Brigands [3.8]

Murati was in her element. Her breathing quickened; her heart pounded.

She was determined.

Her only anxiety was that she did not tell Karuniya she was putting herself in danger again. Hopefully, her fiancé could forgive her in this situation.

All of the Cheka’s controls were similar to those on a Strelok. LCD screens for the cameras and computers were hovering right in front of her, as she sat in the adjustable chair with joysticks, pedals and buttons for controlling all aspects of the suit. Using handles and adjustable guiderails on some of the equipment, she moved the screens and control elements just a bit. Then she could just sit back, grab the sticks, put her foot on the pedals, and she was ready to deploy at any moment.

Just like before; a whole other body had wrapped around her own.

Fully sublimating herself into the machine, she could almost feel how it would move.

Even though she was standing still, waiting for communication.

Through the ship LAN she connected with the bridge again.

On one of her screens, was the bright, shining face of the communications officer.

“Nice to meet you, Lieutenant! I’m Natalia Semyonova, communications chief. I’ll act as your liaison to the bridge. I hear the Brigand has a few tricks for keeping communications with Divers, so you might see some weird stuff happen. We’re still working out the details here!”

“This ship really is full of new equipment, huh? Tell the Captain I’m ready to deploy.”

On another screen, Gunther’s face appeared on one of the cameras.

Murati switched on a speaker to talk to him.

“Gunther, do you know how to set up a deployment chute for me?”

Gunther waved at her from below. “Of course! I’ve been with this ship for a few weeks now, you know. If I didn’t know how to work the chutes it’d be embarrassing as a Diver engineer.”

“Less talk, more action then!”

Gunther got to work on the console attached to the Cheka’s gantry.

In front of them, a faint sound of gas whistling could be heard.

A piece of the floor slid apart in a marked area of the hangar to reveal the chute hatch.

Gunther brought a remote-controlled crane arm over to deliver a weapon to her.

Murati engaged the Cheka’s power unit.

She reached out and grabbed hold of the AK-96 assault rifle she was handed.

A small crowd began to form as more people suddenly noticed a Diver was moving.

“She’s clear, folks! Let her get through!”

Gunther parted the sea of sailors, retaining an affable smile. This was his moment too.

Everyone began to cheer and clap uproariously when the Cheka started moving.

The Brigand was deploying its very first Diver in anger.

Working with her pedals and sticks, Murati stood the Cheka up on its feet, put the rifle to her chest, and moved the machine step by heavy step toward the chute, and carefully dropped down into the tube. The hatch closed over her, and water started to fill the empty space in the tube. Soon she would swim right out of the underside of the ship, which would then rebalance.

Gunther had long since disappeared from her camera feed, but he soon resurfaced in a console feed, connecting to one of her screens. Murati took his call with great satisfaction.

“It does feel lighter and more responsive than a Strelok.” She said.

Even on the ground, the ease with which it moved was evident.

Until she got it in the water, she wouldn’t be able to tell by how much, but she had a hunch this machine was a league above the Strelok. Maybe it heralded an entire new generation of design.

“I told you so. Just ease into it, and don’t push yourself too hard.” Gunther replied.

He gave her a thumbs up and a salute. She switched from his console feed, back to cameras.

“Captain says you’re free to deploy Murati! We’re loading up the combat data for you.”

Semyonova reappeared along with a status bar for a download in progress.

“We’ll be sending a laser relay drone to follow you. You can laser to it, and it will laser back to us. It will effectively double the range of laser communications between you and the ship.”

“So that’s part of our new kit? I’ll keep it in mind.”

Below Murati, the chute opened up to the ocean.

“Good luck and good hunting!”

Semyonova saluted her.

Once again, Murati pushed herself across the metal threshold between ship and sea.

“Murati Nakara, ISU-100 Cheka, deploying!”

Above her, she watched the hatch close as her suit descended into the open water.

That dark-blue void that encompassed their entire world.

Water was all around her. Visibility was nil. There was no landscape around her.

There was only the Brigand, her metal frame and the incoming signals.

According to the diagram, the Leviathan was coming in from above, diving at a rapid angle.

Righting the Cheka as she dropped from the ship, she engaged main thrust.

In the span of a few seconds the suit went from 0 to 50 knots and climbing.

Bewildered by the speed, Murati overshot the deck of the Brigand as she rose.

Seeing the ship pass beneath her was amazing.

No number of diagrams and schematics could measure up to seeing a colossal ship cutting through the water with her own eyes. From above the Brigand did not look like the eccentric, boxy ship with the triangular conning tower and fins and its angled deck profile. It was a beast, roaring through the currents, protecting hundreds of people who now called it their home.

Bereft of the ship’s protection, floating freely in the ocean, Murati set her sights higher.

Her cameras analyzed the emptiness above using several different predictive models.

She got her rifle ready, and prepared to shoot higher, when she received a quick alert.

From below, the Brigand fired something out of a launcher built into the upper hull.

Murati’s rear and leg cameras followed the little object as it rose in a torrent of bubbles.

There was a request for laser communication. Murati accepted.

A picture of a professional-looking blond woman with a concerned expression appeared.

“Murati, can you hear me?”

Though the voice was immaculate, the image was lagging.

“I can hear you, but the video is practically a static image. It’s a good angle of you though!”

For the next few moments the image updated and froze on the Captain’s sighing face.

“We can’t overcome the effect of biomass. It’s fine. I’m glad we can do this much.”

“How’s the Leviathan doing?” Murati asked.

“At your depth, you’ll see it in about five minutes. Brace yourself, Murati. Don’t be a hero; we have Alexandra Geninov on standby with a torpedo ready. If you can draw it away from the ship, enough for the torpedo blast to not affect us, that’s all that you need to do. Don’t overdo it!”

Captain Korabiskaya was clearly worried about her.

It was an unpleasant situation. But there was no ‘being ready’ beneath the sea. Something could happen at any moment, whether it was enemy ships or Leviathans. Humans needed to sleep, to eat, to be distracted, to be disorganized. At some point, they would have had to fight under some imperfect circumstances. If this was their wake-up call, it was as gentle a one as they would get.

“I’ll be fine, Captain. I’m sure you’ve read my file. I’ve got experience.”

“I read your file. And that’s why I’m worried. Don’t be a hero. Korabiskaya, out.”

The Captain’s flickering, lagging image finally disappeared from the screen.

Murati clicked one of the buttons on her joystick to bring up weapon controls and the rifle camera. She then clicked another to extend the Cheka’s built-in hydrophone. All other audio feeds from cameras and monitor windows quieted so she could listen to the hydrophone attentively.

She caught the haunting cry of the Leviathan moments later.

A sound like a guttural, shrieking roar silenced everything else on the hydrophone. At first it sounded like the growl of a beast, low and gurgling, but as the cry tapered off it almost sounded human. It pierced through her body. She felt the roar right in the center of her gut. It was sickening.

“Endure it, Murati.” She said, catching herself shaking.

Her computers immediately pinpointed the source of the sound.

“It’s here. We can do this.”

Murati engaged full thrust and the Cheka soared into the dim blue above.

She wouldn’t see a diving Leviathan until it was dangerously close.

According to the computer visibility was fifty meters.

And the approaching object was bearing in at 60 knots.

“I’ll see it for a second.”

Murati grit her teeth. She stared through her cameras out to the water, helpless.

Suddenly, a yellow square on her screen appeared as the computer tagged an approaching object. While she still couldn’t see it, the computer flashed this warning when it was almost assured that the object matched all of the predictions of its behavior. Murati moved to center her camera and lifted her assault rifle to target the invisible enemy before it came within visual range.

Three rounds of supercavitating ammo flew off into nothingness.

That yellow square on the screen was followed by a rapidly reddening orange square.

“No chance!”

Crying out, she pulled the controls to the side with all her strength, smashing the pedals.

Engaging every Vernier thruster she could, Murati threw the Cheka sideways.

A massive, serpentine creature swept past, its sharp maw missing her by mere centimeters.

The Cheka shook and tumbled in the wake of the beast as it descended.

Murati knew this was only the beginning. She made a second sudden thrust away.

The thin, spiked end of a long tail swung contemptuously at her and missed her entirely.

Water evaporated in the red-hot wake of its supercavitating attack.

This caused enough of a disturbance for Murati to briefly lose control again.

As the Cheka struggled to correct itself, Murati opened fire.

A dozen rounds of supercavitating ammo hurtled toward the monster in a wild arc.

The Leviathan continued to charge with all of its weight, ignoring the blasts blossoming in the waters around it. It charged toward the Brigand on a collision course.

Holding her breath with terror, Murati continued shooting.

According to the computer she was landing shot after shot on the enemy mass.

“Come on! I’m shooting you! Fight me!”

She shouted at the top of her lungs as if the monster could hear.

At the speed it was moving, it was upon the Brigand in seconds.

One swing of its tail and the entire journey would end.

“Leave them alone!”

Massive amounts of bubbles blew out from around the monster.

The Leviathan suddenly swerved over the flat plane atop the Brigand’s conning tower.

Twisting its long, armored body in the water, the beast started to climb surface-ward.

Engaging its bio-hydrojets, all of its bulk thrust back toward the Cheka.

Murati had made an impression on it.

She felt both terror and relief in equal measure. Her rifle must have struck it and alerted it to the danger the Cheka posed. Enough for it to avoid the much larger and more obvious Brigand. Had it not been deterred it could have easily crashed through the conning tower and crippled the ship entirely. She got lucky. She got so lucky that she felt the anxiety brimming under her skin.

Soaked in sweat, her bodysuit never feeling so tight against her skin as it was then.

Murati now had to survive being the Leviathan’s main concern.

Her eyes drew wide as the enraged beast neared her. Her hands were shaking.

The Barding-class were serpentine fish the size of a Cutter or a Frigate, known for their armor. Their heads were sleek, whale-like with massive maws full of teeth and six eyes set in bony ridges. They had four sets of biological hydrojets fed through intakes under the head and neck and could suck in through the mouth to pump more water. Because its armor was segmented, its entire body was flexible, leading to its common attack: it could swing its tail so fast it supercavitated.

It moved too fast, and visibility was too low; Murati could not tell how injured it was.

There was a fin missing from its body, and she thought she saw a gash on its head.

Karuniya was the Leviathan expert, not Murati; but from dating her on and off for a few years, she had heard enough idle lunchtime chatter and oceanography pillow talk to surmise a few things herself. For a Leviathan to venture into the lightless aphotic zone from the bright, food-rich waters of the photic zone near the surface, it meant that either there was prey it was chasing, or it had been driven off. On the dive, its armor would be damaged by the higher pressure of the aphotic zone, but for pieces of its body to be missing entirely meant that something above had attacked it.

Something bigger and stronger even than the monster she was now seeing.

Perhaps a mating battle? Perhaps territorial conflict between broods? It could be anything.

This terrifying conjecture did not really change what was in front of her.

But when faced with such insanity hurtling toward her at 60 knots, anyone’s brain would race to explain what was happening and put it in context. And holding on to an idea that this was a natural phenomenon helped her remain steady. This was an animal, acting like an animal.

Like any animal, it could die from violence.

At the speed it was moving, Murati had a scant few seconds to react whenever she saw it.

USL-96 roared, shaking the water around it and sucking more for its hydrojets.

Its sleek maw parted to reveal rows of saw-like teeth.

Murati thrust herself away from the beast’s second charge, aiming the assault rifle down at its head and releasing bursts of practiced gunfire. The 37mm shells impacted and exploded all over the armored hide taking bits and pieces off it. In pain, the beast roared and averted its advance.

Instead, it twisted over itself twice over in a loop meant to gather momentum.

From below, the tail swung with even greater speed.

All the spikes that had grown on the end of its tail launched toward Murati.

A hail of projectiles suddenly peppered the water around her.

Like the tail itself, the spikes sheared the water with a supercavitation effect.

Six or seven tracking boxes appeared for the briefest instant.

Murati had no time to dodge. She briefly let go of her assault rifle.

She engaged the diamond cutters on both of the Cheka’s arms and swung them.

Two spikes burst apart on impact with the cutters, scattering bony shrapnel into the water.

A third spike sliced the side of the Cheka’s leg, causing a brief alert on her console.

“Cosmetic damage.” She mumbled to herself in a rush.

Done spinning, the Leviathan threw itself directly up at her once more.

Murati grabbed hold of her assault rifle again, floating in the nearby water.

Holding it in one hand, she thrust aside the Leviathan’s bulk as it stormed past her.

“Not this time!”

In a mighty effort, she thrust the Cheka back toward the monster, fighting its current.

Her joysticks gave her stiff resistance, and the entire cockpit was shaking.

Groaning with effort, Murati forced the Cheka’s arm through the currents and bubbles.

For a brief moment, her diamond cutter entered the Leviathan’s armor.

As the monster rocketed past the Cheka, its flank sliced wide open.

A burst of red fluid spread into the ocean around her, tinging the water and thickening it.

There was no time to admire the wound.

Murati was blown away as the monster made a sudden turn, blasting water everywhere.

