Articles and stories on the history and people of The Demon Archives world.

14

Dec 2017

A Life In Whispers – Part 3

Posted by / in Lore / 1 comment

Autonomous Covert Operations Field Report [A-COFR-TDU]

Report Number: 080

UFPT

201931EFEB04

Reporting Unit: Agent N03 {Nightshade}

ATTN: [email protected]

 

There have been major developments today, but unfortunately none of it good. Thank you for the satellite data, by the way. I took my personal terminal to the airfield this morning at about 0700, intending to show the data to Okane and plan our defenses. Ours. It still bewilders me that I can consider Okane’s forces as “ours.” No longer the enemy, the incomprehensible other. How did this happen? How does time stitch even wounds like these back together? I suppose it’s more than just time. The wounds were salved by time, but sutured by circumstance. We need each other, at least for now.

On my way across the tarmac, I saw a loose group of women assembling makeshift land mines and packing bags of gear. The Chinese girl that had worn the flower crown yesterday was among them, so I decided to take a brief detour.

“Excuse me,” I said in Mandarin. She stiffened up as I approached, and I remembered to pull down my hood and goggles. “I’m not going to hurt you. Any of you. I’d just like to ask you a few questions.”

“What if you don’t like the answers?” she asked. “Will you hurt us then?”

I was about to give her a snarky reply, but I caught myself. This was icy ground to cover. I had to step cautiously. “No, I won’t. I’m here to find out who tried to kill me and why. That’s all.”

“I don’t know who tried to kill you,” the woman said, clearly no stranger to snark herself.

“I should hope not,” I replied. “But I also want to know more about your community. I want to know who I’m fighting for.”

The woman put down the trigger plate of a land mine and cocked her head at me. “You don’t really look like a witch. And you don’t act like the stories.”

“That’s because I choose what goes in the stories and what doesn’t. Let’s start with your name.”

“Sunrise,” she said.

“That’s not a name. You just said the first thing you looked at, didn’t you?”

“If the Dust Witch knows your name, she can read your thoughts,” she said, deadpan. “In case the stories are true.”

“God, if only. Alright, Sunshine.”

“Sunrise,” she corrected me.

“Bloody hell. Sunrise. What was that fight about last night? You looked like you had some stake in it.”

“I did. Those men were fighting for the right to sleep with me.”

“Oh,” I murmured. “So you were some sort of prize to be won.”

“You don’t think I’m a prize?” she asked, and if my grasp of Chinese hadn’t caught the double meaning, she fluttered her eyes and gave her skirt an effeminate flick for emphasis.

“Oh, but of course,” I said cautiously. “You’re the proper jewel of the community. But it doesn’t bother you that they do this? What if you don’t want to sleep with one of them? Or either of them?”

“Then why would I have them fight for me?” Sunrise asked, genuinely confused.

“Wait, you arranged the fight?”

“Yes. They both made bids. I couldn’t decide between them. I’ve been with Jun before, and he’s a good man. We were married before our tribe found the Father. But Kyros is strong as a bull, and he’s new. Isn’t that exciting?”

It was all a lot to process, and I didn’t answer her. I couldn’t tell if the arrangement was more demeaning to her or to the men fighting for the right to lay with her. I thought of old nature docs, of two bucks locking horns for mating privileges. I suppose that was the point, wasn’t it? That was his societal model.

Before I could speak, Kyros Eliades himself brushed past me, hauling jerry cans in each hand. Sitting on one shoulder, a small Chinese boy was balanced perfectly, fiddling with a puppet made of wood and steel wire. Kyros set the can on the ground, and Sunrise plucked the boy off his shoulder. Their eyes locked for a long moment, and then he turned his scarred visage to me.

“Remember me?” I asked, feeling a bit outnumbered and out of my depth. I patted my side, right where he’d shot me, to show that I wasn’t intimidated. I’m not sure that it worked.

Kyros grunted, bullish even in his vocalizations, and lumbered away.

“He doesn’t talk anymore,” Sunrise said, watching his back as he went. “Another good thing about him.”

“Something happen to his throat?” I asked. The boy in her arms was staring at me, mouth open, sitting in the crook of the girl’s elbow. The puppet dangled, forgotten, by its blank egg-shaped head.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think he just chooses not to talk. Ask him.”

