Arc 1 Intermissions [I.3]

Election Night

Polity: Duchy of Rhinea (“Rhinean National-Socialist Republic”)

Naval Strength: Rhinean Defense Force (In flux), Volkisch Movement (~400 ships)

As the night wore on and the votes were tallied, the crowds marching through the streets of Thurin station grew ever volatile. Protesters and counter-protesters clashed in each borough. Because it was a square arcology-type Station, the upper classes of Thurin had no “upper level” to fleet to that would have seen nothing of the fires and riots. Instead, the police presence was stretched thin guarding the gates to the government district and to the wealthy properties north of the city.

Much to the anger of the protesting crowds, the authorities gave a clear preference to “right-wing” figures, defending them from crowds with high security including riot forces and even Divers at their homes and neighborhoods. Meanwhile, just that morning, a “left-wing” member of the Constituent Assembly was assassinated by a member of the Volkisch movement. There was no official protection for people who were known supporters of the “left-wing” agenda in Thurin.

Philosophically, both sides claimed that what was at stake was the soul of the nation.

Concretely, the night’s vote for Governor was taken as a referendum.

Rhinea’s hereditary Dukedom had become politically and economically powerless over the years. Increasingly, private industries became fiefdoms of their own, particularly large institutions that made key goods, like Rhineanmetalle and Volwitz Foods. Enterprises began to provide the lion’s share of employment and standard of living and in turn commanded a greater share of the nation’s wealth. Aristocrats invested in Enterprises and ignored their dues to the Duke.

While in other Duchies the governing aristocracy, the Duke and his closest Lords, had used personal investments, political alliances and military threats to remain firmly in control, in Rhinea, Duke Pfefner had inherited young and was too timid to spare himself becoming a figurehead. The moneyed class had de-facto control and the nation liberalized around the rule of the Purse. Contract and profit took over for blood. Rhinea was increasingly bourgeois, rather than aristocratic.

They paid dues to the Imperial crown and enriched their own coffers; who would care about the Duke?

Rhinea’s upper class made a gesture of sharing their economic control by allowing the population of Rhinea’s stations to vote for a chief executive to manage “ducal” affairs, as well as voting for members of the aristocracy and corporate boards to serve as politicians in a legislative Assembly. It was this system that brought the acrimonious situation in which the station found itself.

Everyone knew the election was a referendum based on the three candidates available for Governor. Ossof Heidemann, a stakeholder in Volwitz Foods turned political activist, ran for increased democratic reform and liberal, Post-Imperial government. Adam Lehner, a right-wing politician from a bourgeois background, assembled a coalition of military, academic, religious and middle-class people with a message of nationalist populism. Karl Schlieffer stood for status quo; an aging ex-Admiral who sought rapprochement and to continue the unity of the Empire in some way.

As far as the streets were concerned it was a contest between Lehner and Heidemann.

“It is time for the people of Rhinea to stake a claim on that which the idle, the ennobled, and the ignorant demand to take from them! For far too long, our land, food, labor and treasure have supported the lives of bloodsucking parasites! Real Imbrians rise to retake Imbria!” shouted Lehner.

“Rhinea has more than enough food, fuel and shelter for all of us! But the Empire is a relic of darker times and inefficient governance! We need greater democratic control of our resources! We should, all of us, give and get our fair share, so we can prosper together!” said Heidemann.

Everyone agreed that the Empire’s days were numbered in Rhinea. Konstantin von Fueller was dead and Erich von Fueller couldn’t protect Vogelheim. Pure-blooded aristocrats were fleeing the state, afraid of populist violence no matter the political winner. And yet, history had two paths.

Heidemann courted the nascent liberal political awakening. He received the begrudging support of more radical left-wing forces inspired by the student anarchist wave in Bosporus, but he did not acknowledge them for fear of inciting the average Rhinean into Lehner’s arms. So, with dark irony, there were anarchist riots essentially happening for him, sans his actual support.

Lehner, meanwhile, was known to be a darling among the Volkisch Movement. They were a motley collection of violent people. Conspiracy theorists, free-market capitalists, pseudo-science believers, militants and patriots, and an odd contingent of “leftists” who had been swayed to the rather different conception of “the working class” that was at the crux of Volkisch populism.

This was Lehner’s “National Proletariat,” the Volk for whom he enthusiastically fought for.

These were the “counter-protesters” exchanging blows with the “rioters” on the streets.

Above these demonstrations, video screens blared up to the minute election updates. Voting had begun that afternoon and was essentially completed before night. One particular detail that had agitated the rioters was how long the tallying was taking. Everyone voted by machine. Results should have been tallied very quickly. Both sides accused the other of vote fixing.

Thurin’s streets raged with protests. Beneath the large, looming broadcast screens and the pale light of false star-lamps on the black steel sky, lit by the dim pink and blue neon of shop video-signs and the red and yellow of holographic directional signs, street markers and pedestrian warnings. The two sides waved signs, screamed slogans, and made sudden, opportunistic attacks.

Particularly ferocious were the confrontations in Hertha Park. Atop the grasses and around the trees there was enough open space for a massive battle line to form. A sparse force of police stood with the Volkisch “counter-protesters.” Across from them, the leftist “rioters” had fashioned shields out of chassis pieces of overturned vending machines, lids ripped off the tops of municipal cleaning robots, and any other boards of polymer or thin sheets of metal they could scrape together.

For weapons the leftists had anything they stole or scavenged that could be swung, as well as balloons full of paint or, for the craftier and more resourceful people, makeshift incendiaries. Meanwhile, it was no secret that the police had simply handed the Volkisch riot shields and vibro-batons in matching quantities and essentially deputized them to contain the “rioting” in Thurin.

Hiedemann himself made no comment disrespecting the integrity of the election, or police conduct.

From the Lutz Hotel south of the central district, closer to the heart of the insurgency but not so much as to become directly involved or associated, Heidemann urged the rioters to calm down and return home a single, solitary time. This was his only communication with the rioters, delivered at the end of an election night speech thanking Thurin’s elections committee.

“I admire their courage and professionalism on this occasion.” He said about Thurin’s authorities.

This did little to assuage the crowd. Skirmishing continued to flare up across the city.

Hertha Park in particular remained on the verge of exploding.

Everyone who wished to remain uninvolved hid in their apartment rooms.

At the doors to the hotel, the small amount of police officers there were given an order to relocate to Hertha Park, officially to shore up reinforcements since the Lutz was away from the violence. A small group of liberal protesters and a token presence of leftist militia replaced them. Not at all at Heidemman’s orders, but because they collectively thought they knew better than the old man what he needed at the moment, and conspiracist thinking was at all time high among them. They essentially became the only security detail Heidemman had beside his campaign staff.

Midnight neared, and Hertha Park continued to deteriorate. Amid the dim, ethereal scene of Thurin’s nighttime cycle, the protest lines that had been jockeying for position finally and irreversibly collided. Shields smashed into unguarded bodies, pipes and vibrobatons swung and clashed. Scant firearms, stolen or smuggled in by both sides, went off in the distance. Cops within the rioting fired gas grenades that went up into green and yellow clouds among the warring sides.

There was blood, there were bruises and broken bones. Both sides took terrible wounds.

At first, the leftist side outnumbered the right-wing. They had an enormous crowd, and whenever someone was pushed back, clubbed, pepper sprayed, gassed, or otherwise routed, they had helping hands who could surround and protect them from further attack, if not with fighters then at least with supporters. Even when the only opposition was unarmed, the numbers were so out of proportion that individual right-wing attackers could not penetrate the left’s ranks. Because they themselves had no better organization than the left, they went on the defensive very quickly.

Police prepared to escalate their presence as the violence started to grow out of control.

Fighting went on inconclusively for what seemed like hours to the protesters. Fires started to rise and spread, police vehicles were captured and overturned. From many wounded, the night managed a few dead. Then, with blood still pooling on the ground in Thurin, the results came in.

45.4% Heidemann.

49.1% Lehner.

Lehner was broadcast widely as the projected winner of the election.

He was winner beyond any margin of error.

Due to the chaotic situation, this information took some time to disseminate to the crowds.

As the realization set in, the rightists started to grow emboldened.

And the massive crowd of Heidemann supporters began to falter.

Those who had been only chanting slogans or carrying signs for Heidemann stumbled first. They had been buoyed enough by the confidence of their peers to stay in the crowd, not engaged in fighting but able to bolster the leftist presence. These people started to peel away from the press of bodies, demoralized by the turn of events and unwilling to join a greater uprising. They had made themselves believe that the chaos of this night was permissible because it would end with Lehner’s defeat. Anyone on their side throwing a punch was throwing it for Heidemann.

Unable to see a world where they could resist the Volkisch without their political leader, they retreated. Only the militant leftists remained, a front line left without hope of reinforcement.

When the rightists saw the thinning of the crowds, they capitalized on the fear and disorder and pressed their attack. Now that they had the advantage of numbers, they could throw themselves into the leftists without fear of being overwhelmed. Cowardly as they had been when outnumbered, they grew ferocious against weakened prey. Those right-wing attackers who had individually been powerful grew more so, and rightists who didn’t dare throw a punch before now joined the fight.

That night would be bloody for the leftist remnants in Hertha who stuck with the uprising.

Once the night turned in the Right wing’s favor, police activity dropped dramatically.

Open murder was essentially sanctioned in Hertha Park by the retreating authorities.

Soon as the news reached him, Heidemann moved to announce a concession.

“If I can’t change the outcome, I can at least try to stop the violence.” He said to his staff.

He came down from his hotel suite, hoping to deliver a speech in the street outside.

On the way down, he met with the grim-faced crowd of leftists who had come to the Lutz.

Heidemann could not look them in the eye. He started to move through them.

They had nothing to say to each other. It was farcical for the anarchists to remain there.

However, the weight of history was dropping on all of them. Nobody knew what to do.

Then into the flagging fire of their wills, a young woman spilled a tank of gasoline.

“Drop your weapons and back away from the old man, now!”

From around the corner, a small group came running in to confront Heidemann.

Those accursed black uniforms awakened the spirit of the anarchist defenders on sight. They immediately formed a protective ring. Heidemman’s supporters grabbed him and pushed him and his staff back up to the door of the Lutz as the anarchists positioned themselves on the street to protect them. On the landing from the door to the Lutz, a confrontation suddenly brewed.

A squad of Volkisch had arrived at the Lutz: led by a recognizable young woman.

Heidelinde Sawyer, sporting a riot shield and a vibro-baton, stood at the front. She was flanked by a skinny, red-headed young woman holding on to a large weapon. And around them were four men in uniform. Likely they were all former Navy. Like Sawyer herself, a lot of the Rhinean Defence Force had defected to the Volkisch. Very few Navy defectors joined the leftists that night. It came to pass that one side had riot gear and the other improvised weapons.

“We’re taking Heidemann into custody. Drop your weapons and leave.” Sawyer said.

Before her stood at least fifteen leftists, armed with makeshift shields, knives and clubs.

“We’re not giving up shit to you.” Said one of the leftists. “You bastards aren’t the law to us.”

At Sawyer’s side, the young woman accompanying her put on a sadistic grin.

“Listen to the boss lady, unless of course, you wanna show me a little red tonight.”

Sawyer grunted. “Make yourself useful and apprehend Heidemann.”

Her companion stepped forward. In her hands, she held what looked like a miniaturized Diver weapon. Though it resembled a jet lance, the pole did not appear to be coil-driven, since coil weapons had not been produced small enough for a human to wield. Instead, it had a thick handle like a vibroblade and trigger, attached to a magazine at the base of the spear. Those magazine-fed cartridges fired unfolding, arrow-like stakes. It was a Jet Harpoon, an expensive military weapon more common to K-9 boarding units, intended to shred humans without damaging ship interiors.

 Her opponents shook at the sight of it.

Unlike Sawyer, who wore riot armor and padding over her black uniform, sans helmet, this woman menaced the crowd in nothing but a black Volkisch uniform and peaked cap. A playful, mocking expression played about her lips, and her wine-red hair was collected into an ornate bun with two little brown sticks made to look like wood. But on a military salary, they had to be fake.

As she stepped in front of the crowd, she swung her weapon to scare them.

Sweeping in a harmless arc between herself and the anxious mob around Heidemann.

Seeing their terrified reactions made her titter with joy.

“Who do you think you people are?” Heidemann yelped, sweating bullets.

Again, the woman accompanying Sawyer put on a grin.

“Ever heard of the Samurai?” She laughed. “Ancient warriors who could cleave opponents in half with a swing of their sword? It’s an old Hanwan legend. I’m like a Samurai of the streets.”

At that moment Sawyer rolled her eyes, instantly regretting her command decisions.

“I’m not letting this crazy bitch scare me!”

One of the leftists took a swing with a crowbar.

“Hazel!” Sawyer shouted.

In the next instant, Hazel caught the crowbar with her Jet Harpoon, blocking the swing. She pushed against the man who had attacked her, holding her weapon with both hands, pressing him with the blunt surface of the thick, cylindrical pole structure. Her speartip was pointed elsewhere as the two of them struggled, the man trying to push her back, her trying to push forward.

Two other leftists in the formation moved to support him, hoping to throw the woman back. At first the confrontation appeared almost juvenile, like the false blows of a random street brawl.

Then Volkisch Rottenführer Hazel Streichter pressed the trigger.

A stake went flying past the man Hazel grappled and stabbed through two leftists in the wings of the phalanx. It went right through their shields. They must have been polymer or plastic boards with no way to withstand the jet-driven stake. Blood spilled onto the steps of the Lutz.

Blood sprayed onto Heidemann’s staff and a speck upon his coat.

He looked at it with widening eyes and his body began to shake.

At the sight of his fallen comrades, the man grappling with Hazel fell back, shaken.

Hazel retreated a step and pointed her jet harpoon confidently at the rest.

“Anyone else want a taste of my steel?” She said coyly.

“Oh my god, Hazel, shut up! Just shut the fuck up and go grab him for fuck’s sakes!”

Sawyer stepped in front of her companion and swung her shield in a wide, brutal sweep.

That blow knocked back the remaining few leftists in front of Heidemann and his staff.

One more desperate phalanx cracked by the Volkisch that night.

Sawyer stood before the cowering crowd and two dying people.

She set her boot into an expanding pool of blood.

Her eye had developed a twitch, and the arm she had swung with was shaking.

Whether she was angry or mentally affected by the violence, no one knew.

“Listen. None of you are worth my time. You can return to your lives tomorrow like none of this crap ever happened if you leave my sight right now. Otherwise, I’m going to break every last fucking bone in your fucking bodies. Do you understand? All of you lost. Step aside. Now!”

“We can be more persuasive than that, Sawyer.”

Over Sawyer’s radio, a third female voice spoke up.

Around the corner, a sudden rumbling made the stones on the pavement shake.

All of the leftist crowd lost their will to defend the failed politician in that instant.

“Diver!” They shouted. “It’s a Diver! Disperse! We don’t have shit against that!”

Sawyer put up her shield and Hazel raised her weapon to guard, but nobody took a swing.

Rather than fighters, the people in front of them became panicked pedestrians.

Everyone suddenly abandoned Heidemann and ran in different directions past the Volkisch squadron. Even the press and his secretary had fled along with the leftist militants. They left behind nothing but Heidemann, and a pair of discarded corpses that had once been their comrades.

From around the same corner where the Volkisch squadron had come from, a Diver ambled over the cobblestones. A black and red Jagd model with a pair of black antennae sticking out of the head. This Diver resembled its pilot somewhat, as the voice on the radio was none other than Rue Skalbeck’s, coming from inside this machine. Nobody would dare stand up to this machine’s jet lance, and the machine guns on the shoulders also presented an insurmountable challenge.

After the peak of violence and emotion that it had seen all night, the Lutz was silent again.

“Ugh, what a drag. That was barely a proper fight at all.” Hazel lamented.

“Strip off your uniform and go to Hertha Park if you just want a fight, dumbass.” Sawyer said. She jabbed hard on Hazel’s chest with her baton, asserting physical dominance. “You’re not in a fucking gang anymore. I don’t care how much you run your stupid mouth while carrying out my orders, but when I tell you to do something, you do exactly that without fucking theatrics.”

Hazel raised her hands up. “I followed your orders! I was trying to disperse the crowd–”

“I didn’t tell you to fire your weapon!” Sawyer shouted. “I told you to apprehend the old man! He’s standing there listening to this fucking tirade, so go do it! Or is that so fucking hard?”

“Fine, fine, fine!”

With an exaggerated sigh, Hazel walked over to Heidemann. Since the Jagd appeared, the old man backed up against the Lutz’ locked doors. Employees must have closed the doors behind him when the confrontation began. Everyone had abandoned him to the claws of the Volkisch.

She grabbed hold of him brusquely with one hand, much stronger than she looked.

“Old man, if you don’t want to die, cooperate, ok?” Hazel said.

She lifted the tip of the jet harpoon to his face, grinning violently at the defeated man.

Sawyer shouted again. “Watch your trigger discipline you stupid fuck! We need him alive.”

At Sawyer’s continued, very loud insistence, Hazel dragged Heidemann over to the group. Their men grabbed hold of the old man and cuffed him, and put a black bag over his head, muffling his protests. If he said anything coherent, nobody was listening. At that point, he was an object.

“We’ve got him. Rue, get us a ride out of here.” Sawyer said into the radio. She then turned to the men. With some disgust evident in her expression, she pointed a shaking finger at the bodies. “And someone clean that up. I don’t care about the blood, but dispose of the bodies immediately.”

On the radio, Rue’s voice sounded again.

“Roger. City seems to be quieting down, judging by police radio chatter.” Rue said.

“Good.” Sawyer said. “Keep your eyes on those sensors of yours.”

“I’ll keep you safe.” Rue said. Betraying perhaps a bit more emotion than intended.

Soon a boxy electric coach arrived. Hazel nonchalantly stuffed Heidemann in the back.

Sawyer took control, leaving behind their men to take care of the scene as they drove off. In her Jagd, Rue followed as best as she could. Their destination was not too far off. They were going to the Rhinean News Network’s main building, a tall, daunting spire in the city’s southwest.

Lehner’s family owned R.N.N., and it was there that he awaited the delivery.

When the bag next came off Heidemann’s head he was in a twentieth-floor office.

Sawyer, Rue and Hazel stood alongside the night’s ultimate victor, Adam Lehner.

Blond-haired, flashing a smile full of white teeth, a lithe man with a delicate complexion.

He hardly appeared the militant type in his silk suit, black tie and shiny shoes.

He seemed like just a different kind of dandy than the hedonistic aristocrats he hated.

He was Governor of Rhinea. And he was the unifying mind behind the Volkisch.

Flanked by black military uniforms who carried out his will all through the night.

He had Heidemann seated across from his desk. There were a lot of model ships in the office, in cases, in bottles, atop the desk. They were all old models. There was a certain exhibited fondness in the decorations for the old Koenig-class Dreadnought, with its beaked prow and winged fins. It was one of these models that Lehner picked up and turned on his fingers.

“What is the meaning of this, Lehner? Does winning a vote put you above the law?”

Heidemann broke the silence first. His voice was desperate, pleading. Defeated.

Lehner shot a glance at him from behind his desk. He was still fixated on the ship model.

