Round One

Stage 17 - Light the Fire


Moscow–Saint Petersburg Motorway

Northwestern Province, Russia

May 24, 2016 a.t.b.


“You’re going to love the Tsvetochnyye Skaly when you get there. The view is amazing in spring.”

“I’m sure we will, Victor,” Lelouch said. A jolt of pain shot through his leg as Kallen shifted in her sleep. He carefully repositioned it to relieve the paresthesia afflicting him without waking her. He then resumed idly stroking her hair. “Rose insisted on seeing them and a half-dozen other things before we return to France. Stubborn girl. She should be in a hospital, not backpacking across the Russian Steppe.”

“You’re a long way from the steppe, Roland,” Victor said in good cheer, no doubt trying to lighten the mood.

“I suppose we are.” To be fair, they had passed through much of it on the journey to Moscow.

“What happened to her?”

“Stray bullet from a Brit. We started our trip on the east coast and got caught up in the invasion.”

“Ah,” Victor said solemnly. “Not the best start to a honeymoon.”

“Indeed. I certainly hope we won’t repeat the experience when the time comes.”

“Oh, you’re not married? I’m sorry for assuming.”

Lelouch waved the apology away. He noticed Victor saw the gesture in the mirror from his seat at the wheel. “You’re not entirely wrong. We’re recently engaged.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you. It’s a bit of a relief to be honest. Rose and I have been flirting and dancing around each other since we were children.”

“Ah, those awkward adolescent years,” Victor said with no small amount of nostalgia in his voice.

“And you?”

“Wife and three daughters.”

Lelouch reached out with a hand to rest it on the shoulder of Victor, his comrade. He wore the smile of a broken man and spoke with the weary and weathered voice of the long suffering. “I know your burden, my brother. You’re as outnumbered as I have always been. Weep, if you must, for you are among friends.”

Victor laughed hard enough at the delivery that he had to swerve back into their lane on the motorway. “Should I ask?”

“Single mother and sisters,” Lelouch replied. “Only sisters. Lots and lots of sisters and their friends.”

What followed could euphemistically be described as masculine bonding at the expense of the female gender. At some point, Kallen awoke, took particular offence at one remark, and pinched Lelouch’s leg hard, but she otherwise pretended to remain asleep. She recognised what he was doing and opted to let him get on with it. One could obtain a lot of information from someone which would otherwise not be volunteered in a comfortable and amicable atmosphere.

Eventually, the conversation turned to the war and politics. Lelouch trusted the Shinozaki to have given him good information – that was why he was here, after all – but he needed to hear it straight from the source to truly understand the principles and emotions underlying the situation well enough to use them. Victor was but one of many natives he’d queried on the journey from Vladivostok to western Russia, and the man would certainly not be the last.

“The politicians” – Victor spat the word – “in Moscow are going to get us all killed. Or worse.”

“It does seem a little…optimistic, perhaps, to challenge Britannia alone.”

Victor scoffed. “No need to mince words. It’s arrogance. Or maybe politics. Don’t know which. Maybe both.”

Lelouch feigned confusion. “Politics? How do you mean?”

With an angry snort, Victor replied, “What does an unpopular government always do to distract the populace?”

“Bread and circuses?”

That pulled a laugh out of Victor. “I was thinking start a war.”

“Because that worked so well with the Russo–Japanese War,” Kallen said, entering into the conversation.

“Not exactly how that happened, but still not my country's finest moment, Briar Rose. Did your prince kiss you awake?”

Kallen let out a short sigh of distress. “No,” she said with the well feigned heartbreak of a pure and innocent young maiden. “His Highness is never one for romance. It is a cold and callous heart that holds my own.” She sniffled and wiped a tear from her eye.

“My apologies, My Lady.” Lelouch bent over to gently kiss Kallen on the forehead.

“Not what I was expecting,” Kallen said flatly, “but I accept your apology, my handsome Prince…” Her expression slowly morphed into a frown. “What was the prince’s name in the story?”

“I don’t believe he has one,” Lelouch said. “Victor?”

“No idea.”

Kallen chuckled. “Well, that says a lot about his importance.” She slipped a hand around the back of Lelouch’s neck and pulled. “Are you my nameless eye candy, Roland?”

“I think you answered your own question.”

When the strain of trying to lift not even half of her own weight showed on her face, Lelouch flicked Kallen’s forehead. She put forth a token grumble, frustrated with how her injury yet lingered, but laid her head back down on his lap without further protest. She would be fit and ready to fight again in a week or two. Until then, he would ensure she stopped overexerting herself and actually rested.

“Rose, do you recall that Sasha girl we shared a ride out of Moscow with?”

A thoughtful hum, and then, “Oh, yes.” In imitation, Kallen added, “She had a really thick accent, no?”

“That’s the one. She had an interesting take on the war, but I can’t remember exactly what it was.”

Kallen gave Lelouch a look that said she bought absolutely zero percent of that lie but answered anyway. “She was of the opinion that the government thinks this is a win–win scenario. If the war goes well, great. If not, then losing a vast chunk of ‘relatively worthless’ but unquestionably Russian territory, thus putting Britannia at Europe’s doorstep, would force the entire EU into a direct confrontation with Britannia for the first time in decades. Then maybe they’d finally do something about them rather than meekly hoping they go away.”

“A win–win,” Victor growled. “I have family who have built their entire lives out east. They wouldn’t be able to pick up everything and just leave. Are they supposed to be okay with living as second-class citizens under Britannian rule until everything maybe sorts itself out?”

Without missing a beat, Kallen added her own vitriol to stoke the fire. “Of course! But don’t worry. You see, my grandmother now enjoys the comfortable life of regular degradation and indulges in that blissful feeling of being too old to be worth raping when there are just so many younger and more appealing women around. She assures me it’s jolly good fun and the hospitality is to die for.”

That was not true in this particular case, of course, but it once had been, still was for hundreds of millions, and soon would be for millions more. Lelouch cupped Kallen’s cheek in a loving caress that hid her expression and offered her an understanding smile; he knew this would always be harder for her than him. Rather than the anger expected from her words, conflict and guilt showed clearly on her face. Regardless of ultimate good intentions, she’d purposefully set out to reduce millions to the same miserable state. After a few seconds and a quiet sigh, she mastered her lapse of control and returned the smile.

Meanwhile, surprised and no doubt indignant on Kallen’s behalf, Victor asked, “Where is your grandmother from?”

“Japan.”

“Oh,” was Victor’s grim reply. Japan – in Russia, at least, if not the entire EU – was almost a taboo subject in casual conversation. Much as Britannia had wept for nearly half of its population left behind to the pale mercies of Napoleon in the post-Humiliation flight to the New World, now too was guilt felt for the Japanese abandoned to Britannia during the Second Pacific War.

To break the silence, Lelouch returned the conversation back to its original topic. “Now that you’ve jogged my memory, I recall that you only covered half of Sasha’s diatribe against the government. The second half concerned how much she was looking forward to the coming revolution when the war inevitably goes south.”

“Not a very optimistic girl, was she?” Kallen said.

