The Gloom’s Bad News

15th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Svechthan Union, Vyatka Oblast — STAVKA HQ, Polviy City

“Someone please explain this to me.”

Nadezdha Stalh pushed a file folder across her desk, toward her subordinates. She leaned back and steepled her fingers in front of her face, elbows on wood, waiting for the two women in front of her to pick it up. This gesture obscured her face, and Zhukova could not read her very pale features anymore. She knew that the Central Committee Head was angry, but that much was a given. More important was how angry and what kind of angry.

When she became dangerously truculent, Premier Stalh’s right eye would twitch.

However, with her hands and her officer’s cap in the way, it was impossible to tell.

Lieutenant General Galina Zhukova glanced left. Her usually bubbly, cheerful companion in this mess had turned demure before Nadezhda and rooted herself in place. She looked like a guilty child, hands behind her back, shifting on her feet, awaiting further scolding.

Zhukova reached out and plucked the folder from the desk. She did not open it.

“Comrade Premier,” Zhukova said calmly, “It is something inoffensive.”

“Open it!” Nadezhda said. She put down her hands against the desk.

Her face bore an almost comically petulant expression when exposed. Her charmingly thick eyebrows were downturned, her eyes half-closed. She wore a long frown on her face that accentuated the very slight age lines tracing her soft, round white cheeks. Her pure-black hair, rare for Svechthans and a sign of mixed ethnicity, fell long down the sides of her head.

She was not dangerously angry. In fact she might not even really be angry at all.

Confident now, Zhukova played along and opened the folder.

Inside was a document, bearing the signatures of Zhukova, Voroshilova, Sokolovsky and Jeremenkova. There were a few maps, some agreed upon assets that would be deployed, agreed upon dates, and the tallied results of a few votes that included some lower officers, down to the level of Colonel, including people from the Army Air Arm and Red Navy.

There was a list of ships and positions, an inquiry as to the transport or evacuation capabilities of a Rarog class Destroyer, of which they had many; the sea level metrics of various Borelian beaches and aerial photographs of the topography surrounding them; intelligence reports from spies and other sources on the forces stationed in Borelia and the fleet groups around it. None of the documents were originals, but hasty copies.

Everything was dated to the 11th, when Voroshilova had overseen the signing.

At Zhukova’s side, Voroshilova raised her hand as if in a classroom and spoke up. She was small, even for a Svechthan, yet still a little bit taller than Nadezdha, who was particularly small, even for a Svechthan. A vibrant looking woman with a svelte appearance, soft white-blue hair down to the shoulder and a winning smile, Voroshilova was a classical beauty of the continent even into her forties, and had a gentle air about her.

“Comrade Stalh, I merely thought, it would be more democratic–”

Nadezhda cut off Voroshilova’s gentle voice with her own high-pitched barking.

“DEMOCRATIC? Does this look like some collective farm to you?” Stalh shouted. She raised her hands to her face, pushed against her temples briefly, and then lashed out a judging index finger at Zhukova. “And you! I can excuse this nonsense from Voroshilova, but you should know how we do things around here, Zhukova! This is disappointing!”

Zhukova bitterly thought that, of course she could excuse a mistake from Voroshilova. Her entire tenure in the C.C. and maybe even her entire life had been spent excusing Voroshilova in various ways! It had likely become some kind of automatic reflex by this point!

She did not say this, because she had nothing against Voroshilova herself, who was present and a delicate little soul; and because Nadezhda was in a relatively pliable mood.

Nadezhda sighed audibly, a sharp sound, and her head sank toward her desk. She hit her desk a few times as if her fist was a gavel. Then she thrust upright and pointed again.

“Zhukova, I trusted you! I sent you along to prevent this kind of foolishness. You two are supposed to be gathering forces and planning an attack. You! Not the Colonels! You two need to command respect and look like you know what you’re doing!” She turned her head toward Voroshilova. “How did you even rope Sokolovsky into signing this fool’s pact?”

“I asked nicely if he had any ideas he wanted to share.” Voroshilova said softly.

Nadezhda pointed back to Zhukova, and wagged her finger toward herself.

Zhukova approached until her knees were scraping the desk.

Nadezhda snatched the paper out of her hands, an action she couldn’t have undertaken unless Zhukova was very, very close, owing to their unfavorable difference in height.

“Ugh! You got Yakov to sign? And Svechin? Your stupidity is too contagious.”

