Homeworld/TheShatteredFront

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Above the mountains and spires of western Valtaria, armed dirigibles do battle with great serpents. The guns and aerial forces of the Combine engage with Valtarian drakeriders and sorcery: an unstoppable force, meeting an immovable object. The result is… uncertain.

The region has been heavily affected by the devastation wrought on the Sublime Concord, a few days’ travel north. Dissonance has fractured the flow of events: both the People’s Combine and the Valtarians report overwhelming successes, and both of them are correct.

The lands are fragmenting into ever more disparate continuities, and citadels will appear in different hands depending on time, direction, or the convictions of the observer. The memories and identities of its inhabitants are coming apart. While a resounding public success for both sides, the Shattered Front is the clearest sign of decay in the fragile fabric of the Homeworld.

The Shattered Front is likely to feature stories from the People’s Combine and Valtarian Kingdoms, although no two tales are likely to agree. The Penitents are also present, trying desperately to patch together the disparate histories and restore some semblance of stability to the region.



Continuing Education Facility 3

Author: Fluidity

The clatter of cutlery and scraping of chairs announced the end of the meal. Spontaneously the crew helped with the after-dinner chores. Rhetonomic Engineer Fluidity delivered her plate and mug to the washing tubs. Usually she would have rolled up her sleeves with the rest of them, but duty called: a lesson was nearing completion. She exchanged beams with her sister Gatling on her way out.

There were only two RevCorps aboard now: Fluidity and Rivet. Hegemonic Engineer Ratchet had been lost in the destruction caused by Valtarian cannon three months ago and Rhetonomic Engineer Piston was redeployed somewhere on the Inner Sea. Hegemonic Engineer Tactics had gone out with one of the last forays, to the town they had liberated, to start hegemonically repurposing it. It was unclear how she had died, but it would have been glorious.

The Victory Through Persistence was a long-serving airship now, over six years in deployment, and rarely away from the Valtarian frontlines. They were truly glorious to have so many of the original crew remaining. Why, Liberator Dynamics was just a year off from nearing his mid-twenties. Exemplary.

Rhetonomic Engineer Rivet was zealous and idealistic, but they had long ago decided how to partition their duties. Fluidity was idealistic too, but her ideals could better accommodate the firmer aspects of education.

She made her way past the dissipating groups. A dozen chattering young recruits were heading to the ballcourts for healthy team sport. Comrades settled down on the dining tables and drew out cards. A pair of ProCorps strode nonchalantly to Engine Room 4; perhaps the latest vats had finished brewing.

Fluidity went to Continuing Education Facility 3.

The few small Education Facilities onboard were rarely mentioned, staying beneath the knowledge and consciousness of almost all LibCorps and ProCorps. Some battles were the burden of RevCorps alone. This battle was less heroic, less dashing and less dangerous, but sometimes it was just as … visceral.

She unlocked the facility door and let her eyes adjust. Here were stationed those pupils who were either unfortunately slow to accommodate their lessons, or woefully disruptive. Of course the bulk of VolCorps' reformation would take place in the Inner Assembly, where more refined techniques were available. But that could be many months away; this precious cargo, freshly liberated from their 'monarch', could not wait until then to begin processing.

They were positioned facing a wall-length screen, on which inspirational visions played. RevCorps' finest orated, Liberators posed, joyous factory workers smiled and saluted. To rousing music, the narrator promised camaraderie and glory.

She muted the film. It was unpatriotic, but she had learnt that often the voices were too weak to be heard over the blaring announcements.

“Good evening, Comrades.” She needn't have spoken. Every pleading eye was on her.

She hitched up her skirts as she stepped in: the floor was dirty. A red and gold footstool was provided for kneeling in front of the most promising pupil.

She knelt leisurely. She rested a finger on the lever. A whimper.

She waited for her answer. It was positive. The light of progress had dawned on this one. She released the mechanism.

“Welcome to the Combine, Volunteer.”


Family

Author: Gatling

In the photo they are smiling. Her elbows are resting on his shoulders where he sits, lounging in the chair, his cheek smeared just a bit with grease, her finger tips blackened by gunpowder. They look as if someone’s just told some marvelous joke about Veterans and they are about to burst into uncontrollable laughter. These days, it’s a famous propaganda piece.

She knows just hours before they had blood on their hands.

It’s dog eared at the edges and there are creases where it has been folded to be kept close to heart. It’s well loved. Well worn. Looking at it closely there is faded blood on the left hand edge, either hers or some Valterian, Walker or Opotunist, it didn’t really matter.

She remembers that he had called her name just in time as she ducked out of the way of the long sword. His blade came down right across the Monarchs back, craving a gash the size of the shattered front itself. Her gun raised and fired across his shoulder, taking out another Monarch behind him and saving Rebar from a nasty burn.

The words splashed across the front are faded but fingers can still trace the well worn path. His signature was still simple back then, hadn’t taken on the full curves and flushes of his ego. The wobble of nerves come through a wavering hand.

She danced with him, a waltz of grenades and knifes. Their arms locked to provide speedy turns then disengaged as they took fire. Back pressed together as weapons and ammunition changed hands, like an engine changing gear. They slaughtered an entire watchtower before Fluidity even had time to get the camera. She demanded they let her photograph the celebration of their first successful mission.

They were 18.

“For Family.

~ Dynamics”

Advantage Valley

Author: Dynamics

“Volunteer Crank! Behind you!”

There’s a burst of fire, as the dark red drake incinerates the Volunteer in front of the Liberator’s eyes. The light reflects of the goggles in the smoke and shadows of the fortress, and Dynamics stands frozen.

“LIBERATOR!” shouts Switchgear, “We need to get out of here NOW!”

Wrenched back to the moment, Dynamics scrambles backward as the dark silhouette of the Monarch-in-Shadow looms through the corridor, cackling.

“You, Combine Peasants, you really thought you could defeat me? Dark Lord of the Valley of Despair, Keeper of the Place of Madness-”

“The Combine will always overcome Valtarian tyrants!” shouts Driveshaft, charging forward. Dynamics and Switchgear shout out in unison top stop him, but with one swing of the Valtarian’s sword it’s too late.

Time seems to slow as Driveshaft’s body falls the floor: Dynamics and Switchgear beating a tactical retreat through the twisting dungeons of the Valtarian castle, a sword in the hands of one, and energy pistols in the hands of another, parrying blows and firing pointlessly into the dark armour of the Monarch.

“You incompetent fools! I am immortal!” the Monarch laughs, and that’s when the Liberator and Volunteer alike both see it: the gap in the armour.

In an immediate moment, Dynamics and Switchgear look at each other.

“NO!” they both shout in unison, “The Combine need you!”

Dynamics shakes his head, “I’m closer, I can do this: get out while you still can!”

“I’m a Volunteer: this is what I’m for,” Switchgear replies, loudly but simply.

“Equality, Volunteer, we’re both here for the same job -- let me do this!”

Switchgear shouts, “You need to survive this: Liberators survive, Volunteers die, that’s how it works.”

“But-”

“I Volunteer.”

Dynamics falters for a moment, the Monarch advances.

“Nobody will remember this if it’s you,” Dynamics says, his voice a whisper, “Your sacrifice… it’s…”

Switchgear turns to him, and holds out in her hand a simple golden medal, “If you want to remember me, take this.”

Dynamics holds out his hand, as the Monarch looms over behind Switchgear, dark sword raised high.

“Now, peasants, now you die!”

A hand tightens around the medal as Switchgear lets go and shouts, “FOR THE COMBINE!!!”

~

Three days later, Liberator Dynamics is retrieved, standing atop the ruins of a Valtarian fortress in a desperate area of the Shattered Front known as Advantage Valley. His sword shattered, his goggles cracked, his coat charred. The only respectable object remaining is a simple, unmarked, golden medal, clutched tightly in his hand.

Advantage Valley - Unredacted

Author: Switchgear

Those in the briefing room file out past the unassuming Volunteer, until Dynamics is the last one there, staring at a series of maps and charts. Switchgear sidles into the room and gives him a nudge.

“Hey, Dy,” she smiles, and Dynamics gives her a small smile back but the grim look on his face betrays him, “What’s wrong?” she asks.

“Just looking at the logistics for this operation in Advantage Valley,” he explains, “Valtarian fortress, hell of a lot of dissonance, I’m leading a group of Volunteers in to clear it out.”

