Stage 12 - A Good Start
Girdwood, Area 2
March 28, 2016 a.t.b.
Odds of a blizzard today: one in ten. Odds of Russia picking today slash tomorrow to invade without outside influence… Kallen briefly pondered how to model that. Probably a standard deviation away from the mean of a normal curve, so one in six.
Kallen stared out the window at the fierce blizzard that had conjured itself from the aether. The roads would be covered in patches of ice by now. Even if not, between the absurdly low visibility and high winds, trying to drive would be a death sentence. A helicopter would get them where they needed to go, but they had to wait for one to arrive. A lot could happen in the wasted hours.
If Britannia is responsible for this invasion or its timetable, odds of at least one person between the emperor and the actual instigators hating Lelouch and me: one in one. Perhaps that was a little pessimistic, but still. Odds said person knows we’re in the area: one in three, and that’s being generous to coincidence.
Kallen had never trusted coincidence. Russia’s invasion beginning earlier than expected while she and Lelouch were stuck in a blizzard triggered numerous red flags in her mind.
This won’t stop us. It just slows us down. It feels like a petty ‘fuck you’ with plausible deniability.
Even so, with roughly sixty to one odds against pure coincidence, Kallen assumed the timing was malicious. Or at least she gave it better than even odds. It was, however, debatable whether it was meant to spoil her birthday or if the blizzard was meant to delay them.
With a dismissive snort, Kallen turned away from the window to finish packing. This kind of obstructionism was neither new nor unexpected. Lelouch and Nonette were currently arranging for his assumption of command anyway, so very little harm was done.
Now where did I leave my dagger? It wasn’t with my sword…
Military District B, Area 2
March 29, 2016 a.t.b.
Flying through a whiteout, Kallen decided, was one of the most uniquely terrifying experiences life had to offer. As somewhat of a connoisseur of frightful situations, she should know. She’d evaded knightmares, dispatched assassins, dodged abductors, endured the wilderness, fought beside rebels, trounced thugs, and met the emperor. Unifying each experience was the ability to act, to see the situation change as she did.
A helicopter flight through a severe blizzard did not offer that. There was nothing but the white void. For all Kallen knew, they were stuck in place in the air. Only the heavy turbulence assured her that they were, in fact, moving, although she could not say where to or even in which way. It was good they had an experienced pilot, or else a mountain might sneak up on them and ruin their day.
Kallen clicked her tongue shortly into their flight when she noticed condensation building up on her scabbard. She set aside the book she’d been rereading and dried the crossguard with her handkerchief but made a mental note to not rely on her rapier. If the ice did not freeze it in place, the cold metal might just freeze her hand instead. She frowned when she noticed her parrying dagger in a similar state. That, however, she could at least tuck under her coat to keep available.
I hope it’s warm where we’re going.
After more than an hour of nothing but snow, the storm slowly diminished until it became nothing more than a bad memory. They could finally see again, and having done so, they turned their course southwest toward the Pacific. In an hour or two, they would rendezvous with the local navy – such as it was; Britannia had not been known for its fleets since Trafalgar – and then go from there.
“We have a stable signal with the flotilla again, Your Highness.”
Lelouch perked up from studying the early reports he’d received when they’d had a wired connection at the resort. “Are they under fire?”
A moment for the question to be relayed, and then, “No, Sir.”
“Then connect me to the commodore, Seaman.”
Half a minute later, a new voice came over the radio. “This is Commodore Joseph Porter.”
“This is Prince Lelouch vi Britannia. I have with me the Knight of Nine, Lady Enneagram. We’re en route to your position now as planned, unless you’ve been forced to move since last contact.”
“We have not, Your Highness. It’s my shame, however, to inform you that the Russians have since managed to establish a beachhead.”
Kallen noticed Lelouch smirk as they heard that, and she shared the sentiment. The more resources Russia committed to a land invasion, the easier it would be to cripple their fleet. It was unintentional but much needed aid. Strategy and tactics held little sway in modern naval battles; whoever had better tech and more guns, missiles, and fighters won, and Britannia’s collection was not impressive.
Of course, this would also be the first time in a century for marines to be properly involved in the fighting. With how effective knightmares had proven on land against conventional weapons, who knew how well they would perform at sea?
“You’re to hold position until our arrival,” Lelouch said. “How many Portmans” – the lovely new marine knightmare – “do we have at our disposal?”
A moment passed, and then the commodore replied, “At last count, one-hundred-twelve.”
“So about a company’s worth,” Lelouch idly said. He turned to Kallen and asked, “How quickly can you get their devicers properly trained?”
At her best guess, Kallen said, “A day should get us a win, but it really depends on who I have to work with. Portmans have barely been taken out of the box, so I’ll probably get unshaped clay to mold with no bad habits, but that also means huge info dumps. I’d feel more confident if you gave me a week to get them into the right frame of mind. There’s a certain degree of experimentalism in the tactics as well…”
But both Kallen and Lelouch knew a week was far too much to ask for. There was only so much they could do with the constraints the world had given them.
Over the radio, Lelouch said, “Commodore, when we arrive, gather the devicers for your Portmans and prepare what simulators you have available. Inform them that my knight, Lady Stadtfeld, and Lady Enneagram will be ensuring they’re prepared for the coming battle.”
“It shall be done, Your Highness.”
“Good. Send me your ships’ current locations, what we know of the enemy’s position, and an appropriate map. I need ship, sub, and mine placements to the best of our knowledge. I’ll present a battle plan to you when we arrive.”
