Author's Note: Wow, that took... forever. Sorry, guys, both for the wait and the relatively... unexiciting... result.

However! I have a blog now, at basedeltazero dot dreamwidth dot org. It has a fair bit of commentary and technical stuff there. More will be posted from time to time, depending on interest...

Capital Defense Force Supreme Commander's Office, Ground Forces Command Center

Central Mid-Childa, Clanagan, Capital City of Mid-Childa

April 28th, Year 76 of the New Calendar: 1044 Hours

"Our information indicates that the aliens have… neutralized… most of the 283rd battalion. We lost all contact with battalion command after their final report, at 1035 hours. The 1038th has gone ahead and engaged the enemy unilaterally, however, and we have been able to successfully regain a foothold in the city. How long it will last remains to be seen."

That kind of news was… not really surprising. The 283rd had been outnumbered at least 3 to 1 - total victory was a long shot at best. Still, General Laito hadn't expected what had actually been reported - their defensive position near the bridgehead had turned against them, with the 'Orks' heedlessly launching a head on-attack on both sides of the river. Apparently, some enemy soldiers had broken through the western wing, and then swept around and cut off the eastern wing. In close combat, the enemy completely shattered their forces. The rest of the unit - no more than a few scattered remnants, really - fell back to the city, where they tried to delay the aliens, to no avail. Eventually, battered and not wanting to fight amongst the civilian dwellings, they surrendered.

"And nothing new from any of the other authorities." Laito asked.

"No, sir. Just the last message from the station. It's possible they were attacked."

It was more than a setback - it was a humiliation. In the whole history of the TSAB military, no battalion sized unit had ever actually surrendered in its entirety. Then again, no invader had ever set foot on a capital world before, either. That, however, wasn't the worst problem. The Orks apparently weren't too familiar with the concept of surrender, as they'd celebrated their victory by killing or destroying everything in sight. Half the city was on fire, people were being massacred in the streets… the SRS and local authorities had started evacuating people from the linear rail station, but only one train had gone out before all contact was lost. Prospects… seemed grim.

"Probable, even." Laito repeated, opening up a channel to the 1038th. "Captain Terreco, can you give us a report of the situation on the ground. What is the status of the 283rd and the evacuation effort?"

"Sir! Yes sir! We haven't managed to establish contact with the garrison either… There's still fighting all around the city, so it looks like the reports of surrender may have been a bit exaggerated - we've been meeting up with 283rd mages fighting back as individuals or small units but… there's no sign of any chain of command above section level. As for the station… it seems that some remnants organized a resistance there, but… they were overrun just before we got here… the enemy opened fire on the crowd with high-caliber mass weapons. With that kind of power in a confined space, casualties were… extreme. We're looking at least two thousand dead. But that's probably a small fraction of the total…"

It was almost certain to be a small fraction of the overall deaths in the invasion. All told, it had to be approaching a hundred thousand now - though there was no way for anyone to get close and confirm even an approximate count - and even then, it would be a long time before anyone could come up with the correct toll. The number of refugees and wounded were even harder to count. Special Rescue Service and the like were doing their best to accommodate all of them, but there was only so much space that could be readily found. He would have to advise a general evacuation of the White Sea/Foevir region as well, when the question came up, and that would stretch their already limited capacity. Hospitals were already crowded with the injured - and sick. As grim as his task was, at least he wasn't responsible for that.

"What of the military situation?" He asked.

"Yes sir… the enemy forces were widely dispersed throughout the city when we arrived… we've swept south to the terminal, engaging them in small-scale swarming attacks. They're too disorganized to put up much of a fight, but it seems they're too heavily entrenched in the industrial district, or they've managed to rally somehow… we're currently occupying the southwestern zone just below the factories… we're waiting for ground forces to clear them out street by street."

"Understood. We'll look into it."

It was Gen. Moncure who was responsible for the Mobile Defense Division, and the captain - or someone from the 1038th, anyways - had most likely already given her command a more detailed report. Still, oversight authority of all the military and paramilitary forces on Mid-Childa fell to him, not to mention 'direct' command of the CDF - he had to remain appraised of the situation, ensure that all the resources the Defense Division needed were available, that their flanks were secure, and, of course, to coordinate with the evacuation and other emergency services.

The situation in Harpin's Curve may have improved little, but at least it was quiet for the moment.

That, however, was only one of the myriad problems facing them. The invaders in the west were still some distance away - for the moment, at least - but there was no way to be sure how many more of the ACID weapons they had, or if they would use them again - the command center itself was safe now that the barrier was up, but that was little comfort for the rest of the city. Moreover, a large portion of the downtown area was still ablaze - much of the fire had been contained, but beyond the initially affected area, there had been some more incidents - power conduits overloading, vehicle crashes, and the like, putting even more of a load on emergency services. The fires were 'calm' enough that rescue crews could get in reliably now, and they could approximate the number of casualties - roughly eight thousand dead, fifteen thousand more injured, though the exact proportions might be different. The weapon had been similar to an old nuclear fusion bomb, but focused or constrained by some means - a sphere of sub-atomic plasma, powerful enough to burn through hardened modern building materials as easily as its predecessors had burned through timber. Had they used one of the older bombs, the casualties would likely have been much fewer...

It was a small mercy, though, in that if they did launch more, the destruction would be fairly localized, rather than having to deal with moderate damage and exposed casualties throughout the city. Montgomery did not plan to rely on small mercies, however. There were the intercept batteries, first of all, now on full alert, though that was... not entirely dependable. (Something would have to be done about their state of readiness. Despite high levels of spending, his predecessor had seen fit to let them stagnate, instead preferring to concentrate his efforts on pet projects that ranged from ethically questionable to utterly reprehensible. Montgomery himself hadn't considered them a priority, either... but today's events had demonstrated the danger of that stance.)

It was best not to take chances - that was why proactive measures were being taken - those weapons had to launch from somewhere - they'd find it and eliminate that platform, one way or the other. With the ACID threat gone, the enemy could be held at arm's length until they either ran out of supplies or otherwise realized the futility of their position - unless, of course, they had some kind of trick up their sleeve, some way to get secretly obtain materials... Armed Forces Intelligence and the TSAB Covert Inspection Department, and a myriad of other agencies were already hard at work looking for a supplier, an origin, any clue as to who the hell these people might be... but all that was a problem they couldn't afford to worry about now.