“It’s so funny to me that I beat you in the vote. It’s convenient, but so funny.”

He set the model down on the desk, and turned a bemused expression at Heidemann.

“All this time, you’ve been thanking the electors, talking about running a clean race and having pride in our institutions. You had so much confidence in our institutions, our fucking institutions, and look where you are? It was so incredible to me how much we weren’t even playing the same game. I was on an entirely different board, and there you were, going on video every day talking about decorum and respect. Thinking that you would stop me with votes? By voting?”

Lehner burst out laughing. Heidemann could not muster up a retort.

The Volkisch leader turned to his subordinates as if expecting them to laugh with him.

Sawyer and Rue made no expression. Hazel cracked an uncomfortable little grin.

Lehner quickly turned back to Heidemann with a shrug.

“That’s the difference between us. I’m a go-getter. I’m an innovator. You left your entire future up to others to hand you. I went out, I put together the plan, the money, the people, the gear– I made it happen.” Lehner circled around to Heidemann’s chair and gave him a mock sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “It’s funny that I won the vote, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. Wow! Bag him up again.”

Lehner turned his back and began to pace near the broad glass wall at the back of the room.

When Heidemann started to protest, Hazel put a black bag over his head again.

This muffled his voice, but he started kicking, and trying to swing his cuffed arms.

“Sawyer, can you please?” Lehner said, clearly starting to become irritated.

Stepping up behind Heidemann, Sawyer pushed Hazel aside and knocked the old man in the back of the head. He slumped forward, his bagged head hanging. He struggled no more. He was out cold. That one strike wouldn’t kill him alone, but it had knocked all sense out of him.

“Thank you.” Lehner said. He turned to his retinue, putting his back on the gorgeous view of the city at night, that they had from such a high place through such expansive glass walls. “Everything is working as planned. The nobles have fled from Thurin, Weimar and Bremen. Some of the old-school Navy went with them, but we got about 400 ships on our side. A majority in the Constituent Assembly declared themselves for the Volkisch. We will motion to refuse to sit non-Volkisch members for supporting the riots or the nobles — whatever makes sense. So now what I want, is I want this guy to vanish like the nobles did. Nobody can find a trace of him.”

“Understood.” Sawyer said simply.

“I don’t care if you kill him, frankly, but you should. You’re going to, right?”

Lehner crooked an eyebrow at them, waiting for a response.

Sawyer did not even blink. “I have no sympathy for him. We’ll dispose of him.”

“Solid. Love that response. I’m pleased with you all, you know? I’m gonna make you all big deals here. So much of the Rhinean Defense Force has been running around like their dicks are on fire; leave it to the militia women to be the most trustworthy fighters I got.” Lehner said.

“We’re all behind you, Fuhrer.” Sawyer said. Her characteristic passion was missing.

Despite her seeming lack of enthusiasm, however, she followed orders to the letter.

At the moment, that was the best that Lehner had access to.

He had defectors and militia, and he would have to cobble them together into a new Navy.

Just after the destruction of Vogelheim, Rhinea’s aristocrats began to flee. Sizable portions of the Rhinean Defense Force, the territory’s contingent of the Imperial Navy, fled too. Half joined the Volkisch Movement outright. Whether the rest ran away as individual ships, organized under the fleeing aristocrats or outright defecting to other territories, the fact of the matter was that the new Volkisch government had lost many troops without even engaging in any hostilities. Sawyer and her flotilla were one bright spot amid this chaos. They seeded the fear that routed the nobles.

Lehner turned an amicable grin on Sawyer.

“We’ve got the gear, the discipline, the training, the morale. We just need people. And you three are a great starting point. Sawyer, you already have many achievements under your belt. I’m keeping a close eye on you. That’s why I wanted you in the city while all of this happened.”

He walked close to her and poked her in the chest playfully.

At that moment, his eyes settled on Rue Skalbeck, standing inconspicuously with Hazel.

He looked at her with a crooked little smile.

“And this one is interesting to me. Hah, some of our guys would be pissed. Name?”

Sawyer stiffened up.

“Rue Skalbeck.” Rue said. She replied in a strict monotone.

“She’s with me, Fuhrer.” Sawyer said. She was starting to raise her voice. “She’s fine.”

Lehner ignored Sawyer’s remark.

He eyed Rue’s antennae.

“Why did you get these installed? Did you need them? Are they an augmentation?”

“Hartz Syndrome, sir.”

Anyone paying closer attention to Sawyer than to Rue would have seen discomfort in her face. She was unsettled by Lehner’s sudden attentions on her subordinate, but there was nothing she could say about it. Lehner continued to hover around Rue. Rue herself stayed expressionless. Her hands could be seen to shake slightly, but she mastered herself well under interrogation.

“Tell me about your condition, Skalbeck. What brought you here?” Lehner asked.

He was testing her. He had to already know what it was. It was impossible not to.

Hartz Syndrome was an uncommon but well-known neurological development issue that afflicted many people in the Empire. While it was extensively studied, there was no biological cure that could prevent or revert the symptoms. There was simply something in a certain percentage of children that caused poor development of the brain and audiovisual senses. Cybernetics were the only way to save those children. Brain cybernetics were extremely dangerous. Hartz sufferers had an appalling death rate under the knife. That Rue was standing before them at all was a miracle.

She described that miracle directly and without emotion.

“Rhinea Medical College used me as testing material to develop new surgery methods, so I was able to get my corrective augmentations that way. I received cybernetic lobes; biosynthetic eyes; and the antennae act as cybernetic ears in a sense. They help me maintain my balance and allow me to pick up sound. My cybernetics help process audiovisual data that my brain alone lost the ability for. Due to Hartz, I was not able to complete my studies as a teen. So, after my recovery, I joined the Navy, and I studied part time so I could complete my schooling there.”

Lehner was nodding his head all along as Rue described her ordeal.

He clapped his hands together once.

“So, you studied while completing your training? What prompted you to do that?”

“After I regained the fullness of my faculties, I wanted to make up for the time I lost.”

Her response made Lehner clap his hands even more.

Sawyer sighed with relief.

“Amazing. Wonderful. Inspirational, even. You gave your body up for science! Holy shit. I have talked with a lot of our rank and file, Rue, believe it or not. I’ve seen so many sentiments of patriotism and self-sacrifice. But I’ve never seen someone sacrifice to that degree. Holy shit.”

Lehner reached out and gave playful, soft smacks on Rue’s cheek like she was a child.

“See this girl? In my ideal world, every inferior being would work as hard as she did.”

He turned to Sawyer with an elated expression. “You got really lucky with this one.”

“Sir?” Sawyer asked. She had flinched when he referred to Rue as an inferior.

Lehner continued to speak, gliding around the room in a passion.

“Despite all that was set against her, she never whined and bemoaned her situation. She never begged someone else to take pity on her and give her a handout. At every turn, she fought, she sacrificed, and she paid her dues. She sacrificed for the National Proletariat. Rue Skalbeck has given back to society. She’s not perfect, but she is exemplary. Sawyer, keep this critter close by.”

Rue was speechless, clearly mortified. Her jaw hung just a little at this description of her.

“Yes, sir.” Sawyer said. Her fingers curled up into fists.

Lehner did not notice this. He returned to his desk and sat on it.

“You’re all the future of our movement. I’m so proud of all of you. Great job tonight.”

He yawned. He checked his watch. He glanced over to Heidemann with disgust.

“Anyway, all of you can go now, we’re done here. Take him.” Lehner said, nonchalantly.

Without a word, his subordinates silently, obediently, took Heidemann out of his sight.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.10]

National Anthem For The Imbrian Empire of Nocht,

“The Sun’s Blessing.”

Unite! Beneath the banner,
The shining sun above,
With fertile soil and honest toil,
A mighty nation grows

Imbria!
Imbria!

Sun’s blessings do abound,
The greatest land beneath the waves,
Thy enemies be drowned

Our Might! Beneath the banners,
Our glory to uphold,
Through sun-blessed reach, penumbral depths,
Our fleets His’s Peace protect

Imbria!
Imbria!

Sun’s blessings do abound,
The submarines of our great fleet,
Triumph o’er battlegrounds

Sunlight! Beneath the banners,
God’s grace knows no bounds,
From Skarsgaard to Palatine,
The Sovereign’s honor crowned

Imbria!
Imbria!

Sun’s blessings do abound,
God’s grace and King’s prosperity,
With glory for eternity,
The Sovereign’s will resounds!


Rue Skalbeck stood in the middle of the Greater Imbria’s bridge, arms crossed over her chest, teeth grit, waiting. She berated herself. If she had been able to communicate with the entry teams Sawyer would not have had to go out there herself. There was no helping the station’s age and lack of outputs that Rue could use, and the progress of the entry team. Nevertheless, Rue was ready to blame herself if anything happened to Heidelinde Sawyer, rising star of their movement.

She was ready for the excoriating discipline she would receive for her failure.

There was nothing she could do at this point. She felt completely trapped.

Trapped by her own choices, trapped by the developing situation.

“Forward movement is better than stagnation.”

Rue murmured this to herself. She believed it. It was one of her ethos.

Sawyer maybe shared that ethos with her. It was tough to say.

“Captain, lets get closer to the Vogelheim pillar.” Rue said.

From just below her position, the Captain looked up and over his shoulder at her.

“Can you explain this course of action to me, Acting Fuhrer?”

Rue did not quite like the tone of that question. She did not know whether he meant that he wanted to suss out her intentions or if he literally believed she could not explain it to him because she was a genetic inferior. She tried to keep her tone moderated when addressing him in return.

“Closing in on the pillar serves two purposes. It makes it easier for us to extract our men and women when their mission is complete. And when the enemy reinforcements arrive, they may decide to stay their guns if the Greater Imbria is within the firing margin of error of the Station. I believe it is the best place to reform our fleet and prepare our escape route.”

“Strategically, it sounds reasonable. But what about our rescue efforts?”

That response dissipated Rue’s anxieties but brought others to the fore.

Rue shook her head silently at the Captain in response. With a dreadnought coming, they could not hope to rescue anyone except by surrendering and throwing themselves on the enemy’s mercy, which they would never do. Engaging the Irmingard class in battle could be terribly destructive for the flotilla in their disorganized state. They could not hope to attempt it.

The only choice they had left was to abandon the rescue effort.

“Understood.” The Captain turned to his subordinates. “Relay all ships–“

He passed on her commands to the communications officers, who made sure the orders were picked up by the rest of the flotilla. Within minutes the Cruiser and its retinue began to move toward the pillar. There was a new formation diagram on the main screen, and it showed the fleet’s progress toward forming up around the pillar. Rue briefly went back to worrying about Sawyer.

Then, one of the communications officers stood up to face Rue.

“Acting Fuhrer, we’re receiving a communications request from a civilian Frigate that is leaving the Vogelheim pillar through the port. Should I put them through on laser?”

Rue narrowed her eyes. “Put them through. Tell team Dora not to fire on them yet.”

She hid her surprise that the entry teams let anyone escape from the station.

What was going on in Vogelheim? Was it a breakdown of discipline?

Had Sawyer given new orders?

On the screen, a young, foppish man with a heavily manicured mustache and golden hair appeared, dressed in finery. His eyes were red and tears stained his cosmetics. He immediately threw himself upon Rue’s mercy as soon as he saw her appear on the laser video feeed.

“Esteemed commander of these brilliant forces, my name is William von Valwitz, and I was chosen to represent a group of fine gentlemen and ladies who have been caught in these extreme circumstances through no fault of our own. We will gladly sever all ties with the House of Fueller, which has insulted us greatly, in exchange for your mercy. There are fifty aristocrats of high standing on this ship, and their retinues, whom are innocent, and plot no violence.”

Rue narrowed her eyes at him, but smiled at the end of the man’s plea.

“On the mercy of the National Proletariat, I will free you from this predicament, von Valwitz. You and your company go where you will, and do not forget your encounter with the Volkisch Movement. I will require a transfer of your ship roster so we may know the indebted.”

Von Valmitz did not see this as anything but a miracle and a blessing.

“Oh, thank you commander. You are most merciful.”

Within moments, Rue had the entire passenger roster of the aristocrats on her computers.

Rue ended the laser communication with the aristocrat’s frigate.

Briefly and with only vague interest, she glanced over the list.

She then turned to the Captain.

“The National Proletariat has no mercy for backstabbing aristocrats. Open fire.”

There was no pushback from the Captain. He obediently relayed the order.

On the screen, the aristocrats’ frigate appeared. It was close enough that the algorithmic prediction was nearly immaculate. A magnificent curved hull with large pale dome structures over several compartments, affording a view of the sea. It was the sort of beautiful plaything in which rich boys and girls gallivanted across the oceans. There was just enough metal between them and the ocean to protect them from the environment while letting them enjoy themselves as if at home.

Sailing easily out of Vogelheim’s port, the ship turned its broad side to the Volkisch.

This made it a much easier target. There was no chance to miss it and hit the station.

At that moment, the flotilla obeyed its order to fire.

Light gunfire from the frigates pummeled the side of the ship, smashing open the domes, scoring massive gashes on the metal through which water would easily enter. Then the main gun of the Greater Imbria put both rounds on the center of the ship. Enormous vapor bubbles tore open the entire flank of the ship and expelled ground flesh and blood into the Imbrium. There was nothing recognizable of that beautiful ship. A twisted heap of metal descended to the ocean floor.

“There’s the political victory we sorely needed from this excursion.” Rue said.

“Oh? How so?” asked the Captain.

Rue grinned.

“Erich von Fueller will condemn us for attacking a living station, but we will argue that he was unable to protect the Houses who entrusted their heirs to him for political alliance, and tout our own strength. He might act like a great humanitarian in criticizing our actions, but his infallible mystique will take a blow with the aristocrats, who only care about protecting their own skins.”

“I see. I wonder whether the Sturmbannführer would agree.”

“I believe her actions would have been the same even if her rationale could be different.”

“Yes, I suppose that is ultimately all that matters.”

The Greater Imbria neared the Vogelheim pillar, and the flotilla formed up near the port. While the gun frigates screened the flank, the missile frigates began to extract their divers, who dove back into the missile pods from where they had launched. It had been Sawyer’s idea to use missile frigates in this fashion. They could get the frigates from the collaborators at Rhineland Shipyards but acquiring missiles was a different story. Divers, however, they had a surplus of.

All they needed to do was shave a bit of armor off the rotund Volkers to fit them in.

“Ma’am!”

In one of the stations forward of Rue’s podium, a sonar operator hailed the Acting Fuhrer.

“What is it? Any more surprises?” Rue asked.

“There’s a Diver leaving Vogelheim through the engineering deck. Based on the acoustic signature, I think it’s the Sturmbannführer’s Panzer unit. But ma’am, there’s more. We’re getting a lot of shocks out into the water from the Vogelheim pillar. It sounds like a mess in there.”

“Run an active scan, update the predictive imaging. See if we can get the interior.”

Rue turned from the sonar operator to the Captain with great urgency in her movements.

“Captain, the Sturmbannführer is returning. Focus all efforts on recovering her.”

“Of course.”

Once more, the orders went out. A recovery craft was sent out from the Greater Imbria to meet Sawyer and see if she needed a tow or an energy recharge. Meanwhile, some of her bridge personnel began scanning the Vogelheim pillar. They could use its collapse to make an escape.

Rue, who was just standing on the bridge, could not really do anything but give orders. She was not unused to it: she used to be higher up the chain of command than Sawyer, until she joined Sawyer’s mutiny. That was ages ago. But she preferred being the subordinate because she liked to take action. A part of her simply did not trust important business to someone else. Sawyer was a true-blue aristocrat, even as much as she denied it. She found it easy to tell people what to do.

Where she differed, is she would throw a punch too after asking you to throw a punch.

This is why Rue loved– esteemed her greatly, despite everything.

She thought of connecting herself to the cameras outside when an alarm went off.

On the main screen, an algorithmic prediction of an approaching vessel grew larger.

Two objects flashed from the vessel.

By the time they were identified as projectiles, it was too late.

An Irmingard class had fired its main guns at the flotilla.

The Greater Imbria shook. Even in the command pod they felt the ship rock.

“Status report!” Rue shouted.

“Minor breach over Commons. It was automatically remediated, and the area is sealed.”

On the screen, one of the cameras showed an allied frigate sinking, a massive hole through its center. The Greater Imbria had been merely grazed, and the explosion was still bad enough to cause a breach. This was the 203 mm main gun on an Irmingard class. Firepower unlike any other.

“Acting Fuhrer, the Iron Lady wishes to speak with us!” The Captain called out.

“Has the Sturmbannführer been recovered?” Rue replied.

Both the Captain and Rue turned to the communications officer, who stood up in alarm.

“Yes! She’s aboard!” 

Rue sighed with relief.

“Ignore the requests for a hail. All ships escape in formation!”

Below her the Captain put on a grim expression.

“Acting Fuhrer, at the moment, the militia frigates are exposed to the enemy’s gunfire.”

“They will die valiantly for the cause of the National Proletariat.”

Rue’s reply silenced the bridge, but nobody pushed back.

The Greater Imbria and the two missile frigates began to round the Vogelheim pillar.

On the exposed flank of the formation, the Frigates, having been given unbearable orders, began to break discipline, and started to move out of formation in whichever direction they desired. This attracted the Iron Lady’s fire even more, as the two Frigates in an unlucky coincidence decided to go separate directions, and thus appeared to be trying a clumsy pincer maneuver.

In the background of the Cruiser Greater Imbria’s retreat, the mighty Irmingard class Dreadnought, The Iron Lady, traded devastating fire with the remaining Frigates, scouring the Volkisch militias off the face of the Imbrium with its unmatched main guns. There was no looking back to it for Rue and her crew. She had planned from the beginning to sacrifice them.

“Any moment now–”

Pinned on one of the screens was the visible condition of Vogelheim.

As the Greater Imbria made its escape, the pillar began to collapse, with the cap sliding down through the broken eastern wall that was unable to bear its weight any longer. This was an event of monumental force, as thousands of tons of metal displaced water and kicked up debris. A vast underwater wave spread out from the pillar and scattered the remains of the frigates, the patrol cutters, and any other surrounding structures. Even inside the stabilized rooms of the Greater Imbria the disturbance was readily felt, and it was as if there was an earthquake within the ship.

“Status report!” Rue shouted, clinging to Sawyer’s chair behind her, nearly falling.

One of the bridge girls shouted back at her, holding on to her station monitor.

“Some electronics and sensor damage, propulsion is still 100%! Hull is holding up!”

Within seconds, the shaking stopped. Collectively the crew breathed sighs of relief.

“Set a course south! We need to escape pursuit!” Rue shouted.

She spared no more time for the bridge. She wanted run down to the hangar.

She wanted to see Sawyer.

When she turned to leave, however, the Captain of the ship stood up.

“Unterführer Rue Skallbeck. I wish to say something, ma’am.”

A thrill of anxiety ran down Rue’s spine like electricity. She turned around to meet him.

“What is it, Captain?”

He looked serious at first. But then the older gentleman smiled at her.

“There are people within our movement who would view you as an inferior. But your will to survive and your ruthlessness in battle are second only to Fuhrer Sawyer herself. It has been enlightening to serve under you.”