Her diamond cutter’s chain and blade went flying in pieces, shattered by the force.

She struggled to right herself, watching the beast flail away, increasingly erratic.

On the hydrophone nothing could be heard but overwhelming cries of agony.

Murati had finally inflicted a real injury.

Another alert appeared on her screens: red biomass warnings.

She ignored them. She knew exactly where the red had come from.

Diagnostics were okay on everything that mattered. All thrusters green.

The Leviathan swam up surface-ward and disappeared from Murati’s physical sights.

Her computer did its best to continue tracking it.

She then received an alert about an object below.

Briefly switching to the underside cameras, Murati saw a little drone creeping its way up.

From a beacon on the machine’s round hull, a laser shot up to the Cheka.

Murati accepted the connection, and the smug expression of a brown-haired young woman appeared on her screen. She was making a gesture with her index and middle finger spread in a sideways V-shape over one of her odd eyes. Because of the lag, she was frozen like this for a while.

“Yo! It’s Alex, resident torpedo wizard! I need more distance for a shot ‘Rati!”

It took Murati a moment to process that.

“Ratty? Anyway I’m not sure I can get you a lot of space here. Hold your fire for now.”

“Heroics are banned, miss!” Alex said. “Captain’s orders! Let me shoot it down!”

“Too late for that!”

Murati engaged full thrust, breaking the laser connection momentarily.

From above, the Leviathan dove straight down.

Murati swept horizontally away from the Leviathan, avoiding the toothy maw and the wake of the leviathan’s charge. Her gut reaction had been perfect. She had gotten familiar enough with the Cheka’s weight, and seen enough of the Leviathan’s wakes, to dodge with time to spare.

She was steady enough to spot the Leviathan twist much tighter than before.

Unlike its previous charges, it recovered exceedingly quickly, and its tighter turn radius allowed it to throw its maw back toward the Cheka in an instant. It was no longer just charging.

It was chasing.

Those teeth bore down on Murati’s rear thrusters far sooner than she had imagined.

Now her gut had been completely wrong. She was certain she would be struck.

“Come on! Give it everything!”

A notification appeared on one of her consoles.

In the heat of the moment, Murati glanced at it briefly as she did with all her other alerts.

Energy Recovery System: Fully Charged. Deployable power available.

On her joystick, a green light shone from an out-of-place, additional button.

Heedless of what it would do, Murati jabbed the button with her finger.

All of her diagnostics screamed; power output to the main engines rose sharply.

Murati thrust straight up.

There was such a burst of power from the engine she nearly lost control.

Beneath her, the Leviathan that was about to bifurcate her hurtled well below her.

Once more it made it a tight turn with its long body.

When it swung back toward Murati she had renewed confidence in the Cheka’s power.

The Leviathan’s maw snapped several meters over the Diver’s head.

In one fluid motion she avoided the charge and swung her remaining diamond cutter.

Red biomass burst from the Leviathan’s underbelly.

Suffering further injury, the Leviathan roared and thrashed, swinging its tail, blowing water through its jets haphazardly, snapping its jaws. Witnessing the monster throwing its body and stirring up the water around it, Murati could feel its anger palpably, vibrating through her suit.

One of her eyes darted to the diagnostics.

She had 80% ERS power remaining. After that it would have to recharge.

Which meant fighting the Leviathan as fiercely as she had all throughout, on less power.

Unable to reconnect to the laser drone for assistance and forced to make a snap decision, Murati threw herself back into the fray to force a close fight. Assault rifle in one hand, and her diamond cutter extended in the second, she peppered the Leviathan with bullets while closing in.

A series of titanic exchanges ensued.

The Leviathan was no longer charging. Twice injured by the Cheka, it had coiled itself in defense, and cornered as it was, began throwing its jaws and swinging its tail at the Cheka while floating in place. Empowered by the ERS, the Cheka was moving faster than Murati had ever seen a Diver move. It was already quick, much quicker than a Strelok, but with the additional energy, she was moving so fast her guts were shaking. She rolled out of the way of the jaws, strafed around the massive tail, closing meter by meter with each evasive maneuver she performed. Each time the Leviathan swung, she deftly outmaneuvered it, and the beast struggled to launch another blow.

Counting the meters as she danced closer, Murati’s eyes darted between cameras, diagnostics, overlays. She had become the machine. Those were her eyes, and she could work her eyes, and she could think, and she could move her “body” and it was simultaneous. The Leviathan’s jaws flexed less, its neck muscles tightened, its tail swung more limply.

Holding her breath with anticipation, Murati made it inside the monster’s range.

She lifted her diamond saw to strike the scar on its head.

One of her monitors switched to a camera with a purple overlay on the image.

Glowing veins on the Leviathan’s body were highlighted in this view.

She was distracted just long enough for the Leviathan to draw its head back.

Her enemy was giving her the most desperate form of its fury, fear and respect.

It’s discharging agarthicite!

Murati saw the Leviathan’s head take over the entire forward camera, opening its massive maw. Inside, tongues of indigo-colored bioelectricity played about the Leviathan’s flesh, jumping and sizzling and collecting with greater intensity as the Leviathan charged its legendary breath weapon. Its bio-jets seized, and its tail hung limp at its back. All of the body seemed to suddenly find support only in the head, eyes drawing back and glowing blank, jaw spreading ever further.

All of the Leviathan’s energy and whatever consciousness it had was focused on this.

In much the same way that all the energy she had spent had gone out in the ERS burst.

For a moment, Murati understood something about the monster she had only known intellectually. Bearing witness to the beast in such a close battle, all by herself, alone in her suit of armor in the middle of the vast ocean that would not, in a just world, have had to be her only home.

Murati realized that these monsters had taught her people so much about their world.

“Sorry; too many people are relying on me right now. I can’t take pity on you.”

Faced with the teeming mass of annihilating agarthic energy, Murati did not turn away.

From behind the Cheka’s hip armor, she withdrew a grenade and hurled it at the monster.

Blowing the last of the ERS battery, she threw herself back, firing her AK-96 into the maw.

With an explosive force that could have opened a hole in a Frigate’s armor, the grenade detonated inside the Leviathan’s maw and split its jaw open, blasted its eyes out of their sockets, and launched its brains out into the water through the gash in its head. While much of the armored shell survived, the soft flesh was mutilated by the pressure blast. All of the agarthic energy that it had been pulling from the minerals in its body discharged haphazardly. Throughout the creature’s body, hex-shaped holes were scored by the menacing, flickering wisps of indigo energy that discharged red biomass like geysers. Robbed of life, the corpse twitched with fading agarthic energy, and then it lay there, briefly floating, then slowly falling toward the ocean floor.

All of her fear washed off her, leaving her feeling an anxious reverence.

“I’m sorry it’s come to this. Thanks for everything you taught us.”

She felt compelled to say that, witnessing the horrifying result of her violence.

Her ERS battery was fully drained, and the Cheka switched out of its highest performance mode, and back to merely being a bit quicker than a Strelok. Murati sighed. Though she hated the sight of the monstrous corpse and the red biomass spreading from it, she allowed herself to float, to breathe. The machine was no longer her body. She was sweating, and she wanted to vomit.

Once more, the floating drone managed to catch up to her and connect her to the Brigand.

She saw a wide camera shot of the bridge crew clapping their hands and celebrating.

It then zoomed in and focused, side by side, on the bright and smiling face of Captain Korabiskaya and the slightly smirking Commissar Bashara, seated at the highest point in the bridge. Together, they offered Murati two pairs of clapping hands, the same as everyone else.

“I don’t want to reward your recklessness, but that was brilliant.” Said the Captain.

“I will add to your record that on short notice and low on resources, you managed to single-handedly stop a Barding-class Leviathan, Lieutenant.” The Commissar said. “Thank you for your cooperation, and I hope you’ll forgive our Captain for the disorganized nature of this operation.”

Captain Korabiskaya turned to the Commissar in shock, raising her hands defensively.

“Hey, what do you mean? It wasn’t my fault! Everything was a mess because of that bastard slave-driver Nagavanshi. I needed to follow the itinerary, it’s not like I could delay the launch–”

The Commissar’s cat ears twitched with anger.

She turned a look on the Captain that instantly shut her up.

“We’ll discuss that later. Return to the ship, Lieutenant, unless you like the water.”

Murati laughed at the two commanders. “Oh I hate it out here right now. I’m heading back. You know, it’s good to see the command staff are getting along so well in my absence!”

Both Commissar Bashara and Captain Korabiskaya turned evil looks at the screen.

Feeling quite happy-go-lucky, Murati simply shut off the video feed.

Wasting no more time in the increasingly reddening waters in the middle of the Thassalid plain, Murati navigated the Cheka back to the Brigand, swam beneath it and up into an open chute. Beneath her the hatch closed, the water drained, and the pressure was adjusted. Then the top hatch reopened, and Murati used handholds on the side of the chute and climbed up into the hangar.

As soon as the head cleared the top of the deployment chute she saw the crowd gathered around her. The crowd gave her space as the Cheka took its first steps into the hangar. She bowed the suit’s body and opened the hatch, since it seemed like everyone wanted to greet her. When she stepped off the cockpit chair and out into the light of the hangar, everyone clapped.

“Murati!”

From among the mechanics and engineers, a familiar dark-haired young woman leaped up onto the Cheka’s knee and seized Murati by the TBT half-jacket, baring teeth at her.

“I turn my back for thirty minutes, and you do this!”

“Karu, I–”

Karuniya’s eyes moistened, but rather than cry, she pulled Murati into an abrupt kiss.

People started to cheer. A few of the younger comrades turned away with embarrassment.

“Welcome back, hero.”

Karuniya smiled.

Her relief that Murati had returned safe seemed to overcome her anger.

“I’ll leave the heroics to someone else for the next few days. Sound like a plan?”

Murati scratched the back of her head and acted cute.

Karuniya let go of her jacket and dusted it off. “That’s a deal then.”


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.7]

War and tragedy didn’t simply alter space. In a sense, they also altered time.

The threshold between an ending and a beginning was thin, ludicrous, and maddening.

A step through the invisible, past a shadow; the delineation between an era and the next.

Nobody had quite come to terms with the fullness of their condition before the ship had begun to move. In the preceding days they had not been able to; and the maybe in the subsequent days they would fail to do so as well. When war came to Thassal, everyone’s connection to their previous future had shattered. Since then they were just pantomiming with fate.

Needless to say, nobody was truly situated when Brigand began disembarking procedures.

They had a tight schedule, and a crew that was not used to launching a “brand new ship.”

So there were a lot of sailors lollygagging still, but three conditions had been met.

First, the essential bridge crew was assembled. They had the Captain, Commissar, Helmsman, and Communications, and they also had Sonar operational. Those were the basics for running the ship.

 Second, the Reactor crew had come with the ship from Solstice.

So they were accounted for, already in position, and knew what they were doing.

Third and finally, Specialist Semyonova’s beautiful, calming voice had called out to everyone on the ship to please access their nearest terminal or use any portable minicomputer to answer a roll call, which she then initiated. Within moments, the entire roster was accounted for.

At that point it didn’t matter if the sailors were looking for their rooms still.

Most of the systems were automatic anyway.

And the ship absolutely had to move.

Perhaps before anyone could regret what they had chosen.

As suddenly as everything else, and with as little fanfare as everything else, the Brigand undocked from Thassal Station. It was officially in open water and would officially begin its months long journey through the heart of the Empire. In the same confusion, surreality and haste that had characterized the rest of the crew’s life for the past few days, the Brigand now departed.

When it did, Murati Nakara did not quite notice it because she was passing through one of the workshops leading to the hangar. She marveled at all the amazing tools they had and became excited when she walked down to the massive, wide-open hangar to inspect the Divers they had. The Hangar was bigger than the Formidable’s, which was impressive considering the Brigand was the size of a cruiser. Big, but not dreadnought big.

There was equipment everywhere, being moved, or set up, by a platoon of sailors, so the final workspaces were still heavily in flux.

Most of the sailors on the Brigand were mechanics or engineers, and it felt like Murati was staring at all of them working right there. She felt a different sensation from her past forays. She felt proud.

This was her ship, in part, that these folks were setting in order.

She almost wanted to help them. To pick up a pneumatic bolt-driver and get to work on the gantries and get the charging stations cabled-up and tested. That was not her role, however.

It was at that point that a message finally went out.

“UNX-001 Brigand has officially departed Thassal Station!”

It was the saccharine voice of Specialist Semyonova, handling bridge communications.

Murati whistled with amazement. She had felt nothing stirring in the secondary hull.

Just like that, without even knowing it, she was now at sea. Her mission had begun.

Semyonova continued with an update on initial crew duties.

“All sailors not otherwise engaged will have an hour of free time to inspect their quarters and the amenities of the ship, before joining their work cohorts for their first briefing. All officers not otherwise engaged will have an hour of free time as well. All essential personnel have already been engaged with their work cohorts and will have two hours of free time available in four hours.”

“How organized. Launch is really going smoothly, isn’t it?” Murati asked.

