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Richard Joyce

Richard stared at the mud and blood, gazing at the moonlit scene with a strange pit slowly forming in his stomach. Reaching for his cigarette case, he flicked the battered and worn metal open, retrieved a single, factory-rolled stick from it, and pressed it to his lip, a shudder easing its way down his spine. Snapping the case shut again, he reached for his lighter, as unusual as such a thing was, and struck at the flint.

The dim light did little to drive back the darkness. Cupping the infant flame with a slightly quaking hand, he brought it to the end of the paper, breathing in and drawing the flame towards him at the same time. The end of the cigarette glowed and curled and smoke filled his lung, the man finishing his deep inward breath and putting the lighter away in one smooth motion.

Exhaling, he turned away from the scene and began to walk onwards. It was none of his business. It was none of his concern. It was nothing to trouble himself with. The sentences wormed their way around his mind, utterly unconvincing in their rhetoric, and his fingers tightened around the metal of the lighter, the metal edge being slowly forced to bite into his fingers.

A few more minutes along the road, not nearly at where the coach was meant to pick him up, and he heard the clamour and clatter of a carriage. Turning, he watched the vehicle as it approached. A figure hunched tightly over the reins, driving the horses onwards quicker and quicker. If they noticed him, they certainly didn't act like it, driving themselves onwards without slowing, stopping, or even so much as a comment.

As the carriage passed him by, however, the ex-soldier was able to make out a blur of movement. A flash of light from within the coach, a splash of green and red, and then it was past him. Barely had it done so however, when there was the heavy knock of something striking the carriage roof. All at once, there is the frantic whinnying of the horse, the crack of its reins being pulled back, the grinding of the carriage wheels digging into the mud.

And then it all stops. A few dozen feet down the path it stood like a great black beast, steam rising up from the hard-worked haunches of the horse. It snorted a little in between its pants, but aside from this small thing, the carriage was still and silent. Standing behind it, now thoroughly confused, Richard's thoughts were only more disrupted when the door was thrown open with a clatter.

The figure that leaned out of the doorway was large, broad-shouldered and broad-waisted, all but blocking out the light from within. He wore a wide, cheerful face, topped with a mess of bright red hair that framed an ornate gold leaf mask, underneath which were a pair of red cheeks and a single beaming smile of carefully maintained teeth. The voice that traveled across the narrow gap was ooming.

"I say, I thought I was seeing things, but there you are! Well met, sir."

Richard, who had brought a hand to his chest to keep his greatcoat from unceremoniously fluttering about in the slipstream of the vehicle took a moment to slip his own mask on. In comparison to the complicated affair the stranger wore, his was a simple opera mask that obscured everything above his nose with plain, expressionless white bakelite. It served its purpose, and little more. Reluctantly, he responded to the figure. "Well met to you as well sir. Have we had cause to know each other?"

The stranger's smile only grew wider, and for a moment, Richard felt a little uncomfortable, as if the smile was too wide.

"I doubt it, although these confounded masks mean I'd barely recognise my own mother!"

A booming laugh rang out, the sound of it echoing around them.

"No, sir, it's your uniform I recognise. Did you serve in the war?"

Richard's stance adjusted without thinking. "Yes I did sir. Corporal in the 3rd Infantry. You as well?"

"I am afraid I did not have the privilege. I did what I could to help... in my own way." For the briefest of moments there was a flicker across the man's face, his smile faltering, but it was only for an instant.

"Ah." Richard frowned, face concealed by the darkness. One of those sorts. "Well then. I am Corporal Khaki." It was not a particularly inspired name, but then again, why draw further attention to yourself than needed? Speaking of which, travelling with this individual was a poor idea. Too many things could go wrong, and Professor Green hardly seemed like a trustworthy individual.

"But sharing old war stories can wait, I am sure. Professor Green, at your service. Are you bound for Wilde Hall?"

"Indeed I am. The walk has been good for the constitution." He hoped the subtle implication there would forestall the question that Green appeared to be leading up to.

If Professor Green had picked up on the subtle implication however, then he bore it no heed."Then it is fate that has brought us together! Jackson, bring the carriage round for my new friend!"

Cpl. Khaki sighed quietly to himself, then reluctantly resigned himself to travelling with this peculiar fellow. "Hold, hold, I'll catch up to you," he called, then began a stiff jog through the miserable gloom and towards the man. "It'll save us all some time in the long run." At his words, Professor Green leaned back, giving space for Richard to climb inside.

The serviceman hauled himself up and into the carriage, brushed a droplet of rain that had spilled down his uniform, then reluctantly took a seat, feeling thoroughly out of place.
The Birth of a New State


The entire community of Zeta counted down together, in harmony. The cities that had been home to so many people for hundreds of years had been emptied, operated by a skeleton crew of transcended and AI that would slowly decommission them, then transition to scientific research centres. The Zeta system would forever be their home, but they were leaving for the one that had been promised to their ancestors.

This is the New Arkadios Fleet. Are you reading us, Gaia-1? The pre-agreed name for the Lorne administration's main communications hub had become bitterly ironic now that Zeta had found itself its new most hated enemies.

This is Gaia-1. New Arkadios Fleet receiving clearly.

Excellent Gaia-1. New Arkadios Fleet beginning take off.

Engines roared to life across the planet's surface. From Elysium-Alpha to Tartarus-Omega, the arks that had been slowly constructed ever since the end of the War of Oligarch aggression fired up, trembling and shaking as they lifted an entire planet's population, half a billion strong, into the skies. The scorched and frozen landscape of Zeta began to slowly draw away from them, the yellowish planet growing smaller and smaller as the fleet of vehicles assembled themselves into a loose formation in orbit. Protecting them from attack was the brand-new navy, with purpose-built destroyers soaring into position. Once organised, the fleet soared towards the Gateway, and one-by-one the cloud of vessels left the Zeta system, and re-emerged over Delta-4.

Gaia-1, we've got eyes on you all. Welcome to Delta, employers. The Lorne administration confirmed the safe jump.

100% transition rate. We're all here. Responded the Zetans, the Collective re-forming themselves into orderly formations as they came into approach over the planet of Delta and the ringworld surrounding it. Above, in space, their Administration allies had begun work as agreed upon. The shell of the Archimedes hung, drone swarms hovering around it, faint pinpricks of light from welders visible even from this distance.

Nearer the gateway, the new Aegis had begun to be constructed as well, augmented by an orbital Oistos system. Zeta had seen how even half-finished; these defences had worked against the invading Oligarchs and Undefeated. If they could be finished, perhaps they would finally allow for what the Zetans had desired ever since the Gateways had opened- safety.

As the cloud of Arks made their way down towards the planet, they began to split apart, preparing themselves to land at pre-designated areas. The Administration had made Delta criminally easy to colonise, with pre-built infrastructure, agriculture and industry. All they had to do was move in. One by one, Arks would touch down, and cyborgs and androids stepped out into the light of a new world, prepared to start afresh.

Sigma-Devi prepared herself for quite possibly the most important speech of her life. Standing in a more recent addition to the Zetan section of the Meeting place, it was a vast auditorium meant for interviews and announcements, with space made for foreign journalists and dignitaries to sit. She had sent a broad invitation to anyone that was interested, and even now as she looked down at the crowd below her, she could see Matuvistans, Colombians, Ishtari, representatives of various Khanate cities, a few Xandilians and even a few new arrivals from the White Flower Democracy.

Clearing her throat, she began.

