2.2: Associations

Lyudmilla Kholodova turned her head from her master to the uniformed newcomer with confusion in her eyes. She felt a faint power from the woman’s hip pack that concerned her. It was not something she had ever felt before. Not the sensation of magic, but something close to it. And it was ambient; though the pack was clearly turned off, making no noise and doing nothing that could be seen by those responsive to auras, it was still giving off something. It was like a smell with no scent for the nose.

All that one felt from it was tingling and burning with no distinct texture to it.

Von Drachen’s previous statement, asking Minerva about Moloch, had been worded like a challenge. The agent’s face and body language made it clear that she relished the power and authority she carried. Her mouth curled slowly into a self satisfied smile. She seemed on the verge of licking her lips, as if she had taken a delectable bite.

“I feel I am still in the dark as to the nature of your presence.” Minerva said. Lyudmilla noticed that she carefully avoided answering the question at hand. She herself kept quiet while Minerva and the agent talked. She felt an intense pressure in the room.

In response to Minerva throwing the question back on her, Von Drachen crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes, still smiling. “I know you’re a migrant, so maybe you don’t really know this all that well. But ten years ago we Noctean people allied with your country as part of the Roterosz Agreement to enact a suppression campaign against the primordial Etherian called ‘Mother Hydra.’ Of course, Noct quite handily defeated this monster for all your sakes’. Part of this agreement afterward was that Otraria would investigate and suppress Summoning magic and the summoning of Etherians, or allow Panopticon to do so. Now, a Summoning occurred; so Panopticon is here.”

“Forgive me, and no disrespect is intended to you, but Otraria is not my country.” Minerva said. “I live and work here, but you presume too much saying any more.”

She said this in a controlled, almost glib tone of voice. But Von Drachen was unfazed.

“Regardless, Ms. Orizaga, as someone who Iives and works here, in a University meant to turn out dabblers in the chaos of magic, you are as responsible for the quelling of forbidden powers as any one of your similarly-endowed peers.” Von Drachen said.

“Indeed, and quell the forbidden power I did. You likely already have access to all of my statements, so there’s no need for me to be subjected to your circular questioning.”

Lyudmilla was flabbergasted by the way they talked to each other. Both were perfectly calm, their voices and sentences completely controlled. They were like snakes coiling around each other, but neither had launched a bite. She had never felt such passive aggression coming from two souls. She was much more used to open insults.

Minerva’s face was neutral, inexpressive. Von Drachen continued to smile.

Their eyes locked together. Von Drachen split her crossed arms to put one on her hip and raised her remaining fingers to her lips, delicately laughing at no one in particular.

“Forgive me, I perhaps came off the wrong way. In fact, I am an admirer of sorts, you could say. I don’t want to know the bare facts of the situation. But rather, I’d love for you to demonstrate the power that allows a teaching assistant from an oppressed ethnicity, alienated from halls of magical knowledge for generations, to defeat an Etherian single-handedly. Anyone who kills Etherians is a friend to the Republic.”

“For as much as you hate magic, Ms. Drachen, you don’t understand it very well.”

Minerva’s face was perfectly composed, but Von Drachen’s lips curled slightly down.

“Please do refer to me as ‘Von Drachen,’ you misunderstand how our honorifics work.”

“Apologies.” Minerva said. “At any rate, frau Von Drachen, the study of magic is at an all time low point. Most magicians haven’t the learning, motivation, skill or willpower to perfect even the simplest magical practices. As a teacher of magic, I’m already far above the average magician by the very fact that I have mastered anything at all.”

“Could your fellow teachers have defeated Moloch then?” Von Drachen asked.

“Some could have.” Minerva replied. She might not have been lying, Lyudmilla thought. Certainly, Beatrix Kolsa gave off an aura of strength and confidence that rivaled even what Lyudmilla had seen of Minerva. But she was one of the few good ones in the young student’s estimation. Minerva was right. Most magicians today, were hopeless.

Of course, Lyudmilla herself was quite good at it, she thought.

It was just the darned exams and essays that were a problem.

As Minerva spoke, Von Drachen’s little orb flew about, its central eye expanding and contracting like the lens of a very high-tech camera. They were being filmed, maybe even cross-referenced in some kind of way. Could it perhaps see their auras? Was it transmitting information to Panopticon? Maybe that’s why Minerva was tight-lipped.

Lyudmilla’s eye was then drawn past Von Drachen and to the doorway behind her.

There were students coming and going to class, and all of the ones crossing past their door threshold seemed anxious and casting glances at the wall just off to the side of the doorway. Lyudmilla thought then that someone else must have been out there. None of them were looking through the doorway, so it was not just Von Drachen.

In the next instant, Lyudmilla’s master must have thought the same.

“Tell your partner to come in and stop scaring the students.” Minerva said.

“Oh!”

Von Drachen played cute for a second. She grinned and clapped her hands together.

“I’ll introduce you then. Catalina, you may join me.” Von Drachen said.

A second figure entered the room in response to these words. She wore the same tri-color style uniform, but she was taller and had a pronounced figure compared to the slimmer Von Drachen. Her long dark hair and perfectly blunt bangs gave her a manicured, princess-like appearance, and she had a placid smile. Unlike the pearl-pale Von Drachen, this agent’s skin was a honey-colored tan, with eyes fiercely orange.

Her expression, however, was similar. She was smiling, and seemed quite amused.

“I did not intend to scare the students, Ms. Orizaga. You will hopefully forgive me. I’ve a presence that some have referred to as ‘unsettling.’ I’m Catalina Pedros-Robles.”

Lyudmilla could immediately tell what she meant. That foreboding feeling that she got from Von Drachen, she got three times as pronounced from Pedros-Robles. Whatever their auras were made of, Pedros-Robles had a thicker, far more violent version of that aura. Lyudmilla understood that people from Noct were unable to do magic, so she wondered what it was that she was feeling from the two of them, if that was the case.

Pedros-Robles extended a hand to politely shake Minerva’s.

Minerva abstained. She cast a callous glance over at Von Drachen.

For her part, Von Drachen grunted, but retained her smiling demeanor.

“Well, Ms. Orizaga, this conversation feels like it has become unproductive. So let me just be blunt. Whenever I call upon you, I will expect you to drop everything and come to the aid of my investigation. That is the true objective of my visit. As one of the first persons of this esteemed Academy to come into contact with an Etherian in years, you are a crucial piece of this puzzle. I will have you, whenever I desire. Understood?”

She extended her own hand in place of Pedros-Robles’ hand.

Lyudmilla was scandalized at the rather dubious wording of Von Drachen’s demand.

She turned to Minerva to see what she would do.

Her master was still unshaken by any of the agent’s provocations.

Once again, Minerva left the Noctish officers hanging. She refused to take the hand.

“I am more than willing to follow all appropriate law and policy to resolve this matter.”

That was all Minerva said. Von Drachen withdrew her hand.

“Hmph. Let us to see to that then. Catalina had a curiosity earlier, which I share.”

Von Drachen nodded her head at Pedros-Robles, who metaphorically took the stage.

