Stronghold of Yuma
September 4, CY 20, 2018 AD
Lieutenant General Alexander Harris, Chief Engineer of the Southwestern Confederation Army, strolled purposefully toward one of the several nondescript buildings on what was once the grounds of the US Marine Corps Air Station. That was now the headquarters of the SCA—an acronym some surviving Medievalists in the Estrella Association near the ruins of Phoenix found amusing--and was adjacent to what was once the Yuma International Airport, now the war engine preliminary testing range and dirigible field. He paused to take a look back over his shoulder at his handiwork. On the tarmac, behind groups of drilling soldiers, stood the modified trebuchets, ballistas, and experimental dirigibles that were his new life's work.
He took a moment to observe. One group was practicing Spartan phalanx maneuvers. Another jogged by, reciting a familiar military chant—it once had some nonsense about Sgt. Slaughter turning green and so forth, but now followed the words to the “March of Cambreath.”
“Axes flash and broadswords swing,” chanted the Sergeant leading the rest.
“Shining armor's piercing ring,” replied the others.
“Horses run with polished shield,” continued the Sergeant.
“Fight those bastards 'till they yield,” responded the group.
Xander watched until they together yelled, “How many of them can we make die!” Satisfied, he turned again and trotted into the building.
A man behind a desk by the entryway stood and saluted. Like all military personnel throughout the Confederation, he wore trousers and a long-sleeved shirt pattered on pre-Change BDU's, but made of lightweight, post-Change, camel-and-goat-hair cloth dyed a mottled grey-brown. The summer uniform was a lighter-weight cotton died in the same color scheme.
“General Harris!” he said.
Xander noticed a brief glance at his eye-patch. He'd worn one since the day Caleb had taken his eye. Several local artisans had offered to make him an artificial eye out of glass, ceramic, or wood, but he'd politely declined every one. He always said it made him feel, and probably look, more intimidating than he actually was and he claimed he needed all the help he could get to overcome what he considered to be his less-than-forceful personality. He'd overcome that last bit, but he still found it helpful while playing pirates with his children. Otherwise, most people had grown used to it.
Xander returned the salute. “Lieutenant. I understand I have a meeting?”
“Si, Señor. Her Excellency awaits in the War Room.” He hesitated. “You...are late, Señor.”
“I'll do penance later. As you were.” Xander walked down the hall and into the War Room.
It was a large room and had once been a tactical command center for US Marine Corps exercises. All the computer and other electronic equipment had been removed. Two large maps, both printed pre-Change, hung on the far wall: one of what had once been considered the southwestern United States and one of Yuma and vicinity. Both maps were heavily-marked to show post-Change geography—existing townships, territorial boundaries, major trade routes, roads, cropland, ferro-concrete water-direction dikes, the Yuma wall, and so forth. Blown-glass olive-oil lamps hung from post-Change, cast-bronze sconces attached to the walls. A post-Change, cast-bronze chandelier holding more blown-glass oil lamps hung over a large table in the center of the room.
Several people, all clad in SCA uniforms, stood around it looking at another map of Yuma and vicinity. He recognized them all: High Warlady Buffy Harris, whom Xander usually called “Buff,” “Honey,” “Dear,” or some-such, but from the moment they both stepped through the Base perimeter was his superior officer; General William Davis, commander of the Army, a Lieutenant at the time of the Change and one of the few US Army personnel to have survived that chaotic first year; Major General Chao-Ahn Gonzales, Chief of Internal Security and commander of the Militia, also a Slayer and one who had fought alongside Buffy at the Battle of Sunnydale; Brigadier General Andrew Wells, another Sunnydale veteran and wrangler-commander of the horse and camel cavalry; Maestra Willow Rosenberg, the only other member of what they once called the Scoobies, responsible for the awakening of all Slayers, and the only person in the room without military rank.
They all looked up as he entered the room.
“You're late,” said Buffy curtly.
“My apologies, High Warlady,” said Xander. Normally, he'd walk up to his wife and kiss her soundly. Today, however, they were acting in their military capacities. Most of them held both military and civil rank, but from the moment each walked through the perimeter checkpoint, they were all soldiers, particularly now that the Southwestern Confederation was officially in a state of war. “I had to troubleshoot some minor difficulty we were having with the hydrogen pumps feeding the dirigible bladders and First Tech Sergeant Chen is out with appendicitis. It won't happen again, Señora.”
Buffy raised an eyebrow and looked at him with that 'don't give me that' look he knew all too well and motioned for him to take his place. She was beautiful, even when displeased, and still looked two decades younger than her forty-three years. So little was known about whether and how Slayers aged, for she was the first in recorded history to live past her mid-twenties, or what unforeseen effects Willow's resurrection spell with the Urn of Osiris had had on her. Bringing his thoughts back to the matter at hand, Xander stepped up to the table.
