The sky above the desert turns pale. It’s morning.
“Delta, you better not be sleeping. Report.”
My radio sputters into life. The voice in my ear is quiet, almost like a whisper.
I slowly get up from my prone position.
If anyone were watching me all they would have seen was the desert sands shift in the wind.
“This is Delta. I’ve been awake the whole time, Uniform.”
I answer the radio using the mic on my collar. It’s a useful device that picks up the vibrations of my vocal cords and allows me to use my radio even in the middle of battle when my hands are otherwise engaged.
“But why are we bothering with this desert rat work anyway? Diving into the sand to avoid the sun like this.”
Uniform lets out what sounds like a laugh.
“Don’t complain. I gave you the first dibs this time, remember?”
“And I appreciate that. So, when will the shell sound?” I ask.
In the old Dragon Empire, they used a conch shell to sound the start of battle.
“That’s up to you.”
I swing my beloved revolver-grenade launcher out from under my cloak and squeeze the trigger.
I let out three shots, one to the left, one down the middle, and one to the right.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
After a brief pause there’s an explosion at each point I aimed at.
The light from the blasts reveals two buildings. They are our target: a fort of considerable size built on the desert’s edge.
Amid the screams and shouts I hear sporadic counter-offenses begin and the sound of artillery flying overhead.
They’re shooting blind, but you never know when one might hit by chance.
On a battlefield like this it’s the short-range grenadiers–in other words, the light artillery–like us who tend to get targeted first. Especially when we’re on our own with no close combat reinforcements.
I jump onto my companion’s back and grasp the handle of the bridle.
There’s an explosion of sand as a roar echoes out. Then it rises up!
Rushing Dragon, Steel Dilopho. My fleet-footed bipedal companion, my Dinodragon, and the darkness of the desert are my two greatest allies at the moment.
“Now, go! Cut through them!”
We jump out from the rock we were hiding behind and my Dinodragon starts zigzagging across the terrain to avoid being hit.
I hear the sound of gunfire and bullets zipping through the air all around.
I make use of this time to give more orders to my comrades on the radio.
“Alpha, Echo! Head for the walls. Mike, Oscar, Sierra, break off and flank them to the left!”
I shoot off two grenades to my right. And one to my left. As they land the desert is bathed in a glorious red light.
I’m out of grenades.
I can’t reload one-handed. I bring out another of the ludicrously large magazines, holding onto my ride with just my legs.
A spent shell. I quickly but carefully replace the cartridges. I will never get used to the sense of utter vulnerability I feel during this moment.
One, two, three, four, five, and… Six. All good!
I pull the magazine and secure it to the barrel. I’m ready to go again.
–Except I now glimpse the muzzle of a gun sticking out from the fort.
Somehow, I just know that it’s aiming right between my eyes. So, this is how I go.
A bullet through my head, and my body thrown off my Dinodragon like a flea off a dog’s back.
I close my eyes, ready for the inevitable.
The sun is now well above the horizon.
“This your first Dinodragon? You must be scared.”
A girl nods happily in response to my question as she sits in the shadow of the tent erected in the saddle. She must be around six or seven. Her smile is free from any cares or worries.
“Thanks for helping me.”
Her brother is only a few years older than her, but the way he speaks and how he’s confidently holding onto Steel Dilopho’s back shows a true tribal chief in the making.
“Just doing my job. Don’t sweat it.”
I realize that I’m talking to him like he’s another adult.
“Why are you all separated?” asks the little girl.
“We’re keeping guard. It’s a standard defensive formation. We don’t want anyone coming to kidnap you again.”
She grasps onto her brother’s arm. It seems my words did little to calm her.
Our current job was to recover the children of a tribal chief, a boy and a girl, who had been kidnapped and were being held ransom. The brigands in the fort had made me so angry I took on this side mission, knowing all too well how dangerous it was, even compared to the night raid.