There was a bizarre situation developing in Foevir Forest, with the other invaders... or the invader's second force, as it might be - at least, it was presumed to relate to the invaders until known otherwise. It was a series of unexplained seismic anomalies - regular seismic tremors, minute in terms of magnitude, but remarkable in their astonishing regularity, against a background of irregular vibration - disturbingly, however, the whole thing was slowly moving southeast, towards Port Kansen. Numerous possibilities had been drawn up - a tectonic weapon, a random if ill-timed earthquake, a million-strong army marching in unison, but it did not quite match the profile for any of those. The only consensus on what it might be was that whatever it was, it probably wasn't good. Hence, a Recon team had been sent to secretly investigate, and find out what it was. They should be reaching safe communications distance momentarily. The fact they hadn't sent a message earlier… seemed to confirm that the source was indeed some sort of enemy action.

Before long, the scheduled check-in time came… and went. Darius checked their track connection - the main transmission amplifiers and a handful of the hard-line backups were down, but their reserves went much deeper than that. They were still retrieving other transmissions - it wasn't a problem on their side - so the scouts must have been delayed. A minute passed… then two… Montgomery was beginning to worry, when finally, they got something. Darius pulled up some controls.

"We're receiving transmission from Ground Recon 76th Company Squad 16, relaying through Fort Foevir. Patching in and relaying to Special Defense Division… now."

A monitor reading 'GFRec 76th Co. Sq. #16'/AUDIO ONLY' appeared, then collapsed to a thin banner, with three other monitors opening, depicting generals Moncure, Carosella, and Sharot.

"Command, this is Gridlock 1, some delay in achieving safe distance, we are now standby. We have… we believe we have confirmed the source of the seismic event."

"Good." Montgomery said. "Any sign of enemy activity?"

"There's a whole damn alien army here, sir. We've got Armour-types, infantry, motorbikes, cannons… just about everything. As for the source of the vibrations, it's a… well, put it on screen."

A monitor opened, showing what seemed to be a river of green-skinned aliens, mixed in with various vehicles, and, off in the distance, what appeared to be a small mountain of metal… until he realized it was moving.

"Lieutenant…" General Carosella asked. "What the hell is that?"

"It's… big." The recon officer replied - a few more monitors appeared, showing a zoomed-in view of the… thing. It was roughly cone shaped, bristling with mass weaponry, including an array of seven huge cannons mounted on one side, with what seemed to be a large mechanical crane or arm on the other.

"Some kind of gigantic humanoid armor-type." Gridlock 1 continued. "I've never seen anything like it before… no idea how it works..."

Ah… yes, on closer examination, it did bear a certain resemblance to a human - or rather, 'Ork' form, with the two arms, of course, a 'head' at top of the squat, conical body, and a pair of huge treads to… no, not treads - looking at the way it was moving, it had to actually be walking. A strange, swinging gait, since its legs didn't seem to have much range of movement, but still… it was walking somehow. A walking vehicle of that size shouldn't exist, at least not on any slightly practical level, but this… well it certainly seemed to work, somehow, and if they could keep it operational and had effective barriers, it may be rather dangerous. Even if the giant machine was more intimidating than practically significant, there was a large alien army moving… somewhere.

"Nevermind the… walker." Montgomery asked. "Can you give me an estimate of the overall force's composition and destination?"

"Rough estimate… at least ten thousand infantry, two or three hundred armor-types, including some smaller walkers, and… five hundred other vehicles. Destination, south by southeast… they're either heading to urbanized areas along the inlet, or to Fort Foevir itself. We've already transmitted a detailed description."

"Either way, we're going to have to deal with them." Sharot said. "Continue silent observation. Report in if anything significant develops, and relay their position every 24 hours."

"Understood. We'll evade and tail them as able." The lieutenant replied. His indicator strip flashed, then faded out.

"This is the largest alien force we've encountered yet." General Moncure observed. "Based on the figures here, it seems that ten thousand is a conservative estimate. Accounting for the variable density of their formation, and the size of their group… plus the possibility of the outer layer screening for a larger force… we could be looking at… fifty times that number."

"Half a million?" Montgomery asked. It wasn't an improbable number - for a planetary invasion, actually, it was still far, far too low… but it was much more than they'd seen so far.

"It may not be likely, but it's possible." General Moncure said. "It'd have to be recklessly dense. More likely, the figure is in the range of eighty to five-hundred percent of ten thousand."

"And it's a hundred kilometers from my position." Sharot said, shaking her head. How the hell are we missing these guys, anyways? Report indicates they're causing significant damage to the forest..."

"Orbital recon is still down." Montgomery explained. "When they shifted into Mid-Childa's orbit, whatever system they used created a tremendous burst of unknown interference. Transmissions with the rest of the Bureau are adequate for military purposes, but searchers - even visual - are suffering from a high degree of static. We need to get in close to have any chance of a clear picture. Look."

Darius pulled up one of their satellite images, this one of what was believed to be the location of the human invaders. You could make out the contours of the terrain amongst the snow and artifacts, but the resolution was at less than a kilometer. The massive Grand Central Highway was invisible, and all the (evacuated) towns along the route were nothing but incoherent blobs of brown and gray.

"This is what Foevir Forest looks like." He continued.

Another image, this one of the forest - at least supposedly. A blizzard of static covered most of the image, with a dark-green mass visible through the gaps, except in the upper-right corner, where it was a blue mass.

"As you can see, it is of precious little intelligence value."

Suddenly, General Carosella spoke up. "There's a pattern here."

Montgomery looked at the image again. The actual terrain was too indistinct to really gather anything, so he looked at the static. Now that he took a look at, it did seem vaguely radial, but other than that, there wasn't much to go on…

"I don't see anything. What do you mean?"

"There's a kind of…" Carosella began "…no… actually, it was there, but now I can't see it."

"Hm." General Moncure said. "It wouldn't be surprising for there to be some pattern to the jamming… something must be being transmitted."

"I'll mention it to the labcoats we've got working on it." Montgomery said. "It might help them deal with it."

"Fair enough…" Sharot said. "We're going to get Ft. Foevir combat ready. They may be heading to secure Harpin's Curve - it's an industrial center, and they could overwatch the river easily… thirty percent of the province's shipping goes through there. But wherever they're going, we'll be able to launch harassing attacks. I'd say 'cut their supply chain', but frankly, I don't see a supply chain."

"It seems both invading forces have decided to carry all their equipment with them." Carosella noted.

"Hence our strategy of isolating and starving them." General Moncure explained. "They cannot last forever."

"That's the strange thing, isn't it." Montgomery said, rubbing his chin. If you were going to do something as difficult as invading Mid-Childa, why would you send only a token force? "There must be more to this invasion than this… they can't possibly expect to conquer a planet with… what, fifty thousand isolated troops? Perhaps one of the outer colonies, but…"

"That's a matter for the council, isn't it..." General Moncure said dismissively. Their own mission was to stop the invasion - determining exactly how or why it occurred was up to others.