“I’ll pass,” I told her, then nodded at the boy. “Your son?”

“My little brother.”

“What’s his name?”

“Puppet,” she said, without so much as a blink.

“Of course. Silly question,” I said, shaking my head. I clearly wasn’t going to get anywhere with this one. “I need to speak with the man in charge. Is he in the hangar?”

“The Father is still in his chamber,” Sunrise said, tilting her head up at the control tower. “Does this mean you don’t have any more questions for me?”

“More than I did when we started this conversation,” I replied. “But the NRF is bearing down on us, and I don’t have time for your games.”

“Are you worried?” she asked. “You shouldn’t be. The Father will protect us.”

I bit my tongue and left her with her brother and her fantasies, ascending the control tower to enter the cavernous darkness of Okane’s sanctum. It reeked of sweat, dust, and human waste. An animal’s lair, after all.

The mighty dragon himself lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. Jun was crouched by the bed, holding Okane’s hand.

“Get out,” I told Jun, standing over his shoulder.

“You’ll have to kill me and throw me off the tower yourself, witch,” he said, still staring at Okane’s glazed eyes as he spoke.

“Why are all of you so bloody difficult?” I muttered, grabbing Jun by the shoulder and wrenching him away from Okane’s bedside. He swung a fist at my head, but I blocked it with a forearm and his knuckles scraped against my powered armour. “You can stay, but only if you keep your mouth shut like your good friend Kyros.”

He seemed surprised, both at my strength and at my knowledge of Kyros’s vow of silence. He sank back into a chair at the table, but he continued to stare at Okane and fidget with his small, quick fingers.

“Anybody in there?” I asked Okane, taking Jun’s place at his bedside. “Don’t tell me you’ve already nicked off.”

Okane gulped, dry and painful. “No, not yet. We have to prepare for…”

“This,” I said, taking out my terminal and holding it up to his line of sight. “That NRF camp I passed on the way here? They were headed to this outpost.” At that, I swiped to the next photo and showed him the detachment at a small town near the border. “They were picking up more weapons. Tanks, mortars. The business. Apparently they think you’re quite the threat.”

“Are you sure they’re coming here?” he wheezed. I advanced to the next photo, taken at 0500 this morning. The detachment, now filled out with five NRF tanks and two extra troop transports, was heading back in our direction.

“As sure as I can be without walking up and asking them,” I said. “I’ll continue to track them and if they change course, we’ll know.”

“But we should prepare for the worst,” he said.

“Yes. The tanks will be a problem. Obviously. I might be able to pick them off with my rail gun, but he’s a bit unreliable. If I can’t, they’ll flatten this place before the lot of you will even be able to return fire.”

“Jun,” Okane wheezed.

“Yes, Father?” I could hear Jun stand at attention behind me.

“Take some men today and hit those tanks. Can’t…let them get close.”

“Do you have that kind of firepower?” I asked Jun.

“We have mines, two rocket launchers. And the will of the Father.”

“See how far that gets you. The good news is, the tanks will slow them down,” I pointed out. “They probably won’t get here until tomorrow morning at this rate.”

“Enough time to fortify…” Okane said, almost to himself.

“Okane, I need to know something,” I cut in. “Can you think of anyone from the Family Rebellion that might have access to Aegis firepower? Someone with a grudge against me?”

“They all…have a grudge against you,” he chuckled. “But you are not an easy person to find. How did the NRF get to you?”

“I’ll find that out when I get my hands round Commissar Petrov’s neck. But they knew right where I was.”

“Hmmm,” Okane rumbled. The sound was quiet, like very distant thunder. “Is Sifo Kubek still commander of Aegis?”

“Yes. Why?”

“You’re his bloodhound. As long as he’s in charge, I don’t think anyone in Aegis would or could touch you.”

“You’re not going to try and make me suspect him?” I asked, heavy with sarcasm.

“That’d be a waste of my time. You and I both know there are easier ways for him to burn you. And if he had any reason to, you’d already suspect it yourself. No. If it’s not Kubek, then we can rule out Aegis.”

“Oculus, then,” I said.

“I have names, people who may have survived the purge. They could find you. But not get the CF-14s to the NRF.”

