More hospital drama. Yay. I had my COVID vaccine a while ago, when I was meant to, and yet because my records apparently have not existed or been found until now, I technically "did not" have my covid vaccine? Or at least there's no record of me having had it. This is obviously a big problem for my local GP and all and they're asking (begging) me to find any proof I had of it, so they won't get in trouble.

Kind of a problem for me as well if they don't, because then people will think I've not been vaccinated when I have been, and I don't know if it's dangerous or not to be double vaccinated.


Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 159


Atlas' largest military base was just off the city itself, a compound surrounded by barbed wire fencing, ten metres of open ground dotted with towers, then a six-metre high wall. It was built like a fortress, with its own small village inside. Barracks buildings, hangars, logistical centres and more – everything an army needed to wage a war located in one place. It was the single most militarised location on all of Remnant and it hadn't been this busy since the Great War.

No unregistered and non-military aircraft could land there, so Jaune was forced to wait at the front gate and be searched until James arrived. The soldiers looking him over saluted, stepping back once James assured them he was expected.

"Security is tighter than ever," he said, leading Jaune through the checkpoint to where an open-topped jeep was waiting. Clover was its driver. "I'm sure you can make an educated guess as to why."

Ozpin and his agents. Jaune nodded and climbed in, sitting down as James slammed the door shut and tapped Clover on the shoulder. The jeep revved to life and slowly pulled away, keeping a sedate twenty miles per hour. They had to for all the heavy machinery and troops moving around.

They passed by a large marching patrol of soldiers in military bottoms and sweaty white tank tops. The drill sergeant at the front was keeping the pace. Last minute drills. They'd need every bit of preparation they could get. Pulling beyond them, Clover brought the jeep to a stop before a soldier armed with a sign. He waved them down and then waved his other arm, signalling for three huge tanks covered with canons and light machine guns to trundle by, crossing the road ahead before the soldier reversed the sign and let them move on.

Atlas was mobilising for war.

"What did you tell them all?" Jaune asked.

"The story differs depending on who it is," James replied. "The Council were given evidence of human interaction and experimentation with the Grimm. We blamed it on Merlot or an off-shoot of his old research. It wasn't difficult once we had photo evidence of Salem's tower. There's no reason for something like that to be out there, let alone occupied. Everyone's aware of what happened to Mountain Glenn, and I framed it as a vengeful madman plotting the same for Atlas."

A shadow passed by overhead and Jaune craned his head back. Hundreds, if not thousands, of tonnes of steel and weaponry hummed over head as the largest battleship Jaune had ever seen moved over the base. It was like a beehive with hundreds of smaller vessels buzzing in and out of its sides. Each of those would be the size of a Bullhead, if not larger, which put the monstrous thing into perspective. It was twice the size of the ships that had been involved in the fall of Beacon.

"They were hesitant to order an attack at first but your jaunt in Argus helped."

"Did it? How?"

"You'll remember the viruses Watts left in our systems. They were all cleaned up, but we were able to reverse-engineer a few. Your knowledge there helped." Ironwood tilted his head forward to imply `knowledge` as more than just common sense. Jaune returned it quickly. "Once I passed on the clue, Doctor Polendina was able to quickly decipher that it was intended to take over our robotic soldiers and turn them violent. That makes it clear Atlas has been targeted and that our enemies have the potential to do it again. The Council were only too eager to write up a bill granting me full rights to the conflict."

"It's official, then?" Jaune asked. "You're at war?"

"Technically." James smiled and shrugged one shoulder. "Apparently, because this mysterious group isn't an official Kingdom, the Council is claiming it's not an actual war. Politicking," he added. "Waging war is bad optics, so they're calling this a `War on Grimm` to distance themselves from the concept."

Jaune clicked his tongue. "Isn't it the same thing?"

"Effectively, yes. Politically, no. It doesn't change anything on our end. I've been granted freedom to do whatever I believe is necessary. My budgets have been lifted; Atlas is ready to mobilise eighty per cent of its forces to the conflict. The rest have to stay for defence of the Kingdom. I can't change that."

It ought to be enough given Salem had less allies to call on and they were much more united in purpose than the last time. They didn't have Ozma, but they did have a magic all of their own.

"The soldiers have received a similar version of events, with a mention of Grimm-human hybridisation experiments. That ought to explain away anything they see. Their job isn't to be involved in disposing of Salem anyway. They'll be focused on killing the Grimm outside and securing the perimeter for an all-out attack. It will be the huntsmen and huntresses who enter, with ourselves at the lead. Those among them I can trust have received full disclosure on Salem, the Ace-Ops included."

