My luck had been good so far, as far as having USEC’s underbelly exposed could’ve gone.
By the end of the night, that’d changed.
Quen stared at me inside of his room, where the makeshift warleaders were plotting and planning. “Warden, are you sure you’re up for this?”
I wasn’t, but there was no need to tell him that, he definitely understood that. The Fey were going to come, and they were going to kill us all if we didn’t at least pretend we were ready.
The Morrigan turned and looked at me as well, her eyes soft, somewhat clouded, and looked away. I bit my tongue.
“Any other unfortunate surprises in store for us?” The Regent said, stepping into the room.
“Where the hell were you?” Jay asked, standing up.
“Busy,” The Regent said. “Tane will be joining us shortly with bad news. I don’t suppose you can guess what that is?”
Quen went ramrod straight. “They’re on the move- the portal attempt didn’t work, so they’re-”
“Exactly,” The Regent said. “My swans are already moving to their positions. If you all will muster the defences, we can be on our way.”
“They’re going to have to take us properly.”
Quen shot me a look, hesitated, and then shoved me towards Dean. Dean had been quiet since the last speech, where Jay had revealed himself. He startled when I bumped into him. “Huh?”
Quen shook his head. “We need someone manning our tech. Dean, your people have the best chance of keeping it up and active.”
“You still trust me?” Dean asked, looking at me. I stared at him. Was he going to snap? Try and finish it himself? Or had he truly just been after the truth.
I couldn’t tell. I didn’t want to know, either.
“Does it look like we have a flock of tech savvy birds lying around?” Quen gestured at him rudely. “You’re on thin ice for that shit you tried to pull out there. But you can make up for it by keeping everything running. Make sure nothing jams our radios, keep the lights on, and make sure that if a feather falls one of your cameras will pick it up.”
Jay shook his head. “And keep the Warden safe. If the frontline is moving here… well, Jess’s safety is tantamount. I don’t want to know what they can do with her, dead or alive.”
I shuddered because I didn’t know either. It’d been five thousand years since I’d known what USEC was capable of. “And what’ll I do?”
“I don’t know,” Jay said. “If anythings comes through the door, hide, and I’ll shoot it dead for you.”
“You’re coming with us?”
“I am,” Jay said. “A last line of defence for the Archivists.”
I closed my eyes. He was just one bird. What was he going to do?
Tane flew in the window in flock, and then melded into Crow. “Move, we got troops coming from the west!”
“You heard her,” Dean said, gesturing for the door. Jay nodded.
Then we slipped out of the room in a hurry, leaving our plans behind. Crows flew through the sky like the kind lord was falling from heaven. For all I knew, by the end of the day, it just might happen.
“Where’s Boss?” I hissed at Jay. My lungs ached for breath, footfalls against ruffled asphalt, and we ducked through trees and foliage. The aquarium opened up ahead, and the Regent’s Inquisitors stood at attention. Not all of them, perhaps only a tenth, but they bristled with intent and more importantly assault rifles. We dove between them and kept right on going.
Archivists were carrying my bed and belongings with them across the main lobby, and we slipped past where penguins had once been kept to one of the larger tanks. A glass bridge opened out into the great room, illuminated through consoles and computers and a colossal mess of wiring and power.
“This is our general command outpost,” Dean said, then turned and hissed at a pair of Crows who set Jess’s bed a hair too close to the edge of one of the cords. “Careful!”
“The inquisition are spread around the city, though half of them are here, keeping this place safe. If we lose this, after all, we’ve lost the conflict.”
I edged over to help. Jay explored, keeping an eye on me. “You were planning on abandoning all of this?”
“If it turned out to be the right thing to do,” Dean said. “I would’ve. I don’t speak for everyone, of course, but many of us have lost homes in the past. This would just be another.”
Jay clicked his beak at that, an annoyed glint in his eyes. “What about those cameras, are they live?”
Dean hurried over to a console, his fingers blurring across a keyboard, and then the monitors flicked on. Cameras of all sorts interfaced with one another, some wireless, others hardwired in. Most were on the tops of buildings, where the rigged up electrical systems sat, while a few others sat at the edge of great skyrises, where they’d mostly fallen apart.
There were over a dozen gunner nests up on the building tops, and on the ground level, Inquisitors and warriors alike sat, beaked painted, fortifying the road with caltrops and other contrivances. If the bugs were going to come, the Capital hadn’t forgotten how to fight.