"Today is an auspicious day. As we complete our recovery from the Hollywoodite Invasion, we have decided to reveal several truths that we have been hiding from the wider galactic community, and announce an important change that will be occurring effective immediately."

She beamed as a few news drones hovered around here, cameras flashing.

"Firstly. The Zetan Consciousness is, as some nations have hypothesised, a 'group mind,' system. We would like to stress that all individual members of our neural network have free will. We are not 'drones,' or 'automata,' no matter what some may claim. Our cohesion is a result of technologically-augmented empathic and intellectual connections that we have named 'The Collective.'"

"In addition, the Consciousness would like to announce that, through a process known as 'Transcendence,' we have managed to subvert the traditional end to human lifespans. We have worked very hard on maintaining the..." She paused for a second, pointing towards a journalist with their arm shot into the air. "Please, questions at the end." She waited for the arm to go back down, then continued.

"We have worked very hard on maintaining a consistent mental state no matter what body a member of the collective may find themselves in. Haecceity is very important to us here in the Collective, and it will always be the case."

"Thirdly, the Collective has confirmed that it is possible to incorporate new members into it through augmentation, even well into adulthood. Because of this, we will be announcing a small-scale citizenship and integration program for those who wish to join the Collective. This program will operate alongside our brand-new augmentation program for E.S.M.G soldiers, and the two will have some crossover."

By now, quite a hubbub had emerged in the auditorium.

"Finally, the Zetan Consciousness has realised that our name does not accurately represent the desired identity of what we are as a nation. 'Zetan Consciousness,' speaks too much to our planetary existence prior to the openings of the gateway, and highlights neither our goals, nor accurately summates our beliefs in governance. From now on, we would like to announce that we will no longer be naming ourselves the 'Zetan Consciousness.'"

She paused for emphasis.

"We are proud to join S.U.N unified together under the banner of the Enlightened Symposium. Thank you." She bowed to the crowd."

"I will now be accepting questions."

A Legend's Rise

Six Months Ago

A lonely vessel sailed towards the Meeting Place. Aboard, military and medical staff mingled, all attention focused on a single hospital bed, rigged up to over a dozen different machines that beeped, whirred and chugged. A jungle of wires and lines snaked about to keep the various different apparatuses working smoothly throughout the transition, the craft touching against the Meeting Place. Zetans and Matuvistans met in the airlocks, medics explaining each and every issue with their patient as they carefully wheeled them through the hallways of the Zetan section, towards their medical bay.

Marines flanked the comatose woman as they made their way through to the operating theatre, the soldiers finishing their watch by crisply saluting the warforms that stood guard here. The warforms responded with their own salutes, the two soldiers briefly sharing a moment of comradery, and then the marines departed, leaving only a small handful of Matuvistan doctors and two mathetes left to watch over the patrician. Zetan surgeons filtered into the room, and a furious discussion commenced, both sides coming to mutual agreement with surprising celerity.

Then, the surgeons set to work. It was a long and difficult operation. A destroyed arm was severed at the shoulder, the joint drilled out and prosthetic plugs put in its place. The chest was opened up, organs were repaired or replaced, and lastly the face was cut, modified, replaced and built up anew. Nanomachines surged through the patient's body, and ruined flesh was, inch by inch, replaced with steel. One by one, life support was withdrawn, until at last the patient lay, sleeping, not comatose, on the bed.

It had taken eighteen hours.

Three hours after that, Isabella de Lobasla's eyes fluttered once, twice, and then flicked open, and she returned to life.

Three Months Ago

So much had been lost. Her body still ached in half a dozen different places, and her new limbs felt anything but natural to her, but Isabella, slowly but surely, returned to functionality. She had received a troubling amount of brain damage that the Zetan nanomachines had had to struggle to repair, and although they had done their job as best as they could, her new cyborg brain still had its moments of fuzziness and haziness. Luckily, the doctors had said that this was not career ending- they couldn't predict if it would take weeks or years, but she would fly on her jetbike again.

That idea gave her some amount of strength. She was not crippled. She was not invalid. She. Would. Persevere.
Moving deliberately from her bed to her bathroom, she gazed into the mirror, and, as she often did, examined her new body.

It was almost the same. She had to admit, the Zetans had done an extraordinary job. They had gone with the most realistic prosthetics they had, still obviously metal, but they appeared sleek and realistic, a sculpted masterpiece, rather than the sometimes deliberately clanky and industrial styles Zetans could go with.

It was not necessarily an unappealing look, she had to admit. When she pulled her sleeping gown off, her still-human fingers played along the boundary of woman and machine as they almost seamlessly slotted together. She flexed her left arm, watching as microservos and fleximetal shifted and rippled, then repeated the process with her right arm, scrutinising her own flesh.

The one area in which she had disagreed with the Zetans was with her eye. They had given her a standard bionic eye, which, to the outside observer, looked near-identical to the real ones. She had overridden them after she had awoken however, entering the operating theatre for a brief second appointment to have a sophisticated 'eyepatch' implanted. Despite hiding the optics underneath from anyone seeing through, she could see through the eyepatch clearly, and, in fact, it offered her greater vision than she had ever had before. Initially, it had been quite distracting for one eye to suddenly be magnified whilst the other remained the same, the fact her brain had also been bionicised helped immensely.

Slowly, she dressed herself. She was aboard the newly constructed Gran Republic section of the Meeting Place, inaugurated shortly before the S.U.N had come into existence. Once she had pulled on enough clothes to make herself decent, she picked up a packet of cigarillos from next to her bed and slowly but surely made her way to one of several smoking areas dotted about this part of the station.

Nobody else was here. She took the opportunity to sit down on a provided booth and practice with her new arm. Raise the cigarillo to your lips. Take the lighter. Hold it. Grip it gently. Not too hard now. Apply the right pressure to the button. Like most Patricians, her lighter was almost comically overdesigned- inside it, tiny natural lodestones whirred to life and funnelled a jet of plasma up and out the spout. She touched the plasma to the end of her cigarillo, then let go of the button and returned it to her pocket.

It infuriated her. This was not a difficult process... And yet still, she struggled to do it. The infuriating portion was that it was not a physical issue at all- her arm had no malfunction or error that would cause it to jitter and her muscles had bonded strongly. The quakes in her hand were all a product of her mind.

She groaned as the smoke entered her mouth, swirling it around slowly. Inhaling it as she had sometimes done in the past was pointless now. She had two metal lungs with advanced protections against biological and chemical agents that filtered out smoke from entering her system. Tapping off the ash at the tip of the cigarillo, she continued to move her arm about, lifting it, curling it, twisting it this way and that. The more she used her arm, the doctors had told her, the more she would feel that it was hers and the quakes would stop.

One Month Ago

Isabella’s fingers set to work on the buttons of her shirt, pausing occasionally when the when her fingers quivered a little too much for comfort. The shakes had calmed down significantly, but hadn’t fully stopped. When her shirt was on, she continued with her trousers, then her boots, the patrician able to see their re-constructed face in the polished surface of the leather.

She gave the laces a final tug, then straightened her back and fixed her scabbard to her waist. She was almost complete. The rest of her uniform was eased into slowly, the patrician settling a bicorne onto her head and brushing down her left breast, where her medals would sit once she arrived back to Matuvista.

Of course, that implied that she intended on returning to her home nation the way they believed she would. Now properly dressed, sword and pistol at her hips, she donned a pair of gloves to cover her metallic hand and gave her eyepatch a quick reconfiguration.