“Ms. Orizaga,” Pedros-Robles began, “is it not true that the summoning site of the Etherian is now tainted? Is it not true, that all persons that came into contact with it are tainted by its touch? That the object that summoned it, which remains in this Academy, is tainted by its influence still? What’s stopping this catastrophe from simply unraveling the same way again? Should we not, say, quarantine all involved?”

As Pedros-Robles spoke, the violent grin on her face grew ever wider.

Minerva chuckled, in a quite obviously mocking fashion.

“Lyudmilla, how much do you know about associations?”

She turned to her student, who had so far never spoken once. Her eyes had fully disengaged from Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles as if ignoring the both of them. A smiling, inquisitive, cheerful face had taken the place of Minerva’s vacant expression of the previous conversations. Lyudmilla was taken aback, having been put on the spot so suddenly. She glanced at the officers and found them suddenly less amused.

“Uh, can you refresh my memory?” Lyudmilla asked.

At that point, Minerva turned back to their guests, both of whom grew slightly sullen.

“What about you, officer Von Drachen? Do you know?”

Von Drachen pursed her lips slightly.

“I’ve an inkling of it.” She said. “But go on, elaborate for your student.”

Minerva nodded. “I shall elaborate for all. I think you two have the most to learn today.”

She stood from her desk, and slowly picked up an object from it. It was a horn, as if pulled from the skull of a cow, or more like a ram. It was curved and brown-black.

Minerva was careful to pick it up without it seeming like a sudden movement.

Lyudmilla, who had dealt with police in the past, knew the kind of way Minerva was moving at that moment. And yet, she saw none of the twitchiness that an ordinary pig would have if someone like Minerva reached for a mysterious object while under scrutiny. Both Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles remained perfectly still, and Minerva’s movements were unacknowledged by them. It was as if they were fully confident they could not come to harm in her presence, no matter what she tried to do to them.

Von Drachen’s orb dilated its central eye, but made no sudden movements of its own.

“Trying not to get too far into theoretical metaphysics, but all magic is built on association.” Minerva said. “This horn, for example, I simply pulled from the old bones of a dead animal from the Agrimancy building. It is associated mildly with the Earth.”

Minerva held it up. “Concentrate on it. Can you see it?”

Von Drachen scoffed. “I can’t see a thing.”

Pedros-Robles concentrated. “I see something, dimly.”

Lyudmilla squinted her eyes at the horn.

When she concentrated on it she felt like a filter had gone over her eyes.

There were dim tongues of light that moved like fire, or perhaps like a gas bleeding off of the horn. Lyudmilla could not explain it precisely, but it was aura. There was an aura around the object, and if she concentrated, she could see it as the color of soil and sand, and she could feel its texture. Gritty, rough; particulate like dust through fingers.

“You can say magic is the power of imagination. When we look at something in just the right way, when we feel something is correct, or that it makes sense, it can become magic to us. That’s the power of associations. It’s a basic word we use in magical studies to describe the relationships that worldly concepts have to each other in a magical context. Because we believe in them so strongly as to be subsconscious, and because they make so much sense to us there, they make it easier to do magic.”

Minerva withdrew a wand from her jacket.

“May I demonstrate, agents?” Minerva said.

Von Drachen shrugged. “I abhor the use of magic, but you people do what you must.”

Minerva smiled, and swiped the wand over the surface of the horn and intoned a spell.

“From death, make life anew: Prithvi’s blossoming!”

After her incantation, a tiny sliver of green vine began slowly to grow out of the cracks in the bone. A thin trickle of dust and earth seeped out of the crack as the vine curled.

“Calcium, bone, meal for plants.” Minerva said. “Plants are life associated with the Earth. Plants are associated with soil. They are associated with death, with bones, with carcasses. They are associated with life because they can grow fertilized off ‘death.'”

She put the horn down on the table. Lyudmilla hardly understood the gesture.

A tiny, limp little vine growing out of that wasted old horn. What was so special there?

And yet, Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles seemed curious about it.

“Creating life with magic is extremely hard.” Minerva said. “But if you think about it in just the right ways, and if you temper your expectations, it is not outright impossible.”

“Fascinating.” Von Drachen said, sarcastically. “What is your point, professor?”

Minerva nodded. “Such impatient students these days.”

She picked up the horn again and gave it a wan look. The vine that had grown from it was already parched and started to curl up and turn yellowed. It was in a sorry state.

There was a look in Minerva’s eyes almost like she felt responsible for it.

Lyudmilla could see that concern.

She’d seen that paternalistic expression directed her eye from others before.

And yet Minerva was just looking at a tiny insignificant vine she conjured up.

She continued the lecture, turning the horn over in her hands.

“Because the ambient magic of the world stirs for human thought, human thought controls reality. But we have a very incomplete understanding of our minds, so magic and spellcasting are very abstract. And yet, the way we learn, is by associating concepts together. We associate glyphs with specific sounds and words. Words associate with concepts to form our understanding of reality. In a way, every spell is just a really powerful Association between numerous concepts: it’s a shortcut, let’s call it, that tricks your brain into believing without a doubt that magic can happen. We call this field of study a fancier name, Metamagic, but it’s actually very philosophical.”

Minerva put down the horn and pointed her wand at it.

“But associations work both ways. They can be positive and negative,” she began to transition then to an incantation. “Otar’s Torch, lend me a day in the light of Sol.”

From her wand a beam of gentle warmth suffused the vine growing around the horn.

For a brief instant, the vine jerked; Lyudmilla thought that Minerva desired the vine to grow again by giving it light for photosynthesizing. However, the plant’s health took no better turn. Beyond that initial spasm, it would not grow nor become any more green. In fact, it seemed to be curling back in, withering around the bone that had borne it.

“This light is associated with Fire. Earth is resisting it, and the plant wont recover.”

Minerva lifted her wand, and put down both the horn and the instrument.

“Of course, I contrived that whole scenario. If my objective had been to try to grow a tiny vine that can be nourished by the sun, I could have done that with a different sort of effort. But I wanted to demonstrate to officer Pedros-Robles that ideas like ‘evil magic corrupting the land’ are more complicated than she thinks they are.” She said.

“I’m unconvinced, unfortunately.” Pedros-Robles replied. She shrugged.

“How about a more common example?” Minerva said. She seemed to smile even brighter at the challenge. “Say you’re trying to use magic to start a campfire. It obviously helps if you have flammable material; but not just because of the physical properties of, say, a pile of dry wood. Because even if you had wet wood, and even if you had a brick, you could use magic to set it on fire. But Burning has a strong affinity to Wood; there is strong positive association to the idea that you can burn wood, no matter the state the wood is in. So if you have wood, it’s just easier to cast fire magic on it than it is to cast it on a brick or on a rock. You could burn a puddle of water, if you tried hard enough, but there’s a strong negative association to the concept of burning water, so it would be a lot harder, maybe even impossibly harder, for a normal magician to burn water than to burn wood. Does that make sense, Lyudmilla? Officers?”

Lyudmilla felt like she was losing the plot at this point. “Duh? Obviously?”

Von Drachen shrugged. “I feel as if I’m being treated like a child.”

“Then let us end the childishness.” Minerva said.

In the next instant, Von Drachen’s orb stood dead still in the air as Minerva spoke.

“Calling upon Tyrants is a form of magic you call ‘Summoning.'”