“And some experimental visors,” I added. “Saw right through my camo.”

“Tell me, Thalia. Who is president of Oculus now?” Okane asked.

“Name’s Alexander Smith. Do you know him?”

“Interesting,” Okane said, practically a whisper. He licked his dusty lips. “Very interesting.”

“What the hell does that mean?” I recalled what you told me about the breach last night. Professionally done or very high level. It gave me a chill.

“He was Minister of Trade when I left Minerva. I knew almost nothing else about the man.”

“But you knew everybody,” I pointed out. “That’s precisely what made you such a rat bastard to take down.”

“Indeed it was,” Okane said. He tried to laugh, I think, but he just let out a keening, phlegmy growl instead.

“That’s enough,” Jun interrupted, stepping up to my side. “The Father needs to keep up his strength.”

“And you need to keep your mouth shut,” I growled at him, leaning in close enough to smell the dirt in his pores. “You’re fond of this ‘over my dead body’ shit now, but when you’re lying on the floor with your guts slipping through your fingers, all that bravado will evaporate like the morning’s dew. Believe me.”

“She’s not bluffing, Jun,” Okane gasped. “Please sit down.”

Red-faced, huffing, but mercifully silent, Jun backed away, though he did not sit down.

“I wonder…why would Alexander Smith want to kill you?” Okane mused, as if the coughing fit and face-off had never occurred.

“Your guess is good as mine,” I replied. “I’ve had no cause to investigate him.”

“But you might,” he said. “You might. If he’s got something to hide, then he’ll be very worried about you. After what the Dust Witch did to me and my rebellion, you’re a conspirator’s worst nightmare.”

“You think it was a preemptive strike?”

“It’s what I would do.”

I laughed, in spite of the confusion, the tension, the frustration. Here I was, writing in to Fionn Okane’s advice column, and genuinely starting to suspect the president of Oculus for wanting me dead. Absurd.

We weren’t going to get much more out of speculation, so Okane ordered Jun to round up four men and intercept the NRF attack force. I elected to go with him, since Tom Fury had a much better chance at stopping those tanks than their old rocket launchers. The Family had one working AUV, which would outpace any NRF clunker, allowing us to hit them and return to the airfield before they could arrive.

None of the former Aegis soldiers offered to join our strike team. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. We laid mines on the road as we went, and when we were within eight kilometres of the approaching army, we veered off the road and hid the AUV behind a hill. Jun and a member of his nomad tribe took the rocket launchers up the hill, while the third man brought a pair of binoculars and the fourth stayed in the driver’s seat.

I laid down next to them, tuned Tom Fury to bunker buster rounds, and watched the road.

“Keep your bloody heads down,” I told the men. “And do not pop them up until you hear tank treads.”

It took about twenty minutes for the NRF detachment to trundle into my sights. They were thousands of metres away – all well and good for Tom Fury, but for the RPG-7s my new comrades were sporting, they were much too far. I waited, caressing the detachment with my sights, counting heads and looking for out-of-place tech. The tanks were NRF originals, not refurbished old world, which is unusual enough out here. I’ll have to investigate their manufacturing capabilities if I survive the attack tomorrow. At that distance, with infrared on my scope, it was hard to make out individual details of the soldiers inside the old Typhoon troop transports, but they weren’t my main concern anyway. Not at the moment.

When the convoy was about five hundred metres away, I fired at the lead tank in the column. The round screamed through the armour with ease, detonated inside the crew compartment, and left behind crumpled, misshapen infrared splotches in its wake. The tank slowed to a halt as the vehicles behind it swerved, but the other tanks were too slow. I popped a second, then a third. The aim trajectory in my goggles kinked, rubber-banding back and forth to let me know that the firing tongs were already starting to arc. When are your techs going to fix this shit?

Fortunately, bunker busters don’t require precision aiming. I landed the fourth shot and wiped out the internals of the second to last tank. They were starting to get a bead on us.

“Now!” I yelled, and the RPGs popped up, fired into the scramble of vehicles, then dropped again. One rocket hit a transport, and the other connected a glancing blow to the last tank.