“I guess so. But nothing announced for essential officers?”

At Murati’s side, Karuniya was also inspecting the ship with ample curiosity.

They had been basically inseparable since their cohabitation agreement.

Though they would work different roles, they could at least live together in their habitat.

“Important officers would already be in the bridge. I’m guessing we’re not essential.”

“You’re the First Officer Murati. You should put in an appearance at the Bridge.”

“I will! I need to inspect the Divers first. I’m also Diver Leader, you know?”

“You’re just a hopeless military nerd.”

Ignoring Karuniya’s bullying remarks, Murati headed to the center of the hangar.

“Can you go ahead and see if our stuff got to the room ok?”

“Seriously? You’re going to treat me like the disposable wife already?”

Karuniya had a sly face on. Murati felt uncomfortable with the teasing.

“I’m really not trying to, and I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“You’re so defensive! I’m just teasing. You better make this up to me though.”

Murati smiled nervously. “I’ll think of something.”

Still grinning like a devil, Karuniya willingly left Murati’s side.

At the hangar there were six Divers in place, five of them in various states of disarray. Only one had a complete gantry and was set in its proper place, with seemingly all of its parts assembled. The rest were sitting against corners for lack of proper gantries to dock to, missing weapons and even limbs, and had their battery packs uncharged and laid out nearby. It was a mess, but it was exciting to see the Streloks that she may someday command into battle, in their nascent state.

However, it was the remaining Diver, the assembled one, that really caught her eye.

This Diver looked like an entirely different model. It was not just a Strelok.

Rather than the almost oblong shape of the Strelok’s central body, the new model had a somewhat more triangular body shape, with more angled surfaces forward and flatter surfaces in the back. The head, rather than being flat and square, was shaped more like a triangle as well, with a central eye and multiple rotating eyes. Angled points stretched from the “cheeks” of this “head”.

While the arms were slightly sleeker, they had armored extensions covering the elbow verniers, and the legs and feet much the same. It was a much more aggressive design. She could see that the back had been completely redesigned as well. The rear flaps flared out a bit more, and there were five hydrojets rather than four. Two were set on either side of a new central jet. The intakes had been integrated into the main hull rather than being run out to attachments on the hips and upper chest. There was an extra intake around the “collarbone” of the Diver’s torso for the extra jet.

“Diver Leader Nakara, right? Taken in by the new model?”

Coming in from behind her, a man called for her attention. He wore a yellow and orange work vest over the white and blue of the fake company they pretended to be, “TBT.” He had a hard hat and safety goggles, but removed them when he approached, revealing a strong, square face with a friendly smile and slick blond hair. He reached out, and she shook his hand.

“That’s me. Are you a mechanic?” Murati asked.

“Engineer, actually. I’m a Warrant Officer instead of a Sailor. Gunther Cohen.”

“Nice to meet you, Warrant Officer Cohen.”

He raised his arms behind the back of his head and laughed, in an affable gesture.

“Nah, nah, call me Gunther! We’re going to be at sea for a while, you know?”

“I suppose so. I’ve never served on a ship for long enough to get over the formalities before.” Murati replied. All of her missions lasted days or weeks. This was her first long-term post.

“Then let’s get over them right now. Most of the comrades here are on a first-name basis.”

He had such a chummy look on his face that she couldn’t help but be nice about it.

“Well then, I suppose you can call me Murati then.” She said.

Gunther nodded his head in acknowledgment and turned right around to the Diver.

“In truth, I had been hoping that you would pilot this one.”

Murati had not really given it any thought.

She figured they would be assigned machines.

“The Diver Leader should get the best machine. It’s only proper, isn’t it? And in truth, this one’s a little tougher to handle than the Streloks. It could use somebody with a bit more experience in the cockpit.”

“So it’s not a Strelok, then?”

 Just by looking at the machine it was plain to see that it was not a Strelok.

Murati still felt compelled to ask the question out of her own curiosity.

Gunther seemed to know a lot about the suit, and he was open about his desire to show it.

“Well, we can’t deny that the Strelok is in the DNA of all our Diving suits, the same way the Rabochiy is in the Strelok’s DNA. But they’re vastly different machines. We made this one to really push Union war manufacturing to its limits. We thought, if we could imagine anything we wanted, without worrying about the cost; and there it is, the ISU-100 Cheka.”

“What does ISU stand for? Diver models had UND designations before.” Murati asked.

“Ah, I guess a connoisseur would stumble into the grimmest part of this huh?”

Murati could not decipher Gunther’s bashful response to her question.

“Well, we don’t have to go into it, I was just curious.”

“No, it’s ok. I helped with this project for the past few months, to get it over the finish line. A couple of different groups worked on it, and we kind of put together everything at the end. But the genesis of the idea was for the Cheka to be a small production line of Internal Suppression Units for the Ashura’s security division. It had to be better than a Strelok, to suppress a mutiny, in case something happened where some rebel force got ahold of our current ships and divers.”

Murati’s eyes drew wide with the recognition of this machine’s purpose. She supposed even in the kind and caring society that the Union tried to be, there were people who were tasked with upholding the peace, and they had to be prepared for the worst possible circumstances. At least she could take heart that the machine would not be used on Union citizens now.

“So that’s why it is an ISU. It’s not a Union Navy Diver, but an Internal Suppression Unit.”

Gunther finished his explanation running his hand through his hair, looking offput.

“It’s fine.” Murati said. “Thank you for explaining it to me. I don’t hold anything against you or against that machine. I’m happy that it will get to see a more worthy use. I will pilot it.”

If for no other reason that no one else should be responsible for that kind of firepower.

“Great!” Gunther clapped his hands together and brightened up instantly. “I saw data from your recovered Strelok in Thassal. For someone who had never fought a real battle in a Strelok before, you showed a lot of potential. And, I mean, I say that as number-crunching nerd– I’m absolutely terrible as a pilot. From the data, I think you’ll love what the Cheka can do.”

“At a glance, it looks much more sophisticated. But what can it do, better than a Strelok?”

Gunther rubbed his hands. “I’m glad you asked. The Cheka is a meter taller than a Strelok, but it’s actually faster. It has more rear thrust, stronger verniers for better snap maneuverability in combat, and instead of using those huge battery packs, it has Agarthic energy cells built-into the works of the hull and backpack. That’s how we saved so much on space and weight in the design.”

“I see, but then, that means the power unit is not interchangeable. So if it gets damaged, it has to be repaired in place, and then it can’t just be hot swapped in the field, isn’t that true?”

Almost thoughtlessly, Murati came out with a criticism that floored Gunther.

“I mean– well, yes. That’s true. But the performance gains are crazy to make up for it!”

“And it has all the standard weapons, correct?”

“It can use the AK-pattern rifles, and tube-launched torpedoes. Um, well, funny you ask, but another place where we differ from the Strelok is encumbrance. It can’t really support huge cannons or a lot of the shoulder weapons. The Strelok just has a heavier, stabler center mass.”

Gunther sounded embarrassed every time he had to mention a flaw in the Cheka.

Murati understood the changes, however. This was a Diver meant for a new era, when outmaneuvering enemy fire and clashing with enemy Divers would become more important. It was forward-looking and highly specialized. Maybe it really was a suit tailored for her own ideas.

“That’s fine. I would love to take it out for a test.” Murati said.

“Absolutely! I can get authorization right now.” Gunther said.

He patted her on the back in a cheerful fashion, as if they were all best friends who had agreed to go to the bar for some drinks. Murati was nearly swept up in his frenetic energy.

“Wait, right now?”

As she asked that terribly important question, there was a sudden blaring of klaxons.

Everyone in the hangar stopped what they were doing.

First they looked up, at the alarm lights and sounds being played.

They then turned to the nearest console for an explanation.

For messages like this, a video from the bridge crew would play.

Soon enough, the pretty, round face of Communications Officer Semyonova appeared, her blond hair expertly tied up, her makeup neatly applied. Many of the sailors were captivated with her and began to joke that being startled by a test of the emergency system was a small price to pay for getting to finally see the face of the beautiful siren-like voice that had been bossing them around. For a moment, as they watched her appear, they smiled and waved at the screens.

It was not a test.

“Battle stations! All crew, battle stations!”

All of the sailors, men, women, both and neither, who had been expressing their feelings for Semyonova, practically fell over backwards on their discarded tools and messy work areas. They scrambled to find something to do or some place to be. Many had not been fully briefed. While the chaos reigned in Engineering, Semyonova continued to explain the situation.

“At roughly 1135 hours, our bridge crew detected the active biosonar of a Barding-class Leviathan approaching from roughly north-northwest in what we assume is a steep, high speed dive. Due to our heading, we must assume we have now been detected by the Leviathan. We don’t know the reason for the Leviathan’s appearance, but it is possibly injured, and therefore erratic and aggressive. We are now 10 kilometers from Thassal Station and must assume we will be the only responders. By procedure we have labeled this Leviathan “Union-Sighted Leviathan 96” or USL-96. All crew assume battle-stations and await further orders for action against USL-96.”

Semyonova’s face vanished from the consoles, which now displayed diagrams drawn up by the predictive computers. This showed the Brigand and its heading, and the potential route of collision with the Leviathan. They would do their best not to near it, but the Leviathan moved faster and with greater agility than any ship, so it was likely they would have to euthanize it.

Murati ran from Gunther’s side and made for the nearest console.

Authorizing herself as the First Officer she was able to get a priority line to the bridge.

In a moment, Captain Korabiskaya’s face appeared on the screen.

“Lieutenant, good to see you. I’m glad you were in the Hangar as I assumed.”

“I was inspecting the Divers. I apologize for not coming up.” Murati said.

There was no aggression whatsoever in the Captain’s response.

“It’s all fine. We expected to have more time to sort things out. We’ve barely left port!”

Murati nodded. “Ma’am, I need to deploy in the Cheka.”

Captain Korabiskaya drew back with surprise at this sudden demand.

“That experimental Diver in the equipment list? Is it even set up yet?”

“It is completely ready.”

In terms of firepower, any ship could potentially kill a Leviathan. However, firepower was the least important factor in a confrontation between humans and beasts. Larger vessels suffered much more from the impacts and attacks of Leviathans. They presented larger targets that a Leviathan’s biosonar would interpret as another Leviathan class enemy, and it would bring out the worst and most targeted of their aggression. Bigger, slower ships could not avoid a Leviathan easily, and might suffer terrible damage trying to fight off the faster, more flexible creature.

If they had a fleet, they could use their faster escort ships to engage the monster.

They did not have a fleet. They had one large ship, and Divers.

Murati’s heart was full of determination, and her face reflected it.

She believed strongly that if she did not protect everyone their mission could be over.

Captain Korabiskaya seemed to sense the stubbornness engraved in her brows and lips and sighed with exhaustion. “Lieutenant, I’m hesitant to authorize this. Right now nothing is set up, you’ll have no backup out there.” She said. “We need to get everyone organized, and then–”

“I’ve got enough help right here. Gunther!”

Murati turned around. Gunther was still near the Cheka, standing around in confusion as the world moved at a frenetic pace around him. Calling his name seemed to snap him out of his anxiety and he ran over to the console. When he laid eyes on the Captain, he immediately saluted.

 “What was all that about formalities?” Murati said.

“It’s the Captain! It’s different!” He said stiffly.

“Captain,” Murati turned back to the console and locked eyes with Korabiskaya. “This man worked on the Cheka. He knows more than just what’s on the datasheets or programmed into the computers. Gunther, do you think the Cheka could stand up to a Barding-class Leviathan?”

Gunther scoffed. “It was designed to fight Streloks 1 against 3 and win, of course it can!”

He collected himself immediately and made a nervous gesture at the Captain.

Murati gestured with her palm up toward Gunther and winked at the Captain.

“I have Gunther here who will help me deploy. And the Cheka can handle the rest.”

“You’re too stubborn, Murati Nakara. You’ll have to work on that when you return.”

Captain Korabiskaya’s gaze avoided her, and her lips turned in a worried expression.

At that point, the video feed cut off, and a message authorizing the launch appeared.

On the Cheka’s gantry, the locks were undone automatically by the bridge crew.

The suit’s heavily angled forward surfaces moved to reveal a hatch, allowing entry.

Murati was still dressed in the TBT half-jacket and pants, but she wore a full bodysuit under it, and told herself this was adequate enough for a snap deployment. Without changing into a diving suit, she rushed over the front of the gantry, climbed up to the Cheka’s hull and slipped into the cockpit. Behind her, the frantic energy of the Hangar was silenced as the hatch closed.

For an instant, she was alone in the pitch black. She could hardly believe where she was.

Then her instruments began to light up. It was all familiar.

She was a Diver; ready to fight.            

On one of the screens, the words ‘For the workers’ revolution!’ briefly appeared.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.6]

“So this is it, huh? At long last I get to meet the UNX-001 Brigand.”

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya walked down a long chute with displays projecting camera feeds and diagrams of the ship she was about to enter. There were directions keyed off her own rank that showed her the path to the bridge, inside the command pod of the Brigand. She had seen pictures of the ship — Nagavanshi would not let anyone in the crew live in peace without handing them a picture of it for some reason.