And with that, the conversation was done. Orders had been given and were being carried out. Lelouch waited for the information he’d requested, Kallen went back to reading, and that was that.
“Just so we’re clear,” Lelouch said sometime later, “you two will not be piloting knightmares you’re barely familiar with in an environment you’ve never physically practised in.”
Nonette laughed. “No problem. The emperor would have your head if you sent me anyway.”
Glancing up from her book, Kallen added, “Marianne would come back from the dead just to lecture me.”
March 29, 2016 a.t.b.
Kallen sat cross-legged atop the large cargo box she’d commandeered. From it, she surveyed the crowd of devicers gathered before her. There were more of them than there were Portmans, but not by much. It was a small talent pool to work with, but she had more than enough practice putting troops through the sieve to sort the exceptional from the average.
Hmm… Roughly four males for every female. About right. Average age somewhere between twenty and thirty, so probably not unblooded for the most part. Kallen frowned slightly. Lots of tall, muscular people. Not ideal. That’ll burn up oxygen faster underwater, but it should be fine. The tanks should outlast the energy fillers. No obvious interpersonal problems to look out for when creating…
With a sigh, Kallen rose to her feet. “Oi!” That got the crowd’s attention. Then pointing in sequence, she said, “You, you, you, and you. Come talk to me up on deck. You know who you are. Everyone else, wait here.”
As Kallen hopped down from one crate to another to the floor, Nonette said, “Be gentle, and do try not to be a hypocrite.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kallen tossed back. “You just stay here and keep ‘supervising’,” which was the word Nonette used for ‘shirking responsibility’.
Marika Soresi knew exactly why she and her friends had been called out. It was obvious, really, and nothing new. But talent was respected in Britannia far above all other considerations. She mentally rehearsed the same arguments that had managed to get her here in the first place. They had worked several times before. They would work once more. If not, well, she pushed those thoughts aside. Instead, she forced herself to be optimistic and focused on the positive: the opportunity to speak with Lady Stadtfeld herself in person!
The men who transferred from Pendragon to the Western Fleet spoke of Lady Stadtfeld and Prince Lelouch in all but open worship. They spoke of the legacy of the Flash, the perfect warrior and general reborn in the son and his knight. Many doubted. Others scoffed. But Marika believed. There were so few women of true power to look up to in the world, and with Lady Stadtfeld’s young age, how could she not?
Yes, this would be the beginning of a legend etched into Britannian history. There could be no result but glorious victory. They were King Alwin and Queen Boudicca driving out the Romans once more! And Marika would be part of the story!
As she climbed the stairs out of the cargo hold onto the deck of the HMS Dauntless, Marika tried to steady her fraying nerves. Be calm, Marika. You will be dismissed outright if you can’t behave yourself.
Lily nudged Marika and gestured to their right. Erika and Jean noticed as well, and they turned as one. There before them she stood. Lady Stadtfeld leaned against the deck’s railing, gazing out upon the ocean. The sunrise lent a celestial glow to her profile and made her look every bit the figure of legend whispers promised she would become. Marika felt more than a little intimidated just gazing upon her.
As no one wanted to be the first to disturb Lady Stadtfeld’s thoughts, Marika soon found herself pushed forward and volunteered without consent. She twisted her head back to glare at the other girls, quickly noting Jean avert her eyes. There would be retribution later!
“You know Sir Gottwald,” Erika said. “She works with him. You’ve got this.”
“That’s not going to help,” Marika hissed back. “I only met him a few times when he came to visit my older brother.”
Jean said, “Then go talk to him and make doe eyes.”
“Or pout,” Lily unhelpfully suggested.
“That won’t work on him,” Marika insisted. “I haven’t even seen him in…” It must have been at least two years now. “You do it, Lily. You’re the heiress.”
Lily countered with, “Well, you’re our commander.”
A moment passed in silence. That little fact was so easy to forget with how long they’d known each other.
Before anything more could be said, Lady Stadtfeld’s commanding voice filled the air. “Enough, girls.” No one missed the quiet emphasis on the latter word as all four fell in line and snapped to attention to find her standing just before them. “If you squabble like this on the battlefield, consider yourselves discharged right now.”
Upon receiving a nudge in the side, Marika said, “We do not, Ma’am.”
Lady Stadtfeld raised a sceptical eyebrow and stared each one of them down. Ultimately, she let the matter pass without further challenge. “Very well. I want to–” She paused to glance over the four of them. After waiting for something to happen, she then uttered a string of foreign words that sounded like a storm of profanity. “At ease, or rest, or whatever.”
Marika relaxed slightly and dropped the salute but went no further. From the corner of her eye, she saw her friends do the same.
“I’m going to be frank with you four. I am very uncomfortable with child soldiers.”
As soon as Marika opened her mouth to speak, Lady Stadtfeld held up a hand.
“I don’t care how good or bad you are in a knightmare. I don’t know how you got here, and the only reason I want to know is to prevent it from ever happening again. I’m aware that this a more widespread problem than I wish to admit, but that changes nothing. So each of you, name, age, and why on Earth you’re here. If I don’t like your reason, you’re out. You first, Blondie.”
