Hill of Fire

rating: +12+x

Zambia, 1971

The daylight was long gone, yet half the sky was still lit up by the otherworldly green inferno raging out in the brush.

The Scouts' raid on the enemy base was a textbook mission gone right, and all evidence of the place's existence was currently being erased by the firestorm off in the distance. Despite being far, far away from the fiery carnage, Jai could still feel the heat of the flames against his face, and could clearly hear the low rumble of the balefire.

By all means, he was lucky to be alive, but something just felt… off.

This didn't feel right for him to look at. None of this felt right at all.

Nearly half an hour ago, they were simply conducting reconnaissance on the base in the bush, before Hudson dramatically announced they'd be prying it from Great Zimbabwe's control in one fell swoop. The next half hour of close combat had quite literally been a blur, and if Jai was going to make any assumptions today, his case of missing time was likely the work of some "reality benders" at play, a term he borrowed from a squadmate during the fighting. Whatever that meant.

And the flames…

The fire was probably the worst thing about this all. Not only was green, it was alive. It seemed to and move about on its own accord, like flaming fingers of death stretching out and bounding across open ground. It would pause on occasion—as if looking for tents or bodies left behind by the raiders, or a communist fighter that hadn't been finished off after the gunbattle—before moving out to burn down something else. The fact that a member of Hudson's team—who was already more clockwork than human—was capable of unleashing such a destructive force upon the enemy solely from his palms completely frightened Jai.

It made him think back to the monster in Vietnam that he fought; were there Soviet or American weapons like this; humans converted into unstoppable, full-metal killing machines? It made him wonder if anyone else in Hudson's team was hiding some anomalous ability like that, let alone if the man himself was anomalous.

Jai truly stuck out like a broken thumb among such extraordinary men, but maybe it was better for him to remain normal. After all, he did enjoy his humanity.

As he watched the other Scouts scour the remains of the base, tossing the remains of GZ tribesmen, equipment, and ancient-looking tomes alike towards the green bonfire, he heard the rustling of leaves and the scattering of brass casings behind him. He slowly spun around, his tired eyes meeting with the Afrikaner mastermind behind the whole raid that materialized out of the brush.

"Hudson." Jai muttered at the commando, turning back to the verdant inferno.

Hudson cracked a small smile, burying his hands in his uniform's pockets. "How'd you enjoy your first raid, boykie? Your first real "big one" into GZ turf?"

"It was terrifying." Jai answered plainly, staring down at his trusty M16 slung over his chest, which he just now noticed was jammed.

He just sighed, exasperated. There was only so much a marine with surplus American equipment could do against someone that could quite literally warp reality around them, so it was a miracle he had even survived the whole ordeal.

Jai pulled the magazine out of the rifle and yanked the slide back, blankly watching the jammed round fall out of the ejection port and hit the ground. As he let go, the bolt shot forwards with a metallic clang, but he continued staring at the ground. "I don't know how I lived."

"You lived. That's what matters." Hudson replied, nodding. "At least you're bein' honest."

He stepped up beside the young Scout, as if to watch the fire with him. "I remember my first raid like it was yesterday. I was kinda like you; young, scared shitless, had to grab an anomaly that could melt someone's mind if handled improperly. This was back during my tenure with the Skippers. Which reminds me…"

Hudson suddenly turned to Jai, reaching forth and plucking something that the ex-marine had stuffed into his webbing. It was a manila folder Jai had fetched from a tent before the clockwork Insurgent started burning everything down, emblazoned with an oddly familiar black insignia comprised of two black circular symbols, with three black arrows facing inwards. Jai didn't think much of the find, and only assumed it to be some important intel of some kind, so Hudson's interest in it wasn't too surprising.

"Good call on not burning this, Mr. Perryman." Hudson held the dossier up for emphasis, winking. "And thanks for giving it to me."

Jai made no other protests to this gesture aside from a shrug. "What is that, Hudson?"

"A dossier, boet."

"Could you be a little more specific, man?"

Hudson smirked. "Top secret Skipper files. This is the key to everything, my friend, not just to why we're here and why we fight. To the Insurgency."

Jai blinked, a bit too combat fatigued to start thinking philosophical tonight. However, mention of the Scouts' shadowy benefactor that supplied them with weapons and equipment was enough to pique his interest; he almost rarely heard about them save for a few passing comments among Hudson’s men.

He exhaled out his nostrils. "Okay. Then open it."

Hudson did exactly that, and presented Jai with a document with so many redactions, he assumed it was just a black sheet of paper on first glance. As his eyes focused on the paper, though, he could make out blurry letters hidden in in the black boxes and between strange symbols, forming nonsensical phrases and words out of seemingly nothingness. The words "retrocausaul" and "contained," whatever they meant, stuck out for only a brief second… before fading away, the thought escaping his head as if he hadn’t even seen the words at all.

The one thing which remained untouched was a black and white picture attached to the upper left hand corner of the sheet.

Jai's mind began to wander along with his eyes. He saw a tall tower made of stone hidden in the monochrome mountains; a structure that was remarkably ancient, yet simultaneously advanced in its own right. It towered high over the trees, too big to even fit in the tiny photograph attached to the dossier, leaving its true size up to one's imagination.

"GZ's ziggurat?" Jai muttered out loud as he withdrew from the paper and staggered backwards. His legs buckled and he nearly stumbled onto his back as the time he had shed looking at the paper finally caught up to him, almost as if he was jet lagged. By then, the fire had since moved on to a different portion of the base.

