Arc 4: War Alone
The city of Daedal lay hundreds of kilometers north of Garghent. A cliffside city by the coast, though its main export is not fish but limestone, which is used primarily for construction in the form of roads, concrete and building materials. An obvious business partner with Garghent, who supplies most of the Sister continent’s steel, as both cities depend on the construction industry. The two cities are supplemental and have been integral in the growth and expansion of all the metropolises over the last couple centuries. Though on the surface it appears that Garghent and Daedal should be close-knit allies the reality is that their relationship has been rife with shady bureaucracies and scheming business practices, encouraged by shrewd politicians with the express goal of monopolizing all parts of the construction industry.
Refining factories, mines and industrial plants have been traded and leased out between corporations dozens of times throughout the decades, and in some cases, multiple times in a single year. The businesses are constantly changing hands as stocks fluctuate quarterly. When a mine is thought to be dried up, Garghent business owners will sell it to Daedal under the false pretense that the mine is still filled with untapped sources. Daedal businessmen know it is a ploy but risk spending money and resources expanding the mine, and occasionally strike new supplies of raw material. Without the large-scale refineries that Garghent boasts, Daedal will then go back and resell the mine for absurdly high prices. Garghent, unable to resist the opportunity for further domination in the industry will buy back the mine regardless of the cost.
The back and forth between city-states has created a strange and confusing dynamic. Plants around the countryside will be left abandoned for years at a time due to the legal ramifications of the ‘geo-political jurisdictions restricting access of any party, person or politician to enter the locale of the specified place of business until ownership is granted.’
Legal jargon aside, it means that any factory, plant or mine in neutral territory, land outside a given city-states officially recognized borders, cannot be occupied until the lease and license has gone through the proper legal routine. A process that easily gets muddled throughout years of this back and forth hassle.
So it was one such plant that had been lost in Daedal’s bureaucracy that Garghent was sending a small but new task force to reclaim through military occupation. Daedal intentionally stalled the ownership relinquishing process of this plant that generated over five percent of reinforcing steel for the entire Sister continent. No paltry sum when dealing with profits in the millions. The plant was originally sold a decade ago in an attempt on the late Janiform Amenais’ part to encourage more efficient and less confusing business practices between each city. Daedal however, left the plant empty and refused to sell it back, causing more issues and paving the way for more complicated leasing processes to prevent further scamming.
In political limbo and rusting from the outside in, Garghent decided to send its military to retrieve the plant with the hopes that by next year it would be up and running again.
The bouncing jeep reacted overdramatically to every single bump and rock its wheels trampled on. There was supposedly a universal trick to riding on any transporting medium, be it horse or boat or car. If the passenger is able to ‘roll’ with the flow of random or rhythmic movements then one could avoid any motion sickness and dizziness.
Hales, with no experience riding in something other than a bruting bus which only ever drove on smoothly paved asphalt anyway, found the tousle of the jeep to be more than unpleasant. She lacked the innate ability of allowing her body to relax subconsciously so long as she was aware that she could tense up.
Talking offered the best remedy for her motion sickness. Hales and two of her team was seated in one jeep, and the other four in a nearby jeep.
“Why did you choose a shotgun?” Hales half shouted, competing with the engine, to Saccha her weapon jack. He had been dozing off under his tilted helmet but pepped awake upon hearing his name.
“Got the feelin’ we’ll be doin’ some close quarter combat, cap’n.” Saccha had the gun resting on his shoulder, barrel pointing up. He briefly held the gun out for display before moving it back to its position. Hales was still adjusting to his vernacular. Being called ‘captain’ was at least twice as jarring as Saccha’s rough dialect though.
“If we are lucky there won’t be any conflict.” Hales couldn’t get over the jitters of her first mission.
“Ways’ I look at it, them Daedal folks want to keep their ground. Now suppose we send a whole army. They’d bolster their defenses and keep a regiment to guard the place. We’d have a war on our hands if that were the case. But that ain’t the case. Today, cap’n, we just got a handful of squads ready for an easy, low stakes mission. Ain’t nothin’ to stress about.” Saccha nodded to himself in satisfaction with his own oratory skills. He tipped his helmet back over his head and relaxed.
Hales glanced at Santiage, her tactician and heavy machine gunner, for reassurance. He spoke much clearer than Saccha and, as his role would suggest, more logically.
“There are least a couple missions like this every year or so, captain Ailor. For the most part they’re smooth operations and the change of land goes without any dispute. Sometimes they get ugly but it’s never more than a small skirmish. And honestly most cities know operations like these act as initiating and training exercises for newer soldiers, like yourself, ma’am.” Hales liked Santiage’s honesty as well as his experienced and professional attitude. She would likely be relying on him the most for mission strategies and understanding the ‘behind the scenes’ of every operation.
