Days Gone By
The news buzzed through the camps like wildfire. Jahansson is in our grasp. He'll be in Omega personally!
The White Dragons checked their guns and ammunition for any hint of filth.
The Black Foxes got in extra sniper practice.
The Steel Lions went over their beloved vehicles again and again, making sure everything was in working order.
The Jade Cats and Blue Eagles began to take bets on who would kill Jahansson; Ariel, Dante, or Sarai.
The Ruby Tigers were oddly silent, staring into their hands and thinking deeply.
There could be no denying an atmosphere of both fear and excitement at every base, in every safe house, through every cell. They all knew tomorrow would be critical for them all. It could mean death or glory.
Dante himself could barely contain his nerves; he paced around the Omega camp again and again, jaw clenched and hands twisting.
I can't fail. I can't fail. It all comes down to tomorrow.
Several soldiers invited him to their campfires, but he politely declined each one and resumed his pacing. His mind was a loop of worry, and everyone could see it. Not that they could blame him.
Sarai was busy ordering her White Dragon squads into position around the city, Dorian was working furiously on his power armor, and Orion was meditating. Dante could sense their tension as well. At least they had something to distract
I don't see how Orion can be so relaxed at a time like this, thought Dante as he strode into the command tent.
"He was built to be stress-free." said Ariel, who was lying on a cot to his left, making her lights dance around her fingers.
"Hard to make an A.I. like that, I think." he replied, sitting down opposite her.
"Or maybe that's just his personality," she responded, sitting up and letting the lights flicker out, "more Zen than our commander."
He shook his head, grinning.
"You need to relax, Dante. Getting all stressed before a fight is a bad idea." she said, picking up Rime and sharpening the diamond's edge.
"I can't relax. Tomorrow's a big day."
"Why don't you tell me a story? You always liked to do that when you found me."
"Yeah, do tell, Dante. For all we know about you, we don't know jack about your past." called Sarai, sitting up from her radio, "You said once you were the student of Aaliyah Soldari. Can you tell me more about her?"
"Oh, I can tell you plenty about Soldari." said Dorian, finishing up on the last section of his armor. They all looked at him in surprise.
"Oh really, now? When did you meet her, the Demon of the Sahara, the Ice Queen, the Grey Thief? And why haven't you mentioned it until now?" retorted Sarai, raising an eyebrow.
Dorian smiled mysteriously, and sat up from the workbench.
"I never told you because I knew it would make a great story. I flew in Operation Black Sky."
The plains of central America were spread around Dorian like a great, sooty map. Not that he would have enjoyed the vast view. He was too busy trying to stay alive.
"I've got two more bogies on my tail!" he yelled into his mic, twisting and diving his F-40 as quickly as he could.
Where the hell are they coming from? And what the hell are they flying?
"You're on your own, Dorian!" blared the captain's voice over the mic, "We're tied up enough as it is! Get back to base, we'll try meet you-"
A loud concussion cut off the pilot's words, leaving a void of static where his voice had been.
Dorian cursed and gunned the throttle, blasting back to base. He could sense two of the strange, six-winged jets behind him, could see their lasers and mass driver shots coming far too close for comfort.
I'll be there in twenty seconds. Then the AA guns will spot them. Then I'm home free.
He gritted his teeth and drove his jet as fast as he could. But something landed hard on his wing, and he jerked his head around.
It was a human being, body grey and plastic-looking, short brown hair whipping in the wind.
Dorian shifted downward as quickly as he could, hoping to force the runner off his wing. She barely seemed to notice, angling her feet with the jet's dive and walking slowly to the cockpit.
I hate that damn armor.
So he did the only sensible thing. He ejected.
The sounds of battle filled his ears; the burning hiss of lasers, the strange oomph of the mass drivers, the whine of a jet, and above all the sound of explosions, tearing through the air like a banshee's wail.
He saw his F-40 spiral down to the ground below him, blowing up with a deafeningly loud boom.