“She could damn well sign me up,” Victor said. “I don’t know how much good I could do, but I’d be behind her wholeheartedly.”

He’d heard it before, he’d been informed in advance, but it still surprised Lelouch. The Shinozaki had understated how much resentment toward the government there was amongst the working class in Russia. It was far from the explosive, violent anger that fed armed rebellion, but revolution hung in the air nonetheless. It would take a spark and a charismatic leader, but it was coming.

Tempting. So very tempting, Lelouch silently mused. He’d planned to divide Russia’s disparate peoples and set them against each other to fragment and distract the empire while he set it on fire, but it might be easier to ignite the entire country in a full blown civil war.

But then again, that might create too much chaos. Kallen and I aren’t here to win the war; we’re here to make a name for ourselves. It does us no good to allow Laertes an easy conquest over a shattered government. The emperor would recognise the truth, no doubt, but that’s not enough. We must be populist by necessity to bring about cultural change. However effective it would be, we can’t operate from the shadows. We must be visible. We must be audacious. We must be unstoppable.

With a private sigh, Lelouch rejoined the conversation. He hated dragging politics into war. It made the merely implausible impossible and forced him to adopt less optimal strategies. If he had his way, no one would know he was here until it was too late – and perhaps not even then.

But no, that would never do. He would have to announce himself. He would have to pull victory out of impossibility. He would have to dazzle, shock, and awe when there were far more practical solutions readily available. He would have to do it all with a handful of men and women. He would have to do it all with whatever equipment and allies he could scrounge up on his own deep within enemy territory. He would have to win, and he would have to do it with panache.

After all, Lelouch could hardly hope to claim the throne for himself if he demurred over something so simple as waging an impossible war. He would be the man who made the impossible possible, and his people would love him for it.


Ogongora, Russia

May 24, 2016 a.t.b.


After a four hour drive, the group finally arrived at their destination. Ogongora could generously be described as a town – and even then only barely – one which survived largely off of tourism. From its centre, one could see the motorway at the far western outskirts continuing off toward its ultimate destination at the Baltic Sea some two-hundred-odd kilometres away. In the other direction, the town’s main street curved away north toward the local attraction. There in the heart of town, perhaps a dozen people wandered the pavements with even fewer cars.

What a small village, Kallen idly thought to herself as she took the sights in and studied the people. This road trip across Russia was good for her. In a life spent bouncing between peaceful seclusion in the countryside and the world’s largest metropolises, she’d needed the variety she’d gotten over the past few weeks. It gave her perspective.

At last the car came to a stop outside their hotel. Lelouch stepped out first and helped Kallen to her feet in a dramatised gesture of gallantry mixed with actual concern. She rolled her eyes and thanked him for the assistance. Victor laughed, Lelouch retrieved their luggage from the boot, she took his offered arm, farewells were exchanged, and then they parted ways.

Kallen leant into Lelouch as they approached the hotel doors. “You, monsieur, grow more ridiculous with each passing day.”

“Government and theatre have much in common,” Lelouch dryly replied. “Would you deny me practice in the lesser for the greater?”

“Of course not, mon chéri, but I don’t know where you’ll get it here. We’re far from home, after all.” As Lelouch chuckled, Kallen added, “Must I–” She walked a pair of fingers across his chest suggestively. “–divine the truth of your behaviour?”

“You need not go so far,” Lelouch said with the slightest hint of strain in his voice only those closest to him would notice. He’d obviously picked up on at least two meanings of the triple entendre. “If the lady but asks, I would be privileged to tell her.”

“Well, go on, then.”

“Here on holiday away from prying eyes, I've decided to show you a different side of myself in the hope that you'll fall even more madly in love with me.”

Kallen swatted Lelouch's arm for the nonanswer and said, “You forget that the way to my heart is not through poetry or chivalry, nor flowers or diamonds. Build me a better knightmare, and you'll have my affection. Bring me the Honjō Masamune, and you’ll have my eternal devotion.”

“So you say, but your smiles betray you.”

They did, Kallen knew, but she would never admit it.

“Still,” Lelouch said with a contemplative air, “my mother probably knew a few unsavoury collectors. I could ask them to keep an eye out for Japanese treasures passing from hand to hand in the shadows.”

Lightly hopping onto her toes, Kallen gave Lelouch a kiss on the cheek. “You’re sweet.” She pulled him along to check-in with a quiet giggle when he blanked on how to respond. This pretending to be engaged act was more fun than she’d first expected. She almost forgave him for making her name ‘Rose’.

After they were settled in their room, a cosy little place to spend the night, Kallen laid herself down on the bed and adjusted the pillows to support her back. It was far removed from the luxury she enjoyed at home, but anything would do after cramped train carriages and overflowing hostels. The journey here had been rough and both rushed and ponderous with the wave of refugees they'd ridden in on. Hopefully, she wouldn't aggravate her injury again.

At least I'm finally done with stitches. I’m so tired of stitches. I lost count of how many I tore around twelve.

Lazily, Kallen reached a hand out for the laptop she’d bought in Moscow and waved it helplessly up and down. Noticing this, Lelouch rolled his eyes and carried it the two steps between her and the table before excusing himself to take a shower. She, meanwhile, connected to the Internet and went through the usual process of encrypting her connection and ensuring no one could trace her.

Gotta love the future. Coordinating our side of the war would have been a logistical nightmare even ten years ago. Now let’s see where everyone is…

Fifteen minutes of reading reports and some change later, Lelouch returned half-dressed rubbing a towel at his hair. Kallen watched him find his way to their luggage out of the corner of her eye. He’d be the last person to win a masculinity contest, but no one could deny that he made the bishōnen look work for him.

Kallen sighed to herself when Lelouch found his shirt and put it on. The free show was over. Then a thought struck her, and she chuckled.

“You’re laughing,” Lelouch observed, sounding more affronted than he probably was.

“Just imagining what you’d look like now if Milly got her hands on you again. I think you’d be the prettiest girl on campus in a wig and a dress. Maybe a little rouge. Some lipstick.” To Lelouch’s scoff, Kallen added, “Such soft, smooth skin. Those delicate features. Face facts. You’re a total bishie.”

“I don’t even want to know what that means. What news have you?”

“Oh, now don’t be like that. That androgynous look of yours suits you well. You’re perfectly fanciable.”

Lelouch was having none of it and simply glared.

With an unaffected smile, Kallen relented. “Nothing terribly interesting has happened. A few stragglers are MIA, but everyone in the initial rush westward has made it past the hot zones during the chaos. There’s the usual trouble with Russia wanting to get all these silly Frenchmen, Germans, and such out of their country so they can deal with the dragon in their garden, but most seem to be getting by all right.”

“Good. Where is everyone?”

“I haven’t done a statistical analysis, but I get the general feeling we’re still lagging near the back,” which came as no surprise to either of them. Between Kallen’s injury slowing them down, Lelouch stopping to chat with every other person on the street, and surreptitiously learning the terrain through sightseeing, it was enough for them to be in Europe at all.

“That’s fine. We need to wait for the majority of the Russian army to fully mobilise eastward for maximum effect. Any major incidents or indiscretions I should know about?”

