Near the end of the Low Age.
Unorthodox Diplomacy came to a halt, sloped armour scratching against the dry bushes. The turret bounced up and down for a split-second, the time for the suspension to compensate. The radio crackled.
"Salamander 2, the target should be at three o'clock, about a thousand metres away. Copy?"
Rajani put her hand on Arnaud's shoulder. The gunner had his eye on the sights, prowling the darkness through his night vision apparatus. His sentences were fast, his words hard to hear over the tank's engine.
"Target reacquired, eight hundred metres downrange, bipedal."
Rajani leaned forwards.
Unorthodox Diplomacy's 120 mm smoothbore barrel suddenly sprang to life. Eight hundred metres and one tenth of a second later, a shell hit the side of a bipedal warmachine, shattering one of the legs and splitting the engine wide open. The knight fell in the tall grass, armour scraping against the wall of an abandoned concrete building. The autoloader rumbled in a corner of the tank, ejecting a spent casing and replacing it with a fresh shell. Rajani flicked a switch on her control panel.
"Salamander 2 to Salamander 1, the knight is down. Clean kill. I see no survivors. Do we have another walker in the area, over."
"No contacts. Rapier is reporting scattered infantry half a kilometre north of Teardrop Lake. They're retreating. They might have a few APCs with them, watch out for return fire, can't rule out a desperate action. Salamander actual, break."
There was a short silence on the radio. Arnaud briefly took his eyes away from his binoculars and swallowed a few droplets of water from a duct on his combat suit. Like all Scythes Model 5, Unorthodox Diplomacy could run quite hot in combat.
"Salamander actual to all Salamanders, we're getting new orders. We've got enemy movement towards our frontline. Estimated at bataillon-level size, gearing up for a counter-offensive. We're relocating to the western side of Teardrop Lake. Move in and prepare to engage scouting elements."
"Scouts? What are we looking at?"
"APCs with four-legged elements as close combat escorts."
"Copy. Salamander-2 moving in," answered Rajani, before gesturing towards Souleyma, their driver. The quiet woman revved up the engines, and Unorthodox Diplomacy started moving its fifty tonnes of steel through the bushes and tall grass.
There were seven kilometres between Salamander-2 and the new frontline, west of Teardrop Lake. Rajani spent most of that distance looking at her maps in the green-blue light of her nest in the turret. Teardrop Lake had another name for the locals, written in phonetic alphabet on her documents. Something with lots of accents and strange letters.
"Road straight ahead," said Souleyma, slowing the tank down.
"Départementale 4," mentioned Rajani, rising up from her tactical maps. "State-owned road, so probably abandoned for decades. No bridges, though. Usable. Wait a second. Arnaud, give me a sweep."
The gunner focused on his sights again, rotating the gimballed sensors around.
"I've got movement in the swamp. Nine, eleven hundred metres downrange. Man-sized."
Rajani started breathing more slowly.
"Souleyma, dead stop. Rapier actual, this is Salamander-2, what assets do you have in our vicinity, over."
"This is Rapier-1, we've got Rapier-6 by the tip of the lake, near the old castle, they're moving in."
"Do you have anything in the swamp, over."
"Negative, Salamander-2. Rapier actual, out."
Rajani's chest now stood still.
"Moving again," whispered Arnaud. "Eight hundred metres downrange."
"Four spots, as many legs."
Rajani took a deep breath, then resumed her stillness. Unorthodox Diplomacy was silent as a tomb, a slab of steel at the edge of the salty swamp.
"Salamander-2 to Actual, we might have hostiles in the swamp. We..."
Arnaud recoiled in his seat.
"Laser ping, laser ping, we're being illuminated!"
"Full reverse, fire smoke, engage with machine gun, eight hundred metres, tracers."
Unorthodox Diplomacy roared as it went in reverse, popping a full canister of multispectral smoke among the swamp grass. The grey clouds poured through the leaves like a shoal of ink-drawn fish. The black arrow of a guided missile peeked above the tank with a whistle, exploding in the trees a few metres away. Unorthodox Diplomacy's coaxial machine gun rattled in the dark, painting the night with streaks of gold. Rajani ordered Souleyma to reposition them and cover Salamander-4's right flank. The radio erupted with words as the tanks fired their weapons in unison towards the swamp. Small calibre bullets ricocheted against Unorthodox Diplomacy's hull, shot by equally confused enemies. In the midst of fire and fury, Rajani's sentences were calm and composed.
