuff.” he sighed, “I suppose I could always put you down on paperwork as Mr. Bastard.”

“What this all about then?”

“Formalities.” the doctor said dismissively, “Professional practice all in the all in the end. I probably may not see you again, but I could always pass it off on our own agent friend and he can figure out how to get it back to whoever the fuck the two of you take orders from.

“I'm just doing my part.”

“I'm afraid I still won't give it to you.” Jun sneered. It wasn't long that he was beginning to feel irritable with the plains clothes doctor before him. Even by asking his name, he was going too deep. And laying out in rags and bandages he felt far too naked than he wanted.

“Now, this severe pain insensitivity, are you receiving treatment at all?”

Jun turned his head the other way, facing the wall alongside him as he shifted across the table. He hesitated his response, considering if he should answer at not. Or if this man would persist in his inquiries until he broke. “I was.” he finally answered, “But I lost the medication for it.”

“How do you 'lose' that sort of thing?” interrogated the doctor, shocked and cynical.

“I'm not at liberty to say.”

“Well what are you at liberty to say?”

“I was prescribed Naloxone.” Jun said, “I didn't have much when I came out and I had been rationing it. But I ran out before I got to Perm.”

“Ran out, or lost?”

“They're both the same.”

The doctor impatiently muttered something under his breath, the Russian far too soft for Jun to make out; unlike the conversation they've been having, “We're going to have to keep you here. At least for a few weeks.” he said, “I'll bring it up with our agent we'll need to get you a proper mattress. I can't have you on that wooden table forever. Do you understand?”

Jun didn't answer.
Hidden 7 yrs ago Post by gorgenmast
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((A collaborative post between myself and Dinh AaronMk))

Off the Coast of Somalia

The jet wing glode through the air, their engines whining softly as they sped along. In the sky, their pattern resembling that like an arrow head of cranes soaring through the sky. Their shining bodies aglow with the high African sun. “No ID on any hostile aircraft, over.” Song Yu said, “Are we sure they're out here?” he asked, voice cracking over the radios.

“This was the bearing they headed out at.” Han Wen said, “But keep a look out for something.

“On the water too, in case they went down.” he added, a lump choking up on his throat. Though nothing of sadness for the cargo plane and more of the distress of failure.

“I copy that comrade.”

All three kept on, sailing high over the waters as they searched for the Ethiopian airplane, and the unidentified hostile that was to pursue it. But above them was only open sky. And below clean waters, no sight of debris drifting among the waves. A ways off, visible as a brown stain in the deep blue of the ocean lay an island of sandy bronze.

“Comrade!” Chen Wu declared on the radio, his voice cracking as much as the static. “Potential target on our right! I see a glint.”

The sudden deceleration made Wen jump in his seat. His grip tightened on the joy stick controls, his heart thumped loudly in his chest as he turned his head. Against the waves there was something. A shining blinking dart rising up into the air. Below them, but headed towards them.

“Is that our plane to escort?” asked a tense Wu. His breathing was tense. The heavy sawing of his rattling exhales clear in the radio static. He sounded as tense as he was inside. Wen watched the distant boggy climb in altitude, keeping a steady pace.

“I don't think so.” he said with a faint breath, gently turning his plane around, the others following suit, “It's moving far too fast.”

He kept his attention on the mystery airplane. Watching as the light of the sun blinked off of it. Watching as it phased between a silver beacon and a dark shadow silhouetted against the distant sky.

He held his eyes on it in raptured awe as it leveled off at their own altitude, flying straight into them as they did to it. “Comrade?” the intercoms buzzed as the distance was closed. Perhaps it was a mistake, a miscalculation. He wondered at last minute if by chance this was a dream, if the Spanish were more than they were, or the Ethiopians.

The thought buzzed, like a constant thread against the sureness of their own capabilities being their own, and not on others. Its humming intensified as they drew closer. Then with a break it exploded all at once. In a flash bright yellow streaks swept the air about them and the radios exploded with cries for orders. Metal sheered and rippled as a line of gun fire swept the wings and body of Wen's jets. Bright sparks exploded off the wings of his partners as bullets ricocheted across the metal skins. With a high-pitched tear a long line was drawn through the cockpit glass.

“Break formation! Engage!” Wen cried as he dove violently downward, swerving into a plunge towards the ocean. His head slammed back against the backseat and he clenched his teeth as the blood drained backwards, his vision blurred just as he looked up at the course they were on. Time slowed for long enough he could see the underside of their competition. Confirming for once they were not alone with jets.

His heron rattled as the exhaust of the Spanish craft brushed against his own. The other two jets under his command had arched off to the side, making a wide sweep. Alarms blared in his cockpit.
__________________________________________________

In twitching pulses, the needle on the ammunition counter dipped slightly downward as red-hot tracers streamed out from the Fantasma's nose guns. A metallic blur whipped across in front of the Spanish pilot, prompting him to pull down hard on the joystick in pursuit. The Spanish fighter jerked hard to the right as the plane banked. The gyroscope crosshairs fishtailed to and fro as the pilot brought the Fantasma about, falling in the general vicinity of the foreign jet fighter.

To his knowledge, there had never been a actual engagement between jet-propelled fighters until now. The Fantasma's pilot had never trained with this airplane with dogfighting in mind. The Spanish built the Fantasma to subjugate the skies - to trounce the slower and less-agile propeller-bound aerial forces of their neighbors and allow bomb-laden Gargolas to decimate enemy cities unmolested. Fantasmas were not built for an even fight. And he was outnumbered three to one.

A string of gunfire passed over his right shoulder and then swept down toward him like a long, diffuse whip. The Fantasma rattled as bullets embedded themselves somewhere in the fuselage behind the seat. He retaliated by firing a pulse of gunfire at the plane he had tried to hone his sights on. A second-long squeeze on the joystick trigger sent his retort off before he banked down toward the sea to shake the plane behind him.

These Chinese jets were more robust planes; their twin engine nacelles made them sturdier, and likely faster too. They probably carried more ammunition and fuel than a Fantasma. But already, it was apparent that the Chinese jets could not approach the Fantasma in terms of maneuverability. They were galleons to his frigate, there was an opportunity here yet to shame the Chinese and demonstrate western superiority. He cut back on the throttle and allowed the plane to bank down hard toward the ocean.

The plane pursuing the Fantasma banked down after the Spanish jet, surrendering his pursuit position and falling in the sky ahead of the Spanish fighter. The Chinese had taken the bait; he punched the throttle and spun about as fast as he could without loosing consciousness. The Spanish fighter leveled out with the Chinese jet right before him. The Chinese pilot, realizing what had happened, gunned the throttle to escape the closing Fantasma. Twin cones of flame shot out from behind the enemy craft, sending it rocketing away from the Spaniard's crosshair, but the Fantasma loosed a hellacious volley of tracerfire upon the jet before it escaped.

It was now the Spaniard's turn to be victimized. The third Chinese plane had since closed in and came upon the Fantasma. Tracers sped by and fell into the ocean before him, generating miniscule plumes of vaporized seawater in the distance. He reacted with an evasive bank, hoping to miss the arc of lead coming toward him. The plane jerked to the left, but Chinese lead connected with the Spanish plane regardless.

A sharp burst of pain accompanied the sound of metal clashing behind the pilot's ears. He flinched when fragments of a Chinese round found its mark on his right shoulderblade, screaming a raspy "coño!" as he squirmed from the pain. A brief glance behind his shoulder confirmed a a matting of blood on his fatigues, and tufts of disturbed upholstry from his backrest. But he did not seem to be bleeding profusely. It was a superficial wound. Even so, the pilot's fury had been stoked. The Chinese would pay tenfold for the blood they had spilled.
__________________________________________________

Alarm buzzers screamed over the roar of the engines and the whistling of the wind. Cracks spider-webbed across the cockpit shield. The shield against the elements was broken, and with it had opened to madness gushing into the chamber with a wail and a buzz. Han Wen grabbed the throttle between tightly clutched fingers as he settled back into the air. Sharp pin pricks of pain dotted his face. He could feel the slow welling of blood across his cheeks as the wounds open by shards of glass began to bleed open. His goggles were frosted over in a dusting of scratches and glass shards. The wet, warm air that gusted in made things no better.

The first stage of the engagement had been fast. And no one could have estimated the speed of the Spanish fighter. Though they were faster, the Spaniard was nimbler. And he had scored hits. Wen knew that none of it would be fatal to him, but as he climbed he watched with horrified disbelief as the fuel gauge flapped and wailed back and forth maddeningly alongside the steadier climb of the altimeter. "Shit, shit. Fuck." he grumbled, his breath shaking. His head was a flurry of thoughts and a storm of excitement. He could hear his heart thrumming like a bass drum above the noise of the cockpit. It was as frightening as it was exhilarating. But the fuel gauge was rapidly dampening the mood.

Frantically he banged and flipped switches across the cockpit dashboard. Many of the buzzing alarms died off, but a low drawn constant remained. Red lights continued to blink and flash inside the dials. "Come on, there's a reserve somewhere." he sneered diving up and turning over. He watched as his fellow two fighters swept the sky in arcs, fighting to outflank the Spanish fighter. Golden bolts of light streaked the sky from where the tracers swept.

He gritted his teeth, grinding them in irritation. He'd been hit, and he was afraid he was leaking fuel. He spun the plane around and leveled it, flying towards the coast, "Han Wen, as much as I hate to admit it I got to pull out." he admitted, "I got a hit to the fuel reserves. I'm leaking gas and I don't know how long I can stay air born. I'm pulling out. See you in Addis." he promised.

"Did you tr-" Yu screamed over the radios, the bellow of guns beckoned in the background.

"I already did." Wen interrupted with a heavy tone, "There's nothing I can do here. I got to get out. You two can do it. Drive him out of the skies!" he demanded.

Song Yu nodded, glancing out over the waves as the Spaniard dipped away from his sights. The shinning dart of his CO's jet was trailing behind an unhealthy streak of smoke. "I'll see you back at the nest." he said.

"You and Wu know what to do." the officer responded.
__________________________________________________

A duo of Chinese jets traded turns launching barrages of burning lead at the Spanish fighter. The Fantasma bobbed and swerved in front of the pursuing Chinese, too busy making itself a difficult target for its attackers to realize that one of the three adversaries was now fleeing for the nearest patch of solid ground. The air around the craft quivered and trembled as a torrent of rounds tore past. Occasionally one would nick the wings, adding yet another bullethole ringed with fresh, exposed aluminum to the numerous pockmarks and craters marring the aircraft. In spite of the damage it had received, the Fantasma proved itself a nimble and savage fighter.

The Fantasma's master stole a glance at his pursuers before drawing back on the throttle and yanking the joystick down into his lap. The fighter's response was rapid, jerking the pilot against the seat and pressing in on the wet spot gradually forming on his back. The plane suddenly spun skyward, going into something resembling a controlled stall. The Chinese shot past with a pair of whistling roars, immediately banking onto their sides and turning about once they realized that the pursued had suddenly become the pursuer. The Fantasma dipped down out of its upward dive and gave chase to the closer of the communist bogies.

The enemy plane had turned about to face the Spaniard, throttling its twin engines to close and engage. The Fantasma rocketed ahead, speeding ahead and tearing through wispy contrails of exhaust left by the one of the planes. Like jousting knights in another century, the planes screamed across the sky to destroy one another. The glint of the sun reflecting on the Chinese cockpit guided the Spanish pilot on; the gyroscope sights settled squarely on the object dead ahead. No doubt, his counterpart was readying himself. To break too soon from this head-on course would allow the enemy plane to easily aim and fire upon the Fantasma. The Chinese pilot surely understood this as well. Seconds lingered on before the the moment to break. The Chinese jet drew rapidly closer, it's profile in the sights growing larger and larger.

His index finger constricted itself against the joystick trigger; the Fantasma pumped the air full of lead and fire. No sooner than he did, the muzzles on the Chinese jet flashed with fire. A stream of bullets flew head on into the Spanish jet, and the Chinese jet banked and barrel rolled away at the final second - only barely avoiding a collision.

The cockpit windshield erupted in a network of spiderwebbing cracks. A bullet embedded itself into headrest behind the pilot's head - missing his helmet by mere inches and releasing a puff of pulverized stuffing fiber. Another round smashed through the plexiglass, ushering in a violent torrent of humid air before crashing into the pilot's shoulder. A mist of airborne blood swirled through the turbulent cockpit air, spattering the instrumentation and the pilot's helmet in a fine spray of bright red fluid. Immediately, he could feel the warmth of his own blood pooling against his fatigue and dripping down onto his breast and armpit. This injury would be far more grave than the previous.

The pilot stole a glance to the air behind him. He could only see two of the enemy jets, and they were not coming around to engage. In a loose wing they were flying back to the South - presumably due to low fuel. It was intensely tempting for the Spaniard to turn around and chase them, shooting them from the sky now that they only had enough fuel to return home. But the Chinese aircraft were faster than his Fantasma - pursuing them would not pay off. And the wounds he had received needed immediate attention. As the pilot's adrenaline drained away, his attention turned to the seeping bullet wound on his left shoulder.

Without turning back to face the Chinese again, the Fantasma screamed northward toward its carrier in the Red Sea. There he would go to lick his wounds and report to his superiors of the engagement. For decades, the Spanish and the Chinese existed in a state of peaceful animosity, but today first blood had been drawn.
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Green Island Rocket Facility


He had been the king of his home. A emperor in a palace of humans. His size had assured him that much respect, holding court over several other dozen felines. But now he had been removed from his Forbidden City. Taken far from his Mongolian home. His demesne had been cut to a smaller size, now no longer given the freedom to explore the sanctified halls of the Ullanbator research facility, where his master's fondness had kept him out of the hands of the humans that darted the halls.

When he had first arrived here, he had thought he had been forsaken by his human. He had been stolen off by a lackie who grumbled like he had a bone to pick with everyone and slouched. He afforded the Emperor no kindness or tribute. And quickly as he could was delegated out.

And now the stocky feline king of Ullanabator lay sprawled across a mattress of fluff in a large cage, tucked in the far corner of a cavernous room, hanging from a hundred hooks cables and an infinite number of mysterious human craft works dangled from the stone walls. The air was crisp and cool, comfortably dry. As opposed to outside where the stifling humid heat made the kingly cat to sweat under his thick gray coat of fur. He'd started to shed, but this had ended when he was given this new barony to rule. And he observed it from the tables and shelves, sprawled across the cold metal surfaces with his great stretched body, full fur laying flat against the polished steel, like rivers of soft silvery wool.

When things were more lively this mighty room teemed with humans. Humans who would let him out of his cage so he may wander. Though he chose instead to lay across the top of his vacation palace and to watch the puny humans busy themselves with the trivialities of their pursuits. But there was entertainment to him, a dance of motion and the wild music of their work entertained his laziness well. And sometimes they might wander over; feed him a treat of roast duck and scratch him behind the ears and where he couldn't hit that itch. They were almost a substitute to his old handler. Almost.

Today the attention had been delayed. Today only early in the morning had he been let out to wander under the watchful gaze of a man in a green uniform. He'd been fed and watered once, so now his stomach rumbled. He was hungry, but not starving; merely mildly discomforted at the emptiness in his large belly. He had pissed and shit the rest out in a box in the corner, and things were becoming incredibly sub-standard.

There was on top of it a great silence that had befallen the room since the man in green left him alone. No one else showed up. No work noises were made. And no specters sang. Everything hung in a dim boring silence. A dull flat spread over a so far terrible afternoon.

But he couldn't do anything. So with a soft sneeze he swept his tail across the mattress. Tucking in his legs for added comfort as he half shut his eyes. Opting to sleep through the dullness. Such things had happened before, and the people usually came back.

The time wallowed through with bitter laziness. No one second feeling any different than the other. And the good Emperor laxing through rest and wakefulness. Each time nothing feeling any more different than it was before. The monotony was beginning to feel eternal until doors opened.

The rasping groan of the heavy doors opening on the far side of the door was enough to put his highness on high alert as his ears shot up. His fat face turning to the origin of the disturbance. Sniffing the air, there was something. Sweat, deodorant. People.

“I'll grab the fat fuck and hold him, you just slip the suit on.” a human voice said, drowning in self-pity and self-loathing. He imagined all humans hated themselves in some way. None were as grand as he, with a life as rich and well fed.

“I'm sure we went over it enough.” said another. From around the corner of some machinery walked two men in green. In one's hand a familiar fold of the stretching, pinching skin they like to fold he and his kin up in. The other walked with a cage. Neither looked respectful of his majesty.

Head craned up all the way, his ears perked to the full manner. He watched with a wide expression as a nervous unease slithered through him. A harsh tempest of anxiety welling deep side. His tail drummed and beat his bed as he half rose to a sitting position. With a rattling snap the large cage's door was opened, and gloved hands were reaching in for him.

Fighting was useless in the end. Yowling in considerable personal discomfort he was pulled out from his bed, hanging limp in the vice-like grip of the human handlers he was swept up into the air to fly to towering heights by his grip. “Yeeeaaauouuuuuuu.” the Emperor moaned bitterly as he hung in mid air.

He struggled and kicked at the handler's hands. The anxiety reaching a full horrified shame as he was handled and forced deep into the pinch suit. He felt his fur hitch and ride up against him as the tight fit collapsed about his legs and torso. A stormy flurry of whipping slaps did nothing when ultimately he was stuffed and closed in.

He felt his nerves tighten in discomfort over the suit. He stood stocky like a statue as one of them placed him on the table as they turned to worked his carrier. He cared not to move. The suit feeling as if it glued his joints. He could only yowl in embarrassed defeat, watching the two open the crate door with widened eyes. And with masterful brutality by the two, he was gently placed in the carrier, the gate closing behind with a soft tick.

He felt the world swing back and forth and around as he was carried off. Yowling and mewing anxiously as he was carried off. And as he went it dawned on him why he had not eaten, nor had he drank since this morning: for his bowls loosened but he felt nothing fit to release.

He dared to move in the envelope he was in. Turning his head to the side to watch the world pass by stiffly. He could move easily, but the tight embrace of the suit was none the less poor; only his fail and face seemed to be absolutely free.

Outside past the metal grid of the crate window the gray of the human world swept by. Pipes, cables, concrete. A few odd colors, but a sustained monotony ruled. Quickly he found himself missing the cavern he had called home for the past several months. It had a comfortable regularity. This was unnatural, this was terrifying. And suddenly it was gone.

His world filled with a bright blinding light that burned itself on his eyes. And slowly fading he realized he was outside. For all the sun-drenched rocks and the bitter, salty, moist air of the new outside world. He was beginning to sweat and quickly. If it could get any worse, it was. He yowled loudly, protesting the situation. He demanded his privileges. He did not want this. He did not want to go anywhere. And he did not want to go up.

Metal grating and steel mesh descended beyond the safety of the carrier box. The distant stone walls of wherever he was likewise. Cut outs and windows passed, all darkened and reflective in the afternoon. Faintly in the distant glare he could make out the mirror reflection of something great and tall. A great unknown. It terrified him. It terrified him more than his situation could have terrified him.

“Got him?” a human asked bluntly.

“No shit.” someone responded. The crate was handed over, sweeping swiftly through space and turning. He staggered against the side of the crate. Mewling in response. He heard the door behind him open and soft hands grabbed hold of his frozen torso and he was pulled out into the light.

Turning about he saw briefly the peak of the monolith he now flew alongside. Red and pointed, it jousted upwards with a defiant brilliance. Like a tail of steel.

And then there was a man's face. Several, looking at him. He recognized one as the tired and bedraggled person who had brought him here and tried minding him for a time. He had disappeared, only to come back and somehow the king believed it wasn't coincidence. It was clearly an omen of something impending.

“Everything look good?” asked the other man. A wider, friendlier sort of person. He recognized him from his minor barony, one of the balding types in a white coat. Which to no avail he retained.

“Yes, it does. Now get him in and let's go get ready.” the other said, in the typical sharp spit of an angry sort.

“Alright.” side the other, turning his majesty about. A green suited human leaned over to the side of the monolith, grabbing hold of a lever and opened a door. Making an opening to a dark cavern inside. Protesting, he screamed as he was put in, kicking and flailing best he could in his current situation.

But as he was strapped in he realized: he was probably too lazy. And then the hatch sealed, shutting out the world. Enclosing him in absolute darkness, save for a silver dime of a window before him. He was strapped down into some sort of cushion. Looking up at some sort of hole into the bright blue above. His breathing quickened. The unknown seizing fast. He pulled and fought against the straps, to no avail.

And again, time passed. And as warm as the new prison was, it was at least dry.

In the dim silence of the darkened chamber he only had his heart to listen to. Rapidly it tapped against his ear drums. Counting the micro-seconds as the feline royalty starred wide-eye through the port hole before him. The silver light that came through was the only calm normality. The brilliant sun the only bulb. It didn't calm him all, but it eased the edges. Softening the initial panic, settling him into the mentality this was just the tests the lesser cats went through. And the fear leaked away. Enough so that he could think again about his stomach.

He still had not eaten, and that bothered him. He mewled defensively as something shifted under him from under the cushions. He mewled in discomfort at his shifting empty stomach. And again he mewled in distress as the world around him rumbled and rattled.

A great tempest threw itself against the outer shell of the tower he sat in. A fierce vibration exploded up and a deafening roar welled from underneath, turning and transforming into a gradual scream. And then a roar of violent triumph. The roar turned into a thunder, and finally into an explosion and his head fell back against the back of the cushion. Pressing more and more into the soft embrace as everything moves. Not forwards, but up.

Everything seemed to drain away in an instant. He screamed in horror, but his primal roars were drowned out by the godly rocketing of the engine under him. His blood rushed back into his head, his sight faded away. Black halos grew in from the edges of his vision. The violent rumbling was quick to evolve into a ferocious earth-rattling shake. Every bone in his body felt as if it were to break as he was tossed side to side against the embrace of the straps against his chest and stomach. His legs stood out before him, being pulled back by the immense forces slamming into the cat.

The thunderous roar burned and burned, shreaked and shreaked. In hazy vision he watched the sky thin and the air darken through the porthole window. A glowing silvery glow exploded around the edge, like a halo. An aura of ambient silver light that burned and shone more at the sky faded more from its solid blue, to an inky black tempest. The rattling began to die, but the force remained.

His ears rung fierce from the violent cacophony that had filled them. His body still felt heavy, as if a weight of an entire man still rested against it. But this began to lift. He meowed youdly, his very voice echoing against the metal walls.

Action tiem

Like a pop, something sounded behind him. Muffled by steel and all other matters of human creation something disconnected, something happened. He was struck with a sudden renewed burst of fear as an airy weightlessness took hold. Lifting and gently tossing him around in the straps. It was where the strong. A greater fear came upon him, one born from the loss of the sensation of weight. A panic thrust deep into his stomach over all things being turned differently. His heads were clenched shut, had been since the glowing of the silver fire grew too bright.

He mewled nervously, twisting and turning in his confines. Shutting his eyes as the light grew. He threw himself about, trying to escape. But to no avail, the straps were too strong, and the buckles locked tight. Everything felt weightless. Alien. He felt like he was drowning, but he could breath.

And then something tickled his nose.

With a loud sneeze he sprayed through the air a cloud of mucus. Instinctively he opened his eyes to see the effect splatter against the walls all around him. Springing and cleaning to the imperfect rough surfaces. And as he gazed to the window, all feelings of panic subsided. Like a hand closing off the flame softly, the furious, terrifying flame of fear subsided and died, turning to peace as through the porthole he looked out to the world beyond. A new world.

Clear brilliance spanned ahead and on into infinity. A massive, visceral landscape of emptiness. But in itself, hardly empty. Far off beyond the infinite horizon the brilliance of more stars than he had ever seen flew in the great sky beyond his own. It was as if it were the night sky, but at the same time it wasn't. In the darkness there was an illuminated brilliance. A pure golden and silver light that shone and reflected off the interior of the hatch window. A pure and perfect sheen. And as the capsule spun the source came into view, with more blinding glory than it ever had before.

The sun, a glowing golden coin that hung far beyond his reach hovered in the distance. Unveiled from the sky and the clouds and the dust and the fog. Unmolested from smog and smoke. And revealed naked without glass and concrete was the sun. As pure and bright as it could ever be. And in its furious humbling brilliance it burned as much. Its brilliant pure light warmed through the cabin. The cat shied its eyes away from it, shirking back at the blinding golden fire that wrapped over them. His coat felt warm in the glow. And then it was gone.

Its orange halo descended beside the port. Disappearing in the eclipse of the sides and the backs of whatever machine of man's design he rode shotgun in. The infinite brilliance of stars near and far resumed control. Even the most brilliant ivory, silver glow of the moon made a cameo. In all, the stellar sites were inflaming a sensation of awe and wonder. A brilliance he had never before witness. Until the Earth came into view.

Like a gemstone teardrop was the rock he had called home presented itself. Filling the entire window with the awe of its visage. The ocean bodies and mountains and forests and desserts he could hardly wish to comprehend revealing himself. The scale, wonder, and purity of the land below enforcing a dencentering sensation. How could he now be the center of it all if he was so small compared to the world below?

Was this it? Was this mankind's usurpation of his throne? To shoot down his godliness? If it was so, they had won. There was no terror now. No greed. No ego. Only awe and wonder in the brilliance of a wider universe.

If it had been the goal of the Chinese to destroy the last God-Emperor, it had happened. They had won.

Omsk, Russia


Tsung energetically pulled his fingers through his hair. Even despite the shower he was pulling out thick clods of dust and debris that had accumulated in muddy blobs. The wash of cold water had reminded him of the persistent existence of filth on his scalp with the cleansing of his body. The five minutes he had was hardly enough to go through and thoroughly clean out the accumulation of wear on his head.

Sat on dusty cots pulled in for the night he and his crew mates sat at the top floor of a small flat over looking the river that cut through Omsk. It was a temporary residence for them. At best the night, he was assured they were pulling out tomorrow. So like he, the rest had gotten their appointed showering in now. Tse Lin had disappeared sometime after their left, and with the night in the thick of darkness she hadn't come back. Although Sun Song showed no evident sign of fear.

“How about Qin Wi?” Hui asked Song as he dragged a single-bladed razor across his scalp. At this moment Tsung was his most jealous of the gunner, he had the most effective means of keeping clean among them, with no hair to speak of to tend to.

Qin Wi as Tsung had learned was a commander under Song. Barely as much a sergeant as he was. And as Tsung had also learned, their commander – his new commander – Huei Wen was a duel enthusiast.

“I don't know why you think I should do this.” Song said calmly as he looked out the window at the urban night outside. Even from a small town that observed an energy curfew, Tsung had not seen a city darker. Not a light shone anywhere. It was basked in the most perfect of darkness. The over head stars shone with an unobstructed cleanliness never had he seen. It had to be the cool air, cooler than he had ever known.

Traveling across the sky as well he could watch the wing lights of bombers inbound into the city from the west, or outbound to it. The suppression must continue.

“Because maybe if you impress the good commander enough he may promote you.” Hui chuckled, “And I'd think you'd make a better division commander then Sen Wu.”

Song chuckled. “Thank you for the compliment!” he said with a cry of dry humor, “But I don't really see how it's necessary. I got this far on actually proving myself in battle I don't need to start some trend over wushu matches for promotions. It's just not how the things should work.”

Hui sighed defeated, “I concede your honorableness.” he replied sarcastically, whipping clean the blade of his razor. “But answer me this, do you think I could take him on?” he asked, “My position for his if I win!” he laughed.

Song turned from the window. His expression carried a spooky weight and a stern dissatisfaction. “Fuck no.” he said disapprovingly, “I'll get you promoted when I think you deserve it.

“Besides, it'd hardly be beyond my powers.” he added, grumbling.

Tsung rung his fingers through his wiry black hair once more. Sighing defeated he brushed his fingers off on the legs of his pants and fell back against the wall. His head hit the plaster drywall with a soft thunk, and he could feel a new wave of fine dust trail down on his head. He blinked agitated as a fine cloud sailed down to dock in his eyes. “You know it's a bad idea to even wear hair.” Hui mocked playfully, “Have you thought about shaving your head bald?”

Tsung groaned as he rubbed the dust from his eyes. “I- ah... No, I don't think I ever have.” he stuttered nervously.

“Shit.” Hui laughed, shaking his head, “Well I'll let you borrow my razor.” he invited, stepping up off his cot and leaning over to Tsung, “You can cut your head clean and not worry about it.” he warmly suggested, smiling.

Tsung cracked open his eyes and looked at the folded razor being offered to him. The muffed and battered metal casing barely shone with a matte finish in the gas lantern lighting of their temporary bunk.

“I... Uh- no thank you. Not tonight.” he grumbled miserably, running his hands over his face. Sitting down, the past day was catching up to him. He was feeling heavy and tired, and he didn't feel like he could hold a blade steady his hands were still shaking so much. He had found his crew, that's all he needed to feel warm invitation. When he had recovered – if he had – maybe he'd take up Hui's offer.

The crewman shrugged indifferently. “Alright then.” he shrugged, sitting back down.

“I got it from a bird Qiu Jian got into some shit this past afternoon and will be forced to dish out at mess.” Song said suddenly.

“Oh for fucks sake!” Hui cried.

“What?” Tsung asked.

“Qiu Jian, he's an asshole.” answered Hui unceremoniously, “He likes to be uptight.”

“And he'll be hung over.” Song added.

“And that'll make it worse.” Hui laughed uncomfortably, “I don't imagine he'll be very kind then?”

“Not since he started complaining about Lin sneaking away the last apple. His last apple.” their officer grumbled bitterly, “So you better have your cards at least, he's going to try and take his revenge out on all of us.”

Tsung only had to use his ID card a couple of times. The last time was to join up with this unit several months ago. He felt his heart suddenly drop a beat and hang limp, his head going numb as he realized he didn't know where it was. “Damn it!” it blurted out, shooting up from his cot, desperately searching his person.

“What is it?” Song asked quizzically.

“I-I don't know where it went.” Tsung panicked, shooting up from his cot and pacing about. Thinking hard. “It was... Was...” he started, “In my coat.” he scanned the walls, searching for his heavy coat. “I had it.” he said.

“I do remember handing it back when you returned.” Song explained, “You sort of went missing without it.”

“You keep your card in your coat?” Hui asked.

“And I- uh... I think I brought it with me to the showers.” he realized. It dawned on him like a lead weight. He was in a moment calm, then tense.

“Better hurry up and get there before the security detail closes things down!” Sun Song calmly encouraged, dismissively waving his hands, “You have time still, but go on and get down there and get it. Last we need is for one of us to get hung up at the food light and have half the column hating us.

“Go. Go on.” he again said.