It was time to begin her return.

Current Day

Every patrician had the right to be heard in the Lower Senate. Oftentimes, this meant that they would merely wait for the current issues that were being debated on during the day to wind down, then make their speeches and propositions, but it was not unheard of for a patrician to request a formal speech slot earlier on in the day, when more of their fellows would be in the Lower Senate and the discussion would be livelier. The Speaker of the Senate had the right of veto to ensure that such a tool would not be abused, but such requests were rare in and of themselves, and the veto being applied rarer still. So it was that when a request came though from Il Duque himself, none so much as questioned it. There were many, many reasons for such a venerable individual to want to address the Lower Senate, and his request was expediated through the usual red tape.

Shortly before the allotted time for the speech, a small surface-to-orbit craft touched down near the senate’s spaceport. A collection of patricians and an escort of plebians filtered out of the craft, the blazing suns overhead beating down unrelentingly. They quickly moved from the spaceport to a shuttle, and from the shuttle towards the Cortes General.

At last, everything was ready. The allotted time for the speech was ready, and the doors to the Lower Senate swung open.

The individual standing behind the doors was not Il Duque.

Immediately, a quiet hubbub broke out among not only the Lower Senate, but also those who had met in the Upper Senate to watch Il Duque’s speech. Isabella strode forwards, cape fluttering out behind her as she did so. She moved up towards the podium, straightening her back and clearing her throat to ensure the microphones were working as intended, then began.

”Friends. Patricians. Matuvistans. Lend me your ears.

Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2. It was a speech opening burnt into the Matuvistan consciousness as some of the finest rhetoric of the old world, and it had become somewhat of a tradition for those who desired to make a grand impact to draw upon the speech. Of course, if one fell flat when using it…. Best not to dwell on that.

"I have come here today to speak of my most serious disquietude with the conduct of this Senate, and of the maltreatment of the plebians who lay down their lives in the defence of this most magnificent of Republics." Her eyepatch scoured the hall to see if any would speak up and try to contradict her. None did.

"I was given the honour of leading the Gran Republic's first ever international military expedition, to assist what we hoped would be a newfound alliance, after personally making headway with one of their ambassadors aboard the Santa De Angelo. Despite this, and despite how crucial my efforts were in securing Matuvista's international standing, I found myself hamstrung, no, betrayed, by the individuals in this venerated building." Her fingers swept across the chamber, then up, towards where the Upper Senate sat. ”No enemy hath vanquished the expeditionary force, instead, she was killed only by the cowardice and refusal to hold fast in the face of diplomatic troubles that ran freely through this venerable building.”

Her lips tightened into a sneer. ”There are those who, even now, will begin to criticise me and degrade me. They will seek to deny me the honours and votes I am justly due for the struggle and sacrifice made by both myself and my men. Listen not to them. Understand that the Gran Republic, if it is truly to be a great nation, standing tall among the stars, must stiffen its spine, steel its sinews, and prepare to be a wall that its enemies can neither circumvent nor penetrate. This is the Gran Republic that shall be known and respected. This will be the Gran Republic I shall forever onwards push for.”

It was time for the coup de grâce.

”I hereby announce that I will be running for the position of Chancellor of Matuvista in the next Upper Senate electoral cycle. Viva Matuvista. Viva la República. Muchas gracias.

She left the Lower Senate to uproar.
I will be getting words out soon-ish, I hope. The past few days have been particularly unproductive.
Six Months Ago

A collab with | @Sigma |

The Meeting Place
International sector

A sleek, elegantly designed transport departed from the massive templeship, making way for the designated coordinates provided by air traffic control, escorted by several Undefeated fighters. The transport drawing closer to the international sector of the Meeting Place, it’s escort break off as they came with landing distance. Crowds of passing by tourists, other visitors, station, and various embassy personnel all drew their attention to the newest addition in a long line of long-lost colonies of Earth. Clouds of steam and exhaust filled the hanger as the ship made landing, the last-minute crowd waiting with anticipation on the new visitors, the boarding ramp lowering, three robbed figured stepped out in unison, almost mirroring each other as they took each step, followed by s company’s worth of skeletal drone soldiers, marching as a single unit as they trailed behind the emissaries.

The lead figure, Darius, removed his veil, revealing a singular glowing eye and nothing else, much to the shock of the crowd, his two other companions sharing similar features. Darius eyed the room, giving quick glanced towards the crowd… the fear in their eyes. Good… good He thought to himself. Deep down, this pleased Darius, the fear in their… disgusting fleshy eyes, their very sight sickened him on a spiritual level. Darius was fortunate he lacked a true face; his sheer contempt would’ve been…difficult to disguise.

Regardless, Darius pressed on, raising his metallic arms up high, as if to break out in a sermon, and in a way, he was. “Fear not! Children of Earth!” He declared. “We bring you both peace and her most holy word, our divine Gaia!” The fear…was somewhat eased with Darius’ proclamation. “Long have we wondered if Mankind had survived the Great Calamity! Our fears and curiosity have now been answered!”

The Meeting Place
Zetan Sector

Some hours had passed since the Gaians first arrived on the Meeting Place…and it seems a whirlwind of events had transpired during both their absence and since their arrival. More importantly however, Darius and his companions had been recently sent an invitation from a peculiar group within the station…one that they hoped to find a common ground with. Darius was very pleasantly surprised to discover that they weren’t the only ones to ascend to a more blessed form of existence. These Zetans could prove a potential ally in this new Galactic landscape, one where they are outnumbered ten to one, surrounded by… flesh.

Sigma-Devi stood in front of one of her aides, nerves tingling through her as her companion gently applied makeup to her face. Normally, they did this to highlight the human parts of her and downplay the cyborg, but this time, it was the other way around. The black metal of her throat and lower jaw was expanded outwards, her eyes were ringed slightly to make them appear more sunken and replaced, and she wore a skintight synthetic set of arm-length gloves to cover up her largely unmodified arms.

Straightening her back out, she gave herself one last check in the mirror, thanked her aide, and then moved to the front of the Zetan embassy, watching as the Gaians entered in through the doorway.

What they had heard of these new arrivals was... Interesting. They apppeared to be extremley religious, something which was unusual, but which Zeta was not opposed to. Most of the front of the embassy had been cleared to make way for this new group, which left Sigma-Devi as the most human of the bunch, flanked by several transcended and with multiple warforms standing as honour guards along the halls of the structure.

"Greetings," Sigma-Devi declared, a warm and genuine smile splitting her face. She held her hand up to salute Darius and his fellow androids, then bowed deeply, one hand kept demurely across her clothes to keep them tidy. "It is... Very good to meet another nation who has fully accepted the advantages of mechanical augmentation. My name is Sigma-Devi, and I am the First Speaker of the Zetan Consciousness, a nation dedicated to uncovering the truth of this universe through observation." She felt a few twinges of nervousness leave her, covering the jitters up by flicking her hair back.

"Please... Do any of you still require nutrition? We have some food avaliable, but if you've managed to eliminate the necessity for such things, we can move straight to business."

The three emissaries bowed in kind to Sigma-Devi. “It pleases us to find others just like ourselves.” Darius spoke, his singular eye scanning his surroundings. “I am Darius. “He announced himself, before turning to his two fellows. “And these two are Ezekiel and Zakaria. We three come here as Emissaries on behalf of his holiness, the Primarch Vamarus and on behalf of our most divine lady, Gaia.”

