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"You went to the Chaplain, who also kicked you out. How do you antagonize a Chaplain?"
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Current status: Bumming cigarettes off of a Chilean guy.
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I'm Evan and I like hard liquor, trashy EDM, and shooting things. On the side, I dabble in strategic analysis and I have a blast working through logistical planning.

I study nuclear engineering: It's basically a sophisticated counting exercise that usually ends up in two ways depending on if your math is right or not: either water boils or people die horribly.

Most Recent Posts

N’zwasis, Saraya

A lone truck climbed a hill on a jungled two-lane concrete road. Its engine whirred and struggled, belching fumes from its tailpipe before a series of dull clunks indicated a gear change below the hood. It ran a little bit smoother now, but it still struggled up the steepness of the slope. The truck’s vibrancy stood in contrast to the dark shadows of the jungle. Rays of sunlight poking through the canopy illuminated the truck’s decorative art. A mural of a lion lounging atop a mesa-like flat hill adorned the rear doors of the cargo container. A landscape image on the side depicted the Battle of Osoika, where fighters from the rebelling Indaran tribe were routed by a noble, yet rebelliously independent, Padvian prince to end years of internal fighting in central Saraya. The other side of the container maintained a patterned, almost abstract depiction of a marketplace. Elaborate, bright bordering framed the art, featuring traditional patterns and zig-zags of the northeast. Pendants, chains, and beads all hung from the bumper, clacking against it as it drove.

Inside, the smell of cigarettes seemed to have been permanently taken hold in the worn leather of the bench seat. An AM radio, garbled with static, played a melodious tune. As the truck reached the top of the hill, the radio cleared up, but the signal was soon lost as the road wandered down towards the base again. The driver, a man of about fifty, referenced a folded-up map beside him in a neat olive-green map case that looked almost like military surplus. This was the last hill before the jungle thinned out and the suburban townships of N’zwasis crept into frame. He did a last-second check in the glovebox to make sure that he had his papers: an identification card, his trucking company registration, a cargo manifest, and his schedule. Armed police units conducting checkpoints were usually the case in the northern provinces, where bandits thought that they could evade the government, but lately threats from Istian border militias seemed to be front-page in all the regional newspapers.

Soon enough, as he approached the wooden and corrugated-metal box houses of an N’zwasis farming township, he saw a checkpoint guardbox along with several signs warning drivers to stop their vehicles for inspection. Two men in police blue uniforms stood at the road, orange sashes draped across their torsos and wearing wide-brimmed slouch hats. One carried a bolt-action carbine, standing back to the rear, while another wore a revolver around his hip: this one waved the driver down with one hand while he readied a clipboard in the other. The truck rolled to a stop on the road, pulling off to the packed-dirt inspection lot on the side of the road before turning off the engine.

The guard with the clipboard greeted the driver at his door. “Thanks for stopping,” he said. “Welcome to N’zwasis… Have you traveled this road before?”

The driver nodded. “I make the Voi-N’zwasis run quite frequently. This checkpoint is a new one, though.”

“It is, we just sprang this one up on Saturday. Governor’s orders.” The guard tapped his pen on the clipboard, which bore a typewritten memo and checklist for the inspection. The driver caught a glimpse of it, reading off that they were to do a quick sweep for guns and bombs in the cargo bed or trunk. He raised an eyebrow but handed over the manilla folder with his documents when the guard asked. His partner relaxed as the driver appeared compliant with the inspection. His grip on the rifle loosened and his shoulders dropped. He looked around again, breaking his intense eye contact with the truck.

“I suppose I should declare that I have a weapon then,” the driver said calmly. The guard’s eyes widened in curiosity. He ordered the driver to take it out slowly. He returned from the cabin with a sawed-off double-barrel, lever-action shotgun from the late 19th century that he kept underneath the dashboard and handed it down to the guard. Duly, the guard looked it over: it wasn’t an unusual weapon for truckers to have, especially in the northern jungles. He set it down on the ground, careful to lay it in a way that didn’t get dust in the action or barrel.

“A classic,” he mused as he inspected it. “My grandfather had the same model. He used it to keep the panthers off our coffee farm.”

The guard reviewed the driver’s license and information. Everything checked out: Azmat Sadari, aged thirty-nine, who had black hair and green eyes, appeared to stand the printed 1.74 meters tall with a noticeable beer belly bringing his weight to eighty kilograms. The guard nodded and reviewed the cargo manifest: consumer goods for a furniture outlet. Mostly disassembled wooden furniture components and screws, nuts, and bolts. He swung open the rear of the truck and was satisfied by the heaps of wooden tabletops and chair legs he saw inside. A sweep revealed no obvious traps or bombs. The guard scribbled off on his checklist as the driver waited, leaning against the hood of his truck smoking a cigarette.

“Looks like you’re good to go,” the guard said, stamping an approval on Azmat’s sheet before handing it back to him. “One last thing, however.”

The driver raised his eyebrow as he tossed the manilla folder up into his cab and retrieved the shotgun from the ground.

“The Governor has instituted a toll to help pay for the increased security measures. It’s forty tala per commercial vehicle.”

Again, Azmat appeared confused. He had never heard of a security toll before. He was no politician or military man, but that appeared to be something that the Kassaji government tried to control more tightly than the Padvians used to. The headlines said something about consolidating military budgeting and centralizing control over these things, and Azmat wasn’t sure if they were provincial police or regional militias. Their hair, dreadlocks pinned back into coiled buns behind their heads, looked very traditional, and elaborate tattoos peeked out from underneath the rolled sleeves of their blue uniforms. They had no familiar insignia like the Highway Patrolmen did.

He mulled if this was a fight he wanted to wage. He could easily ask them for the government order, or ask to pay a licensed treasurer. Handing cash over to a beat cop seemed unreliable at best. But at the end of the day, he could just grease the wheels and get it done with. While his company gave him money under the table to handle situations like bribes or even small ransoms for the average highwayman, he always just pocketed the extra money. The guard awaited his answer, looking him down in a way that, while he wasn’t posturing, looked like he could threaten Azmat if he wanted to. So Azmat reached into his pocket, opened up his wallet, and handed over four of the ten tala bills.

“Thank you,” the guard said, taking the money and stuffing it in his uniform breast pocket. “And nice truck, by the way. I like the art. Where’d you get it done?”

The driver told him about the auto shop he worked for in Voi, that a portion of his salary paid for some of the traditional decorations. Satisfied by the security measures in place at the checkpoint, the guard waved Azmat back into his truck and let his partner step aside. As the diesel engine thrummed back to life, he shifted gears and went along his way. A few kilometers later, he was heading into the outskirts of town. N’zwasis had an inner-city portion clustered around ancient temples and ruins that were once the castle of a noble tribal family. A ring of taller buildings surrounded it before the density dropped off and junctions of factories, warehouses, truck stops, and railway yards brushed up against the jungle. Azmat found his destination, the furniture store, and pulled into a warehouse parking lot in the back.

The owner greeted Azmat, gladly handed him a bill of sale and payment, and asked his help moving the goods out of the truck. Duly, Azmat accepted, and they spent the next hour moving the pieces of furniture into his storage unit with the help of a pair of teenaged laborers. He backed out at the completion of this, parked his truck by the entrance of the lot, locked up the doors for the night, and went on to find his way into the city. His hotel and maybe a beer or two to alleviate the hot and humid air of the jungle awaited him.
Javad, Saraya

Beneath the still water of an pleasantly warm day, a pair of reddish salmon swam complacently through the water. One of them, breaking from its partner, spotted something shiny and excitedly swam towards the surface to investigate. Mere moments later, it was ripped from the water by the razor-sharp talons of a great hawk who had descended towards its next meal. With a shriek, the hawk lifted off with the writhing fish in tow, ascending high towards its destination. Atop one of the two massive grey steel superstructures of a suspension bridge, the hawk landed and dropped off its prize to a nest full of squawking chicks. It then took off just as abruptly as it arrived, coming to circle around its environment.

The bridge spanned a wide river at the mouth of a wide bay. Lining the shores were all sorts of riverwalks, ports, tall buildings, and urban buildup. The stark grey of the dense cityscape stopped abruptly at the watery blue. Ships motored in the harbor, the big cargo ones nestled against jutted-out docks where cranes moved up and down on rail tracks to help longshoremen offload pallets of goods. Inside the city, neon lights lit cramped alleys while banners and signs appeared at every corner. In the delightful calligraphy of Sarayan script, colorful advertisements for businesses and products breathed life into the greys of the stone buildings. Cars drove, along crowded roads and packed avenues. Pedestrians waited on stone sidewalks for their stoplights to change. An elevated train rattled along its tracks before dipping below the ground to drive along the intricate subway of the downtown.

An island in the bay off center to the north, connected to the mainland by a long bridge flanked by masses of electrical lines, belched steam from a dozen brick cooling towers. Inside the squat cement industrial housing surrounded by a maze of metal electrical transforming and transmission equipment, its precious solarium-driven power plant spun four industrial turbines to generate the city’s electricity. Above, an airship cut through the cloudlike vapor as it began its own circle around the fixed-wing airplane routes from the airport, towards the landing and mooring zones established just to the south of the bridge along the coast. There, landing pads flanked with anchorpoints and signal lights drew the crew of the airliner in.

From the window of the airship, a man looked up from his book. Clean-cut, tall, with brown skin, he looked rather stark. His long, curly hair, a severe fade on the sides leading to a lopsided combover that fell off the top down to his left ear, had an even darker brown tone to it. A pack of cigarettes had been tucked into the rolled sleeve of his white linen shirt. The hawk had flown up to the window of the airship, gliding alongside for a few moments. It had just barely enough time to make eye contact with the man before the airship blew its ballast, jets of air erupting from the side with a hiss. That seemed to scare it off enough, as it rapidly banked away from the airship and went screaming towards the bay again. The man returned to his book for a minute, before dog-earning the page as the intercom crackled to life and the pleasant voice of the hostess announced: “We have begun our descent to Javad Aerodrome. Please take this time to gather your belongings.”

He waited a few minutes as the cityscape came closer into view. From the window, he saw the skyscrapers and density of the downtown area come into clear view. From there, his view wandered across the roads and parks until the hills that surrounded the capital rose from the shore. Atop the largest hill lay the King’s Citadel: an enormous, ancient castle made of khaki-green junglestone and crisscrossed with vines from the trees and gardens at the foot of it. Although well-maintained and constantly occupied, the King’s Citadel appeared as ancient and ornate as any of the other symbols of royal power. The airship continued to land slowly, the tenements of Rud-Javad’s seaside residential district quickly obscuring view of the castle. Before long, the landing gear of the airship thumped into the metal pad, while from the window the man could see groundcrew in jumpsuits quickly securing anchors and tethers to the fixing points.

