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The canteen was still dim when Dul plopped his tray down in the middle of one of the long picnic-bench-like tables in the room. The sun was not yet up, and the fluorescent lights above cast a sickly, pale light on the room. Despite being almost eight hundred hours, the sun was yet visible. It wouldn’t be until nearly high noon. Sure, sunrise was still early, but it took longer and longer these days for the sun’s rays to burn through the smog cloaking the sky. Outside, rain seemed a perpetual threat, and hardly anyone saw the sun for any length of time anymore.

Dul began to shovel processed eggs into his mouth, pushing aside the thoughts of his less-than-enjoyable home. It was, as usual, quite easy to do—Dul had plenty of other things on his mind. His new gun, for instance. The thing was beautiful: a semi-automatic, jet-black upgrade of the Saiga-12 used by the Soviets back in the day. It was amazingly light, made out of the newest strain of carbon fiber, and had almost no kickback when he fired. The thought of the weapon made Dul smile a little bit. He loved his job, even if it did require him to live in this crap-shit city.

He started a bit at the sound of Miyu’s guns clanking against the synthetic wood bench of the table and her tray clattering down before his. His partner was never one for subtle entrances when off duty, especially in the mornings. If Miyu could startle someone out of reverie, she relished the opportunity. Miyu was a spritely young woman of Asian descent, and wore her long black hair in a slick ponytail. She worked as a sharpshooter like himself, and they had been members of the same unit since the training academy.

“Do you ever wonder what it’s going to be like?” she asked, shoving a sporkful of eggs into her mouth. Dul gave her a blank look, still peeved about the fact that she’d startled him. “You know—nuclear winter!”

Dul sometimes wondered what went on in the woman’s brain. “Is there a point to this comment?” he asked her. He was of German descent, and his voice still rang with a bit of his Eastern Union accent.

“Of course. When do I not have a point. …Don’t respond to that one, please,” she added as an afterthought, holding up a long-fingered hand. “I’m talking about the Krians. One of these days our mighty government is going to piss them off and they’re going to go ape shit and toast the whole planet. You’ve never thought about what it’ll be like? I mean, if we all aren’t killed by radiation, of course.”

“You really shouldn’t talk like that in here, Miyu. You never know who’s listening,” Dul replied calmly. Miyu just didn’t seem to grasp that things had changed since the all the alliances and treaties had been signed. There was always someone waiting to bag you for conspiracies and disloyalty nowadays.

“Dul Gray, you need to get it through your thick German—sorry, Eastern Union—skull that I am entirely unafraid of this country’s government!” She paused, contemplative for a moment. She laughed and continued before scooping another bit of food down her throat, “You know, that’s probably why I’m so high up in the system. So they can keep track of me! I like being a threat!”

Why do I even bother? Dul thought to himself, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “You really are completely insane, I hope you know that. It is a continual mystery that you outrank me.”

Indeed she did outrank him, though neither of them could determine the reason. They both served in Special Ops for the Royale, but Miyu held the rank of Captain to Dul’s Second Lieutenant. No one really based opinions on their ranks, however. They had taken enough lives and chances to be respected regardless of the insignias.

Though they were always in company, in appearance and personality, the two could not be more different. Miyu was small and lithe, with a thin but muscular build. Her jet-black hair made an elegant contrast to her stormy gray eyes. Her coloring was fair, a genetic gift from her Republic father, but still retained traits from her Asian mother.

Miyu toted two small handguns, the holsters strapped daringly to her upper thighs, though her specialty was hand-to-hand combat. Every member of the Royale had a coat serving as uniform which was emblazoned with his rank insignia. Miyu’s coat bore the flag of the Republic’s Royale Corps—a white field with a diagonal stripe from bottom left to top right and a small black circle in the upper left—and her Captain’s insignia on both her chest and right shoulder. She wore her dog tag as if she really were a mutt: on a collar strapped around her neck. Somehow, Miyu was able to wear white vinyl pants and never get them dirty. She also wore white leather boots with carbon fiber braces from ankle to knee.

Dul Gray, in contrast, was completely Eastern Union in his background. Since the reorganization of the world’s governments, any country east of what was once France fell into the lump category of the Union. Dul still pledged himself as a German at heart, though.

He was tall and solidly built, but still capable of speed to match the spritely Miyu. Dul’s hair was naturally dark brown, but he bleached it to near-white as an ego-coddling measure. He had a scar that he was quite fond of across the bridge of his nose from a childhood accident, but as he believed it gave him an air of mystery and masculinity, he rarely mentioned the real source of the scar. Dul’s eyes were a dark greenish brown, and he sported a rather elaborate tattoo over his left eye. Three lines were ran from his eyebrow to his cheekbone, bordered on his cheek by an elongated S.