"True. They're already well aware. " Montgomery said. "In the meantime, perhaps some reserves should be directed to Fort Foevir. That way, you'll be more able to withstand a direct assault on the base."

"They'd have to take leave of their senses to go up against a fortified position as their first move…" Sharot began. "…but they haven't exactly demonstrated a strategic genius thus far. Still, I think a giant mech head would go well on my mantle, eh?"

"Don't get too confident." General Moncure replied. "They've done considerable damage thus far. I am activating the first reserve brigade and directing it to you."

"We'll definitely be attracting their attention." Sharot noted. "A little extra company couldn't hurt."

"Stay alert. General Laito is correct - there seems to be something more here."

Sharot nodded dismissively. "Right. I'll be cautious."

Sharot's enthusiasm was… a little disconcerting, considering the severity of the situation. This wasn't a vacation, and treating everything too frivolously was dangerous. That was the problem with being a hyperpower - though, honestly, it was a good problem to have.

"I believe that should concludes matters for now." General Laito said. "We'll reconvene when Ft. Foevir makes contact with the enemy or at 1600. This meeting is adjourned. Dismissed."

Unknown Location

Heretic Prison

9-473-004M42

They took him from his room a third time. This time, however, they took him past the small side room, where they had pointlessly babbled in their heathen tongue, and into a lift. The lift took him upwards, and he was dragged through more halls. The halls were too bright, too clean - the spoor of hedonism. 'He that wraps himself in light and gaiety is without resolve, he will falter in the darkness' - thus was written.

Eventually, they came to another room. It was like the other below, yet… different. Larger. Dustier, but more aligned. It was clear it had not been used often. There were two witches already present. A male, who had been present in the smaller room - most likely one of their leaders. He sat with a plate of libations in front of him. A female, unnatural pale green hair, standing in the right corner. Two of the four that had brought him stood outside the room. The other two continued to carry him in, placed him in the chair opposite the male, and secured restraints to him.

He tried to shift out. They hissed and sparked, but held out. They'd even accounted for his self-inflicted injury. 'Whatever should hold you from obedience, let it be cut apart and cast aside'. It was thus ordained.

The male across from him held out a small pastry and said something. He understood neither the words nor the gesture. The witch took the item back, and bit into it. He continued to speak, but these heresies were just so much babble to Commissar Erikk Morden. 'The truly devout, he shall witness all blasphemies and yet know them not."

Morden glared back at his interrogator, not looking into his eyes, but into the bridge of his nose. The eye of a psyker was dangerous.

The male witch did not try to meet his gaze. He nodded to the female, who reached out towards him, grabbing for his head. He twitched aside, sneering at her. She merely stepped closer.

"I do not fear you. The Emperor is with me."

He did not understand her response. She did not seem concerned, and reached out again, and touched his head.

A throbbing pain flooded his skull as the psyker intruded into his thoughts. Morden growled as the dull sensation spread downward, but he would not yield…

[SEE WHAT… FIND]

He recognized the female witch speaking aloud, through the migraine…

[IT WILL BE… YOU… RESIST.]

He clenched his jaw… was this the best they could do? By the Emperor, they would suffer for this…

[WHAT?]

[You shall not TOUCH my mind, heretic SCUM]

There was a sensation, incoherent even compared to the witch's profane intrusion, and the she reeled back, screaming. Two of the others rushed to her. The lights flickered off. The shackles weakened, briefly.

Briefly was all he needed. With all the strength he could muster, he burst out of the shackles. The left, he had already escaped on the battlefield. The right… had they truly not expected he would be willing to dislocate his wrist? If so, it would be their undoing. One of them noticed he was unfettered, and ran over. He seized the back of the heretic's skull, and slammed it against the table. Blood flowed from the witch's face, but he still struggled. Morden slammed him against the table again. This time he fell still, and Morden took the shackle key while the others were still focusing on the female - except for the leader across the table. He reached for a small cylindrical jewel at his neck - possibly a totem or vox.

"THE EMPEROR PROTECTS!"

Morden leapt upon the table, and the witch glowed with unclean light. It dimmed, and he stood dressed in armor, and carrying one of their totemic staffs, which he began to lower. Morden rushed forward, and shoulder-barged the witch against the wall. He punched with his remaining hand where the armor seemed weak - once, twice, again. The witch's grip loosened on the staff, and he wrenched it from his grasp. The others had noticed, now. One of the guards left the female, holding out a small prod. They would be dealt with in time. Now, Morden swung the butt of the staff into the lead witch's cheek, stunning him. Then, he reversed the blow, and jabbed into the larynx of his neck, yielding a quiet crack. Satisfied, he leaned the blasphemous weapon against the ground, and stomped on it with as much force as he could muster. Regrettably, it was not as fragile as it appeared - he could not worry about such things for now.

Morden turned to the approaching guard, and shuffled over as best he could muster. The witch lunged, and he parried with his left arm, and countered with an uppercut from the right. The witch stumbled back, nose bloodied - he seemed surprised to see it, but only long enough for Morden to advance after him. He soon recovered, and swung the prod - Morden shifted back, but not quite far enough - it struck his shoulder, stinging with witch-fire, but the Emperor was with him, and it did not still him - thus was written, "Honest faith is the surest proof against the blasphemy of the Warp.". He again counterattacked, striking the witch's temple, then sweeping in to take him off his feet - the shackles only made it easier. Morden slammed his elbow into the witch's jaw as his foot struck ankle, and he fell, attempting to roll away - he would not get the chance. Morden struck out, and seized him around the mouth. Using the remainder of his left arm, he braced against the back of the witch's head and wrenched.

The last witch, another female, was still on the ground, desperately pressing… something. Deliberately, Morden walked over, with her still pressing the button. She drew her own small prod from her waist, holding it out. It would not be of concern.

There was a loud wail, and a red light flashed in the background. Another wail. The alarm - of course. The witch said something… pleading, almost.

"Such is the fate of the heretic." Commissar Morden replied. He didn't know if she understood, nor did he care. He simply wanted her to die scared.

Ignoring the prod, he kicked her in the face - she reeled back, and he stomped down, striking again. This time, she fell to the ground, but he did not relent, stomping on her perhaps five times. The soft booties he had been given did not compare to hob-nailed boots, but it would do. When she was adequately disoriented, he came down astride her, seized her head, and jammed his thumb deep into the witch's eye. Soon, her struggles ceased. Morden scoffed, and wiped off the gore on her black jacket, and unfastened his shackles with the key he'd taken earlier - it made little difference in these close quarters, but outside, he would need to run. The next step was to get out of the room itself before reinforcements arrived. The leader of the witches had inserted a small plate - some kind of cypher-key - to open it. Morden searched him, but he had nothing - apparently, the contents of his uniform pockets were somehow absent from his armor. Perhaps one of the others had the same key - he searched them as well.

