Yay, the next chapter is here at last. I hope it's worth the wait... I've been filling out accursed college applications and after they're all done I'll hopefully be updating at least once every two weeks... :(
Remember to read Soaring by Foulds, or you'll be receiving a prompt smackdown from my elite forces.
You must also review, or else I'll be sad and still sic my elite forces on you.
A note I keep forgetting to ask about is whether people prefer metric units or American (which ironically is the English system) units when describing distances, volumes, and weights. I know Foulds is British, and many other readers are American, and it really makes no difference to me; I've interspersed both throughout the story. I guess unless I hear a European outcry, I'll stick with feet and miles form now on.
---end authorial note---
The sun was beginning to set on Orange Star's western horizon, filling the sky with blazes of orange and the deep hues of purple. The rain had tapered off in the late afternoon, and the CO's traveled back to the Orange Star HQ to assess the damage to their armies and decide on a plan of action to deal with the mysterious new Wraith. Nell had immediately contacted Olaf to warn him that Wraith would be "visiting" him soon... whatever that meant. Now Blue Moon's forces were on full alert and in Grit's competent hands they could fend off any attack. Nell turned away from the picturesque sunset to the room, where all of the CO's were seated. Sami was talking quietly with Colin, probably trying to console him after the loss of so many of his troops, presumed dead since Wraith had taken their tanks. Andy was fidgeting, obviously worried about his best friend, and Kat had been sent to Max's hospital room to inform Nell quickly if anything happened. The doctor told Nell that Max had broken several ribs and had a concussion, but it was nothing that a few weeks of rest couldn't heal. Max had been lucky; both his driver and gunner had been killed instantly by the attack. Sonja pored over dozens pages of data and photographs taken by her recons units and spy planes flying high over Wars World. Eagle remained silent and aloof; he hadn't lost a single pilot in the battle, but he had the sense not to brag when so many other men had died.
Assured that everyone was present, Nell called the meeting to order.
"As you all know, Orange Star's main research and development lab complex and northern base was attacked just three days ago. Our casualties were minimal, but a prominent researcher, Dr. Rand, was missing after the attack and presumed dead. All of the opposing forces fleeing after the sortie were destroyed by Eagle's bombers, but the body of a Black Hole commando was found dead by a blade wound, and none of Sami's forces were armed with combat knives. That's the first inconsistency. One explanation would be that BH commando killed another, which would make no sense."
Colin jumped in. "Wraith did say she wasn't with Black Hole. Maybe she knew Black Hole was going to attack you guys and decided to try and stop them for some reason."
"Or Wraith was the attacker and Black Hole was the interloper," Eagle responded.
"Or Wraith and Black Hole were allied at the beginning of the battle, but something caused her to switch loyalties," mused Sami.
"Nell," Sonja sighed, "let's continue with the rest of the data. We can't spend all night hypothesizing about one detail."
"Right. So we received information through Flak that Adder and Lash were in Orange Star, confirming our belief that they are somehow involved with the attack. We sent out the expeditionary forces this morning to capture Adder and Lash, and you were all there to witness the result. A combined force of Colin's tanks and Black Hole armored units commanded by Wraith smashed into the Orange Star lines but were beaten back by OS artillery, YC tanks, and my own and Eagle's copters. During the battle, we noticed that Wraith's units appear to have superior armor, even the ones taken from Colin that very morning. If she has the ability to retrofit entire armies of tanks with advanced armor in a matter of hours, the problem could be much more serious than a simple troublemaking CO attacking Orange Star as Flak did last year."
"What about Adder and Lash? We never heard from them the whole time," Andy asked.
"I can answer that one, Andy," Sonja replied. "This photo..." Sonja pressed a remote control button and the image was projected onto the wall of the room, "...was taken by a fighter unit flying near the battlefield at an altitude of about two miles. The quality obviously isn't as good from that height, but you can still see the lander, and it isn't hard to guess who the two on the beach are." The two figures in the photo were walking towards a beached lander that had two anti-airs stationed on either side of it. The first figure was quite tall, but his slouching posture made him seem only barely taller then his companion, whose hairstyle added a good eight inches to her apparent height. "So Lash and Adder were both in the area until the battle was underway. This makes it seem rather likely that Wraith was lying to us and is in fact being controlled, indirectly at least, by Hawke, especially since many of her forces were Black Hole units."
Andy frowned and seemed about to raise a point when a colonel in the OS army burst into the room, causing all the CO's to turn in surprise. The officer ran over to Nell and began hurriedly whispering into her ear. Nell's eyes widened in surprise as he finished and she turned to the other CO's. "Bring her in," Nell commanded.
