Chapter 20: Recordings
Central Blackfortress seemed quite different from the outer parts of the city. While the buildings outside the center were mostly made out of concrete or bricks, the ones inside were reinforced with stainless steel. The streets were wide, well maintained, nicely cleaned, and if it wasn’t for the buildings looking like bunkers some people would have thought that they were looking at Azuno’s capital. It didn’t help either that just like Ashen city, Paks was neutral territory too, and in the center, one could meet both people, and more recently, droids, from all over Azuno.
Another striking difference was the power. Daniel immediately mentioned that the streetlights and the electric signs of shops and stores were all lit up, indicating the power grid was still perfectly intact. However, a question still remained. If the power wasn’t the issue, then why did the New Azuno Federation’s soldiers and mercenaries leave the city center’s gate right open? Patterson wasn’t a local, but he figured that during an occupation they’d keep those huge gates locked, but for whatever reason, they were right open.
“Maybe some of the locals managed to sabotage it before things got so out of control?” guessed Daniel.
“That’s what I’m thinking too.” Patterson agreed. “…I wonder what happened to them.”
Daniel gazed at the empty streets in front of them. “Same thing that happened to everyone else I’d say...”
Patterson eventually walked back to the rest of the squad, leaving Daniel to the driving. He was still behind the wheel of the T-croc after Echo team split off from them, but not because he won another round of RPS against Hopkins. The corporal was in a chatty mood, and she had decided to stay in the passenger compartment with the others.
Nick was once again sitting on the top of the ladder that led to his gunner seat, while Hopkins was telling the story about how she and Kingsley’s team got to the Ledford building.
“…and there I was, looking at that turret,” she continued. “...trying to decide whether to laugh at that note or to be thankful to whoever had put it there.”
“So was it actually rigged to explode?” asked Patterson.
Hopkins shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. I just bashed in its sensors at the front which blinded it. I did find out however that the mercenary on the roof wasn’t sleeping. She was dead.”
North’s eyes widened. “She drank herself to death?”
“Why is that surprising?” Riley asked. “Deaths from alcohol poisoning are quite common, at least over here.”
“Sure but she was on duty!” North retorted. “How often do you hear about a soldier drinking themselves to death in the middle of a combat zone? That’s gotta be a first!”
Nick leaned down from his seat. “Actually, I heard about a guy who did that…”
Patterson was concerned when Riley was so quick to get back into action, but apart from his bandaged head, he seemed fine. Whether or not he was actually fine or just pretending was a completely different question though.
“Weird thing is, that’s not what killed her.” Hopkins continued after Nick finished his story. “There was some kind of dart stuck into her neck, and that was her only injury.”
“So she was poisoned?” North asked again.
“Assassinated more like,” said Nick.
“Sure seemed that way. I don’t know who killed her though, but I think it could have been the same person who planted that note.”
“…probably Agent Simmons.” scoffed Patterson. “Don’t know of anyone else in this city who would use a weapon like that.”
Hopkins rolled her eyes. For whatever reason, she and Riley didn’t seem to share his and Daniel’s concern about a former Esmosian Insurgent, but it could have been due to their inexperience. Or because they weren’t at Grarrak. Whichever was the case, Patterson was expecting another argument to break out, but luckily Hopkins decided to change the topic.
“But yeah, after the turret encounter, we managed to make our way towards the Ledford building quite quickly and met up with you guys.”
As Patterson was listening to the story, he noticed that Riley raised his head all of a sudden. He carefully took off his helmet, and then turned on the camera on it.
As he adjusted a few things on it, Nick leaned closer inside. “Really Riley? You want to do that right now?”
“Not sure when else I’ll have the time. Besides, think of the historical value!” he retorted. “Decades from now on, people will talk about the fighting here, and I’ll be the only one with recordings from it!”
Patterson turned to Nick first, and then to Riley. “Mind telling me what you’re doing?”
“You’ll see,” said Riley as he placed his helmet on a seat on the other side of the vehicle.
He then adjusted his hair a little bit, and then pressed the record button on the camera. “Good afternoon! This is Riley McConnel, with another report from Blackfortress,” he said to his helmet.
Patterson and Nick both buried their faces in their hands. He wasn’t making a journal entry, was he?
