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Boned: Problems (but not too many) in the US Air [and Space] Force!

No. You don't frighten me, Mollari. If you try to go up against our forces, you'll lose.
Yes, your ships are very impressive in the air, or in space--but at this moment, they are on the ground.
Right--they're on the ground. But they can sense an approaching ship from miles away. So what are you going to do, Mollari, blow up the island?
Actually--now that you mention it--[pulls detonator from pocket]
[presses detonator]
Babylon 5, explaining the vulnerability of aircraft to ground attack in typical hammy fashion
Hello, and welcome to another episode of "AmericanNewt8 explains the global military situation at present in a convenient, possibly easy-to-read guide". Maybe I should make a YouTube channel or something. All the cool kids [and a lot of idiots who know nothing about military equipment] are doing it. Anyway, today we have the US Air [and, for the moment, Space Force--they haven't fully separated yet], and, surprisingly for once, a somewhat more positive message. I'm sorry this one took so long; I've been busy for the past month or so, but I figured I should get this one out I already had 80% done before talking about Turkey and the war in the Caucuses, which are likely to be shorter, more current, and arrive sometime in the next week if all goes as planned.

Current Effortposts In My Series:
  1. What you [might] need to know about South Korea's ludicrous arms buildup
  2. We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches.... uh, what do we do after that again?: The Perilous Defensive Position of Taiwan
  3. "You've hit another cargo ship? The Problems with the US Navy: Not all of them begin with "Seven" and end with "th Fleet"."
  4. Will China's PLAN survive contact with the enemy?
  5. Biden's New START and modern nuclear war
  6. Boned: Problems (but not too many) in the US Air [and Space!] Force
  7. Erdogan Sallies Forth [inserted largely on account of the recent breakout of a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan]
  8. Begun, the Drone Wars Have: Why You Should Pay Attention To This "Tiny" War
  9. First And Last Stand Of The Tin Can Navies [ASEAN + Australia and the smaller adversaries China may contend with]
  10. --Unnamed-- effortpost on Japanese military matters, mostly about how weird the JSDF status is
  11. --Unnamed--effortpost on Indian military matters, and why they can't focus on China or buy anything that works
  12. --Unnamed--effortpost on the rest of the PLA, mostly the air force though
  13. --Unnamed--effortpost on the rest of the US Armed Forces, mostly talking about how the marines are changing and the Army's new love affair with INF-busting weapons
  14. Conclusion?

1. Our Pride And Joy

America's Navy may be its key instrument of power projection abroad and in some ways the most important service branch, but the one that is by far the greatest beneficiary of American skill, the apex of our capabilities, is without a doubt the US Space Force. From Day 1 the US has had a commanding lead in the field. Mind you, that's not saying that nobody's ever challenged or exceeded the US in limited areas for limited periods of time--the early 1950s were about the last time that happened though [aside for commercial launch vehicles from around 1980-2010]. In the modern era, it is very rare that buying something other than an American-made aircraft or rocket makes any sort of economic or strategic sense [political is of course a different matter entirely]. The US Air Force has generally benefited from high, consistent levels of investment and has had relatively light burdens placed on it operationally [though in recent years post 9/11 this has changed to an extent], and it has developed into one of the best-trained and most doctrinally sophisticated forces in the world. More on that later. Anyway, the Air Force is probably the best-loved branch politically [Marines might be more respected but they get budgetary scraps], at least of the military as a whole, and it ends up with more funding, smarter people, and a much better QOL as a result. In fact Air Force personnel are usually treated to quite a bit of envy and ribbing about how much better their conditions are than their Army, Marine, or Navy counterparts.

2. Aging Equipment [again!]

Guess what? The same problem that seems to afflict most of the US military [and, for that matter, most European, Latin American, and non-East Asian militaries] is aging equipment from the Cold War finally wearing out. In the Air Force, this takes a number of different forms. Often, it's a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", but even then airframes do wear out eventually and need replacement and a lot of them are getting to that point.
Logistics, Support, That Kind of Thing
One of the least glamorous parts of the Air Force, logistical and support capabilities are rapidly aging. The primary airframe the Air Force uses for these is the.. wait for it... Dash 80, as the C-135 whose commercial variant is better known as the Boeing 707. It was a very impressive aircraft, but it was designed in the 1950s. Even though we've reengined the C-135 with more modern engines, and done some serious overhauls, they're getting pretty long in the tooth. Most notably we have the 398 KC-135 Stratotankers which make up the bulk of the US midair refueling fleet, which are joined by 31 E-3 Sentry AWACs, a number of specialized RC-135 derivatives doing everything from SIGINT to hunting for nuclear weapons and 17 E-8 Joint STARS. While these were produced up until the early 1990s, the airframes are aging and they need replacements, and the sheer quantity of aircraft is likely to cause trouble. There are also other aircraft that have to be replaced in the mid-term [by the early 2040s] like the C-5 Galaxy and the KC-10 Extender, but these are somewhat less of an immediate concern. There are some C-130 Hercules replacements also needed but those are largely being done with newer versions of the same aircraft.
The B-1 Lancer is first on the chopping block, due to high maintenance costs and time [it generally takes 120 hours of maintenance for an hour of flight time]. That represents 60 bombers, on paper anyway, and a good chunk of the USAF's supersonic strike capability. However, cutting it should free up resources for new hardware, and in fact new USAF budget proposals suggest rapidly retiring the B-1. The B-2 Spirit is also on the chopping block due to high price and high maintenance demands, but it can't really be replaced until the B-21 Raider shows up. There is also a need to find a replacement for the B-52, but nobody is really sure what that looks like and it's much less urgent--the B-52 will soldier on for the indefinite future and may well hit a full century in operational service. Even if one runs into the "airplane of Thesus" the fact that you could well have fourth or fifth generation B-52 pilots flying on 90-year-old aircraft is, to be honest, kind of neat.
The F-15 and F-16 originally took flight in the 1970s and are still seeing interest today, though the modern F-15 and F-16 are very different beasts from their originals. However, the overall fleet is starting to age--primarily the F-15C fleet operated by the US Air National Guard which does air policing in the US. This is why the Guard is actually first in line for new F-15EX aircraft and has even received brand new F-35s [that, and the fact that the Air National Guard is actually pretty integrated with the Air Force]. F-16s are also starting to wear out; the USAF still operates over a thousand of the type. They are set to primarily be replaced with the F-35, though, with around 1500 aircraft on order. They will also replace the A-10 [along with drones, I suppose], and I'll take a moment to say that the A-10 is heavily overrated, there's a reason the USAF wants to dump it, and it's notorious for friendly fire incidents. Its job would be better done by drones or even aircraft like the Super Tucano.
These are, guess what, also wearing out. The USAF currently operates over 500 T-38 Talon trainers, but it already has a replacement lined up for this aircraft which was first flown in 1959. It just adds to the list of things that need replacing.
Also should mention these, I suppose. The US is currently operating the Minuteman-III) as its sole ground-based nuclear deterrent/ICBM, and these 1970s-era missiles have survived their replacement, the LGM-118 Peacekeeper. They have to be replaced as well, and the USAF actually recently awarded a contract to do so to Northrop Grumman [though there are issues with that mentioned below].
One side-effect of all this is that the Air Force has increasingly high demands for maintenance which are simply not met, which combined with a shortage of maintainers [partially due to good outside pay but mostly because anecdotal reports suggest life as an Air Force maintainer is terrible] means that the Air Force has a poor readiness rate, especially because a lot of airframes aren't in good condition to begin with, having been worn out by decades of use.