"Salamander-2, reporting contact with five to seven four-legged combat walkers moving eastwards, twenty millimetres and missiles. Requesting eyes overhead."
"Salamander-3, Salamander-4, move to support 2 on their flank. Watch out for prowlers. Launching a drone."
Unorthodox Diplomacy moved forwards again, firing scattered streams of suppressing fire towards the marshes. On the other side of the swamp, two kilometres away, Rapier's infantry opened fire as well. The walkers replied with twenty millimetre shells and missiles, adding their own lines to the web of deadly geometry traced over the sunken woods. A confused skirmish quickly spread across the area. Rajani was still holding her breath, like a warrior bracing for a cavalry charge, waiting for horses that had yet to be seen.
"Arnaud, cycle shells, load armour-piercing, tissue fragmentation tips."
The gunner obliged without a word.
Ten seconds later, the gods appeared on the battlefield.
A dozen creatures bulged from the water, surrounded by the screams of organic springs and high-frequency jammers. They all stood on two arched legs, strengthened by artificial muscles the size of a dead tree. Pitch black, covered in geometrical armour plates, they bore the white heraldry of EUROFRONT. Their heads were triangular and turned towards the ground, not unlike titanic beaks. When the largest mech made contact with the muddy ground, it eliminated an entire infantry squadron in a manner of seconds. The rest of the phalanx followed. Rajani was frozen in time. The only part of her body that still moved were her lips.
"Turret twenty degrees left, two thousand and fifty-three metres downrange, elevation two metres above the ditch, fire."
The 120 millimetre gun crackled. Two kilometres westwards, a tungsten-coated, deep penetration shell made contact with the belly plate of a heavy organic mech that had just recovered from its offensive jump, still glittering with water. The war-god shivered, recoiled, tried to find its footing again, but Salamander-3 fired and confirmed the kill.
Rajani started breathing again. Fast. That was it. The tension was gone, replaced by a race between her heart and her chest.
Unorthodox Diplomacy and the rest of the Salamanders accelerated alongside the road to keep their distance from the phalanx. The premature engagement of the scouts had left the war-gods exposed, and Rapier's infantry had managed to scatter in order. Souleyma felt a bout of rage rise up in her heart. Someone had missed a full phalanx moving under the cover of water. Heads would roll in the high command -- but for now, the driver had her eyes on Rajani, and the only thing she saw was the gaze of a commander with one hundred and fifty-seven confirmed combat kills.
The war-gods started running through the swamp under a hail of projectiles. All of Rapier's IFVs had gone up in flames, except Windward Sun, whose pilot had been quick enough to disengage under the cover of a wood. The war-gods had turned their immediate vicinity into a tempest of flares, point defence ammunition and multispectral smoke. They had a good five minutes, maybe even ten, before Rapier could regroup and set up its ATGM positions again. The infantry, however, had nothing to fear from the organic mechs.
The target of the charge was Salamander.
Through the swamp, they moved with unparalleled grace, artificial muscles adapting to the ground ahead over a scale measured in microseconds. As far as traversal went, they had no equals on European battlefields -- but this elegance was paid for in blood. The smoothbore gun of a Model 5 USRE main battle tank fired twelve rounds a minute, and there were six of them on the old road. The night and the smoke led many shots astray, while a few others were lost to faulty ammunition, but most found their target. The war-gods paid a heavy price crossing the swamp. Shells cut through their legs; splattered the dark entrails from their bellies; sprayed eyes and nerves with armour shrapnel; turned beak-heads into altars of broken bone. Yet, the survivors kept moving.
Salamander-5 was the first to fall, when a war-god flanked it through the marsh and fired a two-shot burst of its tungsten lance. The sloped armour wasn't enough to deflect the shot, the ammunition detonated and the turret became a sudden hellscape. Salamander-4 followed short after, engine disabled by a mech prowling through the trees. Two out of the three crewmembers escaped; the commander never came out. A new voice appeared on the radio, colored by a faint western african accent.
"This is Hunter-1, moving to engage, danger close."
Through his binoculars, Arnaud caught glimpses of infrared lights, and then the low-pitched hurricane of a pair of attack helicopters rising up from the buildings by the bay. He briefly switched the light amplifiers off as rocket pods fired and scratched the night with molten stone. The gunner couldn't quite see the result of Hunter's entrance as Rajani sent another order.