…What was he doing again?

"…Wait… What? What did I—"

"You were just exposed to what is known as an antimeme, my friend," Hudson explained. "An antimeme is a self-censoring piece of information, hence why you feel you are missing time. Had I not been on mnestics before this, I would've forgotten that I was holding this document." He paused, stuffing it back into the manila folder. "They must not want the secret to get out, not even among their own peers."

Jai rubbed his temples and blinked a few times. "Shit… secret?"

"The tower is a representation of one of the fundamental forces of reality, Jai, and the GZ savages are close to weaponizing it." Hudson began wandering around the area, holding his chin with one hand. "If they finish it, you can say goodbye to Rhodesia. Goodbye to the rest of the free world, for all I care."

Jai glanced at the folder Hudson carried in his free hand, before looking back up at the man. He shrugged; the simplest solution immediately made itself clear. "So, we just blow it up, then."

"Nonononono. Not quite." Hudson shook his head. "That tower represents something very important to us, my friend. We can't simply blow it up. As of now, simply seizing it is too dangerous…"

Jai watched Hudson squat down, hand still on his chin. He shrugged again. "So, what do we do then, Hudson?"


"…What?" Jai raised his voice. "Why?! Don't you have a plan, Hudson? Doesn't Command have a plan, like they always do?"

He huffed, pacing back and forth as he tried to rationalize whatever nonsense Hudson was talking about regarding the ziggurat, all while the man just fucking sat there and just pondered like a Greek philosopher.

This wasn't making any goddamn sense at all, and after having seen a battle that also made no sense, with reality bending around him like it was clay, and seeing people getting turned inside out or stuffed into singularities the size of a penny, Jai wasn't having the cryptic answers anymore.

He scoffed bitterly. "Someone better have a goddamn plan, 'cause I don't know what the hell I'm doing here, man. Don't know what I'm fighting fo-"

"Fokken kont— shut up, Jai." Hudson snapped, sticking a finger out at the man. Jai immediately did as he was ordered as Hudson stood up, towering over him as he began snapping in a mixture of English and Afrikaans. "You dof, kont? Are you really giving me lip, 'cause ya wanna be babied through this whole process? Fokkoff." He paused, placing his hand on his chin again as he stared out towards the fire.

"I'm thinking, Mr. Perryman. This is a very important fight to us.. to me.. and if you're too ignorant to have the patience for this kind of work, I can have your lazy ass go home and keep doing mundane kak with the Rhodies. Or…" His voice trailed off. "You can calm down, and listen, and understand what it is we are doing here."

Jai's silence was enough of an answer for Hudson. He stood there for about a minute, allowing the short-tempered Afrikaner to calm down, before breaking the silence. "What are you thinking about, Hudson?"

"The future, Mr. Perryman," Hudson began. "I'm thinking about what's on my mind, what's on others' minds, and what's on your mind. I'm thinking about what's going to happen tomorrow, once I deliver this report to Delta Command—if I'll even deliver it to them. I'm thinking about what it means for the Insurgency in the future, and I'm thinking about this tower. I'm constantly worryin' about it."

Jai took a good minute to pause, quietly observing his surroundings. The green blaze had slowly begun to die out, blanketing the world once again in darkness, lit up only by the moon and flashlights attached to the Scouts' webbing and weapons.

Finally, he spoke up. "What about the past?"

Hudson stiffened for a moment. Jai also stiffened, sensing he had struck a nerve as Hudson turned to him.

"I need not worry about the past, Jai. The way I see it, what's happened in the past stays in the past. You, of course, will think otherwise. What matters to me is the present and what we make of it, and the future."

Before he had the chance to reply, Jai saw Hudson face him fully, resting his hands on the upper half of the battle rifle slung around his shoulders. "Tell me, Jai. Do you believe in God?"

"Uh." Jai paused. The question was a no-brainer, really. He had been to church for as long as he could remember, so why was he taking so long to answer his question?

"Yeah." He muttered. "You?"

Hudson shook his head. "Not quite. It depends on what you mean by God. I don’t believe in organized hierarchies—popes, cardinals, priests, crap like that. The way I see it, they're all just men, and all men are equally fallible. I believe in the concept of God, or a God. The fact that we're here on this rock to begin with begs the question of why we're here…"

Jai tilted his head—the tangent Hudson was going on was a bit unexpected, but he couldn't help but be a little inquisitive. "And that is?"

"…I believe we're here—that some God put us here—to make a path for ourselves, Jai. To pursue our dreams and motives, and fulfill our fate."

Hudson pointed to Jai once again. "I know you have dreams, and I know you fight every day to see them become a reality—that's what gets you up out of bed every morning. Outside of my dreams for profit, I know my aspirations are more prominent than the dreams of others. It doesn't matter the amount of dreams you have or the kind, there are always those that are more important than others.”

Jai raised an eyebrow. "So… you're saying my dreams of helping my Mom get by and, I dunno, savin' the world, they don't matter compared to yours?"

"I'm not saying it," Hudson gestured to himself and shook his head. "But in the grand scheme of things, yes. You can say so."

Jai rolled his eyes and scoffed. "Bullshit. What makes yours so important? What's it even gotta do with our mission?"

"My dream…" Hudson paused. "Is to best Fate. I want to take it by the scruff of its neck and make it my bitch. Some might say that we have no control over our lives, Jai, much less our own free will. I think otherwise. Fate is a cage, and its our job as Insurgents to dismantle it and break the norm."

