Aurora fell in step abreast of Agera as the pair left the massive command tent behind, but the only way Agera could tell was to look for tell-tail signs. A rustling of grass there, the hint of a breath here. Then Agera jumped as Aurora spoke into her horn quietly.
"I need to stop by my armorer to drop off my suit." Agera nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Just quietly give me directions and I'll follow silently." Agera whispered.
It was crazy being led by a disembodied voice, but effective, so long as Agera focused on the directions she was given. After ten minutes of treading through the crowds, Agera started conversing with her new flight mate.
"Is this what espionage is always like?" Aurora chuckled somewhere off to her left.
"Spy craft is all about deception. Hell warfare is the way of deception. Although capable, display incapability. When committed to employing your forces -”
"Feign inactivity. The Art of War. You read the translation?"
Aurora chuckled again, "No, I've read the original. Sun Tzu was mad. Brilliant, but mad. Ah, this is us." Agera stopped at a tiny tent, so small she would have passed it without looking at it normally. The flap apparently blew open, then closed, and moments later, Aurora walked out without her armor. As Agera turned to walk away, the new female shifted to a brilliant fiery red, with matching flame markings. Even her eyes changed colors, and Agera was startled to see new spikes and horns appear, larger than before to cover up her originals. Aurora spotted her wide eyes and giggled.
"You know what's really crazy?" Aurora said quietly. Agera shook her head, but Aurora spat a jet of flame into the sky, "Holographic generator. Only developed just last year. You know, if you like spy craft so much, you should try joining the archangels. We could use someone like you."
"You did your homework then?"
"Oh yes. I even read what the censors didn't want me to read. Good job in Siberia." Agera growled slightly, "Sorry, ma'am. Just making a complement."
"I never was linked to the work done in Siberia. That - “and at this she smiled, "That exceptionally fine piece of work."
"You know it. Do the seeing -" Aurora said quietly.
"But don't be seen." Agera finished, "I wasn't officially part of any organization back then, and I wasn't working alone. So technically, I'm not a spy, but, meh, whatever."
"You're as good as one to me sister." Aurora said, bouncing along beside her. She was exceptionally peppy and springy when outside of her suit.
Agera returned with Aurora once her patches were changed out. The familiar ache in her shoulder was back, but that was certainly a good thing.
"Omega, front and center!" fortunately everyone was in the barracks this late at night, "I wanted to introduce you to Omega's newest member, Blackbird, our new intelligence agent. She'll be taking our number six position. Everyone else will be moving up a spot."
"Then where does that leave us, ma'am?" Venus asked. Agera flashed her new rank at them all, "I'll be moving up to a battalion lead, with Omega as my flagship squadron, so I expect you all to be in prime form from now on!"
"This can't be good." Janus said quietly.
"Can it, three! Tomorrow we will be running war games with the other five squadrons joining our battalion. I expect you all to do your very best out there! Venus!"
"Ma'am." Venus stepped forwards from the flight line and saluted, "Gunner Venus, reports as ordered, ma'am."
"I'm giving you a field promotion for now. Not sure if that's allowed, but only sergeant ranks or higher can command squadrons. You'll be Omega lead from now on."
"Ma'am! Thank-you! It would be an honor to lead Omega."
"That's all then, dismissed." everyone retreated to their bunks then, knowing tomorrow was going to leave them sore from squad sparring. Agera retreated to the corner where she normally slept.
"What, no officers’ quarters?" it was Venus.
"Easy now, Omega. You don't want a court martial now, for disrespecting an officer, do you?" Agera replied, rolling over away from her.
"Hey, Agera, I just want to talk!" Venus said, sounding a little hurt.
"So do I, but whatever you want to talk about, it's classified." Agera said quietly.
"Not about what's coming up, I want to talk about this promotion." Venus said just as quietly.
"I would also like to hear this tale."
"Yeah, come on Agera, spill the apple of the day." Agera snorted and rolled over. Vienzo and Janus had joined her best friend. Agera looked around. Jiza was writing in her book, Guin was already fast asleep, and it sounded if Aurora was already in the shower.
