Chapter 29: Sticks and Stones
"June 11, 2017,
Somewhere in Africa
Luciano Bradley stewed in his barracks as he swung at a pair of mating flies, his feet propped on the table as a servant sweated to return the grimy cavalry boots to their former glory.
Prince Lelouch held up his end of the bargain—soon after the Knight of Ten released Marika Sorsei to his command, Luciano was sent to a war-torn region on the Dark Continent… as Commander of Britannian Peacekeeping Forces. The irony was so thick he could—and would have—cut it with his sword.
Rules of engagement permitted use of lethal force only in self-defense, so for the first few weeks he made do by interpreting the term "self-defense" liberally. Then one day, a stern letter arrived from Pendragon imposing on him a rather narrower, more conventional definition, leading to his current black mood. "Backstabbed, is what this is."
"Here was I, promised rampage and mayhem and what do I get? Community bloody service!"
"Most disappointing, sir."
"Shut up and shine."
Like a forlorn lover his eyes turned to the news from Area Eleven. Britannian forces were preparing to retake Kyushu from Japanese rebels and their allies the Chinese. Experts predicted heavy casualties, mentioning "bloodbath" three times, each time causing Luciano to sigh.
A trooper in tan battle dress entered the tent. "The guests are here, Sir."
"About time." Luciano swung his legs off the table and strode out, immediately covering his boots in dust. His servant groaned in despair.
He found the representatives of the warring factions waiting beneath an open tent. Two days ago he requested their attendance in his capacity as the Emperor's envoy, guaranteeing safe passage to and from the meeting. The "or else" was omitted, understood. "Bonjour, gentlemen, greetings and peace be upon you! Can I offer you a drink? Guinness? Gin? Whiskey?"
One leader replied without humor, "Our faith forbids alcohol."
"Shame." Luciano ignored the squirming PhD the Foreign Service sent him—an ivory tower denizen from USC who spent hours lecturing him on cultural sensitivity and the myriad roots of the conflict. He pretended to listen, already familiar with the essential truth: People discontent with their lives blaming and killing each other. Not that he couldn't understand; from what he'd seen, it was a truly appalling place to live. "Well then, let's get to it. Gentlemen, you've had your fun but now playtime is over."
"You dare mock our struggle?"
"Not at all, I wholeheartedly agree with how you settle differences. Would join you if I could: Grab a gun, hop on the back of a truck and head for the nearest populated town. What a life!" Luciano slapped his knee. "Alas, we… well, two of us serve a higher power, and you…" he gestured to the other leader, "fight for mineral rights or freedom of something. Anyhow…"
Luciano pulled out a scroll sealed with blue wax and opened it. "His Majesty, Emperor Charles I of the Holy Britannian Empire, Defender of the Faith, Sovereign of the Imperial Realms, concerned by the strife in the vicinity of His Territories in Africa and distressed by the bloodshed, displaced masses and other conditions of suffering caused blah blah blah the rest is boilerplate. Allow me to summarize."
Rolling a large map out onto the table, Luciano took a pink marker and drew a fat line that divided the zones contested by the combatants. "This line, thirty kilometers wide, belongs to me. You stay on your side, he stays on his. Anyone who crosses the line will be destroyed, okay?"
He looked expectantly between his audience, who failed to share his enthusiasm. "This line is at least… 500 kilometers long. How will you patrol that length?
"Yes, and even if we agree, this zone will be difficult to abide by, as our country is vast and poorly signed." The representative whose creed permitted imbibing grinned over his tumbler, "Without clear boundaries, accidents are sure to happen."
"Of course, I understand. Consequently, those who accidentally cross the line will be accidentally destroyed." Luciano grinned then added quickly, "With deepest regrets."
Kyushu, Area Eleven
Private Hiroshi—second platoon, A company, 1st armored brigade—of the new Republic of Japan Army stood in the middle of the intersection, surrounded by rice patties. He looked up at the signage. He looked down at his map. He looked up at the signage. "Shit."
"Any day now, private!" His squad leader called out, hand dangling out the window of his jeep with a cigarette. Lined up behind him in a neat column were sixteen Type-85 Gun-Rus—big, ugly bullfrogs on steroids—with their accompanying infantry, idling engines rumbling.