"And the ziggurat represents Fate." Jai finished.

"Yes… which is why we must seize it, before Great Zimbabwe takes it and uses it to wipe us out. As humans, it is our responsibility— no, our destiny, to fight for our own fate. Would you want to make your own destiny, Jai, or be doomed to just following the cosmic status quo?"

Hudson paused, then smirked again, as if he knew Jai's answer already. "That's what we are fighting for. That's our war. To master our destiny."

Jai stood there, unsure of how to process Hudson's cryptic rambling for now. He watched the man stand up and pocket the dossier before turning back to Jai. "That's the Plan, my boy. But before we can take on Great Zimbabwe and master our fate, we need the tools to do so. We need to… take inventory."

Hudson spoke no more words as he stepped off, disappearing into the darkness as the rest of the Scouts left their security perimeter, following their leader out of the area.

Jai stood alone in the darkness, watching the last embers of the green bonfire fade in the dirt, before all was dark once again.



Rhodesia, 1973

Jai awoke to the sounds of gunfire and heavy grunting.

He leaned up, his blurry vision focusing on an approaching ZANU fighter in the middle of their campsite, who looked like he was on the verge of death. The man staggered past his fallen comrades, his uniform stained with mud, blood, and sweat, as he slowly advanced towards a single body lying on the ground.

Blood splotches from numerous bullet wounds peppered the bald giant's Rhodesian brushstroke camo uniform and flak jacket, but he stirred regardless, heaving and grumbling with each breath.

Darren was still kicking.

“Come on… you… mother… fucker

Darren fumbled with the pistol in his blood-covered hands as he spat towards the injured communist guerrilla limping towards him. Despite being riddled with more bullets than he had even fired at the enemy, the Insurgent was still kicking, and didn’t seem to want to go down anytime soon. “You… you wanna fuckin’ go?! I'll f…fuckin'… kill you…”

He had to admire Darren’s tenacity, but Jai knew the man was only doing this to stall the enemy. He was running on adrenaline fumes, and there was no way in hell he’d be leaving this one alive.

“Fuck.. you.. let's go…” With a growl, Darren weakly shoved the magazine into the pistol and flicked the slide release. The slide shot forwards, and then Jai saw him extend the pistol towards the—


Jai flinched as the terrible rattle of automatic gunfire suddenly filled the air, dropping the guerrilla like he was a sack of potatoes. Darren’s body also went limp, his pistol hitting the ground beside him with a muffled clunk. The man’s heavy breathing and determined grunts were slowly replaced by wet gurgling; Darren was choking on his own blood.

There came a call from the trees: “Alpha, you up?!”

There was an answer… “I’m up!”

…and another one. “I’m good!”

“Two and three, push through and clear!" The first voice ordered. "One body on the Land Rover! Bounding!"

Americans. Why were American mercenaries working for communists, let alone Great Zimbabwe?

The shooter, a white man in expensive black tactical gear that wore one red glove, advanced out of the tree line, flanked by two similarly-equipped soldiers. He checked the area with a quick three second scan, pointed his MP5 down at Darren, then proceeded to empty another long burst into the man’s abdomen.

Before Jai could even let out a gasp, Mira had a hand over his mouth. Something wet dripped from his nose onto her hand, and he smelled copper. His head was spinning and throbbing at the same time, but he made no other vocalizations as Mira dragged him further into the bush. There was nothing he could've done, yet, at the same time, he felt as if there was only the slightest chance that they could've saved Darren.

The shooter kicked at Darren’s corpse with a foot, then let his sub machine gun fall to his side on its sling. His gloved right hand shot up to the headset worn under his cap. “Command, Alpha-1-Lead. Campsite reached. Times one Insurgent down. We’re looking for the other two now, over.”

There were men all over their camp. The other two soldiers in dark military uniforms searched their bedrolls with flashlights attached to their SMGs. A handful of communist guerrillas speaking Shona policed the area, sifting through the rucksacks they had hooked onto the side of the Land Rover, and chuckling at the occasional anomalous trinket they plundered from their vehicle.

At the center of the formation was the tall tribal man Jai had seen before he blacked out, who scanned the area in a slow, almost robotic manner. His eyes passed over the duo’s general direction several times, almost as if he innately knew they were there, so Jai only hoped Mira had a plan for dealing with someone like him that didn’t involve shooting their way out.

It wasn’t like they had any other options left anyways.

Their campsite was overrun, and they had almost no way out… and Mira knew it too. He looked up at her eyes, as if accepting what was going to happen and longing for some semblance of solace from her, but then she did something unexpected.

She retrieved a folded patrol cap from the back pocket of her shorts, patterned in the same “duck hunter” style camouflage she wore. Jai couldn’t exactly make out what was embroidered on the front of the hat since it was so dark, but it mattered little to him anyways.

“Mira, what are you—“

“Go north towards the main road, heading back towards the firebase,” she instructed with a whisper, fitting the hat onto his head, though one of her hands still remained on the brim for some reason. The other tightened something long and dark-colored on the end of her rifle's barrel. “Don’t even worry about concealment, Jay. They won’t even know you’re here.”

“Wait, what about y—“

Mira removed her hands from the hat, and, almost as if she was ignoring his protests and vocalizations, quickly disappeared into the brush behind them. He shut up and slowed down his breathing as best as he could and rolled onto his stomach, searching for an opening to use to escape.