She ripped up the proposed plans for the invasion of Borelia and threw them away.

“You,” she pointed to Voroshilova, “are going to stay far away from ink pens. I’m giving Jeremenkova that authority directly. Furthermore, you,” she shifted that stabbing, overused index finger to Zhukova and grumbled, “I don’t even know what to do with you.”

“I share this sentiment.” Zhukova replied, nonplussed.

Nadezhda leaned back a little, blinking, confused. Then her eyes drew wide.

She frowned. “Don’t get cheeky with me Galina! Out! Out now!”

Zhukova turned around and nonchalantly vacated the Premier’s office. She very quickly noticed that Voroshilova stayed behind; but of course she did. Those two were like a married couple in every single way but the newspaper advert and the marriage license. Certainly they would bicker for a few moments, and then make up for a few hours after.

Outside the ground was soft with snow, and one’s feet sank into the crunchy powder. Overhead the sky was grey, and the wind blew a stark white. Zhukova covered herself up well with a thick coat and a fur cap. Tall for a Svechthan, the marker of her own mixed ethnicity, Zhukova was exactly 157 and a half centimeters tall. She had cut her loose, curly blue hair short, but it was long enough still to blow in the stiff, icy gusts.

At precisely forty years of age, Zhukova had lived long enough to see the Svechthan Revolution against Lubon. Now she was headed for the STAVKA’s military library in order to plot a second assault on the elves, this time on their home turf. The “Matter of Borelia” as it was referred to had been long since decided. They would draw first blood.

16th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Svechthan Union, Vyatka Oblast — STAVKA HQ, Polviy City

The STAVKA building was an unimpressive little monument. Standing on an irregular stylobate with six steps, the building was tucked away in an unassuming corner of the small city of Polviy, flanked by a goods shop and a small inn that served warm biscuits and honey in the mornings. Wide streets, buried in snow, led to the long, squat white building connected to a side tower one story higher than the main structure. Three stories were thickly delineated along the exterior by concrete ledges stretching below tall windows.

Wrapped up in her coat and scarf and fur cap, dusted with snow, Zhukova ambled toward the building like a blizzard-borne ghost. She climbed the steps to the double doors, which a guard shut behind her after bidding her dobroye utro! She raised her hand and waved as she walked away, in lieu of a response. Pulling away her scarf and hat, she climbed another set of steps, and turned a corner to a little door. Her office was almost more of a closet.

She hung her cold weather gear behind her, looming over her desk, and sat down.

At her desk, she collapsed over a pile of books, maps, and assorted documents.

History had chosen her as the person most recently haunted by the “Matter of Borelia.”

Borelia was a large island nation that stood between Svechtha and Lubon. It was Lubon’s last colonial subject. Ever since the eve of the Svechthan Revolution every socialist in the snow-covered land had dreamed of the destruction of the Kingdom of Lubon and the end of the existential terror that loomed over their land. So long as Lubon existed, Svechtha’s Red Army would always be faced with a mortal foe with the power to subjugate them, to strip them again of their hard-earned identity and autonomy and enslave them.

Much the same as they had done before; after all, Svechtha wasn’t even the real name of their nation and people. Svechtha was a self-made name, taken on during the Revolution. Their identity had been lost; utterly destroyed by the elves in ages past.

Lubon had to be crushed decisively for Svechtha to be truly free.

In order for this to be accomplished, the Borelian Colonial Authority had to be defeated. Once Borelia was freed and turned against Lubon, the Kingdom would not be able to threaten Svechtha, while the small folk would have a base from which to strike the Kingdom.

It was all well and good to have this plan. Executing it was another matter entirely.

To assault Borelia they would first need to challenge the Regia Marina around Borelia, and inflict enough damage to force open a way to the island. Once the way to the island was secured, they would have to carry out a landing operation. In order to establish a Borelian beachhead that was capable of independent operations, they needed to land at least one Army — 150,000 troops at the minimum. But Svechtha’s Red Navy was heavily focused on defense of its waters, not landing operations. They had a preponderance of submarines and destroyers, but not enough troopships for the task. They could press cargo vessels for the mission, but then they would just be short of supply ships instead.

Once all of these requirements had been met there was still the actual war to fight.

Though they had support within some of the indigenous community of Borelia, a people that had been displaced by elven colonial settlers for hundreds of years, they did not have all of them — many had been assimilated into the Colonial Authority. Some elves and elf-descendents were amenable to participating in guerilla actions, and those that could be organized for this had been. But it was a paltry asset, more useful for local intelligence than inflicting damage. And damage, on a colossal scale, was necessary.

