First Ones In

Ey, who you callin' bái chī, bái chī?" Qianlong shouted.

The Eight Banner system of the Qing Empire's army had been maintained for hundreds of years, with each banner consisting of men of certain races — Manchu, Han Chinese, Mongol, and so on, until the modern era came and the blending of ethnicities made such a system imbalanced. Now the Banners were utterly indistinguishable, particularly after the Reynesian Reforms of 1890, which mandated that each banner was to be its own self-sustaining unit, with its own complement of artillery, cavalry, and infantry. Each Banner was not to roam further than a day's march from the other, so that if one came under attack, any number of others could rush to its aid against a larger foe. The idea had come from Napoleon, Cpl. Steve Chin had heard. An awful lot of westernization had occurred during the mid to late-1800s in China. He highly doubted China would have survived today if it hadn't.

Today, the average Banner was a heavily armed legion of mobile artillery, tanks, and enough armored vehicles and helicopters to carry all a Banner's infantry at a moment's notice. Meant to swarm an enemy, with a mass of helicopters firing rockets and dropping hundreds of heavily armed men, while tanks blew past at 50 km an hour. Each Banner had been drilled extensively just on loading and unloading as quickly as possible, what was called the "Green Lotus", for the way in which the camouflaged military hardware unpacked from its transport, blossoming like a flower. It was designed based upon Sun Tzu's advice to attempt to break an enemy before firing a shot, by the mere sight of its discipline and èlan alone.

"Not Sun Tzu," Sgt. Sheng said beside him, packed tightly to see Chin scribbling in his diary, "Napoleon said it."

"The fuck he did," Pvt. Qianlong called out from across the trench, "Respectfully, sir. It was Sun Tzu."

"It was Napoleon," Sheng snarled, "'Elan' is a French word."

"Alan who?"

"'Elan'! It means… something."

Chin grinned, "I'm pretty sure every great military mind has said something like it at one point or another."

"Only one that matters is Sun Tzu," Qianlong insisted.

"Because that's the only military guy you've ever heard of, bái chī" Sheng called out.

"Ey, who you callin' bái chī, bái chī?" Qianlong shouted. A faint popping sound was heard in the silence immediately after his words.

Sheng peered up from his trench, "Aaaawww… so much for an ambush."

Chin peered up from the trench, not able to see whatever Sheng was looking at, "We're spotted?"

Sheng shrugged, "Wait for command to decide."

A moment later, Sheng's radio came alive, a voice shouting too fast for him to pick up much beyond names, numbers, and coordinates. Sheng caught it all without fail. He grinned cheekily, the tips of his mustache pointing upward.

"As one. Total silence. Fingers off the trigger."

The infantry group rose from their trench. All along the line, other companies rose in similar motion, ready for the sort of steady advance they'd all been drilled in. They were expecting civilians, so firing at will was out of the question.

"Hey Sheng," Another soldier, Liu Kim called out, "You know in America, a sergeant doesn't command a company? Man who commands a company is called a 'Captain'."

Sheng snorted, "Captain? Captain is a naval rank. Why would a captain command land soldiers?"

"It's — "

"No no no no, don't interrupt me! You speak about the Americans and only further reinforce how backward and barbaric their military is. Are they so stupid as to have naval commanders in charge of their infantry? Are their academies so anemic?"

"Sgt. Sheng use much pretty words," Qianlong grunted out, prompting a laugh from the men around.

"Because I am a Sergeant! We here in China prefer the more civilized type leading you pack of chòubī into combat. Hopefully we can make passable gentlemen out of you."

Civilians started to appear through the foliage, rushing towards the company. Sheng lifted his rifle, prompting the other soldiers to raise them up high as well, so as not to scare the civilians off. Some started to scream, but pressed on regardless, moving through the company's ranks, shuffling and shoving, momentarily disrupting the line.

