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UNDER CONSTRUCTION

This article, K21 - Forgiveness and Mercy, is still being written by its owner Lither. They apologise for the inconvenience.

ForgivenessAndMercyCOVER
Cast
K21LOGOV2.2

Chapter One

"Hey," my compatriot and friend Bruce Somoron said, grabbing my arm, "It might be dangerous out there still."

"Dangerous?" I laughed, "With the telling blow we dealt the IWU we have more to fear from a rabbit than some communist rebels. Naw, we just need to go out there, identify Agent 01's body and bring it back to show the world."

I stepped outside of the bunker that I'd remained in while waiting for the military to declare an "all clear". It had arrived just over an hour ago, but several of my fellow National Police had taken a rather negative view of the army's ability to thoroughly neutralise every pocket of the International Worker's Union's resistance from the area. Not without good reason - the IWU were like cockroaches. You hit them and you think them dead but then you find one in your house. I, however, refuse to let them win by having fear of them prevent me from doing my job. At least I was armed, though, with a submachine gun and a semi-automatic pistol, and wearing the best armour the police were allowed to be issued short of bomb-squad armour.

I stepped outside to a scene of devastation. It was true what they said, the IWU had fought to the very last in every building, every window. Not a single skyscraper was left standing, and the ground was nothing more than heaping piles of rubble. Grand charred skeletons of the skyscrapers marked their tombstone, these gentle giants finally bowed, not by weather, not by age but by the tragic dreams of a beloved yet misguided idealist with a revolutionary army of like minds. Spot fires continued, the faint cracklings carrying on the air. The smell of smoke and burnt flesh lay heavy in the air.

"Oh, balls" a voice behind me said. I turned around and noticed Somoron, armed and cursing, clambering out of the bunker, "If you foolhardy youngster wants to get shot I might as well shoot 'em back."

Somoron was verging on the mandatory retirement age, if we actually had one. His brown hair was largely flecked with grey, and he was sporting the most magnificent moustache I had ever seen. It reminded me of a walrus, actually, at least if there was an old walrus with a moustache several times the average size that stuck out perfectly straight. Technically it broke the rules on facial hair, but nobody had the heart to make him trim it.

"I knew you'd pluck up the courage eventually," I smiled at him, enjoying a bit of gentle ribbing, before the smile was wiped from my face and I jerked my thumb away from the bunker, "Shall we move? There's a bit of ground to cover."

I was his superior, but after putting up with his ridiculous cynicism for long enough I learnt to enjoy metaphorically poking him in the side. Somoron mumbled something under his breath that was likely not the least bit flattering before he spoke up,

"Yes, yes, don't have all day."

Turning around I began to climb the nearest wreckage.

Chapter Two

Stumbling over the top of the skyscraper the view was just as bleak from this viewpoint, stretching out for hundreds of metres. A small group of engineers were trying to open up the cockpit of a downed and half-buried aircraft several hundred metres away, presumably to check for the dead and recover them if they lived. They never got there though, as all of a sudden they jumped off the aircraft and made a short sprint before the aircraft detonated violently, spreading each of them out over a large area.

"Balls," Somoron exclaimed next to me, "Hate to be the one who has to clean up that mess."

Personally, I agreed with him, and I was also more than a little worried that the army hadn't made the area anywhere near as safe as they claimed, but surely most of the threat had been removed. Why else would they send us out here?

"We should continue," I said, curtailing further talk on that matter, "The sooner this is over the sooner we get home."

"Of course," he replied, a cutting edge in his tone, "Better make sure the snipers are good shots." He exhaled with enthusiasm, sounding at risk of losing one of his organs through his nose, "Don't mind me, only just figured out the mission statement is shi-balls. This is a suicide mission. A month off retirement, too."

"Don't say such nonsense," I replied smiling at his naivety, "What could they gain from it?" At this he exhaled with a similar force to the bomb that went off, "I'm going."

At this I started climbing down to where the mission statement said Agent 01 was slain at, carefully placing each hand and foot to avoid a painful drop. To my pleasure and his credit I heard the sound of my comrade climbing down too, punctuated by muttered violent curses, ones he obviously thought I couldn't hear. I knew down at the bottom of that bitter, cynical heart there was a core of duty and loyalty.

As I reached the bottom, I unclipped the sub machine gun from my belt where it had been bruising my hip and held it at the ready - just because I was confident it was safe doesn't mean my guard was going down. Somoron did likewise, and we cautiously stepped towards the goal.

As we continued, scenes of devastation grew all the more disturbing. It was obvious the army had only managed to clear away the bodies in the outside skirts so far, and the further in we got the more common they became. One soldier lay surrounded by blood half-buried under rubble, his features no longer recognisable as human. One more soldier had his legs torn off and had dragged himself a short distance trying to get to safety before dying of blood loss, his journey laid out plainly is the twin trails of blood pointing to his resting place. Another brown shirt IWU was relatively fine, until one saw his completely shattered head looking like a single high-powered round had gone straight through his nose and smashed his skull like a glass vase, fragments of bone poking out of the his head in a manner suggesting they had been propelled with a quite respectable force. Around one corner, a burned-out tank greeted me, strangely peaceful in death were it not for the bodies of the crew adorning it like a holiday tree. The sight of so much death and destruction made me feel sick. So many killed for the dreams of one man, so many hurt in the name of equality.

Regardless, we forged onwards.

Chapter Three

It was strangely quiet here. As someone who lived in cities or on large warships all her life, the complete lack of noise pollution deafened me. There were no government broadcasts telling us to remain calm and stay focused, no blaring advertisements offering some new and ultimately useless product, no bustling crowd buzzing with life and enthusiasm, no motorised vehicles and no random illegal political protests in the name of liberty or equality. Only the crunch of our boots upon gravel formed by the furious battle that had raged here less than a day earlier could be heard as we carefully strode towards Agent 01's resting place.

I stopped, hearing a faint noise. Somoron, who had moved a bit to my left to scan more ground, did likewise. Raising our weapons, we spun around and saw two people wearing the ceremonial IWU uniform holding guns advancing towards us. They were only a few metres away, and new open foxholes where we had been just under a minute ago suggested they'd been laying in ambush. I dropped to one knee and fired off a burst into the right shoulder of the one advancing towards me, his arm going limp. Somoron, however, was not as fast and the other fired first, stitching a line of holes across his chestplate. Somoron dropped like a sack of bricks, his attacker removing a knife and advancing to finish the job.

I couldn't lend a hand, however, as without the ability to fire the gun my attacker had gripped the barrel with his good left hand and dashed surprisingly fast across the distance and slammed it into the side of my head. Even under the helmet it felt like a battering ram, the force behind it breaking the helmet straps and tearing it off my head. Stars flashed across my vision for a moment and I fell sideways, landing hard on my left shoulder. The attacker managed to move his left hand to the trigger, but before he could finish the move I had removed my pistol and fired one round into the base of his jaw, just behind the bone. His head jerked backwards and the respectable cap flew off. Dead or alive he fell backwards and didn't make any further attempt to move.

There was no time to feel any euphoria, even temporary for this, as I looked over and noticed the peril Somoron was in. He was conscious still, his attacker was stabbing towards his neck, putting all his weight onto the downwards stab. Somoron, barely conscious, held his wrists, but he couldn't muster up the strength to hold him off completely, and the blade kept inching closer and closer. I raised the pistol and emptied what remained of the magazine into the head of the attacker, one round blowing his hat clean off his head. It was his turn to drop like a sack of bricks.

With the two attackers I could see dealt with I got up, feeling a wave of nausea and dizziness, but I manage to stumble to where Somoron lay. It looked bad, but not as bad as it could be. He was conscious, but he kept hacking up pink froth. From experience I knew that meant the lungs were damaged, however no blood was to be seen elsewhere - it looked like the armour prevented the rounds from penetrating his flesh, though the impact still did some damage.

"Told you," Somoron said weakly, "this mission was balls."

In another time I would have smiled, but now was far too serious for such shenanigans.

"Just relax," I replied, "I'll radio for help."

Chapter Four

The roar of the aircraft's engines overwhelmed all sounds save the occasional yelling between crew members. I was in the back of a military CASEVAC aircraft. It was surprising how quickly it had arrived - I was using civilian law enforcement channels, yet they managed to call in the aircraft extremely fast. Doubtless Somoron would use it in one of many theories.

They let me in on the grounds of my concussion - otherwise I would have had to walk all the way back. They wanted to ensure I didn't have any bleeding inside my brain - by nature something medical professionals considered serious.

Curiously, however, we were taken straight to a civilian hospital rather than a military one. It was, like all legitimate hospitals here, whitewashed, smelling of disinfectant and bustling. Violent crime rates refused to go down, and the hospitals felt it. I was examined, scanned and ultimately informed there were no further problems. Somoron, however, was in a considerably worse shape. From what I found out from asking the odd nurse or doctor the impacts had broken multiple ribs and lodged them in his lungs. He required urgent treatment. I wasn't allowed to visit him, and I was informed he probably wouldn't wake up from the anaesthetic until tomorrow.

Unsure of what else to do I decided to walk home - tomorrow would be for the writing out a full report on what happened.

It was dark at home, night had fallen and it appeared my husband had not yet returned from work.

Opening the door, the house was as pitch - the hallway lights in this apartment block were the only faint light streaming in from the open door. No light entered the windows in the living room at the end of the initial hallway into my flat - the blinds must be shut.

I fumbled momentarily for the light switch for the hallway and turned it on. Cold white light flooded the area, not quite illuminating the next room. I strode towards it with the intention of turning it on and finally relaxing at home, but I paused as I noticed through the dimly illuminated lounge room that there was something blocking the window, no blinds involved.

I felt a prickling sensation, but I moved into the doorway of the lounge room and flicked the switch.

There, right in front of me, was a man in the brown uniform of the IWU, with hair as white as fresh snow and alabaster pale skin. Next to him was my husband. He was covered in bruises and missing one eye - eyelids and all, bound hand and foot with ropes and gagged. His remaining eye and the eye socket oozing blood stared at me.