“Not particularly. One of the privates got himself into a one-night stand, but his commander made it sound like it would have drawn attention if he hadn’t gone through with it.”

Lelouch pinched the bridge of his nose. “Forward the report to me. I’ll look into it tonight. So long as it’s not a rape and didn’t compromise him, it doesn’t matter. Anything else?”

“No,” Kallen said as she did as asked. She then set her laptop aside and asked something she’d wanted to all day. “Have you given thought to the revolutionary charge in the air?”

“I have,” Lelouch answered plainly.

“And? The people here are angry. It wouldn’t take much to start a revolt. Are we still heading to the Baltic provinces?” When Lelouch nodded without hesitation or a word of explanation, Kallen frowned. She struggled with a much worse tendency toward tunnel vision, but he sometimes fell victim to it as well, usually when enraged or, more relevantly, wrapped up in his own cleverness. “Why?”

“Several reasons, but two main ones. For our purposes, we need to embody the ideal of Britannian invincibility.”

Hence we need to do most of the heavy lifting ourselves. Fair point.

“Moreover, it would be disastrous if we became known as not just revolutionaries but the founders and leaders of a revolution.”

Kallen cringed as she imagined the consequences. Nothing would kill their ambitions faster. A simple passing comment comparing Lelouch to Napoleon would be all it took to poison their names and ruin their work within the system forever. Of the rest of the imperial family, only Marrybell had the inclination, disposition, and ability to be trusted with the throne, but her nonnegative reputation clung to life by the barest of threads. There would be nothing for it but civil war and the consequences therein.

“In comparison,” Lelouch continued, “the storm we’ll brew is a classic divide and conquer tactic Britannia uses not infrequently. It might result in revolution and the succession of the Baltic states – they’ve certainly been asking for independence for long enough to want to fight for it – but that’s of no concern. Our involvement there will be peripheral at worst as we ravage Russia's supply lines.”

“Alright,” Kallen said. “I accept your reasoning. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to head to bed early. All this travel is really taking its toll on me.”

Lelouch couldn’t quite hide the look of concern that flashed across his face. “Very well. I’ll try to be quiet. Let me know if you need anything.”

“Of course. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight. Sleep well.”

As she laid in bed snuggled beneath the blankets, Kallen had time to reflect upon the day and the journey that had brought her here. Victor was the latest in a long line of people to share their stories with her but only the second to explicitly mention having family east of the Urals in the territory the emperor wanted.

I slipped today, she recalled. When Victor had mentioned family, she’d seized the opportunity to vent to someone other than Lelouch. When the anger had passed, all she’d been left with was guilt. I’m better than that. She rolled over to get more comfortable but winced and retreated in a huff when her back protested.

We do what we must. Kallen knew it. She believed it. But it left a bad taste in her mouth. Still, she consoled herself, it’s not like we can stop this war. All we can do is end it faster. It’s not like we can wish away the world’s problems. Magic doesn’t seem to be that convenient.

Speaking of which, Kallen felt her geass flicker out as her concentration wavered.

Wish there were better options. Civil war, world chaos. Duty to New York too. Won’t betray that trust. Assassination, need support first. Once obtained, why bother? Emperor is old. Peaceful culture shift, centuries. Horrid utility integral along the way. Doesn’t work any – anyway. More rich than ever… No one copies…business practises…

Kallen drifted into the gentle embrace of sleep.


Tsvetochnyye Skaly Tourist Centre

Ogongora Outskirts, Russia

May 25, 2016 a.t.b.


The Tsvetochnyye Skaly were an aptly named series of crags jutting up from the surrounding foothills like a raging ocean storm frozen in time. Blossoming flowers of all shapes and colours swarmed up the rock face in a flood of pastels seeking the sun before tapering off into creeping ivy clinging to the highest reaches and blanketing the peaks in green.

“It's beautiful,” Kallen said. She honestly hadn't expected much, but the vertical flower field before her was a feast for the eyes. Unlike the carefully sculpted and immaculate gardens of Pendragon, it possessed the sort of raw splendour of circumstance only the coincidences of nature could provide.

“Quite. According to the tourist packet, it’s a mostly natural phenomenon.”

“Shush, Roland. Analysing it isn’t the point.”

“There’s beauty in truth,” Lelouch replied as he read the brochure they’d been given the night before.

“Beauty is truth,” Kallen countered, but poetry had no effect.

“Apparently, the local winds sweep up loose topsoil for nutrients. The variations affect how high the flowers reach each year.”

“As interesting as that is, mon chéri, you’re ruining it.”

Lelouch hummed, amused, as he continued to read. A few seconds later, he let out a delighted, “Oh?” Kallen poked him in warning, but heedless, he said, “It appears all of these flowers are invasive species.”

“Ruined! Ruined forever!” Kallen ignored the glances she got from the few other tourists present. She folded her arms together in a petulant display more feigned than real. “I hope you’re happy with yourself.”

Satisfied with a job well done, Lelouch chuckled as he pocketed the brochure. “I can’t help but feel this is a metaphor.”

“Hmph. A metaphor for what?”

“Perhaps it’s as you said: beauty is truth. Or to rephrase, beauty makes right. It would be a simple matter to raze these fields and restore the natural flora to the land. It might take a few repetitions and some weeding, but it could be done. Instead, the invaders are encouraged and celebrated for nothing but their beauty. They provide no other service or benefit to the ecosystem.” Lelouch nodded sagely and stroked his nonexistent beard. “There is deep wisdom here. I know now that it’s good and just to destroy and conquer as long as you look fabulous in the process.”

A snicker escaped Kallen despite herself. She could play this game. “Harsh. And perhaps a touch too cynical. It may be the beauty that draws us here. It may even be that the first flower patch grew unimpeded because it was pretty. But between those two points, someone would have done something if this were for the worse. Rather than being good and just to destroy and conquer, we could say it’s perfectly acceptable to remake the world in your own image so long as you do better than that which came before.”

“Your naive idealism sickens me. It’s not a matter of ‘doing better’. It’s a matter of simply being better. Lesser beings should always bow before the superior species and accept fate as is right and proper.”

“Reality check. Invasive species outcompete not because of any innate superiority but due to a lack of natural controls. It’s pure mathematics. Simple calculus. Clearly, the lesson to take away is to introduce these controls when necessary. We must regularly cull any population that does too well or suffer the consequences.”

“With those consequences being a lovely view,” Lelouch retorted. “It is madness not to let our poppies grow tall. That is the great folly of Europe. When the truly gifted are allowed to thrive, this is the result. For this, the costs are immaterial.”

Inspiration struck, and Kallen set her trap. “Everything has something to offer. I weep for the loss before me that so plagues my eyes. So much greenery that will never grace these fields again. This is what happens when everyone isn’t given a fair and equal chance at life.”

“Equality,” Lelouch scoffed. “Ha. There is no such thing. Equality is an illusion, the pleasant dream of a post-scarcity society far removed from reality. No, the moral here is in the triumph. This is what happens when you allow natural competition without the arbitrary imposition of ‘fairness’. Only the most fit survive and achieve greatness. Inequality isn’t wrong; equality is.”

