“They’re in trouble already, huh? Just what have you unleashed on the seas, Nagavanshi?”
“Capitalism’s contradictions are as inevitable as the surface’s corruption, Premier.”
“Don’t quote Mordecai at me! I’ve read the exact same books that you did.”
Premier Bhavani Jayasankar and Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi stood in the middle of a cozy lounge that the Premier had taken as her office in Thassal. There was a desk, over which stood the seal of the Union: a plow and a sword, crossed over an agrisphere globe.
On a monitor which had been set into the wall, they reviewed footage captured and returned by a spy probe in the Thassalid plain. The Brigand engaged a Leviathan; and using the Cheka, an experimental suit, they annihilated it completely. While the footage was rough and grainy, the speedy objects and their terrifying, superhuman battle were captured enough for casual reference.
“Well, congratulations. All your scheming really payed off.”
Jayasankar shut off the monitor with the footage playing. She sighed deeply.
“I can scarcely believe how far and how thoroughly I’ve been deceived by you.”
Nagavanshi bowed her head. “I didn’t realize you would take it so personally.”
“Don’t play dumb with me! After all I’ve done for you, and you treat me so terribly all of the time. Ugh; this is going to be so much work, you know? All those ships, food, people; all that is going into war instead of working hard. On a growth year for the Plan too! This is so bad for my reputation.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t take me that long to set up. As a matter of fact, the previous regime was researching similar capabilities. I finished what they started, ultimately.”
“Really? Ahwalia and all those decaying mummies came up with this?”
“I didn’t say it was going well or rapidly, but it was not entirely my doing.”
“What did they have ready? How much had they worked on this before the coup?”
When Nagavanshi and Jayasankar came together, there was no topic they could not casually discuss; even something as grave as the continuing legacy of of the nation’s founding figures, like ex-Premier Ahwalia. Nagavanshi and then-Justice Minister Jayasankar disagreed with him politically and economically. And they managed to make that disagreement spread to the right people. Ahwali was ultimately made to disappear for Jayasankar’s benefit; the rest was history.
“Before our intervention, they had worked on the hull.” Nagavanshi said. “It was originally going to be a triple-height hauler and icebreaker. They were hoping to be able to open a route to the Cogitum Ocean through the southern ice caps. I can only speculate as to the costs. The hull was actually huge, Bhavani: the Brigand is only half the size of its forebear.”
“So it was part of Op. Red Star.” Jayasankar said. “We were literally starving for this.”
Six years ago in 973, the very two people scheming in this room had unearthed a certain scheme themselves.
“All of this is beside the point, Parvati! You lied! You lied to me! For so long, too!”
Jayasankar pointed her finger at Nagavanshi with a childishly petulant expression.
“I embellished the truth because frankly, it is more effective to work without worrying you about it.” Nagavanshi replied calmly. “Most of the militarizing work on the hull was done in the past 6 months. I started working on this as a military venture because of the border skirmishes. And before you cry any more, I did everything with military resources. I did not divert a single credit worth of Plan resources. So don’t even think about comparing it to Plan Red Star, okay?”
“I wasn’t going to. I don’t want to think about Ahwalia at all. I’m thinking about us.”
Jayasankar sat down behind her desk and laid all the way back that she could on her chair.
She looked up at the ceiling. “Sometimes I wonder if I would just be better off up there.”
Nagavanshi raised her eyebrows, clearly confused by the sudden change in the topic.
“You’d be dead, obviously.”
“You don’t want me to die?” They locked eyes briefly.
Nagavanshi closed and opened her fists, balled up at her sides. She narrowed her eyes.
“If this is a joke you’re making, I’m not amused by it.”
Jayasankar laughed. “Good response! You’ve saved yourself from a purge just then!”
Nagavanshi rolled her eyes. “I am as always grateful for your many mercies, Premier.”
“You’re a demon, you know that? I take care of you, and this is how you repay me.”
“I’m grateful for your attention, but work is work.” Nagavanshi shrugged.
Jayasankar laughed. She felt eerie. All she could do was tease Nagavanshi. She had so much responsibility over so many people and over all of their needs. Clearly, she wouldn’t have ever done what Nagavanshi suggested. Only Nagavanshi had the dark intellect for this sort of thing. The right combination of power, access, ambition and lack of accountability to others.