Hiroshi cursed under his breath. He wanted to tell the sergeant what he could with his outdated map. He wanted to find and punch the guy who came up with the brilliant idea of jamming the cellphone networks, depriving everyone of Google Maps. He cursed their Chinese allies; weren't they the ones who needed to learn the local terrain? Instead they confined themselves to base, and Hiroshi was out here doing their learning for them the old fashioned way: trial and error.
A crow landed on a nearby light post and squawked jeeringly.
Screw it. He pointed left. "This way."
"…BBC World News Service. Britannian peacekeepers brokered an armistice in West-Central Africa, where sectarian violence had claimed over 5,000 lives…"
"…can announced his retirement after winning his sixth championship in a career spanning two decades..."
"Beeber was arrested…"
"… JDFC 101.1, Area 11's #1 music station. I'm your host Rika, and this is listener request hour. For caller Kinpatsu no Ouji, here is Yuki's 2005 single, "Dramatic."
Suzaku hummed along lightly from the driver's seat. "Great song."
Lelouch listened closely: As briefed beforehand, his was to proceed if the song was happy, abort if not. Impressions from songs were subjective, but that was impossible with Dramatic; Clovis had chosen well.
So they kept going, making good speed down the sparse highway. The opposite lanes were packed for miles; locals sensed war coming trying to leave. Lelouch's truck headed in the wrong direction conspicuously, but there was no choice. "How long to the rendezvous?"
"Three hours, if everything goes well."
"Amazing." Delicate, white hands folded behind him, Gao Hai looked onto the city of Taipei, cradled within a valley of lush green. "Are we really floating?"
"That's right." Schneizel joined the slender eunuch, the youngest of the Eight. He instructed the captain to hold the Avalon level at 1600 meters, a good elevation for enjoying the scenery. Hundreds of thousands craned their necks to stare up at the Britannian Chancellor's flagship, a boomerang unnaturally suspended in the sky casting a great shadow over the city.
Schneizel glanced at his counterpart. "I beg your pardon?"
"How much for this flying ship?"
Startled for a moment, Schneizel recovered with a chuckle. "I'm sorry, but the Avalon is not for sale, although…"
"We are building more like it." The Chancellor smiled. "So if your Excellency is willing to wait, perhaps something can be arranged."
Gao Hai digested his words. The third son of an oligarch, Gao attended Stanford and was considered one of the relatively progressive members of that closeted group—the High Eunuchs—who governed China collectively as Regent to the child Empress Tianzi. Nominally appointed, in practice they elected their own. When an opening became available the others invited a replacement, usually from the ranks of lesser eunuchs that served in the Forbidden City.
Gao Hai was not a career eunuch. When the invitation came he chose to give up his manhood in return for the power to rule. Many derided Gao. Schneizel did not.
The eunuch chuckled. "Patience is not one of my virtues."
He looked across the stateroom to a tall man with long, black hair standing by the entrance. Members of the ship's security detail watched him closely but gave him plenty of space. "Xingke, leave us. The chancellor and I have matters to discuss."
Schneizel smiled at the Knight of Four, who had discreetly positioned herself between the visitor's bodyguard and the chancellor. "Dorothea, please show Commander Li around."
"Driver, step out of the vehicle."
Suzaku glanced at Lelouch, who appeared nonchalant as he perused a large newspaper. Their disguise consisted of caps and uniforms of a shipping company, the logo of which was decaled on the side of the truck. Lelouch also took the extra precaution of donning sunglasses.
Suzaku opened his door and stepped down, face to face with a Japanese soldier not much older than he. He raised his hands. "C'mon, I'm on the clock here. Boss is going to dock my pay if I'm late."
"Business as usual at times like these?"
"Not my call; I just haul the stuff."
The soldier nodded towards the rear of the truck. "Open it."
"Seriously?" Suzaku peered at the cars lined up behind him waiting to clear the checkpoint. "But the AC is going to get out!"
"Open it, now."
