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

18

Dec 2017

A Life In Whispers – Part 4

Posted by / in Lore / 1 comment

Situation Report Request [A-COFR-SRR]

SFDT

212001EFEB04

Requesting Party: [email protected]

ATTN: Agent N03 {Nightshade}

Still waiting on that field report. Those at home growing concerned. Satellite imaging shows heavy cratering at Semey Airport, major structural damage, and two NRF transports heading east from the site. Please check in at earliest convenience.

 

>REPLY

SENT 212251EFEB04

Checking in. No time to novelize. Expect a full report soon.

 

 

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

Report Number: 081

UFPT

221512EFEB04

Reporting Unit: Agent N03 {Nightshade}

ATTN: [email protected]

 

Sorry for making you all sweat yesterday. I had my hands full, and the dust is only beginning to settle. I’ll try to summon the details of the past forty-eight hours as distinctly as I can. As you well know by now, I can’t seem to do it any other way.

Yesterday morning, around 0600, I saw the first ghostly traces of NRF transports on my scope. If you’ll recall, I’d spent the night up on the control tower with Aaron, which afforded us an almost uninterrupted view of the fields around Semey, with the exception of a hill on the north end of the runway. The transports were taking the main road, approaching from the south, and they were still too far away to make out individual details. I couldn’t tell if the last tank had made it past the minefield we’d left behind.

As they got closer, I saw that the tank was indeed missing. Four Typhoons were approaching, each with a maximum capacity of sixteen passengers and three crew. Nearly the entire population of Okane’s community in trained soldiers. I could have evened the odds right quick with a few more bunker buster rounds, but before I could do so, there was a distant explosion from the north. I looked up from my scope just in time for the tank round to hit the tower control room behind me.

Fortunately, the structure was so weak that the round punched through the control room and detonated beneath us, shredding the tower scaffolding but sparing our lives. Still, the blast was deafening, and the tower began to bend and warp beneath us. I rolled with the tilting floor and forced myself up to my knees, switching on the underbarrel grapple gun. I’d already considered how best to make a quick escape from the tower, I just hadn’t expected to use it so soon.

“What are you doing?” I heard Aaron hiss next to me. I ignored him and latched the hook to the tower railing, then swung over the edge and unlocked the grapple line. I plummeted down the side of the tower, and another tank shell blasted a hole in the tarmac below. The first shot had apparently been a lucky one – they seemed to be firing blind. I locked the winch again just before I hit the ground, and released the line.

I ran for the hangar across the tarmac, where I’d stashed my equipment that morning next to a rack of old URAL motorbikes. I didn’t know what I would need, but whatever it was, I knew I didn’t want to be caught without it, so I slung all the packs I could carry on my back and kicked the stand on a bike. The hangar was buzzing with decoy soldiers, running to their sandbagged positions in front of Okane’s empty mechanical throne. Some of them ran for the main doors, but I yelled them off. Since the tank was firing blind, the roof over their heads was the only pitiful defense they had.

It was a luxury I couldn’t share with them. I needed to reach higher ground in order to shoot over the northern hilltop. The bunker buster rounds would pierce the hill, but the void sensing fuse would detonate them as soon as they reached open air. Barely scratch the tank’s paint job. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, there was no higher ground than the hill, so I knew I would have to climb right up the tank’s nose in order to kill it.

A shell struck the terminal, cascading dust and debris down the angular facade. I suspect that blast, or one of the following shells, was what wiped out the bulk of our forces before the NRF even arrived. I blocked out the crackle of powdering cement, the screams, and the scramble, and I kicked the ignition on the URAL. The greasy bike mumbled and groaned, but still dragged its carcass out of the hangar. I straightened out on the tarmac and gunned the old twin engine, picking up speed and feeling, for one insane moment, that I were riding a little aircraft and the wind whipping at my head would lift me up into the sky. A black cloud rose above the hilltop as another thunderous shell was loosed. It landed far behind me.

I was relieved that the second hangar, the one where we’d hidden the untrained and invalid residents of Okane’s community, was located just at the base of the hill, well inside the tank’s blind spot. The tarmac seemed to stretch on forever, probably because the shrieking wind on my bare head made the trundling Russian motorbike feel much faster than it actually was.