Dul’s uniform coat sported the white bar and triple crosses of a Second Lieutenant were patched on his chest and right shoulder, similar to Miyu. His coat was an elaborately buckled thing, with individual clasps from his collar to the bottom of his torso. He wore two holster belts crisscrossed across his back, and his unit was never sure if they were simply for show or not, as he only carried one gun. Dul, too, wore knee-high boots, though his with metal caps over the toes.

Off duty, the two of them made a comedic duo. Their opposing personalities—Miyu carefree and careless, Dul grounded and subconsciously vain—never ceased to amuse their units or the other Royale officers. They had been Ops partners and friends for the past eleven years, ever since Miyu had caused some unremembered drama at the training academy. Now, under the flag of the Republic, the pair was one of the most feared and respected in the entirety of the military. On duty, they both became completely focused and deadly, and had few failed missions to their credit.

“Yeah, well. I guess I just know how to manipulate the system, don’t I, Dul?” Miyu responded, brandishing her polyresin spork at her partner. She stabbed at the captain’s insignia on her chest. “S’not like there’s much difference for all the sparkle they put to this rank. You should stop whining and go shoot some more people.”

Miyu prodded her spork at Dul a final time and tucked back in to her breakfast. Dul shook his head and did the same. They ate in silence for a few minutes, until Miyu noticed the officer striding toward them. She put down her spork and ran a hand over her scalp. Dul turned toward the canteen’s doors, spotting Miyu’s target immediately. A moment before the man reached the table, Miyu kicked Dul’s shin. “Twenty crowns says Krians again,” she muttered with a smirk at his annoyed face.

“Captain Miyu. Second Lieutenant Gray,” intoned the officer in a clipped voice as he reached them.

“Lieutenant Carter.” Miyu replied with a nod.

Carter nodded in return, relaying his message simply: “Sir, I have orders to direct you to Colonel Mosse. He is waiting for you both on Briefing Deck D.”

Miyu stood. She directed a pointed, smug look at Dul. “Thank you Lieutenant. Is that all?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very good.” She saluted Carter, and then smiled. “If you have the time, Reese, I recommend the English muffins. The mess staff were in a good mood this morning.”

Carter returned the smile, and proceeded to salute Miyu and then Dul. “Thank you, Captain. Good luck on whatever mission the Colonel has in store for you.”

Dul and Miyu collected their trays and walked in the direction of the dish disposal along the side wall of the canteen. Everything used in the mess was made of the same polyresin; the material would be melted down, sterilized, and recast into the required tableware for the next meal.

“There are benefits to rank, Miyu.” Dul brooded as they exited the mess. He prodded her right shoulder. “They always talk to you.”

With a grin, the woman simply patted Dul on the cheek and continued walking. “Don’t sulk. Like I said—go shoot some more people! Plenty of damn Krians trying to blow us all to hell.” She made a pistol out of her hand, raising the gun and firing on some imaginary Krians standing in the distance. Turning to walk backwards in front of Dul, she shrugged.

“It’s a really good thing for you that I know you don’t mean that.” He replied, barely veiling a sudden anger. Sure the Krians were bent on their destruction, and the Royale existed to combat them, but that did not make them inhuman. Dul had promised himself on joining the Corps that, should he ever begin to think of his enemy as things, he would remove himself from duty entirely. Even having spent years in the Republic and with the Royale Corps, he still felt something dirty in dehumanizing their enemy, no matter how much he wanted to kill them. So few people in the Republic believed in honor these days, but Dul was determined to remain among them.

Miyu turned to walk forwards again, silenced for the moment. She counted the lights strips inlaid evenly across the floor of the broad corridor.

“You know I don’t think that way,” she said quietly, head down.

“I know. You never know when someone’s gonna forget that they’re human too—you gotta keep reminding these Royale bastards. Our comrades have a tendency to forget it.”

“Thanks for keeping us all sane, Dul.” She exhaled deeply, recomposing her expression. “Now—let’s go see what the hell the Colonel wants from us today.”

They turned off the main corridor down a smaller tributary hallway. This passage was much narrower than the main—only wide enough for five or six people to walk abreast, where the main easily had room for twenty. This hallway extended from the main hallway to the B-Level meeting rooms and briefing deck. Midway down the tributary, a green light strip pulsed dully on the wall. Miyu swiped her palm across the green plate. The wall panel slid back, opening the elevator.