“A pleasure.” Ezekiel spoke in a soft spoken tone.

“A blessing be upon you.” Zakaria said, the seemingly “younger” sounding member among their troop.

Darius turned his attention back too Sigma-Devi. “I must apologize my dear… but we have long since outgrown our need for nourishment of that sort.” Darius said as sympathetically as he could. ‘The blessings of our divine lady are all we require, and the paradise she provides for us.”

Darius soon took notice of Sigma-Devi’s nervous stance, if he had a face, he’d form a playful smirk. “Relax my dear.” He spoke. “You are among friends, among mutuals.”

"My sincerest thanks for your blessings." Sigma-Devi bowed again. "Daris. Ezekial. Zakaria." She addressed each one individually, then let out a slow breath. "Of course. It is merely... We have been realtively alone in this galaxy for some time. The only other nation that widely accepts our transhumanist beliefs is the New Haven Directorate, and as pleasant as they are to interact with, we find them a little... Peculiar in their habits and attitudes. Others have gone so far as to try to erase us from the galaxy for our ways."

She smoothed her dress out again, then turned to walk through the halls of the Zetan Embassy. "I hope you can tell me more about this 'Divine Lady' of yours, she must be a fascinating figure. Is she your leader? Your figurehead? Your goddess? Please, excuse me for any offences I may inadvertently commit, but my curiosity compels me to ask many questions." Not just her curiosity- the curiosity of almost the whole Zetan population too.

The group arrived at a meeting room with a perfectly circular table. Sigma-Devi took her customary seat as far away from the door as possible, then indicated for the Gaians to sit wherever they would like. "You must excuse me, incidentally, for I am not what my people refer to as 'Transcended.' I am a 'First Form' Zetan, in that this body is the same one I was born in to. Depending on how long my service as First-Speaker continues for, and how long it remains beneficial to Zeta for my augmentations to remain acceptable to those who fail to understand our ideals, it seems likely I will Transcend fully in between..." She paused for a moment. "Fifty to seventy years. Of course," she allowed a laugh to sneak out. "At the current rate of mind transferral, I'll be mentally Transcended in less than a decade. We usually have the process progress slowly, to make sure there are no issues."

The Gaians stook their seats, the three emissaries sitting next to each other on the opposite side of the table. So much questions… good Darius thought to himself. “I simply can’t imagine such… loneliness among these people.” Darius said, the last word said with such venom, even a blind man could tell there was anger in those words, such fire fueled by the fact the Zetans were close to genocide. “Don’t let such blasphemous fools bother you, my dear.” Darius says with such unsettlingly comforting words.

Something about Darius' tone of voice began to cause Sigma-Devi to sit up. The small quirks at the edges of her lips eased themsleves down again, and she managed to re-compose herself into a more serious state. Soon though, Darius turned to explanations, and she paid close attention.

“Know that you are no longer alone in the galaxy and soon… perhaps your enemies will see the light, that there is nothing to fear.” Darius paused as he continued. “As for what we can share about Gaia? Our Divine lady is all these things. She is our leader, our goddess, our protector, our mother.” He said. “She was the first among many to fully ascend to a greater existence and was merciful enough to share this blessing to our people. Many at first resisted this gift, but…. They eventually saw the light, one way or another…” Darius paused, looking to his two companions, then turning his attention back to Sigma-Devi.

He would find her face now set in its neutral turn at his words. She was doing an excellent job of keeping it off her face, but one simple paragraph had driven out all the hope and idealism she had had from these newcomers, and replaced it with a grim anger. "She sounds fascinating. Was she a researcher, some kind of leader? Both?"

“Indeed! We sadly do not know her true identity… all that we know was that she was a brilliant scientist on our homeworld of Kronos, who brought the gift of true immortality to humanity.” Darius said, this being all he wished to share at the moment. Darius, however, was curious for about another matter entirely.

“I must also find it fascinating that you would forego Transcendence, why deny yourself greatness by decades?” Darius may have slipped there...such a sudden, unsettling turn of character..

Sigma-Devi hid her anger with a small laugh. "We have eternity to forge ourselves from steel. My flesh is temporary, but it is because it is temporary that I find myself keeping so much of it. It will wither and fail, but by then I will have moved on."

"That is..certainly an interesting thought." Darius said, who seemed frankly puzzled by Sigma-Devi's words. Willingly live in the sinful flesh? Even when Transcendence is within her grasp!, he shook himself silghtly. "I must apologize but.... I still do not understand." Darius said. "Surely this must be an agonizing experince? To willingly suffer from the sins of the flesh?"

"We have a... Different view of the nature of flesh. As Zetans, we will shed and inhabit form after form once Transcended. We can change, adapt, modify these forms however we wish, in whatever way we please. It if malfunctions, it is trivial to fix. If it ages, we merely replace it with fresh steel. Our bodies are a unique experience- they change without our will, they adapt and shift, ache and adjust themselves. Some find this to be a frustration, or an irritation to be immediately exorcised. Most of us, myself included, find it to be a... Learning experience. We are all human, no? The human experience is one of growth and deterioration. Then, after we have learned from that, Transcendence can begin."

Darius fet complicated emotions, emotions he hadn’t felt in a long time, but he must remain vigilant, the Zetans themselves have proven that they need as much help as the rest of humanity, their vision is a flawed one, one that can easily be remined, and they can at last, attain true greatness among the stars. “Ahh, but Sigma-Devi, my dear.” Darius said with a sense of escalation in his tone. “Both of our peoples are so much more. You and I, we have elevated ourselves to something greater. Why wait? Leave your flesh behind and let us show you something beautiful on the other side that awaits you and your people.”

"I will achieve my beauty when I am ready for it. Would you force my Transcendence upon me?"

Darius was silent for a brief moment, compilating his words. “If it was absolutely necessary, yes, I would, without hestiation."

Sigma-Devi leaned foward, across the table. "I will allow you to retract that. Not out of any insult it has caused to me personally, but because if that belief gets out, both of our nations will be scrutinised like never before. They attempted to erase us for the belief that we might unwillingly roboticise a single individual. If you intend on mentioning that belief publically, it will inspire hatred like never before. Now, are you positive that you would force Transcendence upon people?"

Darius shook his “head”. “I deeply apologize Sigma-Devi.” He said, with a hint of regret in his tone, followed by a faint red glow in his eye, it was a shame, he truly did like her for the brief time they shared together, but if the Zetans and Gaians are to be on opposing sides in the coming conflict, then so be it. “But I’m afraid I can’t do that. Let them believe so, their fear is a natural reaction to change, a change that cannot, will not be stopped. We have forced Transcendence before, it has partially worked…. although many still resist on Kronos, but their futile fight WILL come to an end, they will embrace our Divine Lady, we will all be made whole.”

Sigma-Devi stiffened her back a little. "Very well then." There was a long pause as the Collective convened and decided. "You claim this change cannot be stopped. Zeta will stop it. We will oppose you at every turn. If you invade others, we will stand against you. The Aegis will delay you, the Oistos will harry you, and if you make the mistake of assuming us to be weak, we will show you otherwise... And if you assume our struggle to be 'futile,' we will demonstrate to you exactly why we have survived against three nations already. " She paused for a long time. "Now, please, would you like me to escort you out?"

“Thank you, that will be appreciated.” Darius said as he, Ezekiel, and Zakaria all stood up in a uniform fashion. “In time, we shall meet once more in the field of battle. I hope you can prove your worth to Gaia.”