Deep down, Jayasankar had an ingrained fear of the present circumstances. She hardly wanted to indulge the irony of the situation she had found herself in. After all, Ahwalia had been deposed for the same issues: diverting resources to secret projects at the expense of the people. He and his cohort had their own dreams; they believed they were in the right too. If they had their way, there would have still been a future for the Union. It might have even been a more utopic future than that which Jayasankar promised. There was only one difference between them. Nagavanshi and Jayasankar, fundamentally, would not sacrifice the many for a few.
Despite everything, Jayasankar trusted Nagavanshi to agree with her on that principle.
They would gladly throw a few people into the fire, here and there, to spare the multitude.
Operation Red Star had been frighteningly ambitious. It envisioned a complete reorganization of the Union into an automated society unfettered in technological growth. A second revolution, quietly happening behind closed doors, siphoning food, steel and monies for its ultimate purpose. It was a dream only capable of coming to fruition in the Union, because at that time the Union was nothing if not dreams. It was an overpopulated, under-producing hole in the ground where everyone worked their hardest, and for years, it felt like tragedy after tragedy just set them back.
Until she saw it with her own eyes, Jayasankar could have never realized the evil that nestled still in the hearts of men and women in their precious Union. In five years of being silently freed from this evil, her people were finally thriving a bit. And now, everything was in jeopardy again. She really was helpless. And worse, she could not really tell anyone the full story.
Maybe, sometimes, it was good to be lied to.
Maybe it was even liberating to be lied to.
She couldn’t say such a thing as that to Nagavanshi.
For those reasons; and for others too.
So instead, Jayasankar played the conceited character she knew Nagavanshi wanted to see.
“Tell me this. Would your plan have survived the Emperor being alive right now?”
Nagavanshi, she knew, could take any amount of grief that was launched her way.
“I would have simply use different rhetorical tactics. In the end, it wouldn’t change all the work I had already done to operate within the Empire. There would have been ample opportunity. Buren was already preparing to revolt. I was already preparing to help them. It was inevitable.”
“And it was necessary to lie to me for it to work? For months? I couldn’t have helped?”
“You’ve manipulated me before, so consider it payback. Anyway, If I came to you with no data, no ship, no plan, would you approve of all the work? Or would you say, ‘it’s a Plan Year.’?”
Once more, their gazes met with a conviction that exceeded any casual observation.
Jayasankar smiled so freely in response that it compelled Nagavanshi to smile back a little.
“Fair enough Parvati! You’re right. I concede that point.” Jayasankar said. “But I know this can’t have just been about Buren. I may agree with the plan, but I must unearth its intention.”
“Have you considered that I am doing this to protect you?” Nagavanshi crossed her arms.
“Protecting me? You’re not protecting me! You’re putting me in a vice! We’re at war, it’s supposed to be a growth year; I’ll look terrible for this! When I think about Retainment I–”
Nagavanshi finally laughed. “All of a sudden, you are worried about the vote to Retain?”
“You’ve been going around behind my back, and you ask if I’m worried?” Jayasankar grumbled. “Let me ask you this then, my beautiful, incorruptible guardian angel. With all your conspiracies and your little agents floating out there — are you gunning for the Premiership?”
“What are you saying? Of course not!” Nagavanshi snapped back, clearly flustered.
“Am I supposed to think you’re not after my power?” Jayasankar winked at the Commissar.
“You’re so frustrating! We’re in this together! What do I have to do to show you that?”
Jayasankar loved Nagavanshi’s response. She relished being able to talk to her like this.
She leaned forward on the desk, steepling her fingers and delivering an icy glare.
Nagavanshi leaned back slightly as if she were afraid of being sucked in by the Premier.
“Tell me about your lover in the Empire. Was she any good? Was she better than me? There must be a reason that you did all of this behind my back, after all. And to think, I’ve always been here when you needed comfort. I’m honestly offended you think so cheaply about me!”
Jayasankar finally delivered her bathetic salvo, and Nagavanshi groaned at the contents.
She looked for a moment like she was hitting the limits of her exasperation.
“Sorry to squash your perverted fantasies, but the person I referenced is someone I admire in a way that is not simply sexual. But a transactional cad such as you wouldn’t understand. I can’t believe that you are acting like this, and frankly, I’m offput by your sudden possessiveness.”
Her voice trembled very slightly as she delivered the last line. She realized something.
Jayasankar knew exactly the thing Nagavanshi was thinking about.
The Premier couldn’t help but to feel a thrill at the rising tension.