He hit the ground running, searching the wreck of his plane for his emergency kit. He found it, barely scratched by the impact. He had begun to dig around inside it when something hurtled into him, driving him over the wreckage of the jet.
Behind him, one of his custom fuel reserve tanks had exploded, right where he had stood.
They both tumbled to the ground from the shockwave, but the runner found her feet before he did. The cold steel of a gun barrel greeted Dorian's eyes as he raised his head.
There was silence between them, the sounds of the battle above muted and distant. Dorian stared into the pistol, then up at its wielder. She was stunningly beautiful, but her hard expression ruined the effect of enchantment.
Instead Dorian felt fear.
"Why… why did you save me?" he said, gazing straight into her sapphire eyes.
"Because you don't deserve to die at the hands of your own machine, Dorian Lien. Because I think you should look death in the face before it claims you." the runner responded, her tone cold as ice.
"You've killed a lot of good people. A life to pay for those lives is good enough payment."
"Please… don't shoot. I… I was drafted. I was forced to…" he said, wavering slightly as he kneeled.
"Don't lie. I know when you do." she said, her eyes narrowing further.
"Please…" he whispered, slouching down.
The runner seemed to hesitate for a heartbeat.
But a single shot rang out across the plain.
Dorian raised his head, confused. The gun was smoking, a shell clattering to the floor, but he wasn't dead. He looked around, searching for what had been shot.
Directly behind him, the twitching corpse of a wraith scorpion slowly died.
"On second thought, I'm going to let you keep your life, Dorian. I knew your father when he was a child, and he was a friend of mine."
Dorian turned around, and saw the angel holster her pistol.
"But if I or any of my kind ever see you in a Corporate uniform again, we won't be so forgiving." she said, turning around and walking away.
"There's got to be more to it than that…" said Dorian, still kneeling.
She stopped dead. Dorian waited.
When she turned back around, Dorian's eyes widened in awe.
If there are goddesses…
"I'm letting you go because I owed your father a debt of honor. But also… because I know you don't want to be in that uniform, Dorian. I've seen you at formal dinners and such. You hate it there. You hate the people, the spirit, and you hate Jahansson."
He could not deny it.
"That's why I'm letting you go. Because I want you to be something more. Because you could be so much more. But I've got to go. The war goes on."
And she trotted back out onto the open plain, quickly vanishing from view.
"I think I fell in love with her, just a little. They didn't call her a fiend or an angel for nothing. Your mother was a powerful and strange person, Dante. Even if I only ever saw her twice after that, she left an enormous impact on me."
Dorian's eyes were deadly serious.
"You owe that woman a lot."
"I owe Aaliyah more than can be completely repaid. And I'm just fine with that. I'll do my best. That's all I can do." replied Dante, his eyes also sober.
There was silence in the tent for a long while. Then Ariel turned to Sarai.
"What about you? Anything interesting to share?"
Sarai's smile was crooked and cold.
"Oh, I've got a nice little story for you. Believe it or not, I was raised by the Corporation."
"SARAI CORWIN!" roared her father, jerking the teenage girl up from the bed.
"It's ten thirty! Get up!" he said incredulously, slamming the door behind him as he exited.
"Yes, Dad," murmured Sarai, stretching and grabbing her sweatshirt.
As she descended the penthouse's spiral stairs, she found her entire family waiting for her. Her brother's faces were expressionless, her father's slightly red, and her mother had that tired smile she always wore.
"What's the occasion?" she asked as the stair ended, sarcasm edging into her voice.
"Don't take that tone with us, Sarai." bristled her father, but her mother laid a hand on his arm.
"Sarai, eat quick and get dressed. We're going to Alpha." said her mother, in that warm and maternal voice Sarai had loved so much.
"Why?" she asked shortly, pouring green powder into a bowl.
"Because you're finally being promoted, Sarai! You're being hired by the Corporation!" her younger brother said, excitement in his voice. Sarai suppressed a smile. She had always liked him best.
"Who says I'm going to take the job?" she said, bringing quick spoonfuls of the sludge to her lips.
"How can you not? We're all Corporation employees, it's what the Corwin family is known for." said the middle brother, his face still stony.