Sigma-Devi lead what had been potential allies out through the embassy, grim expressions on the faces of every single Zetan they passed. Several warforms looked down at Darius, their mechanical heads tracking him as he left their field of view. Then, once the three Gaians had left, Sigma-Devi prepared herself to make an announcement.

It went out the next day.

"The Zetan Conciousness would like to reaffirm their dedication to the cause of all humanity, and our commitment to the betterment of that same humanity through research, understanding, and the creation of stronger bonds between the common individual. We would like to make it absolutely and inequivocably clear we never have and never will augment someone without their explicit permission and consent. Thank you."

Two nations however received a much more explicit message. In the isolated world of Ishtar, the crew of the waylaid gunboat informed the Commonality that a new threat, far greater than that of the One, was rising. Back on the Meeting Place, one of the Zetan diplomatic aides would leave a simple message with the Xandilian Republic.

The Gaians revealed their true selves to us. They are a threat that cannot be overestimated. Prepare for war, but hope it does not arrive. We will do the same.

| @Lady Lascivious | and | @Crusader Lord | have been warned.

And here we go! One Richard Joyce, for your analysis.
Room for one more? I am in the middle of a pretty hefty university work period, but I can't say that a spoopy Lovecraftian RP doesn't appeal to me!

A collaboration between @Irredeemable and @Tortoise

The rebels have wrapped ropes around the neck of a statue of Savant Bern, who stood proudly in James Park for forty years. The ECU has flowers of every colour- except, strategically, for white- planted before his metal feet. The rebels trample on those flowers as they tug, tug at the ropes on his neck, making him creak and groan, tetter and totter, until at last he falls to the ground and pushes up a plume of dust. He is cut into sections and melted down, creating 12,000 bullets.

A man drills his team as a sergeant, teaching them to move in formation, to follow orders, to fire and advance and retreat all in unison. They have little time to practice, so it is brutal, non-stop; every moment is spent as a unit. Each day is spent preparing.

A woman who has spoken before speaks again, but now her crowd is larger. Tiffany Holstead preaches to thousands, with a fury of fire that burnt into their hearts. She never tires. Each day, her sermons of war are heard clearly, ringing out in the silent places where the ECU psyche-warfare has ceased. She becomes a priestess in their eyes.

The Matuvistans have made a grave error. Just by coming here, even, they transformed the White Flowers of Neo London into something they never were before: an army. And war has begun.

Three shots crack out into the night, each one a message. This was the agreed-upon signal. The invasion begins. A team on motorbikes comes first, riding in a fast, wide curve in front of the Matuvistan walls, each bike having a driver, and a man or woman with an automatic weapon who fires haphazardly at any figure visible on those walls.

Nikki was so, so tired.

This was not the first time she had been exhausted in the military of course, but this time was unique. Never before had she been so far away from home, never before had she been fighting apes and fake soldiers, and never had she been fighting still injured.

Her leg had turned out to have been a nicked artery. Once it had been sealed and the muscle damage treated, she was functionally fine, capable of serving once more, but just because she could serve didn't mean she should be serving. She should be in the medical bay waiting for it to heal up properly, not having it twinge with pain for every step she took through the base.

But the medical bay was full, and she wasn't injured enough to be pulled off the line. It was clear to most of the Matuvistans that reinforcements weren't coming any time soon. Patrols had been downsized massively- no more were they making their presence known, now every strike was made for a specific reason and purpose.

The last one had been to try and catch the infernal witch that had been riling the people up to launch assaults against their base. Despite the fact that it had run into heavy resistance, the patrol had pulled through with the loss of only a single jetrike (not that they could spare many more of those,) the death of many rebels, but no captured Tiffany.

Things were starting to become dire. Morale had slowly decreased, even with the dedication of Matuvistan soldiers. It was getting to everyone: being trapped in base, being awoken to mortars or rocket strikes, the constant crack of sniper and counter-sniper fire. Back home there had been the opportunity to rotate out of a frontline combat camp, or at the very least enjoy some nice modern amenities, but here nothing was guaranteed. There was also a hidden element to the morale sapping of this conflict: the jetknights hadn't been deployed en masse. There were no jetknights to deploy en masse.

The whole expedition had with it only eleven jetknights, one of which was Commandanta Isabella herself, and despite what the soldiers would admit, for as much as they slagged off the patricians and their fancy vehicles, almost every single one of them felt a surge of confidence at the roar of hyper-efficient jet thrusters and the blasts of plasma casters.

All of this was shoved to the back of her mind as she heard motorbikes squealing and gunfire from the street. Immediately a wall-mounted heavy machine gun opened up, its heavy thudding sound responding to the lighter rattles of the vehicle-mounted guns.

The fighters on the bikes didn’t so much as flinch when the machine gun started firing at them.

That's strange already, but what's more: they didn't bleed, either.

Holograms, of course. The bullets they fired were "real," but not like the true ones. The hardlight of the ECU can pierce skin, maybe even armour, but it doesn't pack quite the same punch as real alloy. And the holo-controller, peeking through the window of a skyscraper, flinched each time they fired a shot.

These things are a drain on energy. Every bullet they fire steals a little bit of life from the holo-emitters, which have to be charged up before each use. And what's worse are the bullets they get hit with: the holograms automatically "harden" at the point they're struck, costing even more energy than their usual movements. White Flowers have been hitting every abandoned store and depot in Neo London to find fuel for this fight. It wouldn't be a problem in a holo-suite. On the battlefield...

He estimated that they have two more runs like this left. As the motorbikes disappeared around a corner, he smashed several buttons by muscle memory, and the same motorbikes reappeared to begin their circuit fresh.

The Matuvistans knew they were firing at shadows. Or well, holograms, but what were they supposed to do? Not shoot at the enemies ‘firing’ upon them? The bikes reappeared, the guns reloaded and started back up again. Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud.

Nikki continued her patrol. So far, nothing was out of the ordinary.

Those disappeared as well, and another round of holo-bikers came, carrying the exact same armaments and identical faces. It's like a scene playing on loop, until-

An explosion went off far behind Nikki, rattling the walls. Unknown to her, the Flowers blew a separate section of the wall with explosives, letting rebels pour double-file into the backend of an open courtyard in New Westminster. The not-motorbikes were only a distraction. Far up above, the holo-controller exchanges his devices for a sniper- to pick off anyone who approaches his encroaching Flowers.

They wear white masks, to hide their identities. Tiffany Holstead is among them.

Klaxons sounded. The bases’ lights switched from their regular white glow to a dim red to save power, and instructions began to run across communications systems.

“¡Caimán-7, report!”
“¡Lieutenant Roca, we have men down, repeat, men down!”
“¡This is Ancla-4, we have multiple hostiles incoming, returning fire!”

Nikki turned to the soldiers next to her, took a deep breath, and began to run, wincing every time she put pressure on her wounded leg. Above, in low-orbit, ground attack craft dropped free from their moors, engines howling as they plummeted towards the ground below them in an attempt to staunch the flow.

“¿Quetzal-5, our jetrikes are ready to respond, are we clear to use plasma?”
“Copy Quetzal-5, Emperatriz. Plasma authorised. Turn them to ash.”
“Serpiente-2, we’re bringing the big guns. Hold on Timón-3.”

If the white-masked invaders thought they were going to have an easy time of it, they were sorely mistaken. Through the dust from the explosions, illuminated by the spinning lights and crackle of gunfire, the Matuvistans put up a sterling defence. Despite everything they had gone through on this foreign planet, they held.