The enemy chattered among themselves as he laid prone in the bush, as still as a rock. Jai took the time to let them move, and listen in. Maybe an opening would present itself if he waited—after all, patience was a virtue.

“Alpha-1, continue searching the area for the other two. Keep your eyes peeled,” the shooter that had executed Darren announced out loud. His eyes then met with the tribal-looking man covered in war paint, who waved a hand over an injured guerrilla, seemingly "wiping" the gunshot wound completely off the man's arm. The shooter looked up at the man, seemingly unfazed by the height difference or the reality bender’s presence to begin with. “Your highness. Anything from you?”

Your highness? Jai cocked an eyebrow, puzzled.

“Be on the lookout, Commander,” the Great Zimbabwean spoke in a thick accent, holding a familiar-looking M16 up to view under the flare round's light. Jai’s eyes widened as he saw the taped jungle mags and war paint of his rifle, and very nearly shouted at the man to drop it, only to helplessly watch the rifle dissolve into sand between the tribal man’s fingers.

“Two still remain in the area, but one of them is hidden,” he finished, folding his hands behind his back.

Jai saw the soldier tilt his head, scanning the treeline. “What makes you think that, Prince?”

“I could feel his presence for a brief moment…” the “prince” continued, muttering in Shona as he paced around the forest. “Then, it vanished. It was not like death, for it was simply as if he was not here.”

Jai saw the enemy commander frown, like he knew something the tribal man didn't. “Shit. Get me the memetics expert, be careful for any anti-memes in the area.”

Jai took that as his cue to move and began dragging himself through the foliage, staying as low to the ground as possible as he made his way over to a bush adjacent to a tree.

Once concealed, he melted into the shadows and reached towards the right strap of his web gear, undoing a button for a knife sheath with his thumb. His combat knife’s blade glistened for a split second under the moonlight as he held it in a reverse grip, then waited.

There were only a dozen or so more trees left before the forest abruptly made way to tall grass, where Jai knew it would be impossible for anyone would find him in there. He watched from the bush as four guerrillas approached in a fanned out delta formation, their weapons moving about erratically as they whispered to each other in Shona.

They stopped by his tree, so close that Jai could practically smell them. His heart pounded again and again, desperate to break free of his chest, as he slowly raised his knife up.


More frantic whispers in Shona. The ZANU fighters by his hiding spot scattered to investigate the sound of a breaking twig, leaving only one of their own to hold the position they had occupied before. The man turned to watch his comrades leave, presenting his exposed back to Jai.

His hand was around the man's mouth before his knife entered the base of the guerrilla's neck. Jai and his kill entered the bush in one, fluid motion, and after withdrawing his knife from the man's neck, he bounded over to another tree.

His head snapped around the trunk as he watched the other three guerrillas disappear into the darkness. He only had a few more trees left… and as he rushed over to another bush to assume cover, he—


Another flare round popped overhead, illuminating the figure of the tall African man covered in war paint, who was standing right in front of him. Jai quickly scrambled behind the nearest tree as he watched the man look down, inspecting the trail of boot prints in the dirt that seemed to abruptly end at the other side of the tree.

"I know that you are here." He paused, then adjusted his tone. "Come out, and I shall spare killing you."

That voice. The commanding tone. The baritone boom. What the hell was wrong with it?

Jai felt as if it was directly addressing him, violently rattling his body with each syllable, like some invisible force was grabbing his head and forcing him to look straight into the man's eyes. The only reason he even noticed that he was slowly moving from behind the tree to face the "prince" while reaching for Mira's patrol cap was because he heard a bloodcurdling scream behind him.

One of the men in black tactical gear spontaneously burst into flames, wildly flailing his arms around and shouting as his body lit up the night and a few bushes around him. Their commander screamed out the word "CONTACT!" as the muffled cough of suppressed rifle fire echoed out from the flanks, followed by the sound of several bodies dropping to the ground.

Amid the chaos, Jai then saw an opportunity too satisfying to ignore as he regained control of his body looked back over to the prince.

His pistol cleared its holster, barrel aimed right on the temple of the Great Zimbabwean, whose attention was laser-focused on the flaming man. Jai's index finger snapped over to the trigger and squeezed.


"Aw, fuckin' piece of shit." A stoppage.

Jai watched the GZ "prince" snap over to the sound of his voice. He raised a palm, probably readying himself to quite literally wipe him from existence. As he prepared to launch himself to the side and pray he'd make it out in time, Jai suddenly felt a sweltering heat over his head as a ball of fire blasted over him.

The prince swatted the incoming fireball into a nearby tree, too focused on Mira briefly making herself visible in the brush to even care about the tree splitting in half and falling down near him. Mira's rifle was slung over her shoulder as she fired from the hip, her free hand surrounded by glowing and rotating geometric runes, as if she was preparing yet another thaumic attack.

The bullets fired seemed to have no effect against the prince as he held his hand out towards Mira, as if they were simply disappearing before they could hit him. Jai blinked, and then saw the space in front of him being folded like paper, as the prince instantly halved the distance between himself and the woman.

Hell no. She wasn't dying today either.

Jai smacked the magazine upwards as hard as he could, yanked the slide back, and pulled the trigger twice.