Out of nowhere and quite bluntly, she said the exact words to get everyone in the room to draw their eyes open, where before they had been halfway shut by then.

“Summoning,” Minerva continued, without skipping a beat or letting anyone recover from her previous statement, reciting the facts as if she had been reading from a very forbidden book, “is essentially, an altered form of Conjuration that breaks the rules of Conjuring. Instead of creating a copy, you bring in an approximation of the real Tyrant, a vessel, that can spread its demesne and gradually become fully realized. It has life, agency, a personality; in fact it can have many of the original’s characteristics, even if you don’t know those powers or are aware of that personality yourself. This is because Tyrants are made of magic, and any magic that makes them will make the original in some form. In essence, any copy will become the original eventually. However, by its very nature summoning is chaotic. You can only barely control the form that the being will be summoned in, and which of its characteristics and personalities will be called.”

As far as Lyudmilla knew, Summoning was forbidden. While it was possible, perhaps, to know about Summoning, to know Summoning was illegal, evil, anarchic, a threat to civilization. Minerva must have known as much as she did in her capacity as a teacher to teach the vile-ness and degeneracy of Summoning. But Lyudmilla had seen Minerva do incredible magic before. Perhaps, could Minerva know how to Summon also?

If she did though, why would she be telling officers from Noct, the anti-magic nation?

At that moment, the orb was dutifully recording her.

Who knew who else was watching?

“Like any spell, it helps if you build powerful associations to help you Summon a Tyrant.” Minerva continued, again pausing for no one. “So having an object that is associated with it, or being in a location associated with it, or performing rituals that are strongly associated with it; all those things could possibly help a magician carry out a Summoning. Maybe not the fully formed or complete version of the Tyrant, but the Tyrant can piece itself together once it’s been summoned, since its Demesne will eventually spread and start gobbling up all the magic around it no matter where it shows up or in what form it appears. A Tyrant’s original will always be recreated.”

Von Drachen cracked a little grin. “Minerva Orizaga, are you trying to make me suspicious of you to deflect from your students? Is that your game now?”

“No.” Minerva bluntly and simply replied. “Only someone who knew nothing about magic would think that I am capable of Summoning by merely knowing those facts. What I just told you, is told to Otrarian schoolkids when they enter their first magic schools, to dissuade them from walking a path we view as evil and degenerate.”

Von Drachen’s face turned mildly surly once again. She closed her hands into fists.

Lyudmilla had not had formal magical education, so she had not received that same spiel. Her mind was also fuzzy on this concept of ‘Associations’ that Minerva was so fond of; but she knew Summoning was no good. She also knew maybe Otrarians spoke too soon when they considered themselves to have eliminated Summoning, as recent events had proven. Regardless, Minerva had just called Von Drachen a child.

The agent was visibly not taking it as well as she had past instances of disrespect.

Pedros-Robles interjected. “Wherever your knowledge came from, and whatever you’re capable of, Minerva Orizaga, you’ve made it clear to us that we are correct. You agree that the clearing in the forest is now associated with the Etherian, Moloch.”

Minerva shook her head. “It has a weak association to Tyrant summoning in general, and a strong association to the summoning of Moloch specifically: but I wouldn’t worry about that though. It is not any more helpful than trying to summon an Ayvartan water deity by standing in the Baryat river. Summoning is extremely chaotic and complex.”

“If it’s as you say, though, a strong association with Moloch would help, no?”

Von Drachen tried to interject again, but was immediately made to feel put in her place when Minerva retorted. Her tone was perfectly akin to a schoolteacher’s scolding.

“Zero points, officer. Moloch has associations too, and they are both positive and negative! That’s what I have been trying to get all of you to understand. Yes, Moloch is associated with fire strongly, and that clearing is associated with him. But because Moloch is contained now, it would be difficult to summon him again. He is now strongly associated to being defeated, contained, dispersed, quenched. The orb he was sealed in is also drained, and similarly broken, so it won’t be of much use for a ritual either.”

“That’s nonsense.” Von Drachen said. “So if I were to lay a beating on you, Minerva Oriziaga, would you be associated with defeat? Would you be unable to do magic?”

Minerva smiled softly.

Despite her previous intensity, she not only held the strength and command that a schoolteacher possessed when scolding, but also had the softness and harmlessness of one when she was treating the children with motherly care. Perhaps this too was part of the lesson. Lyudmilla wondered if all of this could be an Association as well.

“I’m not an anarchic being made purely out of magic, so if you could defeat me, officer, the magical effects would be rather more minor than the violence you would cause to my physical body. And of course, the violence you cause to me, and the ignominy of it, might stick to you too. In life, karma cuts us every which way.” Minerva responded.

Von Drachen turned around, with a flourish of her arm and started out the door.

She showed them her back, and they could not see what her expression became.

“I’m satisfied. We’ll talk again, Minerva Orizaga. Come, Catalina.”

Her voice was terse, and her tone low, but she did not sound too upset.

Pedros-Robles gave a gentle bow of the head before departing with her superior.

Lyudmilla watched them go with a sense of glowing admiration for her master.

Minerva had stood so tall against such intimidating foes! She had dismantled them with logic, facts and reason! Despite the circumstances, she never lost her cool!

“Master, that was incredible!”

Her heart swelled with pride, and quickly deflated with it.

As soon as the officers were out the door and around the corner, Minerva instantly collapsed back into her office chair, her eyes closed and a hanging-jaw expression on her face. A look of such lamentation and wretchedness took over her powerful Master then; Lyudmilla almost felt whipped in the face by the suddenness of the change.

On her desk, dropping so suddenly on her chair made the bone shake, and the vine crumbled, sliding from the cracks in the horn. Lyudmilla spotted a little nub of matter in the biggest crack in the horn: like a seed, or a bean, or something like that, already in it.

In the next instant, Minerva put a hand over her face and started to moan openly.

“Ah, damn it, I really hope they won’t go to the forest. I really hope they won’t go get the orb. I really don’t want to do that paperwork. I really don’t want to tag along for any of that. I hope that hocus-pocus dissuaded them from bothering at all. I really do! It’d all be so annoying, you know? I’m already so busy, and this would take so much time–“

She descended into practically mumbling.

Lyudmilla put her arms to her hips and scowled. It was her turn to act the schoolmarm, her gushing replaced with a rising anger at her suddenly disgraceful arcane master.

“Get yourself together, I can’t believe all of this! So you’re telling me you just lied to avoid having to tag along with their investigation? Because you’re fucking lazy?”

Minerva lifted her hands off her own face to peek at Lyudmilla.

Her expression was blank.

“I’m not lazy. I’m working smart, not hard. And at any rate. Some of it was facts, but there’s a lot open to interpretation, you know? Metamagic is above my pay-grade–“

“Fuck you.” Lyudmilla said, in as blunt a voice as she could manage.

Minerva blinked at her.

“With all due respect, Master, you’re full of shit! I’m going back to the dorms!”

As unfazed by Lyudmilla’s anger as by Von Drachen’s scrutiny, Minerva shrugged.

“This is why everyone’s becoming an engineer now, I guess.”

By the time Minerva was through with her sentence, Lyudmilla was already stomping out the door with her hands balled up at her sides and her teeth grit. Her Master was mostly unconcerned, however. After all, they were strongly associated now too.