The White Flowers were outgunned, and knew it. The sniper shot at the jetrikes, desperately, with a sinking feeling in his gut.

But these attackers were hand-picked by Tiffany and Dallas- most of them were like one or the other. Either young and unafraid to die, or else old and so full of bitterness that they would spill an ocean of their own blood to finally see a drop of their enemies'. They fought madly. Self-sacrificing.


Shrapnel filled the small building it had been tossed into. Tiffany and half of her crew dodged in after it, never mind the heat, or the scorched bodies. One Matuvistan was still, just barely, alive when they entered; he wasn't after one of the Flowers shot him. Here they flipped over tables, making haste to barricade, where they hoped to hide from the murder coming from above.

The other half of Tiffany's crew tried the same thing with another New Westminster building. The grenade did burst, filling it with shrapnel, but they were caught by Matuvistan plasma. Nothing remained where they had stood. The Flowers cursed.

A third explosion rocked the compound, further away, this one from outside the walls again. A hole caved inwards, and more rebels dodged in, weaving chaotically: the Scuttlers gang. No masks. Much less organized, but more numerous, violent and experienced. Some of them had been in shoot-outs before. Other forces threw ropes with hooks on them over the walls, trying to literally scale them and climb into Matuvistan compound. It was becoming an attack from every possible angle.

“¡GET THE FUCK OVER HERE RIGHT NOW!” Nikki threw herself to the ground behind a brickwork wall, watching as another soldier peeked out of cover and laid down a sustained burst from their assault rifle. The empty mag hit the floor, a fresh one was slotted in almost immediately, and then the firing resumed.

Nikki hauled herself around, eyes squinting to make it through the moonlight. A vague figure sprinted towards them in the distance. Sight. Aim. Shoot. Her rifle crackled in her hands, and the figure spasmed a few times, then dropped to the floor. In the adrenaline rush, the impact of her having killed someone was dulled.

From the distance, a rifle kicked a staccato rhythm. Crack, crack, crack… Crackcrackcrack. A scream from somewhere, no here!

A soldier on the opposing side of the brickwork had taken a round. A man wearing a medical armband took a risky sprint across the open street, bullets puffing up dust in their aftermath, before skidding on their kneepads, rolling the injured man over and setting to work.

Then came a sound that must have horrified the attackers. The low, droning sound of a ground-attack craft loitering overhead. A gravelly voice broke out through the comms systems. ”This is Dragón-1. Let’s start spitting fire.”

The sky seemed to groan under the weight of the ammunition being expended, but no, that was just the sound of its rotary autocannons spinning up. 35mm shells rained down, turning the pavement to pebbles and anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in its path into bloody chunks.

Rebel anti-aircraft defences were activated at this, perched strategically on nearby hills outside New Westminster. They shot for the Dragón like harpoons, AA fire lashing out towards the craft. Dragón wheeled about in the air, flying low and fast to try to avoid missiles and retaliated, its autocannons turning to try to disable this new threat.

As Dragón-1 moved to engage and distract the AA, bombers closed in. It was clear that regardless of civilians, tonight, this was war. Any dead body would be counted as a soldier, no matter how small or unarmed.

”Dragón-2, sustaining heavy anti-aircraft fire. Returning to base now, before I can’t stay airborne.”

"Dragón-7, I’ve lost half my damn thrusters. I can’t climb, but I’m not crashing yet. Going to take as many of the bastards down with me as I can. Viva Matuvista, Dragón-7 over and out.”

”Dragón-10. Skies are empty over here, and we keep chewing through them. Scratch thirty.”

There was a brief pause on the radio, then, ”Scratch thirty-two.

It was a comfort, however small, to the soldiers on the ground to know that despite everything, their ángeles de la guarda loomed heavy in the skies, extracting their pounds of flesh.

Across the battlefield, a set of offices had become a desperate struggle. Matuvistan soldiers held down tight corners and prepared for the worst when a grenade landed down on the floor. Diving for cover, they were caught off guard when as soon as the explosive had detonated, five Mixists surged forwards, carrying axes and swords. A marine met them with a bayonet, one of the Mixists catching the blade in their chest before another sunk an axe into the marine’s neck.

A Matuvistan raised their sidearm up with one hand and squeezed the trigger. The sound was deafening in the enclosed location, but the Mixist kept approaching, machete held in hand. The pistol bucked again and again, six, seven, eight shots and still the Mixist kept coming, until at last a heavier assault rifle round smashed into his kneecap and the wind was taken from his sails. They had worn the ECU’s bulletproof vests tonight.

“Fuego-3, we’ve got a group pinned down here.”

“¡Caimán-3, they’ve got fucking axes! ⸘What bullshit is this‽”

Nikki’s teeth were gritted so hard she felt as if she was going to crack one. Comms was not helping her focus.

The last of the reserves were being sent in. Those few marines who had remained void borne, those precious elites that had been kept close to the chest the whole conflict, were now being deployed. They filtered into transport ships, lit cigarettes, went through last-minute checks, and said their prayers. The craft dropped out of their moors and began the descent downwards towards New Westminster. Somewhere in one of the crafts, music started up.

”Because we know as we fly there is no chance for defeat.

If we live or if we die it’s all the same to me.

Because the saints have chosen us, if it’s livin’ or it’s dyin’

And when our time comes, there’s no time for cryin’

Fought in Chalca, fought in Paola, fought on every saintsdamned moon.

I’ve shot an alien for humanity and watched its blood leak blue,

And I’d do it all again, launch myself into this fight

Because they can’t take my bark, sure as hell can’t take my bite

And if I die tonight, I know the saints’ll take me safe

Away from this place that I can’t see clearly…”

The sounds of battle overtook the sounds of the radio. One of the transport sides had opened up, and a marine leaned out with a GPMG, opening fire at a group of individuals that were running from the gunfire.

“⸘The fuck are you doing‽ ¡There are civilians down there!”

One of the Flower snipers waited as patiently as he could for a clear shot, trying- and only partly succeeding- to ignore the screams of his comrades on the ground. At last, the transport turned just a little, and the sniper pulled his trigger.

The marine jerked backwards, the report of the rifle following shortly afterwards. “¡Puta mierda! ¡Dumbfuck!” One of the soldiers scrambled forward, putting pressure on a leaking shoulder wound, the bullet having passed straight through the marine’s armour. One of the other soldiers reached for a medical kit as they tried to keep their comrade alive. Still. One marine WIA was no cause to slow the assault. “¡You don’t deserve the Bloodied Heart this’ll get you!”

There were eleven jetknights able to participate on the ground of New Hollywood. Isabella was one of them. As rare as it was for the primary commander to participate in the fighting, as absurd as it seemed, she was needed. She would voluntarily give up her commanding position whilst she was off her main vessel, and would instead become a humble jetknight squadron leader. Leaving the nerve center of her operation, she made her way to the jetbike transport bays and prepared herself, two members of staff ferrying her power armour to her.

It slotted over her with the comfort that only came with a piece carefully tailored to your body. All extra flair had been stripped from her uniform- even her jacket and trousers, leaving her in just her undergarments. Metal greaves closed around her thighs, a back-piece clunked into place. She rolled her shoulders out, feeling the systems come alive above her body. Stretch her left arm. Stretch her right arm. Shake out her legs. Excellent.

