This chapter contains sexual content, racism, and scenes of violence and death.
42nd of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E
Federation of Northern States, Nocht — Rhinea
She awakened to an atmosphere of heat and sweat, but also cold, clinging to her skin. Once the haze of pleasure had blown out of the room with the central air, it left behind the staid reality that followed a fantasy. She was back in the world, a person once more inhibited, and she could hardly stand the disappointment and tedium she felt then.
It was the least delectable part of the transgression: dealing with the consequences.
“Why do I keep doing this to myself?”
Cecilia Foss mumbled to herself as she stared into the placid face of the very nude woman in front of her, peeling the woman’s legs off her waist while at the same time gently extricating herself from the arms of her sleeping boyfriend, just behind her. It had become almost a talent, a series of acrobatics, to retrieve herself in such situations. Making sure not to awaken anyone, she slowly left her bedmates, gently stirring behind her.
Surveying the scene, there were a lot of cigarettes, a lot of drinks, a lot of discarded rubber. This was a hotel room made for thrashing, thank God; she was certainly not going to pay any fees for it. She recalled all too clearly the reason for all this. She wished she didn’t; in short it was stress, greed, hunger and neediness and loneliness. Perhaps not so short.
It was an important date, too! And she had blown it off to fuck a computer and her boy.
“Ugh. I’m the worst. God damn it. She’s waiting; Agatha’s going to be waiting.”
She found her leggings, her heels, her skirt and blazer, and the rest of it, strewn about the room. Her brassiere was nowhere to be found; Cecilia glanced over the bed with misty eyes, shook her head, and stubbornly dressed without it. God knows she needed it, but life wasn’t always so forgiving. She dressed, patted everything down, took a quick trip to the restroom to wash her face and apply a coat of lipstick– and the moment she turned around again, making to leave the bathroom, there she was at the door. Cecilia sighed.
“It’s so like you to hit me and run like this, Lia. This must be the millionth time.”
Gretchen had on a fake, coquettish pouting face, her short, curly brown locks greatly disturbed, her body wrapped in her partner’s discarded button-down shirt. Dangling from her fingers was Cecilia’s brassiere. Seeing it again, Cecilia kind of wanted it back; it was big, lacy and cute and firm and having walked a few meters without it she dearly missed it.
“I’m losing my touch. I didn’t expect you to be awake.” Cecilia said.
“No, trust me, you’ve still got your touch.” Gretchen said, winking at her.
Cecilia averted her gaze. “Usually I’m enough for the women I’m seeing.”
Gretchen scoffed and rolled her eyes. “So you can fuck everyone, but everyone has to–.”
“Yes, it’s not fair but it’s how things work around here.” Cecilia interrupted with a grin.
She could not help but feel a little bit jealous of the rings on their fingers; just a little.
Not because she wanted the same; she just didn’t want people in her life to leave her out.
Though judging by the current events, she would not have to worry about that too much.
Gretchen flicked the bra at her, and Cecilia caught it.
Casually, she started to undress again so as to put it on.
“Where are you off to now? Three-timing me?”
“You can’t really call it that? At any rate, I’m meeting a friend.”
“Just a friend?”
“She’s a special friend, but yes. She’s married.”
“Wow. Do you realize what you just said?”
She was married in a way nobody else Cecilia slept with was “married.” Even these two.
It was commonly said by the conservatives that Nocht had lost god, had lost marriage, had lost itself in the frenzy of power and industrialism. Its institutions were a shambles as were its ethics. For the state was only war and killing, the sex of machines; for the treasury, there was only plunder and privation, the sex of economy; and for individual people, whatever indulgence was their sex. Cecilia was not the average Nochtish citizen.
She had never had a faith in anything to begin with.
She told herself, she was a simple person. She just wanted to have fun, pure, easy fun, with whatever pleasure she set her sights on. She found things and took them because she wanted them and because she could. Difficult things to get, became games to be won.
But in the end even the difficult things remained simple.
Or so she thought; but the way her stomach churned and her heart trembled when she thought of meeting Agatha Lehner, after all she had done, after all that had been done to her, to both of them. It was not simple at all. It was the most complicated thing for her.
Achim never made her feel that way.
She thought he would; but he never did. He was simple, just like her.
Simple and comforting in his simplicity, which is what she liked about him.
She had known Agatha longer; and she only became more complicated with time.
“I’m still here, you know.”
Cecilia tried to move to the door, lost in thought.
She was nearly face to face with Gretchen.
Gretchen was complicated too, but in a simple way.
“I’m not going to let you dine and dash this time.” Gretchen said.
She leaned forward, pulled Gretchen in by the tie around her neck, pilfered from her man.
She took her sloppily painted lips into her own luscious red embrace.
“I’ll see you later. Alone.”
She spoke as her tongue parted her lover’s, and she walked off at the same time too.
Gretchen made no argument.
Nocht Federation — Windsbach, Haupt Radar Center
High atop the mountains separating Windsbach from the northernmost Republics, was a snow unlike anyone had ever seen, even in the mountain villages. However, the signals technicians at the Windsbach Haupt Radar Center did not see this snow fall, silver and swirling like ribbons from the clouds. Since the war began they were on long, rotating shifts that did not end until one was sure, with perfect certainty, to be replaced for at least twelve hours with another restless soul awaiting the slaughter come out from the sky.