“Dame Liliana Vergamon,” Lily said. She was the heiress to her father’s Barony, although no one expected her to inherit anytime soon. Tall and well-developed for her age with, as Lady Stadtfeld had pointed out, long blonde hair, she could perhaps pass herself off as an adult. She hesitated, the lie clearly on the tip of her tongue. “Thirteen.” It was the honest answer. “I… I’m here to support Marika.”
Lady Stadtfeld quirked an eyebrow once more. Time passed, but the added pressure pulled nothing more out of Lily, no fumbling lie to sound more noble or patriotic nor concern for personal glory. Oddly enough, Marika had the distinct impression that ‘For Britannia’ would result in instant dismissal.
Skipping over Marika rather blatantly, Lady Stadtfeld turned from Lily on Marika’s right to the girl on her left. “And you?”
“Dame Erika Smith.” Like Marika herself, Erika had caramel-coloured hair, although she could grow it out without it frizzing into a nightmare. Not that Marika was jealous, of course. One glance at her was enough to tell she was not from the nobility, and her accent placed her at home amongst the middle class in Area One. “Thirteen. Also here for Marika.”
“Uh-huh. And you?”
“Dame Jean Ainsworth.” She had black hair clipped short into a pixie cut. Like Erika, she, too, was a commoner, although from the upper class. Without hesitation, she added, “Same and same.”
“Brilliant,” Lady Stadtfeld muttered under her breath. She returned her gaze at last to Marika. “What’s your story, then?”
“I’m Corporal Marika Soresi. I command the Valkyrie Squad.” She gestured to her friends. “Thirteen. Next month.” Deciding to go all the way with the truth, she said, “I need an unassailable reason not to be pregnant in a year’s time.”
Lady Stadtfeld closed her eyes and took a deep breath, slowly in and even slower out.
“Let me guess. Betrothed at birth?”
“Your fiancé’s family is looking a bit thin in numbers?”
“His parents found a loophole to marry you early?”
Marika’s eyes fell to her feet, but she still nodded.
“You’re looking to catch someone’s eye to get a royal patron?”
“Who were you hoping for?”
“General Cornelia,” Marika admitted, although perhaps another option had appeared before her.
Lady Stadtfeld snorted, amused for whatever reason. “Good pick. Her Highness would be very sympathetic to your plight. She spends much of her political capital ensuring that Princess Euphemia can live her life however she wishes. Quick question, then. If it were possible, would you want your fiancé and or his family to disappear?”
“No!” Marika said. “No, I – Leonhardt is…nice. I can’t say I love him, but I don’t wish him ill. Ah. Leonhardt Steiner, that’s my fiancé’s name.”
“Hmph. I recognise the family. They’re in the knightmare business. The Steiner–Konzern conglomerate, if I recall correctly. Of course they get whatever they want.”
A moment passed in silence as Lady Stadtfeld ruminated on everything they had told her.
“Alright, you four. Here’s the deal. I’m going to let you take part in today’s training. If you really impress me, I’ll consider fielding you somewhere that’s not likely to get you killed.”
Marika smiled, unable to help herself, and her friends collapsed into her in a group hug. They were the best of the best. They could handle anything thrown at them, and they knew it.
“After things have settled down, I’ll be able to give you more options. For now, however, consider yourselves part of the vi Britannia retinue.”
Too stunned to say anything herself, Erika asked on Marika’s behalf, “Can you do that?”
“My word is that of my prince.” As anyone from the nobility would know, plus or minus some technicalities. “Go rejoin the rest of the crowd. Corporal, inform Lady Enneagram that I’ll return shortly.”
“Yes, My Lady!” came four voices in chorus. The other three left to follow the order, and Marika tarried only long enough to offer her sincerest gratitude. She owed Lady Stadtfeld a debt beyond measure. Someday she hoped she would find a way to repay it.
Lelouch picked up his phone and answered it. “What is it, Kallen?”
“I adopted some problem children.”
Not being in private, Lelouch resisted knocking his head against the wall behind him. Instead, he settled for saying, “As I said before, they’re your problem, my dearest.”
“Love you too,” Kallen replied in a sickeningly sweet voice. Far more seriously, she said, “We need to do something about children in our military and refine our marriage law.”
“I’ll add it to the list.” It said a lot about the state of their country that those would be among the easiest issues to resolve.
“Would you take care of putting the kids under our authority for me?”
“Sure.” It would take no more than a moment. “Names?”
“The Valkyrie Squad should cover it. Thanks, Lelouch.”
“You could return the favour,” Lelouch said. “Do you have a better estimate on how much time you’ll need with the devicers?”
“No. I haven’t had a chance to work with them yet. I’ll text you in about an hour once I have.”
“Thanks.” Lelouch hung up and replaced his phone in his pocket. He returned inside to the command centre where the brass awaited him. “Apologies for the interruption. Commodore, my knight decided to poach the Valkyrie Squad from your command. Do you have any objections?”
Commodore Porter’s expression twitched into half a smile for a moment. “None, Your Highness.”
“Excellent. Now as I was saying, the reports you sent me indicated that Russia deployed a minefield along their approach to the coast to protect their rear.” Lelouch gestured to the area in question with his rake on the map before them. “Judging by their haste, the depth, and the wide area covered, I imagine these are simple contact mines to spare their coffers. Do we have any confirmation as such?”
The commodore turned to the communications officer present. “Contact our scouts in Sector E7.”
A few minutes later, Lelouch had the answer he wanted.
“In that case, I propose we move them in secret.”
The room looked to Lelouch in question.