Yana’s opinion of it was simple: it looked like a piece of shit.

It was big and rectangular, clunky, reminiscent of an old converted hauler design.

The Union progressed well past those kinds of ships after the revolution.

So from the exterior alone, it felt like an anachronism.

She supposed that was part of the camouflage.

One of the directives had been that the crew of the Brigand needed to dress like a private company, rather than a military operation. As such, on the eve of their departure, everyone had been issued a uniform for a front company: Treasure Box Transports, with a gaudy TBT logo. The uniform for the bridge crew, like Yana, was a teal-blue half jacket with a sleeveless zip-down white shirt and a teal-blue skirt or pants, worn over their bodysuits, wetsuits or swimsuits of choice.

“I suppose I’m a big-shot company woman now.” Yana said.

Nothing had ever felt more ridiculous than pretending to be a capitalist.

Thankfully, she had some luggage. She brought a uniform and normal clothes.

As she crossed the docking chute into the ship itself, she found herself in a cramped hallway with bulkhead doors on every side. This was the edge of the “primary hull” and beyond it was the inhabited “secondary hull” of the ship, where everything vital was, and where most of their time would be spent. Beyond the docking room was the lobby of the secondary hull arrival area, where a gaggle of sailors congregated and seemed to be making acquaintances. Yana saw many fresh faces in there. Many sailors saluted her, which she turned down with a casual wave of the hand.

“Don’t be too formal right now. Save it for when we enter combat.”

The suggestion that there might be combat seemed to sober the excitable sailors.

“Captain, over here.”

There was no missing Chief of Security Akulantova, who towered over the sailors when she appeared from a bulkhead situated around the corner. She was wearing the ‘company uniform’ like the rest. However, she had a full coat, rather than the half jacket. One could appreciate how muscular she was even under concealing clothes. One curious detail about her biology took Yana by surprise. When she first entered the room her eyes turned grey for a moment: she must have brought up her secondary eyelids while getting used to the brighter lights in the lobby. Then her much more human-like blue eyes reappeared. Not once did her expression change during this.

“I would like to guide you up to the bridge. I’ve explored quite far already.” She said.

“Lead the way.” Yana said, smiling and gesturing toward the bulkheads.

Akulantova was an interesting person.

A gentle face, a charming voice, and that big body all together.

None of the parts were ill fitting. She wasn’t too big, and her voice wasn’t too chirpy and so on– Yana certainly had no criticism of her. She looked natural, the product of her labors.

Just interesting, as far as Yana was concerned.

“Captain, since we’re about to embark on a long voyage, I want to ask a question.”

“Go ahead.”

“Would you ever order me to shoot a crew member?”

They were walking down a hall in the engineering deck, to the elevator.

Yana stopped in her tracks. Maybe Akulantova was too interesting!

The Captain answered quickly and emotionally.

“Absolutely not!”

In the next instant she realized how flustered she had gotten and felt vulnerable.

Akulantova smiled at her without any apparent malice.

“Nice answer. Maybe a little naïve. Don’t worry, if I ever have to, I’ll just use this.”

The Security Chief revealed her sidearm. It was a launcher for ‘baton round’ rubber bullets.

On a ship, live ammunition was rare. It might over-penetrate, hitting crew and equipment.

Her launcher was a two-handed grenade weapon for most folks. For her, it was like a pistol.

“It might break some bones, but it won’t kill anyone.”

Yana sighed. It was hard to stay on edge when Akulantova was so oddly cheerful.

“There will certainly be difficulties ahead for us as a crew. This is a unique situation. But let’s take things calmly, as they come.” Yana said, giving Akulantova a friendly pat on the arm.

She sounded a bit stilted, but she tried to be her most Captain-ly self in that moment.

Akulantova put her rubber bullet launcher away.

“I’m glad. I will always follow the Captain’s orders, but I like when I have a nice Captain. When the Captain has a good heart, it means I can be a good-hearted Security Chief myself.”

She turned around, and whistling a quick tune, resumed leading Yana to the bridge.

As they traversed several tight hallways, Yana got the impression that while the exterior of the Brigand left a lot to be desired aesthetically, the interior was almost cozy. Many of the walls in the secondary hull had light blue coats of paint that evoked a nursery or a school. Most of the floors were a soft shade of red, maybe salmon pink. The air was treated well, it was not too dry or too humid; it recalled to her memories of living in the Academy dorm. Cramped, but homely.

That was one of the things that a technical diagram didn’t really convey.

The Brigand’s interior layout was not entirely unique. All of the day to day operations happened in compartments contained in an internal “secondary hull” surrounded by a second layer of much less traveled surfaces called the “primary hull.” Aside from the docking chutes the crew were not expected to ever be outside the secondary hull. From what Yana understood an innovation with the Brigand was that the Primary Hull had two sections along with the exterior armor. There were recovery systems in place to seal off breaches to the armor and first section of the primary hull, and route emergency ballast to the second section of the primary hull.

This meant that the Brigand could potentially take twice as much punishment as a normal vessel in combat. Given that a single torpedo at just the wrong spot could split even the most powerful vessel right in half, this was not as incredible as it sounded. Yana would still run the normal playbook: avoid combat if possible and avoid any kind of damage if possible.

Within the secondary hull, the ship was divided into several “pods.” Pods were not circular as their name would suggest — the nomenclature grew out of bathysphere designs, and once the ships of their ancestors grew into the fleets of today, it was retained. Most of them were rectangles.

The Brigand’s secondary hull was divided into two tiers. There were habitats on the top and bottom floors. Each habitat had living spaces, a bathroom with closed stall toilets and open showers, and a gathering area. Officers lived two to a room or by themselves in the top habitat; Sailors lived 4 to a room, with each person having a pod bunk with a privacy door, and a chest for personal items.

All rooms were small. The only privilege was having one to yourself, or, like the lucky lady Murati Nakara, who was on the crew roster as cohabitating with a certain Karuniya Maharapratham, being able to have a room to yourself and your wife. As the Captain, Yana had a room all to herself, but there was a second bed built-in that could be pulled out if necessary.

Apart from the habitats, the top floor housed the Command Pod, along with the Common Pod which housed the mess, infirmary, and a social area. There was also a Science & Observation Pod or “S&O” which housed the main computer racks, the labs and the all-important hydroponics section, with wall-gardens, root beds, mushroom pens, as well as the ship’s trees.

On the bottom floor, there was the Cargo & Reserves Pod or C&R, where all the goods they would need, along with spare parts and any other sort of thing were kept. Everything was stored in compacted containers and every single possible centimeter of space was used. So the part of it that was visible to the ordinary sailor was basically a cargo door with a slit in it to talk to the supply crew, who were packed inside in probably the worst conditions on the ship. C&R was particularly tight for the Brigand as they had at least 10 Diver suits packed into the back of it.

Between C&R and the ominous Reactor Pod, which was sealed off to everyone but properly accredited personnel, there was Engineering, which took up much of the lower tier. Here they kept Divers and Watercraft that would actually see combat. Engineering was composed of the Hangar and various workshops. There was space here, allegedly, to deploy 18 Divers. From the schematics, it seemed like there were only 8 deployment tubes, so the other Divers simply waited their turn — or they used the hatch for the Shuttle, and just jumped out of a moonpool into the sea.

The Hangar could be turned into a football field with some ingenuity.

They had a single Diver squadron assigned to the Brigand with 5 active-duty Divers, 1 Reserve Diver, a few suits going unused, one Shuttle, and extra space. Most of those 18 Diver suits were actually stuck in C&R, awaiting distribution to all the wonderful friends they hoped to make along the way. Having only 5 professional Divers available essentially put the Brigand on par with any other modern capital ship, which was not very impressive.

Hopefully, they would remain stealthy and avoid confrontations.

“You seem to be in your own little world, Captain!”

Akulantova smiled. They got off an elevator into the upper floor.

“Welcome to the command pod. I’ll leave you to inspect your bridge. I would like to get started configuring the security room. I like to set up the cameras just so. Good luck, Captain!”

With a big cheerful wave of her hands, Akulantova left her side.

On a nearby wall was a double-wide sliding door.

Breathing in, steadying herself, Captain Korabiskya entered her Bridge.

There were few people at their posts.

Yana was an early arrival, along with the mechanics.

The Bridge was divided into three sections, each a set of three steps down from the last. At the top, accessible through the door, was the Captain’s seat. It was a rotating chair on a solid base, with a built-in computer, and it was tilt-proof for when the ship rocked. There were additional seats that could be pulled out of the wall for the Commissar and (if present) the First Officer.

Yana took her seat.

She adjusted the armrests and the computer monitor’s angle.

Down from the Captain’s location, enough that she could see over the shoulders of her subordinates, were six stations set against the walls, three on each side. “Communications,” “Sonar and Sensor arrays,” and “Diagnostics & Electronic Warfare” stations on the left; “Torpedoes,” “Main Gunnery” and the Helmsman’s “Navigation” station on the right. Further down from them were six stations that were all for “Auxiliary Gunnery,” such as gas guns. Those six gunners could control up to twelve guns at a time with the help of software and optics. In this way, all of the vital combat functions of the ship could be directed from the Bridge itself.

Aside from the stations there were two monitors that could be pulled down from the roof. One of them was closer to the Captain, while the second on the far wall was much larger and would allow everyone in the room to see the same picture if it were used, such as for important messages.

“Helmsman, how is she? Do you think she looks fierce?”

The Captain looked down at the navigation station. Abdul Kamarik had arrived early and was on the navigation computer, hammering away at the keys and calibrating the wheel he would use to control the ship. Like Chief Akulantova, maybe he liked to set things up for himself as soon as possible. From what she could see of his screen, he was deep inside the diagnostics.

“She’s a mysterious dame, Captain.” Abdul said. “Did y’know this ship has two additional hydros on the back? That’s why we have this weird diamond rectangle looking hull, I bet.”

“Two additional jets? Are they full size?”

“Not like the other four. These extras are more Cutter-size. And the way they’re positioned, and with how inefficient the intakes to them are, they’re gonna be straining our core power when they’re active. I think these might’ve been dummied out and left there, or maybe they’re meant for short term bursts of speed. Even if they’re not all full size, running six jets is a lot of thrust.”

“That’s strange. Thank you for looking into it. I’ll make a note to follow up on this.”

He saluted her casually and started turning his wheel and documenting the results in the calibrator software. Yana saw how absorbed he was in his work and decided not to bother him.

When he first introduced himself at the Officer’s meeting, Yana had not really known what she should make of Abdul Kamarik. She was starting to think of him as someone who was very precise and knew his ships. Looking at him fiddling with the wheel, she felt assured of his ability.

Her gaze fell on the left-hand side of the room.

At first, her eyes glanced over a pair of dark, cat-like ears atop a woman’s head and it sent a shiver down her spine. That notion was dispelled quickly. When she noticed the gaze upon her, the woman at the Sonar & Sensor Array station responded with a charming, friendly smile, unlike the waifish woman who troubled Yana’s mind. Her dark hair was tied up in a bun in the back of her head with a white, lacy cloth. Her uniform was tidy, and well fitted; she had a full figure which, along with her impeccable makeup, lent her a mature, refined air, like a model in an ad campaign.

“Pleasure to meet you Captain. I love your lipstick. Coral, am I correct?”

Yana was surprised.

She had done herself up a little bit but did not think it was special at all.

“That’s right, it’s coral color, from the Rurik collection.”

“It’s the perfect color for your skin– Oh, I’m sorry, I hope that wasn’t awkward to say,”

“Ah, no it’s fine– well, thank you.”

“It’ll be fun to have a Captain who seems like a mature woman with a sense of fashion.”

She was beaming so widely, Yana almost wanted to turn away the praise.

“I try to give my crews a good time, as much as I can.” She awkwardly replied.

At that moment, the woman’s bushy tail stood on end suddenly.

“I almost forgot to introduce myself. Chief Petty Officer Fatima al-Suhar.”

Yana smiled at her. “Pleasure to meet you. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya.”

“Oh, of course I know your name Captain! How could I not?”

“At any rate,” Yana tried to steer the conversation away. She had a hunch that Fatima was prone to chiding herself for silly things. “You’re setting up your station, I see. Do you need a pair of specialized headphones? For your ears, I mean– maybe the ship wasn’t designed for–”

Fatima quickly rescued Yana from her awkward attempt at being inclusive by lifting the headphones up from the navigation computer’s controls. Each speaker was separated and included a clip that was adjustable for human ears and Shimii ears. This way, Fatima could easily listen to the hydrophone and perform all of her duties with the same degree of comfort as anyone.

“Thank you for your concern Captain. I should’ve brought it up sooner–”

“It’s fine, you’ve done nothing wrong. At ease.”

Yana smiled. She was a good soul, that Fatima. That was the Captain’s instant impression.