"I..." I uttered, left speechless by the situation.

The man in brown and gold obviously heard me, as he chose that moment to turn around and flash a humourless grin at me. I could see his eyes which were strangely enough pink, but the revolver he held in his left hand was what drew my attention. He quite calmly pointed the revolver straight at my chest with all the flippant relaxation held by one who is very familiar with their weapon.

"Greetings," he said, his voice like poisoned honey, "I am Agent 01. My sources informed me that it was you who ratted out the location of my current cell to the authorities here," and at this point his voice grew hard, his smile replaced by a savage look, "And my sources are never wrong."

"You," I said dumbly, still in shock, "You tried to kill me earlier."

A look of faint curiousity stole across 01's face.

"They were not mine," at this point he returned to an expression of diplomatic neutrality, "I believe that your husband has some words to say."

At this point he took a knife out of his belt with his free hand and cut away the gag. He obviously had set up something here. However, rather than say anything to me, my husband turned his head towards 01.

"Well?" 01 asked, "Any words here?"

A look of surprise stole across 01's face as he spat a mouthful of blood onto his uniform.

"Go to hell," my husband snarled, "You disgusting abomination!"

At this 01 turned into the picture of barely restrained rage. His eyes bulged and his face turned purple, with his jaw clenched firmly shut.

"Abomination?" he snarled through clenched teeth, "Abomination?"

He turned the revolver from me and fired a round into my husband's head. He dropped, unmoving.

I was horrified by the events but I knew an opportunity when I saw it. I lunged forwards, using the distraction to build up momentum for a knockout punch to the side of 01's head.

I missed. Vamana had seen it out of the corner of his eye and ducked his head backwards as I swung. The momentum carried me forwards, and in the moment before I could withdraw my hand he latched onto my wrist with his left hand and twisted it around. Out of pain I moved my body in a quarter-circle until we were looking face to face.

In that briefest moment in 01's eyes I saw a look of unparalleled hatred, one that promised a fate as painful as he could devise, one that held a promise of pursuit to the ends of the earth in the name of revenge. For the briefest moment they no longer appeared pink but a bloody shade of red. I was temporarily taken aback by the infernal power behind his eyes, and he used that moment to swing the revolver overhand butt-first straight on to the bridge of my nose.

My head jerked backwards at the force he put into the blow and he let got of my wrist as I stumbled backwards. I received no respite as he used my dazed state to bring the gun again into the side of my head - the opposite side from where I received an earlier blow.

This time the hit got me - everything went dark and I crumpled like paper.

Chapter Five

I saw a terrible sight. An all-consuming inferno raging throughout unfamiliar streets. Great apartment blocks, blackened by flame and weakened by heat, slowly collapsed with the finality of a meteor strike. Among the streets civilians ran, many burnt, all gasping for air in the thick smoke. The air had become toxic to even breathe, as the flames spouted such smoke as to bite the eyes, ravage the nose and to force each one to gasp for scraps of life-preserving oxygen. The life died down from the streets as the hordes of people finally scattered completely to the four winds or died there, the innumerable bodies lining the street, particularly that of the young and old.

I had no body to be harmed, only an insubstantial spirit to watch, paralysed in horror. Now a contingent of men in soot-blackened fireproof outfits, opaque face shields and respirators entered the street from the distance. They held infernal devices spewing flames at sections untouched by the already-raging fire. Their objective was clear: the utter eradication of this area.

One individual who appeared to be leading the expedition stopped as they came close, and then looked straight at me. Where others had not seen or felt me, this one could. With powerful, imposing strides he moved towards me until we were not a meter from each other. He flipped the shield back to reveal the soot-stained face of Agent 01. In the light of the fires he took upon the visage of a demon.

"You," he snarled, pronouncing every word as if it was an insult to his tongue, forcefully spitting them out, "I'm coming for you."

His hands lunged at where my neck should be and in fright I opened my eyes into a different world, a world of blurred shapes and bright lights.

"Ah," pronounced a voice with a heavy French accent, "You're awake. Good, good."

Chapter Six

The blurring made the entire area unrecognisable, however strong disinfectants assaulted my nose with every breath. As I focused I could just make out a figure leaning over me. As some small feeling returned to me my head began throbbing and I felt a sudden faint nausea.

"You may feel a faint nausea," the figure said in a tone people use when what they really mean is 'this is going to be horribly painful', "I've given you some suppressants but there's always plan B."

He held something out. I blinked and focused, the blur subsiding enough to recognise the object as a bucket. With an attempt at a thanks I took it and gazed into it.

"One of our patients was quite agitated when he regained consciousness after 'is operation and was certain something would happen to you," he continued. A hospital. That must be where I am, "Eventually he convinced us to send a team to where he said you'd be." His voice had a clearly fake bright tone to it on that last line.

The impact of what had happened at my house hit me like a ton of bricks, and I began violently using the bucket. The person at the side of my bed took a few steps back, far enough away that he could not see the tears running down my face and falling from the end of my nose.

Eventually I fell back, eyes closed, completely drained. The attendant returned to the side, and I felt a curious cold sensation on the inside of my left hand, but lacked the energy to open my eyes again.

"I'm increasing the dose of anti-nausea medication," the attendant dictated, "There's a red button here that'll call one of us back if you start being ill again-"

I didn't catch the last part as I had already drifted off into an uneasy yet dreamless sleep.

Chapter Seven

It was several hours before I woke again. All that sleep and yet I still felt drowsy. It would pass soon, I hoped.

I took a short moment to look around and take stock of the situation. I was inside a curtained-off bed, which was comfortable enough, the sheets were warm and looked clean. Better than the last hospital I visited, although being a field hospital made many of these hard to acquire. Someone had put a hospital gown on me. Surprisingly it wasn't like the kind one sees in any story set inside a hospital and instead wove the part starting at the underarm around the body multiple times before being tied. There was a curious absence of machinery that went "beep", although that probably only turned up for people who had considerably longer term injuries than a couple of taps on the head. A small plastic bit that looked like a cut-off needle was attached to the back of my hand with a tape of some form. Doubtless it was merely the part a drip attaches to or a place for any new chemicals to be injected.

Out of curiosity, and partly because there was nothing keeping me down, I got out of the bed and walked over to the curtains, found an opening and stuck my head through to have a look around. The around mine were filled with people with often unidentifiable sufferings. One, however, I could recognise from the profound volume of disparaging comments concerning the reliability of the government emanating from a certain individual watching a news report. Recognising him I stepped out and walked over towards the bed.

"... and now they have some horribly falsified story to use as government propaganda, too," Somoron continued unaware, "well I'm not going to be a victim to use as a justification for another crack down, this whole thing is a huge steaming load of shi-" at this he looked up and recognised me, "shi... shi... shi... balls. You still bloody alive? More's the pity."

Something about Somoron lead to one being unable to take offence at anything he said, despite being a grumpy, paranoid and cynical jackass to everyone he met.

"A pleasure to meet you again too, Somoron," I replied, managing a half-smile, "Your insistence brought me here, you know? I can put two and two together."

"Bah," he replied, evidently considering that to be a full counter argument before changing to topic, "You seen the news recently?"

"Nope. Unlike someone I didn't get a free television with my stay."

"Well neither did I, but they were more than willing to give it to me when I said I had money. And was out of the emergency room, which was only this morning. Shoulda thought of that." At this he dismissively waved his hand. "Anyway, the up-to-their-neck-in-bullballs propaganda department have played up the whole story of what happened to us out there. Told you it was a setup. The only thing they could play more than wounded police is dead police." At this he dissolved into a coughing fit, sounding like he was trying to hack something up from his boots. "Getting too damn old for this adventuring lark," he said on recovery, "And I don't give a balls about what you think on this either, the whole thing smells of government plots."

I was about to give the paranoid conspiracy theorist a piece of my mind but continuing in his usual state of talking at someone rather than to someone he cut me off again.

"So, what brought you here? Knew someone'd try and get you at your house but the ballsheads wouldn't listen to me."

As quickly as I could I recounted the tale, pausing a moment as I relived the murder again, my voice cracking as I reached it. Somoron for once seemed to understand and laid off the 'helpful' observations he tended to make. Once I reached the end, his face became grave.

"You have my condolences for your loss," he said, before a half smile crossed his face, "But you actually balled off the head honcho of the IWU. Damnit, you have some admirable balls on you."

At this I looked down and feigned confusion.

"Not the last time I checked." I replied playfully.

"Just go back to your bed," Somoron sighed back in a tone of voice that suggested this was nothing new. I found that a bit unfair, this was the first time I'd made that joke. Though I'd wanted to for a long while after meeting Somoron.

Knowing arguing further might end in the hospital staff called I returned to my bed, returning the curtains. As I laid down to rest I was interrupted by the distinctive sound of steel-soled parade boots click-clacking down the hallway and a human silhouette wearing a parade cap appeared upon the curtain.

Chapter Eight

I sat bolt upright in the bed, my right hand scrabbling for the button the attendant mentioned earlier and my left trying to find a weapon as the figure pulled the curtain apart and stepped imperiously in.

I paused as I noticed the man was not wearing the uniform of the IWU. His coat and pants was a bright white with three pale blue lines around his coat wrist. Upon his left breast was the multicoloured lines that suggested he'd earned a deal of medals in his time. Beneath that I could see a sky blue shirt and a navy blue tie. A silver buckled belt finished the look, with an ornate sword on his left hip, a pistol of some form on his right. His face had a look of nobility to it, yet his sparkling blue eyes were as cold as ice and had a definite look of cruelty to them.

RWA. Restored White Armies. The reactionary force fighting a constant war against everything that wasn't an absolute monarchy answering to them, and especially the IWU.

"Oh, lay back down," he said, a tone of obvious annoyance permeating his voice, "If I was going to kill you I would have brought half a dozen men with me."

I laid back down, still suspicious.

"Why are you here?" I enquired, uncertain as to why I was entertaining this visitor.

