Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 9 Old

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Chapter 9 - Into the Fire

"Are you alright, Kannon?"

Korey and I had been sitting alone in the back compartment of this parked utility aircar for several hours now, monitoring the Ambassador Towers security system that he had tapped into.

To anyone on the outside, this was merely the vehicle of some ether-tech handyman who probably came to fix household appliances for one of the dozens of apartments we sat under (normal high-rises; as unlike Brest, the city of Rennes was built in a clearing). But on the inside, it was a miniaturized operation center, bristling with readouts from hidden sensors. Although at the moment, virtually everything was deactivated as we had already confirmed Marshal Sidika's return and was waiting for the start of the mission in less than half hour's time.

"Yes. I'm okay... Thanks... But why do you ask?"

"You've been rather out of it recently, and... I did see you run out of the Captain's room in distress two nights ago." As my eyes widened in surprise, he hastily added: "I didn't mean to peek into anything private! I was watching over the hallway's surveillance footage when it happened."

I tried my best to return a smile to my expression.

"Captain Arkadi just wanted me to give me some doctrinal and magic data to help out with some missions."

(Well, I'm not lying.)

Korey didn't look quite convinced, but he decided to accept it anyways:

"Yeah, I see how that could be rather distressing, given what we do--"

(No, that's not it...)

I shook my head and tried to cut in, but I couldn't bring out the words to clarify myself. After all, he was right. I was quite bothered by it, even if it wasn't the real problem that night.

"--But you see, that's part of the world we live in. There are a lot of gray boundaries here, and sometimes we don't have a choice but to play dirty to achieve our goals."

His tone carried bitterness like how Captain Arkadi sounded whenever he spoke of the past.

"I know you've only been here for a few days, but you've also been reading an incredible amount about our world. So tell me Kannon, what do you think of the Avalonian Republic thus far?"

It was kind of hard to judge a country just by its description in an encyclopedia. Although the first thing that came to my mind wasn't the Republic's population or wealth, but the destruction of star fortress Hadrian brought by cold war special operations, the sight of a child-turned-terrorist assassinating a high official, the massive slum districts that surrounded every city where people plugged into virtual reality to escape poverty-stricken lives, and the empty eyes of the Arvitor held in the crystal onboard the Somerset.

"It's... fractured, somewhat messed up, with a lot of unrest..."

"Unrest doesn't begin to describe it," Korey responded after an almost painful chuckle, his tone growing not only darker but more inflamed by the second. "You see, nearly ninety percent of the Republic's wealth is held by less than ten percent of its people. Almost a fifth of the overall population are persistently unemployed, while another quarter are simply unable to climb out of poverty. The politicians are always stuck in a legislation deadlock unless the Marshals wish to push through a law even more beneficial to the so-called military aristocracy; whom, despite their competence, has corrupted the system so thoroughly that even the worst of them could make themselves invisible to the law with the right influence -- Lysette is a living example of that."

"Eh?"

Despite sharing a room, we've barely talked since three days ago. But even though her perceptions were... somewhat twisted, she didn't seem like a rotten aristocrat in any way.

"Nonono, I don't mean she's corrupt -- I meant that she's a victim of the corruption," Korey rushed to correct me. "Lysette has the most simple and pure reason for being with us, since her childhood memories were too fragmented by brainwashing to recover, and the only life she knew before Arkadi and Kaplan saved her in a raid was that of a slave."

I sucked in a deep breath as he finished.

(But... why?)

There were hardly any reason to use slavery given the efficiency and automation of modern technology, so...

"Is she an Arvitor then?"

"Eh... no... much worse."

The anger and disgust in Korey's voice was overwhelming, yet his face grew flushed as his tone suddenly plummeted under the influx of embarrassed hesitation. He fumbled to pick the right words to continue with:

"I--uhhh, really shouldn't say any more. I mean, it's her past that I'm delving into without permission already, and... You're still too young to hear about these kind of dirty details."

His emotive drop from anger to shame was even more awkward than his sudden bailout...

"Please, Korey. I'm never going to understand if people shelter me from truths."

Korey frowned and pursed his lips, uncertainty spreading through his face as though waging an inner argument against himself. Moments later, he gave an obvious sigh, and began in a voice that continued to escalate in fury and disgust, condemning it as one of the greatest sins of humanity.