From the side rearview mirror, Lelouch watched the soldier march Suzaku back. A second soldier walked back in forth in front of their truck. A third sat in a light armored vehicle, manning the roof-mounted machinegun. All the guns were professionally pointed away, for now.
The soldier stood behind Suzaku as he searched for the right keys. "You're the driver. The other guy, what does he do?"
"He's like a… supervisor."
"Never heard of supervisors riding along with drivers." The soldier shifted the weight of his rifle. "Kinda young, too."
Suzaku hands paused on the cargo bay door handle. He turned around. "Look, don't tell anyone I said this, okay? He's the manager's son. His old man got him this job because unemployment for Elevens is like, 13, 14%, but he doesn't really work, you follow me?"
"Yeah, alright, show me what's inside."
Suzaku yanked open the heavy doors. The soldier felt a rush of cold air flow out of the truck. Inside, crates laden with milk were stacked to the ceiling. Inside the crates were individual-sized cartons with flavors including strawberry, chocolate, and fruit. "Where are these going?"
"Kumamoto, distribution center for the school districts."
The soldier tried to peer around the crates. A few seconds later he stepped out. "Okay, you can go."
"His Majesty won't stand for this." Schneizel said without a trace of animosity, refilling Gao Hai's cup with tea. "You know we will retake Kyushu."
Somewhere, in a posh hotel surrounded by global media, diplomats from both sides carefully minced their words. Heaven forbid they let slip a proposal that may be rejected or worse, agreed upon. Here, in the privacy of the Avalon, they enjoyed a luxury rarely enjoyed by politicians: the freedom to speak frankly.
Gao Hai replied in a similar tone. "You could, but that means war with us and Europe, so you won't."
"We are repairing relations with the EU. Both sides were hurt in North Africa. They're exhausted; deflation is setting in and their members are split. They have nothing to gain from aggression and everything to gain from peace, which we are offering." Schneizel lifted his cup, looking over the clear amber liquid through the rising steam. "I think you will find it challenging to persuade Europe to renew hostilities against us in order to help secure your spoils."
He knew the Federation had been active on the sidelines, attempting to sabotage talks with Europe through influencing political leaders, corporate interests, and public opinion. These measures mostly fell flat, hobbled by the EU's testy history with the Federation and a lack of mutual trust.
Gao looked unimpressed. "If that's what you think, then by all means go ahead."
Schneizel furrowed his brow. The Chinese Federation took a calculated risk and got it wrong: It was impossible for the small number of rebel and Chinese troops—even with control of their air defense network—to defend the vastness of Kyushu. Also, back home, Pendragon and the public would never contemplate ceding territory. The only possible outcome was the destruction of the stranded Chinese forces.
So why was Gao so indifferent?
The chancellor stood and stretched. "Let's take a break."
Lelouch's unease grew the further they drove. Perhaps it was the scenery they saw repeatedly: cities with shutters rolled down, windows boarded. The few people they saw walked quickly with their heads down; an entire population traumatized by conquest twice in the past century held their breath, bracing for the hammer.
The prince felt his pockets for the parting gift he received from Schneizel. It looked like a garage opener, roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes. A cover flipped open to a single switch underneath.
"For when the situation becomes dire." Schneizel had said, and Lelouch followed his gaze to the pilot of the Lancleot, who was busy prepping the KMF for transport. "Call it an insurance policy."
Lelouch decided he wouldn't mention it to Suzaku.
He questioned the mission from the start. Schneizel wanted him. Why him, a high profile member of the royal family, when he had at his disposal the Empire's intelligence apparatus? Schneizel said they were recovering a research project on a pathogen; Lelouch wondered if that was all. What secret was so terrible that the Chancellor didn't trust those usually entrusted with shady secrets to handle it?
They arrived at the rendezvous shortly after noon. Suspicious at first from Suzaku's presence, the research team emerged from their hiding places when Lelouch removed his disguise. The prince stood uncomfortably as the astonished crowd surrounded him. Bartley saluted tearfully, "I knew the Chancellor would not abandon us, but to send you, sir, I… I'm just speechless."
"Don't mention it." Lelouch looked around. "Where is the sample?"
"In a vehicle behind that silo. We had a rough time of it, trying to hide the thing."