Tsung nodded, eagerly taking the dismissal. He thundered out the door and for the stairs, jogging down the wooden steps, often missing several in one bound. His hand hovered over the chipped and plaster dusted handrail as he went. From the bullet-holed hallways he heard the late night chatter and laughter of the rest of the unit, the sounds of music swam from somewhere.

On the ground floor a lone radio operator leaned against his heavy back pack radio. A gauze bandage across his cheek kept him from bleeding onto the device as he idly spun through the dials, listening into every radio frequency he could. A ciagarette hung limp from his lips as he starred bored at the dial's faces. Then up to Tsung as he clattered down to the ground floor. He offered a silent nod of acknowledgment before turning back to his silent duty. Tsung wondered if he was really doing anything productive, or simply being bored. Like scanning the radio for a song. But for him, it was for war.

“Uh, anything?” Tsung asked distantly as he turned away from him.

“A lot of nothing.” the radio operator said dryly, “Entertainment radio's being re-mobilized and is down right now. And the Russians changed their codes again, so I can't say what they're doing.

“Why do you ask?” he added, lifting up his head. The gauze was heavy further along by his hear. A red stain in the fiber bloomed out from the side. The sight made Tsung's stomach crawl and twist. He turned to the door so the operator couldn't see his face go pale.

“Curious.” he said, biting his lip.

“Good enough comrade.” the operator said dryly, bordering between wakefulness and sleep.

Tsung nodded stiffly as neared the back door. He felt stiff, and his mind wandered back to the injured soldier in that armored car. Pulling the door open – it didn't need much force – he leaned up against the door frame. His breaths heavy as he collected himself. He shut his eyes, remembering back to training, how his drill officer had told them to simply remember to breath.

He didn't think it'd actually come into use, but any time was a good time now. He took a deep breath, and exhaled. Imagining the image being swept aside by a rush of water. Opening his eyes again, he looked up into the barren yard where the shower tents had been quickly thrown up. Surrounding it burned barrels of twigs, paper, and unusable refuse that could be burned. The evening was cool, but not bitter cool. And somewhere a shower head was running.

Tsung presumed it was a late comer, too busy to get to them before and just now seizing the moment before security detail shut off the water. It would hardly be an issue, and he'd be in to check and out. He stepped out into the muddy water, the ground whetted by shower run off.

Walking over the rubber mats on his way up he figured what if the jacket was there? It'd surely be in the hands of the quartermaster's office, where ever that was. He'd need to find that. The idea made him moan. It wasn't pleasant, and sounded like a lot more trouble than it was worth. And it made him more tired than he was thinking about it. But it was gone as he parted open the tarpaulin tent flaps to enter as he looked up.

He had assumed it'd be another guy. Someone he felt he could get by without issue. But looking up there was not the pillar build of a foot soldier or any man he knew, but a distinctly feminine hour glass. He stopped frozen, an unmuted fire smoldering to life under him. Blood that had rushed out from before suddenly screamed headlong up and he staggered dizzied, starring on at the rivulets of water that flowed down along the yellowed back of the unexpected patron.

The erotic fire turned quickly into a choked surprised noose as he realized just whose curves the water followed. Black hair let down, he was watching Tse Lin. His breathing tightened, his chest constricted as her slender body curved and stretched as she combed through her head. Half turning, scrubbing aside the dirt. And then looking up.

“Oh fuck!” she shouted, reeling back suddenly as she saw Tsung standing at the entrance way. Her arms flew to her, wrapping themselves across her tight breasts and tucking away whatever else.

“S-sorry!” Tsung stammered awkwardly, spinning back from the door. Tripping over the heels of his boots. With a graceless half turn he regained his balance. But his heart raced at a million miles a minute. His head swam in milk. And a cold sweat beaded all over his skin. He trembled as his clam hand went to his eyes.

Everything felt frozen, and his thoughts took on a jarred mess. He shrunk back, mumbling incoherent thoughts to himself. He would have turned to go back inside and to wait...

“Tsung?” Lin called out from inside. The hiss of the shower head had died. She sounded nervous, and as shaken as he.

“U-uh...” he stammered weakly. He was to say, “Yea?” but what came out was too jarred for words.

She sighed. “Fuck it, what do want?” she asked. She spoke somewhere between a scolding mother and a concerned sister. The bruntness caught the tank driver off guard, he hesitated.

“Ay-I-I'm looking for my coat.” he answered finally, “I thought I left it h-here. I- uh... it's got my ID in it. Song said I should get it a- I'm s-”

“For fuck's sake, it's OK.” she consoled with a loud sigh, “Come in and get it. You just surprised me is all.”

“Um... OK, I guess.” Tsung said, his eyes lowered as he stepped in. His boots slopped against the wet plastic that covered the ground. He half looked over, Lin's bear feet were right next to him.

“For fuck's sake don't be a tard.” she scolded, smacking him briskly across the head. He recoiled back, lowering his hand. She had a towel on.

“Sorry.” he apologized, there was a heavy lump in his throat.

“I suppose we both should.” she mumbled, stepping back. She held on tight to the towel wrapped around her torso, hand hovering over where it covered her breasts. The other scrubbed her hair dry with another. She looked at Tsung with sharp eyes, judging, condemning, but forgiving; if a little.

“There was a crumpled coat over in the corner there.” she said, nodding to the far corner of the room. Tsung followed her gesture, seeing the lumped canvas mass in the distant corner. Stuffing his shaking hands under his arms he bowed.

“T-thank you.” he said nervously, walking over.

“You've never been with a girl, ever?” she asked suddenly, as Tsung collected his things.

“Excuse me?” he stuttered, looking back. He tried not to stare for long, and turned back to his things.

“You.” she repeated, “You act like it. Not even a sister?” she asked.

“Uh- Ah... No...” Tsung softly muttered.

“So then I don't suppose you've ever gone out with anyone then either.”

“I was told I should find a- uh, girl. But I never...” he started, but he trailed off. The heavy lump in his throat turned into a rubber plug, and he choked to talk around it. He collected his coat, and held it up to his chest.

“So you queer then?” she asked, almost dismissively.

“No!” Tsung quickly denied, “No. No, I'm not.” he added, biting his lip, “Why do you want to know?”

“I'm sorry.” Lin said with a sigh, “I grew up with two older brothers. And I've never met another guy so nervous.” she shot Tsung an accusatory look. She brushed the towel the last of her hair, “So if you're not queer, what are you?”

“I-” he started, “I-I guess I was just raised a little traditionally.”

“Mhm.” Lin nodded, “And I grew up without a home with my mother and two brothers. I think the traditional school of polite secrecy was lost to both of us.” she said. She tried to say it comforting, but it was still laced with an accusing tone.

Tsung couldn't help but lower his eyes. The entire situation was awkward. And the erection in his pants wasn't making it any easier. It was hardly the most polite place for a conversation, nor the sort of conversation he'd expect to get from a crew member. He chewed on the inside of his cheek, throwing his coat over his shoulder as he walked to the door.

“So why'd a softie like you join?” she asked as he neared the exit. Tsung froze.

“Excuse me?” he asked, glancing over. She was kneeled over on a knee, drying off a leg. Her hand still holding the towel to her chest.

“How'd you get in?” she reiterated, “Lottery?”

He didn't answer. He brushed his hand along the canvas, tarp tent flap. “I suppose if you were anyone else I probably would have had to break your bones.” she said, freezing Tsung to the spot before he could leave, “We women, since integration at least, we're taught to be tough. So we're not taken advantage of.” she stood stood. Looking Tsung right into the eyes, “You scarred me, is all.” she said again, her tone wavering on honesty and condescension.

“I-I'm sorry.”

“I know.” she smiled, “And when you get back, could you not tell Song? I'll follow you in a minute. He won't worry.”

Huei Wen


“A toast, to the first victory!” Afanasi cheered, rising out of his chair, a glass in his hands. A table of a modest spread sat before him, and the other officers gathered with him. Candles and lanterns gave a wispy spooky light to the dinner. Shining off of and from bottles of vodka, wine, and steel tea kettles. Metal military bowls of rice and pork were laid out atop the bare wood surface of their dining table. Plates of carrots joined alongside with a hode-podge of other vegetables. Slice potatoes, beats, and a few apples.

“It may be too early for the toast.” Huei Wen smiled, getting out of his chair, “But here I can't resist.” he laughed softly, rising to meet the Russian commander's glass. With a soft ring of glass, the meal was on and the two sat down among their staff officers and retinues.

“When I got the invitation to a dinner I did not expect an actual meal.” Afanasi complimented, eyeing the spread greedily, “I had expected some Chinese slop cooked in a pot.” He smiled, looking up at his Chinese counterpart. His beard wrinkled up his narrow beaten cheeks. “No offense of course, comrade.”

“None taken.” Wen bowed. He looked across to Afanasi's entourage who looked down lost at their plates and the food. Perplexed at the invitation and the charity. They were clearly unsure whether it was their place to eat, or why they were at the table.

“Go ahead, eat.” the Chinese commander invited them, “Mann Wu and Angua have already started.” he said, pointing out the two staff officer's at his side.

“I was ready before the toast.” Wu laughed. Despite the warming spring weather he still wore a scarf around his neck that framed his round bony face. A hood of rags covered his head as it wrapped down under his chin. By comparison Angua was more comfortable, having long shed his winter uniform.

“Well if not assured victory why the meal?” Afanasi's lieutenant said. Lechivsok, a scrawny creature with wild blonde hair. A hound of the Russian commander, and who Wen knew to be a prick.

“Simply to talk.” Wen said, restraining his emotions, “I've always found a meal to be an appropriate and peaceful moment.” he mused philosophically.

“That, and once you fill a man's stomach how could he ever deny an offer?” Afanasi laughed loudly. Chunks of carrot slipped from his lips into his beard. But it hardly mattered to him, his blue eyes were glowing with charitable thanks for the meal. He did not expect it on campaign. Wen knew he had to be careful, lest he spoiled his ally in operation.

“What was it you need to talk about?” he asked.

“I'm going to request that as we push on you step back your men from the front.” Wen said. He spoke plainly and direct between bite-size servings of rice from his chopsticks. He had mixed together what he could in a small bowl. A glass of wine sat nearby.

“Right now they're no doubt making the forward push on the Republic, as discussed.” he went on to say, “Which is admirable. But in common raiding and skirmishing I can not expect them to form a stable line across the country.”

“They lack armored support.” Afanasi added, “We have some tanks, old ones your nation sold to us. But I can not expect them to serve equally or provide adequate cover.

“If you're concerned about the support of my men, then why don't you provide your own tanks to the advance? It would make things easier than simply restraining them.”

“It's not the lack of support I'm worried about.” Wen replied, “I can do that easily, and would not have invited you to sit down for dinner with me if it were the case.

“More so I'm worried about the ability to secure the rear.” he continued, after swallowing a rice-covered boiled carrot, “My men for sure could handle it, but it wouldn't be without drama. There is a certain destabilizing factor when people of one race must police another, I feel. And it might for our benefit ease tensions.”

“How so?” Afanasi asked.

“My studying of the situation among the Russians in Outer Manchuria.” Angua said, “They'll follow along as we expect, if only because most it would seem are in ideological agreement; to a degree. But among population groups there's a wariness of Chinese soldiers and police in the street.”

“Oh really?” Afanasi commented cynically.

“I know it seems silly, but it's something we're keeping ourselves aware of.” the IB agent mumbled in a low breath, “There's even been a noted disparity of violence among the Russian majority of the territory against Chinese officers compared to violence against Russian officers. If means were different we may not be as involved in the local policing matters in the area, but with the vast influence of the Mafiya then the powers that be in the national police are committed to putting more boots in the area than not. Nearly a third of the reserve half of Wen's men are allocated to Vladivostovok and the outlying towns to provide an strong commitment to security so we can chase the Mafiya while the common officer pursues common crime.

“If I wasn't already on comrade Wen's staff and assigned to the Manchurian army I imagine I would be partaking in some rat hunting.”

“It's incredibly political.” Wen smiled.

“My men though deserve some sort of advance role in this though!” Afanasi demanded sternly, “It's after all our mission, not the Chinese mission!

“You're the help.” he reminded them.

“And they will.” Wen assured him, “With policing in mind I'm only asking for a few hundred men garrisoned behind us as we go. A few small units, to provide a presence in the cities and regions we enter. You can have the exhausted units stay behind to over look the situation behind us. Under performing ones even.

“I don't wish to remove you from the battle field, comrade.” Wen reminded, “I just want to set this up before we get too far in. The success to the grander fight will come down on the complacency of the people we're occupying.”

Afanasi breathed deep. His nostrils flaring. His eyes darted about the room. From Wen, to Angua, and to Yu Mann, who made no committed gesture to the conversation. Huei Wen thought he'd for sure get up and walk out. His face had reddened.

Reaching for his glass of vodka he downed the entire thing in one go. Slamming it to the table he looked back and said low: “When we get to Moscow, I want to lead the assault.” he said.

“And you shall.” Wen assured.

“I'll play along then.” the Russian nodded, “But I don't want to be cut out.”

“You won't be, you're still playing a very important part in this.” Wen consoled comfortingly.

“I'll take your word for it.” Afanasi breathed comfortably, “So, anything else?”

“If I may,” Angua spoke up, “but I would like to borrow comrade Wen for a moment. I got to talk to him about the wine.”

Wen looked over at his agent. He realized by the way he looked down he had something to say. “The wine?” Afanasi laughed, “That doesn't seem like something you talk in private about.”

“It is when some might be angry you got it up here.” he smiled, quickly finding the excuse.

“Oh!” the Russian crooned, “Then it's a special treat! Then go on ahead, we'll put it to good use.

“Yu Mann, you haven't talked all dinner. Would you like a glass?” Afanasi offered as Wen and Angua parted from the table.

“No thank you.” Mann politely refused, as the two officers passed into the next room.

It was dark, hardly any light to speak of. What little that passed through the window was hardly enough and reduced the two men to the barest, most naked of shadows.

“You can't really trust Afanasi, can you?” Angua said.

“Admittedly no I don't.” Wen admitted in a hushed tone, “But I don't think I got a choice. I'm politically tied to him because of this.”

“So you do want him cut out?”

“If it was advantageous, yes. But right about now I need his men as much as I need his support. What are you getting at?” the commander asked as he walked to the window, “Can you infiltrate his command to predict his next move?”

“Easily, the Siberians are sloppy. Especially after Sakha. They move so carefully as to not offend themselves they walk about like the shit their pants, but won't admit it. A beggar kid on the street could probably steal the wallets from their coat pockets.” Angua observed as he joined his commander at the window. The street outside was barren and dark. In the distance a few fire lights burned among the still smoldering ruins of Omsk.

“But I won't be taking anything out, I want to put something in. Something we can use.”

“How can we use something that we don't have?” Wen asked, purely to humor his intelligence officer.

“The unfortunate thing that might arise from using Russians to police Russians is sympathy. We may avoid a factor in violence, but it doesn't mean that they'll let in saboteurs or Republican spies in simply on the factor of being brothers. I imagine not all of his army has all their relations in the east. The more we move west the more families we reunite, and the more open holes for Russian sympathy to involve.

“If we're not closing those tunnels, we may as well run our own snakes through it.”

“It sounds like what you want to do might be illegal.”

“Depends on which court we end up in. But I want to close down as many avenues our enemies have. The Russian Resurrection was an embarrassment enough born from being too soft.

“Comrade, I want to find our enemies and snuff them out before they become an issue. It'll be strategically sound to our mission.”

“I know.” Wen nodded, he watched the solo headlamps of a truck as it rolled down the empty street. “But can it be done without involving me?”

“I got contacts in the Siberian administration, we've infiltrated it and it's messy. I can throw a fistful of Yuan into it and it'll get so lost no one would know it got in.

“I've known people who have. A few entrepreneuring roosters have been doing it to finance IB operations here so they can go far beyond the allotment Beijing provides us. There's a lot we can slip in and out of Novosibirsk without so much as a clerk finding out.”

“The flow of money doesn't stop moving. I imagine I should forget you ever said that.”

“Please do, then forget I've ever said I can register a nonexistent Russian officer and a totally ghost regiment of men under Afanasi's command. I can put it in, no one will know it was there or won't ever ask if they do.

“Forget I've ever said that's the cover I plan to use.”

Wen nodded along, “Sensible.” he said, “But I'm not a spy. I'm an army officer. So excuse my lack of comprehension when I say: 'I did not have commanding authority over that man.'”

“Exactly. But forget I ever suggest you shouldn't use 'did not', comrade. Use contractions, you're lying otherwise.”

“I'll promptly do that.”

“So what do you plan to do with all of this?”

“Get some friends together. Some people I can trust. But some guns and pens in their hand and go rat hunting.

“Simply as that.”

“You got my blessing.”

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


The jets touched down with a loud squeal across the tarmac. At the angle they entered in from and the speed the sortie blundered down the tarmac, nearly forcing themselves to have to lift off before they reached the end and risking crashing through the airport's perimeter. But even if they had not gained control and tame their own speed the appearance of the twin silver, alien aircraft created a considerable buzz.

In the background of their communication with Addis's control tower there was notable excitement. Raised voices, bellowing out speeds. Or exclaiming their excitement. In the end, the distressed air traffic controller had to force through what little Chinese he could command to set them down right. And as swiftly as they came, they tucked themselves away. The Chinese embassy had seen need for keeping them under lock and key. Even if on their pass in the explosive sound they made for sure alerted the entire city.

They could only hope that in their ignorance there wouldn't be a panicked riot.

“Shit, is he here? Did he make it!?” Wu bounced in the halls of Addis' airport. Slipped among the rooms the regular pilots would use and tucked away from prying civilian eyes. Wu's wild eyes scanned every door as he spun about, his wild unkempt hair sprung out out from under his leather cap as he dodged and weaved. Among the curious African staff. Alien words fluttered and wove around them as airport employees exclaimed in their alien tongue their bewilderment for the leather-outfitted Chinese pilots.

“He's not here...” Yu said. His shallow cheeks pale.

“He's not?” Wu asked. He scanned, “He's not...” he repeated, defeated.

“He's got to be alright.” his partner assured him, walking him through the halls. He felt as strained and panicked as his partner. A shadow of doubt hung over him. “He crashed.” he suggested, “He died, a second Spanish plane found him. You can't confirm it.” he continued to pry.

They moved down the hallway, lost. But not unguided. “Comrades.” a man called out in a familiar language. The two pilots looked up, standing alongside an open door stood a Chinese soldier. By the uniform, an embassy guard. “I was told I was expecting three.” he pointed, puzzled and then deeply afraid, “Did something happen?”

“I- who are you?” Yu asked.

“The Embassy asked me to meet three Chinese pilots. Orders.” he said, “I was to get them on the line with Chake Bay. I take it you're the thre- er, two.”

“That were. But we lost one.” nodded Yu in a low, saddened voice, “You got Chake Bay on?”

“I can get them. Come in quick, I was told without hesitation. And that comes with caution. I don't know who any one here is.

“Can't let Spain know.” he added, stepping aside as the two pilots bust into the room.

It was a small conference room, sparsely decorated except for the red telephone on the center table. “From the embassy.” the guard said, inviting them to use it, “I got Pemba holding on the line.”

Yu bit his lip, nodding. He stepped to the phone. He felt heavy as he picked it up. “This is Song Yu. Heron 1.” he reported. He was nervous.

“What happened to Han Wen?” the other end asked with a gasp, “He was to deliver.”

“I can't confirm it, but I think Han Wen was downed.” Song Yu started, “But we went to the target position. The Spanish had already made it, they only had one plane. We engaged it.”

“Plane?”

“They have jets too...” Song Yu stammered. Somehow admitting the words was like admitting to treason.

“Did you terminate?” the Pemba operator asked.

“We couldn't. He left, and we abandoned pursuit. Our fuel was low. Han Wen aborted earlier, saying his fuel tank may have been hit.”

There was a long silence from the other end. It made Song Yu shake. “Tell us everything.” a different voice said. Harder, more affirmative. The CO above Wen, “Then hand the phone to your wing man and let us hear his side of the story.”

“Y-yes sir.” Yu stuttered, and he began.
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Imperial Palace, Addis Ababa

Yaqob sat rigid at the end of the table. His chair was a throne of sorts, a dark ironwood monstrosity banded with patterned gold leaf who's shimmer made the wood seem darker. Its back was so tall that a man could have sat on Yaqob's shoulders and rested his head easily against the top. A golden lion crowned the chair, reclining on a sphere hung amongst a web of thick vines made of gold so pure that it looked like metallic butter. The table in front of him was large enough to seat eight people. A white cloth covered it, and each place was set with finely etched French Crystal wine glasses, pure-silver cutlery, and ivory-white porcelain plates.

"Ras Hassan reports that half of the population of Djibouti has been evacuated." Tilu said. Tilu Gidada was Yaqob's personnel assistant, a young man who had been born and raised in Addis. It had not been that long ago that Yaqob had many more assistants in his service, but he had dismissed many of them so they could return to their families in the towns and villages of rural Africa.

Tilu Gidada belonged to the growing number of comfortable city-dwellers who pursued their entire education in Addis Ababa, all the way through University. When Yaqob had been school age, most people who could afford to educate their children sent them abroad to schools in Europe. Yaqob himself had received much of his schooling in Austria, before going to China to receive a military education. Tilu had graduated from the University of Addis Ababa only three years ago, entering government service as so many of the educated of his generation did.

"That means half are still in the city." Yaqob said glumly. He could not ignore that. Those people would be caught between the invading Spaniards and the trap Hassan was trying to lay for them along the Red Sea coast. Yaqob knew that the results would be bloody. Hassan had never been one to worry about innocent lives during war, and the invaders were out for blood.

Tilu said nothing. He was a professional young man, and not only because of his short-cropped hair or well-kept blue suits. He knew when to talk, and when not to talk. Yaqob appreciated that.

"Zenon Bie Bwana will be arriving soon." Tilu spoke again after a momentary silence. "Is there anything you will be needing."

Yaqob waved his hand. "Go to the door. Wait for him. I want to be alone for a moment, before our guest arrives."

Tilu did as he was asked. He left, and Yaqob was alone.

The Emperor of the Pan-African Empire leaned back in his chair, wanting nothing more than to go to sleep. He had woke up early that morning, to help console his frightened mother before they put her and most of his family on a plane to China. When that hard task was done, he had spent the day working, preparing for the war that he was certain would consume him and everything he had built. He wanted to flee, to find a corner of a palace where he could hide and just stay there. Hide, sleep, and forget about everything that weighed on him.

On the wall across from him hung a painting of himself sitting powerful in his throne, Azima by his side. It was their reign as it was meant to be. The painting had been commissioned shortly following their wedding, to replace the near-pornographic image of a nude woman curled up in a bed of red velvet that Sahle had kept there when he was Emperor. He and his wife looked regal in their painting. They were both dressed in white, he with a lion's pelt over his shoulder and a sword in his lap while she had been made to glow angelically. Looking at it, it was easy to forget that, when they had posed for it, he had been recovering from the sucking chest wound that had nearly killed him, delivered to him by a would-be assassins bullet.

His scar twinged sore. He took a deep breath and tried to forget. He tried to think about his family in China. He imagined them living in the mansion that Hou had lent to him and Akanni during their years in exile there. Those had been easier days, when he could give all his time to reading and writing. Being Emperor had been easy then, when it required nothing but dreams. Would his son grow up to read the same books that he had? Would he live a comfortable life, far away from the failures of his father?

"Sir" Tilu had entered back into the room. "May I present, Zenon Bie Bwana." Yaqob sat rigid again, and put on a welcoming smile as the writer entered the room.

Zenon was a middle aged man, his shape hidden by a thick, richly colored floral pattern robe. He wore a simple folded cap made from the same fabric as his clothes. His skin was the inky black of central Africa, the pock scars covering his cheeks giving the suggestion of childhood illness. Thin, wiry black hair clung to his head, and a small patch of facial hair sat just below his thin lips. When he saw the Emperor, his eyes seemed to glow, and he dipped into an exaggerated bow.

"Your Imperial Majesty" he said slowly, inhaling when he was done. "I am honored beyond my ability to speak. I have never dreamed of setting foot in your home, or sharing your food." Yaqob watched out of the corner of his eye as Tilu took a seat where he had a folding desk and typewriter ready to record the minutes of their meeting.

"That is kind of you to say." Yaqob replied politely. The writer's behavior reminded him of his Grandfather's court, when old customs were still held and the Emperor was treated as something close to divine. He remembered how his grandfather had referred to himself in third person, using 'We' instead of 'I', and 'Our' instead of 'My'. Yaqob had been a child then, and the strange way his grandfather spoke had made it difficult to keep track of what he was actually saying. Most of those customs had died with his father, however, who thought the Emperor should act more like a leader than a god.

Zenon chose a seat at the side of the table, Yaqob noted. Not at the end, where he would be in a place almost equal with Yaqob's. What he reading too much into this? The writer's exaggerated introduction had caused Yaqob to look at him as a sycophant, and he was quick to see little signs of worship.

"I have read some of your work." Yaqob said politely. "The Kingdom of Africa.. And Black Ba'al. You are a persuasive writer, Mr Bie Bwana."

"I thank you." Zenon said. "I dedicated The Kingdom of Africa to your reign. The dream that you and your father has realized means a lot to the African people."

"That is good to hear." Yaqob replied. Did his man's visit have a purpose? He wanted to sleep now, more than anything else. He wanted to be alone. "I am curious, how have your works been received by the more traditional academics?"

"Traditional academics." Zenon smiled knowingly. For a man so polite, it struck Yaqob as almost insolent. What was this man, a flatterer or a snake? "They are white, of course, and they support white ideas. The concept that a great civilization of old could have been black African is foreign to them. In some ways, they act like it is an insult."

"And you still stand by it? Unwaveringly?"

"Unwaveringly." Zenon sounded firm. Yaqob heard something charismatic in his voice. This was a military man, he remembered, and a leader of the militia.

Their food was brought in then. They were served roast beef so red in the center that it looked bloody, and a milky cream sauce on the side garnished with mint and chive. Yaqob studied Zenon for a reaction, convinced that the Pan-African scholar would be disappointed for the lack of African fare. He thought he saw a slight droop in his guest's eyes, but it was hard to tell. Several bottles of wine were presented to Yaqob for choice. The Emperor picked a Galician Valdeorras, taking a bitter humor from the origin of the drink. Zenon chose to have the same.

"A Spanish vintage." the Pan-African said. "That is a topical choice."

Yaqob smiled. "When I was in China, they taught me to know my enemy." he quipped.

"Quite good." Zenon replied. "This is the only way I would like to know them."

"You will be knowing them in the battlefield, though." Yaqob sliced a forkful of roast from his plate and bit into it. The beef was tender, and it seemed to melt and become juice in his mouth.

"Yes." Zenon replied. "I am no stranger to the battlefield, I am afraid." he had fought in the war against the Arabs, Yaqob knew. He earned no citations of honor or distinction during that fight, however. As far as Yaqob could tell, he had been little more than an average soldier.

"I am funding the Legion volunteers around Kinshasa." he explained.

"You are one of their officers." Yaqob added. "This is what my friend Akanni told me."

"Yes." Zenon acted abashed then, but Yaqob wondered if he was feigning being humble. "I think my money bought me that. Though I have taken an interest in military history."

"Akanni told me this as well." Yaqob said. This had been the reason Yaqob had invited this man here, to be sure, but it would be rude to say this, or event to allude to it. He watched the older man dip a bite of meat in the cream soup and nibble at it like a bird pecking at seed. "I always had a fondness for academics. I wanted to be one myself, when I was younger. Of a sorts at least."

"I have read your essays." Zenon replied. "It was the Platonic school that argued for the reign of Philosopher-Kings, and I think there is merit to that. Politicians rule by dumb popularity, and warlords rule by brutality. It's only the Kings that can rise above and become something... enlightened."

That was slightly annoying. Yaqob had not called a dinner to hear himself praised. "How kind." he said, taking another bite of meat. "I am curious. As a military historian, what is your thoughts of this war?"

"Yes." Zenon paused as he finished a bite. Yaqob saw his eyes light up, and knew this was the question he had been waiting for as well. How easier it would have been if they could have forgotten the niceties and gotten straight to business. That was something he liked about working with Hassan. He was a simple man, and blunt. That was a rare trait in Imperial business.

"I think the key is in oil." Zenon explained. This was not a new idea to Yaqob. The relative vulnerability of Nigerian oil had been discussed near endlessly. They had heard news earlier that day of an attack by Legion militia's crossing over and harassing Spanish officials. It had been a lowly accountant that suffered in that attack, but this was the first day of open warfare. More would happen, he knew. Yaqob stayed quiet, signalling for Zenon to go on.

"The collapse of the Ottoman Empire has put a stop to most oil-production in the old Empire. Persia is hoarding barrels now, in protest to the fighting in the Suez, and partly as a defensive measure. The other major oil-producing nations have came out against Spain's war, and I have no doubt trade relations are getting frosty as a result. This would hurt our enemy if it wasn't for the oil sitting next to our borders. On the Ivory Coast, and in Tunisia."

"Tunisia?" That was far outside of Ethiopian reach.

"Carthago." Zenon smiled. "Across the Sahara desert."

"We had discussed bombing runs in that area." Yaqob admitted. "But it was deemed unfeasible. They patrol it with aircraft. There is no sneaking across the desert."

"I disagree." Zenon said. Yaqob was surprised at how quick the writer had presumed, but this was too interesting a thought to interrupt with hollow offense.

"Soldiers on the ground could be brought across the desert. The Tuaregs... the desert is filled with Spains enemies, and they know how to hide and where."

"How to hide an army?" that seemed ridiculous.

"Hiding does not mean burying in the sand. Hiding means making so that they can cross the desert. It is true that one column could not sneak through the deserts unnoticed, but multiple columns could. This is how I envision it. Split your forces again and again, make allies with the natives, and bring everything across the desert piecemeal. The Spaniards are used too desert caravans in much of the Sahara."

"Not near their lands though." Yaqob noted. "The Tuaregs are not welcome in the heart of Spanish oil country, if my intelligence is to be believed."

"It is." Zenon agreed. "But once across, these same small forces can hit and flee. The Spanish have not fortified their soft underbelly here. I believe they can be driven out."

"This sounds like a plan to lose my men in the desert." Yaqob questioned. "I do not understand its principle measures. How do you handle the logistics? Men on camels?"

"Precisely." Zenon answered.

Yaqob leaned back, forgetting about the food going cold in front of him. He tried to imagine it. Hundreds of caravans spread across the brown immensity of the Sahara. It seemed absurd. Supplies would have to continue being brought across the wastes so long as there were forces fighting in Tunis, and once the Spanish knew they were there it would take them little effort to stop the flow and sit back as the Ethiopian invasion starved far away from home.