“They want you?” Switchgear asks in disbelief, “A Liberator?!”

Dynamics shakes his head, “It’s too crucial and too dissonant to send Volunteers alone. It’d be cruel at best, and even Fluidity agrees there. So I volunteered.”

“So what, you’re going to get your head blown off as well?”

“Not if I can help it.”

Switchgear crosses her arms, “So who’s on the team going in?”

“Crank, Driveshaft, Chain, Axle, Motor, Clutch…”

“I’m going too.”

“No, Switch, you’re not. You need to stay here, I need you alive.”

“And I need you alive, Dy,” she says, grabbing his arm and pulling him round to face her, “It’s too dangerous, and you know we’re more likely to survive if we’re together.”

“Or we’re more likely to both get killed.”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

“Switch…” he puts a hand on her arm, a pleading look in his eyes.

“I’m doing this, Dy,” she responds firmly, putting her hand on his arm, looking firmly into his eyes, and he sighs.

“Go get kitted up.”

~

“Volunteer Crank! Behind you!”

There’s a burst of fire, as the dark red drake incinerates the Volunteer in front of the Liberator’s eyes. The light reflects of the goggles in the smoke and shadows of the fortress, and Dynamics stands frozen.


“LIBERATOR!” shouts Switchgear, “We need to get out of here NOW!”

Wrenched back to the moment, Dynamics scrambles backward as the dark silhouette of the Monarch-in-Shadow looms through the corridor, cackling.

“You, Combine Peasants, you really thought you could defeat me? Dark Lord of the Valley of Despair, Keeper of the Place of Madness-”

“The Combine will always overcome Valtarian tyrants!” shouts Driveshaft, charging forward. Dynamics and Switchgear shout out in unison top stop him, but with one swing of the Valtarian’s sword it’s too late.

Time seems to slow as Driveshaft’s body falls the floor: Dynamics and Switchgear beating a tactical retreat through the twisting dungeons of the Valtarian castle, a sword in the hands of one, and energy pistols in the hands of another, parrying blows and firing pointlessly into the dark armour of the Monarch.

“You incompetent fools! I am immortal!” the Monarch laughs, and that’s when the Liberator and Volunteer alike both see it: the gap in the armour.

In an immediate moment, Dynamics and Switchgear look at each other.

“NO!” they both say in unison, “The Combine need you!”

Dynamics shakes his head, “I’m closer, I can do this: get out while you still can!”

“I’m a Volunteer: this is what I’m for,” Switchgear replies, loudly but simply.

“Equality, Volunteer, we’re both here for the same job -- let me do this!”

Switchgear shouts, “You need to survive this: Liberators survive, Volunteers die, that’s how it works.”

“But-”

“I Volunteer.”

Dynamics falters for a moment, the Monarch advances, Switchgear turns to him, and holds out in her hand a simple golden medal, “If you want to remember me, take this.”

Dynamics holds out his hand to take it, as the Monarch looms over behind Switchgear, dark sword raised high.

“Now, peasants, now you die!”

A hand tightens around the medal as Switchgear lets go and shouts, “FOR THE COMBINE!!!” but she’s thrown to the side as Liberator charges forward, sword cold, and plunges his blade straight through the armour of the Monarch who falters, but plunges her own sword into his stomach. The Monarch’s eyes widen as the Liberator’s close, accepting his fate. The Volunteer can’t tell if it’s from the dissonance or the disaster, but everything seems to happen in slow motion.

The drake behind the Monarch lets out an almighty burst of fire, but it’s blocked by the Monarch, immolated by the flame. Switchgear grabs Dynamics, pulling him off the Monarch’s sword and out of the path of the beast. She hauls him down a corridor as the drake advances, but with the Monarch’s control broken the beast thrashes about bringing walls down separating it from them, trapping them from the outside by layers and layers of rubble.

Dynamics is dying. Switchgear tries to stem the bleeding, but Dynamics puts a hand on hers and shakes his head. She carries on anyway, pressing hard on the wound to stop the blood pouring out.

“Damn it, Dy, you’re not… you’re not dying on me. This isn’t how it goes, this isn’t where you end,” she stammers, as the Liberator’s breath starts becoming more ragged.

“We all end somewhere, Volunteer,” he says, between deep breaths, each more agonising than the last, “Now go on and do something worth remembering.”

“I’m a Volunteer, Dy, I amount to nothing,” she says, tears rolling down her cheeks, “You’re the one who matters, you’re a Liberator, people will remember you.”

Dynamics shakes his head and holds up the medal in his hand, “Then take this, and make sure people remember me through you.”

“Dy, I can’t, I…”

“I believe in you, Switch,” he says, a tiny smile creeping onto his face amidst the blood, the dust and the tears, “Go make me proud.”

“I can’t do it without you,” she says, tears streaming, and she grips his hand tight, “I need you, Dy, I..”

Dynamics opens his mouth, but instead of words comes a strangled noise, and then life drops from his eyes. The Volunteer, clutching the body of her fallen Comrade, weeps, clinging onto the medal he gave her tightly in her right hand as the castle collapses around her. Rocks fall, the temperature rises, but the Shaper cares not as she holds on beneath the rubble.

Sadness becomes anger, becomes determination, becomes a motive. Dynamics will be remembered, and the Shaper pushes her power to the brink to change, to hide her face, and to make sure what he stood for, the change he represented, the promises he’d made her, that they all will be remembered throughout history. It doesn’t come without cost, with scars remaining and the medal burning into her hand, but it’s done. “Liberator Dynamics” stands, and the face of Volunteer Switchgear is left in the rubble.

Three days later, Liberator Dynamics is retrieved, standing atop the ruins of a Valtarian fortress. His sword shattered, his goggles cracked, his coat charred. The only respectable object remaining is a simple golden medal, clutched fiercely in his hand. The real body of Dynamics is buried in the rubble of the fortress: the Victory Through Persistence shells the place into oblivion, burying it in the Shattered Front for eternity.

Persistence

Author: Dynamics

The Liberator was in a good mood. An oddly good mood given that the Victory Through Persistence had just suffered major casualties in an assault against a Valtarian stronghold. And an exceedingly oddly good mood given that they’d lost.


“Dynamics, would you give it a rest with the humming?” sighed an exasperated Switchgear, “We get it, you’re impossible to get down, but the rest of us would sorely like to lick our wounds.”

The Liberator shook his head, “Why would I be down, Volunteer, when all this means is we get the chance to Liberate that Valtarian stronghold all over again?”

Switchgear groaned, taking off a boot and pouring ash out form inside it, before the boot itself promptly disintegrated, “Look, that’s great rhetoric and all, but just tone it down for one afternoon?”

“Rhetoric? What do you mean rhetoric?”

“You know, the whole ‘constant opportunity to liberate the Valtarian scum’ thing. I know you’re only saying it to try and make me feel better, but it’s me, you know me, you can cut the act.”

The Liberator looked puzzled, and Switchgear looked up at the eyes beneath the blackened goggles, something slowly dawning on her as she realised he was only smiling with his lips. Her expression softened.

“Sorry, Dy, don’t know what I was talking about,” she smiled, and then tossed the remains of the boot over the side of the ship, standing up, “How about we head up to the briefing room and plan another angle of assault?”

The Liberator smiled, and the Volunteer did too, each knowing exactly how sincere the other’s facade really was.

Old Habits

'Author: By My Crooked Teeth

Crooked knew the sound of engines. He was born beneath them, was raised to the hum, he could hear when an engine was broken or out of sync. It was a great surprise to some when he was chosen for the Revolutionary corps all those years ago. Others knew exactly why, he had a talent for people. The motion, the hum of conversation, he could read a crowd and know which way it was going. He was liked on his crew, he was seen walking up and down the lines with the battle lines of the Oncoming Storm of Progress shouting out encouragements and when that was not enough his revolver spoke for him.

He knew he was different to most around him even if he didn’t know it. The first time he showed his shaper abilities was small, a wounded citizen who took an energy burst to the gut. He held them up and told them they would be alright, and as he spoke the wound sealed. He didn’t like the fuss, he was not special, he was one of the combine, part of the machine, part of the whole. The next time the storm was boarding a Visions platform, holding a work force enslaved. Crooked jumped on the deck with his brothers and sisters and joined the fray. A pair of tempests blocked the way, they struck the boarding party with an energy blast. They were not feeling healthy. He was on the ground when he pulled himself to his feet his revolver burst out a reply towards the tempests. Then he threw his hands open and spoke words of morale to the Children of the Combine and their burns faded. The day was won. But that was the day the Concord noticed him.