Bartley's smile vanished. "But sir, you must know that…"
"Highly dangerous, yes. Schneizel told me everything."
He waited, and it wasn't long before Bartley yielded under the pressure. "I understand, this way."
Lelouch was surprised at the size of the truck, a cargo hauler similar to the one they arrived in. Bartley placed his palm on a scanner and the large door slid open with a pneumatic psssshhh.
Inside the dim cargo bay instrument panels glowed along the walls. Seated in the middle was a large sphere perhaps seven feet in diameter. It was heavily constructed from material he did not recognize, with multiple cables and tubes attached but no obvious openings. The sphere hummed with quiet energy. Lelouch walked around it, leaning close to the vessel for a better look. "Not exactly a camping cooler, is it?" He said, placing his hand against the surface…
He was in a dream. He knew it was a dream because he was wide-awake in a state of blinding, infinite nothingness.
The voice again. A vaguely human shape slowly formed before him like ice on a lake, filling the scope of Lelouch's bodiless consciousness. "What are you?"
Laughter, like trickling diamonds in an echo chamber; amusement.
THE TRUTH THAT WILL SET YOU FREE.
Bartley laughed. "No sir, it certainly isn't. Although if it were, you'd be set for a very long journey."
Lelouch was gazing at his hand. The surface of the sphere was dull, room temperature, unremarkable. He wondered why he bothered to touch it at all. "Terrible joke."
The bald man looked crestfallen, unaware that Lelouch had not heard what he said.
Schneizel made some calls from his office. Soon an intelligence brief from June 2014 was sent him electronically:
Confidential: Foreign Government
The report was about dissent within the Federation's military, Chinese forces in particular. This was nothing new. What was new was the possible formation of secret cliques behind leaders who opposed the rule of the High Eunuchs, a matter reportedly under internal investigation. After corroboration the report was judged credible, but did not contain sufficient actionable detail, and so was not moved up the chain of command beyond the section from which it originated. The file did not confirm names, but gave a long list of suspected members and their units.
Schneizel then turned to an army intelligence report, updated that morning, identifying the Chinese units that were part of the invasion of Fukuoka.
Satisfied, he turned to the previous document, where his gaze lingered on one name on the suspect list that was highlighted for him. "...Well played."
On his way back Schneizel passed by Li Xingke and Dorothea, who were engaged in quiet conversation. "Commander Li. I hope you enjoyed the tour."
"Yes, Your Highness."
"I think we will be done soon. And in case we don't see each other again: Goodbye and good luck."
The young commander glanced at the extended hand; something about the way he said those words… but leaving the Chancellor hanging was not an option. He shook his hand.
Schneizel returned to the meeting room, where he found Gao checking his phone. "I hope you haven't been live-tweeting our conversation."
Gao laughed. "Even if I did have an account—for the record, I do not—our censors have been extra-focused on stopping the spread of rumors surrounding our situation, with all that's at stake."
"Splendid. That's very helpful." The prince took a seat opposite of his guest. "I have spoken to the cabinet and the Emperor."
Now that he had the eunuch's full attention, he continued. "In light of recent developments, I recommended to His Majesty that in the future, should incidents arise where a nation or people seek autonomy or independence, and these not being contrary to Britannian interests in the main, we should follow the Federation's recent example and extend our recognition and support."
Gao's expression darkened imperceptibly. "What are you saying?"
"Which is no concern to you and your peers of course, because—as we have been repeatedly assured by representatives from the Forbidden City—the notion of member states like Korea and India leaving the Federation is ludicrous."
Of the world's three Superpowers, the Chinese Federation—formed out of economic ties and, in the case of India, armed conflict—was the most recent; a loose union of not-quite-equal peers where China proper had de-facto control of poorer, smaller neighbors in its vicinity but mixed influence over larger and wealthier member states, influence which was on the wane. Discontent over inequality, corruption, and environmental catastrophes had reached worrisome levels. The powerful military, deprived of external threats from historic rivals like Japan, India, and Vietnam, grew restless and began to look inward. The number of people obtaining European and Britannian investor visas—which cost up to 1.5 million Pounds—increased six-fold in the past two years.