"I'll be blunt," he replied, frowning, "I'm here because our most beneficent Emperor Aiko has a campaign goal of opposing the IWU at every step. In short, if you oppose the IWU, you'll always find a friend in us. Now, one thing we've found is that the filthy communists and especially their disgusting leader is hounding after your blood. Our current job is therefore to ensure we escort you to safety and prevent him from getting you."

"And just how do you propose to do that?"

"Why it's simple. We need to escort you to another sector, one where his influence is minimal or our influence is great enough to protect you. Sector IX is right out. He has a large amount of influence in Sector IV, which both removes that and the sectors bordering it. Sector X on the other hand would appear to be the safest for you, and you can experience the glory of the enlightened monarchy for yourself!"

The man was obviously a true believer in the cause, but I gained nothing from antagonising him.

"You still haven't told me how you plan on getting me out of the country."

"Ah, well, we simple need to do a couple of formalities for putting you under our protection, give you the uniform, such stuff like that. Then, then we escort you to a port a bit away from here and put you on a battleship your government has so kindly lent us out under the guise of helping them fight the current IWU menace."

I was about to respond but he held his hand up.

"A colonel of the Restored White Armies does not have much time on his hands," he cut me off with, "So I simply must be off. To discuss this further we should meet at the restaurant across the road from this hospital. I'll be there at sunset."

With that he managed an imperial twirl and purposefully strode off.

I sank back into my bed and tried to think this whole mess over.

Chapter Nine

I weighed my options up. Things aren't good. I can hardly take on an international organisation by myself and roping Somoron along is just going to have another death. Sneaking out of the country isn't likely to be an option - within only a couple of days the IWU had tracked my location down while their highest leadership was embroiled in a fight for survival. Their leader wishes me dead and certainly has the means to do me in.

Certainly I could lose little by playing along with the RWA for now. Though should I be found to be working with them my reputation would suffer terribly, it was better to be wrongly considered a racist than to be correctly considered dead.

It was too much to think of and my body was not capable of more stress. I sank back into sleep as darkness stole over my mind, this time mercifully dreamless.

My eyes opened once more. It could not have been more than a couple of hours, and I could think slightly clearer.

Now I realised that truly my only chance lay with the RWA. But that didn't mean I had to make public my involvement with them.

With regret I removed the few appliances attached to me and moved towards the window. The first few tinges of sunset colour were staining the sky. I could still make it, easily.

"Oi," came a familiar voice from behind me, "You aren't actually thinking of doing something as ballsy as leaving?"

Somoron never changes.

"I am in fact," I replied, turning around to see him standing, having opened his bedside curtain and stood up with the help of some device designed to give him mobility back, "It isn't safe here. He'd know exactly where I am."

At this, I noticed just how bad Somoron was. He was obviously only breathing from a respiratory device running through his nose, and merely standing was obviously extremely difficult.

"Balls," he snorted and dissolved into a short coughing fit, "Murder in a hospital? They'd never get away with that. It'd be a terrible blow to public opinion of them."

"I wouldn't think so," I carefully replied, "The leader seems possessed of anger enough to try it," and here a half-smile stole over my face, "And you'd be surprised the kind of things you can live through."

"Bah," Somoron snorted again, obviously not learning from the first time as he once again had a short coughing fit, "You're safe enough here. Nothing happened yet."

I couldn't afford to waste time bantering with Somoron especially. With a faint "goodbye", I simply walked out of the room, ignoring his calls, aware this could be the last time I ever saw him.

I reached the information desk, and after clearance they allowed me to make a purchase of some neat but practical clothes. I contemplated wearing something fancy, but with the RWA's reputation I had no hope of out-peacocking one of their officers.

With a heavy heart, I set out towards the promised restaurant. I hoped I wasn't late.

Chapter Ten

The streets bustled in the dying glow of the sun fading over the horizon. I looked around worried, searching for the distinctive white uniform. At least, I hoped he was wearing it. Last I checked the RWA was an illegal terrorist organisation here, and that would hinder one’s ability to wear the uniform in public. Despite my searches, I could see nothing unusual in the sea of extravagant clothes and oppressed masses.

A white gloved hand firmly grasped my shoulder and I whirled around. I was face to face with the officer I had met in the hospital. He was wearing full imperial regalia with a chest full of medals, brightly coloured sashes and stuck in his mouth was a well-smoked meerschaum pipe in the shape of an imposing eagle clutching a skull looking like death’s own head and trimmed with gold. He spat out a cloud of smoke before removing the pipe and inhaling.

“Best come with me, madam,” His grip tightened on my shoulder as he began walking, leading me firmly out of the crowd and into a side alley, “I need to take your measurements. For the uniform.”

From one of many pockets he produced a length of measuring tape and grasped one end in his hand while keeping the rest rolled up in his other.

“Right,” he said, putting on a good show of confidence, “I need you to remove your outer garments.”

“You what?” I asked, taken aback by his forwardness.

“Take your outer garments off,” he replied quite bluntly, “They interfere with the measurements.”

Feeling supremely uncomfortable with the situation but seeing few other ways to continue I pulled my shirt off and bent down to untie my shoes. Fumbling a bit with the laces, I finally got them off and removed my pants leaving my clad only in my underwear and socks.

A few drops of rain hit the ground around me as I shivered in the cold evening air.

“Keep it in your pants,” the officer muttered as he noticed my shivers, “Arm,” he said, gesturing with the tape.

I dutifully raised my right arm and he wrapped the tape around my forearm, shifting it a bit until he found the correct number. Taking away the tape, he temporarily stowed it in his pocket as he removed a notepad and a long pen from his trousers and jotted the number down.

Instructing me clearly to raise my arms he stuck the end of the tape under my arm and wrapped it around my chest, attempting to politely gain a measurement before he gave up and shifted it around to my front, leaning on my breasts in a way that seemed unnecessary. Once again the tape vanished as the notepad and pen came out and made a note.

The end of the tape was inserted in my left inner thigh. I instinctively withdrew but returned as he made a disapproving clucking noise. He measured down to my ankle before noting that length down too.

The measuring tape was placed at the front of my wait as he walked around me getting a measurement of my waist length, jotting that down too.

As he bent down to measure my foot I distinctly heard him mutter “Now the fun part’s over”. I almost hit him but I managed to restrain that urge.

After a short measure of the crown of my head, chest height and my total height he put the tape away.

“Put your clothes back on,” he ordered, “If you want to. We’ve got a bit of walking back to the base to meet with my finest doctor and to get your uniform. It’ll be difficult, though.”

“Why?” I asked, unwilling to hear more troubles but morbidly curious.

“Quite simply, we don’t employ women.” he stated, “They’re not strong enough to fight.”

This time I did hit him, hard enough to knock that bloody pompous hat from his overblown head. He sat down from the force of the blow, stunned for a moment before he scrambled for his hat and dusted it off, attempting to rid it of the grime from the alley.

It was not spitting any longer but raining, but I was not thinking of that. I put my clothes back on and now I was the one standing imperiously, looking down on the figure trying to get the grime out of his hat.

“I'll be visiting the cathedral,” I stated, “I have some last respects to pay. I expect to see you outside.”

With that I strode off, anger burning from my treatment, and paying no attention to the pathetic figure.

Chapter Eleven

By the time I arrived at the cathedral, I was running and trying to shield my face from the thunderstorm. Outside, as the wind was blowing I could hear snatches of organ music, which was a good sign. At least somebody had to be inside.

In the cover of the door, I looked up at the coal black sky. No light was making it through those clouds. It was the beginning of night, a long, cold wet night.

Grunting with the exertion I pushed the grand doors open and fell inside. The beautifully laminated mosaic floor, decorated with designs of angels and the triumph of heaven was rapidly covered in water dripping from my soaked clothing. It felt like I emptied several buckets onto the floor.

The music now surrounded me, reverberating from the walls. The tune was unlike any other I’d heard in church, but did remind me strongly of free form music. Even in the cathedral, I could not escape the smell of automobile fuels that was omnipresent in Central America.

Looking around, I was struck both by how grand and how it was crumbling. Where once it stood as a great reminder of the religion it supported, lack of government aid and a population growing further away from the old beliefs had made it begin to fall apart at the seams. Though I could not see a leak with my eyes, the pews and the place where the bishop would stand was covered in rain so thoroughly polluted as to reflect rainbows.

With caution and reverence I stepped around the cathedral to the area the organ music seemed to be coming from. Genuflecting as I passed the altar, I noticed what appeared to be a side room whence the music came the strongest from.

I knocked at the door and the music stopped, before the door opened and a head poked out. It was a beaten, scarred old face that greeted me, with black hair fading to grey but blue eyes that still remained brilliant and perceptive. Seeing who I was, he opened the door fully and stepped out.

I was disappointed, this man was clad in the black robes of a priest, not that of a bishop.

“Yes, my daughter?” he asked, his deep voice retaining a distinct Upper South American accent.

“I’m sorry for disturbing you, father,” I replied, “I was looking for the bishop.”

“The bishop is otherwise engaged,” the priest replied, “He won’t be back for some time. What do you need him for? I may help.”

“I was wondering if he knew the recent burials,” I said, “I’m looking for a man who was buried recently.”

“We keep records going back a few weeks of the burials we attended,” he retorted, “I might be able to find his name.”

“Thank you,” I replied, “By the way, what was the song being played?”

“Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” he replied, “An excellent piece of expressionist music. But come, the list is in the entrance to the crypt.”

At this he began walking towards another, locked, door. I was suspicious of entering a crypt with him but I realised there’s little threat a beaten old man could pose, so I followed him to the door.

As he reached the door, he fumbled for keys under his robe before unlocking it and turning around.

Moving with surprising speed he jabbed me in my right shoulder in such a way that I heard a pop and my arm went limp. A sudden wave of pain washed over me and I gasped as tears flooded my eyes, nearly passing out then and there. His expression changed as he used his other arm to grab my shirt and drag me close. Hate flared in his eyes and he widened them to the point where contacts popped out and I stared into the pink irises of my enemy.