All of that was long ago, and By My Crooked Teeth was in the bowels of a Combine ship, the Predator of Tyrants. A fine ship, but the engine sounded wrong. He knew the sound of engines. He also knew the ProCorp engineer would fix the problem soon enough. He stowed away to get from the Inner Assembly heading towards the Shattered Front. He figured it was the easiest way to get to where he is going was via a heavily armed ship that would stop at nothing to be there for the Glory of the Combine. Cloaked in a robe enchanted to be ignored he slipped aboard with the latest batch of VolCorp he sat below decks and kept out of the way. After a while he let himself drift off to sleep.

The Explosion rocked him awake. He knew the sounds of guns too. His hand went to his holster and relaxed slightly. That meant that he had arrived then. He gathered up his pack and made his way upstairs. He would slip out in the chaos. He stopped and heard the engine again, it was pumping out a discordant staccato. He looked towards the corridor out to the deck and he looked towards where the engine room would be. He exhaled and cursed himself as he ran down toward the engine room.

It was a shambles smoke and small fires were springing up all over the place the broken engine sounds were deafening. She was in pain as an old engineer friend of his would have said. He pulled his robe and jacket off. He reached into his bag and placed a pair of goggles onto his face and tied his scarf around his mouth and stepped into the fray. “Where is the tool kit?” he barked to the engineer.

“Who the hell are you?”

“A Volunteer. Tool kit. Where?”

The engineer was in no position to argue and pointed a cloth bag on the floor. Crooked snatched up a spanner and went to work, he was rusty but they needed all the help they could get. He cocked his ear and started to listen to the pipes of the machines. He followed it until he reached the hydraulics and spotted a blockage, and likely a deliberate one if he knew sabotage attempts. Which he did. He unblocked the pipes and he could hear the engines were sounding a little better. He took up a fire extinguisher and helped put out some of the fires, the worst was behind them and they could handle the rest. He dropped the tools back into the bag and strode over to his personal effects. He called over his shoulder. “Your hydraulics were sabotaged, you likely have a couple of Industroclasts onboard, likely one of the engineers to know what to do to screw over the engines. I leave your internal issues to the Consensus. Thanks for the lift.”

“Wait what? Who the hell are you?”

Crooked turned as he shrugged his robe on. “Just passing through.” He pulled up the hood and was out of the door, he pulled the scarf and goggles down and made his way out onto the deck. It was the chaos one would expect from a boarding action. Shouts, screams, gunfire and the smell of burning air. Valtarian Sorceries more than likely, which was confirmed when he saw a drake fly past and a resplendent Monarch Victor threw lightning onto the decks of the ship.

“Definitely time to go.” He saw that the Predator was engaged with a flying galleon with enchanted cannons firing into the ship. There was a dance of Combine and Valtarian troops swinging swords and discharging firearms. He saw a castle tower reaching up towards the sky like a hand reaching up to the sun. That was the closest piece of solid ground. All he had to do was get through the mess.

He assessed the scene. He was making note of the ships present. He figured he might as well be here to document as far as he knew there was no one else of his Order around. Besides note taking helped him think. He pulled a little pocket book and his pen and ducked behind cover. So far there was twelve ships of the Combine in this assault. He saw the Victor Ascendant, The Relentless Advance on the Tyranny of – that was a very long designation, he would get it properly when he was on more solid ground. The others were a swirl of confusion that he couldn’t see from his vantage point. He decided that it was time to move, curiosity could be satisfied later. He moved towards the loose ropes from grappling hooks stuck into the Galleon ‘Gilded Fortune’. He turned to a Volcorp that was firing round after round into the ship to bring cover.

“A little cover Citizen?”

The Volunteer simply nodded, his purpose was to serve the Combine in all things. Crooked swung across and landed on the deck, he drew his long knife on reflex and caught a halberd of a soldier. He knocked it aside “And how are you finding the day? The weather is charming?” and yelled “Conrad?” the confused warrior was cut down on a hail of Combine lead. Crooked smirked and walked across the deck, he only engaged when he was engaged. This was not his fight. He found some rope and tied it to the side of the ship dropping it lose. The rope fell too short of the tower he was aiming for. He cursed to himself and started to work out a way to get the ship to drop lower. At that moment there was a thunderous round of cannon fire and an Airship striking masts of the Gilded Fortune and it started to descend as the sails fluttered to the ground.

“That will do.” He looked at the ship, The Victory Through Persistence. He gave it a lazy salute as it went on its way looking for more glory and more people to liberate. He slid down the rope and landed on the roof of the tower. He scurried across the roof and through a window. It was an observatory for some monarch or another he expected, it was pretty if a little bomb damaged. He exhaled and started to walk towards the door out. When he paused, in an instant his knife was drawn and parried a stab towards his back, his hand dipped into his holster and his revolver was out and pointing in the face of a hooded, and masked face.

“Hello Crooked.” Rain Falls on the Snow said, his smirk audible through his mask.

“Rain.” He uncocked his revolver and put it away. “Trying to get shot.”

“Seeing if you were still sharp.” He holstered the flintlock he had drawn at his hip. “You are late, where have you been?”

“You know me.” Crooked shrugged, “Always a victim of Old Habits.”

Victory Over Resistance

Author: Fluidity

Fluidity crouched on the flight deck, feet carefully apart, camera steadied in both hands. On her lapel was clipped a radio which managed to be both small and clunky simultaneously, and through it, the logistics of battle were being channeled.

It was a major assault. The settlement on the precipice was a more challenging target than anticipated, and they had had to deploy reserves and more. From a crowded landing vessel parachutes tumbled onto the adjacent northern fields; a relay of cannon was constantly repositioning on the steep ascent; a troop of VolCorps stormed the south wall. Unfortunately, the cannon were uncompromisingly slow and the VolCorps soldiers had had to have the newest and unfinalised volunteers mixed in amongst them. This made the troop somewhat less disciplined and significantly more liable to seditious activity.

She should have been down there. The essential ship apparatus was being manned by three engineers, there was a single pilot at the helm, and just Comrade Amplitude controlling communications. Even the ProCorps who usually simply ran the kitchens and plumbing were on the ground aiming cannon, and in the dining hall were left only a couple of toddlers. Rhetonomic Engineer Tactics was giving birth alone downstairs – both medics were working frantically behind the cannon lines – and a few new Volunteers were too simply too chaotic to be allowed to leave their Facility.

She should have been down there. She wanted to be down there. Not winning the battle like Dynamics would, nor commanding the machinery into the most efficacious movements like Rebar; but she liked to think she could have steeled her feet in the mud and hauled a cannon rope no worse than anyone. No one in the Combine was above anyone else's work.

But in her current state, she was less than agile. It had been eight months since they had last travelled in convoy, which explained the condition of she and Tactics. At least if the mission failed, there would be two new Combine patriots at their next docking in the Inner Assembly.

Eight months. They were far, far into Valtarian territory, an outrider mounting an incursion so deep Fluidity thought they would be in uncontested mainland Valtaria with another day's flight. The Victory Through Persistence was prestigious now, and trusted with ambitious missions. Both a scout and a lone offensive force, it had set out to scour this part of the mountains: neutralise a few towns, extinguish beacons, liberate farmers. The scattered settlements were thought to be paltry, but their neutralisation would have hindered Valtarian intelligence. The only other ship to scout this area, the Measure Twice Hammer Thrice, had six months ago reported a derelict old tower here, with shepherds eking out a living beside its walls. Not this. Not this well-manned and well-armed fort whose masonry was so smart its ramparts shone. Not this fort which when attacked had belched out charge after charge of armoured Valtarian fighters.

Was this Dissonance? Fluidity had received restricted-access comms documenting Dissonance in the Shattered Front. It created a logistical nightmare. Largely it was the Hegemonic Engineers who were trying to wrap their heads around it. Now it may have hit them, and hard, and Fluidity was trying to make sense of it. Was the derelict tower ever here? Could the Valtarians have built this fast? Were the other paltry settlements all castles and barracks too?

