The storm approaches...
Gregory P. Wong
Chapter 4: Gust Front
"If it was under better circumstances, I would say that this is way cool," Zhou Yu sad sadly to his wife as he examined one of the "United Nations of Terra" Personal Aid Device. About the size of a pack of cards, the matte black box with rounded corners had a phenomenal amount of computing power. He would have sooo liked to take a look at the coding that ran this thing.
He and his wife were outside in the middle of the sortie field, behind the gigantic bastion. The day was pleasantly sunny, deceptively upbeat for the upcoming invasion.
"Hey, just because we got us a depressing situation doesn't mean you can't enjoy looking at this thing. I'm having a field day looking at this wall. Amazing architecture!"
He hazarded a smile and drew an arm around his wife.
"The beds are comfortable too, aren't they?" he said slyly.
Qiao made an exasperated noise and slapped his forearm.
"Can't you think of something else?"
"If I'm in a very comfortable bed with an extremely hot woman? Lemme think. Uh, nope."
The held each other, laughing, until they returned to reality.
"Do you think we have a chance?" Qiao asked him, laying her head against his chest. "Is there a chance to repel that many of those Sraida?"
He stroked his wife's hair. "I don't know, Qiao. I don't know..." he murmured.
He felt his wife squeeze his midsection tightly.
"Oh, God, Yu... I don't want any of us to die..."
Tears kept at bay welled up, and he smothered them on the crown of Qiao's head. As he pulled back, he saw that the moisture was making her hair glisten ever so slightly. Qiao looked up, and he saw that Qiao's eyes held a bit more moisture than usual, too.
He cupped her chin in his hand and wiped a tear away.
"None of us will die, Qiao," he whispered to her.
But he wasn't so sure.
Qiao seemed to lose some of the morbidity and smiled a little.
"We could be absolutely sure if someone like Lu Bu or Hua Xiong could be brought back."
"Yeah, we could," he replied wistfully.
He really would have appreciated the likes of Lu Bu or Hua Xiong, or, by God, someone like Zhou Tai or Huang Gai, to have joined them. But, it would never, ever happen.
General Adrian had given him an abbreviated explanation. According to the researchers of temporal mechanics, timelines were just a susceptible to damage as anything material. Every time one of the temporal-displacement agents, i.e. time travelers, went back-or forward, in some rare cases-in time to retrieve someone, that travel disrupted the flow of the timestream, minutely degrading it. If pushed too far, a timeline collapsed, "erasing" anyone involved with time travel. Furthermore, severe time quakes could even obliterate entire solar systems, or, it was theorized, an entire galaxy.
For these reasons, the United Nations of Terra-UNT-couldn't bring back anyone else. Any more monkeying with the timestream could result in a catastrophe.
It didn't make him any less fearful. He wept inwardly for his best friend Sun Ce, Shang's brother and Qiao's brother-in-law, or Lu Xun, his young, energetic protÃ©gÃ©, or even that young punk pirate Gan Ning. He wouldn't ever see any of them again.
What shook him even more was that everyone in this little escapade was feeling the same thing. The suffering everyone must be feeling. Jesus Christ, how could anyone bear that kind of pain?
He felt a hand brush his cheek.
"Yu, come back to me. You've left me," said his wife.
With a smile he knew to be marred with his grief, he looked at his wife. "I would never leave you."
"Funny thing. It seemed like you were."
He let go of her and took her hands in his own. "I was just thinking of... of..."
Qiao's face lost its smile. "Of them. I know how it feels, Yu. We just... have to let them go." Her beautiful visage clouded over as she said that.
How could he comfort her? She lost her sister. What agony was she going through?
And that made him freeze. What if she couldn't have been retrieved...?
Dammit, no, don't think of that.
So he just hugged her tight.
After a minute of just holding her, he let her go.
"Let's take a look at that mother of a wall again," he said to her.
His wife's lips quirked into a smile, ghosts brushed away. "Sure, why not?"
He took her hand and together they approached the massive wall.
"Hey, what happened to Nineball?" he heard his wife ask.
He looked to where the massive Titan CAW had stood, and saw that, yes, that metal juggernaut was definitely not there.
If someone told him that that thing had cloaking generators, or something like that, he'd probably wet himself.
Of course, there was always a better way to get answers.
"Hey, uh, PAD," he said to black box strapped to his left wrist.
"Yes, sir?" the Personal Aid Device replied in a electronically-generated monotone
"Where did, um, Nineball go?"
"Unit 19999-Nineball is currently at point 457-124, approximately twelve miles from here where he and unit 23485-Cobalt are preparing to engage the Sraida assault force."
"What?! Aren't those things, like, two days out?"
"Yes, sir. However, the speed of the Sraida transports is so low that, even with a two day journey, the ships are well within range of the Titan singularity lasers."
"Oh. Uh, thanks, PAD."
"A pleasure, sir." The little box fell silent
He looked at his wife. "Amazing tech stuff, huh?"
"You bet," Qiao said with a wide grin.
He took her hand again and made his way towards the wall. Since this world seemed to rotate opposite of Earth, the sun rose in the west and set in the east. Ideally, he hoped that the Sraida would attack sometime during morning, when the sun would shine into their multifaceted, inhuman eyes. He grinned. There was the inner strategist for you.
"Hey, aren't those, uh, Hadji and Omuki?" Qiao said. He followed her gaze to a tall man with wild hair accompanying a striking young woman. He noticed that the man was carrying two bundles, and woman was shading herself with an eastern-style umbrella.
What where their names again? He was sure it wasn't "Hadji" and "Omuki." Wait, he remembered. Keiji, and Okuni, right? Right.
He grinned and bumped his wife with his hip. "Come on, I can remember their names. And you... you've got to remember all those trigonometric functions and formulas and stuff."
She stuck her tongue at him playfully. "Hey, you're the one immersed in memory games! Jesus, you have to know binary coding, firewall locks, and all those geeky computer slang terms. Heck, what in the world is a 'cookie?'"
He put on a look of mock hurt. "What? Now I'm a geek?"