“Ooh, someone has been paying attention to Daddy.”

“Walked right into that one,” Lelouch muttered to himself.

Kallen, meanwhile, called this her victory by the nebulous rules of their childhood games. Without the need to continue on, she gave her newly healed lung a workout as a fit of laughter finally overtook her. “We’re horrible. You know that, right?”

“Yes,” Lelouch proudly said. He opened his mouth to say something more but paused, thoughtful. He hummed. “This conversation feels familiar…”

Does it? Hmm… Kallen shrugged. Nothing in particular came to mind.

“No matter. Look at the mountains behind the flowers.”

Mountain was a generous word. They were more accurately described as glorified, rocky hills. The ones behind Kallen's own manor were far more impressive, but she doubted their aesthetic appeal was the point.

“There's a bridge between two of them.”

With that hint, Kallen's gaze quickly zeroed in on the structure in question. A wooden arch bridge spanned perhaps a hundred feet across a chasm with a river flowing through the basin.

“Follow the railway to the east.”

Hunting down brief glimpses of suspiciously level ground and unnatural ledges, Kallen eventually found the source in the foothills off to the east. The exposed terrain would be a poor location for an ambush, but just inside the mountains where visibility would be low but would still offer high mobility would be a different story. They'd need to go hiking today or get inside information before they left while Russia's attention was firmly set on the east, but that was no trouble. Mostly likely, she and Lelouch would visit a pub in town and swap childhood stories of mountaineering with a local.

“Sorry, I meant to the west.” An obvious lie.

Nevertheless, Kallen repeated the process and quickly found a fortified compound built into the side of a mountain roughly ten kilometres away. “Military base?” she asked. After Lelouch nodded, she added, “Well, it's nice to know we're safe from Britannia if they manage to ninja in a fighting force while we're here.” She doubted anyone was listening in on them, but a basic tenant of not being compromised was maintaining character in public.

“Indeed.” Lelouch slipped his hand into hers and interweaved their fingers. “Even if you won't admit it, I know you've been anxious.”

“I have not!” Kallen protested with a haughty air. She didn't need to pretend to feel indignant.

“If you insist. I know I won't feel settled until I get you home away from this war and perhaps back into a hospital.”

“Roland, I'm fine,” Kallen said in the lovingly indulgent huff of a woman with a man who worried about her health and safety far too much. She leant into Lelouch and let him wrap an arm around her waist. “Silly boy.”

“Stubborn girl,” Lelouch replied in that same loving exasperation.

There was much to be done and hundreds of plans to be made, but for now, the pair simply enjoyed each other’s company and the view.


BALTIC Headquarters

Riga, Russia

June 10, 2016 a.t.b.


“This is our chance! Maybe even our only chance! The EU sits and does nothing as Britannia marches west. What will we do when they come for us?”

“The inhospitable climate and terrain is slowing the Brits down more than the Russians. While we sit here in debate doing nothing, our time dwindles away. We must declare our independence.”

“With what resources? We barely have enough to harass the Russians. How do you expect us to fight the other army in the land? They won’t care if we consider ourselves part of their new territory or not.”

“We could make a deal with the EU. They would protect us. Or at least give us the means to protect ourselves.”

“Ha! You’d have better luck making a deal with the Brits. The EU has washed their hands of us.”

The debate went on for hours. Everyone agreed that action needed to be taken. Something needed to be done. Not that anyone could agree on what exactly that was. This deadlock would destroy them as surely as any foreign army.

Robin Lepp sat at his office desk in quiet contemplation – or was that mourning? – of the situation as he idly played with a joke gift from a long dead friend. The globe was a curious thing. It depicted national boundaries in the absence of empires and made the world almost unrecognisable. Spotting his own home of Estonia as it lazily spun past brought a brief smile to his face before he turned his thoughts back to more serious matters.

As bad as the indecision in BALTIC’s fledgling senate was, he gave thanks that the disagreements weren’t along national lines. The Baltic states must stand together, or they would all fall. Together, perhaps, they had hope, but three tiny nations acting independently at three cross purposes would not withstand the might of Russian or Britannian arms.

How do we weather this storm? Robin’s thoughts turned over the four main choices he saw before them. They could declare independence. With little means to defend ourselves, the best case outcome its a pat on the back from Britannia for distracting Russia. They could pick a side and wholeheartedly support it. Neither would do us any good. Russia expects it, and Britannia doesn’t need us. They could appeal to the EU. I doubt anything would come of that. It hasn’t for Russia. Lastly, they could do nothing and hope for the best. Robin snorted at the thought and dismissed it without further consideration.

A knock came at the door. Robin gave a few last parting moments to his thoughts and then called for his company to enter.

“Ah, Yukiya. Come in. What can I do for you?”

Yukiya Naruse, a fifteen-year-old half-Estonian half-Japanese boy, bore the pallid look of someone who spent as much of his life indoors in front of a computer as possible. A year ago, he’d managed to hack his way into Russian intelligence ‘for fun’.

He’d fled in the night the very same day.

With nowhere else to go, Yukiya had eventually sought shelter with BALTIC. Normally, they would have simply helped him leave the country, but he’d boasted useful – if unpolished – skills. Then after they’d learnt of the boy’s distressingly intimate knowledge of explosives, they’d felt more comfortable keeping him close where they could keep an eye on him.

“I've run the latest applicants and suppliers through the system.” Yukiya held out a small stack of paper. “Most of them are clean. One is a Russian spy. Another I’m not sure about. I’ve noted both. Two others are…weird.”

Robin ran a finger along the edge of the stack to flip through it one dossier at a time. He glanced at the names, recognising a few, and quickly skimming through the notes Yukiya had pencilled in. Second from the bottom, he paused and set aside the preceding papers. He quickly flipped to the last page and saw the other half of the pair. He glanced up and arched his eyebrows. Recruitment had been on the rise since the start of the war, but this was unexpected.

“Don’t look at me,” Yukiya said. “I’m just the messenger.”

“How much effort did you put into vetting them?”

“Pulled their original records from France and chased down the usual supplemental stuff. They check out, but they’re all so…bland for bourgeois. I assume they’re false identities, but I have no proof nor any lead on their real names. Whoever they are, they’re good.”

Robin hummed in interest. BALTIC had dealt with truly anonymous suppliers before. They never required anyone to identify themselves to donate. But that only applied to monetary contributions. Arms and ammunitions were another beast entirely. Russia barely tolerated their existence as an independence movement. If it even suspected they were a military organisation – rightly or otherwise – they would be stomped out. They’d been very careful to keep their small stockpile of weaponry concealed from all but the most trustworthy.

“Very well, Yukiya. Thank you for your work. If there’s nothing else, please leave me to my thoughts.”

Soon enough, Robin was left alone to ruminate on the matter before him. They’d had expats before return to help the cause, but according to the dossiers, both Roland Cardin and Rose Delise – notably engaged to be married – were French born and raised with no connection to either Russia or any of the Baltic states.

So young. Barely adults. There was an old joke that no true Frenchman would miss a revolution, but this was pushing the limit. If they are sincere in their offer, where would they procure enough military hardware to outfit an entire army? If they’re buying it, where does their wealth come from? What condition would it all be in?