All of them had been reared as adults on the nihilism of “the bomber will always get through.” And yet, their job was to stand defiant against it. Should the bomber come, they had to know when, from where, and what it sought. They had to deliver the unspoken retribution that nearly always came to the bomber that “got through.” Scrambling fighters, summoning air defense. These were part of their responsibilities. They had to protect the civilians too, by sounding the air raid sirens and alerting the fire brigades.
Like diviners from ancient times, they had only their scrying glasses: the massive FREIJA radar arrays, top of the line technology, hooked up to glowing green displays that pulsed with eldritch life inside the cold steel bunkers. While Ayvarta slowly toyed with short ranged mobile ground radars hiding in puny trucks, Nocht gambled its money on colossal stationary radars with incredible range and power. Untold amounts of energy flowed into the FREIJA arrays, and their signals could cover vast quadrants of Nocht’s sky and coast.
Inside the FREIJA bunkers, the technicians watched the green light pulse, and they waited.
For the long-timers, the magic had worn off. Their own planes showed up on the radar too, though nowadays, practices had evolved such that advanced warning was given to them to prevent panic and disarray. Seeing those blips made the possibility of an enemy blip far less mythical. Those were hunks of metal in the sky too. Newcomers were glued to their cathode-ray tubes, as interested in them as children had become with Television.
On that fateful winter day of the 42nd, radar technician Helmut Weigel sat in front of his CRT and saw nothing. He waited for hours, he ate his lunch at his desk, he read a book, nervously peeking at his station radar between pages to the point it almost became a character in stories. He looked over the energy output, checked the temperature and atmospheric pressure readings, and pored over various other gauges every thirty minutes.
His shift passed; he declared his intention to stand so as not to startle anyone.
From the upper floors where the military officers congregated, a young woman in uniform came down and urged him to stay in his seat. His replacement had an accident.
“You will have to stay here.”She said. “We’ll procure food and a chance of clothes, and I can stay here for fifteen minutes while you wash up. But you must come back to work.”
Helmut did not protest. What had he to go back to? He lived on his own in the village.
“What kind of food can I get?”
That was his only question, to which the young woman did not reply. She urged him out.
Once he was clean and had on a fresh shirt, coat and a change of pants, he sat back down.
Until a replacement could be found, he was on shift. He would keep working.
He stared at his screen, and saw a dozen blips all clustered together.
On his desk, just below all the gauges, he turned a page on his book. He was almost done with it, but he had another in his suitcase. Helmut loved fantasy adventures, with brave heroes and nasty goblins and mysterious dames. He put one back in his suitcase, retrieved another, and spread it open right in front of his monitor. He saw the blaring blips again.
Helmut put down his book, and he stared dumbfounded at the screen.
Coming in from the east were dozens of bombers.
Hundreds of them.
Helmut stared until the green glow burned in his retinas.
He reached for the telephone at his side.
“Hello? My CRT is broken. Can you send someone down here?”
Procedure dictated he describe the problem in detail–
But on the other end, an engineer too cheerful to have work simply said, “Sure!”
And then they hung up on him.
Helmut stared back at the screen. They were not going away.
Those blips were moving.
He ripped a piece of paper from the side of his workstation and found the numbers for his counterparts in various other stations. Every week they performed a comprehensive data corroboration drill, where Helmut and all of his colleagues in Windbach would call their doppelgangers in Junzien or Tauta or Ciel, and compare readings where their signals met.
“Hello, this is Helmut Weigel, station #13 Windbach. My station’s catching a large concentration of enemy aircraft coming in east-southeast at latitude–”
Helmut described everything he needed to and while he did, he heard an eerie echo from every station around him. People rattling off coordinates and latitudes on the phone, the sharp twisting of the rotary dials, the incredulous chatter between every stations.
“I’m afraid I don’t see anything on my end Helmut. I think you’ve got an ACS fault.”
Automatic control system, the mechanical network that kept the gauges running and regulated the current between stations and dishes, and so on. To so casually say that the entire FREIJA system in Windbach was broken to so fundamental a point put Helmut greatly at ease. Around the room, there was a great heaving sigh of relief as more information came in. No other overlapping stations saw the cluster. It was just ACS.
“Radar techs can go home! We’ll request patrol flights to cover the gap.”
That same girl from earlier, who told Helmut to stay, was now ordering everyone to go.
People grabbed their coats, lined up at the door, and made their way out.
Until the stations were fixed there was no use keeping extraneous staff around.
Outside though, the radar technicians paused all at once, considering the landscape.
Blowing in the wind, all around them, was a snow of silver ribbons mixed in with white.
Helmut held out his hand, and he caught strands, like Hollyday tinsel.
He wanted to report it, right away. But at the door to the bunker, he met with disdain.
“Just go and don’t cause any trouble.”
Helmut was speechless.
Aluminum. He wanted to say that word.
It had a radar signature. They had to know, right?
Why was aluminum falling from the sky?
Nocht Federation — Rhinea
Cecilia Foss left her cab about an hour before noon, and sighed to herself with relief.
“I made it in time. I should get her something.” She said to herself.