Two more officers walked in, supporting a woman who limped along between them. Her brown hair was matted with some blood and there were a few bruises on her otherwise unblemished face, but no truly serious injuries seemed to be hidden under the frayed lab coat she wore. Dr. Rand cleared her throat and said in a strained voice, "It's good to see you, Commander."
Adder entered the room cautiously. Something didn't seem quite right in Hawke's office. The windows were almost opaque, as usual. The ebony desk sat at its usual place, its computer terminal the only real source of light in the chamber. The silence was ominous, but that was usual in Hawke's quarters. The man was ominosity incarnate. Adder inhaled slowly. The smell of coffee... was not there, Adder realized with a start. Years of drinking the powerful beverage had so affected the room that the walls seemed to give off the odor of their own volition. The only thing that could possibly erase the smell would be the running of a powerful air-conditioner for a very long time. That, or the ozone produced by... this realization caused Adder to throw himself down as a bolt of energy, visible only because it was that much blacker than the darkness of the room, coursed past him to impact into a chair. The chair seemed to liquefy while still retaining its shape in the air, a mass of roiling black plasma that Adder had no desire to attempt to sit in. The chair quickly returned to its usual grey, but it was somehow different, the fabric's very existence warped under the blast of a Black Wave. Another bolt flew overhead to hit a certificate hung upon the wall; Hawke's graduation diploma from military academy was the only trophy he ever displayed. Hawke, who had been standing quietly in the corner, frowned imperceptibly at his ruined paper. He fired another bolt at it, and the atoms that had been disarranged and strewn at random by the first attack were reordered into perfection by the mysterious other side of Hawke's immense power, bringing the text and official seal into perfect focus.
Adder marveled at the display of power, even in his fear. Hawke could destroy, but he could also heal just as easily. Decay and redemption, destruction and order; Hawke was a mix of every quality a man could have... if he was even human. He was born to be a leader, just as Sturm was born to be a person who would pave the way for the ascension of a leader. At times like these, Adder forgot any thoughts of seeing Hawke as an equal and became like his namesake, a cowering animal beneath Hawke's notice.
"Relax, Adder. My anger is not with you, nor with Lash."
The implosion of a filing cabinet a few feet away was not very reassuring.
"So. She styles herself Wraith now, does she? We'll see how long she can keep on the run now that she's made enemies of every army on the face of this world."
"You don't think she's too powerful for the worms to handle, Lord Hawke? She has some rather interesting abilities..."
"If they can defeat Sturm and myself, they can defeat her. No one person is that powerful."
"She might be."
"No. If it becomes necessary I will go out and silence "Wraith" myself. Betrayal is never forgiven in Black Hole."
After her dramatic entrance to the CO's briefing room, Dr. Rand was brought into the hospital where Max and the other wounded soldiers were being kept. While the techs hooked her up to IV tubes and heartrate monitors, she explained what had happened to her over the past few days.
"Whatever happened when Swartzchild base was attacked knocked me unconscious... concussion grenades, probably. I woke up in a recon speeding west when a huge bombing run lit up the forest behind us, but none of the bombs were close enough to damage our group. I ended up at some kind of field HQ, and that crazy CO... what was it... Wraith? Yes... Wraith tried to force me to tell her all about Orange Star's latest military technology. It was bizarre... she didn't try to torture or coerce me in any way. She just kept on asking me, as if I would voluntarily give secrets to her. She even starting explaining some of their new technology to me before the battle. They had aerosol cans that they were spraying their tanks with. Wraith was telling me that the chemical inside reacts with water to produce a powerful electromagnetic field that slows down bullets and shells that would otherwise rip apart a tank. Pretty interesting idea really, wish I'd thought of something... something like that..." Dr. Rand slipped into unconsciousness, the shock and fatigue of the previous days finally taking its toll on her. Nell looked to Andy. "Hopefully she'll be able to tell us more about Wraith after she's had a chance to rest. Where did the troops say they found her?"
Andy looked down at the hastily typed report from a minor field commander in the area. "Uh, it says here that she was in a maintenance hangar set up near Wraith's HQ, tied up and unconscious. The troops that found her put her in a recon and rushed her over here since she seemed to be in healthy condition overall."
Nell glanced back at the sleeping doctor. "Well, whatever she's been through, she's definitely earned a long rest."
Andy frowned. "Well, now we know how Wraith's units were taking so much abuse during the battle, but shouldn't we get her to tell us how Wraith was able to take over Colin's units without anyone being able to detect anything? I mean, we need to defend against that kind of thing happening again."