The "prince" hit the ground beside Mira, dead on impact as his body rolled past her and settled in a nearby bush. Jai's aim snapped right, and then left—one of the guerrillas turned towards her and raised his Kalashnikov, but then crumpled down underneath his own weight as two more .45 rounds from Jai's pistol entered his chest and forehead.

Mira flinched for a moment, as if she was unsure of who was shooting, but kept moving nonetheless. She rushed away from the campsite, an action which Jai mirrored without any hesitation whatsoever as he scampered towards the treeline.

"Fall back, FALL BACK, the Prince is down, two contacts retrea—"

The enemy commander's voice bled away into the background ambience of the veritable bush fire as Jai barreled into the almost chest high field of grass. He tore the patrol cap off his head then raised his head up towards the sky. "MIRA!"

No response. "Oh, shit. Aw, fuck."

Paranoia kicked in as he truly understood the situation he was in: He was in the middle of tall grass, alone. He was outgunned, and had no idea where to go from here.

"Jay, come on. I've got you. We're not out of this yet."

Or maybe not.

Mira's arm suddenly extended out from the grass, tugging him along as they hurried off into the night. They ran for what felt like hours through the tall grass, and right before Jai thought his lungs and knees were going to give out, they spilled out of the grassy field and onto a dirt road. Jai promptly fell to the ground and went on all fours, gasping to catch his breath.

They sat by the side of the road for a while, panting heavily. Jai looked up and around the area, finding that the dirt road led up a hill—a good sign that they were very close to the firebase. "We're clear, Mira. We're clear." He sighed in relief, looking over at her. "Did… ah… did you grab what you could?"

Mira only sat up on her knees and dropped two rucksacks off her back, sliding one over to Jai. In exchange, Jai tossed her the patrol cap, which she quickly snatched and placed into a pocket on her shorts. "The hat worked… I think, I'll give you that, Mira."

Again, no response. He sighed. "Nothing, huh?" Jai scoffed, thrusting his hands to the side as he shrugged. "Then what do you want me to say?"

She finally murmured something. "…Why am I doing this?"


She made eye contact with him. "Nothing. I don't need you to say anything, Jai."

He scoffed again. "What, no 'thank you, Jay,' or 'thanks for having my back, Jay,' huh? Nothing?"



"What the fuck do you want, Jai, a fucking kiss?" Mira snapped, standing upright as she snatched her rifle off the ground. "We're done for. Yes, I am very thankful you helped me get out there, but we're fucked right now. We need to plan our next moves carefully, and I've no clue if Red Team is even still alive out there."

She then paused. "Are they? You're the one with the radio."

Jai hissed as he looked back towards the flaming forest they had escaped from. "Fuck, man. Radio was on the Land Rover's dashboard. Either those goons took it or the bush fire destroyed it."

"For fuck's sake." Mira leaned her head back, letting out a long "uuuuuuugh" that conveyed her frustration quite well. "We've been made, and if I were to guess, that was the Foundation ambushing us."

"Which means…?" Jai asked, expecting her to finish his query.

She rolled her eyes. "Which means we're fucked, Jai. Once they've found us, the Foundation will stop at nothing to wipe us out. Our best bet is making it back to the firebase and figuring out what to do from there."

"We ain't too far off," Jai pointed uphill, grabbing his rucksack. "It's just up that hill and straight ahead. Walked this route all the time."

She stepped past him and began trudging up the path. "Then lets go."

They said nothing else to each other as they hiked uphill, just as the sun's rays began to peek over the horizon. Jai had no idea how long they had been out, nor how long they had been running, but it had to have been no more than an hour if the sun was already coming up this early.

All they had to do was get back to the firebase, recuperate, and hope Hudson or someone else was on station to help them move on.


Jai suddenly froze, hearing an all-too familiar droning noise approach; a sound he knew very well from his time in Vietnam. Without any warning, he grabbed Mira and threw the two of them under a tree. "Get down!"

Her face scrunched up as she glared at him. "Look, Jai, I appreciate you too, but not like this. Please get the fuck off—"

"Shut up. Listen."

Mira cut herself off as she, too, heard the droning noise getting louder, instantly understanding what it was as a huge shadow passed by them, followed by the deafening roar of rotor blades.

A black helicopter, too sleek to be considered a Huey, but unmistakably American in design, flew low and fast overhead. It skimmed across the ground, presumably staying low to avoid radar detection, often dangerously low at some points as it maneuvered past the hills like an agile knife in the sky. A cloud of dust chased it as it sped past them, thankfully ignoring their existence.

Jai watched as the helicopter became little more than a black speck off in the horizon. He and Mira both looked at each other, as if they both knew the implications of what that was.

That helicopter had come from the firebase.

As the sun inched its way across the horizon, lighting up the sky in a lavender-topped amber, they saw a thick column of smoke rising up behind another hill, an oddity which stained the sky with a smoky black color. The overwhelming stench of something rotting and cooking at the same time filled their nostrils, and when they crested the hill, Jai shouted out loud at what he saw.

"Oh, fuck."

The watchtowers had been blown to smithereens, and debris peppered the ground throughout the base. Their vehicles' engines, along with the rest of the motor pool, had been destroyed with what appeared to be thermite grenades, given the sizable holes in their hoods. What remained of the central command building had been reduced to a smoldering pile of debris, as if a huge fire had been raging the day before.

In the center of the firebase was a massive, smoking pile of… something, with the burnt remains of the Rhodesian flag draped over it. The stench of death permeated the mound, filling his nostrils with the sickly fumes, but Jai's curiosity was getting the better of him. Despite Mira's protests, he marched down the hill and entered the base, adamant on getting a better look at what the burning mound in the center was.