Suddenly, the Captain saluted her.

“For all our comrades who gave their lives for our great cause! Heil!

Everyone watching, who was not involved in an essential task, joined the salute also.

Rue did not know how to feel about it. She felt a pang of horror, but also satisfaction.

Which of the disparate things this “movement” stood for did they all believe?

All Rue believed in was moving forward. That the world needed to change.

To her, the Volkisch dream was completely amorphous and borderline incoherent.

All she wanted was the force of their arms. And she had finally wielded it today.

To push the stagnant, dispossessed people of Imbria to some kind of end of this history.

Nevertheless, she saluted them back, told them to be at ease, and left the bridge.

She had a bitter taste in her mouth. She knew she had plenty of blood on her hands. There was nothing she could do but move forward. Rue had made her choice during Sawyer’s mutiny.

Down at the hangar, she found a curious scene. There were medics and engineers around Sawyer, extracting her from the Panzer. Her Diver had taken an enormous beating. Sawyer herself looked undignified. She was still and unconscious but with wide, blank eyes and a clenched jaw.

Rue joined the side of the medical team, who had her stabilized in that strange condition.

“It’s so unfair of you to check out and leave everything on my shoulders.” She murmured.

She sighed, and bent down, between the medics. She reached down to close Sawyer’s eyes.

“You started this whole mess. But maybe I’m the bigger fool for following you into it.”

Rue thought she saw the corner of Sawyer’s lip curl into a little smile at her touch. 

For this woman, and the violence she wrought for her ideals, Rue made her choice.


“An unfortunate amount of time has passed without word from her.”

On a mission far from its home, the Cruiser El Dragon meandered through the waters on the borders between the Palatinate, Bosporus, Rhinea and Sverland for hours, swimming in a circle at maximum velocity and keeping an eye for enemies. Commercial traffic was stalled. News was getting out about Vogelheim; the waters were dead silent. Careful to avoid the verboten Khyber Mountain region, they waited for the ship’s commander to return. Hopes were beginning to dim.

On the bridge, the captain, an older man with a heavy white beard, was quite pessimistic.

“Our spy drone saw the station in ruins. It’s crawling with Inquisition forces too.”

“Have faith in her. She’s special. That girl will always, assuredly, return to her beloved.”

At his side, his First Officer, a certain young Lieutenant, tried to keep everyone cheerful.

“Nephew you’re too romantic. I think you picked a losing horse in this race.”

“You’ve always had a poor aptitude for picking horses. At any rate, if we return without the duchess’ favorite, your gambling debts will be pardoned by having you drawn and quartered. So, I suggest you keep a cheerful mood, as I do, since our lives depend on a cheerful outcome.”

Mijo, do you really think she would do that? To an old man like me?”

“Is her rise to power not predicated on egalitarianism? That’s why I follow her. I would not expect her to have mercy for you based on such outdated norms. I would die by her hand as a young man and you would die by her hand as an old man. Maybe even Seneca, a woman in her golden years, will also be struck down as an accomplice. It is what I would call justice.”

At that point, the communications officer raised her head, having heard name spoken.

“Keep me out of your ridiculous discussions! And I’m only 34, so have some decency!”

In this way, she inadvertently joined the ridiculous discussion in the center of the bridge.

They whiled away their time in this fashion, waiting for their special charge to return.

Finally, the computers sounded the return of their brave little hope.

 “Captain, we have detected an object approaching. Its acoustic signature matches a Jagd.”

The Captain’s sleepy expression suddenly lit up.

“Confirm it’s her, and bring her in!”

No rescue mission was launched, however.

The Jagd was moving under its own power and made its way to the underside chutes.

Unable to climb up due to a missing arm and dying battery, the Jagd sought assistance. Once it entered the chute, and the opening was closed, drained and pressurized appropriately, a group of engineers lifted the machine up with a pair of cranes and deposited it on the appropriate gantry in the Diver hangar. Due to damage it had suffered, the cockpit hatch was also stuck.

The First Officer came down from the bridge in time to watch the engineers deploy and engage a massive pneumatic arm to pry open the Jagd’s hatches using one of the chassis handholds. When the hatches finally opened, a girl tumbled out of the opening and into the waiting arms of medics who had been instructing her as the engineers worked out how to open the hatches.

She was a young Shimii, olive-skinned, brown-haired. Soaked in sweat, one side of her head was caked in blood that had run just below one ear, down the forehead and over her cheek. She had a bruise in her neck that was the precise shape of a punch-injector of stimulant drugs. Her eyes were hazy and distant, her movements clumsy. She was disheveled: her hair was half done up in one pigtail, and the rest shaken loose, not of her own accord. Her dress had a rip in it, perhaps where it caught on something in the cockpit.

Though she could barely stand, she saw the First Officer approach, and saluted.

“Victoria van Veka has returned.” She said weakly.

“Welcome back.” He said, smiling at her.

“I am afraid the mission was not a success. Vogelheim has been destroyed.”

“We saw it for ourselves. That said, I wouldn’t declare it unsuccessful.” He looked over the machine. “I wager you gave them a black eye, didn’t you?”

Victoria felt prompted by him to look at the Jagd as well. “Perhaps I did.”

She turned back to him, feeling slightly appreciative of his words.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Might I have your name?” She asked.

“Of course!”

He ran a hand through his blond hair, beaming broadly.

“Raul von Drachen.”

“Von Drachen. I appreciate your kindness towards a girl at a low point.”

“I like to think of myself as an ally to girls.” He said. “You should hurry to the infirmary and rest.”

Victoria had been holding up admirably since coming out of the Jagd, but still fading.

Perhaps it was the relief of going home, or the fact that she was among friends, but Victoria began to teeter almost as soon as von Drachen suggested she rest. One of the medics had been watching her, and quickly swooped in and grabbed hold of her when she looked like she would drop completely. She was utterly exhausted, and the medics took her away quickly after that.

Raul von Drachen remained in the hangar, staring at the broken-down Jagd for a moment.

“These are interesting times we find ourselves in.” He said, with a grin on his face.

An ominous wave was sweeping through the oceans. 

He could feel it.


Though she could not let herself voice her horror, there was only one word running through Gertrude Lichtenberg’s mind at that point.

No, no, no.

Her face drained of color, and her eyes drew wide.

She was not alone. Captain Dreschner was also horrified at the state in which they found the Vogelheim pillar. On the main screen, the imaging computers showed them dreadful sights before they had even come close. Behind the battered remains of the cutters and frigates floating eerily.

That beautiful sanctuary where Elena von Fueller led her storybook life was ruined completely. There was a cloud of debris that had been thrown into the surrounding water by the shock of the pillar half-collapsing on itself. She could not describe it as anything but rubble. Her beloved Elena’s home had been reduced to rubble. Gertrude’s heart caught in her chest.

Her head felt airy, her brain in a fog, as though everything was a bad dream. She felt like she was piloting her own body like a diver, rather than being present. Noises felt like they were being filtered. Her vision was foggy.

At all times, however, she was conscious that it was real. All of it was real.

Because she could not ignore the cold, squeezing pain she felt in her chest.

She could not cry. Not in front of the men.

But she wanted so dearly to break down.

She wanted to blame herself, to beat her head against a wall bloody, to scream and punch until her fingers broke. She wanted to say she was so stupid to have left. That she should have just taken Elena. That she should have known that the Imbrium could not return to order after all that had happened. She had been so naïve, and now Elena was– no, she would not say it! She refused.

“Captain, launch a search party. Now.”

Her voice trembled. It felt distant, like it was coming out of the floor.

“Of course. Right away.” Dreschner said.

She can’t be dead.

Gertrude could not conceive of it.

Elena could not have been dead. That would have meant she failed her. She left her alone to face annihilation. She turned back as fast as she could, and she could not have been too late to save her. Gertrude refused to believe that Elena was buried in that rubble due to her own failures. She had promised to protect her. She had made herself into a soldier to protect her.

All of her life, Elena had been her star, her sun. Her idol of warmth and comfort.

Gertrude’s breathing quickened.

It was not possible that everything would end so pointlessly.

So suddenly and senselessly. After they had finally consummated their love.

It couldn’t be that, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, Elena could be gone forever.

Her fists, curled tight at her sides, started to shake.

She could not control the tapping of her feet, the clenching of her jaw.

It was all she could do to fight the tears welling up in her eyes.

Gertrude had been shot and stabbed. She’d been caught in explosions and gas attacks.

All kinds of pain, she had withstood it, to protect Elena and her ocean.

She had wounds on her body that were fresh and healing even as the two made love.

Telling herself that if she could get back to Elena for even a moment, it would be bearable.

That this was the only way she could be with Elena for any amount of time.

Now she was wracked by the greatest agony she had ever felt.

She wanted so badly to cry that despite all of her effort tears began to flow.

At her side, Captain Dreschner said nothing, but pulled his hat down over his own eyes.

“Järveläinen and Clostermann have deployed in the Jagd and Grenadier.” He said.

Gertrude said nothing. She did not wish to speak. She did not wish to be seen by anyone.

She stood in the middle of the bridge like a statue, staring at the monitors, silent.

One of the sensors personnel spoke up to the Captain. She had a professional tone of voice. There was no shouting and panicking on their bridge. That was part of what kept Gertrude mum.

“Moving vessel on sonar and ladar, Captain, Lady Inquisitor.” She said.

“Track it. We’ll get closer. Any algorithmic predictions?” Dreschner asked.

“An older model of civilian ship. Maybe a shuttle. Could maybe hold 40 people in some measure of comfort, or 80 if they just crammed bodies.”

“A shuttle? Let us pray it is friendly, and not more Volkisch chicanery.” Dreshner said.

Thus, methodically, with neither hope nor dread, the crew of the Iron Lady sailed their vessel stoically toward the source of the signature, around the Vogelheim pillar. The closer they got, the more accurate the picture of the devastation they could see. It was very rare to see damage to a station to this degree. Some among the bridge crew wiped tears from their eyes or covered their mouths as they beheld the extent of it. Stations were built extremely tough, even backwater art projects like Vogelheim.

Survival under the sea depended on a degree of mechanical reliability and routine maintenance, coupled with exhaustive training of dedicated engineers, that made such devastation vanishingly rare. If it happened, it was never a deliberate tragedy, but a series of unlucky circumstances. All of Aer’s civilizations had a shared taboo surrounding station damage. Terrorists and saboteurs killed and hurt people; military forces fought people, and if they had to, they occupied their homes to control them.

Nobody would just shoot at a station.

Nobody would just destroy a station deliberately.

Not even that animal Sawyer could have been so bloodthirsty.

Sawyer.

Heidelinde Sawyer.

The Volkisch flotilla themselves had not accepted her communications.

However, they had talked with the patrol fleet.

That information was disseminated following the patrol fleet’s call for reinforcements. Gertrude was fully aware of the culprit of this tragedy.

Her old schoolmate Heidelinde Sawyer. Their relationship was characterized mainly by the word ‘almost.’ Sawyer was almost as tall as her, almost as strong. She was almost Elena’s crush in school, for reasons that still escaped Gertrude. She could almost see something in her worth that attention, but not quite. All the times they came to blows; Sawyer almost got her before Gertrude knocked her down. She was almost her friend, and she thought, before they were separated, that they had almost come to an understanding. When she left them, Gertrude almost felt pity for her.

Everything she had done since then, however, was not almost, but fully monstrous.

Gertrude squeezed her fists so tight she thought her fingers might go through her palm.

From grief, Gertrude’s thoughts immediately flowed into vengeance. She thought of all the things she would do to Sawyer in some dark, desolate room at the bottom of the ocean. If Elena was dead (she could not be dead), she would make Sawyer unrecognizable, nothing but a lump of meat screaming soundlessly in agony for as long as it took before she wasted away to hell–

“We’re at the site! I’ve got a drone set up. You won’t like what we see.”

On the main screen, Ingrid appeared in her pilot suit. Her ears drooped; her tail twitched pathetically.

They had gone out in Divers. They must have entered the Vogelheim ruins.

“Broadcasting now.”

They had taken a wired drone with them with a direct connection to the ship.

As long as the cable didn’t snag on anything, it let them connect via laser back to the ship.

That drone’s main body was also equipped with a suite of sensors and imaging equipment. It could send them predictive pictures of the Vogelheim landscape in a way the mechas could not. This made it a valuable addition to the reconnaissance team. Soon, they got those pictures moving.

When the drone began to broadcast, Ingrid vanished from the main screen. Replacing her was a camera feed from the drone. Clostermann was holding the drone with the arms of his Grenadier model. At first the drone was pointed at Ingrid’s Jagd, but then Clostermann moved it, sweeping slowly across the sunken landscape of Vogelheim. It was eerie. In many places the earth had been moved, massive gashes cut into the hills and plains where water had flooded directly through. In other areas, it was preserved underwater. Sunken trees swayed their arms to the gentle flow of the water around them. A field of roses and tulips now cast in dim blue and green.

Wreckage, of several mecha it seemed, shattered and scattered about the landscape.

And the rubble that remained of the Villa, distinctive in its ornate style.

“No survivors so far.” Ingrid said.

Dreschner nodded solemnly. Ingrid could see it through her video feed.

“Continue searching. We want as much footage as we can collect of this tragedy.”

“Yessir. I’ll go poke at the remains of the mechas. There might be a sealed cockpit.”

Ingrid was taking things in stride. She did not look too troubled by the situation.

“If you find any Volkisch, remember they are under arrest.” Dreschner said.

“Of course, I won’t kill ‘em! Getting drilled into is too good for them. We gotta get ‘em nice and slow, Captain. You leave me with them, I’ll make them sing the anthem.” Ingrid said.

Dreschner sighed. “Duly noted. But enough chatter. Carry on with your orders.”

In expressing her own quiet fury, Ingrid almost comforted Gertrude.

At least Gertrude was not the only one whose head was filling with vengeful atrocities.

Once the drone’s video feed departed the main screen, and Ingrid and Clostermann returned to their exploration, there was another familiar face, appearing on the central island of the bridge. Security Chief Vogt appeared on a smaller screen attached to the Captain’s position but angled so the Inquisitor could be part of the call as well. He was in the hangar surrounded by his forces.

“Captain, Inquisitor; we’re securing the shuttle that was detected earlier.”

“We’ve received no communications from them.” Dreschner said.

Vogt nodded. “If they were near the pillar collapse, their comms gear may be damaged. Judging by their course, they have been drifting around the pillar without much real power.”

“Alright. Be careful.” Dreschner said.

“I’d appreciate the Lady Grand Inquisitor’s presence at the hangar.” Vogt said before the Captain could end the call. “If it turns out to be a Volkisch escape craft, I’m afraid the lads may need a figure of authority to remind them of their discipline. Emotions are at their peak in here.”

Gertrude grit her teeth behind closed lips.

She would not be the one telling her forces not to rip apart any of those conspiracist psychopaths they got their hands on. But nevertheless, she quietly acquiesced, turning her back on Dreschner so sharply her cape swung behind her. Though Dreschner seemed like he wanted to say something to her, Gertrude barely heard as she departed.

Alone, her head filled with a mixture of sorrows and furies, Gertrude walked the corridors of the Iron Lady, taking the elevator down, imagining what could be in that ship. Maybe Elena had managed to escape (she could not be dead). Maybe it was full of Volkisch, and the moment her men rioted and began to brutalize them, Gertrude would join them in breaking the norms bloody. Maybe it was entirely unrelated, and she was building up to absolutely nothing.

Once she was alone in the elevator, Gertrude let herself weep.

She hugged her arms around herself, and she sobbed, and cried into her own gloved hand.

Thirty or forty seconds worth of grieving. That was all she let herself have.

When those doors opened, Gertrude took a deep breath and wiped her face.

Down in the hangar, Vogt had a dozen men with him. Vogt himself had brought an automatic shotgun that was armed with pellet shot, deadly to a crowd but fairly harmless to the instruments inside the ship. Six of his men had riot shields, four had vibro-batons and two had vibro-blades. He had not trusted any of his rank and file with firearms themselves.

Shuttle craft were uncomfortable and poorly hydrodynamic but built to carry many people. A Dreadnought could bear a few of these vessels. The very back of the hangar was built for it. Like a Diver, a shuttle would swim into a hatch on the Dreadnought’s underside, where it would enter a deployment and recovery chamber that would be drained and pressurized. Then it was safely raised onto its place in the main hangar space.

For extra security, a dreadnought’s hangar had a sectioned glass divider that would unfold from the roof and clamp into the floor between the shuttle bay and the rest of the hangar space. It could stop water from flooding anywhere else. Once the shuttle was recovered, Vogt had the glass lifted, and Gertrude and the men approached the craft. She waited for the rear hatch to open, wondering whom she would see escaping from it.

Instead, however, one of the side bulkhead doors to the shuttle clanked open. From the craft emerged several girls, breathing heavily, crying with joy at being rescued. All of them were dressed in black with white aprons.

They were the Villa’s maids, shaken, but whole and alive.

Gertrude’s heart exploded with sudden relief.

She rushed from the side of the men over to the girls and past them. She looked inside the shuttle craft herself with a desperate urgency. She climbed one step into the shuttle compartment. There were all kinds of people inside, huddling, many exhausted from lack of oxygen.

Not one lilac hair, not one pair of indigo eyes.

She found no trace of Elena.

In that instant her heart sank ever deeper. As high as it had soared, it crashed. Then, she heard a voice. A series of girlish voices, calling her.

“Lady Lichtenberg! Inquisitor Lichtenberg!”

Dazed with shock and grief, Gertrude looked behind herself, her eyes distant, her mouth hanging a little. There were three maids. One had a dirty apron; she looked like she had spat up on herself. She had two others supporting her. Together, the three of them approached Gertrude. At first, they stared just as dumbly as Gertrude stared at them.

Then they gained the courage to speak.

“The Princess is alive! She’s alive, we know it! We saw her be taken!”

“We know you were her dear friend! We helped you at the party. When you came running, we understood. We know you must be hurting now. Please do not despair! A strange woman took her! She was not in the collapse!”

For a moment Gertrude could not comprehend what she was hearing. Then, her heart alight with sorrow, fury, brief and elation all together, she put her hands gently on the shoulders of one of the maids. She could contain the tears in her eyes or the shaking in her hands anymore.

“Tell me everything you know. Please.” She said desperately.


“Rootless children of Imbria! Throw your bodies before the fires of war!”

“For what else are you good for? What other value do you hold?”

No voice said this that the people of the Imbrium ocean would recognize.

But overwhelmingly this was what the world was screaming at them.

A wave swept across the Imbrium Empire that began as the pillar of Vogelheim collapsed upon itself from a Volkisch gun. News of the attack began to trickle out, first from the panicked cries of the patrolmen, then from the stories of survivors, and finally the official condemnation from Erich von Fueller, heir apparent to the throne of the Imbrium Empire.

Each territory of the Empire knew the status quo could no longer be maintained by the delusion of a shared history.

And so, as invisibly as they were first created, the boundaries of the Empire were dissolved.

Rhinea became a “National-Socialist Republic.”

Skarsgaard styled itself “The Holy Empire of Solsea.”

From the Imbrium’s eastern borders rose the “Empire of Greater Veka.”

Bosporus’ youth led a wave of anarchist upheaval on lands stolen from the Shimii.