I let it drop when I hit the base of the hill and climbed the rest on foot. My infrared goggles showed the tank sitting just behind the crest of the hill, and a man with a pair of binoculars was lying prone at the top, yelling out instructions to the tank crew. Not firing blind, then – just firing badly.

I sank into the grass and crept up to the side of the tank spotter. I let go of the rail gun with my right hand and drew my pistol. I’m so familiar with the little trajectory lines popping up on my goggles that I forgot to aim down the sights. I’ll have to make sure that doesn’t become a habit, or I’ll become utterly useless without the goggles. I popped the spotter in the head and he slumped over the binoculars.

Before the tank crew could even notice that something was wrong, I holstered my pistol and stood up. Tom Fury twanged once, and at this distance, I could hear the round burst inside the tank, the superheated tungsten shredding crew and equipment alike.

The tank was silenced, but there were still explosions pounding the airfield below. I turned around and saw that the transports had arrived, parked just outside the line of Czech hedgehogs. Troops were swarming out the back, but farther down the road, three mortar crews had set up long black tubes to continue the artillery barrage. The control tower was canted forward, as if its neck had been broken, and the front of the hangar roof had collapsed. Mortar shells bombarded both the hangar and the terminal, though they lacked the penetrating power of the tank cannon.

I switched to scattershot rounds, knowing Tom Fury was too bent up to accurately hit anything at this point. I fired at one of the mortar crews, but the round zipped past them and the fragments of the round skipped harmlessly through the grass. The crew couldn’t help but notice the supersonic slug that nipped past their ears and likely half-deafened them, and they cranked up their mortar tubes. But they couldn’t see or hear precisely where the shot had come from, so they aimed for the hangar full of civilians.

Bombs began to rain down on the roof, and I pulled the trigger again. Tom Fury chose this moment to break down completely, blinking red and whining unhappily. He wouldn’t even collapse properly – I had to force the tongs back in while I slid down the hill. A mortar shell hit somewhere next to me, close enough to knock me sideways and bury shrapnel all along my right side. I rolled the rest of the way down to the bike, whirling and blind.

When the ground leveled out, I rolled to my feet and ran, a little unsteadily, to the hangar doors. The civilians were still crouched under stacked crates and the wings of old fighter jets.

“Move!” I yelled, waving them toward the door. There was one more hangar they could hide in, and I’d intended to get them there, but a final mortar shell caved in the roof and sent a huge beam falling onto the jets. The civilians screamed and covered their heads, too terrified now to move. The roof was coming apart in sheets, and a bomb landed in a stack of crates, throwing bodies and splintered wood in a great cloud of smoke. As I watched, blood ran from my forehead and poured in fine strips down the right lens of my goggles.

I wiped the blood away and ran back to the motorbike. I dug out the flechette cannon pieces and fit them to my rail gun. I no longer cared for war crimes or mercy. I took the bike and rode around the back of the first hangar, the one containing the decoy force. It was little more than a corrugated metal bowl now. The fighting had spilled out onto the tarmac, where all of Okane’s remaining soldiers were trading shots with the NRF troops, who were using the Typhoon transports for cover.

I hopped off the bike about fifty metres from the mortar teams and crouched low to the grass, keeping it slow and quiet in spite of my thoroughly animal desire to gallop at them and tear their throats out. I had to continually wipe the blood from my right lens, and as the seconds ticked by, the pain stabbed further and further through the adrenaline cloak around my nerves.

The first crew were too busy with their trussed up PVC pipe to notice as I rose from the grass. The flechette cannon whistled a stream of metal shards and flayed them all alive in seconds. The next crew heard the screams and turned to their right. I kept the trigger down and hit them before they could bring up their sidearms. The range in this mode is shit, so it took at least a second longer for them to go down. I knew the last crew was much too far away, and they had already readied their Kalashnikovs, so I dropped Tom Fury altogether and fired an incendiary dart from my wrist. The flash and ensuing burst of smoke distracted them long enough for me to unclip a discus grenade from my belt and hurl it into the center of the group.