She looked around the street and spotted the chocolateur’s shop she had visited once before. Due to its stiff prices, she had hoped to avoid it. However, there was a dearth of choices. Agatha wouldn’t have accepted flowers and Cecilia knew not the condition of her waistline, so she could not buy her clothes. Any of the other categories of appropriate gifts would’ve been too expensive for their sorts of rendezvous. She loved Aggie, but what modern sapphic had the money to buy a lover diamonds and pearls or caviar and wine?
Shaking her head with consternation, Cecilia stepped into the chocolateur’s.
Though that annoying old man was nowhere to be seen, his hand was everywhere.
There was a short line at the register; and an extra decimal place on many of the prices.
Cecilia sighed deeply. She went to pick up a box of truffles a size smaller (and a decimal place shorter) than the one she had bought before. As she reached to swipe the cheap box before anyone else saw the thrifty purchase or contested it, she struck a gloved hand.
“Excuse you–” She was about to hiss venom, but was surprised by the hand’s owner.
Drawing back from her was a man in a grey coat and cap, lanky and disproportionate, as if he had been extruded through something. He looked big and tough but it was all coat, Cecilia could tell from the neck, and the flash of wrist. Thin, an older man, with an angular appearance, grave in the face, with a sharp nose. He had a tired look about him.
“Einschel?” Cecilia asked.
“Cecilia.” Dreschner said.
She blinked, and knew not quite where to start. She never really did with Dreschner.
He had been something like a father to her, but not enough to make things easy.
Or perhaps they were as easy as they could be. She wasn’t sure how she would think of a “real” father, and maybe it had been for the best Dreschner wasn’t so hands-on.
“Those were for you. I can pay for them and you can take them for your purposes.”
“Interesting. You’re not going to visit Flavia?”
“I think she would rather I did not. This one was the last straw for her.”
Cecilia imagined in her head some kind of comical scene with Dreschner’s wife forcing him to choose between panzers and herself, and Dreschner driving away in an old M2. It was probably something more tragic than that; but at any rate that was none of her concern. She nodded her acknowledgement to Dreschner, and picked up the box.
Together they walked to the cash register and stood in line.
“Are you here for the Allied Forces Assessment?” Cecilia asked.
“I was called to report personally.” Dreschner said.
He sounded curiously unemotional toward such a notable achievement.
“I didn’t think you were important enough for that.” Cecilia teased.
“I’ve become more important.” Dreschner replied.
Of course; he had gone to Ayvarta, like he had gone to the islands before.
To make something of himself in the war, to advance his status.
“Are you satisfied with your progress then?”
He sounded blunt enough now she did not ask him to elaborate.
“Why visit me?” Cecilia asked.
“Flavia has our sons, and her sons. She has family. You’ve got less.”
Cecilia felt compelled to snap back at him. “I don’t need you.”
“I’m not here because I’m needed or wanted. I’m simply here.”
“Do you want to be here then?”
“I am here.”
Over their awkward exchange rose a third voice, in anger.
“God damn it, learn to count or go back home!”
Cecilia raised her eyes. Behind the cash register was a dark skinned woman, long-haired, dressed in a smart-looking uniform with a baker’s cap. She was struggling with change for a large denomination mark. A man in a thick fur coat and cap heckled her from the other side of the counter. Every time he shouted, she shook up, and probably had to start over counting. Cecilia sighed. Everyone else in line was becoming uncomfortable with it.
“Shorry sir, un momend.” Said the cashier, on the verge of tears.
“You’ve had enough time! You and your kind are nothing but an inconvenience! Dragging the world into war and dragging the fucking shops into the stone age now too! You can’t learn the language, you can’t learn to count, what’s wrong with you, lazy m–”
Dreschner stepped forward from his place in the line.
“Jeez, Einschel stop–”
Cecilia couldn’t grab his coat fast enough.
He charged up to the register, and delivered a sharp shove to the man’s shoulder.
“Hey what the fu–”
Upon seeing the uniform, the irate customer paused in his tracks.
His face turned white and his bravado seemed to leave him.
“You are holding up the line, you sniveling coward.” Dreschner said.
“General.” mumbled the man.
Dreschner stepped forward, once more invading the man’s space.
“You can tell my rank? I bet you’re a failed recruit. You wouldn’t last two seconds in Ayvarta. These people you so disdain would humiliate you, you worthless fool.”
Dreschner nodded to the lady behind the register and counted the money quickly.
“You don’t deserve to even breathe the air she and her people do. Take it and go.”
Dreschner threw the coins at the man’s face.
Stumbling backwards, he scrambled around the shelves and left the shop.
He turned to the rest of the people in line.
“Do the rest of you have some decency and patience?”
There were nodding heads.
Cecilia covered her face in her hands and wanted to die.
Once it was her turn at the register, she thought to apologize to the woman, who was surely embarrassed and shocked and distressed by the whole thing, but she figured, the woman would be even more embarrassed, shocked, and distressed, by receiving the pity of a stranger at the cash register. So she merely pushed Dreschner away like a rambling grandfather prior to exchanging her money; and she made sure to give exact change.
“Dank you so mush.” said the young lady at the register.
Cecilia blinked and looked up from the chocolates and the cash in her wallet. She took actual notice of the woman then. Her Nochtish was okay; her voice deep and lovely. Rich brown skin, smooth dark hair, a little yellow dab of something on her nose, rich red lips.
She had a radiant smile and gorgeous green eyes– and a good figure too.
There was something the cashier girl was trying unsuccessfully to hide at her station.