Then, the hill next to me exploded, along with the torso of Jun’s nomad friend. Almost after it had happened, I heard the scream. Not an artillery round. A supersonic bullet.

Somebody gave those bastards a rail gun.

I collapsed Tom Fury immediately, sinking the tongs back into the body. Jun laid tight against the hill, staring at the crater in the back of his friend. He didn’t know that the hill would not protect him against an ATROPA VPR any more than a sheaf of paper. I pounced over the corpse and dragged him, rolling, down the hill. Another gout of dirt showered over us, the supersonic scream rattling my teeth. Artillery was raining down now as well. Our spotter was thrown, bloody and lifeless, down the hill, presumably by a mortar. The AUV was running, the man in the driver’s seat staring at us with bulging eyes.

Then his eyes disappeared, head snapped back and caved in by the force of a magnetized slug. I threw Jun into the webbing at the back and kicked the corpse out of the driver’s seat. We took off across the plains, past the range of the falling mortars. Eventually past the range of the ATROPA VPR.

Whoever leaked all this to the Federation is running up quite the bill. I intend to collect as soon as this is all said and done.

We returned to the airfield to find what seemed like the entire community out on the tarmac, weeping and burning candles. I knew immediately what had happened. Jun, though, was still in a silent daze. I had to take him by the hand to get him out of the back of the AUV.

Aaron stormed up to us, flanked by two former Aegis soldiers.

“He’s here!” Aaron cried, and all eyes turned to Jun. Without further preamble, Aaron threw a punch into his gut that doubled him over. He stepped in for a kick, but I braced my forearm against his throat, pressing my handgun into his chest with my other hand.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I asked.

“Out of my way, witch. This man killed General Okane.”

There it was. I had known, but it didn’t matter. The shock still kicked in. “Jun was with me. How are you…”

“He brought the Khan his soup this morning,” Aaron said, loud and proud. Projecting for the gathering crowd. “He knew our Father was weak. He poisoned him and left the base so no one would suspect him!”

Murmuring around us. I remembered the barely-concealed hope in Aaron’s voice last night as I held Okane at gunpoint.

“You little shit,” I said. “Okane was on his deathbed. Probably choked to death on his own blood, but you have to make a power play with a Neo-Russian army crashing down around your heads!”

“Stay out of this,” he intoned, this time not for the crowd’s benefit.

“You can’t accuse me, can you?” I pointed out. “I’m the most likely suspect, but you need me. And I’m not the one jockeying to be your new leader.”

“I found poison in the Father’s chamber,” he said, a bit weakly.

“You’ve been here all day. How do we know you didn’t kill him?”

The murmuring changed its tone, its subtle vibrations. I didn’t wait for Aaron to answer. I turned and addressed the crowd, holding up Tom Fury over my head.

“You see this?” I pressed a button, and the gun unfolded with a sudden pop. The crowd gasped and backed up. “This is the reason why they say the Dust Witch can kill you with a thought. This gun almost wiped out your precious Father’s bandit nation. And guess what? The NRF detachment heading our way has one.”

The murmuring stopped altogether.

“They’ve got one tank left, as well. We need every man, woman, and child ready to fight if we’re to survive this thing. That means you need to save your petty shit for another day.”

Aaron hesitated, so I leaned in close to his ear, whispering at a barely audible volume. “Do whatever you want with Jun when this is over. I don’t care. Just don’t get us all fucking killed because you’re hard for the top spot.”

He looked into my eyes and nodded slowly. “We’ll continue this investigation once the NRF threat has been dealt with,” he clipped, looking around at the crowd. “Get back to work. We must make sure that today’s tragedy is the last one our community must suffer.”

The crowd scattered, lethargic. I hoped Okane’s death hadn’t completely killed their morale, but it’s too early to tell. I looped my arm under Jun’s shoulder and pulled him up. The punch had at least shaken off his shell shock.

“How can we fight this?” he asked me, looking younger than before, more vulnerable than I’d ever seen him.

“Ordinarily, you wouldn’t,” I said. “They’d show up, kill all of you, and craft your scorched bones into a cautionary tale to tell their enemies. But you’ve got me. And I’ve got Tom Fury.”

He stared at the rifle hanging in my hand. “Will that be enough? Without the Father’s blessing?”