“Now that we're all here,” Buffy said evenly, “we have a situation. We've suspected for years that one of the nations to the south might attack us.” General Davis began to speak, but Buffy interrupted him. “Yes, General, I'm well aware of the ambiguities surrounding their reasons for it. Believe me when I say that I've fought and killed more enemies than I care to count who had no motivation other than that they were evil and that they could. You all know my MO...if it attacks me, it's bad and if it's bad, I kill it...end of story. The fact remains that we're under attack and we must defend against that attack.”
Buffy turned to Chao-Ahn. “General, if you would?”
“As most of you...hells, most of town...know by now, this morning, a rider arrived from the Colorado Mouth Communities with word of an invading force from the south,” she began, her English having improved dramatically since the collapse of Sunnydale.
“At zero-eight-hundred hours,” she continued, “a large amphibious force landed near the mouth of the Colorado. Accounts by fleeing citizens agree that La Imperia Nueva Azteca, La Imperia Maya, and the Caribbean and Gulf Collectives have forged some sort of alliance. All attempts at parlay have ended with messengers' heads impaled upon pikes and returned to us. Our reports indicate thousands of boats, roughly one-third of which are bound for the western side of the delta and the rest for the eastern. We estimate the enemy at one hundred twenty-five thousand.”
Davis gave a low whistle. “One hundred twenty-five thousand? That's nearly half the population of the whole Confederation!”
“Si, Señor, it is,” said Chao-Ahn. “We do not yet know the complement or divisions of their force, but we've so far observed catapults, each with a range of a quarter mile...cavalry, half of them archers...foot archers, most with recurve bows...and spear-throwers. We estimate it will take them until dusk tomorrow to unload and another day to organize before marching north. Another three, maybe four days...a week at most...and they are on our doorstep.”
“Those are long odds,” said Davis.
“Indeed,” said Buffy evenly. “As we now have an invading army on our soil, under Article Three, I hereby exercise my prerogative in declaring martial law for the remainder of the conflict.” She nodded to Davis.
“I presume we're implementing General Order Five, Señora?” he said to Buffy.
“We are,” she replied. “Anyone not safely behind walls in three days can be evacuated via dirigible. I'd also like to allow outgoing civilian airship traffic to continue until the enemy are within one day of arrival.”
“Fortunately,” said Davis, “the larger the force, the slower it is.”
“We'll use that to our advantage,” said Buffy.
“Reports also indicate,” said Chao-Ahn, “that the enemy lack cohesion. It's an alliance, but they don't seem to be coordinating well.”
“That suggests we may be able to break them,” said Davis, “or at least create enough internal chaos to impede their operation.”
“General Harris,” said Buffy, “how soon can we have bombers in the air?”
“By nightfall, Señora,” said Xander. “We have five small, two medium and one heavy night-ops dirigibles filled and ready for arming. We can bomb them all night before switching to standard dirigibles for day-ops.”
“I'd like to put cross-bowmen in at least one,” said Davis.
“Ah,” said Xander, “turn them into gunboats?”
“Why not? Dad flew one in 'Nam...very effective, despite the eventual outcome.”
“That's an excellent idea, Señor,” said Xander thoughtfully.
“We'll want to be very careful with incendiaries on the west side, though,” added Chao-Ahn.
“Agreed,” said Buffy. “There's an awful lot of farmland there. Enough of it burned right after the Change and I'd hate to see it happen again. General Wells, are those mule teams ready?”
“Si, Señora,” said Andrew. “We'll also have the Estrellan heavy horse in a few days and the additional camel from outlying areas. Otherwise, what we have here must suffice. We're bringing supplemental camels in from the range, too.”
“Good enough,” said Buffy. “Any units coming from the west are to reinforce El Centro and any from the rest of northern Baja can give the enemy an iron enema.” There were a few chuckles at that.
“Otherwise, it looks like El Centro will have to mostly fend for itself. If they light the distress beacon, we can send air support, which might not be a bad idea anyway.”
“And if the enemy take the Colorado Causeway?” said Davis.
“At least we don't have to worry about them blowing it up,” said Buffy hopefully. There were more chuckles.
“We can bomb them,” said Xander. “I'd suggest bombarding them from afar, but we don't have artillery emplacements close enough. Most of them are meant to guard roads and narrow valleys.”
“That's probably for the best,” said Buffy. “It means they won't be able to use elevation to their advantage either.” Buffy turned to Willow. “Maestra Rosenberg, have you made any headway on those offensive spells?”
“A little,” said Willow, “but there's still too much of a risk of going over to the dark side, even for me. So it'll be defensive only. I'd also like to take Fritz, Gutierez and Matthews off of hydrogen detail. I expect to need them for the shield and they'll need some rest.”
“I'd like at least one person standing by in case one or more bladders springs a leak,” said Xander.
“Agreed,” said Willow. “We'll decide who in a few days. Señora,” she said to Buffy, “when Kennedy arrives from Estrella, will you want her under your command or mine?” Kennedy was both a Slayer and a witch.
