“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.

The lowest rank in the Vyaeh military is that of Initiate, signified by teal combat armor. Initiates are expected to prove themselves in battle virtually unprotected before advancing to the next rank. As such, their battle armor provides virtually no protection or vacuum survivability. The ceremonial halberd weapon they carry is a modern variation on a tradition Vyaeh symbol of martial prowess, and is effective as a club, delivering a powerful electric shock.

Once a Vyaeh Initiate has proved themselves in melee battle with a foe, they are granted the magenta armor of an Adept. Providing significantly more protection than Initate armor, Adept armor is also powered, allowing the warriors to put more force into each blow. Once an Adept has proven themselves with this improved protection, they may move to the next rank.

After fighting in close quarters as an Adept, Vyaeh soldiers may become Journeymen and are granted access to improved weaponry. Their halberd, while apparently identical to an Initiate’s, is actually capable of firing energy projectiles not unlike the discharge from a fission pulse. Journeymen are granted no additional protection; they simply exchange the magenta armor of an Adept for yellow.

For most Vyaeh warriors, the rank of full Warrior, signified by azure armor, is the last step toward reassignment in another arm of the military and access to better equipment. The armor they wear is comparable to that of armored troops in ballistics protection, though it still offers no vacuum capability. Their staff, like that of the Journeyman, can fire projectiles, but is configured to fire multiple shots at once, with a reduced cooldown time between shots. Once they have proven themselves as Warriors, Vyaeh are often reassigned as Assault Troopers, officer candidates, or Hunter-Killers in training.

Some Warriors so distinguish themselves in their craft that they are asked to remain Warriors rather than accept promotion. These Honored Warriors gain special titles and privileges, and serve as leaders and guides to large formations of less experienced troops. Their armor is lovingly handcrafted to serve as the ultimate protection against enemy fire, and their halberds can fire faster, further, and more accurately than most weapons on the Vyaeh arsenal.

Easy money.

An artillery shell slammed into one of the adobe buildings across the compound. The defenders within, who had been returning fire with small arms, went out as a fine mist.

Easy money. That’s what Campbell had said.

The first line of skirmishers arrived, disembarking from a BMP. Most of them were killed or wounded, but there was far less, and far less accurate, fire from the rebel positions than there had been moments ago.

Easy money. A tottering autocratic regime, enthusiastic rebels rising up all over the country. Only a few firefights and then cash and poontang from grateful locals.

A second BMP–or, rather, a Chinese-made copy bought and paid for not three weeks ago–disgorged its squad. Bull raked them with heavy machine gun fire, but these weren’t the militia they’d fought earlier. They were disciplined, organized, took cover, laid suppressing fire. Polymer helmets, gas masks, and Chinese kevlar.

Easy money.

If you check the medical records, it’s all there in plain black and sepia. From June 1 to July 1, out of the roughly 150,000 troops scheduled to take part in the offensive, nearly 5,000 were treated for hemorrhagic nosebleeds. Add to that voluminous complaints of piercing headaches (10,000 cases) hearing voices (8,000 cases), grand mal seizures (500 cases), and even a reported case of spontaneous combustion.

This despite optimistic predictions and generally high morale.

The fact is, there was a strong sense that something terrible was about to happen. And, of course, it was borne out for nearly 60,000 of those troops by the first of July.

Bernard’s infection was getting worse, and had become a gangrenous abscess. “I thought I’d gotten off lucky,” he kept saying; almost his entire battalion had been annihilated when the Vietminh took redoubt Eliane 2, and he had escaped to join Dubois in redoubt Isabelle with only a deep scratch from barbed wire.

“We all got off lucky,” was Dubois’ constant response. After watching the Vietminh overrun the last French positions around the Dien Pien Phu airstrip through their field glasses, the nearly 2,000 troops at redoubt Isabelle had attempted to break out to the west. The Viets had blocked the route east to Hanoi, and the river route from Vientiene in Laos was the only other safe haven for a thousand kilometers. The 2,000 men, their ranks swelled by stragglers from the overwhelmed redoubts to the north, were chewed to pieces as they left their fortifications.

By DuBois’ estimate, less than a hundred had made it through the enemy lines, a number whittled down over the intervening week by desertion or disease. And now, with roving patrols of Viets still hunting for them, the survivors had come to a place even stranger than the one they had fled: a vast plain strewn with enormous, empty jars.