"Keep moving, traverse the turret, engage the monarch, right leg."
Something clicked through Unorthodox Diplomacy -- then, a rattle.
Their target moved around, recovering from helicopter fire. The jammer was at full intensity. It buzzed akin to an erupting volcano. Arnaud attempted to fire again. Another rattling click.
Rajani tapped on Souleyma's shoulder and Unorthodox Diplomacy left the road, diving under the leafy cover of the bushes, then finding shelter in a small depression. The war-god moved swiftly, trying to get away from the helicopter's gaze while seeking the trail of Salamander-2.
"Salamander-2 to Salamander-1, we've got a misfire, I'm getting someone out, keep the monarch away!"
"Salamander-1, please acknowledge!"
Rajani took off her headset and climbed out of Unorthodox Diplomacy, jumping down on the sand. Outside, it smelled of hot metal, ignited gunpowder, burning transbiological blood and pine sap. The scent from the trees was what briefly filled Rajani's mind, before she snapped back to the battle. The perfume of home. Distant, far and battered, at the other end of her odyssey. Then, she started working on the breech to pry open the stuck casing that prevented the next shell from being loaded. She was well-aware of how exposed she was, but Souleyma was not as good a mechanic as her, and Arnaud had little experience with Model 5 autoloaders.
Halfway through her work, she felt the ground tremble. Regardless of wounds, regardless of pain and death, the war-god still moved. When the creature appeared over the small hill, she had just managed to unstuck the breech. The spent casing rang as it was ejected into the sand. The war-god screamed. Rajani rolled away and tasted blood when she fell in the bushes.
"Fire!" she yelled.
The war-god struck. It was out of regular ammunition and thus, it decided to use a weapon cruder and more complex in equal measure. A monofilament whip, carried in its monstrous hands. A weapon made to kill and terrorize the poor and the disposessed as they tried to cross the borders of fortress Europe, to cut through improvised vehicles and cull masses of civilians. But Unorthodox Diplomacy was a Model 5 USRE main battle tank with thirty millimetres of composite armour, a warmachine having bridged the continent between Kandahar and Paris. The monofilament whip bounced on the armour, shaking the crew and turning the inside of the hull into a self-contained cataclysm of sound and fury. The gunner was still alive. The gunner still has his finger on the trigger.
The war-god exploded from the inside out in a continuous stream of dark blood and hydraulic fluid.
The wind rustled in the pine trees and ochre bushes. The marshes felt as if they were a world away; here, everything was calm, sandy and dry. Rajani sat over the turret, wiping sweat from her forehead, radio by her side. She listened, silent.
“Salamander actual, what’s the situation, over.”
“This is Salamander-3. Salamander-5 is lost, Salamander-1 and Salamander-6 have been damaged.. Salamander-4 reports heavy damage to tracks and suspension. I’ve lost my driver.”
“Sitrep on the mechs?”
“The Phalanx has retreated with near-complete losses. Hunter is going after the survivors.”
“What do they say?” asked Arnaud, rummaging through the already rotting remnants of the bipedal war-god.
“We took casualties."
Arnaud kicked a transbiological muscle. It twitched, spraying dark fluid on the sand.
"Why won't they fucking quit?"
Souleyma raised her head from the turret.
"They already have. If they're sending border units on the frontline, that's because they've exhausted all other options. Fortress Europe is dying. That's the swan's song."
"A swan's song that killed thirty soldiers in fifteen minutes!"
"Their strength only comes from sheer inertia. Their mechs are unusable on a strategic scale."
Souleyma climbed out of the turret and sat by the 120 mm gun, legs dangling over the bushes. She lit up a cigarette, then said, softly.
"We should have nuked Europe when we had the chance."
Arnaud walked through the decaying remains and towards the tank. He looked exhausted.
"That's my continent you are talking about. I was born fifty kilometres from there, for the Stars' sake!" he gestured vaguely to the north.
"You've spent twenty-five years in Istanbul, Arnaud. Europe is not your home. That's just a vague thing you remember. We should have scorched the land, and you know why? Because if they still had ICBMs, they would have struck first."
"Just as America would have. It doesn't make Europe worthy of nuclear holocaust."
"But AUSCOM is a fucking machine, a mindless brain, it doesn't love and it doesn't hate, it's not even an AI, it's an algorithm modelled on a fantasy of the United States, we can just leave it to rot and die. Fortress Europe is helmed by real, breathing, thinking people. It's too old to change them and now millions still have to die to extinguish this folly. We should have sent the nukes loose. It would have been quicker."