A bony, scorched arm reached out for him from the mound, forever frozen in place. Jai's jaw dropped down to his chin as he saw this. His eyes slowly traveled up from the arm, spotting a charred skull and torso… and then…

"Oh, God…"

He felt disgusted. He doubled over and nearly vomited at what he saw, an indescribable feeling of dread overwhelming him as he saw dozens of similar burnt bodies, all blended together into a singular, coagulated mass of death.



Masvingo, Rhodesia, 1973

It didn't take long for Hudson and what little men he had left to enter the valley and establish an observation post overlooking the town of Masvingo. By that time, the sun had since come up, and their element of stealth was essentially now null, but at least they still could rely on speed, surprise, and violence of action.

Good enough.

The valley had several cliffs which dropped down into forests below, all of which surrounded the ancient ruins of Great Zimbabwe, but he and his boys knew their environment well. Crossing through the area was a breeze, let alone getting a Unimog up here, but moving down the cliffs without falling several hundred feet to one's doom was the bigger challenge here.

He had time to worry about that later. For now, his eyes were focused on the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, and whatever "tower" he was so adamant on finding. So far, he could only see a collection of small pre-fab buildings and vehicles, likely belonging to whatever Foundation skeleton crew had been assigned to watch the provisional site in the area, alongside a handful of communist guerrillas working alongside GZ that were tasked to guard the area.

The obvious lack of a tower or ziggurat here was most jarring to him, let alone the lack of any jungle whatsoever, but Hudson Croix was a determined man. The Great Zimbabweans likely had a trick or two up their sleeves to explain the lack of a tower here.

Luckily, Hudson had a few tricks of his own. He withdrew from his binoculars and turned to the Unimog. "Let's begin, shall we, boys?"

The canvas covering on the back of the truck was pulled off, revealing a large iron church bell suspended beneath a wooden post. Its clapper had been tied to a rung on the truck's bed, effectively preventing the bell from being rung.

The Insurgency called it the Bell of Entropy. The effects of ringing it were completely random, but were almost always extremely destructive in nature for the intended receiving end. It, along with the enigmatic Staff of Hermes, had been one of the first items their motley crew of Insurgents had nabbed from the Foundation in their heyday, and it only ever saw the light of day during the Insurgency's largest sieges of the most secure Foundation sites.

Yet, here it was, in the hands of a madman in the middle of Africa, about to be rung.

Hudson reached behind his back and pulled a large, freshly-sharpened bowie knife from a sheath beneath his webbing's buttpack. He watched the swirling patterns on the Damascus steel blade flow on their own accord, and inspected the esoteric runes inscribed upon its bone handle, before grabbing hold of the clapper and slicing through the rope tethering it to the rung.

In that moment, Hudson truly felt like he was the right hand of God. What would happen when the Bell was rung today? Would it cause a massive storm to appear over the horizon, decimating everything in its path? Would it bring about widespread and instantaneous death to all that listened to it? Would it cause a column of fire to erupt, consuming everything in its path? What if it did neither, and instead simply caused the Tower, wherever it may be, to cease to exist?

Only one way to find out.

He pulled back on the clapper, said a silent prayer for good luck, then swung the clapper forwards with all of his might.


The ensuing noise was otherworldly, rattling the entire earth around Hudson, his men, and Great Zimbabwe. Hudson's ears rang for what felt like an eternity, and as he looked up, he could now fully see the devastation that he had wrought upon the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and Masvingo. Fissures split open in the earth, swallowing a handful of the ancient ruins and the Foundation personnel outside whole, before the earth mended back together like a stitched mouth.

A loud pop, similar to that of a thunder clap, filled the air, followed by the deafening crack of glass shattering. A blast of gale-force winds suddenly buffeted Hudson and his team as they took cover behind the rocks, watching as a small crater formed beneath the ruins, as if there were an invisible explosion right in front of them.

The once great ruins of Great Zimbabwe collapsed into a mess of stones and dirt, resembling the skeleton of a massive creature that had rotted away to time. And in the center of it all…

"Dimensional tear, spotted ahead," the clockwork insurgent called out loud, extending a metallic finger down to the aberration. “Middle of the ruins.”

"Tear" was the easiest way for them to describe it, as it really was more akin to a fractal pattern of nigh-incomprehensible holes and shapes that seemed to distort and morph on its own, with no semblance of pattern or consistency. In the middle of the shifting pattern of space, though, he could make out tall trees and a thick canopy, land features which did not correspond with anything in the real world. Which meant…

"Ahh. Good call, Mr. Gideon. So, it seems GZ has a pocket dimension hiding their ziggurat…" Hudson deduced, rubbing his chin. "And we just brute forced our way in."

Three tall figures covered in war paint stumbled out of the fold in spacetime, assuming a hasty defensive circle around the rift. GZ's cavalry had arrived, but could three reality benders hold a defensive against a platoon of Hudson's best?

The Afrikaner stood up, unfolding his rifle's stock. He nodded to his men, then made a fanning motion towards the remains of the ruins. Half the group split up to cover one side of the front, while Hudson mirrored the movement to cover the other flank. It was a simple tactic, really: surround the enemy on both sides, then push through and meet at the center.