The four men went tumbling through the grass, uniforms burning. It was too little, too late. The airfield was blanketed by a storm of black smoke, lit up with muzzle flashes and the orange glow of wild fire. The terminal was dust by now, piled slabs of concrete almost neatly folded in on itself. There were a few survivors taking cover in the ruins, though they were penned in by the NRF. I saw a shot from the control tower that took the head off a soldier in front of me, which at least indicated that Aaron was still alive.

I picked up Tom Fury again and circled around for the ruins. On the way, I shredded two, or perhaps three NRF soldiers advancing on the terminal. The others were starting to notice me, and I needed to find cover. I reached a protruding concrete pillar and was surprised to find Jun crouched behind a shattered bench not far from my position.

“How many we got left?” I yelled.

“Not many!” he responded, keeping his head down.

It was at this point that a scream ripped the air and punched straight through the concrete column, just centimetres from my shoulder. I’d forgotten about the rail gun. If it missed, that meant it was starting to arc. I hoped the shooter didn’t realize it.

I used infrared to see the nearest transport through the pillar, and I slung the bag from my shoulder. The first attachment in the pile was just the one I was looking for. I dug out the grenade launcher and locked it over the empty grapple gun under the barrel. Immediately, a trajectory arc winked into existence on my goggles. I unhooked a cluster grenade from my belt and dropped the orange canister into the barrel.

I tilted the gun up and looked over my shoulder. The trajectory arc placed the landing zone right on the other side of my pillar, so I angled the gun further and watched the arrowed ribbon creep and waver across the ground until it lined up with the roof of the transport. The grenade blasted smoke into my face and soared over the jagged top of my cover. In the air, it shed the stubble of clustered warheads wrapped around its flank, rippling the ground with small concussive bursts. The mini-warheads shattered legs and pulverized exposed flesh. Those that were not struck by a cluster bomb backed up toward the transport, where the main warhead landed and enveloped the Russians, transport and all, in a dust-wreathed fireball. Jun and the surviving soldiers popped out of cover to finish off the troops that my cluster bombs had cut down.

The rail gun fired at me again, and this time the slug passed near my head, blasting dusted concrete in my face. The gravelly bits stuck to the blood caked around my goggles. I felt as though I were seeing spots – and perhaps I was, under the tech. I couldn’t tell the difference.

I turned my head away to wipe my goggles again and saw Jun hop the bench. He and the other soldiers were advancing to better cover, pressing their advantage. If I hadn’t looked back, I might not have seen the muzzle flash from the control tower, or noticed the burst of blood and bone from Jun’s chest before he collapsed into the dust. I might have assumed, as I’m sure Aaron would have wanted, that Jun had been gunned down by the NRF during the charge. Fickle fortunes of war, and all that. But I did see the muzzle flash, and I did see the bullet exit Jun’s chest, not his back. I expected Aaron to wait until after the battle to make his play, but the bastard was either more impatient or more cowardly than I gave him credit for. I expected that once we got closer to victory, I would be his next target.

I didn’t want to make it easy for him, so I ran out from cover, heading for the scorched Typhoon transport. The blackened metal was still hot and reeking with the acid taste of gunpowder. Around the corner from the transport husk, another transport had its back open toward me. A man in a gray uniform and cap rested on one knee, cradling an ATROPA Variable Precision Rifle against his shoulder. The sniper had been Commissar Petrov himself, and as soon as he saw me, he fired again out of panic, but the slug thunked straight into the ground. It would have been comical if I hadn’t been so full of rage – rage against him and his Federation’s petty insecurities, rage against Aaron and his consuming lust for power, rage at all of us and our animal savagery. Like bucks locking horns, like dogs rutting violently in the dirt.

Petrov panicked when he realized that his fancy toy was misbehaving, so he leaned out, grabbed the handle of the door, and swung it shut. The engine was already thrumming, and the Typhoon took off as soon as the door closed. It was moving too fast for a grenade, and besides, I didn’t want to kill Petrov. I cycled the dart launcher on my wrist and fired a tracking bolt into the back of the truck instead.

