The Tacuary frantically maneuvered in the water, trying to avoid being trapped against the Bahía Negra dockside. The flight of biplanes, emblazoned with the red-yellow-green roundels of Bolivia, wheeled around for another pass. Heavy machine gun bullets picked up dust and splinters quayside, while the water chopped violently at the impact. A smaller motorboat, ferrying Paraguayan soldiers from a deeper-draft transport anchored offshore, keeled over and sunk when it was caught in the crossfire.

Alvarez judged that the attackers were CW-14 Ospreys, made in the USA just like he had been, probably fitted with surplus synchronization gear from the Great War. If they’d been in combat in a European or American sky they wouldn’t have stood a chance, but over Paraguay and the Gran Chaco, they were state of the art.

“Get down!” Alvarez’s river pilot Benegas grabbed him by the hair and pulled him back behind the Tacuary‘s gunwhales. Having brought his gringo charge this far, Alvarez figured, he wasn’t about to let him get shot. It seemed pointless to argue that the beefy .306 bullets would cut through the gunwhales all the same.

On their next pass, the Bolivian Ospreys dropped a series of small bombs, blowing up a quay and blasting apart another boat ferrying troops from their transport. This time, though, the Tacuary returned fire with its 37mm cannon and a pair of mounted machine guns. One of the Ospreys was caught dead-on by a cannon shell, tearing its tail off. Streaking fire, the Bolivian crashed into a warehouse onshore in a considerable fireball fueled by its unspent bombs.

The other Bolivian Ospreys, their bombs expended and low on fuel, peeled off from the attack in the face of their comrade’s destruction and increasing defensive fire from the Tacuary and the Humaitá further offshore. The air raid sirens died down gradually afterwards, and Alvarez stood up to help as his transport launched boats to try and rescue survivors.

“This is why we need pilots like you,” spat Benegas. “Because we, having so little, must protect what we have from the Bolivians. We lost nearly everything we had in the war with Argentina and Brazil, and they would take what the others could not.”

Alvarez listened to the fading sound of airplane engines. “The Bolivians lost a lot around the same time,” he said. “I think they might see things differently.”

“Luckily, my government is not paying you to think, American,” said Benegas. “One would hope that Boliva, having lost land themselves, would know better than to inflict the same heartache on others.”

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“What is this thing the elders speak of?” asked Donald’s grandson, Malcolm. “The inter-net?”

Storyteller Donald, taken aback, paused for a moment to consider his reply. Trixie and Kayla each stifled a laugh, though quietly both were glad that they hadn’t been asked. Cooperston lay in the ashes of the old world, after all, but the old world it was not, and how does one explain something like that?

“You know of books, do you not, child?” Donald said at length.

“Oh yes! Mom reads to me often. I love the stories about the world before the sundering.”

“Well, the internet was like a book in which the whole world could write, and of which the whole world could read,” the Storyteller continued. “If you were to write something on a page of that book, anyone with a copy of that same book could read what you had written when they turned to that page.”

Malcolm took this in silently, then nodded. “So the elder elders would write stories in their books of the inter-net for others to read?”

“Some did, yes,” Storyteller Donald laughed. “Bloggers, we called them. But not just stories. People wrote down things they knew to be true, had arguments in writing, and sent messages to each other. It was a long book, you see, and unless you knew which page to turn to it could be very difficult to find what you were looking for by chance.”

“How did people find things?”

“Do you know the encyclopedia your mother has? Have you seen the book at the end that has a list of everything?”

“The in-ducks,” Malcolm said gravely.

“Yes, the index. There was an index to the internet, the Book of Googol, that the elder elders would consult to see which page they should turn to.” Trixie and Kayla snickered anew at this, but Storyteller Donald ignored them.

“That sounds wonderful, grandfather,” Malcolm continued. “May I read the book?”

“I’m afraid not,” said Donald. “For you see, ah, each internet book relied upon the others. What you wrote could be seen in other books but it was only really in yours, so if your book was lost your words would be lost too. When enough people lost their internet books in the sundering, that was that. The books are still around, such as they are, but blank.”

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“I won’t do it,” Gibbons cried. “You can’t make me.”

“Make you do what?” laughed Spinelli.

“Make me your guinea pig in all these magical insect demonstrations!” Gibbons replied, her voice shrilly passionate. “I’ve been mauled by a toothless ghast, mind-controlled into eating an Iowa’s worth of corn…orders or no orders, I’m not doing it!”