3. Procurement Woes... fixed?

So, the Air Force has had a pretty troubled history with procurement in recent years. By far the most infamous one is the F-35. Well, yes, the F-35 was a procurement disaster. Another Redditor has done a great service by writing up the account Ash Carter [Secretary of Defense under Obama] gave of the program. It's long [full version here] and probably doesn't give a full account as it is Carter's memoir--but I'll just pick out one of the most significant parts of it:
At one point of the meeting, after we'd made it abundantly clear that the grossly inflated price for the JSF jets was unacceptable, CEO Bob Stevens casually said to me, "Well, if you tell me how much money you have, I'll tell you how many planes you can buy."
I was taken aback. Rather than negotiating a fair price with us, Stevens was behaving as if his company were entitled to all the money the taxpayers could afford. And although he obviously had a per-plane price in mind, he didn't care to divulge it openly, nor would he agree to a fixed-price contract holding him to it. I found this cavalier attitude offensive. With deeper disrepute, the JSF program would go down the political drain, and we wouldn't be able to buy any of these needed aircraft.
With all this in mind, I let his question hang in the air unanswered for a moment. Then I replied, "How about none?" With that, I walked out of the room. "None" was a reasonable prediction in the political climate surrounding this out-of-control program.
However, the F-35 was a pretty uniquely messed up procurement program due to suffering from what I'd broadly call "jointness", where interservice procurement made things less efficient.

The Air Force on its own has had some pretty impressive procurement messups though. Look no further than the KC-46 Pegasus, a tanker designed to replace the KC-135 [as mentioned above loads of these are getting retired in the next couple years]. The first sign of trouble probably should have been when the first program to replace the tankers with the KC-767 [now the KC-46] was cancelled on account of a bribery scandal involving the CFO of Boeing offering the procurement official an executive position. The second sign probably should have been the whole bit where, unlike its competitor, the A330 MRTT, the KC-767 didn't actually exist. And when the A330 won the contract bid, Boeing of course protested and, ultimately, got the contract evaluated again, with [at least per Northrop Grumman's claims, who was running a joint bid with Airbus] requirements rigged for the KC-767, and, finally, almost a decade after the program started, Boeing won the bid.

Except there was the small problem that Boeing hadn't built the plane yet, which turned into a large one. Ultimately the program was marred by years of delays and major technical problems. It only recently finally began delivering aircraft to the Air Force, years late and over-budget [though the USAF did manage to claw quite a bit of it back from Boeing].

However, there are some positive signs that future procurement will be better. Besides the F-35 being saved, there's the example of the T-X program, which is to replace the elderly T-38 Talon trainer. It invited foreign competition to the field, featured vigorous competition, and resulted in an actually effective aircraft--developed by both Boeing [of course] but also Saab--yes, the Swedes have a significant hand in the trainer jet likely to equip much of the world.

In particular, something very interesting the US Air Force is doing is diving heavily into computer design and open systems architecture. What this means, in short, is that they'll design new planes with a heavy emphasis on doing detailed computer design and simulation, only finally building an aircraft to demonstrate it works IRL--which of course cuts costs substantially--and they'll try to build common hardware and software that will work in any number of aircraft. The overall idea is to make aircraft inexpensive, easy to design, and modular. The Air Force even has a buzzword for this already, the "Digital Century Series", referring to the last time the Air Force very rapidly built a whole bunch of aircraft on a relatively common hardware platform. Whether this will bear fruit remains yet to be seen.

4. Fighting the Peer Conflict

The USAF, for the past thirty years, has not faced a peer competitor. Arguably it didn't even face one before that--the Soviet Air Force was no match for what the USAF could field, as was demonstrated quite well in a number of conflicts. The good news is that the USAF has had a long time to build up a lead, and is still far ahead of China or Russia, further ahead than the Army or Navy is by a long shot--Americans like their planes and electronics. For an illustrative example, China'sJ-20 stealth fighter has been produced in a quantity of... 50; while the USAF has almost 200 F-22s and is ordering over a thousand F-35s. The Su-57 barely even flies and is nowhere near peer to what the United States can field despite whatever scary articles you might have read. The bad news is that only recently has the USAF actually begun preparing to fight a peer conflict, which will tax it in different ways.

The main vulnerabilities the Air Force has in a peer conflict are more logistical and operational than regarding the quality of its aircraft or pilots, which are moreless unmatched. The first problem is that readiness isn't fantastic thanks to the War on Terror burning through all the ancient Cold War aircraft that the USAF has operated, and yes, aircraft do wear out. In fact, large numbers of F-15Cs operated by the US Air National Guard have been grounded due to age and fatigue. The shortage of maintainers also plays a role here. There's also the problem that the US Air Force is still quite vulnerable on the ground in any peer conflict; especially to precision strikes with ballistic and cruise missiles--the US Air Force has downsized considerably and now only has a handful of bases for both political and budgetary reasons, but that means that, when facing, for instance, China, the USAF must rely heavily on just six airfields--Osan, Kunsan, Misawa, Yokota, Kadena and Andersen [maybe bring that to 9 by adding USMC and Navy installations, which field fewer and less capable aircraft].

Thus, the primary challenge that the USAF faces is a quiet one--ensuring that it can operate from dispersed locations, at high opstempo, and repair its facilities rapidly. This is really also the biggest question mark in terms of the USAF's performance, but there's some reason to be optimistic here--the USAF is aware of the threat and is actually working to solve it. However, ultimately only changes in the political environment [the addition of bases in the Philippines or Palau, or the development of readied airfields in Japan] will fix the basing problem. Better ballistic missile defense will probably also help here. Russia or China will probably have poor luck against the USAF in the air; seeking primarily to deny the USAF free reign and thus the ability to support ground offensives, but they could cause significant damage by hitting ground facilities, and everyone knows it.

There's also the question of surface-to-air missiles; which have driven quite a bit of concern the past few years as China and Russia field increasingly capable systems like the S-400 and HQ-9. It is feared that the sophistication of these weapons could create "A2/AD bubbles" where the USAF and USN are unable to operate. While the access bubble does still look quite real for the Navy, recent developments have seriously called the efficacy of surface-to-air missiles into question--particularly the fact that the Israelis and Turks seem to be able to almost ignore them, or at least their shorter-range counterparts. The destruction of Armenian S-300 launchers by Azerbaijan with Turkish drones is certainly an ominous signal for anyone thinking advanced air defenses would keep them safe. How good the full-scale systems are against conventional targets is still unknown, but my guess is much less effective than the marketing--and keep in mind that despite years of concerns, SAMs have only been successful from about 1960-1980, and even then relatively minor adjustments in strategy seemed to significantly mitigate damage--so it's unclear how concerned we should actually be about such technology.

There are also questions about whether or not the USAF is operating the right mix of aircraft for the job, and these are valid ones. The USAF is buying new F-15EX, which has literally been described as not survivable after 2028 [though there is a case for the plane as a carrier of standoff weapons or a homeland defense fighter], and still operates the A-10 [an aircraft now mostly known for a number of notorious blue-on-blue (friendly fire) incidents] which, if used in a modern environment where the USAF didn't have total air supremacy, would simply not be able to survive. Yes, there's a reason the USAF wants to scrap the A-10, and no, the GAU-8 is cool but it doesn't even kill columns of modern main battle tanks. Unless you're primarily planning on fighting North Korea, the A-10 is close to useless(ly dangerous). The B-1 has also been highlighted as obsolete, largely due to high maintenance costs. However, the USAF is working hard to scrap these aircraft as fast as politically feasible.