Cecilia was tall enough to see a familiar little green book lying behind the register.
It was the same sort Cecilia had read when studying for her own citizenship.
After that one war, that made it a little dirty to be a Frank, to speak with an accent.
“Here’s my number, call here at night if you need someone to practice with.”
Cecilia quickly scrawled it down and handed it to the cashier, whose face lit up.
“I sertainly vill! Dank you so mush–”
“Cecilia. Tell me yours when you call me, doll.”
With a flourish of her blond hair, Cecilia turned on her heel and departed the shop.
At her back, the Ayvartan cashier girl watched her leave, probably in awe.
Perhaps she felt a sense of the romantic mystery left in the air in Cecilia’s wake.
Cecilia, however, just felt so awkward that she had to leave immediately.
“What was all of that?” Dreschner asked, following several steps behind her in haste.
“Ugh. Don’t talk to me. I don’t know you. I don’t know anyone at all.” Cecilia said.
“Well. I don’t know what to do with you. I try to be generous, I try to help you–”
“You know what to do now, and it’s not talk to me.” Cecilia replied.
Dreschner paused for a moment, boiling over red.
Cecilia kept on walking with an inexpressive face and a careless swing to her gait.
Despite this, Dreschner continued to follow behind her as they went down the main street in Rhinea. Perhaps he was going the same way, or perhaps he had something still to say.
Whatever the case, she was ignoring him.
She hoped dearly to hear that girl calling. She was probably her type.
That would make this hellish day worthwhile, Cecilia thought.
Windsbach station repair personnel looked upon the radars with consternation.
Repairs on the ACS would not be speedy, and it was necessary to make absolutely sure before a piece of the defense network was taken offline, that it was necessary to do so. That it could not limp along, that it could not be troubleshooted, that what was on that screen was not supposed to be there, or caused by some external force. They knew not about the significance of the aluminum, not yet. When a radar was taken apart, the base went on lock-down. FREIJA was the most guarded secret of Nochtish information tech.
Windsbach, however, was not alone. All across the Federation’s northern and eastern coasts there were a series of oddities that had the radar engineers calling back and forth.
“Varburg, this is Windsbach, we got large bogeys headed north-northeast, do you copy?”
“Negative Windsbach, don’t know what to tell you, we got clear skies over here.”
“Tauta, this is Kielring, the lights here are screaming aircraft, what’s your status?”
“Got nothing weird up here Tauta. You must have your ACS going or something.”
It was exhausting for all parties involved. With their hearts clutched hard in their chests, their lungs screaming for breath through the stress, through the uncertainty, they called their counterparts, and they worked over the lines, never looking directly at the skies, only at the infallible FREIJA, the invaluable FREIJA. In this solipsistic shelter they worked out the procedure to the letter, with the utmost care, to insure secrecy, efficiency, safety.
“Just to be safe, fighter patrols are routing to the affected areas until the dishes are fixed.”
Everyone was thankful for the eyes, but their work had to continue regardless.
There were more exchanges. Every different place, calling every other different place.
A silent panic to the world at large, for all the stress was confined to the wires.
“Ciel, this is Morthufe, we’re having a spot of bother with these dishes. Your skies clear?”
“No, we’re having the same trouble, but we called the observatory at Cathgad. Nothing.”
“God damn it.”
“Schneeheim, this is Junzien, we got clear skies, but the coasts are going nuts. How’s–”
Soon as the operator in Junzien connected to Schneeheim there was a great rumbling over the telephone line, it sounded like they were in the middle of an earthquake over there. This gave the Junzien radar center a great fright, and that fright turned to terror with every scream of desperation that Schneeheim managed to send through the unfolding chaos.
“We’ve got fighters over the ice, how the hell did they get through, Junzien?”
Nobody wanted to acknowledge the significance, because if they did, it would become a matter of whose fault it was. It was already one — how the hell did they get through — but it would become someone’s responsibility to fix it the moment it was acknowledged. And so everyone was speechless, shellshocked into submission as Schneeheim screamed for help.
“We’ve got people on the ground, we’ve got guns firing, but it’s too much!”
Patrols were alerted, in mealy-mouthed tones, that something was happening up north.
Vaguely, Tauta, and Ciel, and Windsbach, and those other places, were briefly spoken to.
“Oh god they’re Helvetian! Those are Bearcat II and Cathawks! Helvetians!”
This was perhaps the last thing anyone wanted to hear about this situation.
And it would be the last thing they heard.
At that point the line to Schneeheim died, and it was no longer their problem.
It was Junzien’s; and it was also Rhinea’s.
Both lay within the immediate zone of attack of any force that hit Schneeheim.
Especially a Helvetian heavy bombardment force prepared enough to blind their radars.
Nocht Federation — Rhinea, Cafe Liberté
“I’m going to meet someone, you can go now.” Cecilia said.
Behind her, Dreschner snorted. “I wasn’t following you. I have someone to meet too.”
Cecilia turned her head back from over her shoulder and flounced along.
Her ability to acknowledge and ignore him on a whim seemed to cause him consternation.
He was red in the face half the time she peeked back. It didn’t matter; in fact it was funny.
