Author: Well, me. Don't bother checking out my LJ. ;)
Genre: A/U, Action/Horror
Rating: M for now, probably shading later to NC-17
Warnings: A fair degree of violence
Spoilers: None directly, but it may be a good idea to hold off unless you've seen the entire series.
Word count: ~3,000 for this installment
Summary: "There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare."
Final note: Regarding the rating, this chapter is pretty much completely tame, so that's more of a future advisory.
25/12/06: Exasperated by all this military jargon? My laughable MSPaint skills bring you this helpful illustration.
1. A good man must die
The chill air over the mustering ground held an almost electric charge, a frenzied atmosphere laced with anticipation and unease. It was 4:00 AM, and over much of South City the silence was deafening. Here, though, trucks jostled into position to form ragged columns, and an entire Corps of the Southern Army prepared for war. Electric lights cast a pall over the scene, edged shadows trailing machine and man. Weapons were inspected with a care born of nervous tension, uniforms were adjusted, and heartfelt letters put to paper and sealed or destroyed in their turn. Tearful or proud parents, spouses, girlfriends and children had already been sent on their way with reassurances of an eventual return. A steady southerly breeze kept up the punishment, and night's grip looked no looser than it had five hours ago.
"Got it from 3rd Batt's S4 that we're last in the marching order. Funny how they can't seem to get the word out until after we leave the centrally-heated comfort of Southern HQ." Puppet shivered in his ochre tunic and tugged his jacket back on. Muttered conversations fogged the air around them, harsh lights overhead throwing eyes into shadow.
"Much as I appreciate you using your high-up contacts to keep us informed, Major, I'd have preferred to continue my wishful thinking." Sergeant Early rubbed a badly-timed shaving cut on his chin and grimaced. Kit was arrayed in panoply before him as he stood, supplies and equipment inspected minutely and awaiting restorage. The man himself was slightly below Puppet's height, with the blunt features of a boxer.
"Look on the bright side, Early: we're heading into a fucking desert."
"And then it'll be too hot. You're not cheering me at all, sir." Neither was his section, Puppet supposed. These nine strangers who'd never fired a shot in anger. Come to think of it, neither had most of Red Company. At least the noncoms were solid; almost every sergeant and half of the corporals in Red were vets of one border skirmish or another, and Sgt. Jens, it turned out, had done a tour in Ishbal. Maybe we can find the time to swap horror stories. Puppet'd heard enough about Jens not to press the issue now, and Early hadn't been forthcoming. He sighed and glanced at the nearby trainyard as the assembled forces gradually boarded. Come on, we're not even the most distant unit!
A nearby grenadier pulled his cap further over his eyes, wincing as a fresh gust of wind whipped across the mustering field. One of Early's men, actually. Berhold, that was it. A beast of a man inspected the barrel of a bipod-mounted machine-gun, and Puppet swore he could see a bit of tongue protrude from the man's jaw. The private puffed his cheeks out a little, and held the gun to his hip, gripping the bipod and squinting at the searchlights ringing the yard. For a beat Puppet entertained the idea that he could observe the man's thoughts crawling along his forehead. Provincial fuckwit. Now more than ever he missed Central. This is what loyalty -or at least political ineptitude- bought, he supposed. Tugging the gloves from his hands, he heated the air minutely with a discharge of alchemical energy. A numbness in his throat and a catch in his breath were only the two latest souvenirs he had collected from the South. Straightening hunched shoulders, he lifted his gaze to the distant Headquarters, wherein Major-General Falkender made his residence. He could see the man now, standing in full view on a balcony, a gaggle of adjuncts at his side competing for his attention. Their commander'd done a pretty good job cutting through the bureaucracy when he arrived from Central, but as always the structure reasserted itself. Puppet supposed the general was glad to be leaving the country by this point.
His machinations set the smaller gears of war into a frenzy. There was a snap of conversation stilled and a muted groan as 3rd Battalion moved out, some sketching ironic salutes to their comrades in 4 as they headed towards the heated train cars. Puppet watched them depart and then turned back to the sergeant. He'd met the man - a native of the Sile region bordering Aerugo - on his first inspection of 4th Battalion's Red Company at Falkender's side, and in stilted conversation with the man had gleaned that he'd had his first taste of action back in 1908 during the Ishbal rebellion. He'd made his way gradually upward through the enlisted ranks, and now stood as Platoon Sergeant, running One platoon in conjunction with the presently-absent Second Lieutenant Dietrich. Now he was kneeling in Puppet's shadow, packing his kit. The State Alchemist obligingly moved clear, allowing the harsh light to fall on a man who'd seemed much bigger a moment ago.
"Do you know why I sponsored your qualification as a State Alchemist?"
"I can make things explode?"
"That was part of it." The general replies, "but paramount in my mind was the need to have eyes on the inside. I needed an observer inside the Laboratories." Puppet sets the cup down onto the saucer and peers at Falkender across the narrow table.