While the Captain was conversing with the Helmsman and the Sonar technician, there was one additional person in the command room who was making slightly irritated noises while fiddling with a console. Situated at the Torpedo computer was a tall, slim woman, with wide shoulders and long legs. Her silky brown hair had been messily braided into a bun in the back of her head, with what looked like a chain around it from which hung a little squid symbol. Her slightly angular face had a honey-brown complexion, and she had odd eyes: one brown, one blue.

“Having trouble there?” Yana asked, in good humor.

For a moment, the woman looked back at her with surprise before returning to her labors.

On the computer screen, there was a simulation of a torpedo.

She was moving around a joystick, which would be used to guide such torpedoes.

“This thing’s gate is just like, crap? I don’t know. It’s weird. I might have to pull it apart.”

“Please do not pull it apart. We can file a maintenance request.” Yana objected.

The Torpedo officer sighed and turned back around to face the Captain.

“Listen, I’m a professional gamer, ma’am. I need my joysticks to be exactly right.”

Yana directed a concerned, frowning face at her subordinate.

“You’re a torpedo tech; this isn’t a game. Name and rank, now.”

Though she could have pulled up the roster, Yana liked to hear it from the soldier’s mouth.

Again, the woman sighed with exasperation. “Chief Petty Officer Alexandra Geninov.”

Hearing that name piqued Yana’s curiosity a bit.

“Not Geninova?” She asked.

“Nope. I didn’t care about changing it.”

“Ah, I think I understand, sorry.”

“S’fine, I said I don’t care. Shit’s all fake to me.”

 Yana came from the same ethnicity as the patronymic half of Alexandra’s clearly mixed heritage. Her own surname, Korabiskaya, was easily recognizable as such. She supposed that the officer’s name indicated a softening of certain conventions in her community, which was good. It gave Yana sympathy and respect for Geninov, who had a clear grasp of herself.

“Well, I’m Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya. It is great to be working with–”

Geninov quickly worked at dismantling that bit of respect Yana had found.

“You can just call me Alex, Captain.” She tapped her fist on her chest, smiling. “Three-time winner of the All-Soviets Video Gaming Championship. And may I also add, in each of those events, I won, individually, Climbing Comrades, Constant Attack I and II, Leviathan Fury–”

“That’s great, Petty Officer.” Yana interrupted. “You will not take apart your station.”

The officer stared at her with narrowed, annoyed eyes before returning to her joystick.

Yana had never played a video game herself. She had never grown up with such things.

As such she neither knew, understood nor cared about all of this nonsense.

Judging by her fetching looks, which seemed wasted in this whole gaming scene, Alex may have been young enough to have played a lot of games in her teens. While there were definitely traits about her which seemed quite admirable, this gaming thing was a black mark far as Yana was concerned. She hoped to hear no more of it, but she knew that was wishful thinking.

She supposed this crew was going to be a handful.

Yana was already noticing a pattern. Some exceptional people here, by certain definitions.

“Communications officer isn’t here yet, so I’ll just do this myself.”

There was a minicomputer attached to the side of her chair that could be brought around to the front of the chair and locked in. Yana brought the computer forward and pushed the screen until she could lock it at a good angle for visibility and comfort. The interface was pretty standard. There was a list of programs, routines, scripts and other potential clickables, largely unadorned, which appeared before her after she authorized herself. She touched to select an item.

Bringing up the ship’s stock activities, she started to issue a ship-wide “roll call.”

It was that precise moment that a new face came tumbling into the room.

“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry for being late! It will never happen again!”

At the door, breathing so heavily she almost seemed like she would choke, was a woman in a disheveled state, her TBT half-jacket falling off her shoulders, and her beret on the floor next to her, and her long, yellow hair thrown about. Her soft, round face was quite rosy with effort, a glossy coat of red just barely applied on her lips — and shadow applied on only one eye.

Yana thought she would have looked like a very bright, bubbly girl on a good day, but this was clearly a disastrous time for her. She looked as if she had buttoned only enough of her shirt to declare herself modest, as if she had run out of time to cover her round belly; some of the bold, erotically lacy design of her swimsuit brassiere was still partially visible even despite her efforts. One wetsuit stocking was piled up around her knee, while the other had gone up as far as her thigh.

Rather than the official uniform pants or skirt, she appeared to have thrown on what seemed like tight black exercise shorts that did not really go with the cheerful colors of the company jacket. Yana wondered if the shorts were part of her wetsuit and she had run out in her unders.

Yana smiled at her.

She tried to appear gentle and understanding, but the awkwardness of the moment crooked her lips into what seemed more like a grin than the motherly face she wanted. She could not keep her eyes from wandering afield as she looked over the situation. When the young woman at the door noticed this her face blanched and she looked quite mortified. She looked down at herself, squealed, and started buttoning down her shirt.

“I’m so sorry ma’am. I ran all the way over here. I overslept. It’s my fault. I’m a dumbass. I couldn’t sleep and then I took sleeping medicine and then I slept too much– AAAAAAH!”

With the girl clearly in distress, and unable to get a word in, Yana stood up from her chair to physically console her. At first she hovered over her, but this clearly failed to have an effect, the Captain had no choice but to go for the hug. She threw her arms around the woman.

“It’s really not a big deal. Take a deep breath.” Yana said.

She patted her in the back, trying to reassure her, as well as give her a handkerchief.

As she said this however everyone else in the room was staring at the door.

“All of you have things to do!”

Upon being admonished, Fatima, Abdul and Alex turned right back around.

At these simple acts of kindness, the young woman was so deeply moved she kept crying.

“Thank you so much Captain! You’re such a professional and I don’t deserve this at all–”

The young woman wiped off the running makeup on her face with the kerchief. She then blew her nose into it and coughed into it so hard it almost appeared like she would vomit. When she handed it back, Yana threw it over her own shoulder for a cleaning drone to worry about later.

In the next instant, the young woman, her face cleaned, was suddenly all smiles.

She saluted. “I’m Signals Specialist Natalia Semyonova! May I ask one final favor for this pathetic girl standing before you? Um, can we just all put this embarrassing episode behind us, and start over? Don’t you agree Captain? And uh everyone else in the room too, right? Friends?”

 Yana cast a deathly glare at the three stooges in the nearby stations.

“I’m glad you’re feeling better dear.” Fatima replied. She sounded genuinely happy.

“I didn’t see nothin’.” Abdul said. Pretty genuine, acceptable disinterest.

“Sure.” Alex replied, grinning.

Yana put her on a mental list for lying so brazenly.

At that moment, Yana still had her arms on Natalia’s shoulders. This was unfortunate; because also at that moment, a pair of cat-like ears crossed into the room and captured Yana’s attention.

Those familiar ears were attached to a hauntingly beautiful Commissar.

A Commissar who had a low opinion of Yana and perhaps reason to suspect that she might not have good intentions in touching another crew member. The Captain’s eyes drew wide with guilt when the Commissar appeared; and the Commissar’s eyes drew wide with fury in turn.

“Captain Korabiskaya, what kind of situation have I walked into?”

Commissar Aaliyah Bashara crossed her arms and bared her fangs.

Yana raised her arms off Natalia as if she were being held up with a gun.

In such an uncomfortable scenario, she might as well have been.

“The Specialist was troubled, and I was trying to cheer her up.” Yana said.

“Cheer her up? Specialist, is this true?”

Natalia, in her continuing, near-total dishevelment, turned to the Commissar with all the blood rushing to her face, and seemed unable to respond to anything that was happening then.

“I’ll– I’ll go fix my clothes. Sorry for causing trouble!”

Aaliyah’s expression softened. Natalia walked away with a gait heavy with shame.

Leaving a void between the Commissar and the Captain.

“She’s trying very hard.” Yana said. Her voice sounded a little too desperate.

Aaliyah sighed and rubbed her own forehead with exasperation.

She accepted things, in the end.

“I’m watching you, Captain. Please behave.”

She turned and walked right back out of the bridge. Yana instantly felt as bad as Natalia seemed to. She wanted to collapse on the floor.


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.


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The Center of Gravity (75.1)

58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

In a small and dimly lit conference room, Field Marshal Haus had gathered a dozen of the greatest military minds and highest ranked officers present on Ayvartan soil, as well as Gaul Von Drachen, for a briefing on the current and next phases of the war in Ayvarta.

Though according to the original plan the war should have been well into its next evolution at this point, massive setbacks at all levels of operations had thrown the timetable into disarray, heavily taxed the supply corps and utterly disorganized the armies. In the midst of a full reinforcement and reorganization campaign, the Federation’s armed forces stalled at the edge of the desert, and watched the days pass.

Nevertheless, they had begun this grand endeavor and they could not escape it now.

“Gentlemen, in this room, we will plan the military undertaking of the millennium. We will write history itself. Our target is the most heavily defended city on the planet. I will be blunt: we are not in the position we wanted to be. I will explain everything in detail.”

Field Marshal Haus and his assistant Cathrin laid out some of the dire facts in a blunt presentation ahead of the main discussion. He paused at each to palpable discomfort from much of the room, who might have been aware of pieces, but not the overall picture, invested as they were in their own microcosms of the campaign up until then.

At each piece of data presented, Von Drachen made his own assessments about the war.

At the start of operations the Nochtish aim had been a rapid advancement that broke the defensive line of the Ayvartan borders with Cissea and Mamlakha, small neighboring territories on the same continent that were both under Nochtish influence. Through a combination of bad policy and worse execution, the Ayvartan nation had crippled its own defenses in an attempt to restructure its armed forces to a small, manageable peacetime army that could not independently threaten the political establishment. Nocht caught wind of these trends and seized the opportunity to build up their attack forces.

From Cissea and Mamlakha, the entirety of the Ayvartan border was attacked. After the border was breached, ports and infrastructure in the sparsely defended south of Ayvarta would be snatched up and repurposed immediately to support the small initial forces. Around 500,000 troops, reinforced in several stages, would progress through Ayvarta’s major cities up to fortress Solstice, where they would regroup into one massive army to lay siege to it, encircle it, destroy its walls and ultimately behead the communist forces.

Nocht had been drawn into the war relatively quickly after the defeat of the anarchists in Cissea: only two years of preparations, and the relatively small allied territories they had to work with, meant that the strategic aims had to be divided into two parts. In the first stage, a relatively small, but elite and mobile cadre of forces would break through the Ayvartan resistance, rapidly sweeping through to the edge of the Solstice Desert.

Then, the forces would meet up, regroup, and be reinforced by arriving recruits. This would turn the “Battlegroups” that were quickly assembled in Cissea and Mamlakha into three fronts: North, Center and South, each as large as all the forces assembled for the initial invasion combined, if not larger. It would be this massive army that would win the war, and the stage progression of the war was tightly planned to allow for its formation.

This was Nocht’s answer to the problem of invading a massive foreign power exclusively through the seas. Allying with the Mamlakhans and Cisseans gave Nocht their initial ports, and the hosts for their small initial forces. Those forces would be just about enough combat power to defeat the weaker, less concentrated Ayvartan formations of the demilitarization era Ayvartan army. A victory was predicted for late 2030, early 2031.

However, Field Marshal’s Haus’ new data threw the entire original plan into doubt.

Over the course of the first month of the Solstice War, the Federation had been dealt well over 150,000 casualties, with at least a quarter of those permanent (resulting in death or such utter disfigurement as to render military service impossible). These were combat losses, Von Drachen noted. They did not count MIAs and various categories of non-combat injury that Nocht did not want to acknowledge. In addition to those losses, the loss or massive damage to several major ports, such as those in Bada Aso and Rangda, to the Ayvartan retreats and schemes had created a complete supply debacle and cost every formation most of the reinforcements scheduled to help complete first phase objectives.

This was exacerbated by the struggle of the Nochtish merchant marine, well paid for this purpose, to supply and transport the projected massive armies that Nocht desired on the mainland. Von Drachen wasn’t out on the field, so he ate well, but he wondered how his men were doing. He knew they were not reinforced: the next slide showed a massive downward trend in the projected force composition. The main Nochtish force was edited to be 750,000 strong, still somewhat larger than Solstice’s frontline army at the moment. But far short of the 1.5 million that they had wanted to fully overwhelm Ayvarta with.

Leaving Nocht mostly undefended, they could have 1 million troops on Ayvarta by the summer, with the prospect of 1 million more by the spring of 2032. And they could not leave Nocht undefended anymore. Not with the Arctic battle launched by Ayvarta’s new Helvetian allies. At the earliest, Nocht could have its 1.5 million by late 2031, if that.

As the slides continued, they resembled a macabre show, and the pretty blond Cathrin and the telegenic Marshal at her side were the main actors and stage movers in the play.

Von Drachen would not have called Haus “a pretty boy” but others might have done so in derision, were it not for his martial achievements. He was big without being brutish, sleek and handsome, well manicured and long haired without being foppish. There was a tragic beauty to him, Von Drachen thought, not quite knowing where to place it but feeling in his own eccentricities that it was there. He looked as if a big boy in men’s clothes, smooth faced and sort of soft. Cathrin meanwhile was a prim, proper woman of appropriate stature, well made up, elegant and efficient, a modern, mature beauty.