It took some time, and as he did so, a series of eldritch lights illuminated around the top of the ceiling. He looked outside - four more witches had already arrived, all in armor, two holding staffs, two with short, thin spears. He redoubled his efforts and soon located another plate, this one in the pocket of the witch who had attempted to violate his mind - she two had been slain, perhaps by the fall, perhaps by the ferocity of his faith alone. The fabric of her skirt tore like fish-paper as he removed the key - and the bodies, though they were devoid of insects, seemed as though they had been immersed in salt for hours. The result of whatever sorcery those eldritch lights were working, perhaps? One of them - the one who had first tried to restrain him - was not affected. Perhaps it meant he was, in fact, still alive?

Morden moved to rectify that, but then thought better of it. There were four more of them outside the door. He had proven blessedly resilient against their witchery thus far, and had thought to sprint past in search of escape - as the ancient proverb stated, 'Discretion is the better part of valor', and to fight this entire fortress without weapons was foolish. But perhaps if he took a hostage, things would be that much the easier - these heathens seemed to ascribe an undue value to every irrelevant peasant. He grabbed the witch about the neck, and dragged him to the door, sliding the key into its slot. It groaned almost angrily, but duly opened.

He pushed his hostage into the corridor, as the others backed off for a moment, before regaining their ground - but they did not fire. One of the witches - another female, they seemed to have no end of them - spoke to her fellows. Immediately, Morden replied. "Your weapons are useless - shoot, and he dies." The heretics backed up slightly, their weapons still trained on him, but widening the net. Another eight witches appeared - two on each side, four behind. He sneered, and continued advancing, forcing the witches back. A bolt of witchfire struck the side of his head.

It was not a hindrance.

Very well.

He hurled the unconscious heretic at the spear-wielder to his right. The witch stumbled back, uncertain.

Morden was certain. These scum, and every other heretic he could reach, would die.

He barreled into the enemy, seizing the spear…

Genevieve Elrose Plaza, Briarnook Township

Central Mid-Childa, Approximately 260 kilometers West of Clanagan

April 28th, Year 76 of the New Calendar: 1044 Hours

The streets of Briarnook were silent. Row upon row of houses and flats stood in perfect order, lawns ranging from immaculate to overgrown. A few cars sat in driveways, as if waiting for their owners to return from work. Swings at the nearby park rocked back and forth in the wind, empty. A small dog curled patiently on a nearby doorstep. No rubble or refuse littered the roads, clusters of papers refused to flutter past. It didn't look like an abandoned city should look… but nevertheless, it was no less desolate, and no less eerie.

Well, the streets were almost silent. A sound like a distant crack of lightning pierced the cold air, and soon a column of smoke rose far away. SRS and the local Police/Rescue had searched every cranny for the lost, brought ambulances for the invalid and dragged away the unwilling. But in the end, as the enemy grew close, they themselves had to abandon the town, still not entirely evacuated.

Now, the Krieg scouts had arrived, fanning out and conducting a search of their own. Whether out of fear of ambush or sheer bloodlust, they would scour the town, methodically sweeping block by block, killing all they found - human or animal. For now, though, their motive was irrelevant. The search clearly indicated one thing - the main force was not far behind… and for all their thoroughness, they were a little too methodical. They followed a set pattern, and if the Seventh Permanent Striker Section swept in after the patrols had passed by, but before they came back around to report to the main force, they'd get in without a problem.

Captain Marcos Venson's orders were simple - the enemy had already deployed some kind of ACID weapon against an unprepared Clanagan. Casualties were enormous, and if they fired it again, they would only rise. His section was here to ensure they would never get another shot. The first step, identifying the weapon, had already been completed. Using an array of limpets and searchers, they'd identified a number of primitive but powerful fusion bombs mounted in large missiles. Getting to them was the trick - the missiles were located in the heart of the enemy column, concealed within the lower levels of the Grand Central Highway. They'd been placing D-cartridges along the highway, using them like mines to harass the enemy advance and hopefully slow them down. It had worked, at first, but apparently the enemy had seen through that. Now, they didn't even stop when one of their charges detonated, just continued implacably on their march towards the capital.

That was the plan, of course. The enemy had grown reckless. Now it was time for the final strike. The simplest solution would be to just drop out the whole highway, bring down the entire tunnel, ACID missiles and all. Unfortunately, even all their remaining charges couldn't bring down something that durable, and even if they'd had enough, it'd have surely been noticed even in the Krieg's haste. They'd have to make a direct assault on the launchers, which naturally were located at the center of the enemy column. Of course, to do that, they'd have to find some way to stop them long enough to attack…

Fortunately, they were Strikers. 'Impossible' was their primary mission, and this… well, this was just another day's work.

Pretense aside, though, it'd require swift action, and some… adjustments. They paused by a Marcy's General at a streetcorner, not far from the highway itself, and just outside the range where their ASLS would reliably conceal them. Here they'd split up - an assault force, with their fast, close-in attackers going to pinpoint and eliminate the launchers, and a blocking force, with their slower and more defensive mages keeping the column from moving or, hopefully, responding effectively.

"Alright… boys and girls. "You know our mission. You know the enemy has already used their ACID weapons on Clanagan itself, and you know they will kill thousands more if given the chance. What I also know, however, is that all of you are Strikers - the Bureau's spear - and no matter the objective put before you, you will not fail. Is that not right, mages?"

"Yes sir!"

"Damn Right." Captain Venson finished. "Alright, then. This is where we split up - you have your squad assignments. Lieutenant Fanton, you and your team are ready?

"Yes sir." Hiyen replied, nodding slightly. "We'll hold the enemy for as long as you need."

"Excellent. When we've destroyed the first of the launchers, I'll transmit the code word 'Quiescence', and we'll all fall back to rally point Grove."

"Understood." Corporal Feidermahn (Colossus 4, on the blocking force) said. Hiyen just nodded.

"That's it. Good hunting."

The group backed away from the circle that had sub-consciously formed. The blocking force saluted sharply. He returned the gesture, and they sped off into the distance. The assault force stayed behind for the moment. They did not have too long to wait.

Suddenly, four reactions blazed into existence, speeding towards the highway. That was their 'signal' - the deactivation of the blocking force's limiters. No one within a hundred kilometers could miss them, and the Krieg forces would be no exception. The assault force would need to make good use of the distraction.