"The Fuhrer had frozen the military's upper echelons out of the Labs' research, and you wanted your fingers back in the pie." Streetlamps drip their light through the windows, and an uncovered bulb hanging from the ceiling provides the rest of the illumination. The contents of a nearby desk are packed in cardboard, and most of the furniture has been removed. "Honestly, I felt like a glorified jailer."
"I suspect that your work in the sixth laboratory will begin to bear fruit shortly after you've been safely reassigned." There's no detectable humour in Falkender's face. "I don't know if you've gotten in touch with any of the other alchemists involved in the same work, but they've likewise been scattered, except for that lunatic Kimbley, who's back in solitary confinement. Fortunately I got to keep my HQ staff. And you."
"It's nice to be appreciated, sir." Puppet leans back and folds his arms in his lap. "What's next? With this reassignment there's no way I'll be able to keep up my research; South doesn't have the facilities or the expertise on hand. Am I being seconded to the 6th Division?" Falkender's narrow face twists.
"I think it's about time you got your hands dirty." A snort in reply.
"That's it. Axel, get Marder and Sieg up, our slot's coming up in the next few minutes." Early gave the recumbent Jochim a prod with his boot, and looked around at the expectant faces of the other five privates. "Squared away? Then at ease 'til we get called up; support platoon's already on the ramp, so we're next." Sergeants Kessler, Starr and Jens had likewise roused their men, and a moment of eye-contact drew nods from them. "Where's the Lt?" A throat clearing. Early about-faced to watch Dietrich get to his feet, folding a set of departure orders as he did so. "Sorry sir, hadn't noticed you."
"Fine, sergeant. The men are ready?" Jochim had collected himself and joined the others in line. "Great. One platoon!" The soldiers straightened. "With me!"
No Amestrine soldier is a stranger to discomfort, and Early came from a line of stoics who could trace their heritage to ancestors sitting outside their yurts and sighing in irritation as horse-borne raiders approached with bows and scimitars. The train car swayed irregularly, transmitting every irregularity in the tracks up through the unpadded seats, and the sound of wind rushing past the open windows was drowned out by conversation. The officers had secured a plusher car closer to the engine, card games had broken out everywhere, and now the enlisted men coughed in the wind-borne dust and looked out over yellowed grassland continuing endlessly to meet the grey sky at the horizon. Distant thunder sounded.
"How come they call you Snowball?" Abrams asked his dark-skinned neighbour. A seat behind, Berhold grinned under his cap.
"You get three guesses."
"You from the east? So it's..." A word struggled to the surface "...ironic?" Friedrich glanced up from his book.
"We already had this conversation; he served up in the Briggs range at Fort Armstrong." Snowball threw the bespectacled man a look of disgust, and Friedrich replied with a shrug.
"Oh." A sting of rain passed through the windows, and the men groaned.
"What's this? Conduct Prejudicial to Military Discipline? I thought you just tried muscling in on someone's political turf?" And anyway, this would buy you a court martial even in peacetime! Puppet frowns and lets the green slip fall to the table's surface.
"No, my crime was of an entirely different magnitude to both the accusation and the punishment." Falkender's mouth is compressed into a sour line. "Luckily you can't get rid of a Major General very easily, or at least not quietly."
"So we both get to enjoy being posted to sunny Southern City-" There's a joke he's reaching for, but Falkender's in no mood.
Debarkation occurred at a nameless town built around a train depot perched on the edge of the Aerugan border. A concrete apron spead from the railyard, and it was here that Battlegroup Falkender staggered and rolled from the trains. The 23rd Brigade's 4th Battalion, with Red Company numbered amongst their ranks, poured down the ramp and into the face of the southern sun. Sweat soon beaded every forehead and the more canny had already wound shemaghs around their heads to keep out the persistant dust. Officers broke their formations down for a rest period, and lines formed at each of the water tanks recently decanted from the trains. Good-natured jeering accompanied 3rd Battalion's deployment to the grassland surrounding the town to establish a defensive perimeter.
A tent had already been set up for the use of the higher-ups, and Puppet found himself in the company of fifty-odd other officers, with a haze of adjutants and a sprinkling of headquarters staff. Falkender himself was inspecting the ongoing logistical circus act, and the briefing was being delivered by a weasel-faced man whose name Puppet didn't recall. The air stank of sweat and stale coffee, and the nameless colonel's droning voice did little to energise the atmosphere. This far up the chain of command, there seemed to be little anticipation of the coming violence, but Puppet wasn't sure if that was more to do with physical distance from the enemy or from the fighting itself.
"The 6th infantry division is to proceed west-south-west, seizing the railhead at Saragoz; the 12th division will conduct a movement to contact directly south, deep into Aerugan territory, with the eventual aim of cutting enemy lines of communication along the Reyo Chiprana. This river forms a natural defensive barrier for the Aerugans, and forcing a crossing is out of the question. It must be kept in mind that this is a punitive expedition, with the objective of destroying Aerugan industrial assets and dislocating the population of their northern regions. Prolonged engagement with numerically-superior Aerugan regulars on their home soil must be avoided if at all possible, and commanding the Chiprana crossings will allow us to deny the enemy their advantage in numbers." Puppet threw a glance at the ordinance map pinned to the wall behind the operations officer, and noted the shallowness of the Amestrine thrust into the Aerugan plains. The country itself was easily thrice Amestris' size, and only the fractious nature of its peoples and the fearsome reputation of the State's military had held the southerners at bay for this long. Still, the plan looked solid to Puppet's untutored eye. There were only three bridges south-east of Saragoz suitable for major troop movements, and interdicting traffic along these would stop the southlanders from forming any kind of regular response to the Amestrine incursion. Of course, there were over a hundred thousand irregular paramilitaries in northern Aerugo, leaving aside the Orders Limitant in their fastnesses along the border.