Icy, impenetrable Volgia closed its borders hoping to withstand the tide of history.

Militarily beheaded, Sverland gathered misfits and refugees from all over.

Buren shocked the world by declaring its intention to join the mordecist Union.

Only the Palatinate, mourning Vogelheim, still dubbed itself “The Imbrian Empire.”

Across the Imbrium, a people whose food grew scarcer, whose shelter they stood to lose, whose hard work earned ever more meager dividends, who saw nothing ahead of themselves already, now lost the last measure of security their lives had. Quietly, despondently, they watched as the very nations and institutions they were trained to exalt above all else simply disintegrated around them. For the average Imbrian, it was impossible to connect all the dots and truly grasp what was happening. To them, war was a thrumming under their skin, a creeping dread in the back of their heads. Life seemed to go on all around them with an eerie shadow across their sky.

Somewhere battles would be fought and won and lost that decided matters unknown.

Sometimes resources grew scarcer and the list of materiel sacrifices grew longer.

Sometimes bodies that were once people disappeared, for one reason or another.

Somehow the simple inertia of organic needs kept life moving on with surreal normalcy.

Ships came and went. Goods were bought and sold. People lived, played, and loved.


While the status of the borders was unknown, cargo continued to move quietly along its prescribed routes. Owing to the invisible momentum of corporate profits, a ship could still travel from Bosporus to Sverland, ferrying industrial goods to Serrano station — and one unmarked crate. An unmarked crate that, at its destination, would be quietly moved to a new ship by the organized dockworkers who knew what they were doing with it. Dockworkers who quite well did what they pleased with Serrano’s port on threat of stalling Sverland’s teetering economy with a strike.

At least, that was the plan upon which Marina McKennedy’s escape hinged.

As she sailed with the cargo ship, stowing away with a complicit crew, she remained in the cargo bay looking out onto the ocean through a digital window. She was no longer in the Imbrium Ocean but in the southern reaches of the world, known as Nectaris. That name had been given to this Ocean by the Imbrians who settled massive resource colonies there using slave labor, that would render them the sweet nectar of profit and cheap goods that would usher in a new golden era for the Empire.

Her destination was the Union. An aberration of the Empire’s invincible history.

Perhaps even the spark that precipitated the utter undoing of the Empire’s contiguity.

A nation a third of the size of the broader Empire that still stood in brave opposition to it.

Though, of course, more than a week out from the tragedy of Vogelheim, and more removed than that from the death Emperor Konstantin von Fueller, the idea of a “broader Empire” had become pretty blurry at that point. There was all sorts of mess happening that she could barely keep up with on the news. But cargo ships were still running, so it must not have been so terrible, she supposed.

Everywhere she looked, however, the ocean still seemed the same.

Dark, blue and green, and impossible to see through.

“I’m going to go pace around or something before I go crazy.”

“If you need something to do, lets go over the plan one more time–”

There was no response from Elena von Fueller as she stormed off around the crates.

Marina had dyed Elena’s hair black and given her a matching gray pantsuit to wear in order to disguise her. When anyone complicit asked who she was, Marina told them she was a G.I.A. analyst just like herself. When they had to talk to civilians, she was nobody. She had not even picked a fake name, despite ample time and multiple suggestions, much to Marina’s vexation.

“How about Leda?” Marina suggested.

“Go fuck yourself.” Elena shouted back.

That had been the result of the last such conversation.

They had not spoken much and every time they did, Marina hardly knew what to say.

So, most of the time, they said nothing to each other.

Elena continued to follow her. And Marina was content enough with that outcome.

When they finally had some peace and could settle down, Marina would try to fix things.

That’s what she told herself whenever Elena had one of her furies.

Until then she just needed to move on. Marina had moved on; she had to, for Elena’s sake.

“That’s an interesting ship.”

As they approached Serrano station, Marina caught sight of a ship anchored to one of the lower docks as their own cargo ship searched for its own anchor point. It was an old hauler, she thought, the kind of ship that had a lot of character, and had probably taken a beating across the decades. That thick, unadorned prow was a bit odd — maybe it had been an icebreaker in Volgia in a past life. That angular profile probably suggested fairly expedient construction.

“You get all kinds down here, huh? I guess Sverland is an island of peace right now.”

An island of peace amid the storm of brewing civil war.

And only because its own government was just too weak to have any ambitions.

Or maybe because nobody had figured out how to conduct this war quite yet.

Marina thought it would’ve been morbidly funny if they needed another catalyst now.

Vogelheim wasn’t enough — the next provocation will tip things over.

She cracked a dumb little smile and she didn’t even know what for.

When the cargo ship docked into Serrano, a member of the crew ushered Marina and Elena into a crate. In silence and darkness, the pair waited, while their environment shook around them. That crate, along with the crate carrying Marina’s S.E.A.L, was moved to a warehouse in the port by labor suits. Once everything was properly warehoused and discretely inventoried, they cracked open Marina’s crate and let her out. With that, she and Elena had just illegally entered Serrano.

“Thanks for the help.” Marina said.

In the warehouse, she met a member of the crew and one of the dockworkers.

Both of them looked briefly around themselves then got to business.

“You’ll be leaving again today, with your cargo. We just need to know the ship that you’ll be taking. We don’t organize any of that, but we got a guy. He sets the itinerary. You go to him, you come back here, you tell us where to move the cargo, and then you’re out again. Nobody knows anything they don’t need to, and nobody messes with each other’s business.”

Marina nodded. “Where’s this guy located?” She asked.

“He’s in Long-Term Warehousing No. 6. It’s on this tier, deeper into the city. Call him Benny, he runs the front office. He’ll know you. Just tell him the last station you were at before.”

There was no tension between anybody, despite the nature of their business. Everyone was professional, direct, and their heads ran cool. It was almost chummy. Marina got the sense that this was pretty routine for the dockworkers and the crews they smuggled with. They had been running this operation for a while and had everything down to a science. Unless there was a big shakeup in security or someone made a grievous mistake, these guys could just keep doing this forever.

When she walked out of the warehouse it was with a renewed confidence.

Everything was going to be just fine.

“How are you feeling? Ever been to a Station like this before?”

Marina glanced sideways at Elena, who was staring up at the sky with wide-eyed wonder.

“Of course, I’ve been to them, but–”

“Never to the lower level?”

“Well, no.”

Serrano was a tiered, pillar-type city. Unlike Vogelheim, they did not waste real estate by simulating a massive artificial sky. Instead, up above they could see the bottom of the next tier of habitations, maybe 80-100 meters up. Serrano was an enormous station, and had three tiers of habitat and two ports. With its base some 1200 meters beneath the Nectaris, it rose up to around the 800-meter line to the surface. Still perfectly safe, but thoroughly massive.

Light was provided mainly on the street level of each tier, with some hovering fixtures farther above simulating a slightly broader “daytime” light that still held no candle to the idyllic brightness of Vogelheim. Marina supposed the upper tiers were probably nicer and brighter than the lower. On the bottom tier, outside the port, the layout took the form of a somewhat crowded urban core. There were hundreds of streets and alleys that wound around rectangular buildings of nearly identical, mass-produced construction that loomed overhead like concrete and steel giants. Video signs were plastered everywhere to advertise shops and businesses small and large, shining colorful lights and singing catchy slogans. Everything was so busy. There was nowhere without a crowd.

Elena looked quite ridiculous with her innocent, gawping face paired with her pantsuit and tie.

“Try not to stare quite so much.” Marina said, as they walked through the crowd.

“What do all these people do? Where do they go?” Elena said, overwhelmed by the sight.

“What are you asking me for? To their jobs. To go buy food. To get out of town.”

“I’m asking you because you’re my escort! Because of your own schemes, you bastard!”

In response, Elena turned her head away in a huff. At least she didn’t take off running.

Marina sighed a little bit. She did not know why she had gotten so impatient.

“Hey, look, I’m sorry El– Ellie, I’m a little bit on edge about everything–”

Elena shot her a furious glare.

“Go to hell.”

She said nothing the rest of the way to the warehouse.

Breaking up the landscape of looming eight and ten story buildings was a park full of very wide warehousing buildings that were fenced off and lower to the ground. Marina found the one with the “no. 6” label in big yellow letters and made her way to its front office. It was a sleepy place. There seemed to be a few workers outside the other warehouses, but almost nobody at the sixth one. There was a labor suit parked outside that looked like it was collecting dust.

“Good morning! We’re here from Pluto station, to see about a ship?”

Marina walked in through the front door. Elena despondently followed.

Warehouse No. 6’s front office was entirely plain. A boxy room with a few chairs that folded out of the wall, a single long desk, a poster on the wall that explained the “cargo cycle” as if it was an organic, circular process. A tantalizing door into a dark room. There was nobody at the desk until Marina called out, then an unassuming older man in a work vest walked out to the desk.

“Pluto station? Yeah, I was expecting you. I’m Benny.”

He reached out a hand and gave Marina a firm shake.

“You got a strong shake for a lady! Ever thought of giving up all the subterfuge and going into logistics? It’s honest work, nobody bothers you, and you get to see all kinds of stuff come in.”

“Not interested.” Marina said quickly. She didn’t want to chit-chat or listen to an old man’s jokes. “I’d like to move quickly, if that’s alright with you.”

“No time for a coffee?”

He smiled affably. Marina narrowed her eyes at him.

“Who’s that back there? Want me to explain the poster?”

Marina glanced back at Elena, who was deep in contemplation of the poster of the wall. Benny smiled at her and tried to direct attention to her.

This was much too obvious.

“She’s fine.” Marina said bluntly. “Benny, why are you wasting my time?”

As collected as he looked, Marina saw through the façade immediately.

He was clearly stalling. She reached her hand behind her back for her gun.

“Whoa, whoa!” Benny said. “Okay! Look. You just have to wait a bit– There’s been a bit of a change of plans– but you still have a ride out of here. You just need to wait a bit longer, and I’ll get you out of here, I promise.”

“Change of plans?”

Marina reached across the desk and grabbed Benny by the neck.

“What changed about the plans, Benny? Go over it with me.”

Elena looked taken aback by the sudden violence.

“M-Marina! That’s a bit much isn’t it? He said he still has a ship for us!”

“Don’t call me that!” Marina shouted back at her.

Elena flinched.

In that moment, squeezing some random warehouse worker’s neck while screaming at the Princess really made Marina hate herself. Not that she could do anything different. This just seemed to be her lot in life; already, nothing was going according to plan. Her heart was drumming to a frightening beat. She needed to know what had gone wrong and how.

“Benny, talk!”

Marina shoved him back against the wall.

“Okay! Cooler heads, please!” Benny grabbed hold of his neck, breathing rapidly. “We had a ship lined up to smuggle a bunch of stuff to the Union including you. We do this all the time. All kinda people want to get down there or up here. But the ship got stopped on the way. That also happens all the time! It doesn’t mean anything to you, they don’t know who you are!”

He was trying to calm her down, and Marina did not believe any of that.

“Benny, what do you mean the ship was stopped?”

“You sound so dangerous! Look, there’s a lot of security with the present situation. All our crews know what to do when they get inspected, and the ship is clean. It’s when it gets here that it gets dirty, so all it is, is that it’s late. I’m getting you a new ride, that is gonna be here on time. I promise you!”

Marina breathed out.

If it was just that, then maybe she had nothing to worry about.

“I paid a lot of money for professional smuggling down to the border.”

“These guys are more than professionals, okay?”

“I’m really skeptical right now, Benny.”

Benny had a nervous excitement in his voice that Marina didn’t like at all.

“Listen, you won’t regret this one, ok? This is fresh information, so you’re in luck. Just listen here: there’s a Union ship that just arrived at the port, and you can get on board, no extra charges. That’s how communists do business, you know? Everything already got worked out between us.” He said.

Marina crossed her arms. “I thought the smuggling here was all done by private ships?”

“Sometimes the Union sneaks themselves across. They got spies and such, you know?”

“Okay, so these are Union spies?”

“These are some real deal Union commissars. Forgive my language, but real spec-ops motherfuckers, you know? You won’t meet anyone more elite.”

“Why are you marketing them to me? How do you even know all of this?”

Benny looked briefly taken aback at Marina’s constant skepticism.

“I’m trying to get you to calm down so you won’t do anything crazy!”

Marina moved on to the next phase of intimidation and took her gun out.

She slammed her hand, with the gun, on the front desk. She leaned forward.

“How the hell am I supposed to trust you? The ship that was SUPPOSED to take me south has suddenly disappeared, but just as suddenly you’ve got a new ship, that just came in? Just what the fuck is the Union doing down here, Benny? What kind of operation are YOU running out of this dump?”

Benny raised in his hands in his own defense.

“Look, I’m just one part of a chain, ok? I don’t have all the answers. I’m someone’s guy, and someone’s my guy. I’m telling you all I know, because it’s all I was told. That’s how we do business here. Now me, I’m here because I’m good at de-escalation. So, I’ll tell you this: if you want to get out of here, today, or ever, just sit tight and wait for the nice commies to show up.”

Elena stomped her foot on the ground at that point.

Both Benny and Marina looked over to her with surprise.

“Mari– Mary–” Elena began.

Marina groaned. “That’s not even the right–”

“Mary, please stop fighting with the gentleman, it’s getting us nowhere.”

Benny pointed at Elena with a grin.

“Listen to the girl. Good head on her shoulders, that one.”

Marina ignored the interruption.

“Why are Union special operations coming to this trash heap?”

“They’re picking up something!” Benny said. “They can pick you up too!”

“What something are they picking up? This makes no goddamn sense!”

“I’m not gonna tell you about their business! Ask them when they show up.”

“Stop fighting!” Elena shouted.

At that moment, the office door opened again.

“Good morning! We’re here to pick up?”

Through the door entered three women in the same uniform, a teal half-jacket over a button-down shirt and long pants. One was clearly in front of the pack, a tall, dark-haired and dark-skinned young woman with an awkward smile. Behind her, unsmiling, was a younger woman with long white hair, and a third inexpressive woman with a spiraling silver ponytail and a pair of thick grey antennae. All three barged into the office quite suddenly, stopped, and stared at the occupants for a few moments.

“Um. I’m Murati,” the taller one said, “I mean– I came from Cyril station!”


Previous ~ Next

The Center of Gravity (75.3)

58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

A photograph-like map of Solstice and its surroundings appeared, projected onto the wall behind the podium. This one had dozens of markings each of which had numbers associated with them. Cathrin Habich went over what the numbers meant, her voice calm, clear, professional. Field Marshal Haus watched the reactions from the crowd. Particularly, from McConnell and Kulbert, representatives for the Federation air force.

“Solstice City,” Cathrin began, her glossy red lips moving with subtlety and elegance, “represents perhaps the most well defended airspace in the world. Thousands of its cannons are dual-purpose 76mm guns, but a significant amount of them are dedicated rapid-fire anti-aircraft guns like the 37mm gun pictured here.” She turned the slide on the projector through a wire control, raising her hand and snapping her fingers on the little button box. Her showmanship was practiced and natural. She made no change in expression or tone as she did any little thing. “This weapon has, so far in the war, been singularly responsible for the destruction of scores of our dive bombers. In the hands of an organized defense like the one in Solstice, they may yet account for hundreds more.”

There was some scoffing from the rugged men in the crowd. Some of them could not believe that any scratch had been made in their pristine army by the Ayvartans at all.

Even the slides with official casualty and death tolls seemed not to move them at all.

Haus found it keenly necessary for everyone to understand that the Ayvartans were both formidable but defeatable. It was the contradictory nature of all of the Federation’s enemies. On the one hand, they had to be subhuman degenerates worthy of the punishment meted out by the higher order civilization represented by Nocht. On the other hand they had to be human also, formidable, powerful, fearful and worthy of respect. Otherwise they could not be fought properly, could not be bargained with and manipulated, and ultimately, could not be rehabilitated to civilization upon defeat.

Few men of the Federation seemed to have the appropriate amount of respect and hatred in them. Haus felt he himself had things correct. Von Drachen, who had been thrown out of the room, fell too closely to sympathy. Men like Wolff and McConnell dehumanized them too much and therefore could be susceptible to arrogance in dealing with them.

This could clearly not be dealt with through education.

Ultimately it would have to be experienced and endured.

“In any projected siege of Solstice, the most devastating weapon Ayvarta will turn against us are the cannons know collectively as ‘the Prajna.'” Cathrin continued, and behind her the projector image turned into grainy photograph of a complex circling three massive black structures. “These are three 800 mm super-heavy fortress guns. A shell detonation from the Prajna can rip the turrets off any tanks within a 20 meter radius, and make a 10 meter deep hole in the ground. Each gun is heavily maintained, with a rotation of several available barrels, and several thousand dedicated artillery personnel operate and maintain each weapon. Solstice can have the Prajna turned fully within an hour, or faster, and once an area is sited, all three guns can fire every 15 minutes. Because of its massive destructive power, we have a special map and special terms for its range.”

Cathrin switched to the next slide. There were old photographs of the guns and their massive railway-style turntables, as well as photos of the guns being swarmed over by men and women working on them. Special artillery cranes with multiple arms were shown lifting massive shells into gantries that then led the shells into the enormous breeches of the Prajna guns. Then, a map of Solstice, that was overlayed with a circle depicting the maximum range of the Prajna, 50 kilometers from its station. This area was labeled the Desolation of the Prajna. However, there was a smaller darker circle inside it.

“Theoretically, there is a minimum distance safe zone close to Solstice. It is essentially in the shadow of the walls, however, and tactically quite useless to us outside a close siege.”

Near the front of the small crowd, General Dreschner raised his hand with a look of skepticism in his eyes. “This seems like an anti-fortress style weapon, and useless against fast moving forces. I’m not convinced it can be tactically relevant to the defenders.”

“Any gun is tactically irrelevant by itself.” Haus responded. “Any piece of artillery is vulnerable against fast-moving forces and could potentially miss its mark. However, once a stiff Ayvartan defense halts our movements, we will become stationary targets.”

It was not even the conventional damage from the gun that concerned Haus. He remembered the “shell shock” of veterans from the great war against the Franks as they encountered comparatively tiny howitzers, 50 and 75 millimeters in shell diameter, firing in great number. He was concerned that such a massive attack on any Nochtish force would cause disarray, cowardice and desertion. Already some of the tank forces had experienced this. He had read accounts of the battle of Bada Aso, where tankers buttoned down when Madiha Nakar’s anti-tank artillery fired on them, suddenly anxious of any retaliation at all. Even when the smaller guns fired, that both Madiha Nakar and the Nochtish commanders knew would not hurt well-armored tanks like the Sentinel.

Clearly, at least one Ayvartan commander took psychology into account for her plans.

There was more to the meeting, but for Haus many of the salient points had already been made. Cathrin went over some slides of Ayvartan equipment they might meet, as well as the famous Ayvartan military officers. One underrrated individual was Madiha Nakar. Aside from Von Drachen nobody had seen this woman, nor heard much of her from before the war. After the founding of the Republic of Ayvartan by Mary Trueday, the cooperating Ayvartan officials from the various conquered local governments dug up all their records for Nochtish perusal. There was some folklore about Nakar, how she was a child soldier for the communists, how she was there in person to see the Emperor killed decades ago. They had an old photograph of her as a young officer cadet, long-haired, tall and skinny, almost passing as light-skinned in the old gray picture, with a fine-featured face that would have been pretty had its expression for the camera not been so grim.