"You're just bitter, Souleyma."
"Bitter? Because my ancestors perished trying to cross the borders? Because my other ancestors died inside fortress Europe as they did not have the right way to speak and the right way to believe? That's not bitterness, Arnaud, that's rage."
"Enough," interjected Rajani. "Enough. Souleyma, could you check the breech again? And Arnaud, please, the mech stinks, we need to move."
The commander leaned against the cold hull and drew two more crosses on her notebook.
One hundred and fifty-nine.
It rained. Thin droplets sprayed over the countryside, turning the concrete building by the seaside into blurry grey shadows. Unorthodox Diplomacy moved through the countryside at a leisurely pace, flanked by USRE infantry. In the morning, Salamander-2 had received news from the rest of the world. The USRE offensive had breached the inner circle of Fortress Europe in Italy, Spain, Northern Germany and Sweden. Behind the great walls of the Old World, USRE armoured spearheads had found feeble resistance, and their tendrils were converging towards the main offensive. The war was nearing its conclusion, but the end wasn't quite there. Fortress Europe had ceased to be a coherent system decades prior to the invasion. There was no capital to take, no centralised AI to destroy, no main army group to eradicate. The invasion would end with USRE tanks on the shores of western Europe, tracks bathed by the salty waters of the Atlantic.
Fifty kilometres to go, thought Rajani.
Sometimes near ten in the morning, shots started darting through the woods. Infantry took cover against the hull of Unorthodox Diplomacy and Arnaud surveyed their surroundings for enemy positions. Rajani ordered to lay down suppressing fire in the treeline. By half past ten, the shots had ceased, and Rapier started moving again. By two in the afternoon, another series of detonations raked the banks of the river. Mortar fire, followed by the scattered thumps of heavy machine guns, then the distant rumble of Hunter's helicopters. Neither Salamander nor Rapier were asked to intervene, as the situation was, in the words of Hunter-2, "firmly under control." One quarter of an hour later, Salamander-1 broke down again, and Rajani sent her crew to lend a hand. The rest of the unit deployed in a defensive formation, and watched the fireworks. Hunter and the mechanised infantry had cornered a bataillon of EUROFRONT auxiliaries; it wasn't really a battle. It wasn't much of anything. Rapier-2 set up a nest by the bank, between the aspen trees and took potshots at the ruined village. By half past four, the shots had mostly ceased, save for isolated sniper fire. A medevac helicopter buzzed over their heads and circled back after a quick landing, wounded soldiers in its hull. Rajani had a quick exchange on the radio with Hunter-1, during which the crew learned that they had lost a weapons specialist during the initial attack. A stray bullet, hitting a lone soldier through two buildings.
"You knew him?" asked Souleyma. The commander tapped her notebook.
"Specialist Ramasiya enlisted when we reached Kandahar. I knew her, yes."
"Kandahar? So she went all the way here, five thousand kilometres, just to die for the last fight."
"First fight, last fight, whatever in-between, I don't think the dead give a fuck, Arnaud."
"That brand of cynicism doesn't suit you, Souleyma."
"It doesn't suit any of you," chimed in Rajani. "Now, move on, and let's ensure our last fight is the one we just witnessed."
When the night fell, what was left of Salamander came to a halt. The tanks stopped to refuel, and the men to get rest. A hundred kilometres to the south, strategist Catarina had started her main push towards the last remaining harbour on the shore. The ultimate offensive of the war, said many. The people from Rapier-1 had found a deserted farm and brought some vegetables to complement the unit's reheated rations. Arnaud, Souleyma and Rajani had lit up a small fire under the cover of a destroyed hangar, flames concealed from snipers. Through the collapsed roof, they saw beams of steel and the half-erased symbols of ancient corporations.
"I wonder what kind of building that was," asked Souleyma while stirring her pot of soup. "Do the symbols ring a bell, Arnaud?"
"Eurgh. It used to say something like French Tech. I guess a startup or something. Making applications, phone games or some sort of high-tech gizmo that required the blood of a dozen African children to be cost-competitive."
"Apps and phones, man, you're talking about archeotech."
"Not in Europe. Remember when we entered Lyon? The billboards, the towers, the corporate androids, the illuminated dams on the Rhône, the stock exchange and the slums where they left the auxiliaries in the mud? The Collapse never really came for Fortress Europe. It weathered the brunt of the tidal wave with the bones of the poor and then just sort of...kept going through sheer inertia. Phantom state."