It all seemed like an offer too good to refuse. It was too obvious to be a trap, although Robin would proceed carefully regardless, yet something still felt wrong.

Hmm… Perhaps they merely overestimate what they can provide. Another more hopeful thought occurred. Or perhaps they’re furtive envoys representing either France or the EU. Even if they intend to hang Russia out to dry, perhaps they intend to salvage what they can of the empire.

Well, no harm will come from meeting them. I should have the time this weekend to catch an aeroplane.


Saint Petersburg, Russia

June 12, 2016 a.t.b.


So far removed from the war, life in Saint Petersburg had not slowed in the least. Proper tourism had no doubt diminished, but the business of war brought enough foreigners that no one would ever notice the difference.

Robin strolled along the Neva River toward what was politely referred to as the French part of town. Cardin and Delise had provided their contact information and the address of the hotel where they were staying. From that, his agents had easily kept an eye on the pair as they went off gallivanting across town and enjoying the high life. The reports he’d read had eased his concerns somewhat. Whoever those two really were, they had money to spare and were thus more likely able to fulfil the offer they’d made.

Glancing at his watch, Robin increased his pace. He had two hours left before his meeting, but he wanted to observe his potential suppliers in person before he met them with their guard up.

‘Are they still at the dance hall?’ Robin texted as he came to an intersection. One of his agents quickly replied in the affirmative, so he veered left away from the riverbank.

La Maison du Jazz was exactly what it said on the tin. The faint hum of jazz hung in the air even before Robin managed to gain entrance. Inside, he bounced in his step in time to the beat of the swing, humming along with a small smile on his face. This was not the sexually charged nightclub with pulsing rhythms so favoured by the younger crowd these days.

Damn. I’m getting old. When did I get old? Robin shook his head as he stepped out onto the dance floor. He quickly spotted his agent on the scene sitting at a bar stool at the back of the crowd from which he surveyed the dancers.

“Evening, Jass.”

No response came right away, but Jass soon shook himself and said, “Ah. Hey, Boss. You made it.”

“Mm-hmm. Where are they?”

“Centre of the crowd. You can’t miss them.”

Robin followed Jass’s gaze through the dancers. Each couple was spread apart to allow each other enough room, but a denser ring of onlookers had grown in the very centre. Inside it, Cardin and Delise were the focus of attention. The former wore a loose shirt with bracers holding up his trousers. The latter had a light red sundress that billowed out with her as she spun, skipped, shook her hips, hopped, and even flipped. They moved in sync with a grace that could only come from hours upon hours of practice and an intimate familiarity with how the other moved.

Robin whistled, impressed with the pair of brunettes. “They’re good.”

“Damn straight. How do women move in heels like that?”

“Beats me. Deep magic?”

Jass barked a laugh. “What dance is that?”

“Lindy hop,” Robin replied.

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s an old Britannian dance. Originated in New York City and then spread everywhere.”

The song ended just as the pair moved into a single-handed dip, one arm about Delise’s waist and one of hers wrapped around Cardin’s neck. They stared at each other with bright smiles and a hungry intensity in their eyes as their audience erupted into applause. They rose and each placed a hand on the small of the other’s back. Together, they bowed once in three different directions to end their performance.

The girl placed a hand on Cardin’s shoulder and stepped onto her toes to whisper something into his ear. His gaze then passed over the crowd toward the bar where it fell right onto Robin. Just as Robin was wondering if he’d been identified, Cardin smirked and tapped his left wrist right where Robin’s own watch rested. With nothing more said, he leant over to whisper something back into Delise’s ear. The pair left the hall soon after.

“They spotted you, Boss,” Jass commented.

“So they did.”

“Want extra security at the meeting?”

Robin gave the idea a moment’s thought but waved off the concern. “I’m not not a public figure. They’ve either done their research or know someone who knows me. Neither is much cause for concern.”

“If you say so.”

“Should have brought the wife,” Robin idly mused. “It would appear I have nothing to do for the next hour.”


After a pair of showers and a change of clothes to the more formal but practical, Kallen and Lelouch walked arm in arm from their hotel toward the cabaret where they’d be dining tonight with their contact from BALTIC. It was serious business which could put them both in danger if negotiations went south, but none of that mattered quite yet in the warm afterglow of an afternoon out dancing.

“Hey, Roland. You wanna know what the best decision I ever made was?”

“Saying yes to marrying me?”

“Ha ha, no. We’ll call that number three right after discovering oatmeal cookies.”

“Hmm… I'd feel offended, but mmm… Was it buying that dress that shows off your legs?”

Kallen lightly swatted Lelouch's arm with her free hand. “It was pulling you from the ballroom out into my city. Good music. Exercise. Tonnes of fun. No regrets.”

“None? Not even that time I dropped you on your head?”

“No regrets.” She’d forgiven him for that as soon as it’d happened. Both their inexperience had shown through that day, and they’d padded the floor before trying again. “We should spend more time there when we get home. There's a lot to do, and I really should get to know the city better. I wasn't even born there.” Unlike Naoto. Kallen chuckled at the incongruity.

“I don’t see why not. There are a number of plays I’d love to see live, and the pizza is always good.”

Kallen felt her phone vibrate. Pulling it from her pocket, she glanced at the message from Shinobu.

‘Three confirmed.’ After the text, three surreptitiously obtained photos followed. Kallen glanced at each face and committed them to memory. After she had, she scrolled down to a fourth photo listed as a possible but unconfirmed potential hostile. She memorised that face too.

“Problems?” Lelouch asked.

As she pocketed her phone, Kallen said, “No more than expected. Doesn’t look like your little stunt earlier scared Lepp off or spooked him into calling in more of his friends. Should be a pleasant night.” Or in other words, the coming meeting was not a trap.

“Excellent. Music. Dinner. Politics. A gorgeous woman enamoured of me. What more could a man ask for?”

Kallen rolled her eyes.


The smooth cadence of the band and dulcet tones of the songstress filled the cabaret. The maître d’ led Robin through the crowd to a semi-private table in the back corner of the hall. Anyone attempting to eavesdrop would have to make an obvious approach. Deep within the once capital of Russia, this was about as neutral neutral ground as there could be under the assumption that Cardin and Delise were not spies sent to root out the disloyal. As he neared the table, his already present guests rose to greet him.

“Evening, Härra Lepp.” Cardin extended his hand and offered a somewhat pallid shake.

Nonetheless, Robin replied, “Good evening, Monsieur Cardin. And it’s Director, actually.” Cardin nodded in acknowledgement. “And you must be Mademoiselle Delise.”

“A pleasure.” Unexpectedly, her grip was much firmer when she offered her hand in greeting.

Curious. This was not Robin’s usual experience with the wealthy. “Shall we be seated, then?”

Over the next hour, the trio discussed little of importance as they dined and got to know each other a little better. He was more than a little surprised to discover Delise was an avid fencer. He was decidedly less astonished when she revealed that Cardin had little skill with the blade unlike his heroic namesake.

“Shall I tell him about the time I Scholar’s Mated you?” Cardin suggested.