"Lysette was a pleasure slave--"

(Oh my god.)

I regretted asking already. Those few words instantly sent horrifying chills up my spine and into my thoughts.

"--She had been sold or kidnapped as a young teen and basically raised to become a sex toy. Captain Arkadi found her when they raided some bigwig politician's manor, and he's seen far more over the years."

The history books spoke of slavery and human trafficking. But as a girl, especially one brought up in a more socially conservative family, this was easily the worst nightmare. I doubt I could even begin to imagine what she went through.

(No wonder she's... unusual. Who wouldn't be after going through that?)

"Seriously, this society is a mess, and no better than the Avalonian Dominion during its worst. The only reason why it hasn't collapsed yet is because modern ether-tech have at least rid the world of starvation and disease so that even minimum welfare can provide for a living. Most of the lower classes simply wastes their increased lifespans playing around in virtual reality."

I blinked. "Increased lifespans?"

"How old do you think I am?"

"Eighteen?"

"Thirty-two, actually." Korey bared a reluctant smile. "I'm four years older than Captain Arkadi, even if I look younger than him. The XO is the oldest member of our team, just two months shy of sixty-five; but appearances alone, you'd probably think he's still in his late twenties!"

Captain Arkadi was twenty-eight? Then that dream I had matched Kayeten's words after all.

"The Longevity genetic treatments we received before birth boosts our maximum age to almost two hundred years, and over a third of it is spent with the youth of the pre-Longevity age twenty to early thirties. But even with that much life to enjoy, crime and terrorism is still rampant within the Republic... You can imagine why."

I nodded.

The Arvitors were one of the reasons. But given such high unemployment and poverty with no hope in sight, then even with decent minimum standards of living, there would still be enough dispossessed people to filter out a decent number willing to go to extremism. It may not be enough to overturn the system, but was certainly enough to be a pain.

"The same can be said for us black ops, you see." Korey's eyes seemed painful, almost haunted as his gaze returned to the monitoring screen. "Yes, we kill for a living, and we risk bringing a premature end to our long lives with this dangerous career. But... it's also one of the only opportunities available to some of us. It's certainly the only one capable of earning nearly as much, whether it's money to provide for our families, or the influence and power to do what we dreamed of."

"I'm not trying to make excuses for our sins, and I certainly can't speak for all of us. It's just that I want you to understand: many of us are doing this because it's the only way we know how to live as living people rather than just mindless cogs drifting from day to day, because there is no other way for us to seek our dreams."

Even I understood that life without a goal wasn't much of a life, especially if it involved two hundred years spent doing more or less nothing.

"Uhh... what's your goal, if I may ask?"

"Mine? Well, I guess it's to provide for the orphanage that raised me."

I wasn't expecting that at all.

"I know it's a contradiction... Must be some kind of a cruel joke, helping orphans while I'm out here ruining entire families. But you know, if I hadn't been picked by the Marshal for special ops training, the only thing that would have awaited people like me was a life in the slums. Mediocrity and powerlessness is the worst frustration one could feel, and I've cursed my birth far more than I could count for not being born elite, with the opportunity to do something about it all. Instead I watched every one of the brothers and sisters I grew up with ended up in the same miserable place, all because they had neither the education nor the connections to climb elsewhere in life. I was tired of watching the people I knew and loved forced into what can barely be called a life."

"So you decided to support them with your connections in the military."

Korey nodded.

"In the Republic, a technical military background is the best foundation for life. Apart from reliable training and experience, military service is also the easiest way to become a citizen and receive all the privileges and benefits, rather than staying as merely a resident civilian. So even though the academy was supposed to be free, becoming a soldier really requires money and influence -- which I had as a Lieutenant-Commander from the Office of Naval Oversight."

"My goal is to finish my service term. Complete twenty-five years of it and earn my citizenship, as opposed to mere civilian residency as someone born within the district. Only then will I have the privilege to open my own company -- a software firm that I can establish using the connections I forged here, where I could hire and train all those future-less kids I watched grow up. Even if I fail, maybe one of my friends who I managed to enroll into the academy may finish that dream for me."

I leaned over and hugged Korey from the side as he continued to stare blankly at the screen.