"Like AUSCOM, then?"
"No. AUSCOM has a will, no matter how simplistic and ill-conceived. It just wants us out of his bloody lawn. Fortress Europe merely existed. Nothing more. Nothing less."
"We should have nuked it."
Rajani raised her hand, as if trying to school unruly children.
"Ahem. Arnaud, there's a rooster on the wall. Why?"
"It's the gallic rooster, an old symbol of France. French Tech, France, so they painted a rooster holding a smartphone. Don't laugh. You're in front of the last sigil of the French state."
"Nuke," whispered Souleyma, "nuke."
Rajani sighed and stood up to squash a little spy drone that had found its way inside the hangar. The dragonfly-shaped machine twitched as it fell on the ground, transparent wings buzzing helplessly under the commander's boot.
She opened her notebook.
One hundred and sixty?
Not worth it.
Still one hundred and fifty-nine.
By eleven in the evening, Arnaud and Souleyma had fallen asleep, wrapped in their insulating blankets and Rajani conversed with a late visitor. Faint moonlight fell over a light cavalry horse. A small mount. Prejwalski, probably; it came from the great steppes beyond Fortress Europe. It wore a flexible barding of carbon-based armour and its rider bore the emblems of the second USRE cavalry division, second regiment, light scout battalion, horse-mounted special operations. Their uniform was grey, covered in the faint hexagons of an active camouflage layer. They were remarkably unremarkable.
"So you need a tank, Rossignol. Fair enough, but why me?"
"Salamander-1 is falling apart and I need something that moves fast. Unorthodox Diplomacy is certainly not my first choice, but Rapier's IFVs don't have enough firepower for what I have in mind. Your commanding officer already gave the greenlight."
"Then why are you asking?"
"Because I like you."
"Last time you needed heavy escort, ten thousand people died."
Rossignol smiled. One of their eyes was artificial. As it tracked Rajain's face, the small engines whirred in unison.
"There is no nuclear bomb involved this time."
"Alright. What is your deal?"
"There's a place I need to check out. Beaurecourt Manor, it's about thirty kilometres away. We suspect that it houses a pre-Collapse vault built by the super-rich. It's a smash and grab."
They reached the old village a few hours after dawn. A handful of locals watched as they drove through, perched on the buildings. They wore very well-made, but obviously artisanal clothes. The outcast of Fortress Europe, finally free to roam the land of the all-powerful. Arnaud wondered what they saw in their little formation rolling down the river. A grey tank, adorned with the inverted triangle of an USRE armoured division, hull paint ravaged by five thousand kilometres and seven years of combat; and six war-horses, mounted by camouflaged soldiers. They didn't belong to the same world. To the same universe, even.
The fog fell by midday. The horses scattered. Unorthodox Diplomacy kept to the road. Beaurecourt Manor was two kilometres away, at the end of a valley that Arnaud briefly imagined in the heart of summer, drenched in sunlight, vineyards undulating under the wind. Then radio shattered his dream.
"Genghis-1 and Genghis-2, in position over the hill. Setting up ATGM nests."
"Genghis-3 moving through the vineyards. Salamander, you've got overwatch."
The tank stopped and the turret traversed very slowly as Arnaud peered through the fog on various wavelengths.
"I can't see crap. It's too easy to hide in the vineyard, especially with the fog."
"No religious squabbles in my tank," interjected Rajani.
"It has nothing to do with religion. I hate what vineyards do to a landscape. They erode the ground, break lines of sight and the castles are just atrocious. I mean come on, what is even that thing? Neoclassical-my-bottom?"
"Corporate classical, actually. Commander?"
"Something moved to the north side of the manor. Can't get a clear view on it."
"Salamander-2 to all Genghis units, reporting visual contact by the manor, north side."
"Genghis-3 confirming contact, but unable to determine its nature. Weird interference on the rangefinder, but I have nothing on the drone."
"Genghis-3, this is Genghis-1, get me some smoke on this signature. It could be a camouflaged unit. Salamander, move above the hill and take point."
"Salamander-2, copy th--"
The tank shook and rang like a bell.
Rajani started breathing slowly.
Hit. Shell. Turre, bad angle, ricochet.
“Full reverse, go down the hill, move to the flank, reacquire.”