The NRF troops dug in behind the remaining two transports looked about in confusion – apparently, their commanding officer didn’t tell them he intended to rabbit at the first hint of danger. They seemed unsure of whether to keep fighting or retreat with the commissar.

As I watched, the wall of the hangar fell forward, pushed down by three of Okane’s soldiers. I wondered, at first, why they would deliberately knock down their cover, but then I saw Kyros Eliades sitting on Okane’s throne, turning the excavator cab to face the remaining NRF troops. With it came the mechanical arm and the twin-linked T-45 autocannons.

One of the firing mechanisms must have been on a half-second delay, because instead of the slow, rhythmic thump that still, on occasion, haunts my nightmares, there came instead a furious drum fill, a cataclysmic arc of metal that cut through the nearest Typhoon, eviscerating it and throwing armoured plates into the grass like corn shucked from a cob.

That was all the troops needed to see. The last transport immediately started to roll, and soldiers ran up the ramp as it went. Okane’s men charged at them, firing wildly, victoriously. The T-45s punched holes in its flanks, but the transport still managed to escape with at least the driver intact, if nobody else.

A cheer rose from the black inferno that had consumed the airfield. It was a thin cheer, as if it expected many voices and was surprised by how few emerged to give it shape. I counted the heads of the men who gathered on the tarmac. There were only eight – nine, including Aaron, who had yet to descend from the control tower. I would have rushed for the civilian hangar, but I didn’t want a bullet in the back. I waited for Aaron to materialize from the fog of war, and when he did, it was with his CF-14 aimed at my head.

“What you going to accuse me with, love?” I asked, casually adjusting my gauntlets. “That I brought all this upon you? That I conspired with the Federation?”

“Men, take aim,” he said, and there was a new vibrato, an attempt at an authoritarian tone in his voice. I wonder how long he’s dreamed of becoming a leader of men. How many times he’s practiced that voice in the dark hours of the night. “After all you did to us, do you really think we need an excuse?”

Despite his bravado, he looked around and noticed that only two other Family brothers, one of them mute Kyros, had survived the battle. The nomads and raiders of the group seemed hesitant.

“She was the one who drove us out of Minerva!” he yelled. “She tore the Father’s legs from his body! On the night she arrived, she would have beaten him to death if I hadn’t stopped her. It was probably that very beating that caused the Father’s death!”

“I thought Jun poisoned his soup,” I pointed out sharply. “Or is it no longer convenient to blame Jun, since you’ve already shot him in the back?”

“What?” Aaron gasped. “How dare you? I saw Jun charge at the NRF. They shot him. I saw it with my own two eyes.”

“A trustworthy statement if ever I’ve heard one,” I said, picking scraps of metal out of my armour. “How about you lot? Anybody else see what happened to Jun? Perhaps we should take a look at his body.”

“She’s a liar. This is what she does. She’s trying to make us doubt each other,” Aaron said.

“He was a good man, that Jun. I don’t think anyone really believed that he killed the Father. That’s why you had to find another way to get rid of him. I think these people could believe that quite easily.”

“LIAR!” he roared. Two of the nomad soldiers whispered to each other. The Family Brother next to Aaron said nothing. “There’s no proof. You can’t prove it.”

“Why should I have to prove it?” I asked. Then, I pretended to adjust my gauntlets again and fired an incendiary dart into Aaron’s chest. The white phosphorus burst in a flash and a cloud of smoke. Aaron loosed an inhuman howl as the chemical melted his guts, and he began firing his rifle indiscriminately. Most of the rounds buried in the ground, but one clipped me on the shoulder and another hit a man in the half-circle around me.

The incendiary dart didn’t take long. He fell back on the tarmac, bowels smoking and bubbling. I checked my shoulder. The bullet had split the carbon nanotube muscle and shredded my skin beneath, but I could barely feel the burn. I was acutely aware of the guns still surrounding me.

I feigned indifference. “I hope no one else is feeling ambitious today. There are already so few of you left.”

Kyros was the first to break the stalemate. He grunted, lowered his gun, and bent to tend to the man who had been shot in Aaron’s death throes. The others angled their guns down, but didn’t drop them completely.