"Nope. You're too hot to be a geek. Besides, show me a geek who's a master strategist or saber master, and I'll burn this dress off."
He stopped, placed his hands on her shoulders, and rotated her so she faced him. He motioned his hands over his body.
"Well, here is said geek," he said sternly. He generated a tongue of fire in his palm. "Now, honor that bet."
Qiao rolled her eyes and smirked. "It was a joke/, for crying out loud! Besides, do you really want /your very beautiful wife to be very naked in this very sunny dustball?"
He laughed. "I guess not," he said. Qiao laughed, too.
He looked back towards the walking Keiji and Okuni-what was their last name again? Oh yeah, Maeda-and noticed that they were coming closer.
His wife, always the friendly, gregarious sort, steered him towards the other couple. They met face to face, only a few feet from each other.
"Hey, you're Zhou Yu and Xiao Qiao, right?" Keiji asked gruffly. "I've heard quite a bit about you two."
A bit taken aback, he answered "Um, yes."
"Great. Now, me and you, we're gonna fight."
Unconsciously, adrenaline coursed through his veins. What...?
Okuni slapped her husband's bicep. "Keiji! Stop that!" He noticed that Okuni had a voice that seemed to be perpetually in song. A very beautiful voice.
"Huh?" Keiji grunted.
"Don't talk like that," Keiji's wife scolded. "You have a tendency to scare people, you know. You're very intimidating, I hope you know!"
The tall, muscular man looked at his wife thoughtfully. "Hmm... I guess you're right."
He cleared his throat. "Now that I know you're not trying to injure me, what do you want?"
Keiji smiled. "Sorry about that. Anyway, I want to fight you. In a nutshell, I like competition, especially when it involves physical abilities."
Keiji's wife poked her husband with an elbow and grinned. "Yeah, just like last night, when you tried to lift more weights than that Meng Huo character. From what I remember, he lifted nearly eighty pounds more than you."
Keiji's smile didn't falter one bit. "Hey, I know when I'm beat. I'd rather quit than have my sockets crunched." Keiji shifted his gaze back to Yu. "Which brings me back to my point. I saw you yesterday... you're a damned good fighter. I just want to see how well we match up."
"Oh, I see," he replied, any hostility melting away. "But I don't think anyone would like to see us chopped to itty-bitty bits, right?"
"Way ahead of you, uh, Yu," Keiji said, pausing a bit as he tried to work around the homophones. "I can call you Yu, right?"
"Sure. And I can call you Keiji, right?"
"And I think we should all be formally introduced, /right/?" Qiao interjected.
"Sheesh, lady. Sure," he said with a grin that was returned by his wife. "I'm Zhou Yu, as you two obviously know, and this is my wife, Xiao Qiao."
"Keiji and Okuni Maeda, glad to meet you both," Keiji said as he extended his hand. He took it, and felt a dry, warm, powerful grip take his hand.
That out of the way, Keiji returned to explaining how they could fight without loss of limbs and/or death.
"I talked to the sergeant major of this detachment, and he pointed me to these babies."
The other man unwrapped his packages, and he took a look at what they contained.
One item looked like a spear with a large weight on one end and two forked blades on the other. The other was a replica of a long saber... hey, his saber!
"These things are basically high-tech training weapons. They won't cut, and if I hit you, it'll 'draw' using a washable dye. Y'know, so we can record who gets hit and stuff."
He nodded. "May I?" he asked as he motioned towards his weapon.
"Sure. It's yours, you know."
He smiled and took hold of the saber's hilt. With a smooth motion, he drew his weapon and cut the air in front of him into four quadrants in a flourish. It was a little hilt-heavy, but that was really negligible. It felt just like using his personal weapon.
The other man picked up his spear, and twirled it through the air effortlessly. Unless he was wrong, that thing was pretty heavy, and it would take great strength to use it effectively.
He looked to his side, and saw that Okuni and his wife were sitting some twenty feet off, Okuni offering Qiao some shade from the noonday sun with her umbrella.
He looked back at Keiji, and saw that the other man was ready. Keiji held his spear single-handedly-though he knew that would change once they started duking it out-in his right hand, near the weight.
He shot a grin to his wife, and stood ready.
"This is actually quite interesting to-/YAAAHHHH/! Okuni Maeda cried as she saw Yu make a glancing blow to her husband. Keiji rolled away from the blade and made a twisting smash with the spear's weighted end. The other man dodged back like a snake, and the club-like hunk of metal passed an inch from his face.
Xiao Qiao gasped.
"Goddammit, he's scaring the bejeesus out of me! If he survives your man, I'm gonna kill him. See if I don't!" Qiao said.
She giggled. "Funny thing, Qiao. I was thinking the very same thing. Keiji sometimes gets too compet-/AAAHHHH/!"
A sweep kick from Yu knocked Keiji's left leg out from under him, and she saw her husband stumble. Yu went in for the kill, but Keiji intercepted the gut slash with his spear's shaft. Yu withdrew his long saber and slashed up and to the right, aiming for a blow that would take off Keiji's left arm. Her husband windmilled his limb out of the way, and the saber missed by a hair. Keiji retaliated by snapping his spear around. Yu easily dodged the sideways cut, but he barely evaded the overhead smash that followed. The weight striking the ground generated more force than it should have, and Yu was knocked off his feet. Keiji slid the weight along the ground, probably seeking to punch Yu in the ribs with it. The other man rolled away from the approaching attack, and slashed for Keiji's throat. Metal met metal with a /clang/, and Keiji levered Yu's saber into the red dust prevalent on this world. Yu's sword trapped, Keiji saw an opportunity to take out the other. The forked blades slid along the length of the saber, towards Yu's hand. Yu relinquished the grasp on his weapon and twisted away from the sliding blade.