I may not agree with their methods, but who could blame them for trying to make a living in a hard life? Sure, it was easy to claim that what they did was wrong from the perspective of those with choices and opportunities. But when an honest living just wasn't a viable option in their 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness', then what?

"Thanks," Korey smiled sheepishly as he patted my arms twice after his surprise passed.

He was a bit awkward and didn't seem quite comfortable, so I pulled myself back and left only my hands on his shoulders as a sign of support. I wanted to show him my understanding, but the last thing determined individuals like Korey needed was for sympathy to extend into pity.

"Still, I don't agree with the Captain in dragging you into this. I certainly won't say a thing if you decide not to help out," he continued without looking at me. "But even though I don't really know what the Captain's goals are, I want to give you a glimpse of our overall picture before you judge his, our actions." He chuckled bitterly: "I guess I'm still inexperienced if I wished that you wouldn't simply classify us as 'evil people' just because of a few days of getting to know each other."

"It's part of our human nature to wish to be understood, isn't it? I think it's a good thing to realize how human we still are after everything."

Our intentions would never get anywhere if we didn't even try to reach out to others, to understand them and let ourselves be understood by them. After all, comprehension was the foundation of solving problems not only between individuals, but within society as a whole.

Seconds passed in comfortable silence as neither of us said anything.

"Kannon, you should sit back down. The teams are moving in; we're coming up to T-minus thirty seconds."

The rising tension in Korey's voice was enough to inform me that the mission was starting. I hurried back to my seat and activated the inertial dampeners before putting on my seat belt. We were parked half a mile away from Ambassador Towers and behind a large apartment building which, according to the city's data, should be able to stand up to the shockwave. But Korey fired up the aircar's engines nevertheless, just in case we had to run away from a collapsing building.

The countdown timer had already began, and I brought up the sensors display. The transponders of the team's vehicles were automatically highlighted in green: four illusioned Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) moving in from three different directions, plus the disguised aircar that we sat in. The target structure and the apartment at point A-11 were marked red, while everything else was a shade of transparent gray.

I called upon yet another window to access the hotel security system. As I brought my right hand up to manipulate it, my eyes focused themselves on the communication ring once again.

(Should I help coordinate like Arkadi asked?)

I was glad that Korey told me about his motivations. Even though the others may have very different reasons, it still felt like I received another piece of the puzzle, took another step closer to the rest of the team.

But... could I really fathom their situation when I had never been in their shoes?

Sure, my life hasn't been the smoothest, but it was paradise compared to the hell that they went through. It would be easy for me to say that this was wrong, having never felt true desperation, having always had an alternative.

(Do I still? Even in this world?)

"Unless I put myself on the line, I have no means to survive."

Those were my very own words, spoken to Lysette just three nights ago. Yet here I was, already trying to back out of it, trying to keep my own hands clean while judging Arkadi like some hypocrite.

The ground shook precisely as the timer struck zero, and a thundering explosion tore through the silent night. An expanding nova filled the center of the sensors screen as the heat wave and electromagnetic pulse released by the thermonuclear detonation engulfed the entire hotel block. The lower floors of Ambassador Towers burst outwards, sending debris as big as aircars in every direction, most of which crashed straight into the structure of nearby buildings.

Yet even with all the devastation, it seemed for a second that the diamondsteel structural frame of the hotel might actually hold. Then it buckled in and began to collapse, smashing floor after floor down onto the surface wreckage under its own weight. Two adjacent buildings in the block also fell sideways onto it after losing too many support columns to the blast and the debris.

At the exact same moment, flames erupted from the northwest side of the apartment complex marked A-11 after Cyril's IFV launched four missiles into it at almost point blank range. The vehicle didn't even bother to slow down to check as it swerved past the building and continued on towards the hotel.

"All teams engage!" Arkadi's order came over the channel, breaking the silence that had been kept just in case someone was monitoring for the presence of telepathic transmissions in the area.

"Releasing surveillance drones," Korey declared as six red dots sped away from our vehicle on the sensors.

(It's starting.)

I took a deep breath and cleared my thoughts.

(I won't forsake my own words.)

My decision had been made; more precisely, the me from three nights ago had made it for me.