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The Center of Gravity (75.4)

60th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

There was a sense of foreboding permeating the stale air of the bunker as the new year approached. Hundreds of meetings had been held between the many Majors, Colonels and Generals in attendance at the bunker, and their chosen staff of trusted warrant officers, staff officers and specialists. They had decided everything from logistical priorities for hundreds of pieces of war materiel; to the exact supply routes that had to be secured and followed to deliver these supplies; to the tactical use of those materials, how many bullets to a man, how many men to the bullets. Training programs had been outlined, promotions hashed out for new officers leading new units. Every aspect of the war in Ayvarta for the next year had been examined and planned according to what everyone euphemistically referred to as “the new situation,” of the past two months.

Nocht had dearly wanted to have won this war by now, within a hundred days of its commencement. That would no longer be the case. It was found to be impossible.

It was clear that the next phase of the war would be much harder than anything Nocht’s military had ever faced, even the Kingdom of Franz. At the beginning of the conflict, Ayvarta’s army was scattered across its territories and each individual territorial unit was smaller than the Nochtish forces attacking it. Now all of them could concentrate on one defensive line around a very specific target. Solstice would decide everything.

At the dawn of the 60th, much of Ayvarta’s fate had been set in motion by the Federation armed forces. Its air, naval and ground branches each had their grand strategies in order. There were only a few more meetings left for the very highest echelons of Federation command, the few Major and Colonel Generals along with the grand Field Marshal, to review the decisions of the staff and make small amendments if necessary.

Field Marshal Haus was particularly busy at this time, and so, he found himself quite bewildered but not upset when he found Von Drachen early for their afternoon meeting.

At his side, however, a young, mousy-looking woman was far more upset. She had been holding a keyring meant to open the meeting room door, only to find that the lock had been picked and the door left askew. Shocked at this violation of bunker security, she charged through the door and there, they both found Von Drachen reclining in one of the couches that had been brought to the room. He greeted them with a nonchalant wave.

“Wh-what are you doing in here?” shouted the staff girl. “How did you get in?”

“I let myself in.” Von Drachen said. “I wanted to be punctual, and to put up my things.”

Held to the walls of the bunker with sticky tape were some scrawled-upon maps of Ayvarta, covered in lines depicting the flow of troops and supplies for Von Drachen’s vehemently marketed pet project. A mass desert march around Solstice and toward Jomba, the fertile breadbasket of the uppermost half of Ayvarta. Thanks to the desert bifurcating the continent, Jomba’s produce did not travel too far, but in a Socialist Ayvarta that now started at Solstice rather than Adjar, Jomba was wildly important.

Haus smirked at the maps and at Von Drachen himself. He crossed his arms.

“Schicksal, let us permit this nonsense just this once. I don’t want to have to deal with a courts martial for over-politeness.” Haus said, gently patting Schicksal on the shoulder.

“As you say, Field Marshal. At least General Dreschner wasn’t here to see this mess.”

Schicksal sighed and stood outside the door quietly, waiting for their next guest.

Haus, meanwhile, took his seat across from Von Drachen. There were piles of documents on the table between the room’s comfortable couch seats. Clearly Von Drachen took what he had said in their last meeting to heart. Though Haus had not truly meant to do so, he had encouraged Von Drachen to go through the data and craft a plan as thorough as Generalplan Suden. Back then he had wanted to be rid of Von Drachen; this meeting had been arranged before that incident and was supposed to be perfunctory.

They were supposed to shake hands and Haus was supposed to give Von Drachen his blessing to continue operating despite being widely hated by the staff and the President himself. All this owing to the fact that Von Drachen was quietly acknowledged as a powerful commander, and furthermore, a guarantee for continued Cissean cooperation. As the Cisseans’ only frontline general, Von Drachen was a point of pride for that nation, a symbol of their achievement and independence from the communists in Ayvarta.

Von Drachen’s eccentricity and zeal had changed the entire character of this meeting.

It was slightly irritating, but more than that, it was intriguing. Haus would humor him.

He picked up Von Drachen’s information packet, laid out on the table, and began to flip through it, finding himself strangely engrossed by the operation described therein.

He was not so sure that Dreschner, their other guest, would be happy with this outcome.

Nevertheless, he wanted to hear Von Drachen out. He had a chance to pick his brain.

“Gaul Von Drachen.” Haus said. He put down the information packet, having skimmed all of the synopsis and some tables, and spread his arms out almost like a shrug. “I can hardly imagine what goes through your head. If you could make me understand one thing, I would like it to be this: what is it about Madiha Nakar and you? Are you in love?”

Schicksal, outside the door, gasped at the scandalous nature of this question.

Von Drachen blinked and frowned. “She is not my type at all. Women generally aren’t.”

Once again Schicksal was given cause to gasp outside the door at the sheer scandal.

Haus suspected as much and let the comment slide as if it were merely lad humor.

“Then what is it? I’ve dug up her records and studied the reports on Bada Aso and Rangda. Each time she was caught off-guard at first and got lucky with the weather.”

There was a prevailing theory among Nocht’s military intelligence that an earthquake hit the Bada Aso region on that fateful day in the Aster’s Gloom, triggering the fires that consumed the 13th Panzer Division and its affiliates and caused Nocht’s defeat there.

Her second achievement was also explained away as if by enthusiasts divining a piece of stage magic. While the defeat of the traitor Ayvartan forces was seen as inevitable given their weak leadership, the Elven force had the element of surprise and superior training. However, strong winds from a pressure system off the coast of Rangda diverted numerous Elven glider and paratrooper forces and caused them to land scattered, allowing Nakar’s forces to split and pocket and destroy them. Nothing was given to Madiha Nakar’s supposed genius, but to the weather and to military common sense.

These theories were hardly discussed, because Madiha Nakar was not a foremost concern of the Heer, but most officers who heard them believed them readily.

Most.

Von Drachen had his answer immediately, and did not need to dwell on Haus’ question.

“I’m fascinated by the idea that the Ayvarta of her adulthood could possibly create her and use her in this manner.” He replied. “Madiha Nakar is someone that a truly utopian communism should never desire, require or even create. She is militarism given form, an avatar of war and death. She thinks of nothing else but war. And yet, here she is.”

Haus was surprised at this answer. It felt masturbatory and its rebuke self evident. “Of course she is, because Lenanism is not an ideology of empathy except to fools. Lenanism is a brigand’s philosophy, its about stealing from the rich and industrious. Madiha Nakar is a product of a militarist culture that knows it needs force to accrue loot and defend it.”

“Do you know your Ayvartan history, Field Marshal?” Von Drachen replied, amused.

“Of course I do.” Haus scoffed. “I’ll have you know I grew up around Mary Trueday.”

“That wouldn’t teach you anything of value. What did she say, that the communists put rubber on toast in place of cheese? She doesn’t know anything, Field Marshal.”

Haus might have been expected to feel offense at this casual mistreatment of his childhood friend by a nobody like Von Drachen. However, he was not altogether very close to Mary and felt no such impulse. She was something of a romantic rival; and Haus himself considered her a little dim. Nevertheless he cleared his throat loudly in response.

