Monday, May 18, 2020

Small Unit Tactics by Alexander Romanov

Small Unit Tactics
by Alexander Romanov
Volume #1

Release - August 27, 2020

Slide 1

I was in a foul mood. Fouler than foul. The void of disbelief and doom clouding my mind darkened my emotions and my entire worldview. Worldview… that's not really the right word in this situation. It's awkward, it's wrong, it doesn't mean anything. The usual definition just doesn't apply here. How can you view the world if you're not even sure what you're seeing is real?
And I couldn't just brush it off as insanity—madness doesn't look like this. Hallucinations aren't this realistic, especially mass hallucinations. Anyway, they made it clear enough that what I was seeing wasn't a product of my imagination. Hah! Going insane would have been better than being stuck here. Around me, others wandered aimlessly around the well-tended park, and I could tell they were thinking almost the exact same thoughts as I was.
But what if... What if I just accept it all? What if I just stop trying to understand, forget how absurd it is? Just accept what's happening, without trying to figure out how, or why, or what I did to deserve this. Would anything even change if I got different answers to my questions? What if I just... went with the flow, like that hippie guy lying on the grass over there?
The guy in question was lounging under the shade of a bush off to the side of the sandy road, using his rolled-up shirt as a pillow. He lazily chewed on a blade of grass, seemingly immune to the chaos and dark mood afflicting everyone else. I couldn't help myself—I walked over to him.
"You comfortable?" I asked, looking down at his shock of unkempt dreadlocks. "The flies aren't bothering you?"
"Nah, it's all good! No flies, man!" he stretched out like a sleepy cat, spitting out the blade of grass. "No mosquitoes, either!" Before I could make another sarcastic remark, he added, "I drove 'em all away."
"What an honor to be in the presence of such a hero!" I flopped down cross-legged next to him, realizing just how tired my legs were.
"If you were as high as me, you'd think you were Hercules himself," he winked, closing his eyes dreamily. "You wouldn't believe the stuff that grows here! If I could name this place, I would call it Paradise Island."
"Like what?" Not that I wanted the full drug tour—I was just curious. The trees on the island looked like the trees I was used to, but the bushes, grasses, and flowers were mostly foreign to me. "I haven't seen any plants I recognize."
"I just… experimented. Tasted whatever I could find." His eyes shut again in a haze of memory. "Curiosity never killed anyone."
"So you just went around putting mysterious plants in your mouth?" It wasn't something I could ever see myself doing. "What, can't go a few days without your stash?"
"Nah man, it's all in the name of cur-i-os-i-ty!" He replied, enunciating each syllable like he was explaining it to a child. "Everyone always said I was too curious for my own good."
"I had you pegged as just another junkie," I never liked being around addicts, and my own curiosity was already satisfied. His carefree attitude was probably drug-induced.
"Come on, man!" He looked peeved. "I'm a Rastafarian!"
"A real one!?" That's something you don't see every day! "Like, a back-to-Africa Rastafarian?"
"Just a regular one," he grinned a white-toothed grin, breaking off another stem. "None of that religious stuff, which you probably could have guessed, since I’m here, too."
"Hm…" He had a point—a real, religious Rastafarian would have been out of place here. "But you said you were high."
"High as a kite! It's like I'm in a 3D movie, but I can still think straight." He offered me the stem, which almost looked like a dandelion. "If you lick the sap from the stem, stuff gets weird… unreal, like there's too much color. Like a cartoon."
"A cartoon?" The sense that I was in a virtual world got stronger. I found an identical dandelion growing within arm's reach and picked it. "Okay, so what do I do? Just squeeze out the sap?"
"You got it. Squeeze it into your hand and lick it up." He frowned and took my stem. "But this isn't the same plant. Look, mine's different," he said, holding up both for me. "See? They're different!"
"You sure about that?" I couldn't tell them apart. They were definitely the same type of dandelion.
"One hundred percent. Look. Mine has kind of a yellow glow, and yours is red around the edges." A look of realization spread over his face as he realized what he had said. "Jah! Didn't think I was that out of it…" He pulled up two blades of grass, brought them up to his eyes, and peered at them intently. "Jah! This one's definitely glowing." He poked me with one of the plants. "It's light blue. And this one," he prompted, as though it should have been obvious to me, "is purple."
"I really can't tell them apart," I said, deciding not to encourage him.
"But there is a difference." His gaze was suddenly too intense for me. "I can guarantee the sap from your dandelion would have no effect. No visuals, no altered state of mind." That was a half-baked explanation if I'd ever heard one, although this hippy did kind of remind me of those shamans who pumped themselves full of substances. And they did manage to heal people sometimes, or so they say.
Even though the conversation bordered on the absurd, the Rastafarian's carefree indifference snapped me out of my funk. It wasn't as though my life was over. I had just moved on to some kind of next step. Maybe it was an insignificant step, but a step nonetheless. I stood up abruptly, leaving my companion to examine his mysterious flower auras by himself. I probably should have thanked him, on second thought, but why bother? He wouldn't understand what for, and I didn't feel like explaining myself.
So what was going on? Sure, I didn't know where I was—I mean, I had no idea how to even find my home planet from here, like the hundreds of others I'd seen so far. Sure, I'd been uprooted from my familiar surroundings. And sure, the life I was used to had been taken from me. Literally everything had been taken from me, other than my body. No, no, thoughts like that were nothing but a one-way ticket to depression. I had to force myself to change my perspective. Turning back to look at the Rastafarian, I felt a pang of envy, wishing I had his attitude. His blissful nonchalance...
But no, I couldn't turn to drugs the way he could. I had to find my own path, my own positivity. So what did I actually lose? Anything important? My boring job… did I really need it? The friends I never had? The apartment I hadn't left in years? My family? I'm just alone as I ever was. Looking at it that way, it didn't seem like that bad of a situation.
And what had I gained? Wasn't this the kind of world I had dreamed of living in? Hadn't I spent so much time immersed in video games, only leaving that world to work, sleep, and fuel my body? Yes, it was, and yes, I had. So why was I upset? Probably something to do with the fact that no one ever asked me if I was okay with the fate assigned to me by the gods. Or whatever powers were pretending to be "gods" here...