He gathered up his luggage: a leather satchel that he secured around his shoulder and a green, military-style duffle bag with his clothing and personal belongings inside. Beside him, another man who appeared equally as tall and athletic donned an identical duffle. The two of them left their booths and shuffled out orderly, thanking the stewardess politely. She smiled at them, waving them down the stairs and to the landing pad. The man was the first to exit while his partner was stuck in line: he took the time to light a cigarette with one of his matches. His partner arrived shortly thereafter, with a blank look on his face. He wordlessly accepted a cigarette from the man, replying with a gruff thanks.

“Air travel, huh?” joked the man to his partner.

“I hate it. I always get sick,” was the terse answer. “And I can’t fuckin’ smoke on these things. At least I can smoke on the ferry.”

The man shrugged, before urging his partner to follow them. They made their way towards the central hub of the aerodrome’s airship terminal, a taller building with a grand arched concourse topped with a ceiling of glass that let the sunlight flow naturally in. In the center, a pond with six upwards-spraying fountains encircled a metal sculpture of a globe: a glowing orb of pale blue tight shone from within. Little magical tricks and decoration to wow the visitors coming into the capital. On each side, between marble pillars, decorated stone murals depicting the history of air travel had been created. The man and his partner had stopped for a second to watch the people scurrying about the terminal, before continuing to the pickup driveway to the front of the airship terminal. There, they scanned for what they had been told: a black sedan with a uniformed man beside it.

By the end of the terminal, they found it: a man in his green uniform leaning against the hood of a staff car. His face, hidden by glasses, was buried in a newspaper. On his sleeve, he wore a section sergeant’s rank. The two passengers caught his attention. The sergeant stood up as the man approached, reaching out his hand. “Welcome to Javad, guys,” he said simply.

The man thanked him and shook his hand before his partner did the same. The sergeant looked to him: “Which one are you?”

The man unclipped the document pouch to his satchel and withdrew a sheet of paper marked with official letterhead. “I’m Sergeant Amsar Kandeh and this is Sergeant Marko Avordani.”

The sergeant nodded, skimming over the papers. “Well, guys, congratulations on making it through selection. Not a lot of people transfer over from the Land Forces to the Guard Corps. Well, enough chit-chat, let’s head you to the company.”

The three men piled into the car and the section sergeant shifted to gear and drove off. They took off out of the pickup lane and quickly merged onto the highway. The road rose up to its elevated portion, and they were now driving alongside the tops of some of the lower two or three-story structures. “You picked an interesting time to come in,” the section sergeant said as he swung into a turn lane. “The Acradians and Hasturis are stirring up shit on the other side of the world and it’s starting to turn into a hot issue.”

“So I’ve heard,” mused Kandeh. “Everyone’s thinking about some sort of alliance now or something.”

“Exactly. So we’re supposed to be taking a new spearhead role in these decisive operations if it comes down to it. At least that’s the word around the regiments these days. I’m thinking that the High King has some ideas in mind for direct action and he can use us for shorter, higher intensity operations. Don’t need to get parliament to legislate the Land Forces into action.”

Kandeh shrugged and looked at Avordani. He paid no mind, looking out the window at the skyline as the car took an exit to begin a winding road up to King’s Citadel. They didn’t know each other before selection, but the rigorous process had weeded most people out and left the rest with an infallible sense of teamwork and community. Avordani was born a farm boy from the north and chose to continue his enlistment after his two-year service draft had ended partially to avoid going back to his parents. The man could hike and carry gear like an ox, even if he didn’t make the best decisions with choosing his words tactfully. Kandeh, meanwhile, hailed from a mediocre town outside of the southern industrial hub. Although he was a good five years older than Avordani, Kandeh was also trying to escape from something: his ex-wife.

The car squealed to a stop at a blockhouse-reinforced gate midway up the road on the hill. Two men in fatigues clutching submachine guns, wearing their load-bearing vests and blue berets with gold trim and hackles, stopped the car. The section sergeant rolled down the window and displayed his identification card, while the guard peered into the back. “They’re new Guards, don’t worry,” chuckled the section sergeant.

They were waved through. The car continued the climb up towards the iron gate of the King’s Citadel where it was waved through again. This time, the section sergeant stopped it in a parking space by a sign that denoted a regimental office for the barracks. Kandeh and Avordani got out of the car and were escorted inside. They passed by several offices at the forefront of the barracks that were marked for regimental staff, before climbing a set of stairs. The second floor was divided into two sections: the First Company and the Second. Their section sergeant led them to the Second Company offices and stopped them at the door that read “Company Sergeant.” He instructed them to wait while he entered. After a few moments, the section sergeant told them to enter. He left, his job completed.

Kandeh and Avordani arrived in the office to discover the company sergeant sitting at his desk, hands folded. Behind him, a bookshelf indicated he was well-read. A sword on the wall topped this, laying horizontally across a red velvet mounting. To their right was a sofa with a coffee table and to their left was a shelf with all manner of trophies and collected items from his time in service. The company sergeant stood as Kandeh and Avordani reported in: “Company Sergeant, Sergeant Marko Avordani of the Royal Guards Corps reports as ordered.”

The company sergeant, whose nameplate read “Yasati”, nodded at them as they dropped their bags to their left and arrived at a parade rest. “Welcome to the Second Company, First Regiment, boys,” he said. He looked to Kandeh and corrected himself. “Well, I suppose you’re more of a man than he is. What took you so long?”

Kandeh sighed. “Joined up late,” he answered nonchalantly. The company sergeant grinned.

“Well, in any case, we’re glad to have you guys here as Guards.” Company Sergeant Yasati took a seat and waved his hand to gesture them to do the same. “I’m sure your escort was fairly talkative. There’s a lot going on right now that is going to make our jobs a lot busier. The High King has instructed us to be aware of external threats now and there seem to be more of those every day. Those assholes to the north, the guys on the other continent… you name it. We also expect to be working more often with foreign militaries as the political arm of the High King’s military. If there’s a significance to it, we’ll be there. And I’ll tell you the same thing I tell other Land Forces transferees: you’ve got to act a lot more careful here. Right now, you’re an arm of the monarchy. We don’t work quite like the national military.”

Kandeh nodded. He had heard all about it during selection, done all of the interviews, and read the literature that he was prescribed. The Royal Guards operated somewhat independently of the rest of the armed forces in accordance with the constitution’s allowance. However, they were mostly light infantry forces: heavy support and air power had to come from the regular military to prevent the Royal Guard Corps from becoming the High King’s personal expeditionary army. For example, if the Guards were to be deployed overseas, they would have to hitch rides on Sea Forces vessels. It was a compromise, tense at times, but the Kassaji regime had seen no reason to complain about it when they were busy focusing on internal issues.

“So that’s the strategic overview of what you’re doing here, are there any questions?” asked Company Sergeant Yasati. Both of the new Guards answered no. He continued: “Tactically, you’re going to be operating in independent platoons. My company and our commander has a lot of autonomy from regiment. We get the newest equipment and we train on the newest tactics. Small units, decisive operations of political significance. It’s a little different from the massive operations you might be used to in the Land Forces, but selection made sure you can cut it here. Think of it like the regular military’s commando units. Small and deadly. We expect a high level of readiness so you will be training routinely. Your physical and mental fitness is also important to us, so keep that in mind.”

He reached into his desk to procure two reporting sheets. He slid them onto the table for Kandeh and Avordani to view. “These are your sheets. Basically, same process as your old job: go around and check in to your unit. Go to medical, get your physical, get your equipment issues, parade uniforms sized, whatever else. Easy enough?”

“Yes, Company Sergeant!” both of them answered. Yasati grinned again before getting up to shake their hands.

“That’s enough of my counseling. Your platoon commander and sergeant will fill you in on more specific details and help you get the sheet signed. You’ve got the rest of the week off until Monday to move in and get settled, but your duty begins then. Alright, on your way.”

The two Guards stood from their chairs and collected their bags. “Long live the High King,” they both stated. The company sergeant answered the same, before the two left the office. Outside, the hustle and bustle of company activity had increased and they dodged troops until they reached the rooms that had been assigned to them on their paperwork. Being laterally transferred sergeants, both of them were entitled to their own room in the barracks: a small room with a bed, a desk, a wardrobe, and a shelf for books and knick-knacks. A small sink and medicine cabinet was inlaid to the wall by the door. A bare lightbulb illuminated the living space. Not too spacious, but they also didn’t have roommates. Kandeh entered into his and dropped his duffle bag down onto his bare mattress. The wooden chair to his desk had been left out, so he took it to sit down and put his briefcase on the desk.

As he prepared his things and looked at what he needed to do, he mused for a second. The Guards presented many opportunities for him and he was excited to see what was coming. But at the same time, talk in the barracks was different than the Land Forces: it appeared to be full of intrigue and foreign expeditions. Different from tribal policing and border security. He was excited: the future would bring many things. And big things were coming.
Patara Darbazi, Georgia

The province of Kvemo Kartili was slightly larger than six thousand square kilometers of forested mountains sitting on the border of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Rustavi, its capital, lay forty kilometers to the northeast of the Armenian encampment at the small village of Patara Dabazi. While historically, Georgian Christians had occupied much of the region’s north and ethnic Azerbaijanis lived along the southern border, more immigrants and refugees from Azerbaijan were displaced to the Azeri Shiite communities and had quickly become the majority. Rustavi maintained its Georgian majority while the rest of the province became overwhelmingly Muslim. A clash between the province’s population, who resented attempts to secularize and denounce Islamic culture, and its governing parties had resulted in widespread lawlessness, insurgency, and banditry compared to the rest of the country. They furthermore resented the incursion of Russian refugees traveling south and the presence of Armenian irregulars and, now, troops in what they viewed as their last bastion. Armenian high command had designated Kvemo Kartili as a “high risk” area of Georgia alongside the northwestern Abkhazian and north-central Ossetian provinces.

The main portion of the Georgian Plan consisted of sweeping into Tbilisi with a cadre of Armenian-trained Georgian troops and officers, along with previously-identified “reconstructionist” politicians and bureaucrats to solidify the existing weak government. They would go province by province to convince, by diplomacy or by force, the warlords to join a national government: their power would be converted into seats in parliament, and their guns turned to pens. Yaglian’s unit, patrolling the dirt roads winding through the mountains, only heard sparse updates from his platoon leader when they were gathered for the morning briefings. They had been there for just about a week, and the regular Army had just reached Tbilisi along with elements of the Poti Garrison. In name and in theory, at least, the Republic of Georgia’s government had been officially reinstated to its territorial claims. Of course, a long road was ahead for the men on the ground in country. Elections, stability operations, rebuilding and reconstruction: everything from the engineers setting up power lines and water wells to the medical service training rural doctors was planned to wrest control of Georgia from the warlords.

Patara Darbazi was a small distance away from the ruins of the bandit camp that they had destroyed a mere month ago. A single road ran through a few dozen houses, without much else. Livestock meandered around through farms and yards, grazing on the dry grass that grew along the dirt paths. As the company took an area of responsibility, each platoon took up a village or two in their own areas as a way to get to know the area better. Half of Yaglian’s unit was assigned to watch over Patara Darbazi, while another detachment was set up to patrol Kudro. Each patrol through the area consisted of two rifle sections along with a scout jeep providing backup and a platform for their machinegun. They trudged up a hill in the late morning, a mountain to the east providing shade against the August sun. Yaglian felt the steel frame of his rucksack press into his back as pools of sweat grew under his collar and armpits. He cradled his carbine in his arms, letting its sling press most of the weight uncomfortably on his neck and shoulders. At some points he picked his weary head up and moved it around, but for the most part he stared down at his feet.