“Sometimes, Parvati, I really hate your guts.” Jayasankar said, her voice turning sultry.
At this, the Commissar-General seemed animated by a different impulse than before.
Nagavanshi hovered close to Jayasankar’s desk, leaning forward. Closer than they had been in an exceptionally long time. The Commissar’s gentle breath blew right over the Premier’s lips. “It’s because you can hate me that our relationship works so well. So hate me with all your being.”
Her eyes and voice grew eerily intense. Jayasankar felt a thrill rising up in her own chest.
“You’re a real piece of work, Commissar-General.” Jayasankar said, leaning closer as well.
“Premier, if you’re so afraid, angry, and upset at me. Then you should punish me for it.”
Suddenly, Jayasankar lifted a hand to Nagavanshi’s cheek and put her thumb right into her mouth, pressing on her tongue. Even Nagavanshi was surprised. She moaned but offered no resistance. “I’ve been wanting to teach you a lesson.” Jayasankar said. She pulled Parvati closer.
In an instant, she was on top of her. This, too, was all part of their understanding.
Even in the darkest times they at least had this form of catharsis — and companionship.
The Great Ayre Reach on the Northern Imbrium Ocean was a colder, shallower slice of water than most of the Imperial forces were used to living in. Operating in the photic zone, they could see bright blue water and in places, at times, even the light of Solceanos playing upon the ceiling of their ambitions: the surface of the ocean, and the forbidden world that was past the water.
A trio of engineering frigates was hard at work cementing Imperial control of Ayre.
Two of them laid down a massive laser relay tower.
A third laid down cable connecting the tower to its counterpart closer to Palatine.
When the tower activated, the Grand Fleet renewed its connection to the network that joined much of the rest of the Empire, allowing them to send and receive much higher bandwidth communications than before. It was this feat that allowed Erich von Fueller to finally speak to his subordinates after many long days of campaign away from home against the Republic.
Erich von Fueller stood alone on the bridge of the Irmingard, mother ship to an entire class of new dreadnoughts. He had cleared the bridge, and all of his officers dutifully left him, without a single remark. All of them saluted him, paid him respect as Grand Admiral of the Fleet, and went on their way. He had ceased to accept the title of “Prince” to refer to himself. In his mind there was no longer any Empire, for what had held the semblance of Empire they once believed in was the shadow of his father’s exploits. He was dead, and so was the Empire. There was only territory, and the bickering landlords scheming to improve their own holdings.
“It was always going to be this way, father.”
When Konstantin von Fueller slaughtered Emperor Nocht IV, he called out to all those who had stood on the sidelines of his war: “You are free to challenge me, as I challenged him!” At that moment, not a soul dared to step forward and fight him. But that idea had lingered in the currents, waiting for its time.
His father had demonstrated that the Emperor was not all-powerful. He was only a man.
Now, that mere man who seeded this idea, had died choking on his own blood and bile.
It would not be long before the disparate states of the Empire turned on each other.
“Everyone will challenge me as they challenged you. And I welcome the fight.”
He would not build an Empire over the rubble. He had other ideas.
An encrypted laser communication connected Erich to a subordinate on the video screen.
A seemingly youthful woman, her glasses reflecting the light of the video screen.
She was in a dark place, but all manner of terrifying things could be inferred from the shadows in the background. Tubes containing mutilated things; machines of unknown description. Amid all of this, a woman, her hair in a long, functional ponytail, dressed in a bodysuit and coat.
“Grand Admiral, congratulations on a successful campaign.” She said in a sweet voice.
“It’s no accomplishment. The Empire and Republic trade this piece of the Imbrium often. Doubtless they will take it back when I’ve ceased to pay attention to it.” Erich said in response.
His tone was untroubled, sober. He was calm. His mind was truly clear.
“If I might be so bold as to say, your humility is your most charming quality.”
Erich felt almost annoyed. “And your worst quality is all the false flattery.”
Mocking him, the woman made a face as though she had been struck and rendered docile.
“Well. It was you who demanded to speak to me. How may I serve you then, Herr Fuhrer?”
Her lips turned back into a grin as soon as the phrase left her mouth.
“I will soon return to Palatine, and from there I will cross into Bosporus. I will be expecting the timely delivery of your tributes. Will the Jagdkaiser be ready? Will the rest of your promises?”
“Everything will be ready, my lord. As certain as the sun rising.”