Slide 2.

My shoulder plates pinched and chafed my skin as I walked, and I could tell it would leave a mark. Not to mention what would happen if something heavy hit me. The linen shirt I had on wasn't great for wearing under armor, which I knew full well when I was in the armory. In hindsight, I really should have gone back and asked the armorer for a gambeson, but I was impatient and eager to keep moving. The arena was only a few steps away.
A watcher sat off to the right of the black entrance gate, idly throwing stones at a target drawn in the sand.
"Are you here to fight or to watch?" he asked, not raising his eyes from the sand. If I hadn't been standing there, I wouldn't have been able to tell who the question was aimed at.
"Just watch, for now."
"Front row or up high?"
"Up high. I want to check out the architecture." I didn't even try to keep the mockery out of my voice. With the exception of the armorer, I had taken an instant dislike to all the watchers.
"Straight ahead until the second fork. Stay to the right, then take the stairs up. You should be able to figure it out from there." His face showed no hint of emotion, no reaction to my taunt.
"Hey, NPC, you could at least stand up when you're talking to a human!"
"You're the fourth one who's called me that," said the watcher, meeting my eyes. "I assume it's some kind of insult?"
"Wow, they really programmed you well, didn't they?" I pointedly ignored his question and went inside, deliberately scraping my boots across the threshold.
I knew goading him was asking for trouble, but I was in a bad mood. Part of me wanted to hit someone in the face, and part of me wanted to curl up in a corner and scream in sheer terror. But it would have to be a corner where no one would find me. I couldn't afford to show weakness. I wasn't a cowardly pencil pusher anymore—here I was my old self, the one I lost ten years ago. A saying from my distant childhood sprung to mind: "I am a man. I am a warrior. I am strength incarnate."
I walked down the dark corridor with clenched teeth. No matter how much I tried to mentally pump myself up, the watcher's gaze had my knees shaking with fear. There was something in his eyes when he looked at me, something I just didn't have. No. I corrected myself. Something I don't have yet. Why was I only now realizing what a coward I was back in my old life? There would be time to think on that later. The path to the upper tier of the coliseum was shorter than I had thought.
There was nothing particularly striking about the size or architecture of the amphitheater. A sand-covered arena in the middle, about the same size as a circus ring, and a few dozen rows of benches for spectators. The building had seemed a lot bigger and more imposing from the outside. Really, the only differences between this coliseum and a backwater big top were the gates leading onto the sand set at either end of the arena, and the solid metal grate separating the audience from the stage. Even from my vantage point up in the nosebleed section, I could see the iron bars would be strong enough to hold back a rampaging elephant if one tried to break through.
I took off all my armor before I sat down, laying it on the seat next to me and weighting it down with my battle axe. I sent a mental thank-you to the armorer—without his thorough lecture I definitely would have gotten tangled up in the suit of armor's extensive straps, hooks, and fasteners. As I took my seat, the left gate opened and the first fighter emerged onto the sand. He was one of us, fresh from the armory. Clearly not one for creativity, he had chosen to wear the standard uniform of a Mongol warrior circa Genghis Khan, but with chainmail instead of leather. His choice suited his Asian features, jet-black hair, and slightly bowlegged stance. All he needed was a horse, and he'd be straight out of a history textbook: chapter 4, the Mongol hordes. But there were no horses on the island. There were no horses at all, in fact, in this whole world, so his look would forever remain incomplete.