The crew had been taken by surprise this morning. Certainly, it had been a better-constructed town than expected, but not the place to hold regiments of cavalry. Since the wind conditions were unfavourable and the narrow aerial peninsula lacked airspace devoid of rocky outcrops, they had dropped their force for a ground attack. Liberators had descended to take the town. They were to bring supplies to the ship and leave freedom in their wake.

Instead, they had been surrounded and required urgent support. All the volunteers and reserve fusiliers were deployed. They had had to siege, and by that time the ProCorps and medics were on the ground as well, and the Boarding Vessels were offloading offensive machinery, and they lacked the engineers and navigators to launch their usual devastating airship ramming manoeuvres. The fort was not supposed to be here. They had had to throw everything they had at it, and were losing a lot of that. Because of Dissonance.

So here she was, clipped to a railing on the flight deck, carabiners jingling and radio crackling into the fierce winds. The swell of the deck and her belly was testing her surefootedness. Every time she opened her mouth to speak, it seemed she spat out more strands of hair than words. The Shattered Front was windy at the best of times, and they were more than a mile above the high edge on which the settlement clung. The view was everything, and no drakerider would be able to reach them here.

She had an unparalleled and vital view of the accumulation of piles of brave bodies.

Worse, there was a baby on her back. They may have been able to leave the toddlers in their play area in the dining hall, but you couldn't leave a five-week- old. It was wrapped up like a pillow of sheepskin and she had done the cot straps so tight across her chest that her breasts squeezed out around them. And little Comrade Spark, currently asleep against all odds, completed the crew of ten that was all that was left on the Victory Through Persistence.

How many hours until they were to pick up the remnants of the hundreds on the ground?

Fluidity had never hoped harder for victory.

She saw Boarding Vessel 2 scatter its miniscule Liberators next to the northern wall. The Valtarians were mounting worthy resistance: fire and steam rose along the fortications. Even as a tower crumbled and puffed a grey cloud over the main gate, a desperate counter-attack pounded out into the teeming VolCorps. Fluidity knew the soft plumes and puffs visualised from here would scream shrapnel and burns on the ground.

She flicked the radio and inhaled hair. “Fluidity to Amplitude. Tower 1 neutralised. Gate 1 accessible. Significant resistance at Gate 1.”

Her body shook from the buffetting. Below, the nearest cliff face trembled in explosions and Valtarian stonework fell into oblivion.

“Amplitude to Fluidity. Contact made with Troop Delta. Request evaluation of -- -- -- -”

The wind whipped away the words. Teeth chattering, camera shaking, Fluidity shouted for repetition.

“Golf Alpha Tango Echo One! Victor Optics Liberty! November Uniform Mechanics Bravo -- -”

“ADEQUATE!” Fluidity howled into the receiver. Her hair was all over her face. Those VolCorps had better be able to take that charge, if they were worth the weight of their guns. The Liberators seemed to be trickling over the northern defences now. A ripple of explosions traveled between buildings. Which faction had set them off was difficult to distinguish.

Did Gatling still have the same gun she had started the day with? How much blood was on Dynamics'; coat by now? Was it in tatters? Were they wounded? Had they eaten? They would be alive, of course they would be.

She thought that the Combine was turning the tide – just. After nine hours of siege, the fort was breached on two sides, albeit barely. Persistence indeed. Unimaginable Persistence.

“Come on, guys,” she mumbled, “We're with you in spirit, aren't we, Comrade Spark? Victory through persistence. We'll be seeing them soon, won't we, Spark? Let's chant for them, together.

Maybe they'll hear us. Argh, there's hair in my mouth. Come on now, Spark. VTP! VTP! V! T! P!"


Incidents

Author: Dynamics

The Victory Through Persistence had a bad record with retaining its assigned Hegemonic Engineers. Losing one, after all, could be perceived as bad luck, losing five in a row could be seen as carelessness, losing seventeen began to look like conspiracy. Of course, upon a full audit of the ship while it was docked at the Inner Assembly, every report Auditor Replaceable Parts reviewed made complete sense. Falling off the edge during a storm, hit by dragonfire during an assault on a Valtarian Fortress, food poisoning, failed to jump when Engineer Rebar shouted ‘jump’, failed to duck when Engineer Rebar shouted ‘duck’, revealed to be an Industrioclast, revealed to be an Industrioclast trying to find out what happened to the last Industrioclast…

It eventually became known in RevCorps that the Victory Through Persistence was cursed, and beyond the grizzled few who survived such as Rhetonomic Engineer Fluidity and her loyal assistants, RevCorps would generally avoid the ship, viewing an assignment for a Hegemonic Engineer to that ship to be a death sentence.

Naturally, this led to problems for continuing to guide the Volunteers on the ship.

...

Thunder crashed in the sky, as Dynamics and Canister burst through the door into the sealed briefing room. Furniture went flying as the two Liberators careered through into the darkened room, the barricade that had been created on the other side overthrown by their combined might. The lights had been disconnected, meaning the only light came from the glowing chamber of Canister’s plasma lancer, but that was enough to survey the contents of the room.

“What has she done?” Canister whispered, surveying the room with a hand over their mouth, as Dynamics counted and reported in over the radio.

“Fluidity, we’ve got 2 Liberators, 5 Engineers and a Volunteer. All deceased.”

Canister shook their head in disbelief, “I just don’t understand, what happened?”

Dynamics carried on looking round, eyes cold but wide, “You remember that radio broadcast we got in over dinner? The one about the Opportunity supply ship going down?”

“Yeah, I remember,” said Canister, not drawing the connection, “What of it?”

“I read her file, she was on that ship.”

“So you think…?”

“Unchecked Volunteer Incident.”

“Third time this month.”

Dynamics nodded, “We’ve got to find her before she does a number on the engines. Or worse, Rebar.”

Canister nodded, and Dynamics pulled out the radio, and attempted to radio in but with a crash of lightning, he looked at it and swore. “Storm’s scrambling the signal. We’ve got to move, and fast.”

The two Liberators moved out. Sword in hand, Dynamics led, with Canister covering with the plasma lancer. Following the trail wasn’t difficult: wires erupted from the walls, and oil leaks from punctures in pipes littered the path of destruction in the Volunteer’s wake. They trod carefully, the lights flickering as they did, the pair moving as a unit.

Then the lights went out, not even the plasma lancer able to illuminate the cramped corridor. There was a thud, then a voice.

“Liberator Dynamics and Liberator Canister” echoed the voice from no direction, “I wondered how long it would take you two to come and find me.”

Dynamics looked around, but unable to see anything in the darkness held tighter to his sword.

“This doesn’t have to be how things go,” he said, calmly, “We can still work things out, Volunteer-”

The voice hissed, “Don’t call me Volunteer. You know what the word ‘volunteer’ means, don’t you? Someone who freely offers to do something. You know I didn’t have that choice. That it was taken away from me.”

The lights flickered back on for a moment, and Canister wasn’t to be seen. Dynamics looked around, carefully gauging everything before the lights turned off again.

“Okay, sure, I apologise. What would you prefer me to call you?”

“Don’t pretend you care, ‘Liberator’,” the voice snapped with venom, “You took me and you gave me a new name, didn’t you? You decided who I was going to be and made me it. Who I was is just a piece of paper you tried to burn. A person you wanted to rewrite.”

Dynamics paused, absorbing the words, “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?!” the voice shouted, the word echoing, “Sorry? The great Liberator Dynamics is sorry?! You know what I think of that?”

“I suspect I can guess,” the Liberator muttered.

There was a thud, and the lights snapped back on, and the Liberator winced at the sight in front of him. Canister had returned to the room, the word LIES adorning the dead Liberator’s coat in blood.

“You wanted to mess with a Margin Driver?” the voice growled, echoing from above.

“I want to work things out between us, Volun-, Comrade,” Dynamics said, moving around the room carefully, glancing cautiously at the ceiling.

“Don’t call me Comrade!” the voice shouted, “I’m not your Comrade, I never was. The person you created is GONE, and ‘Deadline’ is back, and this whole ship is going DOWN with y-”

Dynamics made a stab at the ceiling with the sword, the metal penetrating metal and then something softer. There was a short ‘oh’, followed by the collapse of a ventilation shaft, and a blood-stained Volunteer landing on top of it.