I tapped into one of the drones' camera just in time to watch three waves of missiles, flushed from the Principes Infantry Fighting Vehicle's (IFV) external racks, hurled themselves towards the top two floors of the crumbling hotel. Yet even as the structure fell, eight automated laser point-defense turrets deployed atop the roof did their job and nailed all but four of the warheads. The remainder were still stopped short of the hotel as they struck the Barrier wards and detonated.

The lasers then turned their attention towards the IFVs, but the armored vehicles' outer defensive layer of electromagnetic shielding deflected the stilettos of light with little effort. Four electrolaser turrets also unfolded from the packaging that concealed their true nature and added their firepower to the mix. The shield strengths of friendly vehicles dwindled on the readout, but not quickly enough to matter considering the short lives those turrets had remaining.

The IFVs lowered their turbofan wings to below the main chassis and unraveled its massive side hatches, bending forward from both sides to serve as an armored stand for the Black Hand commandos inside. Two of them stood behind each hatch as they brought up their electrolaser battle rifles, so massive that only the servo-muscles of powered armor may wield them, and retaliated with streams of crackling blue energy. Each vehicle then joined in with its own electrolaser turret, pouring more fire into the mix.

"Lay it on! Collapse that Barrier!"

Any advanced defensive shield technology required immense energy reserves to operate, and it seemed most magical wards were no different (at least the common ones, as we were about to meet a specialized exception any moment now). The Barrier ward was a versatile defense capable of anchoring and maintaining other protective spells. It offered varying effects from simple fire warding or teleportation bouncing to all-encompassing defensive measures similar to the vector negation shields. But regardless of its effects, the Barrier ward can always be collapsed through sheer brute force by pounding it until it drains its ether supply, or...

A torrent of white light erupted from the left hatch of Arkadi's IFV, where Haidar held his 'cannonstaff' barrel that dwarfed even the electrolaser battle rifles. Already strained by the energy fire pouring in from all sides, the building's translucent purple Barrier collapsed on one section as the beam slammed straight into it. The remaining ether of the ward flared and spread outwards, triggering a cascading effect that soon shredded the rest of the Barrier.

"Now that's a Disjunction!" Another member of the strike team cheered over the channel.

It took a moment before comprehension dawned on me. The combination had been a Catalyst Disjunction effect -- the most powerful antimagic spellword for stripping away magic by converting all ether in the area back into unrefined mana and dispersing it, merged with the boost word to spark a chain reaction.

(I should have thought of that. Still way too new at this...)

Deprived of their protective screen, the point-defense turrets on the roof blew apart one after another as electrolaser beams lashed into them. More beams of laser-induced plasma gouged into the building itself, tearing through diamondweave glass windows and into the rooms inside.

"Enemies on the northeast balcony!" Korey noted as he marked the three individuals who had emerged from the top floor of the building, just before it disappeared into the expanding cloud of dust that was blown up by the collapse of the lower levels.

After all the concentrated electrolaser fire, thermal and electromagnetic sensors were far from reliable in pinpointing the enemy. But the EM emission strength from the balcony Korey marked swiftly doubled, then tripled, as the top floor smashed into the debris below. Our targets must be wearing powered armor like the two other figures, labelled Bernard and Hualing by the sensors. The two of them just barely emerged in time and now soared into the air using their armor's built-in rocket boosters.

"We're going in!"

"On your wing," Arkadi's voice replied.

"Jay, Ersilia," I called the two other squad leaders whose IFVs were swinging around the hotel's wreckage. "Bernard and Hualing are boosting in for intercept; decel and pick them up."

The two IFVs swerved by and allowed the two men to land aboard, while Cyrille and Arkadi's vehicles charged straight in with all weapons blazing. They strafed the target's location before pulling away from the dust cloud, only to circle around and repeat the process.

But as Cyrille's IFV slowed to make a sharp turnaround, eight hypersonic shells shot out of the dust cloud and zeroed in after it. The IFV's two point-defense laser batteries went into full auto and managed to detonate three of them in their split-second flight time, while four more missed after the vector shield killed their approach velocity. However, the last one managed to score a direct hit on one of the turbofans even after passing through the vector shield. A secondary explosion tore the entire wing apart, and the six members aboard quickly ejected from the vehicle. They boosted into the air and towards the Ambassador Towers' remains using their powered armor, while the uncontrolled IFV rammed straight into a nearby building and set it ablaze.