She reached for her provided helmet and fixed it fast to her collar guard. When complete, it formed an airtight seal, her breathing guaranteed through a complicated intake/outtake system that functioned as a gas mask and could be sealed off in case of the suit being submerged or without atmosphere. The other jetknighs slowly formed around her, and she received the only sign of her being any grander than the rest of her squadron- a cape magnetically affixed underneath her gravity chute.

"In thy strength, O saints, the just warrior shall exult, and in thy salvation they shall rejoice exceedingly. Thou hast given them their heart's desire. We beseech Thee, O saints…” On and on the prayers went as the jetknights went through last minute preparations, and finally received their lances, the unlit handles clamping fast to their vehicles.

In the courtyard, things were getting rougher. Tiffany and her crew were barricaded in their small building, only a few dozen strong, each listening to the sounds of that nightmare playing outside. Just as Isabella prayed to her Saints, the Mixists crowded in here pleaded to their Truth. This religion was still new, and their prayers unofficial. No special words were ordained- they spoke straight from their hearts.

"Truth, grant me the strength to live tonight."
"Truth, keep us safe."
"Please, give me the timing and the aim to blow their commandanta’s brains out of her skull, oh Truth at the center of the universe."
"Just... teach me to lead."

At the last words, which were her own, Tiffany reached to her ear and pressed a small button on the device nuzzled there. At this, two things happened.

The first was that all other rebels on the field went half-deaf. In a good way. They all wore similar devices in their ears, little pieces of metal and plastic that descended from the earphones of Old Earth. They could drown out or amplify any sound desired. Today, they were pre-programmed for war: the terrifying sounds of screams, grunting and crying vanished, just as the sounds of gunfire became so much more distinct. A man wearing these knew if a rifle was being loaded fifty feet away. But every other sound, every distraction- gone. Peace descended onto them.

At the same time, a new and distinctly ECU-style of offense began. There had been much debate about using this tactic: nobody wanted to feel like the protectors. But needs must. Comm channels filled with pure static and noise, as a horrifying wailing sound, somewhere between a siren and a woman's scream, played outwards from the earworms. The ECU had created this sound specifically to activate the human instinct to flee or hide.

"Alright," Tiffany spoke to her team, "we rush now, automatics first, axes and swords following. Whatever you do, even if you die: just make them bleed." Tables and chairs were kicked, pushed, thrown out of the way as her crew re-entered the fray.

Comms channels filled with an awful noise, and for a moment, the Matuvistan defence stumbled. Dragón-7 lurched downwards, losing more of its precious altitude. In the offices, a marine was caught off guard, earning herself a shotgun blast to her unprotected neck. One of the jetrike squadrons, flying in a tight formation, lost synchronicity for a precious second, one of the trikes accidentally nudged by another on a sharp turn, the nudged trike coming precariously close to spinning out and into a nearby building, and only pulling itself out at the last minute.

Nikki would have ripped her commsbead out, but they were specifically designed to ensure a soldier couldn’t do that. Instead, she clapped a hand to her ear and pressed herself against the wall, feeling the impacts of bullets against the brickwork.

But then, slowly, Matuvistans turned to a tactic that had served them time and time again, before even they were called Matuvistans, before they had left Earth, before their guns could fire more than a shot without needing a reload. It was a battle-hymn, tried and tested.

“Opposing pikes to horses, facing arquebuses to pikemen, with the soul united by the same faith, let the blood run to protect the republic. Cross of Lobasla fluttering in the wind, sons of Santiago, great are the tericos, pikes, battalion, flanks covered, only the man who is not afraid is free. Fight for your brother, die for your republic, live for peace in this empire, there will never be defeat if they make us prisoners, only after death will we capitulate. Mesh gorget, leather vest, breastplate and backplate will protect me from iron, lift the pikes with a cry to the sky, I will never be afraid if the terico marches in a column.”

It was a slow, sombre song, and one that almost all of the soldiers slowly took up. It was a stunning contrast to the sounds of battle, a slow melody to the wars of the past. As the rebels charged, the Matuvistans dug in their heels, both sides living up to the song. Only after death will we capitulate.

Nikki watched as the medic dragged their charge off, towards the backline, assisted by another soldier. As they cleared another defensive position the charge hit those remaining behind, and Nikki fought for her life yet again.

It was a blurry, hazy mess. She lost track of the words to the song as a soldier practically leapt at her, feeling the impact of his bullets against her armour. She retaliated with her own gunfire, the bigger, heavier Matuvistan bullet dropping him before she fell. Wheezing, the air forced out of her chest and a rib cracked, she tried to swing her gun to the next rebel rushing their position, but found herself unable to bend her arm far enough. As more bullets crashed into her, she fell to the ground, head hitting the concrete with a crack that sent her mind spinning. She lifted a hand up to the sky, a breath catching in her lungs, then rising up to her lips with a bitter, copper cough.

It was a cold night. Not like those back homes. Maybe she’d just close her eyes and wait for the sun to come out.

Isabella listened to her own radio chatter and frowned. The larger, more secure surface-to-orbit comms hadn’t been broken by the rebel hack, and what news she was getting was all bad news. Only three ground attack craft were still airborne. Three had gone down. One had run out of ammunition and had to retreat, and three more had sustained damage severe enough to force them to return to base without actually being rendered inoperable. Half the jetrike squadrons had stopped responding. Now, the last order being asked of her before she left her command ship was a simple one.

“Commandanta. Permission to launch an orbital strike at SAM batteries? They’re a risk to you and anyone else in the air.”

“Negativo. This is still a civilian center. We’re tearing the ground up enough in this fight, let’s not start flattening it as well. Missiles and bombers only.”

“Acknowledged. Go with the saints, knight.”

Neither her nor the artillery officer knew just how important that order would be.

Isabella’s cape fluttered slightly as she sat down astride her jetbike. The jetbike carrier unclamped itself from the command ship and began its descent, the garage totally silent. Then, they hit the atmosphere, and a roaring sound slowly began to build up.

“Prep for high altitude deployment.” Isabella issued the order with a firm voice, the craft bursting through re-entry and sailing down, down. The red light in the garage switched to green, and the magnets that kept jetknights fixed to their bikes activated.

Then, they were set free from their bindings.

Temperature sensors showed the night to be freezing cold, but in their armour the jetknights felt nothing. They plunged down through the air in a loose V formation, pressed tight against the bodies of their bikes. The air rushed around them, a roaring that filled the ears and was only drowned out by the hammering of their hearts. A high-altitude deployment was the safest method for the garage vehicles, but took a long time if the jetbikes didn’t activate their thrusters… Which they didn’t, so the engine flare didn’t give away their position to anti-air.

Their radio frequencies tuned to the battle below. By now, the worst of the rebel hack had been overridden, and communications had been re-established, but she wasn’t talking to just her men now. She tuned to a broad-spectrum frequency, knowing that the rebels would be able to hear her.

”Atención all Matuvistan ground forces. Lt Cabalerra De Lobasla is making her way to the battlefield, and with her, all the fury and grace that the jetknights bring with them. To the rebels, know that the Hand of the Saints has come down to bless you with the justice you so richly deserve. Viva Matuvista. Viva la República.”