The troops halted just before cresting the hill and parked their vehicle off to the side of the road. A trio of goats walked past the hood, looking up at the soldier on the pintle mounted gun while he stared back, unimpressed. The two sections each dropped their packs off by the truck in neat, orderly lines. Platoon Sergeant Ozanian was with them that day: him and the Lieutenant often switched out the towns they patrolled, each trying to make an impression on the civic leader. He ordered them to rack their weapons and they marched into town. It seemed empty, but only a few dozen people lived there to begin with. A few people were gathered around a well in the center of the village, but they scrambled as soon as the troops walked into town. This was becoming a daily occurrence, but they still remembered when loud noises and explosions woke them just a few weeks ago: in the morning, they had to bury the dead Mountain Wolf casualties. Yaglian had never spoken to anyone in the village and doubted that they wanted to interact regardless. He felt uneasy.

Ozanian and the Lieutenant had initial plans to interact with a “village elder” of some sort to try and bring Patara Dabazi into the fold of a new county government that their company commander was establishing in the large town of Talaveri to the north. They would ease them in with the promise of security and safety against the bandits before trying to push the envelope further with taxes or a centralized constabulary. Yet they routinely found in these towns a more communal approach: there was no formal leader, and the closest thing they had to anyone in power was simply the oldest patriarch of the largest family. It continually frustrated efforts for the Armenians, who were relegated to standing around in town before going to patrol through the mountains in search of bandit camps. They had no evidence that the Mountain Wolves were there besides the burnt remains of the outpost they had destroyed in their initial raids. It was like they had disappeared. Yaglian knew that they hadn’t: ambushes and raids were still occurring in other company areas nearby. But not his.

The Corporal walked amongst his team and checked them off. He casually asked them about how much water they had been drinking, if they felt dizzy from the long walk, if they had seen anything in their sectors, and other minutia. He had just lifted up his cap to wipe the sweat away from his forehead when a loud bang sounded from one of the houses.

“Ambush!” shouted someone, before a volley of shots rang out. Everyone dropped to the ground and pointed their weapons out. Someone was groaning: Yaglian looked around to see a rifleman writing around in pain as he patted away blood on his pant leg. A friend of his had rushed over to rip the trouser fabric out of the way, pour water onto the wound, and start wrapping a tourniquet tightly above the wound. Another man rushed forward with his machinegun and, firing from the hip, unleashed a burst into the house where a body now lay in front of. Windows shattered and wood splintered apart: the sound echoed throughout the valley. It became deathly quiet again as Ozanian sprinted up to the area of conflict. “What happened?” he barked.

“One guy in the house just came out and started shooting!” cried the man tending to the wounded soldier. He nudged his head back to where the gunner had riddled the wooden cabin with bullets. His friend on the ground grabbed at his leg as a bandage was applied, tears streaming down his grimacing face. He kept moaning and cursing.

“I got him!” replied the gunner. He let the machinegun dangle on its sling again, but he still pointed cautiously towards the house. Ozanian trudged towards the body of the militant who had shot at them, pointing his rifle forward at a high-ready while he walked. Everyone else, who had now found cover, were watching. Yaglian had to remind them harshly to keep covering houses and some of the mountain ridges around the town. His Platoon Sergeant assessed the man on the ground and determined that he was still alive. Wounded, barely breathing, and clutching a silver revolver, the assailant was an older man with dark hair and a wild beard. Ozanian looked around, raised his carbine, and unceremoniously shot him straight through the forehead.

“Don’t fuck with me,” he said just loudly enough that Yaglian could hear. It appeared he was mostly talking to the body. The Platoon Sergeant turned around and ordered: “We’re going to show them what happens. Either they follow the new rules, or we burn their goddamn house down. I need a lighter.”

A soldier next to him reluctantly reached into his pocket and tossed over a steel-plated flip lighter to Ozanian. Yaglian pushed his cap up from his forehead and watched, ambivalently, as his platoon sergeant gathered up the dry grasses and tinder in the Georgian man’s neglected garden, carefully arranging them in a pile on the wooden windowsill. He flicked it, opening the flame with a subtle whooshing noise, and set the pile alight. The fire started burning, slowly at first, then caught onto a support beam on the wooden house. The smell of burning wood filled Yaglian’s nostrils, as the whole platoon watched the flame creep across the faded green paint of the wooden walls. A few minutes of burning had rendered a corner of the home on fire, as Platoon Sergeant Ozanian asked for a placard and something to write with. Yaglian directed a soldier to the jeep, which had materials inside for marking warnings for minefields or other such hazards. Now, he was instructed to write in Georgian: “Do not attempt any attacks! This is your fate!”

The wounded man was dragged away to the jeep, stuffed in the side seat with a bandage pressed to his leg. The crew rushed him back down the hill towards the patrol base: the injury didn’t look too serious, but he needed to be sent to a hospital across the border for at least a few days to recover. Yaglian’s men kept staring at the fire curiously until he told them to stop and pick up their kit. Platoon Sergeant Ozanian had ordered them out on patrol again, through the winding mountain trails. If this assailant had any compatriots, they would be finding them. Silently, with only the rustling and clinking of gear, Yaglian’s section stood up from their positions and headed out. Another day of walking in the hot sun, amongst the green hills of Georgia. The smell of smoke permeated through the crisp mountain air even some distance from the village. From the ridges and hills around Patara Darbazi, they could see the civilians come out again. They gathered around the body and the smoldering house. Yaglian paid them no mind.

Sochi, Kuban Unorganized Territories

Natasha scribbled out details of a clearing in the woods on her map and notepad. She carefully noted the dimensions of the roughly-rectangular piece of land and followed her instructions. No large obstacles that couldn’t be removed or reduced like big rocks or tree stumps. As little uneven ground as possible. Not too marshy or wet. It had to be close to the city limits, but not too close. Her commanders had given her a general area of where to search along with potential points of interest: two of them proved to be too rocky for the specifications, but this one seemed just right. Anton crouched beside her, leaning forward while using the stock of his rifle to support him. “What do they need these clearings for, anyway?” he asked. “These are way too specific for paratrooper drop zones.”

Natasha shrugged. “Seems like they might be dropping commandos, if I had to guess. Smaller units, maybe. Specialized equipment that can’t get broken on the way down? We’re a long way from home, they might just be trying to make things extra safe so no accidents happen on the insertion.”

Her partner leaned back onto his heels and stood up as she finished writing the last notes in the margins of her book. She slipped it into a cargo pocket on her smock and shouldered her rucksack. The scouts trudged away from their objective, cloverleafing around to the other side to avoid walking through. They kept their movements slow and deliberate, avoiding sticks or crunchy leaves or anything else that could make the obvious sounds of people moving. Their next objective was a hill by the sea, where they were to post up and wait for the next phase of their mission. In Anton’s rucksack was a small mirror signaling device. An Armenian rescue team consisting of a cruiser and a seaplane tender were on the way from their naval base in Poti. Naval infantrymen were to storm predetermined locations on the beach near where the pirates were located and destroy the bandit outpost there. Natasha and Anton were to signal their information to the crew of the warship to let them know how and where to get the sailors back.

The pair had reached the hill by nightfall, using the cover of darkness to mitigate the risk of speeding up their movements. They had traveled many kilometers over hilly and rough terrain and were eager for a rest. They encamped on the hill, which lay just a few hundred meters from the town at the northwest tip of Sochi’s area. There would be no campfires or much noise that night. Natasha dropped her rucksack off at the base of a tree on the north side of the hill, so that the crest of it obscured their movements from the town. She unslung her rifle and leaned it against her kit, using this opportunity to stretch out her sore and aching back. Quietly, she sat down and took off her boots: she recoiled at the smell when she stripped away her socks. “Jesus,” she muttered, unbuttoning a pouch on her ruck to take foot powder to her sweaty feet. A blister was starting to form on her heel: she cleaned and dried it to bandage it as best she could. Her feet throbbed with pain, but that was to be expected. All she could think about was how at least the boots were better than walking the streets in heels.

Before she knew it, she was asleep without even setting up her tent shelter. It didn’t look like it was going to rain, so she skipped that procedure and curled up next to her bag underneath her field blanket. Anton took the first guard shift, sitting and sipping his ration coffee out of a metal cup until three in the morning. He woke up Natasha, let her know that the most he had seen was a squirrel rummaging around a nearby berry bush, and gave her the watch. He fell asleep as soon as he hit his gear. Natasha stared out into the darkness for the next few hours, watching the moon move across the sky and the pink rays of dawn peek out from behind the mountains. The lights in Sochi turned on, one by one, as the stars faded away. She looked out into the sea, along the compass azimuth she had been told that the cruiser was coming along. They would reach by the daylight to allow Anton’s signaling device to reflect sunlight. In a few hours, she noticed the dark outline of a ship appear over the horizon. “Anton!” she whispered. “Set up your light.”

He took the little mirror from his rucksack and quickly set its tripod up between some rocks, positioning it and steadying it in the ground. Natasha dropped her book next to him with the information already bulletized and formed into easy phrases that were pre-made to send via Morse code. The first one was a simple greeting: he repeated the letters “NSS” into the device while Natasha watched the ship with binoculars. They were scanning the coastline looking for their position but finally locked onto Anton’s signal, and replied with a series of flashes of their own: “NAVY.”

Natasha smiled as she translated it back towards Anton. He flashed his own message at them: “INFO FOLLOWS.”

He looked over to the listed data points and flashed the letters and numbers slowly, consciously on the reflective light. All locations were marked in UTM coordinates. “PRISON: 37N-559197-4828043.”

He waited for the ship to flash back the coordinates to confirm. Natasha read them out one by one. Anton flashed back: “YES.”

The scouts began transmitting their long list of information and waiting for the responses. The ships drew in closer, preparing for their fight: the Russian pirates were no doubt scrambling for their skiffs and boats. It took several minutes of flashing back and forth to coordinate the location of the beach landing zones, landing areas, and relevant information. But the plan went off without a hitch, as Natasha saw the cruiser flash back a final signal: “INFO RECEIVED. THANK YOU NSS. BEGIN ACTION.”

On the sea, the seaplane tender that had been following behind the cruiser had peeled off to a safe distance away and began hoisting its attack planes into the water with a large crane on the stern. These smaller types carried two planes nose-to-tail on the stern behind a hangar for maintenance and refit. Each seaplane carried several bombs and a series of guns for ground strafing. It dropped the aircraft into the water, and they immediately began motoring out to their launch straightaways. Engines roaring and water splashing across their boat-like hulls, the seaplanes took off from the water and angled themselves straight to the town of Sochi. One took to flying up high, almost reaching the clouds, while the other prowled the waters. They weren’t aerodynamic enough to dogfight other planes, but they were perfect for sighting in on the pirate skiffs that now started swarming out of the harbor. A salvo of gunfire erupted from the Armenian seaplane that went straight across the deck of a skiff, starting a small fire aboard. Small arms reports sounded from the way as the pirates shot back.