Dul prodded the D button and the elevator door slid shut with a pneumatic drone. Moments later, the door popped open to the base’s fourth level. They continued down to the end of the hall, and Miyu ran her hand across another green lock panel. The door to the briefing deck opened for them, revealing Colonel Mosse standing, arms crossed behind his back, before the plate Plexiglas window spanning the eastern face of the room.

The briefing decks were aligned above one another, increasing in importance as the floor of the base increased. They faced the edge of the cliff upon which the Royale Southern Headquarters perched. From the opposing side of the canyon or on aerial approach, the briefing decks created a shining strip through the center of the massive structure starting from B-Level. A-level was below ground.

Outside, the sun was starting its attempts to penetrate through the smog cover. Across the canyon, the city was just becoming visible through the gray. Far below, not visible from this deck level, recessed from the edge of the cliff as the deck tower was, the river ran murkily at the bottom of the canyon.

“Captain Miyu and Second Lieutenant Dul Gray reporting for brief, Colonel Mosse, sir,” Miyu announced to the tall, black haired colonel.

Mosse turned from the window and nodded. “Good morning, officers,” he replied, his voice a light baritone. “We recently discovered an insurgent group based in Toulouse, in Old France. This will be a simple mission for you. Recon has noted activity indicating that they are moving toward the Pacific coastline. You will be eliminating the group at an expected location a few hundred kilometers south of the Republic outpost in Bordeaux. Your dual unit will airdrop into the area and take out the hostiles. Recon also indicated that there are no important Krian leaders among this faction, so you may treat the targets as you would normally. Your transport leaves at first light tomorrow morning. Have your unit assembled and prepped for departure in the B-Level Hangar by oh seven hundred tomorrow.”

The colonel saluted them and nodded. “I suggest you brief your squads now. Good day to you.” He turned back to the window, indicating their dismissal.

Colonel Mosse was not a cold man, just one of few words. He was direct and concise; he seemed morally opposed to wasting time. Mosse made efficient work out of commanding the Southern HQ; everyone at the base was glad to serve beneath him.

Dul and Miyu exited the briefing deck, both internally pleased that both the meeting and the mission were simple and familiar. They continued, in step with each other to the main hallway on D-Level. From there, they parted ways at the elevators, Dul heading downward, Miyu to the floors above.

Each level of the headquarters was structured similarly. A main corridor spanned each level, connecting the North and South Wings. In North Wing was the small wing for the meeting rooms as well as the messes on A- and B-Levels, and training rooms occupying the same space on levels C through H. Also in North Wing were the officers’ quarters and personal offices. South Wing housed the troops’ quarters, as well as leisure space and the rec rooms, on various floors.

Miyu’s squad was quartered on F-Level, while Dul’s lived on C-Level. Both were early risers, a habit formed over several years as officers. Their troops, on the other hand, still took advantage of any opportunity to sleep late on days when they were not required to ship out at any arbitrary hour of the day into the wild unknowns. Routine had set it that once they had beaten their troops out of bed, with whatever coercion or violence was necessary that day, Dul and Miyu would brief their unit in one of the D-level meeting rooms.

By ten o’clock, both halves of the joint squad had gathered in Conference E on D-level. Though all the troops were present, many of them looked less than pleased to be there.

Dul and Miyu stood at the head of the room. Miyu had one foot up on a chair and was carefully examining her fingernails as she leaned on her raised thigh. She had a smirk on her face and was carefully avoiding the glares of the more bitter members of her unit—they hadn’t appreciated her methods of wake up this morning. With a quick glance around the room, mentally taking roll, Dul kicked the side of Miyu’s spinning chair, jostling the woman roughly from her examination. He smiled wickedly, “payback” written across his face.

She rolled her eyes at him and turned to face their squad. “Alright, kiddies,” she said loudly, earning an instant hush from the men and women before her.

“Standard Ops tomorrow. We airdrop in a couple of kilos south of the enemy camp and rush ‘em. Colonel tells us there’re no important targets: you know the drill from there. Anyone not swearing to the Republic goes down. No hostages, no torture: kill ‘em and move out.”

She paused and looked over at Dul, “Anything else?”

Dul considered for a moment. “Hm. Basically don’t screw anything up; report any oddities to the Captain or myself before you shoot them. And don’t be late for ship out tomorrow. O-seven hundred sharp. Dismissed.”

At six thirty the next morning, Dul and Miyu were waiting in the hangar for their troops to assemble. Dul leaned against side of the plane’s boarding ramp, running a damp cloth over the barrel of his Saiga-12 carbonfiber sniper rifle. A small smile edged up the corner of his mouth as he cleaned even the smallest flecks of dust from his gun. Across the hangar, Miyu was sitting cross-legged atop a cargo crate with a gray striped cat in her lap. She rubbed the small animal, which she had named Millikan, under the chin. Millikan was one of the few things at headquarters to which Miyu was wholeheartedly kind. She had told Dul once that the cat made her reassured her humanity. It didn’t judge her for being a soldier or a killer, just for not having a tail and whiskers. She wiggled her fingers above the cat’s nose, laughing quietly when he batted at her hand.