“Portmans possess the required dexterity and range of operation.” First placing several mine tokens onto the map, Lelouch then pushed them into position. “I propose we move their mines here. Russia has already swept the area, correct?”
Commodore Porter nodded. “Only a few hours ago, in fact.”
“Then they will consider it a safe path to retreat through. If we drive their fleet from our shores from the west, which admittedly will require time for us to manoeuvre, Russia will likely retreat south rather than risk running afoul of their own mines.”
“You want to trick them into their own trap.”
Lelouch nodded. “And since they’ve provided so very many mines for us to work with, we can redeploy them in an arc to catch them again when they turn east.”
“Hmm…” Commodore Porter stroked his beard in thought. “As long as the Portmans betray no hint of their activities and we pressed their retreat hard, this would be devastating to the Russian fleet. If even a single mine detonates early, however…”
With a shrug, Lelouch said, “Then we will have lost nothing but time. Not optimal, but I doubt Russia has reinforcements incoming, and their ground forces will have little to do without naval support while their fleet is dealing with us. The coastline is littered with lakes, rivers, and mountains to hamper their movement, and there’s little of interest to seize inland.”
“Ideally,” Lelouch continued, “we want to force the Russian fleet to abandon their army or else be sunk. If that happens, Area Two’s army will be able to win a battle of attrition against Russia’s stranded one. While they do so, we should then be able to take the Siberian coast with relative ease. We can also detour to Hokkaido in Area Eleven to supplement our preliminary invasion force without draining Area Two’s reserves.”
Clovis would not have many knightmares available to spare, however, an unfortunate consequence of Lelouch’s duel with Marrybell. Still, uncontested control of the sea would be more than advantage enough to roll over whatever token force remained to defend Siberia’s ports. The expansive wilderness between them and Russia proper would be the true defence to overcome.
Nodding in approval to Lelouch’s plan, Commodore Porter asked, “Lieutenant Long, do we have enough energy fillers to support this operation?”
“With enough left over to engage in a major battle?” Lelouch asked.
Lieutenant Long hesitated a moment before answering. “There should be enough, but if I may be so bold, Your Highness, our Portmans did not fare well in our initial confrontation with the Russian fleet. They’re not the game changer that the Glasgow was on land.”
“Yes, I read through the report, and I was not surprised with the results. Portmans are neither submarines nor infantry. The closest analogue to existing weaponry would be a fighter aircraft, but that, too, falls short. Nevermind the tactics for now, however, while we finish developing our strategy. Lady Stadtfeld will see to it that our devicers are prepared for the battle to come.”
March 29, 2016 a.t.b.
Although not surprising, the low number of simulators disappointed Kallen. Sadly, there was only so much space on a ship; priorities had to be made. Still, she had a dozen proper ones to rotate her trainees through, and there were plenty of Portmans to add into the simulation space without the physical feedback. Those would help their devicers less, but it would have to be enough.
After confirming that everything was set up and ready to go, Kallen hopped into a Portman with an eager grin. She inserted the key, entered the code, and connected to the simulation. She’d spent the entire flight here reading for just this occasion.
Marika admitted that she was perhaps a little too excited for this training session. In all likelihood, Lady Stadtfeld would ultimately keep the Valkyrie Squad as far from active combat as she could, but this might possibly be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Ace devicers on the level of the Knights of the Round were rare, and they did not train others – or at least not in groups like this. There were too many battles and duties that kept them otherwise busy.
A notification on Marika’s screen popped up. Lady Stadtfeld had finally joined them. Her Portman spawned a distance away and above the rest of the crowd. She engaged her hydro jet pack and, at a casual pace, approached the group in a diving arc headfirst before slowly drifting to a stop.
Lady Stadtfeld then demanded, “Why are you upside down, soldiers?”
The next thirty minutes left Marika with a splitting headache as she tried to internalise how to fight without gravity weighing her down.
March 31, 2016 a.t.b.
“Alright, girls, listen up.” Lady Stadtfeld’s voice came over loud and clear within the Valkyrie Squad’s knightmares. “I am really stretching my comfort zone with this, but here we are. I want to make sure you understand your situation. You four have an isolated target to sink. You will not under any circumstances join in the rest of the battle. If it comes to you, you will abandon your mission and retreat to the Angelina. Understood?”
A chorus of, “Yes, Ma’am!” came in response. In all honesty, Marika was surprised they’d been allowed even this much.
“I’ll be watching over all four of you. If I think you’re about to die, I will eject you. If I think you’re about to fall into a trap, I will eject you. If I think you’re about to do something incredibly daft, I will eject you. No complaints. Understood?”
“If one of you ejects, your priority is to recover her and retreat to the Angelina. If one of you finds herself unable to take a life, own up to it immediately and you all retreat as a unit. Understood?”
A sigh came over the speakers. “Good. Remember that I’m a crutch, not a safety net. I can miss something as easily as a crutch can be knocked from your grasp. When you’re submerged to any nontrivial depth, I can’t stay in contact. This is also my first time sitting behind a computer like this, so don’t count on me to save you. Your first responsibility is always to keep yourself and each other alive. Are you four ready?”
“B4, standing by,” Jean said.
Erika came next. “B3, standing by.”
And then Lily said, “B2, standing by.”
“B1, standing by,” Marika said.
“Very well. B1, it’s your command.”
“Right,” Marika mumbled. This was it. “Valkyrie Squad, move out! Stay low and stay slow.” If they were lucky, the enemy battleship would have no idea they were even coming.