Hales relaxed with some meditative breathing and enjoyed the countryside view. Letting her gaze wander, she saw over a dozen other jeeps, all driving in relatively close proximity in the same direction. There were eight squads for this mission, including Hales’ own squad. Cull Marcarios was the combat specialist in the mission and would serve as the top chain of command within the field. Orders from the mission operator, called a Stratagem, would come from headquarters, usually by radio transmission. The Stratagem would guide and update the Cull on any changes in objectives or other various possible developments in the days, weeks or months during the mission. The Cull made all other decisions not otherwise given from higher command. Each Captain received their orders usually exclusively from the Cull, barring the Cull’s fatality of course.
The chain of command is both utilitarian and easy to follow. Broadly speaking, when managing an army minimalism must not be discounted. Confusion and dissension are oftentimes the parents of defeat.
“Halt!” Cull Marcarios suddenly bellowed with a hand up to signal any driver who didn’t hear. The jeeps screeched to a stop, each parking a handful of meters from the nearest vehicle. Standard precaution in the case of an ambush.
“On me captains!” Hales, Uana, Genjam, Bregan, Corvan, Juy and Xander all jogged to Marcarios, forming a protective circle around him.
“We’re about twenty kilometers from the area of operation. It’s getting dark so we will move about five kilometers, set up camp for the night and march first thing in the morning. Rules of engagement state we can’t make night raids for unofficial missions without giving the other side a cause for war.”
“Get your gear and let’s move out”
“Aye sir!” The young captains chorused and saluted then broke away to their squads.
Marcarios turned to one of the drivers.
“You’ll receive the rendezvous coordinates a day before we need you. Take a different route back.”
The head driver saluted and readied his vehicle, gesturing to the rest of his driver team.
With all squads ready, the jeeps drove away, kicking up dust for a brief minute before already fading out of sight.
The vastness of the country finally hit home for Hales. On foot the plains felt exponentially wider and emptier. Though in truth it was teaming with life and all the noises of mammals, birds and insects going about their daily routines.
The air smelled better than Garghent ever did, more musky and damp compared to the mountain that she lived on for five months at the camp of awakening. Nothing would ever compete with the crispness of fresh spring mountain air at night or the aroma of early summer morning dew.
The atmosphere of the plains did have an endless feeling to it that not even the peak of a mountain boasted. On a mountain the eye could see out so far, making one feel insignificant in size yet empowered by the sheer scope of perception that human vision rarely experienced.
But the plains appear as a changeless land for as far as the eye could see and disappear all at once when the sun settles below the flat horizon.
Hales knew her imagination was getting the best of her but being resigned to city life for almost all of her existence had not prepared her psyche for the raw and powerful atmosphere the wild emitted.
Marching in thick boots with the heavy military gear kept Hales grounded from daydreaming too much. It was go time now, she really was a soldier going to a battle! With what? All she had was a combat knife and a nine millimetre pistol. Her helmet fit snugly but already her head was itchy. The military jacket was a heavy duty piece of padded cloth, warm enough to protect from the cold yet surprisingly well insulated to prevent overheating. Against a bullet it was better than nothing but didn’t serve as proper armor by any means. The color scheme of the combat uniforms were well designed for blending in with the environment, a multi-range of various greenish grays randomly saturated and muddled in different degrees throughout to allow for a natural camouflage that could trick the eye of an enemy. The pants consisted of the same material and color as the jacket.
Underneath the jacket, Hales wore the thinnest fiber vest the military would allow. She needed mobility and the extra weight would erode her stamina in an extended campaign. Most of the other Specters whose powers offered decent defenses chose the thinner vest as well. It would mitigate most of the damage from a long range bullet smaller than forty-five caliber, meaning it could shield effectively most handguns and some assault rifles.
Her pistol hung on her hip on one side, and a combat knife on the other. She preferred her Aspect over any other tool or weapon. The military did require a minimum of at least a handgun for Specters.
The five kilometer trek flowed by without conflict. Marcarios declared a large plot of short-grassed land surrounded by the tall prairie grass to be their camping spot. No campfires tonight of course, too close to enemy territory to risk giving away their location. Starting a bushfire is also just a bad idea for posterity’s sake.
Hales set her pack down, which only carried basic first aid supplies, water, food and a blanket. Her folded shovel was strapped to the side of the pack. Two extra magazines for her pistol were slung around her belt. She carried everything else she needed within herself in the form of her Aspect.
The same lightweight encumbrance she enjoyed could not be said of her squad. Saccha had heavy body armor, a large machete and a shotgun as well as two revolvers. Added to his arsenal were various types of grenades, tasers and even a flammable spray when paired with a lighter. He had plenty of food, water and other tools and instruments that fulfilled both camping and fighting purposes.