He'd assumed as much with this conversation happening right behind Clover's head. Ultimately, the information would cease to matter if – when, if the Relic of Choice was to be believed – the end came. Salem would no longer exist, so James could be as secretive or public about the knowledge as he liked. It might help if it were public, as the death of the one controlling the Grimm would bring peace of mind to all of Remnant.

I wonder what a world without Salem will even look like. Will huntsmen and academies be necessary anymore? Probably so. The Grimm weren't made by her; she just threw herself into the pools. They existed before and would exist after, but their capabilities would be so much less without her control. The world would be a much safer place, even if it would never be entirely so. It was still something worth working for.

Pulling left between two hangars, the road opened up past an airfield, upon which a medium-sized block-shaped transport aircraft had landed with its hangar door open. People in forklifts were carrying in racks of robotic soldiers, each hanging by neck-and chest clamps from metal racks akin to clothes from a hanger. Three more similar aircraft lay further down, each being filled with a good two hundred of the Knight-Units. The warehouse they were being taken from was bustling with people pointing forklifts here and there.

Bright red lights flashed, and people moved out the way as an entire frame some ten metres tall slowly trundled out. Like a large `n` it had two drivers, one for each leg, and between the vertical spokes stood one of the vaunted Paladin units. The huge machine stood inert and silent, ready to be shipped onto whichever aircraft would be capable of carrying it. Jaune watched it until Clover took them around another corner, slowly driving between tall, square, red-bricked buildings that served as barracks for the new recruits.

It wasn't all that unlike Beacon, with a cafeteria to one side, well-kept gardens and a fountain. The level of discipline was higher, this being the army, but he could well imagine similar bonds of friendship being formed here. For many in Atlas, the military was an alternate career path for those who failed to reach one of the major academies. The skills were all transferable.

"How is Winter doing by the way?" James asked. "I've heard the official news but was she any better this morning?"

"The doctor says her vitals are healthier," Jaune answered happily. Honestly, it was a relief to wake up and find she was still alive. That she hadn't woken wasn't enough to ruin that. "She's still in a coma but he thinks there's a chance she could wake up naturally give or take a few days or even weeks."

"You know she will want to come on this mission if she does wake."

"I'll say no."

"Will she accept that?"

"She will if you say no as well," Jaune stressed. "You know full well she won't be in any shape for this. She just got her aura back and she's been unconscious for weeks. It'll be a miracle if she can even walk without at least a few days physiotherapy."

"It'll also be a miracle if she forgives you doing this without her," James said as the jeep came to a stop before a large, glass-fronted building. He opened the door and stepped out, holding it for Jaune. "This is our strategical centre. I'll run you through the plan inside."

/-/

Like much of what was done in Atlas, the latest technology was in use, including a holographic map they could walk through, and that would respond to their touch on certain aspects, lighting it up as they ordered to a limited AI voice-recognition system. How James had gotten accurate land information on the Grimmlands, he wasn't sure. Unmanned drones perhaps. Or maybe much of it was guesswork.

"The plan has already been worked out between our best minds. I hope you don't mind me saying whatever your experience, you aren't used to commanding an army." That was entirely fair and Jaune nodded. He considered himself an excellent huntsman, not a general. "Individual commanders will be in charge of separate squadrons. They have their orders, and the freedom to adapt within the boundaries of the operation."

"The first part of the attack will be our approach." James pressed a button, and the map suddenly showed several large blue, blinking dots in the air. "There's next to no way we'll be catching them by surprise, especially not now that Ozpin warned her. As such, we can expect heavy anti-air focus courtesy of Nevermore, Gryphons and whatever else she can cook up. Fighter aircraft will be stationed in hangers toward the centre of the fleet, while our best anti-air gunpower will be focused on the flanks. Initial barrages will be used to thin the attack before our interceptors move in to deal with what remains."

More lights flickered, hundreds of little red and blue ones surrounding the fleet like a horde of angrily buzzing wasps.

"At this point we shall also deposit four battalions of Knight-Units along with two squadrons of Paladins. These shall fight their way on ground toward the tower but are not expected to make it."

"They're a diversion?"