“I’m sure he, uh…blessed the hell out of all of you before he kicked off,” I murmured, starting toward the hangar. “Besides, you’ve got your girl to fight for, don’t you?”

“Li Chunhua? You spoke to her?” he asked, falling into step beside me. I decided to press on as if I’d known her real name all along.

“She said you were married, before Okane took over your tribe. What did he do, force you to split up?”

“Why do you care?” he asked. We arrived at the hangar, where preparations were underway for the attack.

“Natural curiosity,” I answered. “And I’m trying to distract you. Is it working?”

Jun sighed. “The Father did not force anything. He told us we would still love each other. We could stay together as long as we liked. But we were not bound together like logs in a raft.”

“And you liked that idea, did you?”

“At first, it was strange. But he was right. It was…freeing.”

“You like having to fight for the right to be with your ex-wife?”

Jun laughed. The distraction was working. “You’ve been asking a lot of questions around here.”

“I have reason to be suspicious, let’s put it that way.”

“I would fight Kyros anyway. We like to spar, let off steam. The Father says this is a natural thing, to want to fight.”

We settled in with the other soldiers, unboxing ammo and cleaning weapons. I went to work on Tom Fury. The stupid bastard looked like he only had one, maybe two shots left in him. I don’t relish the idea of resorting to the flechette cannon again, but I may have to.

“Have you laid with any other women, since you joined this community?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said, without a flicker of hesitation or guilt. “This would have been forbidden. But it feels natural, to want other women. She has been with other men. We always come back to each other.”

“You know this is unusual, right?” I asked. “Are you sure that nobody in your community protests this…arrangement?”

I suppose I should have focused on the battle to come, but I couldn’t let my suspicions drop. I’ve hated Okane for so long that I can’t help but want to find the seams in this place, to pick him apart even after he’s died.

“Of course not,” Jun said. “The Father understands us. He does not deny our humanity.”

“Understood,” I emphasized, perhaps a bit petulantly. Jun swallowed hard and looked away from me. “There are places, even today, called monasteries. Up in the mountains, off in the secret places of the Earth. People go there to shed their instincts. They let go of desire. Sort of your polar opposites, really. I’ve been to one, and they don’t seem to be any more or less happy than you lot. So what makes you think Okane really understood humanity?”

“Well…” Jun thought for a moment. “He understood us. You can’t force someone to live like we do. But you can’t force someone to live in one of these monasteries, either.”

For some reason, that made me think of Okane himself, castrated and disemboweled by cancer at a young age. Ironically, he was unable to indulge in practically any animalistic desire, and fate, or perhaps more accurately, his service to Minerva rendered him a monk by necessity. Perhaps his entire philosophy was fueled by the things he could never have. I realized, with surprising sadness, that I was closer to understanding him than I’d ever been while he was still alive.

We spent another hour or so making preparations, meeting with the former Aegis soldiers, and laying traps. The plan is to pick off the last tank before Tom Fury gives out, funnel the NRF troops into the main hangar with a smaller decoy force, and hit them from the terminal across the tarmac. I gave the CF-14s I’d saved as evidence to Jun, Aaron, and the Aegis soldiers. Hopefully it’ll give us an edge, because we’re going to need it. I’m not sure what to do about the man with the ATROPA. You can’t exactly take cover from one of those. I just have to hope the user breaks it before it punches a hole in my chest.

I’m currently up on the control tower with Aaron, watching the road. Figure I’d better keep an eye on the bastard, and he says he was a damn good SDM in his Aegis days, so I gave him my scout rifle attachment. We’ll see if he lives up to his talk. Or if he lives at all. Since you asked so nicely the other day, I decided to test the flechette cannon’s recycler, so I asked a civilian earlier to round up as much scrap metal as she could. I’d actually forgotten about it until five minutes ago, when I was interrupted mid-sentence by a creaking patter of footsteps on the tower staircase.

It was Li Chunhua’s little brother, whom I have no choice at this time but to call Puppet. He was carrying a cardboard file box full of scrap. He walked up to me and set the box down at my elbow, never taking his eyes off of me. It wasn’t out of fear – rather, it was out of fearlessness. He was curious.