“This may surprise you, but I do not care where the sun goes or doesn’t. Therefore you would do well to understand that my tolerance toward you will end if my demands go unmet.”
Erich’s voice remained clear and confident, but his counterpart was unmoved.
“I understand. But taking a long view, all my predecessors died violently, yet the Sunlight Foundation remains. I can surpass this one body; I know one day, a form of me will see the Sun.”
She waved at him.
“But I will uphold my end, Fuhrer. May you one day bask in the light of the Sun.”
With the Foundation’s common parting words, the laser connection cut off.
Erich was suspicious, but he could do nothing but trust her, despite everything.
He allowed himself the briefest sigh. No one was watching him.
Soon he would have the power to never rely on snakes like her again.
He would continue with the plan. Lead a small fleet to Palatine, Bosporus, Volgia. Augment his power along the way with the innovations from his disdained vassals. Make a show of force. Soon, the Sunlight Foundation, the Inquisition, the Church of Solceanos: none would matter. All of them would fall. The world would be transformed. And he would be its Fuhrer.
At his bidding, a second connection traveled out of the Irmingard and made its way through the relays back to Palatine. His call was answered by a communications officer in Vogelheim, a young woman in servant’s outfit, rather than a military uniform. An apron and frilly cap; but the large headset for communications was clearly visible too. She bowed gently when she saw him.
“Tell Lieutenant Patroscu to make sure my sister’s birthday guests find their way easily.”
On the other end, the maid bowed her head once more in acknowledgment.
Erich cut off the feed. He had no emotion about what had transpired, or what would.
“Mind if I come in, milord?”
A sweet, soft voice came from the door to the bridge.
“You’re always welcome in, Carthus.” Erich said. “I was about to declare a 4-hour rest.”
Erich turned fully around from the console to meet the angelic young man coming in. Behind him the bridge door locked, with an access only the two of them possessed. The Prince looked over his guest, with his long, bright blond hair done up, and his green eyes open and inviting. The Prince was captivated with him, even when he wore just the simple blue Grand Fleet uniform. The young men stood before the throne replica on the bridge, and Carthus von Skarsgaard strongly embraced the Prince who stood like a pillar before him, offering no reciprocation but a small smile. None was needed, as the pair understood the character of the other perfectly.
“Since you’re declaring a rest, would I be able to sing for you today?”
“I would love that. I haven’t had a moment’s peace in ages.”
“I knew it. You haven’t rested at all since we left Palatine.”
Carthus got behind the taller Erich and reached over his cape to squeeze his shoulders.
Erich laughed. “Stop it, that’s not what I need from you. Perhaps soon.”
“Whatever you wish.”
He continued to hold on to Erich from behind, sinking his soft face into the Prince’s back.
“May I confess to something grave, milord?”
“Anything. You can say anything you want to me. You know this.”
“Erich, I do not wish to rule over Skarsgaard when all of this is over.”
Carthus sighed deeply. As a nobleman, that was an answer to a question that Erich’s actions had implicitly posed to him and challenged him with. It was an answer that meant dishonorable failure for any of the Empire’s top families. It was an affront to his ancestors, and an abdication of a holy duty that Emperor Nocht had given his family hundreds of generations ago.
But Emperor Nocht was dead. Emperor von Fueller was dead. And there were no Gods in heaven nor holy duties left on Earth. For the first time in weeks, Erich felt truly, transcendentally happy. He reached to his flank and took Carthus’ hand in his own. Carthus couldn’t see his face, but Erich was smiling. He was smiling so broadly and openly that he could almost cry.
“Thank you, Carthus. In the future I will create, neither Skarsgaard nor Fueller will weigh us down anymore. You will be something far greater than an Imperial Duke. I promise you.”
Without looking at the other’s eyes, the two men sealed their pact through those held hands.
In a dim, humid room in an undisclosed part of Imbria, the Sovereign of the Sunlight Foundation was both delighted and bothered by her conversation with the future Fuhrer of the Imperium. In the vastness of her thought, she found his behavior amusing. A tin-pot dictator like all of the rest who had come before him. He thought himself the most novel, of course.
The Sovereign had seen plenty of men just like him.
What bothered her then, more than anything, was that unlike with those men, whom she could safely ignore, she had to cooperate with Erich Fueller. This time, she could not simply stand idle and watch the irrelevant political histories of Imbria continue to turn. For the good of not just Imbria, but all of Aer, it was necessary — necessary — for the Empire to retain its unity and power. Though she abhorred the unproductive game of politics, she would have to play it, to save science and the future.