“I can be anywhere,” Vamana spat at me, “I can be anyone, and now I’ll teach you an objective lesson in messing with powers beyond your ability.”

With his free hand and while I was too stunned to react he pulled an American lighter out and flicked it on, before throwing it away into a puddle. The puddle flared up almost immediately and spread as I realised that it was no rain, but car fuel. The cathedral was burning, a terrible thing to even contemplate.

“As the opium of the people burns,” he declared with all the finality of a meteorite, “Realise that your attempts are fundamentally futile.”

With that he opened the door and flung me down a long flight of stairs. As I smacked down them a terrible combination of pain met me. Darkness overcame my vision as the door slammed shut and I embraced oblivion.

Chapter Twelve

Blurred through half-closed eyes, I flicked my eyes around the room trying to see where I was. Nothing greeted me except cold grey.

As my senses returned I was immediately made aware of a sharp sense of pain from large swaths of my body. Any attempt to move brought sharp lances of pain. Worse still was how everything below my right shoulder was both completely immobile and completely numb.

Something had tangled my hair up and was pulling on it.

My vision sharpened and I realised I was staring at a moving stone floor.

Moving. Thankfully my head had been raised by whatever had my hair and the movement of the floor was most likely merely dirtying my clothing.

This of course turned my mind to the interesting quandry of why and how the floor was moving. Perhaps I had tripped some underground fortress and the floor was sliding away beneath me to reveal yet more steps I could fall down.

The movement stopped, with little change in the ground in front of me. Perhaps it had been a little far-fetched. At the same time what was holding my hair released it and my face smacked into the ground.

I carefully, painfully rolled over, a painful warmth stealing over my nose and the sensation of liquid trickling from it, and saw a man in brilliant white.

Or at least, it had once been white. It was terribly soot-stained and dirty, with the hat being the dirtiest of them all. The face was hard to make out as it was covered with a gas mask, presumably to prevent asphyxiation from any gases created by the inferno upstairs.

"Can you stand?" the voice barked at me, slightly distorted by the muffling mask yet still recognisable as the RWA colonel.

I highly doubted my legs could support me under such conditions, but I wasn't going to show any weakness in front of him. Every muscle crying for release, I used my left arm and my legs to push me around where I saw the reason for him dropping me, the stairs I had only recently become intimately familiar with. Every edge and bump and hard surface.

An orange light was shining through the doorway I had been so unceremoniously shoved through before. From where I was this was a dark inversion of a stairway to heaven, instead leading up to terrible flames consuming the cathedral from the inside out.

"So you can't," the harsh voice behind me intoned, "That makes it bloody easier, doesn't it?" Lowering his voice to a level he probably thought I couldn't hear, he added, "But I like your grit. More than some of the incompetents I have to deal with."

Two arms snaked around me after a brief pause as he presumably contemplated how he was to carry me up the flight of stairs before I felt myself rise up into the air. The sudden movement caused yet more jolts of agony to shoot through me, and my vision went dark for a moment.

When it cleared I was being placed down outside the cathedral. Another uniformed RWA member, this one with a large and ominous needle was running towards me. Before I could react he had reached me and was grabbing my left arm. He rolled the sleeve up and, ignoring my attempts at vocalising a protest, jabbed me with the needle. Suddenly, his eyes widened as he searched his uniform.

"Wait," he exclaimed in panic, "was that the potassium chloride or the ketamine?"

Worried as to what I had been injected with, I started to panic. He suddenly stopped looking so panicked and instead laughed.

"We're just pulling your leg," he snorted, "Enjoy your nap!"

Worn out in body and spirit, I rapidly slid into unconsciousness.

Chapter Thirteen

My eyes fluttered open. Bloody hell, I was making a habit of falling unconscious. At least this time nothing was on fire or dead. Blurred vision again. But where was I?

Keeping my eyes open was a struggle, likely as the remnants of whatever I was injected with made its way out of my system. So with frequent blinking, I looked up and around, trying to find my location. I was in a long room that ended in double doors, on another bed, that I could see. I looked further, hoping to see Instead, I was greeted with a frankly disturbing sight.

Posters of various leaders, some in the greyscale of vastly outdated technology used solely by hipsters, artists, and artistic hipsters. Some Italian man in black accompanied some Austrian, both and waving towards the crowds that accompanied each image. Pictures of people who could only be royalty in how their clothes dripped with decorations and medals that they likely didn't even earn in the first place. RWA base. The obvious hero-worship of these figures eradicated all other places to be it.

Continuing to look around I was struck by how white the room was, and how grimy. The entire place looked like at one point it had been a bright, well-lit room, however obvious disrepair and neglect had covered much of the floor in a layer of dirt and dried blood. Other beds suggested this was a place where the unit slept.

The doors burst open as the doctor from before entered.

"Ah," he exclaimed, "You're awake! Good, we weren't sure you would after the lead, but we thought we kept it below the permanent damage threshold."

The thought that while I'd been asleep he'd pumped lead into me made me panic as I checked every visible part of me, only to hear him burst into laughter again.

"That's twice," he chortled, beginning to bend over with laughter, "Are you usually this gullible or is it just the drowsiness?"

As he continued laughing I sank back, feeling my cheeks burning.

"For serious, though," he continued, straightening up, "The CO wants to see you, if you're capable of walking."

I opened my eyes again. The CO? Probably that colonel I came in contact with earlier. I didn't really want to see him again so soon, especially seeing as how he saved my life after I hit him and seriously dirtied his hat. After, of course, he made some rather offensive statements.

I guess I felt too many mixed feelings about the sordid affair. Nevertheless, I felt I should see him.

I swung my legs out of bed and stood up unsteadily. I was prepared for that, and took an experimental step outwards. What I was not prepared for was a wave of nausea that nearly forced me to my knees. Though feeling like any contents of my stomach would be soon removed, I took another step, and another, quicker and quicker as I became more confident. As I looked up, I could see some approval in the eye of the doctor.

As I neared him, I forced out through gritted teeth,

"What time and day is it?"

"0820," he replied, "Today."

Bloody smartarse.

Chapter Fourteen

"Right this way," the doctor articulated, pointing at a door at the end of the hallway he'd lead me down, "Just knock and for the love of everything holy do everything you're told."

Stepping forwards, I knocked on the door and waited.

"Enter." A voice clearly stated from beyond.

As I grasped the handle, I looked over at my shoulder, however the doctor had already vanished. While slightly nervous, I drew forth the strength to turn the handle and open the door.

Inside the colonel sat behind a desk, his hat missing and the area mostly devoted to large piles of papers. Without his hat, his short cut hair, faded to white from age, was clearly visible. The floor was covered in an elaborately decorated Persian carpet, the desk looking like brazilwood and ivory. A pen on the desk looked like gold, and fine chinaware plates sat in a corner next to a finely crafted rifle standing barrel-down. A golden chandelier dangled from the roof, looking too large to even support its own weight. Stepping out of the spartan corridor into a setting of opulence temporarily took my breath away.

I took a short look down at the paper he had in front of him, but he quickly slapped it into an envelope. All I saw was something about horsemen, but any thought was cut off by him starting to speak.

"So." This was a quite direct statement, one that implied little patience and much anger, "So. You've been almost more trouble than you're worth. Had you been any lesser soldier I would have left you to burn. No, you," and here he became possessed by a gleeful spirit, "You can help us merely by staying alive. With your cooperation, we can strike another telling blow against the IWU, a blow even this Sector's military could not strike!"

"Isn't that risky?" I asked. I didn't want to antagonise him, not now, not here, but someone had to talk sense. He merely snorted and turned away.

"Tell me," he said, almost too quietly to hear, "Have you heard of a man named Werner von Fritsch?"

I expressed that to the best of my knowledge I had not.

"He was a man," he replied, "Just another man. But when he was falsely accused by power-hungry traitors within the regime, he sought to clear his name in the only way left - to die in the way a soldier deserves. He sought out death in a war against the enemies of his state and he met it." Once again the maniac energy returned, "By dying he expressed his utmost devotion to the cause and allowed himself some measure of choice over his fate. That is the only good way to die."

I was worried. It seemed I had stirred up his fanatic side and the RWA didn't have a good track record when their ideological leanings were stirred up. I knew I had to distract him from his rant before he got any worse.

"How do you intend to do this?" I asked, wanting a diversion but also a genuine answer.

"It's simple," he replied, returning behind his desk and sitting down, "We managed to pester our Sector enough to ensure that they temporarily donated a long-range patrol boat and a submarine for us to make our escape. We believe you'll be safe inside Sector IV, where elements operating in the area have arraigned for a whole new identity. We've named the plan 'Case Yellow'. Any questions?"

"Just one major one," I replied, "How will we get there?"

"It'll be a forced march," he shot back, "Here down to Panama where we have special entry tickets to the military section. The IWU aren't going to let us bugger off quietly though, and we can expect multiple contacts before arrival. Anything else?"

"Not now," I said, truthfully, "I might have some more later."

"Well, you can ask all you bloody well want later," he noted, standing up, "Now we've managed to rustle up a uniform that'd probably fit you. I'll show you down to the quartermaster."

He strode towards the door at that, and with little else to do I followed him out.

Chapter Fifteen

The quartermaster was a surprisingly short walk from the colonel's office. Just two more corridors, which due to how similar they looked and how easy they were to forget which one you were in ensured they were rapidly becoming one of my favourite things in the world, just after being shot at and the IWU.

Upon entering, however, I could notice that while the room was piled high with boxes and boxes, there was a distinct lack of a quartermaster. The colonel, however, rectified that.

"Staff Sergeant Francesc," he bellowed at the top of his lungs into the room, "Get your damn lazy bloody useless waste-of-space cocked-up food-hogging sodomised idiotic oxygen-thieving arse over here you stupid unpatriotic Americanised bastard!"

I was mildly impressed by his lung capacity. From behind one pile of boxes a rather wide man burst out red-faced man who thundered down to where the colonel stood, before planting his face an inch before the colonel's.