"Both that and a method of removing any problems of electronic interference," James said. "Even if Watts is dead, we have no proof he didn't leave some technology in their control. Grimm are mindless and will be kept busy by the units, who will add to the anti-air fire from the ground. If they remain independent of enemy control and are able to reach the tower, great. If not, they will have served their purpose. There will be no living units among them and the pilots dropping them off will return to the fleet."

"What if Salem has something bigger? At Beacon, there was a dragon."

"We're prepared for the possibility." James clicked his fingers and the holographic image changed to show individual airships. "Our flagship will be in the centre acting as logistical support and command, but in front of it will be flying our latest developmental aircraft, the Devastator. It's a gunship unlike any other, namely because it is the gun. One armament that requires the full power of the ship. I'll spare the technical details because even I don't understand them, but the basics are that it is a rail cannon. This will be focused forward, guarded and also screened by our hangar aircraft in order to keep it hidden. If a large Grimm appears, the hangar craft will drop altitude to reveal it, at which point it will take the shot. Fire."

At his command, the image unleashed a solid beam of blue energy as thick as Jaune's fist – which just so happened to be wider than some of the battleships themselves. If it were really capable of that, it wouldn't have much trouble with a Grimm titan creature. If it could hit it. That was why it had to stay hidden, he assumed, to lure the Grimm in close enough to guarantee the shot.

"There will be little chance to fight with huntsmen and huntresses at this stage," James went on. "I'll have decks available for those who want to chip in, but the best use of them will be keeping the hangars clear from Grimm trying to get at our inner workings. Unfortunately, that means we'll have little to no time to spend if anything goes wrong. Any vessel that is forced to land will have to be left behind, its crew included."

Jaune could not begin to understand the difficulty involved in planning for that. The knowledge that you might have to make that call in the heat of battle. Yes, they could come back for them after and likely would, but how likely was it anyone who fell into the Grimmlands would survive that long? Not likely. It was a wasted hellscape of Grimm at the best of times, and they'd be stirring it up by travelling through it.

The only reason I escaped it was because the Grimm didn't know I was there. If a ship comes crashing down, every Grimm for miles around will be on its way.

They wouldn't stand a chance.

And yet still – still – to kill Salem and remove her control of the Grimm forever made the sacrifice worth it. Just as it maybe had been the first time when he selfishly reset time to change things. Little wonder Ozpin hated him for it.

"What happens when we reach the tower?"

"Stage two of the operation commences." Ironwood brought the image back to the tower, now with their armada close by. "Firstly, we will rake the tower with artillery and ordinance. Salem may be immortal but anyone she has recruited since your last meeting won't be. This will also help thin the Grimm she has undoubtedly brought back to defend her. The barrage will last for thirty minutes.

A long time, though it would likely feel shorter in the heat of the moment. Half an hour would let them prepare for what would come after.

"Once the barrage ends, that is where the huntsmen will enter. They will drop and begin clearing the Grimm that remain with air support, seeking to secure and create a perimeter around the tower. This will be one of the worst bits of fighting and the whole plan hinges on it," he said. "If we fail here there will be no opportunity for the rest of the forces to land, we'll have to call the attack off. That will almost certainly mean the deaths of every huntsman who lands."

It wouldn't happen. Aside from him not letting it, the Relic had said it would not. "Go on."

"Once they have a perimeter, the bulk of the army will be shipped down to hold it against what we hope will be a severely thinned Grimm presence. They'll have both manpower and hardware aplenty for the task. The huntsmen will then turn their attention inward, clearing the tower with instructions to sweep room by room but not engage with the suspect." Ironwood let his hand fall. "Dealing with her will be our job. You and I, Branwen, the Ace-Ops and whomever else you want to bring along. An elite team. If needs be, and should we struggle, we'll call in every other huntsmen and huntress, but I am hopeful it will not come to that. I want them free to relieve the soldiers outside and hold the Grimm out, along with the fleet, to give us enough time alone with Salem to do what must be done."

"And that's it…"

"Actually, there is another stage," Ironwood said. "Extraction. Much of that is to do with how we get the soldiers out however, nothing you need worry about. I did consider trying to establish an FOB around the pools. See if we can't contain them. We don't have the manpower however, and it's probably a doomed expense. Once she's gone, I'd much rather we focus on expanding our own borders and clearing the Grimm out from our land."

"It all sounds good to me." Jaune said. There wasn't much he could offer either in terms of suggestions or criticism. He liked to think he'd been a good leader for Team JNPR, but they'd never had to plan something on such a grand scale as this. The most he'd had to worry about was making sure Ren packed lunches and Nora didn't get to them ahead of time. "Where will the Relics be kept?"