But through the cameras it was easy to see the awful truth. They weren’t quite finished with preparations. Gun nests lacked ammunition, though birds flew in with more every second. Green crows ambled about in terror and confusion until leaders and veterans could guide them correctly. Over to the side, a few cameras sat at the foundry, watching as the crows did their best to hammer out what they needed.
In this case, it was the finishing touches of long guns. The battle would be before they were finished, but they were frantic to get their project up to par.
Jay read something in my face and he shook his head. “We’re okay, Jess. The fighting won’t even take place here.”
Tane looked directly into one of the cameras. “Tane’s Scouts here, we have three towers held up and fully stocked. How about the others?
One camera jostled, thankfully muted, as a sniper rifle went off, blowing back a few stray feathers. “Enemy sighted!”
“Quen, you ready?”
From the radio Quen answered. “Boss and I are in position.”
“It’s about time,” Boss growled. “I’ve been dying to get some fresh meat.”
“Stay safe, we’re not going to be able to send reinforcements,” Prin said from the radio, managing the ground forces. “Not easily.”
I closed my eyes and counted my breaths. I’d say I was prepared for this from USEC, but I knew full well that I’d never even been close to field work. This was new.
This was survival.
“Contact!” Another tower said, and then the cameras squealed. Right outside of the city, with the very trailing edges taken up by roots and flowers and leaves, Bismarck tore open another path. Her face, monstrous, gleamed distantly through the ground cameras. On the other side of the portal the armies of the damned set, chitinized monsters waiting at attention. Behind her, thousands of the lowest rank of the fey sat like school children at attention.
She gestured with her pair of human arms, resting underneath of the arms folding space and time.
And then the Fey poured in like water. The drones at first, their almost human features in full stampede, and guns of petty makes and models, and then behind them, taller creatures in armor.
And then the Tank Beetles crawled through under Bismarck’s massive outstretched arms.
Then the intermediates, whose chitinous armor reflected a human skeleton entombed inside, long nervous cords provided them both an endo and exo skeleton, festooned with redundant organs and nervous systems. I didn’t look at those for long. I knew how those were made.
There were fifty states in the american union. The Fey had managed to catch civilians in their own shelters, wherever they may be.
I glared at Bismarck, but her eyes turned across the space until they flicked to my camera, and the glare turned into fear.
A bullet pinged off of her head and hit a stray fey, pulping a drone on the way out. She had only been dead for seconds before other bugs tore into her for food, leaving only scraps of chitin behind.
The gaze was broken, regardless.
“Enemy commander appears to be bullet proof,” Tane reported, her rifle smoking. “Bomber corps?”
A buzz through the radio, and the crows took to the air. In the old world, greater hunting birds had learned to start wildfires in order to scare prey out into the open.
The Crows had had long enough time to figure out grenades. Great flocks of black birds broke out from cover, their claws burdened, and dropped their payloads from far above the enemy’s heads. Quiet except for the hoards of bugs streaming through like water, and then the front wave of petty soldiers evaporated, spreading ichor and chitin.
Behind the tanks, the intermediates crawled, carrying technology and machines and rifles. They started to set up underneath of Bismarck’s outstretched arms, the makeshift Queen less of a creature and more of a prop to connect the hordes of hell with the first and last Crow Capital.
“Long guns, are you ready?” Tane asked.
“Hold their fire, no need to waste bullets.” Quen said, and then, from the ground itself, the Beast arrived. Her form was covered in heavy metal plates, transforming her from a behemoth of flesh into a creature of metal and steel. The guns turned upon her and she roared, the small calibres bouncing or pinging off of the reinforced plating.
Then she leapt forward and landed among their ranks, sweeping her arms out. Her heavy form crushed and pulverized, and then she kept moving. Through the ranks of the drones, and then
Boss was among the intermediate troops, sending them flying through the air. The Beast pounced from one to the next, mauling, long arms flicking out like death herself and pulverizing flesh blood and chitin. Then she dove, gunfire on her heel, and the radio crackled with her laughter as she disappeared back into the tunnel from whence she’d arrived. Quen had remained in cover the entire time.
The first wave sat massacred, the Tank beetles ambling forward, with the few drones that made it past the highway in pulped in seconds from nests on the ground level.
“Fire,” Quen barked through the radio. Beside him Boss laughed through the radios, her teeth clicking as she ate.