“Private, are you seriously recording a journal?” Patterson asked.
“That is exactly right Lieutenant!” came the reply.
Cole looked at North in a way that could have been translated to “please kill me now”. North just leaned back into his seat and smiled, while Hopkins actually leaned in closer to listen to Riley’s log.
“Now, it’s been a few hours since my last log,” Riley continued. “but I was a bit… pre-occupied with some other things.”
Riley quickly summarized the events of the day while Patterson and Nick were doing their best to melt out of the APC.
As much as he found the whole thing ridiculous, Patterson could sort of see why Riley could have felt like it was important to record these logs. As someone who had apparently worked as a military journalist for a while now, Riley must have known plenty about censorship and cover-ups, and he must have figured that it was better to record everything just in case someone tried to downplay this whole situation.
If that was indeed the case, Patterson very much agreed with him. He’s had first-hand experience with cover-ups, from both sides, and while he understood some of the times when the AMC decided not to reveal certain events and deaths to the Aftonian public, Blackfortress was certainly not one of these cases. The world had to know that a dissident group was attempting to nuke Blackfortress, although he was worried that revealing it could potentially bite both Riley and him in the back later.
“…afterwards we got back into our vehicles,” continued Riley his story. “and kept heading towards the city hall and the tower. At the moment Lieutenant Patterson and PFC Becket are no doubt planning my assassination, so I think I’m going to end this log now.”
“Thank god for that…” muttered Patterson.
“This is Riley McConnel, still reporting from Blackfortress.”
He stopped the recording, and then leaned back into his seat.
Nick seemed relieved that their torture was finally over, but North turned to Riley as he turned the camera off.
“…you sort of glossed over the part where we ran into an Esmosian terrorist turned agent. And I’m not just bringing that up because I hate government agents.”
Riley shrugged. “Well, she did end up giving us intel. For me, that’s enough to give her the benefit of the doubt.”
“And we’ve got bigger things to worry about anyway,” Nick added.
North leaned back to the T-Croc’s wall and crossed his arms. “Fair enough, but I’d keep an eye on her if I were you. You can’t trust suits. Or rebels for that matter.”
Riley crossed his arms and raised his chin a bit. “Technically I’m a rebel too right now. Hell, we all are.”
As important as it was to keep their heads focused on the mission, Patterson couldn’t help himself anymore and decided to ask North the question that he’s been pondering for a while now. “You know you never really told us why you’ve got such a dislike for Gredrurgian rebels.”
North scratched his shoulder and without saying a word to Patterson, he turned to Riley. “Riley, do you happen to remember the shootout in Blegodon? The one that happened around five or six years ago?”
“It’s… been a while now but I remember the bigger details.”
Around six years ago in 2E 376, years after the Gredrurgian Independence war ended and a few months before the Esmosian Rebellions broke out, the citizens of Blegodon City living near the harbor area awoke to the sounds of gunfire coming from an old warehouse. The gunfight was going on for almost half an hour by the time the Aftonian Military Police was mobilized, but when they had finally arrived only two people remained. A distressed-looking citizen filled with numerous scars and still wielding a bloody assault rifle in his hands, and an Aftonian soldier who had happened to pass by when the firefight started.
Riley, who explained that he was still an intern at the time, was among the first reporters who arrived at the scene, and while he missed the chance to meet the two survivors, he arrived at the exact moment when the police found out that the building which was filled with dead Aftonian citizens, also happened to house numerous documents that confirmed some of the dead people’s ties with the Gredrurgian separatist movement.
“It was complete chaos for weeks afterwards,” continued Riley. “things got so out of hand between Gredrurg and Aftonia during the investigation that Queen Lambert from Uthania had to mediate between us and Gredrurg for a while.”
“That was a rather dangerous time for sure,” remarked Hopkins “I remember dad telling me how worried he was that this would restart the independence war.”
“Yeah, we came close to reigniting that shit on that day,” added Nick “…I mean an entire team of former separatists was just sitting in the middle of our biggest port!”
North leaned back into his seat, still staring at Riley “And do you know what happened with the civilian they found at the scene?”
Riley scratched his neck. “Well, he did murder around thirty people, separatists or not. I think he got a life sentence, and honestly… he probably deserved it.”