"Just you say that again," This man had a slightly off accent, one I couldn't quite place, "Say it. To my face."

"You damn lazy," the colonel replied, speaking slowly and deliberately, "Bloody useless waste of space unpatriotic Americanised food-hogging sodomised idiotic oxygen thief who cocks everything up like a stupid bastard."

"So," the man who obviously was the quartermaster stated, "It appears someone here finds a particular desire to eat Staff Sergeant Francesc's Meat-Derived Products. Japanese import of the raw materials, naturally. Waste not want not."

I was about the back away before things got violent, but then the colonel stepped backwards and started giggling.

"Francesc," he snorted, "Where the hell've you been? I haven't seen you on the two way rifle range in months!"

"You know me," Francesc replied, "I've been in here with my boxes and checklists and my ordering procedures. Not much free time around."

The colonel snorted.

"Enough banter for now," he stated, "Have you assembled the uniform I asked for?"

The quartermaster nodded and ducked away behind a set of boxes, before returning with a pile of clothes on a box presumably of boots and one portable storage device on top of the clothes. He dumped them into my arms and my knees sagged a bit with the weight.

"The box contains your boots," he stated, "Your socks and all the uniform details. They'll need to be attached. The box also contains a book on how to keep your uniform in top quality, as well as basic drill and ceremonial. The storage device has a thirty minute training video on how to clean, keep and fire your weapon. Read and watch those and you'll have completed RWA Basic and Advanced training. Now get changed. There's plenty of room for error here and we want to make sure your uniform fits properly," and as if to silence my question, "There's changing rooms down the boxes to your right. Male only. But nobody else should be using them."

I took my load and went towards the area I was informed of.

Entering the changing room, I quickly stripped and changed into the new uniform. It felt crisp and clean, and the measurements were accurate enough to make the clothing fit in the legs. My breasts were small enough that the shirt and jacket they gave me were not too large around the stomach and arms to compensate. I felt like I was back to being a sailor again.

I exited the change rooms where I met the two again, exchanging other wonderful streams of insults primarily concerning the other's mother's nightly habits, their face, their own sexual activity, weight problems, and of course the ever-favourite who it was who ended up with the commission and who didn't. As I neared they broke off and the colonel looked over at me.

"Done? All fits?" he stated impatiently, "Excellent, now, we'll gather in a group downstairs to move out. You'll be issued with a rifle and ammunition when we move out."

"But I haven't even touched the rifle beforehand." I exclaimed in worry. The colonel merely smiled.

"Watch the instructional video. That video is why we're the best trained RWA cell around."

Chapter Sixteen

A hand grasped my shoulder and I jumped what felt like a foot into the air. Nearly dropping the pile I had just received, too.

"Colonel Uldericks sir," the voice of the doctor said. Fuck, that man moved as quietly as a mouse, "We believe the ma'am here should receive more screening. We might have missed some damage."

The colonel looked over from his charming discussion and waved his hand dismissively.

"Yes yes," he replied, "Do what you need to do."

The doctor slid into my field of vision and grasped the pile I was carrying with both hands. I noticed his hands were white gloved, but with sharp ridges where the joints should be, and elsewhere far too smooth. As his fingers moved, grasping the shoebox, I heard faint clicking and popping noises.

"We'll take these off you," he said, lifting the load and mostly vanishing underneath it, "Don't want to strain that joint. Follow me."

He said his last as he turned around and, putting on an abrupt turn of speed, briskly walked off, with me following as close as possible, until we reached the room I had stayed in.

"We're going to have to perform some basic checkups on that arm," he said, turning around, "The dislocation and severe nerve damage has us worried. Even after the stem cell therapy we think there might be some lingering problems. We should really have done this when you woke up."

"Why didn't you?" I asked, curious. His eyes widened.

"The CO wanted to see you immediately," he said, "Nobody disobeys the CO. Not even us."

His eyes were curious. I had initially in the haze of nausea and recovery from the general anaesthetic passed them off as brown and thought nothing of it, but looking closer I could see they were gold, and the pupils were oval, like that of a cat. Trying not to be distracted, I continued.

"How long was I out for?" I wondered out loud - my arm felt fine to me.

"Eight days," he responded, "But we did a bit of experimental medical procedures so if anything falls off come see us later."

I stared at him, hoping he was joking, and I wasn't sure which part I hoped he was joking about more. His only response was to smile at me, giving me a view of a mouthful of teeth filed down to points. The doctor was beginning to disturb me. However, he refrained from making further comments and for some time investigated my shoulder joint and made me move through several exercises to test its limit. After he was done, he stepped backwards.

"Your shoulder seems to be in serviceable condition," he said, "Though we would advise against any heavy lifting. On a normal day, do you even lift? Weights, we mean."

"Not normally," I replied, "Is there any place around here I could watch the instructional video?"

"Then just avoid lifting and you'll be fine," he said, before moving over to a viewscreen in a small corner and taking it out, "Here you should be able to watch it. Just don't break anything. We'll be back when we receive more orders. In the meantime, get changed into your uniform."

I looked down at the portable viewscreen I had received and turned it over to find a place I could insert the storage drive to watch the instructional video. Unable to find one, I looked up to ask the doctor, however he had vanished. I looked back down and found an "on" switch. Flicking that, a compartment opened up to plug the portable storage device in to.

"Huh," I said under my breath. This design was unusual. Certainly I had yet to encounter it - it seemed to want to annoy the user as much as possible.

I inserted the storage device and was treated to 30 minutes of basic rifle training and care - most of which I had learnt in my stint during the Navy. It did give out some important information, however - namely that the rifle I'd be using was a semi-automatic 7.92×57mm centerfire rifle - one in earlier days would probably have qualified as a battle rifle if not a marksman's rifle - and that the iron sights - the only sights I'd be getting - were set to point blank, unlike the common 100m setting. If this was all the training they received, my expectations for the RWA would get even lower.

Finished watching the video and using the supplied manual as a guide, I changed into my uniform and awaited the return of the doctor.

Chapter Seventeen

As I changed I noticed the coat had a small tag on it, clearly saying "Made in Sector III". I chuckled for a bit, but then grew sober as I realised the implications. It made sense for III to sell their enemies a bright, obvious uniform that they would use in combat. Boost income and lower their own casualties at the same time.

A familiar click, click, click noise became more and more known. In surprise, I looked down at my own boots. I knew who the owner was, almost instinctively. However, I wanted to know what was clicking - I couldn't find any metal on the sole of my boots.

The clicking grew louder, then stopped.

"Metal soles are a privilege for officers," a haughty voice stated, "Not common enlisted."

That answered the question then. I straightened up and looked him in the eye.

"When are we heading out colonel?" I asked.

"You call me "sir" when in uniform," he snarled back, "and take your hat off indoors."

"When are we heading out... sir?" I asked again, removing my hate and putting as much hate of his pride into my voice.

"Less venom please," he shot back. It was obvious he was going to be uncooperative.

"When are we heading out sir?" I injected false brightness into my voice.

"Better!" he responded with, smiling, "No idea."

My face turned purple and I made choking sounds as I suppressed words that were trying to force their way out of my throat.

"I came up here to tell you," he continued, oblivious to my growing urge to yell at the infuriating wanker, "I'll need you down at the gathering hall. Since I doubt you know the way, I'm here to lead you."

I took a few deep breaths before responding.

"What will I be doing there... sir?"

After all, it's not like he was deliberately pulling my leg like that creepy doctor.

"I'll be giving you your weapons," he replied, "And then we'll wait for the goddamn lazy arses I have to deal with to get their shit together and get into the hall. After that, I'll make final preparations for heading out."

With that he turned and, obviously unwilling to entertain further questions, stalked off. I followed him as quickly as I could, making mental notes as to the layout of the building.

Chapter Legal

Entering what appeared to be an entirely concrete parade hall, I noticed a Dachshund locked away in a corner, missing the wings and, more importantly, most of the cockpit. Presumably this was why they experienced so little use within the ranks of the Restored White Armies. That, and the bare minimum of airfields they could claim for their own.

Dachshunds, the only aircraft more expendable than the infantry they support.

Or maybe they were being used in Japan - that place was war-torn and propaganda-filled enough that anything could be happening. If War had a home, it was Tokyo.

In addition to the Dachshund, which probably wasn't any less capable of flight and lucky to have not exploded, there was one White sitting a respectful distance away from it testing the bolt of a bayoneted rifle.

"Ah, precisely the person I wanted to see," the officer enthusiastically remarked, moving over to the militiaman, who made no indication of their presence, "The here is Corporal Paul Mason. Mason here is the finest shot in the entire unit, I've seen scoped military snipers miss shots this man here makes iron sights. Being such an excellent shot, he is of course always the best man to send in the first wave, always gets what we want done. Not today, however. Mason, you'll be guiding the new meat. Valentina. Someone shoots at her, you shoot them. I want her covered at all times. She shits, well, I don't want a report on that but make sure you know what's going on, you got me?"

Mason just sat there, only making a faint nod. I tried to keep my face as blank as Mason's. If this is what the think the best use of a sharpshooter is...

"Excellent," the officer continued, before turning aside and commenting, "He's probably already thought of a dozen ways to kill us all and hide the bodies. In fact, why don't you sit down and bond?"

"Sir," I asked, "Where'd you dig him up?"

"This true patriot we busted out of jail," he retorted, "In there for cleansing a nursing home of immigrants. A patriot in the finest sense. Now sit and bond."

By everything holy I hoped the disgust I felt was not showing on my face, or worse that I had not turned paler. If this was the kind of murderers the RWA attracted...

I didn't have much choice. I signed my ability to choose away with the uniform. Sitting down as far away as I could appear to still be sitting near him, I kept quiet and tried to avoid attention as the officer left abruptly, citing something about horsemen and cleansing a city.

Cleansing. That word again. Dehumanising, in a sense, that it allowed one to reduce another human being to nothing more than bacteria that can be eradicated in the name of saving the whole, even to the point of excising the tissues. Some words, it seemed, should not have ever been applied to humans.