Tane’s rifle erupted in her hands, and a tank beetle’s shell cracked. “Conserve ammo,” Tane said. “Don’t give these bugs an inch more than they deserve.” The gun flashed out again, and the chitin exploded, peeling back. Ichor flowed from the wound and the bug slowed to a halt, slipping in the gore of his comrades and toppled over. The other tanks marched on.
Other long rifles flashed out, though there weren’t nearly enough to stem the flow of tank beetles. One fell there, cracked in half, and then another, and then another, and still the line marched on.
“Get ready,” Quen rumbled through the mic.
Get ready for what?
The front line of the Beetles exploded, a towering pillar of explosives detonated out from underneath of them.
“We have a confirmed kill from mine 27,” a Crow barked from beside Dean. “Whoever put together that one, put your name on the board, you’ll get extra rations!”
A cacophony of warking and clicking, and then the birds were silent again, waiting for the next. And soon enough, another mine detonated, and titan beetles fell, punctured under harsh blasts. And Boss lunged through the vanguard and attacked their forces again, and they fell beneath her claws and she feasted upon their entrails.
Then there were no enemies left. The forces of the Crows had utterly and completely annihilated the forces of the fey. There was silence.
Someone took another shot at Bismarck. The bullet ricocheted and pulverized the ground.
And from Bismarck’s outstretched arms, the next wave emerged. The drones moved slower now, their forms glistening with thick carapaced armor, and as the ground forces opened up, they took more bullets to take out. Armor had to crack and shatter first before they fell to the ground, pulped. Where the first wave had fallen in seconds under bombs and bullets, this one made it further.
“Deactivate the mines!” an archivist hissed, and the signal came out. One failed to deactivate, and the armored children erupted in a corona of flame and packed shrapnel.
Tane took to the radio. “Bomber corps!”
The blackbirds fell like tiny daggers from heaven and the bombs fell upon their ranks. When the smoke cleared, a few stragglers remained among the piles of the dead, and the lighter long rifles picked them off, clean holes through their chests.
And the intermediate drones arrived with rifles, and took up position behind the dead titan beetles, their bullet proof carapaces providing excellent cover. More Titan beetles arrived and took up defensive positions, parked clear and directly on top of the front lines. Even as they were shot dead, none could see over their colossal forms.
The bomber corps were shoved off of the area, most of their payload striking harmlessly across the titans instead of behind them, by blasts of percussive shrapnel from the guns the intermediates bore.
“Scouts?” Tane asked. A single flock of crows flew over to investigate. A massive blast of shrapnel tore into them, and half the birds fell to the ground, the other half flying back and landing in sight of the camera.
“Flak turrets are being set up,” Tane reported. “Bombers, remain out of their sightlines. Quen? Boss? You got anything over there?”
“We’ll put something together,” Quen said. “Boss? Any ideas?”
“We bleed them until they have no blood left, and then we win,” Boss said, intelligently. “You have any explosives?”
The intermediates poked their heads out of cover and took potshots at the ground forces. One reeled back from a hole through their glass plated head, large cracks lancing through to the human skull I could see glistening in their carapace. Another kill, another death.
“What are they setting up for?”
“A more secure location,” Jay said. “They can’t teleport behind our lines anymore, so they’re going to have to suss us out the hard way.”
Bismarck’s long fingers twitched, and the third wave of drones came thundering out. Even lighter than before, their chitin was translucent, making them look less like instruments of death and more like anemic school children.
They ran far faster than dogs, and in a straight line, directly at the ground troops.
“Keep the mines deactivated,” Dean barked. “Don’t let them trigger them!”
Their armor was so thin that a single bullet from a rifle could pass through many of them, but for each that fell, two crawled over the corpse without hesitation. They moved like rain down a windshield.
“GRENADES!” came a roar from Prin. “Don’t let them breach this line!”
“Why are we keeping the crows on the roof?” I asked, looking at Jay.
“Wasps,” Jay said.
Jay pointed up at the heavens, and I abruptly realized there was more to this battle than waves of suicidal units and landmines.
The ground battle became worse, abruptly, as Tane and the scouts removed their attention from sniping their way through the ranks of the living Tanks to dealing with something far worse. I’d thought that dealing with the semi humanoid fey were the worst.
Then on the horizon, where the cameras could just barely see, large dots appeared on the horizon. Then they dove, and they went from large dots to building sized creatures of flesh and meat and chitin far quicker than I’d like. Tane’s rifle kicked off once, and one blossomed in a spray of fresh human blood and plummeted out of heaven. It hit the ground in a spray of blood and crushed fey, just in front of the wall of now mostly dead Titan beetles.