She did not seem formidable. Apparently she had been some stripe of police woman before the war, arresting spies and traitors and turning over houses for hidden radios.

Regardless, she had been at Bada Aso, so she was one to watch. Just not obsessively.

After the meeting, the officers retreated into their cliques, tank men with tank men, air force with air force. A few of the more social officers might have been preparing their plans for the new year. There were prayers to attend, letters to family. Each new year could be the last; even in the Federation, this was the mentality toward the pall of the New Year. Grim resignation. Moreso for these men, stranded on this foreign land.

Haus was left alone with Cathrin, who was picking up the classified files from the projector and storing them into a combination-locked case. After watching the men, he turned to her and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, smiling. She turned her head slightly, just enough for one of her eyes to catch a glance of him behind her.

“Meet me in about an hour in my office, will you dear?” Haus asked.

Cathrin nodded silently and with no change in expression returned to her work.

Before Haus could depart, however, a man walked in from outside and hailed him.

In the hand he waved there was a cardboard folder full of documents.

Haus recognized him as Air Commodore Robin McConnell. Young, spry and sleek, with blond hair and a smooth jaw, well-kept. He was easily handsome, casually, naturally, and not only because Luftlotte officers were barely ever in danger. After a point, many of them never even saw a forward air field again, and mainly concerned themselves with making higher order strategic and logistical decisions for their subordinates.

McConnell was in just such a position.

However, his beauty seemed nevertheless remarkable, attributable only to him.

Haus smiled at him and stretched out a hand to shake.

“I see one of the air force’s young geniuses is here with a proposition.” He said.

McConnell smiled back. “I’ve been waiting for a chance to get in touch, Marshal. I believe the Luftlotte has solutions for all of the problems you and the lovely frau Habich pointed out during our meeting. I have a plan to take a city from the air; the first one in history.”

Haus smirked, and internally he was grinning terribly.

“Habich, can you prepare a table for us?” McConnell asked.

Cathrin did not move a muscle for him.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself Robin, that’s my aide you are talking to.” Haus corrected him.

She looked to Haus for instructions and Haus nodded at her.

Then she went to fix a table for them to talk over.

This whole performance put McConnell in an obvious mood.

Once they finally convened their impromptu briefing, McConnell laid out his documents on the table. They included a review of air frames available on Ayvarta, current and potential air bases, the existence of the Task Force (a generic name representing the prototype weapons force of Wa Pruf) and its miraculous new air elements, and a map covered in spaghetti lines to and from Solstice and various other places.

After the Battle of Bada Aso, Nocht’s aircraft situation had become abysmal. Having underestimated the air defense capability of the city, and restricting themselves to mass daytime bombing by hordes of fast but poorly armored strike craft, they suffered the worst aerial losses the Federation had ever seen. In its wake, President Lehner pissed off the entire chain of command by requiring personal authorization for any more Air Operations of that nature. This meant Nocht performed almost no strategic bombing.

Because Nocht got all of its aircraft from overseas, and because the merchant marine was horribly overburdened, they spent almost all of the Aster’s Gloom, with limited air support on a tactical level. The Adjar-Tambwe front barely had any, and the Shaila-Dbagbo front stretched its remaining aircraft horribly thin and overworked them. Now the situation was improving again. Nocht now possessed heavy aircraft on Ayvarta for the first time, including hundreds of heavy escort fighters and dedicated bombers, and the number of light aircraft rose to 1000 examples of fighters and dive bombers.

Despite Lubon having armed forces on the continent now, no attempt was made to secure their aid. Not even McConnell’s plan accounted for them. Their air force was unreliable even when it was properly supplied. So that was no part of the solution.

Instead McConnell envisioned a strategy of purely Nochtish aerial terror.

“I call this ‘Big Wing’ bombing.” McConnell said. He had drawn up an example formation that contained several waves of dozens big bombers defended by many dozen fighter aircraft, attacking the same city from direct vectors, criss-crossing the air defense net at different intervals and overwhelming and confusing the air defenses. But he reasoned that the goal was not to inflict wanton devastation: it was to insure through numbers that any one bomber could put any one bomb on a factory, base, or other military target.

No matter what happened there would be mass civilian casualties, of course.

However, it was not considered important that Solstice survive the war.

McConnell knew this.

Mary Trueday had openly wanted the post-war capital of the Republic of Ayvarta to be in the agriculturally rich (and largely ethnically Umma) Shaila, not in the wastes of Solstice.

“It looks to me like the same thing you tried at Bada Aso.” Haus said.

“Light compositions look almost exactly the same.” Cathrin said.

At this the Air Commodore seemed offended by the comments of a simple aide.

“But the objective is different.” McConnell said. “Now that we have large bombers, we don’t have to be depend on lightweight fighter and dive bomber attacks to soften up our enemies, like we did at Bada Aso. We can destroy their war capacity and demoralize them with massive firepower the likes of which we simply couldn’t deploy at Bada Aso.”

“So you want us to launch a terror air campaign? What’s the objective other than spending munitions? What is this ‘one bomber’ who will get through, going to hit?”

Haus was skeptical. He would have to talk to Lehner personally about this and he truly did not want to bring any more of these fantasy air conquests to his eye. Without a direct goal, this would just look like setting a pyre in Solstice and burning money in the flames.

McConnell of course had an answer. He pulled out a copy of a slide Cathrin had shown during the presentation: the massive complex at the heart of Ayvarta’s military power.

“Armaments Hill.” McConnell said. “Across a week or two of bombing, we’ll split the Ayvartan air defenses. We’ll use diversionary attacks on targets on the edges of the city, tricking the Ayvartans into believing that we are after their precious defensive walls. This will open the ground for an all-out bombing run on the city center from three directions. We’ll take out Armaments Hill, and with it, the ability for Solstice to coordinate, supply and maintain the Prajna gun complex and the wall defenses.”

He pulled open a map of Ayvarta and plotted the courses of the three bombing attacks.

“I call it Rolling Thunder.” McConnell said, as he drew the lines.

One would fly over the central mountains and desert, starting in Dbagbo; the other would swing from Rangda and over North Ayvarta before turning inward to Solstice; the final attack had elements of the others, coming from Dbagbo but following the southern coast before swinging north toward Solstice in the center. All would be grievously fuel intensive and it would require absolutely perfect coordination and execution for the aircraft to start on a straight course but then alter their trajectory so sharply.

McConnell was quite right that this had never been done. It simply wasn’t done at all.

“We can even use the Mjolnir launch sites. There is one prepared.” McConnell said.

He became more excited with each new startling revelation of his master plan.

Haus shook his head. “I will consider this and we can make a formal presentation with Kulbert to the president in a few weeks time. But I will say that I am skeptical.”

There was for a moment nothing but silence, save the cycling of the air system.

McConnell was obviously shocked. He had a look of boyish frustration.

“That gives the Ayvartans the time to stiffen their defenses, and our ground offensive will have begun by then. I believe I can spare the lives of the infantry by destroying Solstice from the air, all I need is a week’s time to prepare starting right now.”

Haus almost rolled his eyes. McConnell pretended to have pure motives but ‘destroy Solstice’ said it all. McConnell was saving no lives: he was trying to achieve personal glory. A historic victory over a historic city conducted in the most uniquely historic way. Otherwise he would have talked to Kulbert about this too. Because he was talking to Haus, it meant he wanted to circumvent his own superiors so he would be put in charge. This was the sort of thing that was only possible in such a highly political army.

McConnell came from an influential family. He had a brother in the senate who as a protege of Lehner himself. Kulbert was just an old man who knew about warplanes.

And Haus was the grand Marshal with the President’s ear.

McConnell was playing rank games and Haus did not appreciate it.

“I’m afraid I can’t do more for you. I am a very busy man. Leave your plan here and I’ll review it when I can. It is ambitious, clearly, and I do respect your effort. We will talk.”

He waved him away.

McConnell stood there for a moment, stewing in his own anger.

He ultimately stopped staring between Cathrin and Haus to turn around and leave.

Having finished with him, Haus watched McConnell stroll off.

He let him get farther away and then turned to Cathrin.

“We’re still on, don’t forget.” He said cheekily.

Cathrin nodded and turned back to the table she now had to clean up.

Satisfied, Haus followed after McConnel had had enough space to vanish.

Outside was a long hallway with a smooth dark floor and smooth dark walls.

They were in an underground bunker, built in a hidden location for use by the regional government in case of an emergency evacuation of the councils. Ayvarta’s infrastructure in general ill suited the secrecy of the Oberkommando’s current meetings, so only this place was deemed suitable. There were few people in the halls other than stationed guards, and the few people walking had destinations in mind. Haus himself began to make his way one story up through a closely guarded staircase. He had to log himself and his destination at the staircase, and he was the Marshal in charge of Ayvarta!

Given the nature of some of the meetings here, Haus welcomed the security, and its impartiality for whom it targeted. Secret superweapons, new forms of energy, and other visions of the future were all being discussed with the Generals, allied politicians, and their most trusted and key staff. The end of the Solstice regime was being plotted here.

Haus meanwhile was headed to a meeting much less dire. In a small office with one table, perhaps once meant for interrogations, he found an older gentleman with a thick mustache and close-cropped hair, unremarkable save for his uniform. Like Haus’ own uniform, it was gray, but cut in Ayvartan fashion and with Ayvartan rank insignia. There was a symbol of a golden sword on its shoulder: the emblem of the Republic of Ayvarta’s VII corps, the “hydra killers.” This man was the first Republican general, Maraesh Jelani.

“Greetings General.” Haus said, taking a seat across from the man. He spoke in slightly tormented standard Ayvartan. He had been learning. He hoped he knew enough now.

Hujambo, Marshal.” Jelani replied, unfazed. “I hope I’m not being arrested.”

Haus laughed. “All the larger rooms are in use.”

“To what do I owe the pleasure then?” Jelani asked.

He spoke in a disinterested tone of voice. Jelani was a managerial man, brought out of retirement upon the birth of the Republic, not someone enthusiastic for battle. As far as Haus understood, there was some worry about old racial tensions with an Arjun princess taking over the old southern haunts of the Umma people and declaring it a new successor to the Empire. Republican democracy was declared as the first conciliation; and an Umma war hero to lead the new anti-communist armies was the second step.

Haus expected that in any battle, he himself would control even the Republic troops, but they all needed Jelani there to issue the orders and to act as a figurehead and example.

“How are the men?”

“Do you mean soldiers? We’ve raised about 30,000 troops so far.”

It was a constant note in Haus’ mind that Nocht referred to soldiers often as “the men,” and he had tried to say the same in Ayvartan. However, Ayvartans had a tradition of frontline fighting women, so just saying “the men” was like talking to someone about “the lads” you went drinking with. Jelani responded with “the troops” which in Ayvarta was the unisex collection of bodies that fought wars. While several officials had wanted to keep the new Republican Ayvartan army exclusive to men, Mary Trueday and Jelani had insisted that they needed to be able to field women, and they eventually got their way.

Language aside, when the communists pulled out, they evacuated a sizeable amount of civilians, mainly union workers, party members and students in state schools. Adjar, Shaila, Tambwe and Dbagbo had massive populations and the refugees did not put a dent in those numbers, but there was something of a brain drain to deal with. Those left behind were not largely ideological people, but stubborn or withdrawn folk. They did not love the Republic as a beacon of anti-communism. They just let the world pass them by no matter who claimed to lead it. They lived only for themselves and their direct locality.

“Are they looking like a corps to you yet?” Haus asked.

“We’re all weary, but we will fight. I will lead them in the capacity I am required to.”

Such sterling enthusiasm for the coming conflict. He was sure his troops felt even less.

At any rate, this was enough introductory chatter for Haus.

Jelani was not needed as a figurehead right then. 

Haus had a different need for him.

“What do you know about Madiha Nakar?” Haus asked.

Jelani blinked. He averted his eyes. “That’s a name I had not heard in a long time.”

“But you have heard of it. I know you must have met her even.”

“Pray, Marshal, what more do you know of this tired old man’s memories?”

Why was he being evasive? He must have had some kind of fondness for her then.

Haus put aside those questions and gave him what he wanted.

“During the Civil War, you were a warlord in the South, but because you only acted for Umma independence and not as an explicit pro-Empire or anti-communist figure, you were allowed diplomacy instead of the sword. You did a tour in the war college in Solstice, because the communist party wanted to test your loyalty and have you in their grasp. You proved yourself useful and harmless and as the government mellowed out, you were allowed to leave. During that time, you trained Madiha Nakar, did you not?”

Maraesh Jelani coughed into the back of one of his fists. He breathed out harshly.

“You characterize our relationship too strongly.” Jelani said. “She was not my protege or anything; but yes, she was one of the many students who passed through my halls.”

“Right now, she’s handed us two terrible defeats. As an ally of the Federation, I had hoped you would divulge any information you know about her. Official records of her are very sparse. Ayvartan birth records from the Imperial period and Civil War period are a disaster, that much I understand. But despite spending significant time living in Dori Dobo, Bada Aso and other Southern locales, we have few recent documents for her.”

Jelani steepled his fingers and stared at the table. “She was always a favorite of Daksha Kansal, you know? I wouldn’t doubt she had official protection behind the scenes.”

“So you understand my plight.” Haus said. “I won’t demand it, but I hope you will volunteer some of your time and information. I’d like us to be partners in this.”

He meant the war effort as a whole and he hoped his language conveyed this.

Jelani seemed to take a moment to consider his words. Perhaps the language barrier between them really was that strong. But no, something told Haus that Jelani had fully understood him, he knew as soon as he saw Jelani begin to fidget on the table.

Finally, Jelani sighed and smiled to himself. “She’s a fool, she’s worthless. I don’t think you have the right girl, Marshal.” He seemed to reminisce about her, and spoke while staring past Haus at the walls. “Here’s what I know. She was my student for many years. At the college, Madiha had a few genius wargame results and did well on historical and philosophy tests. Her physical training was also impressive for an officer cadet. Good marks on athletics, shooting, hand to hand. However, she was clueless at Chess and other strategy games. Her tactical mind was unformed and inconsistent. She was moody; it was always off her official record but she was mentally ill. Clearly taking medications.”

Haus blinked. That was such an unsorted mass of random memories; it was only good to him for establishing that Jelani knew about Nakar. And that he was clearly fond of her.

“What about General Adjar Al-Haza? Did you know him?” Haus pressed him.

Jelani seemed to flinch at the name. “Now that is another name I never thought I would hear again. I will spare you my reminiscing of him: he was the one actually close to Madiha– to Nakar, for many years. She was his protege and aide for a time.”

“He was executed during your season of treasons.” Haus said. He grinned to himself. “Perhaps Nakar herself did the deed? She was a policewoman of some sort, correct?”

“Nakar became a spy hunter of some renown yes, but Al-Haza was investigated and put to death by others, not her. Whether she contributed is unknown to me. I do not know their relationship outside the bounds of my administration.” Jelani replied.

“Adjar Al-Haza was a bright star during the civil war. He was a reformer, who wanted to modernize the armies. It was in part his zeal for military expansion and buildup that prompted your old parliament to push back and clamor for limiting military power.”

“He was. He came up with numerous theories of war and mobilization.” Jelani said.

“Whether Madiha Nakar was a mediocre student of yours or not, do you think she may have become a powerful student of Al-Haza? None of your other generals defeated us.”

Jelani breathed deeply through his nose. He shook his head. “Back in the college we would host these war games using certain rules and settings, meant to test what our students would opt to do in different historical scenarios. Nakar hated these as she hated Chess. She would always complain about moving this or that unit here or there from its starting position. She chafed under the limitations imposed upon her. She would begin every game by retreating all of her units to some other location of her preference. She would waste time and make herself look foolish. She scored low on several games.”

Haus knew that Jelani was trying to under-sell Madiha Nakar as a threat to him, perhaps to protect her out of some old fondness for her childhood self. However, Haus’ eyes drew wide with the realization that they were not speaking of different Madiha Nakars, one a genius warrior and the other a failure of a student. Madiha Nakar had performed surprising retreats during both the battles of Bada Aso and Rangda, luring her enemy to her preferred ground. Under the rules of a board game perhaps Madiha Nakar looked petulant and unable to adapt; but in war time she had proven a vicious manipulator.

“Adjar Al-Haza would have fought Von Sturm, Von Drachen, Mansa and the Elves on their terms through superior fundamentals. He would have emphasized the attack. Speed of deployment, superior firepower, consistent supply, and equivalence in manpower were the tools he advocated. Madiha Nakar was no Adjar Al-Haza, and surely is not now. That she defeated Sturm, Mansa, and your Drachen, was just lady War’s dice falling her way.”

Haus smiled at him. “You are right. She is no Al-Haza. She may be his superior instead.”

Maraesh Jelani paused, his features blanching at Marshal Haus’ response.

“And furthermore: I wouldn’t count Von Drachen out of that match quite yet. After all, he was also a despicable pest at our Academy. Perhaps he will become a pest to match her.”

Haus stood from his chair, bid his guest farewell, and stepped briskly out of the room.

All the while he made a mental note to someday pit this Jelani against Nakar if he could.

Just out of curiosity; to see that look on his face again, perhaps.

He was beginning to understand Von Drachen’s obsession with this character, Madiha Nakar. That being said, obsession and exaltation were steps too far. He had to collect the facts and think soberly about the situation, not give himself in to foolish fantasies.

Haus withdrew to the third underground story, where had a temporary office composed mostly of closed boxes and file folders littering a desk and various bookshelves.

When the door shut behind him it seemed to shut out his own shadow and the air he breathed outside. He felt a sense of freedom and like he could forget the outside world.

This office and many like it had been his fortresses for years now. In these darkened crevices of humanity he could hide from the public and indulge. He could be himself.

Here he could shed that stone-faced professionalism and cocksure aggression he had to display for the men outside to deem him worthy. He could be passionate and warm.

He dropped himself on a couch on the edge of the office, unbuttoning his jacket and shirt. He breathed out a sigh of relief. For a moment, he even let himself think of his beloved. It was an illicit thing, but this was his private place. Discipline could be lax.

There was a knock on the door, but it was one he had expected and contrived himself.

Cathrin Habich arrived as she had been instructed to.

She closed the door behind her carefully and entered the room as discretely as anyone could. She approached the couch and stood deferentially before him, awaiting orders.

“Sir.” She said. Her voice conveyed little emotion.

Always prompt, no matter where she was called or what she was called on to do.

“I’ve got a job for you, Kitty.” He said, smiling.

“Anything, sir.”

Her face was expressionless, and her mannerisms carefully neutral, controlled as they always were no matter what duress she was put under. She adjusted some of her wavy golden hair behind one ear. Her pigments, a little red on her lips and a little black around the eyes, had been recently reapplied. She looked stunning as usual. Perfectly proportioned, like a classical if stoic beauty from the deepest fantasies of the artist.

Cathrin was in some ways a token of Haus’ own position, as much as he disliked characterizing it as such. There were certainly other officers who would have been pleased to have her around. Aside from her good looks, she was smart and skilled.