About half of the squad was already down in the hangar by this point. They ranged about the open space, most still rubbing off the remains of sleep. Men and women began to filter into the large room as it neared seven o’clock. They joined their comrades near the plane, throwing down camouflage-printed packs and carbonfiber rifles. The noise level in the hangar began to rise as the last of the squad assembled and they all woke up the rest of the way.

Shortly, their pilot strode into the hangar, zipping up his leather jacket and donning a pair of dark sunglasses. The pilot stopped by the loading ramp and saluted Dul. “Second Lieutenant Gray. Good morning. I’ll have the plane ready to fly in ten minutes. Get your boys loaded up and parachuted and we’ll get out of here ASAP.”

He continued onto the plane and through toward the cockpit. Miyu carefully removed Millikan from her lap and vaulted off the crate.

“Y’all heard the man. Let’s go!” she said, voice echoing through the room. She reached up to pat the cat’s head a final time and shouldered her pack and parachute. Buckling the harnesses across her chest and stomach, she made her way to the plane, stopping next to Dul.

“He talked to you first,” Miyu pointed out to her partner, continuing yesterday’s conversation. She winked at him and boarded the plane. Claiming her seat near the cockpit doors, Miyu leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes. Dul and the twenty members of their squad loaded onto the plane, and Miyu tuned out the rev of the plane’s engines.

Roughly half an hour after their takeoff, the pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom. “We’re about two hundred kilometers from the drop zone—another ten minutes or so. I suggest you start drop prep, Captain.”

“You heard ‘im,” Miyu responded, eyes still closed. “Everyone got their chutes and guns on?”

An affirmative chorus greeted her ears. She sat up, rubbing her nose. “Well then. We don’t know exactly how many hostiles or what weapons they have. Stick in pairs or so, but you all know that. If you didn’t you wouldn’t still be in our unit.”

Dul smiled and continued, “Miyu and I will drop first. We radio up if anything goes wrong. Clear? Everyone check harnesses.”

The squad fiddled around with guns, packs, and parachutes for the next few minutes. When the pilot radioed back again to give them clear to start their jumps, Miyu and Dul stood up.

“Ready, set, go, everybody!” Dul said, as he punched the button to open the bay of the plane. He and Miyu stepped up to the edge to make their jump; Miyu turned back, holding up a finger.

“Oh. And, Johannes. Try not to get shot in the ass this time!” she cried, diving out of the plane. Dul followed, and the two freefell for a moment before deploying their chutes.

The squad followed game trails toward the area marked on Dul’s GPS. They were silent as they trekked through the woods and low underbrush surrounding the target area. The Krians were camped the clearing surrounding a small lake.

Dul prodded Miyu with his rifle. Miyu raised an eyebrow at him. “They’ve presumably got scouts out here and already know we’re coming.”

She nodded, and held up her arm, hand fisted. The twenty in their squad halted. She fanned her fingers and prodded at the woods. Dul’s half of the squad—the snipers—cut away from the group, fanning out into the trees. “Taken care of,” she whispered back.

A few minutes later, the trees began to thin and they entered the clearing. Signs of habitation covered the clearing and a small fire still smoldered quietly. The camp had obviously been vacated hastily. A gunshot echoed out from the trees.

“COVER!” shouted Dul, dropping into a crouch. One of Miyu’s soldiers fired on a rocky outcropping on the edge of the trees and was greeted with return fire. They all spread out and took cover, firing volleys at Krian targets. Slowly, the Krians began to emerge from their hiding spots and opened fire on the Republic soldiers.

Miyu had climbed up on a rock and had both of her pistols drawn. She was firing on a man who had come out into the open along the lakeshore. As he fell under Miyu’s fire, a tall blonde woman scrambled out from her cover, grabbing up a gun from a fallen Krian. She shrieked and leveled the gun at Miyu. Dul shot her down before she could get a shot on Miyu. The woman dropped, her blonde hair pooling on the ground over her face as scarlet began to spread on the sand.

“Thanks, Dul,” Miyu said, turning her gaze back on the battlefield.

A piercing shriek flooded the air near where the woman had appeared. “MAMA!!!”