The seabed was nothing like Marika had envisioned. Her imagination had filled her mind with great coral reefs, endless kelp forests, massive schools of fish, sharks, manta rays, the kraken! All she found here was sand, the occasional rock, and more sand. There was no light but what her squad brought with them. Truly, it was a wasteland.
“Two kilometres to target,” Lily said.
Close. Marika considered sending someone to act as a diversion to draw attention but ultimately discarded the idea. Sonar could not be distracted as the eye could be on land, and they could only communicate reliably at a distance of twenty metres. They had best stick together.
How to ascend… That was the question. They would be noticed no matter what, but if they kept their movement slow, they might be able to pass as a group of particularly large fish. No, if the Russians are wise, they’ll fire at anything that moves. A rapid ascent it is, then.
“We’re going to make a fast ascent,” Marika said. “Half max speed. We’ll need the extra time to react to torpedoes.”
“When the enemy fires at us, spread out and call your shots. We have eight slash harkens between us, and we need to intercept every incoming torpedo. Try to avoid doubling up.”
“Begin ascent!” Marika said. The group turned as one to climb straight up.
A minute passed in tense silence.
“Torpedoes launched!” Lily said. Everyone could hear the slight tremor in her voice, but she powered through remarkably well. “I read three on my sonar.”
Erika and Jean quickly confirmed the number.
“You know the drill. Turn to meet them.” Underwater, one always had the ability to present the smallest possible profile for the enemy to track and hit. Moving antiparallel did make it harder to dodge, true, but that went both ways. A head-on slash harken rarely missed.
As the missiles neared, the sonar assigned distinct IDs to each. Marika left it to the other three girls this time to intercept them.
“Fire as soon as you have a lock.”
One by one, the others sent out their slash harkens, and each one hit. The resulting explosions sent them flailing awkwardly for a few seconds in the roiling waters, but they regained control quickly.
“Ascend full speed!” Marika said. “Let’s take advantage of the explosions blinding them.” After she confirmed that everyone had heard and obeyed the command, she added, “Damage report.”
“B2, down a slash harken.”
“B3, no damage.”
“B4, down a harken.”
Marika checked the mass of noise that her sonar displayed. From what little it could tell her, all three torpedoes were gone. The first and second must have detonated the third before Erika’s slash harken got in range – not optimal, but she would take it.
As they rose, daylight finally returned. Above them, the enemy battleship slowly floated away from them. Even from this distance, Marika could tell the ship had already sustained significant damage. Their job was to finish it off.
“B2, disable the rudder. B4, destroy the propellers. Help whoever finishes first. B3, you’re with me to watch for enemy missiles if they’re feeling suicidal. Or if they go mad and drop a land knightmare into the water to take us out.”
Lily immediately fired her one good slash harken into the battleship just above the rudder. She left it locked in place and pulled her knightmare in close, anchoring her. From that position, she unlocked the cutting tool from her leg and grasped it with her Portman’s manipulators. She then set about cutting an access hole into the ship’s interior, at which point she could easily disable the rudder’s control mechanism. It would take time, but the enemy’s only real options were to watch helplessly or self-destruct.
Not far away, Jean set about doing the same to the first of the battleship’s four propellers. After those two finished crippling the ship, it would be time to set about sinking it. That would take far longer, but it was less of a hassle than one might expect. A Portman carried enough miniature torpedoes to tear open a sizeable hole with the right prep work.
“Hmm, good work” – Marika jumped at the voice – “so far, B1.”
“La – er, Q1! You’re back!”
“Don’t get distracted,” Lady Stadtfeld said. “I’m just reviewing your knightmare’s logs.”
“Right.” Marika turned her attention back to her knightmare’s scanners.
March 31, 2016 a.t.b.
Yet another ship sunk. This one had fallen to four little girls. They vanished from the map now with increasing frequency. Dozens of knightmares laboured in parallel, each at their own pace, while the battle between navies raged. Now the fruits of their labour showed as they harvested the Russian fleet with impunity.
It began small.
That was how it always began.
“Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha, ha ha ha!”
The entire command centre stopped what they were doing to stare at Lelouch. Those who had something actively consuming their attention could only cast the occasional glance, but he knew they were watching.
“Your Highness?” Commodore Porter said, hesitant to question the madness.
There was no other word for today. This battle was synonymous with victory. Lelouch had heard how utterly one-sided the invasion of Japan had been, but to personally witness and direct such a conflict was another beast entirely. For perhaps the first time in his life, he truly appreciated why the world was so obsessed with knightmares. Pure satisfaction in a plan well executed beyond his wildest estimations washed through him and overflowed into the surrounding world.
“Ah…” Even as Lelouch’s laughter died, the glee never left his face. There would be time to reflect on the lives lost another day. For now, he merely wished to indulge. “Forgive me, Commodore. We should share a toast. Britannia rules the sea once more.”
Commodore Porter’s sceptical gaze lingered but a moment longer. He turned his attention back to the map and uttered a simple, “Quite.”
April 4, 2016 a.t.b.
“I admit I was scared at first,” Lily said, “but all in all, our mission was a lot easier than I thought it would be when Lady Stadtfeld first gave it to us.” With her part said, she reached for the bowl of crisps they’d managed to beg off of the quartermaster. Sometimes being young had its perks.
Jean swallowed her snack down and then said, “She did express her…disinclination for us to be in danger.”