Zhukova, Sokolovsky and Jeremenkova (with Voroshilova standing by with curious eyes) had all agreed that it was of crucial importance to destroy the Borelian oil fields some time before the actual invasion, otherwise the imbalance in supply would be swung too far in the Royal Army’s favor. During the actual eve of the invasion, it was necessary to destroy the Borelian Colonial Authority’s Air Headquarters, and inflict some kind of damage to the Regia Marina Fleet Air Arm. Without regional air superiority the Red Army stood no chance of succeeding given all of the other factors against them.

All of this and more, Zhukova had carefully considered. She could find no fault in these observations, but the main problem was not the observations. It was a small and mean woman named Nadezhda Stalh who demanded that Borelia be wiped from the map in a matter of months, right off the heels of a skirmish with Hanwa in Orchun, an island territory to the southeast that was a territory of Svechtha within the Empire’s orbit.

Nadezhda was drunk on the success of Orchun.

Hanwa had encroached, and like everyone, they believed they could take from Svechtha without a fight. Zhukova, a little-known Corps commander at the time, fought back.

Zhukova had made a terrible mistake on Orchun Island.

She had won too handily.

She had encircled and destroyed the Hanwans, defeated them like an adult pushing down a child. She had destroyed them so utterly, and so brazenly thrown tens of thousands of lives screaming into the blender, and forced Hanwa to sign a peace with Svechtha and vacate the land, air and water space around Svechtha so thoroughly, that Nadezdha took notice.

Zhukova had now become Nadezhda’s Stalh’s dream General.

And the lesson the Premier took from this victory was that Svechtha was now “ready.”

So the Borelian matter was now Zhukova’s boulder to push up a hill.

Stalh now expected her to carry people on her shoulders. People like Klementina Voroshilova, who could compose a nice speech for the troops, but not command them.

Zhukova shook her head over her desk. This was bordering on unfair.

Something then stirred beneath the mess. She heard ringing.

Clearing out the papers and books, Zhukova uncovered her telephone.

She picked it up by its shaft, put the receiver to her ear and spoke into the microphone.

“This is General Zhukova.” She said.

“I know!” Nadezdha shouted from the other end.

Zhukova sighed.

“How may I be of service, Premier?”

“Did you just get in?”


“How is the weather outside?”


Nadezdha laughed raucously.

“How has your day been?”

“It just started.”

“Did you have breakfast? You’re always so downcast.”

“I’m not downcast; merely not upcast.”

Nadezhda burst out laughing again.

“Oh ho ho ho! Oh my! You can be personable when you want to be!”

“Only around persons.”

This conversation was a comedy of opposites — the boisterous, conceited voice of Nadezdha Stalh clashing with the dry, emotionless words of Galina Zhukova.

“Anyway, listen: I wanted to ask you something, Zhukova.”

Zhukova wrapped the phone cord around her finger. “Yes Premier.”

“What do you think of Voroshilova? What is your opinion?”

Zhukova rolled her eyes.

“On what level, ma’am? Political? Military? Personal?”

“Just tell me what comes to mind to describe our esteemed Marshal.”

“She is,” the General paused for a moment. When she seemed to have a fair description in her mind, she spoke again. “Voroshilova is a very pure and wholesome maiden. She has a good command of the classics, and fine taste in teas. She is a moving violinist. In her presence, I feel a sense of nostalgia, as if I was chatting with a schoolyard friend.”

Nadezdha hung up abruptly.

Upstairs, Zhukova heard something hit the floor or wall.

Zhukova could then hear footsteps moving closer a few minutes later.

Through the door, the little Premier strode through the door in her peaked cap and her little red uniform. She had her hands on her hips and craned her head to look at Zhukova. Like all Svecthans, Nadezhda was visibly no child. This was a popular stereotype, that Svechthans were a race of children. Stalh was quite visibly proportioned like an adult, albeit a short one. Her hips were rounded, her limbs their appropriate lengths, her breast mildly curved.

Her big eyebrows were turned low. She looked sulky, frowning, eyes half-closed.

She stood at the door for a moment. Zhukova pushed a chair out from behind the desk. Nadezhda approached, took the chair, and sat on it, her arms crossed. She grunted.

“Listen, Voroshilova is important to me, but, we both agree, she is no good at fighting.”