Captain Venson nodded. "Go."

There was a brief surge, like a cave-in of energy, as four stealth limiters shut down. Marcos blinked away the disorientation caused by the sudden shift, and brought his 'Jacket to full power. He set off at a sprint, then leapt into the air, the others falling into formation behind him. The blocking force was almost to the highway - he could actually just make out the glow of their aerodynamic barriers.

A torrent of long, fiery streaks leapt out from the upper roadway, detonating in bright flashes as they chased after the blocking group, who split up, taking wide, erratic paths as they passed over. The counter-aerial fire followed them, but there were only three batteries and four mages - and they were moving too abruptly for it to track.

One of the batteries stopped firing. One could hope it had run out of ammo, but it was equally likely…

"Incoming projectiles!" Tsahuro transmitted. Marcos saw them - a stampede of lights, heading straight for him at high speed.

"Got it, get low"

Immediately, he countered forward momentum and dived - moments later, the air where he'd just been erupted into a firestorm. They had to get up top, but that didn't mean they couldn't approach from low altitude. Above him, the storm of metal and flame followed after him, quickly gaining - he turned aside, rounding a nearby house. The others had descended to surface level, too, making straight for the highway, but the battery was focused on him. Might as well keep it that way…

"Colossus 2, see if you can neutralize the rear battery."

"On it, sir."

A shaft of autumn-gold light pierced the air overhead, and the barrage chasing after him abruptly ceased.

"Knockdown." Hafner said. "It's burning."

"This is Titanic 2, we are in position and holding!"

With the Blocking Force disappearing into the highway, the remaining CAs quickly turned to them and opened fire, honing in on Colossus 2, who briefly climbed, then looped over and zoomed down, under the highway. They might be able to take those out too, but it was not worth the time, now that the blocking force was in place. But the attack itself would be much easier unharassed - if only for a moment.

"Flare!" Marcos ordered, flying under the highway. Simultaneously, he initiated his device's Last-Known overlay, and arced around the far side, turning over as he climbed. Off in the distance, there was a bright flash of light, and the trail of projectiles continued in the same general direction Colossus 2 had been going. That'd keep their attention a little while.

The remains of the first blocky gray armor-type smoldered in the center of the highway, a hole a meter wide torn clean through it. According to the overlay, the enemy launcher should be underneath about a hundred meters west of it, further away from the 'front'. The team didn't need any explicit orders, they just converged on top of it, some on the ground, some hovering a meter or so above.

"This is it." Captain Venson transmitted. "Colossus 1 will breach, then Titanic 4 flares. On three."

"One…" He counted. "…Two… Three!"

Lieutenant Hope thrust her glaive forwards, and beam of bright-green light blasted through the pavement. A moment later, Tsahuro tossed another flare into the hole, brightly illuminating the inside. A wave of static blinded their searchers, but they wouldn't need them in such close quarters.

Marcos was the first in. The enemy was all around him - what seemed like dozens of armor types pulling large cannons behind them, and a wall of infantry about fifty meters behind. The launcher was clearly not where it was supposed to be - but based on what was here, it couldn't be too far ahead. The soldiers on foot were probably the biggest immediate danger as well - get clear of them, accomplish their objective, and get out.

"Get to the launcher, move!" Marcos transmitted. He drew back his sword, gathering power, and swung in a long circle, slicing into one of the armor types nearby, and unleashed a wave of energy towards the cluster of infantry. A section of the front line flew backwards, crashing into more soldiers behind them. Hopefully, that would slow them a bit. Marcos leapt backwards, spinning in midair and breaking into a sprint. The target couldn't be far. The rest of the team followed. Around them, vehicles veered aside, disoriented - or maybe deliberately moving to block their paths. He dashed up the side of a vehicle hauling a large trailer as it rammed into one of its comrades, and sprinted across the top of the convoy, leaping from one armor-type to another.

"Titanic 2, we've got heavy incoming. They're just smashing through their own vehicles…"

He activated Omni-Vision, and his device superimposed an image in front of his eyes, adjusting for the darkness - perhaps a hundred-fifty meters forward a pair of smaller vehicles towed a launch platform of massive size - their target.

"Found it!" He shouted, transmitting the location through GE-487, and continued across the convoy. Around him, hatches began to open, and masked soldiers emerged, firing pistols. Two Armored Assault Vehicles flanked the launcher, and, stuttering, began to turn about… Marcos raced ahead - the sooner they got to the launcher, the better. About two armor-types ahead and one to the side, a Krieg appeared out of the hatch, laser in hand. Marcos leapt ahead, and slashed low, ripping through the roof of the vehicle with his zweihander and throwing the soldier back down into his craft. He was less than seventy meters now…

"Titanic 2, status?" Marcos asked.

"They're pushing us hard, but we're holding. They're just smashing through their own vehicles… Titanic 3 is injured, but it's not bad…"

"Good. Standby, Marcos out."

A laser snapped into his inner shin, leaving a stinging welt. Dozens of energy beams snaking through the tunnel now seemed to be focused on him - already, his barrier jacket had taken half a dozen hits, and was at around 74%. He turned, flinging a shooting attack from his left hand at the first Krieg he saw. He leapt backwards as another hauler smashed into the one he was standing atop, somersaulted in midair, and pushed off the ceiling towards another enemy standing on top of the convoy, thrusting over a meter of Armed Device through his chest, as they were both carried off into the gap between vehicles.

Marcos quickly stood. The enemy lay on the ground still, blood trickling through their overcoat. That was going to smart in the morning…

'Behind' them, the column of infantry was rushing upwards. Colossus 2 was holding most of them, but a small pack headed down this alley, and now their lead ranks crouched to fire. Marcos cast a pair of shooting bolts towards them - not at them, but into the ground beside them, kicking up a plume of dust and shrapnel. He lifted into the air, turning back towards the launcher. The AAV on its right had given up trying to turn, and now only it's turret turned to face them… though, strangely, it didn't seem to have a co-axial weapon. They couldn't be thinking of…

They were. An ear-splitting boom shot through the tunnel, and it turned bright as day for a split second. The shell streaked down the row and slammed into a hauler, exploding with a tremendous blast that pounded him away, though he recovered before hitting the wall. The hauler was a chunk of twisted, burning metal, secondaries cracking off as whatever was stored in its trailer exploded.

"What the hell was that?!" Titanic 4 asked.

"Tank." Marcos replied.

"What the hell are-"

"Colossus 1 is down!" Gyun - shouted. "Repeat, Colossus 1 is down!"