Gao threaded his fingers. "I believe you're rather overreacting."
"… I also recommended that military action against Kyushu be held off until we have reached out to local commanders." Schneizel looked unflinchingly at Gao. "The use of force shall be a last resort, only after all other avenues have been exhausted."
And then he waited.
The eunuch placed two fingers against the side of his temple. Schneizel watched him think, calculate, guess, weigh options. Five, then ten minutes went by. Finally he leaned back in his chair. "It occurs to me that with our combined efforts, a way may be found to resolve this conundrum with the least possible fallout.
Schneizel smiled. "Anything to lessen further bloodshed."
Two hours ago Private Hiroshi and his company were hopelessly lost. Now they were beyond hopeless. After going off road at some point—a short cut, he had told them—and cutting through some thick woods, they emerged onto a stretch of expressway protruding over the Pacific Ocean. His sergeant went Full Metal Jacket and swore he'd have him court martialed for stupidity. The private sulked off on foot, hoping he would find a gas station—or better yet a convenience store—to get directions. That's when he saw cars heading his way. Thinking his luck had finally come around, he waved for them to stop.
Suzaku saw him from afar. "What do we do?"
Lelouch squinted and saw what looked like more troops parked on the shoulder further down the road. "I can't believe they've made it this far already." Glancing rearwards he saw the Code-R research team following close behind; if they u-turned now and everyone followed it was bound to raise suspicion.
"Slow down. See what he wants."
The private exhaled when the truck rolled to a stop. He was rounding to the driver's side before remembering he'd be blocking both lanes, so he turned back and jogged up to the passenger side of the cab. "Hello there!"
A few seconds later the tinted window rolled down, revealing a pale young man in cap and sunglasses. "… May I help you?"
"Yeah, just need some directions. Could you tell me where we are right now? I'm trying to get to… well, here, faster if I just show you."
He climbed up and reached through the window—sighing when the cold air hit his face and traveled down his neck—to lay his rumpled map on the dash for the two to see. The passenger shifted in his seat. The driver leaned over for a look. "You're a long way from where you need to be, soldier."
The private scratched his face. The passenger pulled the bill of his cap lower, looking straight ahead. "If you backtrack about 18km you should come on the 8A interchange. Go another 30km and then follow the signs West for Sannomiya."
"Thanks. Much obliged. By the way, has anyone ever told you your voice sounds just like that Brit Prince? You know, the cool one the girls love."
After hours of having his balls busted by his superiors, all Hiroshi wanted was to make some human conversation, the kind where people treated each other like humans. The private thought he was being complimentary, but now it seemed he had offended him somehow. He leaned in for a closer look, "In fact, you're the splitting image…"
A hard shove in the chest landed him hard against the asphalt.
"Go." As the engine shifted gears, Lelouch leaned out and pumped his fist quickly. The convoy started up and gained speed as the soldier struggled to his feet unsteadily, raising his weapon. Lelouch ducked back and heard shots fired. They rapidly approached the group of KMFs up the road. An armored car pulled into their way. "Floor it!"
Soldiers dived out of the way as the heavy truck plowed through the side of the armored car, spinning it into the guardrails. Lelouch made fleeting eye contact with a few of the bewildered soldiers and then they were clear. The prince looked back; their small convoy was still together.
Suzaku tightened his grip around the wheel. "We can't outrun them."
"Give me the wheel." Suzaku engaged cruise control. Lelouch reached over and the corporal climbed over the Prince, sliding over his lap as they traded places. They donned radio ear pieces. "Standby to launch."
"Yes sir." Suzaku folded down the center seat and disappeared through the space to the rear. The radio was alive with chatter.
"Bartley, you there?"
"They're shooting at us, sire! Oh God, Alex's car is hit. They're killing us! They're killing us. They…"
"Shut up. Everyone pull ahead of us. Do it now."
Lelouch eased up the throttle and the convoy rearranged itself until he took up the rear position, with what looked like a biker gang of KMFs closing in behind him. The prince tossed away his sunglasses; so much for disguises. "Corporal, are you ready?"