Robin did his best to merely smile instead of chuckle at the gentle teasing between lovers.

“Don’t say it like that.” A light blush dusted Delise’s face. “You make it sound like you beat me in four moves.”

“I played tennis in my youth,” Robin began.

The light conversation continued until they’d finished the main course and moved on to pudding. It was time to discuss business. First, Robin needed to suss out exactly where his companions’ loyalty lay and why. He liked them well enough from first impressions, but the worst enemies had silver tongues. However, as he contemplated how to begin that subtle interrogation, Cardin made such concerns pointless.

“Director Lepp, I must apologise. Rose and I have met you under somewhat false pretences.” Before Robin decided how to reply to that, Cardin added, “But I see this comes as no surprise to you.”

Robin blinked, unused to being so easily read.

“Interesting. I’m curious to know how you came to that conclusion, but it is a minor matter. Our offer of assistance to your cause is genuine, I assure you, but for the moment, please indulge me. I’m most interested to know who you think we are.”

For a few seconds, Robin carefully considered how he wanted to respond. His thoughts were still trying to settle from the sudden shift in how he’d expected this conversation to proceed. “I only know you’re not who you say you are.” Obviously, he choose not to share that ‘Russian spy’ ranked among his primary theories. “If I had to guess, I would say you’re a representative from either Peace Mark or the Hemicycle.”

“Peace Mark?” Delise asked.

“The pancolonial terrorist cell that dreams of being a revolutionary movement,” Cardin replied offhandedly.

Delise giggled and hid a smile behind her hand. “How delightfully off the mark.”

Red flags flared in Robin’s mind.

“The irony is overwhelming.” Cardin didn’t bother to hide his own amusement. “No, we’re not here at the behest of the EU or the rabble. We’re here to offer you a deal with the devil.”

“You’re from Britannia.”

Cardin nodded without concern while Delise’s expression hardened. So she was the bodyguard for the diplomat, then. That lined up with his observations so far.

“Why shouldn’t I turn you in right now?” Robin wouldn’t, of course. Between the wealthy Frenchman and the disloyal separatist, he knew who the Russians would believe.

“You could.” Cardin shrugged. “But why would you want to? My capture won’t change the ultimate outcome of the war.”

But his deal might. Robin clenched his fists underneath the table. Were he and his people really so desperate that they would help their would-be conquerors for a lesser enslavement?

Wait. That sounded wrong. If Cardin isn’t here to change the outcome of the war, what exactly does he want? “Britannia doesn’t need BALTIC’s help.”

“Indeed not. But then it’s not Britannia asking for your cooperation. I represent the interests of Prince Lelouch vi Britannia.”

That was a new name on the world stage. The prince had first come to Robin’s attention after the Battle of Vladivostok. Rumour portrayed the boy as a military prodigy, and it showed in the few battles he’d involved himself in before vanishing off the face of the Earth. While this explained where he’d vanished to, it didn’t explain why it mattered.

“And what, pray tell, is the difference?” Robin silently chided himself for the overt hostility in his voice. Antagonising the messenger was pointless and unnecessary.

“Britannia’s territorial aims in this war are less than you probably expect. We have no particular interest in any land west of the Urals, although we also have no reason to stop there if Russia refuses to surrender before we reach Moscow and beyond. His Highness wishes to end this conflict as quickly as possible.”

Robin spotted the trap almost immediately. “So you only want Siberia?”

Cardin nodded.

“So Russia will endure?”

“I couldn’t say. Perhaps, perhaps not, but I’d imagine so.”

There was the first and most obvious trap. “Then what is to become of your erstwhile allies when a bitter Russia is free to take its revenge on those who betrayed it?”

“A good question, one said allies will have to answer for themselves. Sometimes independence requires you to fight for your freedom. As I said earlier, our offer to supply you with military equipment is genuine. It’s your choice what to do with it and when. I won’t colour your thoughts with my own recommendations. However, we neither expect nor want you to enter battle alongside us.”

That claim gave Robin pause. He was more confused now than he had been earlier. “Why have you approached us if not to ask us to fight?”

“Logistical support. We intend to engage in a lightning guerrilla campaign. To do that, we need transportation and secure locations to store arms and ammunitions. You may keep whatever we don’t use; we expect that to be a considerable quantity. In the most ideal scenario, no one will ever know you were involved with us. A few pairs of eyes and ears and whatever knowledge of the terrain you can provide would also be appreciated.

“His Highness also doesn’t intend to leave you completely in the lurch. As part of the peace terms – if there’s a Russia left to make peace with, of course – we’ll ensure it recognises the Baltic states’ independence.”

There was the second, more subtle trap. “That would leave us with the stigma of being Britannia created states. The EU would never welcome us.” And with such hostility, they would need Britannia at the very least as a trading partner. Economic dependence could be as terrible a yoke as outright conquest.

“We can pitch the idea as breaking up Russia’s empire to secure our western border if you wish. The exact details can be negotiated at a later time.”

A later time, indeed. That was the most terrible trap of them all. “What guarantee do we have that the prince can deliver on his promises? It’s very easy to say he’ll make all our wildest dreams come true.”

“A simple remedy. His Highness will sign the final terms we reach before he asks anything of you and will ensure the emperor countersigns it.”

“And should Russia…regrettably uncover our correspondence before then?” That would all but force BALTIC to side with Britannia to have any hope of surviving. At that point, whoever won the war could impose any terms desired upon the Baltic states.

Cardin had no hesitation in his answer. “His Highness has fostered a growing reputation for acting in good faith. This makes him a, shall we say, desirable alternative to much of the imperial family both at home and abroad. I highly doubt he would want to throw that away for a momentary advantage he doesn’t truly need.”

Having done his research on the prince, Robin admitted Cardin had a point. Still, he was apprehensive. As Cardin himself had put it in a moment of remarkable self-awareness, working with Britannia would be akin to making a deal with the devil.

“Of course,” Cardin said, interrupting Robin’s thoughts, “this all depends upon BALTIC forming something approximating a legitimate government. Or three governments, as you prefer. I will not have His Highness accused of foul play or propping up a puppet state.”

A moment passed in pregnant silence.

“Of course,” Robin echoed with a slight hitch to his voice. So used to thinking of BALTIC as his people’s only hope, he’d missed that final trap. That could have proven disastrous if no one else had pointed it out. What else had he missed? “M Cardin, if I may be frank, this seems like an offer too good to be refused.” That had not changed since it’d first crossed his desk.

“Which, by definition, cannot be refused,” Delise commented. Sometime during the conversation when all of Robin’s attention had been on Cardin, she'd dropped the fierce protective look she’d adopted. She appeared to be enjoying watching Cardin work more than anything.

Robin yet hesitated. If he unleashed this madness upon BALTIC’s senate, the matter would be all but out of his hands. Right now, he had the unilateral ability to reject the prince’s terms.

“I…will share what we’ve discussed with headquarters. We'll get back to you soon.”

Cardin’s smile was wide. He rose with hand extended. “Excellent. It’s been a pleasure, Director Lepp.”