The cruiser had angled its deck guns towards the developing situation and began to fire off rounds at the pirates as they slowly motored out of port. These slow targets were easy pickings for the gun crews, who exploded the small craft in brilliant showers of smoke and flame. The second seaplane had overflown its objective and circled back around to begin bombing boats still in port. These bombs penetrated straight through the wooden docks and exploded, rocking the moored craft and crashing them into each other. Hydrostatic shock ruined their keels and hulls, sinking many of them before their crews even got to them. In port, the Breadwinner laid unshaken by the outbreak of fighting. Workers scurried around on the shore for cover as a pair of old Russian trucks careened through the gate. Naval gunfire was quickly beginning to pound positions were the pirates were shooting from buildings and prepared defensive positions. A select few artillery guns from the Great War were now used as direct-fire weapons, taking shots at the cruiser as it steamed closer and closer.

The seaplanes circled back around to strafe anyone in the streets near the prison. It was unclear who was civilian or bandit, but with the volume of small arms fire coming for the planes it was assumed to be a free fire zone. The two planes danced around each other in unpredictable, zig-zag patterns. They retreated back up to altitude where they could come back in for their targets without being harassed by the rifle fire below. Small fires had broken out in several of the shelled positions, pouring out smoke that made it harder to discern what was going on in the town. The cruiser mercilessly shot at whatever tried to shoot at them, their small guns still pounding and concussing the NSS scouts far away. Behind the smoke from the cruiser’s armament, Natasha saw a key element of the plan beginning to form: landing craft were being hoisted over the side of the ship with its crane, filled with a platoon of naval infantrymen each. There were four of them: an entire company of troops was heading towards the shore of Sochi.

Natasha watched the landing craft form up and begin their sail to the shore. They swerved between gunfire and the smoking wrecks of Russian boats, a wide wedge cutting their way through the breaking waves. Through her binoculars, she could see gunners on the decks of each boat begin to lay down fire. The reports of the automatic small arms echoed across the coast shortly thereafter. Mortars, angled shallowly on the craft, launched out smoke grenades to the beach that hit and burst open to obscure their landings. The naval infantry had attempted to form a line and hit the beach at the same time, but one of the crafts was still being maneuvered into position and was trapped behind a Russian boat. The first three rushed ashore and dropped their ramps: soldiers charged out of the berths with rifles in hand, desperately making a run for cover as the pirates and bandits now began to take potshots at them. The fourth landing craft had to drop its ramp in the water, as its position was too clogged with debris, and make its naval infantrymen wade ashore.

Anton nudged his partner and slung his bag over his shoulders. “Let’s go,” he said, motioning towards the battlefield below. One of the seaplanes flew by, its engines cutting through the air, then dropped a bomb onto a street below. It exploded, shattering glass on the buildings just below the hill from them and forcing a concussive wave up onto them. Natasha plugged her ears with her fingers. Her ears rang and her vision was a little blurry, but she felt alright. She waited a moment to formulate her thoughts again: she felt like they had been scrambled like an egg for a second.

“Alright,” she answered. Bending over to pick up her own rifle and kit, she quickly donned her load-bearing vest and smock. Without a word, they left the hilltop to head down to the sounds of battle below.

Nakhichevan, Armenia

A pair of black cars, little Armenian flags fluttering from the front of the hood, stopped on a dirt road next to a rustic-looking building. The lowlands of Nakhichevan had a vibrant green tone to them. The farms around the outskirts of the city stretched for kilometers, growing wheat, barley, grapes, or orchard fruits. In the mountains beyond them, intricate and well-worn mine tunnels led to deposits of salt, molybdenum, and lead. Life here was peaceful and simple: the divisions that seemed to terrorize urban Armenians in the center were nonexistent. Despite the fighting that occurred in the Artsakh, the Armenians, Azeris, and Iranians of Nakhichevan never had any reason to dislike each other. Whatever Russian migrants came to the towns below the mountains were welcomed with Persian politeness: many were laborers working the fields. While different groups were fairly self-segregated into their towns and regions, everyone was fairly free to do what they pleased. The province was much too blue-collar to concern itself with the political problems of the day.

Hovik Idratian stretched his legs in the back of the car, tucking the fabric of his shirt into his trousers. A wave of slight embarrassment washed over him when he felt the soft rolls of fat across his stomach: his wife had been scolding him to start running more and lose some of the beer belly, but long hours at the office had replaced whatever free time he had for exercise. Luckily, however, his suit was tailored in a way that was about as flattering as it could get. Despite this, he wasn’t allowed to button it: his publicist had recommended he wear a simple brown coat and pants with no tie, something to ground him more with the locals in this farm town. A photographer sat next time him, fiddling with her camera flash and talking nonstop about what kinds of angles and types of lenses she needed to get the best shots of him. Both Idratian and the bodyguard in the front seat paid no attention. She was probably just nervous, after all: it was her first time following someone as high up as the Vice President. The state-run Armenian News Service routinely furnished journalists and reporters to cover what the government was doing but they often had experienced veterans behind the camera.

A crowd had gathered in front of the wood-paneled town meetinghouse, with the village’s officials arriving outside. An older man in a boxy, well-worn dark grey suit sported a purple tie just like the President’s along with male-pattern baldness and a smile showing crooked teeth. Beside him was his town police constable: another older man, slightly darker in complexion with close-cropped brown hair and an elaborately thick mustache, who wore high riding boots and a low-slung revolver belt atop the classic blue police uniform. Everything was shined and polished, or as much as it could be. The townspeople were the definition of rough and tumble, almost picturesque rural farmers with stoic, weathered faces. Their sleeves on their flannels and shirts were rolled to their elbows, and even the women in their threadbare dresses looked like they could easily beat Idratian in a weightlifting competition. The officials shook hands with the Vice President and his entourage, before the man in the grey suit identified himself in a cheery voice: “My name is Vasif Shahbuzi! Welcome to my village, it is very exciting to have a visit from Yerevan.”

Idratian smiled: the mayor went along, almost skipping down the dirt road as he followed. The photographer behind them rushed into position, bent over and peering down the sight of her camera as she rushed from angle to angle like someone was shooting at her. The mayor explained what the name of the road was, where people lived, and how they lived. A stray goat crossed the road being chased by a girl in a green dress. The mayor chuckled at her, and so did Idratian. A mother came walking up from behind, hollering at her daughter to grab the goat’s collar and get it back to the pen. It felt scripted, like a scene from a movie, but the rural Nakhichevanis had a penchant for the dramatic. Eventually, the daughter threw herself towards the frightened goat and grabbed ahold of its collar before triumphantly returning to the road. She noticed the mayor out of the corner of her eye and turned to him: “Mr. Shahbuzi! The goat jumped the fence again!” she pouted. The photographer, sensing her opportunity, started snapping pictures. The click of the camera was rapid-fire. The mayor knelt next to her and the goat as the mother came up to thank him.

“See, if you really want to keep him under control,” the mayor said helpfully as he moved his grip to yoke up on the collar and to the back, “you have to hold him like this. Otherwise he slips out and runs away, and he doesn’t have any collar.”

The little girl nodded, her wide brown eyes following the mayor’s instructions. She tried it herself, smiling as the goat bleated. “Thank you!” she said, before turning her attention Idratian. “Who are you, mister?”

The Vice President looked down at the mayor, who answered: “Well, he helps the President run the country. He’s the Vice President, actually. The second-biggest man in the country.”

The little girl nodded, even if it was clear it wasn’t entirely sure that she knew what the position meant. Idratian at least thought it was a cute exchange, and asked her name. “Ivanka!” she replied, cheerily. “And this is my mother.”

The mother, by contrast, appeared quite nervous. She introduced herself by her family name as Mrs. Ali and politely excused herself. She took Ivanka and thanked the mayor for his time before bringing the still-stubborn goat across to their house, taking it behind and through a waist-high chainlink fence. The mayor and the Vice President continued their stroll down the packed dirt road. It sloped slightly downhill, the houses thinning out before plots of orchards took up more and more space. Ripening fruits of the late summer hung temptingly from the trees, as a few villagers picked them off the branches to assess their coloring. In one orchard, the father of a family was apparently satisfied enough with his apple that he bit into it and directed his teenaged son to gather a bucket to start plucking the fruit from that particular row of trees. The mayor explained the type of apples there and that this was their specific month for harvesting. It would be the last first run of the year, with more and more of them becoming ready in the autumn before the winter months.

Idratian nodded along, smiling and offering his own inputs on the kinds of agriculture that his family had fostered in the west. The Idratian family, long members of the poorer class of their village, found their luck in the late 19th century when an uncle passed away and left a large herd of cattle to them in his will. The family’s wealth increased significantly as they could sell more animal products at the bustling market. Their political life started modestly, as respected members of their bucak township at the time. Eventually, after service in the Fedayi during the Revolution, the Idratians soon found themselves as mayors of their hamaynkner town political division. Their popularity only grew from there, becoming a political dynasty of down-to-earth, common workers. His father made the rounds in the new Van marz, eventually elected governor in the 1930s. It was only natural that his son Hovik picked up the mantle: but only after finishing courses at the Agricultural University of Van and working the fields just as his father and grandfather did.

The soft, wet earth of the irrigated fields felt familiar to him, as he had walked across hundreds of similar ones during his campaigns. Although a long way from the pastures of his hometown, the rustic sights and smells of this village brought him back to Van. By his feet as the pair walked, water trickled through a beaten aluminum pipe and occasionally sprayed into rows of yellow-white wheat. Another villager, ever watchful, picked apart the grass and inspected the bushes’ readiness individually. Mayor Shahbuzi reminded Idratian that there were still a few weeks or so before the grain harvest. Idratian picked a kernel off one of the stalks of grass and bit gingerly into it, concurring. “Although it’s a shame you didn’t take me through the barley fields,” he remarked jokingly. “I keep Nakhichevani beer in the fridge at the Presidential Palace.”

Their tour finished back at the meetinghouse where it began, with the mayor and the constable both conversing with Idratian on the steps of the porch. With his hands in his pocket, Idratian surveyed the village again. They had been there for an hour or so, the sun was starting to reach its noon peak. They were due for a lunch before he ran off to more meetings with administrators in the Nakhichevan urban center, but the Vice President had pulled Mayor Shahbuzi and his constable to the side away from both of their entourages. “Mayor,” Idratian began, looking around. “I know things here aren’t as… visible to the Yerevan government as they should be. If you have any suggestions, let me know and I can try to make things happen. Totally candidly, of course… you and I both know what it’s like, the National Assembly gets too tied up in its own big-picture issues.”

Mayor Shahbuzi nodded along, stroking his chin pensively. “Small problems from the small people,” he mused poetically. “So far, we’ve been seeing a stagnant increase in wages. People just don’t make the same amount of money as they used to at the market and we’re starting to struggle.”