“Do you blame her?” Marika commented. “I truly appreciate that you three are here for me, but most of my head still screams at me to send you home.”
“Not that you ever could,” Lily insisted. She was more right than she probably thought, in truth. Marika had no idea how she would cope without her friends with her.
“Lily, Jean,” Erika began, already snickering, “did either of you see that knightmare the Russians tried to put on a tiny little boat to shoot at us?”
The mere question alone sent all four girls crackling into full blown laughter.
“What even was up with that?” Marika said. She had a hard time trying to decide if it had been adorable or pitiable.
“Hey, they had to do something,” Erika countered with a grin stretching her face to its limit. “It’s not their fault – Lady Stadtfeld!”
Reacting almost as one, all four rose to their feet and spun to face the woman in question. The bowl of crisps almost fell over in their haste, leaving Erika to awkwardly catch it.
“Sorry to break up the fun, girls, but I need to speak with your commander. Follow me.”
Marika turned to her friends, each of whom gave her an encouraging smile that she returned. They all knew what this meeting would entail and had anticipated it for some time now. If it went well, all their worries about the future would be over.
After a few minutes of walking, Marika found herself in the computer room where the knightmare simulations were controlled. Lady Stadtfeld sat behind one of them and gestured for her to take a seat anywhere. The engineering staff, she supposed, were probably on their lunch break.
“I hope you don’t mind if I occasionally fiddle with the computers. I promised to keep everything running for us to have a little privacy.”
Marika had no complaints and said as such, not that she really needed to give her permission. But it so given, Lady Stadtfeld pulled up a keyboard and mouse and set to work with a pensive look on her face. Marika did not need to be a telepath to know she was trying to decide just how to start this conversation.
For her own part, Marika waited patiently, determined not to press.
“When I was your age,” Lady Stadtfeld began, but she trailed off into a rueful chuckle. “‘When I was your age’ indeed. I’m only a few years older than you.”
While true in the chronological sense, Marika could not imagine herself being half the woman Lady Stadtfeld was at a mere sixteen years. She barely felt capable of looking after her friends, whereas Lady Stadtfeld was already a knight protecting royalty, an industrial tycoon, and a countess who cared for millions.
That kind of responsibility would overwhelm me in days.
“Nonette would never let me hear the end of it if she heard me say that,” Lady Stadtfeld mumbled. “Marika – ah, may I call you Marika?”
The girl in question nodded.
“Great. Our little circle of friends isn’t big on formality in private. Except for Jeremiah, but I overheard that you know what he’s like.”
Despite herself, Marika let out a quiet titter.
“Marika, over the last few days, I’ve created several options for you, some more appealing than others, but I need to ask you a few questions before we get to them. First, how long were you hoping to avoid your fiancé?”
“Avoid is a strong word,” Marika said, which only earned her a sceptical look. “At least until I’m an adult. Probably longer.”
“That won’t be a problem. Are you expecting your friends to want to join you?”
Without hesitation, Marika replied, “Yes.” They had vowed to stick together to the best of their ability.
“Have you four been keeping up with your schooling?”
This time Marika faltered for a moment. But as tempting as it was to lie, the truth would come out far too easily. She thus admitted, “We try, but we’re a little behind.”
Lady Stadtfeld – Kallen, Marika corrected herself despite how unearned that felt – clicked her tongue. “I see. What do you want to do with your life?”
“Well…I’m going to be the next Lady Steiner, so–”
Kallen interrupted, “Want, Marika, not expect.”
“Oh. I, um… I’ve not really thought about it, I suppose. I do enjoy piloting knightmares, though, and most of my family has been in the military at one point or another. That’s part of how I convinced them to let me be here. After that…I don’t know.”
“Hmm, fair enough. In that case, here are your options. When we reach Siberia, Lelouch and I will be going off on one of his mad plans that will ultimately result in a spectacular victory, so no matter what, you won’t be coming with us for some time. Your first choice, if you really insist, is to stay here and let what happens happen.”
Marika blanched at the offer, and Kallen chuckled at the look on her face.
“No, I thought not. Second, Cornelia is willing to take you in and find some busywork for you that sounds more important than it actually is.”
That sounded more appealing.
“Third, the Knight of Two offered more or less the same, although with him you would be more likely to end up in a knightmare in RTD.”
That sounded exciting!
“Your fourth option, and the one I would highly prefer you take, is to enrol in Ashford Academy. I’ll have time to take you down to Tokyo when we stop in Hokkaido. You see, you and your friends are the same age as Nunnally…”
Britannian Army Garrison Hokkaido
Hokkaido Government Borough, Area 11
April 6, 2016 a.t.b.
“Lelouch, please. You owe me a favour. I really need your help with this one. I could be disinherited!”
“I’m sorry, Clovis,” Lelouch said with some amount of sincerity. Of all his siblings, Clovis was one of the more decent sort, regardless of whatever suspect activities he’d decided to indulge in recently. “The emperor specifically ordered me to launch our invasion. Have you asked Marrybell to help yet?”
Lelouch could feel Clovis’s flinch from the other end of the phone a thousand kilometres away.
Hmm… I wonder if Marrybell figured out what Clovis was up to? I’ll have to call her later before I set sail again.
Clovis’s voice broke Lelouch out of his thoughts. “She’s being…uncooperative.”
“Not surprising, I suppose,” Lelouch said. “You know how tenuously held her own position is. Involving herself in covering up a chemical weapons scandal could ruin her if it got out.”