"That's not realistic" Yaqob finally replied.

"It has been done before." Zenon had stopped playing the sycophant. Now he was an academic in debate, and Yaqob couldn't help but notice the faith in his voice. He had a strong voice, deep and certain as if it came directly from his soul. This was a man who would be able to convince people that his plan could work, even if the Emperor would not be one of those people.

"Hannibal Barca crossed the Alps with similar problems. The logistical problems faced by a force crossing mountains is not so different from those faced in the desert."

"Sempronius did not have air support." Yaqob mused. "And besides, they could live off of the farms of the Po valley once they were across. We are crossing into more desert."

"We are crossing into land where Spain has enemies. You do know that the Tuaregs of the desert still move in those parts, even when the Spanish try to keep them away?"

That was true enough. He had been right before; officially, they Tuaregs were not allowed in certain parts of Spanish Tunisia. Early on in his reign, Hassan had brought him evidence that the Spanish had committed mass-killings of Tuareg tribes who lived in around the oil fields of Tunisia, and reports of the stories the surviving natives told all but confirmed it.

"We do not know what sorts of resources these desert peoples can bring us." Yaqob answered. He began to cut off another slice of beef and promptly forgot about it. "I do not doubt that the Tuaregs would be willing to help, but willing does not mean able."

For a moment, nothing was said. Tilu's typing died away and a still silence replaced it. Zenon stared blindly into the air, deep in thought. Yaqob felt as if he had won this discussion, but it was a bitter victory. What had he succeeded in doing here, after all? All he had done was affirm what he already feared. He had proven that they were hopeless.

"It is a risk." Zenon admitted. "War is about risks. Is there an alternative?"

"An alternative?" Yaqob asked.

"Yes. Is there a way to keep your men from dying for Africa? It is true they may die if this invasion of Tunisia is attempted, but if we fail to bring the Spanish to the table, those same men will die anyway."

"They may live." Yaqob argued. "If Spain wins this war."

For a brief moment, Yaqob saw disgust in Zenon's eyes. It washed over the man like a wave. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair and, as quick as he had left it, he was back to his cold academic pose. "That is a horrifying notion." Zenon said.

"It is." Yaqob agreed. It was the most horrifying notion the Emperor had ever considered, and it seemed like it was going to be a reality.

"And besides that, I wonder how many will accept that life? The return of colonial slavery. That is more horrifying than dying in the desert, your majesty."

"Your imperial majesty" a subservient voice called out from a doorway. "A message had arrived for you."

"A message?" Yaqob looked up. His heart sank, but he did not know why.

"Yes." the servant replied. "It is urgent."

"I will be back." Yaqob smiled at Zenon. "This will only take a moment. The war always finds a way to take my moments."

"I understand, your Imperial Majesty" the academic smiled. "I will like the time to consider what we have talked about."

Yaqob beckoned to Tilu. "Come with me. I might need you."

They were out in the hallway when the Emperor tapped his assistant on the shoulder. Tilu looked confused for a moment. "Your majesty?" he asked quietly.

"I want you to destroy the records of the meeting with Zenon." Yaqob asked quietly, leaning his head in.

"Your majesty?" Tilu repeated uncertainly.

"I want to discuss these plans with Hassan. There might be some merit in what the writer says, but I could not say. Until then, I don't want this information falling into Spanish hands. We should do what we can to keep our enemies from even considering this plan as a possibility, and that means no record should exist. Burn it, and we will speak no more about this."

Tilu nodded and followed the Emperor to where a servant was waiting with a Walinzi agent.

_

Tilu reentered the room where Zenon waited. The academic was poking at his food with a fork when he saw the Emperor's assistant join him.

"Where is the Emperor, may I ask?" Zenon said, uncertain.

"Something has came up." Tilu answered. "We will have to conclude this meeting early. Our Imperial Majesty sends his regrets."

Zenon looked at him knowingly, and Tilu wondered how much his face was revealing. He was no actor, he knew. Still, he attempted to remain as cold and professional as he could.

"Send the Emperor my regards then." Zenon said warmly. "Do I see myself out?"

"There is a guard outside the door. He will help you." Tilu replied. He stood stoically and waited until Zenon was out of the room. When he was finally alone, he took a deep breath and dropped his courtesy. A horrified shutter shot down his spine as he remembered where he had left the Emperor.

When they told Yaqob the news, the Emperor had dropped to his knees and began to sob. Tilu's heart had stopped for a moment then, as had time. It had felt like the lingering defeat the Emperor had been dreading had finally arrived. What came next nobody could say, but Tilu could do nothing but fear it.

He went to his small, portable typewriter and ripped out the page he had been working on when they were interrupted. There were several other pages laying face down on the desk. He took those too, and when he had them all in hand he pulled a lighter from his pocket and fumbled with it.

This was the Emperor's request, he reminded himself. This was the last thing Yaqob had asked for before grief had brought him to his knees. It took several tries before he managed to get fire. One at a time, he set the pages alight and held them as they burned. The smoke smelled rough and tickled as his throat. By the time he had burned all of the pages, a thin sheet of smoke hung in the air.

Tilu sat down for a moment. He dreaded going back to his Emperor now. Yaqob had lost his entire family, everyone except for the Princess Taytu on her way to Tanganyika. Tilu was uncertain if he would ever recover from this. The loss of his wife, and his mother...

...and his son. Part of Tilu said this was the end, that he should run. But that was silly. The Emperor help now more than ever, and besides that, where was he supposed to go? If this was truly the end, only the remote places of the Empire would be safe for a loyal servant of the Imperial government. His place was here, and he would have to accept it as they all drowned in the Emperor's grief.
Hidden 6 yrs ago Post by Jeddaven
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5km outside of Lwów, Poland. Agencja Wywiadu (Foreign Intelligence Agency) Headquarters

Drazenka let out a deep sigh, her chest heaving with every breath. "Stay calm... You can do this..." She muttered to herself, hands tightening around the trigger and forward grip of her weapon. It was a short, compact submachine gun -- designed to penetrate body armor -- standard issue for many AW agents such as herself. Even though women were not officially allowed into combat roles within the Slavic Union's armed forces, the intelligence services were a major exception, and made frequent use of female agents.AW were trained not only for infiltration, but a myriad of roles ranging from those of demolitions to long-range shooting. Being intelligence agents, of course, it was absolutely vital that they be ready for rapidly changing situations, regardless of tradition.

A very large number of AW agents were physically attractive, too; the AW selected many different varieties of agents, each one designed to appeal to a different person -- and make gathering intelligence from them without violence that much easier. Drazenka was a prime example of this behavior. Just over 172 tall, she was an ideal height for women, her musculature well-toned by years of military training -- and it showed, despite how buxom she was. If not for the conservative clothes that military uniforms demanded, the tone of her body would be incredibly impressive. She usually opted to hide her curves (except as required by assignment, of course), her breasts more than large and perky enough to make most women jealous. Thanks to her military training, though, her rear was no less impressive -- round and well toned.

Her amber eyes gazed upwards, watching as the caged red light flashed. It was only a few seconds before the exercise began.

"Three...." She thought to herself.

"Two...."

She took a deep breath, tightening her gloved hands around her weapon, a single finger moving to the shotgun mounted under the barrel. Under her gas mask, she grinned softly, eyes glinting with excitement. Her muscles tensed.

"One...." The light flashed green.

Drazenka immediately leaped into action, depressing the shotgun's trigger. A spray of buckshot rocketed outwards, slamming viciously into the door's latch, leaving it hanging from the splintered wood. She loaded in a second cartridge, and fired a second shot, instantly sending the latch flying from its mounting. After quickly checking her submachine gun, she wrapped her hand around the door's handle, turned it, and tossed the door open, immediately heading in afterwards. She snapped her sighs up to the left corner of her vision, unleashing a burst of bullets into the target, sending it careening to the ground. She wheeled to her right, fired a second burst at another target, and flashed a devilish grin before pressing her body against the wall next to the room's exit. After a quick peek through the door frame, she continued onwards, riddling target after target with bullets in room after room. Sweat dribbled down her brow as she approached the last room.

"Hostage." She grumbled under her breath, drilling bullets into the final target's skull. Almost instantly, a shrill buzz filled the room, and the caged light turned red. She slipped off her helmet, wiping sweat from her brow as a voice emerged over the speakers. "Well done, Special Agent." It said with a dry tone. "That completes your combat training for today."

Poznań, Poland.

Mateusz sighed, massaging his temples in frustration. "I swear, one of these days... This job is going to kill me." He groaned. He kicked his feet up and onto the top of his desk, leaning backwards. "Business is good, but... It's definitely not going to stay this way forever." Mateusz was the CEO os Poznan Engineering Works, one of the largest arms manufacturers and military R&D corporations in Poland. Most of the industry itself was privatized, rather than being controlled by the national government, although it was highly regulated. Mateusz himself, though, had an appearance that spoke to a special knack for business, and a sharp, learned intelligence that greatly benefitted his research. He was always, in public, almost always dressed in one of his many suits with a watch on his wrist. Mateusz was far older than most of his employees at fifty-five years old. Still, though, he was always sure to kept healthy, and certainly wasn't looking forward to giving up his company. It was his brainchild -- his own creation -- and he was the man that led it to success. Poznań Engineering Works (PEW) produced many products, from electronics to aircraft, but the industry they excelled most in was the arms industry. Whether it was a rifle or an APC, one of the many companies PEW had acquired could likely produce it. They were not a monopoly, but they were still the largest player in Poland's arms industry.

Mateusz sighed again, groaning as he rose to his feet and turned around. He took a few steps forward and looked out his office's window, and down onto the city below. "I can't give up yet, though. Places to be, things to do, people to meet. Same old, same old." He brushed his graying hair out of his blue eyes, looking upwards to an aircraft flying overhead. "The same old propeller aircraft, for the past few dozen years... How long will people be satisfied with the same technology? Jets are just too expensive to be feasible, but there -has- to be something else." Indeed, Mateusz was a strong believer in the power of air superiority, but a country with the size, population, and natural resources of the Slavic Union simply lacked the industrial strength to achieve it. Overburdened by immigrants and lacking a sufficiently large military to protect its land, the (former) government of Poland struggled constantly to keep afloat, as did its businessmen.

"We're surrounded on all sides by potential enemies... Prussia, Serbia, what remains of Russia -- and, at this rate, eventually China." He chuckled softly, sitting himself back down in his chair. "I suppose I should get back to work."
Hidden 6 yrs ago Post by Vilageidiotx
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Ethiopian Airspace heading toward Dar Es Salaam.

Taytu sat in a plush seat thirty thousand feet in the air. In front of her was a plastic desk, where a fat stack of documents sat neat and organized next to a half-drank glass of dark red wine. She had been reading the evacuation plan for Djibouti with partial disinterest. It was important, she knew, but her mind was elsewhere. She was thinking about her brother, and how she had left him. She knew Yaqob was disappointed that she would not go to China, and that bothered her. This visit to their neighbors in the south was no routine call. She was fleeing their enemies, she knew, and leaving Yaqob to face the storm alone. It made her feel... lesser, somehow. She was a partner to her brother in this government that they had made. To flee it could not be right. If she hadn't left at the order of her brother, she would have considered her flight treason.

She wore a long open crimson coat trimmed with intricate embroidered golden knots. Below that she wore a more modern black pants suit. Her hair was pulled back along her head in tight ridges and tied so that a wiry thicket of hair seemed to explode from the back of her head.

Buses will take the refugees of the city to a meeting point outside of the city. the document read, From there, further transportation will take the refugees to centers in Harar and Addis Ababa.

This move was wasted energy. She could not help but think of it any other way. It was a noble waste, to be sure, but the Spanish were not simply taking the Red Sea so that they could bomb Djibouti and leave. The people who fled from Djibouti now would just be fleeing again in a month. Where would they go then? Africa was big, but even big places could lack a place to flee to. The villages and sparse towns that dotted the land between Addis Ababa and Kinshasa could not care for so many people.

And besides that, it was all too short term. If they managed to save half of the population of Djibouti, that would be an astounding feat.

She rubbed her head and flipped the document off of the stack. The next one was a report on the British invasion of Africa. That would be a sticking point in her talks with Dar es Salaam. Nobody knew what the British intended to do here, and Tanganyika-Mozambique's southern border touched embattled South Africa.

They had too little information to make any sense of South African conflict. There was a single photo, taken in black and white from the shoreline near where the British had made their beachhead. It was fuzzy and difficult to interpret. Somebody had written 'British frigates at Cape Town, Battle Of' across the top of the photograph in a bold, thick-lined hand. That wasn't what she saw. To her, it did not look like a British invasion. It looked like beetles crawling across grey grained dunes. Or maybe stones rolling down a hill. It was hard to tell. She stuck it back in its file and leaned back to stretch.

Outside the porthole window, she watched thick fleece clouds pass across a sunset sky the color of marmalade. On the ground below, she could make out the rolling savannah of Swahililand framed by tangerine haze like a mirage sitting on the floor of the sky. They were somewhere near Nairobi, she assumed. It would not be long now and they would be in the airspace of Tanganyika-Mozambique. She was sitting on the left side of the plane, and it dawned on her that she was looking east now. East, toward Somalia, and Persia, and China. That was where her brother had wanted her. That was where her adopted son Olivier was now.

Had she abandoned him, her child? The thought made her feel unclean. It was true she was often too busy to be a parent to her adopted son, but that could not be helped. She had hired nanny's to care for him when she was away. He would have the Queen with him now, Taytu's own sister-in-law, but that did not make her feel any better about it. Had she saved the child from the mess Hassan made in Katanga only to abandon him half-way across the world? She had to shake this line of thinking. He was fine, she told herself, and she had work to do. She reopened the British file and pulled out a map.

The map showed the extend of the British Empire before it began to crumble after the First World War. This was land, she knew, that the British could threaten to claim. It included South Africa of course, and Botswana and Zambia as well. Ethiopia had no innate responsibilities to any of those countries, but that was not what disturbed her or her office about this information. Sudan had once been a British colony, as had Swahililand and some parts of Somalia. There was a strong danger that the British would align with Spain and make an attempt to reclaim that territory.

But would the Spaniards chose to share? That thought was where their best hope lay. Spanish hegemony would be challenged by an ascendent British Empire. If Sotelo wanted the Pan-African Empire as a Spanish colony, what was the chance they would share?

The rest of the file were reports on the economic and technical capabilities of the British Empire, or at least as much as the Walinzi were able to discover.

There was something dangerous hiding under the skin of these wars. European resurgence was not simply a continent getting back on track. The people of Europe saw themselves as the God-chosen rulers of the world. To them, their decline was not simple economics. It was an insult. It was the barbarians at the gates laughing at their fathers. It was one hundred years of helpless humiliation, and the rage that came from such things. Europe was a bomb set to explode. It was blood and murder in the streets of every people who had taken part in that insult. Death to the Africans, nearby and nearly helpless. Death the the Muslims and the Hindu's. And, most of all, death to the eastern communists. Spain had showed them what Europe could do, but the silence of the other countries did not mean they were dead. Revanchist Britain was only a second taste. Who would be next? France? The Germans with their new King?

Britain was the first nation on the Western Front of the Great War to return to power. Spain had avoided involvement in that conflict, and though Ethiopia had played their part, Taytu's grandfather had used that war to expand the power of their people. Britain's situation had been different. They had lost most of a generation in the trenches of France and Belgium. Their colonies broke away, and a cohort of young widows brought independence to Ireland. The depression that followed the war was worsened by the fact that the working men of Europe were buried and dead. Localization followed. Anarchy. A new dark age.

The last few decades were not but political turmoil for them. Murder and dirty politicking. The monarchs fled for a time, leaving their home shattered and desperate. That world was the world that the current generation of Britons grew up with. Shame, fear, and a longing for the time of their grandfathers. That was the most dangerous thing of all. A good time to be alive is one where a person looks at the lives of their grandparents with a sense that they had built something on top of that legacy. In lean times, they might begin to feel a sort of cross-generational camaraderie with them, feeling like they understood the difficulties of their time. But when men look back at their grandparents and envy them, revolution comes next. This British Invasion was just that. A people revolting against the new world, where the the Empire of their fore-bearers was not supposed to be.

She had fallen deep into her own thoughts, until all that she sensed in the world was the soft creme blur of the airplane's cabin and the low purr of its engines. When she snapped out of it, she felt tired. Pillars of ivory light came through the porthole windows, projecting the flickering shadows of clouds across the cabin. It was peaceful here, so far above the earth. It was the quiet before the storm, she knew, but for a moment she could not help but feel calm. Calm, warm, and tired...

...It was the pilot who woke her up, shaking her by the shoulder. "Princess." he said at first. "Miss Secretary. We have arrived."

She looked out the window and found that it was true. They were on the ground now, a half-lit airport surrounding them. Her orange colored skies had turned a fading purple, and the first few stars had began to appear. Dar es Salaam surrounded it, though it was no more than the scant shadow of a true modern city. She could only see a few short buildings poking up over the brush that surrounded the airport, and those few were dark. Only a handful of streetlamps gave light to the city, and those few burn a dull orange. She could hear nothing of the world outside, only overheard fans blowing soft cool air into the cabin. Next to the pilot stood the single Walinzi agent who had been sent to escort her. He was a broad shouldered fighter of a man, most of his body cloaked by an ink-black trench coat. His hair was cut so short that it looked painted on.

"Let me get presentable." She said, gently patting the puff of hair at the back of her head. She stood up, tugged at her jacket, and slipped into the closet-sized bathroom at the side of the plane. She washed her face and attended to her hair. The room hardly afforded her space to move, squeezing her between the sink, a toiler, and a handful of cabinets clasped shut so they don't open when the plane is in motion. Still, she managed to move enough to adjust her clothes and spritz a small amount of floral perfume before she rejoined her two-man entourage.

When the door hissed open, she felt the humid heat of Tanganyika wash across her face. They descended onto the cracked tarmac alone. That was passing strange. She could see a car waiting for them on the other side of the asphalt, but nobody had came out to meet with them. She couldn't help but feel nervous as they passed across the long stretch of darkness between them and the people who had came for them. Were they being cautious, now that a war was on? As she considered it, she began to feel like coming to Tanganyika had been a better idea that she realized. They must be anxious about their relations with Ethiopia now that the war was on.

"Secretary Taytu" a voice called out from the Tanganyikans, cold and professional. The headlights of an idling sedan glared blindingly behind them, so that all Taytu could see was their silhouettes and the outlines of their faces. There was something wrong here. A sinister tension filled the encounter. Wasn't this supposed to be a greeting. Her heart started to beat faster, and she worried that her anxiety would be painted on her face.

"Friends" the Walinzi agent called out. "Can you dim those lights. I don't want to be seeing dots when I sleep."

"Secretary Taytu." the cold voice said again. "You are under arrest for inciting political disunity. You will be treated cordially, as befits your station."

What? Her heart skipped a beat. Time seemed to stop for a moment. Arrest? Tanganyika was Ethiopia's staunch ally. Shadows moved in from the harsh yellow light. Men who meant to capture her. Her feet told her to flee, but that did not make sense. Tanganyika had been freed from colonialism by Yaqob's dealings in Europe. They were friends, these two brother nations. What had happened? Had Ethiopia already lost the war? Was her brother already in Sotelo's lap? Besides, she was a diplomat.

"I have diplomatic immun..." she began to say. She stopped when she saw the Walinzi agent reach under his coat. A new sense of horror washed over her, more urgent than the last now her life was on the line. She wanted to scream for him to stop, but there was no time. When he reached, men began to shout and shuffle all around them. She felt a man bump into her as he rushed for the Walinzi agent. The air went out of her. And that was when she heard the gun shot. It was louder than she thought a gun could be, like a bomb went off only a few feet in front of her. She felt tears on her cheeks. Tears, but was she crying? Not tears, and not sweat, she realized. Blood.

The Walinzi agent fell to the ground. There was an ugly hole in his temple, and his blood drained out of him so quickly that it looked like red water flowing from a faucet. The pool under his empty face spread quick across the pocked asphalt.

It was his blood on her face, and the horror of that overwhelmed her. She screamed so loud and so shrill that she could feel the force of it scraping violently across her throat. They began to escort her to the car. "I have diplomatic immunity!" she began to chant. "I have diplomatic immunity!"

"Shit, what do we do?" she heard one Tanganyikan ask another. "That man is dead, that man is dead!"

"He reached for his gun." the other man said. "We had every right."

She could still feel the blood on her face as they began to drive. What was this? She still couldn't process it. She had diplomatic immunity. A horrifying thought occurred to her as she sat in the back seat, watching night-darkened buildings go by. Were they delivering her to Spanish agents? Was she going to die tonight? She watched buildings go by, waiting to see if one was flying the flag of Spain.
Hidden 6 yrs ago 6 yrs ago Post by gorgenmast
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Atlas Mountains, Spanish Morocco

Julio's arms quivered, straining to lift the heavy crate up onto the ledge. Even in the chilled air of the pre-dusk desert, beads of sweat formed on the fringes of the mop of curly hair upon his head. His teeth gritted as his companion Joaquin helped him to raise that cumbersome wooden container.

"Breathe." Joaquin grunted, struggling with the same wooden box, recognizing by his puffed cheeks and red face that Julio was unfamiliar with heavy lifting. "You're going to give yourself hemorrhoids."

Spittles of saliva flew away from the exiled senator's pursed lips as he exhaled, readjusting his grip and shuffling about to a more comfortable position.

"One, two..., three!"

Julio lifted his end and shoved the crate onto the shelf formed by the pickup truck's lowered tailgate. With a final push, Joaquin and Julio forced the crate against the cab, affording the exhausted senator a chance to sigh and wipe his brow.

"How can one crate be so heavy?" Julio exclaimed in between huffs, his chest expanding and contracting from the exertion. "What the Hell is in there?"

"Heavy artillery, I'd imagine." Joaquin pointed at the bold Chinese lettering stamped in thick black paint on the topside of the crate. Out of curiousity, Julio hopped into the bed of rusting truck - the suspension creaking in annoyance underneath him - and slid the top off of the crate to get a glimpse inside. Nestled in neat rows amongst wads of packing cotton were at least a dozen long, slender rockets. Julio's eyes widened as Joaquin let out a sharp whistle of surprise.

"A good thing we didn't drop them." Julio added as he replaced the crate's cover - far more gingerly than he'd yanked it off.

"I imagine the government would really like to know how those got inside their third of the continent - this far into their backyard."

"The desert." Julio surmised. "A million soldiers couldn't adequately cover the Saharan frontier. It would not surprise me that the Ethiopians have been supplying dissident nomads with Chinese arms with the intent of destabilizing the government... only that they could get something this heavy over so much inhospitable terrain."

"That's what I'd call conviction, right there." Joaquin added. "When someone's willing to haul something this goddamn heavy across the Sahara just for the chance to cause you some trouble, you know they have it out for you."

As Julio gathered his breath, he became aware of the buzz of activity in the oasis encampment. The dim pre-dawn glow of the sun inching upward somewhere beyond the eastern horizon afforded only barely enough light to see, but the sensation of activity could be felt in the very air. Harried footsteps crunching through gravel and sand indicted that their Tuareg hosts were about. Dejene, the Ethiopian adviser to the Tuareg warriors, had woken the Spaniards well before the dawn in the interest of preparing for the bloody day that was to come. But the Tuareg had risen just as early as their Spanish guests, if not earlier. In the dimmest light filtering through the fronds of the oasis-side palms, the Tuareg were almost invisible; clad in blue and black robes like beings from another epoch, they trudged quietly through the camp. Fellow Spaniards, survivors from the crashed plane, seemed to be joining them now as well in filtering through to the nexus of the Bedouin camp.

"Come with us," A voice in Spanish called to Julio and Joaquin over the footsteps and groaning of camels. "The Amghar has something to say, we can continue packing later."

Without protest, Julio hopped off the truck bed and followed in behind Joaquin and another three of his countrymen. Though it could hardly be seen, the very air quivered with life. The tents and tarps rustled and shuddered as the occupants within prepared themselves for battle. The goats and camels grew restless too, almost as if protesting vainly against the building tension. Murmurs of the local tongue mingled with the glassy sound of water falling from the canyon rocks into the oasis as Julio and his companions pressed forward.

A substantial throng formed around the outskirts of the greatest of the encampment's tents - that belonging to the Amghar. At the front of the tent was a single palm oil torch planted in the gravel - the only source of light in the entire camp. The Tuareg were immensely cautious with any illumination during the dark hours of the night, and rightly so. Occasionally, the distant roar of gunships prowling in the night served as a grim reminder that the Spanish military was actively hunting them beyond the safety of their hidden oasis. The errant glow of a single lantern or torch could spell disaster for them all.

Standing in the flickering glow of that torch was the Amghar, the lord of the Bedouin tribe. The ancient, wizened Saracen stood stoically at the head of the gathering. Blue eyes clouded and abraded by a lifetime in the sand scanned methodically over the heads of his clansmen and the Spaniards his people had rescued. A dark blue robe drooped over wide shoulders; his leathery hands perched upon the pommel of a straight-bladed takouba pointed down into the Earth. His countrymen waited in reverent silence for their leader's words.

Standing off to the Amghar's right were Dejene and Graciela. A Tuareg chieftan, an Ethiopian soldier, and a Spanish woman - as unlikely a trio as any, they seemed to serve as the leadership around the camp. The Amghar and Dejene's partnership made some sense, but how Graciela had come to assist this band of Tuaregs in a remote corner of the Atlas Mountains was unclear. Rumors concerning her motives were rife through the Spaniards, but the consensus was that she was a political dissident. Rather than allow herself to be imprisoned in Arratzu, she found her way to the Tuaregs and found her calling in fighting directly against the regime of Alfonso Sotelo. Her loyalty to the cause never seemed to be contested. In spite of their disparate backgrounds, they shared one uniting aim: the end of the Second Spanish Republic.

Without warning, the Amghar began in a raspy dialect of Arabic. For the benefit of the Spaniards, Dejene proceeded to interpret in Castillian.

"A bloody day comes with this sun. When it departs from this land in the dusk, it will set upon a desert watered in the blood of infidels. The marauders will be left utterly crushed; their crimes against our people repaid many times over. We will go to their mountain - through the faith of our people and our skill with the sword and gun we will slaughter those who would destroy us. Those who would bury our very memory like refuse in the sand. We will make a mighty fool of the Dajjal Sotelo - we will give him a black eye today and show him to the world as the sower of misery and lies."

The Amghar looked across the masses, eying the Spaniards out for many seconds in silence as he thought of what he would say next. The cloudy blue eyes of the Tuareg lord fell upon Julio as he continued again in Arabic. Dejene resumed translating.

"You foreigners, people of Hispanistan, know this: when you arrived in this land, I did not trust you. The warriors of Hispanistan have committed a heinous evil against my people. Many years ago, our people were many; we inhabited this land as our fathers and their fathers had since the age of the Prophet, until Hispanistan came to call this land its own. Oil was found and your masters were avaricious. They killed our people as one would with vermin, they would sooner erase the memory of the Tuareg before they shared the treasure beneath our homeland. It was my fear that you were here to assist them in evicting our people from this homeland, and I was prepared to repay the infidels for the murder of one hundred kinsmen.

"But she advised me against it." The Amghar gestured to Graciela with an open hand. "She has recounted unto me the circumstances that brought you to us. Like her, I understand that each of you is an enemy of the Dajjal. You have been tortured, questioned, and beaten by the same infidel who have nearly destroyed my people. It was she that persuaded me to spare the lives of each of you, on the condition that you would join us in rectifying what has been meted out against us. The hour to recompense our hospitality has arrived."

"In the Hispanistani tongue, they call it 'La Cabeza'. Beneath this mountain they have built a great fortress. Our scouts may only steal glimpses of it from a great distance, so mightily it is defended. But from what we know of it, it is a redoubtable thing indeed. Aircraft arrive there by the half dozen every day, trains arrive more frequently by the week. And inside of its confines, we know they have many of our people that they have captured. I fear gravely for their safety, and I shall not rest until my people are freed from that monstrous place."

"Indeed, we are few in number against a foe of great menace. Recount, those of weak heart, the Prophet and the brave first muslims. Recount how through tact and the grace of Allah they repelled the might of Meccah. We are but a thousand against the might of Hispanistan, but we have the will of Allah on our side and that is worth more than a hundred thousand fighters!"

"Takbir!" A voice crowed out from amongst the Bedouin.

"ALLAHU AKBAR!" The Tuareg chanted in unison.

The Amghar glanced to Graciela once again. "The Hispanistani woman has crafted a plan that will allow us to secure victory - a diversion. We will bait the aircraft that hunt us so doggedly... and capture it! As many of our fiercest warriors as the machine will carry, they will fly into the heart of that place and begin the attack from within. They will sew confusion amongst the ranks of the enemy while the brunt of our warriors ride in amongst the chaos. The history of the Tuareg hinges on this day, brothers! We will free our kin and send the infidel screaming into Haawiyah!"

"ALLAHU AKBAR!" The Bedouin cried once more. The orange rays of the sun at last peered over the ridges of jagged rock above the oasis, shimmering and glinting against the sharpened takoubas the Bedouin pointed skyward. "ALLAHU AKBAR!"

With that, the Bedouin army wordlessly dismissed itself, chanting the takbir over and over as they marched out into the canyons to battle. They brushed and jostled past Julio, who stood dumbfounded. That was the master plan? Steal a Spanish gunship and hope it would be enough of a distraction so that the remainder of the Tuareg could charge in with guns blazing? Julio was extremely dubious about how much damage a handful of camel-riding nomad armed with Great War firearms and rocket launcher technicals could inflict against the Spanish fortress embedded inside of a mountain. The notion of slipping away and escaping into the canyons while the Bedouin rushed off into certain death was becoming increasingly enticing. That is, until a rough black hand seized his shoulder. He spun around to find Dejene immediately behind him.

"Graciela needs you," the Ethiopian commanded over the chanting, "come with me."
Hidden 6 yrs ago 6 yrs ago Post by Meiyuuhi
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-Leesburg, VA-
(A collaborative post between me and Byrd)

The two cars rode tandem down Leesburg's main street. The community wasn't much to look at, a few stop signs on the main road with a red light in the main intersection downtown. There were a dozen few grocery stores and shopping centers to serve the bedroom town's residents, almost all of them traveling to Washington through the week. The driver of the lead car followed the written directions given to him and took a right at the first stop sign after the red light. He mumbled under his breath in Portuguese, counting the numbers on the mailboxes next to the street. He pulled the front car up to the two-story colonial style home with white pain and scarlet trim. A few words were passed, again in Portuguese, between the driver and the car's passengers. Satisfied, two people stepped out the back of the car and exchanged looks. They were both high-ranking diplomats of Brazil. Adelina Moreno, the Republic's foreign minister, and the Republic's US ambassador Luis Geraldo. This modest home and sleepy town seemed to be a less than fitting place to hold diplomatic negotiations, but it was not an ordinary diplomatic meeting. The door to the house opened, and the two diplomats and their three staff members in the rear car were beckoned inside.