The Vice President reached towards the small notebook he kept in his pant pocket, flipping open the well-worn cover to scribble in some notes as the mayor talked. “I think it’s the industry,” Mayor Shahbuzi continued, becoming gravely serious. “Those subsidies are starting to push out the village folk. I don’t know what it’s like in the west or in the Artsakh, but we’re feeling the pinch here because we’re not heavy industry.”

Idratian continued to scribble. In the margins of his notebook, he wrote down something about subsidies and money flow to the Nakhichevan marz. “Makes sense,” he said. “We haven’t had anyone bring it up before… usually the main concern is obviously the Turks. Tanks, tanks, tanks. Guns, guns, guns. Railroads, cement factories.”

“Going to Georgia didn’t help either,” he added quietly before flipping the notebook shut. The mayor nodded and shrugged.

“That would go a long way to the problems we have. Leaky irrigation, old tractors, everything else. Bring more money to the people and we can fix it better. Or at least we could buy more duct tape and spare parts.”

“Alright,” agreed the Vice President before quickly moving to shake the man’s hand. “I’ll bring this to President Assanian.”

With gracious words of thanks, Mayor Shahbuzi waved the photographer over. Coming out of her place like a stalking animal, she moved to take a picture of the smiling handshake. He announced that they were ready for lunch, adding in that the Vice President’s favorite Nakhichevani beer would be served at the table since the brewery was so close by. The doors of the meetinghouse swung open, two aides flanking the wooden steps, and the politicians entered into the plain one-room structure. Atop a wooden table lined with rows of hand-carved chairs was a feast of local meat and grains. The chefs who prepared it stood proudly at the end by an Armenian flag hanging over the fireplace. They waved the Vice President in and sat him at the end of the table where Mayor Shahbuzi took the head. When all of them were seated, a toast was called for. Everyone in unison lifted their glasses of wine or beer as Mayor Shahbuzi and Vice President Idratian stood over them. One after the other, they toasted for Armenia.

“For the fertile valleys of Nakhichevan!” announced Mayor Shahbuzi.

Idratian finished the rest: “And for our mountain Fatherland: Armenia!”

Nation Name: Royal State of Unified Saraya

Type of Government: Constitutional Monarchy

Head of Government: High King Angara Kassaji I

Economy: Economic developments are regionally aligned. Mining and heavy industrial outputs are concentrated around the western border and the mineral-rich mountains and hills. The southern coast is referred to as the industrial heartland, with shipbuilding and heavy industrial factories prevalent there. Service-based, modern economic functions like banking and finance exist in the central coast near the capital and other affluent cities. Education and other service sectors are most prevalent in the central and northern cities, which form an urban corridor along the coast. Farming and agricultural production is centered along the river valleys and in the central grasslands of the country, while lumber and forestry is focused on the jungles to the northeast.

Unique Technologies: I guess I’ll figure this out.

Primary Species: Human

Population: 27.7 million

Culture: Sarayan culture is generally described as mellow. Laid back and relaxed, it is usual to find coffee and conversation in cafes and households across the country. There is an intricate respect-based system of nicety and politeness, derived from beliefs of equality and humility and supported by the religious pantheon. There is little racial or gender-based difference in society, as the country was formed from a quorum of tribal entities that brought diverse viewpoints and experiences into a melting pot. Gender roles do exist in the world but are typically flexible and it is not unusual to see working women or stay-at-home men. Most outright discrimination occurs with non-human outsiders, but centuries of dealing with the Verdasou have nullified problems with “humanoid” races such as the mer-creatures. The official language is Sarayan, also known by its dialectical name of Jazadi (after the capital city of Jazad.)

Religion and Beliefs: The official Sarayan religion is referred to as the Navari Pantheon. The Pantheon consists of the worship and written lore of a dozen deities and their stories. The Pantheon is heavily-based on the ancient writings of the Old Sarayan tribes, who focused their worship towards fire. As a result, most temples are fire temples and many of the gods have a direct connection with fire despite representing facets of the world. Magic use is directly related to the Navari Pantheon, as it is related to the ceremonies and miracles of the gods. Clergy often occupy important roles in the tribal and rural areas of the country, and function as local mages and miracle-workers for villages and towns.

Location and Territories: Southwest Pandyssia, south-southwest of Verdasou and directly east of Anglonia-Eirein. Stretches inland for about a sixth of the continent. (Plot #9.)

Climate: Coastal temperate leading inland, with lush river valleys along the two main river inlets leading towards dry, semi-arid grasslands on and beside the mountains in the south and western edges of the country with the border to Anglonia. While not type-classified as mountains, sizeable hills break up the topography before jungle begins at the western border. To the north, forests turn to tropical jungle environments along the Verdasou border. The interior is mostly calm and temperate with lush forests and wider grasslands. Many of the tropical storms arriving in Verdasou make their way towards the northern regions of Saraya but are usually weaker after spending some time over land.

Military: The Royal Sarayan military is based around modern principles focusing on the Land Forces, Sea Forces, Air Forces, and National Gendarmerie. The Land Forces maintain their area of responsibility for defense of the national borders and land-based foreign expeditions. The Sea Forces patrol the coastline and international waters, while the Air Forces provide air-based support to all of these services. The National Gendarmerie focuses on internal law enforcement and domestic security at the national level. Specialized units like the Border Corps, Amphibious Corps, or Royal Guard Corps are typically sub-unified branches roughly attached to parent services yet with their own independent structures.

The regular military is commanded by a quorum of Joint Service Chiefs with a head picked by the government while royal units (particularly the Royal Guard Corps, as authorized by the Constitution) are commanded by the High King. Various lower-level structures exist, including a national conscription reserve and militia element used to raise tribal levies on demand for conflict. These function as inactive parts of the regular military. Imperial tradition has resulted in the presence of several “elite” units generally independent of central authority, despite constitutional attempts to nullify the High King’s power over them. They have been mostly merged into the Royal Guard Corps, but subdivisions remain as independent regiment-sized elements across the country.

Magic Prevalence and Usage: Magic is heavily present in religious ceremony and cultural events. Many of the Navari clergy are adequate magical users, using them from summoning spirits at sermons to healing and providing alms. Gods of the Pantheon have imbued or dispersed magical powers, blessings, and abilities, albeit somewhat mysteriously. Average people are exposed to magic in their daily life as professionals such as doctors use it alongside traditional forms of medicine. It is taught in universities or special mage collages. The military has an organized training program for battlemages in combat and support roles. Usually most effective in the hands of the appropriately studied and skilled, magical power and imbuement finds a way into every facet of society from construction to entertainment.

History and Background: Saraya has a long and complicated internal history. Shielded by jungles to the west and mountains to the south, tribal culture and governments have existed since antiquity. In the early years of the 1st millennium, however, High King Yahani the Unifier established an alliance of tribes under the banner of his council. This alliance established a kingdom, dubbed Saraya after visions of the deity fire queen of Sara (referring to the head) encouraged acceptance and unification. The kingdom thrived on the southern coast of the Pandyssian continent for hundreds of years, establishing a national identity and embarking on campaigns to penetrate deeper into the heart of the continent in search of territory and imperial glory. Dynasties thrived, rose, and fell as the ages passed.

Ancient Saraya most famously clashed with the jungle-people in the center of the continent in a massive war. After decades of war, their victory was decisively won when an ancient Sarayi army descended upon their capital and razed it to the ground, going so far as to carry the very bricks of their buildings back to Jazad to form a new wing of the High King’s palace. The jungle eventually reclaimed whatever was left of their civilization, and the rest of their identity was lost to history. The only records that remain name them as the Rustosi, but much of their way of living is now so obscure and shrouded in lore and mystery that scientific and archeological evidence is difficult to prove.

Eventually, a national Sarayan identity was formed and used to rally nation-state ideals around. Tribal powers were quickly subsumed into an ever-more powerful High King, who ruled as an absolute autocrat for hundreds of years. Through good and bad, development of the country stalled and stuttered or progressed with the influx of new technology and ideas. Yet in the mid-1500s, the first of the Sarayan Revolutions was ignited by a belief that the monarch had consolidated too much power and the rest of the country was corrupt and undeveloped. Tribal forces rose against the High King and deposed him by 1564 after a decade of brutal fighting. Left scarred and ruined, the Sarayan people began the road to recovery with a new dynasty of tribesmen promising to pick up where the former king had ignored them.

A distrust of foreign power had developed as foreign influence crept into the country. These tensions simmered for centuries, sometimes breaking out into small conflicts that left Saraya utterly humiliated yet never totally conquered. These decimated the military and prestige of the new dynasty, forcing the country into its century of shame. Trade and openness eventually petered out, before the country closed itself off for the first fifty years of the 18th century. Eventually, internal strife forced the monarch to reopen the country in order to secure food and resources for a growing population, but a strong distrust of foreign powers remains to this day.

This dynasty survived for another two hundred years, before falling into the same traps as before. Just as the previous cycle fell, the second Sarayan Revolution established the Constitution of 1800 and installed the Padvian dynasty as rulers bound by oath to a new government. This was seen as a highly progressive move at the time, generated as new ideas surrounding democracy and government power were increasingly in vogue. These Padvians would rule an increasingly modernized empire as technology and money flowed from newly-opened trade between Anglonia and Verdasou. Jazad became a modern capital and the north coast of Saraya turned into an urban corridor. Industrialization took hold as the Padvians declared a strong military and industrial base the future security of their regime against foreign power, departing from tribal relations and magical-based might.

1927 marked a change in world power as the volcano explosion utterly decimated the northern hemisphere. In the south, the damage was not as severe, but climate change and a collapse of the international system led to hunger and internal unrest. The Padvian dynasty abdicated in early 1929 after two years of famine and rioting led to an attempt on life of the king that left him scarred and deformed. Almost a year of struggle led to the installment of High King Angara Kassaji. Kassaji, formerly a general officer in the Padvian military forces, utilized his connections to regiment and distribute food and resources to the people in the rural areas before marching on Jazad with an army of defectors and peasants. Kassaji declared the empire “Unified” again in December of 1929.

The climate began to normalize and the situation improve, while Kassaji managed a reconstruction effort. Bound by the Constitution, revived in 1930 after falling by the wayside with Padvian corruption, Saraya is poised to compete with the Pandyssians as the north proves prime territory for foreign intervention. Relegated to a second or third-rate status for most of their history, High King Kassiji and the Sarayan people welcome the destruction of the north as an open door for their country. Millenia of lore and identity have coalesced into a resurgent state, their people hoping and trying for greatness in a new era.

National Relations: Saraya retains diplomatic relations with several countries.

Southern Verdasou: Southern Verdasou is an important trade partner to the north, providing significant loans and economic support to the Sarayan industry. However, diplomatic disputes around the presence of the former High King Padvia IV in the Coral City have been a friction point in the relationship. While technically not seen as a threat or issue by the Kassiji throne, Padvia maintains a residence there that is often the subject of protests and disruption. The new Kassiji dynasty is also met with some skepticism by Verdasou's government, who are still assessing the new regime. However, positive progression in recent years with racial acceptance have smoothed previous issues regarding immigration and discrimination that was marred by allegations of human favoritism.