Robin stood and grasped the hand to shake. It felt clammy. Or maybe that was his own. Not two seconds later, he already regretted agreeing to speak to BALTIC on the prince's behalf. There was no way this could end well. But what choice did he have? However much or little good faith the prince acted in, when it came down to it, he was the only viable option Robin had yet heard to preserve his people against oppression.

How wrong that felt.


Saint Petersburg, Russia

June 18, 2016 a.t.b.


The clock struck three with one ominous gong, two, and then a third. Lelouch simmered even as he steeled himself for the meeting to come. He would have preferred to have done this before speaking with BALTIC, but one did not waste the emperor’s time. If they would have nothing to do with him, then he would not bother the emperor – nor trouble himself with speaking to the man.

Standing beside his seat in their hotel room, Kallen placed a hand on Lelouch’s shoulder. He glanced up at her and read equal concern, anticipation, and frustration in her expression. She too wanted to confront the emperor over what he knew about Marianne’s death and the part he’d played, but if ever there was a time, now was not it. Lelouch nodded and felt some minor fraction of the tension in his body dissipate. He would keep his temper in check. Kallen stepped aside to provide the illusion of privacy.

Through the most secure and obfuscated channels he had available, Lelouch placed the call he’d arranged through Jeremiah yesterday. He waited for a few moments before it finally connected. The image of the emperor filled the screen. He clenched his fists out of the camera’s line of sight and forced himself to remain impassive.

“Lelouch. I expect you’ve made good use of your extended absence from the front.”

So it was to be straight to business, then. Perfect. “I’ve been making preparations, Your Majesty. Rather than struggle with Laertes” – and his master, Schneizel – “for control of the campaign, I travelled west to make use of myself elsewhere.”

“What are your intentions?”

“I plan to cripple Russia’s ability to wage war. I have a small detachment of troops with me to carry out a guerrilla campaign against their supply lines. Unless the EU joins the fight, I hope to end this conflict within the year.”

“Audacious, but Marianne delivered results with strategies no less bold.”

Lelouch grit his teeth at the casual mention of his mother. Behind the camera, Kallen made a sweeping x with her arms that easily caught his attention, silently telling him not to do anything stupid. He refrained from commenting.

“Why such haste? The army under Laertes is making slow but steady progress west.”

“I do not like throwing dice in war.” Lelouch managed to surprise himself with how calm he sounded. “Calculated risks are par for the course, but weather is always a gamble – no more so anywhere than here. The Russian winter is infamous for breaking victorious armies. If conditions here will be anything like the cold snaps and freezing temperatures the homeland has faced in recent years, it’s a risk I’d prefer to avoid. Should I play my part well, it will send the Russians reeling backward to use the Urals as a natural defensive barrier. And, of course, barriers work both ways. At that point, we may either press for peace or wait out the winter and early spring. Personally, I would recommend the former.”

The emperor hummed in interest. “If the war progresses as you suggest, why should we make peace when we would have them in such dire straits?”

“Trying to break through the mountain range once the Russians have had months to fortify and build defensive works would be exceedingly difficult and wasteful. I’m aware that you only commanded Schneizel to take Siberia. If we make peace while they’re broken and in retreat, it will be on our terms. After the spring thaw passes, they will have a much stronger bargaining position.”

“And to bring this about, what is it that you need of me?”

“In order to execute my campaign, I need local support. I’ve negotiated the assistance I require, but they demanded that you sign off on it before they will lend me aid. In broad strokes, Britannia need only recognise Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as sovereign nations and agree not to annex them.”

“A trivial concession. Very well. Send me the text of the treaty to read. If it’s acceptable, arrange a means acceptable to both parties for me to sign it.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty. With your permission, I’ll get to it.”

The emperor waved his hand dismissively. “Go,” he said. The call disconnected moments after.

Kallen approached quietly with all the grace that came so naturally to her. “That went well.”

There was no sarcasm in the words. It had gone well. Exceedingly so. Almost as if the emperor had anticipated every word that had been exchanged. It wouldn’t surprise Lelouch. The secret to seeming all-knowing was simple: just plan out your answers in advance to every probable conversation track.

Still, Lelouch had to wonder exactly how much time the emperor had spent considering eventualities. Too little would rankle at being so easily read and dismissed. Too much would be worrying. He didn't like how much yet undue attention the emperor already appeared to pay him, but it was that very attention he both needed and didn't want. What an infuriating situation.

Without a word, Kallen wrapped her arms around Lelouch from behind. He took a slow, deep breath and relaxed into her embrace. He had her to keep him grounded, and she, him. Nothing more needed to be said.


Ogongora Outskirts, Russia

July 13, 2016 a.t.b.


In a small forest clearing less than a minute’s walk away from the railway running through the mountains, Kallen surveyed the men and women arrayed before her. She’d not yet worked with Robinson or Green, but Scott, Mark, and Holly were old friends by now. White and Hall she’d had under her command a week ago but only very briefly. Mia, she’d once pulled out of a sniper’s line of fire thanks to her geass, and Morgan had gotten a second chance at life when she’d casually shot a soldier with an anti-knightmare missile hiding in a bush.

Kallen knew she probably shouldn’t so blatantly flaunt her geass, but she’d sooner marry the emperor than let a comrade in arms die to keep a secret no one would believe anyway. Besides, she loved the new moniker for her floating around: the Oracle. She hoped it stuck.

“Alright, everyone, listen up!” The nine before Kallen dropped their idle conversations and snapped to attention. “By now, I’m sure you realise that His Highness writes my speeches, so don’t expect too much from me.” She paused a moment for the laughter to die down. “This is an auspicious day. Today, we get to pull off a good old-fashioned train robbery. If they ever make a movie about us, you can be sure this will be in it, so let’s not embarrass ourselves.”

“Does that mean we can’t swear?”

Kallen smiled at Holly’s joke. “Please keep it appropriate for my innocent ears.” That got a good laugh out of everyone. “But seriously, we have about fifteen minutes before we need to be in position. His Highness has already engaged the knightmares they could deploy from it, so all we need to do is deal with whatever guard remains.

“The train needs to slow down to get through the mountains, so we’ll be able to jump on from above in the forest. Stay hidden until then. We need to hit them fast and hard while we have the element of surprise. You get in, set up the explosives, seize what you can, leave a knightmare ready for me, and get out. I’ll take care of the rest from there. Once you’re off, head to the rendezvous point to catch your ride out of here.” Just before she was about to ask for questions, Kallen recalled something she’d forgotten to mention. “Oh, also, take the five seconds to throw the bodies over the side once we have the train secure. If they’re not dead, we give them a fighting chance. We’re not butchers.”

Of course, survivors also had their own pragmatic uses. The entire point of this campaign was to attract attention. The more people there were to tell the story, the better.

“Questions? No? Good. Let’s move out.”

A chorus of, “Yes, My Lady!” came back at Kallen.

All too soon, the thunderous clanking of the train neared. By the sound of it, only a minute or two remained before their part of the operation commenced. Kallen clung to the branch overhanging the railway with her heart already pounding in her ears. Her excited jitters shook the tree despite her best attempts to suppress them. Luckily, she was the furthest down the railway to take the engine at the front of the train. She wouldn’t give them away prematurely.