"Americans," Moreno instinctively thought to herself. Nowhere else in the world could you find a more tranquil environment, the two wars of the last decade notwithstanding. Though many cities still bore some marks from these conflicts, towns like these made you forget all about them. It had all the hallmarks of the growing suburbs around the cities at home, though she was certain that America would have nothing parallel to the favelas within its inner cities.

Not that those uniquely Brazilian shantytowns were a good thing.

As she and Geraldo filed into the home that by her standards was fairly comfortable and passed through the foyer, she was met with the sight of a waiting party of three people. A middle-aged woman in a navy blue blouse and matching skirt, a younger woman in a black pants suit and white blouse, and a gray-haired man in a pinstripe three-piece suit and thick glasses.

"Minister Moreno, Ambassador Geraldo," Secretary of State Lillian Mather said with a polite bow. "Welcome to my home. Allow me to introduce my husband, Gregory, and my aide Liza Weld."

Gregory Mather and Liza Weld followed Lillian's lead and bowed to their guests.

"I hope my home is to your liking," said Mather. "It's not exactly the White House but Gregory and I try our best."

"Absolutely." responded Moreno, as she cast her gaze about her surroundings before returning to eye contact with the Secretary of State. "I have always valued a more casual environment for this sort of talk, as official gatherings often grow far too stuffy. Then again, perhaps those of us in tropical countries take everything a bit less seriously." She laughed. "Allow me to introduce my colleague, Ambassador Geraldo, chief diplomat to the United States for three years now, is that right?" Geraldo nodded. They both bowed in return.

Lillian politely invited them to sit in a few comfortable chairs surrounding a table in their living room, and allowed Adelina the courtesy of beginning the conversation.

"Madam Secretary of State, as you undoubtedly know all too well, the world has become increasingly unstable of late. The Spanish invasion of Ethiopia, which both our nations stand against, has the potential to escalate into a crisis of massive proportions, and potentially bring us to the precipice of a second Great War. This concerns me and President Claro greatly." She paused for a few moments to let her words sink in. "I have always felt that the Americas should take steps to avoid the same instability which so plagues Europe, Asia and Africa. It has been four years since the end of the Second North American War, and we hopefully stand on the eve of a new age of peace. The purpose of my visit is purely to foster good relations and cooperation between our two nations in the hope of achieving that end."

"The president is all in favor of stronger ties with all of Central and South American," Lillian said with a polite nod. "But he recognizes Brazil as the preeminent region power in South America. Our two countries should be linked arm in arm to preserve the Americas from outside influence."

A servant entered the room carrying a silver platter with tumblers of scotch in them.

"I know Ambassador Geraldo is a scotch man," Lillian said with a glance towards Moreno. "I wasn't sure on your preference, madam minister so you will have to forgive me if you don't care for it."

"I've always preferred wine, but there is certainly nothing wrong with a fine glass of scotch, Secretary Mather. Thank you for your hospitality," Adelina responded.

The secretary of state plucked a glass from the platter as it passed by and held it in her grasp.

"The thing that the White House, and by extension the State Department, is most curious in is the upcoming elections. What's your take on how the vote will go?"

The minister took a careful sip of her scotch before replying.

"It is a very close call, but I'm confident that President Claro will succeed. Incumbents naturally have an advantage, and his vision for our nation's future is hardly tarnished. Still, there is a good deal of public resentment towards the leftward turn we have been taking."

"Not that it matters much to me, as Senator Bela has assured me I will retain my post regardless. She is as anti-Spanish and Chinese alike as Claro ever was." She broke into a light, lilting laugh.

"I'm glad that the senator has every intention of keeping you in your post should she win the election. I've been a victim of administration changes in the past and I know that it can be frustrating."

One of the household staff announced dinner was ready. In the dining room the two mini-delegations sat down for a meal of prime rib, mashed potatoes, and a helping of mixed vegetables. A simple meal for what was a low-key affair. At the two heads of the table sat Moreno and Lillian. The American staff were on the right, the Brazilians on the left.

"I've been given assurances from President Norman," Lillian said between bites of food. "Once the election is over and the winner is sworn in, he'll invite them to DC for an official state dinner and a weekend of diplomatic talks. We want to develop a diplomatic gameplan between our two nations as uncertainty abounds in Europe, Asia, and Africa. We want the Americas to be the bastion of sanity in the world, and the only way to do that is for the two biggest nations in the hemisphere to work together."

Moreno dabbed her face with a napkin before responding. "I think that is a very wise course of action. I will relay your intentions to Brasilia, and I am confident either the President or Bela will agree with your proposal."

"The most important thing in diplomacy, I find, is planning. Even if great change or extenuating circumstances arise, planning greatly assists in allowing us to react and determine a new course of action. It is imperative that we develop such a plan regarding the Americas for this new decade."

"Excellent," said Lillian. "I'd love to hear more about your plans after dinner, Madam Minister. The president is something of a data junkie. I suppose that's a side effect of being in the military. They like to have as much information as possible before acting."

The Secretary of State took a polite bite of her prime rib while the conversation between the diplomats shifted towards apolitical talk.

-Rio de Janeiro, Brazil-

"The time has come, my fellow Brazilians!" The crowd cheered, as Senator Bela spoke defiantly from her podium.

"President Claro has, for the last four years, baited the people of this nation with the promise of free handouts while the nation slides further and further into debt.

He has given the state-owned corporations the same free ride, letting them sit on enormous piles of cash while our treasury drains."

"Enough, I say! I promise that in the first hundred days of taking office, I will cut the fat and corruption of the state-owned industry and use our rightfully earned profits to reduce income taxes by five percent for every Brazilian!"

The crowd rose in a standing ovation. A few Claro supporters yelled in protest, but their numbers were barely significant in the sheer size of the crowd. As the election progressed, it became more and more clear whose vision truly inspired the people.
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Straits of Mandeb

A thin and smoggy haze hung over the waters at the terminus of the Red Sea. It was a humid, still air infused with the smell of unburned diesel and acrid smoke; the lingering odor of destruction. The Bab el Mandeb reeked of it. Yesterday, the Fuerza Aerea destroyed here what paltry remnants of a navy the Ethiopian Empire possessed. The territorial waters of the Empire were defenseless; the Spanish Armada steamed into the Gulf of Aden unopposed a mere sixty knots from the vital Ethiopian port of Jibuti.

Above Luis Morazan's head, the heavy guns of the Golondrina inched by, ticking audibly as the turret ratcheted into position. Inside of an hour, the vanguard of the Spanish fleet would be within thirty knots of Jibuti - firing range of the cruiser's main armaments - and already the guns were being trained toward the city. Luis too was in the process of readying for battle - he and his platoon had been issued the equipment and gear they would be carrying into combat only minutes before. A backpack full of all manner of campaign essentials jingled and bounced against his back as he followed behind one Lieutenant Ayesta to the armored watercraft dangling alongside the hull of the cruiser. Along the midship flanks of the Golondrina were four landing boats hanging from booms just off of the ship on steel cables. Deckhands ferried supplies from the cruiseer onto the landing craft by way of a short aluminum gangplank as the four platoons being ferried by the Golondrina gathered at their assigned boats.

The Spanish landing craft seemed more like something that would move on treads or wheels than any boat. They were quite blocky, so much so that they looked as if they would sink like the bricks they resembled if they were ever lowered into the sea they were suspended over. They were essentially flat-bottomed barges with tall hulls, hopefully of a thickness sufficient to stop a bullet. A parapetted steering column was positioned above the passenger deck in the rear of the boat off to the left; to the right of the driver's post was a small machine gun nest that would provide enough suppressive fire to allow the infantry within to disembark from a ramp in the front.

"Here's how this is going work." Ayesta declared casually as he parked the twenty soldiers in tow behind him before the gangplank of their landing boat. "When we're given the order to deploy, you make your way to this point right here and step on over into the passenger deck in an orderly fashion. We're not leaving without you, so step aboard in a civilized manner, get cozy in there, and wait to get lowered down. Once we're in the water, this boat is going to gun it for the beach. Once the ramp comes down, get to terra firma and get to cover. We have air and naval superiority over the enemy, but we will be fighting on their own soil. The intelligence grapevine suggests that the defense will be personally led by one of their more seasoned commanders, and we are to expect heavy resistance. Remember your training, and we'll all be coming home."

A distant rumbling on the horizon drew the attention of some of the soldiers.

"Shelling," Hector thought out loud, "I hear shelling."

"Thunder." Ayesta corrected, pointing over the platoon's heads to the east. There, hanging against a backdrop of hazy cerulean, was a wall of dark, roiling thunderclouds rising into the very stratosphere. The swirling chasms and irregularities of the distant tempest flickered angrily as lightning flashed from deep within. The monsoon squall had seemingly shadowed the Spanish armada ever since it entered the Red Sea. For a week, Spanish meteorologists tracked the squall as it crept southward across the Gulf of Arabia, gathering moisture and strength over the warm seas as it lumbered toward Africa. And now, it threatened to make its landfall late that night - mere hours before the Spanish were to make their landings.

Another rumbling, followed shortly thereafter by another two percussive blasts. Luis knew full well that this was not thunder when Ayesta's typically-lackadaisical expression very suddenly became much more grave. Hector was right, there was gunfight taking place in the distance. As if to confirm this, the klaxons of the vessel's PA speakers roared to life, warning all hands that hostilities had commenced.

"Battle positions!" Ayesta ordered over the warbling drone of the sirens, leading his men from the landing boats up to their positions near the prow of the cruiser. As they had during the Battle of Port Said, the soldiers butted themselves up against the railing lip at Golondrina's fore and peered out over the water, the barrels of their weapons resting against the railing. Naval personnel assumed control of the deck gun behind Luis.

"Hostile contacts at the two o'clock position!" Luis heard one of the deckhands manning the cannon shout out. He looked out before the ship and off to the right - the reported whereabouts of the Ethiopian attackers. There, steaming northward across the straits, was a gaggle of vessels of varying sizes and shapes. Most were very small - smaller than Luis could expect even the smallest torpedo boat to be. If he were forced to identify these distant vessels, he would say most of them appeared to be fishing trawlers or ferries. Some were nothing more than metal boats affixed with outboard engines.

"Fire at will!" Screamed one of the men manning the deck gun. The cannon acknowledged the order with three thunderous blasts, one right after the other. In the distance, Luis watched as geysers of white, pulverized water shot skyward around the enemy vessels as the rounds slammed into the water around the vessels. The air resounded with the whistling of shells tearing through the air around them as Luis and his companions regained their hearing following the salvo being fired just behind them. Two other cruisers were now opening fire - flashes and puffs of smoke materialized on the bow of the nearby cruiser Hechizada seconds before the concussive bursts reached Luis' eardrums.

The rounds from the sister cruiser found their mark: a deck gun shell tore what appeared to be a fishing vessel into a cloud of shredded debris and dust. Luis cringed as the boat collapsed into the sea; despite watching it unfold from a great distance away, he was certain that he could see bodies flung about like ragdolls into the water. The smaller, more maneuverable boats turned away and scattered toward the Yemeni coast from the approaching Spanish warships, the larger boats were unable to escape.

"They're refugees." Luis groaned as shells continued whistling through the air. "Why are we shooting them?"

"That's exactly what they want you to think, Luis." Lieutenant Ayesta declared, pausing as the deck gun behind them shot off another five rounds at the slower ships trapped in the path of the Spanish armada. "They want us to think that they're civilians trying to flee the country - so they can drop sea mines in our path. Never underestimate the lengths to which a desperate defender will go to survive."

"Fuck them anyway, even if they are refugees. They had their chance to escape this mess when Yaqob got into bed with the Chinks." Hector snarled, watching as a ferry burst into flames from a shell impact. "Better dead than red."

Excerpt from Fuerza Aerea Communique to the Oficina de Intelegencia Militar

Aerial Combat Incident Report

Issue Serial: 6.102
Incident Date(s): 4 June, 1980
Mission Classification: Reconnaissance, Interception
Personnel Involved: Captain Bartolo Uriega, Fuerza Aerea 8th Division - 5th Fighter-Inceptor Squadron
Incident Location: Gulf of Aden
Actors Involved: Fuerza Aerea of the Second Spanish Republic, New People's China
Assets Involved: AE13 Fantasma, Fuerza Aerea 8th Division - 5th Fighter-Inceptor Squadron

Weather: Clear skies and low pressure at incident locality and altitude. Aircraft struck by lightning during interception action prior to engagement. Lightning strike notable due to clear weather and failure of aircraft electrical systems. Cpt. Uriega made emergency landing at Abd al Kuri island and made repairs to electrical systems prior to engagement. (See Attachment: ACIR 6.101)

Incident Overview: Cpt. Uriega scrambled from the aircraft carrier La Ira de Dios in northern Red Sea via AE13 Fantasma jet-propelled fighter to gauge defensive capacities of the Pan-African Empire's Ethiopian and Somalian coasts beyond radar and propeller-propeller reconnaissance thresholds. At 1415 local time, Cpt. Uriega detected a single unarmed aircraft with heading of 80 degrees in the vicinity of the Somalian coast from Ethiopian airspace and proceeded to engage. A lightning strike and subsequent failure of electrical systems forced Cpt. Uriega to make an emergency landing on the Abd al Kuri island to facilitate repairs. Uriega was unable to relocate the target aircraft.

At 1605 local time, Cpt. Uriega encountered three jet-propelled aircraft moving into the vicinity at high speed with a heading of 30 degrees from Ethiopian airspace. Cpt. Uriega initiated hostilities with foreign aircraft. Combat between actors lasted for approximately 14 minutes, 830 rounds of 12.7x100mm ammunition were expended. Cpt. Uriega believes that one enemy plane was shot down, but was unable to conduct a thorough search for the unaccounted hostile plane. Uriega was struck twice by enemy machine gunfire - once in the distal shoulder and once in the upper back. The engagement concluded when the accounted hostile aircraft retreated from the vicinity into Ethiopian airspace. It is likely that the hostiles left the engagement due to low fuel rather than combat-related considerations. Cpt. Uriega returned to La Ira de Dios to refuel and seek medical attention. At 1807 local time, Cpt. Uriega deceased due to blood loss.

Incident Analysis: Bullet fragments recovered during the autopsy of Cpt. Uriega and within the AE13 Fantasma were found to be of a 13.0x102 caliber analogous to the Browning .50 caliber round. This bullet caliber does not correspond with any round of European, American, Ethiopian, or Persian manufacture. The bullets that killed Cpt. Uriega can likely only be of Chinese origin. Likewise, the industrial capacity of New People's China is thought to be the only one outside of the Second Spanish Republic capable of producing jet engines of any reliability. While it is distantly possible that the New People's China has provided jet fighter aircraft to the Pan-African Empire, the training regimen required to prepare Ethiopian pilots, mechanics, and engineers to operate efficiently with a Chinese jet aircraft would likely be very cumbersome. Far more likely, the New People's China has stationed their own fighters and pilots within the territory of the Pan-African Empire. It is abundantly clear that elements of the military forces of the Second Spanish Republic and New People's China have come into direct combat during this incident.

Recommended Actions/Corrections: Incident currently pending review by the Prime Minister.

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Hong Kong, China


The harsh ringing of an alarm bell exploded, sending off all at once fireworks of sound that cracked and boomed and lit up her head. Groggy, she rolled over, half covered in his blankets. Her head swam in a murky sea of confusion and emptiness. Beyond simply being tired. Half-assed she reached about, flailing a pale hand around for the clock causing such an offense. Though for her efforts she failed, instead falling limp on the floor, her hand catching the cold metal of the foot rest of her bed.

Though the fall was short and ended as quickly as it would come the process of coming down to the floor felt prolonged. The sweet stickiness of time froze solid and her eyes shot open to a violent explosion of color that tore all throughout her word. Horrifyingly every detail glowed with a golden light she couldn't believe existed. Even time seemed to have color.

Then her head cracked against the floor and the vibrancy imploded, shuddering itself away to simple shades illuminated by the sunlight streaming through the window. Mei Tsu Mei bit her lip as she recoiled, squirming across the floor as her back landed full onto a cluttered stack of books. Their spines were not forgiving to her own and punched heavily into her back. Her breath twisted inside of her, clinging tightly to the back of her throat.

By the time it got out it trickled out in a low mutter and hissing string of curses.

She rolled off the books, hunched over on her hands and knees. With a soft thump a banana fell out from between her breasts where it had tucked safely in her bra. The sudden manifestation of the fruit inspired a blooming of curiosity. She rocked her memory trying to remember how it got there. Or why, for that matter.

She combed her memory. From somewhere on her back a bird chirped. But turning over to locate the intruder she discovered she was alone. Still confused she sat herself down. She was left in nothing but a bra and a pair of faux-American bluejeans.

Like a cold drizzle it started coming back. Mostly. Clouded in mud she could come to the terms of the situation and the implications there-of. She had chosen to visit the Cantina Madrid. The tacky consistency of her own thoughts was lended no doubt to a drop of acid. As were the mild hallucinations. Briefly this reconciled her, until she remembered her parents. It wasn't a weekend, if they found then there'd be questions with hard answers.

She hoped. She really, deeply hoped they hadn't noticed.

Laying on the floor, she strained her ears and to listen. To listen for silence. That disastrous sound of waiting to dispense justice. It took a moment for the bird to silence enough for her to hear. And from the other side of the door she heard the muffled chatter of her parents and the early morning radio programming her younger brother listened to. An early weekday morning episodic series. She failed to ever pay attention to it.

Relieved, she pulled herself up. Though with the fortune of having a room to herself, it was not much bigger than a cell in its self. A single glass window shone the light of a Hong Kong morning through to her room.

Basking in the cool sleepy light of morning the whole of the Tsuen Wan district unfolded outside her window. As small as the portal was, it was near enough to know what was going on outside. The curtains pulled aside opened it enough to see the packed twisting buildings that slithered alongside the roads as they wound through the craggy, stone hills. And even more beyond that the glimmer of the sea shone. Heavy clouds loomed over head, but she gave them no heed as she cast aside her pants, digging into the shallow closet for a new replacement, and a shirt to go with it.

She liked the foreign styles. She had been introduced to it when China briefly opened her doors to America briefly. The sorts of things the merchant sailors brought over in the brief economic partnerships captivated her in that brief fiery flash that was that political relationship. And when it had ceased she felt the sting.

She liked blue jeans. Though many were for men. But to wear them felt better than the typical dresses or skirts. And the sweaters and coats, in the few western magazines she had seen the women of America all had looked so good. But now those were gone, or at least the new editions. But she kept a reserve under her mattress to look at when there was nothing going on.

It was something she prided herself on. She prided over being different, open. Even the discovery of African delights was as much a revelation as America. She failed to know why some kept resilient to old dress. But when it came to her friends like Jin Feng she was tolerant.

She finished dressing herself, heading out through the door in a pair of second-hand pants she managed to barter off someone who says he bought it from a sailor. They were short, but they worked. And over the rest a too-large salmon sweater.

Opening the door and stepping out into the hall invited all the sounds of morning at once. The voices on the radio suddenly become louder and crisper, no longer muffled. The searing of pork in the pan rushed out from under the traded conversation of her parents as breakfast was prepared.

“Did you get Chen Wu-song's recommendations on applying towards being an autonomous zone?” her father asked, a brisk short man with a whiny voice. His balding head shone from the cool light coming in through the large windows that formed the face of their sitting room. A news paper rested in his hands, obscuring his face as he held it up.

“Why doesn't he just take it to the mayor first?” replied Mei's mother as she krept about the kitchen. Thin and tawdry. Her face was flushed with pale chalky makeup, and the curlers were still in her hair. Her fingers with her long nails held the battered spatula in her hands with an almost too-careful force to not break a nail.

Both working in the city administration, the two could get off with being more showy than both. But both still wore the same dusty-blue uniform. Little distinction of gender between the two.

“Because the way I hear it he wants internal support before he goes anywhere. So he won't approach the council of internal communes or the mayor's office if we don't encourage him.”

“I don't see why he even cares!” her mother huffed, not looking up to see her older daughter looming in the hall watching, squinting through the faint light, “Hong Kong's proposed to be wrapped into the Cantonese Autonomous Proposal.”

“Way I hear it, his wife put him up to it.”

“Stupid silly British women.” scowled her mother. She turned away from the oven to look over at her son who was sitting passively in the corner waiting. Passing over Mei her eyes grew wide and bright as she saw her.

“Oh Mei, you're awake!” she called, clapping her hands, “You couldn't wear anything better?” she criticized, thrusting the spatula out like a sword.

“Ah, no.” Mei admitted bluntly, walking out of the hall and past the small family shrine they kept opposite of the windows.

“Well, breakfast will be ready in a few.” she added, “So sit tight.”

“Your friend will no doubt be here soon to pick you up as well.” her father reminded, speaking of Pui Tui. His tone held no real opinion of him. If anything, he disapproved of his choice of transport, that Frankenstein truck of his.

“War's picking up it seems in Africa.” he continued, without skipping a beat, “Reports the Ethiopian navy got sunk off their coast.”

“Damnable Spanish.” her mother muttered. Hardly anything, hardly a word. Mei looked up knowing, she was in the mood to make her opinions known. But in no position to argue them.

“Well, what do you suppose we do?” Mei asked cautiously. In part she was afraid the effects of the LSD were still in play. And that if it were she was deeply afraid she was speaking in tongues.

They didn't catch anything, “That's not for me to decide.” her father grunted apathetically, “I don't know if we should honestly prop up another monarch. Cambodia's enough.”

“Blow them out of the water!” Mei's brother cheered. Mei Song-Wu. He was only eleven years old. Spirited, and chubby. The way he looked at everything in his eyes gave off the impression it was all a joke.

Mei's mother voiced no opinion on it. Mei knew it was to not step on her father's toes.

“Well perhaps when you go to try and blow the Spanish out of the water you can come home and protect Hong Kong from them.” Mei's father said in response, lowering the paper to look back at his son, “And I hear the Spanish are terrifying.

“Best let them rot in Africa, as some are saying.”

“That doesn't sound at all ad-” Mei started, feeling a fire of protest.

Her mother coughed, “Mei, Song-Wu.” she started, “Breakfast's ready. Come eat.” the announcement was the early death to the conversation.

Shenzhen, China


The gravel hissed softly, the truck breaking over head. Nestled in the pleasant hills of Shenzhen, north of Hong Kong stood a small house. A cottage. Laid down on the hill-side, looking back into the valley of hills that spanned beyond it. A small dirt road crawled by. A yard of nothing but dirt lead to the front stoop of the house. It had just rained, the sky had cleared and now the world sparkled with a newly whetted sheen.

Pui Tui was taking a personal gamble being here. It was high afternoon, back in school it was the lunch hour. If he couldn't make this fast that his absence would be noticed. For sure. Gripping the wheel of the modified work truck he took a deep sigh. The front door – and yard – of The Cashier's home was stark and empty. Barren of many comforting homely things. Perhaps it was the lack of weekend gamblers harrying around his door looking for a race to bet on or a game of Mahjong to cheat in.

But their absence meant it was peaceful. The barring laughter of half-drunks and victorious poker players left room in for the birds and the soft rush of the ocean-born wind, bringing in cool crisp air from over the island of Hong Kong. Should he have chosen to loiter in Kowloon there'd be the smell of cha siu bao – pork bun – and freshly baked cakes being served out to the dock workers.

And without the smell of oil and gasoline, and of harsh musk and cigarette smoke there was a certain purity here too in the smell. Much unlike the man behind those walls. Looking back, he considered heading back home. He could still make it. The police hardly ventured the hills and he could crank the horses in the engine that road covered in the truck's bed for as hard as they could go. The Cashier wouldn't know, and he could wait for the weekend.

But that'd mean negotiating drunks and racers. Gamblers who thought they might be able to win against him. Then he'd get shoehorned into another race, and probably win. Then he'd have more money that he'd be unable to spend, according to Yan Cong.

The money, it was the ultimate siren. It's call was damning and the sweetness of holding it too bitter. According to Cong, the state would find out too fast if he's living beyond his estimations. There had to be a loop hole. Somewhere.

Desperation to break the lock on the riddle over came him, and he popped open the door. With a hollow slam it shut behind the teenage as he walked across the muddy yard. Pulling the twists out of his cotton shirt. Adjusting the buttons. His shoes drummed against the graying wood as he ascended the front steps and in through the door.

Without its usual vultures the home was a morgue. Filled with a dim gray light streaming through the thin and filthy shades pulled shut over the windows. There was no need to turn the lights on. No need for the radio. The furniture sat along the edge of the room, stacked into semi-neat rows. The hard, bamboo floors swept clean of cigarette ash, mud, and blood. It was immaculate, but dead.

“H-hello?” Cong called out into the emptiness. He walked down the entrance hall. Straining his eyes as he looked into the cavernous shadows of shoe closet off to the side. Not a trace of light shone into the niche with its half-closed doors. The space looked more cavernous than it was. Like the rest of the home, the emptiness and dreary funerary air made the entire cottage feel larger than it was.

“What in Hell's name is going on?” a angered voice shouted. Cong froze, turning to the kitchen where the voice had rolled from. Through the door way stood the towering Cashier. An expression of deep distaste glowed in his eyes as he looked around the door frame.

“Oh for fuck sake.” he grumbled, “Why are you here?”

“I- uh, wanted to ask a question.” Cong asked carefully, “About my winnings, from the last race. And prior to that.”

“Yeah? What about them?” The Cashier spat, “And look kid, can't you see? I'm not taking guests. Not today. Your being here is a liability against me!” he walked out the kitchen. His gait wide. He rung a wet dish cloth over his hands as he came to bear down over Cong. His face sour and bitter as he scowled down, “And I really don't like this risk.” he hissed.

“You're lucky I won't break your neck right now.” he scowled, “You're one of my bigger winners, I'm getting jackasses as far north of Shanghai wanting to race the kid in 'The Tank' and offering to pay out for it.

“So for fuck's sake, ask it quick before the police wander by and see you.” he grumbled, looking up through the open front door. The heavily rebuilt Quilin truck hugging the shoulder between road and yard, crate planks stacked against the side to hide whatever was there. The mix-raced Cashier didn't care what was there, nor wanted to know. What he knew is that whatever it was, it won them both money.

And for the kid to come back asking...

“How am I supposed to use it?” Cong asked.

The question caught The Cashier by surprise, and his guard dropped, shoulder slacking. “Excuse me?” he mumbled.

“The money...” he said, “It's more than I or any of my family have likely ever had. But, I've been told that I might not be able to spend it and get away with it.”

“Shit.” the Cashier chuckled, his lips stretching to a wide eerie smile, “I don't fucking know nor care how the fuck clients spend that.” he sneered, “All I fucking know is they use it on shit that fucking Beijing or the city itself turns a blind eye too!

“Fucking opium, heroine, whores, black market booze and cigarettes. And this new 'LSD' shit.” He waved his hand dismissively, “I don't deal in that shit and I don't care. And I imagine you can always fucking buy food and no one will notice.”

He threw the rag over his shoulder as he turned back to the kitchen. “Fuck it kid. Have a good day.” he dismissively laughed.

“Hold on!” Cong demanded, “There's got to be something you know.”

The Cashier stopped and turned back. Rocking his head back and forth he turned to the youth, “Alright.” he sighed, “Since I'm a nice guy and everything, I'll let you in on a guy I know. He lives in the old Walled City, if you want to dare venture into there. His name is Song Yun-Fee, he used to be an old gambling buddy of mine back in the day. Now the fucker sits around in the claustrophobic rat's nest. Last I heard he's helping to spring dealers and prostitutes out the same net you're afraid you're going to get yourself swept up in.

“If you think you won't get stabbed in the neck, go and see him.” he said, “Tell him an old friend sent you. The Ghost.”

Cong nodded. “Kowloon Walled City.” he said, the thought gave him a shiver. Like a black welt on the city the towering fortress loomed over the Kowloon district like a cancerous tumor. It couldn't be moved, the Japanese had tried but couldn't break in. And the government had chosen to ignore it. Everyone knew it existed, but pretended it was never there. “I'll have to see about it.” he added, afraid.

“Yeah, just stay safe kid.”

“But, hold on!” Cong shouted. The Cashier froze. “He's in Kowloon, but where?” he asked.

“Shit, I don't know.” the gambler shrugged, “He'd be anywhere. Put try fifth and eight avenue, top floor.

“Good bye, kid.”

Beijing, Central Military Command


“What the situation?” Hou asked after a prolonged silence in the room. His old wrinkled hands wrapped around the head of his cane as he leaned back in the chair. The central command of the Chinese military had been piercingly quiet. Only the sound of the air conditioning switching over head had broken the silence, and reminded the men present that they had yet to speak.

“The Spanish had taken the Suez.” Yan Sing grunted, wrapping his pale hands across his lap. His long face held a stressed appearance. It was long, soured by lines as much as Hou and everyone else in the room. They were not young, not anymore. “We watched them break through and head south through the red sea to defeat the Ethiopian navy at Mandeb. And not only defeat, let me say obliterated it.

“There's not a single surviving Ethiopian vessel we know of. The African's abilities to hold the sea are officially eliminated. If they plan to protect any convoys supplying them with aid as numerous nations across the globe have promised then they'll be hard pressed to receive it. They got no escorts to see even humanitarian supplies in. Spain has the upper hand to break and molest these supply lines as much as they want.

“With this defeat too, it'll only be a matter of time before the Spanish navy seizes control of the coast to enforce a blockade. Our very own interests in Africa will fall apart in due time.”

The commanders in the room gave gloomy nods. Even Lou Shai Dek who strongly committed to the theory that Africa could hold itself bore a shimmer of doubt in his aging eyes. He stroked his pointed shin with his fingers, deep in strategic thoughts.

“In lighter changes, our aerial scouting of Spanish Africa is underway and we have turned up valuable intelligence. My department has forwarded what we find of value to their ambassador here in Beijing to handle and get back home before the doors close.

“Of considerable value is the location of what I feel may be the Spanish storage facility for VX, if not possibly an important keystone in their VX infrastructure.”