Together they held the rapt, grimacing attention of this room of military titans.

There were some production figures for things that did not matter, and of course slides for the Ayvartan losses and production figures that were clearly embellished to show Ayvarta as a weak and declining opponent. Von Drachen was starting to zone out. It was only when the slides seemed to end on a massive aerial photograph of Solstice that his brain received some electrical input at long last. There were markings on the photograph for the walls, and certain landmarks of importance, such as the dreaded Armaments Hill.

Haus spoke up, his voice now animated again after minutes rattling off numbers.

“Solstice is the strongest defensive position in the world. This is largely because of the walls, which are the largest defensive structures in the world. Almost fifty meters tall, absurdly large for a modern fortress, and varying in thickness from three to ten meters. Though the method of their construction is unknown, we have information that the communists patch them up with a combination of steel and clay and wire mesh.”

Cathrin Habich changed the slide once more and the four major sections of the wall were circled in the next picture. One more slide and this time the image focused on a specific wall and its sections. Corner towers, rampart guns, and a note on the wall compliment.

“We have good intelligence,” Cathrin spoke this time, in a cold, matter-of-fact voice, to give the Field Marshal’s own vocal cords a bit of rest, “that the walls are defended by 76mm multi-purpose direct fire artillery, at least fifty pieces to each wall, but the compliment can be changed. There are cranes and elevators that can, with effort, raise up to an extra twenty guns and thirty heavy mortars a wall, with even larger guns on the towers and as many machine guns as they can muster men to carry up to the rampart. These guns can serve all anti-personnel, -tank and -aircraft purposes for the enemy.”

“I should note,” spoke the Field Marshal, “that this data is the garrison compliment on the few specially prepared fighting positions along the walls. Because the walls cover the entire length of the city in every direction, you must expect new fighting positions to be improvised as the walls are attacked. It will be hard for the Ayvartans to keep every single meter of these vast walls supplied and manned, but the positions they have now are strategically chosen to cover the most territory they can with their gunfire.”

The next slide had hundreds of circles marked on each of the four walls. These were the known fighting positions at the moment. Von Drachen was not as optimistic as Haus was about the Ayvartan’s inability to supply those walls. In fact, nobody seemed to consider that the Ayvartans could, with their lightweight wheeled carriages, simply move guns between positions to react to attacks. They were treating the positions as utterly static beings, like the many fortifications they were taught to avoid, encircle, and starve out.

It was somewhat irksome that they did not view Solstice as just another fortress to blitz.

“This is our primary target inside the city. Armaments Hill.” Marshal Haus ordered Cathrin to move the slide with a wave of his hand, and the walls disappeared, revealing instead a massive complex amid the city. It seemed like an old fortress on a big hill, with towers and ramparts made of stone. However, subsequent slides featured drawings by a technical artist rendering best-guesses from analysts about the facility’s true nature.

“Armaments Hill houses underground factories, command bunkers, fuel and food storage and even an underground hangar that can raise planes to the seemingly empty pavement just behind the hill, a concealed runway. It is believed to be heavily fortified against bombardment below the surface: the fortress is a red herring. Armaments Hill is believed to currently produce most of the frontline armor and aircraft for the Solstice defenders in its underground factories. Any assault on the city interior must have as its primary objective the seizure or destruction of Armaments Hill. It is the next layer of walls, you could say, that must be breached to make capture of the city possible.”

Marshal Haus was about to have Cathrin move on to the next planned slide when Von Drachen raised his hand, like a boy at the schoolhouse, with a smile on his face. Haus appeared surprised at first, mildly confused, and with trepidation pointed him out.

“Yes, Von Drachen?” He asked.

Von Drachen stood and smiled and acknowledged the room for a moment.

There was an audible sigh from one corner.

Von Drachen then greeted everyone. There were a variety of people in attendance.

Near the front, sitting together and with serious, professional regard for the material, were Major General Dreschner and Colonel General Ferdinand, both clean-cut dignified older men with grave expressions. At their side was a mousy secretary girl whom Von Drachen knew little about. The sigh in the room had come from Brigadier General Wolff, who was twirling his hat on one finger, a tough burly, hairy man with a thick nose and a swept-back red mane and a big violent smile, like a conquering warlord of a bygone age. In the room also were a few oddballs like Admiral Mises of the Bundesmarine, and two aviation men, Air Admiral Hans Kulbert and Air Commodore Robin McConnell. Kulbert was a short, older man, but McConnell reminded Von Drachen of himself: a spry young fox with a smile on his face and a glint in his eye. He was, almost, Von Drachen’s type.

There were a few other men, most of them from the Panzer Divisions, like Dreschner’s friend Strich of the 10th Panzer Division, whom he had sealed the Dbagbo pocket with. Most of the officer cadre in the room on that day, represented the much more coherent forces of the southmost thrust, which had been led by Dreschner through Shaila and Dbagbo during the Aster’s Gloom. Because of the many tragedies that had befallen the northern thrust, through Adjar and Tambwe, its officer cadre was a shambles and Von Drachen and Haus were the only available, functional representatives of it. As such most of the leadership was tank men, and the infantry had little say. Not that anyone cared.

Feeling like he had given proper respect to everyone around him, Von Drachen cleared his throat and smilingly said: “Why is Solstice being treated as the center of gravity?”

There was a deep silence in the room. Wolff rubbed a hand down his own face. Strich played with his mustache. The girl beside Dreschner turned fully around in her seat to stare in disbelief at Von Drachen. McConnel snickered. Haus shook his head briefly.

“It is the political and economic center of the land, this should be obvious.” Haus said.

“It’s strategically irrelevant, it’s a fortress.” Von Drachen said. It was a wonder anyone let him talk uninterrupted after that, but for some reason everyone was listening with stunned attention. “It’s a static defense in a mobile war. All of its food and most of its fuel comes from elsewhere. It does not have a port, it does not have any more heavy industry or R&D than the average city. With all due respect, having examined the aims and strategy of previous campaigns, Solstice seems like exactly the place you would just drive past and ignore, maybe contain with a few mop-up divisions. It shouldn’t be our target.”

Von Drachen spoke in a way that communicated more confusion than animosity or criticism. He had the face of a young man bewildered by algebra, softly begging the schoolmarm to explain the order of operations in a way he could understand. Despite this his remarks seemed to instantly draw out the hatred of everyone around him. Sharp glares hit him from every direction and he felt alone, pressured by a rising tension.

He pulled on his collar a little bit.

Haus let him stew in everyone’s disdain for a moment before humoring him.

“Solstice’s defeat would mark the end of any credible Ayvartan communist resistance on the continent. What other target would you suggest our invasion force head towards?”

Cathrin switched the slide to a map of Ayvarta’s ten provinces. Ayvarta had such a curious shape, like two continents smashed together. The “Southern” provinces of Adjar and Shaila abutted the two bits of allied land Nocht had taken advantage of, Cissea and Mamlakha, small, irrelevant fragments of Ayvartan land in the grand scheme of things. Cissea’s broad boarder with Ayvarta was particularly, nightmarishly vulnerable, but useful for Nocht’s broad front advances. Mamlakha was at least a defensible peninsula.

From Adjar and Shaila, there was a slight, rising curve of the continent. Split by the interior mountains of the Kucha were Tambwe, a tiny coastal strip of land, and the large, jutting mass of Dbagbo. Solstice was like an island all its own save for its attachment to the rest of the land, a massive, awe-inspiring desert outlined with beautiful green strips of coastal land. From there, a sharper northward dip created the massive green paradise that was Jomba and the coastal juggernaut of Chayatham that abutted it all across the northmost coast. And finally, two insignificant landlocked provinces, Gunar and Govam.

Von Drachen quickly and easily pointed out his idea of the true target. Jomba.

“Jomba is currently the place feeding Solstice’s frontline armies, and it is also the next most populous area after the loss of the Southern provinces. It has recruits, agriculture and some level of manufacturing will probably arise in it as well. We can drive past Solstice and cut off its supplies from Jomba, likely forcing a surrender in the process.”

At this point several people were primed to challenge Von Drachen on his assertions.

“The Ayvartans are fanatical, a drive on Jomba will only provoke them to attack massively, not to huddle in the fortress helplessly.” Dreschner butted in to say. “Going around Solstice leaves a massive flank open to attack from the fortress and stretches our supply lines beyond the breaking point. We would never make it to Jomba in one piece.”

“Alone, maybe no.” Von Drachen said. “But I would have asked, if there was Elven representation in this room, for the aid of our Lubonin allies, who have so comfortably taken up the Northern positions in the desert and stayed there after their naval invasion of Tambwe. I would have asked our naval and air forces, too, for their cooperation.”

“And what would the air force do in this case?” Strich asked him.

Von Drachen started to feel surrounded. It was puzzling, because he knew he was right.

“They could easily interdict attacks from Solstice, or even better, just attack Jomba.”

Air Admiral Kulbert spoke gruffly through his big beard. “You forget, Von Drachen, that we are not here to annihilate the Ayvartan capacity for production entirely. After all, we have our allies to think about, our hosts in this very locale, the Republic of Ayvarta.”

Von Drachen stared at him with a confused expression. He could not fathom why, in the face of his impeccable logic, there was dissent about petty politics. Did no one want to win? He had given them the secret recipe for an ultimate, overwhelming victory and they kept picking at it, like he forgot the salt and pepper. Did they not see it like he did?

“Are you suggesting we can’t harm Jomba too much because the Republic needs it after the war? If we don’t win the war, then the Republic wouldn’t exist anyway would it?”

“We have no authorization to attack Jomba. It is mostly civilian targets, Von Drachen.”

Haus spoke up again. He was standing perfectly still in front of everyone assembled. He seemed amused by the discussion, grinning and crossing his arms and watching intently.

“So, to win this war, Von Drachen, would you authorize a mass bombing of civilians?”

Von Drachen shrugged. “It is a fact that soldiers have to eat. Those who feed them are engaging in the necessary military task of logistics. We have Dahlia 12 as a guide for how to treat soldiers, and I dare say, in a war such as this, the farmer is an effective soldier. We can bomb soldiers, we can shoot them, we can do many legal things to them.”

“Weasel words. So you would firebomb a bunch of farmland? Yes or no?” Haus said.

“Yes.” Von Drachen said. He found his heart utterly unburdened by the question.

“And that is what you advocate? Our new course of action?” Haus pressed him further.

“No, that’s McConnell’s job I think, to advocate explicitly to firebomb farmland and so on. I’m merely asking to shift the center of gravity, and then we can decide how we will do it, while engaging in fun hypotheticals, I guess. I feel you are putting words in my mouth.”

Haus frowned. “How cowardly, I would have respected mad dog psychopathy over this bellyaching you are doing. You say provocative things and then dodge responsibility.”

Von Drachen shrugged once more. In his mind, he was saying things he felt were probable and true. It was his opinion, true, and he could not say it was an objective fact, but it felt truer than the alternatives. “I am speaking from my own sense. If you were worried about the nobility and ethicality of your position you would take the next plane home. While all of us are here, we are here to inflict the wounds that will kill the prey.”

It was impossible to say the room turned against him because the room had never once been anywhere near his side of the argument. Now, however, the room was offended by his very presence. He was despised by the room, not just unwelcome, and even Haus seemed to be less amused by him and now, more annoyed. Shaking his head once more, the Field Marshal gave the order for Von Drachen to be removed from the room.

“Von Drachen, please return to your quarters and if you are so inclined, draft an actual proposal using available data. You can request any records and informational aid you desire. But until you have a plan was well developed as Generalplan Suden you will not speak a word to us of shifting the center of gravity on this operation. Understand?”

Now it was his turn to sigh. Von Drachen turned around and followed two bewildered guards out of the room. Everyone glared at him all the way up the steps and out the door.

There was an audible easing of tension after his departure.

Cathrin seemed to perk up again, and adjusting her glasses, resumed the slide show.


Previous Part || Next Part

Life In The Besieged City (74.4)

This scene contains sexual content.


25th of the Hazel’s Frost 2030 DCE

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

Shortly after midnight a stark silence fell over the guest room.

One final creak of the mattress spring; one last verse in the lover’s ragged duet.

At the peak of their passion the lovers fell onto the bed together.

Parinita laid on her back, looking up at Madiha at her most physically glorious.

Her hair thrown about, eyes half-closed, her breasts rising and falling with her rough breathing. Her skin was smooth and bark-brown in the dark, slick and glistening with sweat that made the slight, lean delineations of muscle in her arms, shoulders and belly more visible. She looked like she had been caught in a monsoon, and she was beautiful.

Her dark, fiery eyes locked to Parinita’s own and she smiled softly.

“Let me hold you.” Madiha asked.

“Of course.”

She rarely expressed a specific desire like that, so it was urgent to accommodate it.

Parinita tittered as she and Madiha shifted in bed.