North slowly took his helmet off and sighed. As Riley looked at him, Patterson could see that he tensed up. “North…” he asked in a low voice. “...why did you bring this up?”
Patterson's friend looked straight into Riley's eyes and slowly took his helmet off.
“Because that guy was me…” he said in an emotionless voice.
A shockwave of silence went through the T-croc, and for a few moments, it was as if the world had stopped moving. Patterson knew that the Aftonian Empire often drafted prisoners into military service, but to see a literal convict being in his squad’s car was a whole other thing to process. That man being North, a loyal friend and soldier, just threw a wrench into the whole thing.
Everyone in the vehicle, apart from Daniel who was driving, seemed to stare at North with a dumbfounded look on their face.
“Why…” asked Hopkins, seemingly forcing the words out of herself. “…why did you do it?”
“…and why tell this now?” Riley questioned somewhat harshly. “…damn it man, we could have gone through this bullshit without knowing that you’re a mass murderer!”
Patterson, who was silent all this time, turned to Riley. “That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?”
He was about to reply but North’s low voice sounded off. “He’s right, LT.” He then turned to Riley again, and this time Patterson could see a hint of sadness in his eyes.
“I am a murderer. A murderer, who happened to kill the right people at the right time, causing him to become drafted instead of executed. Sadly it's that simple.”
Riley lowered his head.
“As for why I told you this…” he said as he turned to Hopkins. “It’s because I want to set the record straight on a few things.”
Riley was probably about to ask what North had meant when Patterson got up from his seat and walked over to the driver’s cockpit and went inside. “Dan, stop the T-Croc.”
“Umm… might I ask why?” he asked without taking his eyes off from the road. “Kind of in the middle of an attack you know...”
“North actually wants to set the record straight on why he got drafted.”
Daniel immediately stepped on the break, almost knocking Patterson off from his feet in the process. “Shit, really?”
“Certainly seems that way.”
Daniel nodded. “Right, well, I think it’s time we all set the record straight then,” he said, as he got out from the seat.
He and Patterson walked back to the cockpit as North turned to Riley. “Might want to turn that on.”
Riley did so without a word, and after Daniel took a seat next to North, he spoke up. “So how much do you all know about the Convict Draft Edict?”
“It’s that 30-page long novel that explains how and when convicts can be drafted into service, isn’t it?” Nick asked, still sitting at his ladder.
“More or less,” replied Daniel. “it outlines the exact criteria that a criminal must meet to be eligible for forced service instead of capital punishment.”
Hopkins stared wide-eyed at Daniel and Nick, and Riley’s expression wasn’t too different either. “Are... are you saying that the AMC recruits so many criminals into their ranks they had to make an official document for it?” she asked dumbfounded.
“This is going to sound horrible Hopkins but unfortunately, that’s not far from the truth.” Patterson started. “Not every one of us is a criminal of course, but the logic of command is that if convicts can kill others on their own no problem, then why lock them up when they could be fighting for the benefit of the empire instead in the form of forced military service? It’s more… efficient, as far as they’re concerned, something that General Thompson has always been obsessed with.”
Hopkins shook her head in disbelief, while Riley just scoffed.
“I heard about this, though frankly I never thought it was real… but see, things like this are why I moved out of Aftonia.” Riley explained, still shaking his head.
“We’ve got a lot of good things going for us,” mentioned Patterson. “…but at the end of the day, we’re still an Empire.”
“Thankfully not everyone seems to have that sort of ruthlessly efficient thinking from what I’ve seen, sir,” Hopkins said, nodding at Patterson.
“Now,” Daniel continued “North was drafted into the 32nd as part of that edict, for thirty years. However, originally, he was supposed to get… another sort of punishment, if you get me.”
A bullet. Almost definitely a bullet, Patterson thought.
“So how come the judges went with the CDE?” Nick asked.
“It’s because of him,” North said, pointing at Daniel. “Dan was my defense lawyer.”
Hopkins raised an eyebrow while Patterson simply stared at Daniel.
“Three years of law school in Stormford,” Daniel said proudly. “…and the fact that I’m a Schmidt, allowed me to take the job.”
Hopkins blinked and made a clapping gesture.
“Anyway, what happened was that since the people North sent to the other side were Gredrurgian separatists, I was able to convince most of the jury that what he did was technically in defense of Aftonian interests. Luckily for him, that was enough to get the judges to reduce the punishment to a draft.”