"Understood." Marcos transmitted, gritting his teeth. "Titanic 4, take the launcher." He turned to the tank, hoisting his sword towards it, white-green energy gathering around the tip. "Alright, madmen…"

"Berserk! Blade! SPEAR!"

The spell carried him forward with incredible speed, straight into the side of the vehicle, just in front of its sponson casement. His sword had struck home, its tip buried about a decimeter into the metal. He planted his feet on its hull, and levered the sword upwards - though it took all of his magically enhanced strength, it slowly tore through the vehicle's plating…

Something smashed into his right side, throwing him away from the tank. His device fell free and clattered to the ground next to the vehicle. There was a screaming pain in the side of his chest, and the gun on the side of the side of the tank was slowly tracking towards him again. His barrier jacket was operational, but would it be intact enough? Telekinesis was tricky even with a device… he could try rushing forward, but perhaps…

Before he could act, Tsahuro darted in front of him, hand outstretched. A barrage of shots pounded against her barrier, as he slowly rose from the ground, gritting his teeth against the pain. His right side was bleeding rather profusely, and his coat was rather badly scored - It seemed that one of the 'small' gun's shells had either shattered or detonated against his 'Jacket, and a bit of metal broke through and cut across the skin. It wasn't deep, at least, and he could move readily.

"Thanks…" He transmitted.

"Got their attention." She replied. "Get your device!"

Now the turret began to turn towards them, the barrel - wider than his head was tall - aiming down towards them. Marcos dashed forwards at a slight angle to the line of fire, slid in under the gun, and snatched up his sword. Power rushed back through his limbs, and he swung upwards, slashing through the port where the autofire gun emerged. The plating was weaker there, and the weapon broke apart, the barrel falling at his feet. The tank's engine roared, and it began to back away - it looked like his initial attack had damaged the track and some of the drive mechanisms. Ironically, they were now more or less safe in its lee.

"I'll take care of the launch platform." Corporal Tsahuro said. "Purity Dome."

A semi-sphere of silvery-blue light erupted around him, and the numbing energy of healing magic flowed into his side. Tsahuro spun, raising her wand into the air and drawing in power.

"Titanic 2, this is Titanic 1." Marcos transmitted - might as well take the chance to catch up. "We are at the launcher, and will destroy it momentarily."

"Good… they seem to be easing up… wait, Colossus 3 has something…"

A laser impacted against his barrier dome. The tank's crew, realizing they couldn't shoot them with the turret, had decided to disembark and attack in person. One was already aiming a carbine at them, another climbing out of the turret. Marcos scoffed, glanced in the direction of his wound - it barely hurt anymore, and declared it healed enough. He raised his sword behind his head…

"Curtain Cleaver!" He shouted, slashing through the air - a wall of force smashing into the two soldiers, tossing them off the tank. The healing dome wavered and faded, but he didn't care - instead, he leapt up upon the turret, and looked down the hatch. A third soldier looked up - beneath the mask, it was almost impossible to discern expression, but Marcos imagined him surprised. He thrust his sword into the hatch, phasing through his shoulder, and sending tumbling back into the confines of the vehicle. Marcos looked back to Tsahuro and the launcher…

"There's something coming through…" Hiyen transmitted. "Oh my god, look at the size of -"

Cpl. Tsahuro released her spell, and it smashed into the launch frame, piercing straight into it before detonating and breaking it apart at the middle. Captain Marcos nodded in appreciation as he retrieved one of his D-cartridges and dropped it down the hatch.

"Titanic 4, general." She transmitted. "Target down."

"Do you read, Titanic 2? Quiescence. Repeat, Quiescence - all units fall back."

"'Bout time you guys got it done!" Colossus 2 transmitted.

That was when he noticed it. The other tank hadn't tried firing its main gun, but the whole thing was now facing towards her, with a smaller gun on its hull facing right at her.

"Corporal, look out!" He shouted.

She turned, and cast a shield a split second before it fired, a crack of lightning piercing through the darkness and leaving stars in his eyes. He blinked away the afterglare, and when he recovered, Cpl. Tsahuro wasn't there anymore. Instantly, he called up her AVS biomonitor - negative. Then, he saw her body - or what was left of it. The Krieg weapon had burned straight through her shield and barrier jacket, and blasted her apart at the waist. He couldn't even see…

This mission had already gone straight down - and it was all due to his stupidity. Marcos knew he couldn't fix this… but he could make that tank die.

Screaming, he jetting forward. The side turrets opened fire, but he was too fast for them to have an effect… The laser would be the first thing to take apart. He threw a Curtain Cleaver at the turret, then dove down, slashing wildly. His blade skittered off the thick armor, but not before it sliced through every exposed mechanism he could find, again and again. He cleaved through the laser barrel, and it fell to the ground in three ragged pieces. He smashed his sword against the glacis plating, harder with each swing, scoring half a dozen gashes in the metal… but not deep enough.

"Titan - Captain! We've got to get out of here!" Someone transmitted. Not until the tank was dead. He hammered at a joint… still fruitlessly. He had to be using a lot of mana, he thought absently…

The cannon fired again. Without a barrel, it simply sprayed energy outwards in a chaotic cone, melting itself and tossing him away - unfocused, his Barrier Jacket could more or less sustain the impact, though he absently heard the sound of its 50% warning. The tank advanced forward with a growl of metal - were they trying to run over him? They wouldn't. He stood, and, holding his weapon to the side, rushed forward, slamming his hands into its glacis.

Marcos braced his heels against the ground and pushed with all the magically enhanced strength he could muster. The oncoming tank forced him back, gouging deep into the surface of the highway as it went… but gradually, they slowed… then stopped. His whole body felt sore, but he didn't care… Abruptly the tank reversed direction, backing away from him. He followed after it, ripping through the front of its track in one great swing. He slashed across the hull on the backswing, but still caused no damage. It was then he noticed a small window - an emergency viewport, from the looks of it, perhaps he'd destroyed the camera. He could almost see the driver through it. Perfect.

He drew back, and drew in all the power he could…

"BERSERK. BLADE. SPEAR."

The zweihander burst through the window with comparative ease, and impaled the driver straight through the face. Now… there had to be something fragile inside… it wasn't much of a 'curtain', but…

"Curtain Cleaver!" Marcos shouted. The next moment, a wave of heat and force washed over him, and he was flying backwards. He slammed into the far wall, and found himself on the ground. Practically everything seemed to hurt. His barrier jacket was screeching. He pushed himself up, and saw the flaming skeleton of the tank in the distance. There must have been something really fragile inside. He couldn't stand - his right leg burned with pain - it might even be broken. His device was nowhere to be seen.

"Ugh… this is Titanic 1… does anyone read me?"