His men knew the rest of the drill well: pick a man, stick with him, and suppress him if he went into cover, to allow a buddy to flank around and take him down. Once each and every member of the team had acquired a target, Hudson raised a hand, counting down from five with his fingers.

At one, he raised his rifle and fired thrice, dropping the poor soul assigned to guarding what remained of the front end of the ruins. A brief staccato of gunfire rang out all around Hudson as the bodies of CTs fell all around them, too stunned by the Bell's echo and the Scouts' speed to even retaliate.

As they pushed into the center of the ruins, the three reality benders on guard split up; a mistake that Hudson knew would cost them dearly. Hudson clung close to a stone wall and slithered along it, finding one of the reality bender's blind spot easily enough. His aim snapped towards the Great Zimbabwean currently focused on suppressing one element of his team as his finger left the trigger guard.


Hudson rapidly pulled the trigger three times. Three bullets ripped through the man's body, the third slicing through his neck and causing blood to spray against the ground.

As he slumped against the wall, Hudson watched Gideon suddenly rush past his line of sight, grabbing a large piece of the stony wall to use as cover against another GZ warrior. The light in front of the clockwork titan seemed to bend for a moment, as if being viewed under water, then Hudson saw the rock-shield explode.

Gideon was nearly blasted off his feet as a trench-like gash appeared in the ground beneath the man's feet, part of his uniform blowing away to reveal the excess of mechanical parts and cogs making up his extremities.

The clockwork soldier regained his footing, storming past his fallen comrades that unfortunately hadn't been spared from the thaumic explosion. The gears on his arm cranked wildly, then hissed, as if letting out built-up pressure. His arm swung forwards, practically caving the Great Zimbabwean's face inwards as Gideon launched him towards the another stony wall.

The third saw this and turned away from the group of Scouts that had pinned him down, then raised his palms towards Gideon. Two more shots crackled from the flanks, then the man found himself wailing over the loss of his fingers and hands as Hudson approached from cover, lowering his rifle. "Gideon, on him, now. Looks like I've disarmed him. Hah!"

The half-clockwork Insurgent nodded and stomped forward. He snatched the crippled Great Zimbabwean by the scalp, forcing him down to his knees. Hudson inspected the man for himself and cringed in his face, stepping backwards a few paces at the warrior's uncannily youthful appearance. "Jesus. Kid has to be only a day older than eighteen—why's GZ fielding kids now, eh?"

"He can't understand us," Gideon gave the young man a few taps of encouragement on the side of his face with his free hand. Their captive glowered at them in response. "Or, maybe, he's just choosing not to talk."

"He'll talk. In due time." Hudson nodded. His head whipped around the ruins, as if trying to visually check if they were in the clear, and wincing at the chilling display of carnage all around them, not even daring to bother counting the bodies. He then found himself peering into the incomprehensible pattern that existed in front of him, wondering what they'd find on the other side of the fissure, and wondering if he even had the manpower for such an ambitious operation.

"Gideon, casualty count?" Hudson asked, fearing the worst as a lump formed in his throat.

The half-clockwork man's tone was flavorless. "Seven dead, one wounded. Are we goin' in?”

Hudson shook his head. “No, I’ve got to make a call first. Get the Bell out of here and back to a drop-off site. Set up a perimeter—nothing leaves, and nothing enters. I’ve got my best men here, don’t want to waste it at all.”

His voice tapered off towards the end of his order. "I've already lost enough today."

With a nod, Gideon stepped off to do as he was told. Hudson withdrew from the anomaly and reached for the handheld radio clipped to the front half of his uniform, then spoke into it. “Hudson to Walls, we’ve reached Masvingo. I have a dimensional tear in sight… this must be where the bastards are hiding. Waiting on your okay to move in, over.”

There was a pause, then Walls spoke. The reluctance in the General's voice on the other end of the radio was palpable. “Walls to Hudson… acknowledged, hold off on that push, please. Standby.

“…What?!” Hudson nearly shouted into the radio. “But… we’re right here—”

"Standby, Hudson."

Hudson shut up, lowered his radio, and then prepared to wait for an uncomfortably long time.

His fist balled as his eyes shot around the clearing; to Gideon's glowing green eyes, to their GZ captive, and then to the bodies of his men that hadn't made it. He counted seven bodies, true to Gideon's count, then swore to himself under his breath.

This was unbelievable. Why weren't they moving into Great Zimbabwe right now, killing everything in their path to seize control of the tower? Why were they waiting? What was so important to General Walls that necessitated the Scouts wait?

For every mission the Scouts went on, impossible odds were achieved. Every single mission Hudson planned out himself or received from Delta Command was an immaculate example of how well things went when everyone did what they were supposed to do to a T. Even today, after such a jarring and costly ambush from the Foundation, their might was still present. Taking out one reality bender was a challenge, but taking out three at once was a miracle.

There was a reason they were regarded as some of the most dangerous men on the continent, even by the Foundation's standards. Today's mission was executed perfectly… and even if they had faced such challenging resistance here, it was nothing they could overcome… which made his suspicions that Prime Minister Smith had something to do with this annoying delay all the more viable.

Hudson knew Ian Smith like the back of his hand, though, and could read him like a book: Ian thought of Hudson's Scouts as expendable, at best. Valuable for sure, but losses in a unit that weren't Rhodesian were neglected. Minor losses like today were devastating enough to Hudson, let alone major losses like the Foundation's raid, but to the people in Salisbury, they were no better than a name on a piece of paper.