"Don't remind me, Dominic." replied Sarai as she brought the bowl to the sink.
"Sarai, we're leaving in ten minutes. Get ready. Your new life starts today." said her father, who turned his back on her and walked out the door.
The eldest brother just smiled and remained silent. As he had for most of his life.
"And if I refuse?" Sarai shot at her mother, slipping a hand into her jean pocket.
"You won't. Or you won't live in this house, won't eat our food, and won't have a future." her mother answered, her smile seeming pinned up now.
Sarai shrugged, walked over to her brothers and embraced each one.
Then she turned around, and addressed her suspicious-looking mother.
"I'm completely fine with that."
And the siblings vanished in a flare of olive light.
"To be honest, it was really easy to leave, and it only took about ten minutes for me to decide. I hated that place, and had come to hate my parents. My three brothers shared my feelings. So we ran off, spent a couple years scraping together some men, and here we are."
"Dominic, Jarred, and Jacinto are your brothers?!"
Dorian's jaw seemed to almost hit the floor. It was too much for everybody else, and their laughter rang around the tent. Dorian's face flushed.
"Well, come on! Where's the resemblance? They look nothing alike!" he snapped, crossing his arms.
"Oh… they look almost identical, you strange, ignorant man!" hooted Ariel, wiping tears from her eyes.
"Honestly, Dorian! You've known us for over a decade, and you never noticed until now?" cackled Sarai, holding a stitch in her side.
He threw his hands in the air and turned back to the power armor, grumbling under his breath.
"Oh… Dorian, we adore you, man! Don't be so irritable!" wheezed Dante, who was breathing very hard from laughter.
Dorian didn't respond in any way. He just bent lower over the armor and fiddled faster.
The others sat back in their chairs and talked merrily for a while, Sarai keeping her hostility to a minimum.
"So Sarai, how did you manage to scrape the Obsidia together?" asked Ariel, lifting her head from the cot to look at her rival.
"A bit of luck, a lot of threats, and professional blackmailing, little girl. It took me a long time to get these men into fighting shape." Sarai replied, casually flipping Anima into the air and catching it.
"Thanks for getting them together so fast. Without the Obsidia, Kappa City would have been a complete failure." said Dante, sharpening the point of Blaze.
"Thanks a lot, Commander."
He smiled, and glanced at the clock.
He jumped to his feet, cursing.
"Late for a speech?" called Ariel, still reclining on the bed.
"You shut up." he replied good-humoredly, and rushed out of the tent.
Sarai stood up too, stretching her stiff limbs.
"You think we should follow him?" she said, sheathing her weapon.
"I know I should." replied Ariel, her tone cold as frost.
Sarai's expression darkened. "You haven't won anything, Ariel. He doesn't love you."
"He's loved me since he dragged me out of that Corporation hell. At first, I was just a friend. Then we became a lot more."
Her tone was so casual, so confident. It made Sarai angry. She drew a breath to say something scathing.
"Now that is interesting."
Dorian's voice made both of their heads snap around.
"I assume this was another thing I was missing?" he said, both eyes still fixed on the power armor.
Sarai and Ariel both ran full speed from the tent, getting as far as they could before the dam could burst. And when they thought they were far enough, their laughter broke through the black woods like a song.
Soon enough, though, the hilarity faded, and they remembered their mutual enmity. The walk back was silent as a winter night.
In the distance, Dante held a microphone to his mouth, and broadcasted on the whole army's channel.
"We've been fighting for two years, soldiers. We've made great progress, but the road ahead would have been long and hard. But you all know what tomorrow means. Elric Jahansson is wide open, and we're coming for him. The war is decided tomorrow."
He drew a breath, forcing a tremble out of his voice.
"You are all some of the best soldiers I've ever met in my life. What I said when you joined me hasn't changed. You're all still an army to make the Corporation tremble. But tomorrow will decide death or glory."
"White Dragon. The honored and faithful footsoldiers. Without you, there would be no war."