“Sit down, Puppet,” I said, patting the corrugated metal walkway next to my knee. He sank down fluidly onto crossed legs, and I put my personal terminal aside. I took the flechette ammo drum out of a bag behind me and threw back the lid. I took a bit of scrap, a rifle magazine that had been snapped in half, and placed it in the drum. I flicked the switch and the drum began to hiss and snarl and rattle like a rock tumbler. Puppet’s eyes ballooned out.

“You want to know what I’m doing?” I asked him. He nodded. “I have in my possession a team of little men, each one no bigger than a fingernail.” I took his hand and held up a nail to his face. It seemed so fragile between the carbon nanotube muscles in my glove. “I found them in a jungle in Namibia living in an abandoned anthill.”

“What do they do?” he asked.

“They make my bullets for me,” I explained. The recycler had finished with the magazine, so I pulled the machining pod off the top of the drum and showed him the spiraling rows of tiny metal teeth slotted into the firing tracks. We could just see the tips of the flechettes, and just as promised, the metal shavings on the ends of each rack were a darker metal than the rest, almost black – the color of the magazine I’d just fed into the recycler. So far so good. Maybe we’ll see if the recycled flechettes actually work if things go south tomorrow.

“Can I see them?” Puppet asked, excited.

“I’m afraid not,” I said, shaking my head. “That’s part of our deal. I have to keep them safe in their pod, or else they won’t work for me anymore.”

“I won’t hurt them,” he said.

“I know you won’t,” I reassured him. There was no need to keep the charade going, but I was actually having some fun. I pulled down my mask, leaned in toward his ear, and whispered, “They’re a wee bit sensitive, and they might get very upset if I even open their pod. And when they get upset, they turn red hot, and then they explode! Like little firecrackers.”

The boy smiled. Madly, I smiled back. I’ve told many stories about myself, always to intimidate, trick, or exploit. I’d never told anyone a story to entertain before.

“Are you scared, Puppet?”

“No,” he said, too quickly and too firmly.

“Didn’t your sister tell you? I’m the Dust Witch. I can read your thoughts, and I know when you’re lying.”

“I’m not lying,” Puppet insisted, his voice wavering. “I’m being strong.”

“Do you know what happens when you try to be strong all the time?” I asked. His face was partially blocked by the wind sensor readout on my goggles, so I pulled them down. “You make yourself weaker.”

Puppet stared at me, his eyes becoming watery but his expression remaining fixed.

“Go to your sister right now, Puppet. Tell her you’re scared.”

“She won’t like it,” he protested.

“Trust me. She’s scared too.”

“But what if she’s not?”

“What did I tell you?” I said, smiling. “I can read thoughts. Hers too.”

Puppet seemed to accept this as fact, and he got up. He looked at me one more time before he tottered sleepily down the stairs. I record our conversation in the hopes that, if Li Chunhua or her brother die tomorrow in the attack, at least small, inadequate pieces of their lives, like mine, will live on in these whispers to you.

It’s getting quite late now. Please send updates on those backup agents when you can. And let me know what you think of the Alexander Smith theory.

 

END REPORT

 

> REPLY

SENT 202348EFEB04

 

I don’t like the implication against President Smith. Not because I can’t believe it, but because I can. He’s more guarded than I am, and that says something. And a Regent would have access to top secret R&D projects like the FALCON and the ATROPA. It’s military tech, but Glaucus works closely with both of us. It’s possible. And if it’s true, then it’s bad. You’re an open secret by now (comes with the reputation) so any conspiracy would indeed be worried about you. No idea what they might be planning or who they really are. The only good news here is that the first attempt clued us in that there is a conspiracy. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Unfortunately, other agents intercepted NRF backup converging on your area. They may be tied up for at least another day. Good luck, Agent Nightshade. Will be waiting anxiously for your next report.

 

If she and Kubek have been suspecting Smith for this long, why haven’t they done anything? There better be a good reason why they let this conspiracy fester until it destroyed the Keleres, or I’ll show them how I deal with problems.

 

Words by:

SteelSalvation2

Art by:

Vanguard

  • BlackMethos

    As always: Very enjoyable and interesting to lead. Quite a few unexpected developments and twists in there.
    Looking forward to seeing where this is gonna go.
    Also: Really like the writing style.