“Relax,” said Spinelli. “The Fighting Unicorns aren’t about coercion. Would it make you feel better if I was the next demonstration subject and you got to release the insect on me?”

Gibbons nodded eagerly, a fiendish gleam in her eyes, and Spinelli obligingly handed over a small case and a cue card before standing in the middle of the proving ground.

“This is a species of Auchenorrhyncha, best known for…producing loud noises in summer,” read Gibbons from the card. She opened the container and a repulsive insect resembling a giant housefly with oversized (and bright green) wings buzzed out. It made a beeline for Spinelli, who held out his arm for it to land on.

“Go on,” Spinelli said.

“The creature’s natural song…has evolved into a strong magical defense mechanism that uses sound to cause nausea at a distance,” Gibbons continued. “The sound becomes more potent at greater range, with a zone of safety extending about one meter…to…all…sides.” She looked up. “Oh no.”

As if on cue, the insect on Spinelli’s arm buzzed loudly. Spinelli himself felt nothing, but Gibbons, standing some distance away, was immediately and violently nauseous, and turned to hurl a mixture of various kinds of corn all over the waiting cadets.”

“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” Spinelli said with a grin, “is why we call this particular specimen a Sick Ada.”

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“Now this critter,” Spinelli said, “is a much, much nastier than a Mana Cricket. It’s perhaps the most dangerous magical insect from the order Orthoptera.”

“Are…are you sure about this?” said Gibbons. “I still have bruises from that defanged ghast after the Mana Crickets…”

“You’ll be fine, soldier,” said Spinelli dismissively. “Say hello to our newest guest.”

He pulled a lid of magic-proof glass off of a nearby tray, revealing a grasshopper that was electric purple with terribly long antennae, at least twice as long as its body. The creature took flight and landed atop Gibbons’ head to her intense displeasure.

“Get it off, get it off, get it off!” she shrieked.

“Wait for it, kids,” said Spinelli. “If you’re going to encounter these in the field, you have to know what they’re capable of.”

Moments later, Gibbons ceased her thrashing and her eyes glazed over, pupils dilated. “Corn,” she said in a monotone. “I must find corn. Barley. Oats. Alfalfa. But mostly corn. Cooorrrnnn.” She began walking unsteadily toward the windows, through which the mess hall was visible with its heaping helpings of corn both creamed and cobbed. She walked directly into the glass, bumping against it and leaving a forehead print. Undeterred, she bumped against it again, and again, still moaning about corn with a purple grasshopper on her coif.

“Wow,” said a recruit. “What did it do to her?”

“That’s the External Locust of Control,” said Spinelli proudly. “It takes over your brain and makes you its puppet to seek food, mostly corn.”

“That’s horrible.”

“Nonsense,” replied Spinelli. “If you think that’s bad, you should see the Internal Locust of Control.”

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“We’re flushing out the last of the resistance. They’ve retreated to the pipes and sewer lines, and might be able to hold out for a while there, but I think they’re finished.”

The Colonel looked over the room which had served as the Ars Nox control room. A factory abandoned to the elements, each of the windows was covered with sheets of foliage that gave the interior an eerie green look–and which had helped to shield it from Directorate satellites. “What about the intelligence? That’s why we didn’t nuke and pave from the air.”

“Well, Unit 731 has been brought in, and given everything we found,” said the Adjutant, instinctively ducking as the sound of heavy combat echoed from deep below their feet. “Ars Nox was able to nuke most of their drives, so it’ll be some time before we know for sure what we’ve got.”

“Papers?” The Colonel ran his hand along the worn surface of a wooden table bolted to the floor, one which had until recently housed the nerve center of the local Ars Nox computer network and command/control systems they’d been using to stage attacks nearby.

“Recent orders, daily codes that will expire in a few hours…nothing significant beyond delivering a few local cells to us.” The Adjutant licked his lips delicately. “If I might speak freely, sir, I don’t think that the intelligence value of this raid will be worth the cost in lives, time, and treasure. I would submit that next time an aerial bombardment might-”

“That’s enough,” snapped the Colonel. “Go get me an update on the fighting, and tell the Unit 731 boys to contact me as soon as they finish sifting through those fried drives.”

Seemingly terrified, the Adjutant fled the scene clutching his briefcase. With him gone, the Colonel allowed himself a long, sweet breath of the musty air.

It brought back so many memories. The factory had been silent for ages since the final and crushing depression–no one in town was closer to it than a grandfather or great-grandfather who worked the line. But even in the Colonel’s boyhood days, children had run throughout it, playing games, stealing kisses. They would be on the side of Ars Nox now–the whole area was–but they likely still came to play even as men with weapons and computers fought a quiet war nearby.