Dul trained his rifle on the rocks as a little girl struggled out of her hideaway. There was dirt streaked across her face, and her long, curly blonde hair was matted in places. She could not have been older than ten. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she stumbled toward the fallen woman. Dul froze, hand paralyzed on the trigger. She dropped to her knees at the woman’s side, reaching a trembling hand out to her, mouth gaping.

As she spied the man’s body, her face darkened, and she grabbed the weapon by her mother’s side. Lurching to her knees, she hoisted the weapon, looking for a target. Johannes made a rush at her, and the little girl fired the weapon. It hit the man in the side of his thigh.

“Damn it, Johannes! I told you not to get shot in the ass again!” Miyu shouted, scrambling down from her rock and loading a tranquilizer cartridge into one of her pistols. One of the other members of the squad took aim on the little girl. Miyu saw the red beam from his scope zero in on the girl’s chest. “Hold your fire, soldier!”

The girl turned on Miyu at her yell, pointing the gun at her. Miyu leveled a steady gaze at her. “I won’t shoot you if I don’t need to,” she said quietly.

“Republic bitch!” the girl screamed, crumpling on the ground. Laying both her guns as well as several knives clearly on the ground, Miyu carefully approached the girl. “Dul, call our men off. Have them sweep the forest again. Round up any adults we didn’t drop.”

She turned back to the little girl, crouching down a few feet from her. “That man and woman—they’re your parents aren’t they? What’s your name?”

The girl glared. “My name is Adia.” Her voice was light, and carried a Russian accent. Her lip quivered. “Why? Why did you kill them?!”

Miyu could think of nothing other than, “I’m sorry.”

On the other side of the clearing, Dul holstered his gun. “Sergeant Briggs—go patch up Johannes. I’m going to radio the pilot to get us out of here.” He wandered off closer to the tree line and pulled a radio from his pack.

Gathering Adia into her arms—the girl was surprisingly willing to be held, despite Miyu being a “Republic bitch”—Miyu watched Briggs carefully bandage Johannes’ wound.

“When you’re done over there, Briggs.” she said. She looked down at the girl in her arms. “Adia, how old are you?”

“Seven.”

So young. Miyu shook her head, her resolve forming. When Briggs finished, she came over to Miyu, saluting. “Briggs, I need you to sit with Adia here while I talk to Dul. Adia, this is Marie—she’s going to stay with you for a minute, okay?”

When Adia nodded, Miyu stood, leaving her post to the other woman. Miyu approached Dul, who was shoving the radio back into his pack. “Dul, I can’t shoot her. I won’t! I honestly don’t care what kind of court martial or punishment they pull. I won’t kill Adia and I won’t leave her alone out here. She’s coming back with us.”

“I figured as much,” Dul replied, combing his hair off his face with his fingers. “We definitely can’t leave her, and I doubt anyone here will kill a child. Will she go, though, is our problem.”

“I think she will.”

“Alright then. The pilot’s on his way. Round up the squad, I guess. I’ll go check on Johannes.”

A few members of the squad were skeptical when Dul and Miyu brought Adia aboard the plane when it returned to take them back to headquarters. Fortunately for the pair, they were respected—and feared—enough that no one argued it.

The little girl had developed an attachment to Miyu in the hour that they had been in contact. Adia hung back watching as Dul and Miyu helped Briggs and another soldier move Johannes, who was still laughing over the irony of getting shot in the rear a second time. It had been necessary to carry the wounded soldier back through the kilometer of woods through which they had walked to get to the Krian camp. The second Miyu moved away from Johannes, Adia reappeared at her side.

The flight back to headquarters was for the most part silent. Many members of the squad took the opportunity to catch some sleep, and the others lapsed into various states of bored. Adia had situated herself between Miyu and Dul near the cockpit; she was still unsure what to make of her new arrangements.

When they docked back in the South HQ hangar, Miyu noticed that Millikan was still atop the cargo crate. He was asleep now, his tail beating happily against the wood every now and again. She walked Adia over and boosted the seven-year-old up onto the crate to pet the cat. Miyu returned to Dul, who was suspiciously busy removing the clip from his gun.

“You had to give her to the cat, didn’t you?”

“Yup. He likes her too.”

“I suppose now you’re going to want my help convincing Mosse that she’s not a threat, seeing as the cat likes her, yes?”

“Of course. Couldn’t possibly deprive Millikan of another friend.”

“I guess it’s settled then, isn’t it.” Dul sighed, patting Miyu on the head. “Sometimes I don’t believe that you are almost thirty. You have the logic of a seven-year-old.”

“But that’s why they keep me around,” Miyu retorted, dropping a curtsey. “Adia, bring Millikan if you like—we’re going to introduce you to a, um… friend of ours. And get you a shower.”