“You don’t need to be scared anymore. We’re the Gunmen of Dust Storm, after all, led by the greatest gunman in the desert, Heavy Artillery of Dust Storm. You must have heard of him.”
It’s a bit embarrassing to be boasting like this, but even desert rats like us are allowed to be proud from time to time. Alastair, Ethan, Maynard, Orlando, Cedric. The team that Eugene had put together this time had good reason to feel proud.
“Can I ask your name? My father will want to know who was responsible for saving our lives,” says the young boy.
I hesitate. It’s not good for a gunman to be too well known. Fame can of course be a great honor, but it can also be a source of envy and a trigger for revenge from old enemies. That’s why we use code names during battle and only ever give out aliases when talking to people we don’t trust.
“Call me the Howitzer of Dust Storm. No, wait…”
Maybe I’m being too cautious. If I can’t trust these two little kids, then who can I trust? After all, I risked my life for these two. And I feel like Eugene, who remembers my own birth, had given me this job for a reason.
“My name is Dustin. I’ll make sure you get home safely.”
I take off my face mask and flash the children a smile.
“Thank you, Howitzer of Dust Storm, Dustin,” replies the boy.
I can almost hear a deep laugh coming from somewhere. That must be our leader, Eugene.
The tribal chief’s children look back at me with their big black eyes, as beautiful as any dawn.
I am filled with the familiar sense of satisfaction of a job well done.
I feel their sense of relief, their lingering fears, and also their desire to trust me, as keenly as if they were my own feelings.
That’s because before I started as a gunman I, too, grew up in a powerful tribe to the west of the desert.
–The battle in darkness.
The muzzle is still aimed right at me as I approach the fort.
A massive shockwave passes over me and my Dinodragon.
I open my eyes and see a bullet curve its way into the arrow slit where the muzzle was.
I turn around and see him.
Heavy Artillery of Dust Storm, Eugene is rushing toward the fort, firing his beloved HFR40GDS gun, which uses magic ammunition.
His laugh rings out into the dawn sky. It’s the laugh of a legendary Gunman of Dust Storm, one that could not be mistaken for anything else.
Eugene’s “Best Harvest.”
Even those of us under him are in awe of his Heavy Artillery of Dust Storm, which luckily for us is able to knock down just about any enemy we face.
“Delta, don’t just stand there. Retrieve the hostages.”
I come to my senses with a start as I hear his voice beside me. I calm my Dinodragon.
“Roger that. Euge… Sorry.”
I apologize not only for saying his name, but also for needing the help. Eugene just laughs it off.
“Don’t worry. Even a well-aimed shot can miss, and a stray bullet can hit.”
He continues to take out the fuses of his smoke bombs as he says this.
Ambush Killsmoke. A deadly smokescreen that blinds our foes. Only ambush and death await those who dare to push on through the fog. This was one of the keys to our success.
“Hurry. The enemy will return before long. And don’t forget, we Gunmen of Dust Storm…”
“Are as fast as the lightning.”
I urge Rushing Dragon, Steel Dilopho to speed ahead to find the siblings who are probably terrified deep within the fortress.
Spurred on by the sense of pride I feel in getting a smile from our leader, the “Heavy Artillery of Dust Storm, Eugene.”
<<Notes about Terminology>>
A type of dragon that lived in the Dragon Empire. They bore a striking resemblance to the creatures known as “dinosaurs” that once lived on Earth but were in fact a species of dragon native to Planet Cray.
However, the Dinodragons which were drafted into service of the Dragon Empire’s military were heavily armored and treated more like mobile weapons platforms than living creatures.
They were the backbone of the former Dinodragon Army Corps known as “Tachikaze,” who had exclusive use of the creatures.
In the days before the Chakrabarthi Divine Era, many of the most powerful dragons fell into a deep slumber, but it is said that the Dinodragons, which were more resistant to magic, stayed awake to protect the land where their brethren slept, alongside the Gunmen of Dust Storm.
Supervising Editor: 中村聡