The Praedian Records

J.G. Phoenix

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YF-29 Durandal (WIP)

Fleeing Victory

Chapter One

The scorched remains of long dead machines littered the barren wastes of the Arenas Desert. Ricard Silva, one of the Cordaea’s 203rd Tank Battalion’s more apprehensive Sergeants, surveyed the carnage. Had any friends met their end in this field of rock and scrap, he wondered? After what he’d faced, Ricard couldn’t help but fret over over the people closest to him. It felt like time and again, pure luck had been the deciding factor in who lived and who died. His own share of that precious ethereal armor had to be nearly spent by now.

Along with the 203rd, Ricard faced numerous artillery bombardments by the Municans for days; he came out of it unscathed. He fought against a drake and its rider on foot, and avoided capture, not to mention a grizzly death. He was attacked by Munica’s new weapon, the Cordoba colossus, and while he was thoroughly roughed up by that point, Ricard still managed to escape both the colossus and the friendly airstrike sent to take it out.

How much longer could he keep this up? So much–too much–depended on luck these days. That was when the weariest of thoughts came to him: Were Command’s strategies just that reckless?

The newly minted Intrepid 21, along with the rest of the light tanks and six wheelers blazed their way through the western expanse, some of them likely pondering the same question. Their objective for this leg of the journey was one of the ‘crimson veins,’ enormous tunnels that webbed the Arenas underground. The 203rd had been ordered to head toward a known entrance into these underground tunnels and use them to slip right by Munican defenses in the area. All the while, other units would work with the Air Force to maintain the battlefront and prevent any massive redeployments. This had been the strategy for some time, and it proved quite effective.

At least, in the beginning: The Cordaeans would send armored units underground beneath enemy lines and hit targets ordinarily beyond their reach. Even heavily fortified installations like Fort Baldi had been completely devastated by the bold new strategy. These types of operations were quickly becoming outdated and even impractical, however. Things were too predictable, and now they were having to take more and more precautions just to survive their forays into the tunnel system.

Ricard glanced over at one of the wheeled vehicles driving alongside his new light tank. Alice was driving, and for the third time that day, she caught Ricard’s gaze. Or perhaps he caught hers. She smiled at him like always, but quickly gave the imaginary road they were on some due attention. Ricard’s tank, an automaton named Chaser, pulled slightly to the left in time with Alice, who steered gently in the other direction to let the blackened remains of a heavy Cordaean tank through. A moment later, they slowly came back together in the formation. Ricard watched the wreck fade by, seeing no way to identify it beyond its model. It could have been anyone’s tank. The story would be the same deep underground, where others’ had exhausted their own luck and met a fiery end.

Somewhere on the other side of the tunnel network, the Municans were preparing their own counters to this very operation. They weren’t so complacent as to wait for the Cordaeans to attack them. The crimson veins gave the Cordaeans only two problems in the past, corrupted mana crystal outgrowths, and the expected instability of a massive tunnel dug too close to the surface. Now, hoping to keep their defenses as up to date as possible, the Municans introduced high explosives into the equation. Any tunnels they found that didn’t fit into their own plans were promptly buried, while all the known approaches were at least partially mined. Some reports even suggested there were gun emplacements in some of the tunnels, waiting day and night for any sign of their eastward nemesis.

The Cordaeans adapted like always. Some of the armored vehicles of the 203rd could contend well with mines, and they would scout the tunnels much faster than their tracked counterparts. Even so, no vehicle could maneuver easily underground; whomever was spotted first would be a victim in a shooting gallery. A likely reason there were no reported sightings of Munican armor in the tunnels, even after nearly twenty of these expeditions by other battalions in the region.

Ricard asked himself again: Were Command’s strategies just that reckless? He lowered himself down through the commander’s hatch and back into Chaser’s turret, his own answer teetering dangerously toward ‘yes.’

Private Nicholas Thompson was the only other crew member inside, and he was dutifully keeping them on course. As for the automaton they were both riding inside of, Chaser was little more than a runic brain and a few recording instruments housed inside an armored box. That box was plugged into a socket just behind the driver seat and held in place with four latches for good measure. Being modular allowed any surviving runic brains to be placed into new tanks in mere minutes. Provided the new tank was identical, or at the very least similar, little else needed to be done to make the unit mission capable. It was a nice system for Cordaean crews to have in their back pocket, but having already lost a tank recently, Ricard didn’t plan on abandoning this one so quickly.

“Don’t worry. No artillery strikes this time,” Nicholas said, giving the runic brain casing behind him a few reassuring pats before noticing the amused look on Ricard’s face. “We’ll be fine. Right?”

As if Ricard knew how this mission was going to play out. He did know one thing. “That’s right. No artillery today. Today we get mines. Fun fun.”

“Don’t say that,” Nicholas protested.

At least, Ricard mused, the mines weren’t being aimed at them. As long as the sweepers cleared them out quickly enough, they should be fine. A slightly more pressing concern were the crystal outgrowths in some of the older tunnels. The reports on those were disturbing. So much as touching one with an ungloved hand was enough to land a soldier in the infirmary. They would be lucky if they were only out of action for a week. Those cursed blood-hued crystals were the inspiration for the name, crimson vein. No one knew where the crystals came from, but they were a good way to judge the age of any given tunnel, and a pain to clear out of the way of their advancing armor.

“Hey Rick!”

Ricard glanced at the radio unit inside the tank. That sounded like Casey’s voice. He was energetic as usual. Ricard wagered his machinegun toting friend was bored and looking for ways to pass the time while Alice did the driving. It was important for even the wheeled vehicles to have gunners, but Casey spent the better part of the day roasting in the sun for it. No one could fault him for wanting a little more from the road trip.