Hou and the rest of the table looked up, shifting in their chairs. Even the elderly chairman sat up, pulling himself up higher by his cane. His bones ached, but he could mute them for long enough to receive this, “About a week ago our high-altitude recon sweeps have located, photographed, and begun observations on a facility on the edge of the Sahara desert.” Sing continued, rattling out the words with practiced precision, “The location of the facility bordering the desert to the south and mountains to the north has lead us to believe and to assume that the value of the location as a defensive location is tactically moot on the larger scale, with any potential threats having to first cross though the over-bearing heat of the Sahara and then to fight into Spanish Mauritania over the Atlas mountains, which themselves present an offensive obtrusion to any African threats that Spain could use, defensive installation or not.

“And given the further nature of the regular traffic to the installation and the presence of possibly chemically-oriented transport. This has lead the Bureau to designate the facility has a high-value target and we're operating regular recon on it, keeping a careful note of its regular traffic. If it's the Spanish VX stores, we'll know when they plan to deploy their chemical ace when activity becomes more aggressive and we follow bombers or other delivery means towards Africa.

“Provided long-range communications are stable we could provide warning within the space of several hours if anything unfurls during observation.”

“If.” Jan Jing stressed, “So if you found it, why haven't you recommended the possibility of an airstrike on it? Cripple it for good!”

“You're free to do that!” Sing laughed. It was caustic and cold as he rose his hand and signaled for the lights. With a click the projector on the war-room table turned on. The intelligence commander stood up and began sliding photographs into the machine, throwing them up on the screen across the room.

“As you can see,” he began with a sneer, bringing into focus an aerial picture of a desert mesa, surrounded by the trappings of military and industrial activity, “It's mostly all mountain. We could attack the facility, but from the air any damage we do to it will be like scratching the shell of a tortoise. We've identified roads and rail roads that drive into the heart of the mountain, leading us to believe that the actual facility itself is buried inside that mountain!

“So we could try. We could bomb it for days, weeks, moths. Perhaps even years. But we will never break it. With all the solid stone covering it we wouldn't do anything.

“Not only that, but there's the real risk that if we break it then we might release nerve agent into the wind and I don't think we'd like to know how much damage it does when that happens.

“Currently, the best we can do is watch it. The best choice might be to mobilize ground troops against it. But that's without knowing what else they got besides VX.”

“So if anything, what would you recommend us do to stop a launch?” Commander Jing asked, he leaned to the side, running heavy fingers through salt-and pepper hair.

“I was hoping you might have and idea.” Sing said.

“I think we can focus on that later.” Hou interjected, hammering the foot of his cane on the ground for emphasis. “But I think we've made acceptable gains on that ground. So long as we keep it in check while orchestrating your further efforts.”

“Thank you, Chairman.” Sing bowed, pulling the photograph from the projector.

“Now, commander Jing.” Hou sighed, “A potentially... off putting report came to me about an aerial skirmish our men had with Spanish resources somewhere near to the island of... Socotra, am I right?”

“Indeed.” Jing said. He lowered his green eyes as he bit his cheek, “On the fourth of June aerial assets out of our training and partnership base on the island of Pemba flew north to respond to a distress call issued by a civilian aircraft hosting Empress Azima and her family and individuals I've been told were of high-value.

“As I wrote in the report to you, the conditions couldn't have been better for an aerial battle with our forces out numbering the Spanish literally three-to-one. However, in the course of the conflict our jets failed to locate the royal transport and to down the Spanish fighter that was in pursuit. Both parties were forced to withdraw, with the Spanish aircraft retreating back to the Spanish armada and the remaining two of our three airplanes making haste to Addis Ababa.

“It's believed that the third aircraft crashed. Although in a twist of fortune and analyzing the situation the lost pilot and his airplane no doubt went down over Ethiopian Somalia from what his wingmen have claimed to have been from a punctured fuel tank that forced him to ultimately leave for Addis.

“We haven't been able to open communications with the downed pilot. So if the landing wasn't violent he may have abandoned his airplane to make contact. However I've ordered elements from the Pemba aerial division to be sent north to Somalia to look for his airplane and scrap it and bring it home. While on this mission they'll look for him or signs of him. Changes in orders depend on if we find a body or not.”

“The Somalians are friendly to us, right?” the laborious overweight officer that was Handoi Hu said. He had the distinction of being the longest serving commander to Hou, directly in a sense. He'd been with him since Hong Kong. Large and whale-like, he had slowed down in recent years. Rumors in the political machine suggest he was considering retirement. And it showed. He was tired, worn. Although he had the weakest position in the military hierarchy he was loosing his grip on the ability to manage. He might not be as old as Hou was, but he was aging faster. Even after his stroke.

“They are.” Jing said, “I've heard of them being over all supportive of Ethiopia and are confident in them. They dislike the west as much as they and we do. Chances are, if my public affairs intelligence is correct they won't be a physical threat to our lost officer. If he's alive, they'll make it easier. Keep him fed, provide him with transport and direction.

“He could end up in Mogadishu soon and we can recover him from there. So though I'm prepared to write this engagement off as a defeat ultimately, we haven't technically lost a man. Not permanently.”

“That's good to hear.” a relieved Hou nodded. A small weight had been lifted to think that a Chinese national hadn't been killed yet, “Though the loss of the royal family over Socotra, or near it. Can we confirm it?”

“Working on it.” Jing said, “Part of the recovery mission will fly out towards the island to conduct low and slow searches for debris in the waters to determine if their plane went down or not. Or if it did: where too. The way I have heard it is that there was more than one valuable asset on that aircraft, and their government would really like to see both safe. So with the resources we have in the are we will do our best.

“Perhaps we would have an improvement on this over all if we had more. But,” he shrugged in defeat, “that isn't my position to make.”

“Frankly comrades we should take this to Congress!” Han Shen boomed. The admiral slammed a fist on the table, “All this talk, I'm getting impatient. We have the resources to turn this invasion back. Even a few submarines! We could cripple this and put Ethiopia on the edge.

“Hou, get us a declaration of war!” he demanded, “Get us on the move. Put my guns in range of Madrid and I shall open fire!” he said symbolically.

Hou rose his hands, he spoke calmly. Trying to settle the frustrations of the admiral, “In time.” he promised, “But for this I have to side with Shai Dek. I don't want us to hurry into something. Not without some scope on the situation. Perhaps... Perhaps...”

“Perhaps they'll bog themselves down on the warpath.” Lou Shai Dek intruded. Speaking with the utmost confidence, he picked himself in his chair. “We can't judge a war by the first few battles. Suez, Mandeb. They don't bear well tactically for the Ethiopians but it isn't the end. And I don't believe I will have to remind trained and experienced military men here this, it is beyond me!

“On you Han Shen, for shame on your haste. Temper your emotions and allow yourself to withdraw so you can see things more clearly. If the Spanish want us to yank China into war it should not be on their terms.

“But if it will go before Congress then let it be so. I'll submit a long-term war plan to them if the rest of us do so. Let Wen put together a hearing to look at it and make a decision on if it should go before the greater Congress.

“But let's not let ourselves be spread thing as well between Russia and Africa.”

“I agree.” Jing said, “And a simple battle between us and them a cause for war doesn't make. It may flare tensions with the Spanish among our people here at home. But only if they're told and if he died.”

“We should move fast, on whatever we're going to do.” Sing added in, “If we have the reason now to end their imperialism, we will need to act on it before they grow so strong from Africa they are untouchable. We're going to need to strike them soon.

“If it's incentive that we need to discuss it, then we'll be getting it soon no doubt.” he continued, “A delegation from the Ethiopian Communist party is reaching out to the Third International as we speak. They're requesting to present their call for help on the floor of the Pond. Depending on what they have to say we might be looking at hostility within the near future.”

“What are they asking for?” Handoi asked.

“The Ethiopian Communist Party wants our involvement in the war.” Hou gravely noted, “I got a second-hand brief on it when they came in. They want the Spanish gone, but they'd like for the deposition of the Monarchy from power. I can only guess the Ethiopians took the chance of political instability to strengthen their plea.

“And in doing so put us in a hard spot.” Hou added, “I shouldn't need to remind you.”

“Your companionship with Yaqob.” Sing crooned, “No offense comrade, but it is highly unusual. Even you ended up negotiating the Norodom family out of strict government power. Yet you haven't bothered with it in Ethiopia.

“Highly unusual.”

“My reasons are my own.” a defensive Hou quipped, “And the future Chinese position is not my own to make.

“In any wild case, we're going to see what comes of it.”

“Will we present the possibility of the loss of the royal family?” Jing asked?

“I'll present it to Auyi and Zen when I get the chance,” Hou said, “If one isn't too busy on the campaign trail. But if the African communists are here it may make things strenuous. Then again, we're looking at high-profile civilian casualties, attributed directly to Spain.”

Hou nodded as he leaned forward, “What then of Russia?” he said, to change the course.

“Huei Wen is making a push to Tyumen.” Lou Shai Dek declared, “From his report field inteligence and aerial scouting has pointed out that the Russians may be organizing outside the city to keep them from Yekaterinburg. He feels that if he can rush the Russians and break their lines he'll scatter their army and be able to take the city by the end of the month and be on the Republican capital from there on. His primary interest is getting as much done as he can while it's summer and it's a lot drier and warmer. If he gets bogged down and winter comes he'll consider his offensive a failure. He's dead set on not having that.”

“I can understand.” Hou said, “What is he going to do to prevent the Russians from outmaneuvering them, like last time?”

“He's going to bomb and shell Kurban and Chelyabinsk.” Jing answered smoothly, “He sent me his and his flight commander's options.

“With any luck they can continue the push. We have men who have taken and shut down their eastern communication network so it'll be a lot messier for the Republic to answer.”

“We're however moving about there without internal support.” Sing reminded, “I don't think it'll be easy.

“Let me remind the command I deployed agents to the region to convince the so-called General Makulov to assist the Chinese. The general's regarded as a ghost, almost a phantom who dropped off the face of the earth after the initial Neo Bolshevik uprising.

“I haven't heard of any changes despite the agents locating Makulov, and one has gone missing. Although despite the loss his partner is continuing the mission. He's behind schedule now but he's in too dire a position for extraction. So we're leaving him there.”

“Comrade Hou,” Lou commented in, “Last we talked about Russia I assumed that we'd be looking at allocating the men we have stationed in Turkestan has a joint security-training mission could be re-allocated to Russia in the future. I'm curious if perhaps you got their diplomatic blessing?”

“I brought it before the External Relations Comittee and they approached the Turkestanian government.” Hou remarked, “They understand and will expect the termination of the current contract soon. I'm told they're finishing up exercises, but we can perhaps allocate them to Russia in the near future.”

“Huei Wen will appreciate the extra support then.” Shai Dek smiled, “In however much time it will be before they act on their changed orders.”

“Well, let's just hope he manages.” Hou choked, “Now, I think we've talked for nearly enough. To you comrades, have a good day.”

Surgut, Russia


“They're just... Watching...” a soldier spoke, aghast at the packed side-walks. The convoy rolled through the streets, passing clumps and clusters of sheepish and worrying spectators. Their tired drawn-out faces watched the Chinese troops drive into their city. Armed buggies chugged down the street, their guns loaded and readied, though the gunners too stricken by the civilian awe and anxiety over their presence.

The Chinese troops had swept back from the north-west, positioning themselves outside of the city of Surgut. Quan Yun-Qi had hoped that any Republican defenders in the city would approach him men and engage, hopefully dragging the combat out of the cities and the realities of urban combat. He'd slogged through enough in the liberation of Mindanao to have known better to not take to the streets. He did not want to see echoes of the combat there alive in Russia.

But for the past several days no one came. The city on the Ob River sat silent and dead. The stillness of the air was almost unnerving. Its relative silent bitter and cold. Even with the mid-spring sun warming the ground, the nervous frightful men and women who had held on through the worse no doubt looked to be living in an eternal winter. Their faces had sunken. Their eyes laid low as they passed. The turned themselves to the side when a soldier addressed them.

And now Shang Hsiao Quan Yun-Qi had ridden out of his CP to see this city for himself. On the suggestion that the Republic had retreated. As he hung off the side of a buggy packed with his armed men he saw it before him. Naked in its truth. But just as eerie.

He looked up into the windows of the brightly painted Imperial architecture. Half expecting to catch sight of a sharpshooter in the shadows. Or on the roof for a suspicious specter. But there was none of that looming. Nothing to haunt him. At least not physical. And he realized that here it wasn't what he could see that scarred him, it was what wasn't there that spooked him.

“Where are we going?” stammered a young private. Yun-Qi looked over to see his finger dance between resting on the trigger to hanging on the trigger guard of his rifle. He wasn't the only one expecting something, and it made him feel better.

“Town hall, I guess.” he muttered suspiciously as he looked over the heads of the men and women who remained. With scarves over their heads and lines across the faces of the young and old alike they all looked like wraiths. Jiangshi in Russia.

Yun-Qi shivered. Something didn't feel right. But he didn't need it laying its weight across his shoulders. He had more pressing matters.

He turned his head from the civilian clusters that clumped along the dirty roads to watch them long procession of vehicles. All ahead of the colonel a train of carts, buggies, and six-wheeled carriers spanned a long line through the city in the valley of ghostly tenements and office buildings. It was a clear day. The afternoon sun was bright. It felt a shame.

______________________________________

“Kitayets.” the old man muttered, Yun-Qi stepping into the room. The office of the mayor was in comparison to the rest of the city extravagant, and full of life. If not for the city outside the windows there would have been an air of life. Paintings of the countryside hung on a wall coated in a deep-blue wallpaper, images of flowering vines crawled up the height of the wall at regular intervals. A deeply stained strips of wainscoting, carved carefully by chisel and knife framed the bottom to hip height. And a plush blue carpet covered the floor. It was a decadent office, and powerful. Though inhabited by a man who was perhaps distant from it.

Despite his well-trimmed suit the body that occupied it had grown tired. He hunched over, his hands bearing scars and darkened liver-spots. His brow dropped over his eyes, and his cheeks dropped to a permanent frown, meekly hidden by his scraggly white beard. He was someone from a bygone era. And there was a severe loss to his pride for simply being in the presence of a foreign commander.

“Mer.” Quan Yun-qi bowed. He was no diplomat. But he tried for his best impression. Aside from a small guard stood at his side was one of his lieutenants. Hu Jiao-Long, a larger man. A wide pair of spectacles rested across his narrow nose. “I am Shan Hsiao Quan, and this is Zhong Zao Hu.”

“Stanislav Propodov.” the old men stammered weakly. He spoke low. If he had any pride left, it escaped through his eyes as he looked at Yun-Qi.

“It's an honor.” the colonel answered politely, “Now, if I remember hearing right you're surrendering?”

“I am.” Stanislav replied.

“Without a fight?” Yun-qi inquired in Russian.

“That is true.” the mayor acknowledged.

“Mind telling me why?”

The mayor sighed, dropping his shoulders he looked at the colonel. “Have you not seen the city?” he stated bluntly, “Have you not seen anything in us worth defending for ourselves? What we had is long, long gone.” he mourned.

“Ever since the Tsar died and no one could reasonable appoint an heir this city has lost its pride.” he continued, turning to the window, “We used to be the center of Siberia, straddling the watersheds of two major rivers. But that was a century ago.

“Now where is the city? The year 1980 and one river in our network leads to your revolting communism and the other into a nation that the Republic has no presence in. The economy collapsed, the value of our export declined in favor of the Spanish. We started producing to simply feed our own wants, and people left.”

He stepped away from his desk, to Yun-Qi and Hu Jiao-Long. He moved slowly, heavily. “As a former soldier I am committed to my nation, and an Emperor we lost. I have neither any more. My so-called nation, this Republic, abandoned us in our dire hour.

“When I heard that they weren't received communications they were just starting to show cowardice and fear. The few measly units stationed here after your people first tried to come west suddenly packed up and left.

“So that's why I am surrendering.” he explained. He turned his head to the side, wrapping his arms across his chest, “I just ask if you have any mercy you allow those of us who want – or can – to leave.”

“Comrade.” Jiao-Long cut in, prodding his superior officer in the side and speaking in a low voice and in hushed mandarin, “I can see where this is going, can I have a word?”

Yun-qi looked at him, then up at the mayor. “Excuse me.” he bowed, his Russian shaking as he turned to Jiao-Long.

“If you say yes, he might just leave.” Hu pointed out, nodding to the old man, “If I can give you a word of advice, it's to exempt him.”

“You think you'll need him?” Yun-Qi inquired. Jiao Long was his civilian liaison in these affairs. He'd had little point in coming out until now, during what Yun-qi assumed would have been a campaign involving only military targets. He'd assumed wrong when he got the orders though.

“If we're going to effectively handle this city then there's no one better to help than the mayor.” he grimly pointed out, “As much as he hates us, and we may hate him.”

Yun-qi nodded, “Understood.” he turned away from his lieutenant and back to the mayor, “I can permit those who want or see the need to leave to do so.” Yun-qi invited, turning back over to Russian. The switch in language made him feel nervous and he felt he fumbled. But the look of understanding Stanislav had looking up at him was enough, “On an exception that I need you here.”

“You're going to hold me to ransom!?” the mayor boomed. His otherwise calm submissive demeanor shifted. He trembled reflexively, his eyes wide with shock, “I-, I-” he stuttered.

“Hardly so, comrade.” Yun-qi affirmed, “I'll allow you to keep your office. But for anything to continue I do need information. We can start here and now before we settle down and perhaps look for a way to escort out any refugees, or to let them through.”

Stanislav looked at him. A mixture of shock and stricken confusion ran circles around him. Yun-qi merely had to be patient. He looked at the soldiers the Chinese officer had brought in. He had allowed them in. Yun-qi had the upper hand.

“What do you want to know?” he asked.

“We can start with the rivers. I'll bring in my security officer and we can organize how we're going to police this city. Do you have any chairs?”

“I-In the closet, by the window.” the mayor pointed out.

“Good.” Yun-qi nodded, pointing his men to the closet in question, “You speak first.”
Hidden 6 yrs ago Post by Wilted Rose
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Wilted Rose A Dragon with a Rose

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----------Of the coast of Egypt, near Suez----------

The sight of the damage done by the Spanish Armada was easily visible from a distance, especially as close as they were. Illardi Cardosi looked through his binoculars towards the opening of land that lead to the red sea, his face sun burnt from being outside the safe haven of the cruiser, Giuseppe Garibaldi. "Cazzo... The Spanish sure like making an entrance."

"Indeed. Do you think it is safe for civilian shipping to continue? The senate needs to know if the Suez is usable." Spoke another voice, convincing Illardi to lower his binoculars to look at the captain of the vessel. Captain Aleramo Laurenzi was a tall, broad shouldered man. Everyone usually assumes him to be a member of the Royal Army, not a naval captain of a cruiser. A pipe hangs in his left hand, the thin trail of smoke blowing to the sides as the crisp Mediterranean wind blows it to the side.

"It would be hard to tell at the distance for sure, but the Spanish fleet seems to have been able to pass through. The nearest Regia Marina vessels are near Crete at the moment, but they are heading to Malta." Illardi replied, as he lead his captain back inside the vessel.

Many of the crew members were eating at this hour, except the radio operators standing by to relay information to Italy proper, and the people working down in the engine rooms. "The best way to check, and most dangerous, if to sail ourselves through the Suez at a low speed. We don't know how much wreckage, mines, or potential aggressors lie deep into the canal. For all we know, Ethiopian elements could be set up along the shores to fire at any vessel that passes through, even if they don't fly the Spanish flag." Illardi commented as they made into the main room for the radio operators, Illardi himself taking a seat at the main table.

"This is why we must check, better we use the Giuseppe Garibaldi then risk a civilian freighter trying to get to Japan or Australia. We can take what other makeshift weapons that could be pointed our way, freighters are unarmored." Laurenzi replied as elected to cotinue standing in the doorway. "I'm going to need you to relay the information back to Grande' Ammiraglio Fabro of our intentions, and prepare to enter the Suez."

"Aye, Captain." Illardi nodded at him, and the other operators in the room, obviously listening to the conversation, started to get to work notifying the crewmen of the vessel to prepare."

Laurenzi turned and left the room, heading down a hallway as the alarms began to ring over the intercom. "Questa non è un'esercitazione, ripeto questa non è un'esercitazione. Tutte le mani alle stazioni di azione."(*)

----------Genoa, Liguria----------

The postponing of shipping through the Suez Canal was weighing heavily on both civilian and military minds alike, especially here at the Supermarina, Italy's naval headquarters. Grande' Ammiraglio Tito Fabro was hard at work dealing with the senate on re-opening the Suez canal, by sending a cruiser to examine the damage inflicted by the Spanish and Ethiopians. Finally, after two days of waiting, a message has returned from the captain of the vessel.

Tito sat a large oval table, with several ranking members of the navy and CEOs of major shipping companies that handled the shipping from Italy to Asia. A printed copy of the message in front of him as he worded out what it said. "At this time, the Regia Marina Duca degli Abruzzi-class light cruiser, Giuseppe Garibaldi, is entering the damaged Suez Canal to examine possible damage done by Spanish and Ethiopian army, marine, and naval elements. As well as to examine if potential hostile elements of those forces remain that will threaten naval and civilian assets of using the canal. We will radio back updates twice every hour."

"Why not send our own forces to secure the canal, ensuring such an important assets remains neutral during this conflict?" Inquired on of the CEOs after hearing the message.

"Because you are not in charge here, few members of the Supermarina want to attempt to secure the Suez because of potential backlash by the international community. A nation securing total control over one of the most vital water ways in the world? In the hopes of neutrality? Few with believe that. The Spanish might back us, but only for the hopes we only let them pass. So no, a military landing is not an option." Tito said, eyeing the CEO closely. "Instead, the current plan is a naval convoy system to protect freighters until they reach the Arabian Sea, which is away from the combat area in Africa. Once we know if the Suez is usable currently, we will either prepare to clean it up, or begin the convoys."

(* - "This is not a drill, I repeat this is not a drill. All hands to action stations." I wanted to have SOME Italian words in it, okay? Gosh.)
Hidden 6 yrs ago Post by TheEvanCat
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TheEvanCat Your Cool Alcoholic Uncle

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Batumi, Georgia

The building that the scouts had hidden in was an old tenement, its facade demolished and its decrepit rooms exposed to the humid summer air. Built in the Turkish style, it was bare grey concrete weathered by the Georgian climate. On the top floor was Gregovyen's marksman team, staring down at Freedom Square almost a half kilometer away. The shouts and protests of the crowd of Georgians reached the Armenians' ears: "Unite! Unite!" A Turkish splinter force had arrived to quell the protest, armed with weapons. Through binoculars, Gregovyen watched as rocks began to be thrown. Molotovs ignited guard towers and remnant soldiers. Soon enough, one command echoed above the chaotic noise: "Fire at will." The Armenians watched in silence as the Turkish guards readied their rifles and, with a moment's hesitation, fire wildly into the crowd. Georgians were cut down in rows, rifles and machineguns raking the ranks of the Guardsmen. Gregovyen's sniper racked the bolt on his rifle and swiveled the bipod to get a clear view of a machinegunner in a tower. The NSS operative held his gloved hand out to push the barrel down and out of the way. The sniper looked at his superior with horror.

"We have to wait. We can't get involved yet. We have to see what they do."

Kyrenia, Cyprus

The sun shone down upon the docks of Kyrenia as Captain Vartanesian and Harbormaster Kasoudis walked amongst the shipping containers stacked along the side. A dock crane had finished offloading Armenia's goodwill gifts. The two men swapped sea stories, recounting their experiences from the last few years. Particularly amusing to the Armenian was Kasoudis's memory of a Spanish patrol boat that had run aground on the rocks on the southern coast. Kasoudis, a young Coast Guardsman at the time, arrived to help the Spaniards on their way. The Spanish commander was stubborn, however, and refused to let the Cypriots help with repairing his hulls. In a stint of his characteristic passive-aggressiveness, Kasoudis backed off and let the Spanish sort themselves out. They sat on the rocks for a total of nine days before the Spanish captain grudgingly let the Cyprus Coast Guard assist him. It took a grand total of two hours for the locals to dislodge the patrol boat from the rock and another two to patch the hole in the hull. The Spaniards were regarded as egotistical and stubborn by the Cypriots, which resulted in many tense situations at sea. Boardings of merchant ships in the West Mediterranean were common. With the war on and the Spanish Navy on the African coast, fears were that things could get much worse.

"I'm not sure what your countrymen have been doing lately, but I fear your trip around the world might get a bit rough in the Mediterranean. I'm aware you're used to rough dealings, but the Spanish are particularly antsy this time of year," Kasoudis warned, stopping by a van marked with the Kyrenia Port Authority insignia. A worker inside was eating his lunch and listening to the radio. The harbormaster turned his weathered face to Vartanesian. "You might get boarded. You have self-defense weapons and nothing else, correct? They seem to believe that the Strait of Gibraltar is theirs. If they think you're smuggling, you might be detained. Who knows what happens to those captains? You could end up in a Spanish prison somewhere."

"I maintain about two dozen 12.7mm guns, a pair of antiaircraft guns, and small arms for my crew. I've already telegraphed the paperwork to the Spanish. I can almost guarantee that they will be boarding for 'inspections' or the like," Vartanesian agreed. He looked back at the Breadwinner and eyed the sailors - mostly those on probation for misbehavior in port or at sea - walking the deck. One was working on the aforementioned point-defense machinegun. Two 12.7mm guns mounted together would tear up intruding small boats or, if needed, rake the decks of another large vessel. The antiair guns were designed to shoot down low-flying attack craft or helicopters and did an effective job with 23x152mm shells. The four-barreled guns were perfected by the Poles during their war with Hungary. He had read testimonies from the war about Armenian soldiers hitting Ottoman helicopters almost a kilometer out and shooting them down almost instantly. The Merchant Marine Agency had mandated at least one be on every ship.

"Well, the Spanish are fucking huge. They'll lose paperwork in the cogs of bureaucracy. Except instead of the maritime services losing some eighteen year old kid's recruiting information, it'll be your declaration through customs." Harbormaster Kasoudis shrugged, pulling out a cigarette book from his pocket. He offered one to Vartanesian before lighting them both with a lighter engraved with a Biblical verse in Greek. The Armenian took a long drag before exhaling into the warm air. "I must admit, there are troubles in these waters. I'm no fan of the Spanish. I think they're fucking shitheads. They're building a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar, you know? They're cracking down on trade and all of us little guys are going to be fucked because of it. Ethiopia already is, their navy just got smashed. The Mediterranean is going to be different in a few years. Who knows? At this point I'd rather be a fucking Chinese combloc than a Spanish vassal."

Vartanesian looked around with deep resentment in his eyes, adjusted his cover, and took another drag off his cigarette. "I think the Spanish hate us. We fucked over their Ottoman pals with the rest of the post-Imperial states. They hate us, the Kurds, the Georgians, the Greeks. I wouldn't be surprised if they wanted to glass the Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, or Palestinians either. To them, we're all China's lackeys. They don't see grey, they see 'us and them.' They see enemies and people who are amiable enough to not be an enemy just yet. What they do sickens me, but we can't say anything. We set off Sotelo's radar just one tiny bit and he sends his armies over to massacre and genocide your entire people. See the Africans? See how they are? See how they live in his state? He's worse than the fucking Turks. He's a fucking madman, he should be stopped. But who are we to stop him?"

"Rome fell," Kasoudis pointed out solemnly. "It fell to uncivilized barbarians. You Armenians felled the great Ottomans. Spain will have an end. Maybe soon, maybe later. Maybe I won't live to see it, maybe my son will be the one to shoot that goddamn devil of a man in the head. But for now we just smile and pretend they're alright. We wait for them to get sick, just like the Turks. Then we cut their goddamn heads off and put them on stakes. Good will triumph over the conquerors. We're the righteous ones. God is looking out for us. Do you believe in miracles? Of course you do. The Armenian people is a miracle. You survived a cleansing unheard of before in the modern world. You took down the oppressor of so many. Everyone else in this shithole of a Balkanized empire looks to you because you are a fucking miracle. I wouldn't be too bold to venture that the Armenians will dismantle the Spanish, but miracles do happen."

Captain Vartanesian nodded, staring at his ship. The vessel he had owned for almost twenty years was battered and beaten, its dull white paint chipping and peeling at the edges. Stains and rust discolored the hull, each one of them with a story to tell. He ran his eyes over some bulletholes sustained during a raid by Russian pirates. But it was his. He was proud of it. They had been through so much: times always seemed dark. Yet somehow they made it. The Captain looked back at his Cypriot friend and smiled. It was as good a metaphor as any.

Artashat, Armenia

Against the backdrop of the mountains was a peculiar scene. Artashat had been shattered by the Armenian Revolution, the scene of the largest battle in the conflict. For almost a year, Armenian guerrillas and Ottoman troopers fought over Artashat and its surrounding suburbs. It held little strategic value geographically, instead being the location of the nearest Ottoman garrison to Yerevan. Situated directly south of the capital, it was on the road coming up from the unpoliced southern territories to the heart of colonial subjugation. Day broke over the city that still bore the scars of the war. Tenement buildings covered in scaffolding cast shadows on the fields nearby where crews still poured soil into shell craters. A pickup truck sauntered down the highway, past a fenced-in junkyard where someone had set up a business towing and reclaiming abandoned vehicles left over by evacuated civilians. The white truck bore a black NRA insignia on its doors, and the bed was filled with surveying equipment. Aram Terzian rode shotgun, looking out at the landscape from beneath a pair of sunglasses while his secretary drove.

A worker's camp had been erected on the north side of town as the road construction made its way south from Yerevan. The truck pulled through the front gate, manned by local police, and crunched its way over a gravel roadway into a parking lot. On the other side of the road was a fenced-in training area where a foreman was instructing some newly-hired locals on how to pour concrete. A tent had been erected beside it in the center of the camp with a military-style arrangement, containing the main planning center for the reconstruction of Artashat. Terzian, as the Director of the National Recovery Agency, was responsible for checking up on these projects from time to time. Stepping out of the truck and onto the ground, he acknowledged two workers on a smoke break and entered through the blue tent flap. Inside seemed to be the mirror image of a military tactical command center. A sand table was planted squarely in the center with engineers clustered around it. A telephone desk sat in the corner with a switchboard operator ordering a new load of asphalt from a local company. Beside her, rows of clerks and typists did various administration jobs.

One of the engineers turned around to acknowledge the new visitor, and went to shake his hand. Black-haired, muscular, and dressed in a dirty denim jacket and cargo pants, he embodied the image of a frontiersman. A large cross hung from a silver chain on his neck. He introduced himself: "The name's Paul Gredakjian. I'm the chief engineer and the man in charge of Artashat's public works department."

Director Terzian smiled and pushed his sunglasses to the top of his head, resting in his curly brown hair. "Pleasure to meet you, Paul. I've heard good things about you. I recall you built some of the infrastructure for the Erzurum pipeline way back in the sixties."