The Liberator looked down, a look of neither fear nor joy on his face, as the ex-Margin Driver looked up at him with a look of pure loathing. “I’m sorry, ‘Deadline’,” the Liberator said, “I really am.”

He turned to leave, and the Opportunist spat after him, “You’re all going to pay, Combine. Mark my words.”

Dynamics didn’t respond, but picked up the radio, hearing Fluidity’s voice on the other end and simply spoke, “Make that 3 Liberators, 5 Engineers, and 2 Volunteers. Out.”

Ghost of You

Author: Volunteer Vector

Gunfire painted the sky above his head in bright gold and reds, a thick black smoke drifted from the wreckage of a burning airship. Somewhere in the distance he heard the cries of a fellow Volunteer in pain.

He stood up and reached for a medical pack which wasn't there…

He was in sleek uniform, tight fitting well made camo cloak and his trusty knife sat by his side. He wasn't a volunteer, why had he thought that, he was Petrol, Liberator of the People's Combine.

Petrol pulled the camo cloak around his shoulders and slunk over the lip of the trench, gun held tight to his body, as he slipped between the shadows cast by the dancing fires in the distance. He’d been chosen to do this insertion on his own, Diesel his partner in most combat, was off leading a direct attack on the castle, being the distraction, Petrol was here to do the dirty work, as was his want.

He got close to the volunteer, they looked at him with big eyes, he leant down and dropped them a pistol, “Make the shots count Volunteer, keep them off me, I’m going to cut the head off this snake, I need you, the Combine needs you to do your duty.”

The volunteer nodded, shaking slightly “Yes Liberator.”

“What is your name?”

“T…. Turbo, Liberator”

“Very good Volunteer Turbo, you will be remembered, that I promise you. Now, can you draw the attention of those thralls for me?”

The volunteer nodded again, and Petrol slipped away again as the pistol began to fire into the enemy. These were some sort of undead thralls, raised by the Monarch-in-Shadow that ruled these lands, it was his job to cut the head off that snake.

Petrol moved silently through the enemy lines, occasionally letting off a silent burst to drop something in his way, and lowering their bodies gently to the ground, killing only those he needed to, ignoring the rest. Behind him he heard a shout of pain and the pistol shots abruptly cut off.

Eventually he made his way into the command area, the Monarch had his back turned to him, a tall, blonde man, overlooking his troops fighting Diesel’s push on the castle gates.

Petrol pulled out the knife from it’s sheath and stepped up to the Monarch, “Time to die Tyrant.”

He was met by cruel eyes and a clenched fist which sent him reeling “You really think I didn’t notice you, foolish Combine. You will die and then I think I will send you down to fight your friends, how about that?”

The steel shod boot of the Monarch pressed down on his chest, cutting off his breathing….


Vector awoke with a start from the dream, he rubbed away the sleep from his eyes, and took in his surroundings. The Symphony, they were on battle stations, he grabbed his battered rifle, and medic kit, heading out with a throng of roused Volunteers, on their way to the front lines to soak up whatever was trying to board them.

He shook with a spike of fear and adrenaline, he didn’t want to die, he wasn’t a soldier, he wasn’t really a medic. He was pushed along with the flow of bodies, he overheard enough to know they were being boarded by Walkers.

Sooner than he would have liked they were amongst the fray, comrades falling to poisons beside him, he fell into what little cover he could find, fumbling with bandages, trying to save someone's life, and then he saw a Walker turn the corner and draw a bead on him. Vector fumbled with the rifle, too slowly, the Walker pulled the trigger…..


And he was pushed down, by some larger body, the shot wizzing over his head, into, no, through the body above him. He looked up and was met with the grim smile of a liberator dressed all in black, a camo cloak around his shoulders and a smart rifle in his hands. “Come on Volunteer, we’ve got a war to win.”

Vector blinked, he was sure he recognised that face, was it from holovids? It must have been…

The Liberator moved quickly between cover, and motioned him to follow up “You can’t stay there, come here and shoot that walker”. The other man stepped out of cover and let off a volley of rounds cutting down one of the enemy.

Vector moved up and rolled into the cover the Liberator had left, something in his muscles remembered what it was doing, why was this so easy? He leant round and shot the Walker he’d seen earlier.

He turned around to see the Liberator charge a group of five Walkers, he ducked as more fire came his way, and when he emerged the Liberator had gone, as had the walkers…

And with that the battle had turned in their favour, they pushed the Walkers back off the ship and made haste for repair yards.


That was the first time Volunteer Vector would see his saving Liberator, but it would not be the last, something dredged from his memories to carry him through battles he was in no fit state to fight. Something old, something of his, though at the time he would not know it.

Things that make you go boom

Author: Dynamics

Hegemonic Engineer Mitre had only been appointed to the Victory Through Persistence a few weeks ago but he’d already identified a couple of troublesome areas. Or, rather, a couple of troublemakers. He’d never been able to catch them in the act, but wherever Dynamics and Gatling went, trouble usually followed. That changed today, though.

The Victory was floating not too far away from a Valtarian fortress. They were due to assault it in less than an hour, and were due to test an experimental bomb shipped to the Front from the Inner Assembly. The bomb, however, was nowhere to be seen, and the last people to access the armoury where it was being stored were currently whispering with smiles on their faces on the main deck of the ship.

“...remember when Pipe-Wrench had that bowl of chocolates?” Gatling whispered, Dynamics nodding, “and we put in that one piece of metal painted brown and he bit into it?”

“You mean the piece of metal that shattered his teeth and you chalked up to ‘an unfortunate kitchen error’? Yes, I remember,” Dynamics said with a hushed smile.

“Well the driving principle remains the same but I found what the dragon’s feeding on and-”

“Liberators!” Mitre barked, marching up to them, “I do hope I’m not interrupting, but I hoped you might be able to help me locate some missing equipment.”

“Missing equipment, Comrade?” Dynamics smiled, “well Comrade Gatling is best positioned to help. Anything missing, Comrade?”

“At our last count, Dynamics? Well there are fifteen grenades unaccounted for, two assault rifles, and a shoulder mounted missile pod, and that’s just the ballistic weapons, then there’s-”

“Enough,” the Hegemonic Engineer raised a hand, “I’m looking for the Mass Liberation Device, and I’m fairly sure you two know it. It’s missing from the armoury, and you two were seen there last, before your recon mission, in fact.”

“We were?” both of them said in unison, unable to hide their grins.

“Yes, you were, and you should wipe those smiles off your faces: this is a serious matter.” The Liberators put on serious faces, “that’s better. Now, I’ll ask once: where is the bomb?”

“Um…” Gatling glanced down toward the fortress.

“Liberator?”

The deep bass sound of something large coughing came from below them, and the grins returned to the Liberators, who both rushed to the railing and gripped it. Mitre looked unimpressed.

“Liberator, what are you smiling about? Where is the bomb, Liberator?”

“You’re not focussing on the bigger issue here, Comrade,” Dynamics said, looking at him, “you shouldn’t be looking for the bomb.”

“What? What do you mean? What ‘should’ I be doing?”

Gatling grinned, “Holding on.”

There was an explosion as a dragon far below swallowed the ticking time bomb, triggering a colossal BOOM. The shockwave shook the ship, and Mitre was thrown against a wall, knocked out cold.

Eventually the ship stopped shaking, and the Liberators examined the unconscious Hegemonic Engineer, and Gatling sighed, “I told him to hold on.”

Carrion Queen

Author: Carrion Queen

Vermilion the Unrepentant glares out across the valley. Above the peaks of the far side, the airships wait, brooding like stormclouds. If looks alone could kill – even a Monarch’s gaze – they would already be ablaze.

The peaks, the valley, the passes – all are choked with corpses. Screams echo through the camp as her own forces finish working their way through the captured deserters from her fallen lover’s army. The same choice, offered over and over – take up arms, pledge allegiance to the red banners of the Unrepentant and her quest for vengeance for the lord they failed, or die. Many kneel. Many others, whether through terror or courage, do not.

The scent of blood hangs heavy in the air. Ashes swirl on the breeze.

There is a soft cough from behind her. She turns.

“My lady...” Her battle-captain’s voice is unusually soft; the heavy-set woman has a pale face and blood spattered across her armour. “We have found what you required.”