She could hear Yu grunt as he leapt to his feet and snatched up his saber in one fluid motion. Yu slashed at Keiji's ankles, but her husband dodged the attack by jumping over the oncoming blade. Keiji used the momentum of gravity to twist his spear around and present the blades to Yu as he fell. Yu neatly dodged the attack, and Keiji's spear sank into the dust. Her husband tried to retrieve his weapon, but it seemed stuck. Yu used the momentum from dodging her husband's initial strike to target a whirling backhand at Keiji. Keiji shifted backwards half a step, and Yu's saber banged into the stuck shaft. Yu spun in the opposite direction and stabbed at Keiji. Keiji evaded the strike, and grabbed Yu's forearm and yanked. Yu got his other arm in front of his face in time to keep his face from striking the spear's shaft, but his body still jolted as Keiji pulled Yu into the pole. Yu rebounded off the weapon, giving Keiji enough time to jerk his weapon from the ground. The two flew at each other again.
Goddammit. She was really gonna chew out Keiji after this. When they were in bed. And reasonably tired. And happy. But she was gonna still chew him out.
"I really should be cheering him on, you know," she said to Yu's wife.
"Yeah. Then again, who cares? They seem to be doing well enough without."
She laughed. "Yeah, they do." She paused for a moment. "I'm assuming you two are originally from China. Am I right?" She shifted her umbrella so that they both had some shade from the hot noonday sun.
The other woman nodded. "Yeah. You two are from Japan, right?"
"Uh-huh. So, as you might have guessed, by husband has the unofficial title of being the best warrior of his age. He's a nice guy, though. He just likes to fight for the sake, of well, fighting. Or, as sometimes I've seen, fighting for what's right.
Qiao nodded, gazing at the embattled men. "Me and Yu come from the kingdom of Wu. My husband's-/WATCH OUT/!-a master with the long saber, but he was really well known for being a strategist. Actually, he was the best we had."
She smiled a bit at Qiao. "I don't doubt that he's a master strategist, but I really admire his movements. He's so-/AAAHH/!-graceful. I don't often see men who can match me. And he's good-looking to boot."
Qiao looked at her questionably. "Match you? How so?"
"Oh," she said with a faraway smile. "I'm a Japanese dancer. Kabuki."
Qiao's eyes grew wide. "Seriously? I've always admired those type of dancers.!"
At the other woman's unexpected reply, she grinned. "Thanks. Anyway, I guess I used all those dance-trained muscles and movements to whack around these Sraida things. How about you?"
Qiao smiled a little self-consciously. "In my 'other' life, I'm an architect, but back in my real time, I was pretty much-/WATCH HIS SPEAR/!-just another pretty face at the court. I actually have a sister, though..."
Qiao fell silent. She gave the other woman enough time to compose herself.
"I had a sister, anyway. I ended marrying Yu, and my sis married a man named Sun Ce. The reason why I can fight well enough is because me and my sister, were, well, kidnapped.
She cocked an eyebrow at that. "Huh?"
Qiao smiled. "Yes, Okuni, me and my sister were kidnapped. But not by anyone. We had the luck to be kidnapped by a fat, ugly, repulsive, egotistical dictator bastard. After that semi-traumatic experience, me and my sis took up... uh... fans."
"Yeah, fans. You know, court ladies always carry fans and stuff. Except ours were metal overlaid with ornate cloth and stuff. We could pull off the tops and, boom, you had a fan with razor edges, Mortal Kombat style."
She nodded, then laughed at Qiao'd mock bravado. "Nice."
They were silent for a little bit, except when they shouted advice to their respective mates. She pretty much liked this Qiao woman. Someone stupid might just peg her as a hottie airhead, but to be an architect, you had to have brains. And airheads didn't master razor-fans. In addition, she was a very fun to talk with. And she didn't have the personality of a wet sponge.
Qiao picked up a pebble and tossed it a few feet away.
"You're very pretty, you know that," Qiao said in a soft voice.
She snorted. This lady concerned with her looks? No way. "You're one to talk. You're gorgeous."
Qiao shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so. But you're... I mean, wow."
"Don't bother with it. Our husbands think we're the most beautiful things on earth, and I'm pretty sure me and you get treated pretty, um, well, so what's to talk about?"
Qiao rolled her eyes. "I'll have to agree with you on that."
They both giggled a little.
She resumed concentrating on Keiji and Yu again. Yu swung out his free arm and stopped the spear, touching just below the blades. He aimed a rolling slash at Keiji's legs, but her husband twisted, using his spear as a point of rotation. The weighted end fell, and Yu's cut slapped into the hunk of metal. Recovering, Yu attacked Keiji in a flurry of blows, Keiji blocking every one. They went back and forth for a few moments.
Then Yu made a slice up and left, and the saber settled neatly between the spear's blades. Keiji twisted. Instead of getting himself off balance, Yu let go of the saber and waited for it to rotate back. Obviously, her husband hadn't anticipated this, and so put it back squarely in Yu's hands. Yu withdrew his blade from the entanglement, and angled an upward slash that would have potentially gutted her husband.
Keiji knocked up the blade with the back of his spear, and slid forward, his arms crossed over one another to get the blades on his right side. Yu stumbled forward, a large red line drawn his chest. He fell to he ground.
Yu's sword flew from nerveless hands and stuck, quivering ominously, into the dirt.
No... The weapons weren't dulled. Keiji had just killed...
"/YU/!" Qiao screamed in anguish and bolted for her husband.
Then Yu surprised them both by rolling onto his back and holding up his hands.
"Ahh... You win," said Yu.
Qiao stopped in mid-stride and fell head over heels. The other woman oriented herself, and she sat down, gaping at Yu.
Keiji sauntered over and offered a hand to Yu, who took it. Once the two men were back on their feet, she strode over and spitted Keiji with a glare, her hands on her hips.
"Next time warn us that the dye's the color of blood!"
Her annoyance melted a bit at Keiji's abashed look.
"You should be sorry! You just scared Qiao out of her mind!"
Keiji looked down at the dirt. "Sorry, Qiao. I forgot to tell you."
"Oh, it's okay," Qiao said, her breathing slowing down.
Keiji looked up sheepishly, brushing his hands through his wild hair. The rest of her annoyance evaporated.