Zhukova averted her eyes.

“Oh, she is good at fighting. She is just, with all due respect, very dumb at it.”

“I don’t understand what you’re getting at.” Nadezhda said.

Zhukova nodded. “Well, she led that pistol charge at Orchun–”

“Point taken.” Nadezhda interrupted, rubbing her forehead. “We agree.”

“We agree.” Zhukova said. Voroshilova was a good paper-pusher who choked when she had to make sweeping decisions that didn’t involve her personally doing something very stupid and reckless all by herself. She was also quick to dodge administrative responsibility. Her warrior’s heart only beat when she had an enemy in front of her.

Voroshilova would have been adequate with a horse and sabre in ages past.

In short, she was simply no good as a Marshal of a modern war.

She had gotten her position because she had personally saved Nadezhda’s life in the past. As such, when Nadezhda acceded to her position and the time came to choose a new Marshal of the Red Army to match the new Premier, Voroshilova was chosen.

“So, here is what I’m going to do about it.” Nadezhda said.

She left that sentence hanging in the air.

Zhukova nodded her head to show she was listening.

She didn’t know what to expect. She never thought Stalh would let Voroshilova go.

So she waited almost a minute for the Premier to finally finish her statement.

Once she was ready, Nadezhda raised her index finger into the air with a flourish.

She crooked a little grin and winked.

“I will appoint you to investigate our Generals, find a suitable Marshal, and we’ll promote that person, and then find Voroshilova a nice desk job somewhere! Isn’t it splendid?”

Zhukova felt as though her eyes would roll right out of their sockets.

“I will start right away, Premier.” She said in a vaguely surly voice.

19th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Svechthan Union, Vyatka Oblast — STAVKA HQ, Polviy City

Zhukova had a bundle of mostly empty documents in hand and a plan of attack in mind.

She would walk into the office, put down her report, and then tell Stalh that it was she, Zhukova, who was most suitable to become Marshal. Nobody else could do it. It was she who conquered the Hanwans at Orchun, she who wrote their books on maneuver warfare and she who was most fit to lead the Red Army henceforth. Then, as a Marshal, she would be able to delay the Borelian affair for a while with administrative nonsense.

This would, in two strokes, solve all of the Red Army’s current problems.

However, as she entered the office of the Premier she found Voroshilova already there.

She looked over her shoulder, and let out a little gasp when Zhukova approached.

At her desk, Nadezhda was rubbing down her face furiously, beet-red.

“You’re finally here!” shouted the Premier. “Look at this! Look at it!”

She practically threw the file folder at Zhukova.

Inside there were communiques from Ayvarta via radio-telephone, as well as several reports from intelligence sources, that amounted to one disastrous revelation.

Ayvarta was under attack by Nocht.

“Hundreds of thousands of imperialist troops stream into Ayvarta!”

Nadezhda was practically pulling at her own hair, with a few breaks to smash her head against her desk, and to pound her fists into the wood. Zhukova’s hands shook a little as she read the reports, though her face retained its implacable expression. For a long time, Ayvarta had been their only and most trusted ally. Despite several very dubious decisions on the part of its government, Svechtha fully supported their global positions.

In return for various forms of that support, Ayvarta shipped many, many tons of grain to the icy nation, without which that little inn beside the STAVKA HQ might not be able to give free biscuits and honey every breakfast. Maybe mushrooms and acorns if they were lucky.

“We’re all going to die.” Nadezhda moaned.

At her side, Voroshilova patted her back and shoulders gently.

“Do not be so discouraged! Our comrades will fight with all their strength!”

Nadezhda looked up at Voroshilova from her desk. She then turned her head again.

“We’re all going to die.” She repeated.

“Our own food supplies will be fine if we implement rationing right now.” Zhukova said flatly. “However, this development means, if Ayvarta cannot drive back Nocht quickly enough, we will not have the food supplies necessary to carry out the Borelian Matter.”

“So we’ll just die slowly!” Nadezhda cried.

Zhukova held her tongue. She judged Nadezhda for a lot of things, but she knew the Premier was a deeply emotional person who was prone to mood swings and that this was no fault of her own, but just how her brain was wired. It would be cruel to chastise her at the moment, but Zhukova was also not exactly the supportive type. She left the comforting up to Voroshilova, who could carry it out much more personally anyway.