Von Drachen snickered. “Ayvarta was at a crossroads between utopian communism and revolutionary communism. For a while, the militaristic revolutionary elements were highly placed, but with the death of Lena Ulyanova, there was a dawn of utopianism that dominated the Ayvartan trend for the better part of the last decade. Social democrats and libertarian communists developed convoluted distribution systems and generous social policies with one hand, while strangling military spending and drawing down Ayvartan involvement with parallel revolutions like Cissea and Kitan’s. These utopian communists wanted peace in a contained, almost autarkic state, and feared the revolutionaries.”

Von Drachen leaned forward, his fingers steepled, an eerie grin on his face.

“This is the Ayvarta that Madiha Nakar assimilated into in her adulthood. But Madiha Nakar is an avowed Lenanist revolutionary, and if you look into her eyes, you’ll understand that she is a born killer. She loves to inflict death; it is stimulating to her. All of this war is an exercise for her brain. She is the polar opposite of the Utopian communist. It is fascinating to me that Ayvarta is relying so strongly on the kind of person it ought to find the most revolting. All you need to turn Madiha Nakar into the perfect contradiction is to make her a secret royal, and then she would truly be deserving of exile from utopian communism. I saw it in her face, Field Marshal.”

“She would probably deny it if you asked her. All of this is conjecture.” Haus said.

“She would, but she can’t deny it to herself. We fought hand to hand, Marshal. And not only that, I saw her, on the fly, plan and execute a daring attack on an unknown enemy during the Rangda situation. You could see it in her face, Marshal! Flashes of excitement, exhilaration! I wonder, will Madiha Nakar stop fighting after this war? Or will she find cause to challenge her new government just for her own continued edification? Maybe she would keep fighting no matter happened. Maybe her zeal would never be satisfied.”

Haus knew all of this philosophy well enough, but it was in his nature to repudiate any politics that were unnecessary to accomplishing his goal. He as much hated the war profiteers in the Congress meddling with his fighting as he did the soldier-scholar who though too deeply about the matter of war. Both of them ultimately led to complications.

He himself had asked Von Drachen about this, though, so he excused him, for now.

“Why does this matter to you?” Haus pressed him. “It’s an utter inanity, to me.”

“It matters to me that Madiha Nakar is fighting for a future in which she cannot exist.” Von Drachen said. “I’m a scholar of war myself, Field Marshal. She is a threat to me!”

“A threat?”

Von Drachen shrugged and laughed. “Let’s say I just want the vanity and glory of being the most successful and defining strategist of my time. If not me, it would be her, so!”

Haus raised an eyebrow. His tone of voice had changed suddenly. It was as if Von Drachen had actively prevented himself from speaking too seriously; or maybe he was revealing an inkling of his seriousness, and the rest had been satire. He was lying, but Haus could not tell what part of what he said was meant to be the joke in this discussion. It unsettled him, because clearly it was the one on one setting that brought this about.

Von Drachen had thought of what to say and said this whole spiel. What was his angle?

Before he could press Von Drachen any further, or even think to do so, General Dreschner arrived at the door. He was grim-looking as ever, but gave his aide a gentle pat on the head as he arrived, and took his seat silently after a quick salute to the Marshal and a nod of the head to Von Drachen. Haus had wanted to assemble a group with himself as a neutral party, Von Drachen’s crazy idea, and a General who advocated for a Solstice Attack Operation, the unoriginal draft name for their current course.

“Gentlemen.” Haus began, once both men were comfortable. “Both of you have proven to be great warriors in this conflict. I’ve made many missteps in personnel management, but I correct them when I can. I am standing by my word: Von Drachen has managed to flesh out his ideas into something resembling an operational plan. I am surprised by the effort and on a superficial read, by the quality of his ideas. I think they deserve debate.”

Dreschner nodded his head solemnly. Some of their other generals would have scoffed and immediately began shouting Von Drachen down, but Dreschner was a little more composed when it came to his peers. This was not a quality he always had. It seemed that the course of the war in Ayvarta had tempered some of his most atavistic impulses.

Haus urged Von Drachen to go through with his plan. Dreschner sat back and watched.

Von Drachen stood and stretched a series of marked-up maps on a board atop a tripod.

He would flip between them at various points in his explanation.

“The Ayvartans are hard at work preparing for a valiant final stand in the city of Solstice. It makes sense, doesn’t it? We view Solstice as a vital political center for Ayvarta, from which communism radiates out to the rest of the world. Certainly, Solstice understands the importance we place on it, and mirrors it back in its defense of itself. So Ayvarta will be ready to fend us off from there, creating a long defensive line centered on Solstice.”

Von Drachen flipped to a map with a outwardly-bulging, semi-circular defensive line around Solstice, stretching across vast expanses of the desert from north to south. There were arrows pointing toward the semi-circle, each numbered the same as a major unit of the Federation’s armies that was scheduled to move in that direction. One arrow for example had his own 13th Panzer Brigade, jabbing at central Ayvarta off of the flank of the 3rd Panzer Division of General Anschel and between the 6th Panzergrenadier Division of Meist, recently reinforced with units of light tanks and motorized artillery.

“However, I do not believe Solstice merits this attention. Its military production is sizeable for a single city in the middle of a desert, but it is nothing compared to the industry Ayvarta is squirreling away beyond the sands. Furthermore, Solstice is utterly dependent on the remaining ‘Dominances’ past the desert for most of its precious food.”

Haus was about to ask a question but Von Drachen launched into an uncalled for explanation of the Ayvartan word for Province, which dated back to the Imperial years and the fact that each province was named for a warlord. So “Adjar’s Dominance” for the province controlled by Lord Adjar, and so on. Haus blinked, and Dreschner shook his head and they both wondered what this had to do with anything, and both protested.

“Ayvartan history is deeply important! To everything!” Von Drachen said, as scandalized himself now as Schicksal was when Haus implied he was in love with Nakar. He had a grumpy, petty look on his face, perhaps moreso for being interrupted than anything. “Solstice’s ancient history is the reason we are going after it, and the reason they are defending it. Why, if we understand this history, must we repeat it blindly?”

“Because the swiftest end to this war is decapitating the communist structure so that the Republic can rule in its place.” Dreschner said. “Because all we need to attack is Solstice.”

“Any siege of Solstice will drag out and cost us dearly in materiel and men. I am advocating a different approach that seems riskier but takes advantage of the moment.”

Von Drachen turned over to a new series of maps that showed a three-directional attack on the Ayvartan line; a massive concentration of forces in the southeast, launching a massive punch at one part of the Ayvarta line; a breakthrough in the south and a hasty march past Solstice. One enormous armored thrust at the ‘dominance’ of Jomba, the breadbasket of the Ayvartan east, able to perhaps feed the entire continent someday. Its industry had been young in the waning days of the Empire, but slowly, it was building.

“Our supply lines will collapse.” Dreschner said simply. He was visibly curious, however.

Haus himself was also very curious. He would not have thought of this trick. Had his forces managed any breakthrough he would have sent it directly to the walls of Solstice, hoping to pierce the city defenses and begin the political endgame. Von Drachen’s gamble was that the long Ayvartan line protecting Solstice would rearrange to meet two fake northern thrusts, break in the south, and that the fortress would be unable to chase a blitzkrieg charge past its walls and to its tender, necessary northeastern regions.