"Yessir," Gredakjian beamed with a shining sense of humor behind him. "I designed and managed the construction of some machinery houses, which were promptly destroyed by our marvelous partisans in 1977. And they worked damn well, too. Nothing could stop 'em."

"Well, except for the ASF," Terzian joked. "I was there, I got to tour the pump-houses and see where someone had gutted the pump computer with his bayonet and a sledgehammer. A damn shame."

"Well, at least we got parts from the Persians to fix it up. At least that's what I heard through the agency's rumor mill." Gredakjian shrugged. He swept out his hand to guide Terzian to the map where he was busy planning a vision of the new Artashat with fellow engineers. "Let me introduce you to the crew."

Gredakjian pointed out the half dozen civil engineers clustered around the map, naming them and their roles. They were traffic engineers, structural engineers, city planners, and environmental engineers. Each of them had experienced entire careers dealing exactly with this situation. Almost two thirds of them were former military, used to dealing in austere environments. "With them", he said confidently, "we can rebuild the city. It may have been smashed by war, but we'll be sure to bring peace with us."

"So how's it been going?"

"Excellently. We're high on morale and supplies, ahead of schedule in some places. We expect to be here for years, but we are all willing to improve our city," the engineer proudly stated. Many of the construction-men - like the locals seen training to pour concrete - were displaced citizens living in a nearby NRA refugee camp. Their service to the country was a mix of fervent patriotism and the desire to return to a normal life. Many, however, were conscripted: if one refused to serve in the military, civil service was thrust upon them by a draft board. The NRA was by the far the biggest recipient of civilian conscripts and an even larger hirer of veterans just getting out of their two-year term. It was a concept illustrated on the nearby propaganda poster put onto a corkboard: "Do you want to waste all we have gained? Do your part!"

"I take it you've been successful. I saw the scaffolding on my way in," Terzian commented, gesturing for the large engineer to follow him through the tent flap. They emerged into the still summer air, the Director putting on his sunglasses. Gravel crunched under their feet as they walked over the parking lot. Trucks from the NRA and the military drove past occasionally, scattering about to perform their duties. Orange light filled the camp with a holy glow, the skeletons of new apartment buildings casting long shadows on the ground. Cranes, silhouetted in black against the dawn sky, began their sluggish motions. It was every bit as symbolic as he hoped: Gredakjian seemed to think so as well, producing a camera from a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. "It's a beautiful day," continued the Director as the engineer snapped a brief photograph. The sun rose over Artashat. Terzian lit a cigarette and offered it to the engineer, who refused. Together they took in the sights for a few minutes before the engineer announced he had work to do. The Director nodded, and they parted ways.

Joint Base Sevan Lake, Armenia

"Right face!"

The four-dozen Candidates who lived in block A turned squarely right in unison, snapping their feet together in a resounding clack. The training instructor, beret pulled tightly to the side of his shaved head, shouted again: "Forward march!"

In unison, they moved. Smartly filing past the NCO, they took turns through the door and emerged on the outside of the blockhouse into the sunlight. The order was given to stop, and the Candidates halted on the asphalt parade ground. Dressed in their olive battledress uniforms, they awaited what was to come next. Seven weeks of OCS had broken them down and brought them back up. They had been soldiers: now they were leaders. They all knew what it was like to lead men into simulated combat, they had been tirelessly instructed on proper forms of military knowledge and tactics. Mentally, they were hard. When their instructors almost drowned them in Lake Sevan during the "Baptism" in the first week, they had known that they were being hardened. When the instructors began the days by firing live ammunition through the blockhouse windows or throwing buckets of animal blood and guts onto sleeping Candidates in the field, they were being hardened. When the instructors showed them graphic photographs and film reels of men dead and dying and told that these were going to be the young teenagers under their command, they were being hardened. There were some failures. They were not spoken of.

The air was still as the head instructor climbed the wooden podium that he used to address the Candidates. Their final week was here: the capstone of their experiences. In battledress, the commander of the school ascended. His weathered face gazed upon the almost one hundred young men ahead of him. He cleared his throat.

"Candidates, today we begin the final exercise. You have five days to destroy a heavily-guarded encampment on Sevan Island. There will be an airmobile insertion on the south side of the island where there will be heavy resistance. It is your job as leaders to be able to overcome and eliminate the enemy position. There is no support or reinforcement. There is only you and the opposing forces on this island. You will eat rarely, sleep even less. By the time you are done, you will be hardened warriors. You will be fit to lead others into battle. I turn you now to your section officers to brief you on your individual area of responsibility. The clock starts tomorrow morning. Dismissed."

Another command was called to set the Candidates into their barracks blocks again. In less than five minutes, the men were called into their ready rooms to prepare for the day. Abbasian, a member of Company D, hustled back into his room in the frenzy to find Sulayev packing his bag with equipment. Wordlessly, Abbasian headed for his closet where his gear was hung neatly. In short order, his flak jacket, helmet, bag, and rifle were all laid out on his cot. They helped each other find whatever they needed, from toiletries to raincoats to entrenchment tools. They were into the long haul now. At noon, after a quick lunch of canned rations, the company assembled in the briefing room to find their tactical officer preparing a briefing for their part of the raid. All of the forty men scurried in, shutting the door behind them. They were all dressed down in their battledress uniforms: some inexplicably were wearing their load bearing harnesses for one reason or another. The tactical officer maintained a sand table in the center of the room with a map of Sevan Island placed upon it. Shell casings painted red, blue, green, yellow, purple, and orange were used to denote the six companies' units. D Company was purple.

The tactical officer, a Major with combat experience dating back to the 1950s and an eyepatch beneath scraggly black hair. His uniform was colored in the unique paratrooper lizardstripe that set him apart from the rest of them with their dull olive fatigues. Colloquially, he was known as a hardass and it was a reputation he intended to keep. The tactical officer would consistently volunteer his Candidates for the most dangerous or strenuous missions and tasks, much to the chagrin of the students attending the eight-week school.

"Candidates, our objective is simple: we're sliding down the northeast side of the island after our drop off. The fortress is situated on the tallest point of the island, so this is kind of a Kajman Point scenario. While the other companies make a frontal assault, us and F Company will try to flank. That renders us alone and stretched out instead of with the main force but I'm confident that you'll be able to handle it."

"Sir!" called one of Abbasian's classmates from the back, hand raised. "Are we distracting them or pulling them away, or are we participating in the main assault?"

"They're not stupid enough to go on a wild goose chase for scouts, dammit!" growled the Major. "You're going in with F in the rear. It's simple. A fucking child could figure this out."

The student slumped down meekly in his chair, subdued by the ever-powerful "tac." The Major continued: "It's not a complicated scenario, we aren't dealing with urban environments or civilians. You see someone in a khaki uniform, you blast them with your rubber bullets."

He moved some shell casings from the entry point up the coast. "The enemy is going to be in the treeline taking shots at us as we move in, but are expected to fall back if we push forward. The worst thing we can do is get bogged down because that only gets us fucking routed. If we fall, they'll have more force to repel the other assaults. We're going to take it nice and slow: we have five whole days to siege them before we risk it and invade. You all know the basics, so take the fuck charge."

"Kill!" echoed the students in the briefing room, Abbasian included.

"Good job! Alright, the helicopters leave at dawn tomorrow. Continue packing and getting ready. We're in for a long week. But remember, graduation is just around the corner. Finish this, and you can finally get the fuck out of my sight. Got it?"

"Kill!" the company repeated eagerly.

"Dismissed!"

It took another few hours to fully prepare. Weapons and armor needed to be checked out from the armory and maintenance performed on the gear. In the barracks rooms, the roommates duly went about their work. From the speakers, somehow, someone had managed to turn on the radio and pump music into the company's blockhouse. Normally reserved for announcements and wakeup calls, this was a pleasant change of pace. The soothing, relaxing tones of the popular Armenian artists was a far cry from the adrenaline-fueled madhouse of OCS. There was no yelling, no shouting. For a few hours, the men had peace and quiet. Sulayev and Abbasian enjoyed it while it lasted: Sulayev was never one to be talkative - indeed, he knew only conversational Armenian and spoke mostly Kurdish as a first language. Like Abbasian, he was similarly slotted for the Foreign Legion after graduation: Abbasian was heading to the Arabic units while Sulayev was to take command in a Kurdish detachment. Abbasian had taught some more complicated language skills to his Yazidi roommate, but he still preferred to be quiet. Abbasian didn't mind: he mostly slept during his downtime.

Night fell rather quickly, the dusk turning darker and darker almost without the Candidates noticing. By the time the final preparations were completed and the Candidates had reported to their tactical officer, it was almost ten. They were briefed in more detail about the operation: Abbasian was chosen to be a squad leader and was given his responsibilities. He led eight others in a traditional squad aspect, and was the forward scouting unit. He was to rush ahead of the others to clear the way and find paths for the flanking element. If there was contact, he was to report back and try to neutralize the enemy before they returned to base. If all else failed, he would help them find another route.

Sleep came easy for the Candidates: they fell asleep as soon as they touched their cots. Beside them, their gear was lined up nice and neatly. The lights were turned off at taps and the barracks fell into darkness. Eight hours later, at the crack of dawn, the distant thrumming of helicopters woke the men. The chopping of the heavy rotor blades drew closer. On the parade ground, they landed: it was time.

Sevan, Armenia

In a drunken haze, Yaglian didn't know who threw the first punch. However, the case was still the same: the Corporal was still knocked down onto the floor in a sketchy alley outside of an equally sketchy nightclub. In front of him was an intoxicated truck driver wearing his disheveled battledress. The oaf of a man swung forward again, flailing into the air while Yaglian rolled sideways and attempted to get back up on his feet. His motor skills failed him, and he soon found himself back on the ground while the truck driver pushed himself off of the wall he had ran into. "Come here, ya little shit!" he slurred, putting his fists up. The bouncer in the corner by the door was laughing at them, but didn't do anything. He thought it was too funny.

"Motherfucker, who the fuck are you?" Yaglian rambled back, trying again to get up off of the ground. The saxophone case he was carrying dropped to the ground and he accidentally kicked it away.

"You suck, man," the drunken truck driver said. "You sound like one of them blacks."

"Gah, you just have shitty taste, you cunt!"

Bathed in flickering yellow neon lights, the pair slammed against each other and fought in the most uncoordinated method possible. Yaglian struck the truck driver in the face several times, breaking his nose and drenching the man's uniform in blood. Yaglian was smacked in the ear with an open hand and stumbled down. The truck driver didn't relent and dove in after him, grabbing the Corporal by the lapels and lifting him up. Before he even realized it, Yaglian was tossed over the truck driver's shoulder and slammed down onto the hard ground. "Motherfucker!" he shouted breathlessly as his foe stumbled in for another strike. Once again, he rolled out of the way: the truck driver was making another move towards him and fell to the ground, smashing his face into the pavement. While the truck driver was scrambling off of the floor, Yaglian made his move to the dumpster. Nearby was a discarded bottle of vodka, which he grabbed hold of. The truck driver floundered his way over to the downed musician muttering something about black people, before Yaglian threw the bottle at his face. It shattered, and he went down in pain.

"Fuck you! Fuck! Fuck!" he shouted, running his hand over his bloody face. The Corporal got up off of the floor, ran over to his instrument case, and bolted. He barely got to the corner when he heard the bouncer call out: "Hey kid!"

Yaglian stopped cautiously, but his body was prepared to run in case the bouncer tried to hold him here until the police surely arrived.

"If it's any consolation, I thought your music was pretty good. Don't know what his problem was," the bouncer grinned with a mock salute. "Stay safe, soldier."

Yaglian nodded, looked back at the drunken truck driver writing on the ground, and made a break for it. He ran out of the alley, onto the street, and was almost blinded by the lights. Sevan had the most colorful nightlife in the whole region: nobody knows for sure how it started. Vice had been legalized by the province governor in an attempt to make the city an even more popular tourist destination. Prostitution, drugs, gambling, and anything else that could be imagined was completely allowed. It was rumored that the Armenian mafia had a hand in this, but nobody could tell for certain. What was once a resort town for the rich and wealthy became rather two-faced: on one hand, uptown Sevan maintained its classy tourist air and mansions still dotted the cliffs surrounding the beautiful lake. On the other, downtown Sevan had been commandeered to make way for neon palaces of sin. Not that there was anything wrong with that: Yaglian enjoyed the company of an exotic Circassian whore or three every once in a while. The shadier parts, however, lacked a clear police presence - they were too busy making the rich feel better - and it was often up to vigilantes, mobsters, and local bouncers to keep the peace.

Not in this case, however. Yaglian heard the sounds of sirens down the street and realized that they were the MPs. He had always been a sort of jailbird in the past and was familiar enough with the two different police forces that he recognized the slightly different intonation of an MP's squad car. The drunken Corporal took off faster, stumbling through the streets and away from a court martial. The sirens got closer as he went, tripping over sidewalks and exotic Egyptian palms in planters. With the law closing in, he ducked left into another alley. This one was bare and featureless, with only dumpsters and the back doors to some shops. The police car's lights flashed closer and closer, red and blue mixed with the multicolored neon of the city decorations. As Yaglian stumbled away, the car edged up on the curb and two fatigued officers wearing brassards and steel helmets stepped out. "Kid, it's been a long night. Get over here," the driver seemed to sigh.

Yaglian tried to run but instead tripped over his feet and stumbled to the ground. Hitting the concrete with a dull thud, he realized that his nose was bleeding and seemed to hurt more than it had before. Only afterwards when he sobered up would he realize that it was broken and crooked to the side. The MP walked casually to the drunk Corporal and sighed again, squatting down next to him. "Corporal, you're just going to the drunk tank tonight. Got any weapons on ya?"

Yaglian murmured something indecipherable and shook his head, still clutching his nose. The cop patted him down anyways and found nothing.

"Who's your commander?" the MP asked casually. Yaglian groaned again and writhed around on the floor. The cop's partner arrived at his side with a pair of handcuffs and quickly slapped them around Yaglian's wrists.

"We'll find that out in the morning, buddy," the other one noted with a shrug. "We're takin' you back to the station. Can't let you tarnish the image of our Army anymore..."

"Border Guard," Yaglian slurred. "I ain't no Army, get your hands off of me."

"Kid, you're still in the Department," the driver retorted as he hoisted Yaglian onto his feet. He turned to his partner who was inspecting Yaglian's instrument case: "Book him, Krik."
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West of Djibouti

They were on the sand swept road heading west to Djibouti, in a plain staff car with none of the flags or escorts or military symbols present that might make them a target. Hassan sat in the back, wearing military fatigues and the sort of decorated peaked cap that he favored. His Palestinians wore fatigues and many varieties of wiry Arab facial hair. Underneath, they wore rubber suits.

Hassan detested his rubber bodysuit. It retained the heat, and his sweat, and it held both so well that he felt like he was being pickled in his own juices. The horrific heat of the brown, sun-beaten desert made his discomfiture worse. There was dark clouds ahead, the sign of the storm rolling along the coast who's presence had cooled the air to a comfortable ninety degrees Fahrenheit. Comfortable, at least, compared to the blistering temperatures the desert usually gave them.

It could not be helped. The rubber bodysuit was what protected him from the potent nerve gas that the Spanish were known to possess. The suit included a mask that could be pulled up as soon as an attack was reported so that his body was entirely encapsulated by it. His Palestinian guards wore the same caliber suits, and they were trained to take him out of danger the moment it was clear that such an attack was underway.

This was what bothered him the most about this war. The gas was a dishonesty. The Spanish were the foe he was born to fight, but they practiced war in a way that was dirty. Deception was not the problem; deception was cream of war, and the deceived only cried foul because brilliance is like immorality to people who do not know how to be brilliant. A clever man still took a risk, just the same as a strong man on the field. It was not even the mercilessness the Spanish had shown in their dealings with the Tueregs or the people of the Ivory Coast that bothered the Dejazmach. That was an accusation Hassan had earned as well, but it was just as foolish as accusations of deception. War was blood, and every man was a unit in his people's wars. Even children at the very least gave their fathers a reason to fight.

But fighting with gas was not just deceptive and cruel. It was damnably evil because of its cowardice. It could kill thousands with only a single bomber bearing all the risk in delivering it. That was not the way men fought. There was no skill, no earning the kill. The Spanish could sit back and murder their enemies by the millions without having to face them. In truth, Hassan couldn't help but be in awe of that ability, and through that awe he had an uncomfortable respect for what they could do with gas. Or, at least a respect for the technology itself. It was impressive, even if it was chicken-hearted.

He wondered how much of his hatred for the Spanish Gas could attributed to how these damnable suits made his balls feel puckered.

They traveled for miles before they saw a small caravan of beaten trucks traveling slowly down the road from the east. Refugees, he knew immediately. There were children sitting on the roofs of the vehicles, and a goat was tied to a rod that ran across the top-edge of a Land-rover. The animal was sleeping in a hooded girl's lap. She stared silently at it from behind a thin mask of dust, petting its mud-clumped fur like a mother trying to sooth her child. The people that he could see, through the windows and curled up on top of the vehicle, had seen a rough time. They were all covered in the same dust as the girl and her goat. Some were bruised and injured, though the worst of their suffering could be seen in their distant stares. The Rover at the head of the caravan slowed down as they met with Hassan's car, and Hassan's driver followed suit. Curious, Hassan rolled down his window.

"Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some!" he yelled out the window over idling engines as a greeting to the driver of the opposite vehicle. When he could get a good look at him, Hassan realized that the driver was Walinzi.

The agent spotted Hassan and recognized him, but to his credit he said nothing. His recognition was a secret he communicated to Hassan with his face. A quick secret that he knew how to keep. The Walinzi, Hassan reflected, were one of Ethiopia's greatest assets.

"The Spanish having made their landing in Djibouti." he exclaimed, pointing to the hills on the eastern horizon. "They are shooting civilians. We heard that they are firing on people who tried to flee across the water."

Hassan put on a disturbed face, but the truth was that this information did not shake him. It was to be expected. These were a people raised to believe that their enemies were evil on a demonic level. The contest of war, the honor and manliness in fighting an equal foe were not the nature of this new European warrior. These were men taught to smile as they kill, and to see every kind of mercy as treason. They were taught to imagine the rest of the world as enemies, and Africa as a place to be conquered. It was how they were taught to think. There was the blatant propaganda of course, but the most effective lessons were the subtle ones. Their literature praised the explorers that had came before, and painted the entire dark period of European colonization as a great adventure. Even the children's stories presented Africa as a continent filled with man-eating cannibals and ape-like pygmies. A clever adult might grow up to see these stereotypes as silly stories, but the image was always there. When they talked about this war, they would discuss the political practices of African governments and the military maneuvers on the field, but in the dark heart of their subconscious they would be imagining Sambo in a grass skirt dancing around a boiling pot.

"How many people are left?" Hassan's own Palestinian driver asked.

"Some." the Walinzi replied. "Afraid, or stubborn. Some are stuck, I think. Not everyone was able to join in the evacuation."

"We will do what we can." Hassan said politely. He knew that, in truth, they couldn't do a thing. Those left behind would have to suffer in the way that people suffer when stuck in the crossfire.

--

They arrived at the battery at sunset. The sky glowed that brilliant orange that so often followed a thunderstorm, leaving every cloud to look like an inert fire smeared across a burning sky. The desert heat was subsiding now that the sun was gone, but it did not give Hassan relief. The sweat he had produced during the day was now cooling under the rubber of his gas-proof suit, leaving him to feel clammy and unclean. He did not like the feel of the material rubbing between his thighs, and his attempts to avoid it had turned his gait into something of a waddle.

He heard what sounded like thunder at first, but the continued cadence gave it away as the heavy guns of the Spanish ships. they were far enough away, dozens of miles or so, but the echo of their weapons still managed to reach this far. He wondered if they were firing on the city, or just giving some sort of salute to their conquering marines. He wanted them to be bombarding the city. He wanted that very much, more than he cared to say.

From the ground, the long-barreled Ethiopian guns could be seen under a netted mesh of desert colored cloth. From the air, it would take an excellent eye to pick out the camouflaged batteries amongst the massive expanse rock and sand. An artificial hollow had been blasted into the side of the hill where this battery sat, so that only the side facing Djibouti needed the mesh. There were only two guns here, both already attached to trucks so that a retreat could be attempted.

The men who manned these guns greeted Hassan lethargically. Their officer - a skeletal-looking man with buggy eyes and a patch of wiry black fuzz reaching out wildly from his chin - saluted intensely as Hassan approached. The snowflake-patterned likeness of an Ethiopian cross hung on a string around his neck. He was the only one that saluted. The rest of the crew just stood and stared.

"At ease" Hassan grunted. The officer followed that order to the best of his ability, but he was too tense of a man to ever truly be at ease. As they began to walk together, the Ras could see the officer's tension in the way the muscles in his neck seemed to always be straining. Hassan watched suspiciously as the officer fondled the cross charm that hung from a cord around his neck with a nervous urgency.

"We are ready and in place, Ras Hassan."

"I expected nothing less." Hassan grumbled. He looked over the rest of the men in the battery. They were in various states of undress, some wearing button shirts while others wore no shirt at all, or wore them wrapped around their heads like turbans. The heat had gotten to them as well, but they did not have to suffer the rubber suit that Hassan wore. There were worn-out cloth gas-masks hanging from nails in the side of the blasted rock wall, but Hassan knew that they would be useless in case of a VX attack. They could protect against the other sorts of chemicals that required inhalation to work, like those that had been used during the Great War. The Ethiopians did not know how much VX nerve gas the Spanish could produce, so it was entirely possible that the enemy would resort to the less effective and much older alternatives. Hassan did not think it prudent to bet on that possibility, and he hadn't. These men in this trench were expendable. They were soldiers, and soldiers were made to die in war.

"Are your men prepared to do what has to be done here?" Hassan asked.

"A Walinzi agent reported here earlier today and informed me that his work had been a success. Djibouti is as flammable as they can make it." the officer blurted. "And my men are ready. Yes sir. We will do our jobs here."

Hassan nodded.

"I do have to ask though... about the refugees." the officer began, his fingers on his cross. "I mean, it would help a lot of I could tell the men..."

"There are still civilians in the city." Hassan said bluntly. "We will be firing on our own people here. It is not perfect, but that is the circumstances we have been dealt."

"How many?" the officer asked hollowly.

"More than we wanted." Hassan grimaced. "Twenty thousand perhaps? I do not know, I have not been in a position to see the statistics." It was probably more than that, he knew. Much more. But he could hardly quote the numbers he truly expected if he were to maintain morale here.

The officer winced. He held the cross up to his mouth and kissed it. "I will still do my job. But this is not good news. There will be many dead by our hands tonight."

Hassan smiled politely. "Heaven only accepts the dead." he said. The officer did not like that answer.

Hassan spotted a section of the indention separated from the rest by a makeshift wall. It had been erected from scrapwood taken from packaging crates and wrinkled lengths of tent canvas. He gestured toward it. "Is that your quarters?" he asked.

The officer nodded.

"We'll go there for now." Hassan replied. "We have things to talk about."

The Officer's quarters were small, a cot stuffed into a crevice of rock and a small wicker table with a stool. Hassan noticed a wooden Ethiopian cross with an icon of Christ painted on it in colorful hues. Hassan decided to stand, comfortable with not having to bend in his rubber under-suit. He gestured for the officer to sit.

"We will open fire..." he stopped to thing and pulled out a watch. "...in ten minutes. All batteries have the same command."

"Yes." the officer said. Sweat pooled on his grey-brown skin, and he was fondling his cross more aggressively than before. "Yes... Yes."

"Have you heard reports from the front?" Hassan asked. He was referring to the Seventh Sefari. They were stretched thinly along the coast, and bulged in numbers around the city. In the rough terrain surrounding Djibouti, they would be able to hold the Spaniards in the city for as long as Hassan's purposes required. They would test Spanish defenses around the city itself, but Hassan did not plan to launch a full scale assault. He wanted to use his forces to hold the Spanish military in Djibouti while he threw everything at them that he could spare. The enemy was high off of two victories, one against a token force on the Suez and another against the last remnants of a navy that had suffered its true death in the war against the collapsing Ottomans. This was the first battle where Spain would face a force prepared to meet it, and it was a force with Hassan in command.

"It is quiet." the officer quavered. "They are landing troops."

"Good." Hassan said. "Now, what is wrong with you, soldier?"

The Officer bristled. Not angrily, but like a child who had been caught. He took a deep breath and shuddered. "I thought it would be easier, Ras. I thought this would be good and evil. But... we are firing on civilians."

"We are firing on Spain, though there are civilians in our way." Hassan replied. He was irritated, but he politely hid his irritation. "This is a war. There will be corpses until it is over. Do not think that all the corpses in all the wars deserved to become corpses so soon."

"I can't put this out of my head." the officer said. He seemed to shrink as he spoke, his body illuminated by a flickering gas lamp.

"You will have to." Hassan said. "Or you will have to be replaced. Now come, it is nearly time."

When they left the Officer's small ramshackle room, Hassan saw that the stars had came out. Aside from the pale glow of several gas lamps sitting on the ground near the guns, there were no other lights for miles. There was a vague orange halo on the eastern horizon where Djibouti sat, cast by the Spanish invasion force in their process of invading. Those poor lights could not hide the stars, which came together in places as mists of impressive light, in uncountable numbers across the entire sphere of night. It was a powerful sight.

The men were giddy now, doing their work as dutifully as they did casually. That was the Ethiopian military. A rag-tag militia of men who were unkempt, poorly armed, and underfed. They came from across a continent. The short ink-black men of the Congolese forests, and the thick built men from the south with skin so dark that it seemed almost green. Some were the milk-chocolate Ethiopians and Somalians with their almost European features, and others the thin-bodied Swahili of the Sahara. This was one third of a continent represented in a single force. They were not professionals, but they had fought for most of their lives, for their OWN lives and they had more experience with the difficulties of their continent than the Spaniards could hope to know.

Hassan looked at his watch. One minute. This would be the third battle of this war, but it was the first that would be fought in the Pan-African Empire itself. To him, this was the true beginning of the war and he was here to witness it.

"Clear." he heard a man cluck to his crew. All else was silence.

"Volley!" another voice shouted suddenly in a crisp, concise voice. The guns fired and lit the earth, and the sound of them drank up the air. Hassan felt their reverberations in his chest, like ancient war drums sounding the beginning of the war.

"Incendiary rounds!" Hassan yelled. That first volley had been a test, but the second would open his plans for the Spaniards here. These rounds would start the air to burn in Djibouti. He heard the metal scraping as they prepared the second volley.

"Volley!" he heard. Then the magnificent pounding!

They continued like that. Despite their shabby appearance, the artillerymen moved like surgeons. If one man was adjusting the gun to keep it on target, another was retrieving new rounds. This was the first time many had seen a war, he realized.

"Volley!"

Hassan knew that this was not the only battery. Scenes like this were happening all across the desert, in a semi-circle surrounding Djibouti.

"Volley!"

The guns had distracted him from the cold, and from the ugly feelings that his rubber suit gave him. Now his entire body was electrified by the thought of combat. He wanted to hear a report from the front. He scanned the darkness, hoping to see a messenger on a motorcycle in the flashing gunlight.

"Volley!"

A shirtless Congolese artilleryman positioned himself directly behind a gun and began to pump his pelvis in its direction. "Look!" he shouted in a shrill French accent. "Thees is mah Deek!" he cackled like a crazy man, and Hassan couldn't help but laugh along with him.

"Volley!" the Congolese man's dick ejaculated fire.

"I am sorry, Ras." the shaky Officer said. "The men have been making that joke since we arrived. They think it is still funny."

"It is." Hassan replied with a grin.

"Volley!"

They heard a buzzing sound in the distance, and their ears perked up. Planes. The Officer looked worried at Hassan. He hadn't been expecting that.

"We have no way to counter aircraft." he said. "We need to bug out."

"Volley!"

The buzzing grew louder, a growl that seemed to come from everywhere in the sky and nowhere all at once. "No bugging out." Hassan said. This had been his master stroke. He had let very few know about this, to keep it as secret as he possibly could. "These are ours.

"Volley!"

In the flaming light of the artillery, they could see them coming from the west. Dozens of V's, black shadows against the starry sky. Africa's Air Force come out in its entirety. Hassan had known that the Air Force would have few chances to be useful in this war. So long as the Spaniards relied on carriers and lacked a comfortable base of their own on this continent, the Africans could take some advantage.

"Volley!"

The planes were over them now, as loud as diesel trucks. The artillerymen stopped to cheer, whooping wildly at the air. These were the most planes any of them had seen in the air at once, Hassan included. From here, it looked like the war was already over. The Dejazmach himself knew better, but the power of the moment still swelled in his heart.

The cheering turned into a contest as the men on the ground tried to out-shout the rumble of the air force. Men howled like hyena's and roared like lions. Some screamed words, like "Africa!" or "Yaqob!" One man shouted "Hassan!" and Hassan smiled.

Another scream overtook the rest. It was a victory cry before the victory. "Djibouti!" men began to scream. "Djibouti!" and then,
"Volley!"
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Djibouti, Pan-African Empire

They had arrived.

Towers of steel and menace glowing in the twilight of the setting sun stood vigil across the waters from Ethiopia's port city. A wall of mighty guns trained upon Djibouti, awaiting only the order from Admiral Santiago Santin to smash the city into dust. That order would come soon - once the swarm of landing boats now being lowered into the sea had reached a safe distance from their own guns. The muzzle fire from one such naval battery could incinerate a house. No matter: time was on the side of the Spanish; Djibouti was going nowhere, but it could be hoped that the Ethiopian defenders would loose heart in the face of the coming onslaught and would flee rather than resist.

Luis glanced longingly back to the Armada's ships as his landing craft drifted toward the shore some four kilometers away. On those ships, the private felt relatively safe. The primacy of Spain's blue water navy was uncontested - barring a naval intervention by the Chinese, the Spanish fleet could never be threatened. Behind the study hull of the Golondrina, nothing could hurt him. But in this rusting old boat, rocking and bobbing about in the sea, Luis would be utterly helpless if calamity were to strike. He could only pray and hope that the Lord would steer this boat through sea mines and incoming shells. Even an errant wave could spell disaster, spilling Luis and his companions into the open water.

Those companions did not seem to share Luis' concern. There was a tension amongst the men to be sure, but it was not one of timid reservation. Brief comments here and there met with short bouts of laughter. Luis' comrades were coiled springs, ready to be released from the landing boat and thrown against the Ethiopians. It was a palpable eagerness - they, after all, would be the ones to redeem the imperial splendor of Spain. Hector in particular seemed as though the spirit of Cortes and Pizarro were spurring him on against the Aztec and Inca of the modern age.

"Did the Armada forget how to shoot those guns? What gives?" One of the infantry spoke up.