There was no response. Hopefully, that meant they were out of range. He blinked again. What seemed like a dozen figures slowly approached, guns held out. No time to heal himself, and they were too many to fight. All he had was the two D-cartridges at his belt - good enough. One of the Krieg soldiers approached, weapon held out before him, another four or so close behind. Marcos rose as much as he could, setting the D-cartridges for thirty seconds, and gestured them closer.

The lead soldier obliged, walking forward and thrusting with his bayonet. With all the energy he could still muster, Marcos shifted aside, forcing the weapon forward. Then seized it near the grip, and wrenched it around, levering the soldier to the ground. It was an old-fashioned rifle with a mechanical trigger - Marcos braced it against his shoulder, and pulled, a flash of light boring through the soldier's mask to splatter an arc of gore around him. He turned, and fired at the four approaching soldiers, two shots, one going high, the second hitting one's arm. Shouting something in their strange language, they raised their own weapons, and white-hot agony ran through his body, sending them back to the ground. His chest felt like it was on fire, and he could only feel pain from his left arm. He gritted his teeth, trying not to scream. Someone walked up, and kicked him in his agonized chest - the only mercy being it could hardly hurt more.

"Fuck…" He groaned. "…You."

In response, the soldier raised a pistol, and pointed it straight at him.

In that moment, he heard a long beep.

A split second later, the tunnel was flooded with fire and light, and then, only the steady grinding of a hundred engines.

City of Novena, Grand Central Highway, EXIT something or other

Central Mid-Childa, Approximately 260 kilometers west of the capital city.

April 28th, Year 76 of the New Calendar: 1109 Hours

About an hour after setting out, the 19th Ground Armoured Company reached the outskirts of Novena. Lieutenant Jerald Irwin had never seen the GCH so crowded - the eight lanes to their right were packed with vehicles, slowly creeping along as another stream merged in from the onramp - but it had been packed for at least fifty kilometers out, one car after another, moving with 'deliberate' speed. He supposed that was what tended to happen when you were trying to evacuate a good quarter of Central Mid-Childa. Even the military vehicles streaming in the opposite direction were moving slowly.

"Our turn is coming up in a minute." Major Peersin transmitted over the radio. "You'll be glad to know we arrived early enough to get the decent quarters."

"Well that's good to hear." Marilyn commented from somewhere up above. "But why are we going into this mess in the first place?"

"I'm sure you can see why the invasion of Mid-Childa was considered more important than an Orussian border conflict. Marilyn."

"Yeah, duh… but why here, in the middle of this maze?"

Looking around, Irwin had to agree that it wasn't ideal ground. The city itself wasn't as sprawling as the likes of Clanagan, or even Ardenvoir, which they'd passed along the way… but it was dense. The place was pretty popular, that was for sure - he'd seen advertisments for everything from musea to festivals to dance clubs, and apparently there was a spa down south…

In any event, they weren't here for entertainment. Novena had practically no exurbs, which were at least semi-navigable, and just far enough from the capital not to catch any of its sprawl. The shortest buildings they passed by were three stories tall, and up ahead, he saw the looming skyscrapers of the city center. One of them, a thin, vaguely sword-shaped arcology marked with a star rising over a standing stone, rivaled those of Clanagan, probably over a good kilometer and a half tall. Inside the city, they'd be restricted, have to maneuver and fire down the streets at all times.

They weren't turning off quite yet - their hangar was around the middle of the city.

"It is kind of… bad." He said. "We'll have to hope we don't get stuck inside there. Look at the rest of the terrain."

Outside the city, it was a mercifully different story. After all, Novena had practically no exurbs - not far outside the city limits was open ground, with gently rolling grassy hills, interrupted only by the occasional rocky outcropping or copse of thin trees. Maybe not perfect, but still pretty damn good. The hills were the only real obstacles to sight, and they still left wide avenues open.

"Suppose." Marilyn said, suddenly shifting into cheeriness. "So as long as everything goes right, we're just fine."

"Yeah, no doubt…" Irwin said. "Just fine."

Who was he kidding, of course they'd get stuck in there. The Ground Forces did something like 80% of their training for urban combat, odds are that's where the main force would be - for much the same reason they didn't want to fight in the city. From what little he'd heard, the enemy were particularly slow, Ground Forces infantry could outmaneuver them in the city. Though, any sort of details would have to wait until they stopped off.

The convoy slowed as the forward tanks turned onto an off-ramp. Looks like they'd reached their exit, though with a few dozen transport trucks also turning off at the same time, it was slow going as the vehicles wove into each other. Soon they reached a huge culdesac, built around what seemed to be some kind of large park, with an obelisk of black stone standing in the center, a golden 'IX' embossed into each of its sides, ancient writing carved below that. Off to one side of the park, halfway into where a flowerbed had been, one Instant Fortress - one of the big, multi-story models - already stood, and on the other, a group of engineers were working on unloading another casing from a truck.

"So I suppose that's the Ninth Marker?"

"Must be. I expected it to be closer to downtown, though… but I guess it makes sense to be along the path of the highway."

"This was the city center prior to the 3rd century." Gil said. "Then the old railroad was built to the north, and the center shifted."

"Huh. Is that what you've been reading about?"

"No, not precisely."

"What then? 'How to be boring' by Stick-in-the-mud Nofunnington?"

"That's… not it either."

"Then what is it?"

"It's not really any of your concern, for one." Gilbert said. "But it's 'The Stars As One: The Hidden History of Inter-Dimensional Communications."

"Sounds… fascinating." Marilyn scoffed.

"It is. Did you know that some historians mark the decryption of the state relay stations as the most significant event in half a millennium"

"Not the Last War?" Irwin asked.

"If it hadn't been for free traffic between the Great Powers, the Last War might never have ended… or so the argument goes."

"Fff. I don't get how you guys are so calm about this." Marilyn said. "Like you're going to a history convention instead of a battle."

"There's not much sense in fretting." Gilbert said.

"…Belkan."

"Only by marriage."

The column slowed to a crawl as an auto-drive override came in. Irwin flicked his external display to full screen - parked nearby were pair of PL-514s filled with Aerial Forces officers, judging by a quick glance at their paint scheme. Beyond that, a squad of mages stood guard at a deployable barricade across a roadway. At the next roadway, another row of barricades, and the one after that…

A few streets down, though, they came to a large gatehouse, an Instant Fortress on either side, all built into a wall easily three meters tall. The gate was already open, the CDF guards standing to the side, in awe as their armoured column turned onto another road, this one heading north. From this perspective, Irwin could see the wall ran straight through the parking lot and fields of a nearby school - confirming his suspicions it hadn't been there yesterday.