When the Fuhrer had drawn the borders so many decades ago, he'd deliberately stopped at the mountains just visible now on the horizon. He'd done the same in the north with the Briggs range, though in that case there'd been historical precedent and defunct fortification already in place. Still, the border was far from Central. Some of these peoples spoke languages Puppet'd never heard of, and had ways as alien to him as the En of long-dead Xerxes. Still, they were all joined under the Amestrine banner, and some served in this army. He'd seen the occasional prayer-fetish hanging from the frames of the troops' canvas tents, and had recognised the Madonna of the Wasps from some of his reading on the region.
The briefing had finished, and Puppet leaned briefly back to stretch his legs as the officers gradually filed out of the tent and dispersed to their respective units. His next priority was seeking out Falkender.
Consciousness doesn't come gradually; his surroundings blink into existance. He's staring at the far wall of a cramped room, faced with cracked and dirty tiles. A mirror hangs above a chipped porcelain sink, filled to overflowing with filthy water. A low hum sounds in his ears, and he can feel the air throbbing. His eyes widen now, and he can discern a rhythmn to the noise, as of distant machinery. His head leans against the wall of the bathtub, and in the mirror all he can see is a naked lightbulb serving only to highlight parts of the dimly-lit room. His recumbant body shifts minutely, and a murmer draws his frightened attention to look downwards at himself. Lying on his back, he is buried shoulder-deep in crushed ice, and the movement of his limbs dislodges countless chips of it, inspiring a further susurration. He lets out a shuddering breath as his eyes adjust and he sees the stump that terminates his right arm. Further along, he can see a single foot peeking from the ice, pale skin making it ghostly in the dimness. The remains of this right arm move and now he can see wires trailing from the bandaged end of the limb, snaking across the mounded surface of the ice and over the side of the tub. More wires emerge from the ice at the far end, looping around the rusted taps. A low cry of horror empties his lungs, and he lunges to a sitting position, then levers himself out with his remaining leg. He reaches to brace his fall with a missing arm, and his cheekbone cracks against the rough concrete of the floor. Blond hair drifts across his vision, and his eyes close.
His eyes open. He remains still, listening to the hum. Despite his nakedness and the caul of frost lining his skin, he does not shiver. His breath hitching with effort, he rolls onto his back, staring at the ceiling. In his earlier panic, he'd not noticed the dully-painted diagram on the ceiling. It is unmistakeably an alchemical array, deactivated at some point by a jagged line cut through the ceiling tiles. The tang of ozone in the air tells him this happened not long ago, perhaps only scant minutes previously. Calmer now, he hold his truncated arm above his face, watching the cabling snake along him. His eyes follow the wires' trail to a door at his left side, left ajar. Eyes back to the stump. He reaches up, clenches a fist around the tubing, and pulls as hard as he can.
The return to wakefulness is much faster now; no more than a few seconds could have passed. The bandages around his arm are soaked red, and a faint fizzing noise has joined the distant hum. Struggling into a sitting position, he decides to unwrap his leg more carefully.
There'd obviously been no time for care, as the cables are held to the ragged edge of his left leg by scissoring clips, simple enough to remove. The fizzing is louder now, and a sickly smile emerges on his face. He's backed up to one of the walls for support now, and he casts around for anything else of note. There is something written in blood on the mirror. He drags himself across the grimy floor and up to the tub, and gingerly raises himself to sit on the bath's edge. The message is short enough. The smile returns for a moment, and then fades. He stares into the cloudy water within the sink. Glancing towards the door, he reaches forward and lowers his hand into the basin. His fingers quest in lazy patterns as he sits, his attention fixed on the water. Presently a grin darkens his face and he withdraws his hand, clutching something tightly. There is hiss of subliminating stone, and his hand is open once more, empty. Deliberately, he closes his eyes for a third time and presses an elbow to the sink, leaning his head on the chill porcelain. In the cold confines of the room, somatic regeneration proceeds slowly, but there's all the time in the world now.
He is malnourished and weak, but he can still stand, and now crosses to the steel door. Dragging it open reveals foreign alphanumerics on the outer side, and the dark expanse of a communal shower. Dirt has long since blocked the drains, and puddles contest the floor-space, leaving a narrow path to the opposite wall, where another doorway is visible. The humming noise from before is now revealed as the product of an portable electric generator set atop a table near the other doorway. Cables trail from it to run past his feet and into the bathroom. Further wires lead to a ceramic plate carefully inscribed with an alchemical array, and his eyes narrow with recognition.