“Wasps,” Teri muttered under her breath. “Dean, is it time?”
“Now’s as good a time as ever. Archivists, man your stations!”
The Crows went into action. There was a computer for every Crow, and the few who didn’t have computers slipped on headsets as well. From the cameras on the roof of the aquarium, I saw silos open up. Then drones flew out of it. Repurposed predator drones from the old empires of man, and newer things, tiny swarms of things- I recognized the design of feedback from Dean’s experiments with networked intelligences- and even a few quad copters launched free. The cameras became a flurry of different angles, spy cameras, combat vehicles, and even a few narrow cameras that Crows leaned intently over. Their nimble talons tapped at buttons.
The Crow-mois linked up at that moment, and I joined them. My vision became a faceted mess of cameras, viewpoints, thoughts, feelings emotions, until, through the pounding of my head, I became aware of just how much of a mess the air battle was. The wasps were pounding in from the frontlines yes, but they weren’t just carrying troops. The Fey had their own drones, fleshy things, poisonous things with acid and bile. For each one that long rifles took down, two more disgorged their toxic payload into the skies.
And then it was on the archivists to shoot them down before they broke the gunner towers. To aid, several of the towers ditched their rifles and picked up shotguns instead. Tane remained on sniper duty, looking down at the ground, and only surfacing to take shots at advancing wasps.
I had to tear myself out of the weave of minds and birds to watch the ground battle, and to watch Jay pace the command center, eyes locked on the cameras. “Is it going well?”
“It’s going as well as we thought it would,” Jay said. The torrential rain of lightly armored bugs had met their match against barbed wire and fractured pavement and automated defences, but they’d forced the Crows back behind their first line of mines and defences, sacrificing their walls to buy them time to grab their guns and get out. But it made Boss’s job easier. As the lines advanced, the amount of defences the Fey could muster spread out further.
She waded through the ranks of the fey, bullets ricocheting or breaking across her bulk, and each swipe of her axe drew forth another harvest of pulped bodies, a monolithic catastrophe for the other side. She roared to the heavens beneath a helm forged by massive hands, and threw herself into the oncoming hoard of heavily armor drones, small arms and assault rifles alike failing to penetrate the bulk of her armor.
She spoke. “I AM BOSS! ONE DAY, I SHALL RETURN TO THE BEASTS AS THEIR QUEEN! NONE SHALL BREAK ME ON THIS DAY!”
And none did, not on this, the first day of war. Wasps fell like rain upon the battlefield. One crashed into a roof side gunner outpost, and the Crows scattered, dragging what weapons and ammunition they could with them. They reformed into humanoids on other roofs, doubling their efforts to keep the air suppressed, and the ground safe from heavier pests.
Injured or damaged drones did not just fall from the heavens. They dove like glorious falcons into the main thrust of the enemy, whose machineries and defences were set up behind a steadily expanding mass of Titan beetles, and erupted into a cascade of flame explosives and shrapnel. Most were shot out of the sky before they were an issue, but every down and then a drone, heavy with a payload, would touch down behind that expanding circle and explode, sending intermediates and bone splattering into the heavens.
Still Bismarck remained visible, her form keeping the portal open despite how the Regent’s defences licked at the side. Occasionally, her fingers would shift how she was holding it open, but no bullet scorched her armor, and even direct hits with the payloads of the missile bearing drones did nothing more than conjure forth a massive display of light and sigilic scriptures.
And day curled into the noon, and the attacks spread around the edge of the capital. Archivists sprayed out of the ceiling, carrying tech and cameras and wires and routers and antennae, frantically setting up defences to reinforce the ground units, while hell rained from the heavens and gunfire drowned out even the recorded Crow music blaring on the radio.
After a few hours or attacks, counter attacks, bombing raids, and enough dead fey to paint the roads a sickly collage of green and red, the roads into the city were clear of mines, and the defences were pushed back again, one further, into the full nests and guns that had been hastily constructed behind them. Small black birds carried hammers and bricks, and the construction crews worked. Occasionally, a stray shot would send birds flying away in a panic until they could collect themselves again.
But they were holding, and that was all that mattered.
And that was only the first day.
By the end of the first day, three things were clear.
The Crows were better prepared than they’d thought.
The skies were being contested; the bugs were better than we’d thought.
And Bismarck wasn’t holding back.