“Good, good.” She moves to her throne, takes her seat; her eyes, now she is not staring out towards the enemy, drift inexorably towards the bier. She does not weep; does not permit herself to show such weakness. Mortals weep for fallen lovers; gods avenge them.

“Bring them to me.”

The half-dozen deserters dragged before her are a ragtag bunch; men and women in varying states of disarray, and uniforms of varying status. But well enough matched in height, and all reasonably intact, hale enough for what she needs them for.

Each of them has a noose still fastened around their neck; rope burns mar their throats, where the captain let them hang, as ordered, for long enough to feel death’s shadow upon them, before she cut them down.

“We- we chose,” the boldest of them manages to stammer. “Serve or die, that was the choice, and we chose-”

She lifts her hand, and they fall silent.

“You chose to die.” Her voice is level, even. “So be it, then.” She pauses briefly, watches fear and confusion play over their faces. “You are dead men, dead women. Do you understand me? You are the dead. And as the dead, you owe allegiance only to the dead.”

She nods to the bier. “There lies your lord, who was my love. You owe him service yet.” A gesture of her hand, and the ropes about their necks lengthen, strengthen, moor themselves to the bier’s poles. “You will bear him home. For the hero’s funeral he has earned. One last service, from the dead to the dead.”

She waits to see them nod, eyes widening in understanding, and leans forwards. “And remember – you are the dead. Should I ever have reason to think of you as other… well, there is dead and there is dead.” Her smile is cold and thin.

As the bier leaves camp, her captain brings her the rest of what she asked for. She draws the circle out in the blood and ash of the slain, kicks off her shoes to plant her feet firmly on the earth within it. Turns once again, to stare out across the valley. Reaches inwards, and downwards, and outwards.

And with the strength of rage and grief and love, she works magic stronger and more reckless than she ever has before.

The peaks, the valley, the passes – all are choked with corpses. The scent of blood hangs heavy in the air. Ashes swirl on the breeze.

Vermilion’s power flows out of her, power channelled from the ley lines flows through her, power harvested from the slaughter of the deserters slams into her. Her eyes glow crimson with the power; for an instant, she fears the magic may consume her – but then, then her Shaper’s will asserts itself in truth, and wherever on the battlefield is touched by blood and ash, there her power is too.

In the eyes of every corpse upon the field, a crimson spark takes life. Slowly, unsteadily, they rise, necromantic power taking hold. And then, all at once, they turn, and stare with their mistress towards her foes. And, as Vermilion begins to laugh, bitter and exultant and furious, the dead begin to march to war.

Gatling Knows

Authors: Switchgear and Gatling"

A storm wailed around the Victory Through Persistence, the same storm that had been wailing for the last week, or six days, or month, depending on who you asked. The rain hammered down on the decks sounded like the drums of a steadily approaching army, and the wind howled like a pack of wolves.

This storm hadn’t stopped the brave Combine taking advantage and taking on some entrenched Valtarian positions. The storm had given them cover in the clouds, allowing the ship to hover above while munitions were dropped on positions below before the ship came in for its final attack. “Docking through the enemy is sometimes easier than docking beside them,” Rebar had remarked, and that’s what they had done, but the assault had been bloody. They’d been forced to retreat.

The zipline lancing Liberator had not taken it well, and while most of the crew were inside drinking and laughing, a tall figure in a long coat stood out on the deck, watching the storm. So preoccupied with the rain that he didn’t notice the Fusilier slip out onto the deck as well.

“Hello Dynamics.” Despite the even tone of her voice, Gatlings words carried on the wind past the thundering roll of lighting, reaching the figure just before her foot falls did. “You’re not at the party.”

The Liberator looked over and shook his head, a voice quieter than usual but still heard above the raging storm replied simply with words that had been repeated more and more frequently in the last weeks, “I don’t really feel like partying right now.”

“Mmhmm. Kind of like how you didn’t feel like listening when I asked you to execute a hang bar 27.5 degree maneuver back there that nearly resulted in me shooting Knut in the temple?” The sky cracked with light, blurring the shorter Liberator’s movements as she kicked the back of the taller’s knees. Catching him while he was unsteady, she spun him round, using gravity to her advantage and slamming him to the deck, her forearm pressed hard against his throat. Her eyes were wild with fiery anger, teeth bared. “Who are you and what the turbines have you done with my brother?”

“What the blazes are you on about, Gatling?!” he protested, his arm swinging for a weapon that wasn’t there, his face hidden in the darkness of the night, “It’s me! I just didn’t hear you over the sound of the bombs! Let me up!”

“No! You’ve been acting strange for weeks! Dynamics would never miss a queue, he’s never late for breakfast, he knows every single word to “Liberator’s Lament” and has never once agreed to one of Rivet’s plans without questioning. At first I put it down to that massacre last month, no one likes to lose that many, but you’re are not Dy! So who the hell are you?”

“I’m Dynamics! Nothing’s wrong, Gatling, I-” there was a flash of lightning past the ship, illuminating the face and the eyes of the Liberator, showing a look of fear and uncertainty that had never graced Dynamics’s face, a look not seen since a young Volunteer first gazed in horror at a Valtarian dragon face to face.

Gatling froze.

“Switch… gear?”

Rain continued to thunder down on the deck, as the head of Dynamics slowly nodded, all resistance to Gatling dropped as she whispered, “Hey Gatling,” in a voice that was neither quite that of Dynamics or of herself.

The fight seemed to drop out of the liberator too, her arm drawing away from the others neck, her eyes flicking over shadowed features, trying to pick out the details. “But you died. In the macare. You… you sacrificed yourself… you… … Where is Dy?”

A crack of lightning showed the tears in the eyes of Switchgear, the eyes of Dynamics, as she bit her bottom lip and shook her head, “Advantage Valley… I’m sorry. He didn’t… he didn’t…”

There was a loud cheer from inside, a flash of a camera lighting up the windows and illuminating the crew for a moment before it returned to the dim shine of candles. For stealth, of course.

“Dynamics is dead.” Gatling concluded, her voice empty. “He’s the one who died.”

The eyes of a dead Liberator started to fill with tears, “I’m sorry, Gatling, I tried to stop him but he… he… I tried to… the Monarch… she…” Switchgear failed to end the sentence, only bringing a balled hand to her chest in a stabbing motion, “He took her down with him,” she finished.

Gatling rolled off her sibling, now thoroughly drenched through and the storm only growing stronger over head. “Switchgear, you know I have to-”

Before the liberator could finish what she was saying the door onto the deck flew open and Fluidity’s face was lit up by a lightning flash.

“What the turbines are you two doing out here? Are you insane? What’s going on?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Gatling could see her brother-- no sister’s face, eyes wide, pleading silently. The older liberator swallowed thickly.

“Nothing, Comrade.” She called back, effortlessly forcing her best cheeky grin. “Just making sure Liberator Lubricant here actually gets a decent shower!”

“Again?!” The two shared a laugh, though Gatling’s mind was speeding as she planned how to make sure the showers were tampered with once more before the engineers were sent to fix them again. “Well if either of come down with the flu, I’m not sitting by your bed side and feeding you soup.”

Relief flooded Switchgear’s stolen face as Fluidity returned to the party, but it was short lived as fear of uncertainty returned. Her mouth opened and closed as she began to start explanations, but found herself failing to give one. Eventually, weakly, she said “are you going to turn me in for re-education?”

“If I did that now, they’d have me too…” Gatling sighed, pushing the damp hair back from her face. “I’m not going to lose another sibling. Not today.”

Switch smiled, a smile that almost looked natural on Dynamics’s face, yet was certainly the Volunteer’s, not the Liberator’s, “Thank you,” she said, quietly, “I… I didn’t know what else to do…”

Gatling looked at the other, lightening flashing once more, highlighting her red eyes, tear irritated eyes. “You are going to need to pull your act together if you want to get away with this. You are not yourself anymore, you are Dynamics.” She pushed herself up, pausing a moment before reaching a hand out to Switchgear. “So act like it.”

Advantage Valley: The Full Story

Authors: Liberator Switchgear

Those in the briefing room file out past the unassuming Volunteer, until Dynamics is the last one there, staring at a series of maps and charts. Switchgear sidles into the room and gives him a nudge.