While the Marshal and Premier sobbed near one another, Zhukova felt a jolt in her feet that urged her to start doing something, anything at all, to rectify the situation at hand.

“Premier, we must draft a rationing plan post-haste.” Zhukova said gently.

Nadezhda sniffled, her head sunk against the desk. Voroshilova hovered near her.

“We’ll do it. You go– do something.” groaned the Premier, still overcome with emotion.

Zhukova bowed her head and turned sharply around to the door.

Around the STAVKA building there was activity everywhere. It was clear that overnight, everything had changed. As Zhukova walked the halls she saw people in a flurry of movement. She heard desperate whispering voices around every corner, and saw faces frozen stiff in a rictus of shock and horror. There were people walking down halls aimlessly, some with file folders to deliver, some with nothing on their hands. There were people going to the wrong floors, and crowding meeting halls. Everyone knew something had to be done, but nobody knew what, so they simply did without thinking.

When she dropped in on the office of the Commissariat of Supply, the entire room was feverishly working. The computers mashed their hands on mechanical calculators; clerks telephoned union representatives, state goods stockers and collective farms to inform them of the current events and the plan moving forward; Zhukova stood at the door for a moment and then turned around. Clearly they were working hard and that was what mattered.

Freezing food distribution and sale was a necessary and precalculated first step.

She trusted Stalh and Voroshilova would recover and draft a real rationing plan.

Her next stop was at her own office. She pushed all the books and documents about Borelia piling her desk off to a corner of the room, and picked up her telephone. Turning the dial with the tip of her finger, she picked up the receiver by its cord, put it to her ear, and waited. Once connected to the radio-telephone station she delivered her orders.

“Command all Svechthan troops in Ayvarta to cooperate fully with the Ayvartan government, and to place themselves at its disposal. In the absence of Ayvartan orders of any kind, the Svechthan Joint-Training troops are to take independent measures to resist the imperialists, and to retreat or advance in defense of Solstice as necessary until a coordinated Svechthan command in Ayvarta can be established.” Zhukova said.

Acknowledging her, the radio-telephone operator began the lengthy process of disseminating these orders across the seas to the very tip of northern Ayvarta.

Hanging up the phone felt strangely final. This was the very first and very last thing she could really do for Ayvarta at the moment. She was an unfathomable amount of kilometers away from her nation’s only allies. She had now exhausted all of her current options.

Nadezhda had not been exaggerating. Without Ayvarta they very well could be dead.

Svechthan agriculture was thriving, more than it ever had under the cruel hand of the elves, but it was nowhere near enough to feed everyone. They depended on large shipments of food from Ayvarta, an exceedingly fertile land that had sun and rain year-round instead of snow. Though they could survive without Ayvartan food, the state of their agriculture was such that everyone’s share of the food would be meager. What’s more the economy might not be able to take the shock of losing the Ayvartan benefits in the long term.

In addition, Ayvarta was big and thought of as powerful and threatening. It rattled its sabers in defense of Svechtha. It was the only nation on the planet that did them this favor.

As such, all of Ayvarta’s problems were Svechtha’s problems as well.

And this war seemed like it would be their most dire problem for a very long, agonizing time. It might perhaps even be their final problem, depending on how the war swung.

For right now all Zhukova could do was sit, and try to control her thrashing heart.

29th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Svechthan Union, Vyatka Oblast — STAVKA HQ, Polviy City

Zhukova entered the little inn just to get out of the snow. A bell rang as she passed the door. Wrapped up in her coat, fur cap and fuzzy scarf, her skin shivered as she transitioned from the cold outside to the warm hearth fire of the inn lobby. Through a side door she entered the little dining area, and strode up to the counter before ringing the bell set there.

Dobroye utro!” she called out, pulling her scarf down from over her mouth.

Behind the counter appeared a little girl, barely 100 centimeters tall, who pushed a stool closer to the counter and stood on it in order to stand at eye level with Zhukova. She looked like a little doll, dressed in a blue and gold jumper and a long white shirt, her dark blue hair done with a big red kerchief. She smiled brightly and spread open her arms.

Dobroye tovarisch!” She said. She was missing a few teeth and her pronunciation was charmingly off, clearly she was a very small child. Zhukova smiled back at her.

“My, you are a big girl, tending to the shop!” She said, putting on a soft face for the child.

“You are a big lady too!” said the child. “Did you come from the big green place?”