"Wow. That's a ballsy move from the GM." Vienzo said quietly from over his mug of Blood and Guts. Agera and Venus's promotion was decidedly a celebratory occasion, and Agera was feeling moody and sequestered from the others, so she decided to take them all to one of the nearby non-commissioned bars to order drinks for them while she told her tale.
"And what of our new friend, Blackbird?" Venus asked. Agera quickly took a drink, occupying herself, but Venus wasn't going to be distracted that easily, "That's not her real name, is it? No dragon has the name Blackbird."
"Oh, damn and blast, Venus, no of course her real name isn't Blackbird, but I'm not going to tell you all her real name in case knucklehead here - “she gave Janus a Dutch rub, "Spills the beans. No, to you, her real name is Blackbird. There are five other codenames as well, from what I can tell. Nighthawk, Spirit, Dragonlady, Predator, and Reaper. Just, keep your horns out for them. They're spies, they're bound to turn up in trouble."
"I can't say much, but let me tell you one thing. Our new friend Blackbird is not a normal dragon. Keep your eyes on her, Venus."
"Ok, something has you spooked. I want to know what it is." Venus said, setting her mug down. Agera bit her lip, but Venus egged her on, "Oh come on Agera, you can't do something like that to me."
"Oh alright. She knew about Siberia." Venus stopped with the mug halfway to her lips, "Yeah, I know. You didn't tell anyone, did you?"
"Not a soul. Agera, I could count the amount of people I know who know about that on one paw! How the hell does she know?"
"What's Siberia got to do with anything?" Janus asked.
"Nothing Janus. Trust me, Venus, I'm still trying to figure out how she has access to that knowledge. At first I thought she talked to my mother, but that's not right. Kali talked to the GM, and she didn't say anything about it to him."
"Then how?" Venus asked, more to herself than anyone else.
"Would someone please tell me what this Siberia business has to do with this conversation?" Janus said suddenly. Vienzo shrugged his wings.
"It doesn't mean anything, Janus, me and Agera were just talking." Venus said, looking up and smiling.
"My tail it does." Janus said as he went to take another drink. Agera reached out, grabbed his mug and splashed the bloody mess in his face.
"Don't talk to your commander like that!" Agera said laughing at him. He laughed back, loudly, and grabbed a passing platter of loaded fries bound for one of the tables with humans at it, and tossed it at Agera, but in his drunken state, hit Venus who promptly -
Yeah, you can pretty much guess how this ended up. But trust me, it got real ugly.
Later that night, after a good shower, Omega and Agera were sleeping quietly, which is to say a couple of Omega were sleeping. Venus lay on her side next to Vienzo, but her eyes were open. She stared at Agera, who stared right back.
"Hey, Geri?" Venus's play name for Agera.
"Yeah, Vine?" Agera responded with a whisper.
"What if she was there?" Agera didn't need to ask who "she" or what "there" was.
"If she was there, freezer, if she even knows what happened, then she knows." Agera said quietly.
"And what does that mean for us?"
"Dunno. That's really up to her. I don't think we could stop her if she tried to double on us." Agera said.
"So what if she tries to eliminate and then double?" Venus asked quietly.
"Then put two in the back." Agera said, barely loud enough for Venus to hear, "Don't ever trust her. I've got a bad feeling about her in my gut. But maybe that's just the beer."
Thirty-six dragons stood on the flight line at base camp alpha, Agera’s new battalion. With her were the six dragons who led each squadron. Theta was led by an Ice dragon, Delta by a rare sound dragon, Epsilon by a light dragoness who knew Guinevere, Hotel by a fire dragoness, and the last, Romeo was led by a Wind dragon. Venus represented Omega squadron. Every dragon was in block formation with their squadron. Agera split them equally into two wings, with three squadrons each. Theta led one wing, while Omega led the other. With that done, she gave them a simple task.
“Capture the flag, draken! Alpha wing, led by Omega, will attack while Beta wing, led by Theta, will defend! We continue play for half the day. At 1130 hours, we rendezvous at mess hall for chow. Second phase will be role reversal. Alpha will defend while Beta will attack. Second phase starts at 1200. Beta! You’ve got thirty minutes to get your squad into the air and hide your flag! Get moving!”