Nell pondered for a moment, then replied, "She's still in a weak state, Andy. If she doesn't recover fully, we'll have lost one of our best military researchers. I doubt Wraith will have the units to attack again before Dr. Rand is able to give us a full debriefing... she'll probably only sleep for twelve hours at the most, and then she can tell us what else Wraith has up her sleeve. Head on back to HQ and get some sleep. We all need to be in top shape if this is the beginning of some sort of Black Hole offensive."
Andy left the room, and turned to walk down the hall to exit the building and get to his personal suite.
Sonja walked hurriedly into the lobby of the hospital carrying an armful of papers and several other clipboards filled with data. She glanced at the map of the building to see the location of the room Nell and Andy were debriefing Dr. Rand in, and noticed the new OS officer Kat leaning against the wall, apparently waiting for someone. Kat had already noticed her, and called out with a smile, "Looking for Nell?"
"Actually, I wanted a word with Andy."
"Oh? What about?"
"I've been analyzing Wraith's tactics in the battle, and assembling a reliable computer simulation of her for the War Room. Since Andy and Eagle are the only active CO's on the continent who are proficient in all-around combat, I wanted to get them both to fight my Wraith tomorrow and get accustomed to combat against her. I'm also sending the files to Jess and my father so they will be ready if Wraith attacks Green Earth and Yellow Comet."
"Hmmm... but don't you think it's a little early to be trying to simulate her? We don't know her CO powers, her special strengths, or anything else about her."
"We know whether she prefers to use feints or blunt power, which terrain types she uses to defend her units, and all sorts of minute details of her psychology from the way she commands her units. I mean, there are analysts whose job is to determine whether a CO is more likely to take the north or south path around an obstacle. If we can learn that much about Wraith's psyche, changes to troop strengths or CO powers won't make that much of a difference."
Kat had an amused smile. "That much intel is all well and good, but I'd rather have units that can fight twice as hard than units who know twice as much. If I were Wraith, I could kick your intel gathering army apart in no time."
Sonja felt a hot spark of anger rising up in her. "Firepower is useless if you don't know where you're shooting. I've been a CO for longer than you've been in any army, and I think I've done perfectly well with my intel to guide me, thank you very much."
The opening of a door nearby terminated their debate, but not before Kat could get in a parting shot. "Without Kanbei's power, Yellow Comet would have been crushed by Adder long ago."
Andy walked quickly by, but saw the two females and stopped, turning to face them. Kat was standing at ease, but had a slight flush to her cheeks. Sonja was barely controlling her rage as she stood silently next to her. "Uh, hi Kat, hi Sonja. Are you two all right?"
"Never been better," Kat replied with a smile. "Sonja and I were just discussing the merits of different military strategies. In fact, she wanted to have a War Room battle tomorrow to practice with just the three of us."
Sonja's eyes darted quickly to Kat again. "I most certainly did not-"
"Sure, that sounds like a great idea!" Andy responded, apparently oblivious to Sonja's objection. "It's been a while since I've been able to have a nice long battle and not have to worry about whether people are dying."
"Well, it's getting a bit late, so I'll be headed off to sleep now, Andy! See you in the War Room tomorrow!"
Sonja and Andy both watched as Kat left the hospital and walked down the sidewalk outside towards the officers' quarters. Andy soon followed after saying goodnight to Sonja. Sonja watched silently, wondering why life had to be so complicated, why insane commanders like Wraith always had to disturb the peace, why manipulating people like Kat had to come between her and Andy right when there would be a chance to finally spend a few minutes alone with him. She sighed and pulled out a radio to call for her personal recon to take her back to the Yellow Comet encampment.
As the full moon rose over the Dostoev Plains, its silver rays illuminated row upon row of artillery facing the border with Orange Star, protected by earthen walls that would shield the fragile guns from small arms fire and reduce damage in case of tank assault. Behind the artillery lay a row of rocket units, their launch tubes gleaming in the moonlight, ready to rain death upon anyone foolish enough to attack Blue Moon's capital city, Kherograd, by land.
The dark figure who was observing from a nearby hill put down her binoculars and shook her head. "It seems Olaf does not want to come out and play. He hides behind the only true commander this backward nation has... pity that I'll have to destroy Grit to win this battle."
Wraith was aware of the presence of her top lieutenant. She turned with a faint rustling of her cloak to face the subordinate. "Have you seized the airbases yet?"
"Yes, commander. All of our troops are in position."
"Excellent." Wraith drew her personal weapon, a long, curved scimitar, from its sheath, its blade looking wicked and terrible as it glinted in the faint light. "Prepare for an attack at an hour before dawn."
The lieutenant saluted and departed. Wraith resumed her observance of the incredible defensive formation that had been set up by the famed sharpshooter with incredibly short notice. "Grit, in four hours you'll be dead and Blue Moon's strength will be decimated. Such a pity..."