"On the main flagship. On our persons."

"Our?"

"Do you really want to keep all four on you?" James asked. "I was going to suggest one for you, one for Raven, one for myself and another with Clover. I'll understand if you don't trust me with one however, considering what I did the last time."

"No. I trust you. Keep the staff."

He inclined his head.

"As for the Relic of Destruction, I was thinking to leave it to Cinder."

That, Ironwood was less supportive of. "Is that wise?"

"I'm honestly not sure. I think it's a worse idea to malign her with the power she has. Cinder has never been stable – this is the best I've ever seen her – and I'm worried that if it ever feels like I'm trying to take advantage of her, she'll begin questioning our alliance."

"An alliance on those terms isn't a strong one anyway."

"True," he conceded, "But it's only for a short while. Once we're there, I'll forge the four into one. Cinder only has to carry it and won't be able to escape the flagship. Raven has a portal to her now anyway. Plus, Cinder has every reason to want Salem dead. That girl doesn't want anyone having power over her."

"I'll trust your judgment on this one."

"Thank you. Is there any news of Ozpin?"

"Not as of yet. I've already limited communications to and from Vale. My engineers are en route to fix the issue. It won't buy us forever, but it will give us time. He hasn't tried to reach and convince me to stop this, but that might only mean he's lost faith I'll listen."

"You don't think he would try and sneak on board, do you?"

"He could." Ironwood's lips thinned. "I'll have everything double and triple checked. From what I know, he takes over younger people than should be coming here. There shouldn't be anyone below eighteen on this aside from Emerald. What I have had is a priority call with Glynda."

Jaune's curiosity could not be hidden. "Oh?"

"She doesn't know the truth. She called it a murder by Tyrian Callows."

Summer had kept the lie then. He hadn't doubted she would, but it was a bad sign that Glynda believed it. That suggested Summer didn't trust her with the truth, which likely meant Glynda would side with Ozpin if she had the chance. To be fair, they'd been allies for decades now so it was to be expected. As long as Summer bought them time, it would be fine.

"I guess she's loyal to Ozpin still." Jaune said. "I haven't heard either way about Qrow yet. I was hoping he would join us."

"With his Semblance?"

"He's a good enough huntsman that I'd want him at my side despite it. Plus, he could be brought via portal if we're worried about his Semblance impacting the fleet."

"I'd much prefer it that way." Ironwood said. "If there's no changes you want to make to the plan, we'll be ready within a few days. I need to perform some last minute training, run through scenarios with my command staff and make sure we're all on the same page, especially should I fall."

"You won't."

"I'd rather prepare for the possibility than rely on what the Relic showed you." Ironwood shut down the projectors and stepped out from between them. As he did, he clapped a hand on Jaune's shoulder and said, "I'd advise you do the same. You saw one possible future – the most likely future or the future as it stood at that very moment."

"The Relic can't be wrong. It was made by the Gods."

"The Gods who did not believe their creations could or would betray them, one of whom was apparently tricked by Salem – a human woman. The Gods can be wrong, Jaune, and so can the Relics. They're powerful tools. That's all. If we rely on them too much, we'll make the same mistakes humanity made back then."

/-/

Arriving back at the Schnee mansion Jaune noticed Emerald and Vernal outside with Weiss and Whitley. It looked like they'd been sparring if, though if the bruises were anything to go by, they'd been three on one against Vernal and she'd come out on top again. Not unscathed this time. Her cheek was smudged, and she had a bruise on the left side of her neck, to say nothing of the rips and tears in her clothing.

"Did I miss something?" he asked, strolling up.

"D- fuck face!" She stammered and corrected herself. "Nothing much. Just putting the dweebs in their place."

"Mr Ashari." Whitley said, bowing his head painfully.

"Good day Mr Ashari," Weiss echoed. "I hope your business went well."

"It did. Thank you. Have you visited your sister today?"

They both brightened at that, Weiss saying, "Yes. Her hands felt much warmer than they used to, and I could swear she squeezed a little. It might have been reflexive, but she's not done that before."

"That's great news."

"Ahem. Mr Ashari, if I may." It was a butler who interrupted him, an elderly man he didn't recognise in a cream uniform with a white waistcoat and pale blue tie. "There is a visitor in the main hall who wishes to speak with you. He says it is of some importance."