This must be how Marianne felt. Guess this explains why she shed so much blood for the emperor. With every mission, the guilt faded further into the background. More and more, the thrill grew. This was all but objectively evil. She still wished she lived in a world without war. But Kallen would be a liar if she said she didn’t enjoy waging it when it came.

The train approached. Kallen fingered her pistol and dagger. Extreme close quarters meant no rifle and no sword, unfortunately. She needed the engine controls intact as well, which meant she couldn’t simply lob a grenade inside.

Now!

Kallen leapt from the branch. She landed atop the engine in a crouch with a dull thud. Down the line, she saw two of her comrades already moving before the train curved away out of sight. She glanced to the right. Against the trees, shrubs, and grass, she picked out two human shadows. There was her own, of course, and one moving past a window.

Not empty. Trusting her geass not to steer her wrong and her body armour to do its job, Kallen hopped off the left edge of the train. She grabbed the edge and crashed her way through the window. The engineer spun on her with a gun held in a shaking grip.

Kallen clicked her tongue. Civilian. She didn’t bother with a weapon and went in for melee. She dodged the first panicked shot and delivered a swift punch to the gut. That gave her an opening to disarm the man. Once she had his handgun, she clocked him over the head with the heavy end. He crumpled to the ground, and that was that. She set the gun aside and then hauled his body out the door and tossed him off the train.

“Q1 here. Engine secured.”

Over the next minute while Kallen familiarised herself with the train’s controls, the rest of her team radioed back similarly. Green was wounded, but nothing that would stop him continuing the mission.

“Q1, N1 coming up with the first delivery.”

“Roger.”

A curious little relic caught Kallen’s attention from the corner of her eye. Is that a boombox? With a phone hooked up through cassette? A really bad idea worked its way into her head and refused to leave. Oh, why not?

Five minutes later, everything was ready. Explosives lined the engine both inside and out. Morgan handed her a pair of detonators. “Smaller one blows the equipment we’re leaving behind. Bigger one blows the engine.”

Kallen nodded in recognition as she pressed play on the phone she’d picked up. A smile crept up her face.

“Flight of the Valkyries?” Morgan asked, and Kallen nodded. “Doesn’t this all seem…eh, needlessly flashy?”

That was more or less the point. Anyone could win. Only the very best could win with style.

“Hey, what works, works.” Kallen dialled the volume up to max. She doubted anyone down the railway would hear it over the train’s clattering ruckus, but a girl could dream. Mountains echoed, after all. “There’s a knightmare set up for me?”

“Two wagons back. On and ready to go.”

“Good work. It’s been good working with you again, Morgan. I’ll probably see you again in a few days for your next mission.”

Morgan saluted. “As always, it’s been an honour, My Lady.”

And with that, Kallen was left alone to begin the third phase of the plan: the assault on the Ogongora Military Base. Lelouch had drawn most of the local forces out to meet him in battle, which left the base virtually undefended. Not that it should really need much defending. Built into the mountainside and mostly underground, a small team posted at the entrance could repel most any conventional attack.

Kallen hummed along to the music in the background as she waited. She had to time this just right. If this didn’t work, there would be nothing for it but to leave her last goal for this mission unfulfilled.

So glad we spent a month touring the country. This is the kind of mad nonsense you can’t pull off if you don’t even know the possibility is there. The best part is, this supply train was sent to help deal with us.

At last the moment came. Kallen stepped up to the train’s controls with one thought running through her mind. Ramming speed!

Kallen jogged to the knightmare prepared for her. The Panzer Hummel was a tank on land spinners. It was slower and less agile than a Sutherland with two massive cannons for arms instead of the dexterous hands Britannia favoured. The slash harkens sat at the hips with a pair of machine guns, and the chest concealed six missiles within. The EU designed the knightmare to tear apart Glasgows, and it did its job well. But progress marched on; the Sutherland’s increased manoeuvrability and adaptability made it the better frame.

With a sigh, Kallen climbed aboard. She much preferred light frames, but she would make do with what she had available. She braced her knightmare for a jerk and then fired a slash harken at the link between wagons. Once severed, the front of the train she stood on separated from the dozens of wagons behind it and accelerated.

Faster. Faster. The train approached a cliff overlooking the military base across the canyon. Another team had removed the railway leading up to it. The wheels screeched as they tore into the ground, a shrill, piercing sound that stabbed Kallen’s ears even in her knightmare.

The sound stopped. The train launched out over the cliffside. Kallen rose in her seat as gravity took hold. It was time to act. She fired a slash harken at the opposing rock face and pulled herself up and away. Unable to see below and behind her in the knightmare, she crossed her fingers.

Come on, physics. This is your best mate, Kallen. Don’t let me down now. Land on the ledge. Land on the ledge. Land on top of the ledge.

Below her, Kallen spotted knightmares moving in a desperate and probably futile attempt to intercept the train. Nonetheless, she took aim. She fired one missile. A direct hit!

A heavy crash came from behind and the squealing returned. Another followed soon after and then a third. The train had landed!

Yes!

Kallen turned from the smoking wreck she’d created and targeted the next closest knightmare. She fired again. This missile missed, but it was enough. The delay would keep the knightmares out of the way until the train crashed into the gate.

A thunderous cacophony of metal tearing and crunching came from below just as Kallen touched down onto the rock face. She turned her knightmare to let her observe the carnage. It was absolute chaos, and it was only about to get worse. She picked up the appropriate detonator and pressed the button.


Malcal Manor

Paris, France

July 14, 2016 a.t.b.


“Father!”

Heart pounding in her ears, Leila leapt to her feet. Or she tried to. As she rose, her blankets twisted about her legs and sent her sprawling headfirst back onto her chest. She struggled, kicking violently, and rolled until she dropped to the floor and fell free. Undaunted, she successfully swept to her feet this time ready to fight. Her breath came in heavy gasps as she scanned the darkness for threats.

Something wasn’t right. Where was she? Where had the rally gone? Where was her mother?

The fleeting image of a broken woman trapped in a burning car forced its way into Leila’s mind.

Gradually, Leila’s breathing slowed. She realised where she was now. An exasperated sigh escaped her as she stumbled backward across hastily discarded blankets until she bumped into her bed. She let her knees buckle and collapsed onto her back with arms spread.

Another nightmare. The medication never helped. They came whenever they pleased and as vividly as ever. If they didn’t disturb her sleep, she wouldn’t even care anymore. The scenes they played had grown stale and insipid through ceaseless repetition. She almost wished to suffer some new horror just to escape the tedium.

Leila snorted. As if her life with the Malcal family the past ten years hadn’t been a horror onto itself. Engaged to my ‘brother’. What a joke. As soon as she turned eighteen and had actual agency over herself and her inheritance, she would leave and never look back.

What time is it? Leila lolled her head to the side to glance at her alarm clock. Three in the morning. That’s far too early.

More tired now than when she’d gone to bed, Leila rolled back to her pillow. She clutched the spare in her arms and nestled against it. With her legs, she lazily brought her blankets back to her and settled back in for the night. She desperately needed what sleep she could find. She had a long day ahead of her.