Despite me keeping my head focused on also fiddling with my new uniform, Mason's stony eyes turned to me.

"Any experience with a rifle?" he asked, pointed and direct, without any touch of emotion.

"Ex-Navy," I responded. Two can play at that game.

"Good. Maybe I won't have to try and stop you bleeding out."

I refused to honour that comment with a response. Instead, I went back to fiddling with buttons. We'd bonded. Or at least we probably had in his direct mind.

"About the nursery," he unexpectedly started up, "I didn't know they were immigrants."

That made it all better then. I bit my tongue to stop that thought escaping, but it was probably clear on my face as he felt the need to explain more.

"And I never cared about their ideology, but they never asked before they busted my arse out of death row and now I owe them."

"So why'd you do it?" I asked back.

He merely shrugged and tested the bolt. I planned on probing him deeper and harder, but I was interrupted by the officer bursting back into the room, followed by a large amount of Whites.

Chapter Neinteen

"Gentlemen," the officer announced enthusiastically and more than a bit bombastically, "And lady, of course. I have ordered a new mission. Primary cell, us, will launch all but the final phase of the Four Horsemen doctrine, and the secondary cell in the northeast will sweep down and take advantage of the situation."

There was a severe bout of anxious muttering at that. I felt I was the only one who didn't know what these horses meant. The officer raised his hand and waited until the room was quiet again.

"Sadly, however," he continued, "We will not be around long enough to watch the effects. New blood, stand please."

Uncertain, I stood up. He gestured for me to come over to the front, I moving rapidly there.

"This young lady," he continued. I decided to ignore that shot at my age, "Performed an admirable task - she was the one who informed the Central American military that the communists had a base there and her information nearly resulted in the death of Agent 01. For exemplary patriotic services she has, unfortunately, become their next target. Anyone who opposes communism will find a friend in us, and so we will escort her to the edges of the Sector so she may evade the clutches of the International Worker's Union."

He spat the last sentence out like mud, though missed not a beat.

"We will escort her to the safest part of the Sector - Panama. There the Central American military have informed us they are willing to reward patriotic citizens. They are leasing a destroyer to us - sadly not VTOL capable but on the bright side also unlikely to explode or set off the missile defences - where she will travel into a Sector friendly to us and remain safe from the communist bastards."

Faint clapping greeted this, but it was clearly forced.

"And before I forget," the officer continued in an angry tone, "Look what I found on the parade ground."

At this he stuck his hand in his jacket and pulled a hand grenade out. Almost immediately people took a step backwards.

"Hand grenades. On the bloody parade ground."

At this he threw the grenade on the ground in front of his feet.

"It's not on! Show some damned respect. And show some damned sense! Placing grenades on the parade ground is only ever going to lead to trouble. If I find the grenadier who did this, I'll strip them of their position and put them in the first wave."

At this he turned and left. Quiet reigned for some time until the assembled tuned to each other and began a quiet buzz of conversation.

Chapter Twenty

A tap on my shoulder signified the appearance of Mason again. I jumped, having not noticed him leave. Slung over his back was a rifle, another proffered to me in his left hand.

"Now's when they usually want us to be armed," he said, "You been through training with this?"

"I watched the video," I replied as I took the rifle, "If that's what you mean."

The rifle looked rather traditional. It was long, longer than every rifle I ever saw except those given to specialised marksmen. The butt and stock just looked like a rectangle, and uncomfortable to aim down, not to mention being made or at least covered in lacquered wood. Looking down the sights for a moment, I noticed they were very primitive, having only a single short metal rod sticking up and no apparent way to adjust it. There was no visible safety, though a bayonet with a foot long blade was mounted. Only time I ever saw a bayonet draw blood was when someone passed out during bayonet drill and the bayonet ended up through their jaw.

"Of course," Mason replied, "The video is an excellent training resource."

I thought I detected a hint of sarcasm in his tone, but I couldn't be certain. He certainly didn't seem intent on continuing further, as he broke eye contact to remove five clips of ammunition and thrust them at me.

"One of the most important parts of the firearm," he said, "These are yours, don't waste them. You might not be getting more for a long while." He paused, then added, "I think the sir wants to see you, too. He asked me to see you over when I was returning with your stuff. Something about executing the Four Horsemen Doctrine. Don't want to keep him waiting."

With that he turned and left. I stowed the ammunition in the many pockets of the uniform and hastily followed.

Chapter Twenty-one

To my surprise, I was directed outside the building, emerging from a small door.

I took a moment to look around. Had I not known the area I had just left, I would have immediately discounted it as an abandoned factory. The exterior was so badly run down, and looking like an aircraft had hit it on at least one occasion, that it was a wonder that none of it had collapsed, though the RWA probably reinforced the insides to prevent exactly that.

Standing on the concrete ground outside the abandoned factory was the CO, busy trying to light a cigarette stuck in his mouth with his left hand, his right clutching a thick black tube. A strong and bitterly cold wind flapped his and my uniforms around, accompanied by light rainfall propelled almost horizontal by the gusts. The hat did nothing to protect my face. I shivered.

He turned around and tossed the tube at me. Surprised, I managed to catch it, nearly dropping it as he turned around once more and devoted both hands to lighting the cigarette.

"You see, daughter," he intoned, "You've been most helpful. You gave me a reason to enact my plan and sped it up, and for that I thank you. Now we stand towards accomplishing our ultimate goal. Without our aid in quelling the communist activity, we would never have earned the trust of the Central American government, and it might have taken us many years to move our pieces into place." He finally managed to light the cancer stick and stowed the lighter away before taking a deep drag and continuing, "Activity, I must add, that you discovered and alerted the Sector about. And without communists to oppose us, there's only one real enemy before us: the state. This ridiculous libertarian paradise of a weak, incompetent government that can only sometimes enforce its own laws endangers the security of everyone and we intend to return us to a brighter age. Down with this sheen of cynicism and bitterness, we will blow away their smokescreen, sweep off the layer of filth and crown an enlightened absolutist monarch. As Voltaire and Frederick wrote, so shall we progress into an age of unity and prosperity. When Church and Sector are united for a common dream, we cannot be stopped. But we will not be content to sit in our halls while our cultural brethren lie oppressed and our ancient homelands plundered. We will take the old Mexican Empire back, from Texas to the Californias and liberate our southern cousins from communist oppression. Then, and only then, will our divine purpose will be fulfilled. Push the button on the remote."

I looked down in surprise at the rod I had been given and noticed that on one end there was a button. Hastily I depressed it, wondering what it did.

"Sublimus Dei," he continued, his face splitting into a wide, cruel grin as the sodden cigarette tumbled from his mouth, "Cuius regio, eius religio. Nobiscum Deus. Munificentissimus Deus vult."

At this he began laughing. It started off as a faint chuckle but slowly grew louder into a madness-tinged belly laugh. He threw his head back, his hat tumbling off his crown as he fell to his knees and cast his mirth towards the heavens. Curiously at that moment the faint sound of thunder reached me. Thunder without lightning, lasting for several minutes but growing fainter by the second.

As it finally vanished the officer turned and stared at me. The look in his eyes suggested something had snapped, and the dishevelled look he gave didn't help the case.

"You're in with us now," he panted, "The Sector authorities will never let this go unanswered, even after your earlier service. We're the only ones who will protect you. I-" he went for a brief outburst of laughter here, "I could never... never have done it myself. I tried. I couldn't bring myself to push the button but you, you did!"

A growing claw of worry sank into my stomach. What had I done?

"What-" was all I managed to say before he cut me off.

"What you did was move the final piece into place. Now our hold over this city will be absolute and unshakeable. You set off explosives we had planted weeks before, explosives that we could only get in place easily and undetected because the Sector trusted us more because of our role in eradicating the threat you told them. By that, you unleashed the first part of our Four Horsemen Doctrine. This place once was a major transit area for the staple foodstuffs, and those bombs detonated the vast containers, tore the railroads apart and sent buildings down upon the roads. With a sudden shortage of staple foodstuffs, Famine will ride amongst Central America. The government always did love putting all its eggs in one basket. But that matters little now. We will have our agents rise up here and take control, tapping into the anti-government fervour a famine whips up. This could never have been so easy without you, and for that you have my gratitude."

What I heard horrified and disgusted me. There was a roaring in my ears and my blood pounded violently. I turned and ran back towards the door, tossing the detonator away from me, hearing that laughter rise up once more as a tidal wave.

Chapter Twenty-two

As I ran down the hall, my heart beat with the force of a colossal drum, drowning out everything else as my booted feet smacked against the concrete floor. For though panic and revulsion filled my heart and mind, my body was not indefatigable. Eventually, I fell to my knees, exhausted, in front of a dead end.

What was I running for? I could not say. But the horror unleashed within me had no other way out except to flee. I couldn't be at fault; I had no idea. It cannot be my fault. No knowledge of what a simple request entailed. It's not my fault.

My breathing now under control, I rose to my feet again, at which point I saw a massive painting of a sacred ibis on the wall in front of me. I stared at it. The ibis was standing serenely in a lake, staring in a manner that made me feel it was looking right at me. A small plaque adorned the base, simply reading "For Julia".

I leaned to the left, then to the right, and could swear that its eyes followed me.

"Verily," a voice intoned behind me, "When you gaze long into an ibis, the ibis also gazes into you."

At this, I spun around, straightening up. It was Mason.

"Fuck off," I said, at which he smiled.

"Nobody likes that line," he replied, "Anyway, the sir asked me to give you a yell. He says you did great work out there. Now fukken follow me."

He immediately spun around and double timed his way back down the hallway. Once again I picked up the pace to pursue a White soldier through the seemingly endless maze of this complex.

Chapter Twenty-three

As I rode in the back of the RWA's version of an armoured personnel carrier, I mulled over the events of the past few hours.

First, I'd been dragged into some sort of new garage, where hundreds, possibly even thousands, of vehicles slumbered. My initial thought had been that I'd walked into the largest collection of surviving Mark IV tanks that'd been painted white with blue stars. However, Mason was quick to point out they were the most ultra-modern military equipment the RWA had on hand, in the form of APCs. It made a distressing amount of sense.