However, they were kindred spirits; once he discovered this, he had to choose her.

“Very well. It’s the same as usual. You know what to do.”

Haus tipped his hat over his face.

He reached out his arm.

On the desk beside her, he picked up a file folder and handed it to her.

“You can use this as an excuse. There’s enough to do for the night; judging by your typical efficiency, you’ll have time to spare where it matters. Say hello to Andrea for me.”

He smiled at her. With his hat over his eyes he could no longer see her but he almost felt the energy in the room as her carefully stone-like exterior melted with delight.

“Thank you sir.” She said, her voice hushed but clearly grateful.

“I will trust you to be discrete.”

“Yes sir!”

There was a muted note of giddy girlishness in her voice that Haus found delightful.

She practically bounced out of the room, running to the arms of her forbidden lover.

This was all he could do for her in the world they lived in, but he did that much.

He wanted to, because he wanted to nurture people like himself who still had a chance.

His own love was doomed, and he knew it. He had known it since he was a child.

But perhaps Achim might still sense the purity of it, and allow others, like Cathrin, the release of their true selves. That was one thing Haus hoped to get out of a powerful, globe-spanning Nocht Federation. Out of the light of Democracy that was expanding to shine on all shadows. True justice and real freedom for the Nochtish peoples, even those like himself who had been born strange existences longing for the most taboo carnality.

It might have been childish. Perhaps that was why his face never seemed to age.

Regardless of what Achim did or did not do, however, Haus had resigned himself to fighting this war for him. That was the monument to his love he built even as a child.

Whoever got in the way of that would be destroyed. Madiha Nakar or anybody.


Previous Part || Next Part

The Center of Gravity (75.2)

It is advised to read the side-story V: The Loss Of Innocence before reading this chapter.

This chapter contains mentions of violence, torture, wounds, suicide and suicidal ideation, corpses, and brief descriptions of illness and abuse.


58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — Northwestern Desert, Cavalryman’s Rock

A trail of red dust followed a small convoy as it moved through the desert.

At the head of the convoy, a Hobgoblin tank brandished its 76mm gun, turning it on each dune as if expecting a counterpart to trundle out in anger. Behind it, two smaller Kobold scout tanks equipped with anti-aircraft autocannons watched the skies. At the far end of the convoy were three additional Kobolds. And between them all was a Gbahali half-track with a special housing in the back, air-conditioned and with its own water supply. Alongside the Gbahali was one truck with food, gas and other supplies just in case.

Solstice was several kilometers behind them. They traveled for hours through seemingly empty desert. There were few landmarks along the path. At the Oasis of Haath the convoy startled several desert creatures, but did not slow. Through the Sea of Sarstra they stormed past a camp of Hadir nomads, all of whom stood from their tents and carpets, reined their horses and prepared, in a panic, to defend themselves. But they were ignored. It was more their fear of heavy machinery than their understanding of the situation that led them to react. In fact, the convoy hardly acknowledged them.

Following a bend in the Qural river they finally came upon a vast stretch of flat wasteland on which stood their destination. There was only one visible landmark framed by the parched earth around it. Cavalryman’s Rock was a massive, flat-topped landform, composed largely of ruddy stone and named for its resemblance to a cavalryman’s traditional hat. The Rock was steep-faced and the size of a castle.

At the Rock the tanks split up, three kobolds to the left flank and two to the right, still watching the skies for potential air attack, while the Hobgoblin stood sentinel over the half-track and truck. They drove around the Rock and parked close to the red-brown rock for what little cover it offered. From the back of the truck three soldiers armed with Rasha submachine guns and approached a featureless portion of the Rock.

Three more soldiers exited the back of the Gbahali. They very briefly scouted the featureless desert around them and once satisfied they ushered Premier Daksha Kansal out of the Half-Track. She was dressed in a business-like waistcoat suit, and unarmed. It was a different feeling than her old excursions with her paramilitaries. She was a civilian leader; the head of the Government in general, not just the military forces.

Soon as her feet hit the sand, three of the soldiers closed protectively around her, armed with a new, shortened version of the otherwise quite long and quite old bundu bolt action rifle, while the remaining soldiers uncovered a false wall and scouted the tunnel that lay behind it. Moments later, one of them returned and signaled the rest to move.

Daksha and her retinue ran toward to the tunnel, eager to see what awaited inside.

She had come “alone,” with no other officials or military officers, only a small retinue of bodyguards. This had been the request of the scientist currently in charge of the site.

Under normal circumstances she would have objected and brought Cadao and other advisers. However, she knew, trusted, and in fact, appointed the custodian of the Rock.

More specifically, the new custodian of the strange quarters found inside the Rock.

As bizarre as all of this seemed, the SIVIRA had already done half a month’s worth of work sorting out this mystery, and Daksha thought she knew what to expect from the investigation. But Cavalryman’s Rock was the strangest part in a mundane drama that had unfolded within Solstice after two earthshaking events. First, Daksha herself ascended to the Premiership after the dissolution of the Council. Then came Madiha’s battle in Rangda against Mansa’s traitorous forces. Owing to this second event, Daksha purged several associates of Mansa’s from the Party, arresting and interrogating them.

Since both Mansas had been killed in Rangda, this was all they could do now to try to puzzle out the extent of their vile influence: what they stole and the total damage.

Daksha left this task in the hand of Halani Kuracha and soon everybody was talking.

Mansa had several ties to other sources of corruption around the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. He was tied to Gowon the smuggler, who used his military position far in the South to try to enrich himself with illegal mining operations. Mansa was found to be tied to several foreign scientists who had been granted stay in Ayvarta for scientific reasons and were now found to have been aiding Mansa in hoarding historical objects for himself. All of these people who could be found were also arrested and interrogated.

Though a few tribes of nomads were implicated in the investigation, Daksha opted not to harass them. Their nature in such matters was purely mercenary and forgivable. Solstice was better served being graceful around these unincorporated peoples for the moment.

In fact, the bulk of the investigation’s time was soon taken up not by people but by places. In addition to clandestine connections Mansa was found to have possessed numerous properties. Though in communist Ayvarta nobody could own property, buildings and estates and parcels of land could be given purposes. In his official capacity, Mansa assigned disclosed and undisclosed uses to over two dozens sites around the country and as arbiter of their affairs assigned numerous cronies to watch over and work in them.

These were associated with his various dealings. Madiha Nakar testified to what she knew of Mansa’s business, including his appropriation of Imperial artifacts. Many of his properties were either mining sites or training camps, mustering yards and discrete logistics and warehousing for his non-union crews. Mansa was digging everywhere, and he was using his official power under the table to do it and over the table to cover it up.

In all of this, however, the most curious discovery was one undisclosed site found by directly interrogating Mansa’s subordinates. Cavalryman’s Rock had apparently been dug into and used as a special base of operations for Mansa’s archeological team. This seemed far too dramatic: all of his other properties were warehouses and abandoned estates, shabby and forgotten places that nobody was supposed to occupy. Hollowing out a giant rock to hide inside seemed far too whimsical, but it turned out to be true.

Daksha was seeing it for herself for the first time. She had organized a small group to investigate the site, but like all of the other properties, she had never visited it. After all, why would she visit every old warehouse on the list? This conspiracy, while large, was purely borne of greed and eccentricity and did not constitute some grand happening that required the Premier’s attention. Because the staff Mansa assigned to the Rock were civilian scientists, Daksha sent loyal socialist scientists to the Rock (along with many armed guards) to investigate and confiscate whatever they happened to find there.

That should have been the end of that. Except that it was clearly not now.

She had received an urgent message, and she believed it serious enough to heed.

Smooth tunnels had been bored through the Rock using heavy equipment, and lamps had been strung up. Diesel power generators had been wheeled in and hooked up to a system that pumped water up from the underground river, as well as powered several fans, in about a dozen white-walled rooms and hallways that had been built into the complex. A few of the rooms were even sterilized and sealed behind glass doors.

It was a laboratory, Daksha could even smell the chemicals as she walked by.

Mansa’s staff had been cleared out. In every room there were green and beige uniformed Army engineers and assault guards. Many were waiting around for assignments, playing cards or games and cracking open rations in what must have been their dozenth day stuck in here. When Daksha walked past they stood in sudden attention, saluting her.

Then she found what seemed like a large hub room in the middle of the complex.

She was at long last greeted by her assigned agent in this investigation.

“Premier, did you bring the peanuts and jerky? I haven’t eaten in a day.”

She whimpered pathetically and dragged her feet close to Daksha.

“I brought them as you asked. Explain to me why you haven’t eaten?”

“We ran out of green lentils, and that’s the only item in the current ration menu I can stand. I hate the Rotti, it comes with that awful red curry. I hate the spicy items. I would eat the meat items, but I hate sopping wet meat. Everything’s in some infernal curry or chutney.” She raised her hands and clenched her fists in anger. “I just want some jerky.”

Slouching, hands in her coat pockets, tail curled around one leg and with deep black bags under her eyes, Xenon Uwiati looked sincerely pathetic. Her skinny legs trembled, likely from her idiotic self deprivation. Sweat dribbled down her honey-colored face and neck and a hint of exposed chest. Atop her head, her pointy cat-like ears had brown fur the same color as the normal human head of long, silky brown hair she possessed. She was a rare ethnicity, a girl from one of the nomad tribes. Ears and tail marked the extent of her animal-like features: in all other respects she was very much a sorry-looking human.

Xenon turned her sharp green eyes up from the floor and gazed pleadingly at Daksha.

Sighing, Daksha withdrew a special ration pack of pork jerky and handed it to her.

“Thank you, Premier! You have saved my life! You are a merciful ruler!”

“I should shove one of the red curry rations down your neck, box and all.”

“That’s just mean! Look, I need many grams of protein to feed my galaxy-sized brain.”

The scientist squatted down on the floor and nibbled on the jerky in a little ball.

“So that’s where it all goes then.” Daksha said. Xenon was a rather slight woman. “You’re giving me a galaxy-sized headache. I hope you’ve been working and not slacking off.”

She watched the desert cat-girl nibbling on jerky for a moment before letting out a sigh.

“Report?” She shouted, partially in the form of a question.

“Oh! Of course.” Xenon pocketed the jerky and stood back up, dusting off her coat. “Of course, I did call you here for that! I’ve got some interesting news and some bad news.”

“Interesting first.” Daksha said.

“Oh, I wasn’t asking you to determine the order. Here you go.”

She went across the room and picked up a radio set the size of a lunchbox.

Lugging it back the other way, she laid it at Daksha’s feet and squatted near it.

“Tune that to the frequency I scratched into the back of the plastic.”

Daksha squatted alongside Xenon, looked in the back of the radio and turned the knob.

There was a brief rumbling noise. Behind them what had at first glance been another forgettable white-paneled wall slid open to reveal a hidden room. There were stairs clearly descending underground. Every other room Daksha had visited had been erected at ground level on a fairly even plane. This was the first hint at a much large complex.

“After the Akjer incident every investigator became very fond of searching for secret rooms, so we kept our eyes open for them. We found this one relatively easily, because we had a scientist on duty who kept fiddling with the radio for no good reason.”

“By any chance was this scientist a desert cat-kin?” Daksha asked pointedly.

“Yes, it was me.” Her cat-like subordinate sighed and looked embarrassed.

She then stood up from the ground and descended the stairs, nonchalant, hands in her coat pockets, tail gently swaying behind her. Daksha followed after her, looking around the hub area as if with new eyes. This broader, taller room was connected to every other part of the facility at some point. Tables and chairs had been pushed off to the side by the investigators, but this had assuredly been some kind of feeding or recreation room. If there was one secret room connected to this hub, there were probably one or two more.

“We found over thirty people here. Most were fighters loyal to Mansa and a few others were just laborers. We caught them by surprise, they seemed almost completely cut off from the world and largely incoherent in their behaviors. But there were more people than that. Something troubling happened here Premier. But first, let me show this.”

At the bottom of the stairs was the first sign of that “something troubling.” Hidden behind that secret door was a vast room deep underground that tapped into the water flowing beneath the desert. There was a series of pumps and reservoirs to collect and store water, similar to others that Daksha had seen elsewhere in the facility. There were two incongruous sights: one was a massive machine the length of a banquet table, composed of numerous water-filled glass tubes etched with numbers and ruler markings, and various valves and levers that controlled the flow of water into them.

And the second, far more alarming than the fancy plumbing, was a stack of body bags.

“What are those bodies doing there?” Daksha asked, outraged at the sight.

“We didn’t know what to do with them. They died of some horrific illness. I could show you what they look like but they are barely recognizable as human remains now.”

Xenon squatted on the floor and hugged her own knees and nibbled on her own thumb.

“It was very scary Premier, when we found these people. They had quarantined them in this room and left them to die here like they were monsters. When we found them there was no hope for them. And they did look like monsters when we found them but still — it was disturbing. We were scared at first, but later we packed up the bodies while wearing gas masks and rubber suits, and sterilized the place. Then I noticed this thing.”

From her shaking position close to the ground the scientist stretched her arm to point at the machine around them. Daksha couldn’t blame her for forgetting to tinker with some fancy plumbing when there were corpses around. She also wouldn’t blame her for tampering with a crime scene, if the state of the corpses seemed wracked with illness. Nothing could be discerned from the closed bags. With her attention drawn to it, the room did smell faintly of sterilizing gas and bleach and such things — and not like death.

All of that, however, now proved secondary to understanding the machine’s purpose.

On closer inspection, Daksha thought she figured out what kind of machine it was.

“This is a water calculator, isn’t it?” Daksha said. “You do math with it.”

She did not know exactly what type of math — she was not like Xenon, who had changed her name to the chemical element upon graduating from university with some of the highest honors ever seen in the history of Solstice. She was a miracle girl whom Daksha could not match up to. Nevertheless, Daksha knew just enough science to converse.

Xenon’s cat-like ears perked up and she ceased nibbling on her finger. “Yes, it’s among the biggest I’ve ever seen. When I realized what it was, I was stunned by the complexity of calculations that they must have been trying to do in this facility. They’re limited to certain kinds of maths, but invaluable for the tasks they’re designed to tackle. And so I found myself returning to this room again and again despite the presence of the bodies.”

She gave one last trembling look at the stack of corpse bags before standing up, turning around and walking out of the room again. Daksha followed her. Xenon was an eccentric person, whimsical in personal habits and with several special needs. However, that brain which she so richly fed with fat and meat, was an invaluable asset. Daksha wagered Xenon could probably do as much math as that machine, and all in her own head.

To think she had found her trying to enlist in the military! It would’ve been a waste.

Back upstairs in the hub room, Xenon tinkered with the radio, closing one door and opening another. She nonchalantly turned to that passage and made her way into it without saying a word and Daksha continued to follow her. Down a much shorter flight of stairs they found another white-walled room with a sickening display. There were a variety of instruments and two armored, locked vaults big enough to be rooms. Then there was a glass window lined with metal plates. This window offered a glimpse into an adjacent room in which resided three decaying corpses, seemingly unmoved. Each one had exactly one head wound. They huddled around an altar upon which there was a metallic orb-shaped object that seemed to have been vaguely split down the middle. Several cables and mechanical instruments were attached to this enigmatic object.

Daksha felt bile rising to her throat at the sight of the mutilated dead.

“What is the meaning of this? Why have these bodies not been collected?”

Her scientist companion crossed her arms and stood on one leg, crossing the other over.

She stared through the glass, rubbing her hand despondently upon its surface.

Though clearly upset by the sight, her eyes did not waver and she did not blink.

In a calm, matter of fact sort of voice, she began to explain herself.

“Well, given the state we found them in, I suspected the cause of death this time was not man’s inhumanity to man but rather a rare energy called ‘ionizing radiation’. This room is shielded from it by the plates on the walls, but that room would burn a piece of toast black. If toast reacted to ionizing radiation by turning black, that is. I don’t think it–”

“I understand.”

In truth Daksha did not understand. She deferred to the scientist’s judgment.

Gazing once more upon the corpses, she shook her head.

It felt like she had left her precious S.D.S. and walked into another country altogether.

This was the sort of country Mansa was running in secret.

To capitalists and imperialists and the feckless liberals who supported them, this was the meaning behind opportunity, individual responsibility, and all of those other slogans they rallied behind. They had the individual opportunity and responsibility to be used up. In his obsession with the Empire, Mansa sent these brilliant minds to death.

“What happened here?” Daksha asked herself aloud. It felt surreal.

Xenon did not pick up on her tone and quickly formulated a thorough response.

“I think, if I were to piece the last days of this facility together, that the culmination of various experiments led the armed guards to turn against the scientists. Collectively, all of them were ill to various degrees. I think their food or air became contaminated. The guards did their best to isolate every experiment and every person involved. There was a air system that had been blown out when we got here: I think they staged some kind of drastic explosion that vented all the contaminants out of the Rock. Everyone we found was malnourished and most were docile. Some were nearly catatonic. But these three bodies here still look much more human than the ones we found in the water room.”

Daksha shuddered to think what those other bodies looked like if that was true.

“How do we know it’s safe in here?” She asked.

“I used a Ligier counter and a survey meter on each room. They’re clean except for the one behind the shielding. I think something dramatic happened in there.” Xenon said.

“How did this place operate?” Daksha asked aloud, almost to herself. She was shocked.

Again, Xenon did not seem able to read her tone and answered her matter-of-factually.

“We don’t know. Mansa obviously supported them financially, but it seemed a lot of them were here for the science moreso than for anything else. It may remain a mystery.”

Daksha’s hatred of Mansa burned ever brighter. Thank God that he was dead.

“I thought this place would be an archeological site for Imperial artefacts.” Daksha said, shaking her head. “This is like something out of a Northerner pulp book. Science fiction.”

“There is an imperial artifact here.” Xenon said.

Daksha felt a sudden shock of anxiety to her heart. “Do I want to know what it is?”

“You do. It is very important. Perhaps the most important thing in this desert.”

Xenon, still bouncing around on one leg, made her way to the vault.

It was already unlocked, so she turned the lever and then feebly, slowly pulled on it.

Eventually Daksha joined in, and together they unveiled a room full of glass cases.

There were ores inside. A few jagged, messy conglomerate rocks. Some processed stuff.

The scientist carefully donned an armored glove taken from a nearby shelf.

Very thin sheets of a shiny grey metal adorned it.

She set the foot she had been crossing up back down on the ground and straightened up.

Using the hand protected by the glove, she reached into one of the unassuming cases.

“I’ve tested it several times, gambling my own life. I think this is safe.”

In her hands she now held a very dark cubic object.

Tiny, dull veins of purple ran across its otherwise smooth, perfectly cut surfaces.

“Doctor Vante, over there,” She nodded her head in the direction of the corpses, “he called this ‘Agarthicite’ after the myth of the city inside of a hollow Aer. This particular piece was found in the Kinywa mine that the traitor Gowon was mining illegally.”

She held out the object to Daksha, assuring her that it was safe.

Daksha grasped it in her bare hands. It was smooth, completely smooth, and vaguely warm. She felt something of a thrum or a pulse, like a tiny little animal breathing.

“This is an Imperial Artifact?” Daksha asked in disbelief.

“According to Dr. Vante’s notes, there are historical accounts of the mineral playing some kind of ceremonial or ritual role within the occult beliefs of the last few Emperors.”