"Oh, you tiger you," she said affectionately.
Keiji's grin returned in full force.
"Yep." Her husband turned to Yu. "That was a pretty good one. You're damned good, you know that?"
Yu shrugged. "Thanks. But, jeez, you're phenomenal."
Keiji winked. "I didn't earn the title 'The Unbelievable' for nothing, ya know."
She cut in. "Maybe we should get cleaned up and fed. I'm sure you two fiercesest super-trooper yous are sticky and hungry."
Kejiji scratched his chin. "Yeah, I guess so."
"Well, we are given our own little suites, which is odd for a military base. No, I'm not complaining. I'm just thinking a nice shower would be nice."
She nodded at Qiao's suggestion. "Sure, why not?"
She and Keiji walked back to the base with the other couple.
"Bye for now!" she called to Qiao. The other woman waved back.
When they were out of earshot, she looked at her husband.
"How are you feeling?"
"A little beat, but too much. I'd be glad to have that guy watching my back. Damned good, he is."
They got to their room, and she ordered her PAD to unlock the door. She and Keiji walked in. While Keiji turned on the shower and got cleaned up, she sat on the bed.
Some words came to her mind: "treated well".
Feeling a mischievous smile spread over her face, she disrobed and walked towards the bathroom, where she could here the pounding of the shower.
Hopefully, Keiji wasn't too tired.
Normally, she would probably have thought the mile-long streaks of blinding white energy, and the thundering crack that accompanied the discharge, as awesome.
But it wasn't normal.
Makie-No, no, that wasn't her name, goddammit. It was /Kunoichi/-sat behind one of the guard towers, on a rock shelf, near the entrance of the mountain pass. With all their fancy-schmancy sensors and tools, a deft application of ninjitsu magic let her move undetected.
She looked down suddenly, and peered at the ground made black by the slowly setting sun. How easy it would be to hurl herself...
But no. She had given Yuki-no, Lord Yukimura-her word.
As much as that pissed her off right now.
But did it really piss her off?
Part of her desperately wanted to go to Yukimura and hold him, and not stop holding him until those Sraida touched down. But another part of her wanted to run screaming in the other direction, horrified of what she'd done.
Almost unconsciously, she slipped a shuriken from her belt and toyed with it, casually flicking it in the air.
A part of her loved him still, and she was certain he had feelings for her still. But she wasn't sure if she could get herself to love him as she once had...
She caught the falling dart by the handle and tossed it up again.
How easy it would be to throw it up high into the air, position her throat... and gravity would do the rest... and Yukimura's honor-and hers-would be restored. But, somehow, suicide didn't appeal to her.
Maybe she could just leave, and remain a free spirit for as long as she lived. That was always an alternative. No Yukimura, no problem.
The question was, though, did she really want to leave him?
"Dammit!" she cursed when she missed the catch and the razor-sharp dart nicked her fingers. Gritting her teeth, she snatched up the bloody shuriken and gripped it tightly in her hand by the handle.
It could be so easy to slip it into her stomach, draw it horizontally, then...
With a scream, and hurled the dart towards the rock wall thirty feet behind her.
"What the..." she whispered when she saw the dart suddenly stop in midair.
To her amazement, the air rippled, as if it were fabric, and bled away from the form of one of those Lizard-people-an Arkron, right? As it fully became visible, she could see it was a female with blue scales, teal hair, and purple eyes, dressed in leather four-section skirt and a midriff-bearing sleeveless shirt. And it was pretty short, too. Most Arcones she had seen were almost always over seven feet, but this one was barely six feet tall.
The Arcone female's left hand held the dart by the flat of the blade.
"It's Arcone, by the way, not 'Arkron,'" the alien said in a voice that should have belonged to a young woman.
"So what? Who the hell are you, anyway?"
"A Grand Clawmaster... more or less a general."
"Ooh... an officer. Now leave me the hell alone," she snapped.
The Arcone eyes looked amused. "Do you know my name?"
"Leave me alone."
"I told you-Adrian?"
"I'm General Adrian's wife."
She stared unflatteringly at the alien. If you looked at it, this Resathel person had a certain degree of beauty-if you looked at her under alien standards-but what was a totally attractive guy like Adrian hooking up with her?
"It's a good question, I guess. Me and Zach-General Adrian-got that a lot when we... dated."
Okay, this was weird.
"Not really. I have extended psionic abilities. I'm an Arbalest. I can read your surface thoughts."
She curled her lips into a snarl. "Okay, Miss I'm-Named-After-A-Crossbow, then you know I want you to /leave me the hell alone/!"
Resathel sighed. "Do you, really?"
"What do you mean 'do you'!? Of course-"
"Maybe we shouldn't talk about me," the Arcone said calmly. "Maybe we should talk about you... and Yukimura."
At the sound of her husband's-No, master's-name, she shot to her feet and drew out her daggers.
"Say his name again and I'll carve you like Brutus did Caesar," she hissed.
"You can try to avoid this Makie, but you and Yukimura can't avoid this-"
The Lizard stopped because she was trying to stuff her daggers down its scaly blue throat.
What the hell?
She found herself on her back, her limbs pinned. It had happened so fast that she didn't have one single clue as to what just happened.
She looked back at her own body. The alien woman was kneeling by her side, one knee pinning her right arm, an arm reaching over her body to lock her left arm, and the tail was immobilizing her legs. She found Resathel's heart-shaped violet pupils staring into her own.
"You can't hurt me," the alien said simply.
"Like hell I can," she ground out, fighting against Resathel's lock. She might as well have tried to kick that Nineball walker over.
"/Stop/," Resathel said evenly. "You know, trying to kill the person who mentions your husband's name is a sign that you need to at least talk with someone."
"How about /no/," she growled into this Lizardy pain's face.
Hell, what would this alien woman know about what she was going through? She and Adrian had probably just knocked each other up, and boom, instant romance. Yeah, a magical story where two dissimilar people bond. A little fairly-tale dream, that's all they had, while she and Yukimura had to deal with real serious problems.