5. New Technologies

The Air Force has always had a certain inclination towards adopting the newest, shiniest technologies, and at the moment there are a number of interesting concepts that it is exploring. I'll talk about two of the most significant ones [especially combined] here.

First, the Air Force is seeking to create future aircraft entirely virtually--using highly detailed computer models to design numerous types of specialist aircraft, and only building prototypes to test the results that simulations produce. Their latest trainer, the "eT-7", uses this methodology--the "e" is supposed to designate that it was designed this way. There's also a move towards using common avionics and software for a variety of different aircraft. Figures high up at the Pentagon have discussed a "Digital Century Series", modeled after a chain of fighters rapidly developed in the 1950s for a number of different roles, from the F-102 interceptor to the F-105 fighter-bomber. This could potentially create numerous new aircraft rapidly; a shift back towards the times before the 1990s where a single fighter project took the entire attention and budget of the Air Force. Nobody is really sure how this will pan out but it looks quite promising. In particular, the fact that the USAF was able to take its new prototype fighter jet into the skies a year after it was originally envisioned is stunning--and suggests that this potential return to the old days of the 1940s and 1950s when new aircraft showed up every year is not just a pipe dream.

Second, the Air Force is investing in UCAVs [Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles], most notably in the Skyborg concept. The goal is to develop a low-cost drone that can both deliver additional weapons to target while being accompanied by a manned fighter--a sort of drone wingman, which is cheap enough to be expendable [thus serving a secondary purpose, soaking up enemy air to air missiles]. Numerous companies have been awarded contracts to develop UCAVs and this program is looking quite promising, so expect to hear more of it in the future.

6. Drones

Drones are a rather interesting topic and one that I'll most likely get into more detail in on my next two posts specifically regarding Turkey. The US was one of the pioneers of UAVs, with the other big player in the field being Israel--in fact the US has bought Israeli drones from time to time, though of course China and Russia have also established a presence, without even mentioning Turkey. The US has a number of drones for different purposes--largely for reconnaissance of different types and precision-strike capability. It has the RQ-4 Global Hawk, for reconnaissance, the MQ-9A Reaper, for strike missions, and the RQ-170, which.... well, probably something involving reconnaissance, it's half-CIA so who knows. However, the US may not have kept up on the ongoing drone revolution, which is actually something I can't really blame them for since the 'revolution' only started in January. Yes. Last January.

This 'revolution' began on January 5, 2020, to be exact, and was led by an unlikely candidate: Turkey. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and this was certainly the case for the Turkish drone program. After the US refused to sell Turkey drones on account of the fact that they might be used against Kurds [use of Turkish drones suggests they definitely are used against Kurds], Turkey decided to make their own drone program with blackjack and hookers--or, well, just drones. Their DIY effort didn't really garner much attention until sent to Libya,but investment in their program skyrocketed, largely for two reasons. First, Turkey has been largely barred from major hardware acquisitions from the US and, to an increasing extent, Europe. Second, Erdogan deeply distrusts the Turkish Air Force and has dramatically cut pilot numbers through his multiple purges of the service. Third, Turkey is competing out of its class, against Russia, the UAE, and other major regional powers.

Once it arrived in Libya, it suddenly became clear that the Turkish drone program was much more important than previously thought. In many ways it bore the primary responsibility for turning the war around from what looked to be almost certain defeat for the UN-recognized GNA into a state where whether or not Haftar could survive was in question. In particular, it came as a great shock to most how easily Turkey defeated the very systems that were designed to shoot down UAVs--the Russian Pantsir in particular, which has been destroyed in great quantities with few Turkish casualties to show for it--and with the sticker price for a Turkish drone less than half of the Pantsir systems they kill, it could well revolutionize warfare. Experiences in Syria, and now in Armenia, where Turkish drones have destroyed hundreds of main battle tanks and casually destroyed SAM systems from some distance above, continue to bring into question just how vast the drone revolution is going to be. I'll cover this in more explicit detail in my next two posts.

However, the USAF is watching and learning--its main difficulty with drones is more political than anything. Drones are often considered less important than manned aircraft by a leadership that largely flew manned aircraft [particularly fighters at that], and it is the bottom tier of officer recruits that fly drones [though, interestingly, some drones are actually flown by enlisted pilots] and even then there's usually a shortage of RPA pilots--that's why a few are flown by enlisted in the first place. Whether or not they'll take these lessons to heart, only time will tell, but the history of the Air Force leaves me relatively optimistic on the matter--more than many other services, it's willing to embrace change.

7. Nukes

The US Air Force runs two legs of the nuclear triad--the air and ground portions. The first is dominated by, believe it or not, gravity bombs--mostly the B61. This weapon has been sitting around in the United States [and Europe under nuclear sharing, in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Turkey] for a while now, the first variants being made in 1968, and has recently been updated to the latest B61-12 variant, which offers high precision [as precise as JDAMs, not that it's likely to matter in most situations where nukes are being dropped] and flexibility--the bomb can be deployed from low altitudes at high speeds, and from within the internal weapons bay of the F-22 and F-35 [not to mention the B-2 and future B-21], so it's not as dumb as it might sound. Air-launched weapons also have useful features like the ability to recall them once launched, which isn't an option for missiles, along with fitting into doctrine for a tactical nuclear war. While I could go on about the lack of air-launched nuclear cruise missiles [which hopefully will be fixed by the end of the Intermediate Forces Treaty] it's not a big deal.

The main concern here [and perhaps a suggestion that procurement is still messed up] is the ground-based deterrent, which currently consists of a few hundred Minuteman III missiles buried in the northern central United States. These missiles, like much of the Air Force, date to the 1970s and have outlasted their supposed replacement--the MX Peacekeeper. These missiles are finally approaching end of life and are to be replaced by a new ICBM system. This process is... problematic. First off, it was a sole-source bid because Northrop Grumman acquired Orbital ATK Systems, the primary American producer of solid-fuelled rockets and missiles, and this resulted in Boeing pulling out of the competition. Second, the cost seems rather high, at least in my view, with lifetime cost estimates of as much as $90 billion, with development alone amounting to $13 billion at sticker price. It positions the cost of rebuilding the ground-based deterrent as comparable to the US Navy's program to replace the Ohio-class submarines with the Columbias. The ground-based deterrent has also lost substantial importance as sea-launched and air-launched weapons have become much more accurate and capable of fulfilling the ground-based counterforce mission [which arguably died with Peacekeeper], and it remains the most vulnerable portion of the triad. What good it does is largely as another independent nuclear deterrent and one that soaks up enemy warheads in the event of nuclear war that could be directed towards other targets. A disastrous procurement here could cause problems for the Air Force you will see in the future. My suggestion would be either to continue modernizing the Minuteman IIIs or aim to replace them with the cheapest option possible--something like, for instance, a land-based Trident missile [as if the Air Force would ever allow such a thing to be built]. All the ground-based deterrent needs to do is be there, be a credible threat, and soak up enemy fire. That's it.