Hales turned to study her torturer, Liem. He carried a wide assortment of small tools. Everything from pliers to flays, wedges and brands as well as a fair amount of blood bags. Hales had asked what the clear I.V. bags were for over a week ago.
“Clients stay alive longer if I pump them with their own draining blood…” He had gone on to explain his whole process.
Hales shuddered now at the casual way he had related his expertise. What each tool could do was only limited by the imagination.
Combat-wise, he carried a long range scoped hunting rifle, with both frangible and armor piercing rounds. The frangible rounds were to ensure a live victim of course.
A man of few words, Liem talked the least out of everyone on her team. Sitting beside Liem was Ava the terrainer and Espen the medic. Ava and Espen were talking quietly.
Cursten, Hales’ engineer, was checking on his equipment and ensuring everything was running properly.
Saccha sank down and immediately started breaking into his food store, a wrapped meal of bread, cheese and dried meat.
The older squadmates were doing their best to ease the fears of their new captains. It didn’t matter the training and power they received, a stray bullet could still kill, or a venomous snake bite or an ambush in the dead of night. All real possibilities. Rockets, rifles and enemy Aspects of unknown power felt overwhelming in the empty plains.
Trained to be professional soldiers though, the captains knew how to hide any weaknesses. The veterans of course could see right through it.
Genjam spent his time double and triple checking his weapons. Bregan was meditating. Uana was discussing strategy with Hido and Jillian and the rest of her squad. Corvan, already having been on a couple missions, was playing dice with some soldiers.
Xander stayed anxiously on guard, as even now he kept his Bad Karma on.
Dartan talked with one of the new Specters, trading comments about each others power.
Juy, the youngest of everyone here, stayed busy by bathing in the moonlight. Hales wanted to ask her what she was doing with her power but the mood felt too severe to move around camp asking questions.
Marcarios was simply observing his new captains silently. How they handled downtime, how they supported their teams, their general moods and mannerisms.
Night came without event and watch duty rounds were rotated. Hales volunteered as she wasn’t tired at all. Traditionally a captain wouldn’t partake in night duty unless absolutely necessary, but Marcarios made no move to stop her. If doing all the chores her squad had to do was her approach to building a close team, then so be it.
Hales eased into her position, a clear view into the dark. The trick to watching a perimeter, she learned, was to allow your peripheral vision to do most of the seeing. Because the edge of your eyes react faster than the center of your focus, you can allow yourself to pick up on the slightest of movements without really even looking. An evolutionary trait no doubt, catching and reacting to prey and predator alike.
Looking into the shadows of the dark prairie landscape was eerie, the fact that an enemy soldier could appear out of nowhere only made the situation more creepy. She would have felt better if she could keep her Aspect activated, but the light her galaxy eyes give off wasn’t worth the risk of being spotted.
Her two hours of solitude ended when another soldier relieved her turn at the watch. He gave a salute and took her place, though she hardly noticed the gruff soldier. Hales was exhausted, the day of stress and travelling taking its toll on her.
She picked out a spot in camp and gratefully slept a dreamless, deep sleep. How could she know that would be the last good night she would have for months?
And as most pleasant things do, her respite came to an end.
“Ready up! We reach the plant by midday!” Marcarios barked the orders at the first sliver of dawn.
Hales thought she had just touched her head to the ground, and now it was morning! Sometimes the best sleeps are the ones where time seems to skip. Hales stretched and forced herself up. She drink deeply from her canteen and checked with her squad.
“Good to go?” She asked her team.
“Aye,” Saccha spoke for them all, the others nodding in agreement. If the mood was somber and apprehensive the previous night, this morning was entirely business.
The barest of human communication was made during the fifteen kilometer march. The summer sun warmed the air up and the humidity ensured that heat would linger. The tall grass diminished suddenly and the rolling hills of the prairie became a flatland of low shrubs and loose soil.
The target of their mission, the metal plant, came into view at the edge of the horizon in the form of a tiny blotch.
The force Marcarios led was fifty-seven strong. Seven captains with seven man cells and seven more soldiers directly under himself.
They carried their loaded guns and fanned out across the plain, advancing steadily toward the factory. Intel assured that the operation was classified. A low risk mission to reclaim a steady source of income for Garghent, break in the new soldiers and further establish Garghent’s military, political and economic efficiency.
Those were the benefits of the mission. Securing the plant was the objective.
So about a kilometer from the factory it came as a shock, at least to Hales, probably to a majority of the task force as well, that bullets should catch them in the open air, without cover and lacking any form of a barrier.
“Enemy snipers!” One soldier shouted before diving to the ground.
Hales was too choked to react when the dreadful whizzing noise of speeding lead approached her and flung dirt only a couple centimetres behind her. The worst part was the impossibility of a reaction in the first place. No warning, just a torrent of bullets too fast too see.
“Ah hell!” Complained Saccha, the weapon jack, who had with him only a short-ranged shotgun.