Anglonia-Eirein: Sarayan and Anglonian relations have typically been distant, yet amicable. While there is significant overlap in ethnic population, especially near the border, internal disputes in both countries have resulted in more of an internal focus. Despite this, they maintain a mutual understanding as they both have undergone significant modernization in order to reduce their vulnerability to outside partners. They have participated in trade, technology, and doctrine exchange to further "northernize" their economies and strengthen the political power of their nation-states.

The Flotilla: The Flotilla maintains a docking and trading agreement with the Sarayan government in the southern city of Kuzom, which has constructed docking infrastructure and logistical support networks significant enough to take on the massive fleet of airships. Flotilla citizens are allowed in this exclusive economic zone but are typically met with hurdles if they try to travel throughout the rest of the country.

Peep it and lemme know problems.

@SkepicI was looking up at spot 20 but I do have ideas for it. Not sure if that’s locked in on who/what lives there or what the backstory is besides it’s a plot of land.
So are all them little grey boxes free to get all up into

Wow my Dave Chapelle gifs aren’t working.
Baku, Persian Azerbaijan

It was incredible what only a few years of peace and progress could do. Since the Artsakh War and the Persian occupation of Azerbaijan, the turbulent border between Armenia and its Muslim neighbor had calmed. Fortifications were dismantled, troops were demobilized, and the ground had been broken on an oil and gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Armenia. The real key to economic progress, however, was the completion of the Stepanakert-Baku railway in the late 1950s. Passenger and cargo rail between Persian Azerbaijan and Stepanakert allowed for a massive boom in the Artsakh’s export economy. Stepanakert went from a modest provincial capital to a trade hub, its spokes stretching from Baku to the east and Ardabil in the south all the way through Lachin towards Armenia proper and, by extension, Yerevan. Lumber from the black forests was used to build new developments in Azeri towns, while Persian coal and gas fueled electrical plants in the mountains of Armenia. The benefits to jobs and the economy could not be understated, even if the developments were sure to have the members of Armenia’s hardline ethnic old guard rolling in their graves.

Mikael and Hagop were purchasing a different kind of cargo to take back with them to their country. Every half a year or so, they were the official envoys of the Mafiya to the burgeoning Baku crime syndicates. The dockside shanties and slum neighborhoods of the capital were rife with smugglers and illicit manufacturing. In particular, the Mafiya had begun a newfound relationship with the Afghan diaspora. Old gunsmiths, famously improvisational and resourceful, moved from the Khyber Pass through Central Asia as the Persian Shah slowly opened the country of Afghanistan to foreign investment and travel. People went where the money was and, in the strange absence of war in Afghanistan, the money was in crime. Afghan gunsmiths quickly made a name for themselves manufacturing increasingly quality illicit firearms from Kabul to Tehran to Baku. Police were finding these weapons as far away as Cairo and Athens, sometimes even China. Chances are, if the weapon wasn’t Tsarist or sold off by a conscript, it was an Afghan-made version of a European firearm.

Their train had rattled its way through the countryside, belching black smoke from its coal engine, past the dirt roads and farmers working the fields. Mules carried bales of hay and crops, fresh from the summer harvests, to small town markets just as they always had. It was a curious sight, even for someone who had been there many times before. Hagop had been raised with public schools teaching about the war in the Artsakh, and general opinion at the time was that the Azeris were no more than Turkish lackeys at best. Oftentimes, they were just the “Turks of the East” to people, especially older ones like his parents. Many of them still scoffed at the notion of going to Baku for business or, worse, a holiday, despite the fact that it was run by the Shah of Iran now. The holiday season, however, was over, and the regular workers were coming back from their vacation destinations. Ironically, this provided enough cover for Hagop and Mikael as they rode the train with a crowd of returning Azeris and their families.

The locomotive, one of the many Spanish-designed machines traveling the rails and roads in the Persian kingdom, screeched to a halt as it approached the station. A long blast of its whistle shrilly alerted the passengers to its arrival, waking some from their naps and frightening crying babies. The trip was three hours in total duration, counting the distance of over two-hundred and fifty kilometers and various stops in some of the smaller towns along the track. In Baku, a thick fog had descended upon the coastal city, obscuring most of the buildings that were slowly being rebuilt after the Persians’ four-month siege of the city. Their conquest was swift and met little resistance, but despite the intentions of minimizing collateral damage the Shah’s army still shelled Baku until the last holdouts of the government’s elite units surrendered. The Shah had wanted to unify Azerbaijan’s territory with Iran’s Azeri provinces in the north of the country: for decades, both countries squabbled over claims and nomenclature. Now, officially, the Persian-annexed Azerbaijan region was simply known as “North Azerbaijan.”

With a rumbling of metal, the doors opened and the train attendants called out through each of the cars that they had reached Baku. Hagop nudged Mikael awake and, groggily, both collected their things. They both wore simple clothes, tan and brown pants with dull cotton shirts tucked in and the sleeves down to cover up their tattoos, each carrying only a small briefcase. They wouldn’t be there for very long. The pair exited off onto the platform and melded in with the crowd, walking quickly to the edge of the station. Baku’s old city train station was remarkably Persian in design, a tan stone building with oriental carvings and tall, arced windows. Atop the castle-like building were four minaret-like towers around the edges, and a large dome in the middle. As they moved quickly off the platform, Hagop felt a tap on his shoulder: he turned around to see Mikael hurriedly lighting up a cigarette with a match. “Shit,” he grumbled. “I tried to smoke on the train but one of those mothers with the screaming kids kept giving me dirty looks.”

Hagop chuckled and replied: “You know, I think people are starting to say that smoking around babies is a bad thing. It’s bad for them or something… I don’t see it. My parents smoked all the time in the house.”

“This whole country is just shitty for this sort of stuff,” Mikael observed, looking over his shoulder. Smoking in public places was technically outlawed by the Shah to appease the Islamic clergy that still maintained strong influence in the country. In the outer edges of its territory, this rule was hardly ever enforced, but Mikael had paid fines for it before. “That’s why all the Persians go to Sevan to spend their money. There’s no gambling, no strippers, and no hookers here. I even heard the bars close at midnight. Midnight!”

Hagop just shrugged and nodded towards the entryway of the train station’s grand, carved arch. “I suppose they’re just better Muslims than we are Christians.”

Baku’s cobblestone streets bustled with activity. Merchants hawked their products on the street, demanding Hagop and Mikael’s attention. One particular one was selling traditional Azeri musical records, sending a child no older than twelve to ambush the pair while holding a disk up in his hands. “Mister! Mister!” he called out, pointing to the record. “I have music! Meykhana.”

Meykhana, being a traditional Azerbaijani spoken word to a beat, was popular with the urban youth in Stepanakert. They switched out the lyrics for Armenian stories and experimented by adding in instrumentals with the duduk, guitar, or other instruments. When the kids went to Yerevan to work or travel, they found other likeminded musicians in underground basement clubs. They happened to mingle with, of all people, Ethiopian expatriates who worked and lived in the surprisingly similar religious climate of Armenia. Afro beats and intonation quickly fused into the Armenian-Azeri music, the end result being almost indistinguishable from traditional song and quite unique. It took to the clubs of the casinos in Sevan rather quickly, the drug dens and opium trips warping the music to almost a spiritual level. Young people in their late teens and early twenties would go there to drink, do drugs, have casual sex, and listen to the blended multicultural beats called halum, or “melting.” Being offered a meykhana record on the street seemed old-school at this point for Hagop and Mikael, in the same way that listening to the scratchy recordings of folk music on the radio with their grandparents seemed boring and dull. Pitying the boy, Mikael squatted down: “How much?”

“Twelve manat!” the boy exclaimed, excited. He pointed to the record again. “It’s very good, it’s my brother’s. He recorded this whole thing.”

Mikael raised an eyebrow. The manat was still widely-used in Persian Azerbaijan despite the “official” currency being the Iranian toman. It ran about a roughly similar exchange rate to the Armenian dram, a little less valuable as of late. Even so, twelve manat was still too high a price for a simple record. Mikael tried to lower it. “I only have tomans, kid. I can give you six toman. It’s like…” he paused to think for a moment: “Maybe eight or nine manat.”

The child scoffed. Managing the two currencies at once clearly wasn’t ideal for him or the owner of the stall. But he was bargaining closer to a deal when most people paid him no mind. Mikael reminded him that he could just take his money elsewhere, before the kid shook his head. “Alright,” he agreed. He took a hand off the record and proudly thrust it out towards Mikael, eliciting a rare smile from the Russian criminal. He took it and shook it, then reached into his pocket. Hagop closed in towards his partner, eyes scanning the street to make sure it wasn’t a distraction to get them robbed: a classic trick in the market sections of Caucasian and Persian cities. Nobody came running out of the alleys to steal their wallets, and Hagop relaxed himself. His hand, which had been placed inconspicuously atop the handle of his concealed knife, moved back down to his side. With the record in his hand, Mikael waved the child off: he returned triumphantly to his market stall, money proudly in hand. They continued on their journey down the stone streets of the town.

Alongside the docks of Baku was a sprawl of corrugated metal warehouses built with a labyrinthian system of alleyways between them. Freight doors opened to dirt roads that led directly to the docks, where the longshoremen would hoist pallets of consumer goods usually across the sea to the Turkmen and Kazakh port cities. Armed guards, some policemen but many private mercenaries hired for anti-piracy functions, strolled along the docks beneath the huge cranes and hills of cargo. Hagop and Mikael descended into the warehouses, turning off a residential street just before a trash-ridden alley, where they reached a rusted iron gate. Hagop withdrew the keys from his pants pocket, jiggling the ring until he got the right one. A worn sign declaring that it was private property dangled limply by one bolt, the other one long since rusted off. He clicked through the lock, pushing the gate on its rusty hinges before locking it again when Mikael walked ahead of them. They navigated through the shadows of the alleyway, turning past clumps of workers on cigarette breaks or rolling dollies of boxes through doors.

Mikael counted the numbers on the buildings in his head until he found the right one: 1092. He delivered a swift three knocks to the wooden door, listening for the faint sounds of footsteps. A few moments later, the door handle turned and the entryway swung open to reveal an older man, dark-skinned with a hooked nose and grey flecks in his scraggly beard. A loose, tan linen garment flowed down his body: he was their Afghan gunsmith. The man immediately smiled to reveal a row of bright white teeth and extended his hand: “Ah, welcome back! I’ve been expecting you!” he exclaimed in his accented Persian.