And with that, the Theta squad commander jumped into action. The first difficulty was getting the squads into the air, something not easy to do for eighteen different dragons in full battle armor. It took them ten minutes, with the first squad to get off the ground, Theta, clutching the flag. The flight controller motioned Omega into the pre-launch slot at the end of the converted take-off strip available for light aircraft and dragons. Aurora grinned at Agera, clad in a standard grey armor set. She was enjoying this.
When the thirty minute mark passed, Omega moved into the ready-launch position, spreading their wings, and testing full range of motion. Venus had to do additional checks on her own mechanical wing, checking the hydraulics were all in order. The carbon fiber panels that made up the fanning portion of the wing spread brilliantly in the dawn. The Flight Control Officer gave her a thumbs up as he cleared the pattern, and then saluted, the final clearance for take-off. Omega ran down the metal grated plating laid out along the open strip. When given a flat even surface, dragons could run up to eighty miles-per-hour, more than enough to achieve lift without flapping. It made take-off, especially with heavy armor, all the easier. Omega took-off in unison, flapping to gain more altitude and speed.
The next two squads, Delta and Romeo took off in quick succession. Venus had gotten her trio of squadrons into the air in half the time that it had taken Theta’s leader.
“Pick it up Theta. Omega got her squadrons in the air in five.” Agera said over their joint coms.
“Hey, Lieutenant, what do we get if we win this competition?” A voice asked over joint radios.
“The respect and admiration of your fellow battalion mates, Omega three. That should be a new experience for you. All right dragons! Heads on a swivel, this operation has just begun. Light blows only. This is a game of touch, not kill. Keep it under two k, and within ten." Agera spotted the trio of squadrons from Alpha wing out about half a mile to her right, marking them flying in a delta formation. Agera flipped her mike to open coms, and then keyed a special combo into her armors tongue controller.
Music suddenly blared over the radios, heavy rock and roll.
“Nice tunes, ma’am.” Venus said over open coms, and then switched to her trio, “Delta, Romeo, distract and detain. Omega will slip around back, and try and flank towards their general location. Break on my mark.”
Venus waited till Beta wing was on radar, then gave the order, “Mark. Omega, follow me in, we’re going low and fast.”
The squadron dove and broke away from formation. Agera tracked Beta wings progress as they honed in on the new contact blips.
"Sergeant Avani, what's the plan?" Delta one asked, "I don't like putting my squadron at a disadvantage of numbers."
"Then run a stall and draw."
"Stall and draw?" Romeo three asked.
"Engage and keep them busy and focused, while drawing them away. I and Omega are going to ground." Venus landed with the rest of the squadron quickly in tow. They snaked off through the trees. Vienzo glanced up at the fur ball swirling above them.
"Wish I was up there with them." he said quietly. Jiza glanced at Guinevere, and rolled her eyes, as if to say "males".
"You'll get your chance two." Venus said quietly, "We're two hundred yards out. Miss Aurora, let's see what you've got."
Aurora flashed a grin at them and disappeared soundlessly into the trees and rocks. Twenty seconds later, she returned with a red flag in her paws.
"Dayum!" Janus said quietly. Venus took the flag and together they pulled back, taking off.
"How'd you get it so easily?" Guin asked Aurora as they gained altitude.
"Simple, I snuck in, grabbed the flag, and snuck out. Isn't that how you did it when in their camps?" Aurora asked. Guin stared at her.
"How much do you know, Aurora?" Guin asked quietly.
"Everything." Aurora smiled at her. Guin looked highly disturbed.
"Beta that's game! Alpha has your flag!" Agera said over coms.
"What?!?!" Beta commander came to hover in front of Venus, "How the hell did you get past my guards?!"
Aurora examined her claws as she hovered in mid-air, "I eliminated them quietly."
Beta commanders eyes seemed about to bulge out of his head, "How did you get past us?! I thought you had split off a portion and gone around!"
"We did!" Venus said across the open expanse of air, "I took Omega and we went to ground. You never once looked down. We could have easily take you and yours out of the mix if we so wanted."
"Cowardly female! No one ever said going to ground was allowed!" Beta shouted at her.