She pointed to the wall behind them, where a cloth map of Ayvarta hung. That was a common way to honor their allies — depictions of Ayvarta as a green paradise from which many lifesaving things were brought to Svechtha was now a common folk tradition.

“Ah, no.” Zhukova said. It was difficult to tell anyone she was a half-elf, for various reasons. “My mother was very big, you see. Bigger than me. And she didn’t have a chair!”

“Wow!” replied the child, raising her hands to her mouth in surprise.

“Could I have a honey biscuit, little one?” Zhukova finally asked.


In an instant the child’s demeanor turned gloomy. She put her hands behind her back, tipped her head to one side and frowned, shifting her feet and apparently deep in thought.

“Sorry big lady, but mama says we can’t now. Because the big boats aren’t coming. Maybe in,” she showed off all the fingers on her hands, “this many days? Sorry!”

Zhukova forced herself to smile again. “That is fine. Have a good day.”

She reached over the counter, patted the child on the head, and turned to leave.

Even before she entered the inn, she realized this would probably be the result.

Her rumbling stomach just compelled her to ask. But it was fine, she told herself, ignoring the hot pangs within her belly — she would get some sweet barley in the cafeteria later. She got a fresh ration card yesterday. It was nothing too depressing.

Everyone in Svechtha seemed to be telling themselves similar things.

It was not especially working out for them.

There was an enervated mood throughout the STAVKA HQ. The dizzying activity of the 19th and 20th was well past them. Everyone had settled into the gloomy reality of the situation. Zhukova walked past people waiting on unringing phones, guards laying about staring at the wall. It was not the absence of food, not yet, for food was not absent. Everyone was still fed. It was the stress, and the idea that food could become absent.

That was enough to knock everyone across the city and country off their feet.

Zhukova, as was becoming customary, bypassed her own office and made her way to the Premier’s, where she found the woman alone, and stood at attention across from her.

Behind her desk, Nadezhda Stalh fidgeted and worried. This was their 11th day since Nocht declared War on Ayvarta and invaded it. They had limited news from the continent, but sent their support for the beleaguered nation almost on a daily basis. However, they had not yet done much to concretely support the war effort. What they had done was ration barley and fuel and rubber and a list of things Ayvarta supplied.

“Zhukova,” Nadezhda began, for she never actually greeted anyone cordially, “I’ve got some procurements plans for you to consider, particularly on those new tanks.”

“Yes Premier.” Zhukova replied.

“Take your time with them. I don’t believe they’re going anywhere yet.”

Nadezhda looked almost a caricature of depression, speaking and acting sluggishly.

She was almost an avatar for the state of the country.

There was a heavy administrative paralysis in Svechtha. They had tens of thousands of soldiers on Ayvarta for training and consultation purposes, but with Ayvarta going through political schisms, and the crisis on the mainland, it was difficult for them to mobilize. In addition, Nadezhda worried that Nocht, with whom they had a truce for the past few years, might declare war on them as well, adding to their list of enemies.

There was also a great hesitation to commit their limited resources to helping Ayvarta. It was one thing to plan an attack on Borelia when the rest of the world was relatively peaceful and Ayvartan support was implicit — and already a very difficult thing even with these factors. Borelia was relatively close, and they had the space and time to plan for such an action. It was quite another to respond to a surprise invasion by the most powerful nation in the world, happening a sea away from them, and targeting the breadbasket from which they had been drawing their food and fuel from. An attack on Ayvarta was a crippling blow to Svechthan logistics. They could starve trying to respond.

Everyone was afraid and did not know what to do. They had never planned for this.

As such, Nadezhda had for the past few weeks tried to steer the topic away from this.

Zhukova, however, was a touch optimistic. She had come here to steer the topic back.

She had been reading, and thinking, over the past week, and had come to her own conclusions about this event. Though her colleagues feared the fire, Zhukova thought that a world ablaze was just what they needed now. She felt the time had come now.

“Premier, we must stop dodging the Ayvartan question.” Zhukova said.

Nadezhda almost jumped behind her desk. “What is this all of a sudden?”

“It is true that these events have surprised us, but we are in a better position than we imagined ourselves to be.” Zhukova said, speaking dryly, without undue expression.

Nadezhda rubbed her chin and stared at her subordinate. Often, Stalh could be very stubborn and unwavering, but one of her better personality traits was an interest in new ideas, and especially, in hearing good news. Things that bordered on the idealistic, such as gigantic tanks, submersible battleships and parasite airplanes, appealed to her.