Rhinea’s streets had changed in their character since last she had seen them up close. She drove through in official cars or in cabs every so often, but from the ground one could see things had gotten a little meaner. There were lines at recruitment offices, and some at soup kitchens too. Once pristine streets were just a little dirtier. There was a dearth of infrastructure workers and infrastructure work; slowly, but surely, everything and mostly everyone was going into the war. In the market, prices were creeping up. Rationing was not yet in effect, but shoppers spoke jokingly of getting their meat fresh while they could.
Crossing into the beautiful, upscale new quarter, she saw nylons at the boutiques going up in price, as the materials were used for war. She saw many women at the restaurants and at the wineries and in the park, alone or with others like them; Cecilia liked the image but she knew deep down the majority of these women were not dating each other. They were keeping each other company for lack of their boys, who had all been plucked away to war.
Come to think of it; almost all the shops had women workers now.
Even in the fine arts of men, like the jewelers, chefs, sommeliers; all women now.
It was a nice change of scenery, but it was not for a good nor natural cause.
She wondered if that man back there was embittered by all of this.
To remain behind when the whole nation seemed to want him dead somewhere else.
Behind her, Dreschner continued to walk, his eyes fixed forward.
Did he notice any of this? Did he not see his hand in it? Or was he trying to ignore it?
Then again, Cecilia had a hand in all of this now too.
On the first floor of the Hotel Meridian was a little place called the Cafe Liberté that was special to Cecilia, and Agatha too; they had met there as teens, when no place other than an pricey Frankish coffee shop operating out of a second-rate Hotel would hire a poor teenager with a thick “foreign” accent. Her accent had smoothed out; and she was hired somewhere far better now. But this was still the place everything had started for them.
At the front of the Cafe, leaning on a pillar, was a young woman in uniform.
As always, Cecilia paused to consider as much as she could consider beneath notice.
This girl had mousy hair, and glasses, and was smoking a cigarette out of a little tank tin.
Short and skinny and a little dry but with the sort of innocent cuteness that was tempting.
Cecilia paused for a moment, and Dreschner moved past her.
He approached the woman and her face lit up.
Dreschner seemed to soften up a little as he looked at her as well.
Cecilia felt a strange sense of urgency, part serious, part comedic, and stepped forward.
“Pops, c’mon, you can’t, you’re not–”
She tugged on his coat.
“Oh, now you know who I am?”
He half-turned to meet her with a quizzical expression.
Cecilia shoved him a little with her palm.
“One step back, jeez. You get in people’s space too much.”
“Good god.” Dreschner snorted.
“Anyway, you’d better not be doing anything untoward, okay?”
“Look, she’s not your type at all–”
“What are you saying?”
Dreschner shot her a suddenly furious look.
Cecilia raised her hands defensively and backed away with a nervous grin.
She wasn’t sure anymore if she had been teasing him or chiding him seriously.
Behind both of them, the woman in question raised a hand.
With a good-natured smile on her face, the uniformed girl asked, “Um, what is–”
“Karla, meet my dirty-minded, no-good daughter Cecilia.” Dreschner said suddenly.
Cecilia shot a hand past Dreschner and shook this “Karla’s” hand with a smile.
“Pleased to meet you, I hope my insufferable, disreputable, tantrum-throwing old man has not yelled at you too much for wearing your shoes wrong or some other minor thing.”
“Um, he really hasn’t–”
“Please don’t mind my embarrassing, childish, amoral adult daughter’s loose tongue.”
“Cecilia! You’re late!”
Everyone’s heads turned toward the cafe entrance.
Karla’s face lit up; Dreschner raised an eyebrow; Cecilia felt like she’d sink into the earth.
Standing at the threshold was Agatha Lehner, famous movie star and model and fashion icon. Her entire person begged to be noticed, she practically blew the air out of the atmosphere. Bold red lips, bouncy blonde hair, shockingly bright blue eyes, perfect skin; her dress filled the beholder with awe, filmy black mesh halfway over the breast, brilliant red elsewhere in fiery waves that hugged her body tight down the waist, the hips, modern and showy, almost scandalous, and slitted to reveal long, shapely legs wrapped in nylon.
“Looks like I must be off.” Cecilia said. “It was unpleasant meeting you, pops. Adieu.”
Dreschner rolled his eyes. Karla took a step forward and tapped Cecilia on the back.
“Excuse me, Ms. Daughter ma’am, is that Agatha Lehner? Can I have her autograph?”
“Some other time, mouse-girl. It’s a private meeting.”
She had the nickname read on the girl’s cigarette tin, “Mauschen.”
Cecilia could put her keen eyes to both good uses and terrible ones.
At any rate, she had shot to shit her chances with cute little Mauschen. At Dreschner’s side, the girl was speechless at first, and then quickly as sour-looking as he was. Both of them stared daggers at her for a cold minute before storming off together elsewhere.
Agatha Lehner looked no more pleased with her than they were.
“What was holding you up? Who were those soldiers?” Agatha asked.
Cecilia walked past her into the Cafe. “There’s always soldiers, Aggie. I work for a king.”
“Messiah defend. You’re impossible.”
“I got you chocolates.”
“You really shouldn’t have.”
Despite everything, they sat down together in a little table by the window, and a cute waitress took their order. They had sugary coffees and little cakes, and Cecilia turned up the charm. She was all smiles, she maintained constant eye contact, and she was quick to flatter. In the span of few minutes between sitting down and having their first tastes of coffee, Agatha was about as buttered up as she would be before the night’s embraces.