“And that’s why I didn’t push her on it and came to you.”
Before the request could be made once more, Lelouch said, “I truly am sorry I can’t help, Clovis. To be honest, you’re probably my favourite brother, but no one disobeys a direct order from the emperor.”
Clovis sighed in resignation. “I understand. Have fun in Russia, then. Father couldn’t have picked a better general. Besides Schneizel.”
“Oi!” Lelouch said flatly. He ignored the snickering coming from his phone and ended the call. Daft git.
Disregarding the annoying fop’s parting jab, Lelouch returned to work poring over personnel files. Jeremiah was somewhere nearby overseeing the assembly of a small army to take and hold the Siberian coastline. Kallen was off settling the Valkyrie Squad into Ashford Academy for now, ostensibly on undercover guard duty. That left just him to sort out the right candidates for his own personal task force.
Hmm… There’s not as many people fluent in French or Russian here as I’d hoped. I may need to pull from other garrisons.
Lelouch clicked from one profile to the next.
We’ll need to interview them, too, to ensure they can pass as Europeans. I wish we had a foreign legion to draw on as France does. That would make this much less time consuming.
One person passed after another all in a line thousands long.
How many of the Shinozaki will we need? Lelouch mused. Perhaps a dozen? I’ll have to ask for Shinobu’s advice. She would know more about black ops missions than I would.
Lelouch clicked to another file and paused.
What is a polyglot doing as a foot soldier?
Apparently, one Cecile Carrel spoke English, French, Russian, several dialects of German, Japanese, Chinese, and a half-dozen other languages without a trace of an accent. Lelouch glanced at the picture accompanying her file. She looked young, although the black hair framing her face and apathetic expression lent a certain maturity to her appearance. A glimpse of her recorded age made him snort.
I’m going to assume she’s sixteen, not six-hundred-sixteen. Are the languages also a computer error?
Not there was anything to lose by throwing Private Carrel into the interview pile. If it were, in fact, in error, it would be discovered within moments.
Britannian Army Encampment
Vladivostok Countryside, Russia
April 12, 2016 a.t.b.
With no time to develop countermeasures, the remainder of the Russian Pacific Fleet had fallen with the same brutal efficiency as the rest. The Britannian fleet had sailed into their home port of Vladivostok with almost no resistance. The local army had fought valiantly but had ultimately been forced to retreat; too much of it was stranded an ocean away in Area Two to hold the city, and Britannia had sailed too swiftly for reinforcements to arrive in time.
Vladivostok had fallen, and yet life moved on. Although travel into and out of the city had been cut off, the hundreds of thousands of civilians who had not fled in time lived out their daily lives relatively unaffected. There had been no senseless slaughters that had so plagued the invasion of Japan, only the brief acknowledgement of a change in sovereignty.
Kallen felt a jacket wrap around her shoulders. She shifted and wiggled until it settled comfortably against her neck and down her back. In her hands, she held a mug of precious hot cocoa, one of many she’d smuggled out of Alyeska Resort. She indulged in a slow, nursing sip.
“Forty-seven,” Kallen said. From her seat atop a small cliffside overlooking Vladivostok, she tried to imagine removing that many people from one area all at once. Cars travelling along the motorway were the easiest to identify. When she did, she found it such a small number.
“It’s probably not healthy to keep count,” Lelouch idly commented as he sat down.
A shrug was all the reply Kallen gave. Lelouch was probably right, and she would likely avoid doing so in the future, but it had been so easy, not at all like fighting the purists had been. The severe numbers disparity and unpractised teamwork back then had kept her mind constantly busy. This battle had been the complete opposite. She’d been a central feature of a well oiled machine designed for one solitary purpose.
Instead of dwelling on gloomy thoughts, Kallen leaned into Lelouch and enjoyed the comforting warmth of another living being.
“We should go wander the city,” Kallen suggested. “Put on our disguises and practice pretending to be French. Better to be caught out here than in European Russia.”
“You just want to explore.”
The accusation came without bite, and Kallen admitted, “Maybe.”
“We’ll go when you finish your drink.”
Kallen hummed appreciatively and leaned her head against Lelouch’s shoulder. For the moment, all she wanted was the soothing presence his company provided.
Vladivostok Outskirts, Russia
April 12, 2016 a.t.b.
Kallen heard a soft sound approaching, a quiet pitter-patter that grew faintly louder. Judging by the beat, someone was approaching from behind. She withdrew her phone and glanced in the reflection, but nothing caught her eye. Just in case, she briefly turned it on and off as if checking a message.
Still the sound’s source neared. When it came too close, she spun around with pistol drawn.
Frowning, Kallen gave the area one last glance only to find nothing and no one. “My ears must be playing tricks on me. I could have sworn someone was right behind us.”
“Are you sure there’s not?”
Hesitant to conclude otherwise, Kallen said, “No. But it could have been a raccoon or something.”
“Raccoons are mostly found in the homeland. Perhaps a badger?”
“Maybe…” With a shrug, Kallen turned back around and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
The pair resumed walking. Kallen kept a careful ear out, but this time she only heard the sound of their own feet. Just in case, she veered them down an alley. If anyone was following them, she would know exactly where to aim.
A minute passed, then two, as the pair traversed the alleyways back toward the encampment.
Hmm, I suppose it was just my imagination.