Von Drachen seemed to notice their engagement and smiled proudly at them.

“All we need at that point is to cause damage. Ayvarta can’t counterattack into the Republic with its current forces, so they cannot exploit our absence from the Solstice front or truly cut us off. And if Jomba suffers too much under us, they will lose the ability to resupply any kind of force. I believe the Ayvartans will surrender at that point.”

“What kind of forces are guarding Jomba?” Dreschner asked.

“It’s not important; any kind of battle on that soil is a win for us, even if we are beaten around a bit. However, I believe they have concentrated most of their forces defending Solstice. I doubt Jomba has a full army to its defense.” Von Drachen replied.

“So you want us to go in there and what? Torch crops?” Haus said.

“I think it is more useful to steal them for ourselves at that point.” Von Drachen said.

Haus rubbed his chin. “I can’t deny that you have a point, but it is terribly risky. If Ayvarta does not surrender, and continues to fight, we will be in a tough position.”

“Lets say Solstice does keep fighting and locks us in the northeast. They will kill many of us, but we will have done damage to their ability to prosecute this war long-term that will be impossible to repair. We will win eventually. Our sacrifices will still be pivotal.”

Von Drachen seemed to dismiss the concern. Haus blinked. He was ready to put himself in a nearly suicidal position, cut off deep in enemy territory. There was logic to what he said. By making Jomba a battlefield, at all, they would put the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, the power opposed to the new Republic of Ayvarta, under threat of starvation. Von Drachen might be cut off from supply but he had enough power at any time to rip up fields, burn orchards, poison and salt lands, and render the breadbasket useless. Only the Republic and its southern territories would be able to bear the burden of feeding the continent at that point. It would be nearly impossible for Solstice to recover. Even food assistance from Helvetia would be useless. Communism will have lost all credibility with the people if it could not under its own power feed them anymore. The Allies would win.

“I don’t believe it will come to that, because I think there are voices within the communist camp who will realize the damage that is coming and seek a diplomatic solution.” Von Drachen said. “People with the foresight to know they have been beaten.”

“Do you mean Madiha Nakar?” Haus asked, crooking one eyebrow skeptically.

Dreschner looked between the two of them, clearly confused about this new topic.

“No. I think she will realize what is happening, but I think her solutions to the problem will look utterly insane and she will probably be locked up or become a lone partisan. Her presence will certainly help peace seem reasonable, I think.” Von Drachen said.

“I must admit that I see some merit in it, but I must oppose any plan that hinges on our acceptance of suicide.” Dreschner said sternly. “Even if it led to a guaranteed victory, asking me to give up over 200,000 men– no, actually, you put here 500,000? Insane.”

“Not all of them will die.” Von Drachen shrugged. “You’re being overly dramatic.”

“Your glib tone is only making this plan less appealing to me.” Dreschner said.

“Every time we fight, we take a suicidal risk.” Von Drachen said. “You, and me, and him,” he pointed offhandedly at Haus, “and even the girl at the door, could die any minute.”

Schicksal gasped at the door, now scandalized at the casual acceptance of her death.

“There’s a difference between being in danger and plunging into death.” Dreschner said.

“On paper every one of these operations is plunging into death. In the long term, we want to destroy the communists, and this is what will do it. I guarantee it will do it.”

Dreschner scoffed, quickly devolving to his typically passionate debate.

“Which side are you on Von Drachen? Your attitude is putting all of this into question.”

He was shouting, and Von Drachen sighed and replied calmly, “I’m on the side of victory.”

Before Dreschner could shout something again or raise his shaking fists, Haus grunted.

The Major General paused, and seemed to find his calm and shame in himself.

“Apologies, Field Marshal.” Dreschner said.

Haus glared at Von Drachen, over fingers anxiously rubbing down his own face.

He moved his hands off his own face and clasped them together, staring at the maps.

“Von Drachen, tell me one thing and I’ll consider this plan of yours.” Haus said.

Von Drachen nodded his head. “Unknowing of the inquiry, I certainly shall try my best.”

Haus breathed heavily and dropped the question out into the air, heavy, dispassionate.

“Why did you betray the anarchists in Cissea? Why did you become a part of Nocht?”

Dreschner looked up from his seat at the standing Von Drachen.

Haus did not look at him. Still, he looked at the maps.

Von Drachen was smiling. His smile could be felt even if not seen.

“I’m just a man who falls on the side of victory over sure defeat.” He said.

Haus stomped his boot on the ground. “You’re lying.”

“Well, I don’t know what more to say.” Von Drachen said. He was unfazed.

Haus stood up from his seat and dusted off his coat. There was dust everywhere here.

He closed his fist, feeling a strange mixture of disappointment and relief.

“I’m sure your plan is genuine, and you’ve proven to me you’re a canny officer, but not one I can trust to shoulder the responsibility for an entire operation like this.” Haus said. “I’m putting Dreschner in tactical command of Group South, and you will follow his directive. We will break the Ayvartan front line and attack the walls of Solstice. If, as you say, you are on the side of victory, and not yourself, nor anarchy; you will help him out.”

“I am at your service.” Von Drachen said. His tone had not changed one bit.

“That all? Not going to stand up for yourself?”

Von Drachen shrugged. “It’s fine. I did not expect much. I’m glad I got as far as I did.”

It was almost vexing how easily he took being put down this hard.

Dreschner said nothing. He looked between the two men with an expressionless face.

Just then, someone stepped past Schicksal at the door, and the little aide merely gasped and shrieked and did not seem to put up much of a fight. A beautiful blond woman in a pristine uniform charged past, holding in her hands a document and a letter, breathing heavily. Haus stepped closer and held her shoulders gently to reassure her. It was his trusted aide, Cathrin Habich. She was sweating and had clearly been running hard.

“What’s wrong?” Haus asked. He put one hand on her own, and signaled with his fingers over the back of her hand, where she could see it. They had developed this system together. He was trying to see if it was something they could talk about among them.

Cathrin signaled affirmatively with her own hand and slowly rose, caught her breath, and regained her composure and the cold, steely gaze for which she was known.

“Sir, McConnell went around all our backs.” She said.

“What?”

Haus raised his voice. He felt a sudden shock in his chest, a swelling of anger.

Dreschner looked speechless, caught in the sweep of events. He could not have known what McConnell was planning, unless McConnell also went to him with his idea. But Cathrin certainly made it sound ominous and deadly serious. Von Drachen, meanwhile, was cleaning up his things without concern for the drama unfolding around him.

“Show me.” Haus said.

Cathrin showed him the document. “Presidential approval. Here’s a telegram.”

She then opened the letter and handed Haus the paper.

Haus almost did not want to open it.

He felt stung, betrayed. He imagined what it must say and it made him hurt and angry.

In one sweeping move accompanied by a sigh he spread the paper open.

“Prepare Rolling Thunder. McConnell is sharp. Trust him like I did you.”

Trust him like I did you? When did Haus ever have to prove himself to Achim? When did he have to come up with some unnecessary, nonsense plan to earn his trust? Haus felt a level of dismay and even jealousy that he knew was irrational but could not contain. He had felt secure in his knowledge that he would be trusted utterly to make decisions like this. Achim had interfered in operations before, and Haus had allowed it and even seen some of the wisdom in it; but this time he had promoted a subordinate over him.