"Yeah, talk to about love and gushy stuff and all that garbage. What would you and your hubbie know about-"
A hand, the scales velvety and completely unlike lizards' skin, wrapped around her throat and lifted her into the air. She could barely breathe.
Resathel thrust her face into hers. Unless she was totally off, this Lizard was now pretty pissed.
"Do you know what troubles me and my husband have gone through?" Resathel asked, an edge in a voice that was an angry whisper. "We're not some alien dream couple who managed to hook up in a one night stand and motor on after that.
"The first time I set eyes on Zach, I tried to kill him!" Resathel continued coldly. "Yeah, I tried to slice his head clean off. Even after those little problems were resolved, I had to deal with an unwanted mind-meld we had gotten ourselves into. This problem was so bad I seriously entertained ideas of letting him get killed by the Quaadranytes. And, he later told me, he wanted me to die, as well.
"And you know what else? I had to chafe against a young, beautiful human girl-whom I'm a very close friend to now-for Zach's attentions, because, after all, he and I had more in common than I realized.
"We had to deal with our pasts, and the memories of past loves who, had died. We had to deal with honoring their memories by not getting involved with anyone else.
"When I was captured by the Quaadranytes-some old enemies-I was cloned and sent on a mission to kill my own husband! And, after that little debacle, Zachary and I infiltrated a Quaad research base to find that the original Resathel was there. I had to deal with killing the real Resathel because she had gone insane and wanted to kill both of us for him having slept with me.
"As if being a mere clone of an original wasn't bad enough, Zach and I grew very distant for those few months. He couldn't bear to be with me nor I him. Then, best of all, a Quaadranyte defector and a little 'mind test' of Zach's revealed to me that I was, in fact, the real Resathel.
"And all this is in addition to the heartbreaks, despairs, and troubles inherent in war. I lost my first lover when he engaged the Quaads in some bloodbath of a battle.
"So, excuse me if I take offense to you thinking our relationship has been nothing but a walk in the park."
Resathel dropped her.
The slowly darkening world seemed to blur for a moment, as if some dust storm had hampered her vision. Then she felt something drip off her chin, and she realized that she was crying. Her dilemma with Yukimura and the knowledge that people could be suffering as much as she was right now broke her heart.
A comforting arm wrapped around her shoulders.
"Listen: I'm sorry that I was harsh about that. But I still think we need to talk."
"I... I... Fine, let's talk then," she relented.
The alien general nodded.
"Now, talk to me," Resathel said. "I've learned that people who are suffering need to be listened to, not talked to."
She didn't know how to start. Then she knew...
"When I showed up at Nobuyuki Sanada's door, I was pretty much some orphaned little girl who needed someone to take her in. To my luck, Lord Masayuki was a pretty nice guy, and took my young little heinie in. He had me trained as a ninja, and I, well, took the job.
"Of course, I got to meet Lord Nobuyuki's son, Yurimura. And, God..." she trailed off. Almost instantly, she had developed a crush on that young good-looking dude. Then, when her lord had told her that she was to become Yukimura's personal ninja, she suffered a heartbreak for the first time since her parents had died from pneumonia. There was no arguing with Lord Masayuki, so...
"I'm sorry," Resathel said quietly. It's hard to lose parents. And it's even harder to be denied someone."
She couldn't think of a response, so she continued with her little story. God, how it hurt...
"Well, I became the next best thing to Yukimura: a friend. We watched each other's backs... but I always wished for more. And then... I end up married to him living in New York. I... I... I'm a ninja, who should never get involved with her master, but I'm also Makie Omori Sanada, Yuki's wife... I don't know.
"Part of me wants to love Yukimura again, to get back what we lost... but another part of me, the ninja, wants to push him away, or to end the dishonor of sullying his honor by..."
She couldn't finish that sentence. It was too dangerous to think about.
She felt the arm leave her shoulder.
"Where are you going?" she asked cautiously.
"I'm done here. I can't help you any more."
"What do you mean 'I can't help you anymore'!?"
"I can't... It's all up to you know, Makie. I listened, and you listened too, to the reasons you have.
"It's now your decision to make whether you become Makie Omori Sanada or Kunoichi."
And then the Arbalest was gone.
Behind her, another singularity laser bolt sped into space, and hundreds more nightmares died.
She looked at the bloody shuriken, and wondered...
Yue Ying decided that her husband was right: these people were very ingenious in getting around this "techno-block" that was inherent in these Sraida creatures.
Using some type of automated scouting robot, Colonel Ryan had given them a tour of the defenses.
Strung at about head height all across the mountain pass were monowires. The wires, made of an incredibly strong chain of molecules, were only one molecule thick, thus making an incredibly sharp string. A mere tap to the wire could mean a disembodied finger. Since the wires were not technologically utilized, they apparently affected the Sraida just fine.
The boulders she had seen were rigged with explosives to drop, but in an odd way. If the boulders were propelled by explosive charges, they became too technological, and thus wouldn't effect the Sraida. However, if the "dams" holding the boulders back were broken, the Sraida were fair game.
Of course, the towers held bow-armed soldiers in powered armor-meaning said soldiers could launch their arrows three times the distance of a normal archer-and a couple of assorted siege weapons-trebuchets, catapults, ballistae, etc-were put near the guard towers, boulders and bolts stockpiled next to them.
The gigantic wall also sported similar defenses, with the addition of holes near the lower third of the wall where spears and pikes could be thrust through.
But it hadn't looked like enough.
She shook her head and gave a sigh. "I'm not sure, Liang," she said to her husband from atop the main wall. "We're talking about one hundred-fifty thousand... I wish we had more in the way of defenses."
Her husband answered in the same tone. "Yes, I know. But they are prepared as their resources allowed."
She grimaced. "How are you going to work around this?"
Liang shrugged. "I've been talking to Cordev, Vir'lok, and Ryan, and they all agree the only way we'll be able to prevent a catastrophic breach of the main wall is if we somehow pin them down in the canyons. If the Sraida are allowed to make an extended effort on that wall, they can breach it."