“I know I look wonderful. You can stop that.” Agatha said.
“Oh, but I can’t help myself.” Cecilia said.
“You’re reminding me of him now.” Agatha said.
“Though I think on some level you encourage each other’s awful personality.”
“Achim is self-actuated every day, nobody winds his key. Every morning he wakes up and he just slams into our lives like the next disc in a jukebox, and right then and there he–”
Agatha sighed, and Cecilia giggled.
“To be honest, I expected you to turn me down.” Agatha said.
“Who would turn down a chance to meet the lovely Agatha Lehner?”
“You, countless times.”
Cecilia waved it off like a bug in the air. “Hey, listen, I have responsibilities sometimes.”
“Yes, to many other women whom you also tell that.”
“Savage.” Cecilia sighed. “Achim’s on some beyond top secret trip to the Far North.”
“Probably that dig site at the Loup reserve.” Agatha said. “It’s been on the news.”
“Something’s going on there, but who cares. Nothing that wins this war will come out of that ice. They probably struck gas there and Achim’s friends want dibs on extraction.”
“I suppose my husband’s corruption calls for top secrecy.” Agatha said bluntly.
“It’s fine, he’ll pardon himself.”
Agatha wasn’t laughing. She held her chin on her hands and stared out the window.
“Aggie, why did you call me here? I thought at first you just wanted to sleep over–”
“I do.” Agatha said, still not turning to face her. “I need that, right now.”
“I mean, not right now, we’re in public.” Cecilia said.
“Oh, you’re not that bold yet?” Agatha tittered.
Cecilia felt very strange being on the opposing end of such a sultry tease.
“You might convince me.” She said, mock-biting her lip a little, trying to fight back.
“Don’t be stupid. I was just joking. We’ll go to your apartment.”
“Yes. Actually I may be waiting on a phone call, but that’s fine, isn’t it?”
“It’s fine as long as I have your undivided attention afterward.” Agatha said.
“And I want your undivided attention right now.”
Agatha lifted her head from her hands and stared very seriously at Cecilia.
Before, her longing gaze out the window made her seem like an overgrown teen.
Now there was a gravity to her presence that unsettled Cecilia.
In the face of it, she couldn’t keep being the jokey, flirty vixen she styled herself as.
“Agatha, did something happen?” Cecilia asked. “What’s wrong?”
Agatha averted her eyes briefly, and crossed her arms in front of her chest.
“I’m going to need your help. And maybe more attention than I deserve, in the future.”
“That all? Agatha, if you want me, you can have me. Any time.”
She meant that more than sexually and she hoped that came across in her tone.
There was a sense of paired urgency and bitterness to those words. Cecilia had wanted to hear something like this for so long; in its absence, she just did whatever she wanted with herself, lived with abandon. She had come to realize long ago that she would not lead a happy life with anyone’s attention except Agatha’s. It took a multitude of people’s affection to add up to Agatha’s. Maybe that was an excuse; but she was ready to stop.
She was ready to stop for Agatha if Agatha was ready to stop for her.
“It’s not what you think it is. I’m not– I’m not going to make you happy, Cecilia.”
Cecilia did not know how to respond to that. Agatha looked like she was in tears.
“Cecilia, I’m pregnant. I’m pregnant with Achim’s child and he’s not here.”
Those words fell like a bomb between them, and Cecilia was shocked silent by the impact.
There was seconds of fidgeting, nervous silence before the real bomb dropped.
There was no shadow, no screaming propeller, it came from so high above.
Cecilia saw it, like a meteor, a fleeting instant before the detonation.
She could not dive for Agatha, could not take her in her arms and defend her like a hero.
When the bomb hit the middle of the street and exploded, and the shockwave burst through the glass, and the facades of the buildings around them rocked and crumbled, and the fire and smoke and force flowed through like a storm they collapsed, at once, apart. Cecilia was hurled bodily, and Agatha seemed to just fall and disappear in a flash.
Helvetian Confederation — City of Rodoma
Beneath the statue of the Her Majesty Of Equilibrium, a great golden woman holding the world in her scales, a much smaller, much less golden woman appeared, in a fur cap and coat, dyed a brilliant blue. Her shimmering golden hair swayed behind her in the stiff winter wind. On her sharp ears hung earrings shaped like the scales of balance, and the scales were also represented in a gold brooch that pinned the coat over her breast. She appeared beneath the statue to a solemn crowd all of whom held their hands up.
Out of respect they extended the ‘peace sign,’ index and middle finger raised above all.
Millennia Alsace, the new prime minister of the Confederation, stood behind a podium, and held her hands up in a double peace sign. There was no cheering yet, but there were smiling faces. Everyone had worked very hard to safeguard her place after the sudden resignation of the current office-holder and the snap election needed to replace her.
She was the youngest, and some would say, most radical Prime Minister Helvetia had seen.
“Peace-loving Helvetian folk of all walks of life! I beseech you on this day, in our beautiful country that has pledged to battle remorselessly for the fate of this blue globe upon which we stand. Steel yourselves to be saviors of the world, for the tide of time is sweeping us to battle! I announce today, on the 42nd of the Hazel’s Frost of 2030, a historic day in a historic year; I announce that the Helvetian Confederacy is declaring war on the Federation of Northern States, the Empire of Hanwa and the Kingdom of Lubon!”