"That. Is. ENOUGH. Beta, do you want me to ground you? And Omega, stop your bragging. It's unbecoming of a squad leader, and your actions have already spoken far louder than words.
Now Alpha wing demonstrated a very important lesson already today? What is that Beta wing?"
"Never trust a group of outcasts and misfits." the leader said, glaring at his opponents. Agera slapped him with her tail, chasing him down.
"Grow the fuck up!" Agera roared at him, "You’re in the military now, sergeant! I suggest you patch up that wounded ego of yours, it has no place here. The lesson to be learned here is that this is war! And there are three things that matter in this setting. Ensure your mission is accomplished, even if it means you use cowardly tactics. Glory is for the dead and for losers. Second ensure the safety of those around you, and third, ensure the safety of yourself!"
She glared at the Beta wing leader, who was clutching the side of his head and leaking blood from his temple, "Go clean yourself up."
As Beta wing turned away, Agera shouted at them over coms, "And for his insolence, and lack of respect, Beta leads squadron shall be cleaning out Alpha wings latrines tomorrow."
Collective groaning and mumbling could be heard all the way back to base over the radios. Agera could tell Venus had a hard time keeping the smug look off her face.
The afternoon wore on much the same way as the morning. However, this time, determined not to get beat again, Beta wings leader showed some competence, and tried a new approach sending two of his fastest and sneakiest fliers around the back to use the mountain to cover their approach while the rest committed themselves to engaging and pushing with all strength. They seemed to be targeting Omega more, something that caused some problems to come out. Venus was taken out early on because of a problem with her mechanical wings hydraulics. Vienzo followed soon after, mainly because he dived into three dragons trying to get revenge. The other four held for a while until Jiza froze mid-flight. Agera could tell she had had a flashback.
"I'm fine, ma'am. It's not a big issue." she said not looking at Agera while the lieutenant plied her with questions.
"It could lead to your death. I'll not have that on my claws, Jiza." Agera realized it was the first time she had called the young female by name. The medic turned to face her.
"I'm sorry ma'am. It was just a slight problem that I wasn't expecting in a non-violent scenario. I normally guard against those problems. It won't happen again." Agera looked hard at Jiza's face. The innocence was gone from her eyes, replaced by a determined hollowness that threaten to lash out at anyone or anything should they strike too hard or fast.
"Just remember who is friend, or who is foe. I know how Janus channels his insanity. But you’re different. You succumb to your bloodlust, but you can control it."
"Yes ma'am." Agera looked at the female for a while, and then nodded quietly.
"Just make sure that it doesn't control you."
Beta squadron won the match, but only just. The fight had taken a heavy toll on his group, and he was down to only four dragons out of his original eighteen.
"Work on one on one dogfights Beta, and situational awareness. Alpha, you did well today, but I saw room for improvement. Omega lead, keep up on that wing. The last thing we need is for you to fall out of the sky. And work on your chain of command. That defense went well until you went down."
"Finally. Remember that these wings around you are family. You're not here for glory or fame. A drake or dragonelle will appreciate you far more if you're actually alive. Glory doesn't do the dead any good. You're not here to score more kills than the draken next to you, you're here to make sure they get out in one piece after the job is done. Understood?!"
"Yes ma'am!" thirty-six voices rang out in unison and she beamed at them all.
"Then you are all dismissed. Orders come in tomorrow evening. And finally, last one to the bar buys the first round!" as a group they all darted towards base camp, trying to preserve their earnings.
The next evening, after the battalion had finished chow and were stewing over a brew, and after Theta squad had finished their humbling lesson, Agera stood before them at a table in Omega's tent. The bed cushions had been moved to the walls, and the thirty-six dragons were all crammed around a crude map of Berlin and her surrounding walls. Buildings were represented by cardboard boxes, walls were marked by sticks, and rocks resembled the triple-A emplacements. Drinks mugs were the different battalions.