Taller and leaner, Madiha crawled off from atop Parinita and laid breasts against back, holding Parinita with one arm over her chest and another under her weight. Parinita was a little more plump than her girlfriend, and Madiha seemed to want to dig deep into her. She held her tight, and she locked legs with her and drew her head close. Parinita responded, pulling back her strawberry hair from her shoulder so Madiha could eagerly kiss there. She felt Madiha’s breathing, a warm pulse rolling down her slick flesh.

“I love you so much.” Parinita said.

Madiha held a kiss on her neck a little longer in response.

They laid together for some time, eventually growing quiet and still, Madiha staring into Parinita’s shoulder and Parinita staring at the subtle, waving patterns on the wallpaper. She treasured this chance. Not just because she was horned up. It was not that their sex life was sparse; they had enough opportunity to suit both their levels of interest and endurance. But moments like this, when they managed to lay down together without the pressure of time or the tension of something on the horizon, came only once in a while.

Last time they got to have sex and then bide their time, alone and at peace, without responsibility for hours and hours at a time, must have been Rangda, after the festival. Parinita had been the aggressive one then too — she usually always was. Madiha tended to turn the tables around eventually, however. This time had been like that as well. Though she seemed like a muted person, Madiha was quietly intense. It was delightful.

Parinita often wondered what Madiha thought in these circumstances. She didn’t think to ask. She knew a lot about her lover’s interior life when it came to other matters. But they never talked much about sex or about being in bed, or about their relationship. Parinita felt too insecure to seek the answers; she felt better thinking it must all be fine.

That night however, Madiha seemed finally inclined to make conversation.

“Parinita, I’m going to keep fighting, you know?”

Internally, Parinita sighed. Both fondly, but also a touch annoyed.

“I know.”

“Even if you ask me to stop. I know that I couldn’t.”

“Hey, I would not ask you to. I’m a soldier too! Or do you not consider me one?”

That seemed to give Madiha pause. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without you.”

“Damn right you wouldn’t! I’ve seen the notes you take for that book of yours.”

“Thank you for organizing everything. I’d be like a brain without a spine otherwise.”

Parinita was not sure that was what the spine did, but like animals, maybe Madiha just was not taught much about anatomy. She laughed a little to herself and held her peace.

Madiha sighed deeply.

“Why did you fall in love with me, Parinita?”

It was so sudden that Parinita couldn’t help but laugh nervously.

“This is not how you ask to go another round.” Parinita replied.

She felt her heartbeat swell a little.

At least she confirmed she was not only person with low self esteem in the room.

Madiha whispered a barely audible apology.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I understand. After all, I’m such a catch. Seventy kilos of film trivia!”

She intended it in jest, but it came off more malicious.

“The sarcasm there saddens me.” Madiha said. “I was just thinking what an amazing person you are Parinita. It’s honestly still like a dream to me that we can be like this.”

Parinita held on to Madiha’s hand, laid on her waist.

“I’m sorry too.” Parinita said. “It’s just a weird question. Let me think about it.”

“There doesn’t have to be a reason I guess. It’s fine as long as we’re both in love.”

“You’re right, there really doesn’t need to be a reason. But I know you like to make sense of the unknowable in all your doings.” Parinita turned around in bed suddenly. She pushed herself a little so she would be at eye level with the rather taller Madiha.

Looking back into those eyes, so deeply, really brought back a lot of memories.

She remembered when she first saw Madiha, in Gowon’s office, the instant she walked into the room to be scolded and made a fool of. Parinita had to admit to herself that she had an awful dirty mind about the whole thing. Within the haze of stress and shame she felt as she was made Gowon’s scapegoat, Parinita thought Madiha was delectably tall, that she looked like she’d aced her PT, and that she had a pretty face to boot.

But she was not about to tell Madiha, “In between almost pissing myself about my boss turning me in, and the shelling, I briefly thought I wanted to fuck you when we met.”

Especially since she only had a few fleeting moments of arousal before a war started.

She recalled another scene however. Seeing Madiha running downhill with Parinita in tow, desperate to reach their comrades as the war started, desperate to mount a defense and to resist the tide of violence. She was in such a haze back then, everything was crazy, and their relationship seemed built on a foundation of such craziness, from Parinita’s superstition to Madiha’s actual supernatural power to their unequal rank in a military structure and to the violence and the threat of violence that pervaded their lives.

That day, however, she realized with a great sadness that Madiha was profoundly lonely. Profoundly, thoroughly, alone, in a world of her own that seemingly nobody understood. Some of it was Madiha’s own doing. She was so obsessed with doing right by others and so selfish in her own sacrifice. She was like that all of the time with everything that she did. She was so like that, she had not asked nor given room for Parinita to reciprocate her tonight, and they were already pretending to have completely wound down in bed.

It was that which, to Parinita, defined Madiha most. Her loneliness: she was unique in a lot of ways, but being unique only made her more alone. Being exceptional made her alone. Being needed of and demanded of, made her alone. And internalizing those things and putting them ahead of herself at all times, made her alone. She was alone because only she could understand herself; she was alone because she expected that only she herself could or should take on burdens and dangers alone. Alone and made alone.

Left to her own devices, Madiha would have died alone in Bada Aso and wanted to.

Parinita saw that in her on that day and throughout the glory and tragedy of Bada Aso.

She saw it in Rangda, at the formal start of their romantic relationship, too.

She even saw it now. Left to her own devices Madiha would die and die alone and want to.

And it vexed her. She wanted more than anything to accompany Madiha. She wanted her to not be alone; she wanted to penetrate that world of hers, to learn and know and see and feel and taste everything that was Madiha. Even if it meant to be the one other person alone with Madiha if that was what it took. Even if it hurt her; or hurt others.

When she saw those lonely eyes bent on their own self destruction, Parinita wanted to burn with her, to burn at her side. She wanted the glory, she wanted the tragedy, and she wanted the moments like this, of the profound peace of two alone individuals together.

Because she was alone too, and she saw the most kindred person in her life on that day.

Left to her own devices, Parinita would have died alone too.

And she would have wanted to.

Maybe that, too, was part of the craziness. Maybe that also did not make any sense.

Maybe it was contradictory.

Maybe it was selfish.

Maybe she concocted it in her own head out of nothing.

She loved Madiha.

“I like tall women with short hair, but not too short. I like them a little feminine.”

Madiha blinked hard and looked confused.

“I’m kidding.”

Parinita giggled. She felt such a surge of emotion looking at Madiha’s eyes.

She started to weep.

“I’m such an oaf, I’m sorry.” Madiha said. “I did not mean to offend you.”

“You didn’t.” Parinita settled down, still both giggling and weeping, and found the words. “Madiha, I fell in love with you, because when I see you trying your hardest to put the whole world on your shoulders and fall to the ground with it, I can’t help but get under there and grab, even though I’m fat and useless and can barely lift a chair anyway.”

She couldn’t help but throw in a little self deprecation.

Madiha drew her face closer to Parinita’s.

“You’re not useless and you’re not fat. You’re beautiful and smart and healthy.”

But she was weak, Parinita supposed. Nothing there about her lifting abilities.

Parinita giggled even harder.

“You are an oaf sometimes, Madiha Nakar! A big dumb oaf!”

She took hold of Madiha and was suddenly on top of her, a big grin on her face.

She threw her hair back, straddling Madiha.

She envisioned herself, towering over Madiha, nude, candle-lit red.

For once she thought, she must have looked glorious.

Her hands reached around Madiha’s hips, tracing teasing lines down her outer thighs.

Madiha looked up at her with a slowly broadening smile.

Leaning down, Parinita took Madiha into a kiss.

“I’m my turn to be on top now.”

Parinita pressed her weight atop Madiha, her fingers sliding from outer to inner thigh.

“I’d love that.” Madiha replied.

She was awkward but clearly enthusiastic.

That, too, was rare.

And Parinita loved it.

She loved it while she could.

Everyone on Solstice did.

They loved, feverishly and with haste, while they still could.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

It was a brand new day in Solstice. Scarcely 0900 and the sun was already bearing down.

There was a good breeze, however, and the resort had a fresh, tropical scent to it.

In front of the hotel, the bride’s guests stood together, smiling and vibrant, waiting to be sent off. Gulab and Charvi had been a little late, but they looked brilliant, hand in hand, their faces glowing with warmth and joy. Parinita and Madiha were a picture perfect couple (though they would have insisted they were not if pried), recently showered and manicured by the staff, their clothes freshly ironed. They smiled knowingly at each other, wondering idly what had Gulab and Charvi so happy, but being too serene to pry.

Meanwhile, the bride had a rough night. Though dressed well in the complimentary sari and a midriff-bearing choli and skirt, silken and bright purple and blue and gold, Kremina Qote was pale in the face, her ponytail a touch disheveled. She had bags under her eyes and an unfriendly expression on her face. At her side, Daksha Kansal was calm and collected but her posture was a little unsteady and her eyes wandered. Both had clearly drank too much and had a tumultuous evening with the resulting illness.

“Thank you all for helping us celebrate our wedding as our honored guests.” Daksha said.

Kremina handed each of them a complimentary little gift of a lotus flower in a glass orb.

It was customary to treat the honored guests: in this case, the maid selected by the bride (Parinita,) the best man selected by the groom (Madiha) and the wedding shooters.

However, the grace and cheer with which they accepted their gifts only put the bride off.

“Good, good, yes. Very nice, thank you all, etcetera.” She hissed. “Young people are henceforth banned from this hotel! Nobody younger than me, nobody! I don’t want to see anyone under sixty years of age around me! Only old spent women trying to enjoy their honeymoon hangovers are allowed. Dismissed! Go have fun somewhere else. Goodbye!”

She practically shooed away the guests. Daksha looked away from the sight, and laughing and smiling, the two couples went their ways, as the bride and groom looked on.

There was a melancholy air about it, but they were proud and happy in their own way.

“Ugh. It’d be cliche to say, ‘those girls are our future’ or something, wouldn’t it?”

Kremina took a step closer to Daksha and held onto her arm, leaning into her side.

Daksha smiled and caressed her hair. “You could say that, but those girls already have another generation waiting in the wings that they’re going to be responsible for. Time moves too fast these days. It’s us who should have been leaving them soon; I wish we would have left them better than this. What was it Lena said? Communism in 10 years?”

“That was always optimistic.” Kremina said. “You’re not going to let her fight, are you?”

She had changed the subject very quickly. She was referring to Madiha, now.

“She will have her chance someday.” Daksha replied.

Kremina did not push the subject.

She was exhausted, but more than that, she was starved for affection.

“Daksha, I’m sorry for sleeping through our wedding night. Can I make it up to you?”

She reached around behind Daksha’s back and grabbed quite a handful of her rear.

Daksha silently and sternly took her by the shoulder and pulled her up into a kiss.

“You can make out with me.” Daksha said upon releasing her.

Kremina pushed herself back up into the kiss anew and with vigor.

“I’m thinking of a lot more than that.” She replied.

Neither wanted to govern right now, not just yet. For now, they were still just brides.

And the future was still, for just a little bit longer, on hold.


30th of the Hazel’s Frost 2030 DCE

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kashlikraj, Civil Lodge

Basanti Rahani opened his eyes not in the officer’s barracks but in a sparsely furnished, cozy little private room. His hair had fallen over his eyes. It had gotten longer than he thought. He liked it. It was nice. Somewhere around the shoulder was a good length.

His hair, and his face, were slick with sweat. Solstice was so much hotter than Bada Aso.

Behind his back, he felt warmth, and a strong, comforting embrace.

One arm wrapped around his chest. He felt a kiss on his neck.

Meanwhile the other arm slinked around his waist. A hand cupped tight over his groin.

Rahani let out a delighted little giggle. He kept himself from becoming too excited.

“Breakfast and a shower first. Then we can go again.” Rahani said sternly.

“How long do we have the room for?”

Rahani turned around. He met his husband’s face and pecked his lips quickly.

“We’ve got a few hours.” Rahani said.

“I haven’t seen you in so long Santi. I really want you, you know?”

There was just something delectable about hearing his pet name said aloud again.

Naveen was an technician working with the Prajna super-heavy gun team, and Rahani was a field artillery officer, so their married life had been on and off and difficult. Before the war, Rahani had been angling for a promotion to work as part of the Prajna team. He was closer than ever to getting it; his team’s heroics in Bada Aso and Rangda were well recognized, and all of them were advancing to officer ranks themselves. Soon, Rahani would not be needed to guide them. He could move on to the next step in his career.

And more importantly, to the next step in his married life: seeing his husband every day.

For now, though, they still only saw each other during little escapades like this one.

They were patient; this was good enough. Rahani put on a salacious grin for his man.

“I know Naveen. But until you take a bath, I’m not going back down there for you.”

It was Rahani’s turn to grab somewhere and Naveen nearly jumped at the sensation.

He sucked in his lips briefly and smiled at Rahani, who had him under the sheets, subtly teasing him. Naveen had a precious face, angular and inviting. He and Rahani fit together like lock and key; Rahani’s small, slender softness and Naveen’s tall, round, thick beauty. Rahani truly wanted to just sink into him, but things had to be done appropriately. After all, Rahani was a very clean person, appearances mattered to him.