McConnell would get to execute an operation Haus had blocked as infeasible.

Had he used his pull with his brother in the Senate? Haus did not know.

He could only fantasize angrily about every backhanded thing that may have happened.

In a bid to tear his mind away from the shock and hurt, he handed Dreschner the paper.

Dreschner read it, and the accompanying document, and almost seemed not to believe it.

“This is exactly like Bada Aso. Why would the President order this to happen again?”

“Field Marshal, what are we going to do?” Cathrin asked.

Haus had no answers for anyone.

He stood, breathing heavily, his soft, boyish face broken up by anger and despair.

Looking up from the his hands, he only saw Von Drachen’s back as the man left the room with all of his maps and charts in tow, without a word or seemingly a care in the world.

Something in Haus yearned to understand how Von Drachen could continue to raise his head like that, where Haus felt such a burden upon his own that it was hard to even live.


On the 1st of the Postill’s Dew of 2031, a brand new year, the active airports of northern Dbagbo and Tambwe, in cities like Rangda and Karahad captured mere weeks ago, began preparations to launch massive daily air attacks on Solstice under plan Rolling Thunder.

At their disposal were the Archwizard class heavy strategic bombers with 7000 kg of bombs; Wizard class long range bombers with 3000 kg of bombs; the standby Archer fighter and its new cousin, the Crossbow; and the old reliable Warlock ground attack plane with its cannons, light bomb-load and a screeching dive right out of a nightmare.

There were other weapons being cooked up too; but the pilots knew little about that.

Enemy opposition was always implied in battle operations, but in this case, it was largely unremarked upon that the Ayvartans would try to keep them out of their airspace.

As far as they knew, their flying would be mostly opposed by the Ayvartan’s old Anka biplane with nowhere near the fighting power of even the older Archer. Perhaps a first generation Garuda might appear once in a while, to speak nothing of the rare Garuda II. In their minds the pilots of the Luftlotte’s Jagdwaffe and Schlachtwaffe felt that they would easily own the skies over Solstice, and kill without obstacle. It was almost funny.

None of the men on the ground had taken part in that meeting where Haus quoted a very large number of anti-aircraft guns on the ground and walls of Solstice. So in the minds of the pilots, it was a scenario where they would either fight gallant duels in the sky, or just bully Ayvartan planes into the dirt over and over while the bombers rained death.

In this environment, all the preparatory activities of Rolling Thunder were carried out with zeal. Lehner had finally been talked down, and the Eagles were now cut loose.

The Luftlotte scheduled the attacks to commence on the 13th and last for weeks, maybe as far into the month as the 30th or 40th from there, or until Solstice utterly collapsed.

Or until their ability to fly collapsed. Whichever came first; but only one was acceptable.

Thus began the apocalyptic Battle of Solstice.


Previous Part || Next Part

The Center of Gravity (75.3)

58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

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

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

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

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

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

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

This could clearly not be dealt with through education.

Ultimately it would have to be experienced and endured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McConnell was in just such a position.

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

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

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

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

Haus smirked, and internally he was grinning terribly.

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

Cathrin did not move a muscle for him.

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

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

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

This whole performance put McConnell in an obvious mood.

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

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

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

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

Instead McConnell envisioned a strategy of purely Nochtish aerial terror.

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

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

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

McConnell knew this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He waved him away.

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

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

Having finished with him, Haus watched McConnell stroll off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are the men?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jelani was not needed as a figurehead right then. 

Haus had a different need for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathrin Habich arrived as she had been instructed to.

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

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

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

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

“Anything, sir.”

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

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

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

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

Haus tipped his hat over his face.

He reached out his arm.

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

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

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

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

“I will trust you to be discrete.”

“Yes sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous Part || Next Part

The Center of Gravity (75.2)

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

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


58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — Northwestern Desert, Cavalryman’s Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She whimpered pathetically and dragged her feet close to Daksha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting first.” Daksha said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very thin sheets of a shiny grey metal adorned it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fascinating.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hold it up to me–”

“Absolutely not!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It settled there, gently, thrumming and seemingly harmless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any other grand revelations?” Daksha said dismissively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the middle of this explanation Xenon turned around and picked up the jagged, unprocessed compound rock in one of the glass cases. She turned it around to show Daksha. While most of it was the shiny grey metal she had so recently become acquainted with, around the back of it, arranged as a strange growth, there were many perfectly square cubes of Agarthicite stacked together like a child’s block pyramid.

“Agarthicite is found embedded in deposits of pure Osmium that are simply impossible to find elsewhere in nature. Maybe even physically impossible in general. It’s as if some intelligence decided to hide all the Agarthicite inert in its enemy element to stifle it.”

Xenon put the ore back. All of this was incredibly interesting from a purely academic perspective, and Daksha was not opposed to learning it. It was certainly valuable and piqued her curiosity. She would definitely have Xenon continue to study this rock. But she still did not understand its full significance. It was, in some way, poisonous, and it could be used to dull Madiha’s mind (Daksha still denied to herself that Xenon was like Madiha in any way.) None of this seemed to justify Xenon’s level of urgency toward it.

She then remembered there was one more state. Xenon had said there were three.

“Tell me about the third state of Agarthicite. Is that what makes this rock important?”

“Important, dangerous, impossible to explain with physics. Yes indeed.”

She took back the rock Daksha had been holding, and produced a different tool. This one had a battery pack attached, like an electric torch, and a prod on one end. Xenon hid a button within the handle of the device that produced an electric spark inside it, and transferred a jolt of electricity to the tip. She then touched the tip to the Agarthicite.

There was a brief but intense flash of purple and red light.

At once the Agarthicite began to hover above Xenon’s gloved hand.

It circled gently in midair, turning its six surfaces over like a block toyed with by a child.

Xenon smiled. “I call this the kinetic phase of Agarthicite activation. It is producing a miniscule amount of ionizing radiation. It is only a little bit hotter than trying to sunbathe in Solstice, in terms of the radiation you’ll soak up. You see, it appears Agarthicite generates an amount of energy and radiation greater than the energy that triggered it. A tiny jolt makes the Agarthicite float for about an hour. I believe that hellish room over there was an attempt to energize Agarthicite to a greater degree.”

Daksha blinked with disbelief, staring at the rock levitating in front of her.

One small and controlled jolt from a prod and a torchlight battery pack could do this.

And in that other room, how much power did they put into a piece of Agarthicite? Was that room connected to the generators she had seen around the facility? Perhaps they fed the entire facility’s worth of power into the Agarthicite and created a massive surge of this ‘ionizing radiation’ that swept through the base and contaminated everyone.

“Physics cannot describe what Agarthicite does. It should be impossible. It is not as ludicrous as a perpetual motion machine, since it is not moving perpetually. But it is generating impossible amounts of power for the very little energy that it received.”

Daksha had seen many shocking things in this facility, but certainly, this Agarthicite was the most stunning of them. Of course one would need something like that massive water calculator to deal with this phenomenon. Even then, the machine must have felt useless after enough observation of the mineral. Xenon had it right. This was impossible.