The pilot of the Gun-Ru trained his guns on the fat target plodding ahead of him, fingers itching. If only the Captain hadn't ordered prisoners for questioning…
He flinched in surprise when a cluster of holes punched out the rear door of the truck. The knightmare on his left was hit and spun out, colliding with another that was trailing too close. The door and roof of the truck blew off. When the smoke cleared there stood a sleek white KMF the likes of which he had never seen before.
He fired everything he had.
Lancelot crouched behind its blaze luminous. Suzaku clenched his teeth from the noise and sparks as the energy shield deflected the torrent of shells. There was an explosion and a violent shudder; a ricochet had hit the truck's wheels. The truck began to wobble and list. Suzaku reacted.
The pilot of the Gun-Ru pulled the triggers so hard he lost feeling in his fingers, but the white KMF, smothered in direct hits, looked unscratched. Mind still reeling, the indestructible beast vanished and appeared a moment later, suddenly filling his entire view. He screamed.
Landspinners in reverse to match the trapped Gun-Ru's forward momentum, Lancelot gripped its red-hot gun barrels and ripped them off in pairs. Suzaku reached around the girth of the amputated Gun-Ru with his 25mm carbine and began picking off enemies, aiming for the legs of the top-heavy KMFs. One by one the Gun-Rus collapsed and crashed, but not before the carbine emptied its 80-round magazine. Suzaku discarded it.
Lelouch tried to steer the careening truck, struggling to compensate for the blown rear wheels. Errant shells from the pursuers hit the landslide-reinforced cliffs along his left, raining down chunks of concrete. More shots flew overhead into their path. He saw a van swerve around a hole in the road and flip over. Lelouch pulled the wheel violently, cringing when the truck just missed the overturned van only to smash into Bartley's truck.
The Japanese pilots watched in horror as their helpless comrade, used as a shield by the white KMF, was gashed by multiple slash-harkens that coiled snake-like around its victim before sinking in their fangs. Then, still gliding backwards like a figure skater, Lancelot started spinning and gathering centripetal force until the Gun-Ru was airborne like a bola. When he thought he'd black out, Suzaku launched the Gun-Ru towards the enemy like a cannonball, smashing down several of its comrades.
Lelouch pulled himself through the disintegrated windshield, a sharp pain stabbed through his ankle as he fell and crumbled onto the pavement. He groaned; his entire body hurt, hammered. His thoughts came slowly, there was a loud din in his ears. It vaguely registered that he had lost his cap. When he felt for it on his head his hand came away wet and red.
The convoy had been brought to a stop. Through his vision, which came and went in blurs, he saw survivors from the research team helping each other, staggering, crying. Bartley's truck was wrecked, belching smoke from its side. The spherical containment vessel for C lay rolled precariously close to the edge, trailing fluid. Maybe it was coolant, maybe petrol. Maybe there was a breach and they were all exposed to whatever was inside.
The situation was hardly ideal.
He heard fighting continue from the direction they came from and remembered he had something important, very important, to do. He fumbled in his pocket for the switch.
The running battle had ground to a halt, leaving the expressway littered with destruction. The Japanese infantry caught up and deployed from their troop carriers, which laid down fire as the infantry scampered over the hillside overlooking the expressway to outflank the lone white KMF. Wielding its slash harkens like hydras, Lancelot speared more Gun-Rus and flung them off the cliff into the ocean, but the remaining few wisely retreated out of reach of the deadly tentacles. With no secondary weapon to deal with the dispersed infantry—the Lancelot lacked a hull-mounted machinegun like the Sutherland—Suzaku was forced to retreat by the increasingly intense fire that poured in from multiple directions. "There's too many of them, sir! I can't hold them off!"
"…'s alright. You did well." The prince crawled on his elbows to the back of his truck and propped himself so that he was sitting up and able to see Lancelot make its last stand. He felt lightheaded, opened the cover and placed his thumb on the switch. "Eject, Corporal."
The Lancelot can't fall into enemy hands.
"Sir? Are your hurt, sir? Sir, there's no..."
He flipped the switch.
Nothing happened. No detonation in the distance. No static on the earpiece. Instead, a scratchy voice spoke from nearby.