All because what, they want to keep the Veil up? Because the Rhodesians don't need to know that their existence is being threatened by these savages? Hudson glared at his capture as he thought, scowling at them as he grunted. Fucking ridiculous. This better be worth my time.

Seven of his men were gone, his firebase was gone, and Salisbury was going to treat them as non-critical losses, all because Ian wanted to keep his precious little Veil up. He was going to learn, in due time.

Gideon stepped over to Hudson, watching the man pout for a minute before speaking. "Hudson. Bell of Entropy's been evaced, got the perimeter set up. If I may ask…"

"You think this is intentional?" Hudson asked, as if stealing the words from Gideon's mind. He shook his head. "No, nonononono. Can't be, the Skippers must've been planning this for years, so I have to give it to them for being so patient and precise. It seems they've learned from me well."

"Maybe they just want to see you go off the deep end," Gideon guessed with a shrug. "Put the Insurgency in disarray, then send their most talented operator into madness. Who knows."

Hudson was about to say something in agreement with Gideon's assertion when the radio crackled to life once again. He raised it up to his ear and listened in intently.

"Hudson, this is Walls. I'm sorry."

"What?" Hudson raised an eyebrow. "Peter, what's going on? Why are you saying 'sorry'? What do you mean?"

"Hudson, I am speaking to you on a private channel. I'm sorry, but I tried to make them reconsider this."

"Reconsider what? Walls, just speak to me."

Hudson couldn't see him on the other end of the radio, but he knew Peter was probably looking down and defeated, judging by the tone of his voice. "They've ended the partnership with the Chaos Insurgency. Ian has disavowed Hudson's Scouts as a formal Rhodesian unit, effective immediately. I did what I—"

Hudson nearly snapped the radio in half with his bare hands. "They WHAT?!"

"I mean exactly what I say, Hudson. I tried to negotiate against it, but Ian saw the Foundation's operation and the loss of your firebase as a loss too critical to ignore. He's going to be delegating your responsibilities to the Rhodesian Special Air Service now."

Hudson felt his eye twitch. "That… that kont can't fucking do that, man." He hissed. "Look at all that I've done for this country, what we've done. Do you not see the bullshit here, Walls?"

"It's not like I can say much anyways…" Peter sighed. "The vote was unanimous."

Hudson paced back and forth, gripping the handheld radio so tightly, he saw his knuckles beginning to turn white. "Unanimous. Unbelievable." He huffed in disbelief. "Well, I'm not afraid to say what's on my mind. I could care less about what some idiot politician wants to think—I should've been there."

"The decision was held with you in absentia… because they did not want interference from the anomalous community in the vote." Peter paused again. "For now, they are offering you positions as external contractors or officers within the Rhodesian Military, as compensation for y—"

"They…" Hudson suddenly stopped, then just cackled in a hostile tone. "They… really think that is good enough payment? Ranks? Money? They just want me to stop and drop everything, after what I've done for years and what I've seen? Seeing… seeing the anomalous for what it truly is does things to people, and you know this…"


"You've fucked yourself and your country. The Great Zimbabweans will RIP US APART if they even get the chance, and they won't just stop at me, Peter." Hudson interrupted. "Next, they'll come for you, then the rest of Africa, all while the Foundation just watches and contains and wipes shit under the rug like they always fucking do, with their fuckin' amnestics. No one will make a move, except for us, and if we don't make the move against them, and tell the people what's comin', you're as good as dead."

"Hudson, listen, I—"

"No. You listen, Peter." Hudson snapped back as he pointed towards a rock, as if scolding the man in person. "You fucks have never seen the anomalous up close like I have, and you have no idea what is going on. Fuck off."

Walls was silent for another ten seconds. "Again, Hudson, I couldn't do anything. I'm sorry."

Hudson spat bitterly. "Of course you're sorry. Of course you didn't do anythin', because you didn't. I won't allow myself to stay grounded by incompetent leaders and pencil-pushers while I have the opportunity for direct action against GZ. I'm finishing this fight, on my own, with or without your help."

He paused. "Now, if you'll excuse me, General Walls, I have a casualty brief to give my men, seven men to bury, and a ziggurat to seize. Good day. Over."

He lowered the radio and tucked it into his webbing, then turned to Gideon. Everyone that Hudson was able to muster had been gathered here; a 20 man-strong force of Insurgents well-versed with the anomalous, or downright anomalous themselves. Each and every one of them shared a dream with him, and each and every one of them was ready to kill, and to avenge their fallen comrades.

Nothing was holding them back anymore.

"We're going in." Hudson announced out loud, before jabbing a finger towards their POW. "And we're taking him with us. Any questions, all?"

Gideon slowly raised a hand up. "What of Jai and Mira? Yellow Team is still unaccounted for, they still could be alive out there and we could use the support. Should we wait for them?"

Hudson raised an eyebrow to this proposition, but then shook his head. As much as he wanted for them to be here, to be by his side while they made history, he knew this would be an impossible outcome. He knew what laid in store for them with this decision.

"No. What we are about to do has not been approved by Delta Command. They will deem us ignoble, brand us heretics, excommunicate us, but know that our cause is just. History shall remember us as the men who seized our own fate and stopped Great Zimbabwe from dictating our future. He chose his path, I have chosen mine."

As he prepared to step into the rift, Hudson suddenly turned turned his head over his shoulder and looked at Gideon in the eyes. "If he comes, it will be to stop me."

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