The announcement was met with a roar from the ground forces, and almost at once the rebels found themselves met with a resistance they had never seen before. The Matuvistans launched themselves into a counter-offensive like men possessed, the newly deployed marines throwing themselves into battle not just with their rifles, but some came with sabre, breaching axe and hand-shotgun as well, staples of ship boarding combat. A Mixist squad found themselves pinned down with startling celerity, a group of marines bearing down on them. When one of the rebels rose up to fight back, he earned an axe in the neck, the man collapsing half-decapitated as his fellows fell before a hailstorm of automatic fire.

Someone on the ground let a cry out through the general comms, just as Isabella had. ”¡KILL EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THOSE REBEL BASTARDS! ¡TEN OF THEM FOR EVERY MATUVISTAN THAT FALLS! ¡VIVA LA REPÚBLICA! ¡MATUVISTAAAAAAA!

The sides met with a clash that lit up the night. The last few bold gunships that had remained aloft discharged everything they had, howitzer shells breaking apart buildings and autocannon shots turning streets to cobblestone. Marine captains surged forward, sabres catching rebel weapons and pistols carefully aimed for where their armour couldn’t protect them, and above, in the air, the jetbikes roared forwards.

“Loose formation,” the Lt Cabalerra instructed. “Anti-air is still active. Remain light and loose. No charges, there’s nothing to break.” One of the bikes wheeled downwards in a strafing run, its guns, a squad of rebels either diving for cover or being caught out, the heavy calibre rounds punching through them and dropping them to the ground.

“Maintain offensive. Support squads where needed. We don’t have the numbers for hard engagements.” The Cabalerra swooped down, her plasma casters opening up. Men caught within the heat didn’t have time to scream; they were dead before their bodies could catch up with the pain. Her cape billowed and she tucked herself tighter against her leg, throwing her weight to one side of the bike whilst keeping a hand on the accelerator.

The streets began to blur past the knights. They wove through streets at madcap speeds, bolts of jet-powered lighting that brought with them screaming death. At one point a plasma lance was unsheathed, the rider swerving through small arms fire , eagerly grinning as his foes tried to dive out of the way of the glowing orange beam. Two failed. They wouldn’t be failing anything again.

Then, the unthinkable happened. One of the knights had gunned themselves over a plaza, only to be met with a rebel anti-air vehicle: four twenty-millimetre autocannons attached to a humble flatbed truck. Its radar systems hardly needed to be turned on, the jetknight was so close, and although their new foe wheeled about to face them startlingly quickly, even a jetknight wasn’t as quick as a trigger finger.

The air was filled with 20mm shells, and the jetknight tumbled out of the sky. The only sign the others had that something had gone wrong was a sudden emptiness on one of their radio frequencies, and Isabella’s HUD showing a squad member down.

“We lost one. Charing Cross. Stick together, eyes up, take it out, whatever it was.” The jetknights reformed and plasma lances were activated. Pressing themselves low to the ground, so low that an errant twitch could cause their bikes to eat dirt, they saw the offending vehicle. This time though, its cannons were far too slow to save it. Four separate lances tore the vehicle and crew apart, leaving it little more than slag, but the message had been received by the rebels.

They aren’t invincible.

On the ground, the rebels found themselves pushed back, inch by inch. Both sides fought like fanatics, rebels and soldiers pressing through pain and fatigue to bleed their foes for every drop. The last of the gunships reluctantly peeled away and returned to base, out of ammunition or limping from battle scars, but luckily for them, rebel AA had a new target.

Bring the knights down.

Isabella and her crew had noticed the change in focus. Every time they dared go too high up, they received warnings of radar lock. Too close to the ground and they were constantly threatened by autocannons and machine guns. They flew a dangerous line, darting in and out, killing soldiers here, destroying vehicles there, desperately keeping themselves as loosely organised as possible to stop a lucky rebel from downing two or more.

Then, it happened again. The knights made their charge, and the rebels responded. This time it was another up armoured vehicle, featuring rotary machineguns. They strafed across the knights, the heavy bullets denting bikes and armour as they passed. Its path moved towards the center of the pack, towards where Isabella flew, and in less than a second more than thirty bullets had slammed into her.

Isabella’s jetbike signalled multiple warnings, but the rider couldn’t process them. Her armour hadn’t held up, and blood spilled down onto the streets below. The other riders could see that she was out, her bike operating purely on instinct.

“Commandanta Isabella is down! Repeat! The commandanta is down! All units, move to secure her bike immediately!

The Matuvistan army pushed forward again, and finally, the rebels began to break. The white flowers couldn’t keep up this invasion: they were outgunned and the constant flow of reinforcements had slowed to a stop. Those who fought here today would remember what they saw for the rest of their lives. It hadn’t been a bloodbath. It had been a flood. The only consolation? The Matuvistans bled, too.

It was time to get out.

Tiffany Holstead chimed into the ear of every rebel wearing an earwig, her voice cutting through the combat: “Retreat. Retreat, back to base. Retreat.” It was an order that would be only halfway executed, with the Matuvistan occupiers bearing down on them: countless were captured that night. But Tiffany escaped, again, feeling now like she was protected by Truth Itself. There was a horrific moment where a Matuvistan aimed a gun straight for her, but then suddenly glanced to his left- at a sound, or a sight- and that was just enough for her to escape. She muttered a quiet prayer of thanks.

When the impromptu rebellion leader left New Westminster behind, joined by whatever haggard survivors could make that retreat with her, she left one final gift for the Matuvistans. Transmitted audibly through every captured rebel’s earworms, her voice said:

“Matuvistan occupiers, my name is Tiffany Holstead. I was present tonight. I came personally to see this attack, just as I will come for the next. Because there will be more. Because there are millions of us, and so long as you live on our land, we will come. Every day and night. Until every last one of you is dead. How many did we take with us tonight? How many do you have left?

This does not end. Go home, Matuvista.”

"It's over." Capitão Alvarez looked down at the mutilated form of their once-commander in the ship's medbay. Isabella was alive, yes, but only so by the grace of the saints, and there was little left here of the pretty thing that had set off. Her left arm hung on by a thread, she had lost an eye and only half of her face could charitably be called 'identifiable.' She had been miraculously, almost comically lucky that her internal organs had suffered less damage than her extremities had, but even now she survived thanks only to an army of tubes and machines.

"We're leaving. We have no more reinforcements. No more Commandanta. No more allies. We've barely got enough ammunition to survive the rest of the month, and the rebels still have enough men to almost break us at our strongest. If they do that again, we will be overwhelmed, and every man down there will be lost.

"Bullshit we're leaving. We don't have senatorial permission." One of the jetknights that had flown with Isabella countered the Capitão angrily.

"Don't question me boy. You're a patrician, but I've fought wars since you were still a swimmer in your pa's nutsack. The senate will issue a retreat. I will be discussing it with them on the command deck, and despite your fancy jetbikes, you're still lower ranking than me on this ship and you will act like it." Alvarez's face burned for the jetknight to question him, and, astonishingly, they did not.

"Attention all members of the Matuvistan Volunteer Expeditionary Force. This is acting-Commandante Alvarez Jaca. We're done here. The recent assault proved that. Their anti-air was seriously damaged in the battle and we'll never have a better moment to extract from this city. Destroy anything that can't be packed up in twenty four hours. Transfer all prisoners and wounded to void-borne facilities. The evacuation will be completed at 0800 local time tomorrow. Acting-Commandante out."

With the message relayed, Alvarez looked down at Isabella one more time. Matuvistan medicine was keeping her alive, but even the most aggressive and expensive healthcare on the market would leave her disfigured and crippled. Matuvista couldn't save her.

But maybe there were some that could.
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