“Hey, Dy,” she smiles, and Dynamics gives her a small smile back but the grim look on his face betrays him, “What’s wrong?” she asks.


“Just looking at the logistics for this operation in Advantage Valley,” he explains, “Valtarian fortress, hell of a lot of dissonance, I’m leading a group of Volunteers in to clear it out.”


“They want you?” Switchgear asks in disbelief, “A Liberator?!”


Dynamics shakes his head, “It’s too crucial and too dissonant to send Volunteers alone. It’d be cruel at best, and even Fluidity agrees there. So I volunteered.”


“So what, you’re going to get your head blown off as well?”


“Not if I can help it.”


Switchgear crosses her arms, “So who’s on the team going in?”


“Crank, Driveshaft, Chain, Axle, Motor, Clutch…”


“I’m going too.”


“No, Switch, you’re not. You need to stay here, I need you alive.”


“And I need you alive, Dy,” she says, grabbing his arm and pulling him round to face her, “It’s too dangerous, and you know we’re more likely to survive if we’re together.”


“Or we’re more likely to both get killed.”


“That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”


“Switch…” he puts a hand on her arm, a pleading look in his eyes.


“I’m doing this, Dy,” she responds firmly, putting her hand on his arm, looking firmly into his eyes, and he sighs.


“Go get kitted up.”



“Volunteer Crank! Behind you!”


There’s a burst of fire, as the dark red drake incinerates the Volunteer in front of the Liberator’s eyes. The light reflects of the goggles in the smoke and shadows of the fortress, and Dynamics stands frozen.


“LIBERATOR!” shouts Switchgear, “We need to get out of here NOW!”


Wrenched back to the moment, Dynamics scrambles backward as the dark silhouette of the Monarch-in-Shadow looms through the corridor, cackling.


“You, Combine Peasants, you really thought you could defeat me? Dark Lord of the Valley of Despair, Keeper of the Place of Madness-”


“The Combine will always overcome Valtarian tyrants!” shouts Driveshaft, charging forward. Dynamics and Switchgear shout out in unison top stop him, but with one swing of the Valtarian’s sword it’s too late.


Time seems to slow as Driveshaft’s body falls the floor: Dynamics and Switchgear beating a tactical retreat through the twisting dungeons of the Valtarian castle, a sword in the hands of one, and energy pistols in the hands of another, parrying blows and firing pointlessly into the dark armour of the Monarch.


“You incompetent fools! I am immortal!” the Monarch laughs, and that’s when the Liberator and Volunteer alike both see it: the gap in the armour.


In an immediate moment, Dynamics and Switchgear look at each other.


“NO!” they both say in unison, “The Combine need you!”


Dynamics shakes his head, “I’m closer, I can do this: get out while you still can!”


“I’m a Volunteer: this is what I’m for,” Switchgear replies, loudly but simply.


“Equality, Volunteer, we’re both here for the same job -- let me do this!”


Switchgear shouts, “You need to survive this: Liberators survive, Volunteers die, that’s how it works.”


“But-”


“I Volunteer.”


Dynamics falters for a moment, the Monarch advances, Switchgear turns to him, and holds out in her hand a simple golden medal, “If you want to remember me, take this.”


Dynamics holds out his hand to take it, as the Monarch looms over behind Switchgear, dark sword raised high.


“Now, peasants, now you die!”


A hand tightens around the medal as Switchgear lets go and shouts, “FOR THE COMBINE!!!” but she’s thrown to the side as Liberator charges forward, sword cold, and plunges his blade straight through the armour of the Monarch who falters, but plunges her own sword into his stomach. The Monarch’s eyes widen as the Liberator’s close, accepting his fate. The Volunteer can’t tell if it’s from the dissonance or the disaster, but everything seems to happen in slow motion.


The drake behind the Monarch lets out an almighty burst of fire, but it’s blocked by the Monarch, immolated by the flame. Switchgear grabs Dynamics, pulling him off the Monarch’s sword and out of the path of the beast. She hauls him down a corridor as the drake advances, but with the Monarch’s control broken the beast thrashes about bringing walls down separating it from them, trapping them from the outside by layers and layers of rubble.


Dynamics is dying. Switchgear tries to stem the bleeding, but Dynamics puts a hand on hers and shakes his head. She carries on anyway, pressing hard on the wound to stop the blood pouring out.


“Damn it, Dy, you’re not… you’re not dying on me. This isn’t how it goes, this isn’t where you end,” she stammers, as the Liberator’s breath starts becoming more ragged.


“We all end somewhere, Volunteer,” he says, between deep breaths, each more agonising than the last, “Now go on and do something worth remembering.”


“I’m a Volunteer, Dy, I amount to nothing,” she says, tears rolling down her cheeks, “You’re the one who matters, you’re a Liberator, people will remember you.”


Dynamics shakes his head and holds up the medal in his hand, “Then take this, and make sure people remember me through you.”


“Dy, I can’t, I…”


“I believe in you, Switch,” he says, a tiny smile creeping onto his face amidst the blood, the dust and the tears, “Go make me proud.”


“I can’t do it without you,” she says, tears streaming, and she grips his hand tight, “I need you, Dy, I..”


Dynamics opens his mouth, but instead of words comes a strangled noise, and then life drops from his eyes. The Volunteer, clutching the body of her fallen Comrade, weeps, clinging onto the medal he gave her tightly in her right hand as the castle collapses around her. Rocks fall, the temperature rises, but the Shaper cares not as she holds on beneath the rubble.


Sadness becomes anger, becomes determination, becomes a motive. Dynamics will be remembered, and the Shaper pushes her power to the brink to change, to hide her face, and to make sure what he stood for, the change he represented, the promises he’d made her, that they all will be remembered throughout history. It doesn’t come without cost, with scars remaining and the medal burning into her hand, but it’s done. “Liberator Dynamics” stands, and the face of Volunteer Switchgear is left in the rubble.



Three days later, Liberator Dynamics is retrieved, standing atop the ruins of a Valtarian fortress. His sword shattered, his goggles cracked, his coat charred. The only respectable object remaining is a simple golden medal, clutched fiercely in his hand. The real body of Dynamics is buried in the rubble of the fortress: the Victory Through Persistence shells the place into oblivion, burying it in the Shattered Front for eternity.


Between Ten Thousand Leaves

Author: Endless Radiance

Through the gates, he passed into the chamber just beneath the mountain’s peak.

His breath caught in his throat, as it always did, at the sight of it - a symphony in glass and crystal, turning and turning and- coming into focus.

Endless Radiance sank to his knees, and a humming chorus spoke as if a single voice.

Situation overview. The city of [First Step On The Path To Freedom|Lyanna’s Triumph] - the perfect harmony split into dissonant cacophony - is the centre of a compounding dissonant fracture pattern.

...

A lone figure, plate-armoured and hooded, crouches at the lip of the crater. Far below is a city, ravaged by war - burned-out buildings and patches of bare rubble dot the neat rows of buildings, walls scarred by shell and spell. At the centre, a stark fortress, walls hung with bright golden banners over faded red paint, all lit by gentle magelight.

Endless Radiance breathes deeply and slowly, deliberately; sets his feet; shifts the flow of energy through his body.

Takes a short, deliberate step to the side.

(Commandments follow. Infiltrate the central fortress using stance Between Ten Thousand Leaves.

Radiance’s head snapped up to gaze into the heart of the Oracle. “Between Ten Thousand Leaves exacerbates causal fracturing. Am I supposed to mend this pattern or worsen it?”)

He stands on the lip of the crater. Far below is a city, ravaged by war - burned-out buildings and patches of bare rubble dot the neat rows of buildings, walls scarred by shell and spell. At the centre, a stark fortress, walls freshly painted in bold scarlet and lit by the harsh brightness of floodlights.

Now the real test - for all Between Ten Thousand Leaves was developed from Axis Moves the World, dual-stance techniques are always difficult. He turns to get the angle just right, and steps across to the fortress parapet.

A guard - close, too close - falls to Radiance’s sword, a half-formed curse screeching wildly away to detonate against the ground.

So much for quiet.

An entrance - there. Radiance dashes across the parapet and dips a shoulder to burst into the tower. A quick slash to dispel the magelight; a turn, and the room is bright again. He punches out the lightbulb with his swordhilt. The room is plunged into night. Three quick cuts, and three Combine guards fall dead.