But then came a very faint but very human grunt of exertion. Reacting instantly, Kallen shouldered Lelouch aside. The next moment, a knife plunged into her back. Over the clamour that Lelouch made as he fell and her own scream, she heard a male voice swear in English under his breath as he pulled the knife out.
Kallen kicked out behind her and hit someone in the legs, knocking them down. She spun in place and found a man in all black on the ground behind her. Ignoring her wound, adrenaline fuelling her, she stomped down on the hand holding the knife and drew her pistol.
But Kallen’s foot went right through the assassin’s wrist as if he were a ghost. The illusion – hologram? – faded, and Kallen picked up on the sound of movement that should not be there in Lelouch’s direction.
“Lelouch, run!” Kallen called out as she fired. A sharp cry of pain was her reward, even if she had no bloody idea who she’d hit or where he was.
For only an instant, Lelouch’s eyes met Kallen’s with a silent command to live. They’d had this conversation before. She was replaceable. He was a liability. His job was to get to safety. Hers was to provide it.
As Lelouch fled forward around a corner, Kallen picked up the lid of a rubbish bin. She flung it as a Frisbee in the general direction of the last wrong sound she’d heard. It hit a hand, she supposed, as a pistol fell to the ground. Unless that, too, was an illusion? It made the right sound, though.
Trusting her ears, Kallen flung another lid in roughly the right direction. Her eyes told her this one sailed on unobstructed, but the dull thud of impact with clothes betrayed the truth. She fired in that direction with her gun, but it sounded as though she’d missed every shot.
Swearing under her breath, Kallen replaced the magazine as her eyes scanned for something else to throw besides flimsy rubbish. She did not want to get into a melee fight with an invisible assassin, and giving him enough time to start a gunfight would be even worse.
From the direction Lelouch had probably left, a woman came running in to join the fray with pistol drawn. For a moment, Kallen tried disbelieving the illusion. When that failed to work, she ignored the woman. She was probably not real anyway.
But then the woman fired at thin air, and her gun very definitely made a sound, so she was real.
Except right after that, the woman vanished from sight entirely. Kallen had barely even gotten a glance at her. The sound of a scuffle broke out, and now Kallen was a liability. She had no idea what was going on, it was a coin toss on hitting her tentative ally or the assassin if she attacked, she had little ability to defend herself, she was bleeding out, and adrenaline would only last her so long.
Kallen had but one option. She bolted in the direction Lelouch had left. If she could get away from the fight, she removed herself from the equation. Maybe she could even reach help. Besides, the mysterious woman seemed unaffected by whatever technological magic had been cast here. She could handle herself.
As soon as Kallen ran, her vision blackened. Surprised, she tripped over something a moment later.
Cursing as she scrambled to her feet, Kallen reached out with one hand to find the wall on her right. In total darkness, she felt her way forward as quickly as she dared. If her mental map was right, she was almost to the corner Lelouch had fled around.
Two things happened.
The woman cried out, “No!” just as a gun fired.
Then came the sound of bone cracking and the flump of a body.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. Kallen spun around and opened fire behind her hoping for a lucky hit. Her ally was down, so she aimed high. The mournful click of an empty magazine soon met her ears a dozen shots later. The lack of a death cry meant only one thing: she would be dead before she reloaded.
This was it. This was the end.
This was…unfair. Magic was a bloody diabolus ex machina.
And then sight came back to Kallen with a vengeance. Pain, her body, and the world faded away. What she could only describe as the pulsing nerves of colour assaulted her mind. This was different, far beyond the illusions she’d been subjected to – real, yet not. Time stopped. The danger paused.
“You don’t want it to end here, do you?”
What… The voice spoke directly to Kallen, bypassing such mundane things as ears.
“You have a reason for living.”
Now that the shock had sunk in, Kallen recognised the voice. It was the woman who’d come to her rescue. For but an instant, the woman’s very being lay bare before her. She recognised who this was: C.C..
But that was a passing thing, a fleeting moment. An instant later, she felt connected. To everyone and everything. Endless knowledge filled her head, none of which she could process. The universe whispered its secrets to her if only she would listen and understand.
“If you had the strength, you could survive. I propose a deal.”
C.C.’s voice snapped Kallen’s mind into focus. A deal?
“In return for my gift of power, you must grant one wish of mine.”
Every single fibre of Kallen’s being screamed at her to refuse on principle. Even the least genre-savvy person in the world would recognise the situation she found herself in. Power and her life in exchange for one unspecified wish? There were so many ways that could go wrong. But what choice did she have? C.C. held all the bargaining power.
“Accept this contract, and you accept its conditions. While living in the world of humans, you will live unlike any other. A different fate, a different time, a different life.”
An endless crowd filled Kallen’s mind, all united in the symbol each bore upon their forehead: the red silhouette of a bird in flight. Their clothing ranged from modern, to medieval, to ancient, to older than dirt. Each, she knew, had been the bearer of a geass, for that was the name of the power C.C. offered. The word blazed in her mind. Power, it promised, power enough to win but only if she herself possessed the strength to seize her victory.
“The power of the queen will condemn you to a life of solitude.”
There was a hidden truth behind those words, but their meaning escaped Kallen. It spoke of something more than geass.
“If you are prepared for that…”
Kallen snorted. Between death and solitude, the choice was obvious. She had so much left to do. She had a world to change. She had loved ones to protect. She would not let them be bereaved again. Never again.
“I accept your contract!”