“Fascinating.”

“Turn it over in your fingers, create friction.” The scientist instructed her.

Curiously enough she turned her head away from Daksha, averting her gaze.

Daksha squeezed the stone gently, rubbing her fingers over it. She could see the oils in her hands making impressions of her fingers upon it. But those impressions seemed to disappear almost instantly. There was a brief, minuscule spark and the stone began to glow a dim purple on its outer edges, but brighter on the inside. It was as if the outer surface of the mineral contained a light within. Like a torch, cradled in the stone.

Xenon put a hand up to her own forehead. She seemed suddenly uncomfortable.

“Are you okay?” Daksha asked. She felt a rush of fear that this was the ‘ionizing radiation’ that Xenon had alluded to before, though Daksha did not know what that actually meant.

“Agarthicite,” she continued explaining, with some difficulty. “It has three states. When I gave it to you it was inert. Now it is in a stage where it is actually storing a very tiny amount of potential energy. I call this phase of Agarthicite activation the ‘stressed’ state. Doctor Vante called it the ‘dormant’ state, because he underestimated its behaviors.”

She was straining to speak and breathing heavily. She was clearly affected.

“Xenon, is this thing making you sick?” Daksha asked in a commanding tone of voice.

“I can only speculate, but I think Agarthicite in all states generates a theoretical waveform that disrupts the brains of people with a special neurophysiology.”

Daksha herself was unaffected by the Agarthicite, but Xenon was clearly suffering.

“Hold it up to me–”

“Absolutely not!”

“Premier, hold it up to me for a moment and then put it away.”

Daksha grit her teeth but the cat was serious. She must have thought this was important.

Despite her reservations, Daksha thrust the Agarthicite in front of Xenon.

In the next instant, her eyes turned cold and dull, and she stared intently at the rock.

She was almost limp; she responded as if she had fallen into a trance.

Daksha put the Agarthicite into her pocket, hoping it would not burn through.

It settled there, gently, thrumming and seemingly harmless.

Xenon regained control of her faculties and withdrew from her pocket a little metal clip that she put on her hair. It was deep grey and very shiny and much like her glove.

“Forgive me, Premier, I wanted to illustrate these properties. It reminds one of the testimony of Madiha Nakar, doesn’t it? She said that Mansa carried a strange object of imperial make, a cube that caused discomfort. I believe Agarthicite is this object.”

Every top level official handling Mansa’s business had access to Madiha’s testimony about her capture and torture at the hands of the old councilman. It was a classified but valuable source. Not every investigator could have access, but everyone Daksha trusted to lead the anti-Mansa cleanup operations had access to most of this information.

A very small subset of them had access to other information in this puzzle too.

Xenon continued demurely, as if cowed by the enormity of what she was saying and afraid of some danger she might incur for saying it. “It is classified information known only to the most important, top-level personnel of the S.D.S, that Madiha Nakar possesses a unique neurophysiology. It was well before my time, but I have read material produced by Doctor Agrawal on Madiha’s specific extrasensory potential. I believe based on all of this evidence that I possess a similar neurophysiology that is obstructed by Agarthicite.”

“So you’re also magic now?” Daksha asked, crossing her arms, exasperated.

“Not magic! You make it sound so childish. It’s E.S.P.” The scientist protested.

“Can you set buildings on fire spontaneously?” Daksha asked.

“No. I believe Madiha Nakar is a special case in that regard.”

“Any other grand revelations?” Daksha said dismissively.

“You may not be impressed, but I think it’s very important. At any rate, as I suspected you are utterly unaffected by Agarthicite because your brain is completely normal.”

“My brain is decidedly not normal.” Daksha said. Intrusive thoughts; suicidal ideation.

Xenon seemed to realize the shift in tone and her tail stood on end.

“Um, anyway, I am now wearing a piece of osmium in my hair.” Xenon pointed out the hair clip she just attached. “Osmium is a very rare metal with a very strange relationship to Agarthicite. It seems to be able to block Agarthicite’s theoretical waves, as well as control other aspect’s of Agarthicite’s behavior and even forcibly induce its inert state.”

She produced a stick of presumably osmium. It was grey and shiny like her glove.

Daksha withdrew the Agarthicite. This time, Xenon could stare at it unharmed.

One tap of the stick and the Agarthicite went back to its near-black, inert state.

“Normally Osmium is extremely rare: one of the rarest metals on Aer. It is normally found exclusively as a trace byproduct of refining platinum ores. Ayvarta consumes maybe 50 kilograms of Osmium a year, for things like high durability electric contacts. Compare this to the untold thousands of tons of iron and copper we use each year.”

In the middle of this explanation Xenon turned around and picked up the jagged, unprocessed compound rock in one of the glass cases. She turned it around to show Daksha. While most of it was the shiny grey metal she had so recently become acquainted with, around the back of it, arranged as a strange growth, there were many perfectly square cubes of Agarthicite stacked together like a child’s block pyramid.

“Agarthicite is found embedded in deposits of pure Osmium that are simply impossible to find elsewhere in nature. Maybe even physically impossible in general. It’s as if some intelligence decided to hide all the Agarthicite inert in its enemy element to stifle it.”

Xenon put the ore back. All of this was incredibly interesting from a purely academic perspective, and Daksha was not opposed to learning it. It was certainly valuable and piqued her curiosity. She would definitely have Xenon continue to study this rock. But she still did not understand its full significance. It was, in some way, poisonous, and it could be used to dull Madiha’s mind (Daksha still denied to herself that Xenon was like Madiha in any way.) None of this seemed to justify Xenon’s level of urgency toward it.

She then remembered there was one more state. Xenon had said there were three.

“Tell me about the third state of Agarthicite. Is that what makes this rock important?”

“Important, dangerous, impossible to explain with physics. Yes indeed.”

She took back the rock Daksha had been holding, and produced a different tool. This one had a battery pack attached, like an electric torch, and a prod on one end. Xenon hid a button within the handle of the device that produced an electric spark inside it, and transferred a jolt of electricity to the tip. She then touched the tip to the Agarthicite.

There was a brief but intense flash of purple and red light.

At once the Agarthicite began to hover above Xenon’s gloved hand.

It circled gently in midair, turning its six surfaces over like a block toyed with by a child.

Xenon smiled. “I call this the kinetic phase of Agarthicite activation. It is producing a miniscule amount of ionizing radiation. It is only a little bit hotter than trying to sunbathe in Solstice, in terms of the radiation you’ll soak up. You see, it appears Agarthicite generates an amount of energy and radiation greater than the energy that triggered it. A tiny jolt makes the Agarthicite float for about an hour. I believe that hellish room over there was an attempt to energize Agarthicite to a greater degree.”

Daksha blinked with disbelief, staring at the rock levitating in front of her.

One small and controlled jolt from a prod and a torchlight battery pack could do this.

And in that other room, how much power did they put into a piece of Agarthicite? Was that room connected to the generators she had seen around the facility? Perhaps they fed the entire facility’s worth of power into the Agarthicite and created a massive surge of this ‘ionizing radiation’ that swept through the base and contaminated everyone.

“Physics cannot describe what Agarthicite does. It should be impossible. It is not as ludicrous as a perpetual motion machine, since it is not moving perpetually. But it is generating impossible amounts of power for the very little energy that it received.”

Daksha had seen many shocking things in this facility, but certainly, this Agarthicite was the most stunning of them. Of course one would need something like that massive water calculator to deal with this phenomenon. Even then, the machine must have felt useless after enough observation of the mineral. Xenon had it right. This was impossible.

However, if they could harness a mineral that could convert a small electrical jolt into an hour of motion– it would make anything possible! It was a miracle energy for socialism!

“Premier, there is one last thing you must know about Agarthicite. Ionizing radiation is a new, poorly understood and deadly energy. Its capacity to do harm was first discovered through the deaths of radium watch makers. They made glow-in-the-dark novelty clocks, but the radium’s energies sickened and killed the workers and the company closed.”

Xenon tapped the Agarthicite with the Osmium stick in the middle of her explanation.

It dropped back down to her osmium-gloved hand.

“Ionizing radiation is the least of our worries with Agarthicite.”

Mysteriously, she walked past Daksha and exited the vault.

Daksha followed her.

She thought to shout at her to be discreet with the mineral, but Xenon had already been in this facility for many days and despite her eccentricities she took science very seriously. She hid the Agarthicite when they exited back to the hub room, but continued on her way, past all the guards, through the tunnels and out into the open desert again.

Soon as Daksha joined her outside, Xenon picked up the Agarthicite and threw it.

She pitched it at a rock. Her throw was limp and clearly untrained, but direct.

Daksha was speechless both from this sudden, insane action, and from its results.

In the instant the Agarthicite hit the rock, Daksha could almost feel a surge of something, like a shockwave that reverberated through her body but had no physical energy with which to push her. There was a bright purple flash, nothing like the dull light given off by the stone in its various harmless energetic states. Around the rock, perceivable reality seemed to collapse. Daksha had come to understand that, to science, everything humans could see was a result of light entering their eyes. In her mind, she thought, the Agarthicite must have warped and bent light to create a brief ripple in the world, a wound in reality itself. In the next instant it was perceptible as a fleeting black dome.

All of this happened in perhaps a second, perhaps even less than that.

Describing it as a perceivable effect and not pure mental fancy, the Agarthicite seemed to swallow up an orb-shaped chunk of the floor, carving out the rock and sand from it.

There was no trace of the mineral whatsoever. It and the matter around it had vanished.

Xenon and Daksha stood side by side staring at this stolen patch of land.

One in disbelief and the other in stern, grim resignation.

“This is the most dangerous property of Agarthicite.” Xenon explained. “Dr. Vante called it the Annihilation Effect or the ‘Circle of Annihilation.’ These were some of his final notes. I was lucky he did not destroy his materials and that the crazed guards did not do so either. Simply put: Agarthicite can convert electrical energy, but it also converts kinetic energy. If enough trauma is inflicted on it, it collapses, taking a sphere of matter with it. I hypothesize that, as with its other behaviors, the size of the sphere is multiplied by the amount of force that was imparted upon the Agarthicite to make it collapse.”

Daksha’s heart was pumping terribly fast. Her chest felt like it would seize up.

That little piece of mineral had made a crater as large as that of a 152mm shell impact.

“So you’re telling me–” Daksha’s voice caught in her throat. “This thing–”

“It could potentially destroy a house, a street, a city, a state, a continent. A planet?”

One brutal thought immediately embedded itself in Daksha’s psyche.

She murmured aloud to herself, her mouth agape, her eyes so wide they teared up.

“It could destroy Nocht.”

Daksha found herself standing in the middle of the desert in a great void of silence.

It was as if she herself had been swallowed in the Agarthicite’s annihilation sphere.

Trapped in this twisted reality where the matters of life and death that she dealt with for the sake of her people, had taken on a macabre new characteristic. She felt like she was quite literally playing with life and death now. Holding a reaper’s scythe that could change the world entirely and utterly in a way that could never be taken back.

“Is Agarthicite exclusive to the Ayvartan continent?” Daksha asked.

Xenon dropped down on her back, whimsically moving her arms and legs over the sand.

Her expression, however, was blank and emotionless.

“No more than Radium is. It’s thanks to Nocht we know about ionizing radiation.”

“So you think Nocht has access to Agarthicite?”

“I want to believe our knowledge of the mineral is in its infancy.”

She wanted to believe. So she did not know, but she probably feared the worst.

Swinging her arms up and down against the sand, Xenon made wings around herself.

“Premier, when I ran away from home, I was greeted in Solstice with fresh clothes, a meal card, room and board. I was taught how to read and allowed into a university. It might not seem like it, but in my own way, I love this country. I want to protect it.”

Her tone of voice was deadly serious. It was graver than she ever heard Xenon speak.

It was almost as if her previous antics had been a reprieve from weeks of bleak thinking.

“If you ask me to, Premier, I will become a monster in the eyes of history.”

She laid her hands over her chest, staring up at the empty sky over the desert.

Around her the wings in the sand framed her body.

“I will be the demon who unleashed Agarthicite onto the world.”

Daksha had heard this kind of speech before. Cadao Chakma, her defense minister, once asked her, during a meeting about logistics, if she would become a monster for turning toy factories into gun factories, putting teenagers behind anti-aircraft guns, and diverting food to soldiers. Daksha had the same answer for Xenon as she did for Cadao.

“Tell the historians I made you do it. I’ll be the monster in your place.” She said.

She would have withdrawn a pistol and threatened the scientist with it.

Just to make it plain that she was the villain and no one else.

But she did not carry a weapon anymore, as Solstice’s civilian leader.

Regardless, Xenon did not seem very relieved by the gesture.

“Everyone will ask why I didn’t turn my back on this when I could. Why I didn’t bury it; Premier, I started to think, during the past week, that Dr. Vante was not betrayed by the guards like I initially suspected. I fancy that perhaps he was afraid and ashamed of what he had done and he tried to stop it. He ended his life to escape the aura of Agarthicite.”

Tears started to build up in her eyes.

“I wanted to end my own life too, but Solstice saved me. I was treated like I mattered.”

Daksha looked down upon the soil, the wasted earth of the rocky desert.

Xenon’s voice was small and weak and broken up. Blown away by the empty winds.

“Premier, I think I can make Agarthicite into a weapon. We can use the sphere of annihilation that it creates to destroy anything. I just need time. Maybe a year, maybe two years, I don’t know. I feel like this black glow will both redeem and curse me.”

Daksha squatted down beside Xenon and petted her head gently.

Her ears folded under Daksha’s hand. For a brief instant she purred gently.

“You don’t need to be redeemed.” Daksha said.

Xenon raised her sleeve over her own eyes and gritted her teeth, sobbing.

This past week, she must have taken it upon herself to become the devil’s assistant and kill millions and billions if necessary, to protect the little patch of earth that she loved.

In the middle of this desert, that lonely city that somehow made itself care about people.

Perhaps, in some other warped history glimpsed within the sphere of annihilation, there was a way to turn back from the black glow and repair this broken world peacefully.

Regardless, they both knew the answer to these questions and dilemmas.

Mansa had indeed made his evil mark on history.

There was simply no way that Agarthicite could now be hidden and forgotten.

Whether it took months or years to develop it, whether another nation struck it first; they both knew this terrifying power was now a passenger to their fates forever on.

Like the knife, like the gun, like the tank. Socialism would make use of it.

It had to.

As she always said, Daksha said again. “I’ll be the monster, Xenon. Not you.”


Previous Part || Next Part

E.S.P. (72.1)

This scene contains violence.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — Conqueror’s Way

Wordlessly, the battle began.

Madiha’s wrist had barely recovered from the previous clash when Aatto jerked her arm toward the side of the bridge as if grasping for something that had fallen from her hand. Madiha saw the foam washing up along the sides of the bridge before the wave came flying over the barriers. It was not as a wave should be, it was not a long sheet of water; it was water sliced from the source, contorted, shaped into a weapon. Madiha pushed on herself and leaped out of the way as river smashed into the bridge where she stood.

Behind her she left a hole, bored clean through the bridge as if by a drill.

Around the rim of this orifice was a sheet of ice.

Everything had happened so quickly and yet the action and reaction both seemed so eerily natural and understandable to Madiha, as if it had all been rehearsed for her.

E.S.P. was like touch, like smell, like sight; active and passive all at once, innate.

It took seeing Aatto’s E.S.P. to really understand.

Madiha was being pushed to use it, where before she loathed to.

It was the battle that was pushing her. But it was also something else.

Something frighteningly like an instinct.

“You’re not like any of the spoonbenders at the Institute.” Aatto said.

Madiha taunted her. “Are they all savages like you?”

She needled her.

Aatto grit her teeth, and turned sharply to the other side of the bridge with both arms up.

Water started to rise once more.

She opened herself up. She committed her E.S.P. and Madiha would punish it.

Madiha drew her pistol and in a blink put two shots into Aatto’s forehead and nose.

She staggered back with a cry, seizing hold of her own face in pain.

Along the sides of the bridge the water harmlessly descended.

“God damn it!” Aatto cried. “Right to the face? To the face? And I’m the goddamn savage?”

Blood had drawn from her enemy’s forehead. But when Aatto started to peel her own hand away from its reflexive grip on her wounds, Madiha saw cracks, as if on glass, that were merely dribbled red. She had not been killed, or even seriously wounded.

“Should’ve known there was nothing important there to shoot.” Madiha said.

“Ha ha.” Aatto grinned viciously. “Very funny. You don’t get it, do you?”

“I do.”

She had some kind of armor on her body.

Did she cover herself in ice? Madiha realized that must have been it.

Her mind started to race. How many layers? How deep? What sort of attack would–

As Madiha had done before, Aatto pushed on herself for speed.

“You’re not the only one with tricks!”

Madiha wasn’t the only one learning.

In an instant Aatto had made her way to Madiha, so close that Madiha could feel the cold emanating from her body where warmth should be. Where Madiha was wreathed in fire as she used her abilities, Aatto grew colder, steaming with an inhumanly icy aura.

Growling in anger, Aatto threw a punch.

Pushing away from it, Madiha sidestepped the attack and found Aatto briefly vulnerable.

Madiha drew a knife and tried to engage in close quarters combat, but Aatto was not fighting by the book, not by anyone’s book. Army combat manuals taught effective fighting for disabling and killing enemies with fists or knives, but these counted on human enemies behaving in human ways.  When Aatto swung around to meet her, she was not moving nor behaving like a human. Her speed was such that Madiha could do little to retaliate but to drive the knife toward her enemy with all her strength and pray.

Thankfully for her, Madiha was also inhumanly quick when she needed it.

Her knife met Aatto’s flesh before the woman could swing again.

Cracks formed as she struck the base of the neck, where Aatto’s head and torso met.

It was no use. Madiha found her blade caught in the icy armor, drawing little blood.

Aatto shrugged it off, and grabbed hold of Madiha, taking her in a brutal embrace.

“I was afraid if I pushed on myself too hard I’d break my body, but you did it so easily.”

At the moment she improvised those steps, Madiha felt no regard for her own safety. It wasn’t a technique she had honed, it was spur of the moment. Everything in this battle felt like a spur of the moment idea, a figment brought to life by two inhuman minds pitted like dogs inside a cage. Only new brutality and new evil could come of their fight.

She would have to think fast once more, because Aatto was innovating too.

Aatto took a deep breath and suddenly squeezed. Madiha felt the air going out of her lungs, and though she tried to push back, Aatto was using all her power to keep her grappled. But she saw an opportunity. Arms forced to her sides, Madiha turned her wrist and stabbed Aatto in her rib. She could only muster short thrusts but she pushed on each.

Her own wrists screamed in pain, but she could feel the knife digging into Aatto each time as if it had been swung with the full force of the arm. Blood and ice splashed out.

Despite this Aatto stood undaunted. She grinned, and she laughed.

“You ever wrestle before? Up north we love it.”

She enjoyed it; Aatto liked hurting people. Aatto thrived on power.

Or she was an idiot who talked too much.

Madiha pushed again — on herself.

She thrust her head forward and butted foreheads with Aatto.

Blood from the woman’s forehead spilled over Madiha’s nose and mouth.

For a moment they were frozen, a brutal sculpture to this messy, primeval battle.