"Hey," Sheng called out down his right, "Hey! Close the line! Set your blocks down and start pushing!"

Once the civilians had brushed past, the company unslung their backpacks, and pulled out their 'blocks'. A solid gray cube, it was spongy to the touch, with layers of densely packed material underneath it. Freed from its packaging, it began to slowly rise, roughly to chest height, and as wide as a man. It was in effect a makeshift wall, able to be crushed into a portable size for transport. Although the bullets lodged in the layers had to be dug out before it could be re-fit into its packaging.

Once they were on the ground and rising, the soldiers could start pushing it along with their knees as they lowered themselves to a crouch. It offered all the protection of proper cover, while allowing for a solid firing line reminiscent of old Napoleonic line infantry. That didn't mean the blocks weren't obstinate when packed onto the muddy ground.

"This blows," Cpl. Chin grunted, having to reach around the block to keep it from falling over the more he pushed. He could hear other blocks falling over around him, plopping wetly or managing to hit mostly dry dirt and just thud heavily.

The first shot to hit nearly took him in the hand, just as he let go of the block. More bullets started spraying wildly all along the front of the line. He could hear voices shouting, screaming in some language, probably Vietnamese, while soldiers in the company braced themselves against the blocks. Those who had pushed theirs over had to drop face-down in the mud for cover.

"What's it sound like? AKs?" Sheng shouted to someone else. The reply was caught in the middle of a loud blast. Sheng nodded regardless, and started to nod slowly, in rhythm.

"Now, return fire!" He called out calmly, and rose up onto his knees, taking careful aim and shooting in deliberate bursts. There was little to see through the foliage, but the line of infantry firing en masse would have devastating impact in a largely flat, unimpeded jungle environment.

"Down, and keep pushing," Sheng dropped again, pushing his block forward quickly, too fast to allow it to keel over. Return fire came, less heavy than before, and focused more down along the left of the line. A solid white mist was falling up ahead, and as they pressed on into it, Chin could begin to see Dai Viet soldiers, riddled with bullets, staring intently at them as they came within view.

"Stop!" Sheng called out. Most of the soldiers downed were still alive. That meant they were still dangerous. Possums, they would've been called in America. Sheng casually drew his sidearm, and peered up from his block, taking casual potshots at the prone figures to confirm them as dead. Others along the line did the same. After that, they dropped back into cover, waiting to see if a grenade or other explosive had been rigged to go off.

"We got our first snag," Sheng called out. Cheers arose. A 'snag' meant some part of the line hadn't been as lucky as them, and was now stuck in a genuine firefight with experienced militants. It also meant the company could rest for an indeterminate period of time.

Steve Chin pried open his diary, skimming through the entries he'd been putting over the past few weeks. The sluggish advance across wide swaths of land was pure 19th century-style warfare. The Emperor was impatient, and unwilling to commit to a systematic offensive that would see Qing Banners occupying thousands of towns and villages, and spending years more training locals to properly fight the Marxist insurgents. He wanted his army to sweep the ground once, claim victory in the name of Heaven, and set his name in the history books for centuries to come for his military genius in so quickly and thoroughly uprooting the Marxist insurgency.

"Marxist" was what all of them were called — in reality, the insurgents who claimed to be Marxist were less than a third of all non-Qing fighting forces engaged in Dai Viet. The Emperor simply chose to drive his boot into a pile of shit surrounded by people who'd been fighting over that pile for the past three years.

"Cpl. Steve," Liu Kim swatted at his helmet lightly, "We're moving again."

School had resumed, and without any other plans, children were pouring back into the school that was known to Foundation personnel solely as Site-141.

"What you think? Politics or laziness?" Sharpe asked as they pressed through the open doorway, both women well over the heads of the children crowding around them.