She nodded. Though the wall was as well armored as one of the UNT's spacegoing superdreadnoughts the Sraida's claws could still gouge through. It was terrifying.
"So," she inquired, "How are we going to pin said attackers?"
Liang gazed off into the east, towards the pass leading to the base, where the sun was setting behind the mountain pass. This odd world's spin was reversed, meaning that the sun rose in the west and set in the east.
Her thoughts were interrupted when a shaft of light one mile long erupted somewhere to the northeast. It was one of the Titan CAWs, either Nineball or Cobalt, firing off one singularity laser. Each Titan mounted two singularity lasers, and those had a range of something like five light-seconds, which was ridiculous. They released a massive amount of energy on impact, more than the average multimegaton bomb. However, the cannons needed something like twenty minutes of recharging before they could fire again. Each shaft of dazzling energy signified the death of several hundred Sraida.
Despite that, there was still too many...
"Anyway, same question, Liang."
Liang shook his head. "I'm not sure. I think we'll have to take them under constant fire if we hope to stymie them. I've requested that the greatest bulk of archers be placed near the mouth of the pass. If we can bottleneck them, we should be able to wear them down. Ammunition isn't a problem, but making sure the Sraida don't butcher the archers will be the issue. That's were your tactical expertise is needed. The colonels are nominally in control, but we'll be the ones really running this show."
"Because they don't have the experience we have."
"Exactly, my wife. These officers are accustomed, strategically and tactically, to modern warfare. We, on the other hand, are used to this type of battle. Though I'm still unsure of this engagement; there are far too many variables."
They stood silent for a few moments.
"If we manage to bar the Sraida, how can we make them stay there? Archers can kill, but they can't hold."
"From what I've seen, the soldiers are being trained to fight in a Roman/Greek phalanx formation. The armored musculature of the armor these soldiers wear lets them carry a heavy twenty-foot pike, or a solid-metal tower shield and long sword. The plan is to plug the pass with those soldiers, and have the archers pound them from above. That/should/ suffice, but there is the problem."
"Which is the Sraida smashing right through the formation," she finished for her husband.
"Right. The numbers are simply astounding; the Sraida outnumber us fifteen-to-one at the least/. That means each soldier has to /kill/, not maim, not wound, kill, /fifteen Sraida for us to hold."
"I don't suppose that's impossible. The mountain pass choke point and wall should give an advantage."
"I would think so. The pass gives a five-to-one advantage, at least, and the wall will make up for the remainder. If the wall is able to hold throughout the entire siege, that is."
"If not, what then?" she asked.
"If the wall is breached, the Sraida will gain a three-to-one advantage /over us/, and it'll all over but the screaming," said her husband gravely.
Something about that last remark sent a shiver down her spine.
"And I'll be the one coordinating the minute defense details of this battle..." she whispered.
"I have every confidence in you, Ying," her husband said firmly. "You can do this... I know you can."
She nodded. Maybe it was time for her to lose her insecurity. If she kept doubting herself, it could mean the needless deaths of hundreds, or worse, defeat.
She moved closer to Liang and took his hand in hers. Their relationship wasn't the touchy-feely type, but she really wanted to just hold him now. Having the chance that you wouldn't be around in the next few days threw things into perspective quite shockingly.
She moved closer and wrapped an arm around his waist. Her husband responded by draping an arm over her shoulder.
"Gust front..." she murmured.
"Gust front. The strong winds before the storm."
Together, they watched the sun set.
"Are you serious?" Sun Shang Xiang asked her husband incredulously.
"Yep," he husband replied. "They really do have a swimming pool. It's located in the training area. Soldiers use it for exercise."
" Geez. Sounds nice. How big is it?"
"I don't know. Hey, PAD?" Bei tapped the little black box on his left wrist.
"There's no need to strike my casing, sir. I respond to verbal commands," chirped the electronic device.
She snorted at Bei's sheepish look. Trust the firefighter to bang things. She laughed again.
"Not everything's as rugged as your equipment, you toughy firefighter you," she teased.
Her husband rolled his eye, and asked the PAD how big the pool was.
"The swimming pool located in the training area of the base is seventy-five feet by forty feet. There are provisions for the pool to be divided into eight swimming lanes."
"Ooh, goody. Thanks, PAD," she said to the device.
"Okay," she said, eyeing her jean shorts and green tank top-what she wore when not in her battlefield clothing-"I'm going to take a swim. Come join me after a while."
"Are you sure?"
"Heck, yeah. Could you paw through the drawers and find my swim suit?"
Bei sighed and began to search for her suit. She stripped off her clothes and deposited them on the bed.
"Here it is..." Bei trailed off as he caught a glimpse of her bare form.
"Well...?" she cocked an eyebrow at her husband.
Her husband gave her a quick look-over, cleared his throat, and tossed her the...
"Hey! What's this?" she asked, looking over at the somewhat-skimpy red two-piece.
"Oh, your suit," Bei said, his voice even.
"I have a one-piece!"
"Well, I guess not now."
She made an exasperated sound. "Well, where is it? Okay, okay, funny joke. Hah hah. Now gimme my suit. This is too, uh, /little/."
Her husband shrugged. "I haven't the faintest idea where your suit is."
She narrowed her eyes and peered at her husband. She /maybe/would have believed him if hadn't have a crooked smile marring the innocent I-Have-No-Idea-What-Happened-Have-A-Nice-Day look.
"Liu Bei, I am so going to get you for this."
Her husband said nothing.
She hurriedly slipped on the semi-bikini. Bei's eyes looked amused.
"Remember that, honey," she said as she slipped into her shorts.
"Oh, I will, sweetie," replied Bei lightly.
Giving a sigh, she grabbed a towel, and stepped out the door. She made sure that the towel covered her upper torso.
She made her way through the meandering halls-how the heck could those UNT guys keep all this straight?-and entered the indoor swimming complex. It was a bit stuffy, but definitely not as bad as most of the pools she had gone too. There was technology for you... it kept indoor pools fresh and clean.