“I would like some proof,” the other Family Brother said, in the clipped voice of a trained Aegis soldier. I recognized him as Kristoff Muller, former 8th Company private from Aaron Elgin’s fireteam.

“If you must. Find Jun’s body and you’ll have all the proof you need,” I said. “But I suggest you go to the civilian shelter first. The mortar teams hit them hard.”

Kristoff’s face blanched, and Kyros perked up from dressing the soldier’s wound.

“And you?” he asked. “What will you do?”

“I’m going to get what I came here for,” I explained. “Answers.”

I tracked the remaining NRF trucks by motorbike, but since they had a head start, it took all day. By the time they stopped to make camp, it was nearly nightfall, so I decided to wait and observe until they were properly asleep. The men had argued briefly with Commissar Petrov before Petrov shot one of them in the kneecap and retreated to his armoured transport for the evening.

Four men took the first watch while the rest slept. Their formation was sloppy, haphazard. What I gather from my interactions with the NRF military so far is that they are poor imitators of a bygone superpower, picking up things they’ve read or seen or remembered without any idea how to properly use them. It seems only a matter of time until they collapse under their own incompetence.

It was simple enough to pick off the watchmen one by one with my pistol. The commissar’s Typhoon was locked up tight, but I found a ceiling hatch with a missing plate, so I dropped in on him from above. Petrov was lying on his side, one arm resting on the rail gun next to his sleeping bag. A teddy bear, or perhaps a lover. I stomped on his exposed fingers, and he bolted up with a pained snort. I immediately pressed my knee into his chest and sank him back down.

“Tell me your name,” I said in Russian. The glow of my goggles carved up his weathered face into Cubist angles of green light and black shadow.

He licked his lips and began to hyperventilate.

“I think I know who you are,” I said. “And I know you know who I am. So don’t make me wait. Let’s have your name, then.”

He gulped. It looked dry and painful. “Anton Romanovich Petrov,” he finally said.

“Smart boy,” I said, reaching up and patting his cheek. He flinched as if I’d approached him with a needle. “Antosha, you tried to kill me.”

“Not me,” he whispered.

“Yes, you. First with your little death squad, and then with this…” I leaned over and stroked the flank of the ATROPA VPR at his side. “Where did you get it, Antosha?”

“Stolen from Minerva,” he said. I leaned forward, putting all my weight on my knee. I heard one of his ribs pop and he gasped.

“You don’t steal things like this from Minerva, Antosha. One of your boys told me you had a friend. Your friend told you to kill me. I know this already. I just need to know who your friend is.”

Petrov gaped like a fish out of water, so I took my knee off of him and sat back, straddling his lap.

“Come on, then. Popping a rib is the least I could do,” I pointed out.

“He said his name was Granada,” Petrov finally muttered.

“Code names are worthless to me. What did he look like? Young? Old? A dwarf with blue hair? What?”

“He was a young man,” Petrov said. “Short black hair. Strong jaw. I don’t know. What else do you want?”

“What was he wearing?”

“Robes. Long robes like a caravan trader,” he said. I sighed. Not much to go on.

“How about eye colour?”

“He wore black glasses. Very thin. I could not see his eyes.”

“He didn’t take them off?”

“No. Not once,” Petrov said. Then, in a whisper, he added, “Please don’t kill me.”

“I’m not going to kill you, Antosha,” I said. “I need you to go back to your superiors and tell them if they ever deal in Minervan tech again, I will execute them and burn their Federation down.”

Petrov seemed to perk up at the thought of survival. “Yes. Yes, of course. I will tell them.”

“Good. Now place your hands on the rail gun. One on top of the other.”

“Why?” he asked. His enthusiasm had immediately evaporated.

“Remember to do as I say, Antosha.”

Slowly, hands shaking, he placed them on top of the rail gun. Then, I fired an incendiary dart into the back of his hand. I closed my eyes, but the flash and the rush of acrid smoke still disoriented me a bit. Petrov screamed and thrashed, helpless as his hands melted off the bone. The white phosphorus burned through the rail gun as well, severing the bent firing tongs from the frame. I picked up the frame of the gun and dragged it out of the transport with me. The sleeping NRF troops were just beginning to stir as I left them. I didn’t look back, and they didn’t pursue me.