Behind her, there was the sound of a sliding door.
“I am leaving for the Northern Imbrium. I want to render a complaint.”
The Sovereign turned around to greet her guest. She found a familiar young woman, also shrouded in the dim, wet shadows of the laboratory. She was eyeing the test subjects with open disdain. The Sovereign’s present fixation was with exotic leviathans, and there were a great many, fetal and adult, large and small, complete or in pieces, in tubes and machines around her.
“Are you taking Tigris with you?” asked the Sovereign.
“Yes I am. We make a good team. About my complaint–”
“Go on. Actionable feedback is the lifeblood of any management structure.”
At this, her subordinate groaned openly at her. “Quit being coy. I sat on your inbound communication with Erich von Fueller. Supplying him with intelligence is bad enough. I cannot in good conscience see us supplying him with weapons too. What are you doing, Yangtze?”
Yangtze spread her lips in a wide, beaming smile.
Her subordinate narrowed her eyes in return.
“Euphrates, what I’m giving him is paltry compared to the scope of our power. It’s just an insurance policy to maintain the status quo in a chaotic time. I share your distaste for politics. Sometimes the only way to remain neutral, is to create the conditions for neutrality. We need to hedge our bets on an outcome to this war, if we’re not going to outright interfere.”
“I disagree; and I’ll stop at disagreeing. But you must reform your ideas.”
“Ooh, scary. Am I being threatened right now, I wonder?”
Euphrates made an irritated noise. She crossed her arms. “You are our Sovereign, and we want to trust your decisions, Yangtze. That has become harder for all of us to do lately. Rethink things; please.”
She turned around to leave, having had the last word. But the Sovereign called to her again.
“Euphrates, if you’re going to the Northern Imbrium, I’d like you to do something for me.”
“I’m not your errand-girl. You can get one of your Imperial flunkies to do it for you.”
“You’re so cold to me now! We used to be friends; you know?”
Sovereign Yangtze put on an aggrieved face, hugging herself as if shivering with pain.
Across the room, Euphrates was unmoved. She did not even turn around to see her talking.
“You and I have been peers. Don’t misunderstand. I put the Foundation first.”
“You and Tigris have been quite independent of late.” The Sovereign said.
Her tone of voice had changed, and Euphrates clearly noticed.
“We uphold the duties that others are neglecting. Is that all it takes to lose your trust?”
“Trust has to go both ways. Do something simple for me, and I’ll consider your advice as coming from a peer and not, say, a saboteur, or a usurper. How do you respond to that, friend?”
Yangtze said this casually, but she knew the barb had bitten under Euphrates’ stone skin.
Euphrates turned fully around, and coolly ran her hands back over her short, wavy hair.
“Yangtze– Sovereign. I take umbrage at having my loyalty tested again after everything I’ve done for you. I’ll acquiesce, but only to show my commitment to keeping the peace. What do you want?”
“Thank you for being so considerate.” Yangtze raised her hand toward one of the monitors hovering behind her. She thought about what she wanted it to show, and the monitor responded, and showed Euphrates a station in what was now called the Palatinate or Palatine, in North Imbria. “I want you to leak the location of this place to a Republic spy in North Imbria. She’ll do the rest.”
“I think I know who you mean. I’m not going to contact her directly, however.”
“Whatever you think will be most effective.”
“I see. Should I also leak the contents of Vogelheim to her? She’ll be interested to hear it.”
“You’ve done your homework!” Yangtze clapped her hands. “Indeed, it’s part and parcel. I trust your judgment and your intellect. Craft a suitable scenario to lead that woman to Vogelheim.”
“I’ll take care of it. Though I don’t relish continuing to participate in your political games.” Euphrates said. “But I’m glad you’re at least playing multiple sides. Ultimately my fear was that you had become obsessed with a fascist Imbrium. My criticism is not rescinded, but I feel better.”
“I’d never expect you to shut up about something so easily, don’t worry.”
Yangtze turned her back on Euphrates and made a gesture with her hands for her to leave.
Euphrates again turned, and this time departed the room through the sliding bulkhead.
Yangtze cracked up in a smile, laughing a bit at the situation.
“They’ve all become so ignorant. The world truly rests on my shoulders.”