She noticed that some men-probably troopers-lounging on the deck chairs were scoping her out. And, geez, some of the alien soldiers were, too. She was slighty relieved that some soldiers were distracted by other woman, alien or not.
Oh, God, she was so getting her husband.
She took a vacant deck chair and hurriedly deposited the towel and her jean shorts unto it. She swiftly and purposely stepped to the edge of the pool-she had picked a seat near the deep end-and dove in off the starting block, into the closest lane. She swore that she heard one of those soldier's whistle at her.
She continued through with momentum of her dive and began to swim laps. She stopped at the shallow end of the pool and spied several soldiers also swimming laps. And some had goggles. Maybe she could bum a pair off of one.
Or maybe not. The chlorine wasn't that bad. Heck, she couldn't even smell it or feel it on her eyeballs. Opening her eye underwater didn't hurt one eensy bit.
Which meant, of course that she wouldn't have to go near some troops to borrow some, and thus wouldn't have about two dozen eyes oggling her.
She sank below the water, kicked off the wall, and began to swim breaststroke.
Yeah, sure. /breast/stroke. Her whole life was turning into a joke.
She approached the deep end wall and clung to it. An individual medley would be nice.
She kicked off the wall, and dolphin kicked up to the surface. Her arms flexed, and she propelled herself with a brisk butterfly stroke. She completed one length, shifted to backstroke, then breaststroke at the other end, and finally freestyle to bring her to a finish.
As she shook some of her hair out of her face, she noticed that a black marine in a blue suit was leaning over the block.
"Yes?" she asked.
"Hey, I'm Staff Sergeant Lenny Crewfort. You're a fine swimmer, and heck, just plain fine too," said the soldier.
"Uh, thanks," she replied. "Um, anything else?"
"Well, yeah. Those dudes over there," Crewfort gestured to a group of assorted-species marines, two of whom were female, "don't think I can beat you, even though I'm from New Serra, and everyone knows that anyone from that planet is a damn fish. And, Jesus, I ain't losing to a damn chick. So, whaddya say? 200-yard IM?"
She looked Crewfort over. He was tall, and his arms were absolutely long. He would have an edge in backstroke and butterfly, maybe, but she could beat him with her breaststroke and freestyle. Hmm...
"Fine. Let's do this."
She climbed out of the water. She mounted the block, and noticed that Crewfort was leering at her.
"Hot damn, you're a fine piece. Okay, enough of that. Hey, Matt!" A stocky blond marine looked up and ambled over to the pool. "Take our times, willya?"
"Sure, Sarge." Matt spoke to his PAD, and looked up. "Okay, boss."
She took a deep breath, and released it. And had a thought.
Dammit, she would have to bend over to begin her start.
"Take your marks... go!" shouted Matt.
As soon as "go" was out of his mouth, she leapt off the diving block and smoothly entered the water. She swung her arms out and in as she began with butterfly. Her mind solely concentrated on moving her limbs.
As the last lap of freestyle came up, she noticed that Crewfort wasn't in front of her. She touched the wall.
Some time later, Crewfort finished, too.
"Holy Mary, Mother of God..." muttered Matt.
"What?" asked the huffing Crewfort.
"Sarge... that chick just swam a 1:32:54 200-yard IM."
"Hell, no, that's impossible. You're pulling my leg."
She left the Matt guy and Crewfort to sort that out, and began to warm down.
Tired, tired, tired.
She stopped at the diving end, and noticed that her husband, fully dressed, was smiling at her. Crewfort and Matt were still arguing.
"Good swim, Shang. Best performance ever," he quipped, grinning.
She rolled her eyes, and submerged herself.
Bei extended a hand. She lifted an eyebrow, and took it. She noticed that his free hand was latched firmly to the starting block. Smart man.
He hauled her out of the water. As she dripped, Bei stood up from the block and looked into her eyes.
"Still mad at me?" her husband asked with a bit of apprehension.
Ooh, the million-dollar question.
"Nope. I wasn't really mad at you. Just a bit... annoyed."
"Ah, okay. Well, I hope... the, uh, suit wasn't..."
"It's okay, Bei. I needed a laugh."
Suddenly, she beamed at him.
"Actually, I think it makes me look incredibly sexy. Don't you think so?"
Taken aback, her husband looked like he couldn't think of anything to say.
"Oh, you think so. Thanks! Lemme give you a hug!"
With that, she flew into Bei. She wrapped him up in her arms.
Bei smiled a bit nervously. "Uh... You're not mad, right?"
"Oh, of course not," she said.
Then she pushed.
Bei gave a cry of surprise, and attempted to push back. Of course, it didn't work, since he was directly behind the block. The back of Bei's knees caught on the edge, and she and her husband tumbled in.
She surfaced, and giggled uncontrollably as a very wet Liu Bei broke the surface. Her husband took one look at her and gave an explosive sigh.
"Fine, fine, fine. Even?"
"Sure, sure," she managed to cough out in between laughs. "But you deserved that, you know."
"Sheesh. A man merely tries to flatter his wife, and he gets pushed-fully dressed-into a pool?"
They both laughed as they got out of the pool.
She toweled off, and offered the towel to Bei, who had stripped off his wet tee-shirt. He wiped his upper body off, and mussed his short black hair. He handed it back to her.
She and Bei made their way back to their room, making small talk.
When they were inside, Bei swept a hand towards the bathroom.
"Go ahead, take a shower. I'll go after you."
She nodded and went. She stopped and thought.
Here he was, in sopping wet clothing, while she was in a nearly dry swimsuit, and he was letting her go first. That was why she really loved him. He was so thoughtful, so kind, so virtuous, so, so... /good/.
She turned on her heel and went into the bathroom. She twisted some knobs, and in a few seconds the sound of steaming water filled the room. She slipped out of her suit, and exited the steamy room. She spied Bei sitting on a towel on the bed, facing away from her.
"Hey," she said, and crossed her arms over her chest.
"Hmm?" Bei said, turning.
She swiftly stepped over and locked a hand onto his wet pants' waist.
"We're sharing the shower," she whispered huskily.