No need to limit casualties on this mission, after all.

Endless Radiance stalks through the fort’s halls leaving darkness and corpses in his wake.

This fracture-pattern is bilateral, extending from a core primacy-conflict between Shaper world-perspectives. Tracing your world-line through both perspectives with Between Ten Thousand Leaves ensures the flowering of a vitreous mandala will proceed from and conclude both core narratives, preventing further propagation of the fracture.

Nearing the central hall, he turns a corner and sees heavy steel doors, alert guards - a machine-gun nest? Time he can’t afford to spend. He checks his pace, ducks back into the shadows, and steps around the corner. Heavy drapes and an open door, the sounds of song and feasting from the Monarch-Victor’s court.

Better.

Slowing his pace, he slips into the hall, sights the balcony, and steps.

Not onto the balcony, just a little forward.

He swears under his breath. If his perspective doesn’t have primacy, then- yes, there’s the Monarch, not at the high table but walking among her adoring subjects.

Time for something a little flashy, then.

The hall erupts into a cacophony of shouts and screams as an armoured figure dashes in and leaps high into the hair, kicking from wall to wall and sailing gracefully-

Lyanna Spellbreaker shouts a Word of Power.

Endless Radiance smashes face-first into the wall.

He catches, clutches the balcony railing. Pulls himself up. Points his sword in challenge, and steps backwards, never breaking eye contact, into her personal chamber.

Thus. Assassinate the Shaper [Hegemonic Engineer Derivative|Lyanna Spellbreaker] - that ear-splitting doubled speech again - and plant a vitreous mandala.

The command centre falls silent, and Hegemonic Engineer Derivative springs to her feet. “Shaper! Everyone out!”

Shots ring out, deflecting from the flashing silver sword, pinging from a mirror-bright breastplate. Radiance ducks and dashes forwards into a thrust, parried and countered, and the swordplay begins in earnest.

The Engineer’s good - good enough that this won’t be quick. A heavy blow sends Radiance stepping back to regain his footing, and Derivative flourishes her blade. “You’ll never take this city, Valtarian!”

It’s a good performance, perfectly angled for the omnipresent cameras to catch, but Radiance can’t let it see the light of day, especially not with the next part.

He rolls out of sight behind a console and between the leaves, and the Spellbreaker yells as she sees her prey. “There you are! I should have known that Combine sorcerer would find an assassin somewhere!”

Her bright-glowing axe moves faster than sight, and Radiance’s sword meets it. They test one another’s guard, each feeling out the rhythm of the battle, fencing from bed to wall and back again.

It’s time. Radiance shifts again, and his vision doubles. He parries a thrust of Derivative’s saber as Lyanna’s axe glances from his spaulder. Cut and counter, step and strike, he fills two Shapers’ minds with his presence.

But he can’t keep this up for long. A bullet slashes across his shin and he stumbles, flinging his sword up to parry an axe blow meant to separate his head. He staggers back as two figures stalk towards him - towards Endless Radiance, the centre of two worlds.

Hegemonic Engineer Derivative raises her pistol and the armoured, hooded invader leaps back, then - somehow - braces in empty air to thrust his sword into her throat.

Lyanna Spellbreaker, Liberator of the Chain-Cursed, sees the armoured, hooded invader hop back onto her bed and lunge forward, as if striking an invisible figure with his sword. No matter; she presses the attack.

Radiance’s head is aching now with the weight of holding onto an entire perspective suddenly bereft of its anchor. Only one opponent to fight, though - his sword sings out and suddenly the Spellbreaker is on the defensive.

He circles around, letting her push him back. Ducks, grabs the fallen Combine soldier’s gun, and fires three quick shots.

There’s little chance to cast a shielding spell when the gun appears, sudden, from another version of the world.

Endless Radiance pulls a complex shape of sharp glass from a pouch at his belt, and places it in the centre of the rooms. With exquisite care he pricks a finger, staining a point with blood; the vitreous mandala flowers in light and fire and begins to spread.

He turns to leave and then it hits him.

“That Combine sorcerer,” the monarch had said.

There’s another Derivative out there.

...

He steps from rooftop to rooftop with the dizzying shifts of Axis Moves the World, silhouetting himself as a black shape against the fire and the sky.

Then the shift refuses to happen, and he knows he’s found his prey.

All around, people are fleeing from the blazing light of the vitreous mandala, but one figure slips into the shadows.

Endless Radiance drops silently into the darkness.

It’s blow for blow the fight they had before, and he almost laughs.

“We will retake this city, Valtarian!” she hisses, but he’s got her measure this time, and he presses the advantage. A little too hard, a little too fast - a bleeding cut on his forehead for his troubles - but as The Art Of Cutting always says, aggression ends fights, if you’re willing to bleed.

For the second time that night, Endless Radiance slays Hegemonic Engineer Derivative.

He is the only Shaper in the cities.

He turns to leave, and sees a figure watching him. A young man, firelight glimmering in his eyes.

“She’s dead?”

Radiance nods, stepping closer. The shadows reluctantly surrender him to the light.

The youth is gazing up at him with waning trepidation and waxing joy.

“They kept fighting, the Monarchs and the Engineers, but you’re not either, are you? We’re free of both of them. We can be something else now!”

Radiance smiles, but not happily. “Do you want my guidance?”

The youth nods and scurries forward to listen.

Once flowering has begun, ensure total conclusion of the city’s observation-lines.

Radiance leans down to whisper in his new disciple’s ear, and snaps his neck.

...

A lone figure, plate-armoured and hooded, stands at the lip of the crater. Far below is a plane of glass, swirled with jagged fracture-lines that lead the eye astray. At the centre, where once stood a fortress, is a vast crystal lotus; a memorial to a city that is no more.

Every one of the city’s stories ends thus. There is only one witness; he looks a moment longer on what his works have wrought, turns, and disappears back into the shadows.

When the Heart Stopped

​Author:​ ​Lieutenant​ ​Bennet,​ ​Engineer​ ​Crankshaft

The raid against the Valtarian supply lines was not going as planned. What was supposed to be a quick and clean raid into enemy territory against a convoy carrying mana crystals and drake food turned out to be an ambush devised by the enemy. The target was too good to be true. Thus the two Combine sky locomotives quickly found themselves locked in a desperate struggle for survival as dozens of dragonriders pelted the heavily armoured monstrosities with fire and brimstone.


Onboard the Heart of the Machine, alarms blared from all sides as the engineers rushed to the site of the newest hull breach. Crankshaft, a wiry ProCorp engineer ran through a corridor just as a blast caved in the hull in front of them. “Blast and damnation! That nearly got me!” they exclaimed after they stopped coughing. “Those dragons will be our death” they muttered while quickly sealing the entire section. They opened a nearby hatch and shimmied into a jeffrey tube.

Further along the hull, past the collapsed section, a tall man was desperately fighting the fires in a broadside gun battery. He already closed off the munitions but the fire could still spread and overwhelm the section. The inferno seemed to be unstoppable until Crankshaft dropped from a vent overhead and grabbed an extinguisher. Together the two comrades made quick work of the fire. Laughing with relief, Crankshaft turned to the man: “Piston, you should be damn glad we decided to overhaul the jeffrey tubes last year. I told you it would pay off in the end.” Piston, looked over the smoldering embers and melted steel. “That it did, mate. But you didn’t know it would be like this.”


The battle was short and brutal. The Combine did not have sufficient forces to reinforce the two locomotives in an ambush, especially since they already fulfilled their purpose and scattered the convoy. When the grand sorcerer on the ground channeled a large amount of crystal mana and unleashed a lance of lightning that broke The Heart of the Machine in half, it was almost a mercy.

Crankshaft wobbled unsteadily as the ship started breaking apart. Failing to get good grip and launch themselves off, they tumbled into an uncontrolled fall. This was much, much higher than the comfortable disembarking height of a few hundred metres. Landing in a tree, they managed to only break their wrist, a testament to their proficiency in falling off things. They looked over the massive crater of fire and steel. There were no survivors. They surveyed the remains for a long time before turning away from the wreckage of their former home and starting the long walk back towards the Combine.

Piston awoke bruised and battered near a massive flaming crater where a half of his home lay dead. There were no survivors. He surveyed the remains for a long while before turning around and walking away from the Combine.