"What's the range on those things anyway?" Another added.

"I've heard something like forty kilometers."

"Shit, those ships get any closer to shore and they'll be able to clear us a path all the way to Addis!"

"Forty kilometers on a good day." Lieutenant Ayesta corrected, leaning against the hull of the landing craft as the boat rolled over a wave crest. Droplets of foamy seawater splashed over the side and fell upon their olive-beige combat helmets. "And today is not a particularly good day as these things go. That storm's going to be on the Armada's ass in a few hours and you bet those gusts will play havoc on shells sailing through thirty to forty-five kilometers of air. They're getting in as close as they can. No reason not to; we've got aerial superiority and Ethiopia just lost what's left of a navy." Chuckles and grunts of approval rang out over the rumble of the diesel engine churning through the sea to the rear of the boat.

Luis craned his neck over the lip of the hull toward the shore. His boat was at the rear of a loose, vaguely-linear cluster of landing craft - one of the first waves. They had traversed about half of the distance between the Armada and the coast - heightening waves and the beginnings of whitecaps showed that the water was already quite shallow here. The landing boat was no longer rolling over the surf, but powering through it. The diesel motor revved angrily as the front of the boat plowed over the ridge of a wave - shattering it into a mist of beads shimmering in the spotlight the driver had switched on minutes earlier. As the boat bobbed up with the waves, Luis could see with some clarity their target, their destination.

Orange streetlights glowed over the inky darkness of the water, illuminating the city against the encroaching darkness. For the bastion of communist sympathy in the West, Luis was not particularly impressed by what he could see of Ethiopia so far. Djibouti was by no means a grand city, the buildings washed in the glow of halogen streetlamps went no higher than a few stories - a far cry from the glittering high rises and office complexes of Alicante, Valencia, or Barcelona. Wharves, warehouses, and loading cranes silhouetted against the reflected glow of the city against the nighttime sky could be seen off to the north. There was no doubt that any shipping-related infrastructure would be the first things the Armada would target; denying Ethiopia an important resupply port was a vital point of the Spanish strategy. Directly ahead was the ebbing whiteness of surf-driven foam crashing against a beach: a more suitable medium for a waterborne invasion.

An explosive flash materialized somewhere in the city, followed immediately by a handful of others. Several seconds passed before the distance-dulled boom of the blasts registered. The barrage had begun, eliciting cheerful whoops from the Spanish soldiers. No sooner than the Armada's initial salvo had begun, the unmistakable roar of helicopter propellers came in loud over the crashing surf. Barracuda gunships engorged with infantry swooped just over the landing craft crawling through the waves. They would carry heavily-armed fireteams behind the enemy's defensive lines, further encouraging the mass rout of Ethiopian forces that General Ponferrada so desired. For his own sake, Luis hoped that the Ethiopians would quail at the sight of this display of force.

Another shell fell upon Djibouti, deep within. It triggered an explosion that blossomed into a churning fireball, then rose upward above the city turning from bright orange and yellow and mushrooming into a deep red cloud. Embers and smoke billowed upward as the fireball expanded over the city. Another round of cheers as the sound of that explosion met their ears.

"Must have hit a fuel depot with that one!" One of Luis' peers exclaimed.

Another infernal flash materialized up to the north, nearer to the harbor. And then another flash, and another...

"Jesucristo! Armada's making these shots count!"

"That's not the Armada." Lieutenant Ayesta declared, craning his neck to look back over the driver's platform. "Our guns aren't firing."

"What a bunch of fucking morons!" Hector cackled. "They're shelling their own city!"

As the soldiers burst into hysterics at the supposed stupidity of their enemy, Luis watched as the fireballs continued to blossom forth from the bursts of light, each one merging into a horizon of firelight. Djibouti - the entire city - was rapidly beginning to burn.
__________________________________

Admiral Santiago Santin stood at the helm of La Ira de Dios, his arms crossed behind his back as he pressed himself against the windshield of the aircraft carrier's control tower. A pair of state-of-the-art infrared binoculars rested upon a nearby console; Admiral Santin had no need for them now, he could see everything he needed to. An infernal glow radiated across the hills and deserts surrounding the port city as the conflagration grew ever more intense.

"That bastard!" General Ponferrada snarled, joining Santin's side in watching the great fire. "I knew he'd do something of this caliber."

"Communists would sooner see their country burn than allow it to fall from their grasp. I'm not at all surprised either. It does complicate your landings. How does this affect your plan moving forward?"

"It doesn't." Ponferrada decided matter-of-factly. "The only thing that they've accomplished with this feat is sparing us the munitions to destroy Djibouti. It was never my intent to engage them in urban combat, and it seems that Hassan is no more interested in guerrilla warfare than I am. A career of fighting Belgians and separatists in the bush has made him fond of a more open field of combat - I must assume he's forgotten that Ethiopia proper is a land devoid of cover. The Fuerza Aerea will burn his forces out of any hole he tries to hide in, and he cannot win a set piece battle against the Ejercito.

The Barracudas will take the forward guard into their midst and dispatch their artillery without difficulty. Forces arriving on the beaches will simply have to pick a path through the city, or perhaps await aerial extraction if the fires get too expansive. This stunt might have impressed that maricon Demessie, but it will take much more than napalm shells and a few hundred liters of kerosine to faze me."

General Ponferrada glanced furtively about the bridge, ensuring the officers and ensigns were occupied with other matters. Satisfied no one was paying particularly close attention, he leaned into Santin's ear. "On the subject of impressing these savages, we have the opportunity to spare ourselves any combat here. We can avoid all confrontation for this landing," he whispered. He took one more glance over his shoulder before continuing.

"I know as well as you do that the Cascabel carries nerve gas shells, and that the Prime Minister has granted you permission to use them at your discretion. Their artillery batteries and formations could be dispatched with a handful of shells..."

"No," Santin curtly denied. "Those will be sorely needed before this war is finished. I have no intention of wasting them on Ethiopian artillery battalions of all things."

Before he could continue, the Admiral took note of a sudden uptick in the chatter amongst the officers at their consoles. Santin approached the communications officer to be appraised of the situation at hand.

"The Cimmarón has reported radar contacts moving overland. Attempting to confirm...," an epaulet-sporting officer informed the Admiral in between conversations through his headset.

"I can confirm: unidentified contacts on radar moving in at 220 knots, heading of 105 degrees!" A white-clad ensign reported. "Aircraft and lots of it!"

"I want every fixed-wing aircraft on the carrier airborne in the next seven minutes." Admiral Santin snapped. "Get those flak guns firing." A chorus of 'Aye's and 'Entendido, almirante's responded to each order. "General, do I understand that there are gunships moving inland?"

"That's correct." With this, the General's face drained of color.

"Then you turn them the Hell around."
Hidden 6 yrs ago Post by Vilageidiotx
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The Gulf of Aden

Both the time of the crash, and the event of her coming back to consciousness on the beach, were vague impressions adrift in here mind, and she could not place exactly when either of them had happened. Time had become a smudge of unplaceable memories for Azima, each thought drowned in the deep primal pain caused by the fear that her child was lost. She had not seen a survivor since their plane went down in the Gulf of Aden.

She glided along the beach like a ghost clad in white. The pearl-white dress that she had worn to impress the Chinese was soaked, and it clung wetly to her skin. She had lost the gaudy cheetah pelt that had draped her shoulders, and her shoes were missing as well. The sea had made her skin cool and clammy. It was a sorry state that she was in now, and she felt disoriented and unable to regain her bearing.

"Tewodros!" she heard herself yell. "Tewodros! Olivier! Elani!" she screamed their names as loud as she could, but she did not feel as if it were her that was yelling. She could see herself looking for wreckage, but that did not feel as if that were her either. She was imprisoned in her own mind, with no choice but to watch herself panic.

"Tewodros!"

The sun had set just over the western edge of the sea, but its light had not gone out quite yet. The sky blazed a brilliant red, having swallowed all of the sun's parting light. The earth below was left in the shadow of twilight, where the ocean clamored and sprayed.

She was deeply disturbed by the absence of any evidence that there had been a crash. There was no wreckage, no bodies, and no perturbance out at sea. She was the only living thing that she could see, except for the chattering cormorants that gathered on the rocks and flew away when she came near them. She felt like she was in some horrible limbo, detached from her own life, and suffering the horror of a missing son.

"Tewodros! Elani!" she shouted again.

She tried to recall what happened before their plane went into the ocean. She could remember the enemy, though she never saw him. It had been an enemy aircraft with supernatural abilities. It had appeared as a speck against the overcast skies, and then it was right behind them. This had happened in a single, horrifying instant.

As she came around the edge of a pillar of rock that jutted across the beach, her concentration was broken. She could think of nothing but what she might see on the other side. Anxiety took control of her body, making her bones ache. She jogged ahead, the chilled ocean wind making her cold in her wet dress. What would she see? The other side revealed itself slowly.

There was nothing. Rocks, and more rocks. The white sand was the color of rust in the scant light of the newly absent sun.

Her knees went weak then, but she could not give in. She was angry now. Rage built into a waiting scream in her chest, and she let it all out in a shrill wail that was full of hatred and fevered fear. A spooked cormorant shot up into the sky, chattering a warning to its fellows.

She began to gather herself, little by little.

Azima wanted to fight the ocean. That was her natural instinct, as little sense as it made. She wanted to punish the water that had swallowed her last connection to the world. She wanted to set this island flat so that every corner and crevice that might hide what she sought would be naked to her eyes.

Memories of the attack in the sky returned to her. The screaming of metal as bullets put holes in their plane, the bloody explosion of a young priest's knee as one of those same bullets hit it, and the deadly sputter of the engines as they all failed one after another in response to the stress of the one that had been damaged by the firefight. That was when the demonic attacker disappeared in a flash and thunder.

Was it lightning? The storm - and it had hardly been a storm - was not enough to produce lightning. It had hardly been enough to produce rain. No, it could not be lightning, but what else? She did not have the resources to know.

By now, the clouds were a dark smear treading across the northern sky. The ocean still churned, a tumult the color of a well-rotted corpse. Its roar deadened in her ears, just as it had when the pilot fought to bring them down into the sea without completely destroying them.

The last thing she remembered was holding her son, and watching the priests as they clung to the box that held the Ark of the Covenant. That was the strongest memory out of them all. She didn't know how to describe what they had done. It was not clinging truly. Not like the embrace she held her baby boy in. It had been like something from art. They had been lamenting the Ark, throwing their bodies against it and mourning as gravity assailed the plane and forced them into the blackness of the water. The memory chilled her to the bone.

"Tewodros!" she continued to scream. Her feet were numb from the pain of scattered rocks as she climbed from the ruddy beach toward the hills above. He was a strong boy. Had he wandered off, healthy but confused? Darkness was gathering, and she did not know what beasts lived on this island.

"Tewodros!" here voice was becoming hoarse. How long had she been wandering? "Tewodros!"

"Olivier!" she shouted. He wasn't her child, and he was missing an arm. How hopeless was a one armed child in an unsettled sea? "Elani!" she shouted the third name, her mother in law. The older woman was senile. Could she comprehend enough to survive?

"Tewodros!" he was strong. Her boy could live. He must have lived.

"Tewodros!"

"Tewodros!"

"Tewodros!"

She began to worry about the temperature. She knew how to survive in the African bush, but the dangers there rarely included hypothermia. She was not sure if she was in that sort of danger - she was numb from fear and simple tiredness. Her lungs ached, and she was not sure if that was from her screaming or the water she had swallowed before she washed up on the shore.

"Tewodros!" she her voice was dry and parched. She was stumbling across uneven terrain. A fire was needed. She didn't want to stop looking, not for a minute, but her son would need a fire too. He might see the light, or the smoke. It would not only be warmth, it would be a signal!

She began to gather driftwood.

The first piece of wood she tried to lift surprised her. It felt as heavy as iron. Was she that weak now? She wondered if she had lost her survival skills from living the life of an Empress. Or was she simply more tired than she realized? Log by log, she created a pile to burn. Tinder could be found in the dry brush that grew away from the beach. She was nearly ready.

When she had served in her father's early version of the Walinzi, she would carry a knife who's steel could be brought to spark when scraped against a sharp-edged stone, but she had no steel now. That was no matter. A fire was absolutely necessary.

The rocks deposited near the shore by the ocean were rounded like river pebbles. There was no flint nearby as far as she could tell. Desperate, she gathered the best stones she could find and squatted over her tinder.

She scraped and scraped. No sparks. The anger she had wanted to release on the ocean was now turned against the rocks. Scrape, scrape, scrape. Nothing. The sky had faded to a dying purple. She was going to be left in the dark.

For a while, she watched her sad, unlit pile of driftwood with distant eyes. What now? Her instincts told her not to wander the wilderness at night, but her maternal soul rebelled against that. She had to search! Her child was out there! As her eyes began to adjust to the night, she stood up and continued her search.

"Tewodros!" she shouted out on top of her lungs. A new fear, the human fear of unknown darkness, gave her a new wind. She walked gracelessly on bare feet made sore by her wandering.

She saw a shadow that looked like a sea monster thrusting from the base of a jagged cliff face. It was a baobab tree, she realized, who's obese trunk was crowned by wriggling branches. She knew that they could be hollow. If she were a child, that was where she would hide.

"Tewodros!" she shouted again. "Olivier! Elani!"

She searched the tree and found no opening for a child to hid in. Fruitlessly, she knocked on the tree with her knuckles. When she realized how pointless that had been, she wondered if she was losing her mind.

The sharp rises that followed the coast began to plummet as she flitted across the shore. There were places where she could climb into the land beyond the coast. If the priests had survived, or the pilot, would they have led the children inland to find help? The ocean was beginning to make her feel hopeless, and her instincts told her to leave it behind. She obeyed.

Beach sand and tumbled stones gave way to jagged rocks and scrub-land. Strange trees sprouted up across the landscape like coniferous toadstool mushrooms. There were bloated baobabs as well, and smaller bush-like trees that looked similar to baobabs.

When she saw how jagged the rocks were here, she began to think about fire again.

"Tewodros!" she shouted again. Ridges and rocky hills rose on either side of her, enclosing something of a valley that opened toward the sea. Would smoke from a fire be visible across enough land to make it worth while? She could not doubt herself. It was a chance. A pile of ready drift-wood waited behind her, but she could not turn back. There was nothing for her back there.

"Tewodros!" she shouted.

Her search for wood was harder than she expected it to be. Before she could find anything, she spotted what looked like a house. That was it! She knew her son would be there. It was the most fitting place for her search to end. He would be safe there, with a family of loyal Africans! She shuffled toward it in a hurry.

The house was a simple place, she could see. It was a pile of stones with a roof. A thatched grass wall surrounded it. There was no light, and that scared her at first, until she realized that there were no windows either. Where would light come from if there were no windows?

"Tewodros!" she began to yell, louder and louder. She felt a sharp pain stab into her foot, and she recoiled from the rock that caused it, but she did not slow down for long. She did not know if it had drawn blood or not, and she did not care.

"Tewodros!" she screamed. "Olivier! Elani!"

She realized that she would be talking to natives, so she framed her thoughts. Where was she? She hadn't taken much time to consider. This had to be Socotra, she realized at once. Socotra or one of its lesser islands. Those had been the nearest place to where they went down, and the shore she had woken up on faced the north-west. If this was Yemen, there would be no north-western shore.

Her heart pounded as she rounded the house. She came to the door. Her heart sank and fell to pieces. It was abandoned. There was weeds growing on the dirt floor.

Azima screamed and punched the wall. Pain recoiled through her knuckles, but she did not care. What would she do now? A part of her told her to fall to her knees, but that scared her. She couldn't give up. Her child was in this wilderness. Her baby boy.

And so Azima wandered further into the dusk.

She heard what she thought was the air, but when she looked up she realized there were clouds of fluttering bats. Were they following her? She felt paranoid. She did not know what lurked in the wild places of this island. Wisdom told her that she should stay put, and she remembered her fire now, but anger and pain was effecting her judgement. She pushed ahead as the insects came out and began to sing. Soil stung at the wound on her foot. Red dust caked what had been a white dress, and it was fraying at the bottom.

"Tewodros!" she shouted. In vain, she considered for a moment. No. She could not think that. "Tewodros!"

She returned to her plan for a fire. A mushroom-capped coniferous tree suggested easy wood, and she began to search around it. Nothing dead lay on the ground. Unthinking, she moved to another tree. There was a stick. She gathered it under her arm and continued.

"Tewodros!" she yelled again as she found another stick. Fire! That would save her and bring back her boy. Fire!

Another stick, and then another. She found one oozing with a sticky goo that looked like blood in the night, but she picked it up anyway. She couldn't find any of the large pieces that would let a fire burn slow and long, but that did not matter. Sticks would do in a pinch. For kindling, she considering the woven grass and stick fence that surrounded the abandoned hut.

A low, lonely tune played loud across the valley. It sounded like the cry of a cow, but it lasted longer and held a sad musical note. It took her a moment to realize what she had heard.

It was a horn.

"Tewodros!" she shouted at the sound, which could only be played by a human. She heard distant clamor of a dozen voices carried behind the constant song of desert insects. And then she saw the fire.

Not fire. Fires. There were many small fires burning.

They came holding torches, a dozen men in faded brown tunics and simple rough-spun shirts. These were the natives, she knew at once. These were a people long descended from the Yemeni of the Arab peninsula, their blood mixed with the peoples of the African Horn and travelers from distant India. To Azima, they looked like Africans with their deeply tanned skin and wiry messes of hair.

"Queen from the plane!" one man shouted in rough Arabic. "We have come to find you!"

"Do you have my son?" she asked desperately. "The Prince? Have you found him?"

She watched the faces of the men in the flickering torchlight. Cold. What did they know? How many could understand her?

"Yes." the man answered. "We have found the children and the Christians. They are safe."

At that, she began to cry.

They surrounded her like an entourage of royal guards, and the heat from their torches made her feel warm for the first time since she had woken up. She felt intensely excited to see her baby boy again, but she was no longer worried. She was safe.

Azima pondered the words of the man who had spoke. We have found the children and the Christians. Those words nagged at her until she realized what was missing. They had not mentioned the pilot.

And they had not mentioned Elani. What of the Queen Dowager?
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Somalia

Off the coast


The shadows of spinning helicopter blades chopped the light that shone off the low gray waves of the Indian Ocean. A slow reverberating and temperamental beat slashed the air. With each pass of the blade came another blink from the waves below as the solemn helicopter hovered over head. Skimming over the waves as they lowered over a piece of debris in the sea.

There was a sense of tensity. Not in just getting to the piece of aircraft metal that bobbed in the waves, the silvery finish of the piece shining like a silver jewel in the sun, though now the wear of salt water was dulling the sheen and even the cheap paint that was on it was starting to fade and wash away in the wear of sun and sea.

Sen Zhou leaned out the side door of the loitering helicopter as its rails touched the very tops of the ocean water. “We're not going any lower!” the pilots screamed over the radio as they bounced up higher. They were right. The force of the rotors was beginning to kick up a heavy mist of ocean spray. Alongside Zhou a youthful private reached out with his hand, his belly laying flat on the helicopter's floor as he put his face into the middle of the spray. Feebly grabbing for the piece of waste that lay in the waves.

“It doesn't matter!” Zhou kicked, the private recoiled back inside, his fingers brushing the wet surface of the metal, “There's no one here. Move along.” she ordered.

“Copy that, comrade.” the pilots responded.

The helicopter lifted off, raising back into the sunny warm skies as they continued to sweep over the ocean. Water dripped from the side, and the beads that circulated in the down-draft created a cloud of white-gold that cut and sparkled in the clear air. Meanwhile over the radio, subdued discussion and reports came in. Spanish and Ethiopian forces were clashing over the smoldering fires of Djibouti, set to light the previous night.

Still, the concerns of the Spanish course had to be cut from the mission. Zhou had been ordered north by Cao and other officers on behalf of the Ethiopians to seek out answers and make a report on the lost royal transport. Instead of sitting put on the coast, minding a radio the female officer had opted to take direct part. She wasn't about to be idle. She was more proactive than that. Staying where it was safe during the battles in the jungles of Mindanao hadn't won anyone favor. And it wouldn't her. No, it was abiding to something greater. A constant need to prove herself in a organization that was, by its best efforts, still presided over by men.

There was much for her ilk to surpass. And she couldn't do it by being merely adequate.

Rising into the air again the expanse of the search zone became evident again. Cao didn't have many assets at his command to utilize. But it was far more than the Ethiopians could muster. And for all of Cao's cowardice and pretty-boy book training he and the Ethiopians could at least come to one agreement: Ethiopian assets were best used against Spain.

For the Chinese, it was the meager fleet of helicopters at Cao's commands. For now under the direct assignment of their operations officer. Black dots combed the distance. Chinese light helicopters. Máquè B-1s. For her experience, something that hauled the wounded around. Lightly-built, little actual combat role. But heavy lifting all the same.

In the center of the orbiting swarm drifted a flotilla of small boats. At the middle a solid gray tortoise, a stand-out from the brown and rusting dinghies that surrounded it. Their helicopter lander was a stranger among fishermen that the Chinese had recruited to search for bodies. In exchange the fishermen got to keep any debris they could to sell as scrap. It wasn't a high-reward, but many of the old men were gleeful, hoping to get something valuable. If anything failed, Cao had promised some sort of reward allocated to them for the effort. They'd only pulled in five of them.

“How long are we going to keep at this?” complained the private as he whipped away the salt water with the sleeves of his fatigues. He scowled at the expansive emptiness of the ocean, and the vague suggestion of islands in the far distance.

“For as long as we need to.” Zhou replied in a low voice, leaning out the side.

She scowled at the sight of the wider wreck sight. Speckles of metal dotted the water. But she knew these were all dead ends. Perhaps some might have hope. Maybe carrying something that would promise hope. Being the carriage for maybe – if morbidly – a hand or some body part they could take and bring back. Heralding it as confirmation of a death and sealing the case as a whole. Zhou doubted if the Ethiopians even had black boxes. But if they did they'd need to dive. And for sure they didn't have divers or a way to retrieve it.

Currents had shifted the debris field. That much was sure. They found what meager ends they could just off of the engagement zone. Was this because the Spanish found them first and engaged the Ethiopian plane earlier? Had it kept on, blowing smoke until forcing itself to land.

Which ever the case it hadn't had the decency to stay in larger pieces. Shred remained. Zhou had hoped for a wing. If anything, these could be excused as garbage. Or debris that somehow made it from the Red Sea after the fierce fighting between the Ethiopians and the Spanish.

And perhaps even on that assumption it could have felt better – for her – if they located a soaked, drowned corpse of an Ethiopian sailor. It might have excused away this mess and they could go elsewhere.

Zhou pulled away from the doorway, carefully moving to the pilot's cabin. Leaning against the cold rails she peered out at the open seas between the two pilots as they set out.

Their radios popped, “Comrade Zhou.” a voice said, “We found something you should see.” a report cracked over her headset. She stood up, pressing her hand to her headphones.

“Speak up,” she demanded, “What did you find?”

“Survivors, comrade.” the comms popped, the muffled thumping of the helicopter blades distorted the words as they sawed through the air from both ends, “They're on a wing piece, no sight of the Emperess. But you should see this out.

“We'll set up a flare on our position. Over.”

“I copy that, waiting.” Zhou nodded. A feeling of relief came on her as a weight of failure pulled itself off. She locked up through the cockpit windshield, looking for the tell-tale flaire.

To their left, piercing the bright afternoon day-light a red spark shot into the clear diamond blue. “That's them.” Zhou pointed, “Head there.” she ordered the pilots.

“Will do.” the two men responded. The chopper pitched softly to the side as they sputtered off across the waves in the direction of the flare.

The Máquè glode through the air, drawing near to the chopper that had launched the flare. There below it, drifting and bobbing in the air sat a group of men, dressed in white robes plastered to their bodies from the water. Their whetted faces looked up to the commanding aircraft as it neared. But none of them jumped up, nor hailed the Chinese helicopter to them.

It was as if the Chinese were not their point of interest. Nor any salvation. Zhou watched as another emerged from the water, and clambered aboard the drifting piece of metal floating at sea. Helped up by his companions, another dove into the dark steely depths of the Indian ocean.

“What's the situation?” asked Zhou as they flew in close. The rotors kicked up a mist of water as the down-thrust disturbed the ocean surface.

“They won't talk to us.” the other chopper responded, “We've been in orbit for several minutes and they've not answered any of our approaches.”

Zhou looked from them to the white-robbed men drifting at sea. Around their waists they wore scabbards. The curved handles of scimitars glimmered in the sun. “Let me try.” she turned, moving from the pilots to the side door of her coach.

Hanging out the side the chopper lowered. Her shortened hair whipped in the cool wet breeze. She squinted against the dashing droplets of water as they came down.

“I am Zhoong xiao Sen Zhou, Chinese Army. Pemba detachment.” she introduced herself, she had limited Amharic; boasting only what she came to know in a commanding position such as her own. Her command and identity seemed to anger the men even more. They looked up at her with no compassion. Only a subdued anger and annoyance, “We've offered you help to get out, what seems to be the problem?” she asked.

Neither answered. Sitting in subdued silence as the one who had emerged from the water fresh continued to draw hearty breath. “Answer me!” she demanded.

“Listen you insolent woman!” one of the men roared, shooting up from his seat. A thin wiry beard hung heavy like a soaked cat from his chin, “We do not take orders from heathens such as yourself! Begone you godless bitch, or I'll cut you!” he bellowed, drawing the saber from his hip.

Rattling the sword he swore, “The might of God is with me. And not with you! Cursed wench, take you and your bastard sons home and whore yourself elsewhere!”

Like a gunshot, a hot rose bloomed inside her chest at the bite of the words. The man waved the curved scimitar above his head. Screaming in his African tongue. “The fuck you say to me!?” Zhou screamed, “You're a stubborn old man. The might of God my own yellow ass you gentry swine!” her knuckles wrapped the metal frame of the helicopter as she leaned out further. The other reaching for the revolver at her hip.

“Don't you insult me!” she bellowed. She ran through bullets. She'd been slashed, stabbed at, shot at, and exploded on. To prove herself. She wasn't going to have a senile priest tell her what she can't do.

The heavy weight of the revolver at her hip felt warm. Inviting. “I'll have you bleed in the ocean!” she promised, unsnapping the leather straps that held it to her holster. But before she could draw it, a hand held hers in place, forcing the gun down.

“Comrade, no!” a soldier demanded, “Don't make it any worse! Get back in here.” he begged.

She fought against him. The defiant figure of the Ethiopian standing just meters away, atop the chunk of aluminum wing as it sloshed in the water. But as she quivered and seethed in offense, she couldn't pull out the Changu. The regular's hands held hers down too tight as she was pulled back in.

“We found someone, that's all we need.” the soldier soothed. Back inside the chopper she was numb to the cold droplets of water that dripped down her. The anger that boiled inside was hot, nullifying sensation. It demanded her to kill. But her was command, restraining her.

“W-we'll go back to land, report it in.” the private continued nervously. He was the private from before. His eyes were wide and afraid.

“They're dead.” she said.

“W-what?” the private asked.

“We're getting back, I'm filling out the paperwork. We found the bodies of multiple deceased men. But we're still looking for the royal family.” she still shook. But condemning the pious bastards on that chunk of aluminum felt all the more calming than shooting them. They'd be dead officially, but in reality they would float and starve until that blinding piety suffocated them.

“That's all.” she sneered, “GET THIS UP, WE'RE LEAVING!” she roared to the pilots.

“Yes, comrade.”

Bargaal


He lay listening to the rattle of the truck bed under him. Nested on a mattress of straw and of hay the pilot lay staring at the open empty sky above. He felt tired, and still sore. But most importantly he was thirsty. His mouth itched with a dry cottony texture. It irritated him. Right now: more so than having to crash his plane.

It was probably fortunate enough he didn't plunge so hard he broke his neck. But he felt out of whack. Disoriented. Parts of him throbbed from when he had come back to Earth. He could only guess how the initial moment went when he hit the ground. He was alive, he must have been slow enough. And the angle at which he came down at must have been small enough. There was no head on collision with anything. No explosions. Just the fuel gauge dropping to zero and the buzzing sirens that screamed inside his cabin. He knew then that he had to bring it down over the Somalian horn.

He'd been going inland. Now he was smelling the sea again. He was going the wrong way. But it was something.

The circumstances for his rescue were perhaps only coincidence. A day passed over which he lay in the shade of a tree. Just waiting for the pain to subside before he made the trek out. But before he could bare to stand a herdsman had found him. Out of breath and ecstatic, the African had yelled in his foreign tongue, smacking Han Wen about the cheek and ebbing him out of his sleep in the hot Somalian sun.

Wen didn't know how to respond, which is probably why he ended up in the truck. Obviously the man thought he wasn't a threat. Not by much. He sounded almost sympathetic to him. He talked slow and carefully, even if he couldn't understand him. He was a stranger, but he wanted to sound like a friend as he helped him up and brought him to the bed of a battered pick-up that could have easily been post-war. Perhaps it had been a supply truck left over when the British failed to depose the Mad Mullah. Or perhaps it was a German gift for aligning with the Kaiser during the Great War.

Wen couldn't say what. He didn't care. All that lingered was the insurmountable wish to drink. And an ebbing secretive hunger deep in his belly.

The ride had been smoother than he had anticipated in Africa, where the land was said to be untamed. Even to the Chinese, Africa was a mysterious land with an Emperor curiously supported by their own. Their people dark and varied. Training alongside them was a chore, they acted as if they haven't heard of order. They were rowdy, unkempt, and possessed little in the way of modern technology and discipline. It was probably as well they had an Emperor.

But the soldiers he trained alongside were his only taste in the African continent. They and Pemba in general. On a good day, the island base was almost a vacation haven. Had things not been going as-is he and his compatriots should have been lounging on the beach, with their allotment of beer handed to them by the quartermaster. They'd have practiced their flights, puttered with the engines, and then they'd be spending the evening on the warm sand as the cool evening surf washed their ankles. Chen Wu would be making terrible jokes, and Song Yu would be prowling the surf looking for crabs.

He always talked about making a bowl of African crab in an oyster sauce.

But none of that involved the Africans. Hardly so. Africans were a twice weekly thing. They'd get in a car, drive down the island, and sit down with their partners in the sister base and go over with them on how to maintain rotary airplanes. They didn't have jets. They didn't even so much know they had them.

China was the future. Africa was the past. And Europe was a land of caution.

Off the cattle tracks now, the old beater chugged along down smooth pavement as the late morning sun slowly climbed the stairway of heaven. Each step another minute that passed. And he didn't know where he was going. Just that it was to the shore.