"Black Fox. The watchers in the night, the tech ghosts. Without you, I could never have stayed ten steps ahead."
"Jade Cat. You crazy bastards have saved the lives of every single man here more than I can count. Without you, the enemy wouldn't fear us."
A chuckle ran through the ranks, much of it coming from Jade Cat soldiers. Dante smiled as well.
"Steel Lion. You've kept our APCs rolling and our Seraphim flying in mint condition since we began. Without you, we'd have been caught years ago."
"Blue Eagle. The back up boys. The offense got the glory. The defenses you gave them won the battle."
"Ruby Tiger. Brash, bold, and badass. I knew thousands of you who gave your lives for your cause. I know thousands more who honored their memory by winning for it."
"A war isn't fought with weapons. A war is fought with soldiers. All you brave men and women have fought for me every time I asked you to. There have been no traitors…"
The Black Fox soldiers all shifted uncomfortably. The memory of Alexei was still raw in their minds.
"…no traitors who have not redeemed themselves fully. I respect every one of you completely, and you've payed back that respect with your sweat, blood, and bullets. I ask you all once again to fight for me. White Dragon, is there anyone who wants out?"
"None, sir." replied the leader.
"Steel Lion. Is there anyone who wants out?"
"That's what I thought. Lock, load, and get ready to battle, amazons and bruisers. You've been able to beat the odds for two years. Let's prove it to the world one more time. Let's bring them down."
"It's time to end this war, soldiers. We fear nothing. WHY?"
"WE ARE FEAR INCARNATE!" roared two hundred thousand voices.
Dante nodded, a fierce smile on his face, and disconnected the radio.
"That was much too inspirational." came Orion's voice from behind him.
"You're a commander. You have to threaten and berate them to make them work for you."
"Stuff it, Orion." Dante answered cheerfully, standing up from the radio bench.
They were all waiting outside; Sarai, Dorian, Ariel, Jarred, Dominic, Orion, and Jacinto.
"All my friends." Dante said, his smile wide. "I feel so… loved."
"That's what friends are for." replied Ariel, who walked over to his side.
"The same goes for every one of you." said Dante, looking around at them all.
"You're some of the best people I've ever met."
He turned to Orion.
"I never gave androids a second thought until I met you. Until that day, they were animals. You dumped a bucket of cold water on me. Now I know humanity is relative. You've saved my life, and the lives of everyone here."
His eyes moved to Dominic, Jarred, and Jacinto.
"Dominic, you're a stony bastard. But you're a great captain, and a better fighter. I don't know how many times you've saved a life with Dawn. Jarred, quite frankly you scare me. But I've never seen a better sniper and infiltrator, and Day has killed more than its share of enemies. Jacinto, you're a hotheaded, scrambled, and argumentative sonovabitch. But without you, I would have been fighting with boys and little girls instead of real men and women, and Night wouldn't have saved Sarai from Alexei."
He shifted to Dorian.
"Dorian, you're a dazzling computer wizard, and the best pilot I've ever seen. Whenever Seraphim need flying or something needs hacking, you're the go-to guy. Your perseverance and grit have saved me and everyone here a world of trouble."
He turned to Sarai.
"Sarai, you've always been there for me. You've saved my life as well, and won some of the most critical fights we've had. You're an insane shot, a brilliant commander, but above all you're one of the brightest women I've ever met. I couldn't have done what I've done without you."
"Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow is the culmination of everything we've all worked for. I don't expect anything but the best from all of you. So thank you. Thank you all for making my dream possible."
They all saluted, and spoke in one voice.
"It's been an honor fighting with you, Dante."
Dante smiled and bowed his head. Ariel smirked up at him and grasped his hand.
Instantly, dark thoughts began to fill her mind. -money, fame, power, glory. It's all about to be yours, Dante. It all comes down to tomorrow. Your true future will be determined in a split second.
Ariel's eyes widened in shock, and wild conclusions began to form in her head.
He's in it for the money, the glory? He lied? He… he lied.
And anger boiled over in Ariel's mind, regardless of her efforts to try to reason.