"Can't it be both?" Priss suggested. There just wasn't enough money or manpower to handle shutting down a big public school right at the start of the school year. There was no space in neighboring schools, and most of the parents whose children didn't ride the bus couldn't afford to extend their commute by a half hour or more to reach the more distant schools. At some point, the pressures of maintaining every day life outweighed vague assertions and assurances from the Foundation, no matter how much money was offered.

"I like kids," Sharpe reached out to pat one on the head. The boy whirled on her, shouting 'Fuckin' bitch, don't touch me!' and running.

"I want the security footage of that," Priss joked.

"That was really unfortunate wording, wasn't it? Fuck."

At the very least, the school could afford to spare several classrooms and a conference room for Foundation personnel to continue operating. The tons of dirt were shipped to nearby Site-189. Everything worthwhile was happening down in the cellar.

A guard was stationed outside the storage closet, with two orange-coated D-Class. Priss clenched her jaw firm, and saw the black one lower his head towards her, "Ma'am."

"Boo, what…"

"Ma'am, I was picked an' now I'm workin' wit' you's," Boo squirmed uncomfortably, "Miss Marlowe, she ain't had no mo' use for me, so I'm doin' this…"

She shook her head, and looked at the guard. He looked just as uncomfortable. The door opened, and Edgars backed out, clipboard pressing on his gut, "99401, your turn."

Priss glared at Edgars, who looked up to see her, "Oh. Hi."

"No more of this," She nudged him back into the room, marching in after him, with Sharpe closing the door behind them, "Are you a licensed judge or professional executioner?"

"I… what? No… what?"

"I don't care what you think or what Foundation protocol is, I'm not sending people into infinite meat grinders to die until we find someplace that won't kill them on contact," Priss felt her head start to spin, and an ache in her temples, "I didn't join up to be a killer. And if you have, then fuck you, go home and don't come back. This is supposed to be fucking science, securing shit, containing shit, protecting it from us, and us from it. I'm not going to put up with this chickenshit-bullshit just because we have money to shut people up."

Edgars stared at her — everyone in the room stared in awkward silence. Priss felt her hands start to tremble and her chest ache.

"Being a social justice warrior runs in the family, then?"

She whirled on the voice in a blind fit of rage, "Why don't you piss off and go fuck yourself at home? No one fucking wants you here. Do us a fucking favor and leave."

She barely noticed at the time who had said it. Now her anger was sucked out of her like a vacuum as she saw Sharpe staring back at her, eyes brimming with tears. The taller woman backed out of the room, and left.

"So I was about to say… we found a safe area to send shit to. Brought a D-Class back safe and all. Checked out all fine," Edgars muttered sheepishly.

Priss could only take shallow breaths, feeling her chest throb in immense pain any time she tried to breathe in too deep. She undid her jacket and set it aside, trying to calm herself, "Then send me in."


"I don't want to see any more slaves being put through this thing's inter-dimensional reamer. Volunteers only. And I'm volunteering."

Priss wasn't even in charge of the project, but with Marlowe gone and not one of the technicians reporting her to any of the other on-site administrators, she was free to boss everyone around. They still preferred her to Dr. Marlowe.

Sandy shuffled over, and handed Priss a wristband with a built-in tracker, and a small camera to affix to her shirt, "Just hit record once you're in. You've got about an hour of battery, but we're pulling you back after 10 minutes."

"Half an hour," Priss commanded.

Sandy sighed, and glanced at the camera, "D-Class who came back was pretty flustered by what he'd seen…"

"Half an hour is fine," Priss stepped in front of the Anabasis, emptying her pockets and her belt of everything but her pistol. The presence of armed agents still put the techs and researchers on edge. Even the guards' guns were loaded with rubber bullets. Priss's wasn't.

"Stand by," Edgars turned the knobs, and the light started to beam at her, like a weak flashlight.

She kept her eyes open as the world around her dissolved like a heat-induced mirage. The world became hazy, then abruptly cleared. She was still in the room. It was completely empty, and an orange light was shining through the open doorway.