There were gasps among the people in the park. A crowd numbering in the thousands had gathered for the speech, a speech about the fate of the world and Helvetia’s visionary role in it. Everyone had hoped for discussions, sanctions, diplomacy, the peace that Helvetia had hoped to weaponize against the warring powers of the Globe. They expected reason and instead, it seemed, Helvetia had fallen into the same madness as the rest of them.
“I understand your trepidation! Did Helvetia not promise the world and its people that it would strive for World Peace, for Global Reason, for Friendship Among Nations? Helvetia has struggled against the tide of war for many long decades, not because it was profitable, but because it was necessary. However, as we have labored, the world has slid farther into chaos. It has to be seen, that the methods we have so far employed have not reversed, but accelerated the decline of national bonds! Helvetia is disdained and friendless in this world of wars; we sat by as Nocht consumed the once independent island cultures of the New Sea, we spectated the Hanwan atrocities against the Kitanese, all for their naked greed; for untold generations we allowed the torment of the Svechthans at the hands of our lost brothers and sisters in Lubon; and when the Svechthans fought, we condemned them?”
Millennia shook her head to the crowd, as if personally chiding them for this act.
“Once there are no more small nations, no more exploitable peoples, for these warmongers to consume, what will happen then? Who will our peace-loving Helvetia stand with? No more! It is clear that World Peace will not be achieved by a spectator. Helvetia is taking a new direction in this age of wrath. We will no longer stand idly by. Empire builders who seek to consume the entire world under their Flags will be resisted and stopped! We will not accept one world for one people! Each Nation its own world! Each people their own masters! I say to all who style themselves World Dictators, to the Lehners and the Kagus and the Vittorias of the world; you have an enemy in Millennia’s Helvetia!”
Millennia’s tone of voice rose to a fevered peak, a clear passion rumbling through her.
She raised her hands into the air in the double peace sign and then closed them into fists.
“FOR WORLD PEACE!”
All at once, her passion flowed through the crowd, and the peace-loving Helvetians accepted it. Helvetia would join the Solstice War; and little did they know, as they spoke, that their military was engaging the Allied nations on multiple fronts, flying bombers over Nocht; and even invading the Kingdom of Mauricia on their own borders and soil. For the fuel that had to be denied to the Allies, for the Fuel Helvetia needed to be part of the Pact.
Unknowing of the world’s complexity, satisfied with its simplicity, the crowd shouted the campaign slogans, and steeled themselves in their hearts for the sacrifices that lay ahead.
“WE’RE STRONGER WITH HER! WE’RE STRONGER WITH HER!”
Though on the podium her face was solemn, deep inside, Millennia Alsace was smiling.
Nocht Federation, Citadel — Oberkommando Norden
“What the hell do we even have up there?”
“Sir! It looks grim. Right now the Schneesgarde Gebirgsdivisione, along with the 356th Infantry which was training for snow warfare in the Far North. According to reports at least three Divisions and a tank Division have crossed the Helvetian arctic to Loupland. The Mountain division escaped the trap but the 356th is in danger of being surrounded.”
“Not one Panzer out there? Not a single one?”
“Negative sir! All first line Panzer Divisions are in Ayvarta. The 42nd is in the Higwe, the 27th and the Leibgarde A.L. are in Pelagis. We’ve got the 35th, 38th and 45th in Junzien.”
Walter Weddel was speechless. Because of its separation from the Nochtish mainland, the Far North was often seen as a playground, and it was kept relatively unguarded and demilitarized. Who would fight a war there? It was a place for mountaineers to train and prospectors to dig and the Loup in Loupland to hunt seals. And the weak and pathetic Helvetian elves were the only people on the other side of that icy hellscape. No one cared.
The 42nd was teaching a painful lesson about the way modern warfare was changing the world, and what spaces were valuable. Loupland was trash, the Helvetian Arctic was a gift given in bad faith to a people they never respected. No land army could cross the Snowskin sea into Nocht. “For World Peace” or what have you the Helvetians could have their icy rocks. But it was 2030; and an air army could cross the Snowskin and be within operational distance of Nocht’s most important cities. As they spoke, this was now happening.
“God. I’m really going to get it now. This is ridiculous.” Weddel fretted terribly as he watched his aides scratch their pens across an assortment of maps, indicating the innumerable possibilities available to the Helvetian attackers. Was war even declared? Not that it mattered anymore, Nocht had deliberately failed to declare its own war on Ayvarta in a timely fashion anyway. In this they were reaping exactly what they had sewn.
“What’s the air defense situation?”
“All of the northern FREIJA network is in disarray, but we have fighters now actively engaging the enemy over the cities. Much of the East is thickly defended by air, as a result of preexisting defensive positions from the war with the Franks. But Rhinea took some damage sir. We never thought it could be hit that deep. We’re waiting on more data.”
Weddel held his face in his hands. He never expected to fight this “Solstice War” up here.
“What are their numbers? What are we looking at here?”
“We have at least 200 heavy bombers of the old Beardog and the newer Beardog II variety. Several hundred Cathawk fighters are defending them. Cathawks are obsolete compared to our Archers and especially the newer Crossbow fighter, but in such large numbers–”
“Tell the air force to hasten the pace! My ground forces can’t do this alone!”