Likely she could file away Zhukova’s words into the same category as these.

“Speak your mind, Zhukova. Clearly you’ve thought about this.” Nadezhda said.

Zhukova smiled. Now that she had an audience, she let her tongue fly quite freely.

“I believe that the situation in Ayvarta could be manipulated to our benefit in all matters, if we solidify our relationship with Ayvarta while steering them toward a dramatic and rapid remilitarization, of the kind that will be needed to defeat Nocht, and more.”

Nadezhda raised her thick eyebrows. “I like this thesis so far. Please elaborate.”

It was well known among the staff who interacted with Stalh often that her skepticism was not backed by any logic — it was merely a way to pressure people to talk more.

Zhukova was quite fine with talking. She had a whole speech, almost, rehearsed.

“Premier, think about it in this way, knowing Ayvarta’s history. Ayvarta’s government did not crystallize fully until 2015, but between 2010 and 2015 Ayvarta carried rigorous collectivization of agriculture and other policies intended to improve its economic situation. Between 2015 and 2025 with its government and lands fully united in support, it vastly expanded its industrial and agricultural capacity. Since 2025, its government has been trying to slash its military industrial potential in favor of consumer goods, but those ten years of development have not just gone away — as seen in new Ayvartan technologies. Aircraft carriers do not simply grow on trees. That potential is there.”

She paused, but Nadezhda was not ready to reply. She was still at the stage of making puzzled and vaguely aggravated faces. Zhukova knew this meant she still had the floor.

“Furthermore, the Empire’s 10 Million Men do not simply go away either. Even though Ayvarta currently counts on around 1.5 million in active and reserve forces spread widely across the nation, it still retains the potential to produce those ten million soldiers. They do not go away. In fact, one can argue the potential for such an army has increased over time, even through demilitarization, because of agricultural and industrial policy between 2015 and 2025, and even beyond. Did not Ayvarta recently give us a prototype tank as part of its cooperation pacts with us, that far surpasses our own?”

Now Nadezhda was finally willing to intervene. She faked a little cough to get in a word.

“What is your angle with this, Galina? I assume this is not just a history filibuster. I know very well that in an ideal world Ayvarta could rebuild a strong army. What of it?”

Zhukova prepared to deliver the coup de grace on this contrived little meeting.

“My angle, Premier, is that Ayvarta’s military potential is untapped and vast. Should we be able to nurture Ayvarta into the juggernaut that it can become, we may yet be able to tap into that potential for our purposes. What if a fully mobilized Ayvarta with vast armies and powerful equipment, not only built goods for us and shipped food, but shipped their soldiers to support our military efforts? We would solve the Matter of Borelia overnight.”

“Why would they do such a thing? They have enough problems of their own.”

Zhukova grinned wide. “Because we could open up a second front in this ‘Solstice War’.”

Nadezhda’s thick eyebrows drew wide open as the realization slowly dawned on her.

“We could.” She said. “With their help, we could certainly do it. We are in position for it.”

“Indeed Premier. All we need is the arsenal. Ayvarta can, shall we say, rearm us too.”

“So, then,” Nadezhda pored over Zhukova’s words, “Ayvarta can grow to become,” she paused again, rubbing her chin, then her eyes drew wide. “An arsenal of socialism!”

“An arsenal of socialism indeed. Good description, Premier.” Zhukova said dryly.

Nadezhda hopped up and down in her little chair, shaking her fists and grinning wide.

She clapped her hands happily like a child and beamed, more delighted than ever.

“Indeed! Indeed! You are a genius, Zhukova! Ayvarta can help us wipe those elves off the map, and then, we shall expand socialism across the four corners of the world!”

Zhukova raised an eyebrow. “You want to take over the world, Premier?”

“Of course! Think about it — we are fighting every imperialist nation on the planet right now! When we win, we will impose our will on them all. Socialism in one country? Yeah right! We shall build socialism in one planet! All of the world will follow Lenanism-Stalhinism!”

Zhukova raised both eyebrows. She contained her real response, but still made a quip.

“Well, the Ayvartan’s form of Lenanism may contain significantly less Stalh content.”

Nadezhda glowered at her. “Anyway — Zhukova, don’t forget that I coined the term for your concepts! Arsenal of socialism. Brands and aesthetics are very important.”

Zhukova rolled her eyes. “Indeed, Premier.”

“So, we must make plans. We must support Ayvarta more strongly! We need influence with them. They must see us as valuable! Speaking of all this — Zhukova!”