“I'd like her with me,” said Buffy. “She'd be awfully useful on the front lines. But if you need her at some point, we may be able to pull her off. Now for some preliminary details. First, we'll have to squeeze every last bit of potential out of our range weaponry if we're to have any hope of winning,” said Buffy.
“Agreed,” said Davis. “A toe-to-toe fight would be very messy and would end very badly indeed. I still prefer to pick my fights.”
“So do I,” said Buffy. “Unfortunately, in my experience, your fights tend to pick you.” She turned her attention to the map. “The enemy will come up this road, between the river and this set of dunes. Here's what we can do....”
Two exhausting hours later, Xander, Buffy and Willow stood outside watching their people. Another group of soldiers jogged by, also chanting “The March of Cabreadth.”
“Follow orders as you're told,” prompted the Sergeant.
“Make their yellow blood run cold,” responded the men.
“Fight until you die or drop.”
“A force like ours is hard to stop.”
“Let's hope so,” said Willow at that last line.
They all paused, then joined the soldiers in, “How many of them can we make die?!” which brought a wave of salutes.
Xander mused that the song, like the war engines lined up on the field, was yet another thing brought to them by the Estrellans. He'd initially thought a lot of it silly—the irony of which was not lost on a man who once fought vampires and demons alongside the woman who was now his wife—but the vast majority of it had proven extremely useful and that was putting it very mildly.
“You know,” he said, “sometimes all this...” He gestured at the scene before them. “...seems a little surreal.”
“More surreal than vampires and things that go bump in the night?” said Buffy.
Xander chuckled. “Well...since you put it that way....”
“Think about it,” said Willow, “is this any more surreal to us than the old world is to those who never knew it? By now, the three of us have all lived in the Changed world nearly as long as not. I don't know about you, but it's becoming more and more real with each passing day.”
“You have a point,” said Buffy.
“Still,” said Xander, “it's just like old times.”
“A few of us...trying to save civilization...facing overwhelming odds.”
Buffy sighed. “Somehow this feels bigger. I mean, I know the fate of the whole world has rested on my shoulders multiple times before, but hardly anyone knew about it then. Now, the fate of three hundred thousand rests on my shoulders and they all know about it.”
“Maybe that's why,” said Willow. “Saving the world was so big, we couldn't wrap our mind around it. But now? Buf...Señora...now it's a lot more personal.”
Buffy smiled weakly. “I guess that's what makes this so hard. Guys, I'm leading them into the jaws of death!”
Xander turned and placed a hand on Buffy's shoulder. “And that's why they follow you...not because you tell them to fight, but because you show them. It's how you've always done things. Back in Sunnydale, you were always the first to charge into battle, often before the rest of us had a chance to say, 'what the hell are you doing?'”
Buffy began to interrupt, but Xander continued.
“And right after the Change, who was always the first to dive into any job that needed done just because it needed done? And who kept going at it long after the rest of us were ready to drop? When we were building the wall, who kept saying, 'one more block, one more block?' It sure wasn't me...I just walked around barking orders to everyone and trying to be the plucky comic relief.”
“That was because I asked you to supervise construction.”
“Exactly...you asked me to supervise. You do what you do not because it's your responsibility, though it's that too, but because that's the kind of person you are. People do what you say because they choose to do so. It's why we've all made you our queen.”
Buffy chuckled weakly. “I'm not a queen,” she said evenly.
“Whatever, Buff,” he said gently, briefly dropping his military role, “same job, different name. Look, you also have arguably more combat experience than the rest of the people on this field right now put together.”
Buffy smiled. “I had help,” she said, slightly sheepishly.
“Yes, yes you did. But it's always been you doing all the heavy lifting, and not just because you're the Prime Slayer. Your people...”
“Our people,” interrupted Buffy.
“Your people,” continued Xander, “will follow you, and fight alongside you, not just because we're fighting for our homes and families, but because we all love and respect you and the example you set...every single day. That is why the Scoobies were...and are...always behind you, why we always won, and why we'll win this time, too.”
“He's right,” said Willow, “every man, woman and child in the Confederation believes in you.”
“And yes,” said Xander, “we mean every word and you know it.”
“That's why I love you guys,” she said.
Xander straightened up. “I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Senora,” he said with exaggerated sincerity.
“And I can count on you to let me know when I'm taking myself too seriously.”
“Isn't that why we have children?”
They all laughed.
“Now, Your Excellency,” said Xander, “if you'll excuse me, I believe we have to go prepare to kick evil's ass...again.”
They gazed at the field for a few more moments in the afternoon sun.
“I guess maybe it is just like the old days,” said Buffy, “all of them.”
“I'll see you at dinner,” said Xander.
They broke up, Xander walking toward one of the dirigible hangars and Buffy and Willow toward the main perimeter checkpoint.