“Thank you, Ashraf,” Mikael replied, shaking his hand. The gunsmith’s name was well known amongst the Sevan Mafiya communities: Ashraf Herati. He had supplied arms to groups fighting Shahist incursions into Afghanistan, other tribes, and even as far east as Indian criminals and dissidents. He had moved to Baku after Afghan police raided his village and found him: Ashraf had paid the judge at his trial to sentence exile instead of execution, so he packed his bags and made his way to newly-annexed Azerbaijan to try and find a way to exploit the lawlessness of the region. His employees got to his equipment before the police did or simply bought his tools out of evidence lockers, where they were driven through to Central Asia and put on boats to Baku. His operation downsized and still concerned with being caught again, Ashraf began a contract with the Mafiya to send weapons over the border to Armenia where the legal technicalities of arresting him became more complicated. Whatever his reasons, the Mafiya were glad to have a cheap source of weaponry and ammunition for their hitmen.

Bache!” shouted Ashraf into the office of the warehouse. A young man appeared almost instantly in a doorway, wearing a blue suit, jacket open, with no tie on his light grey dress shirt. This was his apprentice, Muhammad Zahir. His hands were black with grease, one of them wiping the other on a handkerchief. “Fetch the Armenians some tea,” he ordered.

Muhammad returned a few minutes later with a platter of teacups and a kettle. Wordlessly, he sat them down on the low table where the three sat on the carpet and returned to the workshop in the next room. For the next hour, they talked. Hagop and Mikael personally thought that this was a waste of their time, but they knew Ashraf and the other Afghans loved to talk about anything and everything. Most of it revolved around families, of which neither Mikael nor Hagop had: Mikael hadn’t heard from his in Russia since he went to jail and was subsequently released, and Hagop hadn’t talked to his parents ever since his sister died in her car accident years ago. Both of them had on-and-off girlfriends who knew little to nothing about what they really did, but nothing ever got serious for them. Yet Ashraf proudly made small talk about his two sons and two daughters, and what his six siblings were doing in Afghanistan or Persia. The topic went to the weather, then to the latest football scores, then to complaining about the city’s new dumpster ordinance. They finished their chai and sweets and headed into the workshop.

Ashraf’s workshop, hidden behind boxes of faux-commercial goods, consisted of as more machines than Hagop or Mikael knew about. From mills to presses, lathes to belt sanders, or welders to drills and hand tools. A few employees worked the Afghan’s stations, assembling components while Muhammad walked around to inspect them. Ashraf had made headway into professionalizing the often-accurate reputation of the Khyber Pass weapons’ poor quality: he had entire drawers full of stolen or bought blueprints, and even more shelves with original models of the firearms he derived from. While material quality often suffered compared to the real designs, these weapons and their ammunition sufficed for the Mafiya’s activity. Ashraf led them to a crate with weapons stacked neatly inside.

“Let’s see, my friends,” he said, reaching into a pocket to withdraw circular reading glasses that he sat low atop his nose. A manifest was included on top of the crate. “Twenty-five bolt-action rifles, British Lee-Enfield pattern,” he began, noting a classically reproduced weapon in Afghanistan. Mosins were easy enough to just find laying around, but the Afghan guerrillas had been using Lee-Enfields to great effect since the imperial Russians and British played their Great Game in the country. “Ten shotguns, Armenian police pattern; fifteen handguns, Russian Tokarev pattern; and finally five semi-automatics of the K4 type.”

He reached inside and pulled the wooden receiver of a K4-copy out. The Armenian semi-automatic service carbine had been difficult to reproduce, since the only base weapons were often stolen from armories and subsequently hunted down. Hagop had heard that a thief in Gyumri had been apprehended by the Armenian military police while trying to sell a supply truck’s worth of equipment to racial gangs in the city ghettos. This was the first sample of them that the gunsmith had produced: a trial run. His workshop generally only produced what was reliable and profitable, with little to no special requests. His workforce was just too small. Ashraf handed the weapon to Mikael, who squinted at it and pulled on the charging handle to observe the action. As he fidgeted with the controls, Hagop grabbed one of the black handguns to check the quality. The Afghan put the receipt back into the box and said: “Let me know if you have problems with it. People have been wanting these for a while. More firepower.”

The Afghan raised his hands to mime shooting a gun and pulled the trigger three times. He chuckled to himself, then asked: “So I’m guessing that briefcase has the money, yes?”

“It does,” Hagop answered. “The previously agreed-upon sum.”

Ashraf reached his hand out and Hagop handed over the cash. He popped open the lock to see stacks of tomans inside, to which he began counting. “No counterfeits, yes?” Ashraf asked nonchalantly as he tapped each of the stacks of bills. Mikael laughed at the suggestion.

“We would never do that to you,” he replied simply, now peering down the sights of the rifle at a nearby wall while he played with the sight adjustment screw. “We save those for our lesser business deals. We like you in Sevan.”

Tashakor!” beamed the old man, placing his hand over his heart. He closed up the top of the suitcase and placed it down by the side of the crate. “It seems everything is in order. We’ll handle delivery to the trucks, you don’t need to help. I have Muhammad for the heavy lifting. He’ll also accompany you to the border. Bache!

As Muhammad scurried towards the crate, Ashraf turned to walk the Armenians out the door. He informed them that the weapons would be loaded into a truck following in a convoy of coal-haulers that was making its way to the Artsakh, so that they could bury the crate inside of them to avoid the customs and Border Service personnel. Hagop and Mikael had their passports under false names and changes of clothes as employees of the trucking company brought from Armenia. The trucks would load next to the docks by the coal-yard in the evening time, most likely around six or seven. The Armenians thanked the Afghan for his work, before they left. It was still the mid-afternoon as they walked back to the main road and discussed the work ahead. The drive was easy enough, four or five hours to their pickup point in a small Artsakh village. They had done this job many times before: the Border Service in the Artsakh operated out of small outposts were often bored. There were no Ottomans to fight like in the west and no Georgian bandits to shoot at like the north. Their complacency routinely let Hagop and Mikael traffic whatever they wanted through the border.

In the meantime, Hagop turned to his partner and asked if he was hungry. Mikael shrugged. “Well, I still want to eat before we head out,” the Armenian said. “Let’s go get a to a cafe or something.”
Shahan IVa
Five years ago

The first one of the survivor caravan arrived at the checkpoint with his hands held high in the air, limping across the shattered and torn road while dozens of men, women, and children of all species and ages trailed behind him. His exposed skin, face and arms, were covered in dirty bandages. Beneath the wraps, his skin was burnt and charred, peeling off grotesquely. A soldier, from a mobile guardpost, had spotted them a few kilometers out with his scout drone, and had assembled a fireteam to block off the road. A gun platform mounted to a utility truck had been brought to the center of the road. They dressed like Vanaati, probably the ones unlucky enough to be stuck in mineshafts or bunkers when the nukes glassed the town and its rebel garrison there. The leader dropped to his knees in front of the fireteam and bowed his head down to the ground.

In the distance, thunderous explosions from nuclear warheads and laser bombardment sent ripples through the still air. It was noticeably hotter: thermal energy from the fires and explosions had raised the temperature by a few degrees, at least locally. The goal of the Kotayki battlegroup was not to glass the entire planet, since they still needed to space when the battle was over, but instead to completely wipe any sort of resistance pockets that Vanaat could still harbor. In the distance, over the horizon, the city of Vanaat burned and sent thick plumes of acrid smoke into the blue sky. Drones and craft soared across the grasslands, ferrying troops and supplies. On the ground, convoys of troops were poised to enter through the city to verify the damage done and move onto the next position. Sadaet's vehicle, towing a tactical satcom array to help establish local communications for the battle damage assessment, had parked a hundred meters behind the checkpoint while they waited for the security element to clear the road. He stood behind the armored door of his truck on the running board, hand on the hilt of his holstered revolver while the other one gripped a handrail on the roof of the truck. A cigarette dangled from his mouth, his helmet linked with a d-ring to a spare loop on his plate carrier's load bearing harness. He turned to his technical expert, a warrant officer almost twice his age with wild hair and a greying beard. "Who are these guys?" Sadaet asked.

"Vanaati," said the warrant officer simply. "Probably trying to get out of there. No idea how in the hell they managed to do that, we've been glassing the town for days now."

"They've got vehicles behind them," pointed out Sadaet. He gestured in the direction, many meters behind the herd of refugees on foot with their hands in the air as well. Ragged-looking vehicles with blasted-out windshields and scorched paint drove slowly with the writhing figures of the mortally wounded in their truck flatbeds or sprawled out on backseats. "And the wind is pushing the fallout to the east, right by Battle Position Rio."

Shouting from the refugees brought Sadaet and his warrant officer back to the scene. The lead man, speaking in thickly accented Vanaati, begged for help from the fireteam. "We're poisoned! Poisoned!" he screamed at them. His hands turned to fists, he shook at the troops from his knees. "Everyone is sick! We're all burned! How could you do this? Everyone!"

"Back off! Back up!" shouted one of the security troops. Beside him, another soldier held out detection gear in his hands, registering a potential radiological threat. While radiation poisoning wasn't contagious, the concern was fallout particles: little pieces of dirt or material sucked up by the fireball and deposited with radioactive nuclides that was dispersed over the blast area. While most of it decayed within two days, there was a significant contamination risk to men and materiel from some of the elements with longer half-lives. “I swear to god, if you don’t back the fuck up I will shoot you in the fucking face.”

Sadaet’s radio started to ping, but he turned down the volume knob. The scene in front of him unfolded about as dramatically as it could have: the refugee continued to shuffle towards the checkpoint, his followers alongside him showing their wounds and desperately requesting help. A single medic had been brought forward from the convoy to assess the situation. He could be seen shaking his head, massaging his forehead with his fingertips with a pained expression on his face. An officer beside him was pointing to the refugees and talking fast. The discussion between him and the convoy security leader turned into shouting, then shoving. A shout from the little circle drew two soldiers in as the officer body-checked the medic into a ditch beside the road: one soldier restrained him, now yelling and screaming at the medic and pointing wildly at the refugees, while another helped the other man out of the ditch. What insanity.

While this unfolded, a gunshot cut through the air. The fight on the side of the road stopped: the men looked, some in shock, some in total apathy, as the checkpoint fireteam leader fired off another shot into the ground beside the refugees. “The next one goes right into your fucking forehead!” he screamed, jerking his rifle towards the leader of the huddle. The man dropped to his knees again, hands still outstretched in the air.

Sadaet turned back to ask for another cigarette from his chief. He opened up the cardboard box, withdrawing one slowly while he flicked open his lighter in the other hand. He bent his head low to light it behind the cover of his truck’s door, away from the wind, and just managed to get a good light going before the rip of a machinegun burst tore across the road. He flinched down behind the armored vehicle skin as another cacophony of rifle rounds, some even on automatic mode, shook the convoy. The screams and shrieks of dozens, hundreds even, of people, silenced the gunfire. Refugees took off sprinting in whatever way they could, scattering like balls broken in a game of pool. Bodies lay in the street, torn to shreds and missing arms, legs, and faces. Red blood seeped out from underneath the pile of dead in the streets. A pink mist gently settled down from the scene, mixing in with the blood on the road before someone called for a ceasefire.

“Stop!” shouted the officer, who had broken out of an arm-lock from a convoy securityman. “Stop shooting! What the fuck!”