A visitor? Jaune frowned and nodded. "I'll see them. Can you take the kids to get some food? They must be hungry after this workout."

The butler understood he was trying to remove them from any danger and nodded, whisking them the opposite way. He had a feeling they recognised it as well, but he really had no idea who it might be. Tyrian could be a real danger. If he was here and had been for a while, how much damage had he done? Was Winter okay? Jaune marched toward the main building, hands clenched into fists at his sides.

The man waiting on the inside was not Tyrian Callows, but it was no less a worrying moment. Qrow turned to face him. He looked tired from lack of sleep, eyes ringed by dark shadows and lips dragged down.

"Ashari."

"Qrow." Jaune noted Jacques Schnee nearby along with two security guards and even Willow up on the second floor balcony, near the top of the stairs, watching. Jaune took a step back. "Do we need to take this outside, or is this something we can handle with words?"

For a moment, a brief second, it looked like it might be the former.

"Summer talked to me."

"Hmm. About what?"

"Ozpin," Qrow said, annoyed and no doubt thinking Jaune was being stupid on purpose. He wasn't. It didn't look like Summer had told them about the time travel. Probably for the best. "His plans for Ruby and Yang, or at least what she overheard. Your plans for what comes next, too."

"I told her she could. So, what do you think of them?"

"Reckless. Dangerous."

"Something to stop?" Jaune asked. "Ozpin thought the same."

"Yeah…" Qrow's voice dropped to a whisper. "And he died for it. Are you going to kill me if I disagree?"

"No. As long as you don't try and stop us."

"Us, huh? You, Ironwood, Atlas and Raven, isn't it?" Qrow shook his head and laughed bitterly. "To think there's a world where my sister actually intends to willingly go up against her. Ozpin couldn't have forced her into it, and you come along and she volunteers. The hell is up with that?"

"That's the problem. Ozpin tried to force her into it."

"We had a choice!" Qrow spat. "We accepted his offer."

"He still recruited you. I don't mean that he used physical force, but he made you feel like there was no other choice, like if you didn't do this then other people would suffer." He knew because it was the exact same as what Ozpin had done to Pyrrha. "Maybe it was honeyed words, logical reasoning or even honest warnings over how the world is. Whatever the case, he still influence you into joining him. That's what Raven didn't like. What she couldn't accept."

Qrow looked like he'd bit on a lemon. "And you? How are you any different?"

"I guess I never expected anything of her," Jaune admitted with a shrug. "I thought she was too much a coward to get involved at all. I never asked her to join me because I was sure she'd say no. The same way I never asked you, Summer or Taiyang to do anything."

"Why didn't you…?"

"Because I felt this was my fight. Because I wanted to make things different."

"On your own?"

"It wasn't the best of plans. I know that."

"It's a damn stupid one," Qrow said. "This whole thing is. But then… the cold side of logic is no better, is it? Let her escape time and time again, train our children to fight her, leave the world in constant fear because it's safer than taking a risk to stop it." He shook his head. "That's not what I signed up for. We were meant to fight her, put a stop to her, save everyone…"

"And yet all you've ever done is play defensive."

"It's all we could do!"

"It's all Ozpin let you believe you could do." Jaune countered. The knowledge about the Relics and how to use them had only been revealed late, only when there was no alternative. Ozpin had always kept it close to his chest. "You didn't know any better. How could you have? He never told you."

"I feel like you're the one trying to manipulate me right now…"

"Sorry." Jaune smiled and let his hand fall. "I'd like you on my side, Qrow, but it's not completely necessary. At least I don't think so. It's the same as Summer. I'm happy to leave you behind and let you live a normal life."

Qrow scowled. "Like a coward?"

"You've spent the last, what, twenty years of your life fighting the Grimm and her? I wouldn't call wanting a break cowardice. You deserve a holiday."

"Then I'll take one after this is done," he said. Jaune felt a smile stir over his face. "But don't mistake me, I'm not saying you're right or Ozpin is wrong. Cold as it is, he's right to be worried about what happens if you fuck up. I'm coming along so that if anything does happen, someone can make sure the Relics don't fall into her hands." Qrow offered his own. "That fair?"

"That's fair." Jaune grasped it tightly. "Good to have you aboard."


Got to go do a lesson with someone close to publishing their novel, then write more letters to the NHS explaining how I am not a medical anomaly. Fun, fun, fun.


Next Chapter: 3rd July

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