8. Space Force

The Space Force is now its own service branch, but as it really hasn't emerged yet I'll cover it here. In fact, just recently, the Space Force enlisted its first trainees. This is somewhat less in my area of expertise; but at the moment things look fairly promising. While the Space Force sounds silly it's almost certainly the part of the military you interact with the most in your daily life on account of running the GPS network. They also operate a variety of communications satellites and the system for monitoring ballistic missile launches, among other pieces of hardware. Expect to hear more about these guys in the future, as space becomes a potential battlefield--we've seen the deployment of a space-based anti-satellite weapon by the Russians just recently, and numerous powers now field anti-satellite missiles along with jamming equipment that can blind reconnaissance satellites, so space is becoming much more militarily important. I don't have much more to say about these guys at the moment, though, other than noting that they're already talking about being even "less physical" than the Air Force--translation: Less mandatory exercise--and they're teaching classes about space law, which is neat I guess. The main downside of the Space Force is that it's going to be very small, around 20-30,000 people, which is half what even the Coast Guard fields, and that could lead to problems with maintaining personnel and inefficiencies with redundant missions, procurement, and the like.

9. Conclusion

The USAF has problems; particularly with aging equipment and manpower, but it seems to realize that most of them exist and is moving to address them. Political constraints mean that the USAF is stuck supporting a variety of obsolete platforms and investing its large budget poorly in new ICBMs and poorly managed tankers, and procurement continues to be a struggle for the USAF, though nowhere near as bad as with the US Navy. Drones have the potential to revolutionize warfare and the USAF is working to develop capabilities in that area, albeit maybe not as fast as some other players in the field, and digital design promises more aircraft designed and produced faster--much, much faster. The USAF faces logistical challenges in a peer conflict, but nothing insurmountable--though the work there is likely to be painful and sidelined because it's less interesting than buying shiny new toys. The Space Force seems to be going along well though they could face some problems in the medium term from losing access to the USAF's resources--political, financial, and of personnel--until/unless they develop into a larger, more influential service. On the whole, though, the outlook for the USAF, at least, looks quite bright--a hope spot, along with the Army and Marines, that the serious problems of the Navy will not cripple the entire military capability of the United States.

10. Citations

Uh, I mostly embedded them in the post, and I don't want to go back and hunt for what I used after a month, but here are some good longer-form ones:
RAND, Chinese Attacks on Air Bases in Asia on the ballistic missile threat
Ryan Snyder, The Future of the ICBM Force: Should the Least Valuable Leg of the Triad Be Replaced?

RAND, Creating a Separate Space Force mostly focusing on administrative difficulties and personnel issues

RAND, Drone-Era Warfare Shows the Operatoinal Limits of Air Defense Systems on drones and the conflicts in Libya and Syria [yes, it's all RAND, no Brookings Institute or such this time round]. It also explains why air defense systems are perhaps much more vulnerable than commonly thought, which I didn't really get into here.

Washington Post, Air Force seeks a radical shift in how jets, missiles, and satellites are designed with more detail on the shift to more computerized design the US Air Force wants to make

CSIS, The Air Force Digital Century Series: Beyond the Buzzwords taking apart the "Digital Century Series" push
submitted by AmericanNewt8 to neoliberal

[OT] Ten Months ago I responded to a prompt about wandering into a cave and finding a world with tamable monsters. Today, Into the Tall Grass is a published novel!