He wanted to make love fresh, comfortable, smelling like roses and in a pretty dress.

“Come on, if you let me dress up, you can dress me back down.” Rahani said.

Naveen smiled. “Ah, but it’s like pulling back the petals on a lotus flower, Santi. Sometimes its a shame. You dress up so well.” He raised a hand to Rahani’s chin. “Why not just stay here with me. I’m ready to go and you won’t even have to lift a finger.”

As much as the suggestion both appealed and made him cringe, Rahani said nothing.

Instead, Rahani caressed Naveen’s face also. They kissed one more time, this time pulling in each other’s lips for a little longer, enough to taste tongue. Then Rahani rolled out of bed. Behind him, Naveen laid back in the bed, a mixture of placid satisfaction and mild frustration in his face and actions. He crossed his arms and looked at the ceiling.

“If it’s too frustrating, I can dress up in the other room.” Rahani teased.

He had a fondness for feminine clothes, and in general cultivated a very feminine appearance, though he always thought of himself as more of a man, if he was anything at all. On some level, the genderedness of things was felt false to him, but he liked the idea of being a man with straight, silky hair, a delicate figure, a face done up with pigments, and a flower in his hair. From the clothes complimentary to the room, Rahani picked out a sari and a choli of humble make but with nice, bright colors, and a skirt to match. Donning sandals, and plucking a flower to pin with his hair, he bid Naveen wait for him.

Naveen, arms still crossed, continued to stare at the ceiling.

“Take a shower or I’ll be crueler than I have been! I promise!” Rahani said.

Naveen sighed but smiled at the doggedness of his self-styled wife. He got up.

Rahani stared at his bulky figure for one enticing moment before making himself go.

He was almost contemplating just showering with him and doing the deed there.

But proprieties separated the roses from the weeds! It would be worth waiting.

Besides which, he was actually hungry for more than his husband at that moment.

Outside the lodge, Kashlikraj was busy with traffic, the nearby roads choked with vehicles, and crowds on the streets and around the nearby buildings. Its newfound adjacency to the center of government power, after Daksha Kansal moved the central offices of the army to its vicinity, meant a lot more coming and going than the neighborhood had ever seen. It was already one of the newer and more modern of Solstice’s districts, at least circa 2015 when it was near completely redone.

Now with the introduction of many government workers and the conversion of the infrastructure to support them, Kashlikraj was turning into Solstice’s new nerve center.

There were some growing pains, exacerbated by the war.

As Rahani made his way across the street, he found the traffic shaped not solely by demand in the newly crowned district, but by something of a catastrophe. Looking over the line of decorative shrubbery along the street, Rahani saw a massive collapse in the center of the road, exposing water and electric veins and even some of the sewer. There was one civil guard slowly leading small traffic around the corner and past the affected area, and a road sign was put up forbidden the entry of large trucks for the moment.

Several such large trucks were parked on the street farther ahead, waiting.

Rahani approached the hole to get a closer look, and heard several people arguing.

“We’ve had our goods truck held up a block away for an hour now, surely you can’t be closing the entire neighborhood down for one hole can you?” asked an irate manager of some kind of state store. He was throwing his hands up in front of the civil guard.

“I had a truck with construction materials headed for the northern districts turned around and frozen for two hours now! I need you to release it to leave at once!” This second voice came from an older woman in overalls, waving a clipboard at the guard.

Between the two and several others, the civil guard seemed like a scared teenager surrounded by an angry mob. He couldn’t have been any older than Adesh was now.

The Guard crossed his arms and averted his gaze and spoke in an unsteady voice.

“I’m sorry, we’re very short staffed at the moment, we closed down the neighborhood roads and froze incoming heavy traffic to check for structural problems in the roads connecting to this one. I’m afraid I can’t personally redirect your vehicles anywhere. We’ve got some folks from the engineering college coming in soon and if they think the connecting roads are good enough then everyone can go on their way promptly.”

Rahani felt sorry for the whole lot of them. All of the experienced construction workers and civil engineers were farther south, helping build the earthworks and camps and other defenses against the incoming Noctish forces. All they could spare were students to help fix the roads, and because Kashlikraj was suddenly so important, everyone involved with this problem was twice as paranoid as they needed to be about safety and security. The Civil Guard had been heavily tapped for more military power, too, so the average age and experience of the patrolmen and women of Solstice had dropped dramatically.

Rahani wondered if the person back at the guard outpost calling the shots on this was also younger than him and frightened to death at the prospect of more failing roads.

“For god’s sake man! Just let us turn around and we’ll redirect through Yoruba instead!”

“I’m afraid I can’t release any of the vehicles right now. I’m sorry. I’m following orders.”

Around the Guard the crowd grew increasingly agitated. Rahani did not think that a fight would start, but he knew the Guard was under a lot of pressure and that everyone would lean on him to get their side of the affair done, or harass him until he fled responsibility. It was an ugly insight into the way their daily lives strained under the weight of the war. Solstice was understaffed and overwhelmed; Rahani was only given respite because he had already faced two deadly battles with his unit. Otherwise, he’d be straining too.

Rahani turned away from the scene and headed for the civil canteen across the street.

He would pick up some bread and lentils, milk and yogurt, and run back to the lodge.

The first clue that his plans were about to go awry was that the Canteen windows did not have a fresh basket of the day’s ingredients. Wilted greens and some day old fermenting yogurt sat in a forlorn half-empty basket on the storefront. The Canteen was nearly deserted, with only one teenage girl on staff who was sitting behind the front counter with her head on her hands. Rahani walked in and found the banquet tables nearly empty. On a normal day they were stuffed with the day’s goods and arrayed neatly along the sides and corners of the store. Today, many tables were packed up in one corner.

Not to say there was not any food. There was fresh bread, a pot of yellow lentils, a jar of dried fruits and sugared dried fruits, and two serving jugs of clean and carbonated water. There was no yogurt, milk, vegetables, fruit juice or paneer. It was the most barren that Rahani had seen a civil canteen in a major city like this, and it scared him.

At the sight of a customer, the girl looked up and tried to put on a smile, but it was clear that she was under a lot of stress today. God knows how many hungry and irritable people she had to deal with today. It must been such a shock to her and to everybody, to come into a Canteen without food in the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. In Solstice City itself no less! He had to wonder as to the cause of this. Had the war caught up this fast?

The Canteen Girl picked up a hole puncher and bid Rahani to come closer.

Hujambo!” She definitely had a teenage girl’s voice and stature. Rahani smiled back. She snapped the hole puncher in the air. “Sorry comrade, normally we don’t really insist on this much, but they’re really tightening the regulations so I’m going to need to punch your meal card today. You can take anything you want though, don’t worry.”

“Can I take out a card?” Rahani asked nervously. He had left all his things except a little money, in case it was needed, back at the lodge. He expected to walk in and walk out.

Everyone had become accustomed to it in recent years.

Across the desk, the girl averted her gaze. “I’m really not supposed to do this anymore, but I really like your flower and dress, so I’ll make an exception.” She said.

She gave him a little smile and passed him a meal card with one hole punched already.

There were two holes for each day for one week. Rahani was surprised.

It was a much tighter rationing system, one that could change week to week!

“Miss, is this your card? I’m not sure–”

“The Staff eat all the leftovers anyway, so its fine.” She said. “I took it out for myself yesterday and nobody’s checking the numbers yet. Just get one yourself soon. You can’t just pick them up at the canteen anymore. There’s specific times at the local Council.”

“Thank you.” Rahani said.

“Enjoy the bread. I made it myself.”

“By any chance, do you know when you’re scheduled to receive more food?”

In response the girl nodded her head toward the east.

“We’re supposed to have a truck coming. I don’t know what’s happening with it. Don’t expect fresh fruit or veggies for the rest of the week though. We’re making do with dried sugared fruits and canned palms and mushrooms and stuff like that for now.”

“Thanks miss.”

Rahani picked up a box and grabbed some bread, a few cups of lentils, some of the fruits and some plain water, and walked back out. On the street, the guard was putting up some caution tape and standing behind it so nobody could come near him, and turned his back on the small crowd of irate people looking for an answer. Everyone politely declined to jump the tape and bash him; it was still Ayvarta even if they were all mad, and they limited their frustrations to shouting. Nobody had descended to savagery.

Yet.

Staring down at his box of food and the diminished offerings at the Canteen, Rahani wondered, with fear deep in his heart. Did the same desperation he felt to love his husband and to drink of him all that he could, while he still could, extend to everyone else around him? Without knowing it, was this city beginning to live its last days? How would that desperation grow? Would it remain kind and naive? Would it turn wretched?

Nobody was jumping the caution tape to hit the young, rookie guard. Yet.

All of that vanished from Rahani’s mind as soon as he entered the lodge again.

His desperation grew suddenly greater. He felt, fearfully, that he was living his last days.

He heard the shower going off, and with a swelling feeling in his chest, he stripped off all his clothes and ran into the bathroom. He saw Naveen in the shower and ran to him and threw himself at his back, hugging his waist. Naveen tensed up briefly, then relaxed; Rahani could feel the stirring of his muscles and girth and the softening of him, and he wanted to cry. As the warm water descended upon them, some tears did escape.

“I was missing you already.” Naveen said, in good humor.

He reached behind his back and squeezed Rahani’s hip. Rahani smiled against his back.

“I missed you too.”


35th of the Hazel’s Frost 2030 DCE

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Krashlikraj, The 10th Head

Madiha Nakar threw open the door to Daksha Kansal’s office, fuming.

Behind her, Cadao Chakma, the defense minister, looked insignificantly small.

Opposite them, Daksha Kansal sat behind her desk. She had been in conference with the diplomat from Helvetia, Larissa Finesse, but Madiha had not heeded Minister Chakma’s warnings to remain outside, and barged in suddenly. Larissa raised a skeptical eyebrow upon seeing her, and Daksha sighed and frowned as if she knew what was happening.

“Premier, I demand an explanation for why Marshal Vikramajit came out of retirement to lead the First Solstice Front. As a General I don’t believe this to be a wise course–”

“Did you have ambitions for the position?” Daksha replied. “That’s new.”

Madiha blinked, confused. “New?”

“You’re normally so passive and obedient.” Daksha said.

They were talking almost like mother and daughter. Larissa looked confused.

And yet they carried on the theater in front of her and Chakma anyway.

“I’m sorry ma’am, I tried to stop her–”

“It’s not your fault, Cadao.” Daksha said.

Madiha crossed her arms and grumbled. She was trying to center herself and failing. Everyone could see the fire in her eyes. “I had several glowing recommendations from various officers and volunteered for the position. I even submitted a detailed plan. I think, to pass me over for a man enjoying his retirement is an unduly harsh reprimand.”

“We passed you over because you are needed here in Solstice and your ideas are not needed on the front right now.” Daksha said. “We are not mounting a counteroffensive.”

“My plan has been meticulously researched and is realistic to our strength! Tell me what Vikramajit has done that makes him appear suitable to lead the war for our lives!”

Madiha was shouting.

Daksha sighed and rubbed her own forehead. “We’re not talking about this. You will train the Solstice garrison for now and build up your Mechanized unit. You’re the only one here with relevant frontline combat experience and a glowing academy record. We need you here. For god’s sake most of our army is younger than you right now. Leave the heroics to them for now and focus on rebuilding our officer cadres! We need you!”

The Premier was becoming emotional. Every ‘we need you’ was hoarser than the last.

“Now dismissed!” Daksha shouted.

“With all due respect ma’am–” Madiha shouted back.

“You’re not showing me any respect with your attitude, Madiha. Out! Now!”

Madiha turned her back furiously, swiping her hand at the desk in frustration.

One of Daksha’s pictures fell from the desk in response, for some mysterious reason.

Cadao Chakma bowed profusely and then followed Madiha out the door.

Daksha’s head sank into her hands.

“Oh, this is a shame.”

Larissa picked up the remains of the frame and the photo and put it on the desk.

It was a picture of Daksha, dressed in her cloak and worker overalls, what she wore as a bandit in Bada Aso. On her shoulders rode a precociously tall but still clearly child-like Madiha Nakar, aged 8 or 9 or 10 — who could really know? Madiha was dressed in her own little overalls with a newsboy cap, and had her delivery girl satchel with her.

“You should get this reframed. It’s a beautiful photo.” Larissa said.

“I will.” Daksha replied.

Larissa looked back over her shoulder at the closed door.

“Do you feel like you have to protect her?” Larissa asked.

“This country can’t keep standing on her back. Even if she will keep letting it.”

Daksha put the photo in a drawer and turned her full attention back to Larissa.

“We’ve exploited Madiha Nakar enough. We’ve exploited all our youth enough. It’s time for tired old women to make tired old women decisions for the future of these kids.”

“I see.” Larissa said. She seemed, for once, sympathetic toward the Premier. “In that case, let us resume. We were talking about your oil and gold for our industrial equipment–”

“Yes, let’s get back to it.”

This was all for the best, Kansal told herself.

It absolutely had to be.


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