“Yeah, what is it?” Ricard responded.

“We’re seeing red a bit too early here. Take a look.”

‘Seeing red’? Ricard’s brow furrowed at the choice of words. It wasn’t a code or anything like that–none Ricard was familiar with, at least. “Give me a second,” he said to Nicholas, putting their own discussion on hold.

Opening the hatch and looking up through the turret’s cupola, Ricard first saw Alice at their 2 O’clock, about ten meters ahead of them now. Casey was standing as high up as he could and pointing his whole arm toward a rocky mound in the distance. Ricard’s eye searched for anything that could shed light on Casey’s message, and it wasn’t long before he saw tiny bits of red jutting out from the ground at the base of the mound. “What is–” Ricard turned his personal radio on, “What is that? Are those crystals? On the surface?” Even normal mana crystals wouldn’t form on the surface like this.

“Mission Control to Intrepid: Be advised, there are several surface level crystal formations along your route. The mission proceeds as planned. Mind the terrain and navigate around any formations you see.”

Command wasn’t in a panic over the strange phenomenon, so that was good news. That or everyone’s ignorance on the crystals was a prelude to disaster. The odds were frustratingly even.

“I don’t know, I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Rick.”

Ricard was on the same wavelength as Casey, but there was nothing for it. “We just have to be careful. Keep your eyes on the ground. Wouldn’t want to run over any hidden crystals.” They wouldn’t harm the vehicles, but the crews would all do well to avoid smashing the crystals and sending fragments and dust into the air. One bare skinned touch, one whiff of this stuff, and they were down for the count.


“Yeah …” Ricard murmured to himself. His mind puzzled over the possible cause of the crimson protrusions showing up on the surface, a trait now uniquely theirs. His only guess was that something about the land was changing, and not for the better. The Arenas Desert was already an inhospitable wasteland from centuries of brutal armored warfare, and so Ricard was impressed. Impressed and apprehensive. The crimson veins would give them enough trouble, and now one of their key features was showing up on the surface. He desperately wanted to heed whatever warning he was being gifted, but how could he, and if things were changing this drastically, what was waiting for them underground?

The wheeled vanguards of the Cordaean 203rd Tank Battalion cut a path of relative safety through the veritable minefield of crystal outgrowths. The formation was quickly funneled down into half a dozen small convoys, each with a pair of brave trailblazers leading the way. Ricard didn’t like having to stay as far behind Alice and Casey’s vehicle as he did–more than a few hundred meters, but the clouds of dust formed in their wake could completely obscure anything just ahead or behind them. The tanks could easily and unknowingly plow straight through one of the unprecedented corrupted crystal mounds if impatience won out of over prudence. The vanguards reduced their speed to make less of a disturbance, but the only thing anyone remembered for it was how much longer their ingress into the underworld had taken.

With only a single exception, the six wheelers leading the 203rd’s advance parked themselves a comfortable distance from the entrance into the wild tunnel system. Their cautious approach put them roughly an hour behind schedule.

“Oh thank God,” the gunner’s voice came in over the radio, “Entrance is clear. Initial incline is 30 degrees. No changes noted.”

Ricard was quietly taken aback. How was that possible? They were sitting in a field of crystal mounds, but there was no change to any part of the tunnel the scouts could see? The word ‘trap’ buzzed and flickered around the Sergeant’s head, looking for a place to settle and coalesce into a coherent thought, but he had little to go on. The discrepancy was too minor and they knew too little about the situation. In truth, they understood very little about these tunnels and were using them in spite of that. A bad feeling was what Ricard had started with, and that was all he had now.

Nothing to do, he thought, but wait until the vanguard made their way inside and gave the tanks the greenlight to follow. Ricard guessed they would be waiting for roughly an hour before heading in. That was the average time needed for any given mile of the network to be declared ‘armor compliant.’ That status only lasted a precious few days; the Arenas tunnel network was simply that dangerous now.

“No unusual readings in the area,” a crewman of a mobile sensor vehicle spoke up. “Seismic activity is negligible in our AO.”

Ricard breathed a sigh of relief at the news. The only thing more dangerous than the crimson veins were the creatures that made them. They were massive wormlike monstrosities, disturbingly quiet on the surface and terribly fast when moving through the veins. An adult worm could swallow an armored column in one pass if not for the immense firepower at the army’s disposal.

The Cordaeans and their adversaries the Municans, both had made a point of killing any worms their forces encountered, sparing nothing short of cruise missiles to keep the colossal pests at bay and their men out of harm’s way. If seismic activity was within acceptable ranges, then none of the crimson burrowers was close enough to cause problems.

That was the hope. Ricard’s personal fear was that the corrupted crystals were connected with the worms somehow. In the two hours–not one like he expected, but two long hours it took for the vanguards to greenlight their advance into the tunnel system, Ricard still hadn’t come up with any kind of hypothesis worth sharing with the rest of the 203rd. The entire time the tanks sat idly, uncomfortably close to the corrupted crystals jutting out of the ground. Occasionally a tank had inched itself away from one, a tank commander or two complaining of headaches and the like. Ricard hated how simply looking at one seemed to make it grow larger somehow. The illusion always broke when he noticed it, but between his own misgivings and the growing concerns throughout the battalion, they couldn’t risk staying here much longer.

As soon as the scout vehicles started moving into the tunnel, Ricard woke Nicholas up. “Time to move.”

“Got it,” Nicholas’ said, his voice cracking from the long nap.

There was no hesitation from any of the tankers when the scout vehicles started funneling into the underground. Within a few minutes, the 203rd disappeared beneath the rock and sand of the Arenas.

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