Even if they didn’t, the Colonel couldn’t stand to see his old haven taken from him, no matter the cost in “lives, time, and treasure.” So much else had changed, so much else had been destroyed.

But not this; not this.

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The Vyaeh, as a mercantile race, often emphasize psychological tactics in combat with other races. The Vyaeh Ministry of Military Intelligence contains a dedicated Office of Imitation, which designs and creates counterfeits of enemy creatures for the purpose of killing and demoralizing enemy combatants. OI officers are present on every Vyaeh ship of frigate size or larger, as is the specialized equipment needed to manufacture and deploy the counterfeits.

Appearing and acting very much like the creatures they mimic, the counterfeits are designed to notice and gravitate toward openly hostile action against the Vyaeh. They will attempt to infiltrate and disrupt enemy operations as much as they are able, and if detected will detonate themselves in a suicide bombing, coating the area with highly toxic chemicals and shards of armor-piercing bonelike material. They can take substantial punishment, but always explode on death.

Human counterfeits have been encountered in the field by the SCNF, many produced specifically to mimic human combat troops but many also appearing as noncombatants and civillians. They are often armed, but under no circumstances (even to preserve their infiltration of enemy formations) will the counterfeits engage the Vyaeh or Vyaeh-allied troops in battle. This has led to captured Vyaeh being used as a primitive and brutal counterfeit detector test in the field, a practice strongly condemned but unofficially tolerated by the SCNF.

The most advanced human counterfeit units are designed for penetration and disruption of hardened targets, and are equipped with advanced personality simulators and friend-or-foe locators. No counterfeits are exact copies, though, and the errors made by the Vyaeh can be detected by wary observers, and the counterfeits detonated from a safe distance. The more common counterfeits are notorious among SCNF combat troops for their bizarre speech and behavior. Playing of human cultural taboos and perceptions, many of the simulated body types are young and/or female.

Stories of a human-model counterfeit equipped with a faulty detonator that rendered it unable to explode have circulated among SCNF troops in combat sectors. These tales, often with improbably embellished accounts of the defective counterfeit joining forces with human troops, are almost certainly apocryphal.

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The Vyaeh are a mercantile empire, and generally content to exercise suzerainty over the systems that they control. However, this policy does not apply to species that resist them: the Vyaeh annihilate such lifeforms as an example to others, and incorporate survivors into their economy as slave laborers or into their military as slave troops. The Vyaeh euphemistically refer to these as “conscripted races.”

The Krne, known as “giants” to the humans that have encountered them, are a huge race of bipeds employed by the Vyaeh as laborers and combat shields. Herbivores from a high-gravity world that was among the first conquests of the Vyaeh, they are not a terribly bright race but have been known to rebel (especially when coerced by more intelligent beings). Absent orders, Giants will often adhere to their simple instructions for weeks, if not months, unless given new directions in Krneese. They have been known to use rocks as projectiles, but are incapable of using most weapons with their large claws.

Following the Vyaeh conquest of the Tuy’baq, their engineers began integrating the latter race’s advanced cybernetics and networking technology into their military/industrial complex. One of their earliest experiments was in cybernetically enhancing the Krne, with the idea that the creatures could be made more tactically useful through increased intelligence. This proved to be a deadly mistake: the enhanced Krne, when deployed, promptly instigated a rebellion against the enslaving Vyaeh which proved to be one of the most destructive in history. It took ten years and thousands of Vyaeh lives to re-subjugate the Krne to the will of the Queen in Silence and the Orphaned Court.

“Then the thing went down, gushing blood like you wouldn’t believe. It was like a big blood-filled balloon had popped, spilling everywhere and rising almost to my ankles before the door opened and let it flow out. It smelled revolting, and permanently stained my shoes.”
-Unidentified SCNF mechanical engineer

An interstellar pest present on many Vyaeh ships. They secrete a corrosive goo that can be thrown as a projectile, and are also capable of attacking with claws and mandibles. Some Vyaeh ships have genetically modified Mosquitos to serve as combatants, enhancing their naturally tough carapaces and allowing them to spit corrosive goo at higher velocities and with greater accuracy.

“Hey! These ones swat back!”
-Unidentified SCNF mechanical engineer

Another interstellar pest present on many Vyaeh ships, the Roach is a native of an unknown low-gravity planet that floats by means of a gas-filled body. It ordinarily attacks with its sharp mandibles, but in its mating form the Roach will explode at the foot of any moving organism, coating the target with toxic spores. Some Roaches have been mutated by enterprising Vyaeh crews to serve as weapons of sorts; the mandibles they use to attack are capable of piercing light armor, and it enters its mating stage twice as fast, producing a larger explosion and spores which impart a deadlier toxin.