"Those bastards!"

"Blast their left flank, screen--"

"--Regroup! Angela, Joshua, with me!"

Even though each squad was linked in a telepathic subnet, the amount of communications over the main channel exploded as the first IFV went down and its crew attempted to coordinate with whomever nearby. It was impossible for me to sort out multiple people talking at once, so I focused on paying attention to only the command channel while filtering out the rest:

"Squad Cyrille, Wind Blast the dust cover as you approach!"

"Affirmed!"

The two other IFVs then joined in the attack runs, firing beam after beam as well as emptying two payloads of bombs into the dust cloud. The enemy's electrolasers began to reply in kind as their EM signatures found solid footing atop what remained of the hotel.

Six members of Cyrille's squad charged down upon them from the skies, with torrents of air blowing away the ashes before them. Then, a faint golden glow emerged as our foes revealed themselves.

"DECEL!"

Four members of the squad managed to slow themselves down in time with their boosters; but the remaining two charged straight into the enemy formation and were instantly cut apart by two radiant blades before their bodies disintegrated into dust.

A third sword, also emitting a golden brilliance, revealed itself along with three 'shields' that were literally illuminated golden crosses. Each of those shields strapped to the raised arm of knight in white traditional plate armor and served as the center focus to a projected field of bright golden-yellow light. Each projection was eight feet across and shaped like a massive kite shield that covered over their heads.

They were the Knights of the Cross and their famed mobile defensive ward: Divine Bulwark, a specialized sorcery (although faith magic called them 'miracles', courtesy of Old Terra's Catholic Church) that no ordinary power or magic could break as long as the focus remained intact. Behind their cover knelt ten even larger silhouettes. Each of them was a trooper fully equipped in powered armor, with weapons in hand and some arm-strapped buckler-like device raised above their own heads.

"That's...!"

"Tortoise Schiltrom..." Korey named their formation as though it were one of the most troublesome things in the world.

The defenders were formed up in a tightly packed circle, with the three Cross Knights constituting the vertices of an equilateral triangle inside it. Their cross 'shields' were raised above their heads at an angle, and the massive golden-yellow light shields established the core of their defensive array. Force fields of various colors, similar to flaring vector shields but of a slightly-curved surface providing unidirectional defense instead of omnidirectional spheres, interlocked underneath. Altogether they formed a semi-hemispherical protective shell that easily blocked or deflected the electrolaser beams still pouring in from above.

"...They're using vector barrier guards to back up the Bulwarks!"

In a gap between incoming attacks, two force fields tilted outwards, and the troopers beneath stood up to fire retaliatory bursts before kneeling back down and shifting the shields back into position. The perfectly timed coordination spoke volumes for the superb training of these men.

"KADI!" Kayeten's amplified voice cried out from a suit of white powered armor in the center of the other slate-gray ones, "I KNOW YOU'RE OUT THERE! AT LEAST HAVE THE DECENCY TO COME OUT AND FACE ME!"

(Something's not right...)

Their defense was organized too quickly. Their challenge was too firm...

"Were they expecting us?"

My own hesitant voice came, still unsure in making such a discouraging comment. Yet Arkadi had to consider it -- this might still be an opportunity, but it was also an operation against increasingly harsh objectives with narrower constraints. It required all or nothing, and the risks were...

"He's bluffing on a guess," Arkadi responded, his composure seemingly unfazed by the challenge, yet I could sense a trickle of doubt forcing its way in. "Regardless, we're invested, and breaking off will only inform him for certain to prepare against a second strike!"

The Captain was betting everything on this.

"Our ranged fire won't break through that formation in time. Jay! Ersilia! Crash your IFVs into them! Break their formation and prepare for close combat! Kill them one by one and we shall have Sidika's head!"

...And the intuition I trusted even more than my rationale warned that he was throwing good money after the bad.

No.

They weren't just capital assets.

They were human lives.

But this was an alpha-priority mission, and therefore he had no other choice.

(...And right now, neither do I.)

I wondered how long someone could live a life this way before they succumbed to the enticing frame of mind that saw people as merely disposable resources, gambled away in hopes of chance returns.



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