Hello everyone!
To repeat what the title said, ten months ago I responded to a prompt:
[WP] When out in the woods, you discover a cave that leads to a world that operates under Pokémon logic... And find that you have an innate ability to tame the monsters of this world.
The idea absolutely gripped me - and now I’ve published a novel inspired by that prompt and my love of monster taming games! Here’s the details:
Two suns, foreign plants, and a whole slew of monsters to tame.
Amateur entomologist and reluctant Life Scout, Caleb finds far more than he expected when he stumbles through a hidden cave and into a new world full of Kritt - monsters that can be tamed and taught to fight. He also didn’t expect evil overlords and their minions looking to use the power of Kritt to grind this world under their bootheel.
Unless someone stops them, that is.
Once meeting Antoinette, an affectionate ant Kritt that bonds with Caleb, and Karla, a tamer of this world that’s living off the land and preparing to strike back against the Darkholds, they set off. Their goal? Help free the people of this world from the Overseer’s grasp. A mountain’s worth of threats stand in their way, though: the Overseer’s soldiers, terrible abominations, wild Kritt, and all the trouble Caleb’s sarcastic mouth can cause.
Welcome, Caleb, to the world of Kritt. Now evolve - or perish.
Into the Tall Grass is a Portal Fantasy/Isekai book with strong gamelit elements.
Nope. This story is designed to capture the feel of those classic games, and while it does have higher stakes than those games, it is designed to capture the light-hearted feel that we all love.
Nothing yet announced, but I’ll update if there is one!
Into the Tall Grass is a stat light gamelit, and the stats do not appear explicitly until later in the book once Caleb gets his totally-not-a-Pokedex goggles. The later books in the series will have more detailed stats as Caleb delves further into the system that runs this world.
They’re comfy and easy to wear.
Where do I catch the book?
Well, you first need to learn HM Cut, go to the hole in the wall after beating the second boss...or you can just get it on Amazon
Amazon US Link - UK | CA | AU | DE | MX | JP | IN | BR | FR | ES | IT | NL
I want to sample before I pick up?
Well, good news for you - just read on!
Caleb Cooper slapped at his arm with a growl. Another mosquito. He wouldn’t have said camping was his least favorite activity in the world. Even at sixteen, he could easily imagine worse ways to spend his time. He could have his feet dipped in acid, or be stabbed in the back repeatedly, or repeat algebra. But no one was forcing him to do any of those, because he’d passed algebra and hadn’t angered any Bond villains lately.
“C’mon, try to smile some,” his dad said, walking up behind him and shaking his back. “What more could you want? We’ve got the great outdoors, we’ve got trees, we’ve got sun, we’ve got fresh air...this is perfect!”
Caleb sighed. “Oh, yeah, surrounded by kids who’re still in junior high. It’s everything a growing teen could want. Toxic plants, the sun, brats who think I’m a weirdo, the sun again...what’s not to love? You know, I could be going to a party tonight.”
His dad’s smile didn’t waver. “You do so love the party scene. I mean, the last one you went to was...Jimmy Dryer’s eighth birthday party? Getting wild up in the hizzouse there.”
“Okay, dad, I need to tell you two things. First of all, if you say hizzouse out loud, ever again, I will die. I will literally fall over dead from embarrassment. No, I know the correct definition of literally and I am using it correctly, that is actually what will happen. Do you want to be responsible for filicide via intense shame?”
“I’m positive that’s not actually possible.”
“Oh, it totally is. Remember Becky? Died last year because her mom was singing ‘Ain’t nuthin but a G Thang.’ Sure, they say Becky changed schools because they moved, but it was all a cover up. Heard her mom singing and pow!” Caleb punched a closed fist into his empty hand. “dropped over dead.”
His dad laughed. “Noted. And the second thing?”
“You might have picked up subtle hints about this, what with me mentioning it no less than two hundred and ninety eight times on the drive down here according to you. I don’t really like camping.”
There was a long pause, and his dad’s face fell. Caleb immediately winced, but it was too late. “You used to beg to go out every year, remember?”
Yeah, in like 8th grade. When all his friends had been in boy scouts with him, and he’d been able to spend time with them. But high school had come, and his friends had moved on. But the Coopers came from a long line of Eagle scouts. His dad was an Eagle Scout, his grandfather had been an Eagle Scout, and Caleb’s dad would be damned if his son wasn’t an Eagle Scout. “Right,” Caleb muttered. “Sorry, I’ll give it a chance. I’m sure once I get back in the groove it’ll be fine.”
“That’s the spirit!” His dad’s face lit back up.
Caleb gave him an expression that could have been a grin if you squint hard enough. “Awesome. I’m going to...head out.” He turned to trundle off into the woods.
“Where are you going?” his dad asked.
Caleb held up a glass. “Going to see if I can find an Acorn Weevil. There’s a lot of oaks around here, and I’d like one for the collection.”
It was the one part of the outdoors Caleb enjoyed -- catching insects. It was a bit of an odd hobby, but Caleb was a bit of a junior entomologist and enjoyed it. He was thinking about going to college for entomology after he graduated. Something about the wide variety of possible insects, finding things that people usually overlooked, categorizing them...it was calming. He had several glass cases of them pinned at home, many of them gathered from scouting trips like these.
Naturally, it was the one part of the outdoors his dad didn’t like. His father turned green and motioned for Caleb to go ahead. “Don’t wander too far!” he shouted.
Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t like he could go too far even if he wanted to. The campsite was in the middle of a series of mid-Missouri bluffs, and wandering more than an hour’s walk would inevitably lead to a solid rock wall. Or a road.
Step by step, the sounds of the rest of the boy scout troop receded in the forest behind him. Caleb let out a sigh of relief. He was the only high schooler still in the troop, and a lot of the older kids thought he had to be some kind of loser to still be doing this at his age.
They aren’t wrong, Caleb thought. Just not for the right reasons. Being a boy scout isn’t what made him a loser. It was his complete lack of social life at high school, relegated only to a few other dorks at lunch who he didn’t really hang out with, and the fact that he collected bugs when most people were going to parties or making out or getting drunk or playing video games or even playing Magic: The Gathering - that made him a loser.
That’s right. The MTG kids could look down on him for bug collecting. Was that fair? Obviously, they deserved someone who they could look down on too, and Caleb understood that unlike their weird hobby, his weird hobby was also gross. Still, didn’t he deserve the same? Someone he could silently judge and feel superior to? But, no, the only ones lower than him on the social hierarchy were kids with actual issues, and Caleb didn’t want to be that kind of jerk.
The worst part was, he felt bad for not enjoying the scouts anymore. If his dad had planned these trips as one on one things, where they could go out and find rare insects, or even some other wildlife finding things like birdwatching or something, Caleb would have loved their trips as much as he used to. Well, probably. Maybe. I’d like it better if I knew this was the alternative, Caleb amended. These days, however, he’d found most of the insects at their usual camping sights. He actually had an acorn weevil already, but there was no way his dad would remember it - since his dad didn’t really look beyond his own wants. He wanted an Eagle Scout, so an Eagle Scout Caleb would be.
Especially after what had happened with mom. Dad had become rabid about father-son activities since then. “It’s just the two of us now,” Dad said once, when he’d had a bit too much to drink after work. “Just the two of us.”
Caleb shook his head and brushed away a tree branch before it could slap him in the face. The stinging in his eyes was a good reminder why he didn’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole.
A little while later, as he had expected, Caleb found himself at one of the bluffs. It was a solid expanse of rock, covered in creeping vines. The tendrils would be crawling with acrobat ants, which made them a nice place to stop because they’d keep the wasp population down in the region. Maybe I could try to find a nest. Maybe even a queen. That thought he discarded - it would be a prize, but the only way he’d ever add an ant queen to his collection would be if he found one dead. It felt different than taking a single insect and putting it on his board. Taking a queen could wipe out an entire colony.
When I finish college, I’ll get a whole terrarium. Then I can have living ones. That way I’ll get to enjoy my insects in peace and make sure I never ever have people invite themselves over. They’ll be all ‘oh, can I come over’ and I’ll be like ‘sure, don’t mind the ants.’ And then I’ll have alienated another person! That would be better and would make him feel better about what he did. Even the knowledge that he was killing bugs sapped the fun out of his hobby. Of course, that same hobby would also guarantee his adulthood was as lonely as his teenage years, so maybe…