Then, the head honcho (who turned out to actually be named Harold von Austerlitz but preferred Colonel Uldericks), burst in followed by waves upon waves of RWA members. After the fresh casualties were taken outside, he declared he had a cunning plan. We were to hijack the rocket train and drive it straight towards a vital strategic city with a major water purification plant, the opposite of what they were expecting us to do. That was broadly correct, nobody after all could seriously think we would try hijacking a notoriously lethal (not to mention well-guarded) train to use to transport large number of troops, however I kept quiet.

Following this, he decided the most motivating sentiment was to note that under the most recent calculations, there was no way the train guards could carry enough ammunition for all of us. He then continued by claiming that ever since they ceased to use Central American hand-cranked mechanical tractors as the base to build the APCs on, he could expect to only lose 15% of our forces to fires and catastrophic explosions en route - a great reduction of nearly 75%. At this news, the collective soldiers fired their rifles into the air in celebration.

After the fresh casualties had been cleared from the garage, we boarded our vehicles and drove off. Currently, I was in the command vehicle with Colonel Uldericks and Mason. Because it was a command vehicle, it was painted blue with white stars so that friendly forces could distinguish who was in charge in the battle. Some days I just wanted to give up.

I dozed away as I realised there wasn't anything else to do en route.

Chapter Twenty-four

I jumped to wakefulness as someone kicked me in the right knee. Blearily, I gazed upon the face of Mason, my eyes still watering from the omnipresent overpowering smell of diesel fumes.

"Wake up," he said, "it's time for our moral superiority to assert itself."

The back of the APC opened up, morning light streamed inside, and thick smoke streamed outside. Together, our merry command group exited the not-tank. I blinked repeatedly as my eyes adjusted to the sunlight, and what I saw surprised me.

We, along with hundred other APCs, had parked inside the convenient parking lot next to a small, mostly deserted train station. It was almost comical to see masses of not-tanks lined up within legal parking zones with streams of infantry disembarking.

However, danger appeared. A perplexed security guard was standing near the ramp to the station and reaching for his radio. Several other RWAs noticed too, and they rapidly went for their rifles, opening up a withering burst of fire that almost tore him to pieces.

"We need those." Mason muttered.

"What," I asked him, "Security guards?"

"No, radios."

I took a moment to think of this before coming to the conclusion that it was not something my sanity would be helped by thinking about.

Stepping over our twenty or so dead whose only crime was to be in front of our own shooters at the wrong time (and in four cases, behind or to the side of them), our merry troop swarmed on to the station itself. A ticket office had another staff member who went for the phone as two RWA soldiers tried to jump bayonet-first through the windows only to find they were shatter resistant and just shoot him. The phone dropped from his still fingers as his head vanished.

"Now," muttered the Colonel who moved beside me on to the platform, "We wait."

And wait we did, but not for long. A rocket train did not take long to pull up. Evidently the driver must have thought that we were paying customers, as he dutifully stopped the train and opened the door. The RWA host on the platform did not respond graciously, as they too opened fire once more, smashing windows, tearing apart the few customers and guards in a surprise move that really, they all should have seen coming.

The few survivors of the front ranks leaped through the broken windows - mostly cut down mid-jump by friendly fire - but inspired more and more to follow their example, until a good number were on the train. However, at that moment a stray bullet must have caught something vital, as the train exploded in a truly spectacular fashion, giant chunks of steel torn off, glass melting, consuming everything inside it in a vast fireball. The shockwave caught me and the Colonel and tossed us off the platform a little dolls, utterly powerless to prevent our fate.

Lying on the asphalt of the car park where I had fallen, the last I heard before blacking out was the Colonel wheezing

"Next time... No shooting."

Chapter Twenty-five

Once again I forced my eyes open. I'd been unconscious so often now that I'd became used to the process. However, everything was dark, cramped and dimly lit by emergency blue lights.

Diesel fumes. Again. Looking around, I realised that I was in the back of the not-tanks again.

For god's sake.

Looking around, my eyes fell on the Colonel once more. His face and uniform looked burnt, and I wondered how bad I looked.

"Nnng," I tried to say to him, "wha-"

"I know what you're thinking," he cut across, "You're mostly bruised. Like I was."

"Why?" I tried asking

"I got these in my third hijack."

Confusion must have been evident on my face, because he continued.

"Well, we planned on hijacking the next rocket train, right? Except we forgot the vital part of removing the first train from the tracks. Ka-fukken boom again. So we tried the one after that, and we did remove the trains from the tracks, mounted a boarding operation and everything."

"Then how did you end up burnt, sir?" I asked, no less confused.

"Well, some fukken moron bayoneted the fuel tank. Next thing we know, the rail's too damaged for a train to move on. So we're going by APC. It'll take a bit longer, but we'll get there."

"How many did you lose, sir?"

"No idea. Don't care. We get recruits shipped in from the Eastern Alliance by the thousand these days. All they have to do is paint 'Legitimate Merchant's Fishing Vessel' on the side of the boats and the border guards leave them alone. Sometimes they have to start making whale noises, but fortunately our uniform looks enough like a fish costume to deceive even the most stalwart border patrol veteran."

I wasn't even going to challenge this.

Nope.

Not even a bit.

As I mulled over the stupidity in my head and tried to suppress any thoughts of yelling at the collective of numpties, the Colonel leaned over from his seat and yelled at the driver,

"Corporal, are we near the safehouse?"

"Arriving at the gates shortly!" was the response bellowed from the front.

Somehow, I felt a distinct sense of apprehension, only increased when a terrible crunching noise made the APC shudder and slow, before grinding to a halt.

Once more the doors opened and we were cast back into the deep of night (and beautiful, clean air). Taking stock of my surroundings, I saw I was out in front of a splendid mansion. Everything about it simply exuded luxury, from the gardens carefully sculped gardens to the marble path, fountains and solid gold door.

RWA APCs were spilling by the dozen through a iron gate that had been violently knocked over behind us, presumably the cause of that awful shuddering. Ours had presumably been in the lead, the obvious choice of tactical positioning for a command tank vehicle.

After a considerably smaller number of soldiers than from the station formed up with us, the Colonel gave the order to move to the front door. We crossed it quickly, but halted some fifteen paces from the opening, at which point the Colonel gave the order for a Corporal to move to the door buzzer and hit it.

"Who is it?" the voice from the other end sounded rather irritated, presumably at the time.

"It's uh," the Corporal said in a manner that let me almost see the gears turning, "the Genuine Legitimate Delivery Service with a parcel for Byres Shyom."

"At this hour?"

"All night courier service, you see. Please unlock the door so that we may deliver it."

"Can't you just use the post box?"

"I'm afraid the delivery won't fit."

"Alright, give me a minute."

A faint click was heard from the other side of the door, at which point the RWA lines burst into fire. The withering fire tore through the door, the front rank, the second rank, the Corporal at the buzzer, some of the windows, the rear rank, a passing seagull, and one of the APCs (which promptly exploded).

"Cease fire," the Colonel called with the ability all senior officers have of making themselves heard over the din of battle, "Cease fire, you bloody idiots! He just unlocked the second security door."

At this, the group fell silent, causing the Colonel to leap up the steps, throw the remains of the Coporal away, and mash the buzzer himself.

"You still there," he said into it, "Only we had a couple of minor delivery quirks."

Silence, then

"I'm the backup guard, what the hell happened here?"

I could almost see the Colonel's mind whirring.

"We're a delivery service. Armed delivery service. We came under attack from... From Husless communist witches and want to deliver it now."

There was a movement at the window.

"I can't see any Husless communists."

"They evaporate when shot, don't you know that?"

"You don't look like a delivery service."

"We're an armed one."

"Where's the delivery?"

"We're collectively holding it."

"So you are the communists?"

"No, we're the guards."

"You look like the IWU."

At this, the Colonel punched the buzzer and leapt down the stairs.

"Shoot that door," he said once he was safely behind a rock, "Shoot it until it comes down."

Once again fire lit up the night. The golden door couldn't stand it, and quickly fell backwards. With a cheer, the RWA survivors charged into the open building.

Chapter Twenty-six

Sounds of gunfire tore apart the night, windows lit up with bright but momentary flashes of light, and the sound of it all nearly deafened me. From one broken window, a RWA insurgent was most unceremoniously flung out, screaming as he plummeted towards his demise. Still the relentless cacophony continued, as I stood, uncertain what to do.

After what felt like an age, the gunfire subsided, and one bloodied and haggard White insurgent limped out of the building towards the Colonel (who was still hiding behind a now war-torn boulder).

"Sir," he gasped, "We've cleared the building, sir."

"How many have we lost?" the curt reply came.

"Dunno sir, maybe another hundred."

"How many of the enemy?"

"Well... two sir."

"Two."

"Including the ones that was behind the doors, sir."

"Spectacular." I detected a distinct note of sarcasm, "Then why did we lose so many? Quickly, out now."

"Well, you see sir," the White seemed eager to be anywhere else, "Jenkins saw a cat or something and fired at it, killed Alexander who was two floors above him, next minute everyone was shooting at everywhere and Bob ended up bayoneted and shoved out a window. We still have a third of us left alive."

"Aha!" the Colonel yelled triumphantly, "An excellent number. Why, this is the finest RWA training course paying off as usual."

"Bad news, sir, we didn't find Shyom anywhere."

"No need to worry, we weren't here for him anyway. We just need to wait until dawn and then the new batch of recruits will reinforce us. Just go into the mansion and have a sleep."

At this moment, a distinctive whup-whup sound arose behind me. I turned to see, before noticing what looked like a jet black Dachshund that had been converted into a helicopter. Attack helicopter.

From the mansion, scattered fire rose at it, which didn't seem to do any more than annoy it as it fired ten missiles directly into the shattered ruins of some of the windows.

With a tremendous blast, the mansion was reduced to burning chunks (with the odd burning bit of insurgent too) flung across the nice hill. The helicopter turned around and activated its mobility rockets and flew until it was completely out of site.