“They kept coming!” replied someone else. Sadaet didn’t know who. Beside him, his chief offered up a few choice swears before settling down into his seat and closing his door. “Get in, sir,” he said simply, bluntly. “Close the door. Start the engine. Our convoy is moving.”


“Alright convicts, go time.”

Sergeant Gunnarson leapt from the ramp of their dropship onto the wet, muddy ground. His boots sucked into the mud, he raised his rifle to a crisp high-ready before scanning his sector. Off the ship next came Sadaet, jumping down into the dirt and unslinging his carbine from the sling on his chest. His left hand held onto the foregrip of the piece, an unregistered printed weapon he had downloaded and assembled some years ago after he could out that he could not avoid firefights with his technical expertise alone, while his left hand tapped at a small screen strapped to his left wrist. He went down a knee, bowing his body and slipping one shoulder of his assault pack off. The rest of the team assembled into a semicircle facing outwards just off the ramp of the dropship to provide security while Sadaet uncovered the drone inside his pack. He flipped the power on, unfolded its triangular wings, shouldered his bag, and stood up to toss it out.

Immediately, the drone’s engine kicked on and, as it dipped a little bit in the air, it flew off. A sensor link was established to Sadaet’s wristpiece and he began receiving live data from the sector. Visual, infrared, or other optical imagery piped into the screen while a side window displayed coordinates or pertinent alerts. “We’re live,” Sadaet said simply, his hand coming back to the weapon grip. He pushed the alert window to his contact lenses and ducked down again as the heat of the dropship engine passed over him and the crew. The engines, angled down, downwashed them in dirt, grass, and heat as it passed off back to the Revenant. Gunnarson hissed about forming up as their ride left, and the team moved into their wedge to begin moving out. The dropship was moderately stealthy, but the Federation had better sensors than that. There would at least be a rudimentary investigation into a potential intrusion, but they had plans to be long gone by the time a quick-reaction force arrived.

The team took off at a combat jog, weapons raised and scanning. Their formation passed over a few hundred meters of open ground before disappearing into the woodline. Gunnarson called them to a halt and security position while Sadaet gathered information from the drone. He had helped develop the software that turned physical and digital reconnaissance signals into actionable intelligence: his thermal sensors picked up and identified guard positions, which were matched to locations and pushed out to heads-up-displays on the other members of the team. The drone did a few flybys of the base, encircling it to double-check that it had found all of the signatures it needed. Thermal, electromagnetic, visual, and radiological hits were converted into camera positions, weapon nests, or types of buildings and vehicles. Once a few minutes had passed, the scan was complete. A fully-detailed view of the depot populated on top of the existing imagery: now they had real-time positions of the enemy position. Gunnarson ordered a final check of weapons and equipment before they began their maneuver to a critically underdefended point on the perimeter. Time to get some action.
Armenian-Georgian Border

The nature of planning in a Napoleonic staff system often took days for major operations. From the minute the Georgia Plan passed its way through the legislative gears of parliament, the military staff produced their grand plans for the first foreign military action since the Artsakh War. The regular Army, currently on their way via rail and road to the Georgian border, was to march on Tbilisi while the Poti Garrison’s officers and its contingent of trained Georgian nationals would meet them there as they approached from the West. These Georgians, loyal to a new government that was already being put together by a diverse staff of government, military, and intelligence officials, would form the nucleus of the Georgian Republic’s new military. Armed resistance would be fierce in some of the urban areas, where the Army was expected to travel through to pacify warlords and militia strongmen. The plan was for them to use their fierce firepower to destroy opposition, liberating the Georgian people and bringing law and order back to the country.

The Border Service, on the other hand, had a different approach. While the Army’s brute force tactics were supposed to scare warlords into surrendering before death, the Border Service’s job was far more subtle. Like a scalpel, they were to go through the towns and villages to recruit friendly militias, destroy hostile actors, and gain the peoples’ trust. Their cultural familiarity, large proportion of Georgian language speakers, and knowledge of the land would let them do that far better than soldiers traveling all the way from garrisons across Armenia. These plans were formulated for a few days, in echelons far above and in offices far away, as the Border Service troops waited, readying to head into the country. What their company was doing and where they were going remained a mystery to Corporal Yaglian and the rest of his platoon until they were assembled in formation in front of the blockhouse at midday after lunch. The sections fell into orderly lines, but they were far from the rigidly disciplined formations of basic training. Troops talked amongst each other, hands in their pockets or lazily behind their backs in what could only be a poor impression of parade rest.

Yaglian’s lieutenant, jaded and cynical man in his mid-twenties from a Georgian village, looked seriously at a piece of paper in his hands as he did most days. Beside him, Platoon Sergeant Ozanian eyed the formation of troops suspiciously but remained quiet. His grizzled face bent into a frown, he crossed his arms in front of him and let the platoon leader do the talking. Nearby, a model of the countryside constructed from mounds of dirt, sticks, rocks, and other random objects had been sketched into the ground. Several towns were represented along with a circle of blue string representing their company’s area of responsibility.

“The Georgia Plan passed through Parliament last week, so we all knew this was coming,” the lieutenant drawled in his backwoods, rural Georgian accent. “The new mission has been put out by higher. The Border Service as a whole is going to spread out into the countryside, and this is dangerous countryside. Most people here are Muslims.”

The lieutenant gestured to the terrain model, tapping at the different villages with a stick he used as a pointer. “We’ve already had dealings with our friends, the Mountain Wolves. Great people. This is their stronghold. Patara Darbazi last month was just a little warm-up action, so we’ve already got one group of people on our shit-list.”

A series of red icons marked where bandit camps had been scouted out by intelligence assets and reported in. The ones that had been raided remained empty, but the Muslims were bound to begin popping up as the Christian Armenian military started pushing further into their territory. The Georgian Muslims were already a minority with a checkered relationship to the former government and people. After the fall of the Ottomans, it got worse for them: persecution, discrimination, forced land redistribution, and arrests or killings rocked communities and forced them further away from the rest of the country. The Mountain Wolves formed as an insurgency against the Georgian government in the Shia parts of southeast Georgia. They had been at war with the Georgians before their government shriveled into a shell of its former self, taking refuge in Azerbaijan when they could. Now that they were pushed out of Azerbaijan by the Persian occupation army, southeast Georgia was their last stand. Armenia’s encroachment into this territory along with a new Georgian government would not go over well.

“We’ve already found key allies for us. Basically, the plan for our company is we take over this area and split the platoons up between towns. We’re going to camp nearby, live there with the people, and help fold the Christian militias into the government while we hunt the Mountain Wolves.”

Ostensibly, the Border Service was supposed to be more equipped for this. They received rudimentary training on law enforcement for smugglers and customs operations, and were trained to operate lighter and more unconventionally than the Army. With a heavy makeup of reservists, many platoons brought civilian skills to the table. One of Yaglian’s riflemen was an electrician: a valuable skill that could bring them closer to the average person if they were trying to build faith in an untrustworthy, unproven government. The Army, heavier and often operating with more equipment and mounted on armored vehicles, had a presence not unlike a sledgehammer’s.

“Do I have any questions from you all?” asked the lieutenant, looking back up at the platoon. He scanned the blank faces and waited a few moments. He looked over to Platoon Sergeant Ozanian, passing the briefing to him. The NCO curtly ran through the details of supply and logistics, routes and packing lists for rucksacks. The platoon radioman’s frequencies and procedures capped off the brief, and he sent them all back to the barracks to prepare their equipment. Yaglian’s bed, in the back, was already covered in his things. A green, threadbare load-bearing vest in a crumpled pile sat next to his taraz cap and scarf. A rucksack, worn down with sweat stains underneath the shoulder straps and on the waistpad, lay at the foot of the bed, top unbuckled and open with a few spare uniforms and sleeping bag all the way at the bottom. Like so many patrols before, he menially loaded equipment and ammunition into his kit. Bullets snapped into the metal magazine, which was then fit snugly into a pouch on the harness. He worked in exhausted silence, eyes closed like it was a substitute for sleep: the last few days had not been kind to him. Guard shifts, patrols, and increased readiness had dropped all their sleep hours. And the invasion hadn’t even started yet.

The next few days were spent waiting. Word came down that the operation was to be postponed for another few days. Something about a train derailment delaying some supply lines. More troops came to the border, offloading from a railhead or the main road at the local town. Tanks, old landships manned by Reservists, formed up in neat rows in cleared dirt motor pools. One of the stipulations was that the heavy armor would remain on the border with Turkey, leaving just older equipment to fill in the combined arms gap in Georgia. After all, antitank weapons would be less advanced if they even existed in significant numbers at all. Trucks with boxes of supplies lined up behind them. Regular soldiers stood and smoked, did their calisthenics in the fields, and drank at the bars in town while the force assembled. Yaglian kept his distance if he was on pass, but otherwise saw nothing more at his border outpost. They ran drills and practiced combat rehearsals, waiting for the order to move out. Boredom quickly set in as it always did, but after all: what else was new? But after all the waiting, the company commander finally received his orders. It was time to go.

Yaglian and his team heard it first from the platoon leader, who roused them up and out of bed at sundown of a late summer’s day. Excitement in his young voice, Yaglian shouted for his troops and got them dressed in a hurry. He shouldered his ruck and almost sprinted to the waiting jeeps outside, hopping into the side seat while a rifleman turned the keys on the ignition. “Are you ready?” he asked, a wide grin on his face. “Let’s go!”

The jeep’s engine roared up and the car hurtled forward out of its parking space under a metal awning. It turned into the dirt clearing in front of the barracks where the company was assembling in the dusk. Men were whooping and hollering to each other, racking their weapons and shouting towards the border. Flags waved from the back of the truck beds, others were draped over the hoods. The drivers lined their vehicles up by section and platoon, in ordered lines awaiting the arrival of the commander. Yaglian’s team took up a position behind his platoon leader, who sat with goggles and scarf on underneath a helmet: an uncommon issue for the Border Service. The commander drove past, rallying his men with cheers and shouts. The platoons fell in behind him, one by one, in a long line of jeeps heading down the road to the border. A guardsman had opened the gate, cheering them on as they drove through. The jeeps crossed in to Georgia yet again, loaded down with men and equipment, ready to stay. In over dozen other crossings all across the north, other companies crossed over at the same time.

The night was quiet across the country as the Border Service moved into their camp sites. The company’s vehicles circled up at the camp site like wagons in the desert, and troops immediately began working from the outside in establishing their fortifications. Fighting positions were dug, weapons were emplaced in a circular security screen with interlocking sectors of fire. The mounts of excavated dirt were used to further reinforce covered positions. These initial positions were all that would be slept in until the camp would be fortified over the next few days and replaced with tents, sandbag walls with wire perimeters, and other amenities. When the sun rose in the morning, Georgian farmers out in their fields would discover a new army of foreigners on their soil. Yaglian and his team had barely gotten three hours of sleep before the daily patrols were to begin. First up on the list: the lieutenant had announced that their platoon had gotten the village they knew well already. It was time to return to Patara Darbazi.
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