Weddel felt like he was carrying a boulder that was slowly crushing him. His knees were shaking from the weight, ready to snap, and his back bowing. Once President Lehner caught wind of all of this, Weddel would never live down what happened, even if it was not ultimately his fault but Air Admiral Kulbert’s laziness! He rubbed down his own chin and stared at the map and felt helpless. Was this modern war? An officer sat in a bunker with aides as blind as he was to the battlefield conditions as a situation changed every second?
And then the phone rang behind them.
Weddel, Marshal of the Oberkommando Norden slowly, tremulously, picked it up.
“Afternoon, Walter; what the fuck is happening in my country?” President Lehner said.
Nocht Federation — Rhinea, Cafe Liberté
Cecilia awakened to the sound of distant explosions, buzzing engines sweeping through the air, and the chock chock chock of propeller-synchronized machine guns blaring. Her whole body screamed with pain. Her vision flitted, things becoming sharp and blurry by the second without warning. She felt something grab hold of her, and saw figures.
Everything was darker than it used to be. The Cafe’s facade had collapsed over the window, trapping them in a gloomy, almost cavernous ruin. There were bodies, and there was blood. Blood on the floor, and on her, and blood on the man and woman carrying her.
“Sir, where can we even go? There’s no place to hide from this!”
“Our best bet would be the subway station tunnel. I can think of nowhere else.”
Cecilia finally recognized Einschel Dreschner and Karla Schickzal, holding her by the arms and legs and trying to pull her out of the remains of the Cafe. She slowly started to blurt something out to them, perhaps a ‘why’ or a ‘thank you’, she knew not which. But then as she got out to the light of the street, and saw the figures dueling in the sky, and the craters on the streets, and the sea of shattered glass in the middle of the road, she remembered.
“No! Stop! We can’t leave! She’s in there!”
Cecilia kicked and struggled and threw both Dreschner and Karla to the ground.
Scrambling over them in a clumsy dash, Cecilia ran back inside the remains of the Cafe.
She looked over the rubble by the intermittent light of a sparking, damaged bulb.
Orienting herself toward the facade, she saw an overturned table covered with debris.
Cecilia cried at the top of her lungs, tears streaming down her eyes.
She threw aside debris and slapped sand away and dug with her bare hands, which were cut with glass and jabbed with sharp concrete, and bloody and bruised the more she dug, the more she screamed. At least her bloody hands unveiled something taking cover beneath the buried table, and she pulled Agatha, bruised and bloody and covered in dust, from out the sarcophagus which the bombs had cast her into. Cecilia shook her.
“Agatha! Agatha please woke up! Please don’t leave me!”
Dreschner and Karla ran into the Cafe, and both of them paused at the door.
Perhaps sensing what the truth might be, they halted their approach with pale faces.
“She’s not dead!” Cecilia shouted at them, so sharply they became startled.
They backed away, arms held up as if they were being threatened with guns.
Once she was alone again, Cecilia put her head to Agatha’s, and she whimpered.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just. I love you! Why couldn’t you ever just say the same?”
She felt a pulse, as her cheek touched Agatha’s neck. She felt a breath.
She felt hands weakly embrace her.
Cecilia pulled back, staring at Agatha Lehner in her weak, weeping eyes.
“I wish you could’ve been the father Cecilia. It’s so stupid, but I’d have loved that.”
Cecilia nearly collapsed over her lover, crying and screaming with abandon.
Outside, the aircraft started to pull away, their guns and bombs sounding distant.
“We’ve made some mistakes.” Agatha said. “We’ve all, made some mistakes.”
A sudden absence of chaos brought fully to bear the horror and breadth of those words.
Preliminary Report On The Actions of 42nd of the Frost
Operation Gladiator has concluded within strategic parameters but it is our belief that it has underperformed severely with regards to its operational objectives as set forth within the Agenda of the 5th of Frost. As outlined in the agenda, Gladiator’s objectives were:
- Rapid capture of the southern Kingdom of Mauricia’s resources to help sustain and reinforce the Grand Armee: Mauricia is fighting fiercely, but will eventually collapse. However, the “One Day War” that was dreamed of in our plans, did not materialize.
- Surprise bombing raids on Nochtish industry to cripple Nocht’s ability to conduct warfare and/or stop ongoing raids: completely unachieved. 5% of Nocht’s Air Power, 15% of their Air Defense and 18% of Radar coverage was damaged by our raid, at the cost of large losses to our bombing force (35% bombing power lost). Less than 8% of Nochtish military industrial capacity was damaged by the Gladiator raids. Most of the damage was dealt to civilians, civilian infrastructure and public structures. All of the damage is reparable and our bombing power is too low to sustain a full campaign.
- Surprise attack in the Nochtish Arctic and Loupland meant to open a new front in the war and to capture arctic land for air bases: Nocht is reshuffling forces to combat us in the arctic front. Though we have destroyed an Infantry division and captured about 30 kilometers of arctic land, it will be very long before it can be activated for any use.
Through Gladiator, we have proven to the other prospective members of the Pact that we can engage in modern combat as a modern army. However, this gesture must now be backed with decisive action and achievable long term strategy. We hope to meet with you and our Pact counterparts soon to discuss actions where they now matter: Ayvartan soil.
For world peace,
— Helvetian Grand Armee Commandement des Forces Terrestres (C.F.T).