However, if they could harness a mineral that could convert a small electrical jolt into an hour of motion– it would make anything possible! It was a miracle energy for socialism!

“Premier, there is one last thing you must know about Agarthicite. Ionizing radiation is a new, poorly understood and deadly energy. Its capacity to do harm was first discovered through the deaths of radium watch makers. They made glow-in-the-dark novelty clocks, but the radium’s energies sickened and killed the workers and the company closed.”

Xenon tapped the Agarthicite with the Osmium stick in the middle of her explanation.

It dropped back down to her osmium-gloved hand.

“Ionizing radiation is the least of our worries with Agarthicite.”

Mysteriously, she walked past Daksha and exited the vault.

Daksha followed her.

She thought to shout at her to be discreet with the mineral, but Xenon had already been in this facility for many days and despite her eccentricities she took science very seriously. She hid the Agarthicite when they exited back to the hub room, but continued on her way, past all the guards, through the tunnels and out into the open desert again.

Soon as Daksha joined her outside, Xenon picked up the Agarthicite and threw it.

She pitched it at a rock. Her throw was limp and clearly untrained, but direct.

Daksha was speechless both from this sudden, insane action, and from its results.

In the instant the Agarthicite hit the rock, Daksha could almost feel a surge of something, like a shockwave that reverberated through her body but had no physical energy with which to push her. There was a bright purple flash, nothing like the dull light given off by the stone in its various harmless energetic states. Around the rock, perceivable reality seemed to collapse. Daksha had come to understand that, to science, everything humans could see was a result of light entering their eyes. In her mind, she thought, the Agarthicite must have warped and bent light to create a brief ripple in the world, a wound in reality itself. In the next instant it was perceptible as a fleeting black dome.

All of this happened in perhaps a second, perhaps even less than that.

Describing it as a perceivable effect and not pure mental fancy, the Agarthicite seemed to swallow up an orb-shaped chunk of the floor, carving out the rock and sand from it.

There was no trace of the mineral whatsoever. It and the matter around it had vanished.

Xenon and Daksha stood side by side staring at this stolen patch of land.

One in disbelief and the other in stern, grim resignation.

“This is the most dangerous property of Agarthicite.” Xenon explained. “Dr. Vante called it the Annihilation Effect or the ‘Circle of Annihilation.’ These were some of his final notes. I was lucky he did not destroy his materials and that the crazed guards did not do so either. Simply put: Agarthicite can convert electrical energy, but it also converts kinetic energy. If enough trauma is inflicted on it, it collapses, taking a sphere of matter with it. I hypothesize that, as with its other behaviors, the size of the sphere is multiplied by the amount of force that was imparted upon the Agarthicite to make it collapse.”

Daksha’s heart was pumping terribly fast. Her chest felt like it would seize up.

That little piece of mineral had made a crater as large as that of a 152mm shell impact.

“So you’re telling me–” Daksha’s voice caught in her throat. “This thing–”

“It could potentially destroy a house, a street, a city, a state, a continent. A planet?”

One brutal thought immediately embedded itself in Daksha’s psyche.

She murmured aloud to herself, her mouth agape, her eyes so wide they teared up.

“It could destroy Nocht.”

Daksha found herself standing in the middle of the desert in a great void of silence.

It was as if she herself had been swallowed in the Agarthicite’s annihilation sphere.

Trapped in this twisted reality where the matters of life and death that she dealt with for the sake of her people, had taken on a macabre new characteristic. She felt like she was quite literally playing with life and death now. Holding a reaper’s scythe that could change the world entirely and utterly in a way that could never be taken back.

“Is Agarthicite exclusive to the Ayvartan continent?” Daksha asked.

Xenon dropped down on her back, whimsically moving her arms and legs over the sand.

Her expression, however, was blank and emotionless.

“No more than Radium is. It’s thanks to Nocht we know about ionizing radiation.”

“So you think Nocht has access to Agarthicite?”

“I want to believe our knowledge of the mineral is in its infancy.”

She wanted to believe. So she did not know, but she probably feared the worst.

Swinging her arms up and down against the sand, Xenon made wings around herself.

“Premier, when I ran away from home, I was greeted in Solstice with fresh clothes, a meal card, room and board. I was taught how to read and allowed into a university. It might not seem like it, but in my own way, I love this country. I want to protect it.”

Her tone of voice was deadly serious. It was graver than she ever heard Xenon speak.

It was almost as if her previous antics had been a reprieve from weeks of bleak thinking.

“If you ask me to, Premier, I will become a monster in the eyes of history.”

She laid her hands over her chest, staring up at the empty sky over the desert.

Around her the wings in the sand framed her body.

“I will be the demon who unleashed Agarthicite onto the world.”

Daksha had heard this kind of speech before. Cadao Chakma, her defense minister, once asked her, during a meeting about logistics, if she would become a monster for turning toy factories into gun factories, putting teenagers behind anti-aircraft guns, and diverting food to soldiers. Daksha had the same answer for Xenon as she did for Cadao.

“Tell the historians I made you do it. I’ll be the monster in your place.” She said.

She would have withdrawn a pistol and threatened the scientist with it.

Just to make it plain that she was the villain and no one else.

But she did not carry a weapon anymore, as Solstice’s civilian leader.

Regardless, Xenon did not seem very relieved by the gesture.

“Everyone will ask why I didn’t turn my back on this when I could. Why I didn’t bury it; Premier, I started to think, during the past week, that Dr. Vante was not betrayed by the guards like I initially suspected. I fancy that perhaps he was afraid and ashamed of what he had done and he tried to stop it. He ended his life to escape the aura of Agarthicite.”

Tears started to build up in her eyes.

“I wanted to end my own life too, but Solstice saved me. I was treated like I mattered.”

Daksha looked down upon the soil, the wasted earth of the rocky desert.

Xenon’s voice was small and weak and broken up. Blown away by the empty winds.

“Premier, I think I can make Agarthicite into a weapon. We can use the sphere of annihilation that it creates to destroy anything. I just need time. Maybe a year, maybe two years, I don’t know. I feel like this black glow will both redeem and curse me.”

Daksha squatted down beside Xenon and petted her head gently.

Her ears folded under Daksha’s hand. For a brief instant she purred gently.

“You don’t need to be redeemed.” Daksha said.

Xenon raised her sleeve over her own eyes and gritted her teeth, sobbing.

This past week, she must have taken it upon herself to become the devil’s assistant and kill millions and billions if necessary, to protect the little patch of earth that she loved.

In the middle of this desert, that lonely city that somehow made itself care about people.

Perhaps, in some other warped history glimpsed within the sphere of annihilation, there was a way to turn back from the black glow and repair this broken world peacefully.

Regardless, they both knew the answer to these questions and dilemmas.

Mansa had indeed made his evil mark on history.

There was simply no way that Agarthicite could now be hidden and forgotten.

Whether it took months or years to develop it, whether another nation struck it first; they both knew this terrifying power was now a passenger to their fates forever on.

Like the knife, like the gun, like the tank. Socialism would make use of it.

It had to.

As she always said, Daksha said again. “I’ll be the monster, Xenon. Not you.”


Previous Part || Next Part

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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