"Well," said the Colonel, "Sleep in the burning ashes, that is."

Chapter Twenty-seven

"Wake up, sheeple," I heard the Colonel say, rousing me from my slumber.

It was a rough night in the ashes of a mansion. I couldn't help but feel that the night would have been more comfortable if in fact someone had cleared away all the dead bodies first, but I'd given up trying to suggest things to the Colonel. He had a cunning plan of sleeping under the boulder, but gave up after injuring his hand. That became how I, bedraggled, covered in soot and blood, found myself a sight for sore eyes staring into a mirror shard. I barely even recognised myself any more.

My temporary reprieve was ended by the droning of new APCs arriving in the courtyard, flooding as if a decanter of endless bad ideas had been unstoppered. One even tried to drive over a parked APC from earlier, causing both to detonate in a spectacular fiery blaze.

As more and more ones spilled through, the Colonel looked around at the bedraggled survivors.

"Get in your transports," he said, "I have a cunning plan that they'll never even see coming."

Chapter Twenty-eight

It was amazing, I thought, as I stepped over the body of a new guard, how his plan had worked so spectacularly well.

The Colonel explained his cunning plan was another raid on the very same train station we’d failed to capture repeatedly before. He reasoned that no competent commander would ever attack a position four times in a row, especially if the first three spectacularly failed, so the last thing they’d expect was for us to launch another attack on the station. But rather than being another burst of water-induced lunacy, he had come up with a roaringly capable plan to seize control of the station with the limited capability we already had. Not a single White soldier was even wounded in this new assault, and the station easily fell into our hands. Admittedly, I was quite suspicious when his pants came off, but it was all for the best. There wouldn't be a plan that worked so smoothly this century, no, never. This was a freak event, and I would feel sorry for anyone who missed it. Almost beautiful, in a grim way.

My thoughts were interrupted by reaching the train’s open doors, doors which had skillfully been opened without any explosions at all, and I ducked inside the train. There what greeted me was a row of carriages bustling with White soldiers, above whose doors were the legally mandated paintings captioned with quotes from our Supreme Incompetent, Admint Toll, a man who couldn't govern a self-sufficient robot let alone a sector.

Gazing at the nearest painting, it was an almost Romantic image of Admint Toll sitting atop the command deck of a serenely patriotic grey floating island, festooned with cannons and aircraft. Beneath, the quote read,

"Look up Butt Devastated on the internet."

Suddenly I realised there was no fucking way I was going to read more quotes.

"Valentina," an authoritative voice I recognised as that of the Colonel called, "Over in this carriage."

I looked for the source, and saw his upper body waving from outside of a sleeping room. Slipping through the crowds, I managed to make my way there, entering doors above which a quote read “I never said half the things you say I said.”

Entering the sleeping car, what first struck me was that the Colonel was still pantsless, and apparently unashamed at this. It would be some time before I erased it from my brain. I next noticed Mason, who was fortunately pants-equipped.

"We have much to discuss." the Colonel stated.

Chapter Twenty-nine

"Before we start, sir," I said cautiously, wary of his wrath after that German suplex-assisted elbow drop-powered pile driving bum rush he unleashed upon that poor, poor security guard, "I must ask, do you have any concrete plan or are you just commanding by the seat of your pants?"

The Colonel took out his pipe, evidently pre-packed and lit up underneath a sign reading "Please do not share your smoke with parasites who won't buy their own", drawing deeply before responding.

"I can understand why you think that way," he articulated, "But you see, there are three vital elements to the success or failure of any master plan. The first is to keep the plan so open to change that you never end up constrained by ever having to follow your plan. The second, and most important, is to do something your opponent can never expect. As I've already said before, your enemies all expect you to make reasonable judgements, therefore, the best way to take someone by surprise is to do something no reasonable person ever could."

I nodded at this. As inane as it was, it did explain everything up until this point.

"And the third?" I enquired.

"Ah, now, that one I discovered today," he stated, before leaning forwards and gazing intently at me, "Don't wear pants."

I fear by that statement, I had become so jaded towards the idiotic thought processes that pass for intelligent conversation that I didn't even blink. Still, my brain attempted to rebel, my lips pursed and I found myself clenching my fists hard enough to send stabbings of pain through my palm.

There was almost a flash of disappointment at my non-response in the eyes of the Colonel as he leaned back again.

"I forgot what I was going to say," he said, annoyance working its way into his voice, before a streak of recognition flashed across his face "That's it! I'm afraid we've still got some time to go yet before we can get you out of here. We've got to deliver humanitarian aid to the Northern Water Purification Fortress so our boys don't die of thirst, then we've got to get to a dead drop in Mexico City, then we can sneak into the lightly defended Panama Canal and steal a patrol boat to get you out of here on."

"Sir," I retorted, "I've got some mild concerns about that plan, being my intense distrust of everything you said from 'humanitarian aid' to 'patrol boat'. Exactly how do you intend on not dying, let alone succeeding?"

"Don't worry your pretty head about it," he said with no lack of condescension, "I'll be exploiting all three vital elements of any plan to their fullest extent! Plus, we can always ship in more Whites."

"That's wonderful, sir. Absolutely wonderful. What's in that pipe of yours?"

"Well, why the sudden topic change? Nothing more than crack, opium, and our patriotic water. Nothing illegal."

It was going to be a long trip.

Chapter Thirty

I was quick to try and avoid any further discussion with Colonel Uldericks. After all, one conversation with him was quickly shaping up to be an unabashed attack both upon my intellect and my ability to not throttle someone for being a complete moron. As it would be - for obvious reasons - highly counterproductive to throttle the man who promised me safe exile from Central America, I must avoid everything that sets off the primal killing urge.

"So, uh, Mason," I said, trying to redirect my line of thought to something productive, "How long have you been with these merry men?"

"Oh?" he thought for a moment, "A bit over twenty years now. Back when I was a fresh-faced eighteener, I tried signing up in the North American Army. During the psych interviews I confessed I was just joining to kill people and get money."

"What did they do?"

"Wrote a recommendation to join the RWA peacekeepers in Israel."

"Mason here," boldly stated the Colonel, "Is a man right after my own mind."

"I never," replied Mason, "have seen a man with quite the leadership skills of our Colonel. I did once see a gay porcupine banging a hippopotamus, but I was very drunk and may have been high."

I paused. Ignoring that...

"I was very fond of Baltic tea enemas in my youth," he continued, "and there was this hilarious time where I-"

"I'm sure," I cut him off saying, "that's a story for another time.

"Oh, no, we've got plenty of time," he responded, "even enough time to talk about how I ended up married to a goat in Angola."

"You know what?" I said, having well and truly reached the end of my tether, "You can all go fu-"

Chapter Thirty-One

I awoke on the cold, hard ground. There was a roar, I remembered that much. Intense heat. Light. A second of flight. Ringing in my ears. The feeling of every bit of my brain trying to eat every other bit.

"YOU DEAD?" a familiar voice boomed, echoing in my skull

"nnnnn" was my only reply

Feeling was coming back into my body. The feeling of everything hurting.

"I THINK SHE'S BREATHING" another familiar voice thundered

That was probably true. My throbbing headache was beginning to subside and the ringing wasn't so obnoxious.

Rough hands grabbed me and rolled me over, and through faintly blurred eyes I could see Mason peering at me, with the Colonel standing behind him.

"We could try mouth to mouth" he said, this time blessedly quieter

"There is," I replied, "no way to express in any language under the sun how much that would be a bad idea. Not even a New Spanish word taking a full page can accurately describe it."

"Yep, she's fine." the Colonel said.

Mason thrust his hand towards me, before grasping mine and pulling me to my feet. I took a moment to take stock of my surroundings.

We were in a shallow crater with a reasonable number of other RWA soldiers. Twisted metal dotted the landscape. Bits of it were still on fire. The ruins of what used to be a rail guide for the rocket train was overhead, and next to it were fairly reasonably normal rail lines. Beyond that was the twisted, ruined shell of the rocket train, still mostly on fire.

At one point this had probably been a green grassland. Now it was a huge, blackened wasteland. Soot covered everyone, except the Colonel, who was quite distinctly ungrimed.

"Some of our boys in the water storage room got into a fight," the Colonel explained, "One punched the water tank and caused a small leak. That was the explosion."

A baker's dozen armed RWA soldiers emerged from the wreckage, dragging two barely-conscious other members with them

"That'll be them now" the Colonel noted, "We'll teach them to break discipline."

The White - though they didn't appear that anymore - infantry pulled the two into an upright position, and formed a firing circle only maybe three metres apart from the two condemned. One peeled off from the rest to give commands as the circle aimed and fired as one.

Bullets tore through the air, once-proud uniforms ripped apart, and a considerable quantity of smoke erupted from the rifles. When it cleared, the two condemned stood shaking, but unharmed, while the entire firing circle including the commander were felled like rotten old trees.

"Oh for fuck's sake," the Colonel exploded through his pipe, "I haven't got time for this."

He drew a revolver from a pocket neatly and pegged the two with a couple of short, sharp shots.

"We're walking the rest of the way," he said, turning back to me.

"Sir, I don't see why we can't get a normal train," retorted Mason, "It seems to me that it might be easier."

At that moment, a "normal" Central American diesel train carrying passenger carriages choose that moment to appear. I watched it approach, spewing forth a thick crowd of black smoke, and only got a good look as it screamed near. Someone had been crucified upside-down to the front, but more to the point was the oily flames erupting from every window and wreathing it in a fiery halo. Faint cries came from inside, and as it passed a burning man fell out one of the windows to lay unmoving on the ground.

"Or it might not." noted Mason as it faded into the distance.

Chapter Thirty-Two

VallarieCrest
Chronology
K21 - Subterfuge Chronicles · K21 - Deceit and Disloyalty · K21 - Forgiveness and Mercy · K21 - Aces High · K21 - Tarnished Perceptions · K21 - Shattered Endeavours · K21 - Decayed Moralities

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