"Black Prince this is HMS Warspite. Do you receive, over."
Lelouch stared dumbly at the device in his hand; a satellite phone or radio of some sort, though you could hardly tell by looking at it.
"Black Prince, come in, over."
He raised the box near his face. "This is Black Prince… over."
"Affirmative. We are 20 nautical miles west of your position, holding just below visual horizon. On station and ready for call for fire, out."
Warspite was one of four Dreadnaught-II class battle cruisers. Displacing 16,000 tons, it carried four 155mm rail guns in twin turrets that reached beyond 200 nautical miles, placing within its reach 70% of the world's population. Designed to deliver destruction promptly and cost-effectively—missiles were pricy and interceptible—Warspite and its sister ship Revenge achieved infamy when they were ordered to level Chiyoda Ward in Tokyo—the political heart of the nation. This was carried out in eight minutes.
Lelouch cursed silently; Schneizel would certainly hear from him if he lived. "We're nearly overrun. Do you have my coordinates, over."
Of course. "Black Prince to Warspite, Fire Mission, Polar, over."
"Fire Mission, Polar, over."
"Danger Close, Friendly North 800, Infantry and Knightmare Frames on open road, two companies, 500 x 50, altitude 50. First Salvo at Target. Main guns, 15 salvos, continuous fire, 1 minute, fire for effect, over."
"Affirmative, First Salvo at Target, Ready 15, Over."
"First Salvo at Target, Ready 15, Fire, over."
"Fire, over. Shot… Keep your head down Black Prince. Warspite Out."
Lelouch hoped to God he gauged the distance—uncomfortably close as it were—right.
The first round was high, and he watched mesmerized as the forested hills above the highway vanished in spectacular silence before sound arrived with the initial shockwave. The second round was a direct hit on the highway, the ends of which were flung high into the air. Range corrected, subsequent rounds arrived in a steady stream, tearing earth and air apart.
Lelouch, deaf after the first round, was flattened against the ground by the waves of overpressure washing over him, hurting his ears and crushing his lungs. The ground beneath him rocked violently. The explosions sent blasts of heat and shrapnel and debris. Some curious soul peeked from behind his cover and lost his head. Shielding his face behind both arms, Lelouch began laughing uncontrollably.
Call it an insurance policy.
At Mach seven plus, the Warspite's guns packed energy to terraform on a micro-scale, leveling mountains, turning trees to chips, boulders to sand, people to dust, leaving nothing to be discovered, nothing to error or chance.
The ground seemed to swell, lifting him up. Then he was surrounded by light and heat.
When Lelouch regained consciousness he found himself sheltered behind Lancelot, which looked the worse for wear. The hairs on the back of his neck stood in reaction to the energy shields that Suzaku had deployed. Around him, the blast from a shell that had landed rather close charred the surrounding asphalt into a darker shade of grey.
Lancelot stood and turned around. Amazingly, Suzaku's sensors picked up quite a few signs of life in the vicinity.
The containment vessel for C, however, was nowhere to be seen.
"Um, still alive, sir?"
Lelouch lay on his back, battered but breathing. "Yes Corporal. Still alive."
To be Continued
Author's Notes: This chapter only happened because many of you wouldn't let me quit. Thank you.
In the year and months I spent thinking about this chapter (and my own writing), I experienced: hope, stagnation, disappointment, frustration, encouragement, apathy, neglect, and renewed interest, the last when I realized that first and foremost writing has to be fun for me. That, and the fact that the greatest, most genuine satisfaction I receive is from writing a story that people love and enjoy. It's the best feeling in the world.
A blue print for my own story is complete. Now I have to write it. As the wise man Jim Carrey said, we can fail at what we don't want, so we might as well take a chance on doing what we love.
About this chapter: I tried several different prologues, from the serious to the whimsical, but the idea of Luciano Bradley grudgingly doing good in Africa stuck, so I finally went with that.
The first words written for this chapter was HMS Warspite; the rest of the chapter was just buildup for the battleship.
In the end I was unable to incorporate the words "tentacle monster" into the description of Suzaku's battle. Maybe next time.