“What’s really bad is when you come on some poor sap they killed, rotting before your eyes and festering with hundreds of the things, still tiny and feasting on his flesh.”
-Rebecca Sears, command crew

A cybernetic organism of unknown origin, possibly human or human-like. They are employed as light tanks in many remote Vyaeh garrisons, and are equipped with slashing claws based on those of the Krne as well as percussion grenades that can be set to explode on a timer. Some models are employed in major Vyaeh garrisons for crowd control, and feature a hardened carapace, percussion grenades, and a flamethrower.

The species from which they are derived is unknown, but intercepted Vyaeh transmissions indicate that they are a relatively new weapon and that the secret of their creation is jealously guarded by the Orphaned Court. SNCF personnel who have encountered them in combat have described their appearance as “disturbingly human-like” but no intact specimens have ever been captured, as they self-destruct upon death.

“If you skinned a guy, turned him inside out, and drove a tank up his ass, you might have something about half as ugly as these sons of bitches.”
-Former SNCF Security Officer Popovitch

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“We have reports that the rebels have converted captured Swedish-made Ordssun air-defense guns and missiles into siege weaponry,” Malianne said. The ground shook and the picture was distorted by digital artifacts for a moment.

“Malianne, are you still there?” Kenneth said. He broke his stare at the newsroom camera and glanced over his shoulder at the producer, concerned.

“…fine…ust another missile strike.” Malianne’s voice came through in patches as the picture resolved itself. “Another missile has landed nearby, near the market. Out government handler is telling us that we cannot go and see the area until rescuers have done their jobs.”

“What’s the mood like in the city right now?” Kenneth asked. “Do the people you’re seen think the government can hold the area?”

There was a pause as his comments traveled thousands of miles via satellite. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people both on and off the record, Kenneth,” she said. “No one seems to think that the government troops can hold off this latest attack for long.”

The attack against the Ismentro, an insignificant tributary in the sub-Alpine highlands, came on the heels of fifteen failed attacks before it. The Austrians had long suspected their erstwhile ally of treachery, and had carefully laid in their defenses and improved them based on their German allies’ combat experience. The Italian regiments waded into slaughter, armed with Carcano bolt-action carbines against heavy machine guns.

The Sixteenth Battle of the Ismentro appeared to be more of the same; Italian officers and enlisted men had observed the Austrians constructing improved fortifications through their field glasses. Thus, when the order went out to advance, it was disobeyed by nine out of the ten formations in the line.

General Codarna was livid when he received the news, and could barely be persuaded from ordering every last surviving man on the line to be shot. He settled for decimation instead: the old Roman practice of forcing the men to draw lots in groups of ten, with the winners beating the loser to death. It had served him well, or so he thought, on the Isonzo.

Word of the events reached the Austrians, who were preparing a general offensive for later in the year. As a result, their attack in the Ismentro sector fell squarely on the decimated troops.

Major Istsbo Tōakenkyūjo, originally from Takao Prefecture, was the highest-ranking officer to have survived on Araido Island after sea routes to the Home Islands had been severed and the resultant starvation and typhus outbreaks. His radio transceiver had received news of the Soviet offensive as well as the Emperor’s speech to the nation, but the authenticity of either was unclear.

It was evident enough that the Soviets were up to something, as their minesweepers had been active in the strait between Kamchatka and Ariado, even straying into Japanese waters. Maj. Tōakenkyūjo’s orders, inherited from the deceased Col. Oyakoba, were also clear: Araido Island was to be held for the Emperor at any cost.

During long and restless nights, Maj. Tōakenkyūjo and what remained of his staff had listened to tales from Private Tadashi, the unit’s Ainu translator. According to Tadashi, Araido Island had once been a peak on mainland Kamchatka, until the neighboring mountains grew jealous of its beauty and cast it to the sea. That, he said, explained the island’s perfect appearance, which Ito Osamu had compared very favorably to Mt. Fuji, as well as the existence of Lake Kurile in Kamchatka–the hole that had been left behind.

Maj. Tōakenkyūjo was faced with a choice: defile the ancient and perfect peak with battle, or defile the Empire with surrender. Surviving accounts testify that he grappled with the problem for days on end in early August, 1945, before coming to a unique and unprecedented conclusion.