"You're not getting any argument from me," Bei replied.
Thirty very steamy-in both the literal and the figurative sense-minutes later, she and her husband got out of the shower. She and Bei toweled each other off-of course, laughing lightly as they brushed certain areas-and dressed.
Bei prepared the bed, and she and her husband flopped onto it. She squirmed a bit when Bei's hands played over her ribs.
Bei put his lips to her ear.
"I never got a chance to say it, Shang, but you look absolutely sexy with that suit on. Of course, nothing is best, but I don't ask for much."
She smiled into the darkness and snuggled up against her husband. It was those sweet things he did here and there that made so much of a difference... even if said sweet things had a tinge of testosterone in them. But, heck, men will be men, right?
And she had the best man in the world.
"Thank you, Bei," she whispered.
"You're welcome, love."
"Oh, yeah, sweetie."
Her hands ran over Bei's body, and she felt his stroking her sides.
"Swimmers and firefighters do have plenty of endurance, you know," she said to her husband.
"Oh, yes," Bei murmured back.
Looks like one married couple wasn't getting any sleep.
Nouhime's eyes popped open at the sound of the alarms. She shot up just as Nobunaga jerked from his slumber.
"Aren't those the alarms signaling a planetary invasion?" she asked her husband apprehensively.
"I believe so. But it can't be right. Those monstrosities aren't due for another twenty-four hours..."
"You're right. But we should still get dressed and report to the command center."
Her husband just grunted.
She reached for her battleground outfit and slipped it on. It was almost identical to the clothes she had arrived with on this world, but with less restricting tailoring, and with the addition of some light armor plating and chain mail here and there. As she went out the door, she grabbed the PAD device and her blades. Nobunaga, squeezing into his leather-or "Kevflex," some new modern skintight armor-garb and cloak took a few moments longer. Her husband snatched up his dark-glowing sword, sheathed it, and left the room. She tapped the door control and shut the entrance.
She and her husband jogged all the way to the main command area. When she and Nobunaga entered, she noticed that the Chinese military advisers, Zhuge Liang and Yue Ying, were already there, along with Ryan, Vir'lok, Cordev, Ranix-Adrian, the auburn-furred, gray-eyed Gryth Mindlancer-equivalent Executor-General-Diakrestis Tan'aza, tall blonde Mindlancer General Katherine Armahnd, and, of course, General Adrian.
They all looked grave.
The officers were silent until all of the temporally-displaced warriors had entered the room.
"I don't know how they did it," Adrian said as he rubbed his eyes, as if he wanted some ugly picture to disappear.
"Did what?" one of the Chinese men-she thought his name was Zhou Yu-inquired.
"For starters, they somehow made a super-precise quantum-shift microjump, which basically dropped them on our heads, past the CAW anti-starship guns," said Adrian. "In addition, they somehow managed to ECM3 their ships-meaning that the "heavy transports" are all actually much more massive ships. Cobalt and Nineball are getting out of the dodge as fast as they can, but they think that destroyer-tonnage vessels were masked."
"Which means what?" she blurted out. As soon as it left her mouth, she knew it was a useless question... she knew what was coming.
"It means that the Sraida will be dropping no less than seven-hundred thousand warriors," responded Tan'aza.
There was utter silence.
"And the numbers can be much higher," said Ranix-Adrian. "Nineball and Cobalt will have harder times knocking them out of the sky. Besides that, the Sraida are steering out of the range of their weapons, but not so far as to give them the opportunity to take out the grounded ships. They're getting smart."
"Which means we'll have to implement our plans quite a bit earlier," finished Armahnd.
Zhuge Liang stepped forward. "We'll be deploying now. The cloaked observer drones report that a vanguard swarm of three-hundred thousand Sraida are heading for this base. We'll have to hold them at the mouth of the canyon, so as to preserve the integrity of the wall.
The Chinese man nodded to his wife, who took a deep breath.
"Huo, Rong, Keiji, Okuni, Lord Bei, and Lady Shang Xiang will be leading the main phalanx force.
"Nagamasa and Oichi will be coordinating the archer contingent.
"Yukimura, Yu, Qiao, Nobunaga, and Noh, you'll be the quick reaction force.
"Kunoichi, you and your unit will be providing reconnaissance and tactical strikes."
She noticed that Yukimura shot the ninja a look before he turned away.
Ying continued to speak. "The units will deploy within an hour. We'll be sticking with our original plan; we need to immobilize the Sraida, and keep them from coming to grips with the archer units."
"And where will you and your husband be?" her husband whispered antagonistically.
She elbowed him hard in his stomach and grabbed his head, turning his ear to her mouth.
"Nobunaga, /enough/. Stop trying to make an enemy of everybody, or God help me, I'll never be able to deal with you /again/."
Her husband didn't say anything, but she noticed that his eyes narrowed a bit, though he wasn't looking at her.
Big deal. She and him had had their fair share of arguments and fights, and they where still alive and married. One more wouldn't hurt.
"Let's go," said Ying.
She and the fourteen others left the room to begin preparations. She noticed that Nobunaga was walking far more slowly than the rest. He reached out to her and grasped her shoulder.
"Look, Noh, I'm sorry. I guess I have to work to stop doing this."
She shook her head. "I know that you're that type of person by nature, Nobunaga, but yes, you do have to work against it."
"But there's one condition for me to accept your apology fully," she continued.
"When you have a chance, I want you to apologize to Yukimura and his... wife."
Nobunaga glared at her.
"What? You're siding with-"
"I'm not 'siding' with them! I just see that you're being a total pain in the rear-yes, I meant that-and I'm trying to help you improve! Close that chasm you created between yourself and Yukimura."
Her husband looked full on angry now, but he seemed to deflate.
"You're right, Noh, I suppose. I have been very disagreeable as of late. I'm... I'm sorry about that. I'll do my best to fix this. But it's not easy for me."
She shook her head and stroked his bearded cheek.
"I know. Thank you, Nobunaga."
She drew him down, and kissed him deeply.
And then she and her husband left to prepare for the battle.