"This is Genghis-2, we're being engaged, I repeat, we're being engaged by a camouflaged armoured vehicle, signature says it's a prowler!"
"Genghis-1, prowler contact confirmed! Incoming mortar rounds, scatter, scatter, scatter!"
Souleyma drove the tank down the hill, under the cover of the trees, trying to reposition itself around Beaurecourt Manor. A hail of explosions shook the hill.
"Genghis-1, missile away!"
A round fell closer to Unorthodox Diplomacy.
"Genghis-3, man down, I repeat, we've got a man down!"
The tank stopped and peeked through the trees. Arnaud caught a brief glimpse of the prowler. Now fully decloaked, it stood by the manor, black six-legged shape with a geometric turred and the twin lances of a rapid-fire, double-barreled mortar.
Rajani had stopped breathing.
"Take the shot."
Unorthodox Diplomacy fired. Arnaud has slightly misjudged the readings from his rangefinder and the shell grazed the prowler, bouncing towards the countryside with a screeching howl. The six-legged machine replied with its main gun, missing. Unorthodox Diplomacy was showered by mud and splinters of wood. It slithered away in the fog.
"Genghis-1, no effect on missile, relocating!"
"Genghis-2, we've got casualties! Genghis actual, requesting medevac to Breaubecourt manor!"
"Genghis-1, we've lost our ATGM team!"
Unorthodox Diplomacy moved to the side of the river, relocating itself to flank the prowler under the manor's cover.
Rajani's plan was simple but good, and it almost succeeded. When the tank emerged from the side of the hill, the six-legged machine was already tracking it through the fog.
They fired at the same split-second.
Unorthodox Diplomacy's 120 millimetre shell penetrated the prowler at the seam between the leg joints and the main hull. The crew was killed instantly, then the ammunition reserve detonated. The prowler's high-velocity 90 millimetre projectile hit Unorthodox Diplomacy sideways. Something broke in the engine compartment and the tank's rear caught fire. Souleyma cried in pain. Rajani snapped.
Arnaud hoisted himself through the turret first, then came back to the tank to help Rajani carry Souleyma outside. They dragged her to safety, leaving Unorthodox Diplomacy in flames behind the treeline. Souleyma leaned against a rock and collapsed.
"Broken leg," she whispered. "Not even shrapnel. Just the shock."
Rajani tapped her shoulder and gave her driver a smile.
"You'll be fine. There's a medevac on the way, they should be here within ten minutes. I'm giving you a green flare. When the helicopter circles above, light it up and do not move. Arnaud, radio them to report a casualty. The tank should not detonate but if it does, you'll be sheltered here."
Rajani grabbed her sidearm and engaged a bullet in the chamber.
"Now stay put, you two. I have something to take care of."
One hundred and sixty.
She found Rossignol at the entrance of the manor. They sat against a bench in the park, blood pouring on their optical camouflage. Birds hopped in the fog, waiting for someone to give them breadcrumbs. Rajani sat alongside the operator. The prowler burned in a corner of the park.
"That thing wasn't supposed to be here. Where the hell did it come from? They don't even have enough fuel to keep a single armoured division going. When will they quit?"
"They already have."
"Nevermind. Can you walk?"
"Will you need help?"
"Do you have any explosives?"
"Two demolition charges."
"I'll need those."
When the doors of Beaurecourt manor closed behind the commander, she found herself in complete darkness. Then, the lights flickered and the main hall was filled with clarity. It was all white. Sterile corners of neo-classical architecture, complete with gold linings and abstract statues. There were no asperities, nothing to notice, nothing to remark. It was polished and neutral.
To Rajani, it was incredibly brutal. The art style of a polite monster.
A door opened in front of her, leading to a staircase spiralling towards the lower levels. She climbed down and found herself in a circular room, buried deep beneath the main hall. It was the same colour as the rest of the manor. In the middle of the room, there was a pod-shaped bed and, inside, the silhouette of a human being. They spoke hindi with a thick, gravely accent.
"Good afternoon," said a kind voice. "I am Paul-Jacques de Beaurecourt, owner of Beaurecourt castle and holder of its archives."
"He-him, I assume?"
"Yes. Who are you?"
Rajani answered in French. It was perfect, barely accented and remarkably spiteful.
"Rajani Singh. Staff sergeant. USRE armour."
"I was expecting someone of a higher rank."
"I have a major outside, if you're so inclined. You'll have to drag them inside yourself."
"You'll do. You may approach."