I’m now back at Semey Airport – what’s left of it. I spent most of today clearing out rubble and burying bodies. Ten civilians survived the bombing, including Li Chunhua and her little brother. They held up remarkably well, but nomads usually do. When I first retired to the base of the control tower to write this report, I was not five words into it when I heard the door scrape open.

The boy stood in the doorway, staring at me with that same fearless expression I’d seen on him before.

“Are you going to stay with us?” he asked.

“Why would I do that?” I responded, but I regretted it immediately. I’ve become so used to intimidating people that it’s become my default mode of operation. But his face was so open and honest and curious that I couldn’t keep it up. “I go where I’m needed,” I explained further.

“But we need you here,” he said. He took a few steps forward, feet crunching broken glass.

“It’s not that simple,” I said.

“Yes it is.” He walked closer. “You said you go where you’re needed. We need you here.”

Perhaps I underestimated how old the child is. Or perhaps, like me, he never truly was a child at all.

“You don’t get to decide where I’m needed,” I pointed out. “Neither do I, for that matter.”

“That’s bullshit,” he said. I couldn’t help but laugh – the first real laugh I’ve had in a long, long time.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re the Dust Witch. Nobody tells you what to do.”

I could have told him that the spirits tell me what to do with the powers they’ve given me. I could have told him the truth – about orders, and chain of command, and you. But this boy reminded me too much of myself, and I knew that I never would have accepted those things as answers.

“I’ll think about it,” I said. The boy smiled, and then Chunhua threw open the door.

“Feng, leave the witch alone,” she said, beckoning toward him with an outstretched arm.

“Relax, sunshine. I’m not going to hurt your Puppet,” I told her.

“What are you going to do?” she asked, looking at me suspiciously but, I thought, with an air of cautious respect.

“I’m going to rest,” I said. “If you’ll let me.”

Chunhua grabbed her little brother and led him out of the room, though the boy stared at me over his shoulder the whole way. I’ve given the idea of staying some thought as I composed this report, and it actually seems quite feasible. The airfield is an easily defensible location, once I set up cameras and traps round the north hill, and the control tower is still mostly intact. I suppose I’ve even earned the loyalty of the survivors here, and that’s a first for me. What do you think, sir? Might I set this place up as a new base of operations?

More importantly, we have a lead now on the conspiracy. Granada. We don’t have much of a description to work with thanks to those damned glasses, but perhaps your team at home can dig up something. I don’t have anything solid to connect him to Oculus, but that’s where I would start. And if your backup ever arrives, I’ll hand off the confiscated Minervan tech for forensics to look at. Maybe we can come up with some prints.

 

END REPORT

 

>REPLY

SENT 230915EFEB04

 

No point in researching Granada. Like you, this man doesn’t exist. That is an absolute certainty. At least we can assume the NRF will think twice before accepting aid from him again, but we have the other factions in the area to look out for. I’ve confirmed that Agent Anpao received the ATROPA VPR and the CF-14s from you this morning. Will inform you of any details forensics can uncover.

As for your request, I agree that Semey makes a good defensive position, but the community there might draw unwanted attention, and their trustworthiness has not been confirmed. I will have to review the data and consider the cost of installing a base of operations there. Maintain your position for now and take some well-earned R&R.

 

>>REPLY

SENT 230920EFEB04

 

Trustworthiness? We fought and bled together. The survivors stood by me when Aaron Elgin shoved a gun in my face. What the hell more do you need?

 

>REPLY

SENT 230925EFEB04

 

You sound defensive. Did something happen last night? Are you getting attached?

 

>>REPLY

SENT 230926EFEB04

 

Fuck you. I’m staying.

 

Granada…G? The description matches decently enough. Time to get the Witch to answer some questions. At least the inside of this base of hers is equipped better than the outside was. She can’t just walk away from me now.

 

Words by:

SteelSalvation2

Art by:

Vanguard

  • Honza Prchal

    Sunglasses … with your break, saving lives and all, I re-read this.