Her movements were sluggish, as if she were underwater. The air was oppressively hot and dry. She made her way out of the room. To her right was a stairwell, just like the school. She made her way up, brushing her hair back and pulling it into a loose braid to keep away from her face. Then she fidgeted with her camera, pressing the red button to begin recording.

The building above was completely barren; no other rooms, walls, dividers of any kind. An empty warehouse, with the front door wide open. Harsh sunlight filtered in from the door, casting everything in an orange pallor. She couldn't tell if it was sunrise or sunset. The closer she got to the open door, the more features she could make out.

The building was at least fifty feet above ground, with no stairwell leading below. Instead, a mound of dirt and sand had been piled up just short of the entrance. The land around the building looked desiccated and flaking, like snakeskin left in the sun.

The sound of footsteps drew her back inside, gun drawn and held steady towards the ground. A figure approached her. It looked like a man, dressed only in a pair of dark blue pants. He looked as though he were missing most of his ribcage and his shoulders — not removed; never there to begin with. Most prominent of all was his head. The upper part seemed to cave in on itself, topped with two fleshy lobes that might have been eyes or its brain, and a mouth that opened and let out a barely audible sound of clicking and croaking. It raised a wobbly wooden stick up at her, starting to croak more audibly as it approached her, jabbing at the air defensively.

Priss took a step to her left, carefully raising the gun up to groin level, finger off the trigger. Then she took another step. The creature stepped to its left as well, preventing her from leaving its direct line of sight — if it even had sight. She continued circling with the creature until her back was to the stairwell she had emerged from. The creature croaked loudly, and lowered its stick, banging on the floor with the bottom of it. The noise it made was surprisingly loud, and almost immediately she heard more croaks echoing around the open space, from other stairwells and openings around her.

She took a quick look behind her, then ran to the stairwell. She couldn't tell if the one with the stick was following her; the croaks didn't let up, and only got louder. By the time she shut the door behind her, she could see movement down the stairs. Several of them must have piled on top of each other, slamming against the door and howling wildly at the door. They probably couldn't move, stuck in the enclosed space against the door.

She sighed, and looked around. There were wooden boxes in the room, nailed shut. She sat on one, and leaned her head against the wall.

"How long was that? Seven, eight minutes…?" She looked down at her wristband. No clock on it. Nothing she could interact with.

At least they couldn't pound on the door. She sighed and shut her eyes. In her mind, she re-played the events that had unfolded. Sharpe… Annie. She'd just been joking, Priss realized too late. She'd never seen Aurianne Sharpe look like that, her eyes so wide, tears welling, shoulders slumped so low. It was terrifying; Sharpe had always been the strong influence in her life, the loving, protective "big sister" she hoped she was towards Rhiannon. Annie had never shown the slightest bit of weakness. Even when it was a genuine time to cry, it was always red eyes and crocodile tears with her, voice never warbling, head always held high.

I bet she has a crush on you, Rhiannon had said to her, derisively, but she doesn't know, does she? Priss lowered her head. She hadn't ever told Sharpe, but somehow she'd found out.

A light shone in her face, and she jumped to her feet. The world became hazy again, and the light grew brighter, with more clear humanlike figures emerging. Then she was suddenly back, the room brightly lit, Edgars standing before her, looking relieved.

"Pulled the plug early?" She realized she was drenched in sweat, and the room was freezing cold.

"No. You were gone for ten hours. We kept trying to bring you back, but… we couldn't risk shifting the controls and bringing back pieces of whatever might've been over there. Or pieces of you," He rubbed his eyes, and turned away, "So we started igniting her every half-hour, just in case. Then every ten minutes. Then everyone went home, preparing for the worst. Some kind of… general relativity thing, I guess?"

She smiled, barely absorbing his words, instead savoring the freezing cold air the Anabasis somehow put out when it started to overheat. She drifted over to the table where she'd left her cellphone, and started to call Aurianne.

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