As Patterson was listening to Daniel tell the story of the trials, he couldn’t help but applaud him for going to such lengths to help out a person he never even known, and who was a convicted murderer at that. He was certain that Riley was going to drill him for more info on that later, but for now, he only asked one question.
“Why did you kill them?” Riley asked, turning back to North.
North looked down to the floor of the car for a while and then spoke up without looking at anything in particular. “Justice.”
Riley stared at North. “…are you kidding me? You walked into a warehouse full of random people and you just––”
“Riley, you don’t get me,” he said harshly. “These people were Aftonians. Blegodonian city folk at that, practically my neighbors!”
North shook his head angrily. “You’ve been stuck in this hellhole of a city for over a week, right? You of all people know how it looks like when war comes to a city and you’re not a soldier.”
Riley slowly nodded.
“When the independence war broke out, Blegodon was the first Aftonian city to start rationing food so that we could send out more to our soldiers, and as the war dragged on, so did the rationing get worse and worse. Eventually, it got so bad that fights broke out over simple necessities on a regular basis. People… simple, civil-minded people were…”
North stopped speaking and had to take a moment to compose himself. Daniel patted him on the back, which seemed to give him enough strength to continue.
“A lot of people were killed. My people were killed,” he explained. “That warehouse where the fight was? It was filled to the brim with care packages sent from Gredrurg. That is until the people who owned it decided that their new republic shouldn’t look weak now that they “won” their independence.”
Patterson crossed his arms. “…they threw the food into the ocean, right?”
North simply nodded. “Twenty-one people starved to death by the time the next food shipment arrived.”
Riley made a heavy sigh while Patterson simply shook his head. As someone who lived in Blegodon city as well, he remembered those days quite vividly. It was a rough time for everyone involved, and often times he and his squad mates had to assist the military police in keeping the peace.
“…things didn’t end there.” North continued. “As soon as the next shipment arrived, the seppies immediately loaded a bunch of those crates and took them to their warehouse for “safekeeping”. Seeing them do that, I…” He slowly shook his head. “…something broke inside me. I couldn’t take it anymore, and with the military police being busy in the other parts of the city, with the help of a few other volunteers, we decided to take matters into our own hands. As for what happened after…”
Patterson wasn’t sure what to think of North now. The man was obviously not acting out of self-interest and his goals were somewhat noble, but launching an all-out assault like that with civvies was a bit too far for him. The end didn't justify the means. As he thought about their current situation however, he concluded that if nothing else, North’s hands-on experience would come in handy today.
“I know it was hard to tell this,” Patterson said as he walked up to North. “and I appreciate it.”
He looked up at Patterson with a smile on his face and saluted him.
“Thank you, Cole. I know what I did was wrong, but I’m hoping that I can make up for it today.”
Riley sighed on the other side of their APC as he reached for his helmet camera. “You did pretty much exactly what Collins and I did a few days ago,” he started. “…I’ll get these recordings to someone who can use them to reduce your sentence.”
“You will?” North asked perplexed.
“Yes. Provided that we make it out in one piece that is...”
North gave Riley a thankful nod and then turned to Hopkins.
“So what do you think Corporal?”
Hopkins was staring at the floor, her hands just sitting limply on her knees. She sat still for a few more seconds until she eventually sighed and turned to North. “…I guess at the end of the day this boils down to that old question,” she said melancholically. “are we willing to do bad things for the right reasons?”
The squad exchanged a few glances, wondering what each of them would say to that. Patterson’s answer was a definite no, and he guessed that Nick shared his views, but he wasn’t entirely sure about Riley and North.
In the end, no one said anything to that question, and Hopkins just simply nodded as well. “…I think it might be best if we continued the mission for now. Who knows how long the enemy is going to wait?”
I'm just an average dude from Hungary who has way too much time on his hands. I started writing a couple years ago as a hobby, partly because I wanted to practice and improve my English, and partly because there's just something amazing about inventing new worlds and people from scratch and then writing about their deeds and adventures.
At this point I honestly can't imagine myself putting down my writing pen ever again, and I would like to wish lots of luck to every other writer out there with their projects!
Favorite genres: Science Fiction, Adventure, Military