Rajani went closer to the bed. Its occupant was old, to a point he couldn't even really be recognized as such. His face was sharp, his eyes grey, his hair white and long. He wore a simple embroidered tunic; Rajani could see his life support systems bubbling away behind and beneath the bed.
"What is this place, Paul-Jacques de Beaurecourt? I suppose you do not use a prowler to defend a random manor, especially one decorated with such...taste."
"I, sadly, can't control the whims and desires of EUROFRONT. If it had only been for me, you would have found an open path to the manor. Now, behold." He snapped his skeletal fingers. Seven hexagonal structures rose up from the ground, bearing strands of DNA memories like artificial gills.
"What do you have stored here?"
"The name might not ring a bell to you, but my family used to control one of the most powerful conglomerates in Europe. Attica reached everywhere, from pharmaceutics to defence procurement. What you are looking at is the essence of our patents, the cutting-edge of the technology we developed. There were three repositories like this one in continental Europe, built after the fall and dismantlement of Attica. All were destroyed in the war, except for this one. I am ready to pass this knowledge on to the USRE. Without conditions, except my own survival."
"What makes you think we would need it?"
The old spectre smiled, trying to straighten himself in his bed.
"You have to understand. Before Fortress Europe was sealed, we were very, very close to greatness. Sapient artificial intelligence. Transhumanism. Large scale geo-engineering. Nuclear fusion. Widespread human augmentation. Consciousness transfer. Virtual immortality. We pioneered advances in every single one of these fields. We had working prototypes in most of them. Everything is here. Think about it. The world, at your fingertips. Look at me, Rajani Singh. Consider that I am two hundred and fifty-seven years old."
Rajani leaned over the old man.
"I know Attica. It helped create EUROFRONT. Built machines for it. Augmented its soldiers. Assembled the walls. Provided the network infrastructure. Made hundreds of billions."
"Then it was betrayed."
"The genocides and the forced displacements started before this betrayal. You are fully complicit in them."
"I see you know your history."
"I know my enemy."
He sighed. Coughed. The machines beneath him buzzed, then came back to their idle state.
"Despite the marvels of Attica's technology, what you have in front of you is just an old, decrepit man. I am not your enemy. Nothing in this room is. My world is collapsing, staff sergeant. All I want is peace, and for my legacy not to vanish in history."
She didn't answer.
"The patents," he continued. "They're all usable and readable. With this, you could rebuild the Earth. You could prevent the ice caps from melting. You could stop pandemics dead in their tracks. You could establish cities on Mars. You could offer cheap fusion power to everyone. You could make thinking computers. You could send spaceships to the outer solar system and beyond, if you want to go there. All you need is here. There isn't a single more comprehensive database in the entire world. Attica's world. For you."
Rajani's breath died in her chest.
"I was there when we breached the gates of the Yggdrasil Complex in Sweden. Built on Attica funds. Two thousand people in suspended animation, preserved for after the nuclear apocalypse, or the last revolution. A thousand men, old and young, all white, all heterosexual, selected for their wealth and their diplomas. A thousand women, all young, all white, specifically selected for their fertility, because of course they'd have to carry the future children of humanity. All white, the children. And the best part -- it wasn't even racism. It was just the algorithm. Trained on the fantasies of white old men. Outputting the fantasies of white old men. This is Attica's world. This is what your patents are built upon. This is their endpoint. You cannot shake that."
"I understand the anger, but the world has changed. In me, you see one of the people who built EUROFRONT, and I understand it. I even accept it. But my legacy, Attica's legacy...patents do not have an opinion on the world, staff sergeant."
Rajani nodded. She started breathing more rapidly.
"The most terrifying part," she said softly, "is that you almost convinced me."
She then put two bullets in the man's head.
When the explosions shook the manor, a flock of birds flew away in the fog and Rossignol raised their head towards Rajani. Arnaud and Souleyma's green flare had been picked up by the helicopter circling above the vineyard. Unorthodox Diplomacy was still burning. Fragments of blue sky poured through the clouds.
"So," said Rossignol, calmly. "What was inside?"
"Old files. Budget records, mostly. The archives were booby-trapped. There was a man inside, too. He was already dead when I came in."
"I got word on the radio that the front has reached the harbor. EUROFRONT's trapped forces have surrendered. The war is over, Rajani."
"Yeah. I know."
She opened her notebook and drew one last cross.
One hundred and sixty-one.
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