"Alright, so here's how this is going down. Alpha, Beta, Charlie, Delta, and Echo legions are going to consist of the main force. The organizational structure has been all resorted for dragons for this operation, because it's so big. Now there are two major issues. The first is it appears as if the void aren't leaving Berlin for this fight. In fact, they've all been grounded by their commanders, according to intelligence sources. Now I would love to fly in there and let you all bombard them from range, but I'm afraid I can't let you all enjoy that pleasure without me. That and they've got enough triple-A in the city that it'd take two weeks of constant jet strikes to get them out. The GM has decided to send in the armored divisions. Void have issues engaging them, since they don't have near as much heavy firepower as an equal size group of dragons. The heavy armor will take out air defenses as their primary target so we can establish air supremacy. The main battalions will hold the frontlines, allowing us in Epsilon legion to slip around the side. Stealth is of the utmost importance here. The last thing we need is for the void to find out about an understrength flanking attack. We are to encircle and close in the noose." Agera moved the pieces around on the board. The red mugs Omega had managed to swipe from Alpha squadron were encircled by a group of multi-colored glasses, with a golden yellow representing their legion. After that we close in so tight on them they can't spread their wings, got it? Hopefully it'll be like shooting fish in a barrel."
"If I might say so ma'am, that's a damn big barrel. What's our flight ceiling?" Agera frowned at Delta two.
"Unfortunately, we're looking at a ceiling of pretty much naught for the entire duration of battle. We stay grounded. That way the humans and tanks can cover us, and we can return the favor."
"Can't finish off void as easily if our wings are clipped ma'am." Epsilon five said from the back.
"Well, Archon, I'll be sure to save you a couple void so you can participate in this fight." Agera said smiling, and a wave of chuckles ran around the tent. But they didn't last for long. Theta six ran her claw along Berlin's "wall".
"Twenty-five million troops is a literal fuckton ma'am. With all due respect, I'm not sure we can do this." she said uneasily.
"Trust me, Lithania, I don't like it any more than you do. The odds are against us. But!" she stood and strode around them, "Battles like this have been fought before. This is almost a literal battle of Cannae. These fights are the ones to go down in history books as strategic art. Keep your heads on your shoulders, focus on your job. And we should come out on top. If not, well, it was an honor serving with you all, I'll see you in Dante's freezer." there was a smattering of nervous laughter. Agera stopped, "What's wrong with you all?"
No one spoke until Theta lead stepped forwards, "I think I can speak for everyone when I say I'm scared shitless, ma'am."
"I'm not one to spout some crap about courage and fear. You all have a right to be afraid. Hell, I'm afraid too. But really, you have to ask yourself, what are you more afraid of?"
"What do you mean, ma'am?" Venus asked stepping forwards. Agera gave her a look that said something along the lines of "You bitch" for putting her on the spot.
"I mean that there are two outcomes to this battle. Oh some of you ARE going to die. I will not lie. But you may live yet. Now my parents died at the hand of the void before I hatched. My life was ruined at their claws. And hear me now, would you rather live in a 'verse where you are hunted because of your species, your families, mates raped and hatchlings slaughtered, because you didn't have the guts to stand up against difficult odds? Or would you rather die to give the ones you love a better future? I already know my answer." Agera turned and walked out of the tent into the cold night air.
She was rapidly joined by Janus, Vienzo, and Venus. They walked without talking out to the outskirts of the camp, resting on a low hill set within the deepest part of their hidden valley. The sun had set, and stars were coming out, twinkling overhead. On Agera's one side, Janus sat quietly contemplating the heavens. On the other, Venus rest against her mate, and he cradled her head against his neck.
"Everything is going to change in the next couple of day’s guys. I can tell. This is where things change. If we win, we might actually be able to hold off the void. If we lose..."
"Don't, Agera. I'd rather not think about it. You painted a vivid picture back there." Venus said quietly. She shivered in the darkness.
"I'm so in over my head." Janus said quietly, rubbing the back of his armored neck, "This has gone to so much more than a couple of skirmishes. You know Agera, I overheard a group of humans talking about us. Saying we're invincible. That the Ancient ordained our claws and wings so that we might strike righteousness into the world." Agera snorted.
"We're not Templars, Janus. Life is simpler for us, fortunately. We do everything we can to make the world a better place. And if we die along the way, then we'll die knowing we did our best. I see nothing ordained by the Ancient in that. Just have faith, and know He guides our steps through the valley."