Forehead-to-forehead, blood to blood.

Madiha could feel the chaos in Aatto’s head, as if a storm brewing from the wound.

She was angry, angrier than she had ever been. She was sad and hurt and furious.

“You think you’re better than me. You think you got me this easy. I hate it. I hate it!”

Aatto started screaming. She was emotionally unstable; she was losing control.

She squeezed tighter, and forced a gasp out of Madiha. She was choking her now.

“You think you’re better than me! I feel it! You think I’m trash! AND I HATE IT!”

Aatto pressed Madiha tighter against her chest, set her legs, and pushed.

Madiha could feel the strength of the psychic thrust as Aatto launched upward.

Mid-air, Aatto swung the other way and made suddenly for the ground.

Her mind started to fog; Madiha desperately pushed on her other wrist and broke it.

She twisted the hand holding the pistol, and twisted the finger on the trigger.

She twisted the pistol toward Aatto’s chest, between them.

“Use your inside voice–!”

Madiha forced the words out before unloading a magazine into Aatto.

She saw shards of ice go flying from Aatto’s back in six different places.

Bullet penetration; that armor had shattered.

Blood splashed from her belly and chest, and her grip slackened dramatically.

Madiha pushed away from her and from the ground.

For an instant Conqueror’s Way shook, just enough to perceivably disturb the skin.

Aatto and Madiha hit ground. The two landed meters apart and on their backs.

Recognizing from the terrible pain what she had done to her hand, Madiha screamed.

She grit her teeth, and with her remaining, functional hand she pushed herself up.

Over her shoulder, she saw Aatto slowly forcing herself up on violently shaking knees.

She turned around to meet her, and watched as the ice around her wounds melted.

Her armor turned to water, and turned to blood. It started to seep into her wounds.

Madiha winced from the pain in her wrist. “How many lives do dogs have?”

She was no good at taunting, but she knew now that Aatto had no self-control.

That was an advantage, even if it didn’t look like it right then.

“Shut your fucking mouth, you stuck-up little princess!”

Princess? Had she read Madiha’s anxiety? Had Madiha left herself that open?

Or was it just low-key misogyny?

Without warning Aatto peeled a chunk of ice as if out from the air itself and launched it.

It was needle-thin and ultra-sharp, a wedge shaped knife spinning through the air.

Madiha ducked under it, and realized the cloud around them was a mortal trap to be in.

There was a reason Aatto made this cloud, and it was not just for cover.

Aatto controlled water. She controlled moisture, she controlled the droplets in the air.

Whatever merciful old gods prevented Aatto from simply peeling all of the blood out of Madiha’s body with her E.S.P. were not as keen to keep her from wielding all the rest of the water around them. And there was a lot. In their every breath, in the air itself, in the river that rushed below and around them. There was a lot of water. It belonged to Aatto.

All this time Madiha was matching E.S.P., but she had to recognize her core competency.

Aatto was water and Madiha was fire. However much she feared the flame that was her legacy from the conquerors and emperors old and maybe new, she had to wield it now. Though she hated that flame that linked her to the Empire she destroyed, if Madiha did not stop Aatto now, there would be nothing keeping her from the walls of Solstice. From her people; from the nation she gave everything up to found; and from Parinita.

There seemed to be no other way. She had to burn Aatto to death.

But fire was not so easily brought to bear. Madiha couldn’t just take fire out of the air.

She realized that she could take something else.

“Even during a tantrum, you like your clouds a consistent, moist 2 degrees or so.”

Madiha, having seen the cloud, knew how to influence it almost on instinct.

Or maybe she knew because Aatto knew.

She raised her hand in front of herself and snapped her fingers together, producing a flame on her thumb as if from the end of a match. She did not push on this flame the way she did to objects and even to herself, but she caressed it, nurtured it, fed it, spread it. An aura of fire grew from the match on her thumb to cover the immediate area.

Aatto stared in stunned disbelief as the cloud around her started to heat up and dry out.

Beads of sweat drew from Aatto’s forehead, and became little wisps of vapor.

“I prefer a nice 50 degrees.” Madiha said. “Are you melting? Should’ve stayed up north.”

Around them the thick, fluffy blue cloud was turning almost to sand, dry, dark, choked.

Even Madiha was straining to breathe in the heat. Aatto, however, was despondent.

She grabbed at her throat, coughing, sweating, covered in vapors. Her knees buckled, her tongue lolled, hanging dry from her mouth. Her eyes started to tear up, but the tears were evaporating even as she wept them. It was a horrifying sight.

“No, no, no, no, no–”

Aatto grit her teeth.

“No! Stop it!”

She stamped her feet into the earth, and her eyes flashed blue, and the vapors chilled.

Madiha felt an lightning-fast instant of cold and reflexively resisted.

Her nose bled; she felt a sharp pain as if a knife had excavated a vein in her brain.

Her hand shook, and the fire spreading from it started to twist and hiss and sputter.

Within moments, the blue spreading from Aatto overtook the dark heat in the cloud.

Madiha’s influence was snuffed out, and she staggered back, holding her head.

Her eyes were bleeding, and her nose was too, and her vision was foggy.

She should have realized it. She was not strong enough. Not like when she was a kid.

She was spent; she had been debilitated by the deeds she performed in her youth.

Aatto had never been challenged, not like Madiha had been. She was still at her peak.

Madiha’s legs quivered, and she dropped to one knee, unable to stand.

Gasping for breath, and laughing cruelly between each gasp, Aatto stumbled closer to Madiha, as the cold started to mount and the latter’s body to shake both with the pain she had caused herself and the unbearable environment around her. She had been able to suppress it when her special fire was at its peak, but weakened and vulnerable as she was, Madiha was just a little girl of the southern continent facing down a raging blizzard.

Aatto’s sweat started to freeze up, and she collected it into a jagged chunk.

She put the weapon to Madiha’s temple, staring down at her with malice.

“I came here for the idiot who is too loud and the useless hunk of metal; but you’ve convinced me that while I’m here I might as well take your walls and your life too.”

She raised the icy pick into the air to bring it down on the helpless Madiha’s head.

Madiha did not blink or flinch, she couldn’t have even if she wanted to.

She saw Aatto thrust down and in a blink, saw her thrust away on a sudden gale force.

Aatto stood her ground as much as she could, but she was forced a step back by the gust.

“What the hell–?”

Madiha found her vision blocked by the appearance of a new figure.

Standing guard, with her hands open in front of her in a defensive stance, was a young Yu woman, dressed in an eastern style. She glanced over her shoulder at Madiha, her characteristic eyes soft and almost admiring, and smiled at her.  She looked untouched by the carnage around her, even as she had so suddenly moved. Her brown hair was done up with a pair of picks, and from the back, the ends flared up like a bird’s tail. It was immaculate. Her skin bore not one bead of sweat nor the touch of Aatto’s frost.

Her green eyes glowed softly yellow and she gave off an aura like a slight breeze.

“General, I am humbled to stand between you and the enemy.” Yanyu Zhuge said.


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BERSERKER (71.2)

This scene contains graphic violence and death, and brief homophobia.


To the outside world it seemed Loupland was covered in a perpetual snow.

In the spring, however, Loupland thawed just like the world beyond the arctic sea.

Green grasses peered from under their blanket of snow. Flowers, covered in cold dew, rose from the earth, seeking the returning sun. It was the eye in the storm that seemed to consume the little country. A respite from the blizzards. In days gone by, the folk would have come out to till the fields and hold markets and dance under the festival wreaths.

Times changed, but at least the children still laughed and played.

That spring, a little girl from the village decided to go climb the mountain. She did not climb far, but she climbed far for a child. For a child, she felt she had climbed the entire mountain, in her kirtle and smock, getting dirty, laughing aloud and alone. She climbed over big boulders and ran up little hills and after an hour or two she could look back and see the village below her like a little brown square etched on the green and white earth.

On that day and atop that climb, the little girl met a demon on the mountain.

She was scared at first, to see the creature bundled up in a cloak, huffing and puffing and making noises to scare her away. But her curiosity led her to draw nearer to the monster and to stare into its eyes, and she laughed and called it a little imp and ruffled its cloak.

“I’m not an imp.” said the creature dejectedly.

“Can I stay here and play?” asked the village girl.

“Whatever. Don’t tell anyone about me.” replied the imp.

She returned the next day, and found the imp again and brought some food.

She found the imp not wanting for food, its lair strewn with frozen bones.

She returned the next day and brought the imp toys since it was clearly a child.

She found the imp to be a girl by her choice of a doll, which she clung to tightly.

She returned the next day and brought the imp a kirtle and a little smock.

“I don’t wanna dress up.” said the imp dejectedly.

“Will you dress up for me?” asked the village girl.

“No!”

And the imp dressed in the kirtle and smock, but kept her cloak wrapped around herself.

“I’ll come back with more tomorrow!”

“You really do not have to.”

She returned the next day having brought a blanket, stitched up into a cloak.

“Will you wear this for me?” asked the village girl.

“Ugh.”

She helped the imp into her new cloak.

She found the imp had a furry little tail, and she wagged her own furry little tail.

Day after day, the village girl awakened early, ate her porridge and drank her milk quickly, and ran off laughing and smiling to the mountain to play with her newfound friend. She showed her friend many things from the village, fruits and toys and sweets. The imp barely played, choosing mostly to watch, but it was enough that she remained. She followed the village girl wherever the village girl wanted, and they explored the caves and crevices of the mountain, and climbed higher and lower, and had fun.

One day the imp stopped the village girl and spoke to her in a new voice.

“Want to see something strange?”

“Yes! Show me!”

Eager to learn anything at all about her new friend, the village girl followed the imp to a spring formed out of thawing ice, where the imp reached down into the water, and took from it a big fistful of frost. As her hand rose from the water, the spring froze where the fist had entered, the little waves and ripples on its surface etched hard in the ice.

She really was a demon! A demon that could do witchcraft! It was amazing!

Never had the village girl been this excited.

“Promise me you’ll keep it a secret.”

“I promise!”

“Don’t tell anyone I’m here.”

“I won’t! I never have!”

And so the village girl returned home, and every day she would leave for the mountains to play again, and she enjoyed many moons of the thaw season in this fashion. But the thaw season was too short for the village and too short for the girl. Soon the snows began to blow over Loupland once more, and the thaw season, and its thaw jobs began to wane.

Despite this the village girl was resolved. Whenever she had no lessons or finished them early, she would put on her coat, put on warm leggings and thick boots, and she would go out, though the mountain was treacherous and slippery. Though she even took a few bumps, the village girl was very brave and made it to the Imp’s hideout without fail.

“Stop coming here.” Said the imp.

“No! Lets play.”

Reluctant as always the little imp would play with the village girl.

“Soon we’ll be separated by the ice. Or something else.” said the imp.

“No! Lets play.” replied the village girl.

She made a great effort to meet her friend whenever she could.

However, the village around her was changing. With the coming of the snow, there were more people walking the street with nothing to do, crowding the shops and bars, being loud. There was a lot of tension in the air, and it felt dangerous to go outside, but the village girl kept going, heedless of anyone’s caution. Her routine went unchanged.

One day, however, without her noticing, three men followed her right to the mountain.

They had bottles in their hands, and strange expressions on their faces.

“Every bloody day you leave the village, and come here, for what? Ain’t nothin’ here.”

“Little girls shouldn’t be running around making a racket when the village is struggling.”

“You’re too carefree! It pisses everybody off. What’s up here that’s so special?”

They reminded the village girl of her own father; drunk, jobless, shouting every word.

She felt very nervous, and could not answer their questions, and it made them irate.

“Didn’t your mother teach you respect? Huh? You think you can look down on us?”

One of the men shoved the girl down at the maw of the imp’s cave, and she cried.

In the next instant, the imp stepped out from the shadowed rocks.

She gazed coldly at the men and they gazed quizzically back at her.

“Who’s this? Why she hiding out here? Who’s daughter is she?”

“I’m nobody’s daughter. Go away.”

Confused, the drunks commiserated while the imp stared all of them down.

“Huh? What’s with that tone, you brat? You think you can talk to us like that?”

All three men had emptied their bottles and held them like clubs.

Across from them the imp stood unfazed.

Her tail stretched straight behind her, and her ears were raised in alert.

Meanwhile the village girl tried to calm everybody down.

“She’s not bad! She plays with me! She’s just living out here. She doesn’t mean any harm.”

“You shut up, you brat. You wanna get hit again?”

One of the men raised an arm to strike the village girl with cruel ease.

In mid-air, the arm stopped moving.

The Imp’s eyes turned icy blue.

“What is–”

Suddenly the man started to scream.

His raised arm started to shake, and his whole body contorted in pain. Dark black veins threaded visibly through her skin, becoming harder and sharper as if the blood inside them was thickening, hardening, stretching. Everyone present watched in horror as the man’s arm started to peel away along lines of the sinews like a blossoming flower of skin and gore, and the stem, blood frozen sharp right under his skin, glowing, and glowing!

The captive man was in such pain and terror that he could not scream anymore. He slobbered and twitched and hung as if his arm was dangling from an invisible shackle, suspended by some unknown force like a sack of meat, the blood in his veins freezing.

“Aatto no!” shouted Petra, little village girl Petra who only wanted everyone to get along.

“It’s a witch! It’s a witch! Kill her! Kill her!”

In an insane frenzy the remaining two men charged past their dying ally, bottles in hand.

“I’m sorry Petra, but you can’t hear what is in their disgusting heads like I can.”

Aatto, Petra’s friend, the mystical little imp of the mountain, raised her hand and without expression, pushed on the men and sent them flying off the mountainside, their bodies twisting and smashing and clinging to the snow and rock, collecting into balls of slush and blood. Blood drew from her nose and from her eyes, her glowing, icy-blue eyes.

Petra saw it, the blue steam that emanated from Aatto whenever she committed this sin.

She rushed to her friend and hugged her around the waist, weeping openly into her.

“Why are you crying?” Aatto shouted angrily. “They were going to hurt you!”

“I’m not crying for them.” Petra said, sobbing and screaming. “I’m crying for you!”

At Petra’s touch, the steam started to calm, and Aatto started to shake. She wept a little.

“Shut up, Petra. I did a good thing for once. I did a good thing.” Aatto muttered.


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

“Aatto! Open up!”

Atop a wooden staircase, Petra banged on the door of the camp’s command center module, a small air-conditioned mobile home set on the bed of a tank transporter. She saw beads of water dancing on the shuttered windows, and could feel air coming from under the door, so she knew Aatto was inside. She banged on the door twice, but there was no response. Behind her, General Von Fennec tapped his feet on the step impatiently.

“Why did she lock herself in here? I’ll have you both know this is my command center!”

Petra sheepishly turned to the General with her hands clapped together as if in prayer.

“Ah, well, Aatto really doesn’t like the heat, anything above 20 celsius is bad for her see–”

“Get that door open this instant, and that punk out in the desert fighting! Now!”

“Yes sir!”

Petra twisted sharply back around to face the door and started to twist the handle.

She brought a foot up to the door and kicked it, doing little to move it.

Though she had basic combat training, Petra Hamalainen Happydays was not a fighter, but a support officer. Specifically, a radio operator, as well as deputy to Lieutenant Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather. She was, compared to the tall and fit Lt. Stormyweather, smaller, plumper, and far less capable of battering down a door. She stopped for a moment to tie her golden hair up into a ponytail, her tail swishing to and fro with excitement.

This pause to gather herself before her next attack prompted Von Fennec to scoff.

“Good god you’re all so useless. Out of my way!”

Von Fennec pushed Petra aside, and put his shoulder up to the door.

In the next instant, the General charged the door, and the door suddenly opened.

Von Fennec tumbled into the room, smashing into the carpet.

Petra stood at the doorway, her hands raised in alarm.

“Petra,” someone mumbled in an aggrieved-sounding tone.

Inside the command center, behind Von Fennec’s desk, was Aatto herself, seated sloppily on a rotating chair with her arms dangling, her head thrown back. Her black uniform jacket and shirt were both unbuttoned down to the belly, bearing glistening brown skin and a hint of muscle — and well over a hint of her breasts, her brassiere’s central clip snapped apart so as to almost fully bare them also. Her hair was down, long and black. She was sweating like, well, a dog; all of her body was profusely moist, and her icy blue eyes looked like they would roll back into her head. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth.

“Petra, I’m dying.” Aatto said. “Petra it’s 44 degrees. I am going to die here.”

Sighing, Petra wiped sweat from her own brow and maneuvered around the fallen Von Fennec as carefully as she could. She rushed to Aatto’s side and immediately fastened her brassiere back and started to unbutton her shirt and jacket, trying to save her dignity.

“Aatto you’re an officer now! And in an army of men! You can’t behave this way!”

“Petra, I’m absolutely going to die. I am melting.” Aatto mumbled.

She fixed Petra with a pathetic look. She had absolutely beautiful eyes, even then.

Petra tried not to stare too deep into them as she fixed the Lieutenant back up.

“Aatto, you slob! You barbarian!”

Petra sighed again, and behind her, Von Fennec helped himself up from the ground.

“You have a mission, you witch! You monster! Go out there this instant.”

“Petra, I’m so hot.” Aatto said, ignoring Von Fennec.

Von Fennec grit his teeth, while on the chair Aatto swooned and slumped.

“Aatto!”

Petra raised a hand to Aatto’s brow and found her blazing hot.

She couldn’t spot any of the blue steam, the sign that Aatto had overdone it with her ESP.

So it was not a supernatural malady — that fact scared Petra even more.

She could, somehow, heal Aatto’s self-inflicted psychic wounds. But she couldn’t heal this.

“She’s burning up, General!” Petra said.

Von Fennec stood, silent, stupefied.

“If I lose her, and the Vishap, and Von Drachen. My career– no, I’ll be over! I’ll be killed!”

He rushed to the desk and started shaking Aatto.

Petra grabbed hold of him and shoved him back.

“This isn’t helping, General!”

“Do something Petra! Do something for God’s sake!”

“I regret so much. I’ll never get to marry Petra.” Aatto said.

Von Fennec blinked and stopped struggling. Petra covered her mouth, scandalized.

“WHAT?” She then shouted.

“We’ll never get to raise a litter of pups–”

“EXCUSE ME?” Petra shouted again.

Von Fennec took a step back from the chair and rubbed a hand over his mouth.

He then suddenly kicked the chair, knocking it from under Aatto.

“Lieutenant Stormyweather, I order you to assault Conqueror’s Way this instant! Your sexual deviancy will be overlooked if you succeed!” General Von Fennec shouted.

On the floor, Aatto started laughing uproariously, and the room suddenly cooled.

It was as if all the heat of the desert had been extinguished with a thought.

“Will do, General Von Fennec! Just give me some water and a target.” Aatto said.

“There’s an entire goddamn river where you’re going! Move! Both of you!”

Petra, mortified, red in the face, and far more tantalized by these sapphic ideas than any good girl of Loupland should be, stormed off with her hands balled into fists, stomping.

Aatto raised herself off the ground, and looked out the door with distress.

“Wait, Petra! I wasn’t kidding! Let’s get married!”

She ran out the door herself, Von Fennec staring at her back with gritted teeth.

Like Petra, he too knew the weapon that lurked inside that oafish bush-tailed girl.


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