Over the sound of the clanging truck bed and the aged hum of an engine too suffocated to be moving he heard other noises. Traffic noises. Life noises. It spurned him to sit up out of his straw bed. His muscles ached and protested as he sat up straight. He swayed forward and to the side with the movement of the truck along the asphalt road.

Trailing the truck was a motorcycle. Rumbling gently behind it with a rough coughing voice. Its rider stared up at the Chinese passenger. His unprotected face sprung into mild surprise. Wen looked around, he had entered into a town. White-washed houses and business stood over the road. Telephone poles marched along the street. And a network of webbed electrical cables and telephone lines twisted about between. Like the familiar web of wire and band at home. There was just as little organization here as there. And with it, so to were the sounds of street life.

The passing of car engines. The idle weaving of traffic – mechanical and otherwise – and the polite conversation of the native locals. It struck Wen as a surprise, where Addis was the only city he knew of in Africa. Where Addis was only a city because it was a capital. In the old stories, Africa was a land of thatch huts and half naked women. But here there were town buildings, much like where he was from.

He leaned forward, past the wooden side wall of the truck's bed to the street and sidewalk alongside him. Men and women, plainly clothed, walked along. Dark-skinned men with wiry black beards strolled alongside dark-skinned women, heads covered in bright colorful hijabs. There was a sense of order in these streets. Just like at home.

If it had not been for the mud-brick, and the sun-baked, and sand-choked cinder blocks. The roofing as far as he could tell was nonexistent. Existing in suggestion only by tiled edges or the trim overhangs of corrugated metal. Many buildings, older in their construction boasted decorative, peaked crenellations of sandstone, eroded and washed out over centuries.

The truck continued its lumbering quest through the small town streets. Passing by homes and the base of a minaret, its skin coated in a heavy hide of fresh mud glowing in the sunlight. The flattened roof of the building crowned in white porcelain merlons. Passing alongside the simple mud-built mosque the truck came to a stop. Idling its engines for a moment before dying completely with a wet soapy gurgle.

Wen sat, confused in the silence and lost. Beyond the walls of the mosque he saw glittering in the sun the great gray sea.

The door to the cabin slammed shut and the driver charged out. Calling out in his confusing foreign language. Like some distant mutation on Arabic, familiar to him only as second hand. The driver rushed around the back, calling out and clamoring. He beamed with a certain celebration and hospitality. But his forthrightness and energy was more a discomfort than he was not.

He was a springy man. Long and lanky. His hands had known work, and so did his arms. Chaffed and calloused with working with rock or animal; Wen couldn't tell what. His hair curled and messy in a wild electrical afro and with an equally stringy thin beard.

The driver babbled on. Gesturing to his legs, his shoulders. He knew the two didn't speak the same language, but he could try to pantomime. He gestured until the message got across: how was he?

Wen chose to answer him in the stiffest way he could. Pushing himself up off the bed of the truck to stand against the tail gate. His body was sore, and he felt he was tearing his limbs off if they bent too far. But leaning against the rough body of the wooden planks he could indeed stand.

“Mo-ga-dishu.” Han Wen said slowly, hoping he could get something across. It was the only word he was sure he'd understand that he knew. “Ca-an I get to Mo-ga-dishu.” he repeated, carefully and slowly.

The Somalian paused, mouthing what the Chinese pilot had said. His eyes lit up with realization, but he frowned. Shaking his head, he took him gently by the shoulders and led him aside to a mud house. He talked, but the only thing he could make note of was the city's name.

He was lead inside a home, across from the mosque. Where once lead in he was gently sat down to observe the frenetic energy inside.

Almost as soon as he had come, the dwelling burst with a sort of excitement. The wife – he presumed – cried in surprise, and spoke with the man. Together, the two lead themselves off. Talking quickly in that language of theirs. Batting swift glances to him. Mogadishu came up, but he knew nothing more. And the two disappeared into another room. Slipping away behind a curtain door set in their muddy sandstone wall. And he was alone.

As Wen sat alone, the stability of the dwelling began to dwindle. It began with fluttering footsteps running bare across the tiled floor. Children who came to gawk at the Chinese pilot. Their wide eyes measures him up and down. Their curious looks made him squirm. They resembled predators. Tiny tigers and wolves. Looking upon an abandoned cow with hunger.

Even if in their eyes there was no hunger, only amazement and awe for the foreign pilot sharing their home it still gnawed on Wen. He could feel the jaws of their gaze giving no pause as they looked him over. He smiled weakly, and tried to avert his gaze.

After them came others. Women. Young and old they walked in and through, giving the Chinese pilot anxious looks under hijabs they adjusted nervously as they passed. Some giggled nervously. Wen didn't know whether to smile too. His face remained cold as he watched them by. It silenced them as they left.

As they filed into the next room the sound of chatter rose. Summoning the curious children to them and the men. Perhaps brothers of the one who picked him up, or friends. Cousins perhaps. Did the Somalis live like they, the Chinese? One large family clan in a single home?

But here he was, inside. No doubt their hospitality knew no security for their private dwelling. Were these men from the street then, called in by curiosity by the sawing of the women? Never the less they shuffled by, scratching their beards as they threw Wen curious looks as they disappeared.

The intent of the discussion seemed to shift as the homemakers stepped out from the other room. The loud talkative family bustled around Wen, nearly crowding out the remaining children who shirked away. Nervously they gestured to him and turned to themselves, scratching their heads and shrugging. A few seemed to watch him like they were waiting for him to react.

A dry itch had been resting in the back of his throat, playing cat and mouse with the dry dehydration that lay back there. Finally, the discomfort of I had come to a point. He coughed lightly, covering his mouth. The simple act silenced the group and they looked down on him expectantly.

Nervously, he rose a hand to his mouth. “Water?” he asked apprehensively, miming the drinking from a class.

Cabitaanka?” his rescuer said, “Cabitaanka!” he repeated, ushering off one of the women to the kitchen, “Shiinaha wuu keeni doontaa biyaha!” he called after her.

Wen watched her disappear into the other room, her gray dress trailing behind her. She emerged moments later, a plastic cup in her hand. Anxiously, she handed it over to Wen.

It was water. He sighed in relief as he rose it to take a sip. The water was cool, if not completely cold. It also carried the dry arid taste of clay. But for what it was worth, it was water. The reviving embrace of it chased down the play of dryness of itchiness, and brought back some of his humanity.

He smiled at the woman, bowing thankfully as he handed back the cup. Nervously, she returned the smile and turned back. Her husband, the driver said something to her as she left. Though Wen didn't catch it.

Having drunk, the tension of the room dipped. There was a relaxation among the adults and they turned away from her, breaking into their own orbital groups, though never leaving. The woman returned to Wen again, with the cup. Wen took it gratefully, and sipped the water. Looking up at him the woman held her hand up to her mouth, miming eating.

It took Wen a moment to realize, she was asking if he wanted to eat. “Y-yes.” he nodded uncomfortably.

Russia


Omsk


“How does the road look?” Hue Wen shouted as he walked between the banks of armored cars. His coat trailed behind him. Opening enough for the hilt of his sword to gleam in the spring-time sun. Omsk sang with the rumble of motor engines and diesel. Plumes of black smoke puffed from exhaust pipes to the clear sapphire skies above.

“Clear to Tyumen, recon reports.” a nimble officer replied back as he rushed to keep pace with the general. Wen may have several decades over the officer behind him, but the age and weight his body insisted on holding couldn't slow him. Not the ryhtym of war and his duties beating soundly in his chest and head. He could hear the low pounding of victory in his head and the phantom promise of sulphur victory.

“They're bunching up on Tyumen. They might be counting on us being careful now that we came this far.” the young man continued. He was Angua's replacement now that he disappeared. Scrawny, short, he had a bushy head of hair. Should it have been a day for inspection the general would have goaded him out. But today was not for public display.

“What was your name again, officer?” Wen turned to ask, stopping alongside the cold gray-steel hull of a armored car.

“Shen Ju-long.” he bowed, “lieutenant assistant analyst to An Angua.”

“Right, well comrade Shen may I assure you we will not rest.” Wen smiled, “We will not give a break. We shall not give a quarter to the enemy. As long as we move we will bring fire.

“Comrade Wu has the whole the plan.” he continued, as he opened the door to the infantry carrier, “He knows who to pick and how to deploy them. I am confident in his abilities to carry out my orders.”

“And what are those?”

“You're splendidly out of the loop.” Wen chided sarcastically from within the armored hull of the vehicle. Ju-Long followed through, squinting in the moment it took his eyes to adjust to the dark light inside.

“I am afraid I am new to this sort of command.” Ju-Long admitted crawling inside and finding a cold hard seat, “I am more used to paying attention to what I'm only told to. Forgive me, comrade.”

“I'll let it slide.” Wen snickered, “We're going to hit Tyumen from three sides and trap them in a pincer. As we grill their front lines from the east here, we will wrap around the sides with the force of a claw. A farmer reaping the field of grain! And in that we shall set them aside as a bushel to be cleaned up.”

Ju-Long rubbed his eyes, he looked down at his feet. Watching his boots fade into clarity as the light dimmed with the shutting door. “I'm afraid I don't understand, comrade. I-” he looked up as he felt his eyes adjust and paused suddenly. The next syllable in his throat hanging in its back. It crawled out, not as a one long exercise in articulation, but as a sudden incommunicable groan.

“Ahhh- sir?” he continued in shock, “What is with the radios?”

“I used to think I was a DJ.” Wen laughed, “But then I found war and the western romance of talking over the radio died away!” he exclaimed, holding out his arms to the bank of radio equipment rigged into the very hull of the vehicle. Glued and bolted to the armored hull, a sudden growth of metal and cables and transistors threw themselves out like a gray cancerous growth.

“What use is a glorious march, if not music to inspire the men and to terrify the enemy with the image of their oncoming demise? And so do we go to the timely thumping of the drums.” he smiled proud.

“Sir, I-I must profess. I- uh. I do not think that is standard and nearly timely.”

“Every good commander should be allotted their eccentricity. Some fancy the old duel. Some prefer to amputate the limbs of their foes. And some such as I like to inspire our ancestral spirit!” he talked like a proud professor, showcasing his latest work. He bounced on his seat as he talked. Ju-Long could only stare at it in mixed confusion and fear.

“Never the less don't feel panic comrade!” Wen cheered, “I have played the drums for a long time. And we will be at the very nucleus of this center column.”

“B-but, airstrikes comrade.” Ju-Long cringed, “We'll be vulnerable! Even if Russian armor doesn't breach your perimeter. T-This... Noise will make us more a target!”

“Bull shit, I called in a favor from a friend of a friend in Mongolia. He said he can do a few things to keep the Russians crippled.” the commander waved dismissively as he fell back in his seat.

“Staff sergeant Wong,” he grinned, “Will you give the order for some thunder?” he asked.

“Certainly.” the sergeant towards the head of the car said, looking out from behind the tangled mess of a computer. He turned back to the radio and in a low certain voice said, “All units, sound the drums.”

There was a moment pause before the beating thunder began. Engines revved outside the armored hull and they were on the move. Ju-Long choked as he felt a pang of concern and nauseous fear eb in his gut.

Multiple stones began to sink in his gut. Though he was never one for combat, it was silence and subtlety that were his tools and his sword. He looked up at his master's gaze. Wen was full and confident with a bright rosy smile. His plump, round cheeks full as a rat's in his stoic confident smile. Outside, the long rhythmic beat of the drums signaled not a march, but a long haul. Every vehicle on decks. All on the road. Russian highways were now theirs.

“Out of a matter of personal... interest.” the young Intel officer started, looking to at least bring one stone to the surface, “What was the favor you called in?”

“Jets.” Wen smiled confidently, “The Mongolian air wing has a few not doing anything. Why not a 'protracted training mission.'” he smiled.

“They'll be hitting any bridges or suspect positions they find and leveling their airports to keep their shit on the ground.”

Southern Urals


Ullanhu was led along the hallway. The drumming of their feet drowned out by a humming excitement that fluttered and buzzed in the air. A certain excitement had roared to life as thing mobilized themselves. Ullanhu hadn't been completely out of the loop. He knew Makulov had made a move. Whether to their benefit or not, he wasn't certain. But he had been inspired.

Several days prior he had ordered his men on the move. They were headed south, in whatever beater cars they could find, by foot, or even be horse. Rifles and machine-guns were removed from hiding and the Mongolian agent saw what was hidden brought to life. Beneath the village was an armory set down to hide. The remnants of an old military squandered away for the moment. He had been taken be surprise. Stricken with the obviously hidden so hard he drifted through the day light-headed.

A day later he heard Yekaterinburg was under assault. Not by Chinese forces, who were still to far back. But from Russians. It wasn't a hard series of acrobatics for him to connect it all.

And so here he was, again in the Ghost General's lair. Perhaps he was offering his official support to the Chinese. Ulanhu could only be hopeful.

The guards that escorted him opened the heavy oak doors into his office. They stepped aside politely and the Mongolian walked in.

“Comrade.” Ullanhu said tensely, snapping his boots together and wrapping his hands in front of him.

“Good afternoon.” greeted Makulov stepping into the middle of the room. A pistol holster was strapped across his chest. His other wise short blonde hair was capped by his own officer's hat, the old Imperial insignia that had graced the white fabric had been long torn off. At his hip he played with a belt of gear. Tying tight satchels of pistol magazines and other implements.

“I've decided on my course of action.” he continued, “As we speak, I have it in good word that Chinese forces are making headway passed Omsk. Republican forces are in chaos, and it'd appear the northern frontier has been abandoned. Do you know what this means?” he asked.

“That Chinese forces are operating successfully.” the agent nodded, “So I don't see any more reason to doubt. We're making head way as we speak.”

“Of course.” Makulov smiled politely, “So we're going to play our part. But, I have a request for you.” he sighed, pulling the straps and belts tight.

“I will be moving out to join with my men at Yekaterinburg. I will not be here, merely a token number of men will stay behind to provide security. But my troops need me, I do not know how long they can last other wise.

“As a polite gesture of our potential beneficial relationship I will take Yekaterinburg. And hopefully reduce the chance of civilian casualties at the hand of your bombs.” he said 'your bombs' in a matter of hostility. The cold directness shook Ullanhu who stood up straighter, chewing the inside of his cheek as he braced.

“In that respect, I believe we can probably end this conflict early and tilt the scales further in our advantage to force the cessation of Republican land to our side.” he continued, speaking cold and bluntly.

“I was sworn to defend the Russian people. But here I am helping the attacker. I can only hope as such my assistance will prevent the excess deaths of Russian innocents. I want your promise.” he demanded coldly.

“You do.” bowed Ullanhu.

“Very well.” Makulov quietly responded. “So, I need a chip. I need the highest card in the Republican deck, and I want him here with me.

“You're a spy. A agent who managed to sneak this deep into Russia. Can you got further in? Can you survive out there longer than your partner?”

The mention of Jun froze Ullanhu. He hesitated. “I- uh...” he hesitantly replied, “I- um. I suppose I could if I tried.” he said, not believing his own self.

“I want confidence, agent.” Makulov coldly snap. “Can you, or can you not?

“I'll even give you a man of my own if need be. He can help pass you off within Russia.”

“Then I... I guess I could.” Ullanhu nodded, “I can. I can survive Russia.” he nodded affirmatively.

“Excellent.” Makulov smiled, walking over to him and placing a hand of his shoulders. His grip was heavy. His grip was hard. He gave him a light jerk as he smiled down at him.

“I have a young soldier who's been adept enough at moving around. Vasiliy Atinov is his name. I'll send for him and I can give you two our mission.”

“And what would that be?”

“I want president Alexander Belyakov.” Ullanhu felt his heart cover in frost again. His tongue went numb. “That highest card on the Republican deck. Even if he may not vital on his own, his disappearance and our possession of him will help shatter the Republic's resolve.”

“B- why would you want him!?” Ullanhu pleaded, “This is insane!”

“Sometimes the best things are insane.” grinned the Russian as he moved to the door. He looked down at his boots, silent for a moment, “And I am praying on us making lightning strike twice.”

“Twice? That's insane.”

“It's insane the Russians bent to the Chinese demands to arrest Dimitriov!” boomed Makulov, “It's insane the Chinese could not leverage him to make stronger demands! Not fight this war at all! Force the Republic to become a subject of Nikolov if had be! But Beijing had to treat the Republic like a sovereign nation, and to not recognize Siberia – or fuck, even Saint Petersburg – as being the power in Russia. To make them the subordinate soviet in a unified Russia again!

“Comrade, you must understand. I am playing with my people. And if the Republican duma can be so cowardly as to allow such things happen imagine what can be leveraged when the arrest of their president is not a peace offer. It is the very reason for peace!

“At the least we can break the Republic up, and it can be swept up by your people's sheer numbers. No civilian deaths, no military deaths. The Chinese political strength would be enough to force tiny states to fold without firing a shot.

“Do I make myself clear?” Makulov insisted. His face was glowing hot with passion and anger. His dusty blue eyes shone with a furious initiative.

“I-I believe so.” Ullanhu conceded. Lowering his head.

“Good. And thank you.” the general smiled thankfully, adjusting the collar of his uniform. “Now, though we may already by at their capital and blocking their west-ward flight much of the government had fled, including the president. But a considerable amount of ministers are still residing in Yekaterinburg, if because they have no safe choice. We shot down a private aircraft fleeing the city, but in the wreckage we identified their minister of finance.

“We believe president ser Belyakov has fled all the way to Moscow, which is the only other safe city in all of Russia. Defended by Polish private military assets, it's largely clear of Mafiya; though saturated in Polish corruption. He won't be shot there, but I fear there might be a danger if he's there long the Poles might find a means to leverage influence on the conflict. They could even give your people – and my people – hell by getting him to agree to buy more Polish weapons and greatly update their military. And both of us will be on the lesser end.

“So, the situation has some significant ramifications. I'll brief you and your new partner fully when he arrives. But realize, I want him out of Moscow and out here. If you can not, you do have permission to kill him. Just make sure to put as many ministers as well in the line of fire if you must. We must break the necks of the pigs to save us.”

Surgut


The buggy ground to a halt. It's tires scratching the pavement as it skidded along the asphalt to its eventual uneven stop. It came to a jutting idling stop. Its engines hummed as the breaks were locked and the men could climb out.

“So this is the river port.” Jiao-Long exclaimed as he stepped out, stretching out his back. He stepped out of the cracked and pot-hole strewn road. A field of concrete marched out to the river, where the gray water lapped and rushed against stubby short piers. Low cranes stood lifeless at the water's edge, their cables and lines hung limp from their arms like vines.

“It would appear so.” Yun-Qi nodded. He was hardly impressed with the scale of the infrastructure. But he could not blame it. The mayor had explained that with the Trans-Siberian railway down, this port had lost significant business a century ago. Yet still, it was important to local commerce. And in this time had the promise to define itself. If as a short-term solution to current problems.

“Wen Ho would appreciate this sight.” Jiao-Long smiled, laughing a little as he walked along, Quan Yun-Qi close behind.

“Yeah, but he's not here right now. But we don't need him. Not at the moment.” Yun-qi admitted. He looked down at the tracks that cut through the middle of the concrete plaza. The iron rails were sunk down at the bottom of a shallow trench. Additional segments of rail mingled beyond and around, as part of a greater network.

“I imagine if we had rail cars here then our people could use them. Send supplies by train to the front.”

“Provided their safe, but I'm not a security commander.” Jiao-Long admitted, “That's a job for Wu Bo.”

“And he's back at the installation.” Yun-qi pointed out, “I think we're all going to want to move out to here. I'll keep a token group at 62-69 to keep eyes on the frontier. But I don't think it's needed.”

“It shouldn't.” the civilian liaison nodded.

The two jumped over the train trenches. Jumping across bit by bit. In the shadows of the river's cranes they continued, looking out at the slowly flowing green water and to the wilderness beyond, guarded by its trees and shrubs. “So this is where the Ob and Irtysh meet.” Jiao-Long said with a sigh.

“That'd be it.” nodded Yun-qi with confidence. “Down one is Novosibirsk and direct Russian re-supply, and the other from China, or even Omsk if we can start using that.”

“You know, I'd say we about control the north now. We're not the warlords of northern Russia. Here. Right now.” Jiao-Long joked, “I feel good.”

“I would too...” Yun-qi sighed, “But this was too easy. So I don't feel comfortable. Not at all.”

China

Teipei, Taiwan


The trees glistened with the droplets of fresh rainfall, the dark storm clouds that had passed now a distant monolithic wall crawling and spinning towards the west, towards mainland China and Vietnam. It's gift the water that now shimmered in the mid-afternoon sun lay scattered like diamonds in the warm mid-afternoon sun. The storm itself had stalled a debate scheduled wisely for out of doors. And ten minutes after it actually started and twenty minutes after the rains it was finally to the end of the meaningless formalities.

It was formalities that laid the field. Introducing men that needed no introduction to any supposed audience. The trading of points containing an air like two gentlemen discussing the day over evening tea.

To Zhang Auyi it was all rhetoric. A meaningless formality and ritual. Stature and poising with no clear goal. Pronouncing themselves and their position. Presenting themselves abstractly with no rational thought. It wasn't debate, it was laying the foundation. It was for the radio. Everyone else had left.

Those that remained were the journalists and the photographers. The national types from the NPN here to manage the radio broadcast. And then those from abroad here to make attempts at recording it for their own scattered attempts at following a broad and isolated event: the election of a Grand Secretary. Auyi couldn't confirm if it would hit papers as far away as Mexico, but it was a shot by them. Something for the interest sections.

Behind the stage flowed the Tamshui, its gray waters shimmering in the afternoon sunlight as the waters marched north to the sea. Broken by the boughs of chestnuts and the trunks of Muku trees. Cargo ships from the mainland, the Philippines, and even as far as Mexico drifted lazily down the river in search of port alongside outgoing Chinese ships and the patrol of the police. A decade after its surrender to China from Japan and Taiwan was considered still in a state of martial limbo, allowed to act in Beijing's politics, but the military was still common.

“So comrades, both have made proposals advocating for some manner of economic reform.” the moderator began from his table. He was a scrawny feeble man, with thin stringy hair and gnarled, wrinkled fingers. He sat at his table just below the stage, looking up at the two like a silent judge. A bouquet of microphones sat in front of him, feeding what it could to where it could. “Auyi, you have proposed some of the most dramatic, so I will give you the first answer.”

“Certainly, and thank you.” Auyi bowed, leaning over the simple wood podium. His flush round face brimming with a polite smile.

“I will not deny that under the regime of Hou that China has experienced admirable growth in its local economies. With limited foreign partners we have not just rebuilt our infrastructure, but seen it grow. But this self-isolated manner of economy spurned by growth only in limited areas has not brought our nation about to its full promise and its potential. What we might call growth within inter-ministry affairs has slowed in the past ten years roughly to stagnation. Again, only a few fields has it grown.

“Our trade opening with our partners in Russia, Indochina, and Africa has shown positive growth for the state in all fields. But not to any level that might be considered desirable. Growth is slow, and incremental. There has been no promise rendered real to many of China's citizens. Our potential is weak and lack luster.

“I will open the matter of argument on the pretense that China needs to expand its global presence. As an economic partner, without loosing focus and sight on its aims for revolution, internal and even global. But how can we muster this strength with so little global inspiration? Matter of the fact: the world does not see China as rich and viable and the merits of worker's liberation has not been seen as successful by the greater world. We must trade openly, not just to re-enfranchise individuals to Revolution, but to do the same with men and women abroad.”

He nodded proudly as he leaned back from the podium. His forest-green eyes stared out at the meager gathering with a confident strength. He brushed his hand on the sleeve of his white suit, turning to his partner.

“I will not lie that Auyi has his points.” his partner began, a short meaty fly. His face stout and curved like a bear with small beady eyes and a balding crown. Wu Peng, a congressional representative. This was his home town, Taipei. But he leaned almost submissively over his podium, his stance like that of an old man in his inoffensive gray Zhongshan. “But I must call to question his faith in the revolution. People abroad everywhere hold China in high esteem and I see no reason why we must prove it by opening our doors. Yes, we should expand our economic relationships with other nations. But we should not throw open the doors to every party who seeks to enter. If we allow in Europe once again then so too will we invite the rampant looting of Chinese land by the very same people whose interests we sought to expel. Not just from China, but the whole of Asia!

“Whole-heartily, we should invest our economic efforts on the non-European, or the parties distant from Europe. Use our resources as a means to friendship and ultimate enlightenment. Africa is a continent full of partners. And it's with them we should sell to. It is their partnership we will see our nation and our revolution flower and grow as the Dark Continent liberates itself.”

Auyi laughed, shaking his head at the remark. “Africa may be a rich friend.” he rebutted, “But I would not go so far as to comment on it being the soul power that we must open up to. Their people and ours may have suffered a very similar history at the hands of the European powers. But that alone does not wholly validate any means for adventurism.

“I love Africa as any righteously, outwardly minded person does. But I will be the first to admit that investment in the continent is not two-way, nor does it bring benefit to China. The African nations are still poor, recovering from harsh and direct rape by the Europeans. Distinguished by war and internal strife I would declare that the people of the African continent most likely do not possess the sort of wealth that would come back to us.

“It's a matter that as spooky as it is we will need to seek partners elsewhere and not just in Africa. What goes to Africa must be our own investment. Chinese investment. A partnership between us that will come with a long pay-off. I must admit that this may seem personal comrade Peng, but I must say that I am rather shocked at your insistence that all our assets should be put into Africa as a whole.

“We must do our part to seem them build. But not to grow our promises to our people at home. Things should be carefully managed while being open. So that we are not again raped in our palace, and so that we do not become the unjust oppressor.”

“Comrade, the sake of the economy is to produce wealth in the given purpose of making.” Wu Peng argued hysterically, “You can't deny that slow return or not that investing resources towards Ethiopia would benefit China by creating excuse to work, and to continue the cycle of our public capital. Surely, you can not?”

“I can, actually.” Auyi smiled. Or rather, he believed after his tenure as a provincial governor, “Though that is a point, it is not all of it. Man does not build so he may destroy the moment after what he made. It is a wasteful purpose that serves no grand purpose. The very purpose is to use what was made to benefit the people at large. Or to make such expecting a return on one's production that benefits the whole even more. Whether it be building radios, cars, or buildings: every craftsman and labourer works knowing at the end of the day his duties to the Revolution will be met with reward in food, a house, safety, and public service. Perhaps even capital for himself so he may bring to his family luxuries not otherwise provided by the commune.

“Strictly sending investment to Africa one way will break the cycle of growth, however slow it is. Debt does not serve the factory linesman or the farmer in the field sowing the next year's rice. In fact, if the resources to expand production are not brought back in a timely manner, that linesman may not find his factory does not have the energy to run: it's been sent to Africa. Nor may he or the farmer have the rice to eat: it's all been sent to Africa. The farmer himself may not have the seeds to plant his crop: it's all in Ethiopia.

“What then is the purpose of this partnership is Ethiopia owes us a debt for our trade? Are we not too-humbly admitting that we are their servant and that they can take what they want from us? It's too much of a faulty system, and a voluntary act of rape. Except it is not us being forcefully vandalized by foreigners, it is us inviting them to do so.”

“Never the less,” Wu Peng started, his sudden suppressed anger gave Auyi the quick impression he was about to shift direction. He looked down at the silent moderator below them, who exchanged the look with repressed silence. He probably wasn't about to call it off. That is the impression Auyi got. “Never the less, how might further growth even be achieved while staying to the merits of the revolution itself!?” declared Peng, “If I can be blunt comrade, then how is it that your economic policies as governor of Guangxi, and your push for further determination for China's farmers not a suggestion at inviting the term of the dated bourgeois principles that earlier destroyed our proud nation? If you continue the patterns then it is legitimate concern you may begin the reign of the gentry elite again!”

“You are merely being emotionally reactionary.” Auyi soothed, “I would hardly call for additional determination by China's farmers a revival of the old land-lords. It is more a revolutionary directive than the strict control we have.

“Would the right for our communes to elect not only representatives, but to elect the direction of their trade not be powerful for us and them? Would it not be wise to lessen, or remove the strict quotas that have slaved under? I have seen results by granting additional freedoms to our communal workers, their work was boosted. They were happier people, prouder people who could look at their work and say: 'this is mine, I did this. And not it's going to make someone happy.'

“If you have such accusations, then may I ask if you have any way to back them? What have you done to prove yourself. Can you call yourself a friend of the day-labourer?”

There was a light cough from moderator, cutting the two men in their argument. Auyi looked down to him, away from his partner to see what was the matter. “Before we get off track in personal insults I think it's a good moment to shift elsewhere.” he said. Behind him wayward spectators were beginning to find seats in the concrete amphitheater. A growing crowd.

“What say the two candidates to issues regarding the current war in Russia, and the erupting powder keg in Africa?” he asked, “Wu Peng, you have the first words.”

“I support our continued commitment in Russia.” Peng started immediately, “We have strong commitments and strong reasons to secure and pacify the Russian north so as to now allow it to descend into chaos and threaten our national security. From Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg, Russia deserves to be united under the red banner. To be liberated from chaos and disorder. Free from corruption and vile mandarins.

“And in Africa we do not hold such a powerful commitment to a hypocritical government as the Solomonid. If they will not bend to proper liberation and for us to allow Yaqob to stand critical of our righteous mission while he is a 'friend' then they have invited Spain.

“Our commitment in Africa should be as thus: for the expulsion of Spain and the installment of a proper modern regime for all of Africa. To send Spain back across the Mediterranean.”

Auyi stood, thinking to himself Peng's concepts felt jaded and lost. “In these days I fail to understand our continued missions in Russia.” he admitted plainly, “I do recognize our continued commitments to our Russian allies but there is a time and a place all wars must end. I intend to find closure to the war in Russia. To end it, and to pass it to the Russian people so they may complete it. After all, the unification of Russia is the mission for the people of Russia themselves. We have little right to call it our own mission.

“The invasion of the Pan-African Empire is a tragedy. In the light of two fires that burn I see the one to our north as dull coals that have run their course. We should keep them warm for as long as need so that it may be rebuilt. But we should only last for as long as it can go until the proper owners of the fire can address it. We have helped to fight it low and to tame it. Let's finish our role.

“But I see the distant fire. One that is not dying, but springing to life. I see its tongues threatening to destroy the jungles and Savannahs. To kill many, and destroy much regional history. If there was ever more of a moral and ethical mission, then it is in Africa. It is in Africa we will commit our rivals to their greatest humiliation. And it is in Africa we will spread enlightenment. But we shouldn't wait, not for long. Not for when the fires are a raging firestorm. A torrent of violence so fierce that we can only stand back and watch it burn out before we move in to help.

“And will we be the heroes then? No.”
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