Zhukova smiled and stuck her chest out. “Yes, Premier?”

“How goes our search for a new Marshal? Have you any ideas?” Nadezhda said.

Zhukova deflated immediately. “I am still searching, Premier.”

47th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Svechthan Union, Vyatka Oblast — STAVKA HQ, Polviy City

Dropping in at the little inn, Zhukova picked up her biscuit and honey and ate it on the way to the STAVKA building. As instructed, she went directly to Stalh’s desk instead of checking in at her own office and waiting to be summoned. Zhukova did not know exactly what the C.C. wanted with her, but she had an inkling of what it would be.

After all, the situation had changed and changed since the horrors of the 18th and 19th.

It had been 28 days since the Nochtish invasion of Ayvarta, and 3 days since the Ayvartan cargo ships Akkoro and Kamuy delivered a routine drop of 18,000 tons of food aid. That was about the end of the routine elements. Akkoro and Kamuy had arrived in Svechtha flanked by two Megalodon class heavy submarines, a pair of destroyers, and some corvettes. They had suffered no injury, but everyone expected as the war went on this would not be the case. Nevertheless, the small folk were overjoyed to see them.

When asked whether the next month’s food drops would be made, the Ayvartans answered in the affirmative, but could not vouch for the tonnage being as high.

As such there was a sense of jubilation in Svechtha that was tempered with the knowledge that they could not let things continue as they were. Despite the Ayvartan food drop, they would continue rationing. All food aid would be used as a buffer to support strict but fair rationing. They had to prepare for the eventuality that Ayvarta might start to deliver 3000 tons of food in one month instead of 20,000 or 30,000.

It behooved the Svechthans to be prepared; and to make themselves valuable allies.

Nadezhda’s office befit the mood. She had pinned up maps of Ayvarta, tracking the progress of the Nochtish invasion, and had put a picture of Daksha Kansal on her desk with a red ribbon around it as a strange token of solidarity. Daksha was not even the leader of Ayvarta; but Nadezhda had it in mind that she should be, and had her foreign office talking her up left and right ever since the speech Kansal delivered on the 45th.

The Premier herself, was all decked out in military uniform. At her side, Voroshilova had on a beret with a flower on it, and a fuzzy scarf decorated with the Ayvartan hydra, along with her usual marshal’s uniform with its blue tunic and pants and its ice-blue accents.

Zhukova was dressed much the same, minus the Ayvartan-themed accouterments.

“I am at your disposal, Premier.” She said, hands behind her back.

“Good! I like it when people are.” Nadezhda said. “Zhukova, I have two important things to say to you today. One relates to the other, but only one is specifically about you.”

Zhukova raised an eyebrow.

“Well, I am, um, at your disposal, Premier.” She said awkwardly.

Nadezhda blinked. “Yes, I heard that. Anyway. I have been paying careful attention to your development since Orchun, Zhukova. I knew you only vaguely before then, and that was a mistake on my part. Clearly, you are an excellent mind, unparalleled even!”

Now it was Zhukova’s turn to blink. She had come in today with a mind to argue for her promotion to Marshal, but it seemed as though she might not have to. Tempering her enthusiasm, to keep it hidden from the Premier, Zhukova allowed herself a small smile.

“Thank you, comrade Stalh. I am humbled by your praise.”

“Good, good! I like humble. Now, Zhukova, the next thing: do you like boats?”

It took a herculean effort not to openly groan in front of the Premier, and Zhukova could not entirely contain all of her disappointment and the salty feeling in her mouth that resulted. Clearly she was not being promoted to Marshal. Clearly this was something far worse.

“No.” Zhukova said in response to the question, just to be cheeky.

Nadezhda frowned. “Well, too bad for you, because you’re spending a week or two in one. I’m putting you in combat command of the forces we have on the Ayvartan Front. Only you possess the vision necessary to carry out our will on the continent.”

Zhukova’s eye twitched ever so slightly, and she felt her hands shaking at her sides.

“Voroshilova here will serve as Front headquarters command.” Nadezhda added.

Voroshilova responded with a gentle gasp, and raised a hand to cover her lips.

“I’ve never seen Ayvarta before.” Voroshilova cooed.

“You’ll like it, it has a good climate.” Nadezhda replied cheerfully.

Zhukova wanted to sink into the earth.

It seemed the Gloom was never done with its bad news.

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