They sped up as the rear of the formation made its way through the turn, up into the central portion of the city. Inside the walls, Novena was quickly transforming into a fortified camp. Engineers were busily setting up defenses inside - Almost every intersection was walled off with waist-high barricades, searcher antennae sprouting out from them, with a bunker-type Instant Fortress standing in a clearing every few blocks. The streets became more populated as they moved further north, with mages and support staff milling about, some working to prepare for the coming battle, but many simply waiting. Nevertheless, the city was as still as the abandoned slums of Clanagan - if maybe a bit less run down. Every so often, a building would have every window up to the fifth story boarded up and covered in silver plastic tarp - a probably futile effort to minimize damage to the city, at least where the mages were camped out. The structures themselves were mostly modern construction, nano-assembled metal and ceramic. Durable against everything from fire to earthquakes, but still not exactly fortified. Their bombardment beams would go straight through most of them, the enemy's weapons would likely be equally devastating. The only exception might be the superstructure of the largest buildings - maybe. If this battle lasted very long, there might not be much of a city left.

"Looks like they're setting up something big over there…" Marilyn said.

Irwin called up her active view, and saw a massive shopping center to the right, with a staggering array of vehicles waiting in the lots and yards around it - troop transports, cargo trailers, various support vehicles, and nearly a dozen DN-381s. Several clusters of transmission relays and other mechanisms dotted the roof of the mall, along with barrier amplifiers.

"Seems to be an HQ. Look at all the command crawlers."

"I'll say. You ever see so many mages in one place?"

"A mobilization like this, you mean?" Irwin replied. "Yes, but not often. Never in the middle of a Mid-Childan city, that's for certain."

"Even the JS incident wasn't this big." Marilyn said.

"JS incident only lasted a few hours. Gilbert said. "Not much time to respond."

"No kidding. It took them long enough this time."

"Still only a little longer."

"Really though, you'd think High Command would get their act together. This shit shouldn't happen twice in one year."

"This… shit… hadn't happened since the Harfinwelt Conflict - that was nearly five hundred years ago. You'd have to go back to the occupation to get something as severe."

What about the, uh…" Marilyn said "…Siege of Clanagan."

"Not an invasion."

"Still…"

"They fortified the defense grid because of that." Gilbert said. "They didn't think anyone would actually land troops. They didn't think anyone could."

"And with the Supreme Commander of the CDF dead, and everyone and a half busy reorganizing…" Irwin noted. After the JS incident, it had been a mad scramble to strengthen defenses and counter-terrorism operations everywhere… but whatever improvements might result hadn't arrived yet. Just chaos. Their company was still waiting for the Variable upgrades they were supposed to have recieved the week after.

"Yeah…" Marilyn said. "So who do you think these guys are, anyways?

"If anyone knew that…" Irwin replied. "…they'd be a damn hero."

"Just a guess, though. Could they be Orussians?" Marilyn asked.

"No." Gilbert said curtly.

"Maybe mercenaries…" Marilyn added.

"The Orussians don't have this kind of technology." Irwin said. On top of that, the style was all wrong, and they weren't foolish enough to try something like this anyways. "And they have to know they aren't going to do themselves any good - hell, what kind of mercenaries would be so stupid."

"Whoever they are, when this is over, they will wish they'd never seen the light of day." Gilbert said by way of elaboration.

"Aye to that." Marilyn replied.

"No…" Irwin continued. Now they'd gotten him thinking about it… there were a handful of powers in known space that could do possibly do this. None of them would gain any advantage from it. "I don't think these people are anyone we're familiar with. There's a lot of space out there. It's not like we've explored all of it."

"So first thing they do on meeting a new civilization is invade their capital?" Marilyn asked. "What kind of logic is that?"

"They seem logical to you?" Irwin replied.

"How would they even know where to go?" Marilyn asked.

"Maybe they've been hiding out on the borders for a while. Watching." Irwin said. "That's what Walden did in the Iron Incursion."

"Does it matter?" Gilbert said. "Leave the mysteries to the Inspectors."

"Just making conversation 'til the bad guys show up." Marilyn protested.

"We're almost out of downtown anyways." Irwin said, tapping on the nav monitor.

The city center rather suddenly transitioned into a massive, a tangle of inactive linear rail tracks leading in every direction, over, below and through the road they were on, and a plethora of cargo carriages sat in rows, abandoned. Some of them looked like they'd been there since long before the invasion. Ahead, a large, vaguely delta-shaped structure stood at the crux of half a dozen tracks, surrounded by a maze of barricades attended by several sections worth of mages - the Novena Central Terminal, according to Gilbert. The northern battlegroup would be based around here. Their destination, however, was a bit further on - things gradually began to thin out, as they passed first stacks of storage containers in the open, giving way to vast empty fields, short grass peeking out through the long-deserted remains of cargo yards.

About ten minutes since they turned off the GCH, they arrived at their destination - Novena Aerospace Center. Several dozen PL-541s sat in the parking lot, marked in the blue-trimmed white of the Aerial Forces. Their column bypassed the terminal building and headed for the service areas, lining up on the taxiways in back. Dozens of commercial planes and other aircraft stood in roughly arranged rows outside, and tugs were dragging more out of the hangars further down the runway.

"Alright." Major Peersin's voice came on transmission. "Everybody, welcome to Fort Thieftaker, Interim North Post. The good news is, we've beaten most of the other units here, so we can stay in that nice hotel, instead of portable cabins. The bad news is, the 98th Aerial Battalion-" he made 'Aerial' sound very much like a slur "has already put themselves up there. While I'd understand if some of you preferred the cabins under such circumstances, regulations forbid it…"

"Unfortunately, before anyone can get settled down, we've got to get the vehicles in the hangar. Sergeant So'Konen will take Administrative Squad 3-1 and get the rooms sorted out, so no worries about getting ninja'd by another unit. As for the rest of you, we're going to have three watch shifts. We're going with the usual schedule, so 1 and 3 are up first for quick response, 5 and 6 for close security. We're at alert condition 3, so response can get out of your vehicles if you like, but stay warm and don't wander off. The rest of you, dismount.

Close Security detail will establish a perimeter around the hangar facility *and* the airport itself. Section 8 will set up the searchers and posts that you need. Until then, just cordon off the hangar area while we get set up.

We're gonna need all the stuff that's in those hangars out, and then our gear inside. Once that's done, we drive the tanks in one at a time, and then, and only when that's done, the off-duty units can head to their rooms. I'll also need all Section Commanders in a briefing at 1130. Understood?"

A series of acknowledgments echoed back.

"That will be all. Carry on."