“Gah!” Caleb cried, and kicked a rock at the bluff. It was stupid and childish, but it helped with the frustration. He leapt to the side to avoid the rebound.
He needn’t have bothered. The rock went straight through the vines instead of plinking off the bluff. Caleb froze, then slowly started inching toward the barrier. Is that a...cave? He reached out, brushing some vines away, only to reveal a cave on the side of the cliff. It went back a good twenty or thirty feet in a crevice easily large enough for him to walk through before vanishing into darkness.
Bet I could find something new in there. He groaned. Because amateur spelunking has such a high success rate. That can’t possibly go wrong. Oh, wait, I’m thinking of...actually, I don’t know anything where amateur is a good thing.
Ignoring the warnings of his own hindbrain, something he was exceptionally good at, Caleb flipped on his flashlight. While he wasn’t a big fan of being a scout, their motto of “Be Prepared” had stuck with him more firmly than he cared to admit. Summoning his courage, he headed inside.
The cave was large enough for him to walk upright, at least. I wonder if anyone’s ever even been in here before? It was possible he was the first human to ever notice this cave hiding behind the vines, that his were the first human footsteps in this cave. Who knew what could be ahead? Hell, if it went deep enough, he might discover an entirely new species - cave ecologies were often very isolated from the rest of the world.
That thought overrode the lingering fears of going spelunking alone, and Caleb pushed ahead. To his relief, the cave didn’t really branch off anywhere, so there was only a miniscule risk he’d find himself wandering in circles. It wasn’t long until he was plunged entirely into darkness aside from his flashlight.
“You have now left the domain of the sun,” Caleb said in his best announcer voice. He’d heard that line from…was it a webcomic? Or a blog? He couldn’t remember, and that train of thought was derailed as his heart started to beat faster. The primal fear of the dark still clung to him, and he wasn’t as certain as he’d been at the outset that this was a good idea. Given he’d been fairly certain this was a terrible idea, that was saying something. Just as he was about to turn around, he saw it.
It looked like an ant, but it wasn’t like any ant Caleb had seen before. It was large, nearly a foot from mandibles to thorax, and too brightly colored to be a normal cave dweller with its exoskeleton covered in gold and black swirls. Its eyes were wrong, too, looking more like something you’d see on a mammal than on an insect. It should have been frightening, but somehow, it was oddly cute. The gentle eyes, the way it moved awkwardly, like it was a newborn that hadn’t quite grown into its legs...it had an overall appearance of helplessness. It looked up at Caleb and chirped curiously.
Holy crap. “Well, hello there,” Caleb said. “What are you?”
The strange ant chirped again. I have to catch it. It was too big for his glass jar, but that didn’t matter. It also didn’t matter that his dad would refuse to let Caleb bring it back alive. Caleb would find a way, damn it. This wasn’t just a new species, this was an insect that shouldn’t be possible. Ants didn’t get this big, and certainly not in caves. Caleb reached out a tentative hand.
What the hell are you doing? he thought. He knew nothing about the thing. It could be venomous. It could be dangerous. It was a wild animal, and he was trying to pet it?
Much to his surprise, the ant didn’t recoil from his hand or lunge at it. Instead, it studied it curiously, then rolled over on its back and began to wave its legs in the air like a cat trying to get attention, chirping happily.
Screw it. Caleb ran his fingers over the thing’s belly. It made a sound halfway between a chirp and a purr, almost like a trill. “Oh my God, I have to find a way to keep you. What do you eat?”
Not that he expected the ant to answer. He didn’t expect the ant to respond at all, besides continuing to make happy little trills as Caleb gave it a belly rub. Its exoskeleton was softer than he expected, covered with fine hairs that probably served to keep off water but also made it unimaginably soft. Already Caleb wasn’t thinking about the enormity of the discovery, he was thinking about taking it for walks around the block, or letting it chase a laser pointer.
Then, abruptly, the ant fell silent and righted itself. It hissed in Caleb’s direction.
He froze, shying back and running his hand through his own hair.. “Woah? What’s wrong? Too many tummy rubs?”
And then he realized the ant wasn’t staring at him. It was staring over his shoulder.
Caleb spun, whipping the flashlight around, and came face to face with an oncoming monstrosity. It was a bipedal insect creature with four limbs, nearly as tall as Caleb was. The upper limbs ended in vicious stingers, and the lower limbs had grasping pincers. Instead of mandibles, it had tentacles growing from under its six beady eyes.
That flashlight saved Caleb’s life. The creature shied back, its eyes glowing in the brilliant light.. The ant screeched and began to run deeper into the cave. That seemed smart. Panicked by the monstrosity, Caleb followed.
This isn’t happening. The sound of Caleb’s feet pounding against the floor of the cave filled his ears. His heartbeat joined the sound, and the light swung wildly. He was gaining on the ant. A surge of adrenaline hit, and Caleb reached down to scoop it up. The ant trilled in confusion, and lacking anything else to do, Caleb put it on his head without breaking stride. He kept running, the ant now turning behind him and shrieking more and more. It's gaining on us! Caleb could almost imagine it saying.
Then the light ahead grew bright. Without warning, he was back out into the forest, into the sun.
The monstrosity skidded to a halt near the entrance of the cave, waving its tentacles and roaring but refusing to enter the sunlight. Caleb was fine with that. Caleb was fine with doing nothing but running at a breakneck pace, his new friend sitting on his head and now trilling in defiance. Darting forward, he wove in and out of the trees, turning to avoid tripping over rocks. At one point, his vision a fog of panic, he was thought he jumped a stream.
It wasn’t until his lungs started to burn that Caleb started to slow down. A few steps later, he dropped to the forest floor, panting.
After a few minutes of gasping, he took stock of his surroundings. With dawning horror, four realizations hit him. The first was that he’d somehow run through a bluff that stretched for a hundred miles in less than a day. The second was that the trees didn’t look like anything native to Earth, let alone Missouri. That alien impression was greatly aided by the fact that there were two suns overhead, one red and one yellow, which was number three. Multiple suns were kind of a big one. Finally, and most importantly, he had completely lost track of where he was in relation to the cave.
Panic seized him, and Caleb plucked the ant off his head with shaking hands and held it across his knees, on its back. It came to Caleb so naturally that he didn’t even think about the fact that his panic response was to cuddle a strange animal until after he had. The ant looked up at him with eyes full of warmth and gratitude. “Where the hell am I?” he asked.
In response, the ant started to purr.
Chapter 2
After a bit, the ant began to struggle. “I can’t just keep calling you ‘the ant,” Caleb said to it as he put it down. The ant looked up at him and clacked its mandibles. “Hmm. Don’t know if you’re a girl and or a boy ant. Although if you’re eusocial, those terms probably don’t matter anyway. You’re not a queen or you’d be in your hive, so...are you a soldier? Or a worker?”
Maybe it was Caleb’s imagination, but the ant seemed to be happier with the word soldier. That’s probably just wishful thinking. You need to get your priorities in order, man. You’re in a world with two suns, you should be flipping out right now! And yet, he felt strangely calm. Maybe it was just because the whole thing was so surreal. Or maybe it was just because he expected at any moment to wake up back in his tent with the story of a crazy dream. Or maybe you’ve just snapped, and any moment now you’re going to realize you’re completely barking mad. Caleb shook his head. If he was dreaming or crazy, there was no point trying to figure it out. Either he’d wake up, or he’d be put in a nice padded room and given pills until he could see things normally. “How about Antoinette?” he said.
The Ant - Antoinette - began to bob its head and marched over to Caleb’s hand, pressing its head against his palm until he started to scratch it. Might as well think of you as a she, he thought. Giving her a name seemed to have done the trick, and Antoinette was now trilling and purring happily against his hand. “So, Antoinette, don’t suppose you know if I’ve gone crazy or anything, do you?”
Antoinette was not particularly eager to respond. After some time scratching and spacing out, Caleb shook his head. “If this is all real, I have to start thinking of what comes next,” he said to Antoinette. “C’mon girl, let’s get moving.” As soon as Caleb stood, Antoinette reared onto her hind legs. Smiling, Caleb scooped her up and put her on his shoulder. Even though she was nearly as long as a cat, she weighed about half as much. That, plus the long years of scouts giving Caleb at least some muscles to work with, meant she could stay on his shoulder easily. “Okay. Let’s go back and see if that thing is gone from the cave, right?”