The opposite gate slowly swung open. I didn't see the Mongol warrior's opponents at first, and when I did, I couldn't believe my eyes. Squirrels! Furry, bushy-tailed squirrels. A little bigger than ordinary ones, to be sure—about two feet long, not counting the tails. Five squirrels against a mail-clad warrior with a saber and shield. I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation, but my amusement didn't last long. The squirrels swarmed the fighter with incredible agility and deftness, baring teeth and claws that were proportional to their enlarged size. After less than a minute of this onslaught, the warrior had been bitten in at least half a dozen unprotected spots, and slashed by squirrel claws in more places than I could count. He was done for. A few more minutes of this and he'd just bleed out. What a world! A grown man, clawed to death by five overgrown squirrels! If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it. But it seemed the Mongol warrior had luck on his side. As he swung his saber at two of the squirrels, they dodged, colliding with a third, rolling into a furry heap right beneath the fighter's feet. He did the best thing possible in that situation: crushed all three of them with his knee, and, ignoring the furious bites coming from the remaining pair, threw his saber aside. Deftly drawing a knife from his boot, he dispatched the pinned, defenseless squirrels. The other two didn't last long, as one by one the fighter cornered them against the grating and slaughtered them. The left gate opened again, and the victorious fighter left the arena.
What I had seen impressed me. I felt like I needed a smoke—it had been a stressful fight to watch. I imagined myself in the Mongol warrior's place, and realized my battle axe would be tough to wield against speedy little creatures like that. I would have to remember to pick up a pair of short swords or daggers as backup when I went back to the armory for my gambeson.
It wasn't long before the next fighter came out onto the sand. He was Scandinavian, tall and blond, and stood proudly in the middle of the arena, leaning on a huge two-handed sword. I got the impression he was into movies about vikings and all those hyper-masculine hero types—Conan the Barbarian was probably his childhood idol. He had no armor on at all, his torso bare except for a few tactfully-placed leather straps emphasizing his muscular form. And despite all the brawn, he couldn't have been more than twenty. He was doing his best to strike a heroic pose, feigning cool indifference, but couldn't help glancing at the second gate. I stifled a laugh at his failed nonchalance.
After drawing out the viking's tormented anticipation to the point where I could almost feel his nerves rattling all the way from my upper-deck seat, the arena relented and the second gate opened. This guy would be facing a furball, too. Just one, though, not five, and it was a heck of a lot bigger than the squirrels were. I couldn't make out what exactly it was until it bounded forward into the arena, shouting "Ook! Ook!" and swinging its long arms. The ape-like creature moved like an orangutan but was the size of a hefty gorilla.
With a fearsome grunt, the ape leapt onto the grating and, ignoring the warrior, started to shake it. The young man stood frozen with indecision for a full minute, watching his opponent pay no attention to him. Finally, gathering his courage, our dashing hero raised his sword over his head and charged at the ape. That was a mistake...
Somehow, without even seeing the swing or the blow, the ape dodged. The viking's heavy two-handed sword slammed into the bars of the grating, sending sparks flying. His blade would not rise for a second strike. With its massive left hand, the ape grabbed onto both hands holding the sword. Its right hand swiped at the fighter's face, claws ripping into his flesh. The blow tore off half his face, literally scalping him, and the chunk of flesh flew across the arena into the grating, where it hung, dripping blood. Flapping muscle fibers and an empty eye socket stared up at me. The viking let out an unearthly piercing scream, the kind of sound you only make when you look death in the eye. I felt bile rising into my throat and bent over, unable to stop my stomach's reaction. When I looked back at the sand, it was all over. Grunting jubilantly, the ape sank its teeth into the dying fighter's throat and dug its claws into his belly. He was still alive! My stomach lurched, stronger this time. I threw up, wave after wave, until I felt like I had been turned inside out. The next thing I knew I was kneeling on the sand outside the entrance to the coliseum. I had no recollection of leaving the amphitheater or gathering up my axe and armor. Spitting out the last strings of bile, I rolled onto my back on the clean sand, arms flopping out to the side. I had to calm down. But even looking up at the clear sky, I couldn't shake the image of that scalp slowly sliding down the metal grating.
"You're a funny one." I turned my head to the left and saw a watcher. The same one who had been playing with the stones before, now peering curiously at me.
The only answer I had was a fresh round of retching.

Release - August 27, 2020

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