Immediately Antoinette’s demeanor changed. She began to shiver and rubbed against his cheek. “You can’t possibly understand me,” Caleb said. Antoinette continued to shiver and rub, and Caleb decided it had to be his imagination. Even if Antoinette seemed to be more along the lines of a small mammal in terms of intelligence than an ant, there was no way she had the intelligence of a human - and even if she did, she couldn’t speak or understand English. She was probably just picking up on his nerves over returning. As he turned to retrace his steps, he reached up and began to stroke her back. “Don’t worry. If it’s still there, I won’t be going anywhere near it.”
Antoinette’s shivers seemed to subside. “Totally a coincidence,” Caleb said with a nervous chuckle. “No way you understand anything I’m saying.”
The look she sent his way could easily be called reproachful.
The trees here really weren’t like anything he’d ever seen before. They towered over his head, looking more like giant, single ferns than they did like trees. There weren’t any visible roots, they all just shot out of the ground. At the top they branched oddly, feathering into individual strands that were covered with tiny leaves that grew away from the rest of the body of the plant, maximizing the sunlight its green blade could get. It was a relief to see those tiny leaves on the trees though - up until then, between that and the giant ant, he was beginning to worry he’d somehow been shrunk and was walking among giant blades of grass.
As soon as he had the thought, he couldn’t quite shake it, but too many other things were wrong for that to be the case. The dirt was still normal sized, not huge chunks like they would be if he’d shrunk coming over here, and there weren’t any obvious giant landmarks to indicate he was tiny. Still, it was a strange feeling, and he was relieved when he found the stream from earlier. That had to be normal sized. Water wouldn’t flow with that kind of babble if it was shrunk down, not unless it was hundreds of feet wide from his perspective.
The relief was almost immediately quashed when he realized that he didn’t recognize this part of the stream at all. He hadn’t exactly been taking in the scenery, but he still had expected to at least recognize something. Unfortunately, nothing about this part of where he was looked even remotely familiar. He grimaced. “Is this where we were?” he said aloud.
Antoinette trilled, an almost sad sound. It was like she was saying “I have no idea, you think I was paying attention?” Caleb had to laugh at himself. Already he was assigning actual full sentences to Antoinette. “Okay, well, rule one,” Caleb told her. “Head downstream. It will take me to somewhere eventually, and hopefully that somewhere will include someone who has the faintest idea what the hell is going on and how I can get back to the cave.”
Resolution made, he started to walk in that direction. It was a beautiful day here in...wherever this was, and thus far - joy upon joys - he hadn’t seen a single mosquito. As long as he was stuck in this weird dream or psychotic break or whatever was going on, he was going to enjoy it. He did see a few more traditional insects climbing along the fern-trees he’d marveled at before, which was nice. It helped him feel less like he was tiny walking in a giant world. As much as he wanted to, he resisted the urge to peer down for a closer look at them. Right now they were tiny specs climbing along in rows, and if he didn’t look too closely he could tell himself they were just normal ants. The moment he did, he was certain he’d notice things that would mark them of nothing from Earth, and that idea straight up terrified him.
“Yes, that’s right,” he said to the foot-long ant on his shoulder. “The terrifying thought is the insects here might be different. Crap on a stick, I am going insane.”
There was definitely a spring in his step as he walked, but not from how happy he was feeling. It was like every step carried a little bit...extra. It added to the surreal quality of everything. He’d noticed it before when he’d been running down the hill, but now that he was fully aware of how he was moving and a bit less panicked, he could really feel it. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Definitely dreaming.”
And since this is a dream... He reached up and carefully pried Antoinette from his shoulder. She chirruped in confusion. “Don’t worry, girl,” he said, placing her on the ground. “I’ll be right back. I just want to test something.”
Antoinette cocked her head at him, and Caleb grinned. Then, tensing up his legs, he kicked off the ground.
And went sailing through the air. “Oh my God!” he shouted. He’d had a decent high jump before, but this...it took him nearly ten feet into the air. He whooped in excitement and pumped his fist as he reached the apex of his jump. He could see over the fern trees! He could see smoke in the direction he was walking! He could see...he could see a bird.
It wasn’t like any bird he’d ever imagined. It was soaring through the air like a hawk, but its feathers were red and blue, and its face was more like a reptile’s than a bird’s. It looked almost like an archeopteryx, but without the claws on its wings, and with three massive feathers streaming out behind it. It wheeled in the air. It was beautiful.
Then gravity reminded him that, while he could jump high, he wasn’t able to fly. Caleb began to fall. The fall was faster than it should have been, given his leap. It felt like he was falling in normal gravity. Okay, this is it. I fall, and right before I hit the ground, I wake-
The thought was cut off when he slammed into the dirt beneath him. The impact drove the air from his lungs, which was the only thing that spared him from crying out in pain. He tasted blood, and his vision was obscured by black spots. Caleb could only whimper. He collapsed to the ground in a heap. What little of his brain was still working confirmed that he hadn't actually shattered his legs. The rest of it just screamed in pain. This isn’t a dream. That was now painfully clear. Dreams couldn’t possibly hurt this badly.
Antoinette walked up to him and nudged him with her mandibles. When he didn’t respond right away, she climbed onto his chest and began that rumbling trill. Caleb could only wheeze as he tried to catch his breath. Antoinette studied him, and a long tongue raced out of her mouth to lick his forehead. “Thanks,” he managed to grunt, glad she was so much lighter than a cat - otherwise she’d be crushing his chest. “No, really.”
It took him a few more minutes to stand again, and only when he was able to was he certain he hadn’t broken any bones. He took a few deep breaths, feeling an ache across his entire back. “I saw some smoke ahead,” he said to Antoinette, who was clawing at his leg. “I really hope that’s a town, and that they can help. And also that they have painkillers. I’d kill someone for some painkillers.”
Antoinette clacked her mandibles.
“No, I mean, it would have to be someone I didn’t like!”
Antoinette kept clawing his jeans and Caleb shook his head. “Mind walking alongside me for a bit? I need...I need a new back. And legs. Really just a new body. Phew. Give me some time to recover.”
Antoinette stopped clawing and trilled sadly. Again, Caleb was struck with the distinct impression she could understand him. But that doesn’t make sense, he thought. There’s no way she could. It’s just...insane.
“You there!”
The sudden shout nearly made Caleb scream, and he whirled to face the speaker. Antoinette did as well, hissing.
“You need to step away from the Kralant. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
The man was wearing something that looked like a military uniform from the eighteen hundreds, black and red with buttons that pinned up far on the left side of his body. He wore a cap that matched the color of his suit, and he stood with a rigid formality. For all that, he looked like he couldn’t be much older than Caleb.
More interestingly, however, the bird Caleb had seen earlier was perched on his shoulder. “You...want me to move away from Antoinette?” Caleb asked, trying to register what he was seeing.
“You...named it?” the soldier said, sounding incredulous. The bird on his shoulder peered at Antoinette hungrily, and Antoinette clacked her mandibles and hissed. She showed none of the fear she had towards the monstrosity in the cave. The soldier only frowned. “Who are you?”
“Caleb,” Caleb said, narrowing his eyes. “Who are you?”
“I am Ruzo, First Private of the Darkhold Omal. This is Silv.” The bird chirped at its name, although it didn’t take its eyes off Antoinette.
“I’m sorry, you called Antoinette a Kralant and seemed surprised I named her. Is Silv its name, or is it it's species?”
“He,” Ruzo said, stressing the word, “is a Silvtherix. I named him Silv.”
“Wow, very original name there.” Caleb couldn’t help himself. Something about Ruzo’s attitude was rubbing him the wrong way. It was his imperious demeanor, like he owned the place. Who the hell does he think he is?
“Says the boy who named a Kralant Antoinette,” Ruzo said, although he flushed a bit at mockery. “I need you to come with me, Caleb. These woods are forbidden. I thought you’d just gotten lost, but since you’re a Tamer...clearly you’re in violation of the Treaty. Put your hands behind your back.”
“Okay, first of all, working Antoinette’s species into her name is a brilliant pun. I didn’t just chop off part of the name and call it good. Second of all - put my hands behind my back?” Caleb asked. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“First private of the Darkhold Omal,” Ruzo said, repeating his earlier words and with the same drilled in efficiency. “Who do you serve, Caleb?”
“Oh. Uh. Well...I’m with Troop One-Eighteen,” Caleb said, uncertain what else to say. “Boy Scouts, United States of America. And, private, I’m a Life Scout. So, yeah. Shove that up your craphole and spin on it.”
It was pretty clear that Ruzo had no idea what anything else Caleb said meant, but his eyes narrowed at the last sentence. “I don’t know who you serve. But clearly, someone needs to teach you manners.” He swung out his arm. “Silv! Attack!”
With a shriek that put a chill into Caleb’s bones, Silv took to the air.
In response, Antoinette let out a hiss of challenge.
Oh you’ve got to be kidding me, Caleb thought, squaring up.
I’ve definitely gone insane. But the pain in his back reminded him that insanity was much less certain than he’d previously believed. He could be absolutely certain of one thing, however - he had no idea what he was doing.
Silv shrieked as he swooped through the air, diving for Antoinette. Caleb couldn’t help but notice how dangerously curved those talons were, each ending in wicked barbs. It looked like they could tear through flesh like razorblades. “Antoinette, do...something!” Caleb shouted in panic.
As soon as the words left his lips, he felt something. It was almost like a tug on his skin, but it was a strange and alien feeling. Like part of him had been yanked away. Antoinette leapt to the side, snapping her mandibles. Silv passed through the space she had just vacated, his talons clutching only empty air. Confidence flashed through Ruzo’s eyes. “Do something? That’s the best you have? Silv is going to tear your Kralant apart.”
Caleb’s heart started to pound. In the games, the monsters would always faint at the end of fights, then there would be a heroic rush to town and the monster would be cured. Looking at those talons, it was hard to imagine this fight would be that harmless. “Antoinette, do something ranged this time!” Caleb said, frantically going through his pockets. That strange tug happened again, but Caleb ignored it. He needed to help.
A meme he’d seen the other day on his phone flashed through his mind as he frantically patted his pockets, modified for his current situation. “I’ve had Antoinette for only half a day, but if anything happens to her I’d kill everyone in this field and then myself.” Really, Caleb? You’re watching a pair of monsters fighting for their lives and the best you have are memes and vague commands? It’s not like he could do much else. He didn’t really have any kind of weapons on him. A simple Swiss army knife, too small to be used for actually fighting anyone. Not that he had any idea if he could actually bring himself to stab Ruzo. The guy was an ass, but Caleb had never hurt a fly.
Well. Metaphorically speaking. He’d squished plenty of flies in his day.
Besides that, he didn’t have much else. A can of bug spray. Some twine. A granola bar, still in its wrapper. A zippo lighter. A...wait, that’s it. Caleb looked back up to the fight as he pulled four of the items out of his pocket, trying desperately to get his hands shaking at another terrifying scream from Silv.
Silv was circling the fight, staring down at Antoinette with eyes full of fury. Ruzo was watching Caleb with a curious expression, as if he were trying to figure out what kind of stupid thing Caleb was going to do next. Oh, if you had any idea how stupid I was about to be, you’d be...very...uh...shocked? Antoinette was on the ground, watching Silv carefully.
“Now!” Ruzo shouted.
Silv screamed and dove towards Antoinette. The Kralant had never seemed so small before, but she held her ground, her mandibles pointing towards the sky.
Then, the moment Silv got close, Antoinette let loose a spray. It was white and stringy, almost like spider silk. Silv flapped his wings hard, letting a gust of air blow the strands away. Where they touched the dirt they sizzled like acid. Caleb’s eyes widened. “Holy crap, what was that?”
Antoinette trilled happily and rose up on her hind legs, letting loose another barrage of caustic strands. Silv took to the air, getting out of range, and screeched in fury at having its attack interrupted. “You really don’t know?” Ruzo said, his eyes hard. “You’re an absolute moron, aren’t you?”
“Yeah? Well, would a moron be doing this?” Caleb responded. It wasn’t exactly the witty repartee he’d been hoping for. With the distraction the battle had provided him, he’d managed to tie the zippo around the bug spray and held up his prize.
“...it seems one would,” Ruzo said, his forehead creasing. “What the hell is that supposed to be?”
Silv dove down towards Antoinette again, banking to dodge the spray of acidic webbings. In response, Caleb flicked the zippo opened and stepped forward. A small flame sprang to life, and Ruzo’s eyes widened. “What are you doing?” he shouted. Caleb ignored it. He pressed down on the top of the bug spray.
The fine mist met the flame of the zippo and flamed to life. Silv screeched in sudden fear and pulled back, still several yards from reaching Antoinette. Antoinette whipped her head around and gave Caleb a curious chirp. “That’s right!” Caleb shouted, pointed the improvised weapon at Ruzo. “You think you’re going to hurt Antoinette? I will literally set you on fire.”
Ruzo’s eyes were wide, and Silv flew over to his outstretched arm, landing on it like it was a tree branch. The massive bird looked like it shouldn’t be something Ruzo could hold, but his arm never wavered. “You...are an Artificer? I should have known…” he trailed off, studying Caleb up and down.
“Yeah, that’s right. I’m an Artificer,” Caleb said, hoping the term was descriptive enough to be able to fake what he thought it meant. “I just built a flamethrower. Back down, buddy, or I swear to God I’m going to set you up like a cheap firework.”
Of course, it was a total bluff. Ruzo was a good fifteen feet away. The flame from this thing could go a foot, max. If Ruzo called him on it, Caleb would find himself having to reveal the limits of his homemade weapon very, very quickly. And when he did, what would happen? Would Ruzo send that damn bird after Antoinette again? Or would he send Silv straight after Caleb, trying to tear out his eyes?
Oh man. This is really, really looking bad for me.
“I’m surprised, Artificer,” Ruzo said, reaching up to stroke Silv under the beak. The bird leaned into the touch and chirped. “Entering the battle so early? You must have something serious you’re hiding. Something the Darkhold Olam will want to know. Well, if you wish to make this a test of that…” Silv began to crawl up his arm until their heads were butting together. “I’ll be more than happy to oblige.”
“Yo, you’re talking a pretty big game for someone who’s about to get his ass set on fire,” Caleb said, but the brave words couldn’t stop the tremor in his hands. “Why don’t you stop what you’re doing and go away? I don’t want to hurt you.”
Ruzo laughed, a mocking sound, as Silv began to work around to his back. The bird started to wrap wings around Ruzo’s face, and the spots on his wings matched up perfectly with Ruzo’s eyes. “Don’t worry about that, little Artificer. I promise, I’m in absolutely no danger.”
Their forms began to glow. Caleb took a step back, reflexively pressing down on the button for the bug spray. The flame seemed almost dark when compared to the immense light pouring out both soldier and monster as they began to rise into the air. “Antoinette?” Caleb said, shaking so badly he thought he might fall over. “I think I’d like to wake up now.”
Antoinette cooed in a sound that trembled with fear.
The glow vanished. Ruzo was gone. So was Silv. In their place was a single being, one that combined traits of both monster and man. Ruzo’s hair was now the bright feathers of the bird, his hands and feet ended in the wicked talons that the bird had shown in its diving sweeps at Antoinette, and two immense wings jutted from his back. Worst of all were the eyes, however. Ruzo’s normal two human eyes peered out at Caleb, but above those were the exact same eyes that had adorned Silv’s head. “So that is your flame, little man?” Ruzo said, and his voice had an odd quality to it, some kind of echo, like it was being spoken through two mouths. “I thought you Artificers claimed you could match am Tamer’s power. Looks like you’re just another worm.”
“Uh…shit,” Caleb said, looking down at Antoinette. “Do you know how to do that?”
This time there was no imagining it. Antoinette shook her head, and there was real fear in her eyes.
“Yeah, me either.” Caleb dropped to one knee and held out a hand. “Get on.”
Antoinette leaped onto Caleb’s arm and wrapped her legs around as Ruzo took to the air.
“So, Artificer,” Ruzo said, every word laced with mockery. “What will you do now?”
Fortunately, for the first time since he’d arrived here, Caleb knew exactly what to do.
Screaming in fear, Caleb turned and ran away from the four-eyed taloned bird-human hybrid that was rising into the sky. And as he did, the small part of his mind that couldn’t stop from being sarcastic even now couldn’t help but point out that it was totally unfair